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.”
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.