Sunday, 24 November 2013

The Capsule Hotel ~ Japan’s Answer to the Hostel

Well, it wasn’t on my to-do list but it was certainly something that I desired to experience and not even a month in, I’ve managed to have the opportunity to stay in a Capsule Hotel. Now for those in the cheap seats, a capsule hotel is a hotel designed to house those who don’t require the luxuries of a typical hotel. So all in all, there is no eating area, no en suite bathroom and no bar, lounge, night club or swimming pool. Fundamentally, the capsule hotel is exactly what is says on the tin. Your bedroom is a capsule – a small compartment in the wall amongst many other small compartments in the wall. The only thing you do in there is sleep…or watch television. I stayed at the Capsule Hotel Asahi Plaza in Shinsaibashi, Osaka and my capsule was thus below:

Capsule 430 at the Asahi Plaza
So I suspect you’re wondering why I would find such a tiny compartment rather exciting. After all, it’s nothing compared to the five star options that some of us westerners are used to. Nevertheless, while it may simply be nothing more than a hole in the wall, the fact that it’s not something that exists where I’m from makes it even more interesting to me. I’ve lived in my tiny little London bubble all my life so now that I have the opportunity to try new things, I’m taking them as they come. And as yet another Japanese invention, it was only right that I opted for a capsule hotel – even if it ends up only being once.

I wasn’t alone for the experience but upon arrival, we had to remove our shoes at the entrance and put them in lockers. After completing some paperwork, we were issued with keys and a quick run through for where everything was. First impressions were that it was quite cool. I was in ‘foreigner-fantasy’ mode where everything and anything new looks amazing. The women’s’ capsules were separate from the men’s and the first thing that hit me when stepping into the lift heading down was the heat. Now I’m a fan of heat so this was nice for me but I reckon that the high temperature was coming from the bath and shower rooms as inside them was a sauna as well. Get in. We were issued a key that permitted us entry into the women’s area and which also, served as a means for us to put away our belongings inside a locker.

Now in true Japan style, these lockers were quite narrow and I had a small suitcase, a laptop bag and a large coat with me. I managed to shove my stuff in the locker however and in return, I found a couple of towels, a sponge and a pyjama set waiting inside. Unfortunately, said pyjamas were not westerner friendly. The bottoms were like shorts on me whereas they pretty much fit to the floor on one particularly small Japanese woman. There were laundry bins all over the place however so when you were done with yours, all you had to do was toss them inside.

Now I wish I had taken a picture, but also, in the women’s’ area was a powder room. This came complete with multiple sinks, stools, face wash and moisturiser, sterilised brushes and hair dryers. I thought this was a nice touch as the day I stayed in the hotel, myself and my collective were off on a night on the town so it was nice to have a room-length mirror to get ready in.

We had to return our keys to the front desk when we left. I suspect this is quite common in Japan as I’ve stayed in a couple of hotels now and upon re-entry, we simply had to quote the number and we were issued with our keys again. I wasn’t sure initially where people got dressed so opted to get dressed in my capsule. This was a bit uncomfortable and I’d often knock the sides of the capsule because I’m obviously not a small person. I was more concerned with disturbing the prominent quiet that seemed so prevalent about the capsules. It was really warm inside however and there was a small curtain that you could pull down if you wanted to shut out light or desired your own privacy.

I never used the television as I was so tired when I got in but I noticed that inside the capsule was a built-in alarm clock which I also, thought was cool.

Be aware that you are sleeping next to other people so if they start snoring, you’ll most definitely hear it. I had to deal with this for roughly twenty minutes in addition to people shuffling around but I was so tired that I flaked out soon afterward.

I woke up before the alarm I’d set and proceeded to do my morning ritual. During this time, I discovered that most people just got changed wherever they liked. Some got changed in the locker rooms but the most common location was obviously the bathhouse. I got the Japanese bathhouse experience only the water was a little bit too hot for me. There were a lot of people about but I suspect this was because check out times were fixed at 10am and any time later would incur a fine.

It was also, indicated that people had to vacate the premises between twelve and two in the afternoon to allow time for cleaning. This didn’t affect me so much as I only stayed one night but I can understand why this might be annoying for people who want the option of sleeping in.

Overall I had a pretty positive experience. I can’t speak for all Capsule Hotels but I figure that it’s probably not the best option for couples and definitely not something you should go to if you’re claustrophobic.

Asahi Plaza was located right in the middle of a night-life hotspot so it was a good location for what we needed it for. I would therefore give this Capsule Hotel, three and a half stars out of five.

Advice? It’s better to experience it for yourself.


Friday, 8 November 2013

Stupid Foreigner Moments ~ The Other Side

So, it’s been roughly two days since my arrival in Japan. I’ve become somewhat acquainted with my fellow staff members as we rough it through together. However, having spent the vast majority of life in a country where almost everybody speaks my language, finding myself now flipped to the bottom of the food chain, as it were, has become something of a rude awakening. Now, I mentioned earlier that one of my concerns with regards to coming to Japan was the language barrier that I was due to experience. I know basic Japanese from my poor attempts at self-learning and the ten week course I took upon arrival, but while some of it has been useful, my weaknesses with Japanese are as clear as day. I can say basic sentences and my pronunciation is pretty good – I’ve been told – but my listening ability sucks horrendously which makes having a small conversation extremely difficult. What’s more, I can’t help but think that from the native language speaker perspective, I must look like that annoyingly stupid foreigner that natives roll their eyes at.

Now that I’m on the other side, I find that I get embarrassed a lot more and that’s it’s difficult to get my personality across, even with the most simplest of requests. Take this rather embarrassing encounter. (I’m really fortunate that I wasn’t alone when it happened). In an attempt to gain access to the internet, we were instructed to head to an internet café a station ride away. I’m pretty sure this “internet café” fits the description of what is known as a “mangakisa”, a place where comic book and anime fans come together to chill out, surf the internet, read manga…etc. In the UK, an internet café is just that – a place to surf the internet. There are no restrictions and no ties. You walk in; ask to use a computer; the staff member will point you in the direction of said computer; you may or may not need to log in; you surf the internet; you finish; you get up and pay and that’s it! Bob’s your uncle. At this internet café, we had to join. So this included filling out a form which was of course entirely in Japanese.

I still feel sorry for the staff members at this point – one had basic English and one had none whatsoever but we were instructed to fill out the form nonetheless. It was probably a really simple form but it look rather intricate, and as such we only filled out our names, dates of birth and the address section which I could barely remember off the top of my head. After a little more faffing around – their rates of pay were in English – we were lead to a non-smoking area (even though I could smell the smoke from the smoking area nearby). We had the option of using their computers or bringing our own and hooking it up to their ethernet cables so we did the latter. Only, I couldn’t find a plug socket and my laptop can only span roughly forty-five minutes to one hour; it also, wasn’t fully charged so I was panicking. What’s more, I didn’t know the Japanese word for ‘plug socket’. I tried to show the staff member with no English what I needed but obviously he didn’t understand and ended up merely untangling the charger wire from my laptop. So before my computer died, I loaded up Facebook and located two of my Japanese friends asking them for the word in question. Neither of them answered particularly quickly so I loaded up a picture of a plug socket and decided to find one of the members of staff. I beckoned him to follow – with my hand turned down and not up – pointed at the image and blurted out “kore wa arimasu ka?” while pointing at the image. At first, he said “no” and I had a WTF moment and then after realising that I had a travel adapter attached to my plug, he pointed to underside of the table next to me and I wondered how the hell I managed to miss it completely. I thanked him and felt stupid. Japan – 1, Melissa – 0.

I now understand why people smile a lot more when they’re put in situations where there is a language barrier. People smile because they feel awkward. They can’t quite feel themselves because they know that they’re not able to communicate to the extent that they would if they were with someone who spoke the same language. So they smile. Smiling is universal; everybody the world over understands a smile and for the most part, won’t find it offensive. But it can also, act as a barrier in itself to dissuade the “what the hell am doing” or “I have no idea what you’re saying” vibe that one feels when they’re no longer in a position of familiarity. I’ve had plenty of these moments in the last couple of days and for someone like me, who’s used to being able to put myself forward correctly, it feels like it won’t get any easier.

Another shocker for me was how prevalent katakana is. For those not in the know, the Japanese language has three alphabets, for lack of a better term. Hiragana: used for Japanese words; Kanji: derived from Chinese characters; and Katakana: used for foreign words. For example, my name would be written in katakana because of course, it’s a foreign word. Katakana is virtually everywhere – at least in Nagoya anyway. I see it more than I see Hiragana which is often at times mind-boggling. I had actually promised myself that I would learn Katakana before I arrived in Japan but didn’t do so. My back’s against the wall now.

On a lighter note, one of my customer’s at my previous company recommended a book called “Japan – The Original Point-and-Speak Phrasebook”. This book has images with words in English, Romaji and Japanese characters and came in handy when I went to a couple of Japanese restaurants. I was able to ask a waitress what she would recommend as I wanted something with chicken in it; I was also, able to ask if the food was spicy and all I had to do was point at the word/image and put it into question form. In the second restaurant, I’m pretty sure the waitress commented positively on using the book so I intend to carry it around with me until I become a bit more competent with my language abilities. I would recommend it to anyone with as limited Japanese ability as I have. It includes sections on being at the airport, taking a train, food, sports, emergencies and my personal favourite – being at a pharmacy/clinic/hospital. I expect I’ll catch a cold at some point so that section will serve as an absolute gem when I need to describe my symptoms.

I feel odd and sometimes, I want to hide away, but I know that I have to keep throwing myself in the deep end. I have to attempt things on my own as well if I intend to get anywhere. And above all, I have to study. Right now, I have the support of my colleagues who are pretty much in the same predicament as me, but it won’t be like that forever – especially when I head over to Hiroshima. So I will push, because even though it feels like a mountain to climb, it’s something that I must overcome.

I’m sure there will be more “stupid foreigner moments” to come however.




Thursday, 7 November 2013

Cathay Pacific ~ The Good, The Not Bad and The Ugly

I’ve been very fortunate to have holidayed a few times throughout my life, but it’s a very rare occasion that I’ve flown somewhere alone. The only other time I flew to another country by myself was when I travelled to Spain. It was my first time and I picked a budget airline called EasyJet which flies predominantly around Europe. I was quite impressed with the flight and at the time, I had a VISA Electron card which meant I got the flight discounted but the real challenge for me would be to fly alone on a long haul flight. I don’t think I was nervous about it nonetheless, but it was really important for me to find a decent airline as I knew I would be up in the air for quite some time. So the first thing I did was set my criteria.

I wanted an airline that was reasonably priced, that had in-flight entertainment, that would allow me a lot of luggage, that would ensure a short stopover – there were no direct flights to Nagoya - and that held decent reviews. The first airline I came across was China Eastern Airlines. They were cheap and they permitted two huge suitcases in addition to hand luggage. I would have gone with them had it not been for the monster reviews I’d seen online for their long haul flights. Therefore, I opted for Cathay Pacific instead. I sacrificed luggage as they only permit you a 20kg suitcase (yet hand luggage and laptop) but I liked their reviews; there was a stopover in Hong Kong which would only entail a three hour wait and I had confirmation from a colleague that they were decent. They also, had on-flight entertainment including a lot of movies that I wanted to watch. So with my airline chosen, I made my way to the airport and waited with baited breath to see if I’d made the right choice.

My biggest concern initially, was my suitcase. It was overweight and Cathay Pacific indicates that if you are one kilo over, you will have to pay $60 which amounts to roughly £40. I spent a couple of days taking things out and putting things in, in order to get it to weigh correctly. In the end, my big suitcase was over by a kilo and my hand luggage was over by half a kilo, but the lovely man behind the counter didn’t mention it at all and so I had no problems there. I think it might have had something to do with the fact that I was early and I had checked in online already. Or maybe the guy was in a good mood because I’m sure some of the other airline staff might actually impose the rules. All I can say is I was very fortunate there.

Getting onto the plane was easy enough. I arrived in the waiting lounge just as they were asking people to board. I located my seat with ease (aisle seat for the win) but was annoyed that some selfish idiot had decided to place his hand luggage, laptop and coat in such a way that it took up the entire compartment above me. In the end, both my hand luggage and laptop were separated from each other but I settled in my seat and realised that nobody in my row (there were four) knew each other. We were all in the same boat.

Take-off took thirty minutes as there was a queue at the runway (we still arrived in Hong Kong early however) but we took off and when the plane stabilised, I launched into my entertainment. I watched three movies and an episode of The Big Bang Theory. I realised a little too late that I could have plugged in my laptop and played some games. I slept for roughly an hour as they provided a towel and pillow (the pillow was warm but uncomfortable when placed behind my head). We were fed and watered throughout the entire flight – two big meals, a couple of rounds of snacks and a couple additional rounds of drinks – these could also, be requested nonetheless. When I needed to access my hand luggage, the air stewards made an effort to help me without me even asking.

As Cathay Pacific is a Chinese airline, there were more Chinese passengers than anyone else. One was sitting next to me and had a bad habit of getting up constantly and disappearing for long periods of time and then coming back – especially when I was tucking into a movie. I found it interesting however that he did not use his on-flight entertainment once but found it just as interesting to peer at my screen from time to time and see what I was getting into. He wasn’t a bad guy however. He was very helpful and polite to me (especially when we were due to get off the plane and I had nowhere to put my hand luggage. We even spoke briefly).

On my connecting flight at Hong Kong (Hong Kong have free internet at its airport by the way, which is awesome), I found my chair a little more cramped than in the long haul flight (not an aisle seat this time). I felt incredibly uncomfortable and even moreso when they served yet another meal. Had I known this, I probably wouldn’t have filled up on water and sweets beforehand so I promise you that as soon as I rolled off this flight, I felt like I was gonna explode. This was a perk however – good for people with big appetites and the food across both flights was okay. (I would not recommend the Congee  however. What’s more, during my first meal on the previous flight, the piece of bread they gave me was tough as nails). Once more, there was entertainment on this flight also, which I found shocking for a short haul flight (it was a little over 3 hours) but also, a perk. I was too tired to engage however so slept for most of it and then watched what I could of Happy Feat while I ate.

What I found quite interesting about both these flights however was that a lot of the passengers had no regard for the rules. Sometimes the seatbelt sign would still be on or would switch on and passengers would be up and about getting their hand luggage or popping to the bathroom. Even after the air stewards would ask them to sit down, they would continue to queue. Both English and Chinese were used on both flights (and even Japanese on the second one) so it wasn’t the fault of a language issue or anything. Simply put, people just didn’t want to comprehend that when it’s time to switch off your phone because it could affect the mechanisms on the flight, that one should switch off their phone and not put it on silent. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t have an issue with flying but I do have an issue with people playing with fire – especially when there’s a chance that it could affect me.

Overall, it was a pretty smooth experience. There were no major issues on the flight; no delays and as promised, my luggage went straight through from air craft to air craft so I didn’t have to check in more than once. In fact, my suitcase came out pretty much as soon as I set foot in the collection area in Japan and I had to run to catch it before it disappeared. Staff were relatively friendly and I never went hungry. I would definitely consider flying with them again, only this time, I got a discount as I went through an agent. If you go through their website and I suspect, going through some agents as well, it’ll be a little on the steep side if you’re flying from the UK.

To conclude, however, I would give Cathay Pacific 4 out of 5 stars.


Monday, 4 November 2013

Japan Prep ~ The Countdown

As I write this, there are less than 48 hours to go before I get on my planes to Japan. I’ve seen all of my family and most of my friends; I’ve eaten copious amounts of food; I received gifts from both here and overseas; I’ve been given kind words and wise words; I’ve shed tears – who would have thought it? But right now, more than anything, I’m hoping that by the end of today, I will be virtually good to go.

Preparing to travel overseas for a long period of time can be stressful – especially for someone like me who is a keen organiser and who likes things to run smoothly. I can pretty much say that I’ve been preparing to go to Japan since I found out I got the job but there were a few obstacles in my way that prevented me from carrying out specific tasks at specific times. Therefore, my biggest piece of advice to anyone would be to have patience. Sometimes, certain things – especially to do with official documents – take a little longer than others. So in the meantime, do other things that will contribute later to your departure; go to work – make some money; you’re seriously gonna need it because moving abroad can be a big feat. Spend time with family and friends because you’re not gonna see them for a while: anything that’s gonna help you in the long run to make your transition smoother.

As for me and my preparations. This is my story.

~

Important Documents

Work Pemit? Visa? Passport, if you need one? Get this sorted as early as possible. I can’t speak for other visas such as the Working Holiday visa, Spousal visa…etc but I was pretty fortunate as my company virtually walked me through all the steps. I can’t say for certain but I believe that when you have a company backing you, it becomes a much smoother process which is why I was determined to find work overseas before travelling. I’m not saying that others have had a harder time by simply travelling to Japan to find work on Japanese soil because I’ve come across people who have done exactly this. But I’m nowhere near brave enough to pack up my life and cross into unfamiliar territory with a handful of cash, a pocket full of optimism and limited direction. I would crumble but I admire those who’ve had the courage to do this. All I can say is that I already had my passport and the process of acquiring my visa and associated documents was extremely smooth; it took no more than a few weeks collectively.

Flight

After you’ve acquired your documents, I would suggest you book your flight. Now I’ve known people who have travelled to Japan and I reckon that even by checking out the time difference alone, anyone could guess that it’s one hellova flight. As for me, I already had a budget in mind. Instead of Tokyo however, I will be flying to Nagoya so I searched across the internet for a deal. One of the cheapest airlines I came across was China Eastern Airlines. They were particularly attractive to me because they permitted you two checked-in 23kg suitcases, plus hand luggage. But I decided against them because of some of the reviews I’d read. I think that when selecting an airline, you have to decide what’s more important to you, whether it’s luggage allowance, comfort…etc. For me, I knew I would be in the air for a while so I wanted an airline that would keep me entertained so that I forgot about the duration of the flight. In the end, I went through an agent called STA Travel who offer discounts to students and those under 26-years-old. Currently, I’m 25 and they had a deal going (within my budget range no less) with the airline Cathay Pacific which had pretty decent reviews (including confirmation from someone I knew).  It’s a stopover flight but my stopover is very short (this was also, important to me) so I get to stretch my legs after a while, but they’re luggage allowance is only 20kg. They do however, allow a laptop in addition to hand luggage.

Money

I spent the longest time racking my brains and trying to figure out how I could get a rather large sum of money overseas without actually having to carry a large sum of money. I think I may have mentioned earlier that I dislike carrying a lot of money on me in my day to day life. Therefore, the solution seems simple enough. Bring a credit/debit card. Only, I’m quite a stingy person. I’ve never liked credit cards and I’m well aware that my bank will charge me through the roof if I even considered using my debit card abroad. Thus, I would lose a lot of my hard-earned cash this way and I didn’t like it. Nevertheless, I knew I would need some cash to use as it would be a while before I got to set up a bank account so I searched high and low and came across a site called Travelex which had one of the best exchange rates going. (Right now, the pound is stronger than the yen). I also, spoke to a relative, who recommended a company called Caxton FX. They provide a currency card free of charge which can be used internationally and which will provide me with the best exchange rate of the day no matter where I withdraw from. And more importantly, there’d be no extra charge when withdrawing or using said card abroad. All I’d need to do was load it with money from a bank account. Result. Lastly, I then emailed a friend in Japan about traveller’s cheques as it’s quite well-known that this method of exchange isn’t very prominent in Japan anymore. Fortunately, the city I’ll be moving to possesses a few establishments that will change the cheques for me. Double result. My money issue was resolved and this brings me to my next point…
  
Networking

I kid you not. Facebook has been my friend these last few weeks. My company put me in touch with some of my fellow teachers. I joined their Facebook group. For women of colour, I joined another group called Women of Color Living Abroad and this too has been a big help as it helped me get in touch with women like myself who had done it all before. Previously, I joined a website called Interpals in order to meet some Japanese people or people working in Japan. I also, joined a site called Japan Guide and posted an ad in the Classifieds section seeking friends and through all this I’ve had some pretty positive results. I’ve therefore, come to the conclusion that by moving abroad, the buffer you have that are your friends and family will not be there anymore. And even though you can still communicate with them – we have Skype, WhatsApp…etc - it’s not the same as having them there in person. What’s more, you’re gonna be walking into unfamiliar territory as living in another country is not quite the same as going on holiday. So get out there and find out as much information as possible. I’ve asked so many questions to so many people. I’ve asked their opinions on certain matters and about their experiences as a whole, and I am grateful to every single one of them. What’s more – who’s to say you mightn’t make a lifelong friend or two on the way. Social networking is the way forward.

Shipping

Cathay Pacific only allow 20kg but I knew that considering that we’re rolling into winter, I would only need winter garb for the time being. That being said, I have a lot of summer items and the like that I would like to send over to myself. So another concern for me was finding a reasonably priced shipping company in the UK. Remember when I mentioned networking? It really does help to know people. A friend of mine recommended a Japanese shipping company called Nippon Express. They’re rates were pretty good so I contacted them and they sent me out the documentation free of charge. When I sat down to look through it all, it all seemed very confusing nonetheless and their head office was based quite far away from me. Instead, I am opting for a company called CourierPoint which a girl I met on Facebook had her items shipped with successfully. They seem a lot more straight-forward as everything is done online. They’re prices are also, reasonable. Based on the quote I got, I can send a 30kg box for £150 (size and other restrictions apply).

Packing

I’ve heard of people spending ridiculous money on suitcases but I bought a large one and a small one for a grand total of £36, both of which sit within Cathay’ Pacific’s baggage allowance. My advice; shop around or use an old one if it’s still good. Unknowing as to where I was going as Peppy Kids have branches all over the place, I blew a lot of money on winter clothing but realised that I was probably going to need some lighter clothing as well considering I’m going to be jumping around with children. I packed the clothing anyway nonetheless because Japanese sizes simply won’t accommodate me; the same goes for shoes as I’m a UK size 8. I’ve put enough cosmetic items in there to last me a month which should be enough time for me to receive my box containing the bulk of the cosmetics I bought.  I’ve packed a load of entertainment from Japanese language books and the fifth volume of the A Song of Ice and Fire series to games on my laptop. I bought some travel adapters even though I know that I could have bought some upon arrival. I’ve also, packed some Paracetamol, and Ear Planes – I get that air pressure pain something fierce. I bought a luggage scale to weigh all of this as well and I’ve pretty much maxed everything out.

Loose Ends

Got a job? Got a mobile phone? Students Loans to repay maybe? Be sure to alert those that need to be told that you’re jumping ship. I don’t know about other countries but in the UK, if you fail to declare that you’re travelling overseas to work, they will deduct a penalty fee of £250. As for my mobile, I had set myself a new year’s resolution to find work overseas within the year so when my two year contract finished back in February, I downgraded to a 30-day SIM-only plan which could be cancelled at any time as long as I gave 30 days notice. I gave my workplace two and a half weeks notice and cancelled every one of my direct debits. I want minimal drama while I’m abroad. So reduce your stress. Tie up all your loose ends.

 ~

There were a few other things that I did in order to prepare for Japan that aren’t on this list, for example, the classes I went to, or the time I took off work in the final countdown but these are the ones that seem to most important to me. I even created an excel document to keep track of my progress. (Mind you, I’m not suggesting anyone should do this as it’s a little extra but this is just my preference). It doesn’t have to be the headache that it might feel like. And don’t feel like you have to do it on your own either. The amount of time it takes to prepare is probably different for everyone. As for me, I feel like I’m ready to go now.

First stop: Hong Kong

Second Stop: Nagoya


Final Stop: Hiroshima