Don’t worry, I’m still around.

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Hello and thanks for visiting my site!

This blog is devoted solely to my experience with the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program and living in Japan. I have been back in the States for a while and, although I love Japan and hope to visit many more times, returning to work and live there is not something I see myself doing any time soon (but never say never!). So, the information on this blog will start to get dated (if it isn’t already) and there probably won’t be many more new posts.

Despite that, I do welcome any questions and comments you might have and I generally respond quickly, so please don’t hesitate to ask anything. I am still involved in the JET community and I gladly take advantage of any chance I get to talk to new people about Japan and JET (as friends and family are generally tired of it). Thanks and I hope you find something interesting/useful on this blog!

10 random things I miss about Japan

There are many things about Japan that’s bound to get on the nerves of anyone who has lived there for an extended amount of time. After being home for a while, I think about how happy I am that I won’t suffer through another winter with no central heating, or be referred to as “American Sized”, or have to deal with the nuances of communicating (which I found was not so much “reading between the lines” as it was “reading minds”). But for every one thing I don’t miss about Japan, there probably three things that I do miss. Naturally I miss my town, my friends, and my students, but there’s also countless “little things” that I miss about Japan. Here is a list of a handful of those things, in no particular order.

The diplomacy of Janken (rock-paper-scissors): In elementary and junior high school, there are few conflicts that can’t be resolved with a round of janken. There’s an extra jelly dessert? Janken. Who won that last karuta card? Janken. No one wants to volunteer to present first? Janken. The loser may groan about it, but no one ever demands a rematch. The word of Janken is final!

Combini: Oh how I miss these beacons of light, a place where I could pay my bills and buy my onigiri, where I could stop in for pudding at 12 pm or 12 am. Where I could pay for a bottle of water with an 10,000 yen (roughly $100) bill and the clerk wouldn’t even blink. I’ll always remember the friendly chime and the “Irashaimase” of my local Family Mart.

Saitama Mascot, Kobaton

Saitama Mascot, Kobaton

The Cuteness: How could I not love a place where everything has a mascot? Where no matter the location, there’s a gift shop with charms of Hello Kitty, Rilakkuma, AND Doraemon dressed like local fruits and flowers. Where my school lunch milk carton has a picture of Kobaton conducting a train or having a picnic. Frankly, everything without a smiley face is just boring now.

Meeting people from around the world: In my hometown in Colorado, meeting someone from east of the Mississippi river is about as “international” as it gets. So you can imagine my wide-eyed delight when I first karaoke’d with a group of Australians, or went to an onsen with a German, or danced at a club with a South African. Now it seems normal to go out with a Brit, an Aussie, and a Japanese person and then meet someone who’s Spanish but grew up in South America, and is stopping over in Japan on their way to Thailand.

Rated PG13 for language

My students’ English mistakes: Sometimes when I’d grade my student’s journals and tests, I worried that they haven’t learned any English at all. But usually the worry was replaced by delight as I read things like “I was in the blue grope.” and “I took part in an event like a cowboy.” Months are especially fun, “Jury” for July, “Nobender” for November. However, I still have no idea what month “Juniary” is supposed to be.

Kotatsu: While heating during the winter in Japan leaves quite a bit to be desired, kotatsu is completely awesome and something I wish I had back home. When the cold would set in around December, I’d throw the quilt over the table and tried to have everything I needed within arms-reach because I wouldn’t leave until April.

Being a semi-celebrity: What can I say? I enjoy it when my kids exclaim “Your eyes are blue!”, or marvel at my curly hair, or ask for my signature on their notebooks. It’s also fun to hear “Ro-ren-sensei, hello!” as I ride my bike around town. Of course, there are two sides to this coin, such as being spotted talking a guy friend and being asked, “Was that your boyfriend?” at school the next day. Or a student forgetting my name and referring to me as “gaikokujin”. Despite this, I’ll be sad not being so “exotic” when I return home.

Seriously, this is like a porno shop to me

Stationary: Maybe I’m weird, but I’ve always loved shopping for school supplies, and Japan is a stationary junky’s dreamland. Even relatively small stores have pens that come in 17 different widths and an aisle devoted to stationary paper. There also all the wonderful stickers, notebooks, and file folders that have any animal, character, or famous landmark you can imagine on it. I’ll especially miss the awesome pop-up, foil embossed, and die-cut greeting cards.

Souvenir snacks: I think most of us think of “souvenirs” as tacky little trinkets we give to friends who probably will put it in a box and never look upon it again. But in Japan, the word for souvenir, “o-miyage”, also means little individually wrapped treats. Every little town has them in all shapes and flavors. They can be . . . interesting, like say a sembei with a slice of octopus baked in, but it’s a perfect gift for co-workers.

Heading to an ikebana lesson

The General Bizarreness: Can you think of your first “Wow, this place is weird” moment in Japan? Was it when you first encountered a talking toilet? Or watched a variety show about eating? Or saw a little old man using a pink keitai with 17 charms dangling from it? Or learned the latest character all your students are obsessed with is a bowl of rice with a face called “Gohan-chan”? I miss these nearly daily encounters with the lovable weirdness that is Japan.

And then she burst into tears – Teaching Grade School

I love teaching Japanese elementary school for all the reasons I don’t much like teaching junior high school. The elementary kids are excited to see me, they ask me all sorts of questions (mostly in the vein of “what color do you like?”), and when I ask for an answer or for a volunteer, 20 hand go up in the air with a deafening round of “Hai! Hai!”

Most of my uncomfortable moments at junior high come when I’m doing a dialog with students. Just the other day, in a 7th grade class, the teacher asked me to pick a few students and ask them “What (something) do you like?”. I asked a girl “What books do you like?”; she responded “I like…” and then silence for roughly 15 seconds before the teacher told her to sit down. Maybe it didn’t bother her very much, or maybe she was traumatized will hate English for the rest of her life. This is the game of chance I play whenever I have to call on students.

Fortunately, elementary kids aren’t quite so embarrassed when they make a mistake. Or are they? Today I taught 2nd graders, “How are you?” “I’m fine, and you?” “I’m fine, too.” After making them repeat it 20 or so times with a partner, I asked for volunteers to present. At first, I have them present with a partner, then I had them do the dialog with me. One little boy really wanted to do the dialog, but his partner sat shaking her head “no”. I said, “OK, just me and the boy” but for some reason the girl stands up.

Boy: “How are you?”
Girl: “How are you?”
Boy: “No, you say, ‘I’m fine, and you?'”
Me: *trying to get the girl to repeat after me. “I’m fine…”

Suddenly, tears are just streaming down the girl’s face. Oh Lord, what have I done?! I stood with a slightly panicked look on my face as the homeroom teacher walks over and does the dialog in place of the girl. The girl recovered eventually, but I can’t help but feel guilty.

And thus are the occupational hazards of teaching English to 8 year olds.

Where the Hell am I?

After being here nearly a year, I’m proud to say I’ve never gotten on the (completely) wrong train, nor have I ever missed my intended station. Yes; I have boarded locals that I thought were rapids, and I did once buy tickets for a 7am bullet train when I meant to get them for 7pm. But for the most part, I think I do pretty well navigating the train system.

It’s when I get off the train that I start to have problems. If the numbering system in Japan seems arbitrary: it’s because it basically is. Cities are broken down into wards, wards into neighborhoods, and then numbers with far too many dashes are assigned to the buildings (in the old days, buildings were numbers in the order they were built, because that makes sense). As for streets, good luck finding one with a name. In Tokyo, there’s a street supposedly named “Meiji-dori” that runs parallel to the train tracks from Shibuya through Harajuku to Shinjuku. It’s on the tourist maps and even on some of the posted maps around the stations, but asking someone at the combini “which way is Meiji-dori” pretty much only gets a blank stare. This is the case in many big cities that purportedly have a named street. But I suppose it’s just as well to not name streets since they seem to twist, turn, merge, and end with no warning.

So what’s a foreigner in Japan to do? My first suggestion is to take a deep breath and accept that Japan is hard to navigate and no map or even good sense of direction will make it easy.

Did you do that? Okay.

Next, never attempt to just try and find a place. This includes trying to find a place with a Lonely Planet guidebook map. LPs maps are pretty much crap; they really only give you a sense of the general area you should go. Also, downtown areas in Japan have a tendency of looking all the same, even having the same stores! I was meeting some friends in Shinjuku, and the directions they gave me were “Down the street from Isetan and OIOI” but I was one block over: where there was also an Isetan and OIOI!

Which is another thing to remember: don’t split up with friends, unless you’re both absolutely sure where you’ll met up again. Even within department stores, it can be a bad idea to split up since escalators have a tendency of not being close together from floor to floor.

Now, since I just told you to never try to just find a place, this means you have to ask for directions. Utilize information booths in large stations, they are your friends! They might speak English and even if they don’t, they’ll probably have an English information brochure and maybe even an English language map. They also can tell you if the place your looking for has closed up shop (this seems to happen a lot with no warning). Make sure to ask which station exit to use since many stations have gates at the exits and therefore make it hard to pass through if you exit on the wrong side.

If you’re not near an info booth, a combini might be your next best bet. If you have the address of the place you’re looking for, they should have a map of the area handy. It’s important to ask what is around your destination. Don’t just ask what next to it, ask what’s across the street, cady-corner, and what’s just past it so you know if you went too far.

Now when you’re on your way, with your map and directions, keep you eyes peeled! Do not underestimate how “tucked away” the place you’re looking for may be. I’ve been to many-a-places with a tiny sign about 3 feet high as it’s only indication that it exists. If you’re in a major downtown area where the buildings have long vertical signs telling you what shops are there, remember they’re not necessarily in order. I once went to a restaurant where the sign for it was the 4th one up. This would indicate to me that it was on the 4th floor, but it was actually in the basement!

Get a map, find a buddy, get clear directions and be very aware and you might find your destination! Maybe.

I actually wrote this whole post because I wanted to share a link. It’s a website called “多摩地区そして日本各地の画像集” which Babelfish translates into “Picture collection of Tama area and every place in Japan“. If you’re going to a town for the first time, you can look here and get a little familiar with the place. Note: You do need to know the kanji of whatever town you’re looking for for this site.

Don’t Make Waves, Stay in Line

Sometimes when I think about the laws and unspoken rules here in Japan, I think of the little ditty Shrek and Donkey hear when they go to Duloc, “Don’t make waves, stay in line, and we’ll get along fine. Duloc is a perfect place.” Now, Japan’s not Singapore or anything, but the laws are strict and the police and justice system have a farther reaching authority than you may be used to.

First, take a second to read this hilarious incident of drug-dog training gone wrong in Narita. Now, funny as that is, I have to feel sorry for the person who has all that weed because they will have a hell of a time if they want to return it. Japan has very strict anti-drug laws: I saw a news story about some famous guy being busted for having 0.2 grams of marijuana. Now, I think everyone whose ever been to a Dave Matthews Concert ingests that much weed without even meaning to, but the way they were talking about this guy you’d think he was peddling heroin to 12 year olds. It’s not only the ganja that you have to beware of, some perfectly legal over the counter medicines in other countries are illegal here because of Japan’s anti-stimulant laws.

Now here are a couple cautionary tales: one of a tourist being found with a pocket knife, and another of a JET accused of shoplifting. While I think both of these people could have benefited from knowing more Japanese and just using a bit more common sense, it shows how severe Japanese police can and will treat you for things that may only be a minor infraction back home. If you’re arrested, you can be held without formal charges for nearly a month. Japan’s justice system is “Guilty until proven innocent”, and really, they’re not interesting in proving you’re innocent, only in getting you to confess.

This also brings up the fact people here are simply more suspicious of “gaijin”, whether or not there’s really any statistics to back that assumption up. Once a cop stopped me on my bike. He claims he saw my bike lock was broken, and it is, but there’s no way he could have been able to tell that from glancing at my bike while I was riding, so I think the real reason he pulled me over was clear. He then proceeded to ask where I got the bike; in other words accusing me of stealing it. I fortunately knew just enough Japanese to explain I got it from the previous JET (and also don’t know enough Japanese to say “If I were to steal a bike, I’d steal a better one than this rust-pile”), and he let me go. The lesson is, yes, you are being watched.

Some other things to remember here in Japanland:

  • Until you get your “gaijin card” (alien registration card), you should carry your passport at all times. Even after you get your card, I recommend carrying your passport when you travel in Japan just to save hassle.
  • In multi-level stores, you need to pay on each floor. Also beware of places where there are several shops on a single floor. Just go to the nearest register after you pick up anything. (If there’s no register, look for a calculator and a woman not paying attention).
  • You are representing your school, your BOE, your country, and all foreigners in general. So, try to behave well. Don’t buy too much booze at the combini, some mom with nothing better to do will call the school and tell on you.
  • Be careful what people send to you because once it gets to Japan, you will be held  responsible for it’s contents. Here’s a student whose friend sent him some pot cookies to Japan, and now he faces 10 years in Japanese prison.
  • Keep off of the grass, shine your shoes, and wipe your . . . face.

Your life in two suitcases or less

First off, congratulations to those of you short listed for the 2008 JET Programme, (and to alternates, also. Hang in there, I was an alternate too!)

This post probably isn’t necessary to put up for another month or two, but many of you are itching to know what to take, I’m sure. Every year, hundreds of new JETs make tough decisions about what to bring, maybe shed a few tears, but will invariable bring stuff they may find they’ll never use. This list is to help you make those tough decisions, and hopefully give you a lighter bag to carry around Tokyo (at the height of summer, mind you) and eventually to your placement.

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My $100 sushi dinner

or “Japan is expensive after all”

No doubt you’ve heard that Japan is one of the most expensive countries to live in. Up until recently, Tokyo held the distinction of being the most pricey city in the world. Former JETs warned me that since I’m in what you could call the “greater Tokyo area” my funds would be spent quickly after I earned them. When I came here, I was a bit worried that my hope of paying off my college debt would be impossible due to the supposedly ridiculous price of everything.

However, these cautionary tales of over-price-dom have not been realized by me. My rent is subsidized, but even if it was twice as much, it would be reasonable. My utility bills are all comparable to home, my internet and cellphone are actually cheaper, and my complete lack of interest in Japanese TV has left me without a pricey cable bill. It does cost me $9 round trip to get to the nearest good-sized city, and twice that to get to Tokyo, but having no car pretty much offsets that cost. Food is more expensive, I suppose, but probably because I indulge my Western-ness and get the more costly items like cereal and spaghetti sauce. If I stuck to a more Japanese diet, it would likely be less. Dining out is also not as expensive as I expected. You’re never too far away from a decent noodle shop that will give you a very filling bowl for anywhere between 500-700 yen.

Just when I was thinking Japan was not living up to it’s pricey reputation, I finally encountered what makes Japan so damn expensive. This is a warning to those who are penny-pinchers but also want to be entertained on a regular basis, Japan is not the country for you.

Take my weekend, for example. I started off the day seeing the Japanese-language version of “The Lion King.” The price? 11,500yen, or about (at current rates) $110. Yeah, it’s a popular Broadway show and all, but when I saw it in New York in very similar seats, tickets were $90. Afterwards, we headed to Urawa to a “famous” sushi shop. The first order of business was for everyone to pony-up 10,000yen, or nearly $100. Of course it was delicious, the octopus wasn’t chewy (it’s possible!) and the sushi that’s usually a bit dodgy in cheaper establishment, like squid or sea-urchin, was super tasty. A hundred-bucks tasty? Probably not, but still very tasty.

This all made me realize that entertainment in this country is not cheap. Here are a few of the other outrageously priced items in Japan. (For conversion, $1US varies from 105-115 yen, though right now it’s 103yen to a dollar) Continue reading

The almighty piece of paper, part ni

Last time, I covered the first unspoken rule of paper in Japan (never throw any piece of paper you get in Japan away). This second rule is also unspoken and is possibly more important that the first

2. If it’s an ALTs word against a piece of paper, paper trumps ALT, always.

It really doesn’t matter how unofficial the piece of paper is. It could be something drunkenly scrawled on a napkin, but if the ALT says something that contradicts what’s written on a piece of paper, by God, that piece of paper will win. This isn’t a hard tested theory yet, but I am constantly collecting proof that ALT < piece of paper.

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The almighty piece of paper, part ichi

If you know me at all, then you know my favorite TV show is “The Office”, a mockumentary about the struggles of a paper company in Pennsylvania trying to keep afloat in an increasingly paperless world. My solution for Dunder-Mifflin’s woes are simple; move to Japan.

Japan loves paper, be it tiny bags to individually wrap every little cellphone charm you purchase at a depaato, or tickets from a machine because even at the post office you have to take a number, or just the massive number of pamplets and handouts you will get at JET orientation and subsequent conferences, paper is still king in Japan.

And since paper is king, there are two important rules to remember about it. Today we’ll cover rule one:

1. You must never throw away any piece of paper you ever get, ever.

I had forgotten all the times my Japanese professor in college who would randomly ask us to pull out worksheets that she gave us maybe 2 semesters ago, but when I arrived in Japan, I quickly remembered this unspoken rule. When I arrived at my BOE in August, they had me sign my contract, fill out my gaijin card form and gave me a few random things, one of them being my electric bill. The next week, my supervisor was going to take me to a shopping center to get me a cell phone, so I arrived at the BOE, and the following conversation occured:

Supervisor (roughly translated from Japanese): Do you have your electric bill?

Me: Um, was I suppose to have it?

Supervisor: Since it a piece of paper that you received from a Japanese person, you must be able to randomly produce it at any given time.

Me: Oh, sorry, I’m still new here, you know.

Supervisor: Daijoubu, but seriously, where’s your electric bill, it’s imperative to have it before we go get your cellphone. I can’t tell you why, it just is.

Me: I think it’s at my house. Can I bring it Monday?

Supervisor: I have a better idea, we’ll drive to your house and wait outside while you desperately search for it.

Me: Okay desu.

A couple weeks after that my supervisor came to my school one day and I had this encounter:

Supervisor: Rooren, Hello

Me: S’up, supe

Supervisor: All JETs must sign this Accident Insurance paper, from this pamplet [shows pamplet I don’t remember ever getting]

Me: [swinks eyes and tries to remember] Uh, yeah, I might have that.

Supervisor: ‘Might have it’?

Me: Yeah, I mean, it’s probably at my house with the small library of info I received at the JET orientation.

Supervisor: So . . . you don’t have it with you?

Me: Nope

Supervisor: You didn’t wake up this morning and just know that I would stop by and ask for this piece of paper so maybe you should bring it with you to school today?

Me: Well, you know I’m not Japanese . . . or clairvoyant.

Supervisor: No, I suppose you’re not.

Today’s lesson: Take that piece with of paper with both hands, bow, and make sure it never leaves your person for the length of your stay in Japan.