Tag Archives: shizuoka

Reverse Culture Shock

I have 32 full days left in Japan. In this time I will have taught 11 days of lessons, gone to a birthday party, attended a sumo tournament, visited the school for the blind for the last time, partied on a rooftop terrace with all the other leavers, celebrated “Marine Day” and had my work leaving party. My Google Calendar for July is a blinding swathe of orange and blue; a boiling ocean of parties and lessons stocked with the finest fish and nuggets of deep fried mashed potatoes. I will ride the waves like a gymnast, skipping past the darkest goblins of death and leaping over waves that bite and thrash at my lowly canoe, threatening to scold and burn my very soul, and then…

August. A sea so blue and so still you cannot see where it meets the sky. The land ahead provides a glimpse of adventure yet to come, but is as tangible as adventure itself.

We recently received a letter from CLAIR (the organisation that runs the JET Programme) warning us of “Reverse Culture Shock.” I have already covered the culture shock I encountered when I got here (see Shiz Up My Uoka and Gravy Rage), but I’m finding it hard to believe that I will have similar problems when I get home. Nevertheless, they provide a number of suggestions which we can use to help us through this period of adjustment:

1) Things to do before leaving Japan

Make a list of the things that you like about Japan. This list may include aspects of Japanese culture, your job or lifestyle here, actual places or possessions, and a variety of other things. Look over this list and think about which things you can take home, which things you can try to recreate back home, and which things you must say goodbye to.

  • Ramen takes the number one spot here. This noodle soup comes in so many forms and variations that it’s simply impossible to try them all. Good, specialist ramen shops spend years perfecting their soup recipe and won’t open their shop if it isn’t perfect on any particular day. The tantalising mix of soup, egg noodles, roast pork and any number of additional toppings is a divine treat you will never understand unless you try it. I’m desperately hoping I can find somewhere good in London or I’ll be forever pining for one more fix for the rest of my days.
  • The language. I have loved learning Japanese, and I think I will miss hearing it all day every day.
  • My students. Especially the genki ones who never fail to liven up the atmosphere in my classes.
  • The good salary and low cost of living (if you don’t count the £10 watermelons and £1 apples – fruit and veg here is prohibitively expensive).
  • The Shinkansen. I still get excited every time I know I’m going to have to use it. Travelling on South West Trains will never be quite the same again.
  • The Japanese people. This one is last because I want to expand upon it, but it’s probably the most important.

Honestly there are a lot of things that annoy me in this country, but the one thing that remains constant wherever you go is the sheer greatness of the people that live here. One thing I’m preparing myself for when I get back home is that people will probably seem incredibly rude, selfish and intimidating. Many of them won’t be of course, it’s just that if you were setting the bar for polite and friendly, you would most likely start with the Japanese and work your way down from there, and after a year I’ve gotten pretty used to seeing that bar way above my reach.

Living in Shizuoka City has been an interesting experience, but this is due only and entirely to the people I have met here. The city itself is just a concrete/prefab housing jungle where people live and work. It has a pretty small city centre and the rest is a sprawling mass of suburbs and roads. There are very few parks, all the rivers, beaches and open spaces are lined and paved with concrete, and rice fields are dotted in random patches throughout the city; it is a painful reminder of the importance of good urban planning. None of that matters of course, because the people who live in it are amazing. Ask someone a question and they will stop and help. If you don’t understand Japanese they will try desperately to remember the English they learnt at school and, if all else fails, engage you in a game of shirades. They will welcome you into every shop with a smile, give you the quickest, most efficient service you have ever had and then thank you a billion times on your way out. They invite you round to their houses for dinner, offer to help whenever you even mention you have difficulty with something and if you leave your hair scrunchy in a restaurant they will chase you half a mile down the road to give it back to you and man, if I’d lost that I don’t know what I’d do.

Make a list of the people you will miss most when you leave. Think of the most meaningful way to say goodbye to each person on that list. Ways to do this may include writing a letter, going to a favorite restaurant, spending a day together doing a shared hobby, or something else.

My Mum will tell you I hate cards. When you get them as a kid, unless there’s a tenner in it you really don’t appreciate that someone took the time to go down Clinton Cards, spent 5-10 minutes picking something up, paid £3 for it and then wrote a little message in it just because it’s your birthday and they remember every year but never get anything from you, you ungrateful sod. These days I appreciate the thought but I would much rather get a phone call, then you can spend your £3 on an interesting, hilarious conversation with me rather than walk down to that bloody card shop for the umpteenth time this year. Great ne?! And by the way, aren’t card shops just the most depressing places in the world? You walk in to be greeted by fluorescent lights, dirty beige stands, an oversubscribed collection of flower & teddy bear cards (vomit) and a bunch of grumpy customers who are all pissed off because they have to spend their lunch hour looking for a pointless card that they will spend all their lunch money on and won’t ever get a thank you for.

No, I won’t make a list, and I won’t be writing any letters or sending any cards. I will however, spend a day sharing a hobby with them all at once – eating, drinking, singing and dancing. Now there’s a familiar sequence of events.

2) Dealing with change
Over the last year or more, you have changed in many ways. List some of the values or behavior patterns that you have learned. Think about which of these things are positive and which you want to maintain. Think also about which parts of the ‘new you’ will not fit in with your home country culture, and how you will deal with this.

When I went travelling the first time around, I changed a hell of a lot. This time, not so much. I’m probably a lot more confident with public speaking and much more willing to make a fool of myself (though I’m not sure this was ever a problem to begin with). The most noticeable things I will take back are mannerisms and speech which I think may take me a little while to get rid of; saying sou des ka? instead of really?, un instead of yes and sou da ne instead of yeah, I know or innit for example. Not that I ever say innit but that’s probably a more direct translation. Showing surprise at some of the most unsurprising things is a very common Japanese trait which has also managed to seep into my bones, and I can’t help but think that people back home will assume I’m just taking the piss.

Understand that your family and friends may have changed while you have been in Japan. They will almost certainly not have spent the entire one to five years sitting around waiting for you to return.

Bollocks they haven’t. Unroll that carpet and get the fanfare playing when I walk off that Jumbo Jet, people; your lives are about to begin once more!

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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.

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.

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

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.

Culture Shock in Japan

On Saturday 31st July at around 2pm, for reasons already expressed, I took my first steps towards the biggest change in my life I have ever undertaken. Not content with changing one thing in my life like most normal people, I opted to change my country, house, job, career, language and culture. I left behind every semblance of familiarity I know and 10 hours later I was spat out in Tokyo severely jet-lagged, and faced with the prospect of 3 days of lectures and 2 nights of inevitable heavy drinking and karaoke. It’s a hard life.

It’s been a couple of weeks since then and there have been no updates for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I have no Internet in my house; it’s on order, but it might take a couple more weeks. Secondly, I simply have not stopped since I got here; the past two weeks have been two of the most confusing, exciting, upsetting, fun and surreal weeks of my life. If there was a pictorial representation of my emotional state since I got here, it would probably look something like a seismograph attached to a pneumatic drill during a scale-9 earthquake.

The first four days were easy (apart from the chronic jet-lag). We touched down in the plane, jumped on a bus and drove to the Kao Plaza Hotel in downtown Tokyo; a bubble of relative familiarity in a sea of surreal and bizarre. Just over 1000 people from the UK, USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Singapore and elsewhere had made exactly the same choices as me, and were being ferried from halfway across the world so they could teach English to Japanese school kids. During the day we dressed up in our suits and attended lectures and workshops, then at night we were entertained by Taiko drummers at the British embassy, meeting Japanese MPs, singing at karaoke bars and drinking whiskey-on-the-rocks in a bar on the 45th floor of the hotel while we listened to soft jazz and watched the bright lights of Tokyo twinkle through the darkness. We were all finding it extremely difficult to believe that we were there at all.

Eventually on Wednesday, the wining and dining came to an end and we jumped on the bus to Shizuoka. Three hours later we were at a welcoming ceremony and taking it in turns to introduce ourselves to 30 Japanese supervisors, in a short couple of sentences we had learnt in Japanese, before we were split up and running around Shizuoka with our respective supervisors, getting passport photos taken and setting up alien registration cards. My supervisor, an English teacher from my school, took me to my apartment so I could freshen up and change (the heat/humidity here is insane), before she took me to the school to meet a couple of the teachers. After that she took me back to the apartment and drove off, and for the first time since Saturday, I was alone. I walked around the corner to the local ramen shop and was about to walk in before I realised there were no pictures of the food anywhere. I live on pictures. With pictures you can simply point and say “kore o kudasai” (“that one please”) and Bob’s your uncle, you’ve got a chicken curry. No? Tofu curry? Or is that egg? Who knows?

Too frightened to go in and make a fool of myself, I walked to the local corner shop and bought a packet of instant noodles instead. I walked back home, sat down, alone, and attempted to hold back the tears. I failed. The bubble had burst.

I won’t lie to you; this is tough. It’s probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done. The feeling of extreme loneliness on that first night was compounded by the fact that neither I, nor anyone else on the JET programme had a mobile phone or the Internet, nor did we know our physical addresses. There was simply no way of contacting anyone, and although I was surrounded by hundreds of people none of them could speak English, and the only things I could say in Japanese were “good morning”, “good afternoon” and “thank you very much”. Daily tasks that are as normal and easy to me as breathing back in England became a chore which required careful planning and thought. I was panicking; the two sides of my conscience – having signed a peace treaty for the last 4 or 5 years – were at war, pitting reason and sense against an onslaught of doubt, despair and homesickness.

Fortunately it only lasted a couple of days. On the Friday of that week I walked through the front door of my apartment and smiled, excited and amused at the prospect of trying to find an internet cafe using sign language and gestures. I’d found a phrasebook which Brian, my predecessor, left in the apartment, and which was swiftly added to my checklist of necessary equipment for whenever I set foot outside. I skipped along the street until I got to the local shop where I’d bought a pack of instant noodles on the first night. “Internet o cafe wa doku des ka?” I asked the nice, smiley old lady behind the counter. She thought about it for a minute, confessed she didn’t know but then walked out of the shop and across the road to ask her friend. After much deliberation they both decided that they had no idea, but there was nothing that could stop me now. I was on a mission, driven by determination and the intense, animalistic desire for Gmail and Facebook. A few more regurgitations of my new phrase and I was there; a twenty minute walk from my house, and it only took me two hours.

The next day I went to Kanaya, about 40 minutes south on the Tokkaido JR train, to meet up with my partners in crime, Maria and Sophie, who I met at the orientation in Uxbridge, and a few other JETs from the area. We had a meal at an “Italian” restaurant (seriously, if you come here, stick to the Japanese food) before heading on to a get-together for some fireworks in a nearby town. It was a great night, and a wonderful opportunity to meet a few new JETs who have been here for a year, or who had arrived earlier this year. A couple of vodka jellies and a few beers later it was time to decide whether to get the last train home, or pull an all-nighter. With a head full of alcohol and a bunch of fun and interesting people persuading me to stay out, I decided to get the last train home and have an early night.

Yeah right… Off to Hamamatsu we skipped, ending up in a club dancing to trance music before falling asleep on the floor in the middle of the train station and waiting for the first train to arrive on Sunday morning. After a very painful hour on the train and 20 minutes on a bus, I got into bed, woke up at 17:30, ate some food, and went back to bed. Week 1; done.