things I don’t understand

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….

Drugstore adventures, round 4.

Drugstore loot...cream and lotion, sunscreen, laundry freshener, oil blotting paper, and tomato fat-burning gel

Drugstore loot…cream and lotion, sunscreen, laundry freshener, oil blotting paper, and tomato fat-burning gel

We stumbled upon Don Quixote, or ‘donki’ as it’s called here. It’s not technically a drugstore, it’s a massive discount store that sells everything from cosmetics to electronics to garden supplies to sex toys and maid costumes. Of course we went for the cosmetics and beauty products. Karis and I share a deep fascination for Japanese cosmetic stores and the goodies within. This is quite remarkable as Karis has no stamina as a shopper. My mum and I have failed dreadfully in training her up. I remember one incident in particular in Seattle on a ladies shopping trip where we mistakenly thought it would be fun to bring the girls. Not. They have no stamina. Literally. Ninety minutes in Nordstrom’s¬†Rack and they were rolling around on the floor in-between the racks begging to go home. They were¬†twelve¬†and we were buying stuff for them. This is still the case even though she is a teenager working in the fashion industry…except for the cosmetic and beauty product stores. (And she doesn’t roll around on the floor now.)

These stores are filled with amazing things. It’s mysterious, like a treasure hunt, mostly because we rarely know what products do unless there is a helpful tag line in English which is rare (and often misleading). I’ve heard stories of foot peels gone awry leaving the bottom of your feet raw; moisturizer that is actually face bleach and mascara that is so waterproof that it needs the cosmetic equivalent of paint thinner to remove it. However, that does not scare us as the potential rewards are fabulous. They have amazing face masks, pre-soaked with solution (aloe, mushrooms, lavender, bee pollen, snake venom); rose-flavoured toothpaste; body gel that has some tomato product in it that burns fat; and probably the best sunscreen on the market by Anessa which is Shiseido’s drugstore brand. They’re also not afraid of using facial and hair oils–cosmetic giant Shu Umera makes a legendary facial cleansing oil that has been on the market in Japan since 1967.

The Japanese spend more on cosmetics than any country in the world which has resulted in a lot of money spent on research and development, particularly for sun protection. They have a number of organic and natural cosmetic lines as well and the drugstore brands are far superior to ours…just wish we could read the labels!

Job opportunity for crazy cat ladies in Tokyo.

cats four cats threeWe went to a cat cafe…probably one of the weirdest things I’ve ever done and wasn’t at all what I expected, though I should have thought a little harder about this one in that most cats don’t really like people that much (Cats look down on you, dogs look up to you and pigs treat you as equals). Nevertheless, it was a cultural experience, albeit a strange one, and worth every penny of the twenty-odd dollars it cost.

First we had to find the cat cafe¬†in a random office building in Shibuya. We headed up the stairs and to stand in the sweltering heat with an American woman and her two kids who warns us that she’s been told to wait outside until they’re ready and that the woman in charge is VERY serious. Karis and I patiently wait and thank our lucky stars that we arrived when we did as two groups come up behind us and we realize we could have been waiting a whole lot longer in the shaded but sauna-like stairwell. When it’s finally our turn, we head inside and remove our shoes…I mean this place has the feeling you get in a serious-ass temple. It’s a CAT CAFE. We are wordlessly handed two laminated sheets of instructions in English–which I would have photographed if I could have gotten away with it but I was actually scared of the cat woman and there was a HUGE sign saying no photos in the entryway. Anyway, you are pretty much forbidden to do much of anything with the cats; if you get scratched they have first aid but they can still kick you out; ¬†if you cause any sort of disturbance they have the right to call the police as well as remove you from the premises. They also have the right to refuse you entry if you smell like another cat or of anything that may upset or agitate the cats. I’m not kidding. They take the cat thing VERY seriously, the American woman was indeed correct. You pay by the half-hour and your fee includes an obligatory drink, a small cookie and a chocolate.

When the cat lady was satisfied that we were sufficiently well-versed in the cat cafe rules we were ushered into the inner sanctum. We had to put on special cat cafe slippers and wash our hands with soap and water and then use special hand sanitizer. She watched us to make sure we didn’t cheat. We put our belongings in a special bag (no personal items allowed except a camera but no flash). We were given a¬†time-stamped receipt noting precisely when our time was up tucked inside a lanyard…that we did not actually wear–I was waiting to see if we’d be forced to put it on (nope).¬†We sat at our couch as directed and the assistant cat lady (who I believe was her daughter) served us our very sweet iced chai with lids. We took the lids off and inadvertently used one of them as a coaster and were reprimanded severely while the head cat lady firmly replaced the lid on top of the cup. I guess it keeps the cats out of the drinks which does make sense, though it was one of the only things that did in the entire experience.

So the cats basically hate people. They are asleep like they’re drugged but of course, I realized while we were there that cats do actually sleep quite a lot and really don’t like being fussed over. There were also several cats with white and pink collars on who were not to be touched as they had ‘sore necks’. So between the cats with the collars and the cats that hated people and the cats that were asleep in ‘tall things’ that were not allowed to be disturbed there wasn’t a whole hell of a lot to do. It was actually hilarious though…it’s the perfect job for a crazy cat lady. I cannot believe that people pay to do this. The place has a lovely view of the leafy streets of Shibuya but the oppressive presence of the crazy cat mother and daughter duo and the cat-themed clutter makes for a very long 30 minutes. We were hustled out 3 minutes early but Karis was ready to go. They had little cat-shaped comment stickies you could fill out and stick on the cat appreciation wall in the lobby…my daughter the shit-disturber wrote ‘The cats hate everyone’ on hers. Pretty much true…but one of the funniest and weirdest things I’ve ever done. Also, hands down, the grumpiest Japanese people I’ve ever met. Ever.

cats two cats one

Now for the funny part. In the same building is a pet store with puppies and kittens. So we go in and check them out because they’re cute and they’re actually awake. Karis asks the guy if she can hold one and, sure enough, wash your hands and it’s a done deal. So we played with puppies and kittens who were awake and liked us and it was free. Now she wants me to import the puppy back to Canada…

Don't touch the freaking cats

Don’t touch the freaking cats

Touch the puppies. Pick them up. It's free...

Touch the puppies. Pick them up. It’s free…

Better. Stronger. More heat-resistant.

SweatingThe people here in Tokyo are better than me. In many ways, but one in particular: they are not wussies about the heat. If you’ll notice in the photo, which is taken inside Shibuya station, there is a woman wearing stockings and a cardigan. I took this photo on Friday. It was 34 degrees (‘feels like 42’) outside, and it’s much hotter in the bowels of the station though the actual trains are air-conditioned.

The people here are stoic. It’s almost as if they dissociate themselves from the heat, then they won’t be hot. According to a friend who lives here, dissociation and distancing oneself is a necessary survival mechanism in a city this big. I see his point…it’s pretty orderly and polite all in all, otherwise anarchy would quickly take over. Anyway, I digress. The heat is insane. Everyone carries handkerchiefs here and in the summer, it’s basically the equivalent of a small washcloth to literally mop the sweat from your fevered brow. They are quite fashionable, embellished with all manner of brand names ranging from Betsey Johnson to Kitson to Laudree (which is a French baker specializing in macarons). They also have special tissue paper that soaks the oil off your skin. However, many people don’t appear to actually be sweating at all. These are often women, dressed in full kimono or in stockings, a dress and a cardigan. Stockings, as in nylons or pantyhose…with high heels. It actually boggles the mind. To add insult to injury, most of the mid-range and cheap clothing here is polyester (an abomination from biblical times) so it doesn’t even breathe. No cheap linen and cotton from Old Navy. They do have The Gap, Zara and H&M but it’s not as affordable as you would expect, though the Japanese equivalent, Uniqulo, has some good deals.

It’s also a more formal society here so you wouldn’t be seeing casual cotton shorts and T-shirts in the city anyway. Often when women and young girls wear shorts, they wear them with stockings; sheer or skimpy tank tops are usually worn with a camisole and they have special arm gloves to protect your you from the sun should you be wearing a short-sleeved shirt. Men wear full on suits (also polyester) with long-sleeved shirts and ties and many employees and blue-collar workers wear uniforms…also polyester. It’s a bit more casual on the weekend but still, on the whole, people wear a lot more clothing despite the heat. I’m not sure how they do it… Karis and I seem to get the beginnings of heat stroke whenever we’re out for more than an hour. Maybe it’s a Zen thing? Probably not something I’ll be mastering any time soon.

A little slice of Milan…three minutes away

Yummy pizza watched by the fish with eyeballs on the top left :-(

Yummy pizza watched by the fish with eyeballs on the top left ūüė¶

Sooo…wasn’t feeling much like raw fish last night so we went looking for something different. Not Japanese. There’s a lot of Japanese food that is deep-fried and/or served on top of noodles with oddly, an egg on top. The eggs aren’t always totally cooked, in my experience anyway. This is a big yuk factor for me. I saw a little place just around the corner that looked good…homemade food, not deep-fried and no raw eggs. It was closed. Deep sadness.

Karis saw a place across the street and it was open so we headed over as there was a massive thunderstorm about to erupt. Which is how we ended up at Milano. Glass of prosecco for 300Y (about $3.25) plus full-on Italian style pizza baked in a brick oven for 500Y. We assumed the pizza would be¬†about the size of a side plate for that price. Nope. They were the size of what we would consider a small pizza i.e. bigger than a side plate! The only miss of the night was the bruschetta. Nicely toasted bread, garlic, fresh tomatoes, fresh basil and inexplicably, small white fish with eyeballs. We both tried them…they didn’t really taste like much but the eyeballs got to us. Pizza = HUGE win. Fish with eyeballs = Won’t be doing that again!

I even managed to get my leftover pizza ‘to go’ (o mochi kaeru)!

The Bus Drivers’ Home

So while I was walking along the street, hanging out with an old friend who lives in Tokyo with his wife and daughter, I learned some intriguing facts about Japan…lots of stuff I didn’t know. It will probably inspire many future posts…full credits to my Canadian friend who prefers to remain incognito. (Before I forget, he was the one that provided the info about the incinerator down the street and the fact that it only burns garbage at night.)

Anyway, we’re walking along the tracks in Shibuya and I see this massive parking lot filled with busses and, curiously, an apartment building right in the midst of all the busses. I made some comment about practical land usage above bus parking lots and he informs me that this is actually a dormitory for bus drivers. I remarked that it was nice of the company to provide housing for its employees if needed, particularly in Tokyo where apartments are so costly. He gave a wry smile and informed me that it was mandatory for employees to live in the communal housing for a number of years.¬†This practice is not unusual and is meant to encourage corporate unity, corporate loyalty, foster relationships amongst co-workers as well as cutting the dependence on mum. I guess it’s like boarding school for adults…

#nocommute #livingwithmycoworkers #imissmymummy

#nocommute #livingwithmycoworkers #imissmymummy #ihaveanadultroommate #companyman

The Art of Re-gifting…

From the gift catalogue at Life Supermarket where I have my bonus card ;-)

From the gift catalogue at Life Supermarket where I have my bonus card ūüėČ

Japan is the land of gifts.¬†The intricacies of gift-giving are¬†challenging¬†for non-Japanese to understand. I hear it’s particularly difficult for business people as a badly wrapped or improperly presented/received gift can derail a relationship. The etiquette is familiar and well-known to¬†Japanese people:

  • OMIYAGE are souvenirs from¬†holidays for friends, family and co-workers
  • TEMIYAGE are thank-you gifts
    • when¬†going to someone’s house for dinner (rare) or, more commonly, to a restaurant as a guest
    • at the beginning of a business relationship
    • to a boss, mentor or co-worker
  • Seasonal OSEIBO are gifts given¬†in December to co-workers, friends and relatives
  • Seasonal OCHUGEN¬†are gifts given¬†in June also for co-workers, friends and relatives

Japanese women give chocolate to men on Valentines Day and receive double or triple their efforts back a month later on White Day.¬†Gifts are not traditionally given on birthdays or Christmas but the infiltration of the Western world has prompted¬†some Japanese people to participate. At weddings, births and funerals people give money in beautiful envelopes wrapped with intricate cord; also children get money on New Years day. Money is also the most common gift for a teacher…something that would not be appropriate for us! (Can you say ‘bribe’.)¬†Money received at¬†weddings, births and funerals is acknowledged/reciprocated by a gift sent by post a month or two afterwards.

Presentation is everything and the wrapping is often more important than the gift itself. I’m pretty sure I was Japanese in my last life as I love wrapping presents. (I could also have been a caterer as I also excel at arranging food on plates.) I digress. If¬†you’re ever presented with a gift from a Japanese person, be sure to accept it with both hands and express gratitude. Don’t open it in their presence as it’s considered rude, this also makes it easier to re-gift if you don’t ruin the packaging ūüėČ You now have an obligation towards that person …hence the beauty re-gifting. Which is great for non-perishables but doesn’t work so well for melons, meat or flowers.

I just love the fact that you can get beautifully wrapped and nicely boxed canned goods, laundry soap, tomatoes, cans of beer, soba noodles…pretty much anything you can think of. This is so far¬†beyond the typical North American gift of a nice box of chocolates, cookies or fancy tea that you really have to see it to believe it. Many department stores and supermarkets have entire departments dedicated to the choosing, ordering and delivery of gifts. Note that foreigners are not expected to understand or comply by the gift etiquette but if you plan on living here it might be an idea to learn…and bring a few bottles of maple syrup or maple butter (VERY popular) if you’re on your way over.

 

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

Car Culture

Alfa Romeo traffic UPD DeliveryIMG_0230

They have cars here that we don’t get in North America. Some are very cool Japanese concept cars that are hybrids or electrics; some that are extremely tiny and compact from international car makers; and some that are fancy versions of Toyotas that they don’t export. Apparently the Japanese car market is highly competitive and very specialized with high tariffs. Basically Japanese people¬†like Japanese cars though there are growing numbers of number of luxury cars in wealthier areas. Apparently it is prestigious to own the usual suspects here as well:¬†Mercedes, BMW, Jaguar, Alfa Romeo and Range Rover, though the patriotic stick to the luxury versions of Japanese brands that are not usually exported.

Driving here is a nightmare. It’s on the other side of the road, like the UK. I am almost run down at least once a day. The traffic is horrendous–I actually saw a woman READING whilst driving the other day. To be fair, she wasn’t moving very quickly. People also text while driving here too and I don’t think it is illegal. If it is, everyone does it and no one seems to care.

Lots of people ride bikes…especially mums with kids and older people. I haven’t been hit by a cyclist yet and I’m learning to look out for them. They don’t ring their bells that often…they probably think it’s rude. I have to say…it’s all pretty efficient, the transportation thing, considering the population of Canada lives in Tokyo. If we were staying longer, I’d get a bike. I certainly wouldn’t drive here. Ever. Even if I lived here.

Car = kuruma