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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Ohtawara – Where Everybody Knows Your Name

Ohtawara is one of twelve cities in Tochigi-ken. It is not a city like Tokyo, New York, London or Toronto; rather it possesses a small-town feeling of rural life. Thank goodness.
It is the smallest city in the Prefecture with a population of about 50,000 – although the populace is spread out quite a bit as the area is long from north to south.
For reference, although I had a really large apartment and lived in the centre of the city, I was still only a three-minute walk from the nearest rice field or 7-11. But more on food and convenience later.
Day Two in Ohtawara: Kanemaru-san came by to pick me up at 7:30AM that morning. I’d been up at the crack of dawn – 4:30AM – as I didn’t have drapes in my bedroom.
After the cursory bowing, and describing my drapes of wrath dilemma, we went downstairs – we took the elevator! – and walked out the main entrance towards a sheltered bike rack. Pointing to a small red bicycle that obviously belonged to a much shorter and female individual (Cheryl), Kanemaru said: “An-do-ryu sensei” (Andrew teacher’s).
He looked at the bicycle – a classic 1-speed with a light and basket on the front – while I grimaced. He shook his head and had a smoke and marched me into his waiting white car.
In the two-minute drive to the Ohtawara Board of Education (OBOE), Kanemaru-san was able to finish half a deck of smokes. An impressive sight.
I won’t bore you too much here, suffice it to say that when I entered the front door of the building everyone was waiting for me. There was a Canadian flag on a wall beside a Japanese one, flowers everywhere and well-dressed men and women lining the hallway bowing at me.
I didn’t know what to do, so I bowed deeply and said: dozo yoroshiku onegai shi masu (please take care of me). They all bowed some more and said something that sounded similar to my phrase.
Satisfied that I had not upset the balance of nature, Kanemaru-san put his hand on my shoulder and nudged me forward to an elevator. It was an Otis!
Getting off at the top floor (there were three floors), Hanazaki-san was waiting for me by the elevator. I bowed deeply. He bowed. We bowed together repeatedly for a few seconds.
There’s actually a trick to bowing. You place your hands straight to your sides and bend forward at the waist. You do not make eye contact with the other, but – and here’s the trick - look at the other person’s shoes. If their shoes are better than yours, they must be more important than you so hold the bow longer and deeper.
I was led to an office down the hall – by the way, although every office contained a door, not one was closed – and was introduced to the Superintendent of the OBOE. Not a tall man – maybe 5’-3” and shrinking, he was dressed in a tailor-made suit and had shoes that looked very expensive. I bowed, said my piece and noticed he kind of just nodded his head at me. That’s okay. I know my place. I’m the lowly gaijin (foreigner).
Nope. He came around his desk, smiled widely, and grabbed my hand and pumped it in an enthusiastic handshake and said the only English word I ever heard him utter in three years. “Welcome.”
Ushered into a larger bullpen, I was introduced to the other nine people in the office. I had a nice corner desk and roller chair and had a beautiful Fuji computer perched on it with the all-important large, floppy diskette drive. The characters on the screen were in orange. The keyboard was pre-set for English characters, but I was shown how to switch to the Japanese alphabet – all three of them. I’ll describe the alphabets in greater detail later – suffice to say that Kanji consists of 1,942 Chinese letters, while Hiragana and Katakana each have 71 symbols, and none of them look like English.
While Japan may indeed be a technological leader in electronics and computers, there was no trickle down to the average Joe Suzuki. My old Atari 400 computer from 1979/80 was better than this one made 10 years later – and mine could do colour.
Not that it mattered… like most people, I use the computer as a glorified typewriter.
The three women who were part of the team brought us all a cup of o-cha (green tea). My first of 1,000s. That day. Sometimes it seems like that statement is correct.
Sitting around for two minutes, Hanazaki-san, Kanemaru-san and the guy who first drove me to Ohtawara bade me go with them. I’m thinking the guy whose name I never learned was the guy who had the van that would fit all of us.
I was first taken to a small shop down a tiny residential street that had a metal sheet over what I assumed was the garage. There were also about 100 bicycles strewn around the place.
Hanazaki-san knocked on the metal sheet, which was quickly lifted up from inside. Because one should never judge a book by its cover, I was not surprised to find a beautifully furnished tatami mat-laden living room – with a powerful-looking motorcycle in it.
A woman quickly brought out green tea while her husband prostrated himself on the mat in the most incredible bow I’ve ever seen that didn’t involve a god.
We all drank our tea in relative silence until Hanazaki-san said, “Ah so ka.” (a slangy version of “well…”).
The man in whose living room shop we sat cross-legged, yelled something at his wife who hurriedly ran deeper into the house and came back with a box, bowed low and held it out to me like it was the gift of manna.
I opened it up and stared at what looked like a caramel coloured make-up powder case for a woman. Within, I saw a field of red and something that looked like a plastic lipstick holder. I picked it up and noticed that on the underside it had some Japanese writing on it.
Hanazaki-san plucked it from my hands, thumped it into the field of red and then pressed the lipstick holder onto the back of his hand where it left an image.
“Your name,” he said. “Your hanko (a stamped seal that is used in lieu of signatures).” (see photo above)
After some more tea, we left and made our way to a main street where the Ohtawara branch of the Ashikaga Bank was/is.
We marched directly up to the front window past the line of people where I swear I heard them whisper my name. The bank had about 25 people working in it – including five bank tellers, all of whom were identically-dressed and coiffed beautiful women!
And they all had a lilting, soft singsong voice. I later discovered that all women in the service industry when talking to a customer put on this subservient voice.
This doe-eyed beauty helping us said, “An-do-ryu sensei, ne” (Andrew teacher, eh?). “Hai-iiii” (yesssss? - proounced "hi"), I said and saddled up closer to the teller’s window.
Sensing that they were about to lose us, Hanazaki-san interrupted and got to the heart of the matter - and had her set me up with a bank account and ATM card.
After more green tea and with the paperwork done and hanko-ed by my self, the bank teller (I think it was the same one) read aloud my complete home address and winked at me.
This place is awesome!
Kanemaru-san, perhaps detecting a disturbance in the Force started talking quickly to the teller. Two words I was able to pick out were “ga-ru-fu-ren-do” and “Ash-er-re”. That was Katakana-talk for “girlfriend” and “Ashley”.
A chorus of Ie (“No”, pronounced e-ya)’s lit up the bank as I was quickly ushered out of the place.
Squeezing my enlarged ego into the van - something called a Cherry Vanette – Kanemaru-san and Hanazaki-san mentioned how nice it was that I already had a girlfriend here. How the heck did they know that? I hadn’t seen or talked with her since the bus ride to Utsonomiya yesterday.
The rest of the day was spent driving me around to the local sights of interest – like the grocery store, liquor store and drapery store – everyone smiled, bowed and said “Hello An-do-ryu-sensei” and asked questions of me through Hanazaki-san (apparently he has better shoes than Kanemaru-san.
Later, we parked at my building and made a quick one-minute walk over to the Ohtawara entertainment district via a complex series of narrow alleyways. Although quiet now, I was told the place hums to life when the sun goes down. The alleyways were filled with a plethora of bars, restaurants and something called the London Club, which I was told, was for sukebe’s (sue-ke-bee aka perverts or dirty old men). I made mental notes of its location – but truth be told, since I was here in Japan as part of an international exchange, I was not going to do anything overt to jeopardize mine and Canada’s reputation.
I was always too afraid to go into the London Club in case someone saw me go in there and told my bosses. Who needs that kind of trouble?
Anyhow, I bought some drapes – or rather Hanazaki-san bought me some drapes and came back to my house and made a call. Ten minutes later, the building superintendent came up and said “Hello, An-do-ryu sensei” and installed the drapes for me.
After everyone left, I called Ashley and Kristine and told them about my day – but not about the bank.
I’m sure everyone in Ohtawara now knew about Ashley, and were probably just discovering my infatuation with Kristine. Sukebe.

Somewhere secretly glad I had banking options,
Andrew Joseph
Today's title is a parody of the television show CHEERS theme song - NORM


  1. Kristine... yes, that KristineOctober 22, 2009 at 10:18 PM

    Do you remember how everyone tracked each other down after Tokyo? We didn't know where we would be living until we got there, so how could we keep in touch? No internet. No Japanese reading (or speaking) ability. How did you have my number? I honestly don't remember.

    And "infatuation"? Oh my! ;)

  2. Infatuation. Oh my, indeed. In Tokyo, our Tochigi AETs had a photocopied book that had everyone's address and phone number in it. It's how Ashley knew I lived near her; it's how I figured out what her name was the night AFTER our first meeting; and, since I was armed with said guide, I probably provided you with the address... or, more than likely, you were smart enough to figure it out on your own. Asking your boss - or perhaps tracking me down via the media - as even after a week in Japan, I had become quite famous for simply being me. Or is that infamous for me being simple. Whatever. As well, I was contacted by my predecessor who provided me with the address... so, I might have offered it to you... Okay... I'm sure that's what happened. Unless you have a better handle on my faulty memory.
    I really liked my "banking options" wordplay.