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!

Closing Out the Books for February 2020

Brett’s budget journals aren’t as pretty as this one, but he gets everything in there to keep us on track. Receipts are taped in, the daily average for the month is computed (as well as our average for the location), and steps taken and stairs climbed that day are noted as well. It’s an ingrained habit now, something he’ll continue to do long after we stop traveling.

We did OK in February. Not great, but not bad either. Our daily spending average for the month of February was $39/day; we ended the month with an average of $33.91. We can live with that.

Our commissary shop plus two trips to the mini-mart at Hardy Barracks and the New Sanno are a big reason for the elevated average last month, but I’m happy to report that we have lots of food on hand, probably a little more than three weeks’ worth. Our freezer is stuffed full of food! We also picked up extra supplies at Tokyu and at Kaldi Coffee Farm (cheese, peanut butter and oatmeal) this month. We have sufficient supplies of paper products to get us through the rest of our stay. We want to have plenty on hand if the virus situation here takes a turn for the worse.

March may or may not be a challenge. It’s a 31-day month, and there is nothing remaining out of the $400 we brought along for commissary shopping, so we’re going to have to stay within our limit of ¥40,000 for the month for food. That’s only around $12/day for food for the two of us. Our monthly budget of ¥80,000 only gives us about $24/day, our lowest budget amount since we began traveling. This is where our food stockpile will come in handy – when those items are gradually added back in over the next few weeks we should be OK. As we won’t be traveling daily to pick up the grandkids or going out sightseeing our transportation costs will be lower as well. We’ve done much better than expected at keeping our dining out expenses well below ¥3000 per week, and that will continue too. We do have one big event coming up at the end of the month – our 41st anniversary – but we haven’t decided yet what or if we’ll be doing (if anything) for that special event.

So, here we go again, with fingers crossed!

Girls’ Day (Hinamatsuri)

The emperor and empress sit at the top of a Hina Matsuri display. A display with only the emperor and empress is called a shinnō kazari.

Today is Hinamatsuri (雛祭り) in Japan, sometimes referred to as Girls’ Day. It’s a very special holiday in Japan, dedicated to female children and their health and development. Preparations for the day usually begin in mid- to late-February when both families and businesses set up elaborate displays of hina ningyo (hina dolls). Elaborately crafted and dressed dolls are traditionally placed upon a hinadon, a red stepped display stand, with the emperor and empress at the top, and different courtiers, musicians, and their accessories displayed on the steps below. These displays (hinakazari) range from simple displays to elaborate multi-stepped affairs and are traditionally purchased by a girl’s grandparents. As soon as the festival ends these displays are quickly dismantled and put away as it is believed that leaving them out too long will damage a girl’s chance for a good marriage. 

Our granddaughter’s shinnō kazari. The wrapped packages in front are special Hinamatsuri crackers and candy for kids.
A traditional set and display of hina ningyo.
A simple, but elegant Hinamatsuri display of clay dolls. The two small dolls in front of the larger ones are also emperor and empress dolls!
I call this massive display, “Attack of the Hina Dolls.” The pink blossoms on the sides of the display are peach blossoms, as peaches are associated with the festival.

Special treats are enjoyed during this time, and pink, green and other pastel-colored crackers, candies, cakes, and even sushi can be found in stores and bakeries. These special treats are often eaten and enjoyed at Hinamatsuri parties.

A selection of pretty Hinamatsuri foods and treats.

Food Shopping in Japan Week 7; What We Bought, What We Spent

The “pantry” in our kitchen (one shelf on a table) doesn’t have much room for extras.

Our refrigerator is also quite small. It is currently completely full – I don’t think I could fit a sheet of paper in there.

We are currently trying to stock up some, although as the pictures above indicate, we don’t have a whole lot of extra room to store things. And, we’re only here for around six more weeks, so don’t want to buy more than we can finish. This past weekend we bought some extras at the Hardy Barracks mini-mart, mainly frozen foods and bread. Those items should help keep our regular grocery shopping costs down going forward.

We spent more than intended today at Tokyu though: ¥9,126. Our regular groceries weren’t too bad, but we were there when a few paper goods – toilet paper, tissue, and paper towels – were being put out. We got one of each, including the last small package of toilet paper. We have enough supplies now to last us until we leave. We also found three new special spring flavors of KitKats so had to get those. We spent ¥2,293 at Kaldi Coffee Farm yesterday so our weekly total is ¥11,419/$106, ¥1,419/$13.17 over our weekly budget. We will have to cut back next week, but should be fine because we currently have a LOT of food in the apartment, enough for at least three weeks.

We noticed today that the shelves of instant noodles in Tokyu looked rather picked over and empty. Some of those products come from China and South Korea, so there’s possibly a supply chain issue because of the virus. Otherwise, all food items were well-stocked in the store.

Here’s what we bought his week (apologies for the quality of the photos, but it was rainy and gloomy outside and the inside lighting wasn’t much better):

Dairy: We bought the usual: nonfat milk, nonfat yogurt, half-dozen eggs, and Yakult, which had doubled in price from what we have been paying, ¥398 vs. ¥200. Not sure if that’s because of a supply problem or if we had previously been buying it on sale.

Meat: We bought two packages of ground pork, two packages of firm tofu, and two packages of surumi (imitation crab, or k-rab, as Brett calls it). One package of the pork is for next week, and the tofu is for next week as well. The surumi is for the California roll salad this week. As always, we chose the least expensive packages available.

Produce: We got lots of produce this week: four apples for ¥158/$1.47 each, two kiwi fruit, a head of lettuce for just ¥73/68¢, five bananas, eggplants for mabo nasu, green onions, yellow onions, two avocados (also ¥158 each), and three cucumbers (¥98 for three). Fruit in Japan is always ridiculously expensive.

Prepared foods: Tokyu didn’t have any gyūdon in the prepared food section, so we bought two Korean beef kalbi bowls. For ¥464/$4.29 we bought a small piece of pork cutlet with sesame-soy glaze and four korokke (potato croquettes) for lunch for the two of us today. By the way, I had thought about making the gyūdon from scratch, but the beef cost more than the two bowls we bought, and I would have needed a couple more ingredients as well so decided against that idea.

Pantry items: Just two packages of CookDo this week, for mabo nasu and mabo dofu, which will be on the menu next week. We forgot to get a tube of wasabi paste, so we will have to stop somewhere for that this week (it’s used in the California Roll Salad dressing).

Paper products: About 10 packages of each of these products were being put out while we were there. Brett got the last 4-pack of single-ply “Herb Garden” printed toilet paper, and also grabbed some store-brand tissues and paper towels. The total for the paper products was ¥848/$7.43. The toilet paper alone was ¥268; last week we got a 12-pack of double-ply for ¥398. We also got a package of trash bags.

Miscellaneous: I got two bottles of “16 Tea,” an herbal blend of 16 ingredients (with no caffeine) that I enjoy now and again. We also found three new springtime KitKat flavors: Easter (banana), sakura mochi, and sakura sake. The last two flavors were not cheap (¥348 each) but very unique so we snapped them up. We’re now up to 25 different flavors!

Kaldi Coffee Farm: We bought their last two jars of natural peanut butter, some Boursin pepper cheese and camembert from France (both on sale), and a package of cough drops for Brett. Three days ago they had caseloads of the peanut butter but it was all gone yesterday except for the two jars I found hidden on the back of the shelf behind some other brand. Hmmmmm.

Next week I will have some pictures of some of what’s inside the Tokyu store, but in the meantime, I made sweet and sour pork on Saturday evening using a CookDo sauce and took some pictures to show why I love using CookDo (outside of the fact that it tastes really, really, good):

Even though I can’t read most of the writing, there’s always a clear picture on the front of what the finished product looks like so I can get an idea of the ingredients and what size I need to prep them. Inside the box is a pouch of sauce.

On the back of the box are more clear illustrations indicating how to prepare the dish. Weights (metric) are given for how much of each ingredient is recommended.

The first step is to prep and then stir fry the ingredients. For the sweet and sour, that’s cubed pork, green pepper, carrots, and onion.

After ingredients are cooked how you like them (we like the vegetables crisp-tender versus soft), add the sauce from the pouch and stir about one minute to heat through and coat all the ingredients. That’s all – it’s ready to serve. The total time from start to finish is less than 10 minutes (not counting prepping the ingredients).

Serve the finished recipe over steamed rice.

One package of CookDo makes three servings, so there are leftovers for someone the next day. CookDo is not particularly inexpensive in the U.S., but I bought it occasionally as special treat for our family because the girls love it. The most commonly found varieties in the U.S. are mabo dofu (tofu and ground meat) and mabo nasu (eggplant and ground meat), both in a miso-flavored sauce, but at a Japanese-centric market more varieties are usually available.

Sunday Morning 3/1/2020: Week 6 in Japan

The shopping street near our apartment is usually packed with people, either walking or riding bicycles – these days there’s a lot less traffic. This picture was taken on Thursday at about 2:00 in the afternoon, but on Saturday afternoon the street was almost full again.

It’s Sunday morning in Japan . . .        

There have been more changes occurring since my post on Wednesday because of the coronavirus threat. Streets, shops, stores, everything seems emptier than usual as people avoid going out unless they have to. All schools will close tomorrow for the remainder of the winter term (until the first week of April). We will be going over to watch C while M works at home; he will be getting his lessons via distance learning for the rest of the term. Can you imagine this happening in the U.S.? We still go out for walks so we don’t go stir crazy, but otherwise, just for specific purposes, such as food shopping, or to go to our son’s, and we combine errands whenever possible. It’s going to be a challenge going forward to match our previous walking levels. We are taking things a day at a time.

We have been riding the bus more this past couple of weeks in order to avoid passing through Shibuya and other large stations, and as a result, we’ve been discovering all sorts of new places. For example, the other day, as we walked to the bus stop, we found an antique store just around the corner from our apartment! We had no idea. And, it’s been fun to travel through nearby neighborhoods at ground level on a bus versus speeding by them or be underground on a train. Bus rides in Japan always used to scare me – it was so easy to get lost, and the automated announcements for stops were always done by a woman with a soft, high-pitched voice that I could barely understand. These days the woman’s voice is still there, but we can track our route online before we go and know which stop to get off at, plus at the front of the bus is a large screen which announces the stop in both Japanese and English. Those things have proven to be very helpful, for me anyway. 

Tokyo Rusks: maple, sugar, and Earl Grey & orange. The three of them are just 133 calories.

I did not see myself loving something called a rusk, but I have fallen in love with Tokyo Rusks. Who would have thought that a thin slice of toasted baguette finished with a slightly sweet topping could be so delicious? The ones we took along with us this past weekend were a big hit, and the grandkids LOVED them, especially the maple flavor (but they also liked the Earl Grey with orange ones too). Brett didn’t get to try one of the maple ones so we went back to the shop this past week and bought some more, and we also got more of the Earl Grey with orange ones (my favorite) and some of their original flavor, sugar rusks, to try them out. Japan really does have the greatest snacks and cookies. We discover something new every time we visit.

This morning I am: 

  • Reading: I’ve gotten only a few pages read of American Dirt because lately I’ve been falling asleep as soon as my head hits the pillow. I see a lot of free time coming up though in the next few weeks where I’ll be able to get in a lot of reading.
  • Listening to: Brett’s puttering around in the kitchen, making coffee and putting away last night’s dishes. I can hear crows outside this morning, but it’s quiet otherwise. It was raining last night, but this morning the sun is out and the sky is blue. 
  • Watching: Brett and I have been watching the fourth season of Better Call Saul, one episode each evening except for Friday when our grandson was here. Things seem to have taken a darker turn this season, but it’s still one of the best TV shows out there, in my opinion.
  • Cooking: We’re having tuna melts and clam chowder for dinner this evening. Also on our dinner menu this week will be gyūdon (thinly sliced and simmered beef over rice); CookDo mabo nasu; California roll salad; French bread pizza; and we’ll make quesadillas when/if our grandson comes over on Friday. We want to go to the okonomiyaki restaurant for our dining out night if it’s still OK to go out. However, M & M canceled an evening out last week so we’re not sure if this will be happening for us anymore going forward. We may just get takoyaki again from the stand up on the corner.
    Flavor #23: Strawberry Cheesecake
  • Happy I accomplished this past week: Brett and I went over to the New Sanno Hotel on Tuesday to see if they had Diet Coke – Brett figured out a way to get there with only two train stops. They were out of everything we were looking for though, including Diet Coke, but we did find a new flavor of KitKats, Strawberry Cheesecake. We stopped at the National Market on our way back and got some freshly ground peanut butter as our commissary supply ran out this past week. We still can’t find hand sanitizer anywhere, but have broken out the hundreds of sterile alcohol swabs we carry in our medical pouch and are using those as necessary (we had sanitizer, but have no idea what happened to it). Yesterday our son drove us over to Hardy Barracks, another small military lodging facility in Tokyo with a minimart and we stocked up on a few more supplies while we were there. They had one case of Diet Coke open in the fridge – I took six of them as I’m running low. We managed to get in 6500 steps on most days.
  • Looking forward to next week: We’re not sure yet what we’re going to get to do as it will depend on how much time we spend watching C (K is going to continue going to her hoikuen for the time being). Grocery shopping may soon become the most exciting event of our week. We’d like to visit the Maneki Neko temple again – it’s just a couple of stations away from us by tram, and we plan to walk some more around our own neighborhood. Every trip out is anthropological – we always see and learn something new about life here, or find something to ponder.  
  • Thinking of good things that happened: 1) We had a wonderful getaway last Sunday up to the Chichibu area in Saitama Prefecture. Our first stop was at Nagatoro, an area of scenic beauty and geologic interest where we walked along the Arakawa River and explored the Iwadatami, which means “tatami mat rocks.” Afterward, we had a traditional, multi-course Japanese meal at a nearby restaurant and then drove over to Mt. Hodo, where we rode a ropeway up the side of the mountain to the top. Plum blossoms and wintersweet were in bloom all over, and the views of the Chichibu mountains were spectacular. Finally, we made a special visit to the Chichibu Rare Rock Museum, which had been opened especially for us so we could visit! 2) Our grandson stayed over with us again on Friday evening. We took him to Mister Donut for a treat, played games most of the evening, and rewatched Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse – a fun evening! 3) I appear to be changing shape, and maybe even losing some weight because my leggings keep sliding down now whenever I wear them! Of course, it may just be that they’re not shrinking back to shape because they’re being line dried. I’d like to think though that all this walking we’ve been doing has been having an effect!
  • Thinking of frugal things we did: We didn’t go crazy, but again it wasn’t a particularly frugal week. We used some more of our miscellaneous funds to buy the KitKats at the New Sanno Hotel, some more Tokyo Rusks, and doughnuts for C at Mister Donut. We spent some additional money from our grocery funds at the Hardy Barracks, and to get peanut butter at National Market, kaarage for Friday’s dinner from a specialty stand (it was outstanding!), steel-cut oats and brown sugar at Kaldi Coffee Farms, and a 12-pack of toilet paper and a bottle of vegetable oil at Tokyu. We have more than three weeks’ worth of meals on hand but are still thinking of stocking up a bit more on things like pantry items and paper goods. I was glad we picked up the extra toilet paper the other day – it’s also getting difficult to find these days.
  • Grateful for: As our ability to get around becomes more restricted, we’re thankful for all our previous visits to Japan, and for all the many things we’ve gotten to see and do here, and the memories we’ve made. We’re grateful as well for the ways people here appear to be working to keep everyone safe and the coronavirus contained (although whether that will be successful remains to be seen).
    Tatsuzawa Falls
  • Bonus question: What’s the best trip you’ve taken in Japan? Back in 1982, Brett and I signed up for an overnight tour up to Fukushima through the Navy Recreational office. We got a sitter for our son, and then managed to oversleep the morning of the tour and missed the bus! We called the recreation office and they gave us directions for how to go by train so we could meet up with the tour group that evening at the inn. The train ride up north was absolutely beautiful, and we made it to the inn and connected with the group in time for a great Japanese dinner. The inn put us in a large, traditional tatami room for the night, complete with tea, snacks, and a beautiful view. It was very romantic. However, in the morning, at breakfast, we discovered that everyone else in the group had had to sleep dormitory-style in two rooms, one for the women, one for the men, so we kept our mouths shut about our fabulous room. During a traditional Japanese breakfast (rice, fish, pickles, and tea – it was actually very good), we experienced a strong earthquake. That was exciting in an unnerving sort of way, to say the least. We continued the tour with the group after breakfast and visited the beautiful Tatsuzawa waterfall, and returned home on time in the evening. We still rate that trip as the best we ever took in Japan, all because we overslept!

Brett and I walked over to Setagaya Park yesterday, and then around the park and back home so we could get out of the apartment and get some fresh air and exercise. There were lots of people at the park, lots of families, and again, fewer people wearing masks. It really brightened our mood to see so many people out enjoying the day. Our son said they are going to give us a few masks to wear if we have to ride a train. M & M keep us informed daily about updates – the school closings throughout the county are a huge step to try and contain the virus here although it’s older adults who seem to be catching it versus children. I asked if our daughter-in-law’s office would close or have people work from home, but our son reminded us that she works for the government so unless things get very dire it will be business as usual for her. We’ve also been checking on what our status might be when we leave Japan, but so far we only need to self-report if we have any symptoms. We are watching things very closely in the U.S. as well. It will spread quickly if it gets into the dorms at WenYu and YaYu’s school, but Meiling can work from home if things get bad in New York. I’m far more frightened about potential outbreaks and the spread of the virus in the U.S. than I am here.

Anyway, that’s all for this week. I hope everyone reading had a great week, got lots done, has a good book to read, and had lots of good things happen for them. We’re looking forward to seeing what the next week brings, and hope you are too!

Back to the Future: If You Cut Us, Do We Not Bleed?

The hits continued as we slogged through 2010. And by hits, I mean emergencies. Big emergencies. Looking back, I cannot remember a year when we had so many unexpected expenses, one after another, without stopping. Rereading these posts I cannot believe at times that we just didn’t give up, but we knew we had to succeed. At this point (November) in our journey, the goal was strictly to get ourselves out of debt; other bigger motivational goals had yet to emerge.

One of the big lessons we took from all of this was that there is no one way to walk this path. One family might experience one or two small emergencies, while another might have things going wrong for them all the time. I remember reading Dave Ramsey’s book, The Total Money Makeover, and watching a couple of his videos at the beginning of our journey, and he made it all sound so easy. Beans and rice. Drive a beater. Gazelle intensity. Put $1000 away for possible emergencies. Well, $1000 can go pretty quickly when you have four major emergencies in a month. And it can be nearly impossible to restock that fund or pay down your debt when bad things continue to happen. Gazelles do eventually get tired. Based on the scenarios in Dave’s book, we should have been approaching the finish line at this point in 2010, but instead, it took us over two more years to finally get rid of all our debt.

Life happens. An unexpected turn helped get us into debt, and the road out was filled with twists and turns, ups and downs, and plenty of roadblocks along the way. That’s the story these books don’t tell you. As we discovered, there’s no easy or quick way to prepare for all the pitfalls either – you just meet them head-on, do or build what it takes to go on, and keep going. 

If You Cut Us, Do We Not Bleed?

This whole thing with emergency expenses this year just has to be some kind of giant cosmic joke. I mean all I asked a few days ago is that we be allowed some time off to just catch our breath, and hopefully restock our emergency fund. I did not say, “Bring it on!”

However, this was apparently asking for too much because on Monday morning we woke up to another very sick dog (with a totally different illness). That trip to the vet and the medication cost us nearly $200, and she has to go back the day after Thanksgiving to make sure she will not be blind for life. It turns out she is no longer producing tears, so her eyes got irritated and became infected, poor thing. She will probably need to take medication for the rest of her life so she can make tears. Can you say $$$?

And then on Tuesday evening, just to make sure we were still paying attention, Brett’s laptop died. He went to turn it on, got a blue screen for a moment, heard a sizzle and a pop, then got a black screen and nothing. Thankfully everything is backed up, but this is something that has to be replaced and soon because he uses his laptop for work.

We, of course, have no emergency funds because the expenses just keep coming and we keep paying for them and can’t get anything back into the fund! And now, unless we break out the credit card, there goes our Christmas fund, our meet-the grandchild fund, and our daughter’s school trip fund to cover this latest round of emergency madness. Accelerated debt reduction? Not so much these days.

I cannot wait for this year to be over!

(Apologies to Shakespeare, but we feel like it’s gone beyond mere pricking.)

Sadly, things did not get better after this, at least not right away. Brett did not get a new computer for a few months. Our dog did need medication for the rest of her life; we somehow fit that into the budget. And, I’m not sure how we did it, but we did not use up our special funds nor did we put any of these expenses on a credit card. I don’t remember what we did at this point. All I know now is that we kept going.

Things Are Changing: A Coronavirus Update

A consolation prize of a sort

A week ago last Wednesday when we had dinner at our son’s we asked for updates about the current coronavirus situation in Japan. We had read a few articles online but have relied more on M & M for current news and updates. Nothing they said that evening alarmed us, and the strongest warning they gave us was to avoid bringing the kids through crowded train stations, like Shibuya, and use buses if possible. However, there was no recommendation for us to wear masks, or avoiding the big stations. Neither seemed to have any concerns about our plans, including trips to Tokyo Station or Shinjuku (the world’s busiest train station), so we went ahead with our (successful) Tokyo Station KitKat hunt at the end of last week.

But by Sunday, the day of our family outing to Chichibu, things had changed. There were more reported cases of the virus in Japan, and two more deaths (one from someone who had been quarantined on the cruise ship). Face masks had completely disappeared from the shelves in Tokyo and were continuing to disappear as fast as they were stocked. We’ve been unable to find any hand sanitizer anywhere. We bought the last two refill pouches of disinfecting soap in a neighborhood drugstore, but otherwise, shelves in Tokyo are bare of anything disinfectant as well as face masks and sanitizer. The government advised that no one do any unnecessary travel in Tokyo; that is, if you didn’t need to go somewhere (like work, child pick-up, medical appointments, food shopping, etc.) you should stay home or at least stay close to home unless traveling by personal car.

More recommendations came out today and our son will begin working from home next week; his company has recommended that all who can do so. Our DIL has to ride the train to and from work, but she has a good supply of masks and sanitizer. Because he’ll be home, M will be picking up both kids as he’ll have the car, so Brett and I are now out of a job for the time being, and we’ll probably only see them on weekends.

One interesting thing both of us noticed today though was that fewer people appeared to be wearing masks than had been previously. We’re not sure if that’s because they’ve run out of masks, are not as worried as might have initially been, or they’re rationing their masks to have some if things get worse. Supposedly the government has ordered mass production of face masks, but that hasn’t happened yet.

Our son was more than a little surprised to learn that we had gone to Tokyo Station last Friday, especially after the government warning (which we had to remind him we had not heard at that point). We had noticed that the trains we took that day were almost empty, although when we arrived in Tokyo it seemed the station was as crowded as ever. We still went on our trip up to Chichibu on Sunday but in a rented minivan, and we spent a good deal of time outside and ate our meals in uncrowded (and lovely) restaurants away from the tourist areas.

It was disappointing to have to cancel our outing to Shinjuku that we had planned for this week. We were going to visit a store called Bingoya, with five floors filled with traditional Japanese crafts, from pottery to fabric/clothing to baskets to toys and beyond. Getting to look at all of that would have been my idea of heaven, and I was hoping to find an affordable, hand-woven bamboo shopping basket while we were there. I gave away my previous one when we left Hawaii and have missed it greatly.

Sometimes things have a way of working out though. After we had eaten lunch on Sunday, we walked down an old-style shopping street as we headed back to our car. And there, sitting in the back of one store, were handmade woven bamboo shopping baskets! They came in two colors, natural and stained, and with strong support on the bottom and reinforced corners. Brett and I looked them over and picked out the one in the picture above. My new basket is also the right size to slide under the seat in front of us on the plane and will most likely leave Japan full of KitKats. Getting the basket almost made up for not being able to visit Bingoya, but truthfully, I’m glad we didn’t have to navigate through the immense Shibuya and Shinjuku stations.

For now, we are in a holding pattern as far as outings and such and will be sticking closer to home. Brett has found bus routes to get us places so we can avoid train stations, and we see lots of walking in our future. At this point, we are only slightly worried about our flights in April, and any possible precautions we may have to make then. We will continue to ask for and follow updates, but for now, we will stay cautious, continue to try and find hand sanitizer and masks, use good handwashing techniques, and be ready to change or update what we’re doing as the situation demands.

Food Shopping in Japan Week 6: What We Bought, What We Spent

I did not think we were going to get out of the Tokyu market today for less than ¥9000. Everything seemed to be so expensive, so we were very surprised by our total: ¥6,988/$62.53, much better than expected, and that’s with getting everything on our list and a few extras too. We still have to purchase kaarage later this week and that will add to our weekly total, but I currently have no idea how much that will be. We still should come in under our weekly ¥10,000 limit.

Here’s what we bought earlier today:

Dairy: We bought the same as last week: nonfat milk, nonfat yogurt, Yakult, and a half dozen eggs. The eggs were ¥18 less than the ones I bought last week, and by buying a 10-pack of Yakult I saved a whopping ¥1.

Meat: Meat at Tokyu is expense; there’s no way around it. However, the quality is very high. The frozen uncooked shrimp were ¥498/$4.46 for around a half a pound. There was a less expensive package but the shrimp were very small so we passed. The two different cuts of pork (one package of thin slices for yakisoba and two packages of cubes for sweet and sour pork) were ¥751. So, in the end we spent ¥1249/$11.22 total for a little more than a pound of meat, quite a lot in my opinion (and I chose the least expensive packages). Back in the U.S. I would have cut my own cubes of pork, or the thin slices, from a larger piece like a chop or a tenderloin, but those cuts aren’t available here (if you can find them you’ll pay a small fortune).

Produce: Once again, except for the strawberries and bananas, prices were low or low-ish. We paid ¥598 for the package of berries, but every one of them is ripe. The packages available for ¥498 had bigger but fewer berries, and all included two or three berries that were less than ripe. Bananas had gone up in price this week as well – we paid ¥20 more than we did last week for the same number of bananas. The cucumbers, broccoli, tiny green peppers, and tomato were the same price as last week. The little bag of finely shredded cabbage is to go with the tonkatsu we’re having this week and cost ¥100. I’ve got a sharp knife here but I still can’t shred that finely.

Prepared foods: This was another area we were sure was going to make a big dent in our budget. The two pork cutlets (tonkatsu) were ¥398/$3.57 each, and we also bought shumai, mini spring rolls, and gyoza for our dim sum dinner, and a package of potato salad to have with our karaage. The tonkatsu and other fried and grilled foods used to be in a self-serve area, where you reached into a case and chose the number of items you wanted using tongs. This week that the area is gone, and while everything is still available, it’s all now individually packaged – another sign of the impact the coronavirus is having.

Pantry items: We picked up three things in this category: two packages of egg noodles for yakisoba (¥80/72¢ each), beni shoga (pickled red ginger slices) for yakisoba (store brand for ¥100/90¢), and CookDo sauce for chili shrimp. I also like to add a little bit of beni shoga to fried rice.

Paper goods: We bought one 12-pack of store-brand double-ply toilet paper for ¥398/$3.57.

Miscellaneous: Brett got himself a can of Kirin beer (¥188/$1.69) to have this Friday instead of wine, a Japanese lip balm for ¥80/72¢, and we got a bag of special Hina Matsuri (Girls’ Day) snacks (also ¥188) for K. The characters on the package (Apanman and Meronpan’na) are current favorites of hers. Hina Matsuri will be on March 3.

Would anyone be interested in seeing pictures from inside the store? I’d love to hear from you and some feedback about these food posts and what might make them more interesting. I’ve personally always been fascinated with others’ food shopping posts and pictures, but then again I love to peek into shopping carts and see what other people buy!

Sunday Morning 2/23/2020: Week 5 in Japan

It’s Sunday morning in Japan . . .

It’s been a busy and tiring week with lots of pickups, schedule changes, and so forth. We ended up spending three days this week at the park with the grandkids where we usually just do one. Thankfully the weather has been beautiful this week, cold but bright and sunny. Monday it was actually quite balmy – even a light coat was too much! We’re in the middle of a three-day weekend here (tomorrow is the Emperor’s Birthday, a national holiday), so no pick-ups tomorrow, but we are going on an outing with our son and family today, to Chichibu, in Saitama prefecture. The area is new to me, but there’s an unusual museum there I read about that I hope we get to visit.

It was a great week for the kids to go to the park!

Brett and I had a day off from picking up the kids on Friday, so we went out and did a little more exploring in our own neighborhood. Our first stop was Mr. Donut to get ourselves some donut holes for a treat. Donuts in Japan are far less sweet than what you find in the U.S. but they were still good – the raspberry one was fantastic. Then we walked across the main road to check out a “dirty dish store” we had seen the other day. “Dirty dish store” is what we use to call a dish shop open to the street (the dishes get dusty quickly) that carries odds and ends of dishes for a fraction of the price you’d pay elsewhere. These shops usually don’t look like much, but there are treasures to be found if you take your time (I didn’t buy anything, although I was tempted). Next, we stopped in a compact but interesting ¥100 store (currently 89¢ for us), called CanDo, and we bought coffee filters and a pair of silicone-tipped cooking chopsticks that we’ll carry along with us. Then it was window shopping down the road for a while, but eventually, we stopped into a well-known cookie shop called Tokyo Rusk and purchased some to take along with us on our outing today (three flavors: Earl Grey tea & orange, maple, and almond). Finally, we crossed the street to check out the Kaldi Coffee Farm store, which not only sells really good coffee but also foods from around the world at fairly reasonable prices. The selection of goods in that store was incredible, and we ended up buying four cans of Campbell’s soup, a small bottle of vanilla, a box of crackers and one of our favorite cheeses, Boursin black pepper, to have with our wine on Friday evening. Instead of making another long trip out to the commissary, we’ve decided we’ll replace the things we run out of at Kaldi – it won’t cost too much more and will be far easier and more convenient.

This past week at the park with our grandson, I got the chance to observe his bilingualism in action as he switched seamlessly back and forth between speaking with Brett and me in English and his friends in rapid-fire Japanese as he played a game on my phone. As a linguist, it was exciting to observe his code-switching as it’s something I had only read about but never actually experienced. Our granddaughter is moving in the same direction but is not there yet. For now, she understands us when we speak English to her but responds completely in Japanese. I can understand her (which tells you my level of Japanese is that of a three-year-old), but Brett can’t, so the other day when he was watching her she would eventually spit out a word or two in English when she figured out her Grandpa wasn’t getting the message in Japanese. 

This morning I am:

  • Reading: I finished The Hunting Party – it was good, but not as good as I had hoped – and am now reading American Dirt, by Jeanine Cummins. I’ve got five more books on hold at the library, but I’m not expecting any of them any time soon.
  • Listening to: It’s quiet inside and out – Brett’s reading, I’m writing, and our stuff is by the front door so as soon as our son calls and lets us know he’s downstairs we can slip on our shoes, pick up our stuff and be out the door to meet them. It looks like it’s going to be another beautiful day!
  • Watching: We finished watching The Stranger – a very surprising ending – and are currently looking for something new but are not in any hurry.
  • Cooking: Tonight we’re going to have the fancy udon bowls for dinner that we picked up a couple of weeks ago. Otherwise, dinners this week will be CookDo sweet and sour pork; karaage, potato salad, and cucumbers; chicken yakisoba; spaghetti with meat sauce; tonkatsu (breaded pork cutlets) with shredded cabbage; and dim sum for dinner (shumai, gyoza, spring rolls and chili shrimp). The karaage will come from a shop near C’s school that our DIL has recommended. For our dining out this week we’ve decided that instead of going out to dinner we’ll go out to lunch instead. Also near C’s school is a restaurant called The French Toast Factory that Brett has been wanting to try because he loves French toast, so we’ll go there sometime this week before picking up C.
  • The olive oil orange cake – it came out looking good but tasted even better. C wants to help me bake a cake next time he comes over!
  • Happy I accomplished this past week: I successfully baked an olive oil orange cake, and it felt like such an accomplishment – baking is not something I do much of anymore, and nothing was familiar here. Although not as much as the week before, we again did a lot of walking every day. We averaged 6,500 steps per day, although I topped 10,000 steps on Thursday. We got the grandkids picked up at the right time every day, even though it was a different kid at a different time each day. Toward the end of the week I found a very good price to get us from Boston to Portland and got those seats booked.
  • Looking forward to next week: We are planning to visit Shinjuku tomorrow as we don’t have to pick up either of the grandkids.
  • Thinking of good things that happened: Even though we didn’t get out much, everything that happened this week was good, even the weather!
  • Thinking of frugal things we did: Brett filed our taxes this past week, and we will be getting a nice refund this year, enough to cover our tickets from Boston to Portland. I bought a single cookie at Tokyo Rusk because I wanted to try the flavor (matcha-covered chocolate) and the salesperson gave Brett another one for free! We put ¥3000 back into the food shopping envelope this week (we used miscellaneous funds for shopping trips on Friday and yesterday).
  • Grateful for: I’m always thankful for the chance to see new places in Japan, and I’ve never been to Chichibu, but most of all I’m thankful for the opportunity to spend a full day with our son and family as these days it seems we see them more on the fly when they’re returning from work, etc. Their lives are so busy these days, so we’re glad we can help out for a while and enjoy time doing things with them.

Treasures at the “dirty dish store”

  • Bonus question: When it comes to spending money in Japan, what thing is the most “dangerous” for you? Hands down, that would be dishes, especially pottery dishes and some of the blue and white. It’s my favorite section in any department store, and my favorite place to visit in Tokyo is Kappabashi, the kitchen district, because of its vast selection of tableware and low prices (and it’s so close to us now and easy to get to). We bought some bowls and small plates when we were here last year, and I’d like to get some larger plates and teacups but we have no way to carry them back this time as we’re not returning to where we could put them into storage. Anyway, I have a hard time ignoring the dishes here – they’re beautiful, there’s an incredible variety, and all the different shapes, sizes, and coordinating colors and motifs (especially the different ways blue is used) speak to my personal dislike of matchy-matchy dish sets. The second most dangerous thing would be unique Japanese sweets and snacks, things like Hato Sabure (bird cookies), Tokyo Banana, Tokyo Rusk, and so forth.
Our yummy roasted chicken dinner – we will DEFINITELY be going back for more of this!

One thing I love about Japan is that there are so many small (tiny?) businesses that take a simple idea and then execute it perfectly, whether it’s serving ice cream, selling clothing or flowers, opening a cafe or tea shop, whatever. I was completely exhausted and sore on Thursday evening after my 10,000+ steps and really didn’t feel like cooking dinner, so we made a command decision to “dine out” that night and stopped at a little hole in the wall place selling roast chicken that we pass every day on our way to and from Sangenjaya station. All the place sells is roast chicken, roasted potatoes, and green salads, all made in the place’s tiny kitchen. We bought a half chicken along with roasted potatoes for ¥1500 ($13.40) and practically inhaled it because it smelled so amazingly good. It was absolutely delicious too – the chicken was perfectly roasted and the potatoes were as well, lovely and crisp on the outside but tender inside. I love the Japanese ethic that if you’re going to do something – anything – you do it well or you don’t do it at all. We see and experience it everywhere we go.

Finally, one more accomplishment: yesterday Brett and I rode over to Tokyo Station and purchased three new KitKat flavors, all from Tokyo Banana, a famous snack in Japan. We got the regular Tokyo Banana flavor, and also caramel banana, and banana milk. The last two are limited edition flavors and will be gone in March. We had to go to three different gift shops to find them, but we now are up to 22 different flavors of KitKats! We also purchased a small package of the original Tokyo Banana cakes (sponge cake filled with banana creme – yummy) because we had never tried them before, and we also bought a five-pack of Hato Sabure (bird cookies). We can’t be here and not have a bird cookie!

That’s all for this week! We’re leaving to go over to our son’s in just a few minutes and then off on our adventure. I hope everyone had a great week with lots of good things happening, and that you’re looking forward to the week coming up!