Tsuruoka is in Yamagata Prefecture, about 5 miles from the Sea of Japan. We live in the north-central part of town in a machi (like a ward or town) named Daibu-Machi. Our apartment building is a prefectural building housing various employees of the prefectural government.
This is the front door of our Apartment--number 305--on the third floor. The purpose of the mail slot on the front door is unclear, considering we also have a mailbox downstairs. Whether we receive mail in our front door or in our mailbox seems to be random. Our doorbell is sometimes rung by friendly English-speaking neighbors bearing a gift, but also the occasional dreaded NHK collection agent. NHK is the national television broadcast company which goes door-to-door collecting money from anyone who owns a television. Payment is manditory, but unenforcable. At first we just pretended not to understand what he wanted until he went away, but NHK actually called Peter's workplace and arranged a meeting. So, now we pay NHK...
This is the entryway to our apartment. Of course, holding to Japanese custom, shoes must be removed before entering the main part of the domicile. Shoes are suppose to be pointed towards the door, but most people don't really seem to care that much. The floor transitions from cement to what appears to be hardwood; however, it isn't really wood at all. We learned that it is actually a fake plastic coating on top of a white foam after a hot pan fell on the floor, peeling off some of the plastic covering.
This is the view from the entryway into the apartment. Japanese traditional apartments are measures in terms of "tatami rooms." A single tatami mat is approximately six feet by three feet. Our apartment has three tatami rooms--two that are six mats in size, and one that is eight mats in size. We also have a kitchen/dining room and a bathroom with a toilet room and a shower room. From the entryway you can see into what we call the "living room"--our eight tatami mat room. To the right is the bathroom and to the left are the kitchen and the other two tatami mat rooms.
This is the bathroom. The washing machine is here as is the bathroom sink. The toilet room is to the left and the shower and bath are to the right.
This is our fascinating Japanese toilet. Fortunately, it is Western-style... the alternative is a Japanese squat toilet (very painful to use). This toilet, however, isn't your average human waste receptacle. It has a warmer for the toilet seat, which will be useful in winter considering we don't have central heat. The flush handle has two options--big flush and small flush. The most curious element of this toilet, in my opinion, is the faucet at the top of the toilet. Instead of wasting extra water washing your hands, you can simply wash your hands from the water that refills the toilet tank after a flush. Ingenious, isn't it?
For the Japanese, soaking is valued daily relaxation time. Unlike in America, people first shower and scrub down thoroughly before taking a bath. Cleaning oneself in the bath is considered extremely unclean. The bath (which is always VERY hot) is only for relaxation. The tub is small, but deep. Peter barely fits in it. We usually just shower in the morning, but it is nice to soak every now and then.
This is our super-fantastical kitchen/dining room. It contains one small dormitory-sized fridge, a microwave/oven, and a gas range/grill. There is no full-size oven, rather the MICROWAVE actually operates as a bona-fide oven. The microwave is a curious multi-purpose device. You can warm anything, including things with metal wrapping, in the microwave simply by pressing one button. After the item is warmed sufficiently, a charming little tune plays. One can also operate the microwave in an oven mode for baking purposes. In this case, the microwave heats up entirely like an oven. In this picture you can also see our extra gas burner that we use for shabu-shabu. We light the burner, place an earthenware pot on top, and boil some water in it. Then, you swish beef strips back and forth in the boiling water to cook them. After the beef-swishing has formed a sufficient broth, you can add vegetables. It's very delicious.
Welcome to our living room! In here we have our TV/entertainment center, our desk, our small table, our couch, our chairs, and the closet where we keep our futons. The couch sucks, as the label in the picture implies. I also think it is infested with mold or something, because I begin sneezing horribly every time I sit on it. The table in the middle of the room has a heater underneath it. Actually, it's just a really warm lightbulb. This will be a handy device in the winter when we're freezing because of a lack of central heating. The chairs are actually very comfortable. I lugged them home about half a mile one day, given that we don't have a car. Our TV is connected to a satellite service that provides about 10 channels with English programming.
This is an updated view of our living room. Peter purchased a new computer (as was inevitable), and we added a bookshelf, a work desk for Kim (made from some really neat interlocking metal shelving), and--because it is winter--our heater (in the far corner).
Here's a picture of Kim in our newly-arranged living room. Kim is posing with some really neat roses that look like cabbage. Very odd... but only 300 yen (about $2.75) for three of them. Behind her you can see the new entertainment center Peter built from the same interesting interlocking metal shelving that Kim's desk is made of.
This is our bedroom. During the day, the futons are placed in the living room futon closet, so there isn't much in it. We don't have closets with bars for hanging our clothes, so we keep them on a stand in this room. This is also the room with air-conditioning, but the unit is pretty strong so it can cool most of the apartment. There is a chart of Hiragana and Katakana--the Japanese phoenetic alphabets--that we keep on the wall in order to enhance our learning efforts.
This is an updated view of our bedroom. We shifted things around a bit because our bed used to be up against the window/door at the back... and that gets pretty cold during winter nights. Also, our futons are out so you can get an idea of the size of the room.
This is our "spare room." We keep our books in here... and that's about it. We intend to designate it as the guest room if people come to visit.
This is the balcony. This is where all the magic happens, if by "magic" you mean "clothes drying." Balconies in our building are not used for sitting and relaxing like in America. They are used instead to hang your laundry. You can see one of our futons hanging out to dry (and thus prevent mold) in this picture.
From the balcony, you can get a good view of the city. Most of our neighborhood is pretty new, having been constructed on a rice field only around 15 years ago. In this direction you can see the major downtownish hotels, malls (there are three of them: Jusco, Maurica, and S-Mall), and the train station. In the background are the foothills of the Dewa Sanzen--Three Sacred Mountains. Part of Mount Haguro is visible, but the cloud cover is pretty low here.
This picture is from the living room window on the opposite side of the building. The other major random taller buildings are out on the western edge of the city in an area called the Pall Mall. Funny they have all those "L"s given that there is no "L" in Japanese.
This picture faces the set of mountains that lie between Tsuruoka and the Sea of Japan. They are relatively small. The one I have labeled is Mount Takadate, where there is a park and a bunch of radio and TV transmitters. Kim and I climb this mountain periodically.
From this picture you can see just how close to the edge of town we are. Behind our apartment building are a bunch of rice fields and the train tracks. You would think that the train would be a nuissance, but it really isn't. The trains are electric, so they are relatively quiet. Also, they are much shorter than American trains, so the sound passes quickly. What is more annoying are the trucks with loudspeakers that drive around blasting noise all over the neighborhood at 7am and 7pm. The sweet potato vendor blasts this combination of something we mistook for an emergency siren and a wailing song (presumably concerning sweet potatoes).
Here's a nice picture of sunset from our apartment. We get a good view of the western sky, obviously.