13. On Currency and Curry
Today was what can only be called “Monday.” It was busy, busy, busy. Rush here, tear there, forget to do this, get told that – it was nuts. But it taught me that the greatest gift that I will get from this experience is the ability to stay organized; and what’s more, if I can stay organized, I’ll have a fair shot at surviving this.
Day duty had its fun moments, too. I loved opening things up just after seven o’clock when I could feel like I was the only one there. Sure, it later turned out that I opened up the wrong rooms and left their keys in the wrong places, but hey. A lot of it can be traced to our dated instruction manual that badly needs an update – thank goodness I at least had that, so I had something with which to defend myself from the people who came aboard me. (I’m sure they didn’t mean to come aboard me, it’s just that it felt that way. I need to work on my tone of voice, too. It’s not easy, especially in the second-language situation on their end.)
Anyway, the one really good thing about day duty is that you get to leave at 4:30. So I was able to roll into town in plenty of time to change some money.
You might remember that I was critical of the central post office for shutting down currency exchange at 6:00. (Or, more accurately, for not serving me at 6:00:00 when I ran in.) Well, here’s the deal: Currency exchange is a REALLY complex thing here. This isn’t like the kantors or banks of Europe; here you fill out an application form (I BSed everything on it because I didn’t know my own address, phone number, etc..) and the wait is more than ten minutes while the clerk processes one thing, then another, et cetera, et cetera. So now that I know how much behind-the-scenes stuff had to go on to exchange a few dollars, I’m a lot more understanding of the guy from last Thursday not volunteering to serve me. I would definitely have done the same thing, in any country, in any culture, in any language, with any customer.
Oh, just FYI: the rate I got was really poor. I got less hundreds of yen than dollars I gave them. That’s pretty bad considering that the current market rate is 103 yen to one Canadian Dollar. (Or, 106 yen to one US Dollar, if you prefer.) So get your yen at a bank while you’re still in Canada (Royal Bank is the best choice because they don’t charge you until the day they give you the yen, and they haven’t insisted on my being a client, which I’m not) or use an international bank machine once you’re here (you get a good rate, and my bank only charges $3 per withdrawal). I would have just put this money in an ATM back home but I only got it the night before I went to the airport.
Also, while we’re on the subject, sending money from here back to Canada is ridiculously expensive. The cheapest methods seem to start at $20 or a hefty percentage, and they go up from there. Even J.’s PayPal method was a soaking, and Ko.’s Lloyds method isn’t much better. So leave lots of money in your account to pay all those little bills.
I also mailed a package for F., and that, refreshingly, took all of thirty seconds, and was the least complicated thing I did all evening.
The rest of my errands went smoothly – I was really impressed by the extent of the SOGO – picture a retail Shin-Ra Building with a sad, empty, but still noisy Gold Saucer on top. I’m only half kidding. I’ve never seen so many escalators; they are assembled like stairs and they go all the way from the basement to… what was it? Ten floors? Eleven? Just imagine: Escalator, escalator, escalator, escalator, escalator, escalator…
Even the big box stores in the suburbs are built narrower and taller than their North American counterparts; picture the Staples on Gottingen Street. Now imagine maybe another story, and every store being like that, even on flat ground (which is basically all of Tokushima and river plain cities like it). And sometimes when there isn’t a parking area below, you still have to go upstairs to shop; they use the bottom floor for warehousing and such. I guess that’s a much better use of space than having to have an extensive backshop like you have to in North America.
So anyway, I perused the kiddie floor, Level 7, for some “Good Job!” stamps and the like, and then a huge bookstore on 8F.
I’ll spare you some of the other shopping discoveries; you won’t be interested in where to buy cheap peanut butter in Tokushima.
Anyway, and it seems like I say that a lot, so I really need to get a new general-purpose getting-back-to-the-story paragraph-opener – anyway, I’m walking back to my bike after shopping, and it’s cold, and I’ve got the sniffles. It’s been really chilly here lately. Some parts of the school are unheated too, and I spent more than a period in the unheated gymnasium helping my class prepare for a play. I should have worn my coat like the children were doing. Anyway, that experience pushed me into full-blown sniffles.
But I feel better now, because A) I’ve just had a nice cup of tea and B) just before I left downtown, I had some marvellous, spicy curry.
Any Japan veterans reading this might wonder why I’m ga-ga over a chain establishment, but here goes anyway: CoCoICHI curry! I’d been looking forward to going for quite some time, and the smell tantalized me every time I walked by. And this time, as I walked down the street towards where I parked my bike, I needed curry. I didn’t think I’d be going in, though, because I didn’t have my phrasebook and I was afraid I’d be lost.
But then I saw those magic words, “We have English menu.” (The same thing was written in English, Korean, Chinese (traditional), Russian, Arabic and Portuguese. Much as I love ma-and-pa-type places, you kind of need to be conversant in Japanese, be with someone who is, or at least know the routine for the particular kind of place (be it a noodle house, kaiten-zushi, okonomiyaki, or what have you) in order to have a smooth experience.)
Well, say no more! I was in and seated before I knew it. And then I got the multilingual menu and was able to read for myself how everything worked. (Much better than having to rely on someone else!)
What really makes CoCoICHI special is the insane amount of customization you can get. You can pick your curry, upgrade or reduce your rice, and add additional meats and other things, too.
And then there’s the spice chart. There are 10 levels, but only the first 5 even have descriptions. They have your safety in mind; if you want to eat at any level higher than 5 (which itself must be intensely hot and probably almost unbearable for most), you have to graduate to it. If you want to eat at 6, you have to have finished a full serving at 5. You even get the feeling that they’d phone up the CoCoICHIs in other cities just to make sure you were legitimately ready for the high levels.
You go up through the levels one at a time, so to eat 7 you have to have passed 6 and 5, and to eat 10… gracious. I can’t imagine eating at 10. Well, I can imagine it, but it’s like imagining myself speaking fluent Greek.
I went with level 3, which was described as kicking it up a notch. They were right. After I had finished (it was Heaven on a plate), I felt this uncomfortable, insistent sensation. It was a feeling I’d never had before. I breathed deeply, but still it intensified. In my tired and dull half-sick state, I couldn’t figure out what it was. I almost felt like I had to puke, or that I was going to keel over and die, but … OH! It’s burning! It’s my insides burning! Wow! And then my eyes fell upon the water jug, about which I had originally thought, “All that just for me?” and I swallowed glass after glass after glass. Then I felt a lot better.
The price for this experience: 630 yen. Maybe I’ll make it a weekly ritual.
Anyway, don’t leave Japan without stopping at CoCoICHI.
Good news: I might be getting Internet soon. (Inbox: 255 - please don’t get the impression that I’m staying in touch because of these posts; they’re all typed at home well in advance and posted in a blazing hurry at lunchtimes) L. is going to help me call the internet people back tomorrow night (he’d have done it tonight, but they close at 7 and he woudn’t have gotten off work until well after 5, by which time I was already on my way into the city). J. tried to do it for me from work, but they’ve tightened up the privacy laws recently and so the whole thing has to be arranged from my landline phone. [Jan 23rd: We're still sorting this out. It seems that my phone and internet may have gotten registered under two different names. It's a huge passing-the-buck kind of mess.]
In fact, a lot of things are very tricky here if you don’t have assistance; it’s a lot different from our experiences in Eastern Europe where things were either taken care of, optional, or things were done under-the-table anyway. (In my six months in Ukraine I probably amassed maybe a dozen receipts. The only time I can recall having to use a form for anything (even getting a local cell phone!) was getting Roma’s MP3 player through Ukrainian Customs, and that was only because I’d bought it on my eBay account for him.)
It’s just frustrating that tonight I had to choose between getting money and getting internet. I definitely can’t pin that one on Japan, though, and I wonder how people who don’t speak English or French find their first weeks in Canada…
Tomorrow: As with the 22 previous days of this month, I just might be inclined to write something. Get your scroll wheels greased up and ready.