Category: Life in Japan

Everyday life in Japan.

Cha Cha Maru

 

 

Dogs get you through things. They teach you about yourself. They’re your little buddies and a part of your family. That said, they’re not your “children”, as I hear so many people say. Your kids will invariably grow up and become their own independent-thinking human creatures. They’ll move away from you. But not dogs. Dogs are there for you, man.
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When I returned to Japan after surgery and two rounds (eight months) of chemo, I was a physical and emotional wreck. As if that wasn’t bad enough, on my first day back, my Japanese in-laws immediately warned me that I should in no way tell anyone — family or friends or coworkers — about my breast cancer. The entire thing had been hush-hushed. They explained to me that it was embarrassing to the family. Also, if anyone found out they’d likely treat me as a pariah (*). I didn’t want that, did I?

Okay, I get it. I guess I can keep this secret.

Then it went and got a little worse that that: I soon discovered that my immediate family, the ones who *did* know (in-laws and husband), refused one hundred percent to talk about it. No balloons, slap on the back, must have been rough, everything’s going to be okay, wanna talk about it? Nothing. Life was business as usual. Garbage days are on Tuesdays and Fridays, and you don’t have to put so much rice in my obento, thank you.

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Then came the panic attacks, the constant paranoia that any slight pain or tickle was a sign of recurrence. Then came the nerves that wouldn’t let me sit still, and the overwhelming feeling of being so utterly alone.

Then came Cha Cha Maru.

It was the only think I really had the strength to put my foot down about after I got back. I’ve always owned dogs, but never in Japan. So one day I announced that we were getting a dog, and I didn’t let up until we did. Julyan picked him out. He’s just as much Julyan’s dog as mine. Dog’s are there like that. They’re there for you and they can be there for other family members too.

It’s only now that he’s gone, that I realize how much he helped me heal. When nothing and no one seemed to be available to me here, there was Cha. He was there.

He was my walking buddy, my nap buddy. He listened to me sing thousands of songs. We played “tomato-tomato” an insane game we made where we chased each other around with a cherry tomato in our mouths. He had a blanket from the time he came to our house that he carried around with him everywhere. He listened to me read out loud every single story I’ve ever written. His paws smelled like popcorn.

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Cha Cha had IBD (inflammatory bowel disease). He had it for several years. It’s been a long, long battle. Just recently, though, the disease took a turn for the worse. He was in the hospital for a week, but wasn’t getting any better, in fact he was getting much worse. The vet said he could come home for a couple days. I slept on the floor downstairs and took care of him.  Emptied his bladder and his bowels and massaged his back.

Julyan hurried home yesterday from university and spent the day with him. Cha was happy to see him. I spent the rest of the time with him, singing our favorite songs, carrying him around the house and yard so he could see and sniff things. He even got to listen to me read a rough draft of this blog post, although he wouldn’t get to hear the finished version.

Cha Cha Maru was always there for me, and I hope just a little bit, at the end, I was there for him.

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(Julyan holding his head as he’s sleeping. Yesterday.)

(*) This is my in-laws I’m talking about here, not all Japanese people by any stretch.

Three-Thirty AM Ramen

Here’s a twist on what to do when life gives you lemons. If you’re woken up at three am by a husband being noisy downstairs and you can’t go back to sleep, you go grab some ramen.

There’s this super popular ramen shop one town over that is only open from 3:15 am until 5:30 am (or until the soup runs out) on weekends. It’s called Marugen.  And it’s delicious. The only problem: the opening time. And the lines.

Hard to see, but this is the line. About ten high school kids behind me, too. People arriving all the time. Quite a few see the line and go back home. To sleep probably.

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It’s a tiny shack of a place. No parking (you just park anywhere and hope the police to ticket you). Not exactly clean. And I’m guessing maybe ten people can fit inside at once.

Here’s the noren-curtain. Blood splattered by some rogue samurai, I guess. Forty minutes after we arrive and we’re almost in!

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Here’s the view from my stool. Chashu-meat, menma-flavored bamboo, stack of bowls.

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Everyone’s all nom-nom-nom. You can see the big vat of soup, too. It’s amazing how many people get extra noodles after they’ve finished the first bowl.

eating okyakusan

 

I couldn’t get a photo of the chef slinging the hot water from the noodles. It goes all over the floor which is really cool and gross at the same time. Here he is gently slipping the drained noodles into a bowl of soup.

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Here’s the finished product. Marugen-chashu. It’s got loads of garlic in it!

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The chef is the only one working. He doesn’t have time to wash dishes (huge stack on the side of his work space). And he doesn’t have time to collect money and give change. That last one’s up to you the customer. Everyone checks the wall to see how much their bowl was and pays by leaving their money on the table. If they need change they take from whatever is laying there. Honor system, FTW.
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So if you’re ever in Fujieda and happen to wake up super early, I recommend a visit to Marugen. The customers are whacky, the atmosphere is distinctly blue collar, and the noodles are delicious.

Okuribi–Send Off Fire

August 16th is the last day of obon — a summer festival that honors the spirits of the dead. It’s the day everyone has to send back all those ancestors who have being hanging out at the family altar, feasting on fruit, sticky rice cakes, and sake’. Because, really, you don’t want them hoards of ghosties hanging around all year round. Especially that obnoxious Grandpa Hiro, right?

In order to send them peacefully back to the other side you have to perform what is called okuribi (送り火), translated more or less as “send off fire”. Everyone’s familiar with the lit paper lanterns floated down rivers. This is called toro nagashi. It’s a kind of send off fire, but  it’s a boring way to do it.

My favorite way is what  my town does at the beach every August 16th. Here, let me explain in photos.

First someone makes a bunch of these puppies. Back in the day there were fifteen to twenty all up and down the beach. This year only three. (#sad) I guess our town is spending all its budget on tsunami towers, no money left over to send the spirits back home in style.

Okuribi one

The first one is just for the kids. They teach a bunch of elementary aged children how to hold the fire, how to swing the torches, and then once it gets dark, they let them loose. The idea is to land one of those flaming ropes into the open top of the broom-looking thing.

It’s always crazy with the old men yelling at the kids and chastising them for trying to kill each other. Entertainment at its finest.

Okuribi kids

Once lit, the whole thing goes up in flames. Slowly. They pre-load them with fireworks, too. Because if it’s not dangerous enough having twenty people winging flaming ropes all around in the dark, you need to add more bottle rockets.

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The next two were reserved for adults. Anyone who wants to give it a try is invited down. No training needed. Let’s do this thing.

So most of the time this is going on a team of Buddhist monks are lined up with drums and chanting okyo to make the transition for the ancestors easier. My interpretation is that the spirits get woozy and ride the smoke back to heaven.

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Here’s the moment when the adult team actually landed one of the fires into the top. Woo hoo!

 

Here’s a neat long-shutter shot.

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And then at the end after all three are lit, the first one pretty much burned down, more fireworks in the back.

 

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Because no matter what the culture there can never be enough things-that-blaze-and-blow-up.

There was even a short fireworks show after all this ended.

So long, Grandpa Hiro.

 

Summer Desserts

In Japan sweets are sublime.  Let me give you an example. The other day I was picking up some sticky rice cakes for my mother-in-law and I came across this.

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It’s a gelatin dessert, but there’s a goldfish floating there. And little red and white bean “rocks”. Seaweed even!

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And there,  minus one gelatin bite. Almost to the rocks.

Dessert big spoonful out

MMmmm, sweet red bean gravel and anko seaweed.

And the fish was delicious, too.

 

 

Three Expat Women. Three international love stories. One book giveaway.

Do you know what I love more than a good memoir?  More that two good memoirs?

Yep, THREE good memoirs!

And there’s even a giveaway. Click below for details.
a Rafflecopter giveaway

I’ve already started reading Leza’s book and am enjoying it immensely. Years ago I heard Tracy read a bit from hers (it was still a work in progress), but I was intrigued even then. And while I haven’t started  Shannon’s yet, I’m pretty sure it’s going to be a trifecta.

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1) Here Comes the Sun: A Journey to Adoption in 8 Chakras

By Leza Lowitz
At 30, Californian Leza Lowitz is single and traveling the world, which suits her just fine. Coming of age in Berkeley during the feminist revolution of the 1970s, she learned that marriage and family could wait. Or could they? When Leza moves to Japan and falls in love with a Japanese man, her heart opens in ways she never thought possible. But she’s still an outsider, and home is far away. Rather than struggle to fit in, she opens a yoga studio and makes a home for others. Then, at 44, Leza and her Japanese husband seek to adopt—in a country where bloodlines are paramount and family ties are almost feudal in their cultural importance. She travels to India to work on herself and back to California to deal with her past. Something is still not complete until she learns that when you give a little love to a child, you get the whole world in return. The author’s deep connection to yoga shows her that infertile does not mean inconceivable. By adapting and adopting, she transcends her struggles and embraces the joys of motherhood.
Stonebridge Press, June 2015

2) The Good Shufu: Finding Love, Self, & Home on the Far Side of the World
By Tracy Slater
The Good Shufu is a true story of multicultural love, marriage, and mixups. When Tracy Slater, a highly independent American academic, falls head-over-heels in love with the least likely person in the world–a traditional Japanese salaryman who barely speaks English–she must choose between the existence she’d meticulously planned in the US and life as an illiterate housewife in Osaka. Rather than an ordinary travel memoir, this is a book about building a whole life in a language you don’t speak and a land you can barely navigate, and yet somehow finding a truer sense of home and meaning than ever before. A Summer ’15 Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Selection, The Good Shufu is a celebration of the life least expected: messy, overwhelming, and deeply enriching in its complications.
Putnam/Penguin, June 30, 2015

3) Year of Fire Dragons: An American Woman’s Story of Coming of Age in Hong Kong
By Shannon Young
In 2010, bookish 22-year-old Shannon follows her Eurasian boyfriend to Hong Kong, eager to forge a new love story in his hometown. She thinks their long distance romance is over, but a month later his company sends him to London. Shannon embarks on a wide-eyed newcomer’s journey through Hong Kong—alone. She teaches in a local school as the only foreigner, explores Asia with other young expats, and discovers a family history of her own in Hong Kong. The city enchants her, forcing her to question her plans. Soon, she must make a choice between her new life and the love that first brought her to Asia.
Susan Blumberg-Kason, author of Good Chinese Wife, has called Year of Fire Dragons “a riveting coming of age story” and “a testament to the distance people will travel for love.”
Blacksmith Books, June 7, 2015

 

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