30th Anniversary Saroma

Statistical Saroma, 2010

March 31st marks the last day of the fiscal year here in Japan, and everything is being finalized and finished. As such, a copy of Saroma’s 2010 Mini-Stats landed on my desk this morning, hot off the presses. I previously translated and distributed the 2009 Mini-Stats to members of the Palmer City Council and travelers to Saroma. I thought that I would update that translation with the data from the 2010 publication, and post a quick look at Saroma’s 2010 Mini-Statistics.

Here are the numbers, complete with cute clip art, as compiled by the Planning and Finance Department:

One Year in Saroma (2009)

※Water use and alcohol consumption data are current to March 2010. All other data is current to December 2009.

Overall for the calendar year 2009 compared to 2008, Saroma Town has made some improvements! Births are up, deaths are down. Marriages are up, divorces are down. Trash and sewage held fairly steady as did traffic accidents and ambulance calls. Criminal incidents increased from 31 to 40 over the year. Perhaps because of the bad economy? Not so fast – alcohol consumption was down by over four thousand gallons from the year previous – not typically associated with a bad economy. Perhaps people decided they’d rather hold off on the drinks and drive home, rather than get sloshed and take the bus? It’s possible, as bus ridership was down by almost 20%. All in all, no statistical black spots for the town. I’m going to do my part to help out by next year trying to drink a lot more on the bus after fathering a few children and catching a burglar or two. In fact, I think some of those things might be in my contract of employment.

30th Anniversary Japan Saroma

Saroma Town Proper

One thing that is difficult for an American to grasp when visiting Japan is municipal divisions. Most of America is unincorporated, middle-of-nowhere spaces. Once you enter a town or city, you are then technically “somewhere” more specific than the state you are in. In Japan, every piece of land is part of a village, town, or city.  Throw a dart at a map of Japan, and as long as you don’t end up in the ocean, you’ll be in some specific municipality, even if the dart lands somewhere in the mountains.  Saroma is no different.  The map below shows the town limits of Saroma, and the neighboring towns that share the same border.


This makes it hard to compare the two towns. Saroma has strictly defined borders, and thus a nearly exact count of population within them. Palmer, on the other hand, might have a defined population within city limits, but a fairly vague number for the greater Palmer area.  It’s this greater area that really should be compared with Saroma.  If one simply looks at the official populations of the two municipalities and makes assumptions from there, it is difficult to see why Palmer has a McDonald’s, a Dairy King, a Taco Bell and two huge supermarkets, but Saroma has no fast food restaurants and only two modest supermarkets.

To help one visualize Saroma and the population density within Saroma that determines these sort of economic factors, I’ve made the following map showing the area and shape of Saroma’s boundaries superimposed over a map of the Palmer area.


Imagine that within that red line, there are 6,002 people.  That is the population density of Saroma.  If the Palmer city limits were this size and shape, I imagine the population would be closer to 15,000.

Some quick facts:

Saroma: 414 km² (156 mi²), Pop. 6,002.

Palmer: 9.7 km² (3.8 mi²), Pop. 8,201 (2008 estimate)

Map data from Google and Yahoo.

added April 12th: Butte centered size comparison map for my mommy.


Mike Beeson’s Fantasy Kanji Guide

My good friend Mike Beeson is visiting Japan.  He spent a few days here in Saroma, and did his best to read the Chinese “kanji” characters that are used in Japan.  Amazingly, while he had no idea what the characters meant, he was able to see them as pictures, and started creating his own meanings, based on what he thought the characters resembled.

I found this perspective refreshing and hilarious.  I asked Mike to write down what he thought a kanji should mean, based on what he felt it looked like as a visual representation of meaning.  Here is the short “Kanji Guide” that he created.  Let your mouse pointer rest over the image to reveal the actual meaning of the character.


30th Anniversary Palmer Saroma travel


In July, over 20 visitors from will come to Saroma to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the sister city relationship between Palmer, Alaska and Saroma, Japan.  Some of the members of this group have lived in Japan before, some even in the very house where I write this.  Many however, are visiting Japan for the first time.  They have a short period to become acquainted with Saroma and the complex and beautiful country that contains it.  I want to do my best to improve the value of this visit for everyone involved, so I’ve decided to focus on Saroma through a series of blog posts about my own experiences, common misunderstandings, stories about the town and its people, and any other ideas that come to or are brought to my mind.
Worrying that I might launch into something stodgy and boring like an overview of the role of local government in Japan, I’ve put off posting anything for quite a while.  Tonight, after I read the site introducing the members of the exchange group visiting in July, I suddenly remembered my own blank slate experience with Japan and Saroma.  And well, wouldn’t you know, I blogged about it.  It was six years ago, before I believe anyone had started to call it “blogging.”  To kick off this series about Saroma, it feels appropriate to republish my first impression of Saroma.
Hopefully this post and those that follow will the benefit the coming delegation as they experience the rewards the sister city relationship offers.  Below is my own personal account of my first visit to Saroma, as a 19 year old solo traveler with limited language skills, who was accepted warmly into Saroma under the auspices of a positive and strongly woven relationship between two communities.
Monday, May 31, 2004

Location: Saroma, Japan

I am in Saroma.  I arrived yesterday by train to Engaru station, and was greeted by Yuko Hirouchi, a very nice lady who works at city hall, and Isao and Kotoe Kimura.  They have a very nice car.  Yuko stayed around until about 6 that night, to help the Kimuras and myself get used to each other, as our proficiency with the other’s language is not great.  We chatted and had tea, and then ate dinner.  Mr. Kimura is a fun guy.  He likes golf.  He works for a family business that makes raw material for concrete, something which I doubt Japan will ever stop having a demand for.  They have a very nice house and treated me very well.  We actually ended up having a lot of fun misunderstanding each other last night.  I also took an extremely hot bath.  Today, I went to the preschool, elementary school, and high school.  Heidi Hill, a fellow PHS graduate, is the Assistant Language Teacher here in Saroma.  I met her at city hall and went to the preschool, where I was served coffee, and helped the energetic children learn names of animals and fruit.  Then we went to one of Saroma’s 6 elementary schools, which had only 14 students.  Heidi’s lesson for them was baking brownies, with English instructions.  They turned out OK, considering we used Japanese cherry vinegar and had lots of little hands reaching and spilling and mixing them.  Then I showed them on a map where I had travelled, and some of my photos, although I only got through Tahiti and New Zealand before it was time to eat brownies.

The students had to go back to class, so Heidi and I sat with the Principal and another teacher, I think his name was Kanta.  He had been all over Alaska (more than I have) and Northwest Canada, and spoke good English.  He explained, very clearly, the differences between Japanese and Western thinking concerning individualism and groups.  He pointed out the ordering of Japanese names, with the last name coming first, as well as addresses, with the country name, prefecture name, and town name coming before the actual name and address.  Another wonderful analogy he made involved an imaginary puzzle.  In America’s imaginary puzzle, every person is a puzzle piece, and together, the individual pieces come together to make the image of America.  For Japan, the image is already there, and the Japanese must choose which piece of the puzzle they will be.  I found that beautifully enlightening.

Then I made a quick stop at Saroma High School, and met Yoshida-Sensei, the vice-principal, and an amazingly nice man, with a wonderful and distinct command of English.  He stayed with Paul Morley when he visited Alaska, I believe.  I very much enjoyed meeting him.  He gave Heidi and I a tour of the school, and we met a very friendly girl, Yui, who spoke nice English and had been to Palmer several years before, and had hosted Palmer students.  She knew Sienna Houtte and Emily Estelle.  I told her that they were best friends of mine.  I had my picture taken with Yoshida-Sensei and waved goodbye.

Then I was off to the Mayor’s office.  He asked me how much my trip cost, what my favorite Japanese food was, and we talked about Alaska, with Yuko’s help translating.  He presented me with a gift of Japanese collector’s stamps.  That was my day.  Back at the Kimura’s house, I managed to ask in Japanese to Mrs. Kimura, わたしは、コンピュータができますか? (watashi wa konpyuuta ga dekimasu ka) which I think means “Can I use the computer.”

Alaska Japan Japanese Palmer Saroma

Saroma’s Long Life University

A version of this article appears in the current Palmer-Saroma Sister City newsletter.

As in most of Japan, Saroma’s population includes a large number of senior citizens.  The town Social Education Department organizes a continuing education seminar for these seniors.  This meets twice a month and each session lasts an entire day.  It’s called Kotobuki Daigaku, meaning “Long Life University.”  One daylong session features a morning speaker who addresses the entire group of about 250 members.  After lunch the members break into small groups and focus on more specific topics such as dancing, calligraphy, park golf, personal computing and even karaoke.

For the first session of 2010, I was asked to be the morning speaker, which involved giving a 90 minute lecture entirely in Japanese.  Mr. Abe of the Social Ed. Dept. suggested I talk about Palmer and Saroma as sister cities.  I decided to focus on differences between the history and daily life of the two towns, as well as emphasize some of their similarities and the strong history of the sister city relationship. I also included some personal anecdotes about my impressions of life here in Saroma and how it differs from life back in Alaska.  I also tried to focus on what life is like for senior citizens in Palmer, showcasing some of the options for retirement homes in the Palmer area, and explaining the traditional arrangement between children and their parents regarding aging and caregiving.


Title Screen “Sister Cities: Palmer and Saroma”


Explaining my job (Assistant English Teacher) to the attendees.

I found it rather difficult to imagine what would pique the interests of 250 elderly Saromans.  When comparing Saroma and Palmer, things like population, geographic size and role of government are important but dull and difficult to explain.  Accordingly, I only touched briefly on these areas and instead focused on showing photos and telling a few stories.  I showed photos of Hatcher Pass, prize pumpkins and cabbages, and of my grandparents, Ray and Tiny DePriest.  My description of their 70 year history in Palmer running a dairy and hay farm really captured the audience’s attention.  No doubt many of those listening hold similar experiences of homesteading and rural farming here in Saroma over the past half century.

Thanks to a few anecdotes and personal observations about daily life in Japan and America, a few times the room was full of laughter.  The audience found it very interesting that in Alaska there is no requirement for senior citizens to place special magnets on their cars showing that they are a new or elderly driver.  That the legal driving limit for blood alcohol content is 0.08% also astonished; In Japan, the legal limit is 0.00%.  That we customarily tip at restaurants, have elections on Tuesdays and not Sundays, and build gasoline stations and convenience stores together as part of the same business were also surprising to them.  The fact that it is the students in American schools who move from classroom to classroom, not the teachers as it is in Japan, elicited “oohh” and “eehhh!” from the attendees.  I also had to show them a map and quote some distance figures to convince them that Saroma really is closer to Palmer than Palmer is to New York City or Washington D.C.


“Scenery of Palmer.” Photo taken on Lazy Mountain, Summer 2003.

After running through some photos and basic information about Palmer’s retirement homes and the services of the Palmer Senior Center, I concluded the presentation with a five question quiz, on which the audience scored full marks.  Questions included “Which is the rarest color of aurora?” (red), “Up to how many kilograms can a moose weigh?” (about 800), and “Which of the following are NOT in Palmer: airport, golf course, tennis courts, or hot spring?” (there is no hot spring, unfortunately; this seemed to disappoint the audience as hot springs surround Saroma and are one of the great cultural bounties of Japan).

Hopefully, my presentation made sense. By the good quiz score, I think it did.  The elderly community in Saroma should now be able to talk authoritatively about many aspects of Palmer history and daily life.  It was a good experience to be able to introduce my own town and culture from my peculiar perspective as a resident of Saroma and the Japanese culture.  And I was lucky to have an interested audience, who rarely have the chance to consider things like Alaskan history, American gas stations or the weight of a moose.


Who’s this guy?

Japan trains

Goodbye to the 500-Series

There was sad news for Japanese railfans the other day.  On Sunday the much loved pointy nose 500-series bullet trains were retired from their “Nozomi” superexpress service to be replaced by newer, faster N700-series trains.


500 series bullet train. (Image: Wikimedia commons creative commons license)

The 500-series were adored by many for their futuristic, sleek design, even winning several prestigious design awards.  They were the first passenger trains in the world to operate at 300 kph (186 mph) when they went into service in 1997.  However, they were very expensive to build, and only nine sets were made.  A few years ago the faster N700 series trains began to come into service.  They operate at the same top speed of 300 kph but are able to maintain higher cornering speeds thanks to tilt-technology, shaving five minutes off the trip from Tokyo to Osaka.

Don’t worry, though.  Japan Railways aren’t scrapping these beautiful machines.  They will go into slower “Kodama” service between Shin-Osaka and Hakata, stopping at all stations instead of making the Tokyo-Shin-Osaka run in one blazing nonstop.

What I find most fascinating about the retirement of these trains is the intensity of the fan interest surrounding it.  Railfans exist everywhere, but the nostalgic fever exhibited for this train was amazing.   Over 1,500 fans showed up to send off the last departing 500-series Nozomi service from Tokyo station yesterday, as this Mainichi Daily News article shows.  Can you imagined thousands of people crowding an Amtrak station to bid farewell to the Acela?  I can’t.  The Japanese simply love their trains, and for good reason.

Lastly, take a look at some great YouTube video of this cool train in action.  It’s beautiful!