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Tuesday, 23 December 2008

It seems to me...

that I am cursed as far as technology goes. I have beautiful photographs for all my posts but cannot get them posted. I managed the first couple of times but now, doing the same thing as before, I cannot make the blog accept my pictures. I waste so much precious writing time trying to make things technological work and they never do.

Monday, 22 December 2008

Banking with style.

Christmas is here and in New Zealand it’s meant to mean something special, an occasion with serious undertones. It’s nowhere near as commercial as it is in North America, but commercial it is, though glossed over with the Christian story. I miss the Japanese attitude, for in Japan it is wholly and simply a commercial celebration for children, no pretence or hypocrisy.

A winter Christmas, especially without snow, is cold and dingy, summer Christmases are much more fun. The Japanese brighten their Christmas season with really excellent Christmas lights. Takamatsu had very pretty festoons of lights in the streets and the trees in the central park were all most tastefully lit. Hamamatsu went for a whopping metal ‘tree’ in the city central plaza which was really an electronic toy, a light show, changing lights and providing Christmas music on the hour. Shops and streets turned their parks and buildings into a blaze of Christmas lights with scenes of Santas and elves and toys and snowmen. Local brass bands played jolly Christmas songs, school orchestras and bands played in the public arena, but a commercial festival it is, for Japanese families spend a great deal of money on children’s gifts, and getting money from a bank takes twice as long.

Japan is a money economy. Remember that stuff which padded out the wallet and rustled thickly between the fingers? Well New Zealand abandoned real money when the Lange government, led by that idiot, Roger Douglas, destroyed our economy and our society. It’s been a plastic economy ever since, a wallet full of cards with wretched numbers, codes, and passwords you have to remember. Not Japan. Most people use money; they actually pay with cash. And plastic or not, the queues in New Zealand banks are extensive. Stuck for 18 minutes in the local ANZ bank I thought nostalgically of my Japanese bank and how waiting 18 minutes there was no punishment. It’s all so simple, most people don’t even have a cheque account, you just needed a pass book and a bank card to extract money from the bank ATM, and there were no heavy bank fees as we pay in New Zealand.

I quite liked going to the main bank, as opposed to the little local branch. It was made of marble, it had superb works of art on the walls. It was a vast building manned (alas the women were only allowed to be tellers) by ranks of men rattling away on their keyboards. There were so many people that no one would dare try to rob it. The system worked like this: first you spoke to the tellers over a polite little counter, and each counter had upholstered chairs in front of it, for you to sit on. The system worked in an orderly fashion. You took a ticket, waited, came when called, left your bank slip for withdrawal or deposit, and went away again to read a magazine, sip coffee, or watch educational videos like the world news or nature programmes whilst sitting on the luxurious leather sofas. Some time later you were called to receive your money, handed to you on a little tray. You picked up the polite and decorative bank envelope beside the money, popped the notes in that, bowed, took the complimentary packet of tissues offered and departed, bowed out by the door man. It took a good twenty minutes.

It was a wonderful bank though for impressing you with the seriousness of the business of banking. All work was done in a reverent hush. No one shouted and the customers leaned over the counter towards the teller to whisper to her. There was a commissionaire at the main door in a braided uniform finished off with that peaked cap and those super-white gloves. The doors were electronic, but he saluted you and greeted you, watching foreigners carefully in case they were going to rob the bank. I always smiled at him and said hello nicely so, eventually, he smiled. Then there was the dear little lady in bank uniform who stood by the desks and helped the lost and puzzled. She helped you fill in forms and press the right buttons on the machines. As I can’t read Japanese I always needed her help. My entrance was the sign for her to patter delicately across in that gentle shuffle walk which is a sign of the well trained Japanese woman. We had quite a time working out what I had to do. I tried to remember from last time which button to push or square to fill and she hovered until I was ready and then intercepted any wrong moves. The bank assistants became so used to me that they trotted over with a handful of forms whenever I appeared. This was very wicked and wasteful, but as a poor foreigner who could not write Japanese, it was obvious I would fill in the wrong squares. Actually it was because my handwriting was not neat enough, small enough or tidying enough for the bank. I had to write the form out until the assistant was happy. She was so apologetic, but the form had to be just so. I had to write a 7 with a verandah on it, and a 5 with an extra roof. If my numbers weren’t dead centre in each square I had to do them again. Ah me! No wonder calligraphy is taught in Japanese schools. But it was so polite and gently done. As my New Zealand teller slapped the notes in front of me, talking to the teller standing behind her, and dropped my bank card on the counter in front of me, I did wish one of those polite Japanese tellers could come and teach her how to serve customers with real banking style.

Thursday, 11 September 2008

Pure frustration.

Today is Thursday, September 11th. I have spent the last week trying to access this blog from my family's various computers. Each time I have signed in and reached my dashboard, but there I am told: 'You are not an author on any blogs yet, create one now to start posting!'

Isn't technology wonderful?

And when one lays down plans carefully, so that the move home from Japan to New Zealand is smoothly coordinated, and the minimum of time and effort are involved in the great upheaval, why is it that some incompetent twerp fouls everything up?

I had planned on a smooth run of eight clear days before the several hundred plants and just under six thousand trees arrive to really get chapter one of the new novel laid down securely. This all depended on my luggage and household effects arriving as I did. In fact they arrived earlier, but in Auckland, on the North Island, not in Dunedin, South Island. I have spent the last week trying to get Customs and Agricultural and Fisheries clearance and organise transport to South Island. What a week!

How I miss Japanese efficiency, politeness and cooperation.

An ending.

I am coming to the end of a five year stint working in Japan. It took me over a year to get used to Japan, I spent most of my time struggling and hating to do so. After all I’ve travelled everywhere, and lived and worked in six different countries. I thought culture shock and I had parted company years ago, but Japan is not another country, it’s another planet. You enter a world where the five day working week, the week-end, a way of life shaped by Christian ideas, none of it exists. Theirs is a Shinto Buddhist way of life. The population of 125 million means that housing is sub-standard and extremely cramped by our standards, for space is always at a premium. There are few easily accessible quiet places to get away from it all, and the public parks and gardens are always crowded. Social customs are quite different and it is hard to remember little things like it isn’t polite to blow your nose, or hug, kiss, or hold hands in public. This takes a great deal of mental adjustment, a conscious effort to look for what is new, interesting and different every day so that you are not swamped with a longing for home.

My other major problem was being female. Japanese society is male dominated and women are not treated with equality. If you don’t like men who talk over you or to the man next to you when you’ve asked the question, and I don’t, then Japan is a hard place to be. And Japanese men watch American films and think that the way women behave in these films is the way you will behave. Western women = instant sex! The smaller language schools are purposefully employing young blonde females because Japanese men have sexual fantasies about blondes. It can be difficult to handle the Japanese male ego in these situations.

The Japanese are a fascinating people, a curious mix of humility and pride. There is a strong streak of xenophobia in their psyche. If you are not Japanese you are inferior, an attitude which takes some getting used to, but it explains why a few Japanese will happily rip you off. You will also meet people who come up to you and demand to know why the allies dropped the atom bomb at Hiroshima, on poor defenceless Japan, who had done nothing. History, as taught in Japan, has interesting holes and gaps. Most Japanese have no idea of the horrors of the Pacific war as perpetrated by the Japanese Imperial army. The Japanese school history texts cover WWII in one very brief paragraph.

Japan is also expensive, the cost of living is high. Transport - bus, train and plane- throughout the country is good, super clean, efficient and reliable, but very expensive. So is owning and driving a car, I had a company vehicle and did manage to do some local travel, but wasn’t able to see as much of the country as I’d hoped. Food prices are astronomical. One water melon costs $20US, one peach $10US, meat starts at $20 US a kilo. Fish and shellfish are cheaper, but not much. The North Americans I met found clothes more expensive than at home. Australasians,like me, find quality clothes very cheap. Mind you, you have to have the slim and slight Japanese body build to wear them. An extra large in women’s sizes is a size 12-14.

Yet here I am, reluctantly packing my boxes to go home, and feeling extraordinarily sad.

I can't believe it's only me.

It seems to me that most electronic systems and devices were devised specifically to waste my time and drive me into frantically insane and murderous moods. Keep away from me all IT experts until I've sorted them out!

It's taken me three days to get back into this blog. I would sign in, and be told I hadn't activated my account or verified my e-mail. However, sitting in my e-mail account is the google verifying e-mail, and every time I clicked on the link I was told my e-mail had already been verified. Not only that but my server is Japanese so the blog appeared in Japanese even though I changed the langauge to English. I hate technology.

I'm also trying to get my Visa on to the Verified by Visa scheme, because World Pay demand that all Visa cards are before they can be used in their system. Over three weeks later I am still not on the system and spitting tacks as Visa repeatedly tells me that the last 3 numbers of my security code are not valid! No help from the Bank or Visa, who tell me the numbers are correct, perhaps I'm not putting them in correctly? After receiving short shrift from me on that I'm told to come home and they will sort it all out. That's a bit difficult when I'm working out my last days in Japan. I shall chewing various ears when I do get home to New Zealand.

It wouldn't happen like that in Japan. And I'd get profuse apologies, prompt assistance and the problem solved within 24 hours. I dread going back to New Zealand's version of 'Service'.

Nakatajima Dunes


It is a real sorrow that I leave Japan without having seen a female turtle coming in to lay eggs. Nakatajima Dunes are part of a 70K stretch of beach near where I’ve been living and around 180-200 females lay their eggs on this beach every year, mainly Leatherback turtles, although a few Green and Loggerhead females come too. The egg laying begins in late May and continues to the end of August, sometimes into September. A group called Sanctuary Japan look after the turtles, trying to protect them and run a scientific study. This means only their scientists get to see the egg laying. It’d a good thing, but I wish I’d been able to work with them.

Turtles are solitary creatures. Only the females ever come ashore, and only when they are old enough, that’s at least twenty years old. They like soft sand to nest in and the peaceful dark. It's difficult to imagine how the Turtle Squads from Sanctuary Japan would persuade people to let them be and not crowd them out if they came ashore in the day. In a good year this part of the coast will have over six hundred turtle nests buried along the beach. So every summer morning from the beginning of May until the beginning of September a group from Sanctuary Japan goes out to spot the nests, rescue any turtles needing aid, (they are helpless if they slid into vehicle tracks,) and collect the eggs. A small number of visitors is allowed to come on these turtle walks at 5 a.m. to search for nests. I’ve done it every year and usually we find one.

It's strange being on the beach at this hour. I expected it to be like beaches at home, empty. It isn't. There are too many people. There are surfers, too many people fishing and teenagers partying. There are also drivers. 4 wheel drive recreation vehicles are illegal on many parts of this coastline yet still they come. It's a favourite place for everyone all summer and that means as soon as it’s light. Thank goodness the turtles come at night, in the darkest hours.

This July there was nothing on our stretch, but a female had nested further down. It was a forty minute car journey, but worth it. There’s something rather touching about seeing those twin furrows coming out of the sea, meanding up the beach and then making a huge loop in the soft sand above the high tidemark. But did she lay? Yes, there is the wide circular area of disturbance within which hides a nest. It would be hard to find if it weren't for the careful prodding of our experts. The female turtle hopes to discourage predators by leaving this large area of disturbance and so our Sanctuary Japan people use a thin probe, gently poked into a depth of 61cms,to reveal the nest. They can be exact for the sand plug is exactly 60cms deep. It isn’t easy to feel though and took our expert 20 minutes. The nests are always like a long necked vase - fat and round at the bottom - and very deep. The eggs then can sit in sand that is always a constant 30 degrees. Alas we had to dig up the nest and take the eggs away. We all got to fish some out and they are just like ping-pong balls. The expert casually popped them in plastic supermarket bags - I expected padded boxes - and we took them back to the artificial nests in protected cage enclosures on the beach. It is sad, but people walking over the nests pack down the sand so the babies can’t get out. Dogs love to dig the eggs up and eat them. Trail bikes and 4WDs, although banned, still come onto the beach and they crush the nests. Anyway we put 121 eggs - part of 18000 this year - into a safe man-made nest in one of three fenced and protected sites on the beach. Hopefully all the eggs will hatch in two months. I will miss these hatching. Hatchings are fun. The babies have to be returned to the sea every day from mid August to early October and Sanctuary Japan invite everyone, especially the schools, to take part. It's quite something watching the nest site sand churn and boil as the babies emerge together. The babies are small enough to sit two in the palm of your hand and they are all flipper. The children are lined up behind a rope line some 5m from the sea. Each child gets a turtle, the parents go bananas taking pictures, and the turtle is released. The children place them on the sand and let the babies scrabble and flap themselves into the water where they disappear to an accompaniment of oohs and aahs.

Those little turtles are incredible. All flipper and go, they want out of the cage nests and into the sea so badly. Pick one up and it rows itself out of your palm. They make for the water rowing those giant flippers and look like the devil is after them. One always gets turned round and comes back. Two or three collide and then the first wave arrives. The lucky babies are far enough down to float down the slope to the next wave, and they’re under it and away. The unlucky ones get bowled up the beach again and have to struggle back down. Some poor little ones get tumbled up and back fives times before they made it under the breaking wave and off. They never give up. I wonder about them in twenty years’ time, for the beach is eroding, human damage of course, and it is highly likely there won't be a beach for them then.