Thursday, May 30, 2013

Restaurant: Maihama 舞浜

In no way do I consider myself to be a foodie. But I do appreciate a good meal from time to time. And living in Tokyo provides one with ample opportunity to try something new. So today as I trudge through the first of many Rainy afternoons( Japanese rainy season=> end of May through July) I am writing this entry about a decent Japanese fish restaurant in Shinbashi Tokyo. Maihama is the name of this back alley restaurant. I only stopped when I saw the long line figuring it must be decent.
I came last week for the Japanese harvest fish目鯛めだい for one thousand yen or about 10 bucks American. It was pretty good. Good enough for a second try anyway. Today is Saba no Miso-ni (サバの味噌煮. (chub) mackerel in miso sauce. Looks good huh?  Clockwise from the top left: Mackerel in Miso sauce, @#$#, Miso soup, pickled vegetables, white rice, steamed egg with mushroom and pork, and in the center is a selection of various sashimi (raw fish). 10 bucks? are you kidding me!

 Map to find this back alley restaurant. Shimbashi, KarasuMori Exit, The blue dot is the restaurant. I recommend using the KFC a block from the station as a landmark. Good luck!

*Maihama is also the name of a famous area/station in Tokyo, and often confuses Japanese when talking about this restaurant. fyi.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

A random MAY DAY

Time for a brief update and brain dump.
Just bought and registered a new motorcycle, a classic looking 250cc Yamaha, heavy enough to have some substance to it, but still narrow enough for lane-splitting. Just gotta find a GPS, a tank bag, and a new helmet and I will be set for some long distance riding. I think my first stop will be to the northern tip of Aomori to visit Obikawa, the crazy Tofu-maker.

Also got a new place in Ikebukuro, a comparatively cheaper area of Tokyo. With this move, I was just looking to stretch out a bit, learn something new about Tokyo. I have been living in a bunk for the last year, but the bunk was located 3 minutes from Tokyo station which is a really clean, ritzy area. So on paper it looks like I am downgrading (so said the loud-mouthed, porky pig look-a-look behind the counter of the insurance company last week)  but in reality I am upgrading to my own room with a balcony, parking for the new motorcycle and a new neighborhood to explore. I am excited. Albeit extremely busy.

Last week I celebrated my 27th birthday with friends at Yoyogi Park. Played football with Eric and some Japanese friends which is all I wanted for my birthday. Everything else was a bonus.

Continuing the count down to the JLPT, Japanese Language Proficiency Exam. I have been studying in between fulfilling social obligations ;) (aka going out), my own birthday party, and moving. July 7th I take the plunge. I hope first for motivation to keep studying and secondly to pass the damn thing. Top level might have been too ambitious.(yikes!)

Oh and just ate a box of Macaroni and cheese which Gram sent over from Wisconsin. It has been in the cupboard which I am slowly clearing out and eating up before completing the move. I didn't have any butter or milk to make it according to directions so I improvised with the only thing I had left in the fridge, a 1L bottle of Sesame Salad Dressing... anyway, that's life in a nutshell.

Til next time.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Wire Transfers and Transferring Money from Japan to the US


There are two things you need to consider when you choose the Japanese bank you will use to send money home via wire transfer:

1) Remittance Fee
2) Exchange Rate 

Everyone I have talked to knows when it comes to sending money home from overseas, banks are gonna take a piece of your hard earned cash. Although these small pieces add up, interestingly, no one seems to know the best way (cheapest) to get the better part of their money home. I will break down the process of what happens to your money when it leaves your bank, why it decreases once it gets to the other side, and finally, give you the tools necessary to decide for yourself what the best way is to transfer your money from Japan (or any country for that matter) to the US via wire transfer. 


Money goes to the Japanese bank goes to the US bank.
Simple enough. Remittance fees (cost of the wire transfer) are standard and can't be avoided. But depending on which bank you choose, you can save. 

Here are the going Remittance fee rates for a few of the popular banks, three of which I personally have accounts with (first 3 on the list). 
  1. Shinsei Bank = 4,000 yen
  2. Citibank = 4,000 yen (3,500 online)
  3. Mitsubishi UFJ Bank = 4,000 yen
  4. GoLloyds = 2,000 yen
I would say 4,000 is the average for sending large amounts of money (>100,000 yen) 

Anything less than around 100,000 yen and you will probably want to check out the American Express Travelers Check service found at the Japan Post Office (Japanese only) which charges 2% of the amount you choose to send. Then just mail it to your bank in the states, tell them to deposit it into your US account, and you can avoid handling charges associated with overseas remittances. You could also check out Western Union but I haven't looked into it at all but its connection to Seven Bank (Seven Eleven) may mean greater availability. 

After the Japanese bank takes a piece, either the money goes directly to your US bank if it accepts overseas wire transfers (it may or may not take a fee for this) (I use USAA which fortunately has free incoming international transfers). If your bank doesn't handle international wire transfers itself, then it uses an intermediary bank to handle the transaction and this intermediary bank will charge a handling fee. (Something to the tune of $20±10)
This is all pretty standard and basically you work with what you have up to this point. 

But the most important thing you can do to help yourself is research the various banks and services in your area for the "HIDDEN COST: EXCHANGE RATE" (yellow box in the diagram above). Even though I say Hidden Cost, I really mean 
a bank can hide its cheap remittance rate behind a bad exchange rate. Banks have the standard exchange rate and offer their customers something lower. Essentially the bank could make a profit on your transfer. For example the marketing is selling a dollar for 93 yen, the bank offers you 91 yen per dollar. They can essentially make 2 yen on every dollar deposited into your US bank account. But at first glance, the offered exchange rate is hard to understand. 

So let me break it down for you. Look at the various banks' websites and find their posted exchange rates. Should like something like these:

MUFJ                                 Golloyds                         Citibank                                      Shinsei

 * I focus on sending money from JAPAN to the US, this means work with the posted TTS Exchange Rate. 

You can very easily calculate with the TTS rate how much you should receive in the target currency (US$). I will include the calculation here: I want to send 250,000 yen using the TTS rate of 90.00 using Citibank. 
  1. First subtract the remittance fee. This is always taken out before it is sent by your Japanese bank. 250,000-4,000=246,000 yen
  2. Divide the remainder by the TTS rate. 246,000/ 90.00 TTS= $2,733.33.   This is the final amount I receive in my US bank account (if it is sent directly without any additional fees).
For comparison, let's look GoLloyd's
  1. 250,000-2,000=248,000
  2. 248,000/90.14 TTS= 2,751.28
Looks like with GoLloyd's I can get an extra  $17.95  (2,751.28-2,733.33=17.95) and in these topsy-turvy economic days every little bit helps especially if you have to do this every month to pay student loans, as I do. 

Finally, what you need to know: 
The banks update their posted rates every few hours on their websites, and somedays depending on the hour, you may be able to get a better exchange rate from one bank than another. Thus, in an ideal world you would want to take a sample of data points to compare and see which bank routinely provides the best exchange rate over an extended period of time. But really, who was time for all that noise? especially when you need to get that money home fast. 
Well it just so happens that I have been collecting the exchange rate data on these same four banks over the past 6 months and I am presenting the results here so you can see which bank routinely offers the highest exchange rate. My apologies for the information that is missing:

I performed the calculation from above and put it into an excel sheet. Dollars to Yen is a website I use to check the latest TTS rate of the market. I presented it here as a sort of control...It is not an actual financial institution. Also, in the very bottom right corner you see "Citibank without remittance fee" because this is what I use to send my 250,000 yen home every month, its a benefits program my company has with Citibank. This special case aside 
The bank that routinely comes out on top, month after month, is GoLloyds. 
So from a purely exchange rate standpoint, Golloyds would be your best bet to save as much as possible. That being said, everyone is going to have a different set of circumstances that dictate how this transfer gets done. Other points to consider:
  • ease of setting up an account
  • proximity to the bank
  • frequency of wire transfers
  • possibility of upgrading your bank account to access the bank's premier exchange rate. 
  • availability of services: i.e. online access, English customer support
  • plethora of other banks out there, that could vary well offer a better exchange rate

 It is only my goal to shed some light on a topic I personally found to be a bit murky when I first settled down in Japan. And I realize that in some cases we are taking about the difference of saving a few bucks. I know it isn't much. But it does add up. And I for one just like knowing whats happening with my money.

If you have some info or a personal experience to share about banking in Japan or transferring money home COMMENTS WELCOME. Thanks for reading. 


Friday, February 15, 2013

What does this chocolate mean?!?

How to find out whether you got giri-chocolate or honmei-chocolate from your Japanese female friend. 

For the Japanese Valentine's Day, a woman can typically give one of two kinds of chocolates. 

Courtesy chocolate (giri-chocolate) or the more sincere Honmei-chocolate. 
Japanese woman making homemade sweets for her lucky Valentine (Honmei-chocolate)

Giri-choco is given to co-workers, teachers, and usually doesn't include any romance. Often comes in the form of a small store-bought box of chocolates or sweets. Usually not too expensive. 
Honmei on the other hand is usually handmade or a better quality store-bought chocolate than its counterpart, the giri-choco. And often implies the romantic intentions of the giver to the receiver. 

But sometimes it can be hard to tell the difference between the two as the giver often will not say. 

(That being said I heard that sometimes a note is included with the Honmei-choco with something of a confession of "interest" if the giver is less shy than the typical Japanese woman). 

So, gentlemen, you will need to ask if you aren't sure. 
Here is how you find out . 

1. Approach the woman in a somewhat private setting (but don't be a creep about!), like at the office water cooler or break room.  

2. Thank her for the gift of chocolate. 

3A. If it was store-bought make a comment like: "Oh, it must have been expensive..."

3B. If it was hand-made make a comment like: "Oh, it must have been difficult to make..."

4. Follow both with, "Did you give many chocolates?" 

PAY ATTENTION!! Now, she will answer one of two ways: 
Negatively "Oh, yeah I gave some to Sanno-san, Yamada-san and Charles"  (Sad frowny face time, gentlemen). Return the favor on March 14th (White Day) and think upon it no more. 

Positively: ", not really" as she looks away shyly.  
MONEY! Smile, boys, and ask her to meet you for a date at a nice Italian restaurant. 

Honmei-choco after all. OK!


Breaking Down Valentine's Day in Japan

Yesterday was Valentine's Day and proved to be a pretty good day for your's truly so I thought I would jot down a few thoughts about the experience.

First off, Valentine's Day in Japan and other East Asian countries is pretty different from what we know in the west. Let me break it down for you.

What's the same?

  • Celebrated on February 14th
  • Chocolate is most commonly associated gift item
  • Highly commercialized LOVE-themed holiday

  • In Japan, generally women give the chocolate
  • Chocolate is divided into two types based on the giver's intention; giri-choco (GEE-lee CHOE-koe) and honmei-choco (Hone-may CHOE-koe)
  • Receiver can be a male co-worker, a male teacher, a male crush, etc. 
  • Men return the gift on March 14th, aka White Day (see explanation below)
  • Gifts are exchanged regardless of gender
Now, the giri-choco(late) is a gift of courtesy chocolate that should be given to a male co-worker or male teacher. You might ask "why". Because it is Valentine's Day. Its just custom and social pressure may dictate. It is usually a small gift of chocolate, not very expensive, and can be easily bought in a convenience store or department store. 
From the lovely ladies at the law office.
From one of my students.

The honmei-choco(late), on the other hand, carries with it a bit more sincere, and deeper meaning.
Honemei-choco is given to a male co-worker, teacher, or other crush and is usually given in the form of homemade chocolate fudge, cookies, or sometimes a more extravagant store-bought candy. 
In fact, they sell little kits for making home made chocolates and sweets for just this purpose. 

I think you realize then that there maybe some overlap and thus could be hard to tell the difference between a gift of giri-choco and a gift of honmei-choco. 
Understanding the difference is important for the next step. Unsure about what kind of chocolate you just received? Click here to figure out what your chocolate means.

After you figure out what kind of chocolate you received, the gentleman should proceed as follows. 

If it is a gift of giri-choco, the guy is to return the favor with a gift of white chocolate, marshmallow, cookies, or candies on the specially designated White Day, March 14th. A holiday started by confectionaries in Japan for the man to return the gift to the woman or women he received something from on Valentine's Day. Click here for the detailed wikipedia page on White Day

If it is a honmei-choco gift and the guy is romantically inclined towards the woman, then its up to the guy to reply soon with an invite for a date. If he isn't so inclined, then he can simply return the gift with something suitable on White Day (March 14th) and not say anything further. If it is the former, and the guy is interested, I guess technically he could wait until March 14th but that would be pushing it by this American's standards. And if you can't figure that out for yourself, then she probably just wasted some good flow on your sorry butt. IMHO. :-P

Anyway, there you have it. Valentine's Day: EAST VS WEST. 

Happy Valentine's Day! May it rain chocolate on you.  

Thanks for reading. 


Friday, January 4, 2013

Curtain call for 2012

Thus ends my first full year on the road with eyes to the sky for more. This first year in Japan has been good. I will recount some of my successes here. I will also express regrets for things not yet accomplished and finally wrap up this post with hope of things to get done in 2013.

Where to begin?

When I came to Japan in November 2011, I had a ton of student debt, an empty bank account, and no job. But what I did have were two things: a positive attitude and an impervious will to make a life of travel. 
Sure it wasn't exactly a 'perfect' plan and I soon found myself in a pretty precarious position with nearly maxed-out credit cards (even just scrapping by on the bare essentials) and a standard, 90-day Japanese tourist visa about to expire. It also didn't help things that as I was couch-surfing at my uncle's place I was really imposing on them. Plus there was some concern that I wouldn't be able to find a job; that I was pretty reckless in coming to Japan without a dime to my name nor a job, etc.  As uncomfortable as things were for my relatives and the few friends I stayed with, never once did I feel unwelcome. For that I am truly grateful to them. 

But as that 90 day limit was drawing near and I found myself deeper in debt than when I arrived, I started to realize the cold touch of uncertainty lurking, creeping like a chill up one's spine. I knew I had to start making some money. I scoured the internet and craigslist. I started selling advertising space on this blog to google. To date I have made JPY2,800 (about $30) in about one year. That wasn't about to cut it. 

Work in Japan
My first 'real' job in Japan came from an advertisement for a "paid per-gig"job I saw on craigslist Tokyo. Click here to read about the details of this, the craziest thing I have done to make money in Japan. But this certainly wasn't going to cut it either. I needed a full-time gig and fast as I only had 30 days left on my visa and still no job. So referring to my former professor's site, Professor Steve Ridgely, I was able to pick up a few good leads on where to find work. (By the way, this is truly a great resource not only for getting by in Japan, but also for doing research and exploring Japanese culture in depth). 

I picked a few of the famous English conversation schools as I learned this would be the quickest way to get work in Japan. I submitted my applications online and had interviews with GABA and Berlitz, two of the more well-known conversation schools in Japan. With only 3 weeks left on my visa, I went to GABA for 3, yes 3 interviews. There was a good mix of people at the interviews. If you have a visa for scholarship or a spousal visa you have an excellent chance of getting a job with GABA. But if you are needing visa sponsorship from the company (required for a work visa) then you are going to be scrutinized fairly stringently. In the meantime I had a phone interview and 1 live interview with Berlitz and was invited to Berlitz's week long, unpaid Instructor Training Program. It is possible to be cut during this period if you are found lacking in ability or professionalism but for all intents and purposes I considered myself 'in'. 

The hardest part of this whole job process was just getting to the training. As it was unpaid and I was commuting an hour one way, I actually had trouble just scrapping together the cash to pay the train fee. One day I jumped on my used scooter and drove the 1 hour trying anything and everything to save a few bucks. I was the only one still shivering an hour into training that day.  If you asked me today would I do it again if I had to do it all over,  well, let's just say I am not going to be putting myself in such a precarious position financially ever again. These trying times sure made me appreciate having so much. Click here to read about the craziest thing I have done to save money in Japan.

Well I managed to pass training and get a working visa with only 4 days to spare.

That was probably the biggest accomplishment for 2012, getting permission to stay and work in Japan.
In order of importance my other successes, if you will call them that, are as follows:

  1. Japanese driver's license (notoriously difficult)
  2. Paying off 100% of my credit card debt and starting in on student loans
  3. Thoroughly scolding my 14 year old cousin for skipping school by dragging him out of bed at 10:30am on a school day and marching him straight to the principal's office, making him apologize for being late. Mean but needed to be done. x2
  4. Finding a part-time job which allows me to speak more Japanese in a Japanese setting. 
  5. Losing the "freshman fifteen" and keeping it off due to a balanced diet and exercise routine. 
  6. Getting home once to the US this year and not having to pay a single dime. (details to follow)
I could include so much more as witnessed by the various blog posts included on this site but those are the main ones. As for regrets and resolutions for this year. Well...

  • I still haven't taken the Japanese Proficiency Exam N2 or N1. Of the 5 levels, I still only have the 3rd level which isn't useful at all when it comes to finding work. I was signed up for the July exam but was too busy to attend and I completely missed the signup for the December test. 
  • I didn't blog about half of the stuff I intended to. And I have a ton of pictures just waiting to be used
  • I still don't use enough Japanese in my daily life to make any improvement although I do have several language exchange partners who are a big part in helping me with that

So resolutions for 2013 to carry forward with the positive momentum of last year:

     A. Must study for and pass the N1 Japanese Proficiency Exam
     B. Circumnavigate Japan on motorcycle and/or visit the 47 prefectures 都道府県 via the same。
     C. Write a blog piece twice a month in English and once a month in Japanese
     D. Get first apartment of my very own, no roommates
     E. Bring my siblings over to visit and stay with me as often as is financially possible

In any case it was a good year, I am hoping for a better one, and pray that you do too. Now. Ready. Set. Lets do this!
Thanks for reading!

 P.S. This is what I wear under my suit to work everyday. GO PACKERS!!