Friday, May 29, 2009

Money, Money

First of all I have never carried around so much cash in my life. People don't write checks here. I don't even know where our checkbook is! And we rarely use credit cards although they are more widely accepted than what we first understood. For us because we don't have a Japanese credit card our purchases carry an additional 3%. And when things are already so unbelievably expensive why bother spending more than we have to? So we use cash ALL the time. It's often a topic of conversation in the morning, 'Do you need cash? Are you going to the ATM? Here, take all of my money and I'll just go to the ATM. If I go this morning you can take more out after 2 PM.' It's kinda fun.

The Yen is an easy one to figure out against the dollar as I have mentioned before. The kids caught on very quickly. The '100' Yen (~$1) comes in the form of a coin and the '1000' Yen (~$10) as a bill. But because we are in Tokyo and because the 100 Yen is a coin - we use it like a quarter - or so it seems. The kids want a gumball from the machine? Sure here's a 100 Yen. It doesn't seem to be worth as much because it's a coin. And we use the 1000 Yen bill more like a dollar - crazy.

It's a little strange to send your kid off to school with their club/activity fees in an envelope. 'Nick, make sure you give that 20,000 Yen to your teacher.' Gulp. I once found an envelope on the ground with about 35,000 Yen in it. Fortunately, it was an English speaking family who wrote a name on it and said it was for Kimono pics. I figured it was an International School close by and got the money into the right hands, but that's what I am talking about! No one has lost any money yet. I'm just the one who makes the costly mistakes like buying a rice warmer instead of a rice cooker. If I had written down every time I made some purchasing mistake I would flip out, whether it was food that wasn't what I thought it was or hey, how about the nail polish that didn't have a price, but I thought 'How expensive could it be at this drug store?' It could actually be about 21 dollars. Ahh!!!

We have also learned that exact change is appreciated. The cashiers don't seem to mind as I count out my Yen - Yen by Yen. And you know you are in Japan when you hand them the equivalent of 100 dollars when in fact you only need to pay 10 dollars that they won't rip you off. Early on I would often just hold out a handful of change and let them pick out what they needed. The good and trustworthy Japanese.

We definitely are a bit more aware of how much money we are spending since we aren't dropping the plastic all the time. A perk of cash verses credit however is that there is no credit card statement to 'report' how I spent my money... Yeah, Jack, I must have spent A LOT on groceries this week, mostly on butter I think ;)

Thursday, May 28, 2009

10 things we like to do at the Japanese convenience store

There are an amazing number of convenience stores, 40,000 in Japan to be exact. Combini is the Japanese word for convenience store which actually comes from the word convenience - since the 'v' isn't used here, it's replaced with the 'b' and then just shortened up a bit or something like that. The ones most commonly seen every block or so include some familiar ones from the states and some new ones: Lawson, am/pm, Circle K, Family Mart and 7- Eleven. Why would I mention something that is so similar to the states? Well, we are able to accomplish quite a bit at these little shops and I learn everyday the endless amount of services that they provide. These are our favorite 10 things to accomplish at our Japanese 7-Eleven.

10. Observe the business men in their black suits at lunch time line up along the magazine rack and read comics

9. Make copies on the copying machine with a little help from the cashier to read the buttons - green does not necessarily mean 'print'

8. Get cash

7. Pay utility bills

6. Add money to the balance of the phone calling card

5. Use the Pasmo (public transportation card) to pay for purchases since nobody really uses credit cards here - ever.

4. Buy ice cream and candy - Coolish, an aluminum pouch filled with ice cream with a screw off lid and limited edition flavors of Kit Kat - these go fast!

3. Buy some onigiri for lunch - rice filled triangles with tuna, salmon etc...wrapped with nori and many other healthy lunch/dinner options that I haven't tried - yet.

2. Buy baseball tix or concert tix

1. Drop off the dry cleaning - Jack's lucky find - cheapest deal in town !

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Let the rain begin

We are headed towards rainy season here, hopefully we will miss most of it while home in the states. In any case, this is what you get when you make a purchase at most stores on a rainy day. Nice huh? Sometimes the packaging is a good thing, although still unnecessary. You also get a good workout lifting and lowering your umbrella on the crowded sidewalks as well as dodging a few that don't move for you.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Sayonara Parties

As we near the end of our first year - well school year - here in Japan, we prepare to say good-bye to some new friends and our kids will do the same to some of their new friends. Traditionally one holds a sayonara party, and unfortunately due to economic times there are a lot of sayonara parties over the next few weeks. It's quite an emotional time for those leaving. For some, they knew their time was up, for others it was unexpected. Now the question is not, 'How long have your been here?' but 'When is your leaving date?' No one ever wants to leave the expat life here in Tokyo. I was talking to a woman yesterday and saying how much we've liked it so far and her response was, 'Yeah, what's not to like?' (except for the butter that still costs 14 dollars a pound, no I can't let that one go) So we look forward to celebrating the last hurrah with our new friends, but are sad to see them leave, yet are grateful we are able to stay. No one really ever knows how long they have here anymore, things change so quickly. So we try to make the most of it while we can. We are fortunate no matter what comes our way.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Did you get the mail?

Mail. Not so interesting here. Quite a relief to not get ridiculous amounts of credit card applications and charity requests with address labels on a daily basis. Instead our 'junk' mail consists of shiny paper with pictures of food, usually sushi or pizza advertisements. I never know where they are from as it is all of course in Japanese. We do get some real estate advertisements also in very nice shiny plastic covers with elaborate brochures in thick paper like catalogs. The pain then becomes separating the plastic cover from the paper so that we can throw half of it away in 'burnable' and half of it away in 'non-burnable'. Does the shiny advertisement go in burnable or recyclable with the magazines? I still don't know and my mood at that time decides the final resting place of all that paper. There is important mail. Bills. Sometimes I look at a piece of mail and I have no idea if it's junk mail or maybe a bill. By now I know most of it, but a few stump me from time to time. Jack will have to take some bills into work, because we aren't quite sure what to do with them. The best mail we recently received was something with our name on it and and a decent amount of money at the bottom of what I thought was a bill. I wondered, 'What could we possibly owe? What is this bill for?' Jack learned at work that it was a stimulus check from the government. Whee!

Glad I didn't throw that one out.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Kappabashi... or my Heaven

Imagine a street with kitchenware vendor after vendor and take away the Tokyo price. This is Kappabashi. A street lined with wholesale kitchen/restaurant goods and tons of other 'I don't need, but have to have' sorts of items. This is my favorite place to shop in Tokyo. Each time I am there I always end up rushing to the train, sweating with multiple bags in tow so that I can make it in time for preschool pick-up. And I always think I can squeeze in just one more shop, then I remember how long they take to wrap items, although very well, I have to move on. It is also here that you will find all of the plastic food for the restaurant display cases including: sushi, fish, pasta dishes, toast with jam, beer, ...anything and everything. The plastic food costs twice as much as the real thing. Go figure.
In this shop I was trying to mix and match some bowls and when I went to pay, the guy shook his head and said, 'No, only 5' I was like, 'huh?' I looked at the other gaijin and they gave me the knowing look of 'yeah, good luck trying to figure out what he's saying.' When I didn't put back my items and continued to browse he brought another guy who spoke some English and he sort of explained that I had to buy 5 of the same thing, no mixing. That was common in a lot of other shops - this does cater to the restaurants, so it makes sense, but I didn't want 5 of the same, so I left. I managed to find a few that let me buy just one.

Coffee everything

My main goal for this particular trip was to purchase a chef's knife and have them inscribe my name in Katakana on the knife. One of the three guys spoke pretty good English, otherwise I don't know what would have ended up on my knife. I'll have to ask the kids if it says what it is supposed to say. Initially one guy said ' Two alphabets only' So I thought - okay my initials. But I hate my initials, BM, I usually put BSM, but that clearly wasn't going to fit. So I write BM down on a piece of paper for them and the men all look at it laugh about something - they couldn't be laughing at the meaning of my initials could they? I told them I wanted it in Katakana. "Oh......" they said and then chatted away, back and forth and finally English speaking man says - ' Too long in Katakana' as he sounded it out. So I settled for just the 'M' I think.

The Union Tokyo Knife shop

Making the 'M'

Basket vendor

Restaurant sign vendor

Kitchenware vendor

More kitchen stuff

The best part -ceramics

Whaddya need?

And the fake food shop, but it looks pretty good! Hey is that sushi on that cake?

Must click on these photos to see them in larger form to appreciate all of the fake food and beer

The beer is great, there are ice crystals on the cans that appear incredibly real .

Friday, May 8, 2009

Sign of the Month

Saw this on the sidewalk in Asakusa

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Golden Week

We are at the end of Golden Week. This ranks as a big one in Japan. A week that celebrates 4 holidays which ultimately means that none of the Japanese are working and everyone takes a holiday or vacation. The 4 holidays include: Showa Day, the birthday of the former Emperor, Constitution Day, Greenery Day, but the only holiday that seemed to draw a lot of attention was Kodomo no hi, Children's Day, formerly 'boy's festival'. The Japanese fly carp windsocks everywhere. The streamers represent the hope for children's success, health and happiness.

During this 'Golden Week' at preschool all the dads are picking up and dropping off except for Jack as he prefers to save his vacation days for our longer trips. Our kids all had school being in international schools, so it made sense for him to be at work. It's also much easier when you are the only one in the office. I, myself, celebrated by lying in bed with some nasty stomach bug. The illnesses here are different, can't quite explain it, just different which makes it a little scary. I am slowly returning to an actual functioning human being. I had to resurface as two days in bed = an unrecognizable apartment. One of the days that I spent in bed Connor was home with me and I later learned he had Vanilla Wafers for lunch (no, they don't sell them here, we shipped those in). Poor child. He wasn't complaining though.

To recognize Kodomo no hi the kids in both schools created their own koi no bori (carp streamers). And of course, the curse of the middle child, I only have photos of Kate and Connor, but not Nick. When I asked him why he wasn't in the picture from school he told me that was the day he was home sick. Oh well.
Connor's class created a giant carp streamer. They are usually completely immersed in their art. I only remember that Wednesday is Art with Miss Shioh because he comes home with multicolored jeans, paint in his hair and a shirt that will never be the same again even after the full body smock. They have a great time.

The Carp windsocks flying at TIS

Kate's Japanese class showing off their origami koi no bori

Friday, May 1, 2009

I guess we've been here a while

At dinner tonight the flu came up for discussion and when Kate referred to the dreaded disease she called it -the shrine flu. I couldn't stop laughing. I'm still laughing. She is clearly aware of the culture that surrounds her.