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

Disclaimer:
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.