Hot August Saturday…

It is hot in Tokyo in August… sweltering, for most of the time. And I know many of our friends around the world are experiencing heat and humidity as well. Tokyo is not the only place where “Natsu wa totemo atsui desu.” (Summer is very hot.) But… today is Saturday, and part of our precious weekend to spend together, and it is just too hot to be out!

We look forward to our weekends here. During the week, my husband is busy and working, and I spend my days taking care of household chores, doing the shopping, going to the gym, and learning Japanese. We both look forward to spending time together on the weekends.

Usually for us, that means going out to explore some part of Tokyo that we haven’t seen before, or attending events or festivals, or going out to many of the places that have become our “favorite places” in our adopted city. We both enjoy photography, and so, cameras in hand, we simply enjoy just going out to walk and explore and take photos. It is our favorite weekend past time.

But right now in Tokyo, it is HOT. This past week, Tokyo was brushed by a typhoon (the worst of it went way west of us), that brought at least some temporary moments of respite from the monotonously sunny, hot weather. We had a day of off and on rain showers, and another day of cloudy breezy weather. It was nice — despite the fact that the rain showers increased the humidity even more.

At the moment (at almost noon) it is 93F, with a heat index of 108. Here in Minato City, Tokyo, the public address system has been announcing an extreme heat advisory from the Japan Meteorological Agency… “go chuui kudasai!” (Please use caution!) [** Incidentally — these public address announcements from speakers placed all over the city, are now bilingual in Japanese and English!]

We don’t mind a little hot weather. In fact, we expect it. We both grew up in Kansas, and our permanent home is in Georgia. We are used to hot and humid summers. But… something about the heat here just seems so much worse. Being near the ocean, the humidity is somewhat higher, but also, the sunshine just seems more intense. Maybe it’s not really… Maybe it is just that since we have to walk everywhere, or walk to take public transportation, we end up being out in the heat more continuously than at “home.”

At home in Georgia, when I wanted to go somewhere in the summer, I would walk out of my air-conditioned house, into my garage, and get into my rapidly air-conditioned car. Drive to wherever I wanted to go… walk a few steps in the heat, and then be blasted by ice cold air-conditioning in any store or other public venue I went to. To tell the truth… at home in Georgia, I sometimes would take a jacket with me when I went to shop at the supermarket in the summertime. The air-conditioning was TOO cold.

So here… today… we will mostly be staying in during the hottest part of the day. We have been out running short errands, getting a quick brunch bowl of noodles (cold) at our favorite neighborhood soba shop, making a quick stop at the dry cleaners, and the grocery store. But for this blazing, relentlessly sunny Saturday afternoon, we are inside in our nice cool apartment with the “eakon” running.

Maybe later, when the sun begins to sink down, and the temperature moderates, we will venture out. This weekend is the end of Obon… one of the three major holiday weeks here in Japan. There are Obon festivals still to see, and Bon Odori dances to watch… Hate to miss out just because of a little hot weather!

Lotus – peace and calm in the middle of Tokyo

Lotus blossom in Shinobazu Pond at Ueno Park in Tokyo

Tokyo in the summer is hot. HOT. And it can be loud, crowded and frustrating. But Tokyo has a number of large parks, offering a quiet and peaceful release from the hectic city. One of our favorites is Ueno Park.

Ueno is conveniently located in the heart of the city. Take the Yamanote train to Ueno Station, and the huge park begins steps away from the exit gate.

On any given day in the summer, you’ll find festivals, street performers, food, and a lot of green space at Ueno. The park also includes Shinobazu Pond, a refuge for many different water birds at different times of the year, paddle boats and row boats, and a very healthy crop of lotus plants.

Beginning about the end of June, the lotus start to bloom. As the summer progresses, you see the full variety of young blooms, fully opened flowers, and seed pods reminiscent of the aliens in War of the Worlds.

In the summer, you’ll want to have some lightweight, sweat-wicking clothing, a hat and sunglasses, plenty of sunscreen, and a bottle of cool water. But take some time and brave the elements, and you’ll find Ueno to be a beautiful oasis in the middle of this big city.

Slogging through summer

Summer evening on Sumida River, Skytree in background.

Summer in Tokyo. It’s hot. It’s humid. It’s sweaty. Sometimes, you just want to sit in your nice, air conditioned living room and stay cool.

But there are lots of things to see and do in Tokyo. In the summer, you just have to put on some cool, drip-dry clothes, take a bottle of water, slather on the sunscreen, put on some sunglasses, and learn to love to sweat as you strike out into the heat.

There are quite a number of festivals, flea markets, fireworks displays and other interesting events in the summer. Arakawa River fireworks… Sumida River fireworks…Sumidagawa Toro Nagashi (lantern festival)… and many other events are available.

So, if you have a choice of when to visit Tokyo, don’t make it in July, August or early September. But if that is the time you have to be here, don’t fret. You can go from convenience store to convenience store, with their cold air conditioning, cool drinks, and ice cream. And you’ll find many fun things to do…just take an occasional break from the heat and humidity, and you’ll be fine.

Frozen ice cream snack, available in all the convenience stores.

Getting a haircut in Tokyo

We’ve found that it’s often the little, day-to-day things that challenge us as expats in a foreign land. One of those things is … the haircut.

At home in the US, there are lots of options for haircuts. Cheap, in-and-out-in-10-minutes places, or ultra cool (and mega expensive) designer hair salons. Quite similar here in Tokyo, but there’s another variable — language.

Having lived previously in a country where I spoke the native language, I never gave getting haircut a second thought. Just go into a hair place, tell them what you want them to do, and let the cutting begin. It’s a little different when you don’t speak the language very well.

The first time I got a haircut in Tokyo, I just picked a local place, made an appointment (which was challenging in itself, when you don’t speak the language well), and went in. Turned out the person who did the cut spoke no English, and at the time I spoke virtually no Japanese. It was an interesting session. And, he did the entire haircut with a straight razor. I survived, but there were some tense moments.

My wife and I then started to look for other local places. We found a nice little shop near our apartment, and one of the staff spoke a little English. That worked ok — they were very nice, we practiced our Japanese, the lady who spoke some English practiced her language skills, and it was fine.

Later, we found a Japanese stylist who had lived in Australia and London, and speaks very good English. We started going to her, and the communication aspects were much easier.

But alas, we found that there are differences between Japanese hair (and haircuts) and Western counterparts. Not as big a difference for me, but for my wife, the Japanese style of haircut just didn’t work so well. They tend to cut a lot of layers, and my wife found that often her hair grew out in strange and very uneven ways that made it hard to deal with. Not a good situation.

The real deal-breaker came when our Japanese-who-speaks-English stylist moved to a different salon. The new place was going to mean a substantial increase in the cost of a haircut, which by Western standards, was already high. I would have to now pay around 6500 Japanese yen for a hair cut — about $60. And it would be more for my wife. Although that isn’t excessive by Tokyo standards, for me, it’s a lot of money for a haircut. So, it was back to the search for an acceptable salon.

Today, I went back to the local Japanese shop that we’ve visited before. This time, I brushed up on my Japanese and was determined to speak at least a little to explain what I wanted. And, the lady who speaks some English was still there. Between my marginal Japanese and her limited English, we were able to explain to another stylist what I wanted. It was actually a pleasant visit, and I think I got a very good haircut (plus a shampoo, and a nice neck and shoulder massage) for 4100 yen.

I think the local shop is a place I’ll continue going to. It’s nice to feel like, at least a little, I’m now able to fit in to the local culture (and, get a good haircut).

A Saturday in Tokyo

Lotus flower in Ueno park

Having been expats in Tokyo for 3-1/2 years, we’ve settled into a kind of routine that happens when a place ceases to be so new and different, and becomes “home.” Here’s how we spent this typical summer Saturday in Tokyo.

After sleeping in a bit (trying to recover from back to back to back travel, which left me with a cold), we headed for the gym. Our “Anytime Fitness” is the same gym we use in the US – our membership is reciprocal in Japan – and is only a 2 minute walk from our apartment. The gym isn’t much different from the US, other than the rule that all tattoos must be covered when using the facilities.

Workout behind us, it was off to our favorite soba noodle place, HakoSoba, for lunch. This was one of the first restaurants we visited when we moved to Japan, and it’s become a weekly necessity. For less than 500 yen (about $4.50) we get a bowl of steaming hot, yummy noodles. I’m not sure what we’ll do without our soba place when we move back to the US.

Our plan today was to visit the Shitamachi Tanabata festival in Kappabashi, a part of Tokyo a short walk from Asakusa Station. Tanabata, otherwise known as the Star Festival, is a Japanese festival celebrating the meeting of the deities Orihime and Hikoboshi, representated by the stars Vega and Altar. Interesting story – Google it for more details.

The streets were decorated with lanterns, streamers, and bamboo branches. And lots, and lots of people. Street food, drinks, games, toys and a parade! School kids marching in bands (grade schoolers with their music memorized!), and preschool kids with pom poms, dancers, tricked-out Harley motorcycles – just a festive event with everyone having a good time.

This is one of the longer festival streets, probably a mile or so from Asakusa, through Kappabashi, and nearly to Ueno Park. So, while we were in the neighborhood, we took a stroll into Ueno Park.

At Ueno, there is nearly always some kind of festival. Today, there was a food and drink festival, street entertainers, and many people just enjoying their Saturday in the park. Any time we go to Ueno, we walk around the lake. This time, the lotus plants are just starting to bloom. Lots of people enjoying the paddle boat lake, feeding the birds, and sitting in the park enjoying their “backyard.” Those of us who came from suburbia are used to having space in our yards. For the city dwellers, parks like Ueno provide the green space and contact with nature that is relaxing and enjoyable.

Leaving Ueno, we walked through Ameyokocho, a busy and crowded shopping street. We seldom buy anything, but it’s fun just to walk through and watch the people. The street parallels the Yamanote train line, so we caught a train at Akihabara Station.

But walking builds up a great thirst, so we exited the train at Hamamatsucho Station and took a short walk to a local craft brewery, Devil Craft. Craft beer is really just getting started in Japan, and Devil Craft has a good selection. Nice place just to rest the feet for awhile.

By the time we finished at Devil Craft, it was time to think about dinner. Today, we visited another restaurant we found only a few days after we moved to Tokyo – Warayaki-ya Tamachi, an Izakaya restaurant near Tamachi Station. This restaurant’s signature dish is bonito – skipjack tuna, not quite raw but just barely seared over a straw fire. Yum.

With the evening winding down, it was time to walk back toward home. On the way is a small pharmacy (you find these all over Tokyo), for a stop to get medicine for the aforementioned cold. We found the cold medicine isle, and seemingly hundreds of boxes of medicine — all totally in Japanese. As we tried to make some sense of what we were looking at, fumbling with Google Translate, another customer approached us and pointed to one box. “Most effective,” he said, in not quite perfect but very understandable English. We’ve had this experience before – a random Japanese stranger offering help when we look lost and confused. Have to love this country.

Our final stop for the day… the grocery store. In the US, it was common just to drive to the store once a week, buy a week’s worth of groceries, load them in the car and be done. Here, it’s different. It’s a kilometer walk from the grocery store to home, and there is a definite limit to how much can be carried. So, trips to the store become almost a daily experience. Bottle of wine, milk, fruit, veggies…necessities for the next days.

That’s our typical Saturday in Tokyo. Maybe not exciting or glamorous, but a life we have come to love.

Oh… And the mileage for today… 7.5 miles!

Traveling… again.

We really enjoy our time here in Japan, but one of the perks of this job assignment has been the opportunity to travel to other countries as well. We recently returned from a trip to eastern Europe and we decided we would write about our impressions of the cities/countries we visited.

Vienna, Austria. We had been to Vienna very briefly before — just a one night stopover — but this time we had a few days to actually explore the city.

Karlskirche, and 18th century Habsburg domed cathedral

Our hotel was in the historic city center, so it was an easy walk to many of the popular sites, many restaurants and sidewalk cafes, and plenty of upscale shopping (if you are so-inclined.) We especially enjoyed the sidewalk cafes, and stopping for a late afternoon beer or aperitif.

Transportation to and from the airport or train station is easy and inexpensive, and there is an extensive subway and tram system to take you anywhere in the city. We bought CAT train tickets (City-Airport Train) and a three day city transportation pass while we were still at the airport. The CAT train takes 16 minutes to travel from the airport to the city center station at Landstrasse. From there it was two stops on the subway, and a short walk to our hotel.

Prague, Czech Republic. From Vienna, we got a train to Prague. Again, our hotel was near the historic city center, and easily accessible to most of the tourist sites.

Boats on the Vltava river in central Prague

We had some trouble finding a taxi from the train station, and I think we were overcharged. If we had known better beforehand, I think we would have tried to find other public transit options. Prague has many trams and buses, and daily transit passes are inexpensive. But there is much to see in the city center area, and it is all easily walkable.

View from Vysehrad Fortress

Food is relatively inexpensive if you go a block or two AWAY from the main shopping street through the city center, and there is a great variety of restaurants, cafes, and bars. Everything is much more expensive along the main shopping street, so explore a little farther off the “tourist track” if possible.

John Lennon wall in central Prague

Budapest, Hungary. Our third stop for this trip was Budapest. We took a train from Prague – about 5 hours – to this city on the Danube River. Our mistake was that we booked a hotel near the train station we were going to be leaving from, not realizing that our arriving train came in to another station about a mile away.

Parliament building along the Danube

It would have been easy to get a taxi, but the weather was nice, and we decided to drag our luggage and walk instead.

Lively area around the Danube River in central Budapest

We have been to Budapest before, and were familiar with most of the sites there. We have favorite places we like there, and visited them again. As with Vienna and Prague, public transit is plentiful, and inexpensive, but the city is also very walkable. We walk when we can, because we feel it is easier to get to know a city on foot.

So… which city did we like best? Which city would we recommend for a visit? That, of course, depends on personal preference, but here are some of our impressions. Some bullet points:

  • Vienna is a beautiful city: a city full of art and culture and music. But we felt that Prague had more sites of interest to us, as well as a rich and colorful history. The city itself is clean and beautiful and well-maintained.
  • Budapest is a bit more “edgy” in our opinion. Maybe not as clean and well-maintained as Prague, but a really interesting place — especially for night-life. Examples: the “Ruin Bars” in the old Jewish quarter. Buildings that were slated for demolition, but have been taken over by bars and restaurants, furnished eclectically with odds and ends from second-hand shops. Also… the beer gardens set up in the park not far from our hotel. Exceptionally good beer, and it was VERY inexpensive. We went there with a friend of ours who lives in Budapest. Not sure we would have found it otherwise, but it was a really enjoyable evening.
  • Not that I want to get into the political history of these three cities, but I think it is important to note that their histories flavor the cities they have become. Prague and Budapest, in particular, have gone through some very difficult times, and the scars of those times have influenced the character of the cities today.

As a conclusion, a few brief remarks on other European cities we have visited:

  • London and Paris: We love London and Paris, and have been to both cities many times. We know our way around these cities, have our favorite sites that we visit over and over, and we are comfortable getting around these cities. But… we feel that London and Paris are somewhat “tourist tired.” They are certainly worth a visit, but the burden of tourists over the years has taken a toll. Most especially, watch out for petty crime in Paris.
  • Bucharest, Romania: Some describe Bucharest as a “Paris Wanna-be”… that may be so, but we just didn’t see it. Though we enjoyed our visit to Bucharest, we were much happier taking the train to Constanta, on the Black Sea coast of Romania. It has almost a Mediterranean flavor, and makes us think of Greece and Turkey. Also, if you do go to Romania, a trip through Transyvania is a must!
  • St. Petersburg, Russia. Interesting history, beautiful city — if somewhat run-down and seedy in places… gritty. We visited in late winter, and there was still a lot of ice and snow. The city takes on a grimy, gray color. Still we enjoyed St. Petersburg, and even (once) walked across the frozen Neva river (NOT recommended by those in authority, because if you break through the ice, the current is so strong that you would be swept away before you could be rescued. But… a lot of the locals were walking across, so we did too.)

So, if you only have the opportunity to visit one of these cities? Which would it be…? I think the winner for us… would have to be… Prague.

P.S. If you do decide to go to Prague, be sure to check out this YouTube video collection — The Honest Guide – Prague:

http://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=honest+guide+prague

Friday of Golden Week…

Golden Week 2019 is a bit of an exception. This year, there are 10 consecutive days of holiday, due to the emperor’s transition.

The holidays have provided us with a chance to take time off and see some interesting things in Tokyo. It’s hard to visit other places in Japan, because EVERYONE is traveling. The hotels are booked, as are the flights and many of the trains. So, we just stay in Tokyo.

We’ve lived here three years. We are still discovering new places and sights, and also are enjoying visiting our favorite places.

Today, we started with a familiar run along the Takahama Canal. Actually, until a day or so ago, we just called it “the canal.” Then we took the time to translate one of the signs, and learned that its name is Takahama Canal.

Sign describing the Takahama Canal

Anyway, after our run and a delicious curry lunch at home, we decided to walk across the Rainbow Bridge to Odaiba Island to see Oktoberfest (even though it isn’t October), the start of beer garden season in Tokyo.

Rainbow Bridge is a landmark in Tokyo. Walking across offers outstanding views of Tokyo Bay, and areas of Tokyo. It’s an easy 2 kilometer walk, starting about a kilometer from our apartment.

It was a beautiful spring day in Tokyo, and many people took advantage of the day to enjoy Odaiba beach. We took a stroll along the beach, then moved on toward the Oktoberfest area. On the way, we found a Latin American festival. Surprising to see Spanish music and Mexican food booths in Tokyo.

Oktoberfest for us turned out to be a disappointment. There were a number of German beer booths, but costs were triple the normal cost of beer. Ambiance is good, but for us, not worth the extra cost.

So, it was back across the Rainbow Bridge for a brief stop at our apartment. Then on to our favorite neighborhood sushi restaurant for dinner.

For us, this was a highlight of Golden Week. We now can speak enough Japanese to actually converse with the wait staff and the sushi chef. The chef was anxious to practice his limited English, so we had an interesting, albeit simple, conversation.

There is also an older couple who we often see at this restaurant. He is Japanese, she is Western. Tonight, for the first time, we talked to these folks as we left the restaurant. A very nice older couple who have lived in Japan for many years. Nice to make the connection.

When we made the decision to come to Japan, it was for a two-year assignment. Seemed simple, and we never imagined it would be anything more than an interesting couple of years.

Now, after three years here, we’ve come to love Japan as our second home. We officially have one more year here. Often, though, we can imagine staying here permanently. That would be a huge additional change, and probably isn’t realistic. But even to consider the possibility is something we never expected would happen. Japan is certainly not a perfect place, but it is a wonderful country we have found comfortable in calling our home.

View at twilight from our Tokyo apartment