A voice crying in the wilderness

Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

The essensce or the substance

Is it possible to love the concept more than the subject itself?

I find myself settling into a Madness about China and, subsequently, Japan again. What I think I understand however is that it isn’t living in Japan that appeals, but its “Japan-yness”. Because of having such a large number of people living in a comparatively small nation – Australia has 7.7 million square kilometers with a population of 24 million people compared to 129 million people living in 378,000 square kilometers in Japan, thus a population density of 3 people per square kilometer versus 340 – there is a greater focus on group harmony or community harmony. No one wants to upset one another, everyone has a great respect for each other’s space and peace.

On rereading “Persimmon wind” by Dave Lowry, I learned of two concepts. The first, “Wa” () refers to “harmony” – maintaining the peace in the group by putting aside their own individual desires for the benefit of the many. This is a concept that very much goes against First World Western perspective – we are a society that is very focused on the needs and wants of the individual. We might have a rowdy party without considering how much this might disturb our neighbours, or talk loudly into our phone whilst on the train or in a restaurant.

The second concept is “Ma” (), or “negative space” – it is often translated as “interval”, “gap” or “pause”. Its the things left out that convey more meaning that the things put in.

Put another way, the Western perspective is to fill every available space, every available moment with substance and noise – even to the point where we lose ourselves and become buried under endless nonsense.

The concept of “Ma” is that we keep things simple and empty – instead of filling a wall with dozens of posters and pictures, we might have only one or two images on the wall that we would be able to focus on and absorb all the details. Compare Bach’s “Air” to a Yngwie J. Malmsteen million-notes-per-second guitar solo. Peak hour traffic versus a quiet drive along the coast or walk in the mountains.

We fill our lives with so much stuff and nonsense that we leave no room for ourselves. Sometimes we become so filled with everyone else’s ideas and concepts that we no longer know who or what we are.

We don’t take the time to stop and appreciate what we have. We don’t take time to just stop and breath.

Despite my crazed passions of the last year, I have no real desire to live in Japan for an extended period, nor have I any great desire to learn the written language even though I have managed to (largely) get my head around the spoken language. Truly, it is to the point that I struggle to learn any other language – someone speaking to me in French or Indonesian would have me automatically replying in Japanese despite my best efforts.

This isn’t to say that I haven’t wanted to move there – during my illness and extended recovery last year, depression led me to want to leave my marriage, move to Japan and take up permanent residence, change my name to Akira Kobayashi and go native. I wanted to renounce my previous life and start afresh in a new land.

Perhaps one day I will – I’m toying with the idea of retiring to Japan; that is, at least, when I am in a position that I no longer need to earn a living or march to the beat of another’s drum. I can go out to teach, or stay home and drink beer, people watch and smoke my pipe, whenever and however I feel.

So why do I keep becoming obsessed about Japan? I’ve done my share of hard work and long hours, enough that I wouldn’t want to go back to living that way again. I’ve lived in small apartments, but even the smallest here is nothing compared with how small they are there. I’ve done my share of long commutes, typically covering 500km a week. And after 25 years of anime and manga fandom, I’m quite over the insatiable appetite and shallowness of popular culture.

What is it that calls to me from there? I’m attempting to find out some more at the Perth Japan Festival coming up in three weeks. I’m endeavoring to distill the essence of Japan in an attempt to apply it to my life here, within the confines of a self absorbed, self centered and selectively tolerant Western society. Around the world, major cities will often have their “Chinatown” and “Little Japan” areas where entire suburbs and communities are given over to a single culture, but Perth is small enough and isolated enough that we have, at best, Generic Asian Fusion Town – Northbridge – where every non-Anglo-Saxon culture rubs shoulders on a daily basis. Consider the number of Japanese restaurants and eateries operated by Korean and Chinese with how few are operated by actual Japanese.

I have visited the Hyogo Prefectural Government Culture Centre in City Beach though I have yet to sign up for their study groups – I work alternate weekends at The Day Job but it is a better arrangement than it used to be. Aside from formal lessons, there is a comprehensive library for everyone to read (though you have to be a paid up member to borrow items) and casual chat sessions where one can just drop in and pass the time of day over a coffee, each helping another to practice a less familiar language – open to members and non-members alike.

Though it occurs to me why I might desire to learn about Japan from someone who has chosen to leave there.

Perhaps it would give me a better perspective and appreciation of “here”?

My own private Bali

Visiting Bali has been on my mind once again.

A crazy week at The Day Job due to a draining roster and staff illness, absence or suspension left me feeling very sore and burned out by Sunday night. Even as I was getting ready for work on Sunday morning, I glanced in the mirror and noticed for the first time how sick I looked – my face pinched and drawn and my skin tone looked almost blue. I would have happily taken the day off if we had a full compliment of staff, and I was confident that I had achieved all of my targets. Fortunately it was the last shift of a long roster and so was only five hours.

I had been using my massage chair quite a lot during the week because of a sore lower back, to the point where I was starting to feel quite bruised. I earnestly wished I was back over in Bali again where we were getting complimentary massages at the hotel’s day spa and on just about every street was another day spa offering full body massages for under $AUD10.

Even now, on my second RDO of the new week, I sit in my studio with the gas heater humming away and listening to the rain. As I write, it is 9 degrees Celcius outside. I always thought of myself as a Winter person but since visiting Bali last year, I don’t enjoy Winter any more other than the rainfall watering the garden and filling the dams.

But why do I think so much of Bali? Nekohime-sama and I visited a year ago next Sunday, staying for a week at a new (less than 12 months old) 5 star hotel. The heat and humidity were quite a shock to the system after leaving a Wintery Perth at 4am, though I had mostly adapted to it after a day. Most of the places we visited were within walking distance, though walking was always a challenge on most streets as the pavements were quite uneven, often under maintenance and frequently blocked by parked vehicles. Searching for somewhere to have lunch on the first day left me rather sunburned as I didn’t wear a hat, the maps we were given suggesting that the best eateries were only minutes from the hotel. We spent quite a lot of time at the pool, though I am not much of a swimmer – the pool was located at the centre of the hotel so by mid-afternoon, much of it was in shade and the sea breeze made it feel comparatively chilly. The poolside bar provided drinks to wherever we were seated and, if required, the kitchen would also deliver food poolside as well though they didn’t encourage it.

People frequently tell us that they go to Bali for the shopping – there wasn’t a great deal that we saw that appealed to us, though we did buy a few articles at various small shops and market stalls such as Seminyak Square and The Flea Markets. I came away with a couple of shirts and Nekohime purchased some loose cotton pants. A visit to Mata Hari in Kuta also provided a few t-shirts and a cardigan. However, after we returned home and washed some of our new acquisitions, several of them had to be thrown out as they either came apart or shrank in the wash, much to our disappointment.

I think the best memories of our visit, aside from the trip to the Safari Park, was dining out at a different restaurant almost every lunch and dinner. Breakfast was included in our hotel package and we were each given vouchers for one lunchtime meal and one dinner. I think only one restaurant left us feeling disappointed, but we didn’t know at the time that traditional Indonesian food was served at room temperature. Though we finished our meal, we were left feeling unwell for much of the evening. Most of the meals were very cheap by Perth standards – dinner for two with a beer each usually came to no more than $AUD25 – about half what we would pay for in Perth – some only coming to $AUD18. The only surprise was at a rooftop bar at the beach where we had been recommended to go by family as they had visited there only a couple of weeks before – the bill, including a couple of cocktails, came to just shy of $100 – I had brought only just enough money with me to cover it. However, the staff having learned that it was my birthday gave me a slice of cake (with “Happy birthday” written on the place in chocolate sauce), a handshake from each of the waitstaff whilst the band played “Happy birthday to you” and two vouchers for free cocktails which we used the following evening.

I think the greatest appeal of Bali was having a week away from the pressures of everyday society where all the housekeeping and cooking was taken care of by someone else, drinks (at least, beers) were cheap and plentiful, a taxi ride cost pocket change and the biggest decision we had to make each day was where to eat or which path we would walk down to find our way back to the hotel. Sitting outside on the gotel balcony on a balmy evening sipping a triple shot gin and tonic (I drank most of a litre of duty free gin during the week’s stay as I didn’t want to bring home a partially opened bottle in my luggage), it was during that quiet, fuzzy headed time that I thought that I could handle living like that every day. Maybe we could move to Bali and live like kings?

I had hoped on my days off that I could take some time to sit out on a banana lounge in the back garden and get some sun whilst reading and sipping a Bintang beer or so. This was not to happen, though – in the last 36 hours we have had in excess of 30mm of rain and the temperature has barely reached 11 degrees. Though I can’t afford to travel to Bali any time soon, I had at least hoped to travel there in my mind.

Gaijin behaving badly

DSC02882“Before you complain about bad customer service, ask yourself if you are being a bad customer.”

There is a perception in the media that Japan, as a nation, is largely xenophobic and prejudiced against foreigners – even the word itself, gaijin (外人), means “outside person” – a label all non-Japanese will carry no matter how long they live there, no matter how well they assimilate into the culture.

The laws often cited as being discriminatory, including the residence card issued to any foreigner who intends to stay in Japan longer than the 90 day visa allows and is required to be carried on their person at all times, appear on the surface as biased against non-Japanese. A child born in Japan of non-Japanese parents is not considered a Japanese national – they would still have to apply for permanent residence and naturalisation to be granted the same rights as a “full blooded” Japanese. Even then people will often ask them “When are you returning home?”

The media often seems to get into hysterical frenzies about the rights of the individual but how much of this is unfounded media panic and gonzo journalism, and how much of it is a genuine concern to the non-Japanese citizen?

Searches online seem to find a lot of sites claiming discrimination, or at least bureaucratic fumbling and stalling, when dealing with non-Japanese – ranging from being refused entry to shops or bars, being refused rental of apartments and houses through to police hostility and social ostracism.

If I look to my own experiences during my previous short visits to Japan, I can certainly recall no issues; a few moments are memorable, such as my arrival at customs with the officer having studied at the William Shatner school of English – I was greeted with a war chant of “Anything! To! Declare!?” and having already been awake for 26 hours at this time, shook my head numbly and wandered off through the gate, completely forgetting about the two bottles of wine in my backpack that I had brought as gifts for my host family – or at Yokohama station, my associate Quetzal and I were trying to work out which train to take to our next destination so we asked at the Green Window information counter (Midori no madoguchi) and the staff member gestured to an area behind us. We turned to find three sets of stairs leading off in different directions. When we turned back to the counter, the staff member had wandered off to help another customer. Fortunately we were able to find our train with the assistance of some very helpful passengers.

Truth be told, this became a familiar theme – on several occasions we were looking confused (our natural state of being, really) and trying to figure out a map (word of advice – don’t buy your railway guides from the ¥100 shop), we would have people approach us, usually quite elderly gentlemen, and explain things or point us in the right direction. Whilst viewing the Great Buddha statue at Koutoku-in (高徳院), Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture, we were given a private tour by one of the groundskeepers, a sprightly 73 years young gentlemen who helped out twice a week.

About the only occasion of “discrimination”, or more accurately exclusion, we encountered was when attempting to buy a camera in Akihabara from the cheapest store we could find online – we entered the store and approached the counter but again and again the staff would address customers standing behind us. Realising that we had somehow become invisible, we decided to move on to the next cheapest store, Wink Digital, would could not have been more helpful. Even though the weekend staff were not fluent in English, they made use of Google Translate to explain things that they did not otherwise know the words for. During the week they had staff more fluent in English (and other languages) but they certainly tried their hardest and made quite a big sale as a consequence.

As a side note, bigger stores like Laox Duty Fee spoke English and stocked the same camera but charged an additional ¥20,000 for the international version, about the same price I could buy it for at home. Though an international warranty appealed to me at the time, 10 years on I am still using this camera.

The only experience we had where we felt uncomfortable was whilst walking around the Imperial Palace in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo – a documentary was being filmed that day so the grounds were closed to the public. We were disappointed but continued on our journey around Tokyo. However, one fellow – a white foreigner like ourselves – didn’t take well to the situation and walked around in circles talking to himself, cursing angrily and gesticulating to no one in particular. We watched which direction he went in and then turned the other way.

Walking through Akihabara, we encountered one of the right wing political groups (uyoku dantai, 右翼団体) with their black vans and slogans – they didn’t slow down or abuse us, merely continued on their way promoting whatever their campaign was at the time.

I made enquiries with a number of friends who recently visited Japan for periods ranging from a week through to several months and not one of them could recall any bad experiences, no harassment or obstruction. Quetzal had spoken of a few restaurants and cafés that had signs up excluding foreigners but there could be a number of reasons for this – there are probably a number of times that they had had bad experiences with foreigners causing trouble, but it could be just as likely that they were merely shy around us and didn’t want to make a bad impression either through miscommunication or unintended insult. There would probably be only a small number of locations who genuinely wanted to exclude foreigners for racist or other hostile reasons. Rather than campaigning to have such locations opened to non-Japanese, wouldn’t it be better to simply take our business elsewhere? If we aren’t welcomed, they won’t profit from us.

During my research, the overall philosophy seems to be “behave yourself and be respectful to the people and to their culture and everyone will get along just fine”. Provided that you don’t stir up trouble yourself or demand everyone conform to your expectations of conduct – how many times have people gone to another country and then complained that no one spoke their language, accepted their currency or served their style of food in restaurants – you shouldn’t run into any troubles. Its not a difficult task to carry your passport or registration card with you when you go out so don’t start a fight when an official requests to see it. Don’t get drunk and disorderly in public, something that seems to be a frequent occurrence among visitors, don’t vandalise other people’s property and don’t talk on your mobile phone on public transport. And always, always be polite.

Don’t be that person who fulfils all the negative stereotypes associated with your culture.

Healthcare for foreigners in Japan

Rescue atop Mount Takao, Hachiōji, Japan

Rescue atop Mount Takao, Hachiōji, Japan

Cross-posted from City Cost

A recent but prolonged illness forced me to cancel much of my plans to travel and study in Japan and remain in Australia for the foreseeable future. Between the surgical consultations and medication, my savings and holiday leave evaporated requiring me to start over again.

Perhaps it was fortunate that this occurred in Australia where my wife could drive me to hospital in the middle of the night and explain the situation as I was in no condition to communicate. I would hate to attempt to describe my condition with my limited Japanese, especially trying to mime the symptoms, when I was almost delirious.

In Australia, much of our healthcare is publicly funded by the taxpayer – although private health insurance is encouraged by our government’s obsession with cost cutting. Due to the tight budget, the consequence with both the emergency department and the hospital stay itself is the approach of “treat ’em then street ’em” – deal with the immediate problem and then as soon as the patient is out of danger, handball them back to their General Practitioner.

Also due to the tight budget for public healthcare, there are often long waiting lists when being referred to specialists or being admitted for surgery. As I took out basic private insurance after I was married, my GP was able to call in some favours and get me to see a specialist that afternoon – the specialist examined me and told me “you are not going home today”. I was admitted immediately.

My hospitalisation was brief, but recovery was much longer and required several follow up consultations due to ongoing complications. I didn’t think too much of it until bills for both consultations and medication started arriving – my insurance covered the hospital stay but very little else as the specialist wasn’t “endorsed” by my insurance provider. I hadn’t seen bills that large since my wedding.

Should this have happened in Japan, I find myself wondering what the situation would have been. I’ve known people who visited America and fell ill or were injured during their stay, only to have doctors refuse to treat them because they didn’t have the right kind of insurance. Having injured her back, one was required to pay cash upfront for treatment, the other had to administer their own treatment – the family she was staying with were all doctors but couldn’t help her, but did show her how to inject herself.

Previous study trips I have taken have been to places where comprehensive treatment was available for a modest annual fee, or covered by my own travel insurance for shorter stays – the arrangement being that once I was out of danger, I would be flown back to Australia for the remainder of the treatment required. These have typically been “tourist destination” and often operated by Australian businesses.

I would be interested in learning other people’s experiences with healthcare in Japan – how much was covered by different insurance schemes versus how much they were out of pocket, what difficulties they encountered both in communication and if they encountered any discrimination. Even differences in treatment between cities and rural areas.