Wednesday, July 29, 2009

What May Surprise You in Japan

Whether you plan to spend an extended period of time in Japan just traveling, or think about moving here for a while, there are quite a few things in this country that are sure to surprise you. And guess what? Not all of those surprises will be good.

  • 1.    Primitive banking system.

This is something that really bugs me. It was primitive twelve and ten years ago, and while the rest of the world moved forward, Japan stuck to its old outdated ways. Five years ago it was merely amusing, now it’s downright annoying.

Let’s face it, Japan is light years behind the rest of the developed world (and most of the developing world, too) when it comes to modern banking.

Chances are your foreign debit/ATM cards won’t work in Japanese cash machine. Sure, those machines have all the appropriate logos, Visa, Mastercard and what not, but those apply only to Japanese-issued bank cards.

If you want to get cash in Japan using your foreign bank card, try either JP Bank (post office), Citibank, or Seven-Eleven convenience store ATMs. And be careful, those ATMs may not work around the clock! The situation has been improving, but at a snail’s pace, so personally, I don’t expect any changes before 2020.

Japanese post office 

Japanese post office is one of the very few places where you can withdraw cash using a foreign debit card. And the JP Bank ATMs have menus in English.

And don’t even get me started on opening a bank account in Japan and trying to get a debit card with a logo. You know, the kind that comes standard when you open a bank account in the US. You know, the kind that lets you shop on the internet and debits your bank account automatically when you purchase something. The kind that looks like a credit card but requires no credit – only a truckload of cash in your bank account. C’mon, if a piss-poor country like Cabo Verde managed to sort it out, you’d think that Japan should be able to do it, too. Right?

  • 2.    Lack of public trash cans in parks or on sidewalks.

You will very quickly learn to carry your trash with you, or dash to the nearest konbini (convenience store) to throw it out. And I must say, this point irks me to no end. I've seen trash cans in public spaces in some of the oddest places in the world, like on the island of Brava in Cape Verde and on the hiking path to Tiger's Nest in Bhutan (now, how the heck do they empty them over THERE, huh?) but in Japan you can expect them only in the most touristy areas.

  • 3.    Bureaucracy.

Man, what is the deal with this country? Haven’t they heard of computers? Most of the stuff here is still done by hand and on paper. Tons of paper. Haven’t they heard of being ecologically friendly?

The amounts of paper and time wasted at my local Japanese DMV makes even New York look efficient and eco-friendly by comparison. Now you know why Japanese work so hard – they have to. They are so inefficient that it takes five workers five days to complete the same task that in other countries is done by one lady with a computer in one afternoon - and that includes her coffee break and time to file her nails.

  • 4.    Cell phones.

Yeah, cell phones, you heard me right. This country has the most advanced hardware when it comes to cell phones. All the bells and whistles you can dream of here come pretty much standard on any lousy phone. But… to get that phone, hmmm… let’s just say, it’s not all that simple, especially when you are just a tourist.

In other countries, especially in Europe, you can just waltz into almost any cell phone store and in about 5 minutes purchase a pre-paid set. No questions asked. You pay, you get a phone, you get a number, you are good to go. You can call and send SMSs.

But now you are in Japan, and you are going to spend here about 90 days. Getting a rental phone for that long makes no sense, right? So you waltz down to the nearest cell phone shop, which just happens to be AU and they tell you that they only have one pre-paid model available. And sorry, it’s not in stock right now.

So you go over to Softbank (another cell phone provider’s store) and ask for the same. Yes, they do have some prepaid models. Three (though it might be four these days) to be exact (that is out of the more than a hundred models available on subscription plans!). OK, you want to get one, you say. The lady behind the counter asks for your alien registration card and your Japanese address. What? You don’t have an alien registration card? Then sorry, but you can’t buy a prepaid phone in this country. They need your ID (and no, passport won’t do). And they need a Japanese address.

Why do they need this for a phone that is pre-paid for only 3 months (or is it 60 days? I’m not sure now) – after that the pre-paid amount expires – is beyond me. The Softbank lady wasn’t able to answer that question either.

But let’s say you have an alien registration card and bought yourself a pre-paid phone. Guess what? Most likely you’ll only be able to send SMSs to others using the same network.

And please don’t give me any lame excuses here that it’s because Japan uses a different system than Europe. After all, the US uses a different system, too, but if you have a tri-band phone from your home country, you can just buy an American SIM card and you’re set. I think that Japan, the country that managed to develop the most advanced toilets in the world, should be able to figure out something like that too.

Other than that, Japan is a great country. Yeah!

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Utsunomiya and Nikko Events in August

Because I know that you are just dying to find out what happens in a provincial Japanese town on weekends, every so often I am going to tell you about interesting, or boring, or totally pointless events. And if you happen to be in the area, by all means please stop by. And let me know how you liked it, OK?

So let’s start with the biggie that the town has been preparing for for about a month. And yes, those preparations include the bloody drums which have been waking me up every bloody morning. And trust me, nothing can compare to the sound of taiko at 5AM.

And all this sleep deprivation for this:

Miya festival

The 34th Miya Festival : All sorts of stuff will be going on on the main street and the plaza in Utsunomiya.

As in previous years, the poster is a winner of a city-wide art contest for elementary school kids. This year’s winner is a second grader named Abe who attends a public elementary school in Utsunomiya (not sure which school though).

Date: August 1st (Sat) and 2nd (Sun), 2009
Time: starts at 4:30PM, goes until 9PM.
Place: Utsunomiya’s main street (Ohdo-ri)
Organizer: Miya Festival Committee

And now for a Noh shindig in Nikko:

Noh poster

10th Anniversary of World heritage registration
23rd Nikko-san (Mt. Nikko) Rin-nou ji “Takigi Noh”
August 21st (Fri) and 22nd (Sat) starts at 6PM
Place: Nikko-san Rin-nou ji <in front of Sanbutsu dou temple>
Ticket price: Seat A: 7000 yen, Seat B: 5000 yen
Tickets already on sale - from July 1st

Sanbutsu-Do, a world heritage site, is due to be renovated. Therefore, performing “Takigi noh” in front of Sanbutsu-Do will not possible until the renovation is finished. And how long that will take – nobody knows.
So don’t miss it this year. – that’s more or less what it says on the poster.


Friday, August 21,, 2009
Nougaku “Kei-Kyou” UMEWAKA Kichinojoh
Kyougen “Sou Hachi” YAMAMOTO Toujirou
Nougaku “Kiku Jidou” UMEWAKA Genshou (named after “Rokuro”)

Saturday, August 22, 2009
Nougaku “Yo-kihi” UMEWAKA Genshou (named after “Rokuro”)
Kyougen “Tsuchi Fude” YAMAMOTO Toujirou
Nougaku “Aoino-Ue” UMEWAKA Kichinojoh

See you there!

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Tenno Sai Team from Omachi - in pictures

I carried mikoshi with this unruly bunch from Omachi:

Red team 5

Strapping young men that they were, they wanted a female to tag along, at least for part of the way.
Red team 3

I think this was the only all-male team in the whole procession:
Red team 4

Who knows, next year I might end up as a full-fledged member, even though Omachi is not in my district:
Red team 1

Can you spot the hidden gaijin?
Red team 2

Monday, July 20, 2009

Tenno Sai in Utsunomiya

Yes, I know, I know… This blog has been left to rot again. But I have a good excuse this time – I got a new job, which I love, by the way, and so I’ve been working my butt off. And oh yeah, trying very hard not to kill my mother in law, but I guess that’s normal when you live very close to the in-laws and when MIL hates your guts and makes it known to anybody who wants to listen, right?

Anyway, apart from working hard and not killing my MIL, I’ve also been prancing around Utsunomiya, taking tons of photos, setting up a new photoblog (yes, I know, I know, I need to update this photo gallery on here, too) – for photos of Utsunomiya almost exclusively, and investigating local festivals.

One of such festivals is Tenno Sai – 天王祭. A Shinto festival to honor past emperors. It’s a regional event and many communities have their own versions of it. The one in Utsunomiya was started 39 years ago (so it’s my husband’s  age, LOL) and this year was held on July 15th through the 20th.

Compared with the previous years, this time it seemed rather small – there were only 34 mikoshi 神輿 – portable Shinto shrines taking part in the procession.

Shrine 2

Yep, that's a mikoshi - a portable shinto shrine.

But let’s start at the beginning. We got downtown and met a random Shinto priest (who believe it or not, may be actually reading this blog - "Hi! And thank you so much for all your help!") who very kindly gave us the schedule for the day’s festivities. He told us all the mikoshi would gather at the Utsunomiya Castle and from there at 6PM start a procession to the Futaara Shrine.


Yep, that's the guy.

We went to the Castle. It’s not really a real castle, but a lousy reconstruction of what used to be a castle back in the very olden days. My husband got through the gate without any problems, but I got stopped and pretty much thrown out. Why? You needed a press pass to get in. But if you looked sufficiently Japanese and acted like you belonged, nobody would pay any attention to you. I, on the other hand, stuck out like a sore thumb. After a couple of forceful “she’s with me” from a guy dressed all in black and carrying a huge Nikon, I was allowed in. Or rather, the guy in black managed to sneak me in.

Inside, I still stuck out like a blonde amidst a sea of Japanese, but yeah, acting like you belong and smiling to men drinking beer will do the trick every time. I was left alone to my own devices and could observe the preparations in peace.

And everything was going fine until a press guy showed up and wanted to see my press pass. After a couple of forceful “I’m with him” and pointing in the general direction of the crowd below, I was once again left to my own devices.

I watched kids drum up a storm, I watched guys tying their unmentionables up in traditional Japanese underwear – fundoshi – 褌, and yes, I was flashed a couple of times – totally on purpose, and yes, they were hung like Shetland ponies. I watched girls wave fans, politicians make speeches (Utsunomiya is all sorts of number one, and so on) and priests wander around and look priestly.

Bare bums

Because I've just had dinner and don't want to lose it, I'm going to spare you the full frontal, OK?

Drumming team
They were actually very good.

Right before 6PM we assumed our positions outside and enjoyed the show. We followed the procession along the designated route and on Orion dori (Orion Street), which is basically a covered up pedestrian passage, I got drafted.

A couple of guys very gently led me towards their mikoshi, relieved me of my camera and purse and told me to carry the shrine along with them screaming “seya” on top of my lungs every few seconds.

Me at tenno sai

Yes, that head up there hanging in embarrassment is mine, and yes, I know, it's time to get my roots done.

It was interesting. It was also very tight and smelly. I had a groin rub against me from the back and a bum grind me from the front. Probably every person on Orion dori, who happened to see us snapped a picture of this crazy gaijin woman carrying a mikoshi with a bunch of guys. Yeah, every person, except my husband. He was too busy taking photos of cute little children and almost died laughing when our mikoshi went past by him.

How did I feel afterwards? Sore! That portable shrine is bloody heavy.

Happy team

Kid teams carry kid-size mikoshi.

And when we finally reached Futaara, it was dark and raining. My back was hurting like hell, my camera was wet and I felt oddly elated that I managed to survive the night without being groped. Not even once! Now, how's that for speshul, huh?

Reaching futara shrine 2
Now, up those steps, all 96 of them, here we go!

More photos from Tenno Sai are here: Tochigi Daily Photo, because what the world needs right now is yet another photoblog. Like, totally.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Blind Date - Japanese Style

I’ve been reading about omiai - お見合い (arranged blind date) on the net and scratching my head. One of my close friend arranges omiai and seriously, the stuff on the net and the reality couldn’t be more different. But I guess, this is exactly what happens when articles on wikipedia are written by people who have never seen the actual process in real life and instead base their entries on fancy “scientific” research, books and other second-hand materials. I’ve always thought it was only the case with travel entries (regurgitated, out of date guidebook info), but apparently, it’s a common wikipedia disease and other topics are not immune either.

Anyway, we were supposed to talk about omiai. And if you want the official cultural, historical and social anthropology info, by all means, go to wikipedia. But if you want to know how omiai really functions these days, keep reading.

My friend is something called “nakodo” - 仲人、which basically is a fancy Japanese term for a matchmaker. Last weekend she set up a blind date for two total idiots, and despite her best efforts, the match didn’t work out.

The woman was a 36-year old pharmacist. A typical vapid, shallow, high-maintenance Japanese, who selects her friends based on the number of Gucci bags they own and the stores they shop at. Her attitude towards her fellow human beings goes a long way toward explaining why at the age of 36 a pretty woman like her is still single. She’s also dumb as a doornail. For the blind date she showed up at a hotel in a totally different town, about an hour away from the actual meeting place. Well, at least it was still in the same prefecture! And really, I’m kind of nervous that this person works as a pharmacist at a major Tokyo hospital. I can only hope that her ability to fill prescriptions is better than her ability to read email and follow directions. When she and her Gucci bag finally made it to the right town and the right hotel, the guy and my friend had been waiting for her for over an hour.

She eventually showed up, sat down and fully expected to be treated like a Gucci bag carrying queen that she was.

How about the guy? Imagine a 40-year old never married engineer. Yeah, I know, the word “geek” just doesn’t quite say it, now does it? Zero common sense, zero social skills and zero pretenses. But a rather large bank account. Well, you can’t expect refined social graces from an engineer who spends most of his evenings jerking off to internet porn. No job, no matter how well-paying, and no bank account, no matter how sizeable can make up for a total lack of common sense when it comes to dealing with vapid, high-maintenance Japanese women. But I guess he liked what he saw (or was really desperate for some live action as opposed to a blow up doll) and wanted to meet her again. Needless to say, she, through nakodo (the matchmaker), said “no”.

Then why did they agree to meet in the first place? Because, at their age, chances of finding a partner using more traditional means are slim to none. The woman’s only requirement was “a good job and lots of money”. Things like ancestry, social standing and other useless bits tend to get thrown to the wayside when a woman, no mater how pretty, is approaching 40. When women are in their late twenties, they want the 3 Hs: height (tall guy), high salary and high education. But the older they get, the more willing they become to meet someone, anyone, with at least one of the Hs – preferably high salary.

Guys are even less picky. For many, a living, breathing woman is all they ask for. Preferably a woman with no children or ex-husbands lurking in the background.

But sometimes, even with such pared down requirements, the date doesn’t work out. The woman may say she’ll be happy with a guy who makes a lot of money, but in reality she wants someone who also looks like a movie star, treats her like the 8th wonder of the world, worships her on his knees on a first date and oh yeah, is hung like a Shetland pony. I told my friend she should try to match this bimbo with a foreigner – there are plenty of white guys out there who are obsessed with this kind of Japanese woman.

But in the meantime, it looks like we (yes, we, because now it has become a joint effort) are going to try another engineer – good job, good salary and yeah, he is taller than her. And I’ve seen the pictures – the guy’s not butt ugly and doesn’t make me want to poke my eyes with a sharp stick.

So, as you see, wikipedia can quote highly regarded cultural references all it wants, but real life is something else entirely.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

When a Cheap Person Goes Shopping in Japan

Some people say I’m cheap (as in “she doesn’t like to spend a lot of money” and not as in “red lipstick, fishnet stockings and a push-up bra”). Personally, I’d prefer the term “budget minded” or “frugal” but whatever. I can live with cheap.

I’m cheap because I’m also chronically poor. And if you are poor, it’s only logical that you don’t have a lot of cash to throw around. Why I’m poor is a whole another story. My husband says that perhaps if we traveled less we’d have more money to spend on other things. I nod in agreement, and then we both come to the same conclusion – we’d rather travel.

But every so often, even if you are a perpetual traveler, you need to buy stuff. And every so often, even a perpetual traveler needs to settle down for a while. And with settling down come additional expenses like spoons and sofas and skillets and even an occasional cake pan or two. (I refuse to live out of packing boxes and sit on milk crates – been there, done that and I’m too old and cranky for that kind of life now.)

So yeah, every once in a while even a chronically broke tightwad needs to go shopping.
And where do tightwads like me go shopping in Japan? To the Off Center, of course.

In the beginning there was Book Off – a used book store. There’s even one in New York, on 41st Street between 5th Ave and Madison. They have used books and other media (also in languages other than Japanese), all in pretty much excellent condition. I know because I sold them a truckload of my stuff when I was leaving town.

There are Book Offs in other cities in the US and also in France, Canada and Korea.

Off center

But I think it’s only in Japan where Book Off became a whole “Off” institution.
There’s “Off” everything now – from clothes to furniture to electronics and pretty much whatever else you can think of in between. All used, all in excellent condition (if not, junk is clearly marked as such), and all cheap.

Last week I went to my local “Off” center, no reason - I was in the neighborhood, that's all, and bought three dresses, which just happened to be new. They still had the original tags on them – that’s pretty common in Japan. Japanese ladies like to shop and then never even wear the stuff they've bought. After one season they realize “oh crap, I won’t be caught dead in those old rags”, get rid of them and promptly go shopping for new, more fashionable things.

Well, I don’t mind wearing last season’s styles. Besides, I still have clothes from fifteen seasons ago, so last year’s is practically brand new and fresh off the runway to me. And the dresses are simple and black, anyway. And black never goes out of style.

Anyway, they cost me the equivalent of 15 bucks (US), they fit and I look nice in them. And that’s really all that matters, right?

To balance my addiction to the local Off Center, the next day we went to the outlet mall in Sano. They had advertised massive sales, but in reality, while the sales were indeed there, only some of them were of the 75% off variety. Luckily, they were at the stores where I normally shop for on sale stuff anyway: French Connection UK, Columbia Outerwear and a few others.

Sano outlets

FCUK was this season's Sano sales winner, hands down. Their pants are lovely, black, fit nicely, and damn, they were only 3000 yen! I'm not going to say how many pairs we've bought, OK? - I need to preserve my tightwady image. LOL!

Still, I am not sure I would go to Sano just for ordinary not-on-sale shopping. Nah, definitely not. Cheapskates like me normally shop at UniQlo and for other needs visit the Off Center or 100 yen stores. Yes, we’re THAT cheap in this house!