Archive for March 2017

from bwi to sagamihara: settling in on the other side of the world (& moving into the future)   12 comments

Monday, March 27, 2017:  It’s an odd thing to consider how time marches on, whether you’re ready for what’s to come or not.  Preparing to live and work abroad for the fourth time, this time to Japan, I knew the things I had to do.  I made lists.  I did the things on the list and checked them off.  Each day passed, bringing me one day closer to when I had to leave.  Sometimes, during the preparation time, it seemed the day would never come.  And then it did.

So, at 3:30 a.m. on Monday morning, my alarm went off and I got up and got ready.  Mike drove me an hour to Baltimore-Washington International (BWI) Airport.  Although Dulles Airport is only 20 minutes from my home, it was a lot cheaper to fly from BWI.  Westgate only reimburses $1,200 for a round trip ticket, so I opted to fly for $1,328 from BWI rather than for $1,800 from Dulles. At least I’m only out-of-pocket by a little over $100.

At the airport, I checked my two bags, one large and one medium.  I packed only warm weather clothes, with a few light layers.  After all, I’ll be in Japan for spring and summer.  I didn’t want to bring a heavy winter coat and then have to deal with bringing it home later. I brought a carry-on bag and my personal item. Mike took a picture of me and said goodbye.  I was on my way.

Me at BWI on Monday morning – the journey begins

My American Airlines flight took off at 7:59 a.m. for Chicago O’Hare.  On that 2-hour flight, I talked nonstop with a woman from Iowa.  We shared stories of our children.  She told me her son is doing well, married with children; he has a decent job and a strong work ethic as a pool painter.  However, as an early teen, he had many emotional struggles, including two suicide attempts that luckily failed (once he drank lighter fluid and another time he took an overdose of Tylenol). She teaches at a Christian school and is delighted with the elementary age children. She wonders if both her son and husband are bipolar, but they’ve never been diagnosed or medicated.  Her husband is a homebody and loves nothing better than to sit in front of the TV with a drink in his hand, while she says she’s adventurous and loves to travel to visit her grandchildren.  Of course, I shared some of the struggles with my children as well; my followers know something about these.

A 32-year-old young man in the row ahead overheard me talking about going to teach in Japan and he turned around and asked if I would be teaching with Westgate.  I said yes, and he said he would be too; this would be his first time in Asia.  He has taught in Central and South America.  He said his parents want him to get a permanent job so he doesn’t keep ending up back at home between gigs.  Ah, the life of the vagabond EFL teacher.

I had a two-hour layover at Chicago O’Hare, at which time I bought the book Silence by Shūsaku Endō. It has been made into a movie which I have yet to see — about two Portuguese Jesuit priests who travel to Japan, a country hostile to their religion.

We boarded on time and took off at 12:55 p.m. for the long flight (13 hours) from Chicago to Narita.  On the plane, I alternatively ate, slept, and watched movies. One was a Japanese movie with subtitles called After the Storm, about a former prize-winning novelist, Ryota Shinoda, who now works as a private detective; he wastes all his money gambling such that he can’t pay child support to his ex-wife.  He tries to sponge off his aging mother and her pension. He still loves his ex-wife, who he finds, during “off-duty” private detective work, is dating a wealthy Telecom executive.  He still sees himself as a great novelist, although the only writing he seems to do is jotting one liners from his friends on post-it notes, which he places on a bulletin board in his shabby apartment.  Some of those lines are: “Don’t envy the future.” “It’s not so easy being the man you wanted to be.”  When he tries to bond with his young son, Shingo, during a typhoon, shored up in a pink playground cave, his son asks Shinoda if he is now what he wanted to be when he was young.  Shinoda replies, “What matters is to live my life trying to become what I want to be.”  I love that line. 🙂

I also watched Jackie, about Jackie Kennedy’s attempts to preserve her dignity and her husband’s legacy after his assassination.  The movie wasn’t that compelling to me.  Toward the end of the flight, I began Bridget Jones’s Baby, which I was actually enjoying, but I didn’t get to finish it because we landed. 🙂

Tuesday, March 28: I arrive at Narita Airport at nearly 4:00 p.m. on Tuesday.  Somewhere along the way, I’ve lost a half a day.  I check my two large bags at GPA, a baggage delivery service, in Terminal 2, then take a bus to Terminal 1.  At the counter, GPA has a stack of forms provided by Westgate with our names and addresses.  I tell them who I am, hand over my bags, and take off for Terminal 1, where I’m to meet with the Westgate staff.  The baggage is to be delivered Wednesday, March 29, between 6:00-8:00 p.m. at my apartment. What a great service!

We then wait around in a lounge area until 5:55, when a Westgate employee escorts three of us teachers to the Narita Express to Yokohama at 6:15, arriving in Yokohama at 7:47 (1 hour and 32 minutes).  This train has bathrooms on it, much to my delight.  I was a little worried about the long commute to our apartment with no bathroom breaks!  At Yokohama, we get on the JR Kehin Tohoku line at 8:13, switching to the JR Yokohama Line at Higashi Kanagawa, arriving at our station, Fuchinobe, at 8:54 p.m. There, Satoko, our Program Coordinator (PC) at the university, meets us and takes us by taxi to our Leopalace GUILIANO apartment building in Samagihara City.  I’m so glad she gets a taxi because the walk is 20 minutes from the station and I would have been super exhausted (and freezing in my light layers) if we’d had to walk after that long day(s) of travel.

Below is my apartment, #201, as seen upon my arrival at around 9:30 p.m. I discover there are no towels in my apartment, and I didn’t bring any.  There are no cups from which to drink water, and of course, I have no water and no food.  I have a tiny desk with a TV, a small table, two very uncomfortable chairs, a closet, a ladder to a sleeping loft (where I don’t intend to sleep), and a tiny bathroom and kitchen area.  We also have a fancy heating/fan system to dry our clothes in the bathroom. I’m provided with a futon, sheets and a cover quilt, and a tiny pillow filled with some kind of seeds.

Our PC has set up our wi-fi, and I catch up on emails briefly, and then suddenly my wi-fi network disappears.  I try to send a text message to Satoko about it, but I can’t figure out how on earth to send a message on the Westgate-provided phone, so I end up calling her about it.  In the end, I have to wait until tomorrow.  In the meantime, I get on with Verizon and set up international data for $40 a month for 100 messages and 100 MG of data (that doesn’t go far). This is just so I can keep connected until I get the wi-fi properly set up.  I text back and forth with Mike and then try to got to sleep, but as it’s essentially 10:00 a.m. Eastern Standard time, I have a hard time falling asleep, despite being exhausted.

I try to read, but with only one overhead bulbous light, it’s hard to see the pages properly.  Also, just as I get sleepy, I have to get up to turn off the light.  Getting a bedside lamp of some kind is one of my first priorities.

Wednesday, March 29:  Luckily there is a Seven & i Holdings (7-11) on the corner a block from our apartment and I walk down in the morning to get coffee, breakfast (some egg-filled sushi rolls), paper towels and toilet paper.  As I didn’t pack a towel and there isn’t one in my apartment, I have to dry off with paper towels.  I mistakenly use a converter with my hair dryer, and the electricity burns out the converter.  It now seems I need to go in search of a hair dryer.

At 10:00 a.m.,  I meet three other teachers from our building, and we walk 20 minutes to City Hall to meet Yukari to register our address with the municipal authorities and get our national health insurance card.  It’s funny, this is the first place I’ve lived abroad where I actually have an address!  We’re told to return at 3:00 to complete the registration.  We have a lot of time to kill, so Yukari walks back with us to our apartments (another 20 minutes) because apparently everyone’s wi-fi networks have disappeared. One of my fellow teachers, Tobias, and Yukari and I grab lunch (steamed dumplings and spicy cucumbers for me) at the 7-11 and eat on the floor of my apartment, while Yukari helps us sort our wi-fi out.  Finally, I’m connected. Hallelujah!

I take off back toward the train station, another 20 minute walk, and cross over train tracks to the 100-yen store.  In the middle of my shopping spree, Yukari phones me to return to City Hall, where we get our residence cards and national health insurance cards.  Then we head to the post office to open our bank accounts, which takes some time.  Cool stamps beckon, so I’ll have to return to buy some.

I return to the 100-yen store to do my shopping, buying towels, sponges, a trash can, clothes hangers and miscellaneous stuff. Before crossing the tracks again, I buy a prepared package of sushi, along with several cartons of juice, which I take home for dinner.

I think I’ll be doing a lot of walking here in Japan as our apartment is in a neighborhood far away from everything except the 7-11.  It takes 20 minutes to walk to the train station and it may be a 30-minute walk to the university every day.  We’re not allowed to ride a bicycle to work; the walk will be nice until it gets hot and humid. 🙂

All in all, I walk 21,510 steps today (9.12 miles)!

Between 6:00-8:00 p.m. this evening, I have two deliveries. One includes my two suitcases, which I start unpacking immediately.  The other is a “living essentials” box from Westgate.  It has in it a small frying pan, a saucepan, 2 plastic bowls, a fork and a spoon, a cutting knife and a package of toilet paper.

Slowly, slowly, my apartment is becoming a home. 🙂

Thursday, March 30:  I have a leisurely morning, as we have no obligations until Friday.  I buy a can of cold coffee (I am confused as to which cans are hot and which are cold), and then a hot one, from the vending machine in our parking lot (110 yen).  I drink the hot one and put the cold one in the refrigerator to heat in the microwave tomorrow morning.  I eat a breadstick and pomelo yogurt from the 7-11 for breakfast.  I have a long talk with Mike on Skype where he fills me in on what’s going on with the kids and I tell him about the settling in process here.

I take a shower but don’t wash my hair because I still haven’t found a hair dryer.  After my shower, I decide to try my hair dryer without the converter, and find that, alas, it works without it.  So I take another shower, this time washing my hair and drying it.

I walk to the Fuchinobe Station and buy a Suica card for 500 yen, adding 3,500 yen for transport.  I take the metro two stops to Machida.  Here, I find a lot of big department stores.  I go into one, which is 8 stories, and head to the basement where I grab some small tempura shrimp and vegetable items for lunch.  They’re too heavy, so I only eat half and carry the other half home.  I also go to the floor with Tokyu Hands, where I buy a nice towel, an insulated coffee mug, an umbrella and a nice hot pink laundry basket.  These were expensive, 6,156 yen (~$55!).  Heading back on metro, I see the university out the window, with its mustard-colored buildings and small chapel.

Since I’m near the station, I drop into the 100-yen store to buy some clothes hangers so I can hang up the rest of my clothes.

Lugging my heavy bags back to the apartment, I pass the bicycle shop and I can’t resist buying a bicycle for 11,015 yen (~$99).  Even though I won’t be allowed to ride it to work, I can still ride it just to run errands as we live so far from everything. I figure that gives me transportation for $25 a month, even if I have to dispose of it for nothing at the end.

The owner of the bicycle shop is a 40-something Japanese man with a shiny blue jacket and curly longish hair.  His mother, wearing a brown plaid jacket and pink rubber slippers, is better able to communicate with me despite not knowing any English and me not knowing any Japanese.  She understands my intentions.  They tell me they’ll have the bike ready for me in a half-hour, as they must strip off the cardboard and styrofoam packing and adjust the seat and handlebars, so I walk back to my apartment to drop my purchases, hang up my clothes, relax a bit and then walk back to get the bicycle.  I love it!

buying a bicycle

On my new bicycle, I ride around town randomly, and then go in search of the university. I find it, and try to zip right through the gate, but two uniformed guards stop me.  I guess I’m either not allowed to take my bicycle on campus, or maybe I’m not allowed to go on at all since it’s out of session. In an attempt to explain the situation to me, one of the guards speaks into an app on his phone, which translates (awkwardly) what the problem is.  It’s something about going to the East gate to drop my bicycle.  It all sounds too complex and I’m not sure I am really allowed to go in, so I say never mind, I’ll return another time.  The guard speaking into his phone seems to find communicating with a foreigner quite humorous, and is lighthearted about it all.

After all this running around, and walking 15,157 steps (6.42 miles), I am exhausted. I return to my apartment, eat the leftovers I bought from the department store, accompanied by a Sapporo beer, and write in my journal.  I’m asleep before 8:00 p.m.! Tomorrow we have an early day; we will leave by 6 a.m. to head to an all-day orientation near Kudanshita Station in Tokyo.

preparing for a japanese adventure   17 comments

Thursday, March 23:  In late February, I was offered a job teaching EFL to Japanese university students in Japan beginning on March 28 (the term actually begins April 7 and ends August 1).  I’ve opted to extend my stay for one week, until August 8, so I can travel around Japan for a week.

I’ll be living in Sagamihara City in Kanagawa Prefecture.  This is part of the greater Tokyo metropolitan area.  The capital of Kanagawa is Yokohama.  Yokohama, the second largest city in Japan by population (3.7 million), lies on Tokyo Bay, south of Tokyo, in the Kantō region of the main island of Honshu, and is today one of Japan’s major ports.

I leave on Monday morning, March 27, and will arrive at Narita Airport in Tokyo on Tuesday, March 28 at 3:55 p.m.

I found this long video (24 minutes) about an apartment for Westgate teachers in Sagamihara City.  It’s possible this will be my apartment building!

I’ve been reading a number of practical books to get ready for my time in Japan.  Here’s my PRACTICAL reading list:

Living Abroad in Japan by Ruth Kanagy (Moon Handbooks)

Etiquette Guide to Japan: Know the rules that make the difference! by Boyé Lafayette De Mente

These are books I’m taking along on my trip:

Japanese phrase book & dictionary by Berlitz Publishing Co.

Tokyo: 29 Walks in the World’s Most Exciting City by John H. Martin and Phyllis G. Martin

Lonely Planet: Japan

I always love to read novels and travelogues set in a country to which I’m traveling.  Over the years, and in the month prior to my upcoming trip, I’ve read the following novels and memoirs.  If I wrote a review on Goodreads, I’ve included it here.

Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden

Hiroshima by John Hersey

Crawling at Night.  Though this novel takes place in New York City, it tells the story of a Japanese sushi chef. It was written by a friend of mine, Nani Power.

When the Emperor was Divine by Juli Otsuka

The Lady and the Monk: Four Seasons in Kyoto by Pico Iyer

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki: I enjoyed this book about Ruth, a “stuck” author, who cannot seem to finish the memoir of her mother’s death. Instead, she happens upon a diary that has washed up on the shore of the island where she lives with her husband. The diary is written by 16-year-old Nao, a Japanese girl who grew up in Sunnyvale, CA but had to move back to Tokyo when her father lost his job after the dot.com bubble burst. In Tokyo, she is subjected to harassment by her classmates; in addition, she has to deal with her father’s multiple failed suicide attempts. Nao is writing the diary to tell her great-grandmother Jiko’s story, but she ends up not really completing that mission, as the diary is mostly focused on her own life. Jiko, a Buddhist nun, has lived to the ripe age of 104 and has a strong influence on Nao’s life. Ruth, the author who finds the diary, gets caught up in Nao’s story and worries she might have been killed in the 2011 tsunami. There are interesting twists with time and quantum physics and multiple & parallel worlds toward the end, which makes the story even more fascinating. I learned a little something about quantum physics, which seems way out of my league, but the author made the subject accessible. I enjoyed the book immensely.

The Ginger Tree by Oswald Wynd: I enjoyed this book which is written as journal entries and letters. A young Scotswoman, Mary Mackenzie, sails to China in 1903 to marry a military attache in Peking; her marriage is unsatisfying, and when she has a love affair with a Japanese nobleman, her daughter is taken from her and she becomes an outcast from the European expat community. Two years after arriving in China, she ends up in Japan, where she lives for 37 years, only sporadically seeing her married Japanese lover, yet having a son by him. She is open about her struggles and her status as a “fallen woman,” yet she still can never resist her lover, despite his taking her Japanese-looking son from her. If the child had looked white and European, the child would have been able to stay with his mother. Since he looks Japanese, he is sent off to be raised by a Japanese family, as the lover is already married with his own family. This is a story about a woman’s survival, resilience, and enduring love, both for a man and for a country.  I found this line, written in 1942, to be particularly resonant: “There is nothing like living in a country as an enemy alien to really thin down the roster of your friends.”

Moshi Moshi by Banana Yoshimoto: I enjoyed this quiet book about Yocchan, a young woman trying to create a life for herself after her much-loved musician father is found dead in a suicide pact with an unknown woman. She moves into a small apartment across the street from a bistro where she works in Shimokitazawa, in an attempt to establish some independence for herself, when her bereaved mother asks to move in with her. Though living with her mother is not exactly what Yocchan has in mind, she can’t turn her mother down. Yocchan’s daily life is like a meditation: she revels in her repetitive tasks in the bistro, walks in the neighborhood, and engagement with the local shopkeepers. She comes to fully appreciate her mom and her now-deceased father. She derives pleasure from watching people and how they eat; she believes a person’s relationship with food reveals nuances of character. The title of the book, Moshi Moshi, is “hello” in Japanese when talking on the phone; it reflects Yocchan’s obsession with her father’s phone, which he inadvertently left behind on the day he died. She has recurring dreams that her father is trying to reach her by phone, as if he has some unfinished business with Yocchan and her mother, some last message he wants to impart. The book is like a Buddhist meditation on life – quiet yet revealing and, ultimately, satisfying.

Here are books I’ve read about the shameful period in U.S. history when we put the Japanese into internment camps during WWII.

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford: How ironic that I’ve been reading this book as the Donald Trump campaign is raging here in America. Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is first and foremost a story about love and family, but it is set in 1942 Seattle during the unsettling time after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. Japanese-American families were rounded up and put into internment camps because Americans feared there were spies among them. Though told they were being imprisoned “for their own safety,” they were in fact treated just as Trump today would have all minorities treated: walled-off, separated and denied rights. Although the Japanese were not methodically murdered or used in horrific scientific experiments as the Jews were under Hitler, their homes and belongings were taken from them and they were forced to live in camps under armed guard for the duration of the war.

The protagonist, Henry, is a Chinese-American whose father is consumed by the Japanese atrocities in China. His father’s obsession with the Japanese as enemies, and the fear that Henry might be misidentified as Japanese, leads his father to insist on Henry wearing an “I am Chinese” button. Henry attends an all-white school on scholarship and is continually bullied by the white students for being different. When Keiko, a Japanese-American girl, appears at school, Henry and Keiko strike up a friendship that is strained not only by Henry’s family’s fears, but by the unsettling historic events around them. I found the book disturbing but also redeeming. While living through our current unsettling political times, I can only hope that we won’t repeat this dishonorable period in U.S. history.

The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende: This book seemed so promising, but in the end, I felt it just didn’t deliver. I’d say my star rating is more of a 3.5 than a 3. This story of a love affair between a Japanese man, Ichimei, who spent much of WWII in a Japanese internment camp in the USA, and a Jewish woman, Alma, whose parents perished in WWII, just skimmed the surface. For such a love affair, one that Alma supposedly counted as the love of her life, she couldn’t make the leap to give up her wealth and her station in life to marry a Japanese man. The parallel story of Irina, a care worker at Lark House nursing home, and Seth, Alma’s grandson, isn’t all that intriguing either. I agree with another reviewer who said the story seemed to be hurriedly written. There was more telling than showing, and not much dialogue, and it just seemed generally without structure or deep feeling. I expected more from Isabel Allende; overall I found it disappointing.

Finally, I’ve read a number of books about Zen Buddhism.

Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind: Informal Talks on Zen Meditation and Practice by Shunryu Suzuki

Discover Zen: A Practical Guide to Personal Serenity by David Fontana

The Beginner’s Guide to Zen Buddhism by Jean Smith

I’ve put quite a few books on my Kindle and I’m also bringing along the following novels to read while I’m in Japan:

Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto

The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka

An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro

Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding by Jackie Copleton

Snow Country by Yusanari Kawabata

Kokoro by Natsume Sōseki

A Separation by Katie Kitamura

The Lake by Banana Yoshimoto

Beauty and Sadness by Yasunari Kawabata

How to Be an American Housewife by Margaret Dilloway

I traveled to Kyoto, Japan in February, 2011, and found the short trip delightful.  I loved the Buddhist temples, the ubiquitous vending machines, Japanese food, the cleanliness and efficiency of everything. You can read about my trip to Kyoto in earlier posts on this blog.

I’m excited about meeting my Japanese university students.  I’m looking forward to exploring the Tokyo area (using my 29 Walks book), eating a lot of Japanese food, and hopefully finding time to visit Hiroshima at some point.  I’m sure other expats in Japan will be able to advise me on other good places to visit.  As I’ll be working 9-hour days during the weeks, I’m not sure how much time I’ll have to wander, but I look forward to exploring as much as I can over the next four months. 🙂

 

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