Archive for the ‘Focus on Japan 2010’ Category

SoftBank & iPhone 4

June 14th, 2010 37 comments

Iphone4SideI went to SoftBank to check out whether or not I should get an iPhone 4, and surprisingly, it looks like I will. My two-year contract & obligation to pay off the iPhone 3G has 4 months left to it, and I figured that I would have to wait until that was out before I could think of getting the next one, and maybe have to pay extra for it as I was not a new customer. However, it would appear that SoftBank is making it easier for existing customers to upgrade than I thought. If I understood what the clerk was saying, I can get an iPhone 4 now, and simply start paying for it subsequent to the previous contract running out.

In fact, the new iPhone will be even cheaper; two years ago, the iPhone 3G (the first iPhone to be released in Japan) was going for ¥960 ($10.50) per month for 24 months, for a total of ¥23,040 ($250) for the low-end 8GB model. This time, the low end iPhone 4 (16GB) is free with the 2-year contract if you get a new number with it.

Sounds great, but there are caveats. As I expected, existing customers do get hit, though not very much: if you continue to use the same phone number as before (as most existing customers will no doubt want), you have to pay ¥300 ($3.25) a month for the 16 GB iPhone, for a grand total of ¥7200 ($78.50) over two years. (As if it costs them that much to not change your phone number!) Still, less than eighty bucks for a new iPhone–not bad at all. A pretty good deal in fact–I did not expect SoftBank to run with such a low price immediately upon release.

Another caveat: SoftBank is offering two plans for the iPhone 4, the “Basic” and “Value” plans. For both plans, you get the whole package, but the Value plan gives you only the flat rate of ¥4410 ($48) per month for your data plan (the price seems a bit inflated mostly due to the current strong yen). In the Basic plan, you have a sliding scale where the data plan could cost as low as ¥1029 ($11.20) per month, and you max out at ¥4410 if you use too much data. In exchange, you have to add ¥480 a month, or about $125 over two years, to the price of the iPhone. The Basic plan sounds good–if you try, you can cut down your data usage to the minimum and save as much as $900 over two years, right?

Wrong. The Basic plan sounds cheaper, but SoftBank conveniently hides the relevant data. They do tell you that if you use no more than 12,250 packets, you just pay the eleven bucks a month for data. Cool! 12,250 is a lot! Um, actually not. You won’t find it on the same page which describes this plan, but SoftBank defines a “packet” as 128 bytes. 12,250 packets is a measly 1.6 MB–less than a single digital camera photo at full size. You reach the maximum rate of ¥4410 by using 52,500 packets, or 6.72 MB–something you will certainly do if you do normal stuff like check email and use the Maps app while out and about. Especially if you browse web pages–six megabytes can be used up pretty quick. Just as an example, in May, according to my SoftBank bill, I used over 750,000 packets. No way in hell I could go below the 52,000 limit, save for turning off data use under 3G except in emergencies.

In short, don’t fall for the “cheaper” Basic plan: you’ll only wind up paying an extra $125 over two years.

So, going for the “Value” plan makes sense, and for Japan, the whole schmeer is pretty reasonable–especially the iPhone 4 for just eighty bucks plus what you’d pay normally anyway. At first, I thought that SoftBank would sock it to people they already had on contract, making them pay full price or pay a penalty for early adoption, but it seems not. Again, unless my Japanese led me to misunderstand the clerk; I will be checking up tomorrow, seeing what is or isn’t possible. The SoftBank stores in Omote-Sando and Shibuya have English-speaking staff, and the iPhone 4 reservations begin at 5pm. One drawback: they’ll only have the model in black if you get it right away. That’s OK with me, the new phone looks goofy in white.

If I do get the new phone, then my 3G will be off the phone grid. In other words: Jailbreak time!

Categories: Focus on Japan 2010, iPhone Tags:

6.1 off of Fukushima

June 13th, 2010 Comments off

About 20 minutes ago, there was a 6.1-magnitude quake about 60km off the cost of Fukushima, about 120 km away from Fukushima City. Sachi and I felt it pretty distinctly, despite being 270 km distant; it shook the building, swaying some furniture.


On the Japanese seismic intensity scale (a scale based on the effect a quake has on the ground rather than simple energy measurements), it measured a lower “5,” which means that some books and dishes might fall onto the floor, some damage could occur to buildings, and people might find it hard to move during the quake.

I got a free app for the iPad, Earthquake Lite, which does a pretty good job of showing quake info worldwide. It took about 5 minutes for this quake to show up on their list. When you get the info, it lays it out like this:


In this case, (where the image at top came from) got the notice up immediately; Bosai, strangely, didn’t get it until much later.

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iPad Fever in Japan

June 10th, 2010 2 comments

I am consistently surprised by the level of interest and often sheer enthusiasm for the iPad in Japan. The iPhone received some good attention after it was released, but with the iPad, things are almost at the crazy level. I have people coming up to me all the time asking to see it, and showing an even more positive reaction to it than people did with the iPhone when it was first released here. Just yesterday, a teacher asked me to come in and demo it for his class, which all eagerly gathered around and made a lot of noise every time something new was done. In short, they loved it. Studentshiba-1I am getting similar reactions on trains, with people making comments to each other, often stealing glances and sometimes asking questions. I thought the interest would subside soon after the release of the iPad in Japan, but if anything, it has only gotten stronger.

On another Apple mobile device front, my students are getting the iPhone in droves. Initially, they wanted it but stayed away since SoftBank’s plans didn’t allow for cheap calling of their friends, who mostly had non-SoftBank contracts. But then SoftBank initiated a special student plan, and now the students are buying them in droves. Sadly, many bought in with a recently discount plan–not knowing that iPhone 4 was just a few weeks away. I told a few of my students who just got iPhones about this until I noted I was just disappointing them, then I shut up.

Still, SoftBank and Apple mobile products are just getting stronger and stronger in Japan, building on both brand recognition and new devices and features.

Categories: Focus on Japan 2010, iPad, iPhone Tags:

Kitaro Yakitori

June 2nd, 2010 2 comments

Tonight, Sachi and I went to a Yakitori place that we found online. Comments said that the food was delicious, so we decided to give it a try. It’s on the north side of Hibarigaoka Station, so when I got home from work, Sachi took the bus up to meet me, and we went to the place.

Having just moved from Ikebukuro, we are used to the kind of place you find in the city–nice, but cloistered, separate–you have nothing to do with the other clients, and the restaurant people leave you alone. Kitaro is the kind of place where you sit at different tables, but everybody has a good time together. The “master” took to us from the start, and we became part of the “in crowd” very quickly. As we ordered food, there was stuff thrown in–an extra Yakitori here, complimentary beers for us before we left–and always, conversation.

We were given a nice seat near a small gallery of drawings, and a white-haired and bearded gentleman at the end of the counter turned out to be the artist–and drew portraits of us both. We engaged in a lot of talk, and had a good time. It’s a lot like going to the bar in “Cheers,” in some ways–you feel like you’ll always be welcome there.

And, like the reviews said, the food is excellent.

Categories: Focus on Japan 2010 Tags:

iPad Fever

May 28th, 2010 2 comments

There are long lines around Tokyo for the iPad. Very long lines.

Sachi told me that she got tired of so many iPad news stories on TV. My students seemed particularly interested in the iPad today, a few demanding a demo, and some stating a distinct desire to get one sometime soon.

So, so far, so good.

Categories: Focus on Japan 2010, iPad Tags:

The iPad in Japan

May 28th, 2010 Comments off

The iPad may be getting an official release in Japan today, but it has been available for some time–for a premium. I went to Akihabara yesterday and saw the iPad at several stores–usually priced at 77,000 yen ($845), I presume for the 16GB WiFi version, though it wasn’t specified. Ouch. I saw at least 5 or 6 of the things there, and now I suppose the shops will have to eat whatever premium they paid themselves for people to buy them and ship them to Japan (probably with customs charges added) on what stock they have left. Unless, of course, official supplies are even sparser here than in the U.S. and there are people who won’t be able to wait…

In the meantime, even more stores were carrying iPad goods–mostly cases. This was a typical display:


At Labi, they had a good selection of iPad screen protector films. At other stores, such as the one pictured above, only one film was available (the “LCD Protector” seen at lower right)–and it was an oversized sheet you had to cut to shape yourself. So I picked up what looked like a good screen film at Labi, took it home and got set to apply it–and the damn thing is blue. Not just a slight tint of blue, but blue. I held it over my screen and it made the colors a horrible hue. I have no idea what the hell they were thinking. The cover image on the product shows a clear film, no color, and there is no mention of color on the exterior of the product. Bizarre. I just hope I can return it at any Labi, and don’t have to make a special trip to Akihabara for it.

Categories: Focus on Japan 2010, iPad Tags:

Here We Go Again

May 27th, 2010 9 comments

You’d think people would learn. But no. Here’s yet another article about how another new Apple product, already a hit elsewhere, will fail in Japan. After spending several paragraphs noting the iPhone’s success, the prognostication begins for the iPad, sounding ever so familiar:

However, Japan poses unique challenges that the cool thin slab of 21st Century computing may struggle to overcome.

With popular credit card and train ticket functions unavailable on the iPhone — not to mention connections to pet-feeding machines — many users also carry a Japanese phone made by the likes of overall leader Sharp or Toshiba.

This means they may not contemplate juggling a third, larger device on crammed subway trains, analysts say.

Again with the complete misunderstandings. First, the error of confusing frivolous bells & whistles with ground-breaking hardware and software features. “Pet-feeding machines”? Really?

Second, the idea that people carry iPhones and other cell phones with special features. Not everybody is Steve Wozniak, guys. I have never heard of someone carrying two phones just to cover a wider variety of features like that. And if they did, what would that have to do at all with the iPad, which would be carried in a completely different place? It’s not like people will say, “Oh, my pockets are full, I don’t want to put an extra thing in my bag.”

Third, they appear not to realize what a boon the iPad is for the commute, nor how it will replace even bulkier items. People don’t mind carrying things the size and weight of the iPad on the train–many would (and some do) use laptops, except they are too unwieldily for that venue. The iPad is thinner and lighter than many comic books or magazines that people carry, for crying out loud, and will provide so much more to occupy people’s time. The form is easy to carry and fine for sitting or standing in confined spaces, yet allows for reading, browsing, working, or enjoying music, video, or games, and then some.

Once again, people are just completely missing the whole point, and spouting off about points they clearly know nothing about–all so they can revive the most treasured of all chestnuts, the old “[new Apple product] will probably fail in tech-jaded Japan” canard.

So far, I have seen nothing but vividly enthusiastic interest from people seeing the iPad, even more so than there was before the iPhone came out.

Categories: Focus on Japan 2010, iPad Tags:

Sharp Quake, Centered in Tokyo

May 9th, 2010 1 comment

A few minutes ago, I was sitting in my new room and felt a few small tremors. I was going to shout, “quake!” to Sachi when BAM, the building shook hard, but only for a second or two–then it stopped. A quick, sharp jolt like that often indicates a small quake with a close-by epicenter, and that’s what this was. Early reports have the quake striking at 1:33 pm, the epicenter under Nishi-Ogikubo (revised epicenter: Takaido), with an intensity of 4.0 on the Richter scale.

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iPhone in Japan: Top Seller or Not?

April 29th, 2010 3 comments

You may have seen reports that the iPhone now commands 72% of the smartphone market in Japan, and if you read this blog as well, then you may be wondering why I haven’t commented on that yet. Here’s the reason why: the smartphone market in Japan isn’t all that big. I knew that the iPhone’s penetration in Japan wasn’t even close to 72% just from what I see on the street. Sure, I see an encouraging number of them–one can spot several during any subway ride nowadays–but absolutely not a majority. So far from one, in fact, that it was immediately apparent that the sub-market Apple got 72% of must not be all that big. And here’s a blog post showing that to be true: Apple’s actual share of the cell phone market is 4.9%. That sounds just about right–1 out of 20 seems to match what I see on the trains and on the streets these days.

Now, if you go from being incredibly impressed at 72% to being greatly unimpressed by 4.9%, remember that the iPhone was supposed to fail horribly in Japan, whose people were supposed to hate it, and that 4.9% in less than two years is a rather impressive showing, especially in such a tough and competitive market, and when your product is only sold by the least popular of the top three service providers.

It will be interesting to follow the iPhone over time, and see how the iPad–even more of a cypher for Japan before the fact–does here as well.

Categories: Focus on Japan 2010, iPhone Tags:

Tokyo Sky Tree

April 18th, 2010 Comments off

We’re leaving Ikebukuro–and our nice view–in a few weeks, so we won’t see the Sky Tree (I still hate that name) develop more than the 350 meters it is right now, unless we go somewhere else that affords a view. So here’s a nice, tall view of the tower a nice, tall view of the tower as it currently stands.


Categories: Focus on Japan 2010, Ikebukuro Tags:

Snow in Mid-April

April 17th, 2010 1 comment

It snowed last night. Not much, but it did. Around 5am Sachi and I heard something hitting the bedroom window, like sand, except there’s not sand around. Sachi woke up and said she saw it snowing, even enough to collect on rooftops for a short time.

This is a damn crazy Spring we’re having here. For more than a month now, the weather, aside from being unusually cold, has also been annoyingly flirtatious. We get one or two days of weather with sunny skies and 70’s temperatures, and then back to a week or so of rain and temps in the 40’s and 50’s. Last night’s snow is simply part of the latest ebb.

It has me wondering if we’re just skipping Spring this year…

P.S.: nobody tell Fox News, they’ll claim global warming is fake again.

Categories: Focus on Japan 2010 Tags:

The iPad as Black Ship

April 11th, 2010 2 comments

Here’s an interesting article in Business Week about how Japanese publishers are apprehensive about Apple’s iPad, and how it might jeopardize their lock on the market. Currently, what amounts to a cartel sets and rigidly controls pricing of books, pricing which retailers are forbidden to vary from. And it profits the publishers very well: 700 out of every 1000 yen goes to the author & publisher, 70 yen going to the author and 630 to the publisher (natch). They do not want to give up their fat profits by letting competition get involved.

They saw what happened to the American music industry and, like most other industries which leech off of the creative energies and needs of others (i.e., “publishing”), fear that consumers will get a taste of what fairer pricing is like, and will demand more of the same. Kind of like every other industry since the music industry. Most publishing seems the same that way–more or less a solid front of publishers fixing prices to assure large profits.

Frankly, I think they worry too much. It’s not like their ranks will break, or that a smattering of independent authors will tear down their monolithic front. Japanese music labels forced Apple, after long delays, to accept both higher and tiered prices (songs go for $1.60 and $2.15, albums for as high as $21.50). Which was stupid, because Japan allows CD rentals, and most young people–who might otherwise pay for cheaper music–instead rip the rental CDs cheaply. I can’t imagine the publishing industry being any different. God forbid they should allow the customer to buy an e-book with the identical profit for the publisher, with printing and distribution costs waived–we can’t have that. Especially in an economy like we have right now.

Good thing the iPad is not just an ebook reader–it would fail in Japan if it were, if only because the greed of the publishing industry will make it difficult if not impossible to make ebooks thrive.

Categories: Focus on Japan 2010, iPad Tags:

Yeah. I Want to Send My Teenage Daughter to a School with a Slogan Like That.

April 4th, 2010 6 comments

An advertisement for a girls’ private junior/senior high school seen at Komagome Station, Tokyo:


Seriously, can you get much creepier than that?

Signed, Not Yet Sealed

March 23rd, 2010 1 comment

Well, we laid our claim on the apartment with UR yesterday, so if we find that we indeed like the place, and if we don’t find a better place in the next month, we will likely be moving in sometime in late April or early May. We still want to look at a few places we’ve singled out from UR’s rather considerable inventory, in particular a place 9 minutes’ walk from Kokuryo Station on the Keio Line. However, I must say that I am more and more enamored of the Hibarigaoka situation–the large apartment, the quiet surroundings, the nearby shopping, the station and line. But something better could pop up, you never know. For example, there’s a building at a station called Oizumi Gakuen on the Seibu Ikebukuro; it is virtually right next to the station, and the area looks nice. Alas, when we asked, no units of the size we’re looking for were available. However, should something come up, we will be interested. And something else could crop up elsewhere that we didn’t expect.

Right now, we’re just biding our time on Hibarigaoka. The current people move out in three days (we saw moving boxes stacked up in the windows when we were in the area), and then UR will reform the place until April 16. We will not be allowed to view the actual apartment interior until then. We could, in theory, see it that day, make our decision, and sign the contract all at once, and then we could move in no sooner than one week later. That would allow us to move before Golden Week, and before I start working again after the Spring Break.

The problem is leaving our current place. We must give 2 week’s notice, and once given, we can’t take it back. So if we were to move into the new place on April 23 or 24, we would need to give notice of leaving our current place around April 10–a week before we even see the new place. And if, for some unforeseen reason, we don’t like the new place, we would be stuck–forced to move out of our current place a week later, and would have no place to move into. So, instead, just to be 100% safe, we will hold off canceling our current lease until after we’ve seen the Hibarigaoka unit, and instead will move either during Golden Week (should we be able to get a moving company to take us then), or just after. Less than ideal, but not unworkable.

Just for fun, here are some photos from our trips to check out the apartment and the neighborhood. First, the stairs to the third floor: the first and second floors are 2-story “maisonettes,” so the stairs go straight up to the third floor:

Hg 3F Walk 01

Alternately, the elevator is in the next building over. See the little map below; the stairs start from the lower left side (where one comes in from the street); to take the elevator, you keep going to the next building, take the elevator up to the 3rd floor, then cross over that little circular building between.

Hg Elevator Path

Here’s the circular building, with the garden on top.

Hg 3F Green 01

Doesn’t look like much now, but later in spring it should green up nicely. The bird feeder is in there, and it seems like a nice little spot to sit and rest outdoors in nice weather.

Hg 3F Green 02

From there, you cross a small plexiglass-sided bridge to get to our unit.

Hg 3F Walk 02

Here’s a shot of the taller building to the south of the place we signed up for, from the bus stop across the street. Our place is just out of frame to the left.

Hg Bus 02

The bus stop has a radio connection and a timer telling you how long before the bus gets there. I would presume that it is in contact with the bus and lets you know how far out it is (I saw the same system in Inagi), but as we watched, it went down to 0 minutes … then no bus … and then it went to 9 minutes … and then the bus came a minute or two later. So we’ll have to see about that. If it is just a slightly-off system and we get used to its quirks, it’ll be nice to know exactly when the next bus will be along.

Hg Bus 01

Here’s a shot of the Daiso. It’s around a largish city block, and so maybe 4-5 minutes’ walk away. But it’s a very nice and very large supermarket, a sizable pharmacy, and a huge discount shop–effectively a 100-yen shop, but with items going up in price to 1000 yen.

Hg Daiso 02

One nice thing about this is that the Costco run will be easier for me. In Inagi, it was a dead-simple 20-minute run over wide, straight country roads (alas, speed trap-infested ones), but from Ikebukuro, I have to plow through most of Tokyo’s traffic to get to the closest Kawasaki branch. From Hibarigaoka, however, the Iruma Costco is close enough so that the drive may be cut down to 30-40 minutes. This coming weekend, I may ride out to Hibarigaoka to check out the neighborhood again, but then ride out to Iruma and time the ride. Alas, it’s even farther from the train station than is usual for a Costco, so train runs might not be an option.

It may sound like work, but for me, it’s always fun to check out new living areas.

Categories: Focus on Japan 2010, Hibarigaoka Tags:

Domicile Hunt, Part II

March 21st, 2010 7 comments

As is usual with a house-hunt, plans have changed a bit. Nothing final, but some developments. First, Sachi and I have switched preference from the first apartment I featured here a few days back. While it was a nice apartment, there were a few minor down points. While we were OK with the first floor, that was not a big plus for us. It was a touch on the small side for us, though it would have sufficed, to be sure. The toilet room was placed too centrally for my taste; I don’t like toilet rooms that feature sound from that room so prominently to the rest of the apartment. All these are minor points. A slightly bigger problem was location; at the far side of the development, it was pushing more than 15 minutes in walking distance to the train station. A potential problem was a construction site on the other side of the building. Plus points were the fact that it was brand-new, there was a Seiyu supermarket a few minutes away, and it was among park-like territory, with nice birds flying about.

Sachi and I can’t move house until at least mid-April, however, and putting a claim on the apartment would have necessitated that we move in earlier than that. So we waited for a week (risking the place being snapped up), and in that time, did a bit more looking around. One thing we found was another project in Hibarigaoka–same station area–but an older development, this one about ten years old. But we found that for just about ¥14,000 a month extra, we could upgrade from a 3LDK to a 4LDK–from 84 m2 to 89 m2.

The problem: we can’t even see the place until mid-April. The current tenants won’t move out for another 5 days or so, and UR won’t give us a peek until the reforming is done on April 16th. We’d love to tell them it’s OK, we won’t be scared by a little mold on the walls–but they were sticklers about it. So all we have to go on is the floor plan and a look at the unit from the outside. Here’s the floor plan:


The “Poza Room” is where Sachi does her aromatherapy / reflexology stuff. Sachi and I would each have a room to ourselves to use as office / den / workrooms. Sachi might use the feature of opening up the rooms between her work room and the “Poza Room.” (I might use the door space for shelves.)

Here’s a view from above:

2Goto 01

The new place in Hibarigaoka has some nice pluses. It’s on the top floor of the building; admittedly, it’s a three-story building, but noise from above tends to be the most notable, so having no one above is nice. It’s big, with a significantly sized living-dining room combo and a kitchen with an open counter to the dining room, and four rooms aside from that. The three smaller rooms are together and actually can be semi-combined by opening sliding doors. The hallway space is mostly adjunct to the other rooms, opening things up more. The kitchen opens to both sides, as does the bath, accessible directly from the master bedroom. There’s a small park on one side, the rest of the development on the other. There’s even an elevated nature area right outside, complete with bird feeder, which I think I could load and attract some nice birds with.

The down sides include the age of the building–at ten years, it’s not new. There’s a lot of green–including on top of the building–though as you can see above, it mostly turns brown and bare in the winter. The park outside is nice, but it was filled with kids at the time we were there, a bit of a noise potential. And the 14-story buildings are right in the southern-facing view; not only does a third-story apartment lack a good view, it is easily blocked.

However, the sun mostly stays above the buildings to the south, and strategically-placed trees help with the general effect. Moreover, the local amenities are not to be sneezed at: it’s on Yato Blvd., a good north-south road leading straight to Hibarigaoka and Tanashi Stations; there’s a bus station right out front; there’s a 24-hour supermarket right across the street, and on the far side of that block, a large combination supermarket / pharmacy / Daiso (discount store) open till almost 11pm.

The distance from the station is roughly equivalent to the place from last week–at 12 minutes walking (I timed it), it’s at least a few minutes closer, and along the main road too.

In the development in question, we were able to see a room–but only one that was a bit small for us. It was, however, on the 13th of 14 floors. The view was magnificent–north of Tokyo laid out behind you as you come in the front door, and from the balcony, all of south Tokyo laid out–from the skyscrapers of Shinjuku on the left, to Mt. Fuji on the right. Fuji was even in view when we visited:

Fuji Hibari

But then we thought back on the two and a half years we’ve spent in Ikebukuro: despite having a great view, we almost never actually look at it. We do, however, use the floor space in our apartment on a regular basis. So as nice as the view may be, floor space trumps it.

In the room we saw, though, we could get an idea of how ten years looks on the building, and what the fittings are like. Similar to many UR housing developments, the materials are pretty basic and relatively unattractive. Still, it’ll do.

So, will we go with the new place? Probably what we’ll do is put our claim on it. Since it is just now opening up, it gives us more time to look for another place. UR allows you to place a claim on a room, but if it’s open, you must make a final decision within a week. However, since this place won’t be open for viewing until mid-April, we get to keep our hold without a commitment until then, allowing us to spend the next month looking at possible alternatives, seeing if anything else opens up.

So, that’s probably what we’ll do–pass on the place I blogged about last week, and sign up for this other place tomorrow–then take our time looking at still more places. Whee!

Domicile Hunt

March 18th, 2010 5 comments

(This post covers the move Sachi and I plan to make soon; if you know much about the location or anything else we’re considering here, advice, information, or other input in the comments would be greatly appreciated!)

At the beginning of this year, Sachi and I decided that it was time to move. For two and a half years we have been living in our apartment in Ikebukuro, and that’s much too long. Don’t get me wrong, we love it–but it’s way too pricey. When we moved in, we had two incomes and could easily afford it–it actually was less than our previous rents combined. But then Sachi stopped working, for a short time we thought, but then the short time got longer. We really should have moved to a new place a year ago, but I guess we just got complacent. As a result, we’ve been treading water financially–at least in terms of salary and the bank account, with the Apple stock taking over as the only factor increasing our assets.

So from the beginning of the year, we started looking into the idea of buying a home. We chose an initial direction–Musashi Kosugi, just on the other side of the Tama River from Tokyo on a good train line–and started to look around. We got a realtor we liked who started looking into properties for us, and began the process of applying for a bank loan.

As it turned out, the loan didn’t go through; what may eventually decide it for us is my obtaining permanent residency in Japan. That should not be a problem–after 12 straight years living here, with the career of college professor, and married to a Japanese national, I’m more or less a shoo-in. I applied a few weeks ago, but it could take 3-6 months, and even after that, the loan could take a bit more to clear, and then just finding a place we’d like to buy could take even longer–maybe even a year or more. Meanwhile, our money is going down the rent drain.

So we’ve decided to move to a new place in the meantime, and mid-April–when I have a break from school, and Sachi finishes getting her license in aromatherapy–seems like the perfect time. It’ll mean moving out of Ikebukuro, where we have enjoyed the benefits of living in central Tokyo, not to mention a nice apartment on the 21st floor with a great view–but you get what you pay for, and pay for what you get.

One of the nice things about the place we have is the landlord–or the lack of one. We live in a building run by “UR” (Urban Renaissance), a public agency which has the very attractive features of solid, modern units, relatively low rents, no usurious “gift money” for landlords or commission for real estate agents (which combined is usually equal to three months’ rent!), and absolutely no problems with being a foreigner. You do pay three months’ rent as a deposit, but they are very honest about refunding it–they gave me back nearly all my deposit when I left my place in Inagi, despite a lot of damage to the place over time. If we move out of this UR apartment and into another one, we’ll actually come out with more money, as the rent will be lower and the deposit difference will be well in our favor.

After checking around, we have found what looks to be a good candidate, in a place called Hibarigaoka. It’s on the Seibu Ikebukuro Line, the second express stop out, just 15 minutes from Ikebukuro. Even better, there seem to be four trains per hour that run through to the Fukutoshin Line, which goes more or less straight to my work–two of them express trains (at worst, the train ride would be 40 minutes–perfect for watching a TV episode on an iPad…). The station area is pretty nice, with a fair amount of shopping and resources. It is a bit far out, roughly as far as Tanashi, Koganei, and Chofu–even almost as far out as Inagi, where I used to live, but on a much more straight line in to central Tokyo. Ome Boulevard runs right past that area, and to test it out I rode my scooter from Hibarigaoka to my school, and it took only a bit longer than half an hour–as with Inagi, the scooter would be faster. Catch a few lights, and it’d be a bit under 30 minutes. As an added bonus, it might even get me back to birdwatching; the place we’re looking at seems to have good birds right where it is, but the location is also a very short scooter ride from Koganei Park and Tama Reien, two good birding spots.

The apartment we’re thinking of is part of a renovation project they’re undertaking in Hibarigaoka, and about time. There’s a very old housing project there consisting of almost 200 buildings, and they look horrifyingly bad–just completely rusted, stained, run-down–as close to “slum-like” as I’ve ever seen in Japan. These are being torn down and replaced with new buildings.

We were first drawn to a unit which looked great–93 square meters, 4LDK (four rooms in addition to the main “LDK,” the living-dining-kitchen). And it is a good unit–but there’s a reason it hasn’t been snapped up yet: noise. It is right on a well-traveled road with buses constantly running through, and there’s a huge construction project going up right across the street. The windows are all double-paned glass and it’s not that bad, but it’s too much of a risk to take on just a short inspection. Too bad–as the unit is also just a few feet away from the neighborhood supermarket. But if noise were not a problem, it would have been snapped up by someone in any case, and still not an option for us.

Apt-Floorplan-01But when we came to check that one out, we also took a look at another unit which is now our prime candidate (pictured at right). It’s 85 square meters, 3LDK with a good-sized bedroom. Although the living-dining area is a tad smaller than our current place, it is bigger overall by about 12 square meters. We would use the extra room as an office or den, where my computer and other stuff would be set up; what I marked as “Sachi’s Room” is where she’d do her business with visiting clients. The rooms are all quite large–most places have rooms that max out at 6 tatami, whereas these rooms start at almost that size.

The unit is on the first floor, but it’s away from major traffic and has very nice landscaping all around (tons of cherry blossom and other nice trees). There’s a unit above us, but that’s it; the apartment is at one end of the building, and the other side is the entrance hall, so no neighbors to make noise there. Three sides of the apartment is windowed and it looks very nice. The terrace is wide enough to put a table and eat outside when it’s nice. They even have screen doors installed–something most apartments don’t have, and that costs you more. It’s a bit farther out from things–about 14 minutes’ walk from the station as opposed to the 10 minutes for the unit we originally were interested in, and it’s a 3-4 minute walk from the supermarket (a nice, large Seiyu open till 1 am), but that’s not a big problem. There will be construction one building over (the next stage of the renovation of the project), but it’s on the far side of the building and so shouldn’t be too bad. We probably won’t even have trouble with neighbors’ cigarette smoke drifting in (knock on wood).

There is one big down point: the toilet. Note from the map that it’s smack in the middle of the apartment, where the, um, toilet noises will be quite audible for most of the apartment. Worse, the toilet is plain-jane, no washlet with electric seat and bidet, something which Sachi and I now would have a very hard time doing without. But the noise issue is something we can live with I guess, and we can always buy a washlet–expensive, but not overly so.

One nice thing: the rent is $1000 per month lower than what we pay now. Not only will that save us a bundle in rent money on a monthly basis, helping to save up for the down payment on the house we’ll eventually buy, but it also means that when we move, if we get our full deposit back (which I suspect we will), we’ll have $3000 left over after paying up the new deposit. That’ll help pay for the washlet, the moving costs, and leave a nice chunk of change left over.

An interesting addendum: the unit I just described is in Higashi-Kurume City. Interestingly, the first unit we were interested in is in Nishi-Tokyo City–the city limit cuts through the development, with different city rules and regs–trash pickup is different, for instance, and we would get to use the local library almost across the street from us–only available for nice Higashi-Kurume folk, not those shifty Nishi-Tokyo riffraff.

If we move to this place, it’ll probably be around April 15~20, when I’m on break and after Sachi finishes her current training, so the timing would be good. We might even be greeted by the cherry blossoms, I’d have to check when they’re in bloom this year.

So, anyone have any input? Higashi-Kurume, Hibarigaoka Station on the Seibu-Ikebukuro Line, a UR apartment, 1st floor in a new building, etc. We haven’t committed yet, but will have to soon if we want it.


March 17th, 2010 3 comments

For Sachi’s birthday and our wedding anniversary, I thought that a night out would be fun–but the main attraction would be a rental Shiba. We’ve done the doggie rental thing before, but both times the Shibas available were more of the cream-colored variety; Sachi prefers the red Shibas, as do I. There’s a shop in the bayside entertainment area called Odaiba called “Puppy the World” which features rentals, and this time they had a very pretty pooch named Yuri which I asked them to hold for us. We picked Yuri up a 3pm and took her out for a stroll by the beach.

The Hero Shot


When you rent a dog, they give you a little pouch with plastic baggies and tissues; the dogs are not pre-walked and inevitably take the first opportunity to “take care of business.” What they should include in the pouch is ziplocks, as the smell is a bit much for the whole time you’re with the dog. But it’s fun anyway.

Okay, I’ll run a bit. Just a bit.


Oh yeah. Riiiight there!

Yuri was not a big activity fan; her preference was to stick to the side of the paths or go into the grassy areas and spend 95% of the time with her nose half an inch from the ground–standard doggy protocol, I guess.

Why aren’t you guys into this dirt and grass stuff? It’s great!

One thing that Sachi and I notice about the rental dogs, however, is eye contact–or lack of it. I think the dogs see people renting them as vehicles to get out and about more than anything else. Yuri, at least, was very patient with our petting and scratching and fussing, even when she wasn’t as into it as she was in the images above. But she rarely looked us in the eyes, keeping her gaze fixed primarily on other dogs in the area. (Which she usually regarded with suspicion and standoffishness.)

Sizing up the local Poodlery

But even when there were no other distractions, she didn’t respond to us directly, which made the experience feel a bit disconnected. That ended when we brought her back and the shop guy gave us a treat we could break into half a dozen small pieces and feed Yuri (feeding the rental dogs without permission is a strict no-no). When food was involved, Yuri suddenly seemed to recognize that were were there and she paid lots of attention to our signals at that point, and after. Tells you something.

Huh? Food? Oh, hey, you guys do exist!

Interestingly, she had very specific rules about where she would go. The sandy beach was a definite “no.” And when we tried to go beyond a certain point down the boardwalk, she dug her paws in and refused to go a step further. It was not a random stop, either; twice we went to the same area, and twice she stopped and refused to go beyond the same point. Bad memories from a different set of clients, perhaps. So it was mostly back and forth within a fairly small area.

End of the line guys. About, face!

It kind of reminded us, however, of the difference between renting a dog and having your own: the rental dog is just not that much into you. A lot of doggie joy involves your relationship with the pooch, something notably absent in the rental experience. So while we enjoyed ourselves and very much like the photos that came out of it, this will probably be our last rental before we eventually get geared up for actual Shiba ownership, maybe a year or so down the line.

what a pup

Categories: Focus on Japan 2010, Shiba Inu Tags:

6.8 Earthquake off Japan Coast

March 13th, 2010 1 comment

Sachi and I definitely felt a jolt just now, and in our building, something that sharp tends to be either powerful or close. According to my sources, it’s a 6.8 off the coast of Fukushima, roughly 275 km northeast of Tokyo, about 50 km off the Fukushima coast. They probably felt that but good in Fukushima and Sendai…

Update: Reports now put the quake at 5.7. I was wondering why it wasn’t getting more coverage.

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Permanent Residency

March 4th, 2010 8 comments

I went to Immigration yesterday and submitted my application. It consists of my tax records for the last three years and Sachi’s for the past one year; a letter proving employment from my work as well as the gensen-choshu-hyo (the Japanese version of the American W-2 form); a letter stating my reasons for getting permanent residency; a copy of our family registry; my passport and alien registration card; and a 2-page form similar to those you fill out for a work visa. There is also a guarantor form, which they gave me there but is not due until they call me back in.

The process was surprisingly similar to any other visa application–go to the immigration office, fill in the application, submit the forms at the same counter for temporary visas, and then they have you write your address on a postcard to notify you of when you have to come back in. It took about two and a half hours on a Wednesday afternoon, not counting travel time. It was remarkably pedestrian–I expected to meet with an official and to have them ask me questions or some such–I though the process would be much more personal.

As for my chances, I am more or less a shoo-in: a college professor, twelve straight years in Japan (ten is usually enough), and married to a Japanese national. I hear they’ll allow you to get residency after five years if you’re married. Some people say it takes just a few months; one person I spoke to said it took them one and a half years. Let’s see how I do.

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February 27th, 2010 Comments off

Wow. This morning, a big quake–7.3 on the Richter scale–hit close to Okinawa, sending the people into a tsunami scare. This afternoon, an even bigger quake–this one an 8.8–hit between the Chilean cities of Santiago and Concepcion.

And on the premiere movie channel on cable TV in Japan, Movie Plus, two movies are being shown: “10.5” and “10.5: The Apocalypse,” two TV Movies about massive earthquakes striking the planet in close succession.


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