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Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Death Rites

My neighbour died last week. He was a truly amazing man who made an effort to include us in community events. If you understand the Japanese group mentality, then you have an idea how big that is for an outsider. I attended his funeral, and saw some of the Japanese mourning procedures and thought I would share them with you. Bare in mind, Japan is both Shinto and Buddhist, and people are buried  according to one or the other, but there are similarities between the two. The ceremony I attended was a Buddhist one.

The deceased is laid out with their head facing North. The kimono is worn with the right side over the left - the opposite of how it's worn in life. All orifices are stuffed with cotton. Shortly after the person dies (or shortly before), you wet their lips. We did it using strips of paper, but I've read online that Shinto practice uses cotton swabs on the ends of chopsticks.We then lit an incense stick and placed it in the pot above his head. Then you ring a little bell three times and clasp your hands in prayer.

The following day was the Cremation Ceremony. I didn't go, partially because I didn't know if it was open to the public or not - despite the fact that there was a sign with all the info - and partially because I didn't want to handle my neighbour's bones with chopsticks. After cremation, family and friends pick the bones out with chopsticks. Sometimes, they pass them from one person's chopsticks to another, which is why it's considered a faux pas to pass food chopstick to chopstick.

The funeral was held two days later at the temple near my house. When you arrive at a funeral, the first thing you do is sign in at Reception. Then you hand over your condolence money. Depending on your relation to the deceased, or the relation of the person you know to the deceased (example, when I went to a teacher's fathe's funeral, the relation would have been father) the amount in the envelope increases. I believe the highest is around $500 US.

Since my neighbour was both super-important and super-popular, the temple was packed and I couldn't see anything that was going on. People who were related to the deceased sat in benches in the front. I assume some people who were early got the leftover seats. Everyone else sat on cushions. 

At the funeral, the monk chants and the deceased is assigned a new Buddhist name. As with religious figures' chanting all over the world, it was completely indecipherable. I'm not even sure if the chant was in Japanese. There were also two "instruments:" a bell, and something which sounded like a car wheel falling over. Then there were some speeches- by the Mayor, the head of town hall, the deputy head of the NPO Sports organisation, and the deputy head of the festival team. He'd been the Head of both organisations that put forth deputies as speakers.

After that there were the messages. In Japan, if you can't attend an important event, you send a message. A sample of the messages is read at the event. Apart from the sample, the names of all the people who send messages are also read.

After the messages, the monk started chanting again and they passed around little pots of incense. From the right side of the container, you take a pinch of incense between your fingers, raise it towards your forehead, and then lower it into the little raised bit on the left side of the pot. I believe you repeat this three times. Then you clasp your hands.

I'm not sure when a Japanese funeral ends. The last time I went to what I now believe to be a prayer ceremony/wake, people just left when they felt like. This time, the son was speaking, when people just started to dissipate. When the lady I was with got up to leave, so did I.

At the end of the funeral, you receive a gift for attending. It's usually something household-y like coffee. Also in the funeral gift is a packet of salt. You dust this salt over yourself and in front of the doorway in case you've brought any spirits from the temple with you.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

A year on

Sunday marked a year since the earthquake-tsunami-meltdown. It's been a tough year, emotionally and physically, living in the disaster area, but not.

On Sunday there were ceremonies and moments of silence. At 2.46 pm (the time of the quake), fire trucks sounded their sirens followed by a "mokutou" - where everyone bowed their heads and payed their respects. There were also lighting and candle ceremonies in the prefectural capitals, and prayer services throughout the region.

Ad for a lighting ceremony in my prefectural capital, Morioka, Iwate.


I haven't been out to the coast since the 3 days I spent there last March. So my impressions of the coast come from friends and TV.

It seems much of the road network is back up. Some of the train tracks have been fixed, but I'm not sure how much. The airport in Sendai is running. People are rebuilding. There is still a long way to go. A long, long way, but everybody is dealing with it.

We're still on setsuden - electricity conservation measures. Noone seems to know if or when power plants will generate enough energy to support East Japan again. But we seem to be getting by on what we have. Everyone is conscientious about energy use.


I can't explain the emotion I feel in regard to the disaster. I lived through it, like people all over Tohoku. I live way too many miles in land to have been in danger of tsunami, but I went through the thousands of earthquakes with everybody else. My colleague and I started joking that anything under 6.0 wasn't even worth the time. It sounds offhand and callous, but when you experience 100 earthquakes in a day, you have to deal some way.

It's hard for me to deal with the coast. My TV broke and I didn't get a new one. That's partially because I don't want to pay NHK's ridiculous licensing fee. But it's also because there's tsunami are coverage every day, and I can't take it. I guess it's different when you've been there. You've seen my tsunami area pics. Imagine travelling to somewhere - somewhere you've been before, where there used to be houses and buildings and schools - and there's nothing. There's not even debris, no grass, just dirt, as far as your eye can see. I still can't get down to Ritz (Rikuzentakata) where my colleague, Monty Dickson, was claimed by the tsunami. I just can't face the place.

It's still hard to deal with how unaffected I was. I'm an hour inland. One drink fell over in the drink machine and an antenna fell off at work. We ran out of New Zealand Cheese and toilet paper. (My town is a farming town, so we were good for food.) We ran out of gas. The power went off. The trains didn't run for a week. The shinkansen (bullet train) didn't run for over a month, and then when it did run, it ran an hour slower. Due east of me another colleague spent her post-tsunami days cutting up cloth to cover dead bodies. I got off easy.


I am still glad I was here. I am still glad I AM here. Living through the past year has taught me so much about the human condition. About who I become in a bad situation. About how far I can go before I can't take any more. I know how I can be helpful, and how it all feels. And I understand that when the world crumbles, all you can do is to keep moving as best you can. Never forget, no, always carry those memories with you. They make you stronger and better. But always keep moving.

Thank you, Tohoku. I will keep moving. ありがとう日本。続きます。

Monday, April 11, 2011

3 days in the tsunami area

I headed out to the coast on Monday to help in the tsunami. I went through the town church.

Our first stop was a church in Miyako, a city about an hour and a half drive South of here on the coast. We spent most of the afternoon walking around the neighbourhood with the Tokyo YMCA spreading limestone dust on the ground in the roads and in some of the old folks' houses. The guys helped another old lady clean up her shop. The population in the countryside is over 33% senior citizens.


I don't even know how this car got in here. There were houses on all 4 sides...

70 footer parked in the midle of an intersection.

My neighbour after we'd finished spreading around the chalk.

Chalky me, pointing out the mark on the kindergarten van where the water went up to.

Overtaking a boat in the road.

Japan Self Defense Force hard at work.

After work, we headed down to the bay with the group from Morioka (prefectural capital) and Aomori, the prefecture above us. This two story building was flipped and broken in two.

These pics were taken from the top of the sea wall.

The road disintegrated in some areas.

This log landed on top of the sea wall ladder, about 30 ft above sea level.

Boats overturned and run aground.

Stitch.. Every time I saw a toy or doll I wondered about the kid who used to own it.

The seats in the lower left corner probably came from the baseball stadium in the upper right.

Piles of debris on the sides of the road. The crazy thing about Miyako is that you could draw a line between the devastated area and the unaffected area. Our driver told us as we got to the train station, "As soon as we cross this intersection, you will see the damage."

I joked that Toyota must be glad they got the high ground.

Bad joke. Mitsubishi, Daihatsu and Suzuki's other outlet were not so lucky.

Cars on Daihatsu's lot.

The girls spent the night at the kindergarten and the boys at the church. The area the church was in didn't have power back yet, though.

In the morning we had breakfast and set out for Kamaishi, passing through Yamada and Otsuchi.


Yamada was hit harder than Miyako. It was a tiny bit closer to the epicenter and it's a little lower elevation.

Devastated home store.

Boats on the side of the road.

We think the red spray paint was the army's markings, but we're not sure what they meant.

A boat on a store roof.

A house on its side in the road.

A section of the sea wall crumbled.

The river banks.

Dressed for a day of hard work. The hotel behind me had it's first 2 floors devasted, but everything above that was fine.


Debris mountains on the river bank.

The Mitsubishi sign, but no building and no cars.

The second story of a house. This was actually pretty common. I think the first story probably crumbled with the pressure, but the 2nd stories floated.

There was a stretch of impassable road on Route 45, so we took the expressway to Kamaishi.

The plan was to clean the church out so there'd be a place to store donated goods and for volunteers to camp out. There is still no power in the area and the bathroom doors all came off, which meant the girls had to use the porta-potties at the hospital next door. The stove was destroyed so we cooked on camp stoves with portable spray cans of gas.

The kitchen at the church after we'd been cleaning for an hour. The tsunami was much taller here. Even though we were a couple blocks in from the coast, water reached the second story of the building.

A car parked on top of a roadside fence.

The base of operations for Police and Red Cross. JSDF was camped a little further on at a Junior High School School is out right now. It's actually the end of the school year. The earth quake happened on the last day of school.

It is life as usual just a little further on. The devasted areas in the towns we visited extended less than a mile from the shore.

We spent the night at a church in Tono, which is inland of Kamaishi. (Apparently it takes 5 people to fill up the can with gas. We were travelling with cans of gas because of the ridiculous lines in gas stations. I think the priests and volunteers coming in from outside the area must have brought gas with them.)



We headed back to the church in Kamaishi after breakfast and a short Thanksgiving service.

Somehow I didn't notice this car wrapped around a pole on the first day. It was right across the road from the church.

The license plates of cars which had been removed. You may not be able to see it, but it also includes where they were found, eg. 'in a pole in front of the church.'

It was only after the second full day at the Kamaishi church that we realised that the stained glass was a depiction of the Great Flood. Eerie.

The kitchen after 8 hours of being cleaned by 14 or so people. (All the people in my volunteer group. They was also a group from Hokkaido, but they were working on the building next door. As well as a group of American missionaries who live in Nagano, who were working with the donated stuff.)

Final meal of the trip at a ramen shop just before getting on the interstate at Towa.

The trip left me with a weird mix of feelings. I don't think anyone could come through that much devastation without getting a little depressed. But I was also pleasantly surprised to meet priests and Christians from 5 prefectures (Hokkaido, Aomori, Iwate, Tokyo, Ehime). Christians represent less than .1% of Japanese population.

I was happy to see the spirit of the people in the area. Everybody was cleaning their homes or stores or helping someone else clean theirs. Everybody was smiling. Even though many of them had only the frames of their buildings left.

And even though I feel weird about it, I actually had a good time. You can't really spend 2 days scraping mudd out of the insides of pianos and organs and stoves and not make friends.

So, there you have it. My 3 days on the coast.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Medical Exam

Every year, every public worker in Japan MUST get a medical exam. I probably shouldn't complain because there are millions of people in the world who would like to see a doctor, and I go every year for free.

Here's a pic of a part of the English translation of the Medical Exam form. Please note, this is my 3rd year. Never before has anyone given me an English translation. Imagine trying to mime/pictionary something like cancer. Yes, I have done that.


First you register, and they put your medical form in a plastic folder, and give you a sticker with your name, and a little card. And then they give you a cup to pee in. But, this being Japan, it's not just any cup. In my town, the cup is always green, and I assume, it's green everywhere. And it has measurements. And the guy actually says to pee to the 25 mm line.

I always pee too much.

Then you have to bring your cup to another desk, where you put it on a circle they've printed on a laminated paper. I kind of wonder what would happen if you didn't put the cup in the circle. :)

Dude puts your pee in a little tube- 25 mls of it, and throws the rest in a bucket. Another temptation- kicking the bucket. Wait, did I just say that?

Right next to him, you do an eye test. There's a bunch of C's, oriented in different directions and you have to say if the space in the C is on the right, left, up or down. Then that same dude weighs you (Yes, I've noticed I'm overweight, Japan. But thanks.) and measures your height.

Then it's off for blood pressure and blood tests. The dude next to me was frightened of needles. I don't have that luxury. See, I have no veins. This is not the obesity speaking. Even as a baby I didn't have veins. (I've had blood taken from the back of my hand, and from the space inside my thumb and forefinger. I don't recommend either, unless you don't mind not being able to use your hand for a couple days.) Every time I get to this station, I remember that Japan doesn't know that much about the outside world. And I know that they probably all think that Black people just don't have veins. Sorry, Race.

Then you go to the heart doctor, who listens to your lungs. ??? Medicine is so confusing. And then you do an ear test. They give you a pair of headphones and you press the button when your hear the beep.

And then it's off to the buses.

For the operations which require equipment, they've renovated these buses. At the front, it's a regular bus, but in back, they've put in a door, and you go through the back and have your exam done. The perk of this is that hospitals outside big cities don't need expensive equipment. It just drives around in a bus.

This is a picture of the breast cancer/gynaecologist bus, which they sent me too without warning. Seriously, supervisor gives me paper I can't read and tells me I have an exam. I turn up and everyone starts taking their undies off. Weird, to say the least.

Yesterday there were two buses. In one you get a chest x-ray, and in bus 2, they do two things, neither of which I'm fully sure of. In the back, they take a picture of your eye. In the front, the put a bunch of metal clips on your arms, legs and chest, and shoot you full of electricity. I don't know what the machine did, but it shook the whole bus.

And then you're done!

Thanks for enduring two weeks of medical posts. Here's a reward, from today's school lunch: Almond Fish. I wish I was making this up.

Sadly, it tastes pretty good.

I've been here too long.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Fake fires, real nurses

Today, we had a Friday drill at my big elementary school. Somehow, Japan makes even the most mundane things ridiculous or amusing, or both.

Now, this wasn't my first drill. Last year, we had an earthquake drill at JHS, and I discovered, much to my dismay, after wandering outside 7 or so minutes into the drill, that I wasn't on anybody's accountability list. On my old schedule (a week at each school), if I'd been buried in an earthquake on Tuesday, noone would notice until Monday. And even then, it would be my foreign colleagues, and not a Japanese person.

Anyhow, back to today.

The Senior Teacher warned me that the bells would ring at different times today, because of a fire drill. Okay, I thought, and went back to lesson planning.

Beep. Beep. Beep.

There is a fire truck reversing outside. I furrow my brows. Are they for real? In answer to that question, an ambulance pulls up. The firemen come in- in my town, the Fire Service mans the ambulances as well- and go into the Principal's room, where they have green tea. Around 9.30 the firemen and the Principal wander back into the staff room. The Senior Teacher comes and stands at the PA system, which happens to be right next to my desk. I'm ignoring everybody and drawing pictures of Doraemon and Naruto for a game.

That is, until the Senior Teacher presses a button, and the most obnoxious alarm I've ever heard goes off. The Senior Teacher then announces that this is a drill and there is a fire. The School Secretary and the caretaker come over to the PA system, which also has the fire alarm monitoring system, and figure out that the fire is in a classroom on the 3rd floor. They grab a fire extinguisher and race upstairs, accompanied by a fireman. At this point, I wonder if they plan to have a fireman at the school before a real fire alarm, but then, there might actually be. The firemen and the police are at my schools so often, I can recognise them. I also realise that the alarm sounding in the hallway is a normal alarm and not the obnoxious sound playing in the staff room.

The Secretary, Caretaker and fireman return. They report to the Senior Teacher that they could not control the fire. She then announces that we're to evacuate. The Principal turns off the lights in the staff room and we head out. Some of the staff go to the genkan (entrance way) first to get their outdoor shoes. I go with them. If I wear my indoor shoes outdoors, then I have to stop and clean them before I come back inside. I wonder if, in the event of a real fire, people would go get their outdoor shoes.

Having grabbed our shoes, we head back the way we came to go out the back of the school. The School Nurse is running across the field with a green cross flag. Class teachers aren't too far behind. They all have flags with the number of their grade on them, and they're being followed by their students. They actually used the pretty staircase on the side of the building. It never occured to me that it's a fire escape. It's really pretty, it has a glass roof, and green floral designs in the metal on the sides. They sit down and make sure the kids are all accounted for (noone checked the teachers- I'm just going to bail out in the event of a real emergency, cuz noone will notice I'm missing til I'm dead).

And then, we did the Japanese thing. A fireman came up and gave a speech. I don't know how Japanese people manage to work a full on speech into everything, but they do. And then it was over, and the kids went to clean their indoor shoes, but not before I wondered what would happen if there was an emergency which required an ambulance while this was going on. The central part of my town has at least 7,000 people, 8 fire trucks and 1 ambulance. I don't know why we need 8 fire trucks either. At home we've got 270,000 people and we have like 11.

As promised, I'm also going to tell you guys about the Nurse Room kids. People who've never lived in Japan think that the society is all orderly, and obedient. They are sooooo wrong!

Here's the thing: in Japan there's no punishment. Yep, NO punishment.

Okay, that's not exactly true. But the only punishment for most things, is social ostracism. Japanese society is very dependent on the idea of being part of the group. You want to be like the members of your group and you don't want to displease them. That's all well and good, but if you're like me, and you don't really give two monkey coronaries what other people think, you can do whatever.

The Nurse Room kids are a prime example of this.

In Western society, if you have a problem with a kid in your class or a teacher, you deal with out. You can't just not come to school. I mean you could, but they'd have the truant officer on you in a minute.

Here, if something in class bugs you, it's perfectly okay if you stay at home. One of my ALT friends had a student who never came to school, except for the days when his wife (not an actual employee of the school) would come to school and draw manga characters with her. That same student never spoke to males.

Apart from not coming to school altogether, you can come to school and just go to the Nurse Room all day every day. There's even a possibility, that they will be an extra teacher to work with you, even though there's a teacher already on the payroll, teaching in your classroom.

By the way, this concept isn't just for kids. Adults can take kokoro no byouki (heartsickness), a seemingly unlimited amount of leave so they can just not come to work for whatever reason.

Another random thing I found out recently, kids are not special ed. if they disagree. Your teachers can say you belong in Special Ed, your parents can say you belong in Special Ed, but if you (the unqualified minor) say you don't, they have to put you in with the regular kids! I have seen this happen. In Special Ed, they would have learned at a slower rate, in the regular classroom they learn nothing. It's really sad.

Sometimes, Japan gets it so right. Other times, well at least they're good at judo!*

* Last year I had a kid who really struggled in all his subjects. I asked a teacher: Mizuki-kun** really struggles with English? And his response was, He's good at judo!

** name has been changed.

PS, Don't forget to check out my new blog on writing, music, travel and everything else.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Yuki Matsuri (Snow Festival)

I am writing today from Sapporo, the site of the World's Best Snow Festival! Sapporo is the capital of Hokkaido, which is the northernmost of Japan's 4 main islands. The snow festival is in its 61st year and is held every year in the week ending February 11 (National Foundation Day).

I'm just going to let the pictures do the talking today.

Here I am with the Tower and Marimo, the mascot of Hokkaido.

The smoking area was an ice sculpture!

Most of the stages were ice or snow sculptures.

People were snowboarding on a slope made on scaffolding!

JAL's "Northern Zooland"

"Where Dreams Come True"

"Michael Forever"

Korean Royal Palace


Thomas, the tank engine

Chibi Maruko

NZ's entry for the International Competition "Taniwha"

Hong Kong's entry was the God of Art and Literature, but I don't know why the guy on all fours has something sticking in his butt...

As far as Japan is concerned, Hawaii is a country!

Thailand won!

I love Stitch!



This was my favourite sculpture. As a writer, I love the concept!

Once in a while, Japan is the coolest place on Earth!Yu
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