Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Catching up - August in a nutshell

August 2nd - August 23rd

I realize that I'm fast forgetting details of the past three weeks, and instead of recapping all the time, I'd like to be posting about my current and daily situation, so this post will condense the past three weeks in one easy to digest caplet.

Work - I haven't been doing much. This may sound like a half-hearted complaint, but I really have been pretty bored some days. I literally plop down at my desk by 8:30am, listen to the morning announcements from the head of the BoE (which I can't understand) and then sit and surf the net or study Japanese until lunch at Noon. Then from 1pm to 4:15pm, it's more of the same. It's one of those "I can't believe they're paying me for this" type of deals, but I can't even make it more enjoyable, since I can't talk to anyone beyond "Good Morning" and "How are you." So I sit in silence until Utani-san needs me for some paperwork or something JET related.

I did have brief spurts of activity over the past three weeks. I had to help make flag banners for the Kendo Festival and then help put them up along the road. And after the Soutai (Sports Festival) ended I got to help move about 1000+ flower pots into trucks. Other than the odd bit of physical labor like that, I haven't had to do anything but be at my desk.

School - I did get to interact with potential students a few times so far. One afternoon I attended the choral practice of the Jr High girls, who are singing an English song at an upcoming competition and the choir director asked if I could read the lyrics out loud and offer pointers on proper pronunciation. The girls were great and that was fun.
I also got to attend a Kendo practice of the Jr High boys team, which was cool. But I still don't know where or how often I'll be teaching and the meeting we were to have this week to discuss such matters was postponed until September 8th, even though the 2nd term of school starts Friday, August 27th.

Free Time - I've had some fun going to surrounding cities and meeting up with other JETs. As previously mentioned, I met Tim in Matsue and we saw "Spider-Man 2" at the local theatre. Cost of bus and train to get to Matsue = about $10. Cost of movie ticket = $18. So just getting there and back and buying a ticket costs me almost $40. That's a lot of schekels just to see a flick, so I might be renting more than I'd like.
I did have McDonald's for the first time since being here and it was pretty good. Big Mac and Fries, and it tasted about the same, so that was a welcome change from my rice heavy diet.

Last Sunday, I met a new JET named Rusty, who lives in Izumo, the next closet town, and we hung out and walked to the local bookstore/DVD store/movie rental place. I didn't buy anything, as the prices are pretty high here for CDs and DVDs (CDs are about $20 and DVDs are about $35), but I did sign up for a rental card. I'll have to wait till I get my scooter till I can start renting, but they do have a good deal of renting 5 older titles for 1000¥ which you get to keep for 7 days. Rusty and I were going to hit MOS Burger, which is the Japanese version of McDonald's, but he already found a lady friend, a German student on holiday in Japan, and she didn't want to eat there, so we ended up cooking noodles and chicken and Japanese dumplings. Good stuff, but I had to catch the bus back before it got too dark so I left at around 6:45.

Incidentally, just as I got back to my hometown station, and got on my bike to pedal home, it started to rain cats and dogs. Luckily I had a hat in my bag and a light on the front of my bike, but needless to say I was soaked to the bone by the time I arrived at my apartment 10 minutes later.

So, to sum up, the last three weeks have been long stretches of boredom punctuated by moments of activity. I've spent most of my evenings watching Japanese coverage of the Olympics or watching DVDs on my laptop. I haven't gotten internet access at home yet, but I should have it soon.

I should post a few times detailing trips on the trains, shopping at the local grocery store, etc. I go to get my first haircut here today after work, so that should be interesting. I did get paid and I managed to send some of my money home, but I sent the first, larger batch to the wrong account. So that was frustrating, but I'll manage.

I miss talking with many of you, so I hope that a few at least are reading these posts. Please leave a comment anonymously if you have time to let me know you stopped by.

I'm off the next three days to our prefectural orientation in the capital of Shimane. So I'll be offline until next Monday the 30th. Hope all is good in your part of the world.


Thursday, August 19, 2004

Speechifying and the language barrier


I gave my little speech in front of the assembled town council and the Taisha town Mayor. They had a JTE (Japanese Teacher of English) there to translate my English section of the speech, but they really responded well to the Japanese section and appreciated the effort I put forth to write it all out and practice it. I'm comfortable speaking in front of crowds and have no problem engaging an audience, but the nerves of speaking a language I'm still a complete novice were apparent. About 40 people were standing in front of me in a medium-size meeting hall, but since I'm taller than just about everyone I meet, I was able to look out over the crowd and establish some eye-contact.

After the speech, my supervisor (Utani-san), the JTE, the Mayor and his aide and I all adjourned to the Mayor's office and sat down for another chat where I spoke mainly thru the JTE, having him translate my observations and questions. More talk about what sports I like and what San Diego is like, etc.

The language barrier in general is pretty severe. I certainly should have studied more during my one year of Japanese classes at UCSD, since I'd be reaping the benefits now. I can form some simple sentences and know some vocabulary, but imagine a foreigner coming up to you and saying things in their own language and expecting you to understand. When I'm out by myself shopping or taking the train, etc. I accomplish a lot by pointing and hand gestures and I get by with a few key words, but it doesn't feel like I'm communicating. For instance, I finished a role of film and I want to drop it off at the developers, but I have to look up all the words I need (when will I get them back, two sets of prints, etc) before I go and if the clerk asks me a question I don't understand we could end up standing there for minutes until he decides to proceed.

At the same time, you'd be amazed at how much stuff here is written in English. The bus that I take to the train station has a sign in Kanji and in English, so I know I'm getting on the right bus. All the stops on the train are marked with signs in both Kanji and English. You see English on t-shirts and in company logos all the time, but sometimes in makes little sense. There is this phenomenon called Engrish, which is a term describing the Japanese adaptation of English words and phrases, sometimes with hilarious results. I'll try and post photos of some examples when I can.

And many people speak a little English, which helps tremendously. Even if they don't speak it back to me, I can tell that some of them understand me in a small way when I ask a question in English, and I can generally get by. Hopefully I'll find someone in town that will help me study Japanese, cuz it's a bear to study on my own.

I have signed up for the JET sponsored language course, but it's a correspondence course thru the mail, but every bit helps.

The biggest drawback is not being able to read simple stuff that you take for granted, like the directions on food packaging on how to cook something or the buttons on some of my appliances. My katakana (the Japanese alphabet reserved for foreign loan words) skills are not as good as I had hoped, as a few of the characters look identical to me. This katakana alphabet is used for all types of things, and the hiragana alphabet, which I know really well, is not used as much since it's often replaced by the more difficult Kanji characters.

Check out this katakana chart to see what I'm talking about:
Look at the katakana character for "so" and "n" - they often come across in print as nearly identical, as do the characters for "tsu" and "shi."
So Olympic swimmer Brendan Hansen's last name could be read ha-n-se-n with katakana or as ha-so-se-so if I'm not reading carefully.

As for reading Kanji, that's just gonna take practice, repetition and time. I know about 100 right now, and I'm gonna a get a Kanji-a-day desk calendar to practice even more. When it comes right down to it, speaking is more important than reading, so I'll try and concentrate on my communication abilities.

Oddly enough, one of my JTEs has said that he doesn't think I should speak any Japanese in front of the kids I'll be teaching, because as soon as they know I understand Japanese they'll resort to it as a crutch instead of speaking English with me. I understand this in principal, but was hoping my classes could be somewhat of a two way street at times, where I could learn some Japanese as my students are learning English. We'll see.

I've had some frustrations trying to communicate with Utani-san on even the most basic level. I was expexting some mail yesterday from the Bank here that is going to help me transfer money back to the states. I couldn't remember if I had them send the info packet to my home address or to my work address at the BoE. So I asked Utani-san if I'd received any mail that day. He couldn't understand at all and my vocab is so limited I couldn't remeber the word for to receive. Even after we got back to the BoE and used some dictionaries I couldn't really make him understand that I might be getting some mail sent to the office. We both just gave up and luckily the package arrived at my home later that day.
And I feel like a 3rd grader every time I try and speak Japanese. I enjoy the complexity of the English language and always expressed myself with a diverse vocabulary, but in Japanese I'm reduced to the simplest expressions and conjuctions. This all just acts as inspiration to study my Japanese even more dilligently.

I'm heading over to Matsue on Friday, the 20th to hang out with a 3rd year JET named Tim, who's originally from Tasmania, Australia, and we're going to see Spider-Man 2 at the local multiplex - my first Japan movie going experience.

My next post will be a catch up post encapsulating the past 3 weeks, so I can bring this up-to-date and start posting about daily topics as they happen.

I stayed up late last night, past midnight, to watch Ai-chan play her ping-pong match against a South Korean opponent, and she lost, 4 games to 1. The South Korean player was better, but Ai gave it her best.


Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Ping-Pong and Kendo

Watching Japanese coverage of the Athens Olympics has been interesting. I've had to watch sports I would never have watched in America, as the Japanese coverage focuses almost exclusively on sports where Japan has players in contention. So I've seen some swimming and beach volleyball and soccer, but I've also seen plenty of judo, field hockey and table tennis.

There is a 15-year-old Japanese girl named Ai Fukuhara who is a big celebrity here in Japan. She's been competing at ping-pong for years now and she's a regular on the Japanese chat shows. It doesn't hurt that she's cute as a button and a fierce competitor as well. She has a good chance at a medal, but her toughest match so far will be played tonight against the 6th ranked player in the world from South Korea. Ai-chan, as she is affectionately called here, has beaten both Australian and American opponents so far. Curiously, both of the women from Australia and the U.S. were of Chinese descent. I watched her match with rapt attention last night as I ate my rice and beef, not understanding a word of the commentary, but transfixed none-the-less. The great thing about watching it on the Japanese channels is that they sponsor contests for kids to write in to their favorite athletes and send words of encouragement. Many of the kids draw pictures of their favorite swimmer, gymnast, baseball player etc. So you get these amazing pictures of Ai-chan, ranging from simplistic stick figures, to Anime-influenced drawings to realistic charcoal renderings of her in action - all accompanied by kanji expressions of support. So cool.
I mentioned that I enjoy Table Tennis to one of my coworkers and he invited me to join there ping-pong club in the rec hall across the street where they play at lunch and after work. I might just go and let them humble me, as I haven't played in years.

One sport not featured in the Olympics is the Japanese sword-fighting sport called Kendo. My town hosted a big high-school Kendo tournament last week, and today I got to hang out at my Jr. High and watch the Jr. High kids on the Taisha Kendo team practice. Basically, two opponents face off against each other in 5 minute matches, trying to strike their opponent in specific spots with their sword to gain points. But the judging is very subjective, and I haven't quite figured it all out yet. The coach of the Jr High team, who also happens to be an English teacher as well, is eager for me to give Kendo a try. But he informed me today that they'll have to send out to Matsue, a town about 45 minutes away, to find gear big enough for me and my belly. :)
You have to wear head-to-toe gear, including a helmet, body armor, gloves and a kendo "robe" that was drenched in sweat on most of the Jr High combatants.
At the end of the practice I was invited to participate in the closing meditation, which required me to squat down and sit with my legs tucked back under me. Just doing this proved difficult and straining - I'm too big and have been sitting "lotus"-style for too long to try and change now. But I managed the best I could and bowed when appropriate and the other Kendo coach, in full dress, came over and chatted with me thru the English teacher and showed me how to hold the sword (which is made of bamboo) and asked me if I'd like to try Kendo sometime. I nodded and said I would, but shouldn't I train in the basics before getting suited up? He laughed and said they'd go easy on me, even though I must weigh treble of any of them.
My Obi-Wan Kenobi fantasies might just come true as I learn to wield the Japanese kendo sword. Stay Tuned! :)

And GO Ai-chan!!

Tuesday, August 17, 2004

ESID comic

ESID - it's an acronym that you hear all the time in the JET programme. It stands for "every situation is different" and it's a truism that I'm discovering is universal.

If you've got some time and you want to see what I'm going thru right now, click on the link below:


It's a pretty funny online comic strip done by a ALT a few years back. After reading the strip above, hit the archive for more.


Friday, August 13, 2004

Heat Wave - It's Official

I heard on the news last night, which is an English dub of the local Japanese broadcast, that they set a new weather record in Tokyo yesterday: For 38 straight days, starting on July 6th, it has reached over 30 degrees Centigrade in downtown Tokyo each day. 30 degrees C is about 86 degrees F, and the daily high has often been 33 or 34, pushing it past 90 F. Add to that the humidity, and it's HOT here. This beat the old record of 37 straight days set back in 1995, and this is now officially the hottest summer on record in Tokyo since they started keeping such records.
And the record whould continue for even more days as the weather forecast shows no signs of cooling off.
So what did I get to do at work yesterday, while wearing nice khaki pants and a polo shirt? Be out in the sun for three hours loading 1,200 flower planters into trucks after the conclusion of the Kendo sports festival they hosted in Taisha earlier this week. All I can say is I'd better be losing some weight! :)

Side note: Iceland also is having a bit of a heat wave; the news mentioned that they recorded the hottest day ever in August in Reykjavik yesterday - 78 degrees F. Break out the air conditioners! :)
Here's a link to the official Iceland home page article about the Hottest day:
which also has a link to a funny article about how the hot weather is adversely affecting the tasteful fashion in Reykjavik.

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Out on the Town with the JETs/What's for dinner?

July 31st and August 1st
My first weekend in Japan and in my new apartment. Saturday I decided I would walk from my aparto to the BoE to see how long it takes me. So I set off in shorts and a t-shirt to explore a bit. It was really muggy and rain clouds were gathering on the horizon. I left my aparto, headed down the back street to the main road (which is a one-lane street that accommodates traffic in both directions) and started off toward the town centre. It took me about 25 minutes to walk at a leisurely pace, but the heat had me sweating in no time. I walked up the main street in "downtown" Taisha and passed a few shops looking for somewhere to eat lunch. I found a noodle place up by the IzumoTaisha shrine, and went in. I ended up spending 1,000¥on lunch, which felt a little pricey for what I got, but it was tasty, hot soba noodles in a broth and Japanese "Ice Tea" with miso soup and some salad on the side. Full up on food, I walked back toward my aparto and it started to rain. We were supposed to have typhoon conditions and this was the start.

The only problem with the rain was that I was supposed to walk back to the bus/train station later that day to take a bus to Izumo station, where I could then get a train to Matsue, the prefectural capital. A bunch of new JETs and some returning ones were meeting to have some food and drink in Matsue.

Not wanting to get soaked walking back to the station, since I didn't have an umbrella, I called Utani-san and asked him if he could call a taxi for me. He agreed and 15 minutes later I was on my way to the station. I thought I would have the driver just take me directly to Izumo station, as it was only about 15 minutes away by car, but this was a mistake. The bus from Taisha to Izumo eki (station) costs 490¥ but the taxi cost me 550¥ just for getting in. By the time we got to Izumo eki, the total was up to 2,230¥ or about $22. Way too expensive, and I HAD to take a taxi home that night since the last train back from Matsue arrived in Izumo at almost midnight, but the last bus from Izumo to Taisha leaves at 9pm.
I got on the train to Matsue with little problems, as I learned the kanji for the two towns to help me at the station. It cost 570¥ one way to Matsue and it took about 45 minutes to get there, making 7 stops along the way. The train was prompt, immaculate, and air conditioned - thank god.

Met up with the JETs outside Matsue station at our meeting place in front of Mr. Donut - a Japanese donut chain that serves passable donuts but nothing to write home about. A mixture of new JETs from the U.S., the UK and Australia and Canada was mingling with veteran JETs from the area surrounding Matsue. Matsue itself is a big city, the largest in Shimane, and has 30 JETs and a number of CIRs. We headed off to eat and drink and be merry.

The first place we hit was a restaurant where we had to remove our shoes and sit cross-legged around two large tables. We split into only-drinking and eating and drinking tables and I was hungry, so I sat with the eaters. We ordered little portions of different things, sorta like dim sum, and I had my standard Coke, while most others ordered beer or gin & tonic or their favorite liquor drink. One thing that looked good on the menu was the fried chicken morsels, but when they arrived they turned out to be deep-fried chicken knuckles and almost inedible. Everything else was tasty, but small.

We moved on to a gaijin ("outsider") bar, that is mostly frequented by JETs and other foreigners. I tried a vanilla milk-shake, which normally would have included some alcohol, and it was ok but a little pricey at $7 (700¥). This bar, called Filaments, was pretty small, and stacked all about the place were piles of CDs, which you could sort thru and pick to have played.

We then moved on to another gaijin bar called Kaya's that was having a Yukata party. A Yukata is an informal summer kimono and many of the patrons were wearing theirs, men and women included. At 500¥ for a Coke, I decided to have one more drink and head for the station to make my way home. While on the last train back I was sitting down the bench from a Japanese woman on her own. We didn't interact the whole journey until she got up to leave one stop before mine and then she turned, looked at me and said in very good English, "Have a nice night." Weird. I guess she wanted to practice her English and I must look like an English teacher - why else would I be out in rural Japan, right?

After another $20+ taxi ride home, my spending for the evening now totaled about $80, but it was nice to meet other JETs and be among English speakers for a few hours.

It had stopped raining but the clouds still looked ominous.

Sunday was fairly uneventful - I slept in and decided that today was the day I would try out my bicycle (jitensha). It's a granny bike with a basket in front and only three gears. The worst part is the seat is fairly low and is so rusted that we couldn't move it up after trying a number of times. But it was to be my primary form of transport until I decide if I'm gonna get a scooter or maybe even a car.

So I headed toward town and it only took me about 10 minutes to cover the same route it had taken me 25 minutes to walk the day before. I turned around and headed back to my place. I changed shirts due to sweat and then decided I should also bike over to the nearest grocery store and pick up some supplies.

My local grocery store is pretty small, but carries all the essentials and even a few recognizable brand names. Unfortunately, Japanese people tend to like lemon flavoring in their beverages, so the only Pepsi they have is Twist, or Pepsi with lemon. I got some bread and milk and some yakitori strips and a few other things, keeping in mind that I had to fit everything in the basket on the front of my bike. I spent about 2,500¥ and the checker bagged everything into one tight bag with amazing dexterity. They tape everything closed here, which is a little odd at first, so she taped the bag closed, gave me my receipt and I was on my way. It started to rain again just as I reached my street, so I made it inside just in the nick of time.

I cooked rice in my very handy rice cooker and microwaved the yakitori chicken skewers and settled in and watched a good soccer match on the terebi (TV).

I had to prepare a speech in Japanese to give in front of the town council on Monday morning and then it was off to bed.

NEXT: Speechifying and the language barrier

Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Update to my mailing address


It turns out that the mailing address I sent everyone in the mass email was missing my aparto #. My supervisor, Utani-san, assures me that mail without this info will still get to me, as I'm the only westerner in Taisha, but I think you should add the following in case you want to mail me something:

B-212 Gou
and then the rest. Gou is Japanese for number, and B-212 is my aparto number. If you need my address just email me and I'll be happy to send it along.


Monday, August 09, 2004

Working in Japan

Thursday, July 29th & Friday, July 30th
So I got up Thursday morning eager for my first day at my new job. I put on nice clothes, but I didn't have to wear a suit, which was a relief, since I hate wearing ties and it's like 95 degrees here.

Utani-san, who is my supervisor and a nice guy of 25 with some limited English skills, picked me up from my apartment (aparto) and drove me to the Board of Education about 6 or 7 minutes down the road. I had to give a short speech of introduction to my new co-workers in English and in Japanese. I basically just said who I was, where I was from and how happy I was to be in Taisha. With some nifty phrases I picked up from the JET handbook, I got smiles all around and a smattering of applause. Satisfied that my first attempts at internationalization had gone well, I was shown my desk and introduced more personally to my immediate neighbors. The BoE is a large room within a huge complex that houses a library, music hall and the town offices. Our room has one small office for Abe-san, the head man, and about 20 desks all pushed together in 3 rows where we all sit and do our work.
The only drawback on this arrangement is that my new desk is right by the break room, where the other workers are allowed to smoke in the back area. So I end up smelling like smoke when I go home every night. Almost everyone of my co-workers (about 16 men and 4 women) smoke, so I'm the odd-man-out there.

My desk was occupied by my predecessors and a large map of the United States is spread out under the clear vinyl desk-top covering and my predecessors each circled their hometown. Sara, my immediate predecessor, is from Iowa. Some of the others have been from Florida, Canada and even England. I'm the first guy in about 8 years, so we'll see how that plays out.

Thursday was more paperwork (getting my Alien Registration card, etc.) and some more introductions. I visited the local Jr High where I'll be teaching and a few of the teachers greeted me warmly. The kids are on vacation right now between terms, and the new term starts August 27th.
I also got to see a bit more of Taisha on Thursday as Utani-san drove me to the impressive IzumoTaisha shrine, dedicated to marriage and family. We bowed and clapped our hands in the ritual way in front of the entrance to the Shrine proper, and made a wish as we threw money onto an offering box.

Utani-san also took me to the larger city of Izumo, about 15 minutes away by car, where we shopped at the amazing 100¥(Hyaku-yen) store, which is like a $.99 cent store but way better. We also went to the local electronics store so I could buy an alarm clock, and it was the first (and so far only) place that I could use my Visa at. Japan is a cash society, especially out here in the rural area.

Friday was more intros and sightseeing, this time with Abe-san, the older head of the office. We went in his car up to Hinomisaki to see their famous lighthouse. Abe-san is in his 60s I'd guess, but he wanted to climb to the top, up the spiral stairs and look out over the Sea of Japan. We removed our shoes, put on some slippers, and began to climb. My legs are still aching. :)
But the view was stupendous and the cool breeze at the top helped stop me from sweating, if only for a few minutes. One of my elementary schools is up here in Hinomisaki, which is about 20 minutes by car from Taisha, so I think I'll be riding the bus to get to work on those days. As we walked back to the car, many of the locals greeted Abe-san and we even got to have a bowl of shaved ice with strawberry flavoring (like a snow-cone) on the house at a local shop.

Abe-san wasn't finished showing me around though. We drove all the way down the coast, along a road that resembles the 101 Pacific Coast Highway in California as it snakes past Malibu on its way up to the Bay Area. There is a beach near Taisha, but there are no waves to speak of and very little sand area.
I spent about two hours seeing local sights with Abe-san before returning to the BoE. He speaks very little English, so it was long periods of silence followed by short bursts of conversation as I remembered vocab I could use to ask questions, like kodomo is children, so I asked him if he has any kids, etc. He would then answer in full Japanese sentences where I would catch about every fifth word. But we had a good time, and he gave me a hat, like Gilligan wore on the TV show Gilligan's Island, that is way too small for my enormous melon, but that I wear almost every day to shield my head from the sun or rain.

I also got to meet the Principal of my Jr High, who was very interested in San Diego, as he had spent time in California back in his university days. He implored me to study Nihon go (Japanese) and take an interest in Japanese culture. He was also excited about the prospects of me playing sports with the kids. I'm not sure how to tell them that I'm really more of an academic than a sportsman, but I'm game for anything at this stage.

So my first two days were fairly easy, work wise, and my desk has this nifty little laptop with internet access so I can type these posts. Only annoying thing is that there is a key right next to the shorter-than-usual space bar that turns the type from English to Japanese, and I'm constantly hitting it and having to go back and re-type. Hopefully I will have internet access in my aparto soon and can type on my own nifty Apple i-book I got for graduation.

My first weekend in Japan was just around the corner, and then Monday I would have to give a speech in front of the mayor and the Taisha town council in both English and Japanese.

Next: Out on the Town with the JETs/What's for dinner?

Friday, August 06, 2004


I haven't figured out how to add a "links" section to this page just yet, but I'm working on it.

For now, here are some links you might want to check out:

This page has a good map of Japan, so you can see better where I'm living in relation to Tokyo, etc.
On the left side, highlight the region of "Chugoku" and you'll see my region of Honshu (the largest of the main Japan islands) fill in red. Then select "Shimane", which is my prefecture, and you'll be able to check out the area around my town. On the main map of Shimane, the pointer to Izumo Shrine is pointing at my town of Taisha. I live about a ten-minute bike ride from the impressive IzumoTaisha shrine.

information about the JET programme

tons of links about all aspects of living and working in Japan, and links in the JET section to other JET blogs and websites

Thursday, August 05, 2004

First Impressions and Udon

Wednesday, July 28th
After taking a short domestic flight from Tokyo to Izumo airport, me and 20 other new ALTs disembarked to be met by our new supervisors and co-workers.

In my case, I was met by the head of my BoE, Abe san, the superintendent of teachers, Yoshikawa san, my direct supervisor, Utani san, and one of the JTEs (Japanese Teacher of English) from the local Jr. High (Taisha chuugakko)- Ms. Murayama. Murayama sensei was able to translate 90% of my English so we could all have a conversation.

It was about noon when I got to Izumo airport, which is about 30 minutes away from Taisha, so they took me to lunch at a local restaurant first. Nice little place where we sat at the table cross-legged and removed our shoes before entering. Picture menus helped, and I ordered hot udon noodles with some rice and veggies and a cola. Good stuff, but after a few minutes of struggling with chopsticks to get the slippery noodles, they had the waitress bring me a fork.

Right away they wanted to know if I drink sake, etc - if I smoke - if I like sports and which do I play. The past 4 or 5 ALTs in Taisha have been women, so it's been a while since they've had a big guy to beat up on in kendo (Japanese sword fighting) or judo class. I told them I like tennis, soccer and ping pong - so we'll see what happens. They want me to take part in some Japanese cultural activity - for instance, the woman who preceded me, Sara, did tea ceremony and flower arranging.

As we drove back to Taisha after lunch I started to get a good look around my new hometown. It's very RURAL - with almost no big buildings and many large fields of rice. They also have a winery right next to my apartment, so many fields of grapes dot the landscape as well. Large, green-tree-covered mountains dominate the horizon to the east. And the Sea of Japan in about 20 minutes to the west. No fast food, no hotels, no two lane roads, no 7-11s - only one gas station at the end of the main street, which also has my new bank and the post office. Taisha is somewhat of a tourist attraction since we have a very large and very old Shinto shrine in our town.

They drove me to my new apartment, which must have been 100 degrees inside. But it's a neat little place with a decent size living room, a nice little kitchen, a western toilet, and a big bedroom with two big closets. The shower room has the standard area to wash yourself before you bathe, but it also has a shower nozzle with decent pressure and a small tub too small for me. I also got a washer/dryer that are fairly small but get the job done. My bed is about 6 feet long so if I sleep at an angle my feet don't hang over the end. I also have a futon/couch in the living room and a TV with a DVD/VCR. My fridge is pretty small, but since it's only me and I don't cook much, that should be no problem. Later on I discovered that I have not one, but two built in air conditioning units that work great - I just have no idea right now how much they cost to run, but it's been so damn hot I don't really care.

They took me to the BoE, where I gave the first of many self-introductions in both English and Japanese. The JET people gave us a diary with all kinds of useful info, including some set Japanese phrases to use for introductions, and these worked well. I saw my desk and met some more co-workers and then it was off to the grocery store to get some food for my empty fridge.
I was doing just fine, and everything was a reasonable price. I asked Utani san to grab me a bag of rice and he picked out a bag about 3 lbs. Turns out this one bag of regular white rice cost me about $26! So we headed back to my apartment and Utani san left me to unpack and settle in.

Exhausted by all the traveling, I settled into my couch and just watched TV for a while even though I couldn't understand it. I cooked some rice in my rice cooker and made yakitori (strips of chicken on skewers) in my rangu (a combination microwave-toaster-oven) and then went to bed at around 10pm - since I had to be up the next day for my first day of work at 7am.

Next: Working in Japan

Wednesday, August 04, 2004

Departure for Japan

We'll go back in time a bit to when I left America and first arrived in Japan.

(One note with these posts for the immediate future - I'm typing them on a Japanese laptop which has the keys in all different places, so please bear with me if you find mistakes)

Friday - July 23rd
I was running late getting to LA for my pre-departure orientation. My sister, Lynda, and my niece, Brittany, helped me with last minute packing, since my three bags were bulging with all the stuff I thought I needed to take. My limit was 70 lbs per bag I was going to check in - which was way better than the 20 kg the British JETs were limited to.

I got to orientation in LA at the LAX Weston late by about 2 hours but it didn't seem to matter that much. Just last minute Q&A and some elementary Japanese lessons before they fed us Mexican food and we had a traditional Japanese kanpai, or Japanese toast. It's important that you don't drink anything before they say kanpai.

Then I headed off to my friend Chris's house to crash before having to get up and be at LAX by 9:30am for our 1pm nonstop flight to Narita airport near Tokyo.

Saturday, July 24th - Sunday, July 25th
Long lines at the airport and many worries about my bags being too heavy, but I finally made it on the plane, where about 150 JETs from Southern California and Arizona took up the whole back section of the ANA 747. I found out at orientation that American JETs are the 2nd biggest population of Americans in Japan, 2nd only to the US Armed Forces stationed in Okinawa. There are about 6000 JETs in Japan this year from 41 countries, but the majority come from the U.S. followed by the the UK, Australia, New Zealand and Canada.

The plane trip was uneventful, and after a delay we took off at 2pm and arrived in Tokyo ten hours later at midnight. Japan is 16 hours ahead of California and 8 hours ahead of the UK, so it was midnight Calif time but it was already 4pm on Sunday in Japan when we landed. Then there were lines for customs, getting our bags and then the first wave of HEAT hit as we stepped outside to get on the buses waiting to take us to our hotel in Shinjuku, Tokyo. Side note - I dashed into a toilet at Narita airport just before getting on the bus and it was a Japanese style squatter - the first sign I wasn't in Kansas anymore.

So 3 hours after we touched down in Tokyo we arrived at our hotel in Shinjuku, which is a bustling section of Tokyo with tons of shops, restaurants and bars. It was now 3am to me, but we had to stand in more lines and get checked in, etc before going up to our rooms. By this point I was determined to just stay up until about 11pm local time in order to start to get on track sleep wise and reduce the effects of jet-lag.

No airconditioning in the main lobby or in the elevators, etc made it really hot except in your room, where my roommate, Brian, and I had it set at 20C. (68F) all the time.

Going out Sunday night in search of food was my first experience with the language barrier as I attempted to cash a traveler's cheque without success. With no Japanese currency, my whole group of 6 guys was forced to go back to the hotel and wait in the line to get cash (Yen - ¥) before heading out again. It was about 95 degrees even this late and I was fast becoming a big ball of sweat. We found a cool little Donburri place where you pay money at a machine, hand the ticket to the cook/waiter and you get your hot food moments later with a beer or cola. I had tasty strips of beef over steamed rice for about $5 or 500¥. My chopsticks skills leave a lot to be desired, but when you're hungry and they're the only option you start to learn fast.
Satisfied, we headed back to the hotel, and 24 hours after I set out for LAX on Saturday morning I went to bed in Japan on Sunday night.

Monday, July 26th & Tuesday, July 27th
I won't go into the details of the JET orientation - let's just say it was a whirlwind of seminars and speeches and information all thrown at us weary travelers within about 36 hours. The line to use the free irons or the free internet access was ridiculous at all hours of the day.
Monday night I wandered about Shinjuku by myself for a while before heading into Wendy's to grab a burger. With my broken Japanese and picture menus, I was able to get what I wanted, but it took a while and some hand gestures and pointing for me to figure out that the clerk was asking me if I wanted my meal medium size. (This would be the last fast food I would have for the foreseeable future, as no such places exist anywhere near where I live now in Taisha)

Free food was provided most of the time, but Tuesday night, the American JETs like myself were left to fend for ourselves as all the other nationalities had embassy parties, but since there are so many Americans the American embassy can't have a party for us all. So my prefecture group, all headed to the same region in Japan (Shimane), got together and went out for Mexican food, of all things, in another part of Tokyo. I got to experience the JR rail system, which is very punctual and clean and relatively cheap, and I got to wander thru a section of Tokyo populated with many kids & shops geared toward young people. Dinner was a set meal of 5 courses for about 4000¥ ($40), and each Coke I had was $6 so it was just over $50 for my meal, but you don't leave a tip in Japan, so that was it.

I went home and crashed, as I had to be up early, dress in my suit, check out, get on a bus, and head for the local airport for a domestic flight to my new Hometown and to meet my new employers.

I didn't really get to see much of Tokyo, and it will be a while before I make it back, but there are plenty of other parts of Japan I want to visit as well.

Did I mention it's HOT here?? :)

Next time: First Impressions and Udon

Tuesday, August 03, 2004

A quick primer on Japanese money and acronyms

I thought I should include a quick guide to some of the acronyms I'll be using as I describe my life here and a short word about the money.

With the exchange rate hovering right around 100¥=$1, converting money in my head to have some idea of what I'm spending is no problem. You just have to move the decimal point two places to the left and you have dollars. The problem with Japanese money is that the smallest paper bill they use is the 1000¥ bill which is about $10. Everything below that amount is coins in increments of 1 yen, 5 yen, 10 yen, 50 yen, 100 yen and 500 yen. So you end up carrying around a huge amount of change that actually adds up to a significant amount at times. No dollar or $5 bills - those amount equivalents are in coin form. Makes it seem even more like play money at this point, plus paying 2,345 yen at the grocery store seems like such a huge amount until you convert it in your head.

But change is cool to have for the amazing vending machines they have EVERYWHERE here. No Japanese person will ever die of thirst because there is a beverage machine in even the remotest and most out-of-the-way places, and all of them feature a dizzying array of beverage choices. (31 different cans and bottles are available at the machine just minutes away from my apartment)

JET - Japan Exchange and Teaching programme
so JETs are all of us participating in the programme
more specifically ALT which stands for Assistant Language Teacher, which is what I am
Some JETs are CIRs, which means Coordinator of International Relations - CIRs have to speak, read, and write very good Japanese and work in local government offices instead of schools.

BoE - Board of Education
I work at my BoE every Tuesday (kayobi) after school starts August 27th and everyday right now. One big difference with American offices so far - almost everyone smokes and they let them smoke in a small ante chamber behind the coffee maker/sink area, and unfortunately that's right behind my desk.

I think that's good for now, but I'll post others as I think of them.


Here it is!

I've decided to use this free site for now until I can get my own blog started with my friend's help later in the month. I can post photos here, but since I don't have a digital camera yet, it's not a concern yet.

This is the test post to see how it all works.

More soon, especially after I get internet connection at home.


PS - you can leave comments for me below after you visit, which would be really cool. Thanx!