Back to the Future: 2010 End of Year Reflections

We were so glad to see the year 2010 come to an end – it still holds the record for the worst year we’ve ever endured financially. Everything seemed to go wrong that year, and it ended in the worst possible way – our beloved dog died. In spite of that, we managed to pay off nearly 40% of our debt, an amount that stuns me now. I’m still not sure how we accomplished that.

We kept going. Emergencies and other problems still reared their ugly heads in 2011, but nothing at the pace we endured in 2010.

2010 End of Year Reflections

Can I say again I will be so glad to see the last of 2010? I had hoped to be back online a couple of days ago, but our little guy, Tag, became sick again last Thursday evening and died this past Monday (the day after Christmas), and we have been grieving mightily around here. Tag was a dog happy to be where ever he was. Every person and every dog he met was a friend. To say we miss him doesn’t even begin to describe the depth of the sorrow around our home right now.

2010 will be remembered as the year of the emergency expense. Looking back, I just cannot believe everything that went wrong or needed to be fixed during the past year. We had to replace our washing machine and had both our oven and dishwasher repaired ($$$). Brett had three expensive dental emergencies, although the last one, with our new dentist, cost considerably less than we expected, and has us thinking we were perhaps being way over-charged by our previous dentist (actually, we did catch them padding the bill once . . . hmmm.). We sold one of our cars, but necessary repairs on the other turned out to cost double what we had budgeted along with some other unexpected maintenance. On top of everything else, there were all the trips to the vet and their accompanying costs. And, Mr. Losing It’s laptop gave up the ghost in November; we have yet to deal with that expense. We added up all that we spent on these emergencies this year and figured out that we could have had paid off two more accounts if not for having to cover all this other stuff.

There were positives this year as well. Brett got quite a large pay raise at the end of the year and received a nice end-of-the-year bonus from his company as well. We’ve paid off an incredible $26,317.75 of our debt, just a little over 40% of what we started with last year. We still have a long way to go, but three accounts were paid in full last year and closed and we are close to done with two more. Best of all is that we did not add any debt in 2010, and that makes me feel better than anything. I am so proud of the whole family because in spite of everything no one has complained, or whined, or did anything but contribute to our effort to get rid of debt.

Here’s what we accomplished in the last quarter of 2010:

  • Debt Paid: Total debt paid during the last three months of 2010 was $4031.71. One overdraft account was finally paid off, and we are now zeroed in on the other. As an added incentive to not use the overdraft account, our credit union now charges a fee if you have to use it (they want us to close it and switch to a credit card account – NO WAY).
  • Emergency Fund: What fund? Brett asked the other day, “What’s the point?” because it appears that as soon as we get something into it, something else happens to drain the account. Still, replenishing and building this account is a priority.
  • Meet the Grandson Fund: It’s a boy! We currently have $1,334. 50 saved for our trip to Japan next May. That will cover at least one plane ticket. Actually, fares are starting to drop now, and we should have enough for both tickets by the first of February. Both Brett and I need to get our passports renewed, but that expense has been budgeted in for January. Lodging and food while we’re in Tokyo are taken care of, but we plan to save an additional $1000 for other expenses (although this will not be a sightseeing/shopping type vacation).
  • Purchases: Other than Christmas presents, we bought nothing else this last quarter. I spent over an hour in Goodwill one morning and saw several things that were a good deal and would have been nice to buy, but we didn’t need them so I left empty-handed. What a change from the beginning of the year – I would have rationalized reasons to purchase everything. We spent just $600 this past Christmas and stayed within our budget. We still have to get Brett a new laptop but decided to wait until we get our tax refund for that as it will give him lots of time to shop around for the best price. The good deal from his company for buying one apparently ended earlier this year, but just as a fun point of reference, his old laptop, purchased a little over seven years ago, cost nearly $3000. These days he can get one with more features and more memory for around $800. Technology is the only thing that gets less expensive over time these days!
  • Groceries: I have been easily able to stay within our weekly budget of $140 this past quarter. I’ve pretty much gone back to bi-weekly shopping trips though, leaving some cash set aside for milk and produce shopping.
  • Meals Out: We had only one meal “out” this past quarter, and only because I felt so miserable one evening I couldn’t get up to cook and asked Brett to order some pizza. I have gone out for coffee a couple of times, but those were “business meetings” (school auction planning), and were paid for out of extra from the grocery fund. I received a Chinook Book for Christmas, and there are lots of great coupons for dining out, so I am hoping to get out a little more next year. Brett and I will be having breakfast at Bob’s Red Mill on Friday, for example – two breakfasts for the price of one!
  • Savings: Our annual summer camping trip is now fully funded! Beginning in January, the amount allotted for that fund will start going into an account for WenYu’s school trip to China in 2012. After our trip to Japan, funds that currently go into the Meet the Grandson Fund will go into building up the emergency fund.
  • Swagbucks: I used almost all of the ones I earned this past year for Christmas presents, but I’m saving again for some more Pyrex storage pieces. All of my referrals have maxed out, so earning Swagbucks will go more slowly this year.
  • Miscellaneous: Braces in 2011 for WenYu will be an added expense. I had originally wanted to pay for them with our tax refund, but since the payment plan offered by the orthodontist is interest-free, we’ve decided to stick with the monthly payment for the time being and use our 2010 tax refund to pay off an account that does charge interest!

Reading this post, one thing comes especially to mind: I recall how we lived in fear back then that Brett would be laid off (he worked in aerospace and layoffs happened more frequently than you might imagine). We were very lucky, and his job provided good benefits as well. What’s going on now because of the COVID-19 pandemic makes our predicaments look like child’s play, and my heart goes out to those who will struggle to cover daily expenses for themselves and their families and those having to postpone savings, retirement, and dreams of the future, let alone live with the fear of catching the virus.

Back On Kaua’i

Our view for the next two weeks.

Our last few days in Japan were a whirlwind, and it’s almost hard to remember now all that was going on because everything seemed to be happening so fast. We spent our last weekend packing, cleaning up our apartment, and then moving over to our son’s to spend our last night in Japan. We left on time on Monday and had an easy if a bit surreal trip back to Kaua’i. But, we’re here now, dancing with the jetlag, and getting ourselves settled in under very different circumstances than those when we left. if we couldn’t stay in Japan, this is where we wanted to be.

Our landlord in Japan was very understanding about the circumstances of our abrupt departure even though she would be losing a month’s rent. We met with her for the last time on Saturday morning, and paid for the four days we stayed there (she didn’t want to take it but we insisted). She assured us we were welcome back any time, and we know her apartments will always be our first choice for lodging in Tokyo as it’s in a great location at an affordable price (for Tokyo). We enjoyed this year’s apartment, with its big kitchen window and an oven.

We spent most of Saturday morning packing, and then went with the family out to nearby shop to get the grandkids their birthday presents. Both of them wanted Legos and we were happy to oblige. Afterward, we all walked over to a small restaurant and had shabu shabu, a Japanese-style hot pot, for an early anniversary dinner (the dish is named for the sound the beef makes when it’s swirled through the hot broth). The food was delicious, and we received a lovely gift from our son and daughter-in-law: a check to help cover the cost of our first-class upgrade on our flight back to the U.S.

On Sunday afternoon we moved over to our son’s for our last night in Tokyo. We had to be up early on Monday to help one last time with the grandkids and this made it easier than having to lug our heavy suitcases over on the subway. Besides, along with our big suitcases, carry-on bags, and a whole lot of KitKats, we also had all our leftover groceries and other supplies to give to them. We were frankly surprised by the amount of food we had on hand – all that peanut butter! – I think the only thing we would have needed to pick up at the store that week was a tomato and some more Yakult. We went once more to Hardy Barracks to stock up our son’s supply of American foods and then took everything over to their house. That evening we all went out for a short hanami (cherry blossom viewing) and walked the Nomikawa Nature Path, the former site of a cherry tree-lined canal that had passed through the area. About half of the canal was paved over, with sections of it named for the bridges that crossed the canal, but the old cherry trees remain. It was a lovely, warm evening, and the trees were almost in full bloom (peak bloom arrived about two days after we left). Back home, we enjoyed a sushi feast that our DIL had ordered for home delivery while we were out walking!

Monday turned out to be cold, wet, and dreary so there was no last outing in the park with K for me (especially since my coat had been packed). Brett helped C with school one last time and then at around five p.m. we said our (tearful) goodbyes, packed up the car, and headed out to Narita airport with our son (M & M did not want us riding the train). It was a surprisingly easy drive with no rush hour traffic jams, thank goodness, and we got there about two hours before our departure. Narita airport was positively deserted and felt almost like a ghost town. It seemed at times that we were the only people there outside of employees, but some shops were open and we found five more flavors of KitKats (peach, melon, red bean sandwich, plum sake, and a regional sake, so we left Japan with 31 different flavors!). We also were able to buy a bottle of hand sanitizer! It wasn’t cheap, but at least we now have some. Because we would be served dinner on the plane all we had to eat at the airport were some appetizers and a gin and tonic at Delta’s First Class lounge. We were the only people in the vast lounge, maybe for the whole evening. Actually, we were practically the only people anywhere, which made getting through security, etc. a breeze, but it was also sort of eerie and sad. We were treated like royalty though everywhere we went – the employees seemed genuinely thrilled to have something to do and someone to help.

Our flight back to Honolulu was lovely. First class was extremely comfortable (as expected), the food and service impeccable. There were only two other passengers in first (only 30 total on the whole plane), so it was like we had the place and the attendants to ourselves. We watched movies, relaxed, and got a little bit of sleep. The Honolulu airport was also practically deserted, and our flight over to Lihue had only 14 people total on the plane, including the pilots and flight attendants. We picked up our rental car in Lihue and first headed to Costco to stock up for the next two weeks as the state will be going into lockdown on Thursday. Today we picked up our old car from our friends, returned the rental car, and did one more food stop so we have everything we need when YaYu arrives on Thursday. She will be in full quarantine – no going out of the apartment – for two weeks while Brett and I will be able to go out for food, and to use the pool and take walks in the area, but not much more. I’m not sure how finding a new place to live is going to go, but there are still ads going up so we hope to find something soon and be able to move in.

Our flight over to Kaua’i was surreal, as we were used to inter-island flights packed to the max.

We have one more step to go – getting YaYu here on Thursday. Her flight schedule has already been changed, but Delta still assures her she will be in Lihue on Thursday evening. We have backup plans just in case things go bad, but so far so good, and she is almost ready to go. She originally had a direct flight that day from Seattle to Lihue but that has now been changed to a direct flight from Los Angeles, a good thing as Hawaiian Airlines is stopping almost all flights beginning on Thursday. Brett and I are somewhat concerned about the possibility of her facing a racist attack of some kind as they seem to be on the increase against Asians, and as a young, single woman she could be a target. It’s going to be a long, long day for all of us.  

Anyway, although things didn’t turn out the way we wanted, we’re home again on Kaua’i and we’re settling in and getting our body clocks adjusted to island time. We miss our son, daughter-in-law, and grandchildren terribly, but our girl will be here soon, we’ve got enough on hand to get us through the next two weeks, and all is well.

The World Turned Upside Down

We’re going home.

The U.S. State Department announced today that all overseas travelers should arrange for an immediate return to the United States unless they are prepared for an indefinite stay overseas. Since we cannot extend our visa, we are cutting our stay in Japan short and will return to Hawai’i on Monday. 

We have been scrambling all day to get our flight changed (Delta reps have been amazing), start packing, and put together the things we will be taking over to our son’s. Our rent here was due today, but our landlord appears to be out of town, so we will be exchanging the yen back to dollars; our DIL will work with the landlord if there will be anything still owed.

We are returning to Kaua’i, and after a two-week self-quarantine at a condo we rented through Airbnb we will hopefully be able to begin to look for a place to live and get started on getting ourselves resettled there. YaYu will be staying in her dorm for now, but we are prepared to fly her to Kaua’i immediately if and when the dorms close.

I have been crying ever since we got the news. The grandkids have not been informed yet that we are leaving, but we’re going to take them to a toy store tomorrow and let them both pick out their birthday presents for the year (our grandson’s 9th birthday is a week from tomorrow). We’ll have dinner with them before coming home and continuing to pack, and then spend the day with them again on Sunday. They have promised to come to Hawai’i as soon as international travel is feasible again.

What a crazy time this is. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve made plans and then had to change or cancel them in the last couple of days. Every time we have tried to get out in front of this pandemic, things have changed before we even have time to catch our breath it seems. At least we are well, and our family is well, but we want to do what’s best for everyone else in the U.S. and ultimately for our family. We will be OK. We have enough in savings to get ourselves set up again on Kaua’i, including getting our stuff that’s been in storage shipped back over. There have been 26 reported cases of COVID-19 in Hawaii (two on Kaua’i), and the island is on a partial curfew as I write. They are moving to a full shutdown though, so we want to get in and get settled as soon as possible.

What a time we’ve had though! Our traveling days are not done, but we’re going to take a break, get through this pandemic, get YaYu through college, and then hopefully hit the road again although not full time. Thanks to all of my wonderful readers for sticking with us all these years.

I’ll post again after we get resettled on Kaua’i.

P.S. Our mystery destination was San Miguel de Allende in Mexico.

 

Big Day: Four Temples, One Shrine, and Some Castle Remains

The Maneki Neko Cat Tram on the Setagaya Line

This past Sunday, Brett and I rode the two-car Setagaya Line tram out seven stops to Miyanosaka Station meet our son and his family and visit the Gotokuji Temple, where legend says the Maneki Neko (lucky cat) originated. However, when we arrived at the station and checked the map, we discovered that there was a Shinto Hachimangu shrine across the street as well as three more Buddhist temples in the neighborhood, and we figured as long as we were in the area we should walk around and visit them too after we parted from the rest of the family. Also, while we were all together at Gotokuji Temple, our son told us that just up the street was a park that contained the ruins of the foundation of Setagaya castle, and we decided we’d fit that in as well.

  1. Gotokuji Temple: “Legend has it that during the Edo period, the final era of traditional Japanese government, a cat under the care of a priest at Gotokuji Temple led a feudal lord to safety during a thunderstorm. The cat beckoned the lord and his servants inside with a waving gesture—hence all maneki-neko statues have one paw raised.” Atlas Obscura
  2. Setagaya Hachimanguu Shrine: The foundation of this shrine dates back to the 11th century. The main shrine (hondo) was renovated in 1964, but inside is a wooden shrine structure dating from the 19th century. The Hachiman shrine is considered the guardian shrine for the Setagaya area and hosts several festivals, as well as sumo matches during the Autumn festival. Several smaller shrines dot the grounds.
  3. Jotokuin Temple: After leaving the Hachimangu Shrine, we walked up the road to visit two Buddhist temples that sat right next to each other. Our first stop was Jotokuin, a small but lovely temple almost hidden away among the houses in a residential neighborhood. It took us a few wrong turns to find the entrance, but it was worth the extra steps.
  4. Jōsenji Setagaya-betsuin: After visiting Jotokuin Temple, we went looking for Jōsenji Temple, located next to Jotokuin on the map. We walked past it a few times because we were looking for something old, and this temple complex was instead lots of new. The large grounds are mostly covered by a cemetery with a small hall in the middle, but other buildings are large and new, and used for funerals and include a crematorium. There were funeral ceremonies going on while we were there (we saw women dressed in funeral dresses of deepest black (the color scares me) and heard sutras being chanted), and families were also visiting the cemetery, so we didn’t linger.
  5. Setagaya Castle Ruins: Our next stop was the castle remains. To get there we had to walk back past the Miyanosaka station and continue about 500 feet down the road to a park that holds the ruins. The “ruins” were basically a big, fortified hole in the ground, but we got a good idea of the size and shape of the castle, which was probably at least four stories tall. However, the best part of this stop was a big cherry tree blooming in front of the park! The sight of that tree really perked us up – spring is coming!
  6. Shokoin Temple: We almost didn’t make to this last temple because we were quite tired at this point and not sure the walk would be worth it, but Shokoin turned out to be an absolutely lovely place to visit and we were glad we made the effort. Hidden behind a large bamboo forest, the temple invited us to climb up its stairs and through the main gate, where we found beautiful temple buildings surrounding an exquisitely landscaped courtyard. There was only one other visitor there at the time, and the only sounds we heard were our footsteps on the gravel and the wind through the bamboo – it was almost magical.

We ended up spending over four hours in the Miyanosaka area, and I walked a total of 11,282 steps (4.2 miles). It was a big, exhausting day (which we topped it off with our weekly food shop at Tokyu), but we had a great time with our family here, enjoyed some wonderful weather, and got to see some interesting and beautiful places located pretty much “right in our own backyard.”

Food Shopping in Japan, Week 9: What We Bought, What We Spent

Can you guess what these are?

This week’s food shopping was a little different in that Brett and I did it yesterday (Sunday) instead of today (Monday). We’ll be over at our son’s all day tomorrow helping out with the grandkids, and knew we weren’t going to feel like shopping afterward, so decided to stop and do it on our way home from a day out visiting temples. Of course, what we didn’t count on was being exhausted as we were following our outing! A big difference we noticed was how crowded the store was on Sunday compared to Monday. Also, the shelves are still empty of all paper goods, alcohol wipes, hand sanitizer, etc.

The total for our Tokyu shop this week was ¥6350/$59.72. We also stopped in at Kaldi for a couple of things and spent an additional ¥1238/$11.64, for a total of ¥7588/$71.36 bit. Everything we bought fit into two shopping bags this week, and my hero, Brett, carried everything home. The dollar has improved slightly against the yen compared to last week, so what we paid in U.S. dollars was a little less.

Here’s what we bought yesterday:

Dairy: Just the usual: Nonfat milk, nonfat yogurt, and a 10-pack of store brand Yakult. There were no changes in their prices from when we first bought them. Brand-name Yakult was back in stock, but a 5-pack cost more than the 10-pack of the store brand (¥200 vs ¥148).

Meat: A package of sliced pork for stir fry (¥256/$2.41), ground beef for tacos (¥399/$3.75)), and three chicken tenders (¥273/$2.57) for chicken and vegetable soup with dumplings were our meat purchases this week. 

Produce: Lots of produce again this week! We got a giant stalk of celery (¥178/$1.67), cherry tomatoes (¥322/$3.03), two cucumbers (¥57/54¢ each), five bananas (back to ¥198/$1.86), two kiwi fruit (still ¥198 each), a head of broccoli (¥158/$1.49), two boxes of strawberries (expensive – ¥498/$4.68 each – but they have been missed), four tiny green peppers (¥98/92¢), and red (¥178 also ) and yellow (¥198/$1.86) peppers for the stir fry, and an avocado (¥158 also).

Pantry items: We needed rice, and Tokyu had these small bags that were less expensive than the rice we bought at Seiyu when we arrived. The bags came in four varieties grown in four different places in Japan with four different prices,. We chose the least expensive (¥590/$5.47) since we know absolutely nothing about Japanese rice. The other pantry item was CookDo sauce for stirfried pork and peppers.

Beverages: I got three bottles of 16 Tea (still ¥88/82¢ each), and Brett got himself a bottle of ginger ale (also ¥88). If the ginger ale and one of the tea bottles look like their missing something, it’s because we were so parched when we got home we both opened up our bottles before we even entered the apartment!

Miscellaneous: Band-aids (¥318/$2.99) and dishwashing soap (¥128/$1.20) – we were almost out of both.

Kaldi Coffee Farm: We enjoyed the sakura mochi ice cream so much that we bought four more (still ¥150/$1.39 each), and I also grabbed a bag of frozen blueberries (¥590/$5.55). The entire bag was only slightly more than a tiny box of fresh blueberries at Tokyu (¥547/$5.15) that had only around 30 blueberries in it and contain at least five times as many berries. We also meant to pick up a bottle of maple syrup but forgot so we’ll get that next week.

We didn’t even look at prepared foods this week as a) we have a ton of leftovers right now in the refrigerator that have to be eaten, and b) we are going to have sushi later this week from one of the sushi stores down the street from us. They both have an amazing selection, so we plan to get a nice variety and will also count it as our dining out for the week.

This week I have a mystery for you! Can you guess what the three items at the top of the post are? Here’s a clue (maybe unhelpful): although one is pink, one is white, and one has a grilled top they are all the same. 

Only four more weeks of food shopping left in Japan – the time is flying by.

Sunday Morning 3/15/2020: Week 7 in Japan

My companion and playmate for the next couple of weeks

It’s Sunday morning in Japan . . . .

At the beginning of this past week we got to change up our daily pattern a bit as K went back to her hoikuen, so there was no need for me to be over at our son’s for a full day. Brett went over in the morning for C’s distance learning, and then I was there by 3:00 in the afternoon, giving me time to take care of things around the apartment in the morning. My back had been giving me some trouble, and it was nice to have the morning somewhat free to get it back into shape before the long walk to our son’s. On Wednesday afternoon though they got a note from the hoikuen asking that if there was someone available to watch the children at home it would be appreciated because of the coronavirus risk, so both Brett and I both headed over Thursday morning, Brett to again help C, and me to watch K. We will be on duty for the next two weeks, but then it will be spring break (our son has vacation that week as well), and schools will reopen nationally the following week, with K beginning preschool. As our son remarked on Thursday as we were getting ready to leave, “It’s not turning out to be the visit you imagined, is it?”

The weather has been warmer this week, except for Tuesday, when it poured all day, and yesterday, when it was cold, rainy – it even snowed! Otherwise, we had some nice walks to and from our son’s place. Brett and I were going to go over to Tokyu yesterday afternoon to do our food shopping, so as not to have a repeat of last week’s situation where I was stuck with a bunch of heavy bags (although there will not be a repeat of last week’s extra five jars of peanut butter!) but seeing snow coming down killed that outing. We may go visit the Maneki Neko temple with our son and family – later today. The sky is blue, but it’s very cold again.

For now, the girls are OK, but changes have been coming fast and furiously. Wellesley announced a hard shutdown of the campus for the remainder of the year; everyone has to be out of the dorms by Tuesday. WenYu plans to move out on Monday and will stay with her boyfriend in Massachusetts while she finishes her courses online. Our hearts just ache for her – she was within less than three months of graduation, and now that is gone, and she will not even be able to go out and find work. She and I shared a few tears as we talked about the changes. The campus and Wellesley community is already reaching out to this class though, and I know they will find ways to still make things special for the young women from the class of 2020. Bryn Mawr is still officially open, although all classes will now be online. Dorms and food service were going to stay open, but YaYu learned on Friday afternoon that all student employment had been canceled, and that evening that she had to be out of the dorm no later than Monday. She was also tearful, and a bit frantic, but we worked out a plan: she will be staying with a friend for a few days that lives nearby, and then moving over to stay with her boyfriend’s family for a few days (he attends Haverford, also lives nearby). The college still hasn’t announced a hard closure, but that is expected by April 3, and if and when that happens, YaYu will most likely go stay with Brett’s sister and BIL, or in Massachusetts with WenYu, and then we will bring her to wherever we are as soon as we possibly can, and she will spend the summer with us. Meiling is now working remotely in NYC and she is well and doing OK. Although the theaters are currently closed, if they reopen in time she and her boyfriend will use our tickets and see Hamilton in May; otherwise, she will get us tickets for a later visit. It is a crazy and upsetting time for the girls – none of them have ever dealt especially well with change, and these quick ones have left them completely upended.

Things are currently in flux with our flight out of Japan and our future plans as well. Although our reservation with Delta appears to still exist with no changes, I noticed this past week that the flight is no longer listed as an option on the airline’s website, and when I’ve searched using the flight number, I saw that it’s still departing but three hours later than what our reservation says. I received a message from them this week asking us not to contact them regarding reservations until 72 hours before the departure date as they are currently overwhelmed with changes and everything else that’s going on. We have another 34 days until we leave Japan, so we will hang tight for now, and if we’ve learned nothing else, it’s to be flexible. We won’t be staying here, but where we go after Japan and how we get there may possibly change. I canceled all of our May and June reservations with Airbnb yesterday afternoon and will contact the airlines as we get closer to those dates to find out about rescheduling so we hopefully don’t have to eat the cost of those flights (about $1000).

This morning I am:

  • Reading: I bought and was getting started a new book this week, The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance during the Blitz, by Erik Larson, as I was beginning to think that my not reading was due to a resistance to returning to American Dirt more than anything else. However, I got a notice Friday evening that two books I had on hold at the library were available, The Dutch House: A Novel, by Anna Patchett, and The Wilder Life, by Wendy McClure, so I’ll be reading those first, and then will get back to the other books (which were purchases).
  • Listening to: Nothing – Brett is reading and there’s not a sound outside. After a crazy week it’s positively blissful. The sky is very blue but I can tell it’s cold because of the condensation on the windows.
  • Watching: No TV watching for Brett and me again this week. It’s not that there’s been nothing to watch; we just haven’t felt like it.
  • Cooking: Tonight I’m making the tofu curry that didn’t get made last week. Also appearing on our dinner menu this week will be chicken and vegetable soup with corn dumplings (using a Jiffy mix I found at Hardy Barracks); CookDo pork and pepper stirfry; tacos; takeout sushi; and macaroni and beef along with steamed broccoli. We haven’t decided where we want to eat out yet.
    Sometimes I am my own worst enemy. But, we have lots of the hard-to-get natural peanut butter to last through the end of our stay.
  • Happy I accomplished this past week: My biggest accomplishment for the week was getting those groceries home last Monday. My goodness, that was a chore. It didn’t help that on Wednesday we then carried a case of Diet Coke home from our son’s – he and M went to Hardy Barracks to look for the Diet Coke (we got two more cases). We made it over to our son’s on time (just two mornings for me) this past week, and I got their laundry folded for them every day. I’d like to help in the kitchen but I can’t figure out how anything in there works or where anything goes. We have gotten in a lot of walking this week, at least two miles every day. Just getting through each day with the changes that are occurring for the girls and others in the U.S. has been challenging.
  • Looking forward to next week: We’ll be continuing this past week’s pattern of going over to our son’s every day, so no chances for us to get out until Friday, a national holiday so a day off for our son and family. Brett and I have poured over our maps and found a Shinto shrine complex nearby that, weather permitting, we’ll walk over and visit that day. We also found a nearby river walk that we may try and do if the weather is nice on Saturday.
    I never thought I would be thrilled to have alcohol wipes, but here we are . . . .
     
  • Thinking of good things that happened: One of the benefits of being at our son’s during the day is that he cooks us lunch when we’re there, and he’s a really good cook! He also springs for takeout now and again, which is fun as well. We had both grandkids over for dinner on Friday evening and another great sleepover with our grandson. Our DIL’s mother got the last package of alcohol wipes available in her town and set them to M, who shared them with us. We’re saving ours and the masks they gave us for when we fly next month.
  • Thinking of frugal things we did: We had a couple of no-spend days again this past week and even with stocking up (the peanut butter and extra Diet Coke) our daily spending average is still below our March target (currently we’re at $21.46/day).
  • Grateful for: Although I am so sad for the WenYu and YaYu, Brett and I are thankful that even though their colleges will close for the rest of the year because of the pandemic (and WenYu will not have a graduation ceremony) that they will be able to finish their coursework for the year using distance learning. A college or university setting up something this major would have been impossible not that long ago.
    I love Cadbury Creme Eggs, but I’m also glad they’re only around a few months every year.
  • Bonus question: Easter candy is out now – do you have a favorite? YES!! I love, love, love Cadbury creme eggs, and always look forward to their short season every year. I like chocolate, but can live without it (I prefer savory foods); however, there is something about the creme eggs I can’t resist. Back in the U.S. I usually bought a couple of four-packs and would make them last, but the other day Brett brought me a big bag full of them and I’ve been enjoying one a day – a real treat (they were on sale at Hardy Barracks). A few years ago I was able to get the ones filled with orange creme and I thought I’d died and gone to heaven as I adore orange chocolate, but I’ve heard you can only get those now in the UK (I don’t care for the caramel-filled ones – I like my caramel nice and chewy). Anyway, other than the creme eggs, I can easily pass on Easter candy. 

Next week is going to be a hard one for both Brett and I. We love being with the grandkids and are glad we can help our son and DIL, but the days are long for us and tiring. Plus, we’re unable to get out and do much of anything else during the week. I’m not sure how much writing I will be able to do, or even if I’ll have any energy to do any, so there may be no posts until next weekend. 

That’s it for this crazy week. Thank you all for hanging in there with us. We are thinking of all of you back in the U.S. and know it’s been an extremely difficult week for all and that things are probably going to get much worse before they get better. I’m still hoping that good things happen for you, both big and small. And, stay healthy! Wash your hands and don’t touch your face – it’s almost impossible, I know. Social isolation is difficult (although a dream come true for us introverts), but I hope you can find ways to still get out and take care of yourself at the same time.

Staying Close to Home: Buddhist Temples in Our Neighborhood

A large iron komainu (lion-dog), one of a pair, guards the entrance to the Setagaya Kannon-ji temple. The ball under its foot indicates it is the male.

Even after staying in the same place for three months last year we had no idea there were so many temples within walking distance from our apartment. However, last year we didn’t have to worry about a global pandemic, and we were free to travel all over Tokyo and elsewhere, so places of interest right under our noses were overlooked. Because of the pandemic this year, and the changes it has brought about, during the last few weeks we have had to change our thinking and make new plans, and for the most part, stay in our own neighborhood. This past week we set out to investigate three Buddhist temples in the area, all new to us and all within a short walk of our apartment. We also returned to a fourth, one we had visited last year.

Saishō-ji

The first temple on our list was Saishō-ji (also know as Kyogakuin and Meao Fudo), located about a half-mile from our apartment. Surrounded by houses, the temple was not readily visible from the street but we eventually found the entrance, hidden behind a Family Mart convenience store. The overall effect of the temple was one of peaceful simplicity, with well-tended grounds and simple, faded structures. The trees surrounding the courtyard, however, were extremely impressive and HUGE, and we could imagine that they would be quite lovely when they are full of blossoms or leafed out. We’ve been unable to find any information about the temple other than the location and name, so we have no idea how old it is.

Shōren-ji 

The day after we set out again, this time to visit two temples located even closer to our apartment. Our first stop was at Shōren-ji, located less than 10 minutes away on foot. The temple was quite small, and it looked fairly new. Shōren-ji had a large walled area behind it which we later figured out contains a cemetery. Once again, we were not able to determine the temple’s age.

The Ishibashi-Jizo

From Shōren-ji, we walked next to the small Ishibashi-Jizo shrine, just a few minutes away. The small shrine was well-tended, and there were fresh flowers on display. Jizo is considered the guardian of children, and statues of Jizo are often seen wearing red bibs or red hats. The bib or hat has been put on Jizo to signify protection for children who have died before their parents, and to keep them safe in the next world.

Saichō-ji

Finally, we walked over to Saichō-ji, an impressive temple from the Edo period (1603-1868). The temple was originally owned by the Hachisuka family. The family received the Tokushima Domain as a new landholding, and until the end of the Edo period, the Hachisuka were the lords of Tokushima, located near Tokyo. The large entrance gate to the temple grounds, Nakayashiki-mon, was installed by them, with the size and design imposed by the imperial government. The temple grounds hold not only the main temple but also a meeting hall and several other smaller buildings as well as many statues. We were impressed by the number of old trees that were still being carefully tended, some of them most likely over a hundred years old. We were also fascinated by a new tree that had sprouted out of a huge, old stump, and that had been carefully wrapped in straw to protect it from the elements of winter.

Our last visit of the week was to the Setagaya Kannon-ji temple, which we had visited last year, located about a mile from our apartment. The temple was constructed in 1951 following World War II, with buildings move to its present location from other places in Japan. In 1955 Special Attack Kannon (Buddhist goddess of mercy) statues were moved to the temple. The statues are in remembrance of Special Attack Squadron forces (known as kamikaze) and are dedicated to the 4,615 young men who killed themselves for Japan during WWII. Initially, these Kannon statues were placed in the main temple but were moved to their own building in 1956. The temple grounds contain several memorials to the kamikaze. Some appear to be group memorials, while a few seemed to be for individuals. The whole temple area has a haunting feel to it. It’s very well-maintained but the overall sensation was one of great sadness and loss. 

Having to stay close to home and explore our own neighborhood has brought us rewards and insights we never imagined. We’re inspired now to learn more about our neighborhood, to try some new things, to take a new route, and to dig a little deeper into what this part of Tokyo has to offer.

Everything Is Fine . . . For Now

Like it or not, we are now in a time of unknowns and uncertainty.

As the number of cases of COVID-19 continues to climb in the U.S., earlier this week the CDC put out even more stringent recommendations, especially for those over age 60 and/or those with health issues. Don’t travel. Stock up on food and medicine. Prepare yourself to stay in your home for several weeks. The notice was nothing if not sobering even though Brett and I are healthy and have no underlying health issues that would increase our risk of death if we caught the virus. But we’ve chosen a different lifestyle that doesn’t fit so easily into normal parameters and we have to add that into the mix.

We have to travel next month as our 90-day visa for Japan will expire. We will have two long days of travel when we leave here, including an overnight hotel stay, before we reach our next destination. Although long flights are not recommended, we don’t have a choice in the matter – most flights from Japan are long by definition. However, flying is currently one of the lowest-risk means of travel thanks to the efficient air filters in planes, and as long as high-touch surfaces are wiped down and frequent handwashing or sanitizers are practiced (although we still can’t find any hand sanitizer or disinfectant wipes here). We have already heard directly from the airline to reassure us about the steps they are taking to make sure the plane will be as clean as possible, and our risk as low as possible. Actually, the highest risk we face will be in airports, and we’ve been reading about steps to take to make ourselves safer as we transit through them. We are finally in possession of some masks and will use those in airports as we travel, and our son and daughter-in-law are in the hunt for hand sanitizer and alcohol wipes for us. We’re very thankful we have no long layovers this time, and we will probably be dealing with fewer fellow travelers than usual. Does all this mean we’re not worried? No, but we are getting ourselves informed and taking every step we can to stay healthy.

We’re all waiting to hear about what’s happening at WenYu’s and YaYu’s colleges. Both of them are on spring break this week or getting ready for their break next week, and both have already had to cancel and change plans. Neither of them knows yet whether their colleges will close or not. YaYu doesn’t know whether her roommate will be able to come back or not – she flew home to Seattle for the break. WenYu canceled a trip to New York to see Meiling – students have been encouraged to stay on campus during the break – and Wellesley looks to be moving to close the campus and dorms in the next few days (nearby MIT and Harvard have already closed). If their schools do close, WenYu has a place to go in Massachusetts, but if Bryn Mawr closes we will have to get YaYu to family in another state until the end of the term. So far there has been no word about whether this year’s graduation ceremony will be happening at Wellesley, but most likely if the school closes it will be canceled. Meiling and her boyfriend have so far not canceled travel plans (Paris) for later this month, but are watching daily and will make a decision in a few days. Both are currently working remotely from home. It’s looking more and more like we will be canceling our May and June travel, and will probably lose a good piece of money as the airline tickets were purchased outside of the current free cancellation window (in my opinion, those are the tickets that should get free cancellation and refund, not the ones that were purchased when the threat of the virus was more imminent). We are waiting to hear whether NYC theaters will be closing or not, but at this point, Brett and I don’t think it’s going to be such a great idea for us to be in a theater with lots of other people, even if it is to see Hamilton. (Update: We woke up to a message from YaYu that Bryn Mawr had gone to remote classes. She can stay in the dorm for now, but we will get her out and to a family member as soon as possible. No word yet from WenYu.)

We are grateful not to have been affected by the stock market crash, at least so far. The majority of our income comes from Brett’s military retirement and our Social Security benefits, but Brett also receives a pension from his former employer that may eventually be affected – time will tell. It’s only a small portion of our total income, but its loss would be felt.

For the time being, we are fine. We are cautious, paying attention, and learning as much as we can about the things that will affect us going forward. We’re certainly not afraid, or even close to panic, but know that the potential for things to get very bad in the U.S. exists and is growing every day. We also recognize that things could go south in our upcoming destination very quickly as well. Only time will tell. Everything is fine for now and will continue to be . . . until it isn’t anymore.

Food Shopping in Japan, Week 8: What We Bought, What We Spent

Sign of the times: a big bottle of hand sanitizer to use before entering Tokyu.

Today’s weekly food shopping experience was one I hope not to repeat. No, the store wasn’t weird or anything, and prices were OK, but because Brett was over at our son’s I did the shopping on my own . . . and it was HEAVY! Carrying all of it home, up the stairs, and getting it put away on my own about did me in! I thought my arms were going to fall off, plus it was warmer than expected so I was perspiring heavily and my glasses kept slipping off my nose the whole way home. I’m sure I was quite the sight.

Of course, I have no one but myself to blame. I didn’t need nor buy much at Tokyu this week and spent ¥5673/$55.18. However, Kaldi Coffee Farm had a few more jars of the Smuckers peanut butter back in stock, “on sale” for ¥537/$5.24 per jar, so I bought five of those, as well as a few other things that were back in the store. The total spent at Kaldi was ¥4374/$$42.68. Prices for everything were more today because the dollar has been falling against the yen this past week, and if it continues to drop life is going to have to get leaner for us in our few remaining weeks in Japan.

Here’s what I bought (and lugged home) today:

Dairy: I bought our usual 1-liter carton of nonfat milk, a half dozen eggs, one nonfat plain yogurt, but also got a package of grated cheese, and two 10-packs of store-brand Yakult. The grated cheese was ¥368/$3.58, but was the largest amount for the lowest price. The Yakult-drink was ¥148/$1.44, making the two ten-packs less than one brand name Yakult 10-pack (the choice was also made easier because there was no regular Yakult available). I sure hope it tastes as good.

Meat: The only meat purchased this week was three packages of sliced ham, for the slow cooker ham and cheese casserole. It was on sale for ¥188/$1.83 each. Each package contains six slices of ham.

Produce: I bought five bananas, two apples, two kiwi fruit, an orange (for another olive oil orange cake), a bag of shredded cabbage for coleslaw, two potatoes (for curry), one BIG carrot (for curry), and two cucumbers. The kiwi fruit was expensive (¥198/$1.93 each) which is why I only bought two. They had some for ¥88 each but they were all as hard as rocks and would be very sour so I passed. The cabbage was also ¥198, but everything else was the same as last week.

Bread: We usually never buy bread, but I needed sliced country-style bread for the ham and cheese casserole, and slider-sized buns for barbecue pulled pork. I didn’t notice until I got home, but the buns have a small amount of margarine inside (!!), but since I have no idea how to return them we’ll open them up and take out the margarine before adding the pork! The loaf of bread was ¥228/$2.23 (on sale) and the buns were ¥148/$1.48 per package.

Prepared foods: I bought two packages of (expensive) katsudon (pork cutlet with onion and egg over rice) for ¥498/$4.84. We have both been craving it and will reheat for dinner. For my lunch today I picked up a package of three garlic chicken wings and a small container of potato salad for ¥436/$4.24.

Miscellaneous: I am now hooked on 16 Tea, so picked up two bottles (four servings). At Tokyu it’s just ¥88/85¢ per bottle; at a convenience store a bottle costs ¥140/$1.36.

Kaldi Coffee Farm: I was so happy to find a few more jars of the Smuckers natural peanut butter (no added sweetener) even if the price is exorbitant – we love peanut butter! The flour tortillas (¥300/$2.92 per package) are less than the price of one package at Tokyu (¥687/$6.68). Some of the cheese will be used for the ham and cheese casserole, and we’ll have some with our wine this weekend. I also bought Kaldi’s highly-rated sakura mochi ice cream (two for ¥300) for a sweet treat. 

I promised some photos of the Tokyu store, so took a few pictures of their seafood section today. First, it’s HUGE, probably ten times the size of the typical seafood section in an American supermarket, and the largest department in the entire Tokyu store. Besides shelves and coolers that wrap around the back of the store, there are also two big islands out on the floor for more, things like clams, prawns, octopus, squid and so forth. Every variety of seafood (and freshwater fish) you can imagine can be found here. Fish and other seafood are a huge part of the Japanese diet though, so it makes sense that a store would carry such a big variety. It’s not inexpensive though and even though we like fish, the only thing we’ve ever purchased is frozen shrimp.

So, another ¥10,000 and some change spent this week, our entire budget amount. I think we are now completely stocked up until we leave though, and hopefully, our weekly shops will be less going forward. We may go over to Hardy Barracks once more to see if they’ve gotten in any more Diet Coke, but until the Easter Brunch at the New Sanno Hotel that will be our last trip to any one of the military bases or facilities in the area.

Sunday Morning 3/8/2020: Week 7 in Japan

It’s raining today, but spring is coming!

It’s Sunday morning in the Land of the Rising Sun . . .

Brett declared this past week that unless he and I walk at least a mile each day we will die (hyperbole much, Brett?), so we have been out every day, rain or shine, getting in our mile, but usually doing two or more. This past week our walks have all been very local, but we have discovered some beautiful and interesting places in our neighborhood, some less than 15 minutes from our apartment. To plan our walks, we both bring up Google Maps, and then look around our neighborhood for something that looks interesting such as temples, shrines, or parks, decide together what we’d like to go see, and then map how to get there and back. Brett has a better sense of direction than I do, so he’s usually the leader when we go out, but I put together a walk this past Tuesday that took us to two Buddhist temples and a small neighborhood shrine and actually got us there with only one wrong turn (he got us home though). We get two miles every day we go over to our son’s to help with the grandkids.

We spent all day Wednesday through Friday with the grands and it was frankly exhausting. Brett sat with C and monitored him as he did his distance learning, while I spent time with a rambunctious three-year-old (who was home last week with a cold). K & I had a good time, but because of my old knee injury, I am unable to get down on the floor which limited what she & I could do (i.e. no Duplo or blocks for me). We still had a good time, she was a good helper, and we also worked at getting her to use more English as it is just about ready to come bursting out of her. I can understand most of what she says in Japanese, and she understands my English, so we communicate pretty well (she teaches me Japanese too – this week I learned the Japanese word for hippopotamus is kaba). Anyway, Brett and I left every afternoon feeling quite worn out! We’ve been mentally preparing ourselves for the next couple of weeks as we’ll be there every day again.

She loves to make faces! This time it’s with her Hinamatsuri snack and Minnie headband from Grandma and Grandpa.

Neither Brett nor I is dealing as well with the low furniture here as we have in the past. Everything – sofas, chairs, beds, etc. – is closer to the floor, and getting up and out of things is proving to be harder on our joints than it has been before. The sofa in this apartment is a big improvement from the slippery chairs we lived with last year and is super comfortable to stretch out on, but when it’s time to get up it can be very painful. It’s also hard on my lower back. Brett pretty much sticks to sitting at the dining table because those chairs are a little higher, but they’re still lower than chairs are in the U.S. We know it’s just one of those Japanese things we have to deal with when we’re here, but wish it was less uncomfortable (and painful) at times.

It may be a little hard to see in this photo but the sofa is probably around 4 inches or so lower than a U.S.-made sofa. Getting off this one is hard on my knees.

This morning I am:

  • Reading: I’m still falling asleep quickly and not getting much reading done. I’ve had reading slumps like this before but always pull out of them, so know it will pass. I’ve cut way back on my caffeine consumption, so that’s the most likely reason I’ve been falling asleep so quickly. All the walking helps make me sleepy too.
  • Listening to: The rain is dripping away outside this morning, and Brett is puttering away in the kitchen, making coffee. We’ll probably go out later today, but for now it’s nice to be inside!
  • Watching: Brett and I finished up Season 4 of Better Call Saul – now we’ll have to wait another year for the fifth season to arrive on Netflix! We’re going to check out a couple of new Netflix series this evening and see if we like any of them.
  • Cooking: We’re having crab and avocado sandwiches with clam chowder tonight to use up some leftovers ingredients from the California roll salad. I’m going to use the Crockpot a couple of times this week, to make barbecue pulled pork for sandwiches (which we’ll have on two nights, with coleslaw), and to make slow cooker ham and cheese casserole, which we’ll have for dinner instead of breakfast next Saturday. We’ll also be having CookDo mabo dofu, and curry with tofu and vegetables on two other nights. If our grandson sleeps over on Friday we’ll go to Mos Burger and count that as our dining out; otherwise, we’ll go somewhere else – there are so many good and affordable restaurants in the neighborhood. 
  • Happy I accomplished last week: I don’t think we accomplished anything special this week other than getting out every day for a walk, even when it was raining. We also made it over to our son’s on three mornings to help our grandson get signed on and started with his distance learning sessions. Some of the kids in C’s class have little to no parental supervision during the day and Brett says it shows, so I’m glad he’s willing and able to sit with C, answer questions, and keep him on track with his work and assignments.
  • Looking forward to next week: Because we’ll be helping out with the grandkids again all next week, we haven’t made any plans. We’re talking about visiting the Maneki Neko temple on Saturday with our son and family as they think the kids will find it fascinating. We’ll have a Plan B though if that doesn’t happen.
  • Thinking of good things that happened: We both started off the week thinking we were coming down with something (colds, not the coronavirus – we had stuffy heads and sore throats but no cough, respiratory issues, or fevers), but those thing disappeared on Monday and we’ve felt great all week. Our walks took us to some interesting and beautiful places in our neighborhood that we probably wouldn’t have discovered otherwise and we’re looking forward to expanding our range in the future. We had another fun sleepover night with our grandson – we baked a cheese pizza, went out for Baskin-Robbins, and played some games. K came with over as well but just stayed for dinner. On Thursday evening, after walking around and checking out several places (in the cold and wind), we ended up eating ramen at a shop just around the corner from our apartment – we were welcomed heartily, and the ramen was delicious! (The Hiroshima place turned out to be somewhere we did not want to eat!). Finally, I lost an earring at our son’s place last year (which was never found – it’s believed to be buried deep in their sofa), so my DIL surprised me this week with a new pair of blue and white ceramic earrings, my favorite colors! They also presented us with a nice bottle of wine for helping out last week.
    The small ramen restaurant around the corner from us has just three tables and seven counter stools; it’s very cozy and inviting.
    There is no waitress – ramen or other items are ordered using a machine. You put in money and then push a button for your choice and hand the ticket to the chef. Thankfully there are pictures for some of the many varieties available.
    We each chose ramen topped with greens, a slice of tender roast pork, and some nori (seaweed). The broth was meaty and delicious, and pork tender enough to break up with our chopsticks.
  • Thinking of frugal things we did: Although we overspent on groceries this past week, we did have three other no-spend days and on the days we did spend it was less than ¥500. We spent only ¥1500/$14 for our ramen dinner, half of our weekly dining out budget, and used our miscellaneous funds to pay for ice cream with the grandkids on Friday evening. After our first week in March we are well under budget!
  • Grateful for: Brett’s “walk or die” decree has made me appreciative and thankful for all there is to see in the area around us, and how nice it is to walk through our neighborhood’s quiet streets. Most of our walking though is to and from the station to get to our son’s place and back, but on the weekends there are lots of places we can walk in our neighborhood. One of the reasons I’ve always loved being in Japan is because every time we step out the door we go on an adventure. Even after years spent living here, and multiple visits, there’s always something new to see or discover, something to ponder or try and figure out, something to learn. 
  • Bonus question: What is the weirdest food you have ever eaten in Japan? Although there are things I don’t like, I don’t find much of Japanese food weird (although others might). However . . . back in 1982, during our first tour in Japan, I went to a dish festival in the pottery town of Seto and bought what I thought was yakitori (grilled skewered pieces of chicken, basted in a sweet soy sauce) from a street vendor. I hadn’t been feeling very well and thought yakitori would be a “safe” dish. I took my first bite and it crunched. That’s interesting, I thought. Maybe I got some bone in this piece. I took a second bite and it crunched again. So I looked at my skewered meat a little more closely and realized I was eating . . . baby birds! I could see little wings! And beaks! GAH!! I threw it away and later found some nice, safe noodles to eat. A few days later I told my English students about what had happened and learned that these baby birds (sparrows) were quite the delicacy and I had been lucky to find them. I still think NO WAY.

We continue to stay cautious and we’re staying well, knock on wood. The number of cases of the coronavirus here has slightly increased, but we still know that things could change quickly. What we are concerned about these days is our upcoming flight schedule and whether some of those might have to be changed or canceled. We have to leave Japan in April, so we’re not thinking of canceling or changing that flight, but trips beyond that are a concern, and I’m already worrying whether Wellesley will hold a graduation ceremony this year, or whether it will be safe for us to travel to New York in May to see Meiling (or go to the theater). So far there have been no announcements about us not being able to enter anywhere or having to stay in quarantine because we’ve been in Japan, but we are keeping a close watch on that and will adapt to whatever happens. 

On a happier note, because of the warm winter here, cherry blossoms are due to blossom earlier than usual this year. The latest calendar has them starting on March 19, and in peak bloom on March 23. We do plan to go out to a couple of special locations to see them this year, but again will be careful about train trips, crowds, etc.

That’s all for this week! I hope it was a good one for you, that you’re staying well, lots of good things are happening, and you’re looking forward to the week coming up!