Home in Tokyo — 3 months.

Time flies — and we have been here in our Tokyo apartment for three months already! Things don’t seem so strange here anymore. In fact, the “strange” thing is how normal things are starting to feel here. Despite the fact that we don’t speak much of the language… and that we look different, dress (somewhat) differently, and come from a completely different culture, we are feeling pretty comfortable here. Human beings, apparently, are adaptable creatures. Given the basics, we can pretty much figure out the rest. Yes — there are still difficult things living here, and difficult days, and days when we feel homesick for things back home, but for the most part, we really like it here in Japan. We have settled into a nice routine. Some things…

  • The sun comes up really early here. We have sliding doors to the balcony in the bedroom and the living room. We have drapes on those doors, but we love to see the lights of Tokyo, and the Tokyo Tower at night, so we always leave the drapes open when we go to sleep. Then… when it starts getting light at 4:30 in the the morning (yes… it does!) I wake up. I can usually go back to sleep until 5:30 or so, but pretty much we are up by 6am. I don’t mind getting up early when it is light out.
  • We walk A LOT here. No car. I miss my car…  for the places I could go with it back home. But I don’t miss having a car here. Does that make sense? I love my car… but I don’t need it here. I like to walk, and I can take the subway anywhere I need to go in Tokyo, and a train to anywhere I need to go in Japan. I am enjoying the walking (and running) here in Tokyo. Our part of the city is very residential (even with the high-rise apartments all around.) There are lots of parks and schools and lots of families and children. Not really what you’d think about living in a huge city. In the US, it seems that most families with children move out to the suburbs… but there are families all over the place here!
  • Grocery shopping doesn’t seem so weird anymore. I go to the supermarket almost every day (you know…  I have a really small refrigerator.) I have a routine list of things I buy. Yes… it is different from what I buy in the US, but we have adapted our diet to living here in Japan, and eating more like they do here. I miss some foods from home, but less than I thought. The food here is wonderful. We are enjoying trying new foods here. You have to give in to the culture…  It would be much more frustrating trying to find the ingredients for our usual US diet here. Again… the food is wonderful here. Yum. (Except for the natto. Yuck.)
  • Shopping can be a challenge — depending on what you are looking for. There are so many shops and department stores here, but nothing (that we have found yet) equivalent to Target. I miss Target. I miss having a place to buy… everything-I-need-all-in-one-place. Here, I have to go to lots of different stores to buy things I need. Right now, I am looking for potting soil for container plants for my balcony. I have no idea where (close enough to carry home) to buy it. We have Daiso stores here that are roughly equal to dollar stores back in the US, but some of their merchandise is a little… cheap, and they don’t have everything I need.
  • We do have online shopping…  and Amazon.jp is great, but even on the “English” site, there is still a lot of Japanese to wade through. We are now “Prime” members on Amazon.jp, and they do have fast and efficient shipping. Target has a JP site now too, but I haven’t tried it yet. Receiving packages here is a little different… there is no UPS here. The delivery person rings from down at the entrance to the building, and I have to let them in (remotely.) They come up to our door, and I have to sign for every package.

And, lastly…

  • Money. Money issues have probably been the most frustrating things we have dealt with here. Mostly because our US bank and credit card companies don’t communicate with our Japanese accounts. There are so many financial hoops to jump through here. But we manage. Day to day, the thing that was hardest to get used to was carrying cash and paying almost everything with cash. Back in the US, I rarely carried much cash, and paid almost everything with the credit card. Japan is (strangely — considering they have so much technology) very much a cash society. I did not expect this. We use the credit card rarely. And I have to make sure when I shop at the supermarket that I have enough cash to pay for it. I know I could use the credit card if I needed to, but most people here prefer to use cash.

So… Three months into this assignment, we are doing fine. Last week we were in St. Petersburg, Russia, and I got to meet some other expat spouses (with my husband’s company.) We all compared notes about what it was like living abroad in our respective countries. We all talked about how hard it was to arrange everything and get settled, but most everyone in the group was happy about their expat experience. Some — who were finishing their time, and preparing to go back home — lamented that their time was almost up. I expect to feel that way at the end of two years. Yes… it will be nice to be home, but yes… I think I will miss my “home” here.



On Meiwaku… and other things…

First off…  Spring has arrived in Tokyo. It isn’t always warm as I would like, but we have had some nice days. Above are some of the flowers and trees I see in my walks and runs along the canals here in Shibaura. The sakura trees are past their peak now and “snowing” blossoms all over the place.  The Japanese actually use that phrase to describe it, and there are “drifts” of blossoms piled up in corners and under all the trees. The wind blows them around and into the canals where they float on the water, and presumably out to sea. The azaleas are just starting to pop, and so are the dogwoods. The white dogwoods seem to be a bit behind the red ones that are already fully opened up.

Everyone here loves the springtime, and every weekend there are festivals and gatherings in the parks. Last weekend we found a food festival in Hibiya Park, near the Imperial Palace. Vendors of all kinds…  Japanese street food is awesome, and we found some really good craft beer there as well. (North Island Beer on Hokkaido!!!) Everyone spreads their blue tarps on the grass and spends time eating and drinking and enjoying time together. It is an amazing sight to see the tarps spread edge to edge and crowded with people.

I haven’t written a blog post in awhile, and there are several reasons why…  For one, things just don’t seem so weird and unusual here anymore. We are feeling much more comfortable in our new home, and blog topics just don’t jump out at us as much. It reminds me of when we first moved to Atlanta from the midwest. When we first got to Georgia we couldn’t stop staring at all the big tall trees. Where we had come from in the midwest, it was pretty flat and treeless. In Georgia we were surrounded by 80 foot pine trees. We stared at them for months. It all seemed so strange. And then… after awhile, we stopped noticing them. It all became so normal. And now, this “strange” place isn’t feeling so strange anymore.

For number two, I am trying to devote more time to studying Japanese. I may be feeling more comfortable in my new surroundings, but I still can’t speak much of the language. I still stumble over the most basic of phrases, and I just haven’t developed my ear for Japanese. I have to get better with this language! Then, number three, we are getting ready for another travel time. Next week we will be in Russia, then back here for a week, then “home” to the US for our daughter’s graduation. It will be a busy few weeks.

So…  on to the real topic of this blog post… Meiwaku. This is a cultural characteristic that we have noticed here from the very beginning, but have had trouble fully understanding. Finally, I found some information and an actual name for it. Meiwaku is defined generally as “being a nuisance to others.” The Japanese people are all about avoiding meiwaku! In everything they do, they are so careful to avoid being annoying or a nuisance to other people around them. You notice it everywhere. No one talks in elevators, or on the subway trains. When they do street construction, they always have someone posted on the sidewalk to direct pedestrian traffic, and they always bow politely and point the way through the construction. Even walking down the street, people will rarely look at each other as they pass, rarely greet each other, or even smile… and they aren’t being unfriendly. They are trying to be… unobtrusive.

One article I read explains it this way…  Imagine taking half the population of the US and putting it all in California. Then, crowding that population into only 20% of the land mass of California. That is Japan. So, with so many people crowded into such a small amount of space, in order to get along, they have developed a culture centered on cooperation and harmony. Somewhat like the Golden Rule, Japanese people try NOT to do to other people what they would not like to have done to them. Everyone is very careful to stay out of your “personal space,” including your personal business. Here…  we live our lives in our personal bubbles, and try not to “bump into” each other and annoy each other. “Sumimasen” is a word that is used frequently in the Japanese culture. It means “excuse me,” but it is used in greetings, and as a way to apologize for any potential instance of meiwaku. It is so different from the brash and “in your face” culture of the US. I kind of feel like the US could take a few lessons from the Japanese as to how to treat one another.

There are rules against too much noise in homes and apartments. Some apartments won’t allow musical instruments, or barking dogs…  and though I haven’t seen it in writing, noisy activities like vacuuming and laundry should not be done late in the evening or at night. My Japanese vacuum cleaner has a “quiet” mode. Living on the top floor of our building, we never hear noise from our neighbors…  in fact we have never seen any of our 30th floor neighbors. The only noise I hear is the elevator… and that because we are on top of the building right under the elevator mechanisms. It is amazing to me actually that we live in the largest city in the world, and our little part of Tokyo is so quiet and peaceful. I kind of like it . Meiwaku…  we should all try to avoid meiwaku.



Japanese veggies…

It is an understatement to say that grocery shopping has been an adventure here in Japan. Not only is most of the packaging written in Japanese characters that I struggle to understand, but I find a completely new bunch of products to choose from. The Japanese diet is very different from the typical American diet. The grocery store that I shop near our apartment, has a good selection of foreign products, and I can usually find most of the things I want… at least with a little bit of searching, and sometimes some help from Google Translate. Still…  and I find this most strikingly with the produce section… I have had to adapt our American diet to Japanese products. Particularly with the produce, the items I would typically buy in the US are either hard to find, or ridiculously expensive. For instance, tomatoes are plentiful and available here, but pricey! Apples are also expensive, as well as bell peppers, and strawberries.

Being a somewhat “adventurous eater” anyway, I really don’t mind trying all the different veggies I have found in the produce section. Here, following, are a few of my discoveries:

IMG_0183Chinese Cabbage — I know it is available at home, but I never bought it. Here, it is more common than lettuce, and used for many more things than lettuce ever is back home. Lettuces are harder to find, and again… more expensive. I buy Chinese cabbage and use it for salad, in soups, and other cooked recipes. It has a good texture — crunchy for salads, and still holds up when cooked. It has more umami flavor than lettuce (more about umami in a later blog post.) In the photo, I am holding just a quarter of the cabbage. My grocery store cuts and packages larger veggies into smaller portions…  They know we all have tiny refrigerators.




Yes…  This is just a carrot. I use them all the time back home. The reason I even talk about these is that they are so large here.  Here, I buy carrots individually, or in packages of two or three. These carrots are awesome! I found a great little slicer gadget at the Daiso (100 yen store) that will slice this beautiful carrot into almost paper thin slices! I use them for salads, soups, everything. Oh…  and strangely, ( I never would have thought it) carrots are also on that list of foods high in umami flavor. Guess that is why carrots are so popular, and such a common snack food item everywhere.




Daikon radish. Another thing that you can get in the US, but that I never purchased before I came here. Daikon radish is very popular in Japanese cooking… mostly grated raw as a condiment, or thinly sliced on salads, or with sushi. The photo shows only part of a daikon radish. The whole thing would be too big for my refrigerator. Seriously… the whole daikon radish is about 12 to 15 inches long. Beautiful, pure white flesh with a mildly peppery radish flavor. My husband won’t touch those little red and white radishes back home, but the daikon has such a mild flavor, he has started eating it here. The noodle shops here often grate it raw on top of soba or udon noodle soups. Very tasty.


IMG_0188IMG_0189Japanese sweet potato. These are purple-skinned with a pale yellow flesh. The flesh is very dense and has a tendency to be somewhat dry when roasted. It has a nice sweet taste similar to the orange fleshed sweet potatoes in the US. Street vendors sell these here in Tokyo. Small trucks park on the side streets selling these, hot and roasted, and ready to eat. A filling and nutritious snack to eat as you walk along the street. I zap these in my microwave, then wrap them in foil and finish them off in my fish grill. We eat them skin and all with butter and salt, or with soy sauce. Also good dipped in a mixture of soy sauce and honey. French fried, they are a popular street food, sprinkled with sugar.


Shiso leaves. This small package of shiso leaves — about 6 or 8 leaves in this package — sells for about 70 yen in my grocery store. I first saw shiso leaves at a sushi restaurant right after we moved here. They sometimes put the wasabi on the shiso leaf, or the shiso will be used as a pretty garnish on the plate. I think that some people who see these think that it is just a garnish like parsley, and is not really meant to be eaten. Here… anything on the plate, is a food that can, and should , be eaten. Shiso has a somewhat bitter peppery flavor, and is a good compliment to sashimi and sushi, and sliced thinly is good on salad or as a topping for noodles.



Lotus root. The edible rhizome of the aquatic lotus plant, it has a rather bland flavor, but has a nice crunchy texture. It comes packaged tightly in plastic to keep it from discoloring. It generally needs to be peeled and blanched to keep the nice white color, but then is good added to salads, or to soups and stews. the longer it is cooked, the starchier it tastes, but it still maintains a nice crunchy texture. I have added it to curry, and used it as a salad. It tends to take on the flavor of whatever it is served with. It is high in fiber, and is said to have many health benefits.



Japanese long onion. These things are very large, and very popular in Japanese cuisine. When I first saw them in the store — sold individually or in bunches of two or three — I thought they were leeks. They are like the small green onions we have back in the US, only HUGE! They can be thinly sliced and added to salads or soups, or as a condiment for sashimi or other raw fish, but they have a rather strong onion flavor. When sauteed or otherwise cooked, they become a little milder and sweeter. I have to cut these in half to get them to fit in my refrigerator, and I use the whole thing… white and green parts.



This last one is a Japanese pumpkin. Also known as a kabocha squash. It is sold in small pieces too, and is usually thinly sliced and steamed lightly to be added to salads, or stewed with other vegetables and meats, or in a curry. It has a denser, sweeter flesh than pumpkins back in the US, and holds together well in a stew. Very tasty, and eaten with the outer rind on it.

I am interested to see how the selection of produce changes as the seasons change. I am hoping that some of the things that are really expensive right now, will become more reasonable in price through the spring and summer. We are enjoying trying these new foods, and don’t really miss the produce we had back in the US. At least not too much… yet. There are foods that we do miss… things that are not commonly available here… like peanut butter… and, they don’t eat much cheese here…  But, oh well… we will manage without for now.