A Visit “Home.”

img_1375

Off we go again. Tomorrow we leave Tokyo for yet another trip. But this one is to the US. For my husband, it is a business trip. He will be working for one week from his office in ATL, then the second week, he will be somewhere in Pennsylvania. For me, it will be two weeks at “our home” near Atlanta, visiting with our family.

Technically, it is still “our home”… We own it, and it still contains most of our belongings. But… right now it just doesn’t feel like home. While we have been living in Tokyo (for a year and a half now) our daughter and her new husband have been living in our house. They have become our renters and caretakers. And… they have made it “their home.” They have changed some things, and they do some things differently than we did when we were there. That is ok… I certainly understand. It just feels weird to me.

We were really happy when our daughter moved back to Atlanta and agreed to this arrangement. It made things so much simpler for us… not having to move out of the house and lease it to strangers, but it isn’t without drawbacks. It is nice to have family in the house, and it is nice to have a place to stay when we do come back for the occasional holiday and visit. And it is still our family home where we can all gather to spend time together.

That said, it just feels awkward when we go back to “our home,” but it really isn’t our home. My kitchen is no longer “my kitchen.” The master bedroom and suite have been taken over by my daughter and son-in-law. Our things are still there: our furniture, knick-knacks, clothes, and other possessions… but it just doesn’t feel right. And… I will admit it… it does make me feel just a bit stressed.

I have spoken to other spouses in my husband’s company, who are temporarily living the expat life somewhere, and they say the same things. “Home” just doesn’t feel like “home” right now.

We are about halfway through our time in Tokyo. We are enjoying it so much, and we will be sad to leave Tokyo. We have made that tiny apartment “our home” for now. And I know, when the time comes to return to the US after this assignment, we will make that home in Atlanta into “OUR home” again.

Odaiba Lantern Festival

Today was Marine Day in Japan. One of the more recently-established national holidays, it was established to give thanks to the ocean’s bounty and to consider the importance of the ocean to Japan.

One of the celebrations is the Lantern Festival – Umi no Hi – on Odaiba Island. We walked across the rainbow bridge — about 2.5 km — from our apartment on Shibaura Island.

P1050058
Rainbow Bridge

On a hot summer day, the walk across the bridge is a pleasant one. The walkway is relatively shaded, and there is a nice breeze. There are some observation areas that allow some scenic views of Tokyo Bay and the surrounding area.

Odaiba is an interesting place. There are some battery islands that were built in the late 1800s as Japan was preparing a defense against Commodore Perry’s “black ships.” One of the battery islands is accessible by a land bridge, and makes a pleasant place to walk.

 

On Marine Day, thousands of lanterns are arranged on the Odaiba beach, then lit to make geometric shapes as the twilight fades to darkness. Of course, there are many street vendors that sell nikuyaki, okonomiyaki, takoyaki, grilled oysters, beer and other delectables.

 

Rainbow bridge is open until 20:30, so it’s easy to walk back from the festival. Or, for those who want to stay longer and enjoy the festivities, trains are available from the Tokyo Teleport Station (a subway that goes under the bay), and Odaiba-Kaihinkoen Station (a train that crosses the Rainbow Bridge). Tonight, we opted for the walk back across the bridge. It was a warm summer night, and the view was outstanding.

IMG_4642

Another trip to the Su–pa–

P1050018

I haven’t done a grocery shopping blog in awhile, so here is what I bought today at Hanamasa. This was a pretty big trip for me… about 3500¥, and about the maximum that I want to carry for a kilometer back to our apartment. Again… I usually have to shop about 5 days per week, because I have limited storage for food with my tiny refrigerator. So now… I will go through the items I purchased today.

Beverages. I have to stagger my purchases of milk, juice and alcohol, because it can really add to the weight that I have to carry home. It is a bad shopping trip when I have to buy milk, soymilk, and juice all on the same day… Too heavy! In suburban Japanese supermarkets, I am sure that they have larger sizes, but in all of the stores near our apartment, a liter size bottle or carton is the biggest you can buy for milk and juice, so I need to shop frequently.

Wine options are generally limited in the smaller stores. My supermarket sells a lot of Chilean and Argentinian brands, and sometimes Australian (along with domestic Japanese wines.) The California wines and French wines are pricey. There is also a large assortment of Japanese beers, sake and shochu, and a small section of Japanese and imported liquor (mostly whiskey — which is very popular in Japan.)

The cans you see in the photo, are “highball” drinks. These are very popular, and are actually a really nice light drink for the hot weather. Varying from 3 to 9% alcohol, and mixed with a carbonated soda, they are “ready-to-drink!”

P1050021

Meat/fish. Tonight’s dinner. A small piece of salmon… 124 grams, 370¥. Hanamasa has the best prices for meat and fish in my area. We aren’t big meat-eaters, so I don’t buy it every shopping trip. If I buy pork or chicken, I divide the package into meal-size servings, and freeze it. The pork and beef is mostly sliced thin or in small bite-size pieces. Remember… we eat with chopsticks here, so the meat is usually in chopstick-friendly pieces!

Veggies. Today Hanamasa had asparagus on sale. Two small bunches for 380¥. That will be two meals-worth for us. Then, I bought half of a Japanese pumpkin for 290¥. Japanese pumpkin is good in curry and stews, or just boiled and eaten warm or cold. The skin in left on, and you just cut it in bite-size chunks. Tasty! Produce is generally more expensive here than in the US… it is all beautiful and perfect quality. It is somewhat seasonal — for instance, oranges (mikan, mandarin oranges) are cheaper and plentiful in the winter months. Apples are cheaper in the summer, and so are peppers and tomatoes. This red pepper cost me 100¥ today. Kiwis are in season right now too… very large and imported from New Zealand. Most places are selling them for about 100-120¥ each.

P1050027

Cheese. Cheese is different here. It is not a huge part of Japanese cuisine. Japanese cheese is softer, and not as flavorful as cheese we are used to in the US. Probably not aged as long. You can buy imported block cheese, but it is fairly expensive. We have just gotten used to eating less cheese here. This 300 gram bag of shredded cheese cost me 398¥. I made pizza the other day, and it worked… just not as tasty as cheese in the US.

Misc. On the left is a package of soba (buckwheat) noodles. Makes a fast and easy dinner when combined with a dashi-based soup broth and veggies. Yum. About 4 servings in that package, for 128¥. In the next photo is a large jar of jam, and a bottle of tonkatsu sauce. Hanamasa has the best prices for jam that I have found. Jam and jelly is a fairly recent addition to Japanese breakfast. Traditional Japanese breakfast is a savory mix of fish, rice and veggies. Sweet breads, pancakes, muffins, toast with sweet toppings, is not traditional, but gaining popularity. This HUGE jar of jam only cost 298¥! I could hardly beat that price in the US!

Tonkatsu is a fried pork cutlet, and often served with a sweet and savory, soy-based sauce. This sauce is also a popular topping for other grilled meats, and also on okonomiyaki (kind of a pancake cooked with egg and veggies inside), and takoyaki (a ball of pancake batter with veggies and octopus inside.) Tasty, multi-purpose sauce. About as popular as ketchup is in the US.

Snacks. Kim-chi is really cheap here. Kim-chi is a fermented mix of cabbage and veggies with a spicy red sauce. Korean in origin, but very popular here as well. Love this stuff! And this container was only 189¥ for 330 grams! Can’t get it for that price at home! Then there is the small bag of snack food peas…  We don’t eat as much snack stuff here as at home. Tortilla chips and potato chips, crackers, etc, are not as common here, and if imported, are very expensive. The Japanese have their own snack foods… mostly different types and flavors of rice crackers and snacks. We just don’t eat very much of it. Also, candy and sweet snacks are not as popular here. In general, the Japanese consume a lot less sugar than we do in the US. Savory snacks are much more popular.

Buying and preparing food here in Japan is very different from at home in the US, and we are still discovering new foods, and new ways to prepare food. We have had to alter our diet to accommodate the different foods here, and it has become part of the adventure of living in this foreign culture. Yes… the food is different here, but the food is delicious! Sugoi oishii desu!

** Roughly, 100¥ = $1 US.

 

Nihon no Natsu (Summer in Japan)

Summer has definitely arrived in Japan. It is hot, humid, and mostly sunny. Right now the sun rises at 4:30 AM here in Tokyo, and sets around 7 PM. June and July are supposed to be the “rainy season” in Japan. This is our second summer in Tokyo, and what we have experienced with rainy season, is just an increased “chance” of rain, and that the rain is usually light and misty in Tokyo. It is also typhoon season now — and we have had one minor typhoon already. So far, we have not seen a significant rain/typhoon during “rainy season.”

We came here from Atlanta — which is also hot and humid in the summer — but the sunshine here just seems so much more intense. And when you are outside, that thick coastal humidity seems to coat the skin like a blanket. Sweat pops out, clothing gets damp, and never seems to dry. Wearing cotton t-shirts and clothing starts to feel like wearing a wet dishrag all day.

Here in urban Tokyo, it is hard to escape the sunshine and the sweatiness, but the Japanese have found a few ways of dealing with it day to day. For businessmen who usually wear jackets and ties, after the 1st of May, most companies opt for short sleeves and no ties — known as “Cool Biz.” Women wear light, loose-fitting dresses and skirts, made of flowing moisture-wicking fabrics.  And no one leaves home without their washcloth-sized “sweat towel.”

Women here are very sun-conscious, and many cover up with long sleeves and long skirts and pants. Hats are popular, and long, fingerless gloves are worn to cover bare arms when short sleeves are worn. Many women walk under sun-reflective umbrellas. The only sunscreen I have seen here is SPF 50. Tanning is not popular, and even at the beaches, women stay covered as much as possible and sit inside small portable cabanas. Oddly, though, sunglasses are not worn by most Japanese.

Since I have been living here — and shopping in Japanese stores (UNIQLO is my favorite!!) — I have found myself adapting my wardrobe to fit in here. I wear skirts most days — knee-length and longer. Hardly anyone wears shorts here. I have bought a couple of hats, and even though I hate “hat hair” I actually wear my hats now. I have a couple of light scarves to cover my neck and shoulders when I am out in the sunshine. I bought a couple of light, knit, tech-fabric “sweaters” that cover the skin, but still allow cooling airflow. I bought a sun umbrella (but haven’t actually used it much yet.) I do still wear my sunglasses… and I still wear my sandals and flip-flops (not so popular with the Japanese women.)

It isn’t exactly like a prescribed “dress code” here, and no one forces me to dress this way. But I have found that they really do know a thing or two about keeping cool in the heat. These things all really do help when you are walking around in the hot sun and drippy humidity. It is kind of an interesting thing when you can pick out the tourists because they are the only ones wearing shorts and tank tops — and sometimes, sunburns, lol.

 

 

 

Pari e no tabi

So this is a blog about Japan. But on occasion, my job gives me the opportunity to travel from Japan to another country. Last month, it was a trip to Paris, France.

IMG_2813.JPG

My wife traveled with me on this trip. I had a week of meetings, then we took a few days of vacation to enjoy the city. We’ve been to Paris before, but the last time was several years ago. It was a good chance to see a city we really enjoy. Here’s how it went.

First of all, it’s a long trip from Tokyo to Paris. 12 hours of economy class Air France, to be exact. The flight crew works hard to make it as pleasant a journey as possible. But it’s a long trip.

Being familiar with Paris, we opted to take the subway from Charles de Gaulle airport to our hotel in the city. We managed to navigate the ticket machine with no problem, and we were on our way.

After being immersed in Japanese culture, and trying hard to learn some Japanese, it was a bit of a struggle to recall the limited amount of French I have learned in the past. Strangely, I found it easier to read French this trip. I think it is because there are some similarities with English, after being used to struggling through Kanji and Japanese grammar. Still, my ability to converse in French is infantile at best. Je parle un peu francais. Fortunately, most Parisians speak some English, and we got along just fine.

During my business meetings we stayed at a typical large business hotel. Nice, but extremely expensive. At the conclusion of business, we moved to a small hotel in Montparnasse, the Hotel des Bains. A small, quaint little hotel in a quiet neighborhood, it was our third stay there. Nothing fancy, but very Parisian. From there, we walked and took the subway across the city.

There is so much to see in Paris that we only went to some of our favorites in the short time we were there. In particular, we enjoy Promenade Plantée, an elevated park converted from an old railway bed. Another favorite is Montmartre Cemetery, established in the early 1800s. It’s a fascinating look at Parisian history, and a quiet and relaxing place to spend the day. And we wandered to Sacre Coeur, Eiffel Tower, Musee D’orsay,  Arc de Triomphe…a good look at some of the highlights of Paris in a few short days.

Of all the things I enjoy about Paris, the one thing I don’t like is the cigarette smoke. It seems like everyone in Paris — EVERYONE — smokes. In restaurants, at sidewalk cafes, walking, driving… cigarette smoke is everywhere. I realize it’s a cultural thing, and I try to deal with it as part of the experience. But really…smoking stinks!

But the end of the vacation came very quickly and it was soon time for the trip back to Japan. It’s a pleasure to visit Paris. The history, the culture, the food, and the atmosphere… Paris is a unique and interesting place to experience.

IMG_4071
Bridge over the Seine River — Pont Alexandre III

 

Short trip: Kyoto

Tokyo is a great place with lots to see, but sometimes it is good to see something different. We had guests this week, so one of our activities with them was a short trip to Kyoto.

Kyoto is an easy trip from Tokyo. Getting Shinkansen tickets is the biggest challenge. Not that they’re hard to find. Just go to any JR train station. But my wife found that the Shinkansen person’s English proficiency was about on par with her Japanese capability. The tickets got purchased…but the process wasn’t exactly smooth.

IMG_4513
Shinkansen…fast, clean, smooth and comfortable…but not inexpensive

The trip to Kyoto from Tokyo is an easy ride on the train. Smooth, fast, comfortable. On a clear day, you can see Mt. Fuji as the Shinkansen speeds past.

When we arrived, our ryokan (traditional Japanese hotel) was a short walk from the train station. We chose the ryokan Ohanabo. The staff was very friendly, helpful, and spoke good English. There is a traditional Japanese bath (separate for men and women). Our room was large and comfortable, with a shared toilet just down the hall. All in all, a place we would really recommend, although there are a multitude of western-style hotels in the area.

IMG_4504
Ohanabo Ryokan in Kyoto

We spent much of two days in Kyoto. That’s enough to see some highlights, but it would take much longer to see all the attractions. During our trip, we went to Fushimi Inari Shrine – a short JR Nara line trip from Kyoto station to Inari Station. There are over 10,000 Torii gates leading up the mountain, and a multitude of shrines. Historic, dating back 1300 years. Good bit of walking, but an interesting place. Plan to spend at least two hours here… and be willing to climb stairs… lots of stairs.

 

IMG_4353.JPG
A few of the Torii gates at Fushimi Inari Shrine

During our short trip, we also saw Nijo-jo Castle, with its Nightingale floors, Kinkakuji Temple (Golden Pavilion), the Gion area (shopping and restaurants), Nishiki Market, and HigashiHonganji Temple (huge, just down the street from Kyoto station). We bought the Kyoto bus day pass – 500 yen for all day access to the bus system.

Our short trip came too soon to an end, but one more surprise awaited us at Kyoto Station. If you take the escalators up, there is a rooftop garden, with an amazing lighted staircase to the top. Huge station… at least 6 long escalators to the rooftop garden!

Two days is a feasible time for a trip to Kyoto from Tokyo. But in two days, you really just touch the surface of this fascinating city. We look forward to another trip back in the fall when it is cooler, and when we can enjoy the colors of the turning leaves.