My Phone Setup

For Mister Griff.

As I prepared to move to Japan I maintained an ever-evolving checklist which I eventually published here, noting that my plan for maintaining connectivity was complex enough that it deserved its own post. Here is that post; may it help you, dear future reader aspiring to move to Japan.



  1. Still get SMS texts and voicemails to my old American number by porting it to Google Voice.
  2. Temporarily: use Mobal Narita for absolutely free incoming calls and texts to a Japanese number.
  3. Temporarily: use Let’s Internet for relatively cheap internet via pocket wifi, which my phone connects to.
  4. Use Skype for free internet-based calls to American toll-free numbers like my bank.
  5. Use Google Hangouts for 3¢/min calls to America and 11¢/min calls to Japan over the internet.
  6. Permanently: get an account with Softbank once settled in, send pocket wifi back, cancel Mobal Narita. I bought the sim from Mobal Narita so I cut it in half and threw it away.

Now for the details.

Before you leave & your first few months in Japan

  1. Cancel your American cellphone account by porting your number to Google Voice. This way you can still get SMS texts and voicemails at the same old number and it’s waiting on you when/if you come back.
  2. Rent a SIM card from Mobal Narita. Their deal is: free rental, free incoming calls, and free incoming SMS, ¥216/min outgoing calls and ¥135/msg outgoing SMS.
    • In other words, you have a free phone number in Japan if your phone is SIM unlocked and you only want to receive calls.
    • You pick it up at the airport and the lady at the counter spoke excellent English.
    • Not open 24 hours. If your plane is late, be prepared to stay at the airport overnight until they open.
  3. Rent a portable wifi hotspot from Let’s Internet. Their deal is: ¥4250/month for unlimited cellular data coverage.
    • Minimum 3 months up front (¥12750).
    • They mail it to Narita post office, which is not open 24 hours. If your plane is late, be prepared to stay at the airport overnight until they open. Comes with a prepaid envelope you mail it back in when you’re done.
    • The device may be a bit flakey and will eat up both its own battery and your phone’s (WiFi takes a lot of energy). Rent from them (or bring your own) spare travel battery. My hotspot had a Micro-B USB port.


Install the following on your smartphone before you leave America (this is very American & iPhone-centric):



  1. Skype so you can make American toll-free calls (800-, 888-, 877-, etc.) for free. Important when you need to talk to your bank, etc.
  2. Google Voice so you can easily get voicemails and SMS texts sent to your old number and check your Google Voice balance.
  3. Google Hangouts so you can spend your Google Voice balance making 3¢/minute calls to America and 11¢/minute calls to Japan (much cheaper than the Mobal Narita price).
  4. imiwa? so you can look up Japanese words and kanji even when you don’t have an Internet connection.

Long-term Solution

Softbank, plain and simple. Strong English support, even with stores guaranteed to speak English. A few notes, however:

  1. You can’t keep your non-Japanese iPhone. I tried hard. I had the technical conformity mark, I had the SIM unlocked Verizon phone, I know it supported all but 2 of the dozen or so 4G bands. Not gonna happen. So be prepared to sell your phone. The price of the Softbank phone is built into the contract monthly price.
  2. Early cancellation fee of the contract was around ¥9500. Not bad!
  3. You have to have an insurance card to prove you’re a legit resident. An alien residency card isn’t good enough. This may take a few weeks after you get a job.
  4. You do not have to have a bank account, but you will need a credit card at least.

PS: Boy, you can really tell I wrote this at 12:30am. Updated with a little bit of information I left off originally (especially the Google Voice porting bit).


Drinking, Celebration, and a Wordless Call

Wow. I have taken 80 pictures and videos since posting last. One downside to living in Japan like a real person and not a tourist is that you always have real person things to do. Setting up bank accounts, gas bill accounts, water, electricity, phone, working 10 hour work days. I’m not complaining, but I am pretty damn tired when I get home. So instead of a full-fledged post, I’m just going to dump some videos and pictures here with tiny explanations. Enjoy!

Shabu-Shabu Nomikai

My coworkers treated me to a Shabu-Shabu “drinking party.” I had an incredibly fun time. Shabu-shabu is my second favorite Japanese food. My number one favorite Japanese food is free Shabu-shabu, which this was! These people are incredible, really. Also, somehow, about 5 beers in my skill in speaking and understanding Japanese seems to skyrocket.

The meal is only as good as the company in which it is eaten, and this night's meal was superb.
The meal is only as good as the company in which it is eaten, and this night’s meal was superb. Apologies to the many people not pictured or poorly pictured due to the panorama.

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Natsu Matsuri (Summer Festival)

I went to my ku’s Summer Festival (a ku is sort of like a county in America) last weekend. Got sunburned. Experienced many new things: giant drums, beautiful music, mikoshi (portable minature Shinto shrines) being paraded, dances, local foods. Too much to describe. I don’t even have time to rename the image files. Just have a look if you want; if a picture is worth a thousand words, you’re about to read a novel. Maybe a collection of short stories.

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A random shrine

I came across this shrine walking to a library. I love this country. Everywhere you go it invites you to pause and appreciate simplicity. Can such a place of serene beauty in the midst of human civilization exist anywhere else?

Blogging From a Cat Cafe

It gets hot in Tokyo.


Before you dismiss that picture above as just a screenshot of a weather app, please, read it. Look at that stuff:

  1. There is 62% humidity and no chance at all that it will rain.
  2. It’s 91°F (33°C) and it feels like 99°/37°.
  3. It’s only July.

And I can vouch for that “feels like” bit, too. In the train station (where you don’t feel that 17mph wind), it literally feels like a sauna.

But enough about the weather. Speaking only an idiot’s version of the language and knowing practically no one here, it gets lonely in Tokyo too.  I’m an introvert, and something of a loner too, but I’ve surprised myself by how difficult that level of alienation can be at times.

So today I’m treating myself to 3 hours at 猫の居る休憩所299 (neko no iru kyuukeisho 299, or “Rest Area 299, Where There Are Cats”).

Cat cafes - where being ignored by the other living beings around you is half the fun.
Cat cafes – where being ignored by the other living beings around you is half the fun.

Here’s what things look like as I write this:

Pretty nice. Also, here’s a cat licking my plastic bag. Some cats are into this sort of thing, including my kitty at home in America.


By the way, just outside of Ikebukuro Station, I found a warp pipe:

I figure I could skip straight to Osaka if I got in this thing and crouched down.
I figure I could skip straight to Osaka if I got in this thing and crouched down.


Giant Robots and Familiar Doughnuts

I haven’t updated in a week. Can you tell I have a job now? 🙂

So, I went back to Odaiba a few days ago. When I went the first time to see a replica of the Statue of Liberty, somehow I missed the fact that a giant Gundam robot was just outside the mall entrance, guarding the food court.

Needless to say, this is among the coolest things I’ve seen in Tokyo so far.

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Afterward I headed back in to get some dinner: gyoza, Chinese dumplings that are among my favorite food in Japan.  I thought I was ordering “Set #3” and somehow ended up ordering…


…three of set #3. Which is strange because in Japanese there are counter words, and “three of something” would have been mittsu, which I never said. My guess is that the waiter was accustomed to taking orders from gaijin and ready to assume that when I pointed and said san setto onegai shimasu (“combo number three please”) I meant “three of these please.” Oh well. I can think of many worse problems to have than too much gyoza. I ate it all. Next time I’ll try to use my counters properly. Hitotsu setto san onegai shimasu.

I didn’t think I had room for desert until I spotted a familiar sign.

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Adachi Fireworks Festival

This weekend I went to the first fireworks festival of Tokyo’s summer, the Adachi Fireworks Festival on the Asakawa river.


It was an hour-long show.

There were fireworks that looked like red hearts, umbrellas, smiley faces, stars-within-circles, Doraemon’s face. Think about that – somebody figured out how to make shapes made of fire in the sky. It lasted from 7:30 to 8:30 and I have honestly never seen anything like it.

Shapes in the sky:

About 15 minutes into the show:

The big finish:

If you’re in Tokyo and want to see more 花火大会 (fireworks festivals) this Summer, there’s a massive list of them at

Aside: “firework” in Japanese is 花火 (“hanabi“). 花 = flower and 火 = fire. So they’re fireflowers!

I just thought that was neat.
I just thought that was neat.

Ten Random Things to Love About Japan

Why did I move to Japan? That’s a huge question with an answer that would probably be extremely long-winded and uncomfortably personal. Instead, how about I show you ten things I love about this country? In no particular order…

1: Beauty everywhere you look.

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Literally (and I mean that literally) everywhere I go in Japan I find beauty. The architecture of even humble homes; the plants, trees, and landscaping are like nowhere else; the fashion; the graceful sound and crisp minimalism of the language. Beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder, so suffice it to say you may disagree, but for me there are innumerable facets of Japan which are indescribably beautiful. This gallery of images is a small sample of those alluring qualities which might be captured in a photo, and you can see many more examples in all my other posts.

2: Tactile paving.


I’m not visually impaired, but I bet the segment of the Japanese population that is is grateful for these tactile paving tiles, which are everywhere. Seriously, I’ve never been on a sidewalk in Japan without them. Japan invented the stuff, and it’s used all over the world now (in America you’ve seen it at intersections where a sidewalk slopes down to street-level) but nowhere is it as common as Japan. With over 30% of Japan’s 2014 population over the age of 65, I can imagine heavy reliance on it. One of a myriad of good ideas with it’s birthplace and ubiquitous implementation here.

3: The “call your waiter” button.

Yeah my mango sorbet looks delicious, but I'm trying to show you that black thing in the back.
Yeah my mango sorbet looks delicious, but I’m trying to show you that black thing in the back.

It’s not uncommon to find these buttons on every table in a Japanese restaurant. You come in, are escorted to your table, given water and menus, then left alone until you need service again. Ever been having dinner conversation in an American restaurant and had to pause mid-sentence to tell the server “We’re fine, thanks?” This button, man. It’s incredible.

4: Conbini.

Nearly everything mentioned below is pictured here, and this is just one shelf among a dozen.
Nearly everything mentioned below is pictured here, and this is just one shelf among a dozen.

Everyone who’s ever been to Japan loves the convenience stores (“conbini”) here. Seriously, everyone; Google it. Things you can find in a conbini you often won’t find in an American convenience store include but are not limited to socks, ties, dress shirts, under-shirts, boxer-briefs, tasty freshly cooked food, shampoo and other toiletries, a variety of writing implements, towels… You could probably honestly survive here fine making only conbini purchases. That would make a pretty fun experiment, actually.

5: Everybody lines up on the left on escalators.


If you’re standing still, you stand to the left. If want to walk up the escalator, you can always do so on the right. People also always form two orderly lines in front of the subway car doors: one on the left, one on the right, with a path in the middle for people getting off.

6: Safety.

Here's a picture of some children walking alone down a sidewalk in the most populous metropolitan area in the world. They're fine.
Here’s a picture of some children walking alone down a sidewalk in the most populous metropolitan area in the world. They’re fine.

It’s not uncommon to see very young children unaccompanied on a train to/from school or walking down the sidewalk. They’re totally safe and their parents know this. What would many American parents give to feel this secure about their kids’ safety in their city? How many older Americans pine for the days of their own youth when their families also felt this way?

7: Quiet.

Watch this video. Turn it up really loud. Hear that? It’s the wind. This was filmed at 8:30am on a Thursday. There are probably a hundred people within earshot of me while I’m filming and if any of them is saying a word I sure can’t hear them. It’s like that just about everywhere, and the stillness is more pleasant than I could have imagined. Here’s some more silence amidst a bunch of people:

8: Trains are on time.

Just watch this clock turn 12:01 literally as the 12:01 train arrives. Also commonplace.

9: Employees are rarely idle.

This shop had no customers, so the worker spent her down-time meticulously cleaning the floor.

There’s something very impressive to me about the Japanese work-ethic. At Rakuten, every Tuesday we begin our days at our desk by cleaning them ourselves. The company doesn’t employ a cleaning staff. When a shop is not busy, workers are seen straightening shelf items, cleaning, or otherwise giving their employer the full extent of the wage they’re paid. To me this displays a level of pride in one’s work I think everyone in the world could benefit from.

10: This thing.

Might be the greatest invention of all time.
Might be the greatest invention of all time.

Roller Slide!

I spent practically all day yesterday (and about $30 in train and bus tickets) traveling to and from Oume, a beautiful little city in western Tokyo.

Gardens and beautiful houses seen in Oume, Tokyo.

Why, you ask? Because according to, Kabokuen park was in Oume…

Kabokuen playground and it’s hiragana flower bed

…and Kabokuen has something American parks do not…

Roller slide!

I rode this thing probably seven or eight times before I had to catch my bus and begin the 2 hour trip back home. Worth it! The trick is to crouch and ride on your feet leaning forward. Some of the kids rode with a piece of cardboard underneath them but I didn’t see the need. Can’t wait to visit another park and ride some more. 😀

Dog cafe, Tamagawa Shingen Shrine, and a pizza

Last night I treated myself to my first Japanese pizza and just watched some old South Park episodes. T’was nice. The pizza place was called Pizza La.

Facing at least two dozen very Japanese pizza choices such as corn, teriyaki chicken, and mayonnaise sauce instead of tomato, I was a coward and just ordered the plain cheese pizza. But judge me all you want because it was delicious. The cheese covered almost the entire crust, and it all had a unique taste that’s hard to describe but not to be found in America (at least, not by me).

OK, I’ll describe it, it tasted like burned cheese, but in the good way, I’m serious. If you’ve ever had some crispy, slightly-burned cheese you know what I’m talking about. If not, you’re missing out. Go burn some cheese in a skillet or something. Moving on…

Today, I decided to head over to Denenchofu Station and visit Deco’s Dog Cafe. I thought it would be like a Cat Cafe except with cool dogs hanging out everywhere waiting to be petted and/or begging for food.

Inside Deco's Dog Cafe
Inside Deco’s Dog Cafe

It turned out to just be a cafe that was super-accepting of dogs. I was pretty much the only dude there without one.

Hello! Hello! Hi! I'm a dog and you're a dog hello!
Hello there! Hi! I’m a dog and you’re a dog hello! (Three dogs get acquainted.)

Nevertheless, I had a delicious mango sorbet and got to pet a golden retriever, so that’s a success in my book.

My mango sorbet. Tasty.
My mango sorbet came out, like practically everything in Japan, looking like a picture in a catalog.

Afterward I took a walk around the station, an area called Tokyo Square Garden. I stopped in a flower shop where I saw gorgeous flowers in arrangements priced sometimes at ¥30,000 (about $300 USD).

And I visited a cake-baking shop where I saw this wall-o-flour:

No kidding, this is about a hundred different types of flour for sale.
No kidding: this is about a hundred different types of flour for sale.

At the nearby Starbucks I was given this hand-made (photocopied) iced coffee recipe by one of the baristas while I waited on a seat:

Adorable. And look how perfect that pitcher picture is drawn!

And finally, I visited the Shinto shrine called Tamagawa Sengen.

Tamagawa Shingen Shrine sits next to a gorgeous view of the Tama River.
Tamagawa Shingen Shrine sits next to a gorgeous view of the Tama River.


There are many such holy Shinto and Buddhist sites in Japan, and while I’m sure anything can become familiar to those who have lived here their entire lives, each shrine and temple I’ve visited possesses a stillness that easily turns one’s thoughts inward. I sat for a long while taking regular shots of the sunset and just thinking about things that I usually think about when I get pensive.


It is true that nothing I do matters on its own. No single cell of the body is any more or less important than the rest. All one life amounts to is as a single grain of sand.

Grains of sand under a microscope – each individually beautiful and simultaneously meaningless. Remove even the most beautiful one and no one would notice; remove them all and there could be no beach.

It used to really bother me to consider the “vanity” of life (as the author of Ecclesiastes calls it) — the fact that all ambition is a chasing of the wind. Nowadays, in light of the reality that is the cosmic scale and the wonder that is human consciousness, I think life may simply be a precious gift.

What am I that I should be the steward of such a thing?

I have struggled for years to find that activity I should pursue which might be an adequate, fitting use of this small taste of life I’ve been given. Like a child given a toy agonizing over how exactly he should play with it, when all the giver intended was that he find joy in it.