“Mama said there’d be days like this…”

Some days here are just harder than others. Please don’t misunderstand…I am still excited to be living in Tokyo, and happy to be here. But… some days I just want to go home. Home to the familiar… home to my house, my kitchen, my garden, my pets, and most especially… my family. Yes… some days I just feel a bit homesick. The frustrations of dealing with a new country and a new culture, and the frustrations of not being able to communicate adequately, and clearly in this language just build up to the point I feel overwhelmed.

Yesterday — and carrying over into this morning — was one of those times. It hasn’t been any one major problem, but just a lot of little things that have been nagging at us for days. For instance… we finally set up an Amazon.jp account so that we could order some things that we need. We use Amazon all the time back home. It is my favorite way to shop, but we were not sure how we would receive packages in this high-rise apartment. We don’t have a full-time concierge in our building… if they deliver a package while we are out, it is supposed to go into a secure locker where we pick it up later. Well… the package we were awaiting arrived Saturday morning, and we were not here. The package, however, was too large for the locker, so they left us a re-delivery notice — in Japanese. So Sunday morning (no Easter Sunday holiday here!)  we called the number, and very painfully tried to communicate with the delivery company.

Please don’t believe it when people tell you that all Japanese people are ready and eager to practice their English… It just isn’t true. There are lots of people here who don’t know any English, and we still know very little Japanese (but, we are learning!) Anyway… we finally did get the message across, and rescheduled the delivery of the futon set (future blog post…) for our spare bedroom. It arrived promptly, and without further issue… mostly.

As we were accepting the delivery at our door, another person came to speak with us about signing up for NHK service. We have been in this apartment for two months now, and no one ever told us that we have to pay a TV fee here. Weren’t the relocation people supposed to take care of these things? Who knew…  In Japan anyone who has a TV, has to pay a fee to NHK — Japan’s national public broadcasting company. I know a lot of foreign countries do have television fees, but no one ever told us that Japan did…  and our relocation people never mentioned it.  The poor guy could not speak a word of English, and we were struggling to understand what he wanted…  he finally handed us a brochure (in English) and left in frustration. I am sure we will be hearing more from NHK soon…  Hopefully they can find someone who speaks English to help us set this up. I don’t have a problem with paying the fee, I just need to know how to do it. We rarely even turn on the TV because none of the channels have English. We mostly just use the TV for watching movies we brought from home. Anyway…  another communication challenge.

So… feeling somewhat in a funk about these things, and then missing my home and family at Easter/springtime, just put me into a dark and dreary mood. Kind of like the weather here this morning. The kind of morning when you just want to hide inside and stay in your PJ’s all day. But… *sigh*… I have found that when I get into that kind of mood here, the best thing for me to do is to get out and walk. And walk I did! 15,000 steps according to my fitness band… roughly equivalent to 7.5 miles.

I walked north toward Tokyo Tower, and finally ended up at one of my favorite places here… Hibuya Park, and the Imperial Palace. I saw cherry trees (Sakura)!

I saw ducks and heron at the pond and in the waters around the Imperial Palace. The ducks were mostly sleeping. It must have been a dreary morning for them too.

There was something big going on at the Imperial palace… They had streets blocked off and lots of police. There were also a lot of tourists… huge crowds of tourists. I avoided the crowds. I read later that they had opened up another part of the palace grounds for viewing of the cherry blossoms.2016-03-28n2016-03-28p

Back again through Hibuya Park, I found a Romulus and Remus statue — not sure why that was there — and some stray cats nibbling at the tender green grass.

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And… one last look at a beautiful Sakura tree in full bloom.  After that, foot-sore and hungry for lunch, I hopped the subway back to Shibaura. Nice day, nice walk.

Yes…  life is full of frustrations wherever you go. Some days are harder than others. But it all feels so much better if you just get out there and deal with it.

Life is good.

Financial issues in Japan

One of the things I knew would be difficult is keeping up with financial issues while in Japan. Fortunately, my company provides an tax accountant for my US taxes, and another person for my Japanese taxes. That’s great…but there are other challenges.

For one, Japan is for the most part a cash society. In the US, I hardly ever carry cash. Everything goes on the credit card, and I pay the bill each month. In Japan, some places take a credit card…but for the most part, everyone prefers cash. For an upcoming trip to Russia for my company, we decided to havJapanese moneye my wife accompany me. Of course, the company won’t pay her air fare – that is my expense. I had my company’s travel agency book the ticket. When it was time to pay, I planned to use my credit card. But no, they prefer cash. A credit card is possible, but there is a 10% surcharge. So I’ll need to go to the ATM and get 130,000 yen in cash – about $1300 US dollars. Apparently that is a common kind of transaction in Japan…but something I would never do in the US.

Then there is the credit card issue. For tax considerations, I’m supposed to try to use one credit card for buying things in Japan, and pay that bill from my Japanese bank account. That would be fine, except my credit card is from a US bank. And it appears that there is no way to pay a US credit card bill from a Japanese bank. The two systems just don’t talk to each other.

So, the Japanese accountant says, apply for a credit card from a Japanese bank. My Japanese colleagues say the bank where I have my account is very difficult for a non-Japanese citizen to get a credit card. There are other banks. I haven’t yet applied, but from what I have read, the process ranges from difficult to impossible. We’ll see how that works out.

In the mean time, we are getting used to using cash. And coins. Lots and lots of coins. Its getting easier, but I still feel awkward digging around my pocket for the right coins to buy my groceries.

It’s an interesting contrast that this highly technological, advanced society resists the electronic financial tools that many other countries take for granted. It’s another of the differences I never expected when I moved to Japan.

 

 

 

Lost in translation… In the supermarket.

Triumph at the supermarket today! Lol…  I know, small things make me happy. These are two products I have been searching for these past couple of months since we moved to our apartment in Tokyo. And…  they were right in front of my face the whole time! Who knew?

I have had some difficulty stocking my Tokyo pantry because of the language issue here. When you move to a new place, you usually go to the store and buy staple products to have on the shelf: Flour, sugar, salt, spices, baking powder, etc.  And I have been searching high and low for cornstarch and baking soda, with no success… until now! Yes… the photos above show those two elusive products!

I have looked at that “Homemade Cake” package a hundred times, and just thought it was some sort of cake mix. I had no idea that here they use that to mean baking soda. And, even though I can now “read” the kana, those Japanese characters on the box would not have helped me one bit. The Katakana reads “ta n sa n,” which means nothing to me, but apparently means baking soda if you know the language. The two Kanji  characters above the Katakana does (by Google Translate) mean baking soda, but I don’t know the Kanji yet. I would never have even used Google Translate on this product, because I was sure it wasn’t the thing I was looking for. I finally googled it, and found another expat blog that talked about the same thing, and actually showed a picture of this product. Finally!

I bought “baking powder” weeks ago. It is very clearly labeled in English! I have no idea why some product names are written in English, and others aren’t. Flour was not too difficult because it had a picture of a loaf of bread. Sugar was a bit trickier because the bags of sugar were on the shelf right next to almost identical bags of salt! The only clue I had with that one was that there were pictures of fish on the package — presumably because it was “sea salt.” Confusing.

The cornstarch — the package on the right — I actually could have read with my rudimentary kana-reading abilities had I taken the time to look at this fairly nondescript little package on the top shelf of the baking aisle. It very clearly reads “ko-n su ta-chi” in Katakana. Oh Heavens!

It really is useful to be able to read the kana, although I am still very slow at it. I figure I am probably reading Japanese at about the kindergarten level right now. They do start their children out learning to read the kana…  Hiragana first, and then the Katakana. Learning the Kanji symbols comes later after they can fluently read the kana. Eventually I want to learn some of the more common Kanji. I read online today that newspapers at one time, were limited to using only 1850 of the most common Kanji symbols. I don’t know if that is still true, but even that number seems formidable to me.

I feel like I am making progress with the language here, but it is slow. These small successes along the way help keep me from feeling too overwhelmed. Lol… at least I now have cornstarch for the curry we are having for dinner tonight!

 

Rules of propriety…

Coming from the US, which is by and large an “anything goes” culture where people usually do and say and wear whatever they want, it has been an interesting experience integrating ourselves into Japanese society. Not wanting to be one of “those” Americans who seem to think that the rest of the world should conform to our standards, we have been very carefully observing the world around us. Certainly, in a sea of Japanese people, we can’t help but appear conspicuous, but we don’t want to be too “gaijin” either. Some observations:

  •  Women in Japan (aside from teenagers, or in areas with a popular nightlife, i.e. Shibuya) dress very modestly. We will see what happens in the warmer weather, but I haven’t seen any tank tops or camis, or low-cut and revealing clothing. Most women wear skirts or dresses for work — dark stockings for the winter. Skirt length is modest. I have seen leggings — and I own some myself — but they are worn under skirts or very long shirts. No tights, leggings, or even yoga-type pants without having something else to cover your backside. Which leads to the next…
  • Running attire for women… and even for most men… is tights, with shorts over the tights. I am sorry, but I really hate having to do this. But I do it. I feel a bit “naked” and conspicuous without the shorts. And, like I said… even most men do this. In warmer weather, most women still wear tights or capri-length pants with shorts over them.
  • Tattoos. Japanese people do not approve of tattoos. At least none that are showing. If you have a tattoo, you are required to cover it at most gyms. Apparently, tattoos are a part of Japanese gang culture. I think that the rules are easing, and more Japanese are getting tattoos, so I think this will eventually change. They are a fairly tolerant people, and probably wouldn’t ostracize a foreigner for having a tattoo, but still… gaijin.
  • Piercings. This almost goes without saying that the more outlandish piercings we see in the US  — tongue piercings, eyebrows, navels, etc. as well as earlobe gauging and such — are not considered appropriate. But I have also noticed that very few women wear earrings or have pierced ears at all. Jewelry is very modest here as well. I do think that this is another area that is changing, though. At least with the younger Japanese.
  • And… sunglasses. This is our third trip to Japan, but we have never noticed this before. Japanese people rarely wear sunglasses. I have seen cyclists and runners wearing sunglasses, but very few people walking the streets are ever wearing sunglasses. I googled it…  and the explanation (again) was that sunglasses are associated with Japanese gang culture. Also… another explanation was that their dark eyes have more pigmentation and, therefore, they can tolerate the bright sunlight better than me with my light blue Scandinavian eyes. Oh well… I still wear my sunglasses.

I don’t really want to dwell on the differences between “us” and “them”…  I don’t want anyone to think that these are major issues that we have encountered living here. Again…  the people we have met here have been nothing but gracious and friendly and accepting of us. I only mention these things because we really want to make an effort to respect their culture, and fit in as much as possible while we are here. These are just meant to be some interesting cultural observations. “When in Rome… “

Shabu Shabu…

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Last night we went to dinner with some of my husband’s co-workers from Atlanta who are in town this week for a meeting. Another one of the meeting attendees who is native Japanese took us all to a traditional Japanese restaurant for Shabu-shabu. Shabu-shabu is a meal of thinly sliced beef which you cook at the table in a pot of boiling broth.  I have had Shabu-shabu once before on a previous trip to Japan. It is an expensive meal because of the high quality of the beef used for this cooking process — so we won’t be doing this very often — but it is very delicious, and a fun way to spend an evening.

The restaurant was set up with individual rooms and each had a low table large enough to accommodate a group of 8 to 10 persons. We removed our shoes in the entryway (slippers were available) and then sat at the table. Traditionally, the table is low to the ground and you sit on cushions on the floor. This restaurant — probably to accommodate non-Japanese who are not used to sitting on the floor — had what at first appeared to be a low table, but then there was a well below the table where you could put your feet.

The table had two gas hot plates. Each had a pot of water with a kombu leaf in it. While we waited for the water to come to a boil, they brought plates of salad and appetizers — and beer and sake, of course.  Appetizers included little squares of marinated tofu, some with tiny little cooked shrimp on top, some with fish roe on top, or kamaage-shirasu — a tiny, white, boiled, baby sardine (Google it… very tasty, but a little disturbing — I have seen these in the supermarket, and wondered what they were.) Then, they brought plates of paper-thin sliced beef. Once the water was simmering, we took chopsticks and swished the beef around in the water — shabu-shabu — hence, the name. lol. We had bowls of seasoned broth to dip the meat in before we ate it.

While we cooked the meat, they brought plates of vegetables and rice noodles. We cooked them, and ate them dipped in the seasoned broth, and by that time the cooking water in the pot was like soup stock. They brought more noodles, and we finished up by eating the cooking broth as a noodle soup. The whole process took a couple of hours… It was a very leisurely and enjoyable time to spend together cooking a meal at table. I highly recommend it!

Rainy days and Mondays…

Another rainy day in Tokyo. We seem to have a lot of those lately. In the above left photo, Tokyo Tower is almost completely obscured again. Funny that I have started judging the weather by how well I can see Tokyo Tower. And, the weather has turned chilly as well. We had a taste of spring weather, and now one last blast of gray and dreary winter weather. At least we hope it is the last…  Sakura time is coming! The Japanese cherry trees will be blooming soon! Projected date for Tokyo is March 23rd… Hopefully the weather will warm a bit for maximum viewing pleasure.

Anyway…  despite the cold and rain, life in urban Tokyo goes on. Everyone still has to get out to go to work, or to school, or wherever. Being from suburban Atlanta, I am used to having a car, and going straight from my warm house to my nice dry, warm car in the garage! Outside-in-the-wet-cold time is usually at a minimum. Here everyone just accepts that they have to bundle up and wear their rain coats and boots. It is a good idea to always have your umbrella handy here.

I had planned to go to the supermarket today, but when the rain started this morning, I almost decided to put it off for another day. I usually have to shop here almost every day or every other day because our refrigerator is so small. Milk and orange juice are only available in half liter cartons at the grocery store I shop.  We usually run out of one or the other about every day. Today I needed to get quite a few things, so finally, after watching the rain for a couple of hours, I decided I had to go.

Our apartment is a little less than a kilometer from the closest grocery store. I can actually see it from our apartment window…  not far from my husband’s office building. It takes about 10 minutes to walk there. Not bad. Even in the rain. As usual I walked along under the monorail track for a ways… the monorail trains rumble overhead about every 3 minutes or so. Everyone was bundled in raincoats and carried umbrellas…  the strollers all had rainflys. Even the kids on the backs of bicycles have rainflys. They peek out at the world through the plastic covers.

It wasn’t a bad walk in the rain…  in fact, I actually enjoyed it. I had my trusty re-usable grocery bag from the US, and I slung it over my shoulder so everything was under the umbrella and protected from the rain. The wind wasn’t blowing very hard, so my umbrella was behaving. The rain made just a gentle spattering sound as I walked. The seabirds swooped and flew along the canal, and the ducks were happily paddling through the waves. It was a pleasant walk.  Rainy days and Mondays. No… (cheesy as it sounds) they don’t really get me down.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Everyday life in Japan — Part 5

The “Shower Room”

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This is the shower in our apartment bathroom. It is actually its own room… fairly typical in size to a small bathroom. It is just off the sink/washing machine room, and has a watertight glass door. It has a tub, and a shower head, a mirror, and shelves for shampoos and soaps. But there, the similarity stops. This little room, is entirely the shower. The whole room — is the shower. It took me a while to get used to this idea. For the first few days here, I kept trying to climb into the tub and take my shower there.  The problem with that, was that the shower head was not over the tub area, and even when I swiveled the head as far as possible toward the tub, it still sprayed half in and half out of the tub area. Besides…  the tub surface was slippery, and was hard to stand in. The floor of the room is like a cushy non-slip mat. There is a drain hole ( at the bottom of this photo) on the floor, and under that cover is a screen to catch hair and debris to keep from clogging the drain.

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Outside of the shower room…  on the wall, is a small control panel. This controls the ventilation in the shower room. It has an automatic timer to set for the amount of time you want the air to circulate. Pink button turns on heated air, yellow button blows ambient air, and the blue button blows cool air. Red button turns the unit off. The air circulation is very important to keep the moisture levels from building up in the apartment, and to dry the shower area to prevent mold and mildew formation. It has been winter here since we moved in, so we usually turn on the heated air while we are using the shower, and then switch to ambient air afterward to dry the room. This system is also useful as a dryer for laundry when it is too cold, rainy, or windy to hang the clothes out on the balcony. Remember… we don’t really have a true clothes dryer here (see previous blog post.)

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Traditionally in Japan, The tub is ONLY used for soaking. See the faucet on the wall? There is a faucet down which is usually used to fill a basin or small water tub with water. Traditional bath etiquette dictates that the bather sit on a small stool and wash with soap and water from the basin. Once the bather is clean, they rinse all the soap off with the hand-held sprayer, and then enter the tub to soak in CLEAN hot water. So the tub is actually used more like a hot tub. If you go to a traditional public bath in Japan, you are expected to bathe first, rinse thoroughly, and then you can get into the tub. No soap is used in the tub. Some apartments will provide a cover for the tub, so that you can save the water and use it again. This same water can be shared among family members…  just like sharing a hot tub.

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Next to the tub is a small control panel for the water temperature, and to fill the tub. The right hand side displays the temperature for the tub, the left for the shower. Other buttons fill the tub, increase the temperature, lower the temperature (by adding cold water) and… there is a heat and recirculate button that will reheat water already in the tub.  We haven’t tried keeping the water and reheating it…  but that might be a handy feature to save the water for soaking. Mostly, we just use the shower. The few times we have used the soaker tub, though, were really nice. And yes… the controls are all in Japanese… I have to use my cheat sheet from the relocation company to know what each of those buttons is for.

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The faucet flips up to divert water flow to the shower, and down, to turn the water on below. The left side of the faucet has another control for water temperature by mixing in unheated water. There are convenient shelves and a mirror — all of which end up getting wet with the shower. The whole room gets wet…

2016-03-12fThis is the all-important room dryer/heater/ventilator/clothes dryer on the ceiling of the shower room — and the bars from which we hang clothing and towels to dry. These bars are removable to be used on hooks in front of the balcony door, for optional fresh air drying in nice weather.

All in all, though this process has been strange to get used to, it is a fairly efficient use for bathroom space. It provides a traditional Japanese bathing experience, that has been easily adaptable to our western tastes.