Life in Japan

Our daily life while in Japan

Gaijin Survival GuideLife in Japan

Doing 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!

Beyond TokyoGaijin Survival GuideLife in JapanUncategorized

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
Gaijin Survival GuideLife in Japan

Walking in Tokyo

Shibuya ScrambleShibuya Scramble

Curiously, one of my strongest impressions of Tokyo is my experience walking in the city. In America, urban planners are often besides themselves trying to create walk-able cities. Real estate agents list walk-ability scores for homes in Seattle to try and quantify this property.

Tokyo may well be the king of walk-ability. You can pretty much walk anywhere you like, and nearly anything you might need is usually within a short walk of where you live. Every part of the city has just about every service you could need. And if it doesn’t, then a train or subway can take you somewhere else in short order.

After three months of living in Tokyo the number of times I’ve wished I had a car is exactly zero.

First impressions

The first thing I noticed when walking in Tokyo were these textured yellow strips that run down the center of most sidewalks and through all the train stations. Sometimes they have long ridges, other times they have a series of dots. I’d never seen anything like them in the US.

It turns out, these are “braille tiles” for blind people so they can navigate the sidewalks and train stations. The textures indicate a straight path, an intersection, a crossing, and so on. They can both be felt through your shoes and you can feel them with a cane.

The next thing I paid attention to was that lots of people were out walking. The sidewalks vary from sparse to packed during normal hours and you can usually find someone out and about at nearly any time of day or night if you look around.

Last up are the bicycles. While some sidewalks are off limits to bicyclists, in most places you will encounter quite a few. They tend to be slow moving but they can complicate things and be a bit nerve-wracking at times.

Chaos and Customs

Walking around Tokyo is more orderly than say, New York, but not quite as rigid as you might imagine. While most Japanese tend to follow the rules, they are not above taking short cuts, especially if everyone else is doing it.

Jaywalking is very rare on major streets. Crosswalks are well marked and when there are signs telling you what to do, most folks follow them. Side streets are a different ball game. Tokyo is a spiderweb of tiny allyways and little market streets tucked behind the major roadways. There, folks just walk down the middle of the road when there isn’t a car around and there are no real sidewalks to speak of.

One rule that is followed pretty religiously is keeping left on an escalator. If you are going to ride it without walking, you keep left. If you go right, then you are expected to be climbing/descending actively. Stairs are more open to interpretation. Despite arrows telling you which side is for up traffic and which side is for down traffic, folks often ignore such instructions.

Go with the flow

Subways are where the pedestrian congestion is most intense. Steady streams and sudden surges of humanity move in every direction. Speeding salary men and women rush to avoid being late. Little old lady’s totter along at a snails pace. Packs of revelers support each-other after a hard nights drinking. And they all flow together in a surprisingly elegant dance… mostly.

Make the wrong moves and you can cause a lot of consternation among the crowds. One of the keys to social harmony is to do what other people are doing. If you see a flow headed in a given direction, try to join the stream rather than chart your own course.

Another key strategy is to stay predictable. If you set a pace, keep it. Don’t stop if you can help it, don’t turn around, and most of all, don’t try to back up. Everyone is sort of predicting where everyone else will go based on current momentum and sudden changes crash the system rather badly.

Good for what ails ya

Well, if you have a broken leg it probably isn’t, but generally, walking around Tokyo does get you into better shape. Since arriving I’ve had maybe one or two days a month where I haven’t walked at least a couple of miles. Anne has been loosing some weight and while I haven’t especially, I do have a lot more stamina than I did before.

All in all, I really like it

I just think it is great that you can live here without a car and go nearly anywhere you like without much difficulty. There is almost always a train going somewhere you need to go, and for life’s necessities, you rarely need to go far.

Mind you, this is only really possible with some serious urban density and I’ve grown to miss the great outdoors a bit since coming to Japan. But if you do want to live in the worlds largest city, this seems like a pretty good way to do it.

Walking along Megura River during Sakura Season
Walking along Megura River during Sakura Season
Gaijin Survival GuideLife in Japan

My first job in Japan: GABA

To be in Japan longer than 3 months I needed to have a full time job of some kind. Most work in Japan requires some fluency in Japanese. The most common exception is teaching English. For that, you need a 4 year degree and to speak English fluently. That’s how I got a job at GABA

What do I do at GABA

I am a contract instructor for GABA Corporation. They pay me to provide lessons to their clientele using their learning materials at their learning studio.

The vast majority of the work at GABA is teaching one-on-one English lessons to Japanese adults. They have some group seminars, corporate presentations, and other services as well but I don’t yet qualify to teach them.

Gaba lessons are 40 minutes long. Students can be assigned randomly, or clients can choose which instructor they want for a given lesson. The clients buy blocks of points they use as credits for the lessons. They can also pay for textbooks and other services.

The lessons are usually based on a text book but one of GABA’s key selling points is that the instructors will heavily customize lessons to fit the clients interests or requests. It is not uncommon that they simply want to have a conversation during which the instructor looks for areas to improve their skill or introduces them to new words and phrases.

The focus of GABA lessons is generally practical communication, especially speaking and listening skills. Most Japanese learn to read and write English in high school, but their ability to speak and listen to natural English is a lot more limited. We don’t teach formal grammar or language rules, we focus on providing correct examples and encourage the students to learn through use and instinct. It’s more akin to coaching than teaching.

How do I feel about it?

For the most part, I really enjoy it. I love meeting new clients and getting to know recurring ones. I enjoy helping them learn and keeping them motivated to continue their studies. I enjoy praising their efforts and watching them get better at speaking with the help of my coaching.

The one-on-one format is great for me. I get to really connect to my students rather than having to take a shotgun approach with teaching and hoping I hit the mark for as many as possible. I love talking with people and that is really at the heart of what I do each day. I tend to come back from work feeling a bit tired but also excited for what happened during the day.

I came to Japan for a first hand taste of Japanese life and culture. Being able to have conversations with a wide range of Japanese people every day in my own language is pretty awesome for that. They are always giving me tips on what to do and where to go as well as insights into their work and lives.

There are a few downsides, mostly due to being a contractor. Work is not always consistent. I am essentially competing with the other contractors for clients so if there are too many instructors or not enough students there are going to be instructors who don’t teach lessons and don’t get paid. It’s not cutthroat by any means, but neither is your pay entirely in your hands.

And the pay itself is not that great. You get ~$15 for a lesson with some options for small bonuses. You can gain ranks as a teacher and get paid more, but the rules for ranking up are stringent and there are limited slots for each rank forcing instructors to bump each-other out to try and get them. Personally, since I’m a short-timer, I don’t much care about all that.

The real up-side is you pretty well get to decide when you want to offer lessons and when you don’t. The up shot is you pick your own schedule to work. You take off whatever days you like, and can work any hours your studio is open.

Overall, GABA is a very professional company and they are honest about how things work and what they expect. As a contractor, you can’t expect them to take care of you unless they benefit. They do what is good for them, and you should do what is good for you. To do otherwise is to invite disappointment and frustration.

Sig In his Suit for Work
Sig In his Suit for Work
Gaijin Survival GuideJapan: For Better or WorseLife in Japan

Religion in Japan

Tokyo templeSensoji Temple in Tokyo Japan.

For better or worse: better

Let me just say straight away, I have a huge bias on this topic. I’ve been an agnostic and atheist all my life. America doesn’t generally smile upon this viewpoint. I’ve spent long hours debating religious topics with theists of many stripes over the years. Don’t get me wrong, I actually respect religion on many levels, but that was something that took a while to develop.

Japanese Religion

I’ve had a couple people tell me that Japan is the most Atheist nation on earth. That is just plain wrong. That title belongs to China. Still, they do come out pretty high in the poll rankings. They sit pretty close to places like Sweden, the UK, and other northern European nations.

But that doesn’t really tell the whole story. Wherever you go in Japan, you will see signs of religion everywhere. Shrines, large and small are just about everywhere. Religions iconography can be hound in nearly every house and apartment. Religious rituals are part of many aspects of everyday life. Sport, art, entertainment, and food intimately connected to Shinto and Buddhist traditions.

If you go to any of the nearly innumerable festivals in japan, religion is right at the heart of it. The longest line at any such event is the one to make an offering and say a prayer at the temple. So what gives, why is Japan considered a self-identified “atheist” country?

Frankly, I don’t know the answer. My observation is that the Japanese enjoy tradition and ritual but are practiced at not being dogmatic about metaphysical beliefs. Here, Shinto and Buddhism are practiced almost interchangeably. Dogma is minimal, faith is not essential. Nor is membership, you are what you do and you can do whatever religious practice you like without judgment. If there is a common element it is that you should show due respect to religious tradition if and when you choose to engage in it.

Ginkaku-ji - Temple of the Silver Pavilion
Ginkaku-ji – Temple of the Silver Pavilion

American exclusivity

In the US, and many other parts of the world, the idea you could be a Buddhist and a Shintoist at the same time is kind of absurd. Religion is not a salad bar of choices you can mix and match. Religion is a statement about what you think is the ultimate truth, and there can be only one truth.

Sure, you can play around with different trappings of religion, but ultimately the culture asks you to identify as a member of a given religion, or a hold out against religion. Once you have made that choice you either cling to it steadfastly or make a dramatic change. Such changes are almost always due to life changing conditions that make you re-think the nature of reality, or your own self identity.

Since religion is a claim to reality, it is also the core of moral view points and codes of behavior in every aspect of life. At least in theory. In practice I observe some pretty wild variation between stated religious dogma and personal behavior. Even when this is true, religious justifications are very commonly used for moral argument.

This rigidity, sense of identity, exclusivity, and sense of an absolute metaphysical truth makes religion a contentious topic of conflict and a source of both unity and disunity in America. It was a nation founded on ideas of religious freedom, but also on strong religious conviction. As a result it is both a hotbed of belief and disagreement.

Fushimi Inari Shrine
Fushimi Inari Shrine

Why I like it so much

The things I admire about religion, despite my lack of belief in the supernatural, are the passion of faith, the art it inspires, and the sense of community and culture it creates. I adore religious art and architecture. I also love the body of thought that surrounds religion and which is generated by inter religious debate.

What is so great for me about religion in Japan, is that I can participate in it without any expectation that I actually believe in the gods or spirits I am praying to. It is fitting and perhaps even expected that I have my own individual interpretation of the meaning of my actions. So long as I show respect for the tradition i am participating in, my involvement is welcome and not the least bit hypocritical.

And when I do participate, I am showing solidarity with other participants while at the same time, I am not declaring any distance between myself and others who participate in different rituals. You simply participate in those that you enjoy and it in no way casts any sort of judgment on those who enjoy something else.

For someone who has no dogmatic supernatural beliefs, this is the ideal situation. I get to enjoy most of the positive aspects of religion, without having to pretend any beliefs I don’t actually have. I can be part of the pervading culture without sacrificing my own integrity or honesty.

It also makes for a strong cohesive cultural bond for the Japanese. One that has proven to be incredibly hard for other nations to crack. At the same time, its flexibility allows the Japanese to freely adopt traditions and ideas from other religious systems and make them their own. They are not bound by the kind of dogma that fuels violent zealots or which leads to a denial of well established science.

Temple of the Golden Pavilion
Kinkaku-ji – Temple of the Golden Pavilion
Gaijin Survival GuideJapan: For Better or WorseLife in Japan

Pooping in Japan

Washlet at the StoreWashlet at the Store

For Better or Worse: Better

Just in case the title didn’t tip you off, this article is rather frank about its subject. It is for Americans, like me, who may have heard about Japanese toilets but who have yet to actually experience one. Having done so, I really want to convince you that you should consider getting one for yourself.

What is a washlet?

A washlet is what they call a high tech toilets in japan. The name is the invention of the Toto company but it seems to have stuck as a generalized name for these devices. Some of them are a whole toilet, but most of them are really just an attachment that replaces your toilet seat lid with the washlet device.

There are quite a few features you can get on these, but the core feature they offer, and what I’m here to rave about is the bidet feature. It is a wand that sticks out and washes your bung hole after you are done pooping. if you have a vagina, it can wash that too. More on that later.

Other handy features include a heated seat, music to do your business by, deodorizing features, misting to prevent poop from sticking to the bowl, sound effects to cover up pooping noises, and probably a few others I’m not so familiar with. I’d just put all that in the nice to have category.

The washlet does require an electrical outlet to plug it in, and that you connect it to the water supply that fills your toilet. They are not very hard to install, especially in these days of YouTube tutorials.

Washlet Controls
Washlet Controls

The gory details

Sure, once in a blue moon I take a dump and then one or two wipes and I’m feeling clean as a whistle. The older I get, the more often this kind of bowel movement is a rare blessing. Typically I’m looking at wipe after wipe, each a little cleaner than the last, but never really quite getting me all the way shiny.

The results? Clogged toilets, swamp ass, an itchy ass, hemorrhoids, and lots of toilet paper into the waste stream. I’ve always fought with these demons of the deuce, but the older I get, the more of a literal pain in the ass they become. If you know too well these challenges, read on.

The magic wand of the washlet is a powerful tool in fighting back against such evils. Touch the button after your business and it pokes out of its hiding place and delivers a stream of nice warm water right where it counts. You can control the temperature, strength of the stream, and in many cases the type of spray. The machine then retracts the wand and does its own little cleaning cycle to stay sanitary.

And I am here to tell you it works wonders. What would normally be a real mining operation of wipe after wipe that never quite completes becomes a just a few quick wipes and a shiny clean ass. No more swamp ass, no more hemorrhoids, no more clogged toilet and no more madly burning through toilet paper.

I can’t speak for the ladies but I understand that its great when you have your period and for general clean up.

Washlet Nozzle
Washlet Nozzle

Words of warning

I try to always do my research for my blog so I do have a few words of warning on the proper use of the washlet. This is a device for washing the outside of your ass, not the inside. Trying to blast water up into your poop chute is not a good plan.

You risk damaging the somewhat delicate lining of your lower intestine and you can also get rid of the important gut bacteria you need to properly break down food. Whatever you think you might be trying to accomplish, don’t do it.

Happy Poop
Happy Poop

Where can I get a magic ass washer?

I have not seen them in very many American hardware stores. But as with many things, Amazon.com has a large selection of washlets for you to select from. They range in price from around $100 up to $1000. The sweet spot seems to be models in the $300 to $400 range where you are getting a quality product that has the core functionality you will want.

Washlet Different Controller
Washlet Different Controller
Gaijin Survival GuideLife in Japan

Why We Moved to Japan

Anne & Sig at the Robot RestaurantAnne & Sig at the Robot Restaurant

Anne and I came to Japan as travelers, but travelers who live wherever they travel. Since we sold our home in 2015, we have lived on the road. We roamed around America for 3 years in an Airstream trailer and documented those travels at TrailAndHitch.com. After almost three years of exploring America, we were at a crossroads.

Our cash reserves were running a little low, and we had been to most of the places in the US we’d always wanted to see, plus quite a few more. I really needed to try and focus more on making some money, but it was clear my entrepreneurial spirit was not exactly up to snuff. I took a day job in San Diego while we tried to sort it out.

We wrestled a bit with different ideas including driving up to Alaska where I have a lot of family. The problem was, it’s a long trip and there weren’t many ways to make money, and plenty of ways to spend it. Staying in San Diego was cheap and comfortable but we didn’t have any ambitions to live there.

Finally, we decided to poll ourselves. I asked that we each think about where we would go if we could go anywhere. We each made a top three on our own and then revealed them. Japan was at the top of both of our lists. After just a few moments of discussion, we decided that is where we would go.

Off to live in the land of the Kaiju!

But why Japan?

Basically, both of us held life long admiration of Japanese cultural and products. The Pacific Northwest of the US has lots of Japanese immigrants and American families with Japanese heritage. As a result, the artifacts of Japanese culture are all around you.

I grew up with Shogun Warrior robots as the toy I desired most as a child but was never able to obtain. I also loved cartoons from Japan, though at that age, I didn’t know that’s where they came from. And like many kids, I thought Godzilla was great!

As I got older, ninjas, samurai, and karate all caught my interest and I came to understand that my favorite cartoons were all actually Japanese in origin. I was an Anime fan when no major video store carried them and before there was internet. I got bootleg copies of anime from shops in Chinatown.

Anne’s story is similar, though she was a half a generation younger so she became interested in Anime and Manga when it was first achieved mainstream attention in the US. She was also a fan of the food, adoring sushi, teriyaki, rice crackers and perhaps most of all, matcha green tea. Our mutual love of these things was part of what started our mutual love of each-other.

Cuppa Matcha Latte! Yummy!

How long will we stay?

We don’t know for sure. It may be as long as we can, or as long as we want to. As foreigners, it isn’t easy to live in Japan. You have to meet your visa requirements and they are not designed for someone who just wants to explore the country and the culture. They are mostly for people who want to work.

So we are at the mercy of the immigration board and whether they judge us fit to stay in country for an extended period of time. Once you are here, it’s not especially hard, but if you make one wrong move, that could be the end of your stay.

As a ballpark, I expect to live in Japan for about two years. I think wanderlust will pull us elsewhere by the end of that time, but it’s hard to say for certain. We aren’t going to try to put down permanent roots as there is a lot more of the world to see. But, I do want to get a good feel for what it is like to live in Japan and be a part of Japanese society.

Godzilla Street
Godzilla Street