My last 300 days in Japan

The next 300 days will be busy.

 

300 days sound like a long time- it’s almost a year, after all.

However, when you love where you live but have a departure date looming it will go by faster than you want.

 

I highly doubt I’ll ever have a chance to live here permanently, even though I’d love to.  My Japanese level is lower-basic, and I write so slowly that I might as well say I can’t write at all. I consider this “it” for me, so I need to be diligent to do all I want to do while I can.

We have been lucky enough to have done all the major things we wanted to do by year 2 of our 4 year tour here, even when I got cancer about a year and a half in. I didn’t let being sick stop me because I wanted to soak up all I could from this country.

Before we even touched down in Tokyo my husband and I had made a bucket list of things we wanted to do and accomplish while here that ranged from the (now) mundane, like using a drink vending machine, to the incredible, like reaching the summit of Mount Fuji.

So, now what? What can I do with 300 days? I’m sick a lot post-cancer, so I have to accept that there’s no way I can fully use every single one of those days.

We’ve done all the big things on our bucket list, but my mind is racing with all the little things I want to do, buy, see, taste, and experience.

Most of those are related to experiences with our friends and are also linked to the prime photo seasons here.

Fall has already come and gone, so I have late winter and early spring (ume) and spring (sakura) to look forward to.  It’s a truly magical time of year… there’s nothing like it.

I want to (maybe) visit the Harry hedgehog cafe in Roppongi, but over the years I’ve struggled with the whole idea of buying into animal entertainment.

Beach at Yoron

Empty beach at Yoron

David hasn’t been to a maid cafe yet, though I’ve been to plenty.

We want to scuba dive in Okinawa. We dove in Yoron, a teeny tiny island near Okinawa that locals say has more cows that people.

Yoron is different that Okinawa, though. It is in a different prefecture, has a different culture, and has different marine life. However, it was incredibly beautiful and quiet there and most days it was just the two of us on the beach.

We still haven’t been to the Skytree or Tower Tower (I know, I know- shame on us).

Those are our big “to-do” items left on our list. That, and stocking up on all my favorite Japanese products and fashion before we move.

 

Time is ticking….

 

What do you like to do before you move?

Do you have any tips about things that were on your “must do” list while in/visiting Japan?

 

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Some Surprising Facts About Everyday Life in Japan

As a foreigner I’m constantly aware of how different Tokyo is from where I’m from in America.

Here’s a few facts about my daily life in Tokyo that most people wouldn’t notice unless they get a chance to live or visit here.

You might be surprised to learn that:

  • Crows are humongous here, and are known to swoop down and take small pets. I’ve even seen them attack people if the person has food.
  • You can find a vending machine almost everywhere you go. There you can buy hot and cold drinks, some depending on the season. In the winter you can buy hot canned corn and sweet bean soup, and they’re delicious. It’s not very expensive, usually less than 200円 (less than $2 USD), but those costs do add up over time if you’re on a budget.
  • There is a convenience store at almost every corner, and the food they sell is not only cheap and edible…it’s also delicious.
  • But… you can rarely find a trash can once you leave the store. People carry their garbage with them until they get to the next こんびに (convenience store) or train station, etc.
  • Many Japanese people do not use paper towels in the kitchen, they use washable cloths. They also call paper towels “kitchen paper.”
  • Most homes do not have a dishwasher.
  • Homes usually only have a clothes washer, but not a clothes dryer. Most everyone hangs their clothes and bedding out to dry.
  • It is more convenient to ride a bike, walk, or take the train than it is to drive and park. (within the city, anyway). Parking costs money and paid parking lots with an open spot are sometimes hard to find if you don’t have one of the fancy car navi systems that shows you open lots.
  • In Tokyo most Japanese people hurry- even employees. They will actually run to go open up their cash register,  help a customer, etc.
  • Often English is used as a novelty… not as an indicator of what kind of business it is. For example, there is a place near me called “Flamingo Saloon” with an old-west style sign. It’s a hair salon. This can be very confusing for a new person who can’t read or search online for services in Japanese. There’s a learning curve, for sure, and sometimes that curve is going to the place, realizing it’s not what you thought it would be, and leaving.
  • You can find the kcalorie content on pretty much everything, and sometimes it’s even listed on the menus. This helps when trying to decide what to grab to eat when you’re out and about.
  • Inanimate objects “sing” to you, or make other such noises…and I love it. My rice cooker plays “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” when you turn it on and when it’s finished cooking,  my hot water boiler plays “Fleur de Lise” when it’s finished boiling,  the trash truck plays a song the entire time it’s driving, the floor waxing/buffing machine in the train station also plays a song… the list goes on, and on. I think it’s really interesting and pleasant.

Of course these are just a few examples of what  I’ve experienced while living here. I  might jot down a few more later, or write a new post about it. I’m not sure yet.

What did you find surprising when you lived in or visited Tokyo?

Added 3/12/16

  • Japanese packaging is so easy to open- from onigiri to shipping boxes. It’s very convenient!
  • Surgical-style face masks. How could I have left this out of my original list? People wear face masks for many reasons. Sometimes they’re sick, sometimes they’re worried about getting sick, and sometimes it is due to allergies.
  • There are so many choices for shampoos and conditioners that many drug stores will sell trial sized packages of most of the popular brands on the shelf.  This is great when you’re not sure what to buy-especially if you can’t read all of the package. It is very cost effective compared to buying a large size of a product that you might end up not liking.

 

Our Visit to the Famous Kitsunemura (Fox village) in Japan

Kitsunemura, 蔵王キツネ村 or Fox Village near Zao in Miyagi Prefecture, Japan is now world famous thanks to bloggers, so naturally it was on the top oIMG_1519f our Japan bucket list when we learned we were moving here.

Mainland Japan has 4 seasons, the best being fall and spring. Summer is hot and humid. Winter is okay, but I don’t particularly like being cold.

For us, a well-timed trip is key to our overall experience. Making the journey only to find that you’re either too early or too late to see the seasonal flowers or trees kind of puts a damper on the trip’s mood, so I’ve been faithfully checking the foliage reports in Miyagi and Twitter posts from that area for the past month to see what the trees looked like.DSC_1231

 

I finally found a US holiday that aligned with the foliage up north’s schedule (the leaves turn later the farther south you go), so we took the
opportunity and went.

We decided to drive, which was about 3.5 hours and cost 8212 yen going there, and 7630 yen coming back on the toll roads.

If you decide to take the shinkansen it will be much more expensive, but that’s up to you. You’ll need to arrive at Shiroishizao Station and take a cab to the village. Just spend a few minutes googling and you’ll find several articles that provide detailed instructions on how to get there by train.

DSC_0941With only a week’s notice, I was fortunate enough to find  a very nice, reasonably priced ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) with an in-room hot spring and included breakfast, which allowed for my husband and I to enjoy onsen together.

DSC_0965I’ve been told by Japanese people that it is very rare to find a mixed-gender public hot spring (onsen) these days, so I thought it was a nice luxury that we should try.

The breakfast at the ryokan was delicious, the onsen made our skin feel unbelievably smooth, and the crisp mountain air made for a refreshing break from our fast-paced Tokyo lives.

I wish we could have stayed longer. Or that we could go every month. Or.. just live there.

 

The staff members at both the ryokan and the fox village were very kind and accommodating. Granted, we communicated in elementary Japanese, so I can’t speak to how well they could assist foreigner guests.

I’m not sure about the hotel, but I know that kitsunemura has seen many, many foreign guests over the years.

If you speak zero Japanese, just be prepared to try to use hand gestures, writing, or however else you can think of to communicate if you find that the staff member you meet doesn’t speak or understand much English.

Kitsunemura has over 100 wild foxes living in a large, open space with plenty of room to hide, play, eat, and sleep. They also have a small petting zoo with lots of rabbits, some minature horses, a few crows (?), guinea pigs, and small goats.

There has been some visitors who felt the animals were not well taken care of, but when I was there clean water was abundant, the animals all looked happy and those who were awake were curious, wild, and playful with one another.

I feel like the staff at kitsunemura aim to take excellent care of all of their animals. and I was pleased with the experience.

Overall… 10/10.  We both really enjoyed the ryokan and onsen, and who couldn’t enjoy watching wild foxes play and lounge in a large, natural habitat? 

The logistics, you ask?

Total run down:

Tolls: 15,842 yen. About 3.5 hour drive from northwest Tokyo.

Gas: ~ 8,000 yen

Hotel: ~21,000 yen

Kitsunemura: 2,000 yen + 400 yen fox cuddle experience

Omiyage (souvenirs): 1,500 yen

Meals/road trip snacks: ~4,000

And now, for adorable kitsune (fox) pictures! (mix of iphone and dlsr that my husband and I took)

Just click the thumbnail to view the full image.

 

 

My First (and Last) Time to Skydive

In August I had the opportunity to use an event credit I had with a local adventure club, so I decided to use it towards skydiving.

Yes, skydiving.

It has been on my bucket list since I was in middle school, and even though I’m terrified of heights I thought I should do it if I had the chance.

The problem is that my husband exceeds the height and weight limit of skydiving companies here in Japan, so I had to go it alone.

Even though I really wanted him to be there I thought it would be no big deal to go by myself. We had just climbed to the top of Mount Fuji 2 weeks before, so I was sure this would be easy.

Except, it wasn’t. The whole language barrier thing kind of poses a big problem when you’re about to jump out of a plane at about 4,000 meters.

The day started by all of the club members arriving at Fujioka station early in the morning. This is a very small station and the closest store is about a 10 minute walk. It was so early that the store wasn’t open yet, so I started walking around foraging  for breakfast.IMG_0792

Luckily I was able to meet and talk with an older couple who owned a hardware store. My Japanese speaking ability is intermediate, but I was able to ask them if they had any snacks for sale.

Instead they gave me a bag of pastries and snacks and wouldn’t let me pay them. I told them I was skydiving that morning and they wished me good luck and sent me on my way.

I ran back to the station so I could be sure to catch the shuttle to the jump site and made it just in time.

So, we arrive to the site and we get the safety briefing in English. No problem. All of that was very clear.

What wasn’t clear is what would happen once inside the plane and how it would happen. You know, the logistics of who would go first and whatnot.

They were doing back to back jumps that day, so while everyone else was geared up and in the plane I was standing out waiting on my teacher to parachute down, unhook from the last jumper, and hook on to me.

By the time my teacher hit the ground he literally ran to me, strapped my to his chest, and threw me on the plane- no introductions, nothing.

What I didn’t realize (and nobody told me) was that since I was the last person on the plane I would be first one off.

So, we’re up in the air. It’s a hot summer day. We’re all sweating and terrified. I’m sitting on a stranger’s lap and he’s trying to point out mountains and such as we rise higher and higher in this little tin can of a plane.

DCIM100GOPRO

About this time I’m thinking “hm, maybe I can still change my mind?” but at that same time my teacher threw the plane door open.

What happened next was somehow both simultaneously instant and in slow-mo. The door flew open. I’m thinking “oh, that’s a nice view” but then I realize he’s PICKING ME UP. I guess I’m supposed to be moving by myself at this point but I’m frozen and confused since I didn’t know I was going first.

He sits me on the edge of the plane. I still don’t know what’s happening. Then he throws us out the door. Untitled

My stomach goes up into my lungs. Then I realize I’m seeing the sky. I shouldn’t be seeing the sky. For several days after I thought we were having trouble in the air,  but now I think he was just trying to have fun with me. I was not having fun.

So, after what felt like 5 minutes of facing the sun he jerks my pack and throws me so that I’m under him, facing the ground.

Untitled3By this point I’m already confused about what just happened, it’s hot and muggy, and I’m free falling from 4,000 meters. There really is nothing like feeling the wind hitting you was you plummet towards the earth.

When our neon-green chute caught air we both jerked up  and thought I was going to vomit. But luckily that feeling didn’t last long.

The view parachuting down was nice. However, my teacher thought it would be fun to do some kind of turning left-to-right action, which I had to ask him nicely not to do because I already felt quite sick. IMG_0806

I was so thankful to hit the ground. Everyone else on the trip seemed to have a blast, and I’m glad they did. I, on the other hand, had a headache for the rest of the 1.5 hour train ride home and felt shaky for the rest of the day…but I did it!

I can attest that the sights, sounds, and feelings were certainly unique and something I will always remember, but once was enough for me.

What was the craziest/most adrenaline pumping thing you’ve ever done?

A Foreigner’s First Concert in Japan

Last weekend David and I attended our first concert in Japan- the Sekai no Owari Twilight City tour in Yokohama. Much to my surprise the whole concert process is pretty different than all the concerts we’ve been to in the states. In the states when you want concert tickets you have a few methods of getting them:

  • winning them (free) in a contest
  • getting them through a fan club membership
  • buying them from the artist’s recommended venue
  • buying them from a ticket broker like Ticketmaster
  • buying them from individuals

It’s somewhat similar here in Japan, but we had some hurdles. First off, we don’t speak and read enough Japanese to buy tickets from auction sites or individuals. Second, we don’t have a Japanese bank account or credit card, so we can’t easily pay for them on said auction sites or from said individuals. This really limited our ticket buying options.

Getting Tickets: Japan has this really interesting lottery system that they use for many different things, including concert tickets. Each convenience store chain hosts a specific concert/artist. In our case we wanted to see Sekai no Owari. Lawson was the chain hosting their ticket lottery.

To enter the lottery you have to have a membership point card (at least you did for Lawson). Considering I don’t have a Japanese name it was a little difficult, but I just made it work on the online form. After you get a membership card it’s time to enter the lottery. You have to put your name, number of tickets, and date you want in the drawing. For really popular groups you can only enter once, so ask your Japanese or expat friends to enter their names in the lottery, too- but have them read the rules. For our show if you won you weren’t required to pay for them- no credit card was needed, but a friend did this for another band and ended up winning the lottery for 2 different shows. She had to pay for both sets of tickets! Luckily she was able to sell them.

Then you wait a month or so to find out if you won. We didn’t win with our entry, but my friend got the email that she (I) had won.

Winning the Ticket Lottery: Next you have to take the ticket lottery conformation number and go to your local convenience store and use their electronic transaction machine to get the placeholder tickets. These transaction centers can do much more than confirm event tickets, you can pay bills and utilities through them, too.

Loppimachineprintout

These are just placeholder tickets- no seat numbers listed!

There was no English option, so the helpful clerk typed in all the information for me after my 4th failed attempt at retrieving the paper ticket stubs. I finally got it printed out. Then you take it to the register and pay for your tickets. That’s right. You won the lottery, but it’s not free. You just won the right to have guaranteed seats. The tickets that print out don’t even have the seats on them. You could get amazing floor seats, or you could get nosebleed seats… that’s part of the lottery-ness of it all.

Going to the Concert:

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Sekai no Owari Twilight City set

Then you wait some more. You wait and you wait and you wait until about 2-3 weeks before the concert when your actual tickets arrive. Mine arrived to my friend’s house, because they were linked to her membership rewards card and online account. I anxiously waited to find out what the seat numbers were. Would we get lucky with those, too? Based on the online seating chart our seats weren’t great, but they weren’t terrible. We had our tickets and the day of the event finally came around. We had no idea what to expect at the venue, so we arrived about 4 hours early. In the future we could probably arrive 1.5-2 hours early.

There were a lot of similarities to US concerts, like the huge crowds and long lines- especially for the women’s bathroom. There were some differences, too. At this show the concession food was reasonable, maybe only $1.00 more than what it cost outside the arena. It might have been because this band had a theme relating to local festivals, and food at matsuri (festivals) are usually quite cheap.

Whatever the reason, for the first time I didn’t have to pay over $4.00 for bottled water! I also noticed that there was a lot of cosplay. I mean, a lot. There was also a ton of young guys and girls doing “twin style”- where friends dress alike. Twin style is really huge in Tokyo right now, so seeing it wasn’t a big shock. Seeing so many people in cosplay did surprise me, though, especially considering that it was such a hot day. Some people had very elaborate and heavy costumes on.

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Sekai no Owari Twilight City show

Another difference was that people picked up after themselves. In Japan, everyone is expected to pick up their trash, so people had little plastic bags to put their trash and bottles in. In America most people leave their concession trash under their seats if they can get away with it. Something else that stood out to me was that when the crowd went to clap along to the music…everybody was in time with each other. In America you hear all sorts of off beat, out of sync clapping, but I didn’t notice it at all in our area.

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Japanese crowds clap in time!

And what about an encore? They do it here, too…. except it’s more polite. In the states we all chant “encore, encore!,” but at this concert the crowd sang a sweet sounding song that I couldn’t catch all the words of except for “one more time.” Everyone was singing this nice, polite song asking the artists to come out and sing once more- and they did. And it was fantastic. If I didn’t hear Dragon Night I thought I was going to go crazy, but luckily it was part of their encore.   Overall, it was a great first experience, but we couldn’t have done it without the help of our Japanese friends.

 

Have you gone to a concert in Japan? Did you find the food to be more expensive than this concert? What else was different from concerts in your home country? Feel free to comment!

Swallowtail Butler Cafe in Ikebukuro, Tokyo

Ikebukuro is known for being the Akihabara for women, so of course I had to check out the male version of the maid cafe, the famous Swallowtail Butler Cafe.

To get to the cafe you have to take a flight of nondescript stairs down from the street level. Once you get to the entrance it’s like walking into an entirely different world. You’re greeted by a white-gloved butler who welcomes you and asks if you have a reservation. You need a reservation, so be sure to make one.

When it is finally your turn to enter into the cafe you’re passed through a few mansion-style front doors that give you the illusion of entering a beautiful home. 2 entry-way butlers politely introduced themselves, helped me out of my coat, then and took my purse. Next he lovingly folded my coat and draped it over his arm, gesturing that it was time for me to walk down the hallway and into the dining area.

butler_floor

Photo of the dining area found via Google images

Inside it is just as fancy and delicate as you imagined. The ceilings are adorned with chandeliers and sconces dripping with crystals. The lighting is warm, but a bit subdued. Each table is masterfully set to welcome the next princess who walks through the door. I couldn’t wait to try it myself.

 

The well-mannered butlers cater to your every need. And I mean every need. You are given a beautiful bell to ring should you need attention, but my butler was so on top of everything that I never had to ring it. They even poured your tea (and then covered the teapot with a tea cosy, so your beautiful princess eyes didn’t have to look at it!).

butler_food-201x300

photo of one of the lunch sets found using Google images

Your butler took your plates off the tabletop serving tray, too. You instructed your butler about which dish you wanted to eat next, and he got it and set it in front of you. I wasn’t allowed to do anything that required effort, except eat and drink. I’m surprised they didn’t want to go into the bathroom with me!

 

I loved everything about the entire dream-like experience except for 1 thing. Phones and cameras were not allowed, so I have nothing but memories. After thinking about it more I think not being allowed to document your time inside the cafe adds to the allure of the experience they want their customers (princesses) to be left with, and encourages diners to return.

The entire experience is in Japanese, except for a couple of things I didn’t understand that our gracious butler tried to tell me in some English. If you don’t have a grasp of basic Japanese you’ll probably need to take someone with you who can translate so you can fully enjoy being treated like a princess for the afternoon.

And YES- I will be going back.

Fukuro Sabo Owl Cafe Kokubunji, Tokyo

You might have heard about the themed cafes here in Japan-cat, rabbit, bird, hammock, maid, butler- the list goes on.

Personally, they’re one of my favorite things in Tokyo because there’s very few themed cafes and restaurants in America.

In June my husband and I visited the Fukuro Sabo Owl Cafe in Kokubunji, Tokyo to celebrate our birthdays (he is 1 day older than I am).

The cafe itself is about a 15 minute walk from Kokubunji station and is situated in a residential area, so prepare for a short walk downhill.

It is very small and seats maybe 10 people, so be sure to consider that if you decide to visit the cafe. You might even have to wait outside for a table, but you can pass the time by watching the huge brown owls who live just in front of the indoor cafe space. I do not know the species, but they are really large and beautiful.

The staff speaks virtually no English, and back then we spoke and understood even less Japanese than we did now. We still had a wonderful time even though we couldn’t talk with the staff as much as we wanted to. Now that I think about it, we might go back there since we can at least understand more of the language, even though we both struggle to speak it.

The menu is also in Japanese, but there are pictures of a few of the items. If I remember correctly we just bought soda, but they offer coffee, tea, sweets, spaghetti, and a few other simple menu items. You are also given a picture menu of the owls they have available for you to hold and pet.

You eat first, then the owl is brought out so there’s no worry about getting feathers in your food! First the staff brings a leather glove and a few towels, then they gently place the owl on your arm and show you how to pet him/her. You can take as many pictures (without flash) as you want, so it was a really nice experience.

I chose to hold Shiro, a barn owl. I told the staff that it was our birthday and she let me hold the other barn owl for free as a present! The Japanese people never cease to amaze and humble me with their hospitality and kindness.

This was an unexpected experience in the center of a large residential district, so if you get the opportunity to visit the Sabo Owl cafe, please do so.

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