Setagaya trip to market

There are many activities in Tokyo that are seasonal or held periodically. Today, we visited the Setagaya street fair/market. It’s an event we saw on the Best Living Japan website, a good source for information about activities in Tokyo.

Setagaya is an area of Tokyo we have seldom visited. Fortunately, Google Maps provides an easy (and usually accurate) set of directions. Today, we took the JR Yamanote line from Tamachi Station to Shibuya Station. Then a change of trains to the Tokyu Den-entoshi Line, to Sangenjaya Station. From there, change trains to the Setagaya Line, a small tram rail line (one of the few tram lines remaining in Tokyo) going to Setagaya Station. Sounds more complicated than it really is. The street fair started just outside Setagaya Station. 

Start of the street fair, just outside Setagaya Station

The street fair is held twice a year. There are some 700 booths, selling just about everything from clothing, to dishware, to street food. It’s crowded…be ready to navigate through lots of people. But it’s an interesting experience, in a part of Tokyo that is a bit more remote from the big city. 

We spent about two hours wandering through the streets. If you’re really into shopping – or eating – you could easily spend much more time there. 

We chose to walk back from Setagaya to Shibuya. It’s about a six kilometer walk through residential Tokyo. We found a nice urban path that runs through the neighborhoods – paved, away from the busy streets. A quiet, scenic walkway that runs almost all the way to Shibuya. 

So, today we found an area of Tokyo that, after nearly 3 years of living in Tokyo, we haven’t seen before. It’s part of the fun of living in this safe and walkable city. 

A Trip to the Supermarket…

Not a lot of groceries, but about as much as I like to carry home from the supermarket.

Here in Japan, I have to grocery shop almost daily. Our refrigerator and pantry space is small, and I have a kilometer walk to and from the store. I have talked about the challenges of grocery shopping and about Japanese products before, but here are a few things I bought today. Nothing too out of the ordinary, but still some interesting differences from products we buy in the US.

This is Japanese cooking sake — ryorishu. This brand is sold in a carton,and is found in the aisle with soy sauce, vinegars, mirin, etc. The difference between this and regular drinking sake, is that law requires the addition of 2-3% salt to make it unpalatable for drinking. You can use regular sake for cooking, but this is generally cheaper at about 400 yen for 900 ml. Many Japanese dishes are cooked in a savory mixture of soy sauce, mirin, and sake. Sake helps to tenderize meats, and helps to cut odors of fish dishes. 

Mirin — also a type of cooking sake. The difference between mirin and the above ryorishu cooking sake, is that mirin has a lower alcohol content, and a higher sugar content. It is almost syrupy in comparison. Usually ryorishu is added first to help tenderize the meat, and much of the alcohol content is cooked away. Mirin is often added later in the cooking process.

Japanese mayonnaise. Important differences from US brands — generally more egg yolks, and less egg white. Rice wine vinegar instead of cider vinegar. Thinner consistency, and a richer flavor. In my opinion, a much more tasty product than regular mayo, and Kewpie brand is very popular here. Added as a condiment to many Japanese dishes and street foods — often sprinkled with bonito flakes and/or nori (seaweed) flakes. 

Tofu. Sold in small blocks, and very reasonably priced here. This package of two 175 gram blocks (about 12 ounces total) for only 78 yen (about 69 cents). Most tofu here is soft. I haven’t found the firm or extra firm type that I buy in the US. We eat a lot of tofu here. It is very versatile, with a texture similar to cooked egg white, and a neutral flavor. It takes on the flavors of whatever it is cooked with. We often have it served cold — cubed and sprinkled with mirin and soy sauce.

Today’s produce. I have talked about Japanese long onion — negi. It is good stewed, roasted, or thinly sliced as a garnish. The apples here are almost the size of softballs, and I can use part of one, then wrap it tightly in plastic and keep it for several days in the refrigerator. Late fall/winter is the season for oranges — mikan — in Japan. These are small mandarin oranges — exceptionally sweet, easy to peel, and seedless. Delicious.

We eat a lot of fish and seafood here in Japan, and this is salmon collar — the cut behind the head and gills, in front of the fillet. Often the fillet is used for sushi, and the collar is sold for cooked dishes. This small package was 169 yen per 100 grams. I will marinate it in mirin and miso paste, and then grill it.

This trip to the supermarket was pretty typical, and cost a little less than 2500 yen — about 22 US dollars.  So, shopping an average of 5 to 6 days per week, means our weekly grocery bill (including wine and other alcoholic beverages) is between $100 and $150 per week. Not too much more than what we spend in the US. 

We eat different things here in Japan, and in general, I think we eat very well. Produce here seems a bit more expensive, but I feel like it is “cleaner” with fewer chemicals and pesticides. We eat small amounts of meat — mostly pork and chicken — and the chicken is cheaper than in the US. Beef is expensive, and we rarely eat it. Eggs in Japan are richer, with bright orange (not yellow) yolks, and are safe to eat raw or undercooked. 

It has been a process learning about Japanese foods and cooking methods — and I still sometimes struggle to find the ingredients I want because most of the labeling is in Japanese. I know that when we do move back to the US, one of the things we will miss about Japan… is the food. 

Personal Safety in the City

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My husband had a business meeting in Paris last week, and I went along. Paris is a beautiful city, a wonderful city, and we both love visiting there. We had a weekend before the meeting started to wander our favorite sights and streets, and then I went off on my own while he was working. We have been there often enough now, that we feel fairly comfortable on the Metro, and finding our way around — we know where things are in Paris.

However, our trip started off with a somewhat unsettling incident. We had arrived at Charles de Gaulle airport, and took the RER train, as usual, into the city. It is about a 40 minute trip to Chatelet/Les Halles station, where we transferred — luggage and all — to the Number One metro line to our hotel on the western side of the city, near La Defense.

We both are usually very careful about guarding our belongings:  No wallets in the back or side pockets, purses and bags closed and secure, and being aware of the people around us. I have a slash-proof travel bag that I always use, and I had backed myself up against the wall of the train — at rush hour the train was crowded, and no seats were available.

After a few stops, a noisy group of teenage girls got on — 3 or 4 of them. One girl tried to nudge me out of my corner, asking questions (in French? or some other language, I couldn’t tell) and pointing to a subway map on the wall beside me. I moved a little bit, but did not vacate my corner. Then they were all over the place, still loudly asking the other passengers questions and pointing to the maps… to distract us all while one the girls started looking for pockets to pick!

My husband never carries his wallet in an easily accessible location, but after going through immigration at the airport, he absently slid his passport into the side pocket of his cargo pants. Luckily… someone else on the train was suspicious of the behavior of these girls and suddenly yelled “Pickpocket!” His passport fell to the floor just as the doors opened and the girls all ran away.

Truthfully, I don’t think they wanted his passport… I think they were just looking for wallets and cash, but it was an alarming “wake-up” for two seasoned, but jet-lagged and weary travelers. Something that has never happened to us before, and hopefully never will again.

I know pickpockets are very common in Paris and other large cities. The Paris Metro announces warnings at every stop in multiple languages (even Japanese). One does have to be very careful of petty crime in most big cities — Paris, London, New York, Atlanta, etc. But, since this is a blog “about Japan,” I also want to relate a story or two from here in Tokyo.

Certainly, no place is entirely without crime, and you have to guard your personal safety wherever you travel, but I have to say that of all the big cities I have traveled to, I feel the safest in Tokyo. And, for that matter, all of Japan. Just a few examples:

Twice, I have come across coin wallets lying along the sidewalk. Japan has a lot of coins — the smallest paper bill is equivalent to $10 — and many people carry small coin wallets. It is easier to have a coin wallet than to dig through pockets and purses to retrieve the right coins. So, twice I have seen these lying either on a wall or fence along the sidewalk. Someone has dropped it, and someone else has found it and placed it in an obvious location, so that (hopefully) the owner will walk back and find their lost property. It would be better to turn it in at the nearest koban (police box), but when pressed for time, the finder just places it in a conspicuous location. I have no doubt (truly) that every coin is still in the wallet. It is also the same with lost gloves, scarves, hats, coats, etc. They are hung on railings, or placed on walls and fences for the owner to come back to find. “Finders, keepers” does not work here.

In coffee shops and fast food restaurants, customers usually find a table or seat first, placing their belongings on the table, and then going to order food. The reason being that these shops are usually crowded, and if you don’t claim a seat before you order, you may not get a seat. I have seen purses, cellphones, packages, and even computers left unattended on tables in restaurants. No one bothers them. Period.

I have seen unlocked bicycles along the street with packages and sometimes purses in the the basket. I have seen little dogs and (yes) even toddlers left in bicycle seats outside of convenience stores. No doubt mama is watching closely from inside as she dashes in for some necessity, but no one bothers anything.

I have no really solid explanation other than that the Japanese (by and large) are a very honest and extremely honorable society. They truly value honesty and integrity. They truly want to do the right thing, and treat everyone with kindness, respect, and honor. Like I said, I am sure there are exceptions, and that there is crime to be found, but so much less than I have seen in other countries.

Japan is an amazing country — an amazing people, and an amazing culture. If only more people in the world could behave this way…

 

 

Wakarimasen… moichido yukkuri, onegaishimasu…

(I don’t understand… One more time, slowly, please.)

I just returned from a very brain-draining spouses’ language/culture class at my husband’s company. And my brain is feeling fried. Atama ga itai desu, yo! (My head hurts, you know!) I want to participate in these classes, but I admit they can sometimes be very stressful for me. Today —  was especially humbling.

I enjoy getting together with these women, but I am still the only American, and also the only truly native English speaker in the group. There are several from India and Pakistan who speak English, but often when they are together with each other they speak in other languages instead. There are also several from Korea, Taiwan, and China who can communicate (at least to some degree) with each other because their languages are all based on the Chinese kanji characters. Japanese is also based on those Chinese kanji, so our teachers (sensei, in Japanese) can more easily speak to them.

I usually hang out somewhere in the middle of our group, and try to understand as much as I can from both sides of the room. Our teachers speak only a little English, so they can’t easily explain a language concept to me. At this point, I know only a few of the kanji characters, but I can read the kana — katakana and hiragana — characters. Sensei writes things on the board in a mix of kanji and kana… and she usually translates the kanji characters into kana for me. And sometimes she will write it in romaji — the Roman alphabet.

My husband and I both really want to learn Japanese. We have taken three sessions of classes with a private instructor, and we use several language apps on our phones and computers, but after almost three years here, we are still only minimally conversant in Japanese. I have learned a lot of Japanese vocabulary and grammar, and I can usually understand the gist of a conversation — if they would just slow down and speak clearly.

My husband talks about this problem a lot. The official language of his company is English, and every employee hired has to have a certain proficiency in English. But often he struggles to understand what people are saying to him because they are speaking Korean-English, or Japanese-English, or Indian-English, etc. We all tend to accent and enunciate the words in a significantly different way.

For example: Today, one of my Korean friends in the group, was trying to tell me that I should visit Hamarikyu (a garden near where she lives in Tokyo.) She kept saying the name over and over, and I kept shaking my head trying to understand what she was saying. Then another person in our group said it in a slightly different way, and… AHA! I got it! I have been to Hamarikyu several times, and am familiar with the name. I just couldn’t understand it the way she was saying it.

The point of all this, I guess, is that language — and therefore communication — is a really difficult thing. We have to work hard at it. And, beyond the mechanics of language, we have to work really hard to truly understand each other. I am not just talking about words. Our language is part of who we are, and is linked to our culture, our upbringing, our values, and our experiences. We aren’t just communicating our words. We are “communicating” who we are, and how we view the world.

Yes… it is a struggle. Yes… it is difficult. But I think it is worth it, and I am not going to give up on it. This is how we connect. This is how we unite. This is how we learn to understand and respect each other — not as individuals of many different races, but as members of the same HUMAN race.

 

Thanksgiving in Japan

It is the beginning of “Thanksgiving week” at home in the US, and people there are getting ready to launch the holiday season with the first big family gathering/ holiday/ food fest. We won’t be there for the Thanksgiving holiday… we will be here in Tokyo, where the 4th Thursday of November is just another day of the work week.

They do have a “Thanksgiving” holiday (of sorts) here. It is called Labor Thanksgiving Day, and in Japan it is celebrated every year on November 23rd. This year, that holiday falls on the Friday after Thanksgiving. Labor Thanksgiving is a national holiday that was established after World War II, and replaces an earlier traditional harvest festival. It was established to celebrate labor and production, and to give thanks for workers. They don’t usually celebrate it with a big feast of turkey and trimmings, but it is a nice holiday off work and school.

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In my supermarket this week, I found a freezer full of turkeys! So I guess some people here do plan on making a turkey for dinner, although is is definitely not a Japanese tradition. I am afraid it won’t work for us, however, since all we have in our small apartment kitchen is a cook-top and fish grill (broiler).

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IMG_0191No canned pumpkin for pumpkin pie either. We do have Japanese pumpkins here… small green-skinned pumpkins that are delicious when stewed and eaten in Japanese curry. But alas, again, no oven in which to bake a pie. Mashed potatoes would be possible, and green bean casserole could possibly be cooked in the microwave, if I could manage to gather all the ingredients. But no bread baking without an oven…

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No fireplace in our apartment, so no crackling fire to snuggle up in front of to watch football with family and friends after the big meal. Of course, we could find a You Tube virtual fireplace for a little bit of seasonal atmosphere… with the added advantage of never needing to scoop out the ashes! Our “American Thanksgiving Day” will be just another workday for us.

And… on our Japanese Labor Thanksgiving holiday, we will be heading to Paris where my husband is scheduled for meetings next week. The long holiday weekend will be very different for us, traveling to yet another country that doesn’t celebrate Thanksgiving Day:  no turkey, no football, and no Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade.

But no matter…  we happily embrace the culture of our temporary adopted country, and the varied cultures of the countries we are privileged to visit. Life is about collecting experiences, after all. And as much as we miss our family, and the traditions we have established with them for so many years, we are very thankful for the experiences we have had while living here in Japan.

We think of our home and our family, and miss many things about “home” — especially during the holidays. So, to all of you, you and yours, friends and family… may you experience a Happy (and thankful) Thanksgiving.

Think of us, and eat another slice of pumpkin pie!

 

IMG_2732*** Extra cultural tidbit…    Look at what I found in the supermarket next to the sake. The Japanese says “Fugu fins.” Fugu are pufferfish. Certain parts of the pufferfish contain a lethal poison, and not preparing it correctly — removing the toxic portions without contaminating the edible parts — can result in death. Sushi chefs must complete several years of rigorous training before they can serve fugu.

These fins (not a toxic part of the fish) have been grilled and dried. They are used to make “Hirezake” — the fin is placed in a cup of heated sake, and allowed to steep. This imparts a smoky (and I would also say, a somewhat “fishy”) flavor to the sake — lol. Yes… I have tried it. Not really a favorite of mine, but some people apparently find it appealing. 498 Yen for enough fugu fins to serve all your holiday guests!

 

 

Tokyo to London

Although my job assignment is in Tokyo, I work for a multinational company that also has an office in London. So, on occasion, I take the flight from Tokyo to London.

One thing you quickly come to realize when living in Japan is that a trip to just about any other country is a long trip. Going to the United Kingdom is no exception. It is a l-o-n-g trip.

There are a few direct flights from Tokyo to London. But they tend to be pretty pricey. On this trip, I opted for the less expensive one-stop flight on Air France.

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Photo by Frank K., Anchorage, AK

About 11 hours in the air from Tokyo to Paris, then a layover of about 3 hours, followed by a quickie 1-1/2 hour flight to London Heathrow. At about $1,300 USD for a bare-bones economy seat, it still wasn’t cheap, but it was substantially less than the direct flight … and only about 3 hours longer travel time.

London’s usually a pretty easy city to get around. We took the Piccadilly Underground line from Heathrow, then changed at Green Park to the Jubilee Line to Canary Wharf, the location for this trip’s hotel. 150px-Underground.svgAbout an hour on the tube, which costs around 3 GBP – around $4 USD. Of course, if you’re averse to the subway, there’s always a taxi… if you’re willing to pay around $100 USD. I’ll opt for the tube, thank you.

After being in Tokyo for awhile, it’s refreshing to be someplace where the predominant language is English. Of course, London is such a multicultural city, you hear a multitude of languages and accents. Still, we come to appreciate the ability to hear and read with ease most of the time.

 

This trip involved a venture outside of London. Southwest Railway train to Poole, then a rental car to Lulworth Cove on the southern coast.

 

My first chance to drive on the left side of the road, on the right side of the car, shifting a manual transmission with my left hand. Actually, it was kind of fun…with only a few near-death experiences in the roundabouts.

We enjoyed our journey to the UK, and had a good time. But after a few days, we found ourselves ready to go back home to Japan. After living in Tokyo for nearly three years, it really does seem like home…a place we look forward to coming “home” to.

 

Flu Shots.

It is fall again, and one thing we always do in the fall is get our flu shots. Back home in ATL, I was required by my workplace to get a flu shot every year (I worked in healthcare there) and the vaccination was provided by my workplace. My husband’s company also provided the vaccination to workers, and even scheduled “vaccine clinics” to make it more convenient for their workers to get the shot. Of course, we could also go to lots of other places to get our flu shots, and it was fully covered by our medical insurance. It was easy and convenient for us to get the vaccination.

At my husband’s workplace here in Japan, they also encourage everyone to get their flu shot in the fall, and we have been provided with a list of clinics in our area where we can go to get vaccinated. Since we are still covered by our US health insurance, we pay for the vaccine here, and then submit the bills to our insurance company back home for reimbursement. We are also covered under the Japanese National Health Insurance for most other medical expenses, but I don’t think the flu vaccine is a part of that coverage.

The first fall after we moved to Japan we were home for a visit and just got the flu shot while we were in the US. But last year — and this year — we got the vaccine here. It is not difficult… but there are some hurdles to doing anything when you can’t speak the language very well. It can seem daunting at times to do even these simple tasks. My husband’s workplace does provide us with a liaison — an employee who can help us with these sorts of communication challenges, but we do try to manage as well as we can on our own.

Once we got the list of clinics, it was simple enough to type in the address into Google maps, and find out where we needed to go. The clinic we have chosen is nearby — right here in Minato-ku (our “ward” of Tokyo). My husband did have someone from work call to make sure they had vaccine available before we went to the clinic… phone calls are especially a challenge for us. We manage day-to-day communication with a mixture of our meager Japanese, and quite a lot of pointing and gesturing. It works fine when you are face-to-face, but over the phone, communication with a non-English speaker is nearly impossible.

So… with GPS in hand, we walked to the clinic, and this is what we found:

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More language challenge. The floor guide was all in Japanese. But, we are actually learning(!) and after some (rather slow) translation, we determined that our desired medical clinic was on the 3rd floor. “3F Minato-Mita (the first three are kanji characters) ku-ri-nik-ku (followed by 5 katakana characters)” — Minato-Mita Clinic! We couldn’t read all of the kanji on that sign, but we could read enough to get by. Success.

Once inside, it was very much like any clinic in the US. A waiting room and a reception desk. The staff spoke minimal English, but all we had to say was “influenza shot” and they gave us each a form to fill out (in English!) and a thermometer to take our temperature. After handing that back in, we waited for our “interview” with the doctor.

We came to this clinic last year too, and had the same doctor for this part. He speaks English, but very heavily accented, so it is sometimes hard to understand him. He goes over our medical forms and asks questions. He is elderly, and always asks us how old we think he is… lol. This year, he is 82(!) and still healthy and working at the clinic. I know they have other doctors there, but I think they always send us to him because he has the best English.

Anyway… so after our interview with the doctor, we wait out in the reception area for our turn. The nurses get everything set up, and in no time we are done and vaccinated for this year. We go to the waiting room while they prepare our bill, and when they call us up, they punch the number into a calculator so that we can read the amount we owe. Most businesses here have a calculator on the counter so that they can show us the numbers — they know we are really SLOW understanding the numbers in Japanese… lol.

Our bill was 3500 yen each — about $35 — which we will now submit to our insurance.

Sometimes I feel bad that even after 2 1/2 years here, I still can’t speak Japanese. But we do manage, and actually… I think we are understanding more that we think we are. It is a gradual process, and we have become comfortable doing this kind of day-to-day communication… even if we aren’t fluent speakers of Japanese.

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