Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Osaka Aquarium

Jason wanted to catch a Hanshin Tigers baseball game, so we made a late September trip to Osaka, Japan's third largest city. We didn't do a lot of sightseeing, but managed to make it to the very impressive aquarium. Jason will have to post photos from the game, but here are a few from the aquarium.

Whale Shark Feeding Time:  So "kuiadore" is a Japanese word meaning to bring financial ruin upon oneself by extravagance in food. My phone doesn't take the best pictures, but check out the vacuum action on that mouth. Feeding a whale shark a few times a day might quickly lead to bankruptcy!

Hokkaido King Crabs - Oishisou! (Looks delicious)

 Sea Turtles

If a Fellow is working without supervision, is she really working?

Most of you know that Jason and I are both doing fellowships in Japan, but may wonder what that entails. I'll let Jason tell you about his program. I am participating in the Mansfield Fellowship, which sends federal employees to Japan to work alongside their counterparts in the Japanese government.

CBO does not have a true counterpart in the Japanese government, but I am focusing on economic and budget issues, where we have a lot of unfortunate similarities: high levels of debt, aging populations, insufficient revenues to support the promises made to the aging population, and broken political systems that seem ill-equipped to address the issues. Japan is even facing its own "debt ceiling" crisis if the Diet fails to act before late November. It's as if I never left DC, except that it's all in Japanese!

Minister of Finance Jojima delivering the toast at the Prime Minister's (third from left) IMF/World Bank reception
Since I'm clearly not here to give advice on how to fix their problems, what am I doing?

I am currently assigned to the Ministry of Finance (MoF), historically the most powerful of Japanese agencies, but that is slowly changing. I help prepare English-language speeches and other documents, attend relevant meetings (including the recent annual IMF/World Bank meetings), and do research on various requested topics. Imagine if someone with limited language skills was placed in your office and you had to find work for them to do! I'm quickly learning that I have be to self-motivated and willing to make my own work when necessary.

After MoF, I am scheduled to spend time at the Diet, but that will be shortened by my maternity leave. Then I will spend time at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA), working with the office that manages the US-Japan bilateral relationship, before moving to the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), which manages Japanese foreign assistance. I'll finish the year with a non-government assignment at Keidanren, which I've heard described as the Chamber of Commerce on steroids.

Even before the baby, it promised to be a very full year. Now, it will be interesting to see if I remain self-motivated and engaged after the baby arrives!

Monday, October 29, 2012

There's a baby in my belly...now give me a seat!

Japanese trains are notoriously crowded. Yes, there really are gloved station attendants at the most crowded stations to help push people onto the trains. I gather the gloves make it all seem a little more civilized.

So what's a pregnant woman commuting to work to do? The "maternity mark" program was launched a few years ago to make it easier for pregnant women to find a seat.

The maternity mark says "There's a baby in my belly."

With this little tag, people will hopefully recognize that you need their seat more than they do and kindly offer it to you. No guessing "is she pregnant or not," no putting pregnant women on the spot to ask for a seat. Between this and the special section of about 6 seats per car labelled priority for the elderly, the disabled, those with small children, and the pregnant, this shouldn't be a problem, right?

Sign indicating the priority seats on the train.

The sad truth is that it is still hard to get a priority seat even with the bag tag and a growing belly. Don't even get me started on the number of elderly people I see patiently standing while the young and self-absorbed text their friends. While Japanese people are famously polite, I'm often amazed by the lengths some people will go to avoid seeing me.

I get the surreptitious glances, never quite meeting my eyes, before returning to their smart phones. I get the "Oh, I just fell into a deep sleep when I saw a pregnant woman board the train." I even get the "I assume you don't speak Japanese, so I'm going to tell my wife to stop pestering me about giving you the priority seat." The last example is particularly amusing to me. Why would any man ever offer me his seat, when I've seen many boyfriends/husbands comfortably plop down while their significant other stands? In one case, the comfortably-seated husband kindly took his wife's heavy package so that she could better hold on while standing. Who says chivalry is dead?

On the other hand, older women are very quick to offer me their priority seats. I've turned down the gracious offers of several 70-something women, while 30 year old men sit alongside, pretending not to notice.

However, I've started going "gaijin"on the situation now that I find it more uncomfortable to excessively stand. I pointedly show my tag and say in Japanese, "Excuse me, is this the priority seating area?" This may seem quite innocuous, even polite, to most Americans, but I'm sure it seems too direct and nearly barbaric to those who have been pointedly ignoring me. Frankly, I'm starting to enjoy these small moments of victory.

To be sure, I make adjustments like going to work just after the peak time, going to the far end of the platform where the cars are less crowded, and always boarding near the priority seats. I never ask for a non-priority seat and I usually wait through at least one stop, tag clearly displayed, allowing my fellow passengers the opportunity to offer their seat in the priority section. Unfortunately, it never ceases to amaze me how often I have to speak up and say, "Hey, there's a baby in my belly, so give me that priority seat!"

PS: One of my favorite Tokyo baby blogs recently posted an amusing video with 10 tips for getting a seat.

Japanese "Mansion" Life

We finally did a little video tour of our "mansion" for Jason's parents last night. In Japan, apartments are often called mansions. I believe it has a specific real estate meaning, but it most simply refers to an apartment and not the American idea of a mansion. We won't bore you with all of the details, but want to highlight a few things we really like about our mansion.

Our apartment is smallish, but well designed. It's about 800 square feet with two bedrooms, one bathroom, and a reasonable kitchen area. The building is quite new and in a very convenient location, only about an 8 minute walk to the train station via a covered walkway.

The downsides: It's not a residential neighborhood and the urban park outside our building is more urban than park. Our space is very well designed to maximize living space, but we don't really have room for a dining table. We have a huge balcony, but because it overlooks at least 9 sets of train tracks, we almost never use it.

The biggest surprise: Despite living next to 9 sets of train tracks, you barely hear the trains with the windows closed. The apartment is very sound-proof!

Things we like:

Well-designed to maximize space

Great closet space with built-in shelves and conveniences like this stove-side spice/essentials rack:

Combination appliances: our washing machine is also our dryer. Not only does this mean we only have one physical appliance, but the amazing thing is that after loading and putting in detergent, you hit one button and several hours later, your clothes are clean and dry. Yes, it takes more time, but putting the clothes in the dryer is one less thing to remember.

Our microwave also doubles as an oven. There is some efficiency lost through these dual appliances, but I'm a big fan of the dual washer/dryer.

The bathroom is actually three separate rooms: a toilet room, sink area, and bath/shower room. This is a fairly standard bathroom design in a Japanese home. While it consumes a lot of living space, it is a more efficient solution to a one-bathroom household.

The genkan and shoe closet. You always, always take off your shoes before entering a Japanese home and leave your shoes in the genkan (the entryway). In fact, I learned this summer that this area, while technically inside,  is considered to be outside and even placing your bare feet in this area is considered unclean. I've always known not to wear my shoes past the genkan, but I did not know that my bare feet should not even touch this part of the floor. To make sure shoes do not pollute the rest of the home, this shoe closet near our front door is fairly common in Japanese apartments and very convenient. There is another small closet next to it for umbrellas and other items.

Energy conservation

Central air and central heat are less common in Japan where electricity is so expensive. How expensive? Our electric bill was nearly $300 in September. To improve conservation, each room has its own heater/cooler unit, so that you only heat or cool the space you are in. Although we have chosen comfort over cost, imagine how high the bill would be if we ran the AC in all of the rooms!

Other great ideas: our bathroom has a drying function. If we don't want to run the dryer on the washing machine, we can hang them up in the tub area, close the door, press a button and warm air will run through the room, drying our clothes more gently and presumably with less energy than the dryer.


We have lots of buttons and presets in our apartment, but I love the programmable bathtub. You pick a temperature, the amount of water, put in the plug and push the button. When it's filled to the preset amount,  an announcement tells you it's ready. Oh, and several of our appliances talk to us. We don't usually know what they are saying.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

A Late Start

We're finally getting a blog together. It may eventually move to a more permanent website, but we're here for now. Well, let's be honest, we almost certainly will not be moving it to the domain name we registered. But at least this is a start.

Jason came up with the name, "Eat the Whole Fish," after literally eating the entire fish on a Gunma hiking trip. After eating the fish, they put the bones back on grill and then ate those too. Since nothing remains of that fish, this picture from a "fish picnic" day cruise in Croatia will have to suffice. 

We'll do our best to keep you up on our Japan adventures. Almost two months ago exactly, Jason joined me in Tokyo. Here's a brief list of what we've been up to:

1) 4 baseball games
Tokyo Giants versus the Hiroshima Carp at the Tokyo Dome

2) 3 weekend trips:  Hakone, Osaka, Gunma 
Enjoying Kusatsu Onsen in the yukata (cotton kimono) from our hotel

3) A lot of ramen restaurants
Jason enjoying one of 7 famous ramen shops near our apartment

4) A lot of baby preparation - we've settled on a doctor, a hospital, and my type A personality has gone into overdrive preparation mode.
It only took 26ish weeks, but I finally look pregnant.

So we've been busy having fun, but also doing "serious" parent-adult stuff. And we'll start telling you all about it!