Mar & Mark as Volunteers

musings on our lives as volunteers….

Travel Tips for Japan

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Konnichiwa! 

We loved the month we recently spent in Japan.  It is a fascinating culture, with some customs that are very different to our own. We are passing these tips on, in the hopes that they may help you, if you are planning a trip to this magnificent country any time soon. Please feel free to share, and ask any questions you might have in the comments!

Trains
• Use http://www.hyperdia.com/en/ to research train travel. Gives times, fares, platforms etc.   The bullet trains are called “Shinkansen” trains.
• You must first book/purchase a ticket to travel on the train. If it is a busy season you should then book a reserved seat, which costs about 50% more. You will then have 2 tickets. If you are changing trains, which is often the case, you may have more than 2 tickets, which are all fed through the turnstile together. The ticket for that particular journey is removed. Trains generally have about 1/3 of the carriages for unreserved travel, with seats occupied on a first come basis.
Japan Rail passes cover various parts of the country – depending on where you are travelling it may not be worth getting one. These must be purchased outside the country. In Perth they can be purchased at Travel Japan, in Irwin St, next to the Mercure Hotel. If you purchase a Japan East Rail Pass, you can reserve your seats online no more than 30 days ahead of your date of travel. For most other travel passes, you cannot book online in advance.

• For travel on public transport in Tokyo and a number of other cities, get a Suica or Pasco card. These can be easily topped up at the station and save the significant hassle of trying to work out what priced ticket you need to purchase. The Suica card can also be used to make purchases at 7/11 and some vending machines. If you don’t have a Suica or Pasco card, you can purchase the cheapest ticket and when you get to your destination, use the top-up facility to pay the correct amount before you pass through the turnstile.

Navigation
• We found Google maps invaluable, as addresses are not necessarily logical. Prior to going to a new place I saved the destination. As the last map area is saved in the cache, you don’t have to be online to find your way around.

Mobile Phones
• You can only buy a local sim card for data – not for making and receiving calls or texts. As all the places we stayed at, whether hotels or Airbnb, had free wifi, we didn’t find it necessary to purchase a sim card.

Google translate
• The Google translate app was handy, particularly to translate instructions on electrical appliances in hotel rooms. Voice recognition and using the camera on the app only works if you have wifi. Otherwise, the text feature is the only one that works.
Money
• Surprisingly, Japan is largely a cash economy. Only big hotels and department stores accept credit cards.
• Bank atm’s don’t accept foreign cards. Use the ubiquitous convenience stores like 7/11, which have a a Y100,000 limit. Note that you may have to insert the card before getting the option of choosing the menu in English.
• We used a pre-loaded cash card which worked without fail at 7/11’s and wasn’t subject to the Y100,000 limit.

Lonely Planet
• We borrowed an electronic copy from the library

Hotels / Airbnb
• We had no problems with Airbnb bookings. Some of the apartments were very small and the mattress was on the floor, but still comfortable. We also stayed in a few traditional ryokans, which was fun. In these you need to unravel your mattress on the tatami matting. Seating is on the floor.
• Most places had sandals just inside the door where you removed your footwear, leaving it facing outwards and slipped on the sandals. Note that you remove the sandals before stepping on tatami matting (ie: socks or bare feet only on tatami).
• Some hotels had onsen (communal hot baths) where you could relax if you so choose. Make sure you read up on the etiquette (see link below) and scrub yourself thoroughly before entering the bath. I saw people spending over 10 minutes washing before getting in the bath! Onsens are single sex only, as you are not clothed. There are a few exceptions, but expect to be starkers, and bathing / soaking with your gender only.
• Most hotels had umbrellas in the foyer to borrow.
• Most hotels had a room with a microwave and vending machine on each floor.
• Make sure you book a no smoking room!

Tokyo
• If you want to visit the Imperial Palace (apparently it’s worth it), you need to book online a month before, as numbers are very limited.

Links on etiquette:

http://www.onsenjapan.net/onsenbasics.php

https://www.jref.com/articles/japanese-manners-and-etiquette.89/

http://www.wikihow.com/Blow-Your-Nose-in-Japan

Written by Mar(k)

June 21, 2017 at 9:19 pm

Prepackaged Japan

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Sometimes we buy our dinner meal at a supermarket, as a way of keeping costs down, getting fresh fruit and veg, and trying local foods. There are many pre-packaged meals that are ready to eat, healthy and delicious. However, enjoying these meals certainly comes at an environmental cost. The Japanese love their packaging.  
Everything is wrapped. Bento boxes, rice balls, salads. All in plastic. Soy sauce, wasabi? Available. In tiny little plastic sachets. Chopsticks? Yup. Wrapped (think also massive deforestation, as the takeaway business is big business here. Thats a lot of wooden chopsticks that get chopped down from trees). Plastic spoons and forks. Plastic wrapped in plastic.  

The Japanese also love their beautifully wrapped presents, often food stuff from specific regions, highlighting the specialty of the area. They make great looking gifts, but inside is _______ (insert whatever the food stuff is here), often again individually packaged. Think a dozen sakura (cherry blossom) shaped biscuits. All in a gift box, wrapped in plastic, then put in a plastic bag, and EACH INDIVIDUAL biscuit is also wrapped, once you get inside the box! It seems crazy to us.

Even when we go to checkout at the supermarket, and bring our little reusable shopping bag, it is often met with some disbelief. But hey. We are kind of getting used to that look. Because it is very similar to the look we get when we tell people here that we are vegetarian. On, on! 

Even the bananas are individually wrapped! WTF?!?

A note on Japanese Food Culture

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We are currently enjoying a month in Japan, taking in the amazing shrines, soaking in onsens, admiring Mount Fuji, and chasing the cherry blossoms. But one of the most enjoyable parts of our holiday in Japan has been enjoying the amazing diversity of food here. Virtually every region has its specialty, and we haven’t had a bad meal yet.

IMG_1470

Although we have had a few large meals (pictured), even here you can see that the individual portion sizes are quite modest. Each meal has a lovely blend of the various tastes: sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and that most ubiquitous of Japanese flavours: umami. Each small dish is savoured, and with the enjoyment of these diverse tastes, you don’t need a lot to fully appreciate the dishes themselves.

This strikes me to be in marked contrast to many Western cultures, (and I am thinking North America here in particular), where I am always horrified at the portion sizes. Its not rocket science to see the correlation between portion size and obesity. And I do wonder about the lack of varied tastes in so much Western cuisine (the major tastes leaping to mind are sugar, salt and fat).

Other things that perhaps contribute to the overall healthier diet in Japan include the following:

  • Soft drinks are not widely available. Vending machines are everywhere, but fizzy drinks do not feature largely. Common cold drinks are iced teas, most served without any sugar.
  • Meals are largely based around vegetables (again, refer to the picture). When animal protein is served, the focus is on fish and seafood, rather than meats. But even when meat is served, portions stay in control. Tofu and soy are widely consumed. Fermented products are commonly eaten. Breads and pasta are not widely consumed. Rice and noodles feature regularly.
  • Presentation of each dish is as important as the taste of the dish itself. Some of the dishes are truly like works of art. Balance, harmony and simplicity is demonstrated in both the tastes and the presentation of the meal.

It has been a joy thus far sampling the wide variety of foods and tastes in this most magnificent country. Highly recommended destination for the foodie.

Written by Mar(k)

April 23, 2017 at 8:26 pm

Off on a 1000 km hiking adventure

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I am passionate about two things:  high altitude trekking, and long distance backpacking.   In the latter, there is something hugely satisfying for me about being completely self reliant.  Everything I need,  I carry with me.   Tent, food, stove, fuel, sleeping bag, water.   Not only do I look like a snail (with my home on my back), but I also feel like one, crawling up those hills!   I have recently started my second “end to end” on the 1000 km, long distance walking trail in Western Australia called the Bibbulmun Track.   You can find out more about the trail here.

One foot in front of the other!

One foot in front of the other!

I am going to be doing this trek solo, and I anticipate it will take me 51 hiking days (60 days total, including my rest days) to complete.   My average daily distance covered will be 20 km, and my packed weighed in at 22.22 kg when I started.   A light weight hiker I am not!

It occurs to me that to succeed in any sport, there is a degree of physical fitness required, and overall, that fitness is relatively easy to come by.   But it seems to me that the thing that can make or break lots of epic adventures is the mental toughness that is required.   I would say that succeeding on this kind of adventure is probably 20% fitness, and 80% mental.  It’s harder than it looks!  But the body can keep going long after you think it is finished, if you have the mental toughness.   I am fortunate to know a few athletes and adventurers who have done some truly amazing things – far more adventurous than my wee walk.   And the one common denominator that they all seem to have is that mental toughness.

For now, it is one foot in front of the other!   The thing that guides me are these trail markers – called “waugals”.  They represent the Rainbow Serpent from the Aboriginal Dreamtime (they are NOT snake warning signs!), and trust me – they are my friend out there.   They keep me going in the right direction, and I am always on the lookout for them.   When you hike for hours and hours by yourself, you can get lost in thought, and miss a turnoff on the trail.   So I try to stay vigilant and keep an eye out for these markers.   (mind you, having a good map, compass and the ability to use them also helps if you do come off the trail)

Written by Mar(k)

September 19, 2016 at 3:57 pm

Getting into Ethical Altruism

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With the EOFY rapidly approaching (that’s “End of Financial Year”, for those not into silly acronyms!), it is also a time when many people (in Australia, at least), look at making donations to charities they want to support with much needed (and appreciated!) funds.  For the last few years, we have embraced a concept which is known as “Ethical Altruism”.  This is a term coined by ethicist, philanthropist, animal rights activist, and other “ists”, Peter Singer.

Essentially, it is about making sure that the hard-earned money you donate does as much “good” as possible.  For simplicity, let’s just say this is all about helping the MOST people, who are in the MOST need.  Not a tough concept, and one that we subscribe to.

why not cartoon for giving

To help you along, there is a very cool online calculator which can assist you in determining how MUCH you should give (well, it’s a guideline, anyhow).   Don’t freak out – it’s not like some religious tithing system of 10%.   It works out to about 1 or 2 % of your gross income generally, depending on how much you earn.   Obviously, the more you earn, the greater “good” you are capable of doing, so the percentage goes up accordingly.   Seems fair to us!   Have a play with the calculator here.

Like many others, we want to know that the money we are donating is doing the “most good”.  So one tool that we found super helpful was this research / analysis on a number of different charities.   Saved us having to do the research!  (spoiler alert:  the Give Well website ranks the Against Malaria Foundation as one of the best (and it is tax deductible in Australia).   But there are many other wonderful organisations here, as well.  One consideration for us was to find charities that were Australian based, and many of the ones researched are based in America.   However, there is a handy link to the Effective Altruism Australia site, where you can make your Aussie donation tax deductible, and ear mark it against the approved charity of your choice.   What could be easier?  (you’re welcome!)

How do you make your donations each year?  What sort of criteria do you use?  Let us know in the comments section – would love to hear from you!

Happy giving.

Written by Mar(k)

June 20, 2016 at 4:00 pm

The worshipping of chocolate rabbits – happy Easter!

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Not 100% sure where the chocolate easter bunny and the eggs came from – suspect it may have been from the original Pagan fertility celebration in (northern hemisphere) Spring.   Nonetheless, as I was getting groceries yesterday, the amount of shopping trollies that were literally overflowing with chocolate Easter treats was quite amazing.   I am quite glad that I don’t have a sweet tooth – one piece of dark chocolate will do me quite well, thank you!

 

But for the rest of you choco-holics out there – enjoy this holiday weekend, which seems designed just for you!

There might even be a few Christians for whom Easter egg hunts and chocolate overloading isn’t front and centre.  These same folk may even see it as THE most important Christian event on their calendar.   The death and resurrection of their saviour Jesus Christ.  Good on you.

If you are celebrating Easter this weekend in whatever form, enjoy it!   Of course, here in Australia, rabbits are pretty widely regarded as a feral pest, so we would prefer the Bilby to be the representative fertility symbol.   But oh well.   Enjoy the rabbits.   easter-bilby-and-rabbit

Written by Mar(k)

March 24, 2016 at 5:43 pm

Just in time for the next arrival – Barbie finally getting real about body image

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Screen Shot 2016-02-12 at 4.51.24 pm

Mark’s son will shortly be entering fatherhood for the first time!   Very exciting times, and we wish them all the very best with their birth of their little one.   To celebrate, I thought I’d give a wee update on Mattel and their recent move to make Barbie more “realistic”.   I really love the fact that Mattel finally succumbed to consumer pressure to introduce more realistic body shapes into their line.   It has only taken them 57 years, but power to the people!   Wonderful to see consumers voting with their wallets, and equally good to see businesses savvy enough to realise what will keep the dollars coming into the door – give the consumers what they have been asking for!

Finally, the Fashionista’s line for 2016 includes different skin tones, body types, eye colours and hair styles.   Wow.  Imagine that!  Dolls that start to look a little bit more like the wonderful wide world out there!   Go figure!  Nice to see some options that aren’t blonde haired and blue eyed.  NOT that there’s anything wrong with being blonde haired and blue eyed!  Someone has to be in the minority!  ha ha ha.

We have no idea if the newest arrival is going to be a girl, or a boy, and their gender will not matter at all, if s/he wants to play with a Barbie doll.   But if we ever do give the new addition a doll, it will be a great feeling to be able to get one that maybe even looks a little bit like the child!   How cool is that!

 

Written by Mar(k)

February 12, 2016 at 4:59 pm