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!

America childhood Japan Sapporo

A Multiple Wammy

Wammy is a Japanese toy recently on the market that consists of pliable pieces of plastic that can be connected to other pieces to make virtually anything.  Without having tried the toy myself, I bought a box of them for my five year old sister Paige, and sent them to her for Christmas.  They were a huge hit.  They were the present she played with on Christmas morning, and made her the envy of all her cousins.


This toy is not yet available in America, and I had thought it was only being sold in Japan, but apparently it has made its debut in the UK.  Follow this link to see a five minute video (almost entirely in Japanese, but you can get the idea) about the toy’s popularity abroad so far.


One strange thing about the toy’s creation is what inspired the idea for the shape of the pieces.  Nejiri konnyaku or “twisted konjac,” a common Japanese food made from an odd gelatinous food made from an odd type of yam.  Here’s a photo:


If anyone is curious what “Wammy” means, well, it’s a Japanese pun of sorts.  Combining the words for loop (wakko) and to braid (amu, or ami in the nominal form), we get wamii, which looks better when spelled Wammy (for decorative English purposes).

Since hearing about how much Paige enjoyed the toy, and watching the previous video, I decided to try some Wammies myself, and bought a small “ocean” themed set for 500 yen the last time I was at Bic Camera in Sapporo.  Along with Yoshie, we couldn’t stop playing with them.  They’re fun, addictive, and as my father said, much much more enjoyable than Legos because they allow one to be much more creative, building and destroying without worrying about how you’re going to take it all apart or where you’re going to put it or what you’re going to do with it when you’re done.  It’s a toy that maximizes exploration, one that’s hard to put down once you’ve started experimenting.

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Saroma Pumpkin Festival 2009


This weekend marked the 22nd annual Pumpkin Festival here in Saroma.  It’s by far the biggest event of the year, with the whole town coming out for a weekend of festivities revolving around the famous local pumpkins.

The Pumpkin Festival weekend kicks off every year on Saturday night at 6 pm.  As it gets dark, the Cinderella “Dream” Parade begins at the Town Hall and ends about two hours later at the Citizen’s Center where there are fireworks, vendors, and a band.  That’s right, the parade lasts two hours, enough time to allow each group in the parade to do a performance at several locations throughout the route.  These are elaborate performances, with costumes, choreography and fantastic floats.  People spend weeks preparing for the parade and it’s definitely the main event of the festival.


Japanese Elections

August 30th is a general election in Japan, for all 480 seats in the lower House of Representatives.  It’s receiving more attention, domestically and abroad, than elections in Japan normally do.  The nearly-unbroken 54-year reign of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is expected to finally be broken with a majority win by the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ).  The LDP leader and current Prime Minister, Taro Aso, is even less popular in office (11% approval) than even President Bush and Alaska Governor Frank Murkowski ever were (25% and 21%, respectively). Starting a few years ago, parties have released clear ‘manifestos’ outlining their election platform.  The LDP is essentially running on a “don’t change horses in midstream” platform, trying to instill a fear of change in order to maintain control.  The DPJ has some very popular policy proposals, such as a $280 per month per child supplement for families.  Both parties are running on promises of decreased taxes, increases in social welfare, particularly child rearing in order to slow Japan’s low birth rate.  The DPJ even promises elimination of road tolls on expressways across Japan (tolls can reach into the hundreds of dollars) and an elimination of the current 5% consumption tax once the economy recovers.

What I find interesting about this election is that the proportional election system and Parliamentary Democracy allow many third (and fourth and fifth) parties to exist and operate at a much higher level of notariety than third parties in America.  Sure, we have the Greens and the Libertarians, the Constitution Party, the Reform Party, the Communist Party, the Prohibition Party (thanks, Jacob).  But other than the Green Party in 2000 and Perot’s Reform Party in 1992, these parties have had little publicity and almost no effect on election results.  Even those that have been moderately successful, like Perot, win no role in governing because of the winner-take-all system of American Politics.  In Japan, though you have some weird ones that have commercials on TV and put flyers in my door.  I got a flyer from the Japanese Communist Party today, and one from the almost-a-cult Happiness Realization Party last week.   Here’s a list of all of the parties fielding candidates in the election, along with a list of the total number of fielded candidates (both regional and proportional).

1allied with LDP
2allied with DPJ (two sources for this: wikipedia, 2.)
3party of the nutty “Happy Science” religion – deserves an entire post.

If none of this makes sense, this article in the Yomiuri Shimbun gives a good explanation on exactly how these parties are working together towards forming coalitions in the new government.  The Economist also takes a nicely critical view of the whole affair.

Here’s a little slideshow of the campaign signs for four of the major parties running in the election, taken this afternoon on Saroma’s main street:

dpjDPJ, Yukio Hatoyama pictured. Slogan: seiken koutai (regime change).

ldp LDP.  It says ima, gambaranaide dou suru? (If we don’t persist now, what will we do?)  What’s up with the cartoon character?

sdp Social Democratic Party. Slogan: seikatsu saiken (rebuilding livelihood)

jcp Japanese Communist Party.  Slogan: ima koso (now more than ever). Their party leader has to be the dorkiest looking leader of any party since Ralph Nader.  The only significant minority opposition party that is not part of the DPJ coalition.

bike festivals Japan Saroma travel

Okhotsk Cycling 2009

Okhotsk Cycling

Make that the International Okhotsk Cycling 2009.  Including myself, there were three non-Japanese among the 982 participants.  Good thing we participated, or they would have had to change all of the signage.

Over the weekend, I rode 212km (132mi for those in the dark ages) over 2-days with 981 other people, by bicycle, along the Sea of Okhotsk from Oumu to Shari.  It was good.  Kind of weird, but good.

There are some definite advantages to riding with such a large group.  When you ride alone, you usually don’t have a cheering crowd and different refreshments in each town you pass through, nor brass bands and cheerleaders performing for you when you depart.

When you’re alone, though, you can go as fast as you want.  You can stop whenever you want.  You don’t have to listen to Mr. Sato from Sapporo’s misaligned derailleur grind along for kilometer after kilometer.  You don’t have to wake up at 4 AM if you don’t want to.

The race entry fee and the fee for the town cycling club trip to the race and back was 24,000 yen ($260).  For that, I got:

A ride and bike transport to Oumu, luggage transport from the start to the finish, a place to stay for two nights, two breakfasts, two lunches, two dinners, and quite a few cans of beer.  Fresh milk, cheese, and sports drink jelly in Okoppe, more sports drinks and snacks in Mombetsu, ice cream in Kamiyubetsu, hard candy and dried scallops and barley tea in Yubetsu, bananas and juice in Saroma, bread, tea and juice in Abashiri, and potatoes and butter in Koshimizu.  I even won a gift box of various kinds of sugars in the drawing at the end of the race.

Overall, not bad.  A good way to meet other cyclists, drink beer, experience the different towns along the coast, and generally have a good time with other people.  I also got to show off my weird bike and all my cycling gear, including the cool Alaska “gold rush” license plate jersey my parents got me.  Check out this picture: (don’t I look cool?!)

Me and bike

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 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.

Japan Japanese Saroma

Commanding Clouds

In five years of studying Japanese, I have always written my name in katakana, the phonetic syllabary used to write foreign words.  Sean was ショーン (shoun) and Holland was ホーランド (hourando).  In college, I never thought much of this. Outside of Japanese class and a few visits to Japan, I never wrote my name in Japanese.  When I moved to Japan for the first time, my supervisor in Murakami had a personal seal made for me.  She was rather clueless in many matters, and made the seal for my first name rather than my last.  Whenever I used this stamp, I felt a little childish, especially when next to the stamps of the stylized Chinese characters, or kanji, of other co-workers.

A few times, I gave thought to choosing phonetically similar kanji for the sounds in my name.  Both a friend in Gifu and a Japanese professor chose matching characters, or ateji, for my name.  I thought it was neat, but found no particular interest in using it or making it my own.  The meanings never particularly struck me as myself.  Sean is my name.  Its biblical meaning, as a variant of “John”, is “god is gracious,” but it’s more the sound and spelling of the name that I’ve wrapped my personality in.  Phonetic character matches gave meanings such as “the sound of history,” or “one who has received a benefit from the sun.”  Whatever, I thought. Nice, but no thanks.

I never felt particularly deserving of a real kanji name.  Living in Japan, one feels so foreign, and, actively or passively, is treated almost constantly as an outsider.   I felt that assuming characters for my name, shedding its obvious katakana foreignness, would be a ruse without meaning as long as I felt like an outsider more often than I did not.

Last month I found out that I passed level 2 of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT). While I didn’t and still don’t put much faith in the test’s ability to measure my actual proficiency, I realized that I had reached a milestone in terms of what I am able to do with my language ability, and how I have managed to assert my own identity here in Saroma using Japanese as a primary medium of communication.  Suddenly the idea of a kanji name seemed appropriate.  Plus, the BOE and my eikaiwa (english conversation class) students and some other friends threw me a “goukaku iwai” or test passing celebration.  That was last night.

A few weeks ago, I opened up my copy of the Compact New Nelson Japanese-English Character Dictionary, and wrote down every character that fit the sounds of my name.  I narrowed it down to a few I liked and asked my friends.  All of the women in my eikaiwa liked either 緒温, 翔音 or 初音, “the “beginning of warmth,” “soaring sound,” or “first sound,” respectively.  However, all of the younger Japanese I talked to (especially the women, and young Japanese women tend to have my ear) liked 勝運 or 将雲 the best.  The first means “winning luck,” and the second, something along the lines of “commanding clouds” or “commander of clouds.”

I spent a lot of time thinking about these.  My first feeling was to go with the ones that were softer, warmer, more kind and general.  But the more I thought about 将雲, “commanding clouds,” the more I liked it.  As a friend told me, “it sounds like a tycoon’s name.”  It’s also a little over the top, and fun.  I may not have the leadership skills necessary to command clouds, but I usually have my head in them.  I decided this was the one.

After choosing the kanji for my first name, those for my last name came rather easily.  I had originally thought I would use 豊蘭土, “bountiful land of orchids,” partly because my last name is the same as the country, and in Japanese the name of Holland was traditionally written with the middle character for orchid, ran.  But after choosing “commander of clouds,” it didn’t seem to match “bountiful land of orchids.”  Apparently, there were a great many more kanji for ho and ran than I had originally found in my compact character dictionary.  They were somewhat obscure readings, but were much much cooler.  I decided on 峰嵐土, “land of stormy peaks.”

So, my new name, as it is written in Japanese with phonetically equivalent Chinese characters is:

Kanji name

Holland Sean

Land of Stormy Peaks, Commander of Clouds

Japan Japanese Saroma


It’s a new word.  But I didn’t create it.  The Japanese did.

I’ve been having problems with my taxes since I moved to Saroma.  For some reason the tax exemption that I receive as a resident foreigner didn’t transfer from the tax office I was using last year.  Apparently I had to request an entirely new $35 IRS form 6166: “Certification of US Tax Residency,” which costs $35 dollars and requires the submission of IRS form 8088 8802, Application for United States Residency Certification. Well, until that document arrives (still waiting) I am being taxed.

The tax man from down below, Mr. Kobayashi (he also changes my PC password for me) explained the situation to me in Japanese; that once the district tax office received the letter confirming my exemption, all of the previously taken taxes will be returned to me, and I will stop being taxed.  As he was concluding his explanation, he says “puramaizero ni naru wake de,” basically “it will all even out in the end.”  Well, I almost laughed at him, because of the first thing he said, “puramaizero.”  It’s basically the title: “plus minus zero” phoneticized into Japanese: “purasu mainasu zero” clipped and blended into the much shorter “pura mai zero.” I just love this because it encapsulates a fairly complex idea with just a few clipped English words.  Try using it on your friends.