Month: January 2014

Matsumoto Castle

Matsumoto Castle

My first stop on my trip this past weekend was to Matsumoto Castle. Getting there was a bit of a challenge. I left my apartment at 6:30 am, went into Tokyo and then took the shinkansen (bullet train) to Nagano. I then grabbed a local […]

Upcoming weekend trip: Nagano and Matsumoto

Upcoming weekend trip: Nagano and Matsumoto

I booked my lodging and this weekend I’ll be taking a trip to Nagano Prefecture. I’ll be leaving from my apartment (near Hachioji on the map) to take the bullet train from Tokyo to Nagano where I’ll be spending two nights. On my way back, I’ll […]

Helping teach English in Nakano

Helping teach English in Nakano

Yesterday was an interesting day. I bit the bullet and bought some cooking supplies and made my first meal since I arrived in Japan two weeks ago. My extremely small kitchen was finally put to use.

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Five eggs
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The whole milk here is 3.6% compared to ~3.25% back in the US.

At noon, I went to meet a coworker in Nakano, about an hour away by train. He was giving a test preparation course for TOEIC, Test of English for International Communication – used to determine the everyday English skills of non-native speakers working in a professional environment. He asked me to help read some of the sections and answer student’s questions.

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Notice the pocket translators on the desks

Although I couldn’t understand most of the Japanese instruction, it was pretty interesting. I was asked ‘What’s the difference between “Why don’t we go to the store?” and “Let’s go to the store.”‘ Things that just come automatically must be pretty difficult for a non-native speaker. The questions on the practice test varied in difficultly. Some were pretty straightforward and even funny, but probably not intentionally:

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Others were a bit more difficult. There were spoken dialogues between multiple people that were played through speakers. The dialogue wasn’t typed out in the test booklet and was played only once. Then there were three printed questions for each dialogue. Those were a bit tougher and even if your English is excellent, if you weren’t paying attention you would get it wrong.

I took the test with the rest of the class at the end. We didn’t check our scores immediately, but I’m fairly certain I got them all right. The 100 questions for the listening portion took about an hour.

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Afterwards, I played some pool in the lounge area with the students. It was a nice Brunswick table but I don’t think it got used much. Luckily the rules of 9-ball are pretty universal.

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I went back to my apartment in time for dinner at the most American restaurant I’ve been able to find in Fussa so far: Zuccotto.

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I ordered two cheeseburgers with avocados. The waitress had to go get someone who spoke better English to make sure I wanted two of them (second time this has happened to me). I finally remembered to bring my camera along, so I managed to get a meal picture. I’ll probably do this more often as it turns out much better than just using my phone.

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I should be getting a Japanese iPhone this week which should help with getting around and translating. Other than the gym, I don’t have any major plans this week, but I might take a trip next weekend.  More to come on that later.

How to ride Local trains in Japan

How to ride Local trains in Japan

When you arrive at a train station, you’ll see the ticket center. It will often have a large map overhead that has all the train stops in Japanese Kanji. The red arrow indicates where you are and the numbers indicate how much it will cost to […]

A gym membership then Krispy Kreme

A gym membership then Krispy Kreme

Saturday I decided to find a different gym and do some shopping. I did more research online earlier in the week and found out the Gold’s Gyms in Japan have squat racks. The closest one to me was located in Hachioji, 30 minutes away by train. Looking up […]

More company meals and almost a gym membership

More company meals and almost a gym membership

This past week has been mostly meals with coworkers. I haven’t gotten a lot a time to myself so far, but plan to go into Tokyo this weekend.

On Wednesday, the 15th, we ate at Dohton Bori, a cook-it-yourself restaurant. The food is served to you raw and comes with pancake-like batter which you cook in the skillet at your table. Instead of chairs, you sit on padded cushions and leave your shoes at the front entrance, taking the wooden key with you.

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Instructions

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It tasted a lot better than it looks

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After dinner, I tried to join a gym. I knew exactly what I wanted: a gym with a squat rack that’s open late and within 45 minutes by train.

Earlier I did research online and found out squat racks aren’t very common in Japan. Understandably, since Japan isn’t known for their weightlifting. Instead, gyms are filled with cardio equipment and resistance machines. There are some CrossFit gyms, but those are small and located 45 minutes away – not going to work on a regular basis.

I first tried to join a gym called Megalos. It’s a chain of gyms – or sports clubs as they’re called in Japan – that have a lot of amenities: a lap pool, sauna, indoor golf driving range, nice locker rooms, and of course a gym.

The closest one to me was located in Tachikawa, a medium-sized city by Japan standards, which seems larger due to the high-rise buildings and tons of people.  It was about 17 minutes away by train, not including the 10 minute walk to the station.

I arrived at Megalos, but found out I could only get a gym membership with a bank account, which I didn’t have. I tried to offer paying six months ahead of time with cash, but the receptionist shook her head no. To get a bank account, I needed a phone number and free time to visit a bank on the weekday, which I didn’t have. Discouraged, I went home.

On Thursday, we went to another cook-it-yourself type restaurant. This one had an open fire grill at each table and you ordered as much food as you wanted for a set price. They were pretty strict about time limits as they even had a sign in English.

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Beef tongue – nothing too special but worth trying once

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My last organized meal with coworkers was on Friday night when we went to a sushi restaurant. Like the past two nights, we had to take off our shoes and put them in lockers at the entrance. The sushi was really good, as was the generous amount of mixed drinks and sake. We started off with some small plates, then ordered large portions of sushi.

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Squid with a mayonnaise-based dipping sauce
Fried chicken cartilage. It was soft like fried chicken, but also crunchy at the same time. It made an audible pop when you bit into it. Again, not my favorite dish so far
Fried chicken cartilage. It was soft like fried chicken, but also crunchy at the same time. It made an audible pop when you bit into it. Again, not my favorite dish so far
Fish liver - would prefer not to eat again
Fish liver – would prefer not to eat again

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Our main sushi dish – it was excellent.

Finally, a pro-tip for those of you who stuck around until the end. If you’re ever find yourself eating sushi in Japan and want to score bonus points with the natives, learn how to properly put soy sauce on your sushi roll.

Do not dip your sushi roll into the small container of soy sauce, regardless of how little soy sauce you soak up.

This is what you don't want to do.
This is what you don’t want to do.

Instead, pick up the pickled ginger (Japanese: gari) and use it to lightly coat the rolls.

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After multiple drinks, it was time to bike home. I’m very thankful I was able to visit these different restaurants within my first week of arriving. The people I work with have been very welcoming and while the language difference causes some problems, it’s always fun pulling out our smart phones and using Google Translate to understand each other.

Car accident while riding my bike

Car accident while riding my bike

Well it was bound to happen eventually. On my way home from work yesterday, I was biking along the main road in the area. It’s two lanes wide on each side with a raised median, but there’s a generous sidewalk where the bicycles ride. I […]

First few days of work

First few days of work

The first few days of work have been interesting. About 5 people in my office speak English (including me) so it’s been fun trying to learn as much Japanese as possible. Google translate has become my new best friend. I had to draw a picture […]

More exploring and another company meal

More exploring and another company meal

Similar to yesterday morning, I woke up well before the sunrise. I don’t normally sleep in, but now I can’t sleep in past 6:00 am.
I had free time this morning so after doing my pull-ups in the park, I set out to explore Fussa on my bike. I first stopped by Marufuji, a local grocery store to get some snacks.
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This time I went towards the air force base. Even in Fussa city – away from the air force base – it’s not uncommon to see Americans. I’m getting to the point where I don’t think twice about it. I probably don’t stick out as much as I would near the office.
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I headed south-east on Base Road (as it’s called) until I found a bagel shop I read about prior to arriving in Japan.
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I ordered a whole wheat bagel with blueberry cream cheese and a strawberry crepe. I connected to the free wi-fi and caught up on American news while enjoying my non-Japanese breakfast.
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The restaurant also let’s you pay in US dollars due to the large American influence.
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There’s a number of other western style restaurants and shops along this road that I’ll have to check out later. On a side note, I’ve noticed not many places (including grocery stores) open before 9 am.
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I stopped by a pharmacy store very similar to CVS and picked up what is definitely shaving cream and most likely face wash. I still need to get contact solution, but I might wait until I run low on the one I packed first.
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At 3:00 pm, I went to my manager’s house for a meal with two other coworkers. He picked me up in his car. Every time I enter a car here I try to do it on the right side which in Japan is the driver’s side. The person driving just kind of stops and stares at me for a while until I realize I’m trying to get into the driver’s seat. Typical American. On top of this, I have a bad habit of looking the wrong way when about to cross a road, but it’s something I’m getting better at.
The meal was great. His wife prepared a ton of food for us including everything from dumplings, fresh fruit, cheese, shrimp/crawfish, and pizza. I played with their dog, a cocker spaniel, who sadly doesn’t know any English but does recognize the gesture for paw. The meal lasted for 4 hours. Sorry, but no pictures.
When I returned home, I fell asleep early again as usual. Tomorrow is my first day of work and (Takahiko) Sato-san is meeting me in front of my apartment at 8:00 am to bike to work together so I don’t get lost.
Shopping, working out, and raw horse meat

Shopping, working out, and raw horse meat

I didn’t have to work today (Saturday) which was a welcome surprise, so I set out to explore Fussa city on my bike. I rode down near the train station and parked my bike in front of Mister Donuts. Not knowing if I had to […]

Welcome dinner, a bicycle, and 7-Eleven for two meals

Welcome dinner, a bicycle, and 7-Eleven for two meals

Despite just arriving, I didn’t have any problems falling asleep on Friday night. I stayed up until 12:30 pm on my computer and woke up around 6:30 am. For breakfast, I went to 7-Eleven as I don’t have any pots or pans yet. Not entirely […]

Moving in to apartment and first meal in Japan

Moving in to apartment and first meal in Japan

After meeting Saki, we quickly bought train tickets. The airport is on the far east side of Tokyo and we had to pass through Shinjuku (red dot) in order to get to Fussa Station, where my apartment is located. I was going to stay in a hotel for my first night, but Saki checked into my apartment earlier and I could move in when I arrived.

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The ticket cost the ¥4700, or about  $47. I didn’t bring any yen with me, but luckily my Charles Schwab debit card worked without a problem. I couldn’t use my American Express corporate card because the self service kiosk required a PIN and the airport currency exchange was going to charge me $75 to exchange $600 into yen, so I passed. I grabbed my luggage, tickets and boarded the train with Saki.

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Not my picture, but it looked like this with the window curtains raised

The train was about half full and extremely quiet. A woman passed by with a cart of food and drinks and although I didn’t get anything, the prices looked pretty cheap: $3 for a whiskey and coke.

On the way there, Saki gave me laminated sheets of the neighborhood where I’ll be living, pointing out restaurants and grocery stores. He set up his phone to broadcast a wifi signal so I was able to connect with my iPad. We talked sports for a bit and I showed him highlight videos of the NHL including a line brawl and goals. Hockey obviously isn’t big in Japan, but I saw there is an Asia Hockey League and they have a few games in Tokyo I might try to watch.

I also got a cell phone paid for by the company. I’m not sure if it has internet access or not, but I’d like to get one that does. It doesn’t necessarily have to be an iPhone, but I could use it as a wifi hotspot and connect to it using my personal iPhone. With Skype downloaded, I could call back home pretty cheaply.

We changed trains in Tachikawa to more of a subway type car. This train was also extremely quiet and not very crowded since it was 9:30pm on a Thursday. Not only was the physical train quiet, but no one said anything. No one was talking on their phones and you could hear someone opening a bag of chips 40 feet away at the other end of the car.

We arrived in Fussa Station around 10 pm, 2 hours after leaving the airport. I did a good amount of research before arriving, including the Google Street View of Fussa Station, and it looked like I thought it would. I turned a corner and knew where things were before seeing them, including the Mister Donut and McDonald’s.

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We stopped at a curry restaurant and I ate my first meal in Japan: beef curry with a chicken cutlet and a caesar salad. I counted 7 Americans in a restaurant that seats about 20. Looks like a good amount of people from the military get off base.

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We took a taxi to a 7-Eleven and I withdrew $500 dollars, or ¥50000 from the ATM. 7-Eleven is one of the few places in Japan that has 24/7 ATMs; most ATMs only work during business hours. The Charles Schwab online checking account I have doesn’t charge any foreign transaction fees and also refunds any ATM fees, domestic or international. For a six months assignment abroad, this makes a big difference. If you’re planning on taking a long trip, I’d definitely look into it.

We walk about a minute to my apartment door with my bags. We pass through a gate with a four digit code and go into my apartment. It looks exactly like I thought it would. This is normal housing for one person. I’ll make another post later with pictures of my unit.

I thank Saki and get settled in. The first thing I did was unpack my laptop and tried out the internet. I plugged in the ethernet cord and typed in the LeoPalace user name and password and connected without a problem. I then unpacked my wireless router I brought from the US and plugged it into the wall. No problem there either. That’s a big deal to me. I don’t watch much TV, but it would be extremely difficult to not have wifi for six months.

Everything is going well until I try to take a shower. I don’t have a towel, but figure it’s not a big deal. I turn on the shower and find the blue faucet works, but the red one doesn’t: no hot water. Not only that, but the cold water is ice cold. After traveling since Wednesday morning at 4 am and being in four different airports, a nice hot shower on Thursday night would have been nice. Looks like that will wait until Friday. I settle into bed, turn on my heater, and start typing on my computer.

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Controlled by remote control, makes it easier to restart it after three hours

All is well until my heater turns off. The heater has some kind of timer on it. I do some research online and find that the LeoPalace heaters turn off automatically after three hours. Discouraged, I turn it on high and try to get some sleep.

Travel day (updated, but boring)

Travel day (updated, but boring)

Too long, didn’t read: Long travel day, United 747 is not recommended, arrived in Japan My flights got changed again, the sixth time in 36 hours. The flight out of Greenville was cancelled again so the remainder of my flights were cancelled. It was assumed […]

Flights cancelled – leaving tomorrow?

Flights cancelled – leaving tomorrow?

I was originally going to fly out Tuesday at 7:00 am. That didn’t happen.  Due to the weather, United has allowed passengers to change their flights without incurring fees. Good thing because in the past 24 hours, I’ve had 5 different flights to Tokyo that have […]

Last minute preparation

Last minute preparation

I finally moved everything into my 10′ x 10′ storage unit on Saturday with some much needed help. Besides moving sofas down two flights of stairs, it went pretty well. One of the good things about a one bedroom apartment is it’s hard to accumulate a lot of stuff, so the packing and moving went quickly. 

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Also in preparation for Japan, I’ve been enjoying my favorite meals here in the United States. In the past week I’ve eaten 4 Five Guys burgers, nachos, wings, waffles, Chick-fil-A, and doughnuts. I should be set for eating rice for the next five months.

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Pro tip: The key to success at Five Guys is to order 2 (double) Cheeseburgers, no fries, and no drink. 1680 calories and 94 g of protein for $13.60

On the other hand, one of the first things I need to do when I get to Japan is find a gym, preferably with a squat rack. I’ve done some research and it looks like there might be one 20 minutes away by train. There’s a few CrossFit gyms over there, but they all seem to be >45 minutes away, so if I try those, it would likely only be on the weekends.

I received my passport back with my Japanese visa last week, so I should be all set. My only concern now is the weather. Hopefully tomorrow goes smoothly, but I’m anticipating some delayed flights due to the coldest weather in 20 years hitting the midwest. My flights got changed this morning, but I’m still flying out tomorrow morning out of Greenville. I’m flying to Newark, then to Chicago, and then finally to Tokyo, using United Airlines. Hopefully it’s not too bad:

United Airlines spokeswoman Mary Ryan said about 200 mainline and 1,300 United Express flights were canceled so far this morning, but that those numbers would change throughout the day. The airline is based in Chicago.

“Thankfully, at least here in Chicago the snow has stopped falling,” she said. “But we are experiencing record low temperatures. That still has an impact on our operations.”

She said the airline canceled flights proactively to prevent customers from traveling to the airport in freezing temperatures and give them enough time to reschedule flights online.

http://www.usatoday.com/story/todayinthesky/2014/01/06/flights-cancellations-delays-winter-storm/4337773/

Keeping my fingers crossed…