Tokyo to London

Although my job assignment is in Tokyo, I work for a multinational company that also has an office in London. So, on occasion, I take the flight from Tokyo to London.

One thing you quickly come to realize when living in Japan is that a trip to just about any other country is a long trip. Going to the United Kingdom is no exception. It is a l-o-n-g trip.

There are a few direct flights from Tokyo to London. But they tend to be pretty pricey. On this trip, I opted for the less expensive one-stop flight on Air France.

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Photo by Frank K., Anchorage, AK

About 11 hours in the air from Tokyo to Paris, then a layover of about 3 hours, followed by a quickie 1-1/2 hour flight to London Heathrow. At about $1,300 USD for a bare-bones economy seat, it still wasn’t cheap, but it was substantially less than the direct flight … and only about 3 hours longer travel time.

London’s usually a pretty easy city to get around. We took the Piccadilly Underground line from Heathrow, then changed at Green Park to the Jubilee Line to Canary Wharf, the location for this trip’s hotel. 150px-Underground.svgAbout an hour on the tube, which costs around 3 GBP – around $4 USD. Of course, if you’re averse to the subway, there’s always a taxi… if you’re willing to pay around $100 USD. I’ll opt for the tube, thank you.

After being in Tokyo for awhile, it’s refreshing to be someplace where the predominant language is English. Of course, London is such a multicultural city, you hear a multitude of languages and accents. Still, we come to appreciate the ability to hear and read with ease most of the time.

 

This trip involved a venture outside of London. Southwest Railway train to Poole, then a rental car to Lulworth Cove on the southern coast.

 

My first chance to drive on the left side of the road, on the right side of the car, shifting a manual transmission with my left hand. Actually, it was kind of fun…with only a few near-death experiences in the roundabouts.

We enjoyed our journey to the UK, and had a good time. But after a few days, we found ourselves ready to go back home to Japan. After living in Tokyo for nearly three years, it really does seem like home…a place we look forward to coming “home” to.

 

Flu Shots.

It is fall again, and one thing we always do in the fall is get our flu shots. Back home in ATL, I was required by my workplace to get a flu shot every year (I worked in healthcare there) and the vaccination was provided by my workplace. My husband’s company also provided the vaccination to workers, and even scheduled “vaccine clinics” to make it more convenient for their workers to get the shot. Of course, we could also go to lots of other places to get our flu shots, and it was fully covered by our medical insurance. It was easy and convenient for us to get the vaccination.

At my husband’s workplace here in Japan, they also encourage everyone to get their flu shot in the fall, and we have been provided with a list of clinics in our area where we can go to get vaccinated. Since we are still covered by our US health insurance, we pay for the vaccine here, and then submit the bills to our insurance company back home for reimbursement. We are also covered under the Japanese National Health Insurance for most other medical expenses, but I don’t think the flu vaccine is a part of that coverage.

The first fall after we moved to Japan we were home for a visit and just got the flu shot while we were in the US. But last year — and this year — we got the vaccine here. It is not difficult… but there are some hurdles to doing anything when you can’t speak the language very well. It can seem daunting at times to do even these simple tasks. My husband’s workplace does provide us with a liaison — an employee who can help us with these sorts of communication challenges, but we do try to manage as well as we can on our own.

Once we got the list of clinics, it was simple enough to type in the address into Google maps, and find out where we needed to go. The clinic we have chosen is nearby — right here in Minato-ku (our “ward” of Tokyo). My husband did have someone from work call to make sure they had vaccine available before we went to the clinic… phone calls are especially a challenge for us. We manage day-to-day communication with a mixture of our meager Japanese, and quite a lot of pointing and gesturing. It works fine when you are face-to-face, but over the phone, communication with a non-English speaker is nearly impossible.

So… with GPS in hand, we walked to the clinic, and this is what we found:

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More language challenge. The floor guide was all in Japanese. But, we are actually learning(!) and after some (rather slow) translation, we determined that our desired medical clinic was on the 3rd floor. “3F Minato-Mita (the first three are kanji characters) ku-ri-nik-ku (followed by 5 katakana characters)” — Minato-Mita Clinic! We couldn’t read all of the kanji on that sign, but we could read enough to get by. Success.

Once inside, it was very much like any clinic in the US. A waiting room and a reception desk. The staff spoke minimal English, but all we had to say was “influenza shot” and they gave us each a form to fill out (in English!) and a thermometer to take our temperature. After handing that back in, we waited for our “interview” with the doctor.

We came to this clinic last year too, and had the same doctor for this part. He speaks English, but very heavily accented, so it is sometimes hard to understand him. He goes over our medical forms and asks questions. He is elderly, and always asks us how old we think he is… lol. This year, he is 82(!) and still healthy and working at the clinic. I know they have other doctors there, but I think they always send us to him because he has the best English.

Anyway… so after our interview with the doctor, we wait out in the reception area for our turn. The nurses get everything set up, and in no time we are done and vaccinated for this year. We go to the waiting room while they prepare our bill, and when they call us up, they punch the number into a calculator so that we can read the amount we owe. Most businesses here have a calculator on the counter so that they can show us the numbers — they know we are really SLOW understanding the numbers in Japanese… lol.

Our bill was 3500 yen each — about $35 — which we will now submit to our insurance.

Sometimes I feel bad that even after 2 1/2 years here, I still can’t speak Japanese. But we do manage, and actually… I think we are understanding more that we think we are. It is a gradual process, and we have become comfortable doing this kind of day-to-day communication… even if we aren’t fluent speakers of Japanese.

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Voting from afar

It’s almost time for elections in the United States. I’ve always been diligent about voting, as I think it is the responsibility of every citizen to be part of the process. In today’s turbulent political environment, voting is even more important.  But being 6,000 miles from my voting place does make things a bit more difficult. Voted

Fortunately, there is support for people living in other countries. Google “voting from outside the US” and you’ll get suggestions for a variety of websites with information on the absentee voting process. As a Georgia resident, I was also able to get the needed information from my county election commissioner’s office.

It’s actually a pretty easy process to request an absentee ballot. Once early voting opens, the election commissioner’s office emails a link to an official ballot, along with the appropriate instructions on how to complete it. The hardest part of the whole process was figuring out where to address the envelope for returning the ballot. Once that was done, it was a matter of getting postage at the local post office, and voilà- I have voted in the US election, from my current residence in Tokyo.

What happens with my ballot, once it is in the mail? As far as I can tell, there is no way to verify that my vote has been received. I can only have faith that it will make it through the mail, through the US voting system, and be counted as intended.

Voting from Japan does take a little more time and effort than it did in the US. I hope that if I and my fellow expats are willing to participate, all my friends back in the US will also get out to be part of a huge voter turn-out in 2018. Voting has always been an important responsibly of US citizens. In this election, everyone’s participation is vital to the future of our country. Please VOTE!

 

Am I ever going to be able to speak Japanese?

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My bento box lunch today after Japanese class — Japanese food is always so beautifully arranged.

Just checking in on the language progress. Today was another Spouse’s Language and Culture Class at my husband’s company. It is nice that they offer these classes for us. We meet three Wednesday’s per month, and it is usually a luncheon meeting: Ninety minutes with language instruction, and then a box lunch while the teachers (sensei) present a short cultural program. Sometimes we go on a “field trip” to a museum, or other interesting cultural spot, and sometimes we do some sort of traditional craft (origami, for example) after our language lesson.

I have been attending these classes for 2.5 years now. Spouses come and go depending on the husband’s job assignment… there are always new people coming in, and others that leave to go back to their home countries. It is an interesting class, with people from so many different places.

And how have I progressed — linguistically — in these 2.5 years? Sometimes I feel good about my progress, and some days are just… humbling. Certainly, I have made progress (from knowing almost NO Japanese 2.5 years ago):  I now know a lot of vocabulary, and quite a bit of grammar… and I can read both hiragana and katakana, and… even a few of the kanji! “Romaji” is the translation of the Japanese characters into Roman characters. Most things in Japan are written in the Kana and Kanji — but there are more and more signs, etc, that are being written in Romaji… in preparation for the 2020 Olympic games.

[ FUN FACTS:  Japanese has three character systems that are commonly used to write the language. Kanji — the Chinese characters that written Japanese is based upon, Hiragana — the characters representing each spoken syllable, and Katakana — the characters used to spell out foreign words. In written Japanese, all three character systems are used, and in fact, may be mixed together. There are thousands of kanji symbols, and the average, college-educated Japanese person knows almost 3000 of these kanji characters. Just to read a newspaper here, it is estimated that one needs to be able to read about 2000 of the most commonly used kanji.]

Today’s class felt a bit more “humbling” than usual. I have been moved up to the upper class… but probably more because I have been here so long, than any actual ability to converse. The lower class is where all the “newbies” go when they first arrive, and they seem to do the same basic Japanese phrases over and over because… whenever a new person joins the class, those are the things they most need to learn. Things like:

Konnichiwa (hello, good day), Watashi no namae wa _______ desu (my name is ____), Yoroshiku onagaishimasu (nice to meet you), Watashi wa ______ kara kimashita (I am from _____)… etc… etc…

I well know those phrases by now, so they moved me into the next class. Most of the other women in the upper class are from Korea — and the Korean language has many similarities to Japanese, so they have a bit of an advantage over me. The Korean language is also based on the Chinese kanji, so they have that advantage as well. In the lower class are several women from India, one or two from China, and a Taiwanese. The Indian women speak English, but not many of the other class members know much — or any — English. The teachers both speak a little bit of English, but not a lot. I am the only American in the class — there are two spouses from the UK in the company, but neither of them attend the language classes.

If the teachers speak very slowly and clearly (yukkuri, onegaishimasu), I can usually pick up the gist of the conversation in Japanese… but it can be a struggle. Today seemed more frustrating than usual for me. My brain was just not processing the Japanese very well, and after 90 minutes of that, my brain was fried, and just stopped trying. I am sure I probably had that glazed, deer-in-the-headlights look on my face.

But, I WILL persevere. I will keep going to language class, and I will keep studying my Duolingo app every day — I have gotten through all of the Duolingo Japanese lessons now, but I will keep practicing the grammar with (hopefully) more and different vocabulary. And, I will keep studying my textbook, and listening to Japanese TV programs. Eventually… I WILL do this… domo arigato gozaimasu! Ja mata… (until next time…)

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Today’s cultural lesson was about the Japanese Tea Ceremony.

If you would like to know more about the Japanese Tea Ceremony, using powdered green tea (matcha), there are many YouTube videos available. This one below is from an NHK TV series that I like to watch.

 

Sentaku (Laundry)

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My combination washer/dryer 

Sentaku — I have talked about this before on the blog… how in our small apartment in Tokyo, we have a “combination washer/dryer.” But today a friend back in the US posted a photo on her Facebook of a combo washer/dryer. Her mother has just moved into an assisted living facility, and that is what is in her new apartment. It made me think about — all over again — how cultural differences show up everywhere, even in something as “simple” as doing the laundry.

In her Facebook post, was my friend’s obvious surprise and shock that when she put in a load of laundry for her mother, and programmed the machine for a wash and dry, the machine came back with a finish time of 6 hours and 5 minutes. Yes… that is shocking to find that one small and simple load of laundry could possibly take over 6 hours to complete, using a machine!

Lol… welcome to the world of the combination washer/dryer.

Seriously… It seems like such a great idea! Throw clothes into the machine, set it, and come back later to find nice, clean, dry clothes without having to transfer them to another appliance. But I have yet to hear from anyone who has a positive opinion of them. Maybe, somewhere there is a combo machine that actually works, but mine does not!

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My machine has function modes: wash only, wash/dry, and dry only. 

My washer/dryer is only used for the “wash” function. I long ago gave up trying to dry anything in it. It does just fine as a washer — and occasionally I will put DRY towels back in to soften them on the “dry” cycle, but to try to wash and dry the same load not only takes hours, but also gives pretty sad results. My machine has no way to “tumble” the clothes — being a “top loader” — and instead just spins and blows hot air. The clothes end up twisted and tangled and wrinkled beyond belief — and still damp. I have had to rewash clothes just to get the wrinkles out.

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Inside the washer/dryer tub.

Also, transitioning from a machine that uses water to wash, to a machine that blows hot air to dry, is not a very efficient way to go. It takes the machine a long time to dry itself out — let alone to get wet clothes dried out. It may sound like a good idea, but I feel that it is a technology that just hasn’t had all the bugs worked out. For me, it is just too much trouble, and too much time to mess around with. The “combo” machine saves neither time nor money! My clothes go out on the balcony to dry.

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Clothes drying on the balcony bar.

And… I see that most of my neighbors do the same thing. Most apartments here have drying bars on the balconies to hang clothing and bedding. Our balcony is very utilitarian. Wide enough to walk along, and hang clothes on, but too narrow for much of anything else. I wash clothes early in the day, and hang them to dry in (hopefully) sunshine and breeze, and bring them in again in the afternoon. This is the usual and accepted laundry process in urban Tokyo. And — I think it is that way in many urban areas. I have friends living in urban London, and urban areas in France, who do the same thing with their laundry. One of my UK friends commented that it seemed silly to pay money for the electricity to run a dryer, when you can air dry clothes for free. She has a point.

But, being from suburban US, I just took it for granted that everyone had a washer AND a dryer. My mother got a clothes dryer when I was 10 years old. I never had the experience of hanging clothes out on a clothesline. Having a clothes dryer seemed like such a necessity. I never considered I would ever live in a place where I didn’t have one.

To be fair… I know there are people here who do have clothes dryers. And I know that some even live in our apartment building. I know this because, on occasion when I open the balcony doors, I can smell drying clothes (dryer sheets). Our small bathroom COULD accommodate a stacking washer and dryer, although I am not sure how the dryer would be vented. But I am sure it could be done.

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Clothes drying in the “wet room” under the room dryer.

After 2 1/2 years, though, we have gotten used to doing the laundry without a dryer. With just the two of us, we don’t have that much laundry anyway. I don’t mind hanging it out on the balcony. True… I am sometimes at the mercy of the weather, but in a pinch I can also hang laundry in the bathroom (wet room) and use the room dryer to dry it. Also, there is space for a hanging bar in the bedroom if necessary. No problem… this is just another item to add to the list of differences we never considered “when moving to a foreign country…”

 

 

Just a walk in Tokyo

As part of our experience in Japan, we try to share the really spectacular and amazing things about this country. But not every day can be spectacular and amazing. Today, we just did a walk in Tokyo.

We live on Shibaura Island, an artificial island that is a quiet, family-oriented Japanese neighborhood. Our walk today started on Shibaura, on the way across town to Shibuya.

Since much of Tokyo is reclaimed land, there are many canals. We live along one, and often take walks on the path beside the canal. It was a warm day today (the first day of Autumn). The walk was pleasant and sunny. It’s too early for many of the fall water birds to return, but we saw many Spotbill Ducks. Somehow it is relaxing just to see the duck community along the canal.

Today we walked around the big Shinagawa train station. From there, we walked more-or-less along the Yamanote train tracks through some small and very residential Japanese neighborhoods.

Passing through Gotanda, it’s interesting to see how the homes, businesses and train station all come together in the neighborhood. Lots of people walk through these areas, and it’s fun to see the diversity of children, young adults, and older people making their way through daily life.

Ebisu is another area along today’s walk. We haven’t spent a lot of time in Ebisu, but there are many, many shops and restaurants. We will definitely make a point of exploring this area of Tokyo more in the days to come.

About 18,000 steps from the start, we arrived in Shibuya, a hectic and energetic part of Tokyo. Probably best known for Shibuya Crossing, the big and crowded intersection, this is a shopping district that attracts the young, trendy, “hipster” crowd along with everyone else. Our favorite brewpub, Goodbeer Faucets, provides more than 40 craft beers on tap and is a relaxing place to spend a few hours in the afternoon. Today, we also visited Ramen World, our favorite ramen restaurant. Dinner for two – about 2,000 yen ($20). Gotta love it.

Continuing the theme of “not everything in Tokyo is exciting,” we finished our time in Shibuya at Don Quixote, a huge discount store that has just about anything and everything. Today’s purchases included laundry soap, clothes pins, some new hand towels, and lemoncello (they do have a useful selection of alcoholic drinks).

After that, it was on the Yamanote line train towards home. Tonight, we exited at Shinagawa, and enjoyed an evening stroll along the canal. A nice conclusion to an unremarkable — but very pleasant — day in Tokyo.IMG_8192.JPG

International Travel from Japan

We just returned to Japan from a trip to Romania. It was a business trip for my husband. He had a few days of meetings, and then we had a few days off to do a little sightseeing. While he was in meetings, I met with other wives in the group. We see each other a few times a year, and have become friends — and so we had time to explore Bucharest together.  It was an enjoyable trip, to a country I would never have thought that I would get to visit. So much history, and such a different culture — I learned a lot!

With his job appointment in Japan, my husband has had quite a bit of travel… and I have been fortunate to be able to go along with him on some of his trips. Most have been international, but a few have been domestic, here inside Japan. I have already done a blogpost about domestic travel options here — about Japan’s wonderful train system, and about the airlines. But, being an island nation — or rather, “many island” nation…

[A bit of trivia here — though there are four “main” islands in Japan, there are a total of 6,852 islands making up the Japanese archipelago!]

…most long distance travel from Japan will involve a plane ride. And, unless you are going to another east Asian country, that plane ride will likely be at least 10 hours in length. Just about every flight from Japan is a long-haul flight!

When we fly back “home” to Atlanta, our direct flight is anywhere from 12 to almost 14 hours, depending on prevailing winds and weather patterns. If we go anywhere in western Europe, the flight time is about 12 hours. Our trips to the UAE, were about 11 hours. Mumbai, also, 9 to 10 hours. This last trip to Romania, in eastern Europe, was not a direct flight, and we had a 4-hour layover in Moscow. That made the total travel day from our apartment in Tokyo to the hotel in Bucharest, something over 25 hours. That was a long day!

Unless you are willing (and able) to pay thousands of extra dollars for business class or first class, you end up spending all those hours sitting upright in a cramped and uncomfortable airplane seat. Our company in Atlanta allows us to book comfort plus seats — economy with a few extra inches of leg room — but even that isn’t the policy for our company here. So, those long hours sitting crunched up trying to eat, sleep and get comfortable can get really tedious.

Don’t misunderstand… I will never complain about the opportunities I have to travel, even if it isn’t always very comfortable. Maybe this should be more of a complaint to the airlines for packing people in like sardines in a can. Anyway… no matter. I will still enjoy the travel even if I don’t actually enjoy the flights.

One nice perk, though, that we have come to really appreciate in our travels is Sky Priority and Sky Club privileges at the airport. The shorter lines through check-in (and at some airports, security), and at boarding are nice. They also tag our bags with a big yellow Sky Priority tag so that it (supposedly) gets unloaded first. Sometimes, coming back to Narita after a trip, we are off the airplane, through immigration (shorter lines for residents), and our bags are already off the carousel waiting for us, so that we can be on our way to the train within 15 minutes. Nice!

The Sky Club is a nice place to hang out before or between flights… they have food, drinks, comfy seating, clean restrooms, and plenty of plug-ins to charge our electronics. Much more pleasant than the usual crowded gate areas with expensive food, and sometimes no available seating.

But, we only accrue Skymiles on certain airlines, and those airlines don’t always go where we need to go. Also, if you don’t fly enough miles on their airlines in a calendar year, you lose your status and don’t get the privileges for the next year. We try to fly Sky Team airlines as much as possible, but sometimes we just can’t. I am REALLY going to miss Sky Priority perks when we are back in Atlanta and not flying so much.

This job assignment in Japan has been an amazing opportunity in so many ways. We have learned a lot about not just Japan and the culture here, but also about many countries we never thought we would ever have a chance to visit. With a bit less than a year and a half before we go back home, I am looking forward to traveling to even more places.

And here — some photos from our trip to Romania.