Keitai!

Having finally received my Alien Registration Card, I am now legally able to purchase a keitai (mobile phone). Yesterday, I set out to do just that. What resulted was a typical Tokyo adventure: what should have been a very simple task turned into a titanic struggle against bureaucracy, language barriers and inefficiency.

I started by doing some research on the ‘net. Of the three big telcos in Japan, only Softbank offers prepaid mobile plans and has a comprehensible English section to its web site.

Postpaid plans are the norm for Japanese people, but almost always have a minimum 2 year contract term. Only a few models of phone are available with prepaid plans, and so they have become known as gaijin keitai (foreigners’ phones) and have the street cred of a mid-90’s Nokia brick. Actually, a Nokia brick probably has more cred, because you can play Snake, which I guess has retro-appeal nowadays.

The Softbank web site helpfully informed me that the Harajuku Softbank store “might” have English speaking assistants, so I wandered down there. The store was clean, shiny and white, and full of iPhone 4s. After waiting in line for 20 minutes, I got to a customer service desk and was informed that since the passing of St Steve, the Harajuku store had been modified and now only sold iPhones on postpaid plans. No other phones were available. Maybe I should try the Roppongi store?

A subway ride later, the Roppongi store was a heaving mass of humanity, and a electronic sign said that there was a 90 minute wait to be served. Luckily, after taking a ticket, one of the attendants enquired as to what I was here for. After I explained, he apologised and said that there were no prepaid phones in stock. “We only get, maybe, 2 or 3 prepaid phones in each day. They usually get sold when the store opens. Maybe you could come back tomorrow at 9? Or maybe you want to get an iPhone on a 2 year plan instead?”

I asked whether there might be another Softbank store with prepaid phones in stock. Apparently not. But perhaps I could try the Don Quixote down the street?

I briefly considered explaining to the clerk the delicious irony here — ie, his suggesting I go to a store called Don Quixote to continue my apparently hopeless quest — but decided that the reference might not translate, and anyway, I’d probably just come across as a bit of a twat.

So, spying a giant waving his arms in the distance (at least, that’s what it looked like, but perhaps I need to change my contact lens prescription) I spurred on my trusty steed and gallopped into the dark heart of Roppongi.

Don Quixote is, actually, a really awesome place. Imagine an Aussie $2 shop, but slightly more ecclectic and a bit more up-market. They sell bicycles, appliances, clothes, booze, pharmaceuticals and a vast array of junk at low, low prices. On the 3rd floor, a pretty girl dressed as a witch (halloween is huge here) was trying to flog big bottles of Moet for the equivalent of AUD $35. What a bargain!

Up on the 5th floor, I waded through a sea of electronics, resisted the siren song of the video games section, and ended up at the mobile phone counter. A dude with passable English said that yes! we have prepaid mobile phones here. Well, one model, anyway – the gaijin keitai special.

What followed was an hour of form-filling. I had to show my passport, my Alien Registration Card, independent proof of my address, and provide a land-line telephone number where I could be contacted. This last one, apparently required by law, was a bit tricky. My need for a mobile phone was urgent precisely because there is no land line at the place I’m staying at. In the end, I volunteered the enquiry number for the company through which I rent my room. I really hope that the phone company doesn’t call that number.

Once the forms were done, the Don’s assistant (let’s call him Sancho) told me that once I’d paid, he would need to fax the forms off to Softbank HQ. Within an hour, Softbank would respond in one of two ways: an approval for my application, or a rejection based on the content of the forms we’d filled out, in which case I’d get my money back. With a straight face, Sancho informed me that about 50% of the time, the application would be rejected because the facsimile transmission would render some part of the forms unreadable by the time they got to Softbank. I said I hoped we had good luck, and Sancho nodded.

So for an hour I wandered around Roppongi. I ate a delicious waffle. I drank an awful cup of coffee.

Once I’d tracked down Sancho again (when I came back, he was on a different floor), I received the joyous news that my application had been successful! A mere 20 minutes of further form-filling later, I was the proud owner of a gaijin keitai, whereupon Sancho promptly informed me that said phone does not come with a charger (because a phone charger is an optional extra??) and that I would need to buy one spearately. Luckily, the Don could provide — at a moderate additional cost, of course.

I quite like my phone (specs and pictures here, for the techies – note that mine is black, not pink). It has English, and it makes and receives calls. It has a camera, and if I had the right cable (available, I’m told, at Don Quixote for a moderate additional cost), I could make it talk to my computer. It was quite cheap: about AUD$30, plus another $25 for the charger, and I also had to buy $35 worth of credit. Credit lasts for two months and must be purchased in minimum amounts of $35, so I guess that works out to a minimum monthly spend of about $20, which isn’t bad.

What this episode has confirmed for me is something I’ve been thinking about for a while now. The Japanese are amazingly brilliant at most aspects of customer service — those who’ve been to Japan will know what I mean when I say that. But at the same time, it’s not uncommon to have seriously frustrating customer experiences here; experiences that one wouldn’t put up with in the West. I can’t seem to work out why that should be. What is wrong with Softbank’s supply chain if it can only deliver 2 or 3 prepaid phones (surely a core product that it’s been supplying for years) to one of its busiest stores? Why on Earth, in 2011, does a telco company need to rely on paper forms and fax machines in order to sign up a new customer??

This phenomenon is not one experienced only by gaijin. Japanese people appear to suffer exactly the same frustrations, and simply accept it as a part of life.

I guess this is the value of travel: to see how things can be done differently, and what works, and what doesn’t.

Nikko part 2

When last you heard from this correspondent, he’d bravely consumed a Chocobanana in the face of all common sense and reason. How would this tasty snack interact with the insidious hangover of the night before?

Believe it or not, that Chocobanana was some sort of miracle cure! Forget egg yolks and tobasco sauce. Next time you have a hangover, squirt some Ice Magic over a banana!

I can’t explain it; I have no idea what quirk of chemistry allows chocolate and banana to dispel nausea, shakiness and headaches in an adult human male.

I did purchase said Chocobanana next to a temple. I’m normally very skeptical of such claims, but could there be some small possibility that there was a higher power at work here? Did the great Shogun himself, Tokugawa Ieyasu, recognising a kindred spirit, return from the grave to bless the Chocobanana that I ate?

I guess we’ll never know. My morale restored (not to mention my ability to walk in a straight line), I prepared to explore the World Heritage-listed shrines of Nikko.

Bizzarely, considering the grace and grandeur of the shrine complexes, the most renowned attraction at Nikko is a small carving on the wall of a stable. The Three Wise Monkeys (above) are, famously, an admonition that children should see no evil, speak no evil, and hear no evil. They form part of a larger sequence, showing all the stages of a monkey’s life from birth to parenthood.

Below is the stable where the monkeys have lived for almost 400 years:

The shrines at Nikko, set amongst an ancient forest, are just amazing. A must-do day trip from Tokyo.

Next installment: hangin’ at the Imperial pad…

Dedicated to the handsome Pharmaceutical Inspector of Tokyo

So I haven’t told Tamago this yet but I figure a public forum like this is the perfect place to let him know that I’ve found someone else while he’s been away. Granted, he lives in a different country and we’ve never met but I’m feeling a very special connection to him right now.

That’s right, the ravishing Pharmaceutical Inspector of Tokyo has approved my Yakkan Shoumei and lovingly sent it back to me today! I think we’re getting serious. As an average Australian failure of natural selection I was a bit worried about this but now I am officially going to survive a year in Japan.

The Japanese, as it turns out, are paranoid about me coming into their country and selling medicines illegally to make a quick buck. Although I think that this would be an excellent way to make some money on the side, I have respected their wishes and have successfully applied for my Yakkan Shoumei, or Medicines Importation Permit, which basically says I have permission to bring in a certain amount of medicine for my own personal use.

Here comes the super informative part: if you are planning on going to Japan and taking with you more than one month’s supply of presciption medicine YOU NEED ONE OF THESE. If you don’t have it and you get searched at the airport they’ll think you’re running a prescription med drug ring in Japan which you don’t want.

So here is how you get one:

Go to this website from which you can get the magical form. It’s called “Q and A for Those Who Bring Medicines Into Japan” (the spunky Pharmaceutical Inspector isn’t great at English grammar but we’re working on that)

http://japan.usembassy.gov/e/acs/tacs-medimport.html

Follow the examples given and you should be fine. Include photocopies of all your prescriptions and if possible, letters from the doctors/optometrists/dentists/faith healers that prescribed them to verify that you need that amount. I filled in the explanation of the products as well as printed off the product information booklets from the internet because I’m paranoid and apparently hate trees. Lastly, include your email address on your forms just in case there’s a problem because it’s quicker for the lovely Pharmacuetical Inspector to get back to you that way.

A few little surprises that popped up:

The address you have to send it to is really long so leave yourself lots of room on the envelope. I can hear you all rolling your eyes at me for mentioning this but seriously IT’S REALLY REALLY LONG. Also you can get ‘Coupon –Réponse International’ things from the post office to send instead of return stamps. I was worried that the dodgy uni post office wouldn’t have any but they surely did. Good on you Australia Post.

Also, and this was a big shock to Tamago and I who are both sight impaired, contact lenses count as imported prescription medicines. Who knew?? So if you plan to take more than one month’s supply of contacts then include them in your Yakkan application.

If anyone has any additional advice, comments or questions to contribute they are more than welcome.

 

Nikko part 1 – Festival!

Very early on Monday morning (5:30, to be precise) I dragged myself out of bed and tried to assess just how serious my hangover was.

I was capable of standing upright; that was a definite plus. I also seemed to be in possession of my wallet, keys and passport. So far so good. I certainly felt a bit dizzy, and a bit nauseous. But nothing that would stop me making my epic journey to Nikko.

By 8 o’clock, I was bundled into a seat on the Nikko train at Asakusa Station, and wondering whether I had made a miscalculation. The Red Bull I’d just drunk did not seem to be agreeing with me. Also, the train was incredibly crowded. Thankfully, I’d been able to snag a seat, but I was sitting with a group of elderly Japanese ladies who were talking in a very animated fashion, I thought, for this hour of the day.

Over the course of the two and a half hour train ride, our carraige got more and more full, and I felt more and more ill. Those bloody old ladies kept chattering without a break for the entire journey. By the time I got off at Nikko, I was not high on life. Luckily, then, Nikko is one of those places that is so amazing, so distracting, that you can forget the pounding in your head, and how loud everyone is all of a sudden.

Nikko is a stunningly beautiful town up in the mountains to the North of Tokyo. Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first of the Tokugawa Shoguns (and in my opinion, the awesomest) is buried there. Twice a year, a “1000 warrior procession” is held to commemorate the movement of Ieyasu’s remains from Mt Kuno, where he died, to Nikko.

After the procession, I went to check out a series of stalls selling food and drink. It was all traditional Japanese festival fare: sweets, deep fried and barbequed meats, ice cream. But what really caught my eye was the king of Japanese festival food – the Dagwood Dog of Japanese festivals, if you will:

Chocobanana is an institution over here. As the name suggests, it is a banana that has been dipped in chocolate.

I was still feeling a little queasy, but I had to experience this delicacy for myself. I promptly ordered, and ate, a delicious chocobanana…

Will the consumption of a chocobanana by the extremely hungover Tamago prove to have been a wise decision? Find out in the next thrilling instalment!

Devo

Just got back from watching the Rugby…. Have to get up in 5 hours to go to Nikko… Hard to construct whole sentences due to ingestion of alcohol…WHY DIDN’T THEY PULL QUADE COOPER OFF AFTER THE KICKOFF?? WHY?!?

Asakusa

On Friday I went to the Senso-ji temple in Asakusa, which is in Tokyo’s North-West. Senso-ji is probably the most famous temple in Tokyo, and even on a school day, the place was packed.

On the way to the temple is a market selling food, drink, knick-knacks, junk, Japanese fans, waving cats, gewgaws, sweets, swords, paper, pictures, antiques, cloth, bric-a-brac, umbrellas, trinkets, curios and baubles.

Having consumed a few traditional japanese sweets en route, I arrived at the temple:

Apparently one of the Buddha’s bones is kept at the top of this Pagoda:

Tonight I am heading to Roppongi, a suburb full of seedy expat dives, to watch the Wallabies take on the All-Blacks in the World Cup semi-final. Tomorrow, I am getting up stupidly early to take a day trip to Nikko, about 3 hours north of Tokyo. If I catch my 8:00am train (which leaves from a station on the other side of town!!), it should be good times.

Alien!

Today I went to the Shibuya Ward Office (the equivalent of a local council office; but massive because the Japanese are all about the bureaucracy) to officially register as an alien. It’s something every visitor to Japan has to do if they’re staying longer than 90 days, and until you register you can’t open a bank account or get a mobile phone, or do lots of other things that require the execution of a contract.

I hadn’t really been looking forward to doing this. I wasn’t completely sure where the Office was, or whether there’d be anyone capable of speaking English.

In the event, the gods that look after lost Tokyo travellers took pity on me, as they always do. For such a big city, it’s remarkable how easy it is to find places even if you don’t have a map and don’t speak the language well. There’s little signs and diagrams everywhere and if you’re paying attention, every trip to a new place is like a fun scavenger hunt.

There was a very friendly lady at the Office who spoke perfect English. Together we filled out a form — about who I was, where I’d be staying, and how likely it was, on a scale of one to ten, that I was a drug dealer or a terrorist. The only difficult moment came about when I provided the address at which I’m staying in Tokyo. To confirm, the lady helping me produced an absolutely massive book of maps showing all of the buildings in the area. She then wanted me to point out which building I was staying in.

The difficulty, it seems, is that a Japanese address kind of narrows things down to a block of houses, but doesn’t indicate a specific building. Because most streets don’t have names, an address won’t even necessarily tell you which street your property faces on to.

Not being able to identify my house, two different books of maps were produced and consulted in quick succession. Thankfully, this third book showed the name of my house on the map, so mystery solved.

I have to come back in two weeks to pick up my Alien Registration Card. As anyone who’s seen District 9 can attest, it’s better to be a registered alien than an illegal alien.

One last point of interest: on the registration form, you have to nominate a “head of household”. Because I’m by myself, I am head of my household.

When Moon Tan arrives and we are living together, who will get to be “head of household”? Obviously I think it should be me (because I’m a man) but I suspect Moon Tan might have other ideas…

OMG!

So I was walking around my neighbourhood, minding my own business, when I stumbled upon the Hattori Nutritional College!!

You may remember Dr. Hattori as the expert commentator on a little show – maybe you’ve heard of it – called IRON CHEF!

Below is a real photo of an actual picture they have on the side of the actual Hattori Nutritional College in Tokyo (which I was at! True!!). It shows Dr Hattori (in black) with world renowned chef/slightly creepy looking dude Joel Robuchon.

Does it get any better than this? I don’t think so. Maybe if the whole law job thing falls through I will enrol at Hattori-sensei’s school and become Iron Chef Australian!

TEFL

I don’t know what the statistics are on this but I’m betting a sizable proportion of the ex pat population in Tokyo and Japan in general teach English as their primary source of income. TEFL, for those of you not in the loop, stands for ‘teaching English as a foreign language’, a close relative of TESL and TESOL and no I don’t know the difference.

With pretty much no Japanese under my belt, two half finished degrees but none completed, three years experience in aged care housekeeping and 18 months experience in OSHC, I pretty much have nothing to offer the Japanese job market except excellent procrastination skills, my body, the knowledge of how to get caked on minced food off of a microwave proof bowl, a ‘don’t mess with me or I will do unspeakable things to you and make it look like an accident’ teacher voice and the fact that I speak English at a native level.

Seeing as procrastinating is not a quality usually desirable in an employee, my visa won’t allow me to streetwalk and I never again want to have to clean minced roast beef off a dish, I’m stuck with the teacher voice and the English thing.

I’m really hoping that those and my winning charm will get me over the line and land me a semi decent job as an English conversation teacher or teaching assistant in Tokyo.

Allegedly, Japanese employers on the whole really like it if you have a degree before they hire you to do anything. So if I had actually stuck with one degree and finished it by now, finding an English teaching job would be a lot easier. Unfortunately I decided to fight all the career aptitude tests as well as countless people telling me I should be a teacher and do two years of law. Then quit. Essentially I own an imaginary t-shirt that says ‘I did two years of law school and all I got was this lousy boyfriend’. Which is a huge plus, the (non lousy) boyfriend, not the imaginary shirt I mean. The spooky thing is that if I’d stuck with teaching from the beginning I never would have met him (sad face) and I probably wouldn’t be going to Japan and I wouldn’t be writing in this blog right now about how I might not get a job because I did two years of law school. Do do do do do do do do.

Anyway I digress, now halfway through my teaching degree I’m feeling a bit nervous about the fact that Tamago will be off being productive all day and I will be sitting at home gnawing on the furniture in our tiny apartment.

No, the life of an ex pat 1950s-esque housewife in Tokyo is definitely not for me. So I am trying to mitigate my pathetic degree situation by doing a 120 hour combination online/classroom TEFL course through i-to-i at: http://www.i-to-i.com/tefl/.

I have only good things to report about this course so far. It’s been easy to follow and I’ve actually learned some stuff about classroom management which in two years of a teaching degree my tutors at uni have never mentioned. The assessments are frequent and there’s a good mix of automatically marked and tutor marked assessments. I’m also able to keep working online from Japan. Bonus seeing as I’ll be there in 7 weeks!

I’m still not sure how this course is going to pan out or if it will be helpful at all in keeping me off the streets of Tokyo and my molars away from our futon but I suppose at the very least I can now distinguish between the present continuous and the future continuous. A marketable skill indeed.