Back in the land of Messy, Grumpy People.

Subway people

I know it’s a bit presumptuous to have reverse culture shock after being away for only 5 and a half weeks but I think you experience things differently when you are living somewhere as opposed to holidaying–i.e. you are staying in an apartment, cleaning it, taking out the garbage, grocery shopping and not just staying in a hotel. Though I would have really liked a pool….

Anyway, it’s been a bit weird being home. I’m sure most of it can be attributed to jet lag but there are some cultural differences that spring to mind. People here seem undisciplined and self-concerned compared to the inherent order of Japanese society. Also messy and grumpy. This isn’t really much of a surprise as culturally we are conditioned to value the individual before considering our impact on society as a whole; the Japanese are conditioned differently, pretty much the exact opposite. They are taught to maintain order, avoid chaos and keep the social order intact. Children are taught from an early age that “the nail that sticks up is hammered down” so the urge to conform is pretty basic. Wherever it comes from, it makes for a more orderly and streamlined society, though I have no idea what people are thinking, they are outwardly polite. People don’t push or shove, they don’t jump the queue, they rarely honk their horns, they wait patiently to board the escalator, they make way on the sidewalk…though I guess this behaviour is partially a survival tactic in a city as large as Tokyo, otherwise chaos and anarchy would reign.

People dress more formally. I saw women in Lululemon-like outfits three times. Two of them were jogging and the other looked like she was on the way home from yoga class–based on the fact that she was carrying a yoga mat. The majority of men wear suits and women wear skirts or dresses or dressy shorts. Many kids wear uniforms and if not, they have the cutest clothes ever. Even the dogs are groomed. I know some of the formality comes from living in a larger urban centre but there is a noticeable difference to North American sartorial habits. It’s almost as if you have a responsibility to not disturb the flow by dressing like a bum. Being odd or alternative is fine (Harajuku girls come to mind) as long as you’re tidy. I noticed a similar scenario in Paris and subsequently read a book by an American living in Paris, married to a Frenchman, who was told by her husband that running to the bakery to get croissants in her sweats with her hair in a ponytail was insulting to society in general. Perhaps they have a similar expectation in Japan? I’ll have to look into it…. Also keep in mind that most households wash their clothes in cold water and dry them on a rack–even our neighbour, whose house was worth approximately $4 million, had laundry hanging daily on the deck.

In shops and restaurants they greet every single person that walks through the door. Always. Irasshaimase (welcome). When you pay for things they bow. In any place except the convenience stores and the grocery store, they walk your purchase around the counter and hand it to you, bowing. In smaller shops they walk you to the door and bow as you leave. If it’s an expensive purchase they bow until you are out of sight. Yes, I actually saw this in the Issey Mikayke boutique in Omotesando (high-end shopping area). Four shop assistants bowed until the woman disappeared around the corner two blocks away. I’m not even kidding. In department stores, they bow before they leave the floor. Bus attendants at airports and hotels bow as the bus appears and again as it drives away. I know this sounds excessive, but it is quite charming and you don’t actually realize how peaceful it is to be away from angst and strife until you are back in it. This is the country that experienced no looting or violence in the aftermath of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear incident.

I went to the 7-11 on Friday night. I said ‘Konnichiwa‘ to the clerk, mostly because I was so tired and momentarily forgot that I was not in the neighbourhood 7-11 in Tokyo where I visited every day. He looked at me like I was a complete nutter. He didn’t bow when I left….

The Long Road Home…

From top...our interminable taxi ride with the blind driver; last views of Narita, last meal (coke float and sashimi) and the fabulous bird's eye view camera from the plane!

From top…our interminable taxi ride with the blind driver; last views of Narita, last meal (coke float and sashimi) and the fabulous bird’s eye view camera from the plane!

I’m sure many of you may have guessed from the radio silence that we were travelling and are now back in Vancouver. I do have more things to post about Japan so I’m not ending the blog…I’m extremely long-winded (I’m told by my daughter) and five and a half weeks was not nearly long enough to say all that I had to say 😉

So we’re home. Getting home was a trial. Normally I have things fairly well planned and organized but there were things out of my control on this one. First of all, we bought our tickets on CheapOair. Not my first choice…actually pretty much one of my last choices, but I have to say it was fine AND a great deal. We flew Cathay which was fabulous (more on that later) but at first I couldn’t confirm our tickets on the Cathay website with the locater number from CheapOair so I was freaking out. CheapOair actually emailed me back and confirmed the flight and told me how to get on the Cathay site. Next, I couldn’t print a confirm as Karis’s computer was not downloading files to ANY flash drives (yes, I did buy a new one, didn’t work) so I had no printed confirms. Wanting to cover all my bases, I emailed the boarding passes to myself and Karis; downloaded the PDFs and screenshot each one.

Karis’s agency made reservations on the airport limousine, paid her fare and the cab to get to the bus and provided a map and instructions in Japanese for the cab driver. When I lived in Japan before, it was almost impossible to get a taxi to stop for a foreigner and you had to have a map and/or instructions in Japanese as there are no regular street names or addresses. I had all of this. Also, one of the bookers happened to be at the apartment as we were leaving so he helped load the car and explain (again) to the cab driver in Japanese exactly where the hotel was…literally a 5 minute drive from our apartment. Anyway we did everything exactly as instructed but we didn’t count on a cab driver not be able to find the hotel! With Japanese instructions, a map and a GPS! Though perhaps the fact that he kept looking at the map with a magnifying glass should have been my first clue. We missed the limousine bus. Luckily I still had my Japanese phone and called Yusuke at the agency and he talked to the cab driver but it was too late. Yusuke was trying to find another bus and was going to book us on the Narita Express which is a high-speed train. I explained there was no way this would work as we had too much luggage to manage on our own because it involves changing trains and going through the station. He then spoke to the driver again and told us he would drive us to Narita. At this point, I didn’t care as there was no way we could miss this flight. Cab fare to Narita is about $300.

So we’re driving and driving. Both Karis and I have to pee, like crazy. We finally get to Terminal 1 (as per Yusuke’s instructions) and Karis sprints out to go to the bathroom. The driver and I unload the car and I ask him the fare…on the meter it says 29000Y. He keeps repeating, “chigau, chigau, no fare.” I finally understand that he means not to charge us because it was his fault that we missed the bus. I insist on giving him 10000Y which he reluctantly accepts and bows until I enter the terminal building. I looked back and he was still bowing.

After the bladders were taken care of, we look for Cathay. And notice that it’s in…Terminal 2. Yusuke sent us to Terminal 1 because our original flight home was on ANA which is in Terminal 1. Sigh. Two floors down to the bus stop; load up the bus with our five suitcases, one carry-on bag and two purses; ride to Terminal 2; disembark with our five suitcases, one carry-on and two purses; wait 15 minutes for an elevator to the departures level–they’re always full because people are loading up on the floor below so we can never get on. We finally break protocol (serious thing in Japan) and get on an elevator going down and don’t get off just to we can ride back up again. Otherwise we’d still be there waiting. Finally arrive at Cathay which is glowing like a beacon in the distance. I love Cathay. The opened up a desk to serve us, printed our boarding passes, checked in four huge overweight bags for free, all with great professionalism, kindness and speed.

A quick visit to the cell phone return counter, a snack and a pit stop to buy Hello Kitty pens and we’re on our way.

Longest flight ever. The food was great (for airline food), great service, personal TV screens, free blankets, pillows and headphones. And my very favourite thing…they have a camera on the bottom of the plane so you could watch the take-off and landing. I’d definitely fly Cathay again…but it was a bit frustrating to fly BACK to Hong Kong, then to Vancouver over Japan. Our direct flight was a little over 9 hours…this was over 21 hours. I was ready to jump off the plane about 3 hours into the second flight….

It’s a barbieworld!

Barbie

It’s technically our last day…though the blog will carry on for a while as I’ve got a few more topics that I haven’t covered yet. In term so of modelling, it’s an odd market this year for a variety of reasons but mainly because there are more girls in town than usual. Karis has more work in Vancouver so we’re heading back to the west coast tomorrow…but hopefully back to Tokyo in the next year or so.

Anyway, back to Barbie. It was sort of apropos that we ended up at the Barbie 55th Anniversary Retrospective as I picked up a flyer advertising it from Seibu (department store in Shibuya) on my very first day in Tokyo…and I remember thinking that it would be a very cool thing to see. As I’ve mentioned before, most department stores here have a gallery and exhibition space and they tend to have some unique exhibits…sort of like 55 years of Barbie 😉 As usual, very well done and beautifully presented. A very complete collection of Barbies in the most amazing outfits, including some collector’s items and a unique Barbie designed by a contest winner. Lots of high fashion Barbie including Burberry, Juicy Couture, Bob Mackie, Christian Lacroix, Dior, Givenchy just to name a few…that I could actually read…the only drawback is that department store exhibits are rarely translated so it’s a bit slow trying to figure it all out but at least I can read the dates and take photos of Karis with the life size Barbie in the display.

Renoir, Monet and the Tire King.

Hottest day ever...almost too hot to pose and definitely too hot to cross the street and get a closer picture of that large metal giraffe.

Hottest day ever…almost too hot to pose and definitely too hot to cross the street and get a closer picture of that large metal giraffe.

In Japan oftentimes large corporations have significant art collections–one of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers is owned by a Japanese insurance company and the Bridgestone Museum, which houses a lovely collection of French and European 19th and 20th century art, is owned by the tire company. The museum was founded in 1952 by Ishibashi Shojiro to house his private collection which he later donated to the Ishibashi Foundation which has expanded the collection regularly.

I love this museum because it’s small, it has a carefully curated collection with paintings from most major impressionist artists, a small sculpture gallery as well as a very respectable collection of realism, post-Impressionism, modernism and even some abstract art. The best thing was that the museum also houses a collection of Japanese art-works of the time that were painted in the western style. Fascinating. I’d never seen or heard of any of these artists so I learned a lot and saw some paintings I’d never seen or heard of before today.

It was ridiculously hot today though, hard to even walk a couple of blocks from the metro stop. Happy we did walk as there was a very cool stationery store staffed by the tiniest and cutest elderly Japanese lady ever—she wrapped Karis’s stuff separately so she could have her very own package ;-). We also saw a random museum and cafe celebrating the history of Pilot Pens. Did you know they have the first and only retractable fountain pen? Didn’t buy one, mostly because they weren’t for sale. Talk about a missed marketing opportunity….

 

 

 

No secret squirrel stuff here…

Antelope crossing

I have no idea if this was always the case or if it’s a new thing in Japan, but I have to say that I love the information sharing on the train (in ENGLISH) even though it makes no difference to me except to satisfy my inner Gladys Kravitz. I was on the JR train today, the Yamanote Line, heading to Akihabara–the electronics mecca of Japan–when in-between the helpful station notifications and route maps, I noticed the following sign: Train delay on the Tagata Shinkansen (bullet train) due to an antelope collision. There was also another notification for a delay on the Keikyu Line due to a passenger injury. Now knowing about a delay is indeed helpful, knowing why gives you an odd satisfaction or perhaps a little more patience.

When I was in Tokyo before there was no information in English beyond the name of the station. They now have announcements in English, ticket machines in English, as well as route maps, fare calculators and a handy chart that tells you how long it will take to get to your station, all in English. It’s actually quite easy to get around. Also if you are at all confused, if you simply stand there looking confused, a helpful Japanese person will ask if you need help…usually in less than a minute.

I wonder what the impetus was for the information sharing… Was there a study done that found people were more patient if they knew the reason for the delay? Was it something that came up in a corporate brain-storming session? Or indeed is it something altogether more sinister as my conspiracy theorist friend would say–should we be thinking about what they’re NOT telling us? Japan can be quite a paternalistic society in many ways and at times citizens are protected from the truth. Apparently, this happened during the nuclear accident at Fukushima; there was a bit of a news blackout.

The notification on the train got me thinking…the suicide rate in Japan is quite high and many people jump in front of trains, usually on specific routes chosen because your chances at a successful death are higher if you find an express train that goes through an underground station (poor visibility) at top speed. When I lived here in 1990, I lived on one of the “suicide lines” which I would never have known had I not mentioned the number of delays I experienced trying to get home to one of my students who filled me in on the darker side of life in Tokyo. Now I’m wondering if the antelope was really an antelope….

Toire-wa doko ni ari masu-ka?

Amazing toilets

Literal translation is “Where does a toilet exist?” Luckily, in Tokyo, almost everywhere. If you are in need of the facilities, there are decent toilets to be found in many places such as department stores, coffee shops and train stations. The ones in department stores are usually quite lovely, many equipped with a handy baby/toddler chair (also good for umbrellas), baby change table and a fold down platform that provides you with a clean area upon which to stand should you need to change your clothes.

Japanese toilets are probably the best in the world sadly they don’t export the most majestic models but you can find lovely TOTO models in Canada. Even the base models, found in public places like train and bus stations, have automatic flush or an electronic flush activated by movement. Many also have heated seats, a built-in bidet (with controls for temperature, pressure and angle of water), a dryer and a recording to mask any embarrassing sounds you might make. There is also a toilet seat cleaner that automatically dispenses a spray of antiseptic for you to wipe the toilet seat; however, many higher-end toilets clean themselves after each use.

Most restrooms also offer at least one squat style toilet for those traditionalists who say it’s more hygienic as your body isn’t touching anything. Personally, I find it odd to see a squat toilet in a fancy washroom surrounded by marble and mahogany but hey, it’s great to have choices in life. If you’re feeling a little tired and in need of a rest, many restrooms in stores and museums offer sitting areas with comfy couches and make-up areas. Surprisingly there are no refreshments served.

The only thing missing in most train station restrooms is a hand dryer…which is usually a great opportunity to put all those packages of free Kleenex to use.

Curly hair genius in Tokyo

Hair genius Nepenji

Who would have thought that I would find the best hairdresser ever in Tokyo. Not me. Last time I was here I had a hard time even finding someone who would cut my hair…curly + gaijin is a little too much for most Japanese stylists. One of my students finally recommended a friend of hers who had worked in NY and was willing to take me on. She did a decent job but no better or worse than any other haircut I’d had in Vancouver, which for a foreigner in Japan with curly hair was a huge win!

Now in the age of the internet and blogs you can literally google pretty much anything and get at least some helpful information. Anyway, this particular salon, Nepenji, was highly recommended and also had several blog posts with impressive photos. Kiyoko trained in London at Vidal Sassoon and at the Devacurl Academy in NY which specializes in curly hair. I immediately booked myself in as my hair is a disaster—frizzy, gray and dry as well as in need of a cut (I did it myself in May with the nail scissors).

I have to say it was worth every penny and was actually much cheaper than Vancouver, about $220 (no tipping) for a two-stage cut, Kerastase treatment, colour and head and neck massage. Kiyoko wanted to cut my hair dry but it was too frizzy and had been in a bun/ponytail so it wasn’t possible to see the curl pattern. She cut a bit, then did the colour, treatment and then dried it by hand with a diffuser as well as an overhead spinning dryer and then cut it again, one curl at a time.

I did know you are supposed to cut curly hair dry but it has never actually happened to me. I was given so much information on how to care for my hair that that alone would have been worth the $200. Anyway, in a nutshell, minimal shampooing with sulfate-free shampoo; conditioner (lots but make sure it is free of alcohol and silicone); don’t rinse out the conditioner; use your cupped hands to rinse a little bit; turn your head upside down and gently squeeze the water out using paper towels, old t-shirts or a microfibre towel, scrunching the curls as you do this. Whilst still upside down, use alcohol-free gel and smooth over the hair, again with the scrunching motion. Carefully turn right-side up and separate and arrange the curls. You can use pins to give it a bit of lift and to help the curls to dry. Apparently the key to managing curly hair and the frizzies is moisture which seems counter-intuitive but this woman is a guru and whatever I’ve been doing isn’t working so I might as well give this a go. She said it will take about three months for my hair to repair and rebalance if I follow her instructions. Fingers crossed that I may have found hair nirvana in my 40s. The most exciting thing of all is that she is opening a salon in San Francisco this fall which is a lot closer than Japan!

Balletworld.

Ballet

Karis had a slow day on Thursday so we evaluated our options…particularly our indoor options. We’ve been wanting to check out a special exhibit by Studio Ghibli (Spirited Away) for their new film When Marnie Was There but sadly, it’s an outdoor museum and it was fricking hot so Karis decided to try out a ballet class instead. Air conditioned. Indoors. I had emailed around earlier to see what was available on a drop-in basis and in English and found a great studio just a few subway stops away (AND past Gotanda where I used to live 23 scant years ago…it actually looked a little bit familiar unlike my trip to Ginza 😉

Architanz is a studio that offers ballet, contemporary and Pilates mainly to dancers age 13+ with guest teachers from all over the world. The students run the gamut from very talented teenagers to company members to those who try hard but suck, ranging in age from 13-50ish. Karis was the only foreigner in the class and the tallest. Minh Pham taught the class–intermediate level for dancers with 5 years + experience. Karis hasn’t done ballet for about six months due to a back injury so I figured it would be plenty hard enough. Class moved pretty quickly and she did well, especially considering she hasn’t taken class for so long.

I hung out in the smoke-filled lounge. Yup, it seems that all the dancers smoke and drink coffee. Also spent a considerable amount of time looking at the Yumiko leos at the boutique in the lobby. Any dancer or parent of a dancer is fully aware of the caché of these custom made leotards. A good portion of the dancers in the class were sporting the Yumiko brand much like dancers at the National Ballet School wear Ainsliewear (Ainslie Cyopik is a graduate of NBS). Speaking of NBS…the most amazing coincidence of all. Karis comes out of class and heads over to a Japanese girl waiting for the next class. The hug like old friends and chat for a moment. I’m completely puzzled as Karis, as far as I know, does not know any Japanese girls. The models at her agency that she interacts with are all international (no Japanese girls) so I had no idea how she knew this girl. It turns out that she attended summer school with her at NBS in Toronto last year. It’s not like they’ve kept in touch as she doesn’t speak English and Karis had no idea she danced there. So of all the days she chose to go to class, at that particular studio to that particular class and she sees someone she knows in a city with the same population as Canada…it truly is a small world.

Drugstore adventures, round 4.

Drugstore loot...cream and lotion, sunscreen, laundry freshener, oil blotting paper, and tomato fat-burning gel

Drugstore loot…cream and lotion, sunscreen, laundry freshener, oil blotting paper, and tomato fat-burning gel

We stumbled upon Don Quixote, or ‘donki’ as it’s called here. It’s not technically a drugstore, it’s a massive discount store that sells everything from cosmetics to electronics to garden supplies to sex toys and maid costumes. Of course we went for the cosmetics and beauty products. Karis and I share a deep fascination for Japanese cosmetic stores and the goodies within. This is quite remarkable as Karis has no stamina as a shopper. My mum and I have failed dreadfully in training her up. I remember one incident in particular in Seattle on a ladies shopping trip where we mistakenly thought it would be fun to bring the girls. Not. They have no stamina. Literally. Ninety minutes in Nordstrom’s Rack and they were rolling around on the floor in-between the racks begging to go home. They were twelve and we were buying stuff for them. This is still the case even though she is a teenager working in the fashion industry…except for the cosmetic and beauty product stores. (And she doesn’t roll around on the floor now.)

These stores are filled with amazing things. It’s mysterious, like a treasure hunt, mostly because we rarely know what products do unless there is a helpful tag line in English which is rare (and often misleading). I’ve heard stories of foot peels gone awry leaving the bottom of your feet raw; moisturizer that is actually face bleach and mascara that is so waterproof that it needs the cosmetic equivalent of paint thinner to remove it. However, that does not scare us as the potential rewards are fabulous. They have amazing face masks, pre-soaked with solution (aloe, mushrooms, lavender, bee pollen, snake venom); rose-flavoured toothpaste; body gel that has some tomato product in it that burns fat; and probably the best sunscreen on the market by Anessa which is Shiseido’s drugstore brand. They’re also not afraid of using facial and hair oils–cosmetic giant Shu Umera makes a legendary facial cleansing oil that has been on the market in Japan since 1967.

The Japanese spend more on cosmetics than any country in the world which has resulted in a lot of money spent on research and development, particularly for sun protection. They have a number of organic and natural cosmetic lines as well and the drugstore brands are far superior to ours…just wish we could read the labels!

Job opportunity for crazy cat ladies in Tokyo.

cats four cats threeWe went to a cat cafe…probably one of the weirdest things I’ve ever done and wasn’t at all what I expected, though I should have thought a little harder about this one in that most cats don’t really like people that much (Cats look down on you, dogs look up to you and pigs treat you as equals). Nevertheless, it was a cultural experience, albeit a strange one, and worth every penny of the twenty-odd dollars it cost.

First we had to find the cat cafe in a random office building in Shibuya. We headed up the stairs and to stand in the sweltering heat with an American woman and her two kids who warns us that she’s been told to wait outside until they’re ready and that the woman in charge is VERY serious. Karis and I patiently wait and thank our lucky stars that we arrived when we did as two groups come up behind us and we realize we could have been waiting a whole lot longer in the shaded but sauna-like stairwell. When it’s finally our turn, we head inside and remove our shoes…I mean this place has the feeling you get in a serious-ass temple. It’s a CAT CAFE. We are wordlessly handed two laminated sheets of instructions in English–which I would have photographed if I could have gotten away with it but I was actually scared of the cat woman and there was a HUGE sign saying no photos in the entryway. Anyway, you are pretty much forbidden to do much of anything with the cats; if you get scratched they have first aid but they can still kick you out;  if you cause any sort of disturbance they have the right to call the police as well as remove you from the premises. They also have the right to refuse you entry if you smell like another cat or of anything that may upset or agitate the cats. I’m not kidding. They take the cat thing VERY seriously, the American woman was indeed correct. You pay by the half-hour and your fee includes an obligatory drink, a small cookie and a chocolate.

When the cat lady was satisfied that we were sufficiently well-versed in the cat cafe rules we were ushered into the inner sanctum. We had to put on special cat cafe slippers and wash our hands with soap and water and then use special hand sanitizer. She watched us to make sure we didn’t cheat. We put our belongings in a special bag (no personal items allowed except a camera but no flash). We were given a time-stamped receipt noting precisely when our time was up tucked inside a lanyard…that we did not actually wear–I was waiting to see if we’d be forced to put it on (nope). We sat at our couch as directed and the assistant cat lady (who I believe was her daughter) served us our very sweet iced chai with lids. We took the lids off and inadvertently used one of them as a coaster and were reprimanded severely while the head cat lady firmly replaced the lid on top of the cup. I guess it keeps the cats out of the drinks which does make sense, though it was one of the only things that did in the entire experience.

So the cats basically hate people. They are asleep like they’re drugged but of course, I realized while we were there that cats do actually sleep quite a lot and really don’t like being fussed over. There were also several cats with white and pink collars on who were not to be touched as they had ‘sore necks’. So between the cats with the collars and the cats that hated people and the cats that were asleep in ‘tall things’ that were not allowed to be disturbed there wasn’t a whole hell of a lot to do. It was actually hilarious though…it’s the perfect job for a crazy cat lady. I cannot believe that people pay to do this. The place has a lovely view of the leafy streets of Shibuya but the oppressive presence of the crazy cat mother and daughter duo and the cat-themed clutter makes for a very long 30 minutes. We were hustled out 3 minutes early but Karis was ready to go. They had little cat-shaped comment stickies you could fill out and stick on the cat appreciation wall in the lobby…my daughter the shit-disturber wrote ‘The cats hate everyone’ on hers. Pretty much true…but one of the funniest and weirdest things I’ve ever done. Also, hands down, the grumpiest Japanese people I’ve ever met. Ever.

cats two cats one

Now for the funny part. In the same building is a pet store with puppies and kittens. So we go in and check them out because they’re cute and they’re actually awake. Karis asks the guy if she can hold one and, sure enough, wash your hands and it’s a done deal. So we played with puppies and kittens who were awake and liked us and it was free. Now she wants me to import the puppy back to Canada…

Don't touch the freaking cats

Don’t touch the freaking cats

Touch the puppies. Pick them up. It's free...

Touch the puppies. Pick them up. It’s free…