Category Archives: Advice

Concerning Trains

(In the voice of Brit that resembles a parrot)

Trains.  That thing in Japan other people use to fall asleep on total strangers.

Trains. The vehicle, not the band because that’s a whole other bag of crazy.

Trains.  Those things that you think of whenever you hear Kenny Roger’s sing The Gambler.

Trains.  The thing that every Harry Potter fan wants to ride so much that they will run headfirst into a brick wall in London.

 

My new apartment is in Nagoya, which puts me a 40 minute train ride from work.  That’s not at all bad since my apartment is a 10 minute walk from the main station and my company pays for my train passes.  It’s pretty damn convenient, and whenever I’m going to be riding it for work it’ll be on the quiet direction: morning is busy into Nagoya, evening is busy out of Nagoya.  And the train system itself is really well timed.  You can count on the trains running on the posted schedule 99% of the time and they make announcements at the stations when there’s a problem rather than Twitter or their website.

But these magical metal conveyance machines aren’t something we use a whole lot in Canada.  Before I finished university, I think I used the subway/skytrain system in Vancouver only a handful of times.  I spent a lot more time in cars, buses, and even ferries.  After uni the Canada Line was put in and my bus route discontinued, so I ended up riding that line damn near every day.  And this was under protest.  My old express buses actually took less time than the new system.

But out here, I need to use them for going everywhere.  Next town over? Train.  Major cities? Train.  Water park and shopping centre? Train.  Mountain resort with Bond villain and sexy female sidekick named Clarissa Whetmore? I wish, but I also wouldn’t be surprised.

And despite my glowing recommendation, the bloody thing was daunting at the start.  I had very little idea of how the system worked and I intentionally avoided using it until I got a grip on the layout and understanding it.  Unlike Canada, there are different trains that only go to particular stops along the same route even though they all cost the same price.

For example, the train from work to Nagoya has four different trains running that line.  The local train is the slowest and literally goes to every stop.  It takes over an hour to get there.  The semi-express hits up about half the stops and takes 50ish minutes.  The express only stops at the big places and gets things done in 35 minutes, and the limited express goes to all the same stops  as the express but has assigned seating and a spiffy fast train that arrives in Nagoya in 25 minutes.

A similar system applies for the bullet trains(shinkansen), which as I learned have three or four different speeds.  But the trains don’t actually go faster or slower, they just stop more frequently.  The system seems to work well enough, but it is so indicative of the Japanese way of thinking which is somewhere between incredibly practical and disturbingly inflexible to the point of fetishism.  The system makes a lot of sense, but it would also be more efficient with very easy changes.  But nobody will ever make those changes, this is how it’s always been done and changing it will “inconvenience” too many of this already rapidly aging population.  But I digress.

Canada is a special beast when it comes to transportation, and this is something I never really understood until I came here.  The bus, train, seabus, and subway system are all part of the same company, and I never appreciated that until now.  Because they are all the same company, tickets and passes and workers are all part of that company so it makes everything a thousand times easier to coordinate and use.

But out here, there are three to five different companies alone in Nagoya(more in the bigger cities) running train and subways systems in the city.  It’s insane!  Up until a few years ago you couldn’t even use the tickets or cards between and systems and had to buy different cards if you needed any kind of transfer.  Now there’s a card you top off to use in and out, but I can’t imagine how mind boggling stupid it must have been to have to buy new tickets all the time for each of these companies who also used different ticket machines for buying tickets.  There is the Kintetsu, the Meitetsu, the JR, the various subway lines, and buses.  The only thankful part I am for that is they don’t run on the same routes.  That would be a whole other bag of crazy.

Bottom line: Vancouver ‘s system might be kind of stupid, frequently ahead of or behind the schedule, crowded and expensive, but I guarantee you it’s cheaper and more intuitive than any city in Japan.  I never appreciated how nice it is to have one pass for everything until I got here.

 

-GJ

 

 

On Being a Grown Up

I’ve been having a lot of conversations lately that involve lamentations on my pretense of not being an adult, conversations that start with “having responsibilities” and usually ends with “sucks”.  I’ve also had grown up discussions about taxes and savings and <shudder> children….  These are things that I am not yet prepared to discuss with anyone.

The simple truth is that I have a genetic predisposition against growing up.  I’d blame my sister or mum, but that would be a clear lie to just about anyone who knows me or has met my older and less handsome twin who I sometimes refer to as “dad” or “father”  in order throw off potential assassins.  Like him, growing up feels like a word I’ve adopted in order to blend in and become part of the crowd, but which we have very little intention of accepting without a bitter prolonged battle in which elves and orcs will fall in droves.

Despite this, I can feel that dirty wench “Time” sidling up behind me.  Everyday I have moments where I mention to a student about something they don’t know about because I was part of the final generation who knows about cassette tapes, VCRs, rotary phones, and knows that the Fresh Prince of Bel Air isn’t a new type of Subway mascot.  It’s these moments that cause me to facepalm myself and sob for my increasingly disappearing childhood.  And each time I do this, I feel just a little more anger and hatred for the young and youthful.  

But Japan has interesting ideas about growing up, and I’m starting to see why a large group of foreigners stick around this country despite how messed up it seems.  The simple truth is that being a little childish or having childish interests is perfectly acceptable.  Grown men and women going to watch anime movies, hanging out and buying toys or collectibles from gaming stores, playing arcade games for hours, drinking and eating foods that seems childish are all things that foreigners see locals doing without anyone except us thinking it’s weird.

Japan doesn’t quite prescribe itself to the concept of putting away your toys  and leaving your childhood behind.  It seems to accept or at least tolerate older people taking part in childish things.  I think half of my students regularly go to Disneyland or Universal Studios, at least three have all-year-access passes.  And none of them are younger than 20.  My Magic: The Gathering game group is filled with grown adults(both men and women) ranging from late twenties to late forties.  A lot of them have families, all of us are working smucks, and we regularly invade and take over a gaming store in Nagoya every Tuesday.


And it isn’t weird, rather, it’s encouraged right alongside a plethora of internet cafes, arcades, video game and hobby stores, regular manga and anime events, and cosplay.  This is a country that matches with a certain type of foreigner, one of which I’m similar to but not one of.  It encourages this sort of behaviour, and I’m not sure if it’s (1) progressive or (2) yet another way Japanese silently judge people.  It could be either or even both, this is a weird country that I doubt I’ll ever understand.

But I hope that North America does accept this, because it would be amazing.

 

-GJ

Here there be Typhoons

Heatstroke season is just about over here in Japan and coming in along with the return of pants, proper shoes, and full battle armor(suit and tie) by the end of October are…

Typhoons.

If you’ve ever lived in a country that gets regular typhoons than you know my pain.  September has barely started the weather can now change on the slightest of whims.  We can be enjoying pleasant and fun beginning-of-autumn sunshine one minute, and then running for our lives from a torrential rainstorm the next.   Riding on a bicycle through a typhoon? I don’t recommend it.  Walking through a typhoon? I recommend even less.

Last week we had a typhoon on my day off and it wrecked all sorts of havoc in this prefecture and just yesterday my regular Tuesday trip into Nagoya was all sunshine and waffles.  Or, at least it seemed that way right up until the skies opened up and the great thunder god Thor decided it was high time for a little thunder, lightning and rain capable of backing up toilets.  It lasted for two hours and keep me indoors for the entire time.  When it finally ceased, the ground was dry in less than 20 minutes.  Crazy.

If I ever held the notion that it rained a lot in Vancouver, that illusion has been thoroughly dispelled.  It does rain frequently back home, but the rain is light to moderate, usually pleasant and rarely miserable.  Carrying an umbrella is a choice and a good rain jacket is enough most of the time.  But here neither is enough on their own.  One must prepare accordingly.

Rain isn’t light in Japan*.  In fact, a light rain here is enough for me to seriously consider having a good long stare down and see who blinks first.  A heavy rain, hopefully without wind, is enough to soak my jacket and any bag I might have in less than a minute.  If it has rain my feet are getting soggy as well.  And at the same time it’s also hot.  Not crazy hot, usually somewhere in the high twenties, but still hot all the same. So even though the rain didn’t soak my clothes, the sweat and humidity under the jacket did.

No matter what country I go to, I always miss the weather of the Pacific Northwest.  It was obnoxiously wet, and it got you cold on those wet but snowless winter days, and if you saw the sun between November and March you broke into tears and clawed upwards towards the sky until its benevolent light faded.

-GJ

*Citation needed

The Summer of Ninety-Six Point Eight

Summer has arrived in Japan.  It’s hot, sweaty, boiling in the sun, an infinitesimal degree cooler in the shade, and the cicadas are the noisier than a pair of children who’ve disappeared into the supermarket candy aisle.  The nights are cool (thank a relic of an outmoded belief system) which makes it a lot easier to sleep than other places I’ve stayed(only slightly less effective than alcohol and valium), and with the summer season comes festival season!  In the summer every Japanese city/town/dwelling with more than 1 person has a festival to celebrate…something.  With some kind of terrifying town mascot.

The first weekend of August had the local Yokkaichi festival, a celebration of such magnitude that I didn’t know about it until two whole days ahead of time.  It took up the entire shopping arcade, five or six additional side streets, about half a kilometre of major road, and filled all that space with Japanese carnival game stalls, food stalls, gambling stalls, and stalls that sold aquatic creatures of varying degrees that were not for eating.  Unless you’re Chinese, then all bets are off.

The food was…disappointing.  A lot of it was fried or bbq chicken, it was all ridiculously overpriced, and the best thing I ate was probably the turkish kebabs.  Nothing was bad, it was just so overpriced for what you got compared even to restaurants that I limited myself very heavily to things I couldn’t find anywhere in town.  Such as kebabs.  Can’t find those in small town Yokkaichi.

I didn’t bother with the carnival games, seen and done those a hundred times before.  And it has nothing to do with me being bad at them.  Instead I watched a few traditional Japanese dances, floats, and displays of such drumming prowess that the ladies clothing sometimes reminded me of this one time in Amsterdam that I probably shouldn’t repeat in print.

 

 

On the other side of festival season, this week is Obon, the traditional Japanese celebration for the dead.  Traditionally, many Japanese who live in the big cities use this week of relaxation to take a load off, visit family in the small towns(or smaller cities) and take a walk to the cemetery to visit grampy-six-feet-under.  Its a solemn time to remember dead family members, light some candles in their honour, and eat a meal to remember them by.  In practice, people take a vacation in Guam or spend a few hours with grampy or granny before buggering off to Sizzlers(or the Japanese equivalent) for some all-you-can-eat chicken’n’chips.  It’s so North American I felt like crying, saluting and subjugating a visible minority.  There’s even a traditional celebration where some people will lite a candle and set it down on the river to float downstreams.  It’s lovely and I wanted to take pictures and take part.  But does anyone actually do it? Nope.  For the first time since I came to Japan I heard someone say: “It’s TOO traditional”.

 

At The Company, we are working.  Its a week of holidays for most people, so the clear response to this is to have us work.  Doesn’t matter that almost every other school is closed all week and that literally all of our regular classes are cancelled and I might teach 1 or two hours this entire week.  Nope, someone at corporate thought it would be a radical and bodacious idea to have six people sitting around doing nothing for a whole week.  And not only are we working, someone had the bright idea to also screw up our usual schedule and come in two hours earlier.  It’s not like any students are showing up in those two extra hours in the morning that are never otherwise available, but we definitely don’t have some students showing up in the evening who would be here otherwise.  Just bloody brilliant.

-GJ

The Tale of Sir-Not-Showering-At-This-Internet-Cafe

The first time I went to an internet cafe in Canada I was 15 or 16.  I went with my cousins and some of their friends to basically play video games with all the computer hooked up onto a LAN network.  It was Counter Strike.  I was better than expected but a lot worse than the best people there.  At the time I felt it was a great experience.  Five bucks an hour got you a computer with unlimited usage.  Sure it would’ve made a made a germaphobe scream, faint and need a hermetically sealed hamster ball just to make it out the front door,  but I was a teenager and I didn’t care about a few extra germs here and there.  The computers were okay and could handle a lot of the popular games people were interested in, but nothing graphic intensive.

hamster_ball

I went to some internet cafes while I was in Europe.  By and large they are much smaller, cleaner, rustic even, and intended just for internet surfing, email and printing documents.  Not 12 hour gaming marathons or mobs of teenagers  looking to murder each other in simulated warfare.  Usually they take up small shops and meet very simple writing, surfing and communication needs.  Gaming was not available and people probably never went to them for that sort of thing.

So fast-forward to now and there I was, stepping forth into a Japanese internet cafe.  This is a completely different beast entirely.  Where the cafes in Canada did have a lot of floor space and choice and the European ones I found were quaint and practical, the Japanese beasts are mythological sirens giving the technological equivalent of “come hither” with their eyes and a waggle of their fingers.

manga_cafe-cubicles

First of all, the building has two floors.  The top floor is a regular cafe with couches, pool tables, dart boards, and some private rooms(I do not know what goes on here and I am NOT going to find out).  The main floor has private computer alcoves, sleeping alcoves, couches, diner-style booth tables, and a significant library of naughty magazines, fashion magazines, and gaming magazines and all the lastest manga.  And a drink bar.

So it’s a thing in Japan that a lot of restaurants use “drink bars” for regular drinks(pop, juice, coffee, tea, etc) particularly at all you can eat joints where the overworked staff is already fetching food.  They give you a cup and you can go and run off and get drinks for yourselves.  If you want to order alcohol, it’s a different matter and comes individually, but otherwise the “drink bar” is the norm for many places.  At the internet cafe’s it’s the norm.  I had my choice of soda, juice, cold tea or brew my own fresh tea, espresso machine coffee, slushies, and soup.  It’s amazing.  My response was something along the lines of “Unlimited slurpees? Swaggles!”

You can order a variety of Japanese cafe food(simple sammiches, curry and rice, katsu and rice, chicken wings, fried food from the depths of the ocean, different snack foods) and it’s brought directly to your alcove.  For 320 yen I got a plate of fries with chicken nuggets and tacoyaki.  Pretty damn good considering I’m also only playing 380 yen per hour.

And the internet? Glorious.  Just glorious.  Back in Canada it was a great day if the speed went as high as 1.5 mbit/s, and things would finish downloading overnight.  But that little booth topped 12 mbit/s over wifi.  I wasn’t even using a plugged in cable, this was over the bloody wifi.  I must’ve downloaded 100+ gigs of data while I was there.  Fan-freaking-tastic.

But things aren’t all sunshine and waffles in the land of amazing internet cafes.  In the big cities it’s a fairly common occurrence for people to stay overnight at one if they’ve missed the last train.  It has booths for sleeping and showers for the morning and it costs you a fraction of staying at a hotel.  This is kind of odd, but as I’m getting used to Japan this sort of thing is becoming more normal for me.  The weirder part is that some people just straight up live in these places.  They basically rent an alcove every night, go to work during the day, order inexpensive food, and use the internet.  They shower in the morning, use laundromats for their clothes and use luggage to carry their belongings and the lockers at the cafe to store their things.

internet-cafe-510x600

Back home this would be a serious and terrible plague upon our youth. It would be pitchforks and torches and pistols at dawn over this unspeakable terror afflicting the best and brightest of this generation.  But here?  People seem to accept it alongside putting two prices for everything at the supermarket(before and after tax).  Is it actually a problem?   Is it weird?  I’ve honestly no bloody idea. I’ve been seriously reevaluating everything I’ve thought was strange since I came here.  Strange took an extended vacation from Japan a couple decades ago and it’s starting to look like it might be permanent.

Asking around has got a definitive: “Eyh?”, which is the Japanese equivalent of someone telling you there’s a guy in a trench coat standing behind the bushes at the bus stop every morning for a few hours: he hasn’t done anything wrong, but there is no way in hell that he’s not doing something wrong under that coat or afterwards with the curtains shut.

This is What Democracy Tastes Like

So it’s going to be voting time in Japan soon.   Or maybe in this district of Japan.  Or maybe it’s just for the school board or something like that.  Hell if I know what it’s for, no one at my work seems to know either and they’re Japanese.  How do I know that it’s going to be voting time?  Because the Japanese method of letting people know about their platform and proposals is to hire a car to drive around town with a horn blaring a recorded message to the masses.  No joke.  Aside from one rally I saw in Nagoya which felt more like stand up comedy, this has been the extent of my exposure to the local election.

Standard Japanese Election Car
Seriously, this is basically what I’ve seen and heard four times a day for the past two weeks.

 

This brought me to ask my industrious and valuable co-workers about the election.  And they don’t have a clue.  I felt right at home and I got my ranting cap ready.  Apparently Japan has the same problem as the other First World countries.  The youth and adult voters aren’t taking 20 minutes out of their busy schedules to put a few check marks or Xes on a piece of paper.  Seriously, why the hell aren’t you people voting?

Yeah yeah, I’ve heard a giant steaming pile of excuses: “my vote doesn’t matter”, “the party I like won’t win”, “I don’t agree with any of the parties”, “the government is going to be a bunch of crooks regardless”. You know what?  You can take those excuses you keep giving and stuff them in a remarkably comfortable place to a small demographic of people who enjoy that sort of thing.

Voting is important, it’s why things like school tuition and bus fares keep increasing: because the political parties know you lot are unhappy but are too bloody lazy to get out there and actually show how unhappy you are by voting against them.

When a politician says something like “Young people don’t vote and it’s a big problem”, they are in fact saying “the biggest potential voting demographic doesn’t vote and force us to talk about the issues they care about and we like it that way”. You know why politicians keep getting up in front of the camera and talking about crime and medical? Because the elderly love that kind of stuff and their voting more than you are.  Seriously, 80 year old cripples are worth targeting and we aren’t.

This is especially important because back home in good ol’ Vancouver, Canada there is a vote to increase the taxes by half a percent to pay for transit fees.  Apparently the bus service in Vancouver has once again buggered up despite posting record bonuses for their executives.  Apparently these guys are doing such a bang up job that they need more money to solve a problem they caused and still give themselves a wage increases totalling in close to half a million dollars.  It’s ridiculous and frankly shameful, and most of you probably can’t be bothered to put down that pint of craft beer and go vote.

God I miss real beer.  I haven't had a proper pint in weeks.
God I miss real beer. I haven’t had a proper pint in weeks.

So you know what people, here’s why you think the government doesn’t care about you and that your vote isn’t important: it’s because it isn’t.  You haven’t been voting as a group for a while now and the political parties know that.  They’re taking advantage of that and you can show them how wrong they are.  There’s a million students who don’t vote out there, I guarantee that if even half of you made a fuss this election things will change in the future.  Show them your frustration and anger by at least voting out of spite.

Or ironically, I know a lot of you are hipsters.

-GJ

The Sleep Deprivation Deduction

Sleep seems to be a common obsession on this Europe Trip. I’ve kept surprising track of how much sleep I’ve gotten, when I’ve gotten it and how well I’ve slept, the quality of the beds, the troubles and difficulties involved with each hotel and the nearly insurmountable hardships faced when sharing accommodations.

For example: the most difficult accommodations I’ve stayed at are in Italy. This very nice and up scale camp site outside of Rome had two rooms per cabin with two beds in each and one shared bathroom. But only one bleeding key per cabin. What the hell were they thinking? On more than one occasion I had to help others track down their room mate with the key, not to mention my own. There may have been some hefting into rooms through windows and dives back out of. But just to annoy us even more, the rooms didn’t unlock from the inside. Only. The. Outside.

At another location, the rooms were very normal and everything was aboveboard and trustworthy. Except for the room key, which was a card. The tour manager Jess had previously described these door locks as puzzle locks. Honestly she wasn’t far off. In order to get in you have to put the card against the door until a green light flashed and buzzed, at which point you then needed to turn what looked like a deadlock clockwise until the door unlocked. It sounds simple. The door even had instructions printed on it.
It worked beautifully the first time. I wish it stayed that way because even entry after that basically involved me standing there doing the same action over and over and over again trying to get the door open and failing. A couple times I started praying for the magic door gods to make it work(mostly because I really needed to pee). For some reason, the second stage of opening this door only seemed to want to work about 5% of the time. Probably less. One in twenty is generous.

Stories of room entry aside, adjusting to the other side of the equation proved easy for me. I’m normally a fairly agreeable and reasonable person, and this seems to also work the same way with my sleep methods. I didn’t have any problems sleeping in any of the hotels(Not even that one hotel in Lyon that has toilets that felt like they would tear off the wall every time you sat down, had rooms some girls swear are haunted, and rooms with windows that open into chimneys).

In Munich my buddy and I shared a room with a pair of Australians who’d already proven deadly to multiple French Hotel rooms(Specifically the mattresses). When I returned to the room late in the evening, one of these mattress assassins had decided to recreate the storming of Normandy Beach with sound effects. His movement across the bed was hazardous to pets, his snoring reminded me of gunfire, and whatever other sound was somehow leaving his mouth between snores could have easily been mistaken for encoded messages a la “Broadsword to Danny Boy”.

I noticed all this right away, listened for the sake of comedic necessity, and then promptly fell asleep. It didn’t even slow me down, I even slept with my head closer to the sounds of fighting and directly next to the bunk bed ladder. It slowed down my buddy a bit, as I discovered the next morning, but he eventually drowned it out with his own brand of alcohol induced snoring.

This superpower is probably the result of having endured my own family’s superpower to snore like drunken lumberjacks. It has left me with the ability to sleep in almost any condition. Sleeping bag on the hard floor or the woods, couches the world over, buses, trams, subways, skytrains, standing, sitting, in the dark, in the light, and even, because this is a true story, in a done up hoodie on the floor with my hands in my pockets and body straight as a plank. Apparently it was exceedingly strange to the point that it needed to be mentioned to my father who will probably never let me live it down.

I was even chosen one night to swap rooms with one of my dear friends on the trip. His better half needed a break from his snoring and was tired of having to catch up on her sleep while on the bus between cities. Thus I was nominated to replace him for that night because the worst I can manage in my sleep is occasionally moaning. I’m a little curious to know if I moan anything in particular. I should record myself sometime.

The usual scenario for everyone on the bus.  Buses are for sleeping, hotels less so.
The usual scenario for everyone on the bus. Buses are for sleeping, hotels less so.

So, this brings me to some advice: get over it. If you’re travelling, be it on your own, with a new partner who you’ve never travelled with before, some friends or even in a tour group, you better start training yourself. Everyone has some kind of weird or odd thing they do in their sleep and lets face facts: they can’t control this any more than a cat can control it’s urge to mangle birds, rodents, and furniture. There are some things you can do to alleviate the problem, but at the end of the day you need to suck it up and take one for the team. Sometimes this uncontrollable thing is symphonic snoring, other times it’s an all out assault on your blanket, pillow and mattress, and in a few rare cases it may involve singing, talking, moaning, or walking.

Our London hostel.  Better than most, more expensive than most.
Our London hostel. Better than most, more expensive than most.

Thankfully many hostels have anticipated this and are working to help you. Many can accommodate moving you to a different room if needed, others offer ear plugs, and a good deal offer private rooms at an extra cost. Me, I brought noise dampening ear plugs. I didn’t need to use them but a couple people did borrow them and appreciated it.

The simple truth of travelling is that you are not the most important person, you are probably not going to relax as much as you’re expecting, and something somewhere will go pear shaped despite your best attempts to lasso the universe to your whims. Murphy’s Law reigns supreme while travelling, so prepare and adapt for the worst. It honestly makes for better stories afterwards, and that’s what your going to being back and keep forever.