Vs. Battle – Japanese Transit

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

TL:DR
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!

We all eventually get to where we’re going…eventually.

As you may have probably guessed, the past two weeks have been somewhat chaotic.  And by somewhat, I mean it has been.  Just yesterday I finally managed to feed some Interwebz™ into my abode.  It’s the standard campus internet and the speeds, while not third-world, are less than lightning fast.  I get faster speeds off of my 4G connection.

So let’s rewind a little bit.

As time wound down from visiting TheWife’s™ family, it was time to pack things up and first head to Shenzhen, and then to Hong Kong to obtain or Z Visa’s.  Of course, things are never that easy.  Because of limited trips, getting a direct train to Shenzhen was off the table (i.e. we were too late to get tickets).  Instead, we got tickets to Guangzhou, as there are trains between Guangzhou and Shenzhen that leave every twenty minutes.
At least usually.
You see, a typhoon was on its way to the mainland on our departure day.  Instead of killing us all, the train came to a stop when the first torrential pour came.  After an hour, when we started moving again, the train moved at a bit of a crawl compared to its normal pace, making our arrival two hours late.
No problem.
At least it shouldn’t have been.
When we arrived in Guangzhou, we began our search for the ticketing booth to get our tickets.  It was packed.  Of course, I thought nothing of it, since it was China after all.  TheWife™ had the smarts to ask, and discovered that those lines for refunds and rebookings.  All trains out of Guangzhou had been cancelled for the rest of the day.  However, there were some shuttle buses capitalizing on the shutdown, that would take us to Shenzhen.  It would be slower, but at least we’d get there.  No problem.
Well, at least almost.
We are guided for a few minutes until we reach the small shuttle.  It was going to be a cramped ride, but it wouldn’t be the first time.  TheWife and I, along with about six other passengers hop on.  Then we saw the cherries flash and the mini-bus is prevented from leaving.  TheWife™ begins to panic a little, worried that for some reason we may lose all our luggage.  As we all continue to wait in the hot, crowded bus, the operators get out and begin to discuss things with Police officer.  One puts his hand on his shoulder, as the China 5-0 speaks into his walkie-talkie.  There was some negotiating I’m sure, and after about twenty minutes, we were finally on our way.  We discovered that all this noise was because the mini-bus was illegally parked.  It was too large to be parking where it was.  Fine.  Okay.  On our way.  No problem.
And it was not a problem to Shenzhen after that– except for some traffic.  I could deal with that though.  It’s not like I didn’t have experience with that.
We had planned to arrive in Shenzhen around noon.  Noon turned into about 6 p.m.  All this, and we weren’t even in Hong Kong yet.  But I’ll save that for next time.

Second book in the series.

The early morning sun is shining on the deck outside my mother’s rear patio doors.  It’s Sunday morning and all three of us are quiet, TheWife™, TheMom™, and myself.  TW gazes on taps away on her phone, likely sending messages back and forth to her sister using WeChat, and TM is probably falling through the click-bait rabbit holes.  I am sitting in front of my laptop, clacking at its keyboard and sipping away at my weekend morning coffee treat.  It’s the same routine that we have gone through every weekend since I arrived back in June.  The only difference is that in 17 hours, TW and I will be on my flight to Newold City (my new pseudonym for where I’m living–check the Cast and Errata page for a list of other pseudonyms I am using) via Guangzhou.

Of course, by the time you read this, I will have already been in the air for presumably six hours or more, flying for a total of fifteen hours and twenty minutes for the first leg.

So it’s finally here.  Any sense of anxiety I had is pretty much gone, which to me is indicative that I’m ready.  It’s a long list that I really don’t want to create new names for, so instead I will give a blanket, yet earnest thank you to everyone who took time out of their daily lives over the past seven weeks (SEVEN WEEKS!?!) to spend time with TheWife™ and I.

Preparing for Book Two!

I know, given our penchant for vagabonding, that being our nearest and dearest requires extra effort and while maybe not heartbreak, a certain sense of melancholy every time we show up and then leave again.  This is not lost on us, and for these efforts, I am truly grateful.
I was out with Lyle (see Cast) yesterday, discussing this very topic.  And while it sucks being away from each other, it is also demonstrative of the strength of the bonds that have developed between us.  During college, after we completed the taping of our last class project, I was feeling a little down knowing that this may be the last time I would see these people as we were now free to go out into the world.  I expressed these thoughts to a classmate of mine.  He had a different perspective which has carried with me ever since.  He said, “Andy, those who really truly matter will always continue to be in contact with you.”  He was right, of course.  And to me, these people who have been with me over these past 15-20 years are my family.  Whether biological or not, these bonds are far more important to me than any blood that runs through our veins.

Thank you, with all the love and appreciation that you rightfully deserve.

With that, I think it’s time to cap off this chapter.  For that matter, I think I’ll leave this as a cliffhanger for my first book.  Book Two: Version 2.0 begins…

Misfires and bad shots

Bureaucracy is a bane to all of our existences.  It’s a bi-product of government and corporate processes that permeates through the crevices of society.  My journey into China this year is far different than thirteen years ago.  In 2003 all I needed to do was to show up in the country with a tourist visa, and everything else would be handled by my employer once I got there.  When I first landed in the country, I was shocked to find how much work was still done on paper.  Electronic records had just started to canvas the Middle Kingdom at the time, and I was residing in a backwoods province.  Apparently, it’s not just the cities that expand at lightning speed there.  From what I’ve seen through short trips there, and what I’ve been dealing with during my process this time, the technological pervasiveness may have very well surpassed what we have here in Canada.  It is with all these new technologies in place that a whole new layer of paperwork has become concomitant with the work permit application apparatus.

Government proposes, bureaucracy disposes. And the bureaucracy must dispose of government proposals by dumping them on us.

-P. J. O’Rourke

New, just this year, are requirements for notarized and authenticated documents that are re-authenticated by the Chinese consulate.  This top heavy process is supposed to make further applications a lot smoother and expedited.  I can deal with that.  However, given that these processes are new, hiccups and confusions are bound to come up.  I have already gone through some new hurdles in the process, and I ran into new ones yesterday.  I received notification that I was not to arrive in China until August 28th.  The first stage of my work permit expires after 30 days, and those days would be needed to get my residency papers, updated permits, and other important documents.  I leave on August 14 at 1:30am.  tickets are purchased, and rebooking would be.. expensive.  The solution is to arrive on a tourist visa (which I already have from my previous trip, though TheWife™ will need to reacquire), have my documents sent to China instead of here in Canada, and then at the end of August, I am to journey into Hong Kong to get my proper Z visa.

This change also brought about a new issue– since I am to arrive on a tourist visa, I’ll need to show that I have a flight booked out of the country.  I only have one-way tickets purchased because I’m not sure exactly when I’ll be coming home next summer.  An inquiry told me that to upgrade my tickets to leave next July would add an additional $1200 to my ticket price.  I poured myself a bowl full of NOPE!  Research led me to a service for flying nomads called FlyOnward which will purchase a ticket for you, for a small fee, and will then cancel the ticket after 48 hours.  They purchase the ticket on their own dime, which limits the expense of buying full-return.  Genius.  This is what the internet has done for us.

International travel is never easy, and work permits are requiring increasingly complicated maneuvers to get them.  Good thing I learned a long time ago to let the red tape and other things roll off my shoulders.  Besides, it’s not like back in June, the day before I moved back to Ontario when I lost my passport.  Oh.  I haven’t told you that story yet.  I’ll save that one for next time.

Answering the why.

Author’s Notes:  For those whom I haven’t told yet, my career is taking me back to Asia.  I wrote the following on June 11.  For the purposes of surprise visits upon my return to Ontario, I decided to delay this entry.  I’m sneaky that way.  I may have also fibbed to a few people.  Obviously, I am not here on vacation.

—-

So it certainly is beginning to feel more real.  Now that I’ve officially graduated, the task of packing up my life in Victoria truly begins.  Vehicles took next to zero effort to sell, thankfully.  The tough part will be selling the odds and ends.  One of the advantages of having moved out to the west coast in the first place is that I was able to do away with a lot of things, minimalizing what I’ve owned.  This makes the process infinitely easier.

Here we go again…

I’ve spent the past couple of days washing up some clothes and loading suitcases.  I’ve been able to fit almost my entire wardrobe in two bags.  I feel as though that is a great accomplishment!  I then look at TheWife’s™ packing, and I am incredibly humbled.  A carry on and half a full-sized suit-case.  This realization is somewhat mitigated with the knowledge that I am twice the size as she.  I’ll take this as a victory.

So, the question may be circling some heads.  Why is he going back?  There are multiple reasons for this.  In all honesty, I knew this day would come again at some point.  As those closest to me know, I have the itch.  I like to wander.  As I’ve said before, I compare myself to a potted plant as opposed to a tree.  I have difficulty rooting myself to one place.  A second aspect to what has brought me to here relates to the whole mid-life crisis thang, and my general desire to experience more of Asia.  My trip to China will not be my last stop.  China is my refresher course.  Further on the docket are destinations such as Thailand, Vietnam, and the Holy Grail that is Nippon!  Let’s face it.  I am not getting any younger and my window to experience these countries the way I want to experience them is closing ever so slowly.  Third, is of course, timing.  Everything seemed to align to make this happen, with my getting laid-off from my employer and me completing my degree in close proximity.  What really sealed it, though, is a bit more complicated.

As I’ve gotten older, I have come to the conclusion that there is something horrendously wrong with the world and how it functions.  Many of us are still living in a world where we consciously or subconsciously believe that buying things makes us happy (although it is good to see that more people are spending on experiences than on things).  We accept the status quo of governments and businesses working in tandem to keep power in the hands of an increasingly select few.  The betterment of society as a whole is only used when it is convenient for corporate or governmental needs.  I, up until recently, worked in a company that, while I firmly believe was cleaner than most, worked in the very grey industry of internet advertising.  The excuse I heard most often was basically lemming theory (i.e. everyone else is doing it).  The majority of what we do, by extension, is corrupt somewhere down the line.  I, for one, want to participate as little as possible in these machinations.  I also believe that the best place to initiate change is with students.  I am now in a place educationally, and mentally, to start to plant my own seeds, in an effort to get the next generation to think more critically and hopefully come to similar conclusions so they can be a part of the change in which needs to come if society is to move forward.

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”
-Nelson Mandela

So, yeah.  Part of my decision is certainly self serving, but I’d like to think that it also has a greater purpose than just what I want for myself.

 

 

Use your money for what?

Now that I’ve officially completed my degree it’s high time that I come back to my blogging roots.

There was an article in Forbes back in August of 2016 discussing a study pitting spending money on experiences over things.  From the article:

A 20-year study conducted by Dr. Thomas Gilovich, a psychology professor at Cornell University, reached a powerful and straightforward conclusion: Don’t spend your money on things. The trouble with things is that the happiness they provide fades quickly.

This article more-or-less preaches to the Andy choir.  I have lived at both ends of the spectrum.  My early adulting period I numbed my loneliness and overall unhappiness through retail therapy.  Once I acquired the travel bug, my possessions began to shrink to a point where I would not say I became minimalist, but at least to a point where my physical purchases are more tied to necessities than temporary appeasements.  I would have no qualms about grabbing my laptop, my phone, my camera, and simply abandoning everything else I have.  It’s just stuff.  I’ve lost emotional attachment to pretty much anything I own.  I’ve learned that I don’t need a trinket to remind me of something I did or someone I care about (people can argue this with me once dementia sets in when I’m into my 80s).

The study further explains that our purchases foster comparisons.  What isn’t mentioned in the Forbes take on the study is what often accompanies the comparisons.  How often is it that we talk to people about our purchases?  In a demonstration of some sort of buyer braggadocio, we comment on the product, how much we paid for it, how awesome it is, and how much its improved lives.  What we buy becomes some sort of weird point of pride.  Using myself as an example, when I purchased my LG G5 as a replacement for my iPhone 6, I spewed fourth details of the phone, the price point, how much I saved, and all the extras I got with it.  I know this is not something that is unique to me, as I have heard it from many, many folk as well.  This ridiculously placed pride generates talking points, which brings me to my next one.

Think about your best experiences.  These usually carry several memories, stories and anecdotes that will have likely come up again several times over your life.  I have had my new phone since December, and now that I am four months in I don’t talk about it anymore.  Part of the joys of our lives comes from discussing and sharing out experiences with others, and the things you buy certainly have a limited shelf life.

Why does experiences have to end with vacations and activities, though?  My life and career has taken me living in suburban Ontario, to Toronto and the GTA, China, and Vancouver Island.  From my standpoint, living a life of experiences has been far more influential to my character and wisdom (stop laughing) than buying things ever has.  More, I think my grandiose movements have shown to me who my true friends are, which is something I’ll treasure far more than anything else.