Lighting the way for ancestors

Summer is a time of festivals and celebrations in Japan. An interesting one is toro nagashi, a Japanese tradition where paper lanterns lit with candles are released into a river. A yearly event in Tokyo is held along the Sumida River, where upwards of 2,000 lanterns are set afloat. IMG_7919

Toro nagashi is a tradition in which the lanterns are released on rivers to guide the spirits of the ancestors back to the other side during the Obon holiday. Obon is an annual Buddhist event for commemorating ancestors. It’s a time when many Japanese travel to their home towns, to reunite with their families and pay respects to ancestors. The festival lasts for three days, but dates vary from region to region.

This year, the Sumida River toro nagashi was on the evening of August 11. Although not the biggest crowd I’ve seen in Asakusa, there were still thousands of people who turned out on a hot, muggy summer night.

For those who want to participate, a lantern can be purchased for 1,500 yen (a little under $15 US). Those with lanterns are directed to a line where the lanterns can be released into the river, beginning at dusk. Some people also release lanterns from party boats that position themselves in the river.

Even if you don’t participate in the lantern release, it does make for an interesting evening. Just watching the people makes attending this festival worthwhile. Although the majority are Japanese, Asakusa also attracts many foreigners. Walking through the crowd, it’s easy to hear English, German, French, Chinese, Italian, and a number of languages less obvious to identify.

The big crowds and unfamiliar culture may seem a bit intimidating for first-time visitors to Japan. But set aside any concerns, and you’ll find festivals like the Sumida toro nagashi to be a fascinating glimpse into Japan’s amazing culture. IMG_7934

Fireworks!

The heat and humidity of summer are here, but people in Tokyo don’t let that stop them from having fun. Summer is a time of festivals and celebrations in Tokyo. And it a time for…fireworks!IMG_7601

The Japanese seem to love fireworks displays, and there are some impressive ones here. I recently observed one of the biggest – the Sumidagawa Fireworks Festival.

They say this festival dates back to the 1700s, and it’s a popular one. Roughly a million people converge on the Sumida River area of Asakusa every year to see this remarkable event.

This year, the fireworks display had to be postponed a day. A little thing like a typhoon interrupted the festivities. But the typhoon passed, and the fireworks – originally scheduled for Saturday night – proceeded one day later on Sunday.

This year, I walked to the Asakusa area. There are trains that go there, and if you go early, it’s not a problem. But with so many people coming to the show, the trains get very crowded. And, be on notice – there is never a full train in Tokyo. You just push harder to get on. You’ll get to know your fellow passengers better than you might ever want to…

I walked around the Sumida River area for awhile, and crossed the bridge over the river. I found a street that was closed and people were beginning to settle in. Many bring blankets, coolers, and food. It’s a street party in every sense, with hundreds (thousands?) of people having a good time.

I made a good choice of locations. I had a (mostly) unobstructed view of the fireworks. I couldn’t see the river from my vantage point, but had a great view of the fireworks. And it was an amazing show, lasting a full hour.

Then, when the fireworks are over, you have a million people all trying to leave.

I quickly dismissed the trains – the line just to get in the train station stretched more than a block. So, I started walking towards home. The nice thing about Tokyo is that you can walk just about anywhere at night, and not feel unsafe. I walked along the train tracks, down past a few stations. And was able to find a station with almost no line. An easy commute home.

Tokyo’s summer festivals are often very crowded, and the heat can be intense. But bring some water, maybe a snack, and a lot of patience…and you’ll be rewarded with some amazing experiences.

Typhoon!

It’s the “he” part of the blog team, writing this as Typhoon Jongdari is making its way across Japan.

IMG_0122As typhoons go, this is a strong one, with very heavy rain and winds of around 125 km/hour. It looks like the center will make landfall just south of Tokyo, and move across the island, past Osaka and down the coast toward Hiroshima, curving on into Kyushu before moving into South Korea. That’s particularly bad news for parts of western Japan that were hit by torrential rains earlier this month.

Some flood-prone areas of Tokyo are stacking sandbags, and many of the festivals (this was to be a big festival and fireworks weekend in Tokyo) have been cancelled. Hundreds of domestic flights have been cancelled, so travel within Japan is a challenge. For many areas outside of Tokyo, the impact may be much more than inconvenience — residents are being warned to evacuate areas prone to flooding and mudslides.

Coming from the US, where storms are sensationalized by every media outlet from the Weather Channel to the History Channel, it seems harder to find current and reliable weather information here. Of course, we still have the Weather Channel app, and it is helpful. Television does have weather coverage, but there are few English-speaking channels in our package. It’s possible to get an idea of what’s going on from the Japanese channels, but my Japanese listening skill is still far slower than their Japanese speaking speed. For severe situations, we get notices from the US Embassy, although only to alert us of a potentially dangerous event. Other information sources are available, but we have yet to find one that is always our go-to channel for the most current weather updates.

Fortunately for us, the typhoons we’ve seen during our 2-1/2 years here have not had a severe impact on Tokyo. I hope that trend continues — I want to experience many things as a Tokyo expat, but cataclysmic storm damage isn’t one of them.

Home for a visit…

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It is Morning Glory season in Japan.

Tomorrow I fly home to the ATL for a visit. I always feel a little ambivalent about these visits. On the one hand, I am excited to see my house, my family and… of course… my kitties. But on the other hand, I will miss my “home” here in Tokyo. And… to make it even more unsettling, my husband is not accompanying me on this trip. He will be here in Tokyo, fending for himself, and working, for the 2 1/2 weeks that I am gone.

We have talked about this before… that it is a weird situation to be “split” between two lives: our life here in Tokyo, and our life back in the US. Even after living here for 2 1/2 years, it has not gotten any easier.

Our daughter and her husband have been graciously living in our home, and taking care of our beloved pets. That is really a nice thing for us, to not have to lease out our home to strangers, and put our belongings into storage. Still… it is not always easy to go back for a visit and feel like a guest in your own home.

I have several reasons for going back for this visit… our youngest daughter is planning her wedding, and she has a Bridal Shower planned for this next weekend. Then, the following weekend, is the Bridesmaids trip (Bachelorette Party) at the beach. I have been invited to both.  Since all three of my daughters are involved in that trip, it will be a nice chance to spend time with my girls. Our family used to get together for an annual beach trip, but since we have been in Tokyo, it has been put on hold.

Also, I have various home maintenance projects to check on… we recently had a new deck put on the house, and I have not yet seen it. I also have to take my car — which has been sitting in the garage, oh so many months, and finally have it put into storage for the rest of our time in Tokyo. My daughter and her husband both have cars that they need to keep in the garage. I miss my car, but now when we come back for visits, we will just have to go pick it up at the auto storage center.

After all that, I plan to go visit with my oldest daughter’s family in Maryland… and see my favorite grandson, Emmett.

It will be a fun trip, but I always find myself stressing about going back. Stressing about all the little details. But, I know that those things are not important. This experience we are having in Tokyo, is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for us. I don’t want to put a cloud over it by worrying about that other life… that other life that I will soon enough be back in the middle of.

Time flies. These next 18 months will be gone before we are ready. I love my home in the ATL, but right now… I love MY HOME in Japan.

Mamachari

Bicycles are a popular transportation option in Japan. Many people here in Tokyo don’t even own cars. The public transit system — trains and buses — is amazingly clean, efficient, and inexpensive. You can travel all over Tokyo — and indeed, all over Japan — using public transportation. With so many people living in such close proximity, if everyone drove cars, the traffic would be a nightmare. Parking for cars is hard to find, and very expensive. It just makes good sense to commute by train or bus here.

But what about when you aren’t going a long distance? What about those short trips to the supermarket, or taking kids to daycare, or picking them up after school? That is when the bicycle becomes the family workhorse.

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This is a Mamachari. And this one is actually a pretty fancy one with installed kid seats, and a battery power-assist. These things are loaded with features to make commuting and transport comfortable and efficient. Note the fenders to keep rain and mud from splashing. and chain guards to keep clothing from getting caught and dirty. Battery packs to help get the bicycle moving under a load, and to help with hills. It has an integrated lock, lights, and a heavy duty kickstand on the back. This… THIS is the minivan of Japanese bicycles. Expensive? Yes. Depending on the battery capacity, these bikes usually cost between $1000 and $1500 USD.

I have seen Japanese mothers in dresses and high heels taking children to school and daycare on their way to work. I have seen as many as three child passengers on one of these bikes. In the rain, moms put plastic covers over the kid seats, and often will be carrying an umbrella for themselves. These bikes travel on the sidewalk — most bike transportation here shares the sidewalks with pedestrians. They are equipped with bells to warn pedestrians out of the way. When the child seats are not in use, they can often be converted for carrying packages and groceries.

We live in a very residential area of Tokyo, with many large apartment high-rises. There are several schools nearby, and in the mornings and afternoons, the sidewalks are crowded with kids walking to and from school, and with mothers on these bicycles ferrying little ones around.

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There is also a community center in our neighborhood, just down the street. And this was the scene outside the community center the other day as we walked by. There must have been a party going on. I had to laugh… It made me think of the minivans lined up outside my children’s school when they were young. Gotta love Japan!

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Summer in Tokyo — Totemo atsui desu ne!

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I just got back from my (almost) daily walk to the supermarket where I bought this bottle of “Salty Litchi” drink. It was sort of an impulse buy from a new display near the check-out line. Although not officially a “sports drink,” it actually works quite well in that respect. A lightly sweetened fruit drink (only 10% litchi juice), with just a bit of salt added. It is very tasty, and refreshing  — as well as re-hydrating — on a hot day.

Tokyo is hot in the summer. Temperatures aren’t as high as they are in Atlanta, or in the midwest where we grew up — it rarely gets above the low to mid-90’s — but factoring in the high coastal humidity makes the heat index routinely creep up well over the 100 degree mark. Today as I walked my two kilometers to and from the store where I shop (only 1.2 miles total) the heat index was only at 99 degrees, and there was bit of a breeze blowing. Added bonus for me on the way home today was that I was carrying several items from the grocery store freezer section — so the walk home was not too bad.

 

IMG_2433One way to beat the heat here is to stay hydrated, and there are many opportunities for that. Vending machines dispensing cold drinks are everywhere. I don’t think you can  walk a block here in Tokyo without coming across one — or several. They have a good selection of drinks: usually  several brands of tea (unsweetened), water and juice drinks, and iced (and hot) coffee. Some even dispense energy drinks. Most will have a Coca-Cola product of some type, and occasionally Dr. Pepper, but not many other carbonated soft drinks. Tea and coffee drinks are more popular here. Conbinis (convenience stores) are numerous here, also making it easy to pop in for a cold drink or snack… Or just to enjoy the air conditioning for a few minutes.

Most office and apartment buildings in Tokyo don’t air condition their lobbies or elevators, and many offices are only air conditioned during working hours in order to save electricity. The “Cool Biz” campaign calls on workplaces to set their air conditioning at 28C (about 82F), and allows for employees to dress down a bit and skip wearing jackets and ties for the summer months. Still, a few minutes walking out in the heat, or even waiting for the elevator can make the sweat start to pour. Everyone carries a small washcloth “sweat towel” when they go out. My husband has a small USB fan to plug into his computer… just to keep the air moving in his office.

But summer isn’t just about dealing with the heat. Protection from the intense sunshine is important too. Tanning is not popular with most Japanese, and they — especially the women — go to great lengths to protect themselves from too much sun exposure. Sunscreen is SPF 50 here, and worn daily. Sun hats and sun umbrellas are commonly used. Many people wear long sleeves and long pants even in the the summer heat. Even runners and joggers often wear long sleeves and tights. Women buy long finger-less gloves to cover up bare arms, and light scarves to cover necks and shoulders.

There are a few people who go out to the beaches or parks to tan… but not many. At Odaiba Beach across the bay from our apartment, you will find a few sunbathers, but  mostly men or foreigners. Families will often set up small pop-up cabanas to sit in on the sand.

With no car, we are dependent on walking and public transit to get around in Tokyo. Living in a place where you have to get out and walk in order to go anywhere, can be a challenge in the hot, hot summer. I find that I tend to limit my trips out during the summer, and spend more time in the apartment, going out more often in the late afternoon when things start to cool down. We still have to go out in the heat, and we manage it… But we are looking forward to cooler temperatures in the fall. Until then, the common greeting is “Totemo atsui desu ne!”(It’s very hot, isn’t it!)

Discovering Tokyo…10,000 steps at a time

There’s a lot to see in Tokyo, and many ways to see it. A favorite way my wife and I see Tokyo is by walking.

Sure, taxis are plentiful and faster. Trains and buses abound. And even a bike will get you places a little quicker.

But Tokyo is an easily walkable city. It’s very safe – I have yet to wander into an area where I was the least bit concerned about my safety. There are sidewalks just about everywhere, and if not, there is usually a pedestrian lane marked along the side of the street. Drivers here are amazingly considerate of pedestrians. If there is a walker anywhere near a crosswalk, the drivers stop. Always. The consistency is unbelievable.

Walking lets us truly interact with the city. We see things you can’t notice when zipping by in a taxi. There are the smells of the wonderful Japanese food…the sounds of people talking and laughing…the heat of the summer now, and the chill of winter a little later.

We’ve often discovered parks we never would have visited, restaurants far off the beaten path, and shopping areas that are so much more satisfying than the mega monster malls.

How do you walk around Tokyo? Well, there are books like Tokyo – 29 Walks in the World’s Most Exciting City that have some good ideas. Or, go online and find a map or look for a specific landmark or tourist site. For us, it’s often just take a train to a station we haven’t visited before, and hop off. Exit the station, look around, and that’s where the adventure begins.