Sunday, May 31, 2009


Remember that anti-drug slogan:
This is your brain. This is your brain on drugs?

Well, these are my eyes...on Tokyo allergens.

I feel like Ben Stein should be narrating this blog with a beach ball that looks like my distressed eyeball. On a daily basis, I walk into school after riding my bike along the peaceful yet allergy-filled gauntlet of a river path, and teachers constantly ask me if I'm all right. Now I'm used to it, but at first I didn't know that my eyes looked tear-filled and streaked with red on a daily basis. It actually even scared one of my second graders one day...they were that bad.

For some reason, Rachael and I both are highly affected by the allergens produced near the river, and since that's our only route to the train station, grocery shopping and work, we don't have a choice but to just go straight through it. Life on a bike does have its disadvantages.

I thought I would have to suffer through this epic struggle in silence and just deal with it with little help even from allergy medicine, but after nine months in this country, I finally caved and took a step towards becoming Japanese. Like so many others in Tokyo, this little system has kept me breathing clear and my scleras sparkling white. Luckily, I no longer need to impress the ladies, so I now comfortably rock this style on a daily basis.

Friday, May 29, 2009

More Signs

Here are some more interesting signs from Tokyo and Kyoto:

You guessed it, a politician.
Apparently the hoodlums of our neighborhood give him a 'thumbs up."

The canal by our apartment has maybe 100 massive carp in it.
I think this sign refers to them.

Our street sign: City, neighborhood, and subdivision.

This strung out construction worker clearly doesn't want you to enter his construction zone.

You heard them. No scribbling.

I felt like Robert Langdon in The Davinci Code trying to decipher this one. It took us almost 15 minutes to figure out what this beverage machine message was trying to tell us. As far as we understood, they did not want you to bring a drink into the Nijo-jo Castle (do not see 'it' while drinking drink).

The sentence about "The PET bottle caps it" is a bit of a mystery, but we think they just want you to cap your drink and carry it in your bag.

I have no clue whatsoever as to what the last sentence about the chief means. Awesome sign.

Tako-yaki, or octopus balls. They're not what you might be thinking, but rather some sort of fritter with dough, cheese and octopus all pan-fried to perfection.

I think Kat's expressions tell enough of the story of this sign
(no idea what it's for though).

Seriously, what on earth?

The McDonald's 100 yen menu, like our dollar menu.

Rachael was pretty excited about the four letter word on these signs.


Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Fool me once

Last time we ordered pizza, it was for several friends, and we had no idea how large a medium ("eme saizu") pizza would be. It was a major accomplishment for me in using my newly acquired Japanese skills, and our first pizza delivery. Someone told me yesterday that it took her eight years of living in Japan before she was comfortable ordering a pizza over the phone. Yee haw for doing it after 8 months! Sadly, after ordering, we discovered that these so called medium pizzas were just a bit bigger than their American cousin, the "personal pan" pizza.

Since a medium pizza with crazy Japanese toppings goes for about $35-$40.00 (US) we ordered a large pizza and cooked up and added our own veggies of choice. The "halfu and halfu" pizza (1/2 cheese, 1/2 pepperoni) was a relative bargain at only $24.00.

We got fooled the first time by exorbitant prices and deceivingly small sizes, but in the words of the last President...

Monday, May 25, 2009

Banking in Japan

For the past 6 months, Rachael and I have been saving diligently for our upcoming trip to San Francisco using an old fashioned method. A piggy bank. Actually, it's more of a piggy bag...minus the piggy.

This week, we counted well over $400 worth of change and hauled the 15 pound sack of change all the way downtown to our CitiBank branch during its posted "open hours."

Our friendly neighborhood Minnesota Wells Fargo bank is open from 9:00 AM- 6:00 PM on weekdays and even 9:00 AM - 2:00 PM on Saturday. Although our bank here may be "open" as well, for some bizarrely Japanese reason, they will not accept coin deposits after 3:00pm on weekdays or on Saturdays.

That discovery was frustrating enough, but wait, there's more! I asked if Rachael could come back during the week and deposit the change since I can't just ditch my 24 students and go to the bank with a satchel full of yen. They said I would have to sign a Power of Attorney and that they would then have to hand count the change in front of Rachael before depositing it in my account. What?

Since there are only 8 school days left before we come home to the States for 10 weeks, there's no way I'll make it to the bank before we leave. I'm going to see if one of the nice Japanese people in the accounting or front offices has any suggestions, but I'd kill for one of those supermarket change converting machines right now.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Next few blogs

We are very quickly coming to the end of our first year in Japan. That's crazy.

I'm sure we'll have lots of time this summer to figure out what just happened, but until then, I still have several recent things to write about. I'll be updating every other day with a new post, so check back often and as always, we love to hear your comments.

See many of you soon- love from Tokyo.
Brad & Rachael

Friday, May 15, 2009

Basubaru! (Baseball!)

Before we came to Japan, we did hours of extensive research on the history, culture, and customs of our new homeland...

Wait, I meant to say that we SHOULD have. Our preparation for this experience was actually pretty minimal, but after watching an episode of Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations, there was one thing we knew we wanted to do while we were here. It wasn't touring ancient Buddhist temples or searching for our inner "wa," but rather getting a hot dog and screaming our lungs out at a boisterous Japanese baseball game.

Last night all our dreams came true.

The Great Migration
Since so many people rightly take advantage of Japan's clean and efficient public transportation system, we joined the throng of thousands headed out for Friday night at the baseball park. Truthfully, it feels less like being herded like cattle as it does being two sardines in a massive school of fish. If you've seen the movie Finding Nemo, one of my personal favorites, it's just like the school of fish that point Dori and Marlin toward the EAC. The crowd moves sensitively and quickly because everyone pays such close attention to the people around them. We all turn sideways and shuffle carefully if someone stops to our left. We waddle like penguins when things get tight, moving our feet a couple inches at a time through a bottleneck of human bodies clambering up and down narrow underground staircases. It's fantastic.

***Editor's note: Rachael completely disagrees with the last statement. :)

Getting Grub for the Game
One distinct advantage of attending a game here compared to American baseball is that you can bring your own food and drinks to the game. This saves both money and the despair of buying a hot dog while your team's all star hits a home run without you.

Along the 500 meter route from the train station to the stadium are probably fifty temporary food stands set up to make the process simple and easy. You can buy a whole array of cheap Japanese food staples without much effort at all and continue on your way to the stadium. We picked up edamame (bean pods), gyoza (pan fried dumplings), fried spring rolls, yakisoba (fried noodles with pork and ginger), and a few beers. Also, we noticed tons of people buying long balloons in pairs, so my instincts told me to pick up a couple of those too. More on this later.

Here's the funniest part of our food experience: while you are allowed to bring all those things into the park, you cannot bring in the actual cans of beer. Stationed at the entrance gates are designated beer pour-er-outer-guys. They carefully open each bottled or canned beverage and pour it into designated stadium cups (no charge). We got a kick out of this, and I do have to say that their pouring skills were pretty fantastic.

The brightly uniformed "beer girls" were also pretty entertaining. They each had kegs strapped to their backs like James Bond jet packs that made it look like their 100 pound frames could easily be rocketed into space.

Rachael ended up caving and going for a hot dog rather than eat the smorgasbord of street food we bought on the way in. Here's her beautiful hot dog, standing in for a "Dome dog" from the Minnesota Twins' Metrodome.

The Japanese Basubaru Experience
When I go to a baseball game at home, I love getting the cheapest seats possible so I can splurge on stadium food. This is partly because I go more for the atmosphere of being out at the ballpark than I do out of any need to see a bunch of dudes in tight pants hitting a ball with a stick. Don't get me wrong, I love baseball and played it for several years. But when it comes to going to a game, I love shelling dozens of peanuts, gorging myself on over-sized hot dogs and washing it all down with a cold beer in the midst of a rambunctious group of like-minded people. For that kind of experience, the cheapest seats in the ballpark are usually the best.

In South America, I loved going to soccer games and being a part of the passionate mass of jumping, screaming, singing, even crying fanatics who live their lives from game to game. This is often the opposite of the more idle spectators at American sports games, although we certainly have our share of shirtless crazies with war-painted faces and trash barrels for pants.

Last night, I found Japanese baseball fans to be an ideal, happy medium. They cheer loudly and constantly with trumpets, drums, whistles, and team songs when their team is up to bat. But they don't scream, boo, or do much of anything when the opposing team is up.

Around the time of the customary 7th inning stretch, everyone around us began blowing up odd-looking balloons. The crowd sang yet another team song and simultaneously released their balloons into the sky. Each balloon has a little plastic whistle for a mouthpiece, so the sight and sound of hundreds of these balloons shooting up made us feel like we were at a New Year's Eve Party.

Thanks to our friends Ann and George who invited us out to the game, we'll certainly do this a few more times while living here in Japan. Next on the list is a sumo tournament, but Japanese baseball was a home run in my book.

Coming attractions

Blogs to come (this week...I hope):

- More hilarious signs in Japan

- The Golden Temple, Kinkakuji, in Kyoto


I'll get 'em to ya as soon as I can. Until then, enjoy the toilet spraying a few more times.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Japanese Super-Toilets

And now...the blog post you've all been waiting for. Prepare for what may, in fact, be the most important blog you'll ever read. Or not.

The Potty.
The John.
The Commode.
The Loo.
The Porcelain Throne.

As you may or may not have heard before, one of Japan's many strange fascinations is their love of the toilet. Or the "Toi-re," if you will.

Before we rush to judgment over the Japanese obsession with toilets, you really can't argue against their importance. After "thank you," the first Japanese phrase we learned was "Where is the bathroom/toilet?" And just to help us memorize it, we sang the phrase "Toire wa doko desuka" to the tune of Follow the Yellow Brick Road from The Wizard of Oz.

We've come along way from squatting above a hole in the ground and Japan has certainly tried to perfect the final evolution of this seemingly simple household feature. The most ironic part about the advancement of Japanese super toilets must be the existence of so many outdated squatty-potty type toilets throughout the country. These are pretty awkward to use if you grew up with Western toilets, but you get used to it (see photo ----->).

When choosing between the two open units in our building, I do have to say that the difference in toilets put me over the edge to go with Unit #510, which had a super-toilet, rather than Unit #610, which had a simple porcelain seat. How about a brief video to explore the fun? The following is a video tour of our brand new toilet in our apartment:

Toilet Tour Special Features:
Heated seat
Wall-mounted controls
Several washing features
Eco flush (2 choices)
Water-saving hand washing thingy
Neon green bowl light
No-slam lid

Now that you've seen ours, I hope you share my sense of admiration for the people at TOTO and Panasonic Toilets. These groups of pioneering men and women have made the world a warmer, cleaner, and more comfortable place for Japanese (and gaijin) bottoms.

Some fun links and extra info for the super-toilet curious out there:

A hilariously true story about how toilet marketing in Japan is changing:

Apparently the phenomenon is catching on the U.S. (fun):

Here's a guy from the U.K. admiring one:

Some features of these super toilets as described on Wikipedia:

"High-tech" toilets

Advanced technology is being integrated into toilets with more functions, especially in Japan (see Toilets in Japan). The biggest maker of these toilets is TOTO. Such toilets can cost anywhere from US$200 to $5,000. The features are operated by control pads (sometimes with bilingual labels), and even hand-held remote control devices. Some of these features are

  • Automatic-flushing mechanisms, operated by a photocell or other sensor. Typically these flush a toilet when the user stands up, or flush a urinal when the user steps away.
  • Water jets, or "bottom washers" like a bidet, as an alternative to toilet paper
  • The "Portable Washlet", Toto's portable hand-held bottom washer
  • Blow dryers, to dry the body after use of water jets
  • Artificial flush sounds, to mask noises such as body functions
  • Urine and stool analysis, for medical monitoring. Matsushita's "Smart Toilet" checks blood pressure, temperature, and blood sugar.
  • Digital clock, to monitor time spent at the toilet
  • Automatic lid operation, to open and close the lid
  • Heated seats (some of which may overheat)
  • Deodorizing fans
  • Automated paper toilet-seat-cover replacers, which automatically replace a paper toilet-seat cover with the push of a button.
  • Electric Toilet Brushes

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Now that's romance

Just to give you a fun little image of our little life in Tokyo...

This is Rachael and I dancing the tango after dinner in one of those moments of spontaneous, silly fun that seems to take hold of us far too often.

The funny thing is that I learned to dance the tango while living in Buenos Aires, Argentina a couple years ago, and we're now putting those Argentine dancing skills to work after enjoying homemade calamari stew in Tokyo, Japan.

Add the French wine, Italian photo collage and Greek music playing in the background, and I'd call that bona fide multicultural confusion. But ain't it beautiful?

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Neighbors, Trains and Personal Space

Close proximity can do some crazy things to people.

After living in Japan for nearly nine months, we have become pretty comfortable with losing our American "bubble" of personal space. Whether traveling on packed trains, biking on crowded streets, or living in relatively smaller apartments, we have had to make adjustments to our traditional desire for comfortable personal space.

A few examples from our experiences on trains and with our neighbors.

This week, it rained solidly for three days straight. Normally (in the States), I respond to rainy-day streaks in a pretty consistent pattern. Day 1: I'm a little bummed because of the lack of sunshine, but it doesn't really bother me. Day 2: I start to get annoyed with being wet and with the general gloom of the sky. Day 3: I'm ready to fly to the Sahara to see blue sky and feel dry again.

Because we are so dependent on biking and walking everywhere we go, we don't have a "dry" option. When it rains, we put on a raincoat and hope our pants and shoes don't get too wet on the ride. If it's not too windy, we can use an umbrella simultaneously as we ride our bikes, but that requires some major balance and control that can sometimes be hard to manage. On Friday, it felt like we were in the middle of a hurricane because of the intense wind and heavy rain.

(After the storm finally passed)

My ride to work was awful. I literally had to hold my umbrella sideways with all the strength I could summon to keep from it pulling me up into the air like Mary Poppins. Not even halfway through my two mile trek to school, I stopped under a bridge and decided to try Plan B, taking the train instead. I turned and went a few blocks to the nearest station, parked my bike, and ran to the platform.

The problem was, EVERYONE else had the same idea. I have been on some crowded trains, but this was by far the most densely packed train I have ever attempted to ride.

If you've ever played football or seen football players practice, you may have seen their "practice sleds." They are large human-size pads attached to a very large, very heavy metal sled. When you put all your weight into them, they move back a few feet, training you to do the same when a three hundred pound lineman is in front of you.

(Some lovely gentlemen hired to shove people onto crowded trains)

No kidding, this is exactly what I had to do to get on the morning train. I turned around so my back was touching the people behind me, shoved with all my might, and created enough room for my slender frame to fit enough just inside the closing doors of the train. I would have NEVER felt comfortable doing this anywhere in the U.S., but it's a common way for people to get on crowded trains and certainly worked out for me that rainy morning.

Obviously, I've gotten over my previous need for personal space, mostly since I don't have a choice. Rachael used to have mini panic-attacks on such crowded trains and would start breathing quickly and getting flustered, but even she handles it much better now. Since everyone has to deal with the same thing, we all seem to deal with it respectfully enough and with the understanding that you do what you have to when getting from Point A to Point B.

What's interesting at school is that I find that my Japanese parents (of my students) tend to need more space in between us during our conversations than did my American parents. Sometimes I try little experiments with this both to see how they'll react and to learn about the limits of comfortable conversation in Japan. If we're standing up and I move even a couple inches toward them (since we're already 3-5 feet apart and it feels a bit distant to me), a few Japanese parents have moved back. This could be due to a whole host of factors like age, gender, teacher/parent relationships etc., but it does appear to me that Japanese people like to have an even larger personal space bubble in conversations than do those in Western societies. Maybe since they're frequently crowded and cramped in public spaces they take whatever opportunities they can to enjoy a little extra space. It's a mystery to me, but I'll keep you posted if we have any interesting updates about this in the future.

(What looks like a college student's work with understanding personal space:

We've had positive, negative, and neutral interactions with our neighbors since moving here, much like neighbors do anywhere else in the world. Who out there hasn't had a neighbor that's done something strange or unexpected we've then had to deal with? The sheer amount of people in Tokyo does make for interesting living though, since we're basically all stacked on top of and next to each other.

In our first apartment, we were happy to be on the top floor of the building with plenty of windows, space, a rooftop terrace, and a great kitchen for encouraging Rachael's passion for making amazing food. However, all the positives of that home were wiped away completely because of our nosy neighbors on the first floor who literally watched and provided commentary on our every move.

The following are some of our worst infractions, though I'm sure there were hundreds of others despite our best efforts to be good neighbors: a window was irresponsibly left open when Rachael was singing, we sinfully hung our bedspread out to dry on our clothesline (like everyone else in our new building does), our trash was out 8 or 9 minutes too early, our trash was nearly six inches away from it's proper (unmarked) spot, the front gates were not closed completely even though they neither lock or latch, and the list goes on.

These things eventually drove us crazy enough to look for a new place to live. And what did we get in return for all this insanity? A new crazy neighbor!!!

Just last week, we received this highlighted note in our mailbox. It's clearly not from the actual management of our building, but rather from our the neighbor directly below us (#410, we're in #510). We can't read it, but the characteristic accompanying cartoon does a pretty good job of explaining that he must be able to hear something we're doing through his ceiling. We don't play music loudly, don't have children or a dog running around (yet), and don't do jumping jacks or host anvil-dropping competitions that often, so we didn't worry too much about the note.

A few days later though, our lovely neighbor thought he'd follow up with a visit to our door. While Jenn and Rachael were home getting Jenn packed for her trip home, he came upstairs to give Rachael this verbal message (first in Japanese, then in English when he realized she had no idea what he was saying):

"You walk too loud. I can hear you walk."
(Blank stare from Rachael)
"You need to walk softer or wear slippers."
(Rachael: "Okay?, I'll try to do better...")

Now, I fully realize that hearing your neighbors can be annoying at times. We used to have a bored, barking dog across the hall or hear a range of sounds from other neighbors around us (cooking, practicing instruments, etc.). Besides the dog though, we never had to mention it to any of them because we understood that that's just part of the territory of apartment living.

We're not too concerned about this new guy, but we do wonder 'Why us?' We have friends who host loud get-togethers with music and lively conversations on a frequent basis without complaint. But we get busted for...walking.

This by no means will scare us away from our current home since we are definitely here to stay for the rest of our time in Japan, but it's been interesting to learn about the relationships between our Japanese neighbors and their personal space.

Long distance love

We have something to admit...we love our moms.

On this Mother's Day, since we're thousands of miles away, here's a small tribute to our mothers for all the love, advice, hugs, and friendship they've given us.

Happy Mother's Day to Renee and Jan (and Zell, Della, & Mary) from Japan!

Brad & Rachael

(Sorry that the quality isn't better, but that's all we get for a free blog space)

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

5 in a row

Hey there.

In case you didn't see, we somehow got on a roll tonight and published five new entries. They all made it into the May Archives and there are still a few more to come about Kyoto, but make sure you check 'em all out.

With love from Japan,
The Whites


One of the more difficult parts of living where we do is the very obvious contradiction of being English speakers in a country where English is not the official language or spoken frequently by most of the population.

However, beyond this basic language difference is also a complete cultural shift in the way that information is presented. Said much more simply, signs are really weird in Japan. Here are a few from my aimless walk around Kyoto. I have a feeling this is not my last entry about the oddities seen on signs in Japan.

If you had to guess, what do you think this sign would be advertising?

It's for a pay by the hour parking lot. That's what winking turtles generally make me think of. Parking.

How about this one?

I have no idea what this one was for- sorry.

Here are a few more. Enjoy the joy of Japanese signage.