Thursday, September 29, 2011


I admit to knowing next to nothing about Asian history.  It’s sad, I know. 

I have learned a bit since moving to Japan.  I love visiting museums and historical sites…but unfortunately for me most of the information is only provided in Japanese.  Zannen!  (Too bad!)

Over the summer Karl and I had the opportunities to visit some historical sites of Japan. 

Japanese castles are, as one might suspect, completely different from the stereotypical European castle.  They are grand in their own distinct way.  

Karl was able to visit one of the most famous castles in Japan this past July-Matsumoto Castle.  I couldn’t go because of a koto lesson and English classes.  But seeing his pictures, I wish I had gone! 

MatsumotoCastle is one of the only castles in Japan that exists in its original structure.  Pretty amazing.

During our stay in Okazaki while studying at Yamasa, we spent one of the days of Obon exploring the Okazaki castle. 

It is in a lovely park surrounded by a moat.  Okazaki castle is one of the many castles that had been completely destroyed and rebuilt.  Though not quite as impressive as Matsumoto castle, it is still a lovely building.  

There is a small museum on the grounds of the castle we also took time to explore.  At the end of the tour, you could dress up as a samurai and get your picture taken.  Fun!

Karl was very excited.
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Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Studying Japanese?

I confess.  I am a self-proclaimed nerd.  I love school.  I excelled in my class work.  I thrived in that type of learning environment. 

Now I am trying desperately to learn Japanese, but primarily by self-study.  And it is totally different ball game. I miss having the structure of a classroom with deadlines to be met and exams for which to study.

Spending two weeks at Yamasa Institute this past August was like a throw back to college.  I loved it.  It improved my Japanese to the point at which I finally feel more comfortable self-studying.  I no longer feel like I am completely floundering…wondering if I am going in the right direction.

I have also recently come across some really incredible study materials.  Let me share them with you:

1.  Download the “Anki” flashcard program.  There is a wealth of resources in the form of flashcard decks all ready for you to download.  The program is specifically designed to help you retain the information you are trying to learn.

2.  Are you trying to learn the Kanji characters?  It’s a pretty daunting task.  I recently discovered a book called “Heisig’s Remember the Kanji.”  Book one covers how to write the kanji as well as the English meaning while book two gets into the readings for the kanji.  There is also a book three, but I don’t know much about it.  This approach to learning Kanji works really well for some people’s learning styles, but not all.

3.  Podcasts.  If you have an iPod or any other way of accessing podcasts, search for Japanese language learning podcasts.  There are lots of them.  The one I primarily listen too is called “Learn Japanese Pod.”  They are fun to listen too and also other cultural notes in addition to just language points. Trying to learn the kana?  Play this!

Do you have any tried and true way of studying languages?  If so, do tell!

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Monday, September 26, 2011

A Golden Year

The weather had become just cool enough to wear jeans without melting into a puddle of sweat.  Hallelujah.  Simply that was enough to make my day.  But I was waiting for a “big surprise” from Karl. 

It was my golden birthday.  A Friday. 

Finally, a car pulled up to our new apartment.  Karl hopped out, proclaiming the plans for the evening: he and a group of his Japanese co-workers and employers (including his supervisor, school principal and the head of the Board of Education) were taking me out to a fancy Japanese restaurant. 

We politely celebrated, communicating in as much Japanese and English as we could muster.  They gave me flowers and cell phone charms. 

We had been in Japan for hardly any time at all.  We hadn’t had much time to form any friendships.  But nevertheless, Karl put together a lovely birthday party for me. 

My golden year came.  It went.  And what a year it was.  A year of firsts: first year of marriage, first year living abroad, first year out of college, first “real”job, first major natural disaster.  It was a lot to take in.

A year later, I have learned much and been reminded how much I don’t know.  Life is easier now.  We are used to living in Japan.  We have many friends. 

Which means I had an awesome birthday party this year.  

Last Saturday, a big group of us went to one of our favorite places in Ogawa- 太田ホルモン.  Papa San had promised me a present of a fried chicken and a 大生ビール (a gigantic draft beer). 

How could I resist?

 So we booked the back room.  And we ate.  We drank.  We laughed.  We talked. 

Papa San out did himself: he presented us with three heaping plates of fried chicken, teriyaki chicken and Korean stir-fry chicken.  These were his gifts to us.  An ever-generous soul!

Papa San-in all his glory!
As we were leaving, Papa San stopped me to shake my hand and present me with one last offering-a huge bottle of yuzu booze.  (A very strong citrus flavored beverage.) 

A fantastic birthday. 
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Lists.  So. Many. Lists.

In order to graduate, get married, and move to a foreign country within the space of three months, it is absolutely essential to use lists in order to maintain a state of sanity. 

Believe me, I know.  From experience.

Reflecting back on that busy summer of 2010, the two craziest weeks were the week leading up to the wedding and the week arriving back from our honeymoon.  Which was the same week Karl left for Japan.

During that week, Karl and I had four days in which to get him packed and ready to fly to Japan. 


One of the things we had to take care of was getting our international driving permits.  I don’t know how it is in other countries, but in Japan a US drivers license means next to nothing.  This is because they are issued per each state-not the country itself. 

But what about this international driving permit?   

A word about that: First, if you need to purchase an international drivers permit, do not go to the DMV.  You will only waste your time standing in line.  Triple A issues the permits.  You need to provide a passport-sized photo and pay $15.00.   They make the permit for you right on the spot.  It takes only a few minutes.  Easy.

But…they are unfortunately not the complete solution to legally driving in Japan.  They are valid for only one year.  After that, assuming you want to continue driving, you have to start from the bottom up with Japanese drivers ed. 


I have been lead to believe by numerous people that earning your Japanese drivers license is one of the most difficult and annoying things one can attempt to do.  The primary reason for this is the scoring system and requirements: In order to pass the test and receive your license, you MUST get a perfect score. 

That’s right.  100%.  Perfect. A+.  Plus, the test administrators tend to be very picky.  Naturally.

*Correction*  (9/27/11) I was apparently misinformed about the test scoring requirements-there is a margin of error.  I am not sure what score is passing. 

We are fortunate enough to not need a car.  So we are choosing to ignore the whole thing.  Karl did try getting his scooter license once…but it was too much of a pain.

Here’s to biking, walking and public transportation. 

And saving money.           

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Thursday, September 22, 2011

Holy typhoons, Batman!

I can’t remember how many typhoons there have been so far this year.  But it’s a lot. I think we just got hit with number fifteen the other day...sheesh.  Enough already with the crazy weather and natural disasters, Mother Nature!

We are tucked away inland here in Saitama, so there is no real need to worry.  But we do find ourselves singing the “Rain, Rain Go Away” song for about a week whenever a typhoon is in the area.  And it can get pretty windy.

The run-off system is effective, so I have yet to see any flooding.  I noticed right away when we moved here that the banks of rivers seemed ridiculously huge.  Many typhoons later, I understand the reason for such generous riverbanks.  I have seen the river behind our apartment complex widen at least twenty feet.  Crazy!

This is the normal level of the river. 
I took this photo in the exact same location as the previous photo.  You can see that the river had been even higher because of the flattened grass on the right.  Crazy, huh?

So we deal with the rain.  We hang our laundry inside.  We go about our business under the cover of umbrellas.  The sun never stays away for too long.  

Thank goodness.
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Well that's different...

I am a big fan of tolerance.  Patience, respect, understanding…  I feel these are good ways to live life. 

Moving to a foreign country can be a tremendous exercise in all of these things.

One cultural difference that has stood out to me is Japanese weddings.  The traditional Japanese wedding is a genuinely beautiful, unique affair.

But recently, western style weddings have become extremely popular.  The fancy white dresses, tuxedos, flowers…everything typical of a western wedding.  With globalization these days, this is no surprise. 

What did surprise me was where some of these western style weddings take place.  Japanese people are typically non-religious.  Most religious people are either Buddist or Shinto, as one might expect.  There are tiny blips of the population who are Christian, Islamic, Jewish, etc., the vast majority being foreigners-not Japanese.  

Despite this, the western style weddings usually take place in buildings that have been designed to look like Christian churches.  But they are virtually only used for weddings.  So they aren’t “real” churches.  Also, as far as I understand it, the person who presides is usually a westerner chosen based on looks and English ability, not religious vocation. 

A wedding chapel we came across in Okazaki.
The chapel was right next to (and I believe affiliated with) this fancy-pantsy hotel.
Another wedding chapel in Okazaki.
This mosque was right next to the chapels.  I couldn't find any information about Islamic weddings in Japan though, so I don't know anything about why this little mosque was there. 
There seem to be many reasons for most young Japanese couples choosing western style weddings.  The fancy white dress.  The beautiful church architecture.  The freedom in choosing ones own style, going against tradition.  Etc.

I have talked to several Christian people (all foreigners) about this.  Some are extremely offended.  Some don’t care at all.  Some just think it's strange. 

What do you think?  I am especially interested in what my Japanese friends have to say about this.  What type of wedding would you choose? 
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Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Visitors from Overseas: 1

Last week, we had our first visitor from overseas.  Stephen and I went to college together and he is teaching English in South Korea right now.  It was so much fun having someone from back home visiting us! 

Karl and I still had to work, but we did as much sightseeing as we could with Stephen.  Karl took him to the famous shrine and temple at Asakusa in Tokyo.   They also stopped at Shinjuku to go shopping and ran into a nuclear protest.

During the week we shooed Stephen off to Kyoto for a few days for more sightseeing while we slaved away at work.  (I only really say slaved because of the heat.  Last week was terrible!) 

Last weekend we went to the Ueno Zoo in Tokyo followed by some amazing kaitenzushi.

What is kaitenzushi, you ask? 

I’m so glad you asked.  This is a really fun way to eat sushi.  A kaitenzushi restaurant features a U-shaped bar behind which the sushi chefs prepare the food.  They put the finished sushi on little plates and then set them on a tiny conveyor belt that runs along the bar.  

You sit at the bar counter and simply take whatever sushi you like as it passes.  Now, suppose you really want a certain type of sushi and it isn’t making the rounds?  No problem.  Just call out to one of the sushi chefs and order.  A minute later, you’ll have your sushi. 

Karl loves kaiten-zushi.
Stephen eating red snapper with a pile of wasabi.
 As you eat, you stack up your little plates.  When you are finished, a worker will count up your plates and write your check.  The plates are coded for the price of the sushi.  

Pretty slick system, huh? 

We had a really great time visiting with Stephen and showing him around Japan. 

Now we are wondering…who will be our next visitor?

Any takers???
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When I was 16 years old, I began working as a slide attendant at our local YMCA in Superior.  I quickly upgraded to a lifeguard and continued to work there for (more or less) the following seven years of my life through high school and college.

Because I worked there, I had free access.  Awesome.  I was also a college student for much of that time, so I also had access to the campus workout facilities.  It was great!

Then I moved to Japan.  And went from having everything to nothing overnight.  Karl and I thought that we could get away with just working out using my pilates and yoga dvds, running outside and biking. 

But people.  Let’s be real.  How many of us have that kind of motivation?  The kind to make yourself go for a run (especially in the crazy summer heat!) or put on a dvd amidst the plethora of distractions in one’s own home.

Not this girl.

So finally, after a year, we were honest with ourselves and decided to shell out for the gym membership. 

If you think that joining a gym in the States is expensive-you have never lived in Japan. 

Holy. Smokes.

For a single membership it is 9,800 yen per month.  With the current exchange rate, that’s around $115.  My membership, with the family discount, is about ten or fifteen dollars fewer than Karl’s.  So total, we pay over $200 a month.


But so worth it. 

It provides extra motivation to exercise.  The people there are very nice.  The facilities are incredible.  Plus it’s only a ten-minute walk from our apartment.

Gym for the win.
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Summer Eats

The blazing heat of the Japanese summer is drawing to a close.

Thank God.

Surviving the insane heat and humidity requires certain things, including the following:

1)    Air conditioning.
2)    Water.
3)    Ice cream.
4)    Salad.
5)    Any other food that doesn’t require heat to prepare.

That last category includes one of my favorite things to eat during the Japanese summer…

…cold soba.   

With some eggplant tempura. De-licious.

 And house-made-incredibly delicious-udon. 

Holy yummy-ness!
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One of the things I love about living in Japan is just how drastically different it is from northern Minnesota and Wisconsin.  Living here has been a fantastic learning experience.

There are so many things that are different.  One of the most evident is the difference in seasons.  Japan has four completely distinct seasons: a blazing hot summer, a beautiful cool autumn, a mildly cold winter, and a pleasantly warm spring. 

Minnesota and Wisconsin have two “real” seasons: Definitely cold, and possibly cold.   Spring doesn’t really start until late April when all the snow is finally gone.  Autumn is beautiful, but is always too short. Winter is long.  Summer is short.

Because of the vast climate difference, there is also a tremendous difference in the growing seasons.   In Minnesota and Wisconsin, the growing season is all too short.  In Saitama Japan, it is year round.  The crops changes of course, but something is always growing in the gardens.

What also amazes me are the flowers.  There is always some type of flower blooming like crazy.  Even in the dead of winter.  

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