Life in Japan

Our daily life while in Japan

Gaijin Survival GuideLife in Japan

Elevator Observations in Japan

Roppongi-Hills-Tower

One bit of cultural minutia I noticed in Japan is the etiquette in elevators. It’s not especially elaborate but it is more purposeful and uniform than you will find in America.

Everyone is an elevator operator

Nearly any time you are in an elevator, someone standing near the control panel is going to nominate themselves as the elevator operator. They will reliably push the open door button to allow for folks to get on, and the close door button the moment folks have left and finished boarding.

Women tend to take to this role more than men, but it’s not unusual for a salaryman to step up and push the buttons. There is some history with women serving as professional elevator operators called –erebeta garu– and this might explain why women seem to commandeer the controller most often or why men don’t.

It seems to me, they are pretty quick on the draw with the close button. I’ve almost missed my floor when some old ladies somehow didn’t register my massive presence at the back of the elevator, and I’ve seen a few would-be passengers shut out.

Izumi Garden Tower Elevators provide a nice view with your ride

It’s not like the doors are especially slow to close on their own, but perhaps the cumulative effect of millions of self-appointed door closers shaving a quarter second from each door operation has a net impact that contributes to Japanese productivity.

I’ve tried my hand at commanding the console once or twice. I’m not the most attentive of operators and usually, someone else takes over for me before long and is quicker on the draw.

Sky tree has professional elevator operators, stay away from that control panel!

Lining up

It’s a pretty major faux-pa to cut in line in Japan and folks here naturally queue up any time it might seem appropriate. A long single-file line will quickly form near a set of in-demand elevators. The head of the line is strategically located such that they don’t impede folks coming out.

One problem that sometimes arises is that on the top or bottom floor, the current operator is going to be coming out, but they remain behind the panel, and thus out of sight to the folks waiting in line. The operator will come out last (holding that open door button until the last second). Sometimes the over-eager line waiters will start to pile in before they have exited.

Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building
Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building

Knowing where to stand

The Japanese have the art of moving around in social spaces down to something of a science. The preponderance of public transportation is likely the catalyst for this skill. On the elevator, folks will self-sort as best they can such that the people on for a long ride will move to the outer edges and the folks on for a short ride will be in the middle or near the door.

Folks watch somewhat keenly for clues of who needs to get out and when, and they likewise throw subtle body language to show when they need to make a move to the door. Verbal communication is only rarely needed. A -sumimasen- (excuse me) is usually enough to sort things out should the more subtle social cues fail.

Stickers Say “watch your fingers!” Japan’s elevators are unforgiving.

Wisely, anyone near the door in a packed elevator will simply step out to let others escape and then re-enter rather than try to shuffle around inside.

All said and done, I feel like I’ve gotten pretty good at this kind of maneuvering and I mostly blend into the ballet seamlessly despite my size and remarkable appearance.

It’s mostly a quiet ride

Like other public areas, the Japanese tend to be pretty quiet when packed in with strangers. The more crowded the space, the less likely it is anyone will be chatting. That said, there is some talk that goes on, especially when there are only a handful of folks there.

Nakagin Capsule Towers have scary old elevators
FoodGaijin Survival GuideJapanese SnacksLife in JapanMatsuri & More

Eating Gobo

Burdock

牛蒡
ごぼう
Gobo

Also known as Great Burdock. U-eong in Korean. Niúbàng in Chinese. And Arctium lappa in Latin.

When living in a new country for the first time you notice all sorts of things. For me, it’s the small details while on regular everyday outings. That’s what happened when I encountered a strange root at the local grocery store in the produce section. Language books and online courses don’t explain the small nuances of everyday life in Japan, let alone the name or use of a vegetable root.

During my first encounter, I was kind of surprised to see dirty yard-long sticks for sale in the right next to sweet potatoes and onions. But, after a quick inspection and a little help from Google translate, I discovered that it was a burdock root, also known as gobuo or gobō in Japanese.

Gobo for sale. Yum.

Tea, Herb, & Weed.

I’ve seen burdock tea in the US, but it’s hard to find and usually in small tea bags. In Japan, there’s a lot more burdock tea on the grocery shelves and I’ve even seen it bottled.

I also know about burdock as a medicinal herb. Burdock is often found in teas or dry powders packed in tiny pills sold at vitamin and herbal health stores and of course online. Used in western folk herbalism and Chinese medicine for thousands of years, this root supposedly cures a litany of aliments such as reducing inflammation, lowering blood sugar, and preventing infections.  

I can’t recall ever seeing cleaned burdock root sold fresh at the grocery store in the states. I might have seen it at an Asian food market, not realizing what it was.

As a past gardener and plant hobbyist, I am also familiar with the common burdock (Arctium minus – a relative of the Japanese version Arctium lappa). Common burdock is a tenaciously invasive weed. Sprouting from unkempt back yards, abandoned lots, and in between cracks of sidewalks all over the USA. This plant from the thistle family is more of a nuisance since its seed burs cling eagerly to clothing.

From left to right: Dried burdock root, bottled burdock tea, burdock burs.

War Crimes?

I once heard a story about how American POWs in World War II were being “forced to eat tree roots” for testimony in a war-crime trial. I did some background research and one document did confirm it, but it was noted as a miss translation rather than an actual crime of “cruel and unusual punishment.” Nattō was also mentioned as “rotten beans” in the report – having tried nattō I can completely understand why!

Fresh Great burdock roots.

The Vegetable

Since eating gobō, I’m happy to report its hardly a punishment, but rather a tasty and healthy root vegetable.

I learned that burdock is as common as carrots in Japan. The most common way to cook burdock in Japan is Kinpira Gobo (recipe below). Kinpira is a Japanese cooking style where you stir fry and simmer usually with sugar and soy sauce, maybe some other seasonings as desired. With burdock, carrots and other vegetables are also added. This traditional dish is commonly found in supermarket bento boxes. I can honestly say that it’s far more appetizing when julienned rather than the “dirty stick” raw form.

The taste of burdock reminds me of artichokes (also apart of the thistle family) and the texture is similar to parsnips. It’s crispy and a bit sweet especially when cooked. There a hint of bitterness, and sometimes it can have a harsh muddy taste but only if you don’t pre-soak the roots for about ten minutes before cooking.

The burdock roots are a bit bothersome to cook from scratch since they tend to oxidize to a brown color quickly if you don’t submerge them in water with a teaspoon of vinegar immediately after cutting. I have seen pre-cut packages of burdock, usually in the frozen foods section.

Burdock sold in Japanese Grocery Stores.

Worth Trying

If you want to try a new vegetable, I think gobō is worthwhile. Packed with fiber, minerals, vitamins, and antioxidants it is defiantly good for you, but then again the same is true for all vegetables.

Kinpira Gobo

Kinpira Gobo

¼ pound carrot (about 1 medium), peeled, top and bottom trimmed
¼ pound burdock (1 root), peeled, top and bottom trimmed
1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
1 tablespoon mirin (sweet rice wine)
2 tablespoons of dashi or water
1 teaspoon of vinegar
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon granulated sugar
pinch of toasted sesame seeds

Julienne the carrot and burdock into long matchstick pieces, about 1-2 mm × 1–2 mm × 4 cm.

Fully submerge the burdock in cold water with 1 teaspoon vinegar, mix and let soak for 5 to 10 minutes. Drain well before cooking.

Heat a large skillet over medium heat, add the sesame oil, and when it begins to smoke, add the vegetables. Cook, stirring frequently until the vegetables begin to wilt, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the mirin and dashi/water and cook, stirring, for 30 seconds or so, then add the soy sauce. Cook, stirring, for 2 minutes more, then stir in the sugar.

Continue cooking, stirring frequently and reducing the heat if the vegetables threaten to color until the vegetables are tender with a slight bite and just begin to stick to the skillet, 2 to 3 minutes.

Transfer to a serving bowl and sprinkle toasted sesame seeds on top.

Burdock flowers
FoodLife in Japan

Mitsuya Melted Peach Soda

MitsuyaMeltedPeach

Snack Attack #2

三ツ矢 とろけるもも
Mitsuya Melted Peach

Package Style: PET bottle, 500 ml
Price:  ¥100 to 140

  • Taste:  4/5
  • Smell:  4/5
  • Texture: 3/5
  • Value: 2/5

Mitsuya was a famous beverage producer here in Japan, brewing cider since 1884. Today it’s a brand name owned and made by Asahi Soft Drinks. They have all sorts of flavors in addition to cider, but all drinks regardless of flavor are carbonated.

Each season the Mitsuya brand puts out the special flavor, this winter its Melted Peach. Not sure what “melted” means in this context, but I imagine it has to do with the fact there are bits of peach pulp in the soda.

Both the smell and flavor is like a peach on steroids, but without being sugary. Honestly, I find that peachiness better than a real peach, only because I’ve chosen too many bad peaches. 

The texture of the peach pulp is subtle and overpowered by the carbonation. Like most Mitsuya drinks, the CO2 is on overdrive such that I suggest that you slowly sip and let the bubbles fizz away in the mouth. Drinking it too fast would just waste the flavors in addition to giving you excessive burps.

Overall, it’s a fun and refreshing fizzy drink that kind of reminds me of a Bellini minus the Champaign.

Mitsuya Melted Peach Ingredients: Sugars (fructose-glucose liquid sugar (domestic production), sugar), thigh juice / carbonic acid, acidulants, flavors, vitamin C, thickener (xanthan)

Thick peach puree with pulp!

Currently, you can buy Mitsuya Melted Peach on Amazon.co.jp

Life in Japan

One year in Japan: Sig’s Reflections

SapporoLake

I arrived in Japan in mid-November of 2018. It was the result of a long-time interest in Japan, a lifestyle choice to become a traveler, and my wife’s similar ambitions. It took almost a year of planning and preparations to arrive at that moment.

As of this writing, I’ve been in Japan for one full year. I thought it would be a good idea to reflect on what I’ve learned, what it has meant to me, and where it will take me in the near future.

Ivy on the Sapporo Beer Factory
This is a window at the Sapporo Beef factory in Autumn.

What have I learned?

Quite a lot I’d say. More than I can capture here but I’ll offer some highlights.

Japan is not a monoculture. It is a pretty diverse place in and of itself where you can find a huge range of attitudes, ideas, and expressions. It has not been difficult for me to insert myself into the flow of life in Japan. The cultural differences have been a point of interest rather than a source of conflict for me.

I’ve learned a lot about Japanese food and Japanese food culture. It’s a pretty powerful part of life here. I think it is more defining of the Japanese culture than in America where we have such a diverse approach to food. It’s also a wonderful way to connect to people of other cultures.

Soup Curry Picture
This is soup curry, it’s fantastic!

I learned just how easy it is to live in Japan without knowing any Japanese. I am basically illiterate here, yet, I have almost no difficulty making a normal life. That’s taught me something about literacy itself, but also the immense privilege it is to be a native English speaker in the modern world.

I have certainly learned quite a lot about teaching English to non-native English speakers. That’s what I’ve spent the lions share of my time here doing. I’m still pretty new at this craft, but I’d say I’ve got some talent for it and have improved quite a bit after teaching some 1000+ lessons.

I’ve learned many small details about the ebb and flow of Japanese life and the particulars of how things are done here. There are so many particulars of life here that are different. Yet, I’ll say that the basic human drives, desires, and nature is not so different, it has just found different expression over time and circumstance.

The sweet wife and I striking a pose.

What has it meant to me?

I feel some measure of accomplishment to have made the move here successfully and to have navigated the various challenges faced by a foreigner in a foreign land. So it is self-validating in this respect. It’s also been a dream of mine to come here so it’s great to make that come true.

I’m disappointed that I haven’t taken the effort to learn more Japanese. It was sort of a fantasy of mine that immersion in the culture would motivate me and I’d come from Japan with this new skill and window into the culture. A year in, and I barely can muster survival level Japanese. This, along with realizing how powerful it is to speak English probably means I’ll be largely mono-lingual all my life.

Teaching professionally has been another dream of mine since I was pretty young. My work experience so far has cemented that this is a job I am naturally very good at and well suited to. It’s not great for making a lot of money, but it’s very satisfying at a personal level and not very stressful for me.

I have had my moments of soul searching, wondering what my ultimate goal of this wandering lifestyle is and how exactly I’ll sustain it as I get older. That’s a pretty good segway into this next bit.

Naruto fried thicken plate.
A fried chicken meal from Naruto chicken restaurant. Good stuff!

Where are we going next?

I’m a year into a general notion of spending two years in Japan. It took about one year to get here, so that means its time to start seriously thinking about what comes after Japan and when will it happen. Also, how will we finish out our time here?

Sapporo, our current location as of this moment, is cheap and comfortable. Each move we make in Japan will cost us money. Moving from Tokyo was paid back in reduced rent and expenses. But going anywhere else would probably mean higher costs. So, this may well be our last long term spot in Japan.

Gaba Halloween, staff members only.
My coworkers at Gaba after a Halloween party for clients.

Our next destination is probably going to be in Europe. Australia calls to us both, but its harder to find employment there for a working visa, and its an expensive place to just go on tour without working. If I can find an online gig that can support us, maybe. Europe has a lot more options and its a gateway to so many different places I want to visit.

I think if we do end up in Europe next, we will be there for quite some time. Likely not just in one country, but moving from nation to nation as work opportunities (or eventual self-funding) permits. Right now, we are eye-balling Spain as a starting point. The cost of living is low, and the demand for English teachers is pretty high.

Gaijin Survival GuideLife in Japan

How to Do Laundry in Japan Part 2: The Washing Machine

Inside the Washing MachineInside the Washing Machine

This is a continuation of How to Do Laundry Part 1: Laundry Products

Now you’ve got your laundry detergent, fabric softener, and some oxygen bleach. Perhaps you’ve even double-checked the tags on your shirts and pretreated stains. Laundry is now in the washer and it is time to get cleaning.

Where to Put the Detergent?

The size of your laundry load will determine how much detergent you will use. Usually, the laundry load size is measured in liters or L, and the detergent will have measurement lines on the cap or cup to gauge how much to use in relation to that.

Example of Laundry Detergent instructions.

If you have liquid detergent, there should be a small well with a hole located on the side just above the laundry drum.

A common location to pour liquid detergent. It may differ based on machine

If you have powdered detergent, it should either go directly into the drum or into a pull-out tray specifically meant for powders.

Detergent Powder Tray. Be sure to check with the washer’s manual or use a translator app to double-check any markings.

Where to Put the Fabric Softer

One of the most unusual things about Japanese washing machines is all the different receptacles to put all the laundry products. In my American washing machine, all of it went into a single tray — which was subdivided into sections, one for each product type. Though I think some of the newer front-loading machines do follow this logic and I haven’ had the opportunity to use one.

For the fabric softener, there is a small receptacle on the washing drum itself. The most common place to put your fabric softener. You might have to dilute the softener with water if it’s too thick, otherwise, you might find a white residue on your dark clothes.

Just one example where the fabric softener goes. Just be sure to double-check, it should be labeled

Where to Put the Bleach

If you have a liquid bleach, it most likely needs to be poured into the same well as the detergent. For powdered bleach, it should go into the same tray as the powdered detergent tray. I’m guessing this is why most Japanese don’t use chlorine bleach, the way the washing machine puts the product directly on to the clothing would easily stain the clothing — It isn’t diluted before being released into the washing cycle as in American machines.

Basic Washing

Just for the sake of simplicity, we’ll assume that you’ll only need the basic or automatic wash setting cycle.

  1. Push the power button – Look for “電源” and “切/入” sometimes its also marked by PowerOnSymbol (power symbol). This button toggles the washing machine on and off. The machine should beep and the status/time display should turn on.
  2. Close the lid and press the “スタート” button – The default cycle or “コース” should already be set to “機準” or “Standard Wash”

After the cycle has started, it should be fully automatic. The drum should turn the clothing a few times before letting the water in. It’s all a part of a feature that weighs the clothing and determines how much water to use.

Example Controls of Washing Machines

What! Only Cold Water?!

So you’ve noticed that the washer only has cold water and there is no option to have warm or hot washing water.

If you were born before a certain year, you might be wondering why the water is cold and there is no hot water for washing. I know that old laundry habits are hard to kick. Washers have changed and so have laundry detergents. You no longer have to use hot water to get clothes clean.

Modern detergents – in Japan, America, and the rest of the world – are much better at putting enzymes to work in removing dirt and stains at lower water temperatures. In fact, they are less effective at higher temperatures.

So, unless you are using a washing machine that’s older than a decade and you’re using detergent from 1995, I’d say that there is no need to use hot or even warm water washing. Not only will you save money in the form of cheaper energy bills but also save your clothing. It’s common knowledge that cold water is gentler on your clothes, and can protect them from fading, shrinking, or bleeding.

If you are concerned about disinfecting, there are plenty of safe (human and environmental) laundry products such as oxygen bleach to help with bacterial and mold.

If you are concerned about stains, it’s always best to pretreat strains according to the type of fabric *before* putting into the washing machine. It’s a subject well discussed over the internet, and a simple Google search will come up with some kind of solution.

If you don’t believe me, check out Consumer Reports’ article on “Don’t Bother Using Hot Water to Wash Your Laundry.” Even Smithsonian Magazine makes a fine argument for washing clothes in cold water. For extra reading visit ColdWaterSaves.org.

Cheat Sheet for using Japanese Washing Machines

Keep in mind washing machine controls differs by manufacturer and model, but I’ve created a simple cheat sheet of the most basic and most common controls. Feel free to print out or download it to your smartphone.

Cheat Sheet for Japanese Washing Machines

If there are extra features on your washing machine, then I suggest downloading a translation app on to your smartphone for real-time translation. I highly recommend Google’s Translate App (Apple App Store or Google Play Store) for on-the-fly translating with your smartphone’s camera.

Try to find your washing machine’s make and model number, and searching for the PDF manual online at the manufacturer’s website. Google’s Chrome web browser comes with automatic translations via Google Translate which you can install as an extension will greatly aid your search.

Good luck and happy washing!

Gaijin Survival GuideLife in Japan

How to Do Laundry in Japan Part 1: Laundry Products

Quick Guide to Japanese Laundry ProductsQuick Guide to Japanese Laundry Products

Congratulations! You’ve got an apartment and you have a washing machine. But where’s the dryer? Oh, there is none, but we will get to that soon enough. Where’s the soap? You’ll have to buy that yourself. You’re in luck because today I’ll pass on what I’ve learned about buying Japanese laundry soap, fabric softener, and other laundry sundries. So here’s the quick’n’dirty version to help you get clean — and without hardly knowing any Japanese.

Laundry Detergent – 洗たく用洗剤

Laundry detergent is common and is sold in grocery stores and “konbini” marts, you might find the same brand for cheaper at bigger drug stores and even more so at discount stores like Don Quixote. If you want deeper discounts, shop online at Amazon.co.jp by keeping an eye out for as much as 20% off under “Today’s Deals” or on Amazon Pantry.

I suggest buying the liquid laundry detergent as opposed to the powder kind. The powder detergent will sometimes leave a soapy residue on clothing, especially when you pour it into the wrong soap receptacle in the washing machine. But if cash is tight then go for the low-cost powdered detergent. Like in the US, liquid detergent comes in bottles. What’s unique with Japan is that soap detergent refills come in bags with pour spouts. Powder detergent, of course, is found in cardboard boxes.

Some Japanese brands of laundry detergent come with additives, usually fragrance but also color-safe bleach and fabric softener. Usually you’ll be able to tell that there are additives by the diagrams on the package, but also because they are more expensive.

Look for the following kanji in the table below. They will be printed on the front of the product usually at the bottom. The same or similar kanji will be printed on the back near the bottom in a product description table next to 品名 or “product name”:

Detergent for washing洗たく用洗剤せんたくようせんざいSentakuyō senzai
Synthetic detergent for washing洗濯用合成洗剤せんたくようごうせいせんざいSentakuyō gōsei senzai
Unscented detergent for washing香りのない洗たく用洗剤かおりのないせんたくようせんざいKaori no nai sentakuyō senzai
Unscented 香りのない かおりのない Kaori no nai
Scented or Fragrance 香り かおり Kaori

Fighting the Funk

The most interesting detergent additive I’ve discovered is an anti-mold and anti-bacterial agent. This makes sense in Japan because many people do not have drying machines and must hang-dry clothing. During the rainy season, it is very common to dry clothes indoors. While some folk use laundry dehumidifiers to cut down on mold growth on clothing, but that might not be an option for you since they can cost around ¥15,000 ($148 USD) for a good one. If you notice a funky gym-sock smell on your clothing even after washing and drying look for the following kanji on detergent packaging:

For room drying部屋干し用へやぼじよHeyaboshiyō
Room-drying detergent部屋干し用 洗剤へやぼようせんざいHeyaboyōsenzai
Laundry Detergent Samples
Examples of Laundry Detergent – Liquid comes in bottles, Powder comes in boxes

Fabric Softener – 柔軟剤

Line drying clothing is the norm in Japan and you may notice the stiff feeling in your clothes afterward. Using fabric softeners removes solves the crunchy clothing problem and makes ironing a tad bit easier. If you find your clothing is super crispy after drying *and * after using fabric softener, try using less laundry detergent. I guess this is why there seems to be an endless selection of fabric softeners available on the Japanese laundry isle.

Most fabric softeners are fragranced; they usually have flowers or bright colors on the bottle. They do make unscented softeners and usually come in an all-white packaging, but they are hard to differentiate from laundry detergent of the same fragrance-free kind.

Nearly all fabric softener comes as a liquid in a bottle, with refills in bags.

Here is some kanji to help you in your search:

Softener柔軟剤じゅうなんざいJūnanzai
Fabric Softener柔軟仕上げ剤じゅうなんしあざいJūnan shiagezai
Fragrance-free softener香りのない柔軟剤かおのないじゅうなんざいKaori no nai Jūnanzai
Samples of Fabric Softener
Examples of Fabric Softener – The bottom row are fragrance-free

Bleach – 漂白剤

Most bleach in Japan is the color-safe kind, using hydrogen peroxide or oxygen bleach. Its kind of rare to find chlorine bleach outside of kitchen cleaning products. Some laundry detergent already comes with the whitening agent, so it’s not necessary to buy extra bleach unless you’re trying to get rid of stubborn stains.

Most hydrogen peroxide or oxygen bleach will come either powdered or liquid; the powder kind is cheaper. Look for the following kanji on the front of the product near the bottom.

Bleach漂白剤ひょうはくざいHyōhaku-zai
Bleach for clothing衣料用漂白剤いりょうようひょうはくざいIryōyō hyōhakuzai
Bleach for Laundry Samples
Examples of Bleach for Laundry

Starch Sprays & Wrinkle Removers

If you have an office job that requires a dress shirt, jacket, and slacks, chances are you’ll be ironing your clothing. There is no escaping the fact that line drying will cause wrinkles, but there are solutions to help you iron them out. Starch sprays help to smooth cloth and keep wrinkles away throughout the day. While wrinkle removers do just that: they help remove wrinkles making ironing easier. This is especially handy for fabrics made of cotton, cotton blends, rayon, and linen.

Here is what to look for when searching for ironing aids:

Spray Starchスプレーのり すぷれーのり Supurē nori
Starch Agent for Iron アイロン用のり剤 あいろんようのりざい Airon-yō nori-zai
Finishing agent for iron アイロン用仕上げ剤 あいろんようざい Airon-yō shiage-zai
Wrinkle remover for iron アイロン用シワとり剤 あいろんようしわとりざい Airon-yō shiwa tori-zai
Spray Starch
Spray Starch & Wrinkle Removers

Cheat Sheet of Japanese Laundry Products

All this can be hard to remember so I’ve created a PDF cheat sheet of laundry products that you can download for printing or save to your mobile device or smartphone. So good luck and happy laundering!

Continue to How to do Laundry in Japan Part 2: The Washing Machine

Beyond TokyoGaijin Survival GuideLife in Japan

Visiting the Dentist In Japan

dental-care-mascon-japan-pixelbay

So there I was, eating my eggs and toast for breakfast when I detected something hard and suspiciously tooth-like rattling around in my mouth. This is not how happy stories generally begin.

Filling in the details

It turned out, thankfully, to be an old filling rather than an actual tooth. I’d been warned by my dentist years earlier it may need to be replaced someday and someday had just arrived. Fortunately, there was no pain to speak of, but it was a pretty big filling so it left the tooth rather vulnerable.

Anne hit up the internet looking for English speaking dentists in the area. There were a few. My first choice didn’t work out. I called and they reported they were not taking any new patients at this time. The second one Anne picked out only took walk-in patients for first-time or emergency visits. I decided to go in early on a Friday morning as I expected a long wait.

These souffle pancakes are quite popular in Japan.

Short but sweet

Omni Dentix was the name of this establishment. The online reviews were not exactly promising, a mere 2.4 stars on average. But reading the translated revies, most of the Japanese customers seemed to take some issue with the receptionist rather than the dental work itself. One of the one-star reviews mentioned her bright colored dress. It seemed worth the risk.

I grabbed some cash to pay for the work. Accustomed to American dental practices I grabbed about $500 / 50K Yen. Since I have the national insurance here, I’d only need to pay for 1/3 of the bill, but I wanted to play it safe. We found the place without too much trouble and arrived about 30minutes after they opened.

The office was not the gleaming white palace of medicine you expect in the west, but it was nice enough. I filled out a simple questionnaire and settled in for a wait. After only about 5 minutes, a doctor came out to see me. We sat down at a desk. I described my problem. He told me to please follow him.

There was a large line of people queued up to take a picture of this location.

We went straight to the dentist’s chair, he looked at the tooth, we talked about options. He offered a simple filling or a “metal reconstruction.” I opted for the filling in this case. He got to work and about 15 minutes later he was finished. The filling was an “old school” amalgam style. I hadn’t had one of these in many years, but frankly, teeth aesthetics in the back of my mouth are not high on my priority list.

I’d never had such no-frills work done. They didn’t insist on x-rays or a full dental cleaning and check-up first like I normally get in the US. He applies some local anesthetic, he cleaned the damaged tooth up, drilled it bit, put in the new filling, dried it, polished it, and done. The bite is great and there was only minimal discomfort through the process.

Not the tooth fairy, but far better than a picture of the inside of my mouth.

Then the big surprise

I was a bit stunned that we were all wrapped up 40 minutes after I’d wandered in the door. I didn’t even get the usual dentists to lecture about brushing and flossing my teeth. I headed to the receptionist to settle my bill. The total cost to me: 1640 yen. That’s about $15 US. Granted, that is 1/3 of the full bill due to the national health insurance but still, I was stunned how cheap it was.

All in all, cheap, fast, and convenient. Color me super happy about it. The receptionist can wear whatever she likes, Omni Dentix gets 5 stars from me.

I can respect American dental practices and their dedication to patient health and thoroughness, but when people with limited incomes have a dental emergency they dread not only the trip to the dentist but the somewhat devastating bills that often come with it. I’ve been there a few times. I rather wish this kind of service at this kind of price was an option for people who just need the work done with minimal fuss and expense in the US.

FoodJapan: For Better or WorseLife in Japan

Tokyo Convenience Stores

7-11 Japan is nothing like its American counter part7-11 Japan is nothing like its American counterpart

If you were to pick adjectives that are essential to understanding Tokyo, “convenient” would be a pretty choice to put high on the list. I recall climbing to the top of a mountain shrine and finding an ice-cream stand waiting for me. Whatever you might need or want is often close at hand here.

They are omnipresent

I’d say that it’s very difficult to walk three blocks in Tokyo without encountering at least one convenience store. There are three within one block of my apartment, and about 6 if you go out to three blocks. You will find them in malls, office buildings, museums, subway stations, and in your dreams.

Not only that, but most of these stores are open 24 hours. This may change, labor shortages are putting pressure on these stores in the form of higher wages and that’s leading owners to want to close them up in the wee hours, but so far, most remain open 24/7.

The big three

Three companies make up the vast majority of convenience stores in Japan. There are certainly other chains and a few independent small markets, but these guys are the giants of the business: 7-11, Family Mart, and Lawson.

You may be a little surprised to see two American brands on this list. 7-11 is generally credited as the first convenience store to open in Japan and to spark their love of this institution. The then Texas-based company franchised to a Japanese company. When the parent fell on hard times, they were bought out by the Japanese firm.

Likewise, Lawson’s started as an American firm but was purchased by its Japanese counterparts as the business boomed in Japan and stagnated in America. Family Mart has always been a Japanese firm despite bearing an English name.

Each has its own supposed specialty. Lawson’s is known for its fried chicken, Family Mart for its deserts, and 7-11 for its overall selection of quality offerings. Personally, I don’t find that much of a difference in their offerings beyond the particular house brand items they sell.

What you can buy

Like in the US, a convenience store in Japan dedicates most of the store to food and drink. The big difference is the character of what is offered. You can buy a lot of pre-made meals at these stores. They are not frozen but they are kept in a refrigerated display. You can find dishes appropriate for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Unlike at an American fast food place where the “fresh” food offerings are largely all unhealthy county-fair style food, the Japanese convenience store offers a wide range of both healthy and indulgent offerings. You can find soups, salads, pasta, rice bowls, sandwiches, vegetable dishes, curry, and complete lunch box meals (bento). The quality of these meal offerings is surprisingly high.

Snack foods are about as plentiful as fresh foods. You can find a range of candy, chips, crackers, pastries, dairy, and fruit snacks. Overall, you find a wider range in the type of snacks offered, but fewer options for each type. Instead of 6 brands of regular chips, they will have one brand with six different style chips.

If you want to try some Japanese snacks, you can order many different variety snack packs on Amazon.

There are a range of drinks including alcoholic beverages. The style of drink varies more than in an American store but the number of offerings is a bit smaller. Coffee drinks are the mainstay in Japan, followed by tea. Various juices and sodas round out the mix. They also offer cigarettes.

Convenience stores are light on sundries but you will find some basic stationery supplies and hygiene products. There is usually a comics and magazine rack, a third of which is commonly dedicated to light pornography. It has been announced that the “adult magazines” will be phased out as of the 2020 Olympics.

But wait, there’s more

One thing that isn’t obvious to the casual visitor is that the convenience stores also serve as a kind of banking service. You can pay most of your utility bills and other government obligations at the convenience store. You can even mail packages at many locations. The ATMs are kind of super-sized and offer robust banking features.

Onigiri "Rice Balls"
Onigiri “Rice Balls” are commonly found in all Conbini stores.

Sorry, no Car Stuff

What you won’t find at most convenience stores are automotive-related products. This is especially true in Tokyo where you won’t even find parking spaces most of the time. Gas stations in the city are a very different animal than in the US and driving overall is just a lot less common. Outside the city, things may well be different but in Tokyo, I’ve never seen a gas station combined with a convenience store.

And no Slurpies

The branding of 7-11 in Japan is utterly different than in the US. I knew that going in but I was surprised that the Slurpee, an icon of the 7-11 brand in the US was nowhere to be found. Pretty much the only thing the stores share is the name and the fact they are small stores selling food, drinks and snacks.

Better or Worse?

I have to go with better here. The fact I can get a latte and an Alfredo pasta plate at 7-11, both of which will be pretty darn tasty gives the Japanese side of the aisle a big boost. If you say “I ate dinner at the convenience store.” it doesn’t sound like an act of desperation. The range of financial services you can find also sets it apart. Finally, Japanese snacks simply have a much wider range of tastes and textures than American snacks offer.

That said, I think 7-11 shows that the company has taken a hard look at the Japanese and American markets and delivered what their customers in each place expect from the brand. Americans expect and need motor oil and gasoline at their convinced stores, people in Tokyo don’t. The food options at 7-11 probably say more about the tastes of Americans than the management of the 7-11 corporation.

Gaijin Survival GuideLife in JapanWeight Loss

How Huge is Anne?

Anne-Kyoto-2019Kyoto, Japan, 2019

I’ll be up front; I don’t like talking too much about my state of health. For me, it’s deeply personal, something I only share with family and close friends. But today, I’m going out of my comfort zone and sharing it on our travel blog of all places — well mostly because of this website’s title: 2 Huge in Japan.

Before stepping foot in Japan, I weighed 132 kg (290 lbs). Unlike my 190 cm (6’3″) husband, who’s hight to weight ratio sits well on him, I look pretty fat — especially since I stand at 162 cm (5’4″). FYI: my heaviest was in 2016 at 140 kg (310 lbs).

Today I weigh 116kg (255 lbs), with a net weight loss at about 25 kg (55 lbs) in roughly two years. Since landing in Japan in November, I’ve lost about 16 kg (35 lbs) which is about 0.6 kg per week (1.5 lbs/wk).

Sig & I at Glacier National Park, Montana, USA
Sig & I at Glacier National Park, Montana, USA, 2017

Polycystic Ovary Syndrome

In 2008 my doctor diagnosed me with Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). After seeking help for ungodly 3-week long periods, a series of lab tests discovered that I had a strong resistance to my own insulin, an excess of male hormones, and ovarian cysts — pretty much the tell-tell signs of PCOS.

When I was told I had a “strong” resistance to insulin, I immediately translated it as: “Well, that explains why I have to work 2 to 3 times as hard to lose weight than another normal person.” I already knew that insulin is used to turn glucose into energy for the body since my mother was diabetic. By the way, I’m prediabetic with my AC1 tests at 5.8 and my fasting glucose at consistently in the mid to upper 90s.

But this would also explain why low carb diets work really well for me. In fact, a few years before my PCOS diagnosis, I did the Atkins diet and got down to 100 kg (219 lbs). Sadly I then gained it all back after I had a really bad gout attack from eating too much meat.

Grand Canyon West, Arizona, USA
Grand Canyon West, Arizona, USA, 2016

Understanding My Habits

For the past several months, I’ve been relatively carb restrictive diet, eating mostly veggies and a reasonable amount of meat. I’d say the most significant change in my eating habits is that I only eat between the hours of Noon and 5 pm. Dieticians call this “Time-restricted eating” or “time-restricted feeding” where one limits eating to a certain number of hours each day.

I didn’t select this method of weight loss because it was a fad — I’ve made that mistake many times before and failed. This time I researched. I became convinced of this method after reading “Time-restricted eating can overcome the bad effects of faulty genes and unhealthy diet.”.

After reading that, I spent a few weeks building a baseline of when and what I ate, how I slept, and activity levels. I discovered that I slept poorly, ate way too much food at night, and wasn’t regularly active enough.

Various things I noticed were small but interesting, such as mistaking thirst for hunger. I found that drinking water or tea pretty much solved that gnawing feeling I got when I woke up. I didn’t need to gorge myself on a high-fat high-carb American breakfast.

Bunker Hill Monument in Boston, Massachusetts, USA
Bunker Hill Monument in Boston, Massachusetts, USA, 2017

Eating Healthy in Tokyo

It’s effortless to eat healthy in Japan. “Konbini” ( コンビニ) or convenience stores in Japan regularly stock fresh single sized salad bags. Plus heat-and-go meals are portioned modestly instead of oversized. It’s only a bonus that much of it is reasonably priced. For example, a salad plus a pork-leek bowl with rice cost about 600 yen ($5.40 US).

Furthermore, I’ve discovered that Tokyo supermarkets sell whole produce at a premium price. Fruits are especially more expensive than vegetables. Despite that, I still try to cook my meals at home about 80% of the time.

Don’t get me wrong: one could still eat poorly while in Japan but must admit that finding healthy ready to eat meals in Japan is about as easy as finding junk food in America.

Exercise in Japan

Without a car, I mostly walk to where I need to go. So for a trip to the store, I’ll walk the long way around to get my 30 minutes logged.

On exploration days with Sig, we can walk up to 8 to 12 km (5 to 8 miles). I also try to coincide the walks with a moderate carb cheat day. There’s way too much to see, do, and eat in Tokyo to keep still and keep a strict diet.

For rainy days, I fire up Youtube and do 30 minutes of low-impact-no-equipment exercises. Here’s my YouTube “Low Impact” Playlist if you are interested.

Me at Lotte World Tower in Seoul, South Korea, 2019
Me at Lotte World Tower in Seoul, South Korea, 2019

What’s it Like Being Overweight in Japan

For the most part, people in Tokyo tend to ignore me. That or they’re being polite by not staring or making comments in my close vicinity. It might also help that my current ability to understand Japanese is at a basic level.

I’m grateful that I’m not working a regular job in an office or going to school: I’d expect that I’d get shit for being overweight. But that’s just my assumption because there’s always some regular news about bullying in Japan life.

When I go grocery shopping, which is mostly once a week, there isn’t much of issue despite the aisles being narrower than in American stores.

As a self-proclaimed qazi-minimalist, I hate clothing shopping for its mundane materialism. But for the few department stores that I’ve wandered through, I would highly expect extreme difficulty in finding my clothing size.

Meanwhile, taking a Tokyo commuter train isn’t that much of a problem. Much of the time there is little to none sitting space, to begin with, and I end up standing to my destination.

Overall, I’m doing okay and losing weight in Tokyo, and frankly, that’s good by me.

Just a few week ago at Arashiyama Bamboo Forest, Kyoto, Japan
Just a few week ago at Arashiyama Bamboo Forest, Kyoto, Japan
Gaijin Survival GuideLife in Japan

The Minority Report

Sig & Cup NoodleSig Stands out next to Cup Noodle at the Cup Noodle Museum

I’m keen on new experiences in life, and one I was looking forward to was being a minority and a foreigner living in a foreign land. It’s something I’ve read about, something I’ve thought about, but not something I’d ever done for more than a week at a time. I’ve been in Japan about 4 months as of this writing. So what do I think and how do I feel?

The Anticlimax

I feel pretty normal. I feel as much at home in Japan as I felt nearly anywhere in America when we were traveling the country. I am aware that I stand out like a sore thumb, and that I’ll always be seen as an outsider, but honestly, that’s kind of my normal identity. It’s likely even my preferred state of being.

While I am aware I don’t look like everyone else, I don’t really care. When I look around, I don’t see a sea of uniform faces and bodies. They do have similarities, but everyone in the crowd is their own unique person with all kinds of distinguishing features. And of course, I’m not remotely the only foreigner in Tokyo.

What actually feels most discordant here is when I go someplace frequented primarily by foreigners. If I go to an ex-pat bar and see nothing but faces “like mine” it feels very artificial and out of place. It doesn’t make me uncomfortable, but neither does it make me feel more at ease.

Other peoples discontent

There are two categories of complaints I have seen from people living in Tokyo and Japan who are Gaijin. The first is that the Japanese can be rude and exclusionary towards them, the second is that no matter how hard they try, they cannot be accepted as “true Japanese.”

The first part is a mixed bag. No doubt, there are racist Japanese people who hate foreigners and may do mean things to them. For the most part, Japanese folks I meet are extremely polite, kind, and welcoming so I think the complaint is more individual than cultural. And honestly, where can you go in this world where everyone is universally kind and welcoming?

As for the second, I think it is a case of denial. Unless you have had all the same experience as a Japanese person, you aren’t going to be seen as the same. Which is not to say you won’t be afforded respect, but you just aren’t going to magically transform. I’d advise being happy for all the progress you make rather than bitter for the bits you don’t. The desire is fine, but know that this is not a culture that considers itself a melting pot.

Sig posing neatly next to Umi Blossoms
Sig posing neatly next to Umi Blossoms

Thoughts for America

I was hoping this personal experience might give me more insight and sympathy for the minority experience in America. So far, I don’t think it has, but that doesn’t mean it won’t. Perhaps time will change what the initial experience has not. Still, for better or worse, I rather expect it won’t.

For now, I remain about as before. I think a lot of what people feel comes from within. If you feel out of place, it isn’t just because people see you as different, its because you see yourself as different. Expecting the whole society to change around you is probably not realistic. You are probably the one who will have to change, yet no matter how much you try, you will always still be you and in some way different.

But, we can try to be kind to one another. We can try to understand that being an outsider can be challenging and that kindness is something we can always try to offer. When you feel at home, you should try to make others feel welcome. When you are somewhere as a guest of sorts, you should try to be a good guest and not demand everyone change for you.

In cases where people turn to violence, both in attacking those who seem to be outsiders or in attacking the establishment because it refuses to accommodate your desires, we have to stand against that. It’s wrong to try and hurt people because you don’t feel they are sufficiently like you are.

We need to celebrate and accept diversity, but at the same time, we also need to try and understand that we will never be equally liked, loved, or understood by everyone in our own society or in other societies.

Sig Ready to eat his Tomato Ramen
Sig Ready to eat his Tomato Ramen