I always encourage my friends to visit. I like having visitors and I think it’s even more important to do so here in such a small town. Nik, my predecessor, told me that he never got many visitors to Saroma. This left me less than optimistic about friends visiting me, here in this far-flung remnant of empire, this village isolated from all but the rare fishing boat or mining expedition, where humans struggle against nature’s cruel chorus, their pitiful dwellings windswept and beaten from a hundred angry winters and their meager chattel at the mercy of gaunt, desperate vermin – a forsaken crag of hubris built upon the very precipice of earthly existence, unto which only the forlorn souls of broken men venture forth.
Wait, I think I’m talking about Russia, a little further north.
Saroma is actually quite accessible, with well-maintained roads, punctual trains and affordable air connections. It’s still a little far away from happenin’ Tokyo and hip Sapporo, and that’s why I consider myself lucky to have received numerous drop-ins over the 19 months I have lived here: Hannah and Yoshi; Ilkka and Petri; Natsuko; Remmington; Jon; Roxy and Daisy, and two weeks ago, Mike and Alissa.
I’ve known Mike and Alissa for about as long as I’ve been able to sentiently know other beings. Alissa and I were consistent and reliable line leaders in Mrs. Butler’s 2nd grade class at Swanson Elementary. Mike and I created several award-winning high school video masterpieces.
Saroma, while surrounded by mountains, isn’t dwarfed by them as is Palmer or other towns in Hokkaido. Saroma sort of melts into the softly rolling, forested mountains, many of which are small and gently sloping enough to be farm fields. There is one mountain at the very southern edge of Saroma that is a decent peak. Mt. Nikoro, or Nikoro-yama, is 829 meters tall (2,719 feet) and acts as a border point between the Tochigi area of Saroma and the Ainonai area of Kitami City. My predecessor Nik recommended the mountain as an accessible year-round hike with great views. However, the trail to the top is on the Kitami side of the mountain and I never got around to bothering. For almost two years, I didn’t hike the tallest mountain in Saroma! Unforgivable.
Luckily, Graham, the ALT in Kunneppu Town, and some friends headed up a few weekends ago and I was able to tag along. The trail follows a summer access road for communications towers at the peak, so is quite gentle with ample switchbacks. It’s also well hiked (and probably snowmachined as well). The snow was packed down hard enough for us all to walk without snowshoes all the way to the top.
Looking north into Saroma and the sea. The bumpy mountain center-right is Mt. Horoiwa.
Now, aside from the quality of the hike, there was one unique thing about Mt. Nikoro that I had heard from Nik, and from other English teacher friends who had hiked it – The Old Man of Mt. Nikoro. No, he’s not a ghost or someone who will try to scare you off, but an incredibly kind gentleman who hikes the mountain nearly every day of the year. The man, Mr. Kisaku Sato, is rather famous – the website he keeps about the mountain is the first hit on Google for Nikoro-yama (仁頃山） in Japanese.
Looking toward Rubeshibe town. The pointy mountain is Kitami-fuji.
We had a late start in the day, and began coming down the mountain as the sun was getting low in the sky, around 3pm. I thought perhaps we had missed Sato-san, as elderly Japanese people tend to do most things much, much earlier than groups of foreign English teachers. But, about 1/4 of the way down from the top, there he was! He seemed quite pleased to see us, and remembered Graham and Aisling from a previous hike. After pointing out that the two mountains visible to the southeast were in fact Mt. Meakan and Mt. Oakan (Steve thought Mt. Meakan was Mt. Shari – I was right!), he quickly interviewed us, asking our impressions of the mountain, along with our nationality and the towns that we each taught English in. Then he asked to take our picture for his website and after one shot, he wondered aloud “Aren’t you going to do anything funny like make a face or wave?” We obliged and he snapped the photo below. Sato-san put both photos and our profiles up on his site in Japanese on this nice page about our encounter. I chose Babelfish to translate the page for the benefit of the Japanese-illiterate because it translates Holland written in Japanese into “Hoe land.” Google translate just messed the whole thing up without any added humor.
Last month my girlfriend gave me a comic book. It was a surprising departure from the Japanese comic books I had come in contact with before. This one didn’t have any robots, explosions, buxom beauties or astonishing obscenity. It dealt with Japanese linguistics and foreigners to Japan, like me, who study Japanese.
It was titled 日本人の知らない日本語（Nihonjin no shiranai nihongo), or “Japanese the Japanese Don’t Know.” It’s written by and told from the perspective of Nagiko Umino, a Japanese woman and teacher at a Japanese language school for adults in Japan. The general premise of the book is her constantly encountering and attempting to correct bizarre and unique Japanese usages by her students, while doing her best to answer their specific and sometimes arcane questions about Japanese words and grammar. The book uses this theme to humorous effect, as well as a device to highlight how much traditional and specific Japanese many Japanese people never encounter day-to-day, and therefore have little to no knowledge of.
For example, in one comic strip, Ms. Umino is teaching Japanese counters. Japanese attaches specific morphemes after numbers when counting nouns of certain classes. Each class of nouns requires a specific “counter” morpheme to augment the number. In English, the closest example to this process can be seen in phrases like “two pairs of pants” or “five loaves of bread,” but Japanese is far more complex, to the point of being frustrating for learners. In this section, she is teaching each form of counter by listing example nouns that can be counted with that counter, yet being flummoxed by students proudly announcing what they believe to be proper uses of the counter. While teaching the counter -hon, used to count long, cylindrical objects, a Chinese student shouts out “So snakes would be ippon, nihon, sanbon, right?!” Of course, snakes are small, animate creatures, so are therefore counted with -hiki, not -hon, despite being long and cylindrical.
In later chapters the book moves beyond the “Japanese is hard” pattern, and introduces some linguistic history and quizzes designed to stump even well-educated Japanese people. It’s this section of the book that ceases to be very interesting for the non-Japanese reader – even once one understands the answers, they remain mostly arcane and hard to apply to general language knowledge.
However, some of these sections, if rather dense, provide good insights into why contemporary Japanese, both spoken and written, came to be the way it is today. One section rather comprehensively looks at all of the hiragana that went by the wayside as a result of post-war writing reform, but can still been seen on the signs of shops and restaurants, and therefore are likely to answer those niggling “Why did I never learn that?” questions a reader might have.
The strength of this book is the mixture of lighthearted, quickly paced humor and clearly presented material. Its humor strikes a good balance in appreciating the quirkiness of the language that foreign students struggle with, without marginalizing the efforts of foreigners who study Japanese or caricaturing them in predictable ways. It manages to delve into some rather difficult topics through all of this. I recommend this book as a fun read for anyone studying Japanese at JLPT level 3 or above who feels like improving reading comprehension, having a laugh, and learning some arcane facts to nonchalantly bring up at their next drinking party.