Here are some thoughts about Japan I’ve been storing up in my head. You will have to add some pictures in your imagination to go with my thoughts. Friday, February 3.
Japanese houses are freezing in the winter! I don’t think I can overemphasize it enough. FREEEE-ZING. NO central heat makes our house an ice box. Sometimes you can see your breath inside the house. Okay, that’s an exaggeration. In the US we really take central heat for granted. When you adjust the thermostat you know that any room you walk into, including the toilet/bathroom, is going to be nice and toasty. This house we are living in is only two years old so even new houses don’t have central air or central heat. It just isn’t a thing here.
These are some ways people in Japan warm up inside their house: (1) They put on more clothes. Uniqlo sells a type of long underwear called “Heat Tech” and everyone knows it. Winter pants (including jeans and khakis) have fleece or furry lining inside. If you aren’t wearing some kind of extra layer then it’s really your fault you are cold in your house. You can buy big, thick, thigh-high socks and also there’s something called “room socks” that are big fluffy socks that you wear inside.
(2) They take a bath. The nightly shower and bath system serves the purpose of warming you up when you are cold to the bone. I think the bath temperatures are set typically around 42-44 degrees celsius, which is 108-111 degrees fahrenheit. You really come out looking like a boiled lobster if you stay in too long. But if you time it right this feeling of warmth can get you from the bath to bed without getting cold again.
(3) They sit on the toilet. Even though the room with the toilet is freeze your ass off cold – literally – the toilet seats are heated automatically so when you sit down your butt cheeks feel very nice. The problem is you can never stand up or they’ll instantly freeze again. I think everyone in a modern home in Japan probably has heated toilet seats. But a few places have very simple toilets without heated seats so after you’ve been in Japan long enough you know what restrooms to avoid in winter. The toilets at my kids’ international school do not have heated seats. I’m sure this is designed so that the kids get their business done quickly and get back to class.
(4) They huddle around a space heater. A space heater can warm up an area very nicely. But it might not reach very far unless it’s been running for a long time. So once you stand in front of one you cannot tear yourself away. This is very bad for wasting time or getting things done. My kids like to bring their clothes downstairs in the morning and change in front of the gas heater. Even our cats have figured out where to best position themselves for heater warmth.
Our gas at the house got shut off one winter day. We didn’t know how it happened, but we did know that we had no gas heater, no gas burners working, and no hot water! It was traumatic as the night got closer and still no gas. We sent the owner of our house, Andrew, a text message, but he’s in the UK so the time difference meant he was fast asleep. Our friend Art kindly offered to let us come over to his house to take showers and warm up! After our neighbor Kimiko came home from work we asked her to come over and help us. Andrew finally got our message and called Osaka Gas on our behalf. John had to talk to Osaka Gas on the phone, too. That was challenging and amusing (not for John, just for us listening).
In the end Osaka Gas came over and Kimiko helped talk to the gas man. It turned out that the lever outside that turns our gas on and off is next to the bike shelter where the bikes are kept. A bike handle actually pushed against the lever and turned it! At one point we thought we had it fixed but we only turned the lever part way. That allowed the gas to come into the line a little so it looked like everything was fine, but since it wasn’t open all the way the gas quickly went out again. After all that the gas needed to be reset. It was a simple fix thank goodness! Osaka Gas said everything was fine — ready to start cooking, washing and bathing. We didn’t imagine that the bikes could turn off our gas and make us freeze. It just demonstrates how even simple utility issues are magnified for us when you don’t speak the language.
Just for the record, we do have air con/heater units in each of the bedrooms in this house. They run on electricity and have remote controls with a lot of buttons with Japanese characters on them. Recently I found online that someone had actually posted English translations for my particular remote control. Yeah! I was able to figure out how to turn on the heater setting. We also have heated floors downstairs. But I just tell the kids to put on their super thick and toasty socks.
January 2. We went to Kobe to ride the Ropeway there. You can get on near the JR Kobe train station and ride it to the top of a mountain. At the top is a beautiful view and a little shop that sells herbal and apothecary goods. There’s also a snack window to buy some little treats. Kaiyo and Avalon saw a menu ad for gold ice cream. Literally, it was edible gold leaf foil. They begged and I gave in. It was gold soft serve ice cream and it was $10 per cone! Ten dollars! Was it real 24k gold or what!?! They looked back at me for confirmation. Ugh. I did not want to spend $10 on one cone. And the man behind the counter told them the gold part tasted like nothing special! But John had already said yes so I was going to look like the bad guy if I said no. And yes, it tasted like nothing extraordinary. Just $10 vanilla soft serve.
Besides eating exotic gold ice cream, Kaiyo has really gone out of his comfort zone with food choices. He is by far my picky eater, but if Japan has had some good influences on him, expanding his palate is definitely one of them. He now enjoys Indian food and he loves naan. He will eat naan and tandoori
chicken and he will actually suggest Indian as a choice for going out. Avalon (my dip girl) discovered that she likes to dip naan in daal curry! Hooray for small miracles! We also had some Thai cuisine expeditions in Malaysia and Indonesia and so it looks like Thai can be a safe choice now. John and I are thrilled. I’ve always made Thai curry at home but now all three of them are mostly eating it. (Kaiyo is still picking at the Thai curry). They are okay with Pho so this trip is a huge success in my eyes as far as being able to enjoy all of our favorite ethnic cuisines as a family now. I don’t know if that could have possibly happened in America. Here we are sitting on the floor at a Nepalese-Indian restaurant in Kyoto.
As much as trying new things is exciting, we are so thankful for the things that people have brought or sent to us from the US. It has meant a lot to us that our friends are thinking of us and in some cases reaching out to send us comforts from home. Thank you! Our new friends here, the Yoo family, have brought us Crest toothpaste on two different occasions! Yes, toothpaste from Los Angeles really is better! My mother’s cousin Clyde brought us four boxes of Carroll Shelby chili mix straight from a Long Beach grocery store. My kids appreciated every bite. Thank you Clyde, it’s all gone! My mother’s cousin Julie arrived in Kyoto from California not too long ago and I also asked her for toothpaste when she asked what I wanted.
Our friends the Griffins and Reeves sent surprise care packages of amazing goodies like salt water taffy, goldfish crackers, toffee from Trader Joe’s, little arts and crafts and little plush toys, candy canes, Halloween candy and other goodies. The birthday and holiday boxes from Grandpa and Grandma Inaba in Riverside included favorite candy, Lubriderm, Knott’s boysenberry jam (almost gone!!), slipper socks that John was desperate for and books written in ENGLISH!
And to Avalon’s bestie Kate: Avalon loves the dress and sweater that you sent her. They are beautiful and she actually has them hanging on a hook on her bedroom wall instead of in the closet.
February 2. We biked to school in the snow! The funny and wonderful thing about snow in Japan is that it is extremely dry and fluffy. It’s the driest snow I’ve ever seen. It will come down in huge white flakes and not stick on the ground! The website powderdetours.com says:
“Northwest winds bring intense cold air streams and strengthening weather systems down from Siberia picking up just enough moisture on their way over the Sea of Japan. (T)he water content in Japanese snow is often as low as 4%. Compare that to Utah’s usual 7% (another internationally renowned powder haven) and you have quite a difference.”
Sometimes the sun will be bright and the sky will look clear and still it will be snowing! It’s unbelievable. So when the kids biked in to school this morning, it was snowing but not icy or dangerous. It just looked like fun.
That’s not to say it’s always that way. Sometimes it is icy and slippery. But that seems to be usually after it rains at night and everything ices over. My friend told me she did slip and fall off her bike recently on the way to work so we always have to be cautious.
Speaking of cautious on our bikes… on January 20, Halyard had a run in with a car while biking. Literally, he ran into a moving car while riding his bike to school. He was coming down a hill, likely too fast, into an intersection with many cars. There was a stop sign there, hmmmm. A passing car will stop you if nothing else. So John got a call from Halyard saying he’d gotten into an accident and the police were there. I called my friend who lives nearby and she grabbed her friend who also lives nearby and who speaks English and Japanese. So our little group arrived to see Halyard and the police and the driver with a sizable dent in the side of his car. Halyard probably looked left to see if the road was clear. But since they’re driving on the other side of the road here, he needed to look right, not left. So the car came down the road from Halyard’s right and he didn’t see it.
All’s well that ends well. In Japan liability is largely shared. At least that’s what I’ve heard. In the US someone is usually found at fault and they pay all costs associated with an accident, including repair and injury costs. But here, even though Halyard clearly ran into the back half of this man’s car (the driver would not have seen him coming), I guess it could have been the driver’s fault somehow anyway. Since the man was driving a company car, he called his company to report what happened. The company decided that if it was okay with us, they would repair their car and we would repair Halyard’s bike and both go our separate ways. I kept asking about paying to fix his car anyway. I just could not get it through my head that we were not going to pay for this man’s dents in the side of his car.
Luckily Halyard was fine and didn’t get hurt. I thought he might be sore the next day but he said he was feeling fine.
At the check out register in the grocery store, if you buy any kind of frozen food the checker asks if you want some dry ice (they are talking about an ice pack). If you buy packaged, ready-to-eat food they ask if you want some chopsticks. They ask if you want to buy a plastic bag (3 yen for a smaller size and 5 yen for a large size). However, without asking, they’ll swiftly put feminine products in a gray plastic bag so they are hidden. I find this hilarious and I’ve decided that anytime I forget my bags I can avoid buying a 3 yen or 5 yen bag by simply buying a box of tampons. The gray bag they hide them in is large enough to hold a lot of things.
One thing that has struck me as particularly interesting is how extremely polite Japanese strangers can be. Especially when you give them even the slightest courtesy. The other day I was walking from the bus to the train at JR (stands for Japan Rail) Ibaraki station and a young woman dressed very nicely with perfect make up was handing out flyers. She was right in my path so instead of ignoring her I decided to take her flyer. She said something in Japanese to me that I could not understand and then she started to bow very deeply about three times! A deep bow at the waist shows real appreciation I think. It wasn’t just a quick head and shoulder bob. I thought it was interesting since she was just passing out an advertisement for a beauty salon and spa. She probably isn’t going to get a lot of flyers handed out with that kind of individual attention on each person.
Another example is the other morning I was riding my bike home and a large truck was trying to exit a driveway and make a right turn across a busy street. He was blocking the sidewalk and about 4-5 people (walkers and bike riders) were waiting to continue on down the sidewalk. They all waited patiently and did not try to walk or ride around the truck. It took him a while but he finally got out into the street. One of the business’ employees was standing there watching the truck and after the sidewalk cleared he started bowing to each person and saying thank you to everyone that had waited for the truck. He had the deep bows going, like the lady at the train station.
At Universal Studios Japan couples and groups of friends often dress exactly alike right down to matching hats, accessories and shoes. Young couples also dress exactly the same and when I see them, I think to myself, are they going to have to stay together forever after investing all that money on twin clothes? Or do they throw away the clothes after a bad break-up? They obviously went shopping together because I’m talking about matching pants, matching shirts, matching shoes, matching jackets, and sometimes even matching hats, scarves, headbands (yes, really, with Elmo or Snoopy on top).
A very popular outfit at USJ for large groups is a yellow long sleeve shirt or sweatshirt, blue denim overalls and a Minion headband on the head. Another popular outfit is a Where’s Wally/Where’s Waldo outfit with light blue pants and a red and white striped long sleeve shirt and a red and white striped knit cap with round black rimmed glasses. Harry Potter themed clothes are also very popular with black cloaks, crests and accessories from the four Hogwarts schools. At Halloween I’d say at least 50% of the thousands of people there were dressed up in outfits that matched their partners and friends.
Driving is still stressful. Wide right, tight left!!! Just today we were on our way out for a drive and John turned out of the gas station into a lane going the wrong way. He was at a light and didn’t realize it. I said, I think you are in the wrong lane. He was asking me, well where are those cars in the lane next to us going? When the cars started coming at him he realized what was going on and started to back up, back into the gas station driveway. After that we decided to count our blessings, count our losses and go home. We had only been driving for about 3 minutes.
We have heard that getting an official Japanese driver’s license is very difficult here for foreigners. Apparently the actual driving test is a very tricky one around a course that’s full of tight curves and narrow areas. For now, John has a temporary international driver’s permit.
A funny story my friend Mari told me: When she went to get her driver’s license issued she had to take a photo. In her photo she was just barely smiling. A beginning of a smile is what I think she said. The man at the driving office told her she could not use that photo because she was starting to smile. Then he showed her a big book with rejected photos, some of them because people were smiling.
Another interesting story from Mari: When the flu is going around sometimes a large part of a school class will be absent. Sometimes a whole class will be out sick. And if it’s really bad, she says the whole school will cancel classes for the day due to a flu outbreak!
January 10 was a national holiday but when we asked, our friend said he doesn’t know what they’re celebrating. He had to look it up on his phone. I thought this was hilarious but later after I thought about it, if you asked John what was being celebrated and why we have a day off work in September, there’s only a 50-50 chance that he would know it’s because of Labor Day. Anyway, it was “Coming of Age Day” in Japan. This is when the nation celebrates all the young people who are turning 20 years old in that year and becoming adults. Wow, everyone gets a day off school and work to celebrate!
January 23. Kaiyo rode his bike to PC Depot by himself and bought a new SD card for the Nintendo 3DS. He researched the prices on Amazon first and talked to people at the store! He took his yen and made the purchase all by himself. I was very proud of him. He really wanted to get Pokemon Sun/Moon.
I am at the end of my thoughts. I don’t need to think again about wacky Japan until another day.