An unexpected turn

After four years and two months in Japan, the end of my assignment is quickly approaching. With a scheduled return to the US at the end of May, our plan was to do as much as possible these last few months. See places we haven’t yet had time to go, like Osaka. Return to places we visited but didn’t have enough time to enjoy, like Nikko. Enjoy the Sakura blossoms, and Hanami – flower viewing. Maybe even do some trips to other places in Asia, like Shanghai, Singapore, or Viet Nam.

Then, the world turned upside down — the Coronavirus pandemic.

In late January, we started hearing of this virus in China, and it sounded ominous. My company works with Chinese companies, and soon our travel was cancelled, and our plans for work were put on hold. Things seemed concerning…but we didn’t realize what would come.

The spread of the virus next really hit Korea. Again, we work with companies there, and they have employees that work in Tokyo. We started to see what a devastating impact the virus could have…and the impact on our company was growing greater.

Japan started seeing the virus, and was impacted most dramatically by the Diamond Princess cruise ship, that happened to be in Yokohama when an outbreak of the virus occurred on the ship. That brought home the potential of this as a real health threat.

By the end of February, Japan’s government took harsh actions. Schools were closed, companies were encouraged to have people work at home, many museums, amusement parks and tourist attractions were closed. It seemed drastic. But maybe not.

As the virus spread in Europe, and now in America, we’ve watched in concern and disbelief. In Japan, the virus seems – at least for now – to have plateaued. There are about 40 or fewer new cases per day…a small number, in a country so densely populated. We can only hope that the containment will continue.

For us, as expats, it was a shock to wake up on Saturday and find that the US had issued a Level 4 travel warning – which included a recommendation for US citizens living outside the country to return immediately, or be prepared to stay away for “an indefinite period.” How do we react to this? It’s pretty difficult to pack up everything, even in our small apartment, and be ready to leave immediately. And, is it really the best thing to get on a plane for 13 hours, and spend hours in an immigration line, to go into an escalating pandemic outbreak in the US?

There were no right or easy answers. After consultation with my company, we made decision to stay the course. We will plan to stay in Japan, and return at the end of May, as planned. Hopefully, that will prove to be the right decision…only time will tell.

All in all, this isn’t the way we had planned to spend our last few months in Japan. Of course, our inconvenience is minor compared to the real suffering some are having to deal with. Still, it is disappointing that we will potentially end our time here in this way.

Someone asked us, will “Four years in Japan” turn into “Five years in Japan?” Well, probably not. Although we love living here, our time is nearly done. Whether we can return as scheduled or not depends on the progression of the virus in the US. We hope that things will get under control, and life will start to return to normal. Although we love Japan, and could live here forever, it is time to leave. We will see how things progress… one day at a time.

Tokyo Tower

The End is Near….

Everyone is familiar with the caricature…usually a bedraggled old guy, long beard, tattered clothes, holding a sign proclaiming, “the end is near.”

Lately, we’ve been feeling like that old guy. My assignment in Japan will end at the end of May… less than three months away. Plans are for my job to continue including work with Japan, but our time living here is…sadly…winding down. Although we look forward to returning back to the US in some ways, the realization that our time here coming to an end is discouraging.

We’ve also been discouraged about the political situation back home. Of course, our view from 6,000 miles away may be a bit skewed, as we look to Twitter and Facebook for most of our news. Still, the news is discouraging, and the idea of coming back to an acrimonious election campaign is not something we look forward to.

And now, our last days in Tokyo are being tainted by the threat of coronavirus. We watched as the virus first appeared in Wuhan, China. It has continued to spread, and Japan has become increasingly affected… as has the rest of the world. My company has cancelled or postponed international travel (my latest trip to UK was cancelled), and many other meetings and missions have been deferred. The Japanese government has taken Draconian measures in an effort to prevent spread of the virus. Schools are closed for the month of March, most museums and other attractions are closed, and workers are being encouraged to work from home. Locally, we see shortages of face masks, hand sanitizer, and even toilet paper (haven’t quite figured out that one yet).

So, frankly, we’ve been struggling a bit lately to stay positive and try to look forward to the coming months. It will, in many ways, be good to be “home.” But yet… we’ve been in Japan now for over four years, and Tokyo has become our home. We love our adopted city/country. Still, we look forward to going back to our house…our kitties…being closer to our family…and being in a place where we actually do speak and understand the language with some proficiency.

As the days continue to go by with alarming rapidity, we hope to make the most of each minute we have left in this wonderful place. We’ve been given a great gift to experience a different culture for this long. It truly has been the opportunity of a lifetime.

A Good Night for Sushi and Sake.

Today was a cold and rainy/snowy day in Tokyo. It snowed most of the day, but with the temperature hovering in the upper 30’s, there was no accumulation and no icing. It was just a gray, dreary day — which is really unfortunate for a Saturday. We look forward to our weekends of wandering around Tokyo, and today was just not a good day for that. So… we hung around the apartment for awhile, went out to run a couple of quick errands and have hot soba noodles for lunch… then back to the apartment for the afternoon.

This evening we decided to go out to our favorite sushi restaurant here in Tokyo. We grabbed our umbrellas, and walked the mile to “Nihonkai” — “Japan Sea”

日本海

Four years ago on our very first night in Tokyo, this was the restaurant we went to. And it is still our favorite sushi restaurant here. Nothing fancy… just a neighborhood “sushi-go-round” (conveyor belt sushi restaurant). The sushi chefs are in the center and they prepare the plates of sushi and place them on a moving conveyor. When you see something you like, you just take it off the conveyor. But… they also take orders, and will prepare whatever plate you want. “Sumimasen! Maguro onegaishimasu!”

Four years ago, we couldn’t speak any Japanese… we couldn’t read the menu… didn’t know the names of the fish on the menu. They brought us the one copy of the English menu, and we ordered from that… mostly pointing at pictures.

But they were nice to us… they were helpful… and over time, we learned so much from them. We ask questions in our simple Japanese, and they teach us the names of the menu items. We have found our favorites, and now we can order them in Japanese. Maguro (tuna), tobiko (flying fish roe), kani sarada (crab salad), to-ika (squid with shiso leaf), nattou-to-okura (nattou with okra)… We can read some of the Japanese from the menu — but they still usually bring us the English menu. (We really prefer to use the regular Japanese menu.) When we have a question, the waitstaff is always willing to help us… “Sore wa nan desu ka? “What is that?” And they teach us.

We have been there often enough now that they recognize us… they greet us warmly, and make us feel welcome. We see other regular customers there, and greet them. It is a friendly and comfortable place to spend an evening. We have our favorite sake that we order from the menu (Yes… just like wine, there are many, many different kinds of sake… all with different tastes, characteristics, and prices). They bring us chilled sake glasses in sake boxes. Fill the glasses to overflow into the boxes until the boxes also are full. If you prefer hot sake, that is also available. (Very nice in the winter time!)

As our time for living in Japan moves far too quickly to an end (only about four months before we have to move back to the US), it’s little things like this sushi restaurant that I know we will miss most. It’s not just the sushi — I know we could get good sushi at any number of places here. It’s the way this place makes us feel — welcome, and comfortable. Like we belong.

4th Anniversary in Japan…and the clock is ticking

January 10, 2020, marks the 4th anniversary of our arrival in Japan. As the “he” part of the blog team, it was my job assignment that brought us here. The plan was to spend two years helping my company’s Tokyo office plan and conduct a major international meeting.

The two years went by quickly, and the meeting was conducted successfully. But in the process, my Tokyo comrades and I found that we were a good match. My job responsibilities expanded, and my company agreed to a one-year extension of my term…and then, another extension.

But, as the cliche says, all good things must end. After four amazing years in Japan, my assignment will conclude at the end of May. And we are anticipating the conclusion of this period of our lives with a profound sense of sadness.

Of course, there are things about returning to our former life in the US that we look forward to. Being closer to our family. Reuniting with pets. Moving back to a house we love, and restarting many of the activities we enjoyed before moving here.

We’re also fortunate that my company will allow me to continue working with my international colleagues. There will be trips back to Japan, and to other places around the world as part of my job responsibilities.

The sadness comes in knowing we may never again be full-time residents of Japan. This wonderful country has truly seemed like home the past four years, despite the fact that we come from a very different culture, and struggle greatly to speak the language. We will miss the kindness and caring of the people, the cleanliness and safety of the society, and so many little things that make this culture so unique.

As the time ebbs away, we are doing our best to experience all we can during our last few months. Long walks through Tokyo…snow festival in Sapporo…trips back to Mt. Mitake, Enoshima, and Mt. Takao. And, hopefully, some other trips to places we still want to see — Osaka, and perhaps Okinawa.

When we signed up for what was to be a two-year assignment in Japan, we looked forward to it and expected we would enjoy the experience. What we never anticipated was how deeply we would come to love this amazing country. Soon, we will have to say goodbye. But I know we will come back again.

“Thanksgiving” in Japan.

It is Thanksgiving week back in the US, but here in Japan, it is just another work week.

In the United States, Thanksgiving is considered to be the start of the holiday season… that holiday where we traditionally celebrate the bounty of the fall harvest, and express gratitude for all that we have. In our modern times, it has somewhat morphed into a food fest/football fest/chance-to-gather-together-with-friends-and-family time. And in general, a holiday to cook and eat (and eat, and eat, and eat…) and overindulge in the things we enjoy. (Black Friday shopping anyone?)

Until this morning, I hadn’t really given this Thanksgiving much thought. After all, this is our fourth Thanksgiving living in Japan, and we are used to not having our usual Thanksgiving celebration. But today, we woke to cloudy gray weather, and cold damp wind… I made a pot of chai spice tea, and suddenly our small apartment was filled with the fragrance of fall, and… of Thanksgiving! Suddenly I was thinking of pumpkin pie, and roasting turkey, and mashed potatoes and gravy.

Sadly… we have no oven in which to cook that turkey.

Over the past four years, I have gotten used to cooking without an oven. Japanese food is wonderful, and we have enjoyed learning about the different ingredients and cooking methods employed here. We love all the fish and fruits and vegetables that we get at our local market, and we eat our — slightly Americanized — version of the Japanese cuisine.

We actually can get turkey here. My supermarket starts stocking frozen turkeys in October. Other traditional Thanksgiving ingredients — cranberries, canned pumpkin, orange sweet potatoes (our sweet potatoes here are purple on the outside and yellow on the inside… still delicious, but different), etc. are a bit harder to come by, and most certainly much more expensive here. I am fairly certain that the supermarkets in the expat areas of Tokyo probably stock many of the things that would be needed for a “traditional” Thanksgiving dinner, but that involves at the very least a long walk, or a train/bus ride carrying heavy bags of groceries.

Once back at my apartment, I would have little space to store the supplies I have purchased, and then really no way to cook many of the traditional Thanksgiving dishes. And… speaking of “dishes”… We lead a somewhat spartan life here in Tokyo. Small apartment = small storage spaces = not much room to bring many dishes and small appliances from home. Our rental package gave us tableware — plates, cups, glasses, silverware — enough for four place settings. I have almost no serving pieces, and no tablecloths, napkins, etc. to set the “Thanksgiving table.”

I haven’t really missed all of that in these past four years. We have managed quite nicely, mostly because the holiday doesn’t exist here. My husband goes to work on that Thursday morning just like any other work day. There is no Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade on the TV, no family gathering for dinner, and no football games or holiday movies to watch after dinner.

There are restaurants that offer an “American Thanksgiving” dinner… mostly in the expat areas of town… and there are other restaurants that will cook and package a dinner for you for carry-out to enjoy at home (usually very $$$$.) But for just the two of us, it just isn’t quite the same, and is not really worth the effort or expense. (Thanksgiving sushi, anyone?)

We DO miss gathering together with our family. This week three of our four children will be together on Thanksgiving. The rest of us will be scattered around the globe. We will all be in each other’s thoughts — if not gathered together around the same table — and that will have to suffice. And… there also might be a group video chat at some point (Ah… the wonders of technology! Lol!)

This international life has created so many wonderful opportunities and experiences for us. I don’t regret in any way our decision to come here! And it has also presented us with many difficulties and challenges. But despite the hard parts… we still don’t feel “ready” for this experience to end — and we still have half a year left! I know we will be sad to leave our home here in Tokyo, Japan.

We have so enjoyed our time here in Tokyo. But after our time here IS done, we will also look forward to reconnecting with all the things we have missed while we have been here.

Happy Thanksgiving to you all.

Back to Back JET LAG!

We have been suffering from an extended bout of jet lag. In the past (almost) four years that we have been living abroad in Japan, we have done a fair amount of travel. And… if you consider geography, and the location of Japan, a lot of the travel we have done (for meetings etc.) has been at least 8 to 13 hours time difference from our home in Tokyo. That… translates into many days… weeks… suffering from “jet lag.”

Though we are nearly back to “normal” now after a few days home from our latest flight, it has been a pretty tough time. This “episode” of jet lag actually started for us over a month ago with a 10-day trip to London. My husband had a business meeting there, and we flew from Tokyo, via a connection in Shanghai. There is an 8-hour time difference between Tokyo and London. We slowly acclimated to the change, and by the time we left 10 days later, we were feeling pretty good again. Then after a week of more jet lag after our return flight to Tokyo, we left again for another meeting in Atlanta — and a brief visit “home” for a week. There is a time difference of 14 hours between Tokyo and Atlanta. After that, we returned to Tokyo — another almost 14 hour flight, and 14 hour time difference.

For us (and if you Google it, for many people) the worst jet lag results from traveling west to east. I know there is actually a scientific explanation of this, but it is very complicated. All I know, is that it takes longer to recover, and I feel much worse after a west to east flight, than an east to west flight. After our flight to ATL last week, our one week stay there was not nearly enough time to fully recover before our east to west return flight to Tokyo. The weirdest thing about our flights back to Atlanta, is that (because the time difference is about the same as the flight time) we end up arriving back in Atlanta at about the same time (in ATL) as we left Tokyo. It is an odd little bit of “time travel” for us… lol.

We normally travel in premium economy, which is a step up from regular economy with more leg room, but not like business class where you can fully stretch out for sleep. We have on rare occasions been in business class. Regardless of which class, however, I find it difficult to sleep much — or very effectively — on an airplane. And… though sleeping on the airplane can help with jet lag symptoms (at least the tiredness), it does not prevent jet lag. Once we get to our destination, we still experience days of jet lag.

Of course jet lag affects your sleep patterns — and especially for our 13 or 14 hour time difference when our days and nights are completely reversed. ***[During daylight savings time the time difference is only 13 hours.] But jet lag affects so much more! Almost all body functions are tied in some degree to that internal circadian clock, so when that body clock is totally flipped, everything is disrupted. It affects sleep, appetite, digestion… everything. And it takes days to get everything back to normal again. Most sources say to expect one day of recovery time for every time zone crossed. So… it is not at all surprising that after this last bit of travel, our bodies were completely mixed up. We didn’t have enough time to recover from one trip before we traveled again… and again… and again.

There seem to be many suggestions online about how to minimize jet lag, or recover faster, but nothing seems to work consistently. Some suggest that gradually adjusting your time schedule BEFORE a trip is the way to fix the problem, but doing that is in itself disruptive to our lives before we travel. We simply can’t change our daily schedule to accommodate our future travel… to the degree that would be necessary to flip our days and nights. Just not practical.

So… we deal with it. We deal with the sleepless nights and the sleepy days… the appetite changes, and the wonky digestion. It all works itself out eventually, and we get back to feeling better. These things are just one *minor* downside of travel, and I am willing to put up with them for the opportunity to see and do new things.

Now, I realize this blog post isn’t finished. But it’s 4 o’clock in the afternoon, and the jet lag is kicking innnn… againnn… zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

Halloween in Tokyo

We have always loved Halloween. When our children were small, it was one of our favorite family activities. We would make costumes and carve pumpkins… decorate, and buy candy to give out to the trick-or-treaters. A big pot of chili for dinner, and one of us would take the kids out into the neighborhood to gather candy. Such a fun evening!

But, in Tokyo…

Goblins, vampires, the Scream guy, maids, faux police…the streets were filled with them in Tokyo’s Shibuya district tonight. It’s Halloween!

Although we’ve lived in Tokyo nearly four years, each previous year we were out of the country on Halloween. So, this evening, we made it a point to take the train to Shibuya, one of our favorite areas of Tokyo.

Most any time, Shibuya is a busy, energetic place. Lots of restaurants, bars, shops, and a clientele that is a bit less conservative than a lot of places in town. We had a feeling that Halloween would be little wild…and we weren’t disappointed.

Immediately after stepping off the Yamanote line train at Shibuya Station, we found the crowds. Station workers helpfully directed foot traffic, down the steps and out of the station. Then, we were engulfed in a sea of humanity (well, yeah, just a lot of humans). Shibuya Crossing most times is a crazy, crowded place. This evening, it was a shoulder to shoulder, absolutely packed pandemonium.

Of course, we were prepared for huge crowds, and to get a bit jostled. People aren’t trying to be rude and obnoxious, but with so many people in such a small area, there is a certain amount of pushing, pulling, and shoving. Best just to go with the flow, and not take it personally.

The intense crowd lasted several blocks. The sights, sounds and feeling of being in this flow of people is an amazing experience. Maybe not something I’d want to do every day…but definitely worth spending a Halloween evening.

One thing you do notice in any big event in Tokyo is the police presence. In addition to the faux police (seems police woman and SWAT costumes are popular here), there were a LOT of real police. They aren’t overbearing, or unkind, but they give you that “Welcome-to-Shibuya-we’re-glad-you’re-here-but-don’t-even-think-of-causing-us-any-trouble” look. Guess it works – considering the size of the crowd, everyone was well-behaved, and it was just a lot of fun.

Of course, we left pretty early – around 8:30 p.m. I suspect the party really gets started a bit later, for those who want to have a wild time. For us, it was just a nice evening… and we can add Halloween in Tokyo as another amazing experience we’ve had in Japan.