Getting Settled in Japan: Alien Registration, Bicycles, etc.

The text of this post was originally written in April, 2004 as part of an online diary I kept before I actually started my blog. I'd forgotten about it until I ran across it in February 2008. I inserted it into my blog then, assigning dates appropriate to the content instead of to the time I actually added it. Thus, these April 2004 posts show up as my “first posts” in my list of posts, even though I didn't actually start a blog until a year later with my first post about buying a car in Japan.

There's nothing here of interest to anyone but me; I insert it here so that it's together with my other posts (which are also of little interest to anyone but me :-)) Any comments I add while posting this to my blog in February 2008 appear like this.

This was originally written just after we moved from California to Japan, so our days were dominated by jet lag, and trying to set up our life and newly-acquired apartment. Anthony was 18 months old.

We got a lot done today. It didn't start off well, as I mentioned before, with Anthony up at 1am for two hours, then up for the day at 5:30am. The block of ice we'd gotten the previous evening was still going strong, though, so there were no worries about Anthony's milk supply.

It didn't go well for Fumie, either. While still in Cupertino, she'd order online and had delivered a futon for herself, but it turned out to be too firm, and she was quite uncomfortable. She commandeered my futon (the one I was borrowing from Kuzuha) when we were up for Anthony at 2am.

Eventually we were all up and ready to go, and at 8:30 the three of us went out for our first morning stroll in our new town. Our building is on a one-way street, which doesn't apply to pedestrians, of course, but I wanted to scope out streets that lead back toward the station, lest I ever need to go pick up someone in the car. There are a lot of small one-way streets, and knowing a route ahead of time would be smart.

Right outside the entrance to the apartment are the steps leading up to a famous shrine (Shorenin). They must be a bazillion years old, and are themselves famous enough to be written on some maps. There are some huge trees on either side (rare to find in Japan), and so the steps combined with the trees and sun/shadows makes for a different character during different times of days. We both whipped out our cell phones and took pictures (here's one), as I'm sure we will many times to come. Once I have the time to figure out how to download the pics from my phone (and have the time to do it), I'll start adding lots of pictures.

It's a bit odd trying to get used to always having a camera with you, or, at least, to get used to thinking to take advantage of it. For example, at one point while running around, I passed a sign advertising a store's opening. Like many signs, they used a large splash of English to be cool, and garner attention. And like many such signs, there was a slight mistake: the store's opening was proclaimed as a “GLAND OPENING” in large letters. Anyway, these types of mistakes are not rare, but nevertheless, I snapped a picture of it. Will have to figure out how to download from the phone. (it's here)

Back to our stroll, at 8:30, there was almost no one out and about. Most parts of town were probably already well into their day's hustle-and-bustle, but this immediate area, with all its famous temples, is more a tourist area, so gets started later, I guess. But five minutes out, we turned down a street and saw huge throngs of women coming towards us, in waves. It turns out that between them and us was a women's community college (along with a women's high school, and girl's middle school). The thought of a women's college close by brings a smile to an old man's heart 🙂, but unfortunately, this college apparently doesn't have particularly high standards, as the throngs of women we passed didn't seem to be, uh, cut from the highest standard of cloth. I wouldn't know how to describe it in Japanese, but in English I'd say that overally they seemed quite trailertrash-ish. But the area was beautiful, at least.

At one point we stopped by a small park to let Anthony run around. The park was small, but there was a slide and other play things. Of course, he makes a B-line right for the exit every time we put him down. It turned out to be across the street from a government-run daycare we'd heard about, so Fumie went in to check it out. She was gone for quite a while, and I passed the time chatting with the middle-aged lady who was tidying up the park, and an old lady walking her old but miniscule dog, “Andy”. They professed amazement at my Japanese skills, as most people seem to kindly do, and fawned over Anthony, as most people can't help but to do 🙂.

One issue that's been facing us is where to buy a bicycle. Everyone has them, but apparently they materialize them out of thin air, because we haven't been able to find any place close by that sells them. I asked the ladies if there was a bike shop nearby, and they pointed me at one not too far away, although to get there I'd have to double back toward the train station (the back-way path to which I'd found and confirmed earlier in the walk).

Fumie eventually came out (with good news — despite being government run, it seemed to be a very good place, and although generally booked up, she was able to schedule a half day next week — time we'll need to get stuff done, or, more likely, to catch up on sleep). We then set out for the bike shop, but it turned out to be a bike rental shop. We walked around some more, stopped for tea at a specialty shop, and eventually headed back home to where Mom had just arrived from Kuzuha.

In order to sign up for my Alien Registration Card (something I must do within 90 days of arriving — they look like this), I needed two passport-type photos. So, while Fumie went back to the apartment, I headed back toward the train station to see whether I could find a place to get them taken. I also wanted to see whether I could find a bike shop. At the train station, I asked at the info booth, and got directions to a place to get the photos, and a suggestion about a department store that sold bikes, but generally, they didn't know where a bike shop was, either. I paid my 700 yen ($7) and sat in the booth and got my pictures in short order. The department store bikes were lacking, so I passed on them and walked all over the Kawaramachi/Teramachi/Oike area in search of a bike shop, but for naught. I headed back home to be there by 2pm, for the 2-4pm delivery window of the fridge, washer/dryer, and microwave.

When the delivery people arrived, I was surprised to find that the elevator was being worked on, and was out of order. We're on the 2nd floor, and so pretty much needed the elevator. Luckily, they were able to put it back to working order quickly, just so we could use it.

The fridge posed the biggest problem. It turns out that it could fit through the elevator doors (with only the thinnest margin to spare), but the side wall of the elevator had a hand rail that stuck out, blocking its path. I borrowed a screwdriver from the one of the delivery guys and soon the fridge was on the 2nd floor. Getting it in the house was a larger ordeal, involving the temporary removal of a few parts of doors, but in the end, everything was installed just fine. It would take a couple of hours for the fridge to be usable, but just having it there felt so much better.

At about 4pm, Fumie and I then headed out for the ward office (like a city hall, but for the local ward, of which Kyoto has six). I registered for my Alien Registration Card, and Fumie registered our family with the city government. The ward office was unlike any government office I'd seen anywhere. Throughout our time there doing various things, no one treated us in the impersonal way government drones normally treat people — everyone was very nice, helpful, and attentive. To add to the pleasure, they weren't wearing uniforms, either — they looked just like normal, nice people. The lady that helped with my registration was wearing a big sweatshirt and baggy running sweats.

At one point, it came up that I had to write my family members' names, and I had some amount of dyslexia about what to write. While in America, we use “Fumie Friedl” and “Anthony Friedl”, and we have documents and such to back up those names (Fumie's green card and driver's license; Anthony's birth certificate and US passport). But in Japan, both use Matsunaka as their family name, and are registered as such with the Japanese government. Both their Japanese passports, however, note that “Friedl” is an associated name — their surname is listed as “MATSUNAKA(FRIEDL)”. This is different from a “Smith-Miller” type of name in The States — their surname is officially “MATSUNAKA”, but “(FRIEDL)” is there as an FYI point.

Anyway, amid my dyslexia, I joked with the big-sweatshirt lady that it'd be much more convenient if I could just use Matsunaka as my surname, and to my surprise she said that I could. After some discussion with her and Fumie, it turns out that if I filled out such-and-such a form, then they'd add something to my Alien Registration Card under my name (which is written in English, and as we know, FRIEDL is not necessarily readable by Americans, much less Japanese). Under my English name they'd write, in Japanese, “JEFFREY MATSUNAKA” (with “MATSUNAKA” being in Chinese Characters, as is normal for Japanese, and “JEFFREY” being in the phonetic katakana script, which makes it sound like JE FU LEE). (You can see the resulting card on this post)

The sum of it is that I can now legally use “Jeffrey Matsunaka” as my name in Japan. My name hasn't changed — I can use “Jeffrey Friedl” as I like, but Matsunaka is much more convenient. Also, I like the idea of sharing a family name with my family. It just happens to toggle between Friedl and Matsunaka, depending on what country we're in.

We got a chance to use it a few minutes later when we moved to the next window over to sign up for the compulsory national health insurance. As head of household, it had to be in my name, and using Matsunaka made it easier. Now every time we use it, we don't have to get into a long discussion of how the insurance is in the name FRIEDL, but the user (Fumie or Anthony) has a name of MATSUNAKA. As convenient as it is, Fumie had to chuckle when she wrote “Jeffrey Matsunaka”, as it looks pretty strange when you're used to Jeffrey Friedl.

At one point, we were asked what our (my) salary was last year. The government seems to ask a lot, mostly, I'm sure, to make sure that we have enough resources to support ourselves and not become a welfare case. So, I'm used to sort of rounding up, and including stock option stuff. That turned out to be a mistake this time, though, as the amount you pay for the insurance is related to how much tax you paid the previous year. Since we didn't pay anything, they could estimate what we would have paid. Oops. After some discussion, we revised the number down to include only taxable normal salary. I knew that I could cut that number by 50% and still seem plausible, and I know that they have absolutely no way of checking, but those darn scruples get in the way every time, so I had to give the right number. However, the lady who was helping us decided to round it down to the nearest $10k level, ostensibly to make a nice round number, but mostly to be kind to us.

I missed most of the discussion, but apparently she had a hard time deciding how to go about this — should she charge us based upon my US salary (the fee would end up being huge), or based upon the Japanese tax paid last year (zero, so the fee would be the minimum fee). Apparently, in the end, she decided on the latter, and calculated that we should pay $1,300, the minimum for three people, for the next year's coverage. Sweet!

We'd gotten there at about 4:15 or so, and they close at 5:00. After getting so much done, we were the last to leave at about 5:20. We felt great to knock so many big-ticket items off our to-do list!

We decided to check the yellow pages for a bike shop. I'd checked them earlier and found an add for a company that had a main shop, and half a dozen sub shops. I figured that they must be big, so we thought we'd go there. We called and got directions, and took a taxi there. The taxi we got happened to be from the “MK Taxi” company, which was lucky, since they are 10% cheaper than everyone else (who charges the maximum tarries allowed by law, as one would expect most taxi companies in the world to do). The driver was a woman, which is extremely rare. She was very talkative, but had such a nice personality that what would have been annoying with most taxi rides turned out to be a fun discussion among the three of us. I happened to ask what “MK” stood for, and as a bit of trivia, the answer is that it's the name they came up with when Minami Taxi and Katsura Taxi combined. Oh, and one more interesting thing about the taxi — there was a sign posted inside that said passengers wearing formal kimono get a 10% discount. That's a nice cultural touch. I asked, but it turns out that the “My Yahoo!” T-Shirt I was wearing didn't count. 🙂

At the bike shop, we had a number of possibly conflicting issues to resolve. We wanted to be able to transport Anthony, and they have methods that allow the baby seat to attach to the front handlebars, or above the rear wheel (behind the main seat). Having him in front leaves the rear for an adult passenger, or perhaps a large basket for carrying groceries. The negative point about having him in the front, besides the fact that it makes control of the bicycle more difficult, is that it can generally be used only up to about two years old (he's now almost one year 5 months), so we wouldn't get much use out of it.

Other things to decide included what style of seat and handlebars (straight-across bar, or old-style wrap around), how many speeds (zero-speed are the most common, but three-speed versions are available), and color. It turned out that there were many little points to decide on, including what kind of wheel locks, the kickstand, a handlebar lock (to stop the bike from flip-flopping when on the kickstand, when putting in groceries and/or babies), the kind of lights to put on, and the basic frame type. What would be called a “girls bike” in The States is popular here among both genders because there's no cross-frame tube (between the seat and the handlebars) and so the bike can be mounted without swinging your feet over the seat — a very nice feature when there's a baby sitting there.

In the end, after quite a bit of discussion, Fumie decided on what she wanted. Unfortunately, it would have to be ordered, and would be delivered in about a week. It came to about $370.

What to get for me was a bit more difficult, since I needed a larger size. The standard adult size uses a 26" wheel (and they really do use inches to measure, although they are mostly used as named sizes rather than normal units of length). This is a bit cramped for me, but larger sizes are not commonly available. They make up to a 28" wheel, but the store had none in stock. They did have a few 27" bikes, and I could try one. The 1" difference in wheel size is not really relevant, but the related difference in frame size is substantial, as everything is made larger. The 27" bike I tried seemed to fit fine, but it wasn't the three-speed that I wanted. I would have like to have gotten the same thing that Fumie got, except larger (and except not the forest green that Fumie ordered, but the sort of rich dark orange that would have matched my cell phone perfectly 🙂), but Bridgestone didn't make a larger size of that bike.

Somewhere along the line of trying to figure out exactly what to order, one of the shop clerks noticed a three-speed 27" bike off in the corner somewhere, and it turned out to be what I wanted (except was a boring silver color). I added a baby seat behind the main seat, a red LED flashing light in the rear (that goes on automatically when it's dark and movement is detected), a cable lock and a beefer wheel lock, and a little electric speedometer / trip meter. It all came to about $270. They installed it all for us, and by the time we got out of there at 7:40, the shop had been closed for 40 minutes.

Fumie took a taxi home, while I rode home what turned out to be 5km. It took about 20 minutes (an average of 9mph). I stopped by the local Lawsons to get stuff to fill the fridge up with, but still made it home before Fumie (who also stopped by one of the convenience stores). Anthony was, as seems to be usual, sleeping in the stroller by the front door, after having fallen asleep on a stroll with Mom. I moved him to his futon, had a shower, ate dinner, wrote a bit of this diary, and went to bed.

Continued here...

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