Life in Japan

(Next post will be about VB, honest! :)

So far I've had 15 days of Japanese language class. I try really hard to refrain from using English when in the building, but sometimes it's necessary. There's only so far a conversation can go when the participants only know how to say "I ate food yesterday" and "Where is the toilet?" Out of classes A through K where A is the top class, I was placed in J class. That's not bad for me because I've been filling-in quite a few holes in my knowledge. By next March I hope to have graduated-up several classes.

In Japan, there's stuff written everywhere. Millions of signs, characters, exclamation marks and bright colors assaulting your senses. I realized this just now. Maybe the US is the same way--I never noticed in my 28 years I spent living there. Leave it to another country to show you how much you don't know about your own country.

Stores and TV shows seemed to be obsessed with "The Girl from Ipanema". I've heard various renditions in a garden shop, a 100-yen store, a household goods shop, and on TV programs. Now that I think about it, background music is much more prevalent here. At the grocery store I frequent, poppish instrumental covers of 80's soft rock hits blare in the background while I peruse the mushrooms, pickled vegetables, and extensive fish selection. The same is true of the US as well, but usually in a subdued manner. Everything is just louder here.

I mentioned grocery stores; these are fascinating. The selection is enormous and everything comes so nicely packaged. Being Asia, much of the produce is vegetables I've never seen before, let alone tasted. I saw something which looked like a cucumber/eggplant with spikes. The small bags of gelatinous seaweed were interesting but expensive. From my judgment, Japan is an onion and mushroom lover's paradise. Pickle lover's paradise, too. Rice comes in all forms, and you can choose between several prefectures' offerings. I chose Aichi-ken because that's where I live. Last week I was at the grocery store and one of the employees there who was trying to sell stuff (i.e., the people with the free samples) shoved some stuff into my hand and said "oishii" which in Japanese means "tasty". It was a bunch of small whole fish about 2 cm long and a couple mm thick. I stuck them in my mouth, chewed, and they weren't so bad. :)

Convenience stores in Japan are actually convenient. They sell not only junk food and beer (the extent of American stores), but dress shirts, gift boxes, fax service, yogurt, baked goods, silverware, tools, music, and pretty much everything else the standard household may need. You can even pay your utility bills at the counter. However, they don't sell gasoline. You have to go to a gas shop for that which isn't convenient at all. It's also $4 per gallon.

There's a convenience store just down the road from my apartment. Every time I go in, someone is cleaning the floor. And "The Girl from Ipanema" is playing in the background.

I've met quite a few people here, some Americans, a surprising number of Swiss, an Australian, Icelander, Spaniard, Chinese, Korean, Taiwanese, German, Britain, etc.

Three-prong electrical plugs are not common in Japan; just two-prong with no ground. When an appliance needs ground, it comes with a wire which you attach to a special grounding-point in the wall's electrical outlet (assuming it has one). To complicate matters further, eastern Japan, such as Tokyo, runs on 50 Hz AC whereas western Japan, where I live, runs on 60 Hz AC. Thankfully, most of my power supplies handle 100-240 V, 50-60 Hz.

There's a driving school behind my apartment with a driving course of various obstacles and intersections; a place for parallel parking, a straightaway for driving at high speed, a railroad crossing complete with draw-arm and warning bells. I woke up one day to the sound of jack hammering and trucks. What? Yes, road construction. Seems the school needed to make some road repairs.

Medical costs in Japan are not expensive, and many people have national health insurance. A one-year premium cost me 8000 JPY ($73). After a trip to the hospital for a bad cold, the total bill, including medication, was 7700 JPY ($71). That's before health insurance paid 80%. A similar bill in the US would be $300-$400, and many people have no health insurance.

One note: if coming to Japan to study, make sure you decide upon and learn the katakana spelling of your name. When applying for health insurance and the foreign resident registration card, I needed to write the katakana representation of my name, roughly Beh-kya-rio Kya-meh-ron. Since I came to Japan to learn Japanese and not the other way around, I goofed on the application and wrote Beh-ka-ri-hoo Kya-meh-ron, which is now my official name as far as the Japanese government is concerned. Whoops.

Transferring money to Japan can be costly depending on the method. I did a bank transfer for my initial tuition payment and paid a $30 fee plus a 4.1% premium over that day's $/JPY exchange rate. Ouch. (What did I do wrong? Other people say bank transfers are the best.) Credit cards are cheaper, but not great. While there's no fee, I paid a 2.37% premium on the exchange rate; better than the airport money exchange at least. By far the least costly way to transfer money from the US to Japan is by using the Post Office ATMs. I was surprised to discover a premium of only 0.07%. This might as well be no premium at all given the day-to-day fluctuations of the exchange market. I haven't tried traveler's cheques yet, but the post office already beats them since I paid a 1% (or 2%?) charge during purchase.