Just a walk in Tokyo

As part of our experience in Japan, we try to share the really spectacular and amazing things about this country. But not every day can be spectacular and amazing. Today, we just did a walk in Tokyo.

We live on Shibaura Island, an artificial island that is a quiet, family-oriented Japanese neighborhood. Our walk today started on Shibaura, on the way across town to Shibuya.

Since much of Tokyo is reclaimed land, there are many canals. We live along one, and often take walks on the path beside the canal. It was a warm day today (the first day of Autumn). The walk was pleasant and sunny. It’s too early for many of the fall water birds to return, but we saw many Spotbill Ducks. Somehow it is relaxing just to see the duck community along the canal.

Today we walked around the big Shinagawa train station. From there, we walked more-or-less along the Yamanote train tracks through some small and very residential Japanese neighborhoods.

Passing through Gotanda, it’s interesting to see how the homes, businesses and train station all come together in the neighborhood. Lots of people walk through these areas, and it’s fun to see the diversity of children, young adults, and older people making their way through daily life.

Ebisu is another area along today’s walk. We haven’t spent a lot of time in Ebisu, but there are many, many shops and restaurants. We will definitely make a point of exploring this area of Tokyo more in the days to come.

About 18,000 steps from the start, we arrived in Shibuya, a hectic and energetic part of Tokyo. Probably best known for Shibuya Crossing, the big and crowded intersection, this is a shopping district that attracts the young, trendy, “hipster” crowd along with everyone else. Our favorite brewpub, Goodbeer Faucets, provides more than 40 craft beers on tap and is a relaxing place to spend a few hours in the afternoon. Today, we also visited Ramen World, our favorite ramen restaurant. Dinner for two – about 2,000 yen ($20). Gotta love it.

Continuing the theme of “not everything in Tokyo is exciting,” we finished our time in Shibuya at Don Quixote, a huge discount store that has just about anything and everything. Today’s purchases included laundry soap, clothes pins, some new hand towels, and lemoncello (they do have a useful selection of alcoholic drinks).

After that, it was on the Yamanote line train towards home. Tonight, we exited at Shinagawa, and enjoyed an evening stroll along the canal. A nice conclusion to an unremarkable — but very pleasant — day in Tokyo.IMG_8192.JPG

International Travel from Japan

We just returned to Japan from a trip to Romania. It was a business trip for my husband. He had a few days of meetings, and then we had a few days off to do a little sightseeing. While he was in meetings, I met with other wives in the group. We see each other a few times a year, and have become friends — and so we had time to explore Bucharest together.  It was an enjoyable trip, to a country I would never have thought that I would get to visit. So much history, and such a different culture — I learned a lot!

With his job appointment in Japan, my husband has had quite a bit of travel… and I have been fortunate to be able to go along with him on some of his trips. Most have been international, but a few have been domestic, here inside Japan. I have already done a blogpost about domestic travel options here — about Japan’s wonderful train system, and about the airlines. But, being an island nation — or rather, “many island” nation…

[A bit of trivia here — though there are four “main” islands in Japan, there are a total of 6,852 islands making up the Japanese archipelago!]

…most long distance travel from Japan will involve a plane ride. And, unless you are going to another east Asian country, that plane ride will likely be at least 10 hours in length. Just about every flight from Japan is a long-haul flight!

When we fly back “home” to Atlanta, our direct flight is anywhere from 12 to almost 14 hours, depending on prevailing winds and weather patterns. If we go anywhere in western Europe, the flight time is about 12 hours. Our trips to the UAE, were about 11 hours. Mumbai, also, 9 to 10 hours. This last trip to Romania, in eastern Europe, was not a direct flight, and we had a 4-hour layover in Moscow. That made the total travel day from our apartment in Tokyo to the hotel in Bucharest, something over 25 hours. That was a long day!

Unless you are willing (and able) to pay thousands of extra dollars for business class or first class, you end up spending all those hours sitting upright in a cramped and uncomfortable airplane seat. Our company in Atlanta allows us to book comfort plus seats — economy with a few extra inches of leg room — but even that isn’t the policy for our company here. So, those long hours sitting crunched up trying to eat, sleep and get comfortable can get really tedious.

Don’t misunderstand… I will never complain about the opportunities I have to travel, even if it isn’t always very comfortable. Maybe this should be more of a complaint to the airlines for packing people in like sardines in a can. Anyway… no matter. I will still enjoy the travel even if I don’t actually enjoy the flights.

One nice perk, though, that we have come to really appreciate in our travels is Sky Priority and Sky Club privileges at the airport. The shorter lines through check-in (and at some airports, security), and at boarding are nice. They also tag our bags with a big yellow Sky Priority tag so that it (supposedly) gets unloaded first. Sometimes, coming back to Narita after a trip, we are off the airplane, through immigration (shorter lines for residents), and our bags are already off the carousel waiting for us, so that we can be on our way to the train within 15 minutes. Nice!

The Sky Club is a nice place to hang out before or between flights… they have food, drinks, comfy seating, clean restrooms, and plenty of plug-ins to charge our electronics. Much more pleasant than the usual crowded gate areas with expensive food, and sometimes no available seating.

But, we only accrue Skymiles on certain airlines, and those airlines don’t always go where we need to go. Also, if you don’t fly enough miles on their airlines in a calendar year, you lose your status and don’t get the privileges for the next year. We try to fly Sky Team airlines as much as possible, but sometimes we just can’t. I am REALLY going to miss Sky Priority perks when we are back in Atlanta and not flying so much.

This job assignment in Japan has been an amazing opportunity in so many ways. We have learned a lot about not just Japan and the culture here, but also about many countries we never thought we would ever have a chance to visit. With a bit less than a year and a half before we go back home, I am looking forward to traveling to even more places.

And here — some photos from our trip to Romania.

Learning (slowly) about Japan

It’s the “he” part of the blog team (but the “she” part of the team contributed with ideas and discussion). As I write this, we are approaching the two year, nine month point as residents of Japan.

Looking back, I’ve learned a lot about Japan. My wife and I have had a great opportunity to be immersed in this amazing society. We’ve traveled around the country, we’ve seen many things, and we have interacted with people. More than tourists, we can legitimately call ourselves residents. We’ve even learned some of the language, and more importantly, how to communicate without speaking fluently.

But the more I learn about Japan, the more I realize that I have just touched the surface. There is a subtle (sometimes not so subtle) undercurrent of difference about this culture that is hard, as a Westerner, to describe. Of course, the language is part of it. It is possible to translate some of the words between Japanese and English. But the meaning often gets lost in translation. Some things, we’ve found, just don’t translate and it’s hard to get a shared understanding.

And it goes deeper than language. There is a difference in the thought process that is palpable. I’m sure there must be social science studies of this, or if not, it would be a fascinating study. As a layman, I can only try to describe my observations as best I can.

Perhaps it’s best described as cultural disconnects. I see the Japanese, by and large, as a pleasant people who find ways to enjoy their lives. They have a deep sense of honor and respect for one another. They can at one time be seen engaged and interacting with their friends and families, and at the same time isolating themselves in a sea of humanity.

The more I try to describe the differences I see, the harder I find it to do so. In so many ways, I have been accepted as an adopted resident of this country. And in so many other ways, I know that no matter how long I’m here, I’ll never be fully integrated into this culture.

To begin with, I look…well, like a tourist, and that’s not something I can change. Japan was a closed society for many centuries, and even with more and more Westerners coming to Japan, we still stand out as being different. Compare that with the US, which despite what some would want you to believe, is a country of immigrants. That is what the United States of America was founded upon. There are many Asian-Americans, and it’s not uncommon to see people of different ethnic backgrounds all being citizens of the US. That is a basic difference from Japan.

In the time I’ve been in Japan, I’ve found the people accepting, and a bit curious, about my background. My experiences and perspectives are very different from theirs. And, I’ve found my Japanese colleagues want to understand as well as share from their viewpoint.

I’ve learned that there are many, many differences in the culture here, more than I could ever have anticipated. And I learn something new, literally every day.  Perhaps that is why it is so intriguing to be an adopted resident of Japan.