Thanks for the memories, Japan.

There are probably going to be things that I don’t need to do anymore but will want to do, like not crossing at a red traffic light even when there are no cars in either direction. There will probably also be things that I will have to stop doing, like bowing my head when acknowledging people at grocery stores or restaurants. I am sure soon enough, people will get tired of me sharing stories that start with “In Japan… ” but I don’t know when I will get there.

I write this as I am on my flight back home after finishing an 11 month assignment in Japan and I can’t imagine what my life would have been had I chose not to come here.

It’s never easy moving to a new workplace, new city, and new country but the general public here was probably the friendliest and most helpful I have ever met. The easiest example I know is when I first moved to Japan and was on the search for some laundry detergent. The first shop I went to didn’t have any so the guy working at the store literally walked me over to the next store (probably a competitor) and told me in his broken English that I could buy it there. That right there best captured the culture I was now living in.
I have countless number of stories like these as I got visit many parts throughout the country — Osaka, Kyoto, Hiroshima, Hakone, Nikko, Sapporo — all provided their personal touch that would break through any language barriers we might have been encountering. Having visited six other countries in the region this past year, I can’t say I had a similar experience any where else.

Infrastructure wise I couldn’t get enough of how the trains pretty much always ran on time. It’s amazing how easy and little stress it requires traveling around the country. Having a unified IC cards that lets you use your card all across the country on most buses and trains really makes traveling across Japan very easy. That said, I don’t think I could ever get used to the ‘pushers’ whose sole job is to push people into trains to make room for those still standing on the platform. Can you imagine having something like that back in America? There’s no way that would fly but that’s a common occurrence here and no one minds.

From an eating perspective, I was surprised to see how many different types of cuisines were easily available here. There were Pakistani, Indian, Italian, and American cuisines available but I’ll focus more on the local food. The sushi and seafood that I have eaten here were so fresh and so good that I’m not sure I can go back to eating sushi in America. There were times we walked around and randomly walked into a

On a more personal note, as I worked here and went about my business, I did what I thought I was supposed to do and didn’t think it was anything particularly out of the ordinary. Approaching the end of my stay here, I would have been more than satisfied with a simple acknowledgment of my time here and just spending the final day with those I had considered my closest friends to share our memories of the past year. But as I quickly learned, that wasn’t how it was going to be.

My final week to 10 days turned into a tightly packed calendar of lunches, dinners, and events after work. There were so many people who reached out to me before I left. So many people who offered sincere and kind words in private. Then the formal farewell at work where my entire section stood and listened as a few people shared some kind words about me and then had to listen to fumble words as I tried to convey my thanks. None of them were obligated to but simply making the effort they all took to reach out to me, will stay with me forever.

I am not terribly good with sharing emotions and as many of you know, I’m terrible at smiling too. So I am perfectly content with not appearing too high or too low and having to explain myself. There were times during the year where I am sure I cracked a bit and my apologies to those who became a convenient sounding board.

I am struggling to wrap this but so I will say what many of Japanese friends have already said to me — this is such a small world now that is definitely not a ‘goodbye’ but instead a “see you later”.

Hopefully sooner rather than later.

Takusan no omoide ga dekimashita. Arigato Gozaimasu.


What Is That ‘5pm Chime’?

Note: Update at the bottom.

One thing that has been extremely clear since we got here is that Japan and its people take rules and procedures very seriously. Whether it is on the simple things like not crossing the road at a red light (even when the road are empty) to lining up in a single file when boarding the subway.

One of the first things I noticed since moving here was a chime that would go off day, around mid-afternoon/early evening time. As I began to pay more attention to the timing of the chime, it turns out that it was being played every day at exactly 5PM and hence it is known as the goji no chaimu (the 5PM chime) but the proper term is more of a mouthful: shichoson bosai gyosei musen hoso (local government disaster administration wireless broadcast).

The chime does serve multiple purposes. Primarily, it is the local government’s daily check of the emergency broadcast system to alert its citizens of dangers such as earthquakes, tsunamis, and any other major accidents. The secondary purpose, according to The Japan Times, is “that as long as there’s going to be a daily test, it may as well be timed so it serves some other purpose, and reminding kids to head home before dark is a popular one. In many localities the evening broadcast is timed to 5 p.m. in the winter months and 5:30 p.m. or 6 p.m. as the days get longer.”

Fortunately, they are using a relatively friendly tune that we get to hear every day instead of some ominous, impending colossal doom.

You can listen to a sample of one the broadcast chime/test below:

Update: Twitter follower @sjplep sent me a link which states that it is a poem written in 1919 by Nakamura Ukou, and later song-ified in 1923 by Kusakawa Shin. Now it’s played as a signal that its time for schoolchildren to head home.

A loose English translation:
When the sun sets and it gets dark
And the bell from the mountain temple rings
Let’s hold hands and go home
Let’s go home together with the crows

After the children have returned home
Shines the big round moon
When the little birds are dreaming
Golden stars twinkle in the sky


Weekend Trip To Osaka

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Mount Fuji

 

Last weekend, I took a weekend trip outwest to the city of Osaka — which
many compare to be quite the opposite of Tokyo. We spent most of Saturday traveling and sight-seeing while Sunday was spent primarily at Universal Studios Japan (USJ). There are some pictures included in this post but the vast majority are uploaded to the gallery page here.

Flying domestically within Japan for the first time was a very smooth albeit a different experience. The lack of extreme (or any) form of ID checking was a bit unnerving but it did make for quick boarding onto the airplane for both of our flights. The Japanese are a very trusting people and can be a bit of sticklers for following procedures from forming an orderly line for everything to not crossing the street when the traffic light is red. It is a far cry from New York and was definitely an adjustment.

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Pokemon Store at Kensai International Airport

During the flight, the locals clearly hold Mount Fuji in high regard as the flight crew made an announcement as we were flying over Mount Fuji and got everyone to look out our windows to a magnificent view. Truly a sight to see and I can’t wait to climb that come summer time! Anyone wanna join me?

Upon landing at Kensai International Airport, my eyes lit up as one of the first things you see is a Pokemon Store! Those who know me well know that played a big role in my childhood so naturally I had to go there and get myself a souvenir.

I still need to write a post on public transportation here and will go into more details about this later but in March 2013, nearly all of the major public transportation systems became compatible with each other giving travelers from across the country a much simpler way to moving around. That certainly made our lives easier as we were able to move around the city without needing to get new metro cards.

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Osaka Castle Museum

The places that I visited included the Osaka Castle, the Osaka Museum of History as well as the Umeda Sky Building.

The Osaka Castle Museum offers a detailed history and historical artifacts over the course of 7 floors. There are nearly 10,000 artifacts in the building that vividly depict a very war-torn era for Japan. It includes “armor and weapons such as swords, folding screens illustrating the wars and battles, gorgeous furnishings and goods in makie style lacquer, and portraits and letters written by Hideyoshi Toyotomi and other war lords” from that time period. There is also a great display of miniature figures on the 5th floor show that depicts the Summer War of Osaka (1615).

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Osaka Museum of History

The mission statement of the Osaka Museum of History which says that “Artifacts and remains gain meaning through its relationship with people. We aim to put them in context with the society and culture of the past, which would help viewers find clues for understanding the present and the future” really holds true to its meaning as you travel through the museum. The museum gallery is broken up into 4 floors that breaks up the different ‘Ages’ of Osaka from Naniwa Palace (~7th Century) to Hongan-ji Temple (15th Century) and finishes up with a more modern Osaka.

The total cost for visiting the two previously mentioned museums is only ¥900 ($7.50 USD) if you purchase tickets for both places together which is a pretty good deal for what you get to see. They are located pretty close to each other and you even get a good panoramic view from the top of each building.

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Umeda Sky Building

 

While those two places were a nice plus, the main ‘attraction’ I wanted to see while visiting Osaka was the Umeda Sky Building. At 173 meters high, the building has a unique form where two skyscrapers are joined at their top floors through a huge atrium and a sky walk that gives visitors a breath of fresh air and a 360 degree panoramic view of the city. A panoramic picture I took from the sky deck can be found in the Japan gallery page mentioned at the top of the post.

That covers most of what we did on Saturday and then on Sunday, our trip led us to Universal Studios Japan.

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Universal Studios Japan

Initially, just buying the tickets to this place took us much longer than I had expected. The English version of their website is for ‘informational’ purposes only so you need to purchase through the Japanese site. That was not a lot of fun. We did figure out how to buy our tickets and Fast Pass but it must have taken nearly an hour and brought on unnecessary stress before the trip even began.

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Wait Times for Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey

It rained on and off for most of the day we were there but I think that helped keep some of the crowd at home. It was not as busy as I expected it to be and there were and the setup was pretty similar to the one back in Orlando. The main difference being that almost everything was spoken in Japanese — including the commentary during most of the rides.

I should mention that the Harry Potter area of the park was nightmare — people wise. There were waiting lines that spanned over 200 minutes meaning people who didn’t have a Fast Pass spent nearly 4 hours for a ride that lasts last than 10 minutes. That is some dedication.

There were additional attractions like Spider Man, Terminator, and Jurassic Park which provided a different atmosphere but lets face it, I was there mainly for Harry Potter. Between the ride through Hogwarts Castle, Ollivanders Wand show, the Acapella group, and Butterbeer — it was well worth it.

Before I finish, I just want to say that I don’t know where we would be without the good people who created Google Maps walking directions. There were times on this trip (and back in Tokyo) where Google Maps has given us walking directions through some of the most random narrow streets and back alleys to get us to and from our housing and around the city — I still don’t understand how Google knows that those pathways even exist. Unbelievable.

 

 


Adjusting To A New Sleeping Schedule

I have never had any trouble sleeping, whether it was at home, or visiting some place new or even in the car. Usually when I fall a sleep at night, the next time I wake up is when my alarm is going off — I have been fortunate enough to not have the need to get up for water or bathroom break at night and sleep comfortably enough to not wrestle myself awake.

Additionally if you were to talk those closest to me, they would tell you that I can sleep on command which is often very helpful when I am traveling. When I used to work in Canada and would travel back and forth to New Jersey every month or so, I would often fall asleep on the plane before take off and be jolted awake when the wheels of the plane hit the ground upon landing.

My typical routine within the last year or so was getting five to six hours to sleep at home coupled with power naps on the train (each way) while on my 90 minute commute to/from work. So when I was moving half way around the world, I didn’t think that adjustment to a new timezone would have much of an impact on my sleeping schedule.

My travel time to work is a bit shorter here with no room to sleep while commuting but in theory, if I go to bed at roughly the same time, I should be getting more time to sleep. However, three weeks into this assignment, I still find myself waking up at odd times during the night and still not getting a complete night’s sleep on a consistent basis.

Typically I don’t need a lot of sleep but I do need the consistency and am hoping to get that sorted out pretty quickly. As for those of you international travelers that might be reading this, any suggestions?


Earthquakes

Naturally Japan has a long history of earthquakes and seismic activity because it is located near major tectonic plate boundary and is also on the Pacific Ring of Fire.

As of about an hour ago, here are the latest statistics from the United States Geological Survey regarding earthquakes (greater than magnitude 1.5) that have occurred relatively near Tokyo, Japan:

1 earthquake today
3 earthquakes in the past 7 days
8 earthquakes in the past month
66 earthquakes in the past year

Since we landed 7 days ago, there have been three of magnitudes 4.5, 4.9, and 4.7, although I have not felt any of them personally. Given the fact that the first one this week happened on my first day of work here (it was a magnitude 4.9), it is probably a good thing. Using the statistics above of the previous year, that comes about to an earthquake every 5 or 6 days… which pretty much means that we have already had more than our fair share of the week so hopefully some quieter weeks to come.

Japan has definitely taken extraordinary measures over the years and requires most households to keep a survival kit (ours included) which consists of essentials like a radio, a flashlight, a first aid kit and enough food and water to last for a couple of days. Our introductory packet included a notice about an early earthquake detection program that notifies if an earthquake is imminent and cautions the residents to take cover.

By no means does this mean I am walking around waiting for the next earthquake to happen but it also doesn’t mean I am oblivious to the fact.