19 September 2013

A Tour of Our Japanese Apartment

As I type this, I'm standing at my kitchen counter, and movers are bustling around me. Almost all our furniture is out of here, including my grandmother's 1940s sofa that barely fit out the hallway (it's so long -- eeps!). The relocation company estimated a day and a half to pack, but I'm betting they are done in under seven hours (UPDATE: It took 6). I have "Stay" stickers on my computer and on my shoes, just to make sure they don't get boxed up in the whirlwind. Our bags are packed for 45 days in hotel, and they also have "Stay" stickers on them, stacked up in the shower room. The transport company will be here to pick them up at noon, shuffling them up to Tokyo's Narita airport, where we fly out on Friday. We'll meet them there, right before we check in, so we can take the train carrying only small rolley-bags, nice and light. Japan does urban efficiency just so well.

our apartment building

People warned us that Japanese moving companies were unreal: so careful, so detailed oriented, so precise. They would cut boxes to fit your belongings, people said, and lay mats on the ground and tape cardboard to the walls before they even begin. All of this is totally true, but I just didn't expect them to be so fast on top of it all. We are flying, you guys.

With our sweet home all dismantled, I thought I'd give a tour of what it was like while we lived here. I'm always cautious around showing too much of our home to the world wide web, so while I've posted some photos here and there, I've held off on too many until we left. Since I snapped them hours before we began to dismantle, our home is oh-so-not staged. Food jars are empty but not washed, and the bed is kind of more wrinkled than I remember. I swear I thought I dusted. Judge not too harshly, internet.

Our apartment in Nagoya was about the same size as our place back in Seattle (700 sq. ft-ish). Only instead of a 1920s brick building, we moved into a 2008 high rise with all the latest technological advances for earthquakes and typhoons. Even with the speaker system and the camera that allowed you to see who was buzzing your apartment, I was mostly impressed with the way the drawers opened and shut so easily compared to our old kitchen. Charm and quirk are one thing, but I've since become a sucker for the straight lines and efficient insulation of new(er) construction.

Apartment buildings here do not have pools, workout rooms, or other amenities that places in the States sometimes have, but our place had sweet bike parking, and our location was killer, right next to a huge park and a 10-minute walk away from everything. If you find yourself moving to Nagoya, I would highly recommend the Fushimi & Sakae areas. You can't lose.

Apartments in Japan are specified as LDK + number of rooms (LDK means living, dining, & kitchen). We lived in a LDK + 1, which is basically a one-bedroom. Apartments are sized by the number of tatami mats that would cover the floor. These mats are the woven-grass flooring found in traditional houses. New houses often have a tatami room, but ours, unfortunately, did not. They're so comfortable to lounge in.

[Digression: My friend had a tatami room with a table hidden in the floor. You pressed a button, and the table would rise up about a foot and a half. You'd sit at it with your legs dangling down in the cutaway section (think of a sushi restaurant in the States). The table also had an heating element under the table, kotatsu-style, to keep you warm in the winter. If that's not badass, I don't know what is.]

While our place was LDK + 1, our dining room had retractable pocket doors, so we could close off the entire apartment into three rooms, or have it wide open so we could see our living room from our bedroom. It was a big square that we could break down into smaller areas should we need for guests, for privacy, for heating and cooling. This allowed us to use our dining room as a second bedroom when guests visited, or keep it more open concept when we were just hanging out. A fantastic use of space, and the only downside was the lack of noise and light blocking that pocket doors inherently have.

We had a large balcony, and like most in this country, it's pretty utilitarian -- meant for hanging laundry, not have dinner. The thick, high concrete walls prevented any viewing while you were sitting down, but I did love to have coffee or a glass of wine, standing up. As a bonus, if you were out at 8am, the workers at the all-glass-window office building across the street did their morning stretching routing, and you had a prime viewing spot. Floors of matching salarymen doing toe touches and arm crosses: I got a kick of out it for two years straight.

As I told you about before, our apartment was fairly western, but it did have the Japanese toilet and shower room. So efficient. My long ramble on toilets is still one of the most popular posts on Jackson Riley.

Our galley kitchen was semi-open, with a cut-out section above the sink. Kitchens in Japan come with one wall (at least) totally blank. You have to supply your own counter or storage unit, along with your own appliances. Yup, when we moved in, our place had no lights, no fridge, no air conditioner or heater, no washer dryer. It did have a fish grill about the size of a college textbook, which I had no idea what to do with. We furnished our kitchen with my favorite appliance, a fantastic Toshiba fridge, and a standalone IKEA kitchen storage cart that I could not be happier with (similar to this, but bigger and without wheels). Opting to maximize our counter space, I skipped the microwaved / oven combo and stuck it out with our toaster.

Why yes, our sponge IS in the shape of a frog.
I may not have ever really cleaned the outside of this sucker (in case that's not obvious). Sumimasen.

Overall, we loved our little apartment and found it the perfect size for two people. We would have liked a fully separate second bedroom, and a glass barrier on the balcony, instead of concrete, but there's not much else we would have changed. (Okay, okay, I would have sprung for a more powerful convection toaster oven). If we ever do a remodel or build a house, we really want incorporate some of the features we loved (Pocket doors! Separate WC! Shoe closet! Foyer! Kitchen drawers, not kitchen cupboards! Self-filling bathtub with an automatic temperature detector!)

So we're saying goodbye, which always is easier the more empty it becomes. We'll be checking in to the Marriott, our home away from home, soon. Then Tokyo. Then Seattle. さよなら, 日本,  especially to our dear, sweet home. We only will have fond memories.

Okay, maybe we won't miss the complicated trash system. 

12 September 2013

I will forget.

These days, as I bike down the street, as I enter my gym, as I go to the fish market, I'm chanting in my head. Remember, remember. I'm willing myself to make mental photos, like that of my husband lounging on the futon in our ryokan in Kyoto, when I convinced him to wear a matching yukata with a "It'll be our last time" whine. A mental photo of my friend Vikki taking the awkward first sip of nihonshu (sake), where you have to bring your lip down to the glass because it is too full to pick up... It was a just-girls night at our neighborhood soba place, and we ordered two glasses of nihonshu the owner recommended. Sake is a man's drink here, but within 10 minutes of our glasses arriving, two Nihon-jin next to us, also out for a friend date, ordered it. (So don't say I never did anything for feminism, okay?)

Remember, remember. Starbucks at home won't have seven flavors of Frappucino, and you won't put your bag down first to save a seat, and there won't be Disney tunes played on a harp on the speakers. Home will be different. I will forget.

It's the final countdown.* Nine days... no wait, now eight. My dear bike goes to a new home tomorrow, with the AC unit and lights following on Saturday, the fridge and washer and dryer on Sunday. Movers come on Monday and Tuesday (two days for 600 sq feet, Japan?!). We check out on Wednesday, cancel phones and bank accounts, bullet train to Tokyo on Thursday, fly home on Friday. This is real. This is happening. The fat lady is singing as I fold laundry and make list after list. Emotions cloud the brain; I can't rely on myself to remember to pack 45 days worth of underwear and to include something that can pass as Halloween costumes, since we won't have our home delivery before October 31st.

I thought this would be the time of pro and con lists for Japan, for my life here, for my experience as an expat. But it's still too early, my emotions are still too strong. This is the hard part of the move, the part where all you do is say goodbye after goodbye. All of these goodbyes are leaving holes in my heart, little spaces there wasn't before. You need this space when you move to a new home, to fill it up with new people, adventures, and hellos... but this making of the space? Man, it hurts.

I don't want to say goodbye. Even though I know its time to go, it doesn't feel like time to leave. We have made a life here, a sweet life, a good life. Now we say goodbye.

It all feels very real, quite raw, and entirely too fast. Decisions we have made, especially around moving, around leaving, around Japan and America, they all seem wrong, even though I think they might be right. My emotions are sitting heavy in my stomach, and I seem not at all excited about our return. All I can see is our departure.

I will miss the smell of matcha in the underground malls. I will miss the shops and railway stations, the mass transportation, the bicycles. I will miss the courtesy people give each other. Bikes do not yell at cars, cars look out for bikers, children raise their hands as they cross the street to try and help everyone see them. People are not entitled in their being, and there is time. Time for you to get on the subway. You are part of a system. I will miss this, this 和, wa, harmony. Even though I disrupt it unintentionally, and constantly; There are so many levels I just cannot see.

I will miss the attention to detail. The presentation. The intricate cakes and sweets that line the counters of the fancy department store supermarkets, always located in the basement. I will miss the food, the fish markets, the ingredients so fresh you can eat just about anything raw. I will not miss the price of food, or the 15 layers of plastic everything is wrapped in.

I will miss the fashion, where it is okay to care what you look like here. There is no mom-jeans in Japan, and it's such a good thing. I am dreading the Puritanical condemnation of vanity that somehow translates to sloppiness back home, but I will not miss the infantilization of Japanese women with the ruffles and kawaii style. I will miss the old women with purple hair. That's just so, so cool.

I will miss the people who sweep the sidewalks clean each morning with brooms made of sticks tied together, doing what has been done for hundreds of years. I will not miss the calls of irishimase! as I walk into a store, or the hovering shopkeeper. I will miss the silver or leather trays where you put your money to pay. I will miss the two hands people use to take the money, or cards, or gifts, because it does make the giver feel attended to and appreciated.

Little things. Big things.

I will not miss my Japanese washing machine. I will miss my Japanese refrigerator. I will miss the hooks and baskets where you can set your purse so it doesn't touch the floor. I will miss the foyers and shoe closets, and I will most definitely not miss the Japanese style toilets, from which I see why the take-your-shoes-off-culture developed.

The shower room. I will miss the shower room.

I will not miss being different. I will miss being special. I will not miss people checking me out of the corner of their eye as I sit down. I will not miss any mistake I make being chalked up to the fact that I am gaijin.

I will miss my obasaan at they gym, the one who really likes me, even though we can't speak much. I will miss my fellow volunteers at the Nagoya International Center who send me emails on the Fourth of July saying “America is 237 years old, and I love the USA!” I will miss my dear yukata sensei who patiently taught me to sew and whose house was always open to me and my husband. I will miss our friends, scattering to South Africa, England, Argentina, Mexico, Canada, Ohio, and South Carolina. I will miss my Japanese teacher and my English students. I will miss the extra time life allotted Amos and I when we only had to manage one work schedule. I will not miss being a housewife. I will not miss the assumption that my marriage defines me, that my husband’s career is a feather in my cap. I will not miss how easy it is to spend ¥10,000. I will miss the the really, really good sake and the perfectly hardboiled eggs from 7-11 (word). I will miss the politeness and softness of interactions. The convenience and ease of life here. I will miss Japan.

I will really, really miss Japan.

*Arrested Development (You're welcome.)

04 September 2013

Japanese Health & Body Image :: the troublesome

A couple months ago, I went jean shopping. It’s always a dicey proposition here: sizes are small, selection is limited and expensive, and there is something so demoralizing about putting on pants where your butt or thighs or calves (calves, people! calves!) don't fit. But I really wanted a pair of neon jeans for spring, so to the stores I went.

I was so down on myself. I was feeling chubby and big and Western and American. You know how it goes. It’s a constant stream of self-loathing in your head, a knot in your (chubby, tubby, stupid) tummy. 

I found the jeans, but there was only a few sizes left. I grabbed the biggest one available, it fit great (!), and then I realized the number on the waistband. You guys, it was a size I have never worn. I was constantly nagging on my body, feeling so terrible, and I was actually the smallest I've ever been. When I looked in the mirror, even then, I still saw a chubby gaijin.

THIS. This was my wake-up call to the body image problems I began to have in Japan.

Morning and Night (2006) by Misato Suzuki

I recently wrote I wrote about the “good” side of Japanese health: the small portions, the food culture, the movement and mobility of living in the cities. Today I'm tackling the other side, the darker side. I want to be gentle but honest, and caveat this by saying that this country has been a wonderful host to my husband and me the last two years and will forever have a special place in my heart. Japan is not a place where flaws are readily acknowledged, and while I want to be forthright and upfront, I don't want to be judgmental or combative. This post is simply my personal experiences, and I'll tell it from that lens, a personal one, rather than a condemnation of the country's values as a whole (because that is CERTAINLY not my intention). 

Japan is really, really thin. As I sit and write this in a coffee shop, women walk by and are almost uniformly slim. I would guess that an average size here is zero or double zero, with a little bigger woman being a 4-6 (American) size. When I shop in America, the mannequins that display the clothes are crazy small – I don't know one person who actually looks like that. Women here often look like a mannequin: narrow arms, thin thighs, long and lean, head to toe. 

A huge part of this is genetic. Friends who have given birth here mention the doctor has two charts for normal fetus weight, one for Japanese babies and one for Western. In the womb, moments from conception, our frames are different. Turns out “bigger boned” is not just a euphemism.

Circle #4 (2009) by Misato Suzuki

I WISH it didn't bother me. I WISH I had the acceptance to look down at my boobs, my butt, my hips, and be happy (because I've had Japanese friends say they wish they could have boobs. Grass greener and all that). But I came of age during the Kate Moss reign of fashion, and there is something in me that wants to be that thin, even though I don't want to be that thin.

Maple (2006) by Misato Suzuki

After my marathon, I joined a local gym. Gyms are not very common here, and this was a fancy one, with a spa and cycling classes and air conditioning (!!); it was a consolation prize for turning down grad school. I knew the hot, hot summer was coming and that exercise helps my mental state. I have a genetic predisposition to depression and anxiety (and the general Irish moroseness and fatalism), but working out helps considerably. (If I was to dole out any marriage advice at this point, it would be to choose a partner who, when you want to join a crazy expensive gym for all the reasons above, even though it feels super extravagant given your status as an unemployed housewife, he says quickly “I think you should do it” and then offers to go with you to sign up.)

I love my gym. It’s clean and white and has great machines and fun classes. It’s mostly Nihonjin; I am one of the few Westerners and everything is in Japanese. But you guys… the anorexia. I guess I didn't realize it before I was going into a locker room every day, but I've found that women here struggle with eating disorders at a seemingly higher rate than back home. Given the slim build of Japanese women, the layers and loose fitting fashion of clothes here, the hidden nature of this disease, and my general obliviousness, I didn’t notice that some women were riding that line until weeks after I joined the gym.

Someone sick versus someone thin is very easy to spot on a naked body. There are thin women here who are fine, of course, but there are some that are not: women who weigh themselves before and after working out. Women who work out, relentlessly. Whose spine and ribs I can see, whose knee joints stick out from their legs. Who go into the sauna to sweat it out and reweigh themselves before allowing a drink of water. It breaks my heart; it is difficult to put into words. There is nothing I can do, but it is terrible, painful, and sad to watch. I get it, too. Japan is a high-pressure country. There is One Way, and heaven help you if you don’t fit to that. Eating disorders are about control, and I understand why it would seem like a rational proposition for these women, and how quickly it would spin out. 

Even knowing this and witnessing the sickness that some of these women face, I can be terribly bothered when I am the biggest one in my gym class, not even five minutes after leaving the locker room. (Ugh.) When we line up to begin, oftentimes I notice that my thighs are the only ones that touch. That my belly has a curve to it. That my arms are much bigger, even if they are strong and lean.

I tend to workout in standard American wear: running tights and tank tops. Japanese women are just warming up to the tank tops (I like to think I help inspired their fashion exploration!), but they are more covered up, with shorts over their tights and loose fitting t-shirts. I am the only one who must have a sports bra. Given the fashion differences, given the natural body differences, I am often the biggest woman in class, and I’m in the smallest outfit. That does not feel great.

This is what I find troublesome about myself in Japan: that even after seeing the extremely high tolls that a quest for control and perfection can take, I am still disappointingly susceptible to negative and harmful thinking about my body. No matter where you live, I think it's hard to have a healthy body image. I think it is especially difficult in Japan.

Hong Kong (2006) by Misato Suzuki

So, why, you ask, do I continue with the gym? Because even if at the beginning of class I’m down on my body, about halfway through I get so euphoric about what my body can DO. How I can jump, how I can run, how strong I am, how capable my muscles can be. It sounds super cheesy, but I am so grateful for the movement that my body is capable of. I LIKE my body ten minutes into class. 

I also like the company that these women can give me, who ask where I was if I miss a day or ask how my weekend was. I like the structure gym can give my life here, and the benefit of having a place to go when it’s so easy to become a homebound housewife during the long, hot summer. Also, it has a free coffee machine. I'm a sucker.

When I moved abroad, I thought Americans were fat. Like, that was our thing, maybe along with baseball and pizza. What I've realized though is that Japanese are thin and the rest of the world is fat. Obesity is a huge global problem, and one that I think will be very complicated to solve. I can't look at the rates increase over the last 30 years and think it’s simply a problem of individuals eating too much. I think that American and the Western world’s food sourcing and composition has gone goofy, and we need a multi-pronged approach to begin to fix it. In my mind, living abroad has cemented that obesity is not a single person’s fault but rather a failing we, as developed nations, have as a community.

But it has also awoken me to the immense pressures of staying thin, a problem we don't face to this degree in the US. Where there is so much pressure to be perfect, to be the same, to be in control, it can rear its head in ugly ways. Given the massive weight gain other countries are facing, it's a problem that’s easy to ignore or downplay. The Japanese are naturally thin, yes, but there is more at play and more pressure than initially apparent. There is only one word for fat in Japanese. This is a language that has soft and polite expressions for just about everything (there is a nice and honorific way to ask for water!) but not one for being heavy. In English, a rather ineloquent language, we have many (chubby, heavy, pudgy, overweight, rotund, curvy). In Japanese, you are fat or you are thin. Additionally, I don't think there is no expression similar to the English one “painfully thin.” Language and vernacular can be a telling thing.

Marching Band Through Prague (2011) by Misato Suzuki

To be a Westerner in this environment can be difficult. It can play with your head something fierce. Why am I so big? Why are ALL these women so small? I work out! I eat healthy! I should be a triple zero too! I have to remind myself that THIS IS CRAZY. Often times, I wish I could be a beacon of self-acceptance and not be bothered by being able to meet the unattainable standards that my society deems attractive. That wouldn't be true, and it does bother me, and I have to remind myself to breathe and to let it go. To practice self-care and self-love. To practice honestly about my body and my health, about my country’s status of health, about Japan’s status of health. For the sake of the women at my gym, I wish Japan was perfect and didn't have this unhealthy side… but I am glad I was here long enough to see it and to understand that no country has it all figured out, that no place has “healthy living” nailed down. It reminds me to be gentle with others, and to do that, I have to be most gentle to myself. Touching thigh biscuits* and all.

*Thanks, Tina Fey.

02 September 2013

Japanese Health & Body Image :: the good

‘Japanese people are healthy.’ Of all the stereotypes that exist about this country, this is probably one of the most innocuous and accepted. Of course it’s not that simple; we can't say that this country is the ONE to have discovered how to be healthy, and the rest of the world has remained willfully ignorant, gorging on lasagna. It’s more complicated than that, more nuanced. That’s annoying because I moved over here hoping that I could, for once and for all, nail down the secret formula before I moved home to America, land of the fatso.


Moments before I write a blog post like this, I tend to take a deep breath. A pause before I jump off the cliff that is A Difficult And Nuanced Subject. Writing about things like this – body image, health, culture, food, big Ag – woah, it can be loaded. My pause before writing has lasted months on this one. It’s tricky, and I'll do my best, and I urge you to be gentle and have patience with me. 

photo: Maureen Chaffurin

I'm going to focus this on what I've noticed about Japan, rather than a condemnation of America, and I'll be breaking it up into two posts. One, today’s, is a more positive one, with a focus on healthy food and active lifestyle. The next one will be about body image and some of the problems I've witnessed in this culture. Okay? Okay. (UPDATE: Part II here)

If I was to distill the food culture of Japan into a short phrase, a lá Michael Pollan, I'd probably say something like this: Real food, dictated by tradition, in tiny portions. 

When we moved to Japan, we lived in the hotel for over a month and were eating out often. The first thing Amos and I noticed was the portion size. Traditional Japanese meals have several small dishes, each with only two to four bites. Arranged to showcase color and texture, the visual presentation is as important as the taste. The small plates spread out on a tray means that less food is given, and the chopsticks make you eat slower (you can't ‘shovel’). Your stomach has time to recognize that it’s full. This is the opposite of family style; there are no ‘seconds’ or ‘help yourselves.’ 

photo: Maureen Chaffurin

Even at restaurants not traditionally Japanese, the small portion sizes are quickly apparent. A medium pizza at Dominos is slightly larger than my outstretched palm. Cokes in the vending machines are 6 ounces. Hamburger and fry sizes are straight out of 1950. Small (the size below ‘tall’) at Starbucks is the most commonly ordered, and I've never seen anyone walk out with a Venti or Grande. It’s like Japan missed the “supersize me” movement. 

Once we moved into our apartment, I began to go to the little grocery store down the street, and I found the same thing. A bag of chips is 10 ounces, barely larger than snack size. A bundle of asparagus is 5 stalks. A loaf of bread is 1/3 of the size of the ones back home. It means that I go to the grocery store more often, yes, but it also meant that our food waste almost completely disappeared. Our portion sizes have decreased at home as I naturally bought and cooked what is available to me.

For the first couple weeks, I'll admit it was an adjustment. I was hungry! Amos and I would often stop by the kombini (convenience store) to pick up a snack because dinner didn't seem like “enough.” Slowly, our stomachs began to adjust. Small portions made me feel better; I rarely found myself too full after overeating. We began to order several small plates and share. We began to order a little at first and a little more later, if we were still hungry. Food is expensive, so there is also a financial incentive for this kind of behavior.

I also began to realize how FRESH the food seemed. Eggs yolks are bright orange instead of a muted yellow. All the fish is sashimi grade. Inventory at our supermarket is kept low and moved quickly. Sometimes things are in stock; sometimes they aren't. Produce and fruits are limited to just what was in season. Strawberries in early summer, grapes in late summer, figs in fall. Good luck getting anything beyond grapefruit and persimmon in winter. We eat a LOT of cabbage and broccoli. Even in grocery stores, food is expensive, especially fruits and vegetables. This can be annoying at times, problematic at others. On my last visit home, my doctor noticed my vitamin levels were lower than normal and asked what ‘color’ my plate was. I realized I'd been relying too much on greens. I now cough up the dough to add in bell peppers, and I do sincerely miss the variety and abundance of farmer’s markets and produce aisles back home. (Soon, you guys. Soon.)

We eat less here, and what we eat is fresher. But here’s the kicker: it takes NO more effort than our eating habits back home. In the natural course of living here, mimicking the old ladies in our grocery store, our diets have changed. I give no real thought to calorie restriction and we eat rice, mayo, pork, avocados, nuts, soy sauce, and a whole host of other ‘high fat’ or 'bad for you' foods. We don't eat gluten free or vegan, but we eat much less dairy and wheat. I have to almost seek it out when I want it. Shockingly, I don’t miss it as much as I expected. It’s there when I do want it, and to eat it is a conscience choice. I don't ‘accidently’ eat wheat or dairy here, the same way I don't ‘accidently’ eat high-fructose corn syrup. This makes me feel better. I don't feel deprived, but rather like my diet has been ‘right-sized.’ It feels normal, even to me as a bread lovin’ American.

photo: Maureen Chaffurin

What I am extremely envious is Japan’s cultural history of food. Given the homogeneous and relatively isolated environment, Japan has a very apparent and well-established history with food. There is little discussion on what is healthy and what is not, or what you should eat and when you should eat it. There are fad diets galore (last summer it was tomatoes and you couldn't find a damn one at the stores…), but there is also a consensus. Onigiri is a good lunch, nori is part of a balanced diet, and subtle flavors are an indicator of a healthy food, strong flavors of rich or fatty food. In a complete mind-fuck, fruits are at the top of the food pyramid, right up there with sugars and fats. Tea counts as water (even naturally caffeinated green tea). Fatty foods exist, for sure, but they are more 'real.' Karage, or fried chicken, has a higher chicken to fried coating ratio. It’s always recognizable as chicken, if that makes sense. You eat two pieces for a splurge – the large chicken part of the fried chicken makes it so filling!

More than food, though, it’s the lifestyle. For instance, Amos: to be him in Japan can be an exhausting experience. You wake up, put on gym shorts, you hop on your single speed cruiser bike and pedal 40 minutes to work. Change clothes at the office, then walk up five flights of stairs to your desk. There is an elevator, but no one is supposed to use it, even the poor guy who has to refill the vending machine. You sit at your desk, where office temperatures are kept at a balmy 85 degrees year round in the name of energy conservation. For lunch you can go to Indian or sushi, but more likely, you'll end up in the cafeteria where the food cost is subsidized by the company, and it’s pretty basic. When your day ends, you bike home, and dinner is served on a salad-sized plate. You and your wife ‘retired’ the dinner-sized plates a while ago when you realized they had become too big. You decide to go to the movies. Hop back on your bike and ride for 10 minutes. Park the bikes and walk down the stairs to an underground mall. You know there’s an elevator somewhere, but you've never been able to find it. You decide to get a beer at the theater. Live it up! Can’t do that in America! The beer is 8 ounces. 

This is Japan. You want to go somewhere? Walk. Cycle. Subway (which involves walking and stairs). Driving is expensive and inconvenient within the city, so when you want to go to dinner, you walk. Grab a drink with a friend? Walk. Japan is not ADA compliant, so there are few elevators and ramps, and if you do seek those out, you feel like a loser because only people who really need them, like stroller-pushing parents or walker-toting older people, are using them. 

Life in Japan is movement. It’s often sweaty and crowded and, simply put, not conducive to being big or heavy (or tall. Sorry basketball players). Japan has figured out that for urban centers to thrive, density is important, and the most efficient way for people to travel is by foot, bike, train. The side effect is that your body is in motion. It’s not foolproof – there are Japanese people who are overweight, and its not enough movement to compensate for an unhealthy diet or incorrect portion sizes. But it is a lifestyle and, like the food, it feels normal and healthy. It takes very little effort, and most days I do not ‘miss’ a car (as opposed to trying this in the States, where I felt the lack-of-car acutely). Similar to those 1950 sized hamburgers, it seems vintage and quaint, and then it hits you there maybe there is something to that tiny waist your grandmother had.

Amos works out much less than he did in Seattle. He’s lost about 10 pounds and full pant size since moving here. I did not think he needed to lose any weight at all when we moved, and then it just came off! It’s all through portion size, food choices, and increased daily movement. That’s the thing that shocks me about Japan: it can be very easy to be healthy here.

Oft times, health is tied to weight, and I do think there is a very strong correlation. But it is the movement of life here that keeps people mobile, with joints working, lungs breathing, muscles moving. This, combined with healthy weight, makes hearts happier and lives longer. Weight is a good indicator of health, but not the only one, and I don't want to seem like the two are interchangeable. It's Weight + Movement.

Now for a disclaimer: I have had to work harder since I moved to Japan. My status as a housewife is less mobile than my life back home, where I bused and biked to work. When I moved here, the snacks at the kombini were too enticing, and, thanks to hotel living, it took awhile to find a new balance. I put on 10lbs that I have worked to slowly lose and get back to my ‘normal.’ Look, being healthy in Japan is easy. I didn't say it was idiot proof.

photo: Maureen Chaffurin

Amos and I have found Japan to be a great place for us, and now that we are looking to moving back to America, we're thinking about what we will take home. There are many, many things that only work in Japan – often times, The Japanese Way is not exportable. Here, companies monitor employee’s health, putting them on exercise and diet plans if they show a weight gain at their annual check up. Is that exportable to America? Riiiight… for better or worse, that’s a little too Big Brother for our Independent Individual national identity. 

We can't, and perhaps shouldn't, take everything. But can we make a conscience effort to be mindful of portion sizes, especially when eating out? (Last time I was home, I automatically ate only half of a meal when I was at a restaurant, and it was perfect.) Can we consciously make an effort to eat fresh and unprocessed food, even if that means we shop more often at a farmer’s market and pay more for our groceries? Can we be upfront and honest with our bodies and be mindful when we begin to gain weight and stop it before it becomes a problem? In Japan, I've seen that to be old doesn't mean you have to be big. That is up there with one of the biggest lessons this country has taught us. More than chopsticks, more than kimono, how to age in a way that keeps extra kilos off and allows you to be mobile and active into your 80s… that is a lesson I hope to keep close to my heart as we head home. I want to grow up and be an old Japanese woman. 

An article like this will always be incomplete. Imperfect and prone to generalizations and bias. These rambling thoughts are simply my personal and anecdotal ruminations after living here for two years, especially as we begin to move home. There is so much more on this topic. I’ll post about the downsides, (and woo-eee, there are some). There is much to admire, though, about Japan’s food culture, about how the Japanese live and are healthy, and I am very, very thankful I was able to live here and see it.

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