Star Wars Light Show at the Sapporo Snow Festival

This was my favorite snow sculpture at the 2015 Sapporo Snow Festival. Darth Vader and company stood over 30 feet high and were truly remarkable works of art. Each evening at regular intervals, they came alive with light and sound, making a very interesting and memorable light show. Enjoy!

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Read Your Passport Like a Novel

I don’t know what the most exciting part of traveling is for you, but one of the moments I anticipate the most when I travel is getting a new passport stamp, whether it be on entry or exit into a new country or my current country of residence. While our encounters with customs officers may not always be brief or enjoyable, there is (usually) one payoff at the end of the questioning period: the coveted passport stamp. From entry to re-entry permits, student and work visas, temporary visa-free stamps, and other visa-on-arrival programs, our passports tell stories not only about ourselves, but about the travels and journeys on which we embark when we have the time and money. I recently filled up an entire page of my passport with visa stamps from Korea, Japan, and Singapore, and I realized my passport would have some fascinating stories to tell if it could speak. Here are some of those stories, from the first visa page.

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As I open the first page of my American passport, with its chipped cover and its unraveling sides, I begin the journey down the trail of my life for the last three and a half years. The first pages boasts a full-page Japanese student visa complete with my Afro, which was my signature style for several years during the early 2000s up until about 2012. “How did I look so young,” I always ask myself, but the second page is where things get even more interesting. Even better yet, I still don’t know how I made it in Japan when the only Japanese I knew was self-taught on the grueling plane flight from New York to Tokyo. 

There is a landing permission sticker granted by the Japanese government under its old immigration system, which basically signifies that I have permission to remain in Japan for fifteen months (in 2011-2012), but not express written permission to leave without paying for another sticker to be put on that page. Underneath that lies the proof that I went to speak to immigration officers at city hall in Tokyo’s Meguro-ku (目黒区) neighborhood to register as a foreign resident. It’s amazing how my long journey back to Japan can conjure up so many memories when just looking at a page inside of a flimsy book. Even more telling, though, is the other stamp I have on that page: a departure stamp from Narita International Airport, dated March 15th, 2011. One of the defining moments of my life up to this point is definitely the Great Tohoku Earthquake, during which I lived in Tokyo. Seeing that stamp triggers flashbacks to my frantic rush to the airport while trains were still not running on schedule. I will write about that experience in another day. This page appears to be a window into my soul for Asian travels, but it gets even better upon further examination.

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My friend Andrew and I were able to snag the elusive Canadian entrance stamp during a road trip through Montreal and Quebec City en route to Fundy National Park back in 2013! After going through a barrage of questions about drugs and alcohol, we had a short talk with customs officials and they agreed to I’ve us the entrance stamp at a small border crossing between Vermont and Quebec. The unique thing about this stamp is how the French is on the top of the stamp with English on the bottom half of the stamp. It was a sign of things to come for what we would encounter during our road trip through French Canada.

Turning to the next page, I see a myriad of stamps and staple holes, but my most prized staples come from the two Special Administrative Regions in China, Hong Kong and Macau. Last year, the authorities stopped stamping passports in these two cities, and I would be lying right now if I was happy that my passport has flimsy pieces of paper stapled to it instead of having actual stamps. Still, they make for an interesting story. I remember speaking with the authorities and asking for a stamp but they regretfully informed me that they were no longer issuing stamps. This encounter was certainly the low point of a remarkable first trip to Hong Kong and Macau. I have been back three times since and each city always gives the same piece of paper, affixed to the passport. Nothing beats a stamp, but I will settle for the stapled visas. 

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The next page of my passport conjures up memories of my marathon trip through Southeast Asia this year, with stamps from Singapore and Thailand playing predominate roles. The extravagance of the airport in Singapre coupled with the magnificent view from atop the Marina Bay Sands pool deck coupled with the tough immigration in Bangkok re-enter my mind as I look at this page.

Further down on this page, there exists a phantom stamp of sorts, an Ameriacn re-entry stamp without an exit or entry stamp in its vicinity. I went to Israel in 2011 and this stamp actually became an issue at the border crossing station in Jolan Bator, Malaysia. I was grilled by immigration about this stamp but actually ended up having no problems at the end of the day. Why is there no stamp to match up with this American one? It’s simple: Israel. At Ben Gurion Airport, I handed over my passport to the official and asked for the stamp to be put in my passport, but the official refused, and perhaps it was for the better: I may not have been able to enter Malaysia that night had there been more issues. i clung to my passport all night on the overnight train from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur.

 

The next page in my passport is filled with even more interesting stories, ranging from a one day junket by ferry from Singapore to Indonesia and the subsequent exit and re-entry Singaporean stamps. 

Perhaps the most exciting and elusive stamp for Americans is the special stamp I have from China, documenting that I am allowed to stay in China for up to, but not exceeding, 72 hours as a part of a new visa-free stay program the Chinese government implemented for Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou. I was fortunate enough to spend a night on the Bund and a day on the town before heading back to the airport after a 26 hour layover. The view from M on the Bund immediately comes to mind. 

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The final page of stamps I have is the same photo that greeted you at the beginning of this article: stamps from Korean, Singaporean, and Japanese immigration officials. Each time I leave Japan on my work visa, I get a special stamp saying I have a certain resident status and that I am permitted to return to Japan on my visa. Seeing those reminds me of coming “home” to Japan, and also conjures up memories of my first international trip from Japan to Korea, last September, to see friends from college. I will be back to Korea again in the near future, but nothing will equal the excitement from the first time when I touched down at Gimahe International Airport last September. From the bind at customs returning from Korea this July to the relative ease with which I am usually whisked through customs in Japan, lost memories and images always come back to me when I look at my passport’s ever-filling pages. 

With an adventure to Taipei on the horizon within the next ten days, I felt the urge to flip through my passport, and my passport decided to bring back some great memories and long forgotten stores of being out on the road. Open your passport sometime and look at it. You’ll find out it is the shortest and most interesting novel you will ever read. 

What stories and stamps does your passport hold? 

Speaking Japanese in… Hong Kong?

One of the first things that comes to mind when you think of communication in Hong Kong is most likely the British legacy of the English Language. I will certainly admit the English ability in Hong Kong was a major plus and benefit for someone like me in Hong Kong. If I said I used more Japanese than English on one evening in Hong Kong, I am sure you would be surprised. I certainly was, too.  The ability to speak Japanese in Hong Kong is another experience about my time in Hong Kong I will not readily forget. 

This unlikely evening all started when my friend and I made our way from our hotel to the Victoria Peak Tram station located near Hong Kong Park on Hong Kong Island. We were there to take in the view from Victoria Peak. Once we passed through the turnstile, we saw the long line and were a little annoyed with how long the wait to ride the tram and get to the top of the peak would take. Image

Waiting to go to Victoria Peak. © Erik Jacobs, 2013. erikabroad.com

After waiting for about ten minutes, something very unique caught my ear. I heard a language that was certainly not English and most definitely not Cantonese coming. The two girls in line in front of us were either speaking Japanese or Korean, we thought, so I tuned in to find out what they were speaking. After a few seconds, we instantly recognized they were speaking Japanese and listened in to the discussion for a little bit. These girls had come from a place between Osaka and Tokyo and happened to be in Hong Kong just for the weekend to do some shopping and sightseeing. After a little bit of deliberation, I decided that I would just go up to them and ask the following question: すみません。日本人ですか。(Excuse me. Are you Japanese?)

We certainly knew they were Japanese, but I always like to ask Japanese people I see abroad in their mother tongue. The reactions I get, as a taller white male with light hair and light eyes are always fascinating. They just turned around and looked at us with a look of befuddlement. I am sure they were thinking whether or not we actually knew Japanese or just were joking around with them. After a brief discussion about Japan and our travels to Hong Kong, we boarded the tram together and went to the top of Victoria Peak as a group of four. 

One of the nice things about traveling alone or with one or two friends is that you always meet interesting people whenever you travel. Whether it is at Acadia National Park, a roadside diner in Vermont, a rest stop in New Hampshire, at the Subway in Quebec City, or on the hard benches at an airport, I have met some fascinating people on my travels. The exception here is this was the first time I ever met some fellow travelers who did not speak any English. This was certainly a different dynamic, but one certainly worth exploring. 

After about five minutes of chatting, I realized I was having no problems and there was almost no language barrier. I was so grateful that I studied at Middlebury the previous summer and continued to study Japanese each night in my free time because those opportunities opened up so many doors for new friends, acquaintances, and conversations. Our new friends helped us take photos and provided some nice company for the evening atop the tower at Victoria Peak. 

One of the bonuses that goes with studying language is that you never know when you will have to use your other language. This time it happened to be in Hong Kong, of all places. I was grateful to have made some new friends for the evening as well getting in some solid Japanese conversation. From travel to college majors to interests and thoughts on the scenery at Victoria Peak, we were able to discuss things in Japanese with no difficulty. Certainly a moment I will never forget. 

There’s just one catch to this whole story: they bid farewell in English at the end of the night. 

All I can say is that if you are studying a foreign language right now, do not give up and keep pushing yourself. I push myself each night in anticipation of the next unexpected moment when I can use my Japanese ability. The moment is often magical and unforgettable. I went to Hong Kong and ended up speaking Japanese for a whole evening. I never would have conjured up this situation in my wildest dreams, let alone three years ago when I did not speak a word of the language. 

Had I never taken Japanese studies seriously, I know I would not have had the chance to engage in a conversation like this outside of English. Keep studying. The end result will be worth all of your effort!

Have you ever had an experience like this? 

 

 

The Glory of Kansaiben (関西弁)

Hello, everyone! I hope all is well with you, wherever you are and wherever you may be reading this! So far, my life in Japan has been marvelous in Kobe, even though it has had its ups and downs during my first five weeks abroad.

This weekend is NFL kickoff weekend, so I know I will be starving for some football action that will almost certainly not be on television in Japan. My favorite time of year in the United States is October; when the leaves begin to change colors and fall, when the nights are cool and crisp, and when the aroma of the fall season comes to you with every passing second. I love autumn. Unfortunately, it is still around 85 degrees on almost a daily basis in Kansai.

Today, I want to talk about something that has captivated me: Kansaiben, or 関西弁, in Japanese. For those of you who have never been to Japan or those of you who have never studied the Japanese language, Japanese has many different dialects and regional variations in the language, its structure, and some vocabulary. In Kansai (Osaka, Kobe, Kyoto area), some people use the Kansai dialect, which has some very fun components when comparing it to Tokyo Japanese (which is what I studied in school, bot in Tokyo and Philadelphia).

Kansai people are much more direct and often louder than those people I met in Tokyo, and their dialect certainly represents that. Different phrases for “how are you,” different ways of conjugating some verbs, and different inflection and volume levels in every day conversation and in my office really make learning this dialect so interesting. As a foreigner, it has many, many benefits.

Last week, one of my coworkers gave me a book (in Japanese) with useful Kansai dialect phrases and sayings, and my boss has started to teach me a phrase or two each day before I head home for the evening. Subsequently, I use Kansaiben as much as possible when I interact with Japanese anywhere in Kobe. From the bar to the market, to the coffee-shop and the street corner, these conversations have been priceless for me.

Japanese people who would not reguarly speak with me for a litany of reasons are more than surprised when I respond to their inquiry about whether I can speak Japanese in their dialect. I have made many new friends and contacts by taking some extra time to study the Kansai dialect.

If anyone is living in Kansai or going to visit, I recommend you take a few hours and learn some of the commonly used Kansai phrases and words. It will pay dividends!

The Kansai dialect is just another interesting component of Japanese language study that I never would have though I could have done just two years ago when I virtually knew no Japanese.

The concept of dialects is so foreign to me as an English speaker in the United States, so I have taken great joy in the Kansai Japanese dialect.

Until next time!

One Minute at the Jefferson Memorial

Good evening everyone! I have finally completed my YouTube profile and look forward to sharing my GoPro videos and videos from my Sony HX20V whenever I get the opportunity; preferably in far off and interesting places while I live in Asia for the next year. My first video is a GoPro high speed clip that I recorded at the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C., yesterday while sitting on the steps. Six minutes of video footage have been compressed into one minute, so see what it is like to sit on the steps at the Jefferson Memorial. Full HD is available. Please join the conversation on twitter: @erik_abroad.