Don’t worry, I’m still around.


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!


Things to know about JET and Japan

Once you’re accepted onto JET, you will get endless amounts of literature both before you leave and during the orientation in Tokyo. You will also hear from your predecessor and your contracting organization. No doubt the awkwardly large CLAIR handbook you have to lug with you to Tokyo, as well as the correspondence with your pred and CO will teach you plenty of things, but there are a few aspects of JET that are, shall we say, omitted from this and other fliers.

Ahead: what is ESID, how well will your JTE speak English, can you ever move within JET, and other miscellaneous things. Continue reading

Getting Ready to Leave the JET Program

So here you are, you’ve spent somewhere between 1 to nearly 5 years in Japan, you’ve laughed, you’ve cried, you’ve been complimented on your chopstick skills hundreds of times, but all good things must come to an end and it’s time to leave JET. Maybe you’re heading to another gig in Japan, maybe you’re off to backpack South East Asia (probably not a good idea in August), or maybe you know in four months time you’ll be on your mom’s couch. Either way it’s time to pack it in and leave the apartment, schools and town you’ve come to know over the last few years.

Leaving JET is as much of an adjustment as coming on JET, and something that can easily sneak up on you. The key is to prepare well and to prepare early. A fellow JET said to me, “Never underestimate the amount of time you need.” Good advice, and I tried to follow it, but that didn’t stop me from rushing around the morning I left. Continue reading

The Tohoku Earthquake and JET

All of us with a tie to Japan have been watching the coverage of the March 11th Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunamis with a heavy heart, and of course we are thinking of those who lost their homes and loved ones.

I’m sure many of you aspiring JETs can’t help but wonder how this will affect the 2011 JET Program. I saw a thread pop up asking about it on a JET forum, and the general response was “How can you be asking that at a time like this?!” However, all shaming aside, I do think it’s a legitimate question, and this disaster will have an impact on the JET Program.

First off, you should probably just avoid asking this question on forums because you’ll just get a lot of heat. Also, no one on those forums is likely to have that information, and if they do, they probably aren’t in a position to make an unofficial announcement on a forum. Any announcement will probably come from the official JET Website or from your local consulate, and it’s best to just wait for this announcement rather than call up your JET coordinator (trust me, they’re busy right now).

At this point in the JET “cycle”, the interviews of prospective JETs are done, and contracting organizations have already sent in their requests for new JETs, so now it’s about tallying how many positions are open and compiling interview results. The notification of acceptance (“short-listed”) is normally sent to interviewees early to mid April, and then placements are decided mid to late May.

Someone on the thread I saw said that since the funding of JET has been called into question in the last year, they wouldn’t be surprise if the JET program is significantly scaled down or even canceled so funds are spent on disaster relief and rebuilding. Now I would say in the most affected prefectures (Iwate, Fukushima, Ibaraki) JET will be scaled down, to what degree is unknown. As for saying the program will be cut nationwide to use the funds, that’s a bit extreme. I feel like that’s saying if there’s a hurricane in Florida, the state of Illinois is expected to lay-off x-number of teachers and send the money directly to rebuilding efforts, I don’t think it works quite like that. The Japan government does subsidize each JET participant to a degree, but most of their salary, as well as their flights to Japan and hotel stay at the Tokyo Orientation, is paid by the local contracting organization.

Also, just to compare, the Kobe Earthquake of 1995 caused about $100 billion US in damage. That year, JET had about 4,600 participants, 500 more than the previous year, plus that was a time when new JETs were still being flown over in business class.

It’s my best guess that the short-list announcement might be delayed, the affected prefectures may take on few, if any, new JETs, but elsewhere I don’t see any reason JET placements won’t go forward as planned.

*Edit*: 3/21 From the JET Program Website Earthquake Page

5. Specifics regarding the future employment and related conditions for JET participants in areas directly affected by the earthquake and subsequent tsunamis will be dealt with on a case by case basis depending on circumstances in respective contracting organisations and the wishes of respective JET participants. JET participants in areas other than those seriously affected will be treated as usual.

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.

Golden Week

For those that don’t know, Japan has an obscene number of Public Holidays, 15 to be exact. However, four of them are within a magical one-week period called “Golden Week”. Those four holidays are:

  • Showa Day (April 29th) which commemorates Emperor Hirohito
  • Constitutional Memorial Day (May 3rd)
  • Greenery Day (May 4th) also referred as Green Day
  • Children’s Day (May 5th)

Wikipedia also tells me that Greenery Day is a recently named holiday, before it was just “Public Holiday” because in Japan, if two holidays are a day apart, then that day is also dubbed a holiday. Wikipedia doesn’t tell you that this period is called Golden Week because hotels rake in the gold by doubling their prices, and trains and buses make a nice profit adding holiday surcharges, so if you want to go anywhere, you need to book in January and make sure you have plenty of money. Since I’m not a big fan of planning ahead, I have avoided travel during Golden Week in my time in Japan. Which is just as well because the crowds are rather insane. In years past, I’ve fought through throngs of people on the streets of Toyko, and waited in long lines for bus to take me to see a giant koi flag descend upon the innocent population of Kazo, Saitama. This year, I stayed closed to home, but even going to a local shopping mall was a hassle (waited two hours to be seated for lunch). There’s talk of the government staggering Golden Week according region. It sounds horribly confusing, so it just might work in Japan.

My main beef with Golden Week is it’s not actually a whole week! This year, Showa Day fell on a Thursday, but Friday was still a work day. Now after Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday off, I’ll return a two day work week. Next year, the 3 consecutive May holidays will fall on Tuesday to Thursday, meaning Monday and Friday will still be work days! Japan, you so crazy!

My other beef with Golden Week is that, after 4 holidays within a week of each other, there’s no Public Holiday for 2.5 months (Marine Day in Late July). Time to take advantage of my nen-kyuu (paid vacation).

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.

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.

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.

Continue reading

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.