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August 16, 2006: Kumagaya City/ Saitama Prefecture

Woke up in Nihon (the usual native name for Japan, rather than Nippon) feeling rather rested, which is surprising considering how little sleep we’ve had.

We learned that we broke the law by bringing a banana into Japan, which is very strict about prohibiting plants from outside the country. We don’t know why it wasn’t brought to our attention during all the red tape at the airports. They didn’t let us bring water, hair gel, toothpaste, or nail clippers, but a gun-shaped fruit made it through???

at-the-table1After ko-cha (black tea) and asa-gohan (breakfast), we headed out for a day of browsing at a shopping mall. We have many ideas about specific sites to visit, but really the sights are just as fascinating as the sites. In other words, it’s quite “tanoshi” (enjoyable) to just drive around with your eyes wide open (as they always should be when driving) and just absorb the local colors and flavor.

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IMGA3750Today was rather overcast, but quite humid and sticky. We heard that it’s typhoon season, and so we might get some heavy rain soon.

We passed by a fire station, and noticed several firemen going through a military-style drill. On another block, a group of gentlemen were playing a game similar to golf, except with larger balls.

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We noticed several business franchises that are common in America, including Bridgestone and Denny’s. What’s really interesting is that many of them have names that are rather difficult for the Japanese to pronounce: McDonald’s, Seven Eleven, Mobil and Shell. Seven-Eleven is especially prevalent here, having a store on almost every corner, it seems.

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We also saw several glitzy establishments devoted to a game called Pachinko. Although Nevada-style games of chance are illegal here, Pachinko parlors circumvent that restriction by incorporating an element of skill as well. What we gather is that the player not only pulls a lever to start the reels spinning, but also punches a series of buttons that require quick reflexes.

To our surprise. we’re seeing a lot of greenery and open spaces everywhere you go. We’ve always thought of this country as being extremely crowded, and no doubt that’s true in the large cities. But in the smaller cities and towns, there is an abundance of open land, and most of it has been cultivated with rice, green onions and other edible vegetation. It seems that in Kumagaya City at least, about every other house has a small rice paddy next to it–including the one we’re staying in.

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We got out of the car at the mall, and as Dennis put on his sunglasses, 17-year-old Keisuke commented “You are cool”. (Perhaps he thinks that’s a synonym for ungainly. Anyway, our Japanese “kids” have improved their English skills considerably since we saw them three years ago in the U.S.)

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We noticed that outside the mall there was a tire pump for bicycles. Great idea! We see people of all ages and clothing styles riding bikes (though almost nobody, it seems, wears a helmet). Japanese bicycles, by the way, have a different type of kickstand, a squared bracket that braces the wheel on both sides, which seems much more stable than the American type. And guess what: we seldom see a bike locked up!

Japan 10Inside the mall, we found a wide assortment of stores, some of which have signs in English as well as Japanese. (One shop that sells various types of stockings posted the rather curious message that “Our products are made using all five senses”.) There was also a smoking room near the entrance–there don’t seem to be laws prohibiting smoking indoors, but it hasn’t been a problem thus far.

The mall was having a special fair celebrating Obon (the Festival of the Dead, wherein folks honor their ancestors.) In addition to games and an oracle booth, etc., there was an “Obake Yoshiki” (haunted house), which of course Zephyr (accompanied by Dennis and Keisuke) had to tour. The admission was 400 yen, which sounds exorbitant, but a yen (actually pronounced”en”) is only about a penny, so it was more or less 4 bucks. (We later noticed that successively larger denominations of bills are slightly longer, perhaps as an aid to the visually impaired.) In Japan, you have to get used to dealing with very large numbers when handling money; you could be a millionaire and a poor man at the same time. There is a store in the mall called the Hundred Yen store, very similar to the dollar stores and 99 cent stores back home.

Lunch time came, and the food court was very crowded, so we went shopping for carry-out food to eat elsewhere. But then (after a delay in which Dennis thought he’d let an envelope full of money slip out of his pocket), we had a difficult time finding a place to picnic because it started raining, so we saved that food for dinner and went to lunch at a cafe in a place which appeared to be a rest stop (there was even an RV parked there, the first one we’ve seen).

imga3874Before returning home, we stopped at a large department store to shop for a camera, since ours has been acting up when it acts at all. Found one on sale for 15800 yen, and after an interesting but unsuccessful attempt to purchase it by credit card, we forked over the cash.

By the way, Dennis not only found his missing money (at home on the bathroom sink), but the missing BART ticket.

Tomorrow, we’ll start playing tourist in earnest.