Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Happy New Year!

I can't believe it's already the end of the year!  It's been over a week since I've blogged too.  I've just been at home with John enjoying some time off.  He's got this entire week, and at the last minute was able to take Christmas day off as well.  I mentioned before that I was feeling so blue about the holidays, but they turned out pretty nicely.  Nothing super exciting to report, just a quiet relaxing time with good food, lots of FaceTime, and celebrating later with friends.

Now that it's the New Year's Holiday most people are off visiting family, so Tokyo feels very quiet and emptied out.  Traditionally on New Year's Eve Japanese people will eat noodles (soba in particular) to symbolize longevity in the new year.  John's not a big fan of soba (though I love it) but we had our favorite ramen, so maybe that counts?

I want to thank everyone that reads this blog, it's meant so much to me to have this outlet, and it makes me so happy to know that people out there are reading.  I've grown and learned so much in the past year, and tried to share a lot of that through this blog.  I hope that 2014 brings wonderful things to both you and me.  Happy New Year!

Sunday, December 22, 2013

The Christmas Spirit

Can you believe how soon Christmas is? The past couple of weeks have been a flurry of Christmas shopping and mailing heaps of packages (receiving them too!) We have our Christmas tree up and our building has some cheery lights up, which is fun. It's strange to think that this is already our second Christmas here. I've been trying really hard to get into the Christmas spirit, but it's been a pretty up and down sort of week. I'm so lucky to have the friends and support here that I do, but a friend moved back to the US today. Raku, of course, has been wonderful putting up with all my moods and cheering me up with her kindness, shopping adventures, and when all else fails with chu-hais in conbinis. Part of me is glad to be settled and really appreciative of the life I have here, but part of me is so sad to not being going back for Christmas.

I've done a lot of really great shopping lately, and have several fun posts coming soon about it all, but for now here are some Christmas-y photos.

Home Sweet Home

Our Christmas Tree!  (The same one I've had since I was 22) 
S'mores - One of the only things worth making in a fish oven

Getting all our packages ready to ship

Some days you just need to drink a Sparkling Rose or a Sparkling Nouveau in the Family Mart

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Visiting a Japanese Dermatologist

Since coming to Japan John and I have both had some flare-ups with our complexions. I don't know if it's from stress, or differences in the water, or adjusting to a climate that swings from incredibly humid to incredibly dry. I've spent a lot of time trying to find good face wash that would help, which I've detailed here, but I recently read a little about dermatologists here and was really excited by what I found. I told John about it, and we went to one today.  He did the test run, but I may go myself in a few weeks.

In the US I have always thought of going to the dermatologist mostly as a luxury, though they do treat a lot of real conditions too. I certainly never wanted to spend the money just to go for acne. But here it was supposed to be very common to go for acne treatment and very easy, affordable, and covered by national health insurance. I talked to John about it and he found a place in Hiroo, The Hiroo Garden Clinic, that took national health insurance and spoke English.

We were surprised to learn that we could just walk in rather than needing an appointment. When we got there it was pretty crowded, but they saw people very quickly. Both the receptionists and the doctor spoke English and John was also able to fill out all the paperwork in English. The actually appointment probably took less than 5 minutes, which startled John, but it was very efficient. He was given a prescription for an oral antibiotic as well as a topical antibiotic and an acne cream and asked to come back in a week to see how it was working. The total for the visit was 1020 yen (about $10).  We then went to the pharmacy which was just downstair and next door where John was also able to fill out his paperwork in English. It took about 10 minutes for them to be filled, and each one was labeled with dosage instructions in English.  The total for the two creams and a week's worth of oral antibiotics was 1500 yen (about $15).

The clinic is about a 10 minute walk from Hiroo station. It was very clean and pleasant inside and I would definitely recommend it. While we waited we got to watch Toy Story dubbed in Japanese.  Neither of us has spent much time in Hiroo, but the walk to the clinic was very pleasant and the neighborhood seemed really nice. There were lots of cafes and shops that would be nice to visit before or after a doctor's appointment.

Hiroo Garden Clinic
Hours: M-W, F 10:00-1:00 & 3:00-6:00, Sat 10:00-1:00, Closed Thurs, Sun, and holidays
Phone: 03-6427-9198
Address: 7-14-7 Minami-Aoyama, Minato-ku, Tokyo

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Signs That Make Me Laugh

How is it already mid-December?  Other than the days flying past and the beautiful leaves falling off the trees not a lot is new.  My writing has been going slowly (but not badly) and I've been able to FaceTime with my family a lot recently which has been nice.  I've been compiling photos of funny uses of English lately.  They don't shock me as much anymore, but they still make me smile so I thought I'd share them.

How is this really a flavor?

Only a Quasi-National Park, so sad.

No you're not!

I can just picture my mom's face reading this.

Turkish, not Turkey!

I'll take bets on what this tastes like.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Feeling at Home

I can't believe it's already a week into December.  It's hitting me more now than at our anniversary that we've actually lived here for a whole year.  This will be the first time since starting college that John or I have lived in the same house/apartment/dorm room for more than a year.  It's nice to feel settled, but it's also sort of strange.  I'm feeling more settled and even alright about being here for the holidays this year, but there's still a sense of impermanence.

This week I've been doing a lot of Christmas shopping, getting packages ready to send back to the US. It's been fun to buy some of the traditional Japanese crafts for people that I normally just admire.  I also bought a Starbucks Christmas ornament.  It might be a little silly, but I've spent so much time writing in them this year that it seemed appropriate.  And it's really cute.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Midtown Christmas

Tokyo Midtown has a bunch of funny Santas set up for Christmas with instructions on how to pose with each one.  Raku and I didn't always take the advice, but we had a fun time playing around with them. Raku thinks she looks like a vagrant in the one where she's pretending to sleep.  My favorite was the nerdy Santa with the argyle socks.

Hours: 11:00-9:00
Address: 9-7-1 Akasaka, Minato-ku, Tokyo

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Hiking Mt. Takao

The fall leaves have been so beautiful lately.  I was in such a daze trying to get over jet lag and find an apartment that I didn't even notice them last year, but this year I'm loving them.  Some places even have an illumination weekend to display the leaves at night like they do for cherry blossoms.  I'd been interested in hiking Mt. Takao for a while, but was waiting to go during leaf season.  Finally, Raku and I went last week. 
It takes about an hour on the train to get there from Tokyo, but it doesn't really feel that long.  We caught a really nice view of Mt. Fuji on the way out - the best I've ever had, though we weren't able to see it from the top of Takao.  At the mountain there are a number of different trails you can take as well as a cable car and a chair lift that go halfway up.  When we arrived there was a forty minute wait for the cable car, but almost no line at all for the chair lift!  Of the three trails that go the whole way we decided to take the Inariyama Trail on the way up, which runs along a ridge and is supposed to have the best views in fall.  In spring and summer the Biwa Waterfall Trail is recommended for flowers.  On the way down we took the Omotesando Trail, which is the main path and paved all the way.  The official website was really helpful in figuring out the best course for us to take.

The way up was so peaceful and beautiful!  I had been worried that even though we were going on a week day a Friday at the peak of leaf season might be too crowded.  When I saw the line for the cable cars I got really worried, but this trail was great.  We were never out of sight of others, and we did pass a number of people, but it was never annoying.  The trail was steeper than I expected, particularly the first kilometer had a LOT of stairs, but it wasn't too strenuous.  It was really great to be so far away from the city.  I was reminded a lot of the forest at home, and honestly from the trail we could have been in the woods anywhere in the world.

On the way down we took the mail trail partly out of curiosity and partly because we thought it would be easier on our knees.  It's paved the entire way, and this is the trail that the cable cars and chair lifts meet up with.  Because so many people were going back to those the first thirty minutes felt like we were walking down a busy street in Tokyo!  Luckily there was a man with a dog in his backpack that kept us entertained. Once the crowds thinned out it was better, but there are a number of snack stalls, temples, and bathrooms along the way, so there's no getting lost in the nature, you always know you're in Japan.  The temples are really beautiful though and I'd recommend checking them out.  Even though the path was paved it had some really steep parts as well, and by the end the arches of our feet were aching from the descent.

The summit was probably the least exciting part of the whole trip, which is a little sad.  It was just incredibly crowded and dusty.  The views were nice, but not fantastically better than the Inariyama Trail.  We ate our picnic lunch and took a few pictures but hurried back to the trail pretty quickly.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Happy Thanksgiving!

I can't believe how quickly November has flown by.  It doesn't seem like it should already be Thanksgiving, even though it's so late this year.  I also can't believe this is our second Thanksgiving in Japan.  This one feels a lot more real though, since we're living in our own apartment, not that tiny temporary place.

Our Thanksgiving dinner isn't going to be all that different than last year, though I'm attempting to mimic sweet potato casserole with kabocha - a Japanese squash.  Besides that we'll have rosemary lemon chicken breasts, mashed potatoes, and green beans.  For dessert this time I found some apple pie flavored ice cream at the grocery store.

As wonderful as the food is though, today is really about thankfulness.  This year I'm particularly thankful for the internet.  It allows me to stay in touch with friends and family no matter where they or I am, it lets me do research for my book so easily from any location, and it has been an invaluable resource over the last year for figuring out how to make our life here.  (Speaking of resources I recently had my blog added to the Japan Blog List, a great resource for people living in or interested in Japan)  I'm also very thankful for my friends and family back in the US who video chat me at strange times, mail me random things I can't find here, and provide me with so much love and support.  And of course I am thankful for the amazing friends and wonderful husband that I have here.

Lots of love to everyone near and far!

Sunday, November 24, 2013

White KitKats

Finally a KitKat flavor that's actually good!  White kitkats are dipped in a vanilla coating - there are even little vanilla bean speckles - and have chocolate wafers alternating with the normal plain ones.  I haven't seen them them in the candy bar aisle at any of the conbinis, but I picked up a bag of fun size ones at the grocery store.  The flavor is really good, and the coating isn't weirdly soft (maybe because it's not hot and humid anymore?)  This is the first novelty flavor that hasn't been really gross, so if you see them they're definitely worth buying!

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Afternoon Tea at Hotel Chinzanso

Last Friday Raku and I had afternoon tea at the Hotel Chinzanso.  We had so much fun at the Mandarin Oriental back in July that we decided this needs to be a seasonal treat.  We've got a whole google doc going now with plans for all the different ones to do in Tokyo.  The Hotel Chinzanso, formerly the Four Seasons Chinzanso, has a beautiful garden on it's grounds that is supposed to be particularly nice during sakura and leaf season.  The leaves are finally turning, so we made reservations for Friday, and then it rained.  Raku was a very good sport about walking around in the drizzle, and the garden was lovely, especially the walkway under a waterfall, but due to the weather I didn't get any good photos.

But let's talk about tea!  This was a very different experience from the Mandarin.  The Hotel Chinzanso is in Edogawabashi, and it feels so removed from Tokyo.  The walk from the station to the hotel took about ten minutes and was so nice.  We walked past a number of shrines, several fruit trees in little yards, and an elementary school.  Le Jardin, the lounge where tea is served, was right where we walked in, and through the windows we could see bright fall leaves and a pagoda that was originally built in Kyoto.  I preferred the indulgent feel of the Mandarin but Raku preferred the Chinzanso, saying she felt so cozy and relaxed.  We both enjoyed the food and drinks, but agreed the Mandarin does both better.

We had the seasonal autumn menu which  was oddly called the "Very Berry Tea."  We started with the sandwiches: egg salad with coleslaw, turkey and cranberry, balsamic swordfish wrap, and a sweet potato, chestnut, and cream cheese sandwich.  The egg salad was surprisingly our favorite, with a bright crunch from a little shredded carrot and cabbage and a nice mustard-y tang.  The sweet potato, chestnut, and cream cheese concoction was creative, but not enjoyable at all.  Our scones came in strawberry, blueberry, and plain and while the strawberry were the most tender, all of them were pretty dense and dry.  For dessert there was a lime and raspberry jelly that tasted a little artificial but not bad, a beautiful raspberry tart, a white chocolate filled with cassis (currant) syrup, and our favorite a strawberry and white chocolate mousse.  The mousse was the most unassuming in appearance, but it was fantastic!

Tea is served by the pot, and you can order a different type each time.  We found each pot contained about three cups, but the leaves stay in the pot the whole time, so by the third cup it's really strong! Raku and I ordered different teas so that we could try two each round.  Both of our favorites were surprising (and both Raku's picks) - Irish Cream Tea and Green Rooibos Strawberry Cream Tea. Neither of them actually have cream in them, though you can certainly add it if you like.

All in all it was a very nice experience, and a great tea to have on a rainy afternoon.  By the time we walked back to the station the rain had cleared and we were able to see the sunset over the river.

Hotel Chinzanso Afternoon Tea
Hours: 12:00-6:00
Phone: 03-3943-1111
Address: 2-10-8 Bunkyo-ku, Tokyo

Friday, November 15, 2013

Funny Foods

I've seen some hilarious food lately.  The best was a package of "fried chicken and pepper" flavored cheetos that Raku got me as a gift for our anniversary with Japan.  In truth, they were better than I expected.  They definitely tasted like chicken, but once I was over the weirdness factor it wasn't so bad. In the grocery store last week I came across some sort of mushroom/fungus thing.  It wouldn't have been that funny except this store puts up English labels sometimes, but they're often a little off.  This product, whatever it is, was labeled a Medusa Head.  And I really appreciate that there was a face on the packaging.  The last was just a box of saltines, but I liked the way they were displayed to appeal to the Japanese palate.

Monday, November 11, 2013

One Year Anniversary

Today is our one year anniversary living in Japan.   In some ways it seems like it's been forever, but for the most part I can't believe the time has gone so fast.  My memories of our first month or so here are so foggy!  I was incredibly overwhelmed and such a swirl of emotions - excited, sad, homesick, confused, and trying to be brave all at the same time.  

There were so many times in the beginning that I just wanted to go home, or have John handle everything for me.  I used to compose about a thousand texts a day to him before deleting them and forcing myself to deal with whatever was going on.  It's been hard but it's made me a lot stronger and more confident.  I've felt confident and secure in myself before, but it's always been linked to a job I had or an achievement I  made.  This time, it's just me.  In the beginning I felt so off balance here because I wasn't working, and I wasn't sure of my purpose or my value.

Luckily I have a wonderful husband who is loving and supportive, and an amazing friend - Raku - with whom I have developed a pattern of daily life (and fun) that has been invaluable.  So here is something I've never said "out loud" on my blog before: I'm writing a book.  It's scary, and it's exciting, and in the beginning it almost didn't feel real.  Somehow it seemed like cheating that I was allowed to have all this time to just work on it - I didn't have to meet deadlines that anyone else set, or work a certain number of hours per day or week, I wasn't getting a paycheck.  Was I really allowed to do this?  What if it was all just a waste of my time and John's money?  It hasn't been a full year of writing yet, but at this point I honestly believe it's not a waste.  I've practiced self-disciple.  I learn more about forgiveness and compassion (towards myself and others) all the time.  I'm learning the importance of boundaries and how creativity can flourish within that space.  I've developed pride in my work, and I've developed pride in myself.  As hard as living in Japan is sometimes, I am incredibly thankful for the opportunity I have here.  There is almost no other way that I can imagine I would have allowed myself to take this risk.

In another year I hope that you're reading (and loving) my book.  But even if that doesn't happen, I'm really glad that I get to live here with John, have wonderful friends, and take the time to write - learning and growing through it all.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Tokyo Design Festa

Last weekend we went to the Design Festa out in Odaiba.  I wasn't really clear on what the event was - a craft show? an art display? a giant convention? - but it seemed like something interesting to do anyway.  It was so fun though, I'm really glad we went!

In a big convention center the space is broken up into little booths that people can sign up for, and what they do there is sort of up to them.  Some people sell their wares, others spend the whole time actively creating art - painting or drawing, etc.  Some people are working on projects while selling their stuff.  It was really interesting to walk around and see so many things going on. We even did a little early Christmas shopping.

Meanwhile there's an outdoor stage with bands performing and an indoor area with dances, fashion shows, etc.  We even saw one group do a choreographed unicycle routine.  There are a lot of people and a lot going on, but it doesn't feel uncomfortably crowded the way so many events and festivals can.  Definitely something I would do again.

Monday, November 4, 2013


Yesterday John and I were watching the final game of the Japan Series (the Tohoku Eagles beat the Tokyo Giants) and I understood all of the dialogue during one of the commercials.  It was a great feeling.  A week ago John and I were out having dinner and we had an entire conversation in Japanese. Granted it was very short, but it was just us joking around in a completely natural way.  It's so exciting to have these moments when I can really recognize the progress I'm making.

I've recently started studying again, and I can already tell the difference it's making.  I quit studying almost immediately after we arrived, and looking back it was definitely a defense mechanism.  I was so overwhelmed and intimidated when we got here.  By refusing to try there was no way I could fail - this way at least I was in control of my inability to speak or read.  While it was probably something that I needed to do in the beginning I'm feeling my more settled and secure in my life and I'm ready to start learning again.  It's not easy and it's usually frustrating, but I think it will be worth it.  Otherwise it's been a good week.

Watch out for perverts on the train!

Healthy homemade lunch with Raku

Holiday cups arrived November 1

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Halloween Photo Shoot

Happy Halloween! Is there anything better than a holiday when you and a friend can dress up and have a hilarious photo shoot? Well, I guess I don't really need a holiday for that. Back when my sister was visiting she, Raku, and I all bought matching cat shirts for 500 yen at Uniqlo. Honestly there are not that many occasions that we find to wear them together (though we try!) but using them as cat costumes seemed perfect. We waited too long and missed our chance to buy cat ears, but made some pretty great ones using construction paper and headbands. Then we spent a good 20 minutes coming up with our best cat poses.

Speaking of holidays, John told me that on the way to work he saw Christmas wreaths up!

By the way, I don't know if you can tell in the pictures, but I got a haircut earlier this week. It's not much shorter, but it has lots of layers in it now. I wish I was more creative about styling my hair. Where do people get all their cute ideas?

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Crock Pot Pumpkin Bread

Did you know you can bake in a crock pot? Move over rice cooker, I have a new (much more successful) BFF in the kitchen. Now that it's really fall I've been wanting to make pumpkin bread, and I came across a recipe to make it in a crock pot. I was pretty sure it would be a disaster like more than half of my rice cooker baking attempts are, but it worked like a dream!

You put the batter in a small loaf pan, and then the loaf pan sits in a water bath inside the crockpot to bake. Paper towels absorb the moisture as it cooks (genius!) so that it doesn't turn mushy and gross. When it was finished I was worried that the top looked too soft, but it was cooked all the way through, and even my toughest critic (my charming husband) liked it! I can't wait to make it again.

Yummy batter

Fingers crossed!

Will this really work?


Thursday, October 24, 2013

Going with the Flow

Are you very good at going with the flow? I'm trying to get better at it. When we first moved here I felt so out of control. Everything was so hard - I had the responsibilities of an adult, but what felt like the abilities of a very young child. As a coping mechanism I tried so hard to plan ahead and be in control of every small thing in my life that I could. In the beginning that was really helpful for me, but lately I've been thinking I need to relax a little more. I've found that I'm becoming resistant to change, something I never would have expected a year ago.

I know it's still more than a month away, but since September I've been trying to figure out what to do for Thanksgiving this year. It's easy to stress yourself out doing obsessive research and trying to make a plan to recreate a perfect experience. It makes you evaluate how important certain things are. Is having a "normal" Thanksgiving a way to hold on to treasured memories and traditions? Or is it a way to try and pretend that life hasn't really changed since moving here?

Yesterday I went to Costco and was delighted to discover they are selling pumpkin pies! A piece of my Thanksgiving plan was falling into place!  But, it turns out that Costco Japan carries pumpkin pie in October, and by November they're probably out of stock. I guess it's a Halloween thing? After some debating in the store, I realized that rather than being disappointed that I wouldn't be able to come get one for Thanksgiving I should be excited that I have the opportunity to have it all. And that what's really important to me about Thanksgiving is spending time with people that I care about, sharing laughter and delicious food, whether it's traditional or not. Even if it's not on the 4th Thursday of November.

So last night we had pumpkin pie, and I was thankful to be able to share a fall dessert with friends. Full disclosure - I bought a second pie and put it in the freezer for Thanksgiving. I guess I haven't completely let go yet.

Costco Pumpkin Pie

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Updated Blog

Many thanks to John for helping give my blog a much needed facelift, the perfect activity for a cold and rainy autumn afternoon.

The banner picture is a photo that my Great Aunt took in Japan in 1958, most likely in Shizuoka prefecture. She was such an amazing lady, traveling all over the world by herself so long ago.   When she went somewhere she really explored too, getting well off the beaten path. I'm always inspired by her fearlessness.  The women in this picture are spreading out shrimp to dry in the sun. Can you imagine how much their backs must have ached at the end of the day?  In the background is Mt. Fuji - I still haven't seen it that closely yet.

I think last weekend was the dying breath of summer. It's been getting cooler, and we are finally sleeping without the air conditioning. I've had it off during the day for weeks, but it's just been too hot and stuffy at night. A very few leaves are beginning to turn, and apples are everywhere in the grocery stores now. Later this week I'm going to try a pumpkin bread recipe in my crockpot, if it's not a total disaster I plan to blog about it.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Crystal Yacht Club Night Cruise

Last year at his office's year end party John won two tickets on a night cruise, and we finally got around to using them last weekend.

The cruise departs from Tenouzu Isle in Shinagawa, which is sort of a pain to get to, but we trekked out there getting lost like we always do trying to find the monorail. I had expected it to be on one of the small wooden boats with lights strung up, but we were greeted by a big yacht.

The Lady Crystal
There was an air conditioned cabin with a bar where we could sit, as well as roof top where we could take pictures in the open air. An assortment of drinks were lined up waiting for us at the bar, and it was self serve the whole time. The night cruise is only an hour though, so there's not really that much drinking.

Taking pictures of the skyline
The view was actually really nice. We had great views of Tokyo Tower, the ferris wheel and Rainbow Bridge in Odaiba, and we sailed far enough up to see the Sky Tree before turning around to sail back.

Rainbow Bridge
It was a fun way to spend a Friday night (especially since it was free), though it can get windy. I'd recommend putting your hair up or coming armed with some hair ties.

Phone: 03-3450-4300
Address: 2-3-16 Higashishinagawa, Shinagawa-ku, Tokyo

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Shiba Koen

Last week I had lunch with friends in Shiba Koen. It was fun to socialize a little in the middle of the day, and later in the afternoon I got to explore the area a little more.

I had read that in the park there was a ten meter man-made gorge with a waterfall, which I was really excited to see. Shiba Koen is pretty big so it took a little while to figure out where it is, but it's in the corner of the park right by Tokyo Tower.

Shiba Koen Walking Trail
As you can see "gorge" is a bit of an exaggeration. I would call it a walking trail carved into a small hill. But it was still beautiful. There are several benches so it would make a good picnic or coffee break spot.

Raku contemplating the waterfall
 We didn't look closely, but the temple in Skiba Koen, Zojo-ji, is supposed to have the burial place of six Tokugawa Shoguns, but not Ieyasu - he's in Nikko.

Reminds me of home
 Just as we left the lights on Tokyo Tower came on, and we got some great pre-sunset pictures.

At the base of Tokyo Tower

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Things That Make Me Smile

This past week has been a rough one. My writing hasn't been going very well, the days are getting shorter - sunset is already at 5:09, and I've been thinking a lot about last October - the month John and I spent saying goodbye to our friends and family before moving here. So I've been trying to focus on the things that do make me happy, like:

Beautiful Sunsets

Funny English T-shirts

Free stickers that came with my lemons

Japanese Lanterns

This Guy

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Homemade Ravioli Revisited

I wrote about making homemade ravioli before, but I realized I made a huge mistake. Instead of using gyoza wrappers, I used paper thin shumai wrappers! That's why they were so thin and delicate.

I tried again this past weekend, adding some yummy mushrooms to the filling and using the proper wrappers, and they came out so much better! None of them stuck together or tore, and they didn't come open while cooking. Definitely something worth trying (if you can't get ravioli any other way).

I love how rustic they look

Just before the sauce