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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

No Foreigners

Tokyo from Mori Tower_3270

Yesterday was a pretty good day. My MacBook was returned after its third major operation, and late in the afternoon I was able to spend a couple of hours on the roof of the 53-storey Mori Tower in Roppongi, watching the sun set.

It was marred by two things though, the first of which was my being told by the local pensions office that I need to pay all contributions that I missed whilst I was not working in Japan (between 2002 and and 2008). This is for a pension that I won't even be claiming due to my not being here at that age.

The second was my being told to leave a barber shop because I'm a foreigner. This took me completely by surprise. I'd gone in and asked the owner (in Japanese) if he could cut my hair despite my not having a reservation. His reaction was simply to point to the door and tell me to leave.

Confused, I asked him "Oh, aren't you open?", to which he mumbled something under his breath ...before gesturing for me to leave again.

I left. Standing outside I looked at all the signs - no, they were open. There was one customer inside, and three staff - the owner and the second staff member were sitting watching TV - waiting for customers.

So I went back in. "I'm very sorry, but could you tell me exactly why you can't cut my hair?"

The owner wouldn't look me in the eye, and just said "Please leave". I turned to the woman beside him, and asked politely, "what's the problem here?" She seemed to feel a bit awkward. Gesturing towards the owner she told me, in English (and bear in mind that I had used no English whatsoever) "We no English". Thinking that she must have learnt that line for situations such as this, I replied, in Japanese, that that wasn't an issue, as I could speak Japanese.

Silence. Then the owner told me to leave again, this time kindly opening the door to facilitate my quick exit.

Walking towards home I felt pretty pissed about this. I considered reporting them to the police, but looking at the time I decided I didn't want to waste my afternoon trying to change the opinions of others.

Since I twittered about this I've had a few comments (mostly on facebook) from others who've experienced such discrimination themselves. Whilst of course I was aware that this is by no means unknown in Japan (and think of the famous Otaru hot spring law suit in which the Supreme Court, i.e. the highest court in Japan, ruled in favour of the owner of a spa who banned customers that didn't look Japanese), I am still very surprised to find the no-foreigner policy being practiced here in the centre of Tokyo.

Tonight, I'm going to get my hair cut by a friend. He is not afraid of gaijin lice.

[Update] A recent article on this subject in the Japan Times has gained widespread attention. Check it out here.

Also, see Black Tokyo's take on the article.

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Sunday, January 11, 2009

Any excuse to play with fire

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After a session at the Gym with Tom this morning it was back home, get changed, then out again for the English lesson I have every Sunday (I'm the teacher, not the student). On my way through the park in front I couldn't help but notice a gathering of hundreds of local residents, all of whom had brought the kadomatsu ("gate pine") from outside of their front doors.

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These are placed outside the front door to welcome ancestral spirits, and to keep a thriving pine decoration industry going.

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Playing with fire is a popular pastime in Japan, and mad festivals involving naked people doing crazy things with fireballs are not uncommon. I asked a few people if burning kadomatsu is a an old Japanese tradition, but they said no.

So it would seem that this is a new invention, a good excuse for the local pyromaniacs to have a bit of fun.

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This chap with the hose pipe was very amusing, happily squirting the fire in a bid to, er, well, get it wet I suppose. He then decided to soak the pagodas that had been set up along the side of the park ("they might catch fire!") and under which a group of cute little grannyies sat. They were not best pleased as he wasn't very good with his aim and ended up squirting them in the face! He was eventually relieved of hose duties by a little child who knew better.

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All in all, it was jolly good fun, and another reason to stay in this area. Negotiations re. the contract start next week.

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Saturday, January 10, 2009

Nail Job

I used to think that having fake nails was a sure sign that you had finally become a slave to modern fashions, sacrificing your ability to do practical things like pick loose change up off a table, or scratch your arse without the necessity of thought.

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However, having now spent several hours looking at fake nails, first in reality, then though a lens and now finally in Adobe Lightroom, I'm starting to think that actually, they're pretty damn groovy.

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The only question is, which ones should I get?

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All of the nails on this page have been hand-painted by the talented folks at Shibuya's www.cknail.jp.

More fake nails over on my Flickr account.

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Saturday, December 20, 2008

Kobe Luminarie

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Last week whilst in Kobe on Christmas Party business, we had the chance to see Kobe's incredible Luminarie. They say that this is the last year they'll be doing it ...although they say that every year!

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"Kobe Luminarie (神戸ルミナリエ, Kobe Luminarie?) is a light festival held in Kobe, Japan every December. It began in 1995 and commemorates the Great Hanshin earthquake of that year. They were donated by the Italian Government. The lights are kept up for about two weeks and only turned on for a few hours each evening. Each light is individually hand-painted. Major streets in the vicinity are closed to auto traffic during these hours to allow pedestrians to fill the streets and enjoy the lights."


At times it felt a bit like being on the train to work...

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Saturday, December 13, 2008

Japanese dogs: the most fashionable in the whole world

Dog fashions have come on a fair bit in the last few years. Here's some of photos taken in Yoyogi park of the coolest bow wows on the block.

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Monday, November 10, 2008

Don't unchi



Recent breakthroughs in Brainy Animal Research Kommunications technology (or BARK for short) has enabled residents in Tokyo's Meguro-ward to enroll their dogs in new reading and writing classes. The move is part of an effort to educate the canine community in street manners - notably those connected with unchi (poos).

Here we see one of the new signs now being introduced for the educated class of wanwans along kerb stones telling them not to do do-do's in inappropriate locations.

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Sunday, November 09, 2008

Please do it at a pub

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What I want to know if why has the salary man replaced his eye balls with golf balls?

(This is one in a series of posters on the Tokyo Subway encouraging good manners. See the whole series here)

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Monday, October 20, 2008

Yet another iPhone post

(if you're not interested in it or Apple customer service, look away).

Two nights ago my iPhone suddenly had an emergency breakdown. Somehow the OS became corrupted, and the only way to fix it was to connect it to my mac and let iTunes try its best counselling skills.

The only problem was, iTunes couldn't connect with it - just kept on asking me to enter the phone's passcode ...which I couldn't do as the phone wouldn't let me do anything except make emergency calls. Catch 22.

(For google reference, the error message read:

"iTunes could not connect to the iPhone "*" because it is locked with a passcode. You must enter your passcode on the iPhone before it can be used with iTunes"



This all happened when I was actually in the Apple Store on unrelated business (looking at new macbooks!), but they were so busy I had no chance of seeing the Geniuses (they're the people who fix stuff), and the sales staff didn't know what to do. I made an appointment for the following night, and using their in-store wifi started scouring the Apple forums.

Eventually I found out how to force the iPhone into recovery mode (connect to computer, open iTunes, press both buttons until Apple logo appears, then only release the top button, hole the bottom one until iTunes recognises it as being in recovery mode and restores it to factory settings). However, after it rebooted it just came up with another error, "The iPhone "*" cannot be used with iTunes because the information required for activation could not be obtained from the iPhone". There was nothing I could do but wait until the following night's appointment.



This being Japan, I was kind of expecting it to take a long time to sort out. Everything here seems to involve endless form-filling - you even have to provide a notarised copy of your birth certificate in order to buy a loaf of bread. (OK, slight exaggeration, maybe.) One problem I saw was the fact that the phone is registered to *Twinkle*, and she was unable to come to the store.

What happened then really surprised me. The chap listened to my story, quickly tested the SIM card in another iPhone (it was fine) ...and then reached into the drawer behind him, pulled out a brand new iPhone and handed it to me.

"Is that OK?" he asked.

"Erm, yes!" I said, with a big grin on my face.

"Oh, if you could just sign this receipt to say that Apple will pay that'll be it".

And that was it.

Having left the store, it was simply a case of plugging the new phone into my Macbook and leaving it for 30 mins as it restored all my settings (and 15GB of emails, contacts, photos music and apps), resulting in a brand new phone that was identical in content & settings to my old one.

Now THAT is what customer service of the future should be like. It was even accompanied by the happiest music one could hope to hear, wafting up the stairs from the live concert on the ground floor.

Of course, there are reasons why this all happened so quickly and without any fuss. For a start, they were incredibly busy, and the guy was desperate to get through the queue. For a second thing, they already had all my details to hand, as when I made my appointment I'd logged in with my Apple ID.

Still, I thought it was all bloomin marvellous, Yet another excuse to give my money to Apple.

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Friday, October 03, 2008

Laser eyes, the work, the friends and the MCs

You find me sitting in the waiting room at the Shinagawa Laser Eye Clinic in central Tokyo. ...feeling queasy. *Twinkle* has just been taken up to the 15th floor to have her eyes done, leaving me in the big waiting room on the floor below, stuck in front of a TV showing an instructional video on what's going to be done to her. I find it positively terrifying, but try and reassure myself by thinking of all the people we know who have had it done lately, and how they could 'see' immediately after the op, and made full recoveries within a day or two of being fried. It's pretty affordable too (about £700 paid interest-free over two years) - well worth it considering the difference it will make to her daily life.

Anyhow, I need to try and take my mind off it, so let's talk about something else.

Mr. Joseph the Teacher

I've had a fair bit of part-time work since I got back to Japan. The vast majority of it has been through the English school in Shibuya, where most classes are taught one-on-one. Many students are there to learn English for a particular purpose (usually a business trip to the US/ Australia etc); this makes lesson planning and execution a lot easier (especially with the additional ideas and support I've received from my friend Shari). I also have a couple of private students I meet in quiet cafes. Also, today I had a successful interview for a long-term part time contract teaching weekly group lessons at an American firm's Tokyo office.

My full-time job starts Monday; looking forward to that.

Joseph the househusband

Outside of paid work I've been pretty busy with housework and 'admin'. With our marriage came the need to change *Twinkle*s details on accounts of all kinds, then there was the house move, changes in insurance policies, a new Internet contract, misplaced tax bills, lost bank books, forgotten online banking passwords and so forth. When I finally received my gaijin card (foreigner's ID card) I had to update all my accounts with the new address. There's not much left to do ...just need to get my Japanese driver's license I think.

I find sorting these kind of things out really satisfying. Perhaps it's the control freak in me, wanting order in my life. I like to have a clear picture in my head of what policies we have where and what's due when - it enables me to get on and concentrate on the important stuff.

The house is also starting to feel comfortable. Latest additions include a plant, and 2 x 780yen plastic stationary sets of drawers. They have CHANGED MY LIFE. I now have a whole drawer dedicated to pens, and another to scrap paper, with the other four also having their own unique role. With the arrival of the drawers, so we see the departure of the living out of boxes (except for the other cupboard.

I've also cleared out all the salad crops from the tubs on the balcony, except for the aubergine plants which are still producing. Bought ten tulip bulbs and look forward to planting them and watching them shoot. I'd like to plant some winter crops too - any ideas dad?

I'm getting better at making bread in the wok, although still need to experiment a bit more to get it good and crusty (by applying water and flour to the surface) without deflating it post-rise. I'm also enjoying making simple things like fruit salad (little known in Japan) and potato salad. Nothing too ambitious, but very healthy, tasty, nutritious and rewarding nonetheless.

We're pretty much completely vegetarian at home now. We might get a bit of chicken in when guests come to visit, but other than that we feel really good without any meat. I'm really grateful to *Twinkle* for being so accommodating (although it hadn't been a request of mine).

Joseph's foreign friends

I've really enjoyed having quite a lot of contact with my friend Tom (who lives pretty near us in Meguro-ku) - I can see the weekly Sunday morning jogs around the Imperial Palace becoming a long-term part of my routine. They're almost therapeutic. It's good being in phone contact with Stu as well - our schedules at the moment mean that I've seen a lot less of him than I'd like to have done. Hopefully we can work something out so we can ensure that life doesn't get in the way of communication.

That's something I missed in the UK - male (and to a certain extent female) friends whom I could talk to about pretty much anything. I think perhaps it's being in Japan that has enabled me to develop these friendships which otherwise might not have come to much, as I'm usually much more inclined to hang out with and talk to women. Here, we have shared challenges / experiences, and I think it's these that served as a foundation upon which the friendships have been built.

I've found that marrying *Twinkle* has led to a stronger sense of kinship on my part towards both Tom and Stu, both of whom have Japanese wives. Whilst our relationships are all very different, we all have our challenges at times, and it helps to be able to share these things.

It's only in writing this now that I appreciate just how much it means to me to have foreign friends in Tokyo. Last week, *Twinkle* and I visited two young 'old colleagues' of mine from the place of work I'll be returning to next week after six years away. I've not seen them in years, although I must say that due to the communication we've had via our blogs it didn't seem like a case of 'long time no see' at all. Alongside pizza we were treated to Shari's delicious homemade hummus. I tell you, it was fantastic, the genuine article, certainly didn't expect to find myself indulging in that here in Japan.

Anyhow, food aside, it was lovely to spend time with them and chat about this and that. They are the kind of people in whose presence it is hard not to feel relaxed (something which no doubt plays a part in their popularity as teachers); it felt good sharing 'stuff' with them, and I wondered to what extent our all being foreign played a part in creating such an atmosphere.

Ogura san, our homeless friend

I'm continuing to work on extending my social circle, which is currently distinctly square shaped. I've joined the Vegan Runners Club and Toastmasters, so should be giving them both a shot later this month. *Twinkle* and I meanwhile have been trying to open up our house a little more, now it's relatively organised (only one cupboard left to go). We've had a few visitors, including our homeless friend who sells the Big Issue in Shibuya, who came to supper the other night accompanied by another member of his support group of which we are members. As I mentioned in a previous post, he's a really interesting guy - now in his 50s, he owned his own company until someone else's business for which he had acted as a guarantor went belly up, resulting in him losing everything overnight.

Business, income, house, wife and child, all gone, just like that.

He often says that he can hardly believe that he's now homeless. He never even dreamt of the possibility. It's unfortunate that in Japan homeless people have the odds stacked against them: in addition to the discrimination they face, with no fixed abode they are not entitled to government assistance. Without government assistance it can be hard to find work that will generate an income sufficient to maintain a small home - it's a vicious circle.

He's now working to set up an NPO to support people like himself. It's hard though. Whilst Big Issue sales might generate enough for him to afford to stay in an Internet cafe overnight, it's not enough to lift him out of the hole he's in, thus his ability to move forward is hampered by a need to provide for today.

Despite all this, he's incredibly positive, with a similar outlook upon life as myself. We're working to try and promote the work he's doing and hope to have him speak at an event that we're organising for next month.

Ogura san can be found most days on the East side of Shibuya station.

MCs *Twinkle* and Tame

Speaking of events (and as mentioned before) *Twinkle* and are scheduled to MC at a meeting for 500 business-minded people in their twenties on Saturday. The aim is to encourage them to pursue their dreams (whatever they may be), and not just follow the crowd into jobs in which they have little interest, but feel they 'ought' to take. We have a few fairly high-profile speakers lined up whose names I forget. There's a nice article on one of them in this month's 'Free and Easy' Magazine featuring him camping in the Japanese outback, Ray Mears stylee.

I'm a bit nervous about that, as it's all going to be in Japanese, and I don't really know what I'm supposed to say or do.

Whether we will end up MCing or not I'm not quite sure. Since beginning this blog 5 hours ago we've returned to *Twinkle*s family home, and her eyes are now causing her an awful lot of pain follow the surgery. Thankfully she seems to be sleeping now; hopefully she'll be feeling better by tomorrow morning.

iPhone Update

The iPhone remains my darling. The new Facebook app is absolutely fantastic, taking advantage of the iPhone's distinct characteristics and putting on a pretty slick show, a great example of what a mobile app can be. I look forward to the other apps I have also being updated to more reflect rhe iPhone style rather than just feeling like ported versions of apps for other platforms.

It's also proving its worth whilst we have no broadband. For example, without the iPhone I wouldn't have got the job that I got today. That'll more than pay for the monthly contract.

However, I do find the iPhone's lack of an audio / vibration alert for new emails to be a bit of a pain, especially when *Twinkle* and I are carrying out a text conversation. Thus, I've bought a second mobile which does make a noise, and which also happens to give me free calls and sms to not only *Twinkle* but to all of my in-laws, and vice-versa.

When will Japanese carriers allow SMS to be sent cross-network me wonders?

My new phone basically uses the same OS as my old mobile, so hasn't required any brain power to make it work. I'm very impressed by the new predictive text function though, just amazing. Shame the iPhone can't match it when it comes to Japanese.

Anyhows, that about sums it up for now. As you can see, we're pretty busy, but things are good, very good.

oyasumi xxx

[EDIT] Happy to report that the patient has just woken up and CAN SEE! They were right when they said it would just be painful for a few hours - what an amazing thing the human body is!

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Friday, September 26, 2008

Name that Root Veg

Ok then, here's a little research project for you: what are these?

They are labelled "Kogashira" in Japanese, and I have no idea what they are.

Answers on a postcard, or in the comments section. :-)

- EDIT -

Thank you for the feedback, both to Bibi and to mum no.2 and her extended network. I now have compete cooking instructions which I'll be giving a spin in the next couple of days. Will let you know how it goes!



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Thursday, September 25, 2008

'Free' broadband in Japan

One thing I've really enjoyed since arriving back in Japan is being able to watch online videos without having to make numerous cups of tea in order to pass the time they take to buffer. The throttled connections we had at university were probably amongst the slowest in the UK, slower even than my parents' broadband which runs off a remote rural exchange that continues to utilise highly trained rocket-propelled swallows to transfer packets of data.

A recent survey showed that Japan's internet was the fastest in the world, something I can believe having seen adverts for services offering 160mbps connections. Ours runs at about 18Mbps.

3G, as used by mobile devices, is also impressively fast. I regularly clock 1Mbps on my iPhone, which is about 30 times faster than the wireless in the university library back home... (tee hee)

With the contract for our current broadband connection finishing at the end of the month we've been looking around at what's on offer, and have been pretty surprised by how generous the ISPs are. So generous in fact that we've found a deal that essentially means that we almost make money - just by signing up for the connection.

With Nifty we get the first four months free of charge, then pay 6000 yen (£30) per month after that. However, we also get 20,000 yen (£100) in Sakura Store points (which we'll spend on the ink and stuff that we need to buy anyway, exciting huh?), thus by the time we move out next Spring we'll technically be 8000 yen (£40) better off for having signed up for it.

I guess I do feel a bit warmer towards Sakura now. Maybe that's what they're paying us for.

The only negative in all this is the downtime between contracts - up to two weeks without broadband. ...but as we've got an iPhone I don't really see this as much of a problem, and if we're desperate for a connection for our laptops we just need to stand outside Shibuya Station - the whole area seems to be covered by free Wifi.

It's funny how Japanese technology is so far ahead of the UK in some ways (broadband etc), yet so far behind in others (web technology, such as that connected with online banking. You know, if you lose your password for your post office savings account you have to print out a form and send it to the customer service centre in Yokohama...!)

Ho hum. Better go and tell the fridge what to order us for supper from the local supermarket.

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Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Using an iPhone in Japan - where it falls down

If you're not interested in the iPhone, don't bother read this - just click here instead.

I got my iPhone 3G about four hours after arriving in Japan. Being gadget boy, I'd wanted it since launch day, but it would have been a bit daft to get it on a two year contract in the UK. Also, they don't come cheap, and I couldn't justify getting one just because I wanted one.

But here I am starting a new life in Japan, and in need of a phone.

Buying the iPhone in Japan

The initial rush seems to have subsided, although stocks are still limited: we called our local Softbank store (having first phoned the Apple store in vain), and checked availability. They had 1 available, 16GB black.

The sign up process is pretty lengthy. You have to read through a few pages of Apple's terms and conditions, then donate a kidney. It can be difficult for foreigners to get them as there's a credit check, and a two year contract (they don't want you skipping the country before paying all the monthly instalments). We decided that *Twinkle* would buy mine - far simpler :-) If you don't have someone willing to buy one for you, credit card is the way to go.

The plans cost anything between about 5000 yen and 9000 yen a month, + phone calls: this pays for the device itself and the data plan. I don't like making phone calls (especially not at 20 yen a minute, which I discovered after a total of 3 hours on the phone) so that's fine for me, I'm just in it for the data. Calls to other Softbank / Vodafone users are free at certain times.

You are given a Softbank (IMAP) email address. Personally, I like to use my own domain email address (...[at]tamegoeswild.com) so I've configured Google Apps to forward a copy of incoming mobile mail to Softbank (who then send an alert to the phone), and manually set the outgoing server to Gmail SMTP.

Once you have the device, be prepared to fall in love. As Steve would say, it is absolutely gorgeous. I mean, really, it is the most beautiful piece of technology I have ever had the privilege to take care of. And the best thing of all? It Just Works. It's incredibly easy to use - I've not yet had to refer to the manual. It's simple enough for even a four-year-old to understand - yesterday my little nephew was able to figure out how to switch between applications in a couple of minutes.

If you are an existing Mac user setting up your phone couldn't be simpler - just plug it in. iTunes will sync all your contacts, email accounts, calendars, to do lists, photos, music, videos, just like that. It may be a little more complex for Windows users but they should be used to frustration anyway.

In the past I've always found it a pain to put data on mobile phones, and was also afraid that if I lost the phone, I'd lose my data. Here, all the data is safely stored on your computer / in the cloud, then synched to your iPhone either over the Internet or when you plug it in.

Applications

I won't go through all my apps because I'd be here all day. Just to mention one of my Japanese favourites - Ekitan: the entire national train timetable, live updates on delays, a cache so you can refer to searches when there's no signal, history of previous searches (for repeat journeys). And all with a lovely user-freindly interface. Yes, other phones can do this too - but not whilst oozing sex appeal.

Other favourite apps are Safari, Google maps, Twitterrific, Air Sharing, Koi Pond (the fish eat your finger), the classic iPint (beer on tap - a good party trick), midomi (sing to your iPhone or let it listen to a song being played in a bar etc and it will tell you what the song is, with a link to buy it), NetNewsWire (RSS feeds), MyDelicious, Cro-mag, Facebook, Evernote.

The GPS really is very handy. I use it to find places in Tokyo - watch myself on the screen as a little blue dot walking down the road. Also, my to-do list uses it so that I can tell my iPhone to put tasks in order of their distance from me (write to bank = 0m, buy eggs = 0.5km, buy ink = 4km, get post office book from *Twinkle*s parents' house = 32km). This is handy when one has a very long to-do list! (and is very nerdy).

The web browser, Safari, is fantastic. Unlike most phones in Japan you're not restricted to made-for-mobile sites, with this you can view any website online (er, provided they're not flash-based!). I've used this countless times over the past week when on the move. There's so much information out there - it's great to be able to access it when I need it and not have to wait until I get home.


I also like the fact that it has decent built-in speakers - I use it to listen to audiobooks just before I go to bed.

Where the iPhone falls down in Japan

Rather than just go on about how good the iPhone is (there's plenty of sites dedicated to doing so already), I thought I'd point out some features - or lack of features - that are specific to Japan.
  • My biggest gripe comes as the result of the iPhone being designed for a country that uses SMS, not email, for texting. Japan does use SMS, but it will only work with people who are on the same carrier as you. Here, email is dominant. Apple have tried to address this by having Softbank send an alert when you get new mail, but this is only a message on the screen - no vibrate and no sound. I hope they rectify this soon.

  • The mail program doesn't support eMoji, those little pictures people love to put in their texts. They just get scrambled. If the picture is core to the meaning of the message this can be a problem - you can read the message in Safari at the touch of a button, but it's a bit of a drag. 

  • The packages are way too expensive.

  • Visual voicemail doesn't come as standard. I think it's another 300 yen a month.

  • Battery life. Ok, so that's not limited to Japan, but it is still the iPhone's biggest 'issue'.

  • The camera is probably the most pants camera to have been mass-marketed this year. Emergency use only.
It's early days though, with it only having been launched here last month. What a lot of users are doing is using it as a secondary device - with all my family here on AU (not Softbank) I'll probably go that way myself.

At least the 3G network is reliable - it really is super fast. You rarely find yourself waiting excessively for it to load. I also love the fact that it has Wifi - at home (or at friends' houses, or where's there's public wifi) it automatically switches from 3G to the wireless broadband connection, thus not costing a penny in data transfer.

he introduction of 'Genius' with the latest version of iTunes is very welcome, and over the past couple of days I've been delighted to find some 'new' music that I never knew I had. Great stuff.

I find it really exciting to be able to use these new devices, and also to think where they might go in the future. I won't be buying any more gadgets for a long time - perhaps next year I'll get a Nikon DSLR with video function and in-built GPS (in the D700 line).

Incidentally, a good side-effect of my having an iPhone is that I spend a lot less time in front of my Mac. Being able to deal with emails on the road when I have a spare few minutes here and there means I don't come home to a pile of stuff to wade through, and consequently don't get distracted by browsing the internet - so the iPhone is pretty good for our relationship too! 

Anyway, it's just flashed up a reminder that I need to go to the toilet. According to the GPS system, the loo is located about 4 metres south-west of this cushion, and I have a date to be there by 12.34pm. Best be off.

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Sunday, September 14, 2008

Himonya Matsuri

Seems that the mini-procession yesterday was just a warm-up for today's festival.

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The chap with his back to us is hitting two sticks together to keep the team in time

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I like the contrast in this one

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Check out the little kiddies hitting the big drum

More photos on Flickr

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Saturday, September 13, 2008

The procession - from behind

A few photos taken today on the streets around our house

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*Twinkle*s off to Kansai for a few days. It's going to seem quiet around here...

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Friday, September 12, 2008

The first 7 days

I had grand plans to document my arrival back in Japan both on this blog, and on a podcast. It's not going to happen though - at least not yet.

I've found it a lot more difficult to settle in than I'd anticipated. One main stress factor has been money - or lack of money. Things are very tight, and with payday still at least 6 weeks away (once I have a job that is), it looks like things won't be getting easier anytime soon. I find it difficult to relax when I have no income. We should have enough to survive on though, it'll be OK.

The main goal of the next six months is to earn as much money as possible to pay off our debts and move house, without the relationship suffering too much. This means that my creative projects (such as a new podcast series and further development of Three Seeds Publishing) will have to be put on hold. It's a shame, but I feel it's a necessary sacrifice in order that we can keep these difficult times as short as possible.

Having said that, things on the job front are looking promising. I have been the beneficiary of a lot of help from two friends in particular - my ex-colleague Shari, and my good friend Tom. Without them I think I would be feeling a lot more desperate! Thank you both. I'm also grateful to my potential employers for their understanding of the situation.

At least the house is now in order. For a while there it was all cardboard boxes, difficult to find anything, difficult to relax, but I've got it sorted, everything in its place. I'll take some photos soon.

I will also post about what *Twinkle* and I have been going through, perhaps at the weekend.

Right, time for lunch.

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Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Japan from above

A few more photos from the flight:

First sighting of the Japanese coast (near Niigata)

view from the plane: First sighting of Japan (the coast at Niigata)

view from the plane: First sighting of Japan (coastal city near Niigata - or is it Niigata?)

A lot of people tend to associate Japan with skyscrapers. However, about 80% of the land-mass is mountainous (that's mini-mountainous on the whole). Here's a couple of shots of what I consider to be 'typical Japan'.

view from the plane: Typical Japan

view from the plane: Typical Japan

And finally, Japan from ground level: the lake in front of our apartment.

himonya park_9434

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Monday, September 08, 2008

My first few days in Japan - a quick update

So much to write about, so little time.

It's all good.

Last week I sent off an email to a training company that a friend of mine works for (it was actually wanting to work for them that promoted me to take the CELTA course). Today I had an interview, and I believe I'll be offered a contract in the next few days. Great news!

This means that I won't be taking up the contract with the English school that offered me a post a couple of months back (which in addition to looking pretty dull, also happened to pay about a third of what I'll be getting in the new job).

Today I also received a call from the agency that got me my first two jobs on Japanese TV back in 2007 - I'm in the running for a role that will require one day's work - and will pay £940! I'm a long way from being selected, but hey, you never know. It's nice to be at stage 2 at least!

I've been really busy trying to sort the house out. You wouldn't have thought that it would take that long to tidy up a 30m square apartment, but it does when you have this much stuff!

I'm loving my iPhone. It's an incredible piece of hardware - and the apps you can get for it are equally stunning. A must for anyone in Japan is Ekitan - the entire Japanese train timetable, updated every minute. This is nothing new - any phone with Internet access will have this, but the way the iPhone presents it actually makes using it a pleasant experience (I don't like the text-heavy versions on most phones, find them pretty unusable). The iPhone saved my bacon today when going to my interview. I was late, and had to use it for checking alternative train times, reading Word documents (my application and CV) checking info sent by the interviewer (email) and looking at the map on the company website - and double checking it in Google Maps. The thing that struck me was just how easy all of this was, much simpler than using a computer, and all in the palm of my hand.

Anyway, I'm sure you'll hear more about my iPhone in due course!

I may start posting Mumbles and photos from it (by email routed through Flickr), as it seems the only spare time I have at the moment is when on trains - or when ignoring the washing up that needs to be done before *Twinkle* gets home.

(I'm also updating Twitter / facebook / Skype from my iPhone - sometimes including links to photos I upload on the road. See top right of TDM).

Oh yes, I have a lot to write about re. *Twinkle* and I and what we're going through. It's almost surreal how everything is different now.

Ok, best do that washing up.

xxx

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Sunday, September 07, 2008

Hello from Tokyo

hello hello, brief update from amongst the piles of *stuff*.

It's so good to be back with *Twinkle*. Things are better than ever. Interesting how marriage has changed the relationship (in a good way).

We moved into our new apartment. It's small, and suffers from damp, although that should improve once the heat passes. Good location (very close to city centre), next to a big park so we have a nice green view.

We'll move as soon as we can afford it though, as we're told it's absolutely freezing in winter.

I've applied for my gaijin card and health insurance, bought my iPhone. It is as lovely as I thought it might be. Strokey strokey.

Have a job interview Monday which I'm looking forward to. Need to get down IKEA too and get some bookshelves, I'm not too good at living in such a messy environment.

Been feeling a bit shocked at being here, keep on having to remind myself that it's not just for one year this time. Really looking forward to feeling settled.

xx

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Thursday, September 04, 2008

Goodbye to England, and Hello to my sister

Here we are then, all set. My big bag is now down to 23kg, my two carry on bags about 500kg each. I've checked in online - seat 40k, just behind the right-hand wing, by the window.

It's been a really 'full' day. It's featured a lot of packing and repacking, backing up data, eating, thinking and feeling funny. And a final visit to our wedding oak, which is doing well in the Millennium Wood.

This morning, mum No.2 and her daughter (old school friend) came round to eat cake and say goodbye. That was very much appreciated.

I'm very excited, but nervous too. My schedule for the first couple of weeks is already pretty jam-packed - the result of a long wait (of 13 months) by *Twinkle* to have me back in the country.

I think I'm more prepared for this trip than any other before now. I have a clear picture of what needs doing when. The reality that awaits me is already a reality in my head, based on my knowledge and experience of the places I need to go, the people I need to see, the things I need to do. There's not much by way of unknowns, just lots of knowns - in a new context.

I've enjoyed being around mum and dad today. They've been very well-behaved, and supportive of me in my state of change. Thank you both. Dad has also written a little card for me with some things to keep in mind. I'm touched by how appropriate it is, and will carry it with me, referring to it when need be in Japan. Mum has also helped me a great deal, as mentioned below. Thanks mum.




Today has been a very unusual day, in that as well as my preparing to leave for a new life in Japan, I have spent a good deal of time getting to know my sister, Catherine. Catherine, who bravely battled against a complex mental illness, committed suicide at the age of fifteen - I was three at the time. I remember virtually nothing of her life or death, but have always felt close to her. I'm told that we were close. I've long known that at some point I would need to form a new relationship with her.

The timing may seem strange, but it was only last night, during a coaching session, that it became apparent that it had to be now. I won't be back here for a long time, and this is the place where her belongings, letters, and the diary in which she write of her feelings during her final few months, are recorded.

I read them all, and made digital copies of those that struck me as especially important, in order that I can think on them more in Japan. I also packed the blanket that she made for me, and from which I couldn't be parted as a child. I had been planning to leave it here in the UK.

Catherine really was very brave. The letters of condolence from people who worked with her were full of praise for her friendly, caring, thoughtful manner. But behind her smile there was a huge battle taking place. It's only today, reading her diary and talking to mum for a couple of hours that I have started to get an idea of just how hard life was for her.

Catherine lives on in all of us siblings, and in our parents too. I've long felt supported by her, and I hope that through the work I'll be doing over the next few weeks, I can start to feel settled in my relationship with her.

I'll do my absolute best to make this new life something wonderful that benefits all those that know me.

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Sunday, August 31, 2008

Needed: Advice on paying tax in Japan

I was wondering if anyone out there can give me some advice, or point me in the direction of a reliable information source, regarding tax and insurance in Japan.

Until now, when working in Japan my income tax has always been sorted out by my employer. Also, as I have never stayed there for a full year, I think I have escaped from having to pay certain other taxes. My health insurance has also been sorted out either by my employer or university.

As of next week, I’ll be pretty much self-employed.

I don’t want to find myself in the position where a year down the line I am suddenly faced with a large tax bill, so my question to people living in Japan is, does anyone know what I have to pay and how I go about paying it? Is there just income tax, or do they also have what we call Council Tax (charged to households, as opposed to , to pay for local services). Would I be eligible for the Japanese state pension if I payed contributions towards that, or would I be better off sorting out my own? Does anyone know of any specialist support centres / helplines that I could contact that give advice on all of the above?

Also, can anyone recommend a reputable life insurance company?

Finally, does anyone know how one goes about creating one’s Last Will and Testament in Japan, or what the default rules are if one dies without one?

Any advice would be gratefully received. Thanks :-)

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Thursday, August 28, 2008

Oh So Nearly There

oh yes, things are good. I passed my final CELTA assignment on first submission (yay!), now just planning my final lesson (featuring Mr. Bean; he's a real global celebrity), for delivery in about 20 hours from now.

We have a wee bit more to do on the Friday, but it's not going to be too demanding, and should be pretty handy - it's all about finding TEFL jobs. In the afternoon we'll be attending a summer school party (food and drink kindly provided by the centre), then that's it. We're done. We should be given our provisional results on the day.

I travel to Devon to see my brother and family on Saturday, Bristol on Sunday to see my sister and co., Oxford on Monday to see my other sis and co, then I have two days of final packing / sorting out currency / tying up all loose ends here in the UK.

Then, 6am Thursday morning I leave for Heathrow.

All I need now is my visa - the embassy has had my application for a week - might give them a call tomorrow to see if all's OK.

Very very excited!

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Friday, August 22, 2008

A semi-permanent state of Christmas morning-ness

I think I'm somewhat ridiculously over-excited about moving back to Japan. I'll be there in two weeks.

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Monday, August 18, 2008

Date set for departure for a new life

This morning I decided to have faith in the international postal service and the Japanese embassy in London, and buy my flight to Japan, despite not having yet applied for my visa, or having yet received the documents I need from Japan to apply for it.

Having been granted student status again I was able to benefit from STA travel's 'Blue flights" - £382 to Tokyo, direct with British Airways. I'll be leaving on the 4th of September from Heathrow's Terminal 5.

The documents (Japanese family register, *Twinkle*s certificate of residency, copy of her passport including all UK entry/exit stamps and letter of guarantee from her) are scheduled to arrive by EMS on Tuesday. Provided they do turn up then, I can go down to London on Wednesday (Wednesday being the only day i can really take off from CELTA due to it being the only day that we don't teach on), if everything's in order I should then (hopefully) receive the visa by the 28th of August, about a week prior to departure.

I will have achieved my goal of getting back into Japan on a long-term visa. It will have taken me five years and cost me in excess of £20,000 (US$40k) - but it will have been worth it. I mean, come on, I get to spend the rest of my life with *Twinkle*. Who wouldn't invest that amount in order to be able to do that?

Hmm. So that means that in three weeks from now, I'll be with my *Twinkle* in our flat in central Tokyo, at the start of a long and happy life together. It seems somewhat unreal. We've never been in that situation before. Up until now we've always been on 'one year contracts' - not just in terms of housing, but in terms of how our entire relationship is structured. This will be different. There will be no enforced changes to act as a safety valve. I'm going to have to start working harder on our relationship than ever before. I want it to be the most rewarding relationship it could possibly be, for both of us. I'm also going to have to work harder in a job than I have for many years in order to pay back the debts we have. I think I'm going to be very busy.

Anyway, my eyes are tired, and I want to go to sleep dreaming of what it will be like living with *Twinkle*.

night
xxx

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Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Married for the second time in a month

As mentioned on Twitter this morning, *Twinkle* and I got 'married' again today. I was in bed, asleep in the north of England. *Twinkle* was in her local town hall, Japan.

I was happy (I mean even happier)

All she needed was our original wedding certificate, my original birth certificate and copies of my passport. With that, she created a new family register (koseki tohon) in the name of 'Tame'. She also officially changed her name to Tame.

The Japanese certificate will take a week to arrive at our place in Japan, house, then another week to get here. The embassy in London have said that they may be able to process my visa application in a week, so if all goes smoothly I should be flying out in the first week of September.

fingers crossed.

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Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Mish-mash

Seems like the Internet doesn't like wet weather. It;s been gradually dying as the mist has set in tonight. It happens in Wales too. After a heavy rain shower, one has to disconnect the router from the mains and put it in the tumble drier for a while.

Skype has been fun. I'd call someone and say 'hello' as soon as they answered, but due to the 10 second delay they'd hang up before they heard my voice.

It's not the best of timing as I've got my weekly coaching call tonight. Looks like I'll have to skunk off down the road to our rival, Sheffield Hallam University, and see if their connection is any better.

Condolences to Sophie on not making it through ...but wasn't she fantastic?! I think that with the exposure she's had and the talent she has she'll go a long way.

It's now 7 days until the exam. I've started off revising the easiest of the three sections (newspapers). I'm happy with my progress, but am aware that I need to face my fear of the writing section. Tomorrow.

Speaking of tomorrow; as well as selling my bike in the morning, I have an interview tomorrow for the 4-week intensiveCELTA (Tefl) course after lunch. I tell you, it looks blooming tough. 9.30am to 6.30pm daily, plus a minimum of 20 hours preparation / homework per week. Five assignments too.

Things are slowly progressing on the job front. I'll be sent a pre-interview assignment to complete for a Tokyo-based English school next week - but I've also been put in touch with someone who teaches in a university where apparently there may be an opening. If I were to get that job I'd be living in Kansai (3 hours west of Tokyo on the bullet train), and thus *Twinkle* and I would spend about ten days a month apart when she goes to Tokyo on business. Not ideal. If I wasn't needing a visa I wouldn't be having these problems. I need to call the Japanese embassy about the spouse visa option again. It's finance that's the problem there (need to show a regular income, not ideal if self-employed as *Twinkle* is).

The British Embassy in Tokyo called *Twinkle* today. She's applied for a 'visitors visa (marriage)' - they want proof of our relationship. My response has been to post about 60 photos dating back to 2005 of us being a couple in a special web album. I've suggested *Twinkle* send them the link and the username / login I provided. They may say they want to see printed copies (because printed photos are more real than digital copies of the same photos?!)

I'm enjoying working in the library these days, but it is all a bit surreal. Kind of no-mans land, with routine gone, and the course over, but not over. It feels pretty weird.

Anyway, I'd best get down to the office.

xxx

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Monday, May 12, 2008

Japan: Exchanging a Tourist Visa for a Spouse Visa

Remember that time I was going to the immigration office in Tokyo on a weekly basis to try and get my visa status sorted? It lasted quite a while, and featured lots of vagueness.

This morning I phoned the immigration bureau in Tokyo. They have an English homepage which advertises their helpline - operators can speak all number of languages including English, Chinese, Korea, French etc.

The lady answered in Japanese. I told her that I had a query about obtaining a spouse visa - could I please talk with someone who spoke English in the visa department.

"I'm sorry, we don't have anyone who speaks English in this office..."

I was put through to (if I'm not mistaken) Mr. Tanaka, winner of the Gold Medal for Fast Talking (Japanese Category) in the 1984 Olympics. I asked my question, with him saying "hai" (yes) three times a second.

"Is it possible for me to enter Japan on a tourist visa and then exchange that for a spouse visa after arrival?"

As soon as I had reached my full stop, he rattled off the most astonishing volley of high-speed sentences you've every heard. I tried hard not to laugh.

Still, I did manage to catch the overall meaning. Basically, legally it is possible, but he couldn't say for sure one way or the other whether it would be granted.

Thanks, goodbye.

I then mailed *Twinkle* with the phone number, could she give it a go? She did, and a few minutes later got back to me.

"They said that it's not illegal, but they can't say one way or the other whether it would be allowed in this situation".

I see a pattern forming.

Next stop was the Japanese Embassy in the UK. I've never been too keen on contacting them as they tend to be very formal and never really tell you any more than what''s written on the homepage. But today, something magical happened. I was put through to the nicest, most helpful and human member of embassy staff you could ever hope to meet. He didn't fob me off with official responses, but explained what the reality of the situation was. He then offered me his personal email address and direct line. I started to wonder whether I really had called the Japanese embassy...

The situation is basically this: it depends entirely on the immigration officials on duty at the time that I land at Narita airport, and those officials on duty when I go to the Immigration department in Tokyo. It depends on whether they choose to ask me questions, and if they do, what those questions are. The thing is, if I was to say that the purpose of my visit was to be with my Japanese wife (as she will be by then) they can refuse me entry on a tourist visa. The other option is that I lie, and say that I'm going for a short visit. However, when I get to the immigration department they could then ask what I had given as my reason for coming to Japan, and if they see a discrepancy they could refuse my application for a Spouse visa, and ask me to leave.

I was told that it's likely that I'd get away with it, but that it was a risk, and therefore the embassy could not recommend I try.

Any thoughts?

So, if I wasn't to do the tourist > spouse visa thing, I would be left with two options:

1) find a job before going to Japan and enter on a work visa (an employer is needed to act as a sponsor in order to get the visa). It would take until late August to process.

2) wait for *Twinkle* to return to Japan, where she could register our marriage at our local ward office, and then send all the documents necessary for me to apply for a Spouse Visa. This two can take up to two months.

And there was me thinking that it was going to be easy! I should have known better - this is Japanese immigration after all!

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Friday, November 10, 2006

Holiday Day 2: Up into the mountains

What a fantastic day it’s been. Joseph is a very happy boy.

It all started at 8am, when I was woken by Twinkle treading on my foot. Her mum’s apartment is Japanese you see, i.e., small, thus the three of us were squeezed into the single bedroom, with my feet by the cupboard with all the clothes in.

A quick breakfast, and then we were off, off on a voyage into what really can be called “countryside”, even by Western standards. In the past, when Japanese people have said to me, “yeah, my parent’s home is in the middle of the countryside, there’s nothing around for miles”, I’ve initially believed them, and then when finally visiting said family home, find it surrounded by houses, garages, convenience stores and vending machines. The thing that makes it “countryside” apparently is the fact that between every other building is a little field of cabbages dating back to the pre-war era. The tax on agricultural land is far lower than that on land occupied by an erection, thus many families have found it more feasible to simply keep on with the fruit and veg. Anyhow, off we went, heading towards the mini-mountains that surrounded the town on three sides… and then up, and up, and up.


This really was ‘countryside’. The well-surfaced main road became a dodgy half-tarmac half-concrete switchback track, penetrating deep into the wooded slopes. No vending machines up here. So it was, that after about half an hour, we arrived at Kinokuni, a boarding school modelled on A.S. Neill’s Summerhill in southern England.


At Kinokuni, the children learn through carrying out practical projects. Thus, today we saw children constructing a new hut type thing,


making recorders from plumber’s piping, cooking up some apple pies, finalising plans for a trip to Okinawa, building a mini-shrine (very impressive),

feeding the chickens, fixing motorbikes and cars


...and typing up reports on their recent month-long trip to another Summerhill-type sister school in Scotland. They hold a weekly meeting in which they all decide how the school will be run …and generally create the feeling of one big family. The fact that well over half of the 200+ students live on-site adds to this communal feeling. It reminded me of the Steiner school in many ways.

After lunch with the children, we descended the mountain and began our journey here, a traditional Japanese ryokan (the nearest English equivilant is B&B, although that term just doesn’t do it justice) located in a village that’s even more remote than Kinokuni. This little mountain village, situated at just over 800 metres above sea level, is, like yesterday’s Koyasan, a Unesco World Heritage site.

200 or so households make up Dorogawa (‘Cave River’). The nearest railway station is over an hour away by car, which made for an interesting journey here. Thing was, when we got to the station, we discovered that the next bus for Dorogawa wasn’t due to depart for an hour-and-a-half. It wasn’t exactly warm, and I didn’t really fancy sitting by the bus stop until my nose fell off; thus, we decided to try and hitch hike. Having walked down the main road for a mile or so, we finally found a suitable hitching point on the road to Tenkawa (‘Heaven’s River’). It must have been only about ten minutes before someone pulled over, an old granny who’d just picked up her granddaughter from the school opposite us. We told her where we were going – an hour up into the mountains, to which she replied that she was only going 2km down the road, but hey, what the hell, jump in the back and I’ll take you up the mountain. 30 minutes later there we were in Tengawa, only fifteen minutes by car from our final destination (and incidentally, the place that has the priveledge of hosting the region’s only set of traffic lights). Had we had to wait long for a lift I’m sure I would no longer be able to have children; the altitude we were now at sported a fashionably low temperature – it was FREEZING! Thankfully though, within minutes we were picked up by Yamada san, a resident of this wee little mountain enclave, who knew our hosts well – thus we arrived at the ryokan 90 minutes early, and without having to pay the extortionate bus fare.

Masugen Ryokan is a family-run affair, and has been providing travellers with a place to rest and recuperate for some 300 years. I must admit, I was pretty blown away by it upon entering.


We were greeted by the entire family at the door, and then shown to our grand room on the 2nd floor. Well, our grand TWO rooms to be precise, each of which is bigger than our whole apartment in Tokyo. We also have a little balcony type thing, where we can sit and sip green tea, whilst admiring the maple leaves on the mountain slope opposite.


Having put our bags down, Twinkle pointed to the wall on the opposite side of the street; there was a sign there that might interest me.


Ha! There was my name for all to see – welcoming me to the village! (Ok, so they called me Joseph Tim instead of Joseph Tame, but that's only because one character has been written slightly smaller than it should have been. Perhaps it was so they could fit all the characters in…) It turned out that ye ancienty building opposite was actually part of the ryokan, hosting more guest rooms and the onsen (natural hot springs). What started off good just got better when dinner was served – what a feast!

Post dinner it was time to warm up in the onsen. Off with the day clothes, on with the Yukata (light kimono) which surprisingly was almost long enough for me. On with our geta, and clip-clop-clippety clop across the road to soak. Being the only guests in the Ryokan, we decided that it would probably be ok for us to share a bath – as with most onsens these days, there are two sections divided by gender. There was the slight risk that the owner’s daughter would turn up, but what the hell… Hmm, that was a nice bath, another location to add to the list ☺

Despite the freezing temperatures, the futons look very snug. As is the custom, they were magically laid out for us when we were eating – we smiled when we saw that they had made a special effort to accommodate me, by laying out an additional futon (complete with sheets, blankets and cover) just for the benefit of my feet, which otherwise would have poked out of the end!

All in all, a fantastic day two of our Autumn holiday. This is what it’s all about!


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