Chinese Tourists Need Housetraining

Also posted at ComingAnarchy — please weigh in with comments there.

On the summit of Jebel Hafeet, on the border of the UAE and Oman, I found this graffiti — the characters for “China” spray painted on the rock.

jebel hafeet graffiti

I saw similar graffiti in a natural valley in Sapa, Vietnam, back in 2005. As China grows richer, and its citizens find more opportunities for overseas tourism, I guess we should expect more of this kind of vulgar graffiti to pop up in the natural tourist sites of the world.

I’m happy that China’s economic development has created an upwardly mobile middle class that has the opportunity to travel overseas. I just wish they wouldn’t take out their lack-of-modern-empire-penis-envy frustrations on the natural environment of the world. And Japan, perhaps China’s biggest buggaboo, is possibly the biggest target for this graffiti as more and more Chinese tourists flood in to visit its temples, shrines and other monuments.

(It could be worse — at least the Chinese government doesn’t have management over tourist sites outside China, which would be a real disaster for human civilization).

Where to live in Japan? My, and your, top ten list

A post on the worst cities to travel to at ComingAnarchy developed into a comment discussion on the worst and best cities, with many regular MF commenters quickly joining the thread and turning the topic into a list of best and worst places to live or visit in Japan. Which gave me an idea — for those of you who live in Japan, or who are familiar with Japan, where would you want to live, and why?

This post covers my top ten, but I must preface this with an important disclaimer — my life in Japan will always be centered in Tokyo, for family, professional, and personal reasons. But I have long fantasized about acquiring a secondary residence outside the capital, for use as a vacation retreat, a place to escape from the city, or to settle for retirement. This list is covering top ten candidates for that second residence.

Biei, together with its more popular neighbor Furano, has some of the most beautiful scenery I have ever seen in Japan. Situated in the center of Hokkaido and closer to Asahikawa airport than Asahikawa city itself and thus a rural area that is very convenient to the rest of Japan, it is a popular place for Tokyoites to escape the city in the summer and has gorgeous, rolling hills covered in fields and farms. It would be a great place to launch into my favorite pasttime, cycling around Japan. Land is also relatively cheap — you can get a house with a backyard for the same price as a tiny apartment in Tokyo. The one disadvantage would be poor access to fresh seafood.

Kagoshima is a fun place for me because of its pride in its local history and easy boat access to the Okinawan islands. And I have never seen a town in Japan promote its own history so well, with biographies of famous Meiji military, political and business figures peppered over the city marking the places where they were born. Add to that the fun gardens, quaint trollycar, and Sakurajima just across the bay, and it really is a beautiful city with personality.

Tsushima is a beautiful island with countless hills and inlet bays situated between Kyushu and Korea. It has a tiny population of less than 40,000 people, and land in Tsushima can be had for a real bargain, and for a brief moment, I thought of buying some when I was there in 2007 — but unfortunately, the airport no longer has direct flights to Tokyo, only Nagasaki and Fukuoka (and Korea).

A number of places along the Izu peninsula, or even out in the Izu islands, would be a wonderful place to be, with beautiful beaches in summer and very mild winters, delicious fresh food from the sea, and convenience to Tokyo that would make it almost possible to commute.

Kawagoe has always struck me as perhaps the nicest old neighborhood in the greater Tokyo area, with its clock tower and many old temples (some people complain that the buildings are not genuine, but that doesn’t bother me — even if it’s not genuine, it’s authentic, and it’s the effort and thought that counts). It is also a cheap train ticket away to Tokyo, just an hour away on the Seibu Shinjuku line. Kawagoe would be a great place to live if you were working in Tokyo but wanted to hold on to a town with history and personality.

Rebun is the northernmost island of Japan after Hokkaido, and sits a short ferry ride away from Wakkanai. This remote island truly feels like the most remote area of Japan, when you cross the stubby mountains to its west side and look down over dramatic cliffs that drop into the sea, tiny huts in a small village, and water empty of any ships except the occasional fishing boat.

Karuizawa is a hoity-toity mountain retreat for Japan’s old school elite, and one of the few places outside Tokyo where land prices are absurdly high. But it is truly beautiful in the winter

Practically part of the capital, Yokohama is one of those places that makes me reevaluate my life in Tokyo everytime I visit. It has a feel of being much more modern (read: futuristic) and clean, consumer good prices feel much cheaper, and land prices and housing prices give you much more bang for your buck than Tokyo.

Wakayama holds a certain special place in my heart because it was the first place I lived in Japan as a teenager. I have lots of friends there, and land prices keep on getting cheaper, although the economy is notably awful.

Fukuoka boasts the most convenient airport in the world, right in the heart of the city, great food, fun history and things to see, and is the one place on this list next to Yokohama that just could be a permanent home outside of Tokyo for an eager professional doing business with the rest of Asia. And it also boasts great cuisine — first class seafood, nabe, ramen, and much more.

This list is long, but how about you, readers? Bonus points if you can come up with a graphic as AWESOME as mine above.

The Tragedy of the Overseas Japanese

I’ve been in Dubai for almost two months now, and despite leaving Japan, everyday involves speaking, reading and writing Japanese in my personal and professional life. Since arriving I’ve probably met more than a hundred Japanese nationals here, such as company employees, government bureaucrats, waitresses and cooks at Japanese restaurants, and the wives and school-aged children that have accompanied many of them. That’s several percentage points of the whole Japanese population here — according to the local Japanese Consulate General, there are approximately 3,000 Japanese nationals living in Dubai.

The reaction to a Japanese-speaking non-Japanese person is overwhelmingly positive, and I have found it very easy to befriend Japanese nationals on that basis. I think one reason for this is the underwhelming penetration of English language proficiency in the Japanese community here, and the consequent loneliness and insular community that arises thereto.

It’s one thing when I meet Americans and Brits living in Japan who never exert even a cursory effort to learn the Japanese language. I’m disappointed by these types of people, but I understand that English is the lingua franca of the world, the lowest common denominator of language, that people can expect to use for communication in most cities of the world. I know people who have lived in Japan for years, knowing only English, and who have still been able to live a full life in Japan and enjoy all the major tourist locations such as Kyoto, Hakone, Nikko, and elsewhere.

Here in Dubai, I witness the same phenomenon — I meet Japanese people who have lived in Dubai for years and who can barely order food from a menu or instruct a cab driver. This is a city that follows the 21st century lingua franca — 90% of the metropolitan population is foreign, and the common language between Lebanese, Indians, Brits, Egyptians, Iranians, Chinese, Kenyans, South Africans, Pakistanis, Greeks, Afghanis, and every other type of person you can imagine is English.

It’s one thing if a 30 year-old Japanese housewife can’t learn basic English communication after a few year in Dubai. That’s disappointing but understandable. But I’m truly shocked when I meet kids of the ages of 7 or 10, who have lived in Dubai for a year or two, and who have the potential to truly learn English like a native, and yet who can barely muster a sentence in English.

The blame lies squarely with the community and the education. The kids live in a Japanese community, attend Japanese schools that follow an ordinary Japanese curriculum, and basically have to study English in their spare time if they want to learn. And the general lack of English ability by many here has created a highly insular community. The Japanese tend to live in or around the Hyatt Regency, which offers serviced apartments for individuals and families, a supermarket with a small Japanese corner, and a genuine Japanese restaurant. Many other people live in the nearby neighborhood, and most of the authentic Japanese restaurants are in that area. With most Japanese socially cut-off from the rest of Dubai’s expat community, the result is a gossip network akin to a small inaka community. I met a bureucrat working at JETRO who had heard of me from his neighbor before we met — which we forensically determined was derivative to at least the fourth degree, with the information genesis beginning in a meeting that happened merely days earlier.

On the one hand, from a selfish perspective, this is great for me and has created all sorts of opportuities. But it’s also tragic that the Japanese, despite being very well educated and comfortably middle class for several generations, are so culturally isolated in a city where people gather from across the world.

Which passport to use?

Here at MFT we take great interest in passports, visas and travel restrictions–in part because we love traveling, and in part because we are constantly dealing with nationality-related issues. All five of our contributors (including the dear and basically-departed Saru) are US citizens. Four of us live in Japan and a couple of us have seriously contemplated taking Japanese citizenship. Curzon is a dual citizen of the UK and I am a dual citizen of Ireland. While Roy is only a US citizen (as far as any of us can tell), he has a strong academic interest in citizenship law.

I was recently taking a look at the Henley survey, which ranks countries by the freedom of movement afforded their passport holders. The full list is here, and the rankings surprised me enough that I decided to poke through the web to find out how travel restrictions differ for American, Japanese, British and Irish citizens.

It turns out that Ireland has the second-best passport in the world, tied with Finland and Portugal, and second only to Denmark’s. Irish citizens can enter 156 countries without an advance visa.

The US is tied for #3 in the global ranking, alongside Belgium, Germany and Sweden. US citizens can enter 155 countries without an advance visa.

Japan is tied for #4 in the global ranking, alongside Canada, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Spain. Japanese citizens can enter 154 countries without an advance visa.

The UK is at #6, tied with France, and UK citizens can access 152 countries. But British passport holders have to be careful about the type of passport they hold: it is possible to get a British passport without being a British citizen (most often by being a former subject of a defunct British possession such as Ireland or Hong Kong), and the travel restrictions on such passports are tighter. For instance, a British non-citizen passport can’t be used for a visa waiver to enter the United States–but on the flip side, a British passport held by a Hong Kong subject can be used to enter China without a visa.

The differences in visa waiver coverage are interesting, if seemingly arbitrary at times. In the chart below, an “O” means no visa is required or that a visa can be purchased on arrival, while an “X” means that a visa must be acquired in advance.

            USA  GBR  IRL  JPN

Belize       O    O    O    X
Bolivia      X    O    O    O
Brazil       X    O    O    X
Paraguay     X    O    O    O
Suriname     X    X    X    O

Rwanda       O    O    X    X

China (PRC)  X    X    X    O
Iran         X    O    O    O
Mongolia     O    X    X    X
Vietnam      X    X    X    O

Hopping back to Japan

I arrived back in Kyoto Wednesday night, after a one month trip to the US. During the three weeks at home in Montclair, New Jersey and the five days in San Francisco on the way back to Japan I kept my Internet usage to a minimum, did virtually no blogging, read a lot of books, ate and drank a lot, and generally had a vacation. Living in the suburbs of New York City, I naturally spend a lot of time there, and I noticed the following changes while I was back.

There are bike lanes all over Manhattan, and people biking all over the place.

The much heralded conversion of Times Square and sections of Broadway into pedestrian only zones actually happened.

Subway cars with modern electronic signage are gradually spreading. Of course, the MTA only introduced them when retiring cars that are too old to remain in service, so it may very well be another decade or two before they are ubiquitous.

I had never been to San Francisco before, and I was very impressed by the food and general atmosphere, and could easily imagine myself living in that climate year-round. The one slice of pizza I had, however, was an unmitigated disaster, not helped by the fact that it was 3am and I was walking the wrong direction. It was also a bit disconcerting, although not unwelcome, after having just been in the New York area, to be in a major American city where residents feel comfortable smoking marijuana in public, at any time of day and in any neighborhood, and even in front of the police.

Upon landing in Kansai International Airport, I noticed two new things.

First, that there is a dedicated line at immigration for reentry permit holders. Before the recent re-introduction of mandatory fingerprinting for entering foreigners, we re-entry permit holders had the unique right of being able to choose EITHER the Japanese citizen lines OR the foreigner lines, whichever was shorter. However, immediately after the institution of the electronic fingerprinting and facial photographing system, we were lumped in with the general foreigner population. But now, and I do not know when it started, we get our very own line. And while both Japanese and visiting foreigners were piled up 3o deep behind green and red ropes, with a solid wait ahead of them, I managed to glide through the yellow-roped corridor with only one person ahead of me and no more than four behind.

Second, that there are drug detection dogs crawling all over the baggage claim/customs area, and the PA system never shuts up reminding you that they don’t bite. While the dogs themselves are not particularly annoying and it is mildly interesting to watch them work as I wait for my luggage to come out, there is still something a bit uncomfortable about having ones person repeatedly inspected, even if only olfactorily. Needless to say, having just come from San Francisco, where-as I mentioned above-marijuana is basically legalized, I found it a particularly unwelcoming welcome back. While the increased dog inspections are obviously a product of Japan’s recent craze of 1950s-esque reefer madness, having such dogs at the border still feels a bit pointless since, as far as I have heard, all of the marijuana consumed in Japan is actually produced domestically up in Hokkaido and Tohoku, and not smuggled into the country.

Regardless, the convenience of the MK Shuttle and almost comical politeness of the engloved driver provided a sharp contrast to the mildly surly and heavily burly Russian or Eastern European immigrant that had driven my corresponding airport pickup shuttle service in San Francisco.

Travels to Tsushima, Part 2.1: Tripod Torii

Part 1Part 2

I was requested to explain in more details what I meant by the words “tri-trunk torii,” which I used to explain a unique type of Torii gate that I saw at Watazumi Shrine on Tsushima Island. Here are two photographs that should have been included in the previous post.

As I understand the local lore from memory and from various sources, the “tripod torii” is built around a quartz rock peering out from the ground. Local lore states that this is the grave of Isora, the shinto god of the seashore, the basis for which originated with the Azumi people, a seafaring people of ancient Japan who lived in northern Kyushu and the neighboring islands.

Travels to Tsushima, Part 2: Sights to See

Part 1

Tsushima has lots of fun places to visit. What I like particularly is that, despite traveling on a weekend in the pleasant spring season, there were literally no tourists to be found at all the sites I visited. This post will overview some of the highlights — and save the very best place for part 3.

Tsushima Guide Map

1. Russo-Japanese War Memorial
The Battle of Tsushima was the decisive naval battle where Japan decisively won the Russo-Japanese War. On the northern tip of Tsushima sits the memorial to the battle, erected a few years later when the locals were in a nationalistic mood. A hundred years later, Russia and Japan together erected a new memorial nearby, commemorating Russian-Japanese friendship. That monument also lists all of the victims of the Battle of Tsushima, and the roster is telling — there are thousands of Russian names, and just a handful of Japanese names.

Continue reading Travels to Tsushima, Part 2: Sights to See

Using a cell phone as visitor to the States

One of the perennial annoyances of world travel in the early 21st century is the difficulty inherent in having the wireless connectivity abroad upon which one has become dependent in one’s country of residence. To say, having operable cell phone service. Yes, the entire world now generally recognizes GSM and unless you are foolish enough to travel abroad with a CDMA only provider like America’s Verizon or Sprint, or Japan’s AU, then your foreign phone shall operate locally, but with the combination of using a foreign phone number and operating said number in a foreign land under a roaming agreement, which produces a particularly usurious fee schedule, wherein a simple text message or phone call of greetings is so expensive as to chill the blood and whiten the face.

The solution to this problem is inherent in the same GSM specification that allows phones and service provider accounts of most nations and varieties to operate worldwide – the SIM card. In most countries, a traveler may simply peruse a local vendor of inexpensive SIM cards offering a reasonably priced prepaid service, whether said vendor be official company store, or marketplace stall, or even automated machine, and after completing the local procedure shall simply replace their existing SIM card, being extremely careful not to lose it, whereupon he or she then has a local phone number.

The difficulty of obtaining such a prepaid SIM card varies greatly by nation. In my experience, the most difficult of all is Japan, where they are simply not sold; the only options for the foreign traveler is to cavort without a cell phone, in the manner of a twentieth century hobo, or to pay a truly outrageous fee for a rental phone or the aforementioned international roaming service. The easiest of all may be The Philippines, where there is a SIM card vending machine located in the lobby of the international airport, allowing one to purchase the chip without providing any personal identifying information, or even to interact with a human being. Someone higher on the scale is Taiwan, where the item may be purchased cheaply and readily at any of the innumerable vendors dotting the market-places, but where the traveler is required by law to show both one’s passport and a supplemental form of identification, quite a burden for a thing so small.

And this brings me to today. Here I am, in my country of citizenship and birth, but only for a short time. Far too short a time to obtain the ongoing contractual wireless service of a resident, and yet far too long, and with far too busy a calendar of engagements to vainly search for working examples of the antiquated coin-phone, or to scurry from doorway to doorway, in search of an unprotected WiFi signal, like a starved and lonely rat trapped out in a storm, trying to sniff its way home before the scent fades.

Here in the US we have two providers of GSM service. AT&T and T-Mobile. Yesterday I was in Manhattan, I believe at 6th Avenue and 17th Street, where stores of these competing firms stared down each other across the Avenue (increasingly full of bicyclists, in these recessionary days). I first inquired at AT&T, the original provider of my retired Samsung Blackjack, now being asked to come out of retirement for one more short campaign. Absurdly, they told me that the fee for a SIM card was $100, with $100 worth of service included. So, there is no base fee but I would be required to spend far more money than I will actually use. And across the way, loquacious Dennis of the T-Mobile store, resident of The Bronx, informs me that their basic fee is a mere $10, with service structure that becomes increasingly favorable (to both parties) the more credit one purchases, in the grand mercantile tradition of the bulk discount.

In fact, it turns out that my old Blackjack was still SIM-card locked to AT&T (meaning that it would not work with any other provider), but either a law of congress or regulation of the FCC now requires that providers of services provide the code needed to unlock said lock, which AT&T (relevant tech support # is 1-800-331-0500 ) did most readily upon request. And now, here I sit, surrounded by phones and computers of divers sizes and capabilities, but amidst them is a single unit, made in Korea, purchased in New Jersey some years ago, containing within itself an accurate and complete record of the telephone numbers of family, friends, associates and acquaintances domiciled in these United States, and once again with the capacity and license to contact them.


Off for home

Quick update here, I’m heading off for home (Montclair, New Jersey) in a few hours, by way of San Francisco. I’ll be in the NJ/NYC area until September 10 and then in San Francisco until the 15th, before I head back to Kansai. While at home I’ll probably also make a brief visit to DC for a couple of days. I’m going to try to stay mostly off-line and read more books while I’m at home, but anyone in those areas feel free to drop me a line and I’ll see if I have room in my schedule to meet up.

Just for fun, here’s a (hopefully) complete list of electronics on my person and baggage as I travel.

iPhone (SIM-locked for Softbank, Japan)

External extra battery for iPhone.

Creative Zen Vision:M 60GB (Just in case I run out of iPhone juice entirely.)

Samsung Blackjack (my old phone from last time I lived in US, intend to use with prepaid SIM card while at home.)

Some junky generic Motorola phone (my travel phone when going around Asia. Just in case.)

Asus eeePC 1000

Canon 50D w/ two 8-GB memory cards, 3 batteries and a charger

^ Canon 50mm 1.8F lens

^ Canon 17-85 EF-S lens

^ Tokina 11-16 lens

Sharp electronic dictionary

External USB hard drive (backup of my important files, to leave at home as ultimate emergency off-site backup and swap for a fresh backup drive.)

Petition to end HIV ban

I’ve mentioned the US’s HIV travel/immigration ban before, and Andrew Sullivan reminds me that there are still two weeks left to sign the public comment petition, in advance of what will hopefully be the final stage of the repeal of this severely out-dated regulation. Surprisingly, I don’t see any wording that the petition is limited to US citizens as I would expect, so feel free to jump in and add your comments. I had to submit to an HIV text when applying for my Taiwan visa back in 2005 (I think they’ve eliminated it since then) and found it pretty invasive (obviously I was negative since I got the visa) and look forward to this restriction being lifted on would-be US residents.