14 May 2012

Out of Office :: in America

Friends! I'm going to be away for a couple weeks. I'm meandering back to the States: Writing this from Tokyo, shortly boarding to America, stopping in Chicago, South Carolina and, perhaps, St. Louis, if I can squeeze it in. I'm rather stoked about it, though I was oh-so-sad to leave Amos (there might have been some tears shed. I'm a big ol' sap.) I'm guessing I won't have much time to write while I'm on the road, but I'm going to post a picture per day(ish) for those who want to keep up on my trip. Je matta ne!

Update from Brian & Leigh's wedding -- May 19th:

11 May 2012

HMGRPH :: thoughts on homesickness & happiness

This post probably should be called "Why I have the emotional maturity of a five year old." But I'm in a sour mood, so hmgrph seems to be the extent of what I'm capable of. I'm so sorry.

There's really nothing for me to be upset about. See? Look, here's what I am doing RIGHT now. Coffee, toast, sunshine, balcony. Beautiful, right? It's the absolute perfect temperature outside, about 70F, with a slight breeze. I can see the Japanese mountains in the distance (I should really learn the name of that range), and there are white puffy clouds in the sky. I have plans for a girls' night tonight and a BBQ tomorrow.

HMGRPH. There I go again, almost pulling myself out of my bad mood. Stupid gratitude and 'admiring the moment.' Let me stop so I can at least tell you about my problem before I go forgetting about it. You see, I'm about to take off for a couple weeks. Heading home (!) to see family (!!), including a very special cousin get married (!!!). I'm so excited. While I won't be hitting up Seattle, I'll be making my way through Chicago and South Carolina and back, and I plan to eat, drink, and be merry... and see a dentist, a dermatologist, perhaps get a Hep A vaccine*, and definitely get my hair did. Holy crap, it's going to be awesome.

Amos, however, must stay here. In Japan. To bring home the bacon and such. I'm super bummed he can't come, but... perhaps... it's okay that he isn't coming... because it's a huge incentive to come back to Japan. Right now, three months in, an incentive to come back could be good. I'm, gulp, kind of over living abroad.

Sheesh, I know, I know. It was a dicey time to book a trip home. Three & four months in is tough. I've been busy putting myself out there, learning, exploring, making friends. I'm finding myself fed up with things, annoyed that I don't have a job, fucking bored with my life, on edge about things that no one in their right mind should be on edge about (something about the limitations of a robot vacuum. Shit, I KNOW). I'm been mum about it on Jackson Riley because I like to write about things shortly after they happen, when I'm safely on the other side, and I've been focusing on clawing my way out of this homesickness bit.

Whew: It actually feels good to put it down on paper. I know I'll come out the other side, fine and dandy, and probably loving Japan. Today... I'm not quite there yet.

I'm a bit conflicted and, with my emotional maturity, that translates into me acting like a five year old, mad at the sun for waking me up, made that coffee takes so long to make, made that my husband can't read my damn mind. I want life to be a video tape, where I get to push the fast forward button. I'd check on the future, make sure everything turns out okay, then I'd skip to the part of living in Japan where it's all fun and games. I'd jump right over this part, the part where I worry that leaving right now will impair me from ever adjusting to life here, where my days are filled with the super fun combination of doubt and anxiety, where I'm not busy enough yet to keep my idle hands from clawing my eyes out. I'm scared that a trip home will not be a rejuvenating experience but instead make me realize that I'm not happy here, that I would be more happy somewhere else. It's terrifying, if we're being honest.

To help assage the fear, I bought a new dress or two. Meh, it made sense at the time.

I've realized over the past couple weeks that I'm writing a blog that I WISH I would have found while looking to live abroad. One that showed me what life was really like, showed me that I could DO this thing. To that goal: this is what life is like right now. I'm conflicted and anxious, so excited to go home, yet not ready to leave, and aching to make it through this not-so-fun stage. I'll come out fine the other side, that I'm sure of, and it'll be okay. Until then, you can find me here, on my balcony, drinking coffee next to my on-life-support geranium... or in Chicago, drinking a cold microbrew or two... or in South Carolina, lounging by a pool. I'll let you know when I reach the other side.


*For future Southeast Asian travel. Again, my life is pretty good. I should STFU.

UPDATE: So... my sister called me after this post to make sure I'm okay. Two things learned: my sis is super sweet, and I, perhaps, didn't caveat this with the note that the homesickness and worry pass in and out, like a wave. I don't feel like this all the time. There are still great moments, often 3.5 seconds after I feel super overwhelmed. I'm not unhappy -- just a bit worried and homesick -- which is different. I wouldn't have known they were different before I moved over here, but now I do. (Learning!) Most days are good; I don't regret coming over here; I'm not unhappy by any stretch of the imagination. True, some days are boring, and some are difficult, but some are awesome. I'm keeping my chin up, don't y'all worry.

10 May 2012

Mugicha (Japanese barley tea), with a dash of US Politics

“At a certain point, I’ve just concluded that for me personally it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married."  (President Obama, 9 May 2012)

DUDE. Woah. 

My mornings in Japan usually begin slowly. I loll around in bed a bit when I first wake up and check e-mail, Facebook, Twitter on my phone, one eye open and one still blurred by sleep, before I finally pull myself up and shuffle to the kitchen to make coffee. Most mornings, it's same thing, different day. Status updates, funny one liners, news about the shit economy, buttoned-up Republican talking points, incoherent Democratic rambling. Really, it's about the only time I check in on US news. Living over here is a nice that way. When you at-home Americans are sick to death of political ads, I'm living thousands of miles away, tuning in just enough to know to be able to get Jon Stewart's jokes before I tune out because, let's face it, a 24 hour news cycle is the Worst Thing Ever Invented.

But this morning. Woooooeeeee. My feeds were blowing up. North Carolina! Amendment One! Obama! Gay Marriage! OH MY GOD. How did this all go down in one day?! I went to bed last night, and it was quiet. This morning everything movin' and shakin'. A little warning next time, okay? Something along the lines of "Drink coffee this morning before you read the news. Big Things Happened yesterday and your brain should be functioning before you try and comprehend."

Some takes on the news were tongue in cheek:

Some takes were well quoted and oft-updated, with plenty of pundits and analysis:

And, as always, we can count on Fox Nation to keep it real. Love you guys!

I'm now two cups of coffee in and my head is still spinning. It's a bit weird, seeing huge changes go down in your country when you live far away and are relegated to hearing old news alone in your apartment. It's the yang to the ying of being able to tune out annoying ads. I'm always the last kid to the party. 

It's 9AM, and I'm cutting myself off of the caffeine. It's getting to warm here anyway, and I didn't think ahead to make Deb's cold brewed iced coffee, which needs a night to rest. Though my days are pretty relaxed over here in Japan, I'm thinking it's a little early for a drink too; I usual start that in the afternoon (kidding, Mom!). When coffee and cocktails are off the table, it's time for my favorite Japanese drink: Mugicha. 

(Sidenote: How's THAT for a round about introduction? I wanted to tell y'all about mugicha, or barley tea, today anyway, but then the whole President-finally-supporting-marriage-equality thing sidetracked me for a minute or twenty.)

I started in on my mugicha (moo-jii-cha) kick a couple weeks ago. It's roasted barley grains that you boil and seep before chilling, kind of like iced tea. The end result is earthy and a tiny bit bitter (nigai desu), kind of like a subtle coffee, except it is caffeine free, non-diarrhetic, and all around good for you. For a person like me who struggles to drink enough water during the day, it's a perfect solution. 

Mugicha is a summer drink here, and it does taste so good when it's muggy and hot outside.  It's so easy to make. It comes three varieties: loose grains, hybrid tea packs, and regular tea packs. I like the loose or hybrid tea packs, as you make these from warm water, and I, being a gaijin, also like the option to have my tea hot. I'm crazy like that. But you go ahead and try it both ways. I think you'll like it. At least I do.

Over and out (and off my soapbox). I've had enough of American politics for the day. Time to drink some mugicha and read design blogs instead. Ahhh...

Barely adapted from Just Hungry, a fantastic resource for all things related to Japanese cuisine.

You can buy mugicha at any local grocery store in Japan, or from Uwajimaya or Amazon back in the States. It can go rancid if it's kept around for awhile, so I try to use it up quickly and store it in the freezer.

You'll need 2-3 tablespoons of grain per liter of water. (Check the packaging if you're using tea bags, but it should be one tea bag per liter).  Fill a pan with water and bring to a boil. Add the tea. Lower the heat and let simmer a couple minutes. Remove from heat and cool to room temperature. Strain out grain with fine sieve or cheesecloth. Place in refrigerator until cool. 

You can add sugar to sweeten the tea, if you prefer, but I find myself liking the bitter, natural taste.

09 May 2012

the rest of the Japanese bathroom post

Hey! Remember that time I wrote a post all about Japanese toilets? It turns out that it was my Dad's favorite post ever. The man is approaching 60 and his humor remains firmly in 6th grader territory. (Incidentally, it's one of my favorite things about him.) This is the follow up post on the rest of the bathroom that I meant to write, oh, weeks ago. I wanted to catch you up because the magic (and smart engineering) definitely extends beyond the toire. But, to begin this tour, we start in the kitchen.

I know. Crazy. Hang with me for a sec.

See this? This is the remote control for our water heater. This is also where you can press a button and fill up the bathtub. That's right: FROM THE KITCHEN. You pick the temperature and hit autofill. Then, a minute later, you hear a little song, a voice announces that the tub is filling, you hear the water begin to run. The Japanese are bad ass mother fuckers. (Well, except for the fact that you still have to walk back to the tub to close the drain so the tub actually fills. We *might* have learned this the hard way.)

Okay, now that the tub is filling, let's have a look-see-loo at the rest of the space.

With the WC being separate and down the hall, the Japanese bathrooms have a bit of a different 'mix.' This bathroom is all about cleaning. Cleaning your body, your face, your teeth, your clothes. Yup, the washer and dryer are most definitely in here too. I'm, honestly, not a fan of the Japanese laundry machines, but that's a story for another time. The placement though? Perfect. In addition to easily tossing clothes into the basin before I hop in the shower, I can put towels in the dryer so they are all pipping hot and soft when I step out. I am one to stop and enjoy the little luxuries, you know?

Beyond the washer, we have the regular ol' sink, counter, and storage. Same old, same old. We picked a place with lots of bathroom storage because I have a husband who buys Costco size containers of Irish Spring soap right before we move abroad. (His take: He did the math, and it was a great price. My take: Holy shit, do you know how long it'll take us to go through that much soap?)

The best part of this bathroom, though, is the shower room. Yes, it's an entire room. With not one, but two remote control panels. One is outside, to control the temperature of the shower room, and one is inside, to control the bath, in case you didn't want to fill it from the kitchen. The room is tiled, top to bottom, and includes room for a standing shower and the giant tub. The Japanese recommend that you shower before you get into the bath, so that way you're not swimming around in your dirt but instead just soaking in clean, clean water. (Smart.)

There are covers that fit over the tub to seal in the water and keep it warm. Traditionally, families only fill up the tub once, then everyone uses the same water, being that they get into it all spanking clean anyway. Between bathers, the panels go over the tubs to keep the water warm. True, the water might cool off a bit, but, don't fret, there's an autoheat button right there, to warm it back up to 40C, which is my preferred bath temp. Amos and I don't share bath water yet -- we're saving that for the point of marriage where we have given up ALL romance -- but I do stay in there long enough to need to "reheat" button once... or twice. (See luxury, above). I now use the covers are makeshift ironing boards (See American ingenuity, previous posts.)

The only thing that's really random about the shower room. Oh, do you see it? Yup, the crotch mirror. The Japanese sit while they bathe, on these little stools, so the mirror is face height. For Americans, and those who stand when they bathe, well... it gives an excellent image of your nether reasons. Sorry. Take comfort in the fact that it fogs up fast.

The shower room and laundry machine have a bit of a symbiotic relationship (Oh, hello, SAT vocabulary). When you're done with that warm and decently clean bathwater? There's a hose you can use to send it back to your washing machine to wash clothes with hot water, as the machine can only autofill with cold. We haven't used that yet -- our American sensibilities are offended by such blatant recycling. (Actually, we can't read the Japanese well enough to figure it out, and I have a terrible mental image of the water spilling out, all over the floor, and seeping into the downstairs neighbors' ceiling, and that just sounds way worse than clothes washed in cold water.)

After your clothes are washed in your hot bath water, you can then spread them to dry on the bars in the shower room. Just hit the fancy "dryer" button on the remote control unit outside. This is amazing. Within a couple hours, clothing is air dried, just like that, and ready to be popped back in your closet. It makes the rainy season so much more bearable, as outside drying is taking forever these days. Speaking of the rainy, muggy season here: Need to cool off the shower room before you hop in? Hit the button. Just got home and are frozen from biting cold winter? Press the heat button and heat up the room. Just finished up the shower and want to dry out the room to prevent mildew? The ventilator button, baby. I'm telling you, the Japanese folks have GOT this. I haven't taken this many baths since I was a toddler. It's amazing.

Now, about the laundry machines and how they're eating my husband's shirts...

07 May 2012

How to be an Expat Wife :: Lesson #2

#2. Say Yes. To everything. 
(If it's lame, you can quit later.)

When Amos first applied to the job that would bring us to Japan, I didn't really think about it. We decided that we would only entertain the idea of moving abroad if the offer came our way. After all, why borrow trouble? Then we went about our merry little lives.

Okay, you caught me. That's a lie. Once Amos interviewed and Japan became a possibility, I couldn't put it out of my head. It rattled in there for weeks. In theory, I had always wanted to live abroad, the same way that I theoretically always wanted to speak several languages and have a killer wardrobe. (As I type this, I'm in my husband's sweatpants, haven't studied my Japanese in days, and regret that I forgot all that Spanish I once knew). Real life is much messier than theoretical life. Real life has other important and fun things to do, like have a career, a relationship, a happy hour or two. You get busy, you know, living.

When we were finally offered the job and Japan was, officially, on the table, we had one week to decide. I had been obsessed with the possibility of moving over here, but then shit got real. I had family, friends, a great job, a happy life in Seattle. Give all that up? For what? Sushi? I was a mess. It was impossible to determine what I was feeling. Did I have rose colored glasses for the life that I knew? (Yes.) Did Amos have rose colored glasses for the potential life abroad? (Yes.)

During that crazy week, I ended up calling my cousins, Mike and Meghan, who had lived as expats for six years in Amsterdam and London. I had visited them once when I studied abroad, but in the self-absorbed way that only college-aged kids can really muster, I never thought about their life. They were just there, the adult version of Study Abroad, except they had way nicer digs and seemed to eat more vegetables.

"Just go," they said. "You'll figure it all out over there. Go." Which is all fine and good, but I needed more assurance. I spoke with Meghan, my cousin's wife, who was the trailing spouse. I asked her a million questions: Did she like it? Was she bored? Would she do it again? She gave a piece of advice that stuck with me: Say Yes to everything. Even if it sounds totally lame. You can always quit later, but you never know where it could lead.

Here I was, a totally scared newlywed deciding to move across the world with my husband of two months, and -- boy -- did I take that lesson to heart. Did I want to go grab coffee? Yes. Did I want to take ikebana? Yes. Did I ski? Yes. Did I want to go tomorrow? Yes. I hung out with moms and babies, I hung out with people my parents age, I made no judgements or limited myself in any way.

Let me tell you: this strategy WORKS. True, I have more ongoing craft projects than Martha Stewart (such as hand sewing a yukata, a summer kimono, a hobby so old school that my Japanese tutor thinks it's hilarious). I've made friends and begun to find a niche. Yukata class leads to expat Facebook groups which leads to dinner and karaoke parties that have nothing to do with kimonos. Ikebana leads to Calligraphy which leads to a new friend Jennifer which leads to hiking trails across Japan and barely tea (my newest obsession). Skiing leads to my friend Anna which leads to girls' night where I met a host of other, really fun, really lovely ladies, and I actually left the house past dark without my husband, and I think that's important to do occasionally.

Anna also made a great point that, soon enough, I'll have been over here long enough that I'll wake up one day, get an invite, and think to myself, 'Naw, I don't have time for that, and it's not really my thing.' Just like that, I'll have reached the place where I have a community, a life, and a plan for how to live in this country. My friend Vicki recently reached it about 6 months in. I'm been here just over 3 months, so I'm still very much in the 'YES' phase, but I'm looking forward to the 'Maybe, next time' phase. That's gonna be awesome.

Truth be told, however, I think this 'Yes' philosophy is pretty crucial for living abroad. In fact, I think you have to kind of subscribe to this to even end up over here. You had to say Yes to leaving your comfortable and happy home to move to a great unknown. You had to be willing to Just Go. By doing this, Amos and I have ended up really happy, even considering the inevitable lows and occasional homesickness. If I was to be called one day by someone thinking of being an expat, I'd have the exact same advice. Just Go. You'll figure it out. And don't forget to say Yes.

(Photo via Pintrest with no source (damn them). If you know, please reach out.)

03 May 2012

April 2012 :: a wrap-up

I was going to do a photo wrap up at the end of every month. Just ignore that this is posted May 3rd, not April 30th. Also ignore the fact that I didn't do one for February. I realize that I'm batting about 50% here, but I'm moving forward. (Also, will someone please explain batting percentages to me? Just kidding; I remembered that I don't care).

We're a couple days shy of 3 months in, and it's going pretty well. On one hand, it feels old hat to live in Nagoya, like we've been here much longer then a couple months. On the other hand, I don't yet know how to count above 20, so we have a long way to go. Japan is a wonderful, easy, safe, special country to live in. I'm so happy we moved here. I remind myself of that fact about 15 times a day, as I am also in my first bought of homesickness. My emotions change constantly. When Mike will say something rational (i.e. "Sar, it's 11PM. I'm going to head to bed"), I'll usually end up in tears (i.e. "Why do you never want to hang out with me?! Do you not love me?!"). It's super fun.

I'll write about homesickness later. You know, when I'm not in it. (You get that, right?)

Anyway, photos! April was a good month.

Samurai Warriors... obvi
For the record, I told Amos to take off the sunglasses. (For the record, I was right).
Little Sunday afternoon Hanami
The wind is KILLING my geranium.
Now a fork is holding it up. No shame.
FAIL on wrapping Amos' birthday gift.
Enjoying the spring weather (and Hawaiian food). 
Eating an egg teriyaki hamburger at Freshness Burger.
Hiking in Japan.
I fell in love with these old(er) Japanese hikers. Fell hard. 
The gondola down. Kawaii!!
Enjoying some Washington State birthday wine. Oh, hello, Whidbey Island
Japanese birthday candles. I was a bit obsessed with them.
Studying Japanese on the sunny balcony. Please excuse the slowly dying geranium.
Love it.
Amos making his famous Chicken Adobo
Post Adobo, watching The Wire.
I moved the geranium inside after it lost another battle to the wind.  
American Bar Urban Cowboy. Of course we went in.
Lily made friends with another green bike. 
Taking a photo of pants is really hard. 
The Japanese trash system does NOT mess around.
Belgium Beer Festival. 
I broke my glass five minutes after arriving.
But you aren't surprised by that, are you?  We know each other so well.

02 May 2012

Turning Japanese :: Robo Vac & Bento

The newest updates in the Amos household:

Let's be clear here. I wanted a dog. Amos brought home a robo-vaccuum. 
He's trying to convince me they are basically the same thing.

The robo cleans up crumbs, kind of, and it is always underfoot and running into walls. 

Amos might be right on this one.

I took my first stab at making a bento lunch for Amos. Through an unlucky combination of coconut flour and sunflower oil (I improvised!), the homemade chicken nuggets were kind of (really) burned.  

Amos convincingly said he would eat them anyway, and he was sure they'd be delicious. 

He is a very nice liar. (I appreciate it.)

It being Golden Week and all, the cafeteria at his work is closed, so his back is pretty much up against the wall. I hope the broccoli compensates?

01 May 2012

How I lost my coffee-snob card (damn you Starbucks)

Look, it's no secret that I enjoy coffee. Like, really enjoy it. It started in late college, and through a fortuitous combination of great coffee and deadly boring post-college jobs, it quickly became a every day necessity.

Being in the PNW, there were so many great choices for a coffee shop. My criteria was long and complicated:

1. Good coffee, preferably fair-trade and organic.
2. Comfortable seating area, with tons of natural light.
3. Free wi-fi.
4. Not too crowded, but not too empty either.
5. Fresh pastries.
6. Friendly baristas.
7. Local!

Extra points awarded if they were easy to get to on foot or bike, had gluten or dairy free options, and stayed open late and served beer or wine for the post-coffee hours. I also kind of had a thing for hemp milk. I'm sorry; I'm such a snob I can hardly stand myself.

In Nagoya, my love of coffee has not diminished. My criteria has.. ahem.. simplified quite a bit.

1. Open before 10:00AM.
2. Non-smoking.

Welcome to Japan, bitches. It's full on 1980 here: cash based, limited women in the workforce, and EVERYONE still smokes. I can't stand the small of an unfiltered Lucky Strike in the morning, and I do like to get my coffee at a reasonable time. (See snob comment above). Consequently, and much to the surprise of my former Seattle-residing self, I have ended up a regular... at Starbucks. (See me wave goodbye to the snob card, just like that.)

I know; I KNOW.

Coffee houses here are a different breed: they tend to be a bit dark with a bit of a vintage 1930s feel, and not in a good way:  heavy wood, bitter coffee, an assortment of ashtrays. I want to experience local culture, I do, I do, but, frankly, we all have our limits. My center around natural light, clean air, and freshly roasted beans. When I reach these, I silent curse Amos for not getting transfered to Europe, hop on Lily, and ride to the coffee shop that, though completely corporate and bland, has decent-ish coffee, pastries, wi-fi, and no smoking. There are a couple local chains that can almost compete, like Cafe de Crie and Detour, but then they cave on the whole smoking thing. I just have to ask: As a global population, didn't we catch on to the absurdity of a wall-less "smoking section"? I don't think that partition does shit to keep your nicotine away from my lungs.

Starbucks opens up at 7. You want coffee before then? McDonalds. Yeah, I've been there three times since I landed. No shame. I'm a morning person in a country that, decidedly, doesn't cooperate. (The early morning yoga class is at 8:30. A full three hours later than my old studio). I try and legitimize it, saying things like "I was never that against Starbucks in the States" and "I always used to joke it was local" and "I bet their food standards require that McDonalds uses real meat here." Then I realize that I have a Starbucks punchcard and a McDonalds coupon in my purse. Forget pausing my career, this is sending me into a full blown identity crisis.

Which I'll ponder, while sipping my Starbucks. (When I return to the States, we can forget this ever happened, right?)
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