Archive for August, 2011

A Tiny Taste of Tokyo Town

August 29th, 2011 No comments

Cross another city off the list of places-I-must-see-before-I-die. When I was placed in a city within reasonable travelling distance of Tokyo, I knew I wasn’t going to be able to wait too long before heading there to check it out. Having discovered on Saturday what a trip from Togane to the beach entails, Sunday was about determining what it’s like to get from Togane to Tokyo.

Tourism Center of the Universe

Trey told me there’s a bus that goes there directly, but I was just as curious about the Japanese rail-system as I was about Tokyo itself so I decided to make my first trip there by train. I checked the schedules online at a site called hyperdia, and decided that the 10:31 train would be my best bet. I’d have to changeover once in a city called Soga, but from there it would be a straight-shot in.

After riding my bike to the station (which took about 4 minutes) and locking it up, my first problem was figuring out how to get a ticket. As far as I could tell there were no live human beings working there, either because it was Sunday, because there was another building I wasn’t aware of, or because they just don’t have people working there. I went up to the ticket machines and attempted to buy a round-trip ticket for the day, but they only offered a small list of destinations—all nearby cities—and none of them was Tokyo. I stood there scratching my head for a minute and was about to go ask someone for help, but it turned out I didn’t have to. An older Japanese man came right up to me and said in English, “Would you like some help?”

“Please,” I said, and explained that I was new in Japan and this was my first time taking the train. I told him I was an ALT, and he turned out to be an elementary school teacher in Narita. So this super-friendly English-speaking dude helped me through the whole process, which involved going to a different machine and calling for an operator, then explaining in Japanese that I needed a round-trip ticket for the day to Tokyo. The price showed up on the screen, about ¥2100 (just over $25), I put my cash in and as though there was a man living inside the machine, it took my money, printed out my tickets, and gave me an arigato gozaimashita.

I chatted with the teacher for a few minutes, telling him I was from New York which turned to the subject of the hurricane that’s currently blasting my friends and family there right now. Everyone in Japan is aware of it, as they’ve even got Japanese reporters in Manhattan to cover the story for their TV news reports. We also talked a little about the differences between JET and Interac, as the school where he works in Narita has JET ALTs and he says he thinks JET has better working conditions for its teachers. I wouldn’t know.

The train was right on time, and I stepped aboard and sat down for the 20-minute journey to Soga. Compared to the Deutsche Bahn, these trains measure up nicely. The seating is all along the side as opposed to rows like in Germany, but the seats are just as comfortable and the trains run just as fast. They stop for less time in each location, but other than that there’s no substantial difference. I do have a feeling they’re a bit more efficient than in Germany, as while the Deutsche Bahn was once famous for its efficiency, they’ve been slipping in recent years (which I judge both from my own experience and from talking about it with Germans). Every train I took throughout the day was exactly on time, but we’ll see how they operate in bad weather. I’m sure the efficiency falls apart pretty rapidly whenever there’s an earthquake.

Changing trains in Soga was not nearly as confusing as I’d feared it would be, as the train to Tokyo had LED-screens on the outside flashing the words “To Tokyo” in both Japanese and English. In fact the entire Japanese rail-system was incredibly user-friendly, with everything clearly marked and easily-readable schematic maps posted everywhere. The train to Tokyo itself had each stop announced in both Japanese and English, as well as LED-screens above the doors constantly letting you know what the next stop would be in kanji, katakana, and roman letters.

I was tempted to take some pictures from the train but I held back. We did pass through some very cool scenery though, including Tokyo Disneyland. I don’t foresee myself ever going there, but I suppose there are plenty of pictures online and everyone pretty much knows what Disneylands look like anyway.

The last few stations were all underground, so I only got to see the outskirts of the city on the way in, though the outskirts were certainly urban enough in their own right with skyscrapers aplenty, quite in contrast to Europe where everything is low to the ground. Japanese cities are far more in resemblance to American cities than Europe, with very little mind paid to aesthetics and almost no statues or fountains to be found.

We arrived in Tokyo station, and its monstrous size felt like a microcosm of the city itself. It took almost ten minutes just to get up all the escalators and finally emerge outside. Incidentally, just as driving is on the left side here, escalator-etiquette is also reversed. Because on Japanese highways the right-lane is the fast-lane, those who stand still on the escalators do so on the left while the people on the right are moving. They also really stick to that, as while you’ve often got some jackass standing still on the left side of the escalator in America (or even in Germany), every single person on the right-side of these escalators was moving.

My first glimpse of Tokyo.

So I finally got outside, took my first pictures, then headed off in the direction of the park. I was flying with absolutely no plan whatsoever, as while the original plan had been to meet a really nice guy I’d met at ALT training in Narita named David and have him show me around, he cancelled on me at the last minute because he had to do a one-on-one lesson with a guy who had an upcoming job interview in English, and besides that he had no spending money anyway. So without David I was left to my own devices, which I wasn’t upset about at all because I’ve probably solo-travelled more often than I’ve travelled with company anyway, and I felt it appropriate that my first time in Tokyo would be through my own eyes alone.

It was an absolutely gorgeous day and the park seemed like a natural first destination, so I moved in that direction until I spotted an empty tour-bus parked on the side of the road. Having had great experiences with bus tours in London and in Rome, I figured a bus tour of Tokyo might be a good way to start me off. I went up to the driver, asked him in Japanese if he spoke English—he could not—then proceeded to strain my Japanese skills to the limit to get the information about the tours. Luckily he had a flyer with all of the information, so he gave that to me and gave me some rough directions on how to get to the office where I needed to sign up.

I headed off in search of this office but I couldn’t find it. I found a few information boards with maps of the area and the locations of interest clearly marked, but the tour bus office was not among them. There was, however, one circle that marked the Tourist Inquiry Office, so I decided that would be my first destination. At the very least, they could tell me how to get to the bus-tour office.

The tourism office was in a giant building filled with shops and restaurants on the bottom floor and various other businesses in the floors above. The tourism office itself was actually on the tenth floor, which I suppose helps keep the place nice and empty most of the time. When I got there I was instantly greeted in English by the two ladies who worked there, the only two other people in the room. I’ve never seen a tourism office so empty before, but I was rather pleased because the ladies could focus all their attention on me.

All I did was ask them how to get to the office to sign up for the bus tours (it turns out it was marked on a small map in the flyer the bus driver had given me—I am an idiot), but they were eager to give me far more information and suggestions about where to go. They gave me free maps of Tokyo and Japan, circled points of interest in Tokyo and showed me brochures with pictures of what I could find there. I don’t know why I’m still surprised by how friendly Japanese people are, but these women were among the friendliest, most helpful people I’ve yet come across. They even gave me free postcards and a little paper-crane as a “welcome to Japan present”.

They said they were the only Tourism Office like this in all of Japan, and I think I believe them. They gave me a flyer with their phone number and said I could call them any time if I had questions about Tokyo or anywhere else in Japan. I thanked them profusely before leaving, making sure to use the Japanese, and they told me “gambatte” which has no real English equivalent but carries the same basic meaning as “go get ‘em!”

One of the areas they suggested I go to was called Asakusa, where there was apparently a temple and a shrine located in a big shopping district, as well as boat tours along the river. I could head there, check it out, then take the boat tour down to a small island in the harbor where there would be more awesome things to see including some kind of dancing robot. Seemed like as good a plan as any, so I nixed the bus-tour idea and decided to do that instead.

I was a bit wary of having to figure out the Tokyo subway system, and it was kind of a pain. The subway map is a mess—easily the most complicated subway map I’ve ever seen—and even though I was supposed to go to Ginza station to take the Ginza line, the first “Ginza station” I came to was only for a different line. But I certainly don’t mind walking around awesome cities, and I got to go down a pretty cool street that was blocked-off from traffic and where I spotted a film-crew of white people shooting some kind of film (perhaps Lost in Translation 2).

No traffic today.

But I eventually did find the right station and the right machines to buy a ticket to where I needed to go, the simplified maps posted everywhere marking exactly how much you had to pay to get to each station a huge help, not to mention the English option on the machines. [Side-note: screw France. They give you an English option on the ticket machines in Japan, but you French assholes can’t even give your tourists that simple courtesy?]

By the time I got to Asakusa my stomach was in desperate need of something inside of it. There were restaurants all over the place, but I just wanted something quick, easy, and guaranteed not to make me sick so I went to KFC. I know, I know. But I’ll have plenty of other opportunities to sample the genuine Japanese cuisine in Tokyo, perhaps even with people who know the best places to go.

After eating I went to the river to snap a few photos and find out about these boat-tours, but it turned out there were only two of them today and they were both happening after 4:00, by which time I was planning to already be on my way home.

Across the river. Asakusa

I followed the signs to the Senso-ji temple, a very familiar name and a place it turns out I would have put near the top of my list of things to see in Tokyo if I’d remembered it was there. There was an awesome gate leading up to it, and I decided to take the obligatory photo of myself in Tokyo in front of that, going up to a pair of cute girls and asking them to do it. I asked them in Japanese but they replied in English, and afterwards they asked me in English if I could take a photo of them. They must have been tourists too.

The Gate

           A shrine.    Another victory.

Incidentally, one of the most noticeable things about Tokyo is that it is absolutely swarming with beautiful women. That seems to be pretty much true of Japan in general, and I know I’m going to have a hard time living here. It was nice and easy in Germany because while there are certainly exceptions (and long-time readers of this blog know there are exceptions) the vast majority of German girls are completely undesirable. Most guys love having lots of gorgeous women around, but only because to them they exist as possibilities while to me they’re just objects of unquenchable desire, and I hate desire. Living in Hannover I was lucky enough to rarely experience it (maybe only three or four times a day) but in Japan it’s been about fifty times a day and in Tokyo easily in the hundreds. It’s no wonder the Japanese are so into porn.

Anyway, back to the story. Between the gate and the temple was a long walkway of souvenir shops, ice-cream stands, and what-have-you. It felt like the center of the Tourism Universe.

Tourists, tourists, everywhere. Souvenirs, souvenirs, everywhere.

I’ve been behaving like a Japanese tourist ever since I got here and snapping photos of every little thing, which in certain places (the supermarket, for instance) makes me feel very awkward. But here I was surrounded on all sides by fellow tourists with their cameras also snapping photos of everything, and it made me much more comfortable.

There were plenty of white people around for sure, but most were still Asian. I’m sure plenty of Japanese people who don’t live in Tokyo come to Tokyo for sight-seeing, but I’m certain there were plenty of non-Japanese Asian tourists in the crowd as well. You could spot the non-Japanese Asians whenever they were simultaneously walking and eating food at the same time, which is rather frowned-upon here and which I’ve refrained from doing myself.

I saw a sign for “Ice-Cream Burgers” and decided to stop and try one (after my lunch I was kind of having an ice-cream craving anyway, and this sounded interesting). It turned out to just be a small wad of ice-cream between two wafers, and while it was tasty it was a bit overpriced at ¥300. I’m sure I could have done much better for myself at Baskin Robbins.

The Senso-ji Temple.

I finally reached the Senso-ji Temple, got another picture of myself in front of it, took more photos of the surrounding area, and went inside. It felt very weird in there, but comparable to a cathedral in Europe. It’s supposed to be this holy place, and you’ve even got people praying there, but they’re surrounded by assholes with cameras taking flash-photos of everything, and now I was among those assholes. I only wish I was a bit more versed in Japanese history so I could have appreciated it more. I’ve only read one book on Japanese history and the bulk of it was focused on the 20th century.

 Awesome stuff inside the gate. Another awesome Japanese structure.

Holy smoke! The devout.

Outside there were some awesome Giant Buddha Statues (daibutsu) and a little pond with awesome fish. It was a lovely little area, and would have been quite peaceful if it weren’t for the theme-park right next to it. The sound of screaming kids kind of spoils the atmosphere just a little.

               A Buddha statue?  In Japan?  Get outta here!    Map of the area.

Fish pond. Serious ninja-faced fish.

I walked along the outskirts of the park and came across a performer putting on a little show for the kids, and used my camera to take a rare video which I shall now post here in lieu of a description.

A bit further down I spotted a Dippin Dots vendor and stopped dead in my tracks. Although I’d just had some ice-cream I absolutely had to indulge in some Dippin Dots, as they’re one of my all-time favorite edible substances and I haven’t come across them since 2006. When I was young the rarity of them tricked my brain into thinking they were the best stuff on earth, to the point where I actually fantasized about becoming a Dippin Dots vendor myself so I could eat them whenever I wanted. So having found to my delight that they exist in Japan, I got myself a cup of banana split and ate it right outside the shop (wouldn’t want to do it while walking), discovering that they’re not nearly as delicious as they were in my memory.

I checked my phone to find that it was 2:30, which I thought would give me just enough time to do one more quick thing before going back to the station to take the 4:00 train back which was my plan. I could have stayed longer but I wanted to be back to have dinner at home, and the longer I spent in Tokyo the more money I’d be wasting on things like Dippin Dots.

One of my favorite things to do in big cities is to go up to observation decks on tall buildings to get an aerial view. There was a giant tower right across the river but I wasn’t sure if it was open to the public. Because I was short on time I didn’t want to go all the way there, so I called the Tourism Office at the number they’d provided me with and asked them about the tower. It was called the Tokyo Sky Tree and it was, in fact, still under construction and won’t be open to the public until next year. I thanked them for sparing me from a long disappointing walk.

Tokyo Sky Tree in the distance.

I decided to head back to the area near the main station and check out that park that had been my original first destination. I took a different route back to the station than I had coming from it, got a few more photos of shrines and Buddha statues along the way, and after a bit of wandering eventually got back to the station and managed to figure out how to buy a ticket back. It wasn’t as easy as it should have been because for some reason not every machine sells tickets for every line.

More shrines. More Buddhas.

On the map of Tokyo the Tourism Information ladies had given me, it looked like the nearest station to the park was called Shimbashi, so after a twenty-minute ride I got off there and left the station, attempting to figure out which direction the park was in. I thought I figured it out but another glance at my clock revealed that there wouldn’t actually be enough time to get to the park and back to the main station with enough time to figure out how to get to whatever platform I needed to get to, so I just wandered around this area a little and took in the scenery.

When it was 3:30 I figured I should start walking back to the station, and since there were no information boards around I went to a little food stand and asked the guy there in Japanese which direction was Tokyo Station. Luckily I know the Japanese words for “far”, “30 minutes”, and “walk”, so after he kindly came out onto the street to show me with hand motions and words like “lefto” and “straighto”, I decided I’d probably be much better off heading back to Shimbashi station and hoping I could get from there to Tokyo station in time for the train I wanted.

I bought a ticket without really knowing what I was doing, but I asked a guy who worked there which train I needed for Tokyo station and he told me Platform 5. Luckily enough, the train came just a couple of minutes later and Tokyo station was just two stops down. I entered the station and went up to the Information counter. I showed one of the women who worked there my ticket and prepared for another Japanese explanation of where to go, but she spoke English so it was an easy process. She not only told me which platform to go to and how to get there, but she looked up all of the information about connections and wrote it down for me. I’d actually be taking a slightly earlier train than the one I’d looked up, and changing over in Oami instead of Soga, Oami being just two stations away from Togane.

Although the train was packed when I got on it, I was miraculously able to get the last open seat and I stayed there for the whole 72-minute trip to Oami. There were lots and lots of people coming in and getting off at each station, but the overall trend was a gradual thinning-out of the crowd the farther away from Tokyo we got. I successfully changed trains in Oami, confirming that I was taking the right train by asking one of the guys on it, and ended up back in Togane at 5:25 and my apartment at 5:30.

So having now officially journeyed from my apartment to Tokyo and back, I can safely assume that I’ll be doing it quite often. It’s not difficult at all to get there (it’ll be even easier if I take the bus), the cost is very affordable, and the time it takes is very reasonable. It takes just a little bit more time to get from here to Tokyo than it did to get from where I lived in New Jersey to New York City, and a little bit less time than it took to get from Hannover to Berlin.

It wasn’t the world’s most exiting trip ever, but this was just a taste. Tokyo hasn’t seen the last of me.

Return to the Pacific

August 29th, 2011 No comments

My favorite ocean.

I’m posting two separate blog entries today, as while there’s not much to say about Saturday there are a bunch of pictures that need to go up, and Sunday deserves its own entry.

In Hannover it took me two years to go out and buy a bike, but in Togane it took exactly one week. On Saturday morning I ventured up the road with everything on it (which I shall hereafter refer to as The Road) to get back to the store which Trey had pointed out to me as the best place for good deals on bicycles. It was quite a trek by foot, the entire journey clocking-in at about forty-five minutes. Of course it would have taken less time had I not stopped a couple of times to take a few pictures.

At least the hills are a nice touch.

The Road ain't pretty... ...but every now and then there's some niceness just off of it.

Upon reaching the shop I had to decide whether to go with a normal bike or a fold-out, as after riding Kevin’s fold-out in Santa Barbara I’d decided I liked the lightness and maneuverability of it and would get one in Japan, but to my surprise the cheapest fold-out was actually about a thousand yen more expensive than the cheapest normal one. In the end I decided to go with the fold-out anyway, and I suppose I’m glad I did because the lightness is a huge advantage, and when I eventually get around to buying a motor-scooter (which I’ve decided to hold off on until getting my first paycheck) I can easily fold it up and pack it away in my “attic”.

I bought the bike, a lock, and a little air-pump, but because there wasn’t enough air in the tires I had to do some pumping before heading back. Confession: I’ve never actually owned an air-pump. Whenever my tires needed air in Hannover I just took the bike to the bike-shop across the street from my apartment and they did it for free. So I had no clue what I was doing as I stood there looking like a foreign idiot in front of the store, and I jumped to the conclusion that the air-pump I’d bought was just a piece of crap. I took the bike back in the store and was going to ask the guy at the counter for some help, but he had a long line of customers to deal with so I went to the bigger air-pump they had on the floor and tried to get that to work. I managed to fill the tire with air but as soon as I removed the nozzle it all came gushing out and I had to repeat the whole process. But once the clerk was finished with his customers he came over and did it for me without my even asking. This was a circumstance in which I really appreciated the whole honne and tatamae thing, as while I’m sure he and the others in the store were all laughing at me on the inside, they didn’t let it show at all on the outside.

The trip along The Road back to my apartment took only about 15 minutes, thus confirming what a valuable purchase I’d just made.

After eating lunch and doing some Japanese-studying I got back on the bike and headed, finally, out to Chiba beach. The trip there was a bit longer than I’d have liked—about 35 minutes—but it was a more-or-less pleasant journey along a not-so-busy road. Of course I would have felt more comfortable had there been a German-style bike-path all along the way, but there was not. In fact for most of the way there was barely even a shoulder on the road, but I just kept as far to the left in the left lane as possible and I wasn’t even grazed by any drivers the whole way down.

I locked up my bike when I got to the beach parking-lot, then walked up a tiny hill to get to the shore. The Pacific Ocean then revealed itself to me in all its glorious glory, and I got that Enigmal feeling once again. It was only three short weeks ago that I’d been at the beach in Santa Barbara contemplating what it would be like to be on the other side, and here I was.

To the northeast.

 To the south. To the northwest.

The waves were pretty high (certainly higher than they are in SB) but there were no surfers—just a few people either body-boarding or attempting to surf but failing. I did hear from Mr. I- on the day he took me out to lunch that there was another beach a few kilometers south of where I was that was extremely popular for surfing, so maybe that’s where they all were. But this particular stretch of beach was surprisingly un-crowded for a Saturday afternoon, perhaps due to the weather. I didn’t mind the clouds at all. I was just glad for some relief from the brutal heat and humidity of the last week and sitting on the breezy beach without having the sun beating down on me was fantastically pleasant.

V is for Victory

After soaking up the atmosphere for what I felt was an appropriate amount of time (I would have gone swimming but I realized that morning I’d forgotten to pack a bathing suit) I asked the nearest woman to take a picture of me, she very kindly obliged, and then I left.

On the way back I stopped a few times to take some more pictures of the scenery or some cool houses and shrines there were along the way. Togane itself is rather ugly but there’s some serious awesomeness just outside of town.

How'd you like to live there? Kawa desu.

Not sure, but I believe this is a Japanese cemetery.

But my favorite picture of the day was something I felt encapsulated the essence of modern Japan: a lone vending machine sitting right in front of a beautiful shrine.

Says it all.

Once I got back to my place and locked up the bike, I went for a jog and then settled in for the night. It had been a very successful day, but the next day would be far more interesting.

Categories: Personal Tags: , , ,

First Impressions

August 26th, 2011 No comments

The edge of Togane.

I’ve been in Togane for almost a week now, but I feel like the settling-in process has barely begun. There are so many things on my list of things-to-do that I haven’t gotten around to yet, although I hope to be able to correct them this weekend. They include buying a bike and going to the beach (it’s just a tad too far to walk), checking out Togane Lake, and undergoing the one-hour train or bus ride into Tokyo to have a look around. I haven’t bought a bike yet because I know a motor-scooter would actually be better, but obtaining one is a somewhat complicated process involving getting a special license, and so far I haven’t been able to talk to anyone who knows how to do that. I’m getting a little impatient though, so today I’ll go out and get myself a cheap bike for the interim.

On Tuesday, after writing my last blog post, I heard back from one of the other ALTs who lives in Togane that I’d asked to show me around. There are four other ALTs here, all from Interac’s main competitor, the JET Program. I’m the first Interac ALT to live here, but I will almost certainly not be the last, for reasons I’ll get to shortly. I actually found one of the other JET ALTs online before I got here, as while doing research on Togane and I came across this blog and got in touch with Ben, the guy who writes it. He agreed to show me around, but as fate would have it he just happened to be going to Hokkaido for ten days on the exact day I arrived. But he put me in touch with another ALT named Trey, and I was able to meet up with Trey on Tuesday.

He had to do some grocery shopping first, so I actually wound up going back to the Aeon shopping center that very day. Trey was the first fellow gaijin I’ve seen since I’ve been here, and my first impression of him was that he’s a very cool dude. He showed me around the grocery store and helped me find a few items I either couldn’t find or had forgotten that morning, and told me a bit about working as an ALT in a junior high school.

While we were at the meat section he asked me if I knew the Japanese names for the meats, and an old Japanese lady overheard us and started talking to us in Japanese. I hardly understood a word she said, but having been here for a year Trey was able to pick up on most of it, and told me afterwards that she’d been impressed to hear gaijin using Japanese, that she was glad the young students in Togane would have the chance to be taught English by us, and that she wished she was still a student so she could be taught by us as well. A very nice lady, obviously, but a bit on the strange side, especially considering the fact that she came up to us two other times during the course of our shopping to exchange words with Trey.

One of the interesting social-dynamics here is that black or white, all foreigners are gaijin to the Japanese. Trey is black and I’m as white as they come, but in the eyes of the Japanese we’re exactly the same.

After shopping Trey took me in his car to show me what Togane has to offer, but first we had to drop off our groceries in our respective apartments. I got to see his place, the size of which I must confess made me a little ‘jelly’ (to use one of my new favorite slang-terms). Apparently a couple of girls who used to work for JET here had their apartment broken into, so they were all given new and much nicer apartments in compensation. Trey speculates that they might have planned the whole thing—he’s not sure they were clever enough to come up with such a plan, but if they were he’d be grateful because he gets to live in a really big place. But when I showed him my much smaller place, he said it was pretty damn nice and better than the places the JET ALTs used to live before they were moved.

It was interesting to discover the differences between the way JET handles their ALTs and how Interac handles theirs. Interac has a far more hands-on approach, as everything we do has to be done through them. Conversely, JET allows the individual boards of education to oversee most aspects of their ALTs’ lives, including helping them move in, get registered, and all that stuff that the independent contractors have been doing for me. Their ALTs also plan the lessons together with the teachers they work with, and get permission for things like sick-days through their individual schools as well, while we have to contact Interac for just about everything. But because of its different approach, Interac is able to offer ALTs at a much better price than JET, so Trey suspects JET is on the decline and once the four of them leave Togane they’ll probably all be replaced by Interac. Of course this is all just speculation.

Trey drove me around Togane, mostly up and down the big main road I live on, which is where just about everything is anyway. Anything you might want to buy, any place you might want to go eat or drink, and just about anything you could imagine is all on this one road, with the notable exception of the train station. He took me to the station as well and told me about getting to Tokyo—I’d have to change trains three times or pay a little more for the bus, which goes directly there. While driving past the station we spotted two other black guys, and Trey got so excited he honked his horn and waved at them. They were apparently just as surprised to see another black guy around as well, and they laughed and waved back. That boosts my Togane gaijin-count to three, although it’s likely those guys were just passing through.

I haven’t seen Trey since then, but I hope we get to hang out more because he’s a very cool guy. Plus, it wasn’t long into our conversations that we discovered that we’re both very political people, and are both on a similar page in terms of our political opinions. We’re both much closer to the liberal side of the spectrum and we both wish Obama would grow some balls and fight back against the Republicans, but Trey is much more tolerant of Obama’s shortcomings than I am. He still loves Obama in spite of all the disappointments, whereas I’m fed up and at the point where I pretty much hate him now.

So that was Tuesday. On Wednesday I didn’t do much. In the morning I headed back to the electronics store and picked up a couple more items including a rice-cooker, and after spending most of the afternoon studying Japanese I went out around 5:30 to go jogging here for the first time. I’d asked Trey where a good place to jog was, and he said while the best place is Togane Lake it’s a bit of a trek to get there. He recommended turning off the main road and going about one block in the direction of the ocean, as that’s where the concrete jungle of Togane ends and the farmland begins. In my last entry I gave off a somewhat false impression of Togane by only including pictures of the inner-city parts, but after jogging through the rice fields I’m happy to say that there is beauty to be found here, and it’s just a five-minute jog away. I snapped a few photos of it that morning but they don’t really capture it either, so after getting my bike today I’ll probably go out in the evening and get a few more.

Rice! More rice!

Wednesday afternoon I was informed that my first visit to the school I’ll be working at was scheduled for the next morning. One of the women who works at the Chiba branch, Kono, asked me to memorize a greeting she’d written out for me in Japanese in order to make a good first impression. It was only four lines, and luckily I only needed to look up two of the words to learn their meeting, but it’s still pretty damn difficult to memorize a speech in a language you’re not at all proficient in. I won’t bother writing the Japanese, but it basically went like this: “People of the ____ Junior High School, hello. My name is Kyle. It’s nice to meet you. I want us all to have fun studying together, and I’ll also persevere in learning Japanese.” Determined to make a good first impression with the people I’ll be working with for the upcoming months or years, I went through it several hundred times before going to bed, and about a hundred more times in the morning. I even dreamed about practicing the speech.

I arrived at the gates to the school ten minutes early, and five minutes later a car rolled up carrying Kono and two other people who work for the Chiba branch of Interac, including the head of the office and one of the guys I’d met in Narita last week, Mr. Nozaki. They greeted me and we all went into the school, took off our shoes and replaced them with the slippers they had for guests (I impressed them by having my own shoes for the school that I’d bought the previous morning) and went upstairs to one of the teachers’ meeting rooms. Not counting the Interac people, there were seven others there—four of the five regular English teachers, and three from the board of education. I greeted them each individually and then before we sat down Kono prompted me to give them the speech I’d practiced. I started off well, but as always happens when you rehearse too much I got tripped up half-way through and took a couple of seconds to remember what came next. I was a little embarrassed but I don’t think I came across too poorly.

The meeting lasted for nearly two hours, and it was conducted entirely in Japanese. Mr. Nozaki sat next to me and every now and then turned to tell me the gist of what was being said, but happily enough I was actually able to pick up on the gist myself. The power-point slides were a useful prompt, but I also apparently know enough Japanese vocabulary to get the topic—if not the substance—of everything being discussed. The meeting had to take so long because I’m the first Interac ALT this board of education will be working with, and they were all a bit confused about the differences between how they worked with JET and how they’re supposed to be working with me.

When the meeting was finished, two of the teachers showed me to the teacher’s room where my desk would be, and came downstairs with us to show me where I’d be entering the school and leaving my shoes when I come into work. I won’t be back until the 1st of September, and I won’t actually be teaching that day. Instead I’ve got to do something far more nerve-wracking. The entire school assembles on that morning of the first day, and I’ll be called up to give a speech introducing myself to everyone at the same time. I asked Kono about it afterwards and she said I should do it in both English and Japanese, so I’ve got a lot more stressfulness to look forward to!

It was about lunch-time by the time I was let go, and rather than go back and cook for myself I decided to keep my nice clothes on and head over to the sushi restaurant about a block away from my apartment that Trey had pointed out to me on Tuesday. It was one of those places where they’ve got all kinds of different plates of sushi and other various things on a conveyor belt running around the central area where the chefs are preparing the sushi, and there’s also a fish-tank where you get to see the unlucky creatures waiting to be slaughtered. Upon walking in I was immediately shown to a seat and left to my own devices to figure out what to do. I grabbed the first plate of California-rolls that came by, wanting to start with something a bit more familiar. Soy sauce was readily available but wasabi was nowhere to be found. To me, wasabi is half the reason I like sushi in the first place, so I turned to the girl sitting next to me and pointed at the container in front of her that I thought might be it and asked her in Japanese if it was wasabi. She turned to her mother beside her and her mother instructed her to answer me, but she didn’t know the answer and her mother called to one of the chefs and told him that I needed wasabi. The chef took a big wad of wasabi in his hands and put it right on my plate, and then I went to sushi-town. The mother interrupted me a couple of minutes later and said something incomprehensible to me, and after I explained that I don’t understand Japanese she got up and brought me a glass of water, which is apparently what she’d been offering. How nice of her. I thanked her in Japanese and proceeded to drink. After finishing the California rolls I took a plate of sashimi, and after finishing that I had to figure out how to pay. I just stood up from my chair and looked confused until the hostess came and handed me a receipt for what I’d eaten, which I took to the counter and paid for.

I spent the rest of the day studying Japanese, going jogging, and then indulging in some fine Japanese whiskey before going to sleep. Once I get this blog entry posted I’ll head off to buy a bike, and probably spend the afternoon just as I did yesterday. One day this weekend I’ll head to the beach, and the other day I’ll head to Tokyo, but I haven’t decided which day I want to do which. I don’t have to decide until tomorrow.

It’s still going to take me awhile to settle in here, but so far I’ve been enjoying it thoroughly. It may not be perfect, but my first impressions of Japan, Togane, and the school I’ll be working in have all been very good. I just hope my students’ first impressions of me will also be positive.

Life in My Japanese Town

August 23rd, 2011 No comments

And now we finally get to the kind of blog post I know a lot of my friends have been waiting for. Enough with the introspective blather about the events of the week, and onto the fun little details and trivialities of life in Japan! Plus—pictures! And lots of them.

View to the north from outside my apartment.

 Direct view from my front door. Out back, an elementary school sports field.

I would be slightly remiss, however, if I didn’t mention that yesterday Mr. I- picked me up for the purpose of helping me apply for my alien registration card, national health insurance, and bank account with the post-office. But before he did that, he took me on a 25-minute drive through Chiba to the town where he lives in order to treat me to lunch at the restaurant where his wife works. Along the way I got a glimpse of the beach for the first time, and although I didn’t really get a close look at least now I’ve got a better impression of how far away it is. His wife was extremely nice, spoke a handful of English words, and was impressed by the handful of Japanese words I was able to use. The cook was incredibly friendly as well, and he cooked me up a sauté chicken and rice which was easily the tastiest meal I’ve eaten in Japan so far. It was a lot of food, but I finished everything on my plate right down to the last grain of rice (my chopsticks-skills, I’m happy to say, have been improving exponentially).

The Togane town office was where we took care of the alien registration card and national health insurance. Mr. I- was there to translate for me, but they had some English forms anyway, as well as instructions in English about how to separate the trash (they’re very meticulous about what kinds of garbage are supposed to go in what bags). We didn’t have to wait on any line at all when we got there, and the whole process was over in twenty minutes. I marveled at how much easier this was than getting my work permit from the Ordnungsamt in Germany. Back then I sometimes had to go back two or three times because I’d forgotten one tiny little insignificant piece of paper, but here all I needed was my passport and some fresh new photos which could be taken at a photo booth across the street. The only difficult part was writing my name in katakana (カイル エドワルド ミ__) but luckily I’ve practiced enough that I was able to do it without any help. The bank was just as easy.

South along my street (note the colonel)

Fast-forward to today, the very first day since I’ve been to Japan during which I have absolutely nothing scheduled. I’ve got the entire day to myself, and lucky for me the sun has finally decided to shine here, at least a little bit. I’m not sure how long that’s going to last, but it was enough to allow me to take some good pictures of my immediate surroundings. Hopefully later one of the other ALTs here—a guy from the JET program that I found online—will be able to meet up with me and show me around.

Nice-looking Japanese house. Cool shrubs. You'd be surprised how many women dress like this. Concrete jungle.

Shopping super-center!

After living off of instant food from convenience stores for several days, I was more than ready to finally go shopping at an actual supermarket, and conveniently enough there’s one just a ten-minute walk from my apartment (everything I need seems to be within a ten-minute walking distance). It’s actually a giant shopping center called Aeon which can be found all over the country, but the downstairs is all groceries. And man do they have groceries. Americans might not find anything special about it, but after getting used to the tiny little markets in Germany over the last three years, this was like Gulliver arriving in Brobdingnag after leaving Lilliput. I felt incredibly awkward taking photos in a supermarket, but I just had to give everyone an idea of the size of this place.

Consumer's paradise.

They've even got shoes! Too much selection.

Shopping for groceries in a store where English labels are virtually non-existent is a bit of a challenge [Challenge!] but luckily most things are written in katakana, which for those of you who don’t know is just Japanized foreign words, most of which are English. For example, orange juice is オレンジジュース, which broken down by individual characters is オoレreンnジjiジューjuuスsu, orenji juusu. It also helps to know a few Japanese words like ごはん(gohan [rice]) and しょうゆ (shouyu [soy]). I spent a good thirty minutes wandering around, picking up items and putting a few back, and I left with enough food and beverages to last me a couple of days. I’m sure I’ll get better at it every time I go back.

Got gyuunyuu? This is ALL soy sauce.

They've got Doritos!  Suck on that, Deustchland! The most important aisle.

I snapped some more photos on the way back, taking a different and actually more direct route than the way I went there. On the way I passed two adorable little girls holding hands and walking down the sidewalk together, and they were the first people to stare at me all day. I still haven’t seen another Westerner in this town, but nobody in the supermarket looked at me for more than a split-second. I could almost believe they didn’t notice me. But when I passed the girls I made sure to smile at them, and they smiled back.

 Serious greenery across from the store. Post-office / Bank

Yes, that is a Denny's.

Finally, I took some pictures of my apartment, which I know my mother will appreciate. (I figured it was good to get that done now when it’s still relatively un-cluttered). Americans might think of it as pretty small, but I think it’s actually slightly bigger than my apartment was in Hannover (it also has lots of closet space as opposed to my previous place which had none, and this shower-head is massively superior to my last one). I’m used to somewhat cramped quarters, but that’s fine for me because I don’t need so much space. Just give me a living room, bathroom, and a kitchen and I’ll be fine. There’s actually even more space than I need here, as there’s a little crawl-space area above the kitchen ceiling where you’re supposed to lay a mattress and sleep, but I’d rather just sleep on my little couch-bed in the living room, as I’d rather not have to climb a ladder every time I need to get up to use the toilet at night. I’m also certain that if I slept up there I’d be banging my head against the ceiling every single night. That space is just going to serve as my attic.

           Little boxes...         Come inside, but REMOVE THY SHOES!!!

           Keep food cold, heat food up.         Kitchen in front, bathroom in back.

You’ll notice that the room with the toilet is separate from the shower room, and that the shower is separate from the tub. This is because bathtubs are kind of sacred in Japan and are supposed to be a clean place. The idea of bathing in the same room where you poop is obscene to them, as is getting into a bathtub while you’re still dirty. You’re supposed to clean yourself off with the shower-head, then get in the tub for a soak. I don’t think I’ve taken a bath since I was about six-years-old, but I suppose I’ll at least try it here at least once.

  Lonely toilet :(  The bathing chamber.  Someone tell me how this works.

There’s one machine that does both the washing and the drying but the instructions are all in Japanese and I’m going to wait until Ms. Y- comes over next Monday and ask her to walk me through it. I won’t need to do laundry for awhile anyway.

Living quarters.

The "attic" Work-space

In the living room, you might notice that the windows are not clear glass, so the only way to see outside is to slide them open. But trust me—I’m not missing any spectacular views.  My apartment came equipped with the TV, but I haven’t really watched it much since I’ve been here. I’ll put it on while I’m eating, but it’s all pretty incomprehensible to me. I was lucky enough to be watching during the weather report yesterday, so I knew to expect a bit more sun today. The Nintendo is mine, but I haven’t had time to play it yet either.

That’s pretty much everything about my apartment. I’ll finish with a few random thoughts and observations about Japan so far.

Everyone is very quiet. I haven’t heard a peep out of any of my neighbors since I’ve been here, but I suspect the apartment right next to mine is empty. I’m not sure if they can hear me at night, as when I’m alone and listening to music I can’t resist the temptation to sing along. I’ve been making an extra-special effort to keep my voice down though.

Even the cars are quiet. I can count the number of times I’ve heard the sound of a horn honking on one hand, and I’d still be able to do it even if someone chopped off all but one of my fingers.

Just like in Germany, there are many American chain-restaurants and shops around, but not necessarily the ones you’d expect. 7-11s are pervasive, and as you know I’ve got a KFC right on my block, but oddly enough I haven’t seen too many McDonaldses. There was one in Narita but I haven’t seen any in Togane (for comparison’s sake, Hannover had four in the city-center alone).

After spoiling myself on German beer for three years, the Japanese beer tastes woefully unimpressive to me, though it’s still better than the standard American brands like Budweiser. The whiskey, however, is amazing. Though I’ve only tried one type—Suntory—it’s the best I’ve ever tasted, and I suspect the others are similarly awesome.

Unlike in Germany, store employees here are ready and willing to help you as soon as you ask. They know where everything is and will take you right to it. If you have any questions about something, they’ll be happy to answer them or, if they don’t know the answer, they’ll find someone who does. It’s refreshing to be back in a country that places such high value on customer service.

English, however, is not spoken. I can usually make myself understood by using very simple language and hand-gestures, but they’ll go on speaking Japanese to me even after it’s clear I’m not comprehending. They don’t slow down at all either, although they definitely speak very fast normally and for all I know they are slowing it down for me.

As you would expect, the Japanese are not shy about porn. If you scan the magazine covers at the convenience stores, you’ll notice that most of them are porn, anime, or anime-porn. I have yet to venture into a video store, but from what I hear it’s pretty much the same story.

That’s all I can think of for now, but I’ll be sure to keep on blogging about every little detail about my life here until my “honeymoon period” is over and these things cease to be new and remarkable. I’d say “sayonara” but I actually haven’t heard anyone say that yet.

Categories: Personal Tags: , , ,

Orientation to the Orient – Part 2

August 22nd, 2011 No comments

I may have finally made it to the land of the rising sun, but I’ve barely seen the sun at all since I’ve been here. It’s Day 3 of my life in Togane and the sun has yet to shine, and I spent nearly every daylight hour of last week in the hotel. It rained all morning yesterday, so in spite of my umbrella I got a little wet on my morning errand of obtaining cash from the post-office ATM and setting out in search of another konbini to get some more food and breakfast. The post office itself was closed, and the door to the section with the ATM wasn’t opening, but I saw a woman go in through a door to a different section and ring the bell at a window, where another woman promptly came to the counter and accepted her mail for delivery. I then went up to the woman at the counter, told her in Japanese that I didn’t understand Japanese (nihongo wa wakarimasen) and asked her if she understood English (eigo ga wakarimasu ka?), to which she replied in Japanese that she did. I asked her in a mixture of English and Japanese about the ATM, and when it was clear that I didn’t understand what she was telling me, she actually crawled out through the little window, took me outside, and pointed to the door where it said the doors would automatically come unlocked at 9:00, which was 20 minutes from then. I thanked her very much (arigato gozaimasu) and returned a half-hour later to successfully get some money.

I walked in the other direction from the konbini I’d gone to the previous night and didn’t find anything for a good 20 minutes until I finally got to a 7-11. I stocked up on Cup o’ Noodles and some plastic-sealed breakfast breads, and couldn’t resist buying a little bottle of Japanese whiskey they were selling called Suntory. I discovered later that the ramen had beef in it, and given my experiences with Japanese food thus far I think I’m just going to have to give up and accept that beef and pork are going to have to become a part of my diet again whether I like it or not. Hopefully my system will get re-accustomed to them without too much gastro-intestinal unpleasantness. On the plus side, that whiskey is easily the best-tasting whiskey I’ve ever tried.

Yesterday afternoon I had the pleasure of meeting another Independent Contractor, a woman this time whom I’ll refer to as Ms. Y-, who took me shopping for many of the items I’d forgotten to buy yesterday, though I’ve yet to go food-shopping at an actual supermarket (suupaamaketto…gotta love it!). But at least now I know where the nearest two grocery-stores to me are. I also discovered as she was driving that there’s a 7-11 on the other side of my block. Go figure.

That wraps it up for the recent past, so now let’s go back to the distant past (one week ago) to finish up the story of orientation week.

Day 2 – Wednesday, August 17

Before getting to the actual events, I need to mention one of the coolest things about being at the hotel. There were lots of Japanese people there—naturally—but also some large groups of schoolchildren about the same age as the students I’ll be teaching. We were told to greet them in English whenever we passed by, so every time I walked by a group of students I’d wave and say “hello?” or “how are you?” and they’d usually smile, wave, giggle, and occasionally even return the English greeting or ask me how I was. That always felt pretty awesome, and it got me that much more psyched about getting to teach Japanese students on a regular basis.

The big event for the second day were our health checks, which meant half of us at a time wouldn’t be training but instead down in the big conference room to get a physical from something like an assembly-line of Japanese doctors. Every Japanese company with more than 15 employees is required to have them all undergo health exams, so Interac takes care of that by setting aside some time during orientation. They tested our eyesight, hearing and reflexes, hooked us up to strange machines, drew some blood samples, and at the end we had to go outside to a very bizarre little van where we had to hug a radioactive box in order to get our chests X-rayed. We’d also had to urinate in a test-tube that morning and bring it with us, an experience I’d rather like to forget.

The other sessions that day were pretty enjoyable. They broke us into smaller groups and used the smaller meeting rooms upstairs to teach us skills specific to the level of the students we’d actually be teaching. I got to learn how to do an introductory lesson for Junior High School with Mike, who used a worksheet to introduce himself and a few things about his country. He was kind enough to have copies of the same worksheet that the rest of us can actually use on our first day, first lesson [weird side-note: I actually dreamed I was using that sheet in a lesson last night].

One of the highlights of that day was a review of MEXT policy with one of the trainers there named Cliff, a shaved-headed middle-aged guy with a great sense of humor, who made what would have otherwise been a boring session fun by asking us to read each of the review questions in the Power-Point slideshow in a funny voice.

The optional sessions that evening were complete 50-minute demo lessons by our trainers, so I got to see Mike run through an entire lesson with the rest of the JHS teachers pretending to be JHS students, and that was one of the most valuable sessions of the entire training. That was the moment it finally crystallized in my mind exactly what a Japanese JHS English lesson was supposed to be like, and I only wish I’d been able to see some of the other trainers do the same kind of demo so we could get to draw on the knowledge and skills of more than one person. Mike’s was fantastic though, and I’m extremely glad I opted in to that one.

I went out that night with Sam and a few other people to Narita town for dinner. We had some decent-but-not-spectacular ramen at a ramen-only restaurant near the train station where the hotel shuttle bus drops us off, and afterwards Sam and I walked around a bit, missed the next bus back, then headed to the British pub down the road where a few other ALTs were drinking. After one beer there we all headed back together, and after doing the homework reading for the night I passed out relatively early and slept straight through the night for the first time in Japan thanks to Excedrin PM.

Day 3 – Thursday, August 18

The third day began back in the main conference room downstairs, where we were treated to a very fascinating picture-laden Power-Point presentation about what it was like to actually teach in a Japanese school. The presentation was a tag-team between Mike and a woman who was 50% Japanese, 50% Indian (and 100% gorgeous, if I can get away with such a comment), which gave us a great mixture of experiences in the Japanese schools from the perspective of both a teacher and a student. Among the many useful and interesting things I learned were that Japanese schools typically have about one computer for every six teachers and that while you have to wear business-shoes on your way in, you’re supposed to take them off and wear tennis shoes while teaching (so that should clear up one of my Mom’s big questions). I also learned the proper way to greet a co-worker in Japanese—yoroshiku onagai shimasu—which stuck in my head thanks to a mnemonic Mike gave us which I believe I’ll refrain from repeating here.

When Cedric took over, he greeted us in a foreign language no one understood to drive home the point that Japanese students are not ALTs and unlike us when we practice in front of each other, they’re not going to understand everything we say. He asked someone to come up and show us how he would teach the days of the week to Japanese students, and when he wasn’t satisfied with that he asked me to come up and teach the days of the week using only German. So I had to get the whole room repeating “montag” “dienstag” “mittwoch” and so on, but I’d stupidly neglected to do anything beforehand which would have let the students know that these words were the days of the week. For all the Japanese students would know, they might have been the months of the year, types of furniture, or various hair-care products.

The rest of the day was a lot more intensive, as we again split into groups and I had three sessions with Cedric and the other teachers who were doing only JHS or HS teaching. We learned all about warm-ups, presentation, production, and all kinds of nuts & bolts of teaching an English lesson which we’d be putting to use the following day when we’d have to teach our own entire start-to-finish demo-lesson.

Because everything was going on separately, the marvelous organization of the last few days of orientation started to break down near the end of the day, and when we were finally told to split into groups to receive our demo-lesson packets with the materials we’d be teaching, one of the items on the agenda had been brushed to the side. There was a representative from a telecommunications company called McCall there to offer us cell-phones and plans at a discounted rate for Interac, and we were only told to return to the main room and talk to him if we were interested. I’d been waiting to get an I-phone for almost a year now, so I went down to hear his pitch, but he spent most of the time complaining that he hadn’t been given an opportunity to make his pitch in front of everyone. I felt kind of bad for the guy but he clearly needed work on his salesmanship skills, and someone should have told him that I-phones are kind of popular nowadays because he only brought ten of them, and they disappeared very quickly while nobody opted for the boring normal phones, of which he’d brought a ton.

This chaotic little slice of time really raised our collective stress-level, and the prospect of doing our demo-lessons in the morning increased that stress tenfold. Of course we all knew that even if we completely bombed the demo-lesson we’d still get to keep our jobs so there was no real pressure on us, but we all wanted very badly to do a good job both for the sake of impressing our evaluators and simply feeling like we could, in fact, teach an English lesson.

Some of us decided to take a little break from the stressing for awhile and just go have dinner together, so I and a group of six people went down to eat at the Chinese restaurant in the hotel. At that point all of us had already been through a lot together, so we were all getting along really well and had a great time hanging out and eating dinner, comparing our impressions of the week. It was a less-intense version of the kind of bonding that goes on at boot-camp, as we’d all made the same decision in life for various reasons, and we were all now going through this stressful ordeal before beginning a new life which none of us knew exactly what to expect from. I definitely felt like I was becoming pretty close to these people, though time will tell how much of that connection will remain after so much time apart.

After dinner I went back to my room, and with Sam gone I was able to practice my demo-lesson in front of the mirror a couple of times and do some tweaking to what I’d planned. Shortly thereafter, Sam came back to the room to ask me if I wanted to go to one of the upstairs conference rooms where a few of us (about eight altogether) were practicing our demo-lessons for each other, so I went up there and got to see what some of the elementary-school teachers were doing, which meant I got to pretend to be an elementary-school student which is always fun.

This actually turned out to be one of the most fun experiences of the entire week. We were all in the same state of mind that comes with a combination of extreme stress and extreme exhaustion, and while we did our best to give the people a realistic audience for them to practice with, we couldn’t resist throwing in some jokes of our own, so a lot of the practicing was interrupted by fits of hysterical laughter, particularly at some of the voices one of our fellow ALTs was very skilled at making.

I was the second-to-last person to run through my lesson, and in hindsight I wish it hadn’t gone as went as well as it did. I used to do theater in high school, and one of the things they tell you is that you should never have a perfect dress-rehearsal, because if you do it usually means you’re going to screw up on opening night. I’ll let that bit of foreshadowing loom for the moment…

When Sam was in the middle of his lesson (this was sometime around 12:45 a.m.) Mike and Cedric popped into the room and marveled at the six of us who were still up there practicing. Mike even took a few snapshots and used one in his opening presentation the next morning.

That's us in the slideshow.

After Cedric left, a few of us were left there alone with Mike, and the topic of the 3/11 earthquake somehow came up. He said he almost left the company but decided to come back, and one of the teachers there, Danielle, asked him why. I’ll leave out the details because it’s his story and not mine (his blog is, but suffice it to say we were all enraptured by his account of his experiences during, immediately after, and the months following the quake.

In one of life’s most bizarre coincidences, just as Mike was describing his earthquake story the ground began to rumble below us and the decorations on the ceiling above us wiggled back and forth. Everyone became silent and we all waited to see how long it was going to go on, but it was only a mild one and ended pretty quickly. Still, I was taken aback at the measure of the coincidence that I experienced my first earthquake in Japan at the very moment someone was telling us his story about the 3/11 quake.

After that, none of us were in the frame of mind to continue practicing, so we all went to bed, hoping that five or six hours would be enough sleep before the big day ahead of us. It was going to be a very big day indeed.

Day 4 – Friday, August 19

Friday was one of the longest, most intense “roller-coaster-of-emotions” kind of days of my entire life. It began with greetings in the main hall, followed by just under an hour of extra time for us to make final preparations for our demo lessons. I went up to the room to practice in front of the mirror rather than remain in the conference room where everyone else in my group was, which almost turned into a disaster for me because I wasn’t there when Cedric handed out time-slots and I was told I had to go last. My stomach was already in knots over this thing and I just wanted to get it done as soon as possible, but luckily another ALT was kind enough to switch with me and give me his Number 5 slot.

There were about 13 or 14 of us in the pure JHS/HS group, which made ours the biggest and therefore the group that would take the longest. We also were the lucky ones who had Cedric as our evaluator, which made the pressure even greater because we all wanted to meet his high standards.

We were supposed to prepare an entire 50-minute lesson—the actual length of time for a JHS or HS English lesson—using a page out of the actual textbooks we’d be using in whichever branch we were going to. In reality, the demos lasted between 10 and 25 minutes each, and while Cedric had said he’d stop us if he’d seen enough, this never happened.

We only got through three lessons before lunch, and I was worried about eating because my stomach was in such a bad state. I think the food actually helped a bit though, and by the time the next person did their demo and it was my turn to go, I felt ready.

[Note: If you want to skip the boring details of my demo-lesson, feel free to scroll down a few paragraphs. I think it’s useful for me to write about it so I can better remember my mistakes.]

Good afternoon, class!I asked for a volunteer to take pictures of me while I ran through my demo, and I’m glad I did because they really give you an idea of what that was like. I was supposed to teach the “going to” grammar structure and a few vocabulary words from the dialog on the page of the textbook I’ll actually be working with in Chiba. I greeted the class with a “good afternoon, how are you?” and when they asked me how I was I said I was tired and I was going to sit down. I sat in a chair among the students and after a couple of seconds said, “oh yeah, I have to teach. I’m going to stand up, after we all count down from three. Three, two, one…” and I stood up, went to the front of the class, said it wasn’t fair that I was the only one standing, and that we were all going to stand up after three. I then ran through a few quick actions we were all going to do, including jumping up and down, shouting “yes yes yes!” and playing janken (known in America as Rock,Sensei is tired. Paper, Scissors). Incidentally, janken is apparently an extremely popular game in Japanese schools and because Cedric used it during most of his demonstrations, just about every single one of us had the class playing it at one point or another during our demos. I probably played more Rock, Paper, Scissors in the past week than in the rest of my life combined.

When that was finished I said we’re going to open our textbooks, and I handed out the sheets from the textbook and read the dialog in front of the class one time, realizing as I was reading that I’d completely forgotten one of the steps. I was supposed to introduce and drill the new vocabulary words first, so without admitting my mistake (another thing you’re not supposed to do as an ALT) I circled back around and did that. I wrote the four words on the board with numbers beside them: 1- favorite, 2- stadium, 3- shall, and 4- together, but not until I’d put them in context for "Level up!" the students. I asked a few people their favorite sport, looked for the answer of baseball  (that’s what the text was about), said I liked to watch baseball in a stadium and asked, “shall I buy a ticket?” I asked if the class would like to come with me: “Shall we go together?” I also had hand-motions for each of the words. I drilled the words as we’d been taught to do, first by saying the words and having the class say the number (in mixed order with some words repeated) and then saying the number and having the class say the word (often saying a few different numbers in a row). This was to get the class used to forming the words. I forgot the techniques of having them say the words in rhythm, and erasing some of the words and saying the number to see if the students remembered them.

I then had the class read the text with me, then read it to themselves as I walked around the   room to listen "Good reading!"and give gentle encouragement, and finally had two volunteers come up and read the dialog for everyone. All of this was how Cedric taught us to teach texts, and every teacher did the same thing. Unfortunately, I missed the step where you’re supposed to break the text into chunks and have them repeat after you.

Then I was supposed to pretend to step aside and let the students’ normal teacher take over the lesson for awhile (this may or may not happen in real-life) and finally come back to do a worksheet involving the game maru-batsu. We played a version of it during the “Life in Japan” session the previous morning, so I thought I knew how to play. There was a 3×3 grid of pictures of different activities and for each of them I asked the students “Are you going to [blank] this week?” and had them make a circle (maru) with their arms if they were and an X (batsu) if they weren’t, after which I had some back-and-forth with the students to follow-up on their activities. For example if they made a circle for “play video games” I’d ask them what their favorite video game was.

Two volunteers, please. I didn’t know it at the time, but it turns out I screwed that up. After a few other teachers made the same mistake I did, Cedric got up to explain that maru-batsu is actually tic-tac-toe, and that they were supposed to get into pairs and circle or X the activities they were going to do while practicing saying the target phrase. I also screwed up by not having the students use “going to” very much, but merely saying it over and over again myself.

I then had them finish the worksheet by writing sentences about what they were going to do, and using those in a dialog which they would be practicing among themselves. I brought the lesson to a close by telling the class that I was going to say goodbye in German, and left them with a wave and a Tschüss. After doing the German days-of-the-week the previous morning, one of the trainers came up to me and said I should throw some German into my English lessons because the students would love it, so my plan for the demo lesson was to have, “I’m going to greet you in German” be part of the warm-up, but of course I spaced on that. At least I’ll get to use it in real life.

After each demo, three of our fellow ALTs had to critique us based on three different criteria-sheets they were given. My feedback was mostly positive, so I felt pretty good once it was over. But when Cedric later demonstrated how maru-batsu is supposed to be played and some of the other ALTs did the vocab-drilling and dialog practice without making the mistakes I made, I gradually began to feel worse about my performance.

During one of our short breaks, Cedric came up to me and asked me how I felt about my lesson. I said I messed up a lot and it could have been a lot better, and he didn’t disagree. He assured me that it was good and he was going to give me high marks, but that he expected it to be better. He said I was good, but good wasn’t good enough and I needed to become great.

The afternoon continued, we sat through demo-lesson after demo-lesson, many of which were actually genuinely fun, some of which were kind of painful because we could tell the ALT was having such a hard time, and some of which were great. The best demo-lesson was the very last one, given by a Scottish guy named Barry who’d been working as an ALT for awhile already so he was already familiar with the techniques, and he was the one chosen to give the demo-lesson in front of everyone the following morning. But my favorite demo-lesson came second-to-last, given by the guy who switched places with me. I normally leave out last names, but this anecdote is just too priceless: his last name is Sweat, and he drilled the words a bit differently than the rest of us, by having us chant them like we were at a sporting event. I forgot what his words were, but picture us all shouting, “Shall! Shall! Shall!” and “Together! Together! Together!” He put so much energy into it that he broke into a massive sweat, and that being his name it was hilarious when he pointed it out to the class and we all started chanting “Sweat! Sweat! Sweat!”

Before that, however, we had to stop and head back down to the conference room, where one of Interac’s most senior administrators was scheduled to give a speech at 5:00 welcoming us and telling us a few things about Japanese culture. Everyone was down there ten minutes early, except for one group that arrived five minutes late. Cedric was not very happy about that, as our guest was very important and his time was extremely valuable. And being Japanese, he would be particularly sensitive to the punctuality issue.

Cedric had us all stand up and face the door, then make hand gestures indicating they were late when they walked in. When they finally arrived, he had them line up and personally apologize to our guest before he began his speech.

He didn’t seem upset by the lateness, and he was all smiles and jokes as he gave the speech in what we all thought was rather impressive English. He told us a lot of things about Japanese culture that we already knew—though it somehow had more of an impact coming from him—and a lot of things we didn’t know.

One of the most interesting concepts he brought up was something referred to as honne and tatamae, “honne” meaning “real intention” and “tatamae” meaning “image” or the face projected in public. In Japan, if you upset someone they usually won’t reveal to you that they’re upset or angry. He told us the story of an ALT who came to Japan and was served coffee in his first staff meeting. In the second meeting he wasn’t served, but he expected that he would be so he asked them where his coffee was. They smiled politely and brought him his coffee, and the same thing happened the next time. He kept asking them to serve him coffee again and again, and he had no idea that under the polite exterior they were actually getting rather peeved by him. Finally someone said something to him, and he apologized profusely because he’d had no idea that there’d been any problem.

My mind is split on this. On the one hand, I love the politeness and see it as a refreshing difference from American culture, when people who are angry are often not just willing but eager to let you know about their displeasure (try working at the front desk of an American hotel). On the other hand, you can never be sure what’s going on below the surface, and it makes me a little nervous. When I was taking a little too long to buy the stuff from the electronics shop the other day, Mr. I- seemed perfectly content with everything but I had to suspect that underneath he was losing patience. This is going to be one of the hardest elements of Japanese culture to get used to.

When the speech was finished, we returned to our conference room upstairs to get through the last two demo-lessons, all of us thoroughly exhausted by this process and honestly getting a little sick of vocab-drills and janken. Luckily the last two lessons were among the best and most fun of the day.

There was a sign-up sheet for any of us who wished to consult with one of the trainers after the demo-lessons: Cedric, Mike, or Cliff. Cedric had specifically told me earlier that he wanted to speak to me, so I signed up to be the first to speak to him. But he told me he wanted to speak to me last, so I waited until he was through with everyone else, then found myself alone in the conference room sitting two feet away from him, engaged in one of the most intense conversations of my life. He was staring directly into my eyes nearly the entire time, often in complete silence as though communicating non-verbally.

Here is where I have to be extra careful about the delicate line I sometimes cross while blogging, because while this was easily the most significant moment of the day it’s also very personal and I don’t want to betray any trust. I will say that Cedric told me that he sees a lot of potential in me and that I might one day be up there training other ALTs. He also told me a lot of things about myself that I was shocked he’d been able to pick up on in spite of how little contact we’d actually had over the week, guessing correctly every time. He said he’s going to be in touch with me, and that he wants me to come to the next training session in March.

After that I was once again at one of the high-points of the emotional roller-coaster, and I was hoping to keep that going for the rest of the night. I wanted to go out and have drinks with the other Interac people because most of them were going out and it would be the last opportunity I’d have to see them. Barry and a few others said they were going to a karaoke bar called “The Cage” which was near the train-station, but they were going to catch the 8:20 shuttle and I knew that my talk with Cedric was going to take me well past that point.

Cedric and I finished up at 8:55, which gave me just enough time to change into casual clothes and catch the 9:20 shuttle. My room-mate Sam and our two-doors-down neighbors, Danielle and her room-mate, also wanted to come but they had luggage-issues to take care of and wouldn’t be ready until the 10:20 shuttle. So it was just myself and Mr. Sweat on the 9:20, and we had no idea how to get to The Cage from the station.Stone tablet outside a shrine, the only picture that came out.

Challenge! [private ALT joke] We walked around and I went up to every friendly-looking group of Japanese people I could, saying, “Sumimasen. Uh…karaoke bar wa doko desu ka? Namae wa ‘Cage’ desu?” which basically means, “Excuse me, where is the karaoke bar? The name is ‘Cage’.” That was enough so that they understood, and I was proud of myself for being able to communicate that much. There was a friendly group in the station itself but they couldn’t help us. We went into a different bar and I asked the staff there, and they actually found a pamphlet with a little map of the area for me and pointed out where we had to go. When we  couldn’t find it there I asked another group of people and they pointed us in what we thought was the right direction, but it turned out to be a different karaoke bar altogether. We eventually did find the place, but when we got there nobody was there. I started to try and explain to the hostess that we were looking for our friends, my Japanese skills falling terribly flat there, but she said in perfect English that she hadn’t seen any other foreigners come in yet.

So we headed towards the British pub and ran into Barry and seven others heading in our direction on the way. Barry explained that The Cage was actually for much later in the night, and now they were just looking for other places to drink. I still hadn’t eaten yet (my last meal was at noon and it was now past 10:00) so I needed food, and we went into a Japanese  restaurant where we could both eat and pay ¥2000 for all-you-can drink. There were nine of us total and they brought us to a big table Before the bad news.upstairs, but there was a problem. Barry had the best Japanese of all of us so he was in charge of figuring out what the problem was. It turned out that if we wanted the all-you-can drink, all of us had to get it. Three of us weren’t drinking, and they couldn’t do it for just six of us because that was their policy. Either we all had to get it, or none of us could. I thought that was absurd from a business stand-point (you’d rather have ¥0 than ¥12000?) but someone later explained to me that some groups try to get away with paying less by sharing their drinks with others who don’t pay.

We left in a state of mild embarrassment, all of the Japanese people there staring at us as we departed (I smiled and waved at them while going). So it was back to the British pub, where upwards of 20 more Interac people, both trainers and trainees, were all drinking together and having a good time.

I finally got some food and finished it while drinking my first beer. On my second or third beer I found myself in a conversation with Cliff about grooming standards with the Japanese schools. He said it didn’t matter that I had a beard, but once I go into the school with the beard I can not under any circumstances shave it off. The Japanese, he said, can’t abide change, so it’s either bearded or beardless but that’s how I have to stay. He told us a funny story about an ALT who went home to California for vacation and spent a lot of time on the beach, and because of all the sun he got looked like he’d bleached his hair when he came back. The entire board of education had a meeting about it, and one of the Japanese people who understood what had happened tried to explain to them that just as the Japanese peoples’ skin gets darker in the sunlight, some Americans’ hair gets lighter and that it’s perfectly natural. When he was finished, they said they understood, but “why did he bleach his hair?” It was decided that he had to dye it back.

At the British pub. "Kampai!"

Another beer, another table, another conversation, this one on the vastly different topic of religion. I won’t get into any of the details on that one but suffice it to say it was very civil and we all pretty much felt the same way, we all pretty much believe in some kind of higher power, karma, reincarnation and that sort of thing, but I just happen to be more skeptical than most. In any case, those kinds of talks are my bread-and-butter so I enjoyed it very much.

Then came the Final Act. I found myself sitting alone at a table next to a table where four young Japanese women were also sitting, and the big guy Don from the first night was over there flirting with them. One of the girls made a comment about my room-mate Sam, apparently saying that she thought he was cute and that he looked like Harry Potter. Don got him over there and using his Japanese was able to get him to exchange e-mail addresses with her, though I’m not sure how much good that will do him when A) his Japanese is just as bad as mine and B) he’s going to be living hundreds of kilometers away.

I was in no frame of mind for flirtation at this point, but Mr. Sweat saw me from across the room and told me to sidle up to them. My arm thusly twisted, I slid myself over on the long bench and sat next to the girl Sam was flirting with. Don had the attention of the two girls on the right, and Sam had the attention of the one next to me. The only girl not occupied was sitting in the chair right in front of me, so I started talking to her.

As soon as she broke her silence, I could tell right away that her English was exceptional. It wasn’t perfect, but she clearly had a lot of practice. So I continued talking to her and getting to know her. I found out her name was Ame (pronounced Ah-may) which I later remembered means “rain” (awesome name, right?) and she’d studied for a year in the USA. Whereabouts? Nebraska. Ugh…of all the places to form an impression of America (no offence to any Nebraskans that may be reading this).

She and the other three girls all worked at Narita Airport and often came to this British pub at night. This is a huge hang-out for foreigners, so I assume they get hit on multiple times every single night. Her friend that was talking to Sam, Ame told me, really likes foreigners, which I guess meant that she doesn’t. That girl, whom I later learned was named Yuka (which means “hardwood floor”…not so awesome) was constantly giggling and covering her mouth with a cloth like a schoolgirl. Very adorable. Ame, on the other hand, seemed a lot more serious and mature.

I really liked her. She was of average beauty for a Japanese woman (which basically means really beautiful) and she was clearly very intelligent. But as I was telling her about myself I got kind of a sense that she didn’t care and wasn’t interested, and was only talking to me to be polite. At one point I even came out and asked her—I said we learned today about honne and tatamae, and if she didn’t want to talk to me she could just tell me and that would be fine. She insisted that she was enjoying our conversation, it’s just that she was very shy. I told her I am too, but she didn’t believe me.

At one point everyone busted out their cameras and we all got pictures taken with each other, which is a nice little souvenir to have. You’ll notice them holding up what looks like a peace symbol, which is actually a V for Victory and is apparently the sign Japanese people almost always make when getting their picture taken even though it has nothing to do with victory. I When-in-Romed and made the symbol as well, though there was certainly nothing victorious about my performance that night.

Yuka behind me, Ame on the right.

Don't I look like a playa? At least they took pictures too.

Four nihonjin, four gaijin, no love...

When the bar was closing, many of the ALTs remaining said we were going to The Cage and they invited the girls to join, but they opted out. Ame said, “next time” but even after it was explained that there wouldn’t be a next time, she said they would still rather go home.

They left the bar and we went out soon after, my emotional roller-coaster now officially in a downward spiral. I’d just had my first genuine attempt at flirtation with a genuine Japanese girl in Japan, and it was no different than any of my pathetic and unsuccessful attempts at flirtation with girls in America, Germany, or anywhere else on this planet. Everyone at home thinks Japanese girls all love Western guys and it was going to be so easy to get a Japanese girlfriend, but what do they know?

I split a cab with two other people back to the hotel, then crawled into my bed and hit The Low, mumbling softly to myself for about a half hour before finally passing out, remembering the night at the Musik Club Offenburg and how this was very much a parallel of that. For those of you who don’t know, when I first got to Germany to study, back in 2004, I went out one night with a bunch of girls from the village where my grandmother was born and where I was spending the week. That was my first real close-encounter with German girls and it went so horribly that it stuck in my brain for the rest of my life. I’d imagined up until that point that being an American in a foreign country would work to my advantage when it came to girls, but that was when I first realized that this wasn’t the case at all. This past Friday night I discovered that the same holds true for Japan. Bad with women somewhere…bad with women everywhere. At least this time I’d gone into it with eyes wide open, already skeptical of the Japanese-women-love-foreigners stereotype, so it wasn’t as much of a let-down as it could have been.

I know—it was just one experience and you can’t completely generalize based on that, but here’s two other pieces of evidence for you. 1- There were plenty of guys at the training who’d been in Japan for awhile and were still single, so it’s certainly possible to live here and not get a Japanese girlfriend, and if anyone is going to be among the percentage of westerners in Japan who remain single (however large or small that number may be), it’s going to be me. 2- I’ve been in Japan for over a week now and haven’t gotten the eye from one single solitary girl. Even in Togane where I’m the only westerner around, they never hold eye-contact with me for more than a fraction of a second.

Luckily for me, I’m so used to being alone that it doesn’t bother me anymore. In Germany I was so content living on my own that I felt I really preferred it that way, and I’ll probably prefer it in Japan as well. It’s just that there was always that faint glimmer of hope that maybe somewhere in the world I actually could find someone, but if it can’t happen in Japan then where else could it happen?

So it goes. I’ve reached the end of my story, as there wasn’t much to speak of regarding Day 5 and I already wrote a little bit about it in the previous entry. After the demo-lessons in the morning training was over, and I hung out with a few other ALTs until Mr. I- came to pick me up and take me to Togane, away from all the wonderful people I met during the week and into a territory where I’m one of a mere handful of foreigners, none of whom I’ve spotted yet.

Tomorrow I’ll write more about Togane (hopefully the weather will be more picture-conducive), my apartment, and general impressions and observations about Japan so far. Apologies for the length of this entry—I should probably have split it up but I wanted to get it done today. I hope you enjoyed it anyway.

Official Train Group-Shot

Categories: Personal Tags: , , , ,

Orientation to the Orient – Part 1

August 21st, 2011 No comments

I’m honestly at a loss as to where to begin. In previous posts I’ve made comments about what an incredible year 2011 has been for me thus far, but this past week has been among the most unique and interesting of my entire life. Were I to delve into every detail I’m sure I could produce another full-novella’s worth of material rivaling the length of my “When in Rome” series from earlier in the year (follow that link for an explanation of why I blog in the first place), but I’ll try to limit this one to two or three blog entries over the next couple of days (it’s just too much to write all at once). Moreover, I’ve got a whole new set of things to worry about with regards to my blog, most importantly the very real possibility (near certainty, actually) that some of my superiors from Interac will be reading these entries and the impression I make could easily have an impact on my career. There are also specific rules and regulations that I’m now operating under, so while most of them don’t apply yet I should warn my regular readers that you will never see me post the name of the school where I’ll be teaching or pictures of any of my students, unless I suddenly wake up one day and decide it might be fun to get fired (not gonna happen). So with that explanation out of the way, I’ll get to the story by beginning at the present and working my way back.

View Larger Map

I’m currently writing from my apartment in the city of Togane in Japan’s Chiba prefecture, a relatively-flat landscape between Tokyo and the Pacific Ocean. I’m about an hour’s train-ride from Tokyo and a 30-minute bicycle-ride from the beach, so I feel very lucky to be located here, though I confess I currently have no basis of comparison other than the town of Narita where orientation took place. I must confess that my first impressions of the city were not wonderful—I’m off a main road that actually reminds me of Route 1 in New Jersey, just an endless strip of gas stations, convenience stores, restaurants and shopping centers. Only the preponderance of Kanji (感字) and Katakana (カタカナ) on every building make it apparent that this is actually Japan (that and all the Japanese people walking around and driving their cars on the left). “Beautiful” is not a word I’d put on the list of words to describe this place, but “interesting” is most certainly near the top.

I was driven here straight from the Narita View Hotel yesterday by an Independent Contractor who works with Interac whom I’ll only refer to as “Mr. I-” because I’m still unsure about the ethics of revealing identities here and I’d like to play it safe for now. I was in a near panic yesterday morning because I’d lost the folder with the tickets I needed to have my luggage delivered to my apartment, which I thought I needed because we couldn’t be sure Mr. I- had enough room in his car. Luckily he did, so it turned out not to be an issue, and if he was bothered at all by the fact that I’d messed up he didn’t reveal it (more on that aspect of Japanese culture in Part 2).

He was a very friendly person and his help yesterday was invaluable. He drove me to the real-estate office and helped me sign the contract for the “Leo Palace 21” apartment where I’m living, took me there and helped me figure out how to use things like the air conditioner (eakon) and TV (terebi), then brought me shopping for something to sleep on and a few electronic items I needed including the wireless router that’s making it possible for me to post this. We had to be back at my place at 5:00 because someone was going to be there to turn on the gas, and I was afraid he might be getting annoyed with me because I was taking awhile at the electronic shop to pick out what I needed. I thought we’d get back with 10 minutes to spare, but there just happened to be a police road-block right where we needed to turn off, so it took us an extra ten minutes to get there and we arrived just as the clock in his car switched from 4:59 to 5:00. The gas man was there and everything worked out, but it was a useful lesson—even when you think you’re giving yourself enough time, you might actually not be because you never know what unforeseeable obstacles will appear in your way. The importance of punctuality in Japan is one of the things they really hammered home at orientation, and I’ll have a lot more to say about that later on.

My first night here was very quiet. I hadn’t had enough time to buy any food, so I just went out to the nearest fast-food restaurant (there’s a KFC right on my block, literally a one-minute walk from my apartment) and struggled to use what little Japanese I had to explain what I wanted to the girl at the counter. She was all smiles of course so it was a pleasant if awkward experience, and I managed to get what I wanted without having to embarrass myself too much. But after that I went to a convenience store to pick up some breakfast for the morning and a few beers to help me unwind for the night, and I ran into some trouble when the ATM there wouldn’t take my American debit card. The shopping center Mr. I- had taken me to earlier wouldn’t accept my MasterCard, so I had to use nearly all of the remaining cash I had from what I’d brought over. When the convenience store wouldn’t take my MasterCard either I had to choose a couple of items to remove from my tally so the change I had left would be enough to cover it, which I did by sacrificing the breakfast and one of the beers. I should have kept the breakfast though, because when I got back to my apartment I realized I had no desire to drink anyway, and I just took an Excedrin PM and passed out at 10:00 p.m. for a nice, long, luxurious 9 ½ hour sleeping session (which I discovered around 11:00 a.m. today was still not enough to make up for all the energy expended during orientation).

One thing I can’t neglect to mention is just how strange I felt walking around alone in Togane at night. It was different going out in Narita because I was with other foreigners and it’s a city with an International Airport so there were other Westerners around as well, but I didn’t see a single other white person while I was out last night, and I could sense that everyone was noticing me as they passed by. This is something I’m just going to have to get used to.

It’s raining today so it’s not a good time to take my first pictures of Togane, so those will have to wait for a later entry. For now, I’ll finish today’s entry by picking up where my last post left off, and covering the first full day of training. I’ll post the story of Days 2 through 4 tomorrow, and I’ll write about anything that happened today and tomorrow afterwards, as well as general impressions and observations about Japan and Togane in particular. So if you’re into this kind of writing, check back every day because there’s much more to come.

Day 1 – Tuesday, August 16

The feelings of anticipation and trepidation were palpable in the air of the giant conference room at the Narita View Hotel when we all took our seats for the first session of orientation on Tuesday morning. My room-mate Sam and I were among the last to arrive (though still early) so we sat in the back, scanning the room for any familiar faces from the night before. There were many we’d met and a few we hadn’t seen, about fifty of us altogether.

Took this picture on Thursday, but this is the room.

I had no time-keeping device at this point so I can’t be sure the session started exactly on time at 8:30, but I have every reason to believe it did. Our emcee for the week was a 31-year-old guy named Mike who’d been working for Interac for awhile and whose pleasant demeanor put us all a bit more at ease during that first session, when he basically just explained how the week was going to go. It would be very intense, we’d be doing a lot of work, but by the end of the week the goal was for all of us to feel completely confident that we had what it takes to do the job of an ALT (Assistant Language Teacher—get used to that acronym) in Japanese public schools.

After a few easy sessions about what English education in Japan was all about, there was a 15-minute break at 10:00, and we returned to the conference room completely unaware that any sense of comfort that had been settling in was about to be demolished.

Enter Cedric, a small and unassuming character of mixed race who gave off a completely different impression at the very start of his session (appropriately titled “Sudden Immersion” on the schedule) than he did by the end. He spoke enthusiastically about the virtues of teaching and told us how it was his job to make sure we were all completely confident about our abilities by the end of the week. He didn’t tell us that in order to instill that confidence, he was first going to shatter it.

He gave us all 15 seconds to “greet the room as you would a class full of students on your first day”, and proceeded to call on each and every one of us to follow the instruction. I and most people started off with an enthusiastic “good morning!” followed by a few brief introductory words about ourselves, and each time he’d only call out “stop” when our 15 seconds was up and move on to the next person. It was a confusing and uncomfortable experience, as none of us knew exactly what he was going for because he never gave any feedback.

Once all fifty of us had been put through the ordeal, he came to the front of the room and asked, “Now what was my instruction? All I asked was for you to greet the students, and what did you do? I didn’t ask you to introduce yourselves.” We’d all just been following each others’ lead and doing what we thought we were supposed to be doing, but as Cedric explained this was absolutely not what we should be doing at all on our first day with new students. These are Japanese kids, most of whom barely understand English, and if we’re going to get up there and start talking about our hobbies none of them are going to have the slightest clue what we’re doing.

Then he showed us what a greeting was supposed to look like, just 15 seconds of saying “hello” and “good morning” with a smile and hand-gestures, getting the class to play along. He lined up a few of us to give it a second try, and I was either the second or third person to go. I did my best to duplicate what Cedric did in my own way, using the thumbs-up to represent the word “good” and a hand gesture for “morning” and got the class to repeat “good morning” with me in unison. When I was finished Cedric asked for people to critique my performance, and the first critique I got was not good. The guy said my smile wasn’t genuine, the students wouldn’t understand my gestures, and he just basically wasn’t buying it. I was about ready to feel like an idiot again, but Cedric actually disagreed with him, and the next few comments I got were good. Before I sat down he shook my hand, looked into my eyes, and told me three times in a row that it was good. Suddenly I felt a lot better about things.

Shortly thereafter we broke for lunch, and because I’d said on the first day that I had “special dietary needs” (for me that simply means that if I eat beef or pork it usually results in a night spent rushing to the toilet every hour or so) I was given a meal-ticket to the same buffet where breakfast was served. The logic behind this was that at the buffet I’d be able to choose items I felt safe with, whereas the people given the ticket for either the Japanese or Chinese restaurants they had at the hotel would have less to choose from. I found out later that there were plenty of things I could have eaten that would have been fine for me, so by the end of Got to keep the Gaijin happy.the week I was deeply regretting having said anything about “dietary needs” at all because I’d gotten so sick of the buffet.

I’m not sure if this buffet is always bedecked with American flags and has country music playing in the background, or if they just did this for the ALTs they knew would be staying there in order to “make us feel at home.” If it was just for us, it was a nice if misguided effort. As much as I appreciate the thought behind it, I must confess to being slightly offended at the stereotype that all Americans love country music and the idea that we all need the Stars & Stripes nearby at all times to feel comfortable.

I’ll spare you the details of the afternoon’s sessions on Interac policy and philosophy, but I can’t neglect to mention the most important thing they told us about our jobs. Particularly for those of us teaching at the lower levels, the goal is not so much to make them learn English but simply to make them comfortable with English. The Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (somehow abbreviated to MEXT) states one of the primary goals of the ALT program as to “foster a positive attitude toward communication.” Our job was to make English learning fun, to make the students think of speaking English as something they like doing rather than a subject they’re required to take. I have no problem at all with that approach, as it removes so much of the pressure that I felt going into Business English teaching in Germany, when the expectation was that I’d get my students to tangibly improve their English. While I certainly hope I can help the kids improve their skills, all I really have to do is get them to like English, so it’s far more about my attitude than the nuts and bolts of what I teach.

After the boring policy sessions, we split up into our different branches, and I finally got to meet my branch manager and learn some details about where I’ll be living and working. I was told that I’d be teaching at several elementary and junior high schools, but it turns out that I’ll only be teaching at one Junior High School in Togane, which makes my life much easier because I only need to know how to get to one school, meet one principal, and get to know one staff.

Our branch, the Chiba branch, had only four people, so we finished early and got to sit in on a little lesson Cedric was giving upstairs in one of the smaller board-rooms to some of the ALTs whose branch managers were not there that day about teaching simple sentences through symbols to elementary-school students, as apparently you’re not supposed to write words on the board for elementary school. (I discovered later that they don’t teach phonics at all until the first semester of Junior High, the rationale behind that something I have my doubts about). Cedric put me on the spot right away when I got there, asking me what I thought the symbols were about, and I managed to impress him again by guessing correctly.

After that short session, he went up to one of the other teachers who had a German last name and asked him if he spoke German, but he didn’t. I figured there’d be no harm in letting Cedric know that Ich spreche Deutsch, and we exchanged a few sentences in German (Cedric apparently knows a bunch of languages) before we found ourselves alone in the room together and I was telling him about my experiences in Germany and the reasons I’d come to Japan. I didn’t know it at the time, but I think that was the moment he came to decide he liked me.

Closing ceremonies for the day followed, and while there was an optional session after that about finding teaching resources online, my room-mate and I were so exhausted that we opted out of that and went back to our room to lie down. This was about 6:00 p.m. and he passed out completely, but I got back up at 7:00 to do some Japanese practice with my computer and finish our reading homework before packing it in for the night. A lot of the others went out to eat and drink, but I just bought some food from the convenience store (konbiniensu sutoa) at the hotel (hoteru…ain’t Japanese fun?), did a little Kindle reading in the lobby, and went to sleep.

Sorry to end on such an anti-climactic note, but I’d rather not spend the entire day writing and you’d probably rather not spend the next full hour reading, so I’ll save the rest for tomorrow. Be sure to check back, as it does get a lot more interesting.

Welcome to Japan

August 16th, 2011 No comments

After years of dreaming about it and months preparing for it, I’ve finally arrived in Japan. It feels very strange to actually be here in person, to see the country in its actual “in-the-flesh” form as opposed to the ethereal idea in my head it’s always been. I’m not sure what I expected, but it’s just strange how different it doesn’t feel to everywhere else in the world I’ve been. There are still roads and cars (though people drive on the left), there are still stores and restaurants (they’ve just got a lot of weird symbols on them), and there are still a bunch of people going about their business (it’s just that most of them are a lot smaller than I’m used to). But the sky is still blue, the clouds are still white, and the sun and the moon still trace the same path across the sky. It’s just another piece of the planet earth, after all.

Of course that’s not to diminish the awesomeness of the fact that I’m here. And to be fair, even the pamphlet that Interac gave out to all their new teachers insists that our first impressions of Japan are going to be slightly skewed towards the Western, as we’re in a Western-style hotel in the town of Narita, where one of the closest international airports to Tokyo is located. Asians still outnumber Westerners by a large degree, but I’ve been shocked by how many white people are around.

The entire trajectory of yesterday was like a gradual descent into surroundings more-and-more Japanese, until it finally came to an end with the most authentic Japanese dinner I’ve ever had.

The flight over was Continental Airlines, so it felt like any other American flight only with half the passengers being Asian. The announcements were all made in English first, followed by a Japanese translation (which always seemed to take about half the time to say). I sat next to a couple of Asians but I don’t think they were Japanese so I didn’t try and practice any of my Japanese with them. In fact it wasn’t until much later that I summoned the confidence to actually try and put that to use.

Crossing the Pacific Ocean and going over the international date-line was enough of a novelty in itself. The plane was following the sun, so we never hit the night-time side of the earth, but when we were half-way between Alaska and the Siberian peninsula, we had officially crossed into tomorrow. When we landed, 13 hours after take-off, there had been no night-time but it was three hours later on the following day. It really felt like time-travel.

Getting through customs and picking up my baggage was as smooth as I could have hoped, and I was able to spot the Interac representative waiting for me without much trouble. He then directed me to a group of people already standing around and talking, some of the other teachers who had arrived slightly before me. From that point on I was no longer on my own, as the rest of the day was spent among this giant group of new English teachers.

Most of them were new to Japan and like me had been dreaming about it for quite awhile, but some of them had been to Japan before and were now returning. One of the guys had actually lived here for nine years before spending the last two in Korea, so he was a wealth of information.

Narita View HotelWhen there were enough of us, we all took a shuttle bus to the Narita View Hotel, which is  where they conduct the week-long orientation session and where we’ll all be until Saturday. Upon our arrival here we had to pick up name-tags, then go to a suite on an upper floor for a “pre-orientation orientation” so we could be given our schedules and a run-down of how this was going to work, as well as useful information about shuttle busses from the hotel into town.

I’m not sure how many of us there are in total, as there were only about 15 of us at our particular pre-orientation (they were doing this all day as new waves of arrivals came in), but I imagine it’s somewhere between 50 and 100. When our group had finished, it was suggested that we all meet up in the lobby at 6:00, which gave us an hour and a half to shower and get settled in. Everyone is sharing a room with one other person, and I feel lucky that my room-mate Sam is a very easy-to-get-along with guy (and as I discovered last night much to my pleasant relief, he doesn’t snore).

Outside the hotel Bus full of foreigners

At 6:00 we gathered in the lobby, and there were noticeably more people there. Other people who had arrived at other times were also there, about 30 in total, and when the shuttle bus finally came we took up just about every seat. Our bus full-of-foreigners stopped at the train station near the center of town, and most of us got out and proceeded to take pictures. I remarked on how often I’ve seen large groups of Japanese tourists in Western cities all snapping photos with their cameras, and here we were in bizarre-world where the situation was flipped on its head.

Real-life streets in Japan! More actual Japanese streets!

Some of the people stayed on the bus to go to the second stop, a shopping mall where food was apparently cheaper, but a good twenty of us headed down one of the main strips filled with bars and restaurants in search of food. One of the girls had been here for a few days already so she said she knew where she was going and we were all following her, but when she took us to a British pub a bunch of us said that for our first night in Japan we would rather do something a bit more authentically Japanese.

So now reduced to about ten people, our group finally came upon a restaurant that everyone agreed we could try. It turned out to be a great decision, as the upstairs area was as authentic-Japanese-looking as you can get, with low tables and mats on the floor, and even a cubby for you to remove your shoes before sitting down.

Where we ate Dining in style.

We all got to practice our Japanese as we ordered food from the waitress there, and when we got our beer some of the guys who had been to Japan before informed us that you’re never supposed to pour your own beer in Japan, but you have to get someone else to do it. The girl across from me, Amy (also from New Jersey), seemed to really get a kick out of that, so I could always count on her to top me off.

Our group. Me and Sam

I trusted the others that the first item on the menu, something called “Okinoyaki” or Dinner!something, was very good, and as strange as it looked I’m happy to say they were right. It was like a pancake made of cabbage, stuffed with ginger and meat of your choice, and covered in delicious teriyaki-like sauce. The portion was the perfect size, just enough to fill me up without feeling like I’d eaten too much. I also got to practice my chopsticks-skills, which I’m happy to say are not as shabby as I’d feared.

Another minor culture-shock occurred when a young Japanese couple entered while we were eating and the girl lit up a cigarette. Apparently smoking is not only tolerated indoors in Japan, but they don’t even have separate smoking and non-smoking sections in most restaurants. Unable to resist the novelty of smoking in a restaurant for the first time I can actually remember, I had to join the other two smokers in our group after dinner.

There was some very pleasant conversation among all of us in the group, including a black guy called Don who has been working for Interac for awhile but was invited to orientation to impart some of his experience onto us newbies. He was an incredibly nice guy with a great sense of humor, but I was struck by how incredibly nice everyone there was. Maybe there’s something about Japanophiles that just makes us generally pleasant people.

It was only 8:25 when we’d finished dinner, but most of us had been up since an ungodly hour of the previous day, so while some in our group went to the British pub to join the others, I and most of the rest went back to the bus to head back to the hotel and finally get some sleep.

I had one of the most insane dream-experiences of my life this morning. Both Sam and I woke up in the middle of the night and the jet-lag prevented us from having an easy time going back to sleep, but I apparently did because the next thing I knew I was having a dream that my friend Krissi had showed up at the hotel to surprise-visit me. Sam wasn’t happy to have an extra person in the room, but when I woke up and told him about the dream we had a good laugh about it. But it wasn’t long before I realized that I hadn’t actually woken up at all, and that had just been a dream-within-a-dream and I was still asleep. I woke up again and the same thing happened. It all felt perfectly real to the point where I was convinced I had actually woken up in the real world, right here in this hotel room with Sam in the other bed, and whenever I’d ask him he’d assure me I was really awake, but this kept happening over and over again until I was eventually so skeptical that I jumped out the window and flew away, enjoying my lucidity for a little while (I was curious as to how my subconscious would portray the Japanese landscape having so little experience of it) but that wouldn’t last long before I falsely-awoke again and went on an entirely new crazy adventure. This happened at least 15 times and eventually I reached the point where I was worried that I had died somehow and would be waking up in the same room at the Narita View Hotel again and again for the rest of eternity.

When I finally did wake up for real, Sam told me I’d been mumbling in my sleep, crying out things like, “Why?”. I made him assure me several times that this was actually really real, but it wasn’t until I’d successfully shaved and showered without waking up again that I was convinced I’d made it back to the correct plane of reality.

And now I’ve got to change and get ready for the first day of orientation in this new reality I find myself in. Life is going to be a hell of a lot different than it ever has been for me before, and I can’t wait to see how it develops.

Goodbye New York, Goodbye America

August 12th, 2011 No comments

Manhattan as seen from Brooklyn.

Last night was my last big party night before heading to Japan, and I think I did it in style. There’s no place like New York City to go out and have a wild time, and that’s what I did with my friends Mike and Kristin last night. Most of it was, naturally, a drunken haze, but I took copious amounts of pictures which definitely tell the tale. I also took a few drunken videos, but in the interests of protecting some shred of my reputation I won’t be posting them here.

Before the drinking began, I had to get from Mike’s place in Brooklyn—where I parked my rental car—into the city. That was about a 40-minute subway ride, and about half-way through it a very cute girl with black hair and the smoothest-looking almost porcelain-like legs got on and sat across from me. Our eyes met, then we both looked away and a few seconds later our eyes met again. I of course wondered if perhaps it meant she found me attractive too, but it could easily mean she just wanted to check to see if I was still looking at her. For the next twenty minutes I’d let my eyes wander and occasionally glance in her direction to admire that sweet face or those perfect legs of hers, and occasionally she’d look back. When it finally came time for me to exit, I went up to the door right next to her and looked at her for one last glimpse before leaving, and she looked right back at me. I couldn’t help but smirk just a little, and then something miraculous happened: she started smirking a little too. My smile instantly widened, as did hers, then the doors opened and I walked away, my head now practically in the clouds.

That was almost the highlight of the day for me. That never ever happens to me, especially with a girl that beautiful. To think of all the beautiful girls on the tram in Germany that I’d make the occasional glance at just like this one, but none of them every actually smiled at me. I don’t actually think I’m capable of attracting members of the opposite sex, but this was some welcome evidence to the contrary.

The night begins (and for some it ends) From the City Hall exit, I wandered around looking for Mike while calling and texting him, and after a little bit of trouble we finally found each other. We headed into an Irish pub and met two of Craig’s friends from the finance industry, had a shot and a beer with them, then went down the street so I could grab a slice of genuine New York pizza. After that it was back into the pub for more shots and beers, this time with a couple of girls who worked there as bartenders but who weren’t working that night and were instead getting hammered at their own bar, which I thought was interesting. One of the girls got so drunk that she had to go to the bathroom and puke, and when she came out she was stumbling and incoherent. A little extreme for 6:30 p.m.

NYC at dusk is awesome. Happy Mike

We took a cab from there to another bar, a place with the word “Hurricane” in the name, The beer tower. where some of Mike’s friends work so apparently we could drink for free. The place was packed, there were a couple of kick-ball teams there out celebrating after a match, but we were able to get ourselves a giant tower of beer from which we could refill our own glasses and not have to go up to the bar every time. I don’t remember ever seeing such a thing before, and I’d be very curious as to what my German friends would think of the concept, as they even find the idea of buying beer by the pitcher to be strange.

When we were done drinking there we went out to a place called Kat’s Deli which is apparently an extremely popular eatery in New York City and the place where Harry met Sally (about which I couldn’t possibly care less). Mike and his buddy, whose name is one of the many things from last night that got flushed down the memory-hole, got some delicious-looking meat sandwiches that I couldn’t partake in because I’m not a red-meat-eater, but I enjoyed watching them enjoy them.

It's this packed at 10:00 p.m. on a Thursday. Wow, it's like...famous or something.

Anticipation... ...reward.

Once that was done we headed back out and went into one last place, getting ourselves another self-dispensary of beer and going to the back to play some pool. Going into it I thought I was at just the right level of drunkenness for pool (you can’t be too sober or you’ll think too hard but you can’t be too drunk or your coordination is shot) but my awful playing revealed that I was in fact beyond that point. Mike’s friend is really good at pool and the two of them were on one team, but somehow Kristin and I were miraculously able to come from way behind and win—though I have to confess it was almost entirely her doing.

Three drunksketeers. What'd you say?

Classic Mike facial expression.For the win! KristinMy favorite pic of Mike ever.  

The last part of the night was a very drunken cab-ride back to Brooklyn which is almost entirely documented on my camera, but I’m going to opt not to post the video of us smashed out of our minds and singing The Pixie’s “Where is My Mind?” over and over again, which I imagine was probably of great annoyance to the poor cab driver.

Streets of NY at night. Where is our minds?

Brooklyn-bound You'd better tip him well.

We headed back up to Mike’s apartment where some diner food was delivered only minutes later, Mike having timed it perfectly. We stuffed our faces and passed out, another successful night of drunken debauchery brought to completion....the morning after.

Mike had to go to work this morning, so we all woke up at 6:30 to say goodbye, then Kristin  and I hung out and talked for a couple hours before she left and I went back to sleep for an hour. I would have slept all day but I had to return the rental car at 1:00, which after a surprisingly pleasant drive back to New Jersey I was able to do on time.

And that’s the crazy night I had in New York City just two days before leaving for Japan. Less than a week ago I was in California, and just a few weeks before that I was in Germany. Did I mention this is also the same year I went to Rome? That feels like a million lifetimes ago, but it was just four months. I can’t even begin to describe how insane that feels.

           At the Pacific coast.              At the Atlantic coast one week later.  

But the truly crazy part is that the insanity is just about to begin. As unbelievably awesome as 2011 has been so far, the most interesting part is yet to come.

I probably won’t be posting anything until then, so this will be my last blog entry from the USA and the last before several years’ worth of blog entries from Japan. America, you may have some serious problems but you’ve been good to me this past month. It’s time to see what the other side of the planet has in store.

To the other side...

Santa Barbarians

August 9th, 2011 No comments

My last two days in Santa Barbara were just as fun as the first two, but in a different and more social kind of way. Saturday was the last really big day of Fiesta (by Sunday most people were pooped), and I ended up hanging out directly in its epicenter for several hours in the afternoon with Kevin and a couple of other people—a girl named Rachel that I kinda-sorta knew in high school, and her boyfriend Mark who went to the other big high school in our part of New Jersey. Kicking it West Coast style with an East Coast crowd.

Celebrating American and Mexican friendship (or something...who knows?)

We walked around and snapped lots of photos of the madness, broke confetti-eggs over each other (Kevin also broke some of his over random strangers, whose reactions ranged from total indifference to flinging eggs back in retaliation), checked out all the stands selling random arts and crafts, and of course stopped into various bars to get rounds of beer.

Kevin, Rachel, Mark Confetti eggs for sale

That's water Kevin is swigging. What?

General idea of the scenery. Kevin almost bought this.

At 6:00, Krissi got off work and Kevin and I went to go with her to the Press Room while Rachel and her boyfriend went to get something to eat. There it was determined that because Krissi had her car downtown, she couldn’t stay there to drink. She and her friend Will were leaving to go uptown and away from the insanity, and I agreed to go with them.

To be honest, even at that early stage I’d already grown weary of the scene. Kevin was asking me why on earth I’d ever move away from a place like Santa Barbara. The weather is always perfect, there’s always fun stuff to do, and there are tens of thousands of hot chicks to choose from. And for Kevin it makes perfect sense. It couldn’t be clearer how this city is a perfect fit for a guy like him, but it never was for me. I just never fit there. The most popular activities—things like surfing and skate-boarding—were never my thing, and there may have been thousands of hot girls but none of them were my type and I sure as hell wasn’t any of theirs. To me it was just tens of thousands of objects of unattainable desire, and I start getting depressed when I encounter any more than thirty…here at Fiesta there were hundreds upon hundreds and while I managed to stay positive the whole time I’m not sure I could have held firm all night.

So instead I went with Krissi and Will, first back to her place to get changed and then to a little dive-bar called Jimbo’s where we proceeded to drink, play pool, and mingle with the small crowd of dive-bar regulars who insisted on starting conversations with us. I ended up caught with a particularly bad ear-chewer named Bobby who was another one of those living stereotypes: single guy in his late 50s who hangs around the same bar every night going on and on about his woes to anyone who would listen. He never got around to making any kind of point in partiular, he just went on with this long stream-of-consciousness occasionally dropping these ridiculous may-or-may-not-be-true bombshells about his life into the conversation, like how he got shot in Vietnam or how his wife committed suicide. Also some obviously-not-true shit like how he knew Jim Carrey and he was the inspiration for lot of his early characters. Sure, Bobby. Whatever you say.

There was some weirdness between Will and the bartender and he ended up getting kicked out, which I couldn’t understand because Will was one of the nicest, sweetest guys I’ve ever met. He invited us back to his place and offered some hospitality there, and that’s where we ended up crashing.

He had to work 16 hours the next day, so when he left in the morning was the last I saw of him. Krissi got up shortly thereafter and we took a cab back to her place where I went back to bed and she got ready for her day shift. Again I wouldn’t be able to hang out with her until her shift ended at 6:00, but there was something pretty awesome to do in the mean-time.

Kevin had sent me a Facebook invitation to something called a “Cruiser Run”. For the past few years, on the last day of Fiesta, a big group of cruiser-riders and other cyclists would meet at the bottom of State Street and proceed to bike all the way to Isla Vista, something like 5 or 10 miles away. It had gotten bigger and bigger every year, and this year it apparently exploded.

After having breakfast/lunch at Dargan’s Kevin and I headed off to the meeting point, in search of a working ATM along the way (every ATM in town, it seemed, was out of service). Kevin had lent me his fold-out bike the day before, and while it wasn’t the kind of heavy-duty bicycle I’d gotten used to in Hannover, I found its lightness and ease-of-maneuverability to be quite convenient. Before we could get very far, the first wave of cyclists barreled on to State Street, hooting and hollering and ringing bells and blowing horns and carrying on like the Santa Barbarians there were. Kevin and I figured there was no time now to get cash, and we immediately joined in the insanity.

Gives you a slight sense of the madness.

At the bottom of State Street, most of the people driving who got caught in the madness were there for Fiesta anyway, so they were cheering us on even as we brought all the traffic to a total standstill. They seemed happy just to be able to witness the spectacle. But as we got further and further up the road (and also drifted gradually farther towards the back of the group) the people in general started to get angrier and angrier. This was not police-sanctioned or coordinated with the city at all, and part of the deal was that in order to keep the group together you could not stop at any traffic lights. These poor suckers who picked just that moment to travel across State Street or turn on to it were stuck for what must have been at least a solid 30 minutes as the entire wave of cyclists—several thousand-strong—rode by.

At the first stopping point.The entire group came to a pause at the top of the hill where a few bars and liquor stores were located. One group of guys were outside selling $2 bottles of beer, apparently just because they were awesome. Kevin and I had one, attempted to mingle with some of the others there, finally managed to get cash, and then pounded back another before continuing on our journey. Thousands of drunk people on bikes sounds like a really bad idea, but judging from what people were saying it sounded like very few people had fallen. A few falls were inevitable, but I resolved that I wasn’t going to be one of them and I managed to avoid it the whole day.

Things mellowed out quite a bit from then on anyway, as we went through a much less urban environment and even some sections with greenery all around. We eventually made it to the next stop, which was on the beach somewhere, and there some guy got up with a megaphone and explained the situation, but neither Kevin nor I cared enough to try and listen very hard. We were enjoying just following along without really knowing what was going on, and it had worked for us so far.

While we were hanging out there we met a German guy from Bavaria named Klaus, who was a fat hairy guy in his late 50s with an awesome life-plan: he knew everything there was to know about building houses, so he’d spend a year building a house for someone and then use that money to take a year off and travel around or relax and have fun in southern California. He also seemed to know everything there was about history, as when we asked him where he was from he launched into a full-on history lesson about the Frankish empire, complete with exact dates and names of the historical figures. He said he spends most of his free time studying history, religion, science, and everything else he considers important. After awhile he apologized for talking our ears off, but we explained that we enjoyed meeting him. I gave him a “Tschüss” when we parted, the first time I’ve been able to do that in weeks.Second stop.

We hung out on the beach for a little while until it looked like most of the people were leaving, then followed the now-very-thinned-out crowd the rest of the way to Isla Vista. When we got to the college campus (University of California Santa Barbara) there was, for the first time, some police presence, and we started hearing from bikers going back the other way that there were cops everywhere and everything that had been set up at the park which was to be our final destination (apparently some jump-ramps had been constructed earlier) had been dismantled.

We continued to ride through the campus anyway until emerging at the other end and stopping at the first bar we came across. We waited on a long line for beer, then took it outside and immediately got trapped in a conversation with one of the local aging hippies who insisted on telling us every detail of his hopelessly uninteresting life. We finished that beer quicker than we otherwise would have (I didn’t even ask for his name) then left on our way back.

Getting back wasn’t as difficult as we’d imagined it would be (we were both apparently in better shape than we thought) and it didn’t take us nearly as long as we imagined it would to get back to Dargan’s and order some food before waiting for Krissi to finish her shift.

The drinking team: Krissi, Pete, Matt, Kevin There was a guy named Matt that Kevin knew there, and the two of them talked quite a bit. And both Krissi and another guy named Pete got off at the same time. The five of us would be the drinking team for the night, and we commenced our activities with a shot of Tequila outside Dargan’s before heading up to the Press Room and meeting Natalya, who not only joined the team but eventually came to lead it.

Because it was my last night there, I had some sway in the decision-making process, and the last thing on my list of thing-to-do before leaving Santa Barbara was go back to the Doubletree hotel where I used to work. There was a bar in the lobby, so we agreed to go have a round there before moving on, and the next thing I knew I was back in this place where I spent so much time in my life and haven’t seen since I was fired from there over three years ago. Now I only see it in nightmares in which I’m working there again for some reason, except on this night.

After using the bathroom I hung out in the lobby for a moment, waiting for the front desk to clear up so I could stroll over and chat with the agents. It was two girls and one guy—unfortunately nobody I recognized—but when I told them I used to work there I was able to drop a few names of people who were either still there or had only left recently. When I told What now, bitches?them I’d been fired, they asked me if I was the guy who told one of the guests to “fuck off” and I proudly announced that I was. They smiled and said I was kind of a legend around there, as they all fantasize about doing the exact same thing. I felt pretty good about that, then not wanting to overstay my welcome I just asked for some of those famous cookies and headed out to the bar to join the rest of the group.

Krissi, who worked there even longer than I did, was getting strangely freaked out by the whole thing and she badly wanted to leave. I’d accomplished all I’d intended, so once everyone finished their drinks I got one silly photo of me in the lobby and then we left.

Natalya then basically took over the whole operation. We stopped at a supermarket and everyone stocked up on beer and snacks, then even though the plan was to go to “the beach” Natalya took us to a beach much further north and away from the city than any of us had in mind. But she knew what she was doing because apparently this was the only beach on which you could start a fire, and not only that but it was completely deserted except for us.

I normally don’t like to go in the ocean, but on this occasion I couldn’t help myself. The moon was hovering at just the right angle above the water to reflect beautifully off the surface, and the idea that in just a week I would be on the other side of this ocean (combined with the serious alcohol-buzz I had going) was enough to get me to temporarily act my age, strip down to my underwear and tread out even beyond the point where the waves started breaking. The water was freezing cold, but it kick-started the adrenaline and I had Krissi and Natalya there to encourage me on. After getting knocked about by a few early-breaking waves and shouting things like, “You’re mine, you fucking ocean! I own you now!” we headed back on shore and dried off by the fire.

It's almost like we're still young. The two guys I hadn’t met before—Pete and Matt—were talking politics with Kevin, and of course I got sucked into that for awhile. Those guys were both closer to the conservative side, while Krissi, Kevin, and I are pretty much the same kind of liberal i.e. the kind that are not blind followers of Obama. I’m pretty sure neither Pete nor Matt liked me very much, but I was drunk enough and having a good enough time otherwise not to care.

The disaster of the night took place when Krissi stumbled right next to the fire and burned a few parts of her body, her right-hand taking the brunt of it. She didn’t realize how bad it was at first as it only really started to sting later, and the next day it was clear from all the blisters that her hand is now permanently altered forever.

Natalya drove us all home again, dropping Krissi and I off at her place. I bid goodbye to Kevin and Krissi and I went to sleep. She drove me to the airport the following morning and we said our warm goodbyes. She thanked me for coming and I thanked her for insisting that I come. It was definitely a fantastic little week, my only regret being that it couldn’t have lasted a little longer.

At least I’ve now realized that I don’t need to wait another three years before I go back there. I may not be of the right disposition to live in Southern California, but it’s definitely one of the places that I can and should visit more frequently over the course of my life. Hopefully my financial situation will allow it.

So on Monday I flew from Los Angeles to New York, where my friend Mike picked me up and brought me back to Brooklyn. Next Monday I’ll be in Tokyo. What a crazy little slice of my life this is.

Sea and Mountains

August 6th, 2011 No comments

My memory apparently didn’t do justice to how beautiful this place is, and nor will any of the pictures I took, but I’m going to post a bunch of them here anyway.

Cabrillo Blvd Stearn's Wharf

What I picture when I think of California East Beach

On Thursday I got a ride with Krissi’s room-mate David to Dargan’s and had lunch at her bar, then killed the next few hours before her shift ended walking down to the beach I used to sit at all the time, then up to a cliff overlooking Ledbetter beach which was one of the first places Krissi took me, Corey, and Myson on the night we first arrived in Santa Barbara and remains my favorite spot in the city. I watched the surfers for awhile (I’m pretty sure I saw a small shark, but it swam away before I got a good look) then sat on a bench and read for awhile until it was time to head back.

The cliff at Leadbetter View from the top.

A different angle The spot

I got back to Dargan’s around 5:30 and was introduced to a couple of Krissi’s friends, then Kevin showed up and we all had a beer until Krissi was finished and we went across the street to the Press Room to have one more.

After that, Krissi and I parted ways with the rest of them and spent the next hour and a half preparing to go camping, which involved obtaining things like water, alcohol, and firewood. It was already dark by the time we headed up into the mountains of Los Padres National Forest, turned onto Paradise Road, and eventually found a nice little spot far from any other campers.

Starry Sky (not pictured: stars)

The stars were more brilliant than I’ve seen in years, and while it was a bit more chilly than I would have expected the atmosphere was extremely nice. Krissi and I drank beer and whiskey, tended to the fire, listened to music on some crappy little I-pod speakers we bought for the trip and which she plans to return, and eventually reached the level of drunkenness where the two of us really click and we remember as clearly as ever why we’re still friends. The two of us are very different people on the outside—she’s extremely outgoing while I’m pretty introverted—but our minds somehow think in very similar ways about many things. We’ve shared so many experiences and spent so much time with each other (albeit spread out over nearly 13 years) that there’s a short-hand that’s developed between us in terms of conversation, and we almost never have to explain ourselves to each other because we already understand.

Krissi is also the only person on earth to whom I’ve recommended The Young Turks who actually checked it out and liked it enough to also pay for membership. After watching Cenk Uygur and Ana Kasparian for almost two years it was awesome to finally be around someone who not only loves the show but also can’t help but use phrases like, “disaster” and “for the win” in normal conversation. It also made talking politics that much easier, as apparently there’s also a kind of shorthand among people who get their news from the same source.

Neither of us have any clue when we passed out, but it was lucky that both the alcohol and the firewood ran out at about the same time. I very unwisely decided to forego my usual water-chugging routine before passing out after a night of drinking, as I thought we’d need all our water reserves for the next day’s hike. I woke up with a bad hangover and the headache lingered well into the afternoon, but luckily the surroundings were so damn beautiful and my company so pleasant that it hardly mattered.

There we are. We did, however, decide not to do a strenuous hike and instead walk a relatively flat five-mile road to a place in the mountains called Red Rock which is a popular swimming hole. You can normally drive to a parking lot only half a mile from the pond, but there’s a bridge closed off five miles in so we had no choice but to hike. I didn’t mind the walk but Krissi’s feet blistered up pretty bad and by the end of the day it was very difficult for her. Before going we picked up a 12-pack of beer—Coor’s Light of all things—and though we each had six over the course of the next few hours it barely had any effect at all other than to make me need to urinate more frequently than I would have otherwise.

When we got to the swimming hole there was a group of about ten middle-school age boys there but luckily enough they went away shortly after we arrived and we had the whole place to ourselves for about an hour. We went swimming, which was extremely refreshing after the long walk, and jumped off one of the big boulders in the middle of the pond, which I have to admit was a bit nerve-wracking but once you were up there it was really the only easy way down.

The way there. The place.

Some jump from the higher rock, we jumped off the smaller one to the left.

We talked and sun-bathed on another rock for a little while, then another guy came along who was there on his own and since it was his first time there Krissi got back in and showed him how to jump off the rock. When we parted ways I asked him for his name—Brandon—and he laughed as though it was ridiculous that I’d ask such a thing when we’ll almost certainly never see each other again. I always ask for people’s names though. It’s kind of a ‘thing’ with me, and you’d be surprised how often you run into people again when you never thought you would. On our long walk back to the car, he sure enough passed us on his bicycle and I said, “It’s Brandon!” as he biked by, apparently extremely exhausted because all he said was “kill me.”

Awesomeness   Cow-snake! 

We spotted a cool-looking snake that was colored like a cow, and Krissi kept bringing it up for the rest of the day like a 7-year-old girl, which I thought was really cute of her.


The sun was dipping pretty low by the time we got back to the car, and it was officially down by the time we got back to her apartment. We spent the rest of the evening just “kickin’ it”, getting some Mexican food from a nearby restaurant (which we both agreed was sadly disappointing), drank Margeritas and watched a cartoon called “Archer” which is effing hilarious.

Krissi’s got to work until 6:00 again today, but in the mean-time Kevin is coming to pick me up and we’ll be kickin’ it with a girl named Rachel who also went to our high school and is coincidentally in town today as well.

I have no idea what the deal will be tonight, but I’m sure it’ll be fun. It couldn’t be clearer that coming here for this week during my brief time back in America was a very good decision.