Alaska Hokkaido

Internet Speeds: Hokkaido vs. Alaska

In 1998, when I was in 8th grade, Rogers Cablesystems began a cable internet service in the Matanuska Valley in Alaska where I grew up. I remember going into their strip mall office near Wasilla High to pick up the modem, and the technician grinning as he warned me “You’ll never be able to go back to dialup.”

That connection was 512kb down, 33.6 up (you needed a phone line to send data). If my memory serves me correctly, the cost was about $60 per month, and the modem about $10 a month. Gosh was that fast. Before, I had used a 33.6kb modem because I couldn’t afford a full 56kb model. I went from downloading Mp3s off of Napster at 8KB/s to 60KB/s. My life had indeed changed, and I have never gone back.

That was 15 years ago. Since then, I have moved abroad, but I often yearn to move back in moments of homesickness, and simple want – it’s natural to want to return to a place with which you identify so strongly and where so many family and friends are. But as an adult, I always begin to think about practical things – job, healthcare, housing. Internet access is among those things. So, every now and then I click over to the Matanuska Telephone Association website and see what they’re charging for DSL.

I am continually stunned. No improvements in service in the sense that you would imagine. Their lowest connection costs $55/month with a $25GB/month download cap (my 512kb connection in 1998 had no cap). I do see that they are offering fiber in some areas, which is great, but the costs are outrageous. $110 dollars per month for a 40 megabit connection, also with a $25 gigabyte download cap. I don’t understand who would buy this plan. On a connection like that, you could download 25 gigabytes in an hour.

I simply don’t understand what the reasons or excuses are for zero improvement in services or reduction in prices over the past 15 years. I understand that Alaska has a limited connection to the rest of the US, and that bandwidth is not cheap. But how does the rest of the world provide far better service? I live in a rural Japanese town of 6,000 people, about 30 miles from the nearest city, and I am writing this on an unlimited fiberoptic connection that costs me ~$50 dollars a month.

So let’s compare:

Ok, so these are a bunch of nice numbers, but unfortunately they are all the same size. Let’s make the font sizes proportional to the vast gulf in services:

Here in rural Japan, I am paying 1/5th as much for a service that is 2.5-8 times as fast. Someone explain this to me. I can’t give up my fiber.

Alaska earthquake family Japan Palmer Saroma tsunami

Letter from Saroma

A shorter version of this piece appears in the April 1st edition of the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman.

On Friday, March 11th, I had three English classes at Hamasaroma Elementary School, a school of 29 students on the shore of Lake Saroma.  The day’s classes were my last of the Japanese school year, which ends in March.  The goal of the lessons was to have fun, and we did.  The younger grades played a treasure hunt game for which I dressed up like a pirate.  The other grades played a rock paper scissors battle game in the gym, and a very rowdy game of “Pit.”  At recess I played badminton and practiced riding a unicycle.

I have lived in Saroma for three years, working as the town’s Assistant English Teacher.  Saroma has been Palmer’s sister city since 1980, and has hired the English teacher directly from Palmer since 1994, making me, as a 2002 Palmer High graduate, the sixth Palmerite to hold the position.  I visit all of the schools from preschool to high school in this farming and fishing town of 5,900 people in the north of Hokkaido, the northernmost of the Japanese islands.  Saroma often reminds me of Alaska, with its frigid winters, wide summer skies, fields of hay, and the independent, resourceful people.  Saroma feels like home.

When my last class ended at 2:05 PM, I returned to the teachers’ room, got a cup of coffee, and began writing my lesson notes for the day.  After such a wonderful day of classes, I felt like the week and the school year were coming to a perfect end.  The week before I had just agreed to another year of teaching in Saroma, and the week before that I had become engaged to my Japanese girlfriend of several years.  All was right in my world as the clock struck 2:46.

At first it was slow and smooth, then rattling, then smooth again, like an airliner in the minutes after takeoff.  The earthquake as I felt it in Saroma lasted about two minutes.  Some of us got under our desks, but no one seemed particularly concerned, and when it finished there had been no damage at all.  Having felt dozens of earthquakes growing up in Palmer, I guessed it was a magnitude 6 or 7, perhaps located somewhere north, in Russia.

The vice principal turned on the TV, where the first images shown were of shaking TV studios in Sendai and Tokyo.  It was obvious that it had been strong, but that those cities were still intact.  Then the epicenter was announced off the coast of the Tohoku region in Honshu, Japan’s main island, over 400 miles to the south.  Tsunami warnings and watches were quickly issued for nearly the entire 18,000 mile coastline of Japan, including the Sea of Okhotsk near Saroma.  Several teachers immediately got in their cars and drove off to make sure students who had already walked home for the day arrived home safely.

The rest of the staff remained in the teachers’ room and watched the rising waters gradually swell to violent torrents, live and in crystal-clear high definition.  We slowly grew hushed as we realized the gravity of what was occurring.  To say it was like watching a disaster movie isn’t accurate.  It was worse.  I had been to those places, I had friends near those places, and I knew that these astounding images were happening as I watched, many which were cut away from quickly and never replayed in the following days because they were too disturbing.  I could imagine myself in that place, in their shoes.  Yet, out my window, the day seemed to continue as it had before.

Even though Saroma was spared from this disaster, the genuine concern expressed by the people of Palmer and all of my friends outside of Japan has been extremely touching.  My mother couldn’t believe how many people called her or stopped by to ask about me once they heard about a quake in “northeast Japan.”  Tohoku, the area hit by the tsunami, literally means “northeast” and from Tokyo, the capital, it is northeast.  However, Hokkaido and Saroma are farther northeast by hundreds of miles.  This caused family and friends at home to experience some unnecessary worry as well as get an impromptu lesson in Japanese geography.

While Saroma was not at all damaged and its people are doing fine, the town has experienced its share of natural disasters.  In October of 2006, over a foot of rainfall in 24 hours caused the Saroma River to swell over its banks, damaging large portions of downtown.  One month later a tornado hit the neighborhood of Wakasa, killing nine people, injuring 31 and destroying 38 houses.  It was the first tornado in Japan’s recorded history to take lives.  The next week a magnitude 8.3 earthquake off of the Kuril Islands prompted coastal evacuations in Saroma and caused a 10 inch tsunami on the Sea of Okhotsk. The same evacuations were repeated the next month, in January 2007, when a magnitude 8.1 earthquake hit the same area.

Disasters, however unwelcome, have the power to bring us together.  In a time of such crisis, the differences between nations and cultures seem to dissolve as our shared humanity is reaffirmed.  This sense of shared existence, solidarity and deep empathy that so many around the world now feel for the people of Japan is what Saroma and Palmer have been building steadily for over thirty years, through hundreds of personal experiences, friendships, gestures of goodwill and shared commitment.  Times like this remind us how important these connections are that we have built.  In normal times they might seem inconsequential.  Some people might ask why they are necessary.  But they are real.

The full effects of this disaster are still being understood, but surely the Japanese deserve credit for their own preparation toward the inevitable, unpredictable menace of earthquakes and tsunami.  The evacuation routes, warning systems, and awareness education surely saved many more lives than were lost.  Alaska, three thousand miles clockwise from Japan along the Pacific Ring of Fire, can learn from their preparedness.

As the aftermath continues to unfold, I’ve noticed a big difference in the news coverage from within Japan and abroad.  For example, the threat from the nuclear reactors in Fukushima is grave, but the reporting on it has largely overshadowed the more immediate tragedy being endured by hundreds of thousands of people on the ground.  Foreign media outlets, particularly American cable news networks, have engaged in a lot fearful speculation regarding the nuclear threat.  While Japan grapples with half a million homeless and 28,000 dead or missing, there have been no deaths related to the Fukushima plant, radiation levels outside of Japan’s designated 20km evacuation radius are within safe levels, and the government continues to exercise extreme caution regarding the inspection of food produced in the area.  It’s a distraction from the more pressing human problem.

Life continues as it has before, but the television coverage is still focused overwhelmingly on the Tohoku region, whereas Libya has taken the spotlight abroad.

Here in Saroma, we have felt like many Americans have: unaffected, far away, and wondering how we can help.  Saroma has already sent monetary aid to the affected area, and has accepted two families displaced by the disaster.  Voluntary gasoline rationing and electricity saving measures have been in effect.  Hokkaido now has a surplus of electricity which is being sent to Honshu to compensate.  Over the last two weeks the Japanese have used 20% less electricity than over the same period last year, due to efforts to conserve.  Rolling blackouts have largely been avoided.  While essential items like toilet paper, water, and instant noodles have been disappearing from shelves in Tokyo, such items are plentiful here.  The only bare shelves I have seen are for yogurt, as many of those factories are in the Tohoku region.

Life in Saroma continues much as before, although everyone’s minds are still on the disaster.  Television coverage is still focused overwhelmingly on the Tohoku region, whereas Libya has taken the spotlight abroad.  Regular TV programming has returned, but news programs continue with report after report.  Commercials have also slowly started to be played again, although public service announcements account for the majority, with major stars giving messages like “I believe in the power of Japan.”

This morning’s news programs had report after report related to the ongoing situation. People sleep in their cars because their pets are not allowed inside evacuation centers and they refuse to abandon them.  An old man provides transportation of goods and people on his boat, out at sea during the tsunami, even though his own house is destroyed.  Community groups search through the rubble daily for family photos, cleaning, drying, and displaying them on the walls in local evacuation centers, trying to help salvage their former lives.  In all the myriad media coverage, I have not heard one single complaint, not one outburst of anger or incident of selfish behavior.  People are meeting difficulty with unfathomable integrity.

The hardship continues for the hundreds of thousands still homeless, for those who still have not found their loved ones, for those uncertain of their future.  Pessimism comes easy to some, and I have heard numerous grave predictions about Japan’s future.

They are wrong.  Japan is already recovering.  The Great Kanto Expressway, parts of which were demolished during the quake, was rebuilt and reopened only six days later.  After the Kobe earthquake in 1995, which killed 6,500 people, Japan’s economy actually grew.  I think that meeting the challenge of reconstruction could usher in a new age in Japan, pulling it out of the past two decades of malaise and perhaps fostering a new willingness to confront the country’s big problems.  The disaster might seem unimaginably large, but I trust in one resource that the earthquake and tsunami did not destroy: the ingenuity, cooperation, and resourcefulness of Japan’s people.  The people of Tohoku need our help, but Japan as a nation will emerge stronger.

I was spared from this disaster.  I don’t believe in luck, yet I feel incredibly lucky to know this country and its people, a place that has been my home for the better part of my adult life.  The Japanese people deserve our prayers, our respect, and our support.  Let’s give it to them.


Alaska Middle School Palmer Saroma travel

Exchange Trip to Palmer

This January I had the privilege to escort six students from Saroma, Japan, to my hometown of Palmer, Alaska.  Saroma Town employs me as their Assistant English Teacher, one of the requirements for the position being roots in Palmer.  I grew up in Palmer and graduated from Palmer High School in 2002, eventually finding my way to Saroma in 2008 after a degree in linguistics and a one-year stint on the JET Programme in Niigata.

It’s now my third year in Saroma.  Every year, there are mutual exchanges at both the junior high and high school level, and each year I have helped to prepare the students for their experience.  This year the exchange groups went to Colony Middle School and Palmer High School.  We hold about 10 to 12 predeparture classes at the Town Hall, teaching basic English conversation skills, helping to prepare them for cultural differences, and teaching about Alaska and Palmer in general.  They also spend a large portion of the time creating a poster presentation in English about some aspect of Saroma or Japan that they then present while in Palmer.

This year, as in past years, the groups from the high school and the junior high were both small, so it was decided that they would be sent together.  This year, though, I was lucky enough to be chosen as one of the chaperones for the group.  As such, I had the pleasure and privilege of not only preparing the students for the exchange, but supporting them and guiding them while in Palmer.  To tell you the truth, I was not entirely sure of myself in this regard.  While there was another chaperone from the high school, I still felt responsible for the six students who were travelling, particularly the junior high students, whose maturity levels were quite different from the two high school students (who had both been to Palmer once before).

However, I somehow managed to get everyone from Hokkaido to Palmer and back, without any serious problems, crying fits, bouts of homesickness, huge misunderstandings, illnesses or disastrous scheduling errors.  All of the students and the other chaperone seemed to have a fantastic time in Palmer, and didn’t seem too concerned about getting back to Japan.  I too enjoyed myself, although I was busier than I could have expected, playing sort of a double-agent role as ambassador both from and to Palmer and Saroma.  Let’s just say that the students were not the only participants on this trip who experienced new challenges and developed new skills. ♦

Greeted upon arrival with a handmade sign in Anchorage by CMS Principal McMahon.

The view from CMS on our first day in town.  The winds were brutal, but the skies were clear.

A welcome poster for the JHS group.

Giving my Saroma presentation to a community group in Palmer.

Everyone on the freezing bus to Talkeetna!

Our mature and dependable high school contingent.

Arrival at Pioneer Peak Elementary with SJHS students and Hatcher.

Singing do-re-mi to the kindergarten at Pioneer Peak.

The group of volunteers who do so much to support the exchange programs.

Lastly, a video of us ice skating at the Palmer Ice Arena.  I think everyone makes an appearance.

30th Anniversary Alaska Hokkaido Japan Japanese Palmer Saroma trains travel

Palmerites Visit Saroma

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.

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?

Alaska elementary English Saroma



Chicken Dance at Wakasa







Alaska elementary English Saroma

Chicken Dance at Wakasa

This article appeared on Page 26 of the Hokkaido Newspaper today, July 18th.

Chicken Dance at Wakasa

Saroma Town:

On the 16th, three students visiting from Saroma’s sister city, Palmer, Alaska, USA, deepened cultural understanding with the children at Wakasa Elementary.

The link between the town and the City of Palmer began in 1980.  Every year, junior and senior high school students undertake reciprocal visits.  Those visiting currently are Rebecca Farley (13), Dena Christiansen (14), and Erin Vincent (14).  From the 14th to the 27th, while experiencing homestays, they will be attending Saroma Junior High School and sightseeing around Hokkaido.

On their visit to Wakasa Elementary, they accompanied the town AET (Assistant English Teacher) Sean Holland (25).  They shared popular American dances such as the “Chicken Dance” with the students, and experienced cultural exchange through mutual self-introductions in English.

Alaska America English Japan Japanese Saroma


Culture is such a weird thing.  It defines nearly everything we do.  The time we wake up in the morning.  The side of the road we drive on.  The size of cups at McDonalds.  Whether of not we have to capitalize mCdonalds.  The types of cellphones we own.  The size of our car tires.  The width of our roads.  The varieties of beer at the store.  The taxes we pay.  The way we cook meat.  The designs of our kitchens.  The prevalence of dryers.  Where we take our shoes off.  How we bathe.  What we eat with.  Partially, our language.

We all live our lives, yet we never really think about it.

Unless we leave it, and experience another.

What the hell is culture determined by?

Geography (latitude, longitude, continentality, elevation, precipitation, population, population density, access to the outside world, access to resources, electrification, wildlife), media access, art, politics, climate, history, (including dumb, random, sad, stupid, and unfortunate history), and of course (with the extent of which debatable) language.

Yet, culture itself can determine half of those things.  What boggles me about culture is that no one can really define it well.  Karl van Wolferen, in The Enigma of Japanese Power, quotes it as “the totality of man’s products.”

But what is that?  It’s essentially a copout explanation of the confusing crap I’ve already written above.

Your thoughts?

Alaska America JET Saroma

A Ridiculous Trip

Well, not that ridiculous, but at one point I felt such a feeling.  Here’s not what I did, but how I moved.  You judge.

Friday. Saroma to Mombetsu by car, 1 hour.

Saturday. Mombetsu to Sapporo by car. 5 hours.

Sunday and Monday. Sapporo to Tokyo via Tomakomai and Oarai by ferry and bus. 27 hours.

Tuesday. Tokyo to Minneapolis by 747 in business class. 10 hours.

Friday. Minneapolis to Anchorage via Seattle by 737 in first class. 9 hours.

Thursday. Palmer to Fairbanks by car. 6 hours.

Sunday. Fairbanks to Palmer by car. 7 hours.

Monday. Anchorage to Saroma via Taipei, Tokyo and Memanbetsu by 747 and 737 in coach class.  24 hours.

After all this moving around, I felt a real urge to be stationary for a while.  I always feel that way after a long trip, but this time I felt it more seriously.  I’m going to stick myself in the proverbial mud of Saroma.  Come and visit?

Alaska America family Japan Sapporo Saroma Tokyo

Papua Japan Alaska

I always try too hard to make clever post titles, so I didn’t bother this time.  I also have an increasing tendency to write very long, deep posts every month or two rather than writing more frequent posts every few days.  It’s frustrating to not write for so long, but it’s also frustrating to write something that seems extraneous or forced.  I wrote two very short articles for the Saroma-Palmer Sister City Newsletter yesterday, very quickly because they were already weeks past the date I had promised them by.  They read like 5th grade book reports.  I’m not ashamed of them, but not as proud of them as I am of the writing on other parts of this blog.  I guess in the end, I mainly write for myself, and if I ever choose to become a writer as a profession, I’ll have to learn how to do it for others.  For example, last years post about my Papua New Guinea experience was written over several days, with a lot of editing and careful thought, but also with a lot of inspiration.  I browsed back to it on my iPhone on the way to Papua New Guinea a few weeks ago and was impressed with what I had written.  It took me back to that first experience and made me newly excited for the next.  Hopefully I can keep doing that.