Taking my Harpsicle Harp on a Plane to Tokyo

“Don’t, whatever you do, put your harp in the hold.”
The advice of pretty much every musician ever.

As both an expat and a harpist, my life choices have not exactly made things easy in terms of moving my stuff around. Once last year I did a gig as solely a vocalist and it was incredible. No faffing about with taxis, no desperate attempts to take my harp on public transport. I actually went to the pub afterwards and didn’t have to ask in Japanese if they have a back room where I can put my lever harp while I drank with the band. My old car made things a lot easier but I sold him to come to Japan. I also have a beautiful pedal harp being rented out 6000 miles from here that I pine for occasionally but getting her out here is next to impossible.

Taking my harpsicle on a plane though, would not be impossible. For those who don’t know, harpsicles are small harps that you can carry around with you, are often painted in fun colours and you can plug them in easily. I have one, it’s purple and I love it. I could think of so many uses for it in my Tokyo life – on stage with my metal band so I could perform standing, in my work as a Kindermusik teacher and any casual rehearsal where I could get away without the faff of moving my large lever harp.

On their website, Harpsicle® Harps describe how professionals have started using their harpsicles as their “travel harp,” “the one they can toss into the airline overhead while their big harp is trapped in a massive harp travel trunk.” So I was hopeful that I could take my harp on the plane with me on my flight from London Heathrow to Tokyo Haneda. I looked on some flight and music forums and found that people had had very mixed experiences taking their harpsicles on planes and I started to be more concerned. I really didn’t want to be in a situation where I had presumed that it would be allowed on with me and then be turned away at security – with the choice of either leaving my harp behind or chucking it into the hold with only a soft case (which is NOT an option at all).

So I called British Airways, gave them my harpsicle’s dimensions and asked if it could come with me in the cabin. The short answer was no and the long answer was no. I didn’t have a hard case as Harpsicle® Harps don’t make them and I didn’t wanted to spend the money required for a custom made case as it would probably cost more than the harp.

So my Dad and I set about making a cardboard construction to keep my baby harp safe in the hold.

First we wrapped the harp and its softcase in  4 layers of bubble wrap…
harpsicle harp bubble wrap plane

Then we constructed cardboard around the harp. Making it so it fit tightly around the irregular shape was harder than it looks. Again we used several layers for protection.

harpsicle harp cardboard plane tokyo

Finally we used a tonne of tape and then added fragile tape and a contents label in English and Japanese.

harpsicle harp tokyo fragile
The packing process took a little more than an hour. It did occur to me that if customs told me to unwrap this I would be royally screwed. Luckily, I got through with only a few odd looks and some questions. My real concern, however, was whether my harp would be damaged. Every musician I had chatted with had looked at me in horror when I had told them my intention of putting my harp in the hold. It took me 20 minutes and 3 papercuts to free my baby harp from it’s cardboard case but when I got it out it was undamaged and even mostly in tune. Victory.

It’s been really satisfying bringing my purple harpsicle to work and rehearsals this week and I recorded my first youtube video with it in years last weekend. It’s Galway Girl by Ed Sheeran and I’m not as ashamed of this as I should be.

 

Tenshoku Part 2 – Changing my Visa Status in Japan

Picking up where I left off in part 1, I had handed in my notice, accepted my shiny new job offer as a music teacher, now all I had to do was work until my notice was up and start my new job and everything would be easy and happy right? Wrong. I had the wrong visa for my new job so first I had to change my visa status. I’ll reiterate that I’m not a legal expert, just a bod writing about my own experience. I hope you find my blog helpful but if you’re struggling, please get help from the pros!

The vast majority of teachers in Japan have one of two types of working visa – the Specialist in Humanities visa or the Instructor visa. The Specialist in Humanities visa is usually the type held by eikaiwa teachers as it allows you to work in private companies. Positions in offices working in Translation, Marketing, HR or what have you usually also require this visa. The Instructor visa on the other hand allows you to teach in public schools. Doing paid work outside your visa remit without permission is against the rules. Unfortunately, I had come to Japan on an Instructor visa so I had to change my visa type before I could start my new job.

Changing my visa status involved 7 happy fun steps:

  1. Get together a tonne of paperwork
  2. Take said paperwork to Shinagawa Immigration Bureau (where all hopes go to die)
  3. An agonising wait
  4. Troubleshooting
  5. Another agonising wait
  6. Returning to Shinagawa Immigration Bureau (where all hopes go to die) to pick up new visa
  7. Relief and copious amounts of sweet foods

 

  1. The Paperwork

One of the things that I like about my new workplace is that it is a new, growing business run by a small number of individuals who are passionate about what they do rather than a massive McJob eikawa. Unfortunately this means that I was the first foreign employee without a Child of a Japanese National or a Permanent Resident visa so they weren’t really sure of the particulars of the visa change and I had to handle a lot of the paperwork myself. This is what I had to bring to the immigration bureau:

Application form: The Application for Change of Status of Residence form can be found here.

There are two parts of this application form, one that you have to fill in and one that your employer has to fill in. The one for you is simple enough, just your basic information and a photo (which must fit their requirements). The part for your employer is a little more complicated – as well as filling in information on the type of work you will be doing, they need to give some information about their company, such as their capital, annual sales from the previous year and number of employees.

Letter of Release (Taishoku-Shomei-sho (たいしょくしょうめいしょ or 退職証明書)) from your old job 
This is a document from your old workplace, confirming that you have left that job, how long you were there and how much money you made working for them.

Your new employment contract

Your degree certificate Unfortunately it’s difficult to get a working visa in Japan without a degree which I think is stupid and snobby as many jobs (including mine) could be done just as well without one. Anyway, I’ve heard people getting away with a photocopy but officially I think you’re supposed to show them the original or a certified copy. And here is where I ran into a problem. I had left my degree certificate at my parents home in England and they had had a house fire. Thankfully everyone was ok and my parents still have a house but a lot of our stuff was destroyed or damaged. Everything that wasn’t had been put in boxes and sent to some warehouse to be cleaned of carcinogenic soot particles. The long and short of it was that my parents didn’t know whether my degree certificate still existed and, if it did, they didn’t know if they could find it. I asked my university to get me a new one but they said it could take a month. I panicked – my new job needed me to start soon. I needed the visa to start working and I would have no way to support myself while I was waiting for the inefficient wheels of University bureaucracy to turn. Thankfully my mother, my sweet, selfless, slightly freaked out mother (hi there!) dedicated a whole day to searching through boxes and managed to find it.

From your new job: Copies of the company registration and a statement of profit and loss of the company and “materials showing the business substance of the organisation.”
The first two are easy enough but ‘materials showing the business substance’ had my employers scratching their heads a tad. In these situations, I find it helpful to think about it from the other party’s perspective – what do immigration want to see for a successful application? Basically they want to know that the company you are going to work for is legit and not some dodgy black company exploit you and have something like you dying from starvation or overwork happening, which would be embarrassing for everyone involved. HR documents, sales and financial records, even marketing materials could do.

Guarantor I don’t know if you actually need need this but you can get a Japanese national or permanent resident to sign a form saying that they are ‘responsible for your behaviour in Japan’ and will pay for your flight home in the event that you can not yourself. So my boyfriend has signed a legal document saying I am his ‘responsibility.’ How delightfully patriarchal.

Your passport, resident card, and health insurance card The last one isn’t essential I don’t think but I’m told it helps your application.

2. Shinagawa Immigration Bureau

Screen shot 2016-06-27 at 14.49.00
Shinagawa Immigration Bureau: Most definitely NOT a theme park

 

Next step is to go to your local immigration bureau, which in my case was the one in Shinagawa. It’s a bit of an eyesore, this bizarre grey oblong far out from the the station so the swanky businessmen don’t have to look at the riff raff. I was expecting long queues (which there were) but I must say I was disappointed in the amount of foreign language provisions there. Some, not all, signs are in English and none of the staff seem to speak it. I like to think that I’m not the type of gaijin who expects everything to be in English for her but, come on, there are many Japanese people who speak excellent English so why aren’t some of them working there?? This is an immigration bureau for crying out loud. When your average Starbucks worker speaks more English than your average immigration official it’s getting ridiculous. I don’t think having a few people around the bureau who speak English, Chinese or Korean and can troubleshoot is too much too ask. The result of my poor Japanese was that I got in the wrong queue and wasted an hour but in the end I managed to hand my documents in at the right desk.

After that you get a receipt that you went to the immigration bureau on that date and fill out a change of status postcard with your address which they will post to you to let you know that your application has been processed.

3. The Wait

After that I went home and entered an awkward period of limbo while I waited for them to get back to me. Immigration’s website says the usual duration for this procedure is a month to three months though I have heard of people getting theirs in as little as 3 weeks.

This time is awkward because the legality of you working is very murky. You needed to have proof you quit your previous job to change your visa but until you get your new visa you are not allowed to do the type of work of your new job. So what on earth are you supposed to do with yourself?? I was fortunate in a way because I had to do some training to get my early-years music teaching certification anyway so I kept busy but boy, did things get tight financially. I am totally confused about this so if anyone would like to share their experiences I’d be very happy to hear it!

4. Troubleshooting

Hopefully you will not have to deal with this step but, on occasion, if there is something wrong with your application immigration will contact you. I actually really appreciated that they did this instead of rejecting my application outright, which they could have done. The letter they sent to me was in very dry, official Japanese though so had I not been able to show it to my boyfriend I would have had no idea what the hell was going on. My boyfriend passed N2 and he still struggled with this letter. It turned out that immigration wanted to see another document from my employer – a 給与所得の源泉徴収票等の法定調書合計表 . Don’t ask me how to pronounce it, but it’s essentially a HR/Accounting document that details payroll information for employees for the previous tax year. I’m not exactly sure why immigration wanted to see this – maybe as my new employers haven’t hired many foreigners before they wanted to make extra sure they were legit when it comes to paying people? Anyway, it involved another jolly trip down to immigration to hand this in.
I’ve heard it said that immigration can ask you for anything, even a hand-drawn map of your commute, so unfortunately it is a case of they say jump and you say how high.

5. Another wait

The HR document issue had scared me a bit so this second wait was worse than the first.

6. Returning to Shinagawa Immigration Bureau

About a month and a half after my initial trip to the immigration bureau I got that change of status postcard I had written for them previously through the post, telling me to come to the bureau. You would have thought I would have been happy but actually I was super nervous – reason being that the post card doesn’t have to stay whether your application has been accepted or declined, just that it has finished being processed. What if I had been declined? Anyway I headed down to immigration post haste with the change of status post card, my Residence Card and passport. Oh and 4000 yen worth of revenue stamps. The status change process costs 4000 yen (my friend has a theory that the reason that usually only grant 1 year visas is that they want to get enough money out of us as possible). You can’t pay in cash, you have to use revenue stamps which can be bought at most convenience stores. There’s actually a Family Mart you can get them inside the Shinagawa Immigration bureau.

So I headed back to Shinagawa Immigration Bureau for a third time. This time my boyfriend came with me so I didn’t go in the wrong queue. After 2 and a half hour’s wait I arrived at the desk. I was terrified. When the lady handed me my new Specialist in Humanities visa I couldn’t believe it, but there it was! Approved to work for one year from that day. My old residence card was punched with a hole punch to show it was voided and I was free to go.

7. Relief and Food

I will never forget how I felt as I got on the bus away from the hated Shinagawa Immigration Bureau. I felt so relieved and like I could do anything. My boyfriend and I went to our local family restaurant where we proceeded to eat ALL the sweet things and chat about our plans for the next year – plans we weren’t sure we could make until the day.

I’m sure many people will think that I made a big fuss about nothing, but as I said in part 1 this process brought me up against my personal demons – a fear of uncertainty, not being in control and a hatred of waiting. Many people might not be so bothered by it but for me this was one of my biggest challenges to date. Since then I have come up against more difficulties in my life in Japan but I have never once regretted this decision. I feel I’m doing meaningful work that makes me happy and is more helpful for my future.

Tenshoku Part 1 – Quitting my Job in Japan

I felt good yesterday. One of those days where you walk down the street humming Nina Simone and the world just seems like a wonderful place. I had no particular reason to be happy –  it was just a normal day.

Admittedly the weather was stunning but I think the main reason I was feeling happy was because of my job. I’d just had a hard but satisfying day at work and I had a moment when I realised how lucky I am to be able to have a job I enjoy in Tokyo.

In December 2015 I started the long process of changing my job and visa status. I trained as an early-years music educator during this time and for the last few months I have been teaching music to young children in a lovely studio in Daikanyama as well as other locations such as Tokyo American Club.

This decision was one of the best I’ve ever made but I can’t deny that the job change process was painful. I have a strong internal locus of control and freak out when I have to put my fate into the hands of bureaucratic processes over which I have no control. I feel like a bit of a drama queen going on about it now, but honestly at times I really did struggle. In case anyone else is going through the same thing I thought I would write about my experiences.

This is part 1 of 2 in which I discuss quitting my job. I want to make clear that I am not an expert in immigration and can only speak about my own experiences and the resources that helped me through.

Why I quit my previous job

As you may know, I came to Japan on a contract with a English teaching dispatch company. In many ways this job was a great introduction to Japan. I taught English in schools in the day and in companies in the evening. I experienced so many aspects of Japanese society, from kindergartens to hospitals, to major Japanese companies and Tokyo Metropolitan Government. I learnt many things – including that I actually liked teaching and was sort of alright at it, both of which surprised me.

I’m not really motivated by money so I believe that, at least in your 20s, a job should be one of two things: either it should be related to your interests and further your career progression or it should have the kind of hours and stress levels that don’t interfere with your lifestyle.

My job wasn’t ticking either of these boxes. I was working long and unpredictable hours, sometimes leaving the house at 7.15am and not getting home until 9.30pm. I could have handled this if this was a job relevant to my interests and ambitions but it wasn’t. I like teaching, yes, but my passion is music and the arts – if I was spending so much time teaching I wanted to be teaching these. In addition, although I liked many of my colleagues as individuals, there were several aspects of the company that made me uncomfortable. I was making good money but I had come to Japan to experience Japan and I didn’t have the time to do this. When the long, unpredictable hours and the company’s harsh policies on sick leave started to aggravate a health condition that should be manageable the job became not worth it. After 5 months, I decided I wanted out.

Handing in my notice

転職 (tenshoku – changing jobs) can be a bit of a taboo in Japan. In a country where lifetime employment is still common, quitting your job can be seen as a betrayal. I’ve known Japanese people who have faced harrassment after handing in their notice, been denied leave they were entitled to or even been told they were ‘not allowed to quit.’ Of course the situation is different for foreign employees who usually have yearly contracts rather than lifetime employment, but still, ending a contract midway as I did can be really frowned upon.

To immediately clear up a widespread misconception: yes you can change your job in Japan. It is not ‘work for us or go home.’ Your former employer may make threats but your working visa is valid until it expires, even if you change your job.  Take care however, because you cannot renew your visa without an employment contract so if you are changing jobs be sure to leave enough time to arrange everything before your visa expires. Additionally, you have to notify immigration within 14 days of quitting your job and from that point I’ve heard that you can only stay in Japan for 3 months without working.

Japanese labour law states that, ordinarily, workers are required to give 2 weeks notice to their employers before leaving their job to avoid paying damages. However, I’ve heard of contracts that demand 30 or even 60 working days notice. Whether these are in fact legally enforceable is a grey area so if you need to quit in a hurry I would encourage you to seek support from a union (the General Union are good) or a legal expert. My contract asked for 30 days notice and and I chose to give this and a bit more. I wanted to make things easier for my company and I also cared a lot about my students and I knew if I didn’t leave enough time they was a chance they would lose out.

Handing in my notice was stressful. I timed it really badly and did it at a point where almost the whole office was listening in to the tense conversation (no private meeting rooms for me). My company tried to make me stay longer and asked searching questions about the precise reason I was leaving. My advice would be to anyone about to do this is to be polite but assertive. You don’t have to give a reason why you’re going and they do not have the right to make you feel guilty about your decision. You are probably not being selfish or hurtful, changing jobs happens and your company should accept it. I got through this stage by being on it with the paperwork (give a signed and dated letter of notice, make multiple copies) and by standing my ground even while I tried my best to make everything as convenient for my company as possible. Ultimately, it’s an uncomfortable conversation but your company can’t actually do anything to you. This too will pass. If in extreme cases you are experiencing violence, psychological abuse or power harassment of course please get help. I recommend the General Union as an excellent first port of call who can help you get the services you need.

I don’t want to tell people what to do but I see so many people working in Japan who seem stuck in a job that’s making them miserable, because they feel they have no options or they are scared that things could get worse. You do have options. Yes things could get worse, yes the transition process can be rough. I certainly do not recommend jumping into the unknown unprepared – do your research and do not take my word for it. But often the risk and short term pain leads to long term gain.

For me it was definitely worth it.

Check back for a post on changing my visa status soon!

Positives about winter in Japan

I feel the cold. A combination of being pretty skinny and having awful circulation means that a chill wind goes right through me, and no matter now many layers I have on winter has the potential to make me miserable. January and February have been a slog – a friend started a petition on change.org to God asking him to get rid of these months and I thought it was more sensible than many of the petitions on there to be honest.

I was shivering and complaining about the cold, as usual, yesterday when a friend laughed at me and asked how I ever survived in the UK. Yes it’s true that it’s colder in the UK right now, but unlike back home, in Tokyo buildings with central heating and good insulation are a rarity. I’ve been told this is because of earthquakes – houses fall down periodically so it doesn’t make sense to go through the extra effort of insulating them properly or giving them central heating. In my darkly cynical moments I have my doubts about this and am tempted to believe that in actual fact the Japanese believe that the suffering builds moral fibre. Or perhaps it’s something about Japan’s respect for nature and the seasons, an attitude which does have it’s merits…

But there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. One week today it will be March.
Still, as I’m trying this whole optimism thing this year, as an exercise in positive thinking I thought I would try and find some positives about winter in Tokyo. There must be some right?

1) It’s sunny: This is the big one. January is Tokyo’s sunniest month of the year, and boy does that help me out. When it’s winter in the UK it’s freezing AND cloudy to the point you feel like you never get any light and just want to sleep all of the time. Whereas in Tokyo, if I actually manage to wrench myself from my bed, motivate myself to take off the 100 layers I wear to bed, put on the 101 layers I wear during the day and actually get outside the beautiful blue sky has me feeling pretty chirpy.

2) It’s dry: I understand for some people this is very unpleasant. If you have dry skin usually this time of the year can be very tough but I have an oily/combination skin type so this is mostly manageable for me with some lip balm and a good moisturizer. And the dryness of the air has some significant advantages. Firstly, you can dry your washing really well. It might be cold out, but the air is so dry that even if there’s only a sliver of sun (which there usually is, see 1) your clothes will dryin no time. Back home, I tried my best but seeing as my poverty stricken student self didn’t have a tumble dryer, I kind of resigned myself to half my clothes having a vague smell of damp. And not just clothes -almost every student house in Leeds where I went to University perpetually smelt of damp from the walls throughout the winter.

3) Snow onsens: I fulfilled a lifetime dream and went to one. Outdoor hot springs where you can soak in wonderfully warm water while watching the snow fall in the mountains. It was amazing, blog post to follow. The snow sculptures in Hokkaido look spectacular as well, maybe I’ll make it there next year.

3) Seasonal winter snacks and general cuteness: Something I love about Japanese culture is their sensitivity to the seasons. Whether they’re traditions dating back 100s of years or unashamedly commercial (but irresistibly cute), the Japanese do seasonal things well.  Even if the season is winter. In Halloween we had spooky themed drinks and snacks in every convenience store, and winter has seen snow themed treats and cute characters with scarves and hats. I’m particularly enjoying the delicious winter warmers in almost every coffee shop.

…all this aside I can’t deny I’m really looking forward to spring. Hoping to see some cherry blossoms!

My New Years Resolutions

This blog has mostly been about my life in Japan I’m afraid this one is a personal post. Inspired by Gabrielle Leimon, lifestyle blogger at Welcome to the Birdcage, writer for the Huffington Post and one of my oldest friends, I am going to write a post about my new years resolutions. Come summer 2016 I’ll write another to see how I’m doing with them and get back on track if I’ve strayed, which I inevitably will. To be honest I’m pretty vain so I’m hoping that having my resolutions out in public will be a good motivator. I don’t usually do New Year Resolutions and if I do I fail dramatically but hey, New Years is a far bigger deal in Japan than in the UK and my life is different beyond recognition to how it was 6 months ago, so who knows what could happen? It’s probably groundless but I have a feeling that 2016 is going to be a big one for me.

1) To get healthy
Boyfriend watched me write that and promptly stuffed his face with some kind of delicious cream thing as he raised his eyebrows knowingly at me. He then offered me a chocolate finger. I did not refuse.

Moving swiftly on…
I will turn 23 in February 2016 (urgh) and this is a wakeup call that I do not have the body of a teenager anymore. Whilst I have never been terrible at taking care of myself – I’ve always exercised regularly, I eat a lot of fruit and veg, I don’t smoke and I try to get 8 hours of sleep a night – I could definitely be a lot better. I feel that so far that most of the things I do to take care of myself are restorative rather than preventative. I do enough yoga and pilates to control the pain from my scoliosis, muscle tension and time spent in the same position (whether playing the harp or sitting at a desk) enough that I’m not miserable. However, I never exercise towards a goal or attempt to build strength, flexibility or stamina beyond what’s necessary to not be in pain all of the time. I sleep through the weekends to attempt to repay the sleep debt I’ve gained during the week. I spend a day sipping water and eating salad to counteract the alcohol and junk food I’ve consumed the previous night (Japan is particularly bad for this – how am I supposed to resist temptation after a night out when every convenience store has fried chicken??). I spent the first half of 2015 finishing my degree – a lot of late nights, a lot of stress, a lot of caffeine. After a couple of months off I moved to Japan – a lot of stress, a change in diet and a job where I was often working 12 hour days. Although in some ways I have been getting more healthy since arriving, in others it feels like my body has been resisting Japan. Since moving to Tokyo I have had minor surgery and struggled with digestive problems and anxiety.

I will change job at the end of January 2016 (prepare for a tenshoku post some time in February…) and my new position will allow me more opportunities to work on my health. Prioritising exercise and sleep, I want 2016 to be a year my body thanks me for.

2) To get better at Japanese… but to not take JLPT N3 in July 2016

For those who don’t know, the Japanese-Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) is a standardized Japanese test taken by learners worldwide. There are 5 levels – N1 is the highest and indicates near fluency. N2 a level is where you can handle most situations living in Japan can throw at you – above average students will reach this level after a four year Japanese degree in the UK, although some of my friends on BA Japanese took this test and failed despite having a good level of language. I was intending to take the level below this, N3, which is basically a conversational level of Japanese. I was probably at about N4 (Elementary Japanese) when I arrived, strong on listening but weak on kanji as the University elective I took was grammar focused. You can take the JLPT twice a year, in July and December, and I on coming to Japan in August I set myself the reasonable goal of attempting N3 in July 2016. In the new year, I’ve resolved to try harder at Japanese but I’ve also decided to save JLPT N3 until at least December 2016. This may seem counter-intuitive but bear with me.

I like tests. So sue me, I do.  Everyone is different and tests suit my learning style far more than coursework, which made my undergraduate degree and my 12,000 word dissertation pretty challenging. I’m generally pretty good at tests too but occasionally this doesn’t work in my favour. Because I’m good at ‘exam technique’ (or ‘faking it,’ whichever you want to call it) sometimes I’ve been put into tests before I’m ready and I’m less good than I seem from my results, which actually hurts my learning in the long run. This is the main reason why I’m not entering N3 in July. It’s not because I think I can’t hack it: I know I could make a serious attempt. However, I think that if I enter I will get obsessed with learn Japanese for the exam and lose sight of the wider goal of communication. The main thing I want to focus on at the moment is speaking – I want to be able to communicate with my bandmates better. I want my Japanese friends to feel like they don’t have to speak in English all of the. I want to not get the look every time I speak to shop assistants. There is no speaking aspect of the JLPT and things I would have to work pretty hard on to pass N3 are unnecessary for me to better my speaking at my current level. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not one of those foreigners who can’t be bothered with kanji – I actually love them. I learn kanji through compounds which is a great way to build up vocab. The problem is I can’t deny that I actually find it easier to learn kanji than to do ‘real language learning.’ When I have half an hour spare in the staffroom, it’s far easier for me to write pretty kanji than learn a complicated grammar point or slog my way through a reading exercise. I’ll need to know 650 kanji for N3 so I feel that if I enter I will spend a lot of quality time with my kanji app instead of learning Japanese which will help me interact with the people around me.

It will be a challenge to motivate myself without a test but part of what I want to achieve is getting out of the mindset that learning should get you sweeties and CV points. Greater understanding of this wonderful language and better ability to communicate with Japanese people should be its own reward.

3) To create more

Since graduating from University I have rediscovered my creative side. During my time studying and my year out working in music PR I guess I was creative in some ways – I wrote essays and press releases, organised parties and concerts and performed a fair amount – but my mind was always so busy with external pressures that I didn’t really make much I could call my own. Blogging has helped me remember how much I love creating stuff. In 2016 I want to write more blog posts and more songs. I want to get back into my YouTube channel. I want to put effort into my band, not putting too much pressure on anything but just having a great time.

4) To be more present

I’ll admit it, I don’t fully know what this means. All I know is that sometimes I’m pretty bad at it. As an ENTP I’m programmed to live in a world of ideas, possibilities and plans and, quite frankly, this has often been an advantage at University and at work. But it can also be anxiety inducing, especially when you live abroad.

Self-help articles throw around phrases like ‘cultivating mindfulness’ all the time, but I’ll be the first to admit I don’t fully understand what ‘mindfulness’ means. I can’t meditate. Sorry. It’s not helpful to me at all, I just sit there longing for it to end, getting more angry with myself and more anxious.

I’m a big fan of the book on life as a JET, This Japanese Life and the blog of the same name. Reading the post about ‘mindful running’ was the first time that I realised that mindfulness could be activities other than staring at my eyelids hating myself. Finding ways to practice mindfulness whilst running and doing yoga (see resolution 1) is actually possible for my over-excited type A mind and I’ve found it helpful to my mental well being.

I live in Japan and I want to be ‘more present’ in Japan. The age of the internet does not help with this. It’s wonderful that I could Skype my parents on Christmas day, but not so great when you realise that you may physically be in Japan but your mind has been elsewhere all day. You wake up and check facebook. You reply to an email from your parents and check your instagram on your lunch break. You go home and watch Netflix in English then procrastinate washing up by scrolling through your facebook feed again. There are your friends. They’re smiling at nights out in the clubs you used to go to, walking through the countryside, eating a terribly British Christmas dinner with their families. Two of them at a gig in London of one of your favourite bands saying they miss you.

Sometime in December I realised that I was using social media as a coping mechanism. Every time some stressful liguistic or cultural misunderstanding occurred I would check my phone. Breathe. Here are people who get you. If you post a status they will understand your humour. Checking your phone reminds you of social circles where you belonged, where you didn’t have to worry about offending people by accident. Where interacting with people was easier. I don’t think social media is intrinsically a bad thing, but this kind of behavior is unhealthy. It’s wonderful that I can use facebook to keep in touch with my friends on the other side of the world but this kind of checking is making me miss home and giving me FOMO abound. It’s a small thing, but to try and be more present in Japan, I’m going to try and do facebook free January. I’ll still be blogging, and still on twitter and instagram, but for an addict like me I thought it was best to start with a goal I could actually keep – and seeing as facebook probably causes the most problems, it will be the one to go. Yes, you can clap really slowly now.

I guess, when I say I want to be more mindful, what I mean is I want to be more aware of my own thoughts and how I experience things. Maybe if I cut down on the internet usage, keep at the yoga and the running and generally just try to experience things on their own terms, I’ll start to understand more what it means to ‘be in the present.’

Or maybe not.

I’ll let you know mid year if I find out anything interesting.

nye beach kamakura
Me on a beach in Kamakura on New Years Eve, just out from paddling in the freezing sea in sunglasses and a bobble hat

 

 

Zombie Christmas: Getting my head around the festivities in Japan

Christmas in Japan makes me feel weird.

During these past five months, I’ve experienced many things which are strange and wonderful to me. In the global society we live in, it’s almost encouraging that aspects of of Japanese culture are still very different to British culture. These aspects may confuse me, and on occasion frustrate me, but they do not make me homesick. This is because they are so different that they engross me completely and don’t remind me of home in any way.

Halloween tree
One size fits all: a ‘Halloween tree’ that I saw in Nitori (a furniture shop) in September

Obviously, Christmas is not one of these aspects of Japanese culture. Christmas is big here but it’s all subtly different and somehow wrong. It manages to be everywhere – every shop window, branded food and drink, my lesson plans – without evoking the same kind of Christmassy feelings I would be getting if I were at home. A traditional Turkey dinner is swapped for a nationwide KFC marketing campaign, there are no advent calendars, Christmas cards are actually pretty difficult to find and all of the Christmas songs they play in the shops are the ones I don’t like. As I was grumpily trying to avoid looking at the tacky decorations on a shopping street in Ikebukuro in November, I started to think of Japanese Christmas as the Freudian unheimlich. Translating as ‘uncanny,’ Freud’s unheimlich is something that is unsettling because it’s a mixture of familiar and unfamiliar. My lecturer in university explained the unheimlich using a zombie as an example – the zombie is frightening because it is a paranormal monster but looks like a loved one. Zombie Christmas. An imitation of my familiar beloved British Christmas that I was finding thoroughly unsatisfactory and mildly unnerving until a few weeks ago. Christmas was simultaneously reminding me of home and how far away I was from it and making me homesick.

I also find the undisguised consumerism of a Japanese Christmas slightly difficult to stomach. I’m not an idiot – I know Christmas in the UK is consumerist. Even if the John Lewis advert makes your eyes mist up in the end it’s nothing more than very good marketing. However, hundreds of years of celebrating Christmas before the invention of the television means that there are a fair few traditions behind the blatant money making. For starters, in the 2011 census 59.5% of people identified as Christian. In Japan, it’s about 1%. It’s a lot easier to believe that this time of year is about more than branding when over half of your population are celebrating the birth of their saviour. Moreover, the other half of Britons can enjoy all the charming traditions that centuries of Christianity have left them with. There’s the Dickensian peace and goodwill to your fellow man vibe going on which can be practised by Christians and non-Christians alike, strong culinary and folk traditions and, most importantly to me, hundreds of years of excellent British Christmas music. This is my first year since I was six that I won’t be participating in a Christmas concert of some kind. I’m trying hard not to think about that.

creepy shopJapan has little of this. Whilst Christianity has been around since the 1500s (admittedly often underground and harshly persecuted by the government), Christmas only really took off after the second world war – almost literally as a form of American propaganda to boost moral and promote good relations. Because Japan hasn’t had time to develop “authentic” Christmas traditions – either sacred or secular – Christmas in Japan feels glossy but shallow. Yep. Every time I saw some decorations to promote the commercial zombie Christmas I was getting thoroughly grumpy. Plus all of the Christmas music being played was always so American.

But a few weeks ago I had a day out in Tokyo during which I started to feel something like Japanese Christmas spirit. I went to the Christmas markets in Roppongi hills – sponsored by Visa, yes, but also charmingly decorated and with lovely mulled wine served by unbelievably good looking young men in Christmas jumpers. I went to Omotesando to buy some Christmas presents for my family (ironically at the “Oriental Bazaar”) and discovered that it is very difficult not to enjoy the lights there. I started to enjoy Christmas in Tokyo. Of course, it may have helped that I had just been to Takashi Murakami’s exhibition and so was feeling very postmodern and had a rekindled appreciation for glossy surfaces. Murakami + mulled wine = a recipe to embrace glitzy hollowness.

My boyfriend and I have a small Christmas tree on our table, next to an advent calendar sent to us by my parents. Although I will work a 12 hour day on Christmas eve, we will have Christmas day off together. We will go to an English language church service in Omotesando. We don’t have an oven and turkeys aren’t easy to come by here anyway so we can’t cook one, so we may even indulge in the slightly odd Japanese tradition of eating KFC on Christmas day. Then in the evening we will Skype my family, in their English country cottage with a thatched roof, with their Christmas tree in the back ground (actually they usually live in a suburban house built in the 70s, but they had a house fire so they’re in rented accommodation which just happens to look like a Christmas card…). It will still be Christmas, even if it’s not Christmas as we know it. Maybe not a zombie but a vampire, a changeling or something cool.

Have a good one guys xx

merry christmas 2

 

Three things you should be warned about before moving to Japan to teach English

In my final year, the JET programme came a courting at my University. I went along to the presentation which mostly consisted of an ex-JET brimming with what seemed to be genuine enthusiasm, telling us what a wonderful time he had had, complemented with pictures of smiling Japanese children and bright views of cherry blossom. Later that evening I went to my Japanese evening class and asked the two girls there who had been on JET about their experiences. One’s experience boiled down to, “I was miserable almost the entire time.” The other said she had had a good time but she had struggled with the cultural barrier and differences in the working culture.

The problem in asking difficult questions to prospective employers is that you can never escape the fact that they want you to apply. Even the most well-meaning employee in the world can’t help but sell you the job a little and so they will brush over difficult questions. I, however, am not a shower of positivity and light so I will be frank with you.  My last post on what I enjoy about English teaching was genuine: I am enjoying myself time here but there are things that are difficult. No, ‘difficult’ is being too Japanese and indirect – there are things that suck. Here are three of them, that I wish I had been warned about before coming to Japan to teach English.

1) The Cash-Flow problem

“Don’t worry about money and just go travelling.
A thoughtless sentiment tossed around by rich people.

Yes teaching English abroad is probably the best way to see the world if you don’t have a trust fund. Yes English teaching jobs in Japan are genuinely paid well. Yes, you may well have your flights paid for you, if you’re lucky. But, there is no denying that getting set up in a new country is a huge strain of your finances, and unless you have savings you are going to struggle. This is especially a problem for new graduates such as myself. Unfortunately just “not worrying about money and seeing the world” is not possible for some people.

For me, cash flow was my number one cause of anxiety when I arrived in Japan. Dealing with it on top of culture shock (see 3) and the paperwork you have to go through to get stuck (see 2) is not fun. I had worked most of the summer after leaving University, had some modest support from my parents and I still struggled. Initial costs that you will have to cover before getting your first pay slip, presuming your flights are paid for, include:

Deposit for your flat and a month’s rent
Reikin (礼金) – Seriously, f*ck reikin. Apologies for my obscenity, but this is one aspect of Japanese culture that I find difficult to accept. As well as forking out for your deposit and first month’s rent, reikin, which translates as ‘key money’ or ‘gratitude money,’ is an additional payment of at least one month’s rent that you pay the landlord to thank him for letting you live in his property that you don’t get back. This usually is at least as much as one month’s rent. What is this? I thank my landlord by paying my rent. Renting a property is his job. Reikin is like going shopping, buying something, and then paying the shop to thank them for taking your money.
Furniture – this will be less of a shock to my American friends, but for the benefit of my fellow coddled Brits, flats in Japan are almost always unfurnished. When I say unfurnished I mean as empty as my sodding bank account. No beds. No fridge. No hob. No frickin lights for Christ sake. So you bankrupt yourself to afford the deposit, the rent and the reikin, for a dark room in which you can not cook or sleep. My boyfriend and I were fortunate in that he has friends and family here who were kind enough to give us some of their old stuff. Other than that, craigslist is your friend. We spend much our first couple of weekends lugging free stuff we’d got from craigslist across Tokyo, most of it of a size that shouldn’t really be allowed on the train.
New phone – Just give in and get a new contract. I wanted to carry on using my British phone. We all did. But the phone companies here are a cartel and getting a sim only contract is very difficult.
Health insurance – Again, less of a shock to my American friends but you have to pay for healthcare in Japan. Get. Health insurance. It’s actually not too expensive for new arrivals because the price is based on your previous year’s earnings in Japan which, obviously, is zero for us. On top of the huge cost of everything else, I was tempted to leave health insurance until my first paycheck came through. I didn’t ‘expect to get ill,’ but then most of us never do. I’m SO thankful I didn’t give in to temptation as I actually needed minor surgery in my first month. Without health insurance the cost would have been phenomenal, but with it was pretty affordable.

Not sure if hopeful or just sad #nomoney #screwupfrontcosts #arewegonnadie

A post shared by Arthur Rei (@arthurreiji) on

//platform.instagram.com/en_US/embeds.js


2) Japanese Bureacracy

Japan is bureaucratic. Where one email would do in the UK, Japan has three forms. It’s one of the only countries in the developed world where people actually use a fax machine with any regularity. The amount of paperwork you have to go through to get set up is overwhelming even to someone who speaks fluent Japanese, to those of us who have limited language ability it’s a living nightmare.
To break it down:
You need to get paid and you need a phone to work, so you need a bank account. To get a bank account, you need an address. You also need to register as a resident in Japan, which also requires an address. So, starting your life hangs on having an apartment.

In the UK, you have the option of using a letting agency but I usually find better service results from renting from individuals. It’s good to know who your landlord is and for him to know you so there’s a sense of accountability and you can contact him directly if you have a problem. For three out of four of the properties I have rented, we didn’t deal with anyone other than the landlord. For the flat I share with my boyfriend in Tokyo, renting involves four companies:

Letting agent – In Japan, these guys don’t seem to do much other than show you around the property and contact the next party. I didn’t understand this so when boyfriend and I went for a lengthy signing process with these guys I naively presumed we were done when they put us in a car and drove us to see the next guys.
Management company – These are the people who actually deal with the signing. Why they can’t be combined with the letting agent I don’t know.
Landlord
Guarantor company –
I understand the requirement that foreigners have a guarantor and it is good that companies can provide this service as few foreigners know a Japanese national willing to be their guarantor, especially as this is seen as being a more weighty responsibility than in the UK. But there is no denying that it is yet another crippling cost. I’m also bitter about our situation because we had a guarantor, my boyfriend’s uncle, but they also made us use a company. I want to believe this wasn’t due to xenophobia.

My boyfriend actually found us an apartment before I arrived in Tokyo and put down an offer immediately. It took about four days after I arrived for them even to confirm that, yes, we could have it and so we didn’t know if we should look for other options. After that it took another three days to be able to move in. All of this time I was living in a tiny hotel room with no natural light, with my two massive suitcases almost entirely covering the floor. Every night I would hand over money I couldn’t afford to stay another night. My work were, understandably, bugging me about when I would get my bank account so they could pay me, what my phone number was so they could contact me, and where I lived so they could organise which schools I would be sent to.

I don’t think I’ve ever been so anxious in my entire life, and believe me, I am no stranger to high stress situations. I cried. I barely slept. I had a panic attack. I wanted to go home to where I could control things. Where I have a safety net of friends and family who will feed me and let me sleep on their sofas if I run out of money. Every time the letting agency told us about some new bureaucratic hoop we had to jump through it was like a blow from a blunt object.

3) Culture shock is real and it hurts

It was still pretty hot a couple of weeks after arriving in Japan and I had been invited to a party. I was nervous (when you’ve just moved abroad, an opportunity to make friends can seem military operation) and I had picked out a dress which was suitable for the heat. I didn’t feel up to winning feminist points so I wanted to remove my leg hair. I plugged my epilator in only to find that the difference in wattage here was making it go slower than a Wagnerian opera. I don’t like shaving so I went to the Japanese equivalent of Boots (a ‘drug store’ to you Yanks) in search of wax strips. The immense difficulties of buying beauty products in Japan (even if you could read the sodding kanji the differences can still be overwhelming) deserves its own post but, needless to say, I was wandering around the shop, squinting at the shelves like an idiot. I asked a shop assistantワックスが有りますか and was directed to a product that did, indeed, look like wax strips. I went home thinking, “Wow, these things sure are cheap in Japan!” and opened the packet. “Wow, this smells impressively like roses for something designed to rip out your hair!” I’m still not sure what I bought but it wasn’t wax strips. My boyfriend thinks they’re some kind of herbal remedy which you put on your legs to relieve pain but to be honest we’re not at all sure.

The process of hair removal, which would usually take 10 minutes, had dragged out over hours and had failed. The resulting frustration occurred in the following cycle:

“Waaahhhh I’m 22 and I can’t even figure out how to shave my legs. I’m too stupid to hack it here, why did they even let me iiiinnn?”
to
“Why can’t this stupid country just have enough electricity in its stupid plugs to power one epilator? I’m trying to make a cup of tea to calm me down and the stupid kettle is taking forever because of the pathetic amount of electricity. It’s Japan’s fault. Stupid country.”
to
“No it’s my fault. I’m a complete failure for not adapting well enough to this culture. I’m not going to go to this party, I’m going to hide my pathetic foreign self in my flat forever and watch Parks and Recs whilst hating myself for being a spoilt native English speaker.”

For me, this is culture shock in miniature. Something like this happened multiple times a day in the beginning, and is getting less frequent as I slowly figure things out. The frustration you experience when something that would be simple back home takes far, far more time and energy. You’ll have read up about bowing and taking your shoes off, you know what the cloth thingy in restaurants is for and you’ve steeled yourself against homesickness and loneliness. But it’s difficult to understand these small anxieties until you come up against them. I have so much yearning to experience this culture, so many things I want to do and see. Having to navigate my huge appetite to see Japan with the energy drain of the little things being more tiring than normal is an ongoing frustration.

I don’t want to dissuade anyone from going to Japan. I’m mostly having a wonderful time and this is an amazing country. But if you’re planning to come to Japan you should be aware that, chances are, you will come up against obstacles like these. But hey, “Without great risk there can be no great rewards.” The rewards of living abroad are certainly great, and I’m willing to face the challenges to get them.