Buying theater tickets

We recently found a theater in Tokyo that has a long-running production of Cats, one of our favorite shows. So, in celebration of our 40th anniversary, I set out to buy two tickets for the theater.

How to buy tickets? Go to the website for the theater, of course. Sure enough, type “Cats Play in Tokyo” into a browser, and the first item in the search list is “CATS|SHIKI THEATER COMPANY.” Ok, we’re in business.

Clicking on to the website, I find a lot of information about Cats, much of it in English. Scroll down a bit, and here’s a handy tab – “Performance Schedule.” Click, and I’m on a calendar page…mostly in Japanese. I can read enough to tell how to select a month, so I go to July 7, our desired date. Click, and I find a nice theater map showing available seats. Again in Japanese, but not too hard to figure out.

Now it is getting trickier. I click on the seats we want, no problem. But going on to make the purchase is getting complicated. Everything is in Japanese, with a lot of Kanji, making it impossible for me to read. Click on the “Translate” button…but nothing doing. Still all in Japanese.

So, pull out the Google translate app on the iPhone. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. In this case, it works well enough to get me to the purchase screen. Enter the name, address, credit card information. With Google Translate’s help, seems to be working. There are a couple of extra pink boxes in the name field, but that probably isn’t important, right?

Wrong. Click on “Submit,” and there is an error message. You guessed it – I need to fill in the pink boxes. After a little thought, I found a dropdown menu, and got Google’s help to translate — “enter name in full-width Katakana.” Katakana is one of the three character systems used in Japanese, the one used mostly for foreign words imported into the language (like English names). I know how to write my name in Katakana… but my computer doesn’t. It doesn’t have a Japanese keyboard installed.

So at this point, I’m not really sure if the purchase was done or not. But since I didn’t receive a confirmation in email…doesn’t appear that I have any tickets.

Fast-forward to the next day, and I search the website for a phone number to call for help. Sure enough, there is a handy number for the theater. Dial it up, and a friendly voice answers…in Japanese, of course.

“Eigo ga, hanasemasu ka?”–Do you speak English, I ask, hoping I don’t have to try to discuss this in my very limited Japanese. “Oh – shou-shou omachi, kudasai,” is the reply — please wait a minute. After a short wait, another friendly voice comes on the line — this time, speaking very good English.

A few minutes later, the nice lady secured my seats, and kindly explained how I can go to the theater to pick them up (cash only please – a common requirement in Japan).

So come July 7, we will be seeing Cats in Japan (in Japanese?) Like many things here, it sometime takes a little extra effort to get the result you want when you don’t speak the language very well. But invariably, there is someone who is always friendly, and willing to help.

Onigiri

This may seem like a silly blog topic, but we will talk about a very popular — and tasty — Japanese snack food: onigiri. I thought about this today as I was eating my onigiri lunch. When we came here 3 years ago, one of the first “snack” foods we discovered was the simple rice ball. Rice, of course, is a staple food here in Japan, and the most popular type is “sticky rice.” It is a short grain rice, with a lot of starch on the outside, and, because of all that extra starch, it tends to stick together in clumps. this is actually good when you are eating with chopsticks, because the clumps of rice are much easier to pick up with chopsticks than the separate long grain rice that is more common in the US.

Also, that stickiness makes it easy to form it into balls that can easily be packed and carried in a lunch box, or backpack or purse. These wonderful balls of rice are often filled with various things like cooked meats or fish, or sweetened red bean paste, fish roe, or natto (future blog post?)

There are many forms of these rice balls… some are toasted, but most commonly they are wrapped in sheets of dried nori (seaweed). The dried seaweed, along with being tasty, is helpful to keep the “sticky” rice from sticking to fingers while you eat the rice ball. But… because the moisture in the rice would make the dried nori sheets damp and messy in themselves, additional wrapping is required. The Japanese — being incredibly inventive people, have come up with an ingenious wrapping method for onigiri.

This is an onigiri “rice ball”. They are available in all the grocery stores and convenience stores for about 100 yen (less than a dollar). I bought this one from a local Lawson conbini (convenience store). I have sampled the onigiri from many stores in the past three years, and this is my favorite. Lol… Lawson’s has a nice “rice to filling” ratio, and is my preferred source. Note that this rice ball is basically triangular in shape. Not all are triangular, but most are.

This one actually has the English for what the filling is… some stores do, and some stores don’t. No matter… we can read the Japanese. But… this one also has a different Japanese name than most! Reading down, top to bottom, left to right: マヨネーズ = mayonaise (ma-yo-ne–zu) is pretty straight forward. Tuna, in katakana is usually: ツナ (tsu-na). But in this case they spelled it: shi — チキン. (Sorry… Google Translate won’t show the first character in katakana, and I don’t have a Japanese keyboard.) I think, that what they were going for was “sea — chicken”. You, know… as in “Chicken of the Sea”… lol. Anyway… my favorite filling for onigiri is tuna and mayo.

Also, notice the numbers on each corner of the triangle… 1 — 2 — 3. These are very important in knowing how to open the onigiri properly. There is an extra layer of cellophane between the nori seaweed,and the rice ball — thus keeping the nori dry and crisp until you want to eat the onigiri. I have to admit that the first time we ate onigiri here, we unwrapped it wrong, and made a total mess of it… even though there is a label on the bottom with pictures showing how to unwrap it properly. So… here is how to unwrap an onigiri rice ball properly:

First step is to pull tab “1” down and all the way around the onigiri, completely removing it.

Then pull the flap next to the number “2” straight out to the right. This removes the cellophane between the rice and the nori.

Repeat on the other side with flap number “3”… and you are left with a rice ball wrapped in nice, crisp nori.

Eat the onigiri by holding it with the nori. Tasty filling inside, chewy rice, and crispy nori on the outside! Yum. Oishii desu!

Feeling at home in Japan

Three years ago, when we first moved to Japan, it seemed that everything was strange and different. Everywhere we looked, there were new things, different customs, unfamiliar practices. We thought of endless lists of blogposts… but…

After living in Japan three years, we feel like we are really just at the surface of understanding this unique and wonderful country. But some of the things that once seemed strange and unusual now appear to be common place. Now it is sometimes hard to think of things to blog about. Here are some examples:

  • Using cash. In the US, we seldom carried cash. Everything was charged to a credit card. In Japan, cash is the standard. Some of the bigger stores accept credit cards. But a lot of shops, and even larger hotels, only take cash. So here, we carry cash. The ATM is our new best friend.
  • Japanese credit card? For a lot of reasons (taxes, ease of exchanging funds, etc.) it is advantageous to have a Japanese credit card. But Japanese banks don’t seem to talk to US banks, so there isn’t a seamless transfer of money. And getting a Japanese credit card is tough. We have excellent credit in the US, which meant exactly nothing in Japan. Don’t even apply for a Japanese credit card until after you are in Japan at least six months. Only then, after several rejections, were we able to get a JAL visa card. Ours is set up to withdraw the current balance each month from our bank account. It may be possible to monitor all this through the credit card website…but it is all in Japanese, so understanding is difficult.
  • Eigo ga, wakarimasu ka? 英語 が わかり ます か At first, we assumed many Japanese people could easily speak fluent English. Soon we realized that is not the case. Although many Japanese study English in school, many do not have an opportunity to speak the language and are not conversant. Often if you ask a Japanese person if they speak English, the reply will be “no.” Even if they understand a bit of English, unless they are comfortable with the language, they are reluctant to speak it. We have found that our minimal ability to speak Japanese is appreciated, and our bit of Japanese can combine with their bit of English to make communication possible.
  • The perfect sakura blossom. The Japanese people have a great appreciation of natural beauty. Whether it is a search for the perfect sakura blossoms in spring, the careful arrangement of flowers (ikebana), or the quiet solitude of a Buddhist temple or Shinto shrine, the people here appreciate and respect natural beauty. (Yes!)
  • May I have a doggie bag? In the US, we’ve found that portion sizes at most restaurants are so large, we often take part of our food home. In Japan, portions are more realistically sized. Seldom is there more food than desired for a single meal. Most restaurants do not allow you to take out excess food. It’s just not part of the culture.
  • Is this train full? We’ve found that in Tokyo, there is never a full train. It’s just a matter of pushing more people on board. Not a problem most times, but at rush hours, you get to know your fellow passengers better than you ever care to. The Japanese, for the most part, seem to handle this collapse of personal space in stride. It may not always be pleasant, but it is handled. And some rush hour trains have special cars for women only, to help ease the crush of humanity.
  • Safety and security. One of the remarkable things about Tokyo is the safety of the city. We’ve walked all over Tokyo, and never felt at all uncomfortable or unsafe. Of course, there is crime. But it is infrequent. Soon, we forget about the constant awareness of surroundings that we have to maintain in the US and most other countries. Perhaps we should be more concerned in Japan, but the feeling of personal safety is comforting.
  • Kindness. We don’t speak the language well, and we obviously stand out as different from the Asian population. But in the time we’ve been here, we’ve only experienced kindness and patience from the Japanese we’ve interacted with. We continue to appreciate the warm and gracious welcome we receive.

These are just a few of the things we’ve observed in our brief three years in Japan. As more comparisons and contrasts become apparent, we will include them in future blog posts.

Africa — Part 1 — Livingstone, Zambia

As we have said before, this job assignment in Tokyo came with some travel opportunities. And… as the spouse on this assignment, I sometimes get to accompany my husband on these trips. The latest trip — last week — was to Africa. I will do this post in two parts, because his meetings were in two countries: Livingstone, Zambia, and Cape Town, South Africa. This post will be about our time in Zambia.

First of all… Zambia is in a malaria area, so some preparation is required. We visited a travel clinic in Minato-ku, Tokyo, and they were very helpful, giving us anti-malaria tablets to take while we were in Zambia (and one week after) and providing us with insect repellent, and a very ingenious mesh mosquito jacket to wear when we were out in the bush.

We left Tokyo on Singapore Airlines to fly to Singapore, and then on to Johannesburg, South Africa. At Johannesburg, we took a flight on South African Airways to take us back north to Livingstone, Zambia.

On arrival, I guess we were somewhat surprised by the size of Livingstone. They have an international airport there, but with only one gate, and only have a half dozen flights out of this airport each day. It is a nice airport, but very small.

At Livingstone, we met our driver, and he took us to our hotel — the Protea. We had nice accommodations… the hotel had an open air lobby and restaurant/bar, and our room was supplied with mosquito repellent. Malaria is a real risk here. You ALWAYS begin your day with sunscreen and mosquito repellent.

While my husband was in business meetings, I met with the other spouses, and we sampled Livingstone… we wandered through the markets, and the downtown area. Livingstone is not a big city — the city named for Dr. David Livingstone (I presume!) — the missionary from the London Missionary Society. The population is less than 150,000, and the entire city has only ONE traffic light.

It was an amazing place… raw, and wild. It was interesting to see the people, and the way that they lived, though it is somewhat disturbing to me to see tin shacks, and dirt-floor homes, while others are staying and living in modern homes and hotels within gated walls and razor wire. The people I met in the market where wonderfully kind, and friendly… just trying to sell their items, and make a living for their families.

On the weekend we had opportunities to tour some of the local sites: most notably Victoria Falls, the Zambezi River, and the game parks around Livingstone. So much to see, and such a beautiful and unspoiled place!

The waterfall near Livingstone on the Zambezi River, called Mosi-oa-Tunya (The Smoke That Thunders) in the Lozi language, was renamed Victoria Falls by Dr. David Livingstone in honor of Queen Victoria. Dr. Livingstone, the Scottish missionary and explorer, is believed to be the first European to view the falls in 1855. There is a statue of him in the park near the falls.

Victoria Falls is considered to be the largest waterfall in the world, although it is not as wide as Niagara/Horseshoe Falls on the US/Canada border, and not as tall as Angel Falls in Venezuela. Combining both width and height, Victoria Falls becomes the largest sheet of falling water in the world.

It is actually difficult to understand the size of this waterfall from the ground. Visibility is sometimes poor due to the amount of mist surrounding the falls. If you go, be sure and take a raincoat! We walked along the Zambian side of the falls and got spectacular views. The Zambezi River forms the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe.

As we flew out of Livingstone headed for the next meeting in Cape Town, the pilot banked and circled around the falls so that everyone on the plane could get a good aerial view of the Zambezi and Victoria Falls. Incredible.

Also while in Livingstone, we visited Mukuni Big 5 Cheetah Farm and got to pet (and walk on a leash!) two rescued cheetahs. Beautiful animals!

We went on a “Game Drive” through the Mosi National Park…

And spent a day fishing for Tiger Fish on the Zambezi River.

You can probably guess why they are called Tiger Fish… This one seemed to be missing a few of his teeth, though.

There were many hippos in the shallows, and we steered clear of them. Hippos kill more people in Africa than any other animal. They can easily capsize a fishing boat.
And we saw several large crocodiles. This one sunning himself on the Zimbabwe bank of the river, looked to be about 8 to 10 feet long. As we passed by, he slipped back into the water.
This large herd of elephants came out on the Zimbabwe bank while we were taking our lunch break. They splashed around in the water, and soon wandered back into the trees.
The Zambezi River is a wide river with many islands. The current in places is strong and fast, and the bottom is rocky. We saw rapids and whirlpools… but parts of the river were beautifully calm.

All in all, it was an experience of a lifetime. Beautiful scenery, friendly people, amazing wildlife, and interesting cultures. Despite the long 24+ hour travel days to and from Tokyo, it was well worth the visit, and we hope to return someday.

Day trip to Shirakawa-go

This weekend, we did a day-trip to Shirakawa-go, a quaint and historic little town in the Japanese mountains. Well, it was a day trip from Kanazawa, Japan, where I had been attending a meeting. It’s probably a 2-day trip from Tokyo, unless you want to have some really early and really late Shinkansen reservations.

Thatch roof house in Shirakawa-go

Shirakawa-go is a small village designated as UNESCO world heritage site. The houses are historic wood structures with steeply pitched thatch roofs. It’s typically a picturesque winter scene in the December to March months. We visited on a bright, sunny day when much of the snow was beginning to melt.

Our trip began with purchase of highway bus tickets in Kanazawa. With our limited (but growing) Japanese language skill, we were able to ask for tickets on Saturday morning around 9:30. The nice lady at the window spoke some English, and quickly let us know that the 9:41 bus was full, but the 9:10 was available. We selected a 15:55 return bus, and our trip was set. Cost for two people for a round trip was 6500 JPY = about $65 US. It is possible to arrange guided bus tours, which provide a guide and structured visit. Costs are about 5900 JPY per person. We are pretty comfortable on our own, and like the flexibility of managing our own time.

Highway bus ticket to Shirakawa-go

The bus trip to Shirakawa-go takes a little over an hour from kanazawa. Travel by highway bus in Japan is great. Price is reasonable, the staff and bus drivers are friendly, the coaches are spotless and they are almost always on schedule. For places where there may not be train service the highway bus is a great option.

Highway bus at the Shirakawa-go bus station

As we approached Shirakawa-go, it was obvious we were climbing rapidly into the mountains. There are many long tunnels, between which we could see the landscape was changing to tall mountains covered with snow. It has been a warmer year than usual in this part of Japan, but there was still snow to be seen.

Arriving at the Shirakawa-go bus station, it is easy to find an English-language map of village. The village is easily walkable. The day of our visit, the streets were clear of snow. Perhaps it may be a more challenging walk around the village with a foot of snow on the ground.

We had a leisurely walk through the village, and enjoyed looking at the thatch-roof houses still covered with snow. There are also temples and shrines in the village that are open for viewing. If you are into “touristy” nick-knacks and souvenirs, the shops are plentiful. Some of the offerings are beautiful – and expensive – local crafts.  

There are also restaurants and coffee shops. We found a little coffee shop with traditional tatami mat seating. A wonderfully relaxing place to enjoy a delicious cup of coffee.

We were fortunate to be able to see the village from a scenic overlook high above the village. It isn’t accessible when there is heavy snow. The village offers a free shuttle to the top. We opted for the short, but steep, walk up.

Our visit was a good one. It’s an interesting village, and provides a glimpse into this region of Japan long ago. Shirakawa-go is well worth taking a day trip from Kanazawa, or a 2-day trip from Tokyo.

Holiday Traditions in Japan

In the US — and also in most western countries — we have just finished with the Christmas holiday… arguably the most important “family” holiday we have in the US, with so many traditions attached: the decorating, trees, lights, music, food (lots and lots of food!), sending Christmas cards, and giving Christmas presents. It is the holiday that everyone anticipates all year long.

Oshogatsu

But here in Japan — though they do have an appreciation for the fun aspects of Christmas — Christmas is more along the lines of Halloween or the Easter Bunny. The main “family” holiday here is New Year’s (Oshogatsu), which is celebrated from New Year’s Eve, and through the official national holiday days January 1st through the 3rd. Families travel to gather together for the holiday, and they have many important traditions that they observe during this special time of year:

Decorating. Since Christmas Day (which was just another work day here — no national holiday), New Year’s decorations have been going up everywhere, outside homes and businesses. Traditional decorations — kadomatsu — include bamboo, pine boughs, and ume (plum tree) sprigs, to represent prosperity, longevity, and steadfastness. They function to honor and receive the Toshigami deity, who brings blessings and prosperity for the new year. 2019 is the Year of the Boar according to the Chinese zodiac, so many of the signs and decorations also include images of a pig or boar.

Traditional foods. Soba (a soup broth with buckwheat noodles and toppings) is often eaten at New Year’s, as well as Osechi-ryori (a Bento style meal including many pickled, dried and preserved foods that require no cooking or preparation), and ozouni soup with mochi rice cake. Sashimi and sushi have also become popular for holiday meals, and soothing warm nabe pot stews are always available during the cold winter weather as well.

Soba from our favorite noodle shop
Bento box

Sending New Year’s postcards.  Instead of Christmas cards, Japanese tradition is to send a postcard to arrive on New Year’s Day. These are prepared and taken to the post office early, but Japan Post holds them and delivers them all on New Year’s Day.

New Year’s Ringing of the Temple Bells.  Shortly before midnight on New year’s Eve many of the Buddhist temples all over Japan will begin ringing the temple bells 108 times. Ringing 108 times for each of the 108 worldly temptations. Many will try to finish 107 chimes before midnight, and finish the 108th chime just after the New Year arrives. Many people visit the temples on New Year’s Eve for a last visit for the old year, and may participate in the ringing of the bell.

A Visit to the Temple for the New Year.  It is also traditional to visit the Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines again during the first three days of the January, offering prayers for the New Year. Lines are long at the major temples of Sensoji and Zojoji, and at Meiji Shrine, in Tokyo, as people wait for their turn to pray and give a small offering. It is also a chance to buy new charms and amulets (Omamori) at the temple or shrine to provide luck and protection in the coming year.

These are only some of the traditions that we have observed here in our three years in Japan. I am sure there are many more things that are traditional to certain families, or to certain regions of Japan. We have learned so much about this fascinating culture in our time here, and continue to observe and learn new things every day.

Wishing you all a Wonderful and Blessed New Year in whichever country and culture you call home.

A short trip to Hachijojima

This year, my wife and I traveled to the US early in December for our youngest daughter’s wedding. We couldn’t stay in the US for the whole month, so we had an early holiday celebration with the family, and returned to Japan.

Since this would be the first time ever away from our children at Christmas, we wanted to do something special and completely different. We looked at several options for an “away from home” Christmas, and finally opted for a short trip to Hachijojima, an island about 300 kilometers south of Tokyo.

Hachijojima

There are two ways to get to Hachijo. One is a ferry that leaves Tokyo in the late evening and arrives at the island the next morning. The other is by air. ANA has three flights a day – a very short trip by air, about 50 minutes. The ferry sounded like fun, but we decided on the simplicity of a flight.

Our flight left on 23 December from Haneda airport. After being used to flying internationally, a domestic flight is refreshing. No immigration, no need for a passport. ANA has a simple and effective automated drop off point for baggage. A short stroll through security and we were headed to the gate.

Our flight was, as promised short and easy. We arrived at the small Hachijo airport 50 minutes after takeoff. Bags arrived quickly, and we were ready to go.

Our first look at Mt. Nishi fom the plane

A Japanese friend had made car rental arrangements for us. We were to call the rental company, and they would pick us up at the airport. As we didn’t know how much English the rental company person would speak, we took the easy way out and asked a bilingual airport information person to call for us. A few minutes later, a friendly lady arrived to pick us up for the 2-minute ride to the car rental place.

Turns out the car rental guy spoke passibly good English. He took a copy of my US driver’s license and my International Driving permit (I don’t have a Japanese license), and asked if I needed the optional insurance, which I accepted. I was a bit surprised that they didn’t accept credit cards. Fortunately I had enough cash to cover the charge. No paperwork, no receipts – but very quickly, we had a small Suzuki car at tour disposal.

Our ride – not luxurious, but compact and easy to maneuver on narrow roads

Driving on the island is pretty easy. Of course, as every place else in Japan, you drive on the left side of the road, and the steering wheel is on the right side of the car. Takes a little time to get used to, but with little traffic, it wasn’t a challenge. Some of the roads are very narrow – which is quite unsettling when meeting an oncoming car. However, the car is really necessary for getting around the island.

We stayed at the Lido Park Hotel, a nice and comfortable place about 10 minutes’ drive from the airport. Many of the hotel staff only speak Japanese, but are very friendly. One man at the desk, and a young girl on the restaurant staff spoke good English. Even with our limited Japanese language skills, we had no problems with communication. We enjoyed the hotel, and our room had a nice ocean view.

Hachijojima has a variety of activities available. December is pretty much the off season – the island is probably much more active in the spring and summer months. Still, it is subtropical and the temperature was about 10 to 15 degrees warmer than Tokyo. We spent much of our first full day driving around the island and getting a feel for where things were located. There are some beautiful views of the ocean and adjacent island that can be seen from the comfort of your car.

Christmas day was sunny, cool and beautiful. We started the day with a hike up Mt. Nishi – also known as Hachijo-Fuji. We drove to a trail head, and took a rock trail to the top. It’s a fairly steep hike up to the rim of the volcano. At 854 meters, it is much smaller than Mt. Fuji. There is a trail around the rim, which we found to be more challenging than expected. The trail is narrow, rocky, and there are places with steep drops and climbs. But it is beautiful. This mountain is short enough that there is vegetation everywhere, on the outside of the mountain and into the crater. Views of the ocean and surrounding area are awesome. The hike around the rim took about an hour, and it was well worth the effort.

There are many other things to do on the island. We hiked to two waterfalls, and took the road around the island to see as many sights as we could in our short time available. There are many onsens – Japanese hot baths – available. We didn’t go on this trip, but they are a popular attraction.

Our short trip ended the day after Christmas. During our brief time on the island, we learned some things that will help us on our next visit. One, most places don’t take credit cards, so have cash (and, ATMs are available, so cash isn’t really a problem). Two, finding restaurants can be a challenge, particularly on a holiday in the off season. And three, most things close at around 5 p.m., at least in the off season, so don’t expect a lot of evening activities.

We thoroughly enjoyed our short time on Hachijojima, and look forward to another visit to this scenic and subtropical part of Japan.

Hachijojima