Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Backalleys of Kawasaki-shi

For the duration of this blog our group has been talking about various modes of transportation that are all widely and frequently used by many people. For this last section, since we are discussing simple modes of transportation like walking, I would like to talk about something that is not talked about all that often. This would be the back alleys of the residential areas of Kawasaki-shi around Senshu University and the Kenshu-kan. From the narrow streets to the various nooks and crannies, there are numerous exciting places to explore and find out what lies around the corner.

One of the things that I was most surprised about was how despite the population density of Tokyo in general, the city is still very green. There are trees, small forests, and plants everywhere you look, and this greenery gives a very cozy impression. Because of all this greenery, even in the center of a packed residential zone, there are spectacular views and scenery to be found if only you spend the time to search for them. This exploring of the various back alleys around stations, residential areas, and commercial districts has been one of the highlights of this trip. Thankfully, because the large roads are relatively easy to find, if you search for them it is very hard to get lost. Retracing your steps is also very straightforward!

Perhaps my favorite place to go when I’m looking for some beautiful scenery is right next to the Kenshu-kan dormitories. Going up the path to the school, after a little walk there is a side street to the right that opens up into a beautiful field. Looking at it at night - when the wind is swaying the tall grass and the branches of the large trees that stretch far over your head - is a wonderful sight to see. There is also another beautiful valley that is much farther away from the dormitory on the way to Senshu University. When it opens up into a huge valley full of trees from your vantage point far above it, it is quite breathtaking.

I hope you enjoyed this little foray into the back alleys of Kawasaki-shi! I hope that I was able to paint at least a small picture of what they are like. I think everyone should try at least once to walk along the tempting path and sate their desire to explore!


Japan on Foot

Our main mode of transportation over this last month has definitely been the trains. When going to somewhere farther away, the trains are usually the most efficient means of getting there. They can be pretty fast, depending on where you’re going and which line you choose. However, they may not always be the best mode of transportation. When you ride on the trains, you bypass all the little stores hidden in the streets and alleys. A prime example of this is the trip from Noborito to Mukogaoyuen.

The trip is not a very long one. It’s only one stop away by train and only about 10 or 15 minutes walking. This is one of those times when it’s better to walk, as the ride from Noborito to Mukogaoyuen costs 120 yen. The walk between stations is a very interesting one. We’re able to see a variety of shops and restaurants lining the little road on our way back. Highlights of these include a hair salon, a bookstore with its books out in shelves on the street and a store called “Antiques and Junk”. On the train these little stores just pass by, but when you're walking you have a better opportunity to see what they offer and maybe take a look inside.

This is really the best way to discover Japan. Riding the trains the scenery flies by in blurs and it’s difficult to truly experience anything. When you choose to walk instead of take the train, you’re able to explore Japan for yourself. You may just discover your next favourite noodle shop, or that unique souvenir you’ve been searching for. Not to mention the exercise that comes from walking everywhere.

- Ken (Transcribed by Alex)

My Biking Misadventure

A couple of weeks ago I decided to take advantage of the bikes that can be borrowed from the dorms. I thought that since I ride my bike pretty often in summer in Calgary, I could manage to ride a bike in Japan. I wasn’t sure about whether or not helmets were required but there weren’t any provided with the bike so I assumed I would be ok.

The bike rental was fairly simple. You just need to sign your name on a list and have a RA co-sign. The bikes are only rented out for 3 hours at a time so you can’t ride them to school or to the train station to take a train. They’re really convenient if you want to go somewhere close like out for groceries or dinner. There is bike parking in front of most stores, so you can safely leave your bikes when eating or shopping.

For my bike ride I just wanted to test out the differences between Calgary and Japan so I decided to just stick close to the dorms. I chose to just ride to the station and back, just to get the feel of things. At 4 PM I left the Kenshukan, which was not a very good idea. The already-skinny road was packed with people making their ways home and I had to weave in and out trying to avoid them.

The ride was mostly fine until I faced my next obstacle; the bars that prevent cars from driving on the pedestrian path. All of the other cyclists seemed to be navigating them with ease so I decided it couldn’t be that hard. However, looks can be very deceiving. I was having so much trouble getting through the gates, I had to dismount from the bike. I ended up doing a lot of apologizing in Japanese. Luckily the guy directing traffic looked sympathetic.

Cycling in Japan is a very good idea. Public transportation can be very expensive and with all the delicious food in Japan you’ll need some form of exercise. However, there is some advice I would like to pass on. Don’t go biking when all the schools are getting out, especially for your first bike ride. Choose a path that’s not on the way to a train station. Have a bike with a bell attached, to warn people you’re behind them. This might seem a little intimidating, but it really was a good experience.

- Alex

Week 4 - The End to our Journey

Within the month of studying Japanese at Senshu University, we are now approaching the end of our journey. Our final exam has been completed and the stress that was like a dark cloud is finally cleared out. It is a sign of how we are finally free from all the school work we had to go through in the past month. The indescribable feeling of happiness did not only appear on our faces but also in the nice weather we got finally. Today was the first day we have ever experience a full day of beautiful hot sun as we are walking our way back down to the dormitory from school. The one month in Japan, we got to see and experienced how the Japanese choose which form of transportation suited best in their daily lifestyle.

The group of us went to further investigate in the area of where we stayed. From the time we leave the dormitory to either go to school or go to the train station, we had to commit ourselves into walking the distance. At first, the distance of walking seems a bit too much for those who are not use to walking anywhere back in Calgary. Some of us who drives most of the time, thinks walking is like a chore. Back in Calgary, walking anywhere is not as easy as you think. The problem lies within the spacious spread from the place you are initially at to the place you would like to go. In Japan, every little space of land does not go to waste. We can all see the difference right away. From the houses in the nearby neighbourhood to the vendor stores by the station, everything is closed in together. Through this perspective, our brain made us believe the time in walking to our destination doesn’t seem like a long distance. Everywhere you turn there is at least something to look at, from the local retailers to the vending machines. The case in Calgary would be complete opposite. With nothing to look at while you’re walking to a short distance, it seemed like you’ve been walking forever with no progress. It would also help if you have a group of friends to walk with. During the rush hour in the early morning and afternoon, we learned ways to sneak through the many crowds of students as they are heading towards the university. We see a lot of them walking closely together or some may choose to bike up the path. We find some people who choose to ride a bike learned to be skillful at it. The danger in trying to avoid hitting other people and trying to get through is a daily strategy. Each of us had summarized the best of the best in this last week together.

Throughout the four weeks I’ve been here in Japan, and as much as I would like to talk about the many good things about subway trains. I would like to talk about the safety of the walking path. All the female students are very aware of the danger in walking alone at night. I can sense the danger they are talking about when I walked with my friends during night time. Near our dormitory, we have to go through a narrow path way if we need to go to the supermarket, train station, and out to places to eat. The inconvenient is always that ten minute walk back and forth. If you really think about it, within the ten minutes, anything can happen. The narrow path in the dark is just as worst as walking in a dark sketchy alley. A Japanese conversation partner had told us to be careful once the sun sets. She had a friend who had been attacked by a “pervert killer” as the female Japanese student describing the attacker. It may sound funny at first as we all laughed at the matter. At the same time, it should not be a laughing matter. The best solution is never walk alone. Even when walking with another female friend, it may not seem safe. As a female student myself, I always look alert in case someone would try anything. Never take your time in walking, when you look like you’re in a hurry, people usually don’t pay attention to you. At least that’s how I see it. Always stick to the usual path, not a good idea if you decided to take a short cut. Overall, I do enjoy the time walking in Japan. Since I am one of the few who drives all the time in Calgary and very much dislike walking, I actually don’t mind walking a far distance. This has been a good experience and I learned a lot through this short journey.

~Mandy ^.^

Monday, May 24, 2010

Week 3 - Mandy & Ken


The popular usage of subway trains in Japan leads to a less usage of taxis. This doesn’t mean there are less taxis available for this city. Many taxis in Japan can seem like they are creating a higher image for the importance of each client. Automatic doors open up as the passengers are ready to go in are nice gestures and a greater feeling to have when you feel important. The daily starting rate of taxis is 710 yen for the first meter and for every additional meter you’re travelling, 90 yen will be added to the starting rate. This can be quite costly when everything is added up for the people in Japan, even for foreigners. Not only are the rates expensive during the day but it is 20% increase to the daily rate as the night approaches. We should definitely all remember to catch the last train if we can to avoid having to take the taxis at night as much as possible. But if worse does comes, the taxi option will always be at your convenience.

With horror stories that you may have heard about taxis, every taxis company made many aspect safe for the driver and passenger. Some taxis may have security camera installed for passenger’s knowledge in what is going on at the time of their ride. Another safety aspect inside the vehicle is the clear hard divider behind the taxis driver’s seat. This safety feature is mainly for the driver since many cases that happened while driving a drunken passenger home. While interviewing a student on campus, we were told about many cases where drunken passenger would start punching the seats almost causing a disturbance to the driver. Also with no memory from the passenger at times, this can be troublesome for both driver and passenger. It was surprising to hear about no matter how drunk the passenger is they are still a paying costumer. The taxi driver cannot refuse not to take the passenger who’s been drinking. If this was the case back in Calgary, we would be out of luck. There would be no taxis for anyone as the taxi driver usually refuses to take the drunken passenger in the vehicle.

Instead of the little advertisements in the washrooms of pubs, bars and night clubs, there are barely any advertisements for taxi in Tokyo. However, with the flashy color of all the taxis running around in Tokyo, it is really a live advertisement itself. There are so many different colors for Tokyo taxis, there are taxis that are all black, all green or all orange but there are also taxis with a base color such as yellow then have strips or checkered on top of it. Japanese taxi are really clean on the outside, in the three weeks time in Japan, I have yet to see a taxi with advertisements on the body of the car. On the taxi car body there are normally just the company name and company logo that the taxi is belonging to and the radio station that the driver is using to communicate. Most of the taxis also have the no smoking sign and some taxis even have the handicap logo indicating that they are handicap friendly.

With the high expense of taxi rides, different taxi companies offer different kinds of payment methods to try to be as convenient to the passengers as possible. Every taxi accepts the most basic payment, Japanese yen, and most of the taxis accept credit cards from major banks and Japanese local banks and also checks. Some companies even have the machines that allow the travelers to pay the fee by Suica or Pasmo. This is especially convenient for those people who doesn’t carry large amount of cash and doesn’t have a credit card. Other than Suica and Pasmo, some taxis also accept train cards from other part of Japan, such as ICOCA, TOICA and Nimoca and other electronic money. It is very convenient for those people from other part of the country coming to Tokyo for a short visit. They do not have to get a new card just for a couple of days and study the complicated train lines. Just hop on taxis that accept electronic money, then they can use the card that they already have. To use these cards on taxis are very easy, passengers doesn’t even have to take the cards out of their wallet, they just have to swipe their wallet on the machines like they usually do when entering a station to take a train.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Buses! - David & Alex

Although the train system in Japan is very efficient, there may be times that you need to go somewhere that the train lines don't reach. Luckily at these times buses and taxis are available to help people out. This week, David and I (Alex) will be focused on buses.

Taxis are definitely more convenient than buses, as they will pick you up from where ever and then get dropped off where you need to go, as opposed to at a specific stop. However, the convenience of a taxi comes with an increased cost. The base fare is 710 yen for 2 km, and then a distance rate. This could get very expensive if you have to go far, like from Shinjuku to Kokusai Kenshukan. The buses are more useful in the West because the Western train lines run mostly East-West and the buses run North-South.

It may be very intimidating to travel through the streets in anything larger than a bike because the streets in Japan are much skinnier that the streets in Calgary. It’s very difficult for the bus to manoeuvre through the skinny streets of Japan, especially since so many pedestrians chose to walk on the road. This makes the bus ride seem more dangerous than Calgary.

You get on the bus at a normal bus stop, just like in Calgary. The stops are similar to the stops in Calgary, with a small rain shelter and a bench. However, in spaces with limited area, they might only be a sign with the stop number on it. Finding the stops can be a very difficult task, as the stop may be only a small sign in an obscure area. If you don’t know what to look for, you may just pass them by. These factors add up and results in the bus ride not being recommended for foreigners.

Here is a website with the buses that are near to our station. This map is a little confusing, but it should give a very basic idea of the bus stops in Japan.

The way that you enter the bus depends on whether you enter at the starting point of the route or further along the route. If you get on at the beginning, you enter through the back doors and you don’t swipe your card until you get off the bus. Everyone is required to pay a standardized bus fare, around 200 yen. If you don’t get on at the beginning, you swipe your card once when you enter and once again when you get off.

On the bus there are various things that are convenient for passengers. There are buttons around the bus that you push when you’re arriving at your stop. However, unlike Calgary there’s no pull cord. Stops are announced over an intercom for everyone to hear, and they are also displayed on a LCD screen. This is really helpful for those who may have disabilities, like blindness or deafness.

There are many similarities between trains and buses. There’s priority seating available on the bus, which is distinguished by color coded seats. The ones at the back of the bus are open for everyone, while the ones near the front are priority seating for elderly, handicapped or expecting women. Like the trains, there is etiquette that you are expected to follow, like no talking on cell phones and turning your cell phone onto manner mode.

Ads on the buses are similar to Calgary. They run down the aisles of the seats on the roof much like the trains. There are specific ad buses, where the entire bus is painted as an advertisement. These can be found in Akihabara.

Highway Buses

One way to get around Japan is to use highway buses. This can be useful for the traveller who doesn’t want to pay for both lodging and transportation. Some of the buses drive all night so you don’t have to worry about finding a hotel. The high way buses run between most major cities.

The 2 main companies in Japan that offer highway buses are JR Bus Group and Willer Express. The JR Pass can be used on the some of the night buses offered by JR, but it is more convenient to use the train instead. However, if you are running low on funds and you don’t have a rail pass, the highway buses are a less expensive alternative. You can buy a specific one-way pass, a round trip ticket or a booklet of multiple tickets. There is usually a student discount. It’s cheaper to buy a round trip ticket than 2 one way tickets. However, there is a time limit for both the round trip ticket and the multiple ticket packs.

In conclusion, the buses in Japan are a lot more complicated than the buses in Calgary. Unless you’re travelling with someone who knows the system well, it is recommended that people in a hurry or with little or no Japanese knowledge stick to the trains.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Week 2 - Riding the Train

In Japan for many Japanese people, part of their daily routine is to ride the subway trains to commute around to many different destinations. As is the same with every other mode of transportation, if you would like to use this type of transportation, you have to pay first to get into the station. The self ticket vendors are convenient for everyone’s use. You are paying according to how many stops you’ve passed through. Once money is inserted into the machine, look at the map route of the destination you would like to go to find out the exact cost and then select the amount for the ticket you are purchasing. Once you get the ticket, slide it in the slot of the entrance gate, and the ticket will pop back up to the other end where you take it back with you.
If you have a Suica or Passmo card with money already loaded in it, then you don’t have to worry about calculating the costs until you are almost out of money. With the Suica card, you can just swipe it over a sensor at the entrance gate and your fare will be calculated for you.

When you are just about to enter to the platforms, there are signs directing everyone which platform they need to be at depending on where they are going. While on the platform, there are digital billboards telling everyone when and which train is approaching. When the destination has been reached, the procedure to exit is while approaching the exit gate, slide the ticket into the slot and this next the ticket would not come back out. This is a way of letting everyone know that they have reached the destination. The way how suica works is by scanning the card at the entrance gate and exit gate. With the final scan at the exit gate, the remaining amount on the card will be display each time.

As a female getting ready to ride the train, many things came across the mind. Looking around the surroundings, there are many males who would also be riding the same cart of the train. While waiting for the next train, there are males beside you, up front and even behind. In the female’s mind, most males are potential “chikan”. What to do in this situation? The many incidents that occurred before, lead to the actions of getting a “Women’s Only” cart during the morning peak hours which are displayed in the cars. There is no difference in the appearance of the “Women’s Only” cart and the regular carts. The way to identify the cart is the pink signage posted on the inside of the cart.

Before even entering the train, there is proper etiquette to lining up and boarding the train. There are lines painted on the ground, showing people where to line up and how many lines to make. This is extremely helpful, as it prevents people who come later from pushing in front of people who had been waiting for a while. When the train arrives, the doors stop right in front of the lines, once again preventing people from pushing their way to the front.

On the train there are many signs in both English and Japanese with accompanying pictures instructing people on how to behave. Manners and expected behaviours are very different in Japan compared to Calgary. For one, it’s expected that you don’t use your cell phone on the train and that it’s turned to “Manner Mode” for the duration of the ride. Most cell phones available in the electronic shops have a “Manner Mode” button between the call and end call button.

In addition, Japan also has seating specifically designated for priority seating. This includes people with small children or who are pregnant, elderly or disabled passengers. Although you are expected to give your seat to any of these passengers, these seats are especially handy because the people who sit there expect to give their seats away.

However, many of Japan’s “train etiquettes” are similar to what’s expected in Calgary. If you have a back pack with you, you’re expected to hold it in your lap or place it on a rack. You are supposed to sit close enough to the people beside you to allow the maximum amount of people to sit, and if someone who needs a seat gets on the train, you are expected to give up your seat.
Although it may be difficult for a person in a wheel chair to ride the train during rush hour, there are practices in place to help those who may have disabilities. Some of the signs are accompanied with Braille and there is priority seating reserved for those who need to sit. Accompanying the electronic signs announcing the next stop, announcements are made over a loud system.

A lot of Japan’s train etiquette expectations are the same in Calgary. The main difference between Japan and Calgary is that the expectations in Japan are more often followed than in Calgary.