The beginning of the end

 

Image-1

Our time in Japan as a family has come to the end, as the children have now moved back to England.

I am currently also back in England but will go back to Japan in September for another six months to complete teaching for this academic year (which finishes in March). My lovely, modern husband will be looking after our children for the coming several months and will (happily) be in charge of arranging our kids’ Aikido, guitar and swimming classes, after school clubs, parent get-togethers and even attempting to bake something for the Parent-Teacher Association’s fundraising – maybe I am a bit ambitious with the last item on this list, or at least with the part that he would happily do it, but you’ll get the point that my husband will look after the kids’ school stuff and hobbies for the next six months while I will be the modern wife and mother who will be working 6000 miles from home.

The kids’ move has meant that the past month or so was in many ways extremely emotional, as the children had to say goodbye to their friends and teachers in Japan.

photo

This is a goodbye poem my son wrote to his best friend in Japan. It says: Sorry. Now I need to go to England. I am sure I will let you go to visit my house in England or Finland. And I like you. Can you always play? I wish I could stay. You are important because you are my friend. Till the end.

 

We’ve also had to say goodbye to the apartment that was our home for 2 ½ years. I was only able to get through the last week of emptying and cleaning of the apartment with frequent (and generous!) pourings of my favourite, plum wine.

 

photo 2

 

photo 1

My last supper in the apartment

 

In addition to their friends, my son will  miss butamans (Chinese pork buns) and my daughter will miss strangers’ constant exclaims of ‘kawaii’ (‘cute’) at her. On the other hand, my husband will miss his Japan to England commmute as much as I miss the daily inspections of my children’s bodies for ticks during our recent visit to Finland (they have a huge problem in Finland currently with those horrible creatures (ticks not kids) whose single bite can result in a life threatening illness).

From now on, instead of my husband, I will be travelling between the two countries.

The past month was also extremely stressful, one of the most stressful times of my life in fact. Not only did the last day of the academic semester coincide with our flight back to Europe, but we also had to empty our apartment, move my stuff to a flat share, and most traumatic of all: negotiate with the kids which of our lorry load of toys would go into our three suitcases heading to England and which in the bin. In desperation, my son carried one huge soft toy dog in his arms to the airport in the hope that he was allowed to take that on the plane – he was even prepared to make a scene if the airport ground staff told him that he would have to leave it behind, but in accommodating Japanese style, we were allowed to take the toy on the plane! There was one happy boy on that Finnair flight holding a dog nearly as big as a St Bernard.

IMG_1227

A nervous toy dog and his owner before finding out if doggy is flying to Europe or not.

 

I am in two minds about the move. I love Japan, the reliability of its public transport, delicious food, people’s considerate approach to others and interesting culture. In England public transport is abysmal, food in many restaurants below par, and people in many ways are less considerate than the Japanese. However, culturally and socially England is amazing, and I am prepared to live with the disgraceful Southern Trains, cold bangers and mash and bad service setting me back £12, and people pushing in on the train before I’ve had a chance to come out because of that wonderful sociable, friendly and accepting ethos (I will not address the result of the Brexit vote here, but I feel that overall people at least in English cities like Brighton are still very friendly, tolerant and open-minded).

Come September I will miss the kids and everything about them: them not waking up next to me in the morning, them not running to the hall when I get home from work to give me a hug while shouting ‘Mummy’s home!’, us not playing Monopoly or Top Trumps after dinner or just hanging around on a weekend, but I am taking a positive view of the next six months. This is an opportunity for me to re-live my time before kids. So, instead of being melancholy about this I will take this as a great opportunity to see the Japan that I would not see with the kids – staying overnight in a monastry, seeing a multitude of beautiful temples, experiencing natural beauty, soaking in outdoor and indoor hot springs, endulging in fancy restaurants with elegant food, letting my hair down in izakayas (Japanese ‘gastropubs’) i.e. experiences that do not strike kids as amazing, but to me sound like heaven.

So, for the next six months, I will be writing little anecdotes of my solo travels, experiences and observations of Japan. Stay tuned for the next chapter.

Long distance friendships are like hedgehogs

 

IMG_8957

 

Sanna from Sannankupla-blog challenged me to write the ‘Story of my blog’.

Since it is not quite clear to me what is meant by the ‘Story of my blog’ or if my blog even has a story, what follows is some ramblings about my blog, friendships, family, expathood and syphilis.

I’ve been writing my blog for over a year and a half now. I am not a particularly keen writer, and so, the reason why I write my blog is not because I want to quench my thirst for expressing myself in written form. Quenching my thirst in liquid form (preferably with something that has a moderate or high alcohol content) is more my thing. But writing – I can take it or leave it.

Some weeks before moving to Japan, I – akin to many expats who are moving to a new country – felt nervous about leaving my mental and physical safety net 10,000 km behind me. Since I didn’t want to find that my safety net had disappeared by the time I returned to Europe, blogging sounded like a good way to keep in contact with friends and family whom I would not be able to meet up with for a quick coffee, a sneaky pint, or a sneaky pint that turned into me, at 4am, prepping the kidzz’ lunch bloxes for the dext nay.

So it all made sense – writing the blog (not prepping the kids’ lunch boxes at 4am after 2 bottles of wine). Except that, to my disappointment, blogging wasn’t such a great way to keep in contact after all, given that many of my friends and family do not read my blog.

I’m guessing that they have better things to do (like watch True Detective or Game of Thrones) than read blogs about vending machines vending used women’s underwear or mosquitos that are trained by the ninja. But it might of course also be that they do not get my humour, and thus assume that I have contracted syphilis and am slowly going crazy.

But I have not contracted syphilis, and my brain functioning, I guess, is more or less normal for a person who thinks sarcasm is funny, and who assumes the only readers of her blog are her friends, most of whom have a great sense of humour – and thus would be able to get what she is going on about.

And then there is the Lost in Google Translation Problem. This is a problem that many of my Finnish friends/relatives (including my parents) encounter, due to Google being as good at translating English into Finnish as Japanese human translators are in translation work (see photo below of some lunch boxes whose text one might think was translated at 4am after two bottles of wine). I could of course write my blog in Finnish but due to having lived abroad for 15 years, my written Finnish is nearly as bad as the Japanese translators’ English. So, English it is, unfortunately, with the cost being that some of my Finnish friends/relatives struggle to read my blog.

 

IMG_3704

 

But that’s fine. I am ok with the fact that not each and every one of my friends read my blog, because I’ve learned during the past year and a half that I have strong friendships, so strong that my pals don’t have to read my blog to remember that I exist. OK, in the name of honesty, I do regularly see photos on Facebook of parties back home to which I never got invited, or memes to which several friends have been tagged but not me, and I do get a little upset about them. But I just need to remember that my life is currently removed from theirs, and being excluded from parties and memes is what happens when you move to the other side of the world and you don’t speak to people back home for months.

But luckily, I’ve realized that regardless of the parties and memes, my long distance friendships are like hedgehogs. Hedgehogs hibernating for long periods of time and then waking up one day and going on with their business like they were never asleep. When I am back in England/Finland, my friends/familiy and I pick up from where we left off during my previous visit, like I was never away. When back in the UK – I feel I never abandoned those old wooden coffee shop tables with their mismatched chairs or the quirky pub corners with their kitsch Brightonian interiors. The same goes to my friends, family, and pub corners in Finland. I haven’t forgotten them and importantly, they haven’t forgotten me, and even more importantly, whenever I am back in Europe, they are as happy to see me as I am them (apart from maybe the ones who think I have syphilis).

If there are any expats reading this, I’m sure at least some of you would agree with me on the long distance friendships’ hedgehog qualities. I don’t mean to say that all friendships can take the long hibernation, but I would argue that many of them can.

One last thing that I would like to say about my blog and my friends is that I’ve actually made some new friends through my blog. I never assumed that would happen. I started writing my blog, like I said, to keep in contact with my existing friends and family, which is reflected in the language, analogies, observations and general points I make, but I’ve also acquired some new friends in the process – people who I don’t personally know but who get my humour and/or agree with the points that I make and who sometimes even comment on my posts. I love it! It’s amazing how you can find people whose name, age, nationality or sex you don’t necessarily know, but through comments on blog posts, you start considering them as friends.

To wrap this rambling up, as a conclusion, if you are my friend/family member, I don’t mind if you don’t read my blog, as long as you promise that when I am back in England/Finland you will send me party invitations and tag me on memes again.

PS. We are coming to England for Christmas! Hope to see you all over some mulled wine and cranberry flavoured crisps. xxx

Coincidence? I don’t think so.

 

IMG_3973

Some months ago an American blogger sent me an email. She had been reading my blog and said that she and her French husband were about to move from Paris to Osaka. For a number of weeks we sent emails back and forth discussing Osaka and expat life, and got on well. They moved to Osaka. She kept on reading my blog and I hers.

One day I was reading her blog. In the post that I was reading she described the strange way that addresses are represented in Japan (in blocks instead of streets) and gave an example address. To my confusion the example address that she gave was my address. I emailed her and asked why she had given that particular address as an example. She explained that that was her address. We realized that for weeks we had been sending emails back and forth 10 floors between us – she on the 14th and I on the 24th floor of our building.

A couple of weeks later, my son’s school friend’s mother told us that they were moving from North Osaka to the city centre. It turned out they were also moving to my building, to the 13th floor!

I could but think: what is it with this building!? Ok, it’s big – 28 stories, and perhaps approx. 150 apartments, but still, Osaka is big – roughly the size of Los Angeles or Berlin, so there are hundreds or even thousands of apartment blocks in Osaka. What are the chances of two people that I know moving in to the same apartment building as us?

I would have understood it if these people knew where we lived and that had some effect on their decision on apartment buildings (not that we consider ourselves influential people) but they didn’t. So, this all seemed like an amazing coincidence.

This ‘coincidence’ baffled me for a while, until it dawned on me. The American-French couple are, well, American and French. They are not Japanese. My son’s school friend is of South-Korean origin (him and his mother speak fluent Japanese – but importantly, they are not Japanese). My husband and I are also not Japanese – we are British and Finnish, respectively. Our building is one of those few buildings in Osaka city centre where the landlord is willing to consider non-Japanese tenants. No longer do I think that it is a statistical miracle that we all live in the same building – if, in a given area, there is only a handful of buildings (or perhaps just one building) in which foreigners can secure a rental apartment, the likelihood that foreigners such as us find our way into this building is pretty high.

When my husband and I were trying to find a rental apartment in Osaka, just before we moved to Japan, we realized that in Japan it is surprisingly difficult to find a landlord who would consider foreign tenants. This is common knowledge and the letting agents state this openly. And our letting agent wasn’t fibbing us, given that (a) we had only a small selection of properties to choose from and (b) at the end – to secure the apartment – the letting agreement had to be made between my (Japanese) employer and the landlord rather than us and the landlord.

In some respects, Japan is a bit like Finland. Both countries have a relatively small number of immigrants/expats, for example in comparison to England. Thus, I feel, landlords’ (and many other people’s) perception of foreigners is still somewhat negative. Or perhaps, negative is too strong a word… maybe saying that landlords in Finland and Japan prefer natives to those countries, respectively would be a more accurate statement. But in Finland, Japanese-style open discrimination is illegal (but of course this doesn’t mean that landlords in Finland are necessarily keen on having foreign tenants – they just don’t state it openly).

In any case, after having lived for many years in a multi-cultural country (i.e. England), where foreigners generally feel relatively welcome, our experience of and insight into the Japanese rental property discrimination was surprising and disappointing.

It would be interesting to know how foreigners are received in other countries…

What do expats and dieters share in common?

IMG_3341

One (and possibly the only) uniting aspect for expatriate life and dieting is to do with one’s pressing desire to have something they can’t have. I have spent nearly half of my life as an expat. I have spent at least half of my life on a diet. I know what I am talking about.

For instance, British expats miss their tea bags, Marmite and Cheddar, and Finnish expats miss things like rye bread, beetroot salad and Finnish licorice – and they miss them bad. Consequently, expats pay good money at specialized (online) shops for their favourite toothpaste or chocolate from back ‘home’. In fact, it is not just expats, who spend long periods of time away from their native country that find it difficult to live without some creature comforts from back home. For instance, some Brits do not leave England – even when going on just a daytrip to Dieppe without taking a stash of Yorkshire teabags with them (and possibly also their kettle!). Then again, when I went to England as a young language student with a friend (a looong looong time ago) we had to stop at services on our way to the Helsinki airport to have some Finnish food. My friend was convinced that she would not be able to eat anything in England during our 5-week stay there, that food would be intolerable there – that is, until we arrived to Brighton and discovered several Burger Kings there. Back then there were no fast food restaurants in my hometown, and my friend was more excited about Burger King than a teenage boy would be about finding his head between Dolly Parton’s boobs 50 years ago. And so was I.

Dieters, on the other hand, develop uncontrollable urges to stuff down their throats unacceptable quantities of crisps, cakes, caramel pretzels, triple cheese pizza, Häagen-daz or whatever rocks their boat usually by lunch time on the first day of their diet. I’m the first to admit that steering away from all sorts of unhealthy, E-number- and additive-ridden mouthfuls or sugar and/or fat and/or salt when the first blood sugar dip hits me in the mid-morning is as difficult as detaching a chewing gum from the back of your 3 year old’s head without a major meltdown.

My main point is that both groups (expats and dieters) can get pretty desperate for the things they can’t have. But let’s focus on things one expat can’t have.

After spending three lovely weeks in England, we recently returned to Osaka. It may not come as a revelation to many of you expats reading this blog, but on our way back from England our suitcases were as full as commuter trains in China. In fact, the operation of squeezing all our stuff in the suitcases has some remarkable similarities to that of Chinese commuter trains (link to a YouTube video below).

 

My commuter train suitcase was filled with the following:

 (1) Squash

By squash I mean cordial, i.e. a juice concentrate that you dilute with water. This drink doesn’t seem to exist in Japan – over here people (even young children) tend to drink (green) tea.

IMG_2202I’m sorry but lukewarm or even cold unsweetened greenish tea is not my thing. I know that green tea would be much better for me than the aspartame filled summer-fruit squash, but summer-fruit squash is what I want.

I have had a conversation about squash with several Japanese people, hoping that someone would know where to get some. The conversation always goes along these lines:

Me: You don’t seem to have squash over here.

Japanese person: Yeah we do! I play it every Sunday.

To avoid any further conversations like the above, a quantity of squash sufficient to quench the thirst of an army battalion made its way to Japan in my suitcase (see photo).

IMG_2079 (2) Cider

Japan is a country that loves beer and sake. I am not a big fan of either of these, and this is a shame because I am a big fan of drinking. For the past 10 months that we’ve lived in Osaka, I have been missing cider, my favourite alcoholic drink.

At first, I didn’t realize that I would struggle to find any cider in Japan because my Japanese acquaintances informed me that getting cider in Japan was not an issue – all you had to do was to walk into the nearest corner shop and buy it there. However, when scanning bottles at the drinks aisle of 7-Eleven, to my horror I soon realized that their ‘cider’ was something different from what I was referring to: in Japan the term ‘cider’ is used when referring to a certain soft-drink.

Mitsuya_Cider_BottleNo cider means that I’ve had to settle with plum wine or occasionally when there has been nothing else on offer (not even wine, or spirits and mixers) I’ve had to force down a barrel of beer. Not my favourite thing, but something I am willing to do during a 1 ½ or 2 hour ‘all-you-can-drink-plan’ (see photo) if there is no other alcoholic drink on offer.

IMG_4608

Anyway, so far I haven’t seen any alcoholic cider sold anywhere in Japan (other than in IKEA) and many of my Western colleagues are aware of this. So, a couple of weeks ago, a Hawaiian colleague sent me an email with a link to Strongbow for sale on Amazon-Japan. Hooray! Problem solved! Yes please – I want some! My colleague suggested that the ciders should be delivered to my work so that when the delivery company rings to arrange for the delivery there would be people there who know Japanese (since I don’t). That made me reconsider, and I decided that it was for the best if I did not order those ciders after all – I mean, me turning up at the HR office in a forklift to collect my ten crates of cider might not be the best thing to do for my career.

(3) Tea bags

I think I have turned into an Englishman. But in my defense, I am not quite as bad as the Brits who take their own teabags and kettles with them when they pop over the English Channel for a day trip to France.

(4) Deodorant

For some reason Japanese deodorants do not seem to do it for me. I am not publicly announcing that I have a specific problem – because I don’t (my husband and our au pair have also reported the same problem), but I have to say that unless I am wearing my Western brand of deodorant during the scorching summer of Osaka I am forced to keep my arms glued to my sides.

(5) Hair products

Many Japanese hair sprays hold my hair as well as my deodorant would. Because my scalp with a handful of hairs (hardly a mane) rely on its morning dose of liquid cling film – something that actually does more than my deodorant, I need to bring hairspray and other hair products (like hair powder) from England.

IMG_2082(6) Clothes and shoes

For those of you following my blog, this does not come as a surprise.

I’m UK size 12 (European: Medium or 38-40); my shoe size is 6-7. In Europe I feel like everybody else, but in Japan these measurements make me feel and look like Marshmallow from Frozen (or for those of you closer to my age – the Marshmallow Man in Ghostbusters). This is not only in comparison to Japanese women but (painfully so) in comparison also to Japanese men. Not only does my ‘size’ give my self-esteem a hard time it also gives me a hard time when I try to find clothes or shoes in Japan. This is the case in particular when I’ve tried to find something fitting, like a trouser suit, dresses or tights. I have to say, I don’t really like the idea of having to visit ‘Size World’ every time I want a new top. So, spending 3 weeks in England during the post-Christmas sale gave me a perfect opportunity to acquire some new clothes, tights and shoes. Thinking back, perhaps I went a bit crazy in the shops of Brighton. I hope my husband won’t go ape shit when he realizes what the state of our joint account is in after my visit to England.

The above is just a short list of some essentials that travelled over to Japan from England with me. Ideally I would have also liked to bring with me many other things, which were too difficult (hallumi, houmous) or impossible to bring over (my house, my friends, my favourite restaurant and my favourite pub in Brighton). But I am hoping the current reserves keep me going until next summer and our next trip to Europe (or at least until my husband arrives back in Japan in 3 weeks time).