Thursday, February 28, 2013

This is a Warning Systems Test

In my hometown, we have warning systems test on the first Monday of every month at around 9 a.m. They are loud and annoying, but Japan has them beat.
This morning at 6, they decided it was an appropriate time to test the systems. I had to check with Ben several times that it was only a test, because I just couldn’t believe they would make such a racket at such a horrible hour.

I was especially grumpy at them stealing my sleep, because my  darling husband was possessed by a demon last night. He emitted smells I didn’t think were humanly possible, he elbowed me in the face half a dozen times, and took up snoring. I’m not sure if you could call it snoring, sometimes there was a distinct whistle, other times he did his best impression of a garbage disposal. I got very little sleep last night, so sacrificing an hour in the morning was miserable.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013


I am finally starting to feel better, though my voice rarely makes it through the day. Ben has now taken his turn to be sick, and is taking his second sick day for the year. I have gone into full mama bear mode, I don’t handle Ben being sick very well, and Ben and I usually end up with gallons of soup, and Ben begging me to let him be awake.

Ben and I haven’t been to English club for a while because one of us has been sick for the almost every Thursday for the past few weeks, English club starts at 8:00 which is a late start if you’re sick. I got a note from one of the members through one of my co-workers today from one of my friends asking if I was OK, I nearly cried, to be honest I was feeling pretty lonely in town.

I’ve been having a rough time lately at work. It started in December, every company has an end of the year party. I wasn’t really expecting to get invited to one, and would have been fine with it. The hard part for me was a group of women all decided to discuss whether or not they should invite while seated at a table with me. The repeated my name many times, and my Japanese is was good enough to understand what they were talking about.  These women are bullies, and generally I can deal with them, but this was probably the attack by them that was the most difficult for me.

I’ll take a moment to explain why these women are bullies. Japan is hierarchy obsessed. Everyone knows everyone’s status compared to one another, and they work hard to improve their status by respecting those higher up on the food chain, and accepting respect from those lower down. Japanese also like to categorize things into “in-groups” and “out-groups”. For example all the 5th year teachers are part of the “5th year in group” and everyone else is the “out group”. This system is pretty black and white, smaller groups are part of larger groups, but you can’t be part of multiple in groups. This puts me in an awkward position as I teach at three schools, which in the end means I am not part of the in group for any of them. More progressive people realize that this is really difficult for foreigners, and will step outside of their groups to make you feel welcome, but many people are very shy here, so it is difficult for me to be as social here as I was back home. These bullies don't like that I don't work in their hierarchy system, or group system, and they spend lots of their personal time reminding me of my roles in those systems.

I started out the new semester with my spirit a little broken. I was frustrated, and at the school with the bullies I had a difficult time motivating myself. My general strategy for dealing with the bullies before the break was just to smile, and give myself an internal pep-talk while they bullied. Winter is always a little rough on my spirit, and I just couldn’t handle them as well after the break. I think they sensed my weakness, because they became relentless. One of the women is in a position of power, took it into her power to make me remake every lesson plan several times, if there were many games in them, she would say I needed to focus on learning, if there were not many she said I needed to focus on the students enjoying English. She also reported me to the people who control my paychecks, and made life outside of work very difficult in many respects.

I have less than a month of work left, and have decided to make the best of it. My plan is to hide from my bullies, and start giving myself pep-talks again when they find me. I am feeling much healthier, and ready to give a last hurrah to this amazing country before heading back to our home country.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Giselle-A tale of Dissapointment

Yesterday Ben and I went to the ballet again. The National Ballet of Japan is doing a performance of Giselle.

Giselle is one of the most popular shows performed. Giselle is a tale of unrequited love, and tragedy. Giselle's charm lies in the emotional journey you take with the dancers.

I will walk you through the performance with me. 
The curtain opens, and Albert (performed by Atsuji Yasuo), a nobleman walks onto the stage, he holds out his blue cape, which is the only indication he will give throughout the entire performance his royal connection. He is joined onstage by Hans (performed by Wajima Takuya), a man desperately in love with Giselle. The two continue to walk about the stage, and at some point Albert changes his outfit. Keep in mind that this is a fairly short ballet, each moment should be poignant. Dancers have countless ways to transport themselves across the stage, they can prance, waltz, glide, march,... anything but walk.
We are told by the brochure we were given that  Albert woes Giselle (performed by Yonezawa Yui), the performers not only failed to put any emotion into their roles, the frequently fell out of sink with each other on dance moves. Albert's proposal to Giselle was completely missed.
 Dignitaries, and companions of both parties walk onto the stage. While the company is dancing, they give a fine, though lackluster performance. When they act as back drop to more prominent characters, they are notably bad. The cast frequently dropped poses, fidgeted, and didn't add in any way to the environment of the celebration they were all supposed to be enjoying.
The mother looked on the festivities with distress, she was worried about the fragility of her daughter, and tried to coax her back into the safety of the home, the mother was the only performer that showed any semblance of emotion during the first act. Giselle's break away from sanity, and sudden death resembled her interpretation of flirtation. I would not have known that this was the point in the story where she died if it hadn't been for her greiving mother.
By the end of the first tedious act, almost none of the dancers showed they were qualified the for the roles they filled, the only exceptions being the mother, and peasant pa de deux (performed by Hosoda Chiaka and Okumura Kosuke) who did a lively, and stunning celebratory dance together.

During the intermission I took a moment to collect myself, I had to remind myself that I still enjoyed the ballet, despite the fact that a cast of robots would have been more interesting. I was disappointed, and wondered where all the charming dancers I had seen in Cinderella had gone. As we sat down to the second act, I took a moment to reset my expectations.

The second act began with a delicate and whimsical dance by Giselle in front of her grave. Hans and Albert took moments to walk on and off stage, the point of which was very unclear. Hans and Albert never showed why they had been cast as the leading male rolls, luckily they were minor characters for the duration of the second act.
Willis floated onto the stage, and encompassed their roles as forest fairies. Magic emanated from them as they connect in one symbiotic troupe, each move was perfection, each hop was adorable. Their ability to work as one large mass, sensational. The now dead Giselle was now a fountain of grace, subtlety, and beauty.  The second act was playful and emotive, showcasing every reason you go to see Giselle.

Friday, February 22, 2013

How to go to Restaurants in Japan

If you are planning on going to Japan, you will no doubt enjoy the amazing foods Japanese restaurants have to offer. Here are some ways to make the experience easier and more enjoyable for you and the locals.

Learn to use chopsticks
Most restaurants don’t even have silverware available, so you must use chopsticks. In order to be able to use chopsticks effectively you must build up the muscles in your hands. It really only takes about a week, so enjoy practicing before you come to Japan.

If you are having trouble, here are some recommendations.

Move your hands towards the end of the chopsticks. People have a tendency to choke up on the chopsticks if they are having a difficult time, this makes it much more difficult. Accuracy comes after strength development, the first few days of chopstick use will likely be messy, and make your hand tired, but you’ll quickly get the hang of it.

Don’t use children’s chopsticks. Short chopsticks are very difficult to use, if you have adult sized hands it is very difficult to use child sized chopsticks. Don’t use chopstick braces either, I’m not sure why anyone would make them, they teach you how to use chopsticks completely wrong.

Hand Towel
At the beginning of each meal you will receive a wet hand towel, this should be used for cleaning of your hands at the beginning of the meal. Do not wipe your face with it, (though you may see Japanese people doing it) it is rude.

Oi, Over Here!
You will have to flag down your waiter, they do not make rounds like in the states. A polite "excuse me" (Sumimasen) will suffice if your Japanese is lacking. In some places you will not get service without flagging down a waiter. Don’t get up to order, that would be awkward. Often there are call buttons on the table, these are very convenient.

Food Vending Machines
Out side of many fast food restaurants there are often machines that look like vending machines. You should insert your money, select the food you are interested in, enter the restaurant, and give the tickets to your waiter. Usually the machine will have pictures, but if it doesn’t, try asking the staff Nani ga ski desu ka-What do you like? If you’re adventurous this is a great way to try new delicious foods.

It is not common to pay at your table. You can either pre-pay (Either at a vending machine, or if the restaurant has a set meal), or you pay at a register on your way out. If you received a receipt at your table, bring that to the register and pay, otherwise either ask for the check, or just go to the register and they will figure it out.

Most Important Tip… Don’t Tip.
Don’t tip! Don’t tip! Don’t tip!
Not only is it a waste of your money, it is actually quite rude. There is no service I can think of in Japan where you should tip. Japanese have amazing service, and you will likely receive the best service of your life. It is a treat to walk into a mall as it is opening, you will be welcomed by an orchestra of voices. Japanese take pride in the work they do, and when it comes to customer service, they really should be proud.

Here are some warnings of things you may be bothered by in Japanese Restaurants.
Slurping is acceptable (though no longer required) Ramen restaurants can be difficult to more sensitive travelers
Smoking is permitted in restaurants
Modifications will likely not be made, even for dietary restrictions
Floor Seating
There are many places where you will have to sit on the floor.
Food Race
Japanese people eat really fast. At fast food restaurants business men look like they are shoveling the food into their mouths
No Napkins
There are usually no napkins in restaurants, so be careful.

These are the most obvious mistakes you can make, but easily prepared for. Japanese are kind and understanding, and likely will not inform you if you have made a mistake. Japanese food is delicious and well worth the arduous task of learning to use chopsticks.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Japanese Skin Care Secrets

Skin is magical, it’s the story of our lives, an expression of our values, and the history of our families. There is so much you can learn about a person from their skin, and so many ways to treat it.

My skin will tell you, that I grew up in a middle class household, I was relatively healthy, and spent time in the sun. It will tell you that I value looks, and my own personal presentation. It will tell you that I desire look young.  It will tell you that I embrace what makes me look different, and do not try to look like the norm. It will tell you that my ancestors were from Europe, especially the colder, less sunny regions.

I love skin, in all its shapes and forms, from the leathery skin of avid hikers, to the bleached skin of older Japanese women, or the plastic looking skin of male body builders. Skin tells a story, and those stories fascinate me.

Skin is not always beautiful, and it doesn’t have to be, the most interesting stories are written on the most wretched skin.  I do not have naturally good skin, I had moderately bad acne in high school, and without the time and effort I put into it, my skin would still be bad. My skin is also very pale, and very thin, without makeup you can see veins, and capillaries all over my face. That being said, I love my skin.

I am remarkably white, most companies do not sell foundation white enough to fit my skin, I take this as a point of pride, although it does make my love for makeup a one-sided. My pale skin is an amazing canvas, blushes can go from innocent to sultry with ease, every lipstick known to man can look very bold on me, but the most fun part are eye shadows. Colors are so true, and because my face is such a blank canvas I can express any feeling I can think of.

As part of my cultural immersion, I wanted to learn about Japanese skin. Japanese women seem to age at half-pace, and I want the same for myself. Japanese women do tend to have an advantage in the war against aging. Most Japanese women have mono-lids, and less round eyes then western women, when they smile or squint, one crease forms on the side of their eyes, as opposed to western women who generally get a crow’s feet formation. These lines become wrinkles in all ethnicities, but the one line formed at the edge of Japanese women’s eyes is much less noticeable. Japanese also have more plump skin, this naturally helps prevent wrinkles, but also means that muscle definition is much more difficult for them to have toned bodies.

Luckily for those interested, not all of Japanese anti-aging secrets are genetic.
The majority of my skin care products are Japanese now, and I hope I never have to go back, the method is effective, and I enjoy clear skin all the time.

                Prevention is probably the most crucial way to slow aging. Japanese women’s most powerful tools against again are diet and sun protection.
Diet is probably the most difficult thing to change, but is crucial to maintaining young and beautiful skin. The Japanese diet has very little processed food, it is lower in carbs, and high in fish and high in fats.

Japanese women are obsessed with sun protection. Fair skin is considered very beautiful, and so during the summer months, Japanese armor themselves against the rays of the sun. On a sunny day, any skin conscious women will wear protective clothing, everything below the chin is usually covered in fabric, it is not uncommon to see women wearing turtle necks in the summer. Women wear full spectrum, high protection sunblock. Japanese women also wear the most amusing summer hats, some look like they were intended for bee keeping, and many have ear flaps.

Here are some other prevention methods that are common in Japanese women.
Sleep position-Sleep on your back, smooshing your face in to your pillow all night will lead to wrinkles.

Daily Activities
There are many steps in the daily skin ritual in order (Steps 1-4 should be done morning and Night)
1.       Cleansing
a.       Oil Cleanse
                                                               i.      America advertising has led us to believe that oil is the enemy of your face. Although both my husband and I are acne prone, cleaning our faces with oil as the first step has done wonders for our skin

b.      Foam Cleanse
                                                               i.      Really these are the same cleansers that you use at home, with the addendum of before you apply the product to your face you absolutely must lather it into a foam first. This is done with a loofah, or for certain products a whisk
                                                             ii.      Why foam? Foam removes dirt and makeup from your face, but doesn’t strip it of the lipids that protect your skin and keep it tight (young looking)

2.       Toner
a.       Toners here are called hydrating lotions, or softeners, and are used after cleaning the skin to remove any lasting impurities, and close up the pores.

3.       Serum
a.       Serums/essences are very potent and easily absorbed by the skin, If you’re buying anti-aging products, this is where to splurge and buy the highest quality, do some research and find the right set of ingredients for your needs.
4.       Lotion
a.       Lotion is applied over the toner and serum, it locks in moisture and keeps the skin soft.
                                                               i.      Use a lotion with sun protection during the day
                                                             ii.      Do not apply sun protection at night

5.       Makeup
a.       BB-Creams- Instead of foundations Japanese women usually use BB-Creams.
                                                               i.      BB-Creams in Asia are very thick, can offer full coverage and have many nutrients in them.
                                                             ii.      Western BB-Creams are a joke, and are nothing more than pricey tinted moisturizers.
b.      Makeup should be removed as early as possible in the day, if you know you are going to spend the evening in, wash your face as soon as you get home, the less time pollution and foundation sits on your skin, the better it will look.

6.       Sweat
a.       Eat spicy food, exercise, take a hot bath, or go in a sauna, Sweating is natural, and a great way to clear your pores, and rid your body of toxins, 

1-3 times a week
1.       Masks
a.       A huge array  of masks are offered in Japan, as well as cookbooks for homemade masks. Every person should on occasion make sure they do the following masks
                                                               i.      Purifying
1.       Pore cleaning masks like a clay mask are recommended
                                                             ii.      Hydrating
1.       Snail slime is fairly popular here, sea weed or platinum masks are also a good option.
                                                            iii.      Calming
1.       A homemade oatmeal mask is surprisingly nice

2.       Exfoliate
a.       It is important to resurface your face, cell turnover is key to healthy, ageless skin
                                                               i.      Japanese don’t tend to use abrasive exfoliants and instead either rely on masks or formulas like cure, which gently ball up any dead skin as you gently massage your skin

3.       Massage
a.       This is probably the most important, and the one that I most often see ignored by westerners trying to adopt Asian skin care methods. It is absolutely crucial, and will be noticeable if you do it right.
b.      Key points
                                                               i.      Do not drag your skin, although the videos I link look like they are really pulling at their skin, they really aren’t.
                                                             ii.      Drain Lymph’s- you can easily feel your lymph nodes in your cheeks and neck, by massaging on and around them you promote drainage
                                                            iii.      Circulation- If you have good circulation, your skin will keep itself much healthier, 
Gua Sha Stone and Cheek Massager

As lengthy as this explanation is, it is just the basics, I have dry/combination/pale/acne prone/sensitive skin, you should refine the products you use to best suit your skin. I really don’t recommend skipping any of the steps, irregardless of your skin type (Oily skin people should still oil cleanse, and still use lotion just find the right products).

I hope this is helpful, but most importantly…
Enjoy the Skin you’re in.