Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Tokyo Fire Musuem visit

If there were no schools to take the children away from home part of the time, the insane asylums would be filled with mothers.  ~Edgar W. Howe

On that note, the 3.5 year old angel has no school this week Weds - Friday due to parent teacher conferences.  In an attempt to save my sanity, today we decided to explore the Tokyo Fire Museum.  One bicycle ride and 2 subway trains later, we arrived at the Yotsuya Sanchome subway stop in Shinjuku.  Conveniently you can enter the museum directly from the subway stop and better yet, it's FREE admission!

The museum consists of 6 floors that describe the different stages of Japan's firefighting history - beginning with samurai era firefighting on the top floor and descending to modern day equipment on the first floor.  Highlights include a firefighting helicopter that sits outside on a rooftop that you are allowed to crawl into and "drive", many interactive displays - in both English and Japanese, a fireman dress up area and then Mecca itself - the bottom floor with all the trucks.  Red and shiny - old and new, G was in heaven.  

After spending almost 3 hours in the museum, we headed up to the 10th floor where there is an observation deck with vending machines (and furniture circa 1975) to grab a juice box and take in an amazing view of the city before heading home.   All in all, a fantastic day and a museum that we will surely visit again.  

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Hello, remember me?

Yes, I's been way too long.  To make a very long story short, G and I had an amazing summer back in the United States.  He got a taste of Americana at its best and I got to spend a ton of time with friends, family and of course shopping.  After the husband dragged me kicking and screaming back to Japan, we are full speed ahead in Tokyo again.  G is attending the American School in Japan's Early Learning Center and (again) after a brief adjustment period, is loving it.  Roy is immersed in work and I'm trying once again to establish a life here.  I'm back to my Japanese lessons twice a week, taking a core conditioning class at the Tokyo American club, joining in a book club and a cooking club and becoming very active in G's school.  I've taken on the role of Social Coordinator for his class and have also volunteered for the spring gala (Havana Nights) committee as I cannot lie, I love me a black tie event.  Oh and I get to buy a new dress. 

Last weekend the forecast called for lovely weather on Saturday, so being true to our "explore more of this city" mantra, we decided to....go to Tokyo Disneyland of course.  We checked the website (in English - woo too!), verified the address, packed snacks and at 6:45 am on Saturday we were out the door en route to "Mickey Mouse's house" which conveniently is just 1/2 hour drive away.  The park opens at 8 am, however by the time we arrived at 7:15, there were already quite impressive lines at the entrance.  Families had obviously been camping out for some time already.  We purchased our tickets and then waited with the masses for the gates to open.  And open they did, at which time people were running full speed ahead towards the attractions.  While we stood gaping,  still trying to open our map of the park -not good planning by the Wilmoths. 

Finally we just decided to conquer the attractions in a clockwise fashion - Adventureland, Westernland, Critter Country, Fantasyland, Toontown and Tomorrowland.  Making a point to watch the main street parade - Halloween themed at 11:00 am.  Early in the morning we were able to visit most attractions with very little wait, but by noon, there were 2 hour lines at most of the popular rides.  Seeing the Husband and G on the Flying Dumbo pretty much made my life.  My fave ride?  The spinning teacups - hysterical!  Had a brief moment of "OMG, is this ride age appropriate?" on a roller coaster (c'mon, he made the height restriction) but it turned out to be the highlight of G's visit.  Mother of the Year award still in tact. 

The park itself was immaculate , no trash to be seen anywhere on the grounds.  The only drawback?  Food and snacks were few and far between and/or had huge lines.  I should clarify - you could purchase Mickey Mouse shaped popsicles and caramel/curry/chocolate/green tea flavoured popcorn in the park quite readily and it appears this is what most people ate throughout the day.    Although the crowds were huge due to it being a holiday weekend, the Husband and G were quite easy to spot as I think we were 3 of perhaps 6 gaijin (foreigners) at the park that day.  G is starting to think that his name is "Kawaii" pronounced like Hawaii - it means "cute" in Japanese and is generally uttered while simultaneously touching his hair.  A definite no-go in the U.S, but here quite acceptable.  

We called it a day around 3:30 -tired, crispy from the sun but all happy that we had finally experienced Disneyland.  We plan to return this fall - I am dying to try Space Mountain Tokyo style.  

Until next time...

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Monday, June 27th Things I've Learned

I can't believe that we've been in Tokyo over 6 months already.  Coming up at the end of this week, G and I will be headed back to the good ole' U.S. of A for 6 weeks  to see friends and family.  And to shop.  At Target.  The mass exodus of wives and children from Tokyo began a few weeks ago when the American School in Japan let out and many left immediately for their home countries.  I've been told that the summer here is unbearable due to the heat and humidity and this year there is the added bonus of an attempt to conserve power as this country recovers from the devastating earthquake of March 11th.

G's last day of school was on Friday.  During good-bye circle time (parent participation), I couldn't help but tear up as this little international school and G's teachers have been so fantastic to us as we were complete newcomers to the city and to the school.  In the fall, he will attend ASIJ - the American School in Japan whose curriculum, activities, vacations etc. mirror the school system in the United States as well as the other American schools worldwide.   One day we'll be back in the U.S., I promise!

During our remaining days here, G and I will be a fixture at the Tokyo American Club swimming pool, outdoor play area, library and restaurant.  This all in one entertainment complex (complete with bowling alley and billiards!) has become a lifeline for us for all things familiar and convenient and we never fail to run into someone that we know there.

As I was wrapping up loose ends today, I was thinking about the completely random things that I've discovered during my past 6 months here in Tokyo and I came up with the following list(absolutely not all inclusive as I'm sure I'll post this and think of 10 more): 

  1. Byoin and byoin mean either beauty salon or hospital depending on which syllable you place the accent, this can prove slightly problematic leading me to my number 2. 
  2. Most taxi drivers speak little to no English.  The words for right, left, straight and stop are the first Japanese words that one should master if planning to visit this country. 
  3. The 100 yen shops are fantastic for souvenirs, knick knacks and household items - all for just 100 yen.  Thus far the 4 story shop in Harajuku is my fave and is the reason that we are the proud owners of Hello Kitty chip clips, plastic hard boiled egg container (with smiley face) and chopsticks with every design imaginable. 
  4. Not all sake is created equal.  Enough said. 
  5. Try as I might, I do not love green tea ice-cream.  Same goes for the sakura/cherry blossom latte. 
  6. Number four is considered very unlucky, as are all even numbers to some extent.  The Japanese word for the number four is shi which also means death.  You won't find room 404 or 414 at a local hospital.  When giving a gift of, for example, wine glasses, the preferred number to give is 5 - not 6 and definitely not 4!
  7. Although blowing your nose in public is frowned upon here, when walking past one of the numerous public restrooms (door open natch), you are likely to witness a local man using the urinal or even better, the public park bushes.  So boogers = bad but full frontal male nudity = okay. 
  8. Traditional Japanese kitchens do not contain an oven.  Cooking is done on stovetop, with ricecooker and via microwave.  
  9. It is next to impossible to find self tanning lotion or bronzer here in Tokyo.  But I can find a plethora of whitening cremes. 
  10. My three year old now screeches "no shoes on carpet" to anyone who visits our home in Tokyo.  That's right, no shoes on the carpet or actually anywhere in the house.  Slippers, socks or barefeet only.  In some homes (not ours) there are different slippers to wear upon entering the bathroom versus the rest of the house. 
  11. Bathrooms are generally not heated. To compensate, there is either underground heating in the flooring or heated toilet seats.  Please see previous blog post regarding the other amazing features of the toilets.  
  12. Watashi wa nihongo wa muzukashi desu.  I think Japanese is difficult.  But I am trying and have to give big kudos to my teacher who has the patience of a saint with this gaijin (foreigner) who doesn't do her homework. 
  13. Doors are opened and closed automatically (by the driver) in a taxicab.  Do Not Touch The Doors.  Seats are covered in a white cloth material, oftentimes a white lace material -just as practical as it sounds.  Even during a torrential downpour in rainy season, carrying 2 umbrellas, a handbag, a backpack, Curious George and wearing muddy wellies, you should not allow your child to put his boots on the seat and soil the white lace.   This is your challenge.  
  14. Japanese women over the age of 19 do not wear shorts.  Skirts or capris are okay.  Generally with stockings.  In 85 degree heat. 
  15. All things considered....despite the cost of living and the language barrier and despite the earthquake and aftershocks, I really really love this city.  The people are lovely and gentle, the food is top notch as is the public transportation, the customer service cannot be beat, and it's been an amazing cultural experience thus far for all three of us.  
Until my next blog post, from the US, have a wonderful summer!!


Saturday, April 23, 2011

March 11th - all about the quake

Some of you already know the story, but for those that don't here goes....

Friday March 11th began quite typically - took  G to nursery via my bicycle, ran errands,  met a new girlfriend for lunch and a chat, picked G up from school, stopped at Baskin Robbins for an ice cream and cycled home.  After so much sugar, there was no nap to be had, so G was buzzing around our apartment on his tricycle while I unloaded the dishwasher, dryer, cleaned cat litter box - basically being my daily glamorous self until 2:46 pm.  Initially I thought the dizziness I was feeling was internal - perhaps I was ill, had an ear infection?  But no, when the kitchen blinds began banging against the window and I heard framed photos falling from shelves, I knew that it wasn't just me and a simple problem with equilibrium.

Realizing that we were in the throes of a rather large quake, I yelled for G to stop  cycling immediately fearing that one of our huge bookcases or wine cabinet would fall on him.  With all of the assistance that we had received during our move to Tokyo, nobody had thought to brief us in What To Do During the Largest Earthquake in Tokyo's Recorded History.   I knew that our building was built in the 90's and thus allegedly "quake proof".  That's all fine and good until you are sitting on the floor in your living room (away from windows) watching books fall off the shelves, motorcycles tip over outside and telephone pools swaying to and fro and your entire apartment feels like it's on "vibrate".  Pulled G onto my lap for the duration and we just waited it out..."Mommy everything is shaking!!" repeated at least 15 times doing nothing for my slightly frazzled nerves.  Sirens began going off and announcement were being made on our neighborhood public address system - all in Japanese.  I am able to order in a restaurant, give the cabbie directions, but I am not yet advanced enough with my Japanese language skills to decipher an emergency warning over a fuzzy speaker during a time of crisis.  What to do, what to do?

I tried calling the Husband in his (16th floor) office to no avail - phones were not working, cell phone lines were jammed.  I remembered something about a local disaster center at a nearby kindergarten,  so I decided to venture out of the apartment and go to the center - if only to be around people and not alone in our apartment.  Grabbed shoes, bag, jackets, G and Barney the stuffed dinosaur and walked the 2 blocks to the kindergarten - not quite knowing when we would return to the apartment.  There were at least 300 people gathered in the playing field of the school - open area, nothing to fall on us should another quake/aftershock occur - which of course it did.  Reactions were varied - an expat near me with her two children and nanny was sobbing, people were holding hands, some appeared to be in thought and/or praying and a few school children were laughing and joking.  G sat on my lap and fell asleep - so much for his stress level.  I sat on the grass in the playing field for about an hour, kicking myself that we did not yet have our "earthquake survival kit" assembled, trying in vain to use my cell phone, and then decided to head home.  Very surreal - it was a ghost town in our neighborhood, apparently most Japanese people do not in fact leave their homes, duly noted for future quakes.

Thankfully when I returned home, I was able to contact the Husband's assistant and was told that he left work immediately following the quake and was driving home.  On a sidenote, she (assistant) along with a number of his colleagues, opted to stay the night in the office rather than try to get home as there were no trains running. I then made the mistake of turning on the news and surfing the internet (still working!).  I was horrified by the devastation in the northern part of Japan - the tsunami footage seemed almost unreal.  It was at that point that I realized how large of a disaster had just occurred and quite frankly, how lucky we were in Tokyo.  The Husband returned home, avoiding road closures,  around 5:30 that evening.  We were very lucky all in all, some of G's teachers were trapped in a subway for almost 8 hours and many friends here, unable to get taxis or the subway, resorted to walking for hours to get home.

A month plus on and we're still experiencing aftershocks - sometimes quite strong, that are admittedly a bit disconcerting.  I have friends here that are experiencing difficulty sleeping, some that will not be alone in there apartment or refuse to ride the subway and there are quite a few in the expat community that returned to their home country and will not be returning to Tokyo in the future.  We have elected to remain and are doing our part to help  the country that we now call home.  There are food and clothing drives to help with, fundraisers to attend and benefits to organize.   I will say that I have been truly amazed by the resiliency of the Japanese people and the grace and dignity with which they conduct themselves during this time of tragedy.  I am confident that this country will recover and will once again prosper and flourish.  I do want to thank everyone for their kind thoughts, words and prayers - we really do appreciate it.  

Am off to hide Easter eggs....Happy Easter to all!

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Kamakura Japan April 16, 2011

First - I know that it's been awhile.  With the earthquake, tsunami, and radiation fears of the past month I've been a bit lax about updating my blog, apologies.  I'll try to revisit some of the events of the past month in future blog posts (including my almost 3 week unexpected trip to the US)  but for now, I'll start with details from our day trip yesterday. 

We decided to venture out of Tokyo to the nearby city of Kamakura, Japan - a small coastal town about 1 hour south of Tokyo.  We contemplated driving, but since our satellite navigation system - that speaks in English, but must be programmed in Japanese (ha!) is virtually useless to us, we decided to take the train instead.  After a one hour train ride, we arrived in the city of Kamakura with our mission being to visit the giant Buddha Daibutsu- the 2nd largest in Japan (largest is in Nara).  

Kamakura was once the political center and capital of Japan when Minamoto Yoritomo chose the city as the seat for his new military government in 1192.  The Kamakura government continued to rule Japan for over a century, first under the Minamoto shogun and then under the Hojo regents.  After the decline of the Kamakura government in the 14th century, the capital of Japan became Kyoto but Kamakura remained vital as a political epicenter for Eastern Japan for many years thereafter.  
Today, Kamakura is a small city that has been referred to as a little Kyoto due to the large number of temples, shrines and historical monuments.  

We arrived just after noon so our first order of business was to find lunch.  We started walking down Komachi Dori - a very popular pedestrian only street lined with restaurants, souvenir shops and stands selling traditional rice cakes, dolls etc.   FYI - we were the only gaijin (foreigners) to be seen anywhere although we did see a few other (German tourists) by the Buddha later in the day.  Lunch was amazing, although we erroneously ordered the chicken skin skewers (what the heck??) instead of chicken breast skewers for G.  He shared my miso, rice and teriyaki chicken instead.  Roy's lunch is pictured below. 

After lunch we set off for The Great Buddha via bus as G was not about to make the 1/2 hour trek on foot.  In Tokyo it is not uncommon to hear English spoken in shops and restaurants, in Kamakura this was not the case at all so the Husband and I tried out our Japanese 101 (not pretty) in an effort to navigate the bus.  We arrived at The Great Buddha in one piece, so considered ourselves successful.  The seated Buddha, Amida Nyorai is known by the familiar name of the Kamakura Daibutsu and was once housed in a temple that was swept away by a tsunami and thus now stands alone.  Construction began in 1252 and took about ten years.  It's height is approximately 13.4 meters (44 feet for my american peeps) and it is awesome when you first see it.  We washed our hands (left, right, left and then cleanse mouth with water from the left), threw coins into box (see G below) and after paying 20 yen (25 cents?), we even went inside to see the construction.  Too dark for photos.  

Stopped for ice cream at a local shop where ironically they had a "hablamos espanol" sign out front and had delicious ice cream cones before our trip back to Tokyo.  G crashed out immediately upon entering the train and I spent the almost hour long trip speaking with an older Japanese woman who expressed her 1. surprise at seeing a family of foreigners on the train and 2. her gratitude and appreciation for American support and aid in this time of Japan's need.  She was lovely - so gracious, well spoken and again so appreciative of all the support from the US and she asked me repeatedly to convey this to my American friends (here you go..).   All in all, a great day trip and I'm looking forward to our next adventure.  Until next time....

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Life in the Fast Lane

Somewhere in between Japanese classes, workouts at TAC, Gavin's school + extra curricular activities, a newly founded book club and the day to day grind, I've actually acquired something that I've been missing for awhile - a social life!!  I won't bore you with the gory details, but am slowly but surely meeting some great new women and exploring Tokyo in the process.

One of the highlights of the past weekend was going to see The Eagles live in concert at the Tokyo Dome. I had booked the tickets months ago and really had no idea what to expect.  I last saw The Eagles at the O2 in London when I was 8 months pregnant with G(3 years ago) and  loved the show.  The Tokyo Dome hosts a number of concerts, events and exhibitions throughout the year but primarily functions  as a baseball stadium for the local Yomiuri Giants.

After leaving G with his fave babysitter (a teacher from his school), the Husband and I jumped on the train for the 30 minute journey to the Dome.  The doors opened at 3:30 with concert to begin at 5 pm.  We had been briefed in advance, that this timeframe would hold - there would be no 3 hour delay in the performance. Apparently I had not received the "no camera in the Dome" notice, or I did and it was in Japanese.  Either way, I had my camera confiscated (along with about 500 other people) as we entered the Dome and was told that I could pick it up post concert ala the style of a coat check.  Fabulous and oh so convenient considering this is a building with over 40,000 seat capacity and The Eagles sold out the majority of it.

Seats were good, food was not.  I was actually surprised at the popularity of this early to mid 70's American country rock bank in Japan.  When Joe Walsh played the opening riff of "Life's Been Good (to me so far", the crowd went wild.  Well, as wild as they do here - basically a few hoots and hollers and clapping with some bobbing of the head.  Definitely a more "restrained" crowd.  Was coveting a concert tee but could not bring myself to spent 4000 yen (over $50) for it.  The band played for close to 3 hours with a great mix of old and newer songs from their Long Road out of Eden album.  I successfully retrieved my camera post concert as the Husband and I sprinted for the train during the first encore.   I had a great time and on the train ride home, perused the upcoming concerts:

 Night Ranger, Toto, Mr. Big and Maroon 5 are all scheduled in the next few months with ticket availability - shocker I know.  In case you were wondering, Justin Bieber is sold out.


Friday, February 25, 2011

Do you Shabu?

While we lived in London, the husband and I had a regularly scheduled date night every Saturday.  I'm finding that this is even more of a requirement here in Tokyo as I don't see him at all during the week.  We eat dinner together a max of 2x per week (including weekends) - the hours that he is keeping right now are looooonngg but I think that is to be expected when undertaking a new role.   So last Saturday night we booked the sitter (at an equivalent of over $20/hour - ouch!) and set out for Roppongi - an area of the city mostly known for touristy hotspots, bars and clubs.   I had read a review of a shabu shabu restaurant and was dying to try it out.

After walking up and down Roppongi dori (Roppongi street) a number of times, we finally located the restaurant.  Whereas we are trained to look for locations on street level, Tokyo uses a multi story system. Your intended location could be sub street level or up 3 or 4 flights of stairs.   Upon entrance to the restaurant we were greeted by two tuxedoed men with the customary "Irrashaimase" which means "welcome".   In some restaurants, you seriously want to run for cover when the entire waitstaff shouts it at you when you walk in the door, it's a bit startling.  We were shown to our table by our hostess dressed in full kimono, immaculate of course.    

After settling on a white wine for me and a Sapporo for the husband, the fun really began.  Shabu shabu consists of a meal of thin slices of beef (or pork or seafood) along with vegetables - shiitake mushrooms, leeks, rice noodles, tofu, spinach, cabbage, that you cook yourself in boiling dashi (soup stock)at your table.  Similar to fondue but a bit healthier than oil, cheese or chocolate!  We were given 3 dipping sauces - sesame, garlic chili and ponzu (yuzu + mirin+soy sauce) and large bowl of the veggies and tofu and a platter each of beef.  Chopsticks completed the place setting.  The meal was delicious and so fun too.  We had a bit of challenge retrieving slippery glass noodles and tofu out of the boiling dashi with chopsticks but persevered and were rewarded at the end of the meal with a soup made from the stock  plus spring onions and additional noodles brought to us and prepared by our waitress.  

The dessert of gelatinous cubes of lemon curd? floating  in more jello was not something to write home about.  Note to self: go elsewhere (like to TGIF next door to the restaurant) for a real dessert experience.  We opted instead to hit up a notorious hotspot - Motown bar.  Hiiillllarious.  Small, dive bar, 3 floors up from street level, smoke filled and frequented byJapanese women looking for gaijin, couples on awkward dates, business men...and us.   Strangely androgynous look to the waitstaff and the husband and I started placing bets on who was male and who was not.  fyi - all were male, but so very pretty.  Odd.  Motown was packed to the rafters and with no identifiable dance floor, everyone was getting down with their bad selves in the middle of the floor, between tables, en route to the toilets, you name it.   All dancing to Billie Jean and then trying to Bring Sexy Back....amazing people watching as you can imagine.  Headed home reeking of cigarette smoke - so nasty.  Am waiting for Tokyo to go smoke free at least in the restaurants and coffee shops.    

fyi - shabu shabu is so named as it is allegedly the sound the meat makes as you swish it around in the boiling dashi or it's from the sound that the dashi makes as it boils.

And that's your Japanese cuisine lesson of the day.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Finding My Feet Feb. 15th 2011

Finally it feels like I/we may  possibly be getting into the groove of things here in Tokyo - woo hoo!  G is enrolled in an international nursery and absolutely loves it.  He is playing soccer once a week at the Tokyo American Club (TAC) and does gymnastics on the weekends.  The soccer is hysterical to witness and the term "herding cats" does come to mind.  I made the rookie mistake of wearing inappropriate footwear -knee high equestrian boots anyone?  to the first class not understanding the amount of parental involvement required.  Now I know and Converse it is!   Knowing that it's genetically impossible for my child to be an Olympic gymnast as he's not exactly a petite flower, I take him to gymnastics to improve his coordination, balance and more importantly his confidence.  Generally a bit reticent in a new situation, he shocked the hell out of me and volunteered to be the first one to hang from the "high bar" - 4 feet off the ground and let the instructor help flip him over backwards.  Baby steps...literally.

My twice weekly Japanese lessons are still going strong.  Thus far we've covered - introducing yourself, how to order in a restaurant, how to shop (like I need help with this -ha!) - how to ask for a larger size, a more expensive item(ha again!), a different color etc. and finally the all important taxi cab vocabulary.  My sensei, Ichikawa-san is a huge advocate of visual learning so all of these lessons are accompanied by cut out pictures of items.  Ie:  a large pizza vs a small pizza, different colored sneakers, an expensive watch, car, handbag vs a cheap watch, car, handbag.  In our last lesson we utilized a large fold out map, a matchbox car and I was asked to request, while making the car move around the map natch, that the cab driver stop at the next corner, the 2nd intersection, at the hospital, the bank, make a get the idea.   On a positive note, she informed that she believes I could be semi-fluent in 2-3 years...if my head doesn't explode before then of course.

The whole family has started taking advantage of our membership at TAC.  I've been attending a Core Conditioning class every Monday morning that I really like and The Husband and I have been making a concerted effort to go to the gym every weekend.  I guess he wants a Cameron Diaz bikini body by summer too.  TAC offers a childcare option so we can drop G off for an hour or so to play in a supervised environment while we work out and then afterwards we can all grab lunch at one of the onsite restaurants.  I was ecstatic to discover the well stocked library with English books (difficult to procure here and if found, ridiculously expensive) for both adults and children.  Just finished The Hour I First Believed by Wally Lamb and loooovved it.   There is a small group of women, myself included, that has decided to start up a new book club/book exchange that I'm really looking forward to and will be lobbying for One Day as our first book.  If you haven't read it, pick it up!

Last week we attending a wine tasting benefit for The Tyler Foundation which works to make life easier for children and families battling childhood cancer here in Japan.
Expats Kimberly Forsythe and Mark Ferris founded the charity after their son Tyler was diagnosed with leukemia at less than 1 month old.  He lived for 23 months , spending most of the time in hospital undergoing treatment.  The Tyler Foundation provides counselling and support for parents, a therapy dog - Bailey, a Beads of Courage program for children undergoing the treatment and a Shine On! house (similar to the Ronald McDonald house in the US) where families can stay, rather than a hotel, while their child undergoes treatment.  It is a fantastic charity providing a much needed support system here in Japan and one which with I hope to become more involved.

Must run as today is sick day number 2 for G.  Upper respiratory infection with fever and cough.  Viral so "just let it run it's course".  I learned two lessons yesterday (sick day number 1):  pouring Listerine mouthwash on the 15 year old cat "to wash Riley's bum bum" does not make anyone happy.  And secondly, a spoonful of sugar may make the medicine go down, but a spoonful of honey makes my child projectile vomit.  Fun times in the big city, until next time...


Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Full of beans Tuesday Feb. 1, 2011

During my usual Tuesday torture aka my Japanese lesson, we deviated from the normal lesson plan to discuss Japanese culture, specific to February.  I found it quite interesting, so I thought I would share.

February is the coldest month of the year in Japan.  Snowfall is quite heavy in Hokkaido and the Japan Sea coastal areas and many snow festivals are held there during February.  We in Tokyo, bordering the Pacific, do not experience snow which is just fine by me.   Having grown up in Wisconsin,  I am quite happy never to lift a shovel again.  The Sapporo Snow Festival in Hokkaido is famous for its extremely large snow and ice statues and replicas of famous buildings and people from the mainland of Japan as well as from all over the world to come and see them.

February the 3rd is Setsuban.  On the lunar calendar, this is the turning point from winter to spring - woo hoo!  To celebrate the coming of spring and to drive away evil spirits, a bean-throwing festival is held.  Do not ask me what kind of beans, I do not know.  I assume dried beans and not frozen green beans although I could be wrong.  At Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples, men and women born under the same zodiac sign of the current year (toshiotoko and toshion'na), throw the beans - this is great for celebrity spotting...if you're down with Japanese celebrities, which I sadly am not.

At  home, one of the parents (generally the father) dons a rather scary mask in the entranceway or the living room and the children throw beans at him and shout "Evil spirits outside, good luck within".  Putting the mess aside, this sounds like a lovely tradition although I have yet to convince The Husband to participate.  Apparently being pelted by rocks, err I mean beans is not the way he wants to end the day.  G will be partaking in this festival on Thursday at school (yay, no mess at home) and I'm waiting to hear his take on the celebration.

The next day, February 4th, is Risshun which means the first day of spring.  Although it remains cold throughout the month, plum blossoms and daffodils begin to bud and I'm told that you can smell the fragrance in the chilly air.

One twig of plum blossoms,
One twigful of
 - Ransetsu

A little Haiku for you, until next time.


Thursday, January 27, 2011

Getting Settled

Our sea shipment has arrived from London!  Actually it arrived last week and was delivered on Wednesday and Thursday - when G and I were both home sick with the flu.  The all Japanese crew was amazing and courteous and after ascertaining that we were both hacking and deathly ill, proceeded to unload and unpack with face masks on - and I don't blame them.  The foreman was named Alejandro and after a rough start with English and Japanese, we managed to communicate entirely in Spanish as his mother is Japanese and his father from Bolivia - who knew? All of the furniture was placed in the proper rooms and now it's just a matter of organizing.  This is specific to my closet and to my shoes, with the Husband now calling me Imelda (as in Marcos).  Did he not see the plethora of shoes before???  I guess not.  Did I mention that I have a full sized billiards/ping pong table in my living room?  Seriously not going to be featured in Architectural Digest anytime soon.  It's called "pick your battles" and I'll say nothing more.

Our new helper, Vergie, started this week as well.  She'll be doing housekeeping, laundry, ironing and occasionally babysitting for G.  The Phillipines (to the best of my knowledge) is one of the only countries to offer a nanny Visa, thus there are a large number of Filipina nannies/housekeepers looking for sponsors or part time work in Tokyo.  Vergie is actually sponsored by a friend of mine whose husband works for the Canadian government but she is looking for additional hours and money and then she in turn will send that money back to the Phillipines to help her family.  I adore her thus far and G (who doesn't normally warm up immediately) told her that she had very nice hair which elicited squeals of joy from her.  He's learning early that flattery will get you everywhere. Will be interested to see how she wrangles him as they are approximately the same height and weight.  I kid, but she is tiny.

Today I was the lucky/first one to experience the Tokyo medical system and treatment.  After bursting into tears this morning due to sharp shooting pain in my head as well as a jaw and ear ache, the Husband practically dragged me to the doctor.  I guess he's learned that when I cease to function, the world as he knows it pretty much comes to a grinding halt.  We're fortunate that we live in an area overrun by expats so there is an English speaking clinic nearby.  After a thorough check up, I was diagnosed with sinusitis and sent away with drugs - antibiotics plus additional amoxicillan that I am to take for 10 days.  Joy.

I've met a few ladies through the Tokyo American Club and am in the process of "dating" and weeding out the "could be really good friends" from the "we'll just be acquaintances".   Fortunately TAC affords a number of opportunities for involvement, be it classes, volunteering, interest groups or tours, so I've elected to throw myself in with abandonment.  Am drawing the line at lamp and shade making (for reals), but will be taking an Ikebana class - floral arrangement, a tea ceremony class and Shodo - calligraphy.  I've decided to adopt the When In Rome way of thinking and really make the most of our time here in Tokyo.

Until next time...


Saturday, January 15, 2011

Baseball, Hotdogs and Apple Pie

As I sat in my kitchen this afternoon watching the Green Bay Packers vs. the Atlanta Falcons streaming live on my computer and with a little prompting from a FB friend (thanks Kirsten), I got to thinking about the things that I miss about the US.  I left NYC in January 2007 and have lived abroad ever since - first in London and now in Tokyo.  I'm lucky in that I've been able to travel frequently back to the states and have had a number of visitors in London.  I'm waiting to see who our first victims, err visitors to Tokyo will be.  There may be a prize associated.  It will not be Hello Kitty related and I promise that you will not have to sleep in the maid's room.

I will say this now, I love my life as an expat and wouldn't change it for the world.  To experience a different culture, meet new people, travel to exotic places, try new foods and learn a new language (see previous blog post), even at it's most challenging moments - I know that I am very, very fortunate.  That being said, here in no particular order, is what I miss most about "home", the United States.

  • The fact that I miss my family and friends  is a given.  This does not get any easier as time goes by and in fact is made even more difficult by extended visits home.   I miss most holidays and birthday celebrations along with baby showers, wedding showers, weddings, 40th birthday parties and even funerals.  Facebook, email, phone calls and Skype are all life savers but it's just not the same as being there.  
  • I miss the 4th of July and the Wauwatosa parade on North Avenue, complete with shriners in mini vehicles as well as watching the fireworks at Hart Park, covered in OFF while maniacally waving around sparklers and covering my ears during the "boomers".  
  • I miss being an avid fan of a sports team, any sports team.  I confess even after 4 years in the UK, soccer is still soccer (not football) and I cannot tell you who plays for Arsenal, Man United or Tottenham or even what their colors are.  The obsession with the WAG (wives and girlfriends) is beyond my comprehension.  I can however, still talk ad nauseum about the "glory days" of the mid 90's Chicago Bulls and name a good portion of the 1984 Milwaukee Brewers starting lineup - hello Paul Molitor, loved him so.   Oh and goooooo Packers!
  • Oh sweet Target, how I miss you so.  The fact that I could enter the store with a list of 3 small items to buy and emerge an hour later having spent $131.75 amazes me to this day.  If you do not know what Target is, you really don't know what you're missing...and trust me it's better that way.
  • On a related note, I miss the extended shopping hours.  If I need cold medicine and it's 9 pm, no worries as Walgreens or Duane Reade is still open.  There may even be a 24 hour pharmacy - bonus!  This is definitely not the case elsewhere in the world as most shops open at 9 or 10 am and then close at 6 pm.  As I found out desperately searching for nappy creme (diaper rash)  one evening in London at 8:00 pm. 
  • Just asked the Husband what he missed about the US and his answer was "knowing where I am going, a large parking space and a Satellite Navigation system that speaks English".  Did I mention that our Sat Nav speaks Japanese?  Very helpful to us as you can imagine.  
  • We've been lucky in both London and Tokyo to find Costco as well as a few stores that import random American food products.  The following are the elusive items that have yet to be found or are simply just not available:  Wheat Thins, Triscuits, Fruit Loops, ranch dressing, Twizzlers, fruit snacks, Diet Coke (here in Tokyo), A&W Root Beer, Crystal Lite,  Lean Cuisine, Eggo Waffles, and Stove Top Stuffing.  To name a few. 
  • I miss the friendliness of the American people....and this is coming from someone who has never lived in a small town or even the South.  I wasn't sure what to expect in NYC, but I was not disappointed.  From the bagel delivery man (yes, I miss him too) to the taxi driver to a street vendor, people are friendly and will (definitely generalizing here) bend over backwards to help you out.  Don't get me started on customer service.  For those in the US - let me quote the band Cinderella, "You Don't Know What You've Got, Til It's Goooooone". 
Now that I've managed to incorporate the lyrics from a bad 80's hair band into my blog, I think I should wrap up this post.  To be completely fair, I will also do a "Things I Do Not Miss about the US" in a upcoming post, stay tuned!

Packers vs. Bears???? not sure I could even watch the game.  

Friday, January 14, 2011

Me Talk Pretty One Day January 15, 20100

If you haven't yet read this little gem of a book by David Sedaris, you really need to.  Let's talk about Japanese Language 101.  First a bit of background...I have spoken English for the past 40 years, if you don't count a the time spent in clases de Espanol in high school and college.  I loved Spanish, found it quite manageable to conquer and will to this day break it out -usually after a glass or 5 of sangria or a margarita.   In all our travels, it has not been too difficult for me to pick up key terminology and phrases as we navigated various cities, inclusive but not limited to France, Germany, Morocco, Italy.  You get the idea.  Thus, I wasn't too concerned with beginning my one on one, at home, intensive Japanese lessons...and that was a critical mistake.

I knew we might be off to a rocky start when on the first day, I answered the door in track pants and a fleece,  with my hair scraped back and not a speck of makeup and my instructor was in a full length fur.  Fighting back the urge to throw red paint all over her, while simultaneously locking the cat in the back bedroom, I ushered her into our kitchen where the breakfast dishes still remained.   Declining my offer of anything to eat or drink, she proceeded to unpack multiple textbooks and study materials from her rolling suitcase along with her designer handkerchief - who uses these???  I started to get a bit nervous.  Ichikawa-san, as she must be referred to as she is an elder and a teacher, is a lovely, gentle grandmotherly type who employs the "tsk, tsk" method of reprimanding along with the element of surprise - pop quiz, flashcards, tape recorder (so I can hear my own horrific pronounciation).  Am not going to lie, she scares me.  She scares me enough that I actually do the assigned homework which is perhaps her intention.

The written Japanese language is made up of three scripts: Chinese characters called kanji, and two syllabic scripts made up of modified Chinese characters, hiragana and katakana. I know you're thinking "so fun!", right?   My current assignment consists of tracing vowels in the hiragana script over and over again on lined paper similar to the paper we learned to write cursive letters on in Mrs. Diskowski's 3rd grade class.  True to form Ichikawa-san breaks out the red pen to correct my inaccurate placement of the dots and squiggles -tsk, tsking as she does so.

The speaking portion goes a bit better.  We are currently concentrating on Greetings - introducing yourself and other people, everyday greetings that consist of commenting on the weather, thank you,  you're welcome, I'm sorry, excuse me and good bye, see you again.  Michele desu (silent "u") - I'm Michele.   Hajimemashite - How do you do?  Dozo yoroshiku - Nice to Meet you.  No problems thus far... Ichikawa-san then breaks out popsicle sticks with the cut out faces of Richard Gere, Meryl Streep, Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts, Nicolas Cage (argh)  pasted onto them.  I  spend the next 15 minutes (holding sticks) and introducing Meryl to Brad, Brad to Julia, Julia to Nicolas etc. and then introducing them all to my instructor.  Without laughing I might add.  I also manage to stifle the snicker when "excuse me" happens to sound alot like Shit sorry and I am made to repeat it approximately 10 times.

In all honesty, I'm taking this class to be able to navigate the city, conduct a transaction in a shop or restaurant and direct the cab driver to my home.  I have no illusions that I will ever be considered "fluent" but I can always hope that maybe, just maybe Me Talk Pretty One Day.  

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?

New Years Day, January 1st aka Gantan is the most important holiday of the year here in Japan.  People welcome a new beginning; families spend the day together eating special dishes prepared in advance -to relieve the family cook from duty this day; they also visit the homes of relative and friend to eat and drink to the New Year.  New Year's Eve is generally spent visiting the local Buddhist temple or Shinto shrine.  Before midnight on New Year's Eve, temple bells begin to toll slowly 108 times - it's called joya-no-kane. It is said that the temple bell toll to purify us of our 108 worldly desires.

Unsure if the local neighborhood temple welcomed visitors (us) and even more uncertain if we really wanted to purify ourselves of the 108 worldly desires (note to self: look up and see what these are), we opted for the more Westernized NYE option - we went to a party. Or a potty if you ask the 2 year old. Somehow being born in the UK to American parents has given him a very strange accent.  Am not certain that time spent in Japan is going to help his cause.

Anyway,  The Husband's colleague and his lovely wife organized an impromptu dinner party for 10 of us at their house in Omotesando otherwise known as the Champs Elysees of Tokyo.  Although they live in the residential area, we had to drive past the shopping district whereby I suffered whiplash gawking at the likes and lights of Dolce & Gabbana, Bottega Veneta, YSL, Harry Winston, Ralph Lauren....*sigh*.  My night would have been complete, but the potty (see above) was waiting for us.   The host (French) and his wife (Chinese but raised in London), host's mother (French), Hungarian couple, the token New Yawka and the under 3 crowd of G and Oli made up our totally random group of revellers.  The food was delish, the music was loud and the alcohol was plentiful.  The Hungarians brought lentils which we ate after midnight as is their tradition.  Apparently this is meant to bring you as much riches in the New Year as the number of little lentils.  Perhaps sensing that his own mother was more interested in her wine, G elected to sit on lap of said French grandmother and eat lentils with her to ring in the New Year.  Yes, he was still awake at midnight and going strong.   I said it before - I'm not winning Mother of the Year anytime soon.

We did venture up to their rooftop at just before midnight with Veuve Cliquot in hand, but were unable to catch fireworks or tolling temple bells.  Contented ourselves with attempting to look (see definition for Peeping Tom) into the next door neighbor's house, in order to see his indoor climbing wall.  Managed to convince The Husband that singing Auld Lang Syne at the top of his lungs from the rooftop was probably not the best idea-did I mention that the alcohol was plentiful?  All in all, a very successful party and a great way to celebrate our first New Years Eve in Japan.  Cheers to 2011 and to all of the adventures that may come our way.