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, (Update: a commenter tells me that Pocket Change now offers these machines! I've never used one, and I'm not sure what fee they take so I can't vouch for them, but it's good to know) 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:

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

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!