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Finding the right apartment for you!

        In the few years that I've lived in Japan, I've had 3 apartments. One was provided by my university, the second one in a big city, and my third one is in a smaller city. While some of us have a fixed period stay, some of us have decided to stay longer too. And if you’re working full time, then taking the time to visit agencies, scheduling house inspections, and signing/understanding/providing documents for your contracts can get stressful !     Since I’ve tried moving prefectures, my experience taught me that moving in Japan is pretty straightforward. BUT it could be much, much easier if you know the language or are lucky enough to have friends who speak the language and are willing to help you out. I’ve had to ask at least 2 Japanese(-speaking) friends, my boss (as guarantor), and the office secretary to help me with the housing company matters, and the moving matters (hire a truck? Takkyubin?DIY?). The least embarrassing way is having a very kind Japanese friend with you. The housing companies are mandated to explain the contract to you, too. It’s better to know what you’re signing up for! The general steps in finding an apartment (especially when you’re already in Japan) are:     1. Find a Housing Agency     2. Choose your new home                a. Location                b. Facilities                 c. Budget     3. Pay Initial Fees                a. Key Money                 b. Deposit                 c. Agency Fee                 d. Cleaning Fee                 e. Insurance     4. Move In !!Here I'd like to discuss how to choose an apartment! Location –     It’s a great advantage if you live close to a train or bus station. We’re usually on the go here, so you have to imagine dragging your luggage or imagine coming home tired from work or imagine going home after a night of partying. My present house is close to both a bus station and a train station. Unfortunately, my bus stop doesn’t have a roof over it! It’s a downer sometimes, but we have to manage.     Rain, heat and snow are also another thing to consider. I now live in a city where it snows in winter, so I was advised not to choose an apartment where I’d have to walk in deep (or slippery) snow for more than 2 kilometers.     Scout your potential neighborhood. Mark how far the closest grocery store,school (if you have children),kombini, restaurant, clinic, Koban (police station), etc. are located. Facilities –     How big would you like your apartment to be? 3LDK? 1DK? 1K1R?     There are some things that are a must in an apartment, and this varies from person to person. In my case, it’s the need for a balcony, or a little extra space (when I also lived on the first floor). To a close friend, he requires the toilet and bath to be separate. For another friend, she gladly sacrificed living on the 4th floor (without an elevator) to save a few thousand yen a month, with some bonus on free forced exercise? ^.^    How about internet? In smaller cities, this usually comes free with the apartment! In bigger cities, if you end up in an apartment close to universities, there's a chance that some internet service providers have already set-up in the building, and internet service can be free if slower internet speed is ok with you (you should thank your landlord for this).     Where do you wash your clothes? Is there a coin laundry? Is your washing machine going to stay outside or inside the house (either way, you have to stay polite and never wash after 10pm!) Do you know how to clean a tatami room? Does your apartment even come with lights? Do you have bicycle parking, car parking?     And one more important thing is the structural foundation. If your house is built with ‘wood’, there is a risk that your apartment is a little colder than others in the winter. If the foundation is ‘steel’, it actually means that the walls are hollow, there is a chance that you hear your neighbors once in awhile. But generally speaking, your rent doesn’t dip so much because of your home’s foundation. I generally hate the winter, but I survived in my (awesome) wooden apartment by using a hot carpet and some insulating drapes. Budget –    Finally, here is the commitment on your end. There are a lot of fees you’d have to pay in the beginning of it all. You haven’t even moved in, but you’ll probably first pay a small amount just to reserve the house, and then pay the rest when you’re able before they start doing your paperwork.     The budget is totally up to you. You have to set a maximum amount you’re willing to pay, and you and the housing agent will work around your conditions – the amount of money you need, the location you desire and the facilities that you’d like to have. If you're lucky, there are some places where utilities are fixed - for example, unlimited water for only 2,000JPY/mo.     It’s also best to inform your agent that you would prefer a place with no key money right at the beginning, or let them know the maximum amount you’re willing to pay. I’ve had a friend who found that perfect place and decided to let it go because the key money was two months worth, and she was only staying for 6 months. It’s also good to ask if you get the deposit back in case you don’t finish your contract (like that friend I just mentioned). And finally, get a good deal for your insurance.     It’s actually quite fun if you’re not in a hurry. Some apartments just make you want to say, “This is it!” because of how everything falls into place. Some apartments would make you go “Really?!” (such as a perfect apartment with a very reasonable price, because.. (drumroll), there’s no shower!).

Top 5 healthy, cheap and easy foods and meals for terrible cooks in Japan

If you're a terrible cook like me, you'll know that sinking feeling of walking into a Japanese supermarket and realising you have no idea what anything is, let alone how to fashion it into something edible. You will also realise that most of your tried-and-tested recipes from home either contain things impossible to find in Japan, or require an oven. And who has an oven in Japan?So you think "Okay. I'll try and find Japanese recipes in English..." and they include stuff like "You will need miso"! You will need MISO! Have you seen a miso aisle, recipe writer?! You're gonna have to be a bit more specific than that! Here are the top 5 things you have to look out for in any Japanese supermarket, that may just save you from starving.5) Key ingredient: Mixed vegetable bagsThese things are a lifesaver. Go to the supermarket and buy some, you won't regret it! Cheap (at around 100 yen), healthy, and go with any of the things I am about to show you. More importantly, all the preparation required is 1: open bag 2: put in pan 3: turn on hob 4: wait. (Washing the veg and adding a little bit of oil to the pan also help!)They contain ingredients like carrots, cabbage, Japanese mushrooms and moyashi (bean sprouts), but vary depending on brand and season. I like the brand above as they don't contain many mushrooms, but you can find ones that are mixed more to your taste. If you're really on a budget, you can buy bags of just moyashi, that will set you back about 30 yen. If you're using the veg as a main part of the meal, one bag is enough for two meals.Pair these veg with many types of noodle such as chinese-style (中華) and some pepper to get a vegetarian friendly, super quick meal. Add them to the top of ramen to fill it out a bit. Add mirin, sake and soy sauce when cooking these for a typically Japanese umami flavour. The possibilities are endless!4) Ready made nabe (hot pot)You will see these in the fridge section, in aluminium containers. Buy one and take the ingredients out from their separate packages, put them in the aluminium tin, put the tin on the hob and heat up. You have yourself a meal! No other ingredients required, but you can add extras like the veg in 5) if you wish. Beware! If you have an electric/IH stove, you may not be able to use the original tin, even if the packet says "IH 対応" or "IH compatible". ("IH incompatible" is "IH非対応") In this case just transfer to your own saucepan or frying pan.3) ChamponAnother really easy, healthy meal comes in packages that look like this. Search for ちゃんぽん written on the packet. This is a Nagasaki speciality which in its full-fledged, authentic version contains octopus, prawns, fish paste and all sorts, but works well with just veg too.Grab a bag of vegetables as in 5) and heat in a pan. (If you want to add meat or other ingredients, heat these up too) Add the noodles, broth powder and water, heat up and you're done! Quick and easy meal with the bare minimum of prep and washing up required, what's more to love?!2) Key ingredient: thinly sliced porkThinly sliced pork goes with anything! Chinese food, Japanese food, western food... anything is possible with this stuff. Pair it with the wondrous vegetables in 5) and you have a perfect noodle accompaniment. I guess it works with rice too. It may sound like "thinly sliced pork" is a needlessly long term for bacon, but the Japanese version isn't as salty or flavourful, is thinner, and has more streaky fat- than British bacon, anyway.  The more subtle flavour (okay, boring flavour) means it doesn't overpower the rest of the meal (okay, it doesn't really taste of much but gives you a more balanced meal). (I miss decent bacon) (Sigh)1) Sara udonThis is the ultimate in cheap, easy, and healthy meals. The picture above has those magical words 具いり (gu iri), meaning that the packet contains the main toppings. Add the vegetables in 5) and the pork in 2) to make it even better. Even the non-gu iri stuff just needs 5) and 2) to be ready- just add the included sauce, and maybe water if required. The great thing about Sara Udon is that the noodles are ready to eat- just stick them on a plate and bob's your uncle! The noodles are not like usual udon as they are thin, crunchy and almost snack-like, which also means that these things have a shelf life to compete with any emergency biscuits that may be hiding in your cupboard.Stock up on a few of these, and you will never go hungry in Japan!Do you have any super easy, Japan friendly food hints? What do you cook at home in Japan? Leave a comment!

Kobe Mosque | Japan

Kobe Muslim mosque is the first mosque built in Japan in 1935. It is located in Nakayamate Dori in Chuo-ku, a 10-minute walk from Motomachi station in Kobe.During the Second World War, Kobe was destroyed to the ground. However, the shocking fact is that the mosque was still standing erect whereas every building surrounding the mosque was completely demolished. There were only few cracks on the outer walls of the mosque and the glass windows were broken.The mosque was known as a place of refuge during the war. It is believed that the soldiers who were in the basement of the mosque were the ones who survived the bombings. The mosque was later used as a place of refuge for the victims of the war.During the Great Hanshin earthquake in 1995, also known to be one of the worst earthquakes in Japan, Kobe was devastated again. The earthquake caused major damage to Kobe, but the Kobe mosque was still standing strong and upright.There are still ongoing arguments online and amongst the archeologists regarding the reason behind the mosque still standing erect after the Second World War and the earthquake. Is it a miracle or mere a good construction with a strong foundation? Well, I think maybe we are yet to know the answer.

Japan's Most Beautiful Castle

If you're living in Japan, you have to put Himeji Castle on your bucket list.  I've seen many of Japan's castles, but Himeji really is the crown jewel.  It is one of the original 12 remaining castles, and one of the 4 national treasures - the other 3 are Hikone, Inuyama, and Matsumoto. If you're on a budget and don't want to fork out the money for the Shinkansen, you can take a special rapid train from Osaka to Himeji for only ¥1,490, and it takes 63 minutes. :D  You can see the castle from the Shinkansen platform out the window; it's just down the street from JR Himeji Station.You can easily spend the whole afternoon there if there are tons of other visitors and if you just go exploring the castle and all the grounds at your own pace.Anyway, Himeji shouldn't be missed.  It's amazing, and it's no wonder that it's a UNESCO World Heritage site.Check out the post I wrote on my blog for Photo Friday last week for more info and for more snapshots - http://www.trekkingwithbecky.com/himeji-japans-most-beautiful-castle/Find me on social media, and don't be shy to give me a shout anytime! :DFacebook - www.facebook.com/trekkingwithbeckyTwitter - www.twitter.com/trekkingbeckyInstagram - www.instagram.com/trekkingwithbecky

Getaway: Awaji Island

Many Japanese visit their parents during the New Year's vacation in Japan. Many places are closed. January 29, and we had arrived at my mother-in-law's in Kansai the night before. I didn't want to get trapped under the kotatsu (heated, blanketed) table for the whole week. We decided on a one night getaway to Shikoku, however we never made it there. Something interesting happened along the way. In order to get to Shikoku, we needed to first cross Awaji Island, and in order to get to Awaji, we drove through Kobe on the expressway, and then took said expressway over the longest bridge in the world. The bridge is four kilometers long, and then the expressway extends 55 km down the center of the island, before going over another bridge leading to Shikoku. The bridge took my husband courage to drive across. He could not glance aside at the sparkling waters. His hands gripped the steering wheel with white knuckles. Once over the big bridge, my husband wanted to see the view without having to worry about driving into it. We parked next to a ferris wheel at Awaji Highway Rest Area. We took some photos then my husband went off to buy onion and fishcake fritters, and takoyaki, and I bee-lined to the information desk. I was given an English brochure and map. So much to do! So much to see! So this is where Kansai people go to get out of the city! The travel counselor showed us whirlpool tour boat brochures, from both Shikoku and from Awaji. The tallest ship that goes out for the longest time (one hour) leaves from Awaji Island. I confess I had never heard of Awaji before, but the next thing I know I was getting directions and reservations for at a seaside business hotel, with onsen access. Shikoku will have to wait.Next stop: Hokudan Earthquake Memorial Park. We drove along a narrow road following the coastline under wind turbine-topped hills. At the Park, we were able to walk under one a turbine, hear it whirring, and feel a bit ant-like. The Memorial Park as well as that particular turbine, and probably the lot where we left our car, were built over a  ten kilometer fault line, which was exposed during the 1995 Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake, and later excavated and preserved under cover of the museum in this park.  An earthquake-damaged house was also preserved for exhibition in the Park. Unfortunately, the earthquake simulator in the adjacent building was out of order, but there was a good film on featuring the recent Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, and warning us solemnly that another earthquake  on the same scale is due to hit in this century. Again, we drove along the seaside, passed the stunning hilltop Ichinomiya Awaji Castle, and many other roadside attractions on the way to Sumoto. Our hotel was below another stunning hilltop castle, Sumoto Castle.  The sign on the door of our hotel directed us to check in at the adjacent onsen hotel (same management as our cheaper unmanned business hotel). There we found discounted tickets for our boat tour (Y200 off each adult ticket, so Y1800 each). As the sun set, I flew a kite from the jetty while my husband and son fished. Bait was found at a fishing shop in a narrow alley next to our hotel. A quick Google search let us to seafood (sashimi) dinner 15 minutes walk away, in a one-hundred year old red brick building. My husband tried Awaji beer, my son loaded up at the salad bar with local wakame and I sampled the sweet soft raw Awaji onion from the salad bar.The bed was lumpy, and the lamp didn't work, but access to the onsen with multiple baths and sauna on the rooftop of the sister hotel made up for the discomfort. The next morning, we embarked on the Uzushio Cruise from 9:30.  We stayed on the upper deck although it was chilly, for the view and the fun of feeding the gulls (every passenger got a bag of bread crusts).  It was a huge ship, with two masts and furled sails. Once we got back, we were able to soak our cold limbs in the whirlpool foot bath at the dock. Next, we visited "The Great Naruto Bridge Memorial Museum and Whirlpool Science Center." First I lost Y100 to the UFO catcher at the door in an effort to get an island onion. We enjoyed sampling the souvenir snacks and made our way to the museum at the back, as our six year old son has been fascinated with whirlpools for some time. Unfortunately, the museum and 3D film could have been better. We bought Awaji Island Burgers for lunch there. My son chose a fish burger. I had a octopus burger. Not bad, but pricy. In the interested of staying away from tourist traps, I checked my Awaji Island FunMap and directed my family to Goshikihama Beach, "covered with small sparkling gem-like stones." Alas, it was covered with plastic bags, old tires, PET bottles, single shoes and so on. Our visit ended on a positive note at Awaji Island Prefecture Park, where hawks circled lazily overhead and we got one more Awaji sunset. The water play area of the park looks like it would be worth a visit in the summer. The highlight for us was the roller slides; plastic bum trays are provided to sit on. Sure beats sitting watching the holiday programming on Japanese TV! I burned some calories there, to justify later binging on mochi and osechi for the rest of the week.Awaji Island Prefecture Park - lots of climbing and sliding, fun even for big kids like me!Seaside sundown, in front of our business hotel.

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