My First Christmas in Japan

“It seems to me that Christmas is easier in Japan, but I don’t know why.” I said this to my husband, Adam, while walking through a Japanese mall and taking in the Christmas decorations.

“Do you think it’s the secularism of it?” I asked.

“Yes, I think the secularism makes it WAY easier,” he said. Adam is Jewish.

As for my upbringing, my mom was Japanese and my dad was a devoted Atheist. It’s true that a lot of non-Christian families pull off a perfectly secular and beautiful Christmas, but my family never mastered that trick. As far as I could tell, a secular Christmas was about buying stuff and we never had much money, either.

My first husband was Jewish, too, so I never had to go into a Christmas boot camp in adulthood. I always felt a bit lucky that I didn’t have to fulfill the adult obligations of Christmas, like hours of shopping and credit card debt. Adam never felt that way, though. He always felt left out. He wanted to celebrate Christmas, but didn’t know how.

Nowadays, I know Jews who get a Christmas tree every year, but we’re just not in that league. I’m the kind of person who feels better when things are deeply meaningful and I just didn’t know how to infuse meaning into a secular Christmas.

The lack of inclusion didn’t bother me about Christmas in the US, though. I’d opted out of Christmas because I was uncomfortable with the tense undertone between Christians and secularists that always hums under the surface of an American December.

In Philadelphia, I lived in an especially Catholic neighborhood. Every single yard had a nativity scene, so I couldn’t forget that Christmas was a religious holiday around those parts. Well, every yard, except for ours and the one that always had a Menorah in the window.

In Japan, no one is upset about which stores decorated and which stores didn’t. No one cares if the Christ is in Christmas. No one cares about the pagan influences. To Japanese people, it’s all pagan because it’s all foreign.

Getting KFC on Christmas is a tradition in Japan and I think Japanese people assume that Americans do the same thing. I wonder if most Japanese people even realize that Christmas is celebrated as a religious holiday.

Another thing that’s missing in Japan is the giant ball of stress that I used to see hovering over people’s heads during the holiday season in the US. The one that tells them that they must make this Christmas perfect or else they’ve failed as human beings. Greater society in Japan is completely lacking the frenetic energy over who’s getting Christmas right and who isn’t.

Personally, I find the lack of floating stress balls relaxing. Even though Christmas stress technically didn’t belong to me, I felt like people would leave their stress balls hanging in the air, especially in stores. I couldn’t go shopping anytime between Black Friday and Christmas Eve without walking straight into one.

kimg0473What we do have in Japan are seasonal light displays and mall decorations. The “illumination” (lights) are creative and sublime. At any light display, there are children playing and people taking photographs. No one is desperately trying to get the perfect holiday shot while herding anxious children in matching sweaters. We’re just taking pictures of something pretty.

 

There is Christmas music playing in the stores, but some stores play Christmas music all year ’round in the international food section. Apparently, Western food = Christmas music. Not that it matters because the lyrics are in English.

Maybe I find Christmas easier in Japan because in the US I’m a Christmas outsider, but here, I am not. I can take pictures of the illumination next to everyone else. I’ll skip the KFC, but I’m a vegan so I’ll always skip the KFC, and that’s considered perfectly normal here, too.

Maybe it’s that in America, I don’t see the culmination of the December stress as it unfolds on Christmas Day. I only watch the frantic creation of Christmas, but the unfurling of it happens behind closed doors. Maybe that’s why I never found it easy or worthwhile. On an American Christmas day, Adam and I would take our traditional Jewish meal of Chinese food and watch Christmas movies. This year, we totally forgot about it.

How I’m Coping With the Election Results

If you don’t know me personally, you probably don’t know that I am a Hillary supporter. Just kidding. If you’re on this website, then you know that I am a Reiki master and Yoga teacher who lived in Philadelphia for 13 years, which means I’m exactly the sort of person who would be a Hillary supporter. I still am. No one said you have to stop sending love and good vibes to someone just because she’s not running for office anymore.

I would like to talk a little bit about how I’ve been coping with the results of the election. This is not meant to be prescriptive or informative. It’s merely me saying what I’ve been thinking.

I realized that I’ve been living in my own optimistic, inclusive, “things are getting better” bubble. For most of my time in Philadelphia, I was lucky enough to be surrounded by good people almost all of the time.

Yes, I experienced a lot of anger and frustration from Philadelphians, too, but the people that I call my friends from Philadelphia, the people that I really know, are wonderful people. They are more than wonderful. They are the kind of people most people wished that they knew.

I thought the world was becoming a better place. So, to me, the election results felt like a bucket of ice water—that somehow also included fire-balls—mixed with shards of glass, and poison.

This has been so traumatic for me that I am not sure that I have even reached the point of acceptance, yet.

I am also the kind of person who sees anger as cover emotion for fear. We’ve long been a brutal country.  “America” has been a brutal place even before we were officially a country. The fear of our own brutality has us in a deep panic. Whether you’re scared of white people, Christians, non-Christians, brown people, women, LGBTQ people, or merely that someone might take a bite from your slice of pie, there’s plenty of fear to go around.

So, we’re now in a Catch-22. Even if by some miracle we decide to honor the popular choice and put Hillary in the white house, the backlash would be just as bad as what we’re seeing now. There is no solution that would not result in more anger and violence.

Clearly, it was impossible for us to heal the brutality of our own history without this. I believe that if we could have, we would have.  We simply didn’t have enough flowers in the ’60s to convincingly cover up our history.  Instead of moving ahead in solidarity, we tried to drag ourselves ahead while a whole bunch of people clung to our ankles and said, “No!  I am too scared to change!”

After that, the fear went underground.  Since then, we’ve had a big, deeply rooted, infectious boil.  That boil has finally been lanced and we have to let it drain.  Seeing the inevitability of where we are now puts me one step closer to accepting it.  God circled the spot where we’re standing, etc. and all of that.¹

Now we need to heal.

For me, healing has always meant honesty and vulnerability.  Going forward, those things will be my goal.

Right now, I feel like I’m just barely getting back into my body after having been flung far from myself.  I’m moving forward the best I can.

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¹The Place Where You Are Now
by Hafiz

This place where you are right now
God circled on a map for you.

Wherever your eyes and arms and heart can move
Against the earth and the sky,
The Beloved has bowed there –

Our Beloved has bowed there knowing
You were coming.

I could tell you a priceless secret about
Your real worth, dear pilgrim,

But any unkindness to yourself,
Any confusion about others,

Will keep one
From accepting the grace, the love,

The sublime freedom
Divine knowledge always offers to you.

Never mind, Hafiz, about
The great requirements this path demands
Of the wayfarers,

For your soul is too full of wine tonight
To withhold the wondrous Truth from this world.

But because I am so clever and generous,
I have already clearly woven a resplendent lock
Of his tresses

As a remarkable truth and gift
In this poem for you.

~Hafiz

Translation by Daniel Ladinsky, The Subject Tonight Is Love

I copied this from Operation Meaning.

I’m Highly Sensitive

I found out that I’m a Highly Sensitive Person.  This is an actual category of being, like being left-handed.  HSP’s brains work differently and therefore we experience the world differently.

dog-sleepingSo far, I identify more with being HSP than any other personality categorization or temperament scale I’ve seen.  Before, I’d always suspected that I somehow inherited some dog or cat DNA.

HSP senses are more sensitive.  To us, the world is intense and more nuanced.  I smell everything, I hear everything.  Fluorescent lights feel like an assault.  I’m constantly aware of moods, relationships, conversations, and the energy in a room.  I currently work in a chaotic place in an open-floor environment, so you can imagine how much fun that is for me, right now.

I started reading the book The Highly Sensitive Person, and the author theorizes that there’s an evolutionary advantage to HSP’s.  We’re about 20% of the population.  In a hunter-gatherer tribal situation, it would be a huge survival advantage to have members who can detect subtle changes in the environment.

Finding out about this has resulted in some positive and some negative emotions.  Shortly after this discovery, I happened to be browsing youtube and I saw a video entitled something like, “I just found out that I’ve had Lyme Disease for 17 years.”  That’s how I felt—like I just found out that I’ve been sick all along and no one told me.

To be clear, though, being HSP is not a disease or a disorder.  It just feels like one.  The world is not set up for HSPs.  For most of my life, I’ve been acutely aware of the disadvantages of being me.

HSP is an inherited trait that can be detected in infants, so I’ve had plenty of practice coping with it.  Unfortunately, it also means that I’ve had a lot of shame around my coping strategies.  For example, sometimes I go the bathroom just to get away from the stimulation in my environment.  When I get overwhelmed at work, I go sit in an empty conference room and breathe.

Last week (before I knew anything about HSPs), I sat in an empty room drinking a cup of chamomile tea.  I slowly climbed down off the high shelf of anxiety and simultaneously chastised myself for being so sensitive.  I’ve had to do a lot of inner work just to allow just myself these breaks.

I also sat alone in that room thinking that I would someday find a way to make it stop.  I had long believed that I would “fix” myself and then everything would be fine.  Now I know that that’s probably never going to happen.  It’s disheartening.  I will never be “normal.”

However, that means I can take the next step in self-acceptance, which is a relief.  This self-acceptance means that my coping strategies do not make me a freak.  Now, I’m no different from a left-handed person buying herself some left-handed scissors and notebooks.

Since finding out, I don’t feel the same compulsion to block my reactions the environment or pretend (especially to myself) that I’m not affected by it.  Because I’m not in a constant state of resistance to my environment, I’ve been less stressed about it.

I’m still identifying the advantages.  I’ve long focused on the disadvantages because I’d assumed that everyone experienced the world like me and that they were just better at dealing with it.

While riding my bike to work this morning, I thought about what it meant to navigate the world in an HSP way.  It occurred to me that I have avoided many dangerous—possibly lethal—situations because my intuition has nudged me the other way.

I’ve long recognized my ability to keep myself safe, even if I never knew how I did it.  It gave me more confidence going into unfamiliar environments because I knew that I was really good at protecting myself.

Finding out that I’m HSP has meant that that there’s potential for being less intolerant of other people.  I’ve spent a lot of time really irritated with people because I believed that they were willfully ignoring something.  Now I recognize that it’s much more likely that they just don’t notice it.

If you think that you might be a Highly Sensitive Person, visit this website, where you can take a self-evaluation.

Hiking Mt. Kanetsukido

A swell of emotion came up to strangle me.  My throat felt tight and constricted.  I was in the middle of a 5k run.  This has been happening to me, lately.  I’ve been supressing stress and anxiety and letting it build too long without release and it comes up unexpectedly during exercise.

I felt like I might cry.  I took a deep breath and on the inhale I said to myself, “Its ok.  Whatever happens here is totally fine.”  A gnat hit the back of my throat and bounced down my gullet.  I gagged, “including bug eating,” I added.

I felt proud that I didn’t even break stride while facing such adversity as bugs hurtling themselves down my throat.  That’s when it started to rain.

“Man, World, you really like to challenge me, don’t you?”

This catapulted me back to Mount Kanetsukido.

My husband, Adam, and I love to hike.  We even met on a hike.  Mt. Kanetsukido was our first real hike in Japan, and it rained the entire way up.

A few weeks ago, we’d hiked along the cliffs of the Izu Penninsula, but that was more of a path.  It was paved.  We’d passed women wearing skirts and kitten heels.

Not only did the trail to the top of Mt. Kanetsukido go through some serious forest (one might even call it a jungle), but it was steep and there was a summit.  Also, there were lots of spiders.

On our way out that morning, we stood on the platform for the train and watched it pour.  We were on the wrong platform because we took the wrong bus, so I was feeling anxious that our first hike wasn’t going so well.

KIMG0357

Our-post hike destination station.  This place also required paper tickets.  Our pre-hike arrival station is not pictured.

Our destination station wasn’t equipped with transit card readers and we had to buy paper tickets.  The rest of the trip went smoothly, though, and the rain had stopped by the time we’d arrived.

Our first hiking stop was a pond with a nearby shelter.  We’d walked to a grocery store between the station and the pond and sat in the shelter to eat our snacks.  The pond was one of the ugliest and murkiest that I’ve ever seen.  A fence circled it and multiple signs warned us not to hang out, fish, and for the love of god, don’t swim.  There was a pretty nice new bathroom nearby, though.

Parts of Japan in the summer feel straight up like the Amazon jungle.  The heat and humidity will totally disrespect your personal boundaries.  The bugs and frogs are so loud that they can cause hearing damage.

KIMG0338Shortly after we left the lake, it started sprinkling again.  The forest was dense enough that we got lots of tree cover as we ascended.  The way up was immediately steep and dark and spider webs seemed to cross the path every few meters.  I was in front, so… yeah.

I had to stop and rest a couple of times on the final set of stairs to the summit.  My glutes hurt for days afterwards.  I was spurred on by the steady rain that was turning into a downpour.  We collapsed in the shelter at the top.  In it, three Japanese guys were listening to a baseball game on a transistor radio while they also waited out the rain.

KIMG0346We sat for about an hour and watched the rain, clouds, and mist float by.  We conversed with the men using broken Japanese (us) and broken English (them).  They told us all about the amazing things we would be seeing if we weren’t socked in by clouds.

I was uncomfortable spending the whole hike wet, of course, but I also felt like the water was renewing, rejuvenating.  Mountain mist is magic.  Mountain rainwater is medicine.

We descended into a valley and continued towards a temple along a path that was lined with 500 carved Buddha statues.  At the first statue, my foot came out from under me like I was standing on ice.  I told Adam to watch his footing.  A few meters later, his foot slid out from under him creating a slick mud track.  He told me to watch my footing.

KIMG0347

The first Buddha statue

The descent was eerily dark and the insects were raging even though it was shortly after 4pm, but we got out of there without a major fall.  The Buddhas seemed unimpressed, but then again, they were made of rock.

KIMG0348As for me, I loved it.  Since I’ve been in Japan, I’ve been in survival mode.  Although we live in the countryside here, this was my first chance to be fully in the woods.  There was so much about that trip that was rough—the rain, the incline, the spiders, the eerie darkness in the middle of the day—but it opened me up in a way that I haven’t been open since coming to here.  Somehow, being challenged in nature helped me drop my guard.

Remembering this on my run opened me up again, and I didn’t cry.  I felt joy.

I found out about this hike on the Trekking and Hiking : Japan Facebook page, where you can find the detailed instructions on how to hike Mt. Kanetsukido here.

Lima Cafe

KIMG0126Lima Cafe happened because another place, called Milkland, didn’t.  That was our second instance of going to a restaurant during the supposed hours and finding it closed.

Lima cafe is around the corner from Milkland in Shinjuku, Tokyo,¹ and comparatively speaking, is spectacularly easy to find.

We both enjoyed the food, but didn’t enjoy that it came in Japanese portion sizes.  Lima appears to be entirely vegan.  It also has a small (but very expensive) store attached.  The food served in the cafe seemed reasonably priced to us.

KIMG0127

At first I didn’t want to seem lame by taking pictures of my food in a cafe, but I broke down when the dessert came.  This is ice cream made from brown rice milk.  The brown stuff on top is cinnamon.

It did not taste like ice cream, but it still tasted really good.

KIMG0128This is the chocolate cake.  It was a bit dry and unsweetened for our tastes.  We liked the cream sauce that came on the side.

 

 

¹ Shinjuku seems to have a high concentration of vegan and vegetarian restaurants.

“Really Hard to Find Land” or Milkland

Finding ミルクランド(Milkland) was an odyssey.  It’s located in the center of a block of buildings.  On google maps it appeared to have no streets or paths leading to it.

We circled this block and explored every alley until we sighted it through a hedge.  We climbed over a brick wall and down a ravine to get to it.  I suggest taking a more conventional route.

It’s in the ground floor of a building that has a gated parking lot which looks like an entrance to an apartment building (probably because it is).

Here’s the path that leads to Milkland:

KIMG0125The only landmark I can offer is the 7-11 just out of frame to the right of the driveway.  However, even the 7-11 is hard to find, since it’s in a small dark nook in what looks like an alley.

KIMG0123

This is what Milkland looks like on the outside.  This was taken shortly after the owner informed us that they were closed.  When asked when they were open, he proceeded to tell us when they were closed, which to me sounded something like, “We’re only closed on holidays, weekends, and week days.  Any other time is good.”

I’ll let you know.

Our First Middle-Eastern Food in Japan

shanaimIf you know Hebrew or if you can read the partially hidden text below the awning, you know that this is an Israeli restaurant.

One of the things I’m discovering about restaurants in Japan is that they don’t care about being open when people want food.  They tend to limit their hours, and the hours posted on the web don’t always match the hours that they’re open.

We arrived at Shamaim when Happy Cow said they’d be open and found out that we were an hour and fifteen minutes early.  Instead of finding another place to eat, we chose to wait.  We love our falafel.

The falafel was the best part of the meal.  The rest was not worth the wait.

The ingredients were good, but the flavors were dull.  This might be because we’d just left America, where one could argue that everything is either too sweet, too salty, or too fatty.  Either way, we both thought it was merely ok.

I’m also skeptical that it is as authentic as they claim, given that everyone working there was Japanese.  They were playing Israeli music, though.

It’s Really Not That Hard to be Vegan in Japan

I am vegan. Before I came to Japan a lot of people told me that they thought it was impossible to be vegan in Japan. After I got here, a lot of people told me that they thought it was impossible to be vegan in Japan.

This is preferable to the reaction I got when I told people that I was vegetarian in Wisconsin in 1995. Back then, they mostly cocked their heads and squinted at me as if they were trying to make out the outline of “vegetarian” in my blurry image. What did it all mean?

When I moved to Philadelphia in 2002 and told people the same thing, they reacted less severely, but they were still skeptical. Cheesesteaks¹ have been mentioned to me a lot, and I have often countered with scrapple.

Anyway, it’s really not that hard to be a vegan in Japan. Similarly, it really wasn’t that hard to be a vegetarian in Wisconsin in 1995 or a vegan in Philadelphia whatever year it was that I became vegan (sorry, I can’t remember).²

The only hard part is how skeptical people are that it’s really not that hard.

So, I’m starting a series called, “It’s really not that hard to be vegan in Japan.” I don’t know how many entries it will be or what it will contain.

In this post, I will start with three new posts on vegan-friendly restaurants I have gone so far in Japan.  FYI, I live just outside of Tokyo, so I have a little more access to special restaurants than most of Japan.

shanaimThis is my post on Shamaim.  Shamaim is not a vegan restaurant, but it’s vegan friendly.  We found this on Happy Cow.

 

 

 

KIMG0126Lima Cafe is a vegan cafe with a store attached.  I still don’t know if they are referring to the bean or the city.  Also found on Happy Cow.

 

 

KIMG0123We tried to go to Milkland or ミルクランド, but it ended up being closed, so my entry is incomplete.  I will update as soon as we eat there.

 

 

 

¹By the way, there are many different vegan cheesesteak vendors in Philadelphia. They are made with seitan.

²These days, Philadelphia is so vegan friendly that it’s possible to have an entirely vegan potluck and not have one person panic or get confused. Vegan friendly restaurants are so easy to find that it’s barely worth mentioning anymore.

Things Are About to Change Around Here

bonsai_treeOk, folks, I’m going to try to update more often. If I am going to update more often, entries will be a lot less polished, a lot less to the point, and contain a lot fewer links.

The reason for this is because my life has taken a 90 degree turn, and I am now living in Japan.

When I decided to move, it wasn’t so much that I desperately wanted to be in Japan, it was more that it was time for me to leave Philadelphia. My feelings about that have changed, but that’s because I’ve been in Japan for about six weeks now. My feelings about a lot of things have changed.

However, my feelings about Philadelphia haven’t changed. (It was a wonderful place for me for a long time, but I was getting the sense that it was time to move on. I’ll get to the wonderfulness of my time in Philadelphia in another entry.)

The contrast between Japan and Philadelphia was exactly what I’ve been craving.

Firstly, Japan is quiet. Even with a train stacked body-to-body with people during rush hour (rush hour in Japan is no joke, by the way), it is dead silent.

Unlike Philadelphia, train rides in Japan are sans the kid playing a game on his phone with the volume turned up, the couple arguing in the corner, and the three people talking loudly on their cellphones while sitting directly underneath the “this is a quiet car” sign. And, I only wished that the cacophony in Philadelphia ended with the train rides. Construction, mini-bikes, barking dogs, ancient heating/cooling systems grinding along, and people just generally being loud is the wallpaper in Philadelphia. I don’t miss it.

Japan moves.  While it’s crowded in Japan (much more so than Philadelphia), it’s an orderly crowd. Things may move slowly here, but they keep moving. People line up for the escalator without pushing, shoving, cursing, and jockeying for the best position.  Bureaucracy may keep things at a snail pace around here, but it’s a pace.

So much gets stalled in Philadelphia because something happened. Maybe it was a fight, maybe it was an accident, maybe it’s emergency construction on a crumbling bridge, but stuff in Philadelphia stops dead when something happens. That something was usually caused by someone who got impatient and made a bad judgment call.  In Philadelphia, you never know when that’s going to happen.

Japan has civility. For example, I observed four junior high boys share two seats on the train by simply trading when they were halfway through their journey. There was no pushing, shoving, or name calling, it was simply, “you sit for a while, and then we’ll sit for a while.”

I’m not even going to bother offering the Philadelphian contrast to this.  I think you know.

Japan has organization. I’ve heard of other foreigners coming to Japan and being irritated at the inconvenience of constantly dotting I’s and crossing T’s, but you know what? That organization is there to save your ass, as it did mine after I lost my train pass.

When I bought my train pass, I had to type my name and birth date into the machine before it would issue me a pass. That felt outrageously tedious and silly. This only matters because I now live in a civil society. When my train pass went missing, someone picked it up and returned it to the lost and found (instead of using it to go on a train riding spree until all of the credit was used up, which would obviously happen in the US). And, of course, when I went to the lost and found (while scoffing at the idea that someone would pick it up and take it to the lost and found), they ran my pass through the machine, looked at my ID, and said, “Yep, this is your lost train pass. Here you go.”

I’m sure you already know that there is nothing in Philadelphia that’s designed to save your ass.

So yes, while the grit of balls-out Philly has its charm, I’m ready for less. I’m ready to not feel like I’m taking my life into my hands every time I get on I-95. Heck, I’m ready to not feel like I’m taking my life into my hands while standing in line at the ATM. I’m not referring to muggers here. I’m talking about that no-nonsense native Philadelphian granny who thinks I just cut the line in front of her. Actually, she doesn’t care if I really did or not, but she’s going to give me the business, anyway, because it’s Philadelphia, and that’s what people do.

Like I said, Philadelphia was wonderful in many ways. I’ve been missing a lot of those things, lately, but that’s a natural part of transition. Obviously, I will have to redesign the website, but that will come in time. On top of moving countries, I have also moved jobs. Changes will come in time.