Saturday, November 20, 2010

A Tour of the Fukuoka City Library

I love libraries, a fact which may already be known to people who have read our old blogs. I was therefore totally willing to tag along to the Fukuoka City Public Library with our school's teacher supporter Kumi in exchange for her help in registering for a card. This is my first library card for a library not predominantly in English, which is fun, and led to some comical moments when they tried to figure out how to fit my massive 23-letter English first, middle, and last name plus the Japanese katakana transliteration into spaces meant for a name like "山口圭子."

Our school is just a few minutes by bike from the main branch, the exterior of which is pictured at the link above. It's quite large, and has a very good selection, although sadly I have yet to see a Library Cat. There is plenty of work space which I think Justin and I may use as it gets colder so we can do our grading somewhere besides the apartment.

Here's a peek at the gloriously English-subtitled floor map:

...and my section of interest, "International Materials"

If I were a film director, I'd be required to give you an "establishing shot" so you could figure out what this third floor looks like. So here it is, and please remember I had to do this in the middle of a library with my finger mushed down over the speaker on my camera that makes that digital shutter sound effect. The things I do for you...

The international section is sorted, as best I can determine, by region of publication, which does have the interesting effect of separating English-language UK books from English-language US or Australian books. America and Canada can be found together here:

The selection really isn't bad at all, considering this is a small city and English-speakers aren't necessarily the dominant foreign minority (that's probably Koreans; the Korean section is very large). You can see several good "literary" fiction options in the picture above, such as Orhan Pamuk's My Name is Red. I, however, am more interested in shelves like these, containing the entire Charlaine Harris Sookie Stackhouse series:

It is to my sorrow that I have to report a dearth of my beloved romance novels. Now, generally, I can spot these babies just by packaging from a long way away, so the books pictured below really got my hopes up. Alas, upon closer inspection: Russian, and perhaps not even romances. If I had to, though, I'd lay money that these are the Russian translations of somebody like Danielle Steele (who is not, believe it or not, actually a romance novelist - but that's an issue for another day). Leslie, any help?

Beyond the International Materials section was a wall display of books related to Fukuoka's sister cities, including Auckland, New Zealand, Bordeaux, France, Guangzhou, China, and Busan, South Korea. On the American side, we somehow ended up with both Oakland and Atlanta. I genuinely don't know what to make of that, but I think it might be an insult.

The library has an excellent selection of nonfiction in English, so a few days later I took my seniors over to do research for their history projects. They, of course, are multilingual. While walking with the Japanese kids through that section, I found the following English books translated into Japanese:

My mother loves the Miss Read books. At one point during my childhood we asked her what they were about, and what happened in them, and she said something to the effect of "Nothing. These are nice, gentle books where nothing ever happens." So congratulations, Mom: apparently the Japanese also like books where nothing happens - enough to translate and stock at least seven.

Final surreptitious shot: library checkout procedure:
Me being me, I lost track of the due dates and returned my first books about five days late. I was sweating when I went to return them, knowing I'd be confronted with universal librarian disapproval and incomprehensible explanations of late-fine procedures. I also don't really know my numbers yet, so I just took a large handful of coins (Japan's largest coin is worth about $5) and planned to hand them to her and trust her not to hose me on the change. This is the same strategy I use with the people who sell us baked goods at lunch.

After I returned the books, though, the librarian nodded at me and smiled for me to go. Puzzled, I held out some money and said, "Late? Fines?" in an appalling dumb American move which makes you wince while you do it but nevertheless is the only thing you can think of. She shook her head and waved at me. So either all new library users get a freebie, or she thought the language barrier would be more trouble than my fine was worth, and decided to give a dumb whitey a break. Hooray for incompetence!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

DMZ Dtour

Yep. That's me. With North Korea. Not as good as the later picture of me actually, technically, IN North Korea. But let us rewind a bit and see how it all came to pass.

Once upon a time, I was hired here to teach history. But history teachers often end up with weird collateral duties to fill out their teaching schedule, which is why, although Justin has been only an English teacher, I have taught, besides history, Grade 9 Information Technology, IB Information Technology in a Global Society, elementary school theater, and first grade art. And, here at FIS, Model United Nations, for which, I learned rather suddenly, there is a conference in Seoul in November, a scant 10 weeks after my arrival in Japan.

So I rolled up my sleeves and got underway. Eventually, after hotels which would not accept student bookings, hotels which were actually love motels, mystery fees, and a last-minute hold on a funding request, we got there and back in one piece. To my delight, the parents unanimously opted for an extended itinerary, which gave us a full day to go up to the DMZ, which Justin and I actually never got around to doing during our Korea days.

Not that Justin got around to it this time, either. Since South Koreans can't go to the DMZ except under unusual circumstances, he stayed behind with our two South Korean students to do university campus tours. So it was me and seven 9th graders for the DMZ trip. Hopefully Justin can go next year.

We took the USO tour, booked through Koridoor. I was freaked out about getting there in time, since you have to be at the base at 7:30 AM, which meant a minimum 6 AM hotel departure, but we ended up fortuitiously. On the morning of our tour, the JSA was in use for a formal repatriation of some North Korean soldiers whose bodies were recovered in South Korea after some flooding. (No, I don't mean that it was fortuitous that they died... that's too bad. But since it had already happened, it was nice that someone could send the bodies home, and even nicer that it had to happen on a convenient morning for us, and did not result in canceling our visit entirely).

First landmark: the Unification Bridge. Note the many barriers to unification of the involuntary sort.

According to the tour guide (who, by the way, was totally enchanted to have a Japanese student group), it is often called the cow bridge. Evidently the founder of Hyundai, who was born in North Korea, brought one cow with him to South Korea when he started his new life here, and his entire fortune grew out of that cow. A few years back, he sent 1,001 cows back to his home village. According to this web version of the story, he pilfered the original cow and sent the thousand and one out of guilt.

We went to the third invasion tunnel but I left my camera on the bus. I have two dominant memories of this. First, when they say the access tunnel is steep, it is STEEP. And it's about 350 meters long, which in American terms is like three football fields. A long time to walk at a 20 degree angle!

Second, we have one student who's 6'4. I remember the melodious sounds of the rock tunnel pinging off his helmet like popcorn every thirty seconds, when he'd forget to hunch up and clonk his head on the low ceiling. Of course, we also had two girls who didn't have to duck at all.

After the Third Tunnel comes Dora Observatory. This is where you can look at North Korea through those little tourist binoculars, including their compensatory giant flag and flagpole in the Propaganda Village.

You're not allowed to take pictures up at the wall - you have to stay in this painted yellow box. So I handed the camera over to students and scooted back out for a shot.

On to Dorasan (Dora Mountain) station, where the train track runs all the way through to North Korea but the train, alas, does not. My student photobomber's face has been blurred to protect his nefarious identity.

And then we got to the real meat of the trip: the trip to the JSA (Joint Security Area) Panmunjom. This United Nations base, located within the DMZ itself, is primarily staffed by USA and South Korean (ROK) troops, all of which must be specially selected for duty, including spotless civilian and military records. We had a short historical and security briefing from our soldier guide:
... which, as a teacher, I found extremely well presented. Very impressed. Nicely selected, US Army.

If you zoom in on the picture below, you can see the dotted yellow Military Demarcation Line which separates North and South Korea passing through red (DPRK) and blue (UN) buildings. This means that if you go to the opposite end of one of the blue buildings, you are technically standing on North Korean soil. Clearly I would do this.

More contractor-era flashbacks for me in this room. Seriously, it's still 1956 on most US bases, at least as far as color scheme and decor. Somewhere, I heard, there is a Navy computer that still runs on vacuum tubes.

You take a bus through a restricted photography area to a large building originally intended to host reunion ceremonies for Korean families. Unfortunately, North Korea won't allow its citizens to cross over into South Korea for the reunions (suspecting, no doubt, that they won't get them back), and therefore the building is not much use except as a platform for copious amounts of surveillance equipment.

The soldiers explain to you how you have to walk in two straight lines, without making any attempt to communicate, verbally or Top Gun style, with the North Korean guards. Your image is constantly documented (hence the DMZ tour dress code, lest you make the West look bad) and could, at best, turn up in propaganda, or at worst provoke an incident. It's very sobering to stand there with our soldier guide and realize that he had met me about ten minutes ago and would nevertheless be prepared to die to bail me out if I did something stupid. Mighty people, those US Army soldiers.

I snapped this picture really quickly on our way into the conference building:

In the zoomed version, you can count at least eight North Korean guards on the rooftop. The Korean guide told us that was very unusual; normally, there is only one guard. Lo and behold, when we came back out, all those extra guards had vanished. So I'm glad I took this shot.

You can see the Korean guards, who appear to be standing, strangely, half behind a building, staring at a wall:

Our soldier guide explained that this was to minimize their exposure and time to take cover if shooting broke out.

Finally, in the conference room, the shot you've all been waiting for: one foot in the free world, and one foot in the DPRK: TheSenseitions brings you... North Korea!

It's my right foot on the Communist side. I could feel it, imbued with class spirit, inciting the left foot to rise up against being so downtrodden. To which the practical capitalist left foot replied, "I'm a foot. What's she supposed to trod on, her hands?"

I'm on the DPRK side in this picture with the South Korean soldier, as well:

You're allowed to take pictures with them as long as you don't interfere with their duties. It is a bit weird to try to decide what facial expression is most appropriate for a semi-war zone photo with a soldier. I settled for this awkward half-smile.

The ROK soldier's awesome sunglasses are intended as a facial expression blocker. The posture is called, if I remember correctly, "ROK-ready," and is a modified Taekwondo stance. I was so busy looking at stuff that I missed the first half of a story about the North Korean end of the conference room. I believe it had to do with watching a door, or running equipment; I'm not sure. Anyway, for some reason, when individual South Korean soldiers had to go down to that end of the room, North Koreans would grab them and try to pull them out the door into the North's territory. They are only allowed down there now in pairs, with one doing the job I didn't hear and the other holding on to him so he can't be pulled out.

There are miniature UN country flags in glass cases on the wall, apparently because North Koreans used to disrespect the full-size flags with nose-blowing, boot-polishing, butt-wiping, and the like. (No word on if this was actual butt-wiping, or pantomime... hopefully pantomime). The conference tables also have footprints on them, which the US soldier said was from North Koreans jumping up on the tables. This makes the DMZ conference room sound a lot like a monkey house at the zoo, and way more interesting than any meetings I ever sat through when I worked for the government.

There have not been violent incidents at the DMZ in a very long time, but they have happened. The most notorious is probably the Ax Murder Incident of 1976. A UN detachment, out to trim branches off a tree obscuring visibility between two guard posts, were attacked by North Koreans with the tree-trimming axes. American Capt. Bonifas and Lt. Barrett were both killed. You can read more about North Korea's eminently predictable propaganda response on the Wikipedia article (hint: it involves the phrase "American imperialist aggressors"). You can also get the details of the UN follow-up, Operation Paul Bunyan, in which the tree was cut by two eight-man teams, with two 30-man security backups, with a 64-man special forces squad, under the supervision of attack helicopters, B-52s, and an aircraft carrier. When America sets out to trim a tree, it trims a flipping tree.

This monument commemorates the spot of that erstwhile poplar.

A few parting shots. First, what the actual border between North and South Korea looks like:

Pretty much like a ravine in Southeastern Ohio, actually. I remember when I first got to China as an exchange student, I felt vaguely disappointed that it felt just like the US. My students walked around the conference table into North Korea before the soldier guide explained that it wasn't South Korea anymore, and were quite startled to realize they'd gone over without even noticing it. Somebody should do something about this.

Finally, the Bridge of No Return.

After the war, North Korean and South Korean POWs were allowed to choose which side to be repatriated to. Southerners who went North were notified that this was it; they would not have a chance to change their minds: hence the "No Return" part. It's been sixty years since the war now, so some of those soldiers might still be around to see a day when they can go back over, but that window closes all the time.

Three-Story-House on a Parking Space

It should come as no surprise that land is kind of a big deal here in Japan. They don't really have a lot of it per person, and a lot of what they do have is chock full o' mountains. Luckily, in the sleepy little backwater of Fukuoka (pop. 1.5 million), real estate isn't all that bad. It really shows up when you want to buy a car and you realize that one of the preconditions of doing so is obtaining proof that you've paid for a parking space--but hey, with all the bikes and the public transportation, it's not even something most people encounter in these parts.

But meanwhile, in Tokyo, you have people buying parking spaces . . . and turning them into half-million-dollar homes. Seriously: check out this post from Gizmodo. Some guy bought a large parking space and built a house for himself and his mother.

Sadly, from the video it looks like the place is still bigger than our first apartment back in Alexandria, VA . . .

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Sanma Season

This week, our Japanese teacher informed us that it's sanma season in Japan. Sanma, which literally means "autumn knife," is a vaguely mackerel-like fish that we often see jumping along the surface of the water here in Fukuoka. To the Japanese, grilled or pan-fried sanma is an autumn classic, the equivalent of apple cider or pumpkin pie. It's also super cheap (about $1 per fish) and incredibly healthy: basically, it's packed with all the good stuff you find in wild salmon, only moreso.

But the most important question: how does it taste?

Nana and I decided to find out by picking up some sanma of our own. The preferred method of preparation is very simple: take a gutted whole fish and grill it or pan fry it without any added oil (sanma is oily enough). Lacking a grill, we (and by "we" I mean "Nana") went with the latter, and took the added step of flouring the fish lightly to prevent charring.

The result didn't look very appetizing, and it took quite a bit of nifty handling to separate the meat from the bones--but the fish itself was delicious: rich like mackerel, but a lot less fishy. The Japanese add a little citrus and some pickled radish, but we thought it tasted just fine on its own.

Downside: the stuff smells very fishy as it cooks!