Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Cross-Blog Plug

Shlemazl tagged me not too long ago (relatively speaking), and I finally followed through on the Snabulus web log. Visit the site and have a look (and browse a bit while you're there).

For now I'll leave you with a typically cool astronomy-oriented picture from QUASAR9's awesome sight site:

Saturday, April 28, 2007

A Flower, A Thunderstorm

What a surprise to find you here,
Back from your city home
To see the faces you hold dear,
The halls you used to roam.

The face I see...there's no mistake;
A girl I knew so well,
Now sharing today's coffee break
With many a tale to tell.

Outside a flash and then a BOOM
And soon a driving rain.
But now here in the music room
I recall an old pain.

Yes, I can see you're older now.
You've been gone for a while.
The girl's a woman come of age,
But still she has that smile!

I remember you in seventh grade,
So spunky, kind of dingie.
You smiled as though you had it made
Struggling with that cello thingy.

We never thought you'd get the hang
Of that monstrosity,
But after a while that cello sang,
And you smiled beautifully.

In ninth grade you were present in
My Oral English class.
From in the back, a pleasant grin
Stood out among the mass.

Your class had many problems, but
You were not ever one.
You struggled hard to make the cut,
And made it look like fun.

Eleventh grade made you a part
Of the upper echelon
Of the music club, your favored art,
But it quickly went all wrong.

They picked a leader who wouldn't lead,
A committee that wouldn't commit,
We knew you'd be the one we'd need;
The one good part of it.

Your patience and your able brain
Came through when balls were dropped.
You smiled oft through bitter pain,
But still you never flopped.

Your final concert came, and you
Were to interview me.
But somehow you did not come through;
I took it personally.

But then I overheard you cry
On Mr. Sakuma's shoulder,
And then there was no question why.
I felt guilty...and much older.

A teenage crush is nothing new;
It's something soon forgot,
But it seemed I had affected you
More deeply than I'd thought.

You never knew what I'd heard you say,
And it was for the best.
You graduated, went your way,
And the matter lay to rest.

But still you sometimes came to mind,
I'd wonder what you'd become.
I've seen so many minds go blind
And wind up cold and dumb.

Two years ago we met by chance
In a Narita department store.
Wild hair and jeans, you were dressed to dance!
Yet your smile was as before.

You looked so wild and so free,
Your youthful fire so bright.
It brought a warmth inside of me,
And I drove home happy that night.

But now you look more educated,
A woman of poise and class,
More polished, more sophisticated,
No more a dingie lass!

The wild hair is tied back now,
A dress instead of jeans.
A different spark, but there, and how!
You've left behind your teens.

This country bulb bloomed in Tokyo,
A flower so lovely and bright!
I think this minstrel had better go;
There's a poem he needs to write.

Perhaps that's why this tempest came
With such a sudden start.
Three years ago perhaps the same
Was happening in your heart.

Welcome back, Y, and best wishes!

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Birthdays and Electronic Family Politics

In 2004 Nintendo released the DS hand-held game system in Japan. Anticipating a huge demand, they produced large numbers of them, but the results were disappointing. The DS didn't sell nearly as well as expected, apparently owing to its being larger and more cumbersome than the Sony PSP. Stores wound up with considerable surplus inventories even though they were virtually dumping them in the end. This led to the 2006 release of the smaller, lighter, and more streamlined DS Lite in 2006. Nintendo decided to play it safe anyway, and production was intentionally limited in favor of the Wii TV game system. Such thinking turned out to be prudent in the U.S., as sales of the DS Lite have apparently been reasonable but moderate there. In Japan, however, it has been a disaster, for the DS Lite turned out to be a smash hit here. Even now they are extremely difficult to find; stores receive shipments of them only irregularly, never with any prior announcement, and stocks are sold out within days. It is also not uncommon for unscrupulous individuals (read "mobsters") to scoop up entire stocks and then hawk them online at up to three times the list price. The only way to obtain one is either by sheer luck or by going to some pretty extreme measures.

One of my ex-pat friends here showed me his DS Lite (which he'd bought in America), and I immediately fell in love with it. I didn't care so much about playing games, as I haven't done much of that since the end of the 90s. However, I really liked the adult brain-training exercises. I also saw the machine's tremendous value as a tool for learning kanji. It didn't take long for me to make up my mind to buy one. The only problem, of course, was finding one in the first place. I searched for months and kept coming up empty.

Then I found out about one store in Kamisu that does something so ridiculously simple that I wonder why others don't do the same: they import DS Lites back from the U.S.. The American-made machines are exactly the same as the Japanese ones. The only difference is that they come in a box printed with the principal European languages, have instruction manuals printed in the same languages, and come preset in English. Even the AC recharge adapter is the same. Of course, shipping and import duties add a bit to the cost, but it's still a lot less than the outrageous markups one finds on the internet. I finally went to that store. They had a couple of American-made ones left, both black, so I snapped one up. I was VERY happy I did, too, for I put that machine to heavy use.

Of course, my kids were both VERY happy I got that DS Lite, too...till I told them they could only touch it when and if I gave them permission. I definitely did not want them to:

  • spend all their time playing with it instead of doing their homework
  • break it
  • get it all dirty
  • take it to school or lend it to friends and not get it back
  • run the battery down to zero before I even got to it.

No, I wasn't altogether nice about it. However, things weren't quite so simply. You see, all the kids' friends had DSs and/or DS Lites. (In fact, one reportedly has TEN of the things...which makes me wonder how many fingers his dad has how the hell his parents got them.) The fact that my kids were practically the only ones in the school with no portable game devices of their own really singled them out as square pegs. My getting a DS Lite but holding it just out of their reach made things even more frustrating for them.

That's why I decided to get one for my daughter for her birthday. Her birthday being in late April, not long after the start of the new fiscal year, I figured chances would be better than usual for finding a DS Lite. No such luck. In between work on the house and the start of the new school year, I combed the toy and electronics shops and came up short. Finally I gave up and went to that toy store in Kamisu again to get an American-made one. Lo and behold, they had one in stock that was pink, my daughter's favorite color, so I grabbed it, feeling very pleased with myself.

Four days later I went shopping at a department store in Narita, and...wouldn't you know it! Their toy store had Japanese-made DS Lites in stock...but only pink ones! If I had only waited I would have paid 25% less! Oh, well. My daughter didn't know the difference; she was just tickled when she opened the package.

Unfortunately, my son was not. He went totally ballistic. "Even though I got good scores on my tests...," he moaned before running into the other room and bawling his head off. (I'm not sure which is worse, his being so damned spoiled or the implied accusation of our being education parents...) Later I promised him that, if he got good results and good behavior reviews on his next report card, I'd get him a DS Lite, too. (I know, I sue me!) That cheered him up. Of course, there's the issue of finding one...preferably not pink or black...but that's another story. If worse comes to worse, I can always grit my teeth and get another American one.

Today was the day after my daughter's birthday, and she had a DS party here at her house. She proudly sported her new, pink DS Lite, and my son borrowed mine. One friend had a white DS Lite, and the other had a green DS (original model). They played games and chatted using the wireless interfaces. Nifty trick, that. It kept them all quiet and out of trouble for almost two full hours.

It also apparently caused our phone to conk out. It stayed dead from the time of the four-way wireless DS session until I reinitialized my ADSL modem. Weird. I guess the modem is sensitive to electromagnetic waves, and those DS things must pump out a lot of 'em. I can only wonder what that does to the kids brains...or their genes.

Oh, well. At least I get my brain-training!

Sunday, April 22, 2007

And Then There Was...

As of today, the home renovation is DOOONNNNNNE!!!!!

My uncle-in-law told us we should buy all our new light fixtures this weekend to be ready for when the electrician decided to show up to do the final touches. Guess what? The electrician showed up yesterday...several days earlier than the earliest expected. Since my wife and I were both at work, my uncle-in-law ran out and got the light fixtures himself (and I'm very happy with his judgment in the matter!). Even more amazing, the electrician came again this morning to do the last two outlets, and he also took the opportunity to fix my satellite TV antenna and connection, which had been out of commission for more than two months. After all the griping about the guy, he was the one who finally saved the day.

The interior decorating team was very efficient and professional, and they were also a decent lot. They wrapped up the wallpapering and ceiling work yesterday, and we expect our order-made curtains to be here in a few days.

As for the father-and-son roofing/siding team, the contractors who spent by far the most time with us, they finally completed their enormous project of stainless steel roofing, aluminum siding, new gutters and drainpipes, and repairs of some longstanding flaws in the house's existing roof design (and yes, they did fix the skylight the old man broke when doing the roofing...and he did a good job of it, I might add), packed up their voluminous supply of gear (and their adorable, little dog), and went back to Tonosho this afternoon. It was kind of sad; they were almost beginning to feel like family...and the toothless, old man who heads up the duo is simply awesome.

My uncle-in-law caught his plane back to Hokkaido this morning. I don't think we can thank the man enough, but I think we were all heaving as much of a sigh of relief as he was.

My wife and I spent the day dusting, waxing the new flooring, and moving furniture into position. A lot of it, including our sofas, had been outside wrapped in tarps for quite some time. Several of our cabinets and bookshelves had been out there for more than two months. Now we're welcoming it all back into the family...and trying to figure out where best to put it all. We're also eyeing all those boxes of stuff that have been filling up the halls and stairway for weeks...but that will have to wait till tomorrow.

Then again, we may just say "phuggit", hop in my BLUE RAV4, and take off for a long-awaited and much-deserved day of doing ABSOLUTELY NOTHING. Hopefully the post-endeavor blues won't drag us down too much.

Once we get things in a bit better semblance of order I promise I'll post some pics. For now I'll just enjoy the new abode a bit with just my family, if you don't mind!

(Where're my guitars??!? DIG OUT THE GUITARS!!!!!)

Friday, April 13, 2007

Wood You Happen to Know?

I find it somehow ironic that the two trees that cause the most allergy-related grief in this country are also the ones whose wood is most commonly used for building. In my native Oregon houses are usually made of fir or spruce lumber. Here in Japan, however, the overwhelming majority use sugi (Japanese cedar, though it's actually related to the redwood) and/or hinoki (Japanese cypress).

I have discussed this issue (between sneezes) before, but the main reason sugi and hinoki are so prevalent in Japan is because of the post-war reconstruction effort. In fact, they were originally nowhere near as widespread as they are now, but virtually all of Japan's forests were logged into extinction from the closing months of WWII on account of a chronic shortage of wood. All of these were subsequently replanted with sugi and/or hinoki, partly because of their value as timber, but mainly because they grow so fast. However, though both trees are notorious for their evil pollen attacks on humanity, the wood they produce is really quite different.

Planks of sugi

Sugi wood is the cheaper of the two and by far more common. It is reddish-pink in color, coarse grained, and has a wonderful, sweet, oily fragrance similar to cedar (which may be why it's called the "Japanese cedar" even though it's more closely related to the California redwood). It is lightweight, resilient, and highly resistant to decay. However, it is actually kind of brittle. Though it holds up well against constant pressure, it is relatively easy to split with a sharp blow and easy to cut with a saw. That makes sugi a very workable wood but also limits its reliability in some applications.

A hinoki board

Hinoki wood is less common, of course, and it is highly prized. High-quality types can be very expensive. It is a very beautiful, yellow-white or pale pink wood with a smooth or marbled grain, and it has a tangy, lemon-like scent when fresh cut. Like sugi, it resists both decay and insect pests, but it is also a heavier and far stronger wood. It can be quite hard to split with impact alone and can withstand a considerable amount of bending. Depending on the quality and the grain, it can also be hard to cut with a saw. Needless to say, hinoki is an excellent wood for building, but its expense and sometimes limited availability mean it isn't universally used.

When my home renewal project started, I noticed that the overwhelming majority of the boards that we tore out, including the main beams, were sugi (albeit of good quality). The rebuild, however, has mainly made use of hinoki for the main beams and planks (mainly because my wife and I are more willing to pay for it!). Some of those new support pillars are as beautiful as they are heavy...and hopefully will last a long time. Meanwhile, sugi's role has mainly been restricted to the smaller planks and slats in the walls and ceiling. Those do tend to get cut a lot, meaning the area around the saws tends to smell pretty good!

My only regret was that the house used to have beautiful hinoki plank flooring. We had a small child when we first moved in, so I decided to reduce the draftiness and hardness by covering all of it with vinyl on the ground floor. I'd hoped simply to take the vinyl off later, but when the renewal project started we found the flooring tape had made mincemeat of the hinoki's surface. My uncle-in-law declared it useless and replaced it with veneer flooring (which he claims is stronger and safer anyway). The original hinoki floor can still be seen in the upstairs hallway, however, so I guess it's not a total loss.

Incidentally, cleanup has also revealed another important difference between the two woods. Sugi ignites readily and burns both very quickly and very hotly, making it an excellent firestarter. As for hinoki, its shavings and chips burn well, but boards of any size don't ignite so easily and tend to burn only very slowly. A lot of older and/or cheaper Japanese houses use sugi as their primary (if not sole) building material, which probably explains why they tend to wind up piles of ash quickly if any fire breaks out. Newer homes, on the other hand, tend to have hinoki frames, making them a bit more fire resistant. Even so, the best way to avoid having one's house burned down is not to do anything that might cause it to catch fire in the first place!

The main construction is DONE!!! All we have left is the little tidbits of interior decorating...and figuring out where to put everything. Then I promise I'll post some pictures!

Friday the 13th

Are you superstitious?

Do you believe in luckstones, rabbit's feet, four-leaf clovers, lucky numbers, and so on? Would you be worried if you walked under a ladder, broke a mirror, had your path bisected by a black cat, cut your toenails at night, received a gift that was of a certain numerical quantity, or had a strap on your sandal break?

What about Friday the 13th?

Let me tell you about mine...

Yesterday we finally got our new toilet put in. We were told we'd only have to wait three days, but it wound up being three weeks thanks to a plumber moonlighting as a farmer (helping plant other people's fields). It's a beaut of a toilet, too; my wife and I both decided to splurge a bit. We chose it from the catalogue because it had a heated seat, a bidet, and a built-in cabinet. It also looked really cool. We never dreamed that it would be a fully-automated, sensor-laden device that would automatically open the lid for you and start the fan when you enter the room, and then flush and close everything up without you having to do anything except your trousers. It also plays mp3 files from an SD card! Now THAT'S what I call a TOILET!

Guess what? This morning I discovered a nice puddle of water all over the floor behind the new toilet. The damned thing leaks. The plumber said he's coming again today. Let's hope it doesn't wind up turning into another week.

My first lessons with the 9th grade (disaster) class are giving me a very good indication of what's to come this year. For the most part they were kind of fun, but I'm already feeling worn out. These kids may be the death of me.

As for our new 7th graders, over the past five days we've had two violent assaults, three potentially serious bullying incidents, one serious theft, and nearly half a dozen boys with worrisome attitude problems (which may all be interconnected). Not even our most notorious problem classes to date have ever had so many issues during the first week. At least the grade staff is getting on it immediately and landing on it hard, thankfully avoiding the "Just keep smiling and talking nice, and they'll come around" approach used to such horrendous (ill) effect by our current 9th and 12th grade crews when they were grade 7. Most of the kids seem okay, though. I hope (optimistically) that this is all just teething troubles...or a Friday the 13th fluke.

At least I don't have any students named Jason...or Freddie, for that matter!

UPDATE: Well, as if to add insult to injury, not long after I wrote the above post I began feeling a little weak and dizzy. A little later I had to supervise my 7th grade cleaning crew (who did a very good job, by the way), and I began feeling progressively worse, to the point that I came very close to fainting a couple of times. I went to the dispensary as soon as the cleaning was done. By then I was pale, shaky, and feeling chills, but I had no temperature. A quick check showed my blood pressure was normal, but my heart was beating more than 90 bpm. The nurse told me to lie down for an hour, which I did, and I fell asleep immediately. After that I checked my temperature again, and I was more than a degree below normal, a symptom the nurse said was actually common before the onset of a high fever. The flu is going around at Ye Olde Academy right now, so I feared the worst as I immediately left the school and slowly drove home, focusing on the car in front of me. I made it home okay and took a two-hour nap. I never did develop a fever, but I'm still feeling languid and shaky...wondering what the heck's the matter.

Oh, and the plumber did fix the toilet, thank goodness.

Monday, April 09, 2007

A Bad Springtime Omen?

On Pandabonium's Pacific Islander site, he recently talked about the people enjoying hanami (lit. "flower-viewing") parties at Kashima's Shiroyama (lit. "Castle Mountain") Park as the famous cherry trees there are in bloom.

Meanwhile, only a couple hundred meters away, the equally well-known cherry blossom display along the road into the campus of Ye Olde AcademyTM...


It's really rather bizarre, too.

We were all worried that the unusual winter weather might cause the trees to bloom too early, thus missing the beginning of the new school year in April. It turns out that that was the least of our problems. The blooms appeared only a little bit early, still close enough to be there when the kids started arriving, but there were scant few of them. There were lots of buds, though, so we figured there would be more blossoms coming. No dice. Instead, we got green leaves coming out way too soon. In simple terms, the usual explosion of pale pink that greets the new year didn't appear.

None of the teachers I know at the Academy have ever seen a phenomenon like this before, and they're all scratching their heads. Inevitably, some are worried that this might be a bad omen...that we're headed for a real problem year. Judging from the unbelievably obnoxious first-day behavior of some of our new 7th graders, not to mention the fact that both our 9th and 12th grade classes are notoriously problem-filled ones, I wouldn't be surprised.

Oh, well. There are plenty of other flowers to be found on our campus. Almost everywhere you look you can see daffodils, lilies, crocus, tulips, pansies, petunias, azaleas, and a whole bunch of others I can't name at the moment. Maybe the famous cherry blossoms have hidden their heads in the bark, but there is plenty of life and plenty of color to be seen at Ye Olde Academy.

I have my first classes for the new year tomorrow. Wish me luck.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

And Now for a Double Header...

I hope y'all will bear with me. I have to catch up on my Selba tags, as I currently have two pending (and am too soft-hearted just to ignore them). Anyway:

The first is to answer the question:

If I were to be marooned on an island, what five bloggers would I want to have there with me?

That question is a very difficult one, as it brings up all kinds of complicated issues such as survival necessities, psychological needs, group politics, social realities, sexual orientation, etc.. I also had to assume that, since she tagged me, Selba herself is automatically disqualified. Anyway, after a lot of careful thought, I came up with the following list:

Pandabonium - His impressive volume of wisdom would definitely come in handy when trying to survive on a tropical island, particularly since he has experience living on one!
Olivia - We could definitely use a touch of class to help keep us all sane (unless she goes insane first). Plus, I figure she could probably use a break from the madness that seems to be surrounding her these days.
FH2o - The master kayaker from Kuching would definitely be an asset, I think. He is experienced at sea kayaking around Pacific isles...and also seems to have a knack for turning just about any situation into an interesting experience.
Snabulus - I've known him a long time, and I trust his smarts, his outdoor skills, and his level-headedness (if you don't mind an occasional comment of "ass-wipe" or something of the sort). He'd also be very good at keeping us entertained.
Selba - Okay, I gave up and included her anyway. The first reason was that I figured we needed another (non-American) female member so Olivia wouldn't go nuts surrounded by all these eccentric, American guys. Also, since this whole thing is Selba's doing, anyway, it's only appropriate that she be dragged (drug?) into this, as well! I just hope she remembers her camera...

Okay, that's five. I hope we enjoy our island vacation with a minimum of bloodletting.
*** for tag number two. The rules:
1. Add a direct link to your post below the name of the person who tagged you.Include the state and country you’re in.
Nicole (Sydney, Australia)
velverse (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia)
LB (San Giovanni in Marignano, Italy)
Selba (Jakarta, Indonesia)
The Moody Minstrel (Namegata in Ibaraki Prefecture, Japan)

Okay, that's done.

2. List out your top 5 favorite places to eat at your location.

Ack. This is more difficult. I don't go out to eat nearly as much as I used to, and there's not really a whole lot in this area. Well, anyway, the places that I can think of are:

Wordsworth - My wife and I (and also apparently Pandabonium and his wife) are crazy about this place. It is a tiny, little Italian restaurant that is easy to miss if you blink at the wrong time (not to mention hard to get into during peak's quite popular and only seats a couple dozen at most). However, the food is excellent and the prices are reasonable. Their forte is spaghetti, of which they offer an interesting and very wide variety. They have a number of other dishes as well as some very good soups, salads, antipasto, and dessert. It's also a good idea to look at the blackboard encircling the main dining room to check out the day's specials.

Hananoren (華のれん) - This is an Osaka-style pub-restaurant which is only about a five-minute drive from my home in Namegata City. It is mainly designed as a venue for parties, but it also has a number of regular, private tables for ordinary dining. It is famous for the fact that it has over a hundred varieties of sake (rice wine) available, many of which are produced by small, local makers. However, my family goes there because they have an excellent variety of traditional Japanese food. Their selection of sushi and traditional Japanese pub food (much of which would qualify as fish bait in the West but is very tasty) is very good. I especially like their tokudai ebifurai teishoku ("jumbo fried prawn set menu"), a mixed course which includes some of the largest batter-fried prawns I've ever seen! My kids like their onigiri (rice balls), which may sound like ordinary fare, but theirs are HUGE! It's a little on the pricey side, but not bad, and I'd say it's worth it.

Yamucha - This colorful, little Chinese restaurant is one of a few scattered around our area. Unlike most Chinese restaurants I've seen here, it is actually owned and run by Chinese. It includes a few party rooms, a bar, and several tables for regular dining. The prices are a bit on the steep side, but not too bad, and you do get a fair amount of food for your money. We mainly like the place because it's convenient, but they do offer a good selection and make an enjoyable meal.

Bamiyan - This is a Chinese restaurant chain owned and run by Skylark (a very cheap family restaurant outfit). There are a number of them in our area. My wife and I can't decide whether we like it or Yamucha (above) better for Chinese food (each has its own good and bad points), but Bamiyan is certainly the less expensive of the two. It also has a lot more tables available, though its popularity means it's probably not any easier to get in. Its self-service drink bar includes several varieties of Chinese tea in addition to the usual soft drinks, and its seasonal specials are often a treat.

Mos Burger - There are many hamburger chains here in Japan including the familiar American favorites McDonalds and Wendy's (but NOT Burger King [aka Hungry Jack's] anymore!!!! WAAAAAAAH!!!!!). However, the best by far has to be the homegrown chain known as Mos Burger. They make hamburgers the way they should be: nice and gooey. They also have chili burgers and chilidogs as well as onion rings (rare here) and all-Japanese rice burgers! "Mossu", as it is affectionately known here, often has really good seasonal treats, such as nachos (with real guacamole...a rare treat in these islands), Indian-style curry-nan hotdogs (YUM!), and other surprises. Generally speaking, I don't eat hamburgers as much as I used to, but Mos Burger is a nice weekend treat when we go shopping at the big Besia shopping center at the other end of Namegata City.

<3. Tag 5 other people (preferably from other countries/states)[..and let them know they’ve been tagged]


Pandabonium - since he also lives in my area.
Leilouta - since she's a Tunisian woman living in the U.S..
YD - since she's a Malaysian woman living in the U.K..
Tooners - since she's an American woman living in Bahrain.
Ladybug - since, being the gourmet that she is, I'm curious to see what she comes up with.

Now...I'll be surprised if any of those tags are answered, but's all clean fun, right? Okay, that's a wrap.

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Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Rural Time and the Politics of Home Construction

The home renewal project taking place in my home is proceeding in leaps and bounds. The only problem is that it isn't leaping or bounding anywhere near quickly enough. We are over budget, behind schedule, and getting fed up with living in half a (dusty and cluttered) house with more than half of our worldly possessions boxed up and piled into corners. That's not meant to be any judgment on the work being done by my uncle-in-law, the carpenter who is overseeing the whole thing. He has been doing his job as best he can, but I'm sure he would tack a "considering the circumstances" onto that. He's getting even more frustrated than we are.

He has been a carpenter all his life. (Heck, he first built this house back when he was 19!) Up in Hokkaido, where he has lived most of his life, he mainly builds buildings for commercial interests, i.e. shops and office blocks, with a whole team of workers. Enlarging a house with only occasional help from a relative or two (who may or may not know what he's doing...or understand what he's saying...) isn't his usual cup of tea. Then there are the facts of home building here in this part of Ibaraki Prefecture. His frank opinion on the matter has been less than complimentary.

When he first arrived here to start work he quite naturally began by going to building supply shops to scope out materials. Ignoring dad-in-law's usual insistence on doing everything as cheaply as possible, he headed straight for the most reputable outlets...and dismissed almost everything he saw with a sigh of disgust.

"Don't people in Ibaraki know how to build houses?" he railed. "Up in Hokkaido no one in his right mind would use this kind of cheap junk!" He wasn't kidding, either. He went ahead and got most of his supplies locally, but he ordered a lot of things, such as the bathroom fixtures, doors, and windows, from outlets up in Hokkaido. Yes, it wound up driving the cost up more than a bit, but frankly I was happy. We have a heavy, insulated front door with triple locks, real wooden interior doors instead of fiberboard (read "heavy cardboard"), and shatter-proof, double-paned storm windows, something which has already caused some of our neighbors to do double-takes with disbelief. We're paying for it, but it's still a lot cheaper than getting a whole, new house...even though that's practically what we're getting.

Unfortunately, as it turns out, the quality of available materials isn't the only problem with home-building here in Ibaraki. You have to understand that Hokkaido is to Japan what Alaska is to the U.S.. It is the largest province, but it has a small and very spread out population with lots of beautiful wilderness in between. In summer, while the rest of Japan is withering under punishing heat and humidity, Hokkaido is comfortable and gorgeous, but in winter it is a frigid, snow-covered, lower plane of hell. Perhaps it is no surprise that the people up there, including my uncle-in-law, tend to do everything like they mean business. Not so here in Ibaraki. Ibarakiites have a long-standing reputation around the country for being stubborn, cantankerous, and having a tendency to do things only when they damned well feel like it. My uncle-in-law has been learning the hard way just how accurate that assessment can be, especially around here.

Take the plumber, for example. When our toilet and bathroom sink were disconnected and hauled away we were told that the new ones would be up and running in three days. Then three days turned into four, five, and then a week. Now it has been nine days, and the plumber only arrived to start the work today. The problem? Well, the man is not only a plumber but also a farmer (common around these parts). When the weather turned ornery and then suddenly mellowed last week, he decided it was time to do the planting. All his plumbing projects got put on hold until the thing with his fields was done, contract or no contract! (Unfortunately, his contract is with my father-in-law, not me. I might have threatened a lawsuit, since living with a two-income family of four in a bathroomless house for over a week is a damned nuisance, but dad-in-law will do anything and put up with anything to keep his reputation intact.)

The roofer was only a little better. It took him a while to get started, but once he did he showed up regularly and got things done quite well (and gave us a "preferred customer" discount to boot). Unfortunately, in the process he accidentally broke the connecting frame of our new skylight (an expensive one ordered from Hokkaido), so he took it home to fix it. It has now been over a week. The roof is more or less finished, but his tools and ladders are still all over the place, and our empty skylight is still covered with a vinyl tarp (which at least keeps the rain out...but is damned noisy when the wind blows). While I'm at it, I should also mention the home-delivering lumberman, who keeps forgetting to show up unless we call and remind him, but at least he's a nice guy...and the wood he brings is of excellent quality, one of few things that has made my uncle-in-law happy.

We've had the worst problems with the electrician. My uncle-in-law has explained to me that, in Hokkaido, the builders and the electricians involved with a project work independent of each other, but they still work together. The builders build the frames, the electricians put in the wires, the builders put up the walls, the electricians install the switches and outlets. It's that simple. They do their respective tasks, but they cooperate. Not so here, apparently. My uncle-in-law and a few helpers built the frames, and then they had to wait and do other things until the electrician decided to show up and put in the wires. (The arsewhole refused to acknowledge my uncle-in-law's existence, let alone speak to him, even though he casually helped himself to my uncle-in-law's tools without permission. He would only communicate with my father-in-law because he hired him.) Then my uncle-in-law got tired of waiting and started putting up the walls, and when the electrician finally showed up again a week later he immediately threw a fit because the locations for the holes for the switches and outlets hadn't been clearly marked out...technically HIS job...and he had no idea where he'd put them. My uncle-in-law offered to locate them for him, but the guy ignored him...and (over my uncle-in-law's protests) proceeded to punch holes in the wall where he guessed they might be...with my father-in-law standing nearby urging him on! I'm just thankful that only one of his holes was off I now have a 2cm-diameter hole in my bathroom wall. Needless to say, both my uncle-in-law and I were furious. (Again, I probably would've insisted he give me compensation or face me in court, but his contract is with "kiss their asses till they bleed favors" dad-in-law, not me.) We figure it'll be at least another week before the guy decides to show up again actually to hook up the switches and what-not.

The good news is that it's looking to be pretty good. The new main entrance and foyer are done, and the living room actually looks like a room now. There's not much more to go, and aside from the missing skylight and the hole in the bathroom wall, it actually looks pretty good. Hopefully we can get it all done soon without any nervous breakdowns, aggravated assaults, or murder in between.

Now if only I had an easier time understanding my uncle-in-law's instructions. He speaks with a very strong Tohoku dialect...

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