Archive for the ‘Japan Fun Facts’ Category

Eating Well

November 19th, 2007 Comments off

Apparently, the Michelin guidebook people have now crowned Tokyo to be the world’s new “culinary capital.” That may be so, but you know what? If you want really great food, going to a ritzy restaurant in downtown Tokyo may not be the best deal. Instead, think about staying at an inn in a resort town. Not big hotels, but little places with a dozen or so rooms. Sachi and I took two trips–one to Karuizawa last August, another time to Nasu Kogen in March this year. Both times, the food was excellent–just fantastic meals, multi-course dinners better than I’ve seen in expensive Tokyo places. Sachi is able to browse the tourism web sites and find coupon deals for places; the Karuizawa stay, for example, was $375 for two people for a 3-days-2-nights stay. Eating at top restaurants in Tokyo two nights in a row will cost you more than that. Of course, there’s no guarantee that any particular inn will have superb food; two places is nowhere near a representative sample, and maybe Sachi and I just got lucky. But considering that you also get a nice weekend holiday in a resort town out of it, it might not be a bad risk to take sometime.


April 1st, 2006 1 comment

This story from Kevin Drum made me realize something I hadn’t noted before. He reports on the fact that coupon use in the U.S. fell by 33% over the past five years, so that “only” 3 billion coupons were used last year. That reminds me of how the Sunday paper would have an entire “section” for coupons only, and brought back to mind getting stuck behind someone at the checkout stand who had a wad of coupons, a fate worse than an old lady spilling change on the counter and slowly counting it, or even worse, having to write out a check (without without having filled out all the automatic stuff like the recipient, date and signature while they were waiting in line).

And then I realized what I hadn’t thought of before: they don’t use coupons at supermarkets in Japan. Some fast-food chains use them, but I have yet to see one materialize at the checkout stand in a supermarket.


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Fireworks in Japan

July 18th, 2005 2 comments

Summer is the season for fireworks in Japan. Unlike the U.S., where almost all firework shows are reserved for one day in July, Japan has them all summer long. Better this way, I think–you can go see them more.

Japanese firework shows are also pretty impressive; they really know their stuff here. Though this season’s shows seem be be relatively short, an hour or so for most of them, I’ve seen shows an hour and a half and even longer in the past. And they don’t scrimp, either–some pretty good displays get put on. One of their trademark moves is the shaped fireworks: hearts, stars, smiley faces, fish, and even Mickey Mouse and Doraemon appear in the lights in the sky. Usually, the show ends in one, long, continuous culmination of explosions, climbing higher and higher, with one really big one at the very end. Forgive me if this sounds mundane to you, if you’ve seen it a lot; I don’t have much experience beyond my childhood to compare these shows to others in other countries.

Tonight there were a few well-known shows, one in Yokohama (a bit of a trek from where I am, so I didn’t go), and one right in my backyard, at the Fuchu Racetrack–though I always neglect this one for some reason. Every year, there’s a display where all I have to do is walk a few blocks and I’ve got a great view, and every year I forget to check when it is. And then I’m watching TV and I hear some booms outside, and I realize it’s on. The problem is, this one particular show is only about a half hour, maybe a shade more. By the time I get there, there’s only ten or so minutes left. But here are a few photos that came out OK:





Always pretty, they are.

A few more displays are coming up in this area. Next Saturday, the Chofu City fireworks, which I blogged on last year; I can see them from my apartment window, but they’re better viewed up close, a few stations away. The Saturday after that, there’s a display at Show Kinen Park in Tachikawa. Lots more in the area, too; here’s a page in Japanese, another in English. (Be careful: there are discrepancies between the pages in terms of which day some displays are, and I don’t know which page is right!)

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TV Guide, Japan

July 4th, 2005 6 comments

About 8 months ago, I switched from cable to satellite TV here in Japan. When I was on cable TV, there was a program guide mailed to me every month; however, with satellite TV, there’s no guide. Yes, there’s a live “what’s on” channel that you can go forward for one week, and they even have an English version for it–but it’s clunky at best.

So for six months, I subscribed to an English TV Guide magazine, which gave all-English listings for cable and satellite channels (not the terrestrial Japanese-language channels). That was good, but it was also expensive–¥800 ($7.20) an issue, with no price break at all for 6- or 12-month subscriptions. At almost ten thousand yen per year, that’s a pretty pricey TV guide–especially if you only use it for half a dozen channels or so.

I was about to re-subscribe, however painfully, when I figured I’d give it a pass for at least one month. During that time, I found out something that made me feel a bit foolish: you don’t need to pay for it. Each channel publishes its full schedule on their web site, and most–even though they’re Japanese companies in Japan–publish an alternate schedule in English. Each one is presented as a PDF file, and these files are sometimes almost identical to what I’d been paying so much for. All you have to do is visit the sites for the channels you watch each month and print out the PDF file: instant TV guide in English, for only a few pennies. Like I said, I felt like a fool for dishing out that much.

Strangely–or not so strangely, considering–the Fox channel (entertainment, not news) is the only one I watch that does not publish and English-language schedule. Which kind of figures; Fox is also one of two, maybe three channels on all of satellite TV (another is the Disney channel) which does broadcasts bilingual (Japanese and English) in a non-standard format that defies the usual technology for extra audio channels. With other channels, like Super-Channel or AXN, you can set the channel to bilingual mode and it will always be in English from then on. But with Fox, you have to switch from Japanese to English every time you change the channel. Furthermore, it’s not easy to switch; at least on my set, you have to activate the menu, move up one level, across one, and then down to, and then set–pushing five different buttons six times just to change the audio. But worst, the audio cannot be controlled from my DVR–meaning that I have to manually switch audio for every programmed show recorded off of Fox. A huge pain in the neck.

All whining aside, here are the pages where you can download English versions of monthly programming schedules:

Super Channel
LaLa (a cumbersome PDF, takes a while to display)
Movie Plus
Cinefil Imagica (click “Schedule” on the left)
Fox (Japanese only)

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Japan Fun Fact #10: Where the Streets Have No Names

February 9th, 2005 4 comments

Well, not all the streets have no name. The larger ones do. But most don’t.

Japan’s streets are usually not laid out in a rectangular grid like American streets more often are. The blocks seem to be divided in a much more haphazard fashion, like people just claimed this bit of land or that, and the streets just flowed around them. This by itself is enough to confuse any non-native person navigating Japan’s streets, but the fact that most streets have no name, no street signs to guide your way makes it even more difficult. Because streets tend to jig this way and jag that way, it is very easy to lose your sense of direction–I’ve done that more than once, and I’ve got a fairly good sense of direction.

Here’s how it’s laid out. You start with a city block (called a “banchi“), which has a certain number of lots on it. Each lot has a number. The numbering begins at some point on the block, then runs around that block ascending, until you reach the starting point again. Not all numbers are used, and the pattern–if there is one–is hard to see. Certainly not like the U.S. system where even and odd numbers are used on either side of the street. And the block is not usually going to be a rectangle, and the lots are often uneven Rarely are they organized, and usually very different kinds of buildings share the same block–you can have an apartment building next to a factory next to a wealthy person’s home next to a convenience store next to a few regular houses and then a trucking company, and so on. Okay, usually it’s not that diverse, but after seeing so many neighborhoods in Japan, you get the clear sense that zoning is not a big thing here.

Next, the blocks are grouped together into divisions of the “neighborhood,” as you might call it. Each division is called a “chome” and is made up of some dozens of blocks. Each block has its own number, and while they usually are sequential, that sequence may wander and meander somewhat. You could be walking down a street, and come to an intersection, and even though all four visible blocks are in the same division, they might have numbers like 7, 8, 21 and 34. The sequence of numbering is usually most apparent on a map, not from the ground. There seems to be no universal logic to how the block numbers are assigned.

Each “neighborhood” (called a “cho” or “machi“) is divided up into anywhere from one to perhaps even a dozen “chome.” Usually the number of chome is four or five, but there are all kinds of variations, again seeming to follow rather non-standard rules, if there are any rules to this.

Finally, put all the neighborhoods together and you get a ward/borough (“ku“), or some sort of village, town or city (“mura,” “machi” or “shi,” respectively). These then collect to form a prefecture, kind of like a state or a province.

In the U.S., our addresses are initially linear–using streets–but then go to a radial zooming-out system. In Japan, addresses are purely radial. First there is the building number, then the block number, then the neighborhood division number, then the neighborhood, city/ward, prefecture and country.

Take the map fragment, from Machida City, shown below:


This focuses on the area shared by two neighborhood divisions: the orange 7th chome of Sagami Ohno Neighborhood at top, and below, the pinkish 1st chome of Kami Tsuruma Neighborhood. The big bright orange line is a major boulevard, so it’ll have a name (Tokyo Kanjou, or the Tokyo Ring Road). You can see that it is intersected by a semi-largish white road; sometimes a road that size has a name, but not this time–the Tokyo Ring Road is the only named street on this part of the map. The blue numbers are block numbers, and the smaller red ones are lot numbers. Note the “block” numbers for the uppermost neighborhood above the orange road: the numbers are in the thousands, indicating that it is a neighborhood (machi) with no divisions (chome); in this case, there are no division numbers and even no block numbers–each number is a lot number. So instead of having an address like 7-31-22, the number is just something like 1880.

You might think that the block numbers and lot numbers could help, but these are not always easy to spot on the ground. The closest thing to street signs in most places in Japan are small placards on telephone poles which, along with local advertising, show the address down to the block number. But these are too small to note while driving, and even when walking, they are sometimes absent; people rarely use them for directions. Some residences will have the address on a small plate on the outside wall of the lot, but that is the exception, not the rule.

Now, there are some landmarks to assist you. Note the blue box with the white letters; that’s the name of the intersection. Intersection names can be a help as they do not depend on street names, but as you can see, there are not many of them. So what we are left with are landmarks. You can see two McDonald’s, a 7-11, and a supermarket (“Coop,” right at the named intersection). After that, you have to depend on traffic lights, pedestrian overpasses, schools (the brown buildings just above left of center are an elementary school), hospitals (the cross-in-a-shield mark at center right is one, the Mori Clinic), car dealerships (trust me, there’s a Toyota and a Honda dealership in there), and so on. So directions from point A to point B are heavy on landmarks. “Go two traffic lights down, take a left and when you see the fire station, take the next right. The place you’re looking for is about 30 meters down the road, just after the small park on your left.”

Needless to say, a lot of people get lost. Especially when maps provided by businesses are heavily distorted in terms of distances and relative positions.

You can also see on this map the haphazard layout of blocks and streets. And you can see the variety of buildings in a small area. Take the Coop supermarket: above it is an apartment block, and above that is a factory (marked by the circle with what looks like a Roman numeral “I” in it). Just below it on the map is a fire station, across from which is a kindergarten. Kitty-corner from the Coop across the intersection is the Toyota dealership, and across from that is a pharmaceutical company. In all the vacant spaces are houses and any number of small shops, warehouses, apartments, and so on. In short, it’s a mess. But people get by somehow.

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Japan Fun Fact #9: Apartment Hunting, Part II

January 27th, 2005 17 comments

All of the experiences I outlined in my last post about apartment-hunting were from the 1980’s. Those were heady days for Japan, when it was the nation of the future, buying up everything and set to take over the world economically. Japan was feeling its oats a lot more, and there was a lot more conflict, especially in trade, with the United States. Japan was the country of success–in business, in education, in a safe society; the United States, and other countries, were seen in a more adversarial light than today, and foreigners were seen more as a threat, commonly represented in media as violent, criminal, or diseased, a contrast to Japan.

Then came the 90’s. Aum Shinrikyo and the subway gassings. Children killing children in the schools. Horrific stories being told about domestic crime in the press. And, of course, the bursting of the bubble economy. Japan’s ego took several palpable hits, and the recession kept going and going and going. America retook the computer industry, Japan was no longer seen as the juggernaut, and Japan’s markets opened and Japan’s ironclad grip on the future of the world economy seemed like a strange illusion of yesterday. Suddenly, Japan was no longer on top of the world–the economy sputtered, and crime seemed to spike at home. In short, things changed. The national ego lessened, the feelings of superiority ebbed, and the adversarial atmosphere thinned.

Those changes were also reflected in how foreigners were regarded. Less and less were we threatening aliens who were taking over sumo and baseball; less and less were we icons of crime and disease. Or, perhaps, more and more Japan focused on its own ills. Japan is kind of like that, in extremes when it comes to international comparisons–either it sees itself on top of everything, or on the bottom, to overstate the matter perhaps a bit.

Not that this changed much immediately in the early 90’s when I came back to Japan and looked for an apartment anew, but it changed things somewhat. The real change was much more apparent when I returned again in the late 90’s. I heard a lot fewer stories about foreigners being stopped on the street and asked for ID, or accused of having stolen their bicycles. The media represents foreigners in a far less negative light today. And apartment hunting similarly became easier.

By the time I left Japan for the second time in 1995, I had lived in five apartments: two in Toyama and three in Tokyo, the last one secured in 1993. I had also found an apartment for my brother when he moved here (I used the same agent who had pushed for me in finding my own apartment). In every case, I found myself up against the rather formidable “gaijin wa dame” element.

When I returned in 1998, things had noticeably changed. Though I was looking for an apartment in much the same areas, I found a lot less resistance, and a lot more possibilities. This time, I found a place just a ten-minute bicycle ride away from that first cockroach-infested dump in Asagaya, but this place was a lot nicer. It cost a little more, but for the price, it was much nicer. Two seven-tatami-plus rooms, plus the kitchen/bath areas, but also a nicely-built three-unit apartment with a rather kind landlady living with her family on the second floor, just five minutes’ walk from an express station on the Seibu Shinjuku line just 12 minutes out from Shinjuku. And this I found after only a very brief search that lasted only a few days, not a few weeks. The agencies I visited along the way were much more accommodating than the ones I had experienced five years and more before, and I had several units to choose from despite the brevity of my search.

After two years, however, I decided to move up. The job I had originally been hired for changed–soon after I had moved into my new place, I was promoted from newbie EFL instructor to the coordinator and effective dean of the academic department of the college–a change that shocked me, but which I happily accepted, and it came with a nice increase in pay, needless to say. I stayed in the first apartment more through inertia than anything else, but after two years, I faced the familiar one-month’s-rent gift money fee, and I also was getting tired of bumping into furniture when I had to get up and move around at night. So I started looking again.

Let me stray from the narrative a bit here so I can explain a bit more about apartment hunting in Japan. First off is cost, and cost is determined roughly by a formula which includes the chief variables of distance from central Tokyo, distance from the local train station, and the size of the apartment, though not necessarily in that order. Go far out from central Tokyo and rent a small place 15 minutes away from the station by bus, and you can get it for a pittance; the reverse will be costly. Some train lines are more expensive than others as well: the Chuo Line, for example, can be pretty pricey, and express stops are at a premium. If you can walk to the local train station in a few minutes, that’ll cost you. It matters a lot more than what shops or schools may be nearby, as most people commute by train in Japan. Proximity to town can also mean a lot to people; some cannot stand having to commute long distances to get to work every day; that can be a deal-breaker for many. The trade-off is for size, and that’s what I’ve chosen myself; It’s a 45-minute-to-one-hour commute to work from where I am, but I have a nice, spacious place.

Size of apartments in Japan is usually measured by square meters, and room sizes are measure in tatami mats (thatched straw mats three feet by six feet in size), even if the room in question does not use tatami mats. Tatami can be nice–softer than hardwood floors and less prone to be cold–but they also have their drawbacks, in that they don’t last too many years, and often are home to small bugs.

3A standard room size is six tatami mats, or nine by twelve feet–a smallish room, especially if that’s the only real room of your apartment. Standard studio apartments in Japan will consist of a single 6-mat room with a small kitchen area, a bath room and a toilet room (or both bath and toilet combined in a pre-fab “unit bath”). No room for a western-style bed without serious crowding, so a futon is used. Not like many futons in the U.S., which are often thicker and more rigid, Japanese futons are more like thick, heavy blankets than mattresses, and are folded up and put in large two-tiered cupboard/closets during the day, leaving space for moving around and the like. The image at right illustrates this kind of room, the double doors in back being the cupboard/closet.

The apartment I had in Tokyo in the mid-90’s had a six-tatami room and a three-tatami room; the three tatami room (six feet by nine feet) was pretty much just enough for a futon to be laid out in. Eight-tatami rooms (twelve feet square) are considered fairly spacious in Japan. See this page for standard tatami layout patterns. Newer apartments have hardwood floors more often, though multi-room apartments often have one tatami room.

Another way to measure the size of apartments is by room counts. In this system, L is a living room, D is a dining room, and K is a kitchen. Often they are combined to read LDK, especially if they are in fact one room. Additional rooms are represented by number. If there is just one room, it is called so: a one-room (studio) apartment. A 1LDK would be one room plus a living-dining-kitchen room, or what in the U.S. would be called a one-bedroom apartment.

Other considerations for apartments in Japan include the age of the building (chikunen); if the building is more than, say, twenty years old, it is much less desirable. The construction type is also important–you have apartments and mansions. “Mansion” doesn’t mean the same thing here as in the U.S.–a Japanese mansion is like a condo, as they are more often bought than rented. The building is usually much more solidly constructed–thick concrete walls and floors, for example, rather than the thinner, shoddy walls found so commonly in apartments.

Okay, back to the story. When I got tired of the apartment I had lived in since arriving in Tokyo, I decided I would be willing to spend a bit more and live farther out in order to get more space. After searching for a while (I had more time to hunt this time), I found the place I was looking for when an acquaintance clued me in on public housing. I’m still not entirely sure exactly how “public” it is, but I get the feeling that it is more publicly-subsidized than publicly-owned. They used to be called Toshi Kodan (都市公団), or the Urban Development Corporation, but sometime last year they changed to Toshi Kikou (都市機構, or “Urban Renaissance”), and I have no idea what that signifies.

But what it mean for apartment hunting is just what I was looking for. First of all, you don’t go to a real estate agent for these places–you go straight to the local UR office. That means no paying one month’s rent for the agent. Second, and more significantly, because it is not a regular landlord, that means no gift money, a huge advantage. And finally, it’s government-related, so that mean they can never say “gaijin wa dame“–you don’t even need a guarantor! I just walked into the office, asked to see a place, and then reserved it once I found I liked it. You do have to certify that you can earn enough to pay for the place, show some tax forms or the like, and there’s a bit more paperwork than the usual apartment requires. And there is still a deposit–a bit steeper than usual, three months’ rent–but that’s refundable. Moving in was just the deposit and first month’s rent.

Also, the building I got was a mansion type, meaning great walls and floors–there’s a couple who live right next door, and they have an infant. I never hear it, not even a bit. At most, I’ll hear people upstairs banging around a bit, but not often and it’s not loud. My previous place was so un-sound-proofed that every time my smoking next-door neighbor went to the bathroom, I could hear him go, even when he didn’t loudly hawk and spit into the toilet. The soundproofing in my new place also means that I can play music or have the TV on at high volume even late at night, and I never have to worry; I’ve asked neighbors if they can hear anything, and they say nothing gets through.

But the best part of the new place is the size: 84 square meters, almost double my older room. All hardwood floors, it consists of an 8-mat-size master bedroom, a 4.5-mat second bedroom, a large genkan (vestibule, or whatever) leading to a toilet room and a bath room off a small dressing room with sink and mirror, and then the big “LDK-plus” area–an 8-mat living room, 4.5-mat dining room, 4-mat kitchen and 6-mat extra room, all in one large joined area (no doors, but a few interior walls). And that does not include the walk-in closet (albeit a small one). If you want to take a look, I have the layout and some photos of the place I made before I moved in.

Then there’s the rent–at ¥136,000 when I moved in, it was low for such a big apartment–but then something strange happened: it went down. Usually it’s supposed to be the reverse, but not with this place. After a year, it went down to ¥131,800, then ¥127,200, then to ¥123,400, and this year it’s ¥119,800. All this despite the fact that the apartments are almost completely occupied, more than when I first moved in. And there’s also no contract renewal fee–just another rent decrease. Bizarre. Great, but bizarre.

I’ll likely stay here until I buy into a new place, either a mansion or a house–which will lead to a whole new level of possible conflicts, including taking out a loan, which I kind of dread. But, as I like to say, I’ll burn that bridge when I come to it.

Japan Fun Fact #9: Apartment Hunting, Part I

January 23rd, 2005 12 comments

Looking for an apartment in Japan can be a trying experience. When I first came to Japan, I had trouble because few apartments would rent to me. The first agent I saw showed me three apartments; I did not like any of them. When I asked to see more, I was told that there were no more. Apparently, the city of Toyama, population 300,000, only had three vacant apartments in the ¥60,000/month price range. So I went to another real estate agent. They showed me three places also. All were the exact same as the ones I’d been shown by the first agent. Back at the office where I worked, I asked the receptionist to call a third agent and ask them to show me apartments. They said that they would see me in an hour, then asked the receptionist for my name. She told them–and then was asked to wait. After a few minutes, they said that they would have to wait until the next day to show me any open units. And when they did, they were–you guessed it–the exact same three units as the other places showed me.

It was clear what was happening: before showing me any apartments, they were checking with managers in advance to see if foreigners were allowed to stay. Thus the sudden wait-until-tomorrow change from the real estate agent when they found out they would be dealing with a non-Japanese. And few landlords were willing to let a foreigner live in their units. When I asked agents–two different ones–about all those other, many apartment buildings studding the landscape, I was told uniformly that they were inhabited by yakuza gangsters and prostitutes, so i wouldn’t want to live in any of them. Let me tell you, that town must have been brimming with yakuza and prostitutes.

When I moved to Tokyo, things were different. Not in that discrimination was lesser, but rather in that people were far more open about it. Instead of trying to save me face by making up stories, they just out-and-out told me: gaijin wa dame, literally “foreigners are no good.” That was the exact phrase used by everyone, and its constancy was somewhat startling–no one used variations, just the same exact words.

And I heard them a lot. When I was moving from Toyama to Tokyo, I was on a three-week vacation in which I looked for both a job and an apartment. The job I found fairly easily; the apartment nearly broke me. My method was to visit at least two or three train stations per day, and I would find maybe four or five real estate agencies at each station. At each agency–that is, the ones that let me in, though only a few refused to let me enter–I would look through their bound book of available apartments. I got to know those books pretty well. Each apartment would have a one-sheet, which showed a layout of the apartment and had all the relevant information. First, the amount of rent (yachin), the deposit (shiki-kin), and the “gift money” (rei-kin, more or less an outright extortion fee demanded by the landlord), each denoted in the number of months’ rent each would cost. Typically, the deposit and the gift money would be two months’ rent each. Unspoken but understood would be the additional one month’s rent paid to the real estate agent as a commission for the sale. That means that moving in–including paying the first month’s rent in advance–typically cost 6 months’ worth of rent, which could really put a dent in your wallet.

Also noted on the sheet were the age of the apartment building (I got to recognize the age of units just by the floor layouts, which were different according to age), and which units were available. The latter was most important because which floor you live on makes a big difference. In apartment buildings with just two floors, the second floor was commonly reserved for female tenants, likely for reasons of privacy, to guard against peeping toms and underwear thieves. Finishing up the one-sheet data would be distance from the local station, and special items in the apartment–was there an air conditioner, TV antenna, tatami or hardwood floors and the like.

Back tot he story. I would go to a real estate agent, look through the book, and find a unit which was in my price range, was not too far from the station, and which wasn’t a really terrible-looking place. I wasn’t too fussy, really (evident from the fleabag place I eventually settled for), but I didn’t have much luck, either: despite finding three or four okay-looking units at each agency, I only saw a total of five or six units in the entire two-week period in which I searched. And I enquired about a few hundred places in total. I asked about so many because I was not finding anything I liked–the few places I was allowed to see were really unattractive units, so I kept looking and looking, stepping up my search as time ran out. But even if we assume I am misremembering, there is no way in heaven or earth it was less than a hundred in all–and even at that, I was refused 95% of the time.

The refusal was, as I noted, strangely identical, like there was an agreed-upon expression. Gaijin wa dame. Gaijin wa dame. Gaijin wa dame. Over and over and over again, many times a day. (And Japanese friends would wonder why I didn’t like the term “gaijin.”) I was not presenting myself poorly; I was clean-cut, clean-shaven with trimmed hair, and wearing the business suit I used in job interviews. I spoke Japanese fairly well, and explained at each place that I had lived in Japan a few years and was familiar with Japanese living customs, and knew how to take care of an apartment. I also presented at each place a copy of my new work contract, which showed I had ample salary to pay for the place, and could pay the entire six-months’-rent fee in cash, all right there. In addition to which, I had the all-important guarantor, my new boss (a Japanese national for a major corporation), who would cover any damages should I flee the country. But it seldom made any difference.

One place in particular still sticks in my memory. It was one of the last agencies I visited, so I had the patter down strong. I explained all of my good points to the agent, the experience in Japan, new contract, so forth and so on, and instructed the agent, when he spoke to the landlord, to relate all of these things so that the landlord would know that this was not some gonna-trash-the-apartment-and-ditch-the-country foreigner. I asked the agent if he understood, and if he would relate all of this. He grunted acknowledgment, and picked up the phone and dialed. “Hello? Mr. Landlord? Yes, this is Yaddayadda at the agency. That apartment you have open? Foreigners are no good, right? Yeah, OK. Thanks. Bye.”

Sometimes you didn’t have to wait for the agent to call up the landlord. I saw perhaps half a dozen apartment one-sheets that had it written down right there in black and white: petto, mizushobai, gaijijn fuka. No pets, prostitutes or foreigners allowed.

I eventually got a place, because one landlord really did his best to sell me as a tenant. “Hello, Mr. Landlord? Yes, about that apartment. I have a possible tenant. He’s a foreigner, BUT he’s a gentleman. He seems very nice.” And so on. He actually used the word “gentleman,” the English word in katakana pronunciation. He had to push the landlord for several minutes, but finally got me in. I took the place, but it was not exactly the ritz. The good points were that it was just a 3-minute walk to Asagaya Station on the Chuo Line, a short hop into Shinjuku, where my job would be. It was fairly cheap, ¥60,000 yen for a 6-tatami main room and a 4-tatami kitchen (more on that later). But that was about all that was good about the place. The building itself was pretty rickety, and as I would find out later, it was a sieve–it had tons of cracks and crevices, through which, I found to my disappointment, cockroaches entered in droves.

Still, I survived there for two years, until faced with a decision: apartment contracts usually last two years, and if you want to stay longer, you are forced to pay an additional one month’s rent “gift money” at the signing of the new contract. So I instead opted to find a new place. More on that in the next post…


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Japan Fun Fact #8: Japanese Bacon

January 22nd, 2005 7 comments

JbaconWhatever it is, whatever has been done to it, it sure isn’t like the bacon back home. For some reason, bacon in Japan doesn’t cook anything like it’s supposed to, at least by American standards. Instead of cooking up crispy and juicy, the Japanese stuff cooks up flat and relatively dry. Imagine taking thinly-sliced ham and trying to fry it–kind of like that.

the only thing I can figure is that it’s pre-cooked or otherwise treated before it’s sold. From my first year in Japan, I noted that a lot of bacon here is barely cooked when served–often times you get it pink and (pardon the expression) limp, so much so that I initially feared food poisoning. That would explain why it cooks so badly. Anyone have any information on this?

American-style bacon is pretty much impossible to find here. Costco had it for a while, up to maybe 8 months or so ago, but then they stopped carrying it. When I called them up, they said that they had stopped carrying it because–and yes, I couldn’t believe it either–of mad cow disease. Which is just as bogus a reason to deny pork imports as it is to deny beef from America, considering that only one confirmed case of mad cow has been reported in the U.S., and that was from a Canadian cow, and it did not enter the food supply; additionally, despite thorough testing of 140,000 high-risk cattle, no new cases have emerged in the U.S. for more than a year. Meanwhile, Japan has found no fewer than 15 cases in the past four years, including the first one where the carcass was actually sent to be turned into cattle meal after the disease was detected. See more on that here.

It also doesn’t explain why bacon isn’t imported from Australia or other countries without even a single case of mad cow–or why Costco continues to stock pork sausage from the U.S. (pretty bad sausage, alas).

UPDATE: I tried asking a meat counter guy at the supermarket about the bacon today. He seemed unsure about how the bacon was prepared, but he did know one thing: he held up a package of bacon and told me I could eat it as-is, right out of the package, without cooking it. Yech. But it does mean they’re sure doing something to it….

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Japan Fun Fact #7: Vending machines

January 18th, 2005 4 comments


You’ve probably heard about all kinds of crazy vending machines in Japan, like those that sell jewelry, hot lunches and even schoolgirls’ underwear–but the fact is, such machines are pretty rare. That’s not to say that vending machines are rare in Japan–quite the opposite. Aside from scattered cigarette butts in the street, they are perhaps the most ubiquitous sight in Japan. And while most are for soft drinks (including water, coffee and tea) and most of the rest are for cigarettes, there is still a fair number that are for alcoholic beverages (and still fewer, though no less noticeable, for condoms, usually located outside pharmacies). One such alcoholic vending machine set is pictured above, though only beer is sold from it (some offer saké and/or bottles of whisky).

Now, you would think that such publicly available and unpoliced vending machines would be an open invitation to minors to buy and consume alcohol–and you’d pretty much be right. The only measure taken to safeguard against such things is that the machines automatically turn off at 11:00pm. Which, if you ask me, is pretty stupid–as if that’s the time after which minors are mostly out and about? What’s to keep a 15-year-old from buying up drinks at 10:30?

But, as I said, most vending machines are for drinks, and yes, they are everywhere. It is hard to go several blocks without seeing a cluster of them, and they are not just outside convenience stores and other shops. You’ll find them everywhere. Even on Mt. Fuji. In fact, the vending machines on Mt. Fuji are an excellent way to keep track of your progress up the mountain: the higher you go, the more expensive the drinks become, from normal prices at the fifth station starting point, until you pay 300 yen for a drink at the peak (at least that was the price when I last climbed).

A few small notes about Japanese vending machines: first, there are no snack or candy vending machines. I don’t know why. And second, in my experience, they never have problems with old paper money. Every American knows quite well that if you try to put a beat-up dollar-bill into a vending machine, you have to unfold the corners, feed it into the slot repeatedly, and pray real hard. Never had that problem in Japan.

Japan Fun Fact #6: Now Entering Hell

January 17th, 2005 Comments off

This last weekend was not just an ordinary one for 570,000 high school students in Japan–it was the highlight of what is called “Exam Hell,” the extensive period of intensive study culminating in a series of exams that have decided the fate of millions of Japanese for many decades, and continues to this day. Students who do well get into name institutions; those who don’t get into lower schools or no school at all.

First off, Japan’s compulsory education only goes up to age 15, the end of junior high school (it’s 16 in America). What surprised me was that, unlike in the U.S., getting into a senior high school is not guaranteed here. Back in Toyama in the 80’s, one of the office workers in my conversation school had two young daughters, neither of which passed their senior high school entrance exams, so mom had to pay for them to get into private schools.

But getting into universities is harder, and even more exclusive. This weekend was the exam time for almost all students, but it’s not like the SAT or ACT exams. Here, there is one test for nearly all schools on the same day–but you have to choose to take the test for just one school. Not like in the U.S., where you get an exam score and can take that to any school. No, here you not only have to choose one school, you have to choose one major, and take the test for that. If you don’t get in, then your options suddenly become much more limited. Public universities are now closed to you, unless you wait a year (as a “ronin,” like a masterless samurai) and take the tests again, pass or fail again. But for right now, you’ve lost, you’re out in the cold. But not without options: you can take another test for a private school–probably a much lower-ranking one than you had hoped–and if you pass that test you can get into their school.

But even for those who passed, it’s not over; typically, the top schools are flooded with more applicants than they can take in, so there is a second entrance exam for them.

And even if you get in after that, you are stuck in the major you chose. Unlike in the U.S., where you can switch majors practically at a whim, in Japan, you must first take an even harder cross-major entrance exam, and if you pass that, you must pay a fee of several thousand dollars to complete the transfer.

So I am informed, at least, by a highly reliable source. The Internet does not exactly seem to be brimming with this kind of information, at least not in English. Does anyone have anything to add to this, or to correct?

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Japan Fun Fact #5

December 6th, 2004 5 comments

Photo from Japan Guide.

Japanese people typically do not take showers in the morning; they take a bath in the evening. The “bathroom” in Japan is exactly that; the toilet is always in a separate room, except in small apartments where there is a “unit bath.” The bathroom (again, aside from unit baths) consists of a large tub and a shower area. Most Japanese sit down on a stool for the “shower,” but don’t always use the shower head. One soaps up outside the tub, and either showers to rinse off or uses a small plastic bowl filled with water, poured over the head or shoulders, to rinse. Then one luxuriates in the tub, which has a water intake and outlet to circulate the tub water through a heating system to keep the water warm. In many Japanese families, the same water is kept for everyone (usually father first, smallest child last).

A few myths about Japanese bathing to be dispelled: first, Tom Clancy’s Debt of Honor (his last even semi-readable book, before he descended into mediocrity) aside, Japanese typically do not go to bath houses, especially with work colleagues. Sometimes people might enjoy the luxury of a special bath house, but otherwise bath houses (“sento“) tend to be for people with no bath at home. Second, Japanese rarely bathe in mixed-sex baths. It may be true still in a few small countryside villages and a few scattered hot springs (“onsen“), but not in most places in Japan. There is probably more mixed bathing in California, to be honest.

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Japan Fun Fact #4

December 4th, 2004 Comments off

Back when I was a student at SFSU, even though I lived relatively close to campus and there was a major bus line that would take me right there, it was all too often a crap shoot as to whether I would be able to actually ride the bus. Sometimes it would never show up. Other times it would be so full the driver wouldn’t stop. Sometimes it would be 20 minutes late then three buses would come crowded together. Living relatively close to school didn’t change things much; you would make the decision to walk to school, and then the bus would show up and you would not be able to get to a stop in time to catch it. Not altogether a pleasant service in terms of reliability.

In Japan such things rarely happen. Just as trains are punctual and stop on a dime, so are buses. If the bus is two minutes late, it’s a surprising thing. Yes, it costs about $2 and they don’t give transfers, but that’s just Japan for you.



Buses in Japan have different flavors, but the most common is the pay-as-you-leave type. When you get on a bus, you get on at the back (as passengers leave via the front). You see two machines(see photo at below left); one hands out small paper-slip tickets (see at right), and the other takes prepaid bus pass cards (available in 1000, 3000, and 5000-yen denominations; you can’t usually buy a weekly/monthly pass for unlimited rides). The pass cards handle everything automatically. The paper slip tickets have a number printed on them. There is no one price for the bus trip; you pay more if you ride longer. There is an electronic display board at the front which shows the current fare for whatever number your paper ticket shows. The number, naturally, increases as you go on.

Bustix1 Bustix0

When you decide to get off, you push the button, as is normal (I’ve never seen pull-strings on Japanese buses), and at the stop, you go up to the front to pay your fare and get off the bus. The machine at front is able to make change (a nice alternative to American buses!) and sometimes even sell bus passes. Otherwise, it either accepts your bus pass and shows how much you have left on it, or there is a money drop-slot over a conveyor belt to take your paper ticket and the money for the trip.

My only problem with the bus is that the schedule often makes no sense. Where I live, there is only one line, going to the train station, and buses come every twenty minutes. Express trains also come every twenty minutes. So you figure that it’d be natural for the two to be coordinated. But of course not! The buses drop you off at the station about two minutes after the express leaves–wasting 15 minutes of your time. Nice if you want to have a cup of coffee, visit the ATM machine, and study the train lines before departing, but usually people don’t need to do that.

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Japan Fun Fact #3

November 28th, 2004 4 comments

Some words get bounced back and forth between languages. A good example of this is karaoke. The word is a combination of the Japanese “kara,” meaning “empty” (as in karate, or ’empty hand’) and the English “orchestra,” shortened in Japanese to “oke,” the Japanization–minus the “r”–of the first two syllables of the word. (When compound foreign words are used in Japanese, each element is typicallly shortened to two syllables, as in “seku-hara” for “sexual harassment.”) As a result, we get a hybrid Japanese-English word, karaoke.

What’s funny is that when the word gets mangled even further when brought back into English. The original Japanese word is pronounced “kah-rah-oh-keh.” In English, it gets pronounced “carry-okie,” with the English “orchestra” bent almost beyond recognition.

Not that this kind of bending of Japanese pronunciation in English is uncommon. Many Japanese words spoken by English speakers are unrecognizable to Japanese people. Saké is pronounced sah-keh, not sah-kee. Kamikaze is pronounced kah-mee-kah-ZEH, not kah-mah-KAH-zee. And “harry-carry” is a completely mangled form of “hara-kiri,” pronounced “hah-rah-kee-ree,” with hard “r”s. But we do pronounce tsunami, sushi and tabi correctly. Though “Mt. Fuji-san” is redundant, as “san” means “Mt.”

Just so you know.

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Japan Fun Fact #2

November 26th, 2004 Comments off

I never encounter it in daily life any more, and a lot of younger Japanese have never even heard of it, but in the 1980’s, there used to be an expression called “Christmas Cake.” Back then, the expression was used to describe unmarried Japanese women over the age of 25. In Japan, cake is a ‘tradition’ at Christmastime (along with love hotels and boxes or cooking oil, see this post). If it doesn’t get sold by Christmas–the 25th–then nobody wants it, is the idea. A rather rude and sexist idea, but it was the 80’s and at the time I was living in rural Toyama, and so it came up. I remember one young lady, named Miki, who worked in the office of the school I worked at. She married some guy through o-miai, a matchmaking tradition often used until recently in Japan. A matchmaker would try to match the bride a groom; the couple would usually not meet too many times before making up their minds to get married. At the wedding, in fact, the matchmaker usually has a special place in the ceremony.

All of this came back to me recently when I stumbled across the topic in this news story, which reports–and I have observed personally–that women in Japan today don’t worry about their marriage age as much, and Japanese men are not quite so obsessed with age when choosing a spouse–significant reasons why the term “Christmas Cake” isn’t heard much anymore.

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Japan Fun Fact #1

November 23rd, 2004 1 comment

The name “Godzilla” (who will make his ‘sayonara’ appearance in Godzilla: Final Wars coming out in a few weeks) is not a randomly chosen one. In Japanese, by the way, it is pronounced “Gojira,” and is not about God or reptiles. It is a composite of two words: “gorilla” and “kujira” (Japanese for “whale”). We can only assume that, in the story, a gorilla mated with a whale, before or after being zapped with radiation. Gojira became “Godzilla” when the film was first brought to the United States. The film series was prompted by a 1954 incident in which a Japanese fishing boat was exposed to fallout from an American H-Bomb test at the Bikini Atoll, killing 1 of the 23 crewmen and making the rest seriously ill. For the Japanese, Godzilla has represented nature’s revenge against the nuclear weapons that America used against Japan at the end of WWII.

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