Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Comings and goings

Kerri and Rowan left the other day for the states where they will be for about a month.  Kerri's sister is getting married in July and we will be there for the event.  I don't leave til July 4th, so I have some time to myself (yay!).  I love being able to explore and take risks that are either inappropriate or just plain difficult when we are all together.

Not that I've done anything exciting yet, but I did eat at a "French" restaurant last night and then we had a typhoon blow through, so it was pretty much stay at home and hope the house doesn't fall down.  But I've made a list of restaurants and will be changing my schedule so I ride home later and can grab dinner at the many little spots I've been riding by for the past six months.

The weather has started heating up, along with the humidity.  This horrible nasty summer everyone talks about is finally getting under way.  No more riding to work and just walking into the office.  It'll be a shower at the gym after I get there.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Tokyo Weekend

(The pictures above are various ones from January through May.  Pictures referenced in this post are near the end.)

Kerri here.  With precious few vacation days, it is crucial that we never waste a three day weekend by sitting around at home. For the Memorial Day holiday we decided to really spend time exploring Tokyo. We had been to a few areas and done a few things but didn't feel that we had "done" Tokyo. Unfortunately, we hit upon this plan a little on the late side and could not find a hotel room in the "reasonable" price category of under $200. Since our house is really only an hour by car, we could stay at home and drive in each day. A more affordable, if less vacationish, option.

We drove in Saturday morning, parked, and took the subway. We went first to Akihabara, the famous electronics district. Jesse had been once before during the iPhone debacle, but didn't really look around as he was focused on his task. I really wanted to see human-like robots, but we didn't find any. We did, however, find the best shawarma I've had since leaving Kuwait. It was worth the entire trip.

Next we headed over to Asakusa where the spirit of old Edo still lives. We did visit the oldest shrine in Tokyo, the Sensoji Temple. The main attraction here, for us anyway, was Kappabashi-dori or Kitchen street. Everything for your restaurant, including fake food for advertising, can be found on this street. We didn't buy anything, but it was really fun looking at all the shops.

At this point we headed back to our car and drove home. We sat out on the patio with the cool breeze sipping a beer and decided that home wasn't so bad.

The military runs a hotel in central Tokyo which we have access to. With it's excellent rates and being that it is quite a nice hotel, it is booked solid every weekend for the rest of the year. We had been told, however, that if you keep calling there might be a cancellation. I did keep at it with no luck for Friday or Saturday, but lucked out on Sunday and scored us a room.

So we headed there Sunday morning, parked the car and walked to the subway station from there. Sunday we went first to the Imperial Palace. You can't actually go in the palace itself, seeing as how the Emperor still lives there, but they do have a large portion of the gardens open to the public, for free. It is a beautiful area right in the middle of all the bustle. The few buildings that could be seen were quite impressive.

After that we headed over to Shibuya, a famous shopping district. Its most famous landmark is the huge pedestrian crossing of Lost in Translation and just about every image you see of Tokyo. There was a store that I really wanted to check out called Tokyu Hands. I didn't know much about it, just that it had fun stuff of all sorts. Well it turned out to be seven stories of fun stuff! The top floor was all science stuff, another was all sewing, another paper crafts, another office/school supplies. There was even a full bike shop. It was so much fun, but we were all so tired. I need to go back with girlfriends and really spend some time.

We were about to crash so we headed to the hotel. We went swimming in the very nice pool and soaked in the hot tub. We ate at one of the five restaurants in the hotel. I'm telling you, it's a nice place.

Monday morning we were up bright and early to get a jump on our final day. Today was Disneyland day. We figured it's a Monday, not a Japanese holiday and the weather is nice, not super hot. What a better time could you do the whole Disney thing? Boy were we wrong. No one knows why, but that particular Monday, all of Japan decided it was a good day for Disney. We managed to get on five rides the entire day. Some lines were three hours. One of the things that Tokyo Disney is famous for is the crazy varieties of popcorn. There are little carts all over selling different flavors. Some of the lines for popcorn were an hour. Needless to say, we sampled none. Rowan and I still managed to have fun, but Jesse said, "never again". There is another Disney park called Disney Seas that we will try next time. I think it's kind of like Californian Adventure, but it has some unique rides only found in Japan. The cool thing is that we live only an hour away so I know we will have plenty of opportunities to go back.

All in all we had a great weekend. We decided that we love Tokyo, but are very happy with where we are living for now. It feels good having a better idea of where things are and how the neighborhoods are organized. I think I could pretty much find my way anywhere now, and feel perfectly comfortable doing so. That's a nice feeling.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

A Song for Everything

In our house we can come up with a song for just about anything a person might say, do, or touch. We often use this ability to torture Rowan for our own amusement. In Japan, there really is a song for everything, and I mean everything.

A few years ago Jesse bought his dream rice cooker which, of course, is Japanese. We were totally surprised when it played a song when we hit cook, and a totally different song when the rice was done. We have entertained guests with it and even do a little dance when the music plays. Well now we know that, since it is a Japanese appliance, it must play a song. Our washing machine plays a short song when I press start, and a longer song when it is finished. When the bathtub (which is electronically controlled) is finished filling there is a song. When the garbage trucks go down the road collecting, they play a song along with a message that I assume means, "sorry to inconvenience you". When your train is pulling up to the platform there will be a song, and often a different song while it leaves. If the train is just passing through but not stopping, there is yet a another song. Each train station seems to have their own songs, so if you were really good you could know where you were by the tune. One that baffled us for a while was the song played on loudspeakers in our neighborhood at exactly 4:00pm every day. We were finally informed that it is a signal for the kids that they should head home because it will be dark soon. Now that it is light a bit later, the song has moved to 5:00pm and is an entirely different tune.

As with many things in Japan, it is an amusing yet efficient system. I like it when systems can be both amusing and efficient.

As an aside, Jesse finally remembered to add me to this blog (ya, our FAMILY blog which I could not contribute to), so I hope to do more posting. There may even be pictures next time.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Random Stuff

Well we are still here, just busy with life and not finding it easy to sit down and make a blog post.

I'll keep the words short and get some pictures up.

These are some pictures of Yokohama Chinatown, our house and the nearby Perry Park:

Sunday, February 5, 2012

End of week 1 in our new house

Week one in our house that is.

Well in many ways it was an uneventful week.  With me working most of the day, there isn't much time left for anything else in the evening.  However, we did manage to get the rest of the car paperwork done, so now I can drive it anywhere.  Kerri, on the other hand, ran into a kink getting her license.  They let her take the test (written and practical) but won't issue her a license until she has a base ID.  Technically, all she needs is her passport + orders, but showing that to a Japanese police officer would probably not go down very well.  So instead we are waiting for the new orders that have us being here farther out than March 31st, which will allow me to get a card with privileges (right now, only base access), and Kerri and Rowan to get a card at all.  It will also allow us to finish getting our 90 day tourist visas upgraded to real SOFA status with multiple entry/exit stamps.  Hopefully that's coming soon.

Meanwhile, I'm the only one who can drive the car, which is a bummer for Kerri during the week as she can't go about looking for things we need like a dining table and chairs for example.  We did manage to find a used fridge which is doing nicely.  Also across the street from us is a recycle shop (used stuff) and we found 2 LP gas heaters that hook up to our gas outlets that exist in all the rooms.  One is now Rowan's heater, and one is heating our "entertainment" room (mac mini hooked up to a computer monitor).  Also a small electric heater for the bathroom which is cooooooold!

Yesterday (Saturday), we went to the base to do laundry (no washer/dryer yet), then on the way home stopped at every big box store we could find to assess our options for furniture.  There are some critical items we need to start feeling more comfortable in the house.  Oddly, we did not find very many good options.  The best so far is a store called Nitori, where we got our futons originally.  We ended up buying a lot of little things there, but even their furniture options were not agreeable to us style/price-wise.  We're thinking we'll need to make the trek to Ikea after least to see what they might have specific to Japanese homes.  There is an Ikea in Yokohama, but it's over an hour away by the toll roads which we have not had the pleasure of figuring out yet.  Today we've decided to just go to a candidate church and then come home to work on the many boxes of things scattered about the house.  Kerri will take the train in to Ikea to do an exploratory run tomorrow and see if it's even worth it.  I need to ask around at work for better furniture options.

Our internet is now on, and I have managed to make a perch out of a plastic box and cushion that is somewhat comfortable.  I'll try to get back into the habit of blogging again.  It's amazing how quickly the little things come and go in a single week, and all the cool stuff disappears from my brain.

I've tried numerous ways to get to work now:

1)  Bike to train, bike to work:  Verdict - not worth it.  I have to walk my bike most of the way to/from the station near base, and the pain of wrapping the bike up in the cover plus hauling it up and down stairs negates any positives to the process.  For a long train ride it might be worth it, but mine is only 15 minutes.

2)  Walk to train, walk to work:  Verdict - doable, but unpleasant feeling of being trapped on base.  I want me bike with me so I can get stuff done during the day and get off base easily for lunch.

3)  Drive to work:  Verdict - very easy, but unpleasant dealing with driving on base.  Plus - ick.

4)  Bike to work:  Verdict - I think this is the one for me.  I did a test run yesterday morning (saturday).  It took me about 50 minutes going there, but I was taking a weird route that sent me through back roads and tunnels.  This is not so good on Japanese roads as this means sidewalks frequently disappear.  On they way home I took main roads and did it in about half an hour.  This gives me the best of all the options and includes an hours worth of daily exercise.  It is unbelievably cold at the moment (and it isn't even raining yet!), but I can always layer up.

There's a liquor store nearby us and I've had the opportunity to try a couple of sakes.  I was worried a bit about Japanese sakes as I've found the ones I've had in the US tend to be a bit heavy on the "off-rice" smell (I think that's the koji), so I've always preferred Momokowa (Sake-One) Sake made in Forest Grove, Oregon.  But I'm happy to report the local stuff here is excellent!  One misstep though...the first bottle I picked out on my own turned out to be Shochu, a distilled 25% liquor that tasted awful.  It got poured down the drain and I went back and asked specifically to be shown the "o-sake" bottles.

We got to try out our o-furo (hot water bath) this week!  Very nice (and I'm not really a bath person)...first  your shower off, then get into the tub of hot water and soak.  You push a button to fill the tub.  If you've kept the water clean and free of soaps, you can push another button and it recirculates and reheats the water.  That way multiple people in the family can reuse the water and not waste it.  I also like the smaller, deeper bath tub.  You basically sit upright in it and the water comes up to your neck.  You can let the water spill over the sides as there is a drain in the shower floor right next to you.

There are plenty of other little annoying things that we're having to get used to in the house.  For example we finally got some nightlights to help navigating around at night.  It gets *dark*!  The heater in the bathroom is helping with the freezing cold showers in the morning.  And we are definitely looking forward to some basic furniture.

Well, that's it for now, I'll try and make updates more frequent now that we have internet again.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Moving in day

It's Sunday and we are finally moving into our house today!

I was able to get my driver license on Friday.  Usually, only people who ace the written exam get to take the practical on the day of the test and get their driver license.  I did *not* ace it, but no one in the entire class of over 100 people did either, so I took a chance and begged the instructor to let me take the practical that day as we needed to rent a car so we could move in over the weekend.  It worked!  He took me over right away and I got my driver license at about 4:30pm.  I went immediately to the rental office and got a van booked for Sunday at noon.  Then went to the insurance office to buy insurance for our new car.  Next step there is back to the Vehicle Registration Office for something magic, then to a police station to register our parking spot.  3 days after that, we go back to VRO, then to LTO (which is in Yokohama somewhere).  Anyway, our car won't be ours until another week or so.

Yesterday (Saturday), I was at the house with Rowan (Kerri felt sick and stayed home) in the morning.  We met our landlord, the gas guy came and turned on the gas, the Internet guy came and we signed up for Internet (160MBs for $80 a month!!!), and our agent dropped buy to sign some final paperwork and show us how to operate our heaters and bathtub.  We had lunch at a local ramen shop and rode the train back to base.

So today is moving in day.  We'll meet a guy from work who is kindly coming in to let us into the company office so we can extract our boxes from it.  We'll get everything in our house, then go hunting for futons, pillows and hopefully at least a refrigerator (used).  We still need washer/dryer before our appliances will be complete.

Tomorrow is my first day of work (though I still have some other things to take care of during the week).

Here's a picture of some Japanese Navy boats taken from a walkway near one of the train stations (not on base).

Monday, January 23, 2012

Area Orientation Brief

Death by powerpoint.

And we've got 4 more days to go.

Paperwork signing for our house is set for Thursday.

Tokyo By Bike: What Makes Japan a Great Cycling Nation?

One of the blogs I follow posted this interesting article:

What Makes Japan a Great Cycling Nation?

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Car and Ginza

Well, today was eventful.

We met the guy to check out the car nearby at 9am.  He showed up with another car as well, a 2001 Honda Odyssey (here the Odyssey is still the older 4 door version).  It had 40,000km and was a one owner car.  It's also got all the options and was very well taken care of.  After driving that and the other vehicle, and then looking at the other cars in the lemon lot, we decided the Odyssey would be the car for us.  It's a lot smaller than the US version, but still pretty big by Japanese standards.  It'll be very useful for hauling stuff that we need to buy for our new house, and for when we have visitors.  It was $5000.

Then we headed for Ginza (just a few stops before Akihabara in Tokyo), to church.  We made it down fine, found the church, then wandered around til 3pm when it started.  The worship and sermon were in Japanese, but the sermon was translated.  It was fine, but not a realistic church for us to attend given how far and expensive it would be to go there every sunday.  We'll try another next week closer to home.

Here's a picture of Kerri and Rowan in Ginza:

Little differences

As is often the case when first arriving in a new country, you are most impressed by little differences.  As time goes by, these little differences seem less and less impressive until you almost forget about them, only to be reminded by a visitor when they exclaim at them once again.

I wanted to start a list of "little differences" from our first impressions of Japan so that I don't forget about them all.

Kitchen and bathroom faucets - mind you, these are just in our hotel room so far, but these are the type with the single, slightly upwardly curved, faucet handle.  In every other part of the world, you would push these up to turn them on, and down to turn the off.  Here, it's the opposite.  Frequently we will accidentally turn the faucet strength all the way up in our effort to turn it off...

Bath faucet - this is best illustrated with a picture:

Neat, huh?  The big white dial is a preset for the water amount you wish to fill the tub with (I think, I've not used it yet).  The knob below turns on the bath water (turn right) or the shower (turn left), increasing the strength depending on how far you keep turning it.  The temperature you ask?  That's the knob to the right with the numbers on it.  What does this all add up to?  Precise temperature every time, no need to fiddle.  Just twist the bottom knob in either shower or tub direction and presto...water comes out at exactly the temperature you want it.  Pretty nifty actually.

Toilet seats - I've only had the privilege once so far of truly putting one of these to use.  We don't have a fancy one in our hotel.  The accuracy of the automatic spray is truly astonishing...wouldn't be surprised if there are little tracking devices under there to pinpoint the stream of water that shoots out at the touch of a button.   Another knob to the side controls the strength of the spray, and you hit the first knob to stop it.  Of course, the seats are heated.  And I'm pretty sure I was using a base model, as the (wireless) controls on the toilet in Tully's Coffee were truly something to behold.  I think I could get used to this...

Toilet flushers - In Germany there were usually 2 settings to flush the toilet, one for a full flush, one for partial.  The same here, except instead of pressing one of 2 buttons, it's usually a twisted knob that you twist one way or the other depending on the flush.

Free water - Truly one of the most irritating things about Germany was the lack of (ungrudging) free water available.  If you wish to purchase a minuscule bottle of water brought from some glacier in the alps, you can spend the 3-5 euro it costs.  If you wish to opt out, you might be refused outright, but if not, you are certainly considered a cheapskate and/or weird for wishing to drink "leitungswasser" (i.e. pipe-water).  This is not something Germans would dream of considering.  Here we are often brought glasses of water without even asking (!) and sometimes a pitcher of water is conveniently already placed at the table.  The relief we feel at not having to deal with this issue is almost physical.

That's all for now...maybe we'll do another one of these once we are in our house for the little odd things we'll find there.

Saturday Report

Yesterday (Saturday), we looked again at the Kubiri house much more carefully to determine if it is really the one for us. was.  We had the agent fill in the appropriate information on the form, and we will be dropping it off at the Housing Office on Monday morning.  The longer we looked at the house the more impressed we were with its layout, construction and feel.  There are some issues, such as the fact that none of the toilet rooms have any sink in the same room, which can be a convenience issue.  However, these became minor in light of the overall feeling we got from the place.

So!  Big sigh of relief, we have selected our house!  I've been pulling out about $2000 a day in yen (about Y150,000) for the past several days, so by Monday we should have all Y831,000 ($10,8000!!) necessary to move in.  Needless to say, moving around frequently is not going to be an option here.  We'll probably arrange contract signing for Thursday, and possibly be able to move in by next weekend.

We are so grateful to God that He has guided us in selecting such a great place so quickly after arriving (it was the 2nd house we looked at!), and confirming that choice as we continued to look at other houses.

After being dropped off near the base entrance, Kerri and Rowan headed back to our hotel while I took the train to Akihabara.  I had been given a good tip earlier by one of my bosses that I should stop by the ITT (Information, Tours and Ticketing) office near the NEX/Commissary.  They had a filing cabinet with lots of drawers, each dedicated to different destinations around Japan.  Each one had a hand-out describing how to get to and back from each destination by train from different locations.  Very handy, so I had one with me when I started my trip.

I decided to start from Shioiri station, which is probably the one I'll get on/off at for work.  The paper said to start from Yokosuka-chuo station, which is one stop down.  I figured either would work, but I was wrong!  Apparently Shioiri is a minor station and the express lines (green/red) to Shinagawa do not stop at Shioiri.  So I took a local (white/black/grey) line up one stop to Chuo and changed platforms to wait for the next express.

Did I mention how cold it's been?  Friday it felt like gale-force winds as I pedaled around base, and I swear there were some ice pellets mixed in with the rain.  It snowed in some places a bit north (Yokohama) and was bitterly cold.  Saturday was still quite chilly, minus the rain and the wind.  Anyway, standing on cold train platforms for quite a while as I sorted out the above situation was getting me pretty chilled.

Finally the correct train came by and I hopped on, standing at first, then sitting when I realized how long it would be.  Yokohama seemed to come up pretty fast (maybe about 20 minutes) and it wasn't much farther to Shinagawa station.  From there it was a quick transfer to a JR line that 7 stops later dropped me off at Akihabara.  All of this was rendered extremely simple by the use of a PASMO card which was already loaded up with about Y10,000 from the other day.  Swipe on entry to the first train station, swipe again at the transfer stiles, swipe once more at the last station on exit.  Fares are automatically deducted correctly.  I have never used an easier system.

Here's the route I took:

View Larger Map

So Akihabara...quite the place!  I didn't even begin exploring, but I did make the rounds outside, looking for cell phone shops, avoiding the maid cafe hawkers (girls dressed in maid outfits trying to get you to come inside).  I checked at 3 different places.  The first said maybe I could buy a cheap cellphone/sim combo with a data plan, then cut the sim to work in my iphone.  The second said no, it was impossible (official Softbank of course).  At the third I met Hobart (his english name), a chinese gentleman who immediately whipped out his own Softbank microsim from his phone, popped it in mine, verified it worked perfectly, and then told me to come back when my ID situation is all sorted out and he'll hook me up.  Yay!  Mission accomplished.  Thank you Hobart!

I then set my sights on lunch, and turning a corner was shocked to see a donner kebab stand!  Now, I may not have mentioned before how disappointed I was in the donner kebabs in Germany.  The meat was not very flavorful and the sauce likewise anemic.  I eventually gave up trying different kebab stands as I was constantly disappointed.  The good news is that this particular donner stand was excellent!  Well spiced meat, garlicky yoghurt sauce...mmmmm boy!  It was a small little thing, so on the way back to the train station I popped in a small sushi go-round.  A few odd things, like figuring out how to use the tea powder and spigot of hot water sticking out from the bar, but otherwise straightforward.  Grab your plate of sushi, eat, smile, get more.  The pieces are a little smaller than state-side, but perfect for popping in your mouth in one bite.  So nice to eat proper sushi once again.  It's hard to describe, but if you've had good sushi, and then had "meh" sushi, you'll know what I mean.  There's something about how the Japanese do the vinegar (su) and rice (gohan) combination that is absolutely unique in terms of flavor.  It's subtle but it's definitely there.  I'm sure there are better places, but for my first real sushi in Japan, it hit the spot.  Funny thing also, when I went to pay, I noticed you could pay with thePASMO card!  Neat idea...   In total it was about $20 for a decent, quick meal.

I made my way back home, reversing the directions, without any issues.  I am definitely feeling more confident about getting around after that was simple, and I think soon I won't need directions other than Google Maps (which has a pretty awesome public transport option).  Oh, the total price for the trip was Y1560, about $20.  Considering the speed and convenience, that's pretty good!

Today we are test driving a car in the morning and will try to go to Ginza (Tokyo) to attend a church we've heard about (Grace City Church Tokyo) in the afternoon (their service starts at 3pm).

Friday, January 20, 2012

More houses and our first train trip

Yesterday we saw 4 more houses:

Uraga Houses:  2 houses close together, similar construction/layout, neither impressed us

Obaradai House:  The nicest RV style home we've seen yet, very interesting internal layout, quite far from the nearest train station however. This is the first house we've seen after the Kubiri one that we kind of liked.

Nagasawa House:  Serious character here, originally 2 homes joined together, so there are 2 kitchens and baths (very unusual), and nice traditional styling.  Very good price.  However, it's right next to the train tracks (you can practically spit on them) and the house is quite old.  It came with lots of appliances and furniture though.  Definitely went to the top of the list in competition with Kubiri, but there are enough issues that it hasn't won out completely.

After these appointments, we took the train from Shioiri Station (close to base) down to Kubiri and walked up to the house we are interested in, just to do it once.  We had to buy "pasmo" cards from the train station electronic kiosks (English instructions are available).  Unfortunately, because we don't have phone numbers yet we had to get "blank" cards which require a Y500 deposit, and Rowan's doesn't get the child discount.  We'll get proper ones later.  You load these cards up with yen and then you swipe them at the entrance and exit turnstiles as you go through them.  This automatically deducts the correct amount from the card...couldn't be easier!

Had to ask around a bit to find the correct platform/train towards Keikyukurihama station (nearest to Kubiri) and then waited a couple of minutes for the next one to come.  The trains are really nice, clean and spacious (and fast).  A couple of stops later, one of the guys we talked to earlier told us to get off and change trains (not far, just the other side of the platform).  This we did (thanks guy!) and a few stops later were at Keikyukurihama Station.  The walk from there to the house was easy (maybe 10 minutes).  By bike probably 5 or less.

Actually, speaking of bikes on is not done here.  That is, to take a full size bike on the train.  Weird to us, coming from Portland.  Anyway, I am reassured to find out if the bike is collapsable and has a cover, it should be able to ride fine (check and check!).  Otherwise, you have to park your bike at the train station which is about $100 a month!!!!

We took our time wandering back to the train station, looking around the neighborhood.  The road outside the house is a bit busy, and parking would be tricky.  But the house is set back quite a ways, so road noise wouldn't be an issue.  However, we saw numerous school kids going home, walking in groups or alone, so safety is obviously not an issue.  There's what looks like a second-hand appliance store nearby, a liquor store (with lots of sake!), and of course one of the ubiquitous 7-11 convenience stores.  Normally this wouldn't sound like a good thing, but all of these are very nice establishments without the icky connotations they might have in the States.  The convenience stores particularly are handy because you can pay virtually all your utilities there.

Where the area shines, however, is around the train station(s).  There's a very nice outdoor mallish area with lots of little shops (fish, vegetable, meat, and sundries), a couple of larger mall type buildings, and tons of restaurants.  There's a small "river" or canal that seems to extend up from the nearby bay.  At the port, there is a ferry that goes across to the opposite side of the Tokyo Bay (to Chiba?).  There are nearby beaches too.  There are 2 train stations for the 2 main lines that run here:  1)  JR is government run and goes up to Yokosuka and then west towards Zushi, 2)  Keikyu is private and runs all the way up past Yokosuka to Tokyo and further.  So all in all, the area is quite interesting while not feeling like a continuation of the metropolis.

We waited until 4:30pm (about the time when I would be coming home from work) and then road the train back to Yokosuka to see how crowded things looked.  I have to say, not too bad...I think I can handle it.  Feeling guilty about eating out yet again (had incredibly good Indian food for lunch), we went home and made spaghetti for the 2nd time this week (easy food!).

Today (Friday), I have some administrative stuff to do in the morning, then we have a couple more houses to look at in the afternoon.  These will be more north, towards Yokohama/Tokyo, the first time we've travelled in that direction since coming down from the airport.  We are interested to see how it feels.  We've also decided to put the Kuribi house on 24 hour hold and see it again on Saturday to solidify how we feel (or otherwise).  If we still have a good feeling about it and haven't found something else that blows our minds, then on Monday we'll put the paperwork in to make the offer.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

House Madness! And the iPhone nightmare

I don't know if anyone cares about this or not, but here are more pictures of places we've been looking at. So far none has tickled our fancy like the first one (technically second) that we saw however. I have to say I'm getting tired of the shoddy construction (RV feel).

3 more schedule for tomorrow, and we'll try to get 3 more for Friday. We are thinking if we don't find any serious competition by then, we'll go with the first one.

So, on to the iPhone nightmare. In Germany a few months back, before I had any guarantee of finding a job anytime soon, I bought an iPhone 4s unlocked from Apple and had it shipped to Germany. I didn't think I'd have any trouble using it in Japan, so even though I said a couple of times I probably should wait til I got to Japan, I could it not work? It's a world phone, truly unlocked, no problem, right? Right... So in Germany, I took my iPhone to the local cell store to get a SIM so I could at least turn the darn thing on. They suggested I take the SIM from my existing phone and convert it to micro SIM. She even pulled out a device designed for the job (looks like a stapler) and with one click, my SIM was now a microSIM and once inserted it started working fine. Even used it a few times to make calls. No data or anything...that was going to wait for Japan!

There are only 2 companies in Japan that supply iPhones, much like AT&T had the monopoly in the US originally. AU and Softbank. Softbank is on the base, so I went there first and explained my situation. They said simply that they could not provide me with a SIM and data plan. At all. Unless of course I wanted to by an iPhone from them locked to them (permanently). Event though they acknowledge (grudgingly) that the SIM should *work* just fine in my phone, they won't give me one. Wow. So I went in town and asked at AU...they said the same thing.

The problem is...I don't believe them!!!! There has to be a way to make this work, so I'm not giving up just yet. I've asked around and so far found no one who has been able to make this work, but I have some hope. My first shot today was to buy a cheap phone/SIM from SoftBank. I tried cutting the SIM myself, but botched it, so I'm going to buy another one tomorrow and be more careful. At least I would have a cell phone number. Second, we might try to make our way to Akihabara in Tokyo tomorrow. This is supposed to be an electronics/anime/manga mecca where one person told me I should be able to at least ask at about a thousand different shops to see if there is some way. This is so I can get a fully functional data plan.

At any rate, this is shaping up to be quite the nightmare and is reminiscent of my experience in Kuwait trying to get high speed Internet at our apartment. We eventually gave up on that fight after getting no where after months and months of trying. The blank stares in peoples eyes when I explain what I want to do is so frustrating. It's like...what, no one in the world has tried to bring an unlocked iPhone this country?! Anyway...

Oh, btw, the food is indeed awesome. We've had ramen (the real thing) once so far, and ate at a Hawaiian restaurant today for lunch. I want to eat at every restaurant I see...but time and money are limiting. Oh well, we'll get around to it.

Looking for houses

Yesterday was the Housing Brief, wherein we were informed of the process to go about finding a house here. Basically we were told we should make sure we sign a "navy lease" as opposed to a normal japanese lease because with the Navy Lease we don't need a co-signer, we can give 10 days notice (if we have to), and the Navy can get involved if there are any legal problems. I think that's going to be the way to go.

As contractors, we can't get appliances from the Housing Office, but otherwise we can take advantage of their other services such as listings, translators, etc... So it's a pretty good deal for us.

I had to run to another appointment with my company right after, so Kerri began looking through binders. It was kind of like shooting in the dark, so she just picked one at what we understood was our price range and made an appointment to see it later that day.

Meanwhile, I was getting the unfortunate news that due to contract changes, the way housing expenses are paid has changed. Instead of a cap and being reimbursed, we are being paid a flat amount each month. This amount is about $1000 less than we would have had if we had used all of our cap under the old system. We are still reeling from this alteration to things...

But we made our appointment to see the house anyway as at least it would get us off base (finally!) and out seeing what things look like. The first house was a disappointment. Aside from being too expensive, it was more "western" in style with only one tatami room, and felt very small. I think that's what comes of trying to do "western" style in a small space. The japanese approach seems to make more use of the space available with the sliding walls and such. Also, the building quality of the house was oddly felt like the same materials used in a motorhome...lots of plastic and such. The final kicker was that the house was no where near any train or bus lines, so getting to work would be difficult for me.

So our agent (having learned more about our price restrictions and desires) showed us another house more in line with our new budget. It's a kilometer from a train station, very much more traditional in style, and quite large for the price (maybe too large actually). But we really liked the place and the area, so are pretty excited about it. Trying not to do our usual thing and jump on it right away...we do have time to keep looking. I took some pictures of this place and will try to put them up with this post.

Today we'll look at more listings at the Housing Office and try to set up more appointments. I've got an HR call early in the morning, but then nothing for the rest of the day. I've been told to keep Friday flexible as there may be more things to do (work wise) there. My first "real" day of work is supposed to be Jan 30. We have pretty much the rest of this week to keep working on finding a house. Next week is a week long orientation, so I don't think we'll have much time to look around. We are supposed to find a place within 2 weeks, but I don't know if that will happen. My employer seems to think it won't happen that fast either as we've been booked here at the Navy Lodge for 30 days (instead of the more common 14).

Oh, some of you may wonder what happened to our plans to find a short-term lease in a furnished place. Well that went down the tubes pretty quickly as 1) it's very expensive and 2) would pretty much restrict us to Yokohama and a downtown lifestyle (which I'm ok with, but Kerri and Rowan are not so cool with). So we decided to give up on that and just try to find our permanent home nearer Yokosuka than we originally had hoped. This means we probably won't be able to go to the church downtown Tokyo we were hoping to try out. There are some other churches nearby, including one affiliated with Victory in the philippines (my dad's church). We'll probably try them out next Sunday. There's also a Baptist church just outside the base.

Here's a map with directions from the base entrance to the house we looked at yesterday:

View Larger Map

And here are some pictures:

Monday, January 16, 2012

2am in Yokosuka

Good morning Nippon!

Our flight over wasn't too bad, as far as flights go. Aeroflot turned out to be pretty decent, especially on the long flight from Moscow where we actually had in-flight entertainment systems which go a loooong way to making a long flight more bearable. Kerri says the last few times she's flown to the states there have been no such thing, so we were grateful. Nonetheless, it was plenty long and other than Rowan (who slept for a couple of hours) we did not sleep. We arrived at Narita and made our way to immigration.

We had been told by our in-processing manager at CSC to present our "orders" (2 letters) to immigration and we should get our SOFA stamp. (SOFA = status of forces agreement; it means that we work for the military and are therefore under a different set of rules as far as living in japan is concerned). Well we did that, but they said they couldn't do it there and gave us 90 day stamps instead. They said we could change them later.

Fine, so then on through to baggage, where everyone else had already left and so our bags had been put onto a cart all ready for us! Easiest baggage experience evar. Outside to the pickup area where we were to be met by someone whose picture had been given to us...but there was no one there! In our near delusional state, we began to try and figure out how to make a phone call. The phone machines all accepted phone cards, which you could buy from some vending machines. So we needed Yen. Found a money changer, found the little form, waited til I got to the front and then saw that you needed your passport. So back to find Kerri with the luggage and get my passport, and back in the long line. Then I saw a sign indicating an ATM was nearby. Yay! So off to find the ATM. I had no idea what the exchange rate was, so I just pulled 50,000 yen (which I see now is $650, so not a bad first amount). Then of course, I discovered the phone machines don't take 10,000 yen bills. So bought some water (poor little stand...I didn't realize 10,000 yen about $100), but they didn't bat an eye and gave me my change. As I turned around I saw Kerri greeting a man! Yay! So we didn't have to figure out how to get to Yokosuka by ourselves.

He was very apologetic for being late, but there was terrible unusual traffic on the way (which we saw still backed up on the way back). In our stupor we made conversation for the 1 1/2 hour drive to the Yokosuka Naval Base, just south of Yokohama (which is just south of Tokyo). The fast roads are all toll roads here, and the signage is profuse. I'm sure we'll get used to it eventually, but for now I couldn't imagine navigating my way by car. Apparently though, when you rent a car for a specific route, the car rental companies give you all the pre-paid toll tickets you need to get there and back, which is convenient.

So, first impressions of Japan? Not too many since I don't feel like we've really seen Japan yet! At the airport it was a bit disconcerting how difficult it was to make a simple phone call (I was kinda hoping the phones took credit cards). But I was on my way to figuring it out. The drive back was mostly blocked by walls as they do a good job of trying to prevent road noise from seeping into the surrounding town. It was pretty much one contiguous city from the airport to just past Yokohama. At least once we started getting into the Yokosuka area proper the topography changed a bit and became really hilly with lots of trees and scrub brush. Everything is very in brown and gray. Odd, but I guess common as winters are quite dry here, so all the plant life dries up.

We were very tired, so we went straight onto the base (which is humongous!) and all the way to the other end, right at the northern tip on the water, where the Navy Lodge is located. We checked in, got our stuff upstairs and bid adieu to our friend who had driven us. After a couple of showers (it was about 4pm) we walked next door to the Chilis (I know, I know) ate dinner, walked back to our hotel and barely managed to take clothes off before falling asleep in bed at 5pm.

So now it's almost 3am after writing this post and Rowan and I are awake. Kerri's still sleeping though, so that's good. Once we are all awake I guess it's time to tackle our bags and stuff. We will be living here a maximum of 2 (possibly 3 but I hope not) weeks, so we need to kind of treat it semi-permanently. Can't have stuff lying all over the place or it wlll feel lots smaller than it is.

One big surprise to me yesterday was that apparently you have to register your bike to ride it on base. Yikes! My whole plan was to ride my bike on base (especially at first) because it is soooo huge! We'll have to try and figure that out today if possible as I have to start being places on Tuesday. Monday is a holiday though, so it might not pan out. Nonetheless, I plan on riding my bike and pleading my case if caught. There is a bus system here, but we're not sure how frequently it goes (especially on holidays).

We can leave the base and come on (passports + orders are necessary) so we might even venture out today if we feel up to it.

Tomorrow we attend the Housing brief, where we'll learn more about the process of finding a house. They give you several days up front to start the search, so that's nice. We are leaning towards finding a furnished short-term lease at first so we can have more time to find the place we really want. We'll see...

That's it so far, not much to go on yet (and no pictures!) but hopefully we'll have more for later.

Friday, January 13, 2012

The Final Countdown

Well we finally made it! We are sitting on our floor after having shipped the final boxes and moved everything else out of our house. There is nothing left to do tomorrow except pack our actual bags, eat a final meal at Rowan's favorite Italian restaurant, and go to the airport on Saturday morning.

Now of course, we're thinking tomorrow will be dull and boring. We'd much rather go now. But I have one more day of work left and all the final outprocessing to do on base. And of course our flight leaves on Saturday. Thankfully it leaves in the middle of the day so we're going to be plenty occupied that morning with getting to the airport with plenty of time to spare.

We fly about 3 hours to Moscow, have a 3 hour layover, then 10 hours to Narita in Japan. We'll be met at the airport by someone from my new company who will drive us to the base hotel. Other than that...we have no idea what's about to happen!

What a wonderful feeling...I've missed it.

Friday, January 6, 2012

The Road to Japan

Ok, I promised we're going to try to do better about updates now that we're moving on, so here's another post.

I mainly wanted to cover what it's been like from my (Jesse's) perspective with applying for and getting this position. About 3-6 months after getting here, we decided Germany wasn't for us. I won't go into the details, but suffice it to say that we were not looking forward to another year and a half here. However, I found some language in my contract that freed us from the full 2 year obligation, and meant that after 1 year we could leave. I'm fuzzy on the dates, but sometime in the August timeframe, I started looking for jobs in earnest.

Here's the breakdown of what I did:

1) Updated resume (2 versions: Word and Text file)
2) Sent emails to previous associates mentioning my desire to find work in Korea/Japan and see if anyone had any leads (BTW, this is ultimately what ended up landing the job).
3) Did some research on the web to find the top 10 or so contracting companies with large contracts in Korea/Japan.
4) Opened accounts with the job sites for all of these employers, input resume information, and began checking for available jobs that met my criteria. Repeat every week until leads start solidifying.

What ended up happening was that I got a contact/introduction from a former co-worker to a hiring manager at CSC, my new employer. He mentioned that their contract in Japan was up for bid and that some jobs would be coming up, so I should apply for them when I saw them on the website. It would be Oct/Nov before the jobs appeared. This was pretty accurate, and when the jobs showed up, I applied for any and all that I was remotely or overqualified for. Seriously...I would have done just about anything. Then I emailed him and let him know I had done all the online stuff and was anxious to hear back from them. He kindly kept me appraised of the situation as a couple of delays to the contract award occurred. Once the jobs firmed up, he let me know that I'd hear from the actual managers on the ground if they wanted to interview me. They did, and after a failed attempt or two, we did a phone interview via skype, early in the morning. A couple of weeks then passed as we waited to hear back one way or another...this was interminable! But after a little prodding, I did hear back that the answer was yes!

What followed then was a phone call with HR to hammer out details of the official offer, and then another week until I actually got it. I believe in being above board with my current employer and let my manager know what was up, though I could not officially resign yet until the offer letter arrived with the start date. This was all occurring just as our guests for Christmas arrived (Steve, Mayen and LuAnne), so we were a little weirded out by the idea that we would be leaving in about a month, but could do nothing to get ready for that fact until everyone left on the 4th (2 days ago!). Not completely true, we did start asking questions and trying to line up people to take our car (etc...).

Speaking of which, a new lesson learned is not to ask too many questions about something free! I.e. MPS (military postal system) is a free method of mailing stuff from one base to another. We did this with all of our stuff from Kuwait to Germany. Great! So I was asking the local post office about how they did it here, and he must have gotten the gist of what I was talking about because he outright asked if I was *moving* permanently to Japan (which of course I was). Apparently, if you are doing this, you are not permitted to use the free have to pay for it like normal (about $70 for maximum of 70lbs). Ugh! Of course everyone told us to just say we are mailing it to someone over there instead, but now that we know, we couldn't break the rules like that. Anyway...quite a bummer. And here we thought we had at least one thing figured out by now!

Anyway, we have been using the website Bookoo (which is heavily used here in Germany by the military folks) to sell our furniture and other stuff. We were blessed to know a new family who took most of our furniture in one fell swoop! Well, they will take it on Saturday at any rate. Most everything else has sold, and we are confident we know what to do with what won't. There is a recycling center on base that we can dump most anything at, and the local bike store can sell our bikes for us if we can't find buyers prior to leaving.

Today we spent the day packing up the big stuff that has packaging and boxes (sound system, playstation 3, iMac, etc...) and we shipped 5 packages. Someone came for Rowan's bed too. So now things are looking quite manageable as we end this week and go into the final stretch. We just need to pack up the clothes and little stuff into the gorilla boxes we bought, and I think we'll be ready in plenty of time!