Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Commutism

For the first time in ten years, I don’t have a car! Never ever have I lived in a place where you could fully rely on public transportation to easily get you everywhere you need and want to go.

In Rolla, for example, the idea of public transportation really meant finding the closest sober driver for a ride home from the party, hoping you could convince him to stop at one of the town’s finest fast-food restaurants.

Houston had just one lonely, pathetic light rail that travels in a straight line from downtown to Reliant Stadium. This was useful once a year to attend the rodeo, but otherwise a complete joke. During my short stint in DC, I really enjoyed having the metro available to get around on the weekends and took advantage of it whenever I could.

Tokyo takes it to a whole new level. Let me introduce you to the greater Tokyo subway and rail system.









A little scary at first glance, right?! I thought so too. One unique thing about Tokyo is that unlike other cities, the subways and trains are not all operated by the same company. There are a variety of different private lines, types of trains, subways etc. If you come to Tokyo, getting a Suica or Pasmo card is a must. These are an all-access card that are accepted on all trains and even some taxis and vending machines. Here’s my Pasmo card, see it even has my name on it!










It works like a debit card, I load it up with about 8-10,000 yen/week and scan it each time you enter and exit a line. There have been a couple times where I get the big red “X” when I scan the card, and I’m unable to enter or exit the station. When this happens and I know there is money on it, I walk over to the attendant, give him my card, he’ll say a lot to me in Japanese (which I won’t understand) but then, more importantly, he’ll do something on his computer, give me my card back and it always works!

I’ve zoomed in on my daily commute below. I take a subway from Roppongi to Hatchibori station, then switch to a JR train (which is mostly above ground) at Hatchibori and exit at Makuhari. It’s about a 35km distance and takes around 40 minutes from Roppongi to Makuhari. Not a whole lot different from Houston to Baytown, for my TX friends. I’ve figured out which car to get on at each station both to and from work so I’m sure to get a seat! While it can get pretty crowded at rush hour, I have yet to be on a “pusher” train (one where a man with white gloves on physically pushes the people into the car like sardines in order to get the doors to close) and I’m really in no rush.







Other interesting observations about riding around Tokyo:

  • 3G service is available at underground stations and sometimes even in between if stations are close together. You generally always have service on the above ground routes. I usually hit very few dead zones on my daily commute.
  • Talking on your cell phone is not allowed while on board. You may text, but your phone should be set to silent or vibrate.
  • The trains are extremely timely! They stay on the time-tables exactly, don't be late. Well even you are, there's a good chance you will only have to wait a few extra minutes for the next one coming.
  • Most announcements are in Japanese but there are electronic boards on most trains that let you know the upcoming stations in English. Haven’t gotten off at the wrong stop yet!
  • People are very orderly! When there lots of people on the platform to catch a train, they line up by two’s and board in this order. Also when you're moving about the station, it's good to know the left side of the escalator is for standing, the right is for walking. Don’t confuse!











  • Everybody sleeps. In the morning and after work, I’d say a majority of people are sleeping on the train. It’s really amusing to watch people sit down and within 30 seconds, often less, they are asleep. I mean falling-over asleep. I still haven’t quite figured out the polite way to wake-up your neighbor when they fall asleep leaning on you. For now I just do the awkward, sudden movement til they come-to and adjust their sleeping position. There is also this art of magically waking up at your exact station. How do they do it?! I am still a little too paranoid about missing my stop, so no sleeping for me ..yet. I'm working on a montage of people asleep on the trains and other random places...pics to come soon.

Overall, while the vast number of trains and routes looks pretty confusing, it’s really pretty user friendly! I am really enjoying having some time in the morning to read the news, play games, watch a tv show or listen to music. I wasn’t sure how I was going to feel trading in my 328 for the 7:14am train, but life without car payments, insurance, gas, and maintenance isn’t so bad!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Yokohama Oktoberfest

My first week of work flew by as I was getting used to my commute on the train, learning about my new job, and getting to know my project team members. So by the time my first big weekend rolled around, I was ready for some fun.

One great thing that happened during the week, is that my relocation agent set me up with the contact info for Kristyn, another young employee of my company who moved to Tokyo in April. We had been chatting on email all week and finally met up on Friday at an Irish pub for a drink and fish 'n chips. We had a great time and refer to it as our eHarmony moment.

Although Kristyn had already been to Oktoberfest twice this past week, we decided attend the festival on Sunday and to get there as early as possible since she knew it would be quite crowded. Kristyn works in Yokohama right by where Oktoberfest was taking place so it was great to ride the train with her and have her show me the way.

We ended up arriving around 12:30pm, 30 min after opening. It took was staged at the Red Brick Warehouse which was historically used as a customs house (on the Port of Yokohama) but is now a shopping mall and used for other festivals and events. You can see it in the background there.















The place was packed even when we got there. We waited for about 20 minutes in line before paying our 200 yen entrance fee. Once we got our wristbands we headed straight for the Haufbrau booth where we got a liter of their Oktoberfest beer... you dont want to know how much that was. Well ok... 3000 yen, i'll let you do the math.




















All the tables were taken so we found a clearing on the ground to sit and enjoy our beer. We were right in a walk path so the people watching was great. One of our favorite sightings was this adorable little guy! How adorable. He walked by once and then we stopped his mom to ask if we could take a pic on the way back.



















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After awhile some middle aged Japanese guys approached us to ask if we were from Germany. Ha. We started chatting with them, one of them had been to Houston and asked us if we had ever been to Whataburger. They were very friendly and asked us if we wanted to join them at they had with their friends inside the tent where the German band was starting to play. The tent was absolutely full and the crowd was really into the music. It was so much fun and Kristyn and I really got into the spirit as well. There are several videos below of some of the different performances. Sorry for the poor/shakey camera work! This may have ben a couple liters in...

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Be sure to watch til the chorus, they love this song here!
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Our friends had some food for us too. Sausages, sauerkraut, mustand, and two sets of chopsticks :)



















Cool beer drinking glasses.














We ended up leaving around 6:30pm or so and got to see the Yokohama Ferris Wheel all lit up at night.




















Was such a fun way to spend my first weekend here. Wonder where Oktoberfest will be celebrated next year??

Monday, October 10, 2011

Living at Tokyo Midtown

As I mentioned before, I have about 40 days where I will be "roughing it," living out of my three suitcases before my sea shipment arrives to Tokyo. Midtown Tokyo is a development with a mall, restaurants, bars, a grocery store, the Ritz Carlton, a big office building, and my residence. Check it out:













































































































View from my balcony. I'm on the quiet side of the building overlooking a park.
















Yes, that's a tv and the washer and dryer and my bathroom. The washer and dryer is the same unit. It takes about five hours to dry a load of laundry, dry cleaning it is.















The shower room, which also holds the bathtub. The whole thing can be turned into a steam room.















And the creme de la creme. Is this the thermostat? The intercom system? Actually, you are looking at the toilet controls. Light flush, heavy flush, a variety of types of "cleansings," water noises, fans, deodorizer, and even a heated seat! There are also buttons to raise and lower the seat as demonstrated below:

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I haven't quite figured out the fasciation with the toilets or maybe the better question is why haven't we adapted to these in the US?!

Far East Movement...

At the beginning of October, I set out on a new 18 - 24 month adventure living and working in Tokyo, Japan. I really enjoyed my semester abroad in Sydney back in grad school, so having international travel opportunities always seemed like a great perk at work. Little did I know I'd be moving half way around the world to a place I had never been!

The last week of September, the movers came to our apartment, packed up all my things, and within four hours all of my worldly possessions were placed in a shipping container to go via sea freight to Tokyo. The whole shipping process to Japan takes about 40 days on average. In the mean time, the company puts you up in a serviced apartment until your belongings arrive.

After the move, a great bon voyage weekend in St. Louis, and resolving many other things in Houston, it was time to travel! One of the nicest things about traveling on the company dime is Business First Class. Before I started working, the extent of my elite-status travel has been getting in the "A" boarding group on Southwest Airlines. If you can relate to this, I thought it would be fun to show you what you are missing out on beyond that thin blue curtain...


Here I am waiting to take off. Plenty of leg room and my own 15" entertainment center.



















This is the remote to the entertainment center, flight attendant call button, controls the lights, etc.


















One of the seat pockets has the in-flight menu you can check out before they come around to take orders.





















Some of the menu options, I went with the chicken.

























Some mixed nuts, champagne, and watching Bridesmaids post take-off.








































Here are the other courses. I forgot to snap a pic of the delish Blue Bell ice cream sundae at the end.







































After all that food, it was time to throw back the Ambien and settle in for bed, afterall, there are still about 11 hours of the flight left at this point. Forget to bring you toothbrush or chapstick on board? No worries, you are provided this handy little travel pouch filled with all kinds of amenities you may need.

I slept about seven hours on the flight. Oh did I mentions the seats turn into flat beds? Nbd. After waking up, I watched a few more tv shows and a movie and prepared my customs card to get through immigration at the Tokyo airport. My co-worker met me at the airport to make sure I didn't get lost my first day in the country. We had a big taxi van pick us up from the airport. It was about an hour long, $280 cab ride...yikes! Good thing that was expensed too.

Arriving at Midtown Tokyo, I was really excited to check out my serviced apartment and start getting settled.