Saturday, June 30, 2007

The Honor System



Another interesting aspect of Japan. Actually, this may happen in the states and other rural areas, and I just haven't been aware of it until now. When I was backpacking across the many country roads and small towns of Shikoku, I occasionally came across some unmanned shops. Completely unmanned – no cameras, no people, barely within sight of a house, and its food products waiting to be bought.

If you live in a less-than-urban part of Japan, it's very likely you have seen a food stand with fresh fruits and vegetables for sale, leaving only a small coin box to submit payment. What surprised me most is just how cheap this fresh produce really is: you can buy apples, oranges, and sometimes a bag of carrots for only one hundred yen.

Take advantage of this trust system set up by your friendly neighborhood farmers and enjoy the fruits of their labors. Eat well, and pay accordingly.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

The Truth About AEON: Part I

I am no longer in the world of the eikaiwa. Now that I am free of such a contract, I can reveal to my readers and the world: I worked for AEON (if you didn't pick up on that already). Why didn't I mention this earlier? Well, for one, I received an official ken seki - disciplinary action and a demand for a written apology – following some of my legitimately informative blog entries regarding cultural differences in the workplace. I later changed these entries to eliminate traces of the Japanese company, and what you see is the finished product.

I can honestly say my experience in Japan and at AEON has been, for the most part, a positive experience. I came over here with a few misconceptions. My research being limited to a handful of personal blogs and backlog from the Nintendo era and bubble economy days of the 1980's, you could argue I wasn't the most knowledgeable individual.

Many people search online for information about the different ways to teach English in Japan – AEON, GEOS, ECC, NOVA, and JET. I do have some personal opinions about my experience working in the most corporate of the English-teaching companies for a year. But, I'm going to be as fair and unbiased as I possibly can (difficult at times) relating these matters to you. If you have any questions or differing opinions, or could link me to other stories that support or refute my position, feel free to add them to my comments section. I give you... the truth about AEON, in easy-to-read installments. They’ve been a long time coming. These are my experiences at one branch of an AEON school. Maybe this is the standard, maybe it isn't... still, I think this information is very beneficial for newcomers.

I freely admit that I am an arrogant individual. I am reckless, headstrong, and I often act before I think. I am the “American-minded” employee many Japanese companies fear (if you believe it's an issue of nationality). That having been established, certain facts remain, based solely on my experience at my branch school and having been recruited by AEON from the states.

Advantages of the Eikaiwa

I will go into detail about many faults, many problems, many issues, on both my part and the part of AEON. However, there are definitely advantages in signing on with an eikaiwa company like AEON for your first Japanese experience. I would like to frame my criticism for this organization in the true Japanese fashion: that is, stating the positives, then commenting on what needs to be improved.

1. Visa sponsorship. Even if you're from a country that qualifies you for a Working Holiday Visa, the eikaiwa will secure your place in Japan for one year, not to mention go through the most difficult parts of the application process for you.

2. Travel expenses. Although AEON does not pay for your airfare to Japan, they do provide return airfare or the cash equivalent if you wish to stay in the country.

3. Transition time. AEON provides you with a guide the moment you land in Osaka or Narita. From that moment onward, you don't have to worry about managing everything by yourself – there is someone to help you through the cultural differences and jet lag time. They help you forward your luggage to your branch school. They can assist you with exchanging money. They pay for your train fare to the training center.

The training (which lasts for seven days if you teach adults, or nine days if you teach children and adults) is helpful in itself as a transition: a chance to experience Japan while learning about your profession, and you don't have to seriously worry about the business side of the eikaiwa just yet.

4. Essentials. Setting up your Japanese bank account. Registering with your local government office. Buying a cell phone. Setting up utilities (though you might be on your own for internet).

5. Getting an apartment. I mention this separately because it is a huge monetary burden if you don't have a company backing you. Japanese apartments and rentals typically have at least two payments required before move-in: deposit and key money. The deposit might be about one month's rent. The key money is anywhere from one to three month's rent. At move-in. If you've just spent a thousand dollars on a plane ticket, this can be difficult enough to cover.

6. Salary. ¥2161/hour, unless you're working with AEON Amity (an independent company that caters entirely to children). This money is especially good given your working hours of 29.5 hours/week, and the flexibility of that schedule – being able to take breaks during the day, and not starting until 1:00 PM.

7. Insurance. Split decision here; the company is obligated to keep you in good health while you're working for them, but it's still reassuring to know you have some coverage. Under a 29.5 hour work week, you have medical insurance only in the event of emergencies - not for preexisting conditions like dental care or any medication you might have.

Recently, AEON joined the Social Insurance Agency in Japan, which led them to “force” employees to choose between the emergency insurance and a 29.5 hour work week, or the new full-coverage Social Insurance (Shakai Hoken) and a 36 hour work week; by now, this might be the standard for new employees.

8. Cultural training. Going over some key differences that will arise in a Japanese work environment (“orders”, kampai, zangyou (overtime), framing criticism for students, etc). Simple Japanese lessons including introductions and giving your phone number.

9. Socializing. Only two of the “big four” (AEON, ECC, GEOS, and NOVA) have a policy promoting socializing with students: AEON and GEOS. Although this might seem like common sense, the other two do have disciplinary action in place if the branch chooses to enforce it.

“AEON encourages teachers to develop friendships with students in a group situation. However, AEON discourages all teachers from having inappropriate, intimate relationships with AEON students, and in particular, teachers should not, under any circumstances, socialize with students under the age of 20 on a one-to-one basis.”

I did notice some discrepancies in this policy; will report more on that later.


Advantages. Questions? Comments?


In accordance with my contract, I still cannot legally post any information which might potentially "damage the Employer’s reputation". I do not consider this post, or my future postings, to contain such information, just firsthand experiences I would like to share. With salesmanship of the eikaiwa under scrutiny (due to the recent legal action against NOVA), I would think AEON would be eager to hear some legitimate concerns foreign teachers have about their work environment. However, if there are closed-minded individuals within the company who object to this information being released, I am giving you this one and only opportunity to object; send me an email with the pertinent information.

Regardless of the eikaiwa reaction, however, I will be posting links to the necessary information if you are considering working at AEON, working at an eikaiwa chain school, coming to Japan, or would just like to hear my experiences.  None of these pages contain information about AEON's “business operations” – just personal experiences which I have the right to share.

The Truth About AEON: Part I
The Truth About AEON: Part II
The Truth About AEON: Part III
The Truth About AEON: Part IV
The Truth About AEON: Part V
The Truth About AEON: Part VI
The Truth About AEON: Part VII

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Terayama Koen (寺山公園)

This is an excellent running path for anyone in Kagoshima Prefecture - I was pleasantly surprised at the end.

If you're coming from Kagoshima City, go to the number two platform at the bus terminal and take the bus all the way to the end (if it's going to the interchange, get off about two stops earlier). It's about 30 minutes.

You're in Yoshino Town. Take Highway 220 (not even really a highway, just a country road), and follow the signs. This is a beautiful route, but rather hilly going out to Terayama; it could be worse, but be prepared to question your sanity.

If you do keep it up past the twists and turns, you'll eventually find yourself in a dark wood, where the straight road is lost...

No joke. You'll end up on a road surrounded by a dark thicket of trees and bushes until you finally see a light at the end of the "tunnel".

A small parking lot, and a platform leading all the way out to the edge of the mountainside.

This observation point gives you some spectacular views of Kinko Bay, Sakurajima, and Kagoshima City.



This photo was actually taken from Yoshino Koen, and the views are similar - nevertheless, Terayama gives you almost 300 degrees visibility at a higher altitude: an excellent place for an early morning or evening run to catch the sun on the horizon. The view of Sakurajima is quite amazing.

There are some vending machines along the road with water, but nothing at the park. Strictly speaking, the park is some distance away; I couldn't find it.

Running map

Existing as Vapor



The wetness is beyond soothing. The warmth indescribable. The relaxation never ending. If only I had the strength, not just the desire, to freeze this moment, to stay in the comfort of this fantasy and pleasure world.

A private rotemburo. A world of our own. A pool of water, still steaming from the natural volcanic heat, its waves washing over us, cleansing us of the unnatural worries we bore prior to our visit.

Can there be such a place? Away from it all, away from the stresses and physical injury we give ourselves every day? A world of volcanoes, natural hot springs, people walking in the night wearing their yukata and geta, without a care in the world? Where the food is rich and plentiful, as if you could pluck off the branch of a nearby tree and have it taste as sweet as the most succulent honey?

There can be.

It exists.

Kurokawa Onsen village.

Arrive on time. I can give you no better advice than that. Be at your ryokan at 3:00, ready to enjoy every last amenity this piece of rural Japan has to offer you.

What is it?
One of the best onsen villages in Japan, filled with western and Japanese lodging. Small shops are everywhere, offering fresh soft cream and nice lunches if you want to explore after checkout (which you should). Surrounded by nature, in the valley between two rather large hills. Recently they have been building a "super hotel", which contrasts sharply with the small tradition ryokan in the area.

Where is it?
Central Kyushu, just north of the famous Aso-san volano. Unfortunately, it's inaccessible by train, but a few buses do make it from Beppu, Kumamoto, and Fukuoka.

From Kurokawa

To Beppu: 10:57, 12:07, 14:51, 16:47, ¥2350, 135 minutes
To Kumamoto: 10:35, 11:15, 16:45, 17:55, ¥2000, 145 minutes
To Hakata: 9:00, 14:30, ¥3000, 165 minutes

To Kurokawa

From Beppu: 8:20, 9:00, 14:30, 15:40, ¥2350, 135 minutes
From Kumamoto: 8:30, 9:40, 10:00, 14:20, ¥2000, 145 minutes
From Hakata: 8:56, 13:36, ¥3000, 165 minutes

Routes to/from Hakata are operated by Nishitetsu (English page here.
Routes to/from Beppu and Kumamoto are operated by Kyusanko

What to eat?
Naturally your breakfast and dinner will be provided. Don't miss out on some huge spectacular meals, including: basashi (horse sashimi), yakiniku, sashimi, and fresh vegetables.

Where to stay?
You have many choices, including the new modern onsen hotel I mentioned. Kurokawa's lodgings are reasonably well-separated, so be sure to look on the map for one within walking distance of the main village (although there's no harm in never leaving your ryokan, you'll want to see the village at night). It's impossible not to find a bed with a great view, though.



My personal recommendation: Shinmeikan. Undisputed. It has the best location out of all other lodging in Kurokawa (set apart by a bridge, practically built on a cliffside), it's in the middle of the village, and it has the most unique onsen in the area, the cave rotemburo.


Rooms can cost up to ¥18,000, but you shouldn't come to Kurokawa without expecting to pay at least ¥15,000/night.

Shinmeikan Onsen (新明館)
熊本県阿蘇郡南小国町黒川温泉
0967-44-0916
Check in 3:00, check out 9:30


What to do?

Relax. One thing. Relax. It's a very bad idea to come to Kurokawa and not stay the night – I'd recommend at least two nights if you can afford it. The last thing you want to do in the best onsen village in Japan is stress out about bus timetables and onsen closings. Don't. Relax, and try not to come alone.

If you have no choice about an itinerant stay, you can purchase a special wooden medallion at the visitor's center:



This medallion, costing ¥1200, will get you into three onsen of your choice (note the special onsen stamps after use). Although it does make a nice souvenir, you can buy the same medallion without the onsen admission charge for ¥200. Although I do recommend trying all the onsen of Kurokawa, it's just not worth the hassle in this case, walking from onsen to onsen, keeping track of the time, and managing your own clothes and towels; check into a ryokan.

Just how many soaks can you get in during one night's stay?

Arrive 3:00
Onsen 3:30-5:30
Dinner 6:00
Walk though Kurokawa village 7:00
Onsen 8:30
Sleep
Onsen 7:00
Breakfast 8:00
Onsen 9:00
Check-out 10:00

What's the appeal for me? Sitting outside in the rotemburo, slowly letting my head sink into the mineral-rich water, listening to my heartbeat slow... slow... slow. You know it's working.

Links

Kurokawa Onsen (Links to all ryokan)
Sinmeikan Ryokan

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Tokyo Marathon 2008

Reminder - the registration for the Tokyo Marathon opens today, June 17th and closes August 17th. They really know how to prepare; the actual race isn't until February 17th, 2008.

245 days and counting...

Tokyo Marathon 2008 Website

Friday, June 15, 2007

Death of the Pink Rabbit



UPDATE June 17th: check out Trans-Pacific Radio's BizCast (listen, don't just read), and a recent article about NOVA.

"Breaking" news, as my internet access has been sketchy as of late - I apologize for the late of updates; I do have quite a few stories in the works, just not the means to properly research and post them.

NOVA, widely accepted as the worst of the Big Four (AEON, ECC, NOVA, GEOS) in the English teaching community, may be seeing the beginning of the end. This week the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry ordered NOVA to suspend part of its business for six months. This was intentionally left vague, but it will have a great effect on the eikaiwa's ability to sign long-term contracts.

How did this happen? The main reason - NOVA's policy on refunds for customers who wanted to cancel their contracts early (mainly due to inflexibility in the class schedule, but I really thought NOVA was good about that). When students wanted to cancel, the company "adjusted" the value of the classes they had already taken. The result? Less money for the customers, more money for the company. Essentially NOVA could change the price of classes already taken at their own discretion.

If we push this to the extreme, here's a good example (this did NOT happen): a student pays 50,000 yen for 5 classes. That's 10,000 yen a class. She takes two classes, then decides she hates NOVA and wants to leave. NOVA decides that the two classes she took were in fact worth 20,000, not 10,000 yen. She gets a 10,000 refund, and is sent on her way, left to ponder what happened to her other 20,000 yen.

Ken Worsley of Trans-Pacific Radio devotes most of his coverage on the NOVA story as a warning to current employees: get out. Get out now. He may be bordering on the extreme, but he's probably not far off; there will be a huge influx of teachers in the event the company can no longer employ them, and it would be best to start settling on other jobs. REMEMBER - YOUR VISA DOES NOT TIE YOU TO NOVA. YOU CAN WORK ANYWHERE YOUR STATUS ALLOWS.

Unfortunately for those of your in the eikaiwa world, NOVA will most likely hold the contract to your place of residence, so you'll have to find a cheap gaijin house or hostel in the interim. More on this later - I'm currently editing my entries about working in a Japanese eikaiwa.

Japan Probe story
NOVA stock

Monday, June 11, 2007

Quarter of a Century Gone by...

This time last year I was sitting in a dimly-lit restaurant polishing off a large juicy steak making my final preparations for Japan.

This year I suddenly found myself in the mountains of Kyushu eating horse sashimi and tofu, having bathed in a mineral-rich onsen not one hour prior to consumption. I'm referring to the Kurokawa Onsen village - will report more on that later. It was one of my more noteworthy birthdays.

Interestingly enough, it also happened within a few days of Nintendo taking the lead in the console market. Ahhh... if I were 15 years younger or a hopeless otaku I might actually care about that. It still gives me a little joy.

Running on Molten Lava



It's been a while since I posted an entry to suit my blog title. Just opposite of Kagoshima City lies the peninsula once-an-island Sakurajima. Although the name suggests a large growth of cherry blossoms, I can assure you there are more onsen and dormant lava flows in the area.



The “island” offers many opportunities to see the destruction caused by eruptions in 1914 and 1946. One such area not far from the ferry port is the Nagisa Lava Trail. Accessible only on foot, this is a great area for running in the Kagoshima area: the cool ocean breeze, a view of Kagoshima City, and perhaps most importantly, your surroundings. The entire trail offers views of blackened lava rocks.



Access
Take the Sakurajima Ferry from the northernmost port in Kagoshima. Ferries leave every 10-15 minutes, and take 15 minutes to reach the peninsula. Once there, walk or run to the visitor’s center – the trail is just west of the center.

Other running trails in Japan

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

First Taste of Ash

There are many advantages to living in Kagoshima City (鹿児島市): ferries to take you to any number of islands south of Kyushu; onsen far and wide; beautiful beaches practically within your grasp; ohhh, and the food... c'est magnifique.

However, the landmark that dominates the skyline over Kagoshima City is the source of both the greatest onsen in the city and the showers of ash.

Sakurajima (桜島) is still quite the active volcano, but it has not had a serious eruption in over fifty years. Nevertheless, small eruptions, resulting in earthquakes and more often than not, ash showers, occur quite often. So often in fact that residents of the prefecture capital city are given yellow garbage bags with which to dispose of the ash on their property.

During the summer months of June and July, the prevailing winds usually shift the ash towards Kagoshima City and the western coastal areas. In the fall, the direction reverses to rain upon Miyazaki and eastern Kyushu.

June 5th, 2007... a day that will soon enough be forgotten. I'm emerging from an internet cafe while NTT assesses whether my apartment is a candidate for a fiber optic line. The sky is grey, the crowds around Tenmonkan dense. It takes me a few seconds to realize that the light drizzle I'm feeling around my face and neck isn't wet. Soon enough my black shirt looks like a few tiny birds had a field day.

In the distance, I can see a huge cloud over Sakurajima slowly dispersing, guiding its way towards our fair city. People just put up with it, and so did I; it's too big to inhale, so I doubt there's much risk to your health. If you're wearing a suit I can see where some frustration might go down, but other than that... just treat it like rain and cast up your umbrella.

Another unique experience in Kyushu. The days are just packed.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Opening a Japanese Bank Account


Thanks to http://www.blogd.com/


...with minimal Japanese skills. The language barrier was not so much an issue for me, as I understood the key words involved in opening a new account, and was familiar with the general procedure – this is key.

Japanese banks don't charge anything for you to open a regular account. I doubt that's the case with issuing credit cards or other less-common transactions, but if you're just looking for a place to store your millions of yen, consider it done.

Anytime you want to have your Japanese skills called into question, be sure to visit a bank – they speak quickly and in a language almost dissimilar from Japanese. On top of that, it's a bureaucratic organization, with multiple forms, checklists, and immutable procedures.

That having been said, I had no problems. Maybe I was lucky.

Step one: walk into the bank. Take a number card from the machine (chances are all banks have these). Depending on the bank and branch, they may have a different button for you to push for a different number card: loans, new accounts, general transactions, etc. Be sure you get this right the first time, because if you approach the wrong window, you won’t be able to just sidle over to the next one in the event of a mistake... you have to start all over again.

Before you approach the teller window, however, be sure you pick up the correct form. This is the greatest difficulty for both foreigners and Japanese - finding the proper paperwork. Fortunately I had someone point out the correct carbon copy paper to me ahead of time. Nevertheless, you should ask for help on this one, as there could be as many as thirty forms for a variety of tasks.

Next, approach the window (shinki, 新規), present the number, and state “futsuu yokin o onegaishimas." Futsuu yokin (普通預金) is a standard account. Although some banks may be willing to write the kanji for you on the papers, I'm willing to bet most tellers will not, as it is technically against the rules; you'll need to be able to write your name in katakana, to scribble your address in kanji (and be sure it matches the address on your gaijin card – if you're new to the area, it's safer to wait until you get the actual card rather than just a certificate, as some banks will reject this), and to post your inkan stamp.


Picture courtesy of http://www.oren.jp/


Signature or inkan? An inkan, or hanko, is your name seal, which I'm sure by now you've noticed is much more common in Japan. Banks can go either way on this if you're a foreigner; if you have a Japanese person with you explaining the situation, it might go down better. Nevertheless, if you have time beforehand, have a custom stamp made at a hanko store (you can usually find them in large shopping areas). Following that, register the stamp at the local government office for ¥200 – they give you a card which can be used to obtain an official certificate stating your stamp is legal (known now as a jitsuin). I personally believe you, as a foreigner in Japan, should get the stamp made with katakana characters. There are virtues to kanji and romaji, which I have discussed before.

As I was saying, banks will have no objection to you using an inkan, but some banks (or just particular branches or tellers of the same bank) might have a problem with you using your signature – it's fairly common for foreigners, but some banks still object. The system is so random here... the same bank might reject your signature at the central branch, but accept it in the western location... get your jitsuin just to be safe.

Assuming that controversy doesn't occur, you will be asked to present your gaijin card (Gaikokujin touroku shoumeisho) to be copied, and asked if you want a cash card as well (no charge). If you do request a cash card, they will explain it will be mailed to the address on your gaijin card in a few days. You will also be asked to write down your pin number on a carbon copy next to your name stamp or signature.

Step #478539: initial deposit. Present any amount of cash you would like to deposit in your account (they need to have something to keep it open), and write down that amount on the appropriate form.

You're finished. Just wait. They will call you back up the window once your bank book (tsuuchou, 通帳) has been created or if they have any other questions. I should mention there was a little bit of discussion regarding the order of my name; hardly the first time this has happened.

In Japan, surnames (or last names by western standards) usually come first, followed by given names. Thus “Masahiro Yamamoto”, as he is known by his British colleagues, writes his name “Yamamoto Masahiro” in kanji. As far as I know, there are no middle names in Japan, or they are much less common.

So what to do when you encounter an American was has not only a middle name according to his government-issued ID, but a different style of ordering his name? How to enter that into the banking computer...? I think they listed my first and middle names together on this occasion, which shouldn't be a big deal, but I was careful to point out that my last name was in fact my myooji, or surname.

That's all the information I have about that. I would like to put together a help letter for foreigners who don't know the appropriate kanji for opening a bank account (kind of a "point-and-help” sheet), but the procedures may be different in different banks. I don't know; if you have any questions, email me.

Bank accounts are 100% essential if you're living in Japan; signing up for a gym, getting your monthly salary, paying your bills, wiring money home, or signing up for a running race (assuming they don’t have a post office form). Choose wisely.

More information