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.

Learning (slowly) about Japan

It’s the “he” part of the blog team (but the “she” part of the team contributed with ideas and discussion). As I write this, we are approaching the two year, nine month point as residents of Japan.

Looking back, I’ve learned a lot about Japan. My wife and I have had a great opportunity to be immersed in this amazing society. We’ve traveled around the country, we’ve seen many things, and we have interacted with people. More than tourists, we can legitimately call ourselves residents. We’ve even learned some of the language, and more importantly, how to communicate without speaking fluently.

But the more I learn about Japan, the more I realize that I have just touched the surface. There is a subtle (sometimes not so subtle) undercurrent of difference about this culture that is hard, as a Westerner, to describe. Of course, the language is part of it. It is possible to translate some of the words between Japanese and English. But the meaning often gets lost in translation. Some things, we’ve found, just don’t translate and it’s hard to get a shared understanding.

And it goes deeper than language. There is a difference in the thought process that is palpable. I’m sure there must be social science studies of this, or if not, it would be a fascinating study. As a layman, I can only try to describe my observations as best I can.

Perhaps it’s best described as cultural disconnects. I see the Japanese, by and large, as a pleasant people who find ways to enjoy their lives. They have a deep sense of honor and respect for one another. They can at one time be seen engaged and interacting with their friends and families, and at the same time isolating themselves in a sea of humanity.

The more I try to describe the differences I see, the harder I find it to do so. In so many ways, I have been accepted as an adopted resident of this country. And in so many other ways, I know that no matter how long I’m here, I’ll never be fully integrated into this culture.

To begin with, I look…well, like a tourist, and that’s not something I can change. Japan was a closed society for many centuries, and even with more and more Westerners coming to Japan, we still stand out as being different. Compare that with the US, which despite what some would want you to believe, is a country of immigrants. That is what the United States of America was founded upon. There are many Asian-Americans, and it’s not uncommon to see people of different ethnic backgrounds all being citizens of the US. That is a basic difference from Japan.

In the time I’ve been in Japan, I’ve found the people accepting, and a bit curious, about my background. My experiences and perspectives are very different from theirs. And, I’ve found my Japanese colleagues want to understand as well as share from their viewpoint.

I’ve learned that there are many, many differences in the culture here, more than I could ever have anticipated. And I learn something new, literally every day.  Perhaps that is why it is so intriguing to be an adopted resident of Japan.

Visitors.

If you read the previous blog, you know my husband is away on business. It has been kind of a lonely couple of days, and he still has a few more days away. But, tomorrow our daughter and son-in-law… and his parents… arrive for a visit.

We enjoy having friends and family visit. It is fun to show everyone around Tokyo… and we enjoy sharing the sites and the culture of our adopted country. We love Tokyo, and we love living here. We want to show our visitors what is so special about Japan.

But… It is important for our visitors to understand that we are NOT tour guides. Anyone who comes to visit needs to be sure to do their homework before coming here. Japan is an amazing place, and there is so much to see and learn. Make sure to research and decide what is important for YOU to see and do. Don’t just rely on us to decide what we want to show you. Everyone has their own interests, and our interests may not be the same as yours.

Also… be brave. Be willing to go out on your own to see and do the things you want. The train system in Tokyo is amazing! Convenient, inexpensive, and multilingual! Most of the ticket machines have an English option, so it is easy to buy tickets, or recharge the convenient IC prepaid cards (Suica and Pasmo cards in Tokyo.) Learning to navigate the transit system in Tokyo is part of the fun of being here. Google maps will give you all the information you need to navigate the trains… lines, times, platform numbers and even cost! If you don’t have a phone plan that will allow you to use your smartphone here, mobile hotspots and cell phones are available for rental at the airport.

Be adventurous.  Be willing to experience the culture! Be open minded about the food options. Japanese food is wonderful. Yes… it is different from your home country… Of course it is! But try it! If, however… you absolutely can’t stand the thought of eating raw fish, or lots of rice, or grilled meats and veggies… there are American fast food options available. But why not try the local food? Why come here if you don’t want to experience something different?

There is so much to see here, but if it is your first trip to Japan, I would suggest exploring close to Tokyo. There is a lot to see in the city itself, and also many short day trips outside of Tokyo. If you have been to Tokyo before, maybe consider buying a JR Pass for the Shinkansen, and travel to some other parts of Japan. The bullet trains (Shinkansen) are a lot of fun, and can take you to all four of the major islands of Japan. But to really get your money’s worth from the JR Pass, you really need to take at least a couple of trips outside of Tokyo. A trip to Kyoto is a must. Going farther to Hiroshima or Nagasaki or to the island of Shikoku, or north to Hokkaido are all wonderful options on the Shinkansen. The JR Pass is only available for tourists. You can buy it online from home before you come to Japan, and activate it once you are here. Easy.

We look forward to having visitors to share our experience with. But understand… this is YOUR vacation, not ours. We LIVE here. It is (at least for now) our home. Share it with us, enjoy it with us… but make your trip to Japan YOUR own unforgettable experience.

 

On being alone in Tokyo…

We started this blog to write about what it is like to live as an expat in a foreign country. To talk not just about the fun and interesting things, but also to talk about the challenges and difficult parts of living away from home in a country and culture (not to mention language) that is so far and away different from where we are from. Sometimes this blog does morph into something like a travel guide — places to see and things to do in Japan. Today, though, I will step back and talk about one of the challenging things.

My husband just left on a business trip. He will be gone for almost a week. I have been very fortunate to be able to accompany him on many of his business trips. The company pays his travel expenses, and we pay mine. We schedule a few vacation days before or after the business part of the trip, and so we have an opportunity to do a bit of sight-seeing together. But… this time, going with him just wasn’t an option. He has a couple of business stops to make, and it just wasn’t practical.

Over the years of our marriage, he has done a fair amount of business travel, and I have stayed at home. It isn’t that I can’t stay alone, or that I am afraid to stay alone. In fact, I like some alone time now and then.

But… it is a little more challenging for me being alone here. I can manage quite well taking care of myself, our apartment, and buying groceries, etc. That is not the problem. The problem is that the amount of solitude that I have when he is gone, can start to feel overwhelming. Without a job of my own, and without the business connections and friends at work that he has, my day is pretty quiet. Sometimes too quiet.

I just got back from a trip to the US to visit family, and I left my husband here “alone” for 2 1/2 weeks. He missed me, and evenings were lonely, but he had that full day at work where he was with his co-workers and interacting with people. Then for a few hours in the evening before going to sleep, he was alone.

I guess the difficulty is that I don’t really have many friends here, and not many outlets for “socializing.” Because of the language barrier — and it is definitely a hurdle — it is hard for me to make Japanese friends. Most of them are just as shy about trying to speak English, as I am about speaking my meager amount of Japanese. And… finding English-speaking expats in our part of Tokyo is hard. We opted not to live in the popular expat areas, because we wanted a more authentic Japanese experience. Besides… living in Shibaura, close to my husband’s office, he can walk to work instead of taking a 45 minute train ride from Roppongi or Akasaka. We like Shibaura.

The Japanese people are very kind, and considerate. But they are also somewhat introverted. They don’t like to interfere in other people’s business. When we walk down the street, most of the Japanese that I meet do not make eye contact. When we ride on the trains, most people are looking at their cell phones, or have headphones in listening to music, or are sleeping (or maybe pretending to sleep.) Actually, if you hear loud conversation on the trains… it is likely to be from tourists… lol. They don’t want to interfere in each other’s business… including mine. I don’t mind, I am kind of that same personality myself. Like I said, I enjoy my “alone time” too.

And it is all well and good when I am alone during the day, and can look forward to spending time with my husband in the evenings. Except… when he is away. So this week I will have a few too many days to be all by myself.

I am not asking for pity, or even complaining. I am just bringing this topic into the blog for consideration. Yes. It can be lonely living in a foreign country. It can feel isolating. And I really do believe that you have to have the right personality to do this. You do have to be able to deal with some amount of isolation. You have to accept the challenging parts right along with the fun and interesting parts. And for us, this expat experience has been well worth dealing with those difficult parts.

Sometimes, you just need a hamburger…

We’ve lived in Japan for 2-1/2 years, and we have really embraced Japanese food. Sushi, sashimi, yakitori, soba, ramen, Japanese curry…the local food is amazing, and we take advantage of it literally every day.

But, sometimes, you just need a hamburger.

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Today, for the first time since our arrival here, we had ‘burgers made at home. Hamburger from the grocery store, buns that resemble real hamburger buns, ketchup, mustard, a slice of tomato…yum, just like “home.”

Of course, there are other alternatives for Western hamburgers. Tokyo is riddled with McDonald’s, Wendy’s, and Burger King restaurants. And for a slightly Asian take on the American diet, there is Mos Burger, Lotteria and Freshness Burger. You can even find the international Shake Shack chain in several locations.

For those with an urge for Western food not involving hamburger, there are KFC shops, Pizza Hut, Domino’s, and even Dunkin’ Donuts. There are even some Mexican food restaurants — a delicacy we have yet to try.

So, there really is something in Japan for every taste. For us, aside from the occasional hamburger fix, we’ll stick with the wonderfully delicious Japanese food options. Oishii desu!

Yokohama

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Last weekend we took the train from Tokyo to Yokohama — the second largest city in Japan — which lies along Tokyo Bay just south of Tokyo. It is only a 45 minute trip from our part of Tokyo (Tamachi Station) and costs a very reasonable 500 Yen on the JR Keihin-Tohoku line. Our original purpose for going to Yokohama was to see the Bon-Odori Festival there, but there are so many interesting things to see and do there, that we spent the day.

The Port of Yokohama was one of the first port cities in Japan to open to foreign trade, and opened in 1859. It continues to be one of the most important port cities in Japan. Because of foreign trade, Yokohama hosted a large population of foreign nationals, and became a center for foreign business and industry. And even now continues to be something of a cultural melting pot.

As you ride the train from Tokyo, it is impossible to see where one city ends and another begins… going from the high-rises of Tokyo, through Kawasaki, to more high-rises in Yokohama. It is a beautiful city, with a beautiful and modern waterfront. Cruise ships, harbor cruises and water taxis abound. Modern hotels, convention facilities, and an amusement park are perched along the water. This is the popular Minato-Mirai area of Yokohama.

 

From the train station, we walked through this area to the waterfront, and past the amusement park, through Red Brick Warehouse — an historic building converted to upscale shopping and restaurants. Then through Yamashita Park and past the Yokohama Marine Tower, where we turned in to go to Yokohama China Town.

 

The streets of China Town are narrow, and always crowded… But so many things to see and foods to sample in China Town! It is a fascinating place to spend an afternoon.

 

Not far from China Town is the shopping district of Motomachi, where we happened upon a children’s dance festival… all the girls in colorful costumes lined up for their performances.

 

Late in the afternoon we walked back to Minato-Mirai for the Bon-Odori Festival — the dance festival honoring the spirits of ancestors. A stage was set up under the paper lanterns, and we watched a taiko drum performance to start off the festivities. Street food vendors were all around, and the party began!

 

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Then the traditional Bon Odori began. Many people in traditional Japanese costume lined up for the dancing, and many more in regular clothes jumped into the performance as well. It was fun, and interesting to watch as all ages — old, young, and whole families — danced along with the music. They started out with the traditional songs, but after a while they danced to more contemporary music.

 

 

 

Yokohama has a lot to offer as a nearby “day trip” from Tokyo, and we just scratched the surface. There are so many more things to see and do there, that we will need to take another trip there very soon.