Working in Japan

Almost total Eclipse

This week was pretty exciting since Monday promised an almost 97% solar eclipse over Tokyo! The weeks leading up to this event had been pretty crazy with the special protective goggles selling out all over town. We managed to get our hands on some at the very last minute and got to pay a pretty penny for it too, but what the hell, this kind of thing doesn’t happen often.The Eclipse The eclipse max was supposed to be at 7:34 in the morning, so it was perfect to get up a little early before work. I walked over to one of the artificial islands in Tokyo bay to get a good view and everywhere you could see people with enormous cameras. I was at first rather bummed out that it was rather cloudy, but that turned out to be rather fortunate actually since I didn’t have a filter for the camera and those clouds provided just the right amount of filter for most of the pictures to turn out okay.

The coming week I am responsible for getting the Friday fika, a tradition exported by the many Swedes on our team. I thought I’d treat my colleagues to some Swedish crisp bread I had brought with me all the way from Sweden. So in a rather uncharacteristical fit of forethought I realized that I needed some traditional stuff to put on the sandwiches, so I headed over to IKEA to get some hard cheese and butter. I took the opportunity to get some meatballs and lingonberry jam and to see what IKEA looks like on the other side of the world. Turns out that it’s very much the same of course, but it was rather amusing to see all the Swedish names being kept even here.

AW is a dinner social for the entire department at a buffet place in Bay Quarters. Drinks are free and I fill up on sho-ju, a mildly alcoholic juice drink that’s one of my favorite Japanese discoveries. A bunch of us haven’t had enough so Nozawa-san picks up his phone, makes a couple of calls and before we know it we’re in an izakaya, eating edamame (lightly boiled immature soybeans with salt – the best beer snack ever). We end up going to yet another place before the night is over, honestly I don’t remember all that much since I got rather drunk in the end.

Free hugs!Saturday is spent in Harajuku as usual, it’s a very nice day and I wander around in the rather peaceful Jingumae quarters just north of Omotesando street. There I stumble upon some weird Swedish celebration, only without any actual Swedish people. It’s rather unclear what it’s all about and noone knows enough English to tell me what’s going on, so I just file it away under ‘Wonderfully weird Japan’ and move on. I happen across the ‘Free Hugs’ people and take the opportunity to fill up on hugs. In the Jingumae labyrinth I find a Hawaiian burger place (Tokyo has some obsession with Hawaiian burgers, and they’re super tasty). As I sit there waiting for my food I glance over at the Japanese girl on the next table and see that she’s studying some digital electronics. I can’t let this pass so I strike up a conversation and find out that she works at a software company and that she if she passes this course she will move up to the next pay grade. Her name is Sachi and her English is above average for Japan, but that really isn’t saying much – people here are generally lousy at English. But I’ve found that it’s mostly talking and listening that is the problem, reading comprehension is actually pretty good. So if you write stuff down you usually get further.

Diving is fun!She suggests we go for some coffee and I take her to the tree house café, it’s kinda cool to be showing native Tokians hidden gems in their own city. We talk a lot about what I’ve been seeing here in Tokyo and my plans for the remainder of my stay. I don’t know if she’s shy or if it’s the language barrier, but I don’t find out much about her, the conversation is mostly about me. She adds me on Facebook though, which was cool. When we later say goodbye, obviously unsure of what to do, she awkwardly offers to shake my hand. I end up hugging her instead, which is probably a huge breach of protocol.

Sunday has a dive outing scheduled. Mariko-san, Umeda-san and I drive down along the coast to Miyagawa where we are doing two boat dives. They are actually nice sites, but the visibility is terrible, we see only about two meters so you really have to keep track of your buddies. Fortunately, at over 4000 dives, Mariko-san is pretty experienced and manages to keep track of me without much trouble. In spite of the visibility, we manage to see a sea horse, squid eggs, nudibranches, a gobi and a little octopus, hiding out in a little hole. Between dives, Mariko-san tells me that a couple from work has contacted her and asking for the Open Water diver course and since her English isn’t the best, maybe I can help out with explaining. I agree and she suitably knocks off a bit of the price for today’s outing. This means that the rest of the day is spent together with Enrique and Claudia as they go through some of the Open Water theory. It’s quite nice actually and I get to know them both a bit better.

Working in Japan


I’d booked a tour at the fish market for Monday morning since Lina is here and all.Just washing an octopus We show up at the tourist office at 9 am and our guide Toro sits us down to watch a video about the tuna fish auction which normally goes on at around 5 am. It’s quite interesting actually, the wholesalers each get one bid only and the only thing they have to go on is a flap cut at the tail of the tuna. It’s a huge gamble since the actual value of the tuna is mostly determined by the amount of toro it has – the fatty part of the belly that yields the very best sushi you can eat. But usually the amount of toro correlates with the size of the fish, so the largest ones fetch the highest prices. Today the highest price was 5500 jpy/kg, with a large tuna fish weighing around 200 kg!

At about 9:30 it’s time for the tour. I was getting a bit antsy since I knew that the market usually begins winding down after 9:30 so I was glad when we we finally on our way. But Toro has a slightly different plan and starts out by taking us to the vegetable market that is right next door. WTF IS WRONG WITH YOU, HOW CAN YOU THINK THAT WE WILL BE JUST AS INTERESTED IN TOMATOES AND FREAKING WASABI AS IN ALL THE AWESOME FISH?!!1 (needless to say this wasn’t the actual conversation we were having, being polite and cowardly Swedes we just made a fist in our pocket and quietly endured).Tokyo Tower reflected Once in the actual fish market, Toro gives us a cursory tour and after less than 10 minutes he’s ready to leave. We talk him into staying a while longer but since it’s getting late they’re mostly packing up anyway. The rest of the tour is more regular market stuff; dried fish that looks like wood chips, huge lobsters, crabs and so on (obviously the salesmen are friends of his but we are unimpressed and don’t buy anything). The tour ends at a sushi restaurant where we’re served a set menu. It’s okay I guess, but I’ll take a Kaiten Sushi any day of the week.

As I get off work I meet up with Lina at Hamamatsucho station and we head for Tokyo Tower. The tower is really lovely at night and Lina is just smitten by it. We get tickets for the top platform which is 250 meters up and a really great view! Too bad the lighting is so harsh in there, making photographing hard with all the reflections.

Tuesday evening we dress up and go to Park Hyatt (The Lost in Translation hotel). We slowly sip on our excellent coctails as we stare at the fog outside. Tokyo is almost entirely covered from up here on the 52nd floor today, bad luck I guess. Wise from experience we leave just before seven, before the cover charge goes into effect.

Wednesday night we go out to the artificial island Odaiba and the giant ferris wheel.Lina in the rain Lina is all over the place as we go around while I’m more stationary, concentrating on survival… The wheel is almost as big as the London Eye actually, so it’s one of the world’s largest. We also swing by my favorite thing, the Gundam Wing robot and watch it light up, blow smoke and do generally heroic stuff (mainly turning its head and blinking with the eyes). We also wander about to try and get a good nighttime view of the Tokyo skyline, but don’t do very well, there are surprisingly few good lookout spots on Odaiba.

Thursday we run around Shibuya with the famous scramble crossing and the plentiful Neon Signs. For some reason we end up at the really cool megastore Tokyo Hands that is 21 floors (if you count generously) of crafting supplies and a lot of other great stuff. Sadly I am unable to locate a Tonkatsu place to treat Lina to so we end up eating at a mediocre Korean Barbecue place.

I wave Lina off Friday morning and head to the office we’re treated to an afternoon earthquake. Just big enough that the screens are gently rocking (those are the best ones!). An After Work has been arranged at a place called Ghengis Khan. To me it seems like a regular Yakiniku place, but the difference is that they serve lamb instead of cow. Then apparently they don’t call it Yakiniku anymore (even though Yakiniku means exactly ‘grilled meat’), it’s called Ghengis Khan. If you ever find yourself in Japan, keep your eyes peeled, because it was delicious!

Since the week has been so hugely busy I spend Saturday just chilling in Harajuku, looking at people and working on my stitches. Come Sunday however, me, John and Henrik have decided to go see the last day of the Sumo tournament currently in town. So had a lot of other people though and as we wait in the long line for cancellations we in the end find ourselves without tickets. While in line we stumble on this aquiantance of Henrik’s named Henry, he’s a British guy who speaks a spot of Japanese and we decide to team up and go see if the festival currently in Asakusa is any good.

First order of business though is to get some breakfast. After asking an elderly Japanese couple they lead us several blocks (they are nothing if not courteous the Japanese) to a very Japanese breakfast establishment. This means that you select the breakfast you want from a vending machine, get a note which you give to a waitress and then sit down and wait. The breakfast is the usual; rice, raw egg, natto, soy sauce, fish and pickled greens. Not really a fan, but it fills you up I guess.

OktoberfestThe festival seems to be mostly pantless men carrying around shrines on their shoulders while chanting. Not terribly interesting really so we decide to go check out another festival Henry says is happening in Hibya park. It turns out to be an Oktoberfest, in Tokyo, in May… We are met by a conga line of very enthusiastic Japanese, cheered on by an equally enthusiastic German guy up on a stage. The beer and snacks are customarily expensive and we settle in pretty fast. We are joined by Henry’s friend Ian and we have a rather good time hanging out with the Japanese who dare strike up conversation with us. As the night draws on Henrik and John drops off, leaving only me, Henry and Ian to take part in the late night Chicken Dance that signals the end of the festival. The Japanese are of course loving it, and with that kind of mood in the air it’s hard not to get caught up! Since it isn’t super late, Ian suggests we move on to Roppongi to go to a salsa club. I’m not really up for it but decide to tag along anyway and I’m glad I did!

We criss-cross between very insistent barkers and finally find the club in a back alley. Its 2000 jpy cover charge is a bit steep for the measly hour we planned spending there though, so Henry, being half Mexican, breaks out his best Spanish in an effort to get us in for free. That dog won’t hunt though and we need a new plan. Luckily Ian knows yet another place, maybe not as fancy, but it has a nice vibe to it. Plus, the cover charge is only to have a drink from the bar! Now I don’t really know any salsa, save from what I’ve gleaned off my friend Niclas, but just studying the people on the dance floor and just going with the flow actually gets me pretty far. I end up having a great time even though I didn’t even feel like tagging along! A very fitting end to a really eventful week!

Working in Japan

Depp Fever

I’m really getting somewhere at work so I tend to put in long hours. On Tuesday I’m chatting with Lina from the Central America trip and out of the blue she suggest that she should come visit me! Awesome idea and fifteen minutes later it’s a fact, Lina will arrive on Saturday!

At the dog groomersAn old colleague of Henrik and John’s is visiting and I tag along for some after work on Thursday evening. We end up at a place in Shimbashi station that is serving deep fried stuff on skewers, really tasty! You have chicken meatballs, quail eggs, asparagus, pork, shrimp and some other stuff I’ve forgotten. You dip the skewer in some sort of thin sauce before eating it, but only once! The staff is very insistent that you only dip once, I guess they recycle the sauce.

In Roppongi you meet strange peopleWe do another after work on Friday, this time it’s John, Henrik, Norman, Stephan and me. We end up at a Hawaiian place in the Yokohama Bay Quarters. You can actually order Guinness here, but the Japanese kind isn’t very good. After a couple of hours we move on to Shinagawa and Time Shower for a bite to eat, it’s not a very good place, but the name is so awesome that we really can’t help ourselves. Stephan comes up with a better idea after a while though: Let’s buy some alcohol at the convenience store and head over to our hotel and the top floor terrace instead! Much better, the view is better and after a while we also get to meet Stephan’s wife who swings by on her way home from work (around 9 pm, Japanese work crazy hours!).

I meet up with Lina on Shinagawa station on Saturday and as a first order of business we head over to Shinjuku. I do the very same mistake as last time though and arrive at Shinjuku Goyen just as they close up… So I take her to Roppongi instead and we go exploring around Roppongi Hills. Suddenly we hear high pitched shrieks in the distance – is there a roller coaster here that I don’t know about? We investigate and to our surprise it isn’t a roller coaster but a red carpet event of some kind. WeddingAfter a little while a limo arrives and out steps Johnny Depp, followed by Tim Burton! They’re here for the premiere of Dark Shadows and do the usual long-winded red carpet thing. After a while we grow tired of the spectacle and especially the anal retentive guards that for some unknown reason don’t want you to stand any closer than one meter from the railing. As darkness falls we go around taking pictures of the skyline before heading back to Shinagawa.

Sunday is cosplay day and we go to Harajuku of course, Lina falls in love with Takeshita street just like I have. We also go to Tokyu Plaza with the wonderful Starbucks roof terrace and cool tidbits stores. We have lunch at my lovely find, the Café Hideaway and also make time for Shibuya Crossing in the evening.

Working in Japan

Golden Week

Since it’s Golden week, only Tuesday and Wednesday are workdays. Thursday I head to Kappabashi, a strange district of Tokyo where you can buy everything you need to start a restaurant.Hello Kitty waffles! Everything from the tacky plastic fishes to put above your storefront, to furniture, menus (complete with prices and all!), cookware, bowls, chopsticks, plastic food to put on display, knives. If it’s related to a restaurant, they pretty much have it in Kappabashi! After a lot of browsing I manage to buy a beautiful Gyaku meat knife in Damascus steel. There is also a very well-equipped coffee store with some of the most serious coffee brewing equipment I’ve ever seen.

Come Friday I go to Odaiba, the man made island in Tokyo bay. It turns out that about a million Japanese had the same idea as I did though… Odaiba is mostly a bunch of big malls and every one of them is filled to the brim with people.Gundam Wing! I pass by lines to H&M that are 30 meters, just to get into the store! I do manage to visit a Hello Kitty store which is pretty fun, that kitten sure is a valuable trademark! But the number one sight in Odaiba is the live-sized Gundam Wing robot standing in front of one of the malls. Where else than in Japan could you see such a thing!?

The weather isn’t very nice though, it’s pouring down and I’m feeling a bit ill as well, so it takes a bit of fun out of the exploring. I do make it to the Toyota exhibition hall though which is really impressive with elevators carrying the cars between floors as well as a lot of simulators and games so that the kids can enjoy themselves while mom and dad go look at cars.

Temples in Kita-KamakuraSaturday I go to Kamakura, the town south of Tokyo, well known for its temples and huge Buddha statue. I spend most of the day just wandering around, and in the end I’m not terribly impressed. The Buddha statue is really cool though. My cold is getting worse also and on the way back to Tokyo I have to get off the packed train just to sit down for a while. After that I decide it’s probably best if I go home and sleep it off instead. The most memorable thing about my Kamakura excursion remains the purple sweet potato ice cream I had. Not bad, but not something I’m longing for to try again…

After sleeping it off all the way to Sunday, I’m mostly okay and go to Shibuya for some shopping. All over the place are people dressed as Sadako from Ringu coming out of a television, it seems to be a promotion for a Ringu 3D movie coming out. I shop a pair of nice pants and is pleasantly surprised that shortening the legs will cost me 525 yen and be done in under an hour! This doesn’t rhyme with the expensive Tokyo I know… The bag also gets a carefully crafted rain cover, very nice!

Working in Japan

Diving in Toshima

I needed a plan for Golden Week, the last week of April when you are off Monday, Thursday and Friday in Japan. I had been thinking of making a dive trip, but it’s hard since most dive shops don’t know much English. Asking around though I find out that my colleague Tore is a diver and that he has dived a lot with a dive shop in Yokohama! He gives me the number and assures me that she (the owner) speaks good English. I call her and find it only to be half true, she used to speak good English, but that was when Tore last was in Japan, seven years ago… Parking lotWe manage to understand each other well enough that I make my way over to her dive shop that same day to try out equipment. She says I can come along on the trip planned over the weekend to Toshima, an island due south of Tokyo. Since I haven’t really got a plan B, I’m not very hard to persuade. So with a few hours notice I’m booked for the first part of Golden Week, and about to do my first diving in Japanese waters!

I need to find some swimwear though, to have under the wetsuit. So Thursday evening I go to Shibuya and pick up some. I also grab some coffee at the Starbucks by the Shibuya Scramble. When I finally manage to get a window seat I happen next to a friendly Australian kid named Marcus. We get to talking and I mention that I’m going diving this weekend. Turns out he is a diver as well, and an experienced one at that with some 300 dives. He shows me some really nice photos and also teaches me a thing or two about underwater photography. Very nice coincidence!

Friday evening I meet up with Mariko-san (the dive master) and seven other divers (all Japanese) and board the ferry for Toshima. The ferry takes all night to get to Toshima and the sleeping accommodations are rather interesting, it’s basically a parking lot for people, a carpeted area with tape markings for each spot and a tiny pillow. If you want a blanket, that’s 100 yen.

On our way backOur first dive is at 10 am and we start preparing ridiculously early, Japanese like to be on time… The boat takes us to the west side of the island. The site doesn’t have much coral, mostly large boulders and different kinds of seaweed. What’s the first thing we do after descending by the way? A group picture of course, it’s Japan after all! The picture takes a good seven minutes to arrange, eating away at precious dive time, but what can you do..? Not much is seen on this first dive, but right at the end we manage to see a turtle!

Back at the dive shop there is a hot shower waiting, reeealy nice! (I’ve since learned that hot showers increases the risk of decompression illness, but seeing how careful the Japanese are about decompression limits I think we’re safe.) After a lunch bento we are off to a second dive, this time with an awesome drift! Since we’re boat diving we can just safely let the current carry us away, the boat will pick us up wherever we decide to ascend. It’s really fun playing with the current, I notice that whenever we ascend over a rock the current grabs hold and sweeps you off and when if you descend right after the rock you find a spot where you can be still for a while. There is much more life on this dive and we also manage to see another turtle. They’re not hanging around though, both we’ve seen took off like torpedoes.

The last thing on the agenda for today is a dolphin swim. This is done with only snorkeling equipment since what happens is that you go to the area where the dolphins hang out, you go into the water and the dolphins play around a bit, swimming in circles around you and such. But then after five minutes or so they decide they don’t want to play anymore and go away. Then you go back on the boat and go look for another pack. I notice that one of the dolphins is cross-jawed, that is the lower jaw pokes out to the side. The owner of the dive place later explains that this is due to a parasite. We also have a TV-crew with us, doing some story about Toshima island. They’re accompanied by some girl in an entirely white wetsuit that has some serious apnea skills. She holds her breath for minutes at a time and swims around down deep, playing with the dolphins. It’s like watching a mermaid!

Since the TV-crew is here the lady who owns the guest house we’re staying at has brought out the big guns and cooked a feast! There is lobster, both sashimi and cooked, bigass turban shell and many other fishes and greens that I don’t catch the name of.

Just chillin'Since I’m being treated to all manners of strange food I fight back by treating the Japanese to some Swedish liquorice: Turkisk Peppar. As expected everyone thinks it’s horrible. =P Oshira-san, the oldest of the bunch at around 60 plays a joke on me by sticking my chopsticks into my rice bowl so that they stand straight up. Before I came to Japan I was warned that this is considered very rude since it is something that is only done at funerals. You stick the chopsticks of the deceased into his or her rice bowl to symbolize their passing. But everyone just laughs when Oshima-san does it to me, so I guess it’s not such a big deal.

Breakfast the next day is typical Japanese with all that entails; raw egg, seaweed, rice, natto (fermented soy beans that has built up a cover of slime, sort of like snot really), sashimi and of course soy sauce. While waiting for the first dive of the day we play some Super Mario on the Wii and I discover that the old gaming reflexes are still there… The first dive is done together with the TV-team and in much the same environment as yesterday’s dive, not that many new things but a very nice dive nonetheless.

At the dive shop between dives there is a strange noise coming from the harbor, something like a distressed coffee pot. After a while we realize that it is a diver, speaking in a full mask, amplified for the people on land to hear. There is a crane by the harbor hoisting up concrete blocks from the harbor basin and down there is a diver hooking things up. Later we get to see the full mask and it’s equipped with two balls mounted on sticks that you can extend to fit into your nostrils in order to equalize, really neat, I hadn’t thought about that!

We do yet another dive after lunch and right after that there’s another dolphin swim scheduled. Since I’m not likely to get another shot at swimming with dolphins anytime soon I tag along for that one as well. This time a young couple and their daughter is along for the ride and the TV-team makes it into a feature where the kid gets to swim with dolphins for the first time, probably good TV. It probably means that we get some extra dolphin time as well!

We squeeze in a last dive as well, this time on the other side of the island. The landscape is very different on this side, more greens and blues and much more rocks. There is also waves gently tossing you back and forth, making it an interesting dive. We see a lobster and yet another turtle this time.

My diving friendsDinner back at the hostel is yet again very nice, and joker Oshira-san buys me some Sho-ju (booze at about 25%) in some effort to get me drunk or something. Not very successfully though, since even though I get drunk fairly easily, the Japanese need very little at all.

Idly watching some TV later that evening there are breaking news of a 5.8 earthquake in Tokyo! The footage makes it seem very severe, but as I talk to friends in Tokyo later it wasn’t much at all. The kid from the dolphin swim earlier sees me practicing my Hiragana and Katakana and decides to help me out. So she brings out her school books and start drilling me on Hiragana, very fun! We have to cut the session short though because it’s time to log our dives. The Japanese take the logging very seriously, it’s a real ritual where all the logs are passed around and everyone writes a message for you and draws little pictures. It’s really nice!

The guest house we’re staying at by the way is in traditional Japanese style with tatamis, roll-out beds, a low table at which you sit on cushions and sliding doors made out of paper. So not only do I get to spend a weekend exclusively in the company of Japanese, I also get the entire Japanese living experience! Monday morning before heading back, we stop by at the dive shop to pack our gear and a group picture. The owner has a picture of every group that has been there the last two or three years, and as far as I can tell I’m the only non-Japanese in the bunch!