Thursday, December 31, 2015

Farewell 2015

I think I start out my New Year's post every year by saying I can't believe how quickly the year has gone. But this year that's not true at all. When I think back over all the things I've done in the past year, the visitors we've had, and place I've gone I can't believe all of that happened in one year.

This year has felt a lot more stable, and in many ways I feel like I really got my feet under me. That said, I think the next year will be filled with a lot of changes and I'm excited to see where those will lead. I've just looked through all the pictures on my phone to remind myself of everything that's happened this year, and it made me really happy, so I thought I'd share some highlights. Happy New Years!




Friday, December 25, 2015

Merry Christmas

No matter how many times we do it, Christmas just feels strange in Tokyo. The last couple of years Thanksgiving has felt really cheerful and normal (don't worry family, we still love you and miss you like crazy!) but Christmas is a different story.

I don't mean to sound whiny or ungrateful when I write this. Getting to live in Japan is such an amazing experience and I'm so glad I got to spend today with my amazing husband and wonderful friends. We ate delicious food (stollen! gyudon! donuts!) and I got beautiful presents. But last night we went to a Christmas Eve church service, and when they sang Silent Night I couldn't stop myself from crying, because I just felt like I was in the wrong place. I think the reality when you're an expat is that you have to accept that there are days when you will feel homesick, even once the real transition and culture shock is years behind you.

Despite my sadness, today really was a nice day. To everyone reading this I'd like to wish you a Merry Christmas and sincerely hope that wherever you are, when you celebrate holidays that are special to you, you are able to find love and joy no matter the circumstances.

Getting Crafty
The giant tree in Kitte is so pretty every year
Shibuya, Overrun By Santas!
There's an extra visitor in our nativity this year
Our Little Tree





Friday, December 18, 2015

How to Deal with Coins/Change in Japan

Have you ever thrown your loose change in a bowl at the end of the day and watched it pile up? In the US I've heard people recommend this as a simple way to save up for a fun splurge, but in Japan it can become a dangerous game because you'll accumulate so much change so quickly and then once you've got it, it's really hard to use.

Japan has coins that go up to 500 yen in value, and it always takes a little adjusting to realize that your handful of coins could pretty easily total $5 to $10 (or more.) Lots of places are cash only establishments as well, so there are a lot more opportunities to end up with a handful of change. Of course, the best way to deal with change is to actively spend it, but what do you do if you just weren't thinking about it and let a small fortune accumulate?

A friend of mine recently discovered that a family member had amassed a collection of coins heavier than he could carry, so we did some research about what to do. The bad news is, that unlike in the US, there are no machines like Coinstar that will do all the work and take a small fee, and banks also don't give out coin rolls for you to sort your own coins and turn them in for bills.  So here are the options we found:

Banks
Japan Post has a machine that will sort coins, but you have to have a bank account with them. There are some stories of people getting around the account requirement, but we were not able to.

Some local banks may be willing to accept the coins for a fee, but it seems to be up to the discretion of the person you talk to. We didn't succeed here either.

Some ATMs will accept coin deposits, but only up to 20 coins, otherwise the machines start to jam. 

Shinsei bank, the most foreigner friendly bank, does not accept coins in person or in ATMs.

Vending Machines
If you only have a small collection of change you can buy a bunch of drinks from a vending machine. They will accept all coins except for 1 and 5 yen.

Pasmo/Suica Cards
You can add value to your train card using coins. Pasmo/Suica cards can be used in convenience stores and some shops inside train stations, and to pay for most taxis, as well as paying for actual train travel. This is the best way we found to deal with with large amounts of coins. Unfortunately, they don't accept 1 or 5 yen coins.

The machines require that you add a minimum of 1000 yen, and they only accept 20 of each type of coin per transaction, except a maximum of 2 500-yen coins. So you couldn't just drop in 100 10-yen coins. But you could add 8 100-yen coins and 20 10-yen coins for a 1000 yen value, or 8 100-yen coins, 20 50-yen coins, and 20 10-yen coins for a 2000 yen value, etc. If you try and add more than 20 of a single coin it will just give you a polite message and start spitting the coins back out.

For this method I recommend sorting the coins first (preferably while watching TV so you don't go crazy) to make the process go more easily, and switching machines between transactions. I never had any problems with the machines jamming, but I was careful not to overload a single one with tons and tons of coins.

This method is slow and annoying, but we found it to work the best for our needs (no Japan Post account, and no desire to open one, and a very large amount of money.) If you've got some time and a little patience I think it's the best option.

1 and 5 Yen Coins
These coins are hard to get rid of! If you're not attached to the actual value I recommend donating them. Likely they don't add up to that much. McDonalds runs a charity and has coin collection boxes at the counter. If your bag of coins is larger than the box they are still happy to accept them. This is what my friend ended up doing, but any place you can find taking donations should accept them. Otherwise you probably need to use the Japan Post machine or slowly rotate them into the cash you're spending.

For the Long Term - Prevent Coins from Building Up
I know this is obvious, but the best way to deal with change is to spend it. It's really common for people to have coin purses, even men, because it's just so practical. If you need to, buy one. And instead of just laying down a bill when you pay for something try and use as many coins as you can. Even if you don't have the exact change you can probably give more coins than you'll end up getting back. Bonus: you get to practice lots of simple arithmetic in your head.

Pasmo/Suica Machines 
Believe it or not, this isn't all of them! We're estimating a $400 value!!

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Dominique Ansel Bakery in Jingumae AKA We Ate Cronuts!

One of the most fun things about living in Tokyo is amazing variety of things I have access to. Obviously there are tons of delicious Japanese foods and beautiful Japanese goods, but coming from a small town it's a surprise just how many international things I have access to. There are branches of American stores in Tokyo that don't even have locations in my home state, so every once in a while I can get ahold of something my friends and family back home can't.

Last Friday Raku and I went to the Dominique Ansel Bakery to finally find out what the cronut craze is all about. Just in case you're not as obsessed with food as I am, Dominique Ansel has a bakery in NYC and invented a hybrid between a donut and croissant that became an insane craze where people would line up for hours to get their hands on one. I don't know what the response was like in other places, but imitations started popping up around Tokyo and then in June this year they opened a location here. Japan loves to go crazy over trends, so we waited a few months but finally thought the time was right to try it out.

The whole bakery is adorable and sells a great selection of creative, beautiful, and delicious looking treats. We only bought the cronuts to go (limit: 2 per person), but they have seating on the first floor for the bakery and a cafe with a full menu on the second floor. We went on a weekday morning, just before lunch time and I don't know if it was a fluke, but there was no line. We were able to walk right in and order and there were plenty of seats available if we'd wanted to stay. John was so taken with his cronut that he tried to go back and get another this weekend, but around 3:30 on a Sunday there was a line out the door and the cronuts had already sold out.

So, on to the important part: the cronut! Raku and I have tried two imitations in the past couple years, one from Mister Donut that was good, but absolutely nothing like the real one, and one from a shop in Tokyo station that was so bad I threw it away after one bite. Neither of them, or even the description of a cronut prepared me. Raku had hers first and texted me that it was a 'really intense experience.' I sort of scoffed and thought that she must not appreciate dessert as much as me, but she is totally right. John and I started eating ours standing up in the kitchen, but after a few bites I felt like I needed to sit down. They are so big and dense and there are so many flavors going on, it is exactly like she said - a really intense (delicious) experience. Apparently they do a different flavor every month, and this month was Strawberry Chocolate with Anis Sugar. I wasn't sure what I thought about that, but Dominique Ansel knows what he's doing - don't question the flavor just buy it and devour it, whatever it is. John and I both really like sweets, but this really stayed with us and we kept talking about it all weekend, in a way we normally wouldn't. It's totally worth the hype, even if you have to wait in line.

Look! No line!
Other tempting treats

Got my cronuts

Seriously, so good!

Dominique Ansel Bakery
Hours: Bakery 8:00 - 7:00, Cafe 9:00-7:00
Phone: 03-3486-1329
Address: 5-7-14 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo
Map

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Kodomo no Nomimono - Kid Beer

Here's something you'd never seen in the US: sodas for children that are deliberately made to mimic the appearance of alcohol. Definitely one of the weirder things to show up in my local grocery store.

A friend was visiting last week, so we decided to sample a couple. I chose the "beer" soda and she got the "sparkling wine" soda. We almost forgot about them, but then on her last day we drank them for breakfast. Or should I say tried to drink them, they were super sweet and very artificial tasting (and I mean more artificial than regular artificially flavored sodas.)

I don't think I'd recommend them, but the fact that they even exist is still pretty funny.

Kodomo no Nomimono

The foam is pretty impressive looking, isn't it?



Friday, December 4, 2015

Upcoming Travel: A New Continent!

It seems like we were in Cambodia and Vietnam so recently, but John and I are already planning our next trip. In January we're going to Australia, stopping for a couple of nights in Thailand!

Every year we talk about going to the Australian Open, but this year we decided it was time to actually do it. So the flights and tickets are booked, we'll be at some of the semi-finals. Fingers crossed that we get to see some good match-ups. We're spending all our time in Melbourne, and we're already planning to go on a wine tour, to the beach, and do an afternoon tea. 

It worked out that we could add on a two night stop-over in Bangkok to our flight, so we'll be doing that as well. It won't be very much time but we can't wait to eat some amazing food.

We haven't planned everything yet, so if you've got any travel tips for Bangkok or Melbourne please let us know!

Monday, November 30, 2015

Rum Raisin Kitkats

It's been a while since I've tried any new kitkat flavors. I've let a few pass my by, but it also seems like they haven't been coming out quite as often. Just as likely I've gotten less observant, but yesterday these rum raisin kitkats caught my eye.

They come in the hilariously named "big little" size, which are basically kitkat nuggets. I really enjoy this shape, and think the serving size is just about perfect. Sometimes I don't buy a new flavor because I can only find the big bags at the grocery store and don't want to have to eat or give away so many.

The rum raisin flavor is surprisingly well done, and pairs nicely with the chocolate. It really does have a rum taste to it, and I suspect a kid wouldn't like them at all. Consider these adult kitkats.

Rum Raisin Kitkats

The "big little" size

Friday, November 27, 2015

Happy Thanksgiving

Another Thanksgiving is behind us. I'll probably be washing dishes all morning, but it is so worth it to have our house full of friends and laughter and good food.

I went back and read my blog posts for our past Thanksgivings - can you believe this is our fourth out here? It's interesting to remember different ways we've celebrated - we're definitely getting better at it, and to see what I've been especially thankful for each year. I don't think much has changed. I'm still thankful for family, and that with the internet it's so easy to stay connected to them. I'm thankful for John and how wonderful life is with him.  And of course for my friends. Honestly, I'm having trouble writing about what I'm thankful for because it all sounds so trite. So instead of rambling on, I'll just wish all of you a Happy Thanksgiving too!


Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Holiday Week

Yesterday was Labor Thanksgiving Day, so it was a three day weekend here in Japan, and later this week is American Thanksgiving. It's feeling quite festive around here. I'm getting ingredients together and getting ready to cook up a storm on Thursday.

The weather has been getting cooler - it feels so crisp and refreshing outside and I even put our winter duvet on the bed over the weekend. The leaves are changing too. This afternoon on my walk home it was so quiet outside that I could actually hear the leaves falling. This is one of my favorite times of year in Tokyo.

I've been thinking a lot about how next year is going to be different. Raku's having her baby, and I'm closing in on finishing the second draft of my book. I don't know really know what's coming next, but I'm excited to find out. A few days ago we decorated a bunch of clothes for Raku's baby - I can't believe her due date is just 6 weeks away!

Clearly, we were meant to design baby high fashion

Cold weather means soup

Fall colors

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Lawson Lucky Bags

Fukubukuro, bags filled with mystery objects, are usually sold around New Year's, and I always think the surprise is so fun. It's not common, but every once in a while you'll find them at another time of year.

Just last week a new convenience store opened in our neighborhood and to celebrate they were selling lucky bags. I knew they would only be convenience store snacks, but Raku and I still got them just for fun. As suspected, they were just typical conbini junk food but we enjoyed opening them. The green tea was the most practical. The weirdest? Tuna crackers. The best - cinnamon almonds, I would definitely buy those again!

Lucky Bags

The goods


Friday, November 13, 2015

Three Years

Wednesday was our three year anniversary of living in Japan. It seems so fast and slow all at once. I think I say that every year, but I guess some things never change.

This time of year always makes me feel reflective, thinking about what the last year has brought and how our time here continues to shape me. Lately, I've been thinking about how adult I feel. Now, if childhood Wendy could hear me say that, she'd laugh in my face. I'm thirty years old - I better feel like an adult. But I think as we all come to learn, age comes up on us slowly and it's not like a switch flips one day after a certain number of years and suddenly we are something new.

In the time I've been living out here I've seen a lot of my friends back in the US doing "real grownup" things like buying houses, having children, getting promotions. There are definitely times when I feel like I'm in a suspended reality here because I'm not doing any of those things and for as long as I live in Japan I won't be.

But the thing is, moving out here really made me and John grow up. In a way that we had never experienced before, we had to figure out everything for ourselves. We weren't in a familiar environment and our families weren't close by anymore. Feeling sick? We sure couldn't just go to the doctor who had known us since we were kids. Not sure why the hot water heater isn't working? That's not something my mom can explain to me out here. There are times it's been really hard (sometimes infuriating) but a lot of the time it's fun, and it sure is empowering. I've struggled with insecurities my whole life, and that will probably never go away entirely. But I feel so much more confident today, and I have no doubt that's due in large part to the way that living here has made me grow. I'm still so grateful for the chance to live here and trying to make the most of every day.

Falling Gingko Leaves
Tokyo Love


Friday, November 6, 2015

November

It's hard to believe that it's already November. Somehow I've gone from a summer full of travel to planning Thanksgiving dinner and already seeing Christmas decorations everywhere. And yes, you better believe I made a special trip out to Costco yesterday specifically to buy a pumpkin pie (which is now patiently waiting in my freezer.)

I guess it feels like the time is passing so quickly because of all the things I've been doing lately. Over the weekend we had a really wonderful baby shower for Raku. She didn't want the typical experience with lots of shower games, so instead we opted for a fancy brunch at the Park Hyatt. This past weekend John and I also got to attend the opening of the Takashi Murakami exhibit at the Mori Art Museum, which is one of the better shows they've had lately.

Raku has friends visiting right now, so I also visited the Yokohama Ramen Museum with them, which was delicious! In between all that I'm still trying to stay focused on my writing, but it's hard.

Takashi Murakami's Show
Part of Murakami's "The 500 Arhats"
This view never gets old
Nighttime City Lights
Neighborhood Christmas Lights
Trying to stay focused


Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Tokyo Autumn

I love fall in Tokyo. As the weather cools down and the air starts to feel clean again I find myself making a point of spending more time outdoors and it puts me in such a good mood! The leaves haven't really started changing yet, but they will soon. The nights are coming early, and I know it will start to feel gloomy eventually, but for now I'm enjoying it as the evenings are now filled with bustling sidewalks lit by glowing streetlights.

Our neighborhood bar

Overgrown Walkway

Ichigo Daifuku - I've been all about anko (sweetened red bean paste) lately.

Pretty mural in Shimokitazawa

Strawberries are a winter fruit in Japan (thanks to greenhouses.) These are the first I've seen this season.



Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Weekend Getaway to Shimoda

Last week we had a three day weekend, thanks to Sports Day, and took the opportunity to go down to Shimoda, a little beach town at the bottom of the Izu peninsula.

I've been interested in the Izu peninsula for a while because it's supposed to have some of the best beaches with any proximity to Tokyo. It's also a pretty historical area because Shimoda is where Commodore Perry first landed and demanded that Japan open it's doors to the outside.

We were definitely visiting in the off season, so the town was a lot sleepier and not everything was open. But John and I talked about it and we thought we might like it better that way. One of the best parts of getting away from Tokyo is getting away from the crowds.

While Shimoda is known for the beach it was drizzly two of the three days of our visit so we never made it to the famous beaches. Instead we walked around Perry Road, a shopping street along a canal that reminded me of Kyoto, explored the beach near our hotel, and took a cable car up to Mt. Nesugata. We went hiking on the one sunny day on a cliffside ocean path, which was absolutely fantastic. The views were gorgeous, though some parts of the trail can be quite steep. Don't be put off though, Raku was able to do it, and she's seven months pregnant. (Eeek! Did you guys catch that announcement? Raku's having a baby!)

We also had some really nice food and drinks. If you're looking for coffee shops Cafe Pepe is a very relaxed spot with a friendly shiba inu and Jashumon is a great old fashioned coffee shop with a nautical vibe. On our last night we had the best sushi that John and I have ever had at Mimatsu. The owner and his wife were so friendly, chatting with us, showing us a New York Times article they were recommended in ten years ago, and even showing us some photos of their children.

The one activity I wouldn't recommend is the black ship harbor cruise. It's very brief for the cost, and the ship is so crowded with tourists! The ones near us were much more interested in feeding crackers to seagulls than the actual scenery. From the ship however, we did spot a little island in the harbor that appeared to have caves in it. After getting off the ship we found our way there, walking out a long jetty people were fishing off of to explore the area. It's not a must do, but it was interesting. From there we were able to walk back to our hotel, most of the way right along the ocean, as the sun set.

We stayed at the Tokyu Shimoda Hotel, and being the off season we only paid $79 per night as oppose to the $200-300 they charge in the middle of summer. While the rooms were nothing special the amenities more than made up for it. They have two onsen with the most gorgeous outdoor baths I've ever seen. Sitting in the hot water looking out at the mountains jutting up from the ocean with palm trees swaying nearby we felt like we were in Hawaii. The hotel also has a pathway down to the ocean, and during the summer a nice swimming pool. Another great thing was the free shuttle into town that we used several times. If you'd rather not wait for their schedule the front desk is also happy to call taxis for you.

It's taken us so long to visit because Shimoda isn't the most convenient place to get to in terms of trains. The odoriko is the only direct train from Tokyo and it stops running by 4:00 in the afternoon, making it impossible for a Friday night departure. There are a number of different options to get there, so it's probably best to use google maps or Jorudan to find the best route and price for your trip. If you are able to take the odoriko, try and get the super view train - we caught it on the trip home, and the enormous windows make for a really beautiful ocean view.

Reccomendations:
Tokyu Shimoda Hotel
Suzaki Hiking Trail
Cafe Pepe
Jashumon
Mimatsu

Garden at the top of Mt. Nesugata
Jashumon Coffee Shop
Perry Road
Floating Torii Gate
Ocean Cave
The beach near our hotel, once the sun came out the colors were amazing!

View from our hike
The Tokyu Hotel's outdoor onsen (super against the rules, but we were the only ones there)
Onsen selfie

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Afternoon Tea at The Palace Hotel Tokyo

I can't believe it's taken me so long to post about this, but earlier this summer Raku and I celebrated my birthday with afternoon tea at The Palace Hotel.

We were excited about this tea because we had heard it had more of a Japanese twist than most here in Tokyo. Instead of being served on the typical three tiered stand it comes in a stacked lacquered bento box that opens out into three boxes and a plate. We had also heard that the servers wear kimonos, but at least for the summer they were not, I'm not sure if they do at all any more. The space itself was beautiful and very relaxing. We were seated indoors, but there were some lovely outside seats that would have been really enjoyable if it wasn't the middle of summer.

When we first arrived we were each served a glass of the best iced tea I've ever had. It was Des Alizes, a green tea blend flavored with white peach, which you should immediately buy on amazon because it is amazing! I will say that though the presentation is beautiful when the bento boxes are unpacked the table gets very crowded, and I actually managed to knock my silverware on the floor a couple of times. The menu was very inventive but didn't stray too far from a typical tea menu. The sweets included a wagashi (a sweet made from almond paste similar to marzipan) along with more typical things like an eclair and a macaron, and the savories included a piece of eel sushi along with the quiche and a mini hamburger. Strangely enough my favorite thing was a soy bean soup! 

The tea list didn't include anything particularly inventive, other than the Des Alizes which I made sure to order more of, but it includes all the classic teas, and you can order as many types as you like. Because it was my birthday Raku arranged a special dessert for me which was really good. We ate the whole thing before I even noticed they had misspelled my name.

All in all this was a really enjoyable tea. The menu was good, the ambiance was very relaxing, and I particularly the interpretation here. The Mandarin Oriental may always be my top tea in Tokyo, but this is a great alternative, especially if you're looking for a more Japanese experience.

The Palace Hotel Afternoon Tea
Afternoon Tea Hours: Weekdays 1:00-4:30, Weekends 2:00-4:30
Phone: 03-3211-5309
Address: 1-1-1 Marunouchi, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo
Map

The bento box being opened up
The food 
Blurry Friend Photo
The took the double in W seriously
The Imperial Palace Moat
Read About Other Afternoon Teas:
The Metropole Hanoi
The Ritz Carlton Tokyo
Tokyo Shangri-la
The Peninsula Tokyo
The Mandarin Oriental Tokyo (second time)
Park Hyatt Shinjuku
Four Seasons Marunouchi
Hotel Chinzanso
The Mandarin Oriental