Without a doubt, I’ve been to more places and more kinds of places this year than any other year in my life. To close out the year, I’ll compose a list of every city or town I was in this year in alphabetical order.
Of course if I were to include every single town I passed through by car or by train the list would be enormous, so I’ll make the cut-off time one hour. If I spent at least one hour in the city, it goes on the list. That means my 1:15 flight layover in Chicago counts (I did see the skyline so that city was a part of my experiences for the year) but my 15-minute train changeover in Baden-Baden does not.
I returned last night from my last major travel adventure of a year chock full of them. I’d been itching to see another part of Japan ever since I arrived in August, but working five days a week makes that somewhat difficult, not to mention the fact that I haven’t had much time to save up a great deal of money yet so the spending-sprees must be kept to a minimum. It was a costly trip, but worth every yen.
Kyoto is like the Rome of Japan in that thousands of years of history are all right next to each other with the ancient and the modern meshed together wherever you go. It was the capital of Japan from the 800s to the 1800s, so there is a great deal of history to be found. Unfortunately, I’m not nearly as familiar with Japanese history as I was with Roman history when I went to Rome, so I couldn’t appreciate it as much. The overall feeling was simply one of profound satisfaction: This is it. I did it. I came to Japan and now I’m experiencing what it has to offer.
So I won’t go into quite as much detail as I did with the Rome trip, but I will post a great deal of photos as I snapped several hundred. The pictures will tell as much of the story as my words. [Don’t forget to let your mouse-pointer hover over the images to read the captions.]
After taking the bus from Togane to Tokyo I got my first taste of another uniquely Japanese experience: a ride on the Shinkansen (or bullet train). While expensive, the price is comparable to the Deutsche Bahn, but with the DB you can buy tickets at a major discount if you purchase well in advance of your trip, which doesn’t seem to be the case with the Shinkansen. Fare from Tokyo to Kyoto is 11,000 yen (about 140 USD), and the distance is 372 km. Coincidentally, the distance from Hannover to Offenburg is very close—about 412—and the non-discounted price on the Deutsche Bahn is 110 Euros, about 140 USD. But the Shinkansen is much, much faster than the ICE trains in Germany. It took me 4.5 hours to get from Hannover to Offenburg (if there were no delays) whereas it took less than 2.5 to get from Tokyo to Kyoto. Maximum speed of the Shinkansen is 300 km/hr (186 mph). Once the thing gets going you really feel like you’re riding a bullet.
I got another unexpected treat during the journey—I didn’t know this but the rain rides right by Mount Fuji, so I got to see the most recognizable landmark in Japan. It was tricky but I managed to get a photo. That was truly awesome.
I’d left Tokyo at 12:30 so I arrived in Kyoto at 3:00. The sun sets now at about 4:30 so I knew there wouldn’t be much time for sight-seeing on the first day, and my only plan was to find my hotel and check-in, then have dinner and walk around the city. Thanks to my I-phone I was able to orient myself towards the hotel without much trouble, and even check the internet to reassure myself that I knew exactly where it was.
Along the way I kept passing by interesting sights. I came across my first shrine within five minutes of leaving the station, just a tiny little thing on a side-street. The people passing by must have thought it curious that I was even bothering to take a photo when there must be thousands more just like it in the city.
I discovered to my dismay that my camera’s battery was nearly dead. I’d charged it before the bonenkei but apparently I’d drained it far more than I thought on that occasion. I hadn’t brought my charger, but I noticed an electronic shop on the way and considered stopping in to buy a new one but I also had my I-phone which can take pictures so I thought I could just settle for that.
About a block north of the electronics store I came to the first major Buddhist temple I’d see on the trip. Unable to resist, I walked through the gate and went inside to check it out and take sub-par I-phone pictures of the stuff there. I went inside the main temple (removing my shoes beforehand of course) and took in the awesomeness within, which unfortunately you are banned from taking pictures of. I got there just in time too, because they were closing the doors to the shrine with all the golden statues and artwork just when I got in, so I was able to catch the last glimpse of it.
I’d come to find that Buddhist temples in Kyoto are like churches in Rome. They’re everywhere, but when you go inside you can’t help but be overwhelmed with their aesthetic magnificence every time. But it’s more than just aesthetics—something essential about the spirit of the culture can be felt there. In those churches you just feel like this is distinctly Europe. In the temples it is distinctly Japan.
I went out the side entrance and circled back around to head out the main gate where I came in. As I was exiting an old Japanese man came right up to me with a smile, saying “Hello! Welcome to Japan!” This guy was just radiating friendliness, so I warmly greeted him and we got into a conversation. He wanted to know my impressions of Japan and what I thought were the differences between American and Japanese culture. He says he likes Americans because they are very honest and direct, unlike the Japanese. He also said that he doesn’t like British because they’re not direct either and often can be rude. But he agreed that these are just generalizations and there are very nice British people as well as rude Americans.
He said he’s learning English by attempting to translate sentences from novels, and he busted out three sheets of paper with translated sentences and asked me if I wouldn’t mind telling him if he got them right. I was slightly wary, worried that he might keep me all evening, but I agreed and sat next to him on the steps to the temple as he went through each sentence and asked me if they were correct. Most of them were perfect, but I was able to make a few corrections for him. It is my specialty after all, though I didn’t tell him I was an English teacher because he never asked. Occasionally he’d ask me what the meaning of a word was, and he seemed to get a little annoyed when it had the same meaning as a word he already knew. He knew the word “figurative” already, and asked me why English had to be so complicated and why we always had to use one word to mean something else. In English one word can mean many things, but he said that in Japanese one word just means one thing. I realized later that that’s not true at all—for example the word kami can mean paper, hair, or god—but I didn’t disagree with him at the time.
He had a very jolly laugh, which I heard frequently especially when explaining words like “lewd” or “cannibal”. He asked me if women can run around naked in America because he’d been to Miami Beach and there were lots of topless women but the police didn’t arrest them, and I explained that Miami Beach is just an exception. And he asked me if there are people in America who eat people, and while I said there weren’t he reminded me of Native Americans, some tribes of which did indeed practice cannibalism.
When we’d gone through all three sheets of seemingly random sentences from random novels, he thanked me and said goodbye, apparently not unaware of the rudeness of keeping someone locked in a conversation for too long. I got his name: Shoji, which I assume is one of those words with multiple meanings because I know it as “sliding door”.
Evening was turning to twilight as I headed up the road in the direction of the hotel, and in spite of the help of my I-phone it still took some doing to finally find it, by which time it was fully dark. I was staying at the “First Cabin” which I’d booked online beforehand. It was a “capsule hotel” but apparently much more upscale than most such hotels as I discovered later. The sleeping capsules were all relatively spacious, and while they had only magnetized curtains to open and close there was a lock-box under the bed to keep your valuables. The restroom and shower rooms were communal, but everyone got their own capsule (at least if you’d booked a single-room). The male and female sleeping areas were segregated, and the sleeping areas themselves were behind thick doors beyond which you were supposed to keep quiet. It being the middle of the week and probably an off-season, there were only a handful of other occupied capsules, so it was indeed very quiet except for the occasional ruckus on the street outside. There were no windows, so day was exactly the same as night in terms of lighting, which turned out to be very helpful in not waking up early.
But I didn’t stay too long when I first arrived. I just emptied my back-pack of the excessive clothes and went back outside and into the night. I walked around the block looking for a place to eat, and settled on an udon restaurant nearby. In Europe I always felt weird eating at a restaurant alone, but not at these places. There were five other men there when I sat down, also eating alone. It would seem that dining-out solo is extremely common in Japan, at least for men.
When I finished eating I decided I would head back to the electronics store and just see if they had a camera charger, because I wasn’t satisfied at all with the photos my I-phone was taking and figured it would be worth the price of a new charger to be able to take quality pictures of Kyoto. The photos would last forever, after all.
I went inside and showed my camera and battery to one of the people who worked there, and he knew exactly what he was doing as within five minutes he’d taken me to the counter where his colleague handed me the exact charger I needed and got me checked out. It was 3400 yen, but I did not regret the price. The charger I currently have is actually from Germany so I’ve needed to use both the charger and a bulky adapter up to this point, but this is small and much more conducive to travel.
I didn’t want to go out drinking because I wanted to be fresh for tomorrow, but I didn’t want to just go back to the hotel and go to bed so early (it was only 6:30) so I checked my I-phone map and planned a long route back to the hotel which would take me along the river. Along the way I was texting back and forth with Lily, the French girl I’d met at Ben’s Christmas Party who would be coming with her boyfriend Jack and two of her friends from France the next day. They were considering stopping at Nara first (Nara was the very first capital of Japan but for less than a hundred years) but I convinced them to do that on their way back because otherwise I’d barely get to see them. She said they could probably arrive about 1:00 the next day.
It was a lovely walk along the river and I took a few night photos, but my good camera was still dead so I had to take them with the I-phone and they didn’t come out well. But I was feeling very good, experiencing that old familiar buzz of being in a new city for the first time. I got back to the main road leading back to the hotel far sooner than I’d imagined, so I busted out the I-phone map again and decided to walk a good distance north to Nijo castle and then circle back around.
That turned out to be a very long walk indeed, and by the time I got there my legs were hurting and I’d already worked up another appetite. The castle itself looked very impressive but it was hard to tell in the dark. I figured I’d go back there the next day, then headed back to the hotel, stopping at a Chinese restaurant for a second dinner along the way.
I got back to the hotel at a respectable late hour of 9:00, and spent the next two hours in my capsule reading a book on Japanese history I’d downloaded to my Kindle a few weeks ago. I got to the part where they moved the capital to Kyoto while I was in Kyoto, so that was pretty cool. At about 11:00 I turned out the lights and had a nice long sleep.
Included in the price of my hotel stay was a breakfast, and while I was expecting little more than the standard continental breakfast-buffet, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that they actually prepare a bona-fide genuine Japanese breakfast for you including soup, a bowl of rice, some vegetables, and a strip of delicious fish. That filled me up quite nicely and fueled me for the whole first half of the day.
Before leaving I took advantage of the hotel’s wireless internet to boost the speed of my I-phone and do a little internet research on things to do in Kyoto. I had a week-old Facebook message from a girl named Yuki who lives in Kyoto and whom I’d asked for recommendations. She was a colleague of mine at the Doubletree in Santa Barbara before moving back to Japan, and while I would have really liked to have met up with her while I was there she said she had other plans. Though she’s always been nothing but friendly to me, I don’t think she likes me all that much but being Japanese she would almost certainly never come right and out and just tell me flatly that she has no desire to see me.
But she did give me a bunch of recommendations, one of which was just a block away from the hotel: Nishiki Market, a five-block stretch of shops where you can supposedly find every kind of food you can imagine and a whole lot that you can’t. I also looked up the “palace of the squeaking floor” which my Grandpa said was a must-see, and while nothing matching that exact phrase came up I believe I found what he meant and that it was actually in Nijo castle. So my plan for the morning was to head to Nishiki Market and then back to Nijo castle, which would hopefully take me to about 1 p.m.
I found the market quickly enough, and proceeded to walk through it and behave like a reverse-Japanese tourist by taking photos all along the way. It was indeed a phenomenon, but I’m afraid pictures can’t adequately capture in any more than words can. The most distinct thing about this place was the smell—a very fishy aroma but mixed with other things, altering slightly between this and that as you walked along.
At the end of the market I came to an intersection with another enclosed street filled with shops of different kinds. But straight ahead was a Buddhist shrine so naturally I had to go in and take pictures, the most curious thing about it (other than the location) being a mechanical animal that moved around whenever someone put a coin in the slot. That’s one way to solicit donations.
I walked north through the shopping area, surprised to find another two Buddhist shrines along the way. The juxtaposition of commercial area and Holy Ground was alarming—one of the shrines was literally directly across from a sporting goods store. It would be like having a church in a shopping mall. But that particular shrine had a very amusing sign, as apparently its location does lead some tourists to believe they can shop there too.
I finally got out onto another main road and checked the I-phone to confirm if I just headed due west I’d eventually get to Nijo castle. It’s a wonder that I ever managed to travel without an I-phone. Before I got it I might as well have lived in the Dark Ages. Every time I was unsure of my location I’d have to unfold this giant and unwieldy map and stand there like an idiot looking around me for some street signs to hopefully match up with the streets on the map. In Japan that would be extremely difficult because most of the street signs—when there were any—are in Kanji. But with the I-phone you just open the map app, wait for a satellite to pinpoint your location, and bam you know exactly where you are. If you’re not sure which direction you’re pointing, just open the compass app and bam you know where you’re going. God bless technology!
When I was approaching the castle I noticed a lot of disappointed-looking tourists walking back in the other direction, and I grew apprehensive. There was a line at the ticket counter, so I didn’t lose all hope immediately, but I soon spotted a sign that said the castle was closed from December 26 to January 2. The most convenient possible dates! It turned out the line at the counter was for tourists to go up to the unfortunate lady there and get the news directly from her mouth that one of the most must-see sites in Kyoto just happened to be closed during the exact dates they were there, but can we at least get an information pamphlet?
I’d gotten a text from Lily saying they were running late and probably wouldn’t arrive until 3:00, and it was 11:30 now so I had much more time to kill. One of the other sites recommended by Yuki as well as the teachers at my school was the Kinkakuji, or “Golden Pavillion”. I-phone time. I checked the map and saw that it was quite a ways away to the north, probably at least an hour of up-hill walking to get there. And there were no subway stations anywhere near it. There was, however, a taxi right there outside the castle. I went up and asked the driver in Japanese how much it would cost to get there, and he answered me in English “about one thousand seven hundred”. In my mind I’d been thinking it would be at least three thousand, so this sounded pretty good to me and I decided to go for it. The ten-minute ride actually ended up only costing 1,530 making this the first time a cab-driver has ever over-quoted me. It only occurred to me a few minutes later that this was the same basic price as the much longer trip from Togane to Tokyo, and while my mind had been dwelling on the lack of a nearby subway station I’d forgotten the existence of busses.
But there was no use dwelling on it. Just another twenty bucks spent, and it wasn’t a complete waste as I got there much quicker and easier than if I’d had to figure out the bus situation.
So I headed up to the temple and paid the admission price (less than the cab fare) to go inside. It was a whole complex like most Buddhist temples with multiple buildings and shrines galore, but the main feature and the reason it’s such a popular tourist attraction is the pavilion out on the pond, an absolutely gorgeous building in the loveliest setting imaginable. According to the info pamphlet, the pavilion was originally built in 1220 though it’s since undergone several restorations. It’s three stories tall and each story is a different type of architecture, the 1st floor being “palace style”, the 2nd “samurai style” and the 3rd “Zen temple style”. If I knew anything about Japanese architecture I’d probably find that fascinating.
I got my obligatory pictures of me in front of the temple and posted one to Facebook (another super-awesome thing you can do with an I-phone). The guy I asked to take my picture was a white guy and I assumed he was American so I spoke English to him, but he didn’t actually say anything to me but communicated with only facial expressions. On the other side of the pavilion I heard him and the people he was with speaking German.
I figured “what the hell?” and went up to them. “Entschuldigung,” I said. “Sind Sie Deutsch?” Ja, apparently they were. “Woher kommen Sie?” Apparently they kommen from München, but they spoke High German well enough. So I got into a nice little chat with them and got to know what they were doing here and they got to know about what I was doing here. Apparently the girl is studying in Kyoto and her brother and parents were just there for the holidays to visit. How nice that they would do that even with all the radiation-phobia in Germany. They were going to Tokyo for New Years’ but didn’t know if there would be anything going on there, and I informed them that there would be fireworks at the Tokyo Sky Tree. When I told them that was in Asakusa they got excited because that’s where their hotel is, so that’s what they’ll be doing for New Years’. I hope I’m right about those fireworks—I only heard about it through Stephen so if I’m mistaken they’re going to be thinking bad things about me on New Years’ Eve.
But it was a pleasant little chat and I was pleased with myself for still being able to hold my own in German. It’s much much easier than Japanese anyway. The only problem is that now that I am speaking Japanese much more than German, the whole foreign-language part of my brain gets a little mixed up and I want to say a Japanese word like muzukashi (difficult) when I should say schwer, and I could not prevent myself from saying hai instead of ja, which I noticed them chuckling at. But still, I had to give myself a pat on the back.
A bit further up the pathway I was stopped by an Asian guy with a big fancy camera who asked me to take a photo of him with the pavilion in the background. I happily obliged, and afterwards when I started to walk away he came up to me and asked me if I was travelling alone. I said that I was alone until 3:00 at which point I’d be meeting some friends at the station. He was from Korea and travelling through Japan with friends but he’d told them to go on ahead as he wanted to visit Kyoto alone, apparently preferring solo travel because—among other advantages—you meet more people. I love solo travel too both for that reason and the fact that you get to plan your own itinerary and take in everything all on your own.
I asked him for his name and he said, “English name or Korean name?” as apparently it’s popular in Asia to have one of each. His English name was John and his Korean name was something very hard to pronounce and which I forgot, so I’ll refer to him as John. We ended up spending the next hour or so together, as I had no other plan until my friends came. After leaving the pavilion area we decided to just walk down the road and stop at the two or three temples along the way. I learned a bit about Korea from him and he learned a bit about America—as well as a little about Japan because this was his first time visiting—from me. He was a great guy and luckily appreciated my American sense of humor, which I found interesting because the Asian sense of humor is so different. But he even likes shows like South Park which is about as American as it gets.
The first temple we came across was small but beautiful, and absolutely no other tourists were there. They were all up at the Golden Pavilion, and this place was tucked away nice and secret. We could have gone inside for 500 yen but he’s a student and therefore has to pinch every penny so we didn’t.
While there I got a text from Lily saying they’d actually be arriving at 2:00, and since it was now 1:15 and we were as far away from the station as it gets I figured I had to start heading back. A cab ride would be just too expensive so we found the nearest bus-stop and asked the people there to help us figure out which busses to take. To do the next thing on his list, John had to take the bus before mine, so I bid him farewell and that was the last I saw of him. I typed up my name on his I-phone and told him to find me on Facebook though, so I’ll probably be hearing from him soon. God bless technology.
The bus ride was about 40 minutes and I ended up arriving at the station at about 2:15, which was perfect timing because Lily and the others arrived at the same time. After some texts and phone calls back and forth we finally found each other at the entrance, and for the rest of the day it was no longer solo travel.
Lily’s boyfriend Jack is American and her two other friends are from France: Hugo and Gauthier (pronounced like ‘Gucchi’). They were nice guys and spoke surprisingly good English though not as good as Lily who speaks perfectly.
The first thing we did was find a place to eat, and settled on a Chinese restaurant of the same chain as the one I’d eaten at the night before. I’d only ever hung out with Jack and Lily at the party two weeks ago and then it was only briefly, so I got a much better sense of the dynamic of how this group would be during our meal. The two guys kept pretty quiet, while Jack pretty much constantly cracked jokes, most of which were quite funny. Lily and Jack were very affectionate and playful, but not so much so that it was annoying. It was a nice group overall.
It was after 3:00 by the time we finished eating so most of the tourist things would be closing, and I suggested we head to the Nene no michi (the path of Nene) which is something Yuki recommended and which sounded awesome when I looked it up in the morning. They had a French guidebook for Kyoto but it wasn’t in there, but I showed Jack the description of it on my I-phone and he agreed that it sounded very cool. It’s basically a long strip of road in East Kyoto, starting with a shrine and ending at a temple, where modern architecture is banned so it’s all old-style buildings. I figured it would be perfect for an evening stroll.
One thing I quickly discovered about this group is that they don’t like to walk, so we found the nearest tram station and rode it two stops to the road leading up the Yasaka Shrine where the Nene no michi begins. Another thing about the group is that it gets easily distracted, but that’s mostly due to Lily who not only likes to shop but likes to check out all the cute little souvenirs she comes across. There being a large number of souvenir shops leading up to the shrine, it took us a little while to get there.
But we got there by 4:00, giving us a half-hour of sunlight and half-hour of twilight for the walk. The Yasaka shrine was pretty cool, but from there I wasn’t exactly sure which way to go so I asked some of the Japanese workers there to point us in the right direction whenever I wasn’t sure.
One of the curious differences between Kyoto and Tokyo is that the people in Kyoto actually speak English whereas in Tokyo they almost never do. Even though I always asked for directions in Japanese, nearly every single one of them responded in English, even if their English was poor. The Japanese people in Tokyo probably speak just as well as in Kyoto, but for whatever reason the Kyoto people are less shy about putting their English to use.
We eventually found the path and headed down it, also turning off to head up some stairs to a temple at the top of a hill with a giant statue against the mountainside and very awesome view of the city below. It would have been nicer if there had been a bit more light, but it was still pretty breathtaking. The coolest part was seeing all of the old-style roofs in the foreground and all the modern architecture in the background.
We headed back down and to the final stretch of the Nene no michi just as twilight was turning to night, and Lily stopped at more souvenir shops and Gauthier stopped at a place selling some interesting food called mitarashi dango, which Jack explained were balls of rice meal drenched in a sweet sauce. They smelled delicious and Gautheir said there were good so I got some as well. They were okay but nothing spectacular.
We were very close to the Kiyomizu, which Jack said was Kyoto’s most famous temple. He’s only 24 but he’s lived in Japan for 5 years and has been to Kyoto once before so he knew the most about it out of all of us. He said it was a big temple on stilts and very impressive, but as there was no sunlight left we decided not to go. I put that on my list of things to see the next time I come to Kyoto, along with Nijo castle.
After some discussion it was decided that the next destination would be a place called Loft, which was just a department store but apparently with a lot of crazy things to see. The deciding factor in going there was the fact that it was open until 9:00.
We took the subway to the center of town and then started heading toward the store, Jack discovering along the way that it was actually closer to the subway station we’d departed from, but we got to see plenty of cool things along the way. We were back at the same enclosed shopping-space that I’d been to in the morning after passing from Nishiki market.
Jack was shocked to come across a Shakey’s Pizza there, as that’s an American pizza chain you can’t even find on the East coast, but the group decided we’d eat there after the Loft. I’d already eaten Japanese food in Kyoto and I like pizza, so I didn’t argue. At least it wasn’t McDonalds, though apparently their group had eaten at McDonald’s several times throughout their travels.
We got to Loft at 7:00 and to me it looked like just another department store, but I was having fun so I didn’t care. Lily wanted to do some shopping so we agreed we could split up and meet back downstairs at 7:45. Lily wanted to make it 8:00 but I couldn’t imagine spending a whole hour at a department store. It turned out we did anyway.
But it actually was a lot of fun. I hung out with Jack the whole time and we just made amusing comments about all the things we came across, like at the section of diaries where they had a specific diary for everything, including a wine journal. I like wine as much as the next guy, but the idea of recording every type of wine you drink in a journal just seems like the quintessence of snobbery to me.
At any rate, Lily found a few things to buy and Hugo got something as well, and by 8:00 we were out the door and on our way to Shakey’s. There you paid about 900 yen for all-you-can-eat, going up to get fresh slices of pizza whenever they put out a new pie, as well as spaghetti or—probably unique to the Japanese Shakey’s—curry rice. Gauthier made the mistake of going for some curry rice, which fills you up much faster than pizza and is undoubtedly the reason they include it. But I stuffed myself with mediocre pizza (thankfully most of it was meat-free) and got my money’s worth. The conversation was pleasant and filled with Jack’s humor, and before we knew it we’d spent an hour and forty-five minutes there.
At 9:45 we were back outside, and the next thing the group decided to do was go into an arcade. There were about seventeen arcades spread throughout that shopping area so we had no trouble finding one (called “Game Panic”) and we went in and played some racing games. Only four people could play at a time so I opted out of the first one but tried my hand at Mario Kart, which I’m an expert at on Wii but which is much much different at an arcade so I only came in 3rd. The only other money I spent was on one round of Pachinko, which I’d never tried before so figured I had to at least once. I found it to be just as stupid as I’d thought it would be when I heard it described—just shooting dozens of little marbles into the game area and hoping they bounce of the pegs just the right way to earn you points. Its cousin pinball is only ten-thousand times more fun.
One of the Japanese workers approached Lily and told her she wasn’t allowed to take pictures, so I got away with the ones I took.
After that they decided to start working on getting to their hotel which was on the other side of town. All their bags were in lockers at the station so it was going to be quite a slog and full of subway-riding, and it was late enough for me so we parted ways and I headed back to the hotel to get in one more hour of reading before passing out.
There were a few more people at the hotel on my second night, and much to my dismay one of them was a snorer. But I turned the air vent on in my room and covered my ears with the headphones they have for TV-watching and that was enough to drown out the sound and get me to pass out.
I tried to sleep as late as possible as Jack and Lily warned me they’re late-sleepers and might not be up until 10:00. Ah, the young ‘uns. That’s how I was at 24 as well, but somehow in the last three years I’ve completely transformed from a night-person to a morning-person and now I can hardly sleep past 7:00 let alone 10:00. If I’m tired enough I can sleep until 8:00 but that’s it, and that’s how late I slept that morning but I stayed in bed until 8:45.
I shaved, showered, and had breakfast and was ready to check-out of the hotel at 9:45. One of the things we said we’d be doing in the morning was going to the Geisha village, and I tried to figure out where that was with the internet on my I-phone and found the road that was mentioned. It was directly west of where I was, and I knew their hotel was west, so I figured I’d just walk there and hopefully they’d wake up and meet me there with good timing.
It was a very pleasant walk through the cold, clear, Kyoto morning. Naturally I planned my route to take me by some temples and shrines along the way. These were smaller ones with no tourists at all, so I felt self-conscious taking pictures while the faithful went there to drop their coin, ring the bell, and say their prayer (lord only knows to whom), but I did anyway. I dropped a coin in myself in compensation.
I arrived at the stretch of road that the internet had led me to believe was the Geisha district but there was nary a Geisha in sight. It was now 10:45 and there’d been no word from Lily & Co. yet so I decided I’d better just make plans without them. There was a nearby train station so I went there and figured out how to use the train and subway to get back to the eastern part of town where I’d walk south through a park with a bunch of temples and eventually get back to the Nene no michi and the Kiyomizu. Once I’d seen the Kiyomizu I’d be finished and then head home, whether or not I met up with the group again.
While I was on the train, Lily texted me at 11:00 informing me they’d overslept and it would be at least another hour before they were ready. I said I was heading to the Kiyomizu but to let me know their plans and maybe I’d change mine and meet up with them if it wasn’t too much trouble.
I somehow got to where I wanted to go without any trouble at all, proud of myself for figuring out the Kyoto public transportation system all on my own, and I headed from there up a hill where I quickly came across another temple complex. Obviously, I had to go inside and take a bunch of pictures, so that’s exactly what I did. I took off my shoes, went in and paid the 500 yen entry fee, then went inside to the awesome Japanese-as-can-be building and read the information sheet I’d received with my ticket.
The place is called Sho-ren-in which belongs to the Enryaku Temple in Mt. Hiei, which is apparently the main temple of the Tendai Buddhist sect. There was no date of construction on the sheet but luckily we live in the age of Wikipedia so I could find out it was constructed around the year 800. So yeah—damn, that’s old.
You could walk in and out and around this place, which was as lovely as can be with gorgeous Zen gardens complete with waterfalls and koi. You had to keep taking your shoes off and putting them back on again, but that was a small price to pay to take in this scenery.
I got my fill of that and then continued up the hill, getting another text from Lily informing me that they’d be going to Pontocho, the Geisha village, which was very close to me. Apparently I’d researched the wrong Geisha village that morning. I checked and it was indeed just a 15-minute walk from where I was, but at that point I had arrived at the top of the hill and there was a gigantic gate with a freakin’ stairway to heaven beyond it just beckoning me in. I called Jack and said I had to check this out and he said to take my time because it would probably take them awhile to get there as well.
So I went up the stairs and into yet another giant temple-complex—this one called Chion-in—and it was the most impressive one I’ve seen by far. There were giant shrines everywhere and at least three temples spread throughout the area. I heard chanting coming from one of them so I took off my shoes and walked up the steps to peek inside. There was a giant golden Buddha and a monk sitting off to the side chanting and striking something with a mallet every couple of minutes, and a few faithful knelt at the altar getting their Zen on. As tempting as it was to take a picture, I decided not to be disrespectful.
I circled around the main building which looked like a palace made completely of wood, and when I got to the back I noticed an entrance similar to the other temples with boxes for people to take off their shoes. I didn’t see any tourists walking around there so I wasn’t sure I could go in, but there were no signs in English telling me I couldn’t so I decided to go for it.
I managed to walk around for a good five minutes, even stealing one very nice photo of the place, before a monk spotted me and made an X with his hands and said “No”. I immediately launched into ignorant-tourist-mode, giving him the sumimasen and gomen nasai and even using the word deguchi for exit, which he gladly showed me to. He showed no anger but I’m sure he was annoyed. But seriously—that must happen a hundred times a day. If they don’t want tourists entering they really ought to put up English signs.
In any case, I walked back to the main area and down some steps, ready to start heading to Pontocho, but there was an entrance to a Zen garden right there and I couldn’t resist. So I paid the 300 yen for entry and went inside. There were a couple of Japanese women on a bridge looking down at the water and remarking at the size of the enormous fish in the pond. They were indeed the largest fish I’ve ever seen in such a pond, which was appropriate as it was part of the largest temple.
The pamphlet I got from the Zen garden (was I supposed to pay for entry to the other part?) is what informed me the place was called Chion-in, built to honor Honen (1133-1212) the founder of the Jodo Buddhist sect. It’s the main temple of Jodo Buddhism (which I’d never heard of before).
The Zen garden was quite lovely, but somehow not as charming as the one at Sho-ren-in. I got my pictures and then stood at the pond for a moment, attempting to get some Zen going but distracted by all the other tourists taking pictures, and then my phone buzzed informing me that the others were almost at the Sanjo station near Pontocho.
From where I was it would take me about 20 minutes to walk there, but there were taxis right at the bottom of the temple steps and fare to the station was ‘only’ 640 yen so I took one and met the others just shortly after they got there.
From there we had to head back across the river and then through some side-streets to get to Pontocho, where supposedly there would be Geishas doing their whole Geisha-thing. We were slow to get across the river because everyone—myself included—wanted to take pictures. We definitely took our fair share.
We got across the river and found ourselves walking down a very nice road where we again had to stop and take pictures.
Finally, we found our way to the street where the Geisha village was supposed to be, and—you guessed it—took pictures.
We continued to walk down along the street but just like for me in the morning, there was not a Geisha in sight. It must not be Geisha season. What we did find were cats. Cute little cats and kittens in a little opening between two buildings with stairs that led down to the river. Naturally, photos were obligatory.
We got to the end of the whole road without spotting a single Geisha, but it was still a nice road so it wasn’t like it was a waste. It was about 1:30 now and I was getting hungry. They hadn’t eaten breakfast so they could eat too, and while we’d just passed about two dozen Japanese restaurants on that road we’d been walking down, the others wanted to go to Burger King. Having never been to a Burger King in Japan before (they are just as rare here as they are in Germany) I figured I wouldn’t argue—it’s still a new experience.
Turns out Burger King in Japan is a lot like Burger King anywhere else, only according to the others it tastes better. I had a spicy chicken sandwich with teriyaki which I’ve never had in any other Burger King so I couldn’t compare, but it was definitely very tasty. Better than the Chinese food from before anyway.
It was 2:20 when we were finished, and the next item on their list was the Manga Museum. Not being into manga at all and wanting to get home at a reasonable hour, I bid them farewell and began my long journey back to Togane. I’ll see them again soon, if not on New Years’ Eve then on January 2, when they’ll be back in Togane and I’m invited to come out to eat with them.
And that was pretty much the end of my first trip to Kyoto. I took the subway back to the main station, and when I asked one of the workers there where to go to buy Shinkansen tickets he just dropped everything he was doing and took me to a machine where he completely walked me through the process. Not only that, but he pointed me in the exact direction of the track I needed to go to and wished me a pleasant journey. I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this before, but the Japanese people are extremely friendly, helpful people.
The Shinkansen ride through the sunset was a pleasant experience, and after a quick and painless changeover to the bus in Tokyo (which I made by exactly 3 minutes before I would have had to wait another hour) I was on the way back to Togane. I left Kyoto at 2:52. I arrived back in Togane at 6:17. You can go places fast in Japan.
And that was the last big journey of 2011, though not the last adventure. That will come tomorrow night when I go with Trey and a whole bunch of others back to Tokyo to a giant party at a place overlooking the bay that apparently has acrobats and will be raging all night long until the first sunrise of 2012 rises over the land of the rising sun. I’m not sure what I did to deserve a year this incredible, but an incredible year it has most certainly been.
I wrote to my boss at Interac yesterday to find out if it was okay to take pictures at my school’s bonenkai (end-of-the-year party) and got the go-ahead, so I’m pleased to present you with a rare opportunity to actually see the people I work with!
In spite of the mild cold that’s been lingering all week, I was very much looking forward to the bonenkai. The last party with colleagues I went to had been a bit of a disappointment, but because this was the special end-of-the-year party and we were having it at a hotel in Narita where anyone who wanted could spend the night and thus not have to worry about driving home, I knew there was much more potential for some serious loosening-up on the part of my normally always very serious and professional colleagues.
I got a ride to the hotel with one of the teachers who was at my welcome party back in September, and he also drove the school groundskeeper who is an extraordinarily nice and friendly person, and whom I learned on the ride also loves to travel. When he found out I was from New York he got very excited because that’s one place he really wants to go. Apparently he’s a big Yankees fan and wants to see a game at Yankees Stadium, though unfortunately for him that’s probably almost as expensive as flying to New York at this point.
It was strange to be back in Narita for the first time since orientation week, but at least it wasn’t the same hotel. But the ratio of Japanese-to-foreigners in the town of the international airport, especially in a hotel, is almost one-to-one so it’s like a completely different world. But in the room where the party was held, the ratio was the same as ever: about fifty to one.
Seating was determined by random draw, which I’m now learning is usually how it’s done in Japan, and I got seated at the end of a table right next to where all the top administrators were sitting (though I doubt that happened at random) and coincidentally next to Mrs. S- which made communication much easier. We waited for everyone to get there and at about 6:30 it was time to pour drinks and do the kampai.
Almost immediately after the toast, we all filed out to the hotel buffet to fix ourselves plates for dinner. Unlike at the last party the food selection was decidedly un-Japanese, and I ended up eating some salmon, rizzoto, and broccoli and cauliflower. Maybe it’s the cold, but the food was terribly bland and flavorless, and somehow the broccoli and cauliflower was the best part.
As with the other party, not everyone was drinking because not everyone was spending the night at the hotel. But a lot more of the men were getting a lot more drunk than the other time and the mood was considerably more jovial. There were the tiny glasses like before that every few minutes someone would come to top off my beer, but after dinner one of the school administrators offered me a glass of whiskey so I switched to that.
It being a Japanese party, there naturally had to be some special events. The first was a game of Bingo in which the winners would come to the front and draw a number from a box to determine which of the presents every teacher had bought and wrapped for the party they would get. Unfortunately no one remembered to tell me about this so I hadn’t brought a present, but apparently that didn’t exclude me from the Bingo game. They had an actual electronic random number generator for the Bingo and the teacher who drove me was the one who operated it. It took awhile but eventually people started winning and going up to get their presents, many of them kind enough to pose for me when they did.
I got my Bingo late in the game, at the same time as four other people, but I made sure to get my victory picture taken as well. My present was a little piggy-bank in the shape of what looks like a Pokemon character. Other people got things as random as a pillow, some kind of cooking-set and an umbrella.
The second event of the night was a competition between the first, second, and third grade teachers. One teacher from each grade would come to the front and answer a few questions determined by each of the school’s departments, so there would be a math round, a history round, and so on. For the music round, the teachers would be shown a picture of a famous composer and had to write down who it was. I actually knew the first one—Bach—when none of the competing teachers did, but I didn’t recognize any of the others. Every few rounds, new teachers would come to the front.
For the English round, Mrs. T- had asked me to do something I did for the Jeopardy game with the students. All three teachers would be given the second-grade English textbook and I’d read a sentence from the chapter on Mother Theresa (yes, Japanese students apparently learn about Mother Theresa in English class), and they’d have to find the sentence and read the next one. The hard part was that they’d have to understand my directions in English, and then pronounce the English words properly. I had Mrs. S- take a video of that part.
The most interesting round to me was the Japanese round, as the teachers would all be shown a rare kanji and have to write what they thought it was in hiragana. It hadn’t occurred to me because I’m so illiterate in Japanese, but even native Japanese people don’t know all the kanji.
I think the first-grade teachers won the competition but I’m not sure. After that, there was some time for just plain and simple drinking and mingling. One of the women who had been running the competition, the one with the glasses in the santa-hat, sat down next to me and did her very best to strike up a conversation with me about music. She did very well and we had a nice chat. Apparently her favorite musician is Michael Jackson (at this point it’s pretty clear he’s way more popular in Japan than in America) but she also likes rock music and told me she likes Green Day, apparently having noticed that they were on the mix CD I’d been giving the students as presents.
Incidentally, the super-cute secretary was there as well but her complete lack of English-speaking ability made it impossible to interact with her beyond asking her to snap a couple photos of me. (She’s the one whose head is in the foreground of the video).
Mr. I-, the teacher who had helped me out during the whole lost-key fiasco, had arrived late to the party and when he did was immediately poured a glass of beer and hovered over as he proceeded to drink a few sips and then have it topped up over and over again, apparently in an effort to get him caught up to the other drinkers. During the last part of the evening I and the aforementioned female-teacher got into a conversation with him about what our favorite and least favorite classes were. It’s interesting that we all basically have the same impression.
Eventually it was time for the single hand-clap to signify the end of the party, but apparently it wasn’t over yet. Mrs. T- explained to me that this was just the end of the “first party” but the “second party” would continue for everyone who stayed. Most of the teachers went home (mostly the women) but those of us who were drinking and planning to spend the night stayed behind, including the top administrators. I went out to the lobby to say goodbye to those who were leaving, but got distracted by the giant plastic Santa.
Back in the party room, things were finally getting to where I’d hoped they would from the first time I heard about the concept of an enkai. Almost everyone who remained was drinking and by this point they all had a nice buzz. One of the two vice principals in particular was incredibly loose and jovial, such a radical departure from his normally serious-demeanor. He even drank a glass of whiskey with me. This was what I’d been hoping for: to see my colleagues with the mask fully off.
But it wasn’t too long before everyone started heading up to their rooms to go to sleep for the night. It was only about midnight and I wasn’t tired at all, but luckily Mr. I- and one of the other teachers, Mr. T-, were willing to consider possibly going out for more drinks somewhere in Narita.
After putting my things in the room we went down to the lobby and tried to get a few others to come join us, but it would just be the three of us. I looked up the word “adventure” in the Japanese dictionary on my I-phone—it’s adobencha.
We got in a taxi and told him to drive to the Narita train station. Oddly enough, I was actually the most familiar with Narita out of all of us thanks to the orientation week. I told them we could go to a karaoke bar (that would be the infamous “The Cage” that I didn’t end up going to) or to a British Pub (the infamous “The Barge Inn” where I had my first unsuccessful attempt at flirting with Japanese girls on the last night of training). They decided on the British Pub and I knew exactly how to get there from the station.
So there I was once again at The Barge, a place full of memories that I never expected I’d return to, but being there again was really cool. Naturally I had my eye open for Ame, Yuka, and the other two girls from that momentous night, but they were nowhere to be found. I bought a round of drinks for the three of us and sat down at an empty table.
Mr. T- was so tired that he was passing out after just one beer, but Mr. I- stuck it out with me for two beers, having a very easy time communicating as we chatted about various topics including women. As we haven’t said two words to each other since the welcome party, it was nice to be socializing with him again and to confirm that we’re still on good terms.
I was pretty drunk at this point and loose enough to go up to other tables of people and invite them to join us, including one group of three Japanese girls and one guy, but they just said they would come “later”. Translated into Japanese and then back to English that means “never”.
Mr. I- explained that it’s just Japanese culture—people like to stick with their own groups and are not so inclined to want to meet new people. Another one of the negative cultural qualities they share with Germans. But it didn’t bother me that no one would join us—I was proud of myself for even being outgoing enough to try.
At the end we found a group of guys who were willing to chat with us but by then it was late, we were very drunk, and the bar was closing soon. We exchanged a few words that I can no longer remember and got some nice drunken photos with them and that was that.
Mr. I- generously paid for the cab ride back to the hotel and we promptly passed out once we got back to the room. Not having drunk any water the whole night I had a nasty hangover which is still lingering, but it was a great night and worth the price I’m paying now. As we left the hotel room Mr. I- asked me to check if I had everything, and I took out my key and showed it to him. He got a good laugh out of that.
I managed to make it all the way back to Togane without throwing up in his car, so everything was a complete success.
And that was the last school-related event of 2011. It’s officially the winter holiday now, and as much as I love school it will be nice to have a break. Thanks to last Saturday’s party at Ben’s house I now have official plans for Christmas and the following week. Tomorrow and Sunday I’ll be in Tokyo with Lily and Jack and some of their friends, and I’ll be meeting them in Kyoto next week. Trey is throwing what promises to be a wild New Years’ Eve party that will start in Togane and head to Tokyo and presumably last straight through until the first sunrise of 2012. It’s been one hell of a year, and it looks like it’s coming to an appropriately awesome end.
I’ve had no desire to write about politics in recent months, but the National Defense Authorization Act that passed both houses of congress last week with overwhelming bipartisan support is something so egregious and abominable that I feel obligated to express my outrage over it.
This is quite possibly the most despicable and inexcusable act of congress in American history. It spits in the face of the founding fathers and destroys the core principles this country was founded on. The ghost of King George is laughing at how two hundred and fifty years after freeing themselves from his monarchy, the colonies voted to restore the same despotic powers they had rebelled against.
The Americans of the 18th century fought bravely and spilled their blood to win certain rights they believed to be inalienable. One of the most important among these was the right to defend oneself in a court of law. For thousands of years, in civilizations across the planet, enemies of the Emperor or the King could simply be taken away and thrown into a dungeon without ever being told what they were charged with let alone given a trial, but what happened two and a half centuries ago was revolutionary—the colonies won their independence and for the first time in human history a government was founded on the principle that no individual person should have such Absolute Power.
That is what The United States of America is all about. That’s why for hundreds of years no matter what sins our government may have committed—the extermination of Native Americans, slavery, wars of imperial aggression, the oppression of the lower classes for the benefit of the wealthy—Americans still had reason to be proud of our country. We were the first nation founded on an ideal: that human liberty is sacrosanct.
Now that founding principle is a mere pen-stroke away from annihilation. The president need only sign the document in front of him, accept the powers his office was deliberately designed to lack, and The United States of America as we know it will be officially dead.
You might say that I’m over-stating the case. The new legislation does not grant the executive branch the power to do anything it hasn’t already been doing for at least a decade. We’ve already been using the fight against terrorism as an excuse to spy on our citizens, detain people indefinitely, and assassinate terrorism-suspects without a trial. Why make such a fuss over a bill that only legitimizes the powers that the president has already been using?
I’m saying that it’s precisely the legitimization of the powers that makes this so terrible. It’s one thing if the president exercises extraordinary powers in violation of the law. It’s another thing completely if those extraordinary powers are the law. When Obama took office he could have put a stop to these abuses and restored the executive branch to the same level of power it was originally intended to have, but instead he not only continued the blatantly unconstitutional and anti-American practices of the Bush administration but codified them. Once this is signed into law, we will officially live a country where the chief executive can throw any citizen in prison for life without a trial and the citizen will have no recourse whatsoever because this will be perfectly legal.
Welcome back to the British Empire.
The fact that there was no fight whatsoever over this—that the bill passed with overwhelming bipartisan support in both houses—is the most infuriating thing of all. Every single one of those lawmakers took an oath to protect and defend the Constitution and every single one of them violated that oath as completely and thoroughly as it could be violated. It may sound like hyperbole but it’s true: they are all guilty of treason.
They have destroyed the very thing that made America America, and because they did so quietly and without a fight, while everyone’s attention was on the dismal economy and their own personal financial struggles, they managed to do it without being noticed. There was no conflict, so the media barely covered it. The vast majority of citizens are unaware that their country has suddenly undergone a fundamental alteration of its very nature.
Perhaps you can say that practically speaking, this is not so devastating. Sure, in the abstract world of ideals and principles it is an outrage, but what difference does it make in the real world?
President Obama will probably not use the new powers any more than he did when they were unofficial. He will probably only target citizens for whom there is strong evidence are working with terrorists. Perhaps the next president will also use the powers responsibly, and the president after that. But can we really trust that every administration from now until the end of time is not going to abuse this power?
If we are realists, is it not realistic to assume that a future president will eventually succumb to the temptation to target a citizen and throw him in prison for life without legal recourse not because he is working with terrorists but merely because he’s a nuisance? Perhaps that journalist is too close to exposing a secret the president wants hidden—if it’s perfectly legal and risk-free to simply remove her, why not do it? Just say we have evidence to suggest that she’s working with terrorists. Perhaps that independent politician is becoming too popular and could threaten the president’s chances for re-election—why not accuse him of having ties to terrorists? No one will ever have a chance to prove it one way or another.
Perhaps that grassroots political movement which aims to restore the middle-class to prosperity in spite of the inevitable harm to corporate profits is becoming too powerful—why not accuse them of terrorism and get them off the streets? It may be an egregious abuse of power, but they will never have a chance to plead their case.
By our own hands, we’ve handed the real terrorists a victory as great as any they could have hoped for. In essence, we’ve said to them: “Your tactics have worked. We are so terrified of you that we are sacrificing the rights our country was founded on to keep us a little safer.”
Farewell, America. It was a great country while it lasted.
Yesterday was epic. Now I’m faced with the task of writing about it in the level of detail it warrants while attempting not to step on the toes of any of the people involved, which in this case won’t be so easy. I could make this a private entry but the story is too good not to share and too significant not to include in the publicly-available narrative of my life, as these events will no doubt be referenced repeatedly for some time. I could give just a bare-bones account of what happened and avoid the risks of going into detail, but that would neither be true to myself nor to the original intent of this blog. I’m already editing myself much more than I was when I started, but I still feel as though I’m providing a deeply honest account of my life as I live it in my own unique style of aiming to making anyone who cares enough to read about my experiences feel as though they’re living through them with me. This entry will be no different, and in the unlikely event that any of the people involved read it and take issue with something I’ve written here, they need only confront me and I will remove the offending material.
Act I – Akibahara
I’ve had the intention of going to Akibahara, a district of Tokyo world-famous for its electronic shops, for several months. My external hard-drive needs at least 120 volts to run, but Japanese sockets have only a 100-volt output. Converters which reduce voltage are easy to come by, but converters which boost voltage are a bit harder to find. Neither of the electronic shops in Togane have them, but I’ve been told that if you’re looking for any piece of electrical equipment, you can find it in Akibahara. If it’s not there, it doesn’t exist.
The trip kept getting postponed week after week for various reasons, but that ultimately ended up working very much in my favor, as last week when I met Diana at the Togane International Friendship party and invited her to come to Tokyo, she couldn’t come the next day but she was able to make it the following weekend—yesterday—the day we finally went.
In keeping with my tradition of always getting sick at the worst possible times, I started coming down with a cold on Thursday. I called Diana on Friday evening to warn her that I might be contagious and if she decided not to come I would understand. She said that if I was going she would go, but thanked me for the courtesy of warning her about the germs.
Luckily the cold has been extremely mild, and my only symptom yesterday when I went to meet up with her at the train station was a sore throat. We greeted each other warmly and then walked together to the bus-stop where the direct bus to Tokyo stops. There was a little Christmas event happening across the street, and I couldn’t resist trying to take a shot of the man in the giant-head costume. Diana, super-outgoing person that she is, brought me across the street and talked to the people there, giving us a chance to get our picture taken with the guy.
We chatted while waiting for the bus, and when we got on I paid for both of us which she graciously accepted. On the 1 hour 15 minute ride, we listened to some music on her I-pod as I’d thought to bring one of those splitters that allows you to plug two sets of headphones into a single jack. It was some Japanese pop singer whose name I don’t remember, but it was surprisingly decent. Not something I would ever listen to on my own initiative, but enjoyable enough.
We were supposed to meet Stephen at the entrance to Tokyo station at 11:30 but he sent me a text saying he’d be late. Diana and I killed time by wandering around the station, but before we did we checked the schedule for when the busses would return. She suggested we shoot for the 7:35 bus but I said I’d rather leave an hour earlier because one of the other Togane ALTs, Ben, was having a Christmas Party that night which started at 6:00. Diana said that she’d heard people talking about the party and someone had asked her to come, so I said she should come and we could go together. So suddenly I’m not just spending the day with her but going to a party with her as well. Could the timing be any more fortuitous?
One of the things we had to bring to the party was a gift worth about 500 yen, and luckily the train station was full of gift-shops so Diana and I were able to take care of that very easily. After a bit of wandering, Stephen called me to announce he’d arrived, and we went to the exit to meet him. On the way, she remarked on how Japanese girls wear makeup all the time, but she thinks it takes too much time and only wears it on special occasions. She said she’ll wear it if she goes on a date. Um…don’t look now, Diana, but you’re kinda on one right now…even if you’re not aware of it. But at least that confirmed 100% that she isn’t married.
I was preparing for the hassle of figuring out how to get to Akibahara, but luckily Diana had been there once before and had a pretty good idea of what we needed to do. She double-checked with her I-phone but quickly determined that we just had to take one of the JR trains two stops and we’d be there.
When we got there the first thing we spotted was the AKB48 Café, which I was told by some people I should definitely check out and by some people that I should avoid at all costs. For those of you who’ve never heard of AKB48, they’re a Japanese pop-group consisting of forty-eight super-attractive young women who sing and dance in heavy makeup and skimpy outfits. Whoever came up with the idea is a very wealthy man, as they’re enormously popular and are likely to remain so for quite some time. Unlike other bands created purely for marketing purposes like N’Sync or the Spice Girls whose popularity fades as the members get older, AKB48 has enough members to be able to just kick the old ones out when their attractiveness fades and bring in younger ones, sort of like the Mickey Mouse club but with sex-appeal instead of cuteness. It’s a pretty disgusting concept if you ask me, but I don’t want to judge too harshly. Even the women who get booted will always be able to brag that they were in AKB48.
Incidentally, I finally learned what the AKB stands for: AKiBahara, where they do most of their shows in the theater beside the café.
So since we were there I figured we might as well go in and check out the place. We had to wait on a short line before a table opened up, and while we did Stephen and I discovered that Diana is actually a huge AKB48 fan. She was ridiculously excited to go inside, and when we got in she was grinning and gaping at everything, particularly the benches and tables autographed by real AKB48 members.
Aside from the TV-screens everywhere showing AKB48 videos and the incredibly-attractive waitresses dressed in the schoolgirl-like AKB48 uniform, it looked just like any normal café. But unlike most cafés, the clientele was almost exclusively male. Diana was one of only three or four females there, excluding the waitresses who were no doubt the reason most of the men came there. It was kind of like Hooters without the big boobs.
We each got a ridiculously over-priced beverage and chatted for awhile, mostly about AKB48. This was the first time I’d heard their music (at least while conscious of the fact that I was hearing it) and it was just as bad as I’d imagined. But I didn’t rain on Diana’s parade and just let her enjoy the videos, which I have to admit were at least quite pleasing to the eye. Stephen got a real kick out of just how happy she was to be there. Her girlish joy rubbed off on me as well, so in spite of the assault on my eardrums I was very glad to have come there.
After that it was finally time to go off in search of the elusive adapter that would allow me to use my German external hard-drive in Japan. Diana’s presence turned out to be invaluable in that regard, as she was able to explain what I needed in Japanese at every shop we went to, and translate to me what the workers there told her. This was quite the impressive feat considering her native language is Chinese, and while she confessed that it was hurting her brain a little, she held up very well.
Unfortunately, finding the required piece proved to be extremely difficult, even in the Electronics Capital of the World. Place after place just kept telling us they didn’t have it, though some helpfully pointed us in the direction of shops that might. We eventually came to a place that had all kind of voltage-adapters and it looked like we’d finally found the right part, but for some bizarre reason they wouldn’t let us test it before I bought it. It made no sense to me that the store would insist you buy something you couldn’t even be sure would work, but apparently that’s another element of Japanese culture I wasn’t aware of—they wouldn’t want to take the responsibility it didn’t work. They didn’t even want to sell me the thing because they were unsure if it would damage the hard-drive, but when I finally insisted that it would be my responsibility they let me buy it, but they still wouldn’t let me test it in their store.
We were all very hungry at this point, so we decided to find a place to eat and test it there. The first place we went to, it turned out didn’t have a single menu item other than soup or plain rice that didn’t have beef or pork in it, so we went to a sushi restaurant instead. That was delicious, and we had some very pleasant conversation there too. Once we’d had our fill of sushi I busted out the new adapter and gave it a test run on the electrical outlet in the wall, and for a moment it appeared to be working until the hard-drive shut itself off. I thought it might need a little while to get charged up, so I left it in the wall a bit longer, but it shut itself off again after the same amount of time.
So we went back to the shop and got a refund. Had we been allowed to test it there it would have saved everyone the extra hassle, but that’s just the way it goes.
We tried three more places, the last of which Diana made clear would be the last place we would try. She was getting tired of this and I couldn’t blame her. I had no idea it would be so difficult to find a particular electronic device in Akibahara. I’d assumed it would take a half-hour tops but we’d been searching for over two hours. When we came to the last place and the woman there said they didn’t have one, I decided to try something else and ask for just a basic voltage-converter which boosted the 100-volts from Japanese sockets up to what the hard-drive needed. Those were a lot more expensive than the adapter would have been, but after spending so much time on this I refused to go home empty-handed. The woman found a converter which boosted 100 Volts to 220 (the voltage in Germany) and I coughed up the dough and bought it. I hadn’t brought the cable I needed to test it, so I’d have to wait until I got home to test it.
It was now about 4:30 and we decided to start heading back. At the Akibahara station Stephen wanted to know if we were going back to Tokyo station or if he should just buy a ticket back home directly from there. Diana mentioned the Christmas Party and I said he was welcome to come if he wanted, and he said he was so we decided to go back to Tokyo station and all ride the bus to Togane together. I hadn’t thought he would want to come all the way to Togane for a Christmas Party but I was glad to have him along.
I sat next to Diana on the bus ride back and she dozed off while listening to her music, and I listened to music of my own. I was feeling pretty neutral at that point. She’d been just as warm and friendly with Stephen as she was with me, so I figured I’d just been misreading her last week and perceiving signals of attraction when there were none. This was probably just the way she is with everybody. That didn’t mean I didn’t have a chance or that I should give up, but at that point it felt likelier than ever that a casual friendship is all this is going to amount to.
But as I wrote last week, that would be a perfectly valuable thing too. At the AKB48 café we discussed what we were all doing for New Years’ and none of us had any solid plans but Stephen said he was thinking about going to the Tokyo Sky Tree where there would be fireworks. That sounded like a good plan, so both of us decided to join him. Being in Tokyo with two great people sounds like a perfect way to ring in the New Year whether or not romance is involved. Plus, Diana is going home to China for a month this year and some of that time will coincide with the school vacation, so I could visit her in China and she’d be happy to show me around and take me anywhere.
There was reason to be happy.
Act II – The Christmas Party
We stopped at a convenience store on the way to the party to pick up drinks and snacks to bring, as well as a cheap gift for Stephen to enter in the gift-exchange. He picked a magnet of a Japanese anime character, but the clerk at the counter wouldn’t let him just buy it but instead insisted that he pick a card from a box she had and open the back to see what the prize was. Apparently you couldn’t just buy the magnet—you had to win it. And you had to pay for the ticket first so if you really wanted the magnet you’d have to keep buying tickets until you got lucky. I thought it was absurd. If a person wants to exchange money for a particular item, such a transaction should be perfectly allowable. What’s the point of capitalism if you can’t buy something you want even if you’re willing and able to pay for it? But Stephen bought the ticket and instead of the magnet he got a little head-pillow with a different Japanese anime character on it, and while it looked pretty crappy we just had to settle for it.
I navigated the three of us through the cold to Ben’s apartment, which was already hopping when we arrived. Trey was among the first to greet me, surprised to see I’d brought another black guy. He jokingly told Stephen to go away because now there were too many. I introduced Diana to people but most of them remembered her from last weekend, Ben included. I saw a lot of familiar faces and a couple of new ones. I met a guy named Dan and a guy named Will as soon as I walked in the kitchen.
I quickly noticed that the male-to-female ratio was about the same as it was at the AKB48 café. Other than Diana, there was only one other girl at the party: Zintia, the Hungarian girl from the International Friendship party last weekend (whom I now know likes to be called “Cinty”).
Diana and Stephen both went off and mingled as soon as we got in, and I poured myself a whiskey and coke and proceeded to mingle as well, saying hello to some of the Japanese guys I remembered from previous encounters: Kio from the two music festivals and Atsushi from the Okinomiyaki night. I found out that one of Atsushi’s judo students goes to my school, a kid whose name I actually recognized so I knew who he was talking about.
Trey busted out a deck of cards and got a drinking game going on the floor of what I’ll just call the “green room” because Ben had somehow managed to get the kitchen draped in red light and the other room in green. I sat down and joined the action, Stephen and Diana joining as well but sitting on the other side of the circle. But from where I was sitting I could see the next card in the dealer’s hand and I helped Diana cheat her way out of the drinking penalty whenever it came to her. Trey’s game started out well but fizzled after a few rounds as people kept leaving. Andrew, the guy from Alaska I’d met at the hippie music festival, tried to start up a drinking game of his own but by then only Stephen and I were left to play. It was a pity because his game was much more fun.
Before long it was time for the gift exchange, and Ben had about as difficult a time getting everyone to shut up while he explained the rules as I do getting my students to shut up while I explain the rules of a classroom game. But it was pretty clear—everyone got a number and each person would pick one of the wrapped presents on the floor when it got to their number. You could either pick a new present or steal somebody else’s but no gift could be stolen more than three times. I was number 18 so I had the advantage of going very late. The most popular gift in the bunch was a slingshot Ben had bought, and it had been stolen twice by the time it was up to me, so I got to steal it and keep it for good. I can think of a few fun ways to use it in class.
When the gift exchange was over I finally found an opportunity to sit down by Diana and talk to her some more, although at that point I had to share her company with Dan, one of the guys I’d just met that night who seemed really nice but clearly had eyes for her. But the three of us talked and had a nice chat until the need for another drink or bladder-relief naturally split us up.
Trey came up to me and said, “Dude, I don’t think your girl is married.” I told him I knew. He then proceeded to give me advice. “You need to be more aggressive, man. Saddle up to her, keep talking to her and at some point take her outside and kiss her. I think she’s definitely into you and really likes you, but you just need to go for it.”
Trey is a wise man. I took a deep breath and resolved to do just that. Hearing from him that he thought she was into me gave me the extra confidence I needed, and at that point I had just the right buzz going to pull off the move I’ve never been able to make before: the leap from casual-friends to more-than-friends.
But just as I was about to go find her again, a new group of people arrived and were introduced to me. There was a French girl from Paris, another Josai student, and her boyfriend Jack who was one of the only American students at that university. They were a really nice couple and I didn’t want to leave them right away. The French girl, Lily, was interesting to talk to and we could compare our impressions of Europe. Although she’s from Paris and loves the city, I was surprised to hear that she agrees that the people there are snobs and it’s ridiculous that even the people who work at the train station refuse to speak English. I parted from them with a promise to talk later.
Before I could find Diana, I somehow got sucked into a political discussion with Trey about Obama’s chances in next year’s election. It was more of a lecture than a discussion as I could barely get a rebuttal in edgewise, but Trey was very persuasive and convinced me that Obama has a much better chance of winning than I’ve been thinking. When he leaves Japan his plan is to go to Stanford and get a master’s degree in law, then go into politics himself and maybe even run for office in California. It’s always nice to have a chance to talk politics as those chances are rare, but I had to pry myself away because it was getting late and I’d barely talked to Diana all night.
Now that I had the sole purpose of finding her and engaging in actual no-holds-barred flirtation with her, she was nowhere to be found. I looked everywhere twice and couldn’t find her, then I went outside and called her cellphone. She didn’t pick up, so when I got her answering machine I just left a message. “Hey, it’s Kyle. I can’t find you here so I guess you left. Sorry I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye. I’m glad you came tonight. I hope you had fun. I’ll talk to you soon. Goodnight.”
So I breathed a heavy sigh but figured it was for the best—I’d been spared the anxiety of having to actually try to make things happen with her—and there would be another chance another time. I walked through the foyer towards the main room when suddenly the door to the washroom swings open and who should emerge but Diana…and Dan.
Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the story of my life.
They both acknowledge me like nothing significant has just happened and she walks into Ben’s room while he heads by me towards the party. I can’t help but stop him and ask, “Hey Dan, are you interested in Diana?”
He obviously has no idea that I’d been going for her as well. “Uh…yeah,” he admits, understanding immediately. “Is that a problem? I’m sorry.”
“No, I mean…” I stumble. What the fuck had I even wanted to say?
“Shit, I’m sorry,” he says. “You were trying to get with her?”
“Well, yeah, kinda, but…I honestly don’t know what I’m doing.” Keep talking. “But hey if you’re into her and she likes you than go for it.” My heart doth protest but my mouth pays no heed. My head knows that it’s the right course of action. I have no more of a right to Diana than he does. She isn’t mine and never was.
“Really?” he asks. “Are you sure?”
“Yeah, of course.”
“Because I don’t want to be that guy. I’ve been on the other side of this situation more times than I can count.”
He’s just won me over. He deserves her more than I do. After all, he was the one who went for it. I hadn’t been aggressive enough and I let her slip through my fingers. To the victor…
“Yeah,” I say. “You should go for it. Honestly, no hard feelings.” I mean, I’m still going to despise you and everything but that’s not your fault.
“Thank you,” he says. “I appreciate that.”
Diana emerges from Ben’s room. “What are you guys talking about?”
“Nothing,” I say reflexively. I think it’s pretty clear what our topic of conversation was.
“Basketball,” Dan says playfully, then moves in to playfully tickle her, thus diffusing the whole situation. Good man. I don’t think I’ve ever loathed a fellow less-deserving of it.
Diana asks me if I have a cellphone charger and it just so happens I do. I go into Ben’s room and find it in in my backpack for her, then she plugs in her phone. I don’t know if it was dead or just dying, if she’d heard my call while making out with Dan or listened to my voice message after. These are things I’ll never know.
The next few minutes are all kind of hazy. I head to the kitchen table in search of more booze. Ben asks me what I’m looking for and I just tell him I need something strong. There’s a little bit of whiskey left in the bottle. I just finish it off and then grab a fresh beer.
Before I know it, Dan is getting ready to walk Diana back to her place. I say goodnight to him and Diana walks right up to me and gives me a very long, very warm hug. Through her embrace I perceive a mixture of mild intoxication and guilt. Our first hug, and it’s also our last.
I walk away as they proceed to get ready to leave, and Trey comes up to me with serious news: “Dude, did you know your girl is leaving with another guy?”
“Yes,” I say without bothering to mask how that makes me feel at all. “Yes, I’m well aware of that.”
“What happened, man?”
“I got distracted. I got held up in other conversations and another guy swooped in.”
Knowing he was partially responsible for that, he runs to the foyer and grabs Diana as she’s trying to leave. What the hell are you doing, Trey? The damage is done. Leave it alone. I make sure I’m totally out of sight during whatever exchange goes on between them. When he gets back he just comes up to me and tells me I wasn’t aggressive enough.
I know. That’s always my problem.
He says I shouldn’t feel bad because she wasn’t worth it. He calls her a nasty name she doesn’t deserve and which I won’t repeat, but that’s the end of that. I go find a place to stand and think.
Oh, hello darkness, my old friend. It seems you’ve come to talk with me again.
As I stand there staring at the fish-tank and contemplating who I am, I feel that old familiar emptiness, the same aching in my gut I used to feel in high school often. Oh goldfish, how I envy you. If my brain were as small as yours I would have already forgotten the whole thing by now.
The question is whether I should stay or go. I’m so tempted to just gather my things and slip away quietly without saying goodbye to anyone, to just head home and toss on some brooding music and do some serious wallowing. But I promised Stephen a place to crash. Plus, fuck that. It’s too familiar a pattern. I’m sick of it. I’ll just stay and try not to let my gloomy presence suck the fun out of everyone else’s night.
There are a few surprises left in store. Cinty, the Hungarian girl, has been in the process of getting together with Ben all night, but somehow her attention turns to me. She asks me how I’m doing and I’m drunk enough at this point to tell her honestly that I’m not doing well and what the reason is. She takes pity on me and asks me if I’d like to join her on the balcony for a cigarette. You have cigarettes! God bless your cancer-spreading heart!
So I join her for a smoke and find myself engaged in an incredibly unexpected emotional conversation with this girl I’d had such a hard time communicating with last weekend at the Friendship Party. Thanks to the alcohol and the fact that we now actually had something real to talk about, things are going much more smoothly now. She’s not just sympathetic but complimentary, telling me I shouldn’t care about Diana and that I could have any girl because I’m smart and handsome and funny and all that. If she’s trying to make me feel better, she’s doing a pretty good job of it. She even has me laughing a little. Who would’ve thought. This girl actually does have a personality. A damned good one too.
Once I’m shaken out of my initial slump, things become a little easier. I find myself in another conversation with Jack and Lily, the French girl and her American boyfriend. We’re discussing plans for Christmas and New Years’ Eve. It turns out that they and a small group of other Josai students are also going to the Tokyo Sky Tree on New Years’ Eve so Stephen and I can join them. (Diana probably won’t be a part of that now). But not only that, they’re also going to Kyoto that week, though on the days after I’d been planning to go. But they’ll be in Tokyo for Christmas and I’m welcome to join them, so I think that’s what I’m doing. I’ll cancel my reservations at the hostel I made and spend the holidays with this awesome couple and their friends. I won’t be alone on Christmas and I’ll ring in the New Year properly.
Cinty and Ben are clearly bound to hook up tonight and nothing is going to stop that train, but I still find myself smoking and talking to her on the balcony frequently, not just the two of us but with Ben, Stephen, or other random people as well. I’m so astounded by how wrong my first impression of her was that I actually come right out and tell her.
Back inside and near the end of the night, Ai and Miko come to the party. Those are two of the three girls from the okinomiyaki night, the hip-hop dancer who speaks decent English and the really beautiful girl who speaks almost no English at all. I’m actually loose enough and—thanks to Cinty—confident enough to try and flirt with Miko now, and while her reaction seems promising the language barrier is just too great. We do make a genuine attempt to try and communicate with each other but it doesn’t work. Oh well.
Finally, at around 2:00 a.m. a large group of people from the party including three Japanese girls other than Ai and Miko (who leave after a relatively short time) are getting together to go to a karaoke bar and Stephen and I are welcome to join. Neither of us feels like going but something tells me I should. I ask Trey for guidance. He’s not coming because there’s a Japanese girl with a one-way ticket to his bedroom hanging onto him, but he talks me into going with the group that’s leaving. I didn’t need too much convincing. My inner hobbit almost always gets me to err on the side of adventure.
Stephen and I take too long to decide so the group is already gone by the time we leave. We wish a goodnight to the few who remain at Ben’s place, and I call one of the people who went and find out where they were going. He says it’s a place right across from the train station so I assume it’s the same place where the infamous lost-key welcome party took place, and Stephen and I head there.
While we’re walking Stephen mentions Diana and says, “That was really funny when she left with that guy. I wonder what they’re doing tonight.”
“Actually, I didn’t think that was funny at all,” I tell him, and he guesses right away that I’d been interested in her, which I thought he’d already figured out. So I explain what happened, and that leads to another conversation about confidence and not selling myself short and all that stuff I’ve heard a million times already but never hurts to hear a little more. Stephen’s got a good heart. I felt comfortable enough opening up to him completely, even confiding the fact that I’m a virgin when he asked me what my longest relationship ever was and I had to explain I’ve never had any relationship.
But we leave all that shit at the door to the karaoke place when we arrive. When we get inside I barely have to use any Japanese to explain to the waitress that we think our friends are here—she leads us right to the room full of foreigners.
And for the next two or three hours it’s just pure and simple beer-drinking, food-eating, and bad-singing. The Japanese girls there sing a bunch of songs I don’t know, and once I finally figure out how to work the song-selection device I and the other Westerners sing a bunch of songs they don’t know. Some of the guys know songs that the Japanese girls know but I don’t. I would totally try and rectify that if I didn’t find the music to be so bad.
It’s actually the first time I’ve ever done karaoke. It always seemed like something I’d never do unless I was really drunk, but last night certainly qualified. Stephen had never done it either, but both of us found it surprisingly fun. I never fully shook off my depression, but I was able to enjoy myself in spite of it.
In case you’re wondering about the girls there, they were as uninterested in me as I was in them. One of them was getting cuddly with Andrew, but the other two just seemed interested in talking to each other and singing the occasional song. At that point I really didn’t care. One of them was cute but she never held eye contact with me for more than a second and it wouldn’t have mattered anyway because she couldn’t speak English.
We had our last call at around 4:30 a.m. and left shortly before 5:00. Luckily it’s just a five-minute walk back to my apartment, and this time I didn’t lose my key. Stephen crashed on my couch and we finished our conversation about women and relationships while passing out. I told him and he understands that I really don’t feel like I need a woman, that I love my life as it is, but it would be nice to have someone to share it with and it feels like I’m missing out on one of the most fundamental parts of human existence.
This morning I walked Stephen to the train station and saw him on his way, but not before testing my voltage converter to see if the trip to Akibahara had at least paid off in that respect. All I could do was laugh when it didn’t work.
We only got four hours of sleep but somehow it was enough and somehow, miraculously, the hangover wasn’t that bad. Rather than immediately go back and write this journal entry, I decided to spend the morning going to the beach and doing some good old-fashioned staring at the ocean and pondering life.
That was very pleasant. I didn’t come to any new revelations or anything, but merely confirmed what I’d told Stephen the night before. My life is fantastic. I live in a wonderful place, I have an excellent job, I know lots and lots of fantastic people and I’m meeting more all the time. So I let one chance for romance slip away from me. So what? It seems there will be other chances. It’s just that if the story of my life is anything to go by, I’ll probably fuck those up too.
It was a pretty good week at school, as well as one of the busiest. I had to do a full 45-minute lesson about Christmas for every single class, first-grade through third. I prepared something similar to my Halloween lesson, with a presentation phase in which I talk about the holiday and put up a few pictures, then have six teams compete through a series of worksheets to try and get the most correct answers and thus the high score. Unlike in all previous classroom games, I let them know that this time the winning team would get a prize.
I made the presentation phase a part of the game by finding a set of Christmas flashcards online which I reworked to fit my needs, printing three pages of 16 cards each, then laminating and cutting them up to distribute them to the students. After a brief warm-up phase in which I had the students do a row-by-row relay in which they all have to say “Merry Christmas” to each other I went student-by-student to let them take a card from the box and assign them a team number. The students then rearranged themselves to sit in tables with their teams, and Round 1—the listening round—began. I gave a short speech about Christmas and whenever I said anything that was on a student’s flashcard, they had to raise their hand and show me and if it was the right card their team would get two points. Oddly enough, the first- and second-graders were far better at this than the third-graders, which is because a large chunk of the third-graders don’t care and would rather talk to each other than listen.
Naturally, 3-1 was the first of all 18 classes to get the lesson and they were just awful, never shutting up the whole time. To make matters worse, Mrs. S- wasn’t there so I had to run the class all by myself. There were still a few kinks at that point but I didn’t alter it much over the course of the week and the same basic plan worked extremely well with many of the other classes so I’m definitely starting to think that it’s them and not me.
I was also supposed to talk a bit about New Years’ so after Round 1 I explained about Times Square and the count-down and got every class to count-down from 10 and shout “Happy new year!” with me. The first-graders were the most enthusiastic about this by far.
Round 2 was a simple cloze worksheet to check the comprehension of the students on the presentation I’d just made. There were twelve sentences about Christmas and they had to fill in the verbs which were in a box at the bottom. The third-graders were the best at this, but the first-graders had such a difficult time that I only tried it with them for one lesson and skipped straight to Round 3 from then on.
Round 3 was a basic word-search puzzle, and while the students worked on that I went through the cloze worksheet and added their new points to the score tally on the board. The final round was a worksheet where students had to make as many words out of the letters in “CHRISTMAS TREE” as possible. Examples: RICE, THREE, TEACH, MONTH. It’s amazing how many words you can make.
They had about 5 minutes for each worksheet, and the timing always worked out perfectly. When there were two or three minutes left in the period I’d stop them, ask the JTE to tell me how many words each team had and tally up the final points to determine which team would be awarded my Christmas present.
I came up with the idea to award real prizes to the winning teams over the weekend, as it is Christmas and this is the one time of year I can get away with giving actual presents. I’d heard of other ALTs burning mix-CDs for students but never in a school as big as mine. There’s no way I was going to burn 600 CDs so instead I bought 200 and made it a prize for the game. Because 1/6 of the students would be winners that left 100 CDs which I told the students at the end of class they could have if they came to the teachers room and asked me for them.
I deliberated for awhile over what songs to put on the CD, but ultimately decided on a sampling of some of my favorite bands—two tracks each (with two exceptions)—with newer stuff in the first half and more classic stuff in the second. I chose which songs based both on what I liked the best and what I thought Japanese middle-school students might like too (though with the exception of the song the second-graders did for the Chorus Contest I had to do a lot of speculation for that). This is the track list: 1- Green Day, Jesus of Suburbia. 2- Green Day, Wake Me Up When September Ends. 3- Smashing Pumpkins, Tonight Tonight. 4- Smashing Pumpkins – Here Is No Why. 5- Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Zephyr Song. 6- Red Hot Chili Peppers, Snow (Hey Oh). 7- The Who, Baba O’Riley. 8- Simon & Garfunkel, Scarborough Fair (the contest song). 9- Simon & Garfunkel, The Sound of Silence. 10- Israel Kamakawiwo’ole, Somewhere Over the Rainbow. 11- The Beatles, Ticket to Ride. 12- The Beatles, Hey Jude (everybody knows this one). 13- Pink Floyd, Wish You Were Here. 14- Pink Floyd, Shine On You Crazy Diamond parts XI-IX.
I listened to the whole playlist myself on Tuesday night and it’s a damn good mix if I might say so myself. All the songs lead nicely into each other even though it’s such a wide range of musical styles. Most of the students will probably dislike most of it, but I’m sure there will be at least something on there for everyone. (I was a bit nervous about the little bit of bad language on Track 1 but it’s not like the kids are going to even try and listen to the lyrics let alone understand them).
The best part of the week was giving the CD to the students who didn’t win the contest. The winners were happy of course, but when the students came to the teacher’s room just to ask me for it that felt extra-nice. It was surprising because the first-graders are the most shy of all the students, but it was mostly first-grade students who came to ask me, and barely any third-graders came at all. I think it might have to do with them being too proud at that age to come ask for something they failed to win. But there were a bunch of students I really like, students who go out of their way to say hello or interact with me, that I wanted to give the CD to who didn’t win, and occasionally I’d see them in the halls or even sneak into their classroom between periods and give them a copy. Most were surprised and grateful. The only problem was the swarm of other students who would sometimes come at me with open hands asking for one of their own. I ran out of CDs today so I’ll have to buy and burn a fresh batch this weekend.
Another cultural note: I had five CDs left when I entered the 2-1 classroom between periods today and handed three of them out to the students who most deserved them, and a bunch of other students crowded towards me for the final two. When I was down to the last one I announced that this was in fact the last CD, and suddenly the entire dynamic changed and nobody wanted to take it. Immediately everyone was offering it to the next person, as this is something deeply ingrained into Japanese culture: if there is one last piece of food on the plate you don’t want to be the one to take it. I kept offering it to student after student and they kept declining until one boy came up to me with a guilty smile on his face and took it to the laughter of everyone else.
The class that was probably the highlight of the week came this morning, as Mrs. T- was absent and there was some discussion about cancelling her 2-2 class because without her to translate for me or discipline the students should the need arise, the school administrators were unsure about letting me run the lesson on my own. Ms. Y- served as a translator between me and one of the higher-ranking teachers, whom I know from the faculty meetings is somewhere below the principal and vice-principal and above the department I’m apparently a part of. He seemed to be arguing for cancelling the lesson, but I insisted through Ms. Y- that 2-2 was a good class and that I could handle it, particularly with the Christmas lesson.
In the end the guy reluctantly agreed to let me do the lesson on my own, but he would stand in the back and monitor things. I went in there and conducted the whole lesson from beginning to end, and the class seemed to be on even better behavior than normal. I suspect they could tell what was going on and that I was being tested, and it was enormously gratifying to see that they were on my side and doing all they could to make it go well for me. They paid attention and struggled to understand me more than any other previous class, delving enthusiastically into all of my activities and laughing heartily at all of my jokes and antics. The teacher monitoring me actually left the classroom after ten minutes and stood outside the rest of the time, returning only for the last few minutes which went as perfectly as the rest of the class.
The other major point-of-interest this week was the shaving of my facial hair. I’ve been curious for a long time about whether or not the students and faculty would prefer me without my beard, but I wanted to wait until the week before the winter holiday to shave it because according to Interac I can have a beard or no beard but not be in that transition-phase of growing a beard, so if I want to grow it back I’ll need to do it over a vacation.
I warned the other English teachers the Friday before, but didn’t tell anyone else. I shaved on Monday morning and immediately decided that I did not like the results but at that point there was no turning back. (During the shaving process I also got to find out what I look like with a goatee or just a moustache—the latter of which is absolutely horrifying). I held my breath for a big reaction when I entered the teacher’s room on Monday but was shocked when not a single person said anything at all. This may be an element of Japanese work-culture I hadn’t been aware of—perhaps nobody makes comments about their colleagues’ personal appearance.
But the students had no such qualms. I relished their reaction every time I entered the classroom, which ranged from simple dumbfounded staring to outright laughter and, every now and then, a compliment. One kid told me that without the beard I look like Michael Jackson which is so absurd I didn’t even know what to say. Apparently to Japanese students, every clean-shaven Westerner must look like Michael Jackson.
But at the end of every lesson I had the students vote on whether they think I look better with or without the beard. I had only third-graders the first day and the vote came down overwhelmingly in favor of the new clean-shaven look, and I was worried that this might hold true for the whole school and I’d have to refrain from growing it back. But on the second day I had only first-grade classes and they voted overwhelmingly in favor of the beard. As the days progressed I saw little rhyme or reason to the ways the classes voted, as while third-graders were generally anti-beard and first-graders were generally pro-beard, a few classes were huge exceptions with nearly everyone voting the other way. The second-graders were all over the place, with some evenly split, and some that all seemed to follow everyone else’s lead one way or the other. In the end, (with not everyone voting) the final tally came to 237 in favor of the beard and 212 against. Pretty much a statistical tie. And as the tie-breaker, I vote to grow it back.
Of course I’ve yet to hear the opinion from Diana, the Chinese girl I met last weekend who is supposed to accompany me to Tokyo tomorrow, but I’m not sure that’s going to happen now. I’ve been noticing a few symptoms of an encroaching cold over the last two days and while I’m not going to let that stop me from going (this has been postponed far too much already) I’m going to call her tonight and let her know in case she wants to opt out and spare herself the risk of getting ill. It’s just the right thing to do.
So that’s most of the story of the week for you. Depending on how things go tomorrow, the weekend may or may not be more interesting.
Life is one strange animal. You can be moving in one direction and going nowhere, when suddenly you find yourself speeding off on a completely different route.
The Hershey thing did not work out. Her demeanor towards me last Sunday made it perfectly clear that she wasn’t interested (and I honestly didn’t find her all that interesting either). On Monday I sent her another very honest and direct Facebook message, saying “It’s clear there’s no chemistry between us, but I hope we can remain casual friends.” I told her she was still more than welcome to come to Tokyo with me and Stephen this Sunday (although the trip has once again been postponed due to Stephen having stayed out until 7:00 a.m. this morning). I didn’t hear from her for a couple of days and assumed I’d never hear from her again, but on Wednesday I got a response telling me that I’m right and just being friends would be fine. She said she’d tell me on Friday whether she could come to Tokyo, but I haven’t heard from her since. I sent her a friendly little message on Friday but got no response.
So that’s a dead-end. The whole thing served to further discourage me from trying to find a woman and reinforced my conviction that it’s hopeless for me anyway.
Yesterday I had no plans but to remain alone all day and go about my normal chores-and-errands Saturday routine. But I got a Facebook message from Fred, one of the other Togane ALTs (the really funny one) asking me if I was going to the party. What party? It turns out it was the day of the annual Togane “International Friendship” party where foreigners can come to mingle with other foreigners as well as locals who are inclined to come and meet us. It was just a two-hour affair from 11:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. and it was free to enter.
Well, why not? I didn’t really feel like socializing, but it’s stupid to turn down any opportunity to meet new people. Such opportunities don’t arise very often here.
I walked to Fred’s apartment building and met with Ben and another ALT I’d never met before named Zack outside. Fred came down to meet us, and yet another previously un-met ALT named David showed up as well. Finally, Trey caught up with us on our way to the Community Center. The six of us would be the only ALTs as well as the only Americans at the event.
We were greeted very warmly by the Japanese people when we arrived. Some of them recognized Ben and Fred from the previous year. We all had to sign in and make name-tags for ourselves, and pick a little piece of paper with a “table number” from a back. Ben and I both got table number D.
The most striking thing upon entering was seeing so many foreigners gathered together in one place. All of the others were from Josai International University, which for some reason seems to attract a lot of students from the more obscure European nations like Finland and Hungary. The only other times I’ve seen so many foreigners in the same room have been at training sessions.
Each table had a nice assortment of cold food such as sushi, little sandwiches, and fried chicken. There was also coke and green tea (which is as prevalent here as iced tea is in the states). After a few of the Japanese people in charge of the event got up to give their preliminary speeches (all in Japanese of course) we all poured some drinks into plastic cups and did the kampai.
When the mingling began, I was mildly shocked to find an attractive girl come right up and talk to me. She was a blonde Hungarian girl named Zintia, and while she struggled with her English she did all right. She was studying Japanese at the university in the hopes of one day working at the Hungarian embassy. She’d never been anywhere other than Hungary and Japan.
Zintia had a nice face and a body like a supermodel and the fact that she’d approached me definitely made me feel very cool, but there was no more chemistry between me and her than there had been with Hershey. Our conversation was strained and full of awkward pauses as we both kept trying to think of questions to ask each other. Meanwhile, I noticed Zack engaged in a very easy conversation with a cute Chinese girl across the table. The girl had no trouble at all keeping the chat going, and Zack was hardly saying anything at all.
Eventually my “chat” with Zintia petered-out completely and she moved on to mingle with other people. I remained at the table and listened in on what the Chinese girl was saying.
Zack moved on shortly after that, and the girl then turned her attention completely to me and we launched right into a conversation of our own. I don’t remember her Chinese name, but she apparently goes by the English name of Diana. She’s 22 years old and just started studying at Josai in September, so she’s just as new to Japan as I am. She studied English for many years in school and while she insisted she couldn’t speak very well her ability was actually rather astounding for someone who’d never actually lived in an English-speaking country. She’s clearly got a natural talent for languages, as when I heard her speaking Japanese with some of the other people there it sounded perfect even though she’s just started learning it. When I told her I lived in Germany for three years she even busted out some German that she’d learned from a friend of hers. She said her goal is to be able to be able to translate between English and Japanese even though her native language is Chinese.
The conversation with her flowed very easily. I found her company to be enormously pleasant and she found me interesting as well. When she found out I was an English teacher she nearly jumped for joy at the prospect of finding someone to practice her English with, and we promptly exchanged phone numbers. From that point on we barely left each other’s side for the rest of the party. She introduced me to some of her friends from the university, a Japanese guy and another Chinese girl, and even asked the girl to take a picture of the two of us. I figured I might as well get one too.
The party took a turn towards the strange when a Hawaiian band took the stage and started playing songs like “You Are My Sunshine” on ukuleles. Things got even more bizarre when a group of very old Japanese ladies clad in Hawaii-garb took the floor in front of the stage and danced the hula.
But the craziest part was after that, when they came up to a bunch of the foreigners and dressed them in the hula-skirts as well and invited them to come up and dance with the ladies. They got Ben first, and then they came for me. So I went up and danced the hula with a bunch of old Japanese ladies and other foreigners. As awkward as it was, it somehow didn’t feel embarrassing.
At one point when Diana was with another person I found myself talking to Trey. He asked me how things were going and I said they were going great, then he asked me about my love life and I told him it was non-existent. He said “we’ll get you a Japanese girl”. Sure you will, Trey. He also said he was going to get together with me some time and show me “the other side of Togane” but that hasn’t happened yet either. But I pointed out Diana with a head gesture and let him know I liked her. He said I should “get in there” as though I actually knew what I was doing when it comes to women.
But Diana and I did find ourselves in each other’s company again, and I could hardly believe what was happening as she seemed to be sending out all the standard signals of attraction. I’m by no means an expert on what those signals are, but frequently touching the other person is certainly one of them. She touched and held my arm quite a lot. And when everyone was gathering together near the end of the party for a group photo, she pulled me over to stand next to her.
After the photo was taken, Trey pulled me aside and said that he’d heard “through the grape-vine” that Diana is married, so I should probably ask her about that. That would be disappointing, but I thought that just coming out of nowhere and asking “Are you married?” would be weird so I didn’t. But I definitely took a closer look at her hands and there was no ring at all. Maybe they don’t have wedding rings in China, but it would be very odd of her to spend so much time talking to me and not mentioning her husband at all. And if she were married it would be a strange thing to move to Japan without your husband for a year. Finally, she’s 22. Maybe they get married very young in China, but I just don’t think she is.
After the group photo, one of the women in charge of the event came up to me and Ben and introduced herself in English. She’s on the Togane City Council and gave us her business-card. Networking! Now I’m acquainted with one of Togane’s most powerful citizens. Even cooler was that shortly after that she came back up to me, apparently having read where I work on the sign-in sheet and told me that her son is a third-grader at the junior high school were I teach.
Ben, Trey, and Zack disappeared without saying goodbye to me, but I hung around with Fred and David for awhile as the party was being dismantled. Diana came back up to me and introduced me to a mother and daughter who were there, the daughter being interested in possibly taking English lessons from me. I gave her my information and she friended me on Facebook later that day.
I helped a little with the dismantling of the party, carrying a few chairs to be packed away under the stage, and Diana came and helped with that too. When that was done I decided to make my move. We’d already talked about meeting again for her to practice her English, but there was nothing definite. I invited her and her friend to come to Tokyo with me tomorrow if they had no other plans. They did have other plans—about a hundred and fifty Josai students are taking busses to Disneyland—but she was very much in favor of going next Sunday. She seemed very excited that I asked.
When Fred and David left I also decided to say goodbye. I just waved goodbye to Diana and her friends, but she came up and took my hand and told me to definitely call her next weekend.
I left the Community Center on a cloud. I could hardly believe what just happened. No sooner had I resigned myself to remaining alone again when suddenly it looks like there may be a real chance with a girl I like who might also be interested in me. I can by no means be sure of that—she’s clearly a ridiculously extroverted person and she might just act like this with everyone—but even if I did misinterpret her demeanor towards me I’ve at least made a great new friend, and after next year when she returns home, I’ll have someone to visit in China.
That whole experience provided some invaluable perspective on the Hershey situation. I no longer feel even slightly depressed about that. If you have to work to keep a conversation going with someone and you’re constantly wondering how they’re judging you in their mind, it’s not worth the trouble. With Diana there wasn’t even a moment that could be described as “awkward” and it was as clear as day that she liked me. With Hershey I felt a little uncomfortable the whole time, but I deeply enjoyed being around Diana. She has a kind of energy I’m very drawn to in other people, the same quality that made me fall in love with Jessi, a vibrant positivity that lifts my mood just to be around it like warmth from sunlight.
But I’ll try not to get too ahead of myself and start planning our future together just yet. This has a distinct “too-good-to-be-true” feeling to it and given my history it’s more than likely that things won’t progress beyond friendship. She might actually be married, after all. But even if all I’ve done is made a friend, having a friend as nice as her is plenty to be happy about.
After finishing my errands and chores on Sunday morning I sent Hershey a text message asking her if she was free in the afternoon. She responded that she was, and I asked her if she’d ever been to Chiba Castle. That was one of the places Ryan recommended as an interesting thing to do in Chiba City. There apparently isn’t very much there by way of sight-seeing, but there’s even less in Togane or the town where she lives. She said she didn’t even know there was a castle and she hadn’t been there. I asked if she’d like to meet me at Chiba station around 1:30 and take a walk there with me. She said her train wouldn’t get there until 2:00, but we could do that.
So that’s how my first “date” in almost a year came about. The last one was with Lea, the girl I met on the plane-trip home from London after that incredible weekend I had after my Interac interview. On the surface, this one was much different, but in all the ways that matter it was exactly the same. Just as my first date with Lea had been the last, this was almost certainly the last time I’ll see Hershey, at least in a one-on-one situation.
But in spite of the negatives I had a very nice time, and it gave me an opportunity to take some more pictures to lively up the look of the blog a bit. I didn’t take any of her though—sorry about that.
I was mildly nervous going into it, but calmer than I’d expected to be. I’d felt much more uncomfortable while waiting for her response to my initial Facebook message. There was only the slightest trace of a knot in my stomach as I rode the train to Chiba, then walked around the station for 30 minutes while waiting for her to arrive. She texted me when she got there and we had some trouble finding each other, but when we did finally spot one another she was on the phone with someone, apparently a family member because she was speaking Filipino. I immediately felt a sense of relief. The idea of her in my head was far more intimidating than this flesh-and-blood person.
When she wrapped things up with the person on the phone, I said we’d found each other but our next challenge was to find the castle. I had my I-phone to help with the task but I still wasn’t exactly sure what to do. Luckily Ryan’s directions were very helpful.
As we walked I found myself asking her all the questions, and her not asking me anything. I could easily perceive this whole thing as some sort of favor she was doing for me, but it’s equally possible that she’s just shy. It was a little awkward but I felt I did alright. I wasn’t nervous at all and I made jokes and got her laughing very often. I wasn’t trying to impress her or anything—I was just being myself and treating her like I treat everyone else regardless of their gender or level of attractiveness.
There was supposedly a shrine on the way to the castle, but we somehow missed it by several blocks and by the time I noticed this the castle was closer. At least I got us there without a hitch. I didn’t really know what I was looking for, but as it was high up at the top of a hill it was impossible to miss. It didn’t look like the image attached to the word “castle” in my mind, but it looked as Japanese as architecture gets. On the way up the hill, there was another extremely Japanese building which had a bizarre-looking golden monument-thingy behind it that looked like some kind of device for contacting the mother-ship.
We climbed the big staircase to the top of the hill and got a nice look at the building. It was fairly impressive, though without any historical context to put it in there was not much to feel about it other than the standard “it’s so freaking awesome that I live in Japan” feeling I still get from time to time when I take a step back and look at the big picture.
The castle is now a historical museum, and I asked Hershey if she wanted to go in. She said she wasn’t sure because the last historical museum she went to was ridiculously overpriced, but when we went inside and saw that entry was 60 Yen (about a buck) we laughed and went ahead. I bought the two tickets and was pleased when she didn’t even offer to pay for hers but just politely thanked me.
We proceeded through the museum, doing our best to appreciate the exhibits in spite of the fact that all of the explanations were in incomprehensible Japanese. Hershey’s mother is Japanese but she’s only lived here for a year and a half and seems to be at about the same level as me. But it was still plenty cool just to know that the paintings, pictures, and artifacts we were looking at were centuries old. The coolest things on display were complete samurai-uniforms I would have loved to get a picture of. But “no photography” was one of the only things written in English in the whole museum, so I didn’t risk incurring the wrath of the museum staff. Besides, everyone knows what samurai-uniforms look like and you can pull up a thousand pictures on Google in an instant. The cool part was being able to see a real uniform once worn by an actual samurai with your own eyes.
I made jokes whenever I could, like when we passed one of the TVs showing a documentary about Chiba’s history and I said, “That’s a TV from 1845” or in the stairwell when I said “that’s the Emperor’s ancient fire-extinguisher.” Hershey has a great laugh. If nothing else, at least she appeared to enjoy my sense of humor.
On the top floor you can walk outside to the observation deck and get a decent view of Chiba City. There’s not that much to see, but I enjoy aerial views and taking scenic shots. It wasn’t nearly as impressive as the view from the Ferris Wheel in Tokyo Dome City, or even from the Rathaus in Hannover, but it was still nice enough and the fact that the leaves are finally changing provided an additional aesthetic element.
When we left the museum we headed down the hill in a different direction than the one we’d walked up, and found a little shrine along the way. I don’t think it was the shrine we’d been aiming for earlier, but it was still pretty cool. I don’t know if the fact that I took pictures means I’ll be cursed by an evil kami spirit for the rest of my days, but I took my chances.
It was only quarter to four when that was done, and Hershey asked me what I wanted to do now. I had the feeling she was bored so I said I’d check the train schedule. I’m not sure but I think she laughed at that, as if to say “Really? That’s it?” I asked her if she wanted to do any shopping or something, but she said she’d done enough shopping for the month. I used my I-phone to figure out that the next train left at 4:10, which didn’t give us much breathing room at all. We just walked back to the station and tried to think of things to say to each other along the way. When it looked like I would miss the 4:10 I discovered that the next train was 4:14 but it would take 25 minutes longer to get home on that one, and then there wouldn’t be another one for nearly an hour so I’d have to get going as soon as we got back.
It was 4:09 when we arrived at the station and I said I should just try and make a break for it, so we very unceremoniously parted ways without so much as an awkward hug or even a hand-shake. The 4:10 started pulling away as soon as I got to the platform, so I had to settle for the 4:14. An hour and a half later I was back in Togane, the sun and my emotional state having sunk in the mean-time.
It was hardly a crippling depression, just a gentle and familiar melancholy. Had there been any potential of sparking any kind of romantic feelings in her, I hadn’t come close. And not because I’d done anything particularly wrong—simply because I just don’t know how. I mean I know the kinds of things you’re supposed to do, but they all involve playing a part and presenting myself as someone I’m not. I was just myself with her, plain and simple, and while that person might give off the impression of being funny, smart, and perhaps even pleasant company, he’s not the kind of person women want to have a relationship with.
To put it simply, I can converse with women but I can’t flirt with them. I can get them to like me, but not to desire me.
At least I’ve reached a point where I’m no longer devastated by that. I’ve said it a million times now but I am perfectly content to be alone. That doesn’t mean I won’t occasionally make an attempt to break out of that and see what it’s like to be with someone, but that requires another person to be interested and nobody ever is. My history with women is one of 0% success. This is just the latest addition to that statistic.
I was supposed to be on my way to Tokyo right now, but there’s a downpour going on and there’s no sign of it letting up. At first I figured I wouldn’t let it stop me, and I took my umbrella and made my way to the bus-stop, a fifteen-minute walk. Even with the umbrella, by the time I reached the half-way point I was completely drenched, my jeans twice as heavy with the water-weight and my socks already soggy from submersion in puddles the size of lakes. Maybe not the most ideal conditions for sight-seeing. I gave Stephen a call and we rescheduled for next weekend.
When it rains here, it’s not messing around. In Hannover, I experienced about three downpours in three years. It drizzled all the time, but I much prefer the seriously heavy roof-top pounding rain of this climate.
Of course the earthquakes are even more fun. This morning at about quarter to six I woke up to the rumbling of the ground. Nothing out of the ordinary, but then it was like the tectonic plate suddenly gave a massive jerk and the rumbling intensified tenfold. I couldn’t help but let out a “whoah!” as my entire apartment felt like a giant had lifted it up in the air and started shaking it. When it died down, I heard a voice blasting through some loudspeakers outside, though of course I couldn’t understand a word of it. I went online to the Japanese Meteorological Agency website which updates its map whenever there’s a quake, usually with a single white circle somewhere, indicating the most recent quake was an intensity of one, with the epicenter at that circle. This time there were circles all over the place, not just white but some in shades of blue, indicating 2 or 3 point quakes and some 4s. The epicenter appeared to be Chiba, right where I am, and the intensity here was a 4. I breathed a small sigh of relief—it was nowhere near the disaster an 8 or a 9 would have been, and it was unlikely a tsunami was on its way. Still, it was the biggest earthquake I’ve experienced to date. There was even an aftershock almost as intense as the first one about ten minutes later.
But none of that is what I meant to write about. My main reason for writing this entry is to describe the lesson I taught for the 3rd-graders this week which I can confidently say was my most successful lesson so far. For every single part of it I applied things I learned in training, and with just a few small exceptions (usually thanks to bad students) it worked excellently.
The first part of any lesson is to greet the students. You say “Good morning!” or “Good afternoon!” then ask them the five “million-dollar questions”. 1- How are you? 2- How’s the weather? 3- What day is it? 4- What’s the date? And 5- What time is it now? At ongoing training we were told to mix it up a bit, first by getting the students to ask you the questions. With the second-graders last week I simply told them to ask me the questions, but with the third-graders this week I did something else I’ve been meaning to try—something Cliff told me to do as far back as initial training—and busted out the German.
I started with a “Goooooo…” and they expected a “Gooooood morning” but instead got “Guuuuten Morgen!” Laughs right off the bat. “Guten Morgen meine Jungen and Mädchen, heute machen wir super Englisch lernen, ja? Ja?” Their looks of befuddlement were priceless, but they all loved the “ja”. Then I’d write “Guten Morgen” on the board and get them to repeat it a couple of times, then write “What is Guten Morgen in English?” or “Was ist Guten Morgen auf Englisch?” and keep asking until someone figured out it meant “good morning”. Then I’d write “Wie ist das Wetter?” and go to the window, repeating it until someone figured out it meant “How is the weather?” I did the same for day, date, and time, sometimes shouting “wunderbar!” when someone got the right answer, another word they immediately loved. Finally I got to “Wie geht’s?” and I had to give them an “Ich bin fein” or “Ich habe hunger” with gestures before they figured out it meant “How are you?”
After that I switched back to English and went into a basic “How are you?” warm-up relay, where I’d first have one row stand up and demonstrate for the class. I’d ask the first person “How are you?” Then when I got an “I’m fine” I’d tell him or her to turn around and ask the next person, and so on until the end of the row. The last student runs up and asks the first person, then runs back and sits down. When the last student is seated, everyone can sit down. Depending on whether the JTE had a stop-watch, I either did it as a race between rows or a time-challenge for the whole class, writing their first time on the board and then getting them to try again to beat their time. This is surprisingly effective at getting the students in a mind-set to pay attention.
The next part is the hardest part of any lesson, the presentation of new grammar. This week it was connecting two sentences with the word “which”. As in: “This is a book. I read it. This is a book which I read.” One of the buzz-words used at training it to “entice” the students, so how do you entice them into learning how to properly use the word “which”?
I came up with a brilliant idea. I said before we got to the English, there would be a physical challenge. I asked the students who the strongest person in their class was, let them discuss for a moment to pick someone (usually the largest boy in the room) and then I’d give him three tasks. First, carry two chairs outside of the room (at the same time). Second, carry one desk outside. Now, you can choose. You can either carry the two chairs back, or the one desk. Almost every time, the student didn’t understand the third instruction but another student did and explained it to him in Japanese. The whole time the room is dead silent and everyone is paying attention, wondering what the heck this is about. 5 out of 6 times, the student did what I hoped and brought the one desk back inside instead of two chairs. The only time he didn’t, it was because the desk was full of books and therefore heavier than the two chairs combined.
When the student had brought the desk back in, I gave him a “wunderbar!” and got everyone to clap for him. I’d brink the chairs back and immediately slide into the presentation. “Which is heavier? A chair or a desk?” A desk. “But when he had a choice between carrying two chairs and one desk, he chose the one desk. Why?” Because two chairs are heavier than one desk. “Right. And in English, two small sentences are heavier than one big sentence. Today we’re going to learn how to turn two short sentences into one big one.”
At this point I could just see the light-bulb switching on in the minds of the smarter students as they suddenly understood what the chair/desk thing was all about. In Mrs. T-’s class, she explained the connection in Japanese for the benefit of those who didn’t get it.
I put up the flash-card of the German flag and wrote two sentences: “German is a language. I speak it.” Then I turned to the class and asked them how we can put these two sentences together into one. “What word can we use?” Sometimes a student immediately knew it was “which” and in that case they’d get a “wunderbar!”, but if not I’d write a “w” on the board and they always guessed it then. So I looked at the first part of the sentence. “German is a language. Do we need to change anything here? No.” I copied it and wrote it before the “which” on the board using different-colored chalk. “How about ‘I speak it’?” I’d write it after “which” and say, “‘German is a language which I speak it.’ Is that right? No? What do we change? No ‘it’? Right. We delete ‘it’”. I’d erase the ‘it’ as the students laughed at my use of the word “delete” which they all know from their computer keyboards. Another nice little tid-bit from training.
I got them to repeat the two short sentences as I made an expression like I was totally bored, then the longer “which” sentence at which I’d show more enthusiasm and say, “Oh, that is a great sentence! Much better! Wunderbar!” I erased everything and removed the Germany-flag flash-card. “Okay, that was Level 1. Easy stuff. Time for Level 2.”
Students are leaning forward, waiting for the next challenge. I’ve never had this level of attention during the presentation phase of a lesson. They were eating out of the palm of my hand. I put up a flashcard of a blue tent and wrote the two sentences, keeping them active by asking “What is this?” and “what color is it?” The sentences were “This tent is blue. I bought it.” Then it was a matter of how to connect them using “which”. I asked them to start with “this is” and after a moment’s thought at least one of the smart students would figure out the first part was “This is a blue tent” and the whole sentence was “This is a blue tent which I bought.”
At least once during the presentation phase, after I had the whole “which” sentence up there I’d suddenly switch to a whisper and say, “I have a secret.” Again, all eyes on me. Dead silence. I erased the “which” and wrote “that” then loudly whispered, “This is a tent that I bought.” With a thumbs up I’d whisper “OK too!” There were always chuckles. “I have another secret” I then whispered, and erased the “that”. “This is a tent I bought. OK too! But shhhh, it’s a secret.” Everybody laughed.
For Level 3 I had a picture of the bat-mobile, and when I showed it to the students and they said “car”, I pointed to myself and said, “My car” at which they laughed again. The two sentences were “I drove this car” and “It’s black.” I told them to start with “The car” and eventually they figured out the big sentence was “The car which I drove is black” at which point they’d get another enthusiastic “wunderbar!”
For the last level, Level 4, I used a flash-card they were already familiar with. I originally used it for a “who” lesson, for the sentence “This is a person who cooks.” I found a picture of a Japanese chef from some blog, apparently a professional chef named Yamada whom this lady—apparently a rich lady—had hired to come cook for her in her hotel room while visiting Japan. Anyway, he’s got a big goofy smile and for some reason the kids love the picture and they all remember “Yamada-san”. The first sentence was “Yamada-san cooked this meal.” I’d ask them what “meal” is in Japanese. Usually they wouldn’t know, so I’d write the hiragana for shokuji (しゅくじ) under the word one at a time until they got it. Then I asked them what “oishi” is in English and they all knew that one. The second sentence was “It’s delicious”. The big sentence was “The meal which Yamada-san cooked is delicious.”
Finally, it was Game Time. “Ja! Game! Wir spielen ein Spiel! Ja!!!” I had them arrange their desks in their “lunch-groups”, which is the quickest way to split classes into six teams, then explained the rules. I had twelve packets of paper-strips. Each team would get one. One of the papers had two sentences, and the others were individual words cut from the “which” sentence that connects them, all scrambled up. There was a corresponding flash-card for each sentence which the JTE helped me by arranging in the back of the room. Each team had a designated space on the blackboard, and each team needed a “writer” and a “runner”. When I’d say “Go!” the teams would open their paper-packets and figure out what the sentence connecting their two sentences was. The writer would write that sentence on the board, and the runner would find the flash-card and put it on the board when the writer was finished. I’d give 5 points for a perfect sentence, 5 points for the right flash-card, and 0-5 speed points depending on when the teams finished. (First place got 5, second-place 4, and so on until sixth-place which got zero). Thanks to the very easy flash-card task, every team was guaranteed at least a few points.
After quickly demonstrating it myself, everyone understood the rules. I gave them a “three, two one, go!” then just stood back with my chalk, ready to jot down which place the teams finished in once they finished. The only problem with this game is that it doesn’t force every student to participate, so a few of the slower students could just sit back and do nothing. However, the motivation to win made it so that almost every single student did participate in some way, even shouting the sentence as it was arranged at their table to the writer who was writing it up on the board.
When all the teams were finished, I’d go through their sentences one by one and award points. Happily, most of the sentences were perfect. Sometimes only one or two corrections needed to be made and I’d give them partial points. Sometimes they were disastrous and if I tried to give points the rest of the class would have mutinied. But I always asked for the students to help me with the corrections, “What should the first part be? What’s next? Next?” and so on until it was done. The flash-cards were always correct though, so every team always got points.
The same thing was repeated for round two, and if any team had really struggled the first time around I’d go and help them arrange their second sentence myself. Most of the time, all of the teams did better on the second round. One class even had all perfect sentences on the second round.
Once the sentences were corrected and total points tallied, I’d ask the class to tell me which team got first place. When the team with the most points was identified, we’d clap for them (and give a “wunderbar!”) We’d do the same for the second and third-place teams, and finally I’d tell them they all did a fantastic job and to clap for everybody. Then it was just a matter of getting them to put the paper-packets back together and arrange their desks back in rows, at which point the bell was usually just getting ready to ring.
So that was the best lesson I’ve taught so far. It worked perfectly and it worked consistently all six times I did it. Even with 3-1, the “disaster class” that always goes first and which went first again this time, I hit a home run. I wanted to record it in detail because it will give my readers the clearest impression of my job that I’ve given so far. This is not just what my job is, but the way it ought to be done. This is everything I learned in training put to use. I feel like my teaching has reached the next level, and hopefully I can maintain it.
I’ve heard a lot of bad things about Interac, but one thing they deserve a world of credit for is how they train their teachers, at least ever since Cedric took over that department. Had I just been thrown into the classroom like most ALTs before me without the benefit of everything I learned in initial training and got reinforced in ongoing training, I might be doing okay but I’d be nowhere near as successful as I am now. That training has been so valuable that it’s a wonder to think they actually paid me to attend it.
Before wrapping up this entry, just a quick update on the Hershey situation. We’ve been sending very brief Facebook messages back-and-forth for a week and she’s apparently a lot more comfortable with the idea of meeting me now. She texted me her phone number a few days ago and while she declined my invitation to meet Stephen and me in Tokyo today because she’s busy, she said we might be able to hang out tomorrow though she has no idea where to go. I’ll call Ryan this afternoon and ask him if he can suggest somewhere in Chiba City. But even if it doesn’t happen tomorrow, it looks like it actually will happen sometime. Color me surprised.
Just a guy sharing his thoughts and experiences as he wanders his way through life and the world. Here you'll find stories from the life of an American living overseas, and the occasional thoughts on political or philosophical topics.