Christmas Japanese Style

It was a very Japanese Christmas here in the Asby-Sitterson household. We started out the festivities on Christmas Eve by consuming what we later found out was a typical dinner for the night before Christmas: pizza. We also had a Christmas cake. It wasn't your typical fruitcake recycled from last year's pile of unwanted gifts. The Japanese make cute little cakes with Christmas decorations and loads of icing and charge you $30 to share it with your sweetie. Luckily, we waited until the last minute to buy one for ourselves and got a cheap one half-off at the grocery store minus all of the frills and extra icing. It was still a tasty end to our traditional Japanese Christmas Eve feast. One of my Japanese coworkers was surprised to hear that Americans don't have these cakes on Christmas Eve. When I explained that pumpkin or pecan pie was more common, she looked confused and said, "Your culture is so different." Yes, it is indeed often different than the Japanized version so popular here.

Our evening continued with some Christmas Carol Karaoke. The plan was to sing only Christmas songs all night long to ring in the holiday, but we eventually ran out of Christmas themed tunes and had to throw in a few cheesy non-Christmas songs. We started out the night strong with Mariah Carey's classic "All I Want for Christmas is You." A bunch of uber-Christmasy songs such as "Jingle Bells," "Winter Wonderland," and "Silent Night" followed. We then introduced Dustin to some Christmas tunes new to him. He pointed out that "Do They Know It's Christmas?" by Band Aid is quite a downer on such a joyous occasion. "Last Christmas" by WHAM! and "Little Saint Nick" by the Beach Boys and "Happy Christmas (War is Over)" by John Lennon made appearances on the playlist. The funniest moment of our blessed Christmas Eve singing came when the version of "O Come All Ye Faithful" that we chose turned out to be a rendition by City High. Imagine this church hymn sprinkled with "Baby" and "City High up in here!" Quite humorous.

Dustin instructed me to let him sleep until 11:00 on Christmas morning, so the coffee was waiting at 11:01. We opened the gifts that we miraculously kept unopened for about a month; they lived under our tiny tree in the Christmas corner, constantly tempting us. As per Christmas tradition, we made our presents useful immediately. Dustin spent most of the day playing his new Wii game, Star Wars: The Force Unleashed while I read David Sedaris's Holidays on Ice and flipped through Lonely Planet Japan. I was highly disappointed (though not surprised) to discover that Nagaoka wasn't mentioned in the 868 page book even once. What was said about our rural prefecture, Niigata, failed to surprise as well. The famous rice and sake was mentioned beside the ski resorts and onsen. I had long since come to terms with the fact that I live in the boonies, but I hoped, for a brief second, that once I got my hands on the extensive Lonely Planet Japan guidebook, certainly something I hadn't yet discovered would be brought to my attention. Luckily, the rest of Japan is just a short train ride away. And all of the staples of Japan can be found in our tiny little town.

Once dinnertime rolled around, we pulled ourselves from our new toys and headed out on an adventure to partake in another traditional holiday meal in Japan. The Japanese eat a hearty meal of Kentucky Fried Chicken on Christmas night. We hoped that we'd be able to squeeze our way into our local KFC for a nice meal. When we walked out the door dressed warmly (It was 3° C!), we were assaulted by big drops of rain. We opened our umbrellas and set out on our mission to meet The Colonel. About two minutes into our journey, the rain turned into little pellets of hail. Yes, folks. We braved a hail storm just to get some fried chicken and corn. Eventually, we made it. Turns out, the Japanese order buckets of chicken for Christmas in advance; they just come in, pick it up, and eat it at home with their families. Most of these people drove up in their cars, scampered in to retrieve one of the bags lining the counters and open table-tops, and returned to their warm houses by car. Since we arrived on foot, we decided to dine in. We had the entire restaurant to ourselves. Dustin had a chicken sandwich, whose name included both teriyaki and fire, some fries, and a biscuit with maple syrup. I had some cold corn and furi furi potato. Furi furi potato are basically french fries in a take out bag with your choice of flavor packets. You dump in your packet of flavor, shake, and enjoy. I chose yakisoba flavor, which is a type of Japanese noodle dish. It was the second oddest holiday meal I've had yet. (The oddest being the Christmas Eve dinner I shared with my dad and sister at Hooters on the year that my mom had to work the graveyard shift. Not much was open on that Christmas Eve in North Kansas City...)

Our Christmas ended in the wee hours of the morning. After KFC, we braved what had turned into a snow storm to get to 7-11 to call Dustin's family, who hadn't heard from us in a while. I had my new gloves to keep my hands warm and my rainboots to keep my feet dry, but it was the coldest phone call I've ever made. We got smart once the phone card we had ran out and hurried back home to make the remainder of our calls on Skype in the comfort of our own home. Speaking of Skype... It's a free and easy way to "talk on the phone" via your computer. All we have to do is set up a time when we'll both be at our computers and it's like I'm within reach, only 15 hours in the future. What I'm saying is, call me please, but let me know when, so I can answer. Just a reminder, my Skype name is danasitterson. We still have about $8 of Skype credit, so if you don't have the internet, you might be able to bribe me to call you on an actual phone for a rather short conversation. 

From now on, we'll be putting links to full photo albums on the blog. You may have noticed a new addition to the sidebar directly to your right called "Captured on Film." Currently, you'll see the names of five different albums. Clicking each link will take you straight to the albums of photos I post on facebook, so all of you who have decided not to waste time on facebook can see the pictures without having to sign up for your own account. Enjoy! 

I'll get back to you next year. Have fun during the rest of '08. 



As the year comes to a close, I've been hearing and reading various people's hope that 2009 will be a year much better than 2008. Undoubtedly, it has been a rocky year in the economic sense; however, I can't help but feel that 2008 has been such an extraordinary year as well. For the first time since I've been a voting citizen, our country has decided to elect someone who has a plan to right so many of the wrongs that have happened in recent years. And personally, it's been such an exciting year! I started off this year jumping into the job market and was so blessed to have experience working with fabulous teachers that I greatly admire before having my very own classroom, brief though it was. My engagement was a very happy surprise in May. Now, I am here in Japan taking advantage of this wonderful job opportunity.

When I first arrived in Japan, adapting was more difficult than I anticipated. Adjusting to the decreased working hours and increased Dustin hours was surprisingly trying at first. If you ever question whether or not your current mate is "the one," try moving to a foreign country, living in a 10 x 12 room, and starting a new job that you share with that person. I can happily say that we've made it through the bad times and are on to the good times. Obviously, I don't expect smooth sailing for the rest of our life together, but I know that we'll be able to handle what comes our way. I can now say that I'm enjoying Japan and life here is much less difficult than I initially found it.

I've only been here for three months, but it's been a period of great growth. I started out the year working during most of my waking time. I came home exhausted each evening and never found enough time for myself. I didn't have time to develop any interests much less pursue them. Now that I have all the time in the world, I've discovered interests I didn't even know I had. Besides the occasional holiday-related festival or performance, Nagaoka doesn't offer much in the cultural sense. Alas, I've been expanding my world through the internet's many wonders. I've found time and again that I don't appreciate all of the things America has to offer until I've left it. Don't get me wrong, I love singing my heart out at karaoke, I appreciate the cute little mascots that adorn every sign and building that I see, I eat my fair share of sushi, and I recently wasted $15 and 20 minutes at the pachinko parlor. I engage in Japanese culture on a daily basis, but I've been discovering and/or reconnecting with so many great things that aren't particularly Japanese. These are the things that currently fill my free time (It's a long list, because I have so very much of it.):
1. podcasts (This American Life, The Hidden Universe, All Songs Considered, New Yorker Fiction)
2. bicycle riding (out of necessity daily and for pleasure occasionally)
3. news (The Daily Beast website, Anderson Cooper, BBC)
4. reading (fiction, non-fiction, blogs, magazines)
5. movies/ T.V. (The Daily Show, Mad Men, Twin Peaks)
6. writing (right here, in my journal, in letters)
7. photography (taking, posing in, viewing)
8. yoga and meditating
9. video games (Wii, DS, at the arcade)
10. studying Japanese (slowly and not so devotedly)

I like our life here in Japan. Our jobs are so easy and usually fun. We live quite comfortably while being able to pay back school loans easily. There's at least one surprise in nearly every day. Today's surprise: baking brownies in a toaster oven. They had to be stirred every 30 seconds and still turned out a bit burned on the top, but they were done in half the time! Interacting with Japanese people is often full of hilarity. When I first got to Japan, I had very little success with chopsticks. Despite this fact, I was told by three different women (all strangers) on three different occasions that I was "very good with chopsticks." My last such encounter happened with a cute little old lady who waited to accost me with this compliment until Dustin had left the table to use the restroom. While he was gone, she interrogated me in Japanese and I repeated "eggo" or "English" over and over. She kept holding up 3 fingers, so I said that I had been in Japan for nearly 3 months, wondering how she would have known this. She quickly said goodbye and left the table when she spied Dustin approaching.  And if you haven't guessed by now, I'm quite enjoying all of this free time. 

2008 has been a great year and I know that 2009 will be even better!


Walking in a Winter Wonderland

Japan just doesn't want to believe the fact that winter does not officially begin until December 21. I tried to convince my students that it was in fact still technically Fall, but they refused to concede defeat. After yesterday's erratic weather (which included torrential rain, sunny skies, hail, and the biggest snowflakes I've ever seen, all within twelve hours' time), I started to question whether or not to join the "Winter is now." camp.  Admittedly, the snow-covered rooftops add a bit of holiday atmosphere that was previously missing; however, trudging through the streets bundled in countless layers of clothing while trying to pull my boots out of heaps of slushy half-melted snow mounds did not particularly bring to mind sleigh bells, glistening snow, or doing anything the Eskimo way. Once I blasted Christmas tunes through my headphones, I did feel slightly merrier, but I'm still missing the bike-worthy weather.

November passed by oh so quickly. I'm getting adjusted to my classes. I have many more junior high school classes than I anticipated or desired. I don't think I've been called to work with the preteen to teenager demographic. I'm too fragile and sensitive. I can't handle the rude comments and ugly portraits directed towards me. Luckily, I only have one school full of junior high students. The rest of the month, I teach younger kids with only a sprinkling of teenagers through out. 

We FINALLY got cellphones and paychecks. Both have greatly improved our social lives. Now we can actually be informed when a happening occurs. In Japan, some people text, but most people use phone e-mail. That means, you can send me an e-mail from your computer and I can receive it basically as a text. My phone e-mail is dsitterson@i.softbank.jp. 

Dustin's already adorned his phone with quite a few dingly-danglies. My phone doesn't have a designated place to hang the oh-so-popular phone jewelry, so, I'm not as cool. I did feel like a rockstar at the Softbank store while we were signing up for phone service. While we were waiting for something or another, we were served piping hot green tea. After we paid for the phones, our arms were filled with "gifts." Most of them were Softbank promotional items like a box of tissue, a roll of toilet paper reminding us of our phone plans' benefits, Softbank folders, Softbank pens, Softbank sticky notes, and (my favorite) a Softbank plush dog mascot phone jewelry that spouts off Softbank ads when you press his tummy. I hooked him onto my bike and he now sounds very scary after spending a few nights outside in the rain. Some random things were included in our prize bags, like a notebook wearing a tiny hooded sweatshirt and a plethora of coupons to some unknown eatery. It was quite a loot.

We took part in a Thanksgiving potluck with some of our fellow Nagaokan-Americans. It was quite a spread. I was sadly disappointed in the sweet potato dish I've made so many times in America with success. Apparently, toaster ovens just don't do the same job as a large oven. Everyone else made some wonderful food. Tonight is an Italian-themed potluck! Hopefully, my toaster oven can handle garlic bread. Dustin's dad and stepmom sent him a lovely birthday package with some of your staple Thanksgiving food that we'd missed during the potluck, so we got to have a second Thanksgiving meal (Thank you!!!). Thanksgiving also happened to be Dustin's birthday this year. We both worked on Thursday, so we postponed his celebration to Sunday.

On Sunday, we travelled to the big city of Niigata to celebrate Dustin's 26th. A few new friends joined us for lovely Indian food and Round 1, a place that very well may have been made specifically with Dustin in mind. It's a huge 5 story building. Inside, there is karaoke, bowling, batting cages, skating rinks, a "relax lounge" filled with row after row of massage chairs and manga, basketball, tennis, ball pits, a mechanical bull, countless UFO games (crane games for you non-Japanese), more medals games than I've ever seen, and of course, VIDEO GAMES!

"What are medals games?" you ask. In America, these are the quarter games where a mechanical platforms moves back and forth pushing quarters towards the edge as you drop in your own quarters hoping to gain more than you put in. In Japan, you pay for medals that aren't worth anything. You feed these in the machine endlessly hoping to win more medals that you can't turn back in for the money you originally paid for them. Instead, you just rack up more medals credits at this particular institution and you can play with more medals the next time you come in. It's like gambling without any possibility of winning. Basically, it's a way to kill an hour for $5. We got some free medals with the 3 hour block of play time we bought and I must admit, that it was indeed entertaining to play medals. I may even pay for an hour of medals entertainment some boring day.

I had a blast at Round 1. Dustin had such fun that he's back there as I type, only one week after our first visit. I was surprised by the amount of cooperative video games. There were so many where you and a partner had to work together to win. I also enjoyed a game where you killed the bad guys by typing their names on a computer keyboard. I had fun and practiced numbers in Japanese by beating up on a big sumo guy. I played video games for a good hour, before needing a karaoke break. Jessica, our newest Nagaokan, joined me in a round of Christmas karaoke. I lost track of time in the karaoke room. The massage chair and the Christmas tunes were intoxicating. The realization that our 3 hours of play had finished dashed my hopes of partaking in any of the sports related fun at Round 1. I vow to play some sports when we visit again during our holiday vacation.

Dustin and I tried our luck at the UFO games and went home 1600 yen poorer for it. Our friend Scott won seven separate items from the UFO games, so we thought we could do it, too. Scott gave me a great tip. If you call the UFO attendant over and point to the item you want, he will make it easier for you to get it AND he'll show you how to do it. Still, somehow, we couldn't free that cute little hamster dressed up like a cow from his glass cage. Scott has had over a year of practice at this, so maybe in time, I will be able to win useless stuffed animals from UFO machines. I know it's possible, because I saw many little Japanese teens leaving with bags overflowing with stuffed prizes. 
*UPDATE: Dustin just walked through the door, back from his second venture to Round 1, carrying the coveted hamster/cow AND a melon dog. He has learned the ways of the UFO.

We did leave with plenty of purikura. I heart purikura. To obtain a bit of purikura, you first go into a completely green photo booth. You choose a back ground, use the monitor to set yourself up to be perfectly positioned within the background, and do a silly pose. This continues for 5 or 6 backgrounds. After you're posed out, you head into the editing booth where you can use a photoshop-like program to glam up your pictures. You can add pre-made icons, phrases, and filters OR you can use the pencil to do just about anything to your photo. Usually, you only have about four minutes to edit and then choose your favorites, but our editing booth got stuck on 39 seconds, so we had all the time in the world to perfect our purikura.  Here's some purikura Dustin and I did a while back that now decorates my phone and the beauties from last weekend. 

Thank you to everyone trying their hardest to keep in touch. I love hearing from you all even if it's a short little paragraph once in a great while. I've got lots of letters fully written and waiting for stamps. Hopefully, I'll have some in my mailbox soon, too! *hint hint hint*