Homesickness

It’s now been a little over a year since I moved to Japan. The year has simultaneously crawled and flown. If someone told me that I’ve only been in Japan for a month, I might believe them. That’s how unfamiliar it still feels to me sometimes.

For the first time in decades, I’m beginning to understand what it means to have a sense of place and a sense of displacement from that place. Back when I was 11 years old, I’d moved from my native state of California to Wisconsin. Displacement had become my way of being. For a long time, I didn’t even know what it felt like to not feel displaced.

I guess that feeling must have dissipated in Philadelphia because now I’m relearning homesickness. I’d lived in Philadelphia for 13 years. I haven’t lived in any other place longer.

A few days ago, I was listening to a podcast interview with Salley Vickers (no relation) about the book Miss Garnet’s Angel. While talking about why she’d set the book in Venice, she’d said something like, “Some days, I have woken up and thought to myself that the only thing that would make me feel better would be to go to Venice.”

Before leaving Philadelphia, I would have had no idea what she’d meant by that.

I miss a lot of specific things in Philadelphia, like West Philly Ethiopian food, all sorts of vegan junk food, hiking the Wissahickon, walking the Schuykhill River trail while watching the various university crew teams practice, certain yoga studios, my dance studio, and on and on. Philadelphia has an endless supply of beautiful places. Obviously, I miss my friends more than anything.

Taken from between the houses on Elfreth’s Alley in Philadelphia. Elfreth’s Alley is the US’s oldest continuously inhabited residential street. If you look closely at the large version, you can see a cat standing on the corner.

Taken from between two houses on Elfreth’s Alley in Philadelphia. Elfreth’s Alley is the US’s oldest continuously inhabited residential street. If you look closely at the large version, you can see a cat standing on the corner.

However, my homesickness is less about missing specific things and, luckily, the internet provides me with some contact with my friends. My homesickness is more about having a sense of continuity and familiarity. It’s about feeling like my physical location is contributing to my sense of home. Living in Philadelphia, it had taken me a really long time to feel like it contributed to my sense of home. I wasn’t even sure it did until my physical location changed.

The other day, I taught a yoga class here in Japan. Not only had I not taught yoga for over a year, it had nearly been a year since I’d even done yoga. It’s been a rough year for me and I’ve sacrificed a lot of activities to keep my head above water.

As soon as I went back to yoga, I realized that there is more than one way to keep one’s head above water. Instead of floating with my nose barely above the surface and hoping for no waves, I can swim. Doing yoga, even if it does require more energy, is swimming, not floating.

If a yoga flow could be considered a place, then I’ve been living there for 16 years. Going through my series of familiar poses, I found myself in downward dog, staring at my mat for the thousandth time and something inside of my was triggered.  I know this place.

Over this past year, I’ve done downward dog a bunch of times, not because I was doing yoga, but because it’s an amazing calf stretch.  Out of context, I didn’t recognize it as anything other than a calf stretch.  Within the series, inside of the yoga flow, I went into downdog within a context that means something to me.  What is place, after all, except where your body resides in space?

I’d also not realized that I’d been homesick until recently.  It just hit me all at once. Because I’d grown up hiding the sensation of homesickness from myself, I had automatically hid it from myself, again. Now that I’ve discovered it, I’m grateful. Missing something means that we have had something worth being missed. I couldn’t be happier about that.

By the way, for anyone interested, I have started a another blog that is book reviews only.

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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.