“Thanksgiving” in Japan.

It is Thanksgiving week back in the US, but here in Japan, it is just another work week.

In the United States, Thanksgiving is considered to be the start of the holiday season… that holiday where we traditionally celebrate the bounty of the fall harvest, and express gratitude for all that we have. In our modern times, it has somewhat morphed into a food fest/football fest/chance-to-gather-together-with-friends-and-family time. And in general, a holiday to cook and eat (and eat, and eat, and eat…) and overindulge in the things we enjoy. (Black Friday shopping anyone?)

Until this morning, I hadn’t really given this Thanksgiving much thought. After all, this is our fourth Thanksgiving living in Japan, and we are used to not having our usual Thanksgiving celebration. But today, we woke to cloudy gray weather, and cold damp wind… I made a pot of chai spice tea, and suddenly our small apartment was filled with the fragrance of fall, and… of Thanksgiving! Suddenly I was thinking of pumpkin pie, and roasting turkey, and mashed potatoes and gravy.

Sadly… we have no oven in which to cook that turkey.

Over the past four years, I have gotten used to cooking without an oven. Japanese food is wonderful, and we have enjoyed learning about the different ingredients and cooking methods employed here. We love all the fish and fruits and vegetables that we get at our local market, and we eat our — slightly Americanized — version of the Japanese cuisine.

We actually can get turkey here. My supermarket starts stocking frozen turkeys in October. Other traditional Thanksgiving ingredients — cranberries, canned pumpkin, orange sweet potatoes (our sweet potatoes here are purple on the outside and yellow on the inside… still delicious, but different), etc. are a bit harder to come by, and most certainly much more expensive here. I am fairly certain that the supermarkets in the expat areas of Tokyo probably stock many of the things that would be needed for a “traditional” Thanksgiving dinner, but that involves at the very least a long walk, or a train/bus ride carrying heavy bags of groceries.

Once back at my apartment, I would have little space to store the supplies I have purchased, and then really no way to cook many of the traditional Thanksgiving dishes. And… speaking of “dishes”… We lead a somewhat spartan life here in Tokyo. Small apartment = small storage spaces = not much room to bring many dishes and small appliances from home. Our rental package gave us tableware — plates, cups, glasses, silverware — enough for four place settings. I have almost no serving pieces, and no tablecloths, napkins, etc. to set the “Thanksgiving table.”

I haven’t really missed all of that in these past four years. We have managed quite nicely, mostly because the holiday doesn’t exist here. My husband goes to work on that Thursday morning just like any other work day. There is no Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade on the TV, no family gathering for dinner, and no football games or holiday movies to watch after dinner.

There are restaurants that offer an “American Thanksgiving” dinner… mostly in the expat areas of town… and there are other restaurants that will cook and package a dinner for you for carry-out to enjoy at home (usually very $$$$.) But for just the two of us, it just isn’t quite the same, and is not really worth the effort or expense. (Thanksgiving sushi, anyone?)

We DO miss gathering together with our family. This week three of our four children will be together on Thanksgiving. The rest of us will be scattered around the globe. We will all be in each other’s thoughts — if not gathered together around the same table — and that will have to suffice. And… there also might be a group video chat at some point (Ah… the wonders of technology! Lol!)

This international life has created so many wonderful opportunities and experiences for us. I don’t regret in any way our decision to come here! And it has also presented us with many difficulties and challenges. But despite the hard parts… we still don’t feel “ready” for this experience to end — and we still have half a year left! I know we will be sad to leave our home here in Tokyo, Japan.

We have so enjoyed our time here in Tokyo. But after our time here IS done, we will also look forward to reconnecting with all the things we have missed while we have been here.

Happy Thanksgiving to you all.

Back to Back JET LAG!

We have been suffering from an extended bout of jet lag. In the past (almost) four years that we have been living abroad in Japan, we have done a fair amount of travel. And… if you consider geography, and the location of Japan, a lot of the travel we have done (for meetings etc.) has been at least 8 to 13 hours time difference from our home in Tokyo. That… translates into many days… weeks… suffering from “jet lag.”

Though we are nearly back to “normal” now after a few days home from our latest flight, it has been a pretty tough time. This “episode” of jet lag actually started for us over a month ago with a 10-day trip to London. My husband had a business meeting there, and we flew from Tokyo, via a connection in Shanghai. There is an 8-hour time difference between Tokyo and London. We slowly acclimated to the change, and by the time we left 10 days later, we were feeling pretty good again. Then after a week of more jet lag after our return flight to Tokyo, we left again for another meeting in Atlanta — and a brief visit “home” for a week. There is a time difference of 14 hours between Tokyo and Atlanta. After that, we returned to Tokyo — another almost 14 hour flight, and 14 hour time difference.

For us (and if you Google it, for many people) the worst jet lag results from traveling west to east. I know there is actually a scientific explanation of this, but it is very complicated. All I know, is that it takes longer to recover, and I feel much worse after a west to east flight, than an east to west flight. After our flight to ATL last week, our one week stay there was not nearly enough time to fully recover before our east to west return flight to Tokyo. The weirdest thing about our flights back to Atlanta, is that (because the time difference is about the same as the flight time) we end up arriving back in Atlanta at about the same time (in ATL) as we left Tokyo. It is an odd little bit of “time travel” for us… lol.

We normally travel in premium economy, which is a step up from regular economy with more leg room, but not like business class where you can fully stretch out for sleep. We have on rare occasions been in business class. Regardless of which class, however, I find it difficult to sleep much — or very effectively — on an airplane. And… though sleeping on the airplane can help with jet lag symptoms (at least the tiredness), it does not prevent jet lag. Once we get to our destination, we still experience days of jet lag.

Of course jet lag affects your sleep patterns — and especially for our 13 or 14 hour time difference when our days and nights are completely reversed. ***[During daylight savings time the time difference is only 13 hours.] But jet lag affects so much more! Almost all body functions are tied in some degree to that internal circadian clock, so when that body clock is totally flipped, everything is disrupted. It affects sleep, appetite, digestion… everything. And it takes days to get everything back to normal again. Most sources say to expect one day of recovery time for every time zone crossed. So… it is not at all surprising that after this last bit of travel, our bodies were completely mixed up. We didn’t have enough time to recover from one trip before we traveled again… and again… and again.

There seem to be many suggestions online about how to minimize jet lag, or recover faster, but nothing seems to work consistently. Some suggest that gradually adjusting your time schedule BEFORE a trip is the way to fix the problem, but doing that is in itself disruptive to our lives before we travel. We simply can’t change our daily schedule to accommodate our future travel… to the degree that would be necessary to flip our days and nights. Just not practical.

So… we deal with it. We deal with the sleepless nights and the sleepy days… the appetite changes, and the wonky digestion. It all works itself out eventually, and we get back to feeling better. These things are just one *minor* downside of travel, and I am willing to put up with them for the opportunity to see and do new things.

Now, I realize this blog post isn’t finished. But it’s 4 o’clock in the afternoon, and the jet lag is kicking innnn… againnn… zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

Halloween in Tokyo

We have always loved Halloween. When our children were small, it was one of our favorite family activities. We would make costumes and carve pumpkins… decorate, and buy candy to give out to the trick-or-treaters. A big pot of chili for dinner, and one of us would take the kids out into the neighborhood to gather candy. Such a fun evening!

But, in Tokyo…

Goblins, vampires, the Scream guy, maids, faux police…the streets were filled with them in Tokyo’s Shibuya district tonight. It’s Halloween!

Although we’ve lived in Tokyo nearly four years, each previous year we were out of the country on Halloween. So, this evening, we made it a point to take the train to Shibuya, one of our favorite areas of Tokyo.

Most any time, Shibuya is a busy, energetic place. Lots of restaurants, bars, shops, and a clientele that is a bit less conservative than a lot of places in town. We had a feeling that Halloween would be little wild…and we weren’t disappointed.

Immediately after stepping off the Yamanote line train at Shibuya Station, we found the crowds. Station workers helpfully directed foot traffic, down the steps and out of the station. Then, we were engulfed in a sea of humanity (well, yeah, just a lot of humans). Shibuya Crossing most times is a crazy, crowded place. This evening, it was a shoulder to shoulder, absolutely packed pandemonium.

Of course, we were prepared for huge crowds, and to get a bit jostled. People aren’t trying to be rude and obnoxious, but with so many people in such a small area, there is a certain amount of pushing, pulling, and shoving. Best just to go with the flow, and not take it personally.

The intense crowd lasted several blocks. The sights, sounds and feeling of being in this flow of people is an amazing experience. Maybe not something I’d want to do every day…but definitely worth spending a Halloween evening.

One thing you do notice in any big event in Tokyo is the police presence. In addition to the faux police (seems police woman and SWAT costumes are popular here), there were a LOT of real police. They aren’t overbearing, or unkind, but they give you that “Welcome-to-Shibuya-we’re-glad-you’re-here-but-don’t-even-think-of-causing-us-any-trouble” look. Guess it works – considering the size of the crowd, everyone was well-behaved, and it was just a lot of fun.

Of course, we left pretty early – around 8:30 p.m. I suspect the party really gets started a bit later, for those who want to have a wild time. For us, it was just a nice evening… and we can add Halloween in Tokyo as another amazing experience we’ve had in Japan.

“Tour-guiding”around Tokyo…

We have lived in Tokyo for going on 4 years… Four incredible, amazing years. Tokyo is a wonderful city… Japan is a beautiful country. We have LOVED our time here. We have learned so much about Japan. That said… lol… we continue to experience and learn new things every day.

The past two days, I (the “she” part of this blog team) have had the opportunity to “tour-guide” a new, visiting friend around Tokyo. It has been fun, and I hope that she has enjoyed it as much as I did. I hope — especially today — that I haven’t completely worn her out… we walked almost 10 miles. I hope she has experienced Tokyo in a way that she never expected. I hoped she learned new things, and found a new and inspired interest in Japan, and all things Japanese. Because that is how we feel here… every. single. day.

Her two days here were too short. She was here with her spouse for a business meeting, and two days (!!!) is not near enough time to truly gain an appreciation for this wonderful country. But… we did our best! I walked her feet off, but tried to show her things beyond the “touristy”… to show her some of the hidden gems of this city. To not only show her the “sights”, but to help her get a feel for the culture of Japan. It is difficult in two days… and truthfully, with one off-and-on-rainy day, we had nowhere near the time we needed to experience and embrace beautiful, awesome Tokyo!

So… all that said… here are my suggestions for getting the most out of your visit to Japan:

  1. DO YOUR HOMEWORK! If you are going to spend all the money ($$$) and time (13 hours from east coast US, 12 hours from UK) to come to Japan, please invest a few hours researching the country and the culture. If you don’t like doing “internet research”, at least peruse the available YouTube videos of the places you are going. I guarantee, there are many videos to watch to tell you WHAT to see, HOW to get there, and HOW MUCH it costs. There are videos about accommodations, what trains to use to get there, and of course… the FOOD! Food here in Japan is wonderful. Delicious beyond compare. If, by chance, you just don’t “like” Japanese food… Yes… there are western offerings. McD’s, Kentucky Fried, Burger King, and Taco Bell are available. But…
  2. If you are going to a foreign country, and a completely different culture… why would you NOT want to sample the local cuisine. Be open-minded and willing to try new things. There is a reason that Japanese food is so popular… why so many people LOVE Japanese food. It is delicious… oishii desu! And largely because of that umami flavor. Be willing to close your eyes and put the food in your mouth.
  3. Along with researching what to see, where to go, and how to get there, please research the customs of the Japanese people. They are kind and respectful… please be the same, by learning about the culture. There are many unwritten “rules” in this culture. But, in general… in this culture, they try hard not to offend or interfere/annoy each other… or visitors. Please, be respectful in kind. Watch, and learn from the Japanese people. Be polite on the subway. Usually, people speak quietly or not at all on the trains. They take up as little space as possible (don’t “sprawl” across the seats!) knowing that the trains are usually crowded and space is limited. Likewise, be polite as you walk along the streets. Be polite everywhere. This is a very kind and polite society.
  4. Be adventurous.You spent the money to get here… go places and experience things you may not ever be able to experience again. See things, learn things, and internalize that experience. Most of all… observe. Don’t try to impose YOUR culture on this wonderful country! Yes! It is very different from the US… from the UK… from Europe. Be willing to embrace the cultural differences, instead of insisting that they accommodate YOUR culture. You are visiting their country after all.
  5. Enjoy the experiences you have here. Remember them always. It will enrich your life.

Be kind, be respectful, and learn about cultural differences, because in reality… this is a very small planet, and we all need to learn to co-exist peacefully, and comfortably with each other.

Namaste.

Another Super-typhoon

A few weeks ago, we wrote about our experience with Typhoon Faxai. It was unusual, as it was both powerful, and its track took it up Tokyo Bay and through the heart of Tokyo.

We were at the little blue dot, watching Typhoon Hagibis go by

Well, today it’s deja vu, as we’re seeing Typhoon Hagibis, an even larger and more powerful storm, again coming up Tokyo Bay and into the city. This storm is bringing with it a tremendous amount of rain – the weather people are saying it is a “once in several decades” kind of storm. Hakone (just west of Tokyo at the foot of Mt. Fuji) received more than 35 inches of rain, and there are multiple warnings and evacuation recommendations due to the swollen rivers and landslides in the area.

For us, it has been a mere inconvenience. We’ve had heavy rain and wind, and everything in the city was shut down. Our plans for a flight to Shanghai today got deferred, as virtually all flights from both Narita and Haneda airports were cancelled, and train service – both local and Shinkansen bullet-train – was suspended.

Living on the 30th floor of a modern apartment tower, we don’t have too much concern about flooding. And our part of Tokyo is quite protected by a canal system, so that rain water isn’t as much a flooding concern as in other parts of the city. During the peak wind gusts, we could feel the building swaying. And, at one point, our earthquake apps alarmed, confirming that the swaying we felt was partly due to an intensity 4 earthquake — kind of a strange thing to happen during a typhoon.

It looks like the typhoon will pass us by late in the evening, and tomorrow the sun will be out and things will start to return to normal. Unfortunately, it’s not going to be so normal for many people. In one area, houses were destroyed by a tornado spawned by the typhoon – a very rare occurrence in Japan. Many others suffered damage from high winds, and from the heavy rains and storm surge.

Typhoon Hagibis will go down in the history books as a record-setting storm, and one that had an impact on thousands of lives. It’s being compared to one in 1958, when more than 1,000 people died. Today’s modern construction, better weather monitoring, and emergency preparedness thankfully prevent that awful outcome.

During our time in Japan, we’ve learned that the Japanese people are quite resilient, and capable of overcoming disasters with an amazing sense of determination. I know we’ll see the same response as people pick up the pieces and rebuild following the historic impact of Typhoon Hagibis.

Ka ni sa ra “DA”… Sushi for dinner

We went to our favorite “neighborhood” sushi restaurant tonight. I like saying that actually, because it makes me feel like I belong here. That I have a place here in Japan. This is the restaurant we went to on our very first night living in Japan, almost four years ago.

The really heart-warming thing that happened tonight, was that when we walked in, two people said to us “Long time no see!” They have come to recognize us… to “know” us… as customers anyway. It has been a busy summer, and we just haven’t been to the sushi place much. And… they noticed!

It is a nice little restaurant… nothing fancy or pretentious… and most of the patrons there are Japanese. We rarely see anyone that isn’t Asian in this restaurant, and the menu is entirely in Japanese. They do have an English menu available, but it is limited. If you really want the full menu with all the options, you need to order from the Japanese menu.

It is actually a small place… a “sushi-go-round”… a conveyor belt sushi restaurant with the sushi chefs inside the conveyor belt area. They make plates (color coded by price) and place them on the conveyor. If what you want is not on the conveyor, you ask for what you want. “Sumimasen! Maguro onegaishimasu!” “Sumimasen! Tobiko onegaishimasu!” And… they will bring your plate to you.

It is a warm and friendly place… although with our elementary Japanese skills, it can sometimes also be a humbling experience. We have discovered some favorite items from their menu, but sometimes it is hard to order those items. We can read the katakana and hiragana characters on the menu, but much of the menu also has kanji characters as well. We can read some of those, but not nearly enough! So… sometimes ordering what we want can be an an adventure.

Tonight, for example, we wanted some ika with shiso (squid on rice, with a shiso leaf). So, I boldly asked: “Sumimasen, To-Ika, onegaishimasu,” expecting the usual “hai, so desu” (yes, ok). But I was greeted with a blank look. Ika? and what? After some consultation with the wait person, we found out that what we really meant to order was “Ko-Ika.” With that clarification, we soon had our squid roll with a shiso leaf…but the lessons weren’t over yet.

Another of our favorites is a crab salad roll. “Ka ni sa ra d(a),” (sort of dropping the “a”) I asked with my simplistic Japanese. Again, a blank look from the sushi chef. Again, after some discussion, I was instructed that I should have said “Ka ni sa ra DA” with some emphasis on the last syllable. And, just to emphasize the point, the sushi chef delivered the dish…Ka ni sa ra DA!

I think if nothing else, we provide some amusement for the staff and the other patrons. The couples sitting next to us got a good laugh… but it was good-natured, and I’m sure they were laughing WITH us, not AT us (lol).

We’ve learned a lot living in Japan. Our first trip to this restaurant, and we could barely get by using the English menu. Now, we can communicate in Japanese (albeit at a flawed, pre-school level). For us, it’s a leap forward…and another rewarding cultural experience in our adopted country.

Typhoon Faxai.

Typhoon Faxai — the fifteenth tropical cyclone of the 2019 season — is due to make landfall somewhere in central Japan late Sunday, September 8th into Monday, September 9th. Heavy rain and strong winds are on the way. From this map, Faxai looks like it will hit Tokyo almost head-on.

This blog post is going to be a bit rambling I am afraid… We were only made aware of this typhoon yesterday, from an email that my husband received at work, warning employees that the trains may not be running, and to stay home Monday morning if the weather is threatening. I had just looked at the Weather Channel app on my phone, and only saw the typhoon that is presently traveling north from Taiwan toward China. I found later that if I had scrolled right on that photo, Typhoon Faxai comes into view.

It is often this way. We usually don’t hear much about the typhoons until right before they arrive. Maybe we just don’t pay enough attention to the Japanese weather reports. We both use the Weather Channel app and sometimes those weather forecasts are more concentrated on the weather “back home” in the US. We sometimes get weather announcements for Japan from the US State Department. This is not the only typhoon we have experienced here… although, I don’t remember one that hit central Japan (and Tokyo!) so directly. Usually they seem to hit farther southwest from Tokyo and just slide up along the coast.

Typhoons can be disastrous for Japan. The country is steeply mountainous in many places, and heavy rain and wind bring on landslides and severe flooding. The Tokyo area lies east of the mountains, on the coast, and so landslides are not that common. But, the storm surge can cause dangerous flooding issues. Our apartment, for example, sits just a few meters above sea level. Our area is buffered and somewhat protected by a system of canals, and those canals mostly have flood gates that can be lowered to protect from storm surge. And, being on the western coast of Tokyo Bay, the Chiba peninsula also lends major protection. But we will see…

The biggest issue for us right now is that both of us are due to leave the apartment this weekend. My husband has a work trip scheduled. For the next two weeks, he will be working long hours and weekends on a project. Most of the project will be here in Tokyo, but he will be staying at a Tokyo hotel with the rest of his group. He was supposed to leave early Monday morning on the Shinkansen for a two day trip to the Niigata area on the western coast of Japan. Because he was going to be working such long hours, I scheduled a trip back to the US to visit with family.

My flight leaves Sunday afternoon… several hours before Faxia is supposed to arrive, so likely I will still be able fly out ahead of the storm. For my husband, however, with a Shinkansen trip on Monday during the projected landfall, his train will most likely be canceled, delaying his meeting and lengthening his project time. Usually when there is heavy rain, and especially high winds, the trains — local and Shinkansen — are canceled or delayed.

Also… our son and his fiancee have been visiting this week, and are leaving on the Shinkansen to go to Shikoku (another of the four main islands of Japan — farther south and west of Honshu). Fortunately, their train is very early in the day, and they should be able to get away before any major problems with the trains. Shikoku should be largely unaffected by this typhoon.

For the most part, typhoons move through pretty quickly, and even with heavy rain and high winds, the storm shouldn’t last too long, and the city will just be dealing with the aftereffects. I am sort of sad to miss seeing what this storm will do. We have been in this apartment when the winds are strong, and you can actually feel a slight swaying — not unlike what happens when we have a minor earthquake.

But… hopefully all of us will get to where we need to be during this storm without any major mishaps or delays.

For my part, I will be back in the US for two weeks, and I am sincerely hoping that when I return to Japan, this awful heat and humidity will be over, and fall weather will be on the way. It has been a miserably hot summer in Tokyo. I can’t imagine what will happen when global climate change causes the temperature to increase even more.

The other day when I was walking to the grocery store I saw a man wearing a long-sleeved windbreaker. It looked like he was some sort of service person, or utility worker. When I got close up behind him, I noticed that his jacket had two cooling fans integrated into the fabric. Wow… I want that! I really needed it that day! His jacket was all zipped up, and the cooling fans (presumably) were circulating “coolish” air around the inside of the jacket. Ahhh… I see many people walking around with small battery powered, handheld cooling fans, but never a jacket with “air-conditioning!”

[And just as an aside, speaking of coolish… Here is a brand of ice cream that we have found in the combinis (convenience stores) here in Japan. “Coolish” is a Lotte product… a Korean company. We have found these nice, neat frozen ice cream packages in vanilla, chocolate and now… this one, is pineapple. Good for a nice cold snack on a hot day in Tokyo!]

Well — as I write this, the clouds are starting to roll in. It will start raining overnight, but hopefully not too much rain until after I walk to the subway station tomorrow morning. We rarely take taxis, but I may have to resort to calling the “English-Speaking Taxi Service” here. I am getting better at Japanese, but ordering a taxi in Japanese could be an ordeal. Just hoping I can just get by walking to the station.

For our friends and family back in the US, I hope the weather is improving wherever you are. I see that Hurricane Dorian is still churning away in the Atlantic, but hopefully there will be no more major issues from it. Take care out there…