What To Do in Fukui, Gifu and Nagoya

Christmas in Japan is a working day like any other, but I wasn’t going to let it just go by. Jeremy, Patricia (my friend from Solomon Islands) and I had an all-you-can-eat lunch at an Indian restaurant in Kanazawa. But on New Year’s, we made plans to see a little bit more of Japan by visiting Fukui City in Fukui Prefecture (which is adjacent to Ishikawa Prefecture where we live), Gifu City in Gifu Prefecture and Nagoya City in Aichi Prefecture.

We only spent a day in each city so it was mostly touch-and-go, but at each city we made a stop that is worth recommending to anyone who wants to see these places.

Fukui: Dinosaurs, Ruins, Temples

Fukui is mostly famous for several types of dinosaurs whose fossils have been dug up there. Unfortunately, on the day we went there, the Fukui Prefectural Dinosaur Museum was closed. We contented ourselves with taking pictures and watching the three dinosaurs in front of Fukui Station. They move and roar from time to time which is exciting even for adults!

dinosaurs at Fukui Station

Try-something-something-aus dinosaur at the Fukui Station

dinosaurs at Fukui Station

Pattie, J and the dinosaurs at Fukui Station

Fukui is a one hour train ride from Komatsu Station. We arrived in Fukui at around noon so naturally, the next stop was lunch. Luckily, our friend Sakana who is a photographer (if you need photos taken of your family for weddings, graduations and such, highly recommended), picked us up and took us to this ramen restaurant in Fukui City.

Ramen restaurant in Fukui. I can't read the Kanjis so I can't tell you its name..

Ramen restaurant in Fukui. I can’t read the Kanjis so I can’t tell you its name..

Allow me to digress a little and show this photo Sakana took of J and I sometime in October last year.

Jeremy and I

Jeremy and I

After lunch, we went for a drive to see the Ichijodani Asakura Clan Ruins. It is basically a beautiful valley in which a castle town existed from the 1470s to the 1570s. However, all that can be seen now are the remains of the town – hence the name Asakura Ruins. It may be better to go in autumn as the scenery will even be more beautiful.

Ichijodani Asakura Water Station

Ichijodani Asakura Water Station, that is what the sign says

The wall surrounding the ghost town

The wall surrounding the ghost town

Just further up the road from the ruins is a beautiful waterfall. We met some other tourists there taking in the view as well. It was quite cold and there was some snow on the ground, it hadn’t yet snowed in Ishikawa!

Pattie and Jeremy at the Ichijodani Waterfall

Pattie and Jeremy at the Ichijodani Waterfall. Note: I am not sure its actual name!

There was still some time left in the day, so we drove to Hokyoji Temple in Ono City. Quoting from japantravel.com, “Hokyoji Temple in Fukui is the second head temple of the Soto school of Zen Buddhism in Japan. It was founded by Jakuen, a Chinese Zen monk who trained in Zen with Dogen, who was visiting China at the time, and later founded Eiheiji Temple.” This is the website of the temple, all in Japanese though. We didn’t see any monks training. In fact, we saw no one. We didn’t enter the temple but admired it from the outside. It had snowed heavily in the mountains and we enjoyed the view, took some pictures and left. It is a quiet, tranquil and isolated temple.

Mummy, what's this snow thing?

Mummy, what’s this snow thing?

Hokyoji Temple

Hokyoji Temple

J's hand searching for warmth :D

J’s hand searching for warmth :D

On the way back to Fukui City, Sakana remembered a Kenyan couple who are also students living in Fukui, we have them a call and they welcomed us into their house, just like that. They had made yummy chapos that we washed down with tea brewed Kenyan style. I hope to see them again, very welcoming people.

Gifu: Mountain Views

The following day, we left Fukui Station around 10am for Gifu City. The limited express train (Shirasagi) takes about 2 and a half hours from Fukui to Gifu. This time when we arrived at the station, Pattie’s Solomon Island friends were waiting to pick us up. Since we arrived at around noon, the first stop was of course, lunch. We had lunch at a Chinese restaurant near Gifu University (I also didn’t get the name). The food was delicious, the portions were HUUGE, and the price very fair. However, Jeremy refused to sit down. He also refused to let me sit down to eat in peace. Sometimes you wonder what 2 year olds want! Eventually, I had to ask for my food to be packed, and bought some food for J at McDonalds which he enjoyed.

If you are in Gifu, be sure to climb Mount Kinka for the views and for the Castle.

#GifuCastle #Gifu #Kinkazan

Savvy Kenyaさん(@savvykenya)が投稿した写真 –

I think you can catch a bus from Gifu Station to Mount Kinka but thank God for friends and friends of friends with cars!

If you are feeling fit, and time and weather permit, you can hike up the hill and it will take you about 45min-1hour. However, we had J with us and the weather wasn’t that good and it was late in the afternoon, so we went up the ropeway. It costs about 1,600 Yen for a return ticket. You can take the ropeway up and then hike down or vice versa.

We went up Mount Kinka using this ropeway .. a little scary but it takes only 2 minutes

Savvy Kenyaさん(@savvykenya)が投稿した写真 –

Once on top, these are some of the views to see around you. You can see as far as Nagoya, which is a 30 minute train ride from Gifu.

#Gifu #Kinkazan

Savvy Kenyaさん(@savvykenya)が投稿した写真 –

Thaaaat there in the distance is Nagoya.. as seen from #MountKinka #Kinkazan #Gifu

Savvy Kenyaさん(@savvykenya)が投稿した写真 –

#Kinkazan #Views

Savvy Kenyaさん(@savvykenya)が投稿した写真 –

There is also a beautiful park at the base of Mount Kinka which is even more beautiful in autumn.

It was around 4PM when we finally came down from Mount Kinka and Pattie’s friends dropped us at Gifu Castle Inn where we had booked a room. It had free wifi in the rooms. We got a chance to relax, had long relaxing baths, turned on the aircon so we had tropical temperatures in a Japanese winter and bought our dinner from the convenience store a minute away.

Nagoya: Aquariums and Adorable Dolphins

There is a subway from Nagoya Station to Nagoya Port, although you may have to connect. The main attraction is the Port of Nagoya Public Aquarium but there is also an amusement park at the port.

We paid around 2,000 Yen entrance and waited until 4pm for the Dolphins Show. The dolphins perform all manner of synchronized swimming, jumping, dancing, bowing etc and tricks such as jumping through hoops and jumping as high as 6 meters to touch a dangling ball. We all ooohed, ahhed and clapped at the end of each show as the dolphins bowed and waved their tails goodbye. Oh man, what a show. I will be sure to take J again when he’s older and able to appreciate the show a bit more.

The Ferris Wheel at the Nagoya Port

The Ferris Wheel at the Nagoya Port

Jeremy watching a dolphin

Jeremy watching a dolphin at the Nagoya Aquarium

A white shark at the Nagoya Aquarium

A white shark at the Nagoya Aquarium

A white shark at the Nagoya Aquarium

A white shark at the Nagoya Aquarium

The dolphins show at the Nagoya Aquarium

Two dolphins bow during show at the Nagoya Aquarium

At Nagoya, we spent New Year’s Eve at an Air BnB house. The lady was very welcoming and she has 2 kids – one 5, one 9 months – and we had dinner together with her family. Later, Jeremy played with her son (Jake) until they both fell asleep. A little before midnight, they left to go to the temple and make wishes for the new year (read more about Japanese New Year Customs Aosindi’s blog). By then J was deep asleep and I didn’t want to disturb him, so Pattie accompanied them.

We of course, took several selfies.

A happy start to the year it was!

A happy start to the year it was!

The following day, on 1st, we got back on a direct, limited express train (Shirasagi) to Komatsu/Kanazawa. Felt good to be back home after seeing so much in so little time.

Looking forward to the next travel adventure. Crossing my fingers it is somewhere abroad.

Happy 2016 dear readers of this blog!

Asante Mwalimu

World Teachers’ Day is on 5th October each year. I’m, like most other people, caught up with the business and busyness of my present life that I hardly give a thought to my past, or to the teachers that shaped who I am today.

Image courtesy http://thumbs.dreamstime.com/

Image courtesy http://thumbs.dreamstime.com/

There have been many teachers in my life. In the primary school where I sat for my KCPE, there was a mathematics teacher who showed me I didn’t have to settle for 90%, with attention to details I could and often did get 100%. There was a dedicated retired teacher who was on contract teaching us Swahili and I owe my current level of fluency to him. There was the Geography teacher who wasn’t tolerating any signs of truancy from us.. However, it would be hard to trace all these teachers today given my former school is physically no more! It was a private boarding school, getting perhaps rundown by mismanagement, and I hear it is now a seminary.

Now onto high school. It has been a decade since I last walked out of Loreto High School, Limuru. I haven’t been back in as long because I feel my business there was quite done when I picked my KCSE and leaving certificates. I have many memories of that place. Who doesn’t? There were good teachers, there were so-so teachers, and there were some great teachers.

One of my most memorable and influential teachers, although he probably doesn’t realize it, is one Mr. Obuong. Everything else aside, he was a great biology and chemistry teacher. I owe the As I got in those subjects to him. To this day, I can remember some of the essays we had to write in the biology exams word for word; and the experiments we carried out in the biology lab on weekends are stuck in my head. He was one dedicated teacher with clear, unambiguous notes that he sometimes had those students with good handwriting make copies for his well-organized files. Everyone in class had to have a separate biology file and although we weren’t the easiest class to teach (4B class of 2005!), we all complied with rules.

When it comes to Chemistry, I can’t even remember quite clearly who our teacher was. I think it was Mrs R. But I knew I was going to fail the subject if I didn’t do something; I wasn’t grasping the mole concept and those chemistry calculations, organic chemistry and what not.. so I joined Mr. Obuong’s tuition class. Because he was organized, and explained the concepts clearly, then everything fell into place and I finally loved and understood chemistry.

Now that I have been forced down memory lane, we were to pay for those extra tuition classes (considering he wasn’t our Chemistry teacher). To this day I don’t even remember how much but I know I owe him a debt bigger than any few thousand shillings (I shall make this right the next time I am back in the country).

For now, I would like to say, thank you. Thank you to all the teachers who’ve taught me over the years, and especially, thanks to Mr. Obuong for being a great teacher.

By the way, Jacaranda Africa will be giving out the magazines to schools around the country in their effort to say thank you to their teachers.

Culture Shock #99: Japanese Beauty Standards

I am going to be doing some posts about my experience as a Kenyan in Japan. I’ll count down from 100 but in no particular order. Of course I expected Japan to be different, so when people asked me if I experienced culture shock, I’d say no, but on further reflection there are so many things that have me asking, Japan, what the hell? That would never happen in Kenya! (and vice versa!). If that isn’t culture shock, then I don’t know what is. As an English-speaking nation and a former British colony, we are heavily influenced by the West (Europe and the USA), there is little in our media/entertainment from Far East Asia .. not many Kenyans know much about The Far East and many confuse Japan for China or vice versa. Here is the previous post, #100 and the hashtag for all the posts so far.

  • Small Head, Small Face

I was in the bus with my Ethiopian friend who’s married to a Japanese guy and she has been living here in Japan for over 15 years. I was of course, actively avoiding eye contact with a few curious people who stole glances at me. I couldn’t however, avoid eye contact with my Ethiopian friend whom I was chatting with, even if she was looking at me a tad too intensely before remarking:

“You’re very pretty. And you’ve got a small head, and a small face..”

I was puzzled.

Here is a picture of me wearing an Ethiopian dress. Is my head small? What about my face?

Here is a picture of me wearing an Ethiopian dress. Is my head small? What about my face?

She then explained to me that Japanese people usually have big heads (her words, not mine) and that they desire small heads and small faces. Up until that point, and really even up to now, I had and have never given a thought to the ratio of the size of Japanese heads to their bodies. It’s simply ridiculous but perhaps that’s the Kenyan in me talking. No one gives a thought about the size of your head, and width of your face as a standard of beauty in Kenya.

I thought maybe it is just something foreigners observe. Until another time I was in the car with a Japanese friend who was dropping me off in campus. He spent a year in the US and is obsessed with basketball, rap and basketballers. He remarked wistfully, “They are so tall and they have such small heads.” So I turned to look at him and earnestly told him, “Hey, your head is small too.” He was like, “really? thanks!”
Now you know what compliment to give next time you’re talking to a Japanese guy. “You’ve got such a small head, and your face is small too!”. Say that to a Kenyan at the risk of being thought insane.

Oh look at the size of LeBron's head.. so small!

Oh look at the size of LeBron’s head.. so small!

In my opinion if you ask me, I think having a big head would imply a big brain and that’s a good thing, no?

Perhaps nothing can be done about the size of the head but fear not if you’re a broad-faced Kenyan woman wanting to look beautiful in Japan, there is an invention called the facial corset that promises a tiny face. You might think I am joking but this product is available on Amazon from as low as $10 and has a 3.6/5 star rating..

The Absolute Tiny Face Corset from Amazon

The Absolute Tiny Face Corset from Amazon. Image from Amazon

  • Small, Straight Nose

As an African, my nose is probably on the broader, flatter side.. Here I would terribly fail the Japanese beauty test for the desired small, straight nose. Being in a land of technological innovation, there is a list of gadgets available to help shape my face, including The Hana Tsun Nose Straightener (see image below), The Eye Slack Haruka, The Eyelid Trainer, The Rhythm Slim Chin Exerciser, The Face Slimmer Mouthpiece etc..

The Hana Tsun Nose Straightener

The Hana Tsun Nose Straightener. See link above for source

  • Double Eyelids

Let’s not even get started on this one. I had no idea what “double eyelids” were until I got to Japan. 100% of the Kenyans I know have double eyelids so it’s not something you’re “aware” of until you meet people who want it. You can read an article about it on gaijinpot.com.” Blepharoplasty, also known as the double eyelid surgery is one of the most popular cosmetic surgeries in Japan. The surgery is performed to transform the Asian “monolid” into a Western-style [edit African-style too!] “double lid” thereby making the patient’s eyes look bigger.”

Source: gaijinpot.com

Source: gaijinpot.com

  • Crooked Teeth

There are reports of Japanese women getting surgery to make their straight teeth crooked because it is seen as more attractive. But it’s not crooked teeth per se but slightly longer, vampire-like canines.. I don’t think it is a very popular trend among the general population. However, I have made one interesting observation: all the women I’ve met so far with (naturally) crooked teeth are beautiful. I don’t know if there’s a correlation there.

Japanese twins

I met the Japanese twins above at the Tokyo Sevens, they were supporting the Kenyan team. They’re beautiful and coincidentally they also have slightly crooked canines. I hope they’re okay with me using their photos, I don’t remember their names/contact!

Physique
Ah.. let’s not go there today! But a definition of “slim” by Kenya standards is “average” here.

Jeremy in Japan

Jeremy almost didn’t come to Japan!

I don’t know how to write this post so let me start from the very beginning.

I was born 27 years ago.. okay no, this is too far back. I graduated from campus 4 years ago and in those 4 years I lived in Rwanda for 3 months, I did my master’s degree, I worked at EY Kenya for 2 years, I bought my first car, I gave birth to my first baby (Jeremy) and I got a scholarship to do my PhD in Japan. That about summarizes all the posts in this blog between 2011-2015. While this paragraph could be mistaken for vanity, sometimes I write to “encourage myself” to hang in there, there is much more to be done.

When I got the scholarship last year, I had two major decisions to make. Quitting my job (it was a private company with no extended study leave unlike the government jobs) and leaving behind my young son who was then one a half years old. The former decision wasn’t so hard, while the work was good and promising, I wanted to travel and could always find another job when I got back. Leaving my son was hard, but I knew he would be well taken care of by my parents. His father and I are not together so he – the father – wasn’t a factor in the decision. Had I been married, perhaps the decision to leave would have been harder.

When I made the decision to come to Japan, I decided I would settle down then bring Jeremy to stay with me. I know many people who leave their kids to be brought up by their parents but I wasn’t going to take the easier road. Seeing Jeremy clinging to my mum at the airport, a bored expression on his face because he wanted to sleep, was a sad sight because poor J didn’t know he wouldn’t see his mum again for a year. The moment I landed in Japan, I put a countdown timer on the blog, it wound down to 0 on October 1st 2015, the day of the flight.

To prepare for J’s coming, I made all the visa formalities while in Japan. Because he’s my dependant getting his visa wasn’t so hard. I applied to move from the university dorm’s single rooms to the family room, I applied to the daycare center/kindergarten where J would spend his day etc.. and then I booked two return tickets from Japan to Kenya. Why return tickets? Well, the return tickets were cheaper so I thought I was being clever by booking two return tickets for Jeremy and I, to and from Japan. He wouldn’t fly with me from Japan but after my September summer vacation in Kenya, we would fly back together.

Return ticket

Return ticket

Buying a return ticket (originating in Japan) for J was a big mistake!

It turns out you can’t fly only the “return” journey on a “return ticket”; you can get away with just flying the “to” journey but not the “from” only. Which is not in the terms and conditions; I read them. And what’s this about return tickets being cheaper than one-way tickets?!

Anyway I didn’t know about this until 30th September, the day before the return journey from Nairobi to Japan. I got an email about my return journey itinerary but it only showed my name and not J’s. It was around 9pm, and I started to panic. I made a call to the Qatar offices in Nairobi and got a recorded message that their offices are open from 8:30 am to 5pm. The flight was the following day at 5pm. I hardly slept that night waiting for 8am when I would make the call.

It’s 6am on the day of the flight. I have already gone over the worst case scenario, where I would have to buy a new ticket and if there wasn’t a seat available on the same flight I would have to delay my journey until we could travel together. At 8am sharp, I called the Qatar line and got the recorded message again. I realized I was 30 minutes early and waited to call again at 8:30, only to yet again get the recording and this time it added that they were closed for the day! After consulting with my mum, I decided to try the ticket/checkin desk at the airport and so after a quick breakfast, I was at the airport at 10am, trying to find a way.

The desks were open and luckily the first guy I approached turned to be a supervisor or something, and he told me..
“oh those return tickets? No, you can’t fly out of sequence on a return ticket. Just forget about it.” Well, he didn’t put it that abruptly but that was the summary. He checked the details again and told me yes, there was space available and a one-way ticket for a minor to Japan would cost about 800 USD, or 88,000KES or 97,000Yen. I gave him my Japanese credit card to swipe. “Card cannot be not read” error. I tried to purchase the ticket online because then I could use the card, but you can’t do online booking for a minor alone, and most flights closed their online booking 3 days in advance. I even made calls to the online booking sites and they confirmed that they too, cannot book for a minor alone.

It was now past 11, and I called home and told them to give J a bath and to dress him, I was “almost sorting out the issue”. I refused to give in to the urge to sit down and cry.

The state of my finances is not great, being a student generally means no savings and sometimes lots of debt (e.g. in form of credit cards). My Kenyan credit card limit wasn’t enough to swipe, but I could withdraw a maximum of 25K. I now had a 75K deficit. It was then approaching 11:30am. 6 hours to take off.

Thank God for M-Pesa, and friends. I called my friends and within 30 minutes I had raised the deficit. By this time I had walked around the airport at least 3 times, making phone calls, withdrawing cash from MPesa agents and from ATMS, and had been in and out of the check-in terminal so many times that the security guys just nodded to me asking me, “bado?”

With the cash in hand, I went to the guy who told me to go wait for them in their offices behind the counters as they were readying to send off a plane. I went round the counters to the office and met this lady at the door; she was like, “yes?”

“I need to buy a ticket.” said I, wallet bulging with cash.

She narrowed her eyes, pursed her lips and said in the most patronizing tone ever, “We don’t sell tickets here.”

“What? But.. but.. where do you sell them?” I wasn’t even in a mood to negotiate, I just wanted a solution.

“Our town office.” She had this expression on her face that just begged to be smacked. I did not give in to the urge. Just then, the guy I had been dealing with appeared and said, “she’s with me.” That settled it, I was left to wait while they went to “wave goodbye to the plane.”

At around 1pm, he finally came back, he typed details here and there as I waited with bated breath. “Tuko na time, don’t worry”. As I handed over the cash, turns out it was 10K short. I had the rest in Mpesa but I had withdrawn less 10K. He told me don’t worry, just bring the cash during check in, which opens at 2:30pm. He handed me the freshly printed ticket and I rushed to the car and drove home just within speed limits. It was then almost 1:30pm and the last thing I needed was to be stopped by a [hungry] cop for over speeding. Luckily, we live about 20 minutes’ drive from the airport. A quick lunch, shower and change of clothes, last minute prayer from mum’s friend and I was finally driving back to the airport. We arrived at 3:30, checked in, said bye to family, sambazad all remaining bundles/airtime and finally boarded the plane.

Jeremy slept immediately we took off from Nairobi. He slept peacefully most of the trip from Nairobi to Doha. From Doha to Osaka was a totally different story, but what does it matter anyway? Jeremy is in Japan.

P.S. There is a possibility that I can ask the Qatar guys in Japan to let J reuse the now hanging ticket, perhaps by adding some fee. I just haven’t the energy to face any airline or their agent at the moment.

Book Review: Matilda by Roald Dahl

It took a child’s book to make me laugh out loud while reading, the last book that evoked a similar response was Maya Angelou’s I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings. (The scene in church still makes me laugh every time I picture it!).

I never watched Matilda the movie as a child, it is just one of those things that passed me by. But it was definitely worth the wait reading this book as an adult.

Matilda by Roald Dahl

Matilda by Roald Dahl

The book is funny from the first page. It starts by describing those parents who think that their children are just geniuses and pay too much attention to them. However, Matilda’s parents do not seem to realize she exists. From a young age, she learns to take care of herself, and by age three teaches herself to read. When she finishes reading everything in the house, which is not much, she walks to the library and starts tackling the books there. Whenever her parents ever pay attention to her, it is only to unfairly scold her so she hatches her own clever plans to get back at them. Her father’s is a crooked car salesman and her mother is addicted to gambling. Her elder brother goes to school so Matilda is left alone at home on most days, until one day the parents realize she is about 6 and a half years old and should have been going to school already.

At school, the headmistress is a mean old hag but Matilda forms friendships with some of the girls in her class and finds comfort in her wonderful teacher, Miss Honey. With the cast of characters fully introduced, Roald Dahl then weaves a wonderful story of Matilda’s adventures that is full of suspense and humour. If you haven’t read it, please do yourself a favour and read it, whatever age you are. And then gift the book to the children in your life, your sons/daughters, nephews/nieces, friend’s children, grandchildren etc.. It is suitable from anyone 8-15 I guess, but anyone can read it.

I must add that the illustrations by Quentin Blake are simply wonderful, clever, just so appropriate and add to the humour and flow of the story.

I also looked up the movie and watched it, it was good, but of course the book is much better. There are just some things written in the book that could not be expressed in the movie, so you may still want to read the book even if you have watched the movie.

Book Review: Without Mercy by Lisa Jackson

Without Mercy by Lisa Jackson

Without Mercy by Lisa Jackson

I am one of those people who does whatever it takes to finish a book one has started. That is not to say I struggled with this book, I didn’t. The author clearly is a master at writing a flowing story line, even if the plot had a few gaping holes and the entire ensemble and its premise were as interesting as watching grass grow.

It starts well. Jules Farentino’s half sister, Shay, is a troubled teenager. When she commits some crime or other with her boyfriend, she ends up getting arrested and presented with the option of detention or a (correctional) boarding school that is fancy and up in the mountains. However, something is up with Blue Rock Academy and Jules has a bad feeling about it. A student disappeared and has not been found, 6 months later. So Jules applies to be a teacher in the school so she can watch out for Shay.

At the school, Jules starts to discover there is something weird going on in the school. Religious fanaticism? There is an allusion to a sex-crazed religious man prowling the campus in the shadows of the night. Could he be one of the teachers? Jules also gets surprised to meet her ex at the same school, he too is working undercover to try and find the lost girl. Jules reminds me of Sarah, a similarly lackluster main character in the book Broken by Karin Slaughter.

And then a snow storm arrives in the mountains, shutting out the school from outside communication for a while. This is when all the characters come out to play in a final showdown, with a surprising twist in the end that is as believable as the plot about religious fanatics. There are just too many things that don’t make sense, even if the book is an easy read so you end up flipping pages and can finish reading it quickly.

Only later when I finally looked up online did I find that the author has done over 50 novels, and is quite famous. How she ended up on New York’s Best Seller List is a reason you won’t find in this book. She is like Danielle Steele writing one of the weaker plotted novels but tries to squeeze every ounce of emotion out of each scene in the character’s lives (crying because the toast did or didn’t burn, for example) in order to fill the pages, send it to the publishers and it will sell anyway because of the name. Stephen King could publish his groceries list and it would still sell, but I like Stephen King because he puts effort into all his books, none has been a disappointment so far.

If you want to kill yourself with boredom, go for this book. Yawn. It was my companion during my local train ride that has me staring at rice fields and small town houses. This is when I wasn’t keeping my face down trying not to catch the gaze of the old Japanese people stealing glances at the strange black girl with purple hair wondering what I was doing in their sleepy little corner of Japan. The train ride is only 30 minutes long but it makes 15 stops. It feels like you’ve been riding it for 12 hours when you finally get out.

But not to worry guys, the next two books I am going to review will show once again that reading is an immensely enjoyable hobby. They are Matilda by Roald Dahl and The Secret History of Las Vegas by Chris Abani.

How is Japan?

I have been asked this question about 100 times; and the brief answer is Japan is good. But that is a lie, Japan is not good. Japan is excellent. Japan is great. Japan is amazing. It is very different from home (Kenya), but it is also not home. I am about to contradict myself and say, it is home for now. So how different is it from Kenya?

This post is likely to be long.. so sit back and relax. (If you want you can skip to the title “Japanese people are kind” for personal experiences and observation, otherwise start straight below)

Japan is very clean. Walking through an average estate in Nairobi, you will note garbage dumped in vacant plots, plastic bags swaying in the wind and finally settling in the drainage by the roadside, and dust blowing into your face from the unpaved pedestrian pavement (where it exists) or from the unpaved road. Well, Nairobi CBD (downtown) is clean, especially West of Moi Avenue, the streets are cooler, it is quieter etc. But there is a waste management problem in the inner estates, and in the country as a whole. In Japan, garbage is sorted down to the last category, and there are different collection days for different types of garbage. In Kenya we include our plastic, used diapers, glass, metal and everything else into one garbage bag that is then picked up once a week. Street children then spend their time sorting out this mound of garbage for recyclables that they can resell. Not unlike India.

Waste pickers in India. Photo [courtsey]

Waste pickers in India. Photo [courtesy]

From the remotest of villages to the largest of the cities, the roads are paved, the streets are clean and garbage is presorted. “The dirtiest” city I have seen so far is Osaka, my friend and I were surprised at some litter under bridges, so by Japanese standards it is dirty. But don’t say it is a third world problem, just look at Rwanda! I stayed there for 3 months and I dare say Rwanda is as clean as Japan; no Japan is as clean as Rwanda! Rwanda has banned plastic bags and so far that works for them. In addition one Saturday a month, everyone gathers for communal clean-up.

Japan has even managed to turn garbage into artificial islands on which Skyscrapers have been erected. Like Port Island in Kobe City, see image below.

Port Island in Kobe City. Image, courtsey

Port Island in Kobe City. Image, courtesy

Japan is very safe

There is virtually no street crime. When you live in a small city (or in a rural area like me), you don’t have to lock your house. Even in the large cities, it is not a problem if you forget to lock your house in the morning. You can forget your phone and wallet  somewhere and find it there the next time, or someone will call you and get them to you. As a woman, you can walk along the streets at night, alone, without fear of robbery or rape. You can use your smartphone in a crowded street without fear of it being snatched, you don’t have to worry about your bag in the streets or in public transport, your wallet is very unlikely to be pickpocketed (I resist the urge to tell Japanese people to tuck in their wallets more safely into their pockets, the men’s wallets are always popping out of their back pockets!), when you drive home late in the evening, you don’t have to worry about carjackers, when you have bought a 60-inch screen you don’t have to worry if someone saw you with it and they are planning a gunned robbery.. and so on and so forth.

In contrast, just the other day as my dad arrived home late one evening, there were armed robbers who ambushed him, took his laptop and phone; and as my mum had opened the door to let him in when she heard the car, they forced their way into the house and demanded money at gun-point. I was so furious yet helpless, thousands of miles away and even if I were home, I am not sure what I would have done. When I left work for home in the evening, I would walk from Upperhill to Ambassador, Moi Avenue, to catch a bus home. I wouldn’t dare freely use my Samsung Note 3  while walking in the streets as I have had my phone snatched before. At the bus stop, there would be a large crowd of people gathered and not all of them are passengers-to-be, some are opportunistic thieves waiting for a chance to pickpocket you. You have to be always on the lookout.

As such, whenever a Japanese person says “abunai desu ka” or “abunai desu ne”.. “is it dangerous” “it must be dangerous”, I just say “soo desu ne” “yes it is”. What other defense is there? I do not have sufficient Japanese vocabulary to explain that when you are born Kenyan, you grow up under these circumstances so this is “normal” to you; the need to be always alert. A violent robbery (thank God no lives were lost), a snatched phone (you will get another one soon), a lost wallet (IDs are replaceable don’t worry), you forget something somewhere and that’s the end of that. I was talking to a Japanese student and told him he was welcome to visit Kenya and he visibly shuddered. abunai he uttered. I tried to explain to him that the whole country is not like that, there are safe places and there are un-safe places. But really, even when you live in a gated community with electric fencing and a trained guard with dogs, there is always the fear of carjacking etc. Kenya is not thaat dangerous, especially if it is home. And anyway, death could find you wherever you are (natural disasters anyone?), so really do take some risks (you risk death just by being alive)and come see Kenya for yourself, it is a lovely place to visit. If you are a foreigner reading this, you are missing an experience of a lifetime, I speak from experience.

Americans think the world revolves around them :)

Americans think the world revolves around them :)

Japan’s Home to the The Bullet Trains

Japan’s public transportation system has got to be among the best in the world. Sure, rush hour in Tokyo’s metro can feel suffocating (so I hear) but trains are an efficient way to move human traffic in cities. Sure beats Nairobi’s rush hour (and all day) traffic as well. When I went to Tokyo, the subway was amazing, going up to 7 levels below the ground, a different line on each level. Anyway, for comparison I have posted this before, but check it out again:

Nairobi:

The Nairobi Commuter Train Route.

The Nairobi Commuter Train Route. Image from www.jambonairobi.co.ke

Tokyo: and this is not even the complete map.

The Tokyo Train Map.

The Tokyo Train Map. Image from http://www.wa-pedia.com/

Of course we can’t compare Tokyo’s 13.35 Million population against Nairobi’s 3.123 Million, but bypasses, abolishing roundabouts, smart traffic lights etc will not solve our perennial traffic congestion problem. We need trains, subways, monorails.

A suspended mono-rail, how cool is this?

A suspended mono-rail, how cool is this? Image from wikipedia

Japan is very mountainous

Kenya has a vast savanna grassland, think of the entire stretch of Tsavo as you drive from Nairobi to Mombasa. And for the life of me, I cannot think of a single tunnel passing through a mountain, can you? Travelling by bus from Tokyo to Kanazawa, or from Kanazawa to Osaka, you realize just how mountainous this country is when you go through tunnel after tunnel after tunnel after tunnel! Japan holds the record for the longest railway tunnel in the world that is 53,850 m (over 53 Kms!) long. Perhaps this mountainous terrain contributed to Japan’s advancement in engineering, conquering the mountains could not have been easy!

Well, this is a very short tunnel but you get the point!

Short tunnel

Short tunnel

Japan is a beautiful country, it’s breathtaking sometimes. With four distinct seasons (a beautiful spring, hot summer -though not as hot as India! – an auburn autumn and a white winter). I could describe it all it you but it will take the fun out for the imaginative as well as for the wanna-be explorers.

Japan is very proud of its culture and gardens! It has a rich history whose remains in form of old temples, castles, and shrines still stand today.

Japanese people are kind.

Case scenario: my friend told me he spent some time in India. If you are a black person in India, you are treated like you are in the lowest caste, a system of discrimination that still stands to date. I guess India has so many other problems that they don’t want to deal with this at the moment but as anyone (black) who has been to India will tell you, rude stares, snide remarks, and standing up when you sit next to them in public transport are the order of the day. Worse is, my friend even got the discriminating treatment from staff in the hotel he was staying in. Worst, is the news of a violent attack on 3 black African students in India.

In contrast, he told me a story of how he got stranded at Kanazawa Station, being new in Japan and not knowing the bus/train schedules. When he arrived the last bus was long gone. A Japanese couple noticed him and offered him a ride to Nomi Station, from where we take the train to JAIST (university). The last train was gone too, and even as he got off and looked around, the couple came back and asked him where he was going. He didn’t understand Japanese so he just showed them his school ID and they went  30 Kms out of their way to drop him off in JAIST way after 11pm. He has never seen the couple since then.  I have heard various stories from foreigners in Japan who tell of the acts of kindness they have received from Japanese people.

Kanazawa Station. Image, courtesy.

Kanazawa Station. Image, courtesy.

No, I am not saying that Japanese people are perfect, or that Japan is perfect, but you are likely to receive help from kind strangers in Japan than in any other country I have ever heard of or experienced. In other words I think that the concentration of kind people is higher in Japan. Perhaps because they are brought up in a culture that emphasizes the importance of courtesy and respect.

Obama showing respect the Japanese way

Obama showing respect the Japanese way

Will you experience discrimination, disguised under politeness so excessive you can’t even tell if it is discrimination or an actual lack of understanding? Maybe. But is there a perfect country? In any case, I have experienced discriminatory service at Java Upperhill where white people who came later than us were served immediately while we waited for an interminable length of time. Imagine that, in my own country. Makes my blood boil. Fucking black racists. As if our money has a black mark that lowers its value or as if our credit cards aren’t platinum enough. takes deep breath, releases deep breath. Let’s move on.

Excellent service

At first it can be shocking to enter a restaurant and hear a chorus of irashaimase! (Welcome). You will also be addressed a with honorific title, okyaku-sama (honoured customer).  When you exit the shop/restaurant, it is likely that all the staff will signal to one other and you could hear another chorus of arigatou gozaimasu. The customer is king and Japanese people lead by example in demonstrating this. Excellent service is available everywhere, even at the cheapest of places. In contrast, good service in Kenya is mostly available in star-rated restaurants. Imagine walking into a shop like Mr. Price and expecting all staff to welcome you, it is more likely that you will get a look that says, oh God here comes another one. And in Japan you don’t tip. Your change comes back to you to the last yen. (The tipping culture in the US began when there was a law passed that allowed tips to make up the difference between actual pay and minimum wage). As such, tipping is agonizing for Japanese people whenever they travel to the US.

Tipping rules in the US. SO complicated! How will the Japanese read all this English? And who wants to do math? In Japan you just pay what's on your bill and you are still assured of excellent service.

Tipping rules in the US. SO complicated! How will the Japanese read all this English? And who wants to do math? In Japan you just pay what’s on your bill and you are still assured of excellent service.

You could say Japanese people are punctual, they keep time to the last possible second. You have to leave your “African timing” mindset the moment you set foot on the plane. Even for social functions you can’t be late, you call to apologize if you are going to be 5 minutes late, not like in Kenya where friends will call you 30 minutes later to tell you they are stuck in traffic.

Japanese people don’t take risks. 

Herein lies their Archilles’ heel, if you ask me. For example if I go into a phone shop to ask for a SIM card, and this is the first time a foreigner is walking in to buy a SIM card, the attendant will ask their supervisor what to do. If the supervisor has no experience with foreigners, he will refer to the manual, they have a manual for every little procedure you can think of! If there is nothing in the manual, he may call his boss who will then check his manual, if this boss finds nothing he will call his boss.. and so on and so forth. Sometimes I joke that in the end they call the prime minister just to avoid risks by making any new decisions. Or ANY decisions. Japanese workers DO NOT make any decisions, they just do what they are told or what the manual says they should do. Decision making is only left to those whose role explicitly states “decision maker” but I bet even they too have a manual. So it’s like they don’t think for themselves, a robot nation  that worked well for when Japan was rising and rising and it needed workers for its massive corporations. But the tide is slowly turning and an innovative and changing society is how nations can cope with the current economic situation.

Japanese people don’t know how to loosen up, to let go, to have fun. Oh sure, they have izakayas (bars that are like boring locals) but it is not fun to just sit and drink, you need to get up and dance Japanese people. And I don’t mean the graceful sashaying of geishas that can put the most restless child to sleep; no, like shake your bodies mugiithi-style, or Jacob-Zuma style. Shake that booty, shake that belly, shake those shoulders, shake it, shake it. Shake your problems away. You can find nightclubs in the big cities but they clubs are fewer, perhaps located in “shaky/scary” neighbourhoods, so dance clubs are not a big a culture. By contrast in Kenya, there is dancing every pub/club, even some locals. When the alcohol in your blood reaches certain levels, your body catches the tune of the music and you move your body to the real or imagined tune. You don’t even have to be drunk to dance, look at our weddings, and funerals, and other celebrations, even Sunday mass/church services – I guess the holy spirit is at work here?

Jacob Zuma shows how it is done during the ceremony of his nth wife

Jacob Zuma shows how it is done during the wedding ceremony of his nth wife. I am sure I will never see a public figure dancing, in public, in Japan.

No one knows how to have fun like Africans do. Perhaps South Americans come close.. but in spite of our problems and our bottom-of-the-economic-pile status, we don’t let that get to us. In contrast Japanese people may not want to talk about their problems, don’t have a way to let loose or perhaps “pray to God” which is what we do a lot, “we leave that to God”. They will walk with the weight of their problems into Mount Fuji’s suicide forest, never to be seen alive again.

If a Japanese person loses honour, it is a big shame not only to you but to your family as well. Some Japanese politicians have in the past committed suicide after being named in corruption scandals. A worthy politician in Kenya has several scandals under his “experience” belt. Kenyan (African) politicians simply have no capacity for embarrassment or shame. In my mother tongue I would say, mbabwati egesokero.

Japanese People are conservative. They don’t question authority. I have never seen a march/protest of any kind, perhaps there is nothing to protest about? I have never heard of a union of workers. Most of the Japanese people I know in formal employment work long hours. In spite of its technological advancement, I think that socially/culturally there is no room for even a little personal freedom.

There are no babies out of wedlock. Such a thing is unheard of. If a girl gets pregnant before marriage, she has to have an abortion (or get married), abortion is legal for many reasons including economic ones. See, a society that is liberal enough to allow for abortion should also be liberal enough to accept babies born to unwed parents, no? Single parenthood is virtually unheard of.

Which brings me to the family situation. An interesting fact is usually, the man’s salary will go into the wife’s account; normally a woman will stop working once she gets married to take care of the family. Therefore it is the woman who manages the money for bills, school fees, rent, and the husband’s expenditure, she determines who gets how much. They say this is the reason that Japan’s literacy rate is close to 100%, women are better fund managers and no mother is going to waste money on drinking with the mboys (Kenyans you feel me?) while school fees has not been paid.

There are no house helps/servants/domestic workers/maids/housekeepers, whatever you may call them; I have never seen a Japanese family worker. Even if you wanted to hire one, it would be too costly, you would rather stay home and pay yourself that money to take care of our own children. There are daycare centers for women who want to work, of course. But I get the feeling that this society expects you to quit your job and raise the kids (after all, if your husband is in formal employment i.e. salary man), he should make enough for the family. US families can afford cheap housekeepers from Latin America (that is what US dramas show) because US is somewhat immigration friendly. Now don’t look at me like that, see US has an immigration policy in the first place. I am not sure that Japan has such a policy that states how it can fill gaps in its employment with foreigners. And the gaps are there, what with the world’s oldest population and general population decrease.

Japan has no immigration policy

I think Japanese people adopt a “tolerant” attitudes towards foreigners, like “aww look at that baby” attitude “when will he grow up”. I get the feeling that they don’t expect you to stay long in Japan, to become “one of them”. You can be born in Japan, grow up here, receive your education in Japanese, adopt Japanese manners, be Japanese in everything except looks, but you will never be accepted as fully Japanese. In contrast, someone born in say, the US, can easily blend in and identify themselves as American. Or British. Or French. Just to show an example. Sure no one is going to force you out! You can stay as long as you like! But there is no plan to open up Japan to immigration, so really there is “no space” for you. Here is an article to illustrate my point: Japan’s ‘no immigration principle’ looking as solid as ever. In short, you are welcome to Japan, but please you can’t stay forever. You can never become Japanese. Oh you can get citizenship and permanent residency but never the intangible “I am Japanese” feeling, how can you, when no Japanese would ever identify you as one of them..

This should not be mistaken for discrimination or unfriendliness; no as above stated Japanese people are generally kind and friendly and tolerant to foreigners (who are coming for a short stay). I am Kenyan in culture, race etc so no, I do not want to become Japanese. However, I worry about my son. He is just 2 years old and I will soon be bringing him to Japan. We will stay here for at least 3 years for the duration of my PhD. If I do stay longer, what kind of life will he have in a “no immigration” “homogeneous” “Japanese is one-race” place? If he were to grow up here, he will speak Japanese as his main language, have Japanese friends, absorb Japanese mannerisms and culture; but he will never be Japanese. Anyway what I am saying is, I am a citizen of the world and I will stay where there is a good opportunity to make a change etc, but my main consideration is bringing up a happy and successful child.

What Else?

Over 3,000 words! Pat yourself on the back for reaching here. There could be more but I will write that as time goes by, for instance the bureaucracy, the multiple form-filling for any simple service, ATMs that don’t operate 24-hours, the complicated process of renting a private apartment, the manga culture,  etc. I suppose this makes Japan as safe as it is now so there are trade-offs.

Apologies if I sounded whiny or critical of this wonderful nation and its distinctive people, I do love it here! Opinions here are my own and I could be wrong. I have only been here for about 9 months so I am no expert.

Next time someone asks me “How is Japan” I will just send them a link to this blog post. I doubt they will ever repeat that question to me, ever!

Thanks for reading.

Hellooo.. 27! Taking Stock

It is my 27th Birthday, if Facebook, Skype or some other app has not informed you already. I like the sound of 27, it is far enough from 30 for me to causally say I am in my 20s (I will still say this when I am 29.x years!). Although I worry about becoming old (70 and beyond really scares me), I realize I am still far away from that and I need to live in the moment. I am going to do one of those “taking stock posts” so bear with me!

27 years old

This is the dilemma I am dealing with!

Making: Research plans for the next 3 years, a PhD doesn’t come easy. In spite of how impressive that might sound, it is more like I am in a long, dark tunnel of research papers and there is still no end to the said tunnel, no light in the distance. It has been 3 weeks at JAIST, I love it here.

I am also making plans to bring J over by the time the October (autumn) semester starts. So far, the nearby pre-school has accepted the application :)

Cooking: random recipes I google from the internet. They require some spices and ingredients I am never sure where to buy from especially when everything is in Japanese. Sometimes it turns out great, sometimes it is hardly edible. I live to learn.
Drinking: Kenyan masala tea. Ahhh..
Reading: Research papers. Random articles on various topics saved on the Pocket app. A new novel I got from a friend.
Wanting: September to come quickly, I am ready to book my ticket home for a holiday and to come back with J! Also, the Samsung S6 could come in handy. A birthday present, anyone?
Looking: at the mountains behind my apartment every morning as the sun comes up, I live up in the mountains in the university student housing. The university itself is up in the mountains. In the evening, I see Kanazawa City twinkling below me from the front veranda. There couldn’t be  a more ideal location. Just type JAIST into Google maps and use street view to see a piece of my world :)
Playing: nothing. No physical, no computer games. I have become a boring person.
Wasting: time watching series online instead of carrying out a series of “projects” I had set out for myself this year.
Wishing: for the time-space continuum to be conquered so I can teleport instantly to my family in Nairobi.
Enjoying: driving around in a friend’s Mercedes Benz (friends let their friends drive their expensive cars)
Waiting: for this Saturday to arrive so I can go see the snow wall in Tateyama with my friends.

Snow Wall at Tateyama

Snow Wall at Tateyama

Liking: that the weather is getting warmer and warmer. On some days, the temperature rises up to 23deg and I can pretend I am in Nairobi. Nairobi just has the perfect weather.
Wondering: if life would be much simpler if the people we liked also liked us back with the exact same intensity, of course the reverse is also true
Loving: that I am getting used to life in Japan so much, and loving it here. Especially the JAIST environment, a high tech research center in the middle of nowhere. Like it could be in a sci-fi movie. Of course the disadvantage is that there is nothing around, transport is not so convenient and the only convenience store closes at 9 or is it 10pm!

JAIST in the mountains

JAIST in the mountains

Hoping: to get a car very soon, I am starting to feel as if I am taking advantage of my friends! A girl needs her own wheels especially if I will be bringing J here.

Marveling: at my son who is now speaking, and singing. His second birthday was just under a month ago.

Needing: a car very soon, oh I already said that. Okay, needing the Golden Week (a week long series of holidays here in Japan) to quickly arrive so I can take off to see Kobe with friends.
Smelling: Fresh mountain air, every morning, and practically every day I am outdoors at JAIST.
Wearing: shorts with more confidence :)

Spring in Kenrokuen Garden

Spring in Kenrokuen Garden

Following: my self-imposed schedule has proved impossible. I have 2 hours scheduled for exercise each day and I haven’t done any in the last two weeks.
Noticing: just how everything has become green .. Spring is truly a time of rejuvenation.
Knowing: and accepting my limits
Thinking: about my family and wishing my little brother all the best as he embarks on the road to becoming a certified doctor. He just started his internship year.
Feeling: happy. Sleeping well lately. In spite of the lack of exercise.
Bookmarking: How to dye your hair wiki page. I learned that to get the best results for vibrant colours, you first need to bleach black hair. That is why I am currently sporting a bleached blonde look. Purple coming soon. Wait, I could be going through some late quarter-life crisis or something. But as long as I am a career student, I still have some freedom to express myself :)
Opening: 10 to 15 tabs on my browser and watching as my laptop gets the blue screen of death after Chrome has “eaten” all the 4GB RAM.

Google Chrom Vs RAM

Google Chrom Vs RAM

Giggling: whenever I watch/read Cyanide and Happiness comics. I don’t get always get the dark humour but when I do.. some are downright hilarious.
Feeling: grateful to be alive, in a world full of suffering notwithstanding. Happy birthday to me!

 

Four Women, Four Books: The Book Review Post

It has been four books since I wrote the last book review on this blog. Coincidentally the four books I read were all by women: I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou, Jazz by Toni Morrison, An Autobiography of My Mother by Jamaica Kincaid and The Diving Pool by Yoko Ogawa. By combining all four reviews into one, I am admitting my laziness; but by writing the reviews at all I hope I am doing justice to fellow book readers searching for their next read. It is quite random how I pick what I read, why do you read the books you do?

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

When Maya Angelou died, everyone was re-posting her famous quotes on every social network site you have ever heard of, yet if you had asked anyone to name any one of her books you would have been met with a blank stare or a blinking cursor on a pure white background, as it were. I quickly added “read Maya Angelou” to my hastily put together 30 Things to do Before 30 List. In December last year, I was in Tokyo at a bookshop in near Shinjuku Station that probably has the largest collection of English books in Japan. I browsed through many titles in many genres before I found Maya Angelou’s books and picked up this particular one because another friend was also reading it at the same time and I couldn’t borrow his book then.

Maya Angelou's I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings

Maya Angelou’s I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings

The book is Maya’s childhood biography, I have since learned that she has 6 other biographies! She was brought up by her deeply religious grandmother in the South, and through it you get a glimpse of what life was for many black people in America then. Circumstances radically change in her lifetime duration; consider for instance her reading a poem on the inauguration of the first ever black American president. There is not much I can tell you about her life that you don’t already know; the suffering, the overcoming, her writing and activism career. But to read her story in her own words is to be offered a glimpse into her mind, to be let into her heart. I love it when famous people are also writers and therefore write their own stories in their own words and style. Her storytelling is captivating, her imagery brilliantly clear. She may be more famous for her poetry, but her writing is worth searching for the remaining 6 biographies to add some volumes to my fairly empty bookshelf. This book covers the ages of 3 to 16, when she becomes a teenage mother. What happens after that? I want to know too. But if you ask my why the caged bird sings, I have to reread this book again.

Jazz by Toni Morrison

Jazz is a portrait of New York in 1926. Jazz is the story of one woman who falls through the cracks of time and space, stubborn, determined Violet. Her husband Joe Trace had an affair with a young woman; Joe later kills her because he is jealous  and at her funeral Violet tries to disfigure the corpse’s face. But the story is so much more than the small but significant funeral incident, the background story of all the characters is provided to show how they eventually all end up in New York. The music to their story is naturally, jazz. Harlem in 1926 embodied freedom for workers coming from the South. The book is not an easy read, I must warn you but it is worth it. Long after I finished reading this book, I still remember Violet and Joe Trace, Dorcas who stood with toes pointed inwards and a not-so-smooth face, Golden Gray a boy with golden curls who believed he was white but grows up to the realization of his black father. It is a book about race, history, life in Harlem in the 1920s, and the undertones of jazz, which I get sometimes.

Toni Morrison's Jazz

Toni Morrison’s Jazz

I got this book from a classmate in my former Japanese class; she said it is her favorite Toni Morrison book. I exchanged with her the Maya Angelou Book for this one and it was a worthy read, thank you Chrissi!

An Autobiography of My Mother by Jamaica Kincaid

This book is also borrowed from a friend! My bookshelf now has about 5 novels, 3 of which are borrowed! I seem to have read Jamaica Kincaid before, but I can’t remember if I read a short story or a novel (whose title I cannot recall).

An autobiography of My Mother by Jamaica Kincaid

An autobiography of My Mother by Jamaica Kincaid

There is a melancholic tone underlying this book, a longing for a mother who died on the day the author of the book was born. Xuela is a deeply troubled young woman, and as one of the reviewers on google books said, “this book is emotionally exhausting”. I don’t think she ever experiences any happiness in her entire book, but it offers a rich insight into life in the Dominican Island. Kincaid has a beautiful style of writing, it is poetry weaved into prose and yet simple and flowing. You can easily read the book in a day or two. Xuela spends her life self-sabotaging potential happy moments, her life is high sensual and she emerges herself in it, she feels little but she hurts deeply, she is a solitary character who never lets anyone know what she is thinking. Her character is haunting.

The Diving Pool by Yoko Ogawa

What can I say about this book? I got it from a local bookshop and Yoko is the first Japanese author I am reading. At first I thought it was a novel with the three stories introduced on the back cover (The Diving Pool, Pregnancy Diary and The Dormitory) intersecting at some point, but it turned out to be 3 short stories sold together as one book.

The Diving Pool by Yoko Ogawa

The Diving Pool by Yoko Ogawa

In the Diving Pool, a lonely teenager is secretly in love with her adopted brother, who is a diver. She is growing up in an orphanage that her parents run, but she feels ignored by her parents because she is treated just like the rest of the kids. In the Pregnancy Diary, a young woman living with her sister keeps a diary of her sister’s pregnancy. She may appear loving on the outside but her true nature is revealed in her diary, just like the underlying cruel streak of the teenager in the first story is revealed in her interactions with the younger orphans. In the Dormitory story, a woman helps her younger cousin settle into her former dormitory, but the place is haunted by a disappearance of a student who lived there, a crippled caretaker and an unexplained decay.

The stories don’t dwell in the “normal” world, they push at the boundary of realism and yet they are not unbelievable. My favorite was The Dormitory, it is beautifully written (or should I say beautifully translated), the story never quite ends but just like in real life there are many unsolved mysteries. The Pregnancy Diary is also a good read, but the Diving Pool is downright weird, perhaps it is a better read in the original language. I hope I can master enough Japanese to read the book in the next 3 years.

Well, there you have it. Four diverse reads from four different women.

Getting a Japanese Driving License

My friend Umer, who is Pakistani, was pessimistic.

“Why don’t you just wait until I get a car and then you can practice at night when there is no one on the roads? You are going to fail. Everybody fails, let me tell you. You cannot pass the driving test. The rules are so hard, I met some girls who had failed so many times at the driving test center. Inshallah God willing I will get  car next week and you can start practicing.  ”

Well I would still be waiting because Umer still hasn’t got the car! But he was quite supportive, if pessimistic. He already passed his test exam and got his Japanese driving license (for foreigners) – the 国際運転免許証。This coveted card will allow you to drive a car in Japan, your foreign license doesn’t count (at least the Kenyan one doesn’t).

Before you can get the driving license, there are a few prerequisites. Like having at least 3 months driving experience with your foreign license. And once you bring all the required documents, you can get to exchange your driving license for a Japanese one without doing any test if you are citizen of Austria, Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Luxemburg, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal,the Republic of Slovenia, the Principality of Monaco South Korea, Switzerland, Sweden, Spain, Taiwan and United Kingdom. As a citizen of the esteemed republic of Kenya, I had to undergo a 10-15 minutes driving test to qualify for the Japanese driving license.

Being in Ishikawa Prefecture, I researched and read up on all the requirements for converting my license to a Japanese one. There was a lot of useful information online, including a step by step guide. I read it diligently, I gathered all the required documents and went for my first appointment.

The first time I went to the Unten Menkyo Center,  I went with a Japanese friend to the second floor were they handle foreigners driving license matters. I presented my documents: passport, residence certificate, translation of driving license, actual driving license… The guy at the counter couldn’t believe we were still using passport-sized licenses with glued-on photographs. I did a separate post on it here. If @Ukenyatta is reading this, please tell him we need digital DLs. Update: I have heard the new DLs are indeed, digital-sized but I guess I was a few months too early to get mine?

The Kenyan Driving License vs a "normal DL"

The Kenyan Driving License vs a “normal DL”

When he was through turning the DL over and over, he then looked at the translation. According to my Kenyan DL, I am allowed to drive class B, C and E. Yes, I am allowed to drive a manual lorry, your average Mitsubishi Canter. Yes, I did my driving test on an an actual lorry whose controls (clutch, brakes, accelerator) I could hardly reach while still seeing out of the dashboard because the seat couldn’t be adjusted; it was an old lorry. How I passed is er.. a miracle but suffice to say my test involved starting, driving for about 2 minutes along a straight stretch, and stopping.

The Japanese guy at the counter was surprised I could drive a lorry haha, but I have not driven one before and since the test. Anyway, my documents were all in order and I was asked to set a date for the practical test. My Japanese friend would later get very busy and so could not take me (I suspect his girlfriend is keeping him busy 😉 ) so I set up an appointment  and decided to go there by bus.  There is a bus that goes there from Kanazawa Station only twice a day, once in the morning and once at noon. I called Umer and we went together.

I had read online on how to pass the test. When driving keep to the left of the lane about 30-50cm from the white line; when turning to check for pedestrians/other cars before changing lanes or turning you should exaggerate your motions; brake down hard when slowing down; be sure to indicate 30 meters before a turning; stop before the line; stop and count to 3 at any stop light; etc. I had read them all and I was confident. Umer’s doubts could not get to me. The online comments giving a pass rate of 30% did not faze me. After all, I had driven for about a year in Nairobi’s rough streets, and several times I had been downtown in some crowded streets with those awful Githurai buses where not many Nairobians dare drive (the East of Tom Mboya Street). I have reverse parked in tiny basements.

But I failed the first attempt.

It was after the test that I realized it is not about knowing how to drive, it is about following the very persnickety rules. When you do the test, there is a route that you have to follow and a new route is set out everyday. The route will make sure to test your control on the S-curve, the crank, how you do left/right turns, traffic lights, maneuvering around road constructions, broken-down cars in the middle of the lane etc.

The first time I was doing the test, I had not mastered the route. Umer and another Egyptian guy (his name is Amr and I don’t know how to pronounce it) I met at the center were quickly trying to give me tips to crack the course. I was panicking. If you have not mastered the course, the examiner who sits beside you on the passenger seat can give you directions (in Japanese!), but the driving track is a bit small so you might not get enough time to switch lanes before stop lights etc. I was driving in the middle of the lane, like any normal driver in the real world does, so that was my biggest failure. When doing the test, you drive so far to to the left that the driver’s position is almost at the center of the road. When coming out of the crank, one of the rear tires got off the road and at the sound of it, the examiner groaned out light; I had failed.

A typical driving test track in Japan

A typical driving test track in Japan

I booked a date for a repeat exam a week later and went home feeling dejected. Failure is not easy to deal with but I was determined to pass the next time I went. Umer advised me to take a class at the practice center just next to the test center and I booked for two hours on the morning of the test. Driving tests are usually in the afternoon. Umer was supportive as usual “Don’t worry even if you fail, you can come again and again, they can’t stop you from trying again”. But I was determined it would be the second and last time. I did two hours of the practice session, driving very very left, looking not just at the mirrors but over my neck, stopping long enough at a stop light, etc.

When my name was called on the public address system that afternoon, I had already mastered the course over lunch hour. It was a straightforward course that day. I was confident. I was ready. I checked under the car for any children or pets hiding there before and after the test. I craned my neck at turnings. I kept 30-50 centimeters from the left. I smoothly snaked the S-curve and the crank, I kept 1 meter away from the broken car when passing it. I could hear the sound of the examiner ticking away as I passed the test and oh what a sweet sound of success! When I finally parked the car at the end of the test, the examiner said, Kyoo, Ok! (Today was Ok!). I remembered to look under the car even as I walked away from it.

Later, I noticed that the exam card on which our photographs are stuck has about 20 slots! I passed at the second attempt. However, I know met who were failing their 4th attempts, and I have heard a record 33 attempts!

Ah, the sweet freedom that comes from having a license to drive and go anywhere you like. But wait, I still need a car. That is secondary though because after all, I am in Japan, the home of half maybe more of the world’s motor-vehicles.

My advice to anyone who wants to get their Japanese driving license, take the practice classes! A little expensive but worth it!