The JET Experience Vlog – Toronto to Tokyo

This past week, I went out and bought a new macbookpro and have finally been able to edit all the HD video I’ve been accumulating on my Canon EOS T2i (awesome camera). I put together a video of the departure from Toronto up to the end of Tokyo orientation so that you, faithful reader, can actually see what happened through my own eyes (or as close to it, since I’m in some shots and other people are filming). I’ve got quite a few of these lined up, but I’m really backed up with blog posts as well. Not to worry, I’ll eventually work through it all.

Anyways without further ado, please enjoy the video.


Getting a Cellphone in Japan

After the Mos Burger Excursion, it was time to attempt to pick up an Iphone 4. We went to the nearest Softbank, which is the only carrier in Japan that offers the Iphone. It’s kind of a shame because Softbank supposedly has the worst reception but the best phones. While Ken did all of the talking , I wandered around and looked at the other phones on offer. In terms of technology, Japan is probably 2-3 years ahead of what Canada will offer in terms of camera capabalities. As of my writing this in August 2010, 12 megapixel cameras on the phones are the norm, but 13.2 mp is quickly becoming ubiquitous.

There are still 5 and 8 megapixel camera phones available if you’re cheap, and I did manage to find one or two 2mp phones. However carrying one of those around is probably a bigger social faux-pas than farting (with regards to flatulence, you just have to look behind you to make sure the coast is clear and it’s okay. Yes, seriously.).

This all sounds amazingly high tech, but in actuality, any person who has a reasonable understanding of modern consumer technology knows how outdated of a metric of performance megapixel count is. For those who don’t know, megapixel count just makes the size of your pictures bigger, it does little to actually improve image quality. The Iphone 4’s camera is only 5 megapixels, but its image quality is among the best in the market. However, because objective comparison and actual honest reviews of products are rare in Japan, everyone still buys into the whole megapixel nonsense  (All the big megaconglomerate Japanese companies; Zaibatsu, have their hand in every industry, so the newspapers and magazines never write anything bad about the products they talk about).

Thus in reality, Japanese phones aren’t really all that much more high tech than their counterparts back home, especially compared to the Iphone 4 and myriad of smartphones out on the market today. Japanese cellular technology supremacy is actually still a pretty pervasive myth, at least according to my experience so far, where everyone keeps asking me why I didn’t get a ‘sweet high-tech Japanese phone’. A few years ago before the rise of smartphones, Japanese keitai might have been the best in the world, but nowadays the gap is quickly closing. In fact, I think that the Iphone4 is actually the best phone out in Japan right now, at least for foreigners.

You would think this would make the Iphone a very popular phone since Japan loves its Keitais. However, there is a very curious and surprising reason why it’s not that popular in here. Granted, a lot of what I’m about to write is a mix of my own speculation, observations, and from what I’ve read and heard, so take it with a grain of salt and Google away if you’re interested in learning more.

This may come as a huge shock (it definitely did to me), but most people in Japan don’t own personal computers. You need a computer to use an Iphone.  Unlike the trend in Canada and the US towards every person in the family having their own laptop or notebook computer, most Japanese families will often have at most, only one, older desktop computer. In fact, a poll conducted in 2007, compared to earlier in 2000, found that the proportion of Japanese 20-year-olds using home PCs to access the internet plummeted from 23.6 per cent to just 11.9 per cent*. That’s almost as low as 1 in 10 20-year olds using a computer! Contrast that with life back in Canada where everyone I know owns a laptop. Could you imagine not having a laptop? I sure can’t, but in Japan, it’s actually the norm. Nowadays, laptops and all-in-one desktop computers are starting to become more popular, but they are nowhere near as widely used as in the US or Canada.

Expanding on this phenomenon for a moment (bear with me, I like my tangents), this has really interesting repercussions throughout modern Japanese society that you wouldn’t expect

  • DVDs and CDs still sell extremely well compared to the rest of the world because you can’t really burn or rip movies and music without a computer
  • Piracy and file sharing doesn’t really happen in Japan. If nobody owns a computer, how will anybody make copies of games or download music?
  • The PC gaming industry is comparatively underdeveloped in terms of cutting edge 3D gaming. All the major Japanese videogame developers are console based.
  • Come to think of it, that explains why text-based games like dating sims are so common in Japan. That’s all that gets made for the PC because they are so low tech.
  • And speaking of PC gaming, people dont really game on their computers here..I’ve yet to find a place that sells a copy of starcraft II and it’s driving me crazy
  • computers in most offices and schools are embarassingly outdated.
  • A lot of young people aren’t very familiar with how to USE a PC. However, they can and will type out entire essays and stories on their keitais.

So why aren’t computers popular here? Well there are a few reasons why I suspect computers haven’t really caught on:

First, computers are expensive. Japan is still primarily a cash based society, so people tend to spend what they have. Banks have really low interest rates, so people are encouraged to spend instead of save (partly why consumerism is so rampant in Japan).  So as a result of Japan being cash-based, buying things on credit isn’t really very popular. It’s difficult to get a credit card, and most places don’t even take them at all. Thus, if you think about it, a computer is a rather large investment for the average Japanese person.  Keitai’s by comparison, are usually heavily subsidized by the carrier, or have the cost of the phone built into the plan, making even the most advanced phones affordable to the masses.

Second, there isn’t very much time left to spend on a computer at home. Students spend most of their days in school and in mandatory afterschool clubs, and as for older people, most people who travel to the big cities to work have long commutes, and will often stay overtime after work and go drinking together (aka the Enkai). This leaves little time for sitting in front of the computer at home.

Third, and as a result of the first and second reasons, In Japan people use their keitai (cellphone) as their primary means of connection to the internet. They use it to surf the web, write blogs, and stay in contact with each other through email. For many Japanese people, a significant portion of the day is spent in transit on the train As a side note, I also want to point out that rather surprisingly, Japanese people rarely use their phones to actually TALK to each other. I’ve heard that it’s considered rude or at least, immature to impose your conversation upon someone else where they can overhear. This makes for quite an interesting dichotomy when I’m riding the train. EVERYBODY will be on their keitais, but no one will actually be using them to talk. It’s really strange the first time you see it!

So because computers are much less popular here, for a long time, Japanese keitais were far and away the most advanced in terms of accessing the internet, and as a result, the mobile internet infrastructure is much more developed. This also led to the development of interesting capabilities such as real time TV,  super high resolution screens, one touch infrared contact exchange, and wireless payment (in the big cities, you can actually PAY for things with your keitai). However there was a lack of innovation in such areas as storage, GPS, music management software, and any sort of cottage industry for third party apps.

Which brings me back to (what I think is) the original thing I was trying to explain – the Iphone 4 is the best phone in Japan available right now. It has the features a foreigner like me would actually need and use. It will also be useable back home, unlike a Japanese phone which will be crippled and relegated to a fancy paperweight since none of its more exotic features could be used.

This whole post would have been for naught if I didn’t actually get the Iphone 4, and in fact I haven’t yet. I managed to place an order for one, but it still hasn’t come in yet since they are apparently sold out all over Japan.

Hmm, that actually kind of sounds like it invalidates my entire post, but I suspect that Apple has anticipated the expected demand and adjusted accordingly. I’ve seen very few Japanese people with Iphones so I’m pretty sure what I wrote is still valid.

In any case, aside from that, the process of ordering the Iphone 4 was a relatively uninteresting affair. However what is cool is the awesome deal that we get in Japan for the Iphone 4. I’m getting the 32gb model on a 2 year contract and it’s costing me 0 dollars with no activation fee.  It’s heavily subsidized by Apple, and the remaining balance is broken down over 24 months and built into the cost of the plan. Despite that, I’m still paying roughly what I would pay in Canada for a plan, so it’s like the phone was free. Which makes me happy. Now if only the darn thing would get here already.

* source

Here’s a link showing the kind of phones that are available right now at the time of this post:

summer 2010 cellphones

What Makes a Burger a Burger?

The following day after climbing Sakurayama, my supervisor`s supervisor deemed that it was time for me to go sign up for a cellphone. Prior to coming to Japan, I was dead set on obtaining the Iphone 4. Japanese cellphones are admittedly pretty nifty, but I need GPS and Japanese-dictionary apps to aid me when I inevitably get hopelessly lost. Once again, sempai Ken was assigned the duty of accompanying me to sign up for a cellphone.

However first, we needed to eat. I had heard of Mos Burger before I came to Japan, so I wanted to try it out. Off we went to the one Mos Burger in town (in Fujioka it seems you can find almost everything, but there is only one place of its kind. Except for 7-Elevens. They pop up like mushrooms everywhere).

You’re probably wondering what makes Mos Burger so famous. Well, Mos Burger is like the Japanese Mcdonalds. It is the second largest fast food chain in Japan after McD, and is notable for the uniquely Japanese twist they put on the traditional burger concept. The original Mos Burger is your standard fare burger with a large tomato slice. However at some point in time, they apparently decided that the burger needed to be modified to suit Japanese tastes. Please refer to the following exhibits:


At first glance this may look like a normal hamburger, but upon closer inspection, you might notice something is a bit off. Look carefully and you will realize that the bun isn’t actually made of bread, but rice molded into the shape of a patty! By itself, this is already quite a departure from the traditional bun-lettuce-tomato-patty-bun configuration you are familiar with. However, not willing to be relegated to complacency, Mos Burger decided to innovate and to challenge the very concept of what constitutes a burger.

Exhibit B:
This is the unagi rice burger. Unagi is eel, and BBQ eel is a very popular dish in Japan. The green stuff on top is seaweed. Can we even call this a burger? At what point can we say enough is enough, a line has been crossed? I think this pushes the boundaries of what can be acceptably called a burger. It does look quite tasty however, so perhaps I will reserve judgment until I have sampled it myself. Expect a post sometime in the future as I have just now decided that this is an area that demands more research.

Exhibit C:

This is the rest of the menu. Make note of the gradual transition from normal burger to progressively innovative forms of the rice burger, to shrimp burger (?!?). Is the shrimp burger the most conceptually challenging? Somehow I think that one should be somewhere in the middle. In any case, at least the menu is more interesting than the typical offerings at other North American burger joints, where the range of options usually consists of some permutation of number of patties and slices of cheese.

Supermarket and Sakurayama Adventures

I awoke from my gummy bear induced slumber the next morning to the sound of my alarm bell. I fished around in the dark with eyes half shut, trying to find the – Wait, I don’t have an alarm clock…and usually alarms don’t even have bells. That must mean – THE DOOR!!

After realizing that someone was ringing my doorbell repeatedly, I came to and quickly got up to check who it was.

” Sorry sorry, I thought it was my alarm..” I blocked the sun with my hands because my eyes were still adjusting to the light. Through my fingers I saw that the culprit of my sudden wakefulness was none other than my sempai Ken.

” Dude..were you crying? “, he asks with a smirk on his face

” What?? yeah. Whatevs.”

” Don’t worry about it dude we all go through it. ”

I recalled the anecdote of one of the speakers from orientation a couple days before and how he had a stage 2 culture shock break down while unpacking, and wondered how many of the other JETs had or would experience the same thing. It was really interesting. One thing about me is that I tend to enjoy analyzing and studying my experiences to see what I can learn from them, and the whole culture shock phenomenon and my experiences with it are fascinating because the lessons I’m getting from it are indispensable.

Anyway, the first thing on our to-do list for the day was to drop by the local super market to pick up some essentials. So the two of us walked down the street, up a block, and literally crossed the street to the supermarket. It’s that close.

When I went inside, it looked much like any normal supermarket (not sure what I was expecting to see), so I grabbed a trolley and started walking the aisles trying to figure out what to buy.

I couldn’t figure out what to buy. I sort of got that complete blank out that you sometimes get at a test or exam where your mind just freezes up. I stood there in a sort of daze as I tried to recall what things I would usually buy. Eventually, in half a trance, I managed to fill my trolley with milk, eggs, tuna and ramen.

As I wheeled around from aisle to aisle, I made note of the following observations:

– the katakana for canned tuna is “sea chicken”. Tuna is known as literally – the chicken of the sea. Interesting!
– as I noted in the previous post, servings are 2/3 the size as in Canada. Thus, for example, cartons of orange juice might be the same price as in Canada, but the amount you’re buying is 2/3 what it would be.
– the concept of bulk pricing hasn’t really caught on in Japan. For example, a single can of beer might be 200 yen. A 6 pack of the same beer would most likely be exactly 1200 yen. There is no benefit to purchasing the 6 pack other than the convenience of the packaging!
– prepared meals are really cheap at the supermarket. After 6pm, they start cutting the prices even more, so by 8 pm, you can often get lucky and be able to score a full meal for 300 yen (down from 450)
– as a result, if your time is valuable, it is ALMOST not worth it from a cost standpoint to buy ingredients and make dinner yourself, as the prepared meals are pretty tasty. Probably not that healthy though.

Once I was finished being indecisive, I paid for my purchases and we walked back to the apartment to drop off the groceries before going to the BOE again.

This time, I met my supervisor’s supervisor’s supervisor’s supervisor, as well as his supervisor, and the big dog of them all, that guy’s supervisor who was such a big shot that his office was in a separate room (unprecedented!).

What followed was an extended episode of “Hajimemashite”s and “Yoroshiku onegai shimasu”s and lots of deep bowing. I was complimented on my Japanese and pronunciation to which I humbly denied ” aa, iie!”. The supervisors all seemed to love this, as well as my repeated self introductions, which I gave with all the eloquence of a Japanese preschooler. But an enthusiastic one!

After the BOE trip, Ken drove us around, pointing out various places of interest around Fujioka. Some of the interesting things I learned were that there is one good pizza place in Fujioka (Pizza Stadium), one vending machine that sells Dr. Pepper (to which I have now developed a taste for. Damnit!!), one turkish restaurant, and a host of other places that were apparently the only ones of their kind in the city.

There was a lot of driving around that day, but the next notable stop was at Cainz Homes in Saitama prefecture (Fujioka is right at the border of Gunma and Saitama). Cainz Homes is a big box store that is kind of in the same vein as Canadian Tire back home. I picked up an electric fan (my new best friend), some garbage bins, an extension cord and some other miscellaneous stuff that I can’t quite remember. The funny part about this stop was that Ken would consistently go “Alright, it doesn’t look like we’re gonna find it here, let’s go check somewhere else.”, upon which point we would IMMEDIATELY stumble upon exactly what I was looking for several feet away. This particular phenomenon seems to happen so often that it is apparently some sort of eponymous law which I have since dubbed

Ken's Law:
"The probability or likelihood of an occurance is inversely related to the degree of certainty that Ken possesses about the aforementioned occurance."

(this picture is from google but they all look like this)

After the Cainz Homes stop, we drove around some more and somehow decided to drive up one of the local mountain roads to a place called Sakurayama; literally Cherry Blossom Mountain.

One of my favourite aspects of living in Gunma so far are the beautiful forests and mountains just outside the downtown core, a 5 – 10 minute drive away. Even driving up the mountains, the views are so incredible that I’m at a loss to describe them. The calibre of my writing is just not high enough to properly articulate the majesty of the scenic vistas. They should have sent a poet. Fortunately I have a camera. Pictures a bit further down below.

The other great thing about exploring the mountains of japan are the incredible winding roads that go up and down them. My area is well known for mountain racing, and in particular, a Japanese variety called Drifting that involves racing up and down the mountain roads and breaking traction around corners as to slide into and out of the turn. It was along the same roads that racers and drifters hone their craft, so we drove up them at a brisk pace, enjoying the views and relishing the fantastic drive. It was then that I decided if I’m to get a car while I’m here (and I probably will in a couple months), it’s going to be some type of sports car, because these roads are the ones enthusiasts only dream of having the opportunity to drive.

After driving for awhile, we reached a parking lot at the top of the mountain where there was, of all things, what appeared to be a strip mall of restaurants, convenience stores and vending machines. Ofcourse.

The buildings were all closed and locked down so it was probably seasonal, however the vending machine was still fully stocked, which leads me to wonder who the heck refills it day in day out all year??

In the middle of the strip mall was an old beaten down path leading to a steep flight of stairs. The stairs led to a beautiful and deserted zen garden bathed in a yellow hue from the impending sunset.

It was serene and the sense of stillness was almost palpable. The perfect spot for meditation. It looked like people hadn’t been around for months.

Continuing down the path led to a hiking trail with stairs carved out of the earth. There was a sign that identified this as Sakurayama; or Sakura Mountain due to the 7000 sakura trees that made up the forest.

However these are special cherry blossom trees – they are very rare and are only found in a few places around Japan. Unlike the normal cherry blossoms that bloom in the spring, these bloom in the winter.

Mount Sakurayama is an unbelievably stunning mountain with equally stunning views of the surrounding landscape. We arrived at the summit just as the sun was setting, which made for an amazing photo opportunity. I cannot believe the following pictures are from my backyard, a mere 20 minute drive away.

That is Onishi, it’s a small town of around 6000 people that was annexed by Fujioka. It is now technically a part of the city although most locals still consider it to be its own town. To get to Sakurayama, we had to drive through Onishi.

At the summit there was also a small shrine. Ken and I took turns ringing the bell and leaving some coins as an offering,

Ken ringing the bell really hard. It echoed across the entire mountain

There were also a couple other interesting things up there. The first was a sign that explained the history of the mountain.

A long time ago, when a great Buddhist monk had subdued the demon that lived on Mt. Mikabo, the demon threw down the stone he was holding and fled. The place that stone fell to earth became known as “Onishi” (demon stone), and to this day the stone is worshiped as a holy object of the Onishi Jinja (Shinto shrine). – according to Ken

Isn’t that an awesome story? There is so much lore and history everywhere. One of the things I really love about Japan is how much the history and modern society intertwine to form the fabric of Japanese culture.

The other interesting thing to be found at the top of the mountain was this:

If you’ve read some of my earlier posts, you’ll understand why I was stunned to find a garbage bin at the top of a mountain. If not, I’ll explain again – there are practically NO garbage cans ANYWHERE in Japan. It is an exercise in frustration and futility to even begin attempting to find one. And yet there one was, at the very top of a deserted mountain. It was like some sort of cruel ironic joke because it was the one time I didn’t have any garbage on me to throw away. This calls for the second of the eponymous laws I have come across in Japan (I’ll write about the last one at a later post).

Law of Inverse Garbage Availability:
"The likelihood of coming across a garbage can in Japan is inversely proportional to the amount of garbage you're carrying."

After enjoying the view for quite some time, it began to get dark so we began the trek back to Fujioka. Ken explored the limits of his tires’ grip as we tore down the mountain, past Onishi, and back into Fujioka proper. Unfortunately around this time is when my battery died so there are no more pictures from this day.

My supervisor (quite possibly the nicest lady I have ever met in my life. No actually, she definitely is) allotted us some money for a welcoming dinner, so Ken and I went to the most expensive sushi restaurant within walking distance of the apartment. The reason was we wanted to have a few beers and there is an absolute. Zero. Tolerance. On drinking and driving.

The sushi restaurant was a very traditional place about a 5 minute walk, a couple blocks away. You would never have known it was a sushi restaurant from the outside.

The actual food was delicious. It was some of the tastiest, freshest and most mouthwatering sushi I have ever had. The thing about eating at a really expensive sushi place is that you only get maybe 8 pieces of sushi per order for quite a princely sum. There may be some sort of psychological effect going on; I suspect that the more expensive your meal, the more your mind will justify it by rationalizing that the food tastes better. You will actually really and truly believe that the food tastes better (and since reality is subjective anyway, who’s to say that it doesn’t?). But before I get all metaphysical and philosophical here, I’ll just stop and say that the food was really delicious, and it was made even better with some fantastic beer and the company of a good friend.

Still I wasn’t full enough after eating, so we stopped by one of the many 7-Elevens, and got some more beer and fried chicken on a stick (skewered karage). 7-Eleven in Japan makes some GOOD fried chicken. After the combini run, we walked over to the park near the apartment. There was a big cage with a duck named Gary inside it, so Ken, Gary, and I just hung out at the park for the rest of the night, occasionally feeding Gary potato chips and doing pullups on the jungle gym (I did 18 in a row, not bad for being out of the gym for over a month!).

Eventually we went home, and I flopped onto my futon, completely exhausted from the long day. And that concluded my second day in Fujioka.

Goodbye Tokyo, Hello Gunma

The following day I woke up a little bit late, and had to rush to get everything packed and ready to go. After breakfast, all the JETs were gathering together by prefecture and shipping out via bus, train, or even plane to their respective cities and towns. It was only 7:00 am and the meeting time for the Gunma JETs was at 8:50, but I wanted to see if I could catch any of my friends before they left, as a lot of the prefectures were departing early in the morning.

One last look around the hotel room and off I went down the..wait. I didn’t talk about the toilet yet did I? It’s so neat and wacky that I have to.

So in Japan, toilets apparently come in one of three varieties:
1. resoundingly low tech – squat toilets; the worst things ever made
2. clever – like the one I have in my apartment; it has a sink on top of it; I’ll talk about it at a later post
3. confusingly high tech

Funny story – the first time I encountered the high tech toilet in the hotel room; I figured out every single function through trial and error except how to flush. So I was quite surprised (not in a good way) by a sudden warming of the seat and an..interesting..spray of water. It took me a good 5-10 minutes of searching around the toilet to realize the flush wasn’t attached to the seat but onto the edge of the sink counter. Only in japan..

But anyways back to the story. I went downstairs and had a quick breakfast with T and some of the other Toronto JETs. There were 3 large halls that were serving breakfast so there was a good chance I wouldn’t get to see everyone off. Regardless, I remembered this was my last western style meal for awhile and wolfed down about 6 eggs, 15 strips of bacon, an entire melon and 5 glasses of orange juice.

One by one everyone at the table got up and left while I sat there munching on my bittersweet melons. Eventually I got up and wandered over to the other halls where I saw a few more friends and said goodbye. I also decided to eat another breakfast because I was hellbent on filling my bacon quota for the entire month, lest I don’t have another chance to for awhile.

8:45 rolled around so I dropped my key card off at the front desk and dragged my luggages over to the Gunma JETs meeting point. Actually I’m forgetting to emphasize something; the first and second floors were a total free for all. All 800 JETs and the hundreds of volunteers and personnel were scurrying about, luggages in hand, trying to get to where they needed to be. It seemed really confusing and chaotic, but thanks to the organizers, everything ran on schedule.

With all 26 Gunma JETs from Group B Orientation ready to go, we grabbed all our luggages and started to make our way outside, but not before stopping to take a nice big group photo.

The bunch of us rolled our bags to the bus, which was aptly named the Gunbus. I made my way to the second last row and got to know my surrounding seat mates during the 2 hour long ride from Shinjuku to Maebashi.

When we got to Maebashi, which is the capital city of Gunma, we were immediately brought to the prefectural office which is the tallest building in the city. We dropped off our bags in an empty room and had a quick lunch at the cafeteria.

After lunch, we were all ushered into a room where a(nother) welcoming ceremony took place for the new JETs. After some brief words, we were introduced to our supervisors. My immediate supervisor was actually out of the country, so I met my supervisor’s superior, who was to be my acting supervisor for the first few days.

I also met my sempai and now good friend Ken at the same time. After the welcoming ceremony, everyone began departing to their own designated towns and cities. I was to be the only new JET going to my city; Fujioka-shi, this year. As soon as the ceremony was over, I grabbed my bags and left with Ken and my supervisor (who barely spoke a word of english). All the JETs didn’t even really have a chance to say goodbye to each other as it was rather rushed. It was weird leaving everyone again; at this point I was starting to get numb to meeting and saying farewell, although at least I would be seeing this crowd again soon enough.

The drive from Maebashi to Fujioka was about half an hour and in that time, Ken gave me a rundown of the different things to expect in the weeks to come. Everything was going really fast and I wasn’t sure I would be able to remember it all but I tried to keep up.

First things first was to get a picture taken for my alien registration. We rolled up to a photobooth that was randomly placed outside a supermarket. Why it was out there, I will never know. It was outrageously hot so I started sweating profusely while trying to take a picture and my hair poofed out like a big ball. So now my official pictures all have me with a fat afro looking do.

Next up, we drove to the city office where I had to get my papers done so I could get my alien registration card. Alien registration, aka gaijin registration, aka foreigner registration is basically just getting a piece of ID that lets everyone know that you’re not Japanese. Japan is an extremely homogenous society so they consider it quite a big deal when there’s a foreigner in town. In fact, there are probably only around 10 foreigners in my city right now and more than half of them are JETs or private ALTs.

It was interesting dealing with the people at the city office. As has whats become a running theme, whenever I’m with Ken, people assume I’m the one showing him around (because I am asian and can pass for Japanese and Ken is Mr. stereotypical blonde hair blue eyes foreigner). It’s always something of a shock to whoever we are talking to when Ken starts speaking in perfect Japanese while I stand there and try to dicipher what the other person is saying. Even funnier is the state of confusion this puts the Japanese person in because Ken will be talking to them, and they will be still be talking to ME. This happens everywhere we go anywhere and is pretty hilarious.

Afterwards we went to Gunma Bank (creatively named, I know) to open up a bank account where my salary would be deposited. This was one of my first experiences with dealing with typical Japanese bureaucracy. There was a form that we had to fill out 3 or 4 times because Ken wrote my name for me in Katakana, and after they took 20 minutes to process it, they came back and said that I had to write my own name myself. So alright, we did that, and another 20 minutes pass, and this time they come back and say I have to do it again because on the first line I wrote my name in CAPITAL LETTERS LIKE THIS, and a few lines down I changed it to Capitalizing Only The First Letters Like This. All in all we spent probably a solid hour filling out a form that should have taken about 5 minutes.

The reason for this, as I would find out, is because in Japanese culture there is this concept that there is One Right Way To Do Things, and once that method is discovered, it should not be deviated from. Ofcourse there is also a contrasting concept of Kaizen; the philosophy of continuous improvement, as popularized by Toyota and its supply chain management business practices. But that is a topic best served up on a separate post. Anways, I the point is, in my experience so far, Japan likes to take things to both extremes; for every one really clever thing I discover I find another equally contrived or backwards way of doing something else. It’s really interesting.

After going to the bank (or before; I’m not quite certain on the order these things happened), we went to the BOE, which is the Board of Education, of Fujioka city. They are my official employers (I am a JET Programme participant, but not actually employed by the programme itself). There were some official paperwork matters that needed to be completed such as signing my contract and getting my hanko, which is a stamp with my signature in Kanji on it (In Japan, instead of singing documents with a signature, people use stamps).

However I also had to meet my supervisor’s supervisor’s supervisor; or boss’ boss’ boss, as well as some of the other people in the office at the time. Fortunately, I still remembered the self introduction I had given at my JET interview and recited it verbatim. This probably saved my life, because in Japan, first impressions count and my boss’ boss’ boss seemed to be quite pleased with my recital of perfectly memorized japanese phrases and stated love of martial arts, karaoke and eating.

Before leaving, I took a picture of the BOE office, which is pretty much what every single office looks like in Japan:

After the visit to the BOE, supervisor-san and Ken dropped me off at our apartment. I live in a big green building which could be confused for a motel back home but is actually an apartment complex. The building actually has a pretty cool story involving plane crashes and blood money, but I’ll save that for another post.

I’m rather lucky because Ken and I live in the same building along with two other JETs. Unlike some of my unlucky friends who got sent off to live in the middle of nowhere, I’m actually placed in a pretty central area in my city, conveniently close to the supermarket, post office, train station, and combini after combini after combini. But I’ll talk about that a little bit more in a later post as well.

So I lug all my stuff up three flights of stairs to my apartment and my first impression as I open the door is “Wow. This place is small!” I had seen pictures, but in real life, it was actually a bit more cozy than I expected. It was also right there that something clicked and I made an interesting observation.

In Japan, it seems that to save space, everything is reduced to between 2/3 and 4/5 the size of an equivalent object back home in Canada. So things like microwaves, minifridges, cabinets and shelving are smaller. Hilariously, even the counter space, sink, and even DOOR FRAMES are smaller. I’m about 5’9, and when I walk through the door frame, my hair gets flattened down.

The miniaturization of objects extends to everything – cars are smaller (in some cases, comically smaller), meals at restaurants are about 2/3 the portion size back home, and I would even say that the average Japanese person is 4/5 the mass of the average Canadian. I’m roughly average height and weight in Canada and at 168 lbs (all muscle baby), I would guesstimate that on average, a Japanese man of my height is 130 -140 lbs. It’s apparently fashionable to be skinny in Japan for women AND men, but I must say, some guys take it too far! I find it hard to shop for fashionable clothes because over here, I’m apparently a little fat.

In fact, this corroborates with my earlier observation from Tokyo orientation, when I noted that an elevator meant for 5 Japanese people would only accept 4 Canadian and American JETs.

Anyways, after a couple weeks of living here though, it seems I’ve adjusted to the size discrepancy and everything seems normal now. I can’t wait to go back to Canada and be stunned at how cavernous and mansion like my house seems.


Okay that’s the end of that tangent. It’s actually really interesting to talk about so I’ll probably dedicate a separate post to talk about it at a later date. After I got to my apartment, supervisor-san took off and Ken showed me around since his place is a mirror image of mine so he knew where everything was. Also more importantly, he knew how stuff worked. I had another “I’m so screwed ” culture shock moment when I realized very simple things like using the water heater, the stove, the microwave, and the washing machine where herculeanly difficult tasks due to the fact that i understood none of the labels. Even after Ken showed me how they all worked, I still had to figure things out through trial and error throughout the proceeding week. However I consider myself supremely fortunate to have had this much support and help. Some of the JETs I know have had it a lot harder than I have, and it seems that my lucky streak continues.

After orienting me to household matters, Ken left and I was left alone in my apartment for the first time. As soon as the door slammed shut, it was like time slowed down back to normal speed. The entire past 4 days of orientation were so densely packed and fast moving that I barely had a second to stop and take a breather. I was exhausted but decided to unpack my clothes before going to bed.

I unzipped one of my large luggages and had proceeded to take out my clothes and throw them in the closet when I came upon a peculiar brown envelope. Curiously, I opened it and turned it upside down to empty the contents onto the floor. A bag of candy and three stacks of colourful paper and flowery writing piled out onto the floor.

I realized that my three younger sisters had written me goodbye letters and snuck it into my luggage! They even included gummy bears which are my favourite candy. So I sat there munching on gummies and reading through the funny and touching letters when all of a sudden, without warning, it was like I walked into a solid brick wall at full force.

Oh jeez. I balled. I cried my eyes out. It was probably a mixture of exhaustion, homesickness, culture shock, and apprehension about what the future held, but I cried like a baby right there, munching on gummy bears in between sobs as I struggled to finish the letters and contemplated my current state of affairs. It was just an outpouring of emotion, and it felt like I had popped the cap off a bottle that was just waiting to burst. I was laughing and crying, and it was just really weird and confusing, like my brain wasn’t sure to be happy or sad.

So that’s pretty much how my first night in Fujioka ended; clutching goodbye letters from my dear sisters and overdosing on gummy bears. I’m not sure I even managed to roll out my futon; I think I just passed out right there on the tatami.

Tokyo Orientation: Day 2

The following morning, there was a panel discussion where 4 current and ex-JETs spoke and shared their experiences with the programme. They spoke a lot about the challenges they faced, how they dealt with and slowly overcame those challenges, and basically the love and lifelong relationship they had developed with Japan and it’s people. It was a great discussion, and I really hope that maybe one year, I can get onto that panel for one of the orientations and have something of value to share with all the new JETs.

They also talked about careers people have gone into post JET, and it made me excited to think about where this opportunity could lead us in the future. Right now I aspire to pursue career in the field of International Relations, so it will be quite interesting to see where my adventures with the JET Programme take me.

The rest of the day was a blur of workshops on various topics. At this point, I was starting to feel the effects of JET lag as the adrenaline started to die down, and I was getting quite exhausted. I found myself unable to concentrate and was falling sleep at one of the workshops, so I got up to get a drink of water and walk around. However I actually never made it back to the workshop because when I walked past the elevator, on a whim I decided to see what was at the top of the building. I travelled 47 stories up, and when I exited the elevator, there was a large window where I was greeted with the following stunning view:

After admiring the view and snapping pics for a little while, I went back to the hotel room to get changed. Some of the JETs were planning on taking the train to Shibuya, one of the trendy wards of Tokyo which is known for its youth fashion, and I was thinking of going with them. Sadly there was a huge rush for the elevators so by the time I got down, either I missed everyone or nobody was anywhere close to the meet time. I ran into one of the toronto JETs though and she and I walked to a combini to get some food. We had a nice meal outside along the cobbled walkway of the business plaza opposite the hotel. After a nice chat, we were wrapping up to explore some more, and it was here that I discovered one of the Awful Truths About Japan.

Awful Truth About Japan #1:
There are no garbage bins ANYWHERE. This may sound like hyperbole but it is completely true. Trying to find a garbage can in Tokyo is like trying to find an invisible needle in a field of wheat. In the dark. Paradoxically, despite the lack of garbage cans, Japan is extremely clean. There is not a single piece of garbage strewn about the gutters and on the sides of the streets. There is nary a candy wrapper to be seen anywhere. People just do NOT litter. The reason for this is because in Japanese culture there is a strong focus on personal responsibility for taking care of disposing your trash properly. So if someone accumulates some trash in the course of their day, there is a good chance they will hang on to it until they get home, where it can be disposed of properly in one of several different categories of trash.

Interestingly however there are always receptacles for bottles and cans beside vending machines. This is why Japanese people will almost never walk around while drinking their beverage (it’s also considered slightly rude). They’ll buy the drink and finish it in front of the vending machine so they can get rid of the bottle right away. Very interesting. And that concludes ATAJ Lesson #1.

Vending machines everywhere!

Anyways, in the intervening period where I was trying to figure out where to put my garbage, I ran into some of the other JETs who were going to Shibuya and my (now) good buddy M (also a Toronto JET) who was planning on exploring Shinjuku some more alone. Due to my experiences the previous two nights being firmly ensconced within the JET bubble, I decided to instead just walk around with M and actually experience the culture some more. This would turn out to be the best decision I made in Tokyo.

M is Japanese-Canadian and is pretty fluent in Japanese. He had done stints before in Korea and had been to Japan in the past so I got the impression that he really knew what he was doing. M carried with him the same attitude that I hope I’m able to foster and develop; one of total confidence in his ability to adapt to any situation, borne from the conscious decision to place himself in situations outside his comfort zone. Trial by fire. We had some great talks as we walked around and I was glad to find a friend that I could confide in and learn from.

Walking around with M also made me realize just how unbelievably dense and impenetrable the JET bubble was. So what exactly is the JET Bubble?


The JET Bubble is an invisible field that grows in strength and magnitude in proportion to the number of JETs inside it. The JET Bubble can be activated with as few as two or three people, depending on how obnoxious they are, but most JET bubbles have four or more individuals projecting the bubble from all sides. The JET Bubble tends to form at social functions where JETs tend to gather. It’s primary distinguishing features are:
1. individuals within the JET bubble tend to use very little if any Japanese within the bubble. English-only within the bubble is even sometimes enforced
2. the bubble forms an invisible boundary between the individuals within it and the Japanese people within close proximity
3. the bubble has special social dynamic altering properties; individuals within the bubble can and are encouraged to act as loud, western, and touristy as possible
4. the presence of the bubble automatically puts you into ‘tourist in japan’ mode. You become an observer of the culture rather than interacting with it directly.

Walking around with a bunch of foreigners (all of the JETs) the previous two nights put me in the mental frame that our comparatively obnoxious behaviour was more acceptable since we were a bunch of travellers in a foreign country all out looking for a good night. Basically your brain flips a switch that tells you – you’re in tourist mode; the normal rules don’t apply.

But as I walked with M, I became acutely aware that there were unspoken rules of social etiquette that everyone is expected to follow. I found myself in a state of culture shock as I realized that despite reading through books on social etiquette in Chapters the weeks before I came to Japan, I had very little idea what to do in any given social interaction or situation and absolutely no practical experience.

For the most part, my prevailing attitude and outlook towards life is that I do what I want and what makes me happy, and I do not care what other people think of me. I rationalized that when I got to Japan, I wouldn’t be bothered too much by not knowing how to act in a given situation and would just go “eh, whatever. I do wut I wantt.” So I was really surprised when I felt the pressure and anxiety of not knowing how I should act. In Japan there is a saying; the nail that sticks out will be hammered down. Basically it means that individuality is frowned upon and people are expected to go along with the crowd. People are basically expected to be sheep. I have no desire to be a sheep, but I had a moment of clarity where I realized that I’m representing the JET Programme, Canada, and people of my ethnic background. Basically I’m an ambassador of Canada and am tasked with upholding the image and reputation of many different groups. It was eye-opening moment #1.

Culture shock and eye-opening moments #2 occured when M and I were inside a clothing store and I was left to wander the store by myself (still holding on to my garbage from before like a chode) while M tried on suits. I freaked out when it dawned on me that I couldn’t really read anything and that barely anyone spoke more than a word or two of english. So not only did I not know how to act around people, but I was basically mute, deaf and illiterate. For a few moments, I was genuinely terrified, which is a sensation I’m sure everyone who’s ever been a JET or moved to another country to live for awhile has experienced at least once. I was really thankful that I experienced this early on and while I was hanging out with M because he told me what I needed to hear – basically, just live and learn, it’ll be okay.

As we walked around for the next couple hours, we got lost but saw a lot of interesting and contrasting sights in Tokyo.

tokyo youth street fashion juxtaposed against traditional Japanese garb

hundreds of salarymen walking in one direction as one pretty and stylish girl walks against the crowd.

traditional paper lanterns attached to rolling ramen food stalls, juxtaposed against the glow of the neon lights

$200 tiny square watermelons. Only in Japan would a fruit be considered the ultimate status symbol. Japanese people are obsessed with impermanent beauty (hence the cultural fascination with such things like cherry blossoms and youth), so if you think about it, it actually makes sense in a uniquely Japanese way.

Eventually we found our way back to the hotel and hung out at the ground level lobby where there was yet another combini (yeah there WOULD be another combini, this being Japan where they are as ubiquitous as vending machines). While hanging out, we ran into some friends and soon found ourselves back on the 47th floor.

For the rest of the night we all just hung out and enjoyed each other’s company one last time. It was the perfect way to end the orientation weekend; just kicking it back over a couple beers and hanging out with some of my favourite Toronto JETs who I had grown really close to over the past couple month. Very bittersweet.

Finally everyone said their goodbyes and started heading back to their rooms. I dragged myself back to my suite, kicked off my shoes and undid my tie. Before I flopped onto my bed, I gazed out the window one more time.

As I watched as the city just kept going and going, bursting with life and energy at 3 in the morning, I had a brief, fleeting, serendipitous moment. It was almost indescribable; such a strong sensation that radiated throughout my core, and I don’t know how else to articulate it, but it was just a feeling, an overwhelming sense that the universe was in alignment, and that at that moment, I was exactly where I was supposed to be.

Tokyo Orientation: Day 1

The following day, we had to wake up quite early as Orientation would begin shortly after breakfast. So I took a quick shower (actual shower this time), threw on my suit and went downstairs to have get a quick bite. Breakfast was great. I wolfed down as much western food as I could because I knew I wouldn’t have many more chances to have a breakfast of eggs, bacon, cereal, and juice.

Finally it was time to head into the big hall for the opening ceremony. I walked inside and was greeted with the amazing sight of over 800 new JETs from around the world.

It was quickly made apparent that people weren’t supposed to just sit wherever, but that the crowd was divided into designated prefectures. So I wandered down the aisles until I came across a representative holding up a sign that said “GUNMA”. I chatted with her for a bit instead of sitting down, and snapped pictures of the crowd. Apparently, my DSLR makes me look like a professional photographer, so the other new Gunma JETS were somewhat surprised when the opening ceremony began and I had a seat with them.

Once the hundreds of JETs had all poured in and settled down into the seats, a very official welcoming ceremony began for the new JETs and for all the important VIPs and dignitaries in attendance. Japanese business culture is really big on introductions and opening ceremonies, so even though very little happened aside from some big shots saying ” Hello! My name is so-and-so. Pleased to meet you. “, this whole affair lasted about half an hour and seemed to be a very big deal and required constant and rather contrived clapping.

After that, the keynote speakers began their speeches. One of the first but most memorable ones was about the different stages of culture shock. Prior to coming to Japan, I believed I had a good idea of what culture shock was and what it entailed but I actually had quite a bit to learn. When you hear of culture shock, you think of the initial ‘shock factor’ of visiting a foreign place with a different culture and/or language that is so different from your own that it catches you off guard in its novelty. But true culture shock is actually much more involved than that. There was a term they used which probably more accurately describes culture shock – cultural fatigue. Except that term isn’t used very much because it sounds really lame. If you tell someone that you’re having a bad day because you’re suffering from “cultural fatigue”, then you just sound like a giant wuss.

People experiencing culture shock go through several stages. In the first stage, there is a euphoric feeling where everything seems new and awesome and where you love the novelty of everything around you. It’s a kind of honeymoon period where you feel fascinated by the exotic new culture. For some people, stage 1 can last days to several months.

However, at some point, everyone eventually hits the stage 2 wall where as they experience more day to day and practical experience with the culture, some of the frustration begins to set in. People who go through stage 2 generally feel a sense of withdrawal and can even become hostile to the host culture, picking out and criticizing its problems and issues. Sadly, some people never get through stage 2 and are too affected by it that they end up leaving and going home. This is a contentious topic for the JET Programme, because they spend a LOT of money on each and every single JET, and when if they end up breaking contract and going home early, it is a huge blow to everyone involved.

Here are the stages to culture shock:

Stage 1 – Excitement

The individual experiences a holiday or ‘honeymoon’ period with their new surroundings.

. Feel very positive about the culture
. Are overwhelmed with impressions
. Find the new culture exotic and are fascinated
. Are passive, meaning they have little experience of the culture

Stage 2 – Withdrawal

The individual now has some more face to face experience of the culture and starts to find things different, strange and frustrating.

. Find the behaviour of the people unusual and unpredictable
. Begin to dislike the culture and react negatively to the behaviour
. Feel anxious
. Start to withdraw
. Begin to criticize, mock or show animosity to the people

Stage 3 – Adjustment

The individual now has a routine, feels more settled and is more confident in dealing with the new culture.

. Understand and accept the behaviour of the people
. Feel less isolated
. Regains their sense of humour

Stage 4 – Enthusiasm

The individual now feels ‘at home’.

. Enjoy being in the culture
. Functions well in the culture
. Prefer certain cultural traits of the new culture rather than their own
. Adopt certain behaviours from the new culture

courtesy of

Anyways, the speaker continued to talk about culture shock, and the words he said continue to ring true to me to this day. One of his anecdotes was from his own life, and about how he was “Stage 1-ing” all through Tokyo orientation and up to the first day when he arrived at his host prefecture. He was having a great time and was unpacking while listening to music, when suddenly a song came on that reminded him of home and out of nowhere, he suddenly burst into tears and was a complete wreck on his living room floor. I mention this because I experienced something similar, which I’ll talk about in a later post. Culture shock is really insidious and can (and has) hit me pretty hard at some unexpected times. But we’ll get to that later.

We had lunch after the morning speeches and speakers and following that, we broke into groups for seminars like “Driving in Japan” and “Making the most of your experience” etc etc. A lot of these were repeat information from Toronto Orientation. It made me realize that JET Toronto REALLY heavily prepared us, as a lot of the JETs from around the world had no prior orientations and everything was completely new to them.

At the end of the day after the seminars, we had a big opening reception. I had a bit of a headache and was feeling exhausted so I went back to my room to take a quick nap, but ended waking up 5 minutes after the start of the reception. So I threw on my suit jacket and flew down the elevator. Thankfully, everything was JUST getting started, and I made it look like I was just coming back in from using the washroom.

The reception was great. It was a standing affair so that people could walk around and mingle with each other. There were a ton of appetizers and alcohol was provided on all the tables. However before we could begin eating and drinking, there were more welcoming speeches, followed by the Japanese toast, where everyone raises their glasses in the air and yells ” KAMPAI!! “.

Here’s an interesting side note about Japanese culture. When you drink in Japan, you never pour your own beer/wine/juice. Instead, your friends and coworkers around you are supposed to pour for you and top you off if you’re cup is close to empty, and you are expected to return the favour.

So as I walked around from table to table, people kept refilling my glass of beer.This had slightly adverse effects because while talking to people, I didn’t realize how much I was actually drinking. Consequently, I got a little bit inebriated and had a nice little buzz going for the rest of the reception. Sadly I forgot to bring my camera so there are no pictures of this event.

Eventually the reception ended and we were given the rest of the night to explore Shinjuku once again. The whole day, there was talk of going to a Karaoke bar for a nomihodai (all you can drink). So a large group of us (about 20 or so) Toronto JETs wandered down the streets and eventually found one of the places that were recommended. This is one of the first times we realized that not being to speak Japanese was slightly detrimental to getting things done. Nobody among us really spoke fluent Japanese so there was lots of gesturing and confusion and arguing for deals (very un-Japanese apparently), before we finally got a booth.

Karaoke is pretty much the second national past time of Japan (the first being drinking..really they go hand in hand), so they know how to do it right. There were tons of english songs, and surprisingly, a LOT of very new songs. T and I belted out our rendition of BSB’s ‘As Long As You Love Me’, which is my favourite Karaoke song. Unfortunately, nomihodai karaoke is also rather expensive (about $30 CDN) for 2 hours, which I suppose isn’t that bad, although I’m pretty sure they heavily diluted our drinks.

After Karaoke, we all piled back outside the establishment and loitered for a good half an hour talking to each other, meeting new JETs as the everpresent JET Bubble grew larger and stronger. Eventually, a bunch of us decided to do more exploring, so we wandered around for awhile checking out the sights before going into a Don Quiote, which is sort of like a department store that sells everything.

They sold lots of useful things like clothes, household furnishings, household electronics, and videogames, however they also had an ENTIRE wing basically devoted to some other rather interesting things.

At this point I was getting a bit hungry so I wandered over to a combini, which is the Japanese word for “Convenience Store” and noticed two things.

1. Beer is unbelievably cheap and available everywhere. About $1.50 – 2.50 a can. But you can only find them in cans, almost never bottles.

2. Set meals are also really really reasonably priced. That set meal at the bottom was about three dollars.

This is where I would coin the term combini-hopping, which is basically like bar hopping, except going from Combini to Combini since it is totally acceptable (legally, though maybe not socially) to drink alcohol on the street. However I didn’t buy any snacks, so I hadn’t yet discovered one of the Awful Truths about Japan. More on that on the next post.

Finally the night was almost over, and as we tried to make our way back to the hotel, we ran into some Japanese guys who were walking the same way as us. They weren’t your typical Japanese salaryman, but rather the punks of Japanese society. One of the guys was one of those guys who hawks pirated DVDs at sketchy malls. However this interaction was actually my favourite part of the night because it was the first true ‘cultural exchange’ I actually got to experience. We didn’t speak very much Japanese and they spoke hardly any English, but through gestures, short words and stock phrases, we managed to get our messages across to each other and become friends for the long walk home. They were actually pretty cool people, and although they would be considered to be on the margin of Japanese society, I was really glad I met them.

Once we got back to the hotel, there was a group of JETs jamming outside with a guitar so we joined them for a bit before heading up to one of our rooms for a small hotel party. My recollection is pretty hazy at this point, but I think there was some weird stuff that went on so I’ll just leave it at that. We all ended up passing out with exhaustion in that hotel room, which pretty much concludes the first day of Tokyo Orientation, and one GIANT post.