Sunday, January 31, 2010

My needs are quite simple, you know.

I am quite happy with very spartan conditions. But I must say that the last 4 weeks here in Japan have truly tested my limits. But I've taken some very good steps in the right direction, towards a life that I think can sustain my health and sanity for the next 7 months.

Friday was my first pay day, and as such I did a bit of shopping this weekend. I've been pretty tight with money over the last month, as I brought a certain amount with me, and getting more from my bank account in Canada proved to be a little tricky. You see, whatever Visa may tell you in their commercials, its most certainly not all you need in Japan. In fact, in my (admittedly limited) travels thus far, I haven't ever had a chance to use my credit card. Every time I walk to the nearby subway station, I pass by a glasses store that has a visa sticker in the window, and the taxi I was on in Kanazawa city had a similar Visa sticker, but I don't really need to buy any glasses at the moment, and Mitsubishi Chemical grabbed the tab on the taxi ride.

So I've been living on the 40 000円 that I brought with me. My expenses are pretty low (lunches at the cafeteria at work are around 340円, and you can only buy so many coffees at Tully's (I tend to stick to the awesome cappuccinos there, which are also about 340円). But today I got a couple hundred thousand yen shoved into my Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi account, so I figured I'd put it to some use. Went to the train station, got out twenty thousand or so, and went to the mall.

I grabbed a map of the place (its a mother of a mall, spread over 5 or 6 buildings near the subway station), and sat down to a cappuccino at Starbucks. I can read quite a bit of Japanese, you know, especially as most words you encounter in store names, and maps of malls are in Katakana (syllabic alphabet used for western terms). But it takes me a long time. So I sip my cap thoughtfully, and with a pen, translate the map of the mall as best as I can.

First stop - back to the Starbucks counter, to buy some ground coffee. They're quite impressed when I respond to their first two questions when I walk up with a bag of beans correctly. Truthfully, I didn't understand more than a couple basic words, but obviously, what are you going to be asked when you buy beans at Starbucks? 1: "Would you like these ground?" and then "How would you like these ground?". I deftly dealt with that with easy responses of "Hai" and "Co-so o onegaishimasu", hoping that saying "coarse" with a Japanese accent would be sufficient. It was, and I walked away with some Coarsely ground extra-Bold.

Next stop, something with which to make this coffee. I had spotted a kitchen-ware store on the map, so I headed there to grab a coffee press, a mug, and a single spoon, fork and knife. I ran into a couple kids in the store, who naturally began to stalk me, giggling and running away when I made eye contact, only to sneak around to catch a glimpse of the towering gaijin. A strict reprimand was forthcoming from their parents, who apologized profusely to me in formal Japanese before running away. I grabbed my utensils, mug and coffee press, and got out of there. (These items were almost troublingly expensive, but I had no idea where to go to get them cheaper, or if the price was competitive. So I bought them anyway.)

Another item which I really, really needed was a pillow. The one provided with my "bedding" is about 6 inches square, and full of large HDPE beads. They're supposed to simulate the feeling of a bag full of small stones - a traditional Japanese pillow - and a must say it is a great simulacrum. I don't really dig sleeping on small stones, so I had wrapped up the pillow in one of my blankets to make an almost-normal sized pillow. But after a month, it was getting to me. I hadn't noticed anything on the map that really popped out at me as a store that would most definitely sell pillows, and I didn't know how to say pillow in Japanese (NB. Its ピロー, or pi ro). I found this store called "24-times" that had a massive pillow section. And a massive futon section. Futons in japan are slightly cushy mats that you put on the floor and sleep on. So I splurged and bought a great feather pillow, along with a new futon to put on top of my crappy thin one. Next on the list was an SD card reader to get pics off of my camera, which I completely forgot the need for when I was packing in Canada. This wasn't a problem at all -- electronics stores are about as ubiquitous as you'd expect in Japan, though not as cheap as I had hoped.

I had searched on Google maps earlier to find a bakery nearby, as French-style bakeries seem to be quite common in this country. I ended up finding a fantastic one only about a 10 minute walk from my doom. Armed with a loaf of french bread and some tasty pastries, I headed to the grocery store. There I stocked up on necessities. Peanut butter (Skippy's Smooth, of course), Nutella, butter, bananas, and orange juice. Along with some microwavable meals. Peanut butter/honey/nutella (any combination thereof) + banana sandwiches are as filling as you can get without including something that must be cooked, and I don't have the facilities to cook anything. Notably, cream is only to be found in bags full of little creamers, and sugar only comes in bags of sugar packs. Even with my lackadaisical view on trash, this seemed excessive packaging. So I figured I'd stick with black coffee.

I was really weighed down by this point (mostly by the futon), and had to waddle back to the dormitory. There I sat myself infront of my computer (with my newfound, now wirelessly routed, and still awesome) internet, started up streaming a Toronto radio station, made myself a sandwich and a great cup of coffee (theres an insta-hot boiler on my floor), and sat on my new pillow.

So no more sleeping pretty much on a bamboo matt with a stone-filled pillow for head support, no more drinking canned coffee out of a vending machine in the morning, no more using the same disposable wooden chopsticks for about 30 meals in a row, no more going to sit outside of a coffee shop in the morning (which doesn't open til 10) just to steal some internet to call home, no more shitty Japanese bread made with rice flour thats only sold in packs of 4 slices.

I think I can handle it here no problem. Though I can't imagine some people I know in my position even now that I'm leaving in the lap of luxury compared to a month ago. They really should have included all this in the brochure.


  1. This post gives me some hope for survival. (I am a vegetarian)