helpful Japanese people

The Long Road Home…

From top...our interminable taxi ride with the blind driver; last views of Narita, last meal (coke float and sashimi) and the fabulous bird's eye view camera from the plane!

From top…our interminable taxi ride with the blind driver; last views of Narita, last meal (coke float and sashimi) and the fabulous bird’s eye view camera from the plane!

I’m sure many of you may have guessed from the radio silence that we were travelling and are now back in Vancouver. I do have more things to post about Japan so I’m not ending the blog…I’m extremely long-winded (I’m told by my daughter) and five and a half weeks was not nearly long enough to say all that I had to say ūüėČ

So we’re home. Getting home was a trial. Normally I have things fairly¬†well planned and organized but there were things out of my control on this one. First of all, we bought our tickets on CheapOair. Not my first choice…actually pretty much one of my last choices, but I have to say it was fine AND a great deal. We flew Cathay which was fabulous (more on that later) but at first I couldn’t confirm our tickets on the Cathay website with the locater number from CheapOair so I was freaking out. CheapOair actually emailed me back and confirmed the flight and told me how to get on the Cathay site. Next, I couldn’t print a confirm as Karis’s computer was not downloading files to ANY flash drives (yes, I did buy a new one, didn’t work) so I had¬†no printed confirms. Wanting to cover all my bases, I emailed the boarding passes to myself and Karis; downloaded the PDFs and screenshot each one.

Karis’s agency made reservations on the airport limousine, paid her fare and the cab to get to the bus and provided a map and instructions in Japanese for the cab driver. When I lived in Japan before, it was almost impossible to get a taxi to stop for a foreigner and you had to have a map and/or instructions in Japanese as there are no regular street names or addresses. I had all of this. Also, one of the bookers happened to be at the apartment as we were leaving so he helped load the car and explain (again) to the cab driver in Japanese exactly where the hotel was…literally a 5 minute drive from our apartment. Anyway we did everything exactly as instructed but we didn’t count on a cab driver not be able to find the hotel! With Japanese instructions, a map and a GPS! Though perhaps the fact that he kept looking at the map with a magnifying glass should have been my first clue. We missed the limousine bus. Luckily I still had my Japanese phone and called Yusuke at the agency and he talked to the cab driver but it was too late. Yusuke was trying to find another bus and was going to book us on the Narita Express which is a high-speed train. I explained there was no way this would work as we had too much luggage to manage on our own because it involves changing trains and going through the station. He then spoke to the driver again and told us he would drive us to Narita. At this point, I didn’t care as there was no way we could miss this flight. Cab fare to Narita is about $300.

So we’re driving and driving. Both Karis and I have to pee, like crazy. We finally get to Terminal 1 (as per Yusuke’s instructions) and Karis sprints out to go to the bathroom. The driver and I unload the car and I ask him the fare…on the meter it says 29000Y. He keeps repeating, “chigau, chigau, no fare.” I finally understand that he means not to charge us because it was his fault that we missed the bus. I insist on giving him 10000Y which he reluctantly accepts and bows until I enter the terminal building. I looked back and he was still bowing.

After the bladders were taken care of, we look for Cathay. And notice that it’s in…Terminal 2. Yusuke sent us to Terminal 1 because our original flight home was on ANA which is in Terminal 1. Sigh. Two floors¬†down to the bus stop;¬†load up the bus with our five suitcases, one carry-on bag and two purses; ride to Terminal 2; disembark with our five suitcases, one carry-on and two purses; wait 15 minutes for an elevator to the departures level–they’re always¬†full because people are loading up on the floor below so we can never get on. We finally break protocol (serious thing in Japan) and get on an elevator going down and don’t get off just to we can ride back up again. Otherwise we’d still be there waiting. Finally arrive at Cathay which is glowing like a beacon in the distance. I love Cathay. The opened up a desk to serve us, printed our boarding passes, checked in four huge overweight bags for free, all with great professionalism, kindness and speed.

A quick visit to the cell phone return counter, a snack and a pit stop to buy Hello Kitty pens and we’re on our way.

Longest flight ever. The food was great (for airline food), great service, personal TV screens, free blankets, pillows and headphones. And my very favourite thing…they have a camera on the bottom of the plane so you could watch the take-off and landing. I’d¬†definitely¬†fly Cathay again…but it was a bit frustrating to fly BACK to Hong Kong, then to Vancouver over Japan. Our direct flight was a little over 9 hours…this was over 21 hours. I was ready to jump off the plane about 3 hours into the second flight….

No secret squirrel stuff here…

Antelope crossing

I have no idea if this was always the case or if it’s a new thing in Japan, but I have to say that I love the information sharing on the train (in ENGLISH) even though it makes no difference to me except to satisfy my inner Gladys Kravitz. I was on the JR train today, the Yamanote Line, heading to Akihabara–the electronics mecca of Japan–when in-between the helpful station notifications and route maps, I noticed the following sign: Train delay on the Tagata Shinkansen (bullet train) due to an antelope collision. There was also another notification for a delay on the Keikyu Line due to a passenger injury. Now knowing about a delay is indeed helpful, knowing why gives you an odd satisfaction or perhaps a little more patience.

When I was in Tokyo before there was no information in English beyond the name of the station. They now have announcements in English, ticket machines in English, as well as route maps, fare calculators and a handy chart that tells you how long it will take to get to your station, all in English. It’s actually quite easy to get around. Also if you are at all confused, if you simply stand there looking confused, a helpful Japanese person will ask if you need help…usually in less than a minute.

I wonder what the impetus was for the information sharing… Was there a study done that found people were more patient if they knew the reason for the delay? Was it something that came up in a corporate brain-storming session? Or indeed is it something altogether more sinister as my conspiracy theorist friend would say–should we be thinking about what they’re NOT telling us? Japan can be quite a paternalistic society in many ways and at times citizens are protected from the truth. Apparently, this happened during the nuclear accident at Fukushima; there was a bit of a news blackout.

The notification on the train got me thinking…the¬†suicide rate in Japan is quite high and many people jump in front of trains, usually on specific routes chosen because your chances at a¬†successful death are higher if you find an express train that goes through an underground station (poor visibility) at top speed. When I lived here in 1990, I lived on one of the “suicide lines” which I would never have known had I not mentioned the number of delays I experienced trying to get home to one of my students who filled me in on the darker side of life in Tokyo. Now I’m wondering if the antelope was really an antelope….

Curly hair genius in Tokyo

Hair genius Nepenji

Who would have thought that I would find the best hairdresser ever in Tokyo. Not me. Last time I was here I had a hard time even finding someone who would cut my hair…curly + gaijin is a little too much for most Japanese stylists. One of my students finally recommended a friend of hers who had worked in NY and was willing to take me on. She did a decent job but no better or worse than any other haircut I’d had in Vancouver, which for a foreigner in Japan with curly hair was a huge win!

Now in the age of the internet and blogs you can literally google pretty much anything and get at least some helpful information. Anyway, this particular salon, Nepenji, was highly recommended¬†and also had several blog posts with¬†impressive photos. Kiyoko trained in London at Vidal Sassoon¬†and at the Devacurl Academy in NY which specializes in curly hair. I immediately booked myself in as my hair is a disaster—frizzy, gray and dry as well as in need of a cut (I did it myself in May with the nail scissors).

I have to say it was worth every penny and was actually much cheaper than Vancouver, about $220 (no tipping) for a two-stage cut, Kerastase treatment, colour and head and neck massage. Kiyoko wanted to cut my hair dry but it was too¬†frizzy and had been in a bun/ponytail so it wasn’t possible to see the curl pattern. She cut a bit, then did the colour, treatment and then dried it by hand with a diffuser as well as an overhead spinning dryer and then cut it again, one curl at a time.

I did know you are supposed to cut curly hair dry but it has never actually happened to me. I was given so much information on how to care for my hair that that alone would have been worth the $200. Anyway, in a nutshell, minimal shampooing with sulfate-free shampoo; conditioner (lots but make sure it is free of alcohol and silicone); don’t rinse out the conditioner; use your cupped hands to rinse a little bit;¬†turn your head upside down and gently squeeze the water out using paper towels, old t-shirts or a microfibre towel,¬†scrunching the curls as you do this. Whilst still upside down, use alcohol-free gel and smooth over the hair, again with the scrunching motion. Carefully turn right-side up and separate and arrange the curls. You can use pins to give it a bit of lift and to help the curls to dry. Apparently the key to managing curly hair and the frizzies is moisture which seems counter-intuitive but this woman is a guru and whatever I’ve been doing isn’t working so I might as well give this a go. She said it will take about three months for my hair to repair and rebalance if I follow her instructions. Fingers crossed that I may have found hair nirvana in my 40s. The most exciting thing of all is that she is opening a salon in San Francisco this fall which is a lot closer than Japan!

Epic storms of warm water.

Lightning collageAn homage to my Thunder Bay roots. I’m not from there but both my parents are and much of my extended family lives there. They would LOVE the thunderstorms here. This is the second one we’ve had in the last few days and they are loud. Loud enough to make the house shake and the windows rattle. The lightning is blinding…check out the blurry photos. The ones that look light daylight are lightning flashes. Epic. Luckily the very kind man from the restaurant (MILAN, Italian place down the road…lucky we didn’t go far) lent us an umbrella…not that it really helped. My flip-flop fell off as we were crossing the road and it nearly floated away. The puddles are warm like bath water.

Department stores like you’ve never seen…

View from the Gallery level at Hikarie Department store in Shibuya

View from the Gallery level at Hikarie Department store in Shibuya

The department stores here are epic. There’s not really any other way to describe them. They’re huge…4-10 floors including a basement and possibly a sub-basement or two. They usually have food like groceries as well as take-out boutique-style food. I mean serious food here…all kinds of Japanese food, Korean barbecue, French patisseries, Italian delis, butchers, bakers, fromageries, chocolatiers…it’s quite something. Anyway, the food does not stop here. There are usually cafes and restaurants interspersed amongst the floors in case of starvation…think high-end food court. There are often art galleries and museums on the top floor as well as public spaces and sometimes even theatres and movie theatres. Up until today I’d only been shopping but today I did my first gallery tour at Hikarie Shibuya. I saw an exhibit on Japanese puppets (amazing), an installation on travel with various ‘objets’ and a modern art exhibit. Hikarie has two floors of restaurants and cafes. And it was packed.

I guess having such a huge population supports stores like this…think Holt Renfrew (10x bigger) with about 20 stores in the downtown area. For the most part, most department stores¬†sell fairly high-end goods and many are boutique style, housing top designers within each store. They usually have a gift section and a kimono department in addition to the usual fashion, household goods, and beauty ¬†departments. The customer service is amazing…if you go right at opening time (usually 10 or 11am), all the staff stand at the door and bow as you enter. They also bow whenever they leave the floor by turning to face outwards, bowing (even when there is no one there) and then going through the door. You rarely have to wait…if they see a lineup forming clerks will rush to a till to serve you…so that you, the honourable customer (o-kyaki sama), does not have to wait. It’s quite radically different from shopping at the Bay.

Here are some of the big ones; Marui;¬†Parco Shibuya¬†and Shibuya Hikarie¬†Isetan, Keio¬†and Odakyu¬†in Shinjuku;¬†Mitsukoshi, Matsuya, Matsuzakaya,¬†Printemps and Takashimaya¬†in Ginza; Seibu¬†and their partner stores Loft¬†(my favourite in terms of affordability and selection for household, beauty and paper) and Muji;¬†¬†Shibuya 109 (horrendously loud on the weekends); Tokyu; Tokyu Hands¬†(which is like Michaels on steroids); Tobu in Ikebukuro; and Daimaru. That’s not to mention the stores that specialize in health and beauty aids; the 100 yen stores like Daiso¬†(which we have in Richmond); and all the designer boutiques that are at least 2-4 floors. There’s a lot of stuff to buy here. It’s hard to resist…already checking out the price of suitcases to haul my prizes home ūüėČ

Old Men on Sunday morning

Horse racing menI was heading to my long-awaited pedicure this morning in Harajuku walking along Meiji-dori to Shibuya station when I noticed something odd: scores of older men walking purposefully away from the station. When I say purposefully, I mean with intent. Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. Some obviously retired blue-collar workers. Others perhaps ‘salarymen’ and a few old drunks clutching their jars of sake or plastic bottles of Jim Beam. All with newspapers and most with the ubiquitous Japanese man-purse or zippered pouch. I followed them. It was just after 9am and I figured I had a bit of time (only had to go one stop on the Yamanote Line) to get to Harajuku by 10am. They were streaming towards a place called WINS. I figured it was some sort of casino or pachinko parlour (weird Japanese pinball game that I still haven’t figured out) but there was no music or flashing lights which are always found with pachinko. Anyway, I didn’t have time to actually go inside, not that I would have as there was nary a female in sight.
Fast forward to my lovely pedicure with Minami at Boudoir Tokyo’s first bi-lingual salon. We’re chatting away and it turns out she lives in my neighbourhood so I asked her about the old men heading to WINS. She was puzzled at first but then understanding dawned. “Horses,” she said. “They play, you know, for money. Racing.” Ah yes, it all became clear. The newspapers were the racing sheets and the old dudes were off to place their bets and hang with their buddies. They’re likely sent out of the house by their wives who often find their husband’s retirement a difficult adjustment since a typical employee works six days a week and sleeps on Sunday, leaving the household and family management completely up to the wife. (Yup. The apron-wearers control the money.) However, the wives often become naturally resentful when the absentee husband is suddenly home ALL the time taking up space, demanding food and generally cramping her style after never being around.
By the way, I don’t think there are actual horses IN that building in the middle of Tokyo, but I’m going to check it out next Sunday ūüėČ
Gomi-bakko = old retired men that clutter up the house and get in the way; literally “old garbage.”

 

Shaking Earth…

earthquakeSo Karis and I were woken up today by the earthquake. The second one we have had. Last Saturday morning was just mild swaying…sort of like being on a boat. Karis didn’t even wake up. This morning’s event woke us both up from a sound sleep and lasted a little longer. There was a siren and an announcement over some sort of loudspeaker in the neighbourhood, which, of course, we couldn’t understand ūüėČ Then it ended and we went back to sleep.

I remember my first earthquake in Japan…23 years ago. Things actually fell off shelves. My roommate and I ran out into the middle of the street. No one was there. No siren. There was another one while we were out there in the middle of the road, in the middle of the night. No one even turned their lights on! Our apartment was old and it sort of swayed and rocked with the movement of the earth. We did get used to them…they happened almost weekly.

Apparently the apartment we live in now pretty safe though the girls tell me the apartment in Asakusa is better and you can’t even feel them there. I read a blog on what to do when an earthquake happens written by a foreigner living in Japan (http://www.thejapanguy.com/earthquake-safety-10-things-to-do-during-an-earthquake/). Apparently we’re supposed to stay indoors and know where there are flashlights (nope) and have a¬†first aid kit (yep) and follow the instructions from a battery-operated radio (maybe?). Oh yeah…and don’t panic ūüėČ

Coffee Nirvana has been located.

Coffee NirvanaI have found it…only 9 or so days and I’ve found coffee without sugar from the convenience store. Lawson Station is like 7-11. I think they might actually be owned by the same people also with Family Mart. Anyway, I digress. I took Karis to her job this morning and the location to meet was near Family Mart. We were actually early so we went to get some drinks–the child has a serious addiction to jasmine green tea. I suppose there are worse things. Whilst browsing Family Mart, we noticed a line up of people with little cups of ice getting iced coffee from the machine. We were intrigued…iced coffee? Iced tea? Iced LATTES! Alas the little cups of ice were not immediately apparent so I had a look around and found a cup in the freezer with a lid and a straw and went to ‘ask’ the man. I used the word ‘ask’ loosely as I merely point at the iced coffee machine and hold up my cup and he says emphatically, ‘ja NAI” and makes crossing motions with his hands which I took to mean, “no, wrong cup” and also magically interpreted to mean you must buy your cup from the cashier first which I did (ippon no iced caff√® latte onegai shimasu). Not sure exactly what I said, but it worked and for the magical sum of Y180 I got an iced latte WITH NO SUGAR. I’m so beyond happy, you have no idea. I’m now ready to face the 30+ degree heat AND the typhoon!

I think I work for the child (the teenager)…

So it was a busy day today. Exercise. Recycling. Grocery store. Creating a professional Facebook page for Karis…her agency just got a new website (http://www.lizbellagency.com if you’d like to check it out) and they now have the ability to add FB, Twitter and Instagram for the models; however, it can’t be a personal page–gotta keep it professional. So Karis has little downtime to update said FB page so that’s what I did today: source and edit photos, research the names and websites of the stylists, photographers, publications and makeup and hair people. Tomorrow she’s working and it’s her first day on the subway…I’m going with her to show her the ropes. It’s a little overwhelming at first, though her booker gave her very clear instructions with important info like how LONG it takes, which lines to take, where to change trains, how much it costs. She should be able to get the hang of it after a few trips ūüôā

Model day

On the subway

on the subwayTook the subway today…just to see if I could do it. It’s not that hard if you’ve got all the time in the world. Also if you stand around looking perplexed someone will come and help you. Every time I stopped and looked at a map today someone asked me if I needed help within about a minute. Anyway, the subway ticket machines have an English button, but not all have the handy-dandy fare calculator. So I overpaid to get to Shinjuku…should have only been 170Y. Live and learn. I also figured out that I don’t have to transfer…I can get off at Shinjuku sanchome instead of transferring as that gets me to the ‘fun’ side where the cool shopping and the English bookstore (Kinokuniya) are located. The subway does have announcements and signs in English though there are still many things I don’t understand. Like the stainless steel box with the flashing red light. And why some trains don’t stop at all the stations and how do you know which ones? There’s WAY more English than there used to be though…but I still have a chance to practice reading hiragana (more on that later).