How I Lost over 40 Pounds in Japan

JE-howIlostover40pounds

How I Lost Weight in Japan

It’s the same question from family members, friends, and former co-workers after they see a skinnier me:”How did you lose weight?”

In 2010, I was 138 pounds, still within my BMI for a 63-inch woman.

Jade in May 2010 at 138

May 2010

After I got married (December 2010), I gained around 36 pounds.

Jade in August 2011 at over 140

August 2011

Every summer between 2011 and 2014, I yo-yoed between diets and exercise programs. Once winter came, I’d make excuses. “It’s too cold to exercise. I want to eat something hot and heavy. I can start tomorrow.” In the summer of 2014, I hit 2 big roadblocks. My doctor told me I was cruising the line to high blood pressure. The second roadblock came as a surprise to me: I injured my knee, leaving me on crutches for 3 painful weeks (but I still had to drive, grocery shop, cook and clean).

Weight Gain and Weight Loss isn’t about Food or Exercise

At that point, I couldn’t let excuses get in my way. I had to dig deeper than diet and exercise to lose the weight. I looked at why I ate the things I ate and what triggered my snack and chocolate binges.

The first thing that derailed all of my diet or exercise programs was my sweet tooth. Since my childhood, I hid cookies, ate the sweetest ice creams, and regularly chewed gums. I usually ate sweets when I was physically hungry or thirsty. Many times, I mistook hunger for thirst. I started asking myself before I looked for sweets, “Am I actually hungry or thirsty or bored?”

I also had to change my mindset. There really is no shortcut to long-lasting weight management. It’s really a lifestyle change. If I changed my eating habits, I asked myself, “Can I eat like for a whole year?” If I changed my workout regiment, I asked myself, “Can I workout like this for a whole year?” If I answered “no” to these, I would change my diet and exercises to something I could maintain for at least a year. It was about making new healthy habits.

On top of looking at my cravings, I had to recall what didn’t work for me (but they might work for others).

These didn’t work for me:

  • Keeping a food diary or journal.
  • Counting calories every day.
  • Completely cutting out carbs (i.e. rice, breads, sugars).
  • Doing circuit training.
  • Having a workout buddy.

I changed my work and home lifestyles to lose weight by:

water-bottles

Staying hydrated throughout the day. Most Japanese people reach for teas at the workplace, so when I didn’t have water, I opted for green tea or jasmine tea freely offered in the office. I downed a glass of water before and after my morning workouts and meals to keep my hunger at bay and keep my body and skin hydrated.

different donuts on white background

Image Source: I Hate Diet

Getting rid of all packaged sweets at my desk and home. In most Japanese offices, there are tables I label “the free snack table”. Anything that gets placed on those tables are free for the taking. The only way to not eat them was to avoid the table. I didn’t completely eliminate sweets. At first, I limited my number of sweets until I felt OK replacing them with fruits and homemade oatmeal bars.

Bringing bananas, smoothies, and small salads to work in case I wanted a snack. Instead of reaching for something on the free snack table, I grabbed something I brought. It was easier, and if I didn’t eat it, it would spoil. Did I mention I hate wasting food?

polka-dot-japanese-bento-lunch-box-for-kids-plastic-sushi-lunchbox-food-container-food-box-microwave

Image source: AliExpress

Using Japanese lunchboxes to package all my meals. Most Japanese lunchboxes hold 48.6 fluid ounces (5.7″x 8.1″ x 1.9″ at Daiso) compared to the American reusable lunchboxes, which carry 221.6 fluid ounces (8″x 5″ x 10″ at the Dollar Tree). With smaller lunchboxes and containers, I tricked my brain into believing that I was eating enough.

JPomelettepan

Image source: Gent Daily

Using tamagoyaki, or Japanese omelette, pans. Because it stayed non-sticky for a long time, I didn’t use much oil. I limited my daily egg intake to one egg a day while the omelette pan made that one scrambled egg look bigger and cuter in my Japanese lunchboxes.

Studying the Japanese art of making bento. The best lunchboxes are balanced in not just food but color. The reds in tomatoes should balance the greens from broccoli and spinach. White, brown, and yellow complete the lunch, making it visually stimulating (you eat with your eyes before your mouth) and healthy. (I recommend The Just Bento Cookbook: Everyday Lunches To Go by Makiko Itoh for first timers.)

breaktime

Image source: Annienygma

Taking breaks and finding time to breathe. When I lived in Japan, I saw many people walking and chatting with their co-workers. At work, people talked to each other and traded snacks and drank coffee as the clock ticked away working hours. Doing these things, I realized later, helped decrease stress from daily life.

With all of these things, I learned to control my hunger and sweet tooth.

Refining My Food and Willpower

In April 2015, I still looked big even though I had dropped to 148 pounds. I had done 2 months of running 1.2-mile (2 km) hills 3 times a week, making my legs muscular and thick.

weightloss_march-april2015

April 2015

By this point, I had stopped eating cheese, chicken, pork, and beef. From other failed diets, I learned that I couldn’t do without fish and eggs. It was hard visiting my family in the Philippines because everything had sugar or meat alongside several cups of rice per meal. Everyone kept asking, “Did you eat?” then turned around and commented on how fat I was. Later on, my mom told me I was “brave” for not eating certain Filipino foods.

Becoming pescatarian made me answer to myself, not to others who felt I was being a spoiled brat for refusing food or those who felt inferior because I had declined society’s meat-eating culture. I didn’t feel trapped because I had eliminated certain foods from my diet. I had more energy for my last days in Japan, and the box of clothes that didn’t fit were suddenly too big for my new body.

Exercise and Research: The Last 20%

As daunting as exercise seems, for me, exercise meant attacking the fat on my stomach, legs, and face. Since I was young, I consider exercise as a tool to accomplish a goal like winning a game, relieving stress, or, in this case, losing weight. I did Billy Blanks’s and Jillian Michaels’s workouts on YouTube, and when I got an Xbox 360, I did Nike+. I have to admit I didn’t like running when I started, but since I saw it as a tool towards my target weight and my therapy through some personal baggage, I ended up enjoying my runs 3 times a week.

The other thing I hadn’t done in the past diets was research. Every day was an opportunity to improve my body, health, and overall well being just by Googling questions. “What are some snacks under 150 calories? What are some vegan recipes for bread? How do I make spaghetti sauce from scratch?” I even started reading the back labels of any packaged foods I bought at the store. This is one thing that I’ve found Japanese folks–and folks in general–are afraid to do: ask! I had to go against that grain and find some answers.

Along with my research, questions, and my degree in sports medicine, I created a workout regiment that I could do anywhere. When I injured my knee from running, I was forced to re-think my exercise program. I have bad knees because I tore my ACL, so designing a knee-sensitive workout was crucial to losing the last 10 pounds. I started doing 10- to 20-minute workouts concentrating on my upper body, abs, and thighs using free YouTube channels like Blogiplates (abs and thighs), POPSUGAR Fitness (full-body workouts), and FitnessBlender (full-body workouts). At nighttime or days between more strenuous workouts, I did yoga and pilates. I picked the mornings to work out because it jump-started my metabolism for the rest of the day.

De-stressing and Getting Enough Sleep

The hardest part of weight loss (and keeping it off) was stress. It affects every aspect of life from sleep cycles and quality to diets and concentration. I would crave sweets when I didn’t get 7 hours of sleep. Even when I caught 8 hours of sleeps, I felt trapped in a cycle that included cleaning, cooking, and babying despite my 9-hour workday, class prep at home, and helping my husband alleviate his asthma troubles. To combat the stress of last-minute lesson plans and meals, I kept a schedule for everything so I would have meals ready for the next day, allocate time at work and home for studies (I was taking Japanese), and stick to an exercise regiment. When my husband’s work contract ended (he worked outside of JET), he returned to the U.S., honestly reducing my stress by half–half the meals, half the driving, half the worries.

Creating a routine also helped deal with stress. It’s something I noticed Japanese have down to a tee and has benefits for weight losers. Also, I didn’t have to think hard about what I was supposed to be doing at certain parts of the day. I woke up at 6AM, exercised at 6:15AM before showering, fixed lunch and ate breakfast at 7AM, and went to work at 8AM. At 11AM, I had a mid-morning snack, and at 1:15PM, I had lunch. I usually at dinner around 5:30 or 6PM, and if I was really hungry, I ate a mid-evening snack at around 7:30PM. 8:30PM meant dance time (yes, I scheduled a time to dance and enjoy my favorite tunes). After dance time came food prep for the next day, cutting veggies, thawing fruits for smoothies, or looking up vegan meals on Allrecipes. If I still felt hungry, I ate low-fat yogurt or a small bowl of granola with low-fat milk. By 10:30PM, I was in bed in my exercise clothes for the next day.

There were also things I didn’t do that Japanese people did such as:

Drinking. I’m not fond of beer or alcohol, but in Japan, drinking is part of the landscape. It hinders fat loss because of its caloric content and its by-products makes our bodies focus on burning those by-products, not stored fat or carbs among other things. Plus, I think it’s expensive compared to the little benefits my body gets out of it (saving money = less stress).

Eating ramen or soba. It’s not that I don’t like noodles–they’re my true loves after my mom’s cooking and pizza–but even a cup of ramen is unhealthy. I traded 100-yen soba for homemade carrot noodles and spinach fettuccine spaghetti.

Using already-made ingredients. Again, I’m not saying Japanese folks don’t use fresh ingredients (that’s more of an American accusation). It’s just that it’s easy to make meals when there are curry blocks, bottled sauces, and canned soups to speed up the cooking process. In getting healthier, I used as little canned and bottled products as possible, adopting something close to a Paleo diet. Even salt and sugar, which were constant reminders of my road to high blood pressure, I traded for lemons and honey.

Eating (white) rice. As most Asian countries eat rice for meal staples, I knew that eating less rice would make me an outsider, even in my culture. In the Philippines, everyone consumed large plates of rice every meal. In Japan, school lunches included big bowls of white rice.  By reducing my rice intake to 2 cups a week, I allowed my body to use the stored fat as fuel.

Total Lost, Lots Gained

weightloss_sept2015

September 2015

When I returned to the States in August 2015, I weighed 119 pounds, a total of 55 pounds lost in a year. Between the end of March 2015 to August 2015, I lost 29 pounds by changing my exercise regiments and diet every 6 weeks, cooking most of my meals using fresh ingredients, drinking lots of water, and de-stressing my life.

 

My Challenge to You

If you want to change how you look or feel, start a new healthy mindful habit. The hardest things to do are only difficult from the outside, but once you get a taste for more energy and a healthier body, you’ll find yourself in a better club.

Kickstart your resolutions by changing just one meal or adopting one of the things that worked for me. Who knows? Maybe you’ll see a new you within the next month.

Not Like Anime or Manga: 10 Realistic Ideas for Your Japanese School Festival

School festivals are central to all manga and anime centering around Japanese schools as well as Japanese society.

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Everyone participates in the school festivals, even the foreign English teachers like myself. Last year, I was faced with the school festival, and though I wanted to do something as typical as a cafe, rules kept the maid outfits at bay. “There are only two places where food can be made, and they’ve already been claimed,” a teacher told me with a sympathetic smile. “You’ll have to come up with some other idea for the English Club.”

Great. I guess my anime dreams of doing a maid cafe couldn’t come true. Ideas, I thought, I need ideas. Of course, my students couldn’t come up with anything. You’ll find that unless you offer Japanese kids ideas, you won’t come up with anything concrete.

For those of you in the same situation, here’s a list of ideas you can do with a small club (3 to 5 members) or more.

1. Cake Walk (Musical Chairs + Raffle): Use Daiso vinyl tape and make footprints or circles on the floor into one big circle. Put numbers in each circle. Participants will stand on the circles, and when the music starts, they will walk to each circle. When the music stops, a number will be called. The participant on the called number will win a cake or a prize. For more info: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cakewalk_(carnival_game) 

2. Costume Booth (Halloween + Photography): Get a lot of costumes and props. Designate someone who will print pictures and put them in cellophane holders. Participants will pick what costumes they want and the theme of their photograph.

3. Skit: Pick a Western-origin or English-language skit such as Red Riding Hood, Beauty and the Beast, or Harry Potter. Adjust the script, pick the actors, and perform the skit on stage.

4. Names in Cursive: For more artistic people, participants will get their names written in pretty cursive. If you’re into graffiti, do names in graffiti.

5. Dance: Do a traditional dance from a different country (i.e. Philippine’s tinikling or binasuan or Mexico’s folklorico).

6. Western bazaar: Get lots of new knickknacks (stickers, posters, bilingual books, toys, stuffed animals, bracelets, snacks, etc.). Set up a booth or room with the items all tagged with prices. Get a register or cash box and put someone responsible for it.

7. English wanage (Ring Toss): Make rings and stands out of cardboard and tape. (I would use Daiso colored tape to make the rings and stands more interesting, seeing that cardboard is pretty ugly.) Use vinyl tape as a distance marker. Give participants the rings and prizes after they’ve gotten the rings on the stands successfully. For an English-involved ring toss, put pictures on the stands. Show the participants an English word. They will throw the ring onto the matching picture of the English word.

8. Basket Toss: Make balls out of tape and set up cardboard boxes. For an English-involved basket toss, put pictures on the boxes. Tell the participant an English word, and they will throw the ball into the matching picture. You can also do this with teachers’ pictures and tell the participants a teacher’s profile (where they’re from, the subject they teach, the homeroom they’re in charge of).

9. Western Cafe: Pick any theme for your cafe (find ideas at CelebrationsatHomeBlog.com). Get refreshments (cupcakes, brownies, muffins, breads), drinks, utensils, table clothes, napkins, and props that fit the theme. Set up nice tables and have the club members be waiters (make shifts!). Customers will come and order food and drinks from an all-English menu. The waiters will take the orders in English as best as they can. For the non-food option, still set up the cafe the same way but make a separate table with different candies, knickknacks, and lots of gift wrapping materials (ribbons, wrapping paper, tape, scissors, cellophane bags, hole punches, and stickers). Customers will look at a menu of themes and make a gift for their friends, parents, or lovers. The waiters will only clean up after the customers and offer suggestions to them.

10. Movie: Make a movie with the club before the school festival (summer vacation is the best time to do this if your festival is later on in the year). Sit down with the club, write the script, schedule times to film, practice all the scenes, film, edit, and add Japanese subtitles.

11. English Scavenger Hunt: Give attendees a scavenger hunt paper with tasks such as “Find three married teachers” (3人の結婚したの教師を探してください). If they complete the task, they get a stamp on their paper. They can show their stamps at one location (if you have no room, use a kiosk or table-top cart) and get prizes. If you’re looking for examples of this kind of activity, it has been done at the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) in Okinawa for their annual festivals (おきなわ国際協力・交流フェスティバル[English][Japanese] ).

If you’re having trouble coming up with school festival ideas for your English club or the English Speaking Society, just think of a fundraiser or carnival event and try that.

Yaese Town Cherry Blossoms Festival 八重瀬町桜まつり

Image Hanami, or cherry blossoms viewing, is usually seen throughout Japan in March and April. This year, in Okinawa, the cherry blossoms have bloomed early–but their flowers aren’t as bright as the years before. It’s OK, though. Many festivals in honor of these beautiful, pink flowers have cropped up just as early as the cherry blossoms’ blooming. One festival that my husband and I went to was the Yaese Town Cherry Blossoms Festival. 

We arrived in the latter part of the event, but we didn’t miss out on the festivities. After walking up a long hill overlooking Yaese Town and climbing multitudes of stairs (and a kind grandmother commenting loudly, “Mada?” when we encountered another set of stairs), we finally reached the top of the small mountain. The smell of corn dogs, yakisoba (sauteed noodles), and french fries filled the air as music by a local J-rock group sounded from a big stage flanked with large sakura poles. 

One thing about festivals that I absolutely love is the festival food. Fatty, greasy, and cheap, festival food can range from traditional Japanese food (sobaramen, takoyaki) to Western food (tacos, hamburgers, chicken nuggets). This time, there were a few vendors selling cheap vegetables, homemade cookies, and chicken pies. 

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Aside from the food, the Yaese Town festival had a treat for everyone: a tug-of-war contest. The rope was as thick as my body! It took over twenty people to carry one side of the rope in traditional fashion around the festival grounds. After some (quiet) taunting from both sides, we grabbed the ropes and pulled. It was a hard fight, but the other side managed to pull us over the line. The second time was fruitful: we won in less than five minutes. 

We dusted ourselves off, carried the rope again, and then disappeared down the stairs to the cave. It was once used as a medical center for the Okinawans during World War II, and still stands as a historical reminder to all. Many of the elementary school students asked us as we exited the cave area, “Do your pictures have ghosts in them?”

I don’t know if this counts as a ghost; there’s a small circle to the right of my husband. Just so you know, there wasn’t a light inside the cave. We checked.Image

 

Food from this Weekend (August 4th-6th)

Here’s some of the food I made during the weekend.

Per my husband’s request, I made chicken noodle soup.

Chicken noodle soup with bell peppers and onions

We didn’t have any crackers or crunchy things (something my husband always needs during a meal), so I decided to make flour tortilla chips. Normally, tortilla chips are made out of corn tortillas and fried. Unfortunately, the stores in Okinawa mostly have flour tortillas, so I just improvised. Actually, I preferred these chips compared to buying Doritos for nachos. First, I brushed some oil on both sides of the tortillas, sprinkled some salt on them, and cut into pieces before baking them for 5 minutes. The first attempt wasn’t so much a failure but a learning lesson. One minute makes a big different in how good your chips will turn out.

My first attempt at baked flour tortilla chips

My second attempt at flour tortilla chips, and they turned out really good! I added a little bit of guacamole to go with my husband’s brunch of fried eggs and bacon.

Hubby-san’s brunch

Food Blog: Teriyaki Stir Fry

Since I wanted to use up some of the bell peppers slowly warping into leathery skin, I cut a couple with some onions and a slab of boneless chicken fillet before tossing them together in a saucepan of teriyaki sauce. The magic came in with the seasonings, though. I added basil, parsley, garlic, salt, habanero pepper, chili pepper, and grounded pepper until it had a little bit of a kick. Just a tablespoon of soy sauce pulled out some of the teriyaki flavor.

The rice wasn’t regular Japanese white rice, but during the boiling process (surprisingly, I don’t have a rice cooker), I added a chicken bouillon cube. My husband doesn’t like plain white rice anyways.

 

Food Blog?

I have decided to start blogging about what I eat so that I can keep track of my diet and how I make things. Lately, I’ve been cooking more at home to help lessen my tummy fat, fatten my wallet, and condition my cooking skills. One of the suggestions I’ve read in losing weight without categorizing calories (something I was guilty of) was by keeping a food blog. It forces me to see what I’m eating and also garners support (or criticism) from people reading about the food I post. In a way, it’s a way to kick my ass into shape. Along with the food blog, I’ve been upping my cardio workouts, switching between dancing, kickboxing, and ballet to keep things interesting. However, I’m looking forward to food blogging. I like cooking for my husband, especially when I can make the meal look and taste good, which is harder than it looks.

Today, I felt like eating a creme pasta with baked chicken, though not the best choice in the healthiest of meals (whip creme is made out of percentage of fat and pasta has carbs). But baking chicken curbs the extra fat from pan-frying and the fresh ingredients give the food a more wholesome taste. Tomorrow, I hope the meal is more healthy. Wish me luck!

Lightly-seasoned baked chicken, creme sauce pasta with fresh basil, and freshly-cut tomatoes and onions

Creme Ingredients:
-1 small carton of whipped creme, liquid
-2 tablespoons of fresh sliced basil
-1 tablespoon of onions
-spaghetti pasta
-2 tablespoons of margarine
These are cheap and local items at any Japanese grocery store or produce place.

First, cook the onions and any other vegetables. Put the cooked veggies to the side. Under low to medium heat, melt the margarine in the pan until the water has evaporated and before the margarine can brown. Pour the whipped creme into the pan and slowly stir the melted margarine with the creme. Let the combination simmer a little before turning down the heat. Stir it for 5 minutes. Add all of the ingredients into the pan and enjoy!

The Katsudon of my (Anime) Dreams

One of the teachers took me to a family restaurant that sold katsudon (かつどん), a dish that’s common in anime and manga.
What is it besides a common anime and manga dish? It’s deep-fried chicken over eggs, rice and onions. It can be made in different ways, but it’s delicious anyways.
This katsudon was huge! It was as big as my face, and it came with miso soup and a small dish of pickled radish. For all of that food, I only paid 500 円 (around $5). What a deal! I only finished half, and I felt so guilty for not finishing it. Normally someone would say, “Mottainai”, which is a way of saying, “What a waste”, but thankfully no one did. (^_^)v

Different Country, Different Candy

The wonderful world of Japanese candy includes a lot of Western candy, but the flavors are different. This Kit-Kat bar is a strawberry shortcake flavor bar, a flavor I have yet to see in the U.S. Even though strawberry shortcakes are notorious for their high sugar content, this Japanese spin on an old favorite concentrates on the taste, not the amount of sugar.

How to Survive in Japan: Basics Edition

Many people who have been looking to get away from the dragging economy in their home countries have come to Japan, either as teachers, military personnel, or translators. Though there’s much to be offered in the Land of the Rising Sun, newly Western-world expats still have a thing or two to learn about living comfortably in Japan.

Household

Japan has a lot of humidity in the air, which means that there is a lot of water coming into your apartment or house, becoming trapped in shoe boxes and closet spaces. To deal with the trapped moisture, it’s best to get moisture packs, which can be purchased from Daiso (105 yen shop), the local grocery store, or a D.I.Y. store. If there’s anything that you need in your household, moisture packs are those things. Otherwise, you’ll have moldy sweaters and boots.

COMMAND adhesive hook and strips

COMMAND Adhesive Hook (image from Select2Gether.com)

Although most people don’t come to Japan to decorate their apartments, some people (like myself) feel the urge to make their place as homely as possible. One way is by posting frames, pictures, and posters on the walls. However, if you live in an apartment and there’s no putting holes into the walls for fear of losing a deposit, using adhesive hooks are a good option. But just to say, adhesive hooks from Daiso (105 yen shop) or the local D.I.Y. shop aren’t the best things to use because they leave behind a sticky residue. Tape can also strip walls, especially wooden walls. Best option? Buy some COMMAND Adhesive Hooks in your home country or at your local D.I.Y. shop (online at Amazon also sells them). When using these hooks, the adhesive strips must be applied exactly as the directions state, otherwise, you’ll find some broken frames on the floor soon after.

Of course, clean up is important. My hated part of the household to clean is the bathroom. Do I use toilet paper or paper towels to clean the toilet seat? (There’s no way I’d use a rag or towelette!) Thankfully, Daiso has flushable toilet wipes, strong enough to wipe down the toilet seat without crumbling without worrying about losing a trusty rag or towelette. They’re only 105 yen for a pack of 50 wipes.

Food

Cooking at home is the best way to save money. You can easily rack up a 5,000 yen bill by going to an izakaya (bar) or eating out. Although 5,000 yen doesn’t seem like a lot, when you do it once a week, you’re spending 20,000 yen or more than $200 a month. Instead of spending that much on one meal each time, taking a trip to your local San-A or Marudai can save you a bunch of money. That 5,000 yen can feed you for 3 weeks, or 1,500 yen per week, that is, if you don’t mind making some simple meals. My favorite website to visit for this money-saving cooking skill is RealSimple.com.

Another money-saving option to grocery-buying is purchasing produce from a local produce vendor. Normally, they look like a bunch of obaa selling fruits and vegetables on the side of the road, or there’s a humbly-decorated store with fruits and vegetables in boxes. Either way, these modest vendors sell their produce for dirt cheap. My husband and I saved a bundle of cash (about 200 yen per bag of veggies) just by buying from a local produce vendor. Not only does saving money help you, but purchasing food from a mom and pop shop helps them out too.

Buying frozen foods can save even more money than anything else. If there are no frozen food stores in your local Japanese neighborhood, buying cheap meat in bulk is an alternative. Beef, for instance, can last for over 2 months frozen, so buying in bulk won’t make it go bad. Chicken and seafood are a little more sensitive, but they can be frozen for a while as well. I go to a local frozen food store and buy 7 pounds of frozen chicken breasts for 980 yen. For less than 1,000 yen, I can eat chicken breasts for dinner for a week. Not only does it save money, but your gut won’t expand as easily as your wallet.

Communication

Although English education has been incorporated into Japanese society as its second language, most Japanese people can’t speak English. It’s a reality that most expats realize the first month of arriving in Japan, and it puts a damper on communication efforts. If you’re planning to stay in Japan, learning some basic Japanese starts the process of breaking down cultural barriers. For me, the most useful thing to learn was katakana, a simple writing system that’s used for sounding out words, especially foreign words. I’ve mostly had to read katakana on restaurant menus, product covers, and most sports-related things and events.

Also, it’s good to have a paper dictionary or electronic dictionary that translates between Japanese and English. They come cheap in Akihabara (Tokyo) and in recycle shops. If you only have a paper dictionary and you need to use Japanese immediately, learning certain phrases ahead of time is good. I always use Google’s translation page to help me learn words and phrases that aren’t found in a paper dictionary.

Bank

Depending on where you’re working, getting a Japanese bank account should be pretty easy. First, you need your inkan, or your registered personal seal (it’s as valuable as a signature), your passport, your registered address paper (from your city office), work contract paperwork, and a few thousand yen to deposit. One other thing you need is a letter written by the director or supervisor of your company that states you are working for their company and the length of the contract. Some banks or bank tellers (depending on their viewpoint of foreigners) ask for this as an extra leap of bureaucracy. I personally think it’s stupid red tape when you already have an official work contract available, but you’ll face moments like this in Japan, so you might as well get this letter ahead of time. It’ll save a lot of time and confusion.

Since many people come to Japan with some type of debt or remaining bills to pay in their home countries, sending money home is really important. Still, many people worry about sending cash in airmail envelopes or even just talking to a nice person at the post office and asking them to exchange yen into dollar. Although Western Union is now available in Japan, it has limited offices around Japan. The simplest and best thing to do is link your Japanese account with your home country’s bank account. You can do this by getting a GoLloyds account, a Japanese company that specializes in transferring money. It costs 2,000 yen each time you transfer money, but the transfer also includes a money exchange based on the exchange rate available now.

Clothes

Finding clothes in Western sizes is a little difficult if you’re bigger than a medium size. There are a few places to get some fitting clothing, but the best thing to do is to bring your own clothes ahead of time. If you’re a bigger size (bigger than a size medium for women with a shoe size 7 or smaller, or size 36 pant size in men with a shoe size 9 or smaller), you should bring some comfortable walking shoes, “indoor” shoes, or comfortable slippers you can wear inside only, and a few suits with thin and/or cotton material. Still, if you’ve forgotten something, there are a few places to get clothes. San-A has a plus size section, though it’s very limited, but you can get business clothing there. Uniqlo also has larger sizes, but if you have a bust size bigger than 36″, San-A is better suited with it’s XXL sizes. Another place to get bigger sizes, especially for women on the heavier and bustier side, is Shimamura (しまむら). Like San-A, you’ll find a plus size section.

If you go online to buy clothes, I would recommend going on ebay. Sometimes, sellers ship worldwide (don’t forget to click that option on the left side options) and they’ll give a decent price for international orders. However, if you want something new and right away, some American brand companies are available, especially if you’re on mainland Japan. Forever 21, Victoria’s Secret, Old Navy, and the Gap are available brands in Japan.

Car

If you plan on driving in Japan and you have a driver’s license, you can get an International Driver’s Permit (U.S.) or an international permit to drive. It’s good for a year, but before that year is up, transferring your international permit to a Japanese driver’s license is a good way to go. Depending on what part of Japan you’re in, my advice would be to call a driving school and get lessons before taking the test. The Japanese driving test isn’t about driving safely or practically; it tests your ability to follow directions. Many people fail the first time because of the most trivial things, like not looking under the car before getting into the car. In some places, like Okinawa, the tests are more flexible, and in other areas, they’re more rigid. Just be prepared for it!

5 Things to Think About in Japan – The Downer Edition

Since I’ve been doing a lot of lists about things in Japan that might not be known by the people in my home country, I’ve decided to do a more thoughtful list. But, this list isn’t as happy-go-lucky as the other ones, so be prepared to think and wonder.

1. Japan has a lot of nice countrymen–so nice, that the usual codes don’t feel like discrimination. I’ve read stories of foreigners in Japan being turned away from clubs, bars, and other places because they aren’t Japanese. For those who don’t know Japanese, you probably won’t understand the situation until someone points it out. For others who do and have learned Japanese culture and code, it will always be a shock and disappointment. I’ve learned that Japan can still have close-minded people or methods. For example, when I went to open a bank account, the bank requested that a letter of employment from me–and the person who I went with was a bit angry. “That’s discrimination,” he pointed out later, and I didn’t understand until he told me that this was his first time hearing this and he’s helped many people open bank accounts in Japan. Another example happened more recently. My husband and I decided to check out a nearby bar that had pool. Right when we walked in, a bartender stopped us and kindly stated, “You must have a member’s card.” We were refused before ordering a drink. Everyone else in the bar was Japanese. This event also happened to some ALTs on mainland Japan, who noted it in a JET writing contest, the code of having a “member’s card” or being a “VIP” as the same thing. So, before anyone thinks that Japan is a quiet haven free of stereotypes and discrimination, remember that Japan was once closed to the rest of the world for several decades.

2. The quality of service in Japan is one that makes Western countries pale in comparison–or is it? In the United States, everyone expects McDonald’s hamburgers to be slapped together without a care, or other people to ignore you when you’re in a state of need. In Japan, it’s a little different. Food is made with more care, presents can be wrapped at any store, and people generally help you out when you look like you need help. My husband made a great point when he looked around with fresher eyes than myself; “Is it because the quality in Japan is so good, or is it because the quality in my home country is so bad?” My answer would be the latter. Why? Individualism has to have sacrifices, and one of them is human decency. The mantra, “Think of yourself! Buy for yourself! Be yourself!” rings more strongly than “Think of others! Buy for others! Be kind to others!”

3. Image is too important. When I went to a soccer match for one of my schools, all of the students that weren’t involved in the sports had to go to the match to cheer on their school. I sat there with my students–and became immediately bored and disgruntled. Why were these kids sitting in the hot, sweltering sun in these thick uniforms? Most of them were digging in the dirt or trying to stay cool. They weren’t even paying attention to the soccer match, and some teachers lectured them about it. What’s the point of dragging these kids to “cheer on” their school if they don’t want to? To form a stronger bond with their school’s team when the players don’t even realize they’re there? Or is it really just about images, like the image that there’s so many people to support you because there’s bodies in the stands? This is something to see in every aspect of Japanese life, too. Going to a nomikai, or a drinking party, is attended by a whole office to reinforce bonds for working. A non-drinker could feel left out, so why should they go? For an evening of watching other people get drunk? Or is it image again, the image that there’s unity amongst the office workers who really don’t know each other?

4. Everyone does everything hard–school, work, and playing. Students start studying rigorously for exams in junior high school. Adults work well past 5pm–sometimes until 8 or 9pm–just to complete a report. Additionally, adults can party hard in Japan. Lined on every street, there are armies of izakaya, or bars. Some you can recognize simply by the red lanterns glowing outside of their doors. Others are openly advertised with 100-yen beers on banners. Many adults go to these bars, drink until they’re drunk, stumble onto another bar, drink, maybe go to a karaoke place or bowling, then go back to drinking. And this can happen on any given night, most of the time, immediately after that 10-hour or more job. It’s really common to see a salaryman stumbling through the streets drunk. But does all this de-stress people, or does it add to the stress? It’s not like their livers are getting any better at filtering beer, work, or studying.

5. As a teacher, there is another close-mindedness that extends beyond the classroom. Many people just assume that as a foreigner, you don’t speak Japanese. For example, in meeting my husband’s school principal, he could introduce himself in English very well. Then, he looked at the Japanese librarian and said in Japanese, “She’s cute.” I said to him in Japanese, “Thank you,” and his eyebrows went up in surprise. In class, it’s fine if the students struggle a little bit to find the English word–they’re studying the language and every bit of practice can help them on their tests and in the real world. But as an adult, it’s somewhat sightly to see the internal struggle. Just say it in Japanese, and if I don’t understand, it’s not a big deal. Gestures work too. English, or any other language that’s learned, doesn’t have to be perfect. This is where students and people get in an unnecessary panic. I, as a native English speaker, simply just appreciate the willingness to try to communicate in English.

6 More Things to Learn When Living in Japan

Here are a few more things to learn when you’re a foreigner living in Japan:

1. Everyone loves to say “kawaii” (cute), “kakkoi” (cool), or “ikemen”  (slang – cool or hot) whenever you wear, say, or do something interesting. It seems that Japanese people are always watching you, especially when you’re a newcomer. If you’re new to an office or school, people will notice even the smallest things about you, like your hair, earrings, bracelets, watches, or clothing. It’s a little more daunting if you’re not used to being watched, but for teachers like me, it’s a good conversation starter in English.

2.  You’ll get invited to everything. Whether the invitation is from other foreigners or from Japanese people, there is a need for everyone to invite you to every event taking place in the city. For foreigners, it’s just another chance to hang out with part of the 4%-foreigner statistic in Japan. For Japanese people, it’s a way of showing off their culture that most foreigners would be unaware of.

3. If you know how to use chopsticks, you’ll get comments wherever you go. Because there’s this misconception that foreigners don’t know how to use chopsticks, if Japanese people see a foreigner eating with them, they’ll point out in Japanese, “You use chopsticks very well.” If you come to Japan to work or teach, you’ll hear that incessantly. It’s just a way for Japanese people to get to know you. (For me, I tell them that I’ve used chopsticks since I was in high school because I knew I would come to Japan one day.)

4. It’s hard to get anywhere with “maybe”. It’s more of a cultural thing than foreigners realize. In the United States, “maybe” means that you’re considering something, but there is no clear-cut “yes” or “no”. If you say “maybe” when talking to a colleague in Japan, unless they’ve lived in a Western country before, most Japanese people will take it as a “yes”. Also, most students don’t learn the word “maybe” until they’re in senior high school, so using it freely in a conversation with junior high schoolers and elementary school students will get you confused stares. Be careful about saying “maybe” when someone invites you to an event you don’t want to go to. They’ll be expecting you to show up!

5. Customer service runs really high in Japan. Even if you’re a customer in a McDonald’s, you won’t find customer service like that in Japan. Being a foreigner who hasn’t studied Japanese, going to a fast-food place can be a little scary because everything is written in Japanese. However, most places in Okinawa has an English, Korean, Chinese, and/or Spanish menu ready for foreigners. There are some restaurants on mainland Japan where the menus have Japanese with English translations. Aside from language, places like airports are really impressive with customer service, though they must be strict with the rules. Recently when my husband and I were at Haneda Airport looking for their popular roll cake, a worker told me that they didn’t have it at their shop, but she called around to find which shop had the roll cake. She directed us and when we arrived, the other worker was ready with roll cake in spite having to close in that last few minutes.

6. Advertised food actually looks like the pictures. More than likely, when you order something, the food actually looks like the pictures. It’s not just slapped together like someone didn’t care. There isn’t too much of anything on it (unless you’re a picky type). Just right.

Mega Burgers from McDonald's

Mega Burgers (2007) from McDonald's (source: supersizedmeals.com)

Typhoon Cuisine: Mmmm, Poisonous!

My husband and I took a spontaneous trip to a nearby beach a day after the type 4 (out of 5) typhoon. As we walked through the debris of trees from the night before, we found a few dead fish on the shoreline. One was a small flounder fish, but one fish was blue with spots. “It’s a pufferfish!” my husband exclaimed upon closer inspection.

Pufferfish, or fugu, is notorious in Japanese cuisine for its poison. Chefs take around 7 years to learn how to properly remove the poisonous parts of the fish without contaminating the meat. It’s normally served as sashimi (raw fish) or chirinabe. The liver, which is where the poison exists, was banned from being served in restaurants in Japan in 1984.

Fugu fish

Live fugu fish

 

 

 

10 Things to Learn from Living in Japan

Being an English teacher in Japan, I’ve learned a few things from living in the Land of the Rising Sun that you can’t learn from Japanese anime, manga, or video games.

1. The students and people aren’t like the characters from anime, manga, and video games. You won’t see anyone carrying a samurai sword or wearing ninja costumes randomly on the streets. It’s more likely you’ll see a non-Japanese person wear these things than a Japanese person.

Tiny White Fish

Tiny White Fish (from "A box of kitchen" blog)

2. Watch out what you eat! If you are allergic to anything or you specifically can’t eat anything, you’ll have to state it before they give it to you, or come prepared. My husband hates these tiny white fishes that have black eyes. They don’t have tails when you eat them, so they look like worms. He absolutely can’t eat them, and when he finds that his rice and soup is mixed with them, he can’t eat it. My thing, like many non-Japanese people, is natto, which is a type of sticky bean produced opposite of miso. Either way, just be prepared to eat some unusual meals!

3. Don’t be a vegan and come to Japan. Many teachers I’ve met who are vegan have it hard in Japan. In general, Japanese food is loaded with veggies, but they also coat things in some type of animal-derived sauce or soup. Miso soup, for instance, is from a bean paste, but it uses a type of pork stock. In Okinawa, it’s especially hard to be a vegan because the diet has influences from China, Korea, and the United States, so instead of the conventional boiled egg, the egg will have a ball of meat in the middle and coated to be fried.

4. English classics are easy to find. If you’re looking for some English literature, like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, How to Kill a Mockingbird, and books of those caliber, you can find them at the local bookstores. Most likely, they’ll be a bilingual edition or have complicated English words translated into Japanese. A lot of the time, these bilingual editions are for students wanting to study for their eiken exams or college entrance exams, but you can utilize them just for some leisurely reading.

5. Make friends with people in military places. There are things that you’ll miss from your home country, and the best place to get them without paying an arm and a leg through Amazon or eBay is at the military base. Some military folks are just so happy to see another non-Japanese person, they’ll befriend you rather easily and allow you to go onto base with them. Of course, this mostly applies to people in Okinawa where military bases are as common as sushi restaurants, but if you happen to come across someone in mainland Japan, utilize that resource!

6. If you’re going to stay in Japan for a while, learn some Japanese before you get to Japan. If you’re in your home country and you can learn Japanese, take advantage of it. Getting a Japanese tutor or taking JSL, or Japanese as a Second Language, courses can get expensive and time-consuming. Plus, in your home country, learning Japanese can be more comfortable in your usual atmosphere than in a foreign one. This is one of my pet peeves, since many teachers from the JET Programme are sent Japanese books to self-study before arriving in Japan. However useful these books are, most JET teachers don’t even study them, yet, they complain about not being able to understand anything. Even knowing things like “My name is…” and “Please wait” are extremely helpful to both you and the Japanese folks you’re communicating with. Let’s avoid the frustration and crack open the books!

7. Presentation, plastic, and packaging will be everywhere. In Japan, a lot of things are based off of presentation. For example, burgers at McDonald’s actually look like the pictures that are advertised. Part of looking good is the packaging. And within the packaging is the plastic. You’ll find that even cookies will be individually wrapped. Sometimes, things like onigiri, or a rice ball, will have arrows showing how to unwrap it. It’s amazing at first–everything is because you’re in Japan!–but after a while, it’s like, “Oh, it’s individually wrapped…again.” Shrink wrap should just be for CDs.

8. Though there are anime and manga advocating giant robots and mecha, Japan isn’t as technologically-advanced as everyone thinks. Sure, there are hyper-fast bullet trains, and yes, the cell phones are practically hand-held computers now. But just because there are more gadgets doesn’t mean that there are cars or cell phones ready to transform into some type of freedom fighter.

9. Respect for the environment beats out any green movement. For the 1964 Summer Olympics, Japan built a stadium in Tokyo. For every tree that was displaced by the building, a tree was planted somewhere else. Even things like trash day is a way to preserve the environment. Cans, bottles, and newspapers are separated. Even milk cartons are unfolded and recycled. Schools reuse copier paper packages for re-packaging leftover school milks. Tissue boxes are converted into sanitary napkin holders. Everything has the ability to be reused or recycled in Japan, so be weary of just throwing things out. They still have life!

Pedestrian Light10. Everyone follows the rules. When the pedestrian light turns red, people don’t cross–even if there are no cars and the distance to the other side is merely a few steps away. Of course, there are a few stranglers who influence the others, but mostly, everyone follows the rules and stays put.

There’s Strange Kamaboko in the Window!

In Odawara, there’s tons of shops with their signature kamaboko (かまぼこ), or fish cake. If you’ve ever eaten or seen naruto (not the blond heathen from the series) in real ramen dishes, kamaboko has a similar texture and taste. A real fishy taste, like a sweetened fish was added to its smooth but firm existence. Most of the time, kamaboko is the half the shape of a circle with a pink outer layer and a white inner layer. When I showed this image to my co-workers, they were impressed to see the various shapes and colors of these kamaboko.

The Usual Kamaboko

The usual kamaboko with naruto (Picture from zakkalife.blogspot.com)


Mixed Up at Dinner in Odawara

I’ve noticed that many food menus in Japan,especially bars or drinking places, don’t stick strictly to Japanese food or Asian food in general. You might find french fries (フライドポタト – fried potato) right next to the gyoza. Either way, you should try it!

Eating Okonomiyaki in Ginza

My friends took us to Ginza to eat okonomiyaki, a kind of Japanese pancake or pizza. “Okonomi” means “favorites” (but not to be confused with “My favorite thing is…” in usage) and “yaki” means “baked” or “grilled”. It has so many ingredients in it, like noodles, cabbage, Japanese herbs, and shrimp, depending on the type you order. We ate the Osaka-style okonomiyaki, which is different from Hiroshimo-style okonomiyaki. It was delicious, but the best part was when the waiter put the mayonaise on every okonomiyaki we ordered. It was such a showmanship of skill, I had to share it!

Restaurant Names – A Bit Overrated

After a tiring trip to the Immigration Office, my husband and I went to Kokusai-dori, or International Street, to find some gifts to bring to my host parents on mainland Japan. I had a craving for ice cream, or soft cream as they call it in Japan. We ended up going into a restaurant above an Okinawa omiyagi store of sweets. Of course, there was no restaurant name easily visible. It’s rather common to have to search for the name of the restaurant. I don’t know half the names of the many places I’ve eaten at. I wish I did, but at the same time, my mind is clicked into the location and landmarks of the restaurant, not its name, because there are no street names to go off of. The color of the place’s sign is more important than the name sometimes.
But I’m starting to notice how names aren’t pushed into your face all of the time here. It’s a relief not seeing its name plastered to a wall at eye level as you’re shoveling food into your mouth.
I really enjoyed this chocolate ice cream sundae with cookies, Pocky, fruit, whipped cream, cornflakes, and nuts!

Indian Food in Okinawa

I absolutely love Indian food. There’s this misconception with Indian food: it’s spicy. But in learning about Japanese tastebuds, “spicy” Indian food wouldn’t make it in Japan.
Still, at an Indian restaurant my husband and I went to on Kokusai-dori in Naha City called Nanak, there were options for spicy food but it didn’t readily come with it. The strong flavor in Indian food-tasting the fullness of curry and other seasonings- was deep in the dish. Just a small amount of chicken and eggplant curry, and potato nan with chicken and seasoned meats, was enough to fulfill our appetites. The nan was so delicious, I preferred it to the plain white rice with the curry. Thankfully, the food we ate wasn’t too heavy, since we had a lot of walking to do, but it was just enough. The price was a bit steep-almost 3000 for both of us-however, it was worth it.
I don’t know the name of this restaurant. Like many whole-in-the-wall businesses in Japan, this yellow-signed, basement level restaurant’s name was the last thing on my mind. Only its good food that was made by Nepal cooks still exists in my mind.