Chuck's travels

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Japan - July 22, 2005

Almost two weeks in Japan now and I am getting used to it. Once u get used to it, it isn’t bad. WHO AM I KIDDING? No food, no cows on the road, no traffic jam … THIS IS ONE MISERABLE PLACE!!!

I read the new Harry Potter on Sunday. On Friday night (Potter was releasing on Saturday) I went to a shop that sells English novels (you would be surprised to see how few of these are here) and asked about the new Potter book, only to be presented with a pre-order coupon that entitled me to buy the book for 2300 yen, which the shop told me was a discounted price for pre-orders. That too, I had to pick up the book the next day between 8 AM and 9 AM to avail of this offer coz the shop closed its doors at 9 AM and when it re-opened its door at its normal opening time of 10 AM, the book would sell at around 3000 yen. Crazy people! Anyway, I decided to look elsewhere for it.

The next day, mentally resigned to not reading the new Potter on its inaugural day (I started reading the previous Potter book – book 5 – half an hour after it released on the first day … this was two years back), I was just having lunch with my colleagues from India, AB and SB, when the phone rang and I picked up to hear SP (the sole Indian employee in the Japanese unit of my company) ask – “u interested in the new Potter for 1800 yen?”. Seems he was roaming around some wholesale store with his wife (he is newly married … one and a half months) and saw the book up for sale for that price. SP knows me only for 10 days or so now but he already knew enough to give me a call when he saw it. So SP bought the book and I picked it up from his house in the evening. His house is in Myoden, one station away from Gyo Toku where I am putting up, and it was a nice evening walk to go over to his place and get the book. So Saturday evening I started the book and Sunday afternoon around 1 PM, I was putting it down highly dis-satisfied with its ending. You can read the review of the book at my Travel Blog Site -

Office work has been pretty routine uptil now. They r busy getting some commitment from the customer (I heard they finally got it yesterday) and so apart from some meetings in the first week, we haven’t really had too much to go on. Now if the news about the customer “go” is correct, then things will get pretty hectic in the coming days. We have a visa till October 1 and when we leave, we better leave something worthwhile to justify our three odd months here.

A couple of days back, an interesting thing happened. As I wrote in a previous mail, our lodgings r pretty far from office; around one and a half hour one way and it involves changing trains in the middle. To look at it in terms of stations, from Gyo Toku (where I stay) to Kudanshita (where I change trains) it is about 14 stations and then from Kudanshita to Shinjuku (where our office is located), it is 5 more stations. On the journey to office and half of the journey back (while coming back, we usually but not always get seats about 15 minutes into the journey), we have to stand in the train amidst a big crowd of people. Pretty tiring stuff so we were generally planning to ask if we could shift someplace closer. Then two days back, a guy came to our room and generally asked about how we were and all that. I had no idea of who he was but we answered the usual routine answers and one of us (unnamed) generally mentioned the tiring journey to and from office everyday. It was said very casually and I didn’t think much of it then but ten minutes later, a Japanese guy comes in and asks us the same questions about how we were etc. He then asked casually if our accommodation was comfortable etc and again one of us (the same unnamed) said the same thing about it being too far. Then this guy also goes away and ten minutes later, the Admin lady at the Japan office comes in and says in a most flustered manner – “I heard you would like to change your accommodation” etc etc etc. As it turned out, the first guy who came was some vice-prez guy here in the Japan office and the second guy was the prez of the Japan office. Unknowingly, we had touched on a sensitive issue, the issue of hospitality as we were guests here in Japan. Seemingly the prez immediately told the Admin Lady to look into the matter and we were immediately offered two options of accommodation, one at a place called Akebonobashi which was two stations away from office, and the second at Shin Okubo, a place even nearer office with the largest Korean immigrant population in Japan. In fact, it is sometimes (unofficially) termed as the Korean town. The Admin lady seemed to think that the Korean town might not be so preferable coz of the noisy atmosphere and the Korean immigrant tag associated with it but for me, that was not an issue. Seriously, if u stood a Japanese and a Korean in front of me and asked me to identify which was which, I would just have to take a wild guess. Sure, the Koreans r foreigners for the Japanese, but for me, both the Koreans and the Japanese are foreigners... ;-) … anyway we visited both places and decided on Akebonobashi as the suitable one. Nopes, not coz of the Korean immigrant thingy but simply coz the other place seemed quieter. So we move into our new digs on August 8. Things move fast when the prez takes an interest in the matter. Though, as explained, the involvement of the prez was completely un-intentional, we became known throughout the office as “the Indian guys who complained to the prez about their accommodation”. A note here – Korean immigrants does not mean labour class, un-educated Koreans trudging off to factories in night shifts … they r as well suited-booted as the Japanese … just that they r Koreans … I read somewhere on the net that during the World War II, the Japanese used to make the Koreans work for them and used to bring them over, mostly from North Korea ... once the war ended, they had the choice of going back but choose to remain for their own economic and personal reasons.

Anyway, all is well that ended well. From August 8, no more 1.5 hours for reaching office in crowded trains.

Here in Japan, there is no mobile phone SMS concept. Sorry for putting it so bluntly and many of u who couldn’t take the shock, do take a couple of minutes to draw your breath … maybe take a sip of water or something stronger. On trains, on the roads, in restaurants and supermarkets, I could see Japanese people working furiously on their cellphones and oblivious to the entire world around them and I assumed SMS was a bigger craze here than in India. Seriously, u SMS addicts at home cannot rival these guys as far as treating your cellphone as God is concerned. Even when they ride bicycles, they ride with one hand while the other is busy working furiously on the cell phone … obviously their gaze is also divided between road and cell phone. Those of u used to riding your motorcycles with ur cellphone tucked between neck and shoulder … this is much harder coz one hand is constantly busy pressing buttons and obviously u gotta use ur eyes to see whether what u r pressing is correct or not. Anyway, as I said, I thought initially SMS was bigger here than in apna desh and was stunned to know from SP (the Indian guy in the Japanese unit of the company) that there was no SMS. So what were these people doing? It seems (from SP’s explanation) that they were either playing games on the cellphone or sending emails. Basically

they do not have SMS but they have email through their mobile phone operators and that is what keeps them so busy. Plus the games of course! Also, the standard Japanese cell phone companies operate on CDMA … no or negligible GSM here.

Get on a train and 90% of people would either be pressing buttons on their cellphones or have their nose buried in a book … initially something that impressed me a lot. The cellphone part has already been explained. The explanation for the second part – nose buried in a book always – was also a bit different from what I expected. Seems that in Japan, comics are very popular, particularly a branch of comics termed as “Hentai” [see here for explanation -]. Hentai seems to be a craze here, irrespective of age or sex of the person and that is the primary reason for all the book-reading. In fact here it is hard to find English books anywhere; only a few stores stock them; but all shops keeping books would have a large amount of comics, Hentai included. Another thing common here is people reading the books standing in the bookshop itself … the shopkeepers don’t seem to care too much about that.

As to the interesting stuff I have seen here, I have to add the Japanese toilet. Before I left for Japan, a friend of mine sent me this link to forewarn me about toilets in Japan - I didn’t really pay it too much attention thinking it to be a spoof and that feeling was enforced when I saw the toilet in our accommodation, which was the normal western-style commode. Then one day in office I tried the office toilet and it was the one described in the article as “High tech Japanese bidets” … u can see the photograph and description in the article. Not usually used to seeing toilet commodes with a remote control, I decided to go back and read that article properly before attempting to use it. Moreover, all the buttons in the remote are labeled in Japanese so really, for me they might not have been labeled at all. Just to make sure, I pressed all the buttons one by one and nothing happened. After reading the article, I knew what the toilet could do but again, all the buttons being labeled in Japanese made things a bit difficult. Finally I took the plunge deciding that toilet paper would be the final last resort (ewwwwwwwww) and you know what … the buttons are programmed to act only when someone is sitting on the seat and hence earlier none of the buttons worked coz I was standing in front of it trying to figure out what it did. Smart guys, these Japanese! Of course had to hit the buttons at random since I couldn’t read Japanese but it worked as I thought it would. So the Japanese toilet is no longer a scary thing to think about … easy to just go in, do ur thing, go out … and hey, Look Ma, no hands. And not to forget, there is one button for warming the seat too. I wonder if I can buy one and take it back to India.

Food is a real problem here since the Japanese don’t seem to understand the concept of “vegetarian”. We took a lot of stuff from India but even then, with AB being the only cook (I can keep rice in the electric rice cooker provided in the apartment … that is it), it is hard. We eat rice everyday and sometimes more than once. Curd and rice is generally the easiest combination though AB and SB have brought along a lot of pickles and powders which when mixed with rice makes for a different taste but in the end, it is still rice. We (rather, AB cooks and we give moral encouragement) cook veggies now and then but it is generally a long process and hence depends on time and confort. I told you in a previous mail about having lunch at an Indian restaurant for 1000 yen and called it lousy. Well, a couple of days back, we went to another Indian restaurant called “Puja” for dinner (since AB was in no mood for cooking) which was operated by a guy from Delhi, and u know what, the first one was better. At least it was a buffet, albeit with limited choices, and one could eat as much as one liked. At “Puja” the bill for three people came to around 3000 yen and the quantity / quality of food was pathetic. I am not joking when I say that I went back home and had some bread to complete my dinner. Other days we have Maggi and today we bought a couple of biscuit packets from the station for breakfast though for lunch we had rice and dal packed from home.

Every now and then the Maggi runs out and we buy it from “Hira Halal shop”, a Bangladeshi run shop. The guy keeps all the stuff u would see in supermarkets in India … the MTR brand of masalas and stuff is present in entirety as is the Haldiram library of junk food. Of course, these are about 5-6 times more expensive than they would be in India … but that is inevitable here in Japan. Everything IS expensive. Sometimes, u just don’t have a choice coz if u don’t have Maggi for breakfast, u might just be tempted to try the fish / pig / crab / whatever available at the nearest food outlet.

Even buying provisions like bread, milk and vegetables is an expensive business. The other day, we bought some vegetables, milk and bread and it cost us 4000 yen, which comes to around 1600-1700 Indian rupees … and it lasted us about a week. MacDonalds is an option whereby one can buy a burger and French fries for 500 odd yen. It is a bigger hassle telling the MacDonalds employee to give the burger without putting in the meat. “Nikku nashi”, u gotta say which basically means “No meat” … initially, in my smartass way I tried “No Nikku … No Nikku” which didn’t seem to make any sense to the guy. Even when I tried “Nikku nashi”, I only get success half of the times, probably coz of the accent. I expected better from MacDonalds, seeing it to be an American chain … at least they should have English speaking staff.

Anyway, moving home for the weekend now … meaning the laptop goes home today. Maybe I go to Tokyo Disneyland this weekend, maybe next weekend … in case I go, u will be sure to hear of it.

The Chuckster


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