Monday, May 7, 2018

May the Fourth Be with You - Star Wars Day in Tokyo 2018

This was the first year that I actually trekked to Tokyo for the Star Wars Day. I had lofty plans of getting up at the crack of dawn and hopping on an early train to the capital. I wanted to be in Tokyo by 9AM. Very ambitious considering that it would require me to get up at 5:30AM, on a public holiday, no less.

And then I had the brilliant idea to invite my friend to tag along. And she said "OMG! So exciting! Of course! Yes! Let's do it!", or somesuch.

When May 4th rolled around, the force was definitely not with us. The dumb twat wasn't ready. She wasn't ready at 6:30. She wasn't ready at 7. And she wasn't ready at 8 either. When we finally got going it was already after 9. That brought us to Tokyo close to noon. We might as well have stayed home...

But first things first...

If you have been living under a rock in a galaxy far, far away and don't know what Star Wars Day is, now is your chance to finally find out.

Star Wars Day is celebrated on May 4th, because May the fourth. Get it? May the fourth be with you. It works especially well in Japanese, because both "fourth" and "force" are pronounced the same by Japanese speakers and sound exactly the same to Japanese ears.

The event we were planning to attend was organized by J-Wave (one of Tokyo's radio stations) and held at Sanagi Space just a stone's throw from the South East exit of Shinjuku JR Station.

I just love this backpack!

Because May 4th is a public holiday (as are May 3rd and May 5th, too - so-called "Golden Week in Japan) and May 6th happened to be a Sunday this year, Tokyo got not one Star Wars Day, but a whole extended Star Wars weekend.

Golden Week meant that apart from the poor souls working in the service industry, the entire Japan was on vacation. That, in turn, meant that trains were packed and Tokyo was overflowing with people. It wasn't any better on the expressways. There was a massive 32 kilometer traffic jam on the Tohoku Highway going to Nikko.

When we got to Shinjuku, the line to Sanagi Space stretched down the block, around the building, across the street and back towards the station. A security guy cheerfully informed us that it was "oh, about a four hour wait."

My friend patiently settled herself at the end of the line, for all intents and purposes quite content to spend the entire day waiting there.

When after an hour the line didn't move forward at all, she finally mumbled "I'm so sorry, Anna" and very quickly ducked, because she could see I was ready to punch her square in the face.

While she was waiting, I walked around taking photos.

People were happy to pose, everybody was helping each other to take photos and the atmosphere was super friendly and filled with anticipation. With just one exception. Close to the exit from the Sanagi Space, I caught a procession of storm troopers marching along with guys with official organizer badges. One of the special badge holders was a white guy. And guess who screamed "no photos!" while foaming at the mouth? Yep, the white dude. While his  Japanese colleagues were simply walking forward escorting the storm troopers, he was the only one who objected to fans snapping pictures. Delusions of grandeur much, my friend?

Of course I ignored him and took a photo. Duh!

There were some interesting characters waiting in line.

The princesses came as late as we did, but because they were in costume, they just kind of snuggled up next to Chewie and skipped about a hundred people.

The shoes, ladies! Next time do something about those damn shoes!

The rebels were extremely happy, they were about an hour away from the entrance. Almost inside!

Darth Maul was busy playing a smartphone game.

And there is nothing quite as bizarre as a grown Japanese man dressed up as BB8.

There were plenty of stormtroopers.

And they knew their main purpose was to stand there and pose for photos. Such troopers!

The person on the right, not sure if it's a woman, or a man dressed as a woman. We've been debating it on the way home. I said it's a man, my friend disagreed. If it's a woman, she is bloody tall. Definitely taller than me and even taller than the friendly trooper here.

Our blue alien hero was definitely a woman.

Of course there was also a Kylo Ren (there were several actually) walking around.

I chatted with a couple of people who managed to get inside Sanagi Space and while they said it was fun, it was also somewhat underwhelming. J-Wave clearly underestimated the popularity of Star Wars Day and the staffers were visibly tense and frustrated. They had to deal with the clusterfuck outside and at the same time keep moving people along on the inside. And apparently, some people when they finally got inside after hours of waiting in the heat (it was bloody hot that day!) did not want to be rushed or moved along.

I really wanted to take a photo sitting next to the cardboard cutout of the dashing young Solo, but sadly, no luck.

As you can see, the Solo movie is titled "Han Solo" in Japan, or rather "Han Soro," because there's no "L" in Japanese. And it's going to be released on June 29th in Japan. More than a month after the rest of the world. This is especially frustrating since other Star Wars movies premiered in Japan on the same weekend as the US.

I wasn't going to put up with this kind of bullshit and planned a trip to Europe to coincide with the release of the Solo movie in May. I was hoping to see it on the premiere day, but unfortunately, that will not happen. Schedules and plane tickets and such. I'll try to go to the movies on May 28th. Yay me!

Or, I may see it in Dubai on May 26th. I'm still exploring my options. One thing is certain. I am not going to wait one full month for the Japanese premiere. 

And here's a final group photo of the most in-you-face cosplayers.

When after an hour the line didn't move at all, my friend finally realized it was an exercise in futility and we decided to leave. Next year you'd better be ready at 6AM, you numbnut! Or I'm not taking you at all.

And next year I should (hopefully) be a member of the Japanese Garrison of the 501st Legion. I'm currently waiting for my very own stormtrooper armor.

And this is how Star Wars Day was celebrated at Heathrow Airport:

It would never happen at a Japanese airport. Well done, Heathrow!!! But next year, please, can you add Scarif to the list?

May the fourth be with you.

See you again next year.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Recycling in Japan

Last Monday, for the first time ever, I made a trip to the municipal garbage dump and recycling plant. Not for fun and pleasure, oh no. I had some serious stuff to throw out.

You see, throwing out bulky, big, household things in Japan is not so easy. Usually, it costs money. In some cases, it costs a lot of money. When I gathered all the stuff I wanted to dump and realized just how big of a load it was, the first thing I did was call a waste pickup service. They gave an estimate, which nearly induced a heart attack. 25,000 yen to come and collect and dispose of everything. That's nearly 250 dollars. And that did not even include "special handling garbage," such as oil heaters and sofas! Charges for these are extra.
Thank you, but no, thank you. For that amount of money, I could stay one night in a budget resort in Maldives. Or four nights in a guesthouse on a local Maldivian island.

I thanked the nice man on the phone and started looking for alternate ways of dumping my load. (hehe).

A bit of googling directed me to the main municipal dump - Clean Park Mobara.

There are a couple smaller garbage processing centers in Utsunomiya, but Mobara is the biggest and the grandest. It also accepts the widest variety of trash. You can dump there pretty much anything other than paper, sofas and white good (fridge, etc).

Clean Park Mobara is more than just a garbage dump.
It houses an environmental learning center (or however you want to translate it) where young schoolchildren are taught about the virtues of recycling. School trips to Mobara are apparently really fun and kids love them.

Recycling indoctrination starts at a very early age in Japan. By the time we're adults, we are already conditioned to obediently sort garbage into five different categories and 13 different types.

This is the memo every household in the city got at the start of 2010. Some households, like mine, got them in multiple languages.
It was music to my OCD ears. I went out and bought 3 extra bins to put in the kitchen. I diligently rinsed, folded, cut, bagged and tied up with string. I felt really good about doing my part for the environment. I embraced the new sorting and disposing rules with enough zeal for several Japanese housewives.

Before throwing anything out, I looked for the "pura" sign on the package, because recycling became my new religion.

What is the "pura" sign, I hear you say?


It can be found on anything that can, or rather should, be recycled.

It's everywhere. After a while you get so used to seeing it that when you can't find it on foreign packaging, you feel something is amiss.
In Japan, every individual candy wrapper has "pura" information on it.

So now you know how it's supposed to work in theory. You sort the garbage into different groups depending on the information printed on packages, and your trash is either burned or recycled.

Of course we want to recycle. It is drilled into us that recycling is good, that plastics are choking our oceans and killing the fish, and so on...

I was dutifully sorting and separating everything for years. I was taking the bags to the curb on the appropriate days (burnables on Tuesdays and Fridays and recycling on Wednesdays). I felt good about doing my part to save the environment.

On Monday I proudly took my perfectly sorted trash to Clean Park Mobara. I folded up the seats in the back and loaded up the car with bags of beautifully separated plastics and glass and metals and bulky items and off I went.

You know you are getting closer when you start following a convoy of garbage trucks.

Clean Park Mobara garbage disposal plant serves only certain municipalities, and usually you are asked for an ID when driving through the gates.
The gate agent checks what kind of garbage you have and based on that you are directed accordingly. You get an entry pass with your number, the proper station is notified that you are coming and they are waiting for you. This is to prevent you wandering off into the bowels of the plant.

There are two lines painted on the road - blue for burnable trash, and yellow for everything else.
The first day I was told to follow the yellow line.

You drive onto a ramp and then into the building to the first (second?) floor. There you are directed to the appropriate unloading bay. This is the hardest part, because you have to back up into the bay and stay within the painted lines. The floor may, or may not move and you don't want to accidentally junk your car there.

I started unloading my stuff. An old printer, a bag of chargers and batteries, assorted small appliances, everything was picked up, quickly looked over and then promptly dumped into separate trolleys waiting to take the stuff away.

And then I presented my bags of carefully sorted "pura" plastics.
The man shook his head.

I said "pura."
He looked at me funny and said "moeru." (burnable)

I said, "here, look! Pura sign."
He just laughed and said, "burnable, burnable, burnable. Everything burnable!" And told me to take it to the burnable unit.

I refused to believe him. These were plastics. They had the "pura" recycle sign.
The man threw the bags back into my car and shooed me out of the way. Other people were waiting.

Dejected, I drove along the blue line for burnables. My bags of "pura" were accepted there without any questions.

My world was collapsing right in front of my eyes. And my environmental righteousness along with it.

Why then was I separating everything like a maniac all these years? What for? Why? How? What was the point?

When driving out of the building, still in total shock, I nearly got run over by a dump truck leaving the ground floor.

I remembered hearing stories that recyclables go into the fire, but at that time, I simply dismissed them as excuses of people too lazy to sort their trash. I remembered getting frustrated with a co-worker who kept throwing disposable wooden chopsticks into the "pura" bin at the office. And when she laughed at me, I assumed she was an arrogant b*tch who didn't care about the poor garbage plant workers whose job is to sort the bags later.

Little did I know that there would be no sorting of any kind. Just burning. Burning.

I returned home and started making dinner. It felt so good to throw away plastic vegetable wrappers into regular household trash. Yay!

The next day I did a bit of investigating. What I learned was both sad and shocking. Not only "pura" items go into the fire. Do you dutifully sort all paper packagings like I used to do for years? Well, you're wasting your time. Only cardboard, simple brown cardboard, gets recycled. Everything else? Into the fire.

The reason for it is, that apparently, it costs too much money to recycle processed paper printed with color ink. The chemicals used for printing render nearly all such materials virtually unrecyclable due to high costs involved.

My world will never be the same again. All I need from now on is just 3 bins for recycling: one for glass, one for cans, and one for PET (plastic) drink bottles. Everything else? Into the fire!!!

In the meantime, I should go back packing up the house.
I still have more things to throw out and that brings us to items so vile that even the municipal dump will not take them - sofas, spring mattresses and electric oil heaters. And big home appliances. These absolutely MUST be handled by special disposal companies.

Want to throw out a broken electric oil heater? Prepare to pay around 40 dollars for the privilege. You want to dump an old sofa? Prices for throwing it out start at 80 dollars. Spring mattresses? Unless you are willing to pay around 7 dollars per kilo, you're shit out of luck.

That explains abandoned household goods in the Japanese countryside. Washing machines dumped by the side of the road, sofas rotting in the fields, heaters abandoned behind buildings. Yes, such Japan very much exists, but if you are a casual tourist, you will never see it. You will go back home only with images of perfectly clean streets and sparkling train stations in big cities.

Japan so clean! Yeah, right...

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

State of emergency in the Maldives - is it safe to visit?

In short - YES.
It is perfectly safe to visit the Maldives while the state of emergency is in effect.

Yet despite this very obvious answer, people keep asking questions on different travel forums if "everything is ok over there?" and "would like to know if it's safe?" and "should we cancel our vacation?"

Reading these questions you might be excused for thinking that the Maldives were hit by a major natural disaster of epic proportions, a tsunami perhaps. Or experiencing an outbreak of a particularly virulent disease.

The reality is a lot more mundane (isn't it always, though?).
It has to do with politics (doesn't it always, though?).

The truth is that the Maldives have been experiencing political turmoil for years (if not decades). And the truth is that tourists visiting the country know nothing about it, because it does not impact them in ANY way.

Most people asking such questions are too lazy to fire up Google and learn the three things they need to know.

One, the Maldives is an island country. There are many, many islands there. Unlike in countries that are not islands, the capital city is located on its own island.

Two, the airport is located on a different island than the capital city, despite sharing the same name. Thus, Malé International Airport, or more officially, Velana International Airport is located on Hulhulé Island. Despite being named "Malé", it is not actually in Malé.

source: wikipedia

To get from the airport to Malé you need to take a ferry. However, most tourists never even visit Malé, because they are picked up by their resorts right at the airport and taken there directly. There is no need for them to travel to Malé.

See? You need to take a ferry to travel between Malé and the airport island.

And third, whatever unrests or demonstrations were taking place, they were confined to Malé. And as we now know, tourists don't go to Malé, because Malé is not a place to go on vacation.

Personally, I enjoy Malé very much, but I am weird like that. 99.99% of tourists do not share my fondness for the Maldivian capital city. But more about it in a second. 99.99% of tourists avoid Malé like the plague, and head straight for the resorts.

 Because if you are paying thousands of dollars for your holiday, you're not interested in seeing how the natives live, right? You want your paradise beach vacation and an overwater villa with a private pool. These are the Maldives from tourist brochures and there are the Maldives that people come to see. And these are the Maldives that are absolutely unaffected in ANY way by whatever might be going on in the capital city.

So, is it safe to visit the Maldives while the state of emergency is in effect (and it has just been extended)?

YES! It is perfectly SAFE to visit the Maldives right now. The resort islands are as safe as they have always been.
And what about the capital city?
Are you planning to take part in anti-government demonstrations? No? Then it is perfectly safe to visit Malé right now, too. Just use your common sense. Just like you would use your common sense in your home country.

What surprised me the most was that the most persistent askers were people from countries that are not exactly known for their safety and law and order. Yet, when asked to articulate their fears about travel to the Maldives, they are lost for words. They can't explain what's so scary about landing at Velana International Airport and transferring to a speedboat or a seaplane to get to their resorts.

Seriously, I am a lot more worried about my personal safety while traveling in India than about political turmoil in the Maldives.

The Maldivian government, though authoritarian it may be, is not stupid. It knows that tourists equal cash. No tourists means no money. The Maldives need that tourist money to survive. That is the bottom line. Nobody wants to bite the hand that literally feeds the entire country.

And that is the explanation why, if you hadn't read the news, you wouldn't even have noticed anything out of the ordinary in the country.

In Malé, it's business as usual.

Public gatherings are prohibited during the state of emergency. So, unless you are planning to join political demonstrations, you are going to be perfectly safe.

Would relaxing in the park be considered a public gathering? Of course not. It's clear people just go about their business as they have always done.

And despite the ongoing state of emergency, there is hardly any police presence on the streets. There are plenty of people and motorbikes, though. You are more likely to get injured in a scooter accident in Malé than to witness any sort of political unrest.

Personally, I hate scooters. Especially considering that a typical Malé street gives a new meaning to the word "narrow".

Malé is the smallest capital city in the world. At the same time, it's also the most densely populated one. The only time when the streets are free of people is very early in the morning, preferably on a Friday.

Everyday life keeps going. Only the tourists are panicking for no reason at all.

Malé could never be called a beautiful city. It's the opposite of beautiful, to be honest. Yet it has a vibrant non-stop energy that you can literally feel in the air. In that respect, it's similar to other cities in South Asia. What makes Malé different is the fact that it is a lot less dirty than other South Asian cities. And that is a lot more safe than other cities in South Asia.

Because unlike in other South Asian cities, I feel safe walking around Malé alone.

In the meantime, the state of emergency has been extended yesterday for another 30 days. It is due to end on March 22. What will happen after that is anybody's guess. One thing is certain though, tourism will NOT be affected.

Let me repeat it one more time, tourism will NOT be affected. Just as it is safe now, it will be safe to visit the Maldives next month, too.

Are you still panicking?
With the current situation in the world, you are probably more likely to be gunned down while visiting the US, or getting nuked while shopping in Seoul.

If you are still scared and want to cancel your trip to the Maldives, please donate your vacation to me. I will gladly take your place.

I'll even send you a postcard!