Things About Japan that were as Good as I Expected

My. Fuji

Don’t you love it when something is exactly as wonderful as you thought it would be? It just doesn’t happen enough in life, but I’m a lucky girl because here in Japan there are a few things that have thankfully turned out to be exactly as I’d hoped.

Japan FashionEveryone is Stylin’

On any given street in Tokyo at any given time there is a fashion show. Women and men are perfectly coordinated — even to do something as simple as go shopping for more fashionable things to wear. Yeah, it makes me feel frumpy sometimes when I can’t be bothered to do more than throw on my jeans and sneakers, but for the most part it’s inspiring! I love art and fashion, and it’s like Tokyo is a big fashion gallery.

Japan is Sightseeing Heaven

To say Japan is a beautiful country is a big understatement. I seriously doubt I’ll get to see all the places I want to see here, even if I stay for years. There are just so many! The traditional beauty of Kyoto and the Gion district, famous Miyajima shrine in Hiroshima, the beaches of Okinawa, the Islands of Izu, the forests of Nikko, the temples of Kamakura, plus dozens more places that are off the beaten track.

The Best Customer Service in the World

It’s almost shocking how far people will go out of their way to help you out. For example at the grocery store, I asked a stock guy for baking soda, and he told me it was on the first floor. I went upstairs and I had some trouble finding it, then out of nowhere he comes to my rescue with the baking soda in his hand. And people often apologize to me for not speaking English! Plus if you’re lost and ask for directions, people will usually either take you where you want to go or find/draw you a map.

The Food is really different…but really good!

Okonomiyaki

Okonomiyaki

Since coming to Japan some of my favourite Japanese foods are Okonomiyaki, Udon, Japanese curry, and Japanese Shumai. I was a little worried about the food here because seafood is so common, and I wasn’t so much about the seafood back in the day, but everyone who had been to Japan told me the food was amazing, and I’m so glad they were right. Aside from seafood the most popular meat is pork, and I have no problem with that ;) . Japanese fried chicken is also totemo oiishi (very delicious).

For my fellow travellers and expats, was there anything about the country you lived in or visited that turned out to be everything you wanted and more?

The Easiest Way to Get the Internet in Tokyo

 

URoad 8000 WiMax Router

URoad 8000 WiMax Router

When I first moved into my new apartment, I had the pleasant bonus of free internet from a mysterious, magical and unsecured “CG guest” wifi network. Yeah it wasn’t all that “safe”, but hell it was free! And anything sensitive like banking I did using the data plan on my iPhone.

So anyway I hooked up and began surfing like a champ, downloading music, videos and movies until one day, just as magically as it appeared, the CG guest network disappeared :(   forcing me to face the frightening task of getting my own internet hookup… in Japanese.

I did a lot of research, and mostly all it did was hurt my head. After hearing about Flex Hikari this and ASDL that, methods that would take two to three weeks to set up (and I wanted my internet back NOW!) there was only one clear choice — WiMax.

WiMax is the next generation in mobile internet; that means it’s wireless. No one had to come to my house to install anything. I went to Bic Camera, found someone who spoke English, showed them three pieces of ID that confirmed my address, filled out some forms and I walked out with the modem in the picture above. I pressed “on” and I was back in business that day.

The speed will depend on how close you live to the server, but say you lived right next door, the max is 40 kb/s, which today is pretty fast for a personal hook up. I gave the Bic Camera dudes my address and they did some kind of test to see how good the signal would be in my area, and they said it would be pretty good. However, according to speedtest.net I’m getting something like 5kb/s, but that’s still enough to stream videos at a reasonable rate. I can also take the modem with me anywhere, it’ll get a signal pretty much anywhere in metropolitan Tokyo. It’s just under 4,000 yen a month for unlimited usage.

I think I made the right choice and I’m happy with it so far, but if you’re looking for other internet options I found this site called BBApply. If you fill out a form they’ll give you a breakdown of the internet options available to you and how much they’ll cost They’ll also work with the providers on your behalf to get you set up, and it doesn’t cost you anything extra. Check it out.

 

Why Living in Tokyo is Hard

Now that I’m completely, independently living on my own, rather than in a guest house where four of my roommates were Japanese, I’ve accidentally turned up the heat on this whole living in a foreign country experiment, and the chemicals in the beaker are starting to bubble. I have to do a lot more things in Japanese, and although my Japanese has improved in the last eight months, it’s nowhere near sufficient to make any of this easy.

At the moment I can only pick out the small amount of vocabulary I know when someone is speaking, and only if they’re not speaking super-fast. The place I hate to go the most is the post office because for some reason, even in the heart of Tokyo, no one there ever speaks a lick of English. So I have to do my best to fumble through with one word answers, grunts and body language. Every time I leave I go home and furiously study from my textbooks.

Another thing I hate to do is reschedule a delivery if I miss it. I’ve been ordering things online for my apartment, and I pray every time that the delivery guy will come when I’m at home. But alas, he comes when I’m at work, and when I come home I see the dreaded missed delivery slip sticking out of my mailbox. So then I have to go to the convenience store and buy some light booze, drink it, and then make the phone call to a guy who speaks only enough English to say “sorry, I can’t speak English”. For every short sentence I make, for example asking if he can come back today or tomorrow, I get like four or five long fast ones in Japanese back from him, and I never understand any of it, and I can’t smile and nod because it’s over the phone. Usually the both of us just give up and he ends up coming back the next day and hopefully I’m home.

There’s some stuff I want to buy like a full length mirror and a chest of drawers. My clothes have been piled up on the floor gathering dust, and I’m in constant danger of leaving the house with my shirt on backwards all because I’m dreading trying to set up the delivery in Japanese.

Then lately, maybe because of the crappy typhoon weather, I’ve been feeling somewhat isolated. This was not helped by the guy who recently moved my bed for me. He’s been living in Japan for three-and-a-half years, and gave me a lovely monologue about how the Japanese don’t want us here. “They are so racist, I’ve worked with them and I’ve seen it. They always ask ‘when are you going back?”

Perhaps I’ve just been lucky so far in that the Japanese staff I work with have been amazing, and many of my students too. I hate thinking, “the racism is just around the corner, if I stay here long enough it’ll get me too.” I just want to enjoy my time here, especially while everything is still fun and new, but sometimes I meet people who have been here a long time, maybe five years or more, and they seem…downtrodden, or bitter and I can’t help but think, “damn, that’s what’s in store for me?”

I don’t want to leave, and there is an ambitious/sick part of me that even enjoys facing these new challenges, but I do hope that as my Japanese improves and I “get the hang” of how this mundane, everyday stuff works in Tokyo, I’ll feel a lot more comfortable.

 

My Little Slice of Tokyo

I’m all moved in to my own apartment here in Tokyo and I’m pretty pleased with myself, I have to say.

I got a whole bunch of appliances for a fraction of their price at sayonara sales. For those who don’t know, a sayonara sale is the frantic garage sale expats in Japan put on before they leave in an attempt to unload all the stuff they’ve accumulated. See there’s a fee to dispose of big stuff like beds and shelves and appliances. A lot of the time people even give away appliances for free!

I still have a lot of work to do, but I’ve been skipping merrily through housewares stores in Japan picking out my perfect decor. It’s kind of a pain to get the stuff home on the train, (I almost dislocated my shoulders lugging home a microwave in a suitcase) but that is the level of my dedication to home decor.

My new neighborhood is quiet, and residential, but near some major shopping and entertainment meccas in Tokyo, so I feel like I’ve got the best of both worlds.

Here it is, my urban castle.

Let’s call this the before picture. If it looks small, that’s because it is. The price of living in central Tokyo. But just the fact that there’s room to walk around my bed means it instantly owns the other place.

 

The place came with a blue fridge, cool right? You  can also see the microwave that almost cost me my arms…literally.

 

Here's my ginormous kitchen. "Where's the stove?" You may be wondering. See that square thing holding up the frying pan? Yeah, that's it. I could buy a two burner plus grill range, but I don't really need it. I'd rather have precious counter top space.

And here's my cheerful orange bathroom. I made it orange because I hate getting up early, so I'm hoping the orange will be like a proverbial wake up slap.

Blacks in Japan: She Was Scared of Me!

I’ve been living in Japan for eight months now, and though I had always feared it might happen, not once has a child run screaming or starting crying at the sight of my blackness.

Not until yesterday that is.

I was shopping at Don Quixote.  For those not living in Japan Don Quixote is a department store similar to Wal-Mart. I was shopping for stuff to pimp my crib, when I spotted a black man with an adorable half-black, half-Japanese two year old daughter. As I try to do when I see another person who looks like me in Japan I gave “the nod” of acknowledgment, which opened the doors for conversation.

“Where are you from?” he asked, with an African accent. I told him I was from Canada.

“Are you a student?”

“No I’m a teacher”

“Oh, I’m looking for someone to teach my daughter English, and I want her to have more interaction with the black community.”

It was at this point that the little cutie started crying.

“She must be tired,” I commented naively.

“No, whenever she sees a black face, or anyone not Japanese, she gets scared. She’s only used to me.”

Whaaaat? She’s afraid of…me? Little old me?

The irony, that the first child who cried at the sight of me was half black. Don’t that beat all huh? Well I think I’ll take the teaching job, so she’ll be seeing a lot more of me. But we’ll be best friends in no time ;)

I sometimes think about how difficult it would be to raise a visibly foreign child in Japan. I don’t think I would do it. This little darling believes in her childlike way that she’s Japanese, and technically she is. She was born and raised here. Yet sometime soon, maybe when she starts school, she will encounter people who are only too quick to show her that no, she is not “real” Japanese. And it won’t just be Japanese people either. It will be the foreigners who expect her to speak perfect English.

I don’t envy her (even though I can tell she will be a complete knockout when she grows up). She has some tough life lessons ahead of her, and I think in order to have the necessary tools to face the upcoming challenges she needs to have an understanding and healthy self-love for both sides of her heritage, so I’ll do my best to get her to stop crying.

 

 

Making My Move

It’s decided, I’m moving out. The guest house life has been far less traumatic than I expected, but I do have some gripes: mainly space. Maybe you already know this, but real estate in Tokyo is like a fraction of the size of it’s western big city counterparts. Exhibit A: my rabbit cage.

Rabbit Cage

If I lie down and stretch out I can touch both ends of the room.

I’ve got a pile of clothes that’s falling over because I have no closet or dresser to put them in. And it’s not because I’m too cheap to buy one either. There’s just nowhere to put it! In fact it’s blatantly obvious that the room I live in used to be one room, but the company split it in two to get more rent.

That’s why I live right next to the front door, and I can hear when everyone comes and goes — whether that’s at midnight or six in the morning. There’s also this…scooter guy who comes to our neighbor’s house every morning  at about four. Not only does his stupid noisy scooter wake me up, the security light above the door turns on, flooding my room with an abrasive orange glow. This light also turns on when a cat or a bird or roach or microscopic bacteria pass by it.

Yep, it’s definitely time to move on, and this time next week I should be in my very own apartment.

 

Summer R.E.L.I.E.F Tactics

This post is part of the  Blog Matsuri (festival) “Hot Fun in the Summertime”. Special thanks to Loco of Loco in Yokohama for hosting.

 

 

 

Summer is usually my recommend for best season of the year. A glowing blue sky and sunshine always gets me grinning like a nerd fantasizing about marrying the girls at his favourite maid café. But there’s summer, and then there’s Tokyo summer. I was warned. Oh, how I was warned.

“Japan gets very hot in the summer.” (Very hot? In Summer?? What? How?)

“There is a lot of humidity” (OK, so my hair might experience some chia petification, but what else is new?)

Yeah, you know how everything is more…exaggerated in Japan? Summer is no exception. It’s like someone bedazzled summer with glittering beads made of heat and suffering. Every day I ask myself, why must everything be so moist? The air is moist, two minutes after stepping outside my socks are moist, my clothes are moist, my face is perpetually greasy as if I put on a Vaseline beauty mask every morning, and I am just generally marinating in my own juices at all times like the globe is a giant rotisserie, and we’re about to be the main course. Even now I can barely type because my fingers are so sweaty they keep slipping off the keyshdforwgnh. Dammit!

And before you go off on me with, “Ew, don’t you shower?” Yes I do, and right after I get out I am “dewy” again. And there is barely a breeze to be felt. It’s like the wind passed through Tokyo one day long ago, thought to himself, “Oh, hell no it’s too damn moist! I’m not touching that situation,” and left us all to the mercy of summer’s sweaty, groping palms.

Historically in these times of struggle the people would turn their attention to worshiping the God of coolness and comfort, Aircon. But alas, our saviour has been weakened by the devilish plotting and underhanded manoeuvrings of his nemesis, the evil trickster Tepco.  So we must rise up, and seek our own sources of liberation. The rebellion starts now! Join me as Rebels Entering Liberation In Energetic Fashion, and become a R.E.L.I.E.F warrior™. Using our R.E.L.I.E.F tactics, we will violently yank Tokyo summer’s sticky, wandering fingers from our bodies.

Liberation tactic # 1: Get your CoolBiz on.

Tie Fan

Look at this guy, look how refreshed he looks. This could be you.

Coolbiz is a free pass to wear whatever you want* to work so that you don’t have to die of heatstroke, because that looks really bad for the company. Fellas, I suggest rocking this piece on the right at your next big presentation.

It’s not cheesy; it says you are a smart man who is serious about keeping cool. You’re at the head of the liberation front my friend.

*Dramatization: and I take no responsibility if you show up to work in your mankini and get yourself deported.

Liberation Tactic #2: Be a Platform Rat™

Platform Rat

R.E.L.I.E.F Warrior in Action

I lied when I said there was little breeze in Tokyo. There is one special time when the sweetest of cooling breezes traipses ever so lightly through Tokyo like a butterfly coming to rest on a flower covered in dew…disgusting, smelly dew. That time is when a train pulls into a station. That is one welcome wind but all too soon it’s gone, and what’s left is a train ride packed into a car with about 100 other moistened people as Aircon, in his weakened state, can only wheeze over us. So I say, why get on the train? Why not just hang out on the platform all day as dozens of trains go by, bringing their soothing breezes with them. Bring a blanket, a book and bento and (the three B’s of platform ratting) and camp out. You will notice people starting at you: again they are thinking how smart you are and committed to the cause of keeping cool. You are a true R.E.L.I.E.F warrior.

Liberation Tactic #3: Go bar hopping in Roppongi.

Go ahead, do it. If this place doesn’t send a chill down your spine I don’t know what will. Make sure to watch some charisma men going at it too (shudder). Aaaah, it’s working already.

Liberation Tactic #4: Nomihodai (All You Can Drink)

Hydration is an important part of keeping cool, so it is your duty as a R.E.L.I.E.F warrior to drink, and drink, and drink so more. Yes, Nomihodai usually refers to alcoholic drinks, but what better and cheaper way to keep filling yourself up with liquid? Every day? All summer?  You’d be stupid not to do it.*

*I take no responsibility if daily nomihodai also results in the wearing of the mankini, and subsequent deportation.

OK my warriors, I’ve given you my finest liberation secrets, but I need your help. You’re a crafty bunch, and I know you have R.E.L.I.E.F tactics of your own, so stop holding out on me. What are they? Shoot me a comment and let me know…please?

 

I’m in Love with Taiko

Taiko

No, Taiko is unfortunately not the name of some cool and sexy Japanese guy. It’s beautiful, traditional Japanese drumming.

One of the things I really love and admire about Japan is the classical music. There’s something about the sound of the shamisen, koto and yes the booming Taiko drum that just resonates with my soul. The pounding rhythm of the Taiko is aggressive, it’s commanding — it’ll crash your brain and force you to listen. And beating the drum requires not only strength, but style. A Taiko drummer also needs to be a dancer, and the perfect form of a Taiko master combines strength and grace, like a hunting crane. A Taiko performance is nothing short of art.

How did I get involved in Taiko? I saw the opportunity for a free Taiko lesson posted on TimeOut Tokyo, and I knew I had to try it. I had my misgivings: Will I be able to understand the instructor if the class is in Japanese? How much will it cost if I want to continue? Will I have to buy a big Taiko drum? But the music was calling, so I pushed all those worries aside and sent an email saying I wanted to try the free lesson. Some of my fears about language were eased when the reply had pretty accurate English grammar.

Now I’m hooked. I’ve been taking lessons for four months, and I’m in the middle of learning a routine for my first concert. There are days when I feel lazy and I don’t want to go to class, but I remember the rhythm, and I drag myself to the train station, and once I’m in class surrounded by the drumming, I’m always glad I went.

What’s a typical lesson like? Well, I get to the studio and give my usual chorus of konban wa (good evening) to everyone I see. If I’m early I help our sensei (teacher) and the other students with setting up the drums. We use three huge drums, and take turns practicing.

After the drums are set up I go get changed. Taiko is a workout, especially when we’re practicing the fast rhythms, so I need my workout gear. This is the time I usually practice my miniscule Japanese, by talking to the other students. And they also get to practice their English with me.

Then I tape up my hands with elastic bandages. If I don’t I get bruises and blisters on my hands from drumming so hard. Soon after that sensei will call out, “Hai! Hajimemasho! (Let’s Start)” Then we do some stretches, and then get into drumming practice. Though I can’t understand a lot of what’s being said, I can get it from context. But if I ask another student who speaks English they’re always willing to explain. At some point we get some one on one time with the sensei, and though he doesn’t speak English he shows me what I’m doing wrong by doing a hilarious caricature of me. Uh…point taken sensei.

These Taiko lessons have been a great way to challenge myself physically and mentally. The style of Taiko I do is Miyake Taiko, and I’m really, really trying to have passable drumming form before the concert. However, I am slightly worried about the “waiting pose” we have to make when it’s not our turn to drum. It’s a crouching sit that starts to hurt after about one minute and makes my legs fall asleep! The last thing I want is to get up to drum and fall flat on my face…

Still, I think I’ve stumbled onto something incredible here, and I’m already excited for the next lesson. They are two hours long but I don’t even feel it. Once the drum beat starts everything else fades away. There’s only a thunderous rhythm that vibrates first in the soles of my bare feet, then travels up my legs, up my spine and hijacks the beat of my heart. The nagging chatter of the everyday worries of life is no match for the powerful boom of the Taiko drum.

This post is part of the October 2011 J-Festa: Entertainment in Japan.

Random KitKat Action

So I stroll into school one day and I notice there are some snacks on the back counter of the teacher’s room. Occasionally a student or one of the staff will bring something in. “Oh I wonder what it is this time?” I thought. “I hope it’s something good and not something weird,” because well, sometimes it’s something weird.

But not that day, oh no. That day it was an awesome KitKat Bonanza!

KitKat Bonaza

 

I remember reading somewhere before coming over that Japan is home to thousands* of different KitKat flavours. Flavours only some kind of mad genius could think to combine with wafers. The KitKats in the photo above are (clockwise from the top): white chocolate,  “mild” chocolate, green tea, mixed juice, sweet potato, caramel, custard cream and blueberry. Since I’ve been here I’ve tried some of the more exotic flavours, and here is my official review.

Green Tea KitKat

Green Tea KitKat

 

 

Alleged Flavour: Green Tea

Tastes Like:  Green Tea Ice Cream.

Final Word: Delicious

 

 

 

Sweet Potato KitKat

Sweet Potato KitKat

 

 

Alleged Flavour: Sweet Potato

Tastes like: Sweet Potato…if you put salt on it or something. It was sweet with a strange salty aftertaste.

Final Word: Don’t like! (Gross!)

 

 

Caramel KitKat

Caramel KitKat

 

 

Alleged Flavour: Caramel

Tastes like: Caramel (and chocolate).

Final Word: It’s good! Can’t go wrong with caramel and chocolate.

 

 

 

Blueberry

Blueberry

 

Alleged Flavour: Blueberry

Tastes like: Your mother’s potpourri bowl.

Final Word: Unless your one of those health nuts who likes drinking wheat grass and stuff you won’t like this. It tastes like flowers.

 

 

 

An honorable mention goes to three more flavours: Strawberry shortcake (the mad genius’ finest work so far in my opinion), tiramisu (It had a distinctly cheesy smell, and a distinctly cheesy taste, yuck),  and custard (tasted good, went well with the waferishness of the wafer). I really wish I had tried mixed juice, but I didn’t know what it was at the time. Even though the label was in katakana, which I can read, I couldn’t figure it out because the idea of a juice flavoured kitkat was so…absurd to me I just couldn’t put two and two together. Mixed juice KitKat, honestly. He’s mad I tell you, mad!

*This number is not based on any kind of official count, but it’s most likely true anyway.
**Update** It seems there is a new KitKat flavour, Zundafumi, and this one is fluorescent green! proceeds from the sale going toward those affected by the Tohoku earthquake. Thanks to Donald over at The Japan Guy for finding t his one.

Suffer the Little Children…

The kids’ classes. They’re what I suspect gives the Eikaiwa school rookies the biggest shakes. I know I was quivering like Santa’s Belly or a bowl of something jelly-like, maybe something with a fruit flavour. Anyway,  Children…are not yet civilized. They’re unpredictable. They hit each other. They scream or cry at random times. They say mean things that make you scream or cry at random times. They have short attention spans and are distracted by things that are shiny, or fuzzy, or colourful. I kid you not, I once had a whole class chasing after a ball of yarn.

Yep.

On top of all that, I was personally afraid the younger ones would take one look at me, this chocolate-looking person coming at them jabbering some strange language, and start crying or refuse to come into the classroom. It’s a concern for all the native English speaking teachers. We were warned in training that some of the kids might be afraid of us at first. However even among us foreigners I am a rarity, so I expected the reaction to be a bit worse for me. But, happily, I’ve hardly had any problems.

Well…

In one of my classes I teach three little boys, toddlers really (the parents are in the class with me otherwise yeah, that would be impossible.) One of them is only a little over a year old and in the first few classes he cried and clung to his mama. It was his first foray into the wonderful world of learning English. The other two boys made up for it though.  They’ve already had classes, they’re old pros and no chocolate person is gonna scare them. No sir. In fact just to prove it they like to run up to me every so often during class and hug my legs, and sometimes ask me to pick them up :) . And they crybaby (literally) seems to have gotten used to me too now. Last class he even let go of his koala-like hold on his mother for a while.

I think the reasons the vast majority of the kids haven’t been afraid of me are 1) many have them have already had experience with foreign teachers and 2) they can sense something about me.

I like ‘em.

Yep, I like the little rascals. Kids are enthusiastic, they’re cute, mini versions of real people, they have real smiles as yet untainted by the hardships of life and they are more honest than their adult counterparts.  I really enjoy playing games with them. Sometimes I get so into it I forget for a while I’m supposed to be Amanda-Sensei. They won’t let you get away with that for too long though. That’s the other thing about kids. They like to push, challenge. They’re always trying to see what they can get away with. They can’t help it, being a kid is all about learning right? So sometimes, though I hate to do it, I have to be a bit of an, well an adult with them. I have to boss them around and frown and be all disapproving. “Curb that childish exuberance you! Can’t you see we’re trying to run a society here? Now practice your letters.”

I joke about it but it really is important. If the kids realize they can walk all over you it’s over, you just can’t control the class. One thing that does make it a little tougher to discipline them is that their parents are usually watching. I have one class with a bunch of little boys about 5-7. They are little angels…hells angels. I gotta be quick on my feet with those little darlings, otherwise they get bored very quickly and start joking around with each other in Japanese, or running around, or refusing to repeat what I’m trying to teach them…all while mommy and daddy dearest watch on. Every now and then I make them get up and do jumping jacks or something to tire them out, but sometimes it backfires and they get more energized. What the hell?

Lucky for me, kids also have a healthy sense of competition, so I give them points for good behaviour, and usually when one kid sees another kid just won a point, they try harder, and if they’re misbehaving I can threaten to take a point away. Works well with most kids. They are a few who are a little wiser, a little worldlier and have somehow found out that the points don’t mean jack. Who told them? WHO? That makes my job harder, but I just have to find other ways to cajole these little Einsteins into learning. Frequently the ones who are unimpressed with the points system are also some of my brightest students. Go figure.