Tuesday, January 27, 2009

A little skiing in the Japanese Alps

About the second week in January I escaped the confines of the shoebox I call my apartment and headed up to Hakuba in the Nagano prefecture. I ended up taking the bus up there, which if you ask anyone they will say "you should definitely take the train to get up there." Here's a little secret, the train is expensive. I saved nearly $100 by taking the bus, and I didn't have to do any transfers (you transfer to 3 separate trains to get to Hakuba). All it cost me was a mere 30 minutes of extra travel time (4.5 hrs and an 8,500 yen bus ticket). I stayed in a cozy little town called Hakuba Goryu. When I arrived it was pounding snow. A true sign of good things to come. I stayed in a hostel that was by far the nicest and cleanest hostel I have ever been to. So if you want to escape the hustle and bustle of Tokyo check out K's house in Hakuba Goryu.

After a terrible night's sleep, consisting of a meager 3 hrs of rest I set out for Hakuba Happo. Happo is the next town north of Goryu. It's a bit more commercialized as the ski resort there, Happo One, hosted the 1995 Winter Olympic Games. Overall the town is very cool, and has held on to its Japanese culture. Once I got off the JR train I knew I needed to catch a bus to get up to the resort. The hostel told me it was real easy and there are free shuttles that run all the time. I see one of the shuttles and just to double check I ask the bus driver in my most perfect english "Happo 1?" Bus driver looks at me blankly. I again repeat myself "are you going to Happo 1?" Bus driver looks a tad annoyed and just repeats the name of the town "Happo, Happo!" I'm thinking, I know that jackass, I know I'm in frickin' Happo. "Are you going to Happo 1! Ski resort!" Bus driver again replies "iyye Happo Happooo!!!" I give up and walk away. I figure, someone in the JR station must speak some english. Not so much. I think the only word he caught was of course Happo and then he recognized "bus" and just pointed me outside. Thanks buddy.

Another bus roles by this one is public bus. I of course ask in my most flawless english "Happo 1?" Bus driver #2 replies "Happo!" At this point I'm just like "screw it." I hop on the bus off to Happo, which is the town I am already in. The bus ends up dropping me off in the downtown area at a tourist information center (Thank GOD!). I go to the clerk and ask in my most exceptional english, worthy of awards, "how do I get to Happo 1." She tells me the bus that I should get on, shows me where the bus will pick me up, and then tells me "oh and its pronounced Happo O-neh." Yeah....so.....this gai jin feels pretty dumb right about now. All the confusion, the cursing under my breath at the bus driver who I thought didn't understand his own language, ahh we all must be humbled at some point.

Okay enough of that, now to knock on the skiing. Happo O-NEH is a far cry from a world class resort. I was actually shocked that the Olympics were held there. The terrain was extremely easy. If it wasn't for the 2.5 ft of powder that dropped the night before I probably would have been really disappointed. After talking with an Aussie that was currently living there, the Japanese apparently do not know about modern avalanche control. They do not use dynamite, cannon or boot packing. Basically they weave little fences together, put up walls, and will basically kick you out if you ski out of bounds. Essentially half of the skiable terrain is blocked off. Another bummer is that it really isn't an alpine environment to speak of. The trees are small deciduous and often cluttered together. Basically skiing through the trees is nonexistent that's even if they let you cross into them (usually roped off). All around Happo One left much to be desire of world class ski resort.

The next day I had a fantastic bluebird day at the resort Hakuba Goryu (Note: Hakuba 47 is part of Hakuba Goryu) right up the street from where I was staying. They don't even list this resort in the tourist ski guides, but honestly I found it more challenging than Happo One. The resort has the same problems as noted above, but at least they had a couple challenging runs. Overall I had a fantastic day of hitting the slopes. The pics below were all taken from the slopes at Goryu, absolutely stunning views. In defense of the resort, if your a beginner, or intermediate skier you probably would have a blast skiing this mountain. Lift tickets are also reasonable running from $46 to $56 per day. Advanced intermediate and experts are best skiing somewhere else. On the ski lift I nearly broke down in tears when I looked below at all the best skiable terrain on the mountain was untouched...sniffle, sniffle.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Settling In

We've now spent about 3 months in Tokyo and have had ample time to settle in.  We found a great little 430 square foot apartment in an area of Tokyo called Ningyocho (2 subway stops from Ginza for those of you who know a little Tokyo geography).  The place is in the business district so needless to say,  the neighborhood becomes a total ghost town come weekends, but this is totally okay by us.  There's enough hustle and bustle everywhere else in Tokyo that it's somewhat nice coming home to our own quiet sanctuary.  

One example of the Tokyo madness is my daily subway commute to work.  The Japanese really bring new meaning to the phrase "packed like sardines".  Just when you think the train is too full as it is, the last stragglers will squeeze themselves in, back first, so that they can use all their weight to lean back in order for the doors to close.  If they're lucky, the doors close.  Otherwise, they'll just keep pushing back to force the door to close.  Most of the time this works, but a couple times I've actually seen people get pushed out of the train so that the doors will close.  The funny part about all this is that the train comes every 3 minutes!!   What's the big hurry?  I've come to refer to my train commute as cuddling with 100 people all at once.  There is nothing more unpleasant than my face buried in some stranger's pit all while another's "briefcase" is grazing my rear.  Aside from the commute work has been great.  My team is a worldly mix of Aussies, Koreans, Chinese, Brits, Americans, and of course Japanese.  They love to have a good time so when Dave and I can keep up, we're usually hanging out with this bunch who have quickly become our good friends in Tokyo.  Yes, it's true, we have bona fide friends :)

Outside of work we're learning a lot about the Japanese way of life.  Paying for rent and utilities, for example, has been a great learning experience.  Generally in the US rent is paid for with a check to the landlord.  In Japan, you have several options, all of which are hugely inconvenient or slightly costly.  Option 1) You go to the bank each month and use the ATM to make a bank transfer to your landlord's bank.  Option 1 will cost you about 5 USD each transaction.  Option 2) You fill out complicated paperwork to set up monthly automatic transfer from your bank to your landlord's bank.  Option 2 costs you about 10 USD per month.  What I don't understand is why either option has to cost anything at all.  Under 1, am I not doing all the work to physically go to the ATM to tell it where, how much, and to whom to transfer the money?  Under 2, it's set up automatically so why will this cost me twice as much as 1?  This is really how I think the Japanese banks stay in business...they create unnecessary services and charge outrageously for their usage!  Unbelievable.  As for utilities we receive a monthly bill where the envelope is clearly denoted "Electricity Bill" or "Water Bill" in English.  The complication comes in actually reading the bill which is all in Japanese.  As you would expect, we examine the bill for the parts we can read such as...our name...then we take the bill to a convenience store to pay it.  This would be like taking your utility bill to 7-Eleven or AM/PM which actually both exist in Japan in exorbitant numbers.  You pay your utility bill to the clerk as if you were paying for a Coke.  Then he graciously thanks you and bows excessively as if you have done him a great honor by visiting his 7-Eleven.  This is the highlight of Dave's day.  

Saturday, January 3, 2009

It's been awhile

It’s been awhile since we’ve last blogged and sad to say that not much has really happened since then. Kim and I are bogged down with our studies. We’ve explored a few areas in passing, but really haven’t gotten into anything touristy. Culture shock builds more and more, as a lot of the little conveniences that I once took for granted, seem to leave me longing for them to reappear. Speaking of conveniences one thing that Tokyo has that is remarkably convenient is the vending machines. All 1.75 million of these bundles of joy will quench your thirst at any given point. You walk out of your apartment, “Hey, ho! There’s a vending machine!” If soda isn’t your thing, it’s cool, you can have tea, milk tea, vegetable & fruit juice, and seven different kinds of coffee. Oh what? You don’t like your coffee cold, don’t worry you can get it hot as well. No matter where you are in the city, you can always count on a vending machine to be within a half a block. You may be thinking, “gee whiz Dave, that’s really swell, but wouldn’t it be wonderful if you could get a beer from a vending machine?” Hmm, what a great concept, and the Japanese have done it! If you look below you can see a pic of Kim displaying this marvelous invention. If you don’t fancy beer you can just order a bottle of wine or sake from it as well.

As for fun, Kim and I have embraced karaoke. For those of you who are unfamiliar with karaoke in the States, it is often perceived as getting up on stage at a bar and making a complete ass out of yourself while you howl into the microphone such classics as “sweet child of mine.” This leads to being ridiculed by your friends for destroying a song that they once loved. Now maybe some of you have had more positive experiences, but mine seem to be on the verge of dodging a bottle or two, and being booed off stage. In Japan it is a tad bit different. They have karaoke clubs that offer private rooms for you and your friends. The list of songs is incredible. Not only do they have all the classics, but new songs from this year as well. For my first karaoke debut, Kim and I went our with a few of her Japanese coworkers. I thought “this is my chance to really make it big in Japan.” They all sat around waiting in anticipation, “what will he sing? Will he bring the rock & roll, or maybe lay down the mic with some Beastie Boys?” Not this Gai Jin, I brought the George Michael “Faith” action, and by God I tore that song up! I had it down, from the tight jeans, to moving the hips and “do do do do, do do do dooo.” So now I’m pretty famous around here. People know me. It is one thing that I truly love about this place, is that no matter how terrible your voice is, anyone can be a rockstar.

I feel I cannot leave this blog without saying something about the electronics. It seems that for every electronic product that we have in the US, Japan has about 10 other designs. For example you walk into an electronic store and want to buy an MP3 player. You basically have about 5 different brands/types, whereas in Japan they have about 15 different MP3 players in every color known to man. The apartment itself is all jazzed up with souped up technological advances. If I’m taking a shower and Kim is in the kitchen, I can click the intercom button and say “Kimi! Cook me some pancakes!” Then there is the toilet or to be specific the T9100 Shower Toilet. Who needs teepee when you can shoot a river of water right up your ......., um you get the idea.

Tokyo is quite the bargain. This tree only costs $500 USD!