Archive for August, 2013
This week I got my stuff done with Manitoba Health (new card, letter), got a very expensive doctor’s note saying that I am healthy, and got an appointment for my visa interview. I will be heading to Edmonton next weekend to make my appointment Monday September 8th. Unfortunately the only way to apply for a working holiday visa is to go there in person, and Edmonton has the closest Japanese consulate to Winnipeg. The only thing left to get for my visa is the traveller’s checks.
2013 note 1 – The story of the doctor’s note was interesting. The Japanese consulate wanted a doctor’s note stating that I was healthy. Health care in Canada is free, but getting a doctor’s note for anything other than health reasons costs $85. I went to the walk in clinic and waited an hour to see a very busy doctor. I told him why I needed the note. He asked a few introductory questions, and checked my blood pressure and reflexes. He then asked a few questions about my health history, said I seemed pretty healthy, and told me he would write whatever note I needed.
At first I was a little upset that I was paying $85 and didn’t receive an actual examination at all. Then I realized that this saved both of us time and I didn’t have to have any fingers inserted into places and walked out the door happy. Looking back on this now I realize that he really should have checked me out – I could have been lying the entire time!
I didn’t write about this in my blog at the time, just in case someone from the Japanese consulate was going to find me online. I don’t think they would appreciate how casually the doctor’s note was obtained.
2013 note 2 – The consulate moved from Edmonton to Calgary a few years after I moved to Japan.
It is one month before I arrive in Japan. Today I am catching up on apartment stuff (cleaning, dishes, laundry) and will be doing some preparation stuff as well. Most of the preparations right now involve getting my work visa. To see what hoops I need to jump through, check out the Japanese Consulate website here. The main things I need are:
– Letter from a doctor saying I am healthy
– $2500 in Canadian traveler’s checks
– Plane ticket with open return (got it)
– Passport (got it too)
– Travel insurance
I need to apply for the visa in person at the Japanese consulate in Edmonton. The plan is that on Tuesday or Wednesday I am getting a full physical examination for the doctor letter, and next weekend I am driving to Edmonton if I can get an appointment for Tuesday, September 2. I also need to plan my fundraising social ASAP so I might actually have a chance of having one. Today I am planning on getting a folder together with a check list so I can keep all my paperwork in one spot, and not forget anything when I go to Edmonton.
Flight leaves Winnipeg September 23rd, 9:05 am to Vancouver. After a short stopover in Vancouver, I fly from Vancouver to Tokyo arriving September 24 at 3:00pm. Total flying time will be 14 hours. Thanks to Toronto’s Dream Time Travel for making my flight cheapity cheap.
Dream Time did not actually make my flight cheapity cheap. I have had cheaper flights since then. If you just need a flight, forget the travel agent and search on Kayak.com.
After two weeks of a fantastic vacation, it was (unfortunately) time to return to Canada. The Wife and I had spent the previous day packing and finishing our souvenir shopping. On the morning of the 21st, everything was ready to go.
The Wife and I each had one large suitcase, one backpack, and shared a box with extra stuff that would have put the suitcases over their weight limit. The challenge was getting all of these objects and 4 people to the airport in a Toyota Vitz hatchback. The Vitz is the Japanese version of the Echo, and is not exactly a cargo vehicle. Despite our epic Tetris skills, there was no way that everything and everyone was going to fit in the car at the same time. We ended up sending the ladies by train from Ooka to Numazu, and the men loaded the car and drove to the station.
For the trip from Numazu to Narita Airport we opted for the airport bus instead of the train. I prefer trains myself, but the bus is much more convenient when transporting large bags. As the poor driver tried to load our heavy bags into the bus, we said our good-byes to The In-Laws and Happyko, who had come to see us off. The In-Laws, being Japanese seniors, are not usually very huggy people. I am Canadian, so I gave the Mother in Law a nice big hug before getting on the bus. I do know my limits, and was pleased with a nice handshake from The Father in Law, which is about as touchy feely as he ever gets. We boarded the bus and waved out the window as everyone tried to pretend not to be sad.
The airport bus does present some different scenery than the train. We took the Tomei Expressway to the Greater Tokyo Area, then went right though the center of the city, passing through Shinjuku, Shibuya, Roppongi, close to the Imperial Palace, near Skytree then eastwards through Chiba. I did get some good pics from the train that I posted on my Tumblr here.
At the airport easily found the Air Canada check-in. It was the most crowded and disorganized check-in area in the entire airport. We were able to identify at least 4 separate lines with no dividers between them: one line for one line for the self serve check-in machines, one line for the baggage drop, one line for “check-in assistance” and one VIP check-in line. We had checked-in online the day before, but didn’t have a printer to print boarding passes, so none of the lines applied to our situation. Every employee we asked directed us to a different line. Finally we just got into the bag drop line and hoped they could figure it out. In the entire crowd, nobody really knew where they were supposed to be. This led to a lot of multilingual “which line is this” conversations. Just when we got to the “front”, we saw a sign informing us that our luggage cart was not allowed. Faced with the thought of one of us managing all the bags while the other returned the cart to the correct place, we decided to just abandon it next to the throng of people.
Around this time, Air Canada realized that there were about 4 VIP check in staff with nothing to do, and about 150 people lined up for the regular people check-in area. We were taken over to the VIP area and everything was finally figured out. We do appreciate the gesture, but it should have been done about 15 minutes earlier. It should be impossible for any company to be that disorganized in Japan.
When we boarded the plane we found ourselves surrounded by what we assume were Junior High school students or possibly High School students from Japan on their way to Canada. Apparently the only Japanese speaking flight attendant was working business class, leaving the English speaking attendants to try to convince the students to turn off their electronic devices and take out their headphones using only English and hand gestures. Trying to get a teenager to turn off their electronic devices is a challenge even without a language barrier.
As we started our long taxi to the runway, The Wife and I quickly realized that most of the students had never flown before. One of the students was even asking if we were flying yet after 15 minutes of waiting in line on the ground. We prepared ourselves for what would be a hilarious takeoff. The students did not disappoint, sounding more like they were on a roller coaster than an airplane as we gathered speed and left the ground. As an experienced flier, I can understand that people are nervous on their first flight. But the mass of students seemed to feed off each other’s nervousness.
During the flight, I watched Wreck It Ralph (for the second time), The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, and Sunset Boulevard. Like the flight to Japan, we were served something that slightly resembled food, if it had been prepared by an alien race whose only knowledge of Earth food came from the pictures in old magazine ads.
The flight was very smooth until the start of our descent into Calgary. We hit our first pocket of turbulence, which started a wave of minor screams from the students. Every bounce and every dip was accompanied by a “WAAAAAH!” from the entire back of the plane. I finally gave up all pretense of not laughing at their expense when I put my hands in the air and said “whee!” during some of the bigger bumps. When you have been sitting in a tube for 10 hours you need to make your own fun.
Other than a plane full of novice fliers, the best part about returning to Canada from Japan is the time travel. We left Narita airport at 5:00pm on July 21, and landed in Winnipeg at 4:55pm on July 21. Yes, we actually arrived 5 minutes before we left, no Delorean required. The concept is fun, but the experience really does mess up your internal clock for several days afterwards. I politely request that Hollywood build the concept of jet lag into future time travel films.
Our 2 week trip to Japan was fantastic. We got to spend a lot of time with family and friends, and had a few adventures along the way. I hope you enjoyed reading about it. It was good to get away, but it’s always great to be back in your own bed again, especially when that means you get to sleep next to your awesome wife for the second time in 2 weeks. There really is no place like home.
On July 19 I had plans to hang out with my old roommate Klaxman. For those who haven’t read the cast of characters, Klaxman used to be a video game programmer for years, but retired and moved to Japan to teach English. Usually when I return to Japan we end up at a game center (Japanese name for arcade) playing games. This day was no different.
Before we headed off for some gaming, we went for lunch at the Cocochee Hotel on the north side of Numazu station. The hotel was a relatively new addition to the area, and featured two different restaurants. Thanks to Happyko’s recommendation, we went to the Japanese restaurant. The daily lunch specials included a few different options featuring Wagyu beef, which is beef from Japanese cows raised specifically for their fat content. I ordered the Kuroge Wagyu steak (pictured) and Klaxman ordered the Asuka Steak.
Some of the appetizers arrived for one of our orders. We couldn’t completely understand the waiter, so I happily claimed them for myself and started eating. A few minutes later the main courses arrived. Seeing the appetizer dishes in front of me, the waiter served me Klaxman’s food and gave him mine. Apparently the appetizers had belonged to Klaxman. A waitress came over to our table as we switched dishes and started apologizing. I apologized to her for misunderstanding the waiter. She apologized for the service. I apologized for my lack of Japanese ability. After about 3 solid minutes of apologies from all involved, we got to eat.
I have eaten beef in Canada, the US, Jamaica, Japan and Korea but the Wagyu beef on served on rice in my lunch was quite possibly the best beef I have ever eaten in my life. The steak was perfectly seasoned, cooked to about a medium and sliced into strips. It was so tender I likely could have cut it with a fork (if there were any forks in the restaurant). About half way through I had to remind myself that there was rice as well, and that I should pace myself on the steak. I would like to think that I have a fairly large vocabulary, but I don’t think I have the words necessary to describe how amazing the food was.
After lunch, we hung out at the restaurant for a bit and Klaxman showed off his new Intellivision game Match 5. Yes, you read that correctly. When not teaching English or studying Japanese, Klaxman spends his free time programming games for defunct gaming systems in machine code. The game is one of those simple to learn, difficult to master puzzle games that really make gaming fun. If Match 5 is ever released for mobile phones it will sell a billion copies. I also got to see a preview of an upcoming game project featuring different variations on Pong. My favourite was a kind of Space Pong where you have to maneuver the game board away from asteroids while playing Pong.
Seeing the new classic games got us excited for the nearby game center. Like most Japanese game centers you had to enter through an impressive gauntlet of UFO catchers featuring everything from candy to plush toys to goldfish. Past the UFO catchers were the collectible card video games, medal games, regular arcade games, rhythm games and print club machines. We took some time to try out a bit of everything, except the print club machines. Two adult males going into a girly photo booth to make duckface pictures and draw on them afterwards in a game center full of high school kids would probably attract the police.
The highlight of the day was trying out Dark Escape 4D, a zombie shooting game. 3 of the D’s came from the screen courtesy of 3D glasses, and the 4th D was the moving seat and sudden bursts of air designed to scare the player. The guns feature heart rate sensors and will register any spikes in heart rate or removing your hands from the handles as a “panic attack”. The game cabinet featured very loud surround speakers for an immersive game experience. Dark Escape 4D was a lot of fun, although it did get a little predictable after a few minutes. Talk talk talk SURPRISE ZOMBIES!!! Don’t worry guys the coast is clear and ZOMBIES!!!! Hey, let’s climb into the air vent and OMG ZOMBIES IN FRONT OF YOU!!! Despite being predictable, it was a lot of fun, even for cynical jerks like me.
My day finished off with a trip to Don Kihote to pick up souvenirs. My gym buddy, Karate Junk is a big fan of rum. I was determined to find a bottle of Japanese rum to bring back home. Japan is known for sake and whiskey, but rum is no terribly popular nor easily available. After much searching and katakana reading practice, I was able to locate the one bottle of Japanese rum in the store’s expansive liquor section. Spoiler alert: it was pretty good.
If I could spend every day eating Wagyu beef and shooting 4D zombies, I would die a happy man.
The Wife and I woke up refreshed in our tiny, tiny hotel room in Tokyo. We then went through the difficult dance of moving around the hotel room without bumping into each other. The room was so small that one of us had to get on the bed to let the other walk past. The good news was that this hotel had an 11:00am check out time, unlike the unreasonable 10:00am that I had experienced while extremely hung over a few days ago in Koriyama.
Our hotel featured a breakfast buffet that had both Japanese and “Western” options. We got to choose from noodles, fish, rice (of course), bread, eggs, toast, hash browns and other goodies. Travel tip: always stay at a hotel with a breakfast option. Nothing beats checking out full of breakfast and ready to go.
From the hotel we went back to Akihabara. Both of us being
slightly geeky, we always had fun exploring Akihabara. The main streets contain non stop video game, comic, model and anime stores (and porn). You can also find game centers, karaoke, duty free shops with export model gadgets, porn, books, CDs, restaurants, costume shops, and porn. The side streets get closer to Akihabara’s history: electronic component stores. If you need a fan for an old computer or an obscure cable to connect two devices, you are guaranteed to be able to find it somewhere.
Another popular attraction in Akihabara is maid cafes. A maid cafe is a uniquely Japanese invention born in Akihabara. Waitresses dressed in anime maid costumes serve you food and drinks and treat you like the “master” of a mansion. Naturally the food and drinks are slightly more expensive than other places. During our walk through Akihabara we found “maids” handing out brochures promoting their cafes at most major intersections. The Wife had been to a maid cafe before while chaperoning Canadian high school students on a trip to Osaka. I had never been before, and was not really interested. To me the whole idea sounds like a hostess bar, but cuter. Having someone serve me drinks and treat me too nice because it’s their job is still a bit strange for me. I do not, however, have any objections to The Wife buying an anime maid costume.
Most of the stores in Akihabara are tall and narrow, with different products on each floor. There are usually very narrow stairs or a tiny escalator to travel between floors. We spent a lot of time in one particular used game and movie store, just wandering around. One floor was full of classic video games and systems. I nearly bought a used Super Famicom and games, but then considered carrying it around in my backpack for the rest of the day. The next time I live in Japan I will have to get one. The TV floor had DVDs of all kinds of old anime and live action TV shows. I watched in amazement as a small TV showed the opening theme from Himitsu Sentai Go Ranger. Stop what you are doing and click on the link. DO IT NOW!
The computer game floor had a small selection of English language games, which are very hard to find in Japan. As someone who lived in Japan for 3 years who likes computer games, I loved hunting through the game stores until I found the few that sold English games. It was like an epic geeky treasure hunt. The rest of the floor was full of porn games. Some brilliant sales person had set up a display full of Tenga masturbation toys in the middle of the porn game section. I have seen a lot of game stores in Akihabara with a lot of dirty games, and I have seen stores that sell solo sex toys for guys, but have never seen a store that made the obvious connection between the two products and offered them for sale in the same place before. Genius!
The movie floor is where we found the dark side of Akihabara. In addition to the regular movies and porn movies, we found a section of bathing suit model DVDs. These movies feature no nudity, just female models wearing bathing suits and frolicking around. Normally this would not be terribly creepy, until we noticed that the girls on the package looked a little too young. I was able to read the Japanese on one of the covers and found that it proudly proclaimed that the model was 14 years old. I pointed this out to The Wife, who showed me that the next DVD featured a 12 year old model. We quickly walked away from that part of the store, disgusted and feeling wrong. Keep in mind – we were in a major, reputable store on one of the main streets. Worse things exist out there should a person want to look for them.
I didn’t write this blog post to promote debate on any moral or legal issues that exist with this material. No matter where you are from, Japan probably has different laws than your country. Nothing you can buy in a major store in Akiba is illegal in Japan. Whether or not you find it ammoral is entirely up to you. Personally, I would like to see stricter laws in Japan, but as a person with exactly zero political power in Japan, I can’t do very much about it other than blogging.
We left the game store and moved on to much more pleasant things – lunch. We ate at Becker’s Burgers, which is notable for serving what is possibly Japan’s only attempt at poutine. Proper poutine has thick fries covered in gravy with cheese curds. Becker’s poutine has shoestring fries with a gravy like sauce and shredded cheese. It doesn’t compare to the real thing, but does fill the void as a comfort food for a homesick Canadian. Across from Becker’s was a t-shirt store. The front window featured a shirt that said (in Japanese): “Seriously, I want to quit my job”. I was going to buy it and wear it upon my return to Canada on casual Fridays. I changed my mind at the last minute, just in case someone at the office did figure out the meaning. My boss does have a good sense of humour, but it is never a good idea to push your luck.
Overall, Akihabara is a fun place for anyone visiting Japan that is interested in games, anime, movies, electronics and any manner of “geek stuff”. Be aware, you may run into some unpleasant things for sale, but that hopefully won’t detract too much from the overall experience. If you are really concerned or on a tight schedule, stick to the giant Yodobashi Camera next to the station. You can get a sample of all the good stuff that Akihabara has to offer in one massive store. I do wish you the best of luck getting that stupid song out of your head. You have been warned.
On July 16 the wife was going to visit an old friend in Odawara. I was going to catch up on some internet time, and then meet up with her at Odawara station at 5:00pm. From there we were going to Tokyo for the night. Since we were planning on looking around Akihabara, I booked a business hotel not too far away.
During the day, the in-laws took me out to their favourite curry restaurant in Numazu. Japanese curry is like a stew with meat and veggies in a rich delicious sauce, naturally served with rice. The restaurant’s lunch special was beef curry, salad, dessert and a soft drink for 980 yen. After taking one bite I could understand why the in-laws liked this place – it was one of the best Japanese curries I have ever eaten. Rich, creamy and a little spicy. Yum!
I took the regular Tokaido line from Numazu to Odawara, giving me an hour to read (always bring a book). I met The Wife and we got a ticket for the Romance Car to Shinjuku. Unlike my experience a few days earlier, this Romance Car had no children running up and down the aisles. In Shinjuku we followed the signs to the subway line. Subway signs in Tokyo can be very misleading. Sometimes you will see a sign that indicates that the subway entrance is just up ahead, but what they really mean is just up ahead after 500 meters of tunnels and probably a few flights of stairs.
After waiting for a very rare train delay that featured continuous updates and apologies from the good people at TOEI subway, we made a quick subway ride across Tokyo with one transfer and got out at Kuramae station. Our reservation was at APA Hotel Asakusa Kuramae, which described itself as close to the station. In previous experience, “close” to the station could be anything from right outside the station entrance to a 15 minute walk down unnamed side streets. Fortunately this hotel was, in fact, actually close to the station, and cross from a 7-11 as an added bonus.
We checked in and went to our “double room” to drop off our bags. I have stayed in business hotels in Tokyo and Osaka before, and they are usually very small. However, this was, in fact, the SMALLEST hotel room I have ever seen, not counting my stay in a Capsule Hotel (story to come in the future). It was literally too small to take proper pictures. The main room space was about 2 meters square. It had a bed just smaller than queen size and a small desk. Under the desk was a small fridge that you could probably fit 3 beers in. A flat screen TV was mounted on the wall. The Wife and I were both traveling with backpacks, which went on top of the “desk”. There was literally no place for a suitcase if we had one.
The bathroom was one of those ubiquitous all in one units that can be found in small Japanese hotels. It was a molded plastic one piece unit with a toilet, small sink, and small, deep bathtub. A dial on the sink distributed the water between the shower and the sink, but not both at the same time. I am not a tall person (about 170cm or 5’7 for you Americans), and I was able to stand and put my hand flat on the ceiling.
For the record, there are “normal” size hotel rooms in Tokyo. You just have to be willing to pay much more for them. Our room cost 9400 yen for one night, breakfast included. It was close to popular tourist areas and a one minute walk from the Tokyo Metro. Like most business hotels it was a clean and quiet place to sleep, and nothing else. For 1000 yen extra we could have watched the entire catalog of PPV movies until checkout time. Don’t get me wrong – the room was okay, it was just really, really small. Hobbit small.
Once we got over the hotel shock, we went back to the station and made our way to Akihabara. Our late dinner was at Gyu-Kaku, a yakiniku restaurant where you cook at your own table. We stuffed ourselves on beef, pork, chicken, scallops, and a few veggies as well. If you are in Japan and like meat, eat at Gyu-Kaku. You will not regret it. English menus are available!
We rolled ourselves out of Gyu-Kaku and took a quick walk around the station planning out our shopping for the following day. During weekends in the daytime, Akihabara is packed with people and is difficult to move around. Tuesday evenings are not very lively, so we had a unique experience of being able to wander around without bumping into people everywhere. Despite being a fairly quiet, slow night in Akihabara, we were well aware that we were in Japan’s geek paradise, full of anime stores, video games, maid cafes, model shops, and porn porn porn everywhere. Seriously, so much porn.
At this point the food and long day started to kick in, and we returned to the hotel. We got into the bed only to discover that our “bed” was actually futon on a frame and not a mattress. I had been sleeping on a thin futon on the floor at the in-laws house and had been really looking forward to a soft, spring filled mattress. The futon was okay, but was a bit lumpy in places. Since I was less likely to get up in the middle of the night for the bathroom, I had to sleep against the wall. There was almost no space between the foot of the bed and the wall, so the only way I could have gotten out of bed was by crawling over The Wife, or by waking her up and making her move. Fortunately for both of us I was asleep within minutes of my head hitting the pillow and didn’t move until morning.
As I drifted off into sleep, I found myself, for the first time ever, being thankful that I was not a tall man.
After a harrowing experience with a hangover earlier in the day, I was once again on the move, this time heading from Koriyama to Atami to see my good friend Koalako. (again, not a real name – please see my cast of characters list) Fortunately for me, Atami was having their amazing summer festival during my visit. I have not been to enough summer festivals in Japan to give an objective opinion, but Atami’s has to rank near the top of the list.
Atami is a resort town built on the side of a mountain beside a beach. It is well known for its hot springs and amazing fireworks. I also know it from its festivals, steep streets, and the time I had to sing Celine Dion for free beer. Unlike the rest of Japan, I don’t think anyone owns a bicycle in Atami. If they do, they are either the a fitness freak or or they spend most of their time walking the bike up hills regretting their purchase.
Koalako was waiting for me at the train station. After a big hug (a friendly one – I am married!) we ditched my heavy backpack in a locker and started the long, steep, curving descent through the streets of Atami. Koalako had not used English for some time, so we started by alternating in my shoddy Japanese and her rusty English. Years of not using our second languages had created a bit of a language barrier, but we soon were talking like old friends again.
About half way down we saw a street vendor selling “Atami beer”, a local brew in time for the summer festival. Koalako walked over and got us each a bottle. Yes, drinking in public in Japan is perfectly legal. Even though it was okay, I couldn’t overcome my instinct to hide the bottle every time we saw other people. Fortunately beer is a reliable instinct killer (especially cold, delicious beer), so by the bottom of the hill I was feeling much more relaxed about public consumption. We came to the main street in Atami which was lined on both sides with throngs of people and street vendors. After walking for a bit, we stopped on the corner of the main street and a major side street. The police blocked off the side street which gave us a chance to get front and center for the festival.
In Atami, all of the neighbourhoods and nearby towns all create floats to pull / drive down the main street. Most of the floats have two levels full of lights, drummers, and people in costumes making a lot of noise. In front there is a long rope so the float can be pulled through the streets. Most of the floats are motorized so the giant pull rope in front is for decoration. The floats are all competing against each other, so each one has unique designs, features and music. The effect is a loud, bright spectacle that you would not expect from a usually reserved society. One of the highlights for me was when two floats are passing in opposite directions, like in this video that I took.
The float from Koalako’s area of Atami was easily the best of the festival. In previous years I had helped pull this float through the street, but this time I was able to be a spectator and enjoy the show. In addition to being the biggest and loudest, the float was equipped to shoot a shower of sparks into the air, resembling a large wooden dragon. Well, a wooden dragon covered in people with drums anyway. As usual, Koalako’s father was involved the float. We walked over to say hi and I was greeted with a huge smile and a firm handshake – very friendly and very un-Japanese. He made sure that his friend following behind hooked me up with a can of beer. Koalako’s father has always been a fun and friendly guy and around him the beer rarely stopped.
After about 90 minutes of noise and standing in the heat, we decided to go to an izakaya so we could sit and chat. This involved a long, steep, hot, humid, terrible walk back up the side of the mountain. I am not sure who decided to build a city on the side of a mountain, but they HATED prairie people.
At the izakaya we ordered the coldest drinks on the menu – frozen draft beer. The beer itself wasn’t frozen, but the head on top was frozen slush. This was an impressive gimmick, but made the beer difficult to drink. In the past, hanging out with Koalako would involve way too much bar food, too much beer and inevitably karaoke. This time was very subdued. We had too much bar food, just enough beer and no time for karaoke. Karaoke with Koalako is great both because she is a classicly trained singer with a beautiful voice, and more importantly she doesn’t complain about how awful and off key I sound.
Summer in Japan is uncomfortably hot and humid. The only redeeming feature is summer festivals like the one in Atami. Make sure you dress cool, drink a cold one while walking through the streets, and always leave time for karaoke after.