6 Months in Tokyo: Work and School Update

In case you haven’t noticed, this blog has been on a hiatus for some months now. It’s not that I had exhausted the limits of my creativity, rather I had a lot on my hands, which I still do. But I realize that writing for me has always been therapeutic, so after taking a break for a while, I am back.

It has almost been six months since we moved to Tokyo from Ishikawa Prefecture. Life in the big city is just as I expected. The pace is fast, the people, more interesting, and the population just a bit more diverse. Some days, it can feel like something exciting is around the corner. On others, the train rides will drain your soul. Tokyo.

Our daily life, as befits the life of one of “the masses”, is mostly occupied by work and school.  Admit it, you are one of the masses too. Acceptance is what we do in our 30s, isn’t it?

School Life

Jeremy is a first grader at the school that’s 6 minutes away from our apartment, where he goes from 8am to around 3pm. After that he goes to the “gakudo”, an after school program for kids whose parents are working full time because, let’s face it, who leaves work at 3pm? Except for  Japanese housewives who may be working part time. They will be home at 3pm, waiting for their kids with a smile, cookies and milk; and to ready to help Takeshi Jnr with his homework. I am torn between judging Japanese housewives for not working, and envious of them for not working as they can spend quality time with their kids, living off their hard working husbands. If I marry a Japanese guy, kids or no kids, I’m staying home and waking up at noon to have brunches at his expense. Sure, all I have to give up is a little independence here, and a bit of a professional dream there. I could learn to make stylish bentos (lunch boxes), just like his mother used to, that would be the envy of his colleagues at work and I could learn to have no opinion whatsoever. In between the brunches and the bento-making, I could write… wow, I digressed so much.

Cute bento-boxes.  There is an entire corner of the internet dedicated to making your food look cute. Jesus Christ, Japan can be too much sometimes. Image from the web [https://tokyotreat.com/news/cute-bentos]

Back to school life. The syllabus is good, quite practical and engaging. There is homework sheets daily, these I cannot keep up with. I’ve had to hire a babysitter from the “Family Support” organization, a program that every city has to support working parents. She comes twice a week to help Jeremy finish off the homework and they sometimes practice a bit of the piano.

I think that school life for Jeremy is okay for now, but as for two to three years from now? *shrug*. However, everything is in Japanese with English lessons once a month. Today they learned how to count to 7 in sing-song. I feel like I am losing my son to this culture. Now I know how Chinese parents feel in the USA. International schools are out of the question at the moment; the cost is simply astronomical compared to the free Japanese schools, and the quality is not assured.

Every. Single. Day. I get leaflets with all sorts of announcements from the school, regarding the most important of things and also the most trivial of crap haha. It’s a lot of work going through it. So again, I asked our lovely babysitter, T-san, to help me out.

Working Life

Working in a Japanese company has been interesting. As a PhD graduate, I have a bit of freedom in managing my working hours. There is no set to arrive at work or to go home (in my understanding of the terms and conditions haha), just as long as I get my work done. If circumstances force it e.g. a sick child, I can work from home.

The most exciting things to me have been the work itself specifically, the project I am currently working on. I also work with some cool people and have become friends with them. They invite me out for drinks after work, and I turn up whenever finances, babysitters,  time and energy are in perfect harmony. We are talking once a month haha. There is a difference between being a parent and being child-free. In the latter case, your time is only your own (and of course, your employer’s) and you only have to take care of yourself.

One of biggest challenges has been the daily one-hour commute involving a bus, a train and a 15 min walk. I used to live on the campus in my student days, and my “commute” then was a 5 minute walk. I could move closer to work but I had been told the schools in that district weren’t good. Mitaka has some very good schools and I know one of the reasons is the very strong PTA. The parents (oops, I mean the Japanese housewives) are super over-involved. It’s great though, they look out for our kids. The PTA also sends leaflets from time to time.

Another challenge has been working in Japanese. Programming and report writing happens in English, but for efficient communication in the team, I need Japanese. Emails, discussions, lunch time banter, nomikai jokes, everything… is in Japanese and I thought I had it mastered (hey, JLPT N2) but I’ve barely scratched the surface. So I keep on learning technical Japanese and business Japanese. Learning Japanese is no longer this challenging hobby I picked up but a necessity. I sometimes feel like it’s taking away time from my productivity, sigh. The meme below pretty much sums up the first few months at work.

Facing Japanese

Facing Japanese

A Podcast Story

With all the time being taken up by work and school, when does Jack and Jacqueline play, you wonder? That will have to be another blogpost (6 Months in Tokyo: Playtime? A Social Life?).

In related news, I was recently a guest on the Raw Urban Mobile Podcast, hosted by Cliff & Buddha. “They talk with locals about their careers, endeavors, and passions to highlight the international community in Tokyo.” Check it out in the link above and a little preview below.

Till next time, Ciao. Be sure to not miss any posts by subscribing. Join 18,268 other followers (I know, I am surprised too).

Posted in Blog, Life in Japan, Motherhood, Work | 2 Comments

I went to Cebu during the Golden Week and Here is What I Learned

Recently, we had like 6 days of continuous public holidays from April 27th to May 6th (aka Golden Week), and including the weekends, we had 10 days off work and school. A few people complained about the holidays being too long, and I actually understood their point of view. When you work part-time (パート) or per-hour jobs (アルバイト), you don’t any paid holidays. So that’s about week’s income gone. Anyway, I had just started my new job at Hitachi RnD (with paid holidays  💃 💃 ), and this felt like a chance to get out of Japan for a week or so.

I decided to go to Cebu, Philippines for various reasons. First, it is near enough to Japan and I have been wanting to explore Asia while in Japan (even though the flight prices were through the roof during the golden week). Second, the warm tropical weather after a long winter in Japan was appealing. Third, Philippines is famed for its wonderful beaches; fourth, the people are said to be friendly; fifth, Kenyans don’t need visitor visas; sixth, local prices were said to be cheap, etc. I don’t really need to justify my reasons to you guys, but I’m doing it because I’m a nice person 🙂

So after I sold the best car I ever had (goodbye Bella 2.0!), I immediately booked the best (read cheapest) tickets I could find. I also booked 4 nights in a nice apartment, booked an island hopping trip that kids could also join, and made all the preparations necessary for a nice enjoyable trip. Check out the thread below for the highlights:

 

However, the journey wasn’t as smooth as I thought for several reasons. Here are five lessons learned from that trip:

  1. Plan and book everything in advance

And then double-check everything.

I booked my flights in late March because I didn’t have funds in hand early enough, which was barely a month to the travel date. It was late considering the golden week is a high season for traveling in Japan. So I knew I was spending 4 days in Cebu. Leave Japan on Monday and leave Cebu on Friday.

I couldn’t get any direct flights (only business class tickets were left) so I got flights transiting through Seoul. It was only after booking flights that I realized that the layover in Seoul was going to be all night! I decided to go ahead anyway and book a hotel at the airport to spend the night. The hotel at the airport was full, according to booking.com, but I finally found a vacancy in a hotel 3 minutes away from the airport.

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So we're transiting in Seoul

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You know what that meant? We would be leaving the precious “international zone” at the airport to enter S.Korea, and would need transit visas. I figured it was just a quick drop at the embassy and dropped off my application with the RUDEST people I have ever seen in an embassy. And yes, even worse than the US ones lol. Although Jeremy and I have been to South Korea before, we only encountered polite and professional officials at the South Korean embassy in Niigata. Anyway, maybe it’s a Tokyo thing.

It turns out I was wrong and several missed calls from a private number later, (a series of coincidences meant I missed the calls from the embassy request additional documents but the private number meant I had no idea who was calling so couldn’t return calls), I turned up the embassy to collect the visas only to be told to show them a certificate of bank balance – that you can only get from the bank during working hours,  a letter of employment – that might take two weeks to get the right stamps and signatures, and airplane tickets. Like I have a professional working visa in Japan, why would I want to go hustling in the streets of Seoul? If I want to go work or live in Seoul, I will just do it legally. Anyway, I had forgotten my own advice on the visa application processes and had grown complacent.

There is no dignity in the visa application process. It is discriminatory, invasive in every manner (financially, medically etc), and assumes we are all dying to go live in the backstreets of their countries, even if we sometimes are.

It was too late to get those documents so dejected, I emailed the transit hotel inside the terminal  airport to see if they could put me on a wait list or something and luckily they had a vacancy. Crisis averted, phew.

See, if I had planned early, I might have had time to even get x-rays to show them I am a healthy African and thus can step into their precious country.

2. Cheap is Sometimes More Expensive, Direct Flights Are Best

I probably spent more on applying for transit visas, and airport hotels, and time wasted, than if I had purchased the direct flights. More on this later

3. Cebu Island’s Beaches and Sea are beautiful, but inland, not so much.

Maybe it is an age thing, maybe it is being a parent. But I feel like the days of hostels are past me. If I want to travel, I want to at least enjoy my stay. In Malaysia about 2 years ago, we got an airbnb with an infinity pool at the roof and another huge pool on the 5th floor. This time, I was also able to get a deal at some nice apartments (17th floor room) in Mactan near the airport in Cebu. Be sure to check airbnb for deals and if you travel in a group, you can share the costs and you will be surprised at how affordable such accommodation becomes.

We took a boat and went snorkeling on day 2 and it was the highlight of trip. Away from the dusty, crowded streets crawling with traffic, the sea was quiet, serene, and beautiful. There are many trips you can book online and I used Island Trek Tours. They are not exactly cheap, but they provide pick up and drop off, snorkeling equipment, freshly barbecued lunch and soda (but no water). So be sure to carry water with you when you go.

Shades of blue — in Caohagan, Cebu, Philippines.

Shades of blue — in Caohagan, Cebu, Philippines.

 

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Snorkeling with the fishes off the coast of Cebu. Can you spot Jeremy and I?

We spent another day in Cebu City checking out the historical Basilica Minore del Santo Niño de Cebu, established in the 1500s which is adjacent to Magellan’s Cross. According to wiki, Ferdinand Magellan was a Portuguese explorer who organised the Spanish expedition to the East Indies and was one of the founders of the Spanish settlement in Cebu.

Basilica Minore del Santo Niño de Cebu

The altar inside Basilica Minore del Santo Niño de Cebu

 

We also made a brief stop at the tranquil San Pedro Fort and the gardens nearby.

fort pedro.jpg

Enjoying walking around Fort Pedro.

Thereafter, we did some shopping at some mall, can’t remember the name, but there are several shopping options if that is what you are into. Later in the evening we visited the 10,000 Roses Cafe, which looks better in pictures than in real life.

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Why are there are 10,000 LED white plastic roses behind us? You tell us. Anyway, the lighting wasn’t great for photos 🙂

When at the roses cafe, be sure to eat at at the  nearby native restaurant. It’s called Lantaw Floating Restaurant and their pork stew in groundnut sauce, oysters, fried veges, grilled tuna were just too good.

However, getting a taxi out of there is was a nightmare so might be worth asking the to-taxi to wait for you. If it’s daytime you can take a motorbike taxi or a 3 wheeled bicycle to the Jeepney (public transport) station. To get around Cebu, we used Grab a lot. Uber isn’t so much in use in Cebu.

 

4. Filipinos are possibly the friendliest people ever (how about Canadians though?)

Filipinos are warm and friendly. I loved the country and would go back, but would prefer to go to quieter, more remote island next time. While they are friendly, the economy is not so you might get ripped off because you’re a tourist. Get a local to guide you or research on prices (especially taxis) before you arrive and try to negotiate the prie beforehand.

We were so glad our Filipino friend Maricris, who used to work in Japan, was there to meet us. We hadn’t known in advance that she would be free but it all worked out in the end. She guided us around the city, negotiated the taxi prices, showed us the spots in Cebu City. Thank you so much ❤ Maricris, if you read this.

5. Plan for emergencies and avoid the high seasons if you can!

The fifth lesson from this trip was planning for emergencies. When you budget for a trip, be sure to budget like 50-100% more money just in case.

So on Friday morning, we went to the beach, then hand lunch and showered and packed, then headed to the airport at 11pm in the evening for our 2am flight. Except our flight had already left at 2am that Friday! We were a day late to the party. Be careful for flights departing after midnight. After that, it was a scramble to get flights, but there were no direct flights back to Japan until after the golden week was over. There was no way I was going to be late back to work after just a month! Eventually, got a flight for one and a half days later but it was landing in Osaka. We had to go back and find a hostel  to spend the night and eventually we flew back to Osaka via Seoul again, and then took the shinkansen  to Tokyo on Monday, a week after we left. Just back in time to get back to work on Tuesday the 6th of May.

 

 

 

At Mactan Newtown Beach

At Mactan Newtown Beach, Jeremy and I made some new friends ❤️❤️ Cutest baby ever but I don’t want to show his face here.

What an adventure! It left me so broke, but so full of memories. I met so many other amazing travelers, memorably from Japan ❤️, South Korea❤️, Germany ❤️❤️, Australia ❤️ and Poland ❤️, and reconnected with my friend Maricris.

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31: Taking Stock

I am writing this at 10pm on the eve of my 31st birthday so happy birthday to me!

I’ll be at work in the morning and taking the afternoon off to go to the Korean embassy in Azabu Juban to pick up our transit visas. Jeremy and I are going to Cebu during the golden week and the most affordable tickets we got have a long layover in Seoul. I tried booking a room at the hotel in the airport but it was fully booked, so I got us one just outside the airport, but turns out we need transit visas to set one foot inside South Korean territory. It’s hard traveling on an African passport but oh well, *shrug*

 

Making: To do lists; I just moved to Tokyo a month ago and I started a new job as Jeremy  started a new school. The list of things I have to do is never ending.

Cooking: by baking! When I moved, I finally got an oven (well, a combination microwave, toaster and oven). I baked (chicken) for the first time in my life. So glad for Google, for the videos and step by step directions.

Drinking: Wine. And it’s the good kind which I have to open with a wine opener, thanks to my friend, Udi’s mum. We had some last week with cake when she came to Tokyo, kind of a pre-birthday celebration.

Reading: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondo. Someone gifted me this book on my birthday 3 years ago. Well, I requested the gift 🙂 I finally got round to reading it after watching the Netflix show. I hope I can finally find the time to make my apartment spark even more joy.

Wanting: A nice couch. And a large screen for watching movies or Netflix; although I am  not sure when I will find the time for Netflix again.

Anybody wanna buy me this nice sofa for my birthday? Anybody at all?

Looking: Natural. I have some sort of routine for maintain my natural hair. It’s not perfect, but the great thing is nobody cares that my hair isn’t straight. And I can wear whatever style I want to work. My to-go hairstyle is the twists in front, like in the IG post below:

 

Playing: Rock music from my campus days. Too many feels. Nostalgia. It’s been almost 10 years since then.

Deciding: How I am going to spend the rest of the year. I may have to revise some of the goals that I set at the beginning of the year, because working life is most certainly different from student life. I also have to make a lot of decisions dealing with my future, Jeremy’s future, my pension plan, life insurance plans, investment plans.. so much to think about. I am not ready to be an adult!! Too late I guess. Even if I could somehow convince myself that 31 is young, I have a whole 6 year old 🙂

Wishing: That my friends lived nearby. I just moved here and I wish I had one or two friends who could come over for some pizza and wine. Just hanging out, you know. Friday or Saturday nights. Maybe after I get the couch. It could attract friends. I’ll keep the windows open to show it off.

Enjoying: My new apartment. I also love the sunny weather in Tokyo, although I had to get dark curtains because the sun rising at 5am was bothering my sweet morning sleep. At 7 or 8am, the sun is on my verandah and I can enjoy a cup of coffee while basking in the morning sunshine.

Waiting: for the golden weekend to start. I have my 4 day trip to Cebu to look forward to (we can sail, we can sail.. from Peru to Cebu feel the power of Babylon.. sail away sail away),  I am also waiting for June, July, August, October, December. All because of the travel plans I have.

Liking: The working environment thus far. Unfortunately, I cannot divulge further info, you know that guys 🙂 My job is top secret.

Top secret job is exciting, no?

Wondering: How is Tinder gonna play out in Tokyo? 😉

Loving: Doing DIY projects. Thus far, I have fixed curtain railings for my bedroom, as it is a Japanese style room with only white-sheeted screen doors as “curtains” that let in all the light in the world. Lovely in the day, too bright in the morning. I also bought a bed and mattress, but will be waiting for 3 weeks for its delivery. The futon is nice but it’s killing my back.

My room looks *almost* like this actually. It’s beautiful. But without the flowers. I should get flowers. I love yellow flowers.

Considering: Which activities to enroll J in. Thus far, our weekdays are busy so would have to be on weekends, but thus far we have been exploring the parks.

Buying: Too much stuff from Amazon. I was too excited about the furnishing of the apartment, I need to calm down a bit and pay off my credit card debts this month.

Watching: I literally have no time to finish watching some shows I left halfway, like the TBBT Season 12, Crazy Ex-girlfriend Season 4, Midnight Dinner: Tokyo Stories, Mom Season 6, Criminal Minds Season 14, Beyonce’s Homecoming (I hear Bey’s work ethic is inspiring millions), Brooklyn 99 Season 5 (Jake and Santiago got married in the last season!!), and worst of all GAME OF THRONES! I am avoiding social media for the spoilers. So yeah, not watching anything right now, but one day when I get the time I will catch up with the above shows and more. Most recently, I was catching up with Friends, now in Season 5.

Hoping: to do well at work 🙂 It is so hard being new at the workplace. You always feel like you’ve got something to prove. Or it’s just me?

Marveling: at just how many people are in Tokyo. I mean, you think Nairobi’s Githurai area has a lot of people (Wasee wa Githurai 45 mko wapi!) but then you come to Tokyo and take the train during rush hour. You don’t even need to hold onto the strap-hangers as you are squeezed into the spot. Made me think it’s not so bad that Japan’s population is declining, but unfortunately only in the rural areas. Everyone is moving to Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya etc. So the population in the cities is actually increasing. Luckily, I take the train in the opposite direction of the rush hour, so there is even space to sit. And I live in a very nice and quiet neighbourhood with lots of greenery; no high rise apartments.

#Always amazes me how you can just stand at the doorway to be pushed in!

Needing: a routine that gets me more sleep. I also need more time to write, somehow.

Questioning: nothing at the moment. I am kind of at a peace with the universe right now. Oh, wait a minute. Just how horrible can human beings be? Why would they do that in Sri Lanka? But history has shown us that humans are capable of astonishing depths of evil. Think slavery, holocaust, massive genocides, colonialism, atomic bombings, modern slave labour…

Smelling: beautiful spring flowers everywhere.

Wearing: Suits. In preparation for working for a global company of Japanese origin, I invested in suits only to find out no one at work wears suits. Everyone is in “business casual” or “smart casual”, widely interpreted. So now I am wearing sneakers, so comfortable after 2 weeks of women’s work shoes, the most hurtful and uncomfortable shoes I have ever worn.

Following: progress to the Olympics 2020 closely. They are gonna be held in my city!!

Noticing: that my personality has changed. I am kind of shy/reserved now when meeting new people, and will hardly strike up a conversation first. Either I am growing older or Japan has had a larger influence on my personality that I realized.

Knowing: that it will get better. Right now everything feels new and hectic, so I know things will calm down soon.

Thinking: that maybe I want baby #2 by 35? 🙂

Admiring: the leaders at work. Inspiring a team, that’s what I would love to do.

Sorting: my apartment.

Getting: homesick listening to Sauti Sol. Jeremy’s current favorite song is Sauti Sol’s Kuliko Jana. He really wants to learn Swahili and will do my best to teach him. In addition to English.

Bookmarking: To be honest, I am bookmarking work related sites. Turns out while I was focusing on my PhD, the world of computing changed so much. I have to renew my technical skills. By the way, I was right to go with Python. But the future could change so fast. You always have to be on your toes. The  current and future are in cloud computing though.

Coveting: houses. How do people own houses in this economy? According to my calculations, I may afford to own a home when I am 60 or over.

Disliking: rude, unprofessional people. It may be because it is so hard to encounter such in Japan. In our neighbourhood, whenever you encounter a cyclist and you move out of the way or they have to ring their bell to get your attention, the don’t forget to say “thank you for moving out of the way. I am sorry to have disturbed you”. If you can’t get out of the way for some reason, they will get off the bike and cycle past you then continue on their journey. So it is kind of a shock when you encounter a rude person, like the lady at the Korean Embassy. The last time we visited Korea, we went to the embassy in Niigata the people there were professional and polite. Nobody is asking for you to be their best friend, all we ask is for some dignity in our interactions!

Opening: my mind up for new opportunities.

Giggling: every single time I watch the video of the train pushers.

Feeling: pensive. After all, I am 31 tomorrow. But what does that mean? 30 was kind of a big deal, 31 is meh.

Feeling: Grateful for my parents, my brothers, my aunts and uncles, my friends in Kenya. My Japanese parents, my friends in Japan.

Snacking: I hardly snack.

Helping: I am not sure I am helping anyone at the moment, I would love to help out more.

Posted in Blog, Life in Japan, Travel, Work | 4 Comments

Hello From Tokyo!

It’s already been three weeks in Tokyo. I managed to find a lovely 2 bed roomed apartment in a quiet suburb of Tokyo called Mitaka City. It finally hit me that I am an adult when I finally moved into this apartment. Ever since graduating from JKUAT, I have mostly been living with friends; although I moved back home briefly at some point. Llater when I  moved to Japan, I lived in the university housing for students, which was already fully furnished.

So this apartment is a chance for me to decorate it the way I want, just like the apartments on the Instragram interior decor pages. I’m trying to make it sparkle with joy. But I am finding out that making things sparkle with joy is a FULL time job! And an expensive one at that. You want matching towels neatly folded? It will cost you. You want matching, minimalist furniture? Fork out the cash.

Below, Jeremy enjoying playing the keyboard in his new room.

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Twinkle ✨twinkle ✨ little star 🌟

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Of course as many have said it, is the pursuit of joy the goal of life? I don’t know. The apartment itself sparks joy, with the sunlight coming in through the windows in the throughout the day. That’s enough for me. I am going to have to live with a little clutter until I have enough time and money, but so far so good. I am also yet to finish unpacking and buying all the furniture and stuff I need in the new apartment.

About work.. it has been a crazy three weeks. I joined the Hitachi Research and Development Group! How cool is that! The work and the working environment is great thus far. But it takes time to transition from doing part-time post doc in rural Japan to a commuting and working full time in the big city. In addition, Jeremy also just started elementary school and the procedures for that were a ton! if I piled up the documents that I have filled in so far, it would form a pile Jeremy’s height!

 

Here are a few observations/differences about working for a big company in Japan (from my point of view as I experienced working in Kenya):

Interview Expenses

Most* Japanese companies will pay your expenses for you to go to the on-site interviews. They don’t ask you to go by the cheapest way either, but by the fastest way, i.e. bullet train fares, which are quite expensive (it costs ¥13,500 one way from Kanazawa to Tokyo). Some will even pay your hotel expenses if you are coming from too far away and are unable to go back home on the same day.

When I was in Kenya, I had to ask my parents/friends for fare to the interviews. I don’t know a single company in Kenya that refunds your interview expenses. This would be a great idea especially if the interviewees are  students who’ve just graduated and have had no income yet.

I know in the US, the likes of Google and Facebook have this practice as well.

Relocation Expenses

Again, most* big companies in Japan will cover your relocation costs. They will usually hire a moving company to come to your house and move your stuff, or refund you if you hire the moving company by yourself.

In Kenya, if you are moving from Nakuru or wherever to Nairobi, for example, it is up to you to cover the cost of relocation; when you are yet to have your first salary.

Commuting Allowance

Say you’ve passed the interviews and have now started working. In Japan, for almost all companies big or small, your commuting expenses will also be taken care of, depending on the distance you are to travel. You will be asked to get a 6 month train or bus pass, and will be refunded the exact amount. This is is a separate amount from your salary. (I am pretty sure it is not taxed). Basically, your commuting expenses don’t have to come from your salary, which is pretty great. In Kenya, it is up to you to budget your commuting expenses from your salary (after tax). When I worked at EY though, if we went to a client’s site that was a certain distance from the office, then we could apply for a mileage allowance. But there was none for commuting to the office.

Obviously, there are many more differences because Kenya and Japan are completely different countries, culture-wise and economic-wise. So it wouldn’t do to compare everything directly. However, I am a Kenyan living in Japan, I can’t help but note the differences.

Anyway, that was just a quick update on the blog. I have been working on this post for almost two weeks now, that’s how busy I have been. If you would like to see more frequent updates (hopefully), follow me on IG. I know for sure that life is gonna be so interesting, it has already started on a high note.

 

 

 

 

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

How Not to Wash Your Car in Japan

Let me tell you something about living in Japan: there is no dust. Whether you live in rural Japan or in the middle of Tokyo, every road surface is coated in tarmac, down to the smallest footpath in the remotest mountain, which will be covered in concrete. This means that you never have to wash your car. And that is what I did, or never did. I had owned my black Suzuki Wagon R  for almost two years before I finally decided to give it a wash. The outside was clean enough, it was the inside that disturbed me. I had gone to the beach several times with friends in two summers, and there was enough sand on the floor mats to build a small sand castle. There were also two years’ worth of food crumbs in the car from the many times that Jeremy and myself and my friends ate in the car. The outside of the car got cleaned from time to time when it rained; but the inside of the car was another story.

An automatic car washing machine in Japan

An automatic car washing machine in Japan. Image from http://www.iyasaka.co.jp/

So I decided to wash my car.

I have seen the drive through automatic car washes, but those only clean the outside and besides, my Japanese wasn’t good enough to go navigate the touch-pad that controlled the settings. I also wanted to save the ¥300-¥500 that I would pay at the car wash, while getting some good exercise in the process. It was a fine summer day and this is how I pictured myself washing the car:

Yeah, let me just get into my bikini, beach shorts, impossibly high stilettos then I can wash the car.

Yeah, let me just get into my bikini, beach shorts, impossibly high stilettos then I can wash the car.

At the time, I was living on the ground floor of the student housing. I parked the car as near my door as I could, got a long extension cord, plugged in the vacuum, and cleaned the interior of the car like it’s never been cleaned before. I took out the mats and beat out the dust, I filled a basin with water and wiped down the interior surfaces. I was feeling great. I think they call it cleaning therapy.

Next, was the outside. This, didn’t go as well, as you will see below.

I had got a long hose, but the opening didn’t fit my kitchen tap. Next, I tried the bathroom, but it still didn’t fit. The cleaning therapy buzz was wearing off. Here I was in my bikini, beach shorts, stilettos and I was even ready to do everything in slow-mo for that picture perfect “model in bikini washing car” moment.

So I put on my thinking cap, after all, I was doing a PhD. I should have been able to solve a simple problem such as where to plug in a hose. Looking around my apartment, I realized the washing machine tap was a perfect fit. I pulled out the washing machine hose.

You can guess what happened next.

Water under very high pressure rushed out like a fountain, drenching me and everything in sight withing a second of unplugging out the washing machine hose. That was when I remembered I should have closed the tap before unplugging the hose. So much for my smarts! I tried closing the tap, but it seems it hadn’t been touched for centuries, it was frozen in place! I tried closing the water with my hand while I thought of what to do next. I had to use two hands to keep the water from gushing out, but it was too much. I tried plugging back the washing machine hose, but I had never before setup a washing machine and it just wouldn’t take hold (I later learned there’s a clip that holds the hose in place).

The washing machine socket was also getting drenched, and now I had a real fear of getting electrocuted. I let go of the tap and turned off the electricity’s main switch. I looked for the water supply’s main switch but couldn’t find it. By the time I got back to the washing machine, the water had gushed out everywhere and my apartment was in danger of flooding, so I was holding the tap closed with both hands. Jeremy was playing in the living room and I asked him to go to his friend Shoi’s house and tell Shoi’s mum to come over. I waited for 5 minutes and later, I found out that once he went there, he was invited in and because the mum didn’t understand what he saying, she told him to come in and play, which he did. I let go of the tap and before calling 119 (which is the fire brigade) or even JAIST security (whose number I have never memorized), I called some friends, one of whom actually knew where to turn off the water supply switch. Later, Shoi’s mum and my friend Savanna helped me clean the apartment, and luckily there was no water damage. My other friend plugged in the washing machine hose. After everything was dry, I turned on the electricity and the water, and everything went back to normal.

The outside of the car was never washed. And that is how I sold it, never having washed it.

The reason I recalled this story is because I am currently selling my car, since I am moving to Tokyo. There is no need for a car in Tokyo, and besides, parking spaces are very expensive there. My current car is a very nice Nissan Note, which I haven’t cleaned in over a year now since I bought it. But I have to clean it before I sell it.

I learned my lesson. I may vacuum and clean the inside myself, but I am definitely going to go the automatic car wash and spend the very affordable ¥500 to clean the outside.

 

Posted in Blog, Humour, Life in Japan | Tagged , | 1 Comment

What it’s Like Living in Rural Japan

I wanted to live in rural Japan. From research, I knew it would be easy to get Jeremy into a kindergarten in a rural area, as the ones in the big cities are always at full capacity with long waiting lists, and you have to apply to join the waiting list the moment you get pregnant. There are private kindergartens (or nursery schools, day care centers, preschools, creches,  whatever you want to call them), but those are costly. They would cost more than my entire scholarship allowance, which for the record was ¥145,000 per month. Private kindergartens in Tokyo could cost about ¥150,000 ~ ¥200,000 per month or more. The cost for the public ones varies depending on your income tax bracket. For a student like me with no taxable income, the fee is minimum. It depends on the location, but in rural Japan it could be anything from ¥4,000 to ¥10,000 up to a maximum of ¥50,000 for the higher income families. Single parents get cut some slack, the fee I had to pay was… ¥0.

JAIST was perfect for me. Here was an advanced graduate school with high speed internet access, super computers, with programs conducted in English (there was no need to learn Japanese), and best of all, it was located in the middle of nowhere. Nomi City offers great support for parents, even foreigners like myself.

JAIST, surrounded by nothing but nature

JAIST, surrounded by nothing but nature

I’ve been living here for over 4 years and loving it but I’m more than ready to move back into a big city. Here are some advantages and disadvantages of living in rural Japan.

The Good

  1. Nature

You literally don’t have to go anywhere to find nature, we are surrounded by lush forests and several parks, and rows upon rows of rice fields. If you are a nature lover, rural Japan is for you. The air is also fresh and clean, which would be a big relief if you are living in cities like New Delhi, Seoul, Beijing etc that sometimes have smog for days.

2. Quiet

Rural Japan is peaceful and quiet. Only the insects in summer are loud. The cicadas wake you up at 4am in the morning, when the sun comes up in summer. The JAIST campus may be having over 2,000 people during the day, but you would think it’s an abandoned campus save for the occasional hum of air conditioners. I guess Japan in general is just a more quiet country, even in the cities it’s never as loud as it is Nairobi. Only the announcements and jingles at train stations could be considered ‘loud’.

 3. Cheaper Cost of Living

Rent is so much  cheaper than in the big cities. I was living in subsidized student housing, where I paid a rent of ¥17,000 per month for a spacious 1LDK. In a Tokyo university that had been my second choice, the cost of an equivalent room was going for ¥80,000. Kindergarten costs in rural Japan, ¥10,000 for a student with a bit of income on the side, for example; while in Tokyo, would be impossible to get into a public kindergarten halfway through and private ones cost ¥150,000. I would say the cost of groceries is about the same though; the biggest differences in cost are rent and childcare. Even if you don’t have kids, you can save a lot more in rural Japan.

4. Fresh Food and More Delicious Sea Food, especially in Ishikawa Prefecture

The say sushi in Tokyo is unpalatable. The sea food, atrocious. If you want a good meal in Tokyo, go for the meat, but not the sea food.

Here in rural Japan, even the sushi in kaiten-zushi (kinda like the fast food of sushi) restaurants is really tasty.

If you are coming to Japan for the first time, of course all the food will taste strange to you. But after you have been here  a while, you will start to appreciate the taste and enjoy the fresh sea food this side of Japan has to offer.

Ishikawa Prefecture

Ishikawa Prefecture

5. Relatively Safer

Japan is one of the safest countries in the world. Rural Japan is even safer because well, the population is a lot lower and everyone seems to know everyone. In the supermarket, if I get separated from Jeremy, I don’t panic. It happens for example, when I am deciding which type of cooking oil to buy, something that would not be of interest to a preschooler, and he goes exploring the toy section. I know I will find him at the aisles of interest to kids. Now that he is older, he sticks by my side as I involve him the shopping decisions. In Tokyo, I would definitely be worried if he went missing from my side.

6. More Friendly

It feels to me that there are more friendly people in rural Japan than in the cities. If you are asking for directions, people here are more likely to stop what they are doing to direct you. I guess the pace of life is slower and the stress levels are lower, so that could be a contributing factor. I have experienced more than my fair share of hospitality and help from a lot of Japanese people here. Specific examples include the fact that I am currently “home-staying” with the Nishikawas as I save for the move to Tokyo; my coworker is helping me with the moving preparations, one time my friends and I planned to walk to a nearby waterfall but an older lady and her daughter drove us there in their cars (that was before I got a car), and so many more.

So with all these, why would I be willing to move from Rural Japan?

The Not-so-Good

  1. Limited Job Opportunities

This is one of the main reasons even Japanese people are leaving their rural prefectures for Tokyo or Osaka. Career opportunities for non-Japanese speakers are even more limited in rural areas. The population in Japan is declining, but even more rapidly in the rural areas, read more about this in the Atlantic (Can Anything Stop Rural Decline?). Even if you got a job here, career growth would not be assured.

2. No Social Life

Yes, it is true. Life in a rural area is boring, even more so in Japan. I used to be quite the social butterfly in Nairobi (back then, I would never have described myself that way, but comparing the me now to the me back then, that is accurate). There is only one restaurant that serves as both a cafe and bar next to JAIST. There is literally no place for students to just hang out after the lab work is done, which it never is. Jeremy has so much more fun than me, there is no lack of parks and playgrounds for kids. I like parks too, but once in a while I would love to hang out with just adults of my own age, grouch about life in general and laugh at adult jokes. And I don’t want to do it seated on the floor of an izakaya chugging beer with a cloud of smoke hanging above my head.

Smoking is allowed indoors at Izakayas, (Japanese beer dens?)

Smoking is allowed indoors at Izakayas, (Japanese beer dens?)

Don’t even get me started on dating. It is hard enough being in Japan (they themselves aren’t dating each other, reports the guardian: Japan’s under-40s appear to be losing interest in conventional relationships. Millions aren’t even dating, and increasing numbers can’t be bothered with sex. For their government, “celibacy syndrome” is part of a looming national catastrophe.); but now I am in rural Japan; and then I am a foreigner (scary); a black foreigner (even more scary); got a PhD (is that intimating? I don’t know); single, never married, parent (a strange concept here); and over 25. Well, I did a whole post about it. Most of my friends also graduate and leave, it’s hard making new friends and then watching them leave. I wish there was some kind of permanence to it all, like the kind I had in Kenya.

I also worry about Jeremy growing up black here, he already knows the vocabulary “gaijin” which means “foreigner”. In Japan, human beings are divided into two groups, Japanese and foreigner. I don’t think it has ever occurred to them that they too, are foreigners to the rest of the world. If you told a Japanese kid or even some Japanese adults that if they went abroad, they would be the “gaijin”, it wouldn’t register. But this is a topic for another day.

3. Inconvenient Access by Public Transport

I wouldn’t actually cite this as a problem for me specifically as I have got a car and can pretty much go anywhere I want, whenever I want. You need a car to get around in rural Japan. If you have a sick kid that you have to take to the hospital, the playgrounds, or if you yourself need to get anywhere, access by public transport is quite limited.

There is an obsession with cute culture in Japan, but it definitely works on this bus.

There is an obsession with cute culture in Japan, but it definitely works on this bus.

4. Kiss Anonymity Goodbye 

Most people are quite well meaning, so it is not like the gossip is malicious. The longer you stay in rural Japan, the more you start to get known and thus famous. People will discuss what they saw in your shopping tray at the supermarket. You are basically a local celebrity. Here is a quote from this blog about the best and worst of living in rural Japan (which actually inspired this post):

 If a foreigner is so foolish as to set their foot on one of those villages, they should prepare to face dire consequences: unblinking eyes that follow you everywhere, recording even the slightest gesture; incessant questioning about the reasons that brought one so far out of their city and into this piece of god-forsaken paradise, where even time seems to flow slowly; gossip that revolves around how alien the foreigner looks, how alien their movements/gestures are, as well as the villager’s interpretations on the reasons behind the foreigner’s stay in the village (that range from being a spy or a runaway convict, to other, darker themes); and of course, these random acts of kindness like finding fresh chicken eggs, or cheese, or vegetables at your doorstep in the morning, that make rural areas so special, revolting and lovable in equal measures.

When you are new, you won’t know what’s going on. After a while, and if you speak Japanese, then you will start to realize just how famous you are becoming. This could be a good or bad thing. I definitely would like a little anonymity sometimes 🙂 The good is you get invited to a lot of events and you experience countless acts of kindness, the bad is that you have to give up some privacy.

 

Posted in Japan, Life in Japan | 7 Comments

How Much Does it Cost to Move to Tokyo?

The short answer, a lot.

Some background.

I plan to move to Tokyo next month so that I can prepare for Jeremy’s school entrance in April. I also need to prepare to rejoin the workforce. The company’s entrance ceremony, nyuushashiki (入社式), is slated for April 1st and I’m so excited. Jeremy’s school entrance ceremony, nyuugakushiki(入学式), is a week later, probably around April 8th. There is a lot to plan for, including arranging for his care until he starts school, his enrollment in an after school program, my daily commute, getting an apartment ready, the mountain of paperwork involved even when moving within Japan, etc.

New employees at a company entrance ceremony in Tokyo. Image from the internet.

New employees at a company entrance ceremony in Tokyo. Image from the internet.

Last week, I went to Tokyo to look for an apartment and managed to find a really nice place in a nice neighbourhood, although it requires a bus to get to the train station. The only way I could get an apartment the size I wanted was to give up convenient access (walking distance) to the train station. However, it is very close to the elementary school that J will be attending, which is great.

The costs involved when moving to Tokyo include, but are not limited to:

  1. Transportation costs
  2. Initial cost of renting an apartment
  3. Furnishing costs
  4. Monthly expenditure for the 1st month
  5. Work/school wardrobes and related expenses

Obviously, these costs vary a lot depending on where you are moving from, which part of Tokyo you are moving to, if you are moving with your family or alone, if the apartment is furnished or not, etc. If you are reading this, you probably want a clearer picture, so I will try to paint a general picture and then specifically my case.

If you are one of those expatriates coming in with all expenses paid and a fully furnished apartment, etc, that is amazing. Kudos.

For the single people who will move into company dormitories (well, not actually dorms but company apartments for 1 person), I envy you too. Those company dorms are usually cheap and can help you save a lot. However, the company I will be working for doesn’t have apartments for families (the biggest assumption is new recruitees from uni are usually single). However, they provide a housing allowance should you decide to live in an apartment elsewhere.

If you are moving to Tokyo for work, some companies will help you with part of those costs, e.g. relocation costs. However, you will still need a substantial amount of money to survive that first month until your first paycheck arrives.

  1. Transportation costs ¥50,000

I literally have no idea about this, I shouldn’t even be blogging about it. The cost will depend on how far away from Tokyo you live and how much stuff you will be moving. My advice is to take as little as you can, because you can buy whatever else you need in Tokyo. There are so many moving companies in Tokyo. Here is a list of English-friendly ones. Luckily for me, the company will cover the moving costs upfront.

2. Initial cost of renting an apartment ¥400,000

This is the mother of all costs.

Apartment sizes are small and the rent is high. Hey, it’s Tokyo.

Before you move in the first time, you are usually asked to pay the first month’s rent, 1 month’s rent as deposit, 1 month’s rent as a commission to the real estate agents, and 1 month’s rent as key money, basically goodwill, which you will never get back. There is also some fee to exchange the lock (about 10,000 – 20,000 yen) and a fee for a guarantor (usually a monthly fee) and/or 24hr mandatory fee for the apartment manager (usually paid annually).

For example, if you get a 2 bed-roomed place (2LDK in Japanese terms) with a rent of 100,000 yen per month, you need at least 4 times that amount to move in. If you choose to change locks, etc, you are looking at approximately 450,000 yen. And then you can get the key to the apartment. Not all places require you to pay the key money or deposit, but even then you will need 3-5 times the cost of the rent when moving in.

3. Furnishing costs ¥100,000

I have neither furniture nor appliances, as I lived in a subsidized, fully furnished student apartment. I don’t plan on buying everything at once, but there are some appliances that I will need from the beginning. Most places are only furnished with an air conditioner. So I will need to get appliances like a fridge, a washing machine, a gas stove or electric burner, a microwave, etc. I will also need curtains, futons (for sleeping on the floor) before I can properly furnish the apartment. Luckily, a lot of these things can be bought from second hand stores, and even if I buy them brand new, they may not cost that much. I am going to need anything from 100,000 to 200,000 yen or more to furnish a family apartment. Let’s say an initial cost of at least 100,000yen.

Could I ever really furnish my future apartment until it is IG worthy like the ones below? I can only dream.

 

4. Monthly expenditure for the 1st month ¥100,000 

Let’s say I have moved in, bought a few appliances and a futon, and I am ready to start my new life in Tokyo. Since I will be just starting at the job, I won’t get paid until the end of the month. I need money to survive that first month. Groceries, fare to and from work, rent, utilities (in case of pre-paying some fees), and other miscellaneous expenses.

5. Work/school wardrobes and related expenses ¥100,000 

As a grad student, I survived on a wardrobe of jeans and t-shirts. I bought one suit that I used for important presentations, and for all the interviews I attended. But I am going to need enough suits to last the orientation/training period at work, after which I can wear smart casual. I need to upgrade my wardrobe before April.

Contrary to what Sauti Sol is singing, provisions for kids don’t come from thin air. Hakuna sahani popote. Elementary school in Tokyo is free and there are no uniforms, but there are a few expenses like the school bag that could cost up to ¥60,000. (Jeremy is so lucky, Okaasan already got him one!). Generally, at the beginning of the school year, there are a few costs that I am not sure about yet until I get the full list once I enroll him.

Elementary school backpack, known as randoseru in Japanese.

Elementary school backpack, known as randoseru in Japanese.

So yeah, I need about ¥800,000 to move to Tokyo.

Life as a single parent working full time in Tokyo with a first grader will be challenging, but I bet there will be some interesting moments too and I can’t wait to blog about the experience.

Posted in Blog, Life in Japan, Work | 13 Comments