Another Super-typhoon

A few weeks ago, we wrote about our experience with Typhoon Faxai. It was unusual, as it was both powerful, and its track took it up Tokyo Bay and through the heart of Tokyo.

We were at the little blue dot, watching Typhoon Hagibis go by

Well, today it’s deja vu, as we’re seeing Typhoon Hagibis, an even larger and more powerful storm, again coming up Tokyo Bay and into the city. This storm is bringing with it a tremendous amount of rain – the weather people are saying it is a “once in several decades” kind of storm. Hakone (just west of Tokyo at the foot of Mt. Fuji) received more than 35 inches of rain, and there are multiple warnings and evacuation recommendations due to the swollen rivers and landslides in the area.

For us, it has been a mere inconvenience. We’ve had heavy rain and wind, and everything in the city was shut down. Our plans for a flight to Shanghai today got deferred, as virtually all flights from both Narita and Haneda airports were cancelled, and train service – both local and Shinkansen bullet-train – was suspended.

Living on the 30th floor of a modern apartment tower, we don’t have too much concern about flooding. And our part of Tokyo is quite protected by a canal system, so that rain water isn’t as much a flooding concern as in other parts of the city. During the peak wind gusts, we could feel the building swaying. And, at one point, our earthquake apps alarmed, confirming that the swaying we felt was partly due to an intensity 4 earthquake — kind of a strange thing to happen during a typhoon.

It looks like the typhoon will pass us by late in the evening, and tomorrow the sun will be out and things will start to return to normal. Unfortunately, it’s not going to be so normal for many people. In one area, houses were destroyed by a tornado spawned by the typhoon – a very rare occurrence in Japan. Many others suffered damage from high winds, and from the heavy rains and storm surge.

Typhoon Hagibis will go down in the history books as a record-setting storm, and one that had an impact on thousands of lives. It’s being compared to one in 1958, when more than 1,000 people died. Today’s modern construction, better weather monitoring, and emergency preparedness thankfully prevent that awful outcome.

During our time in Japan, we’ve learned that the Japanese people are quite resilient, and capable of overcoming disasters with an amazing sense of determination. I know we’ll see the same response as people pick up the pieces and rebuild following the historic impact of Typhoon Hagibis.

Ka ni sa ra “DA”… Sushi for dinner

We went to our favorite “neighborhood” sushi restaurant tonight. I like saying that actually, because it makes me feel like I belong here. That I have a place here in Japan. This is the restaurant we went to on our very first night living in Japan, almost four years ago.

The really heart-warming thing that happened tonight, was that when we walked in, two people said to us “Long time no see!” They have come to recognize us… to “know” us… as customers anyway. It has been a busy summer, and we just haven’t been to the sushi place much. And… they noticed!

It is a nice little restaurant… nothing fancy or pretentious… and most of the patrons there are Japanese. We rarely see anyone that isn’t Asian in this restaurant, and the menu is entirely in Japanese. They do have an English menu available, but it is limited. If you really want the full menu with all the options, you need to order from the Japanese menu.

It is actually a small place… a “sushi-go-round”… a conveyor belt sushi restaurant with the sushi chefs inside the conveyor belt area. They make plates (color coded by price) and place them on the conveyor. If what you want is not on the conveyor, you ask for what you want. “Sumimasen! Maguro onegaishimasu!” “Sumimasen! Tobiko onegaishimasu!” And… they will bring your plate to you.

It is a warm and friendly place… although with our elementary Japanese skills, it can sometimes also be a humbling experience. We have discovered some favorite items from their menu, but sometimes it is hard to order those items. We can read the katakana and hiragana characters on the menu, but much of the menu also has kanji characters as well. We can read some of those, but not nearly enough! So… sometimes ordering what we want can be an an adventure.

Tonight, for example, we wanted some ika with shiso (squid on rice, with a shiso leaf). So, I boldly asked: “Sumimasen, To-Ika, onegaishimasu,” expecting the usual “hai, so desu” (yes, ok). But I was greeted with a blank look. Ika? and what? After some consultation with the wait person, we found out that what we really meant to order was “Ko-Ika.” With that clarification, we soon had our squid roll with a shiso leaf…but the lessons weren’t over yet.

Another of our favorites is a crab salad roll. “Ka ni sa ra d(a),” (sort of dropping the “a”) I asked with my simplistic Japanese. Again, a blank look from the sushi chef. Again, after some discussion, I was instructed that I should have said “Ka ni sa ra DA” with some emphasis on the last syllable. And, just to emphasize the point, the sushi chef delivered the dish…Ka ni sa ra DA!

I think if nothing else, we provide some amusement for the staff and the other patrons. The couples sitting next to us got a good laugh… but it was good-natured, and I’m sure they were laughing WITH us, not AT us (lol).

We’ve learned a lot living in Japan. Our first trip to this restaurant, and we could barely get by using the English menu. Now, we can communicate in Japanese (albeit at a flawed, pre-school level). For us, it’s a leap forward…and another rewarding cultural experience in our adopted country.

Typhoon Faxai.

Typhoon Faxai — the fifteenth tropical cyclone of the 2019 season — is due to make landfall somewhere in central Japan late Sunday, September 8th into Monday, September 9th. Heavy rain and strong winds are on the way. From this map, Faxai looks like it will hit Tokyo almost head-on.

This blog post is going to be a bit rambling I am afraid… We were only made aware of this typhoon yesterday, from an email that my husband received at work, warning employees that the trains may not be running, and to stay home Monday morning if the weather is threatening. I had just looked at the Weather Channel app on my phone, and only saw the typhoon that is presently traveling north from Taiwan toward China. I found later that if I had scrolled right on that photo, Typhoon Faxai comes into view.

It is often this way. We usually don’t hear much about the typhoons until right before they arrive. Maybe we just don’t pay enough attention to the Japanese weather reports. We both use the Weather Channel app and sometimes those weather forecasts are more concentrated on the weather “back home” in the US. We sometimes get weather announcements for Japan from the US State Department. This is not the only typhoon we have experienced here… although, I don’t remember one that hit central Japan (and Tokyo!) so directly. Usually they seem to hit farther southwest from Tokyo and just slide up along the coast.

Typhoons can be disastrous for Japan. The country is steeply mountainous in many places, and heavy rain and wind bring on landslides and severe flooding. The Tokyo area lies east of the mountains, on the coast, and so landslides are not that common. But, the storm surge can cause dangerous flooding issues. Our apartment, for example, sits just a few meters above sea level. Our area is buffered and somewhat protected by a system of canals, and those canals mostly have flood gates that can be lowered to protect from storm surge. And, being on the western coast of Tokyo Bay, the Chiba peninsula also lends major protection. But we will see…

The biggest issue for us right now is that both of us are due to leave the apartment this weekend. My husband has a work trip scheduled. For the next two weeks, he will be working long hours and weekends on a project. Most of the project will be here in Tokyo, but he will be staying at a Tokyo hotel with the rest of his group. He was supposed to leave early Monday morning on the Shinkansen for a two day trip to the Niigata area on the western coast of Japan. Because he was going to be working such long hours, I scheduled a trip back to the US to visit with family.

My flight leaves Sunday afternoon… several hours before Faxia is supposed to arrive, so likely I will still be able fly out ahead of the storm. For my husband, however, with a Shinkansen trip on Monday during the projected landfall, his train will most likely be canceled, delaying his meeting and lengthening his project time. Usually when there is heavy rain, and especially high winds, the trains — local and Shinkansen — are canceled or delayed.

Also… our son and his fiancee have been visiting this week, and are leaving on the Shinkansen to go to Shikoku (another of the four main islands of Japan — farther south and west of Honshu). Fortunately, their train is very early in the day, and they should be able to get away before any major problems with the trains. Shikoku should be largely unaffected by this typhoon.

For the most part, typhoons move through pretty quickly, and even with heavy rain and high winds, the storm shouldn’t last too long, and the city will just be dealing with the aftereffects. I am sort of sad to miss seeing what this storm will do. We have been in this apartment when the winds are strong, and you can actually feel a slight swaying — not unlike what happens when we have a minor earthquake.

But… hopefully all of us will get to where we need to be during this storm without any major mishaps or delays.

For my part, I will be back in the US for two weeks, and I am sincerely hoping that when I return to Japan, this awful heat and humidity will be over, and fall weather will be on the way. It has been a miserably hot summer in Tokyo. I can’t imagine what will happen when global climate change causes the temperature to increase even more.

The other day when I was walking to the grocery store I saw a man wearing a long-sleeved windbreaker. It looked like he was some sort of service person, or utility worker. When I got close up behind him, I noticed that his jacket had two cooling fans integrated into the fabric. Wow… I want that! I really needed it that day! His jacket was all zipped up, and the cooling fans (presumably) were circulating “coolish” air around the inside of the jacket. Ahhh… I see many people walking around with small battery powered, handheld cooling fans, but never a jacket with “air-conditioning!”

[And just as an aside, speaking of coolish… Here is a brand of ice cream that we have found in the combinis (convenience stores) here in Japan. “Coolish” is a Lotte product… a Korean company. We have found these nice, neat frozen ice cream packages in vanilla, chocolate and now… this one, is pineapple. Good for a nice cold snack on a hot day in Tokyo!]

Well — as I write this, the clouds are starting to roll in. It will start raining overnight, but hopefully not too much rain until after I walk to the subway station tomorrow morning. We rarely take taxis, but I may have to resort to calling the “English-Speaking Taxi Service” here. I am getting better at Japanese, but ordering a taxi in Japanese could be an ordeal. Just hoping I can just get by walking to the station.

For our friends and family back in the US, I hope the weather is improving wherever you are. I see that Hurricane Dorian is still churning away in the Atlantic, but hopefully there will be no more major issues from it. Take care out there…

How are we feeling?

This blog has evolved over time to be mostly a “travel blog” talking about places to go, and things to do and see here in Japan, and elsewhere. I have to remind myself now and then, that it was intended to be more than that. I want it to be an honest reflection of our life here in Japan. Originally meant to be here for two years, we are now headed toward completing our fourth year as expats living in Tokyo, Japan.

And… for the most part we have been very happy here. We have experienced so much in our time here, and… still… feel sad about the prospect of all of that coming to an end. (We are scheduled to return to Atlanta next year.) But, as with almost everyone, everywhere, sometimes things just feel out of whack. Sometimes you just don’t feel happy about where you are and what you are doing. No… there is really nothing wrong. Just sometimes life makes you feel a bit “out of sorts.” And I am feeling that way right now. I promise not to wallow in it too much. I trust that things will smooth out and be better soon! But for now, I will just list some of the things that CAN make expat life (particularly for a non-working spouse expat) feel difficult at times.

  • Weather. Every place has its weather issues… good weather, bad weather. We are nearing the end of summer here in Tokyo, and in general, that means it is sweltering hot, and incredibly humid. Actually the weather here is very similar to the weather we have in Atlanta, with fewer thunderstorms, and higher humidity. And I guess it is that awful humidity that is the big difference. I cannot go out the door right now without breaking into a sweat. I soak through my clothes, and my skin feels sticky. I wear black or white most of the time because it shows the sweat least. We walk a lot since we don’t have a car. It is a full kilometer to the nearest train station, so even when we take the train, we get sweaty walking to the station. Today it is cloudy and cooler, but the humidity is still high because it has been on and off raining all day. So… this leads to:
  • Isolation. When the weather is so hot and sticky, I just don’t feel much like going out. We like to walk, and we look forward to walking and exploring this city. We take our cameras and go on photo walks to discover new places. It is our usual weekend past time. But when it so hot and humid it can get pretty miserable, pretty fast. I kind of feel like I have been cooped up way too much lately. I need to get out… I want to get out!
  • Isolation Part 2. I am in a foreign country where I don’t speak very much of the language. I am learning, but still… I am far from having an easy conversation. Also… the Japanese people (as wonderfully kind and respectful as they truly are!) tend to keep to themselves. It is difficult to actually strike up a conversation with anyone. It is difficult — even for them — to make friends. Some say the Japanese are a shy culture. I don’t really think it is so much shyness, as politeness and respect. They try not to interfere in other people’s business. On the trains, by and large, the only people talking are the foreign tourists! Everyone else is sitting/standing quietly with their headphones in, looking at their cell phones.
  • Isolation Part 3. I am not saying it is impossible to make friends here, but it is difficult. There is a really nice lady who works at the grocery store where I shop. She is about my age, and she always speaks to me (in Japanese… *sigh*) and smiles at me. We communicate, despite our language differences. I look forward to this interaction! She speaks to me, and I try my best to speak back to her in Japanese. I understand more of the language than I am comfortable speaking. But it is something!
  • Long work hours/travel. For my spouse, that is. My husband loves his job here… and I LOVE that he loves his job here. It has been such a positive experience for him. But lately… things have been piling up, and of course, stressful things come up at work, or a big project brings extra responsibilities, or he has to travel more than usual. He works for an international company, so he deals with people in several time zones. To do a video conference or any kind of phone call or meeting takes major time coordination, and usually he gets the late night call time because that works best for everyone else. I don’t usually mind too much, but lately there have been a lot of evening meetings. And last weekend because of a work-related problem, he had to work both Saturday and part of Sunday. So… for me, that is more time alone.

Actually… I pride myself that I have the right personality for this kind of life. I am a person who really enjoys — and requires, actually — a good bit of “alone time.” But lately it has been even more than I like. lol.

This weekend he has to leave on an unexpected business trip, and when he gets back, he has to leave two days later for another trip — longer, he will be gone a full two weeks — that has been scheduled for months. I will take those two weeks to go home to the US to visit with family. All in all, we will be away from each other for nearly three weeks. Ok, Ok… couples do that all the time, and I will try not to be a wimp about it. After all, I won’t be alone, I will be busy visiting people… people I can actually easily converse with! Ok. One last thing for the list…

  • Worrying. Sometimes I tend to get mired in worrying. Worried about things going on with our family at home, worrying about our house, and having to deal with maintenance and repair issues from 6000 miles away. And… not the least worry… worrying about this horrendous political situation in the US. Not to go too deep into the politics, watching all of that from afar is alarming… and stressful, and horribly sad. Especially seeing the news through the eyes of the rest of the world. And I worry what it will be like when we have to return to all that turmoil.

So, these are the things on my mind right now that are maybe making me feel less than happy. But it is Ok… Things will hopefully look better tomorrow. Thanks for letting me vent.

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: