Thursday, November 16, 2017

Five Years in Japan

This past weekend marked our fifth anniversary of moving to Japan. In the space of a single breath I can feel like it was only yesterday that we moved here and also feel like it's been ages that we've been living here. I say that every year, don't I?

I can still remember the days leading up to our move so clearly. Final goodbyes to friends and family members, the chaos and excitement and fear. I still remember eating breakfast in the airport before we boarded our flight. With memories so clear, it's hard to believe so much time has passed.

I remember the early days. When other expats would ask how long I'd been living here I felt so embarrassed that my answer was measured in months rather than years - like I had something to prove. I remember how much every single new thing felt like such an adventure and how heightened my emotions were. It was almost like been a teenager (or maybe a toddler?) again. I remember what a triumph it was to reach our third year here, because I had doubted we would make it through our second.

But now I've built up a history living here. The are so many things I will never forget, like the restaurant I sat in with Raku, drinking at lunch, as we watched the 2016 election returns come in. Or meeting my godson when he was less than a day old. But also small things, like eating udon with Raku every Christmas or the hilariously doomed hikes John and I manage to take ever year to celebrate our wedding anniversary.

I've been cleaning up all the photos on my phone, and coming across so many good memories. So here are just a few to celebrate the last five years.


Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Beppu Getaway

Over the summer I took a short trip to Beppu, a hot spring resort town in Kyushu, with my friend Nicola. I can't believe it's taken me so long to write about it, but it was such a refreshing break from Tokyo. The scenery was beautiful, the food was delicious, and I never say no to a good onsen.

Before we left I had trouble finding very much information about the area in English. My old paper Japan guidebook doesn't even mention the town! I'm going to go a little heavy on details and photos, so brace yourselves. 

The biggest draw in Beppu is definitely the hot springs, and for the most part that means onsen, but there are also jigoku or "hells" - hot springs so hot they are meant to be viewed rather than bathed in. There are 7 jigoku, and you can easily take a bus to all of them, but we had the luxury of renting a car and going at our own pace because Nicola has a Japanese drivers license! Each jigoku charges 400 yen admission, or you can buy a 2000 yen pass that grants admission to all. The entire tour can be done in just a few hours, so I'd recommend doing all of them. If you're pressed for time though, Umi Jigoku and Onishibozu were the two most beautiful in my opinion. Additionally, Oniyama Jigoku breeds crocodiles - apparently they like the hot water - but we found it kind of cramped and depressing. Definitely skippable.

Of course, what I was really excited about were the onsen. But be forewarned, the waters in Beppu are hot! The onsen where we stayed was so hot that neither Nicola or I could actually get in the water. Several Japanese guests looked at us like we were insane as we yelped and leapt out of the water. But they did the same thing when they tried to get in, and then agreed with us that it was shockingly hot. After that experience I decided to go to Hyotan onsen, which is a big onsen complex geared towards tourists. I was excited that it included the chance for a hot sand bath, and because I thought it was most likely to have at least some water that was a tolerable temperature. Good news - I soaked in all the baths, and none of them were too hot for me.

While we were in Beppu we decided to drive out to Yufuin, another hot springs town nearby. I think it has a reputation of being a little fancier and more sophisticated than Beppu. In any case, it was beautiful. It has a main shopping street filled with food and shops like many tourist towns, and if you follow that road far enough it ends at a pretty lake. Yufuin is also known for dairy production, so there are all sorts of ice creams, cheese cakes, and other delicious treats available.

I feel silly admitting this since I've lived in Japan for so long, but this trip was the first time I've ever stayed in a ryokan. A ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn with tatami (woven straw) floors, futon mattresses on the floor, and communal baths. Ryokans can be fabulously luxurious, but ours was definitely no frills. It's also common to eat breakfast and dinner at a ryokan, but we did not. I was surprised by how comfortable the futon was, but this was definitely a place to sleep, not to linger.

Nicola and I were both surprised by the size of Beppu and the main shopping streets. We'd worried there wouldn't be many restaurants, particularly open on Sunday night, but there were plenty of options within a short stroll of our ryokan. Our top recommendations are Genova, an awesome takeout ice cream shop, Torisutei Honten, a yakitori (grilled chicken) restaurant, and Kihei Cafe, an adorable coffee shop with a delicious breakfast. We also had delicious burgers in Yufuin at Yufuin Burger, and you can't go wrong with any of the ice cream in town.

Our little ryokan room

Steam vents and structures are visible throughout Beppu
The grounds of Umi Jigoku

Umi Jigoku

Girls' Trip

Oniishibozu Jigoku

Shiraike Jigoku

Chinoike Jigoku

Tatsumaki Jigoku

Delicious burgers


You can see steam billowing up in the mountains

Cheesecake ice cream

The drive to Yufuin is gorgous

Genova Ice cream
Hours: 3:00-Midnight Mon-Sat, 3:00-10:00 Sun
Phone: 0977-22-6051
Address: 1-10-5 Kitahama, Beppu, Oita

Yufuin Burger
Hours: 11:00-5:30, closed Wednesday
Phone: 0977-85-5220
Address: 3053-4 Yufuincho Kawakami, Yufu, Oita

Torisutei Honten
Phone: 0977-22-3787
Address: 1-15-11 Kitahama, Beppu, Oita

Kihei Cafe
Hours: 8:00-6:00,
Phone: 0977-23-1134
Address: 6-30 Fujimicho, Beppu, Oita

Hyotan Onsen
Admission: 750 yen, sand bath additional 330 yen + towel rental
Hours: 9:00 am - 1:00 am
Phone: 0977-66-0527
Address: 159-2 Kannawa, Beppu, Oita

Nogamihonkan Ryokan
Phone: 0977-22-1334
Address: 1-12-1 Kitahama, Beppu, Oita

Monday, October 16, 2017

Yokohama Cup Noodle Museum

Last fall I visited the Cup Noodle Museum in Yokohama. That's right, Yokohama not only has a ramen museum, they also have a museum dedicated to instant ramen!

The first thing we did upon arrival was watch a brief movie about the man who created instant ramen. The movie is in Japanese, but you can get a headset with English, Korean or Chinese audio. I thought the movie was cute and had a sweet message about never giving up, which was a theme throughout the museum. It evidently took Mr. Momofuku many tries before he succeeded in creating instant ramen.

Afterwards there is a model of the shed Mr. Momofuku worked in for so many years, a room full of the many different iterations of Cup Noodles and other Nissin brand instant ramen, and some entertaining ramen themed art work.

But the highlight of the visit is the opportunity to create your own cup of noodles for 300 yen. First you are issued a cup and seated at a table with markers to decorate it as you please. Once your cup is ready to go, you can select a broth flavor and your favorite toppings and watch as the cup goes through the assembly line. To be honest, I thought it sounded a little gimmicky, but it was really fun. Depending on how busy the museum is you may be able to make two or three cups if you like, but I've heard of it being limited to one on some days.

Of course, at the end there is a huge gift shop if you need even more than your individualized Cup Noodle to remember the day.

Admission: 500 yen
Hours: 10:00-6:00, no entry after 5:00, closed on Tuesday
Phone: 045-345-0918
Address: 2-3-4 Shinko, Naka-ku, Yokohama

So many years and varieties of Cup Noodles

Friday, September 29, 2017

Cooling Down

It's amazing how much the weather can impact my attitude. It's finally been cooling down, and the skies are bright and clear after what felt like a summer full of rain. As the weather has improved I've found myself feeling so much more cheerful, and positive about Tokyo. When it's miserable outside and everywhere inside is crowded I can get quite down about living here. But then thankfully the weather changes, and my outlook with it.

I've been going on walks lately, and enjoying being outside again. Not much else is new, but here's a quick glimpse of some day to day highlights. 

Lunch with little friends

And dessert with bigger friends

Watermelon softserve and frozen s'mores at Dominique Ansel - beautiful and legitimately yummy!

A recent protest against the TV station in my neighborhood

My kind of bicycle

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Akasaka Palace

Last weekend John and I went for a walk and happened to wander by Akasaka Palace. From a distance we noticed that the gates were open, so we went closer to investigate. It turned out that they were open for tours, so we jumped at the chance. Through 2015 Akasaka Palace was open to visitors for only a few days each year, but starting last year they have increased the number of days they're open to the public.

Akasaka Palace was built in 1909 in neo-Baroque style. It was quite surreal to walk through the building as it felt so thoroughly European. Sadly, no pictures are allowed inside, but it's stunningly beautiful. Today the palace is used as a guest house for visitors of state.

If you're on vacation this is definitely not a must-see. But if you're in Tokyo for a while it's a really interesting departure from other sites. We probably wouldn't have made plans to tour the palace, but really enjoyed the opportunity when it fell into our lap. I'd definitely recommend it. Their fall schedule is available here.

Akasaka Palace
Hours: See Schedule
Admission: Gardens - free, Main Building - 1000 yen

Thursday, August 17, 2017

How to Clean a Japanese Air Conditioner

Want to hear something gross? I just learned last week that air conditioning units are supposed to be cleaned once or twice a year. Yes, that means that in 4.5 years our air conditioner never once got cleaned. Oops. Can I blame this on growing up with central air? Last week when John and I both noticed a musty smell I googled it, and found this blogpost from Okinawa Hai incredibly helpful.

Basically, the front of the unit lifts up so that you can remove and clean the filters. Then while the filters are out you spray in some cleaner that kills mold, bacteria, etc. Following Okinawa Hai's recommendation we hung up a sheet to protect from drips. Honestly, none of the cleaner dripped out, so it seemed pretty unnecessary. It did catch a little dust the fell when we removed the filters, but I think that's probably due to how long our filters had gone uncleaned. After ten minutes you can return the filters and restart the air conditioner.

The whole process was very easy. We bought the cleaner on amazon for less than 400 yen, though it should be easy to find in hardware stores and probably drugstores. Immediately afterwards we noticed that the air in our apartment smelled fresher. So, if you didn't know this was necessary, or you haven't been sure how to do it, don't hesitate - it's very simple.

Air Conditioner Cleaner

Filters out - getting ready to spray
Super Gross Filters!

This is what they look like clean

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Crazy Foot Peels: Baby Foot v. Shiny Foot by Tony Moly

Have you heard about the new trendy foot peel products that promise insanely smooth feet? Baby Foot is a Japanese product that costs about $20, and Shiny Foot by Tony Moly is a similar Korean product that costs about $10. Both promise to use fruit acids to make all the rough dead skin peel off your feet, leaving fresh beautiful skin behind.

Two friends and I were very curious about these products so, we gave them a try at the beginning of summer. I've been meaning to write a review for ages, but honestly I'm glad it's taken so long because our opinions have shifted as time went on.

Overview and Product Differences

Both Baby Foot and Shiny Foot have plastic booties that you wear for 60-90 minutes while the peeling liquid soaks into your feet. Baby Foot booties have a squishy lining inside that already contains the peeling liquid. Shiny Foot is more like a plastic bag that you pour a small pouch of liquid into. Because of this difference in design Baby Foot exposes the top and bottom of your feet as well as ankles to the liquid, while Shiny Foot only submerges the bottoms of your feet and in between your toes.

This means that with Baby Foot you'll have more exfoliation, but you'll also have fewer shoes that will hide the peeling. For example, Tom's shoes hid all peeling from Shiny Feet, but not Baby Foot. You should consider where you want to exfoliate, and how important hiding the peeling is to you, when you select a product.

After the 60-90 minutes, you wash your feet thoroughly and then wait several days for the peeling to begin. Both products took about the same amount of time to begin peeling, and while the peeling patterns on our feet were somewhat different, the end results were similar.

With both products your feet will peel for about a week, and eventually you will be left with smoother, softer, pinker skin. 


Underwhelming, sums up our experiences. While our feet did look nicer, the results were very brief, and two of the three of us didn't think the change was very significant. One of us has dry feet in general, and she was very pleased with her results. The other two of us have more calluses but not dryness, and we were the two unimpressed. If you have dry feet with white flakiness, you will probably be more likely to enjoy your results.

But the medium and longer term results are less impressive no matter what. All three of us soon realized that we have calluses for a reason (I can hear my mother's voice inside my head saying that now) and we all started developing blisters and rubbing from our shoes after using this product  - Baby Foot was worse than Shiny Foot in this respect.

Within two or three weeks I felt like all evidence of the peel was gone, and as the summer has progressed I feel like my feet have become rougher and more callused than normal. I should point out that all three of us live in a city and walk A LOT everyday, so it's possible that had some impact. 

All three of us admitted that the actual peeling process was really fun and satisfying, but none of us thought we would use the products again. If we did, it would be for the fun/social aspect of doing it with a group of friend, rather than actually wanting the results.

Tips for Use

If you decide to use one of these products here are some tips we learned along the way:

1. Soak your feet in warm water for at least 15 minutes before using the products to make them more effective.

2. The instructions will say that the liquid should absorb, but this is a mistranslation. It won't, but that's nothing to worry about.

3. Remove all toenail polish before using! The liquid will eat the polish off leaving a faded, dusty matte color, but it will also cause the pigment to soak into and stain your toenails. Nail polish remover will not be able to remove the staining - you'll have to wait for them to grow out.

4. Once your feet begin peeling, wear socks at all times or else you will have to do a lot of vacuuming/sweeping. (I wore flip flops after showering to give my feet a chance to dry first)

5. I preferred to gently massage the peeling skin off under running water at the end of my showers rather than flaking it off when it was dry. That said, never use a lot of pressure to peel or scrape skin off - be gentle.

Pictures below. Warning - if peeling feet gross you out, don't scroll further.

Baby Foot

Shiny Foot

Early peeling

Middle stage peeling

Late stage peeling