Which side are you on?

Or: International Driving for the Uninitiated

Or: I have a horrible unkept secret announcement

It needs to be made plainly clear that until January 10, I had not seen snow since probably January 2017 when I was still in Victoria. I flew back from Ontario to snow on the ground on BC’s island–which just isn’t right. I emphasize this before I also make available the following facts:

  1. I did not fall on my ass once. Experience told me that I needed better footwear than I originally had. I rectified that with some CAT shoes with decent treads–which was no easy find here in China. I have one size larger than what most retailers carry in the southern Middle Kingdom.
  2. Being in the snow felt warmer than in Tokyo. Maybe it provides a blanket?
  3. Shovelling snow is an acquired skill, and I was able to demonstrate my prowess in a way that should make all snow-habituated people proud.
  4. Re-learning how to drive with three others in the vehicle, the steering wheel on the right side, and having to drive on the left side of the road, all the while the roads are all covered in snow and ice, makes for one of the most stressfully intense experiences I’ve had in quite some time.
    But I took it like a champ. I owned ‘dem roads. It took me at last 20-30 minutes, and I never had the chance to get 100% comfortable with them, but they were mine. It also helped that nowhere that I was driving had posted limits above 50km/h. And I travelled for hours.
    I know many of you commute. Imagine having to drive through a mirror (at least for my North American friends). This really messes with your driving perspective. I can go long periods with driving and go back to zombie-ing behind the wheel with ease. Not this time. If you ever intend on travelling to Europe or East Asia (or wherever else they drive on the wrong side), make sure you’re prepared mentally. It’s just messed up.

My friend that I was travelling with actually bought a house in Japan. In the town of Otaru, to be specific. It’s a small touristy port town on the island of Hokkaido.
He’d been to his house only once, and he wanted to show it to me.
Only, he couldn’t find it.
Japanese addresses are weird. They’re broken up into city, ward, area, block, sub-block, and house number. Main streets have names, but all the side streets and alleyways.. forget it. It’s SO easy to get lost. Even with maps. We searched, even with the help of different mapping apps, but couldn’t find the place. So, we did as we had done since we first arrived and asked for directions. The first girl tried. She really did. She pulled out her own phone after we showed her the address, but she was obviously was confused and couldn’t find it. Bows and thank yous and more bows and we relieved her of her cultural obligation. We found a second passerby who also had no clue, but she demonstrated problem-solving skills. Good initiative. She looked at building numbers and deduced that we were close. She then turned her eyes to a shop owner who appeared to be prepping for close. Not sure exactly what he did. Home reno? Honey-doo? Our second helper explained the situation to the shopkeeper, and he went old school. He went to his shelves and pulled out some actual maps. Having passed the burden to the shopkeeper, our second helper bowed and apologized, and we bowed and apologized, and she went on her way. The shopkeeper knew his stuff. To hell with technology. He pointed out where the house was on his map, drew a little map, and went over it with us three times to be sure we understood. We took the map. I took photos. I compared it to I could with Google Maps, and we were off. Before we did, of course, we apologized, and bowed, and offered thanks, and apologized again. As we walked, it all started coming back to my friend. Things were looking familiar. And just as we were approaching the last corner which we needed to turn at, we heard a vehicle approaching from the rear. As we moved to the side of the road, the window rolled down to reveal the shopkeeper behind the wheel. He had actually followed up to make sure we were going the right way.
Holy shit. Seriously. This is what you can expect when you visit that country. It’s a big old reminder to pay it forward, folks.

Oh yeah. The super un-kept secret announcement. I’ve already talked to a few people about this. No more than 10. Maybe. So the reason why we had to go see this house, is because that’s where I will be living come July.
Fer reelz.
More details on this later.

It’s a beauti-bidet in the neighbourhood

Or: Oh yeah, put your squirt right there!

Before you stop dropping your drawers or panties or whatever, a few comments about Akiba. I mentioned earlier, more than once, about Akihabara being the geek mecca of Japan. It really was a sight to behold. A sight that I’d rather have wished to have experienced alone. This was my element, but I was with a family. Not that I’m ashamed of my geek heritage, but there are some things I’d rather keep to myself, or at least with people who were absolutely like-minded. There were four SEGA buildings to investigate. FOUR! How do you bring an uninterested mother/daughter duo to something like that? How do you bring them to a palace of anime otaku treasures like which have never been seen by the majority of western fanboys? I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. And so, while I enjoyed Akiba, I think I could have easily spent two or three days exploring the treasures which that place holds. 25-year-old me would be broke if he lived in Japan. All past-me would be spending all of his hard earned English teaching dollars there. I’m sure of it.

So. Off to Hokkaido, with our first stop being Sapporo. We first had to take the train back to Narita airport, which I didn’t mind. It wasn’t a short trip, but what made it worthwhile was being able to see the infamous Tokyo Tower! A tower, which has been destroyed and obviously rebuilt numerous times after many attacks from monsters, aliens, and random wars that have occurred according to pop-culture mediums. It was during the day in which I saw it, so I missed it’s evening-lit-up-splendor, but it was still exciting to see. Sure, it’s not the Eiffel or CN tower, but it’s culturally significant for the lifelong otaku. I will see this tower again, and I promise to provide pictures next time.

The first obvious difference when landing in Sapporo, was the snow. And there was a lot of it. But what was interesting was that despite the snow, it really didn’t feel that cold. Maybe I had already gotten used to the cold thanks to my first couple of days in Tokyo, but I somehow don’t think so. In some ways, Sapporo felt almost warmer in comparison to Japan’s capital. Perhaps I’m forgetting some of my Canadian history about snow. I mean, I haven’t lived through a traditional Canadian winter since 2012/2013, after which I lived in B.C., so maybe that’s clouded my perceptions a bit. All I know is that despite the snow, there were times I walked down streets with my jacket open.

Since before we left, my friend had been promising me to take to take me to the BEST ramen place, ever. I was actually confused for a while, because he kept calling it by its Chinese term, la-mein (like chicken chow-mein). It’s a small chain of ramen shops called Tesumiki Ramen. The one we went to was tiny. Seating for eight. The owner/operator was more-or-less shewing people away. The location is on Trip Advisor and Michelin rated, which is kind of cray. We just happened to get there a little early, and the keeper knew my friend. He has a tendency to leave an impression with people (super-outgoing, friendly, and talkative).
So, if you’ll remember, vending machines really are a thing here in Japan. To order food at this ramen place, there was a ticket vending machine to order what you wanted. If you didn’t have proper change, the owner had an envelope of paper yen to help you out.

This is what I ordered.

The owner was certainly a friendly guy with enough English language skills to serve you. Hugs were shared between my friend and he. The owner also had an affinity for the Beatles, as that’s all that was playing in his small establishment. He loved them, yeah, yeah, yeah.
The raman itself was certainly tasty. But like most Japanese food, make sure you have plenty of water handy. I was thirsty afterward.

Back at the hotel, I had to drop the kids off at the pool. Yes. That’s a euphemism for having to take a dump. Which is also euphemism for having to defecate into a toilet bowl.
The time had come.
The toilet and the shower were in the same room, but were divided by a sliding door. Both areas were spacious. And the toilet itself had a strange looking lid upon it. Beside the toilet was a digital control mechanism. A mechanism with images that were pretty self explanatory. I dropped my pants and took a seat, and I was met with one of the strangest feelings in the world. The first idea that popped in my head was that somehow that within that toilet bowl there was a rip in fabric of space/time, and somehow down had become up and I was now urinating onto the toilet seat upon which I sat. It was similar to that sensation when you first sit onto the heated seats of an automobile. Warm and comforting, but completely unnatural feeling. It was nice not sitting down onto a cold seat. For once, having to drop a load in the winter was forgiving instead of harsh, albeit quick punishment.
Afterwards, after my duty had been completed, I wrestled with idea of using the bidet function. I somehow felt that by using such a device, I was breaking some sort of manly/social code. One of the people does not have the luxury of a bidet. For some reason, in my mind, it was elitest. Despite my reservations, my curiosity got the best of me. I hit the button for the narrow spray. There was a button for wide spray with the icon for a female as its support, so putting two-and-two together, I knew the first option was the one for me.
And it was.
And it was amazing.

An extreme example of possible toilet seat/bidet sets. This one is more than $500CAD. But HELLO KITTY!

Where did my anti-bidet bias come from? This was awesome. The ultimate solution to s**t-stains in my undies! A clean sphincter after every deuce! Not only that, but this also created less use for toilet tissue. This was a land where Charmin Ultra-Soft didn’t exist. So if you can’t treat you ass like royalty that way, this was the next best, if not far superior option. Add this to a list of lifestyle choices. I’m not overexaggerating when I say that the heated seat/bidet combo is life-altering.

So this experience is probably the most.. colourful.. of my trip (it’s the little things), more is forthcoming. Next time– Otaru and the Left Hand, Right Seated driving experience.

Vs. Battle – Japanese Transit

Or How the Whole of Japan Will Make Sure You Get There

Japanese Transit requires a decoder ring and the Japanese are super polite and helpful.

With most people I know suffering through the first deep freeze of the winter, I am reminded that it was cold in Tokyo and that I have more things to share.
Before anyone calls out wuss, I might remind you that while it doesn’t freeze here in Guangzhou, there’s no respite from the cold either. If it’s cold out there, it’s cold in here (in my apartment). Maybe it was concrete or maybe it was the wind, but despite the positive single-digit temperatures, it felt a lot colder than I think it should have. However, we were all travellers and we had things to see! Like a hot bowl of ramen. We parted the wind like– no. We didn’t part the wind. It blasted us with all its arctic ferocity which only made the ramen that much better.

After our meal, we continued our blistery stroll to the nearest light rail station. When we all arrived in Tokyo, I assumed I would be able to pick up a transit card anywhere, and figured I’d be able to get one at any transit station. I also figured I’d get cash from an ATM. At this moment, it wasn’t easy to do either of those things. My friends and I searched the station for someone that offered cards for sale but found nothing but ticket dispensers and recharge stations. Similarly, there were no ATMs that would accept international cards. Luckily my friend was prepared and purchased a ticket for me. He and his fam had cards from their previous trip, which they picked up at kiosks at the airport.

So somewhat defeated, we made our way to Hondo-ji temple in the Matsudo area. It was only two or three stops from our station and was easy to find (Google Maps FTW). I’m assuming that some of you are at least vaguely aware of Japan’s love affair with vending machines. They are everywhere. I won’t say they are on every street corner, but there’s always one close by. Depending on the area, you will find a range of different beverages available. I will state now that I didn’t see any of the weird or taboo machines that you may have heard of (like the one for used panties). But within a couple of minutes of anywhere, guaranteed you’d be able to score yourself a can of hot coffee, or any other type of soft beverage. In the more late night oriented districts, tall cans of Asahi Special Dry or Sapporo Beer could also be found. Hondo-ji only had soft beverages, and the can of hot coffee that was purchased for me was more than welcomed. It served as warmth for my hands for a few moments before I cracked it open.

After the temple, we made our way back, stopping at a Lawsons Station (a rival convenience store to 7-Eleven, which are also everywhere) as well as a bank. Finally money. Again, we searched for a place for transit cards but still nothing. The only thing that ran through my mind was how can a country SO reliant on transit not have these cards in every store? Purchasing my own ticket this time, we arrived back to our point of departure. It was decided that it was too far and too cold to walk home by half of our party. Taxi’s are ridiculously expensive, so it would be by bus that we would return to our AirBnB. Google and whatever apps my companions were using were useless in determining what bus to take, and where to get on. We tried asking some people outside, but communication wasn’t happening. One person led us to Koban, a police-box, where an officer and receptionist helped us out. The officer went so far as to walk us back to the bus-stop and wish us luck on our journey home. Eventually, our bus came, and we got on.
And started moving.
In the wrong direction.
A retired looking gentleman sitting at the rear of the bus overheard our conversation and in near perfect English (SHOCK) offered to help us out. We not only were travelling in the wrong direction, but we were also using the wrong bus system. We were to get on a much larger bus and wait at a different stop a few steps away. He brought our plight to the attention of the bus driver, explaining our situation to him on our behalf. At the next stop, the bus driver guided us out of the bus following right behind, foregoing our payment (you pay by a per-stop/distance system) and showed us exactly where we needed to stand for the return bus. We all gracefully bowed and arigato-s were exchanged. Sure enough, the return bus came along, we boarded back to the station and got on the right bus the next time around.

Upon returning home, I looked up where the hell I was supposed to get a transit card. I was looking at retailers the entire time I was at every station I had been at. The card charging machines are also dispensers. They will spit out a new card for ¥500, plus whatever amount you put on it. Later that night we took in the sights and many, many sounds of Akihabara (the geek mecca of Japan). After successfully using the charging machines to procure my transit card, we stared up the transit maps on the walls. Looking at hieroglyphs would have been easier to decipher than the maps. Trying to make sense of what we were seeing, and what Google had to say, was like trying to put the square shape through the circle hole. Again, we asked for help from a random commuter. In utmost politeness and courtesy, the brought us to the correct gate and told us how many stops, before going in a completely different direction.

This willingness to help repeated numerous times throughout our week-long trip. It was never an answer of “over there,” but a detour being made by the one helping us, offering us as much help that they can give stopping short of going with us the entire way–at least almost. That’s a different story. Canadians are generally know for being the friendly and polite ones. Sorry my fellow Canucks– we need to step our game.

Next time, Sapporo and the heated toilet seats. Best. Band. Ever.

Land of the Rising Snow

Things photos couldn’t tell you about my trip to Japan – Part 1

If you’ve been following me on your choice of social media (can we call them ‘So-Me’ for short.. let’s make that a thing), you may have noticed a change in programming, as the content switched to Japanese. True story.

I arrived at Narita International Airport on January 8, with nothing but a backpack filled with clothes, an iPad, headphones, and a phone. Oh, and a couple of friends. Fun fact: discount airlines really like to nickel and dime you. We had a 7kg max weight for our carry-on luggage– and they check. If you plan on travelling discount airlines you should probably invest in a luggage jacket of some sort, and opt for a light-weight backpack instead of a suitcase, as backpacks have more give. A not-so-fun fact: there is no über or crowdsourced taxi-services. And they are expensive. Narita is far removed from everything, so if on a budget, you’ll need to get a transit pass and take the subway. This is another reason just to bring a backpack. So either take transit or if you’re fortunate enough as we were, have someone come pick you up. And then have them take you out for dinner. We were treated to some food at what I’m guessing was an Izakaya (居酒屋) which is probably best described as a Japanese pub. Dinner was a series of small dishes comprised of tempura fried delicacies (maybe not delicacies), barbecued and deep fried chicken, seaweed salad, and other deep fried and battered meats. A heart attacks wet dream, and also very delicious.

We returned to our AirBnB shortly afterwards, but it wasn’t without making a couple of observations. First, was how cold it was. While there was no snow, the weather was windy and bone chilling. Perhaps it was a mix of the wind and the cold radiating from the concrete jungle of Tokyo, but I was freezing, despite it being above zero. The second observation was how foreign I was there. It wasn’t because of the colour of my skin, but more that I kept walking on the wrong side of the sidewalk, or any where else for that matter. It’s not just driving that’s done on the left side. This began my brain reprogramming to walk on the left side. It’s harder than it sounds.

The AirBnB itself was decent and a good size. I’d hate to try and estimate the cost. It was a single bedroom flat, with the living room turned into a second bedroom/living space. Something I had forgotten about the Japanese, is that they separate bath and toilet. The washroom was felt like a tiny closet and would cause a claustrophobic’s panic attack. What was missing from the bathroom was the fabled heated toilet seat / bidet. That would have to wait for a couple of days. What the bathroom did have, was kind of genius. Instead of having an individual sink and toilet, the toilet reservoir had a faucet and sink on top. Instead of wasting water, you could wash your hands with the same water that filled the well. Water conservation for the win.

All this was just the first 7 hours after my arrival. Keep watching this space for next time it will be Us vs. Transit!