Well, What’s It Like?: Academic Edition

This week, I finally started teaching. School officially began on Monday the 3rd with the opening ceremony, where I gave a speech in both Japanese and English to the entire school, i.e. hundreds of students and dozens of teachers. That was the first time in my life speaking to so many people at once, but it actually went better than I imagined it would.

Typhoon 21 (aka Typhoon Jebi) hit on Tuesday and threw a wrench into the school schedule. It did nothing to the Hyogo prefecture where I live, but unfortunately, it absolutely devastated Osaka to our east, tearing roofs off buildings, throwing a tanker ship into a bridge and shutting down KIX Airport, flipping over trucks, spinning Ferris wheels, and smashing rubble into power lines.

Wednesday was my first day of class. It started horribly, with me losing my shirt on the way to school. Incredibly luckily, I have the nicest vice-principal on Earth and he let me borrow one of his spares, lest this disgustingly underdressed man be allowed to teach young, impressionable Japanese youth. I taught two periods, and also led my first of ESS Club’s (English Speaking Society) weekly meetings. My only task was to introduce myself, so I prepared a PowerPoint presentation about myself that was also a game.

The kids at my school are very shy (at least when it comes to English), but they are also very friendly and at least somewhat enthusiastic about me. As is the culture, I was almost always given a respectful bow and konnichiwa whenever a student passed by me. After the opening ceremony where I introduced myself, however, in addition to konnichiwas I am now getting hellos, usually accompanied by giggling if they’re girls. Anyways, like my previous post about things I’ve noticed, here’s some things I’ve noticed about school culture specifically:

  1. Students clean the classrooms and teacher’s rooms. It’s done around 3 PM every day at my school, presumably before the last period starts. Look anywhere and you’ll see kids pushing around brooms and armed with washcloths.
  2. Kids have VERY long days. The school was active even during summer vacation, because club activities and sports practices still run in summer. When school’s in, extracurriculars are Monday to Saturday for them. Students may even sleep at 1AM regularly, because they have club activities, after-school programs, and then homework.IMG-1006
  3. Every single door in the school is a sliding door. Whether a classroom, the staffroom, bathroom, or someone’s office, it’s all fusuma, baby! Hey, it saves space, after all.IMG-1004
  4. You wear indoors-only shoes when inside the school. I know I already mentioned this, but c’mon, nobody reads all of my posts. We have guest slippers with the school name in gold lettering for any visitors. I have my own shoe locker at the entrance and change every time I arrive.
  5. Napping at your desk is allowed. It’s not celebrated, but when even the vice-principal is napping at his desk, you bet that your beauty sleep will be left undisturbed.
  6. You use special office language. When you arrive, you say good morning to everyone as is the norm. When you leave, you say osaki ni shitsureishimasu (sorry to be leaving before you), to which the standard response is otsukare sama deshita (lit: “you must be tired”, but figuratively it means “hard work today!”). It’s actually not awful banter, it’s polite and respectful language that is standard in Japanese offices.
    The left seal is my name in Japanese, which I use for most things, and the right seal is in English, which I use for things like letters and postcards.
  7. You use a seal (stamp) instead of your signature. Instead of signing on official documents, you use a stamp of your name. It may have an intricate design so it’s not easily copied, and you may own different ones for different purposes: perhaps one for casual things, and another for super-official things like getting a mortgage or signing contracts. Every day you come in, you are to stamp your seal in a sign-in book so your school knows you showed up that day.
  8. No one says bless you. This is not unique to Japan– it just isn’t done in Asian societies. Sneezes are followed by silence. The lack of blessings may eventually lead to death.
  9. Technology is an eclectic mix of old and new. This is unique neither to the countryside nor to schools. Most schools still have chalkboards in the classroom. We have chalkboards in the teacher staffroom. Our computers are on Windows 7, everyone is on Internet Explorer and Yahoo!, and we still use fax machines. But then again, we also have HDTVs in the hallways. A lot of things still done on paper, which leads me to…
    I have been there for one month. Since then, I have received 33 handouts and 3 booklets.
  10. PAPERRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. The amount of paperwork is ludicrous. You still get the class schedule for the week on paper, announcements on paper, warnings about flu season on paper, the school newsletter on paper, and so on and so on. If you want to do anything administrative-related at all, you better believe there’s a form for it. Basically, imagine if every single email in your work inbox was instead individual pieces of paper.
  11. No AC or heating in the classrooms and hallways. It comes partially from the mentality of conservation. Although for some reason, during winter, kids aren’t allowed to wear gloves and scarves inside either.
  12. You can’t drink or eat while walking through the hallways. This includes water.

A Day in the Life

To remind everyone again, I am in Japan as part of the JET Program, which stands for the Japanese Exchange & Teaching Program. Its key objective is to promote cultural exchange between different nations and Japan, which in practice means: “yo, go teach some English.” So let’s walk you through an average day!

Morning (7:00 – 8:15 AM)

My day begins like any other: filled with a vague sense of dread and difficulty getting out of bed. Ahead of me is a brisk 5-mile bike ride, passing by rice paddies, farms, neighborhood vending machines, tiny Japanese cars, and also the Statue of Liberty. She welcomes the tired, the poor, and also the sweaty because it’s freaking 90 degrees every day and 70% humidity.

Arrival at School (8:15 AM)

I usually arrive 15 minutes early, as school starts at 8:30 AM. I change my shoes– you must wear a pair of indoors-only shoes to go inside the school. Same goes for the students, so despite the famed Japanese school uniform with loafers, they’re actually wearing indoor sandals when they’re in school.

Actual School (8:30 – 4:15 PM)


Summer vacation is ending soon, so it will soon be a lot busier. I haven’t been given too much to do aside from a few menial tasks, so I spend most of my time doing nothing. Interestingly, you’re either supposed to look busy, or you can nap. What you cannot do is be obviously screwing around, like on your phone with your feet up. I’ve caught quite a few teachers sleeping at their desks, even in front of the vice-principal (who is in charge of the teachers and sits among us). Just the other day, I caught him napping too!

That isn’t to say I have done absolutely NOTHING. I’ve prepared my self-introduction lesson (a PowerPoint), made quizzes from some basic English books, corrected essays, and compiled a list of English-learning games to play in the class. But there is still a LOT of down-time, especially for a dude who’s an assistant teacher, rather than an actual teacher. Until school starts next week, I guess I’m just office eye candy.

A Marathon Return (4:15 ~ 5:15 PM)

The modern-day 26-mile marathon originates from a Greek messenger named Philippides, who ran 26 miles from the Battle of Marathon to Athens to deliver news of a Greek victory. He died from the physical exertion, but not before announcing with his last breath, “Joy to you, we’ve won!”

My bike ride home is exactly the same, if not worse, except I don’t usually die at the end. I once fell inside (bike and all) of a rice paddy, ruining two of my shirts for the rest of time. You’d think Philippides had it bad.

Doing Nothing: Home Edition (5:15 PM – ???)

¥3980 is basically $39.80.

For lunch and breakfast, I mostly subsist on konbini (convenience store) food. For dinner, I try to cook most of the time, to mediocre results. Groceries can be almost comically expensive here. Oranges are $1 (100 yen) each. A bunch of grapes will set you back about $12. If you really want to live it up like the bourgeoisie, you could buy a $30 watermelon and have, I guess, a watermelon party while spitting on the poor. There’s even a game where you smash a watermelon like a pinata, which at one time went so far as to have officially-sanctioned rules. Cantaloupes are expensive too, to the point where you can buy one in a gift box. I know what I want for Christmas!

I go to sleep around 11 or 12, and a new weekday begins. And what about weekends? Stay tuned!

Typhoon Twenty TERROR II: The Conclusion

Typhoon 20 came and went from my life like many friendships– short-lived but still memorable. Since the time I made my post, and up until 7 PM (the time it had been projected to hit), it was still windy, but not enough to chomp down on your cigar and declare, “Well, here it comes, boys!”The wind WAS picking up, but ever-so-gradually. I biked to work against 15mph winds, and biking back, it had probably picked up to 20mph. It was, of course, blowing against me both ways, because life shouldn’t ever be easy. It wasn’t pleasant, but it was still manageable.

Seven PM, I had some friends over. We had the door to open let the night breeze in. The breeze was a little stronger than normal, but as the night went on, it turned into a night wind. It started blowing our cards off the table, and it started slamming my door against the balcony like a guy who owes the mafia money. We closed the door and forgot about it– the wind was howling outside, but windy days happen, this didn’t seem too much different than normal. Ten PM rolls around, and the wind still sounds exactly the same. It’s about time I kicked my guests out, so around 11 PM everyone gets up to leave. I open the door for them to outside, and wham! There it is. The typhoon had finally arrived!

The air was water. The rain was so thick, it formed a shimmering, watery fog. The wind blew rain in layers. Trees swayed violently side to side. Anything that hadn’t been weighed down or secured was swept away by the wind. The typhoon claimed my balcony slippers. I found one of them the next day, on the completely opposite side of the building. The other one is forever lost. Emergency alerts told me that the elderly were being evacuated in Akashi City. “In so-and-so area, please get to high ground.” It was really weird to see live updates (via emergency alerts) and actually being inside the typhoon. It sounded like the apocalypse was here, but being in it, it was hectic but it was not hellacious.

Many brave bikes fell in the wake of the typhoon.

I am proud to say I survived Typhoon 20, although I must admit that for all the hype, I was a little disappointed. Let’s hope Typhoon 21 rips my roof off or something!

Typhoon Twenty, TERROR from the East

I’ve been hearing about the incoming “Typhoon 20” for weeks now, far off yet close enough to make the local weather cooler and slightly breezier. Meanwhile, the vice-principal has just made an ominous announcement– from aikido to kendo and table tennis, all club activities are cancelled for today. Half the teachers have left the office. My supervisor suggested to me to take the rest of the day off before the typhoon hits. I didn’t because I would’ve had to cut into my paid time off.


The news show graphs and projections with hectopascals, and even the local trains will stop running 6 hours earlier than they usually do. Meanwhile, it’s 3:20 PM at the time of writing, and it’s another beautiful-albeit-a-little-too-hot day. The sun is shining, the clouds are out, and the giant mutant bugs of Akashi zip around your face like any average day. Where is this dreaded typhoon I’ve been hearing about for almost two weeks now? More to come…

Well, What’s It Like?: Cultural Observations

Two weeks in Japan and I’ve still only talked about myself. What about the actual country I’m in, infinitely more interesting than the musings of an utterly insignificant dude from LA? Well, here’s a list of various rules, behaviors, and attitudes I’ve witnessed and experienced in all my times here. It is in no particular order, and I will try to offer explanations where I can. If you like it and find it interesting, I’ll make more of these.

A delay certificate proving that my train was 20 minutes behind. 0 stars on Yelp!!

1. Punctuality is no joke. Trains are pretty much always on time to the minute. They’re so well known for reliability that, if your train is delayed, you can get a certificate to prove that yes, this is why you were late. Notice how in the above, you could even get one for a 10-minute delay.

2. Indoor smoking is still very much a thing. Even Wendy’ses have a smoking section (top left). Many small restaurants don’t even have non-smoking sections, they’re just smoking. Yet, Japan is #2 in the world for life expectancy. Secondhand smoke kills? Looks like it needs to step up the pace in Japan!

A message from the staff of Tsukuda Nojo when they heard I was from the US: “only your table had an exotic feeling and it was so charming.”

3. You don’t tip. Exceptional service comes only from the goodness of the staff’s hearts, and there’s plenty to go around. I’ve heard that they will chase you down should you leave a tip because they think you accidentally overpaid.

4. It’s very clean, even though public trashcans are almost non-existent. You can find trash cans only at malls, train stations, and inside convenience stores. Bathrooms often don’t have any, and there are pretty much zero anywhere on the street. Many people (including me) carry trash with them all day to dispose at home. Teachers even take their trash home from school.

5. It’s a very safe country. Of course, crime happens, but it seems very rare. Kids still walk home from school in the dark (though this is moreso in the countryside than the city). A taxi rear-ending a bus (no injuries) once made the news in Osaka because I guess there wasn’t anything else scandalous that day.


6. You bow a lot. You do it when meeting someone, to say hello, thank you, sorry, excuse me, to show respect, and more. Drivers sometimes bow to each other from inside their cars, which is honestly hilarious. There’s even deer at Nara Park who will bow to you! They do it only in exchange for treats, though.

7. Omiyage (souvenirs) are an expectation. If you go on a trip somewhere, especially an extended one, you are expected to buy souvenirs for everyone in your workplace. Something small, like individually wrapped cookies special to that region, for example, is fine. But you better do it!

8. Nomihodai (all you can drink) is more common than all you can eat. For under $20 per person at places like izakaya (a kind of casual restaurant) and karaoke bars, you can have all you can drink ALCOHOL for 90 minutes to 2 hours. Meanwhile buffets are pretty darn scarce.

9. There’s beer vending machines. They inexplicably don’t require any ID or age verification to use.

10. Vending machines are also everywhere. Nearly every suburban neighborhood has one, even if there are no stores, markets, restaurants, offices, etc. etc. nearby. Not beer though, sorry!

11. The address system is incredibly convoluted and bizarre. A typical address looks like this: Osaka City, Minami-Ibaraki Futamicho 661-99-4-301. Aside from major city roads, streets do not have names. Instead, cities and towns are divided into blocks, which are further subdivided into individual buildings. Buildings are usually numbered in the order they were CONSTRUCTED, so there’s no logical progression. Three buildings next to each other could be 661, then 802, and 47. Maps are still used a lot here, and GPS is even more of a godsend than it already is.

11. Being obsessed with anime, manga, or hentai are viewed the same way here as the rest of the world does. Old men dressing in schoolgirl uniforms (go to Shinjuku for that) and being a tentacle porn enthusiast are not celebrated here. The rest of society still sees such people as nerdy, or losers. That being said, you may see the occasional salaryman reading manga on the train but this is pretty rare.

12. Unwritten rules pervade all areas of life. Stand to one side for escalators, the other side is for walking. When you pay at a store, there is a little tray next to the register that you put your cash and change on (as in, you don’t hand it to them). You give and receive gifts with two hands. You exit the train in the middle, while you wait to enter it on either side of the door. You take your shoes off at someone’s house and face them outwards. You don’t leave chopsticks stuck standing up in your food or pass food directly chopstick to chopstick. You don’t blow your nose in public. When you’re in the elevator, you should control the doors if you’re the one standing next to the buttons. You don’t eat while walking or on the train.

These are just some of the millions of things that make Japanese society so utterly fascinating to people like you and me.

In my next post, I’ll delve more into the nitty-gritty, the little things about living in Japanese society.

Japanese Apartment Living

Now that I’m somewhat over the jet lag, it’s time to introduce to you how I’ll be living for a year or more, in a sleepy countryside section of Akashi City!

A quick recap: my school is Higashi-Harima High School, which is in Inami, whereas I’ll be living in the neighboring city of Akashi.

Anyhoo, my apartment is a whopping 46 years old. That means back when it was constructed, Nixon was still president, duck-and-cover saved you from both earthquakes AND nuclear bombs, and flying machines were still the stuff of myth. Okay, maybe I went too far back on that last one.

Japanese apartment layouts are usually standardized. My best guess is that mine is a 3DK– three separate rooms plus the central dining/kitchen area. Two of these rooms have tatami (Japanese straw mat, similar in texture to a soft basket) flooring, while the other room (the study, on the left) is normal wooden flooring. This is pretty big by Japanese standards. For example, my apartment in Osaka when I studied abroad was just a 1K. The apartment was essentially a single room, where my kitchen space had been a sink and a single stove burner across from the bathroom, while the main room had my bed right across from the refrigerator I used to keep my groceries.

See video tour of my Akashi apartment below:

My shower and hooked up to the gas line. No idea how that’s safe but my program supervisor told me it’s waterproof. For hot water I have to turn on the gas, crank a lever to ignite a pilot flame, and voila. Meanwhile, I have no dryer (they’re just not a thing in Japan, everyone hangs their clothes to dry), and my washer is designed to flood my balcony to get rid of water every time I use it.

So, this is how I’ll be living for a year plus. And did I mention? My rent is a whopping $109 a month.