Happy new year everyone, hope 2013 is a great one for you. New year is my favourite Japanese holiday. It is so peaceful as everything shuts down, people dress up and there’s a feeling of anticipation that the new year will bring good things. There is a mad rush in December to get ready, to do a thorough house cleaning, finish up business especially relating to money and prepare food which will be eaten during the festivities. There is always a temple or shrine visit during the 3 days of new year to pay your respects to the gods and start the year off auspiciously. From talking to my mom this year, it seems much of the stillness has gone with shops opening on January 1. When I was younger, everything was shut for the first three days. I remember about 15 years ago when the convenience shops started opening on New Year’s day, I thought that was the beginning of the end.
The nice thing about living overseas is that your memories can stay frozen in whatever time you choose. So even though I’ve been home for new year’s in recent years, the ones I recall most vividly are from the 70′s, the last time I lived in Japan as a child. Lots of food, ridiculous television, endless games and just hanging with my family are what I remember. Also in my memory, January 1 was always bright and sunny, it probably isn’t true but that’s what’s great about memories right?
But fast forward to 2013 and here I am in London where January 1 is more a day to recover from the excesses of December 31 than a day unto itself. I didn’t make any of the traditional foods for new year both because of a lack of ingredients and a general lack of interest from the other family members. I did want to make the soup we have on new year’s day but I hadn’t bought any of the ingredients. So rather than make a traditional Japanese ozoni with dashi, mouli, spinach, bright red carrot and of course mochi, the pounded sticky rice cake, I made a vegetable soup with onions, cabbage, jerusalem artichokes and carrot. It’s the mochi that makes it new yearsy I think and it didn’t disappoint. I felt like I had kept the spirit of the tradition. Here’s a photo.
My new year’s soup
I’m going to try very hard to do a better job blogging this year. Here’s to another year full of fun and adventure.
So, from having been in my parents’ home for three weeks, I have come to the conclusion that I am spoiled for space. They live in a typical Japanese flat. My mom always proudly points out that it is considered generous for Tokyo. Yet every time I go home, I marvel at how small it is and how a family of 4 used to fit there. I’m sure part of it is psychological. When my sister and I moved out, my parents took our rooms, blew them out and created their room. So when I go home, I don’t have anywhere to hang out. Coupled with the fact that my mom gets grumpy if I spend too much time away from the never ending TV and of course there are only two good spots in the room which are good for TV watching and my parents sit there, it’s a tough place to feel comfortable.
But everything is relative. There’s this amazing show called Before After. It’s on Sunday night in Tokyo and I just love it. It features an unimaginable small space that is inhabited by a family whose behaviour has adapted to their space without thinking about how nuts it is. Then an architect comes in and transforms the space into something usable. He does it without tearing it down or digging two floors below either. It is simply remarkable to watch. But no matter how cleverly a space is laid out, it still is what it is. And what these people don’t get in the end, is a lot of privacy. Well, at least the western concept of privacy. Take this one episode I watched. An older couple took the upstairs of their house, closed it off from the downstairs, put in an external staircase and turned it into apartments. I think there were 2 studios and 1 one bedroom. So three little flats. They rented the studios and the one bedroom went to their daughter who had recently gotten married. Well the next thing you know, the daughter has triplets. So now the five of them are living in a little one bedroom flat that is only accessible from the grandparents’ home via a rickety external staircase. As the other tenants moved out, they spread out into the other flats but the flats were never connected. I think the show caught up with them when the triplets were just starting kindergarten or first grade. By the end of the show, the architect had reconnected the top and bottom of the house and reconfigured it so that there was a generous kitchen and dining room for everyone plus living quarters for the grandparents downstairs and a little sitting room and bedrooms upstairs for the daughter and family. But what I found mind boggling was the fact that there was now 1 toilet and 1 tub for the 7 of them. Japanese tubs are big deep affairs so I understand why you would only have one bath. But to have 7 people sharing one toilet?
There’s a certain intimacy that comes from sharing such close quarters. You have to be more accepting since you have no recourse. Your bed and surroundings are your personal space but there’s no door. Maybe because they focus on the good examples on TV, it seems these families living in really tight quarters seem a lot more open with each other. When you don’t have a physical door to close, maybe it’s easier not to close your emotional door either. If you’ve never had alone time, do you miss it? So here I sit, back in my flat, surrounded by windows and space and wonder, do I love it because of the space or because it’s mine? It’s probably a bit of both. Either way I am very lucky to be in a place I love.
I had cataract surgery last autumn. I thought it all went well but then I stopped being able to see. Of course from having spent decades where everything was blurry, it took a bit to figure out that this was something I should be concerned about. So I went back to the eye doctor who informed me I had fluid build up behind my eyes and prescribed eye drops. He wanted to see me in three weeks time but I was off to Tokyo so I made an appointment for after I returned and off I went. Now I had been on the drops just about three weeks, when literally in an instant my vision blurred. At first I thought I just had something in my eye, so I rubbed it a bit and when it didn’t come out, just figured it was one of those things and ignored it. By the next day, my eye was bloodshot and swollen. You could see the left eye was protruding beyond the right one. It felt like an infection because along with it, I got what felt like a sinus headache and what I could only imagine a migraine might feel like. Anyway, it was all very unpleasant but I didn’t want to make a big deal of it because my parents would worry. So I kind of stuck it out and came home with it. I went to the eye doctor who was concerned with how high the pressure in my left eye was and gave me pills to bring it down. Well, the pills themselves were something else all together. It made the back of my head down to the soles of my feet tingle like in a pins and needles kind of way. It also made my nose and lip numb like when you are coming off anaesthesia, oh yeah and the same thing happened to my palms. Really weird. But it seemed to bring the pressure down to the point where the doctor was no longer alarmed. Now I am on different eye drops and I’m supposed to go see him again. Frankly I am not seeing terrific improvement here. I’ve stayed away from my usual classes at the gym in case the extra blood pumping through my head causes something bad to happen. I couldn’t take it any more and when to pilates today figuring that it’s at least more gentle. I won’t say I wished I never had the surgery because I know I needed it, but still what a pain. I only hope it goes away soon.
I just got back from my annual trip to Tokyo. I’ve been doing this for awhile now, going to see my parents on my own. Three weeks is a long time to be away from your life and I am paying the consequences now, but still I thought I would take a couple minutes to put down my impressions.
For the first time, transport did not run like clockwork. I was on a train that was running over 20 minutes late. Now of course, there was snow and someone had thrown themselves under the train but still, little delays happened throughout my stay. What does it mean? The day of the 20 minute delay, I remembered what it was like to be on a real rush hour train. People had to get to work, so there was no mercy. Not a word was uttered, silently everyone just pushed on and with their backs toward the car, so they wouldn’t have to actually see the people they were squashing. It was a little eerie. It makes the occasional rush hour trains I get stuck on in London seem like a walk in the park.
I had a run of meals in a variety of price ranges and it was an eye opener. I have a favourite series of cookbooks, they are written by the owner of Waketokuyama. So it was with great anticipation that I went to eat in his restaurant with a friend I hadn’t seen in a couple of years. The food was beautiful and the ingredients very luxurious. But the experience overall didn’t fill me with awe. Of course it was delicious but at the price, you would expect that. So I tried to figure out what had left me cold. You really couldn’t fault the food or the service, but I felt it was lacking warmth. They didn’t make you feel special. God that makes me sound like a spoiled brat. But I do think restaurant eating is more than just consuming, especially when you pay top dollar. Maybe they just had an off night, I would like to go again to see if there’s any difference. Compare that to my meal the next night at MayuZen in Nishi Azabu. Now of course this is a place owned by my mom’s friend’s daughter so I do have a personal connection. I brought a friend of mine, the two of us sat at the counter and were just blown away with dish after dish of amazing food.?It is an intimate little restaurant and maybe that was the difference, even though I spent most of the evening catching up with my friend, the owner joined in where appropriate so that my friend went away feeling like he had found a new great place to go. There was not the distance as there was at WakeTokuyama where I very much felt we were strangers as opposed to guests. So the next night, another meal with another friend. We stumbled onto AnNon looking for a place to eat in Naka Meguro. It is a combination of Japanese and Okinawan food. Although we had the set dinner which didn’t feature any Okinawan dishes, everything was again really pretty and delicious. The restaurant itself was gorgeous, a spacious place with lots of blonde wood. We felt like we’d found the deal of the century given that it was dinner. Skipped a day and went for what has to be the highlight of the trip in terms of fish. A friend drove me out to a fishing port to have brunch in a diner owned by a fishing family. I don’t think I have ever had fish that fresh. No nice decor, no gorgeous crockery, just amazing fish. I was very bad at taking photos, but here are a couple taken by my friend at brunch.
Note the iphone in the photo for scale
The individual slices were very large as well
I’m going to sign off here, but there will be more posts to follow about my time in Tokyo, I hope. I start with the very best intentions, then life happens.
Happy New Year. This is a post I meant to write at the end of last year, but in true procrastination form, never quite got around to it.
2011 was a very eventful year for me and the world. The world you know about, but here are some highlights from my year, good and bad.
The year did not start off great with my dad in the hospital recovering from heart surgery. I learned that Japanese medicine is crap at telling you worst cast scenarios, so he went in thinking that this was a routine procedure (triple bypass) and came out not knowing his PIN number. I couldn’t make it to the surgery due to the masses of snow on the ground, so arrived to find my dad in ICU post op, completely disoriented, hallucinating and looking ancient. A bit of a shock when no one has prepared you for it. Anyway, a year on, he is making slow but steady progress to the point where he is starting to make more sense and according to my mom, his eyes are regaining their focus. I’ll be home next week so I can see for myself but it did really make me think about existing as opposed to living. He was a vibrant, vigorous man who at 85 had a very active social life and was out on his own all the time. Maybe it would have been better for him to have had a couple more years on medication but maintaining his lifestyle as opposed to having a surgery that will probably rob him of maybe two years of his life. He made the decision so this is the way it turned out but it does make you think. My kids came out to help and they were wonderful, they took turns so my mom would have support for an extended time as opposed to everyone turning up for 2 weeks and disappearing. My son, who was on his gap year stayed for a month taking his grandpa for walks everyday even if it was to the end of the condo building and back.
Back in London, I resumed my cooking classes and pursued the opportunity to turn the roasted nuts I serve in class into a product. Working with a distributor, Kinomi was born. I had never done anything like this before and I know if it wasn’t for J, I would have given up. By the end of May, I had a product that I could actually start selling. I had really good feedback at the first show I did and there is nothing like having someone who isn’t your friend like what you are selling and actually pay money for it. The next step beyond that is having people who haven’t even met you buy your product. Obviously we all do it all the time but when you’re on the producing end, it’s surreal in a good way. By the end of October I was selling in Harvey Nichols. Hopefully they are selling well enough so that the store is willing to keep stocking me. I even got a little write up on their website http://www.harveynichols.com/hnedit/food-and-wine/whats-in-food-wine/kinomi-nuts-by-hiromi-stone-at-harvey-nichols/. I have also started selling in some local shops and hope to grow the stores I supply in 2012. Any suggestions or leads are most welcome.
My husband came home after a year in Prague and so the whole family went to Hawaii on our summer holiday, including my parents. My niece got married, the first of the nieces and nephews to do so. We became empty nesters in the autumn when my son went off to university. He and his sister are at opposite ends of the country having very different experiences, but they are both enjoying themselves so my day to day obligations as a mom no longer exist. I now enjoy them when they come home and know that the chaos in the house won’t last. They are kind, smart, thoughtful young people and I am very proud of them. And did I mention funny, some of the best times are when we all sit around after a meal and just “banter” as my kids call it.
2011 turned into an unbelievable year for meeting new and wonderful people. I guess it is because I am now doing something specific that I can tell people about, I have met some really interesting people. People have been so supportive and kind, I really appreciate it and hope to do the same for anyone else who might need a hand. I am also settling into the neighbourhood and making new friends. It’s great to feel connected to a neighbourhood and see people you know in the street to have a quick chat. This is probably the friendliest place we’ve lived in, we are very lucky to have found it.
This is definitely turning into a novel so I will sign off. But you can’t look back on 2011 and not mention the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster that hit my country. The people who live in that region are used to natural disasters, they had training days and scenarios worked out for what to do when a tsunami hit. This one exceeded everyone’s expectations and just wiped the area out. As tragic and horrible as it was, they can rebuild. But the man made disaster of a nuclear meltdown, the effects are so long lasting I worry about the future of the region and Japan. As a Japanese person living overseas, I was very proud of the way the Japanese people reacted in the face of the tragedy. I was also touched by the outpouring of support globally The last time I gave any thought to Japan in the world was the 80′s, when Japanese cars were being smashed in Detroit and Japan bashing articles were fairly common in the American press. I guess a lot has changed in 30 years.
Okay, I’m really done now. I don’t make new year’s resolutions because I’m not that great at reflection or forward planning. I hope that 2012 is a wonderful year for all and may we take a step closer to peace.
I am writing this in the midst of jet lag. In the last week, we have flown from Honolulu to Providence and have come home to London. It’s a lot of flying and frankly, airports are pretty much the same everywhere so we tend to identify them by what we ate there. It was a 5 week holiday and the theme was family.
For many years now, we have made the trip to Honolulu every summer. My sister and her family live there and my parents come in from Tokyo so it’s a family vacation for my side of the family. This means that while I am in a gorgeous setting with people I love, there is always drama. As my parents have grown older and less independent, the amount of arranging and negotiating that happens every year has increased. This year, with my dad still recuperating from heart surgery coupled with my mom’s fear of doing anything on her own meant that they needed constant attention. I tried to be philosophical about it but I must admit, there were times when I regretted going. My sister works full time and they aren’t on vacation while we are there so the burden fell on me to keep my parents entertained. Add to that two young adult children who are used to living their own lives thrust into a situation where they had to be with each other for long periods – more drama. I know I could have been far more gracious about it, but you can only do what you can do. I hope my parents went home thinking they had a nice holiday.
I also realized that in addition to a generation gap, my mom and I also have a major culture gap. I was raised mostly in the States and haven’t lived in Japan all that much. So while I consider myself Japanese, apparently my thinking is not typical. This led me to being frustrated with my mom’s inability to just come out and say what she wants whereas she thought she was being totally forthright. As far as I was concerned, she was being forthright at all the wrong times and not where it mattered. We were able to have some chats about this which is a first in our relationship. Maybe I’m finally growing up.
But I do realize that every year we get together we come away with shared experiences and memories. The joys and frustrations of being with family are what keep me connected. When you move as much as we have, home is not a location, it is wherever your family happens to be. Mine is messy, crazy and wonderful. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
My dad had heart surgery just before Christmas and I went home for 3 weeks to help out. Even though my dad is 85 and my mom almost 80, they have been very independent and have continued to act very parental. As far as they are concerned, once I’m in their house, I am still their child.
But not this time. My dad came out of surgery well physically. His wounds healed very quickly and he was up and walking around soon after. The mental faculties however, are taking a lot longer to come back. Things have improved significantly since he came home and I now realize the importance of being at home to recuperate. But he still requires a lot of help and it is obvious sometimes that he is searching for words. He has good days and bad days. On the good days, you can have a real conversation with him and it is on these days that mom thinks she is going to get back the man who went into surgery. On the bad days, he doesn’t make a whole lot of sense and the entire thing is exacerbated by the fact he can’t hear all that well even with hearing aids. It is on these days that mom’s frustrations are at their highest. I have to remind her that he is not doing it on purpose and to just walk away when she gets frustrated instead of standing there and making it worse. Talk about a role reversal.
This incident has changed my relationship with my parents. It is now my turn to care for them. This could be a bit tricky since both my sister and I live out of the country. I guess it will just mean more trips home.
I am so proud of both my kids for stepping up and helping out. My daughter came with me and now my son is there picking up the slack for a couple of weeks. My parents have enjoyed having their youthful presence in the house and my kids have had the opportunity to help care for the grandparents who have been so wonderful to them.
I certainly never thought this day would come, I kind of thought of my parents as invincible and one day they would just fade away. It appears reality is a little different and I will have to cope.
My dad is having surgery right now and I can’t be there. The horrible weather has kept me grounded in London. I was supposed to arrive in Tokyo on Monday to be there for Tuesday. I should have known when hubby couldn’t make it home from Prague on Friday, it would not be smooth sailing (no pun intended). He couldn’t get on another flight until Sunday, so we would miss each other entirely. I had planned Saturday as family day so needless to say, I was a little miffed.
Sunday rolls around, I’m up at 5:30 to discover my flight’s cancelled. Can’t reach home, put my status up on Facebook. My sister and nephew have made it to Tokyo (no snow in Hawaii) so I thought she would see my status. Stay on hold for about 15 minutes with travel agent only to be told the earliest they could get me out is Wed. Thought of every possible permutation for how to get home, but just couldn’t bring myself to spend £2400 for an economy ticket with a layover. A small panic later including a desperate e mail to a friend who flies a lot to see if he knew anyone that could help, I come to the conclusion that some things are just beyond my control and weather is one of them.
Now I come from a family of ridiculous optimists so at no time am I worried about the outcome of my dad’s surgery. I know my mom’s in good hands with my sister and nephew there. So I decide that I might as well enjoy the unexpected vacation I have at home now. Hubby actually made it home on Sunday and I have had 2 days of hanging out with my kids and hubby, something that happens very rarely around here these days.
As far as I can tell, my flight is scheduled to leave tomorrow and I’ve gotten word from Tokyo that my dad’s surgery was a success. So, I’ll be able to spend time with him and celebrate new year’s with them.
Don’t fight what you can’t control, just breathe.
I get this question a lot. It was a question that was never asked until I moved to London. I grew up partly in Japan and the States so my English is very American. So when I lived in the States, people just assumed my parents were immigrants and in Japan, of course I sound native so no one ever questioned it.
But when people first meet me here, they try to place the accent, the body language; all cultural cues to figure out where I belong. And that’s where the problem begins. Because although my English is American, I am not, nor do I consider myself to be American. But from having lived so long in the States, my body language is very western, so I do not come across as a Japanese woman of a certain age either. So people ask me where in the States I am from or whether I am Canadian. I tell them I am Japanese from Tokyo and doubt is just written all over their face. Now really, why would I lie about a thing like that? I’ve managed to condense my life experience into, “I was born in Japan and spent a lot of time in the US”. That seems to satisfy most casual inquiries. If I am getting to know you as a friend, then the story would get fleshed out in further conversations.
The thing is, while we were living in the States, I pretty much identified with America as that’s where I had spent most of my schooling. But as I am now 13 years out of the States, I identify more and more with Japan, a country that is my spiritual home regardless of how much or how little time I have spent there. And now with my crusade to bring Japanese cooking into the homes of London, I’ve started thinking a lot about things I’ve taken for granted and comparing and contrasting my experiences with Japanese and western food.
But that’s another post.
What is home? When you’re an expat, I think home is more of a concept than a location. In my case, that location tends to change with some regularity. When I was growing up, every 5 years, my dad would get transferred, from Japan to the States and then back. The last time was when I was 16 and I stayed, going onto university, meeting and marrying my husband and having two kids. My parents did another posting during that time but I had a family of my own by then, so as far as I was concerned, my home was in America with my husband and two kids.
Just when I was thinking I should apply for citizenship, my husband gets transferred to Japan. Go figure. So off we go for what was supposed to be a 2 year posting which turned into 4 years. It was great exposing the kids to the other half of their culture. It made me appreciate the country that was my heritage. I had the unique experience of being able to see my country both from the inside and the outside. I met expats who had lived in Japan longer than I had, a little disconcerting for both of us.
We would go home to the States every summer, see friends and family, renew our ties with our community, go visit the house we were renting out in our absence and generally feel that our status overseas was temporary. We would soon come “home”.
Then, we added a third country to the mix. My husband took a job in London and we moved to a country that was unfamiliar to both of us. At least we spoke the language, but just barely as everything else was as different as can be. It’s been 9 years now, and we have no plans of leaving.
Of course, my husband has added yet another country to the ever expanding list of places we live, he took a job in Prague and we now have a commuting lifestyle. The kids have rolled with the punches and they appreciate the upbringing they have had. When I was younger, I wanted for my kids, exactly what I didn’t have, a house that was home for as long as they could remember. It didn’t quite work out that way, but on Sunday, as I was approaching Heathrow after a weekend in Prague, I had the distinct feeling of coming home. So maybe this is it, this is home for me.