Tag Archives: japan

Speech Therapy

There are many things that I enjoy immensely about teaching in Japan, and one of those is the plethora of public holidays they have here. Since I arrived we have been privy to Respect For The Aged Day, Autumnal Equinox Day, Health And Sports Day, Culture Day and Labour Thanksgiving Day. This, coupled with the JET Programme’s penchant for business trips and Japan’s for exams, means that a full week of lessons is a strangely irregular occurrence. In the 12 weeks I have been teaching, only 8 have been full, uninterrupted weeks of lessons and that’s not counting all the time off in August. Well, I say “off” but when I wasn’t at English Camp and orientations I was sitting in my office on Facebook all day. Err, I mean planning lessons. Anyway, though it is lovely having all these random days pop up on my calendar it does tend to wreak havoc with my lesson plans and as a result, I have some classes with 3 lessons left until the end of term and some with only 2. Cue conversation with JTE:

“It looks like we have an extra lesson here. Is there anything specific you want me to do?”

“No not really. I mean, if you don’t want to do the lesson I can take it myself.”

Now wouldn’t it be nice just to say “oh ok, thanks,” and leave it at that? God knows I’d like not to have to plan another lesson specifically for just 2 classes; but we all know you’re not allowed to do that. You have to say “Oh, no, no, that’s not what I meant. No, I was just seeing if you had any ideas.”

“Not really. Anything’s fine.”

“Right, so something fun then?”

“Yeah sounds good.”

…and that’s pretty much the level of control the school likes to have over the syllabus that I, an unqualified teacher with the Japanese language ability of a mountain goat, bestows upon the youth and future of its country. I like to believe that it’s because I’ve proved I can do a good job, but there’s always a part of my conscience telling me that I’m not doing enough, that my lesson plans are all rubbish and that there is a very real risk that I will be torn limb from limb, skinned and hung out of the window to dry when the students find out I’m not a real teacher. Until that day I’m treading water, and for this particular lesson I decided there would be no writing at all; only speaking.

You may or may not know that the Japanese have great difficulty differentiating between SH & S, TH & Z, V & B and L & R sounds. River becomes liver, sea becomes she, these becomes a rather Germanesque, zeese and very becomes berry. This is because they simply don’t have these sounds in their language. Now considering English is compulsory from the age of 11 you’d think that by the time they reach senior-high they would have this down pat, but often the teachers have the same difficulties and the class sizes are so large (40/41 usually) that it just tends to just propagate in a never-ending cycle of bad pronunciation. Unless you nip it in the bud at the start then it’s going to be difficult to change the way they speak when they’ve developed otherwise good proficiency in the language.

This is what I endeavoured to do, but how the hell do you centre a lesson around speaking when you have as many as 41 students and only 50 minutes? If you were teaching a class of 15, you could probably mouse around and work with each one individually, have group discussions and constantly have them saying stuff. With a class of 41 you have to perform; you have to be on the ‘stage’ prancing around like a monkey fighting for a banana, playing charades with every word you say, making stupid noises and singing, because if you don’t your students will fall asleep. Some of them will fall asleep regardless.

“Do this,” I yell as I grab my tongue with my fingers and put them between my teeth “and blow.” Showers of spit fly across the room as the students learn their TH’s, and the whole room resonates with the sound of a giant doing a silent fart.

“Now go rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr,” and I’m the only one doing it. I feel like a pillock. One kid, lips tightly closed, glares at me like I’m clinically insane. I begin to believe it but then it dawns on me… How is making a sound that they can’t make going to help them to make it themselves? Time for a drawing, I think to myself.

I draw a (very bad) diagram of a mouth, teeth and tongue and the class laughs at my drawing skills. I argue that it’s contemporary; they have no idea what I’m on about. When I explain to them that they need to keep their tongues in the middle of their mouths and start going “rrrrrrr” again, suddenly I’m no longer the only one doing it. Success! Eat your heart out, Picasso.

After a game designed to have them differentiate between the sounds in each pair we moved onto shortened English; wanna, gotta, gonna, dunno, gimme, etc. I started by getting them to draw lines between these words and what they thought were the correct ‘proper’ English equivalents. Using the phrase “I have got to go” as an example I then had them repeat after me, getting faster and faster each time until we were on “‘ve go’a go”. I did the same for the other words. Though some students revelled in the chance to do this, some of them clearly hated it. I can completely understand this since it was only last week that I was asked to attempt a Japanese tongue-twister and, after failing miserably 5 or 6 times, I simply deemed it stupid, unworthy of my time and ultimately impossible. The Japanese must just be more talented with that particular sound. Genes innit.

Try it yourself if you think you’re hard enough:

Tokyo tokkyo kyoka-kyoku kyou kyuukyo kyoka kyakka.

What’s that? You can’t even read it? Yeah me neither; let alone say it at a hundred kyo’s a second.

Anyway, if they learned nothing else from this lesson, they learned first-hand the importance of being able to differentiate between light and right, and I sincerely hope they had a good time doing it. I’ve adjusted my will to make sure that my skinned, dried remains are deported if they didn’t.


Gravy Rage

When we were fresh off the boat, happy in our little JET bubble and prancing around a posh hotel in Tokyo, we attended many lectures. A lot of the topics revolved around how hard our hands would be smacked if we took drugs or drove while under the influence, what the various degrees of bowing are and others which I forget. I forget because I was jet-lagged into oblivion; a near-death experience where my eyes were lolling around so much that I had seen the back of my head from the inside; where I would fall asleep in my seat so often that I had bruises on my cheeks from where they had repeatedly plunged into my shoulders. This is just like that Dermot O’Leary “S.A.S: Are You Tough Enough” programme, I thought to myself. White noise!? Pah! They should make them get on a plane for 10 hours and sit in a lecture theatre for an entire morning.

“—if you get caught, the police will arrest—”

Can’t arrest me, I’m S.A.S. foo! Ain’t gettin’ on no other plane either. I ain’t never getting on no plane again—

“You were just snoring and talking like Mr. T—”
“No I wasn’t.”
“Dude, I swear you just said—”
“Nah man, you’re imagining things. Crazy foo’.”

The Japanese are legendary for their ability to fall asleep anywhere they want to; on a bench, on a train, at their desks, on top of a wardrobe— It doesn’t matter where. If there’s a will there’s a way, and there’s always a will. This is a skill that I have learnt very early-on and it will probably stick with me forever much to the dismay of my future employer, whoever it may be.

One lecture I didn’t forget was the one about culture shock. It was delivered by a very flamboyant chap from California who had appeared on the JET Programme DVD and, on said DVD, delivered a performance lacking any iota of personality and as cheezy like a packet of Dairylea in a hair-dryer. As he walked on stage, whispers of familiarity rose through the crowd and he strolled to the podium and acknowledged them, spending a good 5 minutes taking us through his horror when he saw the finished DVD, and how he would attempt to rectify the “personality damage” he had inflicted on himself. What followed was one of the most hilarious personal accounts of life in a new country I have ever had the pleasure of hearing, and for an entire hour he had the whole room in stitches while he recounted his initial experiences in Japan.

This talk centred around the various different stages of culture shock, of which there are precisely four (although this precise figure differs depending on which expert you talk to); Initial Euphoria, Irritation and Hostility, Gradual Adjustment and Accommodation. Initial Euphoria is fairly obvious; you love everything and everyone in your new country and you are ridiculously excited to the point of pulling faces that make you look like you’ve won the lottery, a Nobel Prize and a book containing the secrets of the opposite sex all in one wondrous moment. And you were only looking at a neon shop sign. You run around everywhere, bulldozing your way into every ramen shop you can see, commenting wildly on how CRAZY, MAD and AWESOME everything is. You can’t believe you’re even there, you pinch yourself to make sure you’re not dreaming and you pinch Japanese people to make sure they feel pain and are not actually robots created by the most technologically advanced nation in the world. They do, and they’re not, by the way.

Irritation and Hostility is where you start to miss everyone and everything back home. After the loneliness, desperation and extreme lack of confidence (see Shiz up my Uoka) things begin to annoy you, and you wonder what you were thinking when you decided to leave the safety and security of pie and mash, real ale and McCoys crisps for a world where they eat rice and fish for breakfast. We’ll get onto that in a mo.

During the Gradual Adjustment phase— Well, why do you buy Ronseal Quick Drying Woodstain again (non-UK readers can enlighten themselves here)?

Eventually, you ‘get’ it. The culture feels familiar, you can read people much better, you can handle day-to-day situations with as much or nearly as much ease as you can back home, and you start to feel as confident as you once did in that land now so far away. You’re now in the Accommodation phase. Everything’s fine and dandy, and you start to feel a little protective over your new town/prefecture/country.

Of course, it’s not as cut-and-dry as all that. Though I never find myself back in stage one, I regularly flitter about between the other stages.

My latest little excursion into the Irritation and Hostility phase was one brought about by a sudden, insatiable desire for comfort food. It was the end of a long day at school, it was dark outside and I was going back to my empty apartment in that dull, emotionless state you get in when you’ve drank too much coffee and your brain feels like it’s been dunked in glycerol, wrapped in cotton wool then shoved back inside your skull. I picked up some potatoes, broccoli and pork chops on the way home and set about on my attempt to make some mashed potatoes, broccoli and pork chops with onion gravy. Easy enough, right? Wrong. My gas stove is roughly 70 years old and, though the stoves themselves are actually pretty good, there are only two, and the grill cooks whatever is on top of it a great deal more thoroughly than whatever is underneath. After I had cooked the broccoli (in the same pan as the potatoes) and extracted them with a pair of tongs I put them onto my draining board for lack of any other surfaces, along with a cooked pork chop, and realised I had no way to keep them warm. Normally I would stick them under the grill but, considering the circumstances, I left them on the side to grow cold while I mashed the potatoes with a fork and attempted to make some onion gravy.

It was all going so well until I opened the cornflour. I bought it in the supermarket the a few days before accompanied by an emotional mix of elation and scepticism. The former for even being able to read the label in the first place and the latter for spotting a) the colour, which was a lot like custard powder and b) the last bit on the label in brackets: ロースト, which means “roast”. What the hell does roast mean, I thought to myself. They’ve roasted the flour; you’re supposed to roast it; you use it in a roast, what? Elation overthrew scepticism however and I bought it in the hope that it was just the colour that was messed up.

Now, I don’t know why they call it cornflour, because it’s NOT cornflour. It’s nothing like cornflour. In fact, if it tried to enter the Cornflour Olympics then it would not only be turned away, mocked and banned forever, but the other packets of cornflour would stick a sign on it’s back saying “kick me” and do so until it bruised on its way out. Maybe it would bruise white and become more cornfloury in the process. Who knows.

Anyway, when you mix this stuff with water it turns into a sticky yellow paste and if you’ve thickened gravy before you will know that it should just look like very white water. There was no way I was going to subject the otherwise, quite nice gravy to this kind of torture and so I filled the paste cup with water and threw away the cornflour in disgust. The end result was lumpy mashed potato with cold broccoli and a sad-looking pork chop, all covered in brown water. The comfort that I so craved and, back home could always rely upon, was far from my grasp, and I pined for a meat pie more than I pine for the destruction of the Black Eyed Peas and the ritual burning of every song they ever made. Which is a lot by the way.

The next day I went to two different supermarkets trying to pull together something resembling Western comfort food. This is difficult for many reasons: I don’t have an oven, the sausages here taste like a pint of oil in an intestine, there are no such things as pies, there is no such thing as gravy. So that only wipes out about 90% of comfort food in the UK then. After filling and emptying my basket with only a few of the required ingredients for various different dishes each time, I put everything back, again, grabbed a packet of BBQ flavoured corn snacks and some instant noodles and stalked home in disgust.

The next day after work I had it all planned out. Chicken, mushroom and tarragon pasta in a cream & cheese sauce. The supermarket had everything I needed; ok so the only pasta you can buy here is spaghetti and they don’t do cheddar, but in the end I had made a very respectable Italian dish that both comforted me and satisfied my desire for Western food.

For now at least—

Shrines, Wines and Electrical Lines

There was a time when the word “Kyoto” was synonymous, for me at least, with an environmental pact between a bunch of different countries. This came into effect around the same time that people started wearing coloured rubber bands around their wrists to signify that they cared about the environment and world poverty, and that their voices should be added to Bono’s, Bob Geldof’s, and those of many other incomprehensibly annoying celebrities. In actual fact, Glastonbury gave a load of white wrist-bands away for free and every hippy in England rejoiced thinking about what a lovely idea it was to wear your liberalist views on your wrists for everyone to see; as if sweaty dreadlocks, Indian-inspired woolly jumpers and the perpetual consumption of bean-burgers and falafels weren’t clue enough already.
Now (and I mean “now” in a very recent sense of the word) I am aware that it is also a city. Not only is it a city, but it was Japan’s capital city for most of the last two millennia, and is perhaps the most visited destination in Japan after Tokyo. How I managed to go through life without knowing any of this is beyond me, and all those people who came on the JET scheme because they are ridiculously obsessed with Japan are probably spitting at their screens and wondering why they didn’t offer my position to someone who deserved it more.
Well I know now and, while all my students were scribbling away on their mid-term exam papers, I took it upon myself to go and see what all the fuss is about.

After resolving the night before to get up early and make it to the train station for 9, I got up at 9, made it to the station for 11, and paid a little visit to McDonalds before finally jumping on the Shinkansen (Bullet Train) to Kyoto. The service provided by Japan’s Shinkansen is legendary, and rightly so; the average delay on the Tokaido Line – the line that services the Shizuoka region – is around 18 seconds, the trains travel at 177mph, and that gets me from Shizuoka to Kyoto (around 190 miles) in an hour and 36 minutes. That is almost exactly the same amount of time it takes for me to get from London to Salisbury (about 90 miles). Of course, none of this comes without a price; each way costs nearly ¥10,000 which, at today’s exchange rates, is nearly £80. Each way! Let us not forget that you can often buy a return plane ticket from London to Dublin for under a tenner. Nevertheless, it is convenient (and, I think, necessary since the comparative bus service takes a DVT-inducing 7 hours).

Let me just take some time out now to tell you that I love trains. Ever since I was a kid I have loved trains (though I always stopped short of wearing a striped bobble hat and sitting on a bridge with a notebook), and I still have very fond and vivid memories of my granddad taking me on the steam train at the Watercress Line in Hampshire. Steam trains are a whole other kettle of fish of course, but there is still joy to be had from arriving at Waterloo and performing a slow circuit of the shops, picking up a nice crisp newspaper, a strong cappuccino and a pasty or baguette, before ambling onto the train and having an hour and a half to myself to read, listen to music and stare out the window at the English countryside. Every country I have ever been to has provided these same simple pleasures, but Japan is the first where the latter has been completely factored out of the equation. The cities and towns are urban sprawls which, without closer inspection, look like nothing more than shanty towns interspersed with rice paddies. Logging takes place on every hillside, the countryside is all but non-existent, and just as you spot what you think is an unspoilt mountain out of the corner of your eye, you notice the electricity pylons marching across it. Every single inch of available space has been built upon in the most haphazard, random way possible, and reminds me of the way people pitch their tents when they arrive late to a music festival (that is, to find a pitch roughly half the size of their tent in the middle of a group of close friends, and set it up at night when no-one is awake to protest).

Japan has a population of roughly 127.4 million people, all sharing 145,925 sq mi of land. That’s 870 people per square mile. Compare this with the UK population of 62 million people and 94,060 sq mi and you’re looking at an another 211 people for every square mile. That’s a lot of extra people. I can only suspect that this is one of the reasons why you never, ever seem to leave a built-up area. The rail lines pass through a continuous, never-ending urban expanse for 1h36m, and the aforementioned mountains in the distance only hint at how beautiful it must’ve once been.
Our image of Japan has always been one that is based on the bright lights of Tokyo or, by stark contrast, the little paper houses and ladies in kimonos with chopsticks in their hair. Tokyo delivers in spades and, as you’ll see in a minute, so does Kyoto; it’s just the space in-between that suffers; and rather dramatically at that.

I arrived in Kyoto and hopped onto a bus to the Gojo Guesthouse; a lovely little hostel on the east side of the city. I took out the Lonely Planet and felt a twinge of nostalgia creep through me as memories of my last year away came fluttering into view. It was a beautiful day, I was in a beautiful city, and I was ready to do some serious temple-viewing, so I ambled up a hill and joined the hoards of tourists on their way to visit Kyomizu-dera. This Buddhist temple dates back to the late 8th century, though its present buildings were reconstructed in 1633 after a fire. It it said to have been built by a Buddhist priest in honour of the Goddess of Mercy, but I’m assuming he had some help because some of those wooden beams are really big. The entire temple is supported on wooden stilts that jut out of the hillside and it makes a very pretty (if ubiquitous) photo of a building seeming to float among the treetops.
From here I walked north through some of the more picturesque streets in Kyoto, lined with omiyage (gift) shops, tea rooms and ramen restaurants and packed with tourists; lots of tourists. During the last 3 months in Shizuoka I’ve become something of a minor celebrity to the local population and I’m really beginning to love being the intriguing outsider. People treat you with exceptional courtesy and respect, and you can get away with most social faux pas simply because of the colour of your skin. You grow used to hearing nothing but Japanese all day every day (usually, in my case, with a few Americans, Kiwis and northerners chucked in at the weekends) and so it comes as quite a shock to hear an Essex accent blasting away as clear as day. Who the hell let these people book a holiday outside Spain I thought, as I overtook the plethora of bleached-blonde hair and ducked into the nearest alley. I sped away ever-northward, through parks and past countless temples until I had lost the throng and found somewhere to have some soba noodles in curry sauce. I successfully stained my nice white polo shirt forever, and went back to the hostel to reflect on my day.

In the evening I arranged to meet Fenn and his girlfriend, Ellie. I met Fenn in July, 2006 just after I had toured the North Island of New Zealand and had had a delightful week in Wellington getting smashed on Jaeger Bombs and reading fantasy novels (you can read about it here). I had just got a job in Auckland and I was looking for somewhere a little more permanent to stay, but for the time-being I was holed-up in Auckland Central Backpackers and subject to a continual influx of nutters up for a good time. Fenn, a couple of other nutters and I all went to see The Arctic Monkeys one night and, after some serious jumping around and air punching, it turned out to be one of the best gigs I’ve ever been to in my life. We all added each other on Facebook and have stayed in touch ever since. Cheers, Zuckerberg.
So we all met up at a bridge and then plodded along to a Japanese restaurant where Ellie and I proceeded to bestow the virtues of raw squid onto Fenn, and I proceeded to show off my Japanese skills (rather unnecessarily I might add, seeing as everyone in Kyoto speaks English). After polishing off a bottle of sake we left to find a bar and, after a few dodgy starts where a only a single patron propped up the bar, we found one with two patrons and continued to chat over drinks until the shots of Jaeger made us sleepy.

Another day, another tour, this time a little further north; more temples, more sightseeing, more walking, and a little shopping thrown in for good measure. Kyoto is a beautiful city, and if you take the time to walk off the beaten track you can get so much more from it. During the whole of the second day I hardly saw a single tourist, and many of the temples I visited were bathed in silence but for the quiet sounding of a muffled gong within. This was the Kyoto I wanted to experience and, while I sat in the hostel that evening and reflected on the day, I sipped on a beer and looked forward to what Nara would bring in the morning.

Mack to the Future

This is more like it; weather as predictable as a bull surrounded by Soviet and Nazi flags, stop signs and strawberries. What is one to do surrounded by all this red!? Who knows what his political tastes are? Does he have any respect for the rules of the road? Is he hungry? If so, surely a hungry bull is locked in a state of paradox when faced with a big bunch of strawberries. Does he eat the delicious berries, or does he SMASH THEM TO A HELLISH RED PULP!?

I woke up this morning ready to lament on days of rain and jacket-wearing cold. I rode into school in my fetching new beige rain-suit, complete with removable hood and built-in 80’s-style rain visor. I love it. In fact, I love it so much that I’m going to bring it home with me and wear it around London. I love it so much that I almost want it to rain during the week just so I can wear the thing. It gives me power in the face of adversity; I ride along holding my fist up to the sky screaming “IS THAT ALL YOU’VE GOT!?” while lightning streaks behind me and the roll of thunder all but bursts my eardrums. In reality however, I of course remain a model of English reserve as I sleepily wait for the traffic lights to change, and slowly build up to this granny-transporter’s maximum speed of around 10mph as the rain runs in rivers down my waterproof trousers and into my shoes. Damn it! I think to myself, A weakness! DAMN YOU, SKY! DAMN YOU TO HELL! and I sob gently as I ride into the school carpark, resolving to buy wellies at the next opportunity.

Much has happened since I scaled the Mountain of Pain; most significantly of course, I have finally started teaching English. After a whole month of setting up my life, attending orientations, spending countless hours and yen in Internet cafes, killing time on Facebook and taking trips to here, there and everywhere, I am finally doing what I came here to do. On the 1st September I stood and watched as 1000 students calmly filed into the sports field for a fire drill; whispers and giggles interspersed with “harro”s and “how are you”s. When inside the field, they all sat down in neat blocks and waited, sweating in the baking hot sun while one of the teachers spoke rapid Japanese into a megaphone. I regarded them at a safe distance through the fence in the shade, wondering what they thought of this foreign impostor who thought he was too good to suffer as they were.

Eventually they were allowed to file into the equally hot sports hall for assembly. I swapped my shoes for the provided slippers, the heels of which came up to as far as the arches of my feet, and made my way to the front of the hall. After a couple of introductory speeches I took my cue to walk on stage and performed a speech, once in Japanese, and once in English, and all accompanied by a series of awkward bows. I had been dreading this moment since I was told about it in August but, when I was actually on stage, I thought that it must be one of the easiest things I will have to do during my time here. I couldn’t believe it; there wasn’t even a flutter of adrenaline, and as I walked off the stage I simply thought, too easy.

Since I came back from my year of travels my life hasn’t really challenged me to re-evaluate the way I think; I outlined the main reasons for this in the first post but, in a nutshell, I was in my comfort zone. The very definition of “being in your comfort zone” (and I’m sorry if I’m telling you how to suck eggs here) is that you are doing everything you feel comfortable doing, and you probably run away from things that are different to what you do every day. Here though,everything is outside my comfort zone, and while walking off the stage I had this innate sense that I could do anything. You’re probably wincing and groaning and thinking something along the lines of “what a cliché or, “what’s new?” but the truth is I’ve told myself this many a time, but never really believed it. It doesn’t matter how many times you hear Doc Brown say “If you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything,” you still don’t think it applies to you until you’ve done something you always thought would be your worst nightmare and found it to be one of the easiest things you’ve ever done in your life; like standing on a stage and doing a speech in a language you don’t fully understand in front of 1000 adolescent kids or, in my case, creating a time-machine out of a Delorean.

The next day I had my first two lessons. I had spent a good couple of weeks pasting together a PowerPoint presentation about me, my hobbies, my family, where I grew up, etc. and what England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales are famous for. England was easy; tea, football, Harry Potter, Stonehenge, the Queen, Cricket, Rugby; you name it, we’ve got most of it. Northern Ireland made the Delorean, Scotland likes men in skirts, eating sheep’s stomachs and throwing big logs around but what about Wales? I racked my brains trying to think of a celebrity that Japanese kids would have heard of. Catherine Zeta Jones? The Stereophonics? Charlotte Church? Lisa from Steps? No, I could see we were going to have to think bigger here.

“What is Wales famous for?” I asked to a carpet of 40 blank faces. Either they didn’t understand me, or they didn’t care.

“Wales is famous for sheep,” I explained. A picture of two sheep spun into the foreground in an attempt to add some excitement where none was present; two or three nearly silent giggles fluttered towards me. I could tell I was going to have to bring out the big guns here.

“Wales is also famous for Tom Jones,” I concluded.

Silence. Faces were either confused, blank or a mixture of the two. Some even expressed outright disgust as the orange-coloured Welshman spun onto the screen. I hurriedly clicked the mouse button and moved onto the next slide.

I performed this self-introduction in front of 12 different classes in one week and for the most part they were very welcoming. In Japan they have a word, genki (元気), which can be roughly translated as a mixture of peppy, full of life, active, fun, well-rounded, good-natured, etc. Instead of “How are you?” the Japanese people simply say “O genki desu ka?” (Are you genki?), to which you simply reply “Hai, genki desu” (Yes, I’m genki). The best teaching experiences are generally defined by the classes with the most genki students and in these, my presentation was accompanied by cheering, ooh’s and once, even clapping! They were not all as wonderfully ego-expanding as this of course; in my first ever lesson, half of the class wouldn’t have even given me the time of day and they continue to be a challenge every week. Other classes are so quiet and shy that I can never get anyone to volunteer an answer or a suggestion, so I have to pick them out myself and watch as the poor things stand up and stare at their feet while they mumble something incomprehensible in reply, undoubtedly wishing that the floor would swallow them whole.

The teaching part is great; it’s a real buzz to have 40 students listening to you and it’s even better when you get all of them shouting “awesome!” or “rubbish!” at you in unison during a lesson on English slang. The hard part is planning the lessons. The onus is totally on me to make the lessons as enjoyable as possible and to get the students to learn as much as possible from them. It is a tough balance to perfect, but given a few more months and a little more trial and error, I think (I hope) it’s perfectly attainable.

Mountain of Pain

Ok so I swapped the “up my” title formula to something a little more dramatic because, well, titles are important aren’t they. They convey a sense of what is to come, and will either make someone interested in, or put off by the content before they’ve even read it (discounting the faithful followers that will read it no matter what, obviously – love you guys). Who can fail to be excited by “MOUNTAIN OF PAIN” though, I ask you? Say it in your head in the voice of the Hollywood trailer guy and the effect is even greater! Is it a metaphor? Does he mean it literally? Does it even have anything to do with the rest of the post or did he just use it to trick you all into reading on?! Read on to find out…

The week after Gotenba English Camp was my first full week at Kagakugijutsu High School (say that ten times fast). Lessons didn’t actually start until 2nd September so I had plenty of time to work on my self-introduction presentation, which mainly involved me going on Facebook and sifting through pictures of me playing the guitar, climbing, eating and making a fool of myself. I went out for a meal after work on Tuesday with a couple of other ALTs, and cooked Raj (another ALT who lives in my building) a meal on Wednesday but other than that the week was wholly uneventful. Part of the problem is that it’s too hot to do anything here. I spend half the day sweating, and the other half hiding away in an air-conditioned office dreading the moment when I have to go outside and begin sweating again. Air-conditioning units back in the UK are generally set to 19-22C and that is considered a comfortable temperature. Here they’re set to 26C. That is cool here; every day is 30C+. I haven’t even bought a quilt yet and I intentionally make having a shower and getting dressed in the morning the last thing I do before I leave; to open the cereal cupboard results in the loss of half your body’s water; to open the fridge results in the loss of the other half which, finally, results in you lying dehydrated on the kitchen floor waiting for the next door neighbour to come and feed you the milk you wanted through a drip. Careful planning is the only way to stay alive.

It is probably just as well the week was uneventful because at the weekend it was my birthday, and I was going to haul my poor 27 year-old body up the tallest mountain in Japan, Mt. Fuji. You’ve seen the pictures; it’s that huge volcano that dwarfs every – already quite large – mountain in the vicinity, often cloaked mysteriously in cloud and topped with a layer of snow. I’d locked the date in before I’d even left England. Watching the sun rise from the top of the tallest mountain in Japan on the dawn of my birthday, I thought; that’s pretty cool. The thing is, on paper “Climb Mt. Fuji” sounds like a great idea. In the bus it still sounds great. Even when you’re actually on the mountain and it’s only taken you 15 minutes to get from the 5th station to the 6th you just think “Ahh this is easy, I’ll be up there in 30 minutes”, it still seems like a great idea.

Before I climbed Mt. Fuji I have never, ever come close to falling asleep standing up. I thought it was a physical impossibility; a tired old saying; a cliché to describe a very, very tired person. Imagine my surprise then when, shortly before I reached the 8th station, I was actually in imminent danger of falling asleep while I was walking; in fact I think I actually did fall asleep. A number of times I thought I’d stepped on a particular rock only to find it was still there in front of me, waiting to be tackled. My mind was beginning to make its own way up the mountain and it was intent on leaving this pointless pile of flesh and blood behind.

Fortunately I reached the 8th station intact. I was freezing, I was sleep-walking, it was about 2am and I still had two stations to go before I reached the summit. I began talking to myself…

“What the hell am I doing here?” I wondered, “Am I trying to see what my limit is?”

“No, you don’t care; if you did, you would’ve run a marathon years ago.”

You’re right… Why then?”

“Err. I think you thought it was cool.”

“Oh I did, did I?”

“Yeah. You were banging on about how cool it would be to open a bottle of champagne at sunrise, on the top of the tallest mountain in Japan on your birthday.”

“Oh yeah that is quite cool actually”

“It’s not really though is it? You have to walk up a dusty track in the dark for 7 hours cursing every step you take, and once you reach the top you’re going to have to go all the way back down again.”


“You’re freezing as well by the w—”

“Piss off.”

But freezing I was, and it didn’t matter how well I did up my newly-acquired transparent poncho; the cold was here to stay.

Luckily, the 8th station turned out to be something of a god-send. It was heated throughout – which at least allowed me to warm up temporarily – and they sold hot cups of coffee. They were £5(!) each but caffeine was more necessity than luxury at this point so I paid the man a fiver and quietly sipped my coffee whilst I posed painfully for a couple of photos. A few minutes later, brain addled with caffeine, we resumed our journey up the endless hill and I mumbled something to myself something about Facebook and “are you sure” dialogue boxes.

An hour later we reached the 9th station. We were all in higher spirits now; the summit was within view and there was plenty of time to make it before sunrise.

Then we saw the queue.

Yes, the queue. Up a mountain. This must be the only place in the world where people queue to get to the top of a mountain. As a result, our probable maximum of 1 hour of steady climbing became 2½ hours of one step; 10 second wait; another step; half a minute wait; watch man fall asleep standing up; jab him; one more step. It was getting lighter and we were too far from the summit to make it in time for sunrise. It became clear that we would have to do something terrible; something no Englishman has done since the beginning of time. We would have to break the cardinal rule of being English, the one thing that brings tuts and whispers to every man, woman and child in our glorious land, the very fabric of what makes us who we are…

We would have to jump the queue.

Yes ladies and gentlemen I am appalled at myself, but we really had no choice! There was no way we could let a bunch of old fogies, who should never have taken Julie Andrews seriously, prevent us from seeing what we climbed for 7 hours to see. And so we did it; we jumped the queue, in the most shameless fashion we could manage. At one stage a man stuck his walking stick out to stop me and I just barged right on through. Right on through! Like I was a bloody European! I am appalled and ashamed, and I’m sorry.

The result of this blatant disregard for the unwritten rules of British society however, was the view of a sunrise before anyone else in Shizuoka, on top of a mountain, on my birthday, while holding a paper cup brimming with chilled champagne.

Pretty cool, I reckon.

English Camp at Gotenba

Fast-forward one week then to Tuesday 17th August, and it was time for Gotemba English Camp. This was my first experience of working with actual Japanese school children and, where the kids at my school are at beginner-level English, these girls (plus around 10 boys) were some of the top students in Shizuoka Prefecture. Only a few of the ALTs get a chance to do this and I felt honoured and excited to have been picked. I also saw it as a great opportunity to get a bit of experience under my belt before I went into the job for real so I resolved to get a good night’s sleep and be up, bright, ready and raring to go on Wednesday morning when we got on the bus. “There’s a festival in Mishima tonight, ay,” said Mark, a new friend of mine from New Zealand. “Great!” I said, “What’s that all about then?”

“Oh you know, just some street stalls and floats and people dancing and stuff. Should be good, ay.”

Now I’m not usually one to turn down an invitation unless I have a shortage of cash, and I’ve got bags of it over here! Sorry, just saying; it’s a fairly new experience for me. Next thing I knew I had pretty much invited myself to stay at Mark’s for the night and we were soon walking through a huge throng of people, all standing around watching taiko drummers performing their elaborate routines on top of intricately carved floats fashioned like mini-pagodas. Brightly coloured dancers and cheerleaders followed loudspeakers in a trance, performing the same rehearsed moves over and over while girls in kimonos weaved delicately in and out of the crowd taking in the sights and sounds. The delicious, hunger-inducing scent of festival food filled the air; yaki soba, seared belly-pork on a stick, mini kebabs, noodles with fried eggs, mashed potatoes, katsu curry, some kind of pastry package which, when chewed open, reveals a filling of sweet, creamy custard. Now, I thought to myself, the Japanese know how to do festivals, as memories of scout parades and baton twirlers came fading much too vividly into view.

All this revelry came, as you might expect by now, with rather a lot of beer and though managed to tear myself away by 2am, Mark was still out singing karaoke and going pint-for-pint with a particularly large Japanese American Footballer until 4am. Fortunately we managed to wake up and get the train and the bus on time and so, after an awkward start, I settled in to a lengthy conversation about brown rice as we drove up the mountain to the Toto Conference Centre.

You may have heard of Toto before. No, not the dog from The Wizard of Oz. They make toilets, showers, baths and sinks and things. This place was owned by them and subsequently, the very first thing you see when you walk in – and I’m not even joking here folks – is their flagship toilet, standing proud, front and centre, waiting for you to walk over and admire it; possibly even to stroke it a bit and go “ooooooh”. So I walked over with exactly that intention, except that just as I was about to, it opened! It actually opened its lid for me as if to say “Go ooooooon, I know you just had one at that service station but did it wash for you? Did it BLOW-DRY? Go on… Let it flow……… Let it flow.” I took a step towards it and could hear – from somewhere outside of my conscience – a voice saying “No, don’t!” but I could pay it no heed, for it was but a flutter of a butterfly’s wings amongst a storm of desire. A step closer to my goal, and I could feel my lips moving but they did not seem to speak; at least not in a language I understood. I measures? No. What was I saying? MY PRECIOUS?! It had been called that once before but not by me, and not by someone of this age.

“Eh? What?”
“You’ve got your own toilet for that sort of thing.”
“Oh, yeah. Er… Sorry.”

I dropped off my bag in my en-suite, air-conditioned room, had the quickest shower known to man and made my way back upstairs.

And so began two and a half days of games and activities with some of the most wonderful, pleasant and well-rounded teenagers I have ever met. The opening ceremony was a bit nerve-racking; indeed, this was the first time I’d spoke in front of 40 teenagers since I had to do a presentation on something I knew nothing about in secondary school. My English teacher back then, Mr. Pender, asked everyone to write a subject on a piece of paper and then put them all in a hat for us to pick out, the idea being that we were learning the skills for presenting and so the subject didn’t matter; you just had to find a way to relate it to your life. Of course that was what he told us then but, upon reflection, he was actually teaching us how to blag. Blagging, above all else, requires confidence, and at that stage in my life I had none to speak of so when placed in front of the class and faced with the subject “My Day Trip Around the Dell” I froze, not only because I had no idea what “the Dell” was (it’s the name of the old Southampton football stadium for those who don’t know. What? Who cares? Yeah, exactly), but also because I was petrified I wouldn’t say the right thing. That “right thing” would have to be funny enough for my peers, clever enough for Mr. Pender and impressive enough for my friends. I’d set myself up for perfection before I’d even begun to speak, and as a result I froze, said nothing, and was eventually sent back to my seat by a doubtless, frustrated Mr. Pender amidst a chorus of abuse and giggles from the rest of the class. Not the best example of public speaking I’m sure you’ll agree.

Thankfully I’ve come on a bit since then, and all we had to do was stand up in front of the class and introduce ourselves before we were assigned to our teams. So I did – with no freezing whatsoever I might add – and then went and stood next to my 4 girls, Kaori, Saki, Nao and Ayumu. After a brief introductory chat we all went to lunch and then off to separate rooms to work on a team name, motto, and a poster to go on our door. After much deliberation, my girls settled on “Happiness” as a team name and “always smile and be cheerful” as our motto, then they created a multicoloured poster with all our names on it and a whole bunch of hearts everywhere. Now I don’t know about you, but I can’t exactly imagine a group of four 15-year-old girls in England sitting down and coming up with that. You’d have one in the corner going “whatever, I ain’t doing it”, one blowing bubbles and twirling her hair clearly wondering why she’d been placed with these losers in the first place, and the other two coming up with rude team names and drawing multicoloured penises on the sheet of paper. One can only imagine the chaos that would ensue. Yet here I was with four, amicable, respectful and outgoing kids that were a joy to work with. First impressions were good.

That was most of the first day in a nutshell. We had a couple of English-based games but it was all fairly quiet as the kids got used to each other and us ALTs. Everything finished at 9pm and then we played a few quiet games of Scrabble with a couple of the more adventurous kids of the group. A quick ALT meeting, then – for me at least – it was bed at 22:30 where my brain shut down as soon as my head hit the pillow.

Thursday arrived all too quickly. Up at half 7, washed, dressed, ate breakfast (bacon, eggs, fried rice, fruit, deep-fried, battered chicken wings and toast – a stranger breakfast I have never seen) and began work on a play. All the groups had come up with a piece of dialogue which they put into a hat, and then one was drawn out (“I’m so hungry I could eat a horse”) so it could be included in every group’s play. Off we toddled back to our rooms where we began work on our masterpiece. I say our masterpiece but it was really their masterpiece since all I did was supervise, and point them towards an ending when I realised they were just scripting a chat around a table.

“How can we use ‘I’m so hungry I could eat a horse’?” I asked, while they were talking about being hot and playing card games (we had to utilise a whole bunch of cultural items they had brought in for another task). “How are we going to end this?”

“Ehhhhhh-toh…..” came the reply – the Japanese version of “um”

When I realised they were having serious trouble with this, I shed my last bastion of self-importance and suggested that I could be a horse. There. I’d said it. No turning back now.

Suddenly their eyes grew brighter as they realised I’d crossed the line from sensible teacher to silly study-mate. The possibilities flew through their eyes, and then through the air in snappy Japanese until they finally decided that I would walk in, pretend to munch on some grass, neigh a little bit, and then be killed and eaten by them. And so as I stood there out of the limelight, waiting for my cue to enter the stage and make a huge fool of myself I had, totally unexpectedly, my first encounter with what it must feel like to be a proud father – that overwhelming need to grab the nearest person and whisper excitedly in their ear “LOOK! They’re my girls up there! Aren’t they doing BRILLIANTLY?!

This bizarre experience happened more than once during the camp, most notably when we played “Jedi Wars”. Each member of the team had to take turns wearing a mask (with the eyes blocked up) then, armed with a long piece of foam, be spun round and directed by the rest of the team to where their opponent from another team was (“turn left”, “turn right”, “hit”, etc.). Except that Team Happiness didn’t really need to use “hit” when they worked out they could just keep swinging the foam as hard as they could and then rely solely on directions in order to get the first hit in, ultimately winning the battle. The other teams eventually caught on, but it was too late. Happiness won nearly every fight. I was proud again.

That Thursday was fantastic. The students had really clicked with each other, and they were also much more confident about coming to talk to us ALTs. We had numerous opportunities to hang out with them throughout the day, playing Uno, Hangman, Scrabble, etc., and after all the official activities were done and dusted a whole load of us all piled into the common room and continued the board/card games until 10pm, when we kicked them all out and got a few beers from the vending machine.

So that was it. On Friday we had an award ceremony for which we had made a load of very fetching rosettes, and then we had our pictures taken for about an hour with every different student, combination of students, and combination of students and ALTs possible. I began to understand how tigers felt at the zoo. One final photo of the whole camp, and we jumped on the bus and made our way back home.

Kakegawa Orientation

JET love orientations. Pre-departure; post-arrival; pre-teaching; post-natal; it’s like they see all of us poor candidates as being locked into a perpetual game of Spin the Bottle in which we think we’re the bottle, and they are the only people who can save us from a life of dizziness, despair and ultimately, suicide. Either that or murder, or being locked up for 20 years for inadvertently puffing on a joint (even though you told them those nasty people said it was oregano), or dying from an earthquake, or from a tsunami, or from crossing your legs or having your hands in your pockets, or having someone give you a pair of chopsticks when you swear you asked for the nearest bridge.

This particular orientation turned out to be the most useful of the three (the post-natal one was a joke by the way – well done if you spotted it) and I came away with a sense of what I am actually going to be doing for the next year. We learnt about the topics we’ll be expected to teach, activities and games to keep the kids interested, what role the JTEs (Japanese Teacher of English) will usually take in the classrooms, ways to motivate students, etc. My official title is ALT (Assistant Language Teacher), but the “assistant” part is really just for show. We get paid just as much as the fully-fledged teachers and so for the most part are expected to act and perform like fully-fledged teachers. In my school I more-or-less own the syllabus with a little guidance from the JTEs. I decide what to teach the kids based on what I think is most useful to them; I plan the lessons, I create the materials, I brief the JTEs on what I want them to do during the lessons and then I just have to make sure I turn up and teach them the stuff. Whether or not I will do a good job of this remains to be seen, and the Kakegawa Orientation – apart from being extraordinarily helpful – also succeeded in putting the kake right up my gawa (that is to say, I was somewhat worried).

Apart from the usefulness of said orientation it was also the first opportunity I had to meet a lot of the ALTs that arrived either in April or a week before our group, as well as a lot of the sempais (veterans who have volunteered to help us newbies) that weren’t at the Tokyo orientation. It was also the first time I had ever got into a bath, naked, with three other naked men. This intriguing male-bonding ritual is known as an onsen, is thoroughly traditional, and is the only way to get yourself clean in this particular conference centre. Basically you all walk, naked, into a big room with a load of buckets lined up underneath the shower heads. You sit on the upturned bucket, soap yourself all over about 17 times, rinse yourself off and then get into a steaming hot mini swimming pool for as long as you want. When you’re suitably hot (bearing in mind it’s 30C+ outside all the time over here) you sit on a bucket again and blast yourself with cold water; the result being that you feel really fresh, clean and a little bit high from the rapid change in temperature. Once you get over the fact that there are man-bits swinging about everywhere it’s actually rather a liberating experience, and one which is worthy of repeating in this prefecture, which boasts of its abundance of natural hot springs with gusto and celebration.

Along with all of the pros I have already mentioned, it was at this orientation that I was able to brush up on my flower-arranging skills, work on my tea-cup turning technique and experience a simulated earthquake. All-in-all, the whole three-day experience was jolly good fun.