Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Product of the day - kairo pad

In the category of neat things from Japan, here is a little invention that I could use today. Maybe because I've been sick, but I'm cold. Really, truly, cold. The kind of cold where you wish you could get off the couch to adjust the heat but it is so cold you don't want to move, cold. Is it just me who that makes sense to?

I've seen little warming bags that you put in your pocket to warm your fingers in America, but nothing like this. These come in all shapes and sizes. This particular style is for your shoe.

This little cloth bag gets hot when you open the plastic wrapping. Stick it anywhere on your body, but please do so on the outside of your clothes otherwsie you might just suffer 2nd degree burns. Anything that gets hot enough to burn you is my kind of product. This heating pad - called a kairo pad, warms up to 43 degrees celcius...I'm still learning my conversions but that is about 109 degrees farhenheit. Sounds like heaven on a cold day.

Monday, February 23, 2009


I'm aware that I’ve probably committed some blogging sin by not updating for the last 10 days. I really had very good intentions and if it is any consolation I’ve got lots of posts in half-finished states that will be ready for reading eyes very soon but with no real good excuse for my tardiness, let’s just jump into my next topic du jour.

Masks. I’m not talking about traditional wooden Kabuki masks or Noh masks worn during Japanese musical dramas. Cold masks. Outside of an operation room, we don’t see many of these in America, ‘cept for maybe a tradesman not wanting to inhale insulation while finishing off the Jones' basement.

From the moment we boarded our plane bound for Japan, we were introduced to this peculiarity of Japanese culture. When the lady sitting in seat 34F next to us veiled her face with one of these masks, my first reaction was one of defensiveness...no lady my kid ain't going to hack on you, really though, she was just concerned that her germs might permeate the air and infect us.

I suppose regarding it as a peculiarity isn't accurate, but this fork loving family just isn't used to seeing a stranger care so much for the others around them. Herein lies a major difference between our cultures. Japan values the group, the collective whole's interests being placed before the individuals. That isn't to say Japan is some utopia where everyone is in perfect harmony with their neighbor but culturally speaking, it is as if part of their genetic makeup calls them to be concerned for the health and welfare of others, lest group productivity be diminished. Someone has to keep the steady flow Toyota Prius' rolling so Al Gore has something to talk about.

Maybe the Japanese people should just stay at home, negating the need to don one of these cold masks. Perhaps they don't get six sick days a year like we do in America. I always used mine, though I can't honestly say that I was sick all the times I cashed them in. I hope you're not reading this Jonathan. They aren't very flattering to the face and it really could wreak havoc on your makeup. And I just imagine that a runny nose isn't very comfortable behind the cotton cup. And what do you do if you have to cough? If you lift the mask off your face, then what was the point of wearing one, but if you cough into while it is on your face, are you not just circulating the germs your body is trying to rid itself of?

I had to speak to a man just a few days ago wearing one. It kept slipping off his nose and he kept pulling it back up, all the while I kept picturing a portly plumber who pulls up his pants so his crack doesn't show. What was the point, it kept falling off. I wanted to giggle but I thought better of it.

It is such staple of every day life here, they even make really fashionable ones, not just plain boring ones like a pair of tidy whiteys. There are even funny commercials selling them. I'm not sure if it is proper etiquette to remove the mask to ohh and ahh over the tiny black dress in the window display, but apparently when talking to your boss, it is expected to remove it. Isn't that going to get him sick though? Maybe that is the idea, get rid of the boss and then go shopping.

The funniest mask I've seen though is the one worn by a man driving his car...alone. It was my first day driving out in town...beads of sweat percolating on my forehead, a death grip on the steering wheel as I tried to navigate the ridiculously narrow street. When I looked to my left and saw this man, I couldn't help but wonder who was he protecting his germs from? And then I almost took out his rear view mirror. Oops, gomenasai, hope your cold gets better Mr. Mask Man.

As a gaijin, we're already prone to looks from the locals. When we're sick, we ought to be prepared to feel even more gaping eyes on us. People will actually step aside from you, turn two and walk in the opposite direction. I even saw a mother grab her child from the path of a sick person, as if they were going to catch death not the common cold. Feel like a leper much?

Knowing this though, trying to understand the cultural differences, makes living here exciting. I'm sick today and wished I had a mask to wear, to show that while in this country, I can get down with the group like the best of them.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Bitter chocolate

Valentine's Day is a slightly peculiar and ridiculously commercialized holiday in Japan, where the giving and receiving of chocolates has very little to do with the kind of love seen in the classic love story The Way We Were...or in this Brokeback-esque version of Top Gun (no correlation to Valentine's Day, just made me break into a snort or two while laughing).

The rule is simple. Girls give boys chocolates. Period. No girls to girls, no boys to boys. "That would make for nasty surprise for everyone." For an amusing "How to Valentine" Japanese style, check this out.

Valentine's is a twofer in Japan. The chocolate frenzy carries over to March 14 for White Day. It's a confusing mess of obligation chocolates (giri-choko) and love chocolates (honmei-choko). As if women aren't burdened enough, now they have to pass out upwards of 20 to 30 boxes of cheap chocolates to men who they may not even like (which I've been told taste more like waxy plastic than premium chocolate) just because some marketing folks sold them on the idea. And if they don't, men are made to feel embarrased for not receiving any. I don't see this practice catching on in America anytime soon.

Despite thinking Japan's version of Valentine's Day is more bitter chocolate than semi-sweet, it should be said that in the fine Japanese tradition of presentation, the boxes of chocolates are beautiful, even the less expensive giri-choko. Everywhere I ventured today had displays upon displays of their chocolate wares, with the most gorgeous of boxes, tied perfectly with ribbons, with sweet sayings imprinted on them.

If I had stumbled on this, I surely would have bought some. "If both people eat them, there'll be no problem." Makes me miss this from back home.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

#4 Oshibori

In reference to my previous post, 7 Reasons Why Living in Japan is Cool, I've just learned that #4 has a name. Oshibori. It's like the difference between coach and first class. In coach you get a cheap cocktail napkin, in first class you get a warm, damp cloth handed to you. Everything in Japan is first class and thoughtful, right down to the wiping of your hands and face. It's a little thing but the coolest thing.

Monday, February 9, 2009

It’s time to get strapped

WTF got new cell phones. Cool Japanese cell phones. It is a bit harrowing signing a contract when you have no idea what it says, what with it being in Japanese. I am hoping I didn’t sign away my right kidney or agree to a 1,000,000Yen disconnection fee, roughly the equivalent value of my kidney on the black market. I don’t have the slightest idea of all the things it can do, again, what with the manual being in Japanese. This much I’ve figured out. Buy a train ticket, yes. Track my weight and daily steps, yes. Flash news updates, yes. Navigate me home from my shopping trip, yes. Plan an evacuation route in case of an island destroying earthquake, yes. Fix a flat tire, maybe, I just can’t read the screen to confirm.

The phone is thin and lightweight. Very sparkly too, an added benefit for The Warden, not so much WTF Husband. I think I will call her Baby. Frances Houseman just didn’t sound right. Confused, guess you haven’t watched Dirty Dancing. Baby makes our old phones look outmoded and prehistoric.

Here’s the thing I’ve noticed though. The Japanese people want to ruin my Baby with straps and charms of all kinds. Called keitai straps, that little wrist strap you add to your phone, has become a cultural phenomenon here, well beyond its basic utility. I hate these things. They get in your way of nicely and neatly tucking your phone away in your purse or your husband’s pocket, along with the lipstick and mirror you ask him to carry.

In a small country with such a dense population, I suppose anything to help identify you from the person next to you becomes a necessity. Everyone from karoke-singing, Sapporo-drinking salarymen, to the hunched-over grannies who don’t look before stepping into oncoming traffic, to the Gothic Lolitas in Harajuku all adorn their cell phones with this little, useless strap. To the point that the phone could give you tennis elbow for all the charms and do-dads hanging off it.

Maybe I’m being too hasty. I think I’ll get strapped too, with this Shear Panther Sexy Underwear Cell Phone Strap. For a good chuckle, check out the description. WTF Husband would love a little Erokawa.
*Flickr Photo Courtesy of Skip the Filler

Sunday, February 8, 2009

7 Reasons Why Living in Japan is Cool

Just a few observations from our first days in country. These are in no particular order.

1. Vending machines, everywhere you go, vending machines. We’re not talking about Pepsi vs. Coke. Coffee, fruit drinks, sodas, something confusing called water salad, soups. All in a can, all in a vending machine. Hot drinks, cold drinks. Living in harmony all in the same machine. And in the category of why don’t we have these in the US…liquor, condoms and umbrellas of course.
2. Music playing, heated toilet seats.
3. Plastic food models to help passerbys visualize restaurants’ culinary offerings. Perfect for confused gaijin with limited Japanese vocabulary.
4. Individually packaged, warm, damp napkins available at fast food eateries.
5. McDonald’s (not that we eat there) that looks more like a chic cosmopolitan restaurant than a greesy fast food joint.
5. Real one-stop shopping, groceries on aisle 1, cars for sale on aisle 2.
6. Convenience stores that are truly convenient. Pay your utilities, ship something, and grab a bite to eat. 7 Eleven’s here aren’t like back home, they have a huge variety of top quality, tasty food on the go. Sorry no Slurpies.
7. Kitchen gadgets galore. Wanna a hard boild egg in the shape of a star, this is the place for you. I’m in heaven!

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Hachimangu Shrine

You’d think something as simple as posting a few pictures and coming up with a witty synopsis of our visit to the Hachimangu shrine would be easy. I’ve been slow to see it but now it is clear to me...living in a hotel room, a small, kind of smelly, hotel room, full of four people and ridiculous amounts of luggage and its contents has sucked my brain off all its powers. The concrete walls and forest green, patterned, turf carpeting are working in tandem to drive me crazy. I wake up each morning confused as to what just happened to me. I’m about three days…four…okay, probably more like five, behind in my daily goals. Oh well, you’re patient readers, right?

Our first official tour was of the ancient city of Kamakura. Kamakura was the de facto capital of Japan (at the time Kyoto was the official capital), as the seat of the Shogunate. The Shogun era dominated much of Japan’s history. If you're a history buff or just bored and have nothing better to look at, check out more history on the Shoguns.

Supposedly a picture says a thousand words…really, I’ve actually never heard a picture speak, maybe in my own head, but that doesn’t count. I’m a little off-kilter. Anyways, we’ll give it a shot.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Snoopy, the intercontinental uniter

Thursday was our forced day *ahem* I mean field trip outside the gates, as part of our Intercultural Relations seminar. I like to fancy myself a big adventurer, spontaneous and easy-going but with WTF Husband standing over my shoulder my stretching the truth abilities are rendered useless without being on the receiving end of an elbow to the arm followed by an inevitable guttural throat clearing. So I was glad that I had no choice in the matter. It was cold and for the fourth day in a row, I had forgotten to buy myself a scarf, even so it was awesome to head outside our very American base and see with my own eyes that I was, in fact, in Japan. I knew this because our group very obviously stood out from the other thousands of people we walked passed on the street. Streets by the way that were remarkably clean for a big city, especially since there were no trash cans anywhere in site. Trash is on a carry-out basis only. I learned this after walking around half the day with a strawberry stick in my pocket. ***Outside Hachimangu Shrine, there was a vendor selling candied strawberries on a ritz cracker. They were delish. We gathered it was a treat meant for little kids, as we heard lots of giggling going on behind us from the school ages girls and boys as we bit into them.*** Anyways, mind boggling numbers of people, who noticed when I got excited to have hot corn soup in a can from a vending machine or when in the absence of any other means of communication had to point to the plastic food model on display noting the lunch I wanted to eat. Fried ramen noodles with vegetables if you’re wondering. WTF Husband wanted to try the sushi go-round and I was willing, even showing an eagerness during the walk from the train station to the restaurant but once I saw it, I knew we weren’t ready for it. We’re sushi virgins and we need a little easing into it and this wasn’t the place for Beginners Sushi 101. California Roll…yes…raw…no.

Soup in a can and plastic noodles aside, there were two great things about our trip; retired Japanese man #1 and retired Japanese man #2. After our walk through downtown Yokosuka, we boarded our first train headed to Kamakura. When we got off the train, we were approached by a sweet old man on a bicycle. Very politely he asked if we were Americans, check, and if we were in the military, check-check. He carefully pulled out of his knapsack a handwritten letter with magazine pictures of sake and gyoza, cherry blossoms (Sakura) and grapes glued to it...is there something special about Japanese grapes? It was a letter to “Unknown Person.” We must have been the tallest and most obvious choices in a crowd full of American military. He asked us to read his letter and critique his grammar. Tidbits of his family life peppered the letter but the focus was on his lifetime dream to receive a letter from an American. His English was very good, his writing even better. I was touched while the ever-skeptical WTF Husband thought he was going to ask us for our account information in return for $134,000 if we could only help him with a small international matter. No, he wasn’t pushing a Nigerian bank scam on us WTF Husband. Now my list of things to do includes fulfilling retired Japanese man #1’s dream.

Feeling pretty good that I had successfully navigated a full conversation with a Japanese local, we ventured from the train station to see Tsurugaoka-Hachimangu Shrine in Kamakura. I’ll save that for a separate post. As we were leaving the shrine, retired Japanese man #2 approached us. Are we really that tall? He told us that he learned English from Snoopy. Reading or watching, I wasn't quite sure. We heard all the details from his one and only trip to America…baseball at Fenway Park, Abraham Lincoln Memorial and the Statue of Liberty. He didn’t allow us too much talking, though I tried to slip in a few Japanese words. If I was going to be his guinea pig, I was going to try and get something out of it myself. He didn’t crinkle up his eyes in confusion or gasp because I accidentally said something lewd or taboo, so I figured I did pretty well with my very limited Japanese. He recited the Gettysburg Address to us, while he held his baseball cap over his heart, something that I cannot even do in full. Then something very familiar happened, he told us about baseball at Fenway Park, Abraham Lincoln Memorial and the Statue of Liberty. I am now officially an international senior-moment identifier, certified in both America and Japan. On the second go round of the Gettysburg Address, we had to skedaddle out of there to catch our next train.