Raising Kids in Japan – Changing Schools

One thing that struck me as my kids entered preschool here in Japan, was that the teacher-to-child ratio was quite generous. Also, the cost is quite manageable compared to the USA. The children by all accounts love where they are and enjoy themselves, looking forward to school just as kids should. In short, I’ve been mostly happy with it.

Side note: Their Japanese Hoikuen 保育園 preschool is really more about socialization and play than it is about studying. If I had wanted them pushed in education more early-on, I would have put them into a Youchien 幼稚園 type of preschool, however I figured the relocation from the US was stressful enough.

Now after 2 years of their adjusting and making friends, we may be imparting another shock upon them which concerns me. As we consider building a home in a nearby area, we must also consider changing their preschool. If we do not – then they will be faced with entering an elementary school later down the road with no friends/acquaintances. If we move them now, they have a solid year to adjust and make new friends.

This in itself is not insurmountable. But I then consider the other issues:

  • They are the youngest in their classes: Children in Japan are placed into classes strictly by birth date, and the maturity difference between oldest to youngest can be striking. The US seems to be much more flexible in this regard. Studies have shown, the older kids in the classes perform better.
  • They are the only “hafu’s” ハーフ: In their current school, and likely in their new school they will likely be the only non-full-Japanese kids. Isn’t fife is hard enough without being regarded as different, especially as a kid?
  • My kids are small: Being the youngest, and having parents who are relatively short means my kids are relatively small in stature. Sure, being bigger and stronger isn’t everything. But, this effects their sports and athletics ability (rather important in the countryside schools), and likewise their confidence.

I should also say – these are my concerns, my own demons. Not my kids’ worries. They simply take one day at a time. They are happy, well-adjusted children. But I know that childhood is far from simple. For now I must consider how I can ease them into this new possibility. I plan to:

  • Visit the new school often, even if to just play
  • Start meeting member of the new school
  • Let the children know, a move will put us closer to grandparents

Do you have children as you live in a foreign country? How have they adjusted? Any tips you can provide for changing schools? I would love to hear the thoughts of others. Comment below.

Small Town Japan

Funny Habits From Living In Japan

After about a year and a half of living in Japan, things have gotten into a regular routine. I guess a small town – is a small town, regardless of what part of the world you live in. I take my kids to school, I work, I pick them up, dinner, bath and bed. Rinse and repeat. Of course I’m not mentioning the magnificent nature that we experience, my hours spent teaching them English, and other things unique to our location. Living in another culture means making personality adjustments if you want to be successful in that society. Has it changed me? Probably not at my core. But there’s many small, social habits i’ve picked up.

BOWING FROM THE CAR

Ok, this one may be a bit silly, but it’s a simple matter of courtesy. Americans wave – Japanese bow. If someone pulls over to let you pass them on a narrow country road or intersection, it only makes sense to give them courtesy bow to say thanks. Should i mention the flashing of the hazard-lights as a thank you when someone lets you cut in front of them? I guess I just did.

APOLOGIZING BY DEFAULT

This relates both to Japanese language and culture. Japanese apologize about everything. But it’s not always a grand gesture. Often it’s more like… “Hey, sorry if I inconvenienced you” or “Excuse me”. Do I have to do it? No. But i think you can come off as rude when people are so used to hearing it, and suddenly they don’t hear it coming from you.

MORE SELF CONSCIOUS IN PUBLIC

Along with the Japanese habit of keeping harmony, and preventing yourself from bothering others, comes a certain self awareness. When my kids are screaming, and how I react to it has a bit more value here in Japan than the US. If I need to blow my nose, or sneeze, or anything else loud and potentially offensive I tend to be a bit excessively discreet about it. Yes, part of this is that as a foreigner my profile my stand out a bit more than the average Joe.

SEEING MYSELF AS AN EXAMPLE

As one of the few (non-tourist) foreigners in town, you tend to stand out. Someone passing through town may be able to momentarily get away with acting like an ass, but I (as a resident) cannot. Sure, part of me wants to single handedly disprove the negative generalization of the scary, uncultured foreigner. But let’s face it, negative people rarely change their views. Setting myself up as a high-standard is far more for me, than it is for anyone else.

REDUCED PDA

I’ve never been one of those people who makes-out with someone else in public, nor is it something that i really care to observe. Though I would say that small-town Japan takes it to another level of reservedness, and typical PDA between couples seems rather rare, usually just young people and tourists. While I am affectionate on rare occasion and dish out the hand holding, hug, or kiss – I’m just far more aware of it. Nobody needs to see that stuff except my wife and kids anyway.

These are just a few tiny habits, and there are no doubt many more. Having said all that, these are all basically social, or cultural considerations in my opinion. I’ll always hold a certain reverence for the cultural traditions in which I was raised. At the end of the day, when you come home, kick off your shoes, pants… take of your makeup, you’ve gotta look yourself in the mirror. That person you’re stuck with when you are alone, that’s who you are, regardless of what you put out there socially. So hopefully you can respect that reflection. (Check out my post on other Cultural Differences.)

A Rice Field is Harvested 田んぼ

It’s no secret that one of the things I love about the countryside is the abundance of rice fields blowing in the breeze, as the dragonflies circle overhead. ( See my post on how A Rice Field is Born ) But the time comes every year when it’s time to harvest the grains. It’s quite beautiful to see the months of growth come to its natural closure, but tempered by the face that soon the fields will be empty, and that winter is not far behind.

When it comes to the harvest, i was surprised to see that many people still do it the way it’s been done for centuries. First water is drained from the rice paddy. Then it is cut by hand, further drained of water, and hung out to dry.


Rice Dies in the Sun

Once the rice has been cut, it’s tied into bundles. These bundles are stretched out over hand-made wooden platforms to dry and absorb the flavors of the sun.

I do my best to pass these structures by without taking a photo, but as you can see I usually fail. There’s something about the simple honesty, the unchanged tradition, that appeals to my senses.

But certainly not everyone still harvests rice this way. People are busy, and where theres a need there is a service! You can conveniently hire someone to come and cut, dry, de-husk and package your rice for you. It quite surprised me how much rice is gained from a single field.

At this point you will likely be left with a very large stack of backs, packed full of rice.

Whether your preference is brown or white rice… the country side is dotted with these stations where you can polish your rice to the required level of perfection.

 

There’s a vending machine for almost everything in Japan! Insert your coins, and the magic starts to happen.

The Rice Polishing In Action

Now that your pantry is stocked, and you look out over your empty field… it’s a reminder that before long we’ll be seeing the first snows of winter. And with it comes an entirely new kind of beauty.

Made In Japan / China / America

One very obvious cultural different after moving from America to Japan – was noticing where products and goods are manufactured.

In America we’ve gotten used to the fact that nearly everything is made in China. We think of China as the worlds shopping mall for all things cheap, and ultimately disposable. In fact it’s quite a challenge to buy “Made In America” products most of the time. We’ve had this justified to us by politicians that countries that “make things” are generally filthy – and also stuck with the pollution of industrialization, and that this low-class type of economy is part of the past. There is an element of truth to this, certainly.

So, you can imagine my shock, after moving to Japan to find so many things “Made In Japan”. This coming from a country that sits right next to China – not across the globe. Don’t get me wrong, there is still plenty of products here made in China. But during a normal shopping experience in America (for example, a hardware store) you can bet, without a doubt that any cheap plastic goods come from China.

On the contrary, in Japan! Yes, these goods are often slightly more expensive (not everything is), and the quality is generally superior, and of course it is “Made in Japan”. It’s quite an interesting trade off if you ask me, and raises some questions about how a country supports it’s own economy.

I must admit, I’m no economist. So I have mostly questions without answers;

  • Does the nature of capitalism fuel this continual hunger to reach the cheapest possible cost for any item?
  • What is the actual trade off for saving $1 on an item, and is it really worth it? How much benefit to one’s own economy can paying $1 more provide?
  • Would Americans, in a neutral, politics-free environment, prefer the more durable product at higher cost? Or is always buying cheapest the new American ideal?

 

This doesn’t mean that I think that the USA should turn back the clock and start making all of it’s own products.
But, there is a price to pay for cheap goods. Whether it’s child labor, air pollution, or import dependencies on other countries – there is always a cost for the consumer to save that buck. The bigger question is will they consider these costs? Quite simply – No. The average consumer is simply choosing from what’s available, and trying to serve their family. I believe thy have simply been brainwashed to believe that this is the only way – that there is no alternative.

I wish for a moment they could walk into a local Japanese store (which would have shut down in the US due to Amazon), to see the local support and superior products for what amounts to mostly pennies more per product. I think If they could experience it, they would feel a bit conned. I don’t believe American’s in their hearts want to be the “throw away” culture. But we’ve let ourselves become compliant, and lazy, when placed in the environment of making everything cheap and easy. It’s easy to buy “Made in Japan” when living in Japan, and I like that.

What do you think about the trade-off between “cheap” versus quality & self-reliance? Let me know in the comments below.

8 Things That Are Cheaper in Japan

Sushi – Fish (and Really Anything From the Ocean)

This one comes as no surprise. While sushi can be a specialty item in the US, often reserved for an expensive night out, it’s availability has exploded over the years in Japan. For those on a limited budget, $1 sushi restaurants are widely available – while those with a discerning palate can find the best there is to offer.

Haircuts

I have friends that have made quite a name for themselves in the US hair salon industry. I think that haircuts here in Japan are generally seen as a bit more utilitarian. Also taking into account that Japan is a non-tipping society, you can expect a reduced cost from this alone. But what about quality you ask? I’ve had great luck with my notoriously difficult hair, and stylists generally tell me that my soft foreigner hair is actually easier for them.

Dental Health

Healthcare

Japan has a national healthcare system with prices that are set by the government and guarantee relatively equal access. I won’t debate the politics of what may, or may not work in the US – but I can tell you my personal experience. I have received excellent and affordably healthcare in Japan, and never have to worry about whether or not I can afford it. Nobody goes bankrupt in Japan due to medical expenses.

Take for example Jameson seen here for 1695¥, or roughly $15.50, not bad at all!

Many UK and American Whiskies

When shopping here in the Japanese countryside I expected American whisky (like most American items) to be more expensive, as well as my favorite Irish and Scotch whiskeys. I was pleasantly surprised to find that it’s actually cheaper than  in the US. I’m not sure of the reason, but if I had to speculate I would say that these brands just aren’t as known here. With the rise of Japanese whisky fame, local brands are a more popular part of the social consciousness. There may be import tax reasons as well, of course – but whatever cause, no complaints here!

Chicken Breast / White Meat

Coming from supposedly health-conscious California, where chicken breast is prized for its lean dietary benefits I was surprised to find how inexpensive it is in Japan. I guess it makes sense as it is a rather bland cut of meat. Last sale price I saw was 38¥ per 100grams, or roughly $1.60 a pound versus the US which can range $3-6/lb.

Child Care

I good but relatively average-cost preschool in Los Angeles cost me ~$900/mo, before that my kid was in an expensive daycare where they played, but no education. Preschool in Japan is government subsidized for working parents. In the US I had to prepare his lunch daily, while in Japan they receive healthy school lunches. The cost to me is minimal ~$200/mo. Not only that, but I would make the argument that early education in Japan is far superior to the US, safe, healthy and the teacher-to-student ratio is excellent.

All You Can DrinkAll-You-Can-Drink

I’m not sure if this one counts, as I rarely ever even see “all you can drink” in the US unless your’e talking about someone who contracted an “open bar”. It’s probably due to fears about liability or disorderly drunks. But in Japan, it’s rather common to see this featured at various restaurants with a set price and time limit (usually a couple hours).

Spa’s, Wellness Centers, and Public Baths

OnsenJapan is home to 10’s of thousands of hot springs, with a rich cultural tradition of cleanliness and wellness as achieved though mind and body purification. Public baths and onsen are found everywhere and often feature western recognized features such as sauna, massage (extra cost), and more. As one of the most popular activities, there are many destinations keeping the price affordable for all.

Did I miss one? Tell me about your experience in the comments below!

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.

grey_grizzled

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.