Tuesday, April 28, 2009

A few snapshots

Hey all.

Here are four random videos that don't really stand on their own, but are a bit interesting when viewed together. Each shows just some of the sights and sounds that make up this experience of living in Tokyo, Japan.

Questions? Comments? Conundrums?

video

Rant!!!


There are a lot of horrible and difficult things going on around the world and this is not one of them. However, we had some crash-courses in living in Japan that I thought you might like to read about (and I would definitely like to vent about).

This morning was not fun. I was reminded of the fact that I live in Japan, and despite all our recent progress in adjusting to living here, there are still many frustrating things about living in this particular city and culture.

I checked our credit card statement just to make sure everything was in order, and BOOM! There was a $615 charge from our Japanese cell phone company, SoftBank. We've had many problems with getting and maintaining our service with SoftBank, but it's been worth it since all the new teachers got this service, and in Japan, calling is cheap when it's "in network" and outrageous when "out of network." Plus, we can't break the contract because we'd be charged an arm and a leg for that anyway.

Our normal bill is a little over a hundred bucks a month for one cheap phone and one iPhone. So this $615 charge was obviously an accident. Right???

When we got some help from the office staff at St. Mary's, they showed us our bill online and we learned that there was one single flat-rate charge this month for $450. Apparently, when we sent an email (from Rachael's iPhone) to the parents of the youth group kids when we arrived in Thailand safely, we were unknowingly forced into buying a non-refundable, flat-rate, $450 international phone package. We were never told this in our discussions with SoftBank employees. We were actually told explicitly that our internet/phone service could NEVER go over $57.00/month for the iPhone because we paid for a particular package with unlimited internet access.

Now, I understand that there might be an added charge for using the phone in another service area, but a $450 flat fee???!!!

The worst part? There's no way to negotiate here. Rules are rules and are never broken. If you're supposed to do something a certain way, you can be absolutely positive that's how it will be done. There's no Better Business Bureau, news personality or congressperson you can call to advocate for your circumstance. Basically, you're just stuck.

This is how I started my day. THEN, I had the pleasure of receiving our refund receipt from our deposit on our last apartment. Even with a crazy dog, new paint colors, and several small holes in the walls, we were only charged around $150 when we moved out of our last apartment. When we moved to Tokyo, we were told that if we took care of the place, we would only be charged a "small cleaning fee" for cleaning and preparing the apartment for the next tenants. For some reason $845 seems a little steep for cleaning a 2 bedroom apartment with no carpet, no tatami floors, and no damage from kids or pets.

Naturally, I calmly returned to the St. Mary's office and asked for a little help understanding the charges. I was told that this was a "normal" fee and that everything was in order. There were no extra damage charges. This was just the run-of-the-mill fee that everyone gets when they move out. Upon investigation though, several teachers told me that the average fee is $10/sq. meter, which would run around $630 at the highest. That's steep, but apparently that's just the Japanese way.

I wasn't about to flush even $200 down the toilet, so as politely as I could, I asked one of the secretaries if she would call the real estate agent and get a detailed list of what was cleaned and why it cost so much. I also asked for them to reduce the cost because there's no chance we could have possibly made the apartment THAT bad after only 6 months of living there and I signed a form stating that there was no extra damage beyond "normal wear and tear."

They're supposed to get back to me tomorrow. I'll keep you posted.

Until then, yes Brad, you do live in Japan. Yes, they are obsessed with rules. And yes, this city is still unbelievably expensive and maddening at times. Whew, glad I got that off my chest. :)

Monday, April 27, 2009

Our First Visitor!

Today is a very special day.

Not because it is Tuesday. No. It is much more special than that.

Our first visitor is coming today from Minnesota!

One of my very best friends, Jenn, is coming to Tokyo. Her husband, Tim, graciously lent her to us until May 6th. We are so excited to have her here!

We feel a little bit like this isn't actually happening. I know in my head that she will be here in just a few short hours, but I can't quite get it to set in as reality.

Either way, I can't wait! Stay tuned for some great photos and stories from our adventures both here and at Tokyo Terrace!

--Rachael

Friday, April 24, 2009

Bugs...

Let me just take off my rose-colored glasses for a sec.

Now that we have that out of the way...today I discovered another surprising downside to life on a bicycle that you might find amusing.

First, a preface. Thanks to my father, every time I have gotten a haircut, whether in the U.S., Argentina, Italy, or Japan, the stylist (without exception) has made some sort of comment about my "nice, thick head of hair." For that, I'm grateful. It's the arm hair and the beard that gave me trouble this week.

Riding next to the Tamagawa river is beautiful, peaceful, and serene, but at sunset, it can be a total nightmare. Just like in bug-infested Minnesota where people joke that the mosquito is the State Bird, clouds of gnats rise and swarm along the river path right before sunset. This just so happens to be the same time that I'm on my way home by bike. Make no mistake, I hate bugs. Especially bugs that fly. Many a romantic evening cuddling in a hammock have been ruined by a few pesky little bugs in my ears.

Now, imagine with me for a moment walking along this river towards a beautiful mountain-sunset. Next, picture a dense cloud of gnats hovering right above the bike path by the river. And finally, imagine me riding my bike straight through the unavoidable cloud. The result ranges between 2 and 15 (the standing record) gnats getting stuck in the hair of each of my arms. I then have to stop completely and rub them off since their little legs and wings aren't strong enough to free them from the snare of my hair. That's not the worst part. I then have to rub my chin, mustache and cheeks to shake them out of my beard. Yeah, it's disgusting.

I've at least learned to keep my mouth closed when riding home...and yes, I learned the hard way. Maybe that's why Japanese guys wear those surgeon masks when they ride their bikes. Or, that could explain why so many don't have facial hair.


A pamphlet dropped at our new apartment_____Grandpa and grandson

(My beard is often referred to as a "Jesus beard" by our friends here.
Maybe this is why...)

Sunday, April 19, 2009

A Car-Less Lifestyle

Part 1: Biking is Beautiful

Here's a recent article from The Japan Times about a Danish diplomat and some initiative he's pushing about biking/climate change etc. (ARTICLE) To tell you the truth, I didn't read as much about his new initiative as I did his biking route. The intersection he meets his colleagues at each time they ride is the bridge I cross everyday on my way to school. They ride past our new apartment along a bike path that is now our lifeline to the rest of Tokyo.

Here is the writer's description of the ride along the river:

Getting up early is certainly not easy, but it's worth the trouble, the ambassador said. And indeed, the morning ride along the Tama River was, as I found out, a pure delight. Though I often ride a bike around my home district, being out there at that time set me free from the usual noise pollution, constant near-misses involving people and cars, and rows of sterile concrete buildings.

From the virtually straight Tama River cycling track, you command great views of the river and its surroundings, including a golf course, baseball grounds and soccer pitches, all the while basking in the morning sunlight, the mild breeze — and, just then, enjoying the cherry blossom, too. Even the occasional bumps and jolts along the way — which made my bike's plastic shopping basket shake and rattle, but fortunately not roll off — didn't seem to matter.

THIS is why we moved over here.

Part 2: Life on Two Wheels

I haven't been carrying a camera around much lately, but I'll try to get a couple shots in the next few weeks that might give you a glimpse of our new bike culture. It truly is a complete cultural shift when you learn to live without a car, and we're learning more about how to deal with the challenges and the blessings that a car-less life can bring. I've laughed once or twice recollecting a conversation I had with my friend Dain. He and his fiance (and our peanut of a god-daughter, Lena) sold one of their cars in the hopes of becoming a "one-car family." I was a bit skeptical at first, thinking about all the things they might "need" a car for, but fully admired their choice. Now, I have a much better perspective on how absolutely possible that life is (though the ability to make that choice depends a bit on where you live, of course).

As far as the downsides go, imagine something as simple as going shopping for groceries. How do you get your goodies from Point A to Point B when you don't have a backseat or a trunk? If you have more than one bag or any large-ish items, where do you put them? The system I'm currently trying out is putting one bag in the clanky metal basket on the front of my bike and hanging the remaining bags from my front handlebars- no easy task when you're steering around potholes, small children and other cyclists. Rachael is lucky enough to have a sort of flat wire bed (you know, like a truck bed, but smaller, for a bike) mounted on the back of her bike. We use a couple of bungee cords to tie down larger items or boxes there (no Dad, no Zap-straps or tie downs, just a simple bungee cord- sorry, inside joke there for Bob White, the proud master-packer). Another option is using a delivery service. Yesterday we paid 10 bucks to have our new stove top delivered a couple miles to our home- not bad for the hassle it saved.

How about if it's pouring down rain? And you're dressed to the nines (...or at least the eights) on your way to work? I'd begun to master riding one-handed with an umbrella in the free hand, but that just doesn't work along an often busy and breezy river path. Many of our friends have head-to-toe Gortex suits to shield them from being totally saturated upon arriving at school. There's no chance I could buy one here on account of the extraordinarily high prices and compact men's clothing sizes, so I'll have to wait to pick one up in the States this summer at REI.

Besides these inconveniences, a bike commute costs nothing in gas or insurance and is helping us both get in better shape. Ironically, it's really more of a luxury to have exercise be a built-in part of our day, rather than a stand alone chore in itself. I think that's part of what our lifestyle in America was missing. We'd wake up, get ready for work, then we'd walk about 30 feet to our car in the parking lot, drive through traffic to work, walk 30 feet to the door of the school, and repeat the same things in reverse in the evening. Just about the only thing that got us out of that inactive routine was taking our dog Callie for a walk.

Once, and only once, have I driven in Tokyo. This was the pimped-out ride that we used to move our stuff from one side of the river to the other. It felt like I was driving something out of a Lego set (notice how I had to crouch so much to get in). I got my practice at driving on the right side of the car and the left side of the road in Thailand, so that wasn't too bad. But I'm happy to say it'll be a long time before I need to drive here again.



The only fear I've had of not having a car is in case of an emergency, but we have several friends in the neighborhood and have the emergency number (110 rather than 911) memorized and ready to call. Just the other night, I had a bizarre allergic reaction and thought, there's no way I could bike to a clinic or hospital...what should I do? Somehow, millions of people in this city make it just fine without a car, and I'm glad to be one of them.

Now, I just need to get a decent bike.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Domino's: Japan-style

In order to teach English in Japan or just about anywhere else around the world, you have to hold a TOEFL certification (Teachers of English as a Foreign Language). To become a Spanish translator for medical services in Iowa, I had to be evaluated at a particular proficiency level.

But tonight I discovered the truest test for having learned a language sufficiently...

Could I, a Japanese language learner, successfully order pizza for delivery from Domino's?

Tonight, we had a few friends over to see our new place by the river and due to the fact that it's a "school night" we didn't want to go to a lot of effort cooking and cleaning. Rachael had the bright idea to order some pizza, an experience in itself in Japan. However, we hadn't ventured into the world of phone delivery order service before, so we had to do some research.

Not knowing enough to make the call myself, I called one of my "gaijin" (foreigner) friends named Jeff. With the help of his lovely Japanese wife Kimiko, Jeff coached me through the probable questions the Domino's people would ask me, and how I could respond to each of them. Then, he handed the phone to Kimiko and she graciously pretended to be the Domino's operator so that I could practice my new phrases.

Although I definitely don't have Japanese pinned down by any measure yet, I passed their test and they wished me good luck. The following video is a great record of what happened next:

video

All right, maybe ordering pizza isn't the be-all-end-all of language tests, but it was tough enough for me to get a passing grade tonight. The great thing is that since we're now on file, we just have to give them our phone number to order again. Amen to that.



Oh, the pizza! I almost forgot. The pizza here is really more of an estranged sibling of American pizza, making it a distant long-lost cousin of its original Italian version. The Japanese load up the toppings, like an entire sliced eggplant on the "Mega Veggie Pizza" or corn and potatoes on the "Triple Corn Potage." On my personal favorite, the "Chiki-Teri Pizza," comes chicken teriyaki, broccoli and various other veggies, with a sort of mayonnaise-mustard hybrid checkerboard grid delicately designed on top.

Being our first time to order pizza in Japan for ourselves, everything was delicious and definitely completed our night of Wii Mario Kart racing. Check out Rachael's food blog this week as she'll be writing about the joys of Japanese pizza as well.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

The Whites...in our hometown papers!

WOW!!!

Here's a LINK to a nice article written by Kristine Goodrich from the White Bear Press, Rachael's hometown newspaper.

It details some of our experiences in Tokyo and how we've chronicled our adventure with this blog.

Enjoy!

Perpetual Impermanence

As you may know from our recent entries, Rachael and I have moved…again.

This time, we didn’t move several thousand miles or across an ocean but rather moved to a new apartment less than a mile away from our former home. Ironically, we moved further away from work, the nearest train station, and convenient grocery stores, but we also moved to a place where we can see more than just concrete and cement and a place where we can keep our dog, Callie. In moving, we brought only the things that were most important to us, and took the opportunity to rid ourselves of the unnecessary things that build up so easily in a home.

In the corner of our closet, I had a small pile of goodies: pens, receipts, coins, a keychain, etc. This pile of junk has accumulated since August, so it was about time to throw some of it and keep the rest. What I decided to keep, I shoved in my pocket before we left that apartment for good. This afternoon I emptied out my pocket and had an interesting discovery. In this pile of goodies were coins from three countries: the United States, Thailand, and Japan. The fact that we have actually been in each of these countries in the last month is hard to comprehend.

Living outside the U.S. has given us many glimpses into life in all its variations, whether on an uncomfortably silent train in Tokyo, Japan, in an auditorium full of lovers of choral music in Oklahoma City, or at a vibrant yet humble orphanage in Buriram, Thailand.

The coins in my pocket are a small memento of the places and people we’ve seen and experienced this year. There’s not much I can do with a handful of extra Thai Baht in Japan, but just seeing these coins conjures memories of digging in clay-ridden soil and singing Thai children’s songs with two precious little girls.

Our life has been turned upside down by our move to Japan, giving us the very real sense that nothing around us is permanent or static. Yet the same things that have kept us grounded throughout our entire life continue to give us focus, encouragement and strength even while everything around us seems to be changing. Tonight, we spent almost two hours sitting on a piece of cardboard next to the riverside, chatting on and off and enjoying our Japanese-style picnic with a glass of wine. This morning, we sang (and wept) powerful hymns of hope and reflected on a challenging yet inspirational message from our pastor and as we prepare for Easter. Yesterday, we called our families back home to get the weather report and the latest news on our grandparents and siblings.

Although so many things have changed for us in the past six months we feel truly blessed to take on the challenge of a dynamic and global life for the next few years. It has made us stronger as a couple, deepened our faith in God and each other, and given us memories to last a very long time.