January 30, 2007

House-hunting in Japan

We live in a fifty square meter apartment (about 500 square feet). With another child on the way and the center of our family's activities half an hour away, we've decided to look for a new place to live. Starting the process reminded me why we've stayed in this apartment for so long. Looking for an apartment in Tokyo is a frustrating, time-consuming experience; it's only slightly better than actually finding an apartment and signing a lease with all the accompanying expense and red tape. I'll blog our way through the process since it's what's been big on my mind the past couple weeks and probably will be for a while longer.

We want to live near the school where Tomomi and I work and where our children study, so we asked around to the neighbors if they know of any openings. That's often a good way to go because many places go unlisted and the real estate agents with their huge finders fees can be left out of the equation.

A neighbor told us about a house right across the street from our school. I has been vacant for a while and we've actually had our eye on it. I asked him to look into it for us about a month ago. He said he would but didn't get back to me for quite a while. About a week ago, I told him we had begun house-hunting in earnest. He said he had told the owner about us but didn't get a positive response. Then he added, "What country is your wife from anyway?" I answered that she's Japanese and he said, "Oh really, well in that case . . ." A couple days later he had arranged for us to see the house. Yesterday we looked at it. We could tell from the outside that the house was old but we were shocked to see the inside: bare wires, cloth stuffed in the gaps between window glass and frames, no place for a washing machine. I kind of like old places with character, but this was too much even for me. Tomomi was relieved.

Yesterday evening we went to a realtor, one that had an interesting listing online. The online listing was taken (bait and switch) but they did have a condo for rent about a one minute walk from our school. We went to see it this afternoon and are seriously thinking about taking it. The commute couldn't be better. It overlooks a grove of trees in a park. It's within our price range. It's about 700 square feet which is dinky by American standards but decent by Japanese. The units in the building are mostly owner-occupied. In all, it looks like a great match for us. We have only two worries. One is that the owner could sell the unit out from under us with six month's notice. The other is that it's a fourth floor unit with people living below so we'd need to be careful of noise. (Small children don't have a quiet walking mode.) OK, we have a third worry that I hesitate to mention: some Japanese are racist about renting to foreigners. We have encountered it personally and have many friends who've also had to deal with it. It isn't all that bad for us because Tomomi is Japanese and I'm white, from America, speak Japanese, and have permanent residence (all "good" things).

Anyway, If you're a pray-er, we'd appreciate your prayers. If you know of a place in or near Narimasu , we'd appreciate a lead. If you are thinking of renting or buying in Japan and have questions about the process, ask them in the comments or email me at misterjeremy @ seminoff dot fastmail dot fm.

"And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them." -Hebrews 11:13-16

I'm Back

I didn't post for a week or so. Then, because I hadn't posted for a while, I wanted my next post to be a great one. That led to more procrastination . . . and now it's been almost a month. Anyway, I decided that if I were ever going to get back to the blog I just needed to post a "whatever" entry, so here it is:


January 8, 2007

New Softbank Phones and Plan

My most popular post on this blog so far has been "Softbank Mobile: Really a Good Deal" in which I analyzed the superhyped Softbank Gold Plan and compared it to Softbank's other price plans as well as to those of Docomo and Au. (To sum up, unless you fit a very specific user profile, the Gold Plan stinks.) I finally got around to getting a new Softbank phone, changing plans, and getting a phone for Tomomi too. I'll share the process because someone else may benefit from what I learned. (The last paragraph of this post is about a referral campaign that Softbank is running. Either read to the end or scroll down if you're interested.)

I went into the shop in the early evening on a Saturday when it wasn't crowded. If you go during peak hours prepare to wait for a long time. Also be prepared to meet staff who are either weasely or undertrained. If your Japanese isn't good, take a friend who speaks the language. You will need a photo ID card and some way to pay, like an ATM card. If you aren't Japanese, you need a residence visa; temporary visitors can't apply.

The first time I went into the shop a couple months ago, I met the weasely staff. He tried to talk me into an expensive plan and unnecessary add-ons. Softbank undercuts Docomo and Au by 200 yen per month on basic call service. Au has both a 2nd generation and a 3rd generation network that they are promoting. Softbank doesn't have a 2nd generation network so they undercut by 200 yen Au's 2nd and 3rd generation plans with their 3rd generation service. Softbank's Orange W plan is priced just below Au's WIN service and the Orange X plan is priced Au's 2nd gen service. The Orange W and Orange X plans are on facing pages of the Sofbank catalog so the weasel did his best to cover the cheaper X plan with his hand while trying to sell me the more expensive W plan.

When I finally went in to get our phones the other day, I met an undertrained staff but she was sincere and helpful. Several times she had to go back and ask questions to the manager. Once I pointed out a service that she didn't know about. (If you use Yahoo's BB phone service, run by Softbank, you can register your BB phone number, then calls from your mobile to your home phone will be half price.)

I had been hearing about handset shortages and was pleasantly surprised to find that most phones were available in the shop. That changed to disappointment when the staff told me that most phones were designated for new Softbank customers and that customers who just wanted an upgrade were limited to only a few models and colors. I guess they don't follow the business principle of treating existing customers well. After a little grumbling, I found an inexpensive phone that would serve my purposes and then went on with getting a nice one for my wife, a new Softbank customer. After choosing Tomomi's phone, the staff went back to her manager, whispered a little, then came to me again and said I could have my choice of any phone in the shop even though I was just getting an upgrade. I don't know why she did that, but I changed to a similarly inexpensive phone with a thinner profile.

I had some mileage points saved up from four years of service, actually more than I needed to pay for the phones so I ended up getting a 2 GB ipod nano for 5000 yen spread out over two years. (the regular price is about 18,000 yen). Softbank and Apple have a promotional deal going and rumors are flying that the two companies are developing an ipod phone. Since I just got a new phone and an ipod, Murphy's Law dictates that Steve Jobs will introduce the ipod phone at Macworld this week and my new toys will be instantly obsolete.

If you've read this far, maybe you're really thinking about going with Softbank. They are running an "introduce a friend" campaign through January 15 where the introducer and introducee each get 5250 yen worth of mileage points. If you sign up before the 15th and have a friend who is a Softbank user, make sure that you get the bonus together. All they need is your new phone number and your last name. If you want to sign up and get the mileage, but don't have a friend who uses Softbank then hey, I'll be your friend. Email me your last name (in kanji, hiragana, katakana, or romaji--however you signed up) and your new Softbank phone number. My email address is in the "Hello" blurb at the upper right of this page. I promise not to use your private information for anything but this referral campaign.

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Ask, Seek, Knock in 2007

John Piper gave a message from Matthew 7:7-12 on New Year's Eve 2006 encouraging his congregation to pray in 2007. The whole message is excellent. You can read it, listen to it, or watch it here. Just to whet your appetite, here's an excerpt about praying when we don't feel God's nearness:

Ask. Seek. Knock. If a child’s father is present, he asks him for what he needs. If a child’s father is somewhere in the house but not seen, he seeks his father for what he needs. If the child seeks and finds the father behind the closed door of his study, he knocks to get what he needs. The point seems to be that it doesn’t matter whether you find God immediately close at hand, almost touchable with his nearness, or hard to see and even with barriers between, he will hear, and he will give good things to you because you looked to him and not another.

January 2, 2007

Kapla / Keva / Citibloc Planks

[Edit: It seems that a lot of folks who find this post want to compare kapla, keva, and citiblocs planks. Clink those words for my review of the three kinds of blocks, including a comparison.]

The kids got a set of Kapla building blocks for Christmas. There is exactly one kind of block, 120 mm by 24 m by 8 mm (120 mm is about 4 1/2 inches). They look too simple to be much fun, but after getting addicted I realized that the simplicity is what's great about them. You can put them together in endless combinations, and they are precision-cut so you can build really tall without them getting wobbly.

I used to think Lego was the ultimate in amazingly versatile building blocks, but I've changed my mind. Kapla planks can be placed in any dimension (there's no up down or sideways) and they don't interlock, so pieces can be placed at any angle. They are too big for a baby to swallow so they're safe in a house or day-care center with children of various ages. They aren't the cheapest toy out there, about $65 for a box of 200, but they are well made and could last generations.



Kapla, from France, was the first to market with these blocks but an American company has put out a copy called Keva Planks which they claim are better and cheaper.  Citiblocs is a third player that is usually a good bit cheaper than the other two. The dimensions and build quality are the same. The prices vary, so you can compare prices on kapla, keva, and citiblocs below. All three sets are for 200 pieces. If you decide to buy online, I'd appreciate you clicking through one of the amazon links below.

January 1, 2007

Happy New Year 2007!

No one in our house noticed the beginning of 2007. The kids and my father-in-law were asleep. Tomomi and I were ten minutes away from the end of Superman Returns and didn't notice.

(Spoiler and aside: Of the three dvd's we've watched during this vacation--The Da Vinci Code, The Pink Panther, and Superman Returns--two of them prominently feature the secret children of major heroes. It's been a big theme in literature for thousands of years, but interesting that two big Hollywood movies would pick it up at almost the same time.)

So midnight passed without fanfare but this morning we woke up for a traditional New Year's meal, osechi ryori (learn about it by clicking the link).

The kids played outside for a while in barely-above-freezing temperatures and found that it's pretty easy to catch cold-blooded critters when they're too cold to move. I didn't get a photo of the grasshopper, but here's a lizard that could only run in slow motion.

We went for a walk.

A friend visited, and we had tea. It's late afternoon and this is turning out to be a perfectly relaxing, refreshing, reflection-filled day.

I think it'll be a great year!

"The path of the righteous is like the first gleam of dawn, shining ever brighter till the full light of day." Proverbs 4:18