Monday, September 22, 2008

A simple observation

Here I'm starting my new job in like 9 or so hours, and I'm still up pecking away at a keyboard... sigh.

So walking around and stopping by the local equivalent of a Japanese Wal*Mart today, I noticed that there are an assload of kids and families living in my newly adopted environs. This made me think 2 things:

1) Lots of families implies that I've picked a nice place to live. I could care less about the schools in the area, but this means that the area affords me good access to daily amenities and stores - 24-hr. supermarkets and most of the things I need are really close - and pretty quiet, peaceful surroundings with plenty of wide open spaces and green stuff around (no, not that green stuff) are most definitely appreciated. It's hard to find good parks like this if you're downtown!

2) What happened to all that talk about Japan's rapidly aging society and all the problems associated with it? Meh, whatev.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Getting your license in Japan

Okay, now it's time to get down to business: getting a license in Japan. I'm sure it sounds fun enough - not quite as good as some Jello pudding pops, but at least as much fun as the MVA/DMV back home, right? Ohhh, if you thought that was a pain then you don't know the half of it, mhaw, mhaw.

See now for some of the luckier amongst the foreigners here in Japan, getting your Japanese license can be a total breeze. If you just plan on being here for one year or less, then you can get by just picking up one of those international driver's permits at AAA for like $15 like I did at first. Only problem is, that only lasts a year. If you want to drive more than a year, you need a real license, and that's where it can get fun.

For the uninitiated, getting a license in the US is about as hard as beating my mom in a game of Super Mario Kart (and I'm pretty sure she's never even heard of Super Mario Kart). They should pass them out free with Slurpees at 7-11 or something. Getting a license in Japan on the other hand can be an actual achievement... depending on where you're from.

Remember driving classes back in high school? Well Japanese kids who spend their whole lives in Japan get to go to driving school to get their license, which takes months and costs around 300,000 yen... that's $3,000USD. They're guaranteed to get their license at the end of all of it, but I hear there's a 200-question exam at the end and you have to get a 95% or above, then take the driving exam. No cake walk, and takes a chunk of your savings.

Foreigners who have a license from home can just get it transferred though and skip the course. Simple, right? Wait, there's more...

So I’ll walk you through the process using my own experience. First, you have to get your license translated… but you’re not allowed to do it yourself, even if you’ve been translating stuff officially for about 2 years. No no, you have to go to JAF, which is the Japanese equivalent of AAA, and have them translate it for 3000 yen. What a scam. Oh, and of course this office isn’t in an exactly convenient location as there are only really 2 in the Tokyo area apparently… took me a good chunk of time too (at least 2-3 hours round trip).

Ok, so now that you have your translation, you have to take it along with your foreign license, your passport, and foreign registration card to the Japanese MVA. Now here it gets a bit goofy – they check your passport to see how long you had your license in your home country before coming to Japan. If you renewed your license within 3 months of leaving your country then they won’t even give you a license without an official driving record from back home… within a year and it’s the same deal or else they try to class you as a new driver and make you stick one of these spiffy “I’m a noob” stickers on any car you drive for a year. Shyeah, that’s gonna happen. When I talked to them, they seemed totally oblivious to the fact that when you renew a license they don't let you keep the old one and just expect you to carry it around with you.

Now at this point the next step depends on what country you’re from: if you’re lucky and you’re from a handful of countries including England, Germany, Canada (!!) and others, then you just pay them like 2100 yen or so and go pick up your license. If you are from the US, however, they group you in with the countries like Vietnam where people can’t drive and make you run the skills test gauntlet. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not going to argue that an American license is worth any more than just over the cost of laminating it, but how the hell did Canada get an exemption!!?? This is probably one of those things best not thought about too long unless you’d like to pop a vein in your forehead and die of an aneurysm, like how Celine Dion has somehow accumulated 5 Grammys over her lifetime.

So anyway, skills test. The place I went had whack hours for the tests… 8:30-11:00am and 1:00-3:00pm, no weekends or holidays for the initial step and Tuesdays and Thursdays at 8:40am by appointment for the driving portion. The initial step is simple – eye test and a 10-question computer test with such mind-benders as “can you drive after drinking?” (Answer: No, unless you’re Chuck Norris) If you fail that then you either don’t understand English (yes, the test is even in English), or you don’t even deserve an American license. Oh, and even if you breeze through this, they've scheduled things to guarantee that you cannot get everything accomplished in one day.

Ok, so next it's time for the driving test. This test really isn’t that hard, but what it is is excessively anally nit-picky. They'll fail you for things like not being as far left as you could have been before making a left turn, not signaling exactly 30 meters before changing lanes and stopping on the line for a stop sign/signal instead of behind it. For this reason and this reason alone, most everyone fails on their first time excepting those that take lessons, and a lot of people take many, many more times, which sucks since you have to pay the registration fee of 2100 yen every time you take the test and wait until the next available testing date. I met a guy from Nepal (closer to Vietnam than the US on the driving scale) that said he was on his 7th time. My girlfriend who lived out in CA for a while said she failed her first 2 times and got scared by the instructor laying into her the second time, then passed the 3rd time after waiting like a year and taking a few brush-up courses for 20,000 yen or so. I myself got it on the 2nd try – 1st time hit a curb on their super-narrow S-section (nerves I guess), and passed the 2nd time.

So it took me 4 days spread over two weeks and about 9000 yen, but now I have my license again! Plenty of Japanese people that live abroad, even if just for a few months, will get their license abroad and get it transferred like my girlfriend did, just because of how much cheaper it is… 300,000 yen?!?!?? Compared to that, 20-30,000 yen is nothing. Wow, just wow.

So here’s the finished product – I’ll be writing a guide to the process and driving test in particular as a project for work for those interested, just give me a week or two to get everything together.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

What the hell is up with the economy?

Could somebody please tell me??

I leave the country for a week, then hear that a whole bunch of big ass banks are out of commission or on the ropes... Lehman Brothers files for bankruptcy, the US government bails out AIG, Merrill Lynch bought out by Bank of America... what the hell?? Aren't these like frickin' huge names? Now I hear that of the 5 biggest investment firms in the US only 2 are left standing? Wow, we really suck.

This reminds me of the bubble crash in Japan in the 1990's... not quite as drastic (yet), but potentially disastrous if someone doesn't right the ship soon. I am sooo glad I get paid in yen and live halfway across the world right now... I have a feeling my money shall be staying away from the US, at least until things bottom out.

Speaking of which, any speculators wanna let me in on exactly when that'll be and what signs to look for? If not then I'll just assume that this is the end of the US as we know it and the terrorists have won. Pretty soon Iran, Saudi Arabia and Columbia are going to put all their oil funds together and buy out the US and rename it United Stackistan, the Confederacy of Oil Conglomerate Kingdoms (just because it has a nice abbreviation), then stick G.W. in a Saddam-like little cubby hole for a few weeks before having Dick Cheaney shoot him in the face, and hang Al Gore upside down by his wee-wee from a eucalyptus tree with a hemp rope and run around on camels screaming "I told you so!" in Arabic. Then Skeletor will rise up and take over control of the White House from the oil guys, of course renaming it Castle Greyskull. Dark, dark times abode for the US, and only He-Man can save us.

PS: yes I'm exaggerating, but that's only because it's fun. That is, it's fun when I do it, not when the news does it since they just make the problem worse by freaking people out.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Vietnam, in a macademian nut shell

Ok, back from Vietnam and all rested up! Time for a quick summary of my impressions of country #7. First off, my 6 days took us from a flight transfer in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) to the beaches of Nha Trang, then up to Hanoi for a night and out to Halong Bay for a day before flying back to Narita. Pretty busy for just under a week, but unfortunately that's how vacations usually go out this way as time off in Japan is rather limited.

On the total opposite end of the spectrum, Vietnam is great if you'd like to forget about all concept of time and just relax. They're not too big on schedules out there from what I could see... or maybe that's just how the beaches work. In any case, a watch was definitely not needed or of much use in Nha Trang.

My top 3 impressions of Vietnam:

1. Nice people
2. Traffic in Hanoi
3. Crazy tropical fruit

Nice People

At first I was rather sceptical, as the big scam in Vietnam with expensive taxi rides from the airport that take you to their over-priced hotels was my first impression. Now while I say expensive, I'm talking basically of a difference between normal at about $15 to expensive at maybe $25 or so for a 35km ride. In otherwords, expensive in Vietnam is still cheap, and once you get the hang of how things work you can get around the ripoffs.

As time went on and I got more used to things though, I found that the people were in general pretty nice, although knowing absolutely no Vietnamese and their spotty grasp of English meant that while they generally got the gist of things, details were definitely lost in conversations. In stark contrast to Japan, however, while most can't speak English everyone tries, even if it takes them beyond their abilities.

Probably the best example was on the way back to the airport. We made a stop at the hotel we stayed at in Hanoi the night before to pick up luggage and take a shower - the plan was to grab some Pho before hitching a taxi to the airport. We asked the guy at the hotel front desk about a good place for some quick noodles... he nods, then gets up and goes in the back. I thought he'd come back with a map, but instead he brings a case of beer and proceeds to start loading the fridge! We didn't have time so I went to look for the other guy manning shop, who was helping someone out on the internet. Then the first guy comes back and says he's going to take us to a Pho place, but as it was sorta far we'd have to hop on the back of his bike. I've never actually had hotel staff escort me to a restaurant before, and this meant that we got to ride through town in the transportation of choice, a scooter. Not only did he take us to a nice place which made for a lovely last evening in Vietnam and fit perfectly into our schedule, but it also leads into the next point of...

Traffic in Hanoi

Amazing... simply amazing. This is one of those things you really just have to see for yourself to believe. By luck of the draw we spent our one night in Hanoi during the Moon Festival - think of it sort of like Vietnamese Thanksgiving and Halloween all rolled into one - which meant that the normal craziness of Vietnamese traffic was compounded by a factor of like 5 or so. The roads are packed with motorbikes and seemingly have no order to them whatsoever, and yet no one seems to drive any faster than about 40kph or so and I didn't see one crash. You get people riding on both sides of the road and weaving all over the place, with pedestrians crossing pretty much anywhere, and yet it all works. With the traffic and watching them shoot off lanterns into the sky for the Moon Festival, we sat at this one interesection for a good 1-2 hours, just watching.

Crazy Tropical Fruit

Ok, so there is fruit in this world that unless you've been around SE Asia you probably have never heard of in your life. I had this one thing called a dragon fruit, there were these others called mangosteens, some spiky-looking lychee things called rhambutans, and some wierd grape-like things with a shell on them. We had fruit pretty much with every meal as it was cheap and excellent.


See, now I would provide you with pictures of all this, but unfortunately I lost my brand new camera on the last day, dropped in the sea in Halong Bay. I think I miss the 300 or so pictures I took even more than the $300 or so that I lost on the camera... cameras can be replaced.

Other than that I would say it was one of the most enjoyable trips I've had, despite having a cold for most of it.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Good Morning, Vietnam!!

Ok, finally sealed the deal on my Vietnamese domestic transfer, which means that I will officially as of tomorrow night be on the beaches of Nha Trang, Vietnam!

I shall take this week to lick my wounds from failing my driving test today... not totally surprising since most everyone I know that brings a license from the US fails their first time out here. Once I get back I'll work on the "New Doug for 2008" series outlined previously, but as things are running tight here I need to get packing... right after I go pick up my tickets!

Quick note to anyone going to Vietnam: if you checked the prices of domestic flights online, know that those prices are only good WHEN YOU ARE IN VIETNAM. Also, you need at least a minimum of two days with which to procure said tickets, or else you wind up buying them through your local branch and paying the normal [insert your country here] prices. This means that if at all possible, you should stay in Hanoi/Hochiminh for 2 days and fly out on the 3rd to take advantage of this... if you can find 2 days worth of stuff to do in Hanoi/Hochiminh. My suggestion - do Hanoi and hit up Halong Bay or something.

Ok, back in a week with pics and stories!

Monday, September 08, 2008

Angola vs. Regional

In spite of being quite busy lately with various random tasks, including some annoying last minute details on my latest excursion (to Vietnam - this makes country #7!!), I did make time to get out to the Brazilian Festival going on this past weekend in my favorite park in Tokyo, Yoyogi! For anyone coming out to Tokyo, Yoyogi Park is a definite don't miss: all in one afternoon you can get your classical culture fix visiting Meiji Shrine, then get your modern culture fix in Harajuku whilst shopping and oogling random weird people and stuff. You see the most random of stuff on the bridge from Harajuku station to Meiji Shrine, including the famous cosplay girls, as well as all kinds of weird street performers. That, and you can find just about anything in the park, from the Fonzie-wannabe 50's dancers and drum circles to soccer and frisbee to... those weird guys that practice their choreographed sword fights under the trees, and the guys I saw with quite deliberately placed trash can lids and signs on their bodies as they were themselves sprawled across the lawn - whatever your interests it's a great way to spend an afternoon, especially in the summer when the weirdos are out in full effect.

So anyhoo, most every weekend in the summer has a different festival, and this weekend was the Brazilian Festival, with my capoeira group was doing a performance right off the bat on the first day. Of course I couldn't miss it, but just for cathartic disclosure I did sleep in and miss the first 10 minutes or so (shhhh!!!). After that there was a free roda (pronounced "ho-da". It’s easy to remember: just think “hoedown”, but way cooler. Heh, capoeira hoedown, yee-haw.) in which people from all around the country and a few in from abroad even played capoeira for a good 2-3 hours. That was one of the most interesting gatherings I've been to in a while!

One theme which reared its head a few times over the course of the day though was a slight bad vibe between the two main schools of capoeira: Angola and Regional. In general, Regional (pronounced "hey-joe-nal") is the newer style and probably the one that most people are familiar with. If you saw someone flipping around and stuff, more than likely it was Regional. They came up with a sort of belt system to mirror other martial arts... it's more about form and show than it is about really being effective as a fighting style though if you ask me, but then the flips and stuff are most definitely fun in their own right. Here's people having fun flipping around, spinning on their lips.

Angola on the other hand is the original capoeira, just as it has been since the slaves in Brazil developed it way back when. It tends to be slower and closer to the ground, which takes more strength and balance. It's much more closed so you don't leave yourself open to attacks as much, and while there's still a bunch of whole lot of inverted stuff going on, it doesn't have as much of that acrobatic element that is so definitive of Regional... Angolistas are also much more likely to take the opening and knock you back on your ass if you let them too. Here's a vid of Angola style.

I started out doing the former and am now practicing the latter, so I'm sort of in the middle and can't really see why the two wouldn't get along, but apparently some don't agree. When I talked to some Regional friends, they would say how they thought Angola was boring, which I can understand since it isn't as flashy (the basics are harder though if you ask me). If you listen to the people in my current Angola group, they sort of talked down at some of the Regional people, saying they were out of control and wild... to their credit, at least twice some Regional player fell into the berimbau while trying some move, which is a big no-no. Still, the mumbling behind backs and all sorta irked me. If you watch them play together you'll definitely notice a difference in styles, but at the same time you can tell they're just two different styles of the same sport.

In the end, the maestres (teachers) all get along and understand how to look at the big picture and keep the capoeira love going... I think when people get to that level they can appreciate each other's respective strengths and skills more. I just wish everyone saw it like that... it's just another in the series of artificial barriers that human nature seems to love to create for no other apparent reason than to make unnecessary friction. Why can’t we all just get along???

Reminds me of a famous Doug's lyrics:
"So why does there only have to be one correct philosophy?
I don't want to go and follow you just to end up like one of them.
And why are you always telling me what you want me to believe?
I'd like to think that I can go my own way and meet you in the end.
Go my own way and meet you in the end."
-Doug Robb, Hoobastank (a.k.a.: the Mountain Dew Band)

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Doug is not dead!!

Ok, so technically no, but I have currently had no real internet access for the past week and a half, and won't get real access back for another 2 weeks yet still... and my phone gets shit for reception at the new place. This to me is basically like being dead to the world. I've currently brought my laptop into the (new) office long enough to catch up on mail and things.

When I get the chance, I'll be filling you guys in on what it's like to:
- apartment hunt in Tokyo (hint: nightmare)
- move in Japan (not as bad as apartment hunting, but frickin expensive!!)
- get a license in Japan (results will be in tomorrow on this one... work in progress)

I might be adding more to the list as I start actually writing as that tends to make you think of more. For now, I have completed my move to a place within Tokyo called Komae City, and from the latter half of the month shall be working with cars again - this time as an exporter at a friend's business... this guy has big dreams and bank accounts to match, so I'm hoping this will lead somewhere.

Until then...