On the road again

Today is another travel day. After a week in Buenos Aires – warm, sunny, summer in Buenos Aires – I leave today for Frankfurt and a week of meetings there.

I have had fewer problems with jet lag on this trip than I have expected. I still get very sleepy around dinner time, and last night I totally collapsed in bed by 10 p.m. But overall, I haven’t felt that almost overwhelming exhaustion that I have on some other international trips. Maybe I’m getting used to the changes.

I will leave around noon today to catch a bus to the airport with some of my colleagues. That will get me there quite early for my late afternoon flight. I am counting on the airport having wifi access, and ideally a restaurant where I can camp out for an afternoon with a light lunch and maybe a mid-afternoon drink.

This has been an unusual month of travel for me. The number of trips, and in particular the number of international trips, is something new for me. I’m gaining a great appreciation for people who do this kind of travel regularly. I find it mentally and physically challenging. The process of going through security and customs is similar but somewhat different from place to place. Do I take my laptop out of my bag? Shoes off or on? I forgot to take my passport wallet out of my hand at one airport, and it alarmed the metal detector. Earned me the wand and patdown search, and a delay getting reunited with my other belongings going through the x-ray machine.

And so far, my travel has been pretty smooth. A little hang-up leaving Japan, as I had been instructed to leave my residence card with my wife to have it registered as she moved into our new apartment. The customs agent wasn’t happy about that, and I wasn’t sure she was going to let me through. Finally I signed a form and was passed through, with the unsaid message that this American just didn’t understand the established process.

Otherwise, things have gone pretty smoothly. Flights on time, checked luggage arrived intact, found my way on ground transportation to where I needed to go. I’m hoping that level of ease continues. Three more flights in the next two weeks, and I’ll be back to re-start my new life in Japan.


Setting up a home…

While my sweet husband has been traveling the world and is still currently in Buenos Aires, Argentina, I have meanwhile been here in Tokyo taking care of the more mundane aspects of establishing our “home” for the next two years. After he left on Sunday for that tedious 30 hour ordeal to get to South America, I spent my last night in the Celestine Hotel, Tokyo.

Bright and early Monday morning, I packed up our belongings and met the relocation representative in the lobby to move everything to our Tokyo apartment. At the apartment, after inspecting for damage, we left the rental company to set up the furniture, and walked to Minato-ku City Hall to register the residence and have the residency cards updated with the new address. I somehow thought that this would all be very quick and routine, but no…  The person behind the desk knew no more English than I knew Japanese, and while I stood blankly watching, the relocation rep handled the paperwork (which was all in Japanese.) At one point they turned to me to ask if I could write the Katakana (Japanese characters) version of my name. OMG… What? Finally, I remembered Google Translate, and typed my name into the app in English, and out popped my name in…  Katakana.

After an hour listening to our relocation representative speak to the City Hall staff, finally we were officially registered, signed up for the national health program, and had filled out the waiver for the Japanese pension fund. Yikes! How can this really be so complicated? I never imagined all that was involved in this process.

After that mind-numbing ordeal, I was taken by subway to the Softbank store to buy a Japanese cell phone to use here. I have always been an android user, but now I have in my possession a brand new iPhone 6s… with a brand new Japanese phone number!  (Still trying to figure out how to set up the iPhone.) Buying the iPhone was also somewhat of an ordeal… the salesperson spoke English — and in fact, had gone to school in California for a while — but still… the language is so difficult to follow.

That brings up a really important point here. Of course there is a language issue, but it is even more than me not knowing very much Japanese. I have found that even if the person I am speaking to knows English, I still have trouble understanding. They speak to me with Japanese-tainted English,and I speak to them with English-tainted Japanese! We are both trying so hard to listen and understand, but it is very difficult, and time consuming. This process of acclimating and learning to fit into Japanese culture is going to take time… lots of time. It cannot be accomplished in 3 short weeks. Much patience is required…  on both sides.  It is easy to get frustrated…  but, I am learning.

Yesterday, I received our air shipment from home.  The movers brought in the boxes we had shipped, and now the apartment is feeling a bit more like a real home. I have the kitchen more or less set up,and have actually bought some groceries and cooked a meal there. There are still things we need to get the place organized, but it is coming along.

Today was getting the internet set up and configured. The first technician was very cordial, but spoke not one word of English.  He connected the internet, and left. The second technician brought the wireless router and configured the network. He spoke English, but again…  it is that Japanese English that I am working so hard to listen to and understand. Anyway…  it all got done, and we are connected to internet.

Again…  I am in no way criticizing or complaining about this process. I know it all has to happen. I am just trying to explain what an involved and mentally exhausting process this has been. I look forward to learning more Japanese so that I can communicate more effectively while we are here. The communication issue here is such a complicated thing involving not just the words, but the writing system, and the culture and history of this wonderful society. I am happy to have my little apartment all set up now… a refuge. Not a place to hide, but a place to recover before my next adventure in Japan.

The challenges of international travel

This week, I am having the opportunity to participate in an international meeting in Buenos Aires, Argentina. It’s a great opportunity and I’m learning many things. I am also experiencing the challenges of international travel.

First of all, it is a LONG trip from Tokyo to Buenos Aires. The first leg of my journey began at Tokyo’s Haneda airport – just a short subway ride from the area in Tokyo where we live.

I left Tokyo on Sunday afternoon bound for Frankfurt, Germany. A “short” 12 hours later, the flight landed on time in Frankfurt. Did I sleep on the plane? Well, I had my eyes closed part of the time, but I wouldn’t really call it sleep.

The connecting flight was just a short walk away, and I had about three hours to wait. The terminal at first seemed strangely vacant of people, particularly given it was early in the evening, Frankfurt time. But people slowly began to arrive, and soon the departure lobby filled.

The next leg was the long one – nearly 14 hours from Frankfurt to Buenos Aires. That’s a really long time to sit in an economy seat on an airplane. Fortunately, the seat next to my isle seat was vacant, so I had a little more room to stretch. I watched a movie and some TV. The cabin was dark and I was a little more successful in sleeping. Still, I wouldn’t consider it a very satisfying rest.

A coulple of hours before scheduled landing, we had a surprise. The pilot announced that there was bad weather in Buenos Aires, and we were being diverted to Sao Paulo, Brazil to refuel. Not the plan, but guess I would prefer they make sure there is plenty of fuel to get where we are going. The stop was brief – we stayed on the plane for about 45 minutes while it was refueled. Then we were back in the air, and on the way to Buenos Aires.

I didn’t mention the airline food. There is a lot. They do their best to make it edible. Some is pretty good, some not so much. But breakfast on the last leg was welcome and included some much-needed water and juice.

Arrival at Buenos Aires was uneventful. Fairly long line to go through customs – it took around 45 minutes to wait. But once at the customs agent booth the process was quick and effortless.

My immediate impression of Buenos Aires is that it’s warm – it is summer in the southern hemisphere! So my cold weather clothes are not needed. The leaves are on the trees, the air is wonderfully mild, and we enjoyed lunch on the patio outside the hotel.

Unfortunately it is also 12 hours behind Japan time. I was just about to adapt to Japan time zone after moving from Atlanta. My body is now trying to adjust to going back in time again. Probably the bigger issue is just getting used to thinking about the time difference. In Japan, home in the United States is 14 hours behind. Here, Japan is 12 hours ahead…so if I call my wife at 2 p.m. here, it is 2 a.m. in Japan…oops.

All in all, this is a good experience. I feel like I am an experienced traveler, having traveled internationally many times. But the magnitude of this trip is different, and I find that just keeping track of everything — cell phone, passport, wallet, backpack, etc. — is surprisingly challenging. And since I have two more trips before returning to Japan, I have to keep track of those travel plans, hotel arrangements, schedules, and the like. The logistics seem harder than I would expect. I’m assuming that will get easier as I travel more frequently.


On complexity, and travel

As the “he” part of the blog team, I’ve been busy getting acclimated to my first full week in the office. It’s an interesting place. Truly a multi-national office with people from not only Japan, but Korea, Pakistan, India, Russia, United Kingdom, and probably several others I’m not aware of yet.

In our office, the official language is English. I greatly admire all my colleagues who speak English as a second language. I only wish I had such a command of a second (or third or fourth) language.

That said, it is often a challenge to communicate. We are working with difficult and complex issues. I find it challenging to listen to my native language with so many different accents. And at times, my comments are met with quizzical or blank expressions. We are all speaking basically the same language, but the meaning behind the words isn’t always getting through.

Perhaps this will get easier as I become acclimated to a new environment where there is so much more diversity. But as I start to make the adjustment, I now have three weeks of travel ahead.

I’ve known since I came here that I would have this travel schedule. It seemed feasible during the “thinking about it” phase. Now that the time is here, I see how difficult this is really going to be.

So far we have been living in a hotel room. Nice enough, but a hotel…kind of small, eating out all meals. On Monday, we move into our apartment….but I won’t be there. I’ll be several thousand miles and many time zones away. My wife will have to do all the move-in things by herself. Of course she’s up to the task, but I want to be there.

I’m just getting adjusted to this time zone. Now I go to a different one for a week, then another trip for a week, then back to the US for a week to finalize the move out of our house to turn it over for leasing. Meaning in three weeks, I start the acclimation process all over. Get adjusted to the new office…adjust to the time zone…starting over.

All in all, I’m glad to be here and I think this will be a great experience. If I could do it over, I would strongly urge not scheduling travel so soon after arrival. The better way would be to come here, make the big change, and get acclimated. That’s a hard enough adjustment. Having an extensive travel schedule adds a level of stress and complexity that really isn’t the optimal way to make this huge life change.



Three more nights in the hotel…

Three more nights staying in this hotel. By then it will be 2 weeks and one day living here.  It is a nice enough hotel…  It has been very comfortable, if somewhat of a tight fit with all of our suitcases. It has nice facilities…  Free wifi (very important!) Restaurants are mediocre and hugely overpriced, but that is to be expected. They have a nice guest lounge — which is where I am now while they clean our room — and it has free coffee/espresso, so I’m happy with that. The hotel staff is all very friendly and attentive. We have enjoyed our stay here.

But…  It is a hotel…  and I am tired of not having my own space. I used to envy my husband for his travel. No company I have ever worked for has offered to send me somewhere and put me up in a hotel and pay for all my meals. It sounded like such an exciting thing to travel for work. I really appreciate that his company is taking such good care of us here, but I am so ready to be in our own place and settled again. We have been living out of suitcases for long enough.

Sunday, my husband leaves for another business meeting — this one in Buenos Aires. I don’t envy him this trip because it involves nearly a full 24 hours of travel from Tokyo…  First leg to Frankfurt (11 hours), three hour layover, then a second flight to Argentina (another 10 or 11 hours.) I — in the meantime — will be moving into our Tokyo apartment on Monday morning, and getting things set up there. Our shipped goods from home will arrive Tuesday.

The relocation company, fortunately, has been handling most of the set up and arrangements — since we are not very fluent in the language here. They have rented the furniture, and set up utilities…  I have to arrange for cable and internet, but they are helping with that as well. They will pick me up from the hotel, and help get the bags moved to the apartment, be there for the “key ceremony” (when they hand over the key to me), and they will take me to City Hall to register and get updated Residence Cards. There are a lot of rules here in Japan. A lot of hoops to jump through to come live here. I am thankful to the company and the relocation service for helping with all of this.

We met yesterday with our tax adviser… Taxes get really complicated when you are an Expat. We will have to pay taxes in the US and here in Japan as well. So… the company has provided us with an adviser here and one back in the States. I think it will all turn out fine, but right now all of these details and arrangements are making me a bit crazy. Who knew at the outset what all was going to be involved here? When they first suggested this loaned assignment, all we thought about was experiencing another culture. No one said, “Hey…  think about this…”

I am not regretting this decision…  LOL, at least not yet… I do still believe that the opportunities will be worth all of this hassle, but this is certainly turning into an eye-opening experience.

Three more nights. I am excited to move on!

Dinner… And Hoppy.


So…  Still no apartment, and every evening we are still searching out restaurants to try in this area. Last night we again headed down into that little alleyway area behind Tamachi Station. It is an interesting little area filled with tiny little restaurants of all sorts.  Most of them serving traditional Japanese foods…  lots of grilled meats and fish. Last week when we were there, the restaurant we chose was grilling fish over an open fire of burning straw. We didn’t actually try the fish cooked that way, but I can imagine it to be a very smoky tasting meal.

Last night… hoping to find something more vegetarian friendly (almost an impossible feat in Japan, I am afraid), we were “nabbed” by a young women standing on the sidewalk with a menu in her hands. She spoke fairly good English, so we listened to her pitch for the restaurant, and decided to give it a try. Up a narrow staircase we went, to a tiny little restaurant on the second floor overlooking the sidewalk. No other patrons were in the room…  we had the place entirely to ourselves for the whole time we were there.  The menu was all in Japanese, but she had an “English menu” with broken descriptions of the foods that they offered. She, however, very patiently described the dishes, and helped us select a seared salmon dish (and I mean very lightly seared, as in almost sashimi) and a Caesar salad.  The salad was beautiful with red and orange peppers and a purple broccoli I have never seen before. The “Caesar” part of it was a soft-cooked egg on top. Perfectly, amazingly delicious! I would go back to that restaurant — if I can find it — just for that awesome salad!

We saw a sign on the wall for “Hoppy” which appeared to be a local beer, so we ordered that as well. What they brought to us was a glass half filled with ice and a clear liquid, and a swizzle stick, and a bottle of Hoppy Black. Lol… I tasted the clear liquid, and it was some kind of liquor — I was guessing sake — and we poured the Hoppy into the glass to mix.  It was very good, but I had never seen such a way to serve “beer” before. As it turns out, Hoppy isn’t really beer, and in fact, only has 0.8% alcohol.  And the clear liquor was not sake, but shochu (with 25% alcohol.) The story and history of this beverage is in the following link:


Interesting. Lol…I am ready to go back for some more Hoppy…

Toilets… Part 1

The Japanese have to have the most amazing toilet technology on the planet. Seriously. They have taken a rather mundane and sometimes disgusting everyday object and made it into something almost beautiful and most certainly amazing. They may choose to save electricity by not having a clothes dryer — and consequently hanging clothes to dry on balconies or in their bathrooms, but they will not skimp on the electricity for their toilets!

This is the toilet in our hotel room. Yes… it has a heated seat (kind of a nice feature, actually.) Yes…  it has an adjustable water spray AND a bidet. And this one has the added convenience — at least for us language-challenged foreigners — of having the controls written in English. Now, granted, no one NEEDS a toilet this fancy. In a pinch just about any old toilet will do the job, but these state-of-the-art-in-toilet-technology toilets are pretty nice…  and interesting. A pleasant way to take care of the necessary human moments of out daily lives.

Like I have said before, the Japanese people are all about efficiency and utility. Yet…  In this area, I would say they are almost over-the-top-extravagant. Certainly not all the toilets in this country are as posh as this one, and I will be talking about the “other options” I have experienced here, in later blog posts. There is a whole range of features available. At  Tamachi (subway) Station near the restaurant court, the stalls in the women’s restroom have an electronic sensor that turns on waterfall and bird sounds as soon as you get close to the toilet — presumably to drown out other less pleasing sounds that may be heard. Some offer disinfectant wipes, or release bursts of air freshener into the stall areas. Our hotel toilet starts circulating the water to make the water sounds as soon as you sit on the seat. My husband, though, said that the men’s restroom at Tamachi has no such sound features. So… does that mean we women have more delicate and more easily offended sensibilities? Lol…  The sociological discussion for the day.

Yes. This is an interesting place…

Lost in Translation, part 2

My 3-day trip to Korea was interesting and a bit exhausting. The purpose was to meet with members of a company that will play host to a big meeting we will hold in 2017. I found the group to be engaging and cordial. The first evening we were hosted to a Korean barbecue. All hopes of being vegetarian went by the wayside as there was a large quantity of pork served steaming at the tableside. Our hosts were fond of making “boilermakers” — a shot of Soju (a Korean liquor similar to vodka) mixed with beer. I lost track of how many “bottoms up” toasts we celebrated, but the quantity of alcohol was impressive. It was an evening of good food and camaraderie. We enjoyed several good meals together. Ok, I did eat octopus tentacles that were still wiggling on the plate. That pretty much pushed my level of acceptance for new foods to the limit of where I’ll go.

With the destination of our meeting to be Gyeongju, South Korea, we spent some time looking at the area and visiting some of the historic landmarks. Our group included 2 Japanese, 2 Korean, a now-Korean who was born and educated in the US, and me, the American. Conversations were often interesting. Everyone spoke English, and we defaulted to that most of the time. The Japanese and Koreans often compared expressions and word usage, finding a number of similarities as well as differences.

I often found myself struggling to understand all of what was being said. Despite their English proficiency – and all did speak English very well – the accents were sometimes challenging for me to deal with. Quite a few things just went by the wayside, and I was embarassed to have to ask people to repeat things so that I could understand. I think this will get better as my ears and brain begins to adjust to new sounds that flavor the English that I’m used to.

This was kind of a first taste of this extraordinary blend of cultures that I will experience in this job. I think it is going to be a fascinating experience.


Lost in Translation…


This is a great movie. I first saw this movie in 2006 before our first trip to Japan. I am not sure if I understood at the time what it was really about, though. I mostly watched it because it was about Japan, and an area of Tokyo where I was going to be visiting. I have watched the movie many times since, and it has become one of my go-to repeat favorites. Certainly not action-packed, but entertaining and funny. After the past 5 days here in Japan, I find myself thinking more and more about this movie — identifying with the characters — and maybe finding a deeper understanding of what the movie is about.

I was out with our relocation consultant yesterday doing an area tour to help get acclimated to the new neighborhood where we will live here in Tokyo. Ai and I on the surface don’t seem that much different. Certainly she is younger and has different features, but we dress in similar fashion, we converse in English…  not her native tongue, but she is very good at speaking English. Much better than I ever hope to be at speaking Japanese! But despite surface appearances, and despite how “westernized” the Japanese appear to be/try to be/want to be (which is it?), I have started to realize that there is a very real cultural disconnect between us. Not that this is at all unexpected or bad…  it is just not very apparent on the surface. It is just something bubbling under the surface that you begin to notice in subtle ways.

Don’t get me wrong, the people we have met here have been nothing but gracious and kind and welcoming. But sometimes I think we are puzzled by each other. I saw this yesterday when talking to Ai…  Sometimes even though she would nod her head and say “yes, yes” — or “hai, hai”, she would get a quizzical look on her face like she didn’t understand what I was talking about.  Or when I would ask about something I saw and she would have trouble explaining about it in English…  something that she couldn’t quite put into words that I (a gaijin!) could understand. Our languages don’t translate directly, of course… and the meanings and the cultural context behind the languages don’t either. A bird is still a bird, and a tree is still a tree, but our feelings and experience of those objects just does not translate completely. It isn’t easy. But it is infinitely fascinating… and sublime.

Oh…  And I did have my first “gaijin” moment yesterday. I was at Tamachi station… distracted and looking at my map… and I got on the escalator.  But I automatically stood to the right. In Japan it is reversed…  they drive on the left, they walk on the left, they stand on the escalator to the left. Big no-no…  And, maybe it was my imagination, but I don’t think so… I heard a whispered “gaijin” and realized my faux pas, moved over to the left, and several people walked past me on the right. Oops! My bad! Gotta laugh…  Yeah, I am a Gaijin. But I am learning…

First days at work

This is the “he” writer of the blog. My first day at work in Japan was a lot like other first days…getting my access badge, talking to the IT guy about the new computer, getting instructions on office procedures. After lunch, we met the relocation person to look at apartments. Choose one on the 30th floor of a building about 10 minutes from the office. I think we will like it.

On my second day, I started a 3-day trip to Korea. Traveling with 2 Japanese colleagues. At the airport, I’m asked if  going to exchange money to get Korean currency. Hadn’t thought of that – I seldom carry cash, and use credit cards in the U.S. One of the many things I need to consider as I get into a more “cash only” society.

I still feel awkward going through security. My customs card isn’t fully filled out and I have trouble understanding the security person. Fortunately it means only a small addition to the form, and the person is patient.

The flight to Korea is pleasant and even includes a light lunch. Processing through customs is easy and uneventful.

There is a meeting in the afternoon followed by an enjoyable dinner of Korean barbecue. I find that despite our cultural differences we have a lot in common. It will be an interesting experience working with these Korean colleagues in the coming days.

A bit unexpected is the weather – light snow in Seoul this afternoon.