Food matters…

2016-02-29

This is our refrigerator/freezer. The refrigerator part is about the size of a college dorm room refrigerator, but it has a pretty nice sized freezer drawer underneath it. So far, I have plenty of space in the freezer — I haven’t bought much frozen food here — but the refrigerator part is pretty cramped.

Food shopping, food storage,  and cooking here are very different from what I am used to in the US. Obviously, the Japanese people have a different kind of diet and eat different foods from what most people eat in the US, but it goes much deeper than just the selection of food items in the supermarket. Everything is different.

Food packages are much smaller here. No “super economy size” here. Partly, that is due to this being an urban living environment. Most people living here in Shibaura do not have access to a car. We all walk  or take the subway wherever we go. Some people have little carts to carry their groceries and other packages. Some people ride bikes and carry their packages in bicycle baskets. some people carry everything in grocery bags… which is what I have been doing so far. And, I have found, that pretty much I can only comfortably carry about 2500 yen-worth of groceries at a time — less than $25 worth. So, it is nice to have the small packages because they weigh less, and they take up less space in my tiny refrigerator and cupboards. I have to be careful not to overload my shopping basket, or I struggle to carry everything back to the apartment.

So — it means that I have to shop much more frequently than I am used to. Living in US suburbia, I shopped once a week… twice at most. I stocked up on items when they were on sale. I bought larger sizes to save money. I had a nice big pantry to store things in. I would routinely buy $100 or more worth of groceries, load them in my car, take them home and I had plenty of space to store them. This is really different for me, and I am still feeling uncomfortable with the process… I feel like I am at the grocery store all the time!

Another difference…  Most people use cash here for smaller purchases. We have used the credit card at the grocery store, but most of the stores seem to prefer cash. At home in the US, I used plastic for everything. I rarely carried much cash. Now, when I shop, not only do I need to keep track of how heavy the items are so I can carry it all home, I also have to keep a running total in my head so that I am sure I have enough money to pay for everything. Grocery shopping used to be such a mindless activity…  and at times, it was very impulse-driven. I would buy stuff on a whim, not stick to a list, and buy what looked good to me at the moment. Now, I have to carefully consider each purchase to make sure I really need to buy it.

It hasn’t exactly been a problem…  Just a different way of doing things. I don’t mind doing it this way, but it does take some getting used to. I think we are eating healthier, because I seem to buy more whole foods and less processed stuff. I am buying different things — today I bought daikon, and leeks — things I rarely or never bought back at home. Also…  we are possibly eating less, because I prepare less. No room to store the leftovers.

I like the food here. We were mostly vegetarian back in the US, and it is very hard to eat totally vegetarian here — especially eating out. We eat fish here a couple of times per week. Tofu (which we enjoy) is very cheap here. And we eat more eggs here. (Side note — the eggs here are amazing! I have never seen such beautiful, rich, orange yolks! Yes… you CAN tell a difference. These eggs are delicious! Even buying the premium $4/ dozen eggs back in the US, these are so much better!)  There are things that we are missing from home, but mostly things that we are better off without anyway. We miss popcorn, peanut butter, peanuts, tortilla chips, and salsa. They sell these items in some food stores, but they are very expensive. I can’t find artificial sweetener  — and I will be happy to get used to not using that. Oatmeal, and other breakfast cereals are very expensive. I plan to load my suitcase with oatmeal when I am home for a visit.  Silly things I miss…  snack foods are very different here.

I wonder after we go back home, how many of these new habits will stick, or will we revert back as soon as we are there. We will see…  Tonight’s menu? Soba noodle soup, with egg and fresh shredded daikon, carrots and leeks. Yum.

 

A Sunday morning in Tokyo

Went for a walk on this Sunday morning. Today was the Tokyo Marathon. It is a flat 42- kilometer course. Walked about an 8-mile round trip through Shinigawa to Osaki and did a little shopping. Today is a blog of photos from the morning.

Lost in translation… again.

2016-02-25

THIS arrived in our mailbox yesterday. And, of course…  because of our continuing lack of Japanese language skills, we had no idea what it was or what to do with it. Luckily, we have a concierge desk in the lobby of our apartment. It is only staffed during evening hours, from 18:00 to 22:00. The concierge also handles the dry cleaning service here…  my husband sent out his shirts for cleaning and pressing, and we had to go pick them up last night anyway, so we asked her about this notice.

It is a “failed delivery” notice…  Apparently they tried to deliver something that required a signature, and no one was home. The concierge speaks a little bit of English, and very kindly offered to call the number on the notice to schedule re-delivery for us.

I waited for it this morning… as required, and the mailman called our intercom from downstairs. I answered — in English — he responded — in Japanese…  I unlocked the door to let him into the lobby, and told him that I would come down. But, my dilemma was that then, I wasn’t sure if he understood me. Would he wait for me in the lobby, or would he come up to my door? There are 3 elevators… I didn’t want to miss him by going down in one elevator as he was coming up in another. Lol… So, I did actually wait a couple of minutes outside the elevator bank. I could hear the elevator coming up, so I hoped that it was him coming up to the 30th floor. And yes… it was. I met him as the doors opened, signed for our registered letter, and it was done. He was very nice, very polite, but again…  spoke no English. At least now I know that they DO bring the mail up to the door.

This language barrier sometimes seems so overwhelming. We have both been learning random useful phrases in Japanese. That has gotten us through so far, but we need to really start learning the language, and as I have talked about before, that means we need to learn the characters. We met with our Japanese teacher for the first time last night, and that is what she has started us on…  learning to read and write the syllabaries. Specifically, she started us writing the Katakana. 50 characters, and last night we worked on 15 of them. She gave us each a little practice pad marked off in squares, so that we could better draw the characters. I feel like a first grader again — practicing my alphabet. Lol…  This is hard!

I still feel like I need to be working on speaking the language, so I guess I will continue learning phrases for awhile. It is getting easier for me to read the words IF they are written in Romanji (the regular alphabet.) I at least have started to get used to the sounds of the Japanese language. It is getting easier to say the phrases I know, just because my mouth is getting used to the sound combinations that are unique to this language. I guess that is some degree of progress…  I think this might be a very long process.

Our Japanese teacher told us that there are usually so many Japanese people eager to practice speaking English, that we really could get by here in Tokyo without learning Japanese. I am not so sure I agree…  At least here in Shibaura, we have had many situations where the person we were attempting to communicate with spoke no English. And, we rarely see any non-Asians here in this part of Tokyo. At any rate…  I am in their country, and I feel like I SHOULD learn to speak their language.

Oh…  and that piece of mail we received? It was our ATM card from our new Japanese bank account. Unfortunately, all the instructions are in Japanese. I guess that will be the next hurdle to overcome.

Passport saga…part 1

In preparation for this assignment in Japan, I made sure to check my passport’s expiration date. Good through 2019, well beyond my expected return to the US. Another item checked off the get ready to go list.

What I didn’t check, however, were the number of blank pages left in my passport.  So when I recently found out I have a business trip in April to Russia, I started getting ready to apply for my visa. And found out that Russia requires two blank, side-by-side pages. I have one blank page and several partially blank pages…but that doesn’t meet the rules.

What to do? Well, it used to be that you could get additional pages added to a passport. But that ended at the end of 2015 with tightened security rules for passports. The only other alternative was to renew my passport.

I soon found that the process for an expat to renew a passport while living in Japan is pretty straightforward. Step-by-step process on the US Embassy website. Fill out the application form. Obtain a 2 x 2 photo (white background only). Obtain one self-addressed “Japan Post 510 yen LetterPack PLUS envelope.” Make a reservation to submit all of the above at the US Embassy’s passport window. Oh, yeah – bring a credit card or cash for the $110 application fee.

So today, my wife and I found our way to the embassy. Pretty easy subway ride, and a short walk to the embassy building. Cold wind though, and there was a surprisingly long line outside the embassy doors – mostly Japanese applying for visas. I was able to go in a shorter line for US citizens…but, since my wife didn’t have an appointment, she was – literally – left out in the cold.

Getting in the embassy is kind of like going to the airport. Take everything out of pockets. Belongings go through the x-ray. Walk through the metal detector. But then check my phone (and even my Microsoft band) at the desk. Can’t bring electronics in the embassy.

Once in, wait in another line to go through another security checkpoint. Then go inside and submit the appointment form at Window 7…and have a seat and wait. It is a crowded little room, with only two passport windows and several others for visa applications.

But the wait was short, and soon I was at the window talking with a very nice employee who, thankfully, spoke flawless English. My papers were in order and put in a file. Then it was off to the payment window to pay my fee and get a receipt, which then had to go back to the nice lady at the passport window.

All in all, a bit time-consuming, but the process seems to be pretty predictable. Now, if things work the way they should, I should have a brand-new passport with lots of blank pages, in about three weeks. More to come.

Nihongo ga wakarimasu ka?

2016-02-22a

This morning I went with my new friend Lee-san to the Minato-ku city library for a Japanese language class for English speakers. My friend has recently come here from South Korea, and her husband works with my husband. Lee-san knows a little English, and some Japanese and Chinese. She definitely knows more English than I know Japanese or Korean! We struggle a bit to communicate… We ask each other questions, and sometimes we understand and answer each other (hopefully) correctly. We try to keep the conversation simple.

The class we attended meets once a week for 2 hours, and costs 500 Yen (a little less than $5.) It is a short walk, and in fact, I can see the building from my apartment window. There were 6 students in the class today, from several countries. I was the most beginner, and (again) the only American in the group. Today we talked about useful phrases for when we go to a store or restaurant. It was a good class… an interesting class…  if somewhat overwhelming. My husband and I will be starting another Japanese class later this week. Our goal — and I am not kidding myself into thinking that I will ever be fluent in Japanese — is to be at least somewhat conversant in the language by the time we leave here in two years.

One thing that makes learning Japanese such a challenge is that they use different characters. I am trying to learn the syllabaries now. Basically the Japanese language is represented by three systems of characters: Kanji, Hiragana and Katakana. The Kanji are based on Chinese characters and each represents a thing or an idea. There are estimated to be over 8000 Kanji… and most college-educated Japanese can identify about 3000 of them. The Kana — Hiragana and Katakana — are the syllabaries. Each character represents a syllable of a word. Hiragana are used for Japanese words, and Katakana are used for foreign words that have been added to the language.

Most (but not all) street signs and subway signs will have the Japanese — which can be a mix of all three character systems — and the “Romanji” (English alphabet) representation of the word. On the subway, most trains will flash the Japanese name in Kanji and Hiragana AND Romanji…  so usually it isn’t too much of a problem finding our way around. For instance, Tamachi Station, the station closest to our home, is shown as 田町 in Kanji, and たまち in Hiragana. I am starting to recognize some of these symbols for the stations that we use frequently. My favorite thing to do while riding the trains, is to watch these signs, and try to remember the symbols I see.  It is a daunting process. Also, reading is one thing… and writing, I have found, is even more difficult.  It is hard to make sense of all these symbols, but it is even harder to reproduce these symbols so that they look like what they are supposed to. Remember the writing workbooks we all had in elementary school? Where you would write the letters over and over and over until the teacher said you got it right? I need one of those for Hiragana! I even bought a notebook marked off in a square grid so that I could try to get my Japanese characters to look right. It is way harder than you think!

Anyway…  the message in all this:  Yes! We are feeling more comfortable and at home in our new city, but we still have a very long way to go to really be a part of this place. For now, we sort of walk along the fringes watching, and stumble a lot when we try to get in there and be a part of it all. Baby steps every day, and eventually we will get there, I hope. We are amazed at being here, and endlessly fascinated by our surroundings. Yes… sometimes we feel overwhelmed by it all, and sometimes we long for the familiar and the comfortable. There is a reason that most Expats live in certain areas of this city. They like to be around things that are more familiar to them. Lol… we don’t live in that area.  I can go days without seeing another non-Asian person. Really.

But… I am glad we chose to live where we do. I like it here… and I am getting used to that feeling of being a conspicuous foreigner. People are nice… friendly… helpful. Life is good. Oh… and the title? “Do you know Japanese?”

 

Everyday Life in Japan… Part 2

2016-02-19a

This is the door and entryway to our Tokyo apartment. The genkan. In Japan, all homes and apartments are built with a genkan. It is a small space separated from the main living space, where you leave your outside shoes, and change into inside shoes — usually slippers. In Japan you ALWAYS remove your shoes when you enter a home — yours or anyone else’s. It is considered to be extremely bad manners to wear outside shoes inside the home. This applies to other locations as well. Any restaurants that have traditional Japanese seating require that you remove your outside shoes first. If you are entering a room with tatami mats on the floors, you also do not wear slippers. Gyms require that you change your outside shoes for gym appropriate shoes that have never been worn outside. You have to have a dedicated pair of gym shoes. And…  if you anticipate entering a place where you need to remove your shoes… socks should be worn. Bare feet are frowned upon.

2016-02-19b

Our shoe cupboard in our genkan. Actually, I like this social rule…  a lot. I like leaving the outside… outside. I have never liked wearing my shoes in the house. We walk through all kinds of stuff outside. Why would I want that inside all over my floors, carpets and furniture? Even in our home in the US we always take off our shoes at the door…  We just don’t have this kind of convenient shoe storage near the door. How nice!

2016-02-19c

Also, sort of strangely, the WC or toilet room of our apartment is in the entryway. I have been trying to figure out why that is. Almost all Japanese homes and apartments have a separated bathroom. The toilet is in a completely separate room, and may not even be close to the rest of the bathroom. Not all of them open into the genkan, however. I suppose maybe that is considered to be another somewhat “unclean” area where you might not want to wear your indoor shoes? I will be talking about this little WC room more later…  Japanese toilets are amazing.

2016-02-19d

Slippers. Yes…  knowing ahead of time about these cultural differences, we bought slippers to wear in the apartment.  We even have slippers for our visitors to wear when they come. When you visit someone’s Japanese home, it is common for them to provide slippers for you to wear while you are there… and these are kept for other guests to wear for other visits. Another good reason to wear socks… you never know who has been wearing these slippers before you… lol.

If you come visit me, I will give you slippers to wear so you feel welcome and at home.

About my day…

Even though I have spent about a month here in Japan, there are still days when this all still seems so surreal, and I think, “How the heck did I get here…” Today…  this morning anyway, was one of those days.

The company that my husband works for here brings in loaned employees from many different countries, and as a way of supporting those loaned employees and their families, they provide some Japanese language instruction to the spouses — and actually, in this case it is a group of all wives. Today, I met with the rest of these wives for this luncheon language class. There were probably about a dozen of us all together…  mostly from Asia…  and I am…  the only American. My husband is only the second American loaned employee they have ever had. I feel like we are still blazing the trail here, still something of a cultural new frontier.

We are divided into two groups at these meetings, those with some Japanese language ability,and my group…  those who have very little Japanese language ability.There were 5 women in my group today, all of us from different countries:  India, China, Pakistan, Taiwan, and America. The other group also had women from Russia, France, and South Korea. It was a fun time…  we laughed, we struggled with the words, and we communicated as best we could. Most of the women in the class, can speak at least a little English, but not all.

We worked on some basic phrases…  one of which was “O-shigoto wa”: (what is) your profession. We are all here as dependents on our husbands’ work visas.  So… we all are “shu fu desu”: homemakers. No matter what our professions in our home countries, here we are all homemakers. I am not even sure what it would take for me to get a work visa here… and there is little I could actually do here without language skills. Our professions help to define who we are, and here — at least for two years — I have set that aside.

They provide a box lunch for us at these classes, but sometimes people bring in extra food items to share. Today one of the South Korean women brought in roasted Japanese sweet potatoes. I have seen vendors on the street selling these…  but have never tried them.  The Japanese sweet potato is different from what we know in the US as a sweet potato.  These have a yellow flesh, and are skinnier than the US version…  and sweeter. To eat them, you can peel the skin and eat the flesh, or just eat them skin and all. Very tasty…  almost like dessert.

When the class was over, two of the South Korean women approached me, and in piece-meal, halting English, asked if I wanted to join them for another Japanese class next week at “the Libre”, and wanted to show me where it was meeting.  We walked to the Minato-ku (our district of Tokyo) library and recreation center and they showed me around.  It is a huge place with a gym, swimming pool, and fitness classes, as well as the library where the Japanese class meets. So next week, I will go there with them to another class.

What felt so surreal (and I usually don’t like to use that word because it is so OVER-used), was walking down the street with these two women, and we were all three trying so hard to communicate…  so eager to communicate and get to know each other… stumbling over the language barrier, and nervously laughing and searching for the words to understand each other. Three women from diverse cultures and backgrounds, but brought together in this one place wanting and trying to forge friendship. It all just is so mind-boggling. And now, we are also going to meet next week for lunch, and they are going to show me another supermarket where they shop.

Lol… It is overwhelming to be in a place so different from my home, with so many new experiences and meeting so many people from so many different places. But — we are finding that underneath it all, we are very much the same, wanting the same things, needing the same things… just trying to make a connection, to get to know each other, and be friends.