Japanese culture is all-knowing, all-powerful... how else can you explain the fact it keeps following me around in the middle of Texas? I was driving towards Dallas' Koreatown and caught sight of a large sign boasting: "Back off JAPAN! Dokdo Island Belongs to KOREA"
As someone who has heard of some of the territorial disputes Japan has acquired over the years - islands north of Hokkaido with Russia, south of Okinawa with China or Taiwan - I must confess the first time I heard the name Dokdo was outside of Nippon.
Let's review, shall we? The island is a little less than a square kilometer of rock, not far from the Oki Islands off the western coast of Japan and the Ulleungdo Islands of South Korea. South Korea does have historical precedent here, being the first ones to place the islands on a national map and giving them name. Japan admits as such.
However, following the Allied occupation of Japan after WWII, things get a little sticky. What MacArthur most likely did was relinquish control of the islands and, as a consequence, return them to Korean rule. But modern cartographers and politicians have taken issue with this, and everything following Takeshima (as the island is known in Japan).
What's your take?
On a side note, I have a sinking suspicion the sign was placed in this particular location for its proximity to a Korean restaurant named (surprise, surprise) Dokdo Island. And perhaps that is the best solution both sides can agree on: grab a set of chopsticks and start devouring the rocks until both Japanese and Korean citizens have an equal amount of territory in their digestive systems. It would still taste better than shirako.
10. Food portions I don't need seconds of creamy mashed potatoes. With the limited options available to me, I ate only as much as I needed. The curse of an addictive personality; this is the reason I don't stockpile food in my apartment: it would be gone in a matter of hours.
9. Japanese kids Being a celebrity in their eyes, hearing random "HELLO"s as I walked down the street...
8. Nightlife Being the foreign celebrity amongst Japanese girls and the occasional sumo wrestler; just try dancing with one of those guys. All night karaoke with friends. Catching the first train from Hiroshima at 5:55 AM. Also in favor of the late night snacking options, which includes 3 AM ramen.
7. Scenery Waking up to smoking volcanoes. Always being surrounded by mountains.
6. Cherry blossoms Ya gotta love those trees.
5. Understanding Knowing the day-to-day life in another culture, and seeing how we're not so different.
4. Everyday adventures I suppose I made the most of this myself, but it still holds true: traveling to distant islands; meeting descendants of samurai; hiking into volcanoes; hitchhiking across Kyushu; cycling to hot springs... Adventures in Japan
3. All Japanese food Sushi, sashimi, yakiniku, fugu, basashi, ramen, yakitorii, onigiri, udon, yasai, daikon, satsuma imo, gohan, edamame, ocha, oolong. It does a body good.
On the first or second week of February in Sapporo on the island of Hokkaido, a festival is held celebrating the wonders that can be produced with snow. Up and down the central park of Odori, one can bear witness to: ice sculptures, filled with multicolored lights which turn on and off according to the music being played nearby; snow sculptures the size of small buildings, recreations of Japanese castles (above), Disney characters, and great whales; ice karaoke bars, where one may drink Bailey's out of ice buckets and then sing surrounded by ten-inch walls of ice.
10. Lack of variety of food On occasion, I like my French toast, my bacon and eggs, my Texas BBQ, my Mexican food...
9. All the mayonnaise I can bite into a sandwich without fear in the states.
8. Train conductors I know what the next stop is. Let me sleep, stop asking to see my ticket. Can't you change the chime once a year?
7. Getting sucked into seeing discriminatory behavior There are real instances of racial discrimination in Japan, but once you flick that switch, it's hard to stop seeing anything else... not everyone feels the same way. http://www.debito.org/index.php
6. Kancho Only happened once, but that's all it takes...
5. Being an American abroad It's helpful to my soul to hear reminders of what the rest of the world thinks of "us", but it wore me down after a time.
4. Angry foreigners Gaikokujin who have become so withdrawn and bitter with their Japanese experience they feel compelled to complain to anyone who speaks English. Avoid them at all costs.
3. Rigidity Japanese culture is so tightly controlled, from the conformist attitude instilled in children to the precise measure of concrete to be used on sidewalks. When I first saw the open highways of Thailand after leaving Japan I had never felt more free.
2. Octopus porn Do I really have to justify this one?
1. Standing out, or being alone in a sea of people I do miss this, and yet I don't. I'm special, but I know I'm not. I'm taller than average, bigger than most, and appealing to the ladies. But Japan isn't the world. Don't forget where you came from, how you acted, if you grew as a person rather than let yourself fall into the category of "celebrity foreigner".
"Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to the shinkansen. This is the Nozomi Superexpress bound for Tokyo."
One of the strangest things I've had to get used to now that I no longer live in Japan is the lack of announcements. Don't get me wrong, there's more than enough information overload in the states, but few statements of actions being taken. In Japan, no matter where you go or what you do, foreigner or Japanese, people are paying attention to you. Enter a store, and the staff will acknowledge your presence. Board a train, and an automated announcement will provide the name, type of train, destination, and stops along the way. I have a feeling if I walked into a restaurant in the states and asked the hostesses to shout "WELCOME!", I might get a few stares.
What are some of the more common announcements you'll hear in Japan?
1. Irrasshaimase! (いっらっしゃいませ)
"Welcome!" is a greeting you'll encounter upon entering convenience stores, supermarkets, sometimes even private English schools. The most memorable time, however, is surely in restaurants, when all members of the wait and kitchen staff are informed of your arrival and scream "irrasshaimase" at the top of their lungs in a joyous celebration of your presence. Make a guy feel special, that's for sure.
"Ladies and Gentlemen, we will soon make a brief stop at Shin-Kobe. The exits are on the left side of the train. Passengers going to the subway line, please change trains here at Shin-Kobe."
Believe me, I rode the Kyushu Shinkansen so often I had the timing of the chimes and stop announcements memorized. Expect the speakers to blare when you depart, when you're about to arrive, and when you're making your final approach. Don't expect anything announcing when drinks will be served or tickets checked, though.
I didn't think it was possible until I wandered into one of the larger department stores. Although plenty of elevators are unmanned, there are a few with automated announcements for each floor, and, in some cases, an operator who will bow at your entry and call off the floors as they are passed.
I think I was in some small neighborhood onsen of Kagoshima the first time it happened. Although sento (regular bathhouses) are commonplace enough in the rest of Japan, this southern capital had taken it upon itself to fill every last public ofuro with volcanic bliss, powered by the overlooking peninsula-once-island Sakurajima. And it worked quite well; aging Japanese businessmen rest their weary bones in waters more soothing than any available in the urban sprawl that is Tokyo.
I too enjoyed lowering my body into the watery abyss, letting my face remain just above the surface to inhale the slightly sulfuric fumes of what had become my thrice-weekly indulgence.
And we talked in the bath, those Japanese and I. Rambled on about the differences in our cultures, debated which onsen were the best in the land, and tried to trick the other into moving into the current of the tenki furo (electric bath), to thunderous laughter. But more often than not, in my neighborhood hot springs and while soaking across the country, a question that nearly always came up was: "Do you have hot springs in your country?"
I didn't really have a good answer for those men; with the exception of Palm Springs and what I assumed were a smattering of geothermal springs in the Rockies and Sierra Nevada mountains, I had no idea of what calming soaks I could have missed in my own hometown. Are hot springs even possible in the central US, where evidence of volcanoes are thousands of years in the past, and unlikely to produce anything remotely similar to what one sees all over Japan?
In Japan, most of the springs are fueled by underground water sources coming into close proximity to magma or volcanic "veins" of heat rising to the surface. As these types of hot springs are usually superheated, many have to be regulated so as not to scald the bather.
Although some springs in the United States are heated in a similar manner, others are the result of geothermal heat: the deeper you go towards the center of the Earth, the higher the temperature of the rocks. Hot springs powered in this manner need to reach a sufficient depth in the planet's crust to achieve any significant temperatures (enough for soothing baths, anyway). As volcanic springs are able to form closer to the surface and with much higher temperatures, I prefer their waters coursing through my skin.
My Google search led me straightaway to west Texas, more specifically Big Bend National Park, where an outdoor hot spring pool lay on the border between the great state and Mexico: the Rio Grande.
Mere walking (or swimming) distance from the closest Mexican village, the springs is remote by even Big Bend standards - just keep driving east until you see a sign; turn onto an unpaved road; be careful as the unpaved road forks and leads you onto a narrow and treacherous road; dismount and follow the signs, taking note of the trinkets (hiking sticks, wire scorpions) Mexican craftsmen have left with a small note requesting money; do your part and help border relations... the path across the river may have been muddied by 9/11, but we still both live with each other, side by side, each helping the other in times of need.
A little farther down the sandy path and you'll come across the ruins of what was once the bathhouse, now a mere foundation used to prevent the water from flowing directly into the river. I must admit I was skeptical... but fear not, these springs are comparable to any seaside onsen in Japan; not quite up to the sulfuric taste of Ioujima, but definitely a close second to Furusato Onsen on Sakurajima. The hot springs at Rio Grande Village is recommended for its remote location, soothing waters, and communion with nature. Take a soak in the shadow of Native American pictographs and melt your troubles away in the Texas sun. Everything is bigger, better, and apparently more relaxing in Texas.
If you desire a little more privacy, drive about a hundred miles west to the town of Ruidosa, where the private resort Chinati Hot Springs lies. You may have to deal with runaway burros and adapt to the owner's bloodhounds, but once you settle, you'll find an excellent place to get away and soak under the starry night: no cell phones, no ambient noise, not even a car wheel turning.
The water at Chinati comes out at a mere 109 degrees, so it's best to catch it quickly. You do have the benefit of a private bath.
Next up... exploring the hot springs of New Zealand as I make it a habit to travel and soak. Remember, hot springs are best when the weather is chilly, so make the most of the time you have left.
A look back at that famous Simpsons episode, in which the family goes to a local Japanese restaurant, "The Happy Sumo", and Homer is poisoned by improperly prepared fugu. If this is your first time hearing about fugu, I should note I've eaten it several times and, as far as I know, I'm still alive.
Eleven months in, and I just had a final evaluation by a orthopedic surgeon in Austin. Where do I stand?
Alignment - excellent Range of Motion - 99%, pushups are no problem Grip- 80 to 85%; obviously not thrilled about this, but it will improve slowly
The doc concluded that the surgery in Japan was properly done, with A+ results. I don't need to have the titanium plate removed anytime in the near future unless there's significant pain or problems. I am set for New Zealand.
To celebrate my injury and raise wrist awareness, I will be hosting a Wrist Anniversary Party in Austin. Come one, come all. First drink is on me if you've broken your wrist.
Inspired by other travel and Japan blogs, it's high time I promoted some of my own shots around Japan. Granted, many of you heroes have been following my photo updates on Flickr, but it's still best to bring a few back into the spotlight now and then. This week...
Sata Misaki (佐多岬)
Sata Misaki is the southernmost cape in Japan, two thousand kilometers south of its counterpart in Hokkaido, Soya Misaki. I had the opportunity to do a great cycling trip from Kagoshima to Sata last year. Highly recommended.
As many of you know, I have been back stateside for about four months now. The time is at an end. Soon I will be traversing the Pacific once again, to end up in Auckland, New Zealand. Of course, this is all dependent on the results of my working holiday visa application.
I will be working just outside of the city at a Buddhist monastery, Vimutti, for a few months, then WWOOFing it for a bit while I await the results of two potential jobs: one, escorting groups of high school students on tours around Asia and Oceania; two, an engineering position which may be awaiting me in The Netherlands. Time will tell.
In either case, I will be in Texas until Christmas, then hopefully spending my New Year's in NZ, jetlagged and happy. Otsu kare sama desu.
The Japan memoirs are not over... not quite yet. Stay tuned.
So... you've received your Japanese pension refund after 6-36 months service in Nippon. A few hundred thousand yen in your trusty bank account. Now, what to do to receive the tax refund? After all, it's 20% of your total pension refund.
Well, for one, you should have designated a tax representative to act on your behalf before you left Japan. If you didn't do this, it's too late for you. Sorry. Tax representatives can be appointed with a "Declaration Naming a Person to Administer the Taxpayer’s Tax Affairs (for use by aliens)" form at your local tax office. If you need the kanji for the paperwork, it's 納税管理人の届出書（外国人用）.
1. In Japan, file your 納税管理人の届出書 form at a tax office.
2. Outside Japan, send in your pension refund paperwork.
3. Receive the pension refund receipt. Mail the original receipt to your tax representative in Japan. He or she will then go to the tax office and file the final paperwork (確定申告書) on your behalf.
4. Your tax refund will be deposited into your tax representative's Japanese bank account.
5. Your tax representative can mail you an international money order or wire the refund.
Uchi, a contemporary Japanese restaurant set just south of downtown, is truly like being back in Nippon. After being settled at the sushi bar and given an oshibori and a menu, I casually asked the waitress if the head sushi chef was Japanese. Indeed he was.
”日本人ですか？” “はい、日本人ですよ！” ”そですね。。。どこ出身ですか？” ”大阪です”
An Osaka man right in my own backyard. It turns out that of the five sushi men cutting the fish that night, four were Japanese and had been in Austin between 5 and 18 years, and the one closest to me was Thai.
(upon seeing my Buddha medallion from Nakhon Si Thammarat) "それは何ですか？” ”これ。。。タイ国から。” "Oh, really? He is from Thailand!"
Which followed me asking "khon tai mai?" (are you Thai?) and remembering some of my Thai phrases that had not quite recessed into useless memory. When Masa-san and the other Japanese heard me speaking Thai, the response was immediate: "smart! smart!" (日本語で) It took me a few minutes to stop from laughing and just explain to them that I had lived in both countries.
Masa-san's (perhaps I should have called him Salo-san, but every Masamichi I knew in Japan preferred Masa-san) English was nearly perfect, but we persisted in Japanese for the rest of the night. He and the others even gave me a free sampler of some excellent fried sushi, which another customer apparently misordered. Thereupon I asked Masa if he could recommend the best sashimi for someone wanting to remember the tastes of Japan, and he suggested the salmon toro platter.
Wise decision. For $18, you get six slices of fresh salmon in a sundae glass decorated with leaves, ice, and seaweed. Fine presentation, and the taste was extraordinary. With the ambient Japanese, my oshibori-dampened hands gripping the chopsticks, and too much food for one man to handle, I felt as if I were right back in the heart of Kagoshima.
Cheers to you, Uchi of Austin, and I will be back.
I've spoken about the various kinds of sandwiches, or lack thereof, in Japan, but it's only when you come home, and find yourself eating fresh turkey with fig spread, spicy mustard, spinach, and Swiss cheese on soft sourdough bread that one truly learns to appreciate options. Sandwich options. Japan has next to none, and of those, 90% have mayonnaise included. Here are some of the choices available to you, in my order of preference:
In the midst of all this election turmoil, I almost overlooked a significant death. Michael Crichton, author of Jurassic Park and creator of ER, passed away on Election Day. He was 66.
Crichton was my favorite author due to his well-researched books, which brought science fiction into our modern world. Timeline remains the most interesting work of fiction I have ever read; who else could have successfully combined quantum mechanics and 14th century French history into a thriller of a novel?
You will be missed, sir.
"Companions whom I loved and, still do love.... tell them my song."
I think more than anything else it made me realize what my Western identity was. I grew up wishing for many years that I could change myself, that I could become someone who was universal, that I could incorporate Asian culture and Asian philosophy into my own life to become a better person.
But when my teacher Pan did martial arts, he had total confidence, he was free. It was like seeing a bird fly. When I did it, it seemed put on, artificial. He said "Your problem is that you're trying to be me." You've got to be comfortable being you. The whole experience being in China was like that for me.
Learning about another culture doesn't mean you have to reject your own. It allows you to see yourself from another perspective, see your good side and your bad side and appreciate what you have.
Mark Salzman, author of Iron and Silk
I first read this book as a required text in the 8th grade. Now, looking back on it from the perspective of an American who has also lived in Asia, I wonder why it was so appealing at the time. Granted, it is very well written and quite entertaining, but were there really so few insights into Chinese and Japanese culture in the 80's? Nowadays, all one has to do is walk into a Barnes & Noble and spot at least ten travel narratives concerning teaching English in Asia.
In any case, he knows. And the lessons he learned can apply to Japan as well.
One more step towards disassociating myself with Japan. I have discussed how foreigners living and working in Japan for at least six months are eligible to get a refund on their Japanese pension when leaving the country permanently. The problem is, the amount refunded is based on the time in Japan, not the actual Yen paid. As a result, since my former employer took a few weeks to get me signed up for the pension, and I technically only paid into it for 11.49 months, I will receive only 40% the total pension payments, as opposed to 90% if I had stayed between 12 and 17 months. Isn't bureaucracy fascinating?
But regarding the timeline...
June 11th, 2008 Mail my pension refund paperwork from Beijing.
October 14th, 2008 Receive notification that my pension will be deposited into my American bank account.
I was just about to contact the Social Insurance Operation Center in Tokyo at 81-3-6700-1165 and test my poor financial Japanese to attempt and learn the status of my application. Thank god that's no longer necessary.
Approximately four months from the mail-in to financial results.
128,000 Yen with 25,600 in taxes for a net total of 102,400 Yen.
Now all that remains is to get that 25,600 Yen back as a tax refund by forwarding the refund notification to my designated "tax agent" in Japan (a process that involved enough paperwork and research in itself).
Questions about this? About to leave Japan yourself and want some money back? Email me.
Not my final entry, but rather the only title I could think of concerning an article on the southern islands of Kagoshima-ken... maybe "From Shima To Jima"? In either case, the article is up and running on Matador Trips:
I'm in the process of getting all my online work up to date, as I've only really been writing for Matador Travel lately. My summation on my experience in Japan is turning out to be remarkably similar to Alex Kerr's Dogs and Demons: The Fall of Modern Japan... curse you Alex, for noticing the same things I do, albeit before I even arrived in Japan. Great book that I would recommend you read after spending some time in Nippon; it might not be believable otherwise.
There are monks on Mount Hiei whose meditation exercise consists of running, running all through the night, in any weather, running until the mind itself is empty of any awareness. Perhaps I have been running the whole time I have been in Japan, perhaps I run only when I run. But in some way I sense a kinship with the monks of Hiei. In daily life, running is both my means of exuding awareness and enhancing awareness, and I now know that this is no contradiction.
Running the Seven Continents, Clint Morrison
I'm beat to the punch, in the sense that someone has already written a book about the philosophy of running a marathon in Japan and running marathons across all seven continents, and, not only that, but an entire sect of Buddhism has been in existence since AD 788 advocating running as a way of achieving enlightenment.
I had been looking for this video for some time - a crazy mix of Texas and Japanese culture. Let's explore some of the themes here that Hank and Junichiro are able to show us. If some of you are unfamiliar, King of The Hill is a cartoon comedy set in Arlen, Texas.
The Gaijin Smash - when a foreigner is faced with some of the more common tenets of Japanese bureaucracy, he or she often feels like there is no other choice but to suddenly and forcibly exert his or her culture on the situation: Gaijin Smash!. Effective, but not exactly cordial.
The Effectiveness of "The Japanese Way" - "Excuse the interruption, but we are looking for a man with no shins. Please favor me with your help." Indeed.
The Impressed Foreigner - Beer in the vending machines, the speed of the shinkansen: "Can't this thing go any faster? (Reads 186 mph on the digital readout)... huh!", not opening the screen door to the main room... classic
Japanese Girls - even considering the age of the one girl interested in Bobby, I've seen others in their 20's use the same approach. One word: "dansu!", followed by giggling at your foreign mannerisms and appearance. It's all too common.
Thoughts on Texas - "...running around like crazy cowboy? This not Texas, shoot off guns, pow-pow-pow, Rambo, John Wayne." Nowadays, we'll hear "Bush!" as well.
After a successful attempt with this in Austin, Texas, I would like to offer my services to the international (ergo, online) community.
The AEON Corporation will soon be conducting a series of interviews across the United States, recruiting young Americans to come to Japan and teach English. Although I do highly recommend you do your own research on this from start to finish, I would be willing to assist you through the interview process in exchange for some kind of compensation, entirely dependent on the results - you don't get the job, you don't pay a cent.
Feel free to browse my Truth About AEON blogs as a testament to my experience. Granted, some of the information is dated (insurance, for one), but the contracts and the working environment are still basically the same and a mystery to those starting out in their abroad experience.
Need help deciding if you should apply to AEON? What should you do for the group interview? How will you prepare for the 1-on-1 interview? Email me and we'll discuss it. Cheers.
All I see to be doing lately is linking to other people's stories, but I can't help it... been focusing my energy on other travel articles rather than the blog. Sad, I know. I'm no longer the Japanese insider, but I can still help with questions and concerns about living in Japan.
In the meantime, another Japan travel story (by me) on Matador Trips:
MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) -- An ambulance official says a jogger has been taken to hospital after he was attacked by a kangaroo on the outskirts of Australia's second largest city.
Metropolitan Ambulance Service spokeswoman Christine Paterson says the man, aged in his 50s, was attacked Monday as he apparently ran between a male and female kangaroo near his home at an outer suburb of Melbourne.
She says the victim ran to a nearby house and telephoned for help while the kangaroo hopped away.
Paterson says he was taken by ambulance to a hospital in a stable condition with a gash on his head and minor claw scratches to his chest, arms and hands.
A Royal Melbourne Hospital spokeswoman was not immediately available for comment on the man's condition.
Apparently, in addition to Kafka on the Shore, Haruki Murakami is also quite the long distance runner, having completed 25 marathons and a few triathlons. Take a look at his book, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, which is translated from the Japanese.
"Everything in this world" - he took my hand as his face became ruddy from the whiskey - "is a process that involves the giving and taking of energy. You should remember that."
"You may wonder why somebody of my social standing chooses to frequent hostess bars so often," he said, the alcohol in his system making him more sure of himself.
"Actually" - I looked him in the eye - "I do."
"At clubs like this I can unload my problems, and then absorb the youthful energy of the young women who listen to me. It's another process of exchange, you see?"
"I see," I said.
After seeing the Professor out, I couldn't help wondering whether this process of "exchange" he spoke of was part of the reason why I was feeling so tired lately. After all, each night I was carrying the burdens of several men-children upon my back. Then, in exchange, they stole my energy. Or more accurately, they were buying it in a perfectly legal arrangement.
Think of it as my guide to sleepless sightseeing in Kyushu, something I believe I invented... perhaps not. I have been miraculously repatriated and quite busy, but will get to my final conclusions on the Japan experience, "From Shima to Shima", soon enough. Sorry for the delay.
Exploring the rest of the country until my flight departs on August 4th. I've been looking around Phang Nga Bay, Phuket province, Suratthani, and Nakhon Si Tamarat. Soon I will be headed to the islands for the Half Moon Festival. Couchsurfing is a lifesaver.
What will I be doing?
Staying in Dallas and Austin to catch up with some friends and some good old-fashioned American culture while I await the results of the National Geographic Glimpse Correspondents Program and the return of my Japanese pension. If all goes according to plan, I should depart for New Zealand mid-October.
I should be back to regular updates on my new site Once A Traveler in a few weeks. Sorry about the delay - still negotiating internet access in Thailand. In the meantime, I will be posting a few more pieces on Japan. Patience.
I never seem to catch on to my own actions until they're in the distant past. Even now, I'm still in denial - more like ignorance - of my situation. I have given up my residency in Japan... I am on a ferry to China... soon I will be making my way to Thailand...
The fact that I've been living on a diet of no breakfast foods, Subway sandwiches, soft cream, and ramen dinners certainly doesn't help my health, nor did lugging suitcases through untold back alleys of Osaka.
I thought I was prepared to accept that Japan is not the world, to be a wanderer again, with no thoughts other than what dreams may come tomorrow, but, with even my first exposure to something non-Japanese, I hesitated... paused, wondered if such a thing was possible.
The Shanghai Ferry (Su Zhou Hai) operates between Osaka's International Ferry Terminal and the city of Shanghai, China (上海). Taking just over two days to complete a tranasiatic voyage, this boat is probably the most leisurely, cheapest, and most adventurous way to travel from Japan. Similar ferries operate to/from Korea, but I don't believe they quite measure up to the Shanghai Ferry:
- Table tennis available until 10 PM - Two choices of restaurants offering Chinese, Japanese, and western dishes - A Japanese bath - A lounge area perfect for kicking back and playing cards... as long as you don't happen to have several loud Chinese women cardplayers on board - Your choice of a group sleeping area, shared bedrooms, or private cabins - A small karaoke bar - Did I mention the ofuro?
Quite a nice array of amenities. From Osaka, you'll travel inland between Honshu and Shikoku, passing the straight of Shimonoseki in the early hours of the 2nd day at sea.
It's worth pointing out that although you will be travelling to China, only Japanese yen is accepted on board. This was a source of confusion for me, as I assumed the ferry company was operated by Japanese staff - not so...
It was nearing that time of the day when my stomach would begin its ritual growling and, if it had hands, would continue to slap sense into me and point in the direction of the nearest slophouse. Being not a slave to hunger, I chose to carefully gather myself and walk as dignified as possible into the onboard restaurant.
I ordered the sweet and sour pork with a glass of sweet tea and a bowl of rice.
My food was delivered with a surprising "clunk" as the tray felt the wood veneer adjust to its presence.
No "irrashaimase" (welcome!) No "arigatou gozaimasu" (thank you!) Not even a word.
No greetings. No response to every action I took. No smile. No girly laugh at my Japanese. No bows. "No respect, I tell ya."
I have to admit, I was pretty taken aback; I had read all these stories on people living in Japan and returning home to RCS (reverse culture shock), but I didn't think it would find me in international waters. I may not have received an energetic greeting and bow when I briefly visited home, but at least there was some kind of reaction to my presence.
Two years in Japan. Two years of training myself to utter "sumimasen" or "gomen" instinctively. Twenty four months of clean air, pachinko parlors, box architecture, clean streets, and trains that don't know the meaning of "late". 730 days of rice, sashimi, sushi, yakitori, kani, tako, yakiniku, etamame, ocha, and ramen. 17520 hours of building language skills used in only one country on this planet we call Earth. 1051200 minutes of Prussian uniforms, cram schools, club, working "overtime", salarymen, Toyota, Mitsubishi, Suntory, and Toyoko Inns. 63072000 seconds of living life, learning about a new culture, and discovering we aren't so different after all.
I guess I'll just have to live in every last place on Earth, then shoot for the moon. Knowledge is power, my friends.
I'm in Beijing at the moment gathering the pieces of my Thai visa and visiting with some interesting locals. Although I have posted a few entries about Japan, I have yet to complete my pièce de résistance (on top of that, I can't view my blog... or any others, for that matter, with China's website blocks). Headed to Hong Kong and Phuket in a few days, so will post as soon as I can.
Cost of living. A lot of people ask me about it, complain about it when they're here, but I think I'll let the numbers do the talking:
Starbucks grande hot chocolate ¥480
Movie ticket ¥1800 - except on the first day of every month, when theaters offer ¥1000 specials; shows after 10 pm are ¥1200.
Subway club sandwich ¥490 w/ "large" drink +¥300 and two chocolate chip cookies +¥200 = ¥990
Precooked white rice at most supermarkets ¥100-300
Transportation between Osaka and Tokyo (550 km) ¥13240 by unreserved shinkansen, 155 minutes ¥21500 roundtrip fare by ANA ¥3500 by highway bus, 8 hours ¥400,000+ by taxi (someone tried this between Osaka and Fukuoka)
Levi's blue jeans ~¥10,000 at department stores
English books ¥1000-3000
Frosted Flakes cereal ¥436 - the box is smaller than you'd expect - not too many other kinds of cereal are available except at import stores (Honey Nut Cheerios ¥800)
1 L lowfat milk ¥126 - not all carry lowfat milk
1 L Minute Maid Orange Juice ¥236
Western style beds ¥100,000+
City streetcar fare ¥100-200
Average monthly salary for first-time English teachers ¥255,000 - before taxes
Social pension payment/month ~¥23,000
Social insurance payment/month ~¥13,000
Unemployment insurance payment ~¥2,000
Japanese-style bicycle with basket ~¥10,000+
Cars in Japan Don't even think about it. Although the initial cost would be comparable to those in most countries, being in Japan gives you the "opportunity" to obtaining a Japanese driver's license, learning to drive on the left side, paying for auto insurance, and covering required inspections every two years (¥100,000+). Trains and buses will never be more convenient than they are here - use them.
Air travel Not terrible if you're going from a major city like Tokyo, but be sure to avoid traveling during Shogatsu (early January), Golden Week (early May), and Obon (mid-August), when fares can double or triple.
Nightlife Many bars offer beer from ¥300-500, but on the weekends, clubs usually have a high cover of ¥3,000+ to enter; drinks may or may not be included. Look for nomihodai (all you can drink) deals.
International first class postage ¥110 (letter)
Monthly membership to a gym ¥7,000, usually ~¥10,000
1 355ml can of Coca Cola ¥120
1 small, small serving of Häagen-Dazs ice cream ¥263
One bundle of 5-6 bananas ¥200-400
One big red apple ¥200-300
Melon (cantaloupe) ¥2,000+
"Super" fruit There is a demand for "luxury" fruit items like ¥100,000 mangoes, ¥200,000 watermelons, even ¥40,000 oranges... naturally I haven't been able to taste these and determine the difference, but I can't imagine how it'd be worth it.
Twenty four hours to go. It's raining, I'm a little sick, and I need to stretch my legs. Inherent contradictions, I know.
Although this will be my last blog entry written in Japan, it will not be the last entry on KPIJ; I still have a few ideas to get down for you heroes, including my summation of the last two years I've spend in Japan in a piece I call "From Shima to Shima": final thoughts on living in and traveling around Japan. Hopefully I'll be able to complete it on the Shanghai ferry and post once I get to Beijing, but be patient.
If I had enough time in Osaka and it weren't raining, I might check out Osaka Castle, the aquarium, and Universal Studios Japan (USJ to locals). If I had enough money, I'd go see Phantom of the Opera in Japanese, now being performed in a theater just west of Osaka station, or hit up a hostess bar... just for the experience... never been to one of them before.
If being in this concrete jungle has taught me anything, it's that I made the right choice when choosing to live in areas like Kagoshima. Walking around all the underground fluorescent-lit tunnels in a neverending daze... do it long enough and you start to get the idea you're one of the living dead.
I've decided to open up my Sitemeter traffic reports to the public eye. Although it only keeps records for the last hundred visitors, readers will get a general idea of the month-to-month and year-to-year traffic (just take a look at July 2007, when The Truth About AEON was published). Enjoy.
I was looking over the English books available at Kinokuniya Fukuoka yesterday and it occurred to me I could spend an entire lifetime and never finish reading all the texts on Japan; everything has been jotted down, mapped, and stamped with a seal of approval.
And I always see something appealing:
Bar Flower, Lea Jacobson - an insider's perspective on hostessing in Tokyo
Turning Japanese, David Mura - a third-generation Japanese raised in Chicago looks for meaning in Nippon
Japanese Higher Education as Myth, Brian J. McVeigh - why examinations do not equal education
What do you get when three bureaucratic organizations collide? High blood pressure and not much else. I doubt even a 7-hour soak could calm me down. This was my official response after being turned down again for a Thai visa.
Good afternoon. I'm currently a foreign resident who has lived in Japan for two years. Recently, I decided to terminate my residency and travel to China and Thailand, to volunteer as a English teacher in underfunded rural schools near Thai Mueang with a group known as the Thai Mueang Volunteers. The events that led me to your consulate are as follows:
1. On May 1st, I called the Royal Thai Consulate-General Osaka to confirm the documentation needed to apply for a Non-Immigrant Type O Visa (volunteer). I was informed that:
Documents Required a. 1 designated application form signed with the same signature as appears on passport b. Passport (original & copy: holder's data) with validity over 6 months c. 1 photo size 4.5 x 4 cm, color or black d. Airline ticket or flight confirmation sheet from air carrier or tour company (original & copy) e. Recommendation letter* from institute in Japan (original in English) f. Invitation letter* from institute in Thailand (original in English or Thai) g. Registration document of an institute in Thailand (copy)
2. Later that day, I confirmed with my organization in Thailand, who themselves were in close contact with local government authorities, that a registration document would not be necessary (invitation letter in English and Thai only, containing the registration notification and number). Having discovered that your consulate does not accept mail-in applications, I decided to travel from Kagoshima to Osaka at my own expense (approx ￥50,000 round trip).
3. On May 19th, I arrived in Osaka and immediately applied at the Royal Thai Consulate-General. Having presented all documentation, I was told everything was in order, with the exception of the registration document. Thereafter, I contacted the Thai Mueang Volunteers, and had them fax the registration document to me. On May 20th, I applied again, only to be told that all documents were in order, with the exception of the registration document, which was not the correct format: the copy my organization had provided was the official notification from the Thai government, but did not contain a statement of purpose. Such a document never existed for the Thai Mueang Volunteers, which had already been registered for some time.
4. Lacking the paperwork to even have my application accepted, I returned to Kagoshima and was informed, upon consultation between the Royal Thai Consulate-General Osaka and the manager of Thai Mueang Volunteers, that it would be in my best interest to apply for a two-month tourist visa.
5. Today, June 4th, I returned to Osaka and applied for a two-month tourist visa, only to be told that my recommendation letter from a Japanese institute, which had previously been deemed acceptable by the Thai consulate, was now unacceptable. Upon learning this, your visa section receptionist suggested I return to Kagoshima (at whose expense, I might add?) and have the document rewritten. At one point, he even offered to break the rules and accept my application by fax, suggesting that although the consulate has the power to accept my application, it chooses not to.
Let me speak simply and to the point: your consulate is a disgrace and an embarrassment to promoting tourism. Foreign residents or visitors to Japan cannot reasonably expect to meet the requirements of obtaining a foreign visa in Japan, namely:
A. An official recommendation with a copy of the passport and inkan stamp of a permanent resident or Japanese
B. An English translation of a Japanese bank account statement
Many non-Japanese may just be passing through the country and are unable to obtain Thai visas in their respective home countries (due to spending months in Japan, or not securing transportation until in Japan). I would be surprised if your Osaka consulate has processed even one application by a non-Japanese seeking to explore Thailand.
As a result of the aforementioned actions, it's quite obvious that your consulate has no interest in bringing in foreign visitors or immigrants to Thailand; this is not an issue of safety when traveling abroad, but discrimination based on nationality. I would have liked to have seen Thailand benefit from the education of international volunteers, but you have made that nearly impossible. From this affair, I have lost:
￥50,000 for transportation to/from Osaka ￥100,000+ for non-refundable enrollment in the Thai Mueang Volunteer program ￥60,000 for transportation to Thailand
Please let me know your thoughts on this matter, and if you will considering changing these policies in the future.
And just what does one do with less than 60 hours left in Japan? The various "S" tasks...
- Slurp ramen till the sun comes up - Sleep in an environment that would make anyone envious of claustrophobics - Subject oneself to everything the Japanese bureaucracy has to offer: visa procedures, bank accounts, cell phones, immigration, travel agents, apartment leases, utility companies - Soak in the soothing onsen waters - Shinkansen your way across the island - Sip fresh green tea, perhaps for the last time - Ship out to Shanghai
I don't know why I'm in such a funk all of a sudden... maybe it's due to being a year older, maybe it's because I've made the intention of leaving Japan, maybe it's the stupidity of Chinese visa officials... all I know is I was two seconds away from tearing into the next person who chose to speak to me in fragmented English, which always makes me feel like an idiot... "日本語が話せます！ 私は日本語で話していますか？ 私は日本語で話していますか？ 馬鹿な！"
And the road not taken has been running through my mind more often as of late. Another friend got married on Sunday, another engagement announced, another couple holding hands on the streets of Fukuoka, and I'm wandering around the globe, alone with nothing but my thoughts, choking on my own grief... it may be time for me to start aiming home; I just don't know any better way of looking for the lost.
I guess making my way back through Hiroshima and Okayama made me more aware of how far I've come, and how long it's taken. I stopped at Sanzoku again, this time able to read the kanji that had so eluded me during my first few visits, which my brother, a non-resident, was able to understand clearly... it was a hospital.
I saw the AEON trainees in Okayama, no doubt spending their first week in Japan fretting over the unknown. One girl is crying on the curb just outside the company dormitory, a guy standing watch, offering choice advice, and no doubt trying to pave the way to get into her pants later... I don't know why we do what we do... it seems to make perfect sense at the time. When I was renting a room out of a house in north Austin, a girl stepped out of her boyfriend's car, practically flushed with anger and needing comfort, and all I could think about was how long it had been since I'd felt someone's touch, needed someone to hold... not exactly the first thing on her mind, I can tell you.
All of us deny ourselves opportunities out of fear and inconvenience. Just as recently as two days ago I overheard a conversation at a restaurant in Fukuoka; a girl was finishing up in Japan, getting her Chinese visa, and taking a ferry to Shanghai. I walked out without so much as an "ahem" or even a look... we were on the same wavelength in terms of travel plans, and I let it pass, for no reason whatsoever.
On the rare occasions I meet someone and stay in touch, it doesn't last; he or she is at the end of a contract, or on a tourist visa, or heading back home to someplace far, far, away from anywhere I'll ever be. Of course we can stay in touch online... and that's all we'll ever do. An email every day. Then every week. Then every month. And then we forget.
Friends back home tell me how envious they are of my travels, how they always wanted to do that, but can't... I tell them of course they can, if they really want to... but am tempted to say, don't leave anyone behind; hold on to what you've got, it doesn't make a difference if you make it or not... stop me if you've heard this one.
All the places I came into this world we call Japan and how I felt came flooding back. The waiting and dehydration at Osaka airport... the first time I heard a Japanese person speaking English. The drainage and never ending hunger in Okayama. The rain, oh the nonstop rain. The tourists in Hiroshima who don't know... they see a dome, a museum, a paper crane, and they think they know... they aren't talking to the hundreds of kids around them, the elders who've lived through it... I'm being cynical, but it just don't think it fair that I was indistinguishable from the people new to Japan... I always am, though.
Even a reminder of the sales tactics of AEON came in the form of a 35th anniversary campaign. This is right in line with AEON's "sunny afternoon" campaign and "today is a thursday" campaign. Remember - there are no discounts, just colorful signs.
I've been twenty six for just over 24 hours now. It rained all day today. I have no possessions, no lover, no job, and no friends ever in my vicinity. I hate it when these floodgates open and I start seeing the truth behind my situation. I'm happy to have done what I've done, seen what I've seen, felt what I've felt, learned what I've learned... but there are always sacrifices. Remember that. Always.
The solution to the "Keeping Pace in Thailand" or "Keeping Pace in the World" problem is solved. Although I am rather fond of the Keeping Pace theme, I will be recording my later travels on the new domain Once A Traveler (with respect to John L. Parker).
However, this will most likely be my headquarters and general information, not containing any specific blog entries, so it is entirely possible I'll be setting up a new Thailand blog and linking to it from Once A Traveler soon. Be patient - in Fukuoka at the moment relying on crowded internet cafes.
Oh yes, and it's my birthday, which I will be celebrating here with Kabuki, ramen, and sake, on the Shanghai Ferry with table tennis, and in Beijing with, ironically, sashimi. Cheers.
Due to my recent article on Matador Study (58,000 hits and counting in just over 24 hours), I think it's time to show these readers what KPIJ is all about. Some of what I consider to be the best entries in terms of writing and substance from my time in Japan, which is slowly drawing to its natural conclusion.
November 2006 An Epidemic - bullying in Japanese schools.
October 2007 Nibble Nibble - a most unusual hot springs featuring flesh-eating fish.
November 2007 Nakanoshima: Listening to Moonlight - adventures on one of the smaller islands in the Tokara chain, featuring wild horses, an observatory, and great hot springs. Running in Fear - news spoof article about gaijin card checks and the Tokyo Marathon.
December 2007 Adoption in Japan - spending Christmas with some children at an orphanage.
An unwitting passenger arriving at Japan's Narita airport has received 142g of cannabis after a customs test went awry, officials say.
A customs officer hid a package of the banned substance in a side pocket of a randomly chosen suitcase in order to test airport security.
Sniffer dogs failed to detect the cannabis and the officer could not remember which bag he had put it in. Anyone finding the package has been asked to contact customs officials.
"This case was extremely regrettable. I would like to deeply apologize," said Narita International Airport's customs head Manpei Tanaka.
The customs officer conducted the test on a passenger's bag against regulations. Normally a training suitcase is used.
"I knew that using passengers' bags is prohibited, but I did it because I wanted to improve the sniffer dog's ability," the officer was quoted as saying.
"The dogs have always been able to find it before... I became overconfident that it would work," he said.
Japan has strict laws against drugs and possession of small amounts of cannabis can lead to a prison sentence.
I'm with some critics who would argue criminal charges are in order for the officials who negligently misplaced an illegal substance. What if someone were to collect their bags, stay in Tokyo overnight, and then fly through Bangkok or any other country, for that matter? In Thailand, the possession of drugs is a harsh, harsh offense... many people have been executed for distribution or possession of drugs. Remember the movie Brokedown Palace?
A good website about Thai laws, and prisons, which states: "Please don't even consider taking or dealing in drugs while in Thailand. Penalties are harsh even for minor drugs. You could easily get life or a death sentence. People serving long sentences are sent to the infamous Bang Kwang Prison which is far harsher than this one. You have been warned! Don't join the thousands of foreigners already in Thai prisons."
Remember that scene in the movie Crash, where the movie producer has his car hijacked? (Cue video to 5:34, then follow through to part 9)
This guy has had it; he happens to be black, and within 48 hours, he's been victimized by the police for being "a black man in a good neighborhood", and had his partners confess they don't believe the American public is ready for the idea of an intelligent black man in the media. Sitting in his car, pondering, he believes there's no way anyone will ever, ever, look past his skin color and be open-minded.
Then the perfect opportunity to go down in flames presents itself.
He's carjacked by two guys with guns, and just loses it, no doubt thinking to himself: The world wants me to be a poorly-spoken, gangbanging criminal? Fine, I'll let them have it. I don't care anymore. Nothing will change. He goes on a rampage, cursing the police, acting like a madman, and is just about to get himself shot when a cop steps between the line of fire and tries to make amends for his partner.
Sometimes... sometimes, being a foreigner in Japan is like that.
No matter how long you've been here, how many experiences or moments of clarity you've had regarding the Japanese, many people see you only at face value: an English-speaking robot, funny to talk about in Japanese when they think you can't understand, incapable of knowing anything about Japanese culture or history, nothing more than a dirty foreign dog who spends his days mocking everything around him and his night boozing and hitting up hostess bars.
It's not a big leap from this movie producer to any one of us: sometimes, you just feel like countering back, even to the smallest, most innocent schoolchildren, shouting nothing but "HELLO! HELLO! HELLO!" because that's all they want to hear, telling Japanese friends you're sorry, but it is beyond your understanding as a foreigner...
It's one reason I don't want to live out the rest of my days here, want to migrate to an English-speaking country where I can be seen as something other than a novelty, an amusing deviation from the norm, lacking any substance or flavor.
It's an adventure being here. And it's been beneficial. But sometimes, I feel invisible.
Although I've spent two years in Japan, I've only been to Osaka twice. Once, for the job interview for my most recent employer. The second time was this past week, to obtain my Thai visa.
I forgot what western Honshu was like, having spent so much time in Kyushu this past year. I don't claim to believe that Japan is a superficially beautiful country, with it having so much concrete laid down and flashing pachinko parlors in every obscure corner, but islands like Kyushu and Shikoku (possibly Hokkaido too, but I've never lived there) are greener and more rural by comparison. Easy to forget the Sanyo Line running from Shimonoseki to Okayama, the subtle changes in the air that come from urban pollution... even the pace of daily life is more rushed, more fluid.
Osaka itself is not a pretty city, an expanse of apartment and office buildings over a flat, grey landscape that seems to have no end. But... I can see the appeal. It is a comfortable life, full of amenities and a dialect few in Japan can understand.
If you happen to be in Osaka for a day or two, feel free to check out the attractions on the south end of town around Tennoji (天王寺).
This district, located just west of Tennoji Koen, is a yakuza-controlled nightlife area which makes one feel as though he's stepped back in time some forty-odd years. The streets are narrow, the pachinko machines lack video screens and computer controls, and old men play mahjong in glass houses near ramen shops.
There are quite a few fugu restaurants in this area, as are there billy-ken statues. I have no idea of the significance of billy-ken, who has the appearance of a great golden Buddha with big feet, but apparently, there's even an image of him atop the Hitachi Tower, also in Shinsekai.
Photo courtesy of David M. - www.lejapon.fr
Spa World (スパワールド)
Spa World, occupying the bulk of Shinsekai, is one of the world's largest indoor baths, and it shows.
I have been to sento around the rails. I have visited onsen ryokan in Kurokawa, Beppu, and Kagoshima. I have soaked in waters with nothing between me and a smoking volcano.
That being said, this place is nothing short of amazing in terms of Japanese bathing locales. 2400 yen will get you in for three hours, 2700 for the day (although they will charge an extra thousand if you check in or out after midnight).
The lobby and entrance area isn't remarkable different from your average super sento. But once one rises to the 4th floor, things become clearer. A decently-stocked gym. Massages of every kind (extra charge, of course). A rooftop pool in the shadow of a neighborhood roller coaster. And of course, the baths.
Men and women alternate each month between the 4th and 6th floors. The 4th Asian themed, the 6th European. Until the end of May, men have control of the fourth floor, and let me tell you - that 2400 yen was worth every last cent, if you'll pardon the currency crossover.
Spa World of Osaka is probably the closest anyone in the world will ever get to experiencing a true ancient Roman bath. And unlike the Romans, the Japanese incorporate modern features and a variety of styles.
You begin your journey in the Islam baths (イスラム, I don't quite get it, either - just reading the katakana), boiling hot water flowing from three different lions' heads to provide a temperate back massage. Once completed, guests can enjoy the same H20 in a central marble bath.
From here... where to go... where to go... perhaps to the left, where three different medicinal baths lay awaiting aching muscles. Or even further, to the salt sauna.
No... straight ahead, to three Japanese-style rotemburo sitting adjacent to a Japanese restaurant. All the styles of the world at my fingertips, and I still see the appeal of outdoor bathing; especially tonight, as the rain gently cools my sweating brow.
Next up, the Persian baths, a mixture of silt and milky-gold waters in a room in which Darius would have no problems feeling at ease, Alexander the Great probably discarding his sword to indulge a leisurely soak.
And you can have all day and night. Sleep. Eat. Exercise. Bathe. Repeat as needed.
New Japan Sauna and Capsule Hotel
This isn't actually in south Osaka, but I thought it was worth mentioning as this is the original capsule hotel, still running smoothly since 1979.