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!

10 thoughts on “Sunday Morning 2/9/2020: Week 3 in Japan

  1. You’ve made me more excited about my upcoming trip, although I am a little worried about the virus.

    I love walking around busy neighbourhoods and observing the people, architecture and streetscape. Even better when you find it about the stories behind things like the animation character.

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    1. I am already a little worried about the plane trip going back and on to our next destination. Japan appears to be doing a good job for now of containing things. Japan also loves rules, and if the government suddenly orders something that will help contain the spread of the virus, everyone will follow it. I am pretty sure they are checking people coming off of flights. That makes me feel less worried. I think though if you stay away from the tourist areas you will be fine.

      The smaller neighborhoods of Tokyo are fascinating. There’s an adventure down every little street, and thanks to Google maps and phones, there’s no longer any reason for getting lost (although if you do, someone will always help get you back to where you need or want to be).

      By the way, our son and DIL had taken the grandkids to see all the Sazae stuff just a couple of weeks ago – they had no idea about the water towers there, nor the two shrines we visited! We are going to leave Secret Tokyo with them when they leave!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Love the shrines. Do you know how or why the locations are chosen for the shrines? Considering how built up the rest of the city is, does a law protect the shrines or is it simply the culture that protects them from development?

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    1. While there are new shrines erected, most of the shrines are very old and have been in place for a long time. If they were destroyed in WWII, for example, they were rebuilt at the same location. I’m not sure how the locations were chosen, although sometimes there was a family shrine in a location that grew into something more public. Shinto is a state religion, so building on shrine property isn’t something that could happen as the shrines are protected, and it’s doubtful anyone would build on a site anyway as it’s considered sacred ground. We thought it was interesting that the walkway through the torii gates up to the inari shrine had houses on both sides (not sure where they parked) – that path has been there for a long, long time although it’s now paved.

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  3. I LOVE your bonus question 🙂 I found some matcha green tea and ruby chocolate KitKat at the supermarket and bought 1 each to devour immediately! There is no way I could save KitKats.

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    1. When we were here we ate them as soon as we bought them, but then didn’t have any to take back with us and missed them. This time we’re trying to cut back on sweets and such, so we just put them away with the understanding that we’ll get to enjoy them later. So far so good. Ruby chocolate sounds amazing – haven’t seen that here. We discovered “strong matcha” yesterday, but didn’t get it – next week!

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  4. Off topic question but I am very curious about this: How would you compare Japanese and US schools? Are the lessons similar? Is the course load more significant in Japan?

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    1. That’s a big question! They’re very different, from the school year to the curriculum. One thing I remember from years ago, and I’m not sure if it’s different now, was that high school students stayed in the same classroom during the day and the teachers changed for each subject – just the opposite of American schools. Also, students were responsible for keeping their school clean versus janitors or maintenance workers. The schools were VERY clean! Japanese students and the curriculum are, to a great degree, guided by exams, so there is a lot of focus on memorization and such so that exams can be passed. Many students attend after-school “cram schools” (juku) in order to improve their chances for passing exams. I also think of the work that goes into learning all the kanji they need to know – they start in the first grade and continue to learn characters through high school. School populations are also very homogeneous and neighborhood focused – foreigners, etc. usually go to international schools, but those are becoming more popular all the time as more parents want their children to learn English or other languages. As for individual lessons, I have no idea, and I think the course load is similar, but the juku is usually added on.

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  5. I always prefer sunny cold weather to gray rainy. We get mostly gray in winter and a sunny day is cause for dancing. 🙂

    My niece is teaching in China and just took a vacation to some islands off the Philippines. While she’s been there, her school was closed until the end of March and her flights back have been cancelled. However, because it’s through no fault of hers, she is being paid as if she were working. Yesterday, she posted flights back to China. I’m concerned about her and will continue to watch her progress. I guess she couldn’t stay in the islands forever. 😬

    Meanwhile, my daughter is visiting us from England and we’re having a grand time. She’s here for three weeks and I’m enjoying every minute. It’s her last chance to travel, as her baby is due in May.

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    1. First, I know you are enjoying your time with your daughter! I’m so glad she was able to get over to the U.S. to see you before she settles in at home for the baby (I think you said you will be going to England then).

      We have friends whose daughter works full-time in China; I haven’t heard from them but I imagine they are very, very worried right now. Unlike others there, she can leave China if necessary. I read about the virus every day to see what’s up – so far other than the ship being quarantined here there’s been no uptick in cases of the virus.

      We’ve got another sunny day on tap today, but know it will be cold when we go outside. Today is “presentation day” at our grandson’s school – we’re going over there in a little while to see a puppet show he and his team have put together of a Japanese folk tale! We will be dressing very warmly to travel, but have to be able to shed layers once we get to the school as it’s very warm inside.

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