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 to 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...

P. S. Turns out that if you chop up your sofa into smaller pieces, remove the nails and the staples and the springs, you CAN take the parts to the municipal garbage dump.  An hour of physical work will save you a bundle of cash. The equivalent of one night at a nice guesthouse in the Maldives.

Who knew!

I only ended up paying for white goods disposal. And even there I got lucky as a friend had a relative running a private hazardous materials recycling facility. Lucky!

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!

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Giri choko, Valentine's Day and White Day in Japan

Valentine's Day came and went. Depending on where you live, you probably gave and got something sweet and chocolatey from your significant other, friend, family member, classmate, or whoever else.
Except if you happen to be a woman in Japan.

You see, Valentine's Day in Japan is an interesting animal. It's not a lovers' holiday (though it's sloooowly evolving into something similar to it, just give it a couple more decades).
Traditionally, it's a day when women give chocolate to men to say "thanks for being a man."

 Sweets for the soccer fan in your life

Nowhere is it more striking than at a typical Japanese company. On February 14th female co-workers come to the office with packs of chocolates to gift to their male colleagues.
Because I work with a horde of men, and because my workplace is a fairly traditional one, I joined the tradition. This year I prepared 30 packets of "giri choko" to give to the men at the office.

Chocolate for the chess fan in your life. I hate the fact that it's all milk, milk, milk and milk. Disgusting.

Wait, what's this "giri choko" thing?

In English - literally obligation chocolate. Chocolate you give, because you should (or you must), not because you have romantic feelings for someone. Chocolate you give out of... well... obligation. Because it would be bad manners not to.

I didn't want to be known as the gaijin with no manners, so like a good little office lady, I did my Valentine's Day duty. But at least I tried to do it my way. Which in this household, it means either "cats" or "Star Wars". Went with the Star Wars way.

 Of course, featuring Kylo Ren! #Reylo forevah!!!

Made 30 of these little baggies.

That way the men knew exactly who gave it to them, and hopefully will remember me next month (more about it in a sec).

I kept the cats for myself.

Sadly, they were not that good.

In all fairness, women also give chocolates to other women on Valentine's Day in Japan. And some of the more progressive men do bring sweets for the office ladies, as well.

That's why you can see more feminine selections on Valentine's Day, too.

Children get in on the fun, too. There are plenty of kids' friendly options to choose from. I mean, just look how cute these Gudetamas are!

Or perhaps, Kitty-chan for that special friend in your class?

Bestie is a Sumiko Gurashi fan? No problem!

Whatever your little ones like, you can find it pretty easily. My experience was that usually kids give sweets to everyone, because it's not good if someone gets left out.

In fact, some schools and companies actually encourage equal opportunity chocolate giving on February 14th, saying that either everyone should get something, or no one at all. Some workplaces go even as far as banning White Day completely.

Wait, what's this White Day thing?

On Valentine's Day the more conscientious males try to keep track of the women who gave them sweets. Good manners dictate that on March 14th the men should reciprocate and gift something back. March 14th is a uniquely Japanese occasion known as White Day. "White Day" because of white chocolate, get it? (Fuck that, I HATE white chocolate!)

These are cute, but I don't want them. Milk chocolate is vile. White chocolate is even worse.

White Day was invented purely as a marketing ploy to sell more chocolate. But, as a typical reciprocal rate hovers at around 20%, despite the best advertising efforts, the popularity of White Day is waning. When seven years ago I made a comment that White Day was losing ground in Japan, I was ridiculed by self-proclaimed Japanese Cultural Experts (JCE for short) for my apparent ignorance and lack of cultural knowledge. The changes were subtle back then and easily missed by casual observers.

This year the changes are more apparent. At local shops White Day displays are about half or 1/3 the size of Valentine's Day displays. The selections are slimmer and not as attractive as even a few years ago. Yes, it's still a long time until March 14th, but when I asked the staff at a few local shopping centers, they said there were no plans to make the selections larger, or the displays more flashy.

Part of the reason is that mothers and wives of those male office workers (what? you actually thought that guys buy stuff for their female co-workers personally? LOL, you're so naive) choose different types of gifts to give to the office ladies. Women know women. Women know that not every woman will eat cookies, or chocolate, because staying thin is always in style. Instead, items like flavored coffee, fancy hand creams, cute hand towels and bath bombs are popular. Lush and Body Shop do brisk business before White Day. As does Starbucks.

I'm very picky about my chocolate, too picky some may say. Because of that I prefer non-sweets White Day gifts. I'm not a fan of Lush, but if I had to choose between milk chocolate and a bath bomb, I'd go with the bomb 100%. Or some yummy dates.

Unfortunately, not all men remember, or care, who gave them "giri choko" on Valentine's Day. In fact, I'd say, most don't. The usual rate of "obligation" White Day gifts is around 20%.

This year, to the surprise of most people, Godiva had spoken against obligation chocolate by placing a full page ad in the February 1st edition of Nikkei Shimbun. In it, Godiva Japan's president, Jerome Chouchan blabbed about:

"Of course, it's good to give chocolates to the person you really love, but there's no need for obligation chocolates. In fact, in this modern era, it's better not to have them. [...] Valentine’s Day is supposed to be a day when you confess your true feelings. It’s not a day on which you’re supposed to go out of your way to keep good relations at work."

Really? What does he care? Godiva, shit as it is, is too expensive to be given as obligation chocolate. I guess he was mad that other (read: cheaper) companies are doing brisk business, but Godiva is not. Well, sorry sweetie, but take a wad of chocolate and shove it up your ass. You're just salty that you're not getting a piece of the "giri choko" action. Not only is your chocolate utter garbage, the only reason why it's considered "luxurious" is because of its ridiculous price.

The reaction to the ad was mixed. Some were agreeing, some were not. Some just straight up laughed about it. Most thought it was "stealth marketing", precisely for the reasons I mentioned above - Godiva not moving enough chocolate before Valentine's Day. It just shows how out of touch with reality the Japanese branch of this company is.

One Japanese chocolate company, Yuraku Confectionery, which has a line of cheap chocolate with a very porny name - Black Thunder - shot back at Godiva.

Black Thunder is super cheap, and by all accounts, decent chocolate. In other words, perfect "giri choko", and Yuraku Confectionery are proud of it. They know what they are making and they embrace that part of the market. Their message to Godiva was "shut up and shove it" but said in a nice and polite Japanese way.

And yeah, I agree. To each its own.

I did my part.

Now, let's hope I am going to get something decent on March 14th.

PS. Yeah, I did get something on Valentine' Day. This massive pack of strawberry flavored confectionery. I shared the white stuff with my friends, and ate the rest. It was delicious.

Audrey seems to be a Yokohama-based company. I absolutely adore their designs!!!

PS2. Some Japanese women and girls "make" Valentine's Day chocolate. Meaning, they buy a chocolate block, melt it and pour it into form moulds. What is the point of this exercise? I really have no idea. Especially since newspaper articles claim that men prefer store bought sweets!

Cookie forms to pour your "homemade" chocolate in.

And boxes to package your "homemade" gifts. 

Meh, not for me such pointless activities. I mean, any idiot can melt a block of chocolate. Nothing to brag about here. Japanese women are strange...