Vision 2020: I Had Lasik Eye Surgery

Before you panic thinking I had some kind of medical condition and didn’t inform you, my dear family and friends, I want to state that I simply had lasers fix my eyes so I don’t have to wear glasses or contacts anymore.

Lasik eye surgery is an elective procedure to correct myopia, hyperopia and astigmatism. It’s been around for more than 25 years, getting safer and better as technology improves. There’s little to no pain, recovery takes a day, no blood, no stitches, no general anaesthesia. You just walk out of the surgery room, straight back to your life and you can go back to work the next day. Read more about it here.

I don’t remember when I first heard of LASIK or when I seriously started considering getting LASIK.

Myopic History

I discovered I had myopia in secondary school. I probably had it for a really long time before then, but I had never had an eye test my entire life. In Kenya, I don’t ever remember having any vision tests when I was young. When Jeremy, my son, was in kindergarten here in Japan, I think they had the eye tests (in addition to hearing, dental, pin worm, cognitive and other tests) done annually from around 3 years old.

In secondary school, I always sat in front of the classroom because I wanted to see the blackboard clearly. I realized I had myopia when I sat at the back one time, and realized I was the only one who couldn’t see the blackboard. My classmates around me could clearly take down the notes and I had to copy from their notebooks. I went back to my seat in front of the class after that and didn’t think much about it.

When I entered university, I, of course, sat in front during lecturers. Unfortunately, my myopia had gotten worse, and even at the front, I could no longer see the board clearly. I told my parents I wanted to get glasses and they thought I just wanted to get glasses to look cool. Nobody in our family wears glasses, they argued.

It was true that I thought glasses looked cool. (And we called them spectacles or specs for a long time, until Americans influenced us more than the British colonized us.)

Yet, here I am, almost 13 years later, burning my corneas with lasers so I don’t have to wear glasses anymore. How times change.

Anyway, my father told me to go to Kikuyu Eye Hospital to get my eyes properly checked by the best eye doctors *ophthalmologists* in East Africa, and not just the opticians and optometrists along Moi Avenue who just wanted to sell you glasses.

At Kikuyu Hospital, I was diagnosed with Myopia and given my first prescription glasses. Finally, I could see everything around me so clearly. So this is what the rest of you had been seeing?

Here I am wearing my first prescription glasses 10 years ago, in 2010. I was with my brother Albert, watching a Harambee Stars football match at Nyayo Stadium.

A couple of years later, I got a more stylish pair of glasses. Since then, I’ve had two or three more pairs.

With my best friend Phyll in 2012. I think we were attending some event I don’t remember.

When I came to Japan in 2014, I was content with my glasses at first. But gradually, my vision had become worse and without my glasses, I couldn’t even drive. I couldn’t read road signs, forgetting my glasses was not just a minor inconvenience as it had been in Kenya.

Contact Lenses for Lush Lashes

A few inconveniences of wearing glasses could be sorted out by wearing contact lenses. Like if I wanted my thick, mascara-coated eyelashes to be seen, I’d wear contacts. Also, big eyes are considered beautiful in Japan and my glasses were covering them up. If I wanted to wear sunglasses, or I was going to watch a 3D movie, then contacts it was. I bought the daily soft lenses and went through an entire struggle learning to put on contacts and take them out. I need to write a book on that whole journey. How to not blink as your finger puts a foreign object directly onto your eye.

Can you see my beautiful eye lashes? 🙂 I was wearing contacts in this photo

But soon enough, even contacts weren’t enough. Even when I got the two-week ones that could last longer.

I couldn’t wear contacts when swimming. So, I couldn’t see well around me, couldn’t tell the time on the clock to know when it was time to get out of the pool. If I went out to the sea, the same thing. The joys of scuba diving were lost on me. If I came back after a night out, I couldn’t go to sleep right away. I had to take out my contact lenses and soak them in the lens solution overnight. If I had contacts on too long, they would dry out. If I was flying and knew I’d fall asleep/have irregular sleep, it was back to glasses.

There was a permanent solution to it all: Lasik surgery. I did some research online. Watched videos. Talked to people or read about who had had Lasik or PRK (also uses lasers but it’s a little different).

Googling LASIK

I heard it’s cheaper to get it in South Korea, which has the best cosmetic surgeons in the world. But we happen to be in the middle of a pandemic, COVID-19. I can’t just fly to South Korea to get it done. Luckily, we are now working from home so this felt like a good time as any to finally get it done.

After Googling about Lasik clinics in Tokyo, I settled on Shinagawa Lasik Clinic because they have an English page on the website and a representative who speaks English who will guide you throughout the entire process.

I dialed the number on the website and Richard Masuda, the English rep, picked up the phone. I thought I would just ask some general questions, and ask for a consultation. He said, the examination is free (except for a ¥10,000 DNA test) so I could just book any time to go do it one morning. And if I was a good candidate for Lasik, then I could have the surgery that same afternoon. Oh, it was that simple? Yes. However, if I didn’t want to go through with it, it was fine. I had up to 3 months after the free assessment tests to make the decision. If I didn’t get surgery within the 3 months, I’d have to repeat the tests. I decided to go for the tests on 6/22.

With Lasik, you can literally go back to work the next day, but I took a couple of leave days, to be on the safe side.

I arrived at the clinic in Ginza on Monday, June 22nd at 9:30am. It’s called Shinagawa Kinshi Clinic but it’s actually in Ginza. My appointment was for 10am so I decided to get a 7-11 Latte and watch the trains from the 13th floor where the clinic is located, as I waited.

At around 10am, I went to the reception and they asked me if I had had chocolate or coffee. Unfortunately, I had and they asked me to rinse out my mouth because one of the tests was an Avellion DNA test to check for any corneal abnormalities. Testing positive means you are not a good candidate for LASIK. Richard then helped me fill in the forms and explained what they all meant. There is no hurry to sign the consent forms for the tests and if you need more time, it’s acceptable to cancel the whole thing and go home to first read the terms and conditions.

I signed the forms and was then led through a series of various eye tests to check my visual acuity, corneal thickness, the shape of eyes, astigmatism, night vision, etc. They put some stinging eye drops into my eyes, the medical assistant apologizing profusely the whole time, to dilate my pupils so the doctor could look deep into my eye (and brain probably LOL). Then they gave me a cotton swab to collect DNA cells from my inner cheek and by noon I was done. I was told to go for lunch and come back by 4pm to have the surgery of the results were all OK.

Infidel at Starbucks

I went to Cafe Gusto for a cheap lunch, with Infidel as my companion. I really enjoyed reading that book. Then I went to Starbucks where I made one ‘tall’ Yuzu Lemon Tea last a whole two hours, as I read my book and occasionally looked up to admire the tall Japanese guy working on his MacBook opposite me on the table. When I cast my eyes downward to read my book, I could feel his eyes on me as he stole glances. So this is how you guys pass time at Starbucks? Hehehe. When I rose to leave at 3:45PM, he finally looked me straight in the eye, and I asked him if he was writing a book, he had been typing furiously. He said, no he was working. He started small talk – where are you from, how long have you been in Japan, your Japanese is so sugoi, so amazing – I cut him short and told him I had a LASIK surgery to get done. He said, why don’t we exchange line, I said sure, let’s arrange a date to answer all your questions (and some of mine as well). Truly Infidel behaviour.

With my copy of Infidel at Starbucks.

LASIK Surgery

I went back to the clinic and was informed that I had passed all the tests and could have the surgery as planned. I put all my stuff in a locker, took off my glasses for the last time, wore a hair cap, and followed the nurse and Richard to the theatre. I was all calm until the moment I had to lie down face up under the machine which I knew was going to cut open a thin layer of my eye’s epithelium to expose the cornea. I felt it was too late to chicken out.

In a way, I was glad Richard was there. He psychologically held my hand, encouraging me to take deep threats, to relax, this will all be over soon. He can also physically hold your hand if you felt scared. The first step was to create the corneal flap. The hardest part was when they used clamps to keep your eyes open. There was someone there the whole time generously ‘pouring’ anaesthetic eye drops into your eyes and gently wiping away the overflowing ‘tears’. When your eye is in position, you are told to stare at the blinking green light. Then there is some suction as the machine keeps your eye in position. Then the surgeon says lights off, everything goes dark and you feel nothing as the machine uses a laser to create the flap. The countdown begins, I remember clearly hearing 26 seconds, 10 seconds, done. The lights came on and the surgeon moved the machine over to the left eye to repeat the process.

Image from https://theyenews.com/prk/

Since I had myopia of -3 and just a touch of astigmatism on my right eye, I had chosen to use a cheaper machine which didn’t combine corneal flap creation and laser sculpting. So I had to get up with blurry vision after the corneal flaps were created and walk the short distance to the next room for the laser sculpting.

I remember I had a feeling that something was very, very wrong and I just wanted to be held by my mummy and sleep and wish everything could go back to normal. My eyes weren’t in any pain though.

The next step took even less time, except this time my eyelashes were taped first. Then the clamps to keep my eyes open. I could feel and see the surgeon lifting the corneal flap. Then he told me to look at the blinking green light. He aligned the lasers, which were blinking read. The room went dark. Someone counted… 10 seconds, 7 seconds… I smelled the singeing. Then the surgeon replaced the corneal flap and I could feel him brushing it smooth. Then the other eye. Then more singeing, a smell like when hair or wool catches fire. Countdown was from 7 seconds I think. The surgeon smoothing the flap. More numbing eye drops. It was over.

お疲れ様です。 Good job, the surgeon said.

Arigatou gozaimashita, Richard and I answered. I walked out. I could see, but it was a bit cloudy like when you have been swimming with eyes open underwater for a long time.

I rested for a while and then Richard got me eye drops and explained to me how to put them on every hour. By the time, the feeling in me eyes had returned and it felt like I had crushed onions in my eyes. Stingy, but bearable.

My housemate came to pick me up and we rode on public transport home. The lights were too bright for me, probably because my pupils must have been still dilated. I had to wear dark glasses to make it more bearable.

By the time I went to bed that night, I could already see so clearly.

On the way home from LASIK surgery

The Next Day Checkup

When I woke up in the morning after a deep sleep, I was pain-free! I was seeing clearly, better than vision 20-20.

I went back to the clinic by myself. I was still sensitive to light so I wore sunglasses, but overall it was nice seeing in HD, better than glasses (my lenses had -2.25 power but my myopia was -3).

The doctor looked deep into my eyes, and then declared that my cornea was healing normally and I should continue using the eye drops as instructed and come back for another checkup after one week.

Mirror selfie, day after surgery. This time, the sunglasses didn’t need to be too dark.

One Week Later

Last Monday, on June 29th, I went back for the one-week checkup. I was declared healed.

Surprisingly, my vision had come down a bit compared to Day 2. That’s because my cornea is now healing, on the day after everything was fresh. On day 2, I could read the bottom line with either eye, very clearly. One week later, only with my left eye. My right eye could see up to the second-to-last line. This is better than the target anyway, and might become better or slightly worse as the healing process goes on. Still better than 20/20 vision.

I can now go back to running, I still have another 120 days left to run in 2020. I can wear eye makeup. I still shouldn’t swim or go to the onsen for a month. I’m still using the eye drops, but just 2 or 3 times a day. I wake up with dry eyes but it’s been getting better and the eye drops help.

Yesterday as I was going out, I kept thinking I had forgotten something. Ah, my glasses. Then I remembered, I don’t need those anymore. Not for a long time to come.

I went outside to enjoy my life in HD.

I took some photos with my housemate who just graduated with her master’s degree in psychology.

I’ll go back to the clinic for another checkup after 3 months.

P.S. The cost of LASIK will vary depending on how your assessment goes which determines which machines will be used. Also if you have a referral code, it can give you a discount. If you want a referral code, let me know.

Posted in Blog, Life in Japan | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Running in Japan – 200 days of running in 2020

Growing up, I was never an athletic child. In high school, I couldn’t complete one lap. You wouldn’t know it if you’ve recently followed me on social media.

I started running in February this year. When I say running, I mean jogging. My best pace thus far has been 7:02 minutes per kilometer when I ran a total of 6 Km. That’s another thing when you start running, you realize that runners focus on pace, the inverse of speed. For reference, Eliud Kipchoge’s pace is around 3 min/km. At his fastest, he ran 2:52 min/km.

I run along this road in Mitaka City, Tokyo. It stretches over 10 KM and has a cycling/pedestrian path that’s decently shaded even on sunny days.

Why am I running?

Why did I start running? I don’t really know. I think I am motivated by a desire to get fit, to reduce body fat so I can look better. It’s also probably a way to cope with the stress and anxiety that is guaranteed when you’re adulting. I definitely run to cope with the separation blues – I haven’t seen my son in over 5 months. I missed his 7th birthday. I’m no closer to engineering our reunion, and then covid-19 happened…

Maybe I’m running from my demons. Either way, I kept running until I reached a point of no return.

Anyway, this isn’t my first attempt at regular running. I jogged infrequently over the course of my PhD, and then I would slack off after a few weeks.

When I was in campus, doing my undergrad, I woke up at 6am for a few months to jog in the morning. Then I didn’t jog again until like 5 years when I was doing my PhD. I’d do 2-3km stretches.

But now, this current streak is the longest I have done. It’s also the most serious and most dedicated.

Just do it. My running outfit. When I started, my pace was quite slow. Now, 3 months later, I cover this distance in about 45 minutes.

Feb – The Beginning

When I started in February, I did not use any app to track my distance. I just ran to the nearest Gyomu Super(market) and then turned back. I felt so good and thought I had run so far. I would then get home and feast bananas, apples, yoghurt, thinking ah.. fruits, so healthy. (Wrong, they’re actually full of sugar). I’d weigh myself and wonder why the scale was trending upwards!

Only later, when I started using Runkeeper to track my distance, did I realize that I had been covering only 2.4 KM! Barely burning 200 calories.

I was also running 2-3 times a week. I realized if I needed to complete my goal of running 200 days, I would need to up my frequency to 4 or 5 times a week. I was hoping to reach 100 days by the end of June.

March – The first 5K

I ran my first 5 Km race one morning before work. It was quite easy to just keep going once I reached the Seven-Eleven convenience store that marked the turning point for 3.3 Km.

Well, approximately 5KM. There is no natural turning point (traffic light) that gets me to exactly 5KM.

April – Getting to 10K

By April, we were completely working from home. I realized I could use the commuting time to exercise.

I was running 4-5 days a week, covering 5-6 KM each time.

I also got proper running shoes with good sole support.

Got a pair of Adidas running shoes. I got them at a discount for about 30 USD.

I did my first 10K in early April. Thereafter, I did 10K every weekend but I realized I needed a couple of days after to recover. I learned to take it easy whenever I had to.

May – No turning back

My weight stabilized. I am probably losing fat at the rate I’m building muscle, so it is all balancing out. I look leaner though. My skin has experienced the biggest change so far. It’s always been smooth but now it’s silky soft.

I enjoyed the flowers blooming in May, especially azaleas and roses. See the header image..

On Sunday, May 30th, I decided to keep going 20 minutes after the temple that marks the 10K run. I realized I had succeeded in running 14KM!

This temple marks the 10K turning point.

When I realized I could do 14KM, I realized I was finally within my bucket-list goal of running a half marathon.

June – Weight Worries and the Unofficial Half-Marathon

As I write this, I’ve run on 79 different occasions. I still have another 121 more days of running to do before the end of the year.

My weight is not going down, and my housemate is impatient with my whining as I step on the scale daily. If you are running, please don’t frustrate yourself with the scale. Keep it out of sight.

I’m now watching what I eat, even as I keep running.

Saturday June 13th – Unofficial Half Marathon

It was forecast to rain from Saturday at 8am. Figuring I needed about 3.5hrs to do the half-marathon, I woke up at 4am! I never knew I had it in me to wake up this early.

I carried my phone (I have a phone holder) and some cash to buy water at the convenience store on the way. I also carried 3 tablets of these hydrating salts.

It is summer now, so the sun was already rising! It was a dawn kind of light, and it got daylight-bright by 5am.

I started slow and just kept going and going.

At the 7KM mark, I popped in the first tablet and felt refreshed – ish.

At the 10KM mark, I stopped at a vending machine and got a 600ml bottle of water. I kept sipping and kept running. I also took the second tablet.

I had to keep running with the bottle of water in my hand, taking frequent sips.

It was past 6am when I neared the 14KM mark, I think. I took the final tablet at the 15KM mark. I had finished the water and disposed of the bottle at the next convenience store I came across.

I had only 5KM left to go when it started raining lightly at first and it increased in intensity. My legs, especially my knees, were starting to feel the strain. I told myself if I kept going, I would get home to rest. I was soaked to the bone.

There was no turning back. The sooner I got home, the sooner I could rest. I took walking breaks when it got too much.

I was expecting to take 3.5 hours (the average cut-off for a medal in official half-marathons), when I was pleasantly surprised to find I had finished after 2:40!

And even though I still had over 1 KM left to make it 21KM for an official half-marathon, I knew I could cover that in less than 10 min. So I can do a half-marathon in less than 3hrs. When COVID-19 is over, I’m signing up for an official half-marathon.

I may not be able to run in the coming week, for reasons I shall blog about later. (Subscribe so you don’t miss it!).

But I am very proud that I was able to run an unofficial half-marathon. My smartwatch told me I had done 22KM and that’s why I stopped, although Runkeeper recorded only 19.71 KM.

I was surprised to find I was able to move about the next day and went for the Black Lives Matter March in Shibuya the next day. I walked over 6KM.

I rested for a couple of days, doing some light walking. On the 4th day after the half-marathon, I was able to do a 5K recovery run.

Running in Japan

I am happy I can run safely in Japan. Even at night, it’s relatively safe to jog in my neighbourhood. No white men will come hunting me down and shooting me in broad daylight like they did Ahmaud Arbery.

#BlackLivesMatter.

Follow my running journey on Instagram Stories or Twitter. I still have 120 days to go this year.

Posted in Blog, Life in Japan | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Dating in Tokyo

It’s been a year of living in Tokyo. A dramatic time has been had by all.

I moved to Tokyo in late March of 2019, after living in Ishikawa Prefecture for 4.5 years. I started a new job in April while my son, Jeremy, started elementary school. He didn’t last 6 months in the Japanese elementary school, so I took him to Kenya to stay with my parents in late October while I figured things out. I thought I would definitely have it all figured out by the first quarter of 2020, and in fact, I had a couple of plans well laid out. Then coronavirus happened and everything is basically on hold. I mean, the Olympics are cancelled postponed. Over 300,000 people have died. I’m just grateful I have a job I like and I can comfortably work from home. Jeremy remains in Kenya under the care of my parents. I miss my family very much.

Okay, back to the topic at hand. I know you all want an update on the actor I went on a date with. Sorry, I remain mum on that particular person but all I can say is that he did get me these flowers on my birthday.

Birthday flowers
Birthday flowers

Today’s post is about another gentleman I met back in January. He goes by the name Tak*. I’ve shortened it for anonymity. There must be at least a million Takashis and Takeshis in Tokyo alone lol.

I’d just come back from Kenya after the December holidays. January was cold and lonely. So when my friends invited me to go out dancing to cheer me up, I gladly accepted. Ah, remember when we used to go dancing? #covid19.

The date was set. It was a Friday evening after work. On this day, I didn’t even bother dressing up. There I was rocking my jeans and a t-shirt. Fuck contacts, glasses all the way. We had dinner at a cheap restaurant, as usual, then turned up at the Latina club which is located in one of Tokyo’s more notorious entertainment districts. I won’t say which one. Luckily, I didn’t have to worry about babysitters.

Dinner at a cheap izakaya in Tokyo. This wasn’t that particular night, but it could have been. I’m the one in the rainbow t-shirt. These are my besties in Japan.

The club was crowded by the time we paid the entrance fee and squeezed our way in. At the time, there were whispers of some outbreak in far away China. Nothing to do with us. We put our bags in a locker, got our drinks and scoped the dance floor.

Now, I know “they” say Japanese people can’t dance, but it’s like all the ones who can dance had turned up here. The dance floor was alive, full of beautiful couples moving intricately, turning here, dipping there, swirling close before twirling away, all so seamlessly. The ladies were dressed in tight shorts or dresses, effortlessly rocking 6-inch heels. The men were also in slim jeans and fitting shirts, flipping their hair back, leading their partners in salsa and bachata. Man, Latina music is beautiful. Even though one of my friends complains it’s repetitive, the same beat over and over again. (Side eye to Martina). It’s enough to just go there and watch the couples dance.

So I was watching this couple dance. By couple, I don’t mean that they are together together. Just dance partners for the moment. The guy had caught my eye. He looked late 30’s/early 40’s. He knew his way around the dance floor, he was so graceful. I caught him once or twice stealing glances my way. He was in a light blue shirt and dark blue slacks. He had a full head of hair which he had slicked back with gel, but in the heat and sweat of the dance club atmosphere, it was becoming loose in a very becoming way.

This is not Tak*. But it could be. The hair is similar. I got this image from Pinterest.

When there was a break in the music, he thanked his dance partner then came over to the counter where my left feet and I were chilling. He bought me a drink and introduced himself. I was fumbling in Japanese so we switched to English. He spoke fluent English. He asked me to dance. I stepped all over his toes but he was patient with me. At the end of the evening, he gave me his business card, he is a producer with a leading media company and had lived in London for some time. My friends and I then rushed to catch the last train. That’s literally how 90% of evenings used to go pre-covid19. You always kept one eye on the clock for the last train.

A few days later, I decided to text him. That was the start the most bizarre texting thread I’ve ever had.

It started well enough. I’m the one in blue, his replies are pale blue.

The start of the exchange.

Our schedules didn’t agree at the time but we decided to meet later that week.

Jan 23rd.

Unfortunately, at this time again, our schedules just couldn’t match. I had a farewell party to attend. Ah, any excuse for a nomikai. But this was a nomikai I couldn’t miss as a colleague was leaving Japan.

This was on Jan 24th.

I figured it was a one-week business trip and texted a week later on Jan 31st. Two months went by before a reply! Note the dates. The reply came back on March 22nd at 3am, by which time I had totally forgotten all about him. I’d lost interest and was busy coming to the terms with the new reality. Coronavirus had spread faster than bush fires in an Australian summer and borders were closing. (It was around this time my friend was rushing to catch the last flight out of Japan to Kenya, another dramatic event characterized by cancelled flights, a suicide and the last Narita Express.)

Tak’s reply was was a simple “Yes”. Huh? Cat got his tongue?

What’s with the random don’t go out? So as not to catch the coronavirus?

Anyway, working from home, I find myself fiddling with my phone much more than when at work. That must explain why I continued to text back, right?

3 am texts

I don’t know what was happening to the formerly fluent English speaker and texter. Did someone else take over his number while he was in M****** for two months? Did he forget his English in that time?

Then I noticed all his texts kept coming between the ungodly hours of 2 and 4 am.

Haven’t heard anything back yet.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, binaries and non-binaries, is the reason I am still single.

The moral of the story is: dating is hard in Tokyo. For those in Japan, how is/was your dating life?

Posted in Blog, Humour, Life in Japan, Relationships | Tagged , , , | 11 Comments

Tips for Kenyan Students Coming to Study in Japan, Part 2

Part 1 is here. 

On social life, dating and relationships

It will be lonely at first. You may want to talk to your friends and family, but the time difference might make it hard to be in contact all the time. It might take time to make friends, and even then, your friends might be busy with their studies and/or part-time jobs.

Alcohol is expensive in bars and clubs, but very cheap in supermarkets and convenience stores. But don’t stock up on alcohol to drink at home alone. It can become a habit. Do not drink too much.

Dating will be hard if you are a woman. It’s easier if you are a man. Japanese women are more confident and won’t mind being out with a foreigner. “They” say Japanese women are very “meek” as girlfriends but when you get married, the script is flipped and she is in charge. It is common and expected in Japanese households for the women to control the finances and make all the life decisions regarding basically everything. You are expected to hand over your salary and she’ll budget it and give you pocket money.

You’ll find yourself downloading Tinder and trying out online dating, something you’ve never had to do because of the deep social ties you have in your country; or the ease with which you can approach a stranger and ask for their number. Don’t be embarrassed about it, we conduct our lives online now so dating is just one aspect of that life that has moved online now. Unfortunately, online dating is full of creeps, but so is the real world.

On Getting a Mobile Phone Contract

Immediately you land at Narita or Haneda or Kansai, your first thought will be how to get an internet connection. Change enough money into yen to rent a two-week portable wifi device. It can get you going until you’re settled.

It took me a week of negotiation to get a Japanese mobile contract. It’s not like in Kenya where you can just get a pre-paid SIM card in under 5 minutes. Here, most providers want to sell you a phone and SIM contract. They won’t even let you buy a SIM card only since you’ll already be arriving with your phone. If you want to upgrade your device, this is a chance to get a 2-year contract. Otherwise, try getting a contract-free SIM card from the mobile virtual network providers.

On Money

Japan loves its cash. People carry huge wallets walking around with over ¥100,000 (approx $1,000) in cash. Luckily, it’s a safe country. There are a lot of cash-based transactions and useless bank cards that only act as CASH cards, not debit cards.

yen.jpg

Cash still rules in Japan.

You’ll burn through the Yens very quickly. The cost of living here is very high. Getting on the high-speed train from Tokyo to Osaka will easily cost you ¥12,000, one way. In Kenya, that’s the equivalent of the journey from Nairobi to Mombasa, which costs ¥3,000. So if you want to travel during the university holidays, just know it will be costly to take the express or high-speed trains. Buses are a way cheaper option especially if you book in advance.

It will be cheaper living in rural  or near-rural prefectures than in Tokyo or Osaka. If you have to choose between a university in Tokyo/Osaka or rural Japan, consider cost of living vs having a social life. There is a better social life in the big cities, but you will end up spending more on these social activities. The food costs are about the same. Rent is what is significantly cheaper in rural Japan.

If you want to send money to your family, use WorldRemit, it’s the cheapest. Transferwise is cost-effective too. Avoid Western Union, it is convenient but quite expensive. I’m just giving you tips here for you to do begin your research, so don’t ask me to take you through it step by step.

You can work part-time. You are allowed up to 28 hours a week. You can teach English, do dishes in restaurants, make ramen, convenience store clerk, etc.  If you have a scholarship, you can just work for fun and to make a bit of money. If you are working to pay your fees and upkeep, it can get tough but know that you’ll make it. Keep your eye on the prize.

On driving

For the love of God, do not come to Japan without a driving license if you ever plan on driving in Japan. It will cost you about ¥300,000 ($3,000) to get a driving license from scratch. It will cost you less than $50 to convert your existing license to a Japanese one. You can use an international driving license but only for a year after arrival in Japan. After that, you have to convert it to the Japanese one. Even that won’t be an easy process, but it’s cheaper. I wrote all about it here.

You are going to need a car especially if you leave in rural Japan, more especially if you have a family. Do not buy a white plate car (that’s a car of 1,000 CC or more). A yellow plate car (less than 1,000 CC) will do just fine (Also called kei-cars.) Cars are cheap to buy initially but you pay tax annually. For a yellow plate car, the annual tax is about ¥10,000 (~$100) and it goes upwards of  ¥35,000 ($350) for white plate cars. There is also a need to renew registration every two years (¥60,000 – ¥1000,000 or more).

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A kei-car like this will be very cost-effective. Sure, it tops out at 60Km/h but you will probably be driving in the range of 40-50 Km/h most times.

Make sure you get insurance, which may cost over ¥72,000 annually (~$700). Without insurance, you can be royally fucked if you ever get into an accident.

On Housing

If your university offers you accommodation, take it. The cost of renting in Japan is quite high.  The average cost for a one-bedroom apartment in Tokyo is around ¥80,000 a month. University apartments are usually subsidized. If they don’t provide accommodation, ask if they partner with real estate agents. The universities will usually help you find accommodation or direct you to a real estate company that will help you. Some universities have family housing

On sexism

All the secretaries are women. All the doctors, men. All the pilots, male. All cabin attendants, female. In my 6 years of living here, I’ve never seen a female pilot or a male cabin attendant. You will be surprised to find Japan lags behind Kenya when it comes to gender equality. So sexism, language and cultural barrier (and xenophobia) will stand in the way of your career success.

Medical universities literally lowered the high scores of female candidates to limit the number of women who will become doctors. Their spots went to men who had lower scores. It’s that sexist. Reason being? When the women get married and get kids, they’ll stay home to look after kids so no need to train them in the first place. That’s because, in Japan, they are set in their way of life and don’t want to change. There are clear rules of division and labour. Women are denied access to high paying jobs meaning they rely on their spouses. They stay home and look after the kids, men go to work. 

They are averse to change. Risk-averse. Once a system works in Japan (fax), they cling to it and never want to change.  Unfortunately, things have to change if the negative population growth is anything to go by.

On the weather

Japan has four distinct seasons and it is something that they are very proud of. On weather-related tips, one practical thing I can tell you is don’t bother shopping for seasonal (winter) clothes in Kenya. No need to bring too much luggage. Once you arrive here, there is no need to go to high-end shops. There are so many good quality clothes in second hand/recycling shops. That’s where I got all my winter wear, which I still have 6 years later. Remember to enjoy seasonal activities and events. Cherry blossom picnics and BBQ in spring, summer festivals and fireworks, autumn foliage drives, winter skiing.

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Sakura in Japan. Image, courtesy.

On Natural Disasters

Typhoons in the summer. Earthquakes that occur at any time. Especially in the greater Tokyo area. We have slight earthquakes from time to time. The country is well-prepared to deal with natural disasters and you’ll be given information on how to prepare for such disasters by your university and local city hall. Pay attention. Stay calm.

On Staying Here with your family

If you can bring your spouse/children to Japan, do it. It will be a nice experience for everyone all around. It will also be a great support system for you. It’s very easy for your family to join you in Japan, although finding work for your spouse might be hard. One option is joining you in the same uni to also further their studies.

Choose rural Japan if you want to bring your family. The cost of living is cheaper, people are friendlier and there will be spaces in kindergartens for your kids. If they are of school going age, they will have to deal with the Japanese language barrier when joining elementary or high school, so think about that.

If you plan to bring your family, make sure you put in extra effort to study Japanese so you can navigate the visa applications, the schools, the hospitals, the supermarkets, etc.

On Staying After Graduation

If you don’t plan to live in Japan after graduation, you don’t have to invest too much time in studying the language.

If you plan to stay on after graduation, I would advise you right now to start studying Japanese. It will be your most useful skill. It’s crazy but Japanese companies can hire someone with a nuclear physics degree to work in marketing, as long as you’ve got good communication skills (including Japanese).  So study Japanese.

If you want to stay on for the very long term, it is possible to get permanent residency and even a Japanese passport. Just be aware that Japan doesn’t allow dual citizenship and you’ll have to give up the citizenship you currently hold.

In conclusion

Sorry, this post has been all over the place. Here are some my posts about Life in Japan. Japan is an awesome country, if a little boring. It’s a great country to study in. Working here for a few years would also be a good experience. Living here in the long-term will be a difficult journey though not an impossible one.

Posted in Blog, Life in Japan | 1 Comment

Tips for Kenyan Students Coming to Study in Japan, Part 1

The other day, I got an email from someone in Kenya who has gotten a scholarship to study his master’s degree at a university in Tokyo. He wondered if I have some tips or advice for him. Of course, I do. But they wouldn’t fit in a short paragraph, so I decided to write a blog about it. I hope it will be of benefit to all students coming to Japan, although some advice may be specifically for Kenyans.

I’ll try to be brief, there is much ground to cover. From studies, food, language, culture, social life, banking and insurance, mobile phones, driving, earthquakes and disasters, finances, dating and relationships, life in the big city vs in rural Japan, rules, manners, social norms, renting apartments, hospital visits, cost of living, weather, living here with your family… I could write a book. Maybe I will write a book someday.

For now, I will try to keep it brief. Update: it ended up being almost 4,000 words so I decided to break it into 2 parts.

Here are a few tips, not in order of importance. Leave a comment below if you have any questions or want more info about a topic. 

On Academic Life

  1. Don’t Come for Undergrad

There are many reasons not to do a bachelor’s degree in Japan. First of all, a majority of the courses in undergraduate are taught in Japanese. So unless you want to spend 2 years in language school followed by higher education in a language you are barely beginning to get a grasp of, don’t come here for undergrad. Imagine learning electrical engineering/political science in Japanese as a non-native speaker after only 2 years of studying the language. Also, if you haven’t been exposed to Kanji like the Chinese students, you’ll have a much harder time. In addition, campus in Japan is boring. Trust me on this (you might find out why later in the post). I had the best time in a Kenyan public university: the freedom and social life there surpasses no other.  The friendships I made have spanned time and distance and are still strong today.  Furthermore, I believe it is important to enjoy young adulthood in a familiar environment. You won’t have deal with the loneliness, culture shock, strange food and customs, new language.. all while studying for your degree and without your close friends or family nearby.

2. Come for your Master’s/PhD

Hopefully, you got a scholarship to come to Japan for your master’s or PhD. If you don’t have a scholarship, it will be harder to get one after arrival in Japan, but not impossible. It’s easier to get funding for PhD scholarships than a master’s degree. It’s also easier to get scholarships for some areas like technology and engineering than say, social sciences.

How to get scholarships? For African students, there is the Abe scholarship and also the MEXT scholarship for students worldwide. (The topic of finding a scholarship and a graduate supervisor deserves its own blog post).

If you do your master’s degree here, consider another country for PhD, just to get a different experience. That’s because you’ll also have a better chance at successful employment in a country that has less of a language and cultural barrier.

Oh, btw, here are some tips for PhD students.

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On the day I got my PhD. September 21st, 2018.

3. You Won’t Fail

As a Kenyan, you won’t fail. There are hardly exams for classes, it’s mostly reports that you have to hand in. Attendance counts for a lot. For your thesis, it’s possible they consider effort more than contents – I have read several masters’ theses with atrocious grammar. Luckily, as a Kenyan, your English is at native-level. It will give you an advantage. Just don’t be surprised if you are asked to prove your proficiency through stupid TOEIC tests – I’ve done 3 so far and got the maximum score each fucking time. So don’t worry about your grades. I’m sure if you have made it thus far, you’ll do well in a Japanese university.

4. Publish and Attend Conferences

Most universities or laboratories have enough funding for you to attend 1-2 conferences a year. Use this chance to attend conferences, to get your work published, and to also travel… You can even submit a poster of your work, or work-in-progress. I did my master’s degree in Kenya and never published anything because our unis aren’t focused on publications and suffer from a lack of funding. In my PhD, I attended 4 conferences in Canada, New Zealand, France and the U.S. I also published one journal paper.

5. Take Advantage of the Funding

If you are studying physics or chemistry, take advantage of the ample funding in universities to request for equipment and materials. Even if you are in social sciences, be aware that you can make a request for a MacBookPro/decent laptop for your writing. This is one thing that Japan does very well, funding public universities from either the government or private sector. This is especially the case in specialized universities like JAIST, which I attended.

On Language and Culture

  1. If you get a chance to study Japanese, seize it with both hands

You’ll be surprised at just how little English is spoken here. Your lab mates will speak in broken English and you’ll be auto-correcting everything they speak in your head. Your professor will probably speak in broken English too. Do NOT correct them. It is an endless and thankless journey, and you might hurt their pride and feelings. Just appreciate the fact that you can communicate.

Outside of the lab though, it will be a real struggle to do anything without some Japanese language ability. You will need to drag along a Japanese speaking friend to go to city hall,  the bank,  the hospital,  the restaurant, basically anywhere. You can’t even read your mail (oh there, will be tons of paper mail), so you won’t be able to tell what’s important or not, without knowing some Kanji.

If you get a chance to study Japanese, even if you are staying here for a short time, seize it. It will be helpful whether staying for the short or long term.

 

studying-japanese

Studying Japanese. Don’t do stupid things.

 

2. You’ll live in a foreign bubble, especially in campus

Since you won’t be speaking Japanese, you will probably be living in a bubble of foreign students who speak English. This is okay if you are planning to get your degree then go back to your country. If you plan to stay in Japan longer, try to explore out of your bubble. Join community events where international students are invited.

3. Rules, manners and norms

Japan is a rule-based country. Everything is done by the book. Japanese people are scared to go abroad because they fear the chaos out there. Everyone keeps time. To be on time is to be late. Even if everyone has arrived and is seated, and the PowerPoint is ready, the meeting won’t start even a second early. Everyone will keep looking at the clock, keep fidgeting (no chatter though) until the second-hand strikes 00. Then the chair will clear his throat and say, “good morning, welcome everyone” or whatever. Do not talk on the phone on the train. Don’t eat in public. The longer you stay, the more rules, manners and norms you will discover. Japanese people never make ‘independent’ decisions, they always follow some rule book (written or otherwise). This can be shocking to you as a Kenyan coming from a country where everyone thinks for themselves and where we threw the rule book out of the window. It can get annoying sometimes when it’s for small inconsequential things that are blown out of proportion. Don’t be surprised if at McDonald’s you are denied Ketchup if on the menu it states that your burger comes with BBQ sauce. The bus will leave you if you are 2 seconds late, even if the driver can see you sprinting. The students’ office can deny your application for graduation if you submit your documents 1 second after the stated time. You can lose an entire academic year because you were lax with the deadlines. It doesn’t matter if the people who will sign the documents are missing, or the printer is not working. Deadlines don’t get extended for whatever reason or excuse. Don’t get frustrated, you’ll soon get used to the rules. 

 

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Yes, there are rules for everywhere and every situation.

 

4. On Indirect Communication and the Difficulty of Making Japanese Friends

Japanese is an indirect language and in this culture, people never say yes or no. They never say what they are thinking either. They tell you what you want to hear. They talk about safe topics, like food or the weather.TV is just food shows, this country has a food porn problem – it’s food shows on every channel. (If you have lived in Japan, you’ll appreciate that video, otherwise don’t click on the link.) You assume that after a couple of months of meeting, you’ll form close friendships with Japanese people but it can take years to get close to them. You’ll find yourself making friends with fellow foreigners. That’s fine, you should make and maintain friendships. The unfortunate thing is most foreigners in Japan are transients. You make friends with people this year and the following year they are gone so make the most of it.

5. You represent all Kenyans (and all Africans)

If you like a certain thing, say pancakes, Japanese people will be like “oh.. Kenyans like pancakes.” That’s because of their collective culture, in which they say things like “Japanese people like this… or that..”. So everything you do will represent Kenyans (and Africans) in general. They’ll make remarks about your long legs, your well-defined muscles, your small head.. things you’ve never thought about.

6. Everything you have heard about safety and cleanness is true.

Ref to 3 above. Following the rules is one of the reasons Japan is as safe and as clean as it is. You can leave your iPhone, MacBook, and wallet on a table in a restaurant unattended, go the toilet and come back to find everything untouched. You can jog at night. Muggings are extremely, extremely rare. Even then, they’re not violent – I read the news of an old lady who was pick-pocketing young distracted mothers out shopping.

The first thing you will learn is how to separate the trash. Plastics, plastic bottles, coloured glass bottles, clear glass bottles, aluminium cans, steel cans, metals.. all go into separate bags. Jut follow the rules.

Don’t be surprised by Japan’s love affair with plastic. There is so much plastic packaging in Japan, it will drive you crazy if you are an environmentalist. I mean, we’ve had to ban plastic bags in Kenya but in here, it’s plastic on steroids.

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A single strawberry was packaged in 4 pieces of plastic. This is a true story highlighting plastic love in Japan. Here is the link. https://medium.com/social-innovation-japan/7-surprising-facts-about-plastic-in-japan-f6920cc8e621

7. A country where things work nearly perfectly.

Everything works. Welcome to a country where the national health insurance scheme even includes international students, who are offered a huge discount on the premium. Health insurance includes dental care. People obey the rules, even traffic rules. No overlapping. No hooting. Peace and quiet. You will never encounter corruption at public offices. The power never goes off, unless it’s a disaster (actually during the strong typhoon we had last year, we still had power in my area). In the 6 years I have been living here, never once have I experienced a power cut. Or a water cut. Or downtime with the internet. No dust. No trash in the streets.  Clean public bathrooms everywhere, with toilet paper (albeit single ply). Clean water to drink the park. Safe tap water. It’s just so refreshing to be in a country where things work. Convenience stores that are conveniently open 24/7.

8. High tech, Low Tech

Sure, Japan is said to be high tech but don’t be surprised by the large amount of paperwork needed just to carry out many procedures in the university or at city hall. I still don’t have a debit card. Many places are cash only. Fax machines are still in use. You’ll be surprised to find that Kenya is more tech-savvy in some areas than Japan is. Once a system works in Japan (fax), they cling to it and never want to change.

On Food

At first, the food will taste very strange. Everything has soy sauce in it – we hardly ever use soy sauce in Kenya. Then there are the deep-fried meat cutlets; meat should never be fried. But eventually, you’ll get used to it.

Ramen, okonomiyaki and curry are the only Japanese foods you can enjoy the first few weeks. However, they are calorie-heavy. So watch out, many of the people I came to Japan with are significantly heavier now. 

 

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Japanese beef curry. Yum. Photo, courtesy.

 

Fruits are expensive. Avocado is a luxury. So are watermelons. A fresh mango can set you back ¥2,000 (USD $20). But please make sure you add some fruit in your budget, otherwise.. the scurvy. If you can’t afford fruits, then maybe try canned fruits like pineapples. 

 

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These high-end mangoes cost ¥10,500, before tax. That’s approx USD $100

 

Food is generally expensive in Japan. If you are a single person, it might even be cheaper to eat at the school cafeteria than to make meals for yourself. My advice is don’t stress or starve yourself. That is what it costs to stay alive.

Eating out alone isn’t expensive. Eating out with friends can become expensive though, especially if accompanied by drinks. You can easily spend ¥10,000 – ¥20,000 on a night out.

Nobody eats sushi every day.

Food is a safe topic that Japanese people talk about constantly.

Whenever you are offered food in Japan, be sure to pause in chewing, appreciate it, and say “oiishii desu ne“. It will please everyone. It doesn’t matter what it tastes like. Just learn how to say “oishii” and other variations like of the same like “umai“.

Part Two Here.

Posted in Blog, Life in Japan | 1 Comment

April Update

It’s been almost a month since my last post. For those who followed the story, you’ll be happy to hear that Miss B. made it back to Nairobi safely. At JKIA, she was processed and sent to a quarantine facility, where she spent two weeks in isolation. She was tested after the two weeks, found negative and was given a letter saying she could travel to Kisumu, even though there was a total lockdown of Nairobi county. She was finally reunited with her family in Kisumu. What remains now is for me to ship her the books she left behind. Looking back, we certainly made the right decision to get her out of Japan. The pandemic might last several more months. We don’t know when we will be able to affordably fly again.

In the past month, even when time seems to be standing still, a lot has happened.

Jeremy is now 7.

Jeremy turned 7 years old on March 30th. He is still in Kenya with my parents  and they had traveled upcountry. Nairobi’s lockdown means they are enjoying an extended time in the countryside, where Jeremy is enjoying the fresh air, running around the wide fields, playing with the cows and spending time with my cousins. I can’t imagine a better place for him to be during this period. It would have been tough for both of us, being stuck indoors in our tiny apartment in Tokyo, while I worked from home and kept him engaged at the same time. I miss him very much. This pandemic means that I can’t even plan a visit, and my plan for our reunification might be delayed. Anyway, Jeremy now speaks a bit of Swahili and Kisii, in addition to English. He tells me he still remembers Japanese.

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Just  a boy in the 254

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How cute are the gumboots?

My brother’s daughter, Arianna, was born on April 10th.

I am so excited to be an aunt and so happy for my brother and his wife who welcomed their first baby. It’s challenging to be new parents in these times and I wish them the best. I can’t wait to meet her. Once this pandemic is over, the first thing I will do is book a ticket to Kenya to see my family.

I’ve been jogging for 44 days now.

I set a fitness goal to jog for 200 days this year. I started this fitness journey in February and at first I was only doing about 2.5 Kms. Gradually, I’ve been able to do 6Kms regularly and I even did a 10K the other day. Working from home means I get more time to exercise. I usually jog from around 5 to 6, time I would be commuting home. I love jogging outside. I don’t like going to the gym and besides, gyms are now closed. I found a beautiful route which has both pedestrian and cycling paths, so I don’t have to worry about cyclists.

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My jogging route in Mitaka City, Tokyo

So what are the gains? I look and feel great. My skin, which has always been smooth, is now even smoother and more supple. I haven’t actually lost any weight, at least on the scale. However, I am much leaner as muscle replaces fat. I’m maintaining a sort of running diary via a twitter thread.

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Okay, I’m holding my breath. A bit.

I turned 32!

A couple of days ago, I turned 32 years old. I should have been in Bali for my friend Bern’s wedding. I would have celebrated my birthday on a beach in Bali, catching up with many long time friends whom I hadn’t seen for years.

For my birthday, I ordered a cake from a shop nearby and celebrated with my housemate, Frashia. She took the photos above. How I got a housemate is a story for another day but I am so glad she is here. It’s so nice to have someone to talk to, take turns cooking with and watch Citizen Live on YouTube with. Together, we have baked banana bread, cooked chapos, mandazis, ugali with omena or pork, ndengu with rice, pilau and many other Kenyan dishes.

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Ugali, pork and spinach.

Working from home has been challenging for sure. Online meetings are hard. Concentration is low. However, we are all trying our best. I wrote a paper on design patterns for real life AI systems that was conditionally accepted for a conference, so I will be busy revising it.

Oh, one more thing. I renewed my Japanese driving license the other day and got a GOLD-en level license! It means I have been safely driving in Japan for 5 years and can get insurance discounts. If you knew how hard it was to get a Japanese driving license in the first place, you would be in awe of me right now. You would understand my urge to add this piece of information to my CV, linkedIn and even Tinder profiles.

Anyway, let’s hope for a better May.

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Suicide in Japan and the Last Narita Express

I am sorry for the dramatic title of this post, but you will see why by the end of this post.

It was on Monday night, the 23rd of March, when Miss B. sent me a message on Facebook. She was stuck at Haneda Airport. Her Emirates Flight to Dubai had just been cancelled. Dubai was no longer accepting flights because of, well, coronavirus.

Miss B. was on her way from Ishikawa Prefecture to Nairobi, Kenya, flying via Haneda Airport in Tokyo and Dubai. Why was she flying in these coronavirus times, you ask? Well, this wasn’t a luxury trip. She was going back home. She had completed her master’s degree and graduated. She had gotten her certificate – there was no graduation ceremony, cleared her apartment, closed her bank accounts, cancelled her phone contracts, and said sayonara. Her scholarship was done. Her student visa was up. She had no choice but to leave for Kenya before borders got closed. She was aware that once she landed in Kenya, she would undergo a two week quarantine at her own cost and she was ready for this.

On that Monday, Kenya had announced the country would close borders on Wednesday 25th at midnight. So Miss B. had thought that she was lucky she was flying from Tokyo on the 23rd and arriving on 24th. Then her flight got cancelled at 11pm that night and she was stuck at Haneda. There were no trains running at that time, so she had to spend the night there. I gave her directions to my place so we could figure out the next steps and she took the first bus in the morning (Tuesday 24th) to my station. She sent her luggage to my address using Kuroneko, the transportation company.

Once she had rested a bit, showered and had breakfast, she emailed her school to let them know she was stranded. They advised her to get another flight to Kenya if possible and that they would refund her. Luckily, Qatar Airways had a flight to Nairobi that 24th night, departing at 22:20 from Narita Airport. We quickly booked the flight. This was the last flight that would get her to Kenya by the 25th. We breathed a sigh of relief when the payment went through.

It was now around 14:00. Her flight was at 22:20. It takes roughly 2.5 hours from my place to Narita Airport. If we needed to be at the airport 3 hours before departure, we should leave my place by around 4pm.

But we had one problem, her luggage had not arrived from Haneda. She only had her handbag and laptop bag with her.

I called Kuroneko. They said they would give me a call once the luggage arrived at the distribution center for Mitaka, which, luckily, is literally 5 minutes away from my house.

At 2pm, there was nothing to do but wait. I was working from home so I went back to my work laptop and for her, I put a movie to watch. She couldn’t relax enough to take a nap, even though she hadn’t slept for two days: on Sunday night she had been packing up and clearing her apartment, and on Monday night when her flight had been cancelled, she had spent the night on airport benches. Taxis cost so much in Japan. A taxi from Haneda to my house could have easily cost ¥30,000. So she had had to wait until Tuesday morning to take the bus, which costs ¥1,000.

At 4pm, when we should have been leaving for the airport, we decided to take a walk to the Kuroneko Mitaka center and check whether the luggage had arrived and they had forgotten to call us.  They told us the earliest it would arrive would be 5:30pm.

5:30pm would be cutting it close, but not too bad. We would arrive at the airport at 8pm, which might be still have been okay because she would have 1.5 hours before check-in closed.

Promptly at 5:30pm, we got a call from the Kuroneko distribution center. We rushed there, ladies and gentlemen. We got the bags: all four of them! In addition to the two bags she had at home. She had a total of 6 bags.

“Miss B., are you serious?” I asked her, as we each dragged two bags across the tarmac to my house. “How are you having this much luggage? Isn’t it overweight?”

“It’s my books you know,” answered Miss B. as we waited for the light to turn green at the pedestrian crossing. “I can’t be divorced from my books.”

“Did you weigh the luggage?”

“Yes, I have a budget for paying the extra weight,” she added. But the Qatar flight we had purchased only had an allowance of 30Kgs. We agreed that she had to leave some luggage behind and that I would ship it to her later.

When we got to my house, it was almost 5:45pm. There was no way we could catch a bus from Kichijoji Station in time for the flight, so we decided to go to Tokyo Station and catch the Narita Express departing 7pm. This would get us to Narita at 8pm, risky but might still be okay. Remember, this was the very last flight to Kenya. If we missed this flight, there was no flight we could catch the next day. She would get stranded in Japan with no visa, no scholarship. Of course she could stay with me, but she also really wanted to leave Japan. She had not had the best of times.

The Narita Express

The Narita Express

 

So it is 5:45pm and Miss B. is rearranging her luggage and I am calling a taxi to take us to the train station so we can catch Chuo Line to Tokyo Station. It takes about 40-50 minutes from my house to Tokyo Station, so if we left at 6pm we could catch the 7pm Narita Express.

At 6pm, the taxi pulled up in front of my apartment. We had 2 pieces of luggage to be checked in: one suitcase with clothes, and another with bags,shoes and books. And two pieces of hand luggage: a backpack and a laptop bag.

The taxi driver, a lovely old lady, told us that Kichijoji Station is usually crowded and Mitaka Station might be better (I live in between these two stations). She would drop us off near the elevator, she said.

At 6:15pm, we were getting into the elevator at Mitaka Station. Unfortunately, we had missed the Special Rapid train so we took the Rapid one. This would still get us to Tokyo Station before 7pm. The stops for the Rapid train are Mitaka -> Kichijoji -> Nishi Ogikubo -> Ogikubo -> Koenji -> Nakano -> Shinjuku -> Yotsuya -> Ochanomizu -> Kanda -> Tokyo. Alright then.

At 6:22, we get into a Rapid train at Mitaka. Next stop, Kichijoji.

Two minutes later, as we pull into the platform at Kichijoji, the driver applies emergency breaks. He then makes a chilling announcement.

“The emergency breaks have been applied. It seems we may have a body injury related accident.”

What?

What is the worst thing that could happen when you are rushing to catch the last flight out? 

A suicide, by someone jumping on the tracks of the train that you are on. And that’s exactly what happened.

On top of the stress of coronavirus!

When someone jumps in front of a train in Tokyo, which happens nearly every day (and this is not an exaggeration – there is a dark side to this country), the complicated schedules of the trains are messed up and delays of up to an hour or more are experienced across several lines.

On a normal weekday at rush hour, there is a Chuo train every 3-4 minutes. And each car in each train is fully packed at 110% of the capacity. If there is even a 5 minute delay,  the number of people on the platform piles up very quickly. A suicide, characterized by a 人身事故 announcement, inconveniences hundreds of thousands of travelers and it is not unheard of for train companies to demand compensation from families  of the suicide victim. (By the way, can you say a suicide victim, or that’s an oxymoron?)

“We have had an accident. Please remain on board. We apologize for the inconvenience.” The announcement continued.

“The doors will remain closed. There is one train car that’s not aligned on the platform. Please remain on board. We deeply apologize for the inconvenience.”

It was now past 6:30pm. I thought of calling Qatar Airlines to inform them that we would be late. When I found the contact number of Qatar in Japan, a recorded voice told me that the hours of operation are between 9am to 5pm and would I call them back the following day? Jesus!

We remained on board. The police arrived. They set up a perimeter in front of the train.

I told Miss B. to check in online, first of all.

It was approaching 6:40pm. If the worst came to worst, we would need to be at the check-in desk at Narita Airport before 9:20pm, when the check-in counter closes.

At 6:45pm, they finally opened only the door of the first car of the train, so we all had to walk to the first car to get off. As we walked, we could feel the train cars near the front shaking a bit, I think one may have been a bit derailed.

As we got out of the first car, I could see the yellow tape around the front of the car. There was a stretcher, but there were no medical supplies. When you jump in front of a train, ladies and gentlemen, that’s it.

Two police officers (I assume) were preparing a tarp to bring up the remains. Onlookers on the platform were taking photos. Someone from down there on the tracks (I couldn’t see the tracks, mercifully) was warning them not to take photos. 写真撮らないでください。

I spared a thought for the departed. That life was was so unbearable, that a violent death, being dragged by tons of metal across the tracks (because it will not stop immediately), was more preferable to living. To breathing.

chuo-line

At a previous accident on the Chuo Line. Image from https://cashing-nyanco.net/kanenai-qa/syakkin-hensai/838/

To be honest, I didn’t spare any thoughts at the time, that was much later. At the time, I was thinking OMG ARE WE GONNA MAKE IT TO NARITA?

The Last Narita Express was leaving Tokyo Station at 8:03pm and getting to Narita Airport Station at 9:11. With any luck, any luck at all, we might make it.

The Chuo Line had stopped all operations. Nothing was moving.

I heard on the announcement that the Sobu Local Line from Kichijoji to Shinjuku was still moving. The other option would have been the Inokashira Line to Shibuya then Yamanote Line to Shinjuku.

We transferred to the Sobu Local Line, and we managed to get to Koenji. At Koenji, we stopped for almost 15 minutes because there were no free platforms at the next stop, Nakano. Our blood pressure was at an all time high. Taking a taxi was out of question, it would take so long because of traffic and we would be late for sure.

When we finally got to Nakano, it was way past 7pm. I was not sure of the exact time. Suddenly, the driver announced that that particular train was going into the “garage” 車庫 and that we should get off and take the next one.

Nothing we could do, I don’t know who makes these decisions or why. We got off and waited 5 minutes for the next train on the Line that was going to Chiba via Shinjuku. It started moving.

We arrived at Shinjuku past 7:30pm. When we got down from the platform into the station, I saw the red line on the floor directing us to the Narita Express (NEX).

We ran with the luggage, following the red line. Those NEX tracks are so far!

At 7:38, we were at the escalator, heading to the platform.

The Last Narita Express was leaving at 7:39.

Once off the escalator, we ran! We had made it. With seconds to spare. We made it on the Last Narita Express, that left Shinjuku at 7:39, stopped briefly at Tokyo Station at 8:03, and got to Narita Airport 9:11pm.

I told Miss B. that when we arrived at Narita, we should dash to the check-in counter.

Unfortunately, since we hadn’t purchased train tickets all the way to Narita beforehand, we had to pay at the exit. Miss B. paid and rushed to the the check-in counter at the 3rd floor of Terminal 2, I thought.

I didn’t have cash on me so I was a bit delayed, having to pay with a card. I took the elevator to the 3rd floor.

It was 9:17pm. I saw the Qatar Airways counter. I was in front of the check-in by 9:19.

Phew.

“Miss, your passport please.” Said the Japanese lady, pleasantly.

I looked around, fuck.

Miss B. was nowhere to be found. Where the hell had she gone?

“Miss B! I started shouting at the very empty airport, looking around. She came running from the escalators.

“I was looking for you,” she said. What? But anyway, she hadn’t slept for 2 days, on top of all the stress.

There we finally were, standing in front of the Qatar counter at 9:21pm. One minute after check-in.

Luckily.

Luckily, the Qatar supervisor was there. He said, you are so lucky I am here. I will let you check in this time. But next time, please, you should arrive with enough time to spare.

But there was a suicide on our line!” we said in unison.

And also we had been waiting for the luggage to arrive, because the previous flight had been cancelled, because of coronavirus.

Finally, she checked in but they told her to hurry, the flight was beginning to board. But her luggage was overweight, and would cost an additional ¥70,000 for the extra weight. There was no time to sort it out. She had to leave behind her suitcase with shoes and books. I will figure out how to ship it to her.

She had made it.

Last I saw of her, she was disappearing behind the security counter.

I dragged her suitcase with me, and wasn’t even phased when the Japanese guy at the information desk asked me if I was looking for the cheap bus. Yes please, I said. It’s leaving in 4 minutes, he said. I said I would risk it and rushed out and I made it. I got to my house at midnight.

Miss B. arrived safely in Kenya. She is now in quarantine.

There are now 3 bags full of interesting books in my house.

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March 2020… an Update

Last year, I joined a 21 posts in 21 days blogging challenge. The 21 days have so far been spread across several months. If you count the bullied out of Japan posts and the one about skiing, then this current post is the 12th in the series. Halfway there!

Let’s take a trip back to around March 2013 when I was doing my scholarship interview at the Embassy of Japan in Upperhill, Nairobi. On the interview panel was a University of Nairobi professor who had been in Japan for 7 years.

I was like, Jesus Christ, that is a long time!

But lo and behold, here I am, in my 6th year in Japan. I blinked and by the time I opened my eyes, everything had changed and yet a lot still remains the same. I have missed weddings and funerals, births and christenings.

When I came back from Kenya this January, it meant readjusting to life in Japan without Jeremy. I am happy to report that Jeremy continues doing well in Kenya. He turns 7 at the end of this month. I continue the search for a reunion plan. I cannot blog about it until everything is made official. I cannot make any long term plans as well until everything is decided so I am kind of in limbo.

January and February went by so fast. I have to admit, it’s blissful not having to deal with the school administration/gakudo newsletters/neighbourhood watches, etc., now that Jeremy isn’t around. It does feel lonely though, what with the extra room that I hardly venture into, and how every time I pass by places where we walked and played together, I can hear the echo of his words replayed in mind.

In February, I finally blogged about what my son went through, and to date I’m still responding to comments on the blog, twitter and Instagram DMs, facebook comments and inbox messages, and emails. Work was also equally busy in February as we are nearing the end of the fiscal year in Japan, which ends in March.

Feburary was also the month I was invited to speak at a Nerd Nite Tokyo event, which I shall blog about later. I also attended one other event in February called Space Cafe in Tokyo, which hosts talks related to space, one thing that really fascinates me.

Speaking on Cloud Computing Basics at Nerd Nite Tokyo

Speaking on Cloud Computing Basics at Nerd Nite Tokyo

I don’t have many travel plans this year, but hopefully April will find me in Bali for a friend’s wedding (which will coincide with my 32nd birthday) and May may find me in Okinawa, enjoying the golden week. I’ll probably still be in Japan in June and in July/August, I hope to visit Jeremy and my parents in Kenya.  It’s hard to make travel plans with COVID-19 coronavirus in the air, so it’s mostly a wait and see game.

Exercise-wise, I decided that I would jog for 200 days this year. So far, I have done 14 days, follow my hashtag on twitter. I am not really a gym kind of girl, so jogging is the one activity I am enjoying in my quest to stay fit and also look great in time for my upcoming island trips. I have already ordered (one-size-too-small) swimsuits from AliExpress, but we (you and I) don’t know if they will arrive in time for the trips, as they are being shipped from China and with the coronovirus…

My reading has taken a back seat, as has my Japanese language studies. I am giving priority to finding a way to reunite with my child, so most of my effort is being directed towards this. However, in the last month, I did read Digital Bedbugs, an Anthology of the Nairobi Fiction Writing Workshop published by Makena Onjerika. You should check it out on Amazon.

Cheers to March!

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Solo Ski Trip… with Friends

First of all, I have received so much feedback from the series of posts I wrote about my son, Jeremy, being bullied out of Japan. (For those not in the know, read part one, two and three.) I will be taking my time to respond to each of the comments, emails and private messages. Please bear with me.

This past weekend, I really wanted to go somewhere alone. A solo trip. Perhaps it was an attempt at escaping from my reality for a bit.  By the way, this seems like a good time to slip in an update on “my actor“. After not meeting for a while, I texted to ask when we would be seeing each other next and got an “how about end of the month” response. Is this normal in Japan? People living in the same city yet meeting only once or twice a month? Those of you living and dating in Tokyo, how often do you meet? Anyway, it was clear we are on different paths and at different points in our lives. I can hear the clock ticking, my time in Japan is winding down. There is nothing to hold onto in this country and it’s time to enjoy what’s probably my last few months here. My last text to him was “I’ll never forget you” and his to me was “I will treasure you forever”.

Initially, I wanted to take my book and go somewhere near the sea, take a walk by the beach (yes, I know it’s cold but I would be in a coat, scarf, hat, gloves, you know, the works..). Where was I? Yes, take a walk by the beach, go to a tiny local restaurant for dinner and wow the owners with my Japanese, then spend the night at a hotel and come back to the city the next day.

Then my friends told me about the JR ski trip offers. For something like 14,000 Yen, you get a return ticket on the shinkasen, ski lift ticket for a day, and ski equipment rental plus an onsen (for an extra 300 yen). I figured I can always go to the sea at any time of the year, but the snow season is soon coming to an end.

So I decided to join my friends for skiing in Niigata.

It took me an hour but I was finally able to navigate the JR website with the help of Google Translate and book the trip. Why is it so painful navigating Japanese websites? Then your session is never saved and you almost always have to start over. Then you run into problems like your name isn’t full width kana, or it has no Kanji, etc.

On Saturday morning, I overslept! I missed my shinkasen. My friends had left earlier that morning, at around 7 am.

I was leaving Tokyo Station at 9:30 am and I arrived in Niigata at around 11 am. Luckily,  even though I had missed by 8 am bullet train, I could sit in the unreserved section and furthermore, I got a window seat!

Since my friends had arrived earlier, they were already on the mountain skiing or snowboarding and it was hard to communicate on the phone. So it was kind of a solo ski trip for me. I arrived at Kandatsu Snow Resort, changed, rented equipment, and went up the mountain, enjoying my time alone. I didn’t join my friends for lunch because I had eaten on the shinkasen. I only met them later at around 4 pm when the ski lift was closing.

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It was snowing the entire day!

A post shared by Savvy Kenya (@savvykenya) on

I can’t say that Kandatsu is the most scenic ski resort, but I can assure you it is the most beginner friendly that I have ever seen. It has a long, gentle slope that skiers or snowboarders of any level can enjoy. They’ve also recently bought new equipment, their snow shoes were light and the skis, top notch and so easy to use. (I am not getting paid for this post, this is just my experience.)

Kandatsu Snow Resort in Niigata

Kandatsu Snow Resort in Niigata

I would say my skiing skill is upper beginner. It doesn’t matter the level, it only means that I can now enjoy skiing without a fear of falling, and I know that the more I go, the more my skill will keep on improving.

It was snowing the entire time and it was so cold, my fingers were turning purple. I now know not to push myself too hard next time.

Kandatsu Snow Resort in Niigata

Kandatsu Snow Resort in Niigata

At the end of the day, I met my friends and we went to the onsen to warm up, followed by dinner and some drinks, and we then took the shinkansen back to Tokyo.

A perfect solo trip with friends.

I hope I can go again before spring is upon us.

 

 

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Bullied Out of Japan: Part 3 (Final)

Once I understood the depth of what was happening (see part one and two here), I ended talked to many people, both Japanese and non-Japanese. Their experiences and advice opened my eyes to the truth about the Japanese society that produces a self-policing community. I am not an expert on Japanese culture. However, there is a collective agreement that bullying is particularly vicious in Japanese schools. There are studies upon studies. This culture extends to the workplace, where the spirit of stoicism and “not causing trouble” philosophy are enforced. Until people just can’t take it any more, and walk onto the tracks of the passing trains. Suicides are pretty common in Japan. Including teen suicides and kids in elementary school. See article: Two former classmates ordered to pay ¥37 million in damages over bullied Japanese boy’s suicide. If you don’t want to “cause trouble” with your suicide (your family will be ordered to compensate the railway company for the inconveniences you cause), then there is a suicide forest for you to go quietly.

This is rapidly becoming dark.

Of course each country has its good and bad sides. Just the other day, there was a stampede in a Kenyan primary school in which over 15 children died when a stairwell collapsed.

Japan paints a perfect picture to the world, but it has its dark side too.

I didn’t pay attention to this dark side until my son became a victim of bullying. Then things went rapidly downhill and all I could see was the dark side of this country.

I could illustrate this with more examples. Like during sports day soon after I had visited the school, after he had had a fairly good day, they went back to the classroom to change out of their sports wear. I had a feeling and went to check on him, only to find the teacher holding him back because he was about to explode. Asking him what was wrong, the teacher said that Roy had once again something nasty to Jeremy. Why is my child the one on the receiving end of the “punishment/admonishment?”

I am sure things would have been better had we stayed in Ishikawa. But there are very few jobs in Ishikawa and my social life was deadish there. What I’ve heard is that if your kid continues into elementary school with the same kids from nursery school, they are less likely to experience this bullying.

Anyway, I weighed my options.

Fight the bullying – as you can see, group bullying is part of the culture here. The nail that sticks out gets hammered in. If anyone associates or tries to help the victim, they also become a target of bullying too. So the victim becomes isolated. I did not have the energy to take on the entire culture. In individualistic countries like America, you can take on the bully and his parents one-on-one, and can even find people to support you. Here, no one wants to “cause trouble”.

Home schooling – well, I am a single parent and I work. Not feasible. Even if I hired a teacher, I would have to pay her my entire salary.

Moving to another district with more foreigners.

Well, in Japan, diversity is still a myth. There are very few foreigners (less than 2% of the population I believe) and when it comes to kids in Japanese schools, that percentage is even less. Secondly, there is no guarantee that the bullying/isolation won’t happen in that school. It is part of the culture of conformity, bullying that one person who threatens the averageness, the sameness, the very identity of the group. The identity of what it means to be Japanese.

Furthermore, moving costs are insanely high here. I need close to 800,000 Yen ($7,000) to move to another 2LDK. Transportation costs, deposits, key money, real estate agency commission, money to change the lock, etc. Not forgetting the fee needed to break my current lease, which runs for two years. And there is no guarantee that the next place will be peaceful.

International School

This would have been the ideal option from the beginning. The student body is diverse. The culture isn’t that of conformity, stoicism or avoiding trouble. Except for the astronomical costs. At 31, I am not in that income bracket yet. I just began my career after a 4.5 year break from employment. 

Finally… out of Japan

None of these solutions could urgently resolve my problem anyway. I had withdrawn Jeremy from school when he had a major episode where he was fighting the 2nd graders.

I tried working from home. My company is nice like that. But it was not feasible to work from home with a healthy, energetic boy bouncing his soccer ball against the walls. He was returning to his old self now that he wasn’t going to the toxic school environment.

I called my mother. She was more than willing to have him for now.

I booked a flight two days to go. I asked for time off. It was a nice, smooth flight on Ethiopian Airlines (yes, my first time on Ethiopian was good!). Jeremy was going home.

While home, we visited my grandmother (who by the way, had also been a single mother who bravely raised her 7 kids). I did not know that I’d be seeing her for the last time, for she passed way last November. Jeremy represented me at the funeral.

Schools were on holiday. Every day, he played outside freely with the other kids on holiday, like children should. He started picking up Swahili. He picked up some Kisii words. He was learning to be a kid again.

There is so much pressure on school kids here in Japan. They forget their pencil, you get a phone call at work. Something as trivial as forgetting a pen at home make a kid become riddled with anxiety. They carry the ridiculously heavy randoseru, instead of comfortable backpacks. They need to fit in, to not stand out. They need to do their Kanji drills. If they make a mistake, it’s a big deal, instead of taking it as part of learning. They learn to not ask questions, to not ask why, to just follow the rules. They become the next generation of… wait I am going off tangent here.

I went back to Kenya after Christmas. He was doing well but it was clear he was missing me and I had missed him too. I still miss him every day.

In January, we found a local school in the neighbourhood. I do not want my child waking up at 5am to to a school far away, to avoid traffic. (We need to resolve the traffic problem in Nairobi by the way.) The public school is overwhelmed with the number of kids, while in Japan, some schools are closing for lack of children! The population is declining, and every year, fewer Japanese kids are born.

I came back to Japan in January. Bread has to be earned. I believe I have some big decisions to make very soon, but I am happy that Jeremy is happy now. The light, the sparkle in his eyes has returned. He’s got his confidence and smile back.

My goal in 2020 is to be reunited (live together again) with Jeremy.

P.S. You can now see why my friend’s visit to Japan in November last year was quite timely as I got to re-experience Japan as a tourist, not forgetting I almost dated a Japanese actor, which was a hilarious and welcome distraction.

 

 

 

Posted in Blog, Life in Japan | Tagged , , , | 33 Comments