Posted in Slice of Life

I Hate Exercise, But Luckily I Live In Japan

When I lived in Kentucky, I was significantly larger than I am now. My weight consistently fluctuated between 155-175 pounds (about 70-79 kilos ish). My issue was during university I would be more active and I’d have regular access to healthier options of food. In the summer, I worked long hours at Papa Johns and drive around delivering pizzas all day long. And yeah, of course, there was an abundance of free or discounted pizza happening all the time.

Couple this with a pretty awesome fact: I didn’t really care about my weight then, and honestly still didn’t really care about weight until maybe the past couple of years. I can say honestly I’ve had many self-esteem issues, but somehow my identity of me as a person/woman never got tied up with whatever the numbers on scale were.

Sometimes I would have phases were I really care. I joined my mom on weight watcher for a bit, then quit because I just stopped caring. My highest priorities in university weren’t exercising but just getting the grades and credits to graduate. I was the first kid in my family to get into university straight out of high school, and I didn’t want to let anyone down. Fuck the damn carbs, I need to stay up all night for a final study cram session, I’ll figure that out later.

When I got to Japan, I didn’t have a car for about a month and half of first living there. Instead, I arrived at the end of July in 2011, just before summer vacation started. I had a rusty bike and a big desire to explore Japan.

And so I biked everywhere, for hours upon hours, just going and going. I always thought the term “shedding pounds” was a weird term coined by protein bar companies, but I found out it was quite possible with the right amount of exercise! I watched as the numbers went down and just thought, “Wow, neat!”

Somehow, once again, my identity didn’t get tied into the numbers on the scale or the pants size. I was me, and I liked to study Japanese in my free time and read books. I didn’t really care about the loss or gains, just because really it didn’t matter to me.

I will admit that lately I’ve started to care. Ever since I moved back up to Tokyo last year, I noticed that even though I’m eating healthier than ever before, I am not losing weight at all. I turned completely vegetarian six months ago because my stomach issues were just unbearable. So now, I eat vegetables with rice or pasta, and that’s like my daily intake of food.

But I know that the main issue is the thing I hate the most: exercise.

I’ve been active before, as in growing up I bounced from a kids soccer team to a t-ball team to a basketball team to a color guard/winter guard year. All the same, I know I should exercise a hell of a lot more than I do.

Luckily, as the title states, I live in Japan.

What does that mean? Well, for one, I walk a lot already every day. It is easy to simply add more walking daily. I’ve already kind of started doing this, just getting up and going for walks if I ever get breaks at work. It also means the odds of me being able to walk around my neighborhood at night without any problems are high. I already have started walking 30 minutes every day when I get home from work.

In addition, even though I live farther out in the suburbs of Tokyo, I can in fact have my choice of gyms. I can just take taiken lessons (like demo lessons or demo weeks) and see which ones I like here and there. If I don’t like the company run ones, there is in fact a small community gym near my station. All in all, the building blocks to a healthier way of life are all around me, I just gotta figure out a path and take it.

I think it in general helps that I know I’m doing the weight loss journey thing as more or less just to stay healthy. I think being obese really isn’t something I want to go back to being, and I’m gaining back into that edge. I want to be able to travel and do things even when I’m old and grey haired, so in order to do that I know that I’ve got to take the exercise initiative seriously starting from now.

Turning 30 for some people means panicking, but for me it means evaluating. I know for a fact, like I can feel in my bones, that I definitely don’t have that old young metabolism anymore. I can’t just eat salads for a few weeks and lose 5 pounds anymore, I’m going to have to really put in effort to maintain/lose weight.

I’ve seen people do vlogs about their weight loss and doing more exercise and things, but I don’t really feel comfortable with the idea of doing a weight loss vlog journey. However, I do feel comfortable writing about it, and I think it’ll help me stay responsible if I talk about it here and there. Accountability is a good thing to have, I think.

I will be honest, I have no idea what my numbers are right now. I don’t own a weight scale anymore. The last one I owned was two years ago, and I never even used it but once in a blue moon. I will be getting a health check at my new place of employment in April, so then maybe I can give some updates. For now though, I just kind of wanted to talk about it.

I think my goal for now is get back down to a healthy 65(ish) kilos, like I was in my first and second Japan years. I felt really good at that weight, and I could go shopping no problem. Also, I feel as if that’s a realistic kilo weight loss goal I could accomplish in a year or so. This is definitely not going to be a crash diet nonsense thing, I’m making a commitment to putting in the work so I can have a healthier life…kind of thing.

I don’t intend to obsess or turn my whole life into the weight loss thing, I’ll just occasionally talk about it. What worked, what didn’t , how this feels, how this sucks, etc.

With any luck, a side benefit will be that I can run to the train station and not feel winded. I’m not saying that’s what inspired this whole journey…but I will say it played a part in the decision. I live fifteen minutes away, I need to be able to book it without dying in the mornings.

Anyways, thanks for reading! Be sure to follow along and check back in soon. I’ll be doing book reviews and such this week.

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Posted in Slice of Life

Eight Years Later: Always Remembering 3/11

Today was the eight year anniversary of the Great Tohoku Earthquake. Even though I don’t write about it every year, I do still take this as a day of remembrance.

When I saw the news about the tsunami that struck Japan, I panicked. I frantically emailed and Facebook messaged people over in Japan, desperate to hear if everyone was alright. A friend I studied abroad with the year before was right there, but she survived. My host families were alright, but in mourning. People they knew were gone.

The numbers of missing and dead increased. In the end, over 18,000 lives were lost. The after shocks rocked the whole eastern coast for over a year afterwards. I remember vividly just feeling so helpless while watching the news. It broke my heart to see a country I loved so much in such deep pain. I wanted to be there, to somehow help.

Then, I got on the JET Program in 2011, in July. I went into an apartment with problematic water and gas issues. I wasn’t supposed to cook with water from the tap, but go get water from the grocery store every other day. I biked over broken and shifted roads, as in roads shifted all the way over from their original placements.

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I also managed to find more old photos and thought I’d share them. This is a road where the ground just sank underneath this sidewalk.

(Exerpt from 5 Years Later: Reflections on March 11th)

When I arrived in Itako, so many of the roads were cracked, shifted sideways, or in waves. The school across the street from me had a long crack up the side still being repaired. Most of the buildings in the area dropped an inch into the ground after the earthquake hit; due to the rice farming, the entire region was so soft underneath the ground just gave way.

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A sidewalk pushed up by the earthquake. The road used to be a straight line, not a curve. Notice the poles about to fall over.

For a month or so, if I wanted clean water to drink and cook with, I’d have to bike all the way out to the supermarket to get water. I’d fill it up and lug it home with the groceries in a backpack killing my shoulders. The whole time I was doing it, I knew I was lucky because so many others were facing he grief of losing family, friends, and homes. I just had to do some exercise. Nothing I experienced could even come close to that kind of awful.

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The street would go up and down like waves sometimes, too.

I was amazed at how resilient my Japanese co-workers and students were about everything. Even though their country just went through something terribly traumatic, they were still able to work forward towards getting back to normal. My teachers often praised me for coming to Japan after the earthquake, calling me brave, but I feel like my boarding a plane and their surviving a natural disaster weren’t comparable.

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This is supposed to be a sidewalk. On the left the road had rippled, and this side of the road went vertical.
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Basically, the road cracked here in five different places. Once where the white gravel is crossing the road, another in a V shape at the intersection, and again in the middle of the road. Parts of the road to the right were completely gone and swallowed up by displaced rice fields.
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Sorry it’s so dark, but here is a road that just sank down a good foot from where it used to be. That’s why there were water and gas issues and some areas without electricity still. These poles here had loose electrical wiring just dangling this way and that.

My students just rolled with the aftershocks, of which there were many in the year to follow, even if they sometimes needed to hold my hand when a big one struck during class. They’d still move on, go to the next class, keep trucking through. I really admired all of them for being so strong, even if they didn’t think of it.

Over the three years I lived there, I watched as everything slowly transformed. The roads around my apartment were done one at a time, painstakingly thorough in trying to make them straight again. You’d never know that the buildings are two inches shorter with all the stairs and foundations redone. When the construction finally died down, everyone relaxed and got into a groove of normalcy again. The cracks in the buildings and the psyches became faded lines that you had to look for, and if you weren’t looking you wouldn’t even see them at all.


I worked and taught in a place that suffered from many, many aftershocks for the first year and a half, though. There were a lot of earthquake alarms, and the whole apartment would sway back and forth constantly. I eventually grew to just accept it, but it was a wild ride.

In February 17th of 2013, I participated in the Kashima Friendship Association Japanese Speech Contest and talked about the 3/11 tragedy. However, I kind of always regretted how that speech felt a bit self-involved. I wish I could’ve spoken more about how inspiring my teachers and students were for making their lives and their city come back together.

I also wished I had shared the stories of the people who went through everything, too. I got around to it…in March of 2017, but I should’ve done that far earlier.


(Excerpt from Flashback Friday: On March 11th)

My predecessor, L, told me she was playing outside when it hit, and that no one could move, the entire world was shaking too hard. She had to take a taxi back home, but the roads were cracked open in some areas or completely shifted off to one side, like some surreal dystopian painting come to life.

L went home to find many of her things knocked down, the water off, and electricity unavailable. Even up until the day I moved in, I wasn’t supposed to use the water from the tap to drink or cook with. Instead, I had to bike twenty minutes or so to the nearest grocery store to get a huge tub of water in a plastic container.

In this hard time, the neighbors helped her out, and her friend, A, let her stay for a bit since her house wasn’t as affected as the main area of Itako. People pulled resources together to have meals, shared water when others had none, and kept their sense of community throughout the chaos.

The people in Mito weren’t as lucky in terms of damage. The JETs there relayed tales of broken bridges and roads, completely unusable. Only one or two JETs in the area had running water and electricity. Thankfully, they opened their doors to others, so people crammed into those apartments to take showers and essentially live there until things got back up and running again. If not for them, family members wouldn’t have known they were alive, they might’ve not had meals.

For people with diabetes, it was a nightmare scenario, since insulin requires both a doctor and a pharmacy but neither were available (same went for allergy and asthma problems). Luckily, friends helped out, and sometimes also the supervisors and co-workers. Medicine was found and given to the people who needed it most, even if it took all day to bike to one side of a city and back, people were getting the resources where they needed to go.

But sometimes the supervisors were unsympathetic. One Mito JET spoke about his supervisor harassing him into coming to school. Even though the students didn’t come and many other teachers weren’t there, they expected him to show up (for reasons he never really understood). The issue with the demands wasn’t so much that he didn’t want to go to work (he actually did, his school had electricity and internet access) but he couldn’t get there.

“When the earthquake hit, you know how L showed you the roads? Yeah, imagine the same thing for the trains. My station was busted up real bad.” He told me and picked up his smartphone to show me pictures. On his screen were downed power lines, resting over railroad tracks split in half.

“They kept trying to tell me ‘just take a taxi’ or something, but everyone was taking the taxi. It was an impossible thing to ask. They had family and friends, you know? But I just got here! I didn’t know anyone yet.”

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Via the Telegraph | This is the Joban Motorway near Mito, Ibaraki

But I do think there is some merit to collecting and sharing these stories even into today. Putting a spotlight on Tohoku and Fukushima is important, because recovery is very much still ongoing. Many people I know seem to be under the impression it’s all done and over, but for many people in Fukushima they are still living in “temporary” housing. Infrastructure is still lacking in some places in Miyagi as well.

And so going back to the five year anniversary post, I wrote about 3/11 all over again, but this time including fundraisers for Fukushima (as the government was getting called out for not helping the region recover).

Two fundraisers that I mentioned in the previous blog posts are the Taylor Anderson Fundraiser, so named after the JET participant who died in the tsunami, and as always, the Red Cross. (However, note that the Red Cross is giving priority to the Hokkaido 2018 earthquake now.

And also, the Japan Red Cross is everywhere. Giving blood in times when there isn’t a disaster, like say right now, is better than right after a disaster strikes. I used to give blood annually when I was working in schools, but I skipped last year because of health reasons.

However, there are still other organizations out there! Another active group in Tohoku is the JCS Rainbow Project which is dedicated to helping children of Fukushima recover. Every year the Japan Club of Sydney brings over children from Japan to share their stories and they send aid to Japan.

Another organization is the Japan Society Earthquake Relief Fund. They are still taking donations for both the Tohoku Earthquake and the Kumamoto Earthquake from 2016.

A big rebuilding project for Fukushima is Asubito Fukushima, General Incorporated Association. “Asubito” is their own Japanese mixed word that means, “people who create tomorrow, people who clear the path to tomorrow.” It’s a huge project that intends to help both reconstruction and fostering math as well as science skills in local Fukushima schools.

Nowadays, less and less programs have calls for volunteers in the Tohoku and Fukushima areas. At the same time, if you want to volunteer, Peace Boat has volunteering activities all across the country to help with disaster relief. I personally recommend going through Peace Boat if you’re a native English speaker. It is possible to volunteer through the Red Cross as well, but I’ve been told they’re looking for more Japanese speaking volunteers instead of English speakers.

On this day of remembrance, it’s important to reflect and mourn those lost. Then, it’s also important to spotlight those places still affected and give them what aid we can to help. As a teacher, most of the fundraisers here are focusing on how to help kids in schools. Around Christmas time I try to still send gifts to children in Fukushima or Tohoku, because usually it’s the children affected most by the disasters.

Even after eight years or ten or twenty, recovery will still be going on and people will still be remembering this tragedy. Other tragedies have come along as well, so we add them into this cultural narrative of shared mourning. I hope that in time the healing will come, but we’re still not completely done. I’m still here, and I’ll still keep trying to help.


Bonus: This is a really well done documentary style video about after the tsunami. Highly recommend it, but get your tissues prepared.

Posted in Slice of Life

Carrying It Along: On Grief and Loss

My uncle died recently. It was a very sudden cancer diagnosis, and then just like that, he was gone. I would say he was a “distant relative,” but I knew him. I wish I could be there with my family in America for the funeral, but there is no money and no time for grief. I think my company perhaps gives grieving leave (I haven’t checked) but I think that’s only for immediate family and needing to leave the country.

My uncle was a good grandfather to my cousins. He had a sense of humor I really couldn’t quite get, honestly. I chuck it up to a generational gap and non-familiarity, since he lived states away when I was growing up in Kentucky. I’d been to his house in Oklahoma more than once when I got older. We had a big family gathering there once, the typical Southern way of playing games and eating WAY too much food.

I like to respect him by remembering him fondly. Although, it feels wrong of me to grieve, being so far away? Having not seen him in years? But I do feel bad for my aunt and uncle losing someone, along with my mother who will be attending the funeral. I wish I at least had the money to send flowers, somehow.

These kinds of griefs are hard to explain, because I’ve had a few over here. Second year into the JET Program, Gabby -the family dog back home in the U.S.- died. I was very glad I went back home for Christmas so I could see her one last time. Jack, my mom’s cat, died around or before that same time.
It all hurt, but there was nothing I could do except tell my Mom, “I’m so so sorry you’re going through this.” Because she was really there dealing with it all, while I was miles away in a foreign country.

It feels wrong of me to mourn when everyone else is there, actually having to deal with the funerals and arrangements. I know, logically, that’s not the healthy way of thinking about it, and that these feelings are all valid.

I guess though that means my guilt for being abroad when things like deaths in the family happen is also valid, too. I don’t want to make it about me, because I’m not even there. Does that make sense? And I really just want to be there to support the people I love who are hurting more than me, no doubt. So I just don’t say much of anything about my own grief, because it really feels so small and insignificant in comparison to someone who just lost someone right there. What kind of asshole monster would I be if I said anything?

Also, sometimes my grief is a bit ridiculous. When my mom decided to move out to Oklahoma permanently, and the house I lived in for most of my life was put on market. Even though I was only going to visit that place once a year, it cut deep to think I’d never see it again.

I got over it, eventually, but I still have these dreams of being in my old room sometimes. Not all of these dreams are super fantastically detailed, but I wake up feeling like I left something behind. It’s a strange disconnect for a few seconds until I remember, oh right, it’s not there anymore. Well, physically it is, but I can never go back to it.

A lot of grief disconnects, and then has to get reconnected for me. Before my uncle, there was actually another loss I really haven’t processed, and maybe I never will. A friend from high school died, and once again, there was nothing I could do but send Facebook message condolences. I couldn’t believe it, still kind of can’t. I still see her in my mind’s eye as someone alive, smiling, laughing.

Once again, we hadn’t seen each other in years. I liked her a lot in high school, though. She and I had a very similar sense of humor, and she was one of the people I could just talk to easily. It was a small school, a small town, we grew up together. But we weren’t super best friends, too, and I’m not family. Again, this grief feels wrong to have when I am disconnected in so many ways.

But I remember staying after school with her, and we roamed the empty halls just talking and laughing about things. I remember how we both complained about a certain teacher, and we couldn’t wait to get out of high school. There are things I’m going to look back at now and have to remind myself that she’s really gone. It feels impossible, somehow.

In the past, I have lost other people, but these recent ones came right on top of each other without a year’s break in between like the others. I lost another uncle about a year ago, and he was a lovely man who bought me literally the best beer I’d ever beer I’d ever had in my life. An ex-boyfriend from university died in a car crash. I had bought him a Japanese manga version of BLEACH for him. It’s still on my bookshelf.

All of it happened, and they are all gone. Grieving is different for everyone, I know, and for me each grief carries its own set of a different sort of aching when I think about them. My latent Christianity hopes that everyone is alright, blessed and at peace where they belong. I pray that all my family members find their own closure, that everyone gets through it with the support and love they need. I do what I can from far off, but it never feels like much or even near enough.

The best I feel I can do is honor the memories I have and carry them with me. I don’t know what to do with the grief that accompanies them and when it hits me at the strangest times, but I’ll carry it all along anyway. And perhaps if I share a little bit of what I’m feeling maybe that’ll make it a little easier. Maybe one day I’ll be a little more emotionally mature, and I can properly process how I feel.

Until then, I’ll just remember them all fondly, with love.

Posted in Teaching Things

Teaching Toddlers: The Best and the Worst

I love teaching kids, I really do. Young learners, as in those under thirteen, have in general this complete lack of shame I kind of envy. A good ninety percent of the classes they will just SHOUT OUT LOUD ALL THE ENGLISH and they do not care at all if it’s correct or not. One particular group though is both the most rewarding and the most challenging for me, and that is the toddlers.

I think many people view the toddler age as this maelstrom of violent outbursts and awful tantrums, because that’s what a decent majority of family dramas depict in TV shows and movies. And while, yes, there are tantrums, toddlers do have some positives in teaching them. I want to talk about a few of those as well as some of the challenging aspects.

Let me start off with how I don’t think toddlers get enough credit when it comes to how loving they can be. Toddlers will love you, just because you exist and you’re in their life. Some of my students will hug me on sight, even when I’m not even teaching them that day. Sometimes they’re so excited to start class they’ll line up five minutes early and just be bouncing balls of energy in anticipation. I get adorable drawings and hand written letters that say, “For Jessica teacher!” with my name horrendously misspelled, and I love them all.

Many people see it as being “clingy or needy”, but toddlers really only cling to people they actually like and trust. For me, when a parent ever says the words, “Wow! They never used to like English class, but now my child loves coming to your class.” That means I’ve successfully linked English to fun by extension of me being the “fun teacher.”

But toddlers can be a handful, not gonna lie.

Toddlers have that special in-between balancing act of, “Yeah, I can totally walk and run, but I will also fall right on my face if you look away for two seconds.”

One time, I taught a four year old private student. She was one of the first little tykes I’d ever had just by myself. Previously as a JET Program ALT, there was always a main teacher actually in charge. I just danced and sang songs in the pre-schools/kindergarten classes.

This girl at one point in the lesson looked at me, giggled, and then turned around to run straight into a wall. Just, THUNK! And laughed some more as she fell backwards. I was in shock for a good two seconds, but then I managed to keep the lesson going.

Over time, her head swelled up and I thought her mom was gonna kill me. To my surprise, after I honestly told the mother, “So…she ran…into a wall. She didn’t even hesitate, she just, BOOM, hit it with her head.”

The mother took one look at her daughter, and then looked at me and said, “I believe you.”

Turns out it was a habitual thing.

So as a TEFL teacher I’ve got to try to make my classroom environment fun, but also as safe as possible for little squishy potato heads. I learned my lesson from that previous class, so there is no running in my classrooms. We jump, we skip, we dance but we don’t run in the classroom.

That being said, kids are kids and will find ways to test patience and break rules/things they know they’re not supposed to. I can’t count how many times kids have tried to get away with cheating at games, or tried to change the rules of a game to fit them winning over another student/team.

People ask me how I discipline toddlers and I tell them the truth: I put them in a time-out corner.

A lot of people immediately say, “But that never works with my students! They just get back up.” Yep, I believe that, which is why my response is, “Pretend they’re still in time-out anyway.” In other words, ignore the child, don’t engage with them until they’re ready to behave and apologize.

Some people get intimidated by toddlers. After all, they can (and do) scream or cry at the drop of a hat, especially if they don’t get things going their way. However, it’s essential during a toddler phase to put down strict limits on what’s OK behavior and what’s not in a classroom.

Basically, yes I’m teaching them English, but I am also teaching social skills as part of that communication set.

Also, I see a lot of people try to do timeouts wrong, like put the toddler in the corner for like ten minutes. NO, not even that long! To a toddler a minute by itself is forever. Stick with three to five minute timeouts, don’t hover over them just leave them alone, and make them apologize before resuming play. Tah-dah, you’ve got yourself a kid that understands where the limit is.

Back on the subject of crying toddlers, it’s gonna happen in a class at some point or another. Toddlers are tiny humans who don’t really get how this whole body movement thing works, and they’re going to get frustrated simply because they’re just not coordinated yet. I’ve had kids cry because they’re tired or hungry, and that’s fair enough.

I don’t ever punish crying when kids get frustrated or hurt or upset over stuff they just can’t control. When that happens, I just use distraction methods. Sometimes that means I get out crayons and sheet of paper to let them relax, just draw something pretty for mommy and daddy. Sometimes that means I change the game or start a dance so they’ll kind of just “forget” they were upset in the first place.

Just very recently, I had a class full of three and four year old cuties come back after the New Year’s break. One of the boys did NOT like that Dad wasn’t coming into class with him. He started bawling, crocodile tears running down his face. His Dad was a good sport about it, just told him to “Gambarre!” and he’d pick him up after class.

My little tyke kept crying as Dad left the door. I got out a floor mat piece – we put down soft Alphabet mats as cushion for the floor – and asked him, “Hey [student], what color is this?”

He sniffled, stared at the mat for a second, and then he cried out, “Greeeeeeeeeeeeeeen!!!” He proceeded to take the may while still crying and put it with the other floor pieces. Other students lined up and started taking the other pieces to put it all together into one pseudo- carpet like structure.

[Image: Foam mats interlocked together with detachable letters A to Z. Each mat has a different bright color and letter combination.] You can buy a bunch of these for cheap on Amazon, pro tip.

Now, you might be wondering, “Wow, that’s a lot of challenges!” Yep, which is why teaching a toddler class will make you a better teacher.

I’m not even joking. Having to teach toddlers means you will learn to be quick on your feet, use more gestures, problem solve, figure out how to use your voice and tone for discipline effectively in a classroom, and so much more. I won’t lie, teaching high school was a breeze in comparison to teaching toddlers, but I know for a fact that teaching toddlers made me realize how I could teach even upper level students better in so many different ways.

So while teaching toddlers requires a lot of work and just so much energy, it is worth while for me to see kids form an early and good relationship with English. I also appreciate how I’m teaching them, but they’re also giving me some hard earned experience to remember for future classes. And they’re just adorable, really, ya know, when they’re not crying and shouting.

Still, I wouldn’t trade all the drawings and hugs I get for the world.