Saturday, June 30, 2012


Hydrangea in Japanese is Ajisai

June is hydrangea season here in Japan. The bushes are bursting with colors, their are hidden groves of wild hydrangea along he mountain sides, everywhere you go their are hydrangea. There is a famous hydrangea garden near Ben and I, in the city of Otsuki. The garden is surrounding Saruhashi bridge. Over 3000 hydrangea plants were planted in this garden. The garden looks mostly wild, it is not weeded, and the path is muddy, and difficult to walk on. It's the perfect blend of hiking, and flower viewing.

Natures own bridal bouquet

I wish I could have taken my mom to this garden. It was a bit out control, very eclectic, and the garden did not try to overcome the land it was being grown on. It was absolutely stunning. One of my moms favorite flowers are hydrangea, and she enjoys the blue ones the best. The combination of the landscape, flowers, and river made it a perfect day for Ben and I. 


Before yesterday, I hadn't had bread since March. I really missed it. Japan has plenty of bread, and according to Ben it's pretty good, unfortunately my dairy allergy has posed a significant issue.
I know how to bake bread, and I really enjoy baking, but we don't have an oven. I was able to make flatbread last night, which was phenomenal. We had open face sandwiches laden with balsamic herbed chicken. It was a moment of heaven.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Please call me Katie

In Japan your first name is your family name, your last name is your personal name. I never know what people mean when they ask me what my last name is here in Japan.
My full name is Kathleen McGregor, which is an absolute nightmare for Japanese people to say. In fact my name is unfortunately difficult for most non-English speaking people.
When I introduce myself in America I say. "My name is Kathleen McGregor, but please call me Katie." This does not work in Japan. The idea of immediately asking someone to call you by a nickname seems overly casual for a first meeting, which makes many people uncomfortable. So, here in Japan I say ( in japanese) "I'm McGregor, Katie". I then wait for them to look at me absolutely terrified at the idea of trying to say my name, at which point I say ( in Japanese) "Ms. Katie, if you please."

For any one interested in what Kathleen McGregor sounds like in Japanese here is my name in romaji ( notice the number of syllables): Kasurin Makuguregaru.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012


In Japan they don't do signatures on legal documents. They have stamps called hanko. Japanese people get ones of their names, and it is generally written as their name in Kanji. They register their specific stamp with the local authorities, the nuances of their exact stamp are used verify that it is not a forgery. Foreigners are allowed to use their signature for most legal documents, but it is very difficult to sign things because they only give you the space that is generally used for the stamp, which is roughly the size of a thumb nail. They always use red ink, which still looks very exotic to me.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

When the Cicada Cry

The cicada have started coming out of hiding. It’s an unexpected reaction, but the noise scars the pants off me. I realize now that almost every time I have heard cicada it has been in some sort of Japanese horror movie. Some part of me expects to see some contorted dead eyed girl crawl out of a window or something. The sound of cicada is nearly as bad in horror movies as screechy violins.
Many of the shrines in town are preparing for summer, there are curtains up in front of masked statues, all you can see is the silhouette of some faceless human figure. When the cicada cry as I walk past them, my mind turns them into some sort of demon, and I find myself walking much faster.
They say here in Japan that the shiver you get from watching horror movies, or hearing scary stories helps keep you cool on hot summer day. It’s going to be an exciting summer.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Hello Kitty and Meatballs

Still no Internet, so I leave you with a picture of my dinner U^ェ^U

Thursday, June 21, 2012


I live in a small town here in Japan. This small town shares a trait with every other small town I have been to: they don't drink enough water.
I carry a water bottle everywhere with me here in Japan. One of my best friends at home got me a really cute water bottle before I left for Japan, I like to carry it with me because it is useful and is a nice little reminder of home. People ask me all the time what I have in my water bottle, they often don't believe me that it's water. I'm not sure what other people put in their water bottles, but I never put anything but water in mine.
I really wish they did drink more water here. It's now officially really hot here, and they are miserable. Today, I had two students collapse in class, and one of the teachers collapsed in the teachers room. The teachers ask me how I stay so happy and energetic despite the heat. My answer is always, I drink lots of water. They don't believe me, but I will continue to spout my pro-water propaganda at them. I watch them reach for their 4th cup of coffee, with their entire body dragging like their pushing through the heat, and I laugh a little to myself.
Japanese elementary schools don't have air conditioning, or any other sort of cooling system. I feel really bad for them. I am barely affected by the heat that find unbearable. I know it's going to get hotter, and hopefully my magic cure will continue to work for me.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

CPR and AEDs

Today I got to do a CPR class in Japan. It was sponsored by Red Cross Japan, and was free for teachers. I have taken quite a few Red Cross CPR classes over the years, so I know how the classes generally go in America. I was really surprised how different the classes are here. Some of the things went against what I had learned at home.  They begin by shaking the victim to see if they are ok. I was always taught not to shake  the victim incase of a neck or back injury. They also do not check for a pulse, this made me really nervous because they are taught to use an AED (Automatic external defibrillator). I would think it would be really important to make sure they had no pulse before using the AED. They do check for breath, but not for pulse.
In Japan there are AEDs everywhere. Just like how we have fire extinguishers strategically placed in America, they have AEDs here in Japan.
Most of the CPR class was devoted to the AED. I was glad to learn how to use it. I passed the CPR training here, and am now confident in how to use an AED here in case of emergency.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Magic Phone

Ben and I have been mooching someone's internet. Unfortunately that person has figured it out, so we won't have internet for a couple of days. I have a smartphone though, so here's a really short post.
If you have a smart phone, and are interested in learning kanji, check out "Sticky study kanji" I just have the lite version, and it's amazing.

Monday, June 18, 2012


When you sneeze in Japan, they don't say anything. There is no term like gesundheit or bless you in Japanese. I, like many Americans have the Pavlovian need to hear my sneeze acknowledged. Every time I sneeze it suddenly feels 10 times quieter due to the lack of response. Sneezing is a ritualized affair in America, which seems really strange when you think about it.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Birds of Japan

Happy Father's Day!
My dad has a gift for spotting animals. He could look across a vast plain where I only saw plants, and see antelope, rabbits, and birds. I loved seeing all the wild animals.  I always hated zoo's because I felt like it striped away everything that made them animal. I may never see a wild panda, but I would rather see a grizzly in Yellowstone once in my life, then see a dozen bears in zoos.
Here in Japan there are some absolutely amazing birds. I haven't seen too many, but I always keep my eyes open.

Here are my favorite birds I have seen.

Ravens and Crows
I love watching the ravens and crows here. They are so clever. At the bridge that crosses the large river that bisects town I see them dropping snails onto the road, and then wait for cars to crush them before swooping down to eat their prizes.  They don't fear humans like other birds do, which is a bit erie, but fascinating.

Peregrine Falcons
I had an unbelievable interaction with a peregrine falcon. I was walking across the bridge to school in the morning on a very rainy day. There was a little brown bird sitting on the railing about 3 feet to my left. The falcon dove down to catch the bird, and in the process it came so close to me that the rain on it's wings was pelted onto my face, I could see the downy feathers that peaked out on it's extended talons. It was phenomenal being so close to a bird of prey during a hunt.

Japanese Crane
There is a lot of myth surrounding the Japanese crane, I understand why after seing one myself. It is considered to be very auspicious to see a crane. There is a legend here that if you fold 1000 paper cranes your wish for better health will be granted. They are outstandingly beautiful, and while in flight they are amazingly graceful and powerful. I also really like their call.

Japanese Pheasant
It is rare to see a Japanese pheasant, so I am incredibly lucky to have seen one. When I first saw it, I thought it was a phoenix. It was stunning. Their green feathers are iridescent in the sun.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

How to Speak with a Foreigner

Most of us are lucky enough to meet someone who has traveled the world, and for some reason or another your paths have crossed. They may not in fact speak your language, but please know that your efforts to communicate will be greatly appreciated. Prior to living in Japan, I lived in Russia, Brazil, and Finland, and from those experiences I have learned how to make your interactions with someone who doesn't speak your language a lot more enjoyable for both of you.

Here are my tips as a foreigner trying to learn the countries native language

1. Non-Verbal Communication
I may understand very few of the words you are saying, so, most likely, I will be watching your every move to try to grasp more meaning. Please do use as many gestures as possible, it is very effective. Be aware though that I will read a lot into what your facial expression means. Please be careful not to show frustration, it will only make the communication more difficult.

2. Attitude
I may not understand you, but I'm not stupid. Please do not roll your eyes at me, I'm trying to learn, and frankly if the 5 minutes of conversation has aggravated you this much, you are most likely the slow one. Many of your more clever country mates have been able to communicate with me effectively. Please understand that I may also be frustrated. I spend at leaste 40 hours a week struggling in your language, you can spend 5 minutes being patient in your native language. We may be locked in a language exchange because of a business transaction, we can both make each others days a lot more pleasant.

3. Dictation
Please speak slowly. Even if I understand every word your saying, if you speak really quickly I will not understand. Even more important then how quickly you speak is your articulation. Speak precisely, and make sure you don't slur words together. I can barely understand the words your saying, please make sure that your pronunciation is a clear as possible (this will also help me learn to speak correctly).

4. What language should I speak in?
If you are fluent in my native language, I welcome the conversation. Otherwise, please, speak in the country's native language as much as possible. Switching back and forth between two languages can get very confusing, especially if you are using my native language incorrectly. I am eager to learn your language, so please do not rob me of that opportunity. I appreciate your interest in my language, but I have taken the step to move to your country, if you move to mine, I will eagerly speak in english with you. If you want to practice English with me, please ask, that way I know that we are both trying to speak in English, and I can facilitate your learning process.

5. Repeat or Try Again
I am sorry to have to make you repeat yourself, but there are a multitude of reasons on my part that I may not have understood you. Sometimes you are too quite, sometimes you caught me off guard and my brain was not ready for your language (this is most common), sometimes you mumbled, sometimes I just wasn't focused enough, but for what ever reason I need to ask you to repeat yourself. When I ask you to repeat yourself, please just repeat what you said. I most likely just need to hear it one more time. I would really appreciate it if you would repeat exactly what you said.
Sometimes I may not understand what you said. If I do not understand any of it I will say "I'm sorry, I don't understand." Please try using different words to explain the same thing. Please give me another chance, I respect your culture and language, it is just very difficult. If I do not understand after a second (or perhaps third time if your really patient) then we should get our dictionaries. They are helpful, but you will still have to repeat what you are trying to tell me many times so that I can understand the words we are looking up in context.

6. Manners
The best way for you to be polite to me is to be clear and patient. This often means not using the most commonly polite phrase with me. I will honestly have no idea if you are speaking to me the same way you would speak to a queen or a baby. All I care about is understanding you, I will feel much more respected if you just speak in a way that I can understand. If you are my superior, and I call you "dude" I am very sorry about that, I probably didn't know. It's fine to correct me. I really am trying to be respectful. If you are my friend and I am overly formal with you, I am not trying to be aloof, I like you a lot, and I appreciate you letting me speak with you.

I guarantee these tips will make any foreigner in your country feel much more welcome and eager to learn more about your culture and language. It may also really make their day after many other possibly frustrating interactions in your language.

I have been to quite a few countries, and struggled in quite a few languages. There is a language barrier nuance that is specific to Japan that I have not witnessed any where else.
Many Japanese people have developed a sort of phobia to the English language. Often I will ask a Japanese person a simple question, like "Is this the train to Tokyo?" Although I have asked the question in in Japanese, their response is "I don't speak English." Even if I assure them that Japanese is fine, they will often just repeat the phrase "I don't speak English." Ben gets this even more then I do, even though he is very skilled at Japanese. I have no idea what to do in those situations.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Hokey Pokey

I'm not sure what it's all about (pun intended), but the hokey pokey is just about the most fun thing in the world with a class full of Japanese children.

The combination of watching the english teacher dancing/shaking it all about, and a japanese teacher who looks as though they are watching a train wreck of awkwardness is a type of magic that Japanese children absolutely love.

I did the hokey pokey with my classes today. I was a little worried that my over enthusiastic gestures would upset some of the teachers. Although they looked absolutely mortified in class, they raved about how great the class was afterwards.

Japanese students are very shy, and they are very cautious to not make mistakes. This is very counter productive in and language class, so I do put energy into showing the kids that it's ok to make mistakes, and that I under no circumstances will judge them. The hokey pokey is extremely effective because they feel like they couldn't possibly be judged by a person that dances like a trained monkey.

Awful, overly enthusiastic dancing is what I do. The most fun I ever had at a club was a night out with my sister, Kelly. I think club dancing is awkward and gross, and although I mastered the awkward part years ago, I have no interest in the gross. The dance floor was completely dead, apparently the sexual tension was not high enough. Kelly and I took the dance floor for ourselves, we did amazing moves like the lawnmower, the egyptian, and the scuba diver. Then, when all eyes were on us, we did our sister dance, .... the T-Rex. I'm not sure how to explain what the T-Rex is, but I'm fairly certain a real T-Rex would have more dignity on a dance floor then us. Their is a magic that happens when everyone in the room realizes they could not possibly embarrass themselves more then what they just saw. Dozens of people joined Kelly and I on the dance floor, and most of them tried their hands at moves like the bus driver, and the picture frame. We danced for hours, and had one of the most fun nights of our lives.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Shooting Star

Ben and I saw a shooting star tonight. I have never seen a shooting star like it before, it had 2 distinct portions that were large and round, in one of the portions were 2 black dots. It was massive. I have no idea what it was, it was exciting and happened at just the perfect moment. We were going past the rice patties, and amongst the song of thousands of frogs we saw the shooting star. It was brilliant, terrifying, and beautiful.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Sweat and Body Odor

It's getting hotter here in Japan, and with that comes all the pleasant physical compliments, ie sweat and body odor.

I have yet to find deodorant here in Japan. I have been told that their are sprays that are deodorants, but I haven't seen them yet. For the most part, Japanese people don't use deodorant. That sounds disgusting, and  smelly, but most Japanese people do not have body odor. It's amazing! Ben and I however do have body odor. We came prepared, we went to Walmart just before coming here and bought 12 sticks of deodorant. I am still super paranoid about being smelly, I feel like in a country of pleasantly odorless people, I may very well be the smelliest person they meet. I am hopeful that as of yet no-one has noticed any body odor from me, but I am still very cautious.

Japanese people do not seem to have body odor, but holy cow do they sweat! Today was a warmish day, I think the hottest it got was about 80 degrees fahrenheit. The teachers and students were sweating profusely. I asked my 3rd period class if they had just had gym class because they were so sweaty, they hadn't, they were just sweating. Sweat doesn't seem to gross out Japanese people as much as it does Americans. It's going to take some getting use to for me, but at least I wont feel so judged when I break a sweat walking to school.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Guide to Dressing rooms in Japan

Ben and I had to go shopping yesterday because he does not own enough professional work pants, and now, due to my amazing shrinking waist line, neither do I.

There is an entirely different culture to dressing rooms in Japan.

They have created a system where if you follow the rules there is no possibility of being caught mid-change, and no clothes will be damaged in the changing room process.

I will break it down for all the future shoppers in Japan.

Level 1
Places like Forever 21, and H&M have a very loose policy for changing
rooms. They are basically the same as changing rooms at home, but you
are generally given a face protection cloth so that you wont get
makeup on the clothes. You will be given a number to put on your door.
Unlike in America where these are barely used and mostly just a
nuisance, this number is to be placed on the outside of the door. If
you do not place the number on the door, someone will try to come in,
people don’t knock first because they assume people know the rules. I
have seen quite a few foreigners awkwardly standing with their pants
off because they did not follow this rule.

Level 2
Other large clothing stores like Top Shop and Momoko will follow more
of the Japanese rules for changing rooms. The changing room attendant
will take your clothes and escort you to your changing room. You are
required to remove your shoes and place them outside of the door. You
will then step into the changing room and the attendant will hang the
clothes on the wall for you. They will give you the face cloth. You
should clothes the door (or curtain) and the attendant will place the
number on the wall for you. When you exit the changing room you will
put on your shoes, take your clothes, and take the number. Give the
number to the attendant, and depending on the situation you will
either hang the clothes you don’t want on the rack, or you will hand
the clothes and number to the attendant.

Level 3
Boutiques and other small stores, especially those found in Harijuku
follow the most complex rules for changing rooms. Often at these there
will not be an attendant, it’s just a free for all for the changing
rooms. You should always take your shoes off and place them outside of
the room, this will let other people know that you are in there, and
it keeps the floors clean (especially on rainy days). Usually there
will be a large tissue box with face clothes in it, you should use
one. I have found that they keep my hair from looking like I stuck my
finger in and electrical socket after shopping. Close the curtains all
the way. Many people will get very upset, and you may be called a
pervert if the curtains are at all open. Curtains in Japan usually go
all the way to the floor, and there is always enough cloth to fully
cover the doors.

Shopping can be really fun in Japan.
Here are my tips for having a great day.
1. Doll up!
Especially in places like Shinjuku and Harajuku, people really show
off. I think it is more fun to participate. In Harajuku there are no
restrictions to what you can wear. Japanese are usually fairly
conservative, but in Harajuku you’ll see anything.
2. Don’t wear a lot of jewelry.
You might get some glares if you wear earrings in the changing rooms,
I have even seen girls take them off as they enter the room. Jewelry
is not as popular in Japan. I really recommend not wearing any big
jewelry, and nothing that could snag any clothes.
3. Wear shoes that are easy to take on and off!
This is probably my most important tip, and the one that is easiest to forget.
I have started the day in lace-up shoes, and by the end of it I ended
up buying myself some \100 flats because it was difficult to manage
the tie up shoes. My shopping shoes now are a pair of zip up high
heals that take no time to get on and off.

Have fun!

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Tachikawa Food Festival and Hachioji Izakaya

Today Ben and I went to the Tachikawa food festival with our new friend Chihiro. It was really fun. We ate a lot of tasty food. The festival was called manpaku which is a combination of the term for full, and festival, so we translated it to 'fullstival'.

We had Kyushu style fried chicken, and soup dumplings. Ben had a massive Hokkaido style hamburger that looked delicious.

The soup dumplings were an IQ test in the form of food. If you were and idiot like Ben you bit into the dumplings and let the boiling hot contests burn the crap out of your mouth. If you were a massive idiot like me you did this 3 times in a row. They were delicious, but my tongue is mad at me.

Betsubara is the term for the second stomach you have reseved just for sweets, a dessert stomach. After delicious foods we had to fill our betsubara. We got shaved ice. I was pleasantly surprised. I don't like shaved ice in America, they taste like artificial flavoring poured over snow, but the shaved ice I had here was pear flavored, it had real chunks of pear, and real pear juice. It was the perfect treat on a hot day.

After our wonderful day at the festival we went into Hachioji to a really cool izakaya (Japanese pub). All the decorations on the wall were from the '50s. There were toys, posters, and even music from the '50s. It was really cool. We had a few drinks, and ate some tasty foods at the izakaya. I had a great drink with a whole frozen mandarine orange in it, it was fruity, and delicious.

To commemorate our day we did a Japanese photo booth. It was surprisingly fun. You choose what style photo booth you want depending on how you want it to photoshop you. Some of them make you whiter, some of them make you skinnier, all of them make your eyes bigger. They are all suppose to make you look prettier, which makes guys look hilarious. Ben has never looked so... ?

Friday, June 1, 2012

School Lunch

The very last chapter of the 5th year text book is all about foods. There is a segment about what children from other countries eat for lunch.

According to the textbook Indian people eat curry and rice and a banana for lunch, Korean people eat Kimchi, soup and rice and a banana for lunch, Finnish people eat potatoes fish, potatoes bread and salad for lunch, and Americans eat Pizza, buttered corn, jello, pretzels, and chocolate milk.

At first I was offended, but then I remembered that is what American students are offered for lunch.
There is a video that supports the books claim of what students eat for lunch, it shows what students eat at school for a whole week. The part about the American students lunches was sad and pathetic. It featured elementary school students at a Los Angeles school. Lunch items of the week consisted of pizza, french fries, hamburgers, chocolate milk, puddings, and a ton of other junk. About half of the kids at the school were very overweight. It was appalling.

Everyday at school in Japan they post the days lunch, the number of calories, and the nutritional breakdown. Nutritionists develop the menues for each day, and plan out the week so that the students will get a diversity of foods to meet their nutritional needs. Students are required to eat the full contents of their trays, and are required to eat the school lunches unless they have a doctors note excusing them from doing so.

During health class students talk about the nutrition your body needs, how to loose weight, how to gain weight, and the importance of walking. Students in my 5th year class just completed week 1 of a month long log of their daily activities. Students will all be doing a fitness test next week.

Teachers have asked me if what they hear about American school lunches is true, and I am always ashamed to have to confirm the rumors. They ask how American children keep from getting fat, but the truth is they don't. Approximately 1 in 3 American children between the ages of 2 and 19 are overweight or obese. 10% of Japanese children between the ages of 2 and 19 are overweight or obese.

"Schools should provide the healthiest meal of the day, so that children can have the freedom to enjoy treats with their parents." I have had this phrase recited to me about a dozen times by Japanese teachers.

Childhood obesity is not such a mystery when you actually look at the facts. If you feed kids crap, they will get fat.