Keeping It Real: Six Months

Has it really been six months?

Yes. Yes it has.

Wow.

In the past six months, I’ve moved to a new home, tried new foods, worked to absorb a new language, met lots of new people, and made new friends. I’ve experienced the frustrations of culture shock and the confusion of trying to figure out my identity in a new context. But overall, it’s been an enriching and satisfying experience.

In the process of reflecting on my six-month anniversary, it’s time for one of my favorite activities: making lists!

Things I miss about America:

1. American camaraderie. Specifically, in the workplace and in more formal interactions. I don’t have a ton of varied work experiences, but I feel like in America there tends to be a more level playing field and more informal interactions. The hierarchy, politeness, and sometimes almost groveling present in work/business relations and among strangers can seem a bit stifling to my American mind. It makes me nervous to know that I might be found offensive if I forget to thank someone for a favor done, or to greet someone at the appropriate time. On the other hand, it’s all a matter of what you’re used to, and sometimes I wonder how rude we Americans must seem, with our brash talkativeness and our nonchalant attitudes about authority and formality.

2. Shopping in English. Of course, it’s fun to shop in a different country. I love going to the grocery store and buying new products to try – or continuing to buy favorite products I’ve found, things that I can’t get in the States. The frustrating thing is trying to read the labels, especially if I’m checking for a specific ingredient or nutrient. Luckily, the technology on Smartphones these days allows my friends and me to use electronic dictionaries and translation apps. It’s all part of the adventure, and it’s a good way to learn new words and symbols!

3. American scenery. This area has some beautiful scenery – sharply sloping hills, dense forests, and wide rice fields. For all that, I still miss the familiarity of American scenery. There’s something comforting about being surrounded by the nature you’re used to. For me, that’s the gentle hills and wide fields of home. And especially sunsets over the lavender patch!

Things I love about Japan:

1. Customer service. The extreme politeness I mentioned above? Well, it makes for a great customer service experience. Of course, everyone is human and not all cashiers and customer service workers are bright and bubbly. But still, overall I would say there’s a much better customer service experience here than in America. For higher-end services, the standards are even better. For example, the few times I’ve taken the shinkansen (bullet train), I’ve noticed that the attendants and the conductors all excuse themselves when entering a car and bow when leaving it. I was a little surprised when I first saw it, but not really, because after all…this is Japan.

2. Walking everywhere. I guessed, when I moved to Japan, that I wouldn’t miss driving that much. And I don’t. I do miss the convenience of it – and granted, I haven’t had to walk during the winter yet, so I might change my mind! But I like having a good reason to get outside and exercise. Nothing like toting a backpack full of groceries home from the store to (hopefully) build muscle and get some aerobics in.

3. Kind strangers. People here are amazing. I’ve had different opportunities where I’ve had to ask strangers questions, or ask for help. And every time, I’m met with kindness, attentiveness, and often actions that go above and beyond what I originally asked for. Their kindness and hospitality – especially if they feel a sense of concern about you, as with our employers – is unparalleled!

Six months gone, eighteen more to go. It remains to be seen what the next year and a half holds…

 

A Samurai Parade!

Yesterday our generous employers took us to the nearby city of Aizu to watch their annual samurai parade. The event commemorated the Boshin War of the late 1800s, which was a civil war involving a power struggle between the shogun and the emperor. There were lots of people dressed up in period costumes, and some interesting performers as well. I took lots of photos and videos so enjoy the show!

First, an assortment of soldiers, rulers, and even a princess:

There was also a European character, a historical figure from Prussia who sold outdated rifles to the Japanese during the war (the Japanese woman was the family’s nanny):

As we were watching some of the horses that the soldiers rode, one of my teammates said, “I hope they have someone coming behind to clean up the mess.” Sure enough…they did. But these weren’t just any old pooper scoopers, oh no. They were a costumed part of the parade, and they were dressed as, you guessed it….

NINJAS!

At the end of the parade was a teensy tiny (environmentally friendly?) car:

Now, for some videos! (Just a heads-up, the battle scene ends with someone getting “stabbed,” so don’t watch if you’re sensitive to that sort of thing! 🙂 )

After the parade, we went out for lunch, then visited the nearby Tsuruga Castle. Our employer arranged for us to have an English tour, so we got to see the inside. Here are two pictures, one of the exterior and one of the view from the top:


After visiting the castle, we walked back down to the restaurant area and had some ice cream, which appeared to be vanilla but turned out to have a strong milky flavor. Apparently white ice cream doesn’t automatically mean vanilla here? Anyway, we hopped back in the vans for our trip home, with a stop at a bakery so our boss could pick up some fresh bread and rolls. She gave us some of it when we got home, and I got a roll with chunks of sweet potato on it, which was delicious! Japan has a surprising amount of bakery items, and since I LOVE fresh rolls and pastries, that doesn’t hurt my feelings at all. I was pretty wiped out when I got home, but so glad that I got to experience this event and learn more about Japan’s fascinating history!

Come Take a Walk With Me!

Since I didn’t have much inspiration for my blog last week, I decided to take you all along on my weekly walk to the grocery store, and a couple of other places around town. It was a beautiful weekend so come along and let’s enjoy the beautiful weather together!

Japan vs. America: Grocery Stores

I’ve been wanting to do a post about Japanese grocery stores for awhile, so…this is the week for it! Of course, many aspects of Japanese grocery stores are the same as American stores, but there are lots of differences, and it makes every grocery shopping excursion an adventure! Please excuse the quality of the pictures, as I took them with my phone on the sly so I wouldn’t look like the weird photo-taking tourist. 🙂

First up: the cereal aisle! The cereal selection here is MUCH smaller than in the U.S. The entire length of the cereal aisle spans maybe three or four feet. When I think of the HUGE selection of cereals at home, it makes me want to laugh. Or cry. However, I do like the kinds of cereals here. Most of the varieties are what you see pictured here: a mixture of puffed cereal, crunchy bits, flakes, and/or dried fruit (sort of similar to granola or Honey Bunches of Oats). They also have…

CORN FLAKES!!! Kellogg’s, no less. And yes, they do carry Pringles!

Next, let’s visit the fresh foods section. As expected, there are lots of different kinds of seafood. There is also chicken, beef, and other types of meat. But there’s way more fish than I’m used to. For example, whole fish with eyeballs:

You can also get your choice of octopus/squid delicacies:

There are lots of trays of sushi to choose from. One thing that I find interesting is that the sushi and other prepared foods are left out at room temperature or only slightly chilled. For example, there are many precooked lunch plates and entrees that are just displayed on tables with no refrigeration, left to hang out at room temperature. And eggs. No refrigerated eggs. It made me a little nervous at first, but I haven’t gotten sick yet. (I do try to be careful of what I buy, however.) It’s just so weird after coming from America’s “refrigerate everything” mentality!

Luckily for me, there is pizza in Japan! Unluckily for me, it usually tastes a little different. Often the crusts are thinner, the sauce tastes a little sweeter, and there are sometimes weird toppings (although usually there are options with pepperoni). This one has corn (a popular pizza topping here) and something else that I can’t identify.  Sometimes I’ve even seen a little dab of potato salad in the middle!

Did we cover desserts yet? Ah yes, here they are! Pastry-type desserts are actually pretty popular here – cream puffs, cream-filled rolls, etc. There are always cakes, although they are usually light and spongy, with mousse-like frosting. Pudding cups are also popular. I didn’t take a picture of the bread aisle, but there are a surprising number of sweet pastries and rolls. The bread selection is quite limited, though. The packages are mostly one size, with four, six, eight, or ten slices, depending on the thickness. (You’re still getting the same amount of bread, but the fewer the slices, the thicker they are!) No heels, though – the slices are all uniform and ready to eat. And yes, you can get wheat bread – if you want to get a tiny bag that only contains three slices!

OK, produce time! The nice thing about summer is that there’s a bunch of local produce offered at very reasonable prices. You can see some of it in the background of this picture. In the foreground is what I THINK is a warmer for packages of roasted sweet potatoes, which are quite popular here. The veggie and fruit selection is similar to the U.S., but usually smaller, especially for the fruits. Ah, I miss the inexpensive fruit from the States!

A lot of the fruit is packaged neatly and/or decoratively. These melons have pretty ribbons, and might make a nice gift…

…for only 1,800 yen ($16) each!

OK, last stop: the wrapping station. You bag your own groceries here; after you pay the cashier, you tote your basket to the wrapping table, where you can find extra plastic baggies, a wet cloth to dampen your fingers with (so you can open your plastic bags), and other miscellaneous things you might need! Apparently I only got the middle of the table in my photo, since I snapped it in a hurry. 🙂

Well, I think that about does it for the grocery store tour. If you’re ever in the area, come visit and I’ll show you one in person!