Harold Groom


The beginning of the week was boring--or, at least, not great material for a travel journal. I went to work, I met with people from the US office who came to visit, and I met with people out here. I got some multi-threaded, multi-host, network queue code stuff working, so that was nice. I also did laundry, slept, ate, and did all the usual things. Excitement about the local rail system is so last week.


On Thursday, after spending a delightful half hour gathering death rate data for a Facebook post that would serve to change the nature of the gun control debate in this country--or not--and after a lot of pushing and pulling and complaining, we got the kids out of the house and set off for an afternoon in Odaiba. Odaiba is an artificial island in Tokyo Bay with a whole bunch of malls and attractions on it. As such things normally transpire, we got a later start than I'd like.

The last leg of the trip did include a relatively new section of rail track, up in the air with decent views of the city. The train went over the Rainbow Bridge, which gave us delightful views of the bay. Water, out to the horizon. Not buildings!

We ended up at the south end of the island, and started heading northwards. Our first stop was, of course, The Statue of Liberty. It seemed much smaller than I'd thought, but perspective is tricky.

Then we entered the first mall and searched for lunch. We ate at a restaurant with Brooklyn in the name. The food was okay. Chris and I shared a barbeque platter that was smaller than the pictures and tasted okay.

We then traveled to the other end of the mall and our main attraction for the day, the Sony ExploraScience museum. It was sort of a smaller Exploratorium sort of thing. In fact, a couple of the exhibits even had credits to the Exploratorium. It had the usual sort of computer stuff--tricks with sound and light, and a few games where you could wave your hands to make stuff happen. The highlight to me and the kids was the Dance Dance Revolution Animal Sound Wave exhibit. There was also a polarized stereo 3-D movie theater with a bunch of movies, entirely in Japanese, of course. There was an animation about the Big Bang and very early universe, a cute animation of a poor polar bear family whose lives were ripped apart by climate change, and some beautiful shots of marine life seen while diving off Okinawa.

After an hour or two, Chris graciously agreed to stay with the girls and I wandered off for a stroll around the mall to see what I could buy. I now have a Coca-Cola pocket hand towel from the Coca-Cola store. I returned and we headed north to the next shopping center. Chris was very hungry, but it wasn't really time for dinner yet, so we stopped at her insistence at a McDonald's for a snack. One Big Mac, one hamburger, and some fries later, and it was off for our second tourist destination, the Trick Art Museum.

The Trick Art Museum is in the back corner of a rather cheesy midway, with cheap toys and old fashioned arcade games. I wasn't expecting much, but it was actually pretty fun. It's basically a sequence of rooms with paintings on the wall (and floor, and ceiling) that are designed so that you can stand in the right place and take pictures that look tricky. Like, say, you can have a picture of yourself trapped in an upside down wine glass by a vampire. Or hiding from ninjas by holding on to the doorframe of a building. Stuff like that. Chris will post some pictures at some point. Cheesy and silly, but a lot of fun.

It was quite late by the time we were heading back, so we grabbed some food from the 7 Eleven and Lawson, and heated it up at home. A tiring day with a slow start, but good fun overall.

Friday was another work day. Mostly it went well, although there's some code that wasn't behaving. I'll probably fix it tomorrow. First thing in the morning, staring out the window, I saw a mountainous cone in the distance that may have been Mt. Fuji. What I saw sort of looked like the picture in the link, so maybe that was it. I'll have to get a closer view sometime.

Which was part of what we tried to do on Saturday...
Harold Groom


After the whirlwind that was Saturday, Sunday was back to our usual, more casual pace.

I went jogging around the neighborhood again, this time heading south. I'm not getting the same kind of exercise here I get back home. In our house, we have an exercise bike that I ride every day unless I'm sick or have a very early appointment. I did bring my running shoes along to Japan, but jogging doesn't inspire me as much as biking, so I don't get out nearly as often. On the other hand, any day that includes a train trip in Japan has well over an hour of walking, usually with my 10+ pound backpack. I'm not sure whether the walking is enough exercise, or even what "enough exercise" means. At least my pants still fit.

Anyways, we got out of the house just before lunchtime and walked towards the Kawasaki station (it's the closest major station) for the day's adventure. Along the way, we went into the underground Azalea mall I've been curious about. It had what must have been over a block-long stretch of small restaurants. Choosing a restaurant to eat in is tricky. There's usually models of what they serve up front, but it's difficult to tell the difference between a pork cutlet and a chicken cutlet from a model. In the absence of the "English menus available" sign, we tend to look at all the interesting food... and then end up at something more recognizable, like Indian food. We've eaten a lot of Indian food here. This place was also quite nice.

Then it was off to the trains. Today we took a train to a train on a loop line. It reminded me of London's loop line, with trains differentiated not by their destination, but by whether they were going clockwise or counterclockwise.

We stepped through a very crowded Harajuku station and arrived at Yoyogi park, hoping to see buskers, cosplayers, and perhaps some trees. The entrance arch was impressive. If they made it out of individual trees and not a veneer around something else, those were awfully large trees. We walked for a while on a trail that was substantially less crowded, and delightfully foresty. As the girls got tired, we headed back towards the shrine at the park's center. We found the local cafe, with vending machines at which you buy tickets to give to the people who give you your food. They served "soft gelato" cones. Soft gelato is made, apparently, by squeezing regular gelato through what looked like a solidly built orange juicer press. I was about to order a sake gelato, but was saved by Michelle misordering vanilla when she wanted chocolate.

We returned to the station, having seen no buskers of note and only a couple people dressed up in costumes. Lots of teenagers, though.

One of the things that's been lacking from our diets is cheese. At home, we usually eat a lot of cheese. Here, it's hard to find anything beyond a few small packets for takeaway. But, by using Google Maps to guide us through the floor plan of Shinagawa station, we were able to find a little shop called Fermier that sells chunks of that odd Western product. It was only two or three times more expensive than the stuff in the States, too.

Cheese is important this time of year, too, because it's the Jewish holiday of Shavuot. Traditionally, this holiday commemorating the gift of the Torah is celebrating by staying up all night studying, and eating dairy products. Seriously, the idea is that there wasn't time to cook a meaty dinner at Mt. Sinai, so the Jews apparently ate blintzes. We weren't able to find any cottage cheese--and of course, we didn't find any Farmer's cheese, the ideal for blintzes--but we bought their only container of ricotta and some other more interesting bits and pieces.

Thereby provisioned, we returned to Kawasaki station for dinner at a pancake house that Chris and the girls had liked, and then headed back home.

Monday was another work day for me. I finally got to experience some of that "rainy season" I've heard so much about. The rain was fairly light, but there was enough wind that my fancy rainjacket was clearly insufficient. After my pants got soaked on the walk to the train station, I pulled out my landlord-provided pocket umbrella. That helped for a while... until a gust of wind outside my office broke one of the spars. Fortunately, there was only a trace of the rain left by the time I headed home.

My coworkers took me out to lunch (providing a loaner umbrella for the walk) at the local Ootoya, the chain restaurant that had made us wait forever back on Saturday. I was a little pensive after my previous experience, but figured that with three Japanese speakers in the party, we wouldn't get stuck in the same way. After we'd read through the menus, my coworker Bill asked if everyone was ready, and then pressed the button on the table that summons the waiter.


Chris and I had even been wondering Saturday what the grey plastic object on the table was for. The restaurant staff hadn't been rude to us; we just hadn't known that we were supposed to push the button for service. Possibly the waiter explained this to us at the beginning, amongst the vast pile of Japanese that we didn't understand. Now we know.

Chris went out with the girls to a reptile cafe (that's for her and the girls to tell) and some other shopping and actually found some form of cottage cheese. I plan to have some for breakfast in a bit, but last night she used much of it to make blintzes. I think it was a heroic effort, and I am both delighted and impressed by her perseverance and the yummy result. I was home for dinner before the sun set, so we had our traditional blintzes for Shavuot. Yay!

The sky is filled with multiple layers of puffy and streaky white clouds against a blue backdrop. Good morning!
Harold Groom


After the do nothing day that was Friday, I resolved that we were going to do something on Saturday. So, we made an effort to get up and go, and by 9:30, we were off to Ueno Park.

Ueno Park is a big park in Tokyo that has a whole bunch of museums dropped across some lightly treed fields. We were aiming for the science museum, which had a special exhibition on dinosaurs. We bought our tickets, waited in line for fifteen minutes or so, and then went down to the subsubbasement where they keep the dinosaurs.

My main impression from the exhibit was of how crowded it was. The exhibit was mainly laid out as a seven-meter wide path that moved from room to room between display cases and models. There was enough room to move around without bumping into people, but the crowds in front of the displays were packed three or so people deep.

The displays themselves were kind of cool. There were a number of fossils that looked like a slice through a small critter's skeleton. You could see what really looked like feathers on some of the small ones. (Note to those following the devate at home: apparently it's not clear how many dinosaurs had feathers and how many had scales. Teach the controversy.) There were displays where dinosaur skeletons had been assembled, from the meter-long miniraptor to the requisite T-rex. The T-rex was kinda cool. I have no idea how much of what we saw was actual fossils and how much was manufactured, but it was cool. I've got photos of my kids against the backdrop of a wide-open dinosaur mouth.

Near the end of the display there were some sofas laid out for people to rest on. The kids were tired by then, so we sat on the sofas for fifteen minutes to give them a break. Then it was onward, up the stairs, and into... The Gift Shop!

It was a pretty cool gift shop. I bought a set of playing cards with the elements printed on them--with some Japanese descriptive text, of course. They had stuffed ceolacanths that were very cute, but we brought home a squid, an arctic fox, and some sort of wolf, instead. They had freeze-dried space food in Japanese flavors from JAXA, the Japanese space agaency. If you want your space Ebi Gratin, that's the place to go. Chris also got both butterfly and squid crafting tape.

It was well past lunchtime, so we wandered across the park towards lunch. We passed a lake filled with lotus leaves. Really, it was completely covered with them. It was a little creepy, and I was glad that the lake didn't have an outlet to the ocean. We also passed a number of buskers. If we ever get all of Smorgaschord on a world tour, we should definitely hang out in a bunch of parks and sing.

On the other side of the park, we headed towards a Japanese restaurant that Chris and the girls had eaten at on a previous trip to Ueno park. We waited a little while for a table, they seated us, and we waited. And waited. And waited. The place was busy, but we watched people being seated at tables next to us, having their orders taken, and being served while we waited. Either we fell through the cracks, or someone decided they didn't want to deal with the foreigners and just avoided us. Eventually, Chris caught a waiter's attention, and someone took our order. The food came reasonably quickly after that, and it was decent food. Given the delay, though, I wouldn't go back.

Then it was back home. Lunch was late, so we nibbled dinner from what was around, and called it a night. On behalf of Shavuot, I had a chunk of cheese for dinner and read through the Book of Ruth quietly to myself.
Harold Groom

And Then, Nothing Happened

Well, I was about to write a rather philosophical entry about how dealing with the children this weekend was going better. Unfortunately, Rebecca's in quite the awful mood this morning, so I had to dealy while I dealt with her. Anyways...

Thursday night we went out to dinner at a nearby Indian restaurant (Naina, I think). The ladies had had lunch there a few days back and enjoyed it. I thought the food was decent. Interacting with the waiter felt a little odd though. He was clearly of Indian descent, but he didn't speak much English. Pretty much every Indian I've dealt with previously speaks excellent English--generally with a BBC accent. It was interesting having my expectations tweaked.

Friday was one of those days on which nothing happens. Mostly. That wasn't the plan; we had grand ideas of going into Tokyo, or maybe even a day trip to Hakone (a volcano/spa area an hour or so south). But Chris caught up on her sleep and didn't get out of bed until after 10. By the time she was ready to go and do something, it was effectively lunch time. After negotiating and eating a slow lunch, the girls were getting grumpy. More time passed.

I decided to go make a short trip, just to get out of the house. I went over to the Lawson to see if I could get tickets for the Studio Ghibli museum. We've been trying to get tickets through various means (online, local travel agents, through someone earlier going on a trip, through a lottery) pretty much since we heard about the trip. Alas, they were already sold out. On the way back, I stopped in at a local bakery recommended to us by our landlord. I bought some brown bread (not whole wheat, as it turns out, just carmely) and crunchy sugary deep-fried bread crusts.

In the meantime, Rebecca had wandered off to take a bath. Somewhat inspired by some things that silkiemom, I suggested that Chris and I just go out for a bit and leave the kids to do whatever they want. They were okay with that. Chris double checked that they knew how to Skype us if they needed anything, and away we went.

It was then around 3. We didn't want to stay out for too long or go too far away, so we went one stop over to the Kawasaki mall complex to look around together. Chris wanted a snack, so we stopped at a cafe in one of the department stores. It was a little confusing at first. Misreading the menu, I almost ordered a coffee drink that I didn't want. When the waitress read back the order, I realized my mistake and said that I didn't want anything. But, we were sitting in a portion of the restaurant where you had to order something. I tried ordering an ice cream cone, but that wasn't enough; there had to be a drink with it. Eventually, we realized that there were tables outside to sit at for smaller orders, so we moved there. The ice cream cone turned out to be custard flavored, instead of vanilla, which was a surprise at first, but then okay. Also, it came in a sugar cookie--sort of like the cookie part of Pepperidge farm Milano cookies--which fell apart while I was trying to eat it. And Japanese restaurants only provide minimal tiny napkins for the mess. Ah well.

We went to a craft store. I stared for a while at various passport wallets, while Chris found an apron she liked. We wandered through a book store. After completing a somewhat dazed loop of the place, I asked and found out where I could find a Superman book, while Chris looked around the crafting section. The sales staff showed me an entire bookcase of American graphic novels in translation. I now have a DC anthology of significant stories in Japanese.

That was late enough, so we walked back to the apartment, which was still there and still contained the number of children we started with. Chris put together a delightful pot of sukiyaki for dinner, and we celebrated our second Shabbat in the Japanese diaspora.
Harold Groom

A Week At Work

I haven't posted as much about my adventures over the last few days, primarily because I haven't had as many. See, the whole point of this trip is for me to be working. When I'm working, I'm not being a tourist. A few interesting things can still happen, though. mizkit always says that it takes five things to make a post. Let's see if I can come up with five...

We had dinner one night at the food court in the Lazona mall at Kawasaki station. Chris and the girls seem to like it a lot. To me, it seems like a standard food court with a few minor differences. It was very crowded, like the food courts back home at peak time. Of course, we were there at dinner time, so maybe it was a peak time. The tables and chairs are a little smaller and a little more packed together than in the States. Probably the biggest difference was that none of the vendors appeared to me to be part of chains; they didn't have the polished glitz of a major restaurant corporation. The menus were, of course, in Japanese with bits of English tossed in.

On Monday, I erred at work. I was at the customer's site. Generally, I write software on my laptop and occasionally copy it onto a memory stick to be transferred to the customer's computer for testing. In the mid-afternoon, the engineer I usually work with was away for a while, so the engineer there to babysit / help me wasn't as familiar with the setup. I wanted to transfer some files over, but there was nothing showing up on the monitor of the computer normally used for this purpose. The computer's power was on, and there were lights on the keyboard. During our chaotic investigations, I tried clicking the Caps Lock to see if the computer might just be wedged. The Caps Lock light didn't blink, so I went with my theory, reached over, and rebooted the computer. This was a Mistake.

The engineer helping me was immediately upset by this. I apologized, and backed away as she brought over another monitor to try and figure out what was going on. As we found out when the other engineer returned, the monitor just had a hidden power button. No one has complained that any substantial data was lost, so I don't think it was a disaster. But I've been told in very clear terms that I'm not to touch anything except for my company's computer. The engineer also brought her manager over, and I apologized again to the two of them. As they left, they were both backing away and bowing repeatedly. Apparently I've been introduced to the Japanese cultural rituals for apologies, the hard way. ☹ Subsequent e-mails and discussions indicate that no permanent damage to the relationship was done, though.

I've eaten lunch four times now in the Toshiba employee's cafeteria. The first three times I bought food there, but I'm going to be bringing in my own food in the future. The cafeteria is very busy and rushed, and doesn't include cues for visitors who don't speak Japanese. Given time to peruse a menu--or even to sound out the names of things as written in kana--I can figure out what's there. But it's just too rushed. Although I ordered items that I thought ought to be close enough to my kashrut standards, after the fact I'm suspicious that all three meals had pork in one form or another--either as a seasoning in the sauce, or as a component of the "hamburger". It's easy enough to bring in sandwiches that I buy in the train station, instead.

I'm getting more comfortable with the train system. Wednesday, as I was walking out of our apartment building, I pulled out my phone and opened Google Maps™ to get train routing information. My phone crashed, hard. So, I headed to the train station and followed the same route as I had taken the previous day. It took a half hour for my phone to finish rebooting--Android wanted to "optimize" all the apps, whatever that means--so I had to change trains all by myself. Ooh. Aah. As with many things in Japan, I'm slowly approaching grade school-level competence.

It's very noisy and crowded here. I don't know if that's an urban life thing, or something special to Tokyo. Part of the problem is that our apartment is surrounded on three sides by train tracks, so there are trains going by every minute or two. The train stations and streets are very crowded. I don't remember things being quite this dense when I lived in San Francisco. Clearly, I'm used to the suburban lifestyle.

The weather continues to be relatively nice. It's humid--which I don't mind--but not as hot or rainy as expected. There's been some mist, and a couple of times I've emerged from a building to discover that the ground was wet. But there hasn't been any uncomfortable heat or even moderate rain, yet.

If I'm writing about the weather, I must be done...
Harold Groom

Traveling with Children

This was not the weekend I was hoping for. It wasn't awful, but it wasn't that great, either.

Saturday, I was hoping to go to Asakusa with the family. I'd been there before, eight years ago. Even my dad had been there once, back thirty-some years ago, when he had his Japanese adventure. Aside from the shrine and the park and the rows of stalls selling food and tchotchkees, there's a whole bunch of other sights to see in the vicinity. I figured we'd go look at the main stuff, and then judge the kids' energy for what else we could do.

These days, from a combination of jet lag and early sunrise, our family is waking up at about 5am. We didn't get out of the house until 11. We got to the train station just in time to see a train pull away. Michelle raced ahead of the rest of us through the gate to try and catch it, but it pulled away. No matter; the next train was only ten minutes later.

As it turns out, Michelle hadn't managed to slap her card on the turnstile properly, so when she tried to go through the exit turnstile, the red lights went off and the gate closed. After trying a couple of turnstiles unsuccessfully, the official behind the counter called us over. I went back through the turnstile and over to the window. His English seemed comparable to my Japanese, so it took a little while to figure out what had happened. Eventually we cleared things up, paid the proper fare, and moved on.

By the time we got to Asakusa, it was after noon, so we started by looking for someplace to have lunch. This process is complicated, since we mostly have to look at the pictures of stuff outside the restaurants to pick something. Picking a restaurant is always challenging, but here in Japan it's a bit more so. We also have to try and judge the quality of the place based on a picture menu and plastic models of the food. Trying to figure out if it's a genuine restaurant or an awful tourist trap on these limited cues is... well, not really possible, but we try anyways.

In response to the different food out here, the girls have become pickier eaters. Michelle, in particular, doesn't seem to want to eat anything but udon.

After enough failures, including going down a flight of stairs to a restaurant which was closed (except that now I think perhaps it wasn't closed; there's something about Japanese restaurant ettiquette that means you have to open a door to go in), we finally ended up at a restaurant serving rice bowls and sushi. Going in, we had to remove our shoes and place them in these lockers that were locked with 8x8x3 cm blocks of wood. You pulled out the wooden block with a number on it, and the door closed. Spiffy.

Michelle couldn't find anything she wanted to eat. I suggested that she order what I was planning on--oyako don, chicken and eggs with a sweet onion broth over rice. Just to be safe, I ordered a bowl of salmon over rice, because she also eats that.

To help Rebecca decide what sort of sushi plate to get, I actually put together a six-word question to ask the waiter what kind of fish was in a picture. And I got an answer I understood (squid), so we ordered something else. Let's hear it for my broken Japanese!

The food came. Michelle tried a piece of chicken from the oyako don and said it was good, so I started eating my salmon. Michelle slowly ate her miso soup with a spoon while I consumed my entree. Once I was mostly done, she returned to the oyako don, took one more bite, and declared it inedible because of the onions. That was it; no more of that lunch would pass her lips. Chris tried sorting out chicken bits and onion-free rice, but that wouldn't work. And it was yummy oyako don, too.

So, as we set out through the alleys of street vendors, the first priority was to try and get our increasingly desperate Michelle something to eat. Eventually we found something sufficiently starchy and recognizable that would work.

We stopped at a store that sold candy, because they had some highly detailed image candy that reminded me of Greg's work. I bought a sample which I'll get back to him.

Both girls were now tired from the restaurant and the travel, and we hadn't even gotten to the shrine, yet. We pulled them along and looked at the place for a little while. We wandered over to look at the gardens. There's a place near the entrance to the gardens with a small koi-filled stream and a waterfall. We all spent some time watching the koi. The koi became particularly exciting after someone violated the posted sign and started tearing apart some sort of danish and throwing it to them. Those koi get vicious when they're fighting for food.

We walked a little further through the garden, but Michelle needed to rest. Rebecca went back to watch the waterfall for a little while. It became clear that the girls had had enough, so we went back through the halls of street vendors and headed home.

I found the experience very frustrating. Michelle was on nearly her worst behavior, and Rebecca was complaining about being tired awfully early. Apparently I'd expected more out of them then they were ready for.

On Sunday, things were little better. I noted Michelle's mood--already whiny before leaving the apartment--and decided not even to bother with the planned expedition around the local mall. Chris took Rebecca out for an afternoon of yummy Indian lunch and shopping for more household goods. Michelle and I watched Nausicaa and read in the apartment. We all went out to dinner at the local mall's food court, which was mostly okay because Michelle could get her udon.

Most likely, the trouble is that the girls are either finishing (Rebecca) or starting (Michelle) the cold that I had during the trip over. It's not a bad cold, and Michelle wasn't showing any symptoms until Sunday afternoon, but these things are draining. It's certainly contributing to their poor moods.

But it's frustrating being in Japan with all this cool stuff to see, and not getting to do any of it on my days off work. Today, I get to wander off to work again and leave Chris behind with slightly grumpy and ill children. That doesn't feel great, either.

We'd had vague plans about going to Kyoto for a four-day weekend starting Friday. I'm not sure that that makes sense, though, if all the kids are up for is sitting in the apartment and an hour or two of sightseeing. Grumph.
Harold Groom

Daily Life

The last two days have been a lot more normal-ish, so I haven't had as much material to post about. Perhaps today will be different.

Thursday and Friday I went to work at our customer's site. I'll be doing a lot of that, since the point of this trip is for me to get some software working for them.

Traveling there and back continues to have its own little challenges, but I'm starting to get used to this portion of the train run. I've only really got caught once, when Google recommended that I switch from one station to another, but didn't provide directions as to how to make the journey by foot. By the time I'd found the other station, the train I wanted had already left. Only ten minutes lost, though; there are lots of trains here during the day.

Our customer is located on the Toshiba campus near (in?) Yokohama. As one would expect, Toshiba's campus is huge. It has lots of very industrial warehouse buildings, with amenities like a soccer field, store, and a couple of cafeterias. It reminds me of the Martin Marietta campus in Orlando that my father worked at. Except for the soccer field, of course. And I don't think the Toshiba campus has any alligators.

I've gone twice to the cafeteria and eaten something vaguely resembling a hamburger in curry sauce or on a tray with rice. Chris reminded me that Japanese hamburgers may not be all beef, so I'm going to have to be a bit more cautious with my choices going forward. Lunch in the Japanese corporate environment is very quick and efficient. People get their food, sit down, eat it quickly, and head back to work. There seems to be little chatting, and very little lingering.

That being said, I have had some pleasant lunchtime conversations with the people I'm working with, comparing various cultural bits. Their English, while nowhere near as bad as my Japanese, is also missing a few bits. It's fun trying to explain the occasional odd word that misfires. For "ostrich", I had to resort to my translator app. Suganuma-san has been to the Ghibli (pronounced "jibli", apparently) museum three times, and highly recommends it. She even had the ticket purchasing regimen memorized.

Last night, I slept through from 8:30pm to 5am. It's the first time I've slept through, and within striking distance of where I'd like to be locally. Tokyo isn't centered in its time zones and doesn't have daylight savings time, which means the sun is is up from 4:30am to 7pm. I'm hoping to get to bed earlier on a regular basis to help compensate, and so I can get to work at a reasonable hour.

Chris lit Shabbat candles last night, and we had kiddush over a $6 bottle of Chilean chardonnay (okay, but not great) and grape juice. The grape juice out here, even when it claims to be 100% grape juice, tastes like a bad version of grape Kool-Aid.

Hopefully I'll have some story-worthy experiences today exploring Tokyo.
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Harold Groom


Today, I went to work. To do that, I had to use the trains. "Sure", I said to myself, "I can use the train system without someone walking me through it, even though it's been four years since the last time I used the system, and I've never used them alone before." Turns out, I was right.

What makes this all possible is that there are apps that can provide directions and clues as to what to do. Google Maps will tell me that if I want to get to a particular place, I should take such-and-such a train at a particular time to a particular stop, change to another train, and then take it to my destination. So the routing problem is solved.
What Google won't tell me is what to do when something goes wrong, or how to find a particular train in a station.

My first train stopped early. I noticed this when there was a longer (incomprehensible) station announcement than usual, and everyone got off of the train. Fortunately, I could follow the crowd as they went across the platform, and I got onto a different train that was going in the same direction. Easy enough.

The other train, though, wasn't a local, so it went past my intended transfer point. It stopped next at Yokohama station, a mid-sized station. I knew I needed to transfer to the "Yokohama Line", but there weren't signs for it. There were signs for the JR trains (the train system is a patchwork of multiple companies' routes, the largest of which is Japan Rails), and I knew the "Yokohama Line" was one of them, so I headed that way.

That led me to a platform with a lot of people waiting in line. This platform serviced two train lines, the one I was looking for, and another one. I figured that some of the people were waiting for my train and some for the other one, so I'd just wait for that one. When the first train pulled up--the other one--everyone got on board. This was not what I expected. I asked the nice guy in line behind me if this train was going to where I wanted to go. He was polite and helpful, and managed to indicate that I should go to the next stop, and then transfer to the train I wanted. Which I did.

Then I could walk to my destination. Yay!

For the trip back, Google looked at where I was, and indicated which train I should get on after walking 9 minutes to the station. I did manage to get to the station and the train--just in time to leap on before the doors closed a few seconds later. Okay, Google thinks I walk faster than I do, or doesn't leave much margin.

At the transfer point (which we reached without difficulty), I had to walk to a different nearby station, which I knew by name. None of the signs showed which way to go. So, I walked up to one of the men in uniform (a station guard of some sort, I hope), and asked, すみません、なかきどえきは どこです。 <Excuse me, Nakakido station is where.> I realized afterwards that I'd forgotten the tailing ーか to make it a question, (I keep doing that), but he figured out what I wanted, and pointed across the giant pedestrian bridge he was standing next to. Sure, it was kind of obvious, but the station had two exits, neither of which had a sign that indicated the station I wanted. This bridge led to a store and the station I wanted.

When I got to the proper track, I waited for a little while. A train of the proper line appeared--a few minutes earlier than Google indicated--so I got on. It turns out, this was the Narita Express train, not the local that I wanted. No big deal, the route map inside the train showed that it should stop a few stops before my intended destination, so I got off there.

At the other side of the platform, there was a different train waiting. It said "local", and most of the people who got off got onto that train, so I thought it might be the right one. I asked a gentleman in uniform where the train was going, and pointed up and down the track. He looked a bit confused, and pointed in the direction I wanted to go, so I got on. It turns out that he was the conductor, and I was standing near the back of the train from which he drives it. So, perhaps, the direction was obvious. That, plus the train was marked on its side with the destination.

The train arrived at my intended destination a few stops later, and I walked to our apartment.

So, what have I learned today?

  • People are very helpful when you ask them questions, even in broken Japanese.

  • Trains are sometimes marked on the outside with their destination and whether they are locals or expresses. However, those markings may all be in kanji, or they may oscillate between English, kanji, and kana, so it may take time to figure out whether the train is the one you want.

  • Different rail systems have their signs set up differently.

  • Yes, some of the signs indicating which station is which now have English text on the bottom. However, while reading the names of the stations in English is helpful (and unnecessary for me, because I can read kana), knowing which station you're at is insufficient to figure out how to use the train system.

  • To find a particular train, you may need to know some or all of: its company's color, it's train line's color, the name of the train's ultimate destination, the name of the train's company, and the name of the train line. You don't know how long you have to figure this all out before the train moves on.

  • Smart phones can provide hints about this information. They can use their GPS to tell you exactly where you are, which is helpful and reassuring. But their information about timings on the ground leave something to be desired.

If the Tokyo rail system wants to be truly usable for the Olympics by people who have, at best, only a halting knowledge of English and no Japanese (which seems to be one of the goals), it needs a lot of work.

My coworkers indicated that the train system can be confusing even for the natives.


I also ate lunch today at Subway. All the menu items are shown in the picture menu, which has English labelling. Also, all the menu items' Japanese text are phonetic transcriptions of their English names. Even though I know the word for "chicken", I didn't need to use it in order to get my chicken sandwich. The Japanese subways also seem to have settled for a sandwich size midway between the American 6-inch and 12-inch sandwiches. The selection of veggies was a bit smaller, and the flavoring was milder.

My coworkers are friendly, helpful people.
Harold Groom

Puttering About The Neighborhood

It's 3:45am, and everyone's up again. That's okay; we'll sleep a bit more later. At least, I will.

Yesterday, we were all up for the day at about 4:30am. We wandered over as a family to the 7/11 and bought a pile of pre-packaged food for breakfast. Tuna / mayonnaise omigiri (rice triangles wrapped in seaweed) are temporarily one of my staple foods.

I went jogging around the neighborhood mid-morning. One of the challenges of traveling by foot appears to be crossing train tracks. When I tried getting past my first crossing at 8:30am, the guard bars came down as a train went past. And another. And another. As the crowd of pedestrians and bicyclists grew, there was a brief pause. One woman lifted the bars and ran across the tracks. After she was safely across, another train went past. And another. Some of those trains were clearly packed solid with commuters. Waiting was no fun, but it was probably better than pretending to be a sardine.

After the seventh train, I started counting aloud. I think the counter for trains would be ーほん, but I'm not certain. Anyways, after the eleventh train, the gates lifted across and everyone went on their way.

A couple of times during the jog, I wasn't quite certain I was still on track (metaphorically). Fortunately, a quick check of my electronic tour guide (smart phone) showed me that I was exactly where I wanted to be. I'm amazed at how useful my cell phone can be for getting around in a foreign land. I can always find where I am on a map and get directions to wherever I'm going. Plus, when I need a key Japanese word that isn't in my vocabulary (like ゆっくり), I can just look it up. It's like living in the future.

I wasn't the only white dude visible, but it was pretty close. Most of the morning commuters are men wearing sportsjackets. There were some women, and there were some men in ordinary pants and shirts. I suspect that my uniform of polo shirt and Dockers may be a bit underdressed, even though I tried to check it out first. Ah well.

There were also no other joggers out there. Just me, the silly Californian white guy.

I cleaned up in the lovely shower. The shower is actually part of a whole room devoted to showering and bathing. There's a bath tub on one side, but the rest of the room is all shower floor. When you close the room's door, it's all sealed so the water can run into the drain in the room's center. The truly nice part wasn't the floor space, though; it's that Kawasaki isn't in a drought, so there's plenty of water pressure. Yum!

The whole family went on an expedition to the mall attached to the Kawasaki train station, a twenty minute walk away. In honor of the girls' birthday, we had lunch at the CPK with ice cream at the Baskin Robbins. Really, we'll try non-American restaurant chains soon enough. The CPK had English menus with pictures. The food was not exactly like it would be back home, but it was close. Chris opted for a bacon and scrambled eggs pizza. Michelle found mac & cheese on the kids' menu. It was apparently higher quality than the stuff in the States (made with cheddar, not Velveeta), so she doesn't want to go back. I had Kung Pao Chicken Spaghetti, which was (as expected) less spicy than the stuff back home.

The Baskin Robbins also had picture menus for us to point at. Spoons go into a separate recycling trash can, whose label I was happy to be able to read.

We stopped at a kitchen supply store to purchase a can opener, so that we could eat some of the food I purchased that morning. We couldn't find can openers, so I looked up the word for "can opener" and asked the sales clerk where to find them. It seems that they don't use the rotary sort here; it's the good, old-fashioned punch a hole and cut sort.

We also stopped at the train station to get Suica (train system debit) cards for everyone. Since child Suica cards are different (half fare), we had to stop at the ticket office and ask an actual human to get them for us.

We brought the exhausted children back home, where we all flopped around and watched My Neighbor Totoro together. I ran out to get more dinner food at a local "supermarket". The kids crashed while I was out, and Chris wasn't feeling well, so I had a lovely salad (yay, salad!) and omigiri for dinner. We plopped off to bed at 8:30.

I'm quite delighted with how useful my little stock of Japanese has been. I can read--if slowly--product labels on the shelves, menus, and signs. I can ask store clerks where stuff is, whether I can use my credit card, and toss in a few politeness tokens in the proper places. We probably could have gotten through all of our transactions without it (I think; the Suica purchase would have required a lot of pointing and hand waving), but I'd like to think that knowing some of the local language helps.

Now, I'm going to try and sleep a bit more. Today I'm off to the office, to do some actual work. And I'll get to use the train system by myself. Ooh. Aah.
Harold Groom

The Journey and First Impressions

We're here!

It's just about midnight, and Chris and I are (unsurprisingly) up for a little while, since it's time to get up back home. We've only been asleep since 7pm JST, so we'll go back to bed in a bit. Rebecca was up briefly, but seemed to accept my suggestion that she turn out her room light and go back to bed.

The trip was about as simple and uneventful as it could be.

We got up, dressed, showered--no, strike that; reverse it--and otherwise prepared for the day. The van from Palo Alto Limo (sure, that's a recommendation) showed up on time and took us to the airport. We checked in at United with only one minor hiccough, when the automatic luggage tag printer gave Rebecca a blank luggage tag. That was easily fixable.

The flight was...uneventful. The kids behaved wonderfully and earned their free Kindle™ book. All carrot, no stick. I got to watch the Minions movie and 1.3 Batman movies. I also napped for an hour, which ended up being a bad idea, because I then had a low grade migraine for the remainder of the flight. Chris helpfully suggested I take some of my emergency ibuprofen (what, you don't fly with emergency ibuprofen?) which may or may not have helped.

After the girls' first genuine airplane meal, Rebecca remarked that it was the best airplane meal she'd ever had. But she was being positive; she enjoyed her chicken thing. I got to eat three salads. The second airplane meal was everything that an airplane meal is supposed to be--awful. Why someone would choose to do that to some poor, innocent spaghetti and vegetables, I don't understand.

Immigration was...uneventful. All of our bags were waiting for us on the luggage carousel.

Customs was...uneventful. When we pulled out our hard-earned Yakkan Shoumei (medication import licenses), the customs clerk mostly looked confused. Sort of like a bureaucrat who sees an oddity and thinks to himself, "Oh. Yes, you're supposed to do that. And you don't speak Japanese. Do I really have to deal with this?". So, he did the only thing he could, and called for his supervisor. The supervisor pulled us over to the Customs counter and went through our documents. We started pulling out our meds before he asked for them. He checked everything off on the list, and sent us on our way. We didn't have to open up anything else, including the small suitcase filled with undocumented (but legal; we checked everything) OTC stuff that I was concerned about.

My general impression is that Japanese travel gatekeepers think it's their job to be helpful, while American travel gatekeepers think it's their job to police the border. I haven't dealt with enough other travel gatekeepers to know what the rest of the world is like.

The van driver was waiting for us with a "Harold Zable" sign. He had "small English", but we managed to cover the basics. I think. I asked him where to pick up my MiFi. He asked information, then pointed me in the proper direction. I successfully asked "Where's the van?" and then told everyone to wait while I went in the opposite direction to deal with the errands. I walked for a while, then asked again at the next information counter. The clerk directed me to the next window over.

That transaction succeeded, although I didn't express myself well. The clerk started talking in rapid Japanese that I couldn't quite follow. I asked her "Slower?", so the rest of the explanation was given to me in very. slow. English. Clearly I need to internalize the Japanese word for "slow" and a couple phrases like "please speak slowly in Japanese, I only understand a little". (Actually, at this point I only need to internalize the word for "slow" and learn a better word for "speak"; the rest I can manage. And, yes, I can look it up on the net; I just need to learn it.)

After a quick stop at the ATM, I returned to my family and the van driver. We boarded the van and had an uneventful drive to the apartment. Except that I could
read some of the road signs. I don't know if I can express how much of a relief that was. I'm not (quite) illiterate!

We arrived at the train station, and were met by the Sugiyamas, our hosts/landlords. They were gracious and helpful and helped us lug all our stuff to the apartment. I managed not to be hit by a train on the first train track we crossed. The apartment itself is new and clean, and looks like it'll be a great place to stay. Daisuke friended me on Facebook (Hi!), so the Sugiyamas will get to see more of this blog, if they're curious.

Daisuke and Ai, I should note that comments about things my family discovers in Japan and in the apartment are not complaints. They're interesting things we're learning about stuff that's different. We expect to have to make some adjustments, and it's okay.

That being said... one thing we've noticed that's different is the use of cover scents. At home, we use unscented laundry detergent and soaps wherever possible. This apartment is infested with scent Daleks. We keep finding more of them. We're closing them as we find them, and we'll open them back up when we leave.

Rebecca has also determined that she really doesn't like the scent of a rubber sumo mask that was left behind as a toy. We've put it outside, just to keep it out of her way.

Rebecca and I also made a brief foray to the local Lawson 100 yen store for supplies. The Israeli grapefruit was a surprise to Rebecca. I'm really glad I've been going to the Japanese bakery and supermarket for lunch; half of the stuff I brought back was things I wouldn't have recognized half a dozen years ago. The cashier spoke really quickly, and I was totally lost, but she gave me a reasonable amount of change, so I smiled and left.

I also just figured something out. A year or so ago, I learned that I get migraines when my sleep is disrupted. They're particularly problematic when I sleep too much. I bet that in past trips to Japan, I made a point of forcing myself to sleep more to try and get on the local schedule. Instead, I gave myself unexplained migraines, making me feel sick and anxious. This time, I can try not to push myself, and see if things work better.

I'm delighting in how, so far, the actual trip has been almost devoid of anxiety. This is good; I'd really like to be the sort of person who can take trips like this.

We slept. Now we are awake. Soon we will sleep again.