Friday, December 28, 2012

A Magic, Peaceful, Love Christmas

Roughly 2% of the Japanese population is Christian, but they certainly know it’s Christmastime. Featuring themes like “Peaceful Chrismas,” “Magic Christmas,” and “Love Christmas," decorations and holiday music were in stores by early November.

But Christmas is not a public holiday, nor is it a family holiday, and you don’t usually give or receive gifts. New Year’s is the holiday for family and gift giving (usually cash) and Christmas Eve or Christmas is for date night, or if at home, a dinner of roast or fried chicken, and Christmas cake. A lot of people are surprised when I tell them I’ve never had chicken or Christmas cake for Christmas dinner, since they assume these particular traditions must have come from America or elsewhere. I think the fried chicken came from KFC trying to boost sales in the Japanese market.

So exactly how have we celebrated Christmas this winter? Yes, even I found myself in a celebratory spirit this winter, perhaps to the surprise of friends and family familiar with my usual Christmas funk. Good timing with a baby on the way since disliking Christmas probably isn’t allowed for the next 18 or so years. 

Volunteered at a Children’s Home 
The last few years, Jason and I have focused on trying to bring more Christmas spirit into the day by volunteering. So I signed up when I received an email from the Tokyo Mothers Group about their annual Christmas sponsorship of a Tokyo orphanage. I was concerned that a children’s home, Christmas, and pregnancy emotions could be a volatile combination, but I underestimated just how joyful young children are. Without romanticizing their circumstances, they were as playful and fun and happy to have someone spending time with them as any child is.

The girl in the picture facing my stomach, kept yelling “Okitte” or “wake up” to the baby because she wanted to feel it move. We enjoyed a very American feast of Domino’s pizza and Kentucky Fried Chicken and passed out gifts to each of the different age groups.

"Baby, wake up in there!"
Volunteered at an elementary school party 
One of Jason’s colleagues volunteers for an English/Chinese enrichment class every month at a local elementary school. She invited us to attend/assist with their Christmas activities. Jason downloaded carols, printed off lyrics, and bought some Christmas treats for the kids. In addition to practicing English with the kids, we also butchered some Chinese words. Japanese is hard, but at least the pronunciation is relatively simple.

Christmas Tea 
Tokyo has many luxury hotels and nearly all of them feature high tea. After going to the Ritz-Carlton high tea with friends in October, we made plans to try a Christmas themed high tea. The very luxurious Peninsula Hotel was not the same as the 37th floor of the Ritz-Carlton, but it was still delicious and festive. This is a tradition that I’m really looking forward to enjoying with our little girl. And only about  another dozen or two high teas to enjoy in Tokyo...

Christmas Cake 
We did not pre-order a Christmas cake, as many people do, but we did pick up two slices for Christmas Eve dinner. The traditional Christmas Cake is the vanilla/strawberry confection in the picture.

Incidentally, unmarried women over the age of 25 used to be referred to as “Christmas Cake”, because who wants Christmas cake on the 26th or later? I think this has fallen out of fashion as the age at which young people marry has increased, but people still understand the reference.

Mmm, Christmas Cake...

Even our small apartment was imbued with some Christmas cheer. We inherited an artificial tree set with lights and decorations from a previous Mansfield Fellow.  Jason found an “Engrish” banner at the hyaku-en store (Japanse dollar store) and his parents also sent some Christmas decorations. I liked our fake, Charlie Brown-esque Christmas tree. I also liked that it took all of about 5 minutes to put it up and will be equally easy to take down.

Buying gifts for the baby 
We exchanged gifts, but more fun was buying “surprise” gifts for the baby for each other to open. I got her some board books for Daddy's reading pleasure. One features polar bears and the other features brown bears. Jason got her a very cozy winter set so we can bring her home from the hospital.

Christmas Dinner 
We took Christmas day off, while most people had returned to work following the December 24th public holiday recognizing the Emperor’s birthday. After breakfast and gifts, we went to Kichijoji, one of our favorite neighborhoods on the western edge of Tokyo. 

It features a beautiful park, lots of interesting shops, great restaurants, and a more relaxed atmosphere than other Tokyo neighborhoods. We went back to a Swedish restaurant we discovered on our last visit and enjoyed their special 7-course Christmas menu. Sorry kids, we even ate Rudolph. Since we don’t have too many fancy dinners left in our near future, it was fun to enjoy one of our favorite Tokyo restaurants in our final BC (Before Child) weeks.

So from Tokyo to you: we hope you also had a magic, peaceful, love Christmas with or without fried chicken, reindeer or Christmas Cake.  And “Yoi o-toshi o shite kudasai” (Happy New Year).

One last piece of Christmas Cake, consumed on the 26th...

Friday, December 21, 2012

Fiscal Fairy Tales

Every year, Mansfield Fellows give various seminars related to their areas of interest at the Graduate Research Institute of Policy Studies (GRIPS) in Tokyo. With an impending maternity leave, I was first up and decided to cover the fiscal cliff. Although I discussed it in excruciating and likely boring detail, I also wanted to emphasize that despite the laser-vision focus on this particular topic, it is probably only the first in a series of death cage budget battles next year, with at least one chance for government default (debt ceiling increase) and at least two chances at government shutdowns (FY13 and FY14 appropriations) in 2013. For those who remained awake, I do not think they were very cheered by my analysis.

I was definitely nervous about it beforehand, cursing myself for picking a topic that it seems half of the world is covering. But I spent a lot of time preparing and it went well. To add to my mental stress, I was concerned about my ability to avoid a bathroom break for that long, but as it turns out, the baby was very cooperative. Only my jaw came out worse for wear after 100 minutes of talking. I wonder if she was enjoying her fiscal fairy tale?

The flags are a nice touch.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

O Christmas Tree

This tree is a relative deal at only 17,750 yen, which now costs $213.00 under Abe's weak yen policy.

Friday, December 14, 2012

World of Beauty

In an undisclosed office, deep in the bowels of Japanese bureaucracy is a complimentary calendar from Japan Airlines featuring photos of a “World of Beauty.”

Scenic landscapes? World wonders? City skylines that inspire you to buy your next ticket to Beijing or Bangkok? Nope, nope, and nope. For more than 40years, the World of Beauty calendar series has featured twelve lovely women from around the world in relatively generic-looking locales that might be vaguely identified with the women’s home countries. In other words, fly with us and we’ll introduce you to pretty girls around the world.

One of my young colleagues provided the most entertaining moment of the week when he unveiled the calendar. Within moments, the almost entirely male staff had gathered around like 13-year old boys with a stolen copy of an older brother’s girly magazine - picking, comparing, and arguing over their favorites. This went on for the larger portion of the afternoon, as others came in to look at the calendar. My young colleague was a star that day and he is carefully considering where he will hang it for everyone’s continued enjoyment.

It’s not exactly news that men like young, pretty women. For the record, the pictures are not inappropriate other than the question of hanging it in a government office. The women are attractive, but completely clothed. They are the “girls next door,” assuming you live in Vietnam, Australia, or in one of 3 US cities (go team America!), etc.. It is also curious to me that it is an airline’s complimentary calendar. What do they send to their female customers? I assume they must have at least a few whose patronage would qualify them for a free calendar.

Miss December, from Massachusetts.
The World of Beauty calendar is also available for sale.
But the particularly amusing part of the story goes back to my interview for the fellowship. As a female candidate, I was asked about how I would feel about the gender disparity that persists in Japanese society, particularly in a male-dominated institution like the Ministry of Finance. Specifically, one of the male interviewers related a story about visiting my current office at MoF twenty-some years ago and being surprised at pornographic pictures hanging on the walls, which were explained as “inspiration” in their boring world of numbers. The idea of mid-level bureaucrats needing pornographic inspiration merely makes me go “eww” and want to avoid touching any of the documents they produce. But I did not question my ability to handle such situations, assuming an adequate supply of hand sanitizer. By the way, that was not my response to the question.

Ultimately, we all laughed at the seemingly outdated idea of the smoke filled office, bereft of professional women, but abundant in celluloid versions. And, of course, the smoking is now confined to smoking rooms and the pictures are no longer pornographic, but it is a reminder that change is slow in the Mad Men world of MoF.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Comings and Goings

Between babymoons and business trips, we’ve barely caught our breath in recent weeks. Jason has just left for Okinawa for the week, so I’m catching up on the blog.

We went to Guam over the Thanksgiving weekend for a babymoon. Thursday was the American holiday, Friday was the equivalent of Japanese Labor/Thanksgiving day (Kinryou Kansha no Hi), so we had our last long weekend before I get too far along. We wanted to go to Kyushu for the grand sumo tournament in Fukuoka, but had trouble with bookings. Travelling on holiday weekends is always hard in the US, but Japan seems to be even more challenging. We’ve had a few weekend plans foiled when we simply haven’t been able to book hotel rooms because so many people travel on the three-day weekends. 

So with my doctor’s permission, we set off on a four-hour flight from Tokyo to a small tropical American territory reliant on Japanese tourism and the American military. Of the many places we considered for a babymoon (Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Kyushu, Hokkaido, etc.), Guam never crossed my mind. But it was exactly what we needed. Easy, relaxing, and we stocked up on baby stuff at Macy’s and Kmart. We even managed to get caught in the Black Friday madness that has started on Thanksgiving evening. We decided to walk up to Kmart for some beach things and scope out the baby aisles, and realized we had unwittingly walked into madness. After some scouting, we left the bargain shoppers to their long lines and super bargains and headed back to the hotel.

I usually prepare for our trips by reading lots of restaurant reviews and strategically planning out my top picks. This time, I spent my time looking up “what you need at a bare minimum for a newborn” and strategically planning our luggage requirements. 

About half of our baby purchases, but it all fit.
We still found time to enjoy a nice dinner and a mocktail.

We considered renting a car to see the island a bit. As it turned out, we slept in late every morning, enjoyed the beach in front of our hotel every day, and went shopping in the evenings. And it was perfect. Guam is quite small and there isn't much beyond diving and snorkeling, but white sand beaches and crystal clear water are perfectly sufficient diversions, especially with great weather. On our first day, the forecast for the following week was sunny with a high of 89 and a low of 76. Every day for seven days straight.

This is about all we saw of Guam.

Shortly after our return, I had a 3-night Mansfield trip to Osaka and Kobe. We had meetings with a variety of government officials, toured the Japanese mint, customs, the Great Hanshin Earthquake memorial and disaster preparedness institutes, along with more tourist-oriented sites like Osaka castle.  But the real highlight was the Kobe beef luncheon before we returned to Tokyo. Kobe beef is so tender and buttery that I’ve described it elsewhere as “delicious meat-flavored butter.” And I mean that in the absolute best way possible. I thought I’d had Kobe beef before, but I’m pretty sure I haven’t. There’s no mistaking meat-flavored butter.  

No tricks necessary at this teppanyaki restaurant in Kobe.