I’m in Love with Taiko

Taiko

No, Taiko is unfortunately not the name of some cool and sexy Japanese guy. It’s beautiful, traditional Japanese drumming.

One of the things I really love and admire about Japan is the classical music. There’s something about the sound of the shamisen, koto and yes the booming Taiko drum that just resonates with my soul. The pounding rhythm of the Taiko is aggressive, it’s commanding — it’ll crash your brain and force you to listen. And beating the drum requires not only strength, but style. A Taiko drummer also needs to be a dancer, and the perfect form of a Taiko master combines strength and grace, like a hunting crane. A Taiko performance is nothing short of art.

How did I get involved in Taiko? I saw the opportunity for a free Taiko lesson posted on TimeOut Tokyo, and I knew I had to try it. I had my misgivings: Will I be able to understand the instructor if the class is in Japanese? How much will it cost if I want to continue? Will I have to buy a big Taiko drum? But the music was calling, so I pushed all those worries aside and sent an email saying I wanted to try the free lesson. Some of my fears about language were eased when the reply had pretty accurate English grammar.

Now I’m hooked. I’ve been taking lessons for four months, and I’m in the middle of learning a routine for my first concert. There are days when I feel lazy and I don’t want to go to class, but I remember the rhythm, and I drag myself to the train station, and once I’m in class surrounded by the drumming, I’m always glad I went.

What’s a typical lesson like? Well, I get to the studio and give my usual chorus of konban wa (good evening) to everyone I see. If I’m early I help our sensei (teacher) and the other students with setting up the drums. We use three huge drums, and take turns practicing.

After the drums are set up I go get changed. Taiko is a workout, especially when we’re practicing the fast rhythms, so I need my workout gear. This is the time I usually practice my miniscule Japanese, by talking to the other students. And they also get to practice their English with me.

Then I tape up my hands with elastic bandages. If I don’t I get bruises and blisters on my hands from drumming so hard. Soon after that sensei will call out, “Hai! Hajimemasho! (Let’s Start)” Then we do some stretches, and then get into drumming practice. Though I can’t understand a lot of what’s being said, I can get it from context. But if I ask another student who speaks English they’re always willing to explain. At some point we get some one on one time with the sensei, and though he doesn’t speak English he shows me what I’m doing wrong by doing a hilarious caricature of me. Uh…point taken sensei.

These Taiko lessons have been a great way to challenge myself physically and mentally. The style of Taiko I do is Miyake Taiko, and I’m really, really trying to have passable drumming form before the concert. However, I am slightly worried about the “waiting pose” we have to make when it’s not our turn to drum. It’s a crouching sit that starts to hurt after about one minute and makes my legs fall asleep! The last thing I want is to get up to drum and fall flat on my face…

Still, I think I’ve stumbled onto something incredible here, and I’m already excited for the next lesson. They are two hours long but I don’t even feel it. Once the drum beat starts everything else fades away. There’s only a thunderous rhythm that vibrates first in the soles of my bare feet, then travels up my legs, up my spine and hijacks the beat of my heart. The nagging chatter of the everyday worries of life is no match for the powerful boom of the Taiko drum.

This post is part of the October 2011 J-Festa: Entertainment in Japan.

Random KitKat Action

So I stroll into school one day and I notice there are some snacks on the back counter of the teacher’s room. Occasionally a student or one of the staff will bring something in. “Oh I wonder what it is this time?” I thought. “I hope it’s something good and not something weird,” because well, sometimes it’s something weird.

But not that day, oh no. That day it was an awesome KitKat Bonanza!

KitKat Bonaza

 

I remember reading somewhere before coming over that Japan is home to thousands* of different KitKat flavours. Flavours only some kind of mad genius could think to combine with wafers. The KitKats in the photo above are (clockwise from the top): white chocolate,  “mild” chocolate, green tea, mixed juice, sweet potato, caramel, custard cream and blueberry. Since I’ve been here I’ve tried some of the more exotic flavours, and here is my official review.

Green Tea KitKat

Green Tea KitKat

 

 

Alleged Flavour: Green Tea

Tastes Like:  Green Tea Ice Cream.

Final Word: Delicious

 

 

 

Sweet Potato KitKat

Sweet Potato KitKat

 

 

Alleged Flavour: Sweet Potato

Tastes like: Sweet Potato…if you put salt on it or something. It was sweet with a strange salty aftertaste.

Final Word: Don’t like! (Gross!)

 

 

Caramel KitKat

Caramel KitKat

 

 

Alleged Flavour: Caramel

Tastes like: Caramel (and chocolate).

Final Word: It’s good! Can’t go wrong with caramel and chocolate.

 

 

 

Blueberry

Blueberry

 

Alleged Flavour: Blueberry

Tastes like: Your mother’s potpourri bowl.

Final Word: Unless your one of those health nuts who likes drinking wheat grass and stuff you won’t like this. It tastes like flowers.

 

 

 

An honorable mention goes to three more flavours: Strawberry shortcake (the mad genius’ finest work so far in my opinion), tiramisu (It had a distinctly cheesy smell, and a distinctly cheesy taste, yuck),  and custard (tasted good, went well with the waferishness of the wafer). I really wish I had tried mixed juice, but I didn’t know what it was at the time. Even though the label was in katakana, which I can read, I couldn’t figure it out because the idea of a juice flavoured kitkat was so…absurd to me I just couldn’t put two and two together. Mixed juice KitKat, honestly. He’s mad I tell you, mad!

*This number is not based on any kind of official count, but it’s most likely true anyway.
**Update** It seems there is a new KitKat flavour, Zundafumi, and this one is fluorescent green! proceeds from the sale going toward those affected by the Tohoku earthquake. Thanks to Donald over at The Japan Guy for finding t his one.

Suffer the Little Children…

The kids’ classes. They’re what I suspect gives the Eikaiwa school rookies the biggest shakes. I know I was quivering like Santa’s Belly or a bowl of something jelly-like, maybe something with a fruit flavour. Anyway,  Children…are not yet civilized. They’re unpredictable. They hit each other. They scream or cry at random times. They say mean things that make you scream or cry at random times. They have short attention spans and are distracted by things that are shiny, or fuzzy, or colourful. I kid you not, I once had a whole class chasing after a ball of yarn.

Yep.

On top of all that, I was personally afraid the younger ones would take one look at me, this chocolate-looking person coming at them jabbering some strange language, and start crying or refuse to come into the classroom. It’s a concern for all the native English speaking teachers. We were warned in training that some of the kids might be afraid of us at first. However even among us foreigners I am a rarity, so I expected the reaction to be a bit worse for me. But, happily, I’ve hardly had any problems.

Well…

In one of my classes I teach three little boys, toddlers really (the parents are in the class with me otherwise yeah, that would be impossible.) One of them is only a little over a year old and in the first few classes he cried and clung to his mama. It was his first foray into the wonderful world of learning English. The other two boys made up for it though.  They’ve already had classes, they’re old pros and no chocolate person is gonna scare them. No sir. In fact just to prove it they like to run up to me every so often during class and hug my legs, and sometimes ask me to pick them up :) . And they crybaby (literally) seems to have gotten used to me too now. Last class he even let go of his koala-like hold on his mother for a while.

I think the reasons the vast majority of the kids haven’t been afraid of me are 1) many have them have already had experience with foreign teachers and 2) they can sense something about me.

I like ‘em.

Yep, I like the little rascals. Kids are enthusiastic, they’re cute, mini versions of real people, they have real smiles as yet untainted by the hardships of life and they are more honest than their adult counterparts.  I really enjoy playing games with them. Sometimes I get so into it I forget for a while I’m supposed to be Amanda-Sensei. They won’t let you get away with that for too long though. That’s the other thing about kids. They like to push, challenge. They’re always trying to see what they can get away with. They can’t help it, being a kid is all about learning right? So sometimes, though I hate to do it, I have to be a bit of an, well an adult with them. I have to boss them around and frown and be all disapproving. “Curb that childish exuberance you! Can’t you see we’re trying to run a society here? Now practice your letters.”

I joke about it but it really is important. If the kids realize they can walk all over you it’s over, you just can’t control the class. One thing that does make it a little tougher to discipline them is that their parents are usually watching. I have one class with a bunch of little boys about 5-7. They are little angels…hells angels. I gotta be quick on my feet with those little darlings, otherwise they get bored very quickly and start joking around with each other in Japanese, or running around, or refusing to repeat what I’m trying to teach them…all while mommy and daddy dearest watch on. Every now and then I make them get up and do jumping jacks or something to tire them out, but sometimes it backfires and they get more energized. What the hell?

Lucky for me, kids also have a healthy sense of competition, so I give them points for good behaviour, and usually when one kid sees another kid just won a point, they try harder, and if they’re misbehaving I can threaten to take a point away. Works well with most kids. They are a few who are a little wiser, a little worldlier and have somehow found out that the points don’t mean jack. Who told them? WHO? That makes my job harder, but I just have to find other ways to cajole these little Einsteins into learning. Frequently the ones who are unimpressed with the points system are also some of my brightest students. Go figure.

 

 

The Shogun

OK, this is has gone from creepy to just hilarious. I think I literally did a double-take when I first walked by this.

It’s… here, a picture is worth a thousand words right?

The Shogun

Yes, the colonel put on his best armor this past golden week. Apparently (according to the internets) he’s spent his unholy fried chicken fortune on a sick wardrobe, and he has enough outfits to make Barbie tear out her own hair in a fit of jealous rage.

He likes to look pretty for special occasions.

It’s the Little Things

Now that I’m back in Japan, I’m reminded of why I want to be here: It’s so different! And often those differences are in the little things. Every now and then I run across something that really makes me think, “Whoa….I’m in Japan!” A few of them are notorious and even people who have never been here know all about them: Toilets with control panels like they’re about to blast off to the moon, anime everywhere, neon everywhere, neon anime everywhere and people who dress like they’re on their way to a photo shoot every day. But there are also some things I wasn’t expecting, things that in their foreignness, their uniqueness, their utter strangeness loudly proclaim “this is Japan”. And if you’re willing to listen, I’ll let you in on what they are.

Cold medicine

About a month after coming here I got very sick. I had a really high fever but I didn’t want to go to the doctor because I felt it would be too much trouble. “So what if my brain cells are slowly burning away” I thought. “I can’t be bothered”.

Well after two days of running a fever of 39 degrees Celsius I got tired of feeling like my head was about to cave in so I (wo)manned up and went to a clinic that had English-speaking staff. Long story short everything went fine and I was being a big baby, but look at this medicine!

Meds

My Meds

I mean it worked like a charm, but what’s up with having each medicine separate? Look, the fever meds aren’t even in a pill! It’s just white powder.

Fever Powder

Cocca-I mean my "fever powder"

What, was I supposed to snort this? Cause that’s exactly what I did…just kidding. Or am I?

I, used to the North American way of the One Pill to Cure Them All, find this somewhat troublesome. It makes me feel like I was on the verge of death or something, having to take all these different medications.

Creepy Colonel Sanders Statues

When I was a child, I used to go into my mother’s clothes drawer and mess up her clothes, so to stop me she stuck a scary clown night-light on the drawer handle. I never went near the drawer again. Since coming to Japan I’ve eaten KFC all of twice, and this is why:

The Colonel

If all across the country one night these statues come to life like in Night at the Museum we are soooo screwed.

Come on Japan, this is just bad for business. That thing is scary. But maybe this is the reason why many Japanese people are so slim?

Pushing on the trains

If you ever come to Tokyo, try not to take it personally when someone shoves and pushes you into the train car without so much as a sumimasen or gomen nasai, like you’re a stubborn piece of overhead luggage. This is the Way of the Trains. It’s actually quite civilized and efficient if you think about it. Every train everywhere is crowded* and if we all took the time to say sorry to one another as we pushed each other out of the way so that we could catch the train two minutes earlier, or to get off in the five second window that the doors stay open, we would never get anywhere now would we?

Crowded Train

Look at that hand outstretched in desperation as that poor man, no doubt pushed from behind, flails for balance.

*Your actual experience may vary, but I’m probably right.

No heat in the corridors.

This is a real pain in the winter. Central heating just isn’t the cool thing to do here in Japan. Instead every room gets its own AirCon unit that heats or cools the room. It’s fab because I can control the heat in my own room in my guest house, but that run from my room to the bathroom, or my room to the kitchen is murdah in the winter, and so is waiting for the thing to start circulating once I turn it on. And don’t get me started on the mental tug of war that ensues if I need to use the little girls’ room in the middle of the night. It’s the epic struggle of the ages: Warm bed vs. full bladder and freezing, dark hallway. Of course, full bladder and freezing dark hallway always trump warm bed in the end, but I relive this horrible night time battle every time I walk through the adult diaper aisle in a pharmacy. One day, one day soon, I might crack and start wearing them to bed, and don’t you dare judge me!

The “oouuuh” noise Japanese people make

It’s hard to describe, but trust me it’s weird. It’s like the North American version of “huh?” or “whoa”, but it’s a drawn out sound halfway between “oh” and “eh” with an upward inflection at the end. The sound somehow seems too masculine for a woman to make and too feminine for a man to make, and worst of all I think it’s contagious. Sometimes when I’m talking to a student and they tell me something interesting I catch my lips trying to purse into the position it takes to make that noise, so that my “oh?” of surprise comes out kind of messed up like a half-hearted attempt at the real noise. But I fight it and I will continue to fight it because although there are many things that I think are great about this country…this is not one of them.

The truck blaring a creepy voice that announces garbage pick up or something.

Listen to it here. This truck sometimes wakes me up and it’s just disconcerting. I don’t know what she’s saying, but the tone of voice is just so dead and robotic and…post-apocalyptic. Every time I hear it feel like I’m in some kind of sci-fi movie and the truck is announcing who needs to report for sterilization or something, (I assume that in the future there will be a  population crisis and maybe 20% of the population will need to be sterilized every once in a while). That’s probably not what she’s saying but, damn it doesn’t sound like it. Am I wrong?

Really narrow roads

 

Narrow Roads

I'm really glad I don't have to drive here.

 

This one really freaked me out when I first came over. The above road is theoretically a  two way street. There is a noticeable lack of sidewalks. Sometimes when a car is coming I have to stop and flatten myself against the nearest building. I don’t know how it works, but it does. When two cars meet up, they somehow manage to squeeze by each other. I am amazed every time I see it. It’s like those cartoons where a man jumps from a diving board into a glass of water, except this is real life. I guess it helps that the cars are generally much smaller here, and that more people take the train than drive.

These are only a few of the things that, while mundane for those who were born here or have been living here for a while, send shocks of culture down my spine even today, and even though they’re strange and some are downright annoying, I know that once I leave this country I will secretly look back on every one of these little quirks fondly as if they were mischievous yet lovable children.

The Prodigal Fly-jin?

Japan Again

When I went back to Canada on March 18, I wasn’t at all sure I was coming back to Japan, though I knew I wanted to. I’d left the majority of my clothes in my room in Tokyo like a frail, gossamer thread connecting me to Japan. An argument to any opposition on why must return.  Also in my arsenal were an outstanding cell phone contract, a six month lease on my place, and my job. It made perfect sense to me. I’d spent two months making a life here. I had people and places and things I wanted to get back to. So my plan was to fly home, prove to my family that hadn’t sprouted any extra limbs, monitor the situation at the Fukushima nuclear plant and go back in a couple of weeks.

But, honestly I just didn’t know if that would be possible. I felt I had a reasonable shot at keeping my job — I wasn’t the only one or the first one leaving and the precedent had been set. But I was dreading having the discussion with my parents. I knew they wouldn’t be too happy about my return to the “danger zone”. I’ll forever remember the1000 watt smile my dad, a man who is usually very reserved with his emotions, gave me when he saw me at the airport. I know I made the right decision to fly home, but would it really be wise to return to Tokyo? I can’t say I missed the aftershocks or the daily reports of spreading radiation and contamination, and what about my job? Even if I got to keep it there could be consequences for becoming a fly-jin, a (cowardly to some) foreigner who left the country after the earthquake. What would my coworkers say? As the nuclear crisis unfolded, there emerged two distinct voices. The voice of panic — largely found in the foreign media — told us Kanto was doomed. The radiation plume was coming and there was nothing we could do about it. Hell, radiation would trickle all the way to North America by some estimates what chance did Japan have? Then there was the voice of denial, channeled by people who wouldn’t or couldn’t leave Kanto and supported by TEPCO’s sugar-coating of the facts, telling us the radiation was not an immediate health risk.  The voice of denial said everything was OK. So what if there was a sickly nuclear reactor threatening to spew harmful amounts of radioactive puke all over us? It probably wouldn’t happen because…because it just wouldn’t.

And so I found myself stuck in between the rock and hard place of legend. Behind the rock was my Canadian social network who, fueled by foreign media coverage, thought I was crazy to go back into the “mess” that was Tokyo. Clearly it was a ghost town. Clearly all the grocery stores had empty shelves. Clearly all the produce and the tap water were contaminated with radiation. What could I be thinking going back there? Yes, I doubt there was one foreigner here who didn’t wake up to frantic Facebook messages and Skype calls in the week after the earthquake. There was even an article in the Japan Times about it.

The hard place housed the people who came up with the term fly-jin in the first place. They metaphorically glowered down at me in judgment; their eyes alight with romantic notions of bravely sticking it out in their adopted home. OK, to be fair, I can see how people with long-term friendships, wives, husbands and in-laws would feel wary leaving behind the people they love. However, I also say where there’s smoke (and there was literally smoke coming out of those nuclear reactors) there’s fire and you need to get the hell out of there before it’s too late, especially if there are children involved. And that’s exactly what my loved ones were telling me to do.

But even though I was safely tucked away in Canada and I had a chance to see old friends and spend quality time with family, I spent a good deal of time asleep. I passed it off as jet lag to both myself and others but now I know it was something else. I was homesick. How could this be? I was home. I’d only been in Tokyo for two months, how could it be that I felt that familiar urge to be “back in my own bed”, when I was in my own bed? The bed of my childhood that I had slept in for over 10 years?

Because I had internalized Tokyo. I had ingested it. I’d feasted my soul on the walk to the train station, drank in the shining lights of Shibuya and desert was the crazy confections that Japanese fashionistas and fashionistos wear. I like the place, dammit. I like the life I’ve built here, the life that wasn’t merely handed to me. So I weighed all the facts. I needed to be back at work before April to keep my job. I determined that in terms of danger Tokyo was maybe at a 5 out of 10, (not great but I wouldn’t die). Said a silent prayer of thanks to have my Tokyo home intact and that there was no need for a forced evacuation, and took the plunge. My parents, though nowhere near thrilled, didn’t try to stop me. They simply wished me the best and told me to stay alert and keep in touch.

So come what may I’m back in Tokyo. I’ve been focusing heavily on myself these last couple weeks. My aim now is to find ways to help the people who are suffering because of the quake and nuclear disaster: the people who have been forced to leave their homes behind, those living in temporary shelter among crying babies and dying seniors, shivering when it gets cold. The children orphaned by this disaster. The people who have had their livelihood washed away in the Tsunami. I’m eagerly anticipating the release of 2:46 (known on twitter as #quakebook). If you don’t know about it, check it out. 100% of the proceeds go to helping victims of the Tohoku earthquake and Tsunami through the Japan Red Cross.

So, the prodigal fly-jin has returned to Tokyo, just in time for a warm sunny spring and cherry blossom season, a reminder that nature can be destructive, but is also capable of creating great beauty.

 

 

 

 

Whoa…I’m Not in Japan.

The ridiculously long line at customs to get back to Canada

The ridiculously long line at customs to get back to Canada

As I sit here, watching the movie Inception with my sisters in the room where I grew up, I wonder, like the characters in the movie, if I’m not having some kind of lifelike dream myself. I’m back in Canada, and it feels surreal. This time last week I had no plans and certainly not enough money to take an impromptu trip halfway across the world, even though I was sort of missing my family. So what am I doing here?

Well, the decision was based on many factors. As many reading this may know, right now, north east Japan including Tokyo is in a mild panic. A nuclear plant a couple hundred kilometres away could possibly go into meltdown. Workers are having an extremely difficult time keeping in under control. TEPCO – the company that owns the plant — and the Japanese government are being vague about the exact situation, giving us information hours after events have happened. There is the sneaking suspicion that there is something we’re not being told. Though we’re been assured by the Japanese government that only those within a 30KM radius need to evacuate, the US and UK governments suggest an 80KM radius. We’re told any radiation that does reach Toyko will be very low, not enough to impact human health.

However, many of us expats in the Tokyo area have family and friends who are not appeased. They have no perception of the situation other than what they hear and see in the media abroad, and the media always goes for the worst-case scenario, because if it bleeds it leads. So our families fear the worst –  a full meltdown followed by an explosion that would send massive amounts of radioactive material into the air. They feel helpless and terrified believing we could be in harm’s way. Many of us have been urged to pack up and leave the country, to leave behind our jobs and our friends and just come back home until things get better.

I love my family. I don’t want them to worry, and despite the fact that Tokyo remains safe at the moment, I do feel some uncertainty about what will happen in the future. However I’ve been reading almost obsessively any articles I could find about the current crisis at the nuclear plant in Fukushima. I’ve read some reassuring articles on why this will not turn into a nuclear disaster the likes of Chernobyl, as many seem to believe. But I had to make a choice. The stress of worrying about me was impacting my parent’s health. Though I wasn’t worried about myself, as I had relocated to Osaka to wait out the worst of this scenario, I was worried for them. So, I decided to go back to Canada for a while.

Getting the re-entry permit

The crowd at the immigration office

I’ve taken a gamble, as I don’t know how this will affect my job, but I do know I’m not the only teacher who has left, and these are unusual circumstances. Before I left I went to the immigration office in Osaka to get a re-entry permit.  It was chaos. I waited in a crowd of about 200 people for three hours to finally get that stamp in my visa. I didn’t want to have to use it. I felt safe in Osaka because even if the absolute worst-case scenario did happen — the plant experiences a full meltdown and the containment somehow fails — the radiation would weaken before it reached as far as Osaka.

I don’t fear some kind mass-scale nuclear contamination, but I have to admit I was scared. I’ve never been a situation where my life could technically be at risk – however unlikely the worst case scenario may be. I can in no way compare with the people who have actually had to suffer because of this earthquake: the people in the shelters who are running low on food and water; the people who have lost their homes and their way of life to the tsunami. Yet this has been probably the most stressful week of my life. Every morning started with a frantic phone call from my mother, begging me to get on a flight, making me wonder if maybe I was in more danger than I thought. Every night was spent in fitful sleep, jumping up at every aftershock. So in the interest of lowering everyone’s stress level, I’m back in Canada for a while.

P.S: To give some much needed support to the survivers of the Tohoku Earthquake you can donate to your country’s Red Cross Society. Here’s a link to how to donate directly to the Japanese Red Cross Society. http://www.jrc.or.jp/english/relief/l4/Vcms4_00002070.html

Japan Earthquake 2011: An update

I didn’t sleep too well the night before. I was up reassuring friends and family on facebook and skype that I was OK. I was talking to people who had requested to interview me about the earthquake, and I was slowly being driven insane by aftershocks of varying degrees of intensity.

Every time an aftershock hits I freeze up, because the feeling is so similar to that little tremor I ignored that was just the preview of what was to come. My heart begins to beat double time. Adrenaline spikes in my veins as my body prepares to take flight. Thankfully, since the big earthquake yesterday I haven’t had to make the same frantic dash for cover, and the aftershocks are getting weaker.

But there are other dangers that have been set in motion by the earthquake. One is of course the Tsunami. It struck quickly and it struck without mercy. I feel such fear and sadness for all those caught in its path of destruction. Those who have died or were injured, those who are missing family and friends, and those who lost their houses and businesses. The other danger is fires. In one case an oil refinery was ablaze. And finally, the current concern is the explosion at the Fukushima No.1 (nuclear) plant. Since yesterday, people have been working non-stop to diffuse the threat of an overheated reactor. The earthquake caused the cooling system to malfunction, and as a result the amount of radiation inside the reator was 1000 times more than usual. So far, plant officials have been forced to leak some radiation to releive pressure and avoid a meltdown, and people within a 20km radius of the plant have been evacuated. My heart goes out to those who have been ejected from their homes. The situation at the plant does not look good and who knows when they will be able to go home again?

Thankfully, I’m about 250km away from the nuclear plant, and haven’t been affected. But here in central Tokyo we’re bracing ourselves for rolling black outs. Today I went grocery shopping and many of the shelves were empty.

Nothing

Nothing

Nada

Nada

The Day the Earth Did Not Stand Still

The Day the Earth Did Not Stand Still
Alright Miss Amanda, Tokyo’s not measuring up to your ridiculous expectations? You want lots of new exciting experiences? You want stuff to write home about besides how many people couldn’t pronounce “relax” that day? You want the ultimate Japan experience? OK, I’ve got just the thing for you, something big. — The Universe

Today as I was merrily getting ready for work, I noticed the mirror on my desk began to shake. “No worries,” I thought. “These little tremors happen all the time, I’m sooo used to it by now.”

But the mirror continued to shake, causing me to smudge my eyeliner. And then the desk began to shake. And then the floor. Soon my whole room was shaking!

“Amanda! Do you feel that?!” my roommate called. How could I not?

“Open your door!” I yelled back.

I’d remembered that one of our Japanese roommates had said that any time there’s an earthquake we need to open all of the doors because the door frame can shift, and we can get trapped inside. I then ran out of my room to open the front door, and by then the place was really shaking hard.

“This is it,” I thought. All of the other times when I’d felt those little tremors my heart would freeze for just a hair of a second as I waited for the trembling to turn into something more, and this time, finally, it did. Outside I could hear the world around me rumbling like muted thunder: a very ominous noise like the ground was getting ready to explode. And I could see the houses swaying. It looked like the beginning of the apocalypse. My other roommates ran downstairs, one of whom had only been in the country for a few days, poor girl. We all dashed outside. I will never forget the feeling of the road swaying violently under my feet like the earth was trying to toss me off its surface.

I then remembered that the door frame is supposed to be the safest place during an Earthquake, so I ran back to the front entrance, and two of my roommates followed. We stood there for what felt like forever. “When will this shaking stop?” I thought. “Will the house collapse?”

It didn’t. After some time, I don’t know how long but if had to guess I would say, “too damn long”, the tremors stopped. Then it was very quiet, until instructions started blaring from loud speakers all around the neighbourhood entirely in Japanese. It was disorienting and surreal, like living in a sci-fi movie. I had work that day, so I walked down to the train station to see what the situation was. Predictably, the trains were cancelled, but there were many people waiting around in case they started up again. As we were all waiting the ground began its tell-tale tremors and what followed was a big aftershock that sent us all stampeding up the stairs for fear of getting trapped underground.
Here in central Tokyo we were very lucky. Not even a mirror was broken in my house. But in other parts of Japan people were not so fortunate.

Right now we’re still experiencing little aftershocks that are freaking me out, because that’s how the big earthquake started — it was a little tremor at first, but quickly turned into something that couldn’t be ignored. Even now as I write this I can see my coat swinging gently on my clothes rack. Getting to sleep tonight will be tough.

You Want to Teach English in Japan?

Skooled

You better listen, 'cause you're about to get skooled.

Now that I’ve been doing the Eikaiwa school gig for a month now I can finally give a (wo)man-on-the inside account of what it’s like, and what you, the  hopefuls should be aware of before deciding it would be a good idea to leave it all behind in your home country and experience Japan while teaching English to pay the rent.

Are you introverted? That’s not good. You’d better start learning to like talking to people because you’ll be doing that all day. If you want to work at an English conversation school, you should probably be somewhat good at having a conversation…in English.  I had an interesting talk with one of the teachers at my school, who was talking with another teacher who was soon leaving. The teacher who was soon to be going said to him “I don’t like talking to people,” to which his reaction was “then why are you here?” As an English conversation teacher you need to kind of direct and moderate the flow of conversation, to get your students talking and practicing their English. At my company, there are textbooks but at the higher levels there’s a lot more free conversation — same deal if you want to teach private lessons. You gotta be able to talk. You don’t have to be Mr. or Mrs. Chatterbox but you should at least be able to turn it on when you need to.

Do you hate kids? That’s not good. I can’t speak for every school, but at mine you will definitely end up teaching kids: Squirmy, easily distracted, bored-every-five-minutes kids… usually as their parents watch. Here it helps if you have the ability to throw all sense of pride and dignity out the door and just make a fool of yourself for an hour. With the kids you need to go big or go home. Use big animated expressions, silly voices, dances, anything to manipulate the little  darlings into actually learning something. In my (limited) experience they seem to like games that involve running and jumping. If you do it right, teaching kids can be really rewarding, because most of them are smart little buggers, and if you can get them to listen they pick up the English really quick.

Are you lazy? That’s not good. Be honest with yourself, because this is still a job, no matter how easy you might have heard that it can be.  And if you’re a lazy mofo who puts in all the effort of a glacier well, you might not got fired, however students and school directors will complain about you and guess what, you’ll get sent to all the schools way out in the bush like two hours away from where you live that no one wants to go to. So bring your shining examples of great work ethic ladies and gentlemen.

Do you easily lose your patience? That’s not good. Being any kind of teacher requires extreme patience, because you’ll be doing the same thing over, and over, and sometimes students just. don’t. GET IT! At this point you must resist the urge to bang your head, or worse theirs, on the table in pure, unfiltered frustration and despair. No, no, you must smile and explain again and again in different ways until they do understand, because that’s your job.

So, by now I’ve probably scared a few people off. Trust me I’ve done you, and anyone who would have had to work with you, a favor. I’ll end by saying although I’ve brought up a lot of the challenges about teaching at an English conversation school, it’s still the least stressful job I’ve ever had. The students, having paid quite a bit to take the courses, are usually willing to learn. You’re not stuck behind a desk, and you can meet interesting people and learn a lot of things about Japan from your students. But if you’re a lazy introvert with no patience who hates kids, please just stay where you are. You’ll be happier I promise you.