Sentaku (Laundry)

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

On being alone in Tokyo…

We started this blog to write about what it is like to live as an expat in a foreign country. To talk not just about the fun and interesting things, but also to talk about the challenges and difficult parts of living away from home in a country and culture (not to mention language) that is so far and away different from where we are from. Sometimes this blog does morph into something like a travel guide — places to see and things to do in Japan. Today, though, I will step back and talk about one of the challenging things.

My husband just left on a business trip. He will be gone for almost a week. I have been very fortunate to be able to accompany him on many of his business trips. The company pays his travel expenses, and we pay mine. We schedule a few vacation days before or after the business part of the trip, and so we have an opportunity to do a bit of sight-seeing together. But… this time, going with him just wasn’t an option. He has a couple of business stops to make, and it just wasn’t practical.

Over the years of our marriage, he has done a fair amount of business travel, and I have stayed at home. It isn’t that I can’t stay alone, or that I am afraid to stay alone. In fact, I like some alone time now and then.

But… it is a little more challenging for me being alone here. I can manage quite well taking care of myself, our apartment, and buying groceries, etc. That is not the problem. The problem is that the amount of solitude that I have when he is gone, can start to feel overwhelming. Without a job of my own, and without the business connections and friends at work that he has, my day is pretty quiet. Sometimes too quiet.

I just got back from a trip to the US to visit family, and I left my husband here “alone” for 2 1/2 weeks. He missed me, and evenings were lonely, but he had that full day at work where he was with his co-workers and interacting with people. Then for a few hours in the evening before going to sleep, he was alone.

I guess the difficulty is that I don’t really have many friends here, and not many outlets for “socializing.” Because of the language barrier — and it is definitely a hurdle — it is hard for me to make Japanese friends. Most of them are just as shy about trying to speak English, as I am about speaking my meager amount of Japanese. And… finding English-speaking expats in our part of Tokyo is hard. We opted not to live in the popular expat areas, because we wanted a more authentic Japanese experience. Besides… living in Shibaura, close to my husband’s office, he can walk to work instead of taking a 45 minute train ride from Roppongi or Akasaka. We like Shibaura.

The Japanese people are very kind, and considerate. But they are also somewhat introverted. They don’t like to interfere in other people’s business. When we walk down the street, most of the Japanese that I meet do not make eye contact. When we ride on the trains, most people are looking at their cell phones, or have headphones in listening to music, or are sleeping (or maybe pretending to sleep.) Actually, if you hear loud conversation on the trains… it is likely to be from tourists… lol. They don’t want to interfere in each other’s business… including mine. I don’t mind, I am kind of that same personality myself. Like I said, I enjoy my “alone time” too.

And it is all well and good when I am alone during the day, and can look forward to spending time with my husband in the evenings. Except… when he is away. So this week I will have a few too many days to be all by myself.

I am not asking for pity, or even complaining. I am just bringing this topic into the blog for consideration. Yes. It can be lonely living in a foreign country. It can feel isolating. And I really do believe that you have to have the right personality to do this. You do have to be able to deal with some amount of isolation. You have to accept the challenging parts right along with the fun and interesting parts. And for us, this expat experience has been well worth dealing with those difficult parts.

Sometimes, you just need a hamburger…

We’ve lived in Japan for 2-1/2 years, and we have really embraced Japanese food. Sushi, sashimi, yakitori, soba, ramen, Japanese curry…the local food is amazing, and we take advantage of it literally every day.

But, sometimes, you just need a hamburger.

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Today, for the first time since our arrival here, we had ‘burgers made at home. Hamburger from the grocery store, buns that resemble real hamburger buns, ketchup, mustard, a slice of tomato…yum, just like “home.”

Of course, there are other alternatives for Western hamburgers. Tokyo is riddled with McDonald’s, Wendy’s, and Burger King restaurants. And for a slightly Asian take on the American diet, there is Mos Burger, Lotteria and Freshness Burger. You can even find the international Shake Shack chain in several locations.

For those with an urge for Western food not involving hamburger, there are KFC shops, Pizza Hut, Domino’s, and even Dunkin’ Donuts. There are even some Mexican food restaurants — a delicacy we have yet to try.

So, there really is something in Japan for every taste. For us, aside from the occasional hamburger fix, we’ll stick with the wonderfully delicious Japanese food options. Oishii desu!