Monday, February 25, 2008

Getting a Visa/Tokyo is Big and Weird

The first half of this entry is about getting a Visa from Japan to China. If this doesn't interest you in the least, skip ahead to "More Interesting Things," which has pretty pretty pictures and is slightly R-rated.

Getting A Visa to China

I knew somewhere in the back of my mind that we would need visas to go to China, but we kinda forgot about it until Jeff was on his way out of town. We both spent a good deal of time researching the process of getting visas and still messed it up, so let me lay it out for you. There just isn't enough practical information out there.

First of all, it costs money. If you're American, it costs lots of money. Like four or five times as much as for anyone else. If you're an American citizen, it costs 15000 yen per person ($130-140 US). For everyone else, it 3000-4500 yen. If you're a Japanese citizen, I don't think you need a visa. I'm not sure why it costs so much for Americans. I'm sure there is some political-economic reason for it, we are Capitalist pigs who don't support The People or whatever, and it sucks. Anyway, you won't need the money til you've gone through the whole application process and are picking up your visa. Which I haven't even gotten to yet.

SO. You need money. You need to fill out a visa application (one per person), which can be downloaded from the website at the end of this section. Make sure when you sign it that you use the date you are submitting the application, because I got scolded for having the wrong date (it was filled out the day before). You need a picture to attach to the application. Go to any of the Visa/Passport photo kiosks you can find around train stations or other places. We luckily had one right outside of Create Super Drugstore near our house, and the instructions were in English (still managed to mess it up the first time by sitting too close to the camera. Don't try to second-guess the instructions, just follow them faithfully).

You need a passport with two blank facing Visa pages. This is important, because if the blank pages don't say "Visa" at the top, they aren't Visa pages, and they won't let you get a Visa. Trust me. Jeff had filled up his passport with all the traveling for work, and they wouldn't let me submit his application. You have to go to the US Embassy to get more pages. (a whole other experience in which you must surrender your ketai, cameras, iPods, water bottles, candy and gum, and go through a metal detector. Once inside, tho, it isn't terribly painful. Though they did take Jeff's passport, gave him no receipt for it, and said I could pick it up with a letter of permission signed by Jeff. Whole thing makes me a little nervous.) And you can only get extra pages once. Then you have to get a whole new passport.

Note: you don't need everyone present to apply for a visa. Anyone can prepare your applications and take them in with your passport.

You need to find the Chinese Embassy. It's near Roppongi station. About a 10-minute walk. Go out the Roppongi Hills exit, go left, and follow the main road as it passes Roppopngi Hills and bends to the left. You'll see an ugly place near the fire station. Look for the door that says Consulate Department on it, on your left. If you aren't there during business hours (9:00-12:00), you'll never find it. As Jeff found out when he tried to go in the afternoon. You need to take the elevator up to where applications are submitted (2nd or 3rd floor, I forget, but it's obvious), where you are greeted with a mob scene very reminiscent of the DMV with a little added chaos. I joined the cluster of people around a desk on the left, because I saw a bunch of people there. I presented my sheaf of applications and passports, and the nice English-speaking lady underlined my incorrect date in red and sent me to the copy machines (by the elevator) to make copies of all the passports. Once I had done this, I got back in line and she checked my stuff over again and gave me a number. Then the resemblance to the DMV really took hold, as I sat there for 20 minutes in a chair in front of 4 windows and watched the numbers slowly tick up. I was sweating because it was ticking very close to noon, closing time, and this old woman kept barging in on everyone at my window (I think I was at the foreigners' window, because the numbering was different than the other 3) to ask yet another question. I had visions of my number coming up at the stroke of twelve and the window shade coming down as I approached. Luckily, I got up there with moments to spare. She checked the stuff over, took 3 of the applications, 3 passports, and 3 photocopies of the passports, and gave me a receipt for them. I am to pick them up on the ground floor in 3 business days, with 15000 yen per (it was 12000 on the website I saw, but apparently it went up in January). Jeff's stuff she handed back to me, with the explanation about the blank Visa pages mentioned above.

A good place to get most, but not all, of the info you need on getting a Visa to China here.

More Interesting Things

As I gratefully strolled out of there with my task for the day done (with a bit of annoyance that there would be extra work involved due to Jeff's missing Visa pages), I looked forward to the rest of my day. I now had plenty of time before I met Helen for after-work drinks and food to explore the Roppongi Hills area, where I had never been.

Jeff, in his abortive attempt to take care of the Visas a couple days before, had found some interesting stuff in the area, and practically had an itinerary for me. I wanted to see if I could do a little shopping first, but most of the retail space was closed for the next two days for renovation. Just my luck. Probably a good thing, considering the reputed prices.

Roppongi Hills is pretty on the outside, but is really horribly designed as a retail experience. It's a complex spread out over several buildings, and I got lost among the multiple levels, stairs and escalators, trying in vain to find somewhere to eat or shop. Matters were made worse by the dead-ends I kept running into because of the renovations. I gave up finally and backtracked to the Chinese restaurant that Jeff had told me about. It seemed an appropriate cuisine for the day, anyway.

It's called Chinese Cafe Eight, and it has a cheap and decent set lunch menu (in English). I got more food than I could eat for 550 yen. Now, I was pre-cognizant of it, but Jeff said he sat there for 20 minutes before he started noticing something odd about the decor. Yes, the giant bell and its uh, gong, are what you think they are.

Full of food and beer, I had another stroll around The Roppongi Hills complex, before I decided to do the next thing on the Jeff itinerary and go to the Mori Art Museum. It's on the 53rd floor of the very tall Mori Building, which is hard to miss. I never would have gone to this exhibit if Jeff hadn't seen it, because the picture they chose to represent it made it look some inspirational Art Month exhibition for Junior High students.

The show was OK. I wasn't expecting much, because it is a corporate collection of modern stuff like Warhol and Lichtenstein, which really isn't my cup o tea. But there was some cool photography and enough to interest me that I didn't feel like I wasted my money supporting art that a talented six-year-old could've done.

The real draw of the 53rd floor is the observation deck, which comes with the price of admission to the museum. I got myself a fresh "Stamina" smoothie from the juice bar and sat down to write a letter and absorb the sheer hugeness of Tokyo as the sun slowly went down. Like Jeff said, we've seen panoramic views of big cities before, but the flatness of Paris, with its short buildings and neat courtyards, was totally unlike the undulating scraperscape that is Tokyo. I probably killed 2 hours and 200 pictures on the sight of it as the light changed.

Already feeling rather insignificant and ant-in-a-hill-like, I boarded a rush-hour train (always an exhilarating experience to meet Helen in Shibuya. She had found a place called Lock-Up, which is a jail-themed izakaya.

It was really more insane-asylum haunted house. To get in, you have find the right door. There are surprises behind the other doors.

The pleather-miniskirted hostess (supposed to be a sexy police officer, I guess, but in red?) will put one of your party in handcuff (one handcuff on a chain) and lead you to your table. Some of the tables are behind metal bars, which is fun, but we didn't get one of those. The lighting is dim and creepy, the music American-poppy, the food average izakaya stuff, except for the names and the occasional dry-iced dressing. They have specialty drinks from the lab, presented interestingly in beakers and test tubes, but rather sweet. Mine was called Jekyll & Hyde and came with a capsule that may or may not have altered my drink in any way.

Helen said hers, which had a presentation that would thrill any self-serve soda fountain mad scientist, tasted like Calpis.

At one point in the middle of our conversation, the lights suddenly went out and sirens started going off. Unintelligible announcements were being made and a drama was enacted for the chills and thrills of the patrons. I obligingly shrieked as loud as I could, because how often can you get away with screaming your lungs out in a restaurant? This place was a fun spot to take your visiting friends. I am looking forward to trying the other theme izakayas in the area, like the church one and the Buddha one.

Anyhow, I had a pretty nice day wrapped around the administrative tasks.

This calm lull in activity I've been experiencing the past couple months is about to burst the dam, as the deluge of visits and trips begins next month. First through the rupture: Jackie.

I'll leave you with this nice picture of Devon, M's "new best friend." He's half-Japanese, half African-American, and speaks almost no English. We thereby discovered that M speaks a lot more Japanese than he lets on.

Thursday, February 14, 2008


In order to break the weekend cycle of playing video games and watching movies, I took the kids to a museum on Japan's Founding Day. This is the day that the possibly-mythical first emperor of Japan, Jimmu, was enthroned. In honor of the day, I was all for going to a Japanese History museum, but having two small boys with short attention spans, I decided on, despite it's redundant name, the Japan Science Foundation Science Museum at Kitanomaru Koen. There's a lot of neat stuff in the area (Yasukuni Shrine, Crafts Gallery, Map Museum, Banknote & Postage Museum, Yamatane Museum of Art), but we had limited time and patience (at least he kids did), so we just went to the Science Museum.

The place, opened in the late 60s, looks really dated from the outside (and curiously Jewish)

but the inside had 5 floors of interactive high-tech exhibits on everything from the usual physics and chemistry stuff to electronics to audio to optics to gas to nuclear energy to ecology to optical illusions. It was all presented in an engaging way, despite most of it being in Japanese. The kids had a great time playing with all this, while I, camera in hand, was happily mesmerized by the aesthetics of the place.

Creepy robot chick. I think she actually responded to questions, but as it was in Japanese, I'm only guessing. All I know is, she was creepy. She blinked, and giggled, and lowered her eyes modestly, just like a real Japanese girl with a rubber face.

Seat in front of a computer. Clever, eh? I did as it said.

That's my older boy:

That's me:

You jump and get filmed doing it, so you can watch after.

Giant soap bubble!

Japan: land of sleeping people.

Lots more photos, cool ones, I swear! here. I know Jeff at least will go see them, as he wasn't there and wishes that he was. Especially when he sees the audio stuff (can you spot "reverb" in katakana?) and the nuclear reactor core.

I'm going to print this one out and actually start carrying a picture of my kids:

On the other hand, I could start carrying these around, taken by Martine:

Or not.

We have all our China stuff booked. Fly into Shanghai, overnight train to Beijing. Already booked a tour of the Great Wall (Simitai) and an acrobatic Kung-Fu show in Beijing. The kids and I are watching The Last Emperor, so they have a little historical background. I've always loved that movie. I'm getting excited.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Birthday, BuzzBuzz Weddding Party, Snow!

I've been a little remiss in updating, thinking I didn't have enough pictures and not much to relate, and then realized I have too many pictures and we were kind of busy after all.

First of all, I had a birthday. I have decided not to count anymore, and am going to stay with "ni-ju roku sai desu." I am 26, just like everyone else in our crowd. It seems like a good age to be, and it has "rock" in it.

I like my hair in this picture.

Helen and I (and half a dozen others) had our birthday party at Blue Corn. Like last year, Mooney played. There was a big cake. I have to say, the Japanese birthday cake is far superior to the American birthday cake. It's usually a sponge-cake layered with whipped cream and fresh fruit. Which is way more palatable than the ultra-sweet artificially-colored American affair. Yum.

Helen, Kevin, Cynthia and I later went over to Tanuki for the karaoke I've been bugging Helen for. The highlight, for me, was Kevin doing "99 Luftballons." In German, naturally. He apparently doesn't really remember this, but I have video proof.

On my actual birthday, Wednesday, Macky generously offered to babysit. Jeff & I met Martine in Shinjuku. I had found this cool-sounding tempura and sake place on (thanks to Martine). called Tsunahachi Rin. I recommend it. It's on the top floor of the Lumine building. The decor was super-styley

and the tempura was good, too. Not just your usual shrimp, kabocha, and potato in the usual batter. The batter was light, and the contents were interesting. There were flowerheads and oyster-stuffed green peppers, and my favorite izakaya dish: little whole fish stuffed with their own eggs. mm-MM! The sake was also quite tasty. You get to pick your own cup from a basket.

It was a good thing we had Martine with us, because there was no English on the menu or coming from the mouth of the staff.

The whole rest of the floor had the coolest look. All recycled materials, like keyboards, old VCRs, conduits, and cardboard.

Pretty good birthday.

Saturday was another wedding party for Tomoi & Norichan. This one was for the friends, and much different.

I made this! Not this, though:

Jeff got tapped to make the toast. Spontaneously. In Japanese. That was fun to watch.

Abbey the Dingo played. One of my favorite bands in Japan. Maybe my favorite.

They have added a keyboard, with a ragtimey sound. I liked it.

Tomoi actually did a song or two with The Waits. Good job, too.

M & D were unimpressed with the food, and went over to McDonald's. Jeff insists that the fries are better in Japan. Like they used to be in the US before they stopped using beef fat.

D was totally unimpressed by the whole event. He said he liked the other wedding party better. He found a way to make the time pass more quickly.

Here's a random collection of the revelers.

I took the kids home after the official party was over. Jeff continued on. He assumed he'd stay out another hour or so and share a cab back with some of our neighbors. I have no idea was he was so deluded. I think he got home at 7:30 or so, after getting on the first train and sleeping past his stop. Twice. Soon after, D came running into the bedroom. "It's snowing!"

It really was, too. It snowed a day last week, but it didn't stick. This day, it was sticking. This is rare for Yokohama, so we were excited.

Surprisingly, Jeff managed to get up almost on time for our fully-planned day. We had to drive D to a playdate, finally, at Remina's house. On the drive, there were plenty of photo ops.

I loved seeing everyone carrying umbrellas against the snow. I don't know why we never did that in Cleveland. Umbrellas are used for every kind of weather here. Rain, obviously, and snow, and even when it's too sunny and hot.

At M's request, we went ice skating. We'd been planning to do it for awhile. We wanted to go to the outdoor rink at the Brick Warehouses, but apparently the freak snowstorm closed it for the day. So we went to to the Kanagawa indoor rink. Not cheap, but it was pretty fun. Made me feel really arthritic, great. Something about ice skates just perfectly lines up all the joints in my legs for pain. I'm glad we went, tho. I'm sure the separation was good for the kids, too.

Jeff just left for another 2 week trip. D has come down with something and is home sick with me today. I'll just leave you with this picture and a warning not to eat at the "Hawaiian" restaurant Sun Aloha, if you are expecting anything remotely resembling Hawaiian food. It's near Osanbashi Pier and has a row of big flaming torches outside. Seems enticing, but it's really just a curry restaurant with a theme to justify it's prices.

That swirl? It's whipped cream. Apparently that's what makes this curry Hawaiian.