Snowmageddon in Tokyo

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Near blizzard conditions outside our apartment window.

Remember “Snowmageddon 2014” — the winter storm that blew through Atlanta and paralyzed the city for a week? A few inches of snow and a glazing of ice during the middle of the day, and everyone trying to get home at the same time, caused an unprecedented gridlock on the city’s roadways. Thousands of cars were stranded, people abandoned their vehicles, workers were stuck at work, children spent the night at schools — or worse — they slept on school buses stuck in the traffic. My husband spent the night at his office.

Part of the problem with that storm was that it ended up being worse than expected, and that everyone waited too long to finally decide to cancel school and work, resulting in too many people trying to get home at the same time. But also… because this kind of weather occurs so rarely in the South, they just are not set up to deal with it.

Tokyo had their own version of “Snowmageddon” this week. Snowy weather is a rarity here in Tokyo, just as it is in Atlanta. The mountains to the west tend to stop most of the storms, and temperatures don’t often stay below freezing for very long, even in the winter. Sometimes, though, everything comes together just right, and we do get a big snowstorm.

As in Atlanta, Tokyo isn’t equipped to handle snow removal and road treatment. The biggest advantage that Tokyo has, however, is that there are far fewer cars on the roadways because of their mass transit system. Yes — some people do choose to drive cars to work, but parking is hard to find, and expensive. Trains and buses can take you anywhere in the city, and the cost is much less than driving and maintaining a vehicle.

The snow started here early in the day, but with temperatures hovering just above freezing, it took quite awhile for the snow to begin to accumulate. If the temperatures had been a few degrees colder, the snow would have piled up quickly. Officially, our part of Tokyo got 23 centimeters of snow — just over 9 inches. By mid afternoon, offices were closing and workers were heading home, hoping to get home before the trains got overly crowded. My husband walked home from work through 3 inches of slushy snow.

The snow can certainly wreak havoc with the transit systems too. Roads were slick and buses were affected. Trains were more crowded, and snow on the tracks can cause delays and cancellations. Heavy snow in other areas outside of Tokyo, caused some cancellations of Shinkansen and regional trains. Slick runways caused delays and cancellations at both of the Tokyo airports.

All in all, though, it wasn’t really much of a “snowmageddon.” I can see one of the highways from our apartment window, and there was never any gridlock. The cars that were on the highway — not many at all — were traveling slow, but not stopped or stuck in traffic. The snow ended around midnight, and overnight the temperature edged up a degree or two above freezing, so that things were beginning to melt again by morning. The sidewalks were still slick and slushy for my husband’s “morning commute” to his nearby office. And now — two days later — almost all of the snow is gone.

Maybe it isn’t fair to compare the two cities on this kind of event. The conditions were not quite the same, and — yes — some workers here didn’t make it home that night because their trains were cancelled. (I saw a news story that showed the restaurant/bars — Izakaya — and capsule hotels in the Shinjuku  and Shibuya areas of Tokyo were very busy that evening!)

It would be impossible to “retrofit” Atlanta with a mass transit system comparable to the one here. Tokyo has the most extensive urban rail network in the world, and rail is the primary mode of transport throughout the metro area. This system has been around for a very long time, and the Tokyo of today couldn’t exist without it. But, though I miss a lot of things about living in Atlanta, the traffic/gridlock is not one of them. And… when we finally return to the ATL, we will certainly miss the convenience and efficiency of the transit system here.

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Gridlock in Atlanta during Snowmageddon 2014

Shirasu-don.

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While we are on the subject of food…   We have discovered many interesting and new foods since we have lived in Japan. One of the most unusual is shirasu. Shirasu is also known as “whitebait” — and is the juvenile form of several fish species, including herring, anchovies, and sardines. These “baby” fish are harvested in large numbers from local coastal waters — including Sagami Bay southwest of Tokyo.

We first tried these tiny fish — usually only a one or two centimeters in length — when we attended a dinner at a local restaurant. When they brought out a salad, there were these tiny white “things” sprinkled on top. They were tender, and tasted mildly “fishy” and salty, and were not unpleasant at all. On close-up inspection, we found that they were in fact, tiny whole fish… head, eyes, tail, fins, and all!

In the supermarket, they sell plastic containers of these tiny fish — most of them cooked (boiled), but some raw, or dried, and they are relatively inexpensive. I have never actually bought these from the store, but plan to soon try my hand at making shirasu-don myself.

“Don” in Japanese means a bowl of rice. So, shirasu-don is simply a bowl of rice with shirasu on top. Usually there will be assorted vegetable or seaweed toppings, and grated ginger as well. Sometimes it will be served with fish roe or raw fish (sashimi) too. And a complete set meal –“teishoku” in Japanese — will be served with miso soup, and Japanese pickled vegetables — “tsukemono.”

We recently took a short day trip to Enoshima Island while our daughter was visiting, and stopped in at a local restaurant for their signature dish — shirasu-don. We enjoyed it very much. It was delicious — once you get past the knowledge that you are eating baby fish. Totemo oishii desu!

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Enoshima Island — A short train ride down the coast from Tokyo. Enoshima, in the summertime is the quintessential “beach town” with surfing, swimming, and sun-bathing. 
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The view from Enoshima Island. In winter, there is a beautiful view of Mt. Fuji from the island. In summer, the coastal haze and humidity usually obscure views of the mountain.

Sometimes you just need a pizza…

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Apartments in this area of Tokyo — and actually in all of Japan for that matter — are pretty small by US standards. Space in Japan is at a premium, and the Japanese are used to having much less personal space. Our Tokyo apartment is 53 square meters — about 570 square feet. It is classified as a 2LDK… 2 bedrooms, with a combined living-dining-kitchen space. My kitchen here is just a corner of our small living room. We have a sink, small dormitory-sized refrigerator/freezer, and a cooktop combined with a small fish grill/broiler. No oven.

This is pretty typical for Japanese apartments. The Japanese traditionally don’t do a lot of baking, so ovens are not usually included in these small apartments. At home in the US, I did bake. I made cakes, cookies, pies, bread… and pizza. We are rather fond of pizza actually, so this has taken a little adjustment. Sure, there is pizza here in Japan. There are pizza restaurants in our area, and pizza delivery everywhere. Little pizza scooters deliver pizza from many of the popular US franchises — Dominos, and Pizza Hut — as well as local pizza restaurants.

But… to make a pizza here in our apartment has required a bit of creativity. I tried at first to bake a small pizza in the fish grill, but a broiler just doesn’t do the proper job. I make bread dough here, and use it for steamed buns cooked in my wok. I have even tried baking bread in my rice cooker (and this actually works… as long as you don’t try to make too big of a loaf.)

Anyway… so, how I finally solved the pizza problem, was to pre-bake the dough as a flatbread in my frying pan. Once it is cooked on both sides, I put on the toppings and cheese, and finish it off in the fish grill/broiler. This results in a reasonably decent homemade pizza. Maybe not as good as the local pizza restaurant that we go to (that actually has a huge and hot brick pizza oven) but not bad at all. Yum.

There are a lot of things to adjust to when living in a foreign country — some big things, and some pretty small and insignificant things, like… pizza. Learning to adapt the lifestyle we were used to, to fit with this lifestyle has been a fun part of this adventure.

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MariCars

When you visit a foreign country there is always a long list of things to do and see. Tokyo — and all of Japan — have many touristy activities and sites that I would recommend to anyone coming here for a visit. It pretty much runs the gamut from cultural/historical things like temples and shrines, purely tourist sites like Tokyo Tower and SkyTree, nightlife, restaurants, trendy areas, amusement parks, and shopping spots.

Having lived here for two years now, we are pretty much past the tourist things, and have settled on our favorite activities that we like to do in our spare time. But, occasionally, we do still go for the touristy stuff, and MariCars are most definitely on that list.

MariCars are “Mario-themed”  street-legal go-karts that you can drive around Tokyo. They have several locations around the city, and several tours available, daytime and nighttime. The carts are easy to drive, and easy to maneuver, even in Tokyo traffic.

When you go in, you show them your driver’s license (or International Driving Permit, in our case) and fill out the waiver forms — English available. Once done with the paperwork, you choose a costume to wear, and have a short instructional lesson with the driver of the leader car. They have GoPro cameras available for rental. All you do is bring in your own micro SD card.

It is a fun, silly, and interesting way to see Tokyo! More information can be found on their website:  https://shinagawa.maricar.com/

Lots of costumes to choose from, and a “chase vehicle” for those in your group who want the experience without actually driving one of the carts. Daytime and nighttime tours available in many of the popular areas of Tokyo.

 

 

 

Two Years Done… But, Still One to Go!

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Two years ago today, my husband and I stepped off the airplane at Narita Airport to begin our — at that time — two year adventure as American expats in Tokyo. Back then, two years seemed like a long time, and we thought it would be plenty of time to get to know this country and this culture, and these people, and then be ready to step back into our life in the US.

After that first year flew by so fast that we hardly had a chance to say “Ohayou gozaimasu” (good morning), we were offered — and agreed — to stay for a third year. Now, as we have reached the end of our second year living in Tokyo, Japan, a few notes and observations come to mind:

  • We did not take the decision to come here lightly. We knew it would be difficult — and it has been more difficult than anything we have ever done together in our marriage — but also, we had no idea just how amazing, rewarding, and fulfilling this experience would be. This culture is fascinating. The Japanese people are kind, generous, and welcoming. We have learned so much in the past two years. And not just about Japan… about ourselves as well.
  • The things I miss most about “home”… my pets. My kitties. I know, you expected that I would say my kids, and I DO miss seeing them in person, but I am in contact with them via the internet just about every day. Our children are grown now, with jobs and significant others and busy lives, and they are spread out over the country. Even if I were at home in Georgia, I wouldn’t see them more than a few times a year. My cats, though… I can’t talk to, cuddle, or hold. When I visit back home, they shy away from me now. That hurts.
  • I do miss my house, but I am enjoying this big-city-30th-floor-apartment-with-a-view-life. I miss my car, but… I don’t really miss driving my car, so why do I miss the big hunk of metal sitting in my garage in Atlanta? I am perfectly happy riding trains and buses here in Japan. I would happily ride trains and buses in the US… IF that were EVER possible.
  • I used to miss my “stuff” in my house at home, but not so much anymore. I have lived for two years without most of it. I found out that we can very happily get by without all that “stuff.” I think when we do go back “home”… there is going to be some serious down-sizing of the “stuff” pile.
  • Yes… sometimes I still do get homesick and wish I was back home. The thing is, as much as I sometimes would like to immediately go back to by life THERE… I can’t help but think about all the things I will miss about being HERE. Even though I am very much a “foreigner” here, I find myself feeling very possessive and protective of my temporarily-adopted-country. I can never be Japanese, but I love living Japanese… lol.
  • The Japanese language… is very difficult to learn. Lol… I know I have said that many times before, but the more I learn, and the more I study, the more I realize I still have to learn. You see, the language is not just words. It is a culture. A culture that is still very new and unfamiliar to me even after two years here. I can memorize word lists and verbs, and learn hiragana and katakana, and even learn some of the kanji, but this language is so filled with the culture and history of this place that I will never be able to learn it all. That doesn’t mean that we haven’t made significant progress, because we certainly have. It just means that it is a lot more complicated than we realized.
  • Japan has changed me. The conundrum that is arising in us is whether we will ever be able to happily go back to that life we had before. I don’t know… It is perplexing visiting back home (as we did over the holidays). I almost feel like I have two lives, and I, in some ways, feel like I am two different people. I am different here from the person I am there. It is hard to explain, but sometimes I am just not sure which life/person I prefer.
  • A conclusion. New experiences are good. Grab as many as you can! Sometimes new experiences take you outside your comfort zone and make you squirm. Do them anyway, and realize that the discomfort is much more interesting than the same old, same old. Change is inevitable. Roll with it. Embrace and live life as fully as you can, for as long as you can.

What will this next year bring? Certainly some travel. A couple of trips “home” and some visitors from there. And… everyday life in the biggest city in the world. How will we feel after our third year here? Only time will tell…

 

Day trip to Enoshima

There are a multitude of things to do when you live in Tokyo. But every so often, it’s nice to get out of city. An easy day trip from Tokyo is Enoshima.

Enoshima is a small island off the Shonan coast, about 70 km from Tokyo. There are a number of ways to get there. Not having a car, we chose the train.

Specifically, the Tokaido Line from Shinagawa Station to Ofuna, then the Shonan Monorail to Enoshima. It’s about an hour and a half ride in total, at a cost of just under 2000 yen, round trip.

Exiting the monorail at Shonan-Enoshima Station, it’s a short walk to the Enoshima Bentenbashi Bridge that connects the island with the mainland. The bridge is often crowded with people walking to the island. On a clear day — like today — there is an amazing view of Mt. Fuji. That sight alone is worth the trip. But there is much more ahead on the island.

After exiting the bridge, there are the ubiquitous souvenir shops and restaurants all leading uphill to the first of three Enoshima shrines. The Shinto shrines are a gathering place for worship, and a place of beauty and interest for those not of the Shinto religion.

The walk up and around the island is a pleasant one, but be ready for some steep steps up and down. In addition to the shrines, there is the Enoshima Samuel Cocking garden, and the Enoshima Sea Candle (Observation Lighthouse). While near the top, a small cafe offers visitors tako senbi – a light cracker made of Octopus that is a popular snack on Enoshima. The idea of an Octopus cracker may be a stretch for some Westerners, but give it a try– it is actually quite tasty.IMG_3966.JPG

Steps leading down the mountain take you to a vantage point offering a spectacular view of Sagami Bay. Normally, the Enoshima Iwaya Caves are open to visitors. A recent typhoon caused damage, and the caves are closed for repairs.

Looking around Enoshima makes for a pleasant and interesting day — a great day trip from Tokyo.

 

 

Visit to Skytree…check

Normally, we avoid the  “touristy” attractions in Tokyo. There are so many things to do away from the tourist areas that we find other things to do.

But with our daughter visiting this week, we decided to make a visit to Tokyo Skytree. At 634 meters high, it’s the world’s tallest tower. IMG_5494.JPGWe’ve often viewed it from the outside, but today was our first time to go inside.

Skytree has two viewing levels, the first at 350 meters, and a Galleria level at 450 meters. Entrance fee isn’t cheap – 3,000 yen per person to the first level, and another 1,000 yen to the Galleria level. We opted to stop at the 350 meter level.

Like most tourist areas, this one was crowded.

We took advantage of the “fast lane” for international visitors, so avoided some of the line to the elevators. Once in the elevator, it was a quick trip up – the video monitor in the elevator pegged the speed going up at 600 meters per minute.

Once at the 350 meter level, we could walk around and see a full 360 degrees around the Tokyo area…once we could get through the crowd and up to the viewing window. It was a clear winter day in Tokyo, so visibility was good.

Even Mt. Fuji was clearly in view in the distance. Looking out, it seems that Tokyo goes on forever, to the horizon in all directions.

All in all, Skytree is an interesting attraction. There is a good view of the city. If you’re interested, there are several restaurants and of course the ubiquitous gift shops. It’s definitely on the “must see in Tokyo” list, and I’m glad we went…once. Skytree tower, checked off the bucket list.