Tag Archives: Japan

The Same Security Blankets As Before

During the three years I spent in Japan I experienced stress. And often my way of coping with some of the stress was to turn to something fun or nostalgic or comforting.

My first year this was Coca-Cola. I have loved cola for years, though I’m not picky about the brand, and this was also a go-to, albeit rare, beverage for me in the states. I rarely found Pepsi or RC or Coke in Fukushima prefecture, so…Coca-Cola! My teammates would make fun of me for drinking it in wine glasses, but to me it made sense. For them wine was a signal that it would be a fun evening and a time to unwind. That is what cola signals to me. Wine glasses happened to be the prettiest glasses any of us owned so that is what I would use.

My second year I still drank Coca-Cola, but I also found myself eating at McDonalds quite a bit. Beef was expensive, as were pickles, and I didn’t use enough ketchup or mustard to have them around. This one sandwich managed to combine all of these flavors. And while “hamburg” is plentiful in Japanese restaurants, it is really more like meatloaf. Meatloaf is great…if you want meatloaf. I didn’t. So I would stop by the McDonalds in the Koriyama train station and that was a bit of escape.

My third year I drank Coca-Cola, albeit not as much, as I had discovered I almost immediately gain weight when I do. I’m not making a universal health claim about soda because I think different bodies react in different ways to different foods. We know it is true of medication, so why wouldn’t it be true of food! I can eat cookies and ice cream and stay the same weight, but if I consume soda of any kind, I almost immediately gain weight. Since my stomach doesn’t react well to sports drinks, I drink soda when I have a stomach bug, and I usually exit the experience weighing more than I did before. McDonalds? Yes, I still ate there. But the novelty had worn off. I started buying beef at home occasionally, and taking a vitamin to make sure my iron levels stayed up. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t have stressful days, and those days I dreamed of Tokyo Disney.

See, my family lived in Florida when I was in pre-school. We had season passes and would go on weekdays in September, November, and February  when the park was comparatively empty. I’d been back to the park as a teenager when it was crowded and hot, but those early memories still dominate my perception. At first I wasn’t going to go to Tokyo Disney. After all, in Japan I should do Japanese things, right?! I should save Disney for the U.S., right?! Well, Tokyo Disney is unique in its own right, and I could write a blogpost about that. But the significant thing was that by my third year I’d checked a lot of the cool Japanese experiences off of my list. I didn’t do everything – I never did make it to Okinawa or Hokaido – but neither of those are practical for a three-day weekend. By year three I wanted the feeling of home. And Disney stimulated enough nostalgia to be that for a little while.

And then I came back to the U.S.! Here I have all the American food, American television, and American English I want. But, sometimes it doesn’t quite feel like home. Please don’t misunderstand me: I really enjoy being able to talk to my friends on a cell phone and without negotiating time zones. But there are a lot of factors I won’t go into right now that mean life is still stressful and difficult at times.

The stress doesn’t surprise me. What surprises me is that I still turn to those same items: I still yearn for a cola, I still want a hamburger, and when organic chemistry and chores get me down, I start mentally planning trips to Disney. Those coping mechanisms didn’t go away. I can’t explain it, but they are still here.


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Packing List (women) for Fukushima prefecture, Japan

I lived in Japan. I lived in northern Japan. I lived in Fukushima prefecture. I lived in a town on the train line in Fukushima prefecture.

Every sentence I just wrote describes when I spent three years of my life, but each is also very narrow and specific. If someone said to me, “I’m moving to Japan. What do I need to take?” well, that gets complicated. The snow boots I desperately needed for the unplowed winter streets would be foolish in balmy Okinawa. What is readily available and/or socially acceptable in Tokyo is not going to be true in a small city without a McDonalds or a Starbucks. Yet because I lived in a city on the train line, getting to those restaurants was far more doable than it was for the next town over.

I’ve been asked what I would recommend someone to take when they are moving to my area.


1. Take clothes 

Japan is a seat of fashion…if you’re size 4 or smaller and have a boyish figure. I learned to walk by the high end stores because even if I found anything that fit on my size 12 frame, it wouldn’t look good on my hourglass figure. There are some places where clothes will be available. But at first, bring clothes.

Note: Bring layers. In general, Japanese buildings are poorly insulated and poorly heated.

2. Bring a black suit with a white button up shirt for the formal occasions. 

The Japanese are very formal, and there is likely to be some sort of ceremony. The cool mismatched gray suits currently in vogue in the U.S. stick out like a sore thumb there.

3. Stock up on shoes…maybe

Japanese women have tiny feet. My older sister had no trouble finding shoes for her size 6.5 feet. I didn’t inherit quite the same gene. While size 8.5 puts me squarely at normal on the spectrum for U.S. women’s feet, I was Big Foot in Japan. Still, sometimes I found a size I could squeeze into. And when it came to sneakers I could just shop in the men’s department. On the other hand, my poor coworker with size 10.5 feet was in even worse shape. There was exactly one store (Shimamura) that sold shoes in her size. Bonus: remember you’ll need twice as many shoes there because you have to have indoor and outdoor ones.

Note: definitely bring a good pair of snow boots. It will not be a purchase you regret.

4. Be mindful of selected toiletries

a. Deodorant – Do you like U.S. deodorant? Then buy it in the U.S. The Japanese use a spray bottle thing.

b. Foundation…maybe – What is your skin tone? If it isn’t strikingly pale, you’ll want to bring your own foundation. In the homogeneous society of Japan, many cosmetics companies carry exactly one shade of foundation.

c. Tampons – They have them in Japan, but they aren’t the same. I’ll leave it at that.

5. Bring something that reminds you of home. It will just make you happier. For my sister that was her quilt. For me that was as much of my library as I could justify. Take what makes you happy.

6. Pack a small nativity set – Christmas is becoming more and more popular, but I only ever saw one nativity set in Japan…and it was at a British-themed resort. In the U.S. I wasn’t much of a decorator, letting my parents’ house be enough. But over there I needed to be the one stepping up and providing visual reminders of the reason for the season

Don’t bring:

1. Tank tops – modest women in Japan do not show their shoulders.

2. Shampoo, conditioner, or soap – They have good quality products there. Don’t waste the space.


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Top Ten Items to Pack in a Care Package

Hey, guys! I wrote a piece about what to put in an overseas care package over on a website called Velvet Ashes. This is mostly aimed at Americans sending items to other Americans, but I’d love to hear what each of you have wanted to receive if you’ve lived overseas. Go check it out here.

Also, since my blog is aimed towards all things Japan, I should mention what I sent in care packages to the U.S.: sembai (Japanese rice crackers), Melty Kisses (a kind of chocolate sold in December), and flavored kit kats.

What do you guys send in care packages? What was your favorite item to receive in a care package? What did you secretly always wish someone would send you?


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lying through your pants

The first time I lived overseas I was only there for two months. I wasn’t speaking or learning the local language. Still, I recognized that my English skills had declined in this span of time.

When I moved to Japan, I actively pursued learning the language. But at the same time, I didn’t want to lose my other languages. While the majority of my study revolves around Japanese of some sort, I’ve given a few minutes each day to reviewing German vocabulary and to reading a bit of Spanish. I’ve also set up some English flashcards. The English I’ve been studying is SAT caliber. It isn’t vocab I’d usually pepper into daily speech. Still, it’s been helping. Maybe it’s just been keeping my brain folds wrinkly, but I feel like I’ve forgotten a lot less.

That doesn’t mean some aspects of my speech haven’t taken a nose dive. Idioms and jargon is what seems to be hit the hardest.

And it isn’t just me.

A week ago during a meeting, Coworker A told a sarcastic joke. His deadpan nature meant we couldn’t quite tell if he was serious or not. When it became clear he was pulling our legs, Coworker B accused him:

“You’re lying through your pants.”

A couple of us sat there silently for a few seconds. We had a feeling the expression wasn’t quite right, but we couldn’t remember what the correct one was. The closest I came up with was, “Liar, liar, pants on fire.” Coworker C finally figured it out.

“Oh,” he said, “the expression is ‘You’re lying through your teeth.’ And, ‘Flying by the seat of your pants.;” He wasn’t saying that to correct Coworker B. In fact, I don’t think Coworker B even heard him, as she was still talking to Coworker A. It was more of an awareness on Coworker C’s part, one that extended to a few of us nearby, of trying to remember what in the world that expression was.


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What Color Is The Sun?

So my seventh graders are covering a unit in the book which talks about how the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco isn’t golden. From my extensive nannying experience and all of the kids’ books I read to my charges, I know that the official color of the bridge is, “International Orange.” But every year when the teacher asks the students, “What color is the bridge?” they all say, “Red.” I stand there politely and don’t say anything because, well, in Japan it is rude to contradict someone and this isn’t a make it or break it aspect of the English language. This week, however, the teacher turned to me and asked

“What color is the bridge?”

I hesitated a moment. “Orange.”

“Not red?”




This is translated to the students, who all begin exclaiming about how the bridge is clearly red. Then the teacher turns back to me:

“What color is the sun?”

“In the middle of the day? Or at the end of the day?”

“What color is the sun when a child draws it in a picture?”


This is translated back to the students, who gasp. It’s time for me to ask a question:

“What color is the sun when a Japanese child draws it?”


The class was polled. Two girls used to make their suns yellow, one boy made it orange, and the other 16, yeah, they had red suns in their childhood drawings.

And for the first time in my 31 years I understand why “The Land Of The Rising Sun” has a big RED dot in the middle of their flag.


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Sometimes Being Me Is Good Enough

This afternoon I felt ancy. I didn’t have any immediate work to complete and for some reason I didn’t want to sit at my desk. A glance at the schedule told me the eighth graders were in P.E. so I mosied up to the gym to watch them. The women and men were playing alternating five minute soccer games. When I arrived the women were playing. One boy, Tatsuya, asked if I wanted to join. I couldn’t tell if he was being serious, so I declined. When the men played I noticed the teacher joined in to even up the teams. The women came back out and this time I counted and noticed the teams were uneven. Quickly asking the P.E. teacher for permission to join in, I asked around to see which boys were wearing sneakers in my shoe size. Tatsuya wore the right size but begged off at first, saying his feet were stinky. After a moment, and a look at my shoes, he let me borrow them. 
I played two rounds with the ladies. Frankly, I’m not very good. My ball handling skills could use a lot of work, I haven’t the foggiest when I am off sides, and both times I attempted a goal I kicked straight to the goalie.
But here is the thing: at the end of the period, walking back to my desk, I realized that for those twenty minutes my imperfections weren’t just okay, they were exactly what was needed.
I’ve often thought of working on my soccer skills. I even bought a soccer ball two years ago but never actually practiced with it. I could kick myself for all of the mistakes I made today. The girls I played with, however, aren’t any better than me. Some of them are probably worse. They didn’t need a Mia Hamm out there dominating the field. They just needed another person on par with their skill level.
Another thing: my shoe size. I accept it as a quirk about the culture in which I’m immersed that my feet are the Japanese equivalent of huge. In America I wear an 8.5. meaning the only time I can’t find shoes are during the 80% off sales when the stock is made up of “huge” and “tiny.” I don’t buy a lot of shoes in Japan. Sneakers are easy because I shop the men’s section. At the bowling alley I know who else wears my size. And a recent conversation with my athletic, manly principal taught me that he and I could trade if need be. Today though, today wearing men’s sizes was perfect. All of the women needed their shoes during the game while the men didn’t. If I shared a size with the women, I would have been playing in my loafers. It wasn’t a miracle I could find shoes that fit from the men on the sidelines. In fact I ASSUMED I would find shoes that fit.
Because sometimes being me isn’t just good enough, it’s perfect.


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Nothing is Wasted

Today I wrote Christmas cards at work. My grandparents live in a retirement community and as people downsize, my grandparents take their odds and ends and distribute them to their grandchildren. I’ve accepted a lot of the blank, mismatched Christmas cards, and this year I realized I have enough to give one to every student at my school. So there I was, writing simple lines that I hope the students will understand.

Suddenly a song lyric passed through my head. “Nothing is wasted.” It’s a song by Jason Gray. “Nothing is wasted,” he sings, “In the hands of our redeemer nothing is wasted.”

I thought for a moment of the people who had originally bought each card. They finished their lists and had one, or two, or a dozen cards left over. “What a waste!” they may have thought. “Why did we buy all of these?” “What a waste!” they may have though again as they or their children downsized into a smaller apartment. “Why did we hang onto these for so many years?”

But it wasn’t a waste. Not ultimately. I’ve found Christmas cards in Japan but they are expensive: at least $1 a piece, usually more. I can’t afford to buy a card for every student. But I did manage to find space in my suitcase for this collection, a collection some might have told me was wasted space. So much waste. But because of this waste, these students are receiving the only Christmas card they may ever get. That could be a trifling. Christmas cards aren’t food or water or clothing. These kids aren’t dying, at least not very quickly. I like to think, however, that there is a point to me giving them. Maybe some kids won’t care. But maybe others will feel more loved because of that Christmas card.

Nothing is wasted. In the hands of our redeemer nothing is wasted. Even as I wrote today, I was filled with gratitude for all of the people along the way who “wasted” time, energy, and effort getting these kids Christmas cards.

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Tipping My Hat to Squanto

I’m sure I heard the story at some point growing up: the Pilgrims arrive in Massachusetts after a long and weary journey. They were aiming for the temperate climate of Virginia but their supplies ran out and they were forced to land at Plymouth Rock. The first winter is rough and many die, but that spring they meet an American Indian named Squanto who speaks English and teaches them how to plant crops and how to survive.

I heard the story again recently and wanted to jump out of my seat with excitement. There was no other settlement within six hundred miles and THEY MET SOMEONE WHO SPOKE ENGLISH. I think this moves, touches, and surprises me because I get how rare that is. For the past three years whenever I’ve met anyone who speaks conversational English, I’ve breathed a sigh of relief. Because English is mandatory for the three years of junior high school, and is often taught once a week in elementary schools, quite a few people in Japan speak basic English. And after a few years here I speak basic Japanese. But that doesn’t mean I don’t start fretting or that I don’t get panicky in certain situations.

Last weekend, for instance, I went down to Tokyo. For some reason that I never actually discerned, Tokyo was packed and I didn’t have a hotel reservation for Sunday night. My train tickets weren’t good until Monday so going back early wasn’t an option. Sunday evening plans to stay with a friend fell through. I called the hotel I’d stayed at Friday, but which had been full Saturday, and to my delight, they had a spot open. But then they began asking me questions that I didn’t understand.

At that moment I happened to be on the outskirts of a crowd of 200 people who had just exited a bilingual church. I looked around. There was an Australian who often translates the sermon. I asked him for help, but he brushed me away, insisting he doesn’t know formal Japanese. He suggested I ask [insert syllables here], but I didn’t recognize the sounds as a name, much less who they identified. I pushed deeper into the crowd and found an American friend, Ann. “I need someone who speaks Japanese,” I told her. She laughed and gestured to the crowd. “But I don’t know who speaks English well enough to understand what I need help doing!” Fortunately, Ann was able to find me bilingual Japanese woman who happily made the phone call for me.

A lot of my life here is a journey of trying to be self-sufficient, often succeeding, and occasionally failing. The safe activities, those I’ve mastered, carry me through a lot. But every once in awhile I get brave, and I branch out: I go to Tokyo unsure of my accommodations, I buy a new food at the supermarket, I take a bus, not quite sure where it will end up. I’m able to do be brave, however, because I have a basic comprehension of the language.

The Pilgrims? They decided to be brave. They went to new lands and arrived hoping to be self-sufficient and massively failing. Squanto’s knowledge of the English language was a gift for them. The fact that he was willing to help them DESPITE the fact that he learned English from his kidnappers puts him up there with Saint Patrick. For both Saint Patrick and Squanto forgave those who kidnapped and enslaved them and reached out to those very peoples to be a gift to them.

This is Thanksgiving weekend. I am thankful for all of those who have come along side of me, for all of those willing to risk and help me, for incredible provision that God sends me, and for men like Squanto who show me what forgiveness looks like.

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Mushi-Mushi Land

Back during the economic boom of the 1990s, a local man decided to set up a theme park revolving around the stag beetles and rhinoceros beetles so common in the area. On March 11, 2011 Fukushima prefecture and Miyagi prefecture experienced large tsunamis as a result of a 9.0 earthquake centered not too far off the coast of Japan. One of the things damaged was a nuclear power plant about 25 miles (40 kilometers) away from the park. Because of the contamination, the park was shut down.

For more information on the park and its history, read http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2014/9/13/fukushima-bringstroubletomushimushiland.html:

Recently, some colleagues and I went exploring. Here is what the park looks like now.

This first picture is from just outside the park, 1 kilometer (half a mile) away, to be exact. The character on the sign is the park’s official mascot. It is, you guessed it, a cartoonized version of a rhinoceros beetle.

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Inside the neglected park is run down. There is rust on the equipment. The weeds and grass have overtaken a good chunk of the area. It’s empty, and I was a little shocked at how run down a place can get so quickly.

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This next picture shows a bit of the former glory, what it used to look like. If you look at it the right way, you can make out the praying mantis structure of this playground set:

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Outside the park are big black plastic bags full of contaminated soil. The area is now officially safe, but even though no new radiation is coming, the contaminated items still needed to be removed. In this case, that means bags that sit by the highway until someone figures out what to do with them.

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Yet despite everything, the view from the top of the mountain is still amazing, a reminder of why a park was built there and the beauty of the area that the owner wanted to showcase. It reminds me of a scene in Evan Almighty when God pulls Evan aside and shows him the valley as he created it. In the same way, I look at this and see what it is this place was meant to be.

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Local Mascots

Japan loves cute things. Hello Kitty? Yeah, that’s Japanese. Cute cartoon characters, both imported and homegrown, are really popular over here. Japan loves cute, and their term for cute – kawaii – is high praise. But because kawaii is so popular, it is sometimes applied to multiple things.

One of the things it is applied to is depictions of devils. Here, for example, is a local icon. There are actually three of these located in the area. This one is in the train station. It’s title is “Oningyousama” which roughly translated means, “Mr. Doll.”

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Personally, I find the thing to be downright creepy, like a gargoyle or something.

Mascots are huge in Japan. Not just for sports teams. Cities and prefectures have their own mascots as well. A few decades ago a nearby town decided to build a tourist area around the stag beetles that are so common in this area. Not only did they build a park to see the beetles, but a hotel and a set of roller coasters as well. And, of course, they came up with a cute mascot: a giant stag beetle.

Last weekend I went and cheered at a local road race. To my utter surprise, the mascot was there, running the 3 kilometer race. How that person managed to go the whole way in such a gangly costume I’ll never know. But there it was, running along. Smiling, as always.

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