Don’t worry, I’m still around.

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Hello and thanks for visiting my site!

This blog is devoted solely to my experience with the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program and living in Japan. I have been back in the States for a while and, although I love Japan and hope to visit many more times, returning to work and live there is not something I see myself doing any time soon (but never say never!). So, the information on this blog will start to get dated (if it isn’t already) and there probably won’t be many more new posts.

Despite that, I do welcome any questions and comments you might have and I generally respond quickly, so please don’t hesitate to ask anything. I am still involved in the JET community and I gladly take advantage of any chance I get to talk to new people about Japan and JET (as friends and family are generally tired of it). Thanks and I hope you find something interesting/useful on this blog!

Where the Hell am I?

After being here nearly a year, I’m proud to say I’ve never gotten on the (completely) wrong train, nor have I ever missed my intended station. Yes; I have boarded locals that I thought were rapids, and I did once buy tickets for a 7am bullet train when I meant to get them for 7pm. But for the most part, I think I do pretty well navigating the train system.

It’s when I get off the train that I start to have problems. If the numbering system in Japan seems arbitrary: it’s because it basically is. Cities are broken down into wards, wards into neighborhoods, and then numbers with far too many dashes are assigned to the buildings (in the old days, buildings were numbers in the order they were built, because that makes sense). As for streets, good luck finding one with a name. In Tokyo, there’s a street supposedly named “Meiji-dori” that runs parallel to the train tracks from Shibuya through Harajuku to Shinjuku. It’s on the tourist maps and even on some of the posted maps around the stations, but asking someone at the combini “which way is Meiji-dori” pretty much only gets a blank stare. This is the case in many big cities that purportedly have a named street. But I suppose it’s just as well to not name streets since they seem to twist, turn, merge, and end with no warning.

So what’s a foreigner in Japan to do? My first suggestion is to take a deep breath and accept that Japan is hard to navigate and no map or even good sense of direction will make it easy.

Did you do that? Okay.

Next, never attempt to just try and find a place. This includes trying to find a place with a Lonely Planet guidebook map. LPs maps are pretty much crap; they really only give you a sense of the general area you should go. Also, downtown areas in Japan have a tendency of looking all the same, even having the same stores! I was meeting some friends in Shinjuku, and the directions they gave me were “Down the street from Isetan and OIOI” but I was one block over: where there was also an Isetan and OIOI!

Which is another thing to remember: don’t split up with friends, unless you’re both absolutely sure where you’ll met up again. Even within department stores, it can be a bad idea to split up since escalators have a tendency of not being close together from floor to floor.

Now, since I just told you to never try to just find a place, this means you have to ask for directions. Utilize information booths in large stations, they are your friends! They might speak English and even if they don’t, they’ll probably have an English information brochure and maybe even an English language map. They also can tell you if the place your looking for has closed up shop (this seems to happen a lot with no warning). Make sure to ask which station exit to use since many stations have gates at the exits and therefore make it hard to pass through if you exit on the wrong side.

If you’re not near an info booth, a combini might be your next best bet. If you have the address of the place you’re looking for, they should have a map of the area handy. It’s important to ask what is around your destination. Don’t just ask what next to it, ask what’s across the street, cady-corner, and what’s just past it so you know if you went too far.

Now when you’re on your way, with your map and directions, keep you eyes peeled! Do not underestimate how “tucked away” the place you’re looking for may be. I’ve been to many-a-places with a tiny sign about 3 feet high as it’s only indication that it exists. If you’re in a major downtown area where the buildings have long vertical signs telling you what shops are there, remember they’re not necessarily in order. I once went to a restaurant where the sign for it was the 4th one up. This would indicate to me that it was on the 4th floor, but it was actually in the basement!

Get a map, find a buddy, get clear directions and be very aware and you might find your destination! Maybe.

I actually wrote this whole post because I wanted to share a link. It’s a website called “多摩地区そして日本各地の画像集” which Babelfish translates into “Picture collection of Tama area and every place in Japan“. If you’re going to a town for the first time, you can look here and get a little familiar with the place. Note: You do need to know the kanji of whatever town you’re looking for for this site.

Don’t Make Waves, Stay in Line

Sometimes when I think about the laws and unspoken rules here in Japan, I think of the little ditty Shrek and Donkey hear when they go to Duloc, “Don’t make waves, stay in line, and we’ll get along fine. Duloc is a perfect place.” Now, Japan’s not Singapore or anything, but the laws are strict and the police and justice system have a farther reaching authority than you may be used to.

First, take a second to read this hilarious incident of drug-dog training gone wrong in Narita. Now, funny as that is, I have to feel sorry for the person who has all that weed because they will have a hell of a time if they want to return it. Japan has very strict anti-drug laws: I saw a news story about some famous guy being busted for having 0.2 grams of marijuana. Now, I think everyone whose ever been to a Dave Matthews Concert ingests that much weed without even meaning to, but the way they were talking about this guy you’d think he was peddling heroin to 12 year olds. It’s not only the ganja that you have to beware of, some perfectly legal over the counter medicines in other countries are illegal here because of Japan’s anti-stimulant laws.

Now here are a couple cautionary tales: one of a tourist being found with a pocket knife, and another of a JET accused of shoplifting. While I think both of these people could have benefited from knowing more Japanese and just using a bit more common sense, it shows how severe Japanese police can and will treat you for things that may only be a minor infraction back home. If you’re arrested, you can be held without formal charges for nearly a month. Japan’s justice system is “Guilty until proven innocent”, and really, they’re not interesting in proving you’re innocent, only in getting you to confess.

This also brings up the fact people here are simply more suspicious of “gaijin”, whether or not there’s really any statistics to back that assumption up. Once a cop stopped me on my bike. He claims he saw my bike lock was broken, and it is, but there’s no way he could have been able to tell that from glancing at my bike while I was riding, so I think the real reason he pulled me over was clear. He then proceeded to ask where I got the bike; in other words accusing me of stealing it. I fortunately knew just enough Japanese to explain I got it from the previous JET (and also don’t know enough Japanese to say “If I were to steal a bike, I’d steal a better one than this rust-pile”), and he let me go. The lesson is, yes, you are being watched.

Some other things to remember here in Japanland:

  • Until you get your “gaijin card” (alien registration card), you should carry your passport at all times. Even after you get your card, I recommend carrying your passport when you travel in Japan just to save hassle.
  • In multi-level stores, you need to pay on each floor. Also beware of places where there are several shops on a single floor. Just go to the nearest register after you pick up anything. (If there’s no register, look for a calculator and a woman not paying attention).
  • You are representing your school, your BOE, your country, and all foreigners in general. So, try to behave well. Don’t buy too much booze at the combini, some mom with nothing better to do will call the school and tell on you.
  • Be careful what people send to you because once it gets to Japan, you will be held  responsible for it’s contents. Here’s a student whose friend sent him some pot cookies to Japan, and now he faces 10 years in Japanese prison.
  • Keep off of the grass, shine your shoes, and wipe your . . . face.

Your life in two suitcases or less

First off, congratulations to those of you short listed for the 2008 JET Programme, (and to alternates, also. Hang in there, I was an alternate too!)

This post probably isn’t necessary to put up for another month or two, but many of you are itching to know what to take, I’m sure. Every year, hundreds of new JETs make tough decisions about what to bring, maybe shed a few tears, but will invariable bring stuff they may find they’ll never use. This list is to help you make those tough decisions, and hopefully give you a lighter bag to carry around Tokyo (at the height of summer, mind you) and eventually to your placement.

Continue reading

My $100 sushi dinner

or “Japan is expensive after all”

No doubt you’ve heard that Japan is one of the most expensive countries to live in. Up until recently, Tokyo held the distinction of being the most pricey city in the world. Former JETs warned me that since I’m in what you could call the “greater Tokyo area” my funds would be spent quickly after I earned them. When I came here, I was a bit worried that my hope of paying off my college debt would be impossible due to the supposedly ridiculous price of everything.

However, these cautionary tales of over-price-dom have not been realized by me. My rent is subsidized, but even if it was twice as much, it would be reasonable. My utility bills are all comparable to home, my internet and cellphone are actually cheaper, and my complete lack of interest in Japanese TV has left me without a pricey cable bill. It does cost me $9 round trip to get to the nearest good-sized city, and twice that to get to Tokyo, but having no car pretty much offsets that cost. Food is more expensive, I suppose, but probably because I indulge my Western-ness and get the more costly items like cereal and spaghetti sauce. If I stuck to a more Japanese diet, it would likely be less. Dining out is also not as expensive as I expected. You’re never too far away from a decent noodle shop that will give you a very filling bowl for anywhere between 500-700 yen.

Just when I was thinking Japan was not living up to it’s pricey reputation, I finally encountered what makes Japan so damn expensive. This is a warning to those who are penny-pinchers but also want to be entertained on a regular basis, Japan is not the country for you.

Take my weekend, for example. I started off the day seeing the Japanese-language version of “The Lion King.” The price? 11,500yen, or about (at current rates) $110. Yeah, it’s a popular Broadway show and all, but when I saw it in New York in very similar seats, tickets were $90. Afterwards, we headed to Urawa to a “famous” sushi shop. The first order of business was for everyone to pony-up 10,000yen, or nearly $100. Of course it was delicious, the octopus wasn’t chewy (it’s possible!) and the sushi that’s usually a bit dodgy in cheaper establishment, like squid or sea-urchin, was super tasty. A hundred-bucks tasty? Probably not, but still very tasty.

This all made me realize that entertainment in this country is not cheap. Here are a few of the other outrageously priced items in Japan. (For conversion, $1US varies from 105-115 yen, though right now it’s 103yen to a dollar) Continue reading