Road Trip!

On Saturday we decided to go off on our first road trip, not including our prior “suburban” (by Tokyo standards) trips to Costco and IKEA. Actually, it wasn’t supposed to be a road trip so much as a rail trip because our original plan was to go to Yokohama for the day by train.

We invited our new friend, Jason, to tag along but on Saturday morning he said that he was going to have access to a car for the day so that opened up our options to places that aren’t necessarily accessible by train. WOO HOO! Alternatives!

After some discussion we decided to drive toward Mount Fuji to a town called Gotemba. Train access is limited but it’s essentially a straight shot to get to via the Tomei Expressway. Jason picked us up, then we picked up another friend of his, Dan, and hopped on the highway. It’s a very good thing Dan came along because within a few miles we ended up in a massive traffic jam and he can read Japanese so was able to figure out our options on the GPS. For a metropolitan area the size of Tokyo, it’s amazing to realize that all of the highways into and out of the city are only two lanes wide. Honestly, if there really is an impending natural disaster that requires evacuation, this city is screwed. Godzilla picked the right city to attack.

Anyway, the 1.5 hour drive was going to take an additional two hours just to get out of the 14 mile traffic jam. It was horrible. We decided to try the non-expressway roads but ended up in equally horrific traffic. After much debate amongst ourselves and Google Maps, we opted to explore Yokohama instead…which was our initial plan. It’s funny how things can go full circle.

Of course, there was still traffic getting to Yokohama, but at least it’s only 18 miles from Tokyo versus 55 miles to Gotemba.

And although we only explored one tiny area of Yokohama, the modern seaport area called Minato Mirai, we had a great time. Besides having Japan’s tallest occupied building (as opposed to radio/observation towers, like Tokyo Sky Tree), there is shopping galore, street entertainers, a tall ship, cool sculptures, one of the world’s tallest ferris wheels (at least 30 stories high), and even a roller coaster that roams through the ferris wheel along the waterfront.

I want to go back…and next time check out the waterfront parks and a famous garden located just outside the downtown area. The city also has Japan’s largest Chinatown which could be fun to explore.

Luckily, the traffic heading back into Tokyo wasn’t bad (until we got into the city). Next time, though, I think we’re better off taking the train. In fact, the next time somebody offers a road trip (by car), I think I’ll pass. In an area with such great public transit, it’s really not worth it.

Oh, and to incorporate an adventure in gastronomy into the blog, the photo above is of some Malaysian food I had at our local Malaysian restaurant. It was pretty good.

Hello, Guchol. Now Please Leave

Not having access to television has been both good and bad for me. It’s been good that I’ve been spending far less time sitting mindlessly in front of the screen watching re-runs of Will and Grace. On the downside, it’s not helping me feel more connected with localized current events.

For example, and I do believe this is a significant example, I was clueless that a hurricane was barreling toward our fair city until the day before it struck. Typhoon Guchol was an early season category 3 hurricane as it approached Japan. After a beautfiul Tuesday morning the clouds filtered in and then there was some drizzle by afternoon. By Randy’s commute at 6:00pm the rains started.

At this point, Guchol was coming ashore about midway between Kyoto and Tokyo (with Tokyo being on the eastern side). Luckily, hitting land helped slow the storm down to just a severe tropical storm. Even still, I was definitely not anticipating the effects we’d feel. Then again, I wasn’t expecting to feel anything since 24 hours earlier I didn’t even know a typhoon was approaching.

But I digress. By 9:00pm it was raining quite heavily. We’ve got large sheets of glass for windows that go from wall to wall and up to the ceiling (they’re taller than I am) and you could hear the rain striking the glass as the gusts increased. I was thinknig that was worst of it, but I was wrong.

Within the next hour the wind started howling. Living up on the 27th floor it’s difficult to sense what’s going on outside because of the elevation. You’re too high to hear trees and cars splashing, and you also can’t easily see limbs swaying. But apparently the winds had been gradually picking up over time.

By 11:00pm we could hear the ceiling creaking. Then the interior walls started creaking (oddly enough, the exterior walls and windows did not). And that was when it happened. For a second, I felt as if I was moving. In my mind, I just thought I was tired and hearing a wind gust made me think of motion. But then it happened again. And again. I looked over and Randy and we locked eyes as he asked “Did you feel that?”

Oh boy, did I feel that. And I continued to feel it happen more and more frequently, and more and more strongly for the next three hours. It got to the point that despite not having open windows we could see the curtains swaying side to side. I would stand up at the edge of a window and look at a distant landmark. If I kept one eye closed I could see sections of that landmark appear, then disappear, then reappear, then dissapear, as our building swayed from side to side. I know tall buildings are designed to withstand hurricane force winds (and earthquakes) by swaying so they don’t snap. But it’s unsettling to experience it.

It’s especially unsettling for a wimp like me who, despite being raised surrounded by water on all sides on Cape Cod, gets seasick. Figuring I was better off heading to bed, I went to the bathroom to brush my teeth, only to look down and see the toilet water swishing back and forth gently. Oy vey. At that point, I took some Ativan. If’ I’m going to make it through this thing, I might as well make it while under the influence. You know what they say; better living through chemistry.

The next day way we woke up to the clearest, dryest, most beautiful  morning we’d had in the two weeks that we’d been here. It even kicked out some of the humidity (which is now back on Thursday). By the end of the day it provided us a spectacular sunset (which I took photos of with my cellphone and turned them into a time-lapse video.) Better yet, it even provided one of the rarest sights: an evening view of Mount Fuji.

I suppose that makes up for Thyphoon Guchol the night before. Though, I googled “hurricanes in Japan” and discovered that Tokyo gets hit by an average of three hurricanes per year. Oh, good grief. Maybe I’ll bring a chair to the lobby next time and sit the next one out on terra firma.

Not Once, Not Twice, But Thrice?

Tokyo is big. In fact, I believe it’s currently the world’s largest metropolitan area with over 30,000,000 people. With that many people, there must be tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of restaurants.

One night during our apartment hunting trip back in May we stumbled upon this tasty little restaurant in a neighborhood called Azabujuban.  The exterior is very nondescript, and the interior less so, crammed with tables and shelves, knick-knacks, and a small aquarium with a turtle. But the food was quite tasty.

Fast forward to our first week living here in early June. A colleague from Randy’s office in Massachusetts, who lived in Tokyo for a few years, was in town on business and we all planned to get together for dinner . He said he’d take us to his old favorite little noodle bar. So, he met us at our apartment and we hopped in cab in the rain to find food. After a short cab ride we got out, opened our umbrellas, walked around a few corners and ended up stepping into a doorway. Once inside Randy and I both realized we’d eaten here before. What were the odds?

Then this afternoon, I got a text message from a fellow expat Randy and I met last week (yay, internet). I think I may have mentioned him before…the one living at the Australian Embassy. Anyway, he asked if I was interested in getting together for lunch so I hopped on the subway and met up with him a few stops away. He said he had a favorite little ramen place that he wanted to take me to so we walked a few blocks (this time in the blazing sun) and slipped into the sliding door of the restaurant. Yep, it was the same place.

Now, I’m usually pretty good with directions, but Tokyo, like Boston, is haphazard. There is no gridded street pattern, just rambling paths in every direction, . Even worse, there are no street names. Addresses are found by a combination of neighborhoods, districts, and building numbers that are based on date of completion and are not sequential (for example, our address is 2-11-1 Shibakoen, with Shibakoen being the ward, 2 being the subsection, 11 being the block, and 1 being the building number). The restaurant’s name is also a) un-pronouncable, b) in Kanji, and c) this restaurant is surrounded by other restaurants . I couldn’t direct you to this specific restaurant if I tried.

Yet somehow, in this enormous metropolis, we’ve stumbling upon this tiny (20 tables, maybe?) restaurant in the dark, then in the rain, then in the blazing sun. All unintentionally. And each time stepping in without realizing it was the same place. Now we’re talking real adventures in gastronomy.

The photo for today was actually from dinner a few nights ago at a place called Cafe Boheme; I got pizza, Randy got pasta, and we split a bottle of red wine. YUM.

Finally, an Actual Adventure in Gastronomy

Of course, it’s about as American as a meal can be. But this hole-in-the-wall burger joint around the corner and down the street from our apartment has some amazing burgers. I got the bacon, egg, and cheese burger and nearly had an orgasm. It came with a very Japanese sized portions of fries (which were quite tasty, too).

Randy got the sirloin burger which was steak, not ground beef. Yeah, it was pricey (1400 yen for mine), but it’s Tokyo after all, and everything is pricy except cabbage and cucumbers.

I think we’ll take a lot of visiting friends here. Who’ll be first (hint hint)?

A Lot Has Happened Since I Last Blogged

Yet at the same time, a lot has not happened to me personally. In fact, since Sunday night I’ve left the apartment exactly once. It’s now Thursday night and and I still haven’t even stepped off the 27th floor yet today. It’s interesting, being in the apartment, despite overlooking The Tokyo skyline, makes me feel like I’m at home back in Boston. Cocooned in our flat, nothing directly affects me that would make my life any different than it would be in the USofA.

But last night I got together with Randy and a few of his work friends for dinner and only then did it remind me that I’m 6,000+ miles away from “home.” Immediately upon stepping into the elevator and hearing the recorded voice (I sill have no idea what it’s telling me) I recalled that I was in another country. Then walking down the street and realizing that nobody else looks like me, and the signs, though familiar in format, all contain characters that, just for a moment, make me think they’re in English and I’ve somehow lost the ability to read.

But it’s all good. What I was trying to explain isn’t a bad thing. In fact, I think it’s more of a reflection of my personality. I’m a homebody through and through.

And speaking of homes…that brings me back to the whole “lots happening” thing I mentioned earlier.

On Sunday night I ended up getting together for dinner with a friend who was here on business. His company was paying so we ate at this place called the Oak Door in Roppongi Hills. I think it was the most expensive meal I’ve had in my life. Correction: it was the most expensive meal I’ve had in my life. Two people came out to over $1,600.00. I got to have Kobe Beef for the first time…at $235 for one small piece (so we had two pieces, natch). Plus a $180 bottle of wine, appetizers, and sides. Oh, and a $20 mojito before dinner.

I’m not normally one for hype, but Kobe beef is different. The texture was dense, the flavor was…well…flavorful. It was soft, it was moist. It was everything steak should be (except cheap). It was the perfect meal to put me to sleep.

So, on Monday our IKEA furniture arrived and I set out assembling that. By Tuesday afternoon everything was assembled except one piece that required power tools. Also on Tuesday, my father had surgery (#2 this year), this time to scrape and empty out his sinus cavity. Per mom, he made it out OK, but is having problems (again) getting the anesthesia out of his system.

On Wednesday, the boxes we shipped from home arrived and now our place REALLY feels like home. It’s furnished, and over the past two days everything has been unpacked and put away. Aside from a stack of empty boxes in a corner (still need to figure out what to do with those) the place looks as if it’s been lived in for years.

And all of this I managed to do while Randy was away on his business trip. He got to come back to find the whole place ready to live in.

Oh, and my ass finally stopped hurting. No more lunges (or squats, whatever they’re called) for me.

A Pain in the Ass

Yesterday before he abandoned me for his business trip to Yonezawa, Randy talked me into trying out our building’s gym. Considering there are only 21 apartments in our building, it’s not that bad of a facility. It’s located on the 29th floor and has north-facing views of the city, it’s got a bathroom (with Toto washlet, natch), a tread mill, elliptical, machines for the lower and upper arms/back, free weights, some leg thing-a-ma-jig, and a scale.

Oh, that blasted scale. After a month of essentially giving up on the Weight Watchers as we tried to rid our cupboards, fridge, and freezer of food, not to mention the going away and birthday parties last month, I’ve managed to gain 5 pounds back. BOO.

But even worse than that was that Randy tried teaching me how to do lunges (or squats…I’m not quite sure). Either way, we did a repetition of 50 of them. I didn’t feel anything at the time.

Heck, I didn’t feel anything this morning, either. But our IKEA delivery arrived today and with Randy on his business trip it was left to me to assemble everything (3 lamps, coffee table, end table, desk chair, wall storage cabinet, and two pieces of art I had to frame myself). I had to give up on the office desk since it required a power tool.

And as the day went on I started noticing my butt hurt. I thought it was from the furniture assembly but then I remembered that ridiculous looking exercise I was encouraged to try yesterday and it all became clear.

Now that I’m exhausted from the gym and putting together an apartment full of furniture, all I want to do is sit back and watch some TV. Alas, the boxes we shipped aren’t expected to arrive until Wednesday (and that shipment includes our TV). I think I’m going through withdrawal.

Oh well, there was a reason I burned over 180 movies to my computer before we moved. Now, what am I in the mood for?

(Mis)Adventures in Banking

I think when most people think of visiting (or living in) Asia, they think that the culture shock will be about the food, the language barrier, or various customs (bowing, chopsticks). Oddly enough, those don’t seem to be problematic for us. Common courtesy goes a long way in making those issues non-issues.

But trying to assimilate long term is a whole different story.

The first obstacle was tackling the apartment rental. As gaijin (foreigner) Randy need his company to be a guarantor for the lease and it took weeks for his company to secure the apartment after we selected the apartment. It’s not uncommon in Tokyo to pay 4 months rent up front, plus a broker’s fee (1 month’s rent), security deposit (1 month’s rent) and sometimes “key money” (essentially extortion, this is yet another extra month’s rent paid to the landlord for his kindness in allowing you to live in his building). I’m serious. Anyway, it’s not unheard of to have to pay 7 months worth of rent up front. Can you imagine being asked to pony up upwards of $50,000 or so just to rent an apartment back home?

Then came the cell phone. Gaijin can’t buy a cellphone and set up service unless they have a visa. Not just any visa, but a visa that approves you to be present in the country for at least two years. So, Randy had to procure the phone and I just sat looking pretty.

And I thought our service plans were confusing. Oy vey. First you pay a monthly fee just to have phone service. Then you pay another fee to have messaging service. Then you add on another fee for data. Another fee for the phone itself. Oh, and then they discount the fee for data only. Each month, they’ll also charge to send text messages to a phone with a different carrier, and they charge you to talk on the phone from 9pm until 1am…even with other phones with the same carrier.

My Virgin Mobile plan back home was $25/month with unlimited data and texting and 300 minutes of calling. That’s it…plain and simple. I was also able to set up service online in minutes. We were in the Softbank store for well over an hour (and didn’t even spend any time browsing).

But all of this pales in comparison to banking. First, his company directed us to one of the biggest banks around. We arrived a little after 2:30pm, but banks in Japan all close at 3pm…seriously. As we sat and waited for a representative the gates closed all around us as Japanese worker-bees (bank tellers were all women in identical blue uniforms and the male supervisors flittered about watching) went about their business finishing up.

Since I’m on a tourist visa right now until my resident visa is finalized, I’m not able to get a bank account or be on Randy’s account (just like I can’t sign a lease and can’t get a cell phone). That’s fine. So the signs above the counters were in Japanese, but had English underneath (with labels like “new accounts,” “withdrawals,” etc…). You’d think that meant they have familiarity with international customers. Alas, the teller didn’t speak any English (Randy’s HR representative acted as translator), and none of the forms had a word of English (and by forms, I’m talking a stack of documents just to open a simple checking account). Now, I’m not so xenophobic that I expect everybody in the world to speak English. Nor do I believe they should have to…we are in their country so we should learn their language (which we will, eventually) and their forms should be in their language. But in the end, it was too overwhelming. Besides, even their online banking didn’t have an English option so we couldn’t use it if we tried.

Today, we tried CitiBank. How bad could that be? I mean, it’s a US-based bank after all. We arrived and they had a friendly English-speaking greeter. Their signs were in English…it was also so pleasantly familiar.

But it didn’t last long. Randy did open an account there, but it took nearly two hours. The paperwork was all in English, but, again, they are ridiculous with bureauracy. They are VERY specific about the neatness of the forms (Randy had to start from scratch twice). It seems on every page there was a section that required him to sign his name. Actually, not sign his name, but stamp his name. Apparently, Japanese people all get a stamp with their name on it and bring it with them to sign documents without a pen.

Luckily, Randy got this stamp the day before. I’m not sure what would have happened had he not brough it because she said his actual signature was not acceptable since it differed too much each time he wrote his name (I’m not kidding). In fact, he had to stamp his name multiple times because his stamping wasn’t perfect enough. I’m really not kidding! They’re insane with everything being about appearance.

Before I continue, I still don’t understand how a stamp is more reliable than a signature. I mean, if you lose your stamp somebody else can just stamp his way across the country ‘signing’ your name to things. At least if it’s a signed signature, you can compare for forgery. But I digress. Where was I? Oh yeah….

…and paperwork? After the entire process was through, it seemed every document he signed had multiple stamps. Even worse, on a few forms he had to sign his name in Katakana…which is the Japanese version of his name using their characters. Obviously, Randy doesn’t know how to spell his name that way but since he had a business card, he tried copying that. It took forever (understandably) and at one point he started a character wrong and tried correcting it and the bank respresentative reprimanded him (politely, of course) saying that you can’t do that. No edits allowed.

I think after that we were both frazzled. Which may explain why we had lunch at a burger joint. They played 60’s rock and each table had Heinz ketchup and mustard. There’ s no place like home. There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home. Oh wait…this is home.

I’ll Tumble 4 U

Picture it: Tokyo, 2012.

Dazed with a combination of jetlag, culture shock, and nearly eight hours of shopping, Randy and I were finally on the subway back to the apartment with our brand spanking new (and mighty stylish) granny grocery cart when the inevitable happens.

We arrive at Tokyo Station to transfer from the Keiyo line to the Yamanote line and I gracefully get up out of my seat and roll the cart to the door. Unbeknownst to me, the train platform is about 4 inches lower than the train floor…and about 5 inches away from the door. (For the record, my Japanese friends, it wouldn’t mind to put up some of London’s ubiquitous “Mind the Gap” signs about). I’m just saying.

Anyway, after having previously been rolling in and out of trains backwards, Randy pointed out that I could just as easily roll into doors forward, just tilt the front wheels up first. That worked fine and dandy at a low curb we’d crossed earlier so filled with confidence I lifted the front wheels and rolled forward to exit the train.

Now, honestly, I don’t have a clear recollection of what happened next as it transpired so quickly. The wheels got caught in the gap, the cart toppled forward, and I, spectacularly I must say, began to topple along with it. But, being filled with such grace, poise, and beauty, I managed to hurl myself up and over the cart to land on the station platform. Miraculously, the only parts of my body that hit the floor were my feet (which were supposed to be on the platform, of course) and a hand (which only briefly was used to upright myself).

I suspect my stumble appeared much more dramatic for those around us because Randy ran toward me to ask if I was OK…repeatedly. Fortunately, my mother’s big fear of me getting injured in Tokyo did not take place on just our second day here.

Shaken, and slightly humiliated, the cart was returned to it’s upright position and I continued to move along on with pride…

…with my granny grocery cart.


Eat Fresh!

What better way to feel like home in a foreign country than to go to Subway for lunch? They’ve got different flavors than they do in the US (and they only come in one size..a size smaller than our six-inch) but they’ve have the honey oat bread. And this great basil mayonnaise. I could get used to this.

Later today, we’re off to IKEA and Costco.

Tokyo or Bust

…and we’re off.

In the morning the adventure begins. Although Randy will officially be living in Japan upon our arrival, I will still just be a tourist until my visa process is finalized.

Our boxes were picked up on Friday and despite shipping 50 of them, our house looks no different. You can only tell that something is different if you open the closet doors and take a look. Otherwise, no change.

But that’s ok since pretty much everything else is changing.

I will keep you posted on our adventures…in Japan and gastronomy.