Posts about daily life in Nanae, Japan

A Visit to Ohnakayama Common

By Ben Mirin, CIR

Camera Operator: Emi Kimura

Last week I made a special visit to Ohnakayama Common, Nanae’s beloved community center. I wanted to learn more about this important gathering place and its role in Nanae daily life, and to provide prospective visitors from Concord and beyond with an inside look at the rich variety of activities it can offer.

The clubs featured in this video are Ball-Tennis and Choir, respectively. The Common is also host to many clubs dedicated to traditional Japanese arts, including flower arrangement (Ikebana), tea ceremony, and Japanese martial arts. Finally, it is the site for the majority of the eikaiwa (pronounced “Ay kai wah,” meaning English conversation) classes that I teach every week.

Read more

Lost in Translation: Lessons from a Japanese Business Letter

by Ben Mirin, CIR

If I had to summarize one of the letters I recently translated from Japanese to English, it would boil down to this: Thanks, but no thanks.

Nearly every week at my job I am handed one kind of official document or another, with an original copy in Japanese and my coworker’s increasingly excellent attempts at a first translation.  With each letter my job becomes easier, not simply because I have more experience with Japanese, but, perhaps more noticeably, because my coworker’s written English is improving dramatically with each passing day.

Most of these documents have a direct connection to my work.  I know the addressee and the signatory, and have been briefed on the topic of their exchange.  Every now and then, though, a letter ends up on my desk for which I have no context at all.

My first translation job dealt with just such a letter.

The note informed its recipient, a foreign resident of Hakodate, that after careful consideration she did not qualify for a position as an English teacher in a local community program.  In my eyes, everything about the letter seemed fine until it elaborated that her spouse was vastly more qualified for the job.

Apparently, from the start of the practice classes–in which the applicant was essentially ‘interviewed’–her husband was present.  Far more confident in his command of English, he ended up leading the conversations and answering students’ questions single-handedly.  With a couple exceptions, our prospective teacher remained silent the entire time.

Why this gentleman took control of his wife’s interview is a question I cannot answer, but he was understandably popular with the students in these practice classes.

“They liked him a lot,” the letter explained, and “could see that you [the applicant] were very nice and sincere, but they were concerned that you could not speak about topics that interested them, such as travel, news and politics. Many students would join the class if you and your husband would teach together, but we know this would be impossible.”

Following all this was a suggestion that the applicant teach cooking classes instead.

I’m familiar with the concept of a denial letter; I’ve received several of them.  What I couldn’t understand was why this one was cluttered with so many extraneous details that, from my perspective, seemed only to add insult to injury. Read more

10 Things I Didn’t Think I Would Need in Nanae, Japan (Part 3)

By Ben Mirin, CIR

3. Photographs of my family and of Concord, MA

Recently, I prepared a PowerPoint presentation about myself for all of the English classes I will start teaching in the coming months. The presentation is framed almost entirely around the most common questions I’ve received from locals during my first week in Nanae.  They are, in no particular order:

  • Who is in your family? How old are they and what are their names?
  • Where does your last name come from?  (I half-expected this question because of my name’s convenient overlap with a popular Japanese cooking wine, but in reality, it has more to do with my distinct position as a foreigner in Nanae.)
  • Do you have friends back home?  What are they like?
  • What are your hobbies?
  • What is your favorite food? (Best to pick a Japanese dish, and doing so isn’t hard.  Japanese food is generally delicious.)
  • Where have you traveled?
  • Where did you go to university?  What did you study?
  • What is your favorite color?
  • Have you ever studied Japanese? (This one’s easy: Hai demo sukosidakedesu.  Mada jozuja arimasenn.)

Obviously the content of my slides will change somewhat depending on my audience, but the basic idea will be the same.  These are some sample slides from my first presentation at Nanae High School:
CIR Presentation Read more

Christmas in Hakodate

By Ben Mirin, CIR

Happy Holidays from!

The following video showcases one of the many performances at the center of Hakodate Christmas Fantasy, a holiday festival that draws crowds from around Hokkaido for a full month of public events and spectacles.  The stage shown here is set in front of the city’s tremendous Christmas tree, which was transplanted from Hakodate’s Canadian sister city, Halifax.

After braving whipping winter winds to watch these performances, I would recommend that any visitor to Hakodate Christmas Fantasy head straight for the nearest Ramen shop.  These restaurants will likely be less crowded than places like the Hakodate Beer Hall, where I chose to eat my meal.  The food (and beer) was delicious, but if you’re not content waiting up to 1 hour for your table then roadside Ramen is the way to go (most places will have some form of indoor seating, whether in the shop or in a retrofitted truck trailer).

Read more

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?

Read more