Thursday, October 31, 2013

Halloween 2013

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This is now my sixth consecutive year in Japan for Halloween. Each year I've noticed Japan, or at least the area live in, slowly starting to embrace the holiday season. This year was no exception.

I've spent a pocket full of 100 yen coins over the years building my cute collection of Japanese styled Halloween knickknacks. I'm a little disappointed this year because I only managed to add only a couple more because the overall quality of Halloween goods have unexpectedly taken a huge turn for the worst, the biggest offender being Daiso. This year's Daiso Halloween stuff was full of oddly colored stuff with excessively poor craftsmanship compared to previous years. Usually they have one or two things worth picking up but not this year... I'm talking about pink jack-o-lanterns, pastel colored signage, and nearly no ceramic knickknacks to speak of. It was really bare bones this year.

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Seria, on the other hand, was better but not by much. Seria had much better design sense but this year's selection was very limited and the quality was noticeably the worst I can remember since hoarding Halloween stuff.

Outside of 100 yen shops, finding Halloween decorations, confections, and costumes was the easiest I've experienced since 2007. I even managed to get a reasonably sized pumpkin at my local Max Valu for carving but I had to pay nearly 2000 yen for it! Ouch. All in all Halloween stuff is getting very easy to find here. I even noticed quite a few people, mostly teen and women in their twenties, well dressed up for Halloween at my local mall in Halloween night while my wife and I went out for dinner.

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After dinner my wife and I picked up some Hello Kitty Halloween themed donuts from Mister Donut. Despite the odd flavors, pumpkin and strawberry,  the donuts were pretty tasty. 31 flavors even had some expensive Halloween themed ice cream which we didn't buy. I'm sure there were plenty of other places with similar Halloween themed stuff I'm forgetting about but basically you know it's Halloween if you walk around a bit now.

I think Halloween really suits Japan well. I hope that the holiday gains a real foot hold here so many more people can just have some mindless fun one night of the year. Happy Halloween!

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Halloween at the Vault 2013

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It's been a couple years since I last visited the Vault or any bar near Kofu station. I enjoy the atmosphere of bars and live DJ clubs but in Japan in just not as excited to go. It probably has a lot to do with the amount of trouble just to get out there, the price of drinks and food (think baseball game), and the fact I'm a dad with a son who's less than 2 years old. Well this year I decided to try my luck at schmoozing again at this year's Halloween celebration at the Vault on Saturday the 26th.

The place was packed, even more than I remember it being in the handful of times going there since 07'. This year the place seemed to fill up early as well with quite a few Japanese as well. It was still foreigner central but there were enough Japanese natives around to keep the place interesting.

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This year I went with a couple of friends. I dressed up as an engineer from Star Trek the Next Generation. A lot more people than I expected, especially Japanese, seemed to know what I was. I was expecting to be fairly unnoticed because of how nerdy and specific my costume was but was happy to find myself in many shots with other guests.

I didn't make it to the Rink this year. The Rink is another nearby bar that holds similar events as the Vault. I actually prefer the Rink's atmosphere to the Vault's except that it's much smaller and the unisex toilet is always crowded providing no relief for the bladder shy. This may or may not be the case now, as it’s been a couple years since the last time I’ve been there. Things change slow in Japan so I figure it’s probably just as I remember it.

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Anyhow this year's Halloween party at the vault was great fun. I wish Halloween was always on a Friday night so I could party all night without worrying about going into work the next day. Having to throw a Halloween party the weekend before the real night is a real shame because it kind of kills the feeling a little for me.

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If you live in Yamanashi and you're close enough to Kofu, I highly suggest checking out the vault even when it's not a holiday season. They've got plenty of imports on hand to satisfy your homesickness for tasty beer. Heck even their locally brewed stuff is pretty good but I'll save that for a separate entry.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Rising prices and a soon to come tax increase in Japan: A layman's rant

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Sorry this entry is very out of character and will probably go over many of my reader's heads; but I needed to get it off my chest and maybe shed some light into what Japan life really can be like from a lower middle class, tax, healthcare, and pension paying resident of Japan.

You know what grinds my gears? Nearly every 6 months or so all Japanese news outlets announce in unison how certain goods will have their prices go up for god knows why. It's like friggn' clockwork, they show a lot of footage of said price raised products and maybe cut to some brain dead zombies on the street that will hum and haw about how it's regrettable. You know what? Screw that jazz. How about some real investigative reporting and tell the public who is really fing you over and why?

It really bothers me how complacent people here are about life changing crap like this. For example tofu, milk, and sesame oil are getting a 10-20 percent price increase. F-me... If milk goes up nearly everything I eat will be affected in some way. Also sesame oil is in nearly everything here. I'm sure a lot of restaurant operators are pleased with this one. It's not like it's rocket science to grow soy beans or raise dairy cows... Of yeah I forgot, this is Japan. Everything is artificially inflated in price!

There goes even more of my wages into the untouchable corporate Japan mafia.
Another thing that miffed me recently is the final reveal of the tax rate hike to 8% this coming April. I pretty much knew it was coming as the previous PM of Japan, Noda, crucified his own party to lay the groundwork for the tax hike proposals. This wasn't some hard decision, this was known well in advance.

Before I go further into my rant I just want to say I understand the need to do something about the paying down the huge amount of debt Japan has but the timing couldn't be any worse... I just see any increase in tax revenues being reabsorbed into pork barrel projects and graft. This is going to hurt the average middle and lower class people and the ones with money will be even more frugal than ever, especially the senior class. Fix the way the government works (hemorrhages funds) then raise the tax if necessary once there's been a long enough period of real sustained growth in the markets, not a few months of good single decimal point increases due to a catchphrase. 8% probably won't even put a dent into the ever expanding debt, it's a silly gesture to the rest of the world that Japan is playing the money game. What's the point really?

OK, back to the rant... Part of the reason a lot of prices are going up this fall is due to retailers and manufacturers getting in on the fun to pass the worst of the tax increase onto the end buyer. I can understand them wanting to protect their bottom line but I'll be dammed if I shed a yen or a single tear for them. So basically, the guys on the bottom will get hit twice by the sales tax raise. Oh, but the butt thumping doesn't end there, apparently Abe is giving 5 trillion Japanese yen or so back in tax relief to corporations. Probably ones closest to construction and anyone that lines his and his friend's pockets.

This tax increase will be a double blow to the common folk as it raises prices and takes an additional 3 on top of that. I wonder how much longer the myth of Abenomics will survive once the tax rolls in. For now I expect the news to focus on how well big price items are selling this winter due to the tax evasion rush. I also expect an equally large lull in the markets as corporations bitch about lower sales numbers and earnings. They have the government to thank for the artificial spike in sales. I kind of wish TPP gets approved for Japan so Japanese corporations can take some up their own greedy asses for once and experience real price competition for a change. That goes double for JA. Fuck your 250 yen tiny heads of lettuce and overpriced processesed cheeses.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

I finally climbed Mt. Fuji!

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After being asked an innumerable amount of times if I’ve ever climbed Mt. Fuji since moving to Yamanashi nearly 6 years ago, I finally got around to doing it earlier this month. I am not really sure why I put off this blog post for so long. Maybe it was due to me being very busy this month along with me sharing most of my details privately on a few social networking sites I visit. I’ve already lost a lot of good things I wanted to write about because of how long I’ve procrastinated! So here’s the crowning achievement of all my local hikes; a short blog entry and some of the best pictures I’ve taken on a hike.

So I went on my hike on the evening of September the 7th. Officially, the climbing season ended at the end of August, but this official announcement is ignored by most everyone, especially hiking tour groups, and you’ll find plenty of people making the pilgrimage up the mountain. When I went up just about everything was still open and operational even the souvenir shops at the parking lot. Many of my Japanese acquaintances who I let slip that I was going out after the hiking season were surprised I was ignoring the season’s end which in turn surprised me as I thought everyone knew Mt. Fuji was unofficially busy well into the end of September, early October even.

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My timing couldn’t have been any better as it looks like starting next year there will be a mandatory climbing fee along with a possible parking lot fee and they are also starting to strongly discourage speed hikers that can knock it out without a rest in one of the shabby huts along the trail. I was one of those speed hikers and I can say it’s doable but it isn’t all that easy, especially the way down. If you’re planning to do the hike all in one shot, at least train up for it like I did. I am sure I wouldn’t have made it if I didn’t feel as comfortable with 4-6 hour hikes as I do now thanks to all the ranges in the area I’ve hiked.

I did the hike with a good friend who has done it once before so I felt confident I’d be able to make it up. We got to the parking lot during a heavy foggy evening with a somewhat light drizzle on the drive up. Lucky for us the rain and fog ended just before the trail head at the 5th station parking lot on the Subashiri side of the mountain. The sky was nearly clear and the stars shone brightly in the dark night sky. The starting point was nearly empty of other humans but the parking lot was nearly full and there were even parking security guards to wave on late night travelers to their parking spots. As we climbed we could see flashes of lightning in the far off distance below. Lucky for us it was nowhere near the mountain but we were concerned that weather could go bad at anytime. Fortunately we made it through every station at a very brisk pace and didn’t run into other hikers till the fork at the 7th or was it the 8th station where both trails meet up for the final ascent to the cone.

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I was feeling fine despite an odd cramping up of my calves half way up. The cramps never went away till the descent but the pain did subside enough for me to keep moving at a relatively good pace. By the time we reached the final station before the peak, we had caught up with what looked like hundreds of people in long, slow moving, tour groups. They really clogged up the final stretch and tacked on at least a good hour or so to the climb. We were worried we’d miss sunrise as the darkness slowly began to recede back into the drab brown land beneath our boots. We powered through the crowd as best we could despite some exchange of words with another small group of foreigners that thought the line was un-skip able. In reality the line was caused by the tour group and the tour guides were bidding that anyone not in the group pass them at their leisure, even asking the tour group to give way on the right side. The other foreigner group didn’t seem to understand this because they probably either didn’t hear the guides or didn’t know enough Japanese to understand what was going on. Either way it was a bit annoying to have to stop for something like that.

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We made it to the top in just the nick of time too. I managed to capture quite a few shots in the tranquil rays of the morning sun. Seeing the sunrise so high in the clouds was a thing of beauty, something everyone should experience. I was beat but when I saw that sunrise I got my second wind and thought the way down would be a piece of cake… oh how wrong I was. I did make it up without falling over, tripping, or getting any hint of altitude sickness but my body was pumped so full of adrenaline that it forgot to warn me that my legs were as wobbly as fish. I ended up tacking on a good extra hour or two on the way back down which should have been 4 at the most because I was just too exhausted and a bit worn out by how steep the descent was. Going up at night really gave me a different image of how the land was laid out and I thought I had it in the bag on the way down. What an underestimate. But man, that sunrise… that sunrise made it all worth it.

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I ended up cursing and grumbling a good part of the way down because I really got disheartened by how barren, featureless, and boring Mt. Fuji is up close. Of course I knew it was a volcano, but even the trail had few switchbacks and even less places to just sit down and rest closer to the base of the trail. So all in all the hike up is great as is seeing the sunrise but the hike down is crap. Now I understand why people rest up in the huts. It’s pricey but hey at least you’ll have rested your body for the doldrums.

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Now that I’ve climbed one of the tallest mountains you can climb in a day, I can take it easy and knock out some more leisurely hikes in the area I still have yet to do. I can also say I’ve already climbed Fuji if anyone asks. And no, I probably won’t be going up again once is enough really. Mt. Fuji looks best from a distance, and even better with a snowy cap. Summertime Fuji is brutal and hot but it’s also the safest time to do it so meh.

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I’m glad I went up at night. Seeing this all the way up would have left a much different impression on me. Not to mention the weather went to crap shortly after we got down. We totally lucked out.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Odd weather: tornadoes in Japan. Again?

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I remember writing about something like this before on my blog. Tornadoes aren’t normal for Japan, especially ones that were as destructive as the tornadoes that touched down in Saitama and Chiba prefectures. This time, the tornadoes, especially the one that touched down in Saitama, was powerful enough to snap concrete telephone poles, push over super light weight (kei) vans, and rip roofs and siding off homes.

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I’m glad it didn’t happen where I live. Earthquakes and floods are about the worst thing that can happen here… well I guess Mt. Fuji violently erupting would be the worst but I just don’t want to think about that one. Sorry about the pictures. I snapped them quickly off my TV with my smartphone. I’m sure by now there’s better footage on news outlets and YouTube by now.

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Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Changed jobs… FINALLY!

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Note: I fiddled with the publishing dates just for my own sake of keeping a proper timeline of events. The fish tank entry of March 30, 2013 is the first of a handful up till this entry. I really should have written this around the same time as the fish tank entry in March. Oh well. It’s done now yay!

No, I’m not dead and I didn’t go back to California with my tail between my legs. I actually found a new job and have been living it up pretty good since April. So let’s find out what’s been going on in the past 4 months this blog has been dead for… I’m going to sprinkle this entry with some photographs of the schools I used to work at to keep things interesting for the reading impaired.

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I’ve always had this though in the back of my mind that I really need to get a better job in Japan. While my somewhat stable job of nearly 5 consecutive years treated me well enough, it always was in the gray side of the law and knew they were taking their staff for all they were worth. After a long 5 years of waiting and a lot of luck, I finally took the plunge and put out some serious resumes. I got an interview thanks to one of my good local friends and within a week I had a new teaching job. The timing couldn’t have worked out better for me as my current contract was days from ending and I had no obligation to continue with the company I previously worked for. I was really sad and nervous to let go of the schools that treated me well and gave me a good 4 years of my life but I knew that if I stayed under the same company that provided the schools, I’d never be able to save any money and have any meaningful future here in Japan or elsewhere.

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I still do miss the schools I worked at for the past 4 years and still have connections with the staff there but for the most part things seem to be working out fine. The teachers I used to work with miss being able to just operate in full Japanese but understand not every teacher that comes in can even speak a lick of Japanese let alone make such an impression on the kids that they were totally shocked I was leaving so abruptly. But I wasn’t being paid for my Japanese ability or social skills, I was paid because I was a warm body and didn’t rock the boat. I got paid beans for my work, although it was very easy, but I knew that my skills were being wasted on such a low paying job. Now I’ve got even better schools than I could’ve imagined with a much more generous salary paired with the same benefits that a Japanese national would expect in a similar full time position (pension and social insurance). No more paying for healthcare and pension directly out of pocket, now I get help and enough money that it doesn’t completely kill any income I may have been able to set aside for savings.

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I don’t expect to stick with this line of work much longer but it will give me an extra couple more years to enjoy the freedoms of an English teacher’s life in Japan. I’ll also have a couple more years to brush up on my skills before I finally give a serious crack at N1 and put the final nail in my formal Japanese language education. I look forward to the day when I can work in an air-conditioned office or even from home using my skills I built up while dinking around in Japan as an English teacher… not the teaching ‘skills’ but rather all the communication and cultural experiences that have helped improve my Japanese to a more than functional level in the office.


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So, why did it take so long to write this? It’s been months since April and this is a pretty big life event… I really wanted to write about this sooner but a lot in my personal life kept me from taking enough time to sit down in front of the computer and write something worth reading. Now that it’s summer, and I’ve got nearly a month off thanks to being a full time teacher, I can hike and take tons of interesting pictures for the blog.

I left some good kids behind. I shaped most of their image of what an American is like and their idea of what an English class can be for better or worse. I think I did a good job. It’s a shame I won’t be the one sending them off to junior high. But I had to draw the line somewhere and I’m very glad I did.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

日向山 Mt. Hinatayama in Nirasaki

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That’s the start of the ‘easy’ trail up… We started somewhere else down the road…

After recovering from the body battering hike up Mt. Kagayatake, I was ready for an even more challenging hike up Mt. Hinatayama in Nirasaki. The trail head isn’t that hard to find but it is a bit of a windy, one way, narrow road up. If you don’t have a car or something bigger than a kei, you may find yourself in a bit of a hard ride/walk up the road especially if you meet another person coming down. There’s some parking at the trail head and as long as no knuckleheads park funky, you should be able to find a spot.

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This is where we started our hike. A much more challenging place to start!

We started our hike around 7:30 in the morning on a very hot July day. Instead of taking the easy, more traveled and marked trail up that starts right at the parking lot, we took the longer way up as we don’t like to backtrack if possible.The standard trail will get you up to the peak in about half the time we took and it is very accessible to less experienced hikers. We saw plenty of kids on this particular hike.

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The hike up starts a bit rough as you’ll be pulling yourself up some steep hillsides at first. There’s plenty of places to hold on as well as some spots where rusty iron stairs have been provided. The trail is easier than it looks.

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The walk to the summit only took a couple of hours with minimal breaks and for the most part it was shaded by plenty of tall trees which helped kept the heat bearable. For lack of a better description, the summit was awesome. Easily one of the better places I’ve hiked in Yamanashi. There is a ton of sand stone that has been whittled down over the years by erosion which makes it look like a sandy berm or a snowy hill. The sand its self feels a lot like beach sand in some areas. It’s really unusual finding such a unique landscape so high up in the mountains.

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The peak stands at roughly 1600 or so meters. Sometimes the altimeter on my watch is wonky by 60 or so meters. It’s a beautiful spot and it was a great opportunity to take panoramic shots with my Samsung Galaxy S3 camera app. All the pictures and video shared today is provided by my phone camera. Not too shabby!

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Now that my hikes are getting a bit more technical, I need to invest in some better supporting hiking boots. Cross training shoes aren’t cutting it anymore. I bruised my toenail pretty bad on the decent. Time to break in some new shoes! Ick!

I don’t like the sound of my own voice…
Awesome view!

Here’s a couple spiffy panoramic shots. Amazing!

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I did it in high-tops… I still didn’t have proper boots at this point. Working on it!