Top 10 Ways to save ¥788,600 while in Japan

This is my entry into the Febuary 2010 JapanSoc Blog Matsuri. It’s a collection of the best tips and ideas I’ve written about on frugalistajapan (as well as some of the more controversial ones) ranked where appropriate by potential savings or income generated – bear in mind these figures are somewhat lighthearted and subjective, so please don’t take them too seriously.

1. Buy a mac:

Perhaps a little controversial, but I wrote last year about how buying a mac will save you time and money instead of the hassle of owning a PC, and I stand by it.

And while we’re on the subject, an iPhone would look great with that mac. The built in GPS will mean you never get lost in Japan again, especially now that you’ll travelling all over with your scooter!

Wait, am I really saying it would be frugal of you to buy a new phone and computer? Yes, actually I am. Being frugal doesn’t just mean saving money – it means purchasing wisely and purchasing value. It means purchasing well-built products that are built to last.

POTENTIAL SAVINGS: None. But you get locational freedom with your iPhone, and increased productivity from your hassle-free mac.

2. Claim tax back on your savings interest back home (in the UK at least):

If you left money back in the UK, you can claim tax back from the interest for any financial years that you’re not resident there. Depending on how much you left, it could add up. Read this to find out how including all the forms you need.

POTENTIAL SAVINGS: I got about ¥5,000 back that I’d paid in tax over 3 years.

3. Open a Shinsei bank account:

Without a doubt, Shinsei Bank with their online English-language internet banking is the best way to manage your finances here in Japan. You also get a free domestic transfer each month (300 yen transfer charge to pay your rent each every month for a year means ¥3600 saved if you do it online and less hassle for you), and you can check your balance and account activity at any time with great security.

POTENTIAL SAVINGS: ¥3,600 a year from free transfers.

4. Get a credit card for cashback and itemized bills:

Most credit cards offer 0.5-1% cashback or points; if you’re investing ¥50,000 a month through your credit card and paying off the balance in full, that works out to at least ¥6,000 free money every year just from your investment. You’ll also get itemised bills every month so you can track your purchases more accurately (though, you wouldn’t need to if you were consciously spending instead of meticulously budgeting).

POTENTIAL INCOME: ¥6,000 / year in cashback if you used it to pay just ¥50,000 each month.

5. Sign up to the freestuffjapan mailing list:

.. at yahoogroups. I got a free breadmaker :p If you’re not keen on emails, then don’t worry, I’m working on a new website that will be a perfect solution to streamline giving things away, just hold on a few weeks until I launch the beta version.

POTENTIAL SAVINGS: Hmm, I would have spent ¥10,000 on a breadmaker, so….

6. Watch TV on your computer

Why pay ¥5,000 a month for cable TV with a tiny selection of foreign channels showing tv shows at times that don’t suit you? Watch tv on your computer instead by streaming it from China using a nifty little piece of software called PPStream. Sadly, the interface is only in Chinese, but there’s an English guide at!

POTENTIAL SAVINGS: ¥60,000 a year.

7. Get a bike, or a k-car

If you already have a license, make it international and get yourself a k-car. If you don’t have a license, at least sit the one day test you need for a scooter. You’ll save thousands each month in transport costs, and suddenly a whole wider area of Japan will be open to you. Leon wrote before about the benefits of getting a k-car. Take it from me, owning a bike here has been the most liberating move ever.

POTENTIAL SAVINGS: ¥74,000/year (save ¥500 x 300 days a year in travel expenses, minus ¥50,000 cost of scooter, minus ¥500 gasoline / week)
AND freedom!

8. Move into a house, not an apartment:

I wrote before about the cost benefits of renting a house versus a cramped Japanese apartment, so why are you still suffering? Here’s a quick summary to convince you:
– 2 bedroom house in Kyoto, separate living room, full size kitchen, separate toilet and bathroom – ¥65,000 yen a month.
– 2LDK apartment (1 bedroom, 1 living room, 1 kitchen, tiny all-in-one bathroom/toilet combo) ~ ¥80,000 yen a month.
– You’ll get a full size kitchen so you can actually cook and not live off instant noodles.
– Maybe a free parking space (my current house has room for 4 bicycles AND 2 motorbikes).
– Opportunity to share the house and have an even lower rent.
– Possibly pets ok, so you can take in that stray cat you’ve been feeding every day.

POTENTIAL SAVINGS: I saved ¥180,000 / year by moving to a similar sized house instead of an apartment

9. Claim unemployment benefit in the gap between jobs:

Looking for a job in Japan, or found one but not starting yet? Claim unemployment benefit (~¥160,000/month) during the time you’re not working. You can read about my experiences doing the same here.

POTENTIAL INCOME: ¥450,000 (you can claim for up to 3 months if you’ve been working for a year)

10. Use your free time to improve your career chances:

Whether you’re here for the long haul or not, you should use all that free time you have as an ALT to plan for the future and get some valuable certifications. However much you enjoy teaching, it certainly isn’t a career. If you stay for 2 or more years, you’ll probably have the Japanese skills come naturally. That might be enough to get you something Japan-related back home, but if you’re planning on staying here longer (and even if not) you need to plan ahead and think about a professional career you could make a start in here. Go out now and find some certificates or licenses you study for and take them!

Here are some ideas:
– The JLPT 1 or 2 to prove your Japanese competance
– Further teaching licenses or a TESL masters degree if you insist on teaching
– Computing certifications from CompTIA, Cisco, or Microsoft.

POTENTIAL INCOME: Incalculable, so let’s just say millions of yen over your lifetime!

TOTAL SAVINGS: ¥788,600 a year

Teaching The Maiko, part 2

This is an ongoing series of posts in which I talk about my experiences teaching English to a small group of Maiko in Kyoto’s traditional tea-house district of Gion. Part 1 can be found here.


A new Maiko-in-training came to the tea-house this week. She is just 14 years old and will now never graduate junior high school. For whatever reasons, she chose to abandon her home, family, school, and friends and dedicate herself to becoming a Maiko. She now lives at the tea-house 24/7 and accompanies the elder Maiko where appropriate, gets talked down to by everyone, and schooled in the super-polite language of Maiko. She hasn’t received an official Maiko-name yet, so I call her by her real first name. Her English is actually the best of all of them (still fresh from school) and during her first year before becoming a Maiko she will have a lot more free time so we’re hoping to start lessons twice a week. The elder Maiko are different in their goals for English – they just need to learn a set stock of phrases to be able to do their job – but for this young girl there is still hope that with my guidance she can get a firm grasp on a useful life skill. I hope to show her there is another way, that she can still be a part of regular society and perhaps travel abroad. As Carlie commented on part 1, I really want for her to have another option if she decides the Maiko life isn’t for her – beyond being a glorified hostess her whole life. Sorry if that offends some of you, but that’s essentially what these Geisha and Maiko are – they dance, sing, entertain customers, flirt, chat, play instruments. It’s good that the tea-houses take these girls in from what might have otherwise been a life of even less opportunities, but I can’t help but feel they are being exploited somewhat.

Now accepting application for next years Maiko!

I asked how the tea-house goes about choosing applicants for Maiko-training and who is given priority. Apparently, girls from poor families and remote areas are given priority over girls from richer families. You could look at that as being altruistic, but it is entirely self-serving. The fact is that girls from remote poor families are more likely to accept whatever scraps are thrown their way and are far less prone to running away. The girls from rich families just can’t hack it, and many have been known to run away. The life of a Maiko and pre-Maiko is not something to be laughed at. Imagine a life of pretty much zero free time – hurried between customers at the bar and tea-house, social engagements in town and often out of town, maiko school, changing kimono (no small feat), putting on make-up, getting their hair set… basic mealtimes and sleep are about all the free time these girls have.

Sister… in blood

In a particular facetious mood one day, I asked my wife (who also works at the tea-house) why the maiko refer to an older sister (onechan) when they clearly aren’t related. I know, this just part of the culture in Asia, and my wife does it too with friends in China leading to much desperate confusion when I find myself meeting sister upon sister and having to ask her if they are real sisters or just pretend sisters – but regardless, I was being facetious, okay? I said it makes no sense to call people family members when they don’t share the same blood. “Actually, they do share blood”, she said. I was quite taken aback.
“What do you mean? They’re not family!”.
“No, but they have drunk each others blood during the bonding ritual”

“Perhaps your Japanese is not up to scratch today, dear, as I’m pretty sure you just said they partake of each others blood during some sadistic ritual”.
“Yes”. She went on, “When a Maiko is taken in care by her big sister and given a maiko-name, there is a little ritual involved. In the ritual, they drop some blood into a cup of sake, exchange cups, and drink”.
I was pretty shocked at the time, but I guess it’s no worse than making a “blood brother pact” back home, where yourself and your best-friend each cut a finger and then smear them together (what, you didn’t do that?). In fact, I think the sake probably kills any health concerns you might have, though it still grosses me out a little.


No, not micro-loan, that isn’t a typo. The tea-houses of Kyoto are literally home to many Maiko and Pre-Maiko, but that doesn’t mean they don’t visit the other tea-houses too. There is an unspoken community contract through all the Kyoto tea-houses that if their own Maiko are already out on business and a customer wishes to partake in Maiko company, the tea-house will call around to find a Maiko going spare and borrow her for the night! That’s a Maiko-Loan~ *groan*. The same is true for Geiko, but it just happens that the tea-house I work with currently doesn’t have any Geiko. The last Geiko they had retired last year in order to help train the new batch of Maiko, as their big-sister. Next year, the Maiko will graduate and become Geiko and the cycle will continue.

Qing Dao travelogue

This is not so much a day by day detailed travelogue as a random selection of observations I made whilst staying with my wife’s parents in her hometown of Qing Dao. I wrote most of it at the time during Summer last year, but forgot about until now. Bear in mind I spent a lot of my time in the regular parts of Qing Dao that most foreigners will likely never experience. I got to see some real Chinese, not the dressed up tourists areas. If you visited as a tourist, your own experience will likely be drastically different from mine. If I sound a little negative, bear in mind I married a Chinese girl and plan to live there at some point too, so I do feel somewhat connected.


Her parents come to meet us at the airport. She assures me we’re still in the countryside, thats why everything is so dirty around here. The drive to her place is terrifying. The lane markings on the road mean nothing; cars drift out in front of us, even in front of trucks ten times the size of them, without a second thought. Add motorcycles into the mix, with no one wearing a helmet and often riding 3 or more to a single bike. The sound of the horns blasting is constant. I really thought I was going to die before we even reached her apartment. As we got closer into the city, the bikes mostly disappeared – they’re actually banned within a certain distance of the city centre, though I can’t imagine why as their driving is no worse than the cars and trucks. Curiously though, we only passed one accident on the way in – a bus had piled into the back of a car. The traffic around the crash had no intention of slowing down though and there were no accident and emergency crews blocking the way or anything. After about the tenth time seeing a mother and their small child in tow running across the highway, I went from feeling terror that someone was going to die to finding all it all quite hilarious really. It certainly made me appreciate driving in Japan a whole lot more.

Later, when we were talking about weddings and such, my wife explained that when a brightly decorated wedding car is on the road, other drivers will actually take care driving and be respectful. This is the only time they will ever drive normal, ever.

The stairs up to her 7th floor apartment where her parents live is covered with what looks at first glance like grafitti, but it’s actually sprayed on calling-cards for plumbers. I think some of them should put a little more effort into their designs, like being crazy and writing in blue or something.


Eveything in China is broken. I’m not joking, and that isn’t some broad-sweeping ignorant rant of a racist westerner – everything really is broken. The central tourist areas are looked after properly to show a nice public face, but it’s all a lie. Over the course of visiting every family member in various levels and stages of their life, some rich and some poor, every damned apartment block we went to was dirty and broken. None of them had lights in the hallways, presumably because no one would pay the bill or if a lightbulb was put there, someone would steal it. The communist types might tell you that public property belongs to “everybody”, but the reality that results from this thought process gives more of an impression of it belonging to nobody. In Japan, there is an infuriating cultural attitude of “let’s clean up together, everyone” – in schools, offices, community areas; in China, the opposite is true – “let’s not bother at all”.

There are nice places, granted – as we walked around the more pleasant areas of town by the coast, we found quite a few expensive houses and clean looking apartment-blocks. And you know what? They all belonged to government or military officials, or were for the exclusive use of military personnel who come to Qing Dao for their all-expenses paid vacations. When a high-ranking official comes, my wife tells me that the surrounding areas are totally closed down and no one is allowed access – tourists or locals. Presumably they’re afraid someone might try to kill them, which isn’t too wrong I suspect. The disparrage between the social elite and everyone is was quite overwhelming. My idea of communism was obviously wrong.


Everyone we visit has toilet’s that don’t flush, and there isn’t one bath in sight. Buckets are strew around their bathrooms to catch water from the shower and use to wash the waste away. While this irks me at first, I soon realise this is actually a great water-conservative idea that we could try at home if our toilet and shower weren’t deliberately built in different rooms. Why is it that western cultures insist on washing away our sh!t with sparkling crystal clear water when second hand shower or bath water would suffice? Don’t be fooled though – people don’t save water here because they think it’s environmentally friendly – they do it because water is bloody expensive. It just has the additional effect of also being “eco” (sorry, that’s my Japanese-ness that makes me think it’s ok to shorten any big word you don’t feel like fully pronouncing down to 2 or less syllables).


My wife scolded me for nearly throwing an empty drink bottle in the trash can. I didn’t see any recycling bins though, so I couldn’t figure out why she was so angry! Apparently, you collect the bottles (and cans, and paper scraps) and sell them to the recycler. In fact, a lot of really poor people can eat a meal or two a day on the money they get from walking around collecting recyclables. I forget the exact numbers, but around 10 metal cans, 15 plastic bottles, or 10 glass bottles can be exchanged for 1 gen. About 5 gen will get you a decent bowl of ramen. Pretty much everything in China that could possibly have a monetary value to it, does, including the trash. It’s a good way to keep the street clear of bottles etc, but it also means there’s a large number of homeless who live next to the trash cans and search through them daily for the anything resembling metal or paper. I cannot help but feel this society is utterly broken. I get the feeling I may have lived quite a sheltered life, and for a brief moment it makes me truly appreciate my life situation.


The government and private contractors decide when your property is old enough to warrant being torn down and replaced. At that time, you are offered a reasonable sum of money, calculated according to the value of land, the value of your property, and the number of residents in your home (so a family house would get more money than a single tenant). You take the money, and go find somewhere better. You are free to refuse the offer, but the harassment that ensues is apparently not much fun. Eventually, hired thugs (triads) will come and brick your windows, throw feces on your floor, and generally make your life a living hell. If you survive this, the construction company may offer you a slightly larger sum of money. My wife told me a childhood story of a small triangular house that once existed in the middle of a highway that ran through Qing Dao, near to her high school. As students, they would go to watch and wonder at the curiously triangular building; in which lived an old man who adamantly would not leave. Before the highway was constructed, he was offered money, and harassed, and offered more money – but he still would not leave. Eventually the construction company ignored him, knocked the rest down, and built their highway anyway, literally leaving his house in the middle. Sadly, the house no longer stands (I did ask).

DAY 3:

We journey out to an electronics mall today, as I promised to upgrade her family’s PC. The parking garage is underground, and there is literally zero artificial lighting, the only hint of light creeping in through the exits to the world above. The escalators joining the garage to the street above are broken and rusting. I trip and curse on the way up. Inside the mall – more just a collection of independent stalls and booths – are mountains of what I would call “e-waste”. Everyone is stripping old computers, motherboards are stacked; there also seems to be an abnormally large number of cheap USB-powered gadgets like fans with LED lights that whir and hum pleasantly to give the user a tacky light show. Of course, I bought one! We find somewhere to buy the extra memory I want too, but the older stuff that we need is more expensive than the faster, newer memory because no one makes it here anymore.

We head next to her uncle’s house. The apartment is in the central town area; the outside looks dilapidated and trash is piled everywhere, but the inside is remarkably modern and nice. Still no flushing toilet, mind. A large and frankly scary looking guy greets us. He is excited to meet me. Despite my promise that I would not drink today (the night before was a little rough on me), he forces can after can of Tsing Tao beer onto me, and I graciously accept (:P). Somehow, I end up playing a traditional Chinese card game that I’ve seen being played at night by pretty much everyone (At night, local residents generally sit around in groups out on the streets, fervently playing this particular card game and bantering about everything). I have no idea what it’s called, but it involves 6 players and 4 packs of cards mixed together. It’s basically a set winning / trumps / first to get rid of all your cards wins kind of game. An impromptu feast of Chicken bits (including feet and other things of unknown origin) is called for. Chicken feet are not entirely disgusting, I find out, but they aren’t exactly tasty either. I ask my wife why they eat the feet when the regular meat isn’t expensive – apparently the feet are a delicacy, not merely another part of the chicken that they don’t want to waste – the feet are actually more expensive than the rest! Uncle’s phone rings constantly. He’s quite a busy man it seems, which is strange because I’m sure my wife said he doesn’t work. She says he “used” to be in the triads, which is why he knows so many people, but he isn’t anymore. He is on the phone for a half hour continuously in another room before we decide it’s time we head off. He sounded rather angry on the phone, the subject of which is a friend who has gotten himself into jail *again*, and who keeps asking uncle to get him out. Not this time it seems. I manage to say goodbye, thank you, and see you again in Chinese, confident in the knowledge that this guy is probably good to know.

We tried to order train tickets last night for a visit to Beijing, but we got a phone call today saying they were denied, sold out. Apparently, the tickets aren’t easy to get. You can only purchase up to two weeks in advance, and they usually sell out within a day or two. It was looking like our Beijing excursion was cancelled. We mention this to uncle before leaving and he says he’ll see what he can do.

Later in the evening, we go to visit another brother of her fathers. He has a huge apartment in a newly developed area of town, though the apartment complex is pitch black from lack of bulbs. We make it to his door safely only by using the light of our mobile phones. I’m forced to watch 2 hours of his sons wedding video, and my god is it cheesy.

I also learnt my first words of Qing Dao local dialect today – “be do to le” (~”bu shuo le” in standard chinese), which roughly translated means “shut up and do it already”. Some example usage might be when you’re trying to make a stupid foreigner eat chicken feet for the first time, or when you’re girlfriend is “too tired”!

DAY 4:

After a bit of light shopping we meet up with the parents and the mothers side of the family in a traditional Chinese restaurant. This involves a huge round table with a revolving platter in the centre upon which dishes are placed. You turn the platter and take what you want.

I quickly learn the etiquette of toasting – stand up when someone comes over to toast with you, otherwise sitting is fine; “shu-e” (?) means “drink freely”, while “kanpei” means down it in one. The eldest brother, the most important at the table, gives me a big thumbs up and says I have made a wonderful first impression. The Tsing Tao beer flows freely, and toast after toast are held welcoming me to Qing Dao, asking me to take good care of my girlfriend (now wife), and wishing us lots of happiness and children. As we open the upteenth bottle, we get a phonecall – best get some sleep , we’re going to Beijing on the bullet train tomorrow morning, first class seats. Big brother came through for us it seemed.


One of the family from dinner last night comes to pick us up in the morning and take us to the station. They have a friend who will meet us in Beijing, find us a hotel and some tickets back too. We take a giant crate of fresh shrimp as a gift to the friend we’ve never met.
Our first visit in Beijing was to the people’s palace – a curious name since it only ever housed the emperor and his 3000 sex slaves as well as numerous eunuchs. The entrance is a sea of litter – obviously such an esteemed national “treasure” as this place is not worth hiring a few cleaners for. Once you pass by the crowd of beggars, thieves, horribly persistent tour guides and Chinese male tourists who are habitually compelled to spit on any open surface, you’ll see some mildly impressive traditional Chinese architecture. Inside the vast complex are some more open spaces (though considerably less litter) and some big temple-like buildings, each much the same as the last one. If you manage to see over the undulating mass of tourists scrabbling to take pictures of the interior, you’ll see that each building has a little throne in the center. One temple is for changing, one for meeting with advisors, and one for choosing which girl you will bed tonight. I ask how the emperor was to choose from so many, and my wife assure me that a fair method of picking by cards was used – though inevitably this meant that some girls in his harem would actually never get to be with him due to the laws of chance.

Give the people’s palace a miss, people – seriously it just isn’t worth it.

That night we went to see Tiananmen square too, but sadly the area was fenced off, no doubt due to the recent civil unrest with the Urumqi people (one of the many ancient civilizations assimilated under duress into the great Chines empire); or perhaps some more students had decided to non-violently voice their opinions about their broken society, only to be slaughtered.

Later we had some rather tasty Peking duck.

DAY 6:

Headed out early in the morning to visit the “great” wall. Despite being thousands of kilometers long, everyone in China it seems goes to see the same kilometer stretch. The wall itself is quite impressive and perfectly preserved, except for every single square inch of it being vandalized with graffiti engravings, mostly from chinese tourists. Way to protect your world heritage site, China. Certainly worth checking out if you enjoy walking up extreme inclines in a confined space with a million or so other people.

Spent the afternoon in the famous silk street shopping mall; famous for it’s brand name goods. Absolutely hilarious, and quite a fun time if you get into the spirit of things. Here’s a little advice for haggling though: state your price, haggle a bit, then walk way. It’ll keep getting lower and lower. Then find another trader, tell them the price you were just offered, and if they won’t go lower than that, go back to the other place. The haggling is quite fun sometimes. I was shocked to find a cute young girl with in a hardware and games booth upstairs where I’d spied some special Nintendo DS carts I wanted and she seemed to really know her stuff. She also spoke decent english and understood Japanese – so she caught us out when I was consulting about prices with my girl. I ended up getting a really good deal though. We got utterly scammed on a pair of jeans, though – the first thing we bought there. We were after a decent set of satin bed sheets too, as anyone who knows me will know I enjoy a nice luxurious pimp bedroom. We found one stall, and they had a fairly nice dark red set with some kind of print of it, but it wasn’t really what we were looking for – still, if the price was good enough I could have been convinced. Starting at over 1000 gen (~13,000 JPY), we eventually got it down to 400, then decided we’d walk around a bit more, just in case. As we walked around she starting shouting lower and lower prices at us, down to 250. We figured if we couldn’t find anything better we’d come back. Around the corner we found a perfect set of sheets, but they told us 800 gen! We mentioned the store around the corner had offered us the same sheets at 250 (a total lie), she told us these were better quality. Hah! We must have really looked like suckers. We walked back towards the other store, and sure enough after a little hesitation she shouted 200 at us. We turned around and got a gorgeous set of quality sheets for just 200 gen, a little over $20/¥2500!

The summer palace was nice – basically a huge garden with some towering pagodas. I thought a walk around the whole garden would be a good way to spend the afternoon, but it ended up taking about 3 hours just to walk 1/2 of it. Exhausted, we left by an unknown exit and spent the next 2 hours trying to find a bus and being patently lied to by my iPhone’s GPS locator.

Honestly, I didn’t like Beijing one bit. I was horrified by the child beggars who are used by their parents to scam money off tourists, shocked at the appalling state of the great wall and the sea of litter, and it all left me feeling rather bitter. My wife was equally disappointed, and all we could do was meander back to the hotel and get an early night in anticipation of our return trip the next day.


With less than a week left I Googled “touristy things to do in Qing Dao”. Not a lot, it seems. I did find an interesting place called the “hill fort ruins” on “Qing Dao Hill”, but her mother said it was a boring location and no one would want to go there. I insisted none the less. Turns out it’s a fascinating underground abandoned military installation and probably the coolest thing I’d seen in China yet. Built by the germans, the cavernous base of operations has since gone to disarray as the chinese couldn’t be bothered to keep the air conditioning on and so everything is now wet. Part of it was closed off due to the danger of electrocution from the damp, and some more areas were open but with no lighting, making it impossible to see more than a foot or so in. It quite a scary place, but a wonderfully cool break from the summer heat and definitely an experience I’d recommend. It’s just a shame the government aren’t taking care of it properly, though I’d hazard a guess it’s because they want to erase that particular part of their history.

One morning we wake up early to visit the morning market. On the way, we pass through a local park, and I’m stunned to find a horde of old men and women working out using this array of weight-training machines that are placed in the park for communal benefit. All the equipment uses body-weight of the user as a counter-weight so there’s no fiddling around with adding weight and safety pins etc. Why on earth don’t we have these in Japan, or anywhere else? We also find my mother-in-law amongst a big group of old ladies, practicing a strange korean dance-workout using what I’m fairly sure was a frisbee. They crowd around me and the questions (as well as touchy-feely hands) come flying. Waaa~


For all that is said about the great chinese firewall, it isn’t all that effective. While Facebook and Twitter etc are indeed blocked on regular internet usage, the 3G mobile phone network is wide open. Apparently technology is moving a little too fast for the government to keep up. I mostly tethered my Macbook Pro to my iPhone and took the hit for extortionate data costs while roaming.

As for internet speeds, most households have an ADSL line which is rather slow in comparison to Japan. Strangely, they have fibre-optic cables for TV, which can also handle internet, but the government disallows such practices as it would be unfair to the ADSL companies and would encourage competition. Wha~?


I’ve come to realise that China and the people that live there are two entirely different entities; so I’m comfortable insulting the country and not the people (though really, they can’t drive and have zero manners). As a country, you’d be forgiven for mistaking it as some corrupt third-world dump, but the people themselves are much the same as anywhere when it comes to family and friends. I had a wonderful time meeting all my wife’s family, and it was an incredible cultural insight that not many people can claim to have experienced. There’s so much that I haven’t written about. As for the country, she assures me that things are rapidly changing, and it won’t always be so third-world and broken. In a short time, China has steam-rolled itself to being a great superpower, but frankly it has done so by wringing the blood from it’s citizens.

We hope to live there for a year or so in the near future. In the meantime, her parents are coming to stay with us in March for 3 whole weeks, so I better get back to practicing my Chinese.

zài jiàn ~

2010 Goals, and progress so far

This is more for my own benefit than anything else, but perhaps some of you will be motivated. Please feel free to share your own goals and suggestions in the comments.

Setting goals is not a simple task, and you should put some thought into them. The first thing to remember is that they need to be realistic and achievable, even better if you can clearly work towards the goal in steps. Secondly, you need to have clearly defined goals – by which I mean you cannot just say “lose weight”, as that’s far too vague and shows a real lack of commitment. I’ve tried to clearly define all my goals as best I can. Most important of all is that you actually set some goals for yourself – so if you haven’t already then please get thinking and give yourself some direction!

So here’s my goals for this year:

Learn Chinese to the point of understanding basic everyday conversation patterns and being able to give directions and describe things. Motivation: My wife’s parents are coming to Japan in March and they don’t speak a word of English nor Japanese. Progress: slow going, but certainly advancing. Currently on CD2 of 8 from the Michel Thomas Method: Mandarin Chinese Foundation Course; highly recommended
as it emphasizes using the material to form your own sentences and the pacing seems appropriate.

Learn PHP/MySQL programming

by developing a website which handles giving unwanted items away to other people, kind of like a freecycle/craigslist mashup. Features that will make the site stand out are: requesting an item from someone is handled like an auction, only the bid amount is fixed as the users karma rating, which is determined by how much they have given back to the community (in other words, users who give the most are able to receive the most); and by the ability to convert your unwanted karma points into a real money donation to a Kiva. Motivation: I’m sick of the volume of emails on the freecycle japan mailing lists, and that it seems to be dominated the same people giving away and another set of people leeching everything. Progress: I’d say I’m about 20% coded, which was the hardest 20% as it’s been years since I’ve played with PHP and never touched a database before. Should be open for testing in a month or so I think.

Build a multitouch surface computer and write about the process at my tech site A surface computer is like a table or wall computer which you touch to control. I mostly have all the parts gathered for a infra-red laser based design, now I just need to put the damn thing together. Following a basic tutorial by []. Motivation: A coffee table screen you can touch? Seriously, you need any more motivation than how fricking cool it is??? Progress: Getting there.

Windows 7 Touch Pack: Surface Without the Big-Ass Table from Gizmodo on Vimeo.

Get at least 500 RSS subscriptions on Of course, I am always aiming to increase the number of subscribers to this site too, but I think doubling it is a little unrealistic, especially since my posting has been slowing down here lately – simply because my wife and I are busy implementing the savings and financial plans I wrote about last year. I did mean to post about covering every window in our house in bubble-wrap to help keep the warmth in, but never got around to it. Here’s an article on [build it solar] that might motivate you to do the same, and tests showed the heat loss per season to be halved! I’m still a techie at heart though, so TokyoBIT will be main creative output for this year, I think. Motivation: Forever giving the same technical support and advice to friends – “whats the safest way to download a torrent?“, “how do I get TV on my computer?” etc… Progress: Hmm, my stats show just 2 subscribers right now, so perhaps I should write an article about how to subscribe and what RSS is! I’m writing an article now on some awesome Chinese software my wife introduced me to that streams movies and dramas using p2p technology, and I must say it’s pretty much replaced torrents for me – so if you’d like to know more then please subscribe to the TokyoBIT feed and you’ll be the first to know when it’s finished!

Lose 15kg: For some reason known only as “marriage happiness” in Japanese (幸せ太り), I put on about 15kg in less than a year, and frankly it’s not cool. I’m committed to at least 30 minutes of strong exercise on WiiFit every day (the real exercise activities that is, not balance games and such, but running and weight training). I’ve promised to drink less beer (and replace it with wine instead!). Motivation: The Wii said I’m fat. Progress: Weekdays are going ok, but it’s hard to find motivation on the weekends.

300 Subscribers and Another $50 Kiva loan!

Wow – hadn’t looked at the feed subscribers stats in a while and it seems like my target of 200 was pretty much blown away! In fact, there’s now 317 subscribers at the time of writing, so thank you so much for all of your support and I do hope you get something from the site.

So, this time I’ve chosen to donate $50 to a Mom Som in Cambodia to help her expand her silk skirt business. You can check out my lenders profile here, and I’m a proud member of the Kiva Atheist group (currently the top lenders, with the Christian group coming 2nd place, proving that morality can exist quite well without a god).

My next target is 500 subscribers, and you can help by subscribing to my RSS feed if you haven’t already!

Teaching the Maiko

Having been unemployed for a few months or so, I managed to somehow score some interesting private students – teaching the Maiko-san (Geisha/Geiko in training) of a particular tea-house in the Gion district of Kyoto. I won’t go into details of where or how I managed to get this job, but suffice to say they are real Maiko, in a real Gion tea-house (Ocha-ya) – and I thought it might be interesting for you all to read about how the lessons go and learn about Maiko in the process.

For the record, I didn’t want this job – I hate teaching English, and I’m trying hard to move into a real career in computing – but what the hell, I thought. I am not an obsessive gaijin that stalks these girls around Gion, and I don’t really find the make-up so attractive either. But I am unemployed, and it is a chance in a lifetime that I doubt many foreigners here will ever get to experience, so I may as well tell somebody about it!

Background to the tea-houses:

The tea-houses in Kyoto, or Ocha-ya as they are formally known, are basically just high class cafes where you can have Maiko or Geiko for an additional cost. They operate on an invitation-only basis, and are extremely expensive. You can have a Maiko there for about ¥10,000 for one hour – they will perform some kind of dance, play an instrument or sing for about 10 minutes before joining you for dinner and conversation. Patrons are traditionally high-up company execs, and there are increasingly visiting staff from foreign branches also being brought along – which is why the Maiko nowadays need to speak English!

No men!

I should note that no men are actually allowed in this part of the tea-house; it is the private living quarters of the Maiko. The only other man that sets foot here is the special tailor who outfits the girls with their Kimono’s.

The white faces!

I am treated to cheese cake and tea before the girls come in. I am shocked to see one of them is wearing full make-up, all of them in kimono and all with their hair set in that particular little bow pattern. I’m feeling quite shy and taken aback at this point – I was expecting a regular couple of high school girls off-duty from their Maiko-job, but there is no off-duty for these girls. The one in full make-up has already been out working today having been hired to accompany some business people to an enkai the whole morning. What about the hair I ask? This is normal – they have it set for whole week before washing and resetting it – it’s just impractical and takes far too long to do it each morning – this is how they sleep! My third student is still sleeping – exhausted from a week of work, study and practice – their only free time being sleeping. I can’t imagine why any 15 year old girl would choose this life – so I ask them later…

Maiko / Geiko / Geisha – what’s the difference?!

Our first lesson was almost entirely on how to explain the difference between the various types of Geisha out there, so I’m feeling pretty clued in now. Firstly, Geisha is not a word used in Kyoto – Kyoto Geisha are special (legally, in fact) and are called Geiko. Other than that, Geisha and Geiko are the same thing. A Maiko is a Geisha or Geiko in-training. Girls come here to become Maiko from the age of usually 15, at which point they leave their homes and come to live in the tea-house. They also leave formal education, and start attending special Geiko-school – more on that later. Though they claim to have come here on their own volition, it seems that for many of the Maiko it is an escape from a harsh family life. Many travel from far away and rarely see their parents. They adopt a new name – a Maiko stage-name – given to them by their new big sister at the tea-house.

Kyoto Maiko are also special in another respect – although the legal drinking age nationally is 20, Kyoto Maiko have a special legal permission to drink from 18 for the purpose of their work – and this is the only exception to the law throughout Japan. Maiko in other places are not excepted, only Kyoto.

Maiko, my student explains, are children. Their hair is set in a particular pattern, and it is their own. In their first year as Maiko, they only wear red lipstick on the bottom lip. Once Maiko become a Geiko, the hair style changes and a wig must be worn. This signifies adulthood. In the same way, the Maiko wears a Kimono with long, flowy sleeves and Obi – apparently this is “cuter” and more childlike. When they become a Geiko, the Kimono and Obi both shorten. Those are the only visual differences.

There is of course a difference in wages too – Maiko don’t get paid. They receive boarding and meals and perhaps around 500 yen in pocket money every day, though my students seem to not mind. Their Kimono too are bought by the tea house or received from generous patrons.

Once a Geiko however, they keep their wages (presumably the tea-house they perform in gets a certain cut), but must also pay for their own boarding as well as purchase their own Kimono’s etc. Once a Geiko, they also get to choose their appointments.

Both Maiko and Geiko wear the white face paint, though in modern times the paint has become thicker. The reason for white was so that in ancient times their beautiful face could still be seen by the moonlight or candlelight. The tradition is simply continued nowadays. The back of the neck has two little “V” shapes left unpainted, as this apparently makes the neck look longer and therefore more beautiful.

The Geiko-school:

Basically a traditional performing arts college, the Geiko school is a lifelong learning and practice centre for the art of being a Geiko. There is no math, no PE, no sciences – but instead they study traditional Japanese art forms: dance, singing, shamisen, taiko, tea-ceremony etc – the kind of thing foreigners (and Japanese) drool over when they come to Kyoto. It saddened me to learn that they learn nothing of sciences or foreign languages.

Anyway, that’s it for now, so I hope you’ve learnt something. I’ve certainly a little more respect, or should I say pity, for what these girls have to go through. But to draw conclusions after just a few hours of talking them might be a little pre-emptive, so we’ll see how it goes. Please look forward to part 2 and Soc my post if you’ve enjoyed it! Thanks~

(Note: the picture associated with this post is not my own. It is not a picture of the Maiko I teach either, as I felt that would be inappropriate. Maybe next time. If you wish to claim credit for the photo please leave a comment)

Lost your job in Japan? Don’t stress it

Losing your job is something that happens to all of us, but it needn’t be that stressful. Perhaps like me your contract simply ran out and university / board of education decided not to renew it. Clearly, if you weren’t expecting that and you’re not ready to leave Japan yet it’s quite a shock but there’s no need to panic and catch the next flight home just yet. Here’s my advice for what to do if you lose your job here:

The Visa problem:

If you’re Visa ends at about the same time your contract does, you might be tempted to think it’s all over. Faced with the same proposition, I considered getting a tourist visa, but I was dissuaded by everyone I spoke too. Most people advised me to get a McJob with some crappy eikaiwa company or other – just to get the working visa so I could continue to search for a better job. Don’t. You’ll inevitably have to change your Visa to another type anyway and you’ll just be tired and saddened from such a lame job.

A lot of recruitment companies will tell you that they cannot even consider you on a tourist visa and that they cannot possibly “sponsor” you to get a working visa – stay away from these companies as they clearly don’t know what they’re talking about. “Sponsorship” of a visa means you have a contract, a university degree, and a short form to be filled in. It takes 2-3 weeks until you can officially work, but in the meantime most places I’ve dealt with will have you start on an “unpaid” training basis. If a company requires from the start that you have a working visa, they aren’t worth working for.  I am not sure about the option of getting a distance learning PhD.

I was also told by one major recruitment firm (Robert Walters – who I’ve heard nothing but complaints about from other friends by the way) that I would even have to leave the country to get or change from a tourist Visa – which was true until about 5 years ago when the law changed. That a top recruitment firm executive dealing exclusively with foreigners does not know about Visa law is quite shocking. Let me repeat:

YOU DO NOT HAVE TO LEAVE JAPAN TO OBTAIN / CHANGE TO / CHANGE FROM A TOURIST VISA.Companies that tell you they cannot sponsor a visa, or executives that tell you a tourist visa is troublesome ARE NOT WORTH WORKING FOR.

You could also get married, which is what I will be doing at the end of this month; but since my fiance is Chinese it doesn’t especially improve my Visa situation.

The money problem:

You can survive quite easily on around 150,000 yen a month, possibly less if you’re apartment is super cheap. But since you have no income at all now you’re screwed right? Wrong; as long as you’ve been working for a year or more and paying into the official state pension – something which every employer is legally required to do – you are entitled to receive unemployment benefits should you lose your job because of situations out of your control. Having your contract not renewed is one example of beyond your control. If you quit yourself, you’re going to be in a more complicated situation and it could take up to 3 months to get any unemployment benefits, but this shouldn’t be an issue for most of you. You can read about my experiences on applying for unemployment benefit here.

If you have been employed in Japan, you are entitled to claim unemployment benefits should you lose your job, regardless of your Visa status

You can also try plying your trade and skills if you have any. For example, I can fix computers. Since I lost my job and put the word out that I was now repairing computers, suddenly a lot of work just came in – and of course, it paid. In a month, I made around 80,000 on little side jobs just fixing computers. A lot of these little jobs were from friends and acquaintances – so if you’re unhappy about receiving money from friends for services and time that you give them, you should probably re-evaluate how you value yourself. Your service is worth something, whether it’s a friend or not.

Get yourself out there:

I hate networking. Damn, do I hate networking. I’m quite a socially inept failure actually. But the truth is, almost all jobs are awarded to people who were introduced to the job by a mutual friend or acquaintance. In fact, all the jobs I’ve ever had in Japan (apart from JET) have been through mutual friends etc. Clicking on the [Apply] button on GaijinPot may make you feel like you’re doing something, but there’s a 1% chance that you will even get an interview and that’s along with 50 other applicants. Even if you don’t have that many friends, just let people know that you’re unemployed and looking for work and I guarantee something will come your way. For the past month I was incredibly lucky to be introduced to the owner of a tea-house in Gion, and I’ve since started working there part-time teaching them how to use Apple Macs and even teaching English to the Maiko-san! Can you imagine that kind of job being advertised? No, because most jobs aren’t! I’m also going to start work full-time from next week as a research assistant at Kyoto University, thanks to an introduction by my previous head of department! And I’ve been working part-time for the last few months in a datacentre, due to the fact that I emailed Terrie Lloyd (a highly successful entrepreneur and IT journalist) asking for advice – and he then immediately put me in touch with HR department of the IT outsourcing that he happens to be the CEO of.

Most jobs are not advertised. Let people know that you’re out of work; and ask for advice from people in your field – you never know what like will bring you!

Clear out the house, and live on cheap beer:

Now that you have all this free time on your hands, why not use the time to clear out your house and give away / sell stuff you don’t need. I’ve been selling random bits on bobs on Yahoo Auctions and made a few thousands yen out of it. You’d be surprised what sells actually – old consoles, broken even, ancient ipods. There’s always someone who wants your crap. I’d suggest my own site, too!

And finally, if you insist on drinking beer then lower you standards and start drinking the sub-100yen cans of fake beer like the ones featured in this post – 88 and 97 yen respectively from all good Gyomu Supa’s!

Got some job searching stories or advice to share? Please let us know about it in the comments! PS: Be a darling and click on the JapanSoc button if you found this article interesting / useful / laughable – thanks!


Crime in Japan – Two on a bike!

This is my short entry for this months blog matsuri on what is strange in Japan. Thanks to Gakuranman for hosting this months matsuri and for thinking of such curious rules.

Before coming to Japan, I had pretty much given up on humanity. That would happen to you too if you lived in the wonderful multicultural steaming p#sspot called England. What shocked (and pleased) me about Japan was the low crime rate, especially considering how worthless the police here are – they spend most days attempting to give a good telling off to young high-school couples riding tandem – until you realise that policing and crime rate have very little to do with each other. Why does Japan have such a low crime rate then? Perhaps it’s a more fundamental social aspect of the culture here. In England, it’s almost as if being nice and considerate to someone is permanently uncool nowadays. But that isn’t a reason, it’s just another result. Some might say that it’s down to the education system, but having spent 6 years teaching in the public education system here, I’d be inclined to disagree. No, I’d reason it’s down to something a lot more fundamental than we all want to admit – vigilant monoculturalism. By which I mean, Japan has done an incredible job of making Japan a country for Japanese only (cue flames), and I have to say I really respect them for that. That’s what keeps this country safe.

100 subscribers – and another $50 to a Kiva loan! Thank you!

328677I’ve just noticed the site subscription numbers are over 100! That means it’s time to make my next micro-loan of $50 (as I promised, one dollar per new subscriber after the first target of 50) to someone in need. Through, you can help to make a real difference by giving someone a chance to start or grow their business without them having to turn to local corrupt loan-sharks.

This time, I’ve chosen to make the micro-loan to a young woman called Mao Sophal in Cambodia, as I was recently reminded of the atrocious sex industry there. I hope if this young woman ever has child, she will be able to afford to educate the child without selling them into the sex trade, or indeed being forced into it herself out of poverty as so many are. I also joined the atheist kiva coalition to show how one can be altruistic without religious inclinations. You can check out my kiva profile here.

I guess my next target will be 200, at which point I’ll make another $50 micro-loan to another worthy cause. Why not go change the world yourself?

A Months Worth of Whinges In One

For those of you who don’t know, whinge is a British word meaning to complain about something incessantly. I’ve been bookmarking and mulling over a lot of little things for the past week or so that I was planning to post lots of little whinges, but instead I thought I’d bundle them all into one and give you twelvty-times the value. Feel free to gloss over this if the inner ramblings of an angry frugal British guy don’t really interest you.

Happy Victims should be shot and their wardrobes sold:

61rc2akpyel_ss400_An art-critic workmate of mine lent me a book today about fashion victims of Japan called “Happy Victims“. It was basically photos and interviews with a ton of Japanese people who are obsessed with a certain brand, going so far as to spend 90% of their wages each month on purchasing the latest seasons items. Some of them were rich housewives of designers, some regular office ladies working an 8am-11pm grueling hell hole of a job. I’m sure some of you are of the belief “each to his own”, and that as long as they aren’t hurting anyone we should just leave them to their clothing-fetish. Sorry, but I’m not like that. I believe passionately that humans have a moral responsibility to use their earnings responsibly, and sickens me to the heart to learn of these people wasting money on overpriced brand clothing, even if some of them are working hard for the priviledge of doing so. For the price they spend on one dress or outfit, a child could be clothed, fed and schooled until adulthood. There should be a 100% tax on brand name goods that goes straight to closing the poverty gap – that, or these people should be shot and their entire wardrobe sold, with the proceeds being used to raise some children with a hopefully higher moral imperative that collecting overpriced tat.

Pay for the priveledge of walking and running:

Last sunday my girlfriend convinced me to go to a free trial-session at a local sports club. I’m quite happy to go there for free, but I was pretty shocked at the membership prices – around 5,000 yen a month! The club had a pool, which I might have been more tempted to use if I didn’t have to wear a special cap for the purposes of hygiene. Hey, I understand cleanliness issues, but wearing a cap just sucks. It’s the reason I’ve only been swimming twice in Japan in 6 years – once is Lake Biwa in Shiga and once in a family pool that I had to travel an hour by train to get to and was packed with screaming children anyway. In England I swam every week and you don’t see me dying from some kind of hair infection. Whatever – the only real reason I would go to a sports club is for weight training anyway. But the machine room here was tiny. There was a row of walking and cycle machines, and about 2 proper weight training machines. They did a pretty bad job of convincing me to pay 5,000 yen a month for the privilege of being able to run and walk. If you really want to lose weight and get fit then start cycling to work and stop eating so damn much. Don’t waste a penny in ridiculously overpriced sports clubs. Do we really need to waste land with a building full of walking machines? Let’s destroy the sports clubs and build some green parks!

The Most Spoiled Dog in Japan:

Hey, I love dogs. And I totally respect this couples choice to raise a dog instead of adding another human virus onto the world, but this is just insane. (original via JapanProbe)

Merumo is apparently a top model in the world of doggy fashion magazines, the kind of thing that Japanese just spooge over.

  • The apartment has a special security system that won’t allow visitors to take the elevator to that floor without an invitation.
  • Merumo doesn’t like being hot, so her owner bought marble flooring for the living room. (estimated cost: 3,000,000 yen)
  • She drinks out of a silver Gucci dog bowl.
  • When leaving the house, she can ride in a Luis Vitton carry bag (236,250 yen).
  • When going for a walk, she can wear one of several brand name dog collars and leashes: Hermès (65,000 yen + 85,000 yen) or Gucci (69,300).
  • Merumo’s owner rents another room in the apartment building just to store all of Mermo’s special clothing. Merumo has a fancy kimono (80,000 yen), 10 fur coats (one costs 180,000 yen), and a whole bunch of other stuff. (Total cost: about 3,000,000 yen)

Sure, treat your pets the same as you would your own children is a pretty morally sound way to live I think, so let’s think about what she’s guilty of even if it were a spoiled little human brat. Yes, it’s her own money, and I’m sure her husband works hard for it, but does this couple have any sense of human decency?

What is it that makes these kind of people completely disregard the hardships of everyone else in the world? Are they so entrenched in their modelling / designer / financial careers that they’re blinded to their fellow man? Really, this makes me so sick. Did they actually make a concious decision when they purchased that Gucci bowl? Do they think wasting money – and let’s be in agreement here, this is wasting money – is cute? Do they actually have a severe psychological problem? Are they aware of anyone outside of their own pitiful existence? Arrrgh!

Thanks for reading if you made it this far – this isn’t my normal style, but sometimes I have to just let the rage loose,as there are things in this world are just so wrong. As ever, remember the reason you’re being frugal in your own life – to be able to help those who have been born into poverty and bad situations through no choice of their own. You however, have a choice. You can choose to not be selfish with your earnings. You can choose to purchase a no-brand shirt in lieu of that Armani one you’ve been eyeing. You can choose to be financially and ethically responsible. Act now to change the lives of those in need.