Wednesday, November 14, 2012


There are countless things you are going to get wrong. And if that bothers you, Japan might not be the place for you.  In addition to the procedure associated with shoeing and deshoeing (to borrow from aviation parlance) and the question of where to rest your chopsticks in between bites (not in the rice), there are many customs and protocols, so there is a 110 percent chance that you will run afoul of something, somewhere, and, more than likely, you won’t even know it.  So you get somewhat accustom to not knowing the custom, and to sticking out a bit.  But even with my expectations properly set, there are some things one assumes they will be able to  accomplish without calling undue attention to oneself, and amongst that list of items would be the ability to locate the appropriate bathroom.  

However, as the photo below attests, that did not prove the case. Perhaps I was told in Japanese that the bathroom on my floor was a women's bathroom and didn't understand (wakarimasen) or was told in English and forgot, or wasn't told and there is a sign I can’t read. Regardless,the result is the same. I spent the first three weeks at NIDS using the "women's" bathroom. Not until a sticky-note appeared in the stairwell outside my office indicating that the men’s lavatory was on the second floor, was I clued into the fact I had been using the women’s bathroom these several weeks. 

But before I denounce myself too harshly, a picture of an exact replicate of the “women’s” bathroom (i.e. the Men's Bathroom on the 2nd floor) does absolve me of some guilt.  The bathroom comes complete with two stand-up urinals, one western style toilet, and is free of both paper towel dispensers or hand dryers (a very common trait in most public restrooms in Japan).  

Now if it ended there, the embarrassment would be slight.  But immediately upon learning of the 3rd Floor bathroom’s status as a “women’s bathroom”,  I decided to make a call on the 2nd Floor lavatory. And on that visit and about every 5th visit since the door has closed behind me with a very loud, half-wooden, half-metallic bang.  This is on account of the door’s malfunctioning spring system that doesn’t kick in until the last six inches before door impacts with the door frame, shattering the complete silence of the second floor and interrupting pivotal research on vital international security issues. And every time I hear the door slam shut behind me I wonder if the Japanese have a saying similar to the US saying that “you can’t fix stupid,” but instead for them it’s “you can’t fix gaijin.” 

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Akachan Honpo Tour

I joined a few women this week for a "decipher the labels tour" at one of the baby super stores in Tokyo. Akachan Honpo is one of the main stores, though Babies R Us is also here. And, of course, Amazon is available online and very popular.

Tokyo Urban Baby Tour.
It appears I'm being swallowed by my scarf
This blog post has a few more pics from our outing.

I've been a few times to Akachan Honpo, so this was just an excuse to get together with some other women. Generally speaking, it is evident that diapers are diapers, baby tubs are baby tubs, etc.. Brands are different, but you can also buy Pampers and Johnson and Johnson products. But there are lots of other things that you don't quite know their purpose or that you need them.

For example, I didn't know that I might need a roll of diaper-bag-friendly dirty diaper trash bags (a la dog poo bags). Japan has amazingly strict guidelines on trash disposal and some places request that you take your dirty diapers with you. Who knew?

I also didn't know that newborn sizes in Japan are often a touch smaller than the American newborn sizes. Since sizes are in metric here, I haven't compared items yet, but it seems plausible. Good information to have before I go and stock up on newborn diapers and onesies that our kiddo might never even wear. 

And what about this?  

It's called a "haramaki" and it keeps your stomach warm. Many people believe that you shouldn't allow your stomach, and therefore, your baby to get cold. No, really. I had a woman offer me a blanket at a fireworks display this summer despite temperatures above 100 degrees. Just in case. 

I don't plan to wear Mickey knit pants anytime soon, but there are some other cleverly designed items. If you have a c-section, there are special undergarments that open via snaps/velcro at the bottom so that you don't have to pull them up and down. Some women also use these in the early phases of labor when the doctor is checking dilation, etc..

And many baby clothes are kimono style where the top wraps over and then you tie it. Other than my uselessness with ties, that seems very baby-dressing friendly. 

Finally, one of the most interesting things is how few car seats Akachan Honpo sells compared with the endless variety of strollers and baby carriers. Of course, fewer people have cars, so car seats are less important, though still required if you do drive. But you definitely want to make sure your stroller can make it through the ticket gate and can stand up to city life. 

Friday, November 9, 2012

Jennifer's Tokyo Bucket List

This is definitely not an exhaustive list, just an "I gotta get started" list. I'm sure there will be many updates!

Visit a sumo stable and watch an early morning sumo practice.

Go to a sumo match.

Lunch at Tofuya-Ukai to enjoy the gardens and the beautiful, and hopefully delicious, tofu course menu. 

Have the truffle soup at Maison Paul Bocuse (or at one of his other Tokyo restaurants). Oh, who I am fooling? Have a whole meal.

Go fishing for dinner at Zauo. You sit at boat shaped tables and try to catch your own fish for dinner.

Visit the ramen museum, where you can try mini-portions of different styles of ramen.

Visit the Ghibli Museum, a museum devoted to Japanese animation. Not really an anime fan, but this museum is supposed to be excellent.

Visit the Tokyo Edo Museum. Since 1999, I've been trying to go to this museum dedicated to Tokyo's history and still haven't made it there.

Visit the always controversial Yasukuni Shrine and adjoining museum with its unusual view of World War II history.

Visit Suitengu Shrine in hopes of a safe and easy delivery.

Go in search of Japan's Seven Lucky Gods on this walking tour. I came across the biwa-playing goddess this summer and have been a little obsessed ever since with getting a photo of all seven.

Make Jason play the "Toylet" (urinal video games) at and tell me about it.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Woodbury to Tokyo in 16 Hours Flat

Undisclosed Location in Northern Virginia
On August 26th I awoke bleary-eyed at 3 am in the morning in woodsy Woodbury, Vermont.   After a month and half of shuttling between friends places (thanks very much Jenny & Nick, Elizabeth, Kent and Julia), between Vermont and DC, between our storage locker and my lodgings, and between social calls and work, I was now headed to Tokyo.   As I mentioned to some friends back in DC, though I was looking forward to getting to Tokyo and seeing Japan again, this time in depth and up close, perhaps what I was looking forward to most, other than seeing Jennifer, of course, was life slowing down just a tad....for the last 6 weeks had been the most mentally and physically exhausting time that I could readily recall.  Thus under the cover of darkness, my parents and brother took me and my overweight baggage 57 miles to the Burlington Airport and with one final drama—a excruciatingly slow check-in that almost jeopardized my participation in United Flight 3679 to Chicago—I was off to Tokyo, Jennifer, and a little bit of rest. 

Thankfully They Spelled My Name For Me!!!
Or so I thought.  For Tokyo is too tempting to stay still for long.  And we are having a baby in January.   And I need to learn Japanese.  And I am a Council on Foreign Relations-Hitachi Fellow.  And we are going to be parents.   

Thus after much delay and a minute to catch my breath,
I wanted to welcome you to the blog.   The first few months have been a blur of baby related appointments and activities, with a few late nights friends, some great trips, and countless delicious meals.   So we’ll try to keep the posts coming every few days, so please check back often. Ja mata.   

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Reflections on being pregnant in Japan

We spent the weekend in baby classes. Actually, it seems we’ve spent the last few months in baby classes. Everything about a first baby involves a lot of learning, and double that with living in a foreign country. Triple it in a foreign language.

Fortunately, we found lots of great resources before we even arrived in Japan. I found the TokyoPregnancy Group, the Tokyo Mothers Group, several helpful blogs, and good English language resources for medical care, insurance questions, and baby classes. Since arriving, we’ve met many expats having their first child in Tokyo. I’ve also gotten together with two other women from my Japan studies training who are also having babies around the same time. Something was definitely in the water last spring at the Foreign Service Institute in Washington DC!

While there are challenges/frustrations about having a baby in a foreign country, I am largely enjoying being pregnant here. I would have enjoyed having a baby shower with friends and family, and even more to have them near after the baby arrives. But I’m happy to be far removed from the pregnancy scolds and scaremongers. You know - the people in grocery lines and other random places who want to lecture you about the things they feel you are doing wrong. Or want to tell you about their 3-day labors and other assorted horrors. Maybe it happens less than I imagine, but I am really free of it in Japan.

If someone wants to tell me something I don’t want to hear, I can plead incomprehension. It’s true there are cultural norms surrounding pregnancy in Japan that I find odd (more in future posts), but they are not my cultural norms. To the degree that I do things that shock people, they probably just assume “Oh, foreigners.”

So I feel like I’ve had a very relaxed pregnancy to date and hope it continues that way. I’ve had time to get used to the idea of having a baby without fielding probing questions; I’ve found just the right amount of resources to feel informed and supported, without feeling overwhelmed by conflicting information. I’ve found it beneficial to think about pregnancy and childbirth from a different cultural perspective, and I am certain it has influenced some of the choices we are making. I’ll share more on that after the baby comes. And I’ve enjoyed meeting other couples who are going through a similar experience. Turns out that having a baby in a foreign country is a great way to meet new people.