Archive for April, 2015

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Spot the wild Sophie

Tomorrow marks an entire week in Japan. It’s gone by so quickly! I’ve gone from terrified westerner with a myriad of insurmountable challenges to an excited ‘gaijin’, picking up the lingo, figuring out the subway (finally) and fully immersing myself into Japanese life!

Here are a few more oddities and experiences that filled my week:

Toilet seats. Heated toilet seats. They are so fantastic I don’t know how I could possibly live without one now. Making a sacrifice to the porcelain Gods has never been so good. If you didn’t need a pee before, you will after sitting down for a second. I wasn’t brave enough to try the “bum spray” for a few days.. until I was. All I’m going to say is check the settings before you go all gung-ho on the controls. Nobody needs the strongest setting. *Shudder*.

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When you see this sign you know you’re in for a good time.

 

Bathrooms here are much smaller than across the way. They resemble the sort of wetroom you had in halls at uni. but a bit better because you have a MINI BATH! I am mini, so this makes me happy. Also, the toilet. Don’t forget the toilet.

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Exhibit A

So there is no button to press at the traffic lights when you want to cross, you have to wait patiently until the green man puts in an appearance. In a way it’s handy because the crossing intervals are fairly regular, and if you’re lucky you’ll reach the pavement just as it turns green. Yesssahhh. Jaywalking is a bit of a faux pas here, as I found out myself (oops). People GENERALLY won’t make a cheeky dash for it, even if the road is pretty empty.Screenshot 2015-04-29 at 22.32.01

The subway is a veritable rabbit warren. Every time I leave the same station I end up in a completely different part of town. Usually each station has a north, south, east and west exit, sometimes a little way apart. Good luck.

One thing I have learned about Japanese directions on posters, websites and pamphlets is that everywhere is a “5 minute walk from the station”. NOT TRUE. Google maps likes to take the piss too:

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Camaaan, give me a left.. throw in a right.. I’ll even take a straight on.

 

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You can buy a train card at the ticket machine to save yourself time and hassle fiddling about for change. The options as far as I can tell are a Suica or Passamo card. It’s basically an Oyster card, but cuter.

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The preconception that most Japanese sleep on trains is accurate. I thought it must be their long work hours but people are at it in the middle of the day on weekends too! People are quiet and its mostly a nice temperature so it is ideal napping conditions to be fair.

Rush hour is a whole ‘nutha story. As someone who hates small spaces without an easy exit, I’ve struggled a bit with this one. If you thought the London underground was packed like sardines in a can, this is more like conjoined sardines in a thimble. Pushing people to get on/off is also totally normal and not deemed rude. I’m trying to get on board with it but occasionally throw out the odd evils by accident.

Japan has it right in so many ways. Every station has toilets, vending machines and sometimes even little shops to pick up some food. In theory, London could do with all that. In practice, those toilet seats would be nicked before you can say konnichi wa.

Another preconception; everybody wears those white surgical masks to prevent spreading/catching germs. Lots of people do, but also lots of people don’t. There you have it. Everyone DOES, however, own a transparent umbrella. Seriously there must have been some sort of sale at the ¥100 shop. It also makes finding YOUR umbrella in the stand outside shops/restaurants nigh on impossible.

The subway map isn’t too difficult to work out because station names are also written in “romaji” (standard alphabet) on some maps. However, once you’re outside..

It’s different to when I was in South America and could just translate words I wasn’t sure of on my phone. Now I have to figure out the pronunciation of the symbols, transcribe into romaji and THEN translate into English! Luckily I stayed up one night and learned Hiragana  – one of THREE alphabets, decidedly not the one with 40,000 characters. All of a sudden I went into the bathroom and could read things! Next stop: understanding.

I really recommend this website (click) if you fancy giving it a shot. It helps you remember each symbol pictorally by associating it with what it looks like. E.g. “の” = “no”, and it kinda looks like a “no” smoking sign. So now I can read some signs, albeit very s-l-o-w-l-y and like a child. Chris & I enrolled on a Japanese language course starting next Monday, so excited to work my way up to conversational level.

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We also moved in to our new apartment – it’s been a big week! All the rooms here have these awesome daylight-mimicking dimmer lights (so I can stay up and procrastinate for even MORE hours without feeling groggy – hurrah!). Everything is so diddy in this country. Our kettle is small and round, the bath is a sit-up one, even the shopping baskets at the supermarket next door look like it was bought for a child as part of a “lets play shops” set. I love it!

Another myth about Tokyo (to follow on from my last post) is that it’s immensely polluted. Considering it’s the most populous metropolitan city in the world, I’m pretty impressed with the (at least seemingly) clean air and blue skies. I know people are going to contradict that, but as this article (click) says, …”the picture many people have of Tokyo dates back to the ‘ 60s and early ‘ 70s when there was a rapidly growing industry and population, and cars with no emission controls. However, over the past 20 years, very strict auto and industrial emission controls have been phased in. A vast fortune has been spent on new subways and sewage-treatment scheme.” Also, it seems like every man and his dog owns a bicycle over here. I live in constant fear of getting mowed down by one on the pavement. (I’ve had a few hairy moments).

 

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 You stick the whole sardine on a mini table-top BBQ and eat it. ALL OF IT.

One of my favourite parts of travel is the foooooood. Japan definitely wins this one, 99% of the food I’ve tried is 100% delicious. Last night I went to an ‘izakaya’ with some old students who I taught in Oxford. It’s a great place to sign yourself up for the ‘nomehoudai’, which translates to “bottomless cup”. Basically, all you can drink for around ¥1000-¥2000 (5-10 pounds). You can order a full on meal here or do what most people do and share dishes, tapas style. If you just want to pick at something you can order one of many “*” dishes. These are things that go well with a beer, like wasabi edamame beans!

* Right okay so I wanted to impress everyone with this word for “beer snack food appetiser thing” but I’ve forgotten so have an asterisk instead.

Tipping is considered taboo here which is quite a relief as it takes the pressure off everyone involved I think. Just give a little bow of the head and a “gochiso sama!” should you feel so inclined.

 

wpid-2015-04-30-00.24.51.jpg.jpegOf course I have an izakaya membership card… 

Getting in to the restaurant itself can be an interesting experience. It took a few embarrassing pushes and shoves to open the door before realising the handle was actually some sort of button made of magic that activated the automatic sliding door. This can be extra interesting on the way out, after a few drinks, when you forget.

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The other day Chris and I ate at this small place where everyone sits on stools around a circular bar, and orders food via a machine with lots of buttons which then gets cooked in the kitchen at the back and brought to you. This strange contraption came with my meal. A frantic Facebook message to one of my students later and I discovered it’s a little pepper/sesame seed dispenser. God this place is wonderfully weird.

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If you’re thinking of making the move to J-land, keep reading this blog because I’ll throw out some tips as I go along; tips I wish I had in the beginning! For example, when you get to the airport you’ll need to register at the passport desk (not if you’re only coming for a holiday). They’ll issue you with a residence card which will magically have a colour version of the photo you used for your visa. Please learn from my mistake and choose a nice one where you don’t look like a sunburnt ginger lion.

Once you find a place to live you’ll need to visit a city ward office and change the address on your card. Go early to avoid queues. (Actually we went sodding early and still had to wait ages. Take a book.)

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They also gave us a huge pamphlet on how to correctly recycle our rubbish. Oh my gyoza they’re big on recycling over here. There’s me being perplexed.

 

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Yum.

Another tip is to bring some essentials with you in the way of pills, ointments, etc. Health care stuff. You CAN buy it here but unless you can read Japanese or have a friend who does, it can be a little difficult. Chris came down with a horrible cold and fever on the first few days, so I was super thankful to have my Mary Poppins bag of (legal) drugs.

 

That’s it from me for today! Here are another couple of videos of the past week:

 

 

 

 

Although it was frightening at first, I’m so glad I pushed through and am enjoying myself. Life is short, live live live!

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? ~Mary Oliver

EDIT: *********************

* Otsumami! (おつまみ) This is the elusive word I was looking for. It loosely translates to “snacks” which are casually eaten with alcohol – it’s a small dish not too dissimilar from the tapas-style dishes in Spain.

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And so the travels begin again.. (if they ever stopped). I only arrived in Tokyo 3 days ago, but already SO much has happened. Just before we set off, Chris did this..
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So it looks like my travel buddy is now my travel fiancé! In Chris’ own words: “I liked it so I put a ring on it”.

One of the students we taught in Oxford is now home living in Tokyo, and was kind enough to go hours out of his way to pick us up from the airport and deliver us to our hostel. (Which is a good job, because we’d probably still be at the airport if it wasn’t for him. Thanks Jun!)

We booked our hostel in advance, which is terribly grown up of us. Usually I spend my first day wandering around with both fear and hope that I wont be sleeping with the local wildlife. We chose Tokyo Sumidagawa Youth Hostel in Asakusabashi. It was a spacious private double room in traditional Japanese tatami style. It would have been pretty ideal were it not for the poor ventilation/dampness and subsequent faint smell of hamsters. I don’t want to say anything bad about Japanese décor, but if you type “do tatami mats” into Google, it suggests the ending “smell”. Jus’ saying.

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We only managed to visit a small shrine (which Chris thought was written in Japanese and so pronounced “Shree-nay” – hilarious) before falling into bed (futon?) for an accidental 4 hour face-to-face mid-conversation nap. I didn’t even get to drink the Sophie sized bottle of wine that I stole from the plane! The struggle with jet lag is REAL. It can turn you into a hosepipe of emotions. I spent a solid 5 minutes sobbing on the first day because I came across a picture of Robin Williams.

We were pretty gutted to miss the cherry blossoms by a week (!). I got to see their little papery pink corpses all over the ground though.

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Later that night we headed out to an “Izakaya”, which is basically a place to drink which doubles up as a restaurant. Expect to see lots of post-work businessmen getting mashed up on some questionable looking sake. It’s probably also a good place to meet other travellers. We tend to flock to these watering holes. It’s weird being in a place where I’m the minority. I’m developing a bad habit of smiling at any Caucasian person I see as though we’re related. Actually I’ve been smiling at everyone. It’s probably creeping them out.

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Check out this amazing view from atop the Tokyo Metropolitan Government building. It’s free to go up, if you can stand awkward lift silence. It’s like at home, where you go all British and pretend to be checking something important on your phone or carefully selecting the right front door key but for FORTY FIVE FLOORS.

The next day we were lucky enough to be shown around by a friend we made through work in Oxford. She took us to a Torikizoku. “Tori” means chicken and “kizoku” is supposedly aristocracy. So we ate at a chicken aristocracy.  She also took us to what I like to think of as a Japanese Primark, only bigger, louder and more hectic; Don Quijote (which the locals fondly refer to as ‘donkey’)

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I think I regressed about 10 years in this multi-storey shop of excitement. On one floor they had a number of photo booths on one side of the room and a clothes rail full of fancy dress items on the other. We put 2 and 2 together. I went from “Omg how embarrassing” to HAHAH LETS DO IT AGAIN in a speed I am most ashamed of. It was really fun.

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I want to point out all the quirks and habits of Japan along my travels, so here’s a small one: every shop has one of these trays. I thought it was some sort of unnecessary glorified beer mat but it turns out it’s where you put your CHANGE when paying. Interesting.changetray

Right so.. the trains. I’ll try to write a more extensive post when I figure this out myself, but as far as I can tell there are 3 lines just to really screw with you. The JR line and TWO subway lines operated by different companies?! To be honest though I’ve navigated through without any major hiccups. Put me on the London Underground and it all goes wrong, but in Tokyo apparently I’m some sort of grounded Amelia Earhart (sans disappearance)

(so far).

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Take heed; do not try to ride when hungover. Each station plays its own little jingle which is all fun and games until your splitting headache gives way to full blown migraine. Some of them aren’t so bad actually.. have a listen:

Have a read of this article (click here) if you’re interested in learning about why these jingles exist and must torture me so.

One thing people consistently came out with when I said I was moving to Japan was “oh em geeeee it’s going to be well expensive”. Nuh-uh!

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As with most cities, it does largely depend on where you go and how fancy you’re feeling that night, but generally you can get everything in that photo ^ for about 3 quid. 3 quid!!! That’s a meaty/ricey dish, bowl of miso soup (comes with pretty much everything), unlimited water and a small salad. Some places also throw in a free green tea or five. Beer is around 2-3 quid. Danger.

I think it’s pretty essential to try out the local cuisine and not give in to any of the familiar fast food joints like Maccy D’s or KFC. Sweet, sweet KFC….

No seriously get stuck in, it’s all part and parcel of the Japanese experience. It’s also DELICIOUS. And cheap. Did I mention cheap? I’ve also been enjoying a good game of “buy-something-unidentifiable-and-put-it-in-my-mouth”. Today was some rather tame Kiwi flavoured sweets which I chewed to the point of disintigration just in case it was gum. Gum? Sweets? WHO KNOWS! That’s the fun of the game.

I’m going to try and condense my time here into convenient little videos. Here is number one for your viewing pleasure:

Right that’s quite enough for one day.  I will leave you with this motivational image:

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Change bacon is good bacon.

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