Posted in flashback friday, Jobs in Japan

Flashback Friday: When It’s All Mundane

As the months rolled on from summer into fall of 2011, I found myself unable to write about my life. It wasn’t for lack of wanting to, but I found that everything was becoming a new standard of “normal.” I wasn’t running off to go on adventures every weekend, I wasn’t living in an anime, I had a real life with a real job I needed to do. The days passed by with little to nothing noteworthy, so I ended up posting only two things the entire month of November.

I decided to stick with the old phrase, “Write about what you know.”


MY DAILY ROUTINE

People have asked me what I do during the day, so I’ll talk a little bit about that. It’s pretty simple. I arrive at 8:15 at my school and work until 4:00 in the afternoon. When I arrive I say, “Ohayo gozaimasu!” My teachers will either say, “Ohayo gozaimasu!” back or “Good morning!”I can have two to five class periods per day. During free periods, I try to work on worksheets, projects, Japanese (reading and writing), and I won’t lie sometimes I just go onto Facebook. Sometimes I eat with the students for lunch and speak in English to them. Other times, especially lately, I eat with the teachers and try out both my Japanese and English skills.


Each ALT will have a different opinion on whether or not they should or shouldn’t eat school lunches with the kids. Some people don’t get a choice and have to regardless, but for me I was given the option. Some days I could force myself to be genki and try to initiate broken conversations. Other times, I couldn’t bear the thought of forcing words out and making lunch into yet another class to teach.

The argument for them goes like so: Students need more conversation practice and more time with the foreign teacher(s). But the counter argument to that is some people would like to eat in privacy and not get stressed out over eating. I took it day by day.


My kids are great. I’ve got a couple of punks that are too cool for school, but that’s normal I think. Some kids are also really shy, but I’ll keep trying to get them to talk. They love to tell me about what they like and don’t like. The boys are hilarious. They’re not looking at my eyes, if you catch my drift, but they’re talking to me in English so it’s all good.


I felt really bad for most of my junior high school students, actually. I didn’t have the heart to tell them that their English levels were perhaps American grade level forth graders, if that. It was around this time I realized that Itako was much like the decade ago version of Paducah: most of those kids would become farmers, they would drop out of high school, they’d get married, and they might never even leave Japan.

That’s not to say of course that many of them didn’t go into good high schools to eventually perform well at university (I actually met up with one or two recently in Yokohama!). At the same time, the majority were still just products of their upbringing and conservative environment. The schools are improving every year though, and I watched as our scores rose higher and higher while I was there. Yet I would also watch as the “punk” kids struggled to understand the basics of anything and wouldn’t even bother trying because they figured they knew exactly how their lives would turn out.


My Japanese Teachers of English (JTEs for short) are awesome. I love working with them. They are so accommodating with my crazy English. Sometimes, it can be hard to communicate some things, but I’m lucky to have them for JTEs. Some people have issues with their teachers and supervisors in ways that horrify me. I’m so glad my JTEs are nice, respectful, and willing to teach me.


While it’s true that my JTE’s were pretty great as people, I still couldn’t believe their English skills were so hit and miss.  Considering that most of them came from the era of Japanese education where English was only reading and writing? It was pretty good. In terms of fluency? High intermediate level on average. They could run circles around me on explaining grammar, but they’d get stumped over simple language conversation usage.

I will still remain forever grateful that most of most stayed with me for all three years. I got that stability of knowing what each of them wanted and not having to worry about brand new people every year. And yes, none of these people gave me horror stories.

Many ALT’s will have THAT ONE ASSHOLE. He/She is the JTE who didn’t bother to do anything ever, blamed the ALT if scores were low, made disparaging comments about foreigners/ALTs/racist other things, sabotages demo lessons in front of other teachers and parents, ruins perfectly good worksheets, behaves like a seudo-yankee and threatens the ALT for coming to class, the list goes on and on.

I only ever had a problem with Mr. Igime (name changed into a pun). He was with me for only six months, and he was just lazy. He’d go into class, use me as a tape recorder, and then just have the students read the books over and over again. He would attempt to bully me, but I’m one of those people who can dish it right back. He learned pretty quickly that I’m not his slave and I’m not going to call him senpai or whatever. The only time he caught me off guard was when he complained in front of the students in Japanese how it wasn’t fair I was making “so much more money” than him. Huge dick move, but jokes on him because I went straight to the Principal after class and filed a complaint. He didn’t come back the following year.


The only downside, I’ll be honest, is the textbooks. The textbooks are awful. Whenever my fellow JET Setters and I get together at a meeting, this topic will invariably come up. Immediately, everybody has something to say in terms of what it does wrong. It ranges from everything to bad grammar, misspellings, archaic language, and then (my biggest issue) the huge lack of English culture in the book.

new-horizon.jpg

I could cite the many pages throughout the New Horizon and Sunshine texts that use incorrect examples of grammar and what have you, but that would take up too much time and effort. Instead, I’ll just give a couple of examples and move on.

“My favorite was Kinkaku-ji.”

First off, it should be Kinkaku Temple, not Kinkaku-ji. Also, favorite what? Your favorite place? Your favorite sight?

“Where shall we meet?”and “Pardon?”

Shall? Really? The last time I used “shall” was a sarcastic response to my mother when she asked me, “Are you going to clean your room?” And I responded in my most obnoxiously polite voice, “Yes, mother, I shall.” Nobody uses shall. It’s polite, but it’s ridiculously polite. And the last person I hear use the word, “Pardon?” was an old lady. Nobody, that I know of, uses the word pardon in everyday language. Instead, I always hear, “I’m sorry, what?” or “Huh?” or “Wha?” or “What?” and on occasion “Darlin’, I didn’ah understand uh word ya jus said.” I miss Kentucky accents. Anyway, they’re teaching the kids these words and I have to stifle the urge to giggle every time.

“I got a letter from Canada. But I can’t read it.”

GAHHHHH! WHAT?! Every single American, British, and Australian will tell you that when writing sentences, you do not put conjugation at the beginning of a sentence if you can help it. The textbook could just as easy say, “I got a letter from Canada, but I can’t read it.” They have other sentences like that in the book. Why the wrong version?! It’s so confusing and inconsistent. Sometimes, I will correct a sentence and a JTE might say, “Oh, but that’s in the textbook!” I clench my fists while I smile and say, “Well, I’m afraid the textbook is wrong. I will let it count, but it’s not correct.” It makes me want to scream just a little bit.

Alright, so you get the idea. Now, it may seem nit picky with these examples, but they’re all over the textbooks. It would be a different story if there were only a few problems, but it doesn’t stop at just a sentence here or there.


Every single ALT I know agrees that the MEXT textbooks are garbage, but they’re government issued garbage so we have to just use them anyway. Three years down the road when I realized that I knew those textbooks inside and out, and I asked myself, “Can I really teach these same lessons for one more year?” I realized the answer was an emphatic NO, and decided it was time to go.

However, this is part of the reason why ALT’s exist. We come into the classroom with Native English (or equivalent) under our belt so that we can point out these mistakes and then teach the students the better way to do it. I spent a lot of classes explaining things like, “Well, even though the textbook says this is natural, we actually say _____ more often.” or “Sometimes it’s okay to do this when you’re writing, but when you’re speaking please be careful not to say it like that.” and visa versa.


I might have been able to let sleeping dogs lie if not for the fact that the textbook teaches little to nothing about foreign culture.

Very briefly at one point the textbook students visit Canada, but then they go back to Japan four pages or so later. So often, the textbooks talk about things in Japan, things the students already know. To me, the implied message is, “Hey, kids! English is awesome for vacations and for a homestay, but really you don’t need to know a single thing about a culture other than your own!” Way to teach a language in a vacuum, MEXT.


Here is another reason ALT’s are necessary, we have the cultural background and understanding of our respective countries that we can bring into the classroom. I talked about Kentucky’s cultural traditions around the holidays-the top three being Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. In addition to that I would make English Boards, posters that would get placed on a wall that discussed other countries traditions.

While I still think the textbooks could try and teach a little more about other places, there is something to be said for taking the reigns and proving your worth as vital part of the school. If you notice something that you think is lacking, do something about it.


There is little to no hope for change in the system. The textbooks stay the same because of the standardized tests, and the standardized tests stay the same because of the textbooks. It’s a vicious cycle.

I get through these moments by telling myself that the activities will make up for the loss. However, it’s hard to build up from a poor foundation. It’s very easy for the students to get confused with one little change in the script. For example, I was doing a “Where is…?” assignment. When I asked the students, “Where is your pen?” they all just sat and stared at me in confusion. Eventually they figured it out, but the fact is they couldn’t grasp that “Where is…?” applied not just to, “Where is the store?” but also other things and places. The textbooks make it seem like the scripts are just that, scripts.


Because there is little to no hope for change in the system, it’s really important for teachers to take the initiative to fight for proper English and cultural exchange. Of course, you’ve always got to pick and choose your battles, but make an effort to show that there’s more than just some lines in a book or something to memorize for a test.

Then, what past me doesn’t know yet is that there are ways to make the scripts more memorable and flexible, such as layering. Whenever you move forward, try to bring a little bit back from the previous lesson and layer it on top of new material. Keep it fresh in the students’ minds. Also, bringing in pop culture can always help make it more memorable while being fun at the same time.


For the most part, I’ve been lucky enough when it comes to activities that I haven’t had to work from nothing at all. Lauren left me a huge amount of worksheets and activity books so that I could make my lessons without much hassle. Also, I use a website called Englipedia if I need help with a grammar point activity or if I need something right before class. I love using Englipedia because it’s got the lessons organized by textbook and even by each section. For me it’s one of the most convenient resources online for ALTs.

Usually, I spend at least one free hour planning out the lessons for the next day or next couple of days, depending on what the JTE wants. Sometimes it’s hard to get a hold of them to find out what exactly they want from me, so I leave notes on their desks or a Lesson Plan Form that I fill out for them to look over and return to me. I try to catch them to talk face to face as often as possible, but sometimes they’re just too busy.


I still can’t recommend Englipedia enough as an ALT site. It’s got everything you need to make your lessons great. That being said, sometimes my JTE’s would get so picky about they wanted and I’ve have to redo a worksheet five to ten times to make it look just so or include this vocab word, or something. After all that, I sometimes didn’t even get to use the activities because of some scheduling thing or another! So frustrating, but that’s a part of the job.


Everyday when I leave, I say, “Otsukaresamadeshita!” and the teachers in the staff room will either say, “Otsukaresamadeshita!” in return or “See you!” The English makes me smile every single time.


I think in my next Japanese Conversation Tip post I’m going to talk about all the different goodbyes that are possible in a Japanese workplace environment versus friends and such. When I first got there it was a bit confusing as to which one I was supposed to use, but nowadays I’m pretty confident on which I should and shouldn’t so I’ll pass that knowledge along.

The rest of the post is talking about my pet spider, which I’d actually like to save for next Friday. I’m going to take that opportunity to educate everyone on all the creepy crawlies that live in the inaka parts of Japan. You’d be surprised what you can find! Until then everyone, sayonara and see you later.

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Posted in flashback friday

Flashback Friday: Halloween and Homesickness

I did a vlog about dealing with homesickness , and I honestly get so many questions about it that it’s probably in the “Top 5 Questions” I get since moving to Japan (Hmm, next post idea maybe? We’ll see!). I remember that I actually went back to this post two times to try and update it with pictures and more details, because I left out a few adventures that I did in August and September.

I wanted to also soften how homesick I was, because like I mentioned in my last post, I didn’t really want to worry my people back home in America.I deleted and re-wrote sections, so this post lacks smoothness and flow that I try my best nowadays to maintain.

Then again, I was trying to jam pack a lot of stuff into one post, which as any experienced blogger will tell you is a bad idea. Stick with one topic, one adventure, don’t try to cram. It’ll just come out a huge mess! Still, let’s see what past me was up to back around Halloween time five years ago.


THE LAND WITHOUT HALLOWEEN: GETTING HOMESICK

Although the title isn’t entirely accurate, the love that America holds for Halloween and the love that Japan has for the holiday just isn’t the same. Back in America, I would’ve seen people’s front lawns and porches decorated to the nines with skeletons, witches, bats, maybe a few fake rodents, and the occasional scarecrow. Here, nothing. Nada. For one thing, it’s rare for me to see someone with a lawn period, and even more rare to see someone put up decorations.

It sucks, because I’m coming down from my euphoric state and slipping downwards into homesickness. I’m dying for familiar things, and it doesn’t help that Halloween is my favorite holiday. No contest. Most people usually take issue with Christmas and feel utterly lonesome about missing their families. I intend to hop on a plane and get back to the states for Christmas. I can’t exactly do that for Halloween, and I don’t want to do it. I just got here!


Repeat after me: There is no set formula for living abroad! Some people may go through the stages of adaptation in different ways.

What are the Stages of Adaptation you ask?

  1. Preparation– You’re packing and getting ready for the big move to another country. Often this is the stage where people are feeling the nervousness and excitement the most.
  2. Honeymoon/Euphoria Stage– You have arrived! EVERYTHING IS AWESOME! You will never be unimpressed by anything that’s happening around you ever!
  3. Culture Shock (Fatigue) / Homesickness– You are worn out from everything being so DIFFERENT, and you just want FAMILIAR things but you can’t.
  4. Adjustments/ Compromises– You’re getting the hang of things, you’re starting to adopt what you like from the new culture and what is just too big a part of your cultural identity to change.
  5. Isolation (Mentality)– You’re feeling like you’re the only you that’s ever existed and you’re so alone; Note that many people skip this step and I usually don’t hear many people complain about it, but here it is.
  6. Acceptance/ Integration– You’ve decided how you want to live your life abroad. Some of this culture, some of your own, and discovering your new identity as well as learning to love it.

Nobody goes through all of these in a set timetable, but at the JET Conferences they’ll give you an estimated time when you’ll go through “each phase.” Here’s the thing though, you might not go through these in phases, you might skip these steps, go back and experience them again, nothing about ex-pat life is one size fits all.

Don’t beat yourself up if you start feeling down! I was always hard on myself for feeling homesick when “I shouldn’t,” which is silly since that’s not how emotions work. Just take care of yourself!

Also, what I ended up doing was going to Tokyo Disney Land like a week after this post to do Disney Halloween!

Halloween Tokyo Disney 2.jpg

My friend Emily called me up out of the blue and basically asked me if I’d like to go. Long story short, that’s become my new annual Halloween tradition. I love dressing up and going there every year! It’s the whole month of October, and I definitely think that if you love Halloween like I do this is one the better places to celebrate, although lately Ageha has had some pretty epic Halloween events too.

Halloween Tokyo Disney.jpg

Past me of course didn’t know this was going to happen, so she decided to switch her tone from sad to happy without much of a transition.


Now don’t get me wrong, I’m still having fun. I went off to Gunma for a vacation in August. That was awesome! I went canyoning and rafting with a bunch of other ALTs and we had a good ol’ time. I nearly died walking up the mountain, but going down by basically going down the best slip and slide ride ever made was well worth the effort (and the asthma attack).

First Year Gunma Trip 1.jpg
Photo Credit: Midori Hamashima (Inoue)

I highly recommend going to Gunma for canyoning and rafting in the summer. We went on a three day weekend so that even the desk warming high school teachers could come. On our first day, we went rafting down the river, and in the picture above you can see us holding the paddles. We took this right after and we were soaked! The hotel we stayed at had the buses to take you there, the equipment, everything.

First Year Gunma Trip 1 Raft.jpg
Photo Credit: Midori Hanashima (Inoue)

The next day we went up the damn mountain, and what I failed to mention in this post is that our guides were trying to kill us. They were hopping up from rock to rock like bunnies while the rest of us were huffing and puffing trying to keep up. And yes, for the first time in years, I had a stress induced asthma attack. I was so embarrassed, but the whole group assured me that I wasn’t the weakest link (one girl told me later she wanted to throw up).

First Year Gunma Trip 2.jpg
Photo Credit: Midori Hanashima (Inoue)

Still, the near death was worth it, because wow was going down the mountain a ton of fun. We slid between the crevices of rocks and jumped into deep pools. The whole thing was gorgeous! In one part, a natural slide down the rocks took us through different holes on the way down to a big pool. It was exhilarating and terrifying! I thought I’d surely hit my head or something, but nope. Just landed in the pool.

First Year Gunma Trip 2 canyoning.jpg
Photo Credit: Midori Hanashima (Inoue)

Sidenote: Midori, the photographer and friend on the trip, was the only one of us who was smart enough to bring with her a waterproof camera. She ended up taking all of the pictures. My advice is to get a waterproof case or something beforehand so you don’t end up missing out on capturing these amazing memories.


And in the evening we had a BBQ at the hotel.

BBQ picture Gunma Trip 2.jpg
Photo Credit: Midori Hanashima (Inoue)

For reasons that are quite beyond me, I failed to put in an actual picture of the BBQ in the original post so I’m changing to this picture. There were about 5 plates of meat we consumed, but there was only ONE GRILL, but the food came with our accommodations so I guess I couldn’t complain. Besides, the meat was juicy and delicious, so worth the wait.


I also went over to Tsukuba for a festival and got to see a giant, robot bug.

Tsukuba bug bot.jpg

By the way, the fact that Japan makes giant robots just for fun? Yeah, don’t %$#@ with Japan. Just. Don’t.


Tsukuba is a huge science and engineering city. Every year they have this annual science fair like festival showing off things like the bug and other robotic tech. It’s pretty cool!


Anyway, I also hit up the Space Museum and the Geological Museum while I was up there.

Tsukuba Space Shuttle.jpg

Tsukuba Space Museum

Next time, I’m going to take the park tours and go up Mt. Tsukuba (Tsukuba-san!) I also go up to Mito every other weekend. Sometimes it’s for business trips, and sometimes it’s for fun.


See what I mean by pick a topic and stay on topic? I was trying so hard to cover everything that I didn’t really give all these events the proper time they deserved to really discuss them at length.

Tsukuba’s Space Museum is a great tour that goes on a detailed timeline about Japan’s astronauts and the Japanese space aviation industry. If you’ve got kids who love space, take them here if at all possible. They will love it. If you love scientific things in general, the festival is full of cool things to check out.


A couple of weeks ago I did another homestay. I say another because I did two last year. So, this makes my third host family in Japan. I like them a lot! The mom and dad were so nice, and tried their best to speak English. The daughter is so cute! She spoke the most English, so she and I talked the most. I plan to go back up to Mito soon and visit them again. I’m bringing gifts because it’s my host sister’s birthday soon!

We went together to Hitachi Seaside Park for the flowers, but we kind of went during the off season so my pictures didn’t turn out as vibrant as the ones in the tourist brochures.

Hitachi Seaside Park 1.jpg

Still pretty neat though!

Hitachi Seaside Park 2

No, I don’t care how “cute” and “romantic” anime portrays these death wheels. Just no!

Hitachi Seaside Park 3.jpg

The bell people rang is for peace and serenity. 


Oh the Mito host family, uh…The parents were nice, but super awkward. The daughter was,well, she was a doll otaku. She collected dolls, spoke through them, and I just…I didn’t know how to describe that whole experience, so I chose to focus on the park. Sometimes that can happen with host families, and even though I tell everyone to try them out, I always forewarn that sometimes you might not mesh with the people. That’s okay, don’t worry, the experience can still be…noteworthy.


Alright, so I’m having fun and keeping myself busy (believe me), but I’m still feeling down. The thing is I think all the little things just keep piling up. It’s a chore to go shopping sometimes. I have to look up what sometimes looks like in Japanese before I buy it, and even then, sometimes the font is just so hard to read. I feel illiterate, and I suppose I am in a way. I can’t read so much of what’s around me. It’s frustrating and disheartening. Usually I can figure it out and move on, but sometimes I just have to sigh and give up. I hate giving up, but bashing my head against the language barrier won’t do me any good either.

That’s another thing. The barrier can sometimes be more of a Great Wall of Misunderstanding. Luckily, my Japanese English teachers and I can get our messages across, but then I’ll have the wonderful experience of flinging words at this invisible force field that’s suddenly flung between us by some bored deity with too much time on his or her hands. I’ll say something, and the teacher will just look at me like I’ve suddenly began dancing instead of talking. I go through different, simpler ways of saying what I said before, but somehow that only makes it worse. Add about ten minutes later, my very large vocabulary suddenly seems useless, a little bit of hair pulling later, and then the light bulb finally goes off. Or, it can happen the opposite way, wherein the teacher’s trying to convey something and I just don’t get it. When the light bulb goes off for me, I usually feel like an idiot for not getting it the first time.


The language barrier wasn’t actually the problem, but that’s what I was clinging to as the excuse for how I was feeling so frustrated. I was just exhausted with living in a completely different environment with completely different people. I went from being the senior in university that knew everyone and everything around me to being the youngest teacher in the school who didn’t know anyone or anything. It’s a lot to try and get used to, and it can take a toll.


I love my teachers, though. They’ve been good to me, and they’ve taken care of me whenever I’ve needed help. I’m very grateful to them. I’m good friends with some of them, and I hope that I can eventually communicate without being so ridiculously impaired by ignorance.

Well, this post is turning out a little more angsty than I’d like. The thing is, as much as I complain, I get to say I’m homesick…IN JAPAN! It’s the trump card. I use it for everything. For example, when I get lost, I just remind myself that I’m lost IN JAPAN! And it makes everything seem a little better. I still love this country, even if it’s lacking in the Halloween spirit to me, that’s because it’s just not a part of the culture. It’s a part of mine, and I intend to spread it’s gruesome awesome all over my classrooms. Mwahahahaha!!!

Okay, I’m determined to make it happen.

That’s my life right now. I’ll try to be better about posting, but as I mentioned before, I’m awful at journals and blogs. I’ll try my best to remember.

TTYL!


Actually, Halloween is now gaining more and more traction in Japan. People are doing more Halloween parties and such, so I don’t feel like I’m missing out as much.

So yeah, if you ever feel like starting up a blog, try to pick a topic and write about only that topic. Don’t think that you need to talk about everything all at once. Your audience will thank you for it.

See you next week on Friday for another flashback!

Posted in flashback friday, Uncategorized

Flashback Friday: First Post In Japan!

When I first got to Japan, it took me over a month to actually get the courage to write a blog. Most people think it’s easy to just throw words out there and see what happens, but I was scaredWhat if nobody likes it?! What if I suck at this? Shoud I even bother?

But with the encouragement of my family and friends, I did in fact put it out there for the world to see. Honestly, it didn’t really go into a lot of details, because I was so scared of hurting someone’s feelings or making someone angry if I mentioned something about them in the post. Now that I know these people, I don’t think they’d be too upset about me telling a few additional things here.


WELCOME TO JAPAN!

Ibaraki Prefecture Group A.jpg
Ibaraki Prefecture: Group A

I’ve heard it so many times and it never gets old. I’m still so excited to be here! Everyone in my city is so nice and helpful. I’m glad I ended up in a place that’s more rural than urban. I’m not a fan of big cities. I like looking out onto the rice fields and just feeling so relaxed. I couldn’t have ended up at a better place for me.


Oh boy, Itako-shi was a great city, don’t get me wrong but past me couldn’t have known that it would also begin to feel really isolated after about the fifth month mark. I didn’t really have a lot of people around me who I just, ya know, really clicked with. The few people I did lived far away, so I’d have to either go up to Mito to see them or Tsukuba or something. It wasn’t as perfect as I made it out to be, but I suppose I just didn’t really know anything else to compare it to.

To just add on a few things I failed to mention the first time around, Group A was a fantastic group. I’m still in contact with most of these people, even though many of them left Japan and returned to their homelands. We had a mixed bag of a photography major, a chemistry major (who I think was still getting her masters at that time?), philosophy, and so on. Two of my friends, I’ll call them J and C, still live in Japan and I meet up with them sometimes. You can really make long lasting and strong connections with your group, and then it got even better with the following groups B & C. Get to know them at the JET training conference, because you’ll be seeing them a lot and also because you’ll want to make an ex-pat social life circle starting from there.

There’s this rumor that circulates around about the JET Programme that you need Japanese to get a leg up on the competition, but that’s just not true. I hold these guys and gals don’t get angry with me for saying so, but only three people in that first picture could speak Japanese (at first, I mean). Later on we would all learn and study Japanese in Japan.


Lauren Parker
From left to right: Ikeda-san, me, and Lauren

And I couldn’t have lucked out with a better predecessor. Lauren Parker lived in Itako for three years before I came along, and she got the apartment all prepared for me. She even put up pictures and things so the walls didn’t seem so bare. Since she and the Board of Education furnished the apartment, I didn’t have to buy anything when I arrived. Many of the other ALTs did, poor things, but I didn’t!


Lauren was an amazing pred. She set up so much for me, took me to a bunch of social gatherings so I’d make connections, she introduced me to my schools. Yet, that whole experience was overwhelming. I was getting shuttled here, then there, getting this contract signed, and then having to go meet a whole bunch of new people every night, and I ended up having a huge migraine one day, and the night the picture below was taken I balled my eyes out in a mini-breakdown on the car ride home. It wasn’t her fault, not at all, just be aware that going abroad just on its own can be stressful and then all the prep work to live there will compound that stress. I survived, and looking back there really isn’t much I’d change, because all of that was imporant to do.

Also, I was really lucky with my apartment set-up. The city paid for the rent, so I just paid utilities. Many JETs got subsidized housing, but not completely paid for kind of places. It was a pretty spacious 2DK with a full kitchen, which meant having people over for dinner and spending the night was no big deal.

However, the place was old, as in it needed new tatami, it needed new work done on the walls, someone should’ve come in to insulate the windows better, it was just kind of always grungy no matter how much I cleaned and cleaned it. So I, honestly, gave up one year into it and started putting carpets over the floor and covered the walls with pictures and posters to just make it look less so.


 

Cultural Festival with Lauren
I also met my Japanese teacher, Yamada-sensei! She’s between Lauren and me. 

The teachers I’ll be working with at Hinode and Itako 2nd Junior High School seem pretty cool. They’ve asked me to help out with activities during the summer, and I’m glad. I don’t know what I would do with myself if I didn’t help out. I find that I spend my free time just kind of being lonesome in my apartment, and that can’t be healthy. I’ve tried to be more outgoing after school, but it’s hard. I don’t know who to call, when it’s okay to call, or what the proper etiquette is over here. I don’t know. Maybe I’m making a mountain out of a molehill.


Just for future reference to future JET and incoming to Japan people, if you get a number and someone tells you to call them “anytime,” they generally mean it. Go ahead and call, the worst thing that can happen is they’ll say no. Making new friends in a new environment is important, and just getting to know the area is good too. If you’re finding yourself “lonesome,” then go take a walk. Get familiar with your surroundings. Be proactive when you’re abroad!


Settling in has been pretty easy, all things considered. My shipped box came in earlier than I thought it would with everything intact. The apartment’s really starting to feel more like home. I want to add more things, like more bookshelves, but I have to wait and get a car first. I need a car for where I live. It’s just too spread out for me to bike everywhere. I enjoy biking, but the convenience of a car is nice, not to mention safer than biking on these broken roads.

The area specifically where I live in Hinode got hit hard by the earthquake. Hinode Junior High School, one of the two junior high schools where I will work for Monday through Friday, actually had the ground around it drop a few feet. The roads used to be smooth and flat, but now they’re bumpy and out of alignment. When I bike I have to be careful of the cracks and crevices, and also spiders. There are lots of spiders here and they are not afraid of putting their webs right a human face distance from the ground, unfortunately.


My shipped box was basically a bunch of shoes and jeans that I’m ever so glad arrived when it did, because dear Jesus my shoe size doesn’t exist here. I’m a female with 10 and a half wide feet. Yeah, it’s a nightmare shopping for shoes in America, and hell in Japan with all the woman having the daintiest tiny feet!!!

Also, poor younger me, those jeans weren’t going to fit in only six months. I lost A LOT of weight shortly after those pictures were taken, and it wasn’t until I went back home in December that I got clothes that fit me again. This is a fairly common thing for ex-pats that come to Japan, they generally loose about 5 pounds in one year, but I lost about 9 in six months. I had to keep wearing them regardless because the clothing stores here aren’t kind to busty bodies.

I really confused as to why I didn’t put up a picture of the earthquake damage. I mean, I had pictures but I guess I must’ve just forgot to put them in, so here:

530225_10150689509463753_792682358_n

I also neglected to mention that when I first moved in, there was still a water advisory for the area to not drink the tap water. I would have to either buy water from a convenience store down the street or bike all the way to grocery store and back for free water. I asked my teachers if it was safe if I just boiled the tap water, but they shook their heads and told me no. For some reason, showering in it was fine? I don’t know. Long story short, I ended up biking at least once a week (if not two or three) which is probably the main reason I lost weight.

By the way, I ended up having a pet spider named Bob, but he’s in another post.


I’ve had communication issues. I came over with only the basic Japanese skills, enough to basically be an annoying tourist. When it comes to reading and writing, I know Hiragana and Katakana. It’s useful, but Kanji exists. Kanji and I are not friends. I want to learn all the characters so bad, but I can’t seem to keep anything in my head since I came over. I think I might just be out of practice, but it’s also probably got something to do with stress. I’m hoping that when I get more of a routine down things will start to stick.

Still, I think the language barrier is aptly named. Sometimes, not very often but often enough to make me feel dumb, this invisible wall comes up between me and other people. Nothing is getting through and I really need to say something important, but I can’t get the message sent out and then received. It sucks! I hate feeling helpless, and a language barrier can definitely make me feel very much so. It only lasts maybe about two minutes in a conversation, but it leaves a bad kind of aftertaste in my mouth, like the words I couldn’t say are bitter. I really hope that as my language skills increase, the barriers will decrease.


Oh my God, Kanji and I still aren’t friends! How little has changed in that regard. I, of course, can read and write a lot more now than then, but it’s not easier to study in the slightest for me. I have a tough time with it, which just makes me all the more determined to learn it, though.

Also, younger me won’t realize until later that the language barrier can be greatly overcome with gestures. I talk more with my hands now than ever before, because it really helps both me and the people I’m talking to understand what I’m saying. If all else fails, getting a picture of the thing I want on my phone is also fine, or drawing it when I’m desperate. It can feel really hard when people don’t understand you, but don’t be afraid to use something other than just words to get your point across.


I don’t think the small town celebrity status will ever change. It’s odd to walk around and feel trapped in my own skin. I mean, I don’t want to change or anything, it’s just I’m really aware of the fact now that I’m Caucasian. When I get on the train, I hear the whispers of, “Gaijin!” and I see people pointing and staring at me as if I really am an alien. Also, I’ve never been winked at by so many guys until I came over here. I swear! I’m not that attractive, but apparently that doesn’t matter. It’s kind of nice, I mean, I’m flattered. But I don’t want to give the wrong impression. I’m here to work, not date.


Hahahahahahaha! Alright, so if you’re not someone who lives in Japan, this might seem really arrogant and dumb. You might be thinking, “How can you know they were talking about you?!” And the answer to that is, I’d be the only foreigner in my shopping mall, on my street, on the trains, all the time! Eyes followed me everywhere! But then at some point my town did in fact kind of accept me as a strange part in their background and stopped commenting all the time. Every time I move, though, the same thing happens. I get “small celebrity” status for about six months, and then everyone doesn’t care so much anymore.

Younger me was also not aware that the guys were just excited to see one young and single woman in the area, because most of Itako is made for married people with kids. Singles aren’t numberous, and ironically enough, it’s one of the reasons I ended up leaving. When I finally wanted to date, I couldn’t, so I decided to move somewhere that I could.


Although, I’ve got to admit I love the Japanese business men. Not the shady ones, but you know the black suit with the black tie. I think it’s hot. I don’t know why, I just kind of do. Speaking of hot Japanese men, I’m apparently a fan of Jun Matsumoto. I really liked Shin Sawada in the drama Gokusen. For some reason, it never occurred to me that Matsumoto Jun is Matsu Jun from Arashi. I’ll go ahead and admit I’m not a huge Arashi fan or JPOP fan in general. Arashi is okay, but I really don’t love the music. I’ll listen to them, but they’re not my favorite. Still, I’ve got to admit I can see why girls just lose themselves over Jun-kun. He’s quite attractive (and a pretty good actor, in my opinion). So, yeah, something I discovered about myself I didn’t know. I’m apparently Team Jun.

Anyway, I think I’ve run out of steam. It’s my first blog post in a really long time. This time I hope I keep it up. I’m not very good at keeping blogs updated, so we’ll see how it goes. Hope you all enjoyed my ramblings!

TTYL!


I stand by all my words about the attractiveness of both men in business suits and MatsuJun. Don’t even play with me on the man, he’s my future fantasy husband.

Hold up, what game are you playing younger self? “My first blog post in a really long time?” I must’ve either meant my long defunct Live Journal or MySpace “blogs,” but either way, that’s hilarious. I also really, really thought TTYL was gonna be my like sign off catchphrase thing, but no just no.

This has been the first ever Flashback Friday article! I’ll be doing these every Friday until I run out of old posts from the old blog…although by then I might do flashbacks from this site instead, I don’t know we’ll see how this goes. Until next week!

 

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Living Expenses and Safety Nets

Let’s go ahead and talk about money. Yes, living in Tokyo is expensive, but it doesn’t have to break the bank.

Rent

Like I mentioned in my previous post, where you live in Tokyo can make all the difference between shelling out ¥80,000 (~$780), which is normal for a Shinjuku sharehouse, or my lucky ¥38,000 (~$350) which isn’t normal at all for Tokyo. If you are looking for an apartment in Japan, I can’t recommend GaijinPot enough. That’s the website where I got my current job and apartment. Anyways, for the most part you’ll be paying on average ¥50,000 (~$480) for your own apartment on the outskirts of Tokyo.

When I lived in Ibaraki, I won the JET Program placement lottery and got my apartment rent paid off by the Board of Education. Notice: Never count on this happening to you. JET has gotten stingier over the years, and usually they might pay for half your rent if they’re inclined to be kind. Once again, don’t count on it. If you’re heading over to Japan in the near future, save up money to pay for the first couple months rent at least.

Transportation

Regardless, while I didn’t pay for my rent, I paid for my car. I leased out a Toyota IST at the price of ¥30,000 per month. If you live out in the countryside in Japan, you’ll need a car. As much as trying to save the earth with a mamachari sounds great in theory, getting groceries and other things without a car can be a pain (figuratively and literally). I figured that alright, when I moved to Tokyo my car rent will be essentially what I pay for in terms of apartment rent, so I’d be fine.

I was wrong. I was very, very wrong. I didn’t take into account how I’d have to pay for trains and buses on my days off. If you have even a semi-active social life, you will be spending money to get somewhere and then spending money once you get to where ever you’re going. I didn’t realize that those numbers added up to well over the amount I paid for renting my car back in Ibaraki. Even with gas money, it’s more to just get around in Tokyo.

Food

I usually cut costs in terms of eating out. I enjoy cooking, so for me it’s not a hardship to buy some food at the grocery store everyday and whip up some soba, udon, or spaghetti with veggies. Occasionally I’ll splurge and get some meat, usually chicken or fish. Steak is so expensive I consider it a rare treat I only buy around payday.

Even if you hate cooking, Japanese grocery stores are amazing. They have pre-made meals ranging from ¥200-600 for a single person. It’s absolutely feasible to live off pre-made meals, since that’s what salarymen do all the time here in Tokyo (that or eat at the ramen stands at the stations).  And if all else fails, cup noodles are super cheap at ¥100 per container. Unlike in Kentucky, the varieties in cup noodles are near endless here. You can get chicken, beef, pork, kimuchi, whatever flavor you want the grocery store has got it.

If you want to eat out but don’t want to spend very much, Yoshinoya and Sukiya are the places I usually go for some don (rice bowl) meals. They’re so reasonable and delicious. IN terms of famiriresturan (family restaurants) Jonathans, Saizeriya, and Dennys are the top three in my opinion. They’ve got variations that you can mix and match to make a cheap and filling meal. When I lived out in the countryside, the only restaurant in my town was called COCO’s Family Restaurant. For some reason, COCO’s isn’t as popular in Tokyo, but it had some nice curry and rice plates that I miss.

Shopping

Shopping for other items, I recommend going to the used stores. Book-Off, Book-Off Bazaar, Hard-Off, and Off-House are all great places to get second hand books, clothes, electronics, and furniture (respectively). Also, Craigslist Tokyo is also a great place to find cheap items for sale. Sayonara sales are happening around March and August every year, so be sure to check around those times for when people are just giving things away before they leave the country.

In the countryside, because of my waistline, I usually had to drive to a different city to find my clothes. It’s not uncommon for foreigners to go to their nearest big town to buy clothes and shoes. Because I had to travel and pay so much more for newer items, I would actually spend more money on buying clothes in Ibaraki. Sometimes fate might smile kindly upon me if I went to Shimamura or the Aeon store, but not very often. Shimamura is kind of like a smaller version of Wal-Mart, and Aeon is a multi-level mall store that has various other shops inside of it. I’d have to drive over to Chiba’s COSTCO to get some clothes that fit.

Small Necessities

In terms of small necessities, DAISO or ¥100 shops are the best. They’ve got everything you could possibly need for smaller items. Notebooks, silverware, plates, make-up, dish soap, and so much more. Whether in the countryside or the city, they are everywhere. Take advantage of them and buy what you need for your apartment there. The majority of my shopping every month is done in a DAISO near my station. In Kentucky, the $1.00 store generally didn’t have much besides stationary and knock-off toys. I’ve been told they’re getting better as the years go on, but Japan’s is just above and beyond what you can expect at a Dollar General.

Safety Nets

No doubt though, Tokyo definitely is more expensive in terms of bills, taxes, rent, and living expenses. Kentucky was cheaper for all of those things, but my main issue in Kentucky was that I knew once I graduated there wasn’t a chance in hell of getting a job after graduation, not one that could help me pay off my student loans anyway. In Japan, I’ve also got a small safety net of unemployment insurance, which I wouldn’t get in Kentucky. Granted, I might not get that here either, but there’s a chance. Regardless, my job security here is definitely better. If I sign a contract, barring some illegal activity, I can’t be legally fired from my job.

I got a credit card through Rakuten last year after falling on hard times, and I wished I’d had one before then honestly. An emergency credit card will definitely give you peace of mind when things get really tight. Unlike American credit cards though, you will need to pay off your credit once a month. You can’t put off at least paying the fees because your card will get canceled if you don’t pay those. Still, it’s easier to get a cell phone, internet, and hotel reservations with a credit card. Combinis (convenience store) will take your credit card. Most other places are starting to take credit cards, too, although most local places are cash based. The countryside of Japan remains very cash based.

The one thing that I miss so much from the U.S. is debit cards. Debit cards are the best option, but it’s super difficult for foreigners to get approval for them. Why? Because you’ve got to be living here for over a year to get even near approval, and then the banks want most people to stay in the long term. Foreigners only get 3-5 years visas, which isn’t as long as they’d like. The debit cards are awesome because they can be used as credit cards, but unfortunately I don’t think I’ll ever get one here. If anyone has permanent status, mind telling me if you’ve ever gotten approval? I’d appreciate it.

Final Judgement Call

Tokyo is more expensive in terms of rent and transportation, but cheaper in terms of nearly everything else, with the added benefit of using a credit card freely nearly anywhere. The Japanese countryside is cheaper in terms of rent and transport, but more expensive for shopping without the thrift shops. Food will be cheap at grocery stores, but for eating out the prices will be dependent upon the local crowd that’s available. Credit cards usually can’t be used at local stores and markets. Kentucky was cheaper on all fronts, but in the end I need a job, more job opportunities than my home state.

Feel free to share your experiences of you area and how it compares to Tokyo!

 

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Where You Come From, Where You Go

When I was eleven, I picked up a manga. This moment is fixed permanently in my memory with crystal clear clarity. I found it among the regular American comic books, the all of two manga available in Books-A-Million in Paducah at the time. I picked it up, just curious, and flipped through. “Inuyasha” held a slew of characters that I couldn’t quite understand, mainly because I didn’t quite get the setting or why the art style was so cartoonish and yet had so much fighting and gore in it. It fascinated me, mainly because I couldn’t quite figure everything out.

I ran up to my mom with it in hand, as well as “Fushigi Yugi,” the other manga about a girl who falls into a book and gets an amazing destiny (talk about wish fulfillment for a book lover). She looked at them, and her face went into the “thinking about it” mode I feared. She never bought my little brother and I toys or candy, but she always said yes to books. The problem was that manga weren’t books, technically, they were comics. I stated my case, pushing that they were books, not novels but graphic novels, it counted!

She caved, buying them at the outrageous price of $15 per book. I’m very glad she did, because honestly I’m not sure how my life would’ve turned out otherwise.

Fifteen years later, I’m typing up this blog in my apartment in Tokyo. It’s a small space, designed with a single person in mind, which I am so it works. For the reasonable price of about three hundred and fifty US dollars, I get this slice of the city all to myself. I’m farther out than most people like to be in Tokyo, but I prefer a quieter setting rather than constant noise. Besides, rent is always cheaper the farther out one goes from the central 23 wards.

I just finished reading “Tokyo Vice” by Jake Adelstein, a staple in any Japanese novel collection. His collections and experiences gave me a whole new perspective on Japanese crime and journalism. I had a passing fancy after reading it that I should try going down his path, but I brush it off almost as soon as I think it. I did fluff pieces for my university paper, and I suck at interviews. Nothing about my background would support a full time legit journalism gig.

All the same, it did get me into thinking about how I should be writing about Japan. I used to write about it in my first blog. However, back then I wrote with the intention of only sharing my experiences with family and friends. Slowly over time I expanded my audience, but I ended that blog after I left Ibaraki. Now I want to share about Tokyo, and show what I love and find frustrating about living here.

Then I thought about the comparisons between Kentucky and Japan, which are also numerous. My motherland isn’t really so much the U.S.A. as specifically Kentucky, where I was born and raised (despite my more neutral accent telling otherwise). When I lived there I struggled in different ways, which I’ll get into in other posts, but those struggles definitely helped me out when I moved over to Japan. In other words, I got a solid layer of thick skin on before I hoped over the Pacific and then some.

I thought moving from Ibaraki to Tokyo would be a cake walk in comparison to, you know, moving all the way around the world, but that turned out to have its own challenges. Ibaraki life was nice, cheap, and slow moving. Tokyo is awesome, pricey, and fast paced. The pros and cons of moving, just the act itself, was something I had to pinch a lot of ichiyens to do. Still, by the time I got to Tokyo, I figured all the hard stuff is behind me.

Instead, Tokyo threw, and continues to throw, many curve balls at me. Most days I think, “Oh yeah, I got this!” But then something will come along and knock me down for a beat. And then I’ll laugh and get back up. “Well, that happened.” The key to living abroad for me has been persistence and stubbornness. The land of the rising sun is no place for quitters, not if you want to live here full time and on a long term basis. Luckily for me, I come from a long line of super stubborn and bone headed people, so these aspects come naturally to me.

When it comes right down to it, nothing about my transitions were easy, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t worth the effort. I’m glad I chose to move to Tokyo, and I don’t regret leaving either Kentucky or Ibaraki. Kentucky will always have a place in my heart, but my love for Japan is just as strong as its ever been. I will miss my former homes in certain ways, but I know that for now Tokyo is definitely where I need to be.


 

If you have a subject you’d like to hear about from me, please put it in the comments and I’ll write up a post about it in the near future. Some topics might be easier to do than others, so please bear with me. I like to research and make sure what I’m writing is current and correct.