How 1-Year In Japan Changed Me

It’s been a year and a couple months since our relocation to Japan, and it only makes sense to glance back and review how I’ve changed.  Not just the structural changes of everyday life, but also looking into my brain and analyzing what I’m thinking, and feeling as compared to a year ago. This probably leads right into how my anticipation of life in Japan “lives up” to the reality – but that may require it’s own blog post entirely.

Here’s what I think has changed in me after 1-Year:

Communication
I’m not exactly sure what I expected in terms of Japanese language growth. I’ll say that I feel improvement has been a matter of inches rather than miles – however, but simple conversation comes much easier. I’m no longer afraid to engage others, and even seek it out – while knowing there will be much I don’t understand. I guess I would say I feel like I’m at ground-zero, with everything still ahead of me, but enough of a “foundation” that I actually have something to build upon. I would call that progress.


Friendship
With so much of the last year about getting settled and getting our kids into a routine – I never gave much thought about making friends. But i do see now that in the long term, I could feel isolated without others to confide in. Due to recent events I’m meeting more foreigners and with improved language – more locals as well. While i wouldn’t say I have new close buddies, I don’t think it’s impossible if I stay longer.

Courtesy
It’s pretty clear that once among Japanese language and culture, there is a level of courtesy unique to the country. From bowing, and common phrases of appreciation to being quick to apologize – if only for the sake of politeness. After a year, these tiny rituals have become so normal that they almost come without thinking. Honestly I feel that if suddenly back in the US, it would feel quite odd, because I really do feel the urge to tell someone “Otsukaresama” when I see that they have worked hard, and there’s no English equivalent.

Public Persona
Right in line with courtesy, I am more conscious of how I am act in public. I generally don’t raise my voice or make a big deal about small problems – publicly, where as in the US – sometimes it’s necessary. It’s seen as immature here, while in the US – speaking out and being passionate about something be looked upon favorably. I feel adjusted to my surroundings but it may also highlight a weakness, of being unable to negotiate awkward situations. This can only come with improved communication.

Sense of Family
In the last year we’ve faced a challenges as a family and it has brought us closer. But it’s also made me value and miss my own family more, and wish we had easier access to my US family. So on the whole, I think it’s brought a greater perspective on the importance of family.

Grocery Shopping
Finding good deals and making delicious meals is a favorite pasttime of mine. But the foods which are available at different times of the year, their best prices, and meal outcomes are totally different in Japan! It’s been a lot of fun adjusting to the new situation, planting my own garden and learning some new dishes. I’ve also found ways of replacing “most” of the foods I love from back home.

Passage of Time
Time is passing faster here! I generally explain this by the fact that I’m living in a place with true seasons, and seasons that change quickly and dramatically. This leads to anticipating the next season, and preparation, and the feeling of forward movement. Everyone says they are jealous of my past life in California, but I actually feel more motivated to succeed right now as I feel time passing and I know the number of seasons ahead are not infinite.

Driving
Yes, I bow a lot and let other people go first. They do the same for me. I think being in a small town, and one of the few foreigners has me more cautious than normal, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t feel good to have others be equally courteous – especially coming from Los Angeles. (see my page about passing the Japanese driving test)

Sense of Acceptance
Is it there yet? Will it ever be? Hard to say. Probably not. By and large people are sweet and accepting. The kids of the city love me, but that’s most because I’m such an alien oddity here! There will always be those who simply don’t like foreigners and have to be the thorn in the your side, but we can’t let those people ruin our experience. If I think about how rude Los Angeles must feel to a newly arrived foreigner – there is no comparison. I’m rather happy where I am, and I only see improvement with time.

Thanks for stopping by! Give us your thoughts and questions in the comments below.

Feel free to check out my blog post about 6 Striking Personality Differences.

Costco Items That Every Foreigner in Japan Needs

So you’ve moved to Japan from the USA, or maybe you’re just here for an extended period. Chances are there’s a few things your going to miss from home. While big cities offer about anything you might need (for a price), dwellers of the countryside like me might be out of luck, or forced to compromise during those rare moments we’re feeling nostalgic.

Costco Toyama

Fortunately we have that giant American wholesale warehouse we all know and love, Costco, with stored spread throughout central and southern Japan.

Naturally when I have the chance to visit my nearest location (Toyama) there are a few “must have” items which go into my cart regularly.

Real Cheese
One thing I’ve noticed is a lot of processed cheese in Japan. If you do find the good stuff, it’s not cheap! Bricks of real cheddar and jack cheese can be had from Costco. I always buy a couple bricks and put some in the refrigerator and cut the remainder into pieces or grate and freeze. Freezing it whole does ruin the texture a bit (gets crumbly) but still great for cooking and keeps indefinitely, or at least until the next Costco Trip. Costco puts all the expensive cheese together in the busiest part of the store, while hiding their affordable Kirkland Signature cheese in the refrigeration isle.

Oats & Cereal
Cereal is expensive in Japan, and you certainly won’t find any that you loved as a kid. You can buy a huge amount of steel cut oats at a great price for making oatmeal (or porridge as my UK counterparts would say). This is especially great when you have kids and want to occasionally offer a healthy alternative to rice, pasta, or bread. They also carry a few common cereals for us old-kids like Honey Nut Cheerios.

Wheat PastaOrganic / Wheat Pasta
We like to give our kids healthy options whenever possible. While pasta is readily available throughout Japan it’s kind of rare that i see all wheat or grain versions of pasta, which I feel is a better option than…. just flour/water/egg of regular pasta. Costco has it.

Baked Beans
If you’re looking for beans in Japan – I hope you like desert. Sweet red bean filling is the most common place I find beans in Japan, and while it’s not bad (once you acquire the taste) it can seem very strange to what Americans and British folks think of as beans. I personally prefer a spicey ranch style pinquito beans from my home town, baked beans is still a comfortable reminder of home.

Pork Ribs
I love Japanese style BBQ, I of course have my grill out on the back porch ready for the summer. But there’s no argument that it’s a completely different style than the US. Once in a while, I’ve got to get a taste of that old home town style BBQ and in the absence of a Tri-tip, pork ribs are a great next best option. You can get a full rack at Costco at a relatively affordable price, where as at countryside supermarkets you may see a few small ribs in a pack on occasion – if that.

Taco Seasoning
I know what you home master-chef’s will say, “I use my own seasoning for taco’s”. Yes, I get that. But when you live in Japan, Mexican food seasonings are either non-existant or expensive. For quick meals, Costco has a huge container of taco seasoning that will probably last you a year. You can kick it up a notch with your own seasonings to get your taco’s in the right happy place.

Fresh / Frozen Pizza
Costco’s giant “ready to bake” pizzas are nearly identical to those in the US (with the exception of the seafood pizza). In fact, most Japanese kitchens probably lack the size of oven required to cook it! This means most people probably cook it in sections (I’m guessing). One alternative is their 3-pack of frozen pizzas which are also quite tasty, and at about $5/per pizza quite a good deal. Add your own toppings to make it something special.

Bakery and BreadDinner Rolls / French Bread
I’m an American and this pretty much certifies my love for white bread. What’s great (once again) is that bread keeps rather well in the freezer. Costco’s bakery cranks out favorites that are identical to the US version, and make you feel right at home.

Ritz Crackers
I admit this one is something of a personal favorite that I was craving last time. Japanese crackers are great, but something completely different. If you miss the buttery, salty (can’t be good for you) snack that I was craving, they have them. Top them with some cheese or…

Peanut Butter
I’m listing this one because they have it, and Peanut Butter is rarely ever seen by me at the grocery. If I do see it, it’s a tiny container. Here’s my beef with you Costco, you only carry the sweet full-of-sugar PB’s like JIF. How about a nice natural one, 100% peanuts only? I guess my Trader Joes jar will have to last a little longer.

Tequila / Wine / Beer
Tequila! Oh how I’ve missed you. I never see tequila in supermarkets, and only one option when in most liquor markets. Costco has a couple options, and the Kirkland Signature is quite drinkable and very affordable. I got spoilt on wine in California, as many of the wines imported to, or made in Japan taste watered-down to me. Costco’s cheapest (bottled) red wine is usually imported as well, but you can tell that they’ve taken the time to select a decently drinkable one. Imported beers are always pricey – but at least they have some to pick from.

English Books
If you happen to have kids like me, raising them in Japan – English books might need to be ordered online unless you get lucky at a second hand store, or live in a big city. Costco has a ton of children’s books (and adult ones) in English at your expected new book price.

Avocados
I thought Avocado’s were expensive in the US, then I moved to Japan. Wow! Costco carries avocado’s by the bag, still not cheap, but maybe better than many supermarkets and always large in size.

BONUS ITEMS:

The oven roasted chicken at around $6 is a steal, especially considering most people don’t usually buy whole-chickens (or have big enough oven to roast it for that matter). It’s obvious why it’s strategically placed at the back of the store. And you know I can’t go without mentioning the all-beef hotdog from the food counter. It comes with a drink, AND it’s under $2? Shut up and take my money. Don’t tell me how it’s made, just leave me alone and let me eat my dog. Maybe i’ll get one for the road too.

What’s your craving from back home? Whether Costco or not – leave us a comment below and tell us what you’re missing.

7 Considerations Before Offering Private English Lessons

So you want to start offering private English lessons while living abroad; that’s great! It can be very fulfilling work while offering a valuable service to your newly adopted community. But before you dive in head-first there are a things that you should spend some time thinking about. Clarifying the type of education you will offer will make things easier for you all-around, from building lessons to bringing on new students and advertising your services. I don’t propose to offer all the answers in this post, as your own personal preferences play a huge role. Instead I pose some important questions to ask yourself. While there is much to consider, today we bring you 7 Considerations Before Offering Private English Lessons.

  1. Define Your Audience
    Who is your ideal student? Will you teach to adults or children and at what level? Teaching all things to all students runs the risk of spreading yourself too thin. It may be wise to imagine the best audience for your services and concentrate your efforts in that direction.
  2. Focus Your Services
    What kind of lessons will you offer and what type of English? Will you cater to students preparing for tests, or businessmen looking to improve language skills? Will your lessons teach grammar, reading and writing? Will they be more conversational and what will be required for beginner level students?
  3. Find Your Classroom
    Where will you provide your services? Will you conduct classes from your own home or from the students home? If you want teach from a coffee shop or a cooperative workspace how will the costs and environment impact your lessons?
  4. Schedule Appropriately
    What is the daily schedule of your ideal student? Are they enrolled in school or do they follow a typical work schedule? What are your own hours availability, not only for offering classes but for building your lesson plans and preparation.
  5. Cost and Payment
    How much will you charge for your services and when will you require payment? Will you offer a discount for multiple students or for multiple classes purchased at once? It’s important to remain competitive with other offerings in the area, but it must also be profitable for you. What reason should someone pick your services over someone else’s offerings?
  6. Curriculum
    Will you follow a text book? Will lessons be based entirely on the proficiency and preferences of your student? How will you determine the ways in which your student learns best and create lessons that cater to their unique abilities.
  7. Advertising
    Where will you enroll your intended audience? First consider the locations and schedules of the type of person you’d like to reach. Are there public bulletin boards, or local publications that you can post in? What about local networking events?

Make some conscious decisions in advance and save yourself trouble and confusion down the road. Present the best possible version of yourself and your services through professionalism and clarity.

5 Japanese Habits Your Family Can Start Today! (Featured Guest Blog)

Just because you haven’t visited or moved to Japan yet doesn’t mean you can’t start incorporating some of the healthy habits observed by many in Japan!

Today we bring you a new article;

5 Japanese Habits Your Family Can Start Today!

…prominently featured over at the Grey, Grizzled and Gaijin blog as part of their “Lifting People Up in 2018” Feature.

We’d like to thank Craig at GGG for working diligently to helping those of us working to bring you the hidden gems of Japanese culture, adventure and lifestyle. Learn more about the Grey, Grizzled and Gaijin blog here.

Hounoki Ski Area ほおのき

Today, we at WestCoastToFarEast.com bring you to the beautiful Hounoki Ski Area in Takayama Japan, or as some call it the Japanese Alps. There is excellent skiing, snowboarding, sledding for kids, and more. There are multiple lodges here where you can rest after a day on the slopes with warm, affordably priced meal. Or soak your weary bones in a hot onsen bath (my personal favorite) and overlook the mountain tops.

What’s great is that it’s a relatively quick and painless ride up the mountains from Takayama City. There are several ways to get there via bus or tour, or simply drive. If you drive while it’s snowy be sure to have a 4wd vehicle for slippery roads though! Once you are up here you’ll also be in the vicinity of several famous Onsen locations.

Learn more about the Ski area here: http://www.hounoki-daira.or.jp/
View upcoming videos by subscribing to our YouTube Channel.

Takayama Showa Era Museum 昭和時代

Today I bring to you a true Hidden Gem of Takayama-city – the Shōwa era museum. Hidden Gem in every send of the word. Hidden because it’s literally through the back of a toy & candy store, unseen until you enter through a curtained door. A Gem because while it is not huge in size, it’s uniqueness and quality make up for it in its brilliance!

The Takayama Showa-kan is located right in the middle of Takayama near the old town on a fairly nondescript side street, aside from some retro signs and animatronic sculptures that set it apart from the surroundings.

The windows give you a peek into the toy and candy store.
The windows give you a peek into the toy and candy store.

Once inside the toy and candy store… you wonder, how big could this museum be?? There’s really no way to tell without paying admission. My opinion – it’s worth the $8 to get in, and there was more to explore than I expected. Certainly not a huge museum – but an adventure for the eyes with plenty entertain you for an hour or two.

As you enter the museum you begin to feel transported to a part of Japan’s not too distant past (Showa period 1926-1989). A time that endured a lot of change and most of us have only seen in the movies, where industry, fashion and culture changed following the war. For some, that period may even be our original vision of Japan.

The layout of the museum breaks the art installations out into various themed rooms or shops that line a street.

You get the quaint feeling that this must have started as someone’s personal collection… which grew out of control, and then took on a new meaning – and then others began to contribute. Is this true? Maybe not – but i’d like to believe it is.

Some of the items are rare pop-culture relics that collectors-of-too-many-things like me would love to have in their own home, while other items feel more normal, as if you might be able to find them in a second-hand junk store. Together it works, building a vibe that allows the imagination to run.

It’s not hard to find a variety of classic movie posters, both foreign and domestic.

Another thing that makes this museum unique is the access. There’s no barriers, ropes or security guards – you are in it. Trusted to treat the place with a measure of respect.

Shōwa era restaurant
Recreation of a Shōwa era restaurant.
Buddy Mike steps into the past.
Buddy Mike steps into the past.

As i wander around, I wonder where all this stuff came from, and who in town still has treasures like these sitting in their own closet or storage house. I certainly don’t see these types of items in the local second-hand store. One side of the street we see a barber shop, while another corner has a recreation of a camera stores. You pop in and out of rooms, and inevitably your eyes are drawn to the tiny details

Video game nerds will be happy to know there is a small gaming area set aside with emulations of Nintendo, Intellivision, and other 80’s era game consoles where you can take a rest and relive some childhood memories.

The Classroom
The Classroom

And I can’t go without mentioning one room which i found to be especially endearing – the Showa era classroom. Is this classroom like the one that “the creator” of this museum went to school in? I can’t tell you. But I hope to answer some of these lingering questions about how and why this small but beautiful museum was created, and I hope that you check back if you are just as curious as I am.

Now go check out my post 8 Things to Love About the Japanese Countryside.

Wintertime Entertainment

Depending on where you live in Japan, the seasons can be a bit extreme. Summer often brings heat and humidity and winter brings the beautiful snowfall. One thing you can count on is that there will be plenty to entertain you. Where I’m located, near Takayama City in Gifu prefecture (often referred to as the Japanese Alps), snow is basically guaranteed.

View From My House of The Snowy Landscape

So what can you do?

It seems like every neighborhood has it’s own community center, open to the public with activities and exercise equipment, as well as indoor sports like rock-climbing which help keep the kids busy and active during the winter. For us parents – we get the additional exercise of shoveling snow from our driveways and cleaning off our cars every morning along side our neighbors.

Sledding, snowmen, snowballs, igloos, and more.

But another thing small Japanese towns can brag about is the sense of community created through everyday interactions, and local events and activities – such as a day for kids to come together and play in the snow at the local park.

This event was hosted by a local group associated with the city, including teachers to games and a good time for the kids like tug-of-war and other team building activities. 

In addition to sledding and games, here was entertainment by local performers, with snacks and goodies provided for the kids to take home.

Of course I can’t go without mentioning the HOT miso soup cooked up in a nearby tent and provided to every chilly visitor. 

Pass Your Japanese Driver’s Test in One Attempt

Need to drive in Japan more than the 1 year given to you by your International driving permit? Your going to need a Japanese drivers license.

You could face a fine of up to 300,000 Yen or up to 1 year imprisonment for driving on an expired permit.

This could take several months – so you better get head start my friend because the clock is ticking. Does 3, or 5, or 10 attempts sound crazy? Because the Japanese practical test often presents a challenge to foreigners.

As an American – it’s more work than simply swapping out a US license for a Japanese one, unfortunately. On the positive side, neither do you have to go through the process that locals go through which includes months of driving school, and likely thousands of dollars in training and fee’s. Yes – they take driver’s licenses very seriously in Japan!

The steps you will need to take will look something like this:

  • Setting your initial DMV paperwork appointment
  • Gathering the necessary information and documentation
  • Providing this information to the DMV, and likely a short interview in Japanese
  • At least one drivers training session with an instructor
  • Memorizing the route/map for your practical test
  • Taking a simple written test (true or false)
  • Taking a practical driving test on a track at the DMV
  • Filling out forms and paying fee’s

This doesn’t look very appealing. But it’s not as bad as it seems and it can actually be quite simple provided you do a few things the right way.

You will not pass the practical test without at least one driving school session.

I know what your’e going to say. Probably the same thing I said. “That’s crazy! I’ve been driving in the US for 25 years!”, well yes, but there are many little things specific to the test in Japan that a foreigner would never think of. Examples?

  • Examining the car before you enter it
  • How smoothly you are turning the wheel
  • Listening for trains at railroad crossings
  • Having your blinker on almost entirely through the course

There’s many more, and every instructor/prefecture is looking for different things. So what is a person to do? Most likely there is a nearby driving school (in my case, less than a mile away) which has the very SAME course as the actual test! This is a huge benefit to you. Most people recommend at least 2 hours of training, but i did it with a single 30 minute session.

I’m going to tell you how – plus everything else that I learned. But since this blog post got really long – I’ve created an entire page dedicated to the subject!

That way the rest of you don’t have to sit through all the boring details. Just know that if you plan to get a Japanese drivers license – it will take sincere effort, patience and preparation.

To view this post in its entirety, visit the dedicated page – How To Pass The Japanese Drivers Test in One Attempt.
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Ohinasama Hina Ningyo

Hina Ningyo Dolls 雛人形 Ohinasama お雛様

A holiday and festival called Hinamatsuri (雛祭り, or Girl’s Day/Doll’s Festival, is celebrated on March 3rd.  Before the holiday takes place families set out a display of ornamental dolls (雛人形 hina-ningyō) representing the Emperor, Empress, attendants, and musicians (of the Heian period).

While I’ve seen these dolls in various settings, I’d never really learned the meaning behind it. As my Japan family recently set theirs up, it seemed like a good opportunity to document the occasion!

From sometime in February to March 3, the dolls are displayed, resting atop a platform of seven tiers. First the platform is assembled, and then covered by red fabric/carpet with rainbow striped at the bottom (dankake (段掛) or  hi-mōsen (緋毛氈). Platforms for the dolls are placed reflecting a very specific order, which varies somewhat depending on region ( Kantō and Kansai).

Various miniature tools, and furniture are added such as chests, a mirrors, and other items you’d find in the palace.

Instructions
I found these old setup directions which weren’t much help, a bit dated judging by the hairstyle.

Once the dolls have been placed, they each receive their rightful accessories including instruments for the musicians, swords and bow/arrows for the ministers, crowns, fans, and more.

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Here you can see the before & after of the old minister (daijin)  getting his hat, weapons, and accessories.

When complete, you end up with a rather impressive display. Some doll sets are purchased new, while many others are handed down over generations. The dolls are put away promptly following the March 3rd holiday, as a superstition surrounds those being left out for too long!

My family also had a small side table displaying some older style ceramic dolls.

That’s all for now, check back for a post on the Hinamatsuri itself, which like other Japanese festivals is about to include traditional food and drink to accompany the day.

雛人形 [ひなにんぎょう (hinaningyou)]
お雛様, 御雛様 [おひなさま (ohinasama)]

Is (BLANK) better in Japan or in the US?

I’ve got a small list of items here. Some I miss terribly from the US, while others are SO much better here in Japan. Am I qualified to say which is “better” after only 1 year in Japan? Absolutely not! But based on my completely biased opinion – I’m going to pass some generalized judgement judgement!

Some of these are obvious, while a few  might surprise you! Disagree with me? Have one to add? Let me know in the comments below.

Hamburgers:

This is a tough one for me, as I live in the city with perhaps the best hamburger in Japan. But this list is a general one – not about exceptions, or specialties. I’ve got to admit it – I miss a fresh, inexpensive In & Out burger from time to time. There are great burgers in Japan – but i’ve got to give the nod to the good ol’ USA on this one. But Japan reigns supreme on what they call a Hambagu ( ハンバーグ ) or hamburger-steak which they’ve made into something special of their own.

Various Sweet Peppers

Fresh Vegetables:

Does it matter? Hell yes! In Japan all the vegetables are sourced from local farms – even better, I’m surrounded by farms with their own stands. Sometime’s it’s a bit more expensive than the US depending on what is in season/time of year, but a wise shopper learns the ropes rather quickly. Still a fraction of what those overpriced healthy supermarkets in the US cost.

Bread:

This is a tough one guys – very close. I’m an American, so you know I’m basically required to love me some bread. And being a sandwich lover, the varieties of wheat, rye, sourdough that you find in the US is something I’d gotten used to. But I said this was going to be a generalized judgement. In which case, the Japanese soft white fluffy bread is delightful. And there are tiny amazing bakeries everywhere. Europe is probably the world leader, but in this contest – the slight edge here goes to Japan! They even cut the crusts off sandwiches. Shut up and take my money!

Ethnic Food:

I might be opening up a can of worms here. I really love the Japanese take on Italian and Chinese food (neither of which bear much resemblance to the US variation). But when I’m talking about the availability and enjoyability of Thai, Indian, Mexican, and other ethnic food options – you just can’t beat the biggest melting-pot-of-a-country, the US of A.

Early Childcare / PreSchool:

I know what your saying, that’s not food. I didn’t say this was all about food did I? In Los Angeles I paid between $600-1000 per month for day care and then preschool. In Japan it’s mostly subsidized coming in at around a couple hundred dollars a month, and honestly – amazing. Very high ratio of teachers to students, very interactive and social environment. I have to give a round of applause to Japan here. A major influence on my move.

Freeways

This one is a bit tricky, as the freeways in Japan are most definitely not free (I guess we all pay somehow, in any country). But the freeways are maintained, clean, and pretty much always have plenty of workers to make repairs where needed. But the cost of driving even just a couple hours away can really add up with tolls! It’s a bit of a toss up here – but if we’re including the word “free” then I believe the edge must go to the USA here (horrible LA freeways exempt from this win).

Playgrounds

You know, like the ones at the park that your kids go crazy on. I was surprised to see so many of them here in Japan, built from wood and steel and concrete like it was done in the US – say 30+ years ago. The US is safety focused, lots of plastic and soft landing pads. So far the US has the advantage here – safety is important. But where Japan takes the cake is by letting kids be kids, and not worrying as much about lawsuits – frees them up to make some rather wild playgrounds by comparison. I often find myself playing alongside my kids, reliving some youth.

Takayama BeerBeer

This is a tough one, i’ve only been here a year, and I’m tasting them as fast as a can folks! Japan has a budding microbrewery industry, and theres a site with some great info here. But just the sheer size of the US, and the advantage of being focused on it longer with more affordable brews – gives the US an edge. I may change my mind with time. So check back!

Beef

I’d like to reserve the right to remain silent… but I won’t. This one is too tough. Growing up with Santa Maria style tri-tip as part of my diet, with beef as my national staple – and then moving to Japan and enjoying Hida Beef : possibly the best beef in the world. US beef is more affordable, and you can get a nice steak any day of the week at a reasonable price. Hida beef IS the standard here, although costly, but something that every human should experience. This one is too tough folks. I love them both. Japanese Wagyu is superior, but is it an exception? or just a very high standard? What’s your opinion? Comment below.