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Saturday, Dec. 23, 2006

JAPAN LITE

Keeping it short and casual in Aomori


Last week I told you about how I met Santa Claus in Akita-ken. After receiving my gift from him, I continued on my journey North in the quest for central heating.

News photo
THE CHRISTMAS TREE in the Halifax sister city of Hakodate "radiates its luminescent glow every day." AMY CHAVEZ PHOTO

As I boarded the train for Aomori, passengers were standing on the platform next to standup ramen shops slurping ramen while they awaited their trains. Talk about inhaling your food.

Aomori, a part of the Tohoku region and the most northern prefecture of Honshu, has the image of being backward and "very country" as the Japanese say. Aomori, which means "blue forest," is famous for apples and the Aomori festival in summer. For the rest of the year, Aomori is famous for "Aomori-ben," the local dialect of Japanese.

This dialect is incomprehensible to people in Western Japan to such a degree that when it is spoken on national television, the words are subtitled in standard Japanese.

According to Hiroki, a native of Aomori, what distinguishes Aomori-ben from standard Japanese is its abbreviated form and the absence of polite language. That's right -- no polite language, and no male and female language. Sounds like they've taken the hardest parts out of Japanese language. Perhaps it's like "Pig Latin" or a kind of coded language that spies use.

Of course, I am not implying that Aomori people are spies nor that Pig Latin is spoken by pigs, but Aomori-ben is incomprehensible unless you know the secret to making the words.

Hiroki attributes this condensing of the language into short phrases to the extremely cold temperatures in Aomori, thus people cannot move their mouths so much to make sounds. Something about their jaws freezing up.

Hiroki taught me some Aomori-ben. Here is an example of a dialogue:

A: Dosa? (Where are you going?) B: Yusa. (To the bath)

Now that's a real aberration, I mean abbreviation, of the language. OK, let's try again.

A: Dosa? B: Yubinkyokusa. (To the post office)

Now you're getting the hang of it. Okay, one more.

A: Wa Tarzan B: Na Jane.

See? easy! Japanese language students -- when you die and go to heaven, you will go to Aomori Prefecture.

After several very short conversations with people in Aomori, I boarded the ferry for Hokkaido, where four hours later, I would be treated to Hakodate's main holiday attraction: a 20-meter-high Christmas tree on display with over 20,000 lights.

This fir tree was to celebrate Hakodate's sister-city relationship with Halifax, Canada. Funny -- I never realized Hakodate had a sister.

But when I landed at Hakodate, I was met by a huge snowstorm, making it nearly impossible to walk around town without getting blown away.

In Hakodate, as the only public benches in the whole city are inside the train station, when a snowstorm blows in, everyone crowds into the train station making it seem more like an evacuation shelter.

I ended up ducking into the Hakodate Restaurant where their liquor list included grapefruit beer, green-apple beer and a 10-percent-alcohol beer that was "popular among company presidents!" the menu noted.

I settled on the Hakodate beer, their own dark brew that made the snowstorm outside so much more bearable that later, I headed out to meet that fir tree.

On my way there, a tourist sign encouraged me to go visit "Japan's oldest concrete electric pole," but somehow the 3-ton fir tree seemed the better choice, especially since the Hakodate city tourism board promised it would "symbolize the 'Christmas Fantasy' and radiate its luminescent glow every day."

Surely by visiting this fir tree, I would live happily ever after. When I got to the fir tree, it was indeed luminescing, and I got a warm firry feeling that Hokkaido was probably not such a bad place. But there was much more of Hokkaido to explore so the next morning I was on the train again North. Dosa? Nisekosa.



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