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January 2010
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I guess someone is trying to find me

As I was running though my access logs, I found the following,


Hmmm, I guess they knew what they were looking for. I had multiple searches all from the same IP address that had some variant of the search. Hey, I have a cyber stalker out there! It is an IP address assigned to Softbank. Interesting. I hope they are enjoying the blog. I accept all lurkers that find this blog entertaining.

But then again, the following search ALSO showed up in my access logs,


You know, I have NO idea how that leads to my blog, but it does.


I try to keep my blog light and more focused on the quirky or quirkily mundane rather than the issues that face expatriates that are more serious, or at least amplified because we are away from our usual surroundings. But that is part of the experience over here, and while I am not going to dwell on the “downers” it is important balance if I’m trying to explain my life here.

The past couple of weeks have been very difficult. I found out my boss was leaving sooner than I thought and I was working really long hours trying to resolve various issues, and I really didn’t have an option to not work those hours. However, far worse than those complaints is that last weekend one of our expatriate colleague’s children died suddenly.

Certainly in any small office, friendships develop and people in the office care for one another. In an expatriate office, we of course care a lot for each other. But everyone in the office somehow seems a little more like family than when I am in the office in the States. Here in Nagoya, we are all thrown in to this big mélange of new experiences, confusion of how to do some of the simplest things, uncertainty as to the duration of our assignments, and even uncertainty in what our roles are. Although we don’t socialize that much since everyone does have their life here, we do some important things as a group and with families. For example, we do a major community event in May, we have a group Thanksgiving dinner, we had a bowling party / food drive, we sponsor orphans at Christmas time, we have 忘年会 (bounenkai – forget-the-year party), 新年会 (shinnenkai – New Year party), and simple 飲み会 (nomikai – drinking party). We’ve even as a group ended up at a hole-in-the-wall bar and taken over the karaoke machine. My point is we pull together, know each other’s families, and look out for each other.

One of the things I’ve always worried about as an expat is something happening to my family in the States, or something happening to me while I am here. Several members of our team have lost parents or grandparents and have had to travel back to the States. Other colleagues have been traveling back because of parents that are ill. Although I live a long distance from my family when I’m in the States, the distance isn’t so great. Living across an ocean makes the distance feel very far.

Medical care is hard enough to navigate in the US – I can’t imagine what it would be like here to really get what you needed. One time when I had strep throat, I got these pills that looked like children’s aspirin and had to take them forever. It took a long time to remotely start to feel better. How I longed for a Zithromax 3-pack (mind you, I am not an antibiotic pill popper – I can only remember these two cases of antibiotics in the past 10 years. The Zithromax wiped out a case of pneumonia I had picked up after traveling LA – Hong Kong – Kuala Lumper – Tokyo – LA in less than one week).

So of course the death of our colleague’s child was shocking. Without going in to too much detail, the Nagoya media speculate that he died due to complications of H1N1. That can’t really be confirmed though, but his death was sudden and unexpected, and he did test positive for H1N1. He was 4 years old. Many of my colleagues have young children of their own with them in Nagoya, and this news was particularly difficult for them. Fortunately, our company has a program to assist employees in these situations and an American counselor residing in Fukuoka was dispatched to Nagoya to talk to our team.

Over 75 families attended the wake (otsuya – お通夜) on Tuesday night. There was a Buddhist prayer from in the home of my colleague and then a viewing / wake, still in the home. My colleague is Japanese-American and his wife is Japanese, so they had a more traditional Japanese wake than a western wake. Almost everyone from the office went. There’s a lot of mixed information out there surrounding otsuya, so for once I’m not going to make a link. If you are curious, you can do the research on your own.

Once again, I’m not going to dwell on the serious difficulties we face at times as expatriates. My next entry will be frivolous and lighthearted. There is no way that I know to seque from this topic to any other topic, so forgive me in advance.

Hey, I’m a mosquito

Tomo and I are going to see a Muse concert tonight. Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on your point of view, our tickets are floor general admission, so if we line up early enough we are able to get to the front of the stage. Yippee. Tomo is a dedicated live music aficionado, so he thinks nothing of arriving at a venue many hours before a show in order to line up to get in. And so it is today. I may not have the energy for the front row as I’m a little sick today.

The venue is actually pretty close to my apartment, so I said I would walk to Starbucks and then the venue with Tomo to help him get there. I was joking around in the elevator and pulled my faux-fur edged parka hood over my head. It is quite a large hood and my head was buried deep inside. “Hey, you are a mosquito,” said Tomo.

“What?” I could imagine a reference to Kenny from South Park, but a mosquito? It made no sense to me.

“No, no, not a mosquito, an Eskimo.”

Am I a pest?

[photos in public domain, Eskimo family by Edward S. Curtis, Library of Congress]


Ah, yes, that made a lot more sense. Indeed, I did look like an Eskimo. And here was a perfect example of two words that you don’t think could ever get confused, yet have enough similarities that it is just possible to accidently confuse. I thought it was funny.

Now when I say kowai (怖い, こわい) and kawaii (可愛い, かわいい) interchangeably, I won’t be so embarrassed. Kowai means “scary” and kawaii means “cute.” There is a big difference of course, but I always mess them up.

The Japanization of my hair

As I’ve talked about before, I enjoy getting a haircut in Japan. It’s the shampoo, the massage, the meticulous cut, and the attention to service. My “stylist” moved from Toni&Guy to his own place, Hair Make Arm’S. I have no idea what the name means. What’s in a name anyway? I know where to go so it doesn’t matter.

He chose to start his own salon just as the economic crisis was hitting, and I worried about it. At first it seemed he was not very busy at all, but it seems he is doing OK now so hopefully things will remain good for him. When he left however, I lost the assistant who acted as a translator for my cuts. It is hard enough to communicate what you want in English, much less for me to communicate in Japanese. To solve the problem, I was just keeping my hair short. Hey, it isn’t so hard to keep it short. Get it cut often enough and things will be fine.

Lately, though, I’ve decided to grow my hair out. Perhaps it is a reaction to noticing that my forehead has become larger in recent pictures of me, maybe caused by a retreat of my hairline. Also, I’ve noticed that my scalp is more visible than it used to be. Midlife crisis perhaps? Ah, well, yeah, maybe. Don’t worry, I’m not going with the compensatory pony tail accompanied by a bald pate. Besides, long scruffy hair seems to be rather cool. I’ll never by Zac Efron because I actually open my eyes, but he seems to be all about his hair so why not take a page from his book?

The problem with my hair as it gets longer is that often I have to wear a baseball cap at work. It is a silly safety rule that when I am in certain parts of the site, a cap is required. No protective eyewear, but a baseball cap is required. So with short hair I could take off my cap, mess it up with my hand, and there was no impact. With longer hair, I can get hathead pretty quickly. Plus, unlike the uberstraight hair of my youth, when it gets longer it starts to curl, especially around my ears. The result was little wings flipping out at my ears. Scruffy, and a little goofy.

Today I tried to communicate what I wanted, but I knew in the end that I would just end up getting whatever 秋山さん (Akiyama-san) decides is what he wants to cut and I start resembling anime character. Indeed that is what I got. I feel an 80’s revival approaching, as I now have a lot of weight on top and in the back, but trimmed pretty tight around the ears. Hmmm, was that I wanted? After so much time growing out have I taken a step backward?

Of course, leaving a haircut, your hair is overstyled compared to every day use. This time he even added a touch of hairspray to volumize the back. Excellent, but that’s not what I am going to do. However, I do think I’m becoming more Japanese from a style point of view every day I’m here.

Self portrait after haircut

Self portrait after haircut

[Unfortunately I need a shave. It is always hard to take a self portrait with a small camera and a wide angle lens held at arm’s length]


Pretty soon I’m going to dye my hair black and then maybe bleach it to brown. Then I’ll really be Japanese.

On Facebook, a friend noted that, “David Sedaris reports ear boxing from the Japanese barbers.” That’s sort of true, actually. I don’t go to a barber, I go to a salon. There is actually a big difference, but I suspect the massage happens at either place.

Today my routine was as follows:

  • Arrive and have my manpurse, coat, and muffler taken away and hung up by the staff.
  • Have a quick discussion with 秋山さん regarding the direction I want to take this cut.
  • Shampoo with an assistant where we discussed in Japanese my recent trip to LA and Indiana, including gas leaks, Lady GaGa, and my family. The shampoo is very nice. The assistant has magic hands.
  • Move to the cutting chair where the assistant gave me a head a neck massage. While massaging my scalp, they spray something on your head that tingles. This massage one was a little different, and it varies by assistant. This one did box my head a little bit more than usual, massaged my shoulders, but didn’t work down my spine as much as I would have liked.
  • The cut, using various clips, etc, to keep longer hair long. At times, the assistant would softly brush my face with a soft brush in case any hairs had fallen there.
  • Post cut rinse and slight massage.
  • A hot towel to refresh my face.
  • Back to the chair for styling.
  • My manpurse and coat were brought to me with the bill. I paid and then made an appointment for the next time.
  • An assistant escorted me out the door and down the stairs, and I was done for the day (except I had to go back because they forgot my scarf. Horror of horrors!).

As for the David Sedaris reference, I have previously noted his take on Japan in my blog. He is a funny guy and he is definitely on target.

I found The Messiah in Nagoya

I found The Messiah in Nagoya. I am not talking about the great work by Handel. Although it is as much an Easter piece as it is a Christmas piece, I haven’t seen any production listed here recently. Nor have I had any particular epiphanies and found, you know, Him.

While killing time before I got my haircut, I walked around the neighborhood of Hair Make Arm’S. Yes, that is the name of the place where I get my hair cut. I have NO idea why the last S is capitalized, but it is. As I was walking, I noticed a restaurant and found that, strangely enough, it is called Messiah. According to the dictionary on my Mac,

mes·si·ah |məˈsīə|

1 ( the Messiah) the promised deliverer of the Jewish nation prophesied in the Hebrew Bible.
• Jesus regarded by Christians as the Messiah of the Hebrew prophecies and the savior of humankind.
2 a leader or savior of a particular group or cause : to Germany, Hitler was more a messiah than a political leader.


mes·si·ah·ship |-ˌ sh ip| noun

ORIGIN Old English Messias: via late Latin and Greek from Hebrew māšīaḥ ‘anointed.’

In this case, the Messiah appears to be Italian, and even offers a Messiah Party Plan (メサイア·パーティープラン).

Restaurant Messiah

Restaurant Messiah

Restaurant Messiah Menu


Interesting. I do hesitate somewhat posting this as it is sure to generate some even stranger hits and more spam comments. Oh well.

500 円 please

500 ml of cc lemonFriday afternoon, I was returning to the office with my interpreter after a meeting. I stopped at a vending machine just outside the office to get a CC Lemon. CC Lemon is a rather overly sweetened lemon drink that contains the vitamin C of X lemons. The size that is in the vending machine is worth 70 lemons. Wow! That’s a lot of lemons. There’s nothing naturally lemon about it, just flavoring and a vitamin C equivalent. I enjoy the empty calories of the drink and have only one a day, so I rationalize it by saying the vitamin C helps keep me healthy.

CC Lemon is popular with the gaijin, and in our previous vending machine, it was always selling out. The vending machine supplier figured that supersizing was a good idea, so they went from the standard 350 ml can size to the 500 ml pet bottle size. That difference to me is actually just enough to put me over the edge of being totally sick of it, but I do get an extra 20 lemons out of it. That also bumped the price up from 100 円 (yen) to 130 円. That’s about $1.10 and $1.40 these days.

In Japan, the lowest bill available is 1000 円, and then there are 500 円, 100 円, 50 円, 10 円, and 1 円 coins. In terms of notes, I really only see 1000 円, 5000 円, and 10000 円 notes in circulation (about $11, $55, and $110).

Some Japanese currency

[Note: While preparing this picture I got a warning that Photoshop does not allow the printing of banknotes. How in the HECK did Photoshop know I was photographing banknotes?!?]

Unfortunately, I didn’t have any coins so I was forced to use a 1000 円 note. In the interest of commerce, all vending machines have slots for bills, and some vending machines are even capable of accepting 10000 円, so it is not uncommon to put a note in the vending machine.

Here’s some old school vending machines.

Old school vending machine


And a new school vending machine, including Tommy Lee Jones and CC Lemon.

New school vending machine


I fed my note into the 自動販売機 (じどうはんばいき, vending machine), chose my CC Lemon, and collected my change. In simple math, my change should be 870 円. Typically, that is a 500 coin, 3 100 coins, a 50 coin, and 2 10 coins. (I’m reminded of the Saturday Night Live mock commercial where a bank makes change. That’s all they do. Unfortunately this link is unavailable outside of the US thanks to the good folks at NBC. C’mon, this commercial is so old, make it free to the world). I extracted my 御釣り (おつり, change) from the change portal and found, as expected, 3 100 円 coins, a 50 円 coin, and 2 10 円 coins. Unfortunately, I was missing my 500 円 coin. I did another finger sweep. No coin. I pulled down on the lever a couple of times. No coin. At first I was ready to give it the old, “Oh well,” but then I thought, “Wait a minute, that’s over $5!”

Fortunately, my interpreter was by my side and said, “I’ll call the telephone number here and report it and they’ll refund the 500 円. I’ll leave them my cell number and then they can pay me and I’ll keep it.” We joked that she would charge my 1000 円 for the help. So she called the vending machine company and told them of the problem. They said they would be by the office on Tuesday to refund the money since Monday was a holiday. This was at about 3:00 pm.

A little after 4:00 pm, my interpreter called me and told me the vending machine company was at the vending machine and had my 500 円. SAY WHAT?!? Within one hour, a person came to refund my 500 円 and actually handed me the coin and gave me an apology. I walked into the office and described what had happened and all the gaijins’ jaws dropped to the floor. They were amazed. The Japanese in the office kept working, probably wondering why I was so boisterous and what the big deal was. Our office administrator’s comment was, “That’s the second time this week someone didn’t get their 500 円.”

Of course, the Americans were amazed at the customer service, my Japanese co-workers were accustomed to it, and our OA was upset by the malfunctioning of the vending machine. It was truly an “only in Japan” experience.

Importing labor

It seems Japan is now importing mechanical labor. Take a look at this mechanical flagman compared to the other one here. Doesn’t this guy seem a LOT whiter?

White mechanical men

Lucky bag

Brown Stew and MinestroneI decided to go to Soup Stock Tokyo for lunch today. I basically had two reasons, to get some food since I was hungry, but also to force myself outside and go for a bit of a walk. On these gray, chilly, winter days, it is very easy to simply do nothing. Lately I’ve been “recharging my batteries” and plan to continue to do so. Or, in other words, I have been exceedingly lazy by plan. I haven’t touched work and don’t plan on it until I get back in the office. So to get out, see humanity, and get some food seemed like a good idea.

It is chilly, but not freezing, so it was no problem walking to La Chic shopping center to get to the soup place. The streets to the Sakae area of Nagoya were not very busy, so I thought the holiday weekend might be keeping people at home. Once I got to La Chic, I noticed that there was a special line just to get in to United Arrows. Perhaps I had misjudged the crowd. Then at Soup Stock Tokyo, there was a long line as well. Apparently everyone wanted soup.

After eating, I thought I’d walk around La Chic to see what the fuss was all about. The entire shopping center was packed and there were special routes on and off the escalator.

Escalator mayhem


That’s when I remembered and discovered that it is Lucky Bag season. I noticed that last year as well. You never know what is inside a “Lucky Bag.” Sure, there might be some nice things, but are they nice things I want or need?

Do you need what is inside?


Also, traditionally, there are many big sales in the period as well. It is traditional to clean your dwelling at the end of the year, so with all the newly found storage space, perhaps it is just as important to fill that space up again.

What I forget, when judging crowds in Nagoya by sidewalk congestion, is that there is an immense network of underground passages from subway and train stations to shopping areas. I bet many of the people I saw in the shop never actually set foot outside. So whatever I see above ground on a cold day, a wet day, or a hot and humid day I probably need to double or triple.

Some blogging statistics

As part of my chillin’ New Year’s Day, I did a slight blog tweak. I added a counter that displays flags representing the country of visitors. I think it is pretty cool. Also, I looked at some of the statistics for my blog. I learned I have had, to date, a total of 103380 page hits. Wow. I’m not sure that I believe that number. I’ve had 33950 total sessions, and 2250 unique pages served. Hey, that’s not all me. Thanks to those out there that have inflated these numbers. Or perhaps my one reader travels a lot and checks the blog frequently.

The counter that I added shows the top 16 countries of visitor locations. Will people from 16 different countries even visit? Probably, because I think the visits include hits from search engines. Knowing the types of searches that get directed to my blog (fertility festival, naked man festival, and unfortunately boys and fundoshi seem to be popular searches that find my blog), I’m sure I’ll eventually pick up 16 countries.

Happy New Year 2010

Happy 2010 to everyone, or in Japanese, あけましておめでとうございます (or alternatively あけておめでとうございます). May 2010 be a happy, healthy, and prosperous year for you. I’m not sure what the year has in store for me – lots of variables at play. But we will see. I hope that I can do better with the blog than I did in December.

I have not spent enough New Year’s in Japan to know how these recent years compare to the past. My expectation is that New Year’s is a family time, and many shops and restaurants are closed. This morning I went out and about to check out the fresh snow and much to my surprise, my local Starbuck’s was open. Yeah! I was hungry. While I feel bad that they had to work, it was nice getting an easy breakfast, especially since I didn’t have any food at home. I’m guessing that in recent years, more and more shops and restaurants stay open on New Year’s to catch all the other workers that are off. As for me, I’m planning on laying low, although we will see as the day wears on. I suspect jetlag may be the controlling influence of the day.

One Japanese custom is to send out New Year’s cards, or 年賀状 (ねんがじょう, nengajou). Of course, I don’t. But I don’t send out Christmas cards either. The idea is to get ALL the cards delivered on New Year’s Day. So that means the post office is jammed with these cards. I even got some this year. Apparently there is a day that you have to get them submitted so that they can be sorted and ready for delivery. I got cards from businesses and friends. I guess I’m becoming more integrated! Wikipedia, has a good description of New Year’s customs. I stumbled across a Japan Post moped filled with 年賀状.

Special delivery on New Year's Day


And the office building next to me was decorated with traditional 門松 (門松, kadomatsu).

Traditional kadomatsu


As with last year, my New Year’s transportation was not without difficulty. This should not come as a surprise though. In general, this trip has not been transportationally easy. My flight arrived late to Narita, and security to get from one international flight to another was backed up. A family of 5 was kind enough to let me in front of them since they had 4 hours until their flight. I got to the departure screens and saw my flight had been advanced by 20 minutes and was on-time. I hurried to the gate, and the sign said “boarding” but all the queues were blocked off. I still had 9 minutes to spare. I wild-eyedly went to the counter to see if I could board. Ah, but the flight has been delayed due to weather in Nagoya. The fact that every sign indicated otherwise was a bit confusing.

Our flight, originally scheduled for 5:50 pm, advanced to 5:30 pm (how can they do that?) was now going to leave after 7:00 pm, maybe. The weather in Nagoya had an advisory for heavy snow and gale. Nice. Things didn’t look good. I did a little pacing and then came back to see people queued. I found out that the airline would allow us to take the train in lieu of our flight. I prefer the train anyway, so I hopped at the chance. And I waited in line. It was probably about 7:15 pm or later before I was processed. I then had to clear immigration, pick up my bags, clear customs, and catch a train. All possible. I went down to baggage claim and saw everyone processed before me still waiting. Not a good sign. I waited a while and struck up a conversation with a guy from Indianapolis and a Japanese guy returning from Thailand. The J-guy was very helpful to us.

By the time we got our luggage, there were no more Narita Express trains. Drat! The best we could do was take a local express at 8:08 pm and get to Tokyo Station around 9:35 pm. Then we’d have to take a Shinkansen (slower Hikari instead of the fastest Nozomi) at 10:00 pm, arriving Nagoya at 11:49 pm. Just in time for the New Year.

Our local train was empty for quite a while except for the Nagoya refugees. J-guy and I both had iPhones. About midway through the local train, we checked the status of our flight and learned that it had taken off at 8:06 pm. Say what? They actually left before WE did! How did that happen and how did the airline not know? So while the passengers who chose not to hop over to the train were probably home and in bed, we were still chugging down the tracks.

Still, I’m glad I went for the sure thing, because the outcome could have been a lot different. I just wanted to get home. I bought a round of beers for my travel companions and we toasted the approaching new year and J-guy laughed at everything I said in Japanese. Not in a mean way, more in a tall beer on an empty stomach sort of way.

I got home almost exactly at the stroke of midnight. It was snowing heavily and I was inspired to take a few pictures. I love when it snows.

Snowing in Nagoya


Snowing in Nagoya


Last night I made sure I shut my alarm off, because I knew that once it went, that would be it – I’d be up because of jetlag. I was able to successfully turn off my alarm for Saturday. Unfortunately, today is Friday. Oh well. So I was up and went for a walk to check out the snow. It was still around although now it is melting quickly.

Snow in Nagoya


Snow in Nagoya


Unfortunately, even the snowmen smoke here.

Snowman with cigarette


The gas saga

I’m please to report that my gas was restored in LA the day before my departure. I am no longer at risk of blowing up the entire building. I’ll be interested to see what my gas bill looks like.

This is definitely NOT what you want your gas pipe to look like:

Not the desired state of a gas pipe

The elbow joint is completely corroded and basically disintegrated when the plumber got to that area. No wonder I had a big leak. All I have to do is deal with a small hole in the driveway. I guess I’ll be working that from abroad. Oh, and for all you people who are reading this blog looking for vacationers to rob, I do have someone living at my place so don’t bother.