THINGS I WISH I WOULD HAVE KNOWN BEFORE MOVING TO TOKYO

When we moved to Tokyo I found it very hard to figure out. As expatriate assignments go, Japan is like moving to Mars and dramatically more complex than when we moved to Europe.

As a public service announcement, I share a few key learnings in the hope that it helps others in the future.

  • Japanese addresses:  Have your home address in your contacts in Japanese. It makes it much easier with the taxi drivers. If you are going somewhere, print it out from the web and hand it over in Japanese. Easy.
  • Metro:  The Android/iPhone application for getting around the subways is invaluable. Put in your starting location and your ending stop and it maps the way. I use it all the time.
  • Costco:  It took us months to figure out where the Costco was. There are (now) many in Japan. Want to avoid that $50 melon? Costco is the place. Amazing prices, English signs and great service.
  • Amazon.jp:  I wish I would have known this right from the beginning. Amazon.jp sells almost everything imaginable and has been a savior for the family. Boxes of lemon water, kitchen items, condiments, a vacuum cleaner, humidifiers (it gets very dry), vacuum bags – you name it, that is where I start when we need something (other than Costco).  As an Amazon prime member shipping is free on many items so you don’t have to worry about buying a single bottle of $2 cinnamon. The trick is finding things, you can select “English” on the website but it may not find what you want so I often use the “People who bought this also looked at these items” features or browse by category. Last, there is nothing more amazing than ordering two boxes of vitamin water at 9AM and having it arrive at 7PM that same night  .. on a Saturday.
  • Google Translate:  Invaluable for a few words. Avoid sentences to ensure you do not accidentally offend (smile). At home, use the Chrome browser and install the extension as sometimes it gets “stuck” translating a page into Japanese and it is handy to be able to hit the translate button and have it start over. Plus, very handy on your iPhone. It is how I bought a car.
  • Money: The best way to move money from country to country (unless you are moving a huge amount), is with a check. You can read more here.
  • Electric bikes:  If you have young children, buy a bike in Japan. They have electric bikes which are a mix of pedaling and battery power. Tokyo is a VERY hilly place, and that battery “boost” will be very helpful if you have a child or a host of groceries on the back of the bike. Just don’t be like most of the expats and almost all of the Japanese, wear a helmet.
  • Guam and Saipan:  We needed a break from the city in the summer and tried to head down to Okinawa or into the central parts of Asia (Philippines, etc.) when we first moved here. As we drove to the airport we cancelled our trip to Okinawa as a typhoon was hitting. The summer is typhoon season in Asia, making your choice of destinations one that requires a lot of research. I wish I would have known about Guam – close to Tokyo, beautiful beaches, English speaking and simple. We have been there 3 times in the last 2 years – it is the easy, get out of the city break for a beach.
  • Lunch:  Tokyo has, absolutely, the best restaurants in the world. More Michelin stars than anywhere else. But dinner is expensive – with the restaurants pushing set menus that range from $75 to $250 per person. The secret is that lunch in Japan is the best deal in the world. Those $200 dinners for $30 (with less courses). Do lunch.

Tokyo is the safest and cleanest city in the world. It has beautiful parks and perplexing rules. The Japanese people are incredibly friendly and will openly try to help you out as a foreigner.

But it can be daunting, as I described in this post. I hope this helps others.

A PRECIDENT BASED WAY OF THINKING

There is a famous Japanese saying:

出る釘は打たれる。

Deru kugi wa utareru or in English: the nail that sticks out gets hammered down. In other words, follow the rules and in Japan, there is a big rule book.

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Rules are an interesting thing with cultures treating them very differently. I have come to believe that rules are like our legal system – precedent based. Over time, precedent changes as culture and thinking changes. No better example is what you see happening in North and South American around marijuana with some contemporary thought leaders like Bill Gates coming out with opinions you would not have expected. Our world is changing and will keep changing as views, economies, politics and opinions change. That is why slavery is banned and women can vote.

In Japan it is encouraging to see Prime Minister Abe taking the cultural challenges head on with plans such as his push to get women into the workforce, but there is a long road ahead. This is a very old culture with 3000 years of history (unlike my home country).

In the same article on Abe’s efforts, the Prime Minister makes an interesting observation on Japan which explains the conservative mindset:

Japan, he said, had been like a golfer, stuck in a bunker for 15 years, but reluctant to reach for the sand wedge, in case they over-hit the ball and shoot out-of-bounds. Now, he said, Japan had finally had the courage to use the sand-wedge.

The rules centric culture of Japan has benefits. Orderly, clean, safe and if you can figure out how it works – efficient. There is no city in the world that runs like Tokyo. You simply need to take a train in Japan and then compare the experience to a train in India to understand the power of structure and rules.

But it also has interesting drawbacks in the form of risk aversion and the creation of some very odd situations. My recent experience at Haneda is a good example of the danger of rules, in this case at the taxi stand.

The "rule" for the taxi stand is that the attendant must take the next taxi in line for passengers – no exceptions. That means that if you are in line with a family that will not fit into a small sedan, he is not allowed to call a van out of line or from where they queue to assist you.

I learned this after a very difficult conversation with an attendant around why he would not call up a van.

After the back and forth (due to my lack of Japanese language skills), he also figured out how to communicate to me that there is another rule; “the customer is always right”.

In other words, he could not call up a van. but if I decided to walk down the line and call a van to the front, he could do nothing about it.

I wonder how many years will go by before someone decides to fix this rule? Or will the nail just get pounded down every time serving the status quo?

 

And on a related note with regard to precedent, the evolution of rules often has unintended consequences. This one caught my attention and made me laugh.

Kicking habit

BEING AN EXPAT IN TOKYO: A VIEW

It is hard to describe why being a foreigner in Japan is so hard. The people are friendly, they mistake me for American all the time and Japan loves the US. English is more prevalent than I thought. Why so hard?

I am not talking about the business side. That is a different conversation and as a multi-cultural Canadian with a previous expat under my belt, that is going exactly as I expected.

I am talking about living in Japan as a person, as a family. Is it because it is such a busy city? Is it because the expat community is so much smaller due to people leaving after the earthquake; leaving only the semi-gaijin behind (ones who have localized or married a local)?

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As I took the subway the other morning, something happened that encapsulated the experience and perhaps, though a story, a point of view and an explanation.

I have been commuting to a new office for weeks now and tried a few different subway routes, settling on the quickest and easiest. 5 stops, up the stairs, 50m, down the stairs, 1 stop and 250m underground to our new office.

Simple.

I have found the Tokyo subway commute interesting. On this particular morning I stood on the packed train and took a good look around. Men reading manga .. I still find that odd, especially when you glance at one and notice how graphic they are. People on their phones. A man standing oddly trying to read a huge paper. An ad for whisky that made me laugh. Observing, learning, enjoying the "foreignness".

Stop 8 – Ginza (It is easier to identify by the number than the name). Time to change trains. Step out, head up the stairs and … what?

Everything is different.

Where is my next line 50m away? Where is the red circle to guide me? Where am I?

What has changed? (it starts dawning one me). This time instead of stepping on to the last car, which is busiest, I walked up 2 cars.

The smallest of changes. A tiny shift.

I am lost.

Wandering around I find signs and trudge what feels like 1000m around corners, up stairs, down stairs. How is this possible? The change between trains is a hop, skip and a jump. A long walk, it feels like my 2 minutes is now 20.

Finally, I get to my change over. Back on track. One stop, short walk, at the office.

That is the Japan expat foreigner experience.

Over that first, painful year of learning you build your cocoon of knowledge in this foreign country where everything is different, where there is a “way things are done” which allows 40 million people to live together and create the safest, cleanest and one of the most functional cities in the world.

The problem is that when you shift a millimeter right or left, that cocoon is torn asunder. Your understanding is blasted apart and you are left wondering, where am I? (This often happens when you are under a time pressure).

Drifting in an ocean where everyone understands, except you.

If you don’t believe me, rent a car and a GPS in Tokyo and try driving across town. GPS’s don’t understand 3 level freeways. One minute it will say go straight for 13km and the next, it thinks you are on the first level and is screaming “U-turn .. exit left in 150m .. recalculating .. Turn right!”

That being said, year two is about 200% easier and as always, fascinating.

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TOKYO FASHION

To say that Tokyo has it’s “own sense of style” underplays the statement .. as does beating to it’s own drum.

Tokyo style is head-turning to say the least. Timeout Tokyo has a great series on the topic named style of the day, you can see the full series here.

This outfit makes complete sense, as he is in Yoyogi park.

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This, surprisingly common, teddy-bear themed outfit does not make sense to me …. and these outfits are everywhere in Tokyo …

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Foreigner in a foreign land ….

HAKONE SHRINE, JAPAN

I have had this shrine on the “While living in Japan” list. It is one of the more famous Tori gates in Japan, the Hakone Shrine. The massive Tori sits at the edge of the Lake Ashi.

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It was dark, cloudy and about to rain that day.

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While taking a shot of the family under the gate we all started chuckling at this sight … she was working very hard on the windy lake so that her husband, in the life jacket, could get a photograph.

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Supposedly it is a great place to view Mt. Fuji. Unless it is cloudy. For reference, Mt. Fuji is that way. You know .. behind the clouds.

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There is a long stairway from the Lake Ashi Tori to the shrine at the top. This shot gives you a perspective off the surrounding forest with it’s very large trees.

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The shrine at the top ..

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and the dragons at the purification fountain.

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An important monk .. but I have no idea who he is as it was all in Japanese.

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Will have to go back to see Fuji another day.

MOUNT KOMAGATAKE: VIEWING MT FUJI

One of the reasons why you travel to the Hakone region is for the views of Mt. Fuji. Fuji-san has been quite problematic for me, seems like whenever I have my camera it hides away. It is also the reason why the region is so busy and with Fuji-san’s new world heritage status, tourism is booming.

That being said, while we were there Fuji-san was nowhere to be seen, hiding in the dense cloud cover. Mt. Komagatake is supposed to be the best place to view Fuji from and as the cloud cover was so dense, the ropeway to the top was almost empty.

On the plus side, it meant no waiting .. we went up anyway. Configuration: Canon 5D Mark III, handheld HDRs and Canon 28-70mm f/2.8.

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As you head up you see a golf course to the right. I think we will need to add that course to the list.

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It was very, very foggy.

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Very, very foggy.

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At the top there are trails ringing the mountain with great views .. on any other day. I can honestly say that I fretted a little bit about getting lost. At one point, visibility was down to a meter or less.

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But the wind blew in and it started to clear (for 2 minutes).

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I would wager it is a good view on a clear day (smile).

OWAKUDANI: BLACK EGGS AND SULFUR

Owakudani is a valley in the Hakone region south of Tokyo where you can see the volcanic activity up close.

(大涌谷 lit. "Great Boiling Valley"?) is a volcanic valley with active sulphur vents and hot springs in Hakone, Kanagawa Prefecture, Japan. It is a popular tourist site for its scenic views, volcanic activity, and especially, Kuro-tamago (黒卵 lit. "black egg"?) — a local specialty of eggs hard-boiled in the hot springs. The boiled eggs turn black and smell slightly sulphuric; consuming the eggs is said to increase longevity. Eating one is said to add seven years to your life. You may eat up to two and a half for up to seventeen and a half years, but eating a whole third is said to be highly unadvised.

It looked like a bit of a moonscape to me. Configuration: Canon 5D Mark III, shooting a mix of handheld HDR with a Canon EF 28-70mm f/2.8.

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As you take the short hike to the viewing area, the smell of sulfur (rotten eggs) becomes stronger and stronger.

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There is a reason there are signs like this. The sulfur is very strong, a few times I felt a bit lightheaded when the wind shifted (and nauseous). It is clearly signed that if the sulfur gets too bad, they close the area down.

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At the end of the hike you come to a viewing area which also happens to be where they are cooking the eggs. They have these large metal baskets, which they place into the hot water.

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I just realized that I didn’t take a lot of shots with the eggs. But they are as black as night. The taste? You will have to find that out for yourself (smile).

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As we hiked back we watched the eggs shoot down the hill on their own ropeway. I would wager they sell a lot of eggs everyday.

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As we left the valley, I began wondering about the volcanic gases. Japan is a hotbed of geological activity, with almost daily earthquakes and 2 volcanoes that rank in the top 5 for most “dangerous” to a population. In fact, the volcanic gases can be very dangerous for the unaware:

Hikers have died on volcanoes in Japan after taking a wrong turn on a trail and being overcome by volcanic gases, In April 2009, a U.S. poet, Craig Arnold, disappeared after setting off on a hike on the volcanic island of Kuchinoerabujima, 50 kilometers off the cost of southern Kyushu.

Enjoy that onsens and hot springs, they come from an interesting source.