Sunday, April 23, 2006

Settling In

February 9, 2006 (even more stuff)

It's been (and continues to be) an interesting process. Our house has two electric room heater-A/C units already installed, and each has a remote control. Of course, both remotes have a multitude of buttons and they're all labelled in Japanese. So...I took the remotes to the Housing Office on base. Smart-and-Sweet Japanese Housing Lady made a photocopy of each remote, and wrote the translation for each button on the photocopy! Very smart...but I still don't really understand what the button labelled "Natural Comfort" does! There is no heater in the bathroom, and it's a corner room with ceramic tile floor and walls. First thing in the morning, it's COLD. Yes, the water is warm, and heats fast (heats "on demand", not in a water heater, so it doesn't run out!), but turning off the shower, opening the sliding door and reaching for that cold towel takes great courage. We've got a little electric heater in there now, but it struggles, and I'm sure it's costly. It's also not very good at its job. I've ordered an electric towel warmer -- towel warmer now, mildew-deterrent later -- but I've got to come up with a better solution before next fall and winter. Visitors take note, and plan to come in the spring or early fall! Luckily, the cold doesn't bother me so much. FH's ship left a few days ago, so though he may have been cold at first, I think that now he's near Guam, it should be warmer for him. Hopefully, the weather will be a little warmer here when he returns!

The electric heaters in the living room and bedroom are ok, but not great, and I know they are inefficient and expensive. I'd never handled a kerosene heater before, but I knew it was time. However, I was irrationally frightened. I knew it wasn't like gasoline and the fumes aren't flammable, but I kept imagining that I'd make one dumb mistake and become a ball of fire or something. Nope! Other than the silly hand pump, it was a very easy process. I had more trouble figuring out the buttons (in Japanese, of course!) but with the help of the English "translation", I conquered them. Now I'm toasty warm as I type this, and I can even set the thing to turn itself on at a specific time in the morning! It's very high-tech and full of safety features, and even has a "deodorizing" function, so there is not the characteristic kerosene smell.

Unpacking continues, as I figure out where everything is going to fit. I've already worn holes through a pair of fleece slipper socks--tatami mats aren't easy on socks, but we are not allowed to wear soled slippers on the mats, because the slipper soles will damage the straw coverings. There are lots of cupboards, but they are big and roughly finished, with large spaces and no shelves--made for folded futons, I assume. It's sort of like Christmas, as I unwrap things I haven't seen since October, or in many cases, since July.

I've posted three photos I've taken recently (click on the photo for a larger version, as always). One is sort of boring, but it was a nice clear shot of the kanji that spell "Sasebo"--the first three symbols on the face of the building are sa, se and bo. I recognize them everywhere now, even in "handwriting" which is cool. The second is a silly shot of my half-eaten meal at the Aphrodite cafe (pasta & crepes, Japanese style). FH had safe pasta with tomato and meat sauce. I had my pasta with spicy fish eggs in sort of a mayonnaise, with shreds of nori (seaweed) on top. It was delicious!! The bright green soda is melon Fanta....melon is a very popular flavor here, and I just like the fluorescent green color. The third photo I took's sort of arty, but the late afternoon sun was golden against the frosted glass of my kitchen window, throwing a shadow of the neighbor's fence and tree and leaves and shining on the pitcher, creamer and sugar bowl I'd unpacked earlier. I thought it was pretty. I love my little house!

So much more to write about--shopping trips for new furniture, driving to Hario Base and back via different routes, being taught some Philippino dishes by a new friend and eating the delicious results, the tours I've signed up for, FH's departure on the USS Essex (and the new experiences he's having on that big boat, once he can find the time to write them down!) etc....but I will post this now, so you don't think I fell off the face of the earth. After all, after Saturday, I'll have to write all about the Nagasaki Lantern Festival, and the visit from a neighborhood volunteer to teach me more about my cho and introduce me to my neighbors (I'm supposed to bring gifts to my new neighbors, instead of the other way around!) and all the other experiences that keep washing over us both!

Gomi--Japanese Trash is Serious Business

February 9, 2006 (more stuff)

This may bore you, but it fascinated me. The cultural feeling of responsibility for the community and the planet is just so very different from ours! Gomi is Japanese for trash, and the rules concerning household waste are pretty amazing. We were issued a large gomi packet upon signing our lease, containing 120 bright yellow peel-and-stick trash labels, and an instruction booklet (a large instruction booklet!) in English and Japanese detailing what to do. Each family is issued these stickers for free at the beginning of the year--60 stickers per family member.
Basically, trash is divided into combustible trash, non-combustible trash, recyclable items and sodai gomi, or large items. Sounds simple, doesn't it? Wait, it gets better.
First, each resident must buy special transparent gomi bags from certain stores (I'm working on figuring out WHICH stores, and how to ask for them). The bags have specially marked spaces for those self-stick labels--one label for a small bag, two for medium, and three for large (45 liters). If your trash won't fit in the large bag, it's considered oversized, and there's a separate procedure for that. Your combustible and non-combustible trash goes into these special bags, and you must attach the proper number of stickers before walking to the special neighborhood gomi place (ours is a park a block away) and leaving the bags in the designated area. You may not leave the bags out the night before. You must leave them between 5:00 and 8:00am. If you leave them out too early, dogs or cats will tear them apart and strew the trash...and our neighbors will KNOW it's our trash all over the street, especially if it has stuff with English labels!
They won't take trash without the right labels, or in the wrong bags, or in the wrong place. If you run out of labels before the end of the year, you have to PURCHASE more--and the purchased ones are very vivid green or purple, so everyone in the neighborhood knows YOU were a wasteful person and a bad citizen. Combustible trash is picked up twice a week--Wednesday and Saturday (!!) for us. Non-combustible trash (aerosol cans, hair dryers(!) metal caps, etc.) is collected once a month. Kitchen waste, like orange peel, is considered combustible trash, but the government will subsidize your purchase of some sort of machine that I *think* is a compost bin. I have to wait until I can check with Sayuri, my Japanese housing counselor on the base, for a translation. Sometimes, the English version of Japanese instruction manuals makes no sense at all--in this case, the instruction booklet says I can "compound" my trash with the aid of a "special device". I hope that is a composting bin (it looks like one) but perhaps it's just a compactor.
Recyclable trash is picked up twice a month, and can go in any transparent stickers required. However, it has to be separated into one of 12 (yes, that's twelve, as in a ten and a two) different categories. I won't go into the extreme details, but I'll give a few examples. Drink cartons must be cut open, rinsed, laid flat, and tied into a bundle. Yard waste must be cut into lengths of no more than 80cm, and of a diameter of 10cm or less, and must be tied into 80 x 30cm bundles of no more than 10kg each. You are requested to brush all dirt from fallen leaves before bagging them in transparent bags (I am not making this up!!) You may put out no more than two bundles of sticks or two bags of leaves at a time. Dry cell batteries go in a special pail at the gomi collection point. Even cloth is recycled! And soiled or "dirtied" paper, like pizza boxes, are supposed to go with combustible trash, not recyclables (there's a whole list of specific kinds of paper that should not be recycled.)
Sodai gomi, like an old mattress or a kitchen chair, is picked up by appointment only....and you have to purchase special stickers for those items, ranging from about $5 to about $15 per item. Computers, appliances like refrigerators and air conditioners, concrete blocks, car parts, etc. can only be disposed of by calling the place of purchase and following their directions. The city will not take these items. My list of prices for sodai gomi is pretty will cost me about $15 to dispose of an electric organ, for example!
It's all pretty bewildering, and we've had several people (including several of my American teachers during the Intercultural Relations class) tell us "Oh, don't worry about all that stuff. Just bring your garbage to the dumpsters on base. We do!" But if our neighbors can all sort their trash properly, so can we. We'll be better stewards of the earth...and our Japanese neighbors will be less likely to see Americans as selfish pigs! Besides, I bet we'll meet some people when making our treks to the gomi station!
I also never realized how much trash one or two people can generate. It's really a revelation, and embarrassing, too! New produce less waste.

Moving Day

February 9, 2006
Sorry for the long pause...between birthdays, moving, unpacking, FH shipping out and the inevitable military paperwork stuff to deal with, I just haven't had time to write. So, rather than give you a day-by-day journal, I'll just sum up the various events, adventures and interesting stuff.

Moving Day:

Before the day arrived, the smiling Japanese gentleman in the Personal Property office gave us a map (in Japanese) with a highlighted route. He pointed out our house, then showed us the highlighted area...they'd made arrangements for us to park near our house, since our car would have been entirely in the way. Parking is a serious consideration in a country with twisty, narrow streets and limited space! Things were nuts enough that we decided not to worry about checking out of the Navy Lodge, so at the end of the moving day, we'd have somewhere to crash with sheets and pillows (I had no idea where the sheets were packed) and wouldn't have to deal with packing up and checking out until Saturday morning. We were told to be at the House on the Hill from 8am to 5pm, as the movers could show up at any time during that window. In America, that has meant somewhere between 10am and 4pm.

Nope, at 7:59 Friday morning, five small, wiry men with blue coveralls, beaming smiles and shaggy haircuts were busy laying tarps on the ground between their truck and our front door. Watching them was really incredible. Not only were they organized, polite and amazingly strong, each man took of his shoes before stepping up into the house each and every time they entered the door...even when carrying a fully-packed and very heavy chest of drawers or box of books (and yes, we had a lot of boxes of books!) Not one shoe touched our floors the entire time. Each man also seemed to enjoy calling out the number on each box or piece of English. They were proud of their English knowledge (MUCH better than my knowledge of Japanese, of course!) but two of the men had such heavy accents that I had a really hard time understanding what they were saying, and had to do some serious dodging to try to read some of the numbers myself, without letting the men know I couldn't understand what they'd said.

We'd been told not to tip the movers (or waitresses, or taxi drivers, or anyone else in Japan except on the military base) as they might take offense. These men obviously took great pride in doing a good job--and were'nt performing just to get a tip at the end. But of course, as Americans, we're used to doing SOMETHING for good FH walked up to one of the vending machines on the corner and bought hot cans of coffee for each man. They were surprised and pleased, as it was pretty chilly, and of course there was a session of bowing and a chorus of "arigato gozaimus". About 9:00, a new truck arrived, and with some quick and polite shifting, the movers made room for two appliance guys, who had come to deliver and install the government-issued heater-A/C units (2), gas stove, refrigerator, kerosene heaters (2), washer (tiny), dryer (even tinier), smoke alarms and CO2 alarms.

Then the gas man showed up (straight from Central Casting, I think, complete with glasses, clipboard, skinny arms and teenage-geek face!) He walked up the street, and I guess he knew from experience that there would be no parking available. All eight men continued to go about their business, dodging one another as if choreographed. By 2pm, close to 7,000 pounds of household goods had been delivered (quite a bit of it, including all the books, up the narrow stairs!), all the appliances had been delivered, the gas had been turned on, and I'd been through a pretty intense game of charades with the gas man as he tried to explain the various alarms, gas cut-off valves, etc. The movers told me twice, very seriously, to call them when I was finished unpacking, as they would come collect the boxes and wrapping paper. They wanted me to truly understand that they wanted to recycle the materials, and I should not throw them away. Turns out garbage and recycling are issues the Japanese take VERY seriously.

More House Photos

January 22, 2006

Today was the first sunny day we've had, and it was spectacular! It was also the first day that we both have really felt human since we both got sick. We drove over to Nimitz Park, then walked through the park and across the Albuquerque Bridge to the shopping arcade, and enjoyed exploring the shops as well as two of the big department stores. We went to one of the 100 yen shops and bought chopsticks, so Fearless Husband can practice with them, and FH bought an incomprehensible (to me) board game that is sort of like Japanese chess. He will figure out how to play it via the Internet, and is confident that he can do it. Hopefully, he can then teach me! I bought some Japanese snacks--and have absolutely no idea what anything is, other than the fact that there is a picture of a shrimp on one bag. I got a soda from one of the multitudes of vending machines, and was pleasantly surprised to find it was a honey and lemon carbonated soda pop...and it was quite good!

Here are more photos of The House on the Hill. Check it out...the square in the middle of the kitchen floor is a trap door leading into an ice-chest-like a little modern root cellar! It's food storage, in the middle of the floor! The photo of the first floor front tatami room with the carved main beam has a gas heater sitting in the altar space...a big no-no! We'll move it. But isn't the carved main beam pretty? It's supposed to represent the "man of the house" and is often the most expensive single element of the entire structure!

Tomorrow will be full of housing office paperwork and car registration details...more soon, when it's interesting again!

And the Winner Is...

January 20, 2006
I got my license! The retest went much smoother, and I managed not to activate the windshield wipers each time I used my turn signal. And my reversing was great! That's a big relief, and I've enjoyed circling the base, getting used to driving on the left (and staying on the left when I turn!)

And we got the word that fiber optic Internet access is indeed available for the House on the Hill...and we're taking it (see photo of the entryway from the second floor). We've scheduled our initial paperwork appointment for Monday, and will probably move in next Friday or the following Monday. We can't sign the lease until we have a large chunk of money (about $6,000) in yen. The payment covers the first month's rent, a two-month security deposit, about $150 for fire insurance, $1,000 for a "restoration fee" which will go to replacing things like the tatami covers and any torn rice paper in the shoji screens when we leave, and a realtor's fee, which equals one month's rent plus 5%. The military will reimburse us for most of it, if not all of it, and will loan us the entire sum interest-free if we want..but it will take the bank 72 hours to gather the yen for us. We're not sure why they don't just have that much on hand, since so many military families go through this process every week, but that's the way it works here. And if the dollar drops against the yen in those three days, we get whatever the rate is on day three, not the day that we order the yen, which isn't much fun. We've been told that if we get travelers checks (which are free), we will probably get a rate at least two points better in town--the base bank has a monopoly, and their rate is not very good. We may try the in-town bank.

Our move-in day will be kind of nuts, as all of our household goods are already in Japan and waiting for us, and the movers will deliver them and unpack EVERYTHING if we want them to. The government will come with the government-issue stove, fridge and two heater-A/C units, and install them on the same day. And the Armed Forces Network satellite dish (free to us) will be installed that day, as well as our Internet access (we hope!) So it will be a very busy day! I will probably ask them not to unpack all the boxes, as I will want to do that myself, figuring out where I will put everything. But when I'm finished, the movers will come and pick up all the boxes and packing materials--no extra charge! (Here's a picture of my teeny slice of harbor for a bigger version.)

We will probably have to purchase a wardrobe, another kitchen cabinet/storage unit and an island or something for more counter space. I wish we had not brought our dining room table, as I'd love to get a low Japanese dining table and cushions to sit on in the tatami room. But we have lots of space, so we'll have a guest room, as well as each having our own little office/study. I love our master on the photo for a larger version. I can't WAIT to have my own things around me again, and to be able to cook properly. But I already know I want one of the cool Japanese electric rice steamers. We'll see how it all works out!

Another Sneaky Postponement

January 19, 2006

Fearless Husband took the test, and thought he did relatively well. He has a better shot next January though, as he'll have his surface warfare badge/certification by that point (and maybe air warfare as well), and will have had a year in a leadership role on the ship, which will give him a big advantage. Though chances are that he won't get it this year (it's more than the written test--there are lots and lots of factors involved) there is still a chance, so keep your fingers crossed. He felt pretty good about the whole thing, and I'm proud of him.

Both of us still felt under the weather, and the actual weather outside was cooperating in trying to get us to stay indoors--cold, rainy and dreary. So I pulled another lateral move out of my bag of tricks, and told the housing department we wanted to know if we could get high-speed Internet (preferably fiber optic) at the House on the Hill. That won us another 24 hours, as they had to call the realtor, who would then call the landlord, and they'd play Password back to us. So instead of noon on the 19th, we had until noon on the 20th to decide about that house...and I went back to the racks of house flyers to see if there was anything new (they put out new listings every day at noon, and the elbows fly!) Nothing struck my eye--almost everything was either too small, too far away, or was a faceless and boring apartment high-rise.

Oh...I may not have explained about the cost of the rentals and how the military works when it comes to providing housing assistance for off-base living. So far, money has not been a factor in our search. In some places, the military will provide a specific sum, and if the service member and family find cheaper housing, they get to pocket the difference. In this case, we are given a rent ceiling, and if we go above it, we have to make up the difference. However, the military pays the rent directly to the landlord, so if we get a cheaper place, we don't get the difference in our hands. Our rent cap is dependent on FH's rank (E6) and the number of family members. We're allowed 159,000 yen per month, or approximately $1,400 a month...which is a LOT as far as I am concerned! We're in Japan and housing is more expensive, but we're in a relatively rural area, not Tokyo! Everything we've looked at so far has been under 130,000 yen a month. There really hasn't been anything over that, except for one big house 25 minutes from the base...and it was too boring and modern for me! The military will give us a set amount for utilities every month, and if I can keep my heat and electric bills low enough, we DO get to pocket the difference there, so I will be very careful about being wasteful!

I practiced reversing, then walked off base to the insurance agency and bought the extra insurance that the base insists on for each driver. This insurance can be transfered to another vehicle if we sell our beater and get a new car. It was about $300 for the year for both of us. The car itself is insured for liability--it's called the JCI (Japanese Compulsory Insurance) and that's renewed every two years, along with the important and expensive inspection. Ours is due next September. So now we just have to get our parking registration for on-base transfered to our names, pay our Sasebo City parking certification to prove we have a legal space in the community, and get the official bill of sale registered. Oh, and I have to get my license! I was frustrated that even though I was buying the car, I had to have either FH's signature or a Power of Attorney in order to get the insurance...and had to pay with his credit card, not mine. It's very frustrating for me, but I guess I do understand it. The Japanese government knows they can "lay hands on" a service member, but a spouse could leave the country with outstanding parking tickets or whatever. Luckily, the very gregarious insurance agent said in accented but very good Americanized English, "Oh, no sweat. I'll drive you back to the Navy Lodge to get your husband's signature and his credit card, and bring you back here." So she shut her three dogs behind the counter, locked the door, and took me to the Lodge and back! She was able to drive from the park to the base, as she had a government sticker, and the insurance company, even though it's Japanese, is located in Nimitz Park, which is officially US soil.