Disaster preparedness

I had “disaster preparedness” on my list of potential blog posts from the beginning, but it now unfortunately seems timely following large earthquakes is southwest Japan (far from us but scary).

Not to freak anyone out but…

Japan is a small but rugged country prone to lots of natural disasters: earthquakes, typhoons, tsunamis, mudslides, tornadoes (really!), and volcanic eruptions. Also snow storms, although not much where we live compared to northern Japan. I think that pretty much covers everything; at least I guess wild fires are a bit rarer than other places I’ve lived. So none of this is a joke: it’s really important to be prepared.

I’ve written about government inefficiency, but the local and national governments alike do pretty well with preparations and education. Schools and local governments have frequent drills and distribute information about safety and evacuation locations. The Tokyo municipal government has a fantastic preparation and survival guide, even in English, although it’s better not to think about all the potential scenarios it discusses if you’re prone to brood about the possibilities. The awesome rhino mascot may lift your spirits, though.

When disasters do strike, rescue and relief is deployed quite quickly in comparison with other countries. Recent building construction in Japan is designed for seismic activity as much as possible, so earthquakes that would wipe out other places can be sustained to some extent here.

In addition, some earthquakes can be detected a short time before they begin, and in such a case, alerts are automatically sent out across mobile phone networks and news media. This short clip from a BBC news radio broadcast explains how the earthquake alerts work: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p03r3gm2. As the clip mentions, trains are automatically stopped when a earthquake is detected. Some other things, like gas stoves, often have auto-shutdown features when shaking is detected.

You can also sign up for non-crucial emergency alerts on your phone: I get alerts for all significant earthquakes, severe weather warnings in my region, and police alerts for my ward in the city. (In Japanese, though, but at least I can understand what type of alert has been issued!)

Another interesting service is Web 171. It allows people to leave and collect messages from each other if phone lines are jammed in an emergency. You can log in through the web or phone into it by dialing 171 to leave messages directed at other people who you’ve designated as contacts in the system. (It’s only active in case of an emergency.)

So, what have we done? Well, we have shock absorbing cushions on the bottom of our larger furniture (bookcases). We need to do more work on that, though. We try to store heavier/breakable things lower and lighter things higher. We know where evacuation locations are, and we’re trying to stock up extra food and water. Our bathtub is always kept full, to bathe in of course, but also as a water supply. And we’ve stocked a couple of emergency backpacks with food, first aid kits, basic toiletries, etc. etc., similar to this: http://global.rakuten.com/en/store/realchuchu/item/10002119/

Again, not to freak anyone out, but it’s good to be prepared…




The Japanese have different shoe etiquette and feet sensibilities than the Anglo-American cultures with which I’m familiar. I mean, Canadians are good about not wearing boots with winter muck into people’s houses, but I was impressed by many Aussies’ fortitude in walking around barefoot in all weathers and all terrains. (No shoes in the grocery store or library? Gross! On the street? Ouch! Flip flops at 0 degrees and bare on concrete at 40! Crazy!)

Anyway, in Japan, all homes and many other buildings have an architectural feature called a genkan, which I guess could be translated as an entryway. It’s the liminal space between the door and the home where you can take your shoes off. Usually there is a small step up from the genkan to make it very clear where the space ends. In homes or other places where you remove shoes, you might then put on slippers to go inside (or just pad around in socks). The etiquette is very clear: inside feet (whether in socks or slippers) do not go in the genkan without shoes, and outside shoes never, ever go beyond the genkan into the inside space. We have a set of crocs for the genkan space for opening the closet there or the front door if we don’t feel like putting on outside shoes.

As demonstrated in the photo above at the entrance to a historical home, the proper way to take off your shoes is to back up to the edge of the genkan and step backward into the house, with your shoes pointing outside. You can then step right into the shoes again when leaving.

We noticed a bit of confusion when Japanese people visited us in our “western” apartments in the past. We kept our shoes by the door, but the genkan space wasn’t clearly delineated and they weren’t sure whether they should take off their shoes inside or outside the door. A Japanese moving company packed up our things for our move to Japan, and the workers left their shoes outside and did the packing and lifting in their socks.

Besides homes, there are other spaces where outside shoes aren’t worn, such as sacred places like temples and shrines or just particularly nice floors. You also never wear shoes on a tatami floor, nor even slippers. Same for a dōjō (ring) for martial arts that are practiced with bare feet.

At the gym where I belong, and one I visited before, you remove your shoes when going into the locker room (socks only) and then when you come out, put on “inside only” gym shoes. Wearing outdoor shoes into the gym is a big no-no.

One last important space for footwear etiquette is the toilet. Japanese homes have a separate little room with just the toilet with slippers kept ready at the entrance. You take off any other slippers that you might be wearing and step into the toilet slippers. Again, it’s polite to leave the slippers facing into the room for the next person to step into. And it is a considerable faux pas (literally!) to accidentally where the toilet slippers out of the toilet room!! At my gym, large croc-like slip-on shoes are placed in the toilet room on the main gym floor for people to step right into wearing their gym shoes. (The first time I encountered them, I was a bit confused about what to do, as they were labeled with instructions in Japanese. At least I could read the word “shoes” and figured out what to do.)





Re-run alert: I’m reusing a post from my old food blog…but I think it’s still a good one!

Japanese sweets are very intricate, varied, exotic, and difficult to describe to people who have never had anything that is comparable. The making of wagashi (image search and more pics), or traditional confectionery, is a true art in Japan. We learned on a TV show that wagashi apprentices spend about 15 years perfecting their anko (red bean paste) before attempting to make the actual sweets. They are considered masters after 30 or 40 years of practice.

Here, though, I just have some of everyday desserts.

Goza souro
Goza souro

This picture shows goza souro being made in the department store Sogo. It’s essentially a sandwich of a soft, dense batter (like a pancake) and sweet bean paste.

French toast with azuki
French toast with azuki

This was a dessert at Denny’s, of all places. The menu isn’t anything like what you find in North America, and a prime example was this French toast with sweet azuki beans and pumpkin ice cream.

Chocolate mochi
Chocolate mochi

Mochi is glutinous rice that is pounded— traditionally with a mallet— into a soft, sticky, erm, mass. It can be eaten in many ways, but these mochi balls were coated in cocoa powder. One of my sisters-in-law, a chocoholic, ate nearly all of the ones that we bought for the family, but I managed to snatch a taste of one.


Kuzu-kiri consists of flat gelatinous, noodle-like stuff made of starch from the kuzu plant. My explanation in words doesn’t make much sense, so more pics are here and here. The chilled “noodles,” for lack of a better word, are dipped in a sweet syrup to give them flavour. The taste can be described as very “gentle.”


This oshiruko (sweet azuki “soup”) was particularly wonderful at this sweets shop in Kamakura. The homemade mochi was lightly toasted and perfectly chewy. Yuuummmmm.

Rum ball
Rum ball

We had fabulous rum balls at a relative’s house. They were bigger than a golf ball, filled with dense rum cake and coated in chocolate, tastefully served on a Hello Kitty plate. Very rich, but perfectly balanced by green tea.


Ohagi is an extremely yummy sweet—definitely one of my favourites. It’s basically squished sweet rice coated with sweet bean paste (anko) or other ingredients. For example, we’ve also had black sesame, edamame bean, and matcha ohagi. It’s not sugary-sweet like Western cakes or cookies (even though it does have TONS of sugar). The about.com article describes it well and so does the explanation on Just Hungry.

Year of the Cow
Year of the Cow

We had these cute sweets, decorated in honour of the Year of the Cow, at a friend’s house. They are manju, a small cake filled with azuki paste. The outside has a thin layer of hardened icing. The effect is somewhat similar to a petit-four.

Sweet potato and chestnut cake
Sweet potato and chestnut cake

This cake was not overly sweet, instead having a more subtle and rich taste, made with sweet potatoes, pumpkin, chestnuts, and light icing.

Fad drinks

Every country has fads and crazes, especially related to food and drink. I don’t know if Japan is more prone to fads than most, but I would hazard a guess that it may be. It is also a land of an awesome variety of bottled beverages that are readily accessible in the ubiquitous vending machines and convenience stores (konbinis).

I might talk about vending machines in another post, but for now, please note that you can get cold and hot drinks from vending machines (the hot ones are indicated with a red bar underneath).


I LOVE getting bottled green tea from a vending machine and am very happy about the availability of no caffeine / no sugar bottled teas like barley and rooibos. Lately, though, a bit of silliness has caught my eye in the drink department:


Yes, the bottle says “H2”. That is, it’s called Hydrogen Water. Now, I’m pretty weak in the Chemistry department, but as far as I know, “hydrogen water” is very much redundant. You can find this stuff for sale everywhere, including a special station at my gym. If any proponents of hydrogen water happen to read this, please enlighten me, but for now, I’m putting it in my “dumb” category.

Tonics, vitamin boosters, energy drinks, sports drinks, etc. etc. are also extremely popular. I’ve had one with the lovable name Pocari Sweat (“ion water”) a couple of times. Like Gatorade, but white and with less sugar. I also tried Amino Water because I saw a gym instructor drinking it. Pretty much the same as Pocari Sweat.

Another current drink craze seems to be Blood Orange Orangina. I haven’t tried it, but it seems to be Orangina, only darker and with an edgier label. I see it in all the supermarkets and konbinis. Check out this massive display in one supermarket. That is seriously a lot of Orangina. Each of the crates is full to the floor, and probably a metre and a half high.


I think I’ll stick with my green tea.

The driver’s licence adventure

Let me preface this post by saying that it could have been much worse. My comments that follow in no way contradict my gratitude for being able to obtain a driver’s licence in Japan without having to take a test, with language help, and with understanding staff.

However…get comfy, because this is a long one.

Day 1

So, on Wednesday morning, Y and I got up early so that we could exchange my previous driver’s licence for a Japanese one. Our prefecture has a population of 9 million people, and according to Y’s understanding, there is only one licence centre for the entire prefecture. Ordinary renewals can be done at local police stations, but new licences and foreign licence exchanges have to be done at the central place. It took us about an hour to get there (bus, train, walk), but we still made it just a little after 8:00 am, knowing that the services begin at 8:30. After locating the right section of the two (or more?) buildings, we were greeted by the scene below:


In other words, essentially every “don’t” that there is in the user experience or even basic customer service handbook. This is only one section of the room, the main counter, but the theme repeats throughout the place. My favourite part is how all the arrows point different directions. Do you see the small red arrow pointing down? That’s the most important one, because the very first step is to sign your name on the ledger if you want to exchange a foreign driver’s licence. Why put that at the front with a sign that says  “start here” when you can camouflage it so expertly amongst other signs?

Some of the signs are handwritten or hand-corrected, many yellowing with age and disintegrating tape, kind of an archeological layer of signs pasted up when questions arose over the years. Some had English as well as Japanese, with the occasional Korean and Chinese.

Note the hours that the reception desk is open: 8:30-9:00 and 1:00-1:30. When you get up to the ledger, you see the polite sign below:


Yup, it’s looking ominous.

As an aside, I do not “expect” to be provided with English signage in any non-English speaking country and feel very grateful if someone goes to the effort. And I definitely do not presume to criticise others’ language skills when my Japanese is so poor. HOWEVER, if an official government office is going to provide information English, please, for the love of Pete, get an advanced or native speaker to give it a once over.

Anyway, back to the main story. So we found the all-important sign-in ledger, which was accompanied by the useful information that only 10 people could be served per service slot. That is, 10 people in the morning and 10 people in the afternoon. I was number 12. This seemed just a little bit too ridiculous, so we waited around until the personnel started peeking out from behind their curtained windows just before 8:30. Y inquired and found out that yes indeed, only 10 people were served per slot. We were advised to wait around for a bit, though, in case one of the first 10 got booted from the queue if something was wrong with their documentation. Around 9:00, my name was called, and we got to go up to the window. An official looked over my papers and confirmed that everything was in order. Alas, I was number 11; only one person had been kicked out. We had the option to wait until 1:00pm or come back the next day. The good news was that I would be first on the ledger in either case. We wrote my name on the fresh sheet for tomorrow and departed. We spent about 3 hours including travel, but at least now I was at the front of the queue!

Day 2

So, we set out again with the morning commuters and arrived back at the licence centre just before 8:00 (in fear of somehow missing our turn). It was pissing down rain, which set an appropriate atmosphere for the whole experience. The first thing we did was check the ledger: yup, my name was still there. Phew.

I got called up to the front at 8:30 and submitted my documents. They were checked again, still all good. Phew. The staff person then took away my papers and we waited until someone came out to confirm the issue date on my old licence. Then I was called up again, maybe 30 minutes later and had to fill in a form with my name, address, birth date, etc. I can write my name, but alas, I can’t yet write my address in Japanese. They were nice about it and let me write in Roman letters. I then provided a photo that I had brought along, and the staff person used an awesome square-shaped paper punch tool to crop it to the right size and attached it to my form. And then there were more forms about my personal history. I got to read the questions in English and then indicate the answers on the Japanese form. E.g., do you have epilepsy, have you been too drunk to move more than 3 times in the last month, have you lost use of your limbs temporarily in the last year, etc. (Can’t remember them all.)

The next step (which I never would have figured out without Y’s help) was to take my form to the building next door. We went to a counter to purchase stamps, which is how the fees for the licence are handled. (You would think that in the land of vending machines, we would be able to pay money into a machine, but nope, there were real live people at the stamp counter.) We had to buy four different stamps with different denominations, two of which we stuck on my form. The other two would come into play later.

A machine came next, though. I must have entered some kind of ID number or scanned a payment receipt (I can’t remember) into a machine that looked a bit like an ATM or ticket machine, and then I had to select two different 4 digit PINs. To my chagrin, these displayed in plain text on the screen. The machine then printed out a slip with my PINs and a barcode.

Then it was back to the first building, where we were instructed to put my form (with stamps and photo) in a cardboard tray that stuck out from behind the main counter, which was all shuttered and barred again at that point, being after 9:00) The tray in question looked like a homemade cardboard in-tray, vintage ca. 1973. When Y tried to put my papers through, he saw that there was a little bell hanging down into the tray and he was confused as to whether he should try to ring it, or …? As he was fussing with it, a hand shot out from the other side of the counter (behind the shuttered windows) and snatched the papers before disappearing again.

That’s when I lost it. The whole thing was just too hilarious and I was laughing to the point of crying. Y laughed at me laughing and that just made it worse. I tried so hard to pull myself together so that I didn’t look too suspicious and unworthy of a licence, and with great will power, I managed to stop. But whenever I think of that stupid cardboard tray and the hand, I still just start laughing again.

Anyway, after I stopped laugh-crying, we sat down and waited for another 30 minutes or so. (Silly me, I thought we were getting close to the end. The order really starts to get fuzzy at this point, so I might have gotten the steps scrambled. I know at one point, we stopped for a snack in the little cafeteria, but not sure when.) I think the eye test was next. I got called back behind the big wall / counter for the test. They showed me images of a circle with a break in it at different points, and I had to say whether the break was to the left, right, top, or bottom. Then I had to identify the colours of lights. Fortunately, all the necessary words are in my vocabulary.

We waited for a while longer, and then the next step involved a staff member kindly escorting us up a flight of stairs where there was a buzz of activity with people taking exams and getting photos taken. I was directed to sit on a particular bench for a while, and then a staff member appeared and told me to go to a particular queue. Soon it was my turn, finally, to get a photo taken. I had to hand over my slip with the barcode (from the machine a while back) so that the photo-taking staff member could scan it. Then it was back to waiting in the first room again. At some point, maybe with the photographer?, I was given a blue piece of paper to which I had to affix my two remaining stamps. We were told it would be another hour or so for the licence to be printed. Well, at least it’s nice to have a time estimate.

Finally, at long last, they called my name and the number on my blue paper. I got to join a queue of other people with yellow papers who had been called at the same time. I think they were getting licences for the first time? I handed over my blue paper and got my licence.

Last step: log in with my PINs at the machine by the door to make sure all my details were correct in the system. I still don’t quite understand what the system is, but whatever it is, I’m in it.

And behold, around 11:40am, a mere four hours and 40 minutes after we set out from home, we could take the train back to Y’s work, where the poor guy had only 10 minutes for lunch before having to go to a meeting. (Thanks for helping me!) Check back in 3 years for an update when I have to go back to renew the licence! (The first renewal has to be done at the central centre, but after that, locally is ok.)



I’m not sure why, but I find ads intriguing when I visit or move somewhere new. Especially when they’re in a language I don’t understand—then I can try to figure out the meaning, or just make it up.

I’m amused, actually, that I’m now seeing things like the gem below show up on Facebook. I’m not sure what I clicked on to deserve that “sponsored post”, but it’s fantastic.


Of course, Japanese ads can be excruciatingly annoying, like this one that I remember seeing repeatedly when visiting a few months ago. [Aside: I am ridiculously proud that I found it again, all by myself! Although I would not like to share how much time I spent, and then it turned out that it wasn’t as bad as I remembered.]

But then there are the ones like this, that are true works of art.

Sounds of the supermarket

I’m always struck by the complex auditory landscape of Japanese groceries and large retail stores. From the employees shouting ‘welcome’ when you enter and tempting you with the day’s special in the different sections, to the pre-recorded ads that play when you move into certain areas of the store, all with background music, it can be a bit of a sensory overload.

This audio recording captures my local grocery with typical pop music in the background, people talking, and the beep of the checkout machines, when a traditional sound cuts in: a recording of an old-fashioned street vendor calling out to sell his baked sweet potatoes (yaki imo) that plays near a stand where this delicious treat is on offer.


Everyone knows about cherry blossoms in Japan, right? I can testify that the beauty of the season goes beyond words. It’s like being in another world when the streets are lined with shivering iridescent white-pink blossoms.

Cherry blossoms, or sakura, are a core part of Japanese culture. Ohanami, or literally, viewing flowers, is definitely the thing to do when the cherry blossoms are blooming. News media broadcast sakura forecasts as they start to bloom from south to north in Japan. People go to particularly beautiful spots to watch the flowers and admire the ephemeral beauty that lasts so briefly before it’s gone (like life).

Oh yes, and there is a lot of hoopla regarding equipment for ohanami, including sakura-themed everything so that you can eat, drink, and be merry while watching the flowers.

There are some lovely words specific to sakura, such as:

  • shidarezukura (cherry tree with the branches hanging down, like a weeping willow)
  • yaezakura (8-petaled flowers)
  • yozakura (night viewing of sakura)
  • sakura fubuki (falling cherry blossom petals)

Some of my photos of this year’s sakura are below.


I had good intentions to start this blog earlier (a few weeks ago), but alas, it has been painful to get started. If I could only directly plug my thoughts while in the bathtub directly into the blog, it would be epic. I have written veritable novels (or at least really long blog posts) in my head while in the bath, but then the words evaporate. Well, at least I’m left with a list of ideas to work through.

So, baths. My bathroom, literally a bath room, is shown below. The Japanese style of bathing is as follows:

  1. Fill the bath with water if not already full. Tangent: Actually, we keep ours filled all the time and drain it once a week or so. We have a hose so that leftover water can be used in the washing machine. The plastic “lids” in the picture cover the bath and retain the heat a bit.
  2. Turn on the water heater (gas). A friendly voice tells you that the bath has been turned on.
  3. Wait for the cheerful music and friendly voice to tell you that the bath is ready, maybe 30 minutes later or so depending on the water temperature beforehand. The water has been heated and topped up if the tub wasn’t full.
  4. In the bathroom, wash your body and hair using buckets of hot water from the bath or the handheld shower head. You can splash around since again, it’s literally a bath room.
  5. Once clean, get into the tub for a soak.

This is the procedure in public baths as well as at home. Wash first, then bath!