Planning for the Future

Without revealing too much, for now, Brett and I finally have put together a solid, sensible, and workable plan for what we’re doing following our short visit to Portland in June when Brett meets with the surgeon and sets a date for his parathyroid surgery (it’s non-urgent and he’s hoping to get it done in December).

The amount we currently contribute toward YaYu’s college expenses each month has had a deep impact on how much we can put away each month for travel expenses. We’re not able to save as much for our transportation expenses (airfare, train fares, etc.), and our travel savings account is now, for all purposes, close to empty. Thankfully all major transportation has been covered through our trip to New England in June, but we still need to purchase airfare from Boston to Portland in June, and then transportation when we depart Portland. We should be able to fit both of those into our monthly budget between now and June if we’re careful, but it’s no longer as easy to do as it once was.

Also, we want to come to a decision about whether to continue traveling or slowing and settling down. There are strong plusses and minuses to each side, with the biggest and most difficult question until recently being where to settle. We’ve pretty much decided at this point that we want to return to Kaua’i, but we also know we’re not ready to do that yet for a variety of reasons.

The plan we’ve come up with tackles these two big issues: 1) whether we’re ready to settle down or want to keep traveling and 2) continue to help YaYu pay for college while rebuilding our travel account.

We will arrive at our upcoming mystery destination on April 20, and after a couple of weeks of settling in we will start looking for a long-term furnished rental there. We will finish our initial stay in the mystery location toward the end of May and afterward will visit New York, attend WenYu’s graduation, spend some time in Maine, and finally head to Portland in June so Brett can meet with the surgeon. Following that, we will return to the mystery destination for a 12-18 month stay (we will fly back to Portland in December for Brett’s surgery and possibly for our annual holiday reunion with the girls). During our long-term stay, we’ll have the opportunity to further explore a fascinating area that’s new to us as well as get a sense of what settling down long term again feels like without having to make any big or permanent investments. We’ll be able to see whether or not we really are ready to finally stay in one place or whether we’re still too restless. 

Our current idea though is that following at least a year-long stay, we’ll do one more big round of travel and visit a few more places on our list. That, of course, will depend on how much we can save and what our health is like. The idea though is to seriously think about ending our full-time travels after YaYu’s graduation in 2022 and head over to Kaua’i afterward. We still plan to travel, but with a more permanent base underneath us.

Of course, as the saying goes, “Man makes plans and God laughs.” But, we’ve done our research, and the plan is workable, affordable, and a good compromise between continuing or ending our nomadic lifestyle. Unlike other plans we’ve come up with, the entire family is on board with this one, and think it’s a great choice for us going forward.

We’ll reveal more once we arrive at the mystery location. In the meantime, we plan to continue to enjoy our time with family in one of our favorite locations, Tokyo! 

A Secret Slice of Nature in Tokyo

Looking out over the Tokyo metropolis, riding one of its subways or trains, or walking down a busy street, it’s hard to believe that there could be anything natural left in all of the massive sprawl of concrete one sees. And yet, located in the Setagaya Ward of Tokyo, is a hidden slice of (mostly) untamed nature: Todaroki Valley Park. Brett and I visited the park last year and it was high on our list of places we wanted to visit again this year.

The Todaroki Valley, a deep ravine, is the only one of its kind in Tokyo, carved out over hundreds of thousands of years by the Yazawa River. While the river is hemmed in by stone walls these days to prevent erosion, it still can be heard running over the rocks that line the bottom and sides, and visitors can stroll an almost one-kilometer path that sits next to the river as it weaves through the park. It’s still wild enough that visitors are warned not to visit during heavy rain as the river can flood quickly and overrun the walls. Benches have been placed along the way for visitors to sit and relax, read, or eat while enjoying the natural beauty of the park.

The park is home to some small shrines as well the Setsugetsuka tea house, serving tea and traditional sweets to visitors (it was closed when we visited last week), and a small walled Japanese garden located on the hillside near the end of the path. At the far end of the park is the Todaroki Fudō shrine, accessed by a long, steep flight of stairs. This tidy little shrine boasts an elevated platform for both cherry blossom and autumn leaf viewing, and has a shop offering amulets and other religious items for visitors. We were too early this year for the cherry blossoms, but some plum trees around the shrine were in bloom, and it was easy to imagine the hillside next to the shrine covered in blossoms or fall colors.

No matter the season, Todaroki Park is rarely crowded, always quiet and peaceful, and a unique place to escape the hustle and bustle of busy Tokyo and enjoy the natural world without ever having to leave the city.

Food Shopping in Japan Week 5: What We Bought, What We Spent

We stopped at a snack store across the street from Tokyu on the way home in the evening to get Brett some crackers, and found a new flavor of KitKats: nuts & cranberry covered in ruby chocolate. Total spent: ¥600/$5.46.

I wasn’t sure whether I was going to post about our food shopping trip this week, but we decided to shake things up a bit and do our shopping at the Tokyu store, the other nearby grocery store. We wanted to see how prices there compared with Seiyu’s and if it was really all that much more expensive. We shopped at Tokyu almost the whole time we were here last year, only discovering Seiyu a couple of weeks before we left.

We were frankly getting a bit tired of Seiyu. Its floor area is smaller than the Tokyu store, so products were spread out over three floors: paper goods and cleaning/laundry supplies on the second floor, prepared foods, wines and snacks (i.e. KitKats) on the first floor, and groceries in the basement (department store basements are often grocery stores here). We always had to plan in advance what we were going to pick up first and then figure out whether we needed to use the stairs, escalator, or elevator to get from floor to floor. Shopping on different floors also required us to walk through areas of the store where we didn’t need or care to go (i.e clothing, cosmetics, etc. – Seiyu is owned by Walmart). At Tokyu, everything is on one floor and it’s strictly groceries. It’s also a newer store and brighter than Seiyu, which to be honest is getting a bit shabby in places. Tokyu also carries a larger variety of foods. However, Seiyu is less expensive and their quality is good.

Brett and I typically shop together but yesterday K was home sick from school and we were asked if we could come over and watch her for the day. Brett initially went over to our son’s on his own so I could do the shopping, then I joined him once that was done and things were put away. I bought everything on our list except for three items, which I forgot in my hurry to get done. We stopped in for those items on our way home this evening.

Here’s what we bought:

Dairy: I got the usual: milk, yogurt, Yakult and eggs. However, I was able to get both nonfat milk and nonfat yogurt, neither of which is available at Seiyu (both were store brands). Eggs were the same price, but the milk, yogurt, and Yakult cost ¥94/86¢ more at Tokyu than at Seiyu.

Meat: Meat purchases this week were sliced pork for a CookDo stirfry, and two packages of chicken tenders to use for Thai red curry chicken. Meat is definitely more expensive at Tokyu. The total for these three packages was ¥967/$8.80, around ¥150 over what they would have cost at Seiyu.Produce: With a couple of exceptions, produce at Tokyu cost less and was better looking too. I bought a tomato, four Fuji apples, half cabbage, three cucumbers, cilantro, a package of five bananas, and a package of strawberries. The strawberries and bananas were more than they are at Seiyu (¥498/$4.53 for one package of strawberries versus ¥377, and ¥178/$1.62 for the bananas versus ¥89/81¢, although there were five bananas in the package versus four).

Pantry items: I bought one package of CookDo sauce for a cabbage and pork stir fry for ¥178/$1.62, which is just ¥10 more than the regular price at Seiyu. The little bottle of sesame dressing (¥132/$1.20) will be used for coleslaw later this week. At Seiyu I would have had to buy a full-size bottle of dressing that we probably wouldn’t have finished before we left.

Prepared foods: Tokyu has an amazing prepared food section compared to Seiyu, especially their sushi, and their prices are more reasonable. The quality seems a little higher as well. Along with two packages of sushi I also bought one small package with three shumai and one of five gyoza for my lunch today (¥386/$3.50).

Miscellaneous: I picked up one package of “thick” matcha KitKats. They’re ¥50 more per package at Tokyu. Along with the cranberry ones above, we currently have 19 different flavors.

Second trip items: Brett and I picked up a bottle of fabric softener, an avocado, and a package of inarizushi. The total for all three items was ¥808/$7.35. The price per avocado was nearly double what we paid at Seiyu.

So, how did our total at Tokyu compare with Seiyu? I spent ¥5,996 on my initial shopping trip, then ¥808 on our second stop, and ¥600 yen at the snack shop for a total of ¥7,404/$67.39, still well under our ¥10,000 limit. Our total was around ¥600 (about $5.50) over what we typically spent for the same items at Seiyu, so not as much as we imagined it would be. We also had a much nicer shopping experience overall so we’ll probably be going back to Tokyu, but will continue to be careful about what we buy.

Sunday Morning 2/16/2020: Week 4 in Japan

After nearly a month here, it feels like we’ve settled into a nice routine. We get up when we want in the morning, usually between 8:00 and 9:00 and take our time reading and catching up with the news and other stuff while we drink coffee. We do laundry as necessary, our grocery shopping on Monday, or head out in time to visit a new place and/or pick up the grandkids from their respective schools. Our grandson spends the night with us on Friday. As far as exciting travel goes, this is not it, but we are enjoying it all, and getting a feel for what life for us would be like if we were living here, both the good parts and the limitations. This visit is more of a respite, and after so many times here we’re making the most of having time to relax and spend with our family rather than rushing around to see the sights. We’re having lots of fun discovering places in the area where we haven’t been before.

We always love picking up this little pixie from her hoikuen. She is a good walker, always cheerful, and loves to ride trains and buses.

A friend asked this past week what we pay to rent our apartment here. The amount – $2200 per month – surprised her because she thought it would be much more due to the size, amenities, and location of our place (the rent also includes all utilities). We know we are getting a very good deal on rent, especially when compared to this tiny, very basic apartment through Airbnb located in our neighborhood, which goes for $4226 per month, with just a hot plate in the kitchen and a combined living room and bedroom, or this even tinier apartment, where just three weeks cost over $2600! Thanks to not having to pay those kinds of high prices, and along with our knowledge of Tokyo and access to nearby exchanges and commissaries, we’re able to stay longer and live here for less. Tokyo is expensive no matter what and seems to be getting more expensive all the time, but we have learned (and are still learning) how to get around that in order to spend some extended quality time with our son, daughter-in-law, and grandkids in a location we love.

After all the time we’ve spent in Japan, I thought I couldn’t be surprised anymore by the many ways English is used here, but on Friday I had to question everything again. On the train coming back from Todaroki Park, an elegant, middle-aged woman got on the train and stood in front of us. She was carrying a chic designer purse and this bag:

I have to believe she had no idea what those words meant or implied, but our eight-year-old grandson sure wanted to know all about it, especially why the words “whip, handcuffs, and panties” were combined in a sentence. I think we handled his questions pretty well but I forwarded the picture to our son so he’s forwarned if more arise.

This morning I am: 

  • Reading: I finished The Daughters of Cain and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, and just started The Hunting Party, a thriller by Lucey Foley, which came off hold from the library last night. I put six books on hold and was honestly surprised by how quickly this one became available as I was nowhere near the top of the list.
  • Listening to: Rain, rain, rain! After a week filled with blue skies and warmer than usual temperatures, this morning we woke to the sound of rain outside. I guess if it has to rain, today’s the day for it as we have no plans other than to stay indoors and rest and read.
  • Watching: Brett and I started watching The Stranger on Netflix last week, and have been watching one episode per evening this week – we still have three to go. It’s our favorite type of show, a slow-burning mystery with lots of different threads that will (hopefully) come together at the end. We’ve been tempted to binge-watch but have so far resisted.
  • Cooking: Tonight we’re going to finally try out the oven and fix one of the frozen pizzas we bought at the commissary. It’s a pesto and mozzarella pie from Urban Pie, a brand we’ve never tried (or heard of), but it looked good and sounds delicious. Also for dinner this week we’ll be having sushi (from the prepared foods section); beef tacos; cabbage and pork stir fry; quesadillas (which will include some of the leftover taco filling); and chicken in Thai red curry sauce along with sesame-ginger coleslaw. We took our grandson to KFC this past week for our dining out, so we’ll try the Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki place this week. We’re going to have to pick a different night for going out though as it looks like he will be staying with us every Friday (yeah!) and we don’t want McDonalds, KFC, or Mos Burger every week. This past week we discovered a Mister Donut on the other side of Sangenjaya station and we’ve already been asked if we can go there next Friday evening.
    One of the many sets of stairs I climbed up and down on Friday. This one was five flights.
  • Happy I accomplished this past week: We got in another good week of walking. Daily steps ranged from 3,600 to over 10,000 on a couple of days but usually averaged closer to 6,500. On Friday I climbed 32 flights of stairs! We had a somewhat easier week of picking up the grandkids, although when we brought our grandson home on Thursday (from basketball practice) that involved getting through a new station and then taking a new bus. Buses here are always challenging for me because the minute it turns the first corner I have no idea where I am and just have to trust I/we can get off at the right place. The bus ride did take us through a part of Sangenjaya we hadn’t seen before so it turned out to be more interesting than expected,
  • Looking forward to next week: We haven’t made any plans for next week, but will fit something in along with all the grandkid activity. We didn’t get to the governor’s residence last week so wany to do that this week.
    Raspberry KitKats!
  • Thinking of good things that happened: We attended “Humanities Day” at C’s school on Tuesday – his class put on four different presentations with his group’s a puppet show based on the classic Japanese tale of Issun Boshi. It was great (all of them were). C had off from school on Friday so he slept over on Thursday night, and then spent the day with us on Friday. C taught Brett how to play shogi, a Japanese game sort of like chess, in the morning and in the afternoon we all went over to hike through Todaroki Park. We matched our previous record for different flavors of KitKats (17) when I found raspberry ones the other day at a snack shop on the way to pick up K. Raspberry is one of my favorite KitKat flavors so I was thrilled to find it. We have previously arrived in Japan too late for the annual limited edition cherry blossom drinks that Starbucks puts out in February but this year we’re here at the right time and tried them yesterday, a latte for Brett and a Frappucino for me. This year’s version has milk pudding pieces and is flavored with cherry leaf essence and a special cherry-strawberry sauce. It sounds weird but they were delicious.
    Getting in the mood for cherry blossom season!
  • Thinking of frugal things we did: This was not the most frugal of weeks as we had lots of little extra things we normally don’t spend on (ice cream, Starbucks, etc.) but we had nearly ¥11,000 left in our miscellaneous envelope so it was covered. We are ending our first four weeks with nearly ¥20,000 left out of our original ¥80,000, which means we spent only around ¥60,000 or $547, so not a bad month overall. We only have to withdraw ¥60,000 for the next four weeks and will leave the rest of our $$$ in our bank account!
    We splurged on ice cream at Todaroki Park. The green one is mine: matcha, of course!
  • Grateful for: Brett took C home on Friday and on the way back he stopped at a flower shop and picked up a couple of pretty yellow ranunculus for Valentine’s Day. It wasn’t a big, fancy, or expensive gift, but I’m thankful for the small things that Brett does every day to make life happier, easier, and more fun.
    Simple and inexpensive but they still say I LOVE YOU. They also sort of look like ikebana.
  • Bonus question: Are you learning any new Japanese this year? Not really, but I have been surprised by how much of what I picked up last year I can still remember and use this year. That has been nice. One thing new I have learned this year is what the gen in Sangenjaya means. I could read the kanji for san (three), ja (tea), and ya (shop) but gen stumped me. It turns out that it’s the counter used for shops! All nouns in Japanese can be classified within a particular counter, such -hon for cylindrical objects like bottles or chopsticks, – mai for flat things like stamps or paper, -hiki for animals, and so forth. So, if you want three stamps you would ask for san-mai. Two bottles of beer would be ni-hon. Five animals would be go-hiki. There are over 500 of these counters (!!!!!), but only 350 are commonly used. As you might imagine, they are extremely confusing and difficult to learn and remember (I know less than 10 of them). Anyway, Sangenjaya means “three tea shops.” The nickname for the neighborhood though is Sancha, or “three teas.”

After nearly four weeks in Japan, Brett and I are in much, much better shape than we were when we arrived and we are losing weight or at the least toning up. We’re walking so much more than we did last year, and climbing more stairs too. When we arrived last month it was hard to climb the three flights of stairs out of Sangenjaya station, but I climbed the five flights at Todaroki Park on Friday without even getting winded. We’ve been doing a good job of avoiding most of the sweets and snacks we (over)indulged in last year and we’ve just generally cut back on carbs overall. There are still loads of things out there I’d love to eat or try – Starbucks is currently offering slices of sakura chiffon cake that look amazing, for example – but it’s been much easier to say no to all of that this year. We try to plan ahead if we want something sweet, like ice cream, rather than make spontaneous purchases.

That’s a wrap for this week! I hope it was a good week for you, that you had lots of good things happen for you and that you’re looking forward to the coming week.

Back to the Future: One Teen’s View of Frugality

Although Brett and I weren’t sure initially how they would feel about our new, debt-reducing lifestyle, our three daughters turned out to be our biggest supporters and helpers. They got it. They looked for ways to help, to cut back, and adjusted their lives and viewpoints to our situation. For example, I enjoyed taking WenYu and YaYu along on grocery trips because when I would put something in the cart that wasn’t on the list, they would take it right back out and put it away with the words, “we don’t need that, Mom.” They kept me in line. They rarely if ever complained about our situation, although I know they were disappointed at times when we had to tell them we couldn’t afford to buy them something or didn’t have the money for them to do something with their friends. They learned to adapt though, and came up with creative ideas to make the most of what we did have or could do. For example, we often didn’t have any extra for them to take a gift to friends’ birthday parties, but they would bake and take a personal full batch of cookies for their friend to enjoy. Those cookies turned out to be a pretty popular gift! They could take $5 or $6 to the Dollar Store and come out with a very nice gift bag full of fun things, like bubble bath, candy, and so forth. All three of them became savvy shoppers and knew where to look and what to buy to get the most for their money, whether it was for back-to-school clothes or other items they wanted.

We have told them over and over that we could not have gotten out of debt, or accomplished our goals, without their support and help. We were and are so fortunate to have them on our team, both then and now.

One Teen’s View of Frugality

When Brett and I sat with our girls at the end of last year and outlined the state of our finances and what we were going to have to do to get out of debt, Meiling, our oldest daughter, rolled her eyes with impatience. She groaned and/or laughed at every suggestion from her sisters for ways we could cut back and save, at things we decided we could do without. She sighed loudly when we explained for the third or fourth time how bad things had gotten like this was so not a big deal.

But as the year has progressed, she has chipped in, gone without and learned to embrace our more frugal lifestyle. Goodwill, Plato’s Closet and other resale stores are her favorites now. Although she still loves to go to the mall, trips are infrequent these days, and she goes to the stores where she can get the most for her money versus those where she can afford one status item. Before her trip to China last spring, she made up her mind to win the $50 first prize for most fundraising volunteer hours, and put in nearly 90 hours of time, volunteering for every fundraiser held (and she did win the prize!). She has aggressively sought out childcare opportunities to earn her own money and is already saving for college.

Earlier this week, for her first high school writing assignment, she was asked to write about the most meaningful day of her life. When we asked at the dinner table what she was going to write about, I was sure she would spring for the obvious, the day she was adopted. But instead, she surprised us all and said she was going to write about the day in September 2008 when the U.S. economy nearly collapsed. She said she didn’t know it at the time, didn’t even actually register that something big had happened that day, but has since discovered that it had changed her life and viewpoint more than any other event outside of her adoption. Because of the economic downturn, her dad’s hours at work were cut and her family ended up deeper in debt. And, because of the debt, we ended up changing our whole way of looking at how we lived and how we spent our money, and that has affected her more than anything else.

On the negative side, Meiling wrote that she doesn’t like that we can’t afford to send her to summer camps anymore, or Saturday Academy, and that other than our annual camping trip we aren’t taking any more “fun” vacations (like Disney World, or weekends in Seattle). She begrudgingly admitted that she got to spend two weeks in China last spring, something the rest of the family didn’t get to do but said it still wasn’t a vacation but a school trip with work every day.

On the plus side, she wrote that she is proud of her family and the permanent, more frugal changes we have made. She likes that we are more careful with our money and that we make thoughtful decisions together about how to spend it. She enjoys earning and saving her own money and loves the “thrill of the hunt” in resale and thrift stores. She said she now knows the difference between “want” and “need.”

The rolling eyes, groans, and big sighs have been replaced by an appreciation for what we have versus what we don’t. On the whole, Meiling wrote, our changes to a more frugal lifestyle have been a plus for her and have given her an appreciation for how lucky we are. She says she is no longer jealous of those who have more or appear to have more. She knows now that it could have been a whole lot worse, as it was and continues to be for so many other families.

Meiling continues to live frugally and is very careful with her money. She still enjoys hunting for bargains even though she works and receives quite a good salary these days, as well as has a boyfriend that spoils her. The other two girls continue to be serious frugalistas as well, careful with what they have and how they spend it, and we continue to be so very, very proud of them.

Checking Out the Sankaku Chitai

Would you walk down this alley?

What do you imagine when you think of walking down an urban alley? I know back in the U.S. I often associate them with crime, dirt, and bad smells. There’s only a very slim chance I’d ever enter one.

The Sankaku Chitai, day and night

Near Sangenjaya station though is an area of narrow alleys filled with small taverns, izekaya, small restaurants, and even shops. Known as the Sankaku Chitai, these tight little lanes are what are known in Japan as yokocho. In Japanese the word literally means “alleys off the main street,” but it also refers to the small eateries and bars that sit close together on these narrow lanes. Brett and I have walked past these Sangenjaya alleys more times than I can count, but the other day we decided to step off the main street and wander through the area to find out what was there. What we discovered was a safe and clean area loaded with old-school flavor, a place that made us feel like we were stepping back into an older, simpler Tokyo, the one that existed before the onslaught of complex stations, big highrises, shopping centers, and huge apartment complexes. 

Looking back to one end of the Shikaku Chitai’s entrance. The names of various businesses are advertised on the lanterns. There’s another set at the other end of the alley.

The most famous yokocho in Tokyo is probably the Golden Gai in Shinjuku, containing over 270 drinking establishments in seven narrow lanes. However, Sangenjaya’s much smaller Shikaku Chitai, a triangle of alleys that form almost a maze, is also well known, especially for its welcoming atmosphere. Open from early evening until the wee hours of the morning, it has resisted the onslaught of redevelopment in the area, and forms an integral part of the neighborhood.

Food Shopping in Japan Week 4: What We Bought, What We Spent

This was our last food shopping trip during our first four weeks in Japan. Next week we will be restocking our yen envelopes once again for the coming four weeks.

How did we do over the past four weeks? Out of our initial ¥40,000 ($365), we still have ¥8500 ($77.50). It will be rolled over into next month. Out of the $400 we brought with us for commissary shopping, we have $146.50 left. It’s doubtful we’ll need to go to the commissary again, but if we do Brett and I will take the train out to Atsugi and make a day of it.

This week we spent ¥7,418 ($67.60) at Seiyu, more than last week but less than expected since we bought meat again this week, more fruit than we did last week, and two bottles of wine as well.

Here are this week’s purchases:

Dairy: Along with milk (¥148/$1.35 or $5.12 per gallon!), yogurt (still ¥99), and Yakult we bought a package of cream cheese (¥348/$3.17) to enjoy with the bagels our DIL brought us this past weekend. I love the package design for the cream cheese – the English words seem almost a quaint design afterthought among all the Japanese.

Meat: We needed two packages of meat this week for the two CookDo stirfries we’re having. I chose the ground pork and beef mix because it was less expensive than pure ground pork. I will not get it again though as it had too much fat. The two packages cost ¥519/$4.73. Although it’s not meat, the tofu is protein so I’ve also included it in this group. It cost a whopping ¥46/42¢! Brett and I think at this price we should be eating more tofu (soft tofu was only ¥37 or 34¢).

Produce: We bought green peppers for (always so small!), a red pepper and a yellow pepper for ¥127/$1.16 each, 3 cucumbers, a bag of Fuji apples (six for ¥577/$5.26), four bananas (just ¥89/81¢), and two packages of strawberries (still ¥377). The strawberries are getting better and better as the season progresses.

Prepared foods: The two katsudon (¥398/$3.63 each) were purchased for our dinner on Monday evening, and Brett and I shared the 6-pack of inari zushi and the potato salad for Monday’s lunch.

Miscellaneous: We bought two bottles of French wine: Cabernet Sauvignon for Brett (¥780/$7.11), Chardonnay for me (¥898/$8.18).

Paper products: Paper towels were needed this week so we picked up this four-pack (¥298/$2.72) which should get us through the rest of our stay. Japanese paper towels are less sturdy than American ones, and yet not so flimsy as to be unusable (which is what we have found in other countries).

We found another new flavor of KitKats at Seiyu again this week – ‘strong’ matcha, whatever that means – but decided to get it next week.

We’re thrilled to have spent below our weekly allotment these past four weeks – it shows that if we’re careful we can live and eat well here!

Sunday Morning 2/9/2020: Week 3 in Japan

A perfect meal on a cold night: piping hot housemade udon noodles in savory broth with tempura shrimp, fish, and vegetables on the side.

We’ve survived another very busy week with the grandkids! Because of meetings, school activities, and such, schedules were a bit crazier than usual this week, but we got to where we needed to be on time and all went well, although Brett and I are feeling a bit more tired because of the amount of walking we’ve done. We are sleeping very well at night these days though – exhaustion helps!

We were able to pick out our apartment building while we were at the top of Carrot Tower – it’s the light gray building next to the green roof.

In spite of our busy pick-up schedule, we were still able to get out and do a bit of exploration in the area. Our goal this visit is to choose free activities and see and do things we haven’t before. So, on Tuesday morning we continued walking past the Seiyu department store to discover what there was in that direction, and we also explored a few of the alleyways in the neighborhood to see what was going on there. We were excited to find a couple of new restaurants we’d like to try for our Friday dining out, including a Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki place, and another one that serves Singapore style noodles. We finished Tuesday with a ride to the top of a local high-rise office building, Carrot Tower (it’s covered with red-orange brick), and were rewarded with an amazing 360° view of the Tokyo metropolis. We got a close look at our neighborhood from above and made a few discoveries as well. Both Brett and I commented to each other that while looking at Tokyo from up high is amazing and somewhat overwhelming, it gives absolutely no indication of all the energy happening at street level, and all the wonderful, interesting places that exist on those streets and throughout the city.

On Friday we went to Sakurashinmachi station, two stops down from our station, Sangenjaya, to look for a couple of places noted in Secret Tokyo. Sakurashinmachi (“New Cherry Blossom Town”) is famous for being the home of Sazae-san, a beloved animated show that’s been on the air for over 50 years (and holds the Guinness record for most episodes in an animated series). Sazae and her extended clan are an archetypical middle-class Japanese family, and over the years the show has offered considerable insight into Japanese daily life and culture. Images and statues of Sazae were found all over in Sakurashinmachi, and we stopped at a Sazae-themed traditional sweet shop so that I could get a couple of pieces of sakura mochi. With some much-appreciated help from a couple of local residents, we were able to find two nearly 100-year-old towers that were used back in the day to supply Tokyo with fresh water. Built in the early 1920s (Taishō Era), the Komazawa water towers survived both the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 and World War II, and these days are a heritage site (a third tower was planned but never built). They were spectacular and well worth going to see. We also visited two small but beautiful shrines while we were there: the Sakura-jingu shrine, which had two cherry trees almost ready to burst into bloom, and the Hisatomi Inari-jinja shrine, a fox shrine (also recommended in Secret Tokyo).

The wind picked up and the temperature began dropping just a few minutes after I took this picture of what looked like a lovely spring day in the park last Wednesday. It was nearly freezing by the time we got home! By the way, those trees were filled with noisy green parrots!

Although the week’s temperatures started out nicely, by mid-week it had turned bitterly cold. On Tuesday it was overcast but warm enough that I didn’t need a coat, just a sweater, and on Wednesday we woke to a nice clear, sunny day and warmer temperatures again. Something told me though to put on my coat when we headed out at a little after 2:00 to pick up the grandkids from their schools, and at the last minute, I also decided to also tuck my scarf into my bag. Both those choices turned out to be smart ones because by 4:00, the wind had picked up and the temperature was falling fast, to the point where it was close to freezing by the time we got home! Thursday was also very cold and very windy while on Friday it was still cold but at least without the wind. I can deal with the cold as long as it’s not raining, and thankfully our apartment is always toasty warm. Yesterday it was sunny but it’s still very, very cold. 

This morning I am:

  • Reading: By mutual agreement, C and I decided to read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone on our own, so I finished it this week – I couldn’t put it down – and I’m looking forward to rereading the rest in the series. C got through Chapter Three on his own. Reader Vicky recommended a book a few days ago, Ghosts of the Tsunami: Death and Life in Japan’s Disaster Zone, about the horrific earthquake and tsunami in northeast Japan on March 11, 2011 and what followed. I read it in four days, and while it’s truly one of the saddest books I’ve ever read it also offered insights into the Japanese character and culture that I didn’t know or knew about only slightly. I finished the Inspector Morse book, The Secret of Annexe 3, and have started the 11th book in the series, The Daughters of Cain, which I’m reading at night before going to bed.
  • Listening to: A helicopter was just flying overhead but it’s gone – wonder what was up? Otherwise, it’s very, very quiet inside and out (Brett is reading). It’s amazing to me how such a densely-packed city can be so quiet. The sky is very blue today – looks like another bright, sunny, but probably very cold day again as well.
  • Watching: We didn’t watch anything this week.
  • Cooking: For dinner tonight we’re having zoodles with Italian sausages – we found zucchini at the commissary, a nice surprise because they are difficult to find in Japan. Summer squashes don’t grow well here because the blossoms rot before any squash can set. Also on the menu this week will be katsudon (from the prepared foods section), CookDo pork and pepper stir fry, BLTs and soup, breakfast for dinner (sausage, eggs, toast, and fruit), and CookDo mabo dofu. For our Friday dining out, we’re thinking of trying the Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki restaurant we found this past week.
  • Happy I accomplished this past week: We did a LOT of walking last week. On Wednesday we got in over 13,000 steps and hit 8,000 on a couple of other days. The minimum number of steps we’ve done in a day this week was 6,500. Going up to the 26th floor of Carrot Tower was an accomplishment for me because I do NOT like being up in tall buildings (the eighth floor is at the top of my comfort level). The views made it worthwhile though.
  • Looking forward to next week: Next week’s pick-up schedule won’t be as busy as this last one because of a couple of school holidays, but what we’ll get to do otherwise will depend on the weather – it’s supposed to rain. We’d like to visit the nearby Setagaya history museum and the local governor’s residence that sits next to it. The residence dates from the 18th century and is the only one of its kind to have survived in Tokyo. We were looking forward to visiting a flea market and street fair held there on the 15th and 16th of the month, but learned that only happens in December and January.
  • Thinking of good things that happened: We had another great sleepover with our grandson on Friday – we played Scrabble with him before going to bed and he was a very good opponent. We got to eat at Mos Burger with the grandkids on Wednesday evening, one of my favorite fast food places in Japan. Along with traditional burgers, Mos Burger also serves unique burgers that appeal to Japanese tastes, with rice “buns” filled with Japanese vegetables (my favorite) or yakiniku (grilled beef) among others. On Friday evening we went out to the noodle restaurant down the street with our son and family – it was so good, and perfect for warming up on a cold night. My stomach issues have improved since we’ve been here to the point that I now only need to take one acid inhibitor most days. I still take two Tums daily, but more for the calcium than anything else. I think the improvement may be due to the Yakult I drink each day, which I believe has helped get things back in balance once again. A new tea shop opened during the last year, located just down the road between our place and the subway station, and we finally got around to trying it out on Wednesday. I had a hot green milk tea with tapioca bubbles, and Brett had a strawberry milk tea with custard pudding. They were sort of expensive (around $5 each) but were larger than expected and delicious, so we decided we would stop in every few weeks or so as a treat. However, our DIL treated me another drink from the shop on our way home from dinner on Friday (because she wanted to stop there and try it out)!
    This tea shop is new since last year and has an extensive drink menu. All drinks can be ordered either hot or cold, and you can add special additions like tapioca bubbles, pudding, chocolate chips, etc. as well as choose the sweetness level of your drink.
  • Thinking of frugal things we did: Other than our Monday food shop at Seiyu, our stop at the tea shop, and my two sakura mochi (¥386/$3.50) on Friday we had a no-spend week. Our son and DIL paid for our Wednesday evening meal at Mos Burger and our Friday meal at the noodle restaurant.
    I’ve now had my sakura mochi fix for this stay – they were delicious! Brett hates the pickled cherry leaf but I think it’s the best part.
  • Grateful for: In spite of the cold and our sometimes aching feet and muscles, both Brett and I are very grateful for all the walking we’re getting to do here. It’s one of the things we love about being in Japan – we have to walk no matter what! When we add up our grandchild pick-up trips, the walks to and from our son’s, our trips to the store, and our getting out to see things, we’re getting a LOT of exercise these days. Combined with watching our diet while we’re here and avoiding most sweets, we will hopefully leave Japan a little less large than we were when we arrived.
  • Bonus question: Just what are you going to do with all of these KitKats you’re collecting? We’re not going to open or eat them while we’re here, only collect, but when we get to our mystery destination we plan to open them all, mix them up and put them into a big bowl. Then, every evening after dinner, we’ll pick one at random and try it. We’ve done this before and it works well – one a day is enough, and we’ll have enough time to try every flavor! Whatever is left over at the end of our visit we’ll divide up and give to the girls when we see them in May! For anyone interested in knowing more about the whole Japanese KitKat phenomenon, a friend sent me a great article this past week that explains it all, Japan’s Love of KitKat Bars: 300 Flavors.

On a more serious note, we are monitoring the current coronavirus situation here in Japan as closely as we can, and our son keeps us updated. A cruise ship is currently anchored and quarantined in Yokohama, and an additional 41 cases of the virus were just registered on the ship on Thursday, including eight Americans (total number with the virus is 64, but more cases are expected, and another four were announced this morning). Outside of ship passengers, the total cases of the virus in Japan stands at 25, and there have been no deaths. Unfortunately, Japanese researchers have discovered that over 50% of cases are spread before anyone shows any symptoms. The main advice we’ve received for now is to avoid areas where large amounts of tourists regularly visit, which means that we won’t be visiting Asakusa and Sensō-ji, Yokohama, or the Meiji Shrine or Harajuku any time soon. We also avoid taking the grandkids through crowded stations, like Shibuya. Mask usage among the Japanese is normal for this time of year (they are used more to keep germs in rather than keep them out anyway), but we are being more careful about handwashing, etc. In other words, we’re not panicking, but staying alert and being careful.

That’s a wrap for this week. We enjoyed another great one here, are looking forward to the next, and wishing the same for you!

The Walk to Our Son’s House

Our son’s home is the next stop from our subway station but requires about a mile’s walk once we leave that station. I have yet to be bored with the walk even those Brett and I have made it more times than we can count. The walk always offers a slice of “real” Japan and “real” Tokyo, and we continue to discover new things along the way every time we make the journey.

(The pictures below were taken on two different days, which is why the sky is blue in some and not in others.)

We pass a 24-hour underground McDonald’s on the way out of Komazawa-Daigaku station. We’ve never gone in.

Once out of the subway station we begin a long walk alongside a busy major street (cars drive on the left in Japan); up above is an expressway. The stacking is common throughout the city as it saves room in crowded Tokyo. In fact, just a little farther down the road, closer to where we’re living, we just discovered there are actually TWO expressways stacked on top of the road, one on top of the other. Some of the bare trees on the side of the street are ginkos, but I’m not sure what these are. Yes, it’s much more attractive when they’re leafed out.

This is our view down the sidewalk as we get started. We walk on the left side going to our son’s, on the right coming back, often single file because of the number of people using the space. There are all sorts of shops and restaurants along the way, just about everything you could imagine, with offices and apartments above (an apartment building will have balconies; an office building won’t).

We pass one gas station not too long after we get started. If you’re a cardholder, regular gas costs ¥144/liter ($5/gallon). If you don’t have a card, it’s ¥146/liter.

There are many tempting restaurants on the road, like this traditional ramen shop with its glowing lantern.

Our favorite though is this little okonomiyaki (Japanese savory pancake) restaurant, run by a woman and her son. It’s very cozy and old-school, and the food is very good!

Eventually, we turn a corner and head for the Komazawa Olympic Park. Right after the turn is this traditional sweet shop, with a noren (shop curtain) over the door. Strawberry sweets are big now, but I want to stop in one of these days for some sakura mochi (mochi folded over a sweet bean filling and then wrapped with a pickled cherry leaf). It’s my favorite, and only available for a few months every year, around cherry blossom season.

Mitsubishi corporation employees can live in one of these subsidized apartments. They range in size from two rooms to some rather large apartments with terraces, assigned I assume, according to one’s position in the company. This complex contains three other equally large buildings.

A little further along, we walk past the entrance to Komazawa-Daigaku (Komazawa University). The apartment building in back is new since last year – and they built a separate little house on top!

We eventually reach Komazawa Olympic Park, where we turn left and pass by a pretty vegan restaurant called Mr. Farmer. We’ve checked out the menu but it’s expensive and nothing on the menu really appeals to us.

We turn right at the large skateboard park. 

Just past the skateboard park is the new baseball stadium, which was under construction all last year. Those big, bare trees will be loaded with cherry blossoms in April!

Some of the seating in the new stadium. We thought it might be have been built for the upcoming Olympics, but it’s used by local college and high teams, for games and tournaments. Our son said it’s incredibly noisy when a game’s going on. Although the sports venues at Komazawa Olympic Park were built for Olympic sports and crowds, there is a lack of transportation infrastructure in the area that makes holding such events there impossible.

Just across the road from the stadium is a small bird sanctuary that we walk past, although we’ve come to call it the “cat cafeteria” because there are usually three to four cats waiting inside the fence. We’ve even seen people leave out food for the cats. We have yet to see a bird there.

A couple of turns later and we’re at our son’s home! It’s a big house for Japan and sits among several other big houses along a narrow road. It has a large, bright open plan living/dining/kitchen upstairs, five bedrooms (including a traditional tatami room) on three levels (two are used for offices), two toilet rooms, a large bath, two balconies, one in the front and one in the back, and lots of storage. It doesn’t have any yard but there is a small garden area on the right.

We usually don’t walk back through the park when we walk back to the station at night, but instead walk up the street and turn right back onto the street we walked on to get to the park. It saves us a few steps doing it that way, but during the day we prefer the scenery and activity in the park.

Food Shopping in Japan Week 3: What We Bought, What We Spent

This was a very different week for our food shopping budget because this past Saturday we went out to the commissary at the Atsugi base and bought a LOT of stuff there.

Atsugi is the closest large military facility, but it took a long time to get there due to traffic issues (coming back was much easier, thank goodness), and we were all more than a little tired when we arrived. We stopped first at the exchange, where Brett and I bought an inexpensive Crock Pot ($19.99), some measuring cups, a set of measuring spoons, two bed pillows, a package of pillowcases, and a bottle of body lotion. We got lucky when we checked out and won a 15% off everything coupon, a very nice surprise.

We got all this plus three 12-packs of Diet Coke at the commissary for $193.63. The hard part was finding room to put it all away!

After shopping at the exchange, we stopped for lunch in the food court (Brett and I shared a Subway tuna sandwich), and then it was time to hit the commissary. As we discovered last year, the commissary is now about three times larger than it was when we were stationed at Atsugi (1989-1992), with a selection about three to four times larger as well. We took our time going through the store and filling up our cart. Our total at the commissary was $193.63, and along with our exchange purchases and lunch, we spent a total of $253.50. We brought $400 with us, so left with $146.50 still in our wallets.

Because of our commissary shop, we didn’t need as much from Seiyu this week, mostly just produce and dairy, along with a few other things. We spent ¥4929 ($45.43) out of our weekly ¥10,000 allotment and put ¥5,000 back into the envelope.

Dairy: We bought another liter of low-fat milk, 2 containers of yogurt (still just ¥99 each), 15 Yakult, a half dozen eggs, and we splurged on some New Zealand salted butter (¥498/$4.59). The eggs are called “red eggs” because the yolk is so deep orange it’s nearly red.

Produce: This week we got 2 ripe avocados (small, but just ¥87/80¢), one tomato, a head of lettuce, broccoli, 2 cucumbers, and 4 bananas. The cucumbers had gone up in price this week to ¥87/80¢ each also. We’re planning to use the tomato and lettuce for lunchtime BLTs later this week, and the avocados will be for avocado toast for breakfast some morning. I can’t remember the last time I saw an avocado for under $1 in the U.S. and was surprised by the price here as they’re definitely imported. We didn’t buy any strawberries or apples as we still have some from last week.

Pantry: We bought just a couple of things in this area: 3 packages of CookDo (mabo dofu, pepper & pork stir fry, and sweet & sour pork, still on sale for ¥155 each) and two fancy instant udon packages (¥178/$1.64 each). Brett chose tempura shrimp noodles and I got kitsune (fox) udon, so-called because foxes supposedly like the fried tofu (aburaage) on top. They’ll be good for lunch one day.

Paper goods: One 12-pack of “Ariel” 2-ply toilet paper was ¥398 ($3.67), a bargain compared to what it costs in the U.S.

Miscellaneous: Seiyu had bags of KitKats on sale for ¥198/$1.83 per package! They didn’t have a big selection, but we found three flavors we didn’t already have: matcha, dark chocolate, and yuzu green tea (yuzu is a kind of citrus fruit), a new flavor for us. I also got a few take-out items from the prepared food section for my lunch: a pickled plum onigiri (rice ball), steamed kabocha squash, and coleslaw. The three items cost ¥386/$3.56.

We didn’t buy any meat this week which is one reason our total was low, and there were a few other items we decided we could go without. I forgot to get Pam at the commissary on Saturday though and was hoping I could find a similar product at Seiyu, but no such luck. We are now two KitKat flavors short of reaching our goal!