Harvest Moon and Awaji Island

Ah… Summers in Japan.. If anything makes you miss being literally anywhere else on Earth, it’s a Japan summer. With temperatures in the high 90’s with 95-100% humidity, no breeze, and precious little shade, it’s more than a bit south of paradise.

We’re very lucky to have aircons in the main rooms of the house, so it’s usually bearable, but the moment you step outside, I’m instantly reliving the ending scenes of Raiders of the Lost Ark, where their faces are melting off. Actually, your face melting off seems quite a bit less painful and there are days where I’d welcome it. But with my Mom here for a few months we’ll keep a lid on the Ark for now. We decided instead to rent a car for the weekend and get a hotel in Kobe, so we can take her to the see the Harvest Moon (Tsukimi) and explore a bit of Awaji Island, which we haven’t been to yet.

Lori and the kids had Taiko practice that morning, so Mom and I met them in Nakatsu. When we got there, we saw the Sky building and remembered there’s some restaurants in its basement that are fun and have a retro, 1960’s Japan feel to them. Some of the food is probably still from that era. We had to also re-create our extended family selfies that we do in that spot.

After that, we hopped on the train to Kobe and walked through a fun street festival that we weren’t expecting.

[festival pics]

The hotel was nice for the budget and had a sento (shared hot bath (and free ice cream)) on the 14th floor, so it’s the kids current favorite place. If not familiar with sentos, it’s a shared/communal bath that’s usually split by sex, so men on one side and ladies on the other. Inside you’ll see men of all ages, shapes and sizes, sometimes with an absolutely stunning amount of pubic hair. The process is this:

  1. Go to the bath with just your change of clothes, towel, and wash cloth
  2. Find an open locker and put all your stuff in
  3. Deal with the fact that there will be row upon row of free lockers, yet everyone there will be using one right next to you
  4. Avoid eye contact
  5. Proceed to bath area
  6. Maintain no eye contact
  7. Sit down at a shower stall and wash off, shampoo hair etc.
  8. Mentally prepare yourself for having cold water dumped on you from behind by Jack. He does it every time and thinks it just hilarious
  9. Sit in the scalding hot bath for a few minutes
  10. Shower off again and leave

After the hotel, we check out and Lori gets the rental car, and we head to Awaji Island. We didn’t have a hard agenda, but knew we wanted to check out the Hyogo Prefectural Awaji Island Park:
https://maps.app.goo.gl/gZrNBppQJoPde5yj9

At the park, there’s several areas (cough cough tourist traps) that have themed activities, with some

Osaka Science Museum

(Originally written Aug 20, 2021)

It’s been raining for about a week straight here in Osaka. Somewhere between the amount of rain in Florida where it feels like someone dumps a bucket of water over your head, and Seattle’s rain of someone dipping their fingers in a bowl of water and flicking it at your face for days on end (Am I bothering you? I’m not touching you!).

With Lori still in the hospital for Knee Surgery (and doing well) I was looking for another (any) activity to do with the kids that isn’t in the house yelling at them to get off the switch, or just standing outside in the rain. Lori mentioned the Osaka Science Museum and we’d never been. This place is close to Fukushima where the hospital is, so after dropping off a care package for her, we ventured on. Maps said it was a 14-minute walk, and for once in what seems like months, it wasn’t walking in the boiling sun, nor in a torrential downpour! However, a 14 minutes’ walk with these two lollygaggers is easily an hour.

When they were done with their (pretty impressive) display of balance, juggling, and Rubik’s cube mastery, they passed around ‘the hat’ and I was delighted to send the kids over with some money to pop in hat. We saw them there the whole day, so hopefully they did well –


As we get into the museum, starting on the 4th floor, and it’s a large projected sun on a scale model of the sun. The kids thankfully are already somewhat aware of the scale of the solar system and the universe, so we spend a few minutes making rabbit ears over each other’s heads. SCIENCE

I really did not have any expectations for this place, sometimes you just want to be inside, in AC and if there’s something interesting to look at, the more the better. This place tough was pretty neat, I could see via the hands-on stations there, they were made by the delicate mix of old science dudes that were like ‘yeah let’s make a Jacob’s ladder and let kids put their teeth on it’, and ‘this is how plastic is killing the planet’, and ‘Here’s some dangerously radioactive material behind a thin acrylic sheet (listen to that Geiger counter go!)’. In other words, I was in my new favorite place.

The kids take off and get absorbed in the hands on stuff, there was plenty involving magnetism, static electricity and some physics.

 

We see a display with pulleys and weights. I start to explain the fascinating mechanical advantage that pulleys have on reducing the amount of force needed to move an object, but neither one seemed overly interested. So I spot some vintage technology and go to investigate

 


On display were some early computation devices, some analog things that I’ve never seen, calculator/abacus combos? and some early electronics – I could smell the eau de old electronics from here. There was a Canon Canola 130s, which was a “Compact” calculator, capable of 4 (four) functions! Retail at that time was $995 in 1964, according to this site, that would be about $6,700 in today’s money 😨 Look at the amount of wires and boards in that thing!

We also found some hall of mirrors display that the kids enjoyed. I couldn’t imagine have 8 more Jacks so I shuddered and strolled past.

Then I found some old TV’s and computers and miscellaneous vintage electronics – The scene was about electronics that would be found in the home over the decades in Japan (Super famicom, I see you!) As well as what looks like a Sony Wega TV set that we had that weighs 500 pounds and I’ll guarantee still works)

Ah, the tape recorder calculator combo – and the classic ‘boom box!’, and some vintage PC’s

 

And we found some old toys (I’m beginning to wonder if people just drop off their old stuff here 🤔)

The first Radio Controlled …Bus


This seems like the (first?) electron microscope – how cool is that – look at the size of that thing – can you imagine how unsafe it is to operate, it looks like it just beams out gamma rays, it’s a superhero maker!

So, another day of adventures complete – kids tuckered out, I’m tuckered out, but ready for the next one!

COVID-19…a year later

It’s been over a year since our lives were upended by the SARS-CoV-2. Looking back, it’s been a painful one and yet, one full of gratitude. It’s hard to describe the emotions tied to this past year. Back in January of this year, we came across this message in front of the main post office in the Umeda area of Osaka.

It states that all postal clerks will be wearing masks for their and your protection and asks for patrons’ understanding and cooperation. I had to do a double-take since I saw this on January 13, 2021 and yet the date on the paper says January 28…2020. It was the first reminder for me, that a year has passed since the start to what we now have come to know as the pandemic.

To say that living abroad during the pandemic is strange is an understatement. Watching my home country’s response from afar has been challenging, to say the least. It really hit home when a dear restaurant owner in Seattle died, along with her husband from COVID-19 this month last year. Seeing the infection rates soar a year ago in the U.S. was alarming, mostly because the numbers in Japan were so low in comparison. With the declaration of Japan’s State of Emergency, we saw the high of 100 infected in Osaka get down to 1 after 6 weeks. Meanwhile, in the U.S., there was denial of the seriousness of the disease. I find the anti-maskers a curious bunch since everyone here wears masks partly because of the “protruding nail gets hammered down” mentality, but also, the idea that if something I do helps protect you, why not do it? There is one downside to a year of wearing masks though: mask tan lines.

Who would have thought a year ago that a vaccine would be developed in such a short amount of time? And not only 1, but several with varying degrees of protection. The experts were saying it would take at least 18 months for a vaccine to be ready, so the timeline is quite quick. But I distinctly recall in August wondering what was taking scientists and researchers so long to create a lifesaving shot. My brother, a medical professional, was the first person I know to get vaccinated since he works with patients. My parents were thankfully fully vaccinated by mid-February, and late last month, we learned my in-laws got their shots too. A sigh of relief could be heard from our collective families. Next came my teacher friends. With the push for re-opening schools in Washington and California, unions and districts have been at odds on the definition of “safe”. Knowing that they now have that layer of protection, I feel reassured that the return to in-person learning can take place safely. My sister in the Seattle area says by May she will have gotten her shots as well. I should note that she has no underlying conditions nor is a senior citizen. It sounds like her turn as a member of the general public in Washington is just around the corner. In Japan, we are months behind the vaccination schedule that the U.S. has laid out. At present, medical professionals are getting their jabs this month. My friend who works in a hospital confirmed she got her first shot 2 weeks ago and is scheduled for her 2nd next week. Next up are care home workers, then the elderly, those with underlying health conditions, and then the general population. Since Japan holds the top spot not only for the number of centenarians in the world, but also senior citizens, I know my turn isn’t coming anytime soon. One news report stated that the goal for vaccinating the entire eligible population of Japan is February 2022. That’s a long wait. But it’s better than my sister in Taiwan, whose country has yet to start vaccinating its population. I should note though, that Taiwan has and continues to do an amazing job at eradicating the disease. She has been able to dine out, attend concerts and have gatherings this entire time.

It’s hard to wait for our turn at getting the vaccine when I see friends and family already receiving theirs. But while I wait in line, I have so much to be grateful for. This city has posters, billboards and reader boards dedicated to encouraging its citizens.

The best is the huge reader board at Umeda subway station, the size of about 3 train cars, thanking the medical professionals.

Encouraging words indeed, not only in Japanese, but other languages as well. We will get through this together!

And now that the cherry blossoms are out, I am feeling extra grateful and hopeful for the road ahead.

The Election

I know. You are up to your eyeballs with election ads on TV, radio, social media and mailers. We are growing weary of the polarizing rhetoric. The last thing you want to read about it is a blog post about the upcoming election. I hear you. I also, can’t wait for election season to come to an end so I don’t have to hear another derisive word about the 2 sides of the issue. Yes, I’m sure we feel the same way about the vote on November 1st to determine weather Osaka will remain a city with 24 wards, or be designated as a “metropolis” like Tokyo with 4 districts. Oh, did you think I was talking about the U.S. Presidential election? I’ll get to that later in my post.

Last year around this time, I remember seeing posters of candidates running for office all around Osaka. There were designated neighborhood billboards with equally sized spaces for each candidate’s single poster. I recall the billboards went up and and came down within a short period of time. According to national election laws, candidates can campaign for only 12 days. Because of this (or thanks to this), we are barraged with fliers, ads, round-the-clock loudspeakers urging you to vote for “candidate A” for less than 2 weeks. Once polling day is done (always on a Sunday in Japan so that more people can vote) so are the ads, fliers and you can finally converse without having to talk over the constant loudspeaker noise. Apparently there are no laws about leaving candidate’s posters affixed to your home as in the case of the house across from the school. Their poster has been up the entire time we’ve lived here: 25 months and counting!

Since this year’s vote is a referendum about the fate of Osaka City, the ads started in early October. Here are a few snapshots of the campaign ads:

The connection between voting and the cheetah? I am also just as confused. But it is eye catching and kind of cute, isn’t it? The first time the ad popped up on my social media, it was surprising. And soon after, the adorable mini cars appeared on the roads, driving around to remind people to vote The cars announce, “November 1st is the special election–let’s go out and vote” and then a catchy tune plays with the lyrics: election, election, cast your vote; election, election time is here. The community bulletin board has specific information about absentee ballots, etc. And, of course, a little sidebar stating that masks are necessary at polling stations and a reminder about social distancing for in-person voting. I have to say, I’ll miss seeing that cheetah after November 1st.

The U.S. Presidential Election has surprisingly made its way over here too. We got an informational flier in the mail about the 2 candidates. And back in August, there was a 15 minute news piece dedicated to the 2 candidates and where they stand on issues and polling stats. There was a mention of American politics on news of the day readerboard in Osaka’s “Times Square” with the headline below.

I can understand and appreciate world news segments being broadcast here. But the flier we got in the mail highlighted each candidate’s stance on China and drew conclusions about what that would mean for Japan. Interesting perspective, to say the least.

I sent in my absentee ballot earlier this month and it feels good to know that I got my say in who I believe should lead the U.S. Just a few more days and the attack ads, constant political headlines over the airwaves and news channels will cease and we’ll find out if Osaka will remain a city or not. One thing is for sure: I will definitely miss seeing that cute cheetah car coming down the street.

Happy 2nd Anniversary!

September 14th marks the 2 year anniversary of our move to Japan. The week before we left the U.S. in 2018, Typhoon Jebi came through western Japan and damaged the bridge to Kansai Airport in Osaka, which meant our flight was diverted to Chubu Nagoya Centrair Airport. Looking back at photos and the blog post from that day brings up many emotions. First, the kids were so little back then! The left picture is at Honolulu airport, checking in for the flight and the right is us taking the train from Chubu airport to Nagoya to then catch the shinkansen to Osaka.

It also makes us acutely aware of the many milestones we have achieved. The boys are fluent in Japanese. Zachary’s teacher comments that his penmanship, particularly kanji, is superb. Friends have said that Jack sounds like a native Osakan. I’ve joined a conversation class and have hired a tutor. Michael has a language exchange partner. Not really a language exchange, since Maa-kun doesn’t speak any English. I guess it’s more like immersion, but without any support. Let me take a step back. Due to the pandemic, Michael’s company agreed to reimburse taxi fare to and from work. One of Jack’s former classmate’s dad is a taxi driver, so through our good friend Taichi-san, we got in touch with Maa-kun. Michael should write a post about this, so I will just say that after 3 months of riding Maa-kun’s taxi, his Japanese has improved a lot. Or not? Michael will say, “Maa-kun says our apartment building used to be lotus root fields back in the day.” “Really?” I reply. “Well, at least I think that’s what he said. Or maybe he said he eats lotus root in a field near our apartment? Or maybe lotus root is in season? I know for sure lotus root was involved, somehow.” Joking aside, it’s quite a feat learning a new language from scratch and it’s neat to hear Michael make conversation with neighbors and local shop owners.

Knowing that our 2 year anniversary was coming up and also feeling weary of the constant polarizing headlines about the upcoming U.S. presidential election, we decided to rent a car and drive to a seaside town for some rest and relaxation. We needed to take a break, so we decided to head to….Obama! Yes, the same name as our 44th president. The name isn’t lost on the town either: There’s even a bust with the likeness of President Obama.

It was a scorcher of a day, but we enjoyed spending time with Obama…I mean IN the city of Obama.

We then drove along the coast to Amanohashidate, one of the top 3 most scenic spots in Japan. A sandbar connects one end of Miyazu Bay to the other. The boys loved splashing in the water and skipping rocks.

Our sun-filled, beautiful and socially distanced respite had to come to an end. We headed back to Osaka with Michael driving for the first time in Japan! Watch out for that car!

We also received a timely anniversary present from the Japanese government. It was a postcard from Immigration saying that instead of limiting our stay to 3 more years, they would extend it indefinitely. It’s good to know that we have plenty of time to explore not only Japan, but surrounding countries as well. Who knows, maybe next year you’ll read a blog post about our vacation in Australia and New Zealand?

Back to school

Once the State of Emergency was lifted, the talk of schools reopening began. Up until that point, I had been doing lessons remotely or recording video lessons for students to access whenever they wanted. But now that the government was lifting the SOE, it meant back “normal.” The boys’ school announced that for the first 2 weeks of June, students would attend for the first 3 periods and be sent home for lunch. It coincided with my classes resuming in-person learning, which were slated for mornings as well.

The first day back for me was met with trepidation. For 3 months the entire country sheltered in place for the most part. We were mindful of the 3 C’s (see below), so we rarely ventured by train and when we did, we only got on if it was pretty empty.

I figured that since the SOE was lifted, I wouldn’t be the only one summoned back to work. I hesitantly made my way to the train and was stunned to find the platform as full as it was before the pandemic. It was the weirdest feeling; almost unreal seeing so many people. It was even more unreal when the already packed train pulled up. I took a deep breath (under my mask) and stepped on to the train, barely 6 inches separated me and the next person. It was a tense 10 minute ride to Umeda station, a major hub of Osaka. I gasped as the train pulled in and I saw the sea of people waiting for the train. I was able to snap a picture as those commuters piled into the train, some choosing to wait for the next one.

I found comfort in seeing that just about everyone complies with the mask recommendation. I transfer to my next train, which is also crowded, but I only ride for 3 minutes on that one, so I hold my breath the entire way and get out with 1/2 of the commuters. I walk 10 minutes to the school to find the required hand sanitizer bottles on either side of the entrance, I also find a thermal reading camera that displays your temperature on the screen. I was unprepared to see my sweaty face on display, which I chose not to post here!

I then wait for the elevator to take me up to the staff room on the 4th floor. Yet another surprise!

Feet placement placards in the elevator. Michael tells me that “feet placement placards” isn’t the term, but we didn’t have the term social distancing before this did we? I am apparently supposed to face the wall and only 4 people can be in the elevator at a time. My elevator companion is also having trouble facing the right way. The funny thing is, the elevators in Japan are tiny and I have gotten used to cramming into a 5×5 foot space with at least 10 other people. So this 4 person max ride feels quite spacious. Oh, and the reason all 4 placards are not in use is that there are signs on the 1st floor saying students must use the stairs, even if their class is on the 10th floor. Yikes!

Not only have the elevator protocols changed, but I was given a face shield to wear in conjunction with my mask. I am also required to teach behind a sheet of plastic hanging from the ceiling. If I stay behind the sheet, I can take off my shield, but since I walk around the classroom a ton, I just keep it on, so as not to have to fuss with it.

It’s uncomfortable to wear these layers. It feels impersonal not to be able to high 5 or get near the students. It feels unnatural looking out at the masked, spread out students. But in the midst of this pandemic, it’s what has to be done to safely go back to school. As the summer break winds down in the States, my educator friends are uneasy about the possibility of holding classes in person. Districts are feeling the pressure under the current administration to reopen schools. It makes me sad and mad. Even with these safety measures in place, I still feel uneasy at times. I can’t imagine not having hand sanitizers at the entrance to the school and in front of every classroom. Or having some students and staff deciding to exercise their right to not wear a mask. The number of COVID cases in Japan in early August are on the rise and some say we are seeing a second wave. One of my classes has decided to go back to video lessons. One school shortened the semester and another has decided to split one class in two with half of them watching the lesson remotely, while the other half is in the class with me. These are uncertain times for sure. I think the hardest part is staying vigilant with the 3 C’s, sanitary practices and social distancing. What I find endearing though, and what gives me strength is that along my commute, there are banners at the stations and walkways saying, “Let’s hang in there together, Osaka.” Just what I need; a reminder that we ALL are in this together.

State of Emergency Lifted

**This entry was written on May 30, 2020**

These past months have been..strange to say the least.  Navigating the ups and downs, the uncertainty, the “new normal”, the anxiety hasn’t been easy, especially the first few weeks.  As you know, at the end of February is when we received notice that Zachary’s school would take a 2 week recess.  Thankfully the schools where I teach also observed the same guidelines, so I was able to be at home with Zachary.  Jack went to kindergarten just on the “final” days for the graduating class, like the final field trip, the final send-off from the younger classes, the final graduation practice, etc.  The kindergarten still held the March events, but limited attendance to 1 parent and no siblings, which meant that for Jack’s school birthday party, Zachary would have to be at home by himself for 2 hours.  In Japan, it’s not uncommon for elementary school age kids to stay at home for a few hours by themselves; it’s part self-reliance/independence and part “gaman” (to forego one’s needs for the sake of others) training.  Before I began to fret about what to do, a friend whose daughter also has a March birthday, asked if Zachary wanted to play at their house with her 2 older daughters (7th & 5th grade).  I was so relieved to have that option and although Zachary was sad to miss out on Jack’s party, he was glad to play at a friend’s house.

The kindergarten graduation program was reduced to just 40 minutes with the graduation after party clocking in at only 20 minutes.  We didn’t know any different, but my friend whose other children graduated from the school lamented that in previous years, it was a 2 hour graduation and a 2-3 hour after party.  I can’t imagine sitting through that many hours of speeches and formalities.

It’s odd looking back at photos from these past months.  When schools were closed for what was initially 2 weeks, I thought, “ok, that’s a surprise, but we can handle 2 weeks of no school, no problem.”  My employer, on the other hand, canceled classes for the entire month of March, which made me wonder why the public school closure was so short.  I recall wondering whether my employer was overly cautious, or whether the Board of Education was being too optimistic.  Then, near the end of the 2 weeks, we were again informed by the BOE that school closures would be extended another 2 weeks.  This time, I wasn’t surprised, took it in stride, hoping that April would show some signs of returning to pre-SARS-CoV-2 days.  But as the end of March approached with no signs of coronavirus slowing down, we knew it would be at least another month of uncertainty.

April proved to be the most challenging as far as our mental and physical well being is concerned.  We felt the lack of communication from the government coupled with our unfamiliarity of our surrogate country’s systems to be the most anxiety-provoking.  We would hear anecdotal frustrations on social media of expats being told to call the local coronavirus hotline only for it to be busy for the entire time they are sick.  Or being turned away from hospital after hospital.  Yet, apart from social media, it seemed like business as usual: Michael still went to work, kids hung out at parks and playgrounds since school was not in session, stores and restaurants were open and the government only asked the public to not gather in large groups. We found ourselves caught between thinking we should shelter in place and thinking we could go out as long as we respected social distancing.  We’d hear about lockdowns and schools cancellations for the remainder of the school year in other countries and fear that the Japanese government wasn’t doing enough to protect its citizens.  But then we’d see the small number of cases reported in Japan and those fears would dissipate.  The ups and downs, the stopping and the anticipated start of school made for much confusion and worry.

Finally in early May, the Japanese government declared a state of emergency (SOE), which we interpreted as a “lockdown.”  Plastic sheets were hung from the ceilings of stores to act as barriers between cashiers and customers.  Tape on the floor of businesses showed customers the socially acceptable distance we needed to adhere to when making purchases.  Pachinko parlors, movie theaters, karaoke bars and game centers were all shut down.  Mister Donut (and many other chain stores/restaurants) had reduced hours and take out only.  Handmade signs were written on mom & pop shops explaining their decision to close for the entire month.  The scene in front of the local pachinko parlor on the other side of the tracks changed overnight; the constant hustle and bustle, glaring lights, loud, smoke-filled street corner disappeared once the SOE was issued.  Witnessing the stark difference first-hand was surreal and felt ominous, which heightened the uneasiness we were already feeling.

And then, only 2 weeks after the SOE was declared, the boys’ school announced that classes would be held twice a week for 2 hours with staggered start times depending on the block on which you live.  I was taken aback reading that announcement, thinking it might be too soon, but then my employer notified me that my classes would also resume on May 20th albeit using Zoom.  Slowly we were easing back to “normal”, cautiously at first, and then little by little getting right back into the swing of things.  Last Monday (May 25th), the government lifted the SOE, which basically allowed most businesses to return to regular operating hours.  The pachinko parlor was back in operation almost immediately after the announcement and the street corner is almost as busy as it was in February.  Mister Donut is now back to its regular hours with dine-in service.  The train to work was quite crowded, which made me a bit nervous.  But everything seems back to pre-coronavirus days, which made me feel uneasy, yet hopeful.

Looking back on these months, there is much to reflect on.  It seems to have been the slowest 3 months that went by in a flash.  I have never walked so much without a destination before.  I made a total of 9 masks without a sewing machine and there won’t be a tenth.  Oftentimes while brushing my teeth at night, I had to ponder whether I had brushed that morning.  I made a sourdough starter but have yet to make an edible loaf of sourdough bread.  I made yeast water and successfully made what can only be described as bread-cake in the rice cooker.  And a surprisingly doughy cinnamon roll.  I made hummus from scratch and may consider making it again in the future.  Dalgona coffee was surprisingly delicious, but I don’t foresee having the time to dedicate to another cup of creamy goodness.  Who knew you could use cake mix to bake cookies? (Thanks Sue!)  Technology has allowed us to come together remotely.  I’ve video-chatted 10 times more in the past 3 months than the previous year and a half.  The one good thing that has come out of it is that our family has emerged stronger than ever.  Many bumps and misunderstandings along the way, but we appreciate each other more and cherish our time together.

Disclaimer:  I don’t go to Mister Donut everyday, I just walk past it everyday.  Well, most days I just walk past and don’t go in.  Ok, I do go in more than I care to admit.

Denden Town (Nipponbashi)

Ah, the days before social distancing.. Henceforth referred to as the ‘beforetimes’.  It’s hard to remember back to a time when every thing was normal and I didn’t bat an eye at Jack’s usual behavior of licking door knobs.   Wait, I think that was two weeks ago.  As I said, time is blurry in the aftertimes.  Before we went in to total lock down, we did manage to go explore Denden town in Nipponbashi a bit. It’s like the Akihabara of Osaka, an open-24-hours-a-day carnival of electronics stores, internet cafes, and maid bars (I’m told).

Each year, they hold a street festival in March (I’m guessing that’s on hold). But look at this pre-social distancing extravaganza!

SocialDistance
Nipponbashi Street Festival – Clearly not 6′ apart

I had some DIY electronics projects that were on my to do list for forever and the only place to get the stuff was in Denden town, so off we went!  We took the train to Namba and walked.  Sadly it started gushing rain.  I was undeterred, and thankfully Lori and the kids persevered.

Some soggy photos of the walk.  Rainy scenes are always neat and remind me of Bladerunner. And if you haven’t seen, Semi trucks in Japan open up on the side, which is much easier to load and unload on the streets. This doesn’t matter to the story, just wanted to point that out. As we’re walking though, the rain picks up and starts getting pretty dark and windy, and generally quite unpleasant. As we walk down one side street, we saw some furniture tossed out the curb and a stack of what looked like LP’s.  Investigation ensued.  When I got closer I saw someone had tossed out an entire stack (like 3 feet tall) of laserdics 🙁  I don’t collect them, nor do I have an old laserdisc player, but I know there are people that do, and this seemed like such a terrible waste.  Here they were getting soggy and ruined, next stop landfill.  If the person dumping it knew about ebay they could have probably made some not insignificant change. Was quite sad we didn’t have a car or was on my bike or I would have saved them.. I tell myself now they were slathered in coronavirus to ease the pain.

20200401_175235
I’m still crying on the inside and some on the outside.

As we get to the place, the sun is going down and lights are coming on, putting us more firmly in rainy the Bladerunner motif.  The parts I was looking for were in a neat little shop spread across a few floors. Apparently I didn’t take any pictures, but just imagine a lot of little lights and wires and doodads in little bags (fun!).

As we are headed back to the train, the kids were somehow able to notice the subtle, 50′ tall, bright red and yellow sign reading “KIDS LAND” and were, shall we say.. intrigued. I thought “fantastic, another multi-level shop full of over priced stuffed Pokemon and Gotchapong machines, with LED lights at ‘surface of the Sun’ level brightness,  looping the same BGM music that repeats every 30 seconds, accompanied with someone yelling announcements over the PA every minute” (Actually that’s about 80% of the stores in Japan).  But it was also still pouring rain and freezing so we were happy to get out of the weather.

20200401_193407.resizedIronically enough, the first floor of KIDS LAND!!! was.. well it was over priced pokemon stuffies and gotchapong machines, but that’s really just the way averages work.  I pry them away from the first floor to the second with promises [LIES] of more Pokemon elsewhere.

This place is a Joshin, which we have one by the house too, it’s very much like Best Buy.  Some cool stuff, but you know walking through it you can get better deals online, so I don’t typically look around too much.  This one was a different beast entirely though, as it’s all hobbies.  I was unprepared for the onslaught of things I didn’t know about that I have to buy now.

The Second floor was models and cars:

Including some cars and models made out paper.  (PAPER).

I have a couple of plastic models still in the closet waiting to be built/finished.. Maybe someday when it’s raining,..  and I don’t know..  when we were on some sort of government mandated stay at home policy, I might get to it. But only really likely if the internet goes down too.

Then we see the remote control cars area – A big track for “miniyonku”, or Mini 4WD racing.  It’s like slot cars but a walled track instead of a slot.  The cars are pretty cheap to, so it seems like a more affordable hobby for the kids to get in to, moreso than the big R/C cars (But like most hobbies in Japan, it gets turned up to ’11’ fast). I see these in our future, with a whole-apartment DIY track.

Then on the same level was the real R/C Cars.  I remember these in catalogs and had friends that were really in to it.  I am quite sure that if there was a store like this where we grew up, I would have lot less money.

The kids at this point were doing a wonderful job of obliging me on my memory lane journey but I could see they were losing interest, and when this happens I know the situation for everyone involved can rapidly decline.  So we head up to the model Trains floor.  I was.. impressed with the selection.  You have to sort of understand the hobbyist mindset in Japan. As I eluded to above at being turned up to 11, it’s just a thing in Japan from what I’ve seen where if someone is in to something, they are REALLY in to that something. A walk through Yodobashi Camera’s camera section drives that point home quick. There’s not a shelf or end-cap of camera bags, there’s no less than 5 rows full of camera bags.  Looking for a tripod? Here’s about 70 to choose from!  It’s an all-in mentality that must be respected and feared.

Jack does love Trains still, so he was quite happy to browse around, but I was just fascinated by how deep the selection, and thus, the hobbyists desire, goes.

Visiting some old friends:

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But again, the depth and detail is pretty staggering.  Want some sun bathers for your scale model landscape?  Got it!  Want some restaurant workers? Got it!  Want to painstakingly add some 1mm by 3mm time-table stickers to your model trains?  Got it, got it, got it!

Even some Castles and landmarks, should you really want to impress your friends!

After that I think we exhausted the kids and ourselves, so it was time to get out of there.  I was sorely tempted to get a new model to put together, maybe a 280zx or Skyline,  but amazingly resisted since I’ve still got a couple I have yet to finish.  But soon as that’s done we’ll be back to this wallet graveyard, that’s for sure.

 

Healthcare in Japan, part 3

I had no idea I had so much to write about with regard to healthcare, but here goes part 3!

Over the New Year holiday, I finally received word from a customer care representative via email that she would take it upon herself to see to it that I get the information I need to move forward with an MRI in Japan (Thank you, Emily!) .  It takes a few back and forths, but after 2 months of waiting, I get the green light and I head back to the clinic to give Dr. Kotoh the long awaited news.  He is relieved and writes me a referral to a hospital that performs MRI’s nearby.  It’s a 2 week wait, but I get there and get what I need.  Well, I should mention that the technician strapped me in a chest brace and rolled me into the machine head first. I thought it quite strange, but didn’t question his expertise.  A few moments later, he looked at the paperwork and said, “sorry!” repeatedly realizing that I was there for a left knee MRI.  As he unstrapped the chest plate, he repeated “sorry” in English, over and over.  I’m just glad we both realized the mistake before the procedure started.

After the 1.5 hour scan, I head to the waiting room where I paid ¥5000 ($46) and receive the films.  And boy, what films they were!  2.5 ft x 2.5 ft. in a huge envelope and carry bag! And there were 8 of them.  It was a bit tricky lugging them on my bike to Dr. Kotoh’s clinic, but I manage…in the rain.  I tell the clinic that I don’t have time to speak to the doctor since the scans took longer than expected, but I want them to hold on to the films for when I can head back the next day.  When I get to the clinic the next day, I am told that the doctor had an emergency he had to attend to, so I’d have to come back the next week.  The following week, I meet the doctor and he recommends I see a specialist (wait, I thought HE was a specialist).  It will take him a few days to write a referral (referrals include a handwritten letter explaining my situation and an appointment date and time) to a larger hospital in the heart of the city.  By the time I get the referral, another week has passed.  Thankfully, my appointment is for February 3rd, the following week: 1 day shy of 3 months post injury.  I called the hospital ahead of time asking if there was an English interpreter on staff who could help me, but they don’t have such services.  At least Michael will come with me to help understand (use Google translate) what the doctor is saying.

The hospital is a confusing maze of signs, directions and number dispensing machines.  You pull a number (slightly more sophisticated than the ones used at the deli department of a supermarket) after passing the information desk.  When your number is called, you speak with the receptionist who gives you a new number and directions on where to go next.  We head upstairs to the sports medicine reception and go to the waiting area for our number to show on the big screen.  There are 4 sliding doors and 4 screens next to each door.  Your number could be on any of the 4 screens, so we are strategic in our seat selection to ensure all 4 screens are in view.

img_20200319_102403There is a chime and then a voice announcing the next number.  It felt like we were on a game show or waiting for lotto numbers, so when they announced #48, I almost screamed, “That’s me!  I won!”

We head to the appropriate door and stand in front of it for a few moments.  What is behind the door anyway?  Another waiting room?  A nurse who will take you to a room?  Realizing it is, in fact, not an automatic door, we slide it open to find a small room with an exam table on one side and a desk with a computer on the other.  Sitting in front of the computer is a guy with a lab coat.  I say “konnichiwa” and start introducing myself in Japanese, wondering if we were sent to a research lab by mistake.  The guy responds, “Oh are you the one who called earlier asking about an English interpreter?” in…perfect..English.  I look at Michael with relief.  He closes the Google translate app on his phone. We chat with the doctor about my injury, he looks at the scans and says, “I recommend 2 surgeries.  One to remove part of your meniscus and the other to repair the ACL since it’s loose.”  It turns out, the best results are to perform a partial meniscus removal first, then regain full range of motion before repairing the ACL.  2 separate surgeries have a better outcome than doing both at the same time.  My heart sank hearing the news.

While letting the news sink in, the doctor continues with, “The sooner, the better. I operate on Tuesdays and Fridays.  How about tomorrow?”  Wait…tomorrow?  Like in less than 24 hours?  “I can’t do tomorrow,” I reply, stunned that he would even suggest it.  “Ok, then this Friday it is.  We’ll need to run tests to make sure you are fit for surgery.  I’ll have the nurse draw up forms for you and she will see you in the lobby.  I recommend staying in the hospital for up to a month.”  We exit the exam room completely confused and in a daze, replaying what was said to us.  Our confusion was interrupted by the nurse who has printouts for us to hand to each of the 3 departments we are to visit.  3 tests?!?  We start with Station B on the map, where I pull a…you guessed it…a ticket number, wait for my number to be called, then head in with my printout.  It’s the blood drawing station.  After a few pricks, the phlebotomist is able to find a suitable vein and fills the 2 vials.  I’m clear to head to the next place on the list: Station H.  I am able to read “レントゲン”. Looks like I’m in for an X-ray.  After speaking with reception, I wait for my name to be called.  What you must remember is everything is transpiring in Japanese and although I can get by in normal conversation, I’m at a loss when it comes to medical terminology.  And I’m unfamiliar with the way things are done here.  The technician calls my name, I follow him through a door.  He closes that door and immediately in front of us is another door.  Think of a solid metal phone booth with a door on either side.  He explains what I need to do, points to the gown, mentions some more things and exits the 2nd door.  After I change into the gown, I am about to open the door he went through, but on that door are 3 warning signs.  I read what I can and reach to get my phone to help translate…oh no, my phone is with Michael in the lobby!  I read “Do not enter”, but then I could swear he told me to open the door after changing into the gown.  I touch the handle again, and then see above the door, a red light is on.  My gut tells me that a red light means don’t enter.  I second guess myself, then third guess myself.  At this point about 5 minutes have passed with me touching and releasing the door handle, about 37 times.  Finally, I hear the technician asking “Sutoraikaa-san, Ok?” in English.  “Ok” I yell through the door.  “どうぞお入りください! Come in!” There’s the green light I was waiting for and walked in.  He smiles, knowing it couldn’t have taken me that long to put on a gown.  I mention the “Do not enter” sign on the door, hence my hesitation.  He replies that under the “Do not enter” the sentence continues with “unless you have spoken to a technician.”  Oh, right.  That’s the part I didn’t get.  We laugh at the misunderstanding (the story of my life in Japan) and get the chest x-ray done.  Check that off the list.  Change back into my clothes and off to the final station: D.  I hand the receptionist my paperwork and she walks me through a curtain that leads to 3 monitors separated by dividers with hoses attached.  It looks like the library study room cubbies back in college.  I sit in front of this machine and she says in a mixture of English and Japanese that I am to blow into the hose twice; first a normal exhale for as long as I can and the second a forceful exhale for as long as I can.  All the while the monitor charts the capacity of my lungs.  It was hard to know whether her “hmms” and “ahs” meant I was passing the test or not, which made me nervous.  But afterwards, she said, “Ok, you’re finished” with a smile, so I was hopeful.

We returned to the sports medicine reception when Michael noticed the time.  3 hours had passed and he needed to rush home to get the kids from school.  Finally, I was able to process the news from the doctor: surgery in 4 days; 2 weeks in the hospital.  Could we swing that on our own?  And when I say we, I really mean, can Michael take care of the kids on his own for 14 whole days?!??

My thoughts are interrupted by the number chime, so I head back through the sliding door.  Dr. Kusano reviews the test results and says they look good.  Here’s the exchange:

Dr. K: You are cleared for surgery, so please come to the hospital on Thursday.
        
Me: Wait, I thought the surgery was on Friday.   

Dr. K: It is, but you come to the hospital the day before.                             

Me: Like, the night before?  I don't want Michael to have to take any more days off of work.   

Dr. K: In extreme cases, we allow a 1pm check-in at the latest.  But in your case, you must check-in between 9 and 10am.  We need to prep you for surgery the day before.

Me: And how long exactly will I be staying in the hospital, and why isn't it outpatient?       

Dr. K: If I repair your meniscus, then it's a month long recovery in the hospital.  If I have to remove it, then your stay could be shorter, possibly a few weeks.  We won't know until I get in there and see the damage firsthand. Most surgeries are inpatient here so you can focus on getting better while we tend to your needs. We find it leads to better recovery outcomes.

I exit the room and wonder what kind of prep takes an entire day?  And, how much is this potential month long stay going to cost?  As the nurse directs me to the patient consultation room just down the hallway from the entrance, it hits me that this unfamiliar process is making me extremely anxious.  I walk into the consultation room, unconsciously pull the ever present number tag and wait, my thoughts swirling in my head.  When my number is called, I hand the clerk the stack of papers and she returns with an even bigger stack, a hospital handbook and a request to check-in as close to 9am on Thursday as possible.  She also gives me a to do list: visit the dentist, gather items on the checklist for in-patient stays, inform my health insurance of my hospital stay, make meals ahead of time and freeze them for the family.  Ok, that last one might have been a note to self.

The next 3 days are a blur of making phone calls, translating documents, filling out forms and packing for the hospital.  The next thing I know, it’s Thursday morning and Michael and I send the boys off to school and then take the train to the hospital.  When we arrive, we are directed to the patient check-in area, which was full, so we were escorted to the overflow room, which was beginning to fill up too.  I guess they tell all patients to come to the hospital at 9am, not just me.  Since I am the 3rd patient of Dr. Kusano’s to check-in, I am given the 3pm operation time slot.  The nurse asks me if I will be needing a hospital gown (apparently you can bring your own) and says that there is a rental charge of ¥500 per day.  Well, that’s different, being charged for the gown.  Now I’m really nervous about the bill since it seems we are being nickel and dimed for everything.  Then the nurse leads us up to the patient room.  As we get to the 8th floor, she apologizes that my hospital bed isn’t quite ready, so I will need to hang out in a private room.  2 hours later, she tells me that my bed is ready and leads me to a 4-person room where the beds are separated by curtains.  There is just enough room in my curtained area for my little suitcase.  Thankfully I have a window bed (I figure on a plane it’s called a window seat, so I’ve got the window bed, right?) with a beautiful view of the city. 

Soon after I settle in, Michael has to leave to pick up the boys from school. I’m sad he has to go, anxious about the surgery and uncomfortable about sharing this tiny room with 3 strangers. The first night is a restless one.

The next morning, I am awakened by my curtain being pulled back. It’s Dr. Kusano letting me know that he has 2 surgeries ahead of mine, so as long as those go smoothly, he’ll meet me in the operating room at 3p.m. I hadn’t considered that there was a possibility of my surgery being delayed. But even if it was, I’d just be waiting in my bed as opposed to a waiting room. He also tells me that I can eat breakfast, but they won’t serve me lunch since it’s too close to surgery. That’s probably why they have patients check in the day before; for timeliness sake and to monitor food intake. That makes sense.

The next thing I know, it’s surgery time and the my nurse asks me which knee will get operated on. I reply the left. She nods and tells me that I’ll be confirming this to the operating floor staff, the surgical staff as well as the anesthesiologist and of course, Dr. Kusano. She then leads me to the patient elevator to the 5th floor, where the first nurse I see asks which leg, “left, I mean ひだり(hidari)” I reply. I found my arm pointing to my left knee as well, just in case. The nurse looks puzzled, then leads us down the hall to the surgical staff. A staff member asks which leg. “ひだり”I reply while pointing to my left leg. They give me the same quizzical look and walk me to a huge, solid metal door. We wait there. My nurse says the metal door usually opens as soon as you walk up to it and wondered why it wasn’t opening. My mind is racing, not knowing what was happening. Then another staff member comes over and asks which leg, “ひだり” I say, looking at my nurse for reassurance. The staff member asks if I’m sure. I nod. She disappears. My nurse keeps repeating, “daijoubu (it’ll be ok)” I wonder if there is a way to cancel this surgery and try a different day? It all seemed a bit rushed and perhaps a little more time is what was needed. My thougths were interrupted by the loud, mechanical sound of the solid doors being opened. Dr. Kusano emerges with the 2 staff who questioned me about which leg. They explain that in their notes it says “right knee”, but I keep telling them “left knee”. He looks at me and asks, “ひだり?”. I show him my left knee. He then declares “ひだり” and the staff edit their notes and lead me to the operating room. It’s a good thing they have so many check points before the surgery.

Dr. Kusano reviews the surgery with me again while leading me to the operating table. It sounds straighforward and I tell him I’m ready. The anesthesiologist places the mask over my nose and mouth and asks me to count backwards from 20. I drift off at around 15.

I awaken in the recovery room where the doctor tells me the damage was beyond repair, so he removed 2/3 of the meniscus. He speculates it’s because so much time had lapsed between the injury and surgery. The good news is that I can start walking immediately. He’s optimistic that I will be able to go home after about 10 days. I’m disappointed it couldn’t be repaired, and feel frustrated that I couldn’t get the MRI sooner. They wheel me to my bed where Michael and the boys are waiting for my arrival. Seeing those boys’ faces perks my spirits up instantly and I look on the bright side: I get to go home sooner than expected.

My recovery was smooth and by Monday, I’m able to walk around unassisted. Dr. Kusano sees my progress and determines I can go home the next day. I’m thrilled and Michael is ecstatic that his time of being a sole parent is coming to an end. The hospital stay was pretty good. My roommates were quiet, elderly, long-term patients, who I never saw because the curtains were always closed. The food was quite tasty and the care was good. I have to admit it was quite a relaxing 6 days.

Michael comes to pick me up Tuesday morning and I’m ready to head home. We thank the nurses as they hand me paperwork to give to the cashier. We head to reception, hand in the paperwork and are given a number tag. The lobby is full of other patients waiting for their bingo number to be called and shown on the big screen.

They are on number 266 and I’ve got number 304. While we wait, we guess how much the bill will be. When the boys were born, I stayed in the hospital for 3 days and soon after bringing my bundles of joy home, we got a whopper of a bill from the hospital. We paid it and thinking that would be the only bill. Then a bill arrives from my ob/gyn. We pay that. Then a bill from the on-call doctor. We pay that and are convinced that has to be the last bill. Nope! A bill arrives months later from the pain management group and another from the pharmacy and one from the anesthesiologist. I recall the final invoice arrived almost a year later, informing us there was a billing error and we owed more.

With that being our only hospital experience, we remind ourselves we have a $10,000 limit on our credit card, plus there’s an ATM next to the cashier. Our number is called after about 20 minutes and we head to the automatic payment machines and scan the barcode. We brace ourselves for the bill…$1000. Ok, that wasn’t as bad as we thought. The funny thing is that about a month later, we receive a deposit in our bank account from Michael’s insurance. The deposit was for $800. Oh, right, national healthcare–great! Then I get a bill from the hospital—yep, I knew it was too good to be true. I open it and it’s the hospital gown rental fee of ¥500. I pay it at the nearby 7-11 (yes, 7-11’s here are amazing!) . We then got a deposit from the school supplemental insurance: $400! When I calculated all the costs from the injury (clinic fees, PT, MRI, hospital, etc) and then subtract all the reimbursements, it equals -$10. Yes, we came out ahead, which is utterly unheard of in the States. The experience has made us question the state of healthcare in the U.S., where medical debt is real and impacts many unfairly. All I can say is cheers to countries with national healthcare systems that provide for their citizens and residents.

Healthcare in Japan, Part 2

While I waited for the green light to get an MRI in Japan, it was recommended that I do “リハビリ” “rehabiri” or physical therapy to get movement back in my knee.  The 3rd floor of the clinic has a PT room, while the 2nd floor is, well, I’m not sure how to describe it.  As you get out of the elevator, there is a curtain that patients wait behind until called.  You walk through the curtain and are sat next to an electric pulse machine that can deliver mini shocks of electricity to about 6 patients at a time.  I get strapped to the machine and they put the timer on for 2 minutes. While letting the electricity course through my knee, I take note of the room.  It’s a wide open space with 12 massage tables  and 10 therapists massaging patients while other patients wait off to the side for their turn.  Along the perimeter, there are 4 beds that are adjacent to cupping stations.  Then off to one corner, there are 2 contraptions that I can only imagine help stretch your neck?  After my 2 minute electric shock treatment, I am called to the corner bed where the lead therapist takes measurements of my range of motion and pain levels.  Then he sends me to the 3rd floor (what? no massage?) for physical therapy.

The 3rd floor is another open room, with 1/2 the room dedicated to a raised platform with mats on it.  It is also packed with people doing various stretches and exercises.  I can’t help but notice that the majority of patients are in the 65+ range.  They’re chatting with one another, some just sitting and gossiping.  Apparently I’ve made it just in time for senior social hour.

The first task the PT gives me is picking up different sized marbles with my toes.  He explains that with each marble, I need to use a different toe to pick it up.  Then he opens up a cupboard, takes out a basket of marbles and dumps them in front of me.  I first had to reassure myself that the marbles he has laid out in front of me are sanitized.  Perhaps, it’s done at night and I’m the first one to use them for the day at 10 a.m.  Next, he laid a golf ball on the ground and, again, I had to pick it up with my toes.  After I was done with the marbles and golf ball, he scooped them back into the basket and then put them back in the cupboard.  It has to be a magical self-sanitizing cupboard of sorts I tell myself.

Then I’m off to another corner of the room, sandwiched between the stationary bikes and the stretchboards.  I sit in a chair and strap my foot onto a board with wheels on the bottom.  I am to wheel my leg back and forth 20 times.  When I extend my leg all the way, I almost make contact with a column in front of me.  As patients go to and from the bikes, I have to stop so they can pass through the tight space.  I admire how every inch of the place is utilized.  It evokes a sense of ebb and flow, a rhythm, a dance, if you will; of which I have not been taught the steps–I almost clip a patient as she shuffles past.

The last task is to sit on the raised flooring, strap a resistance band around my left foot and extend my leg as far as I can for 20 reps.  Again, when I extend my leg, I am invading the space where I picked up the marbles with my toes.  Now this space is used for the next patient whose arm is in a cast.  1 therapist/nurse is laying down a drop cloth, while the other is plugging in a tool.  It looks like a cutting tool.  Looks like I’ve got a front row seat to her cast being sawed off.  I try not to stare, but it’s like a train wreck is happening before my eyes and I can’t look away.  I’m surprised they are performing this right there in front of me and my senior posse.  I look around to see their reaction, but they don’t have one; it’s as if its a normal occurrence for them.

I finish my 20 reps—more like 30 since I was so engrossed in the cast removal procedure that I lost count– and am informed that I’m done for the day.  My homework is to do these exercises at home and come back whenever I feel like it.  They are open 9:30 am – 5:30 pm, Monday -Saturday.  I am told appointments aren’t necessary and that I could go everyday, if I felt inclined.  It was up to me.  That’s so different from my physical therapy experience back in Seattle.  My insurance covered 20 appointments and I had a set time twice a week.  I felt a little uneasy not having a schedule, but when in Rome, right?  I head back to the first floor to check-out.  Grand total: ¥480 ($4.50).  At this rate, I could afford to go back everyday, heck, even twice a day!