A Visit to the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo With a Side of Japanese Train Sandwich and Australian/Mexican Tacos

Tessa’s passport expires in April, so last week the family headed into Tokyo for an expat ritual: renewing the passport at the Embassy. It was my first time ever visiting a U.S. Embassy, so I looked forward to the experience in the Check In the Box sense.

We headed into Tokyo knowing that rush hour was in full swing. On the first train things got squishy. I snapped this picture of Tessa, thinking, “Wow! Super crowded train!” I had no idea of what was to come. On this train I could still reach into my bag to get my phone.

We thought that this was crowded. Ha.

On the next train….wow. We were already packed in tight when I saw the doors open and about another trainful of passengers waited to board. They all did. I didn’t see any of the famous train pushers, but frankly the crowd self-pushed. It was so crowded that the following facts about our train ride are all true:

  • The crowd was so tightly packed that I couldn’t exhale completely–my body was that squished
  • My arms were completely pinned in front of me, T-Rex style. I couldn’t reach into my shoulder bag if I tried.
  • We were so packed that I could have smacked the head of a passenger two people away without even straightening my arm (I didn’t, obviously)
  • Tessa heard that if you pick up your foot you lose the floor space that your foot occupied, so she tested it out. She lost the floor space.
  • Mark let go of his umbrella to take the picture below of Cy. The crowd held his umbrella in place.
  • Mark picked up Cy so his head was even with adults’ heads, and the crowd held Cy in place.

OK, the last one’s not true–but it probably would have worked. Mark did forcibly create a bubble around Cy because he was completely smashed; in the photo below, that gray herringbone against Cy’s face is neither Mark nor I.


Train excitement over, we arrived in the Roppongi neighborhood of Tokyo and home of the U.S. Embassy. The street right in front of the Embassy is closed to traffic, and Japanese security guards checked our documents and cleared us to move to the next stage. We walked up to the building’s entrance and saw a huge line of people with umbrellas to ward off the damp, chilly rain. Our appointment was ten minutes out, and I briefly panicked as I mentally calculated the Way Longer Than Ten Minutes line. Then I noticed the sign indicating that the line is for people waiting for visa interviews, and U.S. citizens were to go around the line. As we approached the security guards stopped screening visa applicants and put us through instead. The process resembled airport security screening, with one important addition: no electronics of any kind were allowed, including cell phones and Kindles.

Honestly I felt odd going to the front of the line while non-U.S. citizens waited, and waited. I felt very self-conscious of their stares while we got priority. I’m the child of immigrants, and I could have just as easily been born in Poland instead. But since I was born in Chicago, I was handed this golden ticket called U.S. citizenship. I understand the reason why citizenship exists, and I’m not suggesting that all country borders vanish and people go anywhere they want; obviously that wouldn’t work out very well. I just felt strangely privileged by an accident of birth.

Once we made it inside past the blast doors we headed to a row of windows that strongly resembled any Department of Motor Vehicles in the U.S. I even headed to a separate cashier window to pay, just like the DMV. I returned to the passport clerk where I handed over our paperwork, presented the child, and raised my right hand to attest to the truthfulness of all information in the application. After about ten minutes we were on our way. By the way in the U.S. passport applications are filed at the nearest post office; there are several passport agencies around the U.S., but you only go to one of those if you have imminent travel, which you must prove. I’m a Renew in Advance kind of gal!

After the Embassy we headed Kinokinuya Books with the largest foreign book section in Tokyo. We have Amazon U.S. available to us, but we still miss the fun of browsing a book store. 15,000 yen (about $140) later, we headed out for lunch at a Mexican taqueria called Guzman y Gomez in Harajuku. It’s the only location in Japan, but the chain is originally from Australia. That’s right: we ate at a Mexican restaurant, from Australia, in Japan. As one does. It was pretty good and scratched that taco itch, so to speak.

After lunch the boys headed home while Tessa and I strolled Takeshita Dori, as we did a few months ago. We window shopped but didn’t buy anything this time around. As we left I snapped the picture below of Tessa and tried to convince her to flash the peace sign as all Japanese kids do (and many adults). She refused: “No! It looks awesome when Japanese kids do it, because they’re all ‘peace.’ But when an American does it, it looks like you’re ordering or something. ‘I’ll take two.’ Won’t do it.” I laughed, but she’s kinda right.


Visiting Enoshima Island

IMG_2885The kids were on spring break this week, so on Wednesday we all headed out for a day trip. We chose Enoshima, a small island that sits just off the coast of the historic city of Kamakura. A causeway connects Enoshima to the mainland, and we all agreed that it looked very much like Mont Saint-Michel in France. In the summer Enoshima is overrun by day trippers, but we enjoyed the smaller crowds on a sunny, off-season day.

The island is dedicated to Benzaiten, the Buddhist goddess of music and entertainment, and several shrines are scattered about the island. We also visited the lighthouse tower that offered gorgeous panoramic views, tidal pools on the far side of the island, and Iwaya Cave.


Cy washes his hands at a temple’s entrance; he has seen this ritual enough times that he started doing it without prompting from us


A selfie stand! Notice the notched metal holder on the left side that holds a smart phone perfectly. I haven’t seen this before but I’m sure I’ll start noticing these stands everywhere


Tessa enjoys udon noodles in dipping sauce for lunch


Heading down to the tidal pools


Contemplating the ocean view from the entrance to Iwaya Cave




Kimono, As Viewed From a Galloping Horse

The day has arrived: Japanese Culture Day! Unfortunately I’ll miss the event at school because I’m home with a sick Cy. I was looking forward to seeing the kids’ classmates in all their finery, but I’ll have to wait for others’ photos instead.

I chaperoned Tessa’s class trip yesterday, and I chatted up some of the kids on what they would wear. When I heard of Japanese Culture Day I assumed that most kids would wear kimono, yukata, and similar. I quickly learned that the kids branch out in all directions including their favorite anime costumes and martial arts attire. The school’s principal sent out the following guidelines, which made me laugh. It’s definitely Exhibit A for Lessons Learned the Hard Way:

  • No weapons or facsimiles of weapons are allowed
  • No dressing as yakusa or other criminal figures
  • Boys may not dress in Japanese girl school uniforms or as women
  • Girls wearing Japanese girl school uniforms must still comply with the appropriate length of skirt as indicated in the Saint Maur dress code

To tide you over in the mean time, here are a few shots of Tessa in our garden before school this morning. We did OK thanks to last week’s How to Wear a Kimono class–and the magic of YouTube. As I like to say: from a galloping horse, it looks pretty good!



How to Wear that New Kimono

As I mentioned in an earlier post, last weekend we purchased Tessa a second-hand kimono at a local shop. The saleswoman showed us briefly how to dress Tessa in it, but on Friday I had the chance for an in-depth lesson from some real experts: a group of girls from Futaba, the Japanese-language school next door to the kids’ school.

All of them seemed to speak at least a little English, but one girl clutching her instruction sheet quickly emerged as the spokesperson. She asked me to show what I had, and I laid it out on the table. All of the girls gathered around to check it out.

The kimono team’s spokesperson on the left takes charge
They also brought several kimono ensembles and the required accessories, so they combined Tessa’s things with theirs to make a complete set. The girls were slightly older than Tessa, so I asked for the smallest one to step in as the model.

When we bought Tessa’s things I just got the outermost layer: the kimono and obi, or decorative sash. I knew that a complete kimono ensemble includes plain white underlayers but I decided to skip those. I heard that many Japanese parents opt for yukata (cotton robe with belt) instead of kimono for their kids, and once I saw the many layers of the kimono I could see why.

I won’t go into excruciating detail, but there are layers, and layers, and correct ways for assembling said layers, even though you don’t see them because of the layers on top. The obi is the outmost belt, but there are four more belts–four!–under it that you can’t see.

IMG_3547 2
Not practicing dance moves–just ensuring that we’re all clear on Left Over Right for the kimono’s lapels
The most important step of wearing kimono is ensuring that the left lapel is always on top. This rule also applies to the yukata cotton robe, as I learned at an onsen a few months ago. A Japanese woman very kindly pointed out that the left side always go on top, and later a Japanese friend explained the one time that the right lapel is worn on top–at a funeral, on the deceased.

Once the girls finished their dressing of the model it was my turn. I repeated their steps the best I could and hoped that I could remember them next week when it’s time to dress Tessa.

IMG_3563They even helped me with the decorative hair ornaments, modeled by yours truly.


Stay tuned for photos of Tessa from the big day!


Resaikuru Kimono

Japanese Culture Day at the kids’ school approaches, which means that the kids need the right wardrobe! New kimonos can cost crazy amounts of money, so the cool kids know to buy second-hand.

Today we headed to to a popular resaikuru (recycle) chain called Book Off. Despite its name, Book Off sells all types of second-hand goods including musical instruments, sporting goods, and clothing. I had heard from another mom that Book Off often carries kimonos and yukatas (summer-weight cotton robes), but unfortunately we didn’t find any on our visit. So on to Plan B. But first–lunch!

Cy enjoys a new favorite, the assorted sushi set; it includes a bowl of miso soup, salad, and a savory egg custard (chawanmushi)
Tessa opted for ikura donburi, salmon roe over rice

After a lovely sushi lunch, we headed to a used kimono shop called Recycle Yokocho near Tsurimi station right in Yokohama. We were quickly assigned to the one English-speaking sales person, and she knew all about the school’s upcoming Japanese heritage day. Tessa had several kimono to choose from and quickly zeroed in on her favorite, an orange kimono with an ombre design. She chose a pale blue obi to wear on top, and we found a pretty hair ornament to match. The correct way to wear a kimono includes a white cotton undergarment, but we’re skipping that because it’s not a formal occasion. And, well, Gaijin Card!

Her tab: 5000 yen, or about $44 for the entire ensemble.

A sneak peak of Tessa’s choice; photos of the complete ensemble to come!

As usual, the boys’ section was smaller. We found only one choice that came close to fitting Cy, a jacket set that boys usually wear for a Coming of Age ceremony at age 5. (We didn’t dwell on this point in front of the boy.) Not surprisingly none of the pants were long enough for Cy, but he’s such a skinny thing that the jackets fit; he’ll get away with wearing the jackets with plain black pants. Gaijin Card again! Both jackets together cost 1000 yen, or about $9.


In addition to kimono and yukata, the shop also carries accessories including obi, beautifully embroidered sashes worn over kimono. Obi are quite long and make great table runners, and I picked up two for $8 and $12.

My new obi/table runners

As we finished up another family from school arrived on the same errand, and I suspect that the shop will see many more St. Maur families over the next week and a half.

The school is holding a class for parents next week about the proper way to wear the kimono in preparation for Japanese Culture Day. Stay tuned!

Recycle Yokocho
5F Fuga 2, 2-2 Toyooka-cho, Tsurumi-ku, Yokohama
Tel: 045-581-7078
Open: 1-6 p.m., closed every second Thursday

The Coin-Op Parking Lot, or How to Destroy Your Car’s Undercarriage in One Easy Step

Driving in Japan presents obvious challenges–you know, driving on the left, not being able to read traffic signs, turning on the wipers when you mean to hit the turn signal, and so on. But one of the biggest sources of stress for new drivers in Japan comes from parking the car–specifically at automated parking lots with car-trapping devices.

In the U.S., even big cities offer street parking with parking meters that are usually operated by the city. Unless, say, a city sells off the rights to collect parking meter revenue for the next 75 years for pennies on the dollar (cough cough Chicago)…but I digress.

Here in Japan street parking rarely exists. Instead small, privately-owned parking lots and garages are scattered about. Some of the lots around our neighborhood hold only three or four spots, and I’ve even seen several lots with only one space apiece. The lots’ signs usually include a kanji character that lights up in either green or red to indicate available spots.

The Single Spot parking lot. So cute!

Here’s how a Japanese lot like this works. You pull in to an empty spot, driving over a metal plate in the lowered position. After a minute or so the metal plate rises up and rests against your car, making it impossible to exit the spot. You go off and do your thing. When you return to your car you pay the fee at the central machine, hopefully lowering the metal plate. Then you run to your car as fast as you can and pull out before buckling your seat belt or turning on music out of paranoia that the plate will rise up again and destroy your car’s undercarriage while you’re pulling out (OK, maybe that last paranoid step is just me).

The car-destroying metal plate in the down position
The metal plate in the I Will Destroy Your Car If You Don’t Pay position

Easy enough, right? But here’s where it gets tricky.

The overall concept is the same across these lots, but the details can vary. The steps are always listed on the machine itself–in Japanese, though every once in a while a machine includes English instructions. Some lots issue a ticket for validation at an attached grocery store or restaurant, which means that you have to figure out how to extract said ticket for your numbered spot, get the ticket validated, and convince the machine to accept your ticket and release your car.

Like I said at the beginning–stress.

The first few times Mark and I used these lots it took a really, really long time to figure out the steps, but we did it eventually. With time the whole process got easier, and I started to feel at ease. How could I have ever considered this difficult, I wondered to myself about two weeks ago as I effortlessly paid at a lot that I frequent several times a week.

I’m sure you all see where this is going.

Later that same day I parked in a new-to-me lot at a grocery store for the first time (for you Yokohama locals, it’s the OK! Supermarket on Honmoku Dori near D2). This machine had more steps than I had previously seen and no English anywhere. I started pushing buttons randomly without success, then meekly asked a grocery store employee to help me out. Not surprisingly the employee spoke no English at all, but thankfully another customer helped me out. I tried to memorize the sequence of buttons that he pressed, but I swear it’s never the same way twice. Every time I park there I punch at buttons madly until I randomly hit the right order to release my car. I’m convinced that the parking attendant only looks like he’s directing traffic when in fact he sees me coming and signals to the Parking Machine Head Dude, “Here comes that gaijin driving the orange Cube–change the buttons on the ticket machine again, LOL.”

The payment machine at OK! Supermarket that hates me. Easy as 1, 2, 3–right? Right?!? Notice the reflection in the machine of my clutching my newly-purchased bag of rice and the evil parking machine ticket.

The whole parking lot thing is really a great analogy for so many things about living in Japan. At first everything is so darned…well, foreign. The simplest tasks aren’t simple at all, and I was completely helpless at first. With time I learned how to complete simple tasks and even mastered them, provided that I went to the same places all the time. But memorizing how to use a particular parking lot (or bus, or train, or grocery store checkout) isn’t mastery at all–all it takes is a slightly different setting to remind me how little I really know. I’m That Person fumbling with the simplest transactions, and the people who help me show such kindness and patience. It’s humbling.