Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Caroline vs. SWAP Japan

Last autumn, when I started thinking seriously about moving to Japan with Clem while he finished his MPP, I knew I needed help navigating the application process for a working-holiday visa.  I'd heard of SWAP (Student Working Abroad Program) from an info session I'd attended late in undergrad, and based on the fact that they cater to young adults and are very involved in the process, I decided to they were the best option for my needs.

SWAP Japan is available to Canadians between the ages of 18 and 30, and doesn't require student status.  The visa is initially issued for six months, and can be extended for an additional six months by visiting the Immigration Bureau and paying a small processing fee.  The registration fee for SWAP Japan is $350, which is considerably less than other destinations because there is no hosting centre in Tokyo.

Once you register with SWAP, they send you all the documents and checklists of things needed to apply for your visa, as well as tips to ensure your application is successful.  For Japan, I needed a standard application form, an "intended schedule" listing places I wanted to go during the first six months, a letter outlining why I wanted to live in Japan, my passport, a doctor's letter declaring me free of communicable diseases, a letter from my bank ensuring I had at least $2500 to my name, passport photos, a flight itinerary, and travel insurance.  Phew!!  Some of these took planning and running around on my part, so it's best to get started on everything as soon as possible.  Do NOT leave things to the last minute, as it might screw with your travel plans; you need to have flights booked just to apply for the visa, and if you don't get all your documents in on time you could end up having to rebook your journey.

The fabulous Maryse at the Merit Travel near Ottawa U (now closed and moved to 375 Richmond Road) helped get my documents together and sent to the SWAP team in Toronto, who did an initial review before everything was sent to the Japanese Embassy.  Once everything was submitted, all I had to do was wait, and a week before my scheduled departure, everything arrived ready for my journey!  SWAP also gave me a departure kit, which included loads of travel literature on Japan (including the Holy Grail of travel guides, a Lonely Planet), and instructions on how to navigate the bureaucratic process of registering as an alien resident of Japan and extending the visa, if necessary.

I didn't need accommodation in Tokyo since Clem had already rented us an apartment, but the two free nights are great to have if you don't have any connections.  SWAP puts up travellers in a Sakura House hostel, which is convenient as Sakura House is a major company that rents rooms and apartments to foreigners in Japan.  They have tons of things available and are often able to get you into a place within a few days; all you need to do is go to their office and look at places within your desired neighbourhood and budget; you can also browse for apartments on their website before you even leave home.

One thing that makes SWAP Japan different from other destinations is that the Japanese government doesn't allow SWAP to set up a hosting centre in Japan.  So, once you arrive, you're pretty much on your own.  I did email the SWAP office a few times, but most of the information they had was out of date, which ended up causing a few unnecessary trips to the Immigration Bureau.  It is also very difficult to find English-speakers at the ward offices and immigration bureaus, which makes the bureaucracy really difficult to navigate if you don't speak Japanese, or if you don't have a friend to help you out.  I count my blessings that the university assigned Clem a Japanese-speaking "buddy" who came with us to all our bureaucratic appointments and helped us make sure we paid the right fees and filled out the right forms.

Because there is no hosting centre in Japan, there is nobody to give you tips and tricks on job hunting.  I used GaijinPot, which has a very active job board for foreigners, and found it easy enough to use.  A lot of interesting, career-related jobs require at least some Japanese language skills, but there are more teaching jobs than you can shake a stick at.  Some companies are really picky about how your application is put together, so be sure to ask lots of questions if you are unsure of anything!

So, to the point of this post: would I recommend SWAP?  In general, yes.  But for Japan, maybe not; the lack of a hosting centre meant that once I arrived they didn't really do anything for me, and I didn't meet other SWAPpers.  I will say, however, that if you are insanely busy (like I was) in the months leading up to your departure, it is really handy to have someone taking care of the nitty gritty details for you and making sure the process moves quickly.

Have any of you used SWAP for other destinations, or applied for working-holidays on your own?  I'd love to know your thoughts.

xx, C.

Sunday, 8 November 2015

Caroline vs. Murder on the Orient Express

As I was packing up to leave Tokyo, I read a couple short novels to keep my mind occupied on commutes, etc., without having to worry about hauling around thick books on holiday.  Space matters in luggage and carry-on bags!  I picked up Murder on the Orient Express at the same time I got The Guest Cat, and it lasted me through my last few days in Tokyo and the first couple days of our holiday in the UK.  Part of Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot series, Murder isn't very long, but is suspenseful and exciting.  This is actually the first Agatha Christie I have ever read, so I'm looking forward to delving into more of her famous mysteries.

I loved these excerpts:
"At a small table, sitting very upright, was one of the ugliest old ladies he had ever seen. It was an ugliness of distinction - it fascinated rather than repelled. She sat very upright. Round her neck was a collar of very large pearls which, improbable though it seemed, were real. Her hands were covered with rings. Her sable coat was pushed back on her shoulders. A very small expensive black toque was hideously unbecoming to the yellow, toad-like face beneath it." p.39
"'C'est une femme,' said the chef de train again. 'Women are like that. When they are enraged they have great strength.' He nodded so sagely that everyone suspected a personal experience of his own." p.65
"'There is a large American on the train,' said M. Bouc, pursuing his idea - 'a common-looking man with terrible clothes. He chews the gum which I believe is not done in good circles.'" p.65
"'...My name is Hercule Poirot.' If he expected an effect he did not get one. MacQueen said merely, 'Oh, yes?' and waited for him to go on. 'You know the name, perhaps.' 'Why, it does seem kind of familiar - only I always thought it was a woman's dressmaker.' Hercule Poirot looked at him with distaste." p.71-72
"'Great strength was needed for these blows. They have penetrated the muscle.' 'They were, in your opinion, delivered by a man?' 'Most Certainly.' 'They could not have been delivered by a woman?' 'A young, vigorous, athletic woman might have struck them, especially if she were in the grip of a strong emotion, but it is in my opinion highly unlikely.'" p.83-84
"He went out of the compartment and returned a few moments later with a small spirit stove and a pair of curling tongs. 'I use them for the moustaches,' he said, referring to the latter." p.90
"Triumphantly she hauled a large handbag into view and proceeded to burrow in its interior. She took out in turn two large clean handkerchiefs, a pair of horn-rimmed glasses, a bottle of aspirin, a packet of Glauber's salts, a celluloid tube of bright green peppermints, a bunch of keys, a pair of scissors, a book of American Express cheques, a snapshot of an extraordinarily plain-looking child, some letters, five strings of pseudo Oriental beads and a small metal object - a button." p.133
"'I am not a Yugo-Slavian detective, Madame. I am an international detective.' 'You belong to the League of Nations?' 'I belong to the world, Madame, said Poirot dramatically." p.165
"Even the loquacious Mrs Hubbard was unnaturally quiet. She murmured as she sat: 'I don't feel as though I've got the heart to eat anything,' and then partook of everything offered her..." p.287
xx, C.

Saturday, 7 November 2015

Caroline vs. Miyajima

We did everything we wanted to do in Hiroshima within the first day and a half, so for the last full day before I went back to Tokyo and my family went to Kyoto, we went over to Miyajima, home of the famous Itsukushima Shrine, another UNESCO World Heritage Site.  At only a 30-ish minute train ride from Hiroshima Station plus a short ferry ride, it is incredibly accessible.  There are even a few hotels on the island, which is a great way to explore once the ferries have stopped running and tourists have gone home.

We were blessed with absolutely gorgeous weather, and spent almost the entire day outside.  We first stopped at Miyajima Itsuki Coffee, which I'd seen on a number of Japanese Instagram accounts I follow.  The coffee was, of course, delicious, and the décor was so clean and minimal; absolutely the kind of café I would set myself up in for an afternoon of work.  We also ran into a huge number of deer who populate the island they way the do in Nara Park, but unlike in Nara you are not allowed to feed Miyajima's deer.

Once caffeinated, we walked partway up Mount Misen to the beginning of the Miyajima Ropeway (also accessible by shuttle bus), which would take us most of the way up.  Thanks to the beautiful weather we had clear views of the island and the sea, and I was taking so many photos I *almost* forgot how antsy I am about heights.  From Shishiiwa Station at the terminus of the Ropeway, we climbed the rest of the way to the summit of Mount Misen, which took about half an hour.  It wasn't incredibly challenging, but having supportive footwear is a must if you don't want to risk slipping and hurting yourself on the rock steps.

The summit of Mount Misen has a small observatory, which is a great place from which to see all around the island.  A couple deer had even made it all the way up there and were relaxing in the shade!  We didn't stay at the summit for long, but the observatory was a nice shady place to sit down and have some water and snacks (if you were smart, unlike us, and remembered to pack any).

On the way back down, we walked the path that took us through the National Treasure Misen Primeval Forest and past Daisho-in Temple before bring us back into town.  Most of the path is made up of rock stairs, many of which are in shady areas of the forest and hadn't dried after the rainstorm the day before.  It was way easier to go down than up, but we did pass several brave souls who made the 1.5 hour trek up to the summit.

It was the middle of the afternoon by the time we got back to town, so we found our way to Yakigaki-no-Hayashi, a well-rated restaurant that specializes in oysters and other local seafood dishes.  The restaurant was still packed when we got there, so I imagine the queue for lunch must be quite something.  The food was fantastic and so fresh, and they served my dad's oysters on a plate with a miniature model of the famous Itsukushima Torii!  We also ordered the local beer which was so good, and I was disappointed that I couldn't find it in Tokyo afterwords.  We also stopped for gelato at Baccano as a treat.  Gelato and ice cream places aren't as ubiquitous in Japan as they are in Europe or North America, so I rarely turned down the opportunity if I passed one on a hot day.

We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering out under the Torii after the tide had gone out.  Some deer joined us too!  It was a really cool way to end the day, and one of my favourite parts was seeing all the offeratory coins that had lodged themselves in the Torii.  Eventually the sun started to go down, so we headed back to the ferry terminal.  But not before running into some girls wearing amazing yukata!  I love how young people are embracing traditional Japanese outfits while giving them a modern twist, and I was so pleased when these three girls let me take their photos.

Miyajima is a great side-trip from Hiroshima, just check the weather and the times the tide goes in and out to make the most of your day.

xx, C.