Something’s Fishy

If there was a weekend living in Misawa where you couldn’t find anything to entertain yourself, you were sadly living with your windows down, doors closed, and your eyes and ears covered.  For most of us, there was never a dull moment or a new adventure not anxiously awaiting our discovery.  Take November for example.  In the States, many Americans stay inside, hiding from the cold, waiting patiently for the Thanksgiving Holiday.  In Japan, they celebrate a “remarkable” event almost every weekend.  The second weekend of November marks the return of the salmon.  I don’t remember growing up celebrating the return of any migratory creature, but in Japan, it serves as an excellent excuse to put on a festival.

“I heard about a salmon festival over in Oirase Town this weekend.  What do you say I take you there for lunch and we can walk around and check it out?”  Dave asked me on a Sunday morning as we left the chapel service.

“A salmon festival?  That means salmon for lunch,” I thought for a moment, “sounds great!  Do we have Cameron’s front carrier in the car?  Maybe she’ll take her nap in that today.”

“Yeah, the Bjorn’s in the car, but I’m not totally certain where the festival is, but my guess it’s at that park we’ve seen along the river.”  He said while he strapped Cameron into her car seat.

“I remember.  I think I could get us back there again.  May as well try it and see what happens; Oirase’s only fifteen minutes away.  It’s a gorgeous day out today.”  I replied as I buckled myself into the car.

It was very clear where the festival was being held as we approached the nearby small town.  The traffic wasn’t congested, but there were fish-shaped flags directing the way for miles.

“These people seriously celebrate everything, don’t they?  Today it’s salmon, tomorrow it’s rice, but not just rice, we must celebrate planting the rice, growing the rice, harvesting the rice, and don’t forget the festival for eating the rice!  I’ve never been to more festivals in my life and they are all so different.”  I said making conversation.

“From what I understand, this one is the follow-up celebration for the salmon,”  Dave explained.  “In the spring there was a festival to release somewhere around 200,000 salmon babies into the river.  I heard the military base plays some sponsoring part in that, maybe on Earth Day?  We’ll have to check that out next spring, but this is the festival celebrating the return of the salmon.”

“Whoa, that’s a lot of salmon babies!  I bet they aren’t happy they came back today.  Oh, there’s an open parking spot!”  I pointed Dave the direction of the space.

We unloaded the car in the crowded, dirt-covered parking lot, and situated Cameron comfortably in her carrier on Dave’s chest.  We were never at a loss for bottles and diapers, so we were able to gather our necessities, put on her warm, sun hat, and follow the crowd into the festival grounds.

A large clay replica of the U.S. Statue of Liberty stood as our welcome into the festival grounds.  We strolled down a row of food booths that were strangely “Americanized.”  The workers were wearing clothing with American labels on them, like a large flag, or Abercrombie & Fitch logos, or various U.S. college paraphernalia.  Oh, the wonderful and unpredictable Japanese festivals!

“Do you wonder who they are trying to attract to this festival?”  Dave asked me as we stopped to photograph a food booth selling the largest mass of fried mystery meat we have ever seen.  The booth had a fake, plush, all-American hamburger several layers high sitting next to a grill where a man donned an apron covered with Lady Liberty and the American flag.  He was grilling hamburger buns larger than Cameron’s head.  In true Japanese style, they had a display of the final grilled product complete with the customary raw egg sitting on the top.  I will never understand the raw egg they liked to place over the top of their foods.  Soups, pizza, pork cutlet, stir fry, vegetable trays, and now sitting proudly on the hamburger.  Not my favorite.

Dave wandered into a large white tent.  The tent was packed with people sitting on the back of milk crates at tiny rectangular, wooden tables topped with a single large hot plate in the middle.  The hot plate was covering a square bucket of red hot coals hidden underneath. Is was important to watch out for your knees!  As we looked around, Dave recognized a friend from work who waved us over to join them at their table. They had just been seated.  Dave introduced me to the couple while we settled down on the facing milk crates.  A worker ran up to the table asking if we were eating “salmon for four?”  We all looked at each other for affirmation and nodded our heads to the server as she ran off to retrieve our meal.

“This tent is the most popular at the festival.”  our lunch companion, Matt explained. “It’s called Chon-Chon Sake.  I have no idea what that means, but it’s salmon and vegetables heated over coals in a roll of tin foil.  They’ll bring it out in one big heap and we all share family style.  I hope that’s okay with you?”

“That’s why we’re here.  You never know what you’re gonna get.  Is this your first time to the festival?”  I asked.

“No, we were here last year, but we weren’t brave enough to try everything.  This year, I think we have it down to a science, wouldn’t you say, babe?”  He replied, pulling his wife into the conversation.

“Yeah, we were looking forward to the salmon this year.  It’s worth it.”  she had just finished her sentence when another server wearing heavy lined gloves came over carrying a large bucket filled with hot coals.  He put the bucket down and moved our hot plate to one side.  He used a wrought iron shovel to refresh our coal supply, and warned us in Japanese with several iterations of “abunai, abunai,” meaning danger.  After he left, our first server came back holding a bundle of tinfoil wrapped around our lunch.  She centered our hot plate over the coals and placed the foil pack down in the center.  She asked us to wait fifteen minutes.

We looked around as other groups were enjoying their meal and recognized we were soon in for a treat.  Our server returned to our table one more time and deftly using her chopsticks, asked us to back up as she opened the steaming, hot foil.  She asked us to wait for a moment while it cooled down, but to enjoy.  She gave us a full bow as she rushed off to continue her work.

“Wow that’s hot, but it smells fabulous.” I said as we all grabbed a pair of chopsticks and prepared to dig in.  “I really like sushi salmon, but this looks even better.”

Dave had to sit sideways so Cameron didn’t get singed with the steam, but the meal was delicious.  Fresh wild salmon with cabbage, carrots, and onions- excellent!  Cameron mostly ate her applesauce, but she was introduced to her first few pieces of salmon, and I admit she seemed to like it.

When our lunch was over we waved goodbye to our friends and continued on into the park to watch the rest of the festivities.  They weren’t kidding about the celebration of the salmon!  They had several round tubs of water surrounded with children laughing and screaming as they reached into the water and tried to grab a two foot long salmon with their bare hands.  The fish would slip out of their grasp and splash the crowd much to the delight of the kids.  A nearby crowd was enjoying a salmon race.  Five long water troughs were set about four feet apart.  They were maybe twenty feet in length and twelve inches wide, filled with water.  A large salmon was dropped into each lane when they blew a whistle.  The racer was allowed to use a stick only to splash and scare the fish to swim the length of the lane the fastest.  Some fish didn’t need any extra motivation to zoom off and others decided not to participate.  It was quite entertaining to watch the enthusiasm and reactions of the crowd, not to mention the elation or frustration of the salmon racers.  As I stood there watching, I remembered racing frogs when I was young.  I recalled dealing with the same feelings depending on the cooperation of my particular frog.

We heard more commotion coming from a far pavilion at the park and made our way to see what else could possibly be going on.  The first announcement, yelled through a microphone, was being repeated and translated into English.  We stopped to listen.  “The last salmon catch of the day will begin in twenty minutes!  If you haven’t purchased your tickets there are still a few left to buy.  All fishermen will please take your places by the salmon pool as we will begin the catch shortly.  Thank you!”

“What do you suppose that’s all about, Dave?”  There was no response.  “Dave?!”  I looked around and spotted Dave at the front of a line passing money over to a lady inside a cashier’s booth.  I walked over to him and asked curiously,  “What are you buying?”

“I think you should be one of the fishermen!”  He said with a beaming smile across his face, as he handed me a paper ticket, and grabbed my hand to lead me over to a small tent.

“You’ve got to be kidding!”  I said stopping dead in my tracks.

“I forgot that I’ve heard about this part before.  You get into the water and catch the salmon with your bare hands.  I think you should hop in there and catch us some salmon for supper tonight!”  He had the strangest look of smug satisfaction on his face.  I stood there staring at him in disbelief.  He tried to keep me walking forward.

I clutched on to his arm to look him straight in the eyes.  “But I’ll make a spectacle of myself!  Not to mention it’s freakin’ cold to get in the water and I’m in my church clothes!”

He just smiled confidently at me and fished around in his pocket for something as he continued to explain, “That’s why I also rented you some gloves and water boots.  I think you should do this.  I brought the camera.”  He proudly freed the camera from his pocket and held it up for me to see.

“You planned this, didn’t you?  You knew this was going to happen.”  I replied suspiciously.

“I didn’t know all the details, but it’s working out nicely, don’t you think?”  He said as I bit my bottom lip to contain my next thought.

With the familiar, sneaky look on his face, I started to laugh.  A nervous, high-pitched laugh, but I knew my immediate future was sealed.  I reluctantly walked into the small tent.  A man asked me what size my shoes were and gave me some tall, white, rubber boots to try on, and a pair of gloves.  I sat down on a small bench, took off my shoes, and pulled the boots over my slacks.  They would work just fine.  I gave him my shoes to put on a shelf, and Dave and I walked down to the line forming around a 50 x 25 foot rectangular pool, filled with splashing, anxious salmon.  My stomach was churning.

Dave and Cameron stood in the spectator line while I hung out with the other people in rented, white boots.  The announcers of the salmon catch walked out onto a platform next to the pond.  They both had on large, stuffed fish costumes over their water gear as they announced the start of the big event.  The contestants were led through the gate and lined up alongside the rectangular pool.  Dave and Cameron joined me shortly as we listened to the English translator explain what was about to happen.

“Welcome Friends to the annual Salmon Festival of Oriase!”  A crowd of spectators gathered around to cheer and yell.  “The salmon have returned and YOU are going to catch them!  When I blow the whistle, please carefully enter the pool and start to fish!   Be careful, the fish are slippery and they will knock you down.   We’ll be giving out prizes for the largest catch of the day, the smallest catch of the day, and the fisherman with the most style for catching their fish.  I would advise you to go for the tail and hold on tight ladies and gentlemen, they are tough little creatures!  You will have four minutes to catch your fish.  The officials will be walking around handing out plastic bags for you to take your fish home and enjoy!  We will be starting in one minute.  Good luck!

I glanced back at Dave, pleading with my eyes to get me out of there, but he only gave me a thumbs up with the camera out and ready to go.  “Catch us a big one, honey!”  was all I heard before the whistle blew.

In went the crowd of people.  Young and old alike, knee deep in the freezing cold pool.  I stepped down into the water slowly as cold water enveloped my boots and I knew there was no turning back.  I made my way out into the water as salmon, no less than three feet long, were zipping between my legs, threatening to knock me down with each step.  I watched people reach down into the water and grab for the great big fish as they would thrash about and shake out of their grasp.  It didn’t look easy, but I knew I only had four minutes, so I thought I better give it a try.  I stepped out wide to get a good stance, and waited until a fish swam into my midst.  I dove my hands into the cold water and as they found the huge fish, it jolted forward, and easily slid out of my grasp.  I grabbed for another one and managed to grab its tail, until it jerked away spraying me down with cold, turbid water.  I glanced up to see Dave laughing, snapping pictures,  yet still encouraging me to “get the big one.”

I steadied my stance again as the fish were getting more and more disturbed, anxious, and carelessly swimming straight into my legs.  People were grabbing at fish and losing the battles all around me.  Some were successful and walking away with giant salmon.  The announcer was warning us about the time, but I tuned him out and got serious.  It was time to catch my fish.

I gave myself some space and I waited for an opportune moment.  A fish took a turn between my legs and I pounced.  I felt the side fins go between my fingers in a flash, and I clamped down just in time before the tail whipped through my grasp.  I yanked that fish right out of the water by its tail.  This one was not getting away.

I beamed with pride towards Dave, as the camera snapped, and the fish jerked and thrashed around in my hands.  There was no way I was letting it go.  An official in a yellow jacket rushed up to me with a plastic bag as I suddenly realized I was holding a three foot long live, slimy, nasty, dirty, old fish in my hands.  I gratefully placed it in the bag and let Dave help me out of the pool.

“I knew you could do it!  You caught us a nice one!  Way to go!  Cameron, say ‘way to go, mommy!”  He raised up her little arms in a victory pose.

“Thank you honey.”  I gave Cameron a kiss on the head and Dave a light kiss on the cheek.  “Are you really proud of me?”  I asked still smiling.

“Very much!  I took some good pictures, but mostly videos.  That was awesome!”

We walked away, hand in hand, with our big catch.  I changed my shoes and used their basin to wash my hands.  We saw a sign over a nearby tent that read in English “Clean Fish, 500 Yen.”  I didn’t even have to glance at Dave before he said, “Absolutely.”

“Good thing, because I don’t wanna to do it.”  I replied as I handed over my bagged fish and a 500 Yen coin at the tent entrance.  We turned our heads to look away from the assembly line of workers efficiently killing, cleaning, and filleting each fish.  At the far side of the tent, we were presented with several massive, bloody salmon fillets to stash in our freezer for months.  We agreed it wasn’t a bad prize to walk away with from our first Japanese salmon festival.

I Vote North!

“What do you think about taking the train up to Hakodate for the long weekend?”  I asked Dave early Thursday morning as I pulled down our Japan map from the bookshelf.

“You do know that the long weekend starts tomorrow, right?”  Dave asked as he sat down at the kitchen table to read the daily “Stars and Stripes” newspaper and enjoy his coffee.  “What’s in Hakodate?  Where is it?”

“It’s a city on the southern coast of Hokkaido, the next island north of us,” I said as I pointed it out on the map. “They said it’s considered the San Francisco of Japan- an easy to get to coastal destination by train, with a popular view from a mountain top overlooking the city lights, great hustle and bustle with lots of sights to see and people to watch, but most especially, a popular open air fish market on weekend mornings.”

“Who’s the ‘they’ who recommended it to you?”  He asked between sips.

“I went to ask the ladies at the Misawa Information, Tickets, and Tours office, or ITT, where we should go for the weekend.  They unanimously agreed Hakodate would be a great choice for a weekend trip. They even offered to organize the whole weekend for us for a small fee, but I opted to look into it myself after I asked you. So? Should I look into it?”  I asked.

“Sure, go for it.  Our yellow house won’t be ready for us to move in for another week.  I agree we should definitely get outta this hotel room for the weekend.  Let me know what you find out.”  Dave said as he got up, refilled his coffee cup, and to went to the bedroom to start getting ready for work.

That left me to get busy googling Hakodate hotels on our laptop.  I happened on a website called  I filled in my search criteria on the home page with “Hokkaido”, the specific arrival date for 2 nights, and I chose “western-style room”, as opposed to “Japanese-style.”  I wasn’t sure what the different styles would be, but I imagined tatami mat floors, tiny slippers to wear, and futon mattresses.  Let’s settle into this culture slowly and opt for a nice, full bed, I thought to myself.  The next blank asked me to choose a price range, but I left it blank since I had no idea the normal price to expect.

I clicked the “search” button and four hotels popped up.  The first two hotels were about $350 per night.  The third hotel only had Japanese style rooms available for the weekend, but the price seemed a little more reasonable at $120 per night.  I clicked on the hotel just in case it was the best I could find, and followed the booking instructions until I got to the final confirmation page.  The total for the room for two nights was close to $500.  I let the total sink in for a moment while I tried to figure what I did wrong.  I rechecked my booking details and tried again.  Still $500.  Dave came back into the kitchen.

“I think I did something wrong on this booking form Dave, can you take a quick look?”  I asked staring at the screen in confusion.

“Let’s see here,” he said as he slipped down next to me to view the screen.  “Whoa, that’s a little pricey.  I think it’s saying that it’s $120 per night, per person in the room.  That’s a sneaky trick.  Do we have any other choices?”

“One more hotel’s on the list.  I haven’t looked at it yet, let’s see.  Hmm, this one actually specifies per night/per room for two guests.  That might be a better choice for us.  It’s called Toyoko Inn.  $140 per night, non-smoking double, western style.  We should book it.”  I said hoping I didn’t have to search anymore.

“Good, check that off the list.”  Dave said decidedly.  “Now, how do we get there?”

“The ITT office gave me a train schedule and highlighted a good route to show the clerk at the train station.”  I explained as I showed him the train schedule.  “It has us leaving on the 9:23 A.M. train on Saturday arriving in Hakodate at 1:40 P.M.  We don’t switch trains, but we have one stop in Aomori City.”

“Did they say we should get our tickets today or just buy ‘em when we arrive at the train station?”  He asked.

“They suggested earlier is better, but since we’ll be leaving in two days, we’ll just buy ‘em then.”  I replied.

“Great work, little Padawan.  Sounds like a fun weekend.  If you have time today find out more about that fish market and some fun things to do there.  I’ll ask Tomoko-san and Okita-san at the office if they have any suggestions as well.  I gotta run.  Walk me out?”  I poured myself a fresh cup of coffee and met him at the door.   I waited patiently as he laced his boots and grabbed his room key and bag.  He wrapped his arms tightly around my waist and gave me a lingering goodbye kiss before he walked away.  I smiled to myself, feeling warm and loved, as the door closed and I returned to the computer to continue my research.

That evening Dave came home excited about seeing the fish market in Hakodate.  “I’m told it’s really popular.  Supposedly it’s one of the biggest fish markets in Japan.  The vendors get their stands set up and start selling to restaurant owners at 4 A.M.  Okita-san said we should definitely get there no later then 5:30 to see the bargaining and action taking place.”

Friday came and went.  I enjoyed a short run in the morning while I continued to familiarize myself with the base.  I stopped by the post office to get issued a combination for our mailbox and walked to the library to check out a book for our trip.  Shogun by James Clavell, should keep me busy.  I withdrew plenty of Yen from the ATM just in case we needed cash.  When Dave arrived back at the room that evening we ate a quick meal and started packing.  We thought we’d walk to the train station in the morning, so we packed our backpacks, some sandwiches and snacks, and laid out our travel clothes.

Saturday morning was an early start, but the weather was clear and sunny as we walked the two miles to the train station.  We entered the automatic sliding door into the sales office to buy our train tickets and were greeted with a hesitant and nervous smile from the station worker.  He turned around in his chair to signal another uniformed worker to trade places with him. This man was not thrilled to be dealing with foreigners either, but he took a deep breath and slowly asked, “may I help you?”  I pointed to my highlighted train schedule and held up two fingers as I slowly asked for two tickets to Hakodate.  He repeated my request and simply asked for our “return?”  I told him “Monday afternoon” and pointed to the 2:30 P.M. train departure also highlighted on my paper.  Both he and I were very grateful for the highlighted form.  I paid our fare and he printed our tickets.

He handed us each three tickets and tried to explain we were not to get off the train in Aomori City.  I am glad I already knew that because he had a lot of difficulty translating the explanation clearly into English.

“Wakarimashta,” I replied bowing my head, meaning I understood what he said.

He seemed pleased as he bowed his head and said, “Sank you very much.  Please go to numbah two platform now, 15 minutes to train.”

When the train arrived, Dave and I found our assigned seats and sat back for our first long journey through Japan.  The train ride was very smooth and our seats were comfortable and reclining.  The bathrooms were well maintained complete with a tiny sink that included automatic sensors to spray water, then soap, and start the hand dryer all in one small, efficient space.  We sped by small villages, miles of rice fields, and large bodies of water filled with old fishing boats as we traveled north to Aomori City.  We didn’t get off the train when we stopped, but waited until the train unloaded passengers and loaded people once again before we set off for the rest of our journey.  We both fell sound asleep and were only awoken by the sound of train brakes as we drew near to our final destination.

Our final destination

We stopped in the tourist information office at the Hakodate train station and found an english map, brochure of area highlights, and an english speaking woman to give us directions to our hotel.  Our hotel was luckily a five minute walk away and the marquee on the roof of the building very clearly spelled out  The sidewalk was decorated with colorful cement art depicting squid, fish, large crabs, and octopus.  Our hotel was conveniently located in the midst of the fish market square and the front desk staff confirmed that we should be there no later than 5 A.M. to catch a glimpse of the action.

Sidewalk art

Upon check-in we were invited to become a part of the Toyoko Inn Gold Membership program.  With our new membership we would save some money on our present booking, get early online reservation privileges, and a free gift upon check-in at any Toyoko Inn throughout the country.  We eagerly signed up and were given a free washcloth gift set, our room key, and were directed to the elevator to find our room.

I was surprised at the room, but pleasantly surprised.  It was very small, maybe the size of a large American walk-in closet, yet very clean and welcoming with folded bathrobes and slippers on the bed.  The bed was only slightly larger than a twin size and it didn’t look promising in length for Dave who is just over 6 feet tall.  His long legs would definitely hang off the end of the bed if he didn’t sleep at an angle.  The mattress was thin, but made of dense, hard material.  The pillows were fluffy, yet noisy as your head sank into the collected pile of buckwheat shells that filled up the pillowcase.  I recalled an old infomercial about the postural benefits of the “sobakawa” pillow and I was eager to test it out.  The bed was high enough off the floor to store our backpacks underneath since there was no closet.

We found a hair dryer and an electric hot water pot equipped with a variety of green and black tea bags.  There was a fairly significant step up to enter the bathroom.  The plastic composite room was tiny, barely giving enough room to step in and turn around, but everything needed was in there.  The shower was a deep tub about 3’ deep and about 3’ long by 2’ wide.  The shower head was on a long tube dually used as the sink faucet.  A simple flip of a valve changed it from a single stream of water to a shower spray.  A built-in shelf held large community bottles of shampoo, conditioner, shower gel, new razors, toothbrushes and little tubes of toothpaste.  The small toilet had a heated seat and two choices for spray cleaning, pink for female, blue for male, easy enough.

The front desk staff was very helpful and there seemed to always be one English speaker on each shift.  We asked about climbing Mount Hakodate and set off for our first afternoon’s excursion.

The beginning of our climb up Mt. Hakodate

I wanted to see the panoramic view of the area from the observation tower on top of the nearby mountain.  The climb was not terribly challenging.  We stopped in the clearings to lookout over the city as we climbed and stopped to listen to the new and unique sounds of the birds.  I have never been to the rain forest, but I imagine the sounds we heard were very similar.  The woods were thick and dense with large, heavy branches arching over and shading our path.  The climb took a couple of hours giving us just enough time and daylight to look around as the sun began to disappear over the city.

Almost at the top of Mt. Hakodate

Looking southward we could just make out the main island of Honshu and the Hakkoda Mountains.  To the east we were viewing the Tsugaru Strait extending into vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean.  I have never lived near an ocean, but here, looking out over the never-ending horizon of water, I was beginning to realize with amazement and a twinge of sadness how far removed we were from our home.  Shaking off the encroaching melancholy, Dave and I found a comfortable bench facing northward to watch the Hakodate city lights begin to twinkle and glow as darkness settled over the mountain.  Our conversations solidified our resolve to make the best and most out of our next few years in Japan, come what may.

Nighttime view over Hakodate

When we started to get chilled and a bit hungry we splurged on tickets and rode the tram to the bottom of the mountain.  While on our way down I read more of our brochure.  I began noticing a trend that the Japanese love their top 10 lists of every sight and natural feature in the country.  The view from the top of Mount Hakodate was no exception as our brochure claimed it as one of the top 3 views to see in all of Japan.  We agreed it had been definitely worth the climb.  We stopped and ate dinner at a busy Irish pub, listening to the music, and enjoying familiar food before we made our way back to the hotel for a quick night’s sleep.

The fish market filled the streets for blocks and blocks early Sunday morning.  Vendors were bustling about setting out their fresh catches in styrofoam and ice, preparing for the crowds.  We made our way outside at 5:00 A.M. determined not to miss a thing.  We bought a couple of hot canned coffees from a vending machine outside the hotel and started exploring.

Hot canned coffee, my favorite

We watched as vendors pulled a king crab out of a styrofoam crate, turned it upside down and explained to buyers the proper way to judge a good crab.  We were disappointed we didn’t know very many Japanese words yet, but the more patient vendors would try English and let us sample some of their specialities.  The smoked scallops were a bit chewy and the salmon eggs were too big for me to enjoy their gushy popping in my mouth.  Unfortunately no one let us try the king crab since we were obviously tourists and not serious buyers.

How to judge a good crab

The king crabs were as big as my head with legs that extended far beyond.  They could sell for about $100.

Whoa! The literal King Crab

There were water tanks full of squid ready for sushi and calamari eaters.  I watched a seller put a live octopus on the ground that made a valiant escape attempt while their backs were turned, but he was soon scooped up and bought by the next customer.  Dave and I walked up and down the aisles admiring the variety of sea creatures we had never seen before.

Squid tank

There were several stands that were also selling a type of melon.  They looked to us like normal cantaloupes, but the vendors took great pride in packaging these melons that were meant as very special gifts for maybe corporate functions or dinner parties.  A box of four melons was priced between $60-80 depending on their size.  We walked away with a lot of pictures, but only purchased a bottle of Hakodate red wine as a souvenir.

Extra special melons

Our hotel was still offering their free Japanese breakfast when we returned.  We picked up trays from the stack and stood in line to be served a rice ball, which is sticky rice mixed with egg, spices, and vegetables formed into a tight ball wrapped in seaweed paper.  We had pickled cucumbers, turnips, and unknown fruits, miso soup, coffee, and juice.  When we reached the end of the line there were no empty tables left.  A Japanese couple was nice enough to motion over to us to sit with them.  We could not communicate with them past the pleasantries of “good morning” and “How do you do?” which was fine as they were busy reading the newspaper and enjoying their coffee.  Unfortunately, chopsticks were the only utensils available to use.  I gave our neighbors a nice laugh as I picked up a pickle only to flip it over and off the table.  The wife reached over to politely change my hand position on the sticks.  I grabbed another pickle mentally willing it to make it to my mouth.

Dave and I spent the rest of the day and the following morning touring the city.  Dave navigated their public transportation system and we hopped on and off the city trolley all day seeing different sites described in our brochure.  We sat down to read our books and enjoyed a picnic in a large open city park and watched other people enjoying their Sunday afternoon.  There were people taking naps on the lawn, others playing with frisbees or tossing baseballs, cyclists were zooming by talking on their cellphones, but most of the pedestrians, adults and children alike, were enjoying ice cream cones.  The weather remained sunny and warm all day as we toured four different historical church buildings and stopped for our own ice cream break.  We were sad to catch our train Monday afternoon, but we celebrated our fun mini-vacation on the ride home with our bottle of wine and some leftover peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

Riding home in style

We arrived in Misawa after dark and opted to hire a taxi cab to drop us off at the base.  We stumbled into our base hotel room full of new stories, photographs, and memories, not to mention, completely wiped out.

May I have a fork, please?

In June 2009 Dave and I were sent to live and work at Misawa Air Base, Japan.  We were given two months of lead time to get our household goods in order, sell cars, rent our house, dissolve my personal training business, and report to our new duty station.  The Air Force issued us military orders to live in the far northeast corner on the main island of Honshu for 3 years.  If you put your finger on the United States on a world globe and spin it nearly 180 degrees you would find our new home.  As a newlywed couple of one year, I couldn’t imagine a place farther away from our support network of close family and friends.  However, as adventure seeking, lovers of the unknown, Dave and I had stepped off the plane into our nirvana.  With luggage hanging off of every available limb, we were enthusiastically welcomed by his new co-workers as we disembarked the airplane in Misawa.  In our jet-lagged, semi-comatose state we were asked what we would like to see first.  As we generally align ourselves with the motto of “when in Rome, …”, we voted for eating sushi.

We weren’t sure what to expect at a real Japanese sushi restaurant.  I imagined several Japanese men would be standing behind a windowed counter cutting up fish with panache as you ordered.  They would be wearing robes of some kind and wraps around their foreheads like Ralph Macchio in the Karate Kid movie.  Perhaps I have watched too much television.

We walked in the door of the restaurant and were taken aback by a loud shout of “IRASSHAIMASE!” as the waitstaff all yelled at us in unison.  Our new friends explained that was their way of saying “WELCOME!”  We were soon ushered to a large booth, not a counter with a window, where we sat in front of two TV screens with pictures of food and strange writing.  To one side of the booth was a conveyor belt with different colored, little plates of sushi, sushi rolls, and tiny desserts slowly cruising by.  I saw no men with head wraps anywhere.  Our new friend, Jamie, ordered our meal by pressing a few of the pictures on the screen.  We thought it probably best to watch her first and then try it ourselves.  She took little tea cups that had been placed in front of us, scooped a little green powder into each cup, and filled them up from a tiny hot water faucet attached to our table. Voila, green tea.  Next thing you know a little train came zipping up to our table on a higher conveyor belt carrying the plates she had ordered.  She took the plates, pressed a button, and the train zipped back to the kitchen.  There was absolutely no human contact involved in the entire process.

Then out came the chopsticks.  As you can imagine eating at a restaurant in Japan you are required to possess a small amount of skill in the use of chopsticks as your primary eating utensils.  I had not mastered the use of chopsticks at this point and I did not intend to make a fool of myself on my first day in country.

I waved down a nice looking hostess and politely asked, “May I have a fork, please?”

To my shock she turned around and ran away from the table!

I leaned over to Dave and whispered with embarrassment, “Mark that down as international incident #1.”

However, she was quickly back at the table bowing in front of me.  She was holding a tray with a fork nicely displayed on top of a clean white towel.

As I took the fork she said, “sorry took long time” as she bowed and walked away.

“Excuse me, Jamie.”  I said in confusion.  “What just happened?  Did she actually mean to apologize that it took her a long time to go get me a fork?  If I had clocked her it would have been 8 seconds, but instead she was apologetic for not breaking her personal record of service?!”

“Welcome to Japanese customer service, Carrie.”  She said as she shrugged her shoulders.  “It’s pretty impressive.”

We woke up in our hotel room the next morning to bright sunshine and enormous black birds loudly cawing outside our opened window.  I watched them gathering in the lawn outside.  They were at least two and a half times the size of any crow I have ever seen, with a beak so big and powerful, I was sure they could break through metal.  I glanced at the clock and was very confused that it only read 3:45 in the morning.   At the relatively northern latitude and no daylight savings time, by 3:45 A.M. the day had begun whether we were ready or not.

We got up and went for a jog to explore the area and discovered that Misawa is a very isolated and small farming community.  Misawa Air Base sits about 6 miles inland from the Pacific Ocean and about 30 miles east of the beautiful Hakkoda mountain range.  Prior to World War II, Misawa was a Japanese Air Base where their long range bombers would engage in target practice using the shallow waters of the adjacent Ogawara Lake.  It was the practice ground for the imminent attack on Pearl Harbor.  Later it was the base of training for the kamikaze fighter pilots.  During the war, Misawa Air Base was mostly destroyed by US forces and later rebuilt to house American and Japanese troops as a joint base of operations. I was glad to get the lay of the land and an idea of what was around us.  I felt honored and humbled to be living in a place with so much history.  I also felt obligated or maybe it was a sense of responsibility to be very respectful and conscientious of the Japanese people that we were now living amongst.

We chose to rent a house about 3 miles off base within the community of Misawa.  We were told before we arrived to pack with the expectation that our living space would be about 1,000 square feet or less.  We did as we were told and packed the bare minimum.  Our house, on the other hand, was bright mustard yellow on the outside, two stories tall, 4 bedrooms, and over 2,500 square feet!  I called it our “Chateau Dijon.”  It was situated among a few other western style homes and Japanese residents.  We were surrounded by open fields of rice, carrots, cabbage, rape seed, and a large, white root vegetable called a daikon.

Our “American” pace of life and sense of urgency at all times came to a screeching halt in our new environment.  The calendar year in Japan revolved around the rice harvest and moved only as fast as the rice can be planted and harvested.  There was no sense of “keeping up with the Jones’.”  I couldn’t keep up even if we wanted to, there were no western style shopping malls for miles around.  Everyone drove an older “piece of junk” car because there simply were no other choices.  Cars were passed along from one military family to the next.  We weren’t allowed to bring our cars to Japan since they drive on the left side of the road.  It was also tough to find American stores online that were willing to ship goods to middle-of-nowhere, Japan.

Dave and I agreed the lack of American luxuries would do us some good, slow us down, and help us gain a new perspective on consumerism and what is really important in life.  For the first time we were living without a dishwasher or a microwave.  I cooked on a gas stove for my first time and we didn’t have central air conditioning.  We had all hard-wood flooring throughout the house with a few space heaters and heat that came from underneath the floor, which turned out to be quite fabulous.

My favorite features of the house were our own Japanese toilets.  I was told that the Japanese have the best toilets.  I had no idea how to take that tidbit of information before arriving, but I now agree 100 percent. The advice was, “When you arrive at the Tokyo airport go to the bathroom, you will enjoy it”.  No doubt I would have to go anyway after the 13 + hour flight, but what treat was I in for?  First you opened the door to the pleasant sound of birds chirping!  Then you sat down on a delightfully heated toilet seat.  There was a control panel of buttons to choose from during your stay with little pictures to clarify.  You could change the bird sounds to that of a toilet repeatedly flushing.  There was a bidet feature that sent a shocking spray of warm water back up at you for a squeaky cleanse. Finally, you could choose an air dry and a “puff of scent” with one press of a button.  I was thrilled to walk through our house in Misawa and notice each of our bathrooms possessed these very same toilets!

Note:  We are currently in possession of a Japanese toilet seat.  We purchased one as a personal parting gift as we left the country!

Small Town Charms

I appreciate small towns.  I admire small town people, their values, their predictable routines, and traditions.  I understand them because I am from one: Boerne, a small German town located in south central Texas.  My family moved there when I was four years old.  I started my education at the local pre-school and proudly donned the same Boerne purple and white tassel on my High School graduation cap.  No matter where I have ventured since, my small town values today remain the same as they did growing up:  Fit in, make friends, and obey the rules.

I like fitting into the crowd and blending into the background.  As an introvert, I believe in standing out at times, but only in an upright and respectful manner.  I am shy.  I enjoy being with people, but I enjoy the peace and solitude of my time in the quiet.  Making friends is not difficult, it just takes work, and making sure they are the right kind of friends.  I am very conscious of following the rules, it’s safe.  I rarely have to stick my neck out too far where it doesn’t belong.  For example, I wait patiently until the traffic light says I can walk across the street, regardless of the amount of cars.

By way of further introduction, I am competitive and relish outdoor recreation with childlike enthusiasm. I exercise for the sheer enjoyment of a natural high, but inwardly I want to run faster or pedal harder than any female that happens to be in front of me. I love to read. Books are a window into another world, whether that be into the past, into other lands and faraway cultures, into a complete fantasy land, or into the deep and hidden places inside of myself.  I love the Lord as the center of my life and as my only true north. Saving the absolute best for last, I love my husband. We work well as a team and bring balance and fun to each others’ lives. Our respect and love for each other grows as we spend time getting to know one another, as well as, spending more time with God. We make every activity into the next great Kempisty adventure.

I packed these values and life lessons along with me as I moved with my husband, Dave, across the ocean with feelings of both enthusiasm and trepidation.  As excited as I was about our new home across the globe, I had a personal battle to fight between leaving my ideated “perfect and settled” life and the new beginning I feared would be daunting.  I had been settled in Texas.  I had a beautiful home, a lucrative personal training business, the world’s most perfect dog, I had family close by, and friends, and our church.  I had a calendar of our favorite races, marathons, and triathlons outlined for each month of the year.  In other words, I had my routine, my social calendar, my comfort zone.  What was I going to do with myself in Japan?

Personal fitness training had been my career since 1998.  I was a personal trainer at Texas A&M University and went on to run my own personal training studio in San Antonio, Texas for 11 years before closing the doors and moving to Japan.

I thought I might try my hand at something completely different when we moved to Misawa, but old habits die hard and I found myself interviewing at the Base fitness center shortly after our arrival.  In that initial conversation I told them my credentials as a personal trainer and was hired on the spot. I had my picture posted on the wall before I could say “cheese.”  We had recently discovered I was pregnant with our first child, so I agreed to work for the gym until our baby came.  Word spreads quickly around a small base and I soon had a full schedule of clients.

My niche market in Texas had been the 55 and older age group.  In Misawa I was challenged working with 20 year olds.  The military requires it’s members to maintain a specified level of physical fitness.  An Air Force member is required every year to be tested on their maximum number of sit ups and push ups completed in one minute, a timed 1.5 mile run, and an abdominal circumference measurement.  After a female active duty member has a baby, they are given 6 months to pass their fitness exam.  If anyone fails a physical test they are “written up” by their supervisor and given 90 days to retake the test.  Every year members are discharged from the Air Force for failing repeated fitness exams.

I felt a lot of pressure to do my job well; people’s jobs were depending on it.  I enjoyed the change of pace, the different pressures involved with active duty military members, and the other officer’s spouses I trained.  I was comfortable, I was recognized, but I may as well been back in Texas.  What was I doing?  Is that how I was going to spend my precious few years in a foreign country?  I was being true to myself and following my personal values, but was I making the most out of a my blessed opportunity?  When I was honest with myself the answer was ‘no’.  I came to Japan wanting to watch and learn their culture, take part in their festivals and celebrations, see the sites, hear the different sounds, and eat rice!  In other words, to blend in to their background, make friends with their people, and learn their rules for life.

Where was I to begin?  How could I take the proverbial bull by the horns and really start experiencing Japan?  I thought I should start by learning to speak with the local people.  I started asking around for the best way to quickly learn the Japanese language.  A young Japanese teacher I met named Hisayo introduced me to Kumon.

Kumon is an after school program for kids to advance their learning mostly in math and reading.  It can also be useful for adults to learn foreign languages, science, and other useful subjects.  Hisayo gave them a call and set up my first evening class to see if Kumon was the right fit for me.

The classroom was a tiny modular building about a mile from our house, close enough that I walked to my first day of school.  I approached the front door, took a deep breath, and cautiously slid open the opaque glass door.  It opened into an entryway piled high with little shoes neatly tucked into small cubby holes.  I took off my shoes, but found they were far too big to put in a cubby hole.  I suddenly got very nervous and self-conscious, but quickly talked myself out of turning around and leaving.  I placed my shoes neatly on the floor and looked around the room.  Everything and everyone around me was tiny.  The room, the desks, the chairs, the people, all miniatures!   I noticed it was mostly children focused on solving math problems and repeating words over and over in the English language.  Thankfully an adult, perhaps the headmaster, walked over to me, and gave a waist deep bow.

I uncomfortably bowed back and slowly said in English “Hello, my name is Carrie.  I have an appointment today for Kumon.”

She nodded at me, pointed at her name tag, and said “Mizue, Sensei.”  Teacher.

She turned around and motioned with her hand for another lady to join her.  They pointed to a tiny chair next to me indicating that I should sit down.  I nearly landed on the floor before my rear end found the miniature seat.  The new lady was evidently my interpreter as she listened to Mizue speak to me in Japanese and then explained in broken English about Kumon.  She showed me a chart that depicted what I would be learning, and how quickly I would advance depending on my personal pace.  I noticed the three languages of Japan were all included:  Hiragana, Katakana, and even Kanji.  I was excited, my first Japanese class!  I enthusiastically agreed to attend.  They directed me to fill out the application, instructed me to show up Monday and Thursday evenings, and collected my first month’s fees.  I could hardly wait until Thursday to get started.

When Thursday arrived, I walked quickly to my class, took off my shoes and found a more discreet corner to place them.  Again I was the only adult student in the room, the only foreigner, and certainly the only one learning Japanese.  Mizue again asked me to sit down on the tiniest seat I have ever balanced on.  She handed me a pencil and a sealed booklet and said, “Please begin, test-o”.

“Test-o?!” I replied, wide-eyed and quite confused.

“Yes, must complete,” she stated slowly.

I opened up the booklet and flipped through the pages of foreign letters and symbols.  When I got to the back page it asked for my signature in English, I was grateful I could answer one question.  I felt sick, I was living my nightmare of showing up to school not having studied for a test.  Only here I was in the twilight zone of little Asian people staring at me like I was from Mars in the first place.  I handed her my empty booklet.  She had the nerve to open it up and mark everything with red pen.

She smiled at me and said, “You start, Level 1.”

The whole room cracked up into little hands-over-mouth covered giggles, including myself as I turned seven shades of red and sunk closer to the floor.  She gave me another small booklet with a CD taped inside and signaled me to follow her to another part of the room.  She led me over to a desk with an old CD player with vintage 1980s foam earphones attached.  She pointed at the English directions that instructed me to listen to the first lesson on the CD and repeat aloud what was being said.  This was getting worse!  Mizue walked back to her desk and I was left to myself to hit the play button and begin.  I was the only voice in the room to be heard and every head would slowly turn my direction as I attempted strange Japanese words and sounds for the first time.  I worked my way through Lesson One finishing the audible section and then my CD instructed me to trace and practice drawing my first Japanese letters.

I took a moment to look around the room and realized that I was on my own to learn at my own pace.  I had all evening to finish my work and if I wanted I could start working on lesson two.  I watched the children repeatedly and quietly focus and study, then solve and erase their work.  As I observed them interact, I quickly noticed that calling attention to oneself or standing out amongst your piers was a taboo to the young Japanese students.  If there was a hint of discontent or unrest by any of the children, they were immediately called down by the older students in the room or quietly, yet sternly, spoken to by the Sensei.  Some of the children were young and would obviously get excited about a difficult problem or possible solution they wanted to show Mizue Sensei, but first they found a small plastic hand broom and dust pan and tidied their work space of eraser flakes before they would dare approach the Sensei.  I naturally followed their example, finished my work, and walked it over to Mizue.  She hovered over each answer with that dreaded red pen, wrote “100” on the top, and handed me a stack of handouts as she slowly sounded out “ho-me-work.”   I suppose I volunteered for this, but homework? Yuck!

One evening at the end of my lesson, Mizue sat me down across the table from her as she crouched down working with two other young students.  Instead of quickly grading my lesson, as before, she covered up my answers, and pointed at the blanks that had asked me the correct word to describe the picture.  A little Japanese boy with the cutest little round face sitting to one side of her, leaned across the table, and looked up at me.  His little face was about ten inches from my own.  I tried to focus and say the correct word aloud, but Mizue was distracted by another student.  The little boy, in my face, shook his head vigorously side to side indicating that I had said the wrong word.  I looked at the picture and tried another word with a quick glance at him and his more subtle head shake clearly let me know I was wrong again.  Then Mizue was looking right at me ready for my answer.  I tried one more guess and the little boy smiled and nodded with hidden pride as he looked at his own paper letting me know I got it right.

During my regular evening walks to class I would practice my new vocabulary, noticing “window”, “field”, “dog”, or “child.”  I continued attending classes twice a week cramped in that small building with about 15 other kids working on their own subjects. We all had homework to complete every day to turn in upon arrival on Monday and Thursday evenings.  Each of us would open the sliding door, remove our shoes, while announcing our entry with “Konbonwa” or “good evening”.  We would hear a loud response of “Konbonwa, Carrie-san”, or appropriate name, and bow as we stepped up one step to enter the classroom.  We would look up our names in the color coded files near the door, take the stack of new handouts for the day’s classwork, and replace them with our completed homework.  We would find an empty seat to get settled and begin our work.

I was 34 years old, the adorable little children were anywhere from 6-12.  I was tall and blonde, they were short and black haired.  They had all the energy in the world, and I would waddle in after a long day at the gym, while getting bigger and more pregnant every week. They would whip in and out of their chairs when their parents arrived to pick them up.  I, however, had to be helped up and down by several little hands when I was coming and going.  Mizue Sensei would even go so far as to meet me at the door to help me take my shoes on and off every evening.  The children were always respectful of my presence; however, never open and interactive.  My attempts at “konbonwa’s” and other familiar greetings were politely answered, yet never initiated.  Even after a year, the young children learning English were never interested in practicing their skills with me.  The Sensei would ask me the correct pronunciation of a particular word in English, but never anything more.  Yet without fail, every time I sat down to complete the audio section of my classwork, little faces would peer around the corner watching and giggling.