Voting from afar

It’s almost time for elections in the United States. I’ve always been diligent about voting, as I think it is the responsibility of every citizen to be part of the process. In today’s turbulent political environment, voting is even more important.  But being 6,000 miles from my voting place does make things a bit more difficult. Voted

Fortunately, there is support for people living in other countries. Google “voting from outside the US” and you’ll get suggestions for a variety of websites with information on the absentee voting process. As a Georgia resident, I was also able to get the needed information from my county election commissioner’s office.

It’s actually a pretty easy process to request an absentee ballot. Once early voting opens, the election commissioner’s office emails a link to an official ballot, along with the appropriate instructions on how to complete it. The hardest part of the whole process was figuring out where to address the envelope for returning the ballot. Once that was done, it was a matter of getting postage at the local post office, and voilà- I have voted in the US election, from my current residence in Tokyo.

What happens with my ballot, once it is in the mail? As far as I can tell, there is no way to verify that my vote has been received. I can only have faith that it will make it through the mail, through the US voting system, and be counted as intended.

Voting from Japan does take a little more time and effort than it did in the US. I hope that if I and my fellow expats are willing to participate, all my friends back in the US will also get out to be part of a huge voter turn-out in 2018. Voting has always been an important responsibly of US citizens. In this election, everyone’s participation is vital to the future of our country. Please VOTE!

 

Am I ever going to be able to speak Japanese?

IMG_2667
My bento box lunch today after Japanese class — Japanese food is always so beautifully arranged.

Just checking in on the language progress. Today was another Spouse’s Language and Culture Class at my husband’s company. It is nice that they offer these classes for us. We meet three Wednesday’s per month, and it is usually a luncheon meeting: Ninety minutes with language instruction, and then a box lunch while the teachers (sensei) present a short cultural program. Sometimes we go on a “field trip” to a museum, or other interesting cultural spot, and sometimes we do some sort of traditional craft (origami, for example) after our language lesson.

I have been attending these classes for 2.5 years now. Spouses come and go depending on the husband’s job assignment… there are always new people coming in, and others that leave to go back to their home countries. It is an interesting class, with people from so many different places.

And how have I progressed — linguistically — in these 2.5 years? Sometimes I feel good about my progress, and some days are just… humbling. Certainly, I have made progress (from knowing almost NO Japanese 2.5 years ago):  I now know a lot of vocabulary, and quite a bit of grammar… and I can read both hiragana and katakana, and… even a few of the kanji! “Romaji” is the translation of the Japanese characters into Roman characters. Most things in Japan are written in the Kana and Kanji — but there are more and more signs, etc, that are being written in Romaji… in preparation for the 2020 Olympic games.

[ FUN FACTS:  Japanese has three character systems that are commonly used to write the language. Kanji — the Chinese characters that written Japanese is based upon, Hiragana — the characters representing each spoken syllable, and Katakana — the characters used to spell out foreign words. In written Japanese, all three character systems are used, and in fact, may be mixed together. There are thousands of kanji symbols, and the average, college-educated Japanese person knows almost 3000 of these kanji characters. Just to read a newspaper here, it is estimated that one needs to be able to read about 2000 of the most commonly used kanji.]

Today’s class felt a bit more “humbling” than usual. I have been moved up to the upper class… but probably more because I have been here so long, than any actual ability to converse. The lower class is where all the “newbies” go when they first arrive, and they seem to do the same basic Japanese phrases over and over because… whenever a new person joins the class, those are the things they most need to learn. Things like:

Konnichiwa (hello, good day), Watashi no namae wa _______ desu (my name is ____), Yoroshiku onagaishimasu (nice to meet you), Watashi wa ______ kara kimashita (I am from _____)… etc… etc…

I well know those phrases by now, so they moved me into the next class. Most of the other women in the upper class are from Korea — and the Korean language has many similarities to Japanese, so they have a bit of an advantage over me. The Korean language is also based on the Chinese kanji, so they have that advantage as well. In the lower class are several women from India, one or two from China, and a Taiwanese. The Indian women speak English, but not many of the other class members know much — or any — English. The teachers both speak a little bit of English, but not a lot. I am the only American in the class — there are two spouses from the UK in the company, but neither of them attend the language classes.

If the teachers speak very slowly and clearly (yukkuri, onegaishimasu), I can usually pick up the gist of the conversation in Japanese… but it can be a struggle. Today seemed more frustrating than usual for me. My brain was just not processing the Japanese very well, and after 90 minutes of that, my brain was fried, and just stopped trying. I am sure I probably had that glazed, deer-in-the-headlights look on my face.

But, I WILL persevere. I will keep going to language class, and I will keep studying my Duolingo app every day — I have gotten through all of the Duolingo Japanese lessons now, but I will keep practicing the grammar with (hopefully) more and different vocabulary. And, I will keep studying my textbook, and listening to Japanese TV programs. Eventually… I WILL do this… domo arigato gozaimasu! Ja mata… (until next time…)

2016-02-17b
Today’s cultural lesson was about the Japanese Tea Ceremony.

If you would like to know more about the Japanese Tea Ceremony, using powdered green tea (matcha), there are many YouTube videos available. This one below is from an NHK TV series that I like to watch.

 

Sentaku (Laundry)

IMG_2640
My combination washer/dryer 

Sentaku — I have talked about this before on the blog… how in our small apartment in Tokyo, we have a “combination washer/dryer.” But today a friend back in the US posted a photo on her Facebook of a combo washer/dryer. Her mother has just moved into an assisted living facility, and that is what is in her new apartment. It made me think about — all over again — how cultural differences show up everywhere, even in something as “simple” as doing the laundry.

In her Facebook post, was my friend’s obvious surprise and shock that when she put in a load of laundry for her mother, and programmed the machine for a wash and dry, the machine came back with a finish time of 6 hours and 5 minutes. Yes… that is shocking to find that one small and simple load of laundry could possibly take over 6 hours to complete, using a machine!

Lol… welcome to the world of the combination washer/dryer.

Seriously… It seems like such a great idea! Throw clothes into the machine, set it, and come back later to find nice, clean, dry clothes without having to transfer them to another appliance. But I have yet to hear from anyone who has a positive opinion of them. Maybe, somewhere there is a combo machine that actually works, but mine does not!

IMG_2641
My machine has function modes: wash only, wash/dry, and dry only. 

My washer/dryer is only used for the “wash” function. I long ago gave up trying to dry anything in it. It does just fine as a washer — and occasionally I will put DRY towels back in to soften them on the “dry” cycle, but to try to wash and dry the same load not only takes hours, but also gives pretty sad results. My machine has no way to “tumble” the clothes — being a “top loader” — and instead just spins and blows hot air. The clothes end up twisted and tangled and wrinkled beyond belief — and still damp. I have had to rewash clothes just to get the wrinkles out.

IMG_2643
Inside the washer/dryer tub.

Also, transitioning from a machine that uses water to wash, to a machine that blows hot air to dry, is not a very efficient way to go. It takes the machine a long time to dry itself out — let alone to get wet clothes dried out. It may sound like a good idea, but I feel that it is a technology that just hasn’t had all the bugs worked out. For me, it is just too much trouble, and too much time to mess around with. The “combo” machine saves neither time nor money! My clothes go out on the balcony to dry.

20160308_152911
Clothes drying on the balcony bar.

And… I see that most of my neighbors do the same thing. Most apartments here have drying bars on the balconies to hang clothing and bedding. Our balcony is very utilitarian. Wide enough to walk along, and hang clothes on, but too narrow for much of anything else. I wash clothes early in the day, and hang them to dry in (hopefully) sunshine and breeze, and bring them in again in the afternoon. This is the usual and accepted laundry process in urban Tokyo. And — I think it is that way in many urban areas. I have friends living in urban London, and urban areas in France, who do the same thing with their laundry. One of my UK friends commented that it seemed silly to pay money for the electricity to run a dryer, when you can air dry clothes for free. She has a point.

But, being from suburban US, I just took it for granted that everyone had a washer AND a dryer. My mother got a clothes dryer when I was 10 years old. I never had the experience of hanging clothes out on a clothesline. Having a clothes dryer seemed like such a necessity. I never considered I would ever live in a place where I didn’t have one.

To be fair… I know there are people here who do have clothes dryers. And I know that some even live in our apartment building. I know this because, on occasion when I open the balcony doors, I can smell drying clothes (dryer sheets). Our small bathroom COULD accommodate a stacking washer and dryer, although I am not sure how the dryer would be vented. But I am sure it could be done.

2016-03-01c
Clothes drying in the “wet room” under the room dryer.

After 2 1/2 years, though, we have gotten used to doing the laundry without a dryer. With just the two of us, we don’t have that much laundry anyway. I don’t mind hanging it out on the balcony. True… I am sometimes at the mercy of the weather, but in a pinch I can also hang laundry in the bathroom (wet room) and use the room dryer to dry it. Also, there is space for a hanging bar in the bedroom if necessary. No problem… this is just another item to add to the list of differences we never considered “when moving to a foreign country…”

 

 

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.

Visitors.

If you read the previous blog, you know my husband is away on business. It has been kind of a lonely couple of days, and he still has a few more days away. But, tomorrow our daughter and son-in-law… and his parents… arrive for a visit.

We enjoy having friends and family visit. It is fun to show everyone around Tokyo… and we enjoy sharing the sites and the culture of our adopted country. We love Tokyo, and we love living here. We want to show our visitors what is so special about Japan.

But… It is important for our visitors to understand that we are NOT tour guides. Anyone who comes to visit needs to be sure to do their homework before coming here. Japan is an amazing place, and there is so much to see and learn. Make sure to research and decide what is important for YOU to see and do. Don’t just rely on us to decide what we want to show you. Everyone has their own interests, and our interests may not be the same as yours.

Also… be brave. Be willing to go out on your own to see and do the things you want. The train system in Tokyo is amazing! Convenient, inexpensive, and multilingual! Most of the ticket machines have an English option, so it is easy to buy tickets, or recharge the convenient IC prepaid cards (Suica and Pasmo cards in Tokyo.) Learning to navigate the transit system in Tokyo is part of the fun of being here. Google maps will give you all the information you need to navigate the trains… lines, times, platform numbers and even cost! If you don’t have a phone plan that will allow you to use your smartphone here, mobile hotspots and cell phones are available for rental at the airport.

Be adventurous.  Be willing to experience the culture! Be open minded about the food options. Japanese food is wonderful. Yes… it is different from your home country… Of course it is! But try it! If, however… you absolutely can’t stand the thought of eating raw fish, or lots of rice, or grilled meats and veggies… there are American fast food options available. But why not try the local food? Why come here if you don’t want to experience something different?

There is so much to see here, but if it is your first trip to Japan, I would suggest exploring close to Tokyo. There is a lot to see in the city itself, and also many short day trips outside of Tokyo. If you have been to Tokyo before, maybe consider buying a JR Pass for the Shinkansen, and travel to some other parts of Japan. The bullet trains (Shinkansen) are a lot of fun, and can take you to all four of the major islands of Japan. But to really get your money’s worth from the JR Pass, you really need to take at least a couple of trips outside of Tokyo. A trip to Kyoto is a must. Going farther to Hiroshima or Nagasaki or to the island of Shikoku, or north to Hokkaido are all wonderful options on the Shinkansen. The JR Pass is only available for tourists. You can buy it online from home before you come to Japan, and activate it once you are here. Easy.

We look forward to having visitors to share our experience with. But understand… this is YOUR vacation, not ours. We LIVE here. It is (at least for now) our home. Share it with us, enjoy it with us… but make your trip to Japan YOUR own unforgettable experience.