Skiing in Niseko

By Ben Mirin, CIR

Call me spoiled, but I recently tried skiing for the first time in Niseko, Hokkaido, one of the world’s premier skiing destinations.  Residents throughout Japan migrate to this spot every winter to take advantage of the incredible snow, and perhaps to mingle with the plethora of foreign tourists that congregate there almost year round.

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Learning to Drive in Nanae

By Ben Mirin, CIR

There is no test to obtain an international driver’s license for Japan…but there should be.

The Nanae Town government generously provides a personal car for its Coordinator of International Relations.  The privilege of driving it, however, must be earned through several driving lessons on Japanese roads.  For a CIR who arrives during the winter, these are especially pragmatic.  Nanae’s snowplows are in short supply, and the few that patrol the town don’t disperse salt or other compounds (I’m told it’s for environmental reasons) to help melt the snow that accumulates almost every day.

I have driven in snow; after all, I’m from New England.  Outside of this, my experience on American roads would prove more of a hindrance than an asset.  Nevertheless, I approached my car with confidence and optimism. Japan is incredibly dynamic, and there are always opportunities for both foreigners and natives to try new things.  With two weeks since my initiation as CIR, I was already well trained in embracing such chances with a positive attitude.

click to enlarge

Seeing the car for the first time, I also remembered how Japan is a place of enduring traditions.  The one I was to inherit that day was 13 years old, a Suzuki Cultus Crescent that had been passed down among all the CIRs since the job’s inception.  From a leftover collection of Whitney’s mix CDs to a collection of scratches from Bobby’s bicycle, it was full of stories.  Looking around, I was also glad to see seat belts in the back seat.  Japan doesn’t require passengers in the back to wear them, but this is one Japanese practice I don’t expect I will adopt or permit.

Having withstood the trials of 5 different American drivers before me, this time-tested vehicle seemed worthy of my trust…but was I worthy of its keys?

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How to Use a Japanese ATM

By Ben Mirin, CIR

Every Japanese bank operates its ATMs on a specific schedule.  Located in the Nanae Yakuba (town office), this Hakodate Shinyou Kinko ATM closes at 6pm every day, and imposes a surcharge for withdrawals during the weekend.  Despite the occasional inconvenience these schedules might cause, Japanese ATMs are excellent tools for managing finances.

(Special thanks goes to Emi Kimura for her invaluable assistance in making this video.  An apology is also due for my ridiculous sunglasses.)

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10 Things I Didn’t Think I Would Need in Nanae, Japan (Part 2)

By Ben Mirin, CIR

2. A fly rod

I did not expect to see salmon jumping in the Europe River at this time of year.

A week ago, I was awake at a time I only reserve for two activities: bird watching and fishing.  The former was on my agenda, and I had leapt out of bed after a long night of karaoke to meet my friend Tanaka-san for an expedition to find White-tailed and Stellar’s Sea Eagles near Yakumo, a coastal town roughly 1 hour from Nanae by car.

Together with Tanaka-san’s daughter, Miu, we spent the morning cramped in the car, driving among different lookout points that Tanaka-san had memorized.  At each stop, we lowered our windows and peered through the freezing rain to scan treetops and shorelines for birds.  The name Yakumo has a meaning: 1 week and 8 days of rain.  I wondered what could attract eagles to such a place.

The answer became clear when the rain let up.  Stepping outside momentarily, I walked to the edge of a nearby bridge and looked out over the river.  Hundreds of spawning salmon were tailing and splashing all along the shore.

Almost on cue, eagles began to cry in the cold morning air.  Looking up I saw dozens of them circling over the water in search of the fish. Dozens more were clearly visible in clouds of black and white plumage that peppered the surrounding hillsides.  I had never seen so many of these huge raptors in one place.

A White-tailed Eagle in flight

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Taiko Drumming at Concord-Carlisle High School

By Ben Mirin, CIR.

Members of the community Taiko club at Concord-Carlisle High School describe witnessing Taiko drumming during a visit to Nanae, Japan, and how that experience encouraged their study of the traditional Japanese art form.  The students featured here are Mark O’Toole (’11) and Nathaniel Ridpath (’13), both of whom were members of the Concord delegation that visited Nanae in April 2010.

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10 Things I Didn’t Think I Would Need in Nanae, Japan (Part 1)

By Ben Mirin, CIR

1. A guitar

I was sad to leave my guitars behind when I left the States, but I did not think that my work for Nanae would require the use of an instrument.

I attended my first meeting of the Nanae High School English Club on Tuesday.  At the last minute the Club’s faculty adviser had to take off to attend to one of her children, who had developed a fever at school that day.  With 30 minutes before the Club meeting, I needed to make a new lesson plan.  Somehow, I was able to borrow an acoustic guitar from my boss’s brother.  The instrument hadn’t been tuned in a while, and the high E string was missing, but that was enough; I know a few songs that only use the bottom 5 strings.  Scrambling, I printed out 5 copies of the lyrics to “Time of Your Life” by Green Day, cut them into strips of individual lines, and stuffed them into 5 envelopes.  I figured I could play the song while teams of students listened and raced to piece together the lyrics.  With help from several staff, I turned my section of the Town Office from International Relations into Arts and Crafts, and managed to make it to the high school with a few minutes to spare.

In the car I wondered, should I have picked a simpler song?  Are Green Day’s metaphors about life’s mysteries and the inevitable passage of time comprehensible in translation when they’re coming from a guy who hasn’t even sung their tune in 5 years?

Apparently, yes.  The students had little difficulty piecing the lyrics together, and with one and a half run-throughs of the song we had a winning team.  The victors got first pick from the Concord-themed gifts I had brought as prizes, but eventually all 17 girls had their choice among an array of Paul Revere and Minuteman key chains, Concord militia ribbons, and Walden Pond magnets.

I’m not sure if I’ll need a guitar again for English Club, but I wouldn’t be surprised.   Even if I cannot play one in my apartment for fear of offending my neighbors, I expect it will come in handy for future events at the high school, in my community English classes at the Onuma Seminar House, or in my classes at various nursery and elementary schools that start in January.

…To be continued…

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New CIR Arrives in Nanae

By Ben Mirin, CIR

I arrived in Nanae under the weight of three checked bags and an additional checking fee.  10,300 Yen, approximately $123.  My second carry-on bag, a red Delsey roll-a-board, usually skirts past security in American airports, but officials at Haneda Airport were careful to enforce the rules on size limitations.

First contact

The flight from Haneda AP to Hakodate was the final leg of a journey that began in Concord, Massachusetts at 5:15am.  An early flight from Boston to Newark, a 20-hour flight from Newark to Tokyo, and a night in the Narita AP Rest House had preceded it.  Still, my spirits were soon lifted.  The Section Chief and International Relations staff from Nanae’s General Affairs Section greeted me with hot tea and a 12-foot banner welcoming me to Nanae.

Left to right: Kouji Teraya, Ben Mirin (CIR), and Azuma Miyata

After first contact and official greetings, our group got into the car and drove to the apartment building that would be my home for at least the next year.  My coworker, Emi Kimura, speaks fluent English, and she translated for me and my bosses as we drove beneath heavy cloud cover and a light mist left by a large snow storm two days before.

The apartment was a studio, and spacious by Japanese standards. I unloaded my luggage and prepared for a crash landing on the futon, but the night had just begun. My coworkers planted me back in the minivan they had borrowed to transport my baggage, and out we went for dinner.

Kaiten sushi. I have eaten sushi in the States many times before, but nothing could have prepared me for the sight I beheld inside this restaurant. Platters of beautifully prepared morsels were circulating on a conveyor belt that snaked its way around three dining areas and a fully stocked sake bar. Waitresses scurried up and down the aisles like clockwork, answering calls from buzzers located in the individual dining booths. Why diners used these call buttons was a mystery to me, as the parade of fish, egg, tempura, and vegetables held my full attention.

There was no time for hesitation. I grabbed small servings of sushi as they came until I had an assortment of platters decorating the table in blots of soft color. Food served in kaitensushi adds up dangerously quickly, and we soon had our individual collections of small plates in stacks of ten or more. Washed down with cups of green tea from the faucet at the head of the table, this meal almost put me to sleep. If I weren’t so obsessive about unpacking my bags I truly would have crashed into bed when I arrived home.

flickr photo courtesy of jetalone (CC licensed)

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