Monday, June 28, 2010

Happy Rainy Season

It's here ... the rainy season has begun. The dehumidifiers are running around the clock, the umbrellas are by the front door, in the car and in my teaching bag. We have moisture absorbers in the closets to prevent our clothes from molding. I've purchased handkerchiefs that all Japanese seem to carry – to pat away the perspiration that seems to flow non-stop from my pores. I've tried to purchase some cool Japanese clothes – that's cool as in staying cool, not hip, as in fashion cool (although with any luck I managed that one too) – that will help me wade through this season of thick air and frequent rain showers.

The Japanese, as with so many things since arriving here, have given me a different perspective on this season. Normally back home (i.e. the Southern U.S.) I would whine incessantly about being hot, count the days to Fall and hunker down in my air conditioned home. Here in Japan, I am surrounded by those who have survived the rainy season since the moment they were born. They cope with brightly colored umbrellas, fashionable raincoats, mod rainboots, bags that are waterproof – they are well equipped. I try to discreetly peek at fellow passengers while riding the trains, wondering how they mange to pull it all off - they look pulled together, ready for the day rain or shine and they are not perspiring. How is that possible?

The rainy season, tsuyu (meaning plum rain) officially began on June 12th and is predicted to end July 27th. It is thought that the season is called plum rain because it coincides with the ripening of plums but whatever the name I have noticed one thing – it does not deter the Japanese from getting out there and continuing to enjoy life and nature. Maybe it's because like the rice that depends on the rain for it's growth, the Japanese realize that to stay inside because it's raining or may rain is to miss out on what life has to offer. Last week when I opted to leave the camera at home due to the rain only to have it lift and it turned into a beautiful afternoon (albeit a hot and humid one), I missed out. My opportunity to see the hydrangeas was lost, because I was thinking like an American, "oh it's raining ... I'll wait for another day." I won't make that mistake again. I'll take my Americanized version of "Happy Rainy Style" and get out there and see what I've been missing. That's inspiring.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Noro Inspiration

Here on base there are communities within communities. Sort of like a food chain. For example, there's the YOSC (Yokosuka Officers Spouses Club) that includes all officer spouses (if you opt to join) that are attached to the base. Each command has their own organization, like the Oakleaf Club, which includes all officer spouses attached to the Medical Services - whether at the hospital or on a ship. And then each ship has their organization - divided of course by officer and enlisted. I belong to YOSC and the Oakleaf Club and I've benefitted from these memberships - when you move to a new area, especially overseas, it is a good way to jump in and get connected fast. But I am probably not the best example of a dutiful military spouse – Jeff has at times over the years referred to me as the anti-spouse (thanks dear). I don't really know who's who in the military hierarchy, when someone tells me what their husband does I try real hard to pay attention but if there's a military acronym involved I immediately start to glaze over. Perhaps it's because I'm more interested in who they are, what they like to do ... not who their husband is/or works for (hopefully, this honest declaration won't get me shunned here on base). Perhaps it is also because even though I am married to Jeff, and I am proud of all he's accomplished I usually try to keep it underwraps who I'm married to. It's a small base, with many, many kids ... if you have a child here, chances are they've seen my husband at some point. "Ooooooooh, you're Dr. Cleary's wife!" .... mmmmm, well yes. As one person said to me recently after declaring the previous statement "oh, I'm sorry - you probably get that a lot here don't you?" Sometimes, Jeff and I joke and say I'm just "the wife" when referring to me in a conversation – no name, just "wife" – like an afterthought.

There is however a group here where all is equal, there is no rank, no who's who ... it's not enlisted nor officer – we are just a group of women who come together with a common interest. Knitting is the great equalizer. Each week the Knitwits (Yokosuka Knitting Group), comes together to share knitting knowledge, projects, encouragement (as you have to rip out hours of knitting), inspiration and of course laughs. It has been a wonderful opportunity for me, I knew how to knit when I arrived here but my knitting experience to that point had been mostly me starting projects and then shipping them off to my mom to finish when I hit a point and I realized I was out of my league. My mom is an amazing knitter, she has made our children some beautiful sweaters and the cutest darn hats ... all have been carefully packed away in my cedar chest to pass along to the next generation. She has offered me encouragement, guidance with my projects – and the hope that one day I too could knit as well as she does. Here in Japan, I have had the chance with each project to continue to learn and try new techniques ("look mom!" I said on Skype holding up a swatch of knitting so she could see half way around the world, "I learned how to make a cable!") and my mom has been replaced by my Japanese knitting sensei who is kind and patient and I swear can knit a 100 stitches to my every one – she's fast.

At one of our meetings a couple months back one of the ladies brought some Noro knitting yarn and mentioned that wouldn't it be great if we could take a field trip to the Noro knitting factory? We have a wonderful knitting shop just off base that helped to coordinate Noro coming to us. The company does not give tours of their facility but they agreed to send a company representative to come and talk to us about the process and their yarns. We met at Sakuma-sans family home (her grandparents built it, a traditional Japanese styled home, nearly 100 years ago) and spent an afternoon learning about the process, looking at the samples and the beautiful yarns, and of course eating some great food. I walked away with two projects and a lot of inspiration. I am still a beginner and I am a slow knitter. These two projects may just take me until the end of our time here to finish (sensei says with a twinkle in her eyes "start now, maybe you will finish before you leave"), but no matter - I came away with projects that I will learn more techniques, a chance to become familiar with the only knitting yarn produced in Japan, and of course a lot of inspiration.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

You have Konjo.

On my monthly visit to practice English conversation with my delightful Fujisawa ladies, I enjoyed a delicious Japanese lunch. Kato-san started off the meal with kanen yose mosuku, something like the consistency of jello but containing seaweed and ginger. It was quite good ... but definitely a challenge for the chopstick novice.

I have chopstick envy – these Japanese ladies can deftly pick up their food with elegant chopsticks, making the act of eating look more like an art form than merely taking care of sustenance. Since we arrived in Japan nearly a year ago I have tried my hand at using chopsticks - every chance I get I use them, but I will confess that when we are at home I revert back to what we now call the "shovel" (i.e. fork). There is an elegance and grace to using chopsticks - smaller bites, more time to let the brain register with the stomach that you've had enough to eat, time to enjoy the food you are eating instead of what has typically become an unintentional race in our house to finish your meal before you're out the door for the next thing.

The kanen yose mosuku was my ultimate chopstick food challenge so far. Kato-san had placed beautiful lacquered chopsticks at each setting and while my Japanese friends managed to enjoy their dish, I struggled to keep the "jello" on the chopstick. As soon as I would pick it up it would slide right off. Smaller pieces did not seem to solve the problem. Kato-san, being a gracious host, hopped up and placed a spoon at my place setting but I was determined not to revert to western-style utensils. I pretended not to see the spoon and pressed forward. At this point my friends were all watching this war of wills - kanen yose mosuku vs. Jane. Kato-san hops up and places a set of raw-wooden chopsticks at my place - "here" she says, "these will be easier." No, I think, if they can all do this I want to be able to as well. I finally manage to get a respectable amount cleared from my plate, taking about 10 times longer than my friends, but I did it.

At this point Hiroko-san chuckles and says "you have konjo." Not sure of the meaning I ask her if this is a good thing. She explained that for one to have konjo you have tough spirit, or guts or will power to get you through a difficult situation. I laughed and said "ooooohhh, my mom would so agree with you on that one!" I like this meaning, which has much more positive connotations than being stubborn. It reminds me that if you really want something you have to put your head down, get focused and move forward. If you use your konjo then all things will be possible and this I find inspiring.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Noooo ... I've become one of them

Shopping here on base is an interesting experience. I've already shared the stories about the holiday shortages - baking chocolate, artichoke hearts, butter - but there are other things that make you wish you could just for a moment transport yourself back to the time when you had a plethora of choices. Like standing in the soap aisle at let's say Target, and instead of being in a rush and grabbing what was familiar, crossing it off my list as I pushed the cart forward and I was on to the next thing - why, why didn't I stand there and marvel at all the choices I had?

Here we do have choices - it isn't like they only sell Ivory bar soap - but hey I'm a girl and every now and then even I like having something that smells nice but not so girly that the three males in this house and the one extreme tomboy won't use it. And so it was with delight that several months ago I found that the Exchange (NEX) was stocking the Pure & Natural brand and the fragrance was Rosemary Mint. Perfect. No flowers, no almond oil (nut allergies), no coconut (nut allergies). Just clean, fresh smelling. We've had mint and rosemary in almost every place we lived. What can I say - it spoke to me and I grabbed 3, one for each bathroom. I felt like I was purchasing a luxury item but in reality it was still far less expensive than the Bath and Body Works soap in the speciality section around the corner. At home everyone liked it and I felt like I had scored.

This weekend my daughter mentions that we need more hand soap and since I was headed over to the NEX I said I would pick some up. When I got to the aisle I sort of stood there dazed and confused as the entire section of Pure & Natural soap had been replaced by ... Dial. I was disbelief - were we the only family on the entire base that had actually liked the stuff? I suddenly have the thought that perhaps they had just moved it ... they were toying with me. Maybe they had devoted an entire endcap to the brand?

I found it around the corner but the only feature it was getting was in the clearance bin. 75% off. I stood there for a moment and debated ... if I bought all that was left would that qualify me as a hoarder? I preferred to think of it as an savings opportunity - at 75% off - and what appeared to be a last chance. It looks like the Exchange is clearing their shelves of our favorite brand and so I cleared the clearance bin.

Well there are certainly worse things in life to encounter than one of your favored items no longer being stocked and I do now possess over 15 bottles thanks to the markdown. But it's not like back home where if let's say Walgreens doesn't have what you want and you just get in your car and drive over to CVS and they do. Here on base it's more akin to shopping at a company store. You get what you get - and be happy with it. And so I am. I will savor the good stuff while it lasts, appreciate it more, and try to pay attention to the lesson life just taught me – to learn not take anything for granted. Even soap. Inspiring.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Umeshu - excuse me?

Each Monday I take the train to Kamakura for my English Conversation classes. My students are very sweet and share things about Japanese life and culture that otherwise I would be left unawares. Two weeks ago, one of my students had stopped by the farmers market before class and had bought a bag of green plums. There was some discussion about these plums and what exactly do the Japanese do with them? They don't look like the plums I'm used to buying in the U.S. and they were as hard as a rock. I was told that they make Umeshu (plum wine) with them. "Really? Tell me how."

More discussion (more Japanese than English) and I learn more. The Japanese believe that Umeshu is very healthy for you (it's supposed to keep your insides healthy); you combine the green plums with rock sugar (kouri satou) and shochu (flavorless distilled alcohol) in a sterilized jar, shake for one week and then place in a cool dark place for about 3 months. You then remove the plums and let the umeshu sit for about 5 months. If you can, leaving it for 2 years is best for it mellows and improves with age. I found a really great website with instructions if you'd like to know more go to:

I stopped by the farmers market the next week, made my purchase of green plums and then went to the Japanese grocery store with the recipe printed out from - this was key, as the names of the rock sugar and shochu were in romanji (roman version of hiragana) and all I had to do was say excuse me in Japanese and point. A very confused, but very helpful clerk helped me locate the necessary ingredients - conveniently located in a special display with all the supplies needed to make your own Umeshu, even a canning jar (good thing because I was having no luck with that item here on base). I thanked the clerk and walked away as three of the workers in rapid fire Japanese most likely had an interesting conversation about what in the world would a foreigner want with these supplies!

So now I guess we'll wait and see. Patience. This seems to be a recurring theme for me here in Japan. Not exactly one of my strong suits, although I am working on it. For the next few days I'll continue to shake the jar, and then put it to rest ... hoping that by New Years Jeff and I can sample the Umeshu and toast to good health (or at least healthy insides). My students shared more with me than just a recipe, they also shared part of their culture. For that I am all the richer and more healthy. Inspiring.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

left behind

Confession time ... a funk has crept in, like a chilly fog that goes all the way to my bones. It's not depression, it's not despair ... I have no better word for it than - funk. I've kept my head down, staying as busy as I can, ramped up the exercise to release all those positive endorphins, and still I cannot shake this feeling. I know why it has descended, but knowing why doesn't change the mood ... rational side of the brain is not winning out over the emotional side - for the moment. I also know this is temporary - I call it the "left behind syndrome."

For those of you who are not in the military this is PCS Season. It's where the moving vans and packers show up and pack you out for your Permanent Change of Station. The disruption and stress it causes military families is amplified on a military base. The buzz is constant ... "where are you moving?" "when's your packout date?" "have you found a house yet" "do you have your orders yet?""do you know anyone who has lived in xxx and can tell me about the area?" - you cannot go to the commissary (military grocery store), gym, any social event with out hearing it. And for those that are leaving for the most part what I hear is bittersweet - they've loved their time in Japan but cannot wait to return to family and friends (... and stores where you can buy American sized clothes).

You cannot drive around the base and help but see the moving vans - everywhere. They are like locusts that have descended upon us. Last week we had two moving vans in our tiny townhouse parking lot as two of my neighbors were in various stages of their packouts. One day it was lovely enough to have all the windows and doors open and I could hear the ripping sound of packing tape as my next door neighbor had all her goods packed up to head to Washington State. That sound for me signals change ... lives are about to move in a different direction. Both theirs and ours, we will lose neighbors. I will no longer have Mary's door to knock on and ask an "emergency" knitting question. Who will take their place? Someone quiet we all hope, although it would be harder to find quieter neighbors than the Gladues.

I do not envy my friends, they have done their time here, some longer than expected. One friend said being stationed in Japan is like going to "Hotel California" (Eagles song) - "you can come but you can never leave" - receiving follow on orders that were totally unexpected, two years turn into four. It's their time to go home.

I think that's where my funk has derived from ... I want to stay and continue to experience all that this amazing country has to offer. At the same time, I want to go home too and be with our friends and family. I don't want to be part of the "left-behinds."

Last week was the once a month Ikebana lesson. It was a bittersweet day for all of us, as Charlotte our unofficial leader, shared one of her last days here in Japan arranging flowers and sharing good food and some laughs. Somehow I sense that our Japanese sensei's knew we would need flowers to lift our spirits, and when I saw them pull out the sunflowers I felt myself release a sigh - sunflowers are like happy pills for me. I cannot help but look at them and smile - it is exactly what I needed.

Being a military spouse forces you to make friends - fast. This has never been a strong suit of mine, it always seems to take me a while ... and then it's usually time to move again. Here on base, we are all in this crazy life together, we know the ups and downs of moving a family and having to say goodbye to friends. I'm getting the good-bye emails and the good-bye fb entries ("... sitting at Narita and we've just been told our flight has been delayed indefinitely" - so sorry Nancy, so close and yet so far!). To all my friends out there who have/will be moving this PCS season, I wish you fair winds and following seas. Thank you for opening up your lives, sharing the ins and outs of military life overseas, and for reminding the rest of us that are left behind - that our time here is short and to make the most of it while we can ... that's inspiring.