Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Refill - Issue 8

So I submitted one of my blog entries as an article for Fukuoka JET's e-magazine, The Refill. Check it out!

Monday, February 27, 2012

Kicks in Korea

There is something distinctly different about the fashion found in South Korea versus that found in Japan. Some of the most noticeable is a more North Face or other typically "outdoors" jackets, less layers of makeup on girls, and more baseball hats on guys.

Another: the sneakers.

In Japan, guys don't really care too much about shoes. This is a culture where wearing a suit is key for work as well as social functions. Yet, men will wear sneakers, crocs, and other non-dress shoes while in a suit and tie. (This happens more often than not when you need dress shoes for outside, but you need to change into indoor shoes for school or some other institutions.) So in informal settings, shoes don't matter--any sneakers will do.

Women in Japan wear heels (let's say, as a made up statistic, 90% of the time). That's it. As a man, it makes me spoiled--in the US, heels are reserved for special occasions, so seeing women wearing heels all the time is a huge plus. As a woman, though, it must be terrible on your feet day in and day out, even in casual settings.

This is where Korea is different for both sexes. Men and women both dress to impress, but also for comfort. There's a weird take on American fashion that goes on with all the puffy jackets and rain gear. But with shoes, they get it right. Everyone wears sneakers. All the popular brands are represented--Nike, Adidas, Converse, Vans, as well as much more expensive names. Sizes, shapes, styles, and even colors are so much more diverse than the usual black and brown in Japan.

I'm not even into shoes. But after a few wins on roulette at Seven Luck Casino...

Only 2 are mine, I swear.

In 2 days, the 3 of us bought 7 new pairs of shoes... just doing it like the locals.

Friday, February 17, 2012

My Favorite Part of Sapporo

The second week of February, Sapporo, Hokkaido, hosts an international snow sculpture competition as a part of their Snow Festival. In addition to sculptures, there are performers, food stalls, and parties. In other words, there's something for everyone. This festival is one of the reasons why I came to Japan in the first place over a year ago.

But I have a confession: the festival wasn't my favorite part of Sapporo.

Aizu Tsuruga Castle

Don't get me wrong--they were just as awesome and breathtaking as I had hoped.


The true stars of the festival were the sponsored sculptures. Unlike the ones that were competing which were of a much more reasonable size, the sponsored sculptures were absolutely stunning. It's not just due to their attention to detail either. The sheer magnitude and size of them is not something that can easily be captured on picture--some even towered over nearby buildings!

The Taj Mahal out of snow

But again I must emphasize, they weren't my favorite part.

Sorry, no picture of the slopes (too cold, try around 5°F/0°C), so only the aftermath...

It also wasn't traveling to nearby Niseko, arguably the snowboarding capital of Japan. I'm not a snowboarder by any means, but even I as a beginner could appreciate the heaps of powder on Hirafu. And the open-air onsen right after finishing? You know how much I'm a sucker for onsens (why I love onsens), but even this much deserved and best onsen of my life wasn't my favorite part of this trip.

Of course... bragging about ramen on Twitter is just as important as eating it. #OnlyInJapan

It wasn't even the ramen (my love of ramen). Sapporo is famous for it's Butter Corn Ramen. Rightfully so--it is fantastic. We even had it twice while there. Once at Tokeidai, a Hokkaido-only chain that started in the heart of Sapporo (next to 札幌時計台, Sapporo's Clock Tower, which is rated one of the top 3 most disappointing attractions in all of Japan). The second time was at ラーメン横丁, or Ramen Alley, a narrow street lined with small shops all specializing in their own version of Sapporo's finest (as featured on No Reservations, as well as many other travel shows).

Yet, this was still not my favorite part of Sapporo.

Damn, that's (a) sexy (beer)...

My absolute favorite part of Sapporo was Sapporo. The beer, that is. And to be clear, this isn't your normal Sapporo.

Let me explain.

Japan is into making various products limited edition, whether for a limited time or within a specific area. Limited edition America Burgers at McDonalds, seasonal Kit Kats, and guide books telling you were to find the local 名物 (specialties) are just a few of many examples of this "limited edition" craze that Japanese consumers go crazy for.

Sapporo has their own version of this.

Sapporo Beer Museum. 500 yen. 3 Beers. 10 minutes until closing. No problem.

You may know Sapporo Draft as one of the big 3 beers from Japan (Asahi, Kirin, and Sapporo). What you probably have never heard of is its sexy and mysterious sister, Sapporo Classic. The Sapporo brewery produces this golden elixir in addition to their normal domestic and international brew. Except this version, you can only find in Sapporo.

飲み食べ放題 madness at the Sapporo Beer Garden

The thing is, though, the beer itself is not what I loved the most about Sapporo. It's not about taste. (Though at the beer museum, there is a ジンギスカン or loosely translated Ghengis Khan Barbecue, which is an all-you-can-eat lamb-fest that paired with the beer, is simply bliss.)

No, my favorite part of Sapporo is an idea: loyalty. It's about how loyal Sapporo-ites are to their namesake. They only serve Sapporo at most establishments. Even in such a short time, we grew to expect it everywhere we went. It got to the point where we were confused and even a bit irked when we went to a club and they only served Asahi Draft. (Though should've known with a name like 'Booty'...)

To be a Sapporo-drinker isn't an exclusive club either... We were taken by a friend of a friend to a 390 yen bar with karaoke. That's not 390 yen a beer--I mean 390 yen for 30 minutes of 飲み放題 or all-you-can-drink. It's an every-man beer.

I swear this post is not sponsored by Sapporo.
(Though @Sapporo, if you need a spokesperson, my contacts are to the right...)

It could end there, but this loyalty goes both ways--in return, Sapporo takes care of its customers and its city by providing them with a beer exclusively for them. It's not just any old beer either. I'd argue that this is better than their more popular, Sapporo Draft. Although they could easily distribute, sell, and market this beer throughout Japan and the rest of the world, they've chosen to keep it only for their most loyal customers: those in Sapporo.

Found in any convenience store for the same price as a normal beer--assuming you find yourself in Sapporo

So cheers to you Sapporo. Not only do you have an exceptional Snow Festival, located next to some phenomenal slopes and onsens, and serve as a foodie's paradise, you have unlimited, exclusive access to an amazing brew.

And though I may be jealous, I wouldn't have it any other way.

Monday, February 13, 2012



I passed N3 of the Japanese Language Proficiency test!

How did I do it?

Well, the first time I took it in July 2011, I studied really hard. I didn't just use a textbook either. I read One Piece daily with a dictionary to look up every word I didn't recognize until I completed and now current with the series (60-something in total). I watched Japanese TV whether stupid game shows or the news. And of course, I studied from my N3 grammar book. Like a good student, I went to class every Tuesday for tutoring. I'd practice what I learned (my sober-Japanese) at taiko practices Monday and Wednesday (and practiced my buzzed-Japanese at izakayas afterwards).

I even took the time every weekend to study at my local Joyfull (like a Japanese Denny's). I would get brunch and drink bar (meaning all-you-can-drink soda and coffee...) while I took practice tests and graded them myself, all the while noting any questions that were particularly difficult so I could restudy them later.

And come July, I failed.

Not by a lot (10% or so), but failing's failing. I remember stepping out after taking that test and thinking to myself, "Well, damn. I tried. It wasn't good enough. I'll study more for the test in December and nail it." And a month later, I signed up for the December 2011 test.

Except this time around, I couldn't bring myself to study. Partly due to denial/anger about failing the first time, partly due to being busy, I just didn't study. I know I probably could have made time, but unlike first year when I didn't have a schedule or group of friends, the start of second year was much more hectic. With the near-weekly traveling, taiko practices and performances, marathon training almost daily, and other hobbies taking up my life, studying Japanese fell on the back burner.

My Japanese was good enough for everyday life. It's neither fluent nor academic, but that's just it--it's good enough. There wasn't the same urgent need to study and learn Japanese like when I first arrived.

And before I knew it, it was already December. The amount of studying I did since July was minimal at best (nonexistent is probably a better word... I didn't take a single practice test once). I still took the test. I had paid for it already and so there was nothing to lose.

But this time was different. After finishing this round, I couldn't help but think, "Man, I totally knew those answers... if I only remembered that '情報' wasn't 'じょうほ' and '過去' wasn't 'かこう'... I mean, there was kanji that I actually knew. If only I had studied even only a little..."

So I knew if I failed this time, it wouldn't be by much. If I failed, I'd only have myself to blame.

But even if I did, I was pleasantly surprised at how much my Japanese had improved passively in 6 months. I knew more kanji, the readings were comprehensible (or at least, I could make educated guesses). And the listening portion was, do I dare say it, it was easy?

Was it enough to pass, though? Had I improved a full 2 levels from last year, December 2010, when I took and passed N5?

The moral of the story: getting lucky > studying ?

And after receiving my certification in the mail yesterday, I can safely answer, "Yes, and yes." Which leaves me thinking...

N2 this July?

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Never Zest Air Again

I normally try to be positive on my blog. Even when things don't go according to plan, I try to find the best of the situation. Especially when it comes to cultural differences, I find it's of utmost importance to be sensitive or at least aware of why it may be more frustrating for me coming from an outside perspective.

This is not one of those times.

"The most refreshing airline in Asia...?" Maybe if your only other choice is walking to your destination...

I don't care that it was cheap. I wouldn't even care if it was free. You couldn't pay me to fly another flight by Zest Air. It's times like these I wish I was a more established blogger... but even if I can convince one of you to not fly them, it has been worth writing this.

I guess you can say it's cheap. But just like the old adage says, you get what you pay for.

So what exactly did they do wrong?

First, we were consistently late. Out of the 6 flights my friends and I took collectively, all 6 were late. For me, I was only an hour late the first time, and about 3 hours late the second. One of my friends? Try 6 hours. No explanation, no helping customers with connections, no apology, and no customer service in general. I understand that they can't give an entire plane-full of your customers a gift voucher for a situation that's out of your control. But to see multiple flights for the same destination as yours leave before you without being told why your flight hasn't left yet? That's frustrating for you customer and ought to be downright shameful for you.

But let's say this was an isolated incident. Because, then, even that would be forgivable. Irritating, sure, but not worthy of such a negative review. Not worth the effort of writing a scathing post like this.

Nope, here's what really set me off.

It was the day we left. I've never experienced such frustration in the face of absolute, yet entirely preventable, chaos. So they said computer system was down. I can understand this (well, no, I don't really understand how an airline's entire computer system goes out but I can forgive it).

What is not excusable is ignoring your customers. No one from Zest Air once said what was happening to all of us in line. The airport (Kalibo) has no electronic signs outside the terminal. Again, I don't understand why, but this is in itself is not necessarily a problem. But not once did an employee of Zest Air say if our flight was delayed or give any of us the status of our flight. The result? It was sheer madness.

Here we were waiting in line for over an hour and we weren't even sure if our flight had already left or not because we weren't told anything at all. People were visibly agitated and stressed out. While the rest of the airport (Kalibo's small, so you can see all the counters) was checking in its passengers with ease, the mass of people in front of the Zest Air counter never seemed to die down. Eventually, it got to the point where even a fight broke out in line.

I mean, seriously? Zest Air--if you had handled this admittedly unfortunate situation better, this would have been entirely preventable. I don't care if your computer is down. I don't care if it's the airport's fault and not yours. I don't even care if my flight is late. But at least have the sense of decency and courtesy to keep your customers informed of the situation. There was no sign, no announcement, and no Zest Air representative diffusing and taking care of the situation. A fight should never break out in line due to your lack of respect for your customers. All it would have taken is for one of your employees to give an announcement or even create a handwritten sign simply informing us what was going on (ie. your flight won't leave without you).

This is 2 times in 6 flights you could not deal with your customers with a basic sense of respect and dignity. Maybe in 10 years when you've developed into a real airline, I'd consider flying Zest Air again. However, chances are, if you continue to run your business the way my friends and I experienced in our short stay to the Philippines, I would be surprised if you made it 5 more years.

Before we left, we were worried about Zest Air's shaky reputation on safe landings... it seems we should have worried about whether or not our plane would leave at all.