Changed the Location But Not the Goal

The Nakasendo Way in spring (photo credit: Walk Japan)

Just a few short weeks ago (August 3, to be exact) I announced that Brett and I had committed ourselves to walking the entire length of the Cotswold Way in the fall 2022. That goal has been a strong motivator for getting us out every day to walk, and to come up with a plan for gradually increasing our walking endurance to where we could manage the daily distances required of us to finish the walk.

Last week though we came across a company called Walk Japan, which provides “off the beaten track walking tours in Japan.” We began pouring over their website, and this past weekend we decided that while we still intend to do a long-distance walking tour in 2022, we will do it in Japan instead of England. In particular, we want to do Walk Japan’s 10-day Nakasendō Way tour from Kyoto to Tokyo. 

Scenes like this one of persimmons drying will be more common when we walk in the fall.

The history of the Nakasendō (Central Mountain Road) is what drew us to this walking tour. It was one of five main thoroughfares from Kyoto to Tokyo (and back) during the Edo Period of Japan (1603-1868), when the Tokugawa shogun lived and ruled in Tokyo (called Edo then; the Emperor remained in Kyoto and was virtually powerless at this time). In order to maintain the loyalty of those under him, the shogun required the highest lords (daimyos) throughout Japan to travel to and live in Tokyo every other year and their families to remain in Tokyo during their absence, under the “protection” of the shogun. The Nakasendō, along with the Tokaidō, which ran along the coast, was heavily used by the daimyo from the west and their families during these times. The road had 69 post towns along the way where papers and permission to travel were checked, and where travelers stopped to eat, drink, and rest. The road also served as an important route for communication for the shogunate. The Nakasendō was well developed, and was often preferred for travel because no major rivers needed to be forded along the way.

One of the historic post towns along the ancient Nakasendo route connecting Kyoto and Edo (old Tokyo).

Our decision to change the destination for our walk was not a casual one. We spent days carefully weighing and discussing several factors and the pros and cons of using Walk Japan before deciding to change our plans.

These were the two arguments for sticking with the Cotswold Way tour:

  1. The Nakasendō walking tour costs quite a bit more than a Cotswold walking tour. This was probably the biggest factor that we debated. However, the Nakasendo tour comes with a full-time guide, and not only covers each night’s lodging, almost all meals, and all interim transportation necessary to get from Kyoto to the road. We had to think long and hard about whether we were willing to pay more for these amenities but in the end figured out it wouldn’t be that much over what we would have spent going to the Cotswolds again. Walk Japan offers an unguided Nakasendo Way tour which costs less but we both think we’d rather have a guide along because of our ages and because our Japanese is limited.
  2. We would not get to go back to the Cotswolds. This was a major factor for not switching. We loved the Cotswolds and would love to experience more of the area.
The “lobby” of a traditional Japanese inn, complete with irori (sunken hearth).

There were a few more positives however which helped to sway us to a Japan walk:

  1. We would already be in Japan and not have to worry about paying for and taking long flights to England and then back to Tokyo. All we would have to purchase is a one-way ticket from Tokyo to Kyoto on the Shinkansen.
  2. We would get to walk one of the most historic routes in all of Japan along with a knowledgeable guide, learning about the history of the road as well as the villages and old post towns we would pass through along the way. The architecture alone is a huge draw.
  3. We would get to stay every night in traditional Japanese inns and hotels, and enjoy fine Japanese cuisine in those places and along the way.
  4. The tour offers transportation alternatives for the three longest walking days. For example, if we didn’t feel up to walking 15 miles on the longest day, we could walk for around 6-7 miles and then take a train or bus to that evening’s destination.
  5. The Nakasendō walk finishes in Tokyo, where we would only need a couple of days’ rest at our son’s before heading back home to Hawaii. If we went to England we would need at least two to three days’ rest at the end of the walk before flying to Tokyo, and then would have to rest up again in Tokyo from that journey before heading back to Hawaii. It was overwhelming just thinking about the jet lag.

Our task now is to figure out how to save a few thousand more dollars than we had initially planned, but we’re sure it can be done. We remain as motivated than ever to find ways to save as travel always comes out of our discretionary funds, which aren’t much right now with YaYu’s college expenses. Time is on our side though as we have two years to make this goal a reality.

Besides saving enough, we also are more motivated than ever to stay healthy and get ourselves in the best possible physical shape. I will also continue to study Japanese, not because I expect to be able to speak it, but so I can understand more during our stays in Japan and while we travel there. The big unknown at this point though is whether Japan will be reopened for American visitors by Fall 2022, and whether the virus will be under control by then as well. We certainly hope so, and not just because we want to go to Japan.

Game on!

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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!