Archive

Posts Tagged ‘karaoke’

A Change is (Probably) Gonna Come

February 7th, 2013 No comments

My 29th birthday was this past Saturday, and it was a good one. It was pretty much the same group of people and the same routine as my return-to-Japan party. Kim and Enam, their friends Will and Mai, Stacy, Jack, and Jack’s friend John, and Atsushi. I didn’t ask for any presents but Atsushi actually bought a cake with “Happy Birthday, Kyle” written on it. Great guy.

We hung out at my place for a couple of hours as we waited for everyone to get there, then went out to eat at a very small and very Japanese restaurant two buildings down from me. The food was delicious and the servers were happy to have our business, but there were some regulars there who seemed bothered by the presence of a large group of foreigners and quickly left after we got there.

After dinner we went to Sound Plaza, the nearest karaoke bar and the same one we went to for my other party and, coincidentally, the same one my school used for the last enkai. We actually ended up in the very same room as the enkai. And for two or three hours it was just good old-fashioned drinking and singing, an activity I never thought I’d enjoy but which I’m enjoying more and more each time. I think my singing voice might be improving too, but it’s hard to tell when you’re intoxicated. But this time I didn’t go too overboard and the hangover the next morning was mild.

I hadn’t seen most of those people in months, not since the Christmas party, and I have no idea when I’ll see them next. I like them all and enjoy their company but I can’t honestly call any of them friends (“friend” in the German “freund”-sense and not the American “I have 286 Facebook friends”-sense). If I really loved any of them like I came to love Oliver and Lena, it would be harder to consider relocating.

But that’s what I expect will happen for the next school-year. Every year Interac has all of its employees fill out an “intentions survey” and makes placement decisions based on our responses. Last year I wrote that I wanted to keep the same contract and stay at this school for another year, and I was extremely glad when that request was granted. And as recently as a few months ago I expected to want to stay here for another year as well.

But over the course of the last few months a feeling has been growing in me that I could really use a change of pace. I’ve been teaching at the same school for almost two school-years now and if I stay another year, by the end I’ll have lived in Japan for nearly three years having only set foot in a single school. Most ALTs have experience in many different schools, often at different levels. I want more experiences too.

So when I took the survey a couple of weeks ago I wrote that I wouldn’t mind changing schools but I wouldn’t mind staying here either. But in the weeks since, my urge to have a change has grown much stronger and now it’s something I really desire. As much as I love this school, I feel I’ve been here long enough and it’s time to move on. And as much as I love Togane as a location in terms of its proximity to the ocean and to Tokyo, I’d like to get to know another part of Japan as well.

There are a few other factors contributing to this desire. For one, pretty much all of my favorite students are third-graders and they’ll be graduating in a few weeks anyway. The current second-graders have long since stopped appreciating me and I feel like most of them take me for granted. I make the lessons as fun as possible and they enjoy them, but it’s just routine for them at this point. Let them have someone else for their third year and maybe they’ll realize how good they had it. The first-graders this year have been fantastic, but kids change quickly and there’s every reason to expect that if I stayed another year they’d become just as apathetic towards me as the current second-graders are.

There’s also the simple fact that I’ve got all these great lessons but I can’t do them again for the same students. If I go to different schools I’ll get to do the lessons again for different students who’ll find them fresh and exciting. It would be awesome to go into a school full of students who’ve only ever had mediocre ALTs who never put much thought into lesson-preparation, let alone awesome game-designing. (By the way, I’ve designed my most epic game yet for the end of the school-year. Once I’ve done it a few more times I’ll have to write all about it.)

Of course there’s a risk that I’ll end up in one of those “human tape-recording” situations like some ALTs whom the JTEs never let do anything creative. I’ve been lucky to be in a situation where I can plan and execute all of my lessons under what is almost my complete control, but that’s definitely not the case for everyone. I’m just hoping that if I show my lesson-plans to whomever I end up working with, they’ll see how much thought I put behind it and how valuable it could be to have the students learn English in a way that’s fun for them.

Finally, what really tipped things towards my wanting to move is that O-sensei told me last week that she and her husband will be moving to Korea when this school-year is over. She’s been as perfect of a teaching-partner as I could possibly imagine, so that alone would be enough to keep me hesitant about leaving, but since she’s leaving anyway it doesn’t matter.

Today I wrote to the placement department and told them that now I definitely want to change schools next school-year and that I am willing to relocate. I expressed a preference for Tokyo (that would mean I could still easily come back and visit) but said I’d be willing to move anywhere and the most important thing to me was to have a change of some kind.

So that’s where things stand right now. If last year was any indication, I won’t know what the final decision is until the very end of the school-year, but I think there’s a strong chance my request will be granted and this school-year will be my last at this school. I’m sure there are plenty of teachers who would love to trade places with me, to have one school that they live within walking distance of instead of a bunch of different schools spread out all over the place. I know what it is I’m giving up, but I’ve had it long enough and I’ve certainly appreciated it while I’ve had it. There’s just so much more out there to be appreciated.

Still Rollin’

November 14th, 2012 No comments

I thought I’d do a quick update post on what’s been happening lately. Even though it’s all pretty much back to the routine at this point, the routine is pretty awesome and worth preserving for future trips down Nostalgia Avenue.

Since I’ve been back and for the remainder of the school year, I’m only teaching with O-sensei and we’re only covering the extra material in the textbooks that the other JTEs don’t have time for. That means instead of teaching grammar points in which there’s a lot of natural lee-way for different kinds of games and activities, we’re doing boring textbook supplemental stuff like dialogs about giving directions or taking a message when you answer the phone. The first-graders have been the exception, our only guideline for the last two weeks being to teach the 3rd-person form of verbs (he plays, she reads, he goes, she studies, etc.). The last two lessons with them turned out to be two of the best I’ve ever done.

First, I was only supposed to review the verbs they already know. Not much to go on, but it gave me a chance to try an idea I’ve had in my head for awhile, to play a sort of baseball-game. A student comes to the front of the room and I pitch a little soft squishy baseball my mother bought for the Kyle-shop at them. They get three tries to hit the ball with their hand (almost all do on the first try—there was only one strike-out and it was hilarious for everyone) and when they do they reach into a cup with folded up strips of paper with Japanese verbs. If the verb is 走る (hashiru) they can get to first-base just by knowing what it is in English (run). They get to second-base by spelling it correctly, and third base by using it in an “I ___” sentence. (“I run home”). They hit a home-run if they can make a correct “He/she ___” sentence which they haven’t learned yet, but which I give them a hint at the beginning can be done by adding “s” to the verb. If at any point they make a mistake or don’t know the answer, I toss the ball at the other team and a student who catches it gets a chance to do what the batter couldn’t. If they can’t (or no one catches the ball) the batter is safe, but if they can he or she is out. I used little flash-cards of Mickey Mouse in a baseball uniform and drew the bases on the blackboard to illustrate the action.

                          3mickey_blue3mickey_flip

The students had an absolute blast with this game, and O-sensei and I were surprised at how entertaining it was for us. Because there’s such a wide range of student abilities, you had some only hitting singles or not even reaching first, while some hit home-runs with ease. Even students who messed up could be safe at a base and end up scoring for their team, but only if another student batted them in before three outs. The results were as varied as the students, with some classes ending the game in a tie, some just barely winning and some totally blowing out the other team. But by the end of the game, all of the students had their memories refreshed on a whole bunch of verbs, and those who really paid attention had learned how to make 3rd-person form already.

The following week (this past week) was the lesson for actually teaching 3rd-person form. I started by busting out my German and greeting the students with “guten Morgen!” and “wie geht’s?” and “das Wetter heute is sehr shön, ja?” and all kinds of other incomprehensible phrases that sound funny to them. I wrote “Ich spreche Deutsch” on the board and got them to figure out what it was in Japanese and then translate to English: “I speak German.” I then turned to O-sensei and asked, “Do you speak German?” which she does so she got to show off some of her Deutsch-skills as well. I then wrote “She speak German” and asked the students if that sentence was correct. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised, but in every single class there were a significant number of students who already knew that it should be “speaks” for a he/she sentence.

I then used “I play soccer / He plays soccer” as another example and explained that for almost every verb you just add “s” for a he/she sentence. I then went over some common exceptions like do, go, touch, have, and be, and in each case found plenty of students already knew the proper 3rd-person conjugation, so I acted like I was trying to stump them but they were too smart for me. Once that was done I asked if they were ready for a game, to which they always cheered.

This was a very simple game, but it might just be the best I’ve ever done. I divided the class into two teams—orange team and blue team—and showed them that each team had a “moja-moja” ball (a rubber puffer ball my mom also bought for the Kyle-store and is easily the most popular item) with the corresponding color. I had two identical sets of 35 cards with Japanese verbs—the same ones used for the baseball game—and handed them out to each team, with each student taking two and some three. I had 35 pages with an English “I ___” sentence and Japanese translation for each verb, and I’d hold up a page and call out the sentence. There’d be one student on each team with the Japanese verb corresponding to the sentence, and they would have to raise their hand and catch the moja-moja ball, then write the sentence in “He/She” form on their side of the blackboard. So if the sentence was “I speak English” you’d have one student from each team with a card that read 話す (hanasu) and they’d race to catch the ball and run to the board to write “He speaks English”, slamming the ball on the table when they were finished. The faster team would get 10 points, but as long as the other team wrote it correctly (and we made sure they always did) their team would get 5 points. That student would then stay up front to throw the ball to the player with the next card.

moja-moja

Some students had the hang of it right away and had no trouble scoring for their team. But what made it a great game was that when a student wasn’t really sure what to do, their team-members would shout instructions at them for how to properly conjugate or spell the words they needed. So if a student didn’t know that the 3rd-person form is “studies” and not “studys”, their team was sure to correct them as they were writing and to do it as fast as possible. Some students had no idea what they were doing the first time they went up, but from watching everyone else had it so figured out by their second time at the board that they actually won the speed points. They were clapping and cheering and having an incredibly good time, but also actually learning and reinforcing the new knowledge the whole time.

One of the classes got so loud that the teacher in the adjacent room complained to O-sensei afterwards that no one could hear her do her lesson, so we tried to keep it down after that but there’s only so much you can do. But in between every round I just held my fingers to my mouth and made a “shh” sound and they were so eager to keep going that the room would go from pandemonium to sheer silence in about two seconds, only to erupt again with noise when the next sentence was called.

Most times the game ended up being really close, with the lead changing back and forth and the team that started behind coming up to win. Only one game ended with a tie, but the losing side was never all that disappointed because just about every student had had two chances to go and just about all of them won at least one of those times.

I had to write about that lesson in detail because it may be a very long time before I manage to top it.

The other lessons weren’t as awesome, but quite successful in their own right. For the 2nd-graders, after the boring giving-directions lesson in preparation for their interview tests (saved only by the students’ amusement at my impression of Mario wandering aimlessly around a city map to their randomly-given directions) the next material was an even more boring listening-exercise taken straight from the textbook. There was practically nothing that could make that fun, but at least it only took ten minutes, after which O-sensei suggested we play a game I’d made for a random class I had to teach on a different day when some teachers were giving demonstration-lessons and I had an extra lesson with a group of only first-grade girls. For that I just printed a whole bunch of words from the part of their textbook they’d already covered and cut them up, folded them, and tossed them in a cup. A student would come to the front and proceed to take words and try to have their team guess the word either by using gestures, drawing a picture, or pointing to the object in the room if it happened to be in the room. They’d have three minutes to get through as many words as they could, and there were enough really easy words for each student to have some degree of success. We used the same words for the second-graders after the listening exercise and they enjoyed it as much as the first-graders had. As an added bonus, there was school this past Saturday because it was an open house when parents could come watch their kids’ lessons, and a few parents were there and apparently just as entertained by the game as the students.

Finally, I went back to my old tried-and-true Jeopardy game for the third-graders to review the story of the zookeepers having to kill the three elephants at the Ueno Zoo during WWII. I used the same categories I used last year: Missing Word (they fill in the blank with the word from the sentence in the story), What’s Next? (they find the sentence in the story and read the next sentence), Vocabulary (they say the English for a Japanese word from the vocabulary box for the story), Scrambled Sentence (self-explanatory), and Grammar (they choose from three verb forms or prepositions from a sentence in the story). They all remembered the game so no time was wasted on explanations, and many of them were very excited when they saw me setting it up. With six teams and one student standing up to be the hand-raiser for each team, rotating after each questions, it gets very competitive and exciting, especially when hands go up at the same time and I keep things interesting by letting teams with lower scores have the first shot. As usual, they all got really into it and had a great time. It didn’t matter at all that the material was a ridiculously depressing story about dead elephants.

And this week my material is a bland and boring dialog about taking a message from a phone-call, but once O-sensei and I get through the tedious textbook stuff I play the telephone game with the students, having the first person from each row come out in the hall and “take a message” which they then go inside and pass down their rows to the last person who then races to write it on the blackboard for speed-points and accuracy points. These relay games are guaranteed to be fun, but I gave it an extra twist by coming up with 36 funny sentences and going through the name lists for each class to plug one of the actual students’ names in the sentence, so their message would be something like, “Soandso is eating an elephant” or “Soandso wants to fight Obama”. I was a bit worried about embarrassing some students so I gave most of the embarrassing ones to boys who I know have a good sense of humor like, “Soandso is wearing a skirt” or “Soandso wants to kiss Lady Gaga”. I had no idea what to expect, but so far I’ve done it twice and it’s gone over quite well.

And that’s everything on the teaching front. On the social front, I had another fun weekend party this past Saturday, starting at an okonomiyaki restaurant with Kim, Enam, Jack, and Stephen and then migrating to another karaoke place for a private room with a fixed price for unlimited hours (until 6 a.m.) of drinking and singing. I still had a cold when we went out so I hadn’t planned on drinking at all, but it’s kind of a requirement for karaoke and I ended up once again going a little overboard. But—and I never ever thought I’d feel this way—karaoke is such a good time that the inevitable hangover the day after is just as much worth the price as the actual money. It was also just such a nice warm feeling to be back in Japan amongst friends, just hanging out and having a good time, carelessly crooning away to all kinds of music, mostly the stuff we all grew up with.

And there’s not much else to say about that or anything else really. Life is once again a constant series of enjoyable events from Monday to Friday, from the moment I wake up to the moment I fall asleep. All I can do is squeeze as much appreciation out of this time as I can, as one day I’ll almost certainly look back on this time and remember it as the Glory Days. May they continue to roll.

Categories: Personal Tags: , , , ,

Epic Return, part 2

October 22nd, 2012 No comments

I’m back at school for my first full day since before summer break, enjoying all this down-time I have in which to do things like write blog entries. I’ll just pick up right where I left off in the last entry.

I’d been a little worried about the weather when I landed in Thursday and the rain continued non-stop throughout the night, but by the time I went for my jog that morning it had already cleared up and has been sunny and beautiful ever since. I was very glad about that on Friday as it meant everyone would be in a slightly better mood than otherwise.

I knew that when I went in I should probably say something formally to the school administrators, so I composed a little speech in my head and practiced it a few dozen times before going in. I kept it simple enough to do in Japanese, and it basically went like this: “Hello, everyone. For my absence, I deeply apologize. I look forward to working here again.”

I was finished with my jogging and grocery shopping with about an hour to spare before going in, so I used the time to take a little cat-nap while practicing my speech every couple of minutes. Before I knew it 2:00 was upon me, so I put on a suit and tie for the first time in months and proceeded to make my way to the school.

I didn’t want to arrive during the hectic period between classes so I timed it so I’d arrive just as the final period of the day was starting. I didn’t expect to see any students on the way in, but there were some in the window of the second-floor music room looking out as I approached, and they were the first to spot me and wave hello. I could already feel my spirits lifting, and they were high enough already.

The hallways were empty as I entered the building, slipped into my school-shoes, and walked upstairs to the teacher’s room. When I entered there were a handful of teachers there who were quite unaware that I’d be coming, and they all greeted me with surprise and friendly hellos. Two of the three main administrators were missing, so the only one there was the guy who just started this year. I walked up to him and delivered my speech flawlessly, he thanked me and we gave each other the formal yoroshiku onegaishimasu and that was that.

I then awkwardly walked back to my desk, which was of course covered with Heath’s stuff. I’d been expecting O-sensei to be there, the one I’ll be working with from now on, but she was apparently in a lesson with the special needs students at the time. One of the other teachers offered to take me down to say hello to her, but on our way downstairs Heath was coming upstairs. We decided I could just talk to him until O-sensei was ready, so we went back to the teacher’s room and finally got to know each other a little bit.

He explained the kind of stuff he’s been doing while they were gone, which apparently consisted almost exclusively of textbook work with a few scattered game days here and there. I told him the whole story of how I ended up in the visa situation in the first place, and regarding Interac’s part in it he said he wasn’t surprised. He’s only been working for them for a few years out of the 17 he’s been here, but he’s known people who’ve worked for them since they first started and has heard plenty of stories. No further comment there.

I was definitely glad to get a chance to talk to him and get a sense of the guy. He’s definitely a good guy and I’m no longer thinking of him as some kind of threat. He told me all about the speech contest, how all the students did well but M- was the only one who won something. He said Y- gave a great speech (the one I wrote for her) but she leaned on the podium the whole time so that might have cost her some points. As for the first-graders, he said they were robbed, that they did fantastic but all the prizes went to others, some of whom clearly didn’t deserve them.

I asked him how he’d compare this school to other schools he’s worked at and he said his favorite was a much smaller school of just 150 students because there was more of an intimacy that could develop between the students and teachers than where there are 600, but he said he had a great time here as well and the students are very friendly.

He speaks fluent Japanese but he did his best to keep that secret from the students. I was kind of happy to hear that, as now the little bit of Japanese I know can still manage to impress them.

As we were talking, a few scattered students would come and go into the teacher’s room and they were all surprised and happy to see me, which of course felt wonderful. More started coming when student cleaning time began, and I told Heath I was tempted to go out and say hello to everyone, to which he said he understood completely and to go for it.

The next fifteen minutes were absolute bliss wrapped in joy and smothered in ecstasy, as I wandered the halls and watched all my student’s faces light up with surprise and happiness to see me. Naturally, some were more enthusiastic than others but the ones I like the most tended to be the ones most delighted by my sudden reappearance. I pretty much stuck to the third-grade hallway, but stuck my head in a few first-grade classrooms as well once cleaning time was coming to an end. The second-graders haven’t been especially warm to me so far this year, so I didn’t bother going through that hallways and used most of my time to chat with the third-grade students who wanted to come chat with me.

Suffice it to say, any worries I had about my absence causing my students to cool off towards me went right out the window. My absence actually seemed to have quite the opposite effect, as it would seem to have made their hearts grow fonder of me just as mine did of them. In fact, I was so overwhelmed with joy by the time I was finished that it almost seemed to me that the entire nearly two-month-long wait had been worth it. If I’d just come back to work on the first day of school as planned, I would certainly not have been treated to such an incredibly warm greeting.

On a bit of a funny note, many of the students told me I look like I lost weight. I wanted to say, “That can’t be true, do you have any idea what my diet was like in America? I must have consumed more cheese in those two and a half months than the whole year I spent in Japan.” I took the compliment anyway, but I suspect I only look thinner by comparison with my sumo-wrestling replacement.

He was packing his stuff up to go when I got back to the teacher’s room, explaining that they’d told him since I was now here he no longer needed to stay. Once O-sensei had seen him off, she came back to discuss next week’s lessons with me. It’s not a normal week because the students have their Chorus Contest on Friday, which is why I’m not teaching every class and I’m doing games instead of textbook lessons. Whatever the reason, it’s fine by me.

I sat at my desk with my computer out, planning the games for next week just like old times and appreciating every minute of it. I wasn’t getting paid for the day but I couldn’t care less about that. I was going to stay until after school time and then go walk around some more, which is exactly what I did and got more super-warm welcomes from some of the sports teams practicing, one of which even gave me a thunderous round of applause.

I left in some of the best spirits I’ve ever been in my life, and totally pumped for starting lessons again on Monday. Unfortunately it’s only going to be two classes and they’re both second-graders, so it won’t be as awesome as it could be, but I’m sure they’re going to like my games and it’s going to be awesome in any case.

On Saturday I spent most of the day getting my remaining affairs in order, and in the evening I had my reunion party. Kim and Enam showed up with three of their friends, two of whom I’d met before at the hanami and one of which was the Japanese girlfriend of one of the two. Stacy came a few moments later, and for awhile we just hung out at my place and chatted. The last person to come was Atsushi, a Japanese guy who speaks decent English and whom I’ve met on several occasions before, so I was glad he came as well.

Because there were eight of us and I’d only reserved a table for five at Dohtonbori, the okonomiyaki place I really like, we had to change dinner plans because on Saturday night there was not enough room to squeeze the extras in. We ended up going out for ramen at the place right next door that just recently opened.

Atsushi had to go after that, but the rest of us went back to my place for another drink before heading out to a relatively inexpensive karaoke bar which is right across the street but I’d never noticed before. Togane apparently has a ridiculous amount of karaoke bars, but still not a single normal bar.

With the exception of Stacy who doesn’t drink the rest of us proceeded to get quite drunk and sing all kinds of songs as loudly and belligerently as we could. I’d never do karaoke in America but in Japan you get your own private room so you’re only embarrassing yourself in front of your own friends, which makes it a hell of a lot of fun.

Once our time was up we stumbled into a convenience store to buy some snacks, which we proceeded to devour back at my place before everyone else went home and I crashed on my bed to wake up the following morning with the obligatory-yet-completely-expected hangover. At least the party served its purpose though, as I was up late enough and woke up late enough to feel like I’m pretty much over the jet-lag. I did have to struggle to stay awake until 10:00 last night though, but I made it and although I woke up at 5:30 this morning it wasn’t too inconvenient, as I wanted to go jogging at 6:30 since it’s now that time of year where it’s getting dark as soon as school ends so I’ve got to go in the mornings now.

But aside from the early sunset it still feels like summer here. In America the leaves were already brown, many trees already bare, and the weather cold enough to keep the windows closed and maybe even fire up the heat at night, but the climate here is noticeably warmer. All the leaves are still on the trees and you can still be comfortable in a T-shirt during the day, so that’s nice.

And now I’m back at school and about to start teaching again in a little less than an hour.

It’s several hours later, so I’ve already had my first lessons. The first one went better than I expected with more enthusiasm from the students than I usually expect from the second-graders, but the second was much quieter and less into it. Still, it felt great to be up in front of that classroom again, and the games went over quite nicely. It should be much better tomorrow when I’ve got some of my favorite classes in the school.

The teachers are having a meeting this afternoon so all of the students are leaving an hour early, which means no Team C today but hopefully tomorrow. I’m looking forward to that as much as anything else, though it’s been so long I can’t be sure anyone at all is going to show up.

In any case, I’m back, it feels great, and (knock on wood) it looks as though there’s nothing but good things on the horizon.

The Story of My Life

December 18th, 2011 No comments

Akibahara in Autumn

Prologue

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.

Sweet 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.

The one and only.

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.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.

Wow, autographs of women I've never heard of!

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.

A colorful town.

One of the million electronic shops. The coolest ride ever.

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.

Stephen at the sushi-go-round. 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.

Evening in Akibahara.

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.

Intermission

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.

Red room.

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 Green room. 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.

Can you shut up please?

Diana opening her gift. Trey trying out his present.

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.Lucky bastard.

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.

Andrew passing the Mike.Stephen popping his karaoke-cherry.

Sing a Japanese song, please. Mmmm that's good karaoke.

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.

Curtains

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.

The story continues...

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.