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?