Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Black Hair ~ Abroad and Beyond

If you’re unfamiliar with the black community then you may not be aware that our hair is a big deal for us. We’ve spent centuries trying to make-do with, adapt and find ways of maintaining our hair, especially within communities that may not necessarily produce the commodities and methods we might have needed to make this easier. Nevertheless, there is big business in black hair. Hair products and hair maintenance can get really expensive but black folk aside, all women the world over wear their hair like they wear they clothes – in a way that represents, defines and makes them feel beautiful.

For me, this particular aspect of my life has been a struggle. I never really got into hair. Granted, I had a mother who liked me to look presentable and who took care of that during the earlier years of my life. But as I got older, I became experimental and tried different styles, whether just to fit in or adorn what I thought was acceptable at the time. What all these years, however, had in common was that someone else was doing my hair. And as a result, it wasn’t until recently, upon going abroad, that I became forced to learn how to maintain it myself.

During my university years, I got very close with a girl who introduced me to a new way of looking at hair and it made me re-evaluate all of the things I’d put myself through with regards to it. I’d been to hairdressers in the past who would comb my hair so violently that it made me want to cry. I remember a Jamaican woman saying to me that you had to experience pain to make your hair pretty. I recall walking into a hair salon and requesting them to texturise my hair, only to feel so intimidated that I allowed them to convince me to hot comb it instead. The hairdresser burnt my scalp continuously but I was too afraid to say anything. I remember sitting down for an entire day straight while two women plaited my hair with extensions. The salon was full of kids and on occasion, they would stop to openly have casual discussions with friends and boyfriends all the while wasting my time and money.

Since those days, I have developed a prejudice for black hair salons and up until recently hadn’t set foot in one for over six years. I developed the opinion that black hair salons and the like sucked at customer service and had absolutely no business sense. How could they possibly when they’d set up shop next to each other only to close down, relocate or vanish completely wondering why they weren’t bringing in enough money to keep themselves afloat.

When I’d made my decision to go to Japan, I had relaxed hair but I made the choice to go natural knowing that I would most likely have to learn to take care of my hair myself. As Japan is over 97% Japanese, it would be a difficult to find someone to take care of my hair and I also didn’t really want any strangers in my hair either - there were very few people I trusted not to rip out my hair. Within my first year of flying solo, I did pretty well. I wasn’t great at taking care of my hair – even now I’m not. I wasn’t’ versatile with my hairstyles but my hair grew; it wasn’t falling out of my head. But evidently, as with everybody, I got that itch. I missed having my hair cornrowed and even though I can cornrow, I haven’t really learnt how to do it in my own hair so I bit the bullet and sought out someone else.

The internet pretty much connected me immediately to many resources. Despite the relatively small black community in Japan, we are about and it wasn’t long before I found a hairdresser. I booked a month in advance and thought, perhaps a little naively, that the garbage that I was used to dealing with back home would be different in Japan.

Needless to say, I travelled many miles to get to this hairdresser and phoned on the morning to ask for directions to the establishment (I was only around the corner at the time, and I was also on time) only to be told that they had no record of me on their books. I was livid. In the end, I had to come back at a later time than I had initially scheduled to get my hair done as the salon owner had to make a few phone calls. My hair was done well but when I did eventually come to take it out, I also ended up pulling out pieces of my own hair as well so needless to say, I will not be going back.

Fast forward to now and I get that itch again – you think I would learn - but I made it a rule not to put up with rubbish. I contact a woman who keeps posting advertisements all over the internet. She assures me that she’ll get back to me the following day and to this day, I’m still waiting for her to get back to me. Now it may seem like a small issue – I could have merely contacted her myself – but I’ve started to realise that promoting a service, sort of makes you a business person. And in business, it’s really important to do as you say you will. In Japan, when a Japanese company says they’ll call you back, they call you back. In fact, any decent organisation would do the same. That simple mistake says to me that this woman is unreliable so I will not be contacting her again either.

Even in Japan, the black hairdressers or hair doers here are not doing much to deter my preconceptions of them. I’m not sure why I thought another country would make things different but I do believe in giving chances. That said, I think ultimately, if I’m to avoid disappointment, I should probably simply learn how to cornrow my hair myself. In fact, to any black woman, looking to live abroad, while it is nice to have someone else take care of your hair for you, this would be my advice. Learn to do your hair yourself. Certainly, it’s time consuming but it’ll cost you less overall, you’ll avoid disappointment and feel a great sense of reward knowing that you can put together your own hair on your own.



Tuesday, 25 November 2014

End of an Era ~ Tribute to Hiroshima




Sad times.

For in a matter of days, I will be jumping ship and moving to a new city in a new prefecture, thousands of miles away. But while I have made it known that I would be moving to Hiroshima, I realise that I haven’t really taken to time out to talk about the city in itself. Famously, it’s known as one of the places where the Americans dropped their bomb but in the year that I have been here (and that year has flown by) I have come to enjoy and cherish Hiroshima as my home. It has become more than just a piece of Japanese history but a piece of mine as well. So today I am going to toast Hiroshima in all its greatness.

 Fuku-Chan

I arrived in Hiroshima at night and spent the rest of it in a hotel but the following day as I began the process of moving into my apartment, the very first restaurant I was introduced to was this little number. Hiroshima is famous for okonomiyaki or its original style of Japanese pancakes which, unlike others, are made with yakisoba noodles. I immediately fell in love with this style of okonomiyaki and would often bring visiting friends and guests to this restaurant at every opportunity. I visited other okonomiyaki restaurants but none could compare to the taste that was Fuku Chan. It’s also conveniently located just outside Hiroshima station and often gets busy. I would highly recommend this restaurant. They boast an English menu and their okonomiyaki with cheese is simply to die for.

Peace Memorial Park

This is probably one of the most famous areas within Hiroshima city. Within walking distance is the equally famous Atomic Bomb Dome. One of the very few buildings to partially survive the bomb all those years ago. The park itself is stunning, littered with various artefacts and tributes to that fateful day. It is also the location of the Peace Memorial Museum which I would both highly recommend and also warn that you should brace yourself. I went in expecting to be a tourist, snap a few photos and what have you. I came out feeling extremely heavy hearted. I actually went in a second time, discovered some new stuff and felt equally as heavy-hearted as the first time. I will not be going in there again but it’s definitely something I would say everyone should see at least once.

Hondori Street

This shopping haven is the busiest and longest shopping strip in Hiroshima city. As I lived within easy commute, every once in a while I would pop to Hondori for my shopping needs. Obviously, shopping for clothing in Japan is relatively difficult for me but Hondori housed a few known brands such as H&M and Uni Qlo so I’d find myself frequently there. It also has quite a few restaurants and other forms of entertainment. It was also here where I got my iPhone and where I went to my first family restaurant, hilarious at the time, known as, Bikkuri Donkey (Surprise Donkey). Nearby is the famous meet-up spot known as Alice Garden and a relatively large Don Quijote – one of the only places where I would walk in with the intention of only buying one item, and end up coming out with a bag full of stuff. It gets insanely busy on weekends – obviously – so I preferred going there in the week.

Round One

I discovered this place a little late but Round One is a giant arcade conveniently located in the vicinity of Hondori street. It possesses eleven floors of gaming goodness. UFO catchers, pachinko slots and other general arcade games litter the first couple of floors. Mario anyone? Upper levels boast darts (which I’ve come to really enjoy), billiards, table tennis, golf and even a batting hut. Everything else is bowling and karaoke so if you fancy a fun night out – Round One closes ridiculously late – I would highly recommend this place. I had actually intended to become a member but circumstances being what they are, I held off. If I find another one however, you can bet I’m gonna be signing up.


Aeon Mall

This giant mall was located about twenty minutes walk from my house and like Hondori, has many shops and other forms of entertainment. The name was recently changed to Aeon Mall but veterans know it, nostalgically, as Diamond City. When I first went to the supermarket here, I spent over three hours inside, finding my way around and figuring out which products were what. Later, I would buy my heater, fan and a couple other small appliances here. Once, I bought a month’s worth of shopping and carried all eight bags and my rucksack back home. I’m sure it must have looked a little strange me carrying all those bags and believe me, it’s not something I will ever attempt again. I am quite strong but even my body has its limits. On other occasions, I would meet friends for meals, shop or watch movies. I was very fortunate that this place was so nearby.


Fitting that I snapped this
at night considering that
I both arrived in Hiroshima
and left it at this time of the
day.
Hiroshima Station

Why would I consider Hiroshima station worth a mention? Well, if there was always a place I was passing through, it was Hiroshima station. Whether I was travelling to work or meeting up with friends, Hiroshima station was the place. I also became a big fan of the Starbucks here and would frequent it after I had my Japanese classes in the afternoon. Not all the staff were as friendly as those in the afternoon but they alone made me a loyal customer. The only thing that annoyed me about Hiroshima station was the constant construction works. It made travelling from one side of the station to the other take five minutes longer than it should have. Besides this, Hiroshima station was something of a home base for me. I have a lot of memories here. 


Hiroshima City International Center

In addition to the Hiroshima International Center (HiC) that’s located in the Hondori area, both institutes boast one thing in common – free Japanese lessons. Anywhere in the world, English is big business and you’d be hard pressed to find free English lessons in the UK unless you know where to look but in Japan, for the clueless foreigner, Japanese study is encouraged. I attended lessons for a year and learnt a lot from the volunteers that taught here. Though HiC also boasts free lessons and one on one sessions but I found the City Center a lot more fruitful overall and that’s why for me, it’s worthy of a mention

Nagarekawa

Generally considered a bit of a bad area by the locals, Nagarekawa is Hiroshima’s evening district. People generally come here to party. This area is littered with Host and Hostess clubs, bars, restaurants, and after a certain time, many drunk people. I generally came here to go to the very few foreigner heavy night clubs and/or bars. There is also an American style hole in the wall known as New York New York where I got to eat a chilly cheese dog for the first time (at around four ‘o clock in the morning). I’m not sure how genuine of a replica it was in comparison to the US, but it was damn good. So yes, if you are a party animal, Nagarekawa is the place.


Poplar

Poplar is a conbini chain and while I prefer Seven Eleven because the food and what have you is generally better, there was one particular branch of Poplar that held a place in my heart. Located about two minutes from my front door, I would often pop here in the evening, after work or if I fancied something a little bit sweet (or savoury). The customer service at this particular Poplar was always on point. The guys working here weren’t particularly chatty with me but I liked that they didn’t treat me any differently to anyone else. They were always polite to me. Even that time when I came in out of the rain asking for an umbrella (kasa) and made the mistake of saying “keys” (kaigi) instead. As a result, I was always in there so thanks for the service boys. Maybe I’ll be back some day.

~

So, I’m sure some of this seems a little strange, but these were the highlights from my time in Hiroshima. These places will forever stand out for the moments and the memories I made here. Thus, for anyone looking to teach abroad in Japan, I say – forget Tokyo. Sure, it’s the most happening place in Japan. You’ll never be bored there as you’re spoilt for choice but you’ll certainly be out of pocket because Tokyo is not cheap. Hiroshima city is a fairly big city in itself boasting over a million people. But I saved a helova lot of money here simply because the standard of living is cheaper – and this includes the occasion trip to other prefectures, and frequent weekends out with friends. It’s also a very chill lifestyle. I only really saw it at its busiest during a baseball game (I never got to go to one unfortunately) and during a national holiday. Nevertheless, it made me appreciate its relaxed nature compared to the craziness of Tokyo – and heck, even London. People are friendly – not everybody but such is life; you’ll come across many a tourist and many an opportunity.

Hiroshima was epic. But now I guess it’s time for me to begin the next adventure.



Monday, 3 November 2014

Moving House ~ The First

Well, I’ve finally done it. It took hours of scouting the internet, sending in CVs and only six interviews, but I finally managed to find a new job. The perks include smaller classes, a British boss and the opportunity to teach adults. 


The con – it’s all the way in Odawara, Kanagawa so I’ve had to begin the process of relocating.

Now it’s no secret to foreigners and Japanese people alike that moving house here is no walk in the park. Japan is a relatively nice and honest place to live but one of the hardest things to do here is to actually relocate. There are so many hoops to jump through and con artists out there keen to cheat you out of your money, so you have to have your wits about you. It’s easy to get swindled so it’s best to clue yourself in.
~
Typically, in order to move house, you are generally expected to pay the following things:


First month’s rent. This is a given.

Security deposit. Also a given. And it’s refundable at the end of contract.

Agency commission. Understandable. However, sometimes an agency fee can also equate to a month’s rent.

Key money. This is basically gift money for the landlord and is always non-refundable. Say goodbye to another month’s rent.

Fire insurance. You know – in case you set the house on fire. I would have thought this was covered by the security deposit but nope.

Maintenance. This is usually added on to your monthly rent. It’s usually only a couple thousand yen but it mounts every month. For the Brits out there, I guess this could be equated to council tax. For everyone else, maybe building maintenance?

Guarantor. In the case that you can’t find a suitable guarantor for your apartment – the person who fits the bill if you can’t – the estate agent might suggest a third party organisation to be a guarantor for you. And of course, they need to be paid.

Lock exchange. You know – to change the locks. I don’t really see the point of this one.

Renewal. So moving into an apartment is one thing but if you want to continue living there, sometimes you’re required to pay a renewal fee too. Another month’s rent.

Cleaning. And if you do decide to move out, don’t think you’re getting out too easily either. Some places will charge an extortionate cleaning fee so they can make it fresh and nice for the next tenant.
~

Now obviously, this is the worst case scenario and I’m sure there have been circumstances where some people haven’t had to pay all of the above but sometimes, they have to. So be prepared to part with a lot of money.

I of course, went the foreigner route at first and searched online via the infamous Gaijinpot website but Odawara is a smaller city and Gaijinpot only really possesses decent housing in and around the Tokyo area. The only houses they had for Odawara were, what is referred to as a 1K. What this kind of apartment entails is one big room with bathroom and tiny kitchenette. Having spent my first year in exactly that, I wanted something bigger so in the end, I went the Japanese route. I found a website called AtHome, perused some houses and found one that I was interested in.

If I’m honest, I didn’t actually do the leg work. I’m based in Hiroshima and Kanagawa is far so my new boss and his wife decided to check the house out for me. The house was indeed lovely. It was a 2DK on the ground floor with a balcony – or two roomed apartment with kitchen and bathroom area. On the website, it had assured me that there was no key money or deposit to be included and the price was reasonable. I had also been warned to expect a headache. And headache we got.

When it came to discussing the price, the “estate agent” began rattling off a whole bunch of different things. It turned out that there was not only a deposit (not what the website had said) but there was a deposit to reserve it as well (of which would be refundable if I decided not to take the house). There was maintenance (which I expected), a fire deposit (of which I hadn’t expected), and a ridiculously pricey cleaning fee. According to my new boss, it actually took them a while to get the total figure out of the estate agent but it was ridiculous and it made them absolutely livid.

I wasn’t there in person so I couldn’t feel the aggravation per se, but I know that it took a lot of back and forth negotiations and some getting angry to sort it all out. In the end, we’d found out that the guy from AtHome was simply a middle man between us and the actual estate agent. When they had spoken to the real guy in charge, it had turned out that the price to “reserve” the house had been a lie. It was actually free to reserve and the total price to pay was dropped to something more reasonable. The cleaning fee was still ridiculous however and the deposit was still present despite the website saying something else.


Fortunately however, it really is who you know. One of my boss’ students happened to be in real estate and had a house for rent. They went to check that place out. It was also a 2DK and the guy had offered to throw in a bike and a stove as a gift. The house was also lovely and unlike the previous one was on the second floor – which I actually prefer. Discussions for the price were negotiated, guarantor was sorted and I will sign for that house on at the end of the week.
Headache terminated.

Since then, I checked back on the AtHome website, and the apartment I had been looking at has now vanished. It turned out they were going to renovate it and I wouldn’t have been able to move in until December which is too late for me. I personally think this was just a cop out – a way for them not have to deal with us anymore – but personally, I think I got the better deal.

I’ve also spoken to a number of people who have moved house in Japan. All mention having problems or spending more money than they had to. One guy mentioned being told he had to pay for something called a Drain Outlet fee by which they sterilise the drain outlet. According to him however – having worked in real estate himself – the price they charge and the job that’s done do not add up so he refused to pay that and instead had them clean the air conditioner to which they obliged. It makes me consider how important some of these fees really are if some estate agents are happy to bend the rules.
~
In preparation for the signing, I’ve been told I’ll need to following things:

Residence card. All foreigners who intend to live, work and study in Japan are issued a residence card. By law, we must carry it with us at all times.

Passport. A given.

Health insurance card. I’m not sure why this is needed – especially because I’ve never used mine.

Bank book. A given.

Inkan. This is a stamp with my surname in katakana printed on it. In the UK, we sign for things. In Japan, if you have one, you use an inkan.

Juminhyou. Apparently this is residence record attained from the Ward Office where I registered my current address. I’ve been told it doesn’t take long to obtain it but I’m expecting hurdles because of my limited Japanese ability.

Payment. Obviously.
~

As I now almost have an apartment to move into, I’ve also looked into removal arrangements. It was suggest to me to use Kuroneko to send my stuff to my new address as I haven’t much stuff. There was only one person who could speak English in the whole of my area so after a week of not receiving an email, I contacted them via phone and managed to get things underway. So for the most part, I’m almost ready to go. I have some loose ends to tie up in Hiroshima with my current place of residence and my company of course, but I’m hoping everything will go smoothly. I don’t think I can take another headache.

Wish me luck. 

Friday, 19 September 2014

Interview Experience ~ The First

So this might come as news to some of you, but I’ve decided to jump ship and look for work with another company. I’ve been scouting the interweb searching for new opportunities. I’d had a few bites, a couple of Skype interviews but I don’t think anything could have prepared me for my very first face to face interview in Japan. Because if I have ever experienced culture shock since being here, this is the very first time that I’ve been truly aware of it.

I interviewed for a position with a company called Berlitz. They are well-known in English teaching circles and apparently there was a branch in the Fukuyama city. After three weeks of back and forth emails (and a week waiting for a response), an interview was confirmed and I made all the necessary preparations. Because I couldn’t attend an interview at the scheduled time, I asked if I could interview earlier due to work commitments. They obliged so I was grateful.

Taking the Shinkansen would have gotten me to Fukuyama in twenty minutes but it’s also super expensive so I opted to take a local train instead. This was expected to take just under two hours so I bit the bullet, woke up seriously early, put together a moderately formal outfit and made my journey. I arrived there over an hour early and decided to find the location. The school was not what I was expecting. It was a rather old-looking structure on the first floor and there was no Berlitz logo in sight. I was feeling extremely sleep deprived so I sought to find a coffee shop but alas, at 9:30am in the morning, not a one was open.

Maybe this was a sign of things to come.

I opted for some water instead, downed about half the bottle and then decided to do the Japanese thing and arrive a little bit early. I walked up the steps and came face to face with about seven Japanese men sitting in an office. They gawked at me in shock and I suddenly felt extremely small despite the fact that I towered over most of them. I bid them “hello” and then my interviewer exited the office and an awkward introduction occurred whereby he confirmed my name and invited me to take off my shoes. What I found strange was that he didn’t even introduce himself.

Just pretend that this guy is Japanese and you've
basically got my interview today.
I was led into a classroom and the interview began. It turned out that Berlitz was opening a new school at the station and that our current interview location was an English cram school. I was asked a bunch of questions to do with my current experience and whether I could handle new ones. More often than not, he would simply make random grunts as I spoke but whether they were in approval or disproval, I don’t know. What I found peculiar however was that he would often repeat the same sorts of questions but in a different way and often asked me about my life in Japan. Whether he was trying to make me feel at ease or it was a simple interview tactic, again, I really couldn’t tell you.

The bomb was dropped however when he implied that they were really looking to fulfil the remaining part-time position as all the full-time ones had been taken. I can’t say my heart sank but in order to sustain my life in Japan, I know that I require something full-time. I expected him to terminate my interview right there and then but shortly afterwards, he stated that it was time for me to demo a lesson.

Now in the email he sent me, I had been given information about the “students” in my demo. I was to demo for two students, one of pre-intermediate level and one of upper-intermediate level. I had expected that my interviewer, plus another member of the Berlitz team would pretend to be students of that level; this was what I’m used to I suppose. Instead of two, however, I actually got three native Japanese students and this time, my heart did sink as I’d only prepared content for two students.

I started off okay. I introduced my vocabulary but as I moved in the meat of demo, I forgot to teach some of my content. I had also created worksheets but as I instigated the final task, I realised that even these were poorly structured. The “students” laughed about it and so did I, but I truthfully was dying inside. I finished the task and then wasn’t sure what to do until one of the “students” stepped outside the room and called the interviewer back in. As soon as he appeared, he muttered a rather informal “that’s it” and I said goodbye to the “students”.

Earlier, my interviewer had made a joke about covering my travel expenses. When he returned again, he handed an envelope with 5000 yen in it. I was so shocked that I’m not sure if I accepted it correctly (you’re supposed to accept with both hands in Japan) and shortly afterwards, I dropped the materials I’d used in the demo lesson all over the floor. I felt so clumsy and wanted to escape as quickly as possible until I was told that one of my “students” would drop me to the station. Again, I was shocked because these sorts of things do not happen in the UK. We are never reimbursed travel expenses and nobody offers to drive an interview candidate to the station. What’s more, the station was only a ten minute walk away also, so I found this extremely particular.

It was only after getting into yet another stranger’s car that I realised that this “third student” had probably been sent there to observe me as I demoed my lesson. I just hadn’t been told this and I really wish I had, because then I could have focused on the other two. I tried to instigate a conversation in the car and then fell silent until he started talking to me again so I spoke to him a bit more freely. He took me to the station as planned. I thanked him, we bowed in farewell and I couldn’t have scurried away into that station fast enough.

Upon reflection, I think even before having the interview, I knew I didn’t want the job as much. What I wanted however was the interview experience as it had been well over a year since I’d interviewed last. But I didn’t realise that I would actually be walking into a purely Japanese environment; I was expecting to see one or two foreigners walking around. As a result, I probably would have done a lot more research but I’m now starting to realise that the email address I’d be corresponding with should have been a dead giveaway. It had been created through Yahoo Mail.

The people in question were pleasant. They didn’t do anything bad to me but I felt a little shaken after the experience - epic culture shock, I believe. I highly doubt any of the men in that facility had met a foreigner like me before and I’d never been in an environment quite like that either. So as soon as I got on the train, I contacted people and found out that apparently, it’s not uncommon for companies to reimburse travel expenses to interview candidates here. It didn’t make me feel any better; I felt really weird accepting the money but I know that it isn’t custom in Japan to turn away kindness.


I was told I would be contacted with the result but I’d be surprised if they offered me the position. Irrespective, as I said, I don’t think I want the position as much and I especially don’t want a part time role. It was certainly an experience however. Next time, hopefully, I’ll be more prepared…and less sleep-deprived.

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Date Experience ~ The First

It is common knowledge that when it comes to dating and romance in Japan for foreign (especially non-Asian) women, we have it harder. While Japanese women seem to fawn over our male counterparts, Japanese men are notoriously shy and some are even intimidated by us so the likelihood of being approached is a lot slimmer. We usually have to do the leg work. That said however, I actually was approached and ended up on an unlikely date of sorts so it isn’t entirely impossible.

If I’m honest, I didn’t actually realise it was a date at first. Or maybe it was just that I didn’t want to believe it but I should have known really. I met the guy in a club and he made it extremely clear that he fancied me. I remember finding him annoying at first because I don’t usually like meeting people in clubs. So his behaviour – to me – was like some sort of night-predator stalking its prey. Nevertheless, his antics soon shifted from annoying to hilarious, and by the end of the evening, I had given him my number. He texted me the following morning and we instigated a back and forth regime for three weeks before we met again – although I had stated that I just wanted to be friends.

Clearly, this was not the case for him however.

He picked me up in his car.

Yeah, I know. I got into a car with a stranger. But the journey we were going to make was not only going to take a couple of hours but would have racked up some serious expenses via public transport. I like saving money so I took a chance and let him drive us.

He actually opened the door for me if I recall and despite the language barrier – his English wasn’t so great and my Japanese was worse – we managed to communicate which was awesome. A friend of his had burnt a bunch of CDs for him as well so we had good conversation flowing and good music for atmosphere. We talked pretty much non-stop all the way to our destination and when we arrived, he insisted on buying me lunch and letting me take pictures.

While on a peer, I dropped my chopsticks and he got me new ones. He also insisted on walking on the side of the pavement closest to the cars; I think this was him being protective as this was constant on the date (and even in the club when another guy tried to move to me mind you). We checked out a shrine; I took more pictures and then we travelled to our second destination. Again, he insisted on paying for me. I tried to race him to the ticket booth but he wasn’t having it. More sight-seeing; more conversation; more jokes. He also showcased his confidence by bidding a couple of old ladies hello as we walked passed and navigating us safely back to his car.

Another drive led us to our third destination; I took more photos. Earlier, we had stopped off at a service station and he’d bought me a drink and at this time I had finished it. So while I took photos, he insisted on trying to find a bin for them.

He then drove me all the way back our meeting spot to which I began to notice how tired he was getting. After all, he’d probably spent the equivalent of four to five hours driving around. He would open the window to pump some cold air into the car in order to wake himself up but then worry about me because I was getting cold. I insisted he open the window though. What was more, a friend actually called him during this time to which he actually announced on the phone that he was on a date which made me tense a little. I mean, after all the buying stuff it should have been pretty obvious but I guess him saying it sort of made it seem more real.

We went to a Starbucks where I finally got to pay for something for him; I bought him a Matcha Latte. I said that I owed him but he said that he owed me for the drink and insisted more than once that he wanted to drive me to my house. I wasn’t comfortable with him knowing where I lived – which is also a bit stupid considering that I had actually gotten into a car with him – and plus, he looked virtually finished for the day. So I said I’d walk and bid him farewell; we parted at the station. He had asked me to message him to let him know I’d gotten home and I did. He responded when he got home and I did as well and then that was us for the evening.

As I sit here now though, I realise that I actually had a really good time but had failed to mention this in my message to him which might be why he virtually disappeared off the face of the earth. We even managed to talk about the differences between Japanese and English including things like intonation which I thought would be difficult to talk about considering the barrier. In all honesty, I think we surprised ourselves – or at least I was pleasantly surprised.

After the date however, I remember thinking to myself “what the hell have I done?” It was never my intention to become romantically involved with anyone out here – in fact, I had resigned myself to being single for my duration here; and yet, here I’d been…on a date. I felt bad because I felt like I’d led him on. I can’t say I didn’t enjoy the attention but I was uncertain of him. I'm a tall woman and even taller by Japanese standards and he was a lot shorter than me (yes, even I am a little shallow). I also couldn’t escape the notion that all he was really looking for was a “good time” and that he was more than happy to "pay for it" (he could certainly afford it). The thing is, while it's a lovely thing when someone is willing to pay for you, I'm not used to being as spoiled as I was, and it makes me feel uncomfortable (and indebted). 

But I look back on it now and realise that besides these two concerns, there was nothing really wrong with him. He was polite to me; he had good taste in music; he was established (he was an architect) and above all, he seemed highly secure and confident – whereas I’m very used to attracting men who either lack confidence or have insecurities.


I’m still unsure of starting a relationship here as while I’m young, it won’t be long before I’m thirty and need to start thinking about other areas of my future more deeply. But I would have definitely liked to keep in touch with this one. Guess it just wasn’t meant to be…

Saturday, 9 August 2014

The Japan Files ~ Kid Edition


Look at them.

Adorable aren’t they?

Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, children are full of life. They make you laugh; they make you cry; they make you grin from ear to ear with their incredible antics, and we as the adults just can’t help cooing at them. And Japanese children are no different. Some of them are adorable; shy little critters that make your heart melt. And some of them are genki grapplers, full of energy and bursting at the seams. But there are certain things about children over here that I’ve noticed that are a little bit worrisome. And even though my Japanese is still below par, I’ve started to pick up on things that once again, make me raise my eyebrows.

It’s been noted over many years that children seem to have an uncanny obsession with genitalia here. They feel quite comfortable talking about it and making jokes about it while their adult counterparts completely shy away from it (unless they’re half cut, of course). I’ve heard a three-year-old girl giggling about “cold boobs” and six to seven-year-olds having a “penis” discussion. They chortle about toilet habits and have no concept of inappropriateness. And to be honest, the lack of understanding – of knowing what’s right and wrong - is common in children all over the world but what I don’t understand is why they talk about this particular topic so freely here. After all, the Japanese are considered a conservative people, are they not?

And these antics don’t just stop at talking, but continue onto exploring it as well. You see, foreign teachers here tend to be larger in stature, which means that in some cases, our assets are also much larger. But it isn’t uncommon for children here to reach for said assets and give it a quick poke, or for some of the more confident children, a well pronounced punch in the goolies.

Children – 1, Teacher – down!

What’s more is the childhood phenomenon known as “koncho”, whereby children put their two index fingers together in an attempt to shock each other – or adults too – but prodding one forcibly in the anus. To them, it’s harmless fun, but to people like me, it’s a giant question mark. I mean, who does that really? Why would anybody want to voluntarily stick their fingers into someone else’s ass?

I’ve had a five-year-old boy attempt to flash me. Please note that not only was there a co-teacher in the room but also, his father was present – so why he felt comfortable enough to do that was way beyond me. I’ve also had a six-year-old mimic pinching nipples which was not only in front of his older brother but in front of a selection of parents coming to pick up their children as well. Young children here seem highly sexualised – whether they’re aware or not – and I’m really not sure where they’re getting it from.

Heck, when I was six-years-old, I found it embarrassing to say the word “kiss”. I didn’t know about the birds and the bees until I was eight, but I knew that discussing certain topics or making certain gestures was highly inappropriate (if I knew them at all).

But maybe it’s because of the customs here. As I mentioned in a previous entry, porn is readily available here. It’s even accessible at your local convenience store at eye-level of an unsuspecting child. What’s more is that cartoons are slightly more grown-up here – or generally what we in the west would consider to be. Twelve-year-olds can watch fairly-realistic cartoon violence, while four-year-olds can tune into cartoons like Crayon Shin Chan who I’ve been told, has been noted to pretend he’s a gay cross-dresser.

Note: I didn’t even know what a cross-dresser was until pre-adolescence.

Culturally, there are also a couple of annual penis festivals that take place. These are often a celebration of fertility but I suspect that if a child saw a giant phallus walking around, he might somehow interpret it to be okay to whip out his private parts…

As a result, I often have children attempt to get a rise out of me by screaming out rude words. Whether they’re simply doing it because of my lack of Japanese, or whether they’re doing it just because is beyond me. But as a child, if I ever did say a rude word, it was never in the presence of an adult.

What I’ve also noticed however is how the reverse seems to happen between our two cultures. Because children will freely discuss these things here but as they age, it becomes more taboo and for some people into adulthood, sex and the like becomes almost embarrassing to talk about. It’s something considered private despite its relatively easy access. But in the west, we started out relative innocent. And then we went to school, learnt secrets from our friends, had special lessons at school and now into adulthood, we can freely talk about it with no qualms whatsoever.

Even now, in the west, there’s debate on the sexualisation of children. We may not put our porn on the bottom shelf, but subliminally, sex is everywhere and it’s caused quite a stir. But it’s because we acknowledge it as a problem, that people are working towards trying to keep children innocent (granted, on the playground, it’s a little difficult). But in Japan, this discussion does not exist. And if there is a concern about children and sex, they’re keeping tight-lipped about it.

So it’s an interesting contrast between our two cultures. A little food for thought. Is it really just the media influencing kids? And is it really influence, when eventually, it’s something they will grow out of? Is this level of intrigue just kids being kids and not knowing where to draw the line? Or is there something else we’re missing completely? 

Sunday, 1 June 2014

Sense and Sensibility ~ Making "Sense" of Japan: Summer Edition

So despite the heat we’ve been getting recently, it’s actually not quite summer here yet so that makes the title a little redundant. But coming from England where “real heat” only surfaces maybe around 25% or so of the year, I can happily say that I am indeed getting my “summer fix”.  That said however, with the emergence of the sun have come a whole new host of question marks that me, as the curious outsider, raise my eyebrows. After all, if you recall, I wrote this entry last year. I was the fresh-faced foreigner cocking my head to one side in confusion trying to piece together the differences between the status quo of my life in the UK and the habits or what have you of those around me in my life here in Japan. And even though I’ve passed the halfway mark, I still tilt my head and wonder to myself “how do they do?”

I mean it’s hot! And I love it. I like the fact that I can walk down the street in the daytime wearing just a t-shirt and I like the fact that I can walk home at night when it’s cooled down a bit wearing just a t-shirt. And sometimes I see the men adopting the same manner but the women simply confuse me. For you see, it is extremely common for me to see women wearing long-sleeved tops and jeans down to their shoes. In one extreme scenario, I once saw a woman wearing a scarf. I double-took because I couldn’t understand how the heat had not gotten to her. Now I know that the Japanese have a thing about modesty here; women do no wear low-cut tops, but once again they’re happy to show off their legs – and sometimes I do mean a lot of leg – whether their encased in tights or not. So for me, it does not compute. That said I once tried to conform to the standard actually and ended up passing out on a train so since then, I’ve decided that I will be exposing my arms for my own personal state if being, whether it fits in with society or not. As for Japanese woman…I solute your tolerance; I really do.

Still on the topic of women in the sun however, it is also very common to see women walking with umbrellas (I guess they’re really parasols) here…in pretty temperate weather. I already knew this would be an occurrence but for someone like me who adores the rays from the sun on her skin, it still seems a bit odd to me. This is because I equate an umbrella with rain and sometimes we do get a barrage of rain that cools us down after a heat wave, but I’ve never seen this kind of custom before and it leads me to wonder if they’re protecting themselves from UV rays, if the idea of tanning is really that taboo or whether its something else entirely. And while the day is pleasant, doesn’t it become annoying having to carry that extra item around with you? It just seems like an inconvenience. I’d rather bask in the day.

As an extension of the above nonetheless, in their apparent desperation to shield themselves from the sun, there seems to be an inconsistency. Now, I’m not sure if this is relevant to nowadays, but I’ve heard through the grapevine that most people don’t really wear sunglasses here. I’ve actually heard a plethora of reasons but the one that stood out to me the most was the one that detailed that Japanese people associate sunglasses with suspicious behaviour. After all, dark glasses hide your eyes and therefore hide your identity – funny how that works – and so you must be up to something screwy if you’re hiding behind a mask. But what doesn’t quite add up to me is that while sunglasses may not be acceptable, it’s perfectly fine to walk around wearing this:

W...T...F indeed
This is a visor. It’s basically the equivalent to this…only big enough to obscure your entire face. I double-took when I saw this for the first time because like the surgical mask in the dark, it looked a little frightening from a distance. In fact, it looks even more suspicious than a pair of sunglasses considering that, you know, it actually truly masks your identity.

Now this last one isn’t really a summer issue; it’s an all-year-round phenomena and it’s common place here in Japan if your face doesn’t fit the status quo. So as most of you are aware, all manner of foreigner or people who don’t quite look fully Japanese are stared at. As I’ve been here for a while, I’ve started to notice it less but if I cross into new territory for the first time, then all eyes are generally on me. Sometimes it can be annoying and on other occasions I don’t really care. I mean heck, if a three-eyed alien with green tentacles walked past, I’d probably stare too. What gets me however is that in Japan – like most places – it’s actually rude to stare. Now if something’s out of the ordinary, I’m gonna wonder about it as well so I understand really, but some people here are quite blatant with it. Their heads will crane a full seventy degrees as I walk past and on one occasion, a man spent the better part of 15 minutes just looking at me...and only me. I would move and so would his head. I would sit down and his head would peak over the banister just to look. Creepiest thing ever. So my gripe is, for a country that prides itself on its levels of politeness; where it tries to accommodate tourists by using English or asking if they’d prefer a fork instead, why can’t this be extended to staring? Where I’m from, if I’m looking at someone, I try not to make it obvious; I implement the “steal a glance” method so the individual isn’t aware that I’m looking. In Japan, however, this is often entirely lost complete with pointing, nudging and general astonishment.

So there you have it. I'm sure there are perfectly logical explanations for the above and as I've said before, I can only deal with it. After all, I'm not in Kansas anymore. But believe me when I say it's hot. And when I finally decide to head to a beach next week (I'm heading to Hagi in Yamaguchi Prefecture), it'll certainly be interesting to see how the Japanese behave in a location that I generally associate with sunbathing, swimming and partial nudity.




Wednesday, 7 May 2014

J-Hoppers ~ The Hostel Experience

For many years, I’d always equated staying in a hostel to staying in a cheap, shoddy little establishment with complete and usually unwashed strangers, who would move between other hostels on their cross country adventures. And don’t get me wrong, moving on from place to place and creating memories through actual experience is great. Travelling across the globe and getting a glimpse of other cultures is something that I’d relish doing if ever given the opportunity, but I’d always considered that I’d take my rest in a hotel somewhere. Hotels are safer, usually cleaner – I don’t have to share my bathroom facilities with anyone - and I certainly don’t have to worry about cooking for myself when I’ve got a breakfast buffet or dinner circuit waiting for me on the ground floor – all inclusive.

But now that I’ve actually joined the work force – albeit in another country – and I’m paying for bills and taxes off my own back – as much as I want to see as much of this country as possible, I’m well aware that my pocket can only stretch so far. What’s more, hotels are bloody expensive because you’re not just paying for a place to sleep but your also paying for the service that comes with it...plus tax most probably. So I started to look at other options for a short getaway. I looked into capsule hotels again but even they can get a bit pricey so I finally bit the bullet and sought out a hostel.

Now J-Hoppers wasn’t the first hostel I stayed in. I actually had my first experience in a hostel in Beppu, Oita called Khaosan. They have a few branches across the country and while the room was adequate and the bed was the most comfortable thing I’ve ever slept on, the shower was disappointing (and ice cold I might add) and it really was only a bed I slept in. So I’ve decided to review my second hostel experience instead considering that I spent my vacation period staying at two separate branches.

J-Hoppers Kyoto
Like Khaosan, J-Hoppers has branches across Japan. Myself and a friend stayed in their Kyoto and Osaka branches. I think the Kyoto branch is a little bit older but staff were really friendly and informative when I had questions and the location was near Kyoto station which was ideal for sightseeing. For the first couple of nights, I stayed in a Female Dorm. There were three bunk beds – each a decent size – with curtains for privacy. I spoke briefly to another girl staying there but for the most part, everyone in my dorm was really quiet, considerate and pretty much kept to themselves.  Contrary to this however, if I saw someone in the hallway I would try to say hello. There were pictures all over the walls of past guests and it made me realise that hostel culture has a real community spirit. I would see perfect strangers gather in the communal areas for a meet and greet, or just hanging out watching television. What’s more, the shower was hot this time and there was a separate toilet on nearly every floor. I was worried about potential queues for the showers but this was never an issue and I often just walked right in.

I stayed in a private dorm during my time in Osaka however and felt that this branch was either newer or more modernised. The showers here were awesome and generally clean; the toilet too. Staff were once again friendly and I spoke briefly to a guy about Kyoto. The sense of community seemed much stronger at this branch however as the hostel often ran events whether they involved drinking at an izakaya or sightseeing at a museum. Recommendations for places to eat were hung on a noticeboard as was a map containing any and all nearby stations, noteable locations and the cost of the ride to get there. The Kyoto branch had its recommendations as well but I felt the Osaka branch possessed more information – I was even able to find folders containing information about popular tourist hot spots which I had a flick through at one point.

J-Hoppers Osaka
Both branches contained wifi and onsite PCs. Both had kitchens, utensils and laundry facilities. In actuality, it was fundamentally the equivalent of a university dorm or giant house. The great unwashed weren’t unwashed at all. They were all just regular people seeking cheaper options of travelling as was I.

The downside I found however was the noise. You can’t control what other people do and even though my roommates were quiet in Kyoto, other guests weren’t always so. Even in Osaka, we encountered a couple of Spanish speakers who couldn’t quite turn down the volume of their voices as well as some drunken stragglers who’d rolled in at around 5am in the morning after a night out. One particular morning, I had the unpleasant experience of finding a few very long black hairs trapped in the shower drain. I found a couple of strands of the same hair on the floor of the toilet not too long after followed by residue of toothpaste stuck to the sink bowl. Some folk just aren’t house-trained unfortunately.

Despite this however, my experience with J Hoppers was overall quite positive. The price was fair; both locations had good transport links and there were restaurants and convenience stores within walking distance. I would certainly look at using them again in future and it’s certainly altered my perspective on hostels a little. I’m just unsure as to whether I would opt to spend a night in a mixed dormitory (with men) as that’s something I’m not comfortable with. What’s more – this was in Japan. I’ve seen the inside of a hostel in the UK before and I have to say that I wasn’t impressed at all.


As for J-Hoppers, I’d give it 3 and a half out of 5 stars.

P.S Don't make the same mistake I did and mistake the owner of J-Hoppers Osaka for some weird old guy. I felt quite embarrassed when I realised that the only reason why he was waving at us was because he'd recognised us from the hostel.

Sunday, 20 April 2014

To Do List ~ The Update

So, in a couple of weeks, I'm about to experience my six month anniversary since touching down in this country that I currently call home. I can't believe I'm nearly at the halfway mark already; it seems like only yesterday that I was attempting to navigate my way around and get used to the customs and what have you. And to be honest, I'm still getting used to it. There's a new experience to be had or means to get accustomed to at every corner. I haven't even braved the hospital visit yet (and I'm hoping I'll never have to) but with every encounter, I learn something new and adding it to my arsenal of life experience is quite encouraging. 

And speaking of experiences, I recall making a sort of Bucket List depicting exactly what I wanted to do when I got here. I actually didn’t expect to get through it as quickly, granted my list was hardly difficult now that I think about it. Many an opportunity presented itself and while I haven’t fully completed it (I've yet to visit a Tokyo or go to a theme) – and then there’s the fact that there are more things I wish to do – I figured an update was necessary. So allow me to check off the items of my list, which I will write in the order that I managed to complete them in.

~

Locate a Love Hotel.

I hadn’t even been in the country three hours and low and behold I came across this little shindig. Granted, it wasn’t me that spotted it but it was within walking distance from where I was staying at the time and since then I’ve been able to spot Love Hotels a lot more easily. Seriously, they are discreet. In front of a regular hotel, you’ll find people heading in and out; you might even come across a doorman; lights are bright and the décor invites you in. At a Love Hotel, I have never seen anyone enter or exit one before. There is nearly always some sort of curtain shielding a great portion of the entrance and sometimes there’s something almost elegant and non-descript about it. I doubt I’ll ever see inside one but can’t say I’m not curious.

Eat Japanese food…and Japan

During my first week in Japan, I took the opportunity to visit a few restaurants. The restaurant that stands out to me most was this traditional Japanese restaurant in Nagoya. There was no English menu but I managed to ask the waitress what she would recommend. She suggested that I have this little concoction called 鳥そばろ丼 (torisobarodon) and it still stands as the best meal I’ve had in Nagoya to this day. I also visited an okonomiyaki restaurant, a ramen hut and a curry house among other places. I have got to say that I cannot complain. I just wish Japan was bigger on cakes as when it comes to dessert, nearly everything is always swimming in cream.

Go to a Karaoke bar

Once again, during my first week, I had to check this off. Myself and a couple others found a Karaoke bar and spent roughly the first twenty minutes trying to figure out how navigate songs utilising a primarily Japanese system. I remember it being quite expensive and wonder if the clerk might have ripped us off because subsequent visits to other karaoke bars suggested cheaper options with a greater variety of songs and all-you-can-drink options. Since living in Japan though, I’ve been to a karaoke bar quite a few times.  The best time seems to be going during the daytime in the middle of the week. (Becoming a member warrants even more discounts). These days I sing quite badly (and cry to myself as to where all that childhood talent went) but I always have a good time belting out old and new classics.

Ride the Shinkansen

Everyone who is anyone talks about the bullet train and how awesome it is. And it is really. You can cover about half of Honshu (the main Japanese island) in about four hours, most of which you can spend asleep. And similar to being on an aircraft, there’s usually someone wondering through serving food and beverages (you have to pay for it though). I’ve ridden the Shinkansen twice now and I’ve got to say that while it’s nice watching stuff whizz by at ridiculous miles per hour, it really was like riding in a plane which isn’t something I’m particularly fond of. Oh, don’t get me wrong – I’m not afraid of heights – but I do get the ridiculously annoying air pressure build up in my ears. And unless I’m wearing some protective ear-gear, it hurts like a mofo. So the next time I ride the Shinkansen, I will be prepared.

Paint the town red


After a gruelling two weeks of training, I was ready to hit the club scene. And while I haven’t been to many clubs in Japan – I always have a good time. The first club I went to included that famous all-you-can-drink option in the entrance fee. My colleagues were ecstatic but all I wanted to do was dance. The music was good for my tastes as I knew most of the songs. Nobody bothered me or tried to invite themselves into my personal space against my will which was doubly lovely. But what did end up irritating me in the morning was the extreme smokiness of the environment. Patrons can smoke indoors and so come morning, my throat was raw and I was miserable. Still had a good time however and I will be going back.

Befriend a local

Japan Guide has a Classifieds section
The internet has been a great way to get connected and I’ve certainly used it to my advantage when looking for friends. Despite Hiroshima being considered relatively small-scale in comparison to bigger cities like Osaka and Tokyo, I’ve managed to establish a few connections with people – both foreigner and Japanese alike. In Hiroshima, it also seems that the foreigner circle is very well connected. If you haven’t met someone yet, it’s likely that you’ve got a friend of two in common and that you’ll cross paths soon enough. Even now I’m still meeting people, whether it be online or in person and with the emergence of the LINE app, I can choose to keep in contact with someone without the awkwardness of exchanging telephone numbers which I consider to be a bit more personal.

Locate a Host Club

While I haven’t been able to procure photographic evidence of this endeavour, I am pretty sure I’ve come across my fair share of Host and Hostess clubs. In actuality, in Hiroshima, the most happening strip of bars, clubs and restaurants is a place called Nagarekawa. I’ve only been along there a few times but I actually went along there in the daytime and saw a couple of closed establishments that make me reckon they’re either Host clubs or Strip clubs. Will I be going in? Probably not. Host clubs require you to empty your pockets and I rather prefer the cheaper option.

Visit a Temple or Shrine

Inside the Gokoku Shrine at Hiroshima Castle
The very first shrine I went to was Aichi Shrine in Okayama. I didn’t actually do anything besides wash my hands at the purification trough (every time I go, I find myself having to relearn the method) and taking a few pictures. It was nice to behold however and as it was midweek, it was very peaceful. When I went to Miyajima however, I went to the Itsukushima Shrine there and tried my hand at a fortune. In Japan, fortunes come in five levels. My fortune at the time was second from the bottom and I was feeling pretty crappy at the time so I thought it was fitting really. Over time, my fortunes have started to get better however and I’ve had the opportunity to watch kannushi (or Shinto Priests) perform rituals. I tend to come across more Shinto shrines than Buddhist ones however.

Learn some Japanese

My Japanese is still quite horrendous. There are a lot of rules within the language that don’t exist in English but I can get around a bit more than I could when I first arrived. In actual fact, I’ve sort of made it a goal of mine to be able to hold a conversation in Japanese by the end of the year. In order to facilitate this, I bought a new book and joined a class which is hosted at one of the international centres here in Hiroshima. I also take part in a one on one class with a volunteer teacher and do a weekly language exchange with a guy in Shiga. I’ve still got a long way to go. I can’t understand informal Japanese very well and Kanji is just out of the question right now but I’m getting there…steadily.

Visit an Onsen

The Hyotan Onsen in Beppu
This actually happened later than I expected it to but there aren’t many onsen in Hiroshima to begin with so what did I do in the end? I decided to take a trip to Japan’s onsen capital – Beppu, in Oita situated on Kyushu island. It was an interesting experience considering that the onsen had a bit of a waterfall inside of it. There were 8 baths in total, one of which was outside and I found the contrast between the heated water and the open air quite relaxing. I also found that I didn't really feel awkward about walking around in my birthday suit despite one woman burning a hole in my back with her stare (maybe it was my tattoo...?). I left feeling relatively relaxed or what I like to call "a state of zen" which may have in effect been both a good and bad thing because I forgot to put my shoes back on at the genkan (entryway) and instead did so at my lockers. Doh!


~

So there you have it; my - for the most part - almost completed bucket list. And don't worry, both Tokyo and the theme park's coming. It's my intention to go to Tokyo some time in September. And I'm hoping to head back down to Kyushu for my rollercoaster fix in a couple of months because it has been far too long since my last adrenaline rush. I feel quite proud that I've managed to check these off though. I'm also fortunate to have been to so many places despite my short time here. So you can bet your bottom yen that I'll be setting up another to-do-list soon enough. Watch this space?