Money Matters…

2016-02-03

The above photo shows all the equivalent denominations of money between Japan and the US. Sorry…  didn’t have a 500 yen coin, or a 50 cent coin. Also, there apparently are 2000 yen bills, but they are not used as often, and I have never seen one.

One thing that has really surprised me about living in Japan, is that Japan is much more of a cash-based society than the United States. In the US, I rarely carry much cash — preferring instead to pay for most things with a credit card. Most fast food restaurants and even vending machines in the US will take credit cards, so why carry around a bunch of money? I rarely even pay by check in the United States.

In Japan, however, many places are cash only. Bigger purchases can still be paid for by credit card, but for smaller purchases you are expected to pay with cash. Personal checks are not used at all. Our relocation consultant told me that in general, when eating out, credit cards are only used for dinners. Breakfast, lunch, fast food, coffee, snacks, etc are all paid for with cash.

So…  I end up carrying a bunch of money in my wallet. Much more than I ever carried in the US. That is all well and good except for the denominations of the money. I end up with hand-fulls of coins! With the current exchange rate, 1 Japanese yen in roughly equivalent to 1 US penny. So, 100 yen roughly equals $1. Which makes conversions back and forth fairly easy and simple. But… in the US, we have coins for up to $1, and mostly use coins of up to 25 cents. We mostly pay with the paper bills in the US, and then get back a small amount of coins in change. In Japan, they have coins for up to 500 yen — the equivalent of the $5 bill in the US. The smallest paper money that they use is the 1000 yen note — equivalent to a $10 bill in the US. So, if I go to a store in Tokyo and buy something for less than 1000 yen, all my change comes back to me in coins. I have been trying to retrain myself to pay for things with the coins in my wallet instead of automatically reaching for the paper bills. (My husband really hates having all those coins jangling in his pockets.)

As with pennies in the US, we seem to especially accumulate those almost worthless 1 yen coins. I already have a jar of them. I am not sure where or how I can get rid of them, short of taking the time to count out “pennies” at the cash register — not really wanting to do that… lol. Some stores have jars at the register to put unwanted 1 yen coins into — like the “take a penny, leave a penny” jars at home in the US.

One other option that we have found for small purchases at vending machines and some convenience stores, is to pay with a transit card. Suica and Pasmo cards are used to ride the subways and buses around Tokyo. Value is added to these cards at the subway station kiosks — but, cash only…  lol.

 

On Time-Zone-Bouncing, and etc…

This blog is intended to talk about our experiences moving to Japan and living as expats there, but in the past 3+ weeks since we left our home in Atlanta and moved to Tokyo, we have — both my husband and myself — spent quite a bit of time on other international trips, bouncing from time zone to time zone. It has been something of a surreal experience at times…  With my body clock turned upside down most of the time, I find myself awake in the middle of the night mulling over all of this stuff. For instance:

  • Japan (across the International Date Line) is 14 hours ahead of our Atlanta time zone. Every time we communicate with family back in the US, we have to take that time difference into consideration. But this past week, my husband traveled to Buenos Aires, Argentina, which is 12 hours behind Tokyo time, and 2 hours ahead of Atlanta time.
  • Yesterday, he flew 14 hours to Frankfurt, Germany for another meeting, and I flew 12 hours from Tokyo to meet him there. Frankfurt is 8 hours behind Tokyo time, and 6 hours ahead of Atlanta time. When he communicates with his company in Tokyo, and his company in Atlanta, he has to consider all three time zones.
  • Next week, we travel back to Atlanta to finalize arrangements for our home there, and storage for our car, so we will be back to being 14 hours behind Tokyo time…  for a week. Then it is back to Tokyo, and we start all over acclimating to Tokyo time.
  • Jet lag affects the body in so many different ways. Disruption of sleep patterns, appetite, digestion… everything. Our days and nights have been flip-flopped over and over with this ridiculous travel schedule. Granted… things will settle down once we get back to Tokyo. This initial month has been unusual. My husband won’t be traveling this much routinely… Thank goodness.
  • My flight from Tokyo yesterday tracked east to west over northern Siberia — almost to the arctic circle — and back down over Scandinavia to Germany. Next week we will again fly east to west to get to Atlanta, then finally east to west to get back to Tokyo. At the end of all that, I will have circumnavigated the globe. Lol… cool. Kind of weird to think about flying all the way around the world like that.

Other stuff:

  • Here in Frankfurt, I am missing the heated seat of the Japanese toilet in our Tokyo apartment. Lol… Crazy how fast I got used to that.
  • Our first meal in Frankfurt was at a Sushi restaurant. We ate Japanese food in Germany. Actually…  there seem to be a lot of Asian restaurants here. And, there seem to quite a few Asian people here. Frankfurt is a major business and finance center in Europe,and not so much a tourist destination. The hotel restaurant where we had breakfast this morning was about the most international experience I have ever had. So many different cultures and languages all in one place!
  • We took the subway into downtown Frankfurt this morning, and actually ate “frankfurters” and German potato salad for lunch (along with some fairly good German beer), and topped off with hot “apfelwein”…  the apple wine that Frankfurt is famous for. So…  we are still experiencing the local cuisine as well.
  • Our hotel here in Frankfurt is sandwiched between the airport and a regional train station — as well as the Frankfurt subway. We see airplanes landing outside our window…  and there is a multi-lane highway just below our window. It is surprisingly quiet in our hotel room considering all that activity outside.

Just some random thoughts…

 

 

On the road again

Today is another travel day. After a week in Buenos Aires – warm, sunny, summer in Buenos Aires – I leave today for Frankfurt and a week of meetings there.

I have had fewer problems with jet lag on this trip than I have expected. I still get very sleepy around dinner time, and last night I totally collapsed in bed by 10 p.m. But overall, I haven’t felt that almost overwhelming exhaustion that I have on some other international trips. Maybe I’m getting used to the changes.

I will leave around noon today to catch a bus to the airport with some of my colleagues. That will get me there quite early for my late afternoon flight. I am counting on the airport having wifi access, and ideally a restaurant where I can camp out for an afternoon with a light lunch and maybe a mid-afternoon drink.

This has been an unusual month of travel for me. The number of trips, and in particular the number of international trips, is something new for me. I’m gaining a great appreciation for people who do this kind of travel regularly. I find it mentally and physically challenging. The process of going through security and customs is similar but somewhat different from place to place. Do I take my laptop out of my bag? Shoes off or on? I forgot to take my passport wallet out of my hand at one airport, and it alarmed the metal detector. Earned me the wand and patdown search, and a delay getting reunited with my other belongings going through the x-ray machine.

And so far, my travel has been pretty smooth. A little hang-up leaving Japan, as I had been instructed to leave my residence card with my wife to have it registered as she moved into our new apartment. The customs agent wasn’t happy about that, and I wasn’t sure she was going to let me through. Finally I signed a form and was passed through, with the unsaid message that this American just didn’t understand the established process.

Otherwise, things have gone pretty smoothly. Flights on time, checked luggage arrived intact, found my way on ground transportation to where I needed to go. I’m hoping that level of ease continues. Three more flights in the next two weeks, and I’ll be back to re-start my new life in Japan.

 

Setting up a home…

While my sweet husband has been traveling the world and is still currently in Buenos Aires, Argentina, I have meanwhile been here in Tokyo taking care of the more mundane aspects of establishing our “home” for the next two years. After he left on Sunday for that tedious 30 hour ordeal to get to South America, I spent my last night in the Celestine Hotel, Tokyo.

Bright and early Monday morning, I packed up our belongings and met the relocation representative in the lobby to move everything to our Tokyo apartment. At the apartment, after inspecting for damage, we left the rental company to set up the furniture, and walked to Minato-ku City Hall to register the residence and have the residency cards updated with the new address. I somehow thought that this would all be very quick and routine, but no…  The person behind the desk knew no more English than I knew Japanese, and while I stood blankly watching, the relocation rep handled the paperwork (which was all in Japanese.) At one point they turned to me to ask if I could write the Katakana (Japanese characters) version of my name. OMG… What? Finally, I remembered Google Translate, and typed my name into the app in English, and out popped my name in…  Katakana.

After an hour listening to our relocation representative speak to the City Hall staff, finally we were officially registered, signed up for the national health program, and had filled out the waiver for the Japanese pension fund. Yikes! How can this really be so complicated? I never imagined all that was involved in this process.

After that mind-numbing ordeal, I was taken by subway to the Softbank store to buy a Japanese cell phone to use here. I have always been an android user, but now I have in my possession a brand new iPhone 6s… with a brand new Japanese phone number!  (Still trying to figure out how to set up the iPhone.) Buying the iPhone was also somewhat of an ordeal… the salesperson spoke English — and in fact, had gone to school in California for a while — but still… the language is so difficult to follow.

That brings up a really important point here. Of course there is a language issue, but it is even more than me not knowing very much Japanese. I have found that even if the person I am speaking to knows English, I still have trouble understanding. They speak to me with Japanese-tainted English,and I speak to them with English-tainted Japanese! We are both trying so hard to listen and understand, but it is very difficult, and time consuming. This process of acclimating and learning to fit into Japanese culture is going to take time… lots of time. It cannot be accomplished in 3 short weeks. Much patience is required…  on both sides.  It is easy to get frustrated…  but, I am learning.

Yesterday, I received our air shipment from home.  The movers brought in the boxes we had shipped, and now the apartment is feeling a bit more like a real home. I have the kitchen more or less set up,and have actually bought some groceries and cooked a meal there. There are still things we need to get the place organized, but it is coming along.

Today was getting the internet set up and configured. The first technician was very cordial, but spoke not one word of English.  He connected the internet, and left. The second technician brought the wireless router and configured the network. He spoke English, but again…  it is that Japanese English that I am working so hard to listen to and understand. Anyway…  it all got done, and we are connected to internet.

Again…  I am in no way criticizing or complaining about this process. I know it all has to happen. I am just trying to explain what an involved and mentally exhausting process this has been. I look forward to learning more Japanese so that I can communicate more effectively while we are here. The communication issue here is such a complicated thing involving not just the words, but the writing system, and the culture and history of this wonderful society. I am happy to have my little apartment all set up now… a refuge. Not a place to hide, but a place to recover before my next adventure in Japan.

The challenges of international travel

This week, I am having the opportunity to participate in an international meeting in Buenos Aires, Argentina. It’s a great opportunity and I’m learning many things. I am also experiencing the challenges of international travel.

First of all, it is a LONG trip from Tokyo to Buenos Aires. The first leg of my journey began at Tokyo’s Haneda airport – just a short subway ride from the area in Tokyo where we live.

I left Tokyo on Sunday afternoon bound for Frankfurt, Germany. A “short” 12 hours later, the flight landed on time in Frankfurt. Did I sleep on the plane? Well, I had my eyes closed part of the time, but I wouldn’t really call it sleep.

The connecting flight was just a short walk away, and I had about three hours to wait. The terminal at first seemed strangely vacant of people, particularly given it was early in the evening, Frankfurt time. But people slowly began to arrive, and soon the departure lobby filled.

The next leg was the long one – nearly 14 hours from Frankfurt to Buenos Aires. That’s a really long time to sit in an economy seat on an airplane. Fortunately, the seat next to my isle seat was vacant, so I had a little more room to stretch. I watched a movie and some TV. The cabin was dark and I was a little more successful in sleeping. Still, I wouldn’t consider it a very satisfying rest.

A coulple of hours before scheduled landing, we had a surprise. The pilot announced that there was bad weather in Buenos Aires, and we were being diverted to Sao Paulo, Brazil to refuel. Not the plan, but guess I would prefer they make sure there is plenty of fuel to get where we are going. The stop was brief – we stayed on the plane for about 45 minutes while it was refueled. Then we were back in the air, and on the way to Buenos Aires.

I didn’t mention the airline food. There is a lot. They do their best to make it edible. Some is pretty good, some not so much. But breakfast on the last leg was welcome and included some much-needed water and juice.

Arrival at Buenos Aires was uneventful. Fairly long line to go through customs – it took around 45 minutes to wait. But once at the customs agent booth the process was quick and effortless.

My immediate impression of Buenos Aires is that it’s warm – it is summer in the southern hemisphere! So my cold weather clothes are not needed. The leaves are on the trees, the air is wonderfully mild, and we enjoyed lunch on the patio outside the hotel.

Unfortunately it is also 12 hours behind Japan time. I was just about to adapt to Japan time zone after moving from Atlanta. My body is now trying to adjust to going back in time again. Probably the bigger issue is just getting used to thinking about the time difference. In Japan, home in the United States is 14 hours behind. Here, Japan is 12 hours ahead…so if I call my wife at 2 p.m. here, it is 2 a.m. in Japan…oops.

All in all, this is a good experience. I feel like I am an experienced traveler, having traveled internationally many times. But the magnitude of this trip is different, and I find that just keeping track of everything — cell phone, passport, wallet, backpack, etc. — is surprisingly challenging. And since I have two more trips before returning to Japan, I have to keep track of those travel plans, hotel arrangements, schedules, and the like. The logistics seem harder than I would expect. I’m assuming that will get easier as I travel more frequently.

 

On complexity, and travel

As the “he” part of the blog team, I’ve been busy getting acclimated to my first full week in the office. It’s an interesting place. Truly a multi-national office with people from not only Japan, but Korea, Pakistan, India, Russia, United Kingdom, and probably several others I’m not aware of yet.

In our office, the official language is English. I greatly admire all my colleagues who speak English as a second language. I only wish I had such a command of a second (or third or fourth) language.

That said, it is often a challenge to communicate. We are working with difficult and complex issues. I find it challenging to listen to my native language with so many different accents. And at times, my comments are met with quizzical or blank expressions. We are all speaking basically the same language, but the meaning behind the words isn’t always getting through.

Perhaps this will get easier as I become acclimated to a new environment where there is so much more diversity. But as I start to make the adjustment, I now have three weeks of travel ahead.

I’ve known since I came here that I would have this travel schedule. It seemed feasible during the “thinking about it” phase. Now that the time is here, I see how difficult this is really going to be.

So far we have been living in a hotel room. Nice enough, but a hotel…kind of small, eating out all meals. On Monday, we move into our apartment….but I won’t be there. I’ll be several thousand miles and many time zones away. My wife will have to do all the move-in things by herself. Of course she’s up to the task, but I want to be there.

I’m just getting adjusted to this time zone. Now I go to a different one for a week, then another trip for a week, then back to the US for a week to finalize the move out of our house to turn it over for leasing. Meaning in three weeks, I start the acclimation process all over. Get adjusted to the new office…adjust to the time zone…starting over.

All in all, I’m glad to be here and I think this will be a great experience. If I could do it over, I would strongly urge not scheduling travel so soon after arrival. The better way would be to come here, make the big change, and get acclimated. That’s a hard enough adjustment. Having an extensive travel schedule adds a level of stress and complexity that really isn’t the optimal way to make this huge life change.

 

 

Three more nights in the hotel…

Three more nights staying in this hotel. By then it will be 2 weeks and one day living here.  It is a nice enough hotel…  It has been very comfortable, if somewhat of a tight fit with all of our suitcases. It has nice facilities…  Free wifi (very important!) Restaurants are mediocre and hugely overpriced, but that is to be expected. They have a nice guest lounge — which is where I am now while they clean our room — and it has free coffee/espresso, so I’m happy with that. The hotel staff is all very friendly and attentive. We have enjoyed our stay here.

But…  It is a hotel…  and I am tired of not having my own space. I used to envy my husband for his travel. No company I have ever worked for has offered to send me somewhere and put me up in a hotel and pay for all my meals. It sounded like such an exciting thing to travel for work. I really appreciate that his company is taking such good care of us here, but I am so ready to be in our own place and settled again. We have been living out of suitcases for long enough.

Sunday, my husband leaves for another business meeting — this one in Buenos Aires. I don’t envy him this trip because it involves nearly a full 24 hours of travel from Tokyo…  First leg to Frankfurt (11 hours), three hour layover, then a second flight to Argentina (another 10 or 11 hours.) I — in the meantime — will be moving into our Tokyo apartment on Monday morning, and getting things set up there. Our shipped goods from home will arrive Tuesday.

The relocation company, fortunately, has been handling most of the set up and arrangements — since we are not very fluent in the language here. They have rented the furniture, and set up utilities…  I have to arrange for cable and internet, but they are helping with that as well. They will pick me up from the hotel, and help get the bags moved to the apartment, be there for the “key ceremony” (when they hand over the key to me), and they will take me to City Hall to register and get updated Residence Cards. There are a lot of rules here in Japan. A lot of hoops to jump through to come live here. I am thankful to the company and the relocation service for helping with all of this.

We met yesterday with our tax adviser… Taxes get really complicated when you are an Expat. We will have to pay taxes in the US and here in Japan as well. So… the company has provided us with an adviser here and one back in the States. I think it will all turn out fine, but right now all of these details and arrangements are making me a bit crazy. Who knew at the outset what all was going to be involved here? When they first suggested this loaned assignment, all we thought about was experiencing another culture. No one said, “Hey…  think about this…”

I am not regretting this decision…  LOL, at least not yet… I do still believe that the opportunities will be worth all of this hassle, but this is certainly turning into an eye-opening experience.

Three more nights. I am excited to move on!