Welcome to Japan

Yesterday, the three of us went to Shirahata Hachiman Daijin, our local shrine, to have a ceremony performed to mark my getting permanent resident status. I wanted to mark it in some way, because otherwise it would just be a matter of going and getting the sticker in my passport, and it really ought to be more significant than that. So, I booked it a week ago, for 9:30 in the morning, as there were other ceremonies booked from 10. We managed to get dressed up in smart clothes and get there by 9:40, but that was fine. With it being a local shrine, they don’t work to tightly regulated schedules aimed to get hundreds of people through.

The shrine family had obviously decided that getting permanent residence was a big deal, which it is. After all, that’s why I wanted to mark it.

First, the chief priest’s wife had written a norito (Shinto prayer) especially for the occasion. The basic collection of example norito issued by the Association of Shinto Shrines doesn’t have one for permanent residence, and I suspect that the large collections of norito written by famous National Learning scholars also fail to cover this possibility. So, she wrote one for us, and it was very good, at least as far as I could judge. It asked the kami that I become friendly with the people of “Taira, Miyamae-ku, Kawasaki, Kanagawa, and Japan”, thus working out in size of regions, and included Yuriko and Mayuki’s names as well, praying for health and prosperity for all of us. (As I may have mentioned before, she wrote a good norito for when I joined the Representative Assembly for Foreign Residents, as well.)

Then, there were the items we received after the ceremony. You always get stuff after a formal shrine visit: typically an o-fuda (shrine tablet), some sake, and some food. The food is normally dried bonito flakes, but this time we got a very nice baumkuchen. O-fuda also come in various sizes, and at most shrines you get a bigger o-fuda when you offer more money. Shirahata-san is normally the same; you can receive larger o-fuda for larger offerings at New Year’s. However, I got a bigger o-fuda than normal at this ceremony, and since at the point they were making it they probably guessed, correctly, that I was going to offer the normal 5,000 yen (that’s the starting price for a ceremony), the size has to reflect their judgement of the significance of the occasion.

Finally, the chief priest, who wasn’t doing the ceremony, came to the waiting room beforehand to congratulate us. At that point, he gave us a noshi-bukuro with “O-Iwai”, “Congratulations”, written on it. Noshi-bukuro are exclusively used for gifts of money, so that was a real surprise. It was even more of a surprise when I got home and opened it. (It’s rude to open it on the spot.) The envelope contained 10,000 yen. Not only that, but it was a Shotoku Taishi 10,000 yen note. (The lower picture on this page.) I’d never seen a real one before, although I’d seen pictures, and if I read the Bank of Japan site correctly, they stopped circulating them in January 1986. (The successor note went into circulation in November 1984, so they probably stopped printing them then.) Notwithstanding that, the note was in new condition. This is normal for these sorts of gifts, and with current notes you can just go to a bank and ask for new notes. However, with one that’s been out of circulation for 25 years, I imagine you really have to have kept a stock of them. Obviously, I have no plans to actually spend this note.

Everything made me feel that they were really pleased that I was staying in Japan. In short, I felt very welcome. It was definitely well worth having the ceremony.

Mayuki Miscellanea

Recently, I’ve been deliberately spending more time with Mayuki, playing with her for at least an hour every day. For some reason, that seems to leave me less time to do other things, a situation I don’t really understand. Surely as a reward for being a good father, the very nature of reality should warp and grant me more time.

Anyway, we spend quite a lot of time playing in the tatami room, either playing with a ball, or building things with the wooden blocks, or pretending to do things. We pretend to go to the park, and pretend to go on slides and swings while sitting on the floor. We pretend to go shopping, watching out for cars and only crossing the road when the signal is green. We pretend to eat various kinds of food, from curry rice to chocolate.

And then there are the slightly stranger ones. We pretend to watch videos. That involves pressing the button, and then sitting next to each other while saying what’s happening. We pretend to read a picture book. I tell the story from one of her books, and Mayuki tells me to turn the pages at the appropriate places, or fills in the bits of the story. Or we pretend to play with a ball.

These are strange because we can easily do all of them for real. The books and videos are in the next room. The ball was even in the same room, but we were still playing with a pretend ball. Mayuki quite clearly understands the difference between pretend and real, at least in these cases, and is quite deliberately choosing to pretend. I have to confess that I don’t quite understand why.

Further evidence that she knows the difference between pretend and real is that when, yesterday, I suggested that we go to the park, she knew right away that I meant a real park, and got ready to go out. On the way, we passed the 14th apartment block in the complex, which has a big “14” up on the side.

“Look, Daddy!”, Mayuki said (in Japanese). “It’s great! It’s really tall! There are lots of homes in it! Look! [breaking into English] Four! One!”

So, she was reading the numbers in the wrong order, but still, I was very impressed. I knew she knew “4”, but I didn’t realise she knew “1” as well. I wonder whether she knows all of the single digits. She’s also worked out that the writing on picture book pages is the words that we read, and sometimes points at the words while we’re reading them to her. I don’t think she can read letters yet, but I suppose she might still surprise me. Maybe by the time she’s three, she’ll be reading books by herself.

And I’ll get some time back to do the same.

KODOMONOKUNI

Today, the three of us went to KODOMONOKUNI. I’m not sure why they put the name in all caps, but that’s how it appears on their site. It’s a large activity park, primarily aimed at children (the name means “Children’s Country”), with an emphasis on a pseudo-natural environment, rather than on rides and such. It was the first time we’d been, even though it’s fairly close to us. There’s one change of train, onto a line with three stops that goes to the park, and even when we just missed a train, it only took about an hour door to door.

Mayuki goes to score

She has dual British and Japanese nationality. Which team needs her more?


At the park, Mayuki quickly got into the swing of things. First, she went to play with some hula-hoops, which were provided by the park. She was quite good at rolling them along the ground, but actually spinning them round herself was harder, though she did try. When she got bored of that, she went running up a grassy slope, and when she got to a flat area she demanded the ball, and we played football for a while. (Appropriate, I guess.)

From that area, we could see a miniature railway, and so, after playing with soap bubbles for a bit, Mayuki decided she wanted to go on that. Before we could line up, however, she spotted the slides, so we went on there first. They were quite big, and she insisted on going on with me because, as she explained to Yuriko, “It’s a bit scary, so I’ll go on with Daddy”. After a couple of slides, she was ready to go on the train, so we bought our tickets and got on.

Sometimes, I don’t fit in full-size Japanese trains. I certainly didn’t really fit in this one. However, Mayuki really enjoyed it, so much so that she wanted to go round again. This time, I sent her round with Yuriko, while I took pictures, and Mayuki enjoyed it so much that she wanted to go round again. We tried to convince her that it was time for lunch, and finally took her away screaming. Fortunately, she calmed down quite quickly, and ate some lunch. She refused to eat the ice cream that Yuriko bought afterwards, though, because it was in a cup, not a cone, and so didn’t look right.

Next, it was time to draw all over the road in chalk. The children are allowed to do this on the entrance road to the park, and Mayuki had lots of fun, and got chalk all over her hands. Fortunately, there was also somewhere to wash it off. This being Japan, the outdoor sinks all had soap dispensers. With soap in.

Anyway, at this point we’d been to maybe one tenth of the park, next to the entrance, and Yuriko wanted to see a bit more. However, along the way Mayuki decided that she wanted to play football again, so that’s what we did. While we were playing, Yuriko noticed two Thomas the Tank Engine models. (One was Thomas, the other was Percy.) As soon as we pointed these out to Mayuki, she stopped playing football and went over to see what they were.

They turned out to be dodgems, 200 yen a turn. There were already some children on Thomas when we got there, so Mayuki went on Percy, with Yuriko. When that ride finished, Thomas was empty, so she had a ride on that one as well. Two rides were not enough, so she got back on Thomas, and said “Daddy, pay the money! If you don’t, it doesn’t go!” (in Japanese). However, I was firm in my resolve, and she eventually gave in and got off, going with us a bit further into the park.

Mayuki about to splash

I can make a big splash!


There, we found a water-play area. The full swimming pool doesn’t open until the middle of next month, but the paddling pool was open, and had quite a few children in it. Mayuki was very keen to play in the water with them, but it was a bit too deep for her to go in by herself, so Yuriko rolled up her trousers to escort her.

Mayuki quite likes playing in the water. She splashed around, walked through the water, and then didn’t want to get out. Unfortunately, she had no choice, because the park was about to close. She’d been playing for about four hours, which was apparently enough; she fell asleep on my shoulder while we were getting on to the second train, and then stayed asleep for a couple of hours, only waking up for dinner.

Because the park is really quite close to us, we might go back. You can buy a weekday pass, good for a year, for the price of five admissions; we had free tickets today, courtesy of a friend of Yuriko’s, but I will seriously think about getting the weekday pass; I could go with Mayuki on Mondays, and I should be able to get up to five visits over a year. You can also buy a one-year free pass for 10,000 yen (about 17 admissions), but that also gets you into the summer pool and winter ice rink free. I suspect Mayuki will be a bit too small to get enough use from that this year, but if we go to the other bits a lot I’ll have to think about it for next year. It looks like she could get a lot of good use out of the park as a whole.

Still More Preliminary Discussions

On Sunday, we had another meeting of the representative assembly. This week, the main task was to establish sub-committees, and decide on the general topics they would discuss.

The first question was whether we would have any sub-committees at all. As the full committee has 26 members, I said that I thought it would be impossible to properly discuss issues without splitting, and other people then chimed in to agree with me. The motion to establish sub-committees was passed unanimously. Then there was the question of how many sub-committees to set up. I thought we should have three, because even 13 is a bit big for proper discussions, but this time the vote was overwhelmingly in favour of just having two committees. (It wasn’t only me in favour of three, but it wasn’t a close vote.)

So, then we had to decide what each committee would discuss. We had thirteen broad topics that the secretariat had distilled from the points we raised at the previous meeting, and the discussion got a bit complex, partly due to me misunderstanding a proposal, and partly due to a process that made it look like the rejected proposal was going to be implemented. The initial choice was between broadly splitting the sub-committees into “education” and “social issues”, and assigning each of the 13 topics individually to a group. I voted for the first, purely because I thought it would take too long to assign the topics individually, and the first option won.

Then someone pointed out that we needed to decide which topics were going to be on each committee, so that people knew which committee they wanted to be on.

Actually, that wasn’t the same as the rejected proposal, because most of the topics on the list obviously belonged to one or the other. The “education” topic, for instance, would go to the “education” sub-committee, while the “pensions” topic would go to the “society” committee. In the end, we were able to decide the broad spread quite quickly, and then people said which committee they wanted to be on. There were two absences, and we got a 14-10 split, which is close enough to half and half to not require any changes, so that stage was quick.

We then had the first sub-committee meetings, where we had to choose a chair, vice-chair, and name. I joined the society committee, and, of the people nominated, I was the only one who didn’t pull out. The chairs of the sub-committees have to attend weekday preparatory meetings, which makes it difficult for a lot of people, so in the end we didn’t have an election. Everyone just put their hands up to approve me as chair.

There was a real election for vice-chair, because the vice-chair only has to do things on the normal meeting days, so we got two candidates. Fortunately, that didn’t take long either. Choosing the committee’s name was also easy. One member proposed using the same name as last session, another member agreed, and then everyone voted in favour. Thus, we are the “Society and Lifestyle Sub-committee”.

That actually left us a few minutes to discuss what we would discuss, but we didn’t get very far. However, we did make a little bit of progress: there are “deep” issues, and “shallow” issues. A shallow issue is one where there isn’t really a lot for us to discuss or investigate, so we might be able to deal with quite a few of them, as well as with one or two deep issues. I’m certainly going to propose splitting it that way next time. In any event, next time will take us to one quarter of our term, so I really want to finish deciding the topics then.

It has taken a long time to get through the preliminaries, but I can’t really see how it could have been done much more quickly. Everything has to be done in the meetings, and the constitution of the assembly means that we have to decide just about everything for ourselves. People have to be given the chance to make their opinions heard. So, there’s probably nothing that can be done about it. Extending the assembly’s term to three years would reduce the proportion of time spent on preliminaries, but it would require revising the city ordinances, and people who could commit for two years might not be able to commit for three. In the end, I suspect that this is a necessary evil.

On the bright side, quite a few people are participating, and things are going fairly smoothly, so once we do get onto actual topics I think that we will make progress. I’ll just have to do my best to get my sub-committee there as quickly as possible.

Permission for Permanent Residence

Today, I went to the Kawasaki Immigration Office and picked up my Permission for Permanent Residence (that’s the official English title on the sticker in my passport). Unlike my previous visas, which were “signed” by the head of the Tokyo Immigration Office, this one is “signed” by the Minister of Justice. This is obviously a much bigger deal.

So, I’ve lived in Japan for just over six years and eight months, have been married to a Japanese citizen for little less than four years and seven months, and have a two-year-old Japanese (and British) daughter. The application seems to have gone through the system in the normal length of time, so it would appear that these are standard conditions for permanent residence.

One thing that stands out is how cheap the process is here. It costs $90 here, and you pay when your application is successful. By comparison, it costs $930 in the USA, about $1000 in Canada (as far as I can tell), and about $1200 in the UK, and in all cases you pay on application, and it isn’t refundable. Even if you include all the previous visas I had to have to tot up the required length of residence, it only comes to about $400, maximum. On the other hand, the required times of residence are shorter in the UK (although not by much), and Canada and the USA don’t seem to require residence at all. If you I don’t know about the decision times in other countries, but since the UK keeps your passport until they decide, I rather hope it’s less than the ten months they took here (which was normal, from what the staff in the office said to me).

The application process, as well as being cheap, was painless. The only slightly difficult bit was getting the information for all my close relatives in my complicated family, and even that only took a couple of days of waiting for the people in the appropriate countries to ask the people who knew. I went to the immigration office more often than necessary, to hand over documents in person, but I could have posted them.

Now, I’ve heard people describing the immigration procedure for such immigrant havens as the USA and Canada, and it sounds a lot more hassle than what I’ve had to go through. On the other hand, the chances of success don’t seem to change much; if you really are genuinely married to a US citizen, you really will get a green card, for example.

Thinking about it now, the best way to capture my impression is this. The immigration office in Japan goes out of its way to make the process easier for immigrants.

The application forms here are bilingual in English and Japanese, for example. Some of the forms are also available in other non-Japanese languages, particularly the re-entry permit forms. If the Japanese immigration office find a problem in your application, they write to ask you for additional information, or tell you to go away and gather what you need before applying. (Yes, if you go in person, the staff check that your application is complete, free of charge.) The fees aren’t payable until you’ve succeeded, and they’ve checked that everything is in order. They don’t even make you prove that you are obeying certain Japanese laws, such as the ones requiring you to join the national pension scheme and national health insurance scheme. You do have to prove you’re paying taxes, although the immigration office asks for the cheap, easy-to-get official bit of paper, unlike the bank that gave me my mortgage, who wanted the expensive, more complicated one.

A couple of concrete examples from my experience. When I applied to renew my marriage visa this time, I took in a document proving Yuriko’s income (nothing), because that’s what the website asked for. Not entirely to my surprise, the staff told me I needed the document proving my income. They told me what it was, and told me to bring it along when I came to pick the visa up. No point having me make a special journey…

Similarly, when we moved part way through my permanent residence application, they called me to check I was still living with my wife, and then sent me a letter telling me which documents to send them. I did have to send those at the time, though. (I took them personally, to be sure they made it, although post would have been acceptable.)

Based on my completely unscientific sample, I think that the Japanese immigration officers are as concerned to ensure that the people who do qualify do get the visas as they are to ensure that people who are not qualified don’t. From my perspective, this is an unalloyed good, because it meant that they have decided to let me stay for the rest of my life.

Shiobara Onsen

Last weekend (from Sunday to Wednesday) I took a trip by myself, to Shiobara Onsen. The idea was to recharge, and it seems to have worked.

Shiobara is in the mountains of Tochigi Prefecture, a little north of Tokyo. It takes about four hours on “normal” trains, but it’s not expensive, and you only have to change trains once going from our flat. It might take a while, but it’s no hassle. While Shiobara is a tourist town, drawing people to the hot springs, it’s not on the normal foreign visitor itinerary, so most of the tourists are Japanese. I did see a handful of other foreigners, but only a few.

A steep river valley in the early morning

The valley of the Hoki River in the morning, with the sunlight just touching the top of Tengu Rock, in the centre of the picture.

Shiobara has eleven hot springs, and is strung along the valley of the Hoki River, surrounded by forested mountains. Near the centre of the town, Tengu Rock rises a hundred metres from the valley floor. The hot springs are reputed to have been discovered about 1200 years ago, and the area has been a tourist attraction for centuries. As a result, it has a lot of hotels and ryokan, some old, some much newer.

I stayed at a ryokan called Myogaya, which is located on the steep sides of the gorge through which one of the tributaries of the Hoki flows. It’s a medium-size ryokan, serving standard ryokan food. The selling point is the hot spring baths. These are down ninety or so steps, at the bottom of the gorge, cut into a rock at the side of the river. While enjoying the water, you can watch and listen to the flow of the river, or enjoy the sunlight filtering through the trees. I enjoyed the baths several times, in the day, at dawn, in the evening, and at night, and it was always extremely relaxing.

I also found another very nice hot spring bath, near the Hoki River, called Fudo no Yu. In the valley of another, smaller, tributary, it sits next to a small waterfall, with views of the all around. The bath is completely open air, and the changing area only has one wall and a small roof.

Both baths are traditional Japanese hot spring baths, in that they are for both sexes, and you do not wear anything while bathing. I did see women in both, but there was a bias towards men, and towards older people. However, the latter bias is at least partly to do with the fact that I was there during the day on weekdays; most younger people were in work or school. I chatted to several people, and apparently Fudo no Yu is very full at the weekend, which I suspect does not improve the experience.

Arayufuji rising beyond a marsh

Arayufuji, which I climbed, beyond the marsh

My original plan was to spend most of my time at the ryokan, reading and taking baths. However, once I arrived and saw the scenery, I decided that would be a waste. Add to that the near-perfect walking weather, and I spent the whole of Tuesday seeing the area. First, I walked along the Shiobara “Nature Trail”. An English nature trail is aimed at children, and is an easy walk through pleasant natural scenery. The natural scenery was there. However, the trail was eight kilometres long, and went straight over the top of a mountain with a 1180m peak. If it was in Scotland, it would be a Munro.

It was a very nice walk, and, apart from around a marsh which had its own car park, I saw no-one. Large areas of Japan are not crowded at all, unlike the impression you might get if you just visit Tokyo and the main tourist destinations. The nature trail ended at another hot spring, where I was able to have another bath, which seemed to do my legs good, at least; they weren’t sore the next day.

I then walked back to the ryokan, via the main town of Shiobara. In total, I think I walked about 25km on Tuesday, including over the top of the mountain, so I was quite tired that night, but it was a good walk through gorgeous scenery. Only my body got tired.

I definitely want to go back to Shiobara, with Yuriko and Mayuki. They wouldn’t be able to do the walk, but there are plenty of places in the town I didn’t visit, so we wouldn’t be short of things to do. Now we just have to find time to do it.

Permanent Residence Notification

Today I received a postcard from immigration, telling me that I had to go there to be told the result of my application for permanent residence. Oh, and to make sure to take my passport and the $90 fee for a permanent residence visa. I wonder what the result might be?

Of course, this postcard is the one to indicate that your application has been approved. I’ll have to go to immigration on Monday to pick my visa up.