Drinks in Japan

A milk tea that says it will help you stay healthy. The label at the top proclaims “A first in Japan!”

Every time I visit the grocery store, I love perusing the bottled drinks section because I’ll usually run into a drink I’ve never seen before.

Companies like Pepsi love putting out “limited edition” flavors, which for me is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it’s fun seeing what’s new. On the other hand, if I love one of those flavors, I know they’ll only be there for a month or so and then vanish.

My favorite drink Pepsi has produced thus far was Blue Hawaii from back in 2008. I was studying abroad in Kyoto at the time, and it was my drink of choice for almost the entire time I was there. I sadly, at the time, wasn’t aware that this was limited edition. When I came back to Japan about a year later, devastation reigned when I scoured grocery store after grocery store and never found a single one.

I think drink companies marketing in Japan have all jumped on the latest bandwagon – healthy drinks. Over the past couple of years, I’ve seen an outcropping of drinks that declare they will: lower your cholesterol, burn off fat, help your body not process too much sugar, keep your immune system up, or help you de-stress. I don’t trust any of them, but I still like to try them.

The latest find in the “healthy drinks” department is milk tea (seen above) that seems to be stating it will help you stay healthy somehow. The label says there are probiotic elements in the tea, though it doesn’t have the Health Ministry’s stamp of approval (the silhouette of a person with their hands up in the air) so I have no idea if this actually does anything at all. I’m highly skeptical, but I still bought one to try it.

Studying Japanese

To native English-speaking people, Japanese poses several challenges. In fact, the Foreign Service Institute put it in the top-four hardest languages for us to learn as a second language.

Japanese earns this place of honor largely for its writing systems.

Yes, systems plural.

While English enjoys one writing system (the alphabet), Japan decided it’d be fun to mix three writing systems together, which they do all the time. You can actually see all three in action in one sentence.

For example: ここでサインして下さい。(Please sign here)

Here’s a quick breakdown of the writing systems.

Hiragana ひらがな

This is the first writing system people in Japan learn. Every symbol represents one sound only, which is easier than the alphabet in many respects (I’m looking at you, letters A, and C).

Katakana カタカナ

This is the second writing system, and it’s mainly used to put foreign words into Japanese. This isn’t the only reason for its use, but I think it’s the main one. Just like with hiragana, each symbol represents only one sound. There is one katakana symbol for every hiragana symbol.

Kanji 漢字

This is where many people want to just throw in the towel with Japanese. Each Chinese-imported character represents not only sounds (and the sound can change depending on the surrounding Chinese characters), but ideas. For example, 木. You can read it as “ki”, and it means “tree.”

It might help your mind to know right now that there is kanji for almost every noun you can think of. Even if Japanese usually write coffee as コーヒー (in katakana), you’ll often see older coffee houses writing the word as 珈琲 (coffee) on their store signs. There’s kanji for everything.


Sounds – It’s important to understand that Japanese has a pretty bare selection of sounds it can make compared to English. That’s why it’s just plain wrong to pronounce “karaoke” as “care-ee-oh-key” because Japanese symbols only have one sound per symbol. Karaoke is written as カラオケ in katakana (“empty orchestra”), where the カ symbol can only be read as “kah”, ラ can only be read as “rah”, オ can only be read as “oh” and ケ can only be read as “kay.” Together, you get “kah-rah-oh-kay.” If you can figure this out early on in your studies, you will swiftly master pronunciation.

I think the best way to learn how to properly pronounce Japanese is to listen to it as much as you can. Just like the way babies learn. Even if you’re not a fan of anime, try to find a TV drama, a movie or a TV show in Japanese that you can listen to with subtitles. It’ll help you listen to the rhythm and ways of speaking the language. If there’s a Japanese club nearby or a language exchange, go for it.

I know of a lot of native English-speaking people who brag about how easy it is to pronounce Japanese, only to sound exactly like an English-speaking person trying to speak Japanese. Your goal should be to sound Japanese. My favorite challenge is to try fooling people on the phone into thinking I’m a native Japanese person. I’ve found that people who are good at music tend to be good at copying pronunciation for various languages. That’s just what I’ve found anyway.

Writing hiragana and katakana – This is painful, but the sooner you can ingrain hiragana and katakana into your head, the better. I’ve heard of some Japanese classes sticking with Romanized Japanese for far too long. Writing out Japanese in Roman lettering will not help you out here that much. Even if you never master kanji, at least being able to write out things like “I’m lost” or “Where is the station?” in hiragana or even katakana will vastly improve your odds of the average Japanese person helping you.

The Japanese way of learning is to write each symbol over and over again until you can write it in your sleep. Do whatever you can to memorize each one. More and more handwriting is getting worse here, and people’s expectations of your writing abilities are low, but if you really want to become a master calligrapher, then I recommend finding some children’s hiragana/katakana workbooks online and copying what you see. Stroke order in Japanese is important so pay attention to that, too. This is all about precision and beauty.

Learning kanji – Another painful thing to learn, but again it’s all about memorization. It really helps, I think, to read children’s books where they put the way to read kanji (in hiragana, which they call “furigana”) above the actual kanji. Manga meant for younger people also usually put the furigana above all the kanji. This helps you remember how to read a lot of the kanji. Flash cards also helped me a lot, as did writing the words over and over again. To really get kanji to soak into your brain, you really need to make it a part of your life. I also love that a lot of Japanese TV shows will, for some reason, write out what the person on the screen is saying, as they’re saying it. It’s like they put closed-captioning on everything. This immensely helps me learn how to read kanji. Again, stroke order is king here.

Dictionaries – I know many people like to buy electronic dictionaries, but I am going to confess to you here that I have gotten to a passing level of Japanese with the help of Nihongodict.com. They are definitely not paying me to write this, but I love them. It’s a free online dictionary that I’ve been using for years and years, and it’s gotten me to where I am today. So thank you, people at Nihongodict.com

Beyond that, kanji dictionaries can definitely help. I wouldn’t really bother with hiragana and katakana ones beyond children’s workbooks (I have learned to never think children’s books are beneath me when learning a second language). I also love reading manga (mostly heart-warming romances). You’d be surprised to find there’s a manga basically for any interest you can think of. I’m sure there’s a gardening one out there I’ve missed.

Japanese TV dramas – Part One

I am a huge fan of so many of the TV dramas Japan has produced over the years. I’m a huge sucker for romantic gestures in light-hearted romantic comedies, in general.

I’m going to introduce a few of my favorites and hope maybe one day you might try to watch them.

General note about Japanese TV dramas

To the great irritation of a lot of my Japanese friends – who say they love American TV shows so much more because big budgets mean movie-like quality – most Japanese TV shows simply don’t have money for good special effects. This is not the place to go for that.

Instead, Japanese TV dramas must rely on great acting and great storytelling to make for a great series.

Unlike American TV shows that can go into 14 seasons or more, Japan usually only ever has one season of a drama, with about 10 episodes. If the show does amazingly well with viewership ratings, they’ll make another a couple more episodes, then maybe a second season. If that goes well, they’ll put out a movie and be done with it.

The only massive exception I’ve seen to this is a cop show called Aibou, 相棒 (“Partner”), which has done 19 seasons.

As such, the stories are usually fairly well thought out, and the acting can be really good. I like that special effects also can’t distract from bad acting or bad stories. If it’s bad, you can immediately tell. Stories that aren’t well received usually stop by around episode 10, sometimes 8.

Hana Yori Dango (花より男子)

(Boys over Flowers – this is a play-on-words for the phrase hana yori dango, which sounds the same, but the kanji for dango is supposed to be 団子, a type of wagashi Japanese sweet, and it means “preferring food over looking at flowers”).

My favorite TV romantic drama of all time, it was truly a force to be reckoned with when it came out. It did so well that they added more episodes, then a second season, then a movie. Everything this production team did was adored in Japan.

Brief synopsis: A ridiculously poor family pours their money into sending their daughter to a high school for the rich in the hopes she marries rich (it’s cringe-worthy just writing here). The daughter has no interest in anyone there, loathing their self-entitlement sentiments, until she finally makes a friend at the school. When that friend ends up on the wrong side of one of the school’s elite students, the daughter shows the whole school what she’s made of.

Review: While I hate the parents and their idea of marrying off their daughter to bring themselves out of poverty, I love basically everything else about this incredibly ridiculous but fun drama. I love watching the male lead (Matsumoto Jun) figure out how to be a human being, I love the daughter (Inoue Mao) for being so unapologetically strong. The two had such strong chemistry in this series that there are still rumors they’re actually dating.

Saikou no Rikon (最高の離婚)

(The greatest divorce).

This is my favorite TV drama for acting. It was received fairly well, though as far as I know, it only got a special (basically a one-hour episode recapping the series and adding about five minutes of original content). I would’ve loved to have seen more.

Brief synopsis: An extremely high-maintenance man wonders more and more how he ended up marrying his polar opposite. Meanwhile, an old flame of his ends up moving into his neighborhood.

Review: My God the acting in this is just superb. I can’t even begin to properly describe how much I love it. To me, this entire series was like watching a stage play on TV. This, I think, is what happens when you boil down a good script to the very best it can be and mix in some high-quality acting. It’s just a treasure to watch.

Although a lot of places seem to describe this as a romantic comedy, a dramedy would be a better description. There are quite a few gut-punching moments in here mixed so beautifully with antics. I can’t recommend this show enough.

Ryusei no Kizuna 流星の絆

(Meteoric bonds?)

This is truly a gut-wrenching story with more fantastic acting from some of the top actors in Japan all in the same drama (much like Saikou no Rikon).

Brief synopsis: Three children are left orphaned after the brutal murder of their parents. When the police can’t find a suspect, the three vow to one day catch the murderer.

Review: This is not a happy drama, though there are moments of light-heartedness. It’s part whodunit, part grieving. There’s nothing like seeing that the older brother’s desktop picture is the police profile sketch of the potential suspect. And the reveal of who the suspect actually is…it’s just incredible.

If you’ve ever seen the movie Letters from Iwo Jima, you might recognize the lead in this: Ninomiya Kazunari, who’s a pop idol currently on hiatus.

This is a tragedy, though the ending is a little bit healing. There’s closure, at least.

Last Friends ラスト フレンズ

This is not for the faint-of-heart or for anyone who doesn’t want to relive being in an abusive relationship. That being said, I love that this drama tackled incredibly important topics Japan usually doesn’t love talking about: gender identity, controlling behavior, abusive relationships that are well hidden.

Brief synopsis: A woman moves in with her boyfriend, only to find out he’s not at all what he seems. Meanwhile, her best friend is struggling with being trapped in a woman’s body while trying to hide her feelings for her friend.

Review: This is not only another unhappy drama, it’s really intense. The abusive boyfriend is played, quite masterfully, by a Japanese pop idol named Nishikido Ryo. (He’s also in the previously mentioned Ryusei no Kizuna) Seeing him acting like this is just something I’ll never get out of my head, no matter how many times I see him in other things. Another actor named Eita, who is famous for his superb acting, also makes an appearance here. (You can also see him in the previously mentioned Saikou no Rikon.) I will never be able to express how much I love Ueno Juri in this show, either. She’s fantastic on so many levels.

Again, this is not a happy show. There are a few sparse moments of levity, but mostly it’s wondering how long before Nishikido Ryo’s character just finally kills his girlfriend. Mercifully, he doesn’t, I’d like to add. I love it for the acting; I love it for tackling tough subjects.

Working in an office in Japan – Part 2

Based on my experiences working here, I’ve realized that many Japanese in the office don’t just say “No” to you or say “You’re doing a terrible job.” They like to indirectly hint at the idea of these, instead, using carefully worded phrases. For your consideration, I have translated them below into more plain-spoken English.

NOTE: Please keep in mind, this is just from my experience. I in no way aim to say that this applies to every single office environment here. This is only what I have learned from my own experiences.

Saying no

“That would be a little difficult to do.”
That’s never going to happen.
“Let me think about it.”
And the answer is no.
“We’ve never done that before.”
And we don’t plan to start now.
“That’s an interesting idea.”
That’s a weird idea I don’t like.
Dear God it’s such a hard pass that I couldn’t even find a way around being indirect.
“I’m sorry but…”
…this is not going to happen.

Saying you did a bad job at something

“That was hard to do, wasn’t it?”
You did an absolutely horrible job.
“You worked hard.”
A for effort.
“Would you like my help?”
I can’t stand to see you do such a horrible job anymore.
“You’re so good at this.”
I’m trying to build up your confidence.
“It’s an interesting take on it.”
This is completely wrong.
“It’s a little different than how I imagined it would be.”
Did you even listen to me when I gave you the directions on how to do this?

Hopefully this helpful new pocket translation dictionary I just wrote up will help you out if you ever decide to work in a traditional Japanese office setting so you don’t waltz around the office oblivious to the undertones of what people are saying to you.

Working in an office in Japan – Part 1

I’ve lived in Japan for over 12 years, and all of that has been spent working. As such, I thought I’d spend the next few posts talking about what it’s like working here.

NOTE: Please keep in mind, this is just from my experience. I in no way aim to say that this applies to every single office environment here. This is only what I have learned from my own experiences.

The Golden Rule

If you learn nothing else, learn this: Just because your work is done for the day does not, by any means, mean you get to leave early. If you get your work done by 2 p.m. and stand up, announce “I’ve finished my work for today so good-bye to you all,” you will swiftly become the most hated person in the office.

Even leaving on time is usually a sign you’re just not dedicated enough to your work. I usually flagrantly ignore the pointed stares of people and leave on time, though, because I have a family to get home to.

What you’re supposed to do, however, is if you somehow manage to finish all of your work, you must then ask co-workers if you can help them with their work. Your mission is to not go home until at least the head of your department goes home.

Japan still seems to adore people who overwork, even though so many people here literally die from working too much. I think it’s a toxic mentality that really needs to change.

The hierarchy

Personally, I think Japan wasn’t ready to say good-bye to feudal lords. Much like some dinosaurs evolving into birds, feudal lords and samurai simply evolved into office workers.

Sitting at the top of this feudal system is the president of the company. This man (unfortunately usually a man – Japan has a long way to go) is usually so revered in the company that I get the feeling I shouldn’t even look them in the eye if I were to ever meet them.

The hierarchy is filtered down through the various departments.

Within a department you usually have:

  1. The head of the department (bucho)
  2. The second-in-command (fuku-bucho)
  3. A few other people who are like supervisors
  4. People who have been there a while
  5. People who have been there kind of a while
  6. People who are part-time or dispatch
  7. People who just started out

The people who have been there longer than you are called your sempai (superiors) while you are their kouhai (subordinate). While your job is to listen to what your sempais tell you to do, their job is to nurture you and make you a better employee. Of course, this isn’t how it always pans out. Lots of sempai enjoy reenacting The Devil Wears Prada on their kouhai. Lots of kouhai expect their sempai to take responsibility for everything. It happens, and it can be miserable.

Many kouhai put up with getting ordered around a lot because they are holding onto the dream that new hires will arrive the next fiscal year (new hires usually come into a department at the beginning of April). Then, the once-kouhai employees will have someone to whom they will be known as a sempai. The people who have worked there longer, naturally, will forever be your sempai. I haven’t seen much meritocracy in action in the offices here.

Something I find both amusing and frustrating is that a lot of employees nearing retirement are basically allowed to do whatever they want at the office. I’ve seen people just sit in the back of the office and take a daily nap whenever the mood strikes. I think the other employees just allow this, even the head of the department, because that employee probably sweated blood and tears for the past 50 years.

Office shuffle

Something both odd and intriguing that I’ve noticed here is that most companies have various departments within their office, and will shuffle people through the various departments throughout that person’s career there. This means I’ve had bosses who are there for three years before being moved to another department. Co-workers come and go as well. Only the one-year contract people, dispatch workers and part-timers stick around in one department for a little while.

I think this shuffle is odd in that I believe it makes sense to create a team of experts in any given department to ensure work is being done well. I also think it’s intriguing because it can get quite boring doing the same work day in and day out, so moving to a different department every few years makes work a little bit less boring.

Dealing with conflict

I have noticed that direct confrontation here is usually avoided at all cost in the office. If you’re going to start yelling at someone, you had better either be their boss or severely drunk at the time and near a pub.

If you have an issue with one of your co-workers, the common course of action is actually not to just walk up to them and say, “Hey, I’d love to talk to you about this problem I have with something you did.” Instead, you are generally encouraged to take it directly to either the head of the department (bucho) or the second-in-command in the department (fuku-bucho). That person then either expresses that complaint to the offending person or tells you it’s not worth pursuing.

As such, you might never know if people in the office have a problem with you until the head of the department saunters over to your desk to discuss it with you.

That is not to say gossip and commiserating with your co-workers about other co-workers isn’t rampant. I’ve found many co-workers will be absolutely civil to people who have offended them in the office, only to rant about them for the full hour-long lunch break.

All of this to say that just because no one says anything to you about something doesn’t mean they’re all just fine with it. For example, the dress code says no heavy perfume, but you decide to wear it and think it’s ok because no one is saying anything. On the contrary, everyone in the office is waiting for someone else to be brave enough to talk to the head of the department about you.

This all raises the question of: But what if your head of the department is horrible?

Most people in the offices where I have worked just suck it up when their boss is a nightmare.

The vaccine

After much waiting and sheer paranoia just going outside to buy groceries, I finally got the second dose of the vaccine.

Since I heard about the vaccine back at the beginning of the year (I think it was around then – everything has kind of melded together at this point), I couldn’t wait to get it.

It’s an odd feeling welcoming a horribly sore arm for the first dose and then merrily skipping to the second dose so I can feel like I’ve been in a badly planned bar fight the day after. But here we are.

As I wrote earlier, Japan gave every eligible person living in Japan a vaccination certificate in July good for two doses of a vaccine for free. They had a few websites set up for making appointments and a chart that let you know whether your surrounding clinics were interested in you calling them up, checking their website, going through the city’s vaccination website or some combination of them.

The problem was that everything booked up in an instant. This was right before the Olympics kicked off, and I think everyone was thinking like me in that it would probably be a good idea to be vaccinated before they began.

I at least got a stroke of luck in that I saw on the little chart mailed to me along with the vaccine certificates that my local clinic was fine with me calling them to ask. So I called them just before they closed for lunch, and they had exactly one appointment available. I didn’t care when; I took it. You want me at the clinic at 3 a.m. on a Monday morning? I’m there. I was beyond desperate for the vaccine.

I think driving my panic is obviously the delta variant, and the fact that about 95% of Japanese people, based on my own observations, are wearing masks out in public. This is a culture that has long accepted masks for occasions ranging from “I’m really sick” to “I didn’t have time to put makeup on this morning.” This is a culture that has now put wearing masks in public on the same level as wearing clothing in public.

And yet, the delta variant is raging here. I think people are getting tired of wearing masks to this extent, even in this country of mask-wearers. Society is pressing on with schools being back in session and people expected to head on in to work on crowded trains. People are starting to think taking their masks off for a few hours at a pub won’t be a huge problem.

To me, that means masks alone aren’t going to cut it anymore. Since the beginning of this pandemic I have held on to the belief that not making unnecessary outings, wearing a mask and washing my hands would all help me not catch this virus. Now I’m seeing that it’s all not enough.

And so here I am, gratefully suffering side-effects from my second dose of the vaccine, a great weight of anxiety raised slightly off my shoulders. I know there are breakthrough cases, but it’s only a fool who thinks anything is bulletproof. I’m sure I’ll wind up with horrible luck and get the stupid virus anyway. I’m just praying that I can help push along herd immunity all the same.

A newspaper the other day said about 50% of all those eligible for the vaccine in Japan have now gotten their second dose. I am praying, deeply horribly praying, that the percentage only rises.


A waterfall in Karuizawa

When it’s ridiculously hot outside and there’s no pandemic raging, many Japanese like to escape into the mountains or up north. A popular getaway spot is Karuizawa in Nagano Prefecture.

To me, the place feels like a charming rustic area with log cabins, an old-fashioned-but-sophisticated downtown area and some truly nice hotels. Nature is everywhere, and so are photo opportunities.

Above all, it’s cool there in the summer. When you live where it’s 75 percent humidity and 35 C all day long, finding anywhere that’s even just a little bit cooler is a welcome reprieve.

Karuizawa seems like an ideal spot for camping, too, and I hope one day we can actually try it out there.

Growing watermelon

My watermelon plant

I have a kid who loves watermelon. The problem is, watermelon in Japan is insanely expensive. At my local discount grocery store, at the height of when watermelon were in season, one volleyball-size watermelon went for $12, and that was incredibly on sale. The average seems to be about $20.

My kid has some interest in growing things, so one day last month I put a couple leftover watermelon seeds into some soil, did some research on the internet, and began watching it grow.

Insects adore this plant, of course, so every day I’m out there batting away one bug or another while spraying neem oil (yes, I’m apparently that kind of gardener).

What worries me is that it’s not growing nearly as quickly as I thought it would. I thought I’d have a little fruit growing at this point, but it’s still climbing up the netting I put up, considering its next route along the net rather than whether it should create some flowers. I knew I’d planted it incredibly late in the year considering when watermelon are usually in season, but I thought the plant would still give me a watermelon before September.

Now I’m mostly worried I’ll finally get a little watermelon growing in, say, November, and the cold will promptly kill it.

Still, I’m not giving up. My kid goes out to our little garden, excited to see it growing some more, and I don’t want to kill that excitement with, “Well, Mommy planted the seeds too late so I’m just going to pull this up now.”

I’ll let you know if I ever get a watermelon.

Fireworks festivals

Summer in Japan simply isn’t fun right now because of the pandemic. Of course I understand why festivals of any kind are out of the question right now, but I’d like to take a moment and lament their temporary loss.

Japan in the summer is hot, humid and altogether unpleasant unless you’re up north like in Aomori or Hokkaido. For me, the most unpleasant place to be during the summer is Kyoto. Thanks to it being surrounded by mountains, Kyoto is like a bowl that just soaks up the heat and humidity and keeps it there for a while. Going outside your door in the morning during the summer can be entirely painful. I think Florida in America during the summer is a good comparison.

Still, I love summers in Japan mostly because they offer festivals. There are classic festivals where people wear summer kimono called yukata and walk among street vendors offering games, snacks and random prizes like goldfish. Then you have bon-odori festivals where a stage is set up in the center of the festival, and people dance in a circle around it.

Last, and my favorite of all the festivals, are fireworks festivals. They have the street vendors and sometimes even bon-odori, but all against a backdrop of fireworks that go off in succession for sometimes an hour.

The most stunning fireworks festival I’ve been to was in Kamakura, where they set the fireworks off in the water while people watch from the beach (see the photo above). I loved seeing the fireworks reflected in the water while sitting on the beach, enjoying the waves at night.

I miss walking down the road at night heading toward the fireworks in a crowd of people, eyeing the food stalls along the way and wondering which I should pick. I miss feeling excited to see the fireworks and wondering what kind they would be doing that year. I even miss the mass exodus following the fireworks display. There were times I would have to walk to the station before the closest one to avoid the crowds. I never thought I’d miss that.

I’m looking forward to a summer in the near future that is not simply to be endured.

The Periodical, Forlorn – Mythos Reborn

I’m thrilled to announce I got a short story published in the latest edition of The Periodical, Forlorn. Called Mythos Reborn, it’s a collection of scary myths of some kind.

I picked writing about the Japanese demon, an oni, because I was curious about them.

Japan has a tradition of oni appearing on a day called Setsubun in February. The demon appears inside your home, and your job is to drive them away by throwing beans at them while saying, “Luck stays inside, the demon goes outside.” This usually translates to parents buying a demon mask and having their kids throw beans at them for a few minutes.

They show up in a lot of myths in Japan, and are a common staple on shows having to do with monsters and ghosts in Japan.

One thing I don’t really know about oni is where they come from. A quick Google search suggested they come from spirits of the dead, but why? Why are some spirits said to turn into demons?

So I came up with my own idea of how this happens and wrote a short story about it.

I hope you enjoy it! This is the first time I’ve ever been paid for a story, so I think this story will always mean a lot to me, even if I read it each time thinking of how I could’ve done better.