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Posts tagged Japan

Guess the Japanese train station

japan rail company train station

The first person to guess which train station in Japan I took today’s photo at wins a virtual pat on the back.

Exchanging USD $ for Yen

RyogaeOn our prior trip to Japan I discovered that you can save several percent on currency exchanges by purchasing International Postal Money Orders with US dollars and then changing them into yen in Japan. Before this trip/move to Japan I called my bank and credit card company to see what their new rules are for international transactions. The banks and credit companies have increased fees on nearly everything in the past year and international transactions are no exception. My credit card company told me they will charge $3 plus 3% for every transaction I make in Japan. My bank will charge me $5 per withdrawal, but they wouldn’t say how much they will take on the spread between the market exchange rate and their rate. I’ll find that out when I use my ATM here soon. In any event, options 7, 8, and 9 on the above link no longer look very attractive.

I was going to purchase thousands of dollars in International Postal Money Orders and convert them into yen at the Narita Airport. Then I found out that the post offices in the airport close at 4 p.m., and our plane doesn’t land until 4:30. On to Plan B. I need to convert money at a bank in the airport. After researching the current Narita airport rates I decided it would be much better (almost 2% better) to use traveler’s checks (also spelled traveller’s cheque, travellers cheque, and traveller’s check) instead of cash. I recently opened a “Complete Advantage” checking account to go along with my “Wells Fargo Money Market Savings” account. I’m not sure which account has it, or if it is a combination of the two, but having them allowed me to obtain traveler’s checks for free. So that is what I did.

You may be thinking, “boy, this is a lot of effort to save a few dollars,” but this is more than a few dollars. I asked the teller how much these traveler’s checks would cost me if I didn’t have my accounts. She said they would have cost $325. I purchased $15,000 worth since we are going to be in Japan for a year. With travel’s checks getting almost a 2% better exchange rate, that adds up to almost another $300. So doing a little research will save me at least $625. Had I just used a credit card everywhere in Japan the damage could have been far worse.

I’ll soon let you know some exact rate differences for your planning purposes.

The characters in the graphic to the above left are 両替 (りょうがえ or ryogae) which means “money exchange” or “changing of currencies”.

Plum blossoms

I have been reading Chronicles of My Life: An American in the Heart of Japan for the past couple weeks with my son. Last night we read an illuminating passage that I thought I’d share. From page 124…

“I went to the Kitano Tenmangu, where the plum blossoms were first opening. Although I knew from many poems how much the fragrance of plum blossoms was appreciated by innumerable generations of Japanese, I had never really been aware of any special fragrance even when I stood directly under a plum tree in bloom. Obviously, my sense of smell was deficient. This time, in order to savor fully the most typical fragrance of Japan, I pressed my head against the blossoms… Only then did I manage to catch a whiff of the celebrated scent. I suppose that people who have grown up in the West think of the scent of flowers in terms of the strong perfume of the rose or the carnation, and it takes some effort to catch the delicate fragrance of plum blossoms, but it was natural for the Japanese to praise this elusive fragrance rather than the heavy scent of the lily. The Japanese of the past (and probably of the present too) found strong fragrances cloying and prized instead the clean but almost imperceptible perfume of plum blossoms, just as they preferred faint coloring to bright primary colors in paintings or avoided strong flavors in Japanese cuisine. This moment of recognition brought pleasure.”

Japanese learning materials for sale or trade

Yesterday I finished the previously mentioned Kochi Kame. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this manga. It turned out to be not so Scooby Doo like after all. Only the first few episodes had similar storylines. The rest showed a wide variety of plots and were unpredictable so that was good.

After finishing I tossed the book into a drawer filled with other Japanese things I’ve finished (since my bookshelves are already overflowing). I realized then that I have too much to read in the next year before returning to Japan so there is no way I will revisit these again. That being the case, I’m willing to part with them for cash or trade.

japanese learning materials for sale mangajin nihongo journal genki benkyo

Here is what I have:
Mangajin cover
Japanese Business Glossary, 220 pages from 1983
Dictionary of Legal Terms, about 550 pages from 1993
– 5 issues of Mangajin, Nos. 9, 17, 18, 19, and 21 (Note that issues 9 and 19 are very rare and can no longer be purchased from the publisher for the normal $6.50 to $20 an issue plus postage. No. 21 is also rare and available for $20 + shipping from the publisher.)
Nihongo Journal, June 1993 (These are no longer available from the publisher and usually go for $20+ an issue when they show up on eBay.)
Kochi Kame, 190 pages, 158 kan from January of 2008.

All of these items include translations and/or furigana so you don’t have to have intermediate or advanced Japanese skills to benefit.

You can have them all for US$50 delivered in the U.S. If you don’t want everything, if you are outside of the U.S., or if you’d like to trade for these items, email me and we can arrange different terms.

Changing U.S. dollars into Japanese Yen

One of the more popular questions in Japanese travel forums on the internet relates to finding the best rates for changing U.S. dollars into Japanese Yen. That being the case, I did a comparison last year and posted my results here.

Subsequent to creating that web page, others have emailed me their experiences. In the future, people can compare stories by responding to this blog entry.

Here is one that I just received yesterday:

I found your study to be very thorough and just what I was looking for. Some new info as of June 2008:

Bank of America skims off 3%, so you get approx. 104 yen (exchange rate is 107) but no “additional” service fees if you change $1000+. Narita airport website now lists exchange rate. If you bring cash, it is 104 yen (I’m guessing there is a fee attached as well, but can’t confirm). If you bring Traveler’s Checks, the exchange is 106. So that seems to be the best option, if you can get your TC for free at your bank, then wait until you are in Japan to do the exchange.

(Lonely Planet (newest version) says you will pay fees at Japanese banks and airports to exchange, so I’m undecided at this point about what to do.)

There were no fees at Japanese post offices if you had international postal money orders in hand, and I don’t believe that has changed.

I’ve noticed in preparation for my trip to Europe next week that my credit card companies are charging more than they previously did. My MasterCard is taking 3% off the top for currencies other than U.S. dollars, and my American Express is taking 2%. Since my American Express gives 3% cash back on restaurants, and 2% back for travel-related purchases that won’t be bad. Hopefully people will take American Express, and I won’t be forced to use my MasterCard (which only gives 1% back).

Leave a reply if you have additional, first-hand experiences that can help people save money on currency exchanges.

The Street of a Thousand Blossoms

The Street of a Thousand BlossomsLess than a week after starting The Street of a Thousand Blossoms by Gail Tsukiyama I have finished reading it. The book isn’t short at over 400 pages, but I found it hard to put down. That, coupled with having to wait for breakfast in bed on father’s day for three hours 😉 , allowed me to finish The Street of a Thousand Blossoms in little time.

As mentioned in my prior blog entry on the subject, I really enjoyed the Yanaka setting. I felt like I could connect with more than just Yanaka though. For instance, I spent a day in the late 80s watching Sumo at Ryogoku Kokugikan. The highlight of the day was witnessing the great Chiyonofuji’s bout in person. So all of the Sumo dialogue in this book brought back pleasant memories. I’ve always been fascinated with Japanese masks (check out this blog daily for some outstanding photography and discussion) so Kenji’s story held my interest. And, of course, there is the trip to Hakone which I have also made. Basically everything felt familiar and resonated well.

The story is compelling, drawing on the themes of renewal and hope. I don’t want to give away too many details for those of you who haven’t yet read The Street of a Thousand Blossoms.

The occasional errors in Japanese are my main criticism. Although Tsukiyama has a Japanese name, she doesn’t understand Japanese. This won’t be noticed by readers who are in her same shoes, but those who can speak the language will cringe at times. One example is her use of hai. She uses it far more frequently and in situations in which Japanese would not. Another is her use of the unconjugated verb hairu (to enter) as a command. She should have said something like haitte kudasai or o hairi kudasai instead of just hairu. A final one (there are others) that I’ll offer as an example is the Hakone Lake which she calls Ashino. In English it should be called Lake Ashi. In Japanese it is called ashinoko (芦ノ湖). The “no” indicates it is the Lake (ko) called (no–shows possession like ‘s in English) Ashi. Put another way, one could translate Lake Tahoe as “tahoe no ko” in Japanese but you would never call it “tahoeno” in English or Japanese.

She gets Japanese culture and customs wrong on some counts as well. For example, she has the school year starting in September like it does in the U.S. In Japan, though, school years, company fiscal years, etc. start in April–not September.

These minor critiques aside, this book is very enjoyable even if you haven’t been to Yanaka, Sumo, Hakone, Nara, or even Japan.

Here are a couple more pictures I took last year from areas mentioned in The Street of a Thousand Blossoms.

ashinoko Lake Ashi hakone japan mt. fuji

This is Lake Ashi with Mt. Fuji, mostly shrouded in clouds, in the background. The place on the right may be where Tsukiyama envisions Hiroshi and Aki staying.

hakone jinja 箱根神社

This is another picture from the ferry on Lake Ashi. The kanji say 箱根神社 or Hakone Jinja. “Jinja” means Shinto Shrine or Temple.