Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Meeting the Neighbors

February 19, 2006

My "Know Your Cho" volunteer Miyuki took me around to meet several of my neighbors today, most of whom seem to be older. She also confirmed my suspicion that this is a relatively well-off neighborhood. There are lots of kids who walk by my house, but I think they live a few houses away, all except the rather pitiful little 2-up-2-down apartment house across the street from me, which houses at least one young family with two little girls. All the neighbors bowed a lot, all smiled at me so sweetly, and all spoke directly to me, even though they were talking to Miyuki and she to them...then she'd translate. They were so polite to look at ME, not at her!

I had small boxes of chocolates to give, as it's important that the new resident bring small gifts to his or her new neighbors, not the other way around. I was glad I'd learned the Japanese for "oh, please, go ahead!" which is very's "dozo". I had to say it each time before they accepted the chocolate--it was part of the ritual, I guess! "Here is a gift for you!" "Oh, no, I couldn't possibly" "Oh please, go ahead!" "Gee, thanks! *grab*"

One neighbor is Idai-san (Mister Ee-day, basically). He was short and elderly, with beautiful deep-set eyes that turned down at the corners and a weathered, seamed face. He told Miyuki to tell me very specifically not to let people know that my husband was at sea and I was alone, and that I was not to open the door to strangers, as Japanese door-to-door salesmen are very persistent. (Yeah, I'm so very frail and vulnerable--ha!) He warned me specifically of the Japanese spice salesmen, and said "do not let them into your door!" Japanese doors open outwards, so it's kind of way to see who is at my door without opening the door at least halfway. And all of them, including one woman who proudly told me she was sixty (and her front door proclaimed her profession as an "architect designer", though her office was elsewhere) told me to visit often, and to come to them if I had any difficulties, or if I got scared on my own. Even a wizened, tiny, stooped old lady told me to come to her for help, as she peered up at me from beneath her dowager's hump!

The architect designer woman was VERY proud of recently turning sixty, and told me her two children (ages 32 and 40) recently both married..and how old was I, and did I have children, and how did I feel today, and did I often get sick...funny lady! The people across from Idai-san had had a death in the family, and were receiving condolence calls. They had a white sheet with black stripes and fancy pleats draped over their front window, and a sort of deep valance of white fluttering across the front of their tiny porch, with black trim and black kanji characters. But the husband went inside to get his wife, and she came running out with her apron on (guess she was cooking for funeral guests) and smiled and bowed and bowed more, wiping her hands on her apron and professing her desire to be of help to me.

Idai-san also pointed out a little electronics store, and told Miyuki very seriously that I was to come to him if I needed any repairs and he would make sure they dealt with me honestly. I think they would do so anyway, but I think he needed to be "a strong man" for me. Miyuki showed me the park where I am to take my garbage, and the nets to secure my garbage bags at the park, and which kind of trash goes where.

Idai-san followed us to the trash area, and was very serious about telling Miyuki to tell me to secure my trash so that the "neku" would not get it. I heard the word, and said "Oh, cats!" before Miyuki could say anything. They both turned to me in shock, and then both beamed, as if the baby just said "mama"! I said "neko toh inu" which means "cat and dog" and that absolutely delighted them both, and Idai-san practically broke his neck nodding and grinning that yes, indeed, the cats and dogs would get into the garbage if we were not careful...and I was not to feed any feral cats! As we walked back to the house there were two young mothers with three small children...they were painting something large and emphatic on the street at the stop sign in bright fluorescent yellow paint. Miyuki said they were "diligent mothers" and that the sign said "slow down, children are here!"

I'm very excited and pleased to hit it off so well with Miyuki, and I think it's great that she's "only a five minute walk away" as she says. Granted, that walk is probably longer for me, and it's VERY steep, but if she expects me to walk with her, of course I will, and I will get more used to walking the neighborhood. I really love my little neighborhood! Oh, and the man right behind me, with whom I share a driveway--it turns out he works at the base with the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force! So if absolutely necessary, either of us could get a ride with him to the base. He speaks very little English, but like most Japanese, he understands far more than he speaks, and almost all Japanese understand some written English. I still want to learn to take the bus though, just in case.

Miyuki has lovely thick hair with a little wave to it, and a round, sweet face with squinting eyes and a dear smile with a crooked tooth...and she hugged me twice, so tight and warm it was like getting a hug from Mom! That is NOT Japanese, and I think is a product of her open and generous nature...and the fact that we really hit it off and she stayed to talk at my house for an hour afterwards!

I planted my two little hanging window box pots with little yellow and hot pink Gerbera daisies and something tall with lots of little yellow and hot pink flowers, and something else tall and fragrant with slightly silvery leaves and slender spikey flower heads. When I hung them, three neighborhood ladies turned and saw me hanging out the window to do it. They all called "konnichi wa!" and then when they saw the flowers, they all bowed and called out "arigato gozaimas!!" I guess they were thanking me for being a good neighbor and not leaving the empty, ugly containers hanging without flowers. I think that the more I do to make my house pretty, the more my neighbors will feel as if I am working with the neighborhood team. I bought a larger container to go by my front door, which seems to be the thing to do here. I still have two ranunculas and two Gerbera daisies to plant, and I will put them in the new container. I also got a garden hose and a thing to roll it up with. I love ranunculas...and had them in my wedding bouquet. I think their multi-petalled heads are softer than roses, more cozy somehow, but not as loose and wild as peonies. There is just something about them. They make me think of the Philadelphia Flower Show--and my memory of going there as a kid with Mom is one of my best.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Nagasaki Lantern Festival

February 11, 2006

On February 11, I joined a bus full of Navy folks for a trip to the Lantern Festival in Nagasaki, celebrating the Chinese New Year. Nagasaki is about an hour's drive away, and I ended up meeting a couple of very nice Navy wives on the bus, and enjoyed talking to them about their experiences in Japan. Other friends I'd made during the Indoc class were on the bus as well, so I was much less "alone" than I thought I'd be. Our "tour guide" proceeded to tell us what to see and do while we were at the festival, and handed out little maps. Unfortunately, she was at the front of the bus, and my assigned seat was at the back of the bus, and none of us in the back could hear her. We got her to come back to tell us what had been said, and got the short version ("There may be a parade with the emperor if the weather is good enough. There will be a dragon dance. Don't miss the bus going home.") Unfortunately, she ran out of the maps before she got to my seat. We arrived in Nagasaki at about 3:30pm, and were let off the bus at a Shell gas station, with the admonition to be back at the station by 9pm--otherwise, the trip home would be a $50+ taxi ride! My friends from the Indoc class insisted that I join their group, so off we went, five adults, two 11-year-old boys and one 5-year-old boy.

The weather was cold and grey, with threatening rain, and we huddled together as we dashed across the busy street and made our way over the bridge across the river. The first tourist spot was a recreation of a Dutch port and factory that had once stood there along the river, but no one in our group was particularly interested, so we didn't stay. Then we saw the lanterns. And by lanterns, I don't mean a few, or twenty, or even a hundred. There were lanterns everywhere! And unbelievable crowds--wall to wall people--a sea of dark hair everywhere I looked. The "festival" seemed to encompass three or four long pedestrian shopping arcades, normally open to the sky, but now almost roofed over with strings of glowing red lanterns. The kind of lantern changed slightly at interesections, from round, red pumpkin shapes to long, fat zucchini shapes to little pagoda boxes with curved eaves--but they were everywhere. It was amazing!

Our little group pushed through the crowds, carried along sometimes, separated, then tossed back together by the waves of people. The 5-year-old was less than amused, as his view was entirely bellies and bottoms, most pushed against his little face with the press of the crowd. We squeezed into a few shops thick with customers (yes, I bought a fat red pumpkin of a lamp, with gold characters and a phoenix and flowers painted on it. It's cheap, but I love it!) but mostly we just tried to take it all in. There were food vendors everywhere, mostly selling the fat steamed buns I've described in a previous e-mail, but some selling white, squishy steamed bun bread that was split, with a dripping, mahogany slab of meat stuck into it like a hamburger into a bun. There were yakitori stands with fragrant skewers of meat, and gyoza (dumpling) stands of every possible variety.

One beaming lady was selling good luck sesame balls--little balls of rice paste wrapped around a center of sweet red bean paste, the whole thing coated in sesame seeds and formed into a perfect little sphere. I asked if I could take her photo, and she almost split her face smiling, as she primped and touched up her hair and pinched her cheeks to make them pink for the photo.

There were several people selling good luck trinkets--bits of carved jade, special pieces of silk cord tied in intricate knots--all of them looked a little like bookmarks to me, and I am not quite sure what people actually do with these good luck bits once they buy them. I don't think there is a New Year's tree to decorate, and I don't see these things dangling from handbags or jacket zippers or bicycle I'm curious!

The crowds were so intense, I felt as if I could have drawn up my feet, and been carried along by the press of the people all around me! I had some great smiling moments favorite was hearing a child giggle in my ear, and turning my head to see a young father walking backwards, his toddler safe in the circle of his arms. Mom was pressed against Dad's front, sandwiching the child between the chests of the two parents, both parents completely focused on the child, both faces totally besotted with love..and behind the little knot of family walked Grandma, with her arms stretched wide, forming a barrier against the crowds so the little family unit could walk relatively unmolested, a little moat of space around them, Dad's back pushing through the crowds like the prow of a ship. I couldn't help but grin at the sight, and Grandma giggled with a sound very similar to the toddler's laugh, winked, and nodded at me--a moment of communication and happiness beyond any language barrier.

A little while later, I got a surprise. The crowd density had grown to a point that we were basically at a standstill. Suddenly, I felt two tiny hands--talons, almost--settle on my hips and begin to push with surprising strength. I felt like a snowplow, as I was shoved against the crowd, clearing a path. I finally was able to twist my head to look behind me--and there was a teeny, stooped old lady with iron grey hair and a very determined expression, shoving for all she was worth. We finally drew even with the shop I guess she wanted to visit, and she let go and went inside without a backward look or even a pat on the rump for her plow mule! It was very disconcerting, and very funny.

At the confluence of several lantern-filled walkways was the Main Event, a shrine of some sort fronting an outdoor square or park, with temporary walls built to enclose the arena inside. On top of the walls of this arena were fantastic animals made of fabric and lit from inside. It was gorgeous! Unfortunately, it was also packed, and there was absolutely no way our little group would be able to get inside. I got a shot of the shrine entrance, and a blurred photo of the crowded entrance to the square, but my pictures of the lit animals didn't come out at all, unfortunately.
We stopped at a yakitori stall to get a bite to eat, and to get out of the cold. In the entrance to a garage, two vendors had set up in partnership (one for yakitori, one for baked potatoes and drinks) and they'd set up some benches and a couple of kerosene heaters in the space behind their stalls. I thought "how kind!" but the true motivation was revealed when the skies opened up and it began to pour cold rain. The proprietors of both stalls welcomed people into their warm, dry area, until we were jammed in like sardines. Then, with big smiles, they rolled out rack upon rack of overpriced, cheap umbrellas...and sold them all in a matter of minutes! What great entrepreneurship!

The yakitori was very good...and the smell was sheer heaven. Sweet, salty, garlicky, all wrapped around the rich aroma of roasting meat. The others in my group played it safe and got either beef or chicken. Not me--I had to be different! So I pointed to skewers of what looked like it might be squid, which I adore. I got the hot, fragrant paper packet and took a bite. Yummmm...garlic, sweet, salty, savory....wait. What?? I hadn't ordered squid. I'd ordered a delicacy enjoyed by many of the elderly in Japan...a skewer composed completely of folded, flabby squares of chicken skin. Yes, chicken skin--not crispy, but flabby and fatty. As good as it smelled, as good as the sauce was, I just couldn't eat two skewers of chicken skin. Luckily, I was able to dispose of the evidence without anyone seeing me, or questioning what I'd purchased. I was so disappointed! But one bad experience among all the good won't stop me from continuing to try all the new and different and wonderful things here in Japan!

The rain slacked off a little, and our little group, now outfitted with umbrellas, wandered the streets for a while longer before ducking into a Starbucks for something hot to drink (NOT my choice, but I was outvoted) before meeting the bus. Yes, it was rainy and cold, and I ate chicken skin. Yes, my feet hurt, and I wished I hadn't allowed myself to be roped into joining a large group. But was I glad I'd gone? YES! It was a wonderful experience, and I can't wait for next year. I may go by myself, I may go with friends. But I'm definitely going again! (Hopefully, with FH!)

A Little About Life at Sea

March 2, 2006

Here is a little from FH...I asked him to tell me about the ship and about his life aboard, so he will be sending bits and pieces to add to my rambling posts.

Walk down the pway (known as a hall in ordinary English) of any ship and you'll see the following: Arcane numbers and letters in enigamatic arrangements on the bulkheads (walls), a wide panolopy of elecrical boxes used for a variety of things, brackets holding everything from a plain wrench to a 4x4 wooden beam to a strecher made out of metal and chicken wire, and clusters of pipes and wires running through the overhead (ceiling) to their destinations.

Every fifty feet or so a door blocks the hall which latches that easily com down to make a watertight seal. Each of the doorways is a oval that rises above the floor, guarenteed to bang the ankle of the unwary. Some lucky doorways known as kneeknockers come up a little higher. Every ten feet a smaller door leads into a space (room) to handle one of the many things needed to run a ship. These doors are also sealable and have locks. In fact the only ordinary doors on the ship are the head (oops I mean toilet) doors.

There is nothing pretty about the way Navy builds its passageways. Things need to be accessable at a moments notice. Instead of pretty, we go for clean. Clean is defined as a fresh coat of paint without any dirt or dust on it. The bulkheads are often painted white and blue, while the overheads are painted over with grey...and by that I mean everything is painted including the wires and pipes. Every day for an hour in the morning and a hour in the afternoon people are sent out to clean up, sweeping up the accumulation of dirt on the floor and wiping down every single horizontal surface, polishing the brass and sandpapering the steel.

Monday, April 24, 2006

FH in the Philippines

February 18, 2006

Just a little note from Japan...Fearless Husband's ship, the USS Essex, is in the Philippines now, and will be arriving at the village of Guinsaugon on the island of Leyte at daybreak on Sunday morning (our time--Saturday night your time) along with the USS Harpers Ferry to help with the devastating mudslide you may have read about. This is what he wrote to me this morning:

"We were pulling into port in the Philippines and just as the ship was ready to cast the lines to dock we got the word and pulled out again. We shut off last night (to stop rumor central) and didn't open up again until today after we got our marching orders. Go ahead and read the news for Philippine mud slide this week. We had to evacuate the spaces last night at 11:00. Being on a ship we have to be self sufficient which means we carry all sorts of stuff onboard--stuff like chemicals which sometimes leak. Nobody was in serious danger and we all got out in an orderly way."

FH is safe and sound, and he and his shipmates are glad they were already close, so they can help the disaster victims. The estimates are that around 1,800 people are feared dead, including 250 kids, mothers and teachers, who were celebrating "Women's Day" at a local elementary school. Please keep those in the Philippines, FH, and his shipmates in your thoughts and prayers.

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.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Further Housing Adventures

January 18, 2006

We had to let the housing office know by noon whether or not we would take our second offer of base housing, or if we would take our chances finding a house in a cho. No contest...we want the space, the light, the adventure and the experience of living within the Japanese community, not just beside it. It's a little scary, as we had to sign a paper attesting to the fact that we were choosing to give up base housing, and that we understood that we have until February 10 to find housing. At that point, the military will no longer pay for the Navy Lodge. However, it seems that once we decide on a house, it will take a week or less from initial paperwork exploration to the moving van arriving at our new front door.

Unfortunately, we also had to tell them by noon whether or not we would take the House on the Hill. Luckily, I had a sneaky lateral move...I told the housing folks that Fearless Husband was sick the day before, and that he insisted on seeing the house himself before we could make a decision. They went for it--hurray! So we made an appointment to see the House on the Hill again, as well as House #5.

Ms. Agent was the real estate agent for both of the day's house viewings, so off we went. FH liked the House on the Hill, and the road seemed less steep now that the initial surprise had worn off. There was a yappy dog next door, and that concerned us both, but that's the only negative we could see. We jumped back in Ms. Agent's little box on wheels, and headed back to town, which was confusing since House #5 is in the opposite direction. Turns out Ms. Agent had to return the key for the first house in order to "check out" the key for the second house. Guess they don't trust her with both keys at once? Who knows. She ran in for the key, and we headed back up the hills, past the road to the House on the Hill and continued to climb. School seemed to have just let out, and there were dozens of really darling little Japanese schoolchildren trotting along in the rain. They all had uniforms on (all Japanese schoolchildren wear unforms) and each school has a different color hat. So everywhere we looked were little boys in short-brimmed, beanie-style baseball caps and little girls in little "Gilligan" hats with the brim pulled down around their little faces. They all had sloped, hard-shell backpacks, and they were all smiling. There is one particularly Japanese custom that drivers really have to look out for--Japanese children are taught that if they raise both arms above their heads, they can step right out into the street and cars will stop for them. So my head was swiveling, waiting to see if anyone suddenly signaled "touchdown" and darted into traffic!

We turned down an even narrower lane, and began to wind our way between houses clinging to the hillside. The road was another of those insanely narrow two-way lanes, and this time, it went on and on and on. After about a mile and a half of this, we finally pulled into a surprisingly large driveway/parking area, in front of an amazing house with an even more amazing view. House #5 was, if possible, even more Japanese than Dream House--and in even better shape. There were workmen laying a beautiful new floor in the kitchen, and building a storage closet in one corner of the main room. The tiled roof curled up slightly at the corners, and the whole thing seemed almost too pretty to be real. The kitchen was large, leading into a large tatami room with shoji doors all the way around. On two walls, there was a narrow hallway between the shoji doors and the floor-to-ceiling sliding glass windows, sort of like a moat around the central room. One could open all the shoji screens and the sliding glass doors, and basicallly have an open air pavillion, or one could close the metal storm shutters, the glass doors and the shoji screens, and be safe and isolated in the cozy central room with the insulating "moat" of the hallway. The larger tatami room was built along the same lines, but with the hallway moat on three sides. The shoji screen nearest the altar in this particular room was much more intricate and delicate. An EXTREMELY narrow staircase led up to a huge 14-tatami room with hardwood floors upstairs, with windows on three sides.

At one side of the house was the parking area. At the other side was an amazing, slightly formal garden with orange and kumquat trees heavy with fruit. An ornamental fence ran from the parking area, past the front door to the end of the garden. Beyond the little fence, the ground fell away sharply in a tangle of bamboo, all the way down (and down and down) to the harbor below. A single large tree helped frame the fantastic view of the harbor, complete with a single, lumpy mountain/island.

The house was really amazing--but with two drawbacks. The first was that mile and a half, insanely narrow and steep lane. The slightest bad weather would trap us. At least with the House on the Hill, we'd only have two blocks of steepness to climb before getting to a safer place to walk or drive. The second drawback was a little larger. There is no way to get any furniture larger than a a dining chair up to the second floor--I don't think a twin mattress would fit. The stairs are so steep and narrow that there is a vertical railing, and I had to stoop to get through the door at the top of the stairs. And hoisting furniture in via the window is forbidden. So no furniture upstairs. That would mean we'd have a living/dining room downstairs, and a wonderful large bedroom..but no guest room, no dining room, no den. We both need a little study/office/escape room, and a guest room is a necessity. We were both really glad we got to see the house and the view...but this was probably not our house. (It would be THE PERFECT HOUSE if we were able to have it as a guest house for our visitors though!!)

We got some surprise news when we got back...the chief's test is at 7am tomorrow!!! FH spent the rest of the evening studying, and I made dinner, and practiced reversing in my little car.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Driving Test and the House on the Hill

January 17, 2006

Now that the "Indoc" class is over (and we both have the "official certificates" to prove it!) we're allowed to get our Japanese driver's licenses. So at 9am, we joined our classmates again at the Fleet and Family Services Center for a two-hour cram class in Japanese driving rules. Neither of us was really into it, as we'd both managed to catch a nasty cold. FH was especially sick, so he went back to the Navy Lodge, but I sat through the class (he leaves shortly on the ship, but I really do have to be able to drive before he leaves). Our instructor's English was a little hard to understand through her very heavy accent, but she obviously took her job very, very, very seriously. She told us a few horror stories, and the point of each seemed to be that she blamed herself for passing the lawbreaker, and that somehow, each offense was ultimately her fault! She assured us that she rarely passed even half of the class the first time around, as she did not want all those deaths on her conscience if we were bad drivers. Needless to say, I was glad I'd studied the driver's manual and the color sheet of Japanese road signs.

After an hour lecture, we were to sit through two short films before the written test. I expected something along the lines of the "Blood on the Highway" films we were shown in Driver's Ed back in high school, but instead, these films reflected what was important in the Japanese culture. Both were American English films, filmed in Japan, but the main point of the films was not "you might get hurt or die." Instead, the moral of the story was that if you don't drive responsibly, you will bring intense embarrassment to yourself, your family and your country--a very Japanese attitude that embarrassment is worse than maiming and disfigurement!

I aced the written test (thank goodness for studying!) and was told to return at 1:10pm for the driving test. Our Fearful Leader watched me buckle in, check my mirrors, and start the car. She immediately made a note, then reached across my chest to turn on the headlights (not required, but essential in her mind, I guess!) I was as nervous as I was the first time I took my driving test, repeating my "remember this" list in my head. "Remember to stay on the LEFT side of the road. Remember that the turn signal is the wiper switch and the wiper switch is the turn signal. Remember that the triangle sign means STOP here, not yield. Remember to watch for pedestrians. Remember that the stop line in front of the crosswalk at an intersection only means stop if there are pedestrians present or a triangular sign. Etc." Didn't help that Fearful Leader kept making little gasps and notes, even when I was driving slowly down the center of the lane (no, not the center of the road!) The final part of the test involved reversing the car into a very narrow perpendicular parking space ("Remember to tap your horn before reversing!") The whole class was standing in front of the Safety Building, watching....and I've never been a big fan of reversing. After cracking my right elbow against the window (automatically turning my body to look over my right shoulder dontcha know...) I got turned around the right way, arm across the back of Fearless Leader's seat, blew the horn, and began to back up. No, too wide. Forward and try again. Wait, is the nose of the car going to hit that parked car? I'm crooked. Try again. Curseword. Ooops...does she know that word? Curseword, yes she does.

I didn't pass.

The only consolation for me was that only about 6 people out of a class of 14 passed the first time around, and I was told to come back on Friday to try again. I got my "learner's permit" for "on-base only" driving and the admonition to practice backing up. Although that sounds a little tough to do, it wasn't such an obstacle as you might think...because we bought a car! Yes, we are the proud owners of a very narrow, beat-up little Mitsubishi "beater" for the grand total of $750. We still have hoops to jump through, such as the base-required insurance, Japanese Compulsory Insurance, the compulsory and expensive inspection and emissions test, and the city requires a parking registration of about $40 per year that proves every car owner in the city has a legal place to park his or her car. But we now have transportation and that's a happy thing. I will still ask the housing folks for some assistance figuring out the bus routes, as I am a firm believer and supporter of public transportation. I'll send a photo of our little beat-up baby soon!

That afternoon, I went back to the housing office to look at more houses as fast as possible, since we had to make the decision about whether or not to take base housing by noon on Wednesday. I'm not sure I mentioned how we meet the agents. The housing office sets up the meeting, and the prospective renter goes out the back gate of the base and waits on the street corner. A car pulls up with a smiling face, and off you go. Too many people were being taken to the wrong house, so now each person is given a car color and a license plate number, to ensure we will see the house we expect to be shown! I was grateful, as I had a realtor pull up, open the door, and gesture for me to get in--but it certainly wasn't a beige car with license plate 10-83! The agent tried to insist, and I was relieved when a young couple came running up, aplogizing for being late, and jumped into her car. My agent showed up a couple of minutes later. Who knows though...maybe I would've liked looking at the first house, too!

House #3 was a bust. Suffice to say it was a pretty drive, but a hovel of a house. Brilliant photographer though! The agent seemed apologetic from the moment he picked me up, and I think he knew it was a rat trap and was embarrassed to be wasting his time and my own. Very nice man though.

Time for House #4. The real estate agent was the first woman agent we'd had, and I enjoyed her beaming smile and the mariachi music she had bouncing through the car when she picked me up. Ms. Agent drove up a winding road, past a shiny chrome-trimmed supermarket and a "sushi-go-round" which she pointed out with enthusiasm to me on the way out and again on the way back. Seems Americans are well known for liking the "sushi-go-round" restaurants, where the chefs prepare lots of different little plates of sushi, and send them out to the customers on a conveyor belt, or little boats travelling around a canal, or on toy train cars on a circular track. The customers pick up anything that comes by and strikes their fancy. The meal cost is figured out at the end by counting the little plates each diner has stacked beside him or her. The plates are color coded, with white ones being only 100 yen (about a dollar).

We climbed and climbed (anything worthwhile in Japan...) passing lots of little shops and folks out walking the steep streets. The narrow lanes made me gulp, especially when we passed a city bus by a hair, but Ms. Agent knew what she was doing. Then we turned onto the steepest, narrowest street I've ever been on. I was sitting in the back seat, and my view through the windshield was basically straight down--like cresting the top of the big hill on the rollercoaster in that hanging second before you plunge down and down and down. We didn't. Plunge, that is, but only due to the great brakes on her excellent little car! I think she heard me whimper, because she turned around and beamed at me. "Two way!" she exclaimed happily. Yep, she meant that this road, so narrow I wasn't sure we'd keep both side mirrors, was a TWO WAY street! We stopped at a stop sign (miraculously, I thought!) and went another 25 yards before she suddenly pulled the car into a little opening between a stone wall and a house, and we were on level ground again.

House #4--the House on the Hill--has a little yard and a little fence, and a couple of happy trees (one very Japanese, with each branch its own "level") and two camellia bushes in flower. It sits very, very close to its neighbors (as all city houses do) but due to the slope, one side of the house looks out and over the roofs, and there is even a little slice of harbor view. It's a great mix of contemporary comfort and Japanese traditional style. The entryway is small but airy, as it's open all the way up the staircase to the second floor, with the little hall railing forming a tiny second floor gallery. There is an altar space and carved main beam in a tatami room at the front of the house. There is a large, open living/dining room which leads right into the large (!) kitchen, all of which have nice wooden floors. There's a tatami room at the back of the house as well, and both that room and the living/dining room have sliding glass doors leading into the fenced and secluded yard.

The bath room is traditional, with the shower head and spigot separate from the short, deep soaking tub. Both toilets (both downstairs) have the electric seat warmers, and both washbasin mirrors are heated so they won't fog up. Upstairs there is one tatami room, as well as two rooms with hardwood floors--one of which has a balcony from which one can see that harbor view. There's even a little tiny room specifically for holding a wardrobe, as closet space is rather non-existent in most Japanese homes. At 1316 square feet, it's not as big as Dream House or House #2, but the House on the Hill has plenty of space, some traditional Japanese elements, and it's in great shape. Ms. Agent performed an intricate 37-point road turn in the narrow, one-lane driveway (shared with the house behind) and stuck her nose out into the two-way luge run that thinks it is a residential street. I thought I might have to pedal, but her workmanlike little Japanese box car chugged its way back up that hill, and I sighed with intense relief as the truck pointed down the hill in our direction turned away at the stop sign mid-slope. Heading back down the twisty roads to the base, I realized that the two lane thoroughfares were MUCH wider than I'd thought on the way up! I knew I'd have to come back to this house with FH, to see what he thought. It's not as traditional or as wonderful as Dream House, but it's a ten-minute commute, and there is a bus stop two blocks away (if you have rock-climbing equipment). It doesn't have the shrine and the teeny fish pond and the lantern of House #2, but it's nowhere near as shabby, and it's not facing an industrial area. We'll see.

Tune in tomorrow to hear more about The House on the Hill, House #5, the decision about base housing, and much more!

First Anniversary

January 16, 2006

Two more houses to see, we hope, but not until tomorrow. We'll have to make our decision tomorrow night. We've also got our driving class and test tomorrow morning...wish us luck! We spend yesterday, January 15 (our first anniversary!) watching movies, taking turns on the computer, generally relaxing indoors while the skies drizzled outside, and discussing housing options. I'm enjoying FH's gift to me--a beautiful, locally-made vase filled with ruffly and aromatic sweet pea flowers and a single ivory rose. I think he enjoyed the steak dinner I made for him in our little kitchenette in the Lodge. Neither of us can believe it's been a year...and we're both very proud of having spent the past 45 days together, 24/7, still loving and happy!

Enjoy the MLK holiday, those of you who get the day off. More house adventures soon...and driving adventures as well!

House #2

Saturday, January 14, 2006

It's another dreary, rainy day--a good time to look at a house, when sunshine won't make up for deficiencies, and we can see the place at its worst. We got smart and took a cab to the back gate this time, to meet the new real estate agent. The car was a brand new miniature station wagon, and our host was a thin, elegant, mustachioed gentleman in a suit and tie. His English was limited, but certainly better than our Japanese! He bowed solemnly, and drove off smoothly--a far cry from the insanity of the day before! The drive was relatively short this time, about fifteen minutes through narrow city streets. We drove over a bridge stretched across a man-made canal, squeezed into a narrow lane beside a big, industrial warehouse, and there it was...House #2. As we pulled up, the clouds parted and the sun came out. An omen?

The house itself is perched on a sharp little hill, with a small ledge of garden all the way around, dropping away to the street level 10 to 20 feet below. There is a little shed for garden tools in the front, perched over the "garage", which is basically a narrow cave burrowed into the hill. The plantings, though crowded, are camellia, daffodils, azaleas and various other little flowering trees and shrubs, with lichen-covered rocks here and there, a stone lantern, and a lovely, very tiny fish pond.

The view from the front door of the house is of the warehouse and industrial area, but over the warehouse can be seen other houses perched on hills and the sides of ravines, and the misty mountains over everything. Our real estate agent assured us that the workers at the warehouse only made a little noise, and the noise was confined to the 9 to 5 hours. On the other three sides of the house, on different levels of ground, are neighboring houses, and the canal. Though FH thought the canal was for sewage (!) it's actually for rainwater during the rainy season and is very clean. (In the city, structures seem temporary and flimsy and run down--but the Japanese are extremely germ conscious, and although something may look like it's falling down, it's always very clean.)

There is no sidewalk, or a straight residential street the way we think of a neighborhood street...instead, the twisty little alley runs beside the warehouse and between houses almost randomly. The houses don't face the path, but instead seem to face wherever they might fit best on the uneven terrain. One house might show a profile to the street, another its back door and laundry line. I wonder how anyone can find an address, especially delivery people! At the corner of the warehouse, in a direct line with the front door of House #2, is a small shrine with greenery and tangerines in front of the small, rough stone pillar with carved and gilded kanji. Our real estate agent explained it was a shrine to the mountain god. (FH thought he said "mountain goat" at first, and was confused as to why there would be a shrine to a mountain goat in the middle of the city!)

The decorative gate at the street level opens to a steep, short flight of stairs to the front door of the house, and the front gate, the lock and the knob of the door are as ornate as the house is austere. It's a boxy house, and has a flat roof instead of the tile roofs of most of its neighbors, and the sliding glass window/doors everywhere except at the very front. Though it is not as "traditional" as the Dream House, there are still uniquely Japanese elements. The foyer is ceramic tiled, with a large cupboard for guest's shoes, and slippers laid out for guest use. There are stairs to mount from the entry to the rest of the house (anything worthwhile in Japan...) The center room is a big tatami room, and the altar and carved main beam are in this room, along with shoji screens on three sides. The rest of the house is relatively open (again, about 1,700 square feet) and despite some elements I consider sort of shabby (colored translucent contact paper on several glass doors and windows for privacy, instead of curtains or blinds), the house could be filled with color and light and made very comfortable for us both. There is a charming little balcony, and the traditional Japanese bath is very nice, with a deep (though short) tub. The toilet has a heated seat (yippee!!), which seems very common in Japan, and I'm sure it's welcome in these cold houses!

There's a brick fireplace in the living room, which is surprising. I think there must have been a gas line there at one point, but it's been sealed, so now the only choices would be vent-free gas logs (do they even have those in Japan?) or a Flamenco logset. A small satellite dish is already installed, and we are certain we could get decent Internet access (a necessity for us both). There is room for all our needs, from separate computer work spaces to a guestroom (or two!) And the kitchen has plenty of room for the government-provided full-sized fridge, stove, washer and dryer.

Though this house is not as romantic and wonderful as the Dream House, it is large, with a reasonable commute...and it's within walking distance to the bus line. We wouldn't have the views and the mysticism of the mountains and rice paddies, but being IN a neighborhood, with the shops a short walk away, would lead to a much better chance of community involvement as well as making Japanese friends. When we make friends on the base, House #2 is about halfway between Main Base and Hario, and we'd be more likely to have our invitations accepted by other Navy folks than we would if we lived 40 minutes from Main Base and over an hour from Hario. And if I give English classes, I'll be more likely to have students willing to come to my house!

The real estate agent for this house made me feel much more comfortable than the first agent. He took out a pad and a pen, and solemnly followed me from room to room and around the entire outside of the house, making notes as I pointed out questions to him (a grate leading to the crawl space had fallen out, an old, disconnected water heater sat rusting against one wall of the house in the back, etc.) He also let us know that the landlord would mow and weed the whole property once, when we moved in, then it would be our responsibility for the garden upkeep. We were welcome to use the little shed and the gardening tools inside. I love the thought of digging in the soil and planting things while watching the neighborhood around me, smiling and nodding to passersby.

As we left the house, the clouds rolled back in and the rain began again. We had sunshine and blue skies ONLY while we were looking at the house, funny enough! Our gentlemanly real estate agent delivered us to the back gate with a minimum of fuss and a genteel bow. We walked back to the Navy Lodge, discussing the three options we have so far (Main Base townhouse, Dream House and House #2). As much as we both want the romance of Dream House, practicality really sort of puts it out of the running. If only it was closer, or the road not quite so steep! I think Main Base is drab, but can live with it if necessary. FH's not thrilled with House #2--I think because of the warehouse and the unfair comparisons to Dream House. Perhaps if we'd never seen Dream House, we'd both be happy with House #2. Who knows?