Emerging from the Fog

August 21, 2009

Well, I guess I really should start with orientation in Tokyo, but I’ve got so much to say and not a lot of energy to say it so we’ll go through orientation pretty quickly.  We had two full days and a partial day on either end in Tokyo and they were packed pretty full of introductory things for us to do.  Lots of workshops, lots of parties, and lots of new people to meet.  Everyone I’ve met so far, all the people on the plane over, all the people in the airport, all the people at the orientation, and all the people after that here in Miyazaki have been really great and I’ve had a blast meeting so many interesting and friendly people.  The most exciting parts of orientation were the CIR workshops.  It was so encouraging to meet the people who will be doing the same kind of work I will be doing and I was amazed at how well everyone speaks Japanese.  I don’t have trouble keeping up with the listening, but I felt like my speaking lacked the finesse of a lot of my counterparts.  Somehow or another I’m able to keep up and look at least fairly bright during our group discussinos.  Anyway, I learned some good things, met some great people, and ate some great food, and it was a great couple of days in Shinjuku.

One thing worth mentioning was the izakaya (Japanese-style pub) we went to on the night before leaving for Miyazaki.  They had a wide variety of drinks I’d never seen before.  Some of these were great, such as the Cassis-infused beer, and some of them were quite awful, such as the kelp/mushroom vinegar infused beer (which, by the way, tasted like the vinegar used for dying easter eggs).

Anyway, the flight to Miyazaki was interesting.  We flew over the ocean right along the edge of Japan for an hour and a half and then nearly crashed as we touched down in a torrential downpour.  I wish I was kidding.  Unfortunately, Japanese domestic flights have cameras installed on the front of the airplane, and they switch all the in-cabin monitors on to watch what the pilot sees as we take off and land.  It was honestly much more frightening to watch as we touched down and the plane veered from one side to the other and then back again before finally straightening out.

We had lunch at the airport followed by a brief orientation.  This was the second orientation in Japan, technically the third separate orientation I’d been to in a week.  We actually had three more days of orientation two weeks later in Miyazaki City.  Every session they do manage to introduce something new, but there is quite a bit of repetition.  Ah well, such is our introduction to the convoluted system of Japanese bureaucracy.  After that we met our sponsoring organizations and then were driven to our new homes.

The drive to Miyazaki was great.  I wish I could have seen more of it, but the guy sitting behind me really wanted to talk the whole way and I didn’t get much of a chance to look around.  The roads were very green.  I was amazed that there was so much foliage growing on the walls and the sides of the road.  This is not to mention the surrounding hills, which were just thick with wet, green bushes and grasses and trees.  Man alive.  It was not until later that I realized how green and wild and beautiful this place really is.

Miyakonojo is actually a fairly big city and seems to have all the comforts I could ever desire.  A good restaurant district, nice supermarkets, and a Book-Off within biking distance.  Even so, the city feels really small and it is quite easy to get out in the country.  I can bike for five minutes and be surrounded by pastures and alluvial plains.  Miyakonojo is in the middle of a large fertile basin (with some excellent growing soil thanks to a couple of volcanoes nearby).  We sit nearly on the border with Kagoshima prefecture so it’s really only about a fifteen minute drive to cross over into Kagoshima and enter the mountain passes.

I’ve been busy, busy, busy, but I’m settling in and things are going well here.  I’ve already done some translation work and a few other things but, even though I’ve been busy all the time, it really doesn’t feel like I’ve done anything yet.  I wrote my speech for meeting the governor  and I’ve done all my self introductions to all the important people in city hall.  I met the mayor and his vice mayors and we had a nice chat.  I’ve already been in the newspapers and next week I’ve got my first radio interview.  This Saturday, I’ll be doing my first school visit at one of the local schools’ summer festivals.  I’m quite looking forward to it.  I’ve made a few proposals of things I would like to do and my boss seems pleased at my initiative, yet it seems like it will still be awhile before I can get some of these things rolling.  For the moment, I’m building a network of contacts and friends around the prefecture that I can ask for support when the time comes for holding some of these international cultural sharing events.

So, on to some of the adventures, eh!  I’ve been out to the local waterfall three times already.  The first time I went out on my bike by myself on the first day I had off.  I saw a road sign indicating the waterfalls were somewhere in that direction and just started pedaling.  Luckily enough, there were enough signs that I made it without getting lost.  It’s about twelve kilometers from my place to the waterfalls, a good hour’s ride on my three speed ‘mamachari’, and I traveled through beautiful farmland and lush hills.  The waterfalls are quite beautiful (photos are coming) and there are a lot of fun things one can do there.  Tennis courts, camping sites, a swimming pool – a variety of activities to keep the whole family happy.  Anyway, I’ve been back there twice since then, the first time with my boss and co-workers (for an “introduction,” hehe) and the second time later that night with three of my friends from work so we could view the “light up” of the falls. 

I also got to go to the dump!  Well, it’s actually the ‘recycling plaza,’ but it was so cool!  I know, a dump doesn’t sound like a super exciting place to go, but I had a great time going on the tour and watching the robotic arms moving trash around and seeing people sorting trash onto various conveyer belts were it was carried off to be compacted into bricks for transportation.  The informational video was really cool too (it was intended for kids and a bunch of cartoon characters guided us around to teach us about the sorting system employed in the area).  They also fix up and sell a bunch of the stuff that is thrown away but could actually be used again with a little bit up cleaning up and repair.  You can buy bicycles that they’ve put together from scavenging parts from all the bikes that get thrown away (I don’t remember the exact number, but they get something around thirty bikes a day at this location).  They have a whole shop full of books, CDs, etc… that can be purchased for dirt cheap and still work just fine.  I’m probably going to pick up a couple of tennis rackets there the next time I go back (~$3 for a pair). 

There is a giant field of sunflowers about a five minute bike ride away from my place.  I was lucky enough to show up here right as it was in full bloom.  I also discovered an old railroad grade that has been converted into a biking/jogging path and goes out for about eight kilometers to the southwest.  Just last night, I biked the other direction (east) and found some great paths along the river.  There are lots of parks and biking trails all around the city.

On Sunday I went with two of my coworkers to Kagoshima.  This was the first big trip in my little car.  I love my cute little car.  I swam in the ocean for the first time in my life!  I couldn’t believe how warm the water was.  I also went to the hot sand bath in Ibusuki.  It was pretty weird being baked from underneath rather than feeling the heat of the sun.  The Japanese really know how to use geothermal energy.  I also parked my car in one of those cool elevators for cars while we were walking around downtown Kagoshima city.  It was worth spending $4 for an hour of parking there.

We’ve already had the area’s biggest festival – the bonchi matsuri (basin festival).  All the new foreigners worked together with the International Exchange Organization and danced in the parade with a bunch of other community groups.  It dumped rain on us the whole time and we were all soaked to the skin, but the giant smiles on the faces of everyone showed that we were all having a blast.

There seems to be no end to the welcome parties.  Eat, drink, eat, drink, it just keeps going on and on!  To be quite honest, I’m already a little tired of Miyazaki’s specialty dish – chicken namban.  What, per se, is chicken namban?  Fried chicken in tartar sauce.  I find that the inside is usually tough and stringy, while the outside is somewhat mushy, and this is not exactly the way I prefer my chicken.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s quite tasty, but it’s just not one of my favorites.

We also have these events called “nijikai” (the after party).  So far, I’ve had one good one and one, ahem, difficult one.  The difficult one came first.  It was right after my first official welcome party with all of my new coworkers and bosses.  At the end of the official party, the big bosses (buchou, kachou, kakarichou) all grabbed me and rushed me into the elevator.  As soon as we got to the first floor, they hustled me into a nearby snack bar.  The only people in there were the two portly older women who ran the bar.  I was plopped down and patted heartily on the back as more shochu (Japanese potato liquor) was shoved into my hand and someone stood up to give his best attempt at singing Love Me Tender with the karaoke equipment.  That was when it started.

“As for me, I love America.  America – so strong, so powerful.  Us older Japanese, we are so weak.  That is why we lost the war.”

Oh god, not this again.  And then it hit me.  My first day, I walked into work about fifteen minutes after the air-raid siren had gone off over the town commemorating the attack on Hiroshima.  On the sixth of August, all over Japan, the sirens are sounded at exactly 8:15AM to mark that infamous moment sixty-four years ago when Little Boy came to Japan.  The heads of my department are old men, it is possible some of them remember that day.  I, as the first American to work in this office in over ten years, came in with a giant smile on my face, ready to start my new job and greet all my new co-workers.  That was not a morning to be smiling.  So anyway, we had a little talk.  I can’t exactly say that it was the funnest party of my life, but I did talk with them and get them to open up to me a little bit.  But more importantly, I think they heard what I was saying, and hopefully their opinion of Americans will change to at least look at us in a slightly more positive way.  I was really able to experience an important part of Japanese culture that night – something called ‘nominication.’  Nomu is the verb ‘to drink,’ and if you combine that with ‘communication’ you get ‘nominication.’  Ah, what a beautiful word!  In Japan, once the sake starts flowing, you can finally let your true feelings show, and this is how the majority of major problems are solved.  I was finally saved by another one of my coworkers who came in and made excuses that I was unfortunately needed at another previous engagement in the karaoke joint down the street.  Since that day, my superiors and I are slowly becoming more comfortable together.

I should make a quick note that all the people at my island are TOTALLY AWESOME and I’m really having a good time working together with them.  There are two other CIRs working with me – one from China, and one from Mongolia.  We have a supervisor and then our supervisor has another supervisor (overlord?).  The International Cooperation Association has the island next to ours and their hierarchy is laid out in the same way so that the most superior works at the same pole as our superior.  To the other side is the community safety division.  I’m not exactly sure what they do over there.  I’ve seen them working for days on the same poster that talks about the importance of walking down well-lit streets at night.  They made a mistake in printing and had to print out little stickers and paste them to cover up one wrong character on the front page.  There were over 6,000 copies and it took them about a week to fix all the pages.  One of them goes out every now and then to drive around and make sure the community is safe.  He’s not a policeman, maybe more like a neighborhood watch officer.  Anyway, I’ve discovered that they’re all really friendly too and I’m slowly becoming closer with them as well.  There’s one other island in the Life and Culture division (looked over by a buchou, a kachou’s assistant, and a kachou) and I don’t really know what they do in this island but they’re slightly further away from the big boss then the rest of us and they’re not quite as friendly.  I have a hard time understanding the boss of that island and he always asks someone to translate into English for me because he doesn’t trust that I’ve actually understood what he’s saying.  It’s a bit frustrating, but I think he’s slowly starting to warm towards me a bit, too.

I don’t have internet at my place yet, but I do have an iPhone and that is helping to tide me over.  My cell phone bill looks like it might be about $75/month, so I’m glad that I was able to find a company that offers internet service for about $2.50/month.  That’s incredible, right?!?  I’ll see if it’s really true.

One of my American friends and I are thinking about getting a surfboard and sharing it between us.  Between the mountains and the ocean, I think I’ll always have someplace to run off to for a quick weekend retreat.  It looks like there are some beautiful camping areas near Aoidake towards Miyazaki City.  Actually, no matter which direction I go I have to go through mountains (since we’re in a basin) and every direction seems to have some sort of special campground.

My apartment is even better than I imagined.  It’s actually really big.  I have a living/dining room, kitchen, bedroom, hallway/entrance, toilet room, laundry room, shower room, and a spacious veranda.  That’s quite a bit for one guy!  Not to mention I’m only spending about $200/month for this place.  I really can’t complain about the location, either.  I’m on the ninth floor of an apartment building and it really is only a five minute walk from my front door to my desk (including the ride in the elevator).  I guess it’s about a block and a half from my place to my work.  I do live right next to the major road that runs between Miyazaki City and Kagoshima City, but the noise isn’t too bad.

A note about the weather – IT’S HOT!!!  I have been sweating non-stop since I arrived.  I actually do have air conditioning in my tatami room (something which I wasn’t really expecting) but I haven’t turned it on yet.  Well, it’s really not TOO hot, but the thing is it never really cools down and it is so humid here. 

I just got back from three days of orientation in Miyazaki City.  We had to come back every night because our work wasn’t willing to spend for us to stay the night there.  I got to drive one of the new Prius models on Monday, we took the train on Tuesday, and then I drove a fancy Nissan Wingroad on Wednesday.  The workshops aimed at CIRs are usually quite useful and even inspirational, but the general assemblies are such a waste of time.  We were supposed to have a Japanese course on Wednesday, but the teacher for the advanced class kind of wimped out and we spent the whole time creating tanka (traditional Japanese poems, kind of like haiku).  I wrote a poem to express my feelings of remorse for showing up late to class:






Early in the morning

Going together, the three of us

Rain falls

The cars are slow

I’m terribly sorry

My teacher wasn’t super impressed with this.  So, I wrote another one.






In the silence


Are you serious?  Godzilla?!?

Giant footprints

Where… is the school?

Cheers, everyone!


One comment

  1. Hmm I think I might have been a little off in my last comment, it has been an interesting summer to say the least.

    Considering how overwhelmed I was feeling from just reading your post and seeing your pictures, you must be having a great time.

    The sunflowers were my favorite, though you have a really great camera.

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