Sunday, December 6, 2009

Four Season Fallout

I have never exactly popped a cork and toasted the bubbly to the Vernal or Autumnal Equinox, but I do appreciate those bonus national holidays. The official markers for the change of seasons to me growing up were what I knew simply as, "spring ahead, fall back." But there is more that goes with the ritual in Japan. In fact, the Japanese treasure their 4 seasons in the same deep rooted way that Small Town America "roots roots roots" for the home team. Japan seems to revolve around the axis of the seasons. From literature, small talk, cuisine, travel destinations, festivals, holidays, and weather reports to practically every aspect of marketing (down to the design of a simple beer) focus on one of the four.

It's a cultural, national heritage that practically drives the people here. I so often hear, "Japan has 4 seasons," as if, from Ohio, where our meteorological agencies also clock in 4 seasons a year, can't relate to the concept. But I can admit that to them, the change of seasons is more than a concept, it's a feeling, a way of life. In Ohio, we experience the seasons change from the drivers seat -- we control the gears all the way and watch it pass us by like scenery. And it is nice scenery. The fall colors ring in Halloween beautifully, and sometimes even before Turkey Day, we get our first snowfall. By then, we've turned back the clocks to manipulate not only an extra hour of sleep for a night, but more daylight for our mental comfort during the cold months. We can crank up our central heat, and venture out long enough to engage in the sport of driving through the suburbs to view elaborate Christmas light displays at private estates. We hibernate in cozy thermostat-powered homes until things start blooming. Then we are safe to venture out again and enjoy nature's warming up phase, without the dependency on the defrost button. We have the freedom to pull into a 24 hour grocery store where foods from any season and any part of the country, or world for that matter, are readily available. We have the control to dive back in to central air in summer to shift the gears one last time on our book of seasons.

Yet, in Japan, the people are the passengers in the weather-driven 4 wheeler, and they find themselves without any wheel, break, or acceleration pedals to control it. What's more, they seem to embrace being strapped into the child seat and led by the forces of change. Even the weather people serve as life assistants. Their reports on the daily news gently inform me if I should do laundry based on how long it will take a white shirt (standard men's undershirt) to dry on the clothes line. They advise me on whether I should carry a collapsible or a full-sized umbrella, and even suggest how many layers I would be "safe" wearing that day. I used to think these were personal choices that really could be left up to my own independent American common sense, but my supply of common sense got lost in baggage claim during that first landing in Japan a decade and a half ago. I, too, have resolved to be guided by and dependent on Nature's force. Thus I have come to live by the assistance of the virtual cheat sheet in the form of cute little dancing icons on the weather map broadcast into my living room.

Any conversation with Americans on Japan will no doubt come back to the lack of central heat or air conditioning, the lack of insulation, the absence of (or weakness of) clothes dryers -- basically the void of comfort zone that surrounded us growing up. It's hard to cut the apron strings from those creature comforts, but some of us do our best to embrace, or more like, conquer the challenges by dipping into the billion dollar market of survival substitutes available in Japan. I should note that the billion dollar market could take a one time investment in central air and insulate buildings and move on, but one little ol' plan from this Buckeye State import from the would hardly stand a chance at trumping the popularity of the aforementioned weather map icons. In my state-side days, I would view a sunny day as the perfect opportunity to leave the housework behind and escape outdoors. It took me three years to nod along with the weather forecast when they would announce, "a perfect sunny day today - it's laundry day!" Hanging laundry and beating out futons becomes the morning agenda. By 8AM, a colorful display of clothing and bedding aligns residential areas nation-wide. The unwritten rule (that is, we don't get the daily reminder from the news) is to pull it all in by 3PM to maintain its "freshness" peak as well as ensure you are keeping up with the Tanakas by following the neighborly good housekeeper guidelines.

There is a season, turn, turn. I wonder how the Byrds could have harmonized if they changed their tune to match Japan's reality of seasons: There is a season, turn turn turn turn turn turn. Even though the Japanese see 4 seasons in the textbook sense, I count 6: spring, rainy, summer, typhoon, fall and winter. Spring is the start of everything in Japan, kicked off by a week-long celebration of cherry blossom viewing. Sometime between late March and early April, the cherry blossoms will peak. The white or pink cherry blossom front blankets the country in stunning fashion. Travel agencies will push fliers for package tours to follow the flow of the blooms cross country. Grocery and convenient stores hang fake blossom strips to get consumers in the mood, and beer companies even work a pink blossom or two onto their label that week. It does in fact put pep in the consumer step and everyone suddenly likes each other. Lunches will be packed, portable karaoke machines toted, tarps laid and the low men on the totem pole from the office even sleep out to claim their group's prime picnicking spot under the trees on any given blossom lined riverbank. It's a national tailgate without the car, stadium or football game. One unpredictable rain or sudden wind can send the delicate blossoms trickling away, so for that instant, people live like there's no (cherry blossom) tomorrow. In April, schools kick off the new year, companies do their transferring and personnel shifts, new hires start, uniforms are crisp, everything is fresh and the hearts and souls of the people are blooming along with the flowers.

One whopper of a wind and rain wipe out the cherry blossoms: The pedals trickle to the ground and puddle on the earth, which although still pretty even as the clog the gutters, carry the harsh reminder that spring will wind down too and open the gates for rainy season. The seasonal rain front. It sounds so harmless, almost academic, but it can reek havoc on the emotions if you're not used to a six week steady drizzle. I am accustomed to and have accepted that "April showers bring May flowers." It's the way you make it through when outdoor recess in elementary school is moved indoors. It's the promise that it's only temporary and we're taught that a little rain is actually good in the long run. If only I could rediscover some of that wisdom in patience I had in the 5th grade and put up with even an ounce better.

Rainy season in Japan is a month and a half straight of a monotone forecast of either an "80% or 100% chance of rain and humidity again today." Rainy season does not come without its own consumer goods as well. After all, it hangs around long enough that I suppose it deserves its own product line. Unfortunately, rainy season items aren't as fun as the more uplifting seasons. Kirin Lager doesn't add a cute umbrella or raindrop to the label this season. Yet, amidst the lack of designer beer cans, there can be a creative and colorful twist to the specialized waterproof clothing line. If you consider the commuting habits of the nation, there is no escape. All ages, sizes and levels of society are out combating the rain, walking or biking under the loose clouds on a daily basis. Rain boots, rain suits, and even raincoats designed to cover your briefcase, or bag, coverings for the basket of your bike, and umbrellas for every mood, which for me during this time, is dark, dark, dark.

Every store and business is equipped with umbrella lockers. It's more than the ceramic umbrella stand that you'd find in a coffee shop back home - that lonely stand just in case that usually hosts a few umbrellas left by customers up to a year before. These are stands that have individual holes housing up to 100 umbrellas, all with numbered locks. For buildings that don't have umbrella lockers, there is a stand in the entrance way providing umbrella covers for your wet umbrella, so you don't drip, create puddles, a safety hazard or damage the building's interior. On the way out, there is a specific disposal for your used "umbrella umbrella." It would be nice just to avoid the hassles and hibernate at home, but you really have to get out to the shops and buy a disposable de-molder device for every room, every closet in all shapes and sizes. (The closest equivalent in my upbringing to the oddity would be the distinct moth ball smell I whiffed in my Grandma's closet.) There are even de-molding inserts for shoes, and de-molding powered hangers for your dress clothes. It seems silly to revamp your wardrobe to cater to the nasty front, as if you're letting it win, but it's a bigger loss when the season ends and you find haunting little blue spots on the colorful silk blouse you had put aside as a post-rain-pick-me-up.

Rain out steam in. Yes, the rain finally subsides, and we are awarded with the hottest, steamiest season of all: summer. I grew up running cross country and track in Ohio, where we have our share of hot, hot summer days. We had morning and afternoon practices during summer break consisting of long distance or hard interval runs -- pounding the pavement in the outdoor, unshaded heat, and I out barely broke a sweat in all those years. In Japan, I sit can still inside next to a fan while sipping iced tea and sweat through my clothes in seconds. People are armed with hankies as sweat rags, constantly wiping their brows, as they go from vending machine to vending machine on the commute in search of some relief. There is none. Again (and I can say it again and again and again), there is no central air condition in homes, so we count on the seasonal marketing tactics to teach us some tricks. Restaurant menus offer a wide variety of chilled noodle dishes, iced coffee sales peak, and beer promos heighten. I think of the beer commercials during the Super Bowl - they are clever bits that usually highlight a camping adventure, a dream of a great escape to the mountains, fast cars or socializing at sports bars. The beer commercials here can focus on one man in his kitchen, with a towel wrapped around his brow to catch the sweat, grabbing a cold beer just to survive the discomforts of his own home. I get thirsty thinking about it. Businesses try to provide some relief and thus support the national "Cool Biz" campaign. It's short for "Cool Business," and there really is nothing cool about it if you figure that it is simply a 2 month lift in stiff rules. During peak heat, there is a no jacket, no tie trend for the office. It's the same unbearable humidity, but with lower dry cleaning bills. At least the wallet has some relief there, allowing the workforce to put those extra yen toward survival Kirin Lagers.

The heat hangs on into September, and we open our doors and the sky to the typhoon season. In Ohio as kids growing up, we had our handful of snow days. A heavy snowfall would lead to a list of school closings on the local morning shows, and we'd grab our sleds and head to the hill on the golf course. During fall term at the university this year, I had a Thursday off from teaching thanks to a typhoon day. Winds and rains harsh enough to cripple public transportation. Violent weather patterns that shake the non insulated homes and send us running to close our "typhoon doors," which are built in to protect all the windows in the house. Unlike rainy season, there is no use for cutsie umbrellas or clever umbrella lockers. Anyone seen with an umbrella during a typhoon is most likely a foreigner. The rain is more like a tidal wave that hits sideways, and with a winded assist, would rip an umbrella upwards on impact. It's an image straight from the Sunday funnies - a young girl with a bright yellow rain coat rain boot set being holding on to an umbrella that gets torn up in a surprise wind. It's just that it's not so comical if you are caught in a typhoon. Furthermore, the golf course would remain empty until it blows over, with no sleds or other outdoor escapism to celebrate the legally playing hooky from school.

The tropical cyclones exit, leaving (I can't resist a pun, but I need a break after 2 bad weather paragraphs) behind Fall. The population changes from their summer distributed short sleeve uniforms, so everyone from students, bureaucrats, custodians to train station attendants don their long sleeve varieties to welcome the long anticipated cool breezes and blues skies of autumn. Marketers don't miss a beat, and the supermarkets decorate with strings of brilliantly colored leaves throughout the store, and alas, the beer can labels sprout leaves. Not far behind, those travel brochures and come-ons from the cherry blossom filled spring change turn to the fall editions just in time for "shokuyoku no aki," literally, "fall's appetite." They advertise bus tours to view the foliage, while sampling seasonal dishes from region to region along the way. Stays at Japanese inns feature outdoor baths with mountain views of the leaves, and seasonal local delicacies between every dip. Sweet potatoes, persimmons, pumpkins, as well as leaves dipped and deep fried in tempura batter - the foods of fall seem to adopt the maple hue of the trees.

The crunch of the leaves underfoot hints that Cold Man Winter is looming above. Even though Tokyo winters are much more mild than Ohio's harsh, bitter cold, I have never been in touch with the true bone chilling cold emotion until I moved here. It boils down to central heat. It can be 9 degrees below zero with a windchill of 20 below in Columbus, but I could boldly move from room to room in the house and function normally. Yes, central heat takes center stage of this passage. Japan is remarkably advanced. They have mind boggling technology. They can take any invention and make it smaller, faster and more efficient. Why don't they adopt central heat for households or at least add a layer of insulation to the walls? I ask myself, through my clattering teeth, every year. I should note that their inventiveness does not slack off in these winter months. In fact, they have hundreds of tricks to survive the cold - it's just that nothing with the word central or furnace came close to making the cut. Winters are extremely dry, inviting the unforgiving wind to whip through to your core. There is no break for commuters. They bundle up on foot or on their bikes, and those beverage vending machines that got them through summer have changed from cold to hot, and all the coffee and tea varieties are dispensed in cans that require a glove to retrieve to prevent burning. There is more motivation to pick up the pace to the station in the morning to try to get a seat on the train. Since the train seats are heated, if you are left standing in the train car, you are left shivering.

Once at the office, Cool Biz's counterpart kicks in and you join in Warm Biz. Office thermostats are set low to conserve energy, and thus employees are encouraged to layer up for work, and standard shirt and tie looks take a back seat to the turtle neck and sweater fashions. Students don't have such luck. Most public schools are equipped with much to heat the classrooms, and they are stuck in scant uniforms, which even though have switched to long sleeves from the summer variety, are not enough to fight the blasting drafts that cut through the classroom. The Japanese claim that it is also part of their virtuous education -- to build strength and endure the extremes -- somewhat of preparing for a lifetime of Mother Nature's seasonal curses. Yet students literally have tricks up their sleeves too. No pupil is without a hokairo or two during their school day, palm sized disposable heating pads that you tuck into the back of your clothes, or desperately clutch in the palms of your end when you don't have to use a pencil.

Back at home, families use the remaining 97 items from the bag of 100 tricks to withstand the cold. With the switch of a button on the remote control, air conditioning units change to the heating function. You can heat individual rooms, but without central heat, the dash through the hall from room to room, or that midnight potty break, can be brutal. I tried for years just to eliminate liquids after 6PM, but it doesn't really work. Besides needing a warm cup of tea at night to warm the bones, age just makes that midnight dash necessary. Luckily the toilet is actually the most comfortable place to be in a home in winter. The seat is heated, and you can control the heat settings from low, medium to high. I like to read the setting options as December, January and February, respectively. And boy do I respect my heated toilet seat.

Homes will also be furnished with carpets and kotatsu. Hot carpets are similar to electric blankets. Picture a throw rug that has a heating element underneath. Again, it has 5 levels of settings, and you can turn on half the carpet, or all, depending on how many family members are huddling in. A kotatsu is a low table which has a heating element on the underside, and furnished with a blanket that keeps the heat in as you sit on the floor. Imagine, if you sit under a kotatsu, on top of a hot carpet, you can match the warmth and comfort of a trip to the toilet. Upstaging the electric wall unit, the quickest route to a warm blast in your home in winter is the gas fan heater. It requires kerosene, and handily has a built-in fan to set off the danger and smell. Like an ice cream truck (which is too cold to think about as I write this), a kerosene truck drives through the neighborhood twice a week, blasting its friendly tune. The neighborhood pop their orange kerosene tanks out front, and we line up for refills. There's a camaraderie in the ritual which, for a split second, you think you wouldn't feel this warmth of community if you were simply locked up in central heat. That fleeting second subsides, I recall my first winter in Japan when I went on vacation for 2 weeks and came back to a frozen shampoo bottle, I come to my senses and long for the comfort of central heat in the middle of the bitter cold of Ohio once again.

The kerosene trucks wraps up its rounds on the first of March, and we hear the Byrds sing for another turn turn turn turn turn turn of seasons. The birds sing too, and we're headed back into spring. We take for granted what comes easily to us. I took for granted the change of season when I lived in the States. The flowers, the leaves, the fresh snow covered lawns are beautiful on the outside, while I was always comfortable in the inside. I could get any fresh produce or menu item 24 hours a day, year round. Now I wait for winter for fresh tangerines to huddle around the cozy kotatsu with family, or I wait for summer to gulp down an iced coffee from the vending machine. I savor the unique feel behind the taste of a fauna or floral designed can of beer. I finally get it - the special pride the Japanese carry with their claim to the 4 seasons (which with all due respect, I still say it's six). They embrace not being able to control Nature's force, and along with that take heightened pleasure in the foods that come to the table based on the season, the past-times that are only possible "weather permitting," and the satisfaction of employing all the tricks at hand to beat the elements. It's human, not Mother, nature to value things that are hard to come by. I see that now. At the same time, having experienced the seasons in Japan, human and Mother nature are fighting it out, and my American side comes out on top, also valuing what is rare and hard to come by: cenral air and central heat.

Monday, November 30, 2009

There's No Place Like Two Homes for the Holidays

For years, I've tried to make my American holidays work in a foreign country. The alternative is to embrace the differences. I guess the answer is a mixed bag, with moderate success. I've attempted the home-made American as apple pie way of maintaining culturally familiar traditions in Japan. I've also tried the adventurous route of ordering from the ethnic menu by embracing the customs of my borrowed-home country. I've even sampled off the combo platter by trying to adjust to the Japanese stylized version of what I consider Western customs. There is no perfect recipe or magic ingredient that makes holidays abroad feel just right, but I've grown to like, and maybe even crave, the "melting pot" that serves itself up over the course of celebrations throughout the year.

Happy Serious New Year
Ceremoniously, holiday confusion kicks off with both sides on equal footing by ringing in the New Year on the same date, January 1. On one side of the Pacific, you put on your party dress, uncork the bubbly and join in a nostalgic chorus of "Auld Lang Syne" year with friends. On the other, you put on your most elaborately designed silk Kimono and make the first pilgrimage to worship at the shrine of the New Year with family? Although the calendar turns from December 31 to January 1 with one straight forward flip in both countries, the rituals within come with stark contrasts. Japan's New Year holiday includes the 2nd and 3rd, adding up to a minimum three day national holiday. I can safely say that more than a few Americans would love getting those mandatory extra days off post their New Year's Eve festivities. However, Japan's New Year's celebrations are more of a time of solemn prayers and joyous greetings: Families travel to see each other, they pay their respects at the shrine, and share the traditional and symbolic New Year's menu. As an American in Japan, this auspicious occasion is an eerily quiet time. Nothing is open, the streets are silent, there are no party hats, fireworks, or game day rowdiness heard booming out of big screen furnished basements or sports bars.

Above: The custom is to purify yourself
with "holy water"upon entry to a shrine.
Left, "praying" at 初詣,
the first visit of the New Year.

Merry Christmas Cake
Years of observation has shown me that the style of New Year and Christmas celebrations in Japan vs America are as night and day different as their day and night opposite time zones. Similar to New Year in Japan, Americans celebrating Christmas tend to travel to meet family, eat a traditional feast, and attend to Mass. Shops close, not many people are out on the roads, and it must have a pretty quiet, perhaps uneventfully peaceful feel from the eyes of an visiting Easterner in the West. However, Christmastime in Japan comes with the American New Year's party feel. It's date night. The big question for eligible bachelors or bachelorettes is "who will you be eating Christmas cake with this year?" Ahh, Christmas cake. The unique made in Japan ritual featuring elaborately decorated sheet cakes, ordered in advance from colorful catalogs from upscale grocery stores to 7-11 convenience stores for an anticipated Christmas Party. Nothing says, "Happy Birthday" or "Happy New Year" or is less representative of Christmas to me than the look of these fashioned desserts. I have been asked if seeing Christmas cake in Japan year after year makes me homesick.
Department stores, bakeries
and convenience stores take
Christmas cake orders take orders
from late November to make the
traditional 12/24 "party."

So, I have tried to explain (to any local that will listen) that the American way might be to bake and decorate Christmas cookies for the season, or a school or church fundraiser, as well as offer some kind of warm fruit filled or pumpkin pie for dessert after a Christmas meal. I could get homesick thinking about my Aunt Gert's authentic homemade cookies, or my Aunt Joan's home baked pumpkin pies. But store bought or convenient store manufactured Christmas cake? That's one commercial side of the holidays that Americans are not gobbling down.

Yes, Virginia, there are Two Santa Clauses
Alternate Santa #1, with most
popular Christmas Dinner menu
item: Fried chicken.
On the other hand, the iconic Santa that Americans commercially embrace on the annual visit armed with a wish list to the department store is not the booming business here. Instead of the big bearded Santa with rosy cheeks that promises good little girls to load his sleigh with an overstuffed bag of gifts and slip down the chimney on the night before Christmas, Japan's Santa has a young, thin college kid look about him under his ill fitting suit. He comes on a moped and rings the front door...bearing pizza.
Alternate Santa #2 with most
popular side dish option: Pizza.
Yes, highlights of the night before Christmas in Japan is to order pizza, pick up KFC (Coronal Sanders wears the hat -- he's got the look and he's no dummy -- knowing its his most lucrative month) followed by the traditional meal sealer, Christmas cake. Friends, not necessarily family, get together for these parties and toast with sparkling wine. There's no countdown or confetti, but it's a New Year's feel to me. December 25 is not a national holiday. And somehow by now I have adjusted to being able to go to the bank or a post office on a Christmas Day, maybe even a little more smoothly than I've come to accept the slight 150 pound Santa zooming to the door with a pepperoni and cheese.

Turkey(less) Day
I don't expect Japan to call a national holiday for the landing at Plymouth Rock, but I do try to keep the holiday feel in spirit and recreate a Thanksgiving meal out of personal ritual. The road block for me here is not the bumper to bumper traffic to get to Grandma's amazing lumpy mashed potatoes; rather, it is that there is no market for turkeys in Japan. They are unavailable, not simply sold out, plainly, not sold at the local butcher or even larger supermarket chains. They are considered "gamy," I'm told. The same people that give me this feedback, mind you, eat non edible things from the sea, raw horse meat, in addition to anything else available, living or dead, raw or cooked, and consider it a rare delicacy. But an oven baked, basted and stuffed turkey? Gamy. The Presidential pardon doesn't even do it for them. I think I'd have better luck trying to push turkey sashimi on the locals here to get it some respect. Even though Subway sandwich shops came to Japan in the late 90s, which is the only place I have seen turkey on a mainstream menu, a turkey and ham club on Thanksgiving is probably not what the Pilgrims and Indians were sharing when they ceremoniously broke bread in 1621, even if it was served with a side of yams and cranberry sauce.
Mircrowave oven roast bag, meat
thermometer make up a sample of the
necessities to imitate an American
style Thanksgiving.

Therefore, I've learned (sadly through forced training in my early days here of half faking that I understood what people were saying and stumbling my way through conversation) to doctor up what I can and make do. So for that coveted fourth Thursday of November, I create the bird look by baking a rotisserie-look-alike chicken. If I stab a thermometer in it and mount it gently on a hand made doily lined undersized dinner plate, with a good imagination it mimics a cartoon version of a turkey on a platter. This superficial do-it-yourself savvy transfers over to my Easter and Halloween concoctions as well. Why American Easter traditions have not caught on here is a mystery to me. The Japanese love cute and cuddly things (think The Land of Hello Kitty) almost as much as they love giving, receiving and eating upscale chocolates.

She Loves Me, He Loves Me Not 
Made in Japan "White Day,"
pay-back displays invade
department stores for March 14.

Take Valentine's Day the Japanese way, for example. It's a one way street. Women give men chocolate. Outside of actually giving cocoa fueled gifts to those they like in their lives, they are semi-required to present fancily boxed chocolates to those they work with. I choose "semi-required" lightly since there is actually a word for the custom: giri choko, literally meaning, "obligation chocolate." To reciprocate, they have created a comeback occasion called White Day, a month later in March. On White Day, if you are male recipient of chocolate, you return the chocolate gift favor to the generous giri choko ladies of February 14.

Long Distance Easter Bunny 
Even though there are no required duties that surround the customs of Easter baskets or Easter egg hunts, they are packed full of cute chocolate marketing activity potential. A country that has embraced Peter Rabbit and Miffy for all ages really could use the uplifting Easter Bunny in its bank of copy cat (in this case, copy rabbit) traditions. I haven't let a year go by without decorating eggs. Eggs, which luckily don't come from turkeys, are aplenty in Japan, and thanks to the popularity of sushi in Japan, vinegar is easy to come by.
Local eggs, imported Paas dyes; local friend,
"imported" American
The dye? Well, I take the laziest route possible for this one, and leave it to the Easter Bunny, or at least who really played the Easter Bunny in my house growing up. My Mom makes the trip to the grocery and gets a couple of Paas packets. Easter Bunny A tag teams Easter Bunny B and my Dad jets it off from the post office. I still believe, and I'd like the Japanese to adopt some of the sweet, if not fantastical, magic as well.

It's the Great Green Pumpkin Charlie Brown
Halloween has been catching on more and more. It's finally easy to spot decorations hanging around more than just the standard marketed to foreigner shops in recent years. Even though Beggar's Night is still in the developing country stages, in fall, standard candy sold in any store may have a Halloween themed wrapper. I'm confident (and mostly hopeful) that trick or treating will catch on during my tenure here.

She is holding a Japanese pumpkin,
known to Americans as squash. I was treated
for tendonitis one year for carving 6 thick
gourds: Green exterior, orange interior.
Jack-o-lanterns, however, stand much less of a chance. Japanese pumpkins are what Americans know as winter squash. It's smaller than its American cousin, green in color, and takes the most powerful Ginsu knife that infomercials have ever offered. The interior, at least, if your arms survive cutting it open, hosts the same seeds. Check toasted seeds off the list. But carving out the details of a face? It makes the 2 hour, 24 dollar toll road toll round trip to Costco Japan for a US import seem much less crazy.
Introducing carmel apple
to the neighborhood - skeptical
of the sticky mess, but comforted
by the chopstick holder.
Check the done column for Jack-o-lantern and last on the list is caramel apples. Luckily apples are in season in fall, I can track down caramel (with a boost from that Easter Bunny back in Ohio), and my house is already equipped with a range and a pan for melting. The final touch is a little bit of local flavor. They don't have what we know as Popsicle sticks here, but take-out chopsticks have never had a better use.

When it Comes to Holidays Abroad, Beggar's Night is not Chooser's Night
It takes a true Scrooge not to appreciate a holiday custom, and interestingly, being challenged to adapt to a new way of celebrating, while putting forth great pains to maintain my own custom roots has resulted in doubling the pleasure of celebrations. Accepting and adapting are regular themes that define the pride of the American way. I never imagined that life in Japan would be my greatest teacher of those lessons, nor have I embraced American traditions and holiday more than I do now. And I'm not just saying this because I know Santa is making a list, and checking it twice as I type. He'll show up again this year in his red suit, on his motor bike, and I just bet he'll be delivering an extra large, deep dish supreme. Yes, plenty to share, and even more to be grateful for. It looks like this year, even thousands of miles from "home," I can have my Christmas cake, and eat it too.
Team "Pizza La" Santa Delivery, at your service! 

Monday, September 21, 2009

Daily Life in Japan is a Free Gym Membership

Fitness centers. Personal trainers. Open 24 hours, 365 days a year. What Red, White and Blue, starred-and-striped concepts. At any hour of the day, you can drive to the brightly lit complex in a spacious car, enter a parking garage with spaces that seem to stretch for miles, and that easily, hit the gym. On the inside of the automated doors, the options are limitless, which shiny equipment spanning the length of a strip mall. For the price of a gold star membership card, you are free to ride a recumbent bike, do weight training circuits, swim laps or practice yoga. If loneliness strikes in those wee hours of the night, real live human trainers are on call to assist you, cheer you on, or psyche you up for your workout regime. If you're not in the mood to hop or pump for your sweat, instead, you can choose to dip in the whirlpool or clear out the pours in the sauna or steam room. It truly sounds like a luxurious way of life and leisure. In Japan, there are sports clubs, and thrive they do, but the concept sings quite a different tune than the American National Anthem.

Almost as a national standard, fitness centers open at 10 am. This doesn't exactly cater to the working crowd that favors strapping on a workout before going to work, nor does it aide the non working crowd of early risers that feed off of getting those endorphins up with the Land of the Rising Sun backdrop. Often times, just getting to a gym is an aerobic routine. Gyms are usually located near train stations, which limits parking to possibly none. As a result, a trip to the gym starts with riding a bike to a train station, hiking up and down flights of stairs within the station and transfers, and finally walking to the gym from the station once you arrive at the destination. Perhaps one benefit of a 10 am start is that it is running on more of a flex time than the rush hour business commuter traffic in the earlier hours of the morning. Another major difference is evident in the plausible objectives of the clientele. I'm no pump you up muscle builder, but I come from a culture that tends to fill gyms with those that favor exercise for building mass. Currently, I am living in a culture where the masses fill gyms in favor of exercise for leisure and relaxation.

Daily life in Japan is much more physical than the American way. After a few years here, the idea of having to take a break from routine to "go get some exercise" became completely foreign to me. It didn't take the need to resole my kick about town walking shoes a second time to realize that my daily to do list serves as my stand in personal trainer, and that my private gym (although helpers are welcome) is larger than any Gold's Gym competitor worldwide. The machines I've installed include my bicep and tricep curl washing machine and my pull up and pull down machines are comprised in the outdoor clothes hang-drying line. My dumbbells look like Texas fly swatters, but they are to whack out futons and fluff bedding the way the locals do on sunny days. My small hand weights are built in to my kitchen sponges thanks to not having a dishwasher or garbage disposal. I can practice updog and downdog yoga poses when properly scrubbing the tatami (straw mat) floors that require pushing and pulling clean, damp towels over the weaves in a symmetric pattern. My exercycle is a 2 wheel, 3 gear shopping bike with front and rear baskets. I can up the resistance level by loading 2 bags of groceries in the baskets and one on each handle bar. My elliptical machine is found in any commute by train, which comprises flights upon flights of stairs and includes mad dash sprints to make the train before the doors close on my work(not workout) suit. My group exercise class is substituted with the camaraderie of the hundreds of passengers trying to endure the journey with me, packed in the train, side stepping to make room for purses and brief cases, two stepping to the left and then the right at every stop, in order to allow fellow commuters on and off the train.

Outside of the State-side gyms, you can easily spot beautiful suburban parks and urban wooded areas featuring bike paths for the outdoor enthusiasts for the weekend warriors. They ride for exercise. In my daily life in Japan, I spot men in full business suits, with their briefcases in the front basket and necktie flung up over one shoulder, zooming off to work (or first stop, the local station) on a shopping bike. I salute the women that perform the drill in high heels and hose and manage not to stain their nylons on the bike chain en route. They are cycling for transport, all the while incorporating the mental and physical exertions that Americans have to write into their daily schedules in order to accomplish. Over time, I have come to see the idea of a stationary bike as robbing me of not only valuable time, but also the satisfaction of checking off that "to do" list of errands. I have trail-blazed my own beaten bike path -- a circuit from my parking slot to the bank, to the post office and I round it out with a stop at the market before looping home. Many Americans employ a cleaning person or babysitter to tend to domestic duties while they head out to the gym or path to exercise. Outside help for indoor chores is an unfamiliar mode of operation in Japan, where natives take pride and seem to get great satisfaction out of a housekeeping task completed with care. Although I don't take the greatest pleasure in tackling the mold in the tub during the peak of rainy season, I can feel like am mildew free, as well as economically sound since my strength-building scrub-it-yourself monthly rental covers an otherwise would be costly gym membership.

In the early years of the cultural ups and downs, I made the mistake of thinking that an escape to a gym would feel like "home" to me. I wasted some energy, not in a workout, but in my mindset, expecting that all gym customs were internationally equal. But as I adjusted to the lifestyle, it dawned on me that I would need a heart monitor during domestic duties more so than on a cardio machine at a fitness center, I was happy to see exercise as more of an art and leisure activity than a thriving competition. Sometimes I wonder, where are my "30 Minute Limit" signs for the all the cleaning machines at home like the ones that drape aerobic machines in the States; after all, I would enjoy occasionally being forced to stop from the grind out of "fairness" to the other members. On the upside, I don't have to concern myself with keeping up with gym fashions -- I don't need a set of matching swim cap goggle set and suit nor the latest craze in coordinates for Pilates. In fact, in Japan, all indoor cleaning exercises are performed without shoes, so there's another built in savings to the cultural difference. I'll admit that there is an appealing electricity sent off when a group step or spin class is counting or hooting and hollering in joint-motivation. I can attempt to recreate that kind of energy by 1-2-3-4'ing around the kitchen on my own pushing a mop, but I can't seem to achieve that same "we're in this together" feeling. Fortunately, in the end, I can gratify the craving for the most decadent treat a commercial gym has to offer -- a nice soak in a whirlpool or sauna following a challenging workout. After a full day of Japanese domestic life, I can get that relaxing warm dip at home too, just after I do one more rep on the tub with the scrubber in the right hand and de-molder in the left.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Land of the Free, and Home of the Endless Cereal Aisle

I've made it a rule to touch American soil at least once a year. My built-in hard drive signals when it's time to refresh my settings and I dust off that blue passport. It's funny to consider that I don't have two passports. After all, I've been going back and forth for 15 years now, so I feel like I lead a double life. But the going back and forth, which feels more like running backwards and forwards, has finally reached "normal" on the lifestyle scale to me. I'm only in the States for 2-3 weeks a year, but the fact that there is no longer a shock value involved makes me feel like I should be fulfilling some fantastic fantasy of having two persona. I could be an undercover agent, or a national celebrity on one side, and get to live out an average day in day out on the other, but, alas, the feeling is just a flat "normal" at this point on the culture shock scale. I still haven't pinned down what this ease in transitioning milestone can be attributed to (it's certainly not the ease of the flight or time change), but as run of the mill as it sounds, I am happy to say that flat normal USA or Japan is a good place to be.

The trip is long, longer, and with a kid now is longest, no matter what tricks you take on board to keep entertained. There's little variation to the routine: Pop a book in the seat pocket in front of you, check the in-flight magazine for the audio visual line-up, skim the catalog for the people who have everything and now need everything for their dogs, and peruse the menu: meal, mid-flight snack, meal. Go back to that book for a minute, put it down, and fiddle adjusting the pillows and blankets to find a comfortable posture until the refreshment cart makes its first round. Jet lag hasn't really been easier to take over the years. There is no magic bullet and no fighting the animal when the animal's face falls flat. Jet lag as a term is all wrong, it's not the jet that stings, it's the time zone, and hard to be dropped into a society and told to work the graveyard shift for your two week vacation. I often hear, "but you should be used to it by now!" (People voice this with the same tone I get from the locals in Japan, "Oh! You're from Ohio, you should be used to the cold!") Oh, and yes, that is true. I am used to jet lag, I am used to cold winters. Unfortunately, "I'm used to it" does not translate to "I like it"; rather, I have accepted the adjustment as a matter of course, but in this case, acceptance is not the first step to recovery. Time zone lag experience doesn't ease the symptoms, and, unfortunately, it's not exactly a resume builder either.

The first few trips back to Ohio after a year in Japan were like feasts for the senses. It felt like that Thanksgiving overload where you are incapable of getting up from the table, so you just wait for the shock to subside, which is around the time the pies roll out of the oven. But everywhere my daily jaunts around my home town took me, gave me that Thanksgiving feast feeling. Suddenly the place where I grew up, was educated and lived for 25 years was a brand spanking new over-sized package with a big red bow. I was a kid in a candy store, awestruck at size and selection in a rainbow of colors before me. Houses, roads, cars, stores, people, parks and pastures -- everything was super sized. I don't believe that in one year I lost my memory to the large-scale reality, but in that time I was plowing through a new land of rice fields with blinders on, having had devoted all my energy into walking tall while adjusting to a down-sizing way of life.

My first apartment, although enough for one person, was small. There is nowhere I could stand without seeing dirty dishes in the sink (OK, if I washed them, I would not see them, but that's not my point). I wondered how I could manage with the refrigerator that felt half the size of an American hotel mini bar. It took one quick trip to the grocery store to realize that that was not an obstacle. Everything in the store is small scale. The carts are designed to carry "baskets," which is used in the States as a cart alternative for the emergency trip for that last ingredient to ice the cake just before the guests arrive. There is no milk or juice carton in the store larger than a quart. Loaves of bread average 5 slices, and a dozen eggs is actually a pack of 10. The portioned out items for sale are suitable for mini refrigerator storage space. But those shopping "baskets" are as big as the come in Japan, the cart is compactly designed to stack two, along with a slot to stow your umbrella while you shop. Being forced to limit your purchase load could be a bitter sweet blessing when you consider that shoppers will transfer their shopping bags into a bike basket which may or may not call for a free hand for an umbrella on the ride home) and then park the two wheeler to walk the bags up 1-3 flights of stairs to their "mini bar" fridge. The Japanese shop for three meals and essentials daily; whereas, Ohioans essentially stock up for the month weekly.

Taking into account that I had to grocery shop 365 days that first year in order to stay a step ahead of my dwindling bunch of bananas, I guess that adjustment was concentrated, and thus, accelerated. The ritual of the daily milk, bread and butter was pretty engraved in my system when I walked into the auto doors of Kroger after a year away. I was amazed at the size of the grocery carts. They could fit people in them. I am not simply describing the "child seat" at the front of a standard US cart, but the new (anything that happens post 1994 is new to me State-side) "car" carts for kids. In front of a full sized cart is a two passenger car for children, with steering wheels and leg room. I wondered if the cart had four wheel drive, since by the time you got through frozen foods if you were really maximizing the full capacity this cart could handle, you'd need a gear change. I wasn't going to be the Samsonite Gorilla and test it out -- it was all just a little much to swallow in one food stop. The biggest tourist attraction Columbus has to offer can be found in aisle 9: the infinite options, colors, sizes and shapes of breakfast cereal available. We always had a variety of cereal in the house growing up. In fact, it was easy for me to have fun slumber parties since I our house developed the reputation of being stocked with the "good stuff," which in elementary school kid terms means that you prioritize Cap'n Crunch over Muesli. But in Japan, I had grown, or shrunk, accustomed to 3-5 choices of cereal, and nothing larger than that quart container of milk to wash it down.

The 174 variations on the concept of a Cheerio, a figure that represents only 10% of the amount of channels available on American TV, just illustrates one form of reverse culture shock during my annual visits to the States. If it wasn't the size of life through a magnifying glass, it was the sound of life through a megaphone. Americans have a reputation of being more vocal than other cultures. I'm not trying to turn the volume down on a population, but after adjusting to life in another language, I lose a sense of silence that I've incorporated into the Zen side of my life when I visit the States. After years in Japan, I have achieved a respectable level of Japanese language know-how which pays off in the ability to understand what's being said to and around me. At the same time, I've maintained the knack to tune out those now comprehensible conversations surrounding me. On a train, in the supermarket, sometimes too often at a meeting at work, I can elect to tune out and slip into a cultural escape zone.

However, I've learned that I lack this handy language tool in my mother tongue, and I never knew it could be a useful tool pre-1994. Whether it's waiting in line at a bank, a ticket window at a movie theater, or sitting in a semi-crowded restaurant dining room, I can't help but be aware of the conversations in English going on around me. It's a wonder why this chatter never bothered me before -- certainly I wasn't really concerned about the struggle the woman waiting for a decaf refill at the counter is facing trying to find her son a tutor in Algebra. No, it's not an interest in eavesdropping on content, but there was a sense of peace in me I'd grown found of, and there is no silent space to hide in during my trips back -- the native tongue just lashes too strong for me to tune out. So in a sense, during my off months from the States, I have some polishing to do in my un-listening comprehension of English.

In both of my worlds, even though I am Kathryn on one side, and Kya-sa-rin on the other, it's the worlds that change, not me. And like anything else, whether a linguist learning a language, an athlete shaping up for a game, or a musician tuning up a pop star fantasy, any master will insist that practice and repetition hones the craft. Well, the old adage, "practice makes perfect" doesn't exactly apply to the art of travel. But with repetition and practice of running backwards and forwards over the ocean, the overall turbulence of the journey and transition has gotten smoother. Yes, 15 years of repeating the flight ritual and the adjustment routine have led to a general ease in the acclimation process, and surprisingly, the shock factor has mellowed too. I can handle the jolt to the senses, fueled by breakfast cereal overload, bottomless listings in the TV Guide, and even the incessant background chatter in super-sized Americana. In fact, now I revere the qualities and personalities of both my home land as well as my host land. I guess I have mastered the art of transitioning between two cultures; one innate and one learned. Either way, living as one in the two worlds has gone from bumpy to become flat normal to me at last. I'm happy to say that I think I'll always only require one valid US passport to transport Kyasarin and Kathryn wherever I go.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Transparent Welcome Mat

Welcome to my humble abode. What you see is what I own. I live in a house with no secrets, unmentionables that could otherwise be stashed in an attic, basement, or closet. If I had those built-in luxuries, then perhaps you would come across a mound of mess that I'd always be thinking I'd "get to later." But no. No attic, no basement, no walk in, or, hide-in, closets. It's all out there on my open-book welcome mat. I am not that open by choice, but living conditions in Japan dictate that you put your items on display. There are no garages, utility rooms, storage cubbies or "under the bed" options in the Land of the Futon to stow junk. There is one exception in my place -- a "floor cupboard" in the kitchen. The kitchen floor is equipped with a pull-up latch that opens in a magic like fashion and the mysterious cupboard rises towards the surface. It is intended for "pickling." However, I haven't absorbed the culture enough to pick plums off the tree, jar them in my little underground waiting a year until I've got the perfect pickled plum. Besides, it's just a creepy concept for me; stowing foodstuff in the floor just doesn't feel the way nature intended it. Valuable storage allotted for pickling? It's almost a shrine-like treatment so I'm just more comfortable pretending it doesn't open (well, until the season rolls around when Santa's elves need a hiding place at least).

Housing conditions in Japan have accelerated me into an Eco mindset of life. I only buy what I need and I adhere to a strict one-in-and-one-out policy. The rule is quite simple: if I buy a white shirt, the old white shirt's time in the drawer expires. If there is more than a day's use left in the toothpaste tube, the next one remains in the store shelf and not yet mine. Also, in the absence of hiding places, there lies an added advantage of actually knowing where everything is. Besides, it's easy not to accrue items that I have nowhere to put. This "pack light" lifestyle is a relatively new concept that came with the birth of my residence status in Japan.

I didn't grow up with that fear of accumulating stuff a phobia mindset. We had endless storage options in our house in spacious Ohio, down to a basement that was divided into the "finished" and the "unfinished" side. Basically, the difference was in the quality of the stuff we put in each designated area. Over sized toys we currently use on occasion: first class finished side. Toys we out grew but hold sentimental value rather than working batteries: downgraded to unfinished side. Basements are a luxury enjoyed by non earthquake-prone lands. They are underground wonderlands of your past in boxes, mixed in with storage bins for seasonal decorations, old bikes with training wheels, roller skates you can't say goodbye to, fading photos, and even supplies such as a the rest of that can of paint from re-doing the porch furniture 18 years ago, all stowed in the spirit of "just in case" we need it again. Throughout the house, every room had cupboards, shelves, and at least one closet that was tall and deep enough to hold at least three seasons of one person's wardrobe. There was a pantry off the kitchen, which was an undercover hiding place for impulse food product shopping: boxes of Mac and Cheese, jars of spaghetti sauce in bulk, jumbo rolls of paper towels, and an endless supply of cleaning products to polish all of those beautifully glowing storage facilities in the average American home.

I have a decorative taste that was not exactly fined tuned at a finishing school, but it was groomed by a way of life that comes with storage options. As a result, I have faced countless challenges trying to disguise my junk in Japan. If you walk into the home of a gracious Japanese host, you will find a contrast from the pre-conceived idea of a serene, uncluttered, peaceful and understated Japanese rock garden. Don't get me wrong, the home will pass the white glove test. It's guaranteed to be tidy, vacuumed, dusted and buffed at anytime of the day. However, once you've entered the gate, you've also walked straight in to the family utility closet, laundry room, and personal vanity cabinet. To paint a typical virtual picture, in the foyer, there may be a stack of 5 boxes of Kleenex next to a collection of out-dated catalogues, next to bin of the paper recycles next to a bicycle that has no "parking" space out front. Once you put the guest slippers on and climb through the initial piles, you enter the living room greeted by a standard book shelf, with books on the first few shelves, but there will also be a corner of it designated as a make-up station with cosmetics neatly arranged, as well as a bottle of room freshener spray, maybe some compact hand weights, an electric razor and whatever the bank was giving away that month for opening a new account. To be fair, there is divine organization within each of these categories, but an American home would never lump these items together, let alone in plain view. Moving on, signs of a subscription to monthly manga comics are represented by the symmetric stacks of books and magazines on either side of the television, and depending on the weather that day, it's likely that laundry is hanging on the curtain rod (clothing dryers are rare, and not exactly space conservative). Aesthetically speaking, it's just not the "coffee table" display look we go for as Americans. We tend to hide all of the toiletries in the vast cupboards in our vanity area of the master bathroom, and prefer to draw a big fat line on what is private and what kind of clutter can be in view of a guest.

As easy as it has become to adjust to going back and forth between Japan and the States every year, the one thing that consistently gets to me is this contrast in product overload and endless storage in State-side homes. During my annual visit a few summers ago, I was tidying up after a meal in my parents' kitchen, and I found myself searching for some plastic wrap for leftovers (another thing we rarely have here). In a cupboard above the oven (Again, two more things I don't have here), I discovered a supply of aluminum foil that I hate to say will outlive the whole family -- collectively, we just don't have that many meals left in us to require the mileage of dish covering material in the cabinet. However, the storage is available and it's not taking up anyone's personal space. So where does it start? Do Americans accumulate items because they can? Do Japanese keep their products to a minimum because they have no choice? I have enough foil in Japan for the next few weeks, but we have limited storage in the drawer for the roll as well as on the shelves in the fridge to store leftovers. I am not asking myself which is better, the Japanese or the American way, but I do wonder, if I had the space, would I fill it? Or if I had too much stuff, would I dig to store it? So which came first, the pickled plum or the under the floor cupboard?

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Welcoming the Trash Queen

A moving van makes the final turn into a cul-de-sac and anchors at a pristine barefoot grass lawn to unload the new family's dreams from the truck into their new home. The neighborhood is full of manicured shrubs, gardens with a rainbow of tulips in full bloom, children playing on tire swings, and white picket fenced-in dogs fetching bones. The scene is a surreal, cookie cutter pastel, and the background music light and foot-tapping catchy. The workers in jumpsuits hop to task and as the unloading work progresses, a now new neighbor pops over with a basket of covered muffin tops, still warm from the oven. The newcomer to the block graciously accepts, and invites her now friend inside. They clear a cardboard box or two and dust off two seats at the kitchen table. The kettle goes on the range and the neighborly bond is born. From this moment on there will be cups of sugar borrowed and dozens of eggs lent, backyard barbecues together and float-building for the fourth of July. It's all so "Dream Life in America" story book simple. But then I wake up.

As a public servant, my first two apartments in Japan were owned and partially subsidized by the city of my employment. It was a blessing in the early years when I couldn't speak the language, and thus relieving me of the challenge of finding a place to live out of a newspaper I couldn't read, or going into a real estate agency office where they used a language I couldn't understand, on my own. After 4 years in those 2 places, the "I" moved and "my" apartment became "we're" moving and "our" place, as Bob and I married and accepted positions at a college that had housing written into the contract. The complex was called the International House, since it was a provision for the foreign faculty. The IHOP, as we affectionately dubbed it, was still a semi submersible bubble from "real" Japanese society. Sure, we were in Japanese housing in a Japanese neighborhood, but somehow we were still on the other side of hidden responsibilities in our host society, hence the "International House of Pancakes" marquee seemed to fit just right.

When our 3 year tour wrapped up at the junior college, we found jobs at four year universities found on an apartment at a semi-hub in Kawasaki. That was our first "we're on our own" housing search, which brought us on walk troughs of countless straw mat rooms with no view before settling on a bright "2LDK" (denoting 2 rooms, plus living, dining and kitchen) on the 4th floor of a building clustering into the landscape of more tall buildings. A year later and 2 more permanent job offers later, we were packing it up again. This time, Dorthy and Toto landed in a "two generation home" in Hasuda, Saitama. We added a daughter at this address and called Hasuda our home for a total of 7 years. The two generation home sounds something like an Archie Bunker set up, but it's quite a common set up in Japan, where locals set roots deep in their soil, an guard their premium priced land with the family name. There are two completely separate entrances, one (usually the grandparents) stakes home on the first floor the other (usually the married oldest child with children on the way) on the second floor. They are mini homes, one on top of the other, under one roof. It is just a chapter in the continuing story of tight housing in Japan. Our landladies, the homeowners, were two older sisters who never married, and lived separately when they first built; however, soon after they saw the perk of an income in the form of rent. They moved in together on the first floor, and let the the upstairs "house" to us.

Relations in that area were good. We had Kobayashi san across the street, and everyone deserves a Kobayashi san in their lives, (hopefully within a Japanese rock garden's stone's throw away). It wasn't the simple benefit of how generous she was with her tomatoes, eggplant or tangerines in season from her garden, or what a friendly baseball talking, dog walking husband she had, but her built-in neighborhood watch superpowers. You had to get through Mrs. Kobayashi, and we were protected. If anyone were to even look twice at our door, or if we were to miss a package delivery, or leave a light on when we left the house, she would be the dependable informant, whether you asked for it or not. Even though is wasn't the same kind of comfort you get from a welcome tin of home baked cookies, she was certainly more of a comfort in an unfamiliar land than an invader, and we always welcomed her solicited and unsolicited reports. You had to get through her, and we were protected. The landladies brought us a New Year meal every year in traditional Japanese style, down to every little serving dish, and they brought Ashley a present on her birthday every year. It was a good taste of the culture, of the neighborhood, and a pleasant place to live. However, we still felt somewhat like guest stars on this made for TV family movie since we were still excused from some of the underlying neighborhood expectations on us that the Japanese have in their daily lives. Perhaps the reason why we were skipped over was because since we were not only just on renting status, but also because the homeowner was on the same land -- but the real reason remains a mystery. However it came to be, it was a free pass awarded to us that we didn't demand in our tenants' agreement.

Those first 14 years saw 5 different housing contracts, a wedding certificate, 5 job changes each and a birth certificate. We finally uprooted for our last move within Japan, which is a relevant term since I have claimed "last time" at least 2ce before. We moved into a house. A two story house, with plenty of rooms and a Japanese garden (in the States we call it a backyard, but that comes with a more sizable understanding). We are still renting, but from a ghost landlord this time. That is not to say that the landlord is scary, but more like a silent investor that we haven't met, and thus not an avenue for us to run to when we have questions about turning the gas on or what to do if the sink clogs up. This round, the house is independent, and gradually, we are learning to live and feel that way too. This is the real housing world in Japan. We don't turn rent in to someone who in turn signs our paycheck, furthermore, for the first time, we don't share walls, floors or property lines or even a persimmon tree with anyone but us. So, for the first time in our life in Japan, we have to be real world Japanese. No, we're not entertaining applying for citizenship here, it's just that we don't have the blue passport green light that has resulted in being skipped over for nuanced neighborhood duties for so long.

It's all very tricky. The neighborhood relations game starts before you've ducted taped shut the last boxes from the previous place. It's the trip to a mall to go to a fancy over-priced boutique outlet in order to buy the "I'm moving into the neighborhood please be good to me," gifts. There are actually displays for this purpose. Daily items, household goods, and foodstuff such as rice or soba noodles are big sellers. I figured towels were a safe route, and settled on an iris print. I was thinking, the two houses on either side, and maybe one for the house directly across, rounding off at an odd 3. I asked the salesperson how many households were usually appropriate. She asked, "how many houses are in your block?" Well, Japan is one big sprawl, so she was not referring to American blocks of neighborhoods, she was talking about the block as in number of family units that make the world around us tick everyday. I replied that I didn't know. She persisted, well how many families rotate trash day duties? There it is, the defining backbone of neighborhood status. I could distribute towels with solid gold woven monograms but it still would be a meaningless gesture next to my performance of taking the trash duty seriously.

I settled for more towels than I needed (I could always use extras to polish the trash), which come in a specified gift wrap that actually read, in too many words "I'm moving into the neighborhood please be good to me," (our family name in a Japanese phonic are written at the bottom). We packed these gift sets for the new neighbors with our luggage and drove over to the new property for the unloading process. We distributed the towel-gifts in rounds when things settled down a little on the box front. The next day, the neighborhood bulletin, in the form of a clipboard in a bag was in our mailbox. Moreover, it was in a "Harrods" vinyl bag, most likely retained from one of the neighbor's trips to London years ago (it is showing wear and tear, but too good of a brand to discard, and no place for me to take charge of the bag-swap). Certainly she used that bag to distribute tea to everyone in the "block." The drill is to read through the material, stamp the space by your address with your signature stamp, and pass it on to the mailbox next door. I looked through the tips on earthquake kits, a collection of goods for the upcoming elementary school bazaar, and a violin recital at the senior center and a neighborhood weeding day for the local park before "stamping" my name. It was there that I noticed that there are 18 families in our "block," or, more importantly, on the trash duty sharing roster. I didn't distribute towels to my 17 immediate neighbors, but I was pretty secure that being 10 under wouldn't require damage control. Sure enough, I was going to break into the good books just two weeks later.

My ice breaker was not in the form of accepting freshly baked banana bread, or inviting someone in for iced tea, rather, a bristle broom and 2 signed placards that hang on chains. My holiday greeting card list grew by 17 the day I took those in. They were the name tag for the front gate that stated that I was gomi to-ban. Yes, I was the woman in charge of our trash pile that week. The accessories were simple: A broom to sweep the area after collection, and a sign to pop up on its designated post by 8:00 AM reminding people to check what form of garbage or recycling goes out on that particular day. I eagerly accepted my duty, in rotation, as one of the "group." Besides, I am in my 15th year in Japan now, and I have never been elected trash queen. It felt a little bit like being "line leader" in first grade, the one in charge of paving the way to the library for reading hour, or to the gym for physical education class. I think even then I had a sign around my neck designating the honor. As trash queen, I hardly wore a tiara, let alone lipstick, but the sign that said I was the one in charge that week was to be displayed with pride for public view. I'm still not convinced that going that far is necessary, however, I did notice that as the trash pile shrunk and I swept away the remnants of each day, I got warm invitations to chat, goodies in baggies on my door, fresh garden produce, and well, simply the foundation of good neighborhood relationships and budding friendships. The welcome wagon comes in different shapes. I guess it took this many years to be incorporated, and finally here with my bristle broom, my climb through the ranks of the neighborhood network is a Cinderella story.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Will that be Cash, Cash or Cash?

Tucked in the feature section on any given Sunday paper, we read about an elderly woman passing away. As the story, goes within days of her passing, the family discovers that she was hoarding tens of thousands of dollars in her mattress. It usually unfolds that she was a survivor of the Great Depression, and thus lost trust in banks or was just simply spooked by someone or some stock handling her money. I never thought I'd become one of those little old headlining woman at the age of 25, but I am ahead of my time by never being without a secret stuffed stash of my own on hand, in bag and at home.

I received a handsome leather checkbook cover for my launch into the real world for university graduation. Alas, it remains unused. I haven't seen a checkbook in 15 years. My launch into the real world of fake money was short-lived due to the fact that I relocated to a cash-based society 3 years out of my student costume and into my spending career. I guess I don't really miss dealing with balancing act side of a checkbook, however, I don't necessary enjoy the trade off of the different kind of balance it takes to carry a kilo lump sum load in my wallet at all times. My Mom endearingly calls her smaller scale, secret stash, her "mad money." Her theory is that it's nice to have a fund that requires no explanation to anybody, which I never argued with. Basically, it was her unaccounted for just-in-case tap, which was usually activated when one of "us kids" needed (OK, wanted) money for an off the usual page purchase. Yet the wad I am required to have on hand-to-mouth in Japan is light on the mad money and heavy on the drive me mad money.

Payday was quite the adventure during my first 4 years here as a public servant. It could have been more of a Bonnie and Clyde adventure for the tempted, since all civil employees were handed manila envelope stuffed with a month's package of cash remuneration on the same 25th day of the month, stacks of 10,000 yen ($100) bills. During lunch break, I'd pop it in my bag, toss the bag into my bike basket and pedal to the bank. I'd deposit what I needed for living expenses for the month, pop the remainder right back in the basket. Next stop: the post office to send the rest to a savings account in the States via "Postal Giro." It really was not as glamorous as it sounds, like having a Swiss bank account, or some kind of wire transfer to numbered account in the Cayman Islands, at the time it was just the only way I knew how to deal with a foreign income in attempt to start dropping in the bucket toward a savings.

For years I took shopping with a credit card for granted. I'm no shopaholic, and this isn't some confession of an addiction to, or an "Ode to" plastic here. Frankly, my spending habits are as boring as they get. My Dad would be proud to say that I take after him in that department, which rarely would involve a department store. I don't buy on impulse, I stick to the sales rack, and I've paid my charge off in full every month since I've had one in my name. Yet, the convenience of a card is what makes it deserve its "gold" or "platinum" status. It used to surprise me at the end of a transaction, for say, 2 (now 3) international round trip air tickets when following the process of being on hold, fussing over this date or that date, aisle seat or window, and settling on a reservation for the newsflash, "we don't take credit cards." Granted, it feels like more of a commitment when you hand thousands of dollar bills over the counter (definitely not under) at the confirmed reservation stage before final ticketing even takes place, as opposed to the lighter feel of letting a middle man step in by blindly handing over a card and letting the banks intervene in their magic ways. I could attribute this mandatory use of cash, which usually comes with a "no give-backs" clause, to having gracefully forced me not to waffle in making big ticket purchasing decisions.

Many upscale Japanese inns abide by the cash only motto as well. The getaways are hot spring resorts which includes an elaborate dinner spread and breakfast buffet, and are fully equipped with on-site entertainment. Once clients check in, outside of dipping in the outdoor bath or taking a photo in the garden, rarely does anyone leave the property. It's a relaxing, fun and food-filled experience requiring a hefty stack of crisp bills at checkout. This is an absolute cultural contrast from the States. First of all, as a rule, many American hotels request a credit card number in order to reserve the room. Moreover, if I checked out after a night at a State-side hotel and handed over stacks of hundreds, the paparazzi would probably be casing out my room in hopes of catching a married senator escaping down the fire exit before I even had time to make it out to parking and tip the valet (who incidentally accepts cash).

I have moved at least 5 times since first declaring, "I'm never moving again." With each move, the deposit, advance rent, and "key money" (non-refundable, obligatory gratitude money) are due upfront, in cash. It's the equivalent of 5-6 months rent at one time, and that is Tokyo scale rent, not semi-humble Columbus, Ohio, housing prices. Moving companies require the full sum upon completion of the job, so by the 3rd or 4th move, I made sure I just labeled one of the boxes "stacks of cash," for easy access. As we progressed in dumping "brown backs" into upgraded rental properties, we started to shop around for something to put in the vacant car port. We test drove a few compact little turbo models, settled on a Suzuki, signed the agreement and selected an insurance plan. The dealer expected a payment in full, in cash, for the wheels and the insurance plan. We set out on foot from home, to the ATM machine, and made our way to the car lot with the money, needless to say, at a brisk pace. With paranoia less in mind than just splitting the heavy load, we divided the sum for the walk across town to invest in our first 4 wheeled transportation.

A year later, I found myself accessorizing the car with a child seat. Our daughter was born in February, 2005. Typically, to reserve a room in the hospital, you put $1,000 in cash down at your birthing center of choice 6 months before the due date. Standard hospital stays are 1 week, and on check out, the balance is due, in cash. Now that was a fun phone call to make:
"Honey, the baby and I can come home today around noon."
"Great! Do you need me to bring anything?"
"Maybe a fresh onesie, the camera, and our life savings, in cash."

At least by that time in our expat lifestyle, Bob was able to carry the bills in the car glove box, rather than a shopping bike basket or jeans back pocket on foot. Preparing cash payouts for the outrageous big ticket items, as abnormal practices go, has gradually become normal to me. Travel, housing, cars, insurance, health care, and not to be ignored, education: Tuition goes by the same rule book. From my husband stuffing an envelope of $3,000 dollars in his wallet to board a train and hand over grad school tuition at the end of the train line, to putting the crisp bills in an envelope in my 4 year old's kindergarten backpack every month, I find myself cringing less and less, which could be considered "adjusting."

On the other (empty)hand, the nickle and dime stops still take me off guard more times than not. I would never bother asking at a Mom and Pop noodle shop, or a fruit and veggie stand if they take cards. Vendors that tally the bill using an abacus likely would take cover under the desk at the sight of a modern payment plan for a bowl of $6 ramen or a couple of Fuji apples. But I am the one taken aback when national chain restaurants or grocery stores, which tend to have an "American" feel with high chairs stacked in the corner or impulse check out items at the register, to deal in cash only. Thanks to the Nagano Winter Olympics in 1998, at least credit cards gained visibility. Literally: VISA was one of the sponsors of the Games, so billboards and posters nation-wide had the big card looking over us. At least that made it less of a fear factor to vendors when asked if they accepted cards. It was around that time that major department stores, electronics stores and the like started accepting the cards without the clerk having to ask his superior, the superior going to the assistant manager, the assistant asking his manager, then everyone sits down over green tea at a conference in order to reach a consensus as to how to let me down in a delicate way as to not disrupt the harmony of my shopping experience. But really, what business can afford the time to stop and deliberate these matters when the clerks should be counting stacks of bills?

I grew up in a shopping democracy where every trip to the register was capped off with, "Will that be cash, check or charge?" The next decision would be, "paper or plastic?" There are plenty of plastic bags in a variety of sizes at the check out in my shopping circuit in Japan, but rarely plastic payment options available. In the States, I would be sure to have some cash on hand at home. After all, on any given day a local booster club could be selling items for a fund-raiser, or the annual Girl Scout cookie sales would come door to door. However, with the volume of bill collectors that come to my door in Japan expecting "paper" on demand, I think I'll continue stuffing, unstuffing and restuffing my futon mattress with cash for the years to come until I become that little old lady of human interest. In the meantime, keep an eye on your local Sunday paper feature, hopefully not funnies, section.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Too Close for Comfort

I grew up in house of red pens. My was dad a college professor, and my mom a high school teacher. From those years until even present day and an ocean away, I felt that the whole world either had one of them in class or certainly knew them, or at least of them. On a rare occasion a student would call for one of them at home and it would silence the house. Shocking. American teachers and students alike tend to keep, and rightly maintain (for fear of their lives) a safe distance in their student-teacher relationships. When I finally grew up, I became a teacher too. A year out of college I found myself teaching and coaching at a high school in Ohio. I found it harder work creating that distance on what was only a handful of years of an age gap between my students and me than actually teaching. I pretended to not know, let alone care, what happened on Beverley Hills 90210 the night before or what song was #1 on the top 40 countdown that week, and rather than blushing, I kept it to myself that I occasionally caught Melrose Place too, preferring to turn a blind eye to the fact that my "kids" were watching and discussing what was in those pre anything goes days as-racy-as-it-got-parental-guidance-suggested-programming.

The move to Japan shattered my rock garden solid belief system of what the proper distance between student and teacher should be. I started out by naturally judging protocol here against what I knew from teacher exposure in my home, teacher-training in the College of Education, as well as teaching experience in American high schools. State-side, we kind of sat on our side of the Pacific and imagined those diligent Asian nations to be nothing but respectful to authority. Well, that's pretty much the case, and it has helped me enjoy teaching as many years I as have here. However, the recipe to creating that perfect bowl of respect calls for a completely different set of ingredients on this side of the pond. The lack of distance teachers keep from their students was a true shock to me, and although 14 years in I've traded in my Heinz ketchup for soy sauce, It still humbles me on a daily basis while I'm trying to relearn what truly defines a respectable teacher.

You can't judge a professional by her footwear. In New York, you see women in suits power walking through their metro commute to work with heels in hand. The assumption is that they get to work, then change into the more "professional" attire upon arrival at the office. In my first awakening at the elementary and junior high schools in Japan, I found my colleagues were dressing up for their commute, impressing the other passengers on the train with their professional attire, and dressing down for work, depressing this particular colleague. Once they arrived, they would change into casual "jerseys," (the Happy Santa brand line was a big, year round, fashion hit) as well as indoor shoes, often sneakers. The students had a similar ritual. They had an outdoor uniform that they wore from their homes to the school entrance. The boys wore black suits with shiny brass buttons and the girls plaid pleated skirts, white shirts and bow-ties. When they got to school, they changed their shoes to indoor classic Keds-like sneakers and uniform jerseys, which resembled the style of sweat suits I wore for gym class in the early 80s, except I didn't have my student number and name in kanji in bold across my chest. The ready for a pick up game class atmosphere left me feeling like we were bringing the professionalism (or what could classify as American level of intentional distance or chill factor) down a notch.

Each teacher had a desk in a common "teachers' room," which cannot be compared to the elusive "teachers' lounge" in US schools. When I was in high school, the teachers' lounge was surrounded by mystery. You dared not disturb a teacher in the lounge, no matter how urgent your inquiry. The closest you got was on a lucky day when the door opened as you passed by in the hallway and you got a glimpse of the smokey dome. Japanese students walk freely through the teachers' room, communicate with teachers, escort them to their next class, or come in just to give a teacher a quick shiatsu shoulder massage between classes. It was a message and massage room, and took my whole 3 years in the junior high to adjust to, or at least somewhat accept, the concept. Students would approach teachers in a casual tone, patting them on the arm in a teasing fashion. There was a closeness that I just never expected, and only to a point could I play the part. Accept a shoulder rub? Well, I blended in eventually. Put a jogging suit on to teach the past predicate? Never.

The student-teacher closeness continues as students advance up the ladder of education, as does the student-teacher level of common activity. When I started working at a junior college, I found students asking instructors openly about dating advice--personal, hands off type talk that would have potential law suit don't go there written all over it in America. Sporting and cultural festivals play a significant role in every level of Japanese education, and teachers get their hands dirty right along side of their students during the planning, prep, execution and celebration stages of these events. One year a student group wanted to sell tacos at a food stand at the college fair. My colleagues invited student groups into their homes to coat the plan with salsa and spice and everything just a tad too nice for me. When a successful event or a term came to a close, professors would, on the light side, take their class out and would have a few beers over a meal with their (legal aged 20 year old) students, or more elaborate planning would take some on a day trip to a ski resort, or to an overnight at a hot spring. My value system has danger zone red flags all over that, and my social system just wants to keep students at school, and free time at home, on the slopes or at the Inns.

When I moved on to the university from the junior college, I did my best not to disturb the "Wa," or group harmony, and I took the active roll expected of me starting at orientation. First on the agenda was the annual, nationally mandated health check administered on campus. All university students, faculty and staff visit the mobile home like hospitals that pull up and stake camp for the first 2 days of orientation. On day one, I found a little plastic container with my name on it in my school mailbox. Relief #1 was that at least I can do that test in the privacy of my own home. Unrelief #1 came on the next day, when I was greeted by student volunteers working the collection site. I swallowed my privacy laced pride and (in vain) discreetly handed over my "sample" to the cheerful sophomore scheduled for my 2nd period class on Wednesdays.

The eager student volunteers were manning the scales, height charts, and everything that required simple data entry as opposed to the advanced tasks requiring a certified doctor or nurse. I would have drawn the line at having a student, even a senior, draw my blood with anything more than crayons and construction paper. All employees were undergoing the health check tests along side of the students, so I kept reminding myself, "when in Rome, do as the Japanese do." Unfortunately, that proverbial pep talk didn't prep me for what was to come next: the chest Xray. Confident that a technician, and not a pre law student would be taking the films, I entered the Xray mobile home and took a seat in line next to the 2 girls on a bench built for 3. The attendant peered from behind the curtain and, unlike the Great and Powerful Oz, gently asked us to prep for the shoot. Prepping didn't mean touching up with lipstick or running a comb through the hair, rather, it meant removing our shirts and waiting together on that bench in our bras. That was phase two of my orientation to tightening that distance leash between teachers and students.

Having survived the closest you can get to a pantie raid on a campus without a Fraternity hazing culture, I eased into phase 3 of my orientation: the road trip. Armed with clipboards, the faculty checked the freshman class into one of 6 tour buses for the off campus orientation. My previous exposure to faculty clad Ho Ho Happy Santa sweat suits prepared me for the Levi look my coworkers sported to fit in with the travel theme. I took that in stride, and admit that these qualified teachers commanded respect Armani or not, yet nonetheless, I couldn't bring myself to blending into the part completely. I met them half way by donning a denim skirt, a choice that maybe only Gloria Vanderbilt would give me higher than a C+ mark for. We loaded the Hakone hot spring resort bound buses for the final phase of orientation. The goal was for the students to get familiar with the university, each other, and get in touch with nature in a peaceful setting. The getting to know each other part of the agenda was checked off the list quickly. Yes, lesson one of off campus orientation was from the book of Hadaka No Tsukiai, or, "naked communion," which is Japanese virtue speak for "breaking down barriers and getting to know one another in the relaxed homey atmosphere surrounding an onsen," or hot spring.

I didn't expect to be grateful for the eating humble bean curd pie lesson learned the previous day by easing on my distance rule when I stripped down to my undergarments with 2 freshmen girls the day before, until I found myself having to nonchalantly pull off getting naked with 30 of them at a time in a common tub. Though this was post millennium modern Japan, I caught myself once again uncovering a lesson from the Romans, this time Ancient Rome, and dipped in the public bath with more of the "student body" than I had ever dreamed. No wonder these professors start their teaching careers with a Happy Santa fantasy. They have mystical powers to maintain the level of respect they do with a skin-tight relationship with their students, and they snuck their way into my boundary lines with the gift of allowing me to let my guard (and not to mention unmentionables) down. The physical health check results came back with gold stars from that orientation week, and I was working on erasing all the red pen marks on my mental weakness chart from my decades old misconception that the suit makes the (wo)man. I was learning that those mobile home hospitals were going to follow me through my career in Japan to keep me some healthy state of mind and body, and that the presence of that Xray vision would always keep me in line. Next holiday season I'm going to visit Happy Santa, fully clad, and thank him for bringing me down to the respectable all too bare basics on the role of distance, boundaries, and bathing in teaching.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Standing Room Only

The Titanic was docking in Tokyo. Virtually, at least: the blockbuster hit tugged its way across the Pacific for our viewing pleasure in 1998. Near my parents' house in Columbus, there is a dollar movie theater that shows second run movies. For the price of 4 quarters and a 6 month wait, you can see top rated flicks at rock bottom prices. In Tokyo, you wait the same 6 months (perhaps coming up with the subtitles does take some time) to pay rock climbing prices, anywhere from $18 to $23 on average for one ticket, day or night. Usually we try to hold out for that dollar theater, or hope to catch a decent first run (well, to us) movie on an international flight. However, as newlyweds, we wanted to couple the date opportunity with seeing the grand special effects and all of the Oscar buzz on the big screen.

So begins the local cultural custom of getting in line and waiting. Perhaps this isn't unique to Japan. The US news features stories about avid rock groupies sleeping out to be the first in line to buy concert tickets. Star Wars fans have done the same to get prime seats at the premier of a movie. The goal is the same--beat the crowd, secure a slot. With a population pushing 13 million in Tokyo, getting in line and waiting is part of a typical day-in-the-life, and rarely is there a backstage pass or "meet the actors on the red carpet" reward for your effort when you reach the front of the line. I've grown accustomed to the daily waiting game here. Get to the train station, wait in line at the ticket vending machine, file through the gates, advance to the platform, and get in line behind others where the doors will open. The train arrives, file into the train car, swimmingly line the aisles, packing the center of the car first, expanding the line back towards either end in order to ease the mounting and dismounting of passengers by the doors along the journey.

I should note that the line waiting and standing on the train on this particular cinema outing is not the true waiting for the train ritual, the kind that one only finds in rush hour and in worst nightmares. Uniformed train station employees armed with batons speckle the platforms during the peak morning hours in central Tokyo. These weapons are not for violent crowd control per se, but when the last "salary man" crams into the train as the doors close, the station guard assists by cramming that final briefcase in so the auto doors can close. Usually you have to wait for several trains to sardine pack themselves full before you advance to be the sandwiched in too. Unfortunately at the end of that morning shuffle tunnel there is no movie theater waiting, rather an office with another crowd of people, possibly more waiting on clients, and potentially more standing in line at the canned coffee vending machines.

Whether it's the London Tube out of the city or a donkey up to the summit of Mt. Bromo in Indonesia, one can expect to wait in some form of line for public transportation anywhere in the world. Yet in Japan, I find the same level of mental fitness and crafty organizational skill is required for waiting in line for the less obvious occasions, such as in the event of health and leisure activities. First, the health example. A trip to the doctor calls for such an advanced level of patience and stamina that you really shouldn't risk waiting until you're actually sick to get examined or solicit a prescription. Hospitals, clinics, doctor's offices operate on a walk in basis. Walk in, sit in and, wait in. At least in this case you aren't standing, save the line before 8 am outside the doors. No appointments necessary means no appointments taken. Typically, doctors see patients in the morning, close for lunch, and open hours again for a period in the afternoon. The doors tend to open an hour before the examination hours begin. Rows of neatly lined chairs form large block which dictates your lucky number. If this were a bank or a post office, you'd take a number, but for the doctor, the position of your chair relative to the front corner of the lobby is your unwritten assignment of order.

In Kawasaki, we lived across from a major teaching hospital, which meant it was popular, and thus crowded. Between the two of us, it took a few colds and one high fever until I realized that people would come when the gates opened, leave a hankie or a newspaper to "save their seat," like saving a seat next a buddy on an elementary school bus field trip, and then return home for an hour. I was naive my first few rounds and sat diligently in my assigned seat. When 9 am approached, I noticed others gradually filing to seats reserved in their honor by a token prized possession. I wised up after not too long, and began to do the same. My husband would get a sinus infection, and I'd run over and drop something not so obviously cheater American on a chair and return home to catch the headlines at my leisure in the comfort of my own home until the timer went off. Soon people in our building caught on to my willing swiftness, and I'd occasionally reserve a seat for a neighbor or friend. For the first time since clinching the good seat on that school bus, I found myself reliving the glory of holding the "line leader" title from my elementary school days.

And now, the leisure case in point: it's been 15 years since my last flip-turn. Like movie viewing, there is another form of activity that I have always found relaxing; however, I have experienced the stressful side of it in Japan, as it falls into the non conventional category when execution dictates standing and waiting: lap swimming. No, the pools in Japan are not vertical, just crowded. Lap swimmers know, and I'll note, dutifully follow, the rules. If you are sharing a lane, which is in 100% of all cases, you swim down one side, back the other. Other times, the pool devotes a full lane to going down, and the neighboring lane for the return lap. Swimming is relaxing when you reach that zone, which requires, for the most part, an uninterrupted flow for at least several laps at a time. Unfortunately, once I make it 5 feet shy of the other end of the pool, I'm forced to abruptly stand up before I crash dive into 18 others huddling at the end of the lane, and wait in line for the crowd of people in front of me to slide under the lap line buoy and wait my turn for the return lap. My heart rate experiences a different kind of workout than that zone under these "lap swim" circumstances. I have to say I have developed a new kind of endurance to hack a crowd, a skill that I rarely needed to apply in my fare roots in the Midwest.

Nonetheless, I'll apply the waiting game skills I have and finally beat that commute, arrive at the movie theater a solid 2 hours in an advance, and get in line for tickets. Seats are assigned upon purchase, and you can choose seats like at the "theater." In the fancier cinemas in Ginza, there are doilies on the seat backs, equipped with roped off areas if you reserve in advance for a hefty fee (any fee is hefty in my relative term-book to that Columbus dollar movie). In addition to the predictable concessions, they even sell programs and the feature film related theme products catering to all ages, which tend to be a small step above the Happy Meal promo kids toys when a new Disney or Pixar movie opens. At the ticket booth, there is a make it or break it indication on how many seats are left. An "O" indicates there are still a fair amount of seats available, and you could even have a chance to sit with the party members you came with. A triangle symbolizes there are few seats, and a slim chance that you could get two together. An "X" is the sure fire no seats available symbol, but this does not stop them from selling tickets. Yes, standing room only at a movie theater. They maintain the courtesy of flashing a message that this is the case, but it is against my cultural bones to stand during a movie. Maybe on that 14 hour flight over the pole to stretch my legs for a minute, but a full length film? No. For me, the point of a movie is to relax, and unwind, and I can think of no examples when I am relaxing and unwinding on my feet.

We saw Titanic in a high rise building in Tokyo, which meant that the ticket sales booth was on the first floor and the 8 screens at the cinema were from the 2nd to 9th floors. The Titanic was playing on screen 6, which meant the 6th floor. The line for the doors to open for seating was already forming, now one hour and 45 minutes in advance, on the staircase, so we waited, advancing upstairs, until it was our turn to be ushered to our seats. I remember very little about the tragic love story of Rose and Jack, as I was more intrigued by the tragedy of the people that were lining the aisles and the front of the theater standing to watch the movie. It was over 3 hours, and the non native English speaking audience had to read the whole movie. If I am reading while standing, it is because I am at a street corner trying to make heads or tails of a street map to find a place to sit and relax, not to unwind at a blockbuster movie, reading subtitles, on my feet.

By knowing to get hopping bright and early on sick days to reserve my slot at the doctor, or to have an actual exercise session before expecting to get fit from a session by diving in the pool, I've fine tuned my waiting game over the years. At the end of the Hollywood version of the sinking of the Titanic, there wasn't a dry eye in the house, save mine. I assure you, however, if I were standing and reading the entire 3 hour and 14 minute movie long, I would have been a sobbing mess too. I guess I need more practice to reach an adequate level of patience. Indeed, I haven't mastered the skill of crowd tolerance on the level of control that my more patient than me hosts have, but I can accept that a Midwesterner in this town is not built to master this one. Maybe by my next visit home, they're be a new second run round of Oscar hopefuls at the lonely dollar, and I'll sit in my beloved near empty theater, and in that peace and quiet, reflect that in my amateur waiting skills status, I can reach into my inner no standing zone after all.