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May 25 2011

the first week

Moving moments

Since the flight from London to Japan takes you over the north pole and the sun does not set there in late May, the trip was literally is the longest day of my life. And an astonishing one as well. An eternal ice desert until the horizon! Even if the following does not really have a lot to do with Japan, I’d like to give a recommendation for two films I saw on the plane: The Kings Speech – a well done account about how King Georg VI overcomes his stuttering – and The way back, a moving film about a POW group escaping from a Gulag in Siberia during the second World War making it all the way down to India on foot!

The arrival

I’m arriving on a Thursday morning at Tokyo-Narita airport. My first couchsurfing host is located in Chiba, a neighbour prefecture of Tokyo (and the same prefecture of Narita Airport).

map Tokyo

map Tokyo

Since two hosts, Anna 24 and Eri 22, offered to accommodate me for the same period, I’ve decided to meet with Eri for a small sight seeing tour for  my arrival day, and stay at Anna’s until Sunday. It is a bright and sunny day at 25°C (74°F). But as I am loaded down with two backpacks weighing 30 kg (66 lbs), I’m so exhausted and sweaty when reaching Eri’s home that only a shower can help. The jet-lag does not really contribute to a good constitution. I’m trying to hide my tiredness but I was never good at that. Eri realizes this of course and keeps telling me: „It’s all right, you can sleep here!“ I don’t really know what do to. I think her curiosity proves she’s a couchsurfer: she’s curious about foreign cultures, but doesn’t seem concerned with learning about them when they sleep in her bed.  It also seems like she wants to spend a little time with me and is curious about Germany. But I’m almost collapsing. I couldn’t sleep a wink for the 11+ hour flight, so I’ve been awake since Wednesday 4:30 CET, and here it’s just Thursday morning. I’m lying myself down: „Okay, Eri.  One to two hours is all I need…“

 

After almost five hours of sleep I’ve finally woken up. Even though Eri was nice and didn’t wake me up, I’m feeling guilty.  Because I have to pack my things now to get to Anna’s – my host from today, Thursday, until Sunday. As if I wasn’t packed enough, Eri is now handing me a little bag filled with Japanese sweets/candy. Hey Eri, usually the guest is supposed to bring presents! :) Thank you!

Back packed with a backpack

Back packed with a backpack

Anna is picking me up at Chiba station. She welcomes me with „Sugoi!“ which means great, or  unbelievable in a figurative way. She’s amazed not because she maybe wouldn’t have given me the credit for getting here on my own, but because I made it here with two heavy backpacks: my small 35-litres backpack in the front and my 80-liter backpack on my back. Why am I travelling with two backpacks to Japan? I’d like to stay for one year after all. And for good entertainment and blogging I do need my laptop. My Japanese language books also came with me, and to present you with steady video, my tripod found its way into my bag as well. That damn thing weighs 7 kilos (15,4 lbs) all by itself!

 

First Impressions

Powerlines

Powerlines

In Germany power lines stretching above the streets within the city or residential areas are considered ugly and are usually hidden below the ground. Japanese people don’t seem to have a problem with visible lines. It is rarely possible to take photos of buildings without having wires in front of it. It’s quite sad, actually! Shouldn’t Japan be prettier? But there’s many other reasons to put me in a good mood. As far as I can tell, Japan is way more disabled-friendly in comparison to Germany. The pavement markings for blind people which we only have in Germany’s train stations can be found not only leading to the exits, but continuing down the street and on almost every sidewalk throughout the entire city!

pavement markings

pavement markings photo by Joki Zatko

Of course the side walks are also adapted to wheelchair users with ramps at every crossing and entrance. As if that wasn’t enough, the handrails in every station have Braille at the beginning and end of denoting which platform the staircase leads to, as well as which lines depart from there. Germany could certainly learn a thing or two from how Japan treats its elderly and disabled.

Braille

Braille rail

Even the ticket prices are listed in Braille on the board. I’m impressed. In Germany abled people already don’t get how the system works. I wonder how blind people manage to buy their ticket in Germany at all. It’s no problem in Japan! And even in the supermarkets many products have Braille.

 

Anna is an elementary school teacher, 24 years young, and very sporty. She’s accommodating me even though she has to work tomorrow. This way I’m getting to know another special thing about Japan. As it is very late already and we both have to get up early the next day, we’re each getting a Bento (relatively fresh prepackaged meals) from the local convenience store. The best part about these meals is that the quality is really okay and the meals will be heated up at the store on request. Plastic utensils and chopsticks included. Food, except for fruits and vegetables, is one of the rare things in Japan which is actually cheap. For 300 Yen (3.52 AUD, 3.66 CAD, 2.30 GBP,  3.74 USD)  I’m getting a huge beef meal including rice and vegetables.

Together with Anna I’m leaving her flat next morning. As I stroll through the biggest park in Chiba,

Park in Chiba

Park in Chiba

not yet mutated

not yet mutated

I can see a tortoise making its own pilgrimage to the temple alongside me.

Temple at Chiba park

Temple at Chiba park

Inescapable are the ubiquitous vending machines of Japan. In Germany you’ll find about three times as many cigarette vending machines as mailboxes. Here you’ll find seven times as many vending machines as cigarette machines in Germany!

Vending machines

Vending machines

I took my laptop with me and am looking for a wireless access point. In general fast food chains offer such points. To my surprise in Japan – or at least in Chiba – that is not the case. I don’t get it. I’m in Japan, a country of high tech freaks. What’s with all these fast food restaurants without wireless?! :) I’m disappointed and even a little annoyed since my laptop is not the lightest and I’ve been carrying it with me for the whole day in vain. I wouldn’t have expected this of Japan.

 

On my little tour I’m discovering a typical Japanese cemetery. Buddhism also uses grave stones. However they look different from ours.

Buddhist cemetery in Chiba

Buddhist cemetery in Chiba

Restaurant Baden Baden

Restaurant Baden Baden

At the evening the name of a restaurant is catching my fancy: Baden Baden. Of course, this is also a city in Germany. A German flag is proudly visible through the windows. As I enter the restaurant I ask, “Sumimasen. Anatawa doitsujin desuka?“ Excuse me, are you German? The owner is Japanese but had lived in Baden Baden for a few years and speaks German. I tell him my story, and mention that I lived close to Baden Baden, in Karlsruhe. And of course I also let him know that I’ve been desperately in search of a hotspot the whole day. Of course, his restaurant also has no wifi, but he offers me to connect my laptop to his router. While checking and replying to email he is putting a dish right next to my laptop: “This one’s on the house.” “Sugoi! Domou arigatou gozaimasu.” Maybe I start telling everyone I’m from near where they used to live! The meal he provided is a tasty fried fish dish with a lot of other things that I haven’t seen before and can’t even categorize. Oh well. It’s delicious! The owner is very proud to present his home-made mustard. Apparently mustard seed is hard to come by in Japan.

Frustrated once again, I’m taking a seat in Chiba’s main square. Today there’s an anti-sexual-discrimination event going on. I’m spotting one activist with a fabric bag from the German supermarket chain Kaiser’s.  “Entschuldigung… weißt du, wo es hier ein Hotspot gibt?” Do you know where I can find a wireless hotspot?

„Do I look so German that you just assume you can speak German to me?” in perfect German is her response.  “Ah my bag :) Erm, no, sorry I don’t know where one is. But a friend of mine here has portable wireless. Wait, let me ask him if you can borrow it for a while… Ja, here it’s all yours! With this device or your mobile phone is how most people go online when they’re not home in Japan. That’s the reason why almost no restaurants have hotspots except for those located in the tourism or business areas“ she explains to me.

“O.K., well for mailing and chatting it’s enough but I’d like to watch the news of the three past days. The bandwidth is too weak for this!”

“Well, for this most of the mobile phones here have TV-receivers.”

“Hm. I wouldn’t have been satisfied with that. Because I can’t watch to programs on demand.”

Anyways. It is more important to find new hosts for the next week. As long as I don’t have a job here, I have to be frugal. I’m well aware this is not the philosophy of couchsurfing and I will give it back to the community once I have a place in Tokyo.

I would have had a job in Japan and didn’t need to look for any accommodation because it would have come with the job. It was a job at an onsen (hot springs) hotel. In the mountains 80 km (50 miles)  west of Tokyo. But the hotel manager had a realization of the downturn in tourism since Fukushima and is operating with half staff. Thus he can’t hire me. I didn’t cancel my flight regardless, but I have to look for a new job here in Japan.

The manholes in Japan also made an impression on me. Gotta catch ‘em all!

Chiba manhole

Chiba manhole

Also worth to be mentioned how the Japanese people deal with construction sites. I’m passing a small construction site on the street and am being guided in the most polite way by five (!!!) Japanese people who are positioned at every spot that indicates a change in direction by 20°. It’s nice, although one sign (maybe in English) would have been enough for me. But … Thank you!

Even Japanese People want to have fun

In general I sleep very well despite of the rather thin futon mattresses which are standard for guests here in Japan. Well, admittedly I combined it with my inflatable camping mat which I brought with me. Regarding the temperature and climate, it’s been quite nice so far.  Somewhat warmer than in Germany. More comparable to Rome’s climate. I imagined Chiba to be much more hot and humid. Humidity here is a little higher though but not strikingly higher. Anyway, in the morning a soft layer of humidity covers my skin. It is Sunday morning, my last day at Anna’s. Today’s task is to sleep in. But this is kind of tough right now. Why? It seems like a couple in the next  room is enjoying this sunny Sunday morning in a very special way. In a steady rhythm the bed hits the wall.  “They’re really going at it,” I’m thinking to myself. What at least put your bed a little away from the wall. Well, here one does not disturb of course I don’t hit the wall. But now the banging is getting louder and all I can think is “For the love of God, keep it down!” And then it got even louder.  “Hey, now it’s practically in my room!” Now I’m hearing it rumbling even in our flat. Things in the kitchen are starting to move and now I’m realizing: “Oh man, Simon! You are in Japan, land of earthquakes.  I just didn’t realize what caused them until now…” Anna keeps lying in the bed. And as long as she’s ok, I don’t see a reason to panic. The quake is over after a little while. I’m pulling my cover over my chest and am falling asleep with a smile on my face. So that was it. My first earthquake. But instead of making me scared or petrified – as I always imagined my first earthquake – it made me smile.

 

Before moving to my next Couchsurfing host or in better words my next Couchsurfing host couple, Anna is taking me on a climbing trip to Tokyo. Tokyo? Skyscraper climbing? No, our climbing session is not this spectacular. A usual climbing hall will do it. Anna introduces me to her friends. Two Japanese girls, a Japanese boy and an Australian working holiday worker. He already has got a job as an English teacher.

my host Anna (left) and her friends

my host Anna (left) and her friends

So far I haven’t been to Tokyos center. But I’m not in a rush with that because I’m planning to stay here for a longer term after all. But the tunnel systems of Tokyo’s Metro are fascinating enough for now. Amazing, all this was constructed earthquake proof! It must be an architectural and structural engineering masterpiece. I’m wondering how much of physics and mathematics have gone into such a construct. I’m trying to spot damages, cracks in the walls, any evidence that would reveal that the earthquake had taken place, in vain! Nothing, not the slightest hint of a quake is discernible. All bars are standing perfectly erect, the walls are not deformed and I can’t even spot a burst tile! But traces can be recognised at the escalators. Anna told me that some stopped on 3/11 and weren’t repaired since then.

Ikebukuro Metro station

Ikebukuro Metro station

In the evening I’m reaching the home of my next hosts. An Australian-American couple. Both work at the University. Jim is English lecturer. Both have lived here in Shibuya for some years already and bought a house. “Interest rates are pretty low here” Jim tells me, “and so we decided to buy a house. It is really cheaper then renting a house here. In comparison to western standards the house is small but I like it though. It has a ground flour of maximum 20 by 20 metres (65,6 by 65,6 feet) and only three floors.

House in the Shibuya Sun

House in the Shibuya Sun

The guest room is to be found on the ground floor. As the carport, the corridor and the staircase to the first floor devour quite a huge portion of the ground area my room with approximately 8 m² (86 square feet) is pretty small. The most ample room you’ll find on the first floor (which is the second in Japan by the way because they count from the ground floor onwards). A kitchenette including living room in one go. The house decór is very modern. At the very top you’ll find the bathroom which is constructed as a showering cabin including bath tub. You’ll find another toilet in a separate room and of course Jim’s and Heath’s room shouldn’t be missing.

 

Jim and Heath are very helpful: “To get a job here you need the alien registration card and a bank account. But to get both you need a permanent address here in Japan!”

“Oh, I don’t have a permanent address yet. And to be honest not a lot of money. To be perfectly honest, I can’t afford a months rent here. Not to mention the deposit. I’m kind of reliant on couchsurfing for the time during my job interviews. As soon as I have a job I’d like to look for a flat nearby!”

So this is how I find myself in kind of a catch 22 situation. I need to work in order to finance my living here and to rent a flat but I won’t get a job unless I’m in possession of my foreigner registration card which I can only get when I have a permanent address here. Perfect! Okay to be very honest… When applying for a work and travel visa at the Japanese embassy in Germany you need to prove you own a return flight ticket – got it -, a travelling health insurance – got it, and you need to prove you have at least 2.000 €. Well, back then, when I applied for it I had it. But now? … hm …

I’m in Japan for some days now and haven’t had to change money here because Christoph – a friend of mine – could already change me some Yen back in Germany since he’s already been to Japan and had some left. But I’m quickly burning through this for a public telephone calling card, food and public transportation. There’s some money left from my presentation tour I did about my Hamburg – Rome Couchsurfing bicycle trip (www.prototypetour.eu).

As a John Doe-tourist I would walk – like everybody else I guess – to a regular bank to get my money changed. You won’t get far with this here! Luckily once again I’m enjoying the couchsurfing privilege and before I had made this mistake I’ve been told by my hosts that the post office is the best place to go to for changing money. No it’s not the Banks! So I’m taking the long walk to the post office. Once there I’m being welcomed by four people all asking me in a very polite way how they could help me. After my answer one of the quartet guides me in the long but at least accurate queue/line to change money.

After ten long minutes it’s finally my turn and after a short conversation I’m realizing that there’s something I haven’t been told. You have to list your Japanese address if you want to change money. I wonder what this is supposed to mean? A sneaky trick by the post office to to sell my addresses to an ad agency? Or one of those useless terrorism “security measures”. Luckily in Japan is not as intrusive as the U.S.A.  Of course I will tell them that I received eight semesters of good training in Afghanistan at the Osama bin Laden University to finally got my Master’s degree, Minor chemistry, that the reason of a trip to the U.S.A. is that I’m planning an attack. I’m convinced Osama bin laden lately made the mistake to note his address in such a form when changing money and wrote as profession: CEO of al-Qaeda and only this way the U.S.A. could find Osama. Some people become senile at some point. And I think this is why it took the U. S. A. so long to finally find him. Yes, we all know it’s pretty silly/stupid. Of course I don’t know my hosts’ address by heart and don’t have it written down. And sorry but at some point this country’s bureaucracy is driving me mad/crazy. After I exchanged it I got a little more than – let’s call them – three big bills. And the big bill I got from Christoph is almost all used by now.

It is Tuesday and I’m moving once again. I can’t really become friends with Tokyo’s and their neighbour prefectures’ Metro system. Most of the plans are written in Kanji signs. On top of that there are multiple train companies which only print their own maps. So if you’d like to get from A to B you will have to sort out the stations on which you have to change and should know the train lines’ name so that you know which map to use then. I couldn’t think of any map system more complicated than this. Of course I’m getting completely lost.

Metro map. Only one of many

Metro map. Only one of many

I must look very desperate while I’m staring at my maps. It happened several times – and not only today – that I’ve been approached by locals if I could use a little help. I’m surprised. Because I’ve been told that practically all Japanese people are very shy and their English is virtually non existent. So I didn’t expect to be offered help so many times. Well, maybe Tokyo and their relatively international characterized prefectures are not really representative for the whole of Japan. But here the helpers were of all ages or genders. The task of finding my new host’s address however is the icing on the cake. This time I’m encountering a Japanese man who, after I asked him, tells me in a very friendly way that I’m on the wrong train but he is also travelling in approximately the same direction. I wonder how this fits together if I’m on the wrong train. Well, perhaps I’m not this wrong. He offers me to accompany me to eventually guide me a little. Of course I’m gratefully accepting. He introduces himself and tells me he works in the telecommunication branch in a sub company providing services for one of Japan’s major mobile phone networks. As he wants to guide me as precisely as possible he’s asking for the exact address to search for on his smart phone. Finally arrived at the station and it’s at least another 15 minutes on foot. But even here his way home would almost guide him into the same direction. After a short march he’s grabbing his smart phone once again. Hm… well, I really doubt that he needs his navigation program to find his own home so it is quite obvious that this is once again one of those super polite Japanese people who feel obliged to bring me home safely. Actually we walk the last ten minutes completely guided by his navigation app. And as he sees I’m all sweaty he’s treating me for a cola at the next vending machine. I’m overwhelmed by his kindness and wonder why so many people after an exhausting day of work would practically do everything to help out a complete stranger.

For the next three days I stay in the Saitama prefecture at an American host who leaves me his whole flat as he is living at his girlfriend’s at the moment. He is an English teacher. The only time I see him is when he invites me out to a restaurant. I use the spare time to search for jobs and to spread out new resumes. Perhaps there is a way to get a job without a permanent address I haven’t figured out yet…

Special thanks to: Hubertus Neidhart from Webspace Provider Network for the good service, Restaurant Baden Baden, to Joki Zatko for one photo, all my hosts, Bryan Darr and Jonny Mitchell for the text revision.

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