Nothing promotes nudity quite like Japanese summers.

As I write this, I’m lying in bed under a blanket in my air-conditioned bedroom (set to a modest 27 degrees Celsius) with a sore throat and a slight fever. I’ve actually just awoken from a brief medication-induced nap, & I’m still feeling somewhat woozy, & my throat still hurts but I at least my stomach seems to have stopped clenching and unclenching in spasms now.

I have been in Japan for 12 days, Kobe about 9, and it has been an eventful almost-two-weeks. Many people, as a standard conversation starter, will ask, “Is this your first time in Japan?” to which I’ll answer, “No, this is actually my 6th time” and get responses ranging from mild surprise to omg srsly?!-type of responses. Japan isn’t really a new place to me right now, though I definitely remember the awe and wonderment I had when looking at everything the first time I came in January 2009, possessing absolutely zero knowledge of the language and country. It remains a good memory for me, as I find that I become less in awe of things the older I get, & I’m not sure if that’s because I’m getting more jaded or simply because I’ve seen things or at least read about them before, so they come as much less of a surprise. Part of it is also because in the trips since then, I’ve had more responsibility either in getting myself & others around or being the one who planned the trip and so on, but I knew nothing in the first trip & really just followed people or wandered on my own with no preconceptions.

Tokyo Orientation from the 4th to the 6th (we reached in the evening of the 4th; no programs on this day) was a whirlwind of talks & activities, & I know I fell asleep in more than one talk. Some I felt were highly engaging & useful, informative seminars while others were simply entertaining, & yet others made me feel like my time was being wasted. The sheer number of people & scale of the orientation made me aware of just how big the JET Programme was – it was truly an international gathering of people from various parts of the world in one location as we were inducted slowly into our jobs. The formal talks aside, it was an opportunity to mix and mingle & get to know people. I’ll have to say that lunch on the 2nd day was the most entertaining, interesting & educational part of the Tokyo Orientation for me, which culminated in the formation of a secret Facebook group (anyone up for some ichigo? ;D). From my perspective, the topics being discussed over lunch were never really topics that would have been talked about openly back home, except with close friends, so I was more than surprised when stories started coming forth & so on, but the openness & frankness was a refreshing contrast to the hush-hush attitude I was used to. Personally, having never been involved with anyone before, there were concepts & terms that were being thrown around that I was unfamiliar with but the people at the table were kind enough to explain them to me. So, yeah, lunch was a pretty eye-opening experience and I finally got to meet some people I’d only interacted with briefly online, as well as make new friends.

On the morning of the 7th, we headed to Kobe City via a chartered bus to Haneda Airport and then a short flight to the local airport, followed by another busy ride to the Kobe Education Center (KEC).

Fact 1: It’s summer in Japan, & it’d been established over orientation that Tokyo was warm.
Fact 2: I’m from a tropical country which has summer-like weather all year round.
Fact 3: Kobe was infinitely warmer with higher humidity and a higher UV index. The Sun doesn’t shine here, it blazes in full glory, like an oven lamp roasting our tender flesh.

Misconception: I may be from a country with similar weather all year round, but it definitely did not prepare me for this heat or level of sweating. Undershirts are absolutely essential here, they’re not an option you can just ponder about & consider if you want to look professional and not like a drowning rat with sweat staining your clothes most distinctly.

The schedule here has been packed, with events planned for us everyday. The first few days were mostly to introduce us to our local residential community & let us know what’s in the neighbourhood. This weekend to Wednesday was actually Obon, a festival that honours the spirits of one’s ancestors. As such, school was closed from Monday to Wednesday and I took summer leave for the 2 days I didn’t have programs on, and.. Cleaned the apartment a lot. I’ve been to a few social events & gone out to town to hang out with people, so there’s been a lot of meeting new people and small talk. I’ll just say here that I am pretty terrible at small talk. With some people you can pretty much shoot the bull & have fun, but it’s not with everyone. That said, just about everyone I’ve met have been really awesome and nice and extremely helpful (many thanks to the couple in the block opposite mine for helping me get aircon set up within a week!! It’s been a lifesaver. Also another shout out to the cute couple who’ve known each other since they were kids, for helping me with getting & building a bedframe from IKEA!) so the only problem I’ve had really, is turning down invitations to social events ’cause I want to clean or get settled in or I’m just tired. Which I should stop doing, I guess, because the beginning is a pretty crucial time period for us to figure out who will be in our social circles.

Not only are the people really nice and amazing, I’ve met some who are, beyond that, really charismatic and attractive and just beautiful people! It’s just sad that social interaction doesn’t work as simply as going up to people & declaring your intentions of wanting to be friends with them. Wouldn’t it be so much simpler?

“What about little microphones? What if everyone swallowed them, and they played the sounds of our hearts through little speakers, which could be in the pouches of our overalls? When you skateboarded down the street at night you could hear everyone’s heartbeat, and they could hear yours, sort of like sonar.”
– Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer

I haven’t really been homesick, though I have definitely missed my family & friends. Talking to my siblings frequently over LINE, texting Claire & Jan helped, & talking to my parents & Jan as well. Living alone here isn’t so much of a culture shock as it is a struggle living alone, seeing as I can’t cook, & I’m terrified of insects so I’ve been cleaning & vacuuming really often.

I’m going to get more water & spray the little thing the guy at the pharmacy section in the supermarket gave me into my throat for some relief. Take some paracetamol, & sleep.

P.S. With regards to my post title, before I got aircon installed, I was basically stripping down to undies (if I felt modest) whenever I got home. Which isn’t really a problem since my curtains are drawn all the time. The freedom & liberation of being able to do that because you’re living alone is wonderful!

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Cellular Considerations (Part 2)

NTT Docomo

Thanks to Mr Gerrit on Facebook, I was able to simulate the kind of costs I can expect to pay should I go the Docomo route using this bill simulation tool (Japanese only) which allows you to pick a phone and change some options for the plan you’ll sign up for. I’d recommend going through their English page of charges first to get an idea of what the options available are. I’m going to run through the options on the page a little for the benefit of those who may not understand Japanese.

My simulated bill

My simulated bill

You can click through the image for a larger version. According to this simulation, I can expect to pay ¥7,360/mth if I choose to pay for the phone in monthly installments over a 2-year period. Brief translations/descriptions of what’s in each step will follow. Feel free to comment and correct me if I’m not explaining them well; the following is just my own interpretation.

  1. Choose a different phone
  2. New Sign-Up or Recontract
  3. How you pay for the phone – over 24 months or in 1 lump sum upfront
  4. Provider: sp-mode – this seems to be a basic service that you have no choice but to sign up for
  5. Xi Talk 24 (Type Xi Ninen + Xi Kake-hodai) or Type Xi Ninen (without Xi Kake-hodai) – click through the links to the English pages; they’re pretty self-explanatory but Xi Ninen seems like yet another basic service you don’t have a choice but to get, and the Xi Kake-hodai gives you unlimited calls to fellow Docomo subscribers, so you’ll still be charged for calls to subscribers of other mobile carriers (au, Softbank, etc) at a rate of ¥20.50/30 sec if I’m not wrong
  6. Data Service: Xi Pake-Hodai Flat or Xi Pake-Hodai Light – Flat offers 7GB of data every month while Light offers 3GB. Based on my own usage at home, I don’t expect myself to use a whole lot of data on the go so I picked Light. There’s only a different of ¥1,050 so if you think you’re going to need that extra amount of data, go ahead and pick Flat; for me, that will up the cost for me to ¥8,410/mth.
  7. Monthly Support – Goodness knows what kind of support I’ll be paying for but there doesn’t seem to be a way out of this option
    Edit: Apparently this Monthly Support isn’t what you pay but a discount they give you, so it effectively cuts ¥2,835 off the bill every month. Awesome! I’ve also read about some shops that give ~¥20,000 cashback when you pay for the phone upfront, but I’m doing more research on where those shops are located. With luck, the bill could be much lower than this!

If I choose to pay for the phone upfront (Samsung GALAXY S4 SC-04E – ¥83,160), my monthly bill will amount to ¥3,895/mth. In case you think it may be cheaper to do it one way or the other, just do the math and you’ll see that what you pay for at the end of the day is the same astronomical amount. There are a bunch of discounts linked on the website but I’m not too clear on the terms and conditions, and how they’re applied so I won’t go there.

au-KDDI

Next, I’ll try to piece together what the monthly cost of using a smartphone on the au-KDDI network is like. I’m sure it’ll be full of mistakes, but I can’t find a similar bill simulator so it’s just what I can understand from their list of charges available. I can’t find the cost of any of the available phones so let’s just leave that out for now; I don’t expect the phones to be significantly cheaper than they are at Docomo though, and just in case anyone’s wondering I’ll be gunning for the HTC J One if I get on the au-KDDI network.

  • Basic charge: ¥1,961/mth – don’t be fooled by the Everybody Discount, they seem to be for long-term customers (think > 2 years)
  • Calling: Choose between au Flat Calling 24 (¥980/mth) and Wide Calling 24 (¥980/mth) – Flat Calling offers free domestic calls to au mobile phones at a monthly flat rate, while offers 50% discount on domestic calls to anywhere in Japan so you pay ¥980/mth plus a calling rate of ¥10.5/30 sec
  • LTE Connection Charge: ¥315/mth
  • LTE Flat: ¥5,985/mth for 7GB of data
  • Monthly Discount for purchasing a smartphone over 24 months: – ¥2,000/mth
  • Cost to Tether: ¥525/mth – neither Docomo nor Softbank charge for tethering within a 2-year contract, but there also appears to be a running promotion for free tethering right now, so I’ll leave this cost out for now
  • Total charge per month: ¥7,241/mth

I’m assuming this calculation of the total cost per month includes the cost of the phone, but since I can’t get any figures for that, I can’t say this for sure.

Softbank

As I linked in my previous post, Softbank has their plans laid out all nicely in a table, so from the main table (disregarding the discounts they applied there which may not be applicable to us) the plan will cost about ¥6,755/mth. If you add on unlimited domestic calling, it’ll be ¥7,255/mth. If you decide to get the iPhone 5, getting the 32GB version will bump the cost (on top of unlimited domestic calling) to ¥7,685/mth and the 64GB will bump it to ¥8,115/mth.

Summary

Assuming the most expensive options, i.e. 7GB data/mth, unlimited domestic calling, most expensive phone, the cost will be as follows for the 3 carriers I’ve listed above. I make no claims to the accuracy of the figures given, especially for the au-KDDI plan since I can’t find out how they factor in the cost of the phone.

  • Docomo with the Samsung GALAXY S4 SC-04E: ¥8,410/mth
  • au-KDDI (with/without no phone cost?): ¥7,241/mth
  • Softbank with the iPhone 5 (64GB): ¥8,115/mth

Docomo appears to be the most expensive, followed by Softbank, but of course all these figures depend on which phone you decide to get, and the choices you pick for parts of the plan for which you actually have options. Picking the cheaper 3GB option under Docomo will cut my bill quite a bit to ¥7,360/mth so I think I’ll probably go for this, barring situations and arrangements outside my control.

Cellular Considerations

There are several mobile carriers in Japan, of which the top 3 are probably NTT Docomo, Softbank and au-KDDI. From what I’ve read, the mobile coverage in Japan decreases accordingly from Docomo to Softbank to au (with differences in specific areas, of course, but this is speaking generally), but so does the price (meaning that Docomo plans are usually the most expensive). I’m not sure about the data speeds provided, but I think there’s a similar trend there. My own experience with Japanese mobile speeds is limited strictly to the two times I’ve used b-mobile, a MVNO (Mobile Virtual Network Operator) that leases Docomo’s network and the one time I roamed on Softbank’s network. Both times, my travels were largely limited to urban areas (Tokyo, Kyoto, etc) and I only used their 3G network, not the 4G or LTE network, so I can’t really speak for Docomo’s Xi LTE or Softbank’s 4G speeds. Their 3G speeds are, well, not too far off from my home country’s – that is to say, slow & spotty, and almost unusable in the underground train network.

Now, how’s this relevant to me? Obviously, being the tech geek that I am, I’m highly concerned about the options available to me when I go over in August. I’ll just talk a little about mobile carriers here, since I haven’t done much research into fiber-optic speeds for homes. According to this coverage map on OpenSignal for the Kobe area, NTT Docomo ranks best, followed by emobile (which I’ve honestly never heard of before this), then au-KDDI and finally Softbank.

Coverage map showing 3G & 4G coverage

From here, it seems like you can’t go too wrong with choosing either NTT Docomo or emobile; the latter may have significantly lower upload speeds compared to Docomo, but appears to be more reliable and has a lower ping.

I went about looking at the product line-up for each of these carriers, and Docomo has by far the most updated and latest phones available, with a much wider range and variety available for the consumer.

  • Docomo’s product line-up includes the Galaxy S4 and Sony Xperia Z
  • au’s product line-up includes the HTC One (64GB variant, yay!) and a variant of the Sony Xperia Z
  • Softbank’s product line-up is.. to be honest, quite pathetic. Aside from the iPhone 5, all the other phones are years behind
  • emobile’s product line-up is similarly poor, if their (Japanese-only) website is anything to go by

Based on product line-up alone, I’d probably go for either Docomo or au. I’ve never jumped on the iDevices bandwagon, and much prefer to be able to hack, tweak and customise my Android devices as opposed to living in the high-walled, restricting environment that is iOS – but that’s just my opinion.

I don’t really have a lot of research done for price plans, but they seem to charge you a la carte based on the services you want to subscribe for. In any case, going through their websites for the various charges and services available thoroughly confused me. Here are links, make what you will of them.

  • Docomo – by far the most confusing
  • au – still confusing but slightly less so
  • Softbank’s iPhone plan – oh my god, tables that make sense! Sort of. Significantly more understandable and less confusing
  • emobile – everything is in Japanese, wall of text, brain.. refuses.. to.. proc- *fizzles out*

I should probably look through them and try to get a Japanese friend to explain to me what’s going on, how plans and billing works and all. But I’ve nearly forgotten about why I made this post in the first place. Apparently most of the JETs in Kobe use Softbank, and there appears to be free intra-carrier calling available, ie. Softbank to Softbank, Docomo to Docomo, and so on. It is probably more conducive to socialising if I get a Softbank line as well then, since fellow JETs will then be able to call me without abandon (depending on my popularity or lack thereof), but like I mentioned earlier, I’m resisting the idea of getting an iPhone quite a bit. Considering that LINE offers free calling, and my current usage informs me that I very rarely make or receive calls on my phone, I’m wondering if I couldn’t just get a Docomo or au line with a phone that I’d prefer using instead.

Sure, this is a pretty trivial problem in the grand scale of things, but it’s something that bothers me. Why is there such an imbalance in the line-up available at each carrier? Why are the plans so confusingly laid out? Why can’t everyone use wonderful tables that break down components of a plan and still provide an overall fee you pay per month? What if I have to use an iPhone after all?! How perplexing.

Alternatively, I suppose I could skip getting a phone line altogether (or circumvent it with a Skype line) and subscribe to one of the available data-only prepaid plans.

Kobe (addendum)

Did I mention that Kobe is the hometown of my favouritest Japanese actress? Okay maybe it isn’t really, since Wiki says she’s from Kakogawa, Hyogo-ken. I could’ve sworn she said she was from Kobe in an interview though.. Anyhow! Presenting —

Ueno Juri

上野樹里

一人暮らしから、私の家政婦になってくれない?

Looking beautifully contemplative

Ueno Juri (上野 樹里)! She’s well-known for playing the titular character in Nodame Cantabile, which is a great manga by the way, and Ruka Hashimoto in Last Friends (which in hindsight, was way too melodramatic). She’s also well-known for being too gorgeous for words, and cute, and funny, and everything awesome. You can read up on her via her Wikipedia page, and if you understand Japanese, her official website. Even though the drink(s) that she advertises may not be as tasty as she looks, she’ll forever have my support! \o/

じゃ、またね!

じゃ、またね!

Kobe

Kobe Port

Kobe Port

After talking to more people and doing more research, I’m gradually getting more and more excited about being posted to Kobe!

Where Kobe is in relation to the rest of Japan.

Kobe (神戸市 Kōbe-shi), is the fifth-largest city in Japan and is the capital city of Hyōgo Prefecture on the southern side of the main island of Honshū, approximately 30 km (19 mi) west of Osaka on the north shore of Osaka Bay. With a population of about 1.5 million, the city is part of the Kyoto-Osaka-Kobe metropolitan area along with Osaka and Kyoto.

The earliest written records regarding the region come from the Nihon Shoki, which describes the founding of the Ikuta Shrine by Empress Jingū in AD 201. For most of its history the area was never a single political entity, even during the Tokugawa Period, when the port was controlled directly by the Tokugawa Shogunate. Kobe did not exist in its current form until its founding in 1889. Its name comes from “kanbe” (神戸), an archaic title for supporters of the city’s Ikuta Shrine.Kobe became one of Japan’s 17 designated cities in 1956.

Kobe was one of the cities to open for trade with the West following the end of the policy of seclusion and has since been known as a cosmopolitan port city. While the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake diminished much of Kobe’s prominence as a port city, it remains Japan’s fourth busiest container port. The city is the point of origin and namesake of Kobe beef as well as the site of one of Japan’s most famous hot spring resorts, Arima Onsen.

If you feel anything close to the way I feel towards meat, you’ll understand how I feel about the prospect of Kobe beef.

Arima Onsen

Summer Festival (夏祭り)

Ferris Wheel in Kobe Harbourland

Lots to look forward to, but the weather appears to be a little on the warm side. Makes sense, since Kobe lies more on the Southwestern side of Japan. It’s also not too far away from Kyoto or Osaka, the latter of which is the starting point of many a budget flight within and out of Japan – if I manage my finances properly, I foresee being able to take trips to surrounding areas! Hokkaido, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea – anyone?

Kobe's climate chart from Wikipedia

Kobe’s climate chart from Wikipedia

Average monthly temperature – Summer is not going to be my friend

Guess it’s time to shop for Wellingtons?

Before our most recent trip to Japan, Jan shared with me some gorgeous pictures taken in abandoned places (haikyo). Apparently there’s one (of many I don’t know yet, I’m sure) in Kobe! Would definitely love to check that out some time. I’ve copy-pasted the history of the Maya hotel from the blog linked below, which also has photos and an account from the author of the blog. If you’re interested, Google more and check out the blog! Photos are from Flickr, with links back to their original pages.

The Maya Hotel is located (fittingly) halfway up Mt. Maya. Maya is the second highest peak in Kobe, part of the Rokko mountain range which bisects the city. Built in 1929, the Maya Hotel is a perfect example of Japan`s pre-WWII craze for Western art-deco architecture. During the war, the hotel`s roof was loaded up with anti-aircraft guns and used in the defense of Kobe. Kobe city, like Osaka and Tokyo, was heavily fire bombed and mostly destroyed. The hotel, as a converted military target, was damaged in the raids.

After the war, the city decided to sell the hotel to a private owner. The hotel was repaired and reopened for business 1961. However, in 1967 a typhoon and mudslide greatly damaged the building once more and its doors were shuttered again.

The hotel got one last chance in 1974 when it was repaired (again) and rechristened the “Maya Student Center.“ It never took off as a student center, though. It was rarely used and the final nail in the coffin came in 1995 when the Great Awaji Earthquake – which killed more than 6000 people in Kobe – badly damaged the grand old building once more. The hotel was sealed up, the hiking trails leading to it were sealed up, and no more business would be done there.

However, a beautiful building with such a tumultuous history wouldn’t stay forgotten for long so, of course, the Maya Hotel became one of Japan`s most famous haikyo (abandoned place). Since then it has been used as a filming location for various music videos and TV episodes. One of which, in fact, brought in an authentic B-29 Superfortress tire for a war scene and left it there. The tire can still be found today.

Mongolia to the Moon

Maya Hotel

Maya Hall

Doors

View from outside

Pretty exciting stuff! Before I go over, though, I need to learn self-defence.. against the likes of cockroaches (my ultimate nemesis) and other assorted bugs which my brother has been so keen to share with me about. Lovely. And cook! And a bunch of other miscellaneous life skills. I would also like to spend more time with the people I’m close to, but that depends more on their hectic schedules than mine so we’ll see about that. Oh there’s JLPT N2 to sit for in July as well, hmm.

It doesn’t seem like I’ve all that much time left anymore.