Japan is an odd place

Odd in a good way (a lot of these shouldn't be odd, but are):

-Tokyo has several different train and bus lines, but I can charge a single transit card with money, and use any of them by touching my wallet to a sensor. It figures out where I got on, where I got off, what lines I was on, and debits the balance. There's also a pretty cool 定期 (fixed-term) ticket, where you pick the station your daily commute starts and ends, and you get unlimited travel between the two for a given period of time. Mine was about $180 for three months. This goes on the same transit card, so you just carry the one thing around, and it does what needs to be done to get you where you need to go. Kind of on the same theme, the trains are squeaky-clean, damned fast, and come on time, every time (if one is late, you can go get a certificate from the station agent to show to your work or school to excuse your tardiness).

-My 9800円 cell phone (about $100) gets live TV broadcasts. Way cool!
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-The police, rather than holding you down, tend to sit in conveniently-placed stalls around the city, waiting for people to ask them for directions.

-When you go into a government office, it's clean and quiet, the people are polite as hell, and there's no line.

-National health insurance covers 70% of medical expenses for about $10 a month.

The odd in a less-good way:

-Cell phones are just plain weird. The monthly fees range from about $8-$30, but you have to pay for individual messages and calls on top of that, and the fees are steep. 30 seconds is usually around 20円 (20 cents-ish), so if you talk like an American (say, 300 minutes a month), you're looking at a bill of $120! There aren't any night/weekend deals, either, and even calling other customers on the same carrier, the free times are pretty limited. People just text a lot.

-You can buy beer from a vending machine, and drink it on the train, but smoking a joint can get you deported.

-It's zany humid. Take a shower, and five minutes later, you feel just as dirty and sweaty as before.

-The food's all really tasty (except for natto), and reasonably priced, for the most part, but the Starbucks I hit in Shinjuku charges $3.40 for a small cup of coffee. Now, I've paid close to that for ccoffee before, but it was handcrafted, micro-roasted stuff, not the *$ house blend. That just ain't right.

-Your credit card may not work, and the store clerk will not no why. They're very open about this- they get an error message on the machine that's not indicative of whether the card was rejected because of the bank, the type of card, the balance, or anything else- it's just 「使えれない」. I was buying a cellphone, and had one card rejected when the guy doing my contract was authorizing it. I had another, thankfully, and it authorized fine, but when I went over to the cashier (on a different type of computer), it didn't work! I tried another card from the same bank, and it didn't work either, but I figured I had nothing to lose, and gave the guy the original card (the one rejected at authorization), and it went through! For such an advanced country, such a common card (Visa) and such a touristy district (this is the biggest electronics store in Akihabara, possibly the world's geek tourist mecca), you'd think they'd be able to run a simple credit card.

I should have pictures from today's adventure up in day or two. Stay tuned!

I'm watching Charlie's Angels dubbed in Japanese, and it's the unqualified best thing ever, bar none. Ever. My favorite part so far is at the club, when Cameron Diaz kisses Luke Wilson and runs away to go save something-or-other, and all the bouncers josh him. The large-black bouncers have dockworker voices, and luke wilson sounds like a timid, early-thirties salaryman, and the exchange is priceless.