Wednesday, April 29, 2015

My parents' impressions of Japan

Before they left I asked my parents 4 simple questions about their experiences in Japan.  Here are my impressions of their responses (note:  This was not a formal interview so these are not their exact words but rather some rough notes that I jotted down.  They both read this blog so I'm sure they will correct any grievous errors.)  These are their thoughts on Japan and I tried to accurately convey their thoughts.  It was really interesting to see Japan through the eyes of someone new again.  Many of the things that I now find so normal struck them as odd or interesting.  It's funny how much we adapt when living someplace without always realizing it.

What did you like about visiting Japan? 
  • Both of my parents were impressed by the cleanliness of Japan.  Despite is large and dense population it stays pretty clean.  My dad also noted the lack of graffiti in the cities and a general respect for public places.
  • My mom really liked the public (onsen) style baths with the large, very hot baths
  • Both parents liked the landscaping and were impressed with the parks, gardens and even the yards around local houses.  They were amazed that in front of a junkyard would still be a row of immaculately trimmed trees and flowers.
  • Both of my parents noted that Japan felt like a very safe place to travel.
  • My dad really liked the availability of mass transit.  It sounds like they initially had some difficulties figuring out the trains but got the hang of them after a little practice.
  • The food.  Both parents found some Japanese styles of food very appealing but they also both had a couple of things they really didn't care for.  The did appreciate the freshness of Japanese food and also the availability of western styles of food, particularly where there were a lot of tourists.  Both also really enjoyed Sake.  I think they are going to try and find some good Nihonshu (rice wine) in the US because they really enjoyed drinking it here.
  • When it came to interacting with Japanese people, they felt that most people at least tried to be helpful and were very polite.  Manners seem to be important to Japanese people and people seem to have a very orderly society.
  • I think most of all, the enjoyed the exotic feel of Japan.  It feels more foreign than any place they have previously visited.
 What didn't you like about visiting Japan?
  • Smoking.  There is a lot more cigarette smoking in Japan than the US and often there is no non-smoking section or it is difficult to get a non-smoking hotel room.
  • Ambient noise.  There are many loud things in Japan in public places from the street hawkers, to electronic advertisements in stores, loud jingles in stores, campaign vans and just the noise that comes with having so many people in a small space.  My mom also thought it was odd to have street vendors and hawkers in or very near temples and shrines as it seemed to distract from the serenity that should have been part of the experience.
  • My dad really didn't appreciate the humidity in Japan as it made his arthritis much more painful.
  • With hotels, both parents were amazed at how small some of the rooms were and both were glad they brought travel pillows with them as Japanese pillows can be very flat, rock hard or strange textures that feel like they are full of rice husks.  My dad also thought the beds were really firm.
  • My mom mentioned that she found it difficult to navigate without knowing a little Japanese.
What advice would you give to a friend who was planning on visiting Japan?
  •  Learn a little Japanese before you go but also be aware that not being able to read can be a formidable barrier.
  • Study the train system and train stations ahead of time.
  • Be prepared for rain, because it will rain!
  • If you go, stay a while.  It takes a bit to adjust to the new pace, sights, sounds and feel of things.  Once you adjust a little, it is much more enjoyable.
  • Learn a little about the manners, culture and try to be polite according to Japanese rules.  As a foreigner, you will stand out but with a little effort you can avoid being the "ugly American".
What did you find most surprising about Japan?
  •  My dad expected everything to taste like fish and was pleasantly surprised to find that was not the case.
  • The crowds in shopping areas, temples, train stations and the general density of the population.  I think the high percentage of usable land was something they didn't expect.  Japan is a small country with a lot of people but it's way smaller when you realize how much can't be built on or farmed because it is too steep or unstable which leaves every available flat space used for farming or buildings.
  • My mom found the lack of zoning to be odd.  On a single block you can see a temple, a high rise building, a falling down shack and a rice field and it's not at all unusual.
  • My dad noticed the lack of handicapped accessibility.  Some train stations only have stairs, no elevators or escalators.  In Japanese building codes, you don't need an elevator unless a building is more than 5 flights high.  It would be a difficult country to live in with a wheel chair.
  • The lack of public trash cans which (even more surprisingly) doesn't seem to cause a lot of public trash
  • The lack of cultural diversity (despite having socioeconomic diversity) and the lack of female equality
  • Both of my parents expected to find more people able/willing to speak some English especially given that most Japanese people spend at least 6 years studying English.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Parents in Japan

I've been a little bit of a slacker recently but I have had company.  My parents came to Japan for about 2.5 weeks to checkout Japan and to visit.  Since they have been staying with me I have been playing tour guide which at this point in my pregnancy is enough to wear me out enough that trying to blog on top of it was not possible.

They started out in Osaka and Kyoto on their own.  They seemed to have some difficulties with getting the hang of the trains but managed to get where they needed to go eventually but it sounds like they had some help along the way from people who were nice enough to give them directions.

Since they came to Hiroshima, they have done the following:
  • taken a Sake tour (Jeff went with them on this and I'm going to try and get him to write blog on sake)
  • went to tea ceremony class with me
    Making tea at tea ceremony class
  • went to Bizen and had a kiln tour and shopped for pottery
    Kilns in Bizen

    Wood that is used to fire the kiln
  • went to the samari sword museum and saw some of the processes for making swords in the traditional way
    Dad learning how to use the hammer they use to shape the sword

    Sparks flying early in the forging process

    Carving intricate designs on the blade of the sword

    Sharpening the blade of the sword

    Carving the hilt
  • threw me a cyber baby shower 
    Holding up a tiny pair of pants to show the people on the 2 phones and 2 iPads that I was skyping/facetiming
  • took a day off and did laundry
  • my mom took a Japanese cooking lesson from my Japanese teacher while my dad had lunch with a Japanese guy who used to teach English
  • went to Miyajima
    Pagoda through blossoms

    Torii gate through the shrine

    Parents and the torii gate
  • went to Tobishima (Jeff took them for a drive there, the same route that was the 7 bridge bike ride in early blogs
    Azaleas were blooming

    Islands in the Seto Inland Sea

    Parents with a bridge

    Big bridge
  • went to Shukkeien garden in Hiroshima city
    Umbrellas to protect flowers from rain, cracked me up

    Folks and Jeff on bridge in the garden

    Not sure what kind of flower this was, it was maybe 5 inches across

    Another umbrella pic since I think it's pretty
  • mom went shopping in Hiroshima with me and Jeff and my dad when to the peace park and the museum
They headed out yesterday morning to see Himeji castle on their way to Osaka and they fly out today.   I think they had a good trip.  Jeff and I enjoyed visiting with them and playing tour guide.  This was my last big burst of travel before the baby is born.  I have 5 weeks till my due date and I'm going to try and relax a little bit and get the baby room ready.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Japanese Cherry Blossoms

Japanese people love cherry blossoms.  I mean they really really really go crazy in cherry blossom season.  There are tons of cherry trees all over Japan and my little corner of the country is no exception.

The first couple of blooms I saw were along my walking route.  There is a canal that has some trees along the side of it that happen to be cherry trees.  There are also a couple out side of a tiny shrine along the canal.

I love this picture.  Mostly because it reminds me that blue skys do actually happen....

The shrine behind the barely blooming cherry blossoms.
As you can see, they are just starting to blossom at this point.  I took the photos with my phone but it was a beautiful day and I think they turned out pretty good.

I went to our local park and took some pictures of the trees a couple days later once the trees were in full bloom.  It was a Thursday evening but the park was full of people enjoying the trees.  I wandered around for a while taking pictures and then decided to just flop down under the trees and look up through the blossoms.  It was really lovely.  The ground was soft and mossy.  I learned when I finally got up that the reason why everyone else had a little tarp is that Japanese moss is like Velcro and is impossible to get off of clothing, oops.

Cherry trees along the pond in the park

Laying on my back looking up through the blossoms

I just liked this one with the trees in the background
Over the weekend Jeff and I had a couple options to go on a hanami.  This is when you take a tarp and spread it out under or near a cherry tree and have a picnic and enjoy the blossoms and maybe even watch the petals slowly drift in the wind.  This is "the thing" to do in Japan in cherry blossom season.  We decided to do our own personal picnic.  I also asked Jeff to take a couple of prego pictures of me.  (I did this for you Courtney - you said I needed to take bump pictures for my baby book.  Jeff's cousin had some lovely bump pics that she posted a couple weeks ago so I figured I should get a couple where I actually feel pretty.)  There was a convenient tree to prop the camera so we set the timer and got a couple with Jeff too.  Below are my favorites.

After the photo shoot we set up our own little tarp and had a little picnic.  We enjoyed the warm weather (it was the warmest day since early fall and felt lovely!), cherry blossoms and people watching.  Here are some of my favorite pictures from the day.

I love the contrasting colors of the cherry blossoms

Had to put in just one more pink on pink blossom picture

Such a huge proliferation of blossoms!

This was back down in the more crowded area of the park.  You can see there are a lot of people enjoying the day.  This is a small park in a small town.  Some of the more popular spots near the cities get insanely crowded.

The hills through the trees.

I liked this one because it showed the canopy of trees and people out enjoying them.
Monday was a miserable day of heavy rain.  I decided to make one last try to see the cherry blossoms on Tuesday.  I thought I'd check one of the more popular viewing places , the bridge at Iwakuni, since it wasn't a weekend and I was hoping I wouldn't have too hard of a time finding a nice place to sit.  Unfortunately, the rain did a number on the cherry blossoms.  This meant that there wasn't that many people but it also meant that there were way more petals on the ground than on the trees.  I still managed to get a couple of pretty shots and had a nice day.

Petals cover the ground, in places it almost looks like snow.

An avenue of cherry trees along the river with lanterns strung up between them.

The bridge through the trees.  You can see the lack of pale pink petals on the branches.
Yes, I'm having fun with my new camera and being able to adjust focal lengths.

The bridge peaking out from the tree.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Pregnant in Japan: Part 7

In Japan, at 32 weeks you change from getting check up examinations at your clinic to going to wherever you are planning on giving birth.  For me, that is Higashihiroshima Medical Center.  It is a hospital that is about 20-25 minutes from our apartment and is the biggest hospital near us.

We were pleasantly surprised when we were checking in at the OBGYN desk by a man who spoke excellent English.  He informed us that he was a doctor, but not my doctor.  He is actually a neurologist that helps out with translation occasionally for foreigners.  He was a great help and made us feel that the hospital really wanted us to understand what was going on and that they wanted us to be comfortable.  

We learned a bunch of useful things.  The birth will be attended by both a doctor and a midwife.  The midwife takes care of things unless there is a problem and then the doctor takes over.  The midwife and doctor that will attend the birth is who ever is on shift at the time.  Some speak more English than others so the hospital recommends that we have some sort of a translator available, they will not necessarily be able to provide one.  Since birth isn't one of those things with a predictable time, it gets complicated.  We are currently working with our insurance to see what our options are.

The ultrasound equipment that they had was much higher resolution than the machine at my normal clinic.  The baby is definitely a girl!  She also doesn't seem to like the ultrasounds since whenever it gets near her face so we can see what she looks like she immediately puts her arms up and hides.  It's very cute.

The other interesting thing is that in order to be allowed in to the birthing room Jeff has to take a "birthing class".  Since it is not in English, our neurologist doctor will help us out in two weeks when we have our next appointment and work with a midwife to give us the information we need.  .

All in all, I feel a little more confident about my medical situation here.  There are still subtleties that I feel are lost in translation, but it was a little better and they were better able to address some of weird things my body is doing and let me know what to worry about and what is ignorable.  For the most part the think my pregnancy in on a "good course".  

Saturday, April 4, 2015


One of the things I find both good in bad about Japan is the food at the grocery store.  It is all extremely fresh.  This is a good thing.  Japanese food companies use far less preservatives than American food companies.  Fish and meat are never colored to look fresher.  It is all actually fresh!

The down side is that they run out of things.  Often.  Even staple items like orange juice, milk and butter.  It is really hard to meal plan when you don't know what type of fish they will have at the store that day.  They only have what is fresh so they don't always have the same things.  Same with vegetables and fruits.  The selection in the winter is pretty sparse.  Now that its getting in to spring the variety is much better.  There is a small produce section where they have off season fruits but they are crazy expensive.  I would like to eat a cantaloupe but not for the equivalent of $20.

This insistence on freshness definitely has an impact on how Japanese cook.  They do not live in the world of leftovers that many Americans do.  Back in the US, my husband and I would go to the store once a week and do the majority of the cooking on the weekends and then have leftovers all week.  This worked great for us and our busy schedules.  This is really difficult in Japan since food comes in such tiny containers (and is stored in a tiny kitchen and refrigerator).  Here are some examples that have totally cracked me up:

  • the largest container of milk is 1000 ml container, about 1/4 of a gallon
  • spices come in a jar that is about 2.5 tablespoons
  • bread comes in loafs that are only 4, 5 or 6 slices of sandwich bread
  • asparagus comes in a bundle that is only 3 stalks of asparagus
  • ground beef comes in a package that is less than a quarter of a pound
  • ice cream only comes in single serving size, and that's not a pint, it's a little less than half a cup, tiny!
  • chocolate chips come in a package that is less than a quarter cup.  To make a tiny batch of cookies I'd need to get about 5 packages.  Thank goodness Costco has chocolate chips!
 It is safe to say that because of this I often have to buy multiples of an item.  For example, to make a pot of chili, it takes 1 whole container of chili powder and 4-5 packages of ground beef.  Beans are hard to come by and have to be purchased at a foreign food store but I'll save that for another blog.  To make a small stir fry for the two of us it usually takes at least 2 packages of fish and two packages of snow peas.

It has definitely lead to a different way of cooking and shopping.