On Tuesday morning a small group of us, guided by our fearless leader and Youth Cultural Program specialist Nami, headed off to the Wakaba Hoikuen in Yanai city, which is about an hour from Iwakuni by car, with 40-50 kph speed limits (25-30 mph) and traffic. A hoikuen is a Japanese daycare, which, like many American daycares, provides educational curriculum, like a preschool, as well. Part of the curriculum is learning English, such as the English alphabet, numbers and animal names. At this hoikuen, there were three classes/ages of children: 3-4, 4-5 and 5-6. The 5- to 6-year-olds knew better English than I do Japanese.
So, while we were politely told that we were going to teach English to these kids, it was really more like we were going to show off what Americans look like to kids who don't see too many foreign faces. And America was well represented for such a small group. We had an African American, a Hispanic, a Pacific Islander, a brunette Caucasian, and a blonde Caucasian (that's me.) Nami took care of the "Asian" ethnicity, even though she is not technically an American.
The 3- to 4-year-olds were the most shy, but the 5- to 6-year olds were ready to lead the pack of kids in giving us "high fives." A couple of little girls wanted to hold my hand while we played games, and I think they argued about it for a minute (I don't speak Japanese) until I showed them that I had two hands and offered each of them one. The African American gal in our group told a funny story about one of the kids touching her and then looking at his hand. Then he would touch her again and then look at his hand again, She wondered if he was trying to figure out if the "black" would come off of her and on to him. I wish I had seen that. Probably better that I hadn't. I think I would have laughed until tears rolled down my face and I'm not sure what that would have done for foreign relations.
We sang the Alphabet song, which most of the kids knew, but as a slightly different version. We also sang "Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes," which they knew in their own language, so they got to hear how the body parts were said in English. We played "Rock Paper Scissors," only we had to change it to "Rock Scissors Paper," because that was the order the Japanese say it in and we didn't want to confuse the kids in to calling their paper "scissors." We read a book about animals (not just your regular lion-horse-chicken kind of animals, but whooping cranes, red wolves and macaroni penguins. I didn't even know there was a macaroni penguin.)
Here are some photos from the day. I'm sure you can find me... I'm the tall, pale one.
By the end of the hour, the kids were no longer shy with us and nearly everyone wanted a high-five. Being the sensible adult that I am, I really wanted some hand sanitizer. But, instead, the two head teachers presented us with coffee, water and cookies, and sat with us to talk for about a half hour. These two teachers had been teaching preschool for years, one of them for over 20 years. They said they learned English from watching TV and that their English wasn't very good. I will never believe another Japanese person who says their English is not very good. They were able to carry on a 30-minute conversation with five Americans without skipping a beat. And they were friendly, kind, gracious hosts. I hope to go back again soon.
Wednesday was a day out in Iwakuni with my friend Miho, a former Japanese national who has been married to a Marine for nearly two decades. She and her family are leaving to go back to the States in a couple of weeks, so she promised to take me out, show me some of the highlights of living out in Japan, and teach me how to shop for and make gyoza and yakisoba.
Like any good day on the town, we started with some gambling.
Now, gambling is technically illegal in Japan, so the casinos, or pachinko parlors, as they are called, have games where you can win prizes. These games look like slot machines, but, with the majority of the machines, you feed them small metal balls instead of coins. And I asked if I could take pictures (actually, Miho asked for me) ... and I was allowed to, which is different from most casinos I have been in in the States. So, I took pictures.
Each ball is worth one credit. If you like penny slots in the States, you'll like the 1 yen pachinko machines here. If you like the nickel slots, you'd want to go for the 4 yen machines. Quarters? 20 yen machines. The guy above was playing at a 4 yen machine, so each of those balls in the trays is worth 4 yen.
The first thing you notice when you walk in to the parlor is that it is VERY loud, slightly smokey and VERY bright. You are not in Vegas. You are in a video arcade. However loud you think Vegas is, this is worse, I promise. You cannot carry on a conversation. Miho hadn't ever played in a pachinko, either, so we had an employee helping us, but she couldn't understand what he said half the time. Here is a video that's only a few seconds long so you can appreciate how loud this place was: Pachinko video.
Here is the machine I chose to play:
It's basically a vertical pinball machine and you control how hard the balls are spit out and up in to the machine by turning the green dial low on the right clockwise. I put in 1,000 yen (about $10) and watched the screaming cartoon shown on the TV screen in the center. There was a spaceship and anime characters yelling. That's about all I could understand. Oh, and when the word CHANCE came up on the screen, hit the big white CHANCE button seen in the low center of the machine... a lot. I did that and hit a jackpot. Of course, I did not know this and thought the game was over and I had lost all my money. I got up to leave and, luckily, the employee "assigned" to us came around the corner and told me to go back. I played the jackpot round and ended up walking away with the equivalent credits for 1,700 yen. Sweet.
I "cashed out" and got a card with the credits on it, Now, because they were credits and not yen, I could not put it in another machine and play. I had to get out another 1,000 yen bill to try out the Western-looking slot machines... which did give you coin-like tokens instead of balls. The cool thing about these is that you are not at the mercy of the spinning canisters with the designs on them to stop on their own once you pull the handle. The three buttons on the front of this pachinko machine are what you push to stop the canisters individually, in whatever order you like. This machine, like the ones I remember so fondly in the States, ate my money A LOT faster than the traditional pachinko machine, and I did not hit a single confusing jackpot round, either.
So, once we were done losing, I still had 1,700 credits to cash out. We went to the front desk and I handed them the credit card-looking thing that the first pachinko machine had spit out at me. It was scanned and I had the option of either getting thick plastic cards or prizes. The prizes included all the fun things in life: cases of beer, packs of cigarettes, stuffed animals, headphones... but I chose the thick plastic card option. Miho told them I did not want the prize option and was handed eight thick, plastic cards... one yellow and seven white, neatly rubber banded together. We were told to go out to the parking lot and there would be a shack out there where I could trade the cards for cash. That is why the pachinkos are not considered gambling. Because they have money shacks in the parking lot that accept my thick plastic card "prizes."
Pictured below is the money shack. It is very "sketchy." All you see is a drawer... you do not see people. You put the plastic cards in the drawer, it slides in to the shack, and the drawer slides back out with cash. I thought about trying to put some other things in there, like a sunglasses case, a pack of gum, some Tylenol, to see what would come out, but, again, I did not want to mess with foreign relations.
After pachinko-ing, we stopped off at a small restaurant, B-Cafe, that did not have an English menu for lunch. That is how we Americans know if we are enjoying authentic Japan... no English menu. I couldn't have ordered without Miho, but now I know the gist of what's available, so I think I could go back. And just FYI, the Japanese rock at dessert presentation.
After lunch, Miho took me grocery shopping at one of her favorite stores, called "Big," and we shopped for the ingredients needed for yakisoba and gyoza. She also explained that on the 29th of each month, may grocery stores have discounts on meat because the words for "2" and "9," pronounced "nee" and "coo", are the same words used for meat, pronounced "neecoo." Good to know.
We went back to my house and made the dishes, me paying close attention so I could replicate the recipes, which did not include exact measurements. Two packages of this, about this many grams of meat, sprinkle this much powder, etc., so I couldn't begin to describe it here with much accuracy. But here is a photo of the yakisoba... it tasted great!
I'm going to miss you, Miho. You have been so helpful in getting me acclimated to Japan. Thank you. I wish you and your family the best of luck on your new adventure.