The Lights Above

I’m happy to share that I got a short story published in Orca, A Literary Journal.

Called “The Lights Above,” it’s a story I saw in my head when I listened to a song by Mannheim Steamroller called “Above the Northern Lights.”

I just listened to this song on repeat as I mentally saw a kid walking through drifts of snow with the stars overhead.

The whole aim of the story was to make it as beautiful of a story as I could, and hopefully it worked out well.

You can either order a PDF of it for $4 or buy a print version on Amazon, if you actually want to hold the magazine while you read.

If you want a nice winter’s story as we head into the depths of the season, please feel free to read it while listening to Mannheim Steamroller’s song.

Visiting someone’s home (Part 1)

Whenever the pandemic does finally calm down, I think a lot of people in Japan will go back to visiting each other’s homes. There are a few customs that seem to differ from what I experienced in America, so I thought I’d share a few I’ve picked up.

Visiting someone for the first time

Have a gift ready

If you or your kid has made friends with someone, and you get invited over to their home, make sure you bring with you a gift. This is usually in the form of snacks. If the host is gracious, you can expect them to offer to share the snacks with you, so prepare something you all can enjoy eating. To make a good impression, try to pick something fancy that no one would normally buy, like cake from the local cake store or high-end snacks grocery stores and department stores sell. It helps to ask them before visiting what kind of snacks they, or their kids, like. They might say, “Oh you don’t need to bring anything” but that’s just them being polite. Bring something.

If kids are involved, a great move is to prepare individual bags of snacks for each kid. If there are no kids and you can expect alcohol to be involved, then a great move would be to bring along snacks that pair well with alcohol.

Take your shoes off at the front door

I think a lot of households in America are getting into this, but Japan is huge about no shoes in the house. I can understand people here not wanting to track mug, dirt and everything else from the streets into their home so I love following this rule.

When you enter someone’s home, even if it’s a tiny apartment, you should notice some sort of divide between the front door area and the rest of the house. Either it’s a step up into the house or different colored flooring. Stay within the area near the front door to take off your shoes.

Take off your shoes and step into the rest of the house. Then turn around, line up your shoes and point them facing the front door.

Wash your hands

The pandemic has made everyone here a stickler for washing your hands, and I don’t think it’ll change after the pandemic has eased up a bit. So a good thing to do is ask where the washroom is and wash your hands.

Drinks

The host should offer you something to drink almost as soon as you come inside. If this is a casual visit between friends, then you can tell them you’ve brought your own drink if you have. If you haven’t, or if this is more formal, then drink whatever they offer you.

Don’t ask for more to drink. Instead, wait for them to notice your empty cup and offer more. The only exception is if it’s a really hot day and you’re about to die of thirst. Ask for water, then. Also, if your kids are involved, you can ask for refills on their behalf.

Don’t wander around

I think that’s pretty standard manners the world over, but in particular do not try to see their bedroom. This is almost a sacred space in a Japanese household, and usually the door will be closed. You can ask for a tour of their home, but don’t expect to see all of it.

Instead, after you wash your hands, wait for the host to tell you where to sit (usually at the table or couch in the living room) and just sit there and wait for the drink to arrive. If you are on a playdate with your kid, then tell your kid to go play with their friend while you sit there nicely and wait.

Say only nice things about their home

Again, this is standard manners, I think, but in Japan it’s custom for the host to say something like, “Oh the house is such a mess” or “our house is falling apart” or something to degrade their home. This is an act of being humble. No good host will sit around bragging about their home, no matter how cool it is. Your job as the guest is to say, “Oh no, your home is so lovely and big.” If you guys run out of things to say, look around the home and pick something out that you think looks nice. “I love your feature wall” or “that’s such a lovely staircase design” or something like that.

Ask to do things before you do them

I don’t know why, but many hosts expect you to ask before you can use the bathroom.

You also need to ask to throw things out because most of the time, the trash can is in the kitchen. The kitchen is another almost sacred space that hosts don’t want visitors to get a good look at, so ask before throwing things out or carrying your plates to the sink.

Know when to leave

The host will rarely just tell you to go home. Instead, time your visit for about two hours if it’s morning, mid-morning or afternoon and one hour or less if it’s in the evening (try not to ever visit someone in the evening). It can be a bit longer if you know this person well or if the kids are really hitting it off.

A good sign the host is ready for you to leave is when drinks aren’t offered anymore or they start putting snacks they have offered away. Try to suggest you need to go home before this happens. If the person insists multiple times that you can stay longer, then go ahead. If they only say, “Oh no please feel free to stay a bit longer” only once, they’re just probably being polite. Go home.

Clean up before you go

If this is a playdate, make sure the toys get put away before you leave. If your kid is too young to clean up or annoying about it, then the responsibility falls on you to clean everything up, too. Usually the host will pitch in to clean it up, but you have to leave the home looking as it did just as you arrived.

Leaving

The host will see you to the door, and if you have no idea how to get to the nearest bus stop/station and such, they might offer to walk you there. They will definitely walk you to their door, though. Put your shoes back on, thank them for the lovely visit and the nice food and drinks, then leave.

The end of 2021

I think I join a lot of people in thinking time kind of stopped at the end of 2019. I can’t believe it’s almost 2022.

Before the end of the year, I thought I’d share one of my resolutions here: Keep writing and submitting short stories.

No matter how many rejections I get, I feel like I’m a rock going down a hill, and the only option is to keep rolling. So I’m hoping to spend as much of 2022 as I can writing more stories and submitting them. I’m hoping hard work will meet up with good luck and give me a hand.

To anyone reading this, I hope you have a safe and happy end of the year and ring in the new year while holding on to even the tiniest spark of hope for something.

“Boys and girls'” toys

Toys R Us in Japan makes a point of having mystery bags full of toys at the beginning of every new year that are clearly for “boys” or “girls.”

I’d like to take a moment to proclaim that I loathe the notion of “boys'” toys and “girls”” toys. I know some companies in America are trying to remove the idea of what kids are allowed to play with according to arbitrary societal rules, but that kind of progress is almost non-existent in Japan.

In Japan, there are hard-and-fast rules dictating that girls shall only love sparkly, cutesy, pink and/or frilly toys and boys shall only love gross, cool, and/or scary-looking toys.

Since my time of living in Japan, I’ve only ever seen one commercial that even attempted to destroy this ridiculous notion. A recent McDonalds commercial featured toys for the strictly girls-only anime show called Pretty Cure. It’s basically “Sailor Moon” for the kids of today, and it is only ever marketed toward girls that I’ve ever seen.

The only commercial I’ve ever seen that actually tried to show a boy enjoying “girls'” toys, though obviously it’s not perfect.

McDonalds tried to vaguely include a boy in the commercial, which I appreciated for the effort. They were also selling a selection of toy trains that, I think, included a girl in the commercial, though I can’t find the video.

Beyond that, though, most toy commercials are happy to tell you who they think should be enjoying their products. Most toy stores are happy to endorse the idea.

That means most of the people I have come across here have it firmly ingrained in their heads that anything seen as cute belongs to girls and anything seen as cool belongs to boys. I’m sick of it. I’m so tired of hearing friends confess to me that their little girl loves trains in the same tone that I would use to confess I stole something from a store. I’m tired of having to explain to my own kids that toys are for every kid. I’m sure they’re tired of defending their choices of toys to their friends, who waste no time pointing out what ones are out of the social norms.

Toys R Us in Japan, could you please, please stop sectioning things off into boys sections and girls areas in your store? Can’t you just mash everything together and say the toys are for everyone?

Toy companies, could you please make it more of a point to include boys and girls in your commercials for any toys you’re marketing?

Thank you.

The Guide

I’m happy to share here that I got another short story published.

Called, “The Guide”, it’s about a woman who helps lead people who have died to the afterlife.

I think it’s no surprise that there are millions of stories about what happens after you die. Rather than it being absolutely terrifying, I wanted to write a story about someone who wants to make the experience better, even though she’s feeling tired in an understaffed area of work. I think many of us can relate to that.

I think love can help make things seem less scary, even things we clearly don’t understand (such as death), and so I wanted to write a love story between someone who is not ready to feel hopeless yet and someone who definitely has.

I hope you enjoy it if you have a moment to read it!

Donating

As Christmas swiftly approaches, I’m hoping to donate a few things, which can often not be so straightforward in Japan. Here are a few places I think are good and pretty easy to donate to, though I know there are many more out there.

Food

Second Harvest

Probably the best place to donate to, in my opinion, is Second Harvest. I very briefly helped pack boxes of food for them a long time ago, and I still think that someday I’d like to take my kids to one of their outposts again and volunteer. They’re open to monetary donations, volunteering and food donations. Visit their website for details.

Clothing

UNIQLO

Every UNIQLO branch in Japan has a box into which you can put old UNIQLO or GU (pronounced like the letters G and U, which sounds like the Japanese word for “Freedom.” I will forever read the store name as “Goo”, though) clothes you don’t want anymore. Don’t put anything in there with holes or that is obviously super dirty, but otherwise, they’ll take it. To read more about what they do with the clothes, click here.

H&M

I don’t know if this is accurate, but last time I checked their donation box, they will take anything. Only have one shoe? They’ll take it. They don’t care if it’s clothes from their store or not, either. You can also get a 500 yen coupon for donating a bag of clothes. Check here for details.

Toys

Children’s homes

Japan has wonderful places called 児童館 that roughly translates to a children’s home. This place uses taxpayer money to give kids a space to play, do homework, read books and just relax after school. It caters to younger kids, too.

They usually have events throughout the year as well, including Christmas parties, meetups for young parents and reading circles. As a young mom, I used to take my baby to the nearby children’s home all the time to let him play with the toys there and to meet other parents in the area. These places are amazing.

They do take donations, but you need to ask them in advance because every children’s home is different. I donated toys a while back that they said they would forward on to other children’s homes in the area. Many may have also changed this policy in light of the pandemic, so I would definitely ask them first.

Daycares

If there’s a daycare in your area, you can always try calling them up to ask if they would like any of the toys your kids don’t want anymore. They also sometimes take books, but it depends on the daycare. It helps if you already have a kid at the daycare as I think the operators would be pretty startled to get a random call from someone. Also, again I don’t know if this policy has changed in light of the pandemic since I haven’t tried to donate toys recently to any of my local daycares.

Other items

The Salvation Army is also in Japan, and they have a couple of bazaars in Tokyo to which you can donate. You need to call them up first and explain what you want to donate. For details, please check here.

Throwing things out

Japan has a tradition of doing a massive cleanup of their homes before the year ends, and I happen to love joining in on this tradition. I know there’s spring cleaning, but nothing like ringing in the new year in a sparkling home.

That being said, it’s quite hard to throw things out in this country. Every city has its own rules of how you throw things out, and I think maybe the number 1 complaint I’ve heard from people about foreigners living here is: “They don’t know how to throw out trash.”

In the States, I lived in places where you could throw out cans and bottles right along with the regular trash. Not so here. Anywhere I’ve lived here, you just can’t do that.

Traveling in Japan and throwing things out

As a traveler, you will often come across garbage cans that either say もえるゴミ (burnable trash) or もえないゴミ (non-burnable). Again, the rules slightly vary according to where you are in Japan, but for the most part, I think of burnable trash as anything that is made of paper or any leftover food and such. I think of non-burnable as clean plastic (like from packages), metal, and bottles*.

*Sometimes there are trash cans that say カン (metal/aluminum cans so like beer cans) ビン (glass bottles) ペットボトル (plastic bottles like ones from vending machines or even the 2 liter ones). If you find these trash cans, then please sort your trash accordingly. 

Some train stations have one that says 新聞 (newspapers), and sometimes you can see businessmen (I've never seen a woman do this) brazenly stick their hands down into the trash to fish out a newspaper or take the lid off entirely and grab whatever they want.

For the most part, Japan isn’t huge on just having trash cans everywhere for your convenience. Sometimes you can find trash cans outside of convenience stores, but there are usually signs that say “Only for leftover trash from what you bought here.” For the most part, Japan expects you to carry your trash with you and throw it out when you get home. Sometimes you can find bottle recycling bins next to vending machines, at least.

Tip for traveling here: If you can, bring along a little plastic bag to act as a trash bag that you can stuff in your bag. If you do happen to find a glorious trash can (sometimes train stations help you out here), please take a moment to actually sort your trash.

If you don’t know how to throw something out, take it back to your hotel and ask the front desk people.

Living in Japan and throwing things out

My number one tip for living here: Ask your ward office or city office for a little brochure about throwing out trash, then study it. Post it up on your fridge or wherever you need to so you can get it down. It’s annoying, a tremendous pain, but this is a small island nation that doesn’t have many places to throw stuff out. So please do everyone here a favor and try to figure it out if you plan on living here.

Throwing out large stuff: One of the great challenges is throwing out large items like broken or old furniture. In a lot of places where I’ve lived, you need to call the local ward or city office’s garbage collection number (it’ll be on the trash brochure if you got one. Otherwise you’ll need to look it up online) and arrange a date and time for someone to come collect it. They will tell you how much it’ll cost to throw out. Then you go to a convenience store, buy a special coupon thing to attach to your furniture, and on the arranged date and time, you put your old furniture at the designated site with the coupon attached. I don’t know if this is the same process everywhere, so again, look at that trash brochure thingy for options or ask the local ward/city office.

Thanksgiving in Japan

A coupon for Black Friday at an Aeon Mall

Suffice it to say, there is no Thanksgiving in Japan. Not many here know when it even is, and that makes sense to me . Japan already has two opportunities in the year to get together with relatives – in August during the Obon season where you remember the departed, and then over the New Year, where you bring in the New Year surrounded by loved ones. I don’t think Japan is looking for more holidays to get together with family.

However, there is Black Friday. Much like Japan seems to have taken Christmas and turned it into a mixture of commercialism and Valentine’s Day, Thanksgiving has turned into an opportunity for sales.

Most amusing to me, I think, is that Black Friday starts anytime in mid-November here, well before Thanksgiving. I’m not sure if many here even know why it’s called Black Friday or why it’s happening in November.

The sales are nice, but I feel rather alone pressing on with trying to keep the tradition of getting together with family and eating a nice meal alive when everyone else is just going about their day. (I personally am not a fan of Thanksgiving’s history, but I do like the idea of having an excuse to get together with family, eat a lot and talk about what you’re thankful for.)

Turkey simply can’t be found in Japan, as far as I’ve ever looked. Even if I could find a whole turkey to cook, the thing wouldn’t fit into my microwave oven. I’m not a huge fan of dried-out turkey anyway. Thus, I’m going to make a chicken dish. I made homemade apple cider since they don’t sell that in Japan either, and I made a pumpkin pie using Japan’s fantastic kabocha squash. I’m also hoping to make some coleslaw at some point today.

I’m hoping we can eat a nice, fake Thanksgiving dinner while talking about what we’re thankful for. Maybe I can mail some of the leftover pumpkin pie to some relatives who live relatively nearby.

Surviving bonsai

I’m ridiculously new to trying to keep a bonsai alive, but I now have three of the poor trees under my care.

I’m in love with maple trees, especially when they change color in autumn, so I have three of those at the moment. If I could just have a nice garden where I could grow things in the ground, I’d have three nice massive ones, but since I can only have plants in pots, here we are at bonsai.

I’ve been researching bonsai care like crazy, and I joined a few communities on Facebook for newbie bonsai care, and I feel like I’m at a level where I’m not terrified of utterly ruining my bonsai thanks to my inept pruning abilities.

I think it helped seeing this guy, my bonsai go-to person, whack away at maple bonsai as if he were trimming some hedges:

This guy is a legend to me.

Thus, I decided that today is the day I would prune the worst-off maple bonsai.

What my bonsai looked like before I trimmed it.

Parts of it are dying for unknown reasons (yay I’m doing such a good job), but there were a few branches having the time of their lives.

I just bought special pruning shears and started snipping away at the poor thing, keeping in mind which I thought of as the “Front” of the bonsai. I’m really unhappy parts of it are just dying, and I realize that forest-like arrangements like this are supposed to be a triangle in shape, but I pruned how I wanted it.

How it looks now

I’m happy with it, for now. I’m mostly just happy I’m slowly becoming more confident in at least attempting things like this. I know this bonsai also needs to be repotted, so I’m trying to gather up courage to repot it in February or March.

Visiting Japan without breaking the bank

For whenever Japan finally allows tourists from abroad back into the nation again, I thought I’d put a few tips I’ve accumulated for how to survive in this nation without losing all of your money in the process.

Avoid convenience stores, if you can

They’re convenient, clean and in so many ways everything convenience stores in America are not, but you pay for all of that. Drinks, snacks and all the other little things are so much more expensive here than in other places.

That being said, I know there are probably going to be late nights when you just really need a drink or you realize you are in desperate need for a tissue box and nothing else is open. Convivence stores love to take advantage of the fact most stores in Japan are not 24/7.

Shop at grocery stores

If you can, find the nearest grocery store from wherever you’re staying and buy all of your food there. They sell drinks, snacks, bread and even obteno boxed lunches – everything you find at convenience stores but for a lot cheaper. A lot of grocery stores also have microwaves where you can heat up everything.

The best time to get cheap obento is just before the store closes, which is when someone from the store goes from obento to obento and puts stickers on marking things half off or more, sometimes.

A lot of Aeon grocery stores are open 24/7 so if you can find one of those near you, your life should be set for your stay.

Pick what souvenirs you want before you go

If you can, take a look around online and see what kinds of things you absolutely want to spend a ton of money on so you can focus on those when you’re here and not get distracted by other stuff, like I sometimes do when I’m on vacation.

For souvenirs for co-workers and such, 100-yen shops have you covered. I have heard many people from abroad also adore Japanese snacks, so the grocery store snack aisles are a great place for that, too.

If you don’t care about luxury staying, here are a few options

Almost every major train station has a host of business hotels near them. They’re like sleeping in a closet, but if you only care about using it as a place to sleep, then you can save a ton of money on accommodation costs.

Japan also has the Air B&B option, but it’s not taking off here quite so much, so I personally recommend business hotels for staying here cheaply.

Word of warning: Don’t mistake a love hotel for a business hotel. A business hotel looks really boring and standard, with windows that actually look out. A love hotel looks really tacky most of the time and with windows that are covered so you can’t look into the rooms whatsoever.

Capsule hotels are also an option mostly in Tokyo, and of course everyone loves to say they survived one of these coffin adventures. I had a friend stay in one who said it was quite the experience, and they’re noted for being pretty cheap, so if you’re feeling adventurous and want to save money, go for it.

Hostels are also a great option if you can find them. If you want to stay in places farther away from touristy areas, then don’t expect to find them too much.

Can’t find a place to stay but you desperately need one?

You actually have a few options if everything I mentioned above is booked solid for some reason or the town just doesn’t have one.

  1. Internet Cafes – They’re still a thing here. Live the life of an otaku or someone who just got kicked out of their house (I’m super generalizing here) and book an overnight stay at an internet cafe. Some of them actually come with showers and complimentary toothbrushes, so that’s exciting.
  2. Large onsen hot springs – Some of them offer overnight tickets, but they have to be a pretty big franchise for this like Oedo Onsen Monogatari, which is near Tokyo Disney Resorts. There used to be one in Odaiba, but it closed in September, apparently.
  3. Family restaurants – A last resort can be family restaurants, which are generally open 24/7. They obviously frown upon you just taking up space in the restaurant with all of your luggage and such for the night, but if you’re desperate enough, at least it’s a place to stay for a few hours.
  4. You can also try asking someone at the nearest train station (if it’s still open) if there are any places still open where you can stay.

Want cool and cheap Japanese clothing?

The best place, in my personal opinion, is a store called Shimamura, which is generally written in hiragana on its store signs: しまむら. They sell a ton of bad English shirts, and you sometimes come across shirts with Japanese on them, too.

UNIQLO will also help you with some cool shirts. They had a whole Japan section at their store near Tokyo Skytree, but I haven’t visited in a while so it might not be there anymore.

For your kids, try finding a store called Nishi-Matsuya (西松屋) which has a white bunny on its sign holding a kind of flower that I want to say is a dandelion. Their clothes are really cheap but still have Japanese anime characters and such on them sometimes.