Thursday, June 26, 2008

Regular Updates

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.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

An Immediate Difference

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.

IF you choose to return by the same means, you'll get a good view of Ioujima, Tanegashima, and Yakushima before heading north.

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.

No response.

I ordered the sweet and sour pork with a glass of sweet tea and a bowl of rice.

No reaction.

My food was delivered with a surprising "clunk" as the tray felt the wood veneer adjust to its presence.

Nothing.

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.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Down for a While

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.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Cost of Living in Japan

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+

Comforters
¥6,000+

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

Watermelon
¥10,000+

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.

One slice of chocolate cake from the bakery
¥420

Taxis
Usually charge a base fare of ¥500-600, about 10X that you'd expect in Beijing or other parts of SE Asia.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Osaka-ben

This little piece of advice came courtesy of a waitress at the Kangaroo Bar, a foreigner hang-out not far from Osaka Station.

Two phrases in Osaka dialect to help you integrate better in the Kansai area:

Maido まいど
Konnichiwa こんにちは
Hello

Okiini おきいに
Arigatou gozaimasu ありがとうございます
Thank you

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

The Last of Japan



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.

From Osaka, Japan, this is KPIJ, signing off...

Not Afraid of Big Brother

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.

TMI

What to see, what to do, what to read...

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

How to NOT get a Foreign Visa in Japan

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.

Dear sirs,

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.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Winding Down

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

Monday, June 02, 2008

Coming Full Circle



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.

Once a Traveler

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.