Category Archives: Japan 2013

Spending The Yen 5: Hiragana Stamp Set

arigato, hiragana stamp setOnce again reviving the Spending the Yen series…

I bought these hiragana* stamps two years ago in a tiny scrapbooking store near an izakaya where Naoto and I shared dinner with his family. When I bought them, I didn’t realize how frustrating they would be to use. Every time I wanted to write something, I had to ask Naoto to spell it out for me. So I put them away in the spare room and forgot about them until recently. Every once in awhile I’d see them sitting on the shelf, taunting me and the money I’d wasted. But, now that I’ve had some practice during my Japanese class, I’m using them! I’m still pretty slow, but I can usually pick the right sounds for the words and names I’m trying to write. (Though, I still have Naoto check my work to be sure!) hiragana stamp setHere’s a peek at the whole set. (Some of the characters may be upside down because I put them away haphazardly last time.) When I use them, I have my textbook open to the hiragana chart so I can refer to it as I sound out the word. (I don’t have my hiragana sounds memorized yet…) It really does remind me of learning to read as a kid. I’m slowly getting better with practice, so I’m trying to stamp a random Japanese word on outgoing mail for the rest of the month. (I’ll let you know how that goes!) arigato, hiragana stampsI have “arigato” (“thank you”) down thanks to writing a few thank yous lately. arigato postcard, hiragana stamps


*If you don’t know what hiragana is, this site does a nice job of explaining it. It’s basically the Japanese phonetic script–each “letter” represents a vowel sound or a combination consonant/vowel sound. There are forty-six sounds. In some ways, they are easier than English because each sound only makes that sound. (Unlike in English where we have the long e, the short e, the silent e…) But, the letters are difficult to decipher sometimes and very challenging to write, I think.

Tagged , , , , , , ,

Japan Does It Better 6: Japanese Airlines

All Nippon Air cocktailLet’s talk about flying to Japan.

The first time I flew to Japan, in 2008 for work, I flew American Airlines. It was fine. Economy class is uncomfortable on any flight, and it really wears on you after thirteen hours, but really, who can afford first class?

When Naoto and I flew to Japan in 2011, we flew Japan Airlines. Even though we still flew economy, it felt a little bit luxurious because the customer service was so good and because we each had our own little TVs for movie viewing. (I realize that personal screens are available on pretty much any flight theses days, but in 2011 it felt like a rare treat.)

On Japan Air, they serve a special drink, Sky Time. Sky Time is yuzu juice. Yuzu is a Japanese citrus fruit that looks kind of like a tiny grapefruit and it tastes citrus-y…maybe a cross between a lemon and a grapefruit with a little bit of orange? It’s hard to say exactly. But Sky Time is delicious. You can drink it as is or mix it with vodka. Yum. Yuzu juice can often be found at the Japanese grocery store, too, in case you want to try it without suffering through the cost and the backaches of a thirteen hour flight.

At the airport while checking in for our flight home, we were magically whisked out of line and over to a kiosk and upgraded to business class. Our seats were roomy, we were offered slippers and eye masks and treated like royalty. I credit Naoto’s good karma for the luck of the business class draw…(he has amazing parking karma, too!)

In September, we flew All Nippon Air. It was comparable to Japan Air in customer service. We didn’t have any swanky upgrade luck, but they did kindly move me to an aisle seat. And, on the flight home when the flight attendant learned that my screen didn’t work, she apologized no less than four dozen times, offered me every magazine on the plane and offered to move me to a seat with a working screen another dozen times. It felt really weird…especially since we never complained about it and then explained that I could just hijack Naoto’s screen because he would sleep anyway. Yet the apologies continued…awkwardly.

Oh, and speaking of apologies…we got a little bit off-schedule upon departure at O’Hare and though our pilot tried to make up the time in the air, we were still five minutes late upon our arrive in Japan. The pilot apologized profusely…for five minutes…it’s nice to know that some airlines value my time.

I was excited to learn that ANA also has their own signature drink, the Aromatic Kabosu. Kabosu is another citrus (it looks more like a lime but is kind of similar in taste to yuzu) and it is delicious with gin. My cocktail is pictured above with my mid-flight rice cracker snack…the mid-flight snacks are my favorites.

Kind flight attendants, respect of schedules and signature drinks…more reasons Japan Does It Better in flying!

For more JDIB, click here!

Tagged , , ,

Japan Does It Better 4: Omiyage

omiyageIn Japan, it is customary to buy gifts for your colleagues, friends and family when you travel. Whether you are going to another city or another country, omiyage is an expected part of travel. Usually, the gift is some sort of specialty from the area you visited (known as meibutsu), either a little souvenir or a snack made in the area. For example, when I used to work for a Japanese company, whenever someone would go to Canada, he or she would come back with little maple syrup candies for the office to share. (Sigh, I miss traveling to Canada…)

Omiyage is a big business in Japan. Everywhere you go, there are beautifully wrapped packages of sweets and snacks. We picked up the snacks shown above purely because they were wrapped so beautifully. (They were delicious, too!) I have to believe that the omiyage expectations keep Japan’s economy going…
Japanese handkerchief
As a foreigner, it is especially fun to pick out omiyage. There are so many fun things to buy in Japan that we don’t have in the states. I bought a lot of washi tapes, stationery and handkerchiefs for friends. (And KitKats…which deserve their own JDIB post for sure.) The best part is, most stores will gift wrap just about anything. I bought a couple of these cutie cat handkerchiefs it Mitsukoshi and the sales clerk brought out an array of colored envelopes and gift stickers for me to choose from. She even pointed out that there is a tiny window in the back of the gift envelope so I could see which handkerchief was packaged inside. That way I could make sure I gave the right gift to the right person. Clever! Mitsukoshi gift wrapI usually enjoy wrapping gifts myself, but I loved that a store would take the time to care for my tiny, inexpensive gift.

Omiyage and gift-wrapping small treasures…another simple reason Japan Does It Better!

(For more JDIB posts, click here.)

Tagged , ,

Japan Does It Better 3: Pocket Tissue Advertising

pocket tissue holderOkay, it isn’t necessarily that the pocket tissues are better…actually they are pretty scratchy. But if you go to any train station in Tokyo, someone is there ready to hand you a little pack of pocket tissues. Now, they aren’t handing you tissues out of the goodness of their hearts. The tissues are a form of advertising for local businesses. (The tissues above are from a drug store chain and a gym.)

Normally, I’m not a fan of walk-by advertising. Sometimes in Chicago, restaurants hand out menus on the street. Menus are not useful (unless I’m sitting in the restaurant ready to order), but tissues are. We accepted the tissues each time and used them to wipe the sweat off our brows (It was so hot during our stay!) or to blow our noses or to dry our hands (some washrooms didn’t have air dryers or paper towels).

A few years ago, Naoto went to Japan without me and came home with the Hello Kitty tissue holder pictured above. The Japanese tissues fit perfectly inside, so I have a little collection of refills to use this winter. Nothing makes me feel grown up like being able to find a nice clean tissue in my purse when I need one (even if it’s coming out of a Hello Kitty tissue holder!)

Something as simple as useful advertising…Japan Does It Better! (For more JDIB posts, click here!)

Tagged , ,

Japan Does It Better 2: Public Toilets

Japanese washlet toiletIf you know me at all, you know that I haaaaaaaaaate public bathrooms. They are always dirty, the toilet paper is often 1-ply, there is no privacy (Why are the cracks between the stall big enough for people to see in?!), washing your hands becomes futile because you still have to touch the faucet and the door unless there is a fancy automatic shut-off and unless you wait for someone to come along and open the door for you!

Yep, it’s all gross. It’s the stuff nightmares are made of.

So imagine my bathroom-phobic surprise when I walked into my first public Japanese bathroom (in Kyoto back in 2008) and saw this:traditional Japanese toiletI almost had a panic attack.

I mean, what do you even do???

Why didn’t someone warn me???

Thankfully, in Tokyo, most of the toilets are “Western style” (the kind that I am used to here in the States). Many even have a bank of fancy and confusing buttons…so many buttons, in fact, that sometimes flushing the toilet can be challenging. (Which button is it?) Japanese washlet buttons

The buttons are all part of the washlet–a bidet-like contraption fitted into the toilet seat. Washlets are in most of the public bathrooms and private homes in modern Tokyo. Most of the washlets include a seat warmer and a deodorizer, too. Some, like the one at the top of this post, have a music button you can push and it plays a little tune or water noises to give you a little privacy and drown out any…ahem…bathroom noises. In some public washrooms, the music/water noises start automatically. I’m a big fan of the music…I don’t want to know what’s going on in the stalls around me.

And you know the little paper seat covers that are in some (nicer) American public bathrooms? Many Tokyo bathrooms have these, too. And if they don’t, they have this:Japanese toilet seat sanitizer

It’s sanitizer for the seat! You just squirt some on a piece of toilet paper, wipe down the seat and it’s clean and ready to use. Genius, no?

Clearly, when it comes to public bathrooms, Japan Does It Better!

(In case you missed the beginning of this series, click here.)


Tagged , ,

Japan Does It Better 1: Narita Express

Narita ExpressJapan Month is rolling to the end of the tracks. I’ve been home for a month…you’d never be able to tell based on the fact that my stationery purchases are still lingering in the dining room and my sleep schedule is as dreadful as ever and my cravings for Misdo are coming back with a strong, sad vengeance…but it’s been a month of Japan posts and it’s time to talk about other things (like October and fall and Honor Flight and cocktails). I still have many things that I would love to share about Japan–both observations and products that are unique to the country. So, I’ve decided to introduce another occasional series: Japan Does It Better. JDIB (I’m not completely sold on the acronym) will highlight the products, conveniences and quirky cultural details that I love about Japan. This way, I can sprinkle some Japan love throughout my back-to-normal posts. Kimberly and Naoto train station

So, let’s get started with the Narita Express!

The Narita Express (NEX) is the train that takes you from the Narita Airport (the airport that you fly into when you say you’re flying into Tokyo) into urban area of Tokyo. It takes about ninety minutes and the train makes very few stops along the way. We took it from Narita Airport to Shibuya and then transferred to a local train (similar to the L in Chicago) to get to our hotel. NEX is a lovely little commute. The seats are assigned and there is plenty of space up above and at the end of the car for an international traveler’s luggage. There is a (clean) bathroom on board and the ride is smooth and quiet. In Japan, people do not talk on their cell phones on the trains. If they do, it’s always a quick call and even the sharpest of ears couldn’t hear the conversation because everything is courteously quiet. (When I come home and hop on the L, I am reminded how much I miss Japan and how Japan totally does commuting better!)  Narita Express snack menuTo me, the peace and quiet of the train is enough for the Narita Express to qualify for JDIB, but, there’s more…

There’s a snack cart!

Once the train gets moving, a kind NEX worker comes around pushing a cart of sandwiches, sweets, chips, coffee, teas, cocktails, beer…tiny treats to make your commute to the airport a pleasant one. And the prices? Not bad at all! Under $3 for a beer or some chocolate covered almonds. Narita Express Snack MenuYou can even purchase some dried scallops or a NEX-branded notebook or pen.

(We did not.)snacks on the Narita ExpressWe chose potato sticks, a waffle and an autumn-themed beer. Naoto drank the beer. I ate most of the potato sticks and the tiny waffle. (Surprise, surprise.) The potato sticks are similar to American “shoe-string” potato snacks, but crunchier and the waffle is…a waffle with a little bit of sweetness baked into it (because you don’t have syrup to pour over it). Waffles seem very popular in Japan. We saw several little bakeries serving them in food courts and in shops around Tokyo. The snacks were just enough to tide us over before our pre-flight lunch at the airport.

So, snacks on a train…reason number one that Japan Does It Better.

Tagged , , , ,

Good Things From The Yubinkyoku

Japan Post Office StationeryAs I mentioned in my first post about sending postcards from Japan, I couldn’t wait to pop into the post office for some postcard stamps and postcards. While I was buying those, I scoped out some of the exclusive yubinkyoku (post office) stationery. Pictured above is the classic red mailbox postcard, the classic red mailbox glue stick, the Japan post letter set (including stickers of a mail bike, a mail bag, a mail truck and a mailbox) and a letterpressed postcard. They are all part of the Posta Collect Basic stationery series presented by the post office. The papers used in the letter set and postcards are really thick and lovely. The postal clerk was adamant that the big red mailbox postcard was not for international mailing, but Naoto sent me one a few years ago during one of his solo travels to Japan and I got it…so…mail at your own risk? Japanese Constellation Postage StampsI also bought a sheet of these awesome constellation stamps. Japan is very on-trend with their postage…constellations are everywhere lately!Japanese Constellation Postage StampsIt’s hard to see in the pictures, but the stars are gold foil and the pictures are holographic silver. Apparently these stamps are the third in a series of constellation stamps. (You can see the first set here and the second here, scroll down.) I’m bummed I missed this first two. Japanese Letter Writing Day Postage StampsAnd while I was at the post office one last time, I could not pass up the other Letter Writing Day stamps. I fell in love with the depictions of summer in Japan, especially the somen (bottom left), the roasted barley tea (second right) and the flowers and vegetables. And obviously the little girl writing a letter, the red mailbox and mail truck sealed the deal.

Japan really knows how to do postage stamps and merchandise…I think the USPS should take note!

Tagged , , , , , , ,

Brass at the Big Red Paperclip

midori brass pencil case and ruler If I had to narrow it down…if Naoto said that we could only go to one stationery store in Japan…(that would never happen) I would choose Itoya.

We went there for the first time in 2011 and spent an entire day exploring the NINE floors and picking out a few things here and there to bring home. This vacation, we made time for Itoya again. We stopped there after a disappointing morning trying to go to a few shops that were randomly closed or were pretty disappointing or not what we had expected. The day was kind of a bust, so Naoto offered up Itoya as a “sure thing”. Even though my feet were killing me, I was hot and I was feeling bummed about the day, I took him up on the offer…because who says no to Itoya? (No one.)

Unfortunately, Itoya is in the middle of a remodel, so they moved out of their nine floor building with the big red paperclip sign (pictured here in my 2011 blog post) and into a temporary location about a block away. I didn’t care. It was still fantastic…though I suspect some of their inventory was not on display. But they still had plenty to choose from…which was evident by the seven Itoya bags I brought home with me. (You pay for your items on each floor, so by the end if you’re anything like me, you end up with a small collection of purchases.) I bought everything from washi tape, letter sets and paper to pretty handkerchiefs and some new Deco Tapesmidori brass pencil case and ruler

The one item on my wish list is pictured above. Ever since I saw it at Itoya in 2011, I’ve been thinking about the Midori Brass Pencil Case. So fancy, right? Over the past two years, I almost bought one online several times, but I just couldn’t swallow the large price tag…so I decided to wait until we went back to Itoya so I could avoid the huge mark-up and import fees. Plus, sometimes I just like to buy things in stores, where I can hold the items and fawn over the packaging a bit before making my purchase. And, some Midori products are made in China…I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t spending a lot of money on something that was Japanese without really being Japanese-made. So, once we confirmed the Made in Japan stamp, I knew it would be my “splurge”. While Naoto and I fawned over the Travelers Notebooks and other brass bits, he talked me into buying the Midori Brass Ruler. It measures in centimeters (which is completely confusing for my US-educated mind!) but I plan to use it more for its straight edge than measurements anyway. I am so pleased with both purchases. They are lovely, useful and the brass will wear beautifully over time. midori brass pen case and rulerThanks for your patience with getting back into Japan month…things are winding down–only a few more posts to go! And, I just got access to the pictures from our Honor Flight last week. I can’t wait to share about our amazing day in DC! 

Tagged , , ,

Wrap, Wrap, Wrapple

wrappleWrapple was our first craft shopping stop in Japan. I’d read about it on Hello Sandwich‘s blog (and in her Tokyo Guide) and wanted to see all of the wrapping, washi tape and packaging goodness Wrapple had to offer. Parco

The store is located inside Parco,  a large boutique shopping center in the Shibuya neighborhood. Parco is kind of like a mall, except each “shop” seems to flow into the next. Wrapple is tucked into the corner on the fourth floor in between a clothing shop and a coffee shop. They have a ton of papers, rubber stamps, scrapbooking supplies, stickers, boxes and ribbons–really anything you might need for crafting projects or to package a gift sweetly. They offer workshops, too, varying from paper crafts to slipper making (with ribbons!) wrapple washi tape displayWrapple had the best selection of MT tape of any store I visited in Tokyo. For those who don’t know, MT tape is the original washi tape and it is the highest quality washi tape of all. It is made in Japan and nothing tears better, removes better and re-sticks better than MT. It also stays on posted envelopes better than any other paper tapes out there. (I complete agree with this washi tape evaluation.) MT not only performs beautifully, but their line has everything from wonderfully simple patterns and solid colors to crazy-unique designs like pancake recipes, solar systems and grass-munching cows (I bought all three.) MT releases seasonal patterns as well, and we were there to see Wrapple receive some new designs. (Fun stuff!) I bought a load of washi tape from Wrapple. And we went back a second time so I could buy a few rolls of MT Casa, extra-wide washi tape designed for decorating walls and furniture. MT CasaThese are the ones I picked. I have zero plans in mind right now, but I picked some nice neutrals and a pool blue with high hopes that we can use them in our (some-day-freshly-painted) bedroom. The tallest one is eight inches high, the middle two are four inches and the tiny blue one is two inches.  I would have killed for an air mail tape for my walls.
Sadly, it does not exist (though I think a petition is in order…)

Tagged , , , , , ,

Hello Sandwich Workshop

Kimberly Ah Hello Sandwich WorkshopDo you know of Hello Sandwich? I’ve been reading her blog for quite awhile now and I’m a big fan. Ebony Bizys (THE Sandwich) is an Australian artist and designer living in Tokyo. She’s had all sorts of creative jobs, and now she is working for Martha Stewart crafts in Japan. I love how colorful and quirky her crafts are. No one can mix patterns and color the way Hello Sandwich can!

For my birthday, Naoto gave me the Hello Sandwich Tokyo Guide, a zine all about Ebony’s favorite spots in Tokyo. We used it quite a bit while we were on vacation, mainly for hitting up some great craft and stationery stores. And, I have the Hello Sandwich Craft Book. It is packed full of fun things to do in an afternoon. It’s written in Japanese, but the pictures are enough to follow along. (Though I do make Naoto read some of it to me just so I can hear the stories behind the crafts. He loves doing this for me…)

When we planned our trip to Japan, I kept an eagle eye on Hello Sandwich’s blog and twitter feed with the far-fetched idea that she would be giving a workshop around Tokyo during our stay. Imagine my surprise when she announced that she was hosting a Martha Stewart Crafts workshop at Isetan (a large department store) on the weekend of our visit!! I made Naoto call Isetan and reserve my spot right away. (Ah, the perks of living with a Japanese speaker!) Marta Stewart Crafts at IsetanThe workshop was all set up in the crafts and stationery section of the store. Naoto and Hisae came with me, and we were thinking that Naoto would have to stay and translate. But, lucky for him, Ebony delivered the workshop mostly in English and had a Japanese translator interpreting. There were four of us in the workshop and the other ladies and I had a wonderful time creating and playing with the lovely Martha papers and punches. We used the Martha Stewart Circle Edge Punches to create and ornament and added layers of pictures and other punched papers. We finished off our ornaments with lovely ribbons. (My creation is below…I have to admit that mine was the worst looking one in the class! I have a hard time making things not all matchy-matchy, and I’m definitely out of my comfort zone when black and grey is not involved!) Martha Stewart Crafts punchWhile I was in the workshop, Naoto and Hisae (freed from their interpreting duties) went to lunch. They weren’t back by the time the workshop was over so I wandered around the stationery department at Isetan. Isetan had some really gorgeous stuff. I’d highly recommend a stop there to any stationery lover! I was starting to get a little nervous that Naoto and Hisae abandoned me when this sweet, tiny, older woman (who worked at Isetan) dashed up to me, breathed a huge sigh of relief, grabbed my arm and escorted me back to the crafts department. Naoto and Hisae were there waiting and chatting with Ebony. All was well.

Thanks for a fun afternoon, Hello Sandwich!

Tagged , , , , ,