Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Shared Houses in Japan

Now that I don't live in a shared house anymore, I can finally write about it.

Living in a shared house is a popular option for foreigners in Tokyo, although not so much in smaller cities. You'd struggle to find roommates in the countryside or even smaller cities, as sharing accommodations with friends or random strangers is an un-Japanese concept, and it's not usually part of the culture- most people live by themselves.

However, in places like Tokyo, where many foreigners and young Japanese who have lived abroad dwell, the concept is gaining popularity, and you can easily find roommates. So many of those old, traditional Japanese houses have been transformed into "guesthouses", so by having a quick browse around the web, you can easily secure yourself a new room, with very little fees.

As I'll tackle in another post soon, moving by yourself in Japan is extremely expensive: deposit, key money, realtor fee, fire insurance, lock changes, cleaning fee... it adds up to roughly three times the rent, and you must shell out that initial amount upon moving in. Not to mention how difficult it can be for a foreigner to find a place that accepts foreigners- it's no secret, many landlords refuse to rent to foreigners (for various reasons- could be racism, could be because we tend to move out often, or language barrier). Therefore, the choice is limited and I've nervously sat countless hours at the real estate agency, twisting my fingers because every phone call he made turned me down.

So come shared houses- not only is it cheap and simple to secure, but it saves you major headaches. Everything is already set up- the internet, appliances, and you can use all the dishes in the kitchen. Rooms are usually furnished, so you just bring your clothes and belongings, and you're set. And, shared quarters are a great way to meet friends, most of my roommates became good friends, and it's comforting to come home to a presence, especially when you live abroad.

My friend Justin wrote a blog post about shared houses, and he asked me to spill some stories about it, so I did. If you want to read some funny anecdotes and the reason why I left, hop over to his brilliant blog.

If he wasn't my friend, I'd hate him because his blog is so good.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Setagaya Train Line

How cute is this train?!
The Setagaya train line is my new favourite train line. Like its name states, it goes through Setagaya ward, between Shimo-Takaido and Sangenjaya. It's one of the only surviving tramway lines in Tokyo (the other one being the Toden Arakawa line). I had the chance to try it a few days ago, and it pleased my inner train geek.

It's quite slow and doesn't come very frequently, but I liked the scenery, which felt almost like the countryside. There are only a few individual seats on either side, so you have to be extremely fast or lucky to secure one. I sat on a seat that had a facing one next to it, and it remained empty for the whole ride as everyone felt too awkward to sit directly across from me, knees almost touching. I highly recommend making a beeline for that particular seat if you want to have extra space to yourself- ha!

In all seriousness, the Setagaya line is quite exciting, and there are good sights at many of the stops: the Shoin shrine, Gotokuji temple, and Setagaya Daikin Yashiki, an Edo-period farmhouse which now hosts the famous Boro-Ichi flea market, Tokyo's oldest. Also, the Setagaya City Hall is on that line if you ever need to go there to pay city taxes or whatnot.

Locals refer to the Setagaya line as the "chin chin densha" チンチン電車, relating to the bell sounds trolleys make- not the other meaning, if you speak Japanese! If you're ever around Setagaya and want a stress-free train ride, hop on that train- just make sure you have lots of time on your hands.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

My birthday in Tokyo

Following the New Year celebration was my birthday, and although I always like to keep it simple and low-key, I enjoy thoughtful and fun activities. This time we went to the aquarium for some penguin and colourful fish sightings, then on to a traditional Japanese restaurant in Ginza where I feasted on the most delectable vegetarian fare, ending the evening with my favourite Japanese sweet, ichigo daifuku. No birthday is complete without cake, and my lovely friends surprised me with the cutest cakes, complete with candles and everything. I felt very spoiled and lucky this year.

Best birthday present ever- a stamp with my name in kanji characters

Tokyo Snowy Days

Last week it snowed in Tokyo, something that rarely occurs. The scene outside my window resembled Canada, and it made me feel like home. I miss snow so much, and being surrounded by a white blanket of it was extremely comforting.

However, Tokyo is not a city prepared for snowfalls, so the following days were chaotic- delayed trains, blocked roads, slippery and icy sidewalks made it impossible to walk anywhere without falling down. Just a piece of advice for Japan, from a seasoned Canadian: spraying the ice and snow with hot water to make it melt is the worst idea ever.

In other news, I've been happy hibernating a bit and enjoy the chilly days from the comfort of my home. I drank lots of ginger tea to fight off a cold, fancy lattes, and I made a lasagna last night, packed with vegetables and a few kinds of cheeses. I have mostly been eating Japanese food lately, somehow I'm mostly craving it on a daily basic, but the lasagna was so delicious and something that made me feel so happy. I also made a small chocolate cake- why not.

Many people would agree that January can be long and dreary, but in my case, I do like this month, it's a fresh start and the cold weather is the best excuse to stay home and bake.

Lattes in fancy cups taste better

Chocolate cake (it was supposed to be brownies, but I had an egg mishap)


Homemade ramen, topped with an egg and gyoza

My new stationery set

Safety in Japan- Foreign Girls

I rarely tackle negative aspects of Japan on my blog- mostly because I like to keep a positive tone, and also because I am so happy with my experience here. I love my life in Japan and I feel lucky I'm able to enjoy this quality of life.

Japan is one of the safest countries in the world. Moving to Japan as a single foreign girl is quite safe, but there are some things you should be aware of if you're considering living here. Foreign girls attract a lot of attention in Japan, mostly because there aren't too many of us, and we stand out. We are extremely conspicuous, and this can turn into a problem.

Over my three years living all over Japan, I can recall numerous (!!) incidents involving a stalker, or a chikan (groper) on crowded trains or empty streets. Those Japanese men are usually curious or obsessed with foreign women, they're mentally unstable, and the experience is terrifying and unsettling. It also happens to Japanese girls on a regular basis, especially in crowded trains. Many foreign girls leave Japan after a few months or a year due to those kinds of incidents. The vast majority of my foreign friends in Japan are boys, so they're not exposed to the same kinds of dangers.

I never talked much about it, at least not publicly, but after exchanging with fellow foreign women here in Japan, I found out that ALL of them had been victims of a form of harassment or stalking. Instances of flashing and other public sexual acts seemed like a common thread, sadly. It's important to file police reports if it happens, even if in most cases, the police won't do much about it, but at least they have it on file.

It's also fundamental to not put yourself in situations that could potentially be dangerous: walking alone at night in sketchy areas, taking dark roads/streets, not locking the door, or going inside the house of someone you barely know. NEVER, EVER do that. If you give private English lessons, NEVER go to their house, only meet in a crowded cafe. It's a given, but sometimes people forget and think they feel safe, but they may not be and it can end tragically.

If you're being stalked or harassed, it's best to tell the police, your employer, and your friends. Have many emergency numbers on hand and let people know you don't feel safe. Avoid any situation or place where he might try to approach you. Take the women-only car in the train at rush hour, even though lurkers sometimes find their way in. Most importantly, live in a safe neighbourhood and building, know your neighbours, and always be aware of your surroundings.

This post sounds quite dramatic compared to my usual lighthearted tone, but I think it's major to shed light onto this issue. Even knowing this, I'd still move to Japan, and I'm not trying to discourage anyone who's considering a move here. It really is a SAFE country, but this is a significant hazard and you must be aware.

Feel free to share any other tips or stories in the comments.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

My Japanese New Year

New Year has come and gone, we're already in mid-January, but this has been the most memorable experience I've had in Japan. Unlike my usual New Year celebrations usually spent dancing in a crowded, noisy nightclub and fueled with bubbles, this year was completely different. Quiet, relaxing, meaningful, and surrounded with love, kindness and scrumptious fare. I've always wished for a traditional New Year, and this time I was kindly adopted by an extremely generous and warmhearted Japanese family, who invited me into their home and taught me about Japanese traditions.

Japanese New Year, oshogatsu, is all about family time and traditions, a bit like our Christmas back home. On New Years Eve, we ate toshikoshi soba noodles, which symbolize longevity, and softly welcomed 2013 while sitting around the table and cheering with Japanese sake. The following days were filled with more traditions, such as visiting the local shrine to pray and draw our fortune for the upcoming year, and eating osechi, the traditional New Year foods. Those consist of a variety of small dishes, all so tasty: prawns, colourful kamaboko (broiled fish cakes), kohaku-namasu (daikon and carrots salad pickled in sweet vinegar and yuzu), just to name a few. My favourite part was ozoni, a soup of rice cakes in a light broth- so beautiful and delicious! I also tasted amazake for the first time, a sweet drink made from fermented rice. It has a very low alcohol level, even kids can drink it. I wish I could drink it every day- maybe I should.

I ate so many amazing dishes and tickled my taste buds with so many new tastes. The days surrounding New Year were spent eating, bathing, drinking green tea, sleeping, and having long, late-night chats with my lovely hosts. I feel extremely lucky I experienced a traditional Japanese New Year, with such a kind family who made me feel completely at home and comfortable, and treated me like a part of the family. I'll never forget this, and I hope someday I'm able to do the same.

Photos by Maaserhit Honda

Green tea and sparkly nails

Heart necklace and cat jumper

New Year Day morning tea

It was such a warm, sunny day

Ozoni, so colourful and tasty!

My chopsticks had my kanji name written on it, such a lovely touch

Osechi, lotus roots and various vegetables, so yummy.

Kohaku-namasu, a delicate blend of vegetables and flavours

Prawns prawns prawns

Beautiful and tasty kamaboko

Osechi, presented in bento boxes 

Deer encounter near the shrine

Men making soba at the local shrine

Steamy soba, ready to eat on the spot

Buying warm amazake

You can add a dash of ginger on amazake 

Serving hot amazake

The local shrine boasted festival foods stalls, like okonomiyaki

Daruma dolls... make a wish

Cute character toys abound at Japanese festivals

Impressive torii gate, and the shrine was filled with people

Best New Year's ever.