Japan Palmer

Winter Holidays in Japan

A version of this post appears in the Palmer Sister City Newsletter this month.

As I write this, Christmas is fast approaching, and even here in Japan, there are many reminders. Japan celebrates Christmas in the same way it celebrates halloween – as an excuse to have a party, eat a bit of unhealthy food, and a new way for businesses to advertise.

However, because Thanksgiving is completely unknown in Japan, there is nothing to act as a buffer between the spookiness of Halloween and the cheer of Christmas. Any American living in Japan will surely lament an entire November of Christmas music and Santa displays at the grocery store. And once the day does come, it’s celebrated very differently. Living abroad over Christmas time makes one realize the effort that goes into this kind of tradition, and the importance of maintaining it.

Japan has its own Christmas traditions, which may seem rather amusing to someone used to Western-style Christmases:

  • Christmas Eve is romantic. That’s right, the night before christmas is not a night of peaceful reflection and quality time with family. With so few Christians in Japan, the religious meaning isn’t there. It’s a date night, pure and simple.

  • Christmas is all about the Christmas Cake. This tradition of eating a heavy fruit or sponge cake comes from the United Kingdom and the countries of the Commonwealth and is widespread in Japan. While America has a tradition of giving fruitcakes, the Japanese take their cakes much more seriously, often ordering them weeks ahead of time.

  • Christmas is also all about… fried chicken. At some point, it became common knowledge in Japan that this is what you eat on Christmas. Whether it stems from a misunderstanding of the turkey and poultry culinary traditions of the winter holidays, or an genius marketing ploy by KFC, a bucket of fried chicken is how a Japanese family rings in the holiday.

  • Christmas Day is not a national holiday. People go to work, and children go to school. Being raised to think of the day as special and a time for many important things – none of them work – it is very odd to go teach class or sit in an office on Christmas Day as if it were a day like any other.

All of this is not to say that the Japanese do not celebrate family and food and fun over the dark days of winter. A lot of the traditions that Western nations take care of on December 25th are just done a bit later by Japanese families, over the new year. That’s the time when you lie around the house, gain a few pounds from non-stop feasting, and make the long trip home through snowstorms and icy roads to share the physical and spiritual bonds of family. With that to look forward to only a week later, Christmas sounds like a pretty nice excuse for a romantic plate of fried chicken topped off with a slice of cake, doesn’t it?

Japan Palmer Saroma

Saroma Recipe: Tofu Dumplings with Jam Topping


For tofu dumplings with spinach:

  • 80 grams Shiratama-ko rice flour
  • 100 grams soft tofu
For regular tofu dumplings:
  • 80 grams Shiratama-ko rice flour
  • 100 grams soft tofu
Suggested jam toppings: rhubarb jam, strawberry jam, pumpkin jam

Cooking Instructions: (for both types of dumpling)

  1. First, lets prepare the spinach dumplings. Lightly boil the spinach. After boiling, wring out the water and dice it into fine bits.
  2. Add the rice flour to the diced spinach. Then, slowly add tofu to the mixture until it becomes about as soft as an earlobe.
  3. Form the mixture into child bite-sized dumplings, making an indentation in the middle of each with your thumb, which will shorten the cooking time.
  4. Let’s next prepare the regular dumplings, following the above instructions without the spinach.
  5. Insert the dumplings in a pot of boiling water and boil for one minute after they naturally float to the surface. After removing from the boiling water, cool the dumplings in a bowl of cold water.
  6. Place two or three of each type of dumpling on plates, and garnish with your choice of jam.
Watch out for: When mixing the tofu and rice flour, be sure to add the tofu a little at a time so that you can control the hardness and water content of the final mixture. The smoother the dumpling mix turns out, the better the finished product will be.
✦ This recipe is courtesy of Mr. Onishi, the nutritionist at the Saroma Town Hall. The recipe originally appeared in the September 2009 issue of the Saroma Town Magazine. View it in the magazine here. (it’s on the second page of the PDF.)
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.

30th Anniversary Hokkaido Japanese Palmer Saroma travel

Mount Nikoro

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.

The Genki Gaijin Group

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?