Golden Week

Tomorrow starts the Golden Week holidays here in Japan. Golden Week is the name that has been given to a group of public holidays that fall at the end of April, and into the first week of May. There are 16 national holidays in Japan this year, and 4 of them fall within this next week.

Tomorrow, April 29th, is Shōwa Day, and is observed to celebrate the birthday of Emperor Hirohito (Emperor Shōwa) who died in 1989. Then, May 3rd is Constitution Day, May 4th is Greenery Day, and May 5th is Children’s Day. But since Shōwa Day falls on a weekend, many companies  give a work holiday on the following Monday (May 1st, this year.) Not all companies do this — it is not mandatory — but many do.

This year that leaves only Tuesday, May 2nd, as the only actual “work day” next week, and many people just decide to take that day as a vacation day so that they can have the whole week off.

A lot of people choose to travel during Golden Week, and plans have to be made months in advance for these trips. Flights, trains, and hotels in desired vacation areas tend to book full during Golden Week, even though prices are often very high. Some people also choose to travel outside of Japan to avoid the crowds in the Japanese resort areas.

My husband and I, however, didn’t think about scheduling any Golden Week travel until it was too late! No hotels… no flights… no trains.  Looks like we will be spending our Golden Week here in Tokyo. But no matter… we still have plenty to explore here. And, maybe we will take a few short trips to the outskirts of the city:

  • Kamakura — to see the shrines and temples, and see the giant Buddha (Daibutsu) statue at Kōtoku-in. Kamakura is about an hour train ride south from Tokyo. There are several hiking trails in the mountains around the north side of the city, and a beach on the south side. Kamakura is “Old Japan”, and is referred to by many as “Little Kyoto.”
  • Enoshima is a small mountainous island off the coast — connected to the mainland by a bridge. It is a short train ride farther down the coast from Kamakura. There are many attractions on the island and in the surrounding area, including more shrines, an aquarium, caves, gardens, and the Sea Candle lighthouse.
  • Mt. Takao — on the western edge of Tokyo — is a popular hiking area, and is easily accessible by train. We have been there several times. There are 5 trails up to the top of the mountain. An inclined railway, and a cable car can take you halfway up the mountain, where you can also see more shrines as you walk the rest of the way up the mountain. There is also a wild monkey park along this trail. Once at the top, there are restaurants, beer gardens, and snack and souvenir shops. On a clear day, you can see Mt. Fuji from the top of Mt. Takao. And if hiking up to the top is not enough, there are miles of more secluded trails to explore down the other side.

Some people have told us that it is actually nice to stay in Tokyo during Golden Week. Because so many people leave the city to travel elsewhere for the holidays, Tokyo attractions are less crowded than usual. We will see about that…

Spring is here. The sun is shining, and the weather is warm. Happy Golden Week!


This is not the salon we went to, but another local salon near our home.

My husband and I went to get haircuts yesterday. It isn’t the first time — this was the 3rd Japanese haircut for me, and my husband has had several haircuts at various places — but every time, it is still sort of a stressful ordeal… not just for us, but also for the hair-cutters, I think.

There are plenty of hair salons and barber shops here, and I am sure in the expat areas of town, we could find salons where they speak English, but we choose to go to local shops that are in close proximity to our apartment. These salons run the gamut in price — from no-frills 1000Yen shops (about $10), to full service cut and style salons that will run about 3000 to 6000Yen. Most will offer “katto nomi” (cut only) prices, as well as full service which includes shampoo, cut, style, neck massage — and for men — ear and nose hair removal (ew), as well as a straight-razor shave!

The first hurdle, of course, is making an appointment. Only the 1000Yen shops take walk-ins, so when we need haircuts, we have to first go in to make an appointment. I know, I know… we could just call on the phone, but the language issue makes that more complicated. It has been easier for us to go to the shops the day before to make an appointment: “yoyaku shitai kudasai” (I would like to make an appointment.) They point at available time slots, and we point at the one we want, and then write our names in katakana.

My husband has found a barber shop at Narita Airport that he likes, and he goes there when we happen to be at the airport. They speak English, and do an excellent job at a very reasonable price… but they don’t cut women’s hair. I tend to prefer the walk-in, no-frills-type salon — similar to what I use back home in the US — but the last two haircuts, we have gone to a little salon just down the canal from our apartment. The woman there who cuts my hair knows pretty good English and likes to practice speaking to me. I, on the other hand, know a tiny bit of Japanese, and like to try it out on her. Lol… she asks me about things she doesn’t understand with English, and then she gives me the “thumbs up” when I speak Japanese correctly to her. And, it works. It is a mildly stressful exercise for me, but hugely beneficial for my Japanese skills. [Just an aside — Yesterday she asked me why it is “bangs” and not just “bang”… Japanese has no plurals. “Pant” vs. “pants” is also difficult. Why do we wear “pants” (plural)???]

The men at this salon who cut my husband’s hair don’t know much English, apparently, and don’t usually communicate with my husband beyond pointing or gesturing. He has learned a few simple phrases to tell them what he wants done… “mata sukoshi mijikaku shitai kudasai” (make it a little shorter please), etc. And… it usually turns out fine. I feel like they are just as tense about cutting our hair (and doing something we don’t like) as we are about having it done. They tend to not cut it short enough, but they do a very good (and meticulous!) job of it.

This all goes into the category of “Things I Never Thought About As Being Difficult Until I Moved to A Foreign Country.” There are so many of those kind of moments here. But, still — we love Japan. And, we are still happy with our decision to come here to live. Living in Japan is definitely getting easier, but I think it will take a long time to be truly comfortable in this culture.

Sushi Encounter…

We have met the nicest people while we have been here in Japan.

Tonight, we went to our usual neighborhood conveyor-belt sushi restaurant – we go there maybe once a month or so – and we sat, as usual, at the counter watching the sushi chefs fill orders. We sat next to a Japanese man, eating his sushi and drinking sake. We started taking plates off of the conveyor, and we ordered a small bottle of hot sake.

As we pondered what to order from the Japanese menu, the man next to us observed our deliberation. Soon he started talking to us, in pretty good English, pointing out the specials written in Japanese and posted on the wall adjacent from our counter. He had to look up the English word for one – it turned out to be mackerel – but he patiently explained the half dozen or so items on the list.

As we continued our conversation, he asked where we were from. He was surprised to learn we live in Japan. We explained how much we enjoy life here. Seeing that we were drinking hot sake, he explained that many people here opt for cold sake when the season changes and the weather warms. He was having cold sake, and asked if he could order some of the sake he was drinking for us. He called the waiter, and soon we were enjoying a glass of cold sake.

We talked more about sushi, and the different kinds of fish. He explained that Westerners sometimes don’t like sea urchin. Had we ever tried it? We said we had not, and he promptly asked the sushi chef to prepare some sea urchin for us to try. Turns out it is really good – kind of sweet and juicy, almost like a paste – not at all what we expected.

sea urchin
sea urchin

We talked for a few more minutes, explaining that we are struggling to learn some Japanese. He mentioned he is also working on English, and we told him that his English is quite good, as he was able to carry on a very good conversation.

Soon the man said farewell, and left the restaurant. We later found that he had paid for our cold sake, and for the sea urchin. A very kind man who simply wanted to share with us his enjoyment of sushi and Japanese culture.

Yoroshiku Onagaishimasu!

A week in India

Gateway to India

I know this is a blog about Japan. But part of the experience we welcomed with this assignment is the opportunity to visit other countries. The past week, my job took me to Mumbai, India. My wife was able to accompany me on this trip, so following the days of meetings we took a few vacation days to see a little of Mumbai. Here are our thoughts about India.

He said:  From what we saw, India is a fascinating, wonderful, disturbing, complicated, and sometimes overwhelming place. Throughout our time here, we were greeted by friendly, accepting people. Obviously, as Westerners, we stand out in a crowd. But at no time was anyone rude, nor did they seem to really pay much attention to our differences. Staff at the hotel and restaurants were, as perhaps could be expected, accommodating and genuinely helpful. Even during our excursions in the city and to a local island, we seemed to be at worst ignored, and often warmly accepted.

She said:  Usually when I accompany my husband on these trips, I have a couple of days on my own when he has meetings. This is not a problem for me, and I usually will spend that time wandering around the city we are visiting. Most cities are fairly walkable… with sites easily accessed on foot, or by public transit. Not so much with Mumbai, we found. Granted, our hotel was well outside the city center — north near Lake Powai – and seemed to be in an isolated pocket of hotels, upscale apartments, and small businesses. But I found that I could only walk 2 to 3 blocks in each direction before walking out into a much different area. Not that I only wanted to stay in the affluent parts of town, but I was not comfortable walking alone into neighborhoods of tin-roofed shanties and tarp shelters.

He said: And that is the disturbing and sometimes overwhelming part of Mumbai. Abject poverty is everywhere. You see multi-million dollar apartment buildings, and within steps neighborhoods of ramshackle tin shacks. Driving through the city, we saw huge areas where the living conditions were difficult, but at least people had some shelter and a home. Other places, people are living under bridges and on the sidewalks with no shelter, no belongings, nothing. It is hard to imagine how people live in these conditions…and difficult to understand how we can have so much, when so many have so very little.

She said:  We had a wonderful experience visiting Mumbai… But we hired a driver and guide to show us around. The chaos and traffic can be daunting. Touring by oneself is difficult. We saw many amazing sites in the city center, and visited a Hindu Temple. At the temple, we were invited by one of the monks to join them in the midday meal that they provided to the community. We sat on the floor and enjoyed eating wonderful Indian food with wonderful Indian people. We spent a day touring the Elephanta Caves on Gharipuri Island – again with a guide – and saw ancient Hindu carvings, as well as the adorable monkeys that inhabit the island.

All in all, this was a fascinating cultural experience for us. Of all the places we’ve visited during this assignment, this was in many ways the most difficult…and in other ways, the most unique and unforgettable.

The visa experience

As the “he” member of this blog team, one of the great opportunities I have with my job is a chance to see parts of the world I might otherwise never be able to go. Of course, the trips always include many hours of sitting in a hotel or office doing work. But I also try to see something of the place where the meeting is being held, and sometimes my wife is able to accompany me.

My latest opportunity is India.

I’ve never visited India before, but always thought it looked fascinating. As India requires a visa for entry by an American, the first step for this trip was to obtain a visa.

I quickly found the visa process to be a bit confusing and not altogether clear. Because I will have more than one meeting, I needed a multiple-entry business visa. My wife could use a tourist visa, which is relatively easy and straight-forward.

As I started the process, I received conflicting information. Some told me that because I haven’t lived in Tokyo for 2 years, I would need to apply for the visa in the United States. Others said no, with a letter from my employer, I could apply in Tokyo. So not really knowing what was true, I proceed to gather the materials. Fill out the online visa application. Obtain Letter of Invitation from the company in India that I’m visiting. Get letter from my employer saying that my expenses are guaranteed. Print out application, attach photo. Copies of passport, residence card.

I finally took all the items to the Indian visa office in Tokyo. The very friendly staff there promptly reviewed my material, and confirmed that I could submit the application…after I corrected some errors on the application.

The next week, my wife and I made our way to the Indian embassy in Tokyo. Again, the staff was friendly and helpful. In less than an hour, we had submitted our applications, paid our fees, and were told that the visas would be ready in one week. Sure enough, a week later, we had our visas in hand.IMG_2339edit.jpg

Without a doubt, the visa process complicates travel. And, it adds to the cost. But if you want the experience of visiting some places in the world, it is just part of the process – and part of the international experience.

Sakura Time in Tokyo

It is Hanami time in Tokyo. Hanami in Japanese literally means “flower viewing,” and in Japan it usually means “viewing” the beautiful Sakura (cherry) blossoms in the spring. Lots of places – and I can name several in the US – are known for beautiful cherry blossoms in the spring, but in Japan, it is a much anticipated and enjoyed time of year. The dates of peak bloom are predicted weeks and months in advance, and the Japanese plan parties and get-togethers to enjoy this event.

As I have talked about before, the Japanese are very attuned to nature, and have a great respect and appreciation for nature, and beautiful things in nature. It isn’t just the Sakura…  any blooming flowers or beautiful scenery is appreciated by them – for instance, the much loved views of Mt. Fuji (Fuji-san) – but  there are so many Sakura trees planted throughout Japan, that the whole country is seemingly swallowed by a wave of pink blossoms, moving from south to north with the spring temperatures.

At peak bloom time – and even before the peak – Hanami parties appear in all the parks. The Japanese people spread tarps – sometimes edge to edge – under the trees, and bring in low tables and all sorts of picnic food and drinks. Some bring in small table top grills for cooking yakitori under the trees. Others just stop at the nearby convenience store (“conbini”) or a local carry-out restaurant for bento boxes and already-prepared picnic food. Wine, sake, beer, canned “highball” drinks – or bottled water and green teas are all available as well – and “let the party begin!”

As at home, the shoes come off “at the door” and are neatly lined up along the edges of the blue tarps. They sit eating and drinking, laughing and gazing up at the beautiful pale pink blossoms. Camera phones come out, and everyone takes “selfies” under the trees, and photos of the blossoms.

There are some areas in Tokyo, that are especially nice for Hanami “strolling.” Long avenues lined with Sakura trees, and people walk along under the trees, stopping everywhere for that perfect Sakura photo. The sidewalks can become very crowded during Sakura time… long lines of people walking, jogging, and strolling clog the sidewalks.

Some areas – like the Meguro Kawa area – make the event into a moving party, with street vendors selling food and drinks along the way. Sakura-themed drinks (anything pink!) are sold everywhere – sparkling pink wine (with or without strawberries), mulled wine, and Pink Zima (a new version of the Zima we used to drink sometimes in the US), and pink cocktails. All the wonderful Japanese street foods are there, and spring-colored mochi candy too! Meguro River has a paved walkway along the walled sides of the river. The banks are lined with cherry trees that hang down over the water, and also provide a canopy over the people walking along the the path.

As peak bloom time wanes, and the blossoms begin to shatter and fall, this “falling” is celebrated as well. The rivers and canals become a sea of pink, and the blossoms fall like snow as you pass under the trees. In fact, that is exactly how they refer to it… as “the snowing of the Sakura.” It is considered to be good luck to catch the petals as they fall around you. Drifts of pale pink and white blossoms pile up under the trees and on the sidewalks, and the wind whips them up into a blizzard of petals.

It is a beautiful time in Japan. Springtime in Japan — and the new leaves and flowers are a symbol of renewal… and hope for the future.