Lost in non-translation

2016-02-17aWe expected language to be a challenge in Japan. The few phrases we know are difficult to use in real life. Many of the signs in public places have English translations. And we are learning the Japanese characters for some subway stations that we frequently use.

What I didn’t anticipate were the difficulties presented by not being able to read the language. Every day we receive a mailbox full of things. Some are official-looking, with return envelopes for some kind of reply. And totally in Japanese, with not an English word in sight. Same problem with the mysterious messages that pop up on our phones. Trips to the grocery store present yet another exercise in frustration trying to figure out what we are buying.

Plans are to learn to read at least some Japanese language before we leave. In the meantime, we’re relying on my Japanese co-workers to translate the more important-looking mail items. As for the grocery store — well, we may have some unexpected meals for awhile.

Everyday life in Japan… Part 1


We are settling in to our tiny apartment in Shibaura, Tokyo. The apartment we chose is on the 30th floor of a high-rise building near to where my husband is working.  The whole apartment is about 550 square feet — including the LDK (living-dining-kitchen) room, two bedrooms and a bath/WC and an entryway called a genkan. Above is the main living space with the sofa, a table and the TV and TV table. The two person dining table is at the edge of the photo to the right.


Along one wall is an efficiency kitchen, with a three burner stove and fish grill (please note… NO oven), sink, cabinets, small refrigerator/freezer and a small microwave oven. The furnishings package from the rental company included basic dishware/cookware, a rice cooker, coffee pot, and electric teapot.


An interesting thing about the microwave is that it also has a grill/toast function, as well as the usual microwave function. We have only used it for toasting bread, and probably won’t use the grill function at all since we have a fish grill with the stovetop. To use the toast function, you have to remove the ceramic cookplate from the turntable and lay the bread on the grilltop. It takes a bit longer than a conventional toaster would, but serves the purpose quite well.


This is the fish grill…  It just pulls out from the front of the stove, and has a removable grill and drip tray. I used it for the very first time last night to cook dinner. I think it would work fine for grilling other meats as well. The whole unit is gas which is controlled by the buttons on the front and has a battery-powered striker. Apparently, baking in a oven is not a common way to cook in Japan. None of the apartments we looked at had ovens…  all had units similar to this one.

Japanese apartments are very small…  but, very efficiently equipped. This room is tiny compared to the kitchen/dining/family room of our home back in the States.  In fact, I think this whole apartment would fit inside that room back home. It is a very comfortable room, however, and has everything we really need. I have plenty of storage space for the few dishes that we have — I do plan to buy a few more things to add to the dishes they provided, but not many things. There is no dishwasher, so all the dishes get washed and returned to the cabinets after every meal… so we don’t need a lot of extras.

Food storage is tight — especially in the refrigerator — so I will have to shop more often, which I would have to do anyway, since I can only buy as much as my two hands can carry from the supermarket. It gets to be a long walk with overloaded grocery bags. Food packages at the supermarket are all pretty small… no super economy sizes sold here! Most everyone shops daily or every other day. There is no parking lot at the supermarket I shop. Everyone walks or rides a bike… or pushes a stroller.

I think we are going to enjoy this tiny living experience here in Japan. It is sort of like the “tiny house” trend back in the States… something that has intrigued my husband and me for a while. This is a chance to downsize from all the “stuff” we have accumulated in our lives…  to get down to the essentials of life. I think in the United States, we take space for granted. In many places in the world they don’t have that luxury. Or, maybe, they just don’t see the point of wasting space and resources. Whatever the reason, it will be interesting to see how we feel about it after two years here.


Getting settled in Tokyo

After three weeks of travel, it was good to return to Japan yesterday, in time to spend my first evening in our apartment. My wife moved in while I was on the road, so this was my first real chance to see where we will be living for the next two years. I think I’m going to like it.

This morning was my first walk to work from the apartment. It was a beautiful morning, warm and dry. My walk took a little over 10 minutes at a leisurely pace. I walked along a little canal, with boats tied along the bank and ducks of several kinds all along the way.

On my walk, I saw many Japanese grade school children walking to school. Most were in groups, with their vibrant yellow or blue hats and school uniforms. One was on crutches, with a leg in a cast. Her friends were all around her, accompanying her on her obviously slower-than-normal pace. It was refreshing to see so many kids walking to school…they seemed to be enjoying the walk, and although they were young, there wasn’t an adult in sight. Reminded me of walking to grade school when I was that age.

I’m sure there will be days, when the rain is pouring or the heat is bearing down, that the walk won’t be so appealing. But this morning, it was a refreshing and really enjoyable way to get to work. Quite a difference from the stressful drive to work on the interstate at home. I think this “commute” is one of the things I will enjoy about my time in Japan.



We are still in that transition period with our move to Tokyo. And I have to emphasize that I am really tired of this part of the whole experience. One month ago we left for Tokyo…  My husband’s new employer was anxious for him to get there and get started, even though we really didn’t have all the details of the actual move taken care of. He needed to get to Tokyo to participate in some important meetings and business trips that were scheduled for the month of January. So, even though we weren’t finished with all the preparations for the move, and our transition to living in a foreign country, we agreed to go anyway… With the stipulation that we would have to come back to our home in the US a month later, to finish up with the packing and moving out of our home here.

And here we are…  back in our hometown, in our house for a couple more days finalizing all the details. And it is hard. Really. Surprisingly. Hard. See… the thing I never really counted on here is the feelings of homesickness that I have experienced. I don’t want to belabor it, but that is essentially what it has been. I (we) have felt homesick for our life here, and we never really thought about feeling like that. It’s ok…  it is certainly manageable, and we will get through it. Come Saturday morning, it will be all done, and we will be on that plane headed back to Tokyo… And I (still) look forward to it.

It isn’t that I regret our decision to go to Tokyo for two years, it is just I never really thought about the hard parts. Never really thought about how much I would miss my house… my kitchen… my yard… my car… my neighborhood, etc.  All those silly things that are essentially just stuff. But they are — or have been — the “stuff” of my life, and now I am leaving it all behind… at least for awhile.

On the positive side, though… In that month that we were gone, our daughter, who was trying to find a job here and move back from out-of-state, got a job offer. And… as was hoped in the beginning of all this, she will be moving into our house for the next two years while we are gone… Our house-sitter! It certainly makes things less complicated, and it is nice to know that we will have family living here in the house instead of strangers.

Anyway…  I am sorry to be so whiny. The transition is almost done. It will be so nice to get back to some form of normal life, with a normal schedule, and hopefully a normal SLEEP schedule. I know that part of the problem for us has been this constant state of jet-lag that we have been in from all the traveling around the past month. I feel like I haven’t had a normal sleep in weeks. We both feel almost zombie-like.

This too shall pass…  I know it…  And I will have better things to blog about once we get back to Tokyo to our little apartment.

Money Matters…


The above photo shows all the equivalent denominations of money between Japan and the US. Sorry…  didn’t have a 500 yen coin, or a 50 cent coin. Also, there apparently are 2000 yen bills, but they are not used as often, and I have never seen one.

One thing that has really surprised me about living in Japan, is that Japan is much more of a cash-based society than the United States. In the US, I rarely carry much cash — preferring instead to pay for most things with a credit card. Most fast food restaurants and even vending machines in the US will take credit cards, so why carry around a bunch of money? I rarely even pay by check in the United States.

In Japan, however, many places are cash only. Bigger purchases can still be paid for by credit card, but for smaller purchases you are expected to pay with cash. Personal checks are not used at all. Our relocation consultant told me that in general, when eating out, credit cards are only used for dinners. Breakfast, lunch, fast food, coffee, snacks, etc are all paid for with cash.

So…  I end up carrying a bunch of money in my wallet. Much more than I ever carried in the US. That is all well and good except for the denominations of the money. I end up with hand-fulls of coins! With the current exchange rate, 1 Japanese yen in roughly equivalent to 1 US penny. So, 100 yen roughly equals $1. Which makes conversions back and forth fairly easy and simple. But… in the US, we have coins for up to $1, and mostly use coins of up to 25 cents. We mostly pay with the paper bills in the US, and then get back a small amount of coins in change. In Japan, they have coins for up to 500 yen — the equivalent of the $5 bill in the US. The smallest paper money that they use is the 1000 yen note — equivalent to a $10 bill in the US. So, if I go to a store in Tokyo and buy something for less than 1000 yen, all my change comes back to me in coins. I have been trying to retrain myself to pay for things with the coins in my wallet instead of automatically reaching for the paper bills. (My husband really hates having all those coins jangling in his pockets.)

As with pennies in the US, we seem to especially accumulate those almost worthless 1 yen coins. I already have a jar of them. I am not sure where or how I can get rid of them, short of taking the time to count out “pennies” at the cash register — not really wanting to do that… lol. Some stores have jars at the register to put unwanted 1 yen coins into — like the “take a penny, leave a penny” jars at home in the US.

One other option that we have found for small purchases at vending machines and some convenience stores, is to pay with a transit card. Suica and Pasmo cards are used to ride the subways and buses around Tokyo. Value is added to these cards at the subway station kiosks — but, cash only…  lol.


On Time-Zone-Bouncing, and etc…

This blog is intended to talk about our experiences moving to Japan and living as expats there, but in the past 3+ weeks since we left our home in Atlanta and moved to Tokyo, we have — both my husband and myself — spent quite a bit of time on other international trips, bouncing from time zone to time zone. It has been something of a surreal experience at times…  With my body clock turned upside down most of the time, I find myself awake in the middle of the night mulling over all of this stuff. For instance:

  • Japan (across the International Date Line) is 14 hours ahead of our Atlanta time zone. Every time we communicate with family back in the US, we have to take that time difference into consideration. But this past week, my husband traveled to Buenos Aires, Argentina, which is 12 hours behind Tokyo time, and 2 hours ahead of Atlanta time.
  • Yesterday, he flew 14 hours to Frankfurt, Germany for another meeting, and I flew 12 hours from Tokyo to meet him there. Frankfurt is 8 hours behind Tokyo time, and 6 hours ahead of Atlanta time. When he communicates with his company in Tokyo, and his company in Atlanta, he has to consider all three time zones.
  • Next week, we travel back to Atlanta to finalize arrangements for our home there, and storage for our car, so we will be back to being 14 hours behind Tokyo time…  for a week. Then it is back to Tokyo, and we start all over acclimating to Tokyo time.
  • Jet lag affects the body in so many different ways. Disruption of sleep patterns, appetite, digestion… everything. Our days and nights have been flip-flopped over and over with this ridiculous travel schedule. Granted… things will settle down once we get back to Tokyo. This initial month has been unusual. My husband won’t be traveling this much routinely… Thank goodness.
  • My flight from Tokyo yesterday tracked east to west over northern Siberia — almost to the arctic circle — and back down over Scandinavia to Germany. Next week we will again fly east to west to get to Atlanta, then finally east to west to get back to Tokyo. At the end of all that, I will have circumnavigated the globe. Lol… cool. Kind of weird to think about flying all the way around the world like that.

Other stuff:

  • Here in Frankfurt, I am missing the heated seat of the Japanese toilet in our Tokyo apartment. Lol… Crazy how fast I got used to that.
  • Our first meal in Frankfurt was at a Sushi restaurant. We ate Japanese food in Germany. Actually…  there seem to be a lot of Asian restaurants here. And, there seem to quite a few Asian people here. Frankfurt is a major business and finance center in Europe,and not so much a tourist destination. The hotel restaurant where we had breakfast this morning was about the most international experience I have ever had. So many different cultures and languages all in one place!
  • We took the subway into downtown Frankfurt this morning, and actually ate “frankfurters” and German potato salad for lunch (along with some fairly good German beer), and topped off with hot “apfelwein”…  the apple wine that Frankfurt is famous for. So…  we are still experiencing the local cuisine as well.
  • Our hotel here in Frankfurt is sandwiched between the airport and a regional train station — as well as the Frankfurt subway. We see airplanes landing outside our window…  and there is a multi-lane highway just below our window. It is surprisingly quiet in our hotel room considering all that activity outside.

Just some random thoughts…