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 , | Leave a 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

2019 Goals

Happy New Year! Should I still be saying this, seeing as it is already mid January?

Drifting at sea. Image, courtesy

Drifting at sea. Image, courtesy

I like making to do lists and although I don’t want my life to be a checklist, I can’t help it. If life life were an adventure at sea, some people are happy just drifting with the wind, going wherever it takes them. While I like to drift, I want to know that I’m drifting towards a particular destination. So that’s why I’ve made a list of my goals this year. I want to live every day as an unknown adventure but in reality my days are predictably mundane (yawn). Anyway, by the time it’s Christmas this year, I  hope I will experience adventures undreamed of and in addition, I will have achieved the following:

  1. Move to Tokyo
Tokyo

Tokyo

Since I moved to Japan in October of 2014, I have been living in a rural town called Nomi in Ishikawa Prefecture. Life is quiet and idyllic, perfect for doing a PhD or raising a kid, for example. But from April this year, I will start a new job in Tokyo (which I hope to excel at) and while I have visited the city several times for days at a time, I have never actually lived there. I need to find an affordable apartment in a good neighbourhood not far from work, a school for Jeremy as he will be starting elementary school and an after school program for him (because I’m not going to be back from work by 3 or 4 p.m. when school ends).

2. Make a travel calendar and hopefully stick to it

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#sunnyDay

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I really want to travel abroad (out of Japan I mean) this year and I have a somewhat flexible schedule at the moment, but I don’t have any money for travel. From April when I start working, I hope to make some money, but I am not sure I will have the time. However, I still hope to travel abroad 4 times this year:

  • Golden Week – there is an entire week of public holidays this year because in addition to the golden week holidays starting in the first week of May, there is also 2 public holidays for the new emperor’s coronation. The current emperor is stepping down and his son will take over from May, 2019. The Heisei era is over. The only problem is that flights at this time are at their most expensive as literally everyone in Japan will be on the road. So I think we (J and I or should I say I and J?) can only afford to go somewhere nearby, like Taiwan.
  • Summer Break – kids have like a 2 month summer break and I hope we can travel abroad with J if I can take 5 days of leave from work. I’m hoping to go to London or Paris.
  • Autumn Break – if I take 2 days of leave and combine it with a long weekend, I can travel somewhere in East Asia, like Vietnam or Thailand, for 4 or 5 days.
  • Christmas and New Year Break – I hope to spend this period in Kenya meeting up with my family and catching up with my friends.

3. Take the JLPT N1 in December

While I have mastered most of the grammar, I need to learn like 1,000 new Kanjis and the corresponding vocabulary in order to pass the JLPT N1. I have about 10 months to study if I can put in the effort.

Japanese grammar

Japanese grammar

4. Writing Goals

I’ve always had this dream of becoming a creative fiction writer. I know I have it in me but I am either lacking in inspiration, discipline, time or all three. Anyway I hope by the end of the year I will have done the following when it comes to writing:

  • 1 blogpost a week for this blog
  • Start on my first novel, I haven’t decided what it will be about¯\_(ツ)_/¯
  • Write 2 short stories and submit to short story competitions. I have 2 ideas for the stories.

I also want to submit a journal paper that I am working on during this postdoc period.

5. Reading Goals

Read 13 books, 12 in English, 1 in Japanese.

Thus far I have read “When Breath Becomes Air” by Paul Kalanithi.

6. Sort out my finances

personal financial planning

personal financial planning

I am no longer a student and no longer in my 20s. It’s finally time I started thinking of my personal finances in terms of:

  • savings and pension – I should have savings for emergency cases and I should have a solid pension plan, not just what the company will recommend/offer.
  • Investment – I should have an investment plan. It’s not enough to just have money in the bank, you need to grow the money by investing it.
  • J’s future – while Japanese schools are free until high school, there are a lot of costs unrelated to tuition that keep on increasing. I should also save for his university tuition. I am not even sure how much longer we will be in Japan, but I should still save for his future schooling expenses.

7. Take Care of J

Although these 2019 goals are numbered, they are not exactly in order of importance. Taking care of Jeremy is the first priority in my life. He’s growing up quite fast. He’s fluent in Japanese but I do need to teach him reading and writing English, and Swahili too hopefully.

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Merry Christmas from me and mine!

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8. Take care of myself

You know, eat healthy,  exercise, read, and buy myself  a Kindle for my birthday. I am tired of lugging around my books. This year, I want to be more kind to others, help others as much as I can.

Love thyself

Love thyself

What do you hope for in 2019?

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

2018 in Review

When I am older, maybe around 70, and my earlier years are a soft fuzzy memory, and someone happens to ask me what I remember from 2018, these will be the memories that will stand out.

2018 is the year that first of all, I got my PhD. My parents and brothers, and my friend Walter, came to Japan for the first time to attend my graduation ceremony.

2018 is the year I turned 30 and Jeremy turned 5.

In 2018, I went to Las Vegas for the first time (with my friend Bee) and had a fabulous time that included seeing Mariah Carey in concert from 2nd row seats, a trip to the grand canyon and some mandatory night-time fun 😉

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Best travelling buddy ever!

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2018 is the year that I finally cleared my HELB loan and I even got a certificate to prove it. To be honest, I don’t know if this will be an important memory in 40 years’ time, but at the time of receiving the certificate, I felt great!

2018 is also the year I took the Japanese Language Proficiency Test for the first time and I passed the N2 Level. I also won 3rd place in a speech contest early in the year.

In the summer of 2018, I climbed Mt. Haku with 3 of my friends, hiking uphill (upmountain?) for 7 hours, sleeping in a large dorm room with like 30 other people, waking up at 4am the following day to catch the sunrise at the peak (which we didn’t get to see because we couldn’t stand the cold any longer), having breakfast and trekking downhill for another 6 hours.

I also went paragliding (tandem) for the first time.

My Japanese friend Akiko got married in June this year and Jeremy was a train boy at the wedding, although he thinks he is the one who married Akiko. Another friend called Siddhant got married this year too!

My best friend Phyll also got married in December this year (although I was unfortunately, unable to attend the wedding.) The bachelorette party that I helped organize was great fun though! And we did do a photoshoot at the Nairobi Arboretum. On that day, it seems that literally everyone had come to the gardens not to enjoy nature, but to have their photos taken. A tourist asked us if it there was some kind of photography event, and my friend replied yeah, it was photography day in Nairobi!

When I went back to Kenya in late October, I was joined by my Japanese parents, Mr. and Mrs. N. and their daughter. It was their first time in Kenya (and Africa in general). Overall, they had a great time (I think). They were only around for 4 days so the highlights were the Nairobi National Park, the Bomas of Kenya and the Masai Market.

If  2018 was marked by my finally completing formal learning, then it also marked my transition back into the working world. I also made the decision to remain in Japan after my graduation, which means I will only get to see my family in Kenya about once or twice a year. 😦

The transition wasn’t as smooth as I thought, because being in the real world is expensive you guys! Try working a part-time (postdoc) job while paying rent and utilities (in winter, the heating costs can be quite high), while at the same time saving for a move to Tokyo. Rent in the student housing was quite subsidized so my costs rose exponentially post graduation and I wasn’t prepared. I had to request to move in with my Japanese parents so I can save for the big move ahead in March next year (I shall do a blogpost on what it costs to move to Tokyo). They are literally angels walking on this Earth. I know I will never be able to pay them back for their kindness and I can only hope to pass along the acts of kindness whenever I am in a position to do so for others. I should probably do a post on what it’s like to live in a Japanese household, but Mr. and Mrs. N are far from a typical Japanese couple. For starters, they just turned 70 and made a trip to Africa! for the first time this year. If you have ever been to Japan,  you will realize that to many Japanese people, Africa (yes, not many people have any idea of the specific countries) is a hot continent far, far away from Japan. It might as well be a continent on Mars. So that should tell you something about Mr. and Mrs.N., or just Otoosan and Okaasan as I call them.

I am optimistic that 2019 will offer new adventures and milestones, and I can’t wait to share those with you. There is the move to Tokyo and all the exciting possibilities the city promises (bottomless Tinder swiping lol), the new job that I will talk about once I start working there, Jeremy starting elementary school, not forgetting traveling adventures whenever time and budget will allow.

I hope you all had a Merry Christmas!

Here’s to 2019!

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Want to do a PhD? Here’s my Advice.

Several years ago, after graduating with a bachelor’s degree (first class honours, sorry that will never get old) in computer science from JKUAT, I wrote an A to Z guide for campus students that I think is still relevant today. If you are just about to join university, be sure to check out the link.

The other day, someone asked me if I had any advice for her, she is a prospective PhD student. She is not the only one, a few other people ask me for general advice about doing a PhD. So I thought long and hard, as recent PhD graduates are wont to do. I finally decided to do a blogpost because there is so much to say. This might also apply anyone planning to do a master’s degree as well.

A PhD is a dedicated, long term project. Some master’s programs are taught and are only a year long so I would encourage anyone planning to do a master’s degree to go ahead. But a PhD? You should definitely take time to think about dedicating at the very least 4 years of your life to just focusing on one goal at the expense of all others. Even if the official PhD time takes 3 years, like in my case, you might still spend a year preparing for the PhD and some transition time post PhD. Here are 10 things you should consider:

  1. Goal: Why Are You doing a PhD?

You really need to know why you are doing your PhD, otherwise when the nights are long and the going is tough, you might lose sight of that goal. In my case, I wanted to change my career. A PhD can be an end goal in itself, or it could be a stepping stone to a career in academia or industry. There were days when I asked myself why I was subjecting myself to a PhD but then I would keep reminding myself of my goal. I was working at a global consulting company but I knew I wanted to join the science side of things. I wanted to be where the technology is developed, not just the point of sale part. So I knew I wanted to get the PhD and then join a global IT company in research. It would have been hard to make the move from the business side to a job in RnD so the PhD was necessary. I also wanted to do AI or at least its application and a PhD was a way to acquire the knowledge necessary to make the move.

If you are doing it for the money, don’t even bother. For 4 years, my stipend was the same (and is now less as a postdoc as I am working part time!).  While my friends still in the working world got raises or changed jobs and increased their wages, mine remained stagnant. There might be inflation or not but your scholarship/salary/allowance will generally remain the same as long as you are a  student. Studies have shown that a PhD is only marginally more valuable than a master’s degree in earnings. “A PhD is more of a pride thing as it only rarely make you more money than a master’s degree.”

2. Adviser

Your PhD adviser/supervisor is the most important decision you will have to make when you decide to do a PhD, besides choosing the topic of your research. A good supervisor will guide you towards your graduation and be available for consultation throughout the PhD. A great supervisor will understand your situation e.g. if you have a family with young kids. It can be hard to know what kind of person your supervisor will be, but you can try to figure it out from their prompt response to your emails, tone, etc. If they respond within a reasonable time, that is a good sign. You can also have a talk about your situation and expectations in advance. Some supervisors want to see you in the lab all the time, while others are content with seeing you at the weekly or bi-weekly lab meetings. Some supervisors may be excellent researchers but are verbally abuse to their students (true story about one lab I know of in particular, someone must cry at the progress report meeting); some are physical (I heard of one who slapped his student!), some have no conflict resolution skills, some engage in unethical practices like doctoring the data as long as they can publish the results, etc. Some supervisors have really nice personalities but are clueless when it comes to guiding you on the PhD path, so you may be stuck for years trying to complete your PhD without an experienced guiding hand. It is hard to really know what kind of person your future supervisor will be like, but if you can, it is worth taking the time to contact former/current students and asking them about their experience.

3. Where to do your PhD?

This depends on two factors: availability of funding and the topic of your research. If you are doing a science/engineering/technology degree, I would encourage to do it in Japan, provided you get funding. I got the MEXT scholarship, but there are also other scholarships like Rotary, JSPS, etc . Some supervisors also have private laboratory funds from companies funding research so they can also fund PhD students. Some universities here have state of the art equipment laboratories for research, conferences etc.

The timing for a PhD in Japan is generally structured, so you can actually know your expected graduation way in advance.

This is where Japan is, FYI

This is where Japan is, FYI

4. Your Topic

When you begin your PhD, you may not know exactly what your topic will be. And that’s ok. It might also change over time. You just need to know the general research area and the subtopics you are interested in. Contact the supervisors who are doing those same topics and find the one carrying out research closely related to your interests. You can also google the open questions in your research area or read tons of papers while paying close attention to the “future work” sections of the papers. You need to have a passion for your research topic. I don’t mean passion like  a burning fire in your belly, but an enduring need to see your research through to the very end.

PhD topic

PhD topic

5. Prioritize

Let’s say you’ve finally decided on the university, topic and adviser. So now it’s time to put in the work. There will be many tasks demanding your time, some meaningful and some not. Even now, whenever I look at my list of “projects”, I realize that it is quite long and I don’t think there is enough time in the world to finish all of these projects. So I have to prioritize, every day. During the PhD, my focus was on completing it on time.

6. Mental Health

There are so many studies, news reports, blogs and articles all saying that there is a mental health crisis among graduate students. PhD students suffer from depression and anxiety because of low wages, high pressure to produce results and publish, uncertain future, lack of a social life, etc. When you prioritize, put yourself on top of that list. Even if you have family, you should still take care of yourself first so that you’re able to take care of others. You know what they say, you can’t pour from an empty cup or something of the sort.

You can’t be on all the time, you need time off during the PhD. You probably can’t afford to take a long time off but you can take numerous small breaks. Do something that takes your mind off the PhD. Binge watch Netflix for a weekend. Climb a mountain. Take a weekend trip away. Go on Tinder dates. Read novels. Exercise. Get a hobby. Go out dancing with your friends. Make friends with people doing a PhD under similar circumstances, for instance I am in a group on Facebook for PhD parents/Early Career Researchers. Your friends don’t have to be in the same physical space, even online friends can be helpful.

Get ENOUGH sleep.

7. Maintain your social ties. 

Do not ignore your friends. They ground you. I reached out to my friends whenever I needed encouragement.  We talk about life all the time, the choices we are making and the different paths our lives are taking.

8. Patience

It takes time to do great work. Keep your overall goal in mind.

9. Celebrate small victories.

Break your large goal into smaller goals. Prioritize. And when achieve a small goal, take the time to celebrate. You don’t need to wait until you finally finish the PhD to celebrate (because it will be underwhelming, trust me). Celebrate when your code works. When your data is looking good. When the conference paper is accepted. When your journal paper is published. When you clean your room.

10. Prepare for the post PhD period

There is a ton of blogs out there telling you how to survive the PhD. And one day, you will have the convocation ceremony, and then it will all be over. What next? You might get caught up in post-phd blues (yes, that’s a real thing). Prepare for the post-phd period. Take some time off and travel, or do a part-time job, just do something to give yourself a mental break and transition into the working world. You need time off to recover from the trauma of a PhD.

And just like when you completed your bachelor’s degree, you don’t have to be constrained to careers that are tied to your PhD. You can work in a related area or an in a field that is completely unrelated. The research skills you learned during the PhD should serve you well whatever you decide to do after the PhD is over.

Bonus:

Lastly, don’t let other peoples experiences discourage you, including this post. When I first came to JAIST, someone told me “oh, it’s impossible to finish a PhD in 3 years.” I heard a lot of other discouraging statements in my time here, but do not let anyone deter you from your goal. Remember, people will tell things from their experiences, but your experience will not necessarily be the same as theirs.

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I got my PhD!

In the news article on the website is a photo of me receiving my PhD from JAIST university president. I finally graduated!

My name is up on the wall! No, Savvy Kenya is not the name on the wall LOL.

Three weeks ago, on the 21st of September, surrounded by my family and friends, I finally received my doctorate in Information Science. It was a culmination of 4 long years of hard work.

My family and friends turned up to help me celebrate this special day!

However, a few days before that, I had gone to Tokyo to receive my parents, brothers and friend at Narita Airport. We spent a day in Tokyo sightseeing at Tokyo Skytree (the tallest tower in the world) and Asakusa.
Family photo outside Tokyo Skytree

Family photo outside Tokyo Skytree

A moment at Asakusa

A candid moment at Asakusa

  We took the shinkansen to Ishikawa, and then a university shuttle bus to JAIST for the graduation ceremony. After graduation, it was no time for rest! We took a road trip along the scenic Hakusan White Road to Gokayama Traditional village. We were lucky to catch some traditional gun performance in action.

At Gokayama

A day after the road trip, we took the express train to Kyoto (thank God for JR train passes, right?). We went to Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine and Nara Park the following day.
At Fushimi Inari Taisha

At Fushimi Inari Taisha

My family left for Kenya on Sept 25th. They must have spent more times on trains than actually sightseeing, and next time I should definitely have a less intensive schedule. They experienced culture shock of course, and I had forgotten how hard it was at first to adjust to Japanese food. I moved out on the same day my family left. I had to move out of student housing to a new short-term apartment, so it was a really busy time for me. It is now almost 3 weeks since then I feel like I am just coming to terms with the fact that I’ve finally finished the formal education journey (of course actual learning never ends). I’m finally PhinisheD!  
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