Thursday, March 27, 2014

Don't give up on a blog and other ramblings

We now have definitive plans to move back to California in December.   And now I am really regretting not keeping up with this blog.  I pretty much started using Facebook as my blog but Facebook is full of a lot of fluff and likes and memes.  Here is where I was supposed to put my deep thoughts.  My insights into living overseas with two children.

It is spring break.  We now live in Setagaya, Tokyo.  My daughter goes to an International School.  My son goes to a Japanese school and will start third grade in a week.

I decided to blog because I realized I had something to say about how long to live in Japan in general.  Others have said this but at some point you realize you are either going to dig in for the long haul and put real roots down or you are going to go back.  Roots are important.  For me, that would have meant buying a house.  Some people rent their whole lives but for people who like to tinker with their houses or for someone like me who wants to garden ALL THE TIME, renting leaves a hole.

I guess the other important thing, piece of advice is, don't come for a year.  It will be a year where you feel clueless most of the time, I mean like 90% of the time.  To get to the 80% level, you need to live here a couple of years.  To get past that you need to learn Japanese and learn it well.  Don't take a class once a week.  Don't think you will study the rest of the week on your own.   I would take a class (many are free and run by volunteers) and get a private tutor.

 Don't live in a neighborhood filled with other foreigners where the people in the stores speak English so you don't have to learn Japanese.  Throw yourself into a real neighborhood as if you were never going back.  Make friends.  Ask for help.  Put your kids in Yochien if they are the right age.  Did I say ask for help?  You have to.  Reach out, then reach out again, and again.  You will feel snubbed.  Reach out again.

Get out of dodge.  I mean out.  Downtown Tokyo is not Japan Japan.  Go to the places that aren't in the overview books for tourists.  If you are in Tokyo, get lost. Go to random train stops and explore.  Search for locations in Google and words of things that interest you and you will find blogs that tell you about local attractions that aren't in the major books.  I found this temple, turns out the only one in Tokyo, that has something so cool, I am not going to tell you about it.  If you get to the point where you can read Japanese, better than I can, there are regional magazines that have lots of cool walking tours.  Setagaya has a magazine.  Yokohama has a magazine.  I browse through them at the doctor's office.  Lots of pretty pictures and sometimes maps I can figure out the location.  And lots of hidden gems.

Parks.  I am a map head.  I love maps.  I manage to use my Japanese navi and its maps pretty well.  Sometimes I just head for the big green areas on the map and hope for a good park. (Ok, not so much in Tokyo but in Kanagawa).  Most parks have paid parking and are easier to drive to than take public transit.  I wound up knowing more parks than most of my Japanese friends.  As a parent parks are your friends.  In Tokyo, my favorite is Nogawa Park.  We will drive an hour to get there we like it so much.  Look for "Forest" parks if you like wilder parks.  Both Tokyo and Yokohama have websites with lists of all the parks and in English.  With that in mind, we are off to a park to see the cherry blossoms.  I don't know which park.  I am just going to head towards some green on my navi.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Why did I stop blogging


The earthquake was the initial reason for sure. Then after three weeks visiting in California with the kids, I came back and I was just stuck. Blogging during the earthquake had been so intense. I didn't know what to say. So if you have been wondering, I have pretty much reverted to Facebook. http://www.facebook.com/home.php?#!/profile.php?id=798940057

But after looking at other people's blogs, I'm wondering if I should start up again. At a minimum, it is a much better way to document photos and the occasional deep thought. And Facebook just doesn't make a good journal.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

"Everyone in the whole big city is our neighbor"




At some point my brain made the shift from "we can handle this" to "maybe we had better sit this one out." I think my friends and family from home and their worry was the last nudge I needed. We were very lucky to get tickets to fly out tomorrow, friday the 18th. Our tickets are for 3 weeks. We'll be visiting my mom in Palo Alto. My husband decided to stay.

I cried for the first time today, not about anything in particular, I guess I had just used up my bravado reserves and the bad news has worn me down, and I am worried about all our friends and my husband who we will leave behind.


Still, despite the shortages, everyone around us is doing their best to get on with daily life. The kids even had dentist appointments yesterday. I went out to lunch with a friend and enjoyed the fabulous tea bar it offered. I've just skimmed the surface of a life in Japan as an expat. Everyday we acquire my language and more understanding and that enrichens our experience. I want to come back.

Now for the soapbox. Earthquake (any disaster) preparedness is not only an individual's responsibility but rather a community's. It is not just having a kit, but that is a good start. It is about building resilient communities in the first place and that includes plans. You need to be involved in your community and where ever you are involved (church, school, office) start there. This is a team sport, folks. And think comprehensive. Think about things like not being dependent on transported food or water piped in from mountains hundreds of miles away. It might mean ripping up your front yard and putting in veggies and herbs or adding rain barrels to your church. It means knowing your neighbors and talking about this ahead of time.

My 3 year old daughter yesterday said "everyone in the whole big city is our neighbor."

So figure out what circle of influence you are comfortable working with. Start somewhere. Think out of the box. I'm on my way back tomorrow, if I see you, expect to be nagged.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Day three and four after the quake


We spent Monday as an almost entirely normal day. My son went to Kindergarten. The only change was they decided not to offer the afterschool program because of the expected rolling outages. These never happened. It was also an unseasonably warm, lovely day. My daughter and I went to lunch at a Cafe. The Cafe was closing early because of the expected outages but otherwise seemed to still be able to offer everything on its menu. I really appreciated the fresh bread roll as bread is one of the staples in short supply at the store.
We went to visit our corner beer store (has a keg as well as a lot of different kind of beers and a small selection of food) to see how they fared in the quake. They lost very little which really surprised me given how high they stack things. Even though the government was saying there was a 70% chance of another big quake this week, they did not remove things from their shelves.

Today both kids went to school and I got in line at the store to buy bread, milk and water. I was there 30 minutes before the store opened, you can see where my backpack is in line. The store quickly filled with people and it was an orderly frenzy. Things would clearly run out quickly. I was bummed I was on my bike as I could only carry so much.
I then went to the dentist. It seemed so unreal to be doing something so normal like getting my teeth cleaned. But I also had to give them the last of my cash. There has been a bit of a run at the banks for cash just like this weekend there was a run for rice and gas. But still, everyone seems pretty relaxed considering what is going on up north and the prediction that we will see another quake this week.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

One Californian's Experience in the Japan Earthquake


I don't think my experience is particularly interesting but this blog offers an easy way to capture it.

I had recently driven home from a park with my daughter and had settled down trying to study Japanese in our sunroom. I was actually reading "Lost Japan" when the earthquake hit. It started slowly and gently and I was just laying on the couch feeling it increase for what felt like a long time but was probably only 30 seconds. I went into the living room where my daughter was when I realized she was naked from the waist down. She had been out playing in the water and had gotten her pants muddy.

Despite being told most of my life in California to go into a small room during an earthquake I grabbed my daughter and went into our small garden. Our house is old and it just didn't feel right to stay inside. We stood outside my kids room and watched the water in the aquarium slosh back and forth and watched our car swap back and forth. It all looked very surreal and like a bad TV movie. It just seemed to go on for such a long time. At one point I almost fell.

After the first quake I ran back inside and turned off the heatpump and got pants and shoes for my daughter, tweeted "Big freaking long earthquake here just now", grabbed my purse and headed up the hill to my son's kindergarten where he was participating in the afterschool "duck club." I speak very little Japanese but I could say "scary" and "big" to the people I passed and they repeated what I said. I started realizing that this was even big by Japanese standards because of the looks on people's faces.

It took me about 7 minutes to get up the hill, so maybe 10 minutes after the first quake. The teachers (almost all young women in their early 20's) had all the kids outside in the small playground of the school building where the 3 year olds have class and where the afterschool program is. I was one of the first mother's to arrive so I just followed the whole group to the large playground of the main school. At this playground, there were all the kids who were playing soccer with the coach, some other kids and their mom's who had hung around after school (school ended at 2:00) and all the teachers. Everyone huddled in the middle of the playground, which seemed very small compared to the two-story school structure next to it. The Principal was organizing the teachers who were going back in to the classrooms to get the kids backpacks when the 1st aftershock hit. This was the scariest moment because you don't know if the first quake was the big one or not. All the adults were scared, many of the kids.

We heard the aftershock before we felt it because of the windows shaking. Everyone seemed pretty trained to duck to the ground (my kids kept trying to go play which was embarrassing and frustrating). I asked my English-speaking friend after the first aftershock how long she planned to stay and she just felt safer there. I texted my husband (in downtown Tokyo) from my friend's phone. I walked home after the 2nd or 3rd aftershock. A vase and a mirror had fallen and broken.

So once home I was able to email my family and my husband and then I just got glued to Twitter because we only have Japanese TV. Twitter even proved to be an early warning system for aftershocks. Looking back at my stream on friday, a bunch of my tweets were just 'shaking again.' Tweeting and retweeting was making me feel productive. A friend who lived up the hill and had no power was worried about us and checked in and brought us some snacks. I though it was super sweet. Others sent emails checking in.

My husband decided to stay at work because his co-workers were. It was later we found out the trains stopped running. He decided to run home at about 8:00 when he realized the trains were not going to run. He bought running shoes and ran 10 miles to the station that is the last station in Tokyo before you get to Kawasaki, Futakatamagawa where he could ride a train to Mizonokuchi where he could ride his bike home. He got home at 11:00 pm. I breathed a sigh of relief. We kept feeling aftershocks all day friday, so frequently that we also were feeling phantom shakes.

Saturday morning we all slept in after a restless night. We had planned to go to Costco and decided we might as well go, we might want to stock up anyway and I had to get away from the grim news in the north. My husband tried to call the store but I can't remember why he couldn't get through. Anyway we drove all the way to Machida to find it was closed. We learned later it was because of a collapse of some kind to the parking structure. We went to a mall and went into a sport store, the atmosphere seemed totally normal. I did notice that people had bought flashlights presumably because of the power outages.

The grocery store we went to to buy snacks did not yet look like people were rushing to buy things which was definitely true by Sunday.

This morning, Sunday, a friend called and said there would be gas shortages so I went and got gas and groceries. There were already shortages of certain items. It didn't look like people were buying tons of stuff but if everybody just bought twice what they normally would, I can see the stores emptying rapidly. What was really odd to me was the fact that the big rice store sold out as did all the big bags of rice at the store. All the water was gone and I got some of the last milk. Unlike on Saturday where we really were operating under a "this won't really affect us" haze, on Sunday the potential impact on our lives, not just all the people in the north.

We took the kids to a wooded area, watched them play in the dirt and drank beers in the sun. We could hear the birds singing and the wind in the bamboo. Another surreal moment actually. It was like we stepped out of the earthquake reality. It was one of those moments you are truly happy to be a family. Every ordinary thing looked a little more beautiful, a little more precious. No really, I'm not trying to be dramatic.

So that is how I have spent the last 56 hours.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Expat Exhaustion


Ok, yes being an expat is officially cool. When I take my kids to their Japanese kindergarten, I have had many people come up and offer to help. Who did that for my sister-in-law when she moved from California to Ohio? The kids on the playground watch my kids like they are local celebrities.

And I love walking around and finding new things like the fact that my neighbors are selling branches of a heavenly scented flowering tree for 150 yen, less than $2 a bunch.



And the little shrine with the worn-out statues and coffee cups. It's all fascinating. It is also exhausting. Every day I worry about feeding my kids or rather getting them to eat. Tonight I tried Gyoza - mom fail. While I wolfed down a whole packet of Gyoza, they mostly ate rice and carrots and popcorn for "dessert." By then, I had had it.



And now, at 6:56 pm? Kids are watching "Cat in the Hat' on DVD in the other room and I am sipping plum wine hoping my hubby makes it home with a little energy to spare. He not only has a full day of work work but also a standing room only subway ride.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

First Day at School and Other Firsts


Almost everything we do these days is a first but today was special. It was my son Kelby's first day at his Japanese kindergarten. We had originally planned to have the kids attend an English language school but I miscalculated the distance. Happily we found a wonderful school just up the hill from our house in Miyamae, Kawasaki.

Today was the first day of the winter term. My daughter Fiona also started but only two days a week in the morning. Considering how different everything is and that only some of the teachers speak some English, my kids did pretty well. I had a hard time sleeping last night worrying about it all. After all, I am not used to being with my kids full time, let alone used to being with them in a place so different that just getting through an average day, feels like work. We've been here exactly 16 days but who is counting?

The gardener in me got some satisfaction Yesterday as we found what passes for Home Depot or OSH in these parts and I was able to buy three packs of seeds, some potting soil and a single pot of Johnny jump ups. I have also started a very small compost pile as of today, mostly made up of the greens from Daikon I picked up for 100 yen from a farm stand up the street. The fact that we have neighbor's with little garden plots is one of the real advantages of our little neighborhood. This time of year our options are limited to daikon, kale, leeks (or maybe these are just green onions on steroids) and mystery greens. But they are fresh and cheap and about as local as you can get.n

I found out that the top of daikon is sweeter than the bottom and that daikon is sweeter in winter because of the cold. I guess that is one good thing about the cold.

living in Japan