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Jessica Tsuzuki's 2016 Review (Lots of Pictures!)

We're more than a week into 2017 and it is finally time for me to take a look at all that went on last year.My little family at Dontosai, the ritual shinto bonfire, in 2016.    Last winter, I lost a student, which isn't a big deal when you're teaching at a big school or have dozens of private lessons. I had 1, and her lessons were keeping us in diapers and with the option of actually starting to save up money again. She'd been happy/insistent to share time in our lesson with my daughter as her only grandchild is a boy who is a few years older now.     Then we had a bad lesson. A really bad lesson. I couldn't get Julia to calm down. There was no one around to help watch her. We went from park to play ground, searching for a way to get Julia to calm down, and it was just no good. She was wild, and we had to end the class a few minutes early from all the chaos that 2.5 year old could throw at us.     A week later my student sent an email explaining essentially that she was quitting. Because she has known me since I came to Miyagi 6 years ago and was one of the first students in the area to take to me well, a lot of my teaching confidence came from that bond. Having it severed through me for a loop. I wrote about it in my personal blog, here.     Even now, a year later, I'm not sure exactly how to take her parting words, in which she insisted that she was distracting me from taking care of Julia; that she was the reason we weren't on a good schedule of meals and naps. From anyone else, I would have seen this easily as a criticism of my parenting. But she knew me so well...    Julia with the blossoms at a park in Sendai    Spring came and I spent a significant amount of time under the cherry blossoms at Shiogama Shrine and in Sendai. This usually comes right around the same time as Golden week, which in years previous meant parties with tons of my friends, but not this year. Most of my friends had left or were planning to leave soon. I spent Golden week this year relaxing at home with my kid mostly.     About a month later, my husband's grandmother died. She spent most of the last year of family gathering complaining about her impending death. We tried to stay positive with her, but she was ready to go. The funeral service marked my first ever Japanese funeral, and I spent the majority of the time chasing my child around in the quietest way possible, usually outside of the room where all the other relatives sat. So I missed most of it, but I wouldn't have understood much anyway. I am not that fluent. Not by a long shot. On the upside, I spent less than $20 on Julia's funeral ensemble (thank you, thrift shopping) and my in-laws were impressed with my ability to keep Julia from destroying the ceremony. That said, during the bone-handling portion of the event (after cremation and lunch, when the family picks through the deceased bones and ashes, choosing the biggest chunks to inter at the family grave), Julia screamed for "MamaPapa", the one word used for her two grandparents, and we had to go walk around outside the building.    This marks one of the very few social occasions in Japan in which I did not fail my in-laws completely. That's my life here. My husband's family is great and they love me and generally are very accepting of my differences, but I also think that they frequently look disappointed. That was not the case this time. They actually thanked me after the services were over for taking care of Julia as well as I had. Another relative commented that I reminded them of the deceased as I chased my kid around the same way she had chased my father-in-law around when he was Julia's age.    In the following months, I started a Patreon (monthly crowdsourcing for artists) in which I create sock monkeys and other sock creatures and raffle them off at the end of the month. Mostly this pays for the other artists I want to support, but I still get a few more dollars a month into my Paypal account, and that's not a bad way to go over all.Julia with a pad-na, Panda made of sanitary pads during GISHWHES.Summer happened. 3 highlights:     I started writing here on city-cost and won the Summer Blogging Contest (in a 3-way tie). I also won some delicious grapes in another campaign. This site gives me reason to go out and experience new stuff in a place I've been living for too long while also supplying me with an ability to buy a few more odds and ends off of Amazon.     GISHWHES (The Greatest International Scavenger Hunt The World Has Ever Seen) runs around the first week of August and I participated for the third consecutive year. We didn't win anything, but we had a lot of fun. My brother gished for the first time ever and loved it. He even made some new friends, but he's better at that sort of thing than I am.     My daughter turned 3 on the 30th of August. Some friends came out from Sendai and we blew bubbles in a park for a few hours. It was wonderful.     Then there was fall. Having a 3 year old means seeking out a kindergarten and getting all of your paperwork organized ASAP so as not to lose out on these first crucial years of education and social indoctrination. Luckily, the city I live in has six kindergartens and not nearly enough kids. I researched as much as I could using google translate as necessary and limited it to three choices. Touring the closest on our list with a friend led mostly to me chasing my daughter while the Japanese ladies talked amongst themselves. Our tour guide would not even give me paperwork of my own to take home and look over, instead having me copy what I could onto scratch paper while she reminded me that I should really tour other schools as this location already had more than enough (fully Japanese) kids on their waiting lists.     I don't think they were being racist or anything. I just also didn't feel like we were wanted or even really welcome.     When my husband had time to look over the remaining options with me, his choice was rather clear. He wanted our daughter to go to the same school he had, and when we went to check it out, I had to agree. It is a nice little school, and the office workers were more than happy to walk us around the school, and even tried to engage me in conversation. When we returned for their open campus session, the kids were as excited to play with Julia as she was with them.     Then came "orientation" which I did not realize was code for "test the kid/mom" in private schools. The only private school I went to was my college, for which I filled out an "uncommon application" worksheet that was sent to me in the mail. My acceptance letter came in the mail before any interview/orientation could be scheduled.     My husband had not helped my nerves on this, insisting on working through the questionaire together the night before. Could she use chopsticks and dress herself? No. I had not been teaching her that. I had been focussed on surviving and getting her to eat regularly while also peeing on the potty. She's learned a lot of English phonics and can almost read by herself. She knows a bunch of songs and dances. She knows a lot of nursery rhymes. She knows so much...but nothing that was on any of those sheets. She's not on a regular schedule.     So I started having serious doubts about my parenting skills, feeling completely worthless and like I might have just ruined my daughter's life simply by being a lazy, exhausted jerk. It felt like I was failing at tests I didn't realize I'd signed up for.     Then we went to the interview and they took our questionnaire. Then they asked Julia some questions in Japanese, the same questions her grandma uses with her all the time, and she got nervous and looked at me instead. I translated the questions to English and she answered in complete sentences. Shocked and amazed, I turned to the lady asking the questions who knew enough English to accept the answers. A few weeks later, our acceptance letter came. The last time I was this relieved was probably when she came out screaming, without the lung complications so common in preemies like her.     Immediately following this, we had to start working on 7-5-3 stuff, starting with arranging a day to go to a professional photographer, which is difficult given my husband's work schedule. Once that was straightened, we had to get her into a kimono and find ways to convince her to be photogenic and behave as well.    Then came the actual shrine day, which we allocated for a Monday that my husband had off, and it wound up being really nice actually. The leaves were changing around Shiogama Shrine and a few tour groups were going through for that but wound up taking pictures of Julia as well on account of her adorable-ness. Or because they never see half-foreign kids in kimonos. or at all. not really the point though.     It was gorgeous, and she was mostly really well behaved.       Then we had done the things and I felt that I could breathe a sigh of relief for just a second, but then it was winter.     Cold, obnoxious, lonely winter. This has been the hardest winter for me in all my time in Japan. In 2008, I had young love and a trip to the states. I was back in the US for at least a week in 2009. 2010 saw me living with my in-laws with a new job and new friends and was my first holiday season staying in country. After the quake in March, bringing my guy to meet my folks in May, and getting married in November, I was happy to stay home in winter of 2011. In 2012 we'd just had our belated honeymoon and were trying to start a family. 2013 was our first Christmas with Julia. In 2014 I had a dozen friends to celebrate with, most of whom have now moved on to bigger cities or back to their homelands. A few were still about for 2015, and I'd gone back for a week for my brother's wedding.     Now I still have a few friends in the area, but they all have their own things going on. My kid is big enough to cause problems but not big enough to solve them. I'm tired, and I'm sad.     But you know what? I'm working on it. I've already made plans to have lunch with a friend for next week, and I am making a point to spend time with people I love as often as I can. Winter will end again, and the cherry blossoms will come. Then summer and fall and all the things that go with this.It's going to be okay.

Let's Get Lucky with Fukuburo!

    Fukubukuro or "lucky bags" are Japan's answer to getting rid of last year's stock and giving the consumers a steep discount to help expedite the process. You'll see them out as soon as shops open after New Year's Eve ends. In some places, that's just a few hours into the new year. In others, it's January 2nd or 3rd. In any case, the grab bag of old inventory usually comes in a few distinct flavors and price categories.    In the stores, you'll usually see a display version of the goods in the bag, so there really aren't any surprises. Bags usually start around 1,000 yen for what is usually at least 2,000 yen worth of goods, but the fancier the retailer, the more expensive the bag options. Many clothing stores only offer options around 5,000 yen and/or 10,000 yen. If you're more into brand name designer goods, these sales might not be your thing as the items you can get for super cheap will also be last year's model or excess stock. If you don't mind being just a little behind the cutting edge, these sales are well worth the time and energy.    Fukubukuro can run out quickly, so if you know you want to grab one from a specific store, it is a good idea to go early and get what you want while it is available. While these are major sales days, they are nowhere near as chaotic as Black Friday stateside. We are in Japan after all.This was my haul from Sendai sales-day of 2016. I headed straight to a cloth and craft store where I filled the blue bag with scraps for 500 yen. The green bag is some discounted fleece I bought to make a couch cover. Then there is this lovely red fukubukuro. Unlike most lucky bag buying opportunities, this was unplanned on my part. As I waited in line to buy some lunch-pack sandwiches in front of one of Sendai's department stores, one of the workers brought out a stack of these bags. There might have been around 50 of them in the cart the guy was pulling, but within minutes of him placing the load next to the line of consumers waiting to check-out, every single one was gone. There was no display in this case, so I wasn't sure what I was getting into, but I was willing to take the bet that whatever was inside was well worth my 1,000 yen. I was not disappointed.        All of that for 1000 yen. Mostly snacks, candy, and cup noodles, sure. Also, under the candy you'll see a warm pair of fuzzy red socks with white polka dots which were left over from some coca-cola campaign, according to the package. I think the white envelopes contained towels of some sort, but as it has been a year, I'm not entirely sure.    Nowadays you can find a lot of information about these sales online before you go to the stores. Just search for the local shopping mall online and you can find a list of participating stores and deals on the website. For instance, this is the deal I hope to take advantage of tomorrow: 5 pairs of kids Sanrio socks for 1000yen. A good deal if you have a small child who is occasionally obsessed with Hello Kitty, I'd say.    In addition to the fukubukuro, other sales are also a big deal on the first few days of the year. Check out your local retailers for their sales information.    One national chain that I usually spend at least 2,000 yen at around the first of the year is Mister Donut. If you're a fan of donuts, it's usually a good call. In previous years, the 2,000 yen fukubukuro from Mister Donut has included 20 donut coupons (good for one donut each at any point before March of the new year) in addition to an article of service-ware (glass, plate, or mug in different years), a calendar, and a towel or blanket. I may be forgetting some additional elements, but that doesn't stop it from being a good deal if you like donuts and eat more than 20 donuts in 3 months. My family does.    Keep in mind that while Japan's sales days are not nearly as rambunctious as those in some other countries, the shopping experience can still be difficult, exhausting, and even frustrating. If you too are planning to brave the crowds for the chance to get a bargain, remember to take care of yourself. Avoid getting hangry (hungry-angry) by eating at least a little something before you head out and don't be afraid to take a break when you need to. If you have small children, leave them with a trusted sitter or keep a close eye on them. Make sure they have what they need, too (a juice box, a snack, a potty break, whatever) as you make your way through the crowds.    So what lucky bags are you buying? Which stores offer the best bargains for you?Oh, and Happy New Year!

Getting into the Christmas Spirit (in the Countryside)

       Are you celebrating Christmas in Japan this year, but don't live in any major city? Finding it hard to get into the Christmas spirit when all the "cool wintery Japanese things" you see online seem to be happening in Tokyo or Osaka, while you live way-far-away from both? Don't worry. I'm there with you, and I've been doing this for years.     Most foreigners in Japan seem to gravitate toward the major metropolitain areas, and that's no surprise. Population trends in the native inhabitants correspond to this. The big cities are where the people are. Where the jobs are. Where the fun and excitement and extravagant, crazy Japanese-ness all reside.     But then there's the rest of the country. If you're like me, the distance from home seems more palpable this time of year. For me, that's partially because of the weather (Texas has freezing weekends followed by 30 degree Celsius weeks. Miyagi, not so much), but the holidays that come at the end of this month do have an effect as well. Not being in the semi-constant distraction of a larger city or in the warm embrace of your country of origin, things can get sad pretty fast. Here are four tips on how to get through that. 1) Decorate    Even if it's a few little things from the 100 yen store, do it. Put those few things up. I have a tree I bought at Daiso in Nagoya for 735 yen back in December of 2009. I still decorate it with cheap, colorful balls and a handful of other ornaments, mostly won from crane games.     Rirakuma, a gloomy bear, a Kirby in Link's costume, why not? They all look pretty good on the geek-tree.    If a tree is too much (or you lack the space for it), even a little garland or a stocking can be a nice touch to an otherwise cold semi-bleak winter space. 2) See the "Illumination"      The first time a Japanese person used this fantastic bit of Katakana on me, I thought he was talking about a weird, quasi-religious gathering of sorts. Maybe that's just me. I corrected all of my students into explaining it for foreign ears. "Holiday Light Display" is what I taught them and I stand by that being a more accurate description.        Despite my 8 years of living in various non-urban locations, I have never lived in a city that didn't have a holiday light display somewhere. You can tell my current town has more than twice the population of my last town because the display has more relevance to the holidays, featuring Santa, reindeer and even the shape of a church-like building. The first "illumination" I ever saw contained a tunnel of fairy lights and a 2-deminsional dolphin. While dolphins are cool, I was left pondering the relevance to Christmas especially in Gifu, one of the few land-locked prefectures.     Even though the light displays may be weird, and very Japanese, and not quite what you might see back home, going out and being a part of the twinkly lights can be really comforting, even if it's just as a reminder than fairy lights exist here, too. 3) Go into "The City"      If you're in the countryside, odds are you know how to get to at least one larger city, probably by train. Make a point of doing this at least once before the holidays are over so you can see some beautiful and profoundly weird stuff as well as stock up on whatever necessities from home that you can find at the import shops.     This is Clis road, part of Sendai's major shopping arcade which spans several blocks, eventually connecting the area around the east exit of JR's Sendai Station with Ichibancho, home of the bars and evening entertainment. As it is the shopping arcade, it makes sense that the major decoration for Christmas is a massive balloon depicting Sendai Shiro, the merchant-friendly cultural and historical figure of the region, dressed as Santa on a sleigh pulled by a single red-nosed reindeer. For years I thought he was a random monk, but no. Sendai Shiro was an actual person who lived in the area more than a century ago. Businesses that he favored tended to prosper while those he dismissed tended to dwindle. Somehow this led him to become something of a religious icon for business owners. Mitakisan shrine, pictured to the right in the photo above, is actually dedicated to Sendai Shiro.    This massive decoration is featured every year, so if you're not in the area this month but want to see this for yourself, head out to Miyagi next December. 4) Enjoy Seasonal Beverages     Japan is great for creating new novelty flavors and temporary menus to fit just a few months of the year. Winter is no exception. Starbucks, Tully's, Doutor, and most other chain coffee shops offer a few select beverages for the season. Many other retailers including convenience stores and grocery stores also offer drink and snack options for winter not seen the rest of the year. Check some out while you can! You might even find a new favorite. Of course the season will end and the menus will change, but seeing this new favorite flavor might give you something to look forward to when things start to cool down in 2017.      This 7-11 purchase was the closest to apple cider I've had in this country. The warm and fruity drink is apparently inspired by the winter beverages of Germany and is spiced with cardamon, cinnamon, and cloves. Unlike mulled wine, it is completely non-alcoholic. Look for it in the hot beverage section alongside a few other seasonal options, likely to be equally delicious.However you are spending the holiday season, remember to stay warm and take care. Happy holidays!

Gyūtan lunch set from a place where they really know their gyūtan

Tell a local in Japan that you're going somewhere for a trip and there's the best chance that the first thing they'll say is you must try the insert regional food here.  They really know the geography of their food.  A part of this is probably because it's rammed down their throats by every prefecture, city, and hamlet across the country, desperate to establish an identity, either through food or some kind of anime style character.  So it is that when I went to Sendai recently, had I not tried a serving of gyūtan, I might well have hurt someone's feelings.  Gyūtan; lit. beef tongue, the idea for the grilling and eating of which, is apparently claimed by Sendai, at least as far as Japan is concerned.  Our gyūtan was the focus of a lunch set for around 1,600 yen.  The name of the restaurant I can't recall.  A shame really, as this was a fine lunch set; simple, tasty, and well balanced.  In traditional 'Sendai style', four cuts of gyūtan are served with rice, soup, and a pretty substantial amount of pickles (as far as servings of pickles usually go).  The tongue itself is served with a slice of lemon and a sprig of parsley.  You grill it at the table yourself.  Four cuts might sound a poor return for 1,600 yen.  I've no idea.  To date, this was my first and last gyūtan lunch set in Sendai.  As I said though, it was really good.  High quality grilled beef in Japan is usually half grease (like Kobe beef), and leaves me largely disappointed (and slight sickly).  This being tongue though, we can expect things to be more lean.  If you're after a fancy bit of beef, this is a solid way to go.

10 Ways to Prepare for Japanese Quakes and Tsunamis

    At 6AM this morning a Magnitude 7.4 earthquake struck outside of Fukushima prefecture. It was slightly less intense in Miyagi, where it still caused alarms and woke us up. Soon the tsunami sirens were going off and we were headed uphill and inland to my in-laws place to wait out the morning tsunami warning.     Unless you're from a quake-prone area, the threat of these common Japanese disasters can be really scary for the potential future Japanese resident. Here is a list of things to do to help you prepare for the unlikely scenario of a major quake and/or tsunami in Japan.    What happens when there’s a quake:     First, if it’s a major quake, your Japanese cell phone will make all sorts of ungodly noise, with a max-volume alarm going off no matter what mode the phone is in. This is to save your life, but the alarm will only sound a few seconds before the shaking starts.     Then there’s shaking. Usually it’ll end after a few seconds and your apartment will be almost exactly as it was before. If it lasts much longer, you can hide under a table or desk until it stops. If it's a big one, you'll likely want to leave the building and head to a more secure location at that time.    After the shaking stops, if you’re in an area close to the ocean, listen for more alarms and prepare to move to higher ground. Tsunamis can happen without an earthquake trigger, but any quake above a magnitude 7 is likely to cause some tsunami action. What do you do? 1) Stay Calm Okay, maybe not that calm. This was my daughter this morning.    Freaking out over whatever is happening helps no one. I don’t know about you, but the more elevated my adrenaline, the less I can speak or understand Japanese. The less friendly or respectful I am to others. The less I can do to help myself or anyone else. The first thing you have to do is breathe. Then, if you’ve prepared properly, you should already know what to do next. 2) Have a Go Bag     Most long term residents do. A backpack or other bag, filled with a few liters of water, canned food, candles or glow sticks or other portable light source, batteries, and anything else you can imagine needing when you’re without running water, access to food, or electricity. Also include any vital documents like your passport and bank books. Keep it close to the front door, but out of the way, so you’re not always tripping over it but at the same time it’s ready to go and easy to grab. This is one of ours, from our hall closet. 3) Know Some Kanji     It is good to be familiar with the words themselves, like 津波 tsunami, 地震 jishin (earthquake), and  台風 taihu(typhoon). It is also beneficial to know the kanii for whatever town you are living in and as many of the surrounding areas as you can. This way, you'll be able to interpret the information in more difficult situations, even without a translation app. 4) Know Your Town See that red dangly bit? That's Matsushima. We're just south of there, also in the red. Being able to pinpoint your town on a map of Japan can come in handy.    It is very useful to know more about your town than just the kanji and pronunciation. You should, shortly upon arrival, figure out if you’re close to the ocean or rivers and on low ground. Also, find out what parts of town have higher elevations than where you are and how to get there quickly on foot or by bike. Knowing you’re a few train stops away from safety isn’t always as useful as the trains won’t usually be running after a quake like that. They might be back up within a few hours, but in extreme cases, it might take a week or longer. 5) Have a Plan     After you know where the tsunami evacuation areas are, and where you can or should go, make out the plan in your mind. Walk the path a couple of times when you’re not running for your life so you know how to get where you need to get. Think about what you’ll need for at least a few days after a major catastrophic event and get that stuff in the go bag. Keep an eye on the expiration dates when you check the bag once a year or so. 6) Make Good Connections      Having friends in a other parts of Japan can make all the difference when things go south. My little adopted family survived partially by the grace of a few packages from friends in my former Japanese home, who were otherwise unaffected by the quake. At the same time, packages sent from abroad were being turned away, the postal services unsure of whether or not they could deliver to the tsunami affected areas. Also, it’s good to have friends in town who you can rely on in times of crisis, personal or otherwise. 7) Check In         If you’re in a town that gets hit with a major quake or tsunami, you can do the math to figure out when your friends and family back home will be awake to see the news, but the general rule of thumb I follow now (after the mag 9 knocked out power and cell phone towers, leaving my mom without word from me after the Mag 9, ruining her birthday among other things) is as soon as something happens and I know I’m okay, I try to get word out on Facebook or Twitter to let people know I’m safe. 8) Stay Safe If you’re in a tsunami prone area, stay out for a good long while. Since the 2011 tsunami, the authorities have been more restrictive in when they tell people to head back to the affected areas. This is because a lot of people went home after the March 11 quake, expecting a small to normal sized tsunami, and never came back. So if you’re in a situation where you can run by your house, grab a few possessions and head to high ground, do it, and stay at that higher ground for a few hours. They’ll tell you when it’s safe to return. 9) Know When to Turn it Off Already in your safe spot with your go bag? Ongoing coverage making your anxiety explode? Turn it off for a bit.    Just like with any other major news event of the last 20 years, you’re going to see the same footage over and over on TV. When you’re convinced that you’ve got as much information as you can use and continuing to watch for more is exhausting you, don’t feel bad about turning it off for a bit and watching something you want or doing some other things around the house or wherever you’re holed up. Staying hyper-vigilant and freaked out for too long is a drain on anyone. If you are in a safe, private place where it is possible, take a nap if you feel like it. Your phone will go off or the tsunami sirens (which sound a lot like tornado sirens) will go off if danger strikes. You’ll hear about it and are unlikely to sleep through it. When today's tsunami warning was lifted, our phones were sent an emergency message from the city, letting us know it was safe to go home. 10) Some Things Will Return to Normal; Some Things Won’t     Trains and other basic amenities generally come back fairly quickly, provided nothing has been wiped out or needed to be moved inland for tsunamis. The infrastructure here is great and it is tested for these things fairly regularly. Although life in general may appear much as it was just before the incident, some things will be different. Especially after a major event that causes such a huge death toll, communities will change. There will be turn over as some people will move away and others take their places. Things will change, but most shops will reopen and life will be very similar to before, even after a catastrophic occurrence like the magnitude 9.    Don’t discount what happens inside of you as well. Your mental health is important, and events like this can change how you feel. For about a year after the 2011 disasters, I couldn’t leave a cup or mug or dish anywhere but in a sink or in a closed cabinet for fear that they would fly off and break. I worked on getting over that and other post-quake mental issues by slowly acclimating to my new normal and forcing myself to hang pictures in frames on the wall, even though part of me just knew they would all fall. Some of them have. Most have stayed in place and helped me remember that not every day is quake day.     Living in Japan may mean dealing with the occasional quake. Most are so small you can’t feel them, but after you go through something like the magnitude 9, you can never fully ignore them again. You will wait for the shaking to stop to make sure it is a small one before moving on. Most of the time, you’ll only need to stand still for a second or two and it will be over, even in a fairly tall building. Other times, if you’ve prepared yourself, you’ll already know what to do.

10 Things to Know about Living in Japan

Thinking of making a move to Japan? Cool! Here are some things you might find it useful to know. 1) Japan is Not Just Tokyo     Many people live in the major Japanese cities of Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, or Nagoya. There are numerous differences even between these cities including climate and population density. Depending on what brings you to Japan, you might wind up somewhere a bit more rural. The JET program, a government ALT and cultural exchange program, sends native English speakers to communities all over Japan. If they’ve got public schools, they might have a JET or two in the neighborhood. Other ALT companies like Interac and Altia send Assistant Language Teachers (Native English Speakers) to other public schools with also might be scattered anywhere around the country. Beyond that, ekikaiwa (conversational school) options also exist, usually in slightly less rural communities but not always. You can find more job opportunities here.    If you’re not in the big city, you might not have some of the creature comforts you counted on. I was told that all cities in Japan have many convenient 100 yen stores and internet cafes so even if you don’t have internet at your apartment, you can always find a place to send an email. I wound up in Nakatsugawa, a mountain town in Gifu prefecture so small that there were no internet cafes and the nearest 100 yen store required a 45 minute walk. Not every part of Japan shows the technologically advanced, trendy and exciting side you might see in anime or movies. Most of Japan is smaller towns and cities, rural communities where there are more rice fields than Karaoke places.     Supposing you sign up with a company and get on well, research the area you’re likely to go to as soon as you can so as not to be surprised by what you find on the other side of your flight. You might even be able to find Facebook groups for international students and other expats in the area. These folks might be able to give you an idea of where you’re heading as well as answer any questions you might have. 2) Sort It Out!    Shortly after the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami that devastated the Tohoku region (where I still live), I was listening to a piece from a reporter on the ground in Miyagi. What the British reporter found most remarkable about the people in the gym where they would be living for weeks and weeks was that he saw an old woman sorting the garbage into burnable (paper, food, etc) and plastic (wrappers, etc), which I found a surprising thing to be surprised by. At that point, I’d been living in Japan for more than 2 years. I was used to sorting the garbage into those two bags as that is how you throw things away here.     If your bag is not sorted poorly, it may be left there. This is only a big deal I guess if people know whose garbage it is, but if you’re the only foreigner in the building, they will probably assume it’s yours. Recycling also gets sorted and thrown out accordingly. All bottles and cans are meant to be rinsed clean and label-free (sometimes in addition to flattened if plastic) and placed in the correct sorting bin. The bins are colored with kanji for metal, glass, and paper, as well as the katakana for PET bottles. If you’re in a larger city, this may happen every week. In smaller towns, it may only be once a month. Keep an eye out and ask around.     If you miss recycling day and have a few too many pet bottles, you can sometimes throw them away at vending machines or convenience stores, but this is generally discouraged for long-term residents. 3) Garbage Day(s)     Apartment dumpsters are not a thing in Japan. Instead, there is usually a garbage drop off point and certain days of the week (labeled) for certain types of garbage. I live in an apartment where the drop of point is a small enclosed shed in the parking lot with the days listed on the outside. You are “supposed to” take out the garbage on the morning of the day listed but many people take it out after dark the night before. The garbage bags you use can be found at the grocery stores and your only selection is a matter of size and cost. Notice how they’re all translucent? Yeah. Everyone can see into your garbage.     There are little opaque black bags for the garbage that may need to be taken from the toilet-room once a month. They go in the burnables (even the plastic applicators). 4)Tie It Up!        No Glad bags here. You are also meant to leave enough room toward the top of the bag to tie it shut effectively enough to pick it up without it falling apart. This can be a challenge as a country so seemingly advances has not invested in something as basic as draw-string trash bags, but there you go. If you’ve got too much garbage for one, use two. I have seen people tape a bag shut if they need to (if it rips), but I wouldn’t recommend this as a go-to option.         Also, it may be important to note that every city may have different bags, so buy them at the closest grocery store to your apartment if possible, especially if you commute. For my city, the red-labelled bags in the picture are for burnable garbage. The yellow are for plastics. The green are for "special garbage" (like small broken electronics? I don't know. I've never used them.) The blue and black labelled bags on the top row are for the next city over. The bottom row of un-labelled bags are bin liners. Don't throw things away in just these on garbage day or it likely won't go away.5) Eating Well at the Conbini When I used to tell friends back home that I grabbed lunch at the convenience store, they freaked out, thinking of chips, slimjims and maybe an ancient sandwich. Most Japanese convenience stores have a plethora of lunch options from salads to rice balls to pasta. Some even have sliced fruit and veggie sticks. Fairly cheap and healthy for a meal on the run.  6) No TV Dinners In every frozen food section in every Japanese grocery store I’ve visited, there are some reheat-able food options, but mostly side dishes, few main courses, and no combinations of the two. That said, most grocery stores also offer a fried food section where you could pick up a main course to go with your frozen sides if you wanted. 7) Not Fitting In    When I see a new foreigner sitting quietly as possible, trying hard to be part of the Japanese scenery, I want to give them a hug. After a few years, you stop trying so hard to blend in, especially in ways that might be stressful or unnatural to your character. You have to. It's survival. This doesn’t give you the right to be obnoxious on purpose, but it isn't the end of the world if the laugh a little too loudly at a joke or eat while walking, or even just wear a tank top.    So try to fit in, but don’t bend yourself out of shape. On some level, you may never feel at one with this environment, and that is okay. Most of us long-term residents don’t really “belong here” either. We’re just still having our adventure. 8) Forbidden Shoulders     Especially for women living outside of the main cities, you’ll notice very few women who aren’t foreign tourists ever wearing tank tops. Shoulders for some reason are covered almost always, though extremely short shorts are tolerated among younger people. Cleavage is also a no-no, as I have noticed and been made aware of. If your undershirt slips and reveals even an inch of creased connection, old men may freak out at you about it. This happened to me last summer. If you're comfortable with your body and it doesn't bother you to get a little more wayward attention, do what works for you. Maybe your town will have a smaller population of creepy old men than mine does.    Need a solution? You can buy short-sleeved camisoles at Uniqlo, especially helpful if you have sleeveless or strapless casual-business attire for summer. You can also get undershirts to help out. I do recommend ladies bringing as much underwear (bras and panties) as you think you will need unless you happen to be smaller than around a size 8. 9) Turn On the Hot Water     In most American households, the water heater is a constant worker, hiding in a little room and doing its job unbidden and unseen. Worst case scenario, it’s a little old so you turn on the water a few seconds before you need it to be hot.     Every Japanese apartment I’ve ever lived in did not have an automatically starting water heater. Instead, the hot water had to be turned on manually with the press of a button. The running water would then eventually (more quickly with newer systems) get warm. In some, you can also adjust the temperature of the water and our newest one even has a button that runs a hot bath for you. Just remember to plug the tub first.10) You Do Need Some Japanese Many things, from electronics to ATMs at Japan Post Bank, have English language options. Many do not. For major paperwork, you might need a Japanese-savvy friend to assist, but in your own home, it pays to at least be able to turn on the kotatsu or air conditioner. Learning hiragana and katakana will also help a lot, as many objects in the home are known by their non-English sounding katakana names like パソコン pasacon (PC), レンジ renji (microwave) or エアコン eacon (AC). Here are five kanji that might be useful in your first weeks in Japan. For many, this is only one potential meaning, but the meaning that will be used if you see it on a button most of the time.Kanji -- Meaning止 --  stop      -------      入 --  on      -------      切 --  off      -------      弱 --  weak      -------      強 --  strong

Autumn in Sendai - What to do when Halloween is over?!

Sendai is well known for its greenery. Even within the downtown area the streets are lined with beautiful trees and plants. There are even a few parks scattered throughout the city, some of which are surprisingly large. Of course sakura season is incredibly popular, but as the cool air comes to Sendai and the leaves start changing to their autumn colors, Sendai expresses a different type of beauty. The beautiful reds, oranges, and yellows line the streets, trees gently blowing in the breeze. Simply strolling the streets of the city can be quite a treat. These colorful leaves are called koyo in Japanese and make for popular attractions all around the country. Now that Halloween is over you might be looking for some new things to do around the Sendai area. Luckily, there are plenty of events and places that allow you to enjoy the full effect of koyo in Japan. One of my personal favorite events is the Matsushima Fall Light up. You can find information about it in English HERE. The Entsuin Temple and the Zuiganji Temple caves are lit up at night in a variety of colors making the entire place seem truly magical. The event runs from Oct. 22nd to Nov. 23rd so you still have plenty of time to check it out. There are also food trucks, a foot bath, boat rides, and a tea house but the hours and days vary so be sure to check out the information page! Another popular fall destination is Naruko Onsen. You can find information in English about Naruko HERE. Located about an hour by car outside of downtown Sendai, Naruko is home to beautiful outdoor scenery, a variety of hot spring locations, Japanese style hotels (ryokan), and a rich history. You can even wear a yukata and geta while strolling around the village. If you aren’t yet familiar with the Japanese traditions surrounding hot springs and yukata, the above site also has easy to understand guides about how to use both. Naruko Gorge is probably one of the main attractions in the area so be sure to check it out if you can! Yet another popular area for onsens is Akiu Onsen. Akiu Onsen also has an English information page HERE. Akiu is about 25 minutes from downtown Sendai and is known for its onsens. Akiu also hosts a variety of sightseeing locations and hotels. There are also a variety of local foods available.  Of course there are a variety of other beautiful locations in Miyagi but these are among the most popular in the Tohoku area. Mt. Zao, Matsushima Cruises, a variety of farms, and even the local zoo can be great attractions in the fall.

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