Home Archives Books

Josiah's Japan Travelogue #2
Part 1: January 2011
Monday (December 27th): Getting the Job
For those of you who don't know, this is actually going to be my second time living and working in Japan. The first time I was there for around eight months and I taught English at an elementary school and a couple of preschools in Nogi, a little town about an hour north of Tokyo. If you want to see my posts and photos from then, check out my original Japan Travelogue. I enjoyed my time there a lot but, in the end, I was ready to return to the US. And, while I'm glad I left Japan when I did, I've been wanting to return for quite a while. I was originally thinking of just taking a vacation there for several weeks. However, due to the economy crashing right before I got my Master's degree, finding the kind of job I want hasn't been easy. Though I did get a deal to write a textbook on game storytelling and am finishing up an indie game of my own, I wasn't having much luck finding a full time game design and/or writing job so I began to think about teaching in Japan again. While I don't really want to make a career out of English teaching, I did enjoy it the first time and most of my favorite game companies are based in Japan so improving my Japanese a bit more could come in handy.
There's a lot of useful web sites to check out when you're looking to teach English in Japan. I already had a collection of them from my first time in Japan and I ended up finding several more this time as well. You can find a partial list in Part 3 of my So You Want to Teach English in Japan... guide and sooner or later I'll be updating it with a bunch of new links. But that's not all. Since I had some time to kill after finishing the writing on my textbook so, to improve my chances of getting a teaching job, I spent a few weeks getting my TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) certification as well (I'll be adding more info about the certification course to the aforementioned guide as well). After that it was just a matter of checking the new job postings once or twice a week and applying to the ones I was interested in. I had some interviews here and there over e-mail and/or Skype but for a while something always wasn't right. Either they really wanted someone who was already in Japan, or I'd have to work on Saturdays, or I didn't make the final cut, or something. However, I eventually received a provisional contract with Heart English School.
Much like Joytalk (who I worked for last time), Heart is a company that primarily hires people to work in various public schools. The preliminary contract basically meant that they liked me and wanted to hire me if/when a suitable opening came up. However, the Japanese school year begins in April so most public school teaching jobs begin either then or in August. While Heart was pretty sure they'd have a lot of openings come April, they said there might be an opening or two in January if some other teachers had to leave early.
At first it was looking like I was going to be offered a position at a Junior high school in Ushiku, a town around an hour north east of Tokyo which has a Buddha statue taller than The Statue of Liberty (which I'll likely be visiting at some point in the near future). They knew the teacher was going to be leaving in December so they needed someone to fill in until the end of the school year in late March. The cool thing about the position was that, unlike most Japan teaching jobs, which require a year long commitment, the initial contract would only go through March, at which point I'd be free to renew for a full year (if they liked me) or move on to other things. However, the Ushiku school board was dragging their feet and thinking about just waiting until April to get a new English teacher.
Come the first part of December, a job I'd been pursuing in Arizona fell through and the Ushiku school board still hadn't made up their mind. While Heart was perfectly willing to give me the job, they couldn't be sure whether or not the job would exist come January. Naturally, I wouldn't really want to travel half way around the world only to find out that I didn't have a job. So Heart mentioned a couple other openings they had coming up and said that, if I wanted, I could either reserve one as a backup if Ushiku didn't come through or just forget about Ushiku and take one of them. One position was on Sado Island, a relatively small island off the west coast of Japan. Interestingly enough, one of my friends from college Japanese classes is actually working there as an English teacher. While being in the same area as him would have been cool, I didn't really want to spend most of my time in Japan stuck on Sado (getting off the island requires a lengthy fairy ride and even then you're nowhere near any major cities) so I passed on that one. The other position, however, was in Narashino, a town in Chiba which is just outside of the greater Tokyo area. It had some pros and cons compared to the Ushiku position but, since I really wanted to know where I was going to end up before arriving in Japan, I decided to forgo Ushiku entirely and just take the Narashino job. Unfortunately, because of how long Heart and I were waiting to hear from Ushiku, by the time I was confirmed for the Narashino job I was left with less than two weeks to prepare...

Wednesday (December 29th): My New Job
Hard to believe I'll be in Japan in less than a week... Anyway, today I'll be talking a little about the job itself and where I'll be living. Then on Friday I'll go into what I've been doing to get ready for the trip.
So, in my last entry I stopped right after I got the job in Narashino. Narashino is a medium sized city on the western edge of Chiba, right on the border with greater Tokyo. Actually, judging from the maps I've seen it might as well be a part of greater Tokyo. I'll be teaching at a jr. high school there. Which jr. Highschool, I'm not exactly sure. I asked, but for some reason Heart (the company that hired me) doesn't want to tell me until I meet them for my training sesson. I'm not really sure why they feel the need to hide it (kinda weird if you ask me), but they did tell me the nearest train station and Google Maps shows two Jr. high schools right near that station so it's probably one of the two.
Unlike the Ushiku position it's not quite a full time job. Much like my last teaching job in Japan I'll be working from around 8 - 5 (with an hour lunch break that's technicacally not a break since I'm required to eat the school lunch at the school with the students and/or teachers) but I'll have more days off than I would with a full time position and I'm getting paid a daily rate, not a monthly salary. When all is said and done, I'll end up making the equivalent of 2 1/5 months salary (compared to what I would have earned at the Ushiku position) or 2 2/3 months at my old teaching job in Nogi. On the down side that means that, after expenses, I won't have enough money left to make up for what I spent on my plane ticket. On the plus side, I'll have enough to pay my expenses and then some and I'll have more free time to explore Tokyo and go off touring (and work on Car Washer and my job search). So, while I'll be losing a bit of money overall (unless I decide to stay on after my contract ends), this trip can kinda be thought of as a really cheap 3-4 month vacation.
But anyway, once I knew where I'd be working I also had to find a place to live. Normally when you're hired to teach in Japan your company finds housing for you. And Heart was willing to do so. Problem is, the housing arrangement they have in the area is a guest house which means that I'd have to share a kitchen and bathroom. I didn't really want that, and I'd already done some research into housing in Tokyo, so I decided to find an apartment of my own. Fortunately, Heart was fine with that (some companies force you to live in their arranged housing). If you read my previous Travelogue you may remember that I wrote a bit about renting apartments there (see the February 22nd entry). Long story short, renting a new apartment in Japan can be a very expensive process as the move-in fees (the vast majority of which you don't get back) can easily come to the equivalent around 3 - 6 months rent. Because of that, if you want to rent an apartment in Japan you usually need a lot of cash on hand and want to be absolutely sure that you're going to stay there for long enough to make all those fees worth it. So yeah, not so great for someone like me who may only be there for a few months. Fortunately, there are a handful of apartment companies (the majority of which are primarily based around Tokyo) that specialize in renting out apartments without the move-in fees. Rent is usually a bit higher than it would otherwise be, but that's way better than all those fees. I spent some time looking around online and ended up getting an apartment through Sakura House that fit all my criteria. Namely it was within my budget, furnished (I wouldn't want to buy a lot of furniture and appliances unless I was certain I was going to be there for a while), has internet access, and is within a reasonable commute (both in terms of time and trainfare) from where I'll be working. I'll be sure to get some pictures once I've moved in.
The other thing I needed was a phone. While I could probably get by for a few months in Japan without a cellphone (it's much cheaper to call home with Skype), my company wants me to have one so they can reach me if they need to. Signing up for a Japanese cellphone plan naturally isn't the greatest idea when I may not be staying for more than a few months. Last time I rented a phone while I was there. It was on a pay as you go plan and relatively cheap (so long as I didn't make a lot of calls). This time I decided to do the same. I even found a cheaper place than before. Making calls and texts is still pretty expensive (and I definately won't be using data) but receiving calls and texts is free and hey, no rental fee. However, since my family had some cellphone upgrades coming up and my dad had been thinking about getting a global phone anyway (so his business contacts can always reach him when he travels), after a bit of research he and I took advantage of a buy one get one free phone deal and got Droid 2 Globals. I was able to unlock mine so I can use it with a rented Japanese sim card (which I'll be getting from that place I just linked to). The whole process was a bit more complicated than just renting a phone but it'll be nice to keep my own phone and I was able to download some Japanese maps, train schedules, and other useful stuff, which should come in handy.
Finally, with the essentials (the apartment, phone, and plane ticket) taken care of, it was time to focus on the rest of the prep work...

Friday (December 31st): Getting Ready
Even with all the most important stuff finished there was still a lot I needed to do to get ready for Japan. To keep things simple I started by making a list of the things I needed to pack and get done.
Preparations included things like changing my voice mail message, printing copies of various important papers (my apartment confirmation, for example), buying some stuff to bring to Japan, and switching around the contents of my wallet (taking out most of my US member cards and putting in the Japanese ones I still have). I also had a few less important tasks such as finishing some books and games I was in the middle of but didn't really want to take to Japan.
As for packing, the fact that I've already been there before and only have a three month contract made things a lot easier than last time. I naturally need nice clothes (button down shirts, slacks, ties, and a belt) for work, casual clothes (for all other times), regular and indoor shoes, and gym clothes (for recess and other more active work activities). But since there's no guarantee I'll be staying in Japan after April, I only have to pack for winter and early spring which really cuts down on the amount of clothing I need. I also limited myself to one laptop (last time, I brought my old one as a backup) and one non-portable game system (my PS3). There's a lot of other things I'm leaving behind as well. If I end up staying in Japan for a year or two, I'll probably have my family bring or send them to me but I shouldn't have any problem living without them for several months.
I did, however, make sure to get a nice picture book of Colorado (everyone loved looking at the one I brought last time) and several months worth of shampoo and the like (as I won't be able to find the brands I use in Japan). I thought about bringing a lot of Yen (since Japan is so cash based), but I didn't really have a good opportunity to get any so I'll just find an international ATM when I get there. I'll probably get a better exchange rate anyway. The only other important thing I had to remember when packing was that I'm limited to two suitcases and my backpack. Actually, going strictly by airline rules I might be able to bring a small carry-on suitcase too but it's hard enough to drag two suitcases around, no way am I bringing three. And besides, like I said, I'm bringing a lot less than I did before so I really don't need another suitcase. I've even got room to bring a bunch of stuff (probably CDs and figurines) back from Japan.

Sunday and Monday (January 2 - 3) Off to Japan...Again
As a note, to avoid having to retype a lot of information, I'll be referring back to parts of my original Japan travelogue from time to time.
This was kinda one of those good luck / bad luck days... Anyway, I had to leave pretty early in the morning to get to the airport. My first flight was at 6:20 and I needed to be at the airport an hour before and all that. At least the flight was supposed to leave at 6:20. However, they announced an 18 minute delay which quickly stretched into a 40 minute delay. Suddenly the fact that I only had an hour to switch planes in Denver was looking like a serious problem. As soon as I got off the plane I made a mad dash to the gate, hoping for the best (well, it was part mad dash part fast walk since running while wearing a full winter coat and heavy backpack is pretty tiring). Miraculously, I made it just before they closed the doors of the plane (though I worried about whether or not my luggage had also been so fortunate). Fortunately, my flight from Denver to San Francisco left and arrived on schedule. Unfortunately, despite it being a large plane, there was some horrible turbulence during the first part of the flight (I came extremely close to throwing up). With that flight over I had a long walk across the San Francisco airport to my final flight. Fortunately there was no need to run again. And then finally, finally, I was off for Japan.
The flight itself wasn't bad. I actually ended up next to one of the only empty seats on the plane, which was kinda nice. I played Lunar Silver Star Harmony on my PSP until the battery died then spend the rest of the time reading through a large portion of my new Japan tour book and marking off places I may want to visit on my days off.
While I spent the week and a half from the time I got this new Japan job till the time I left going back and forth between excitement and nervousness (why did I decide to do this again?), during the plane rides and the rest of the day I was totally calm and collected. But I suppose that's the way I usually am. I worry about things a lot more before hand than I do once they're actually underway.
But back to the trip. Overall it wasn't a bad flight and the food was surprisingly decent (which was good since that late first flight caused me to miss breakfast). We even got into Narita (Japan's main international airport) a full 40 minutes ahead of schedule (which, due to the time difference, was the middle of the afternoon on Monday). I got through immigration pretty quickly and was feeling good...right up until I got to the baggage claim. The weird thing is, my luggage actually did make it to San Francisco on time but for some reason they only loaded one of my two suitcases onto the plane to Japan. And, since there's only one flight from SF to Narita every day, by the time the suitcases gets to Japan and they deliver it to me it'll probably be at least Wednesday. On the bright side, the suitcase I have has all my casual clothes and electronics. On the down side, the suitcase I don't have has all my dress clothes, bathroom stuff (toothbrush, shampoo, etc) and a few other things that I really need as soon as possible. So yeah, that certainly could have gone better.
When I finally got out of the baggage claim with my single suitcase my next stop was to get the Japanese sim card for my phone. Picking up the sim card and putting it in my phone was pretty easy. However, it didn't work at first and it took five or ten minutes of playing around in the settings before I found that option that forced it to use the Japanese cell network (something they neglected to mention in the manual). That was kind of annoying but it's working now so no big deal.
On the way out of the airport I also saw that the JR (Japan Railways) had a special deal going on where you got a ticket from Narita to Tokyo plus a SUICA card for a special discount. I'd been planning to get a SUICA card anyway (I'll explain what they are in a Random Japan comment later this week) so that worked out pretty well.
I was originally planning to take some photos of the countryside during the train ride but it was already getting dark and the windows had a lot of glare from the lights inside the train so I didn't really get to take any until I arrived in Ueno. I passed through Ueno station a lot my last time in Japan and it really made me stop and say "hey, I'm in Japan". I mean where else can you see a woman in a kimono, a girl in full gothic lolita apparel, and a couple of traditionally dressed monks all in the span of five minutes (aside from a cosplay convention anyway)?
The Google map to my hotel worked perfectly and soon I was checked in and extremely glad to be rid of my suitcase and backpack. I thought I'd be pretty tired by then since I didn't sleep at all on the planes (I can't really sleep on them, unless I'm dead tired) but I was feeling surprisingly good. In fact, I didn't really start to get tired until I hit the 24 hour-ish mark. Anyway, my hotel room is quite possibly the smallest one yet and has a bathroom barely bigger than the one on the airplane but it's cheap and this is Tokyo.
Almost immediately after checking in I headed back out to find something to eat. While walking around I had plenty more "this is Japan" moments. Where else can you find random shrines, vending machines with drinks like Body Shot Black and Dodekamin Hunter Blend, walk confidently through dark alleys in the middle of a big city, and stumble across porn where you'd least expect it (see the entry in my original travelogue for the 13th of February). Japan is definitely a unique place. Anyway, I spent some time strolling around Ameya Yoko-cho, Ueno's collection of shopping streets (see the August 16th entry). I stopped in the first kaiten zushi (conveyor belt sushi) restaurant I saw but other than that I just browsed a bit, talked myself out of buying some awesome stuff I know I can find cheaper in Akihabara, and took some pictures. First off, there's this life sized sheep statue. Never could figure out if it was supposed to be art or an ad for a cake shop... And hey, if you're ever in Ueno you could always try Aquabubble Dining, shop for clothes at a store called Magazines, or get a Beard Papa's cream puff (while Japanese cream puffs are pretty good, I have no idea what's up with that name). And, while this picture doesn't feature any weird English names, I know that Silver is going to love it...
Anyway, I got back from Ameya ready to write this update and then get some sleep but I happened to spot an ad in the hotel for a nearby public bath house. Since I'm currently without my soap, shampoo, and the like, I figured what they heck, that'd be a very Japanese way to get cleaned up, and headed out again. For those unfamiliar with Japanese bath houses they're basically just like onsens (Japanese hot springs) complete with big pools, pre-bath washing, and full nudity (see the August 27th entry of my original travelogue for more on onsens and Japanese bathing in general) except that instead of hot springs water they've got regular hot water. While public bath houses are becoming a lot less common in Japan now that modern apartments are getting fancier and fancier bathrooms, this one was pretty busy (despite, or possible because, it was 9 PM on a holiday). While I've been to a few onsens I've never been to a plain bath house before. This one was pretty nice. It had two indoor pools (one ridiculously hot, the other with these cool water jet seats), an outdoor pool, and even a sauna. It only cost 500 yen (a little over $5 at the current exchange rate) for access to the pools (the sauna was a couple hundred yen extra), a set of towels, and soap and shampoo, and just sitting the hot water is a great way to relax. Naturally though, I didn't take any photos and couldn't post them here even if I did.
Anyway, feeling a whole lot cleaner, I returned to my hotel once again to write this update and finally get some sleep. So, while I certainly could have gone without the turbulence and delayed luggage, it wasn't a bad trip overall and the evening made for a nice reintroduction to Japan.

Tuesday (the 4th): Moving In
A friend of mine asked me to add some maps to show were I am when writing these so here's Japan with a marker on the Tokyo area, here's greater Tokyo with a mark on Ueno (where my hotel was), and this last one shows Ueno, Shinjuku (where I went to get my apartment keys), Kameari, and Aoto (the two train stations near my apartment). Note: all these are from Google Maps.
While I had a little trouble sleeping here and there jetlag wasn't much of an issue but, with only two days to get settled in before my job training, there was a lot to be done. First off, a trip to Shinjuku to get the keys to my new apartment. Shinjuku, BTW, is a kinda fun place to walk around, especially since they've got cool buildings like this. Since I was lugging a big suitcase around though, I didn't take any time to sightsee, or even find breakfast. The check-in process went smoothly though and then it was off to my new apartment, which was easier said than done. My building is on the outskirts of greater Tokyo right between Kameari and Aoto stations. But the map I'd gotten was from Kameari so... Thing is, rapid trains don't stop there and that seemed to be all there were. Plus there was this weird transfer I had to make... Basically, if I don't find a much easier way to travel between Kameari and central Tokyo I might have to use Aoto as my main station. Anyway, the map was a little hard to follow but with the help of the much more detailed maps I had saved on my phone, I managed to find my way to my apartment. Much like before it's pretty small, at least by US standards (see the entries for August 20th and September 29th for more about my old apartment and the town it was in). It has one main room which serves as the living room, dining room, and bedroom. There's also a shower, bathroom, and a tiny kitchen that doubles as the entry way. Compared to my last apartment it's a little smaller (no loft, no deck, no bathtub, no sink in the bathroom) but better furnished (note the desk, chairs, and almost decent sized fridge/freezer; there are a few plates and utensils too) and the heating seems to work much better, though it's still got nothing on even a half decent central heating system (see my February 1st entry for more on Japanese aircons).
I only stopped in the apartment long enough to look around and make a couple of phone calls (one about my missing suitcase) before heading out again. I'd passed a grocery store on my way here, so that was my first destination. The store isn't as big or nice as the one near my old apartment, but it's still pretty good and I was able find nearly everything I needed for pretty good prices. Since my kitchen is limited to a single stove burner and tiny toaster oven, I focused on things that could either be eaten as is (fruits, veggies, etc), boiled (noodles, rice, eggs), or stir fried (meat and most of the things I just listed). Since I had no food, and a fridge that could actually hold more than two days worth, I decided to stock up. Unfortunately, even for a five minute walk, carrying four overstuffed bags of groceries is a huge pain in the neck. I gotta remember that I don't have a bike this time...
Anyway, after unloading the groceries (to offset the bigger fridge, it seems there's no real pantry in this apartment) and eating a quick lunch (yakitori and a couple other random things purchased at the store) I headed out again, this time to start exploring the area. While I am technically in Tokyo, it's the outskirts so this is still mostly a bedroom community for people who commute downtown for work. So there's lots of apartment buildings and small houses. However, there's also some shopping streets near the station and I found a used game store (that also, for some reason, sells baby clothes), a Book-Off (used books, movies, and music), and a Tsutaya (new books, movies, music, and games) along with a variety of clothing stores, restaurants, and the like. I'm even near an herb shop just in case I feel a desire to buy a bunch unidentified herbs.
I found even more stuff closer to the station including a couple of much bigger grocery stores, lots of pachinko parlors (see my January 5th entry), and couple arcades (complete with DDR, a zillion UFO catches, virtual horse racing, and a Gundam battle game with life sized cockpits (among other things)). While wandering around I tried out a drink called Red Ginger (which tasted pretty much just like ginger ale, despite the color) and saw an even stranger drink which I didn't try. Then there's the statue of Kankichi Ryotsu, star of one of the most popular manga and anime series that you've never heard of, Kochira Katsushika-ku Kameari Koen-mae Hashutsujo (or just Kochikame for short). While it's never made it the US, the manga about the misadventures of some policemen working near Kameari station has been running weekly since 1976 (that's over 170 graphic novels worth) and spawned a nearly 400 episode anime, two movies, some live action stuff, and the usual bevy of merchandise. Since it's based around Kameari station, it's kinda a big deal here. Kankichi's face is plastered all over the place as you near the station, there's statues of the main characters scattered about the area, and there's even a themed arcade nearby. Guess that, despite the weird train schedule, the station really isn't as small as I thought.
While walking around the area north of the station I also spotted the not quite grammatically correct Nail Cute and a Moss Burger (a Japanese burger chain with some rather strange menu items). Passing up the Moss Burger, I stopped for a quick meal at a different (and non burger related) fast food chain place and got a beef and rice bowl, salad, bowl of miso soup, and a cup of barley tea for about $5 (and people say eating in Japan is expensive). As I started heading back towards my apartment I decided to take a different route and stumbled across a shrine with this interesting statue (looks kinda like a Lapras, doesn't it?) and, to my surprise, a large western style shopping mall complete with a movie theater. As a note, malls like this are more the exception than the rule in Japan, with crowded shopping streets being far more common. I spent a while browsing in the mall. It had a Tower Records (a music store chain) and quite a lot of other stuff like Books Kiddy Land (which was a bookstore but wasn't really focused on kids books), the pinkest store I've ever seen, and a department store with a large display of Girls' Day dolls (see my December 5th entry for more about Girls Day and other Japanese holidays). Oh, and if you thought that the clothing store Magazines had a serious name - content disconnect, just wait till you see this clothing store, whose name fails in so many ways. While there, I also decided that the best way to learn the 1800 or so Kanji I don't know might be to do it the Japanese way so I picked up a couple of elementary school level Kanji workbooks. We'll see how that works out...

Wednesday (the 5th): More Exploring
Compared to yesterday, today was rather uneventful. My suitcase was supposed to be delivered so I decided to hang out for a bit and wait for it. While waiting, I planned out the best route to the place where my job training is tomorrow and started planning out some of my upcoming day trips (I forgot how long it can take to research and plan out a good trip). My suitcase arrived a little after 10 (which was good since I had no idea what time of day it was going to show up). It was great to finally have all my bathroom stuff and cords, though I could have sworn I'd packed a PS3 controller in there. Either I'm mistaken or it got stolen somewhere between Colorado and Tokyo...
Anyway, once I'd finished unpacking I headed out to explore the area some more. This time, I headed south towards Aoto station. It was mostly more apartments and houses along the way though I did run into a fairly major road at one point. There was also a large river (which seemed like a good place to fish, there was even an oddly named fishing store nearby) and some parks. Nothing out of the ordinary about these next couple of photos but I figured that some of you might like to see a Japanese gas station (note the pumps hanging from the ceiling and the employees who fill your tank and wipe your windows) and a bike shop (people bike a lot in Japan). Oh, and a KFC (it and McDonalds are the biggest American fast food chains here by far); note the statue of Colonel Sanders (which all the Japanese KFCs have). I also ran into a Don Quixote store (think a very random discount department store). Still, there wasn't much in the way of shops or restaurants until I got near Aoto station itself. The station is much smaller than Kameari and has a smaller shopping area to match, but I did find a good ramen restaurant for lunch and a 100 yen store. I mentioned 100 yen stores occasionally in my original travelogue but they're basically just like dollar stores except a million times more awesome. As in, they've got a wide variety of stuff and it's all good quality. A good 100 yen store here in Japan can basically be your one stop shop for kitchen stuff (well, utensils, plates, cups and the like anyway), bathroom stuff (towels, toothbrushes, etc), general house stuff (cushions, baskets, light bulbs, garbage bags, etc, etc, etc) as well as some clothing and other items. I'd been keeping an eye out for one yesterday but the ones near Kameari station had been closed (probably still taking their New Years holiday) so I took the opportunity to grab the rest of the stuff on my shopping list (some utensils and assorted other apartment stuff). I got a few things that I probably could have lived without for a few months but hey, at 100 yen a piece there wasn't any good reason not to get them.
In the weird drink department, check out this one I found in a nearby vending machine. It's pancake flavored. Seriously. I tried it (couldn't really pass up something that odd) and it actually did taste kinda like pancakes with syrup. Not bad, but a bit too sweet for me.
After I'd finished wandering around, I headed back to my apartment, and dropped everything off. I was originally thinking of heading out again and exploring a little more around Kameari station but I got caught up trying to plan the best route from my apartment to the school where I'll be teaching and that took a while (while I got the closest apartment I could find, there isn't a direct route between the train stations here and the closest one to the school). By the time I was done, it was getting dark and I didn't really want to do a lot more walking so I just took a quick trip out to get a PS3 controller then settled down to make supper and get some work done.
Oh, here's one more picture I thought you might find interesting, an ad for a company that does prefab houses in the area. Gives you an idea of what the floor plans are like in a lot of those houses.

Thursday (the 6th): Job Training
Training is part of any teaching job in Japan. The length of the initial training period and the number of additional training days throughout the year vary considerably by company. At my previous job, there was a couple days of initial training plus a couple more days of training during a lot of the longer school breaks. My new company, Heart, only has one or two days of training per year. Definitely the better approach to take in my opinion as a lot of the training classes are fairly pointless. ALT work varies considerably by school and, after you've done it for a little while, a couple days of extra training probably aren't going to change you much one way or the other. Even for the initial training period, it's often a stretch to fill one full day, much less two. But anyway...
I caught an early train to the city of Mito, where Heart's headquarters is, for training. Mito seemed like a nice enough city but I didn't have a lot of time to look around. There was one other ALT there who was also starting a job so we had training together. The first part of the day was spent going over our contracts, signing some papers, and the like. After that there was a little review about our schools and Heart's policies and the like. Next up, lunch break. I ate here, mainly because I knew my parents wouldn't want me to pass up an organic restaurant (you don't see a lot of organic stuff in Japan). It was pretty good too (I had beef curry and a salad). Then back to training. At this point there was some stuff about teaching methods and styles (mostly redundant since both the other ALT and myself had done this all before) and, well, it kinda just dragged on for a while. Heck, even the guy running the training ran out of things to say way before it ended (something he readily admitted). He was a nice guy and pretty entertaining but in the end we were all just kinda waiting on various other people who needed to do or say something and yeah... I wasn't able to leave until a little before 7 PM and since it took around 1 1/2 hours to get back to my place that pretty much took up my whole day. I did, however, use the train ride back to spend some more time reading over my tour books and I got a great idea for a way to spend that week and a half vacation I have at the end of February - beginning of March. I'm only just starting to plan it out so I'll go into more details later but it should be pretty awesome.

Friday (the 7th): Introductions
Training may be finished but that didn't mean I was ready to start work just yet. First I had to be introduced to the Narashino school board and the principle at my school. I spent some time in the morning going over more tour book stuff then went off to meet Heart's coordinator for the Tokyo and Chiba area. Our first stop was the school board where I gave a short introduction, he talked about about my qualifications, and that was about it. They were friendly but, unlike at my last job, it doesn't look like I'll be having a lot of interaction with anyone on the school board so there wasn't much to go over. Next stop was the school itself. It's much bigger than my last one and, being a jr. high, has a more austere atmosphere than Nogi Elementary. Anywhere, we spent a bit of time talking with the principle and a couple other people (I assume the vice principle and secretary but I was never told their positions) and that was that. My initial impression (going off of training yesterday and my intros today) is that Heart is a bit better of a company than Joytalk (less mandatory training, not as strict about some things), not that Joytalk was bad though. However, it looks like teaching at a jr. high will be a lot less fun than elementary school. Of course, I haven't had any classes yet so I could be totally wrong, but that's the impression I'm getting so far.
After parting ways with my coordinator, I made a brief stop back at my apartment and then headed out to check a couple of shopping streets near Kameari station that I hadn't gotten a good look at yet. Nothing too exciting but I did find a couple little shopping arcades (one with really cheap produce), a taiyaki store (fish shaped pancakes stuffed with azuki (red bean) paste), and an onigiri (rice ball) store, which is kinda nice as they make for great snacks. And that's about it. I've got a lot of planning to do for future day trips so I figured I'd just hang out and spend the rest of the day working on that. I'll go more in-depth about the job itself sometime during the next week or two once I've gotten going and I'll start up some Random Japan Comments soon as well now that I'm more caught up on things.

Saturday (the 8th): Old Friends

Depending on how long you've been reading my news posts, you may or may not know that I go to synagogue on Saturdays. So I didn't do any touring or anything today. I had a rather leisurely morning then headed into Tokyo for services. Most of the people I knew from before are still there so it was nice to catch up a bit. I managed ok in Japanese though there are times when I can't think of a word or grammatical structure I know I learned before, which is annoying. I'll definitely be reviewing my textbooks this coming week. I also kept switching back and forth between polite and casual speech, which was pretty annoying (for me anyway). Casual is probably the way to go when talking to friends, but polite is what I need to use with pretty much everyone else so it's kinda a force of habit. Well, guess that's just something else to work on... I meant to get a group picture with everyone but ended up spacing it out so that'll have to wait till next week.
After services, Hoshino (one of the synagogue members) invited me to supper at a restaurant in Ningyoucho. I'd never really been to that part of Tokyo before but I think I'll go back and take a closer look around in the near future. There were a lot of good looking restaurants... We ended up at a great kaiten zushi place and then walked around Akihabara a little bit. While Hoshinosan insisted that I could stop and look in whatever stores I wanted, if I get started on a serious Akihabara run (especially for the first time in over two and a half years) it's going to take hours so I'm going to wait until I can devote a large portion of the day to it (probably tomorrow or Monday). Interesting note: Yodobashi Camera (the enormous electronics department store in Akihabara) has a large display of massage chairs which customers are welcome to test out for 15 minutes at a time. Kinda nice if you want to stop and relax for a bit.

Random Japan Comment: SUICA Cards
Since I'm spending so much time in and around the greater Tokyo area I got a SUICA card. Basically it's a card with a RFID chip (or something like that) that you can use to pay for train rides. It works all around the Tokyo and Chiba area of Japan and is interchangeable with PASMO (the Tokyo Metro's subway card) and several different train cards that are used in other parts of Japan. There's machines in most train stations which you can use to put money on your card (put in the card, push a couple buttons, and put in some bills). Then, instead of buying train tickets, you just place your card (or your whole wallet) on the pad on the ticket gate when you go through and when you leave. It automatically deducts the correct fare and you're good to go. Not only do you not have to spend time buying tickets (unless you need to get a reserved seat or something), but you also don't have to worry about figuring out the proper fare for your trip. A SUICA card probably isn't worth it if you're just making long trips (you'll burn through your credit way too quickly) and, if you're just coming to Japan to tour for a little while, it's probably better to just get a Japan Rail Pass (which gives you unlimited rides on JR trains; though it's only for trains, not subways, so a SUICA card could still be handy). But if you're going to be making a whole lot of little trips in and around Tokyo it's pretty handy. As an added bonus, quite a lot of vending machines and stores in train stations let you pay with your SUICA card instead of cash. There's machines selling SUICA cards in a lot of Tokyo area train stations but foreigners can take advantage of a special deal at Narita airport and get a SUICA with 1500 yen credit plus a ticket from the airport to downtown Tokyo (one way or round trip) for a discounted price.

Sunday (the 9th): Sky Tree?
I'd originally planned to spend most of the day in Akihabara but my friend Yehoshua Jo (leader of the congregation I attend when in Japan) invited me to do some stuff with him in the afternoon so I put Akihabara on hold until tomorrow so I can really do it justice. I didn't change my entire plan for the day though. Since I didn't have to meet Yehoshua till the afternoon, I headed to Oikeibajou, a fairly uninteresting section of Tokyo that's mainly apartments and a big horse racing track. However, most Sunday mornings they have a huge flea market in the track's parking lot. I visited it a few times when I was in Japan before (and you can read about it at various places throughout my travelogue) and they pretty much have everything. It's random, of course, but that's part of the fun. There's lots of clothes, some electronics, toys, antiques, and odds and ends of all types. You're pretty much guaranteed to find something you like and nearly all of it is really cheap. I spent a grand total of 800 yen (around $8) and ended up with three CDs (one of which costs 3000 yen new), a DS game, and a several Mario figurines. There's lots of other flea markets around Tokyo, but they tend to be smaller, more specialized, and more expensive.
Anyway, getting to Oikeibajou requires riding the Tokyo monorail (which is mostly used for getting to Haneda Airport) which doesn't go many places so I needed to stop at Hamamatsucho station to change back to the regular trains. But I took a detour since Hamamatsucho is also home to one of Tokyo's Pokémon Centers. There's a handful of them across Japan and they're pretty much your one stop shop for anything Pokémon be it games, DVDs, toys, stuffed animals, etc. You can even buy figurines of pretty much every Pokémon there is if you're so inclined (and want to spend a rather ridiculous amount of money). Pokémon Centers also have lots of rare Pokémon give aways (though you need Japanese copies of the games to take advantage of them) and are a very popular place to just hang out and play Pokémon (there were at least 50 people just sitting around outside the Center with their DSs when I stopped by. Helpful tip though, if you take your personal space very seriously avoid the Pokémon Center on weekends. Or maybe just avoid it entirely. Even on slow days it tends to be pretty crowded.
Right next to the Pokémon Center is Kyu Shiba Rikyu garden. I always meant to go there last time (since I passed it whenever I went to the flea market or Pokémon Center) but never got around to it. But I had a little time to kill today so I headed in. It's one of many nice Japanese gardens scattered about Tokyo and while it's not one of the biggest or fanciest ones I've visited, it was a relaxing change of pace after squeezing my way through the crowded Pokémon Center. Like pretty much all Japanese gardens, it has its share of birds and koi. It also offers a nice view of Tokyo Tower in the distance. One neat thing about Japanese gardens is that, while some times of year are certainly better, no matter when you go there's always something in bloom.
After a pleasant stroll through the garden it was off to Asakusa to meet with Yehoshua. I talked about Asakusa a lot in my previous travelogue as well. It contains one of Tokyo's most famous shrines and numerous shopping streets. It's a lot of fun to walk around and also a great place to buy all your typical Japanese souvenirs. I only had about half an hour before I was supposed to meet Yehoshua so I just took a quick walk down a couple of the streets to find food. I'll probably be heading back to explore at a more leisurely pace in the near future so I'll go more in detail then. Anyway, while heading to the meeting point I stopped to get a chestnut taiyaki (really good) and some gelato. But this was no ordinary gelato. Ice cream in Japan can get pretty interesting (see my October 19th entry) and the gelato wasn't any different. Since it was fairly cheap, and I hadn't eaten much, I got a cup with three different flavors. There were a lot of interesting ones but I settled on satsumaimo (Japanese yam; very good), houjicha (roasted Japanese green tea; much different than regular green tea ice cream), and amezake (a non-alcoholic sweet sake type drink; pretty good but probably not for everyone).
Yehoshua and I walked around and chatted for a few hours. We spent most of the time looking looking for good spots from which to photograph the Tokyo Sky Tree (it's the tall spire on the left). Set to be completed in 2012, it'll be replacing Tokyo Tower (in function, if not necessarily in spirit) as a major broadcast tower. While you probably know that I like to take photos, Yehoshua is pretty serious about it. He brought three different cameras and probably took a couple dozen shots of the Sky Tree with each one. That was a bit much for me, but it was nice to hang out and talk. And we did find a spot where you could see the Sky Tree reflecting off a nearby building, which was cool. We were far from the only people in the area though, apparently photographing the Sky Tree is a fairly popular pastime for anyone with a camera.
We eventually met up with Yehoshua's wife, got some soba (Japanese barley noodles) and headed off to the place Yehoshua had invited me out to visit in the first place, an onsen (Japanese hot springs). Unlike a lot of Japan's mountain towns, Tokyo isn't known for onsen but there are a couple. This one was down an alley is Asakusa and was pretty similar to the bath house I went to last week in Ueno, just with actual hot springs water instead of plain old hot water. It's nowhere near as big or fancy as the onsen theme park I've been to before in Odaiba (another part of Tokyo; see my January 20th entry), but it is a whole lot cheaper. While the park in Odaiba is a lot more fun, the Asakusa onsen was still nice and relaxing. Afterwards we got some drinks in a cafe and chatted for a bit before splitting up and heading home. While I could have done with a bit less time spent photographing the Sky Tree, it was an enjoyable day and I'm looking forward to getting back to Asakusa when I have more time. Next up though is Akihabara...

Monday (the 11th): Akihabara

It's not really a stretch to say that I've been waiting to visit Akihabara again for around two and half years. If you're into games, anime, manga, or electronics (or, like me, all of the above), it's the place to shop. But I'm getting just a little ahead of myself. Today is a holiday here in Japan (see my December 5th entry). Specifically, it's Coming of Age Day when everyone who has recently or is about to turn 20 dresses up, goes to listen to a speech given by some government official, and then usually goes out and parties. Because of this, I saw a number of girls walking around in kimono (not the best picture, but it would have been rude to obviously photograph them without asking).
Moving on, Akihabara is a very colorful area with lots of bright signs, enthusiastic hawkers, giant screens and billboards featuring popular anime and game characters, and girls in maid costumes (or other elaborate outfits) handing out flyers for cafes. If you really want to see Akihabara in all its glory you have to go on the weekends, but its a lot less crowded if you go on a weekday (even a holiday like today). And less crowded is certainly a good thing as the aisles in many of the shops are barely wide enough for one person, let alone several. Unfortunately, most of the stores really don't want you taking pictures inside so I don't have many photos (Super Potato, where the previous photo was taken, is a rare exception, so I also snapped a photo of the classic game arcade they have). Akihabara is an interesting mix of fairly big department stores (spread over multiple floors and occasionally buildings) and tiny little stores specializing in one thing or another that can only comfortably hold a handful of people at a time. Whether you're looking for electronics and computer equipment, software, video games, trading cards, anime, manga, music, or anime/manga/game merchandise there's plenty of stores to choose from. Since most are so small and specialized, you really have to walk around and explore to find the best deals on things but that's part of the fun. You never know when you'll run across a rare CD or figurine or whatever in some little store you've never seen before.
Although this whole Japan trip was rather last minute, I did manage to save up some spending money for this occasion. While I do like to wander around and see what catches my eye, having been away from Japan for so long I had a bit of a "shopping list" of things I wasn't able to get while back in the US including CDs (game and anime soundtracks, mostly), games, and figurines. And I spent quite a while browsing all of the above. But my relatively new found love of visual novel games led to me focusing rather heavily on tracking down several specific titles (all ones that have English fan translation patches, as I don't know nearly enough kanji to play them in Japanese). I actually did really good in that regard and found all the the ones on my list except one (which means it's either rare or spells its name differently than I thought) for really good prices. Since I tended to steer clear of the PC game sections of stores my last time in Japan I never realized just how many doujin (fan made) games there are. Problem is, quite a lot of them are highly adult in nature so I was basically stuck searching through the adult sections of a bunch of stores to find the games I wanted. Oddly enough, aside from PC games of all types, the adult sections also tended to contain several types of music (which isn't adult in nature), giving people uninterested in adult stuff another reason to visit the section. Seems most Japanese (guys and girls alike) really aren't bothered by it.
Anyway, a blow by blow description of my shopping trip would probably leave everyone either bored to tears to insanely jealous so I'll just move on. Suffice it to say that I got quite a lot of the things I wanted, noted some other things to look for once I have some more spending money, and had an enjoyable day. I got a quick lunch at Pepper Lunch, a Japanese restaurant chain where meat, veggies, and rice are served on a hot plate and you stir them around while they cook, and accepted an invitation to Yehoshua's restaurant for supper (he and his family run a Korean restaurant). Seems this was a pretty good night to visit. His restaurant is in the middle of a business district so it's pretty dead on days like today when a lot of companies are closed. While the menu is pretty diverse (at least I think it is, I know very few Korean words so I don't know what 90% of the stuff on the menu is), the specialty is meat and veggies which you cook on a little grill built into your table. He recently switched to beef from Japan's Yamagata Prefecture (not quite as famous as Kobe beef but still very well known in Japan) and I have to say that it was pretty amazing. I tend to feel a little guilty when I eat at his restaurant though because he never lets me pay for anything. It's ok once in a while but I tried not to eat there too often when I lived in Japan before so I wouldn't end up taking advantage of him. I'll probably do the same this time, despite how great the food is. And that was about it for today. I have to get up pretty early for work tomorrow so for now I'll just leave you with a Random Japan Comment.

Random Japan Comment: Tips for Shopping in Akihabara
1. The major stores like Yodobashi Camera and Gamers have excellent selections of new merchandise and are good places to see what's new and what the average price of stuff is, but you can usually find better prices elsewhere if you've got time to spare.
2. Quite a lot of shops specialize in used stuff. Unlike in the US, most used merchandise in Japan is in mint or near mint condition and considerably cheaper than buying new. Used is also the way to go when looking for old and/or rare items.
3. Many stores are spread out over several floors of the same building. Even if you're not leaving the store itself, make sure you pay for your items before changing floors.
4. With so many little stores spread all over the place, it's rather difficult to do any serious comparison shopping. Instead, try a get a feel for the average price of what you want and then just grab it once you see a price that you're happy with.
5. Most sets of figurines come in random boxes and you won't know which one you got till you open it. While that can be fun, there's a lot of stores that specialize in selling used / open figurines. Note that in any given set some figurines are going to be fairly cheap and others really expensive so whether or not it pays to just buy the ones you want or get some boxes and hope you get lucky varies by situation.
6. If offered a point card at a store, go ahead and take it, some of them give pretty impressive discounts.
7. Look everywhere. There's a lot of great little stores hidden away up long flights of stairs or down small alleyways. Exploring is really half the fun.
8. As a rule, remember that Japanese DVDs (both videos and many PC games) won't work in US DVD players and drives (they're region locked). Ditto with most most video games (the Gameboy models, regular DS (not DSi), PSP, and PS3 being the notable exceptions). CDs (both music and software) are fine though, as are most Blu-ray discs.

Tuesday and Wednesday (the 11th and 12th)

As you know, I didn't come to Japan just to go to Akihabara. I've got a job as an English teacher. More specifically an ALT (Assistant Language Teacher) at Narashino #1 Jr. High School in Chiba. Since the Japanese school year begins in April, most ALT jobs start then or occasionally in August (as opposed to jobs at private English schools, when can start any time of the year). It's rather unusual to get a job that doesn't start until the last term of the year and it only happens if the previous ALT left for some reason. Leaving in the middle of the school year (before your contract ends) is highly frowned upon and reflects rather poorly on the ALT himself and his home country in general. Of course, sometimes there are unavoidable reasons such as serious health problems or a huge family emergency. That's understandable. However, some ALTs just decide that they don't like Japan and/or the job as much as they thought they would (see Part 1 of my guide to teaching English in Japan for a bit about common misconceptions people tend to have about both the country and ALT work) and don't have the morals or discipline to stick it out for the rest of their contract. And then there's a few who never intended to do the job in the first place and disappear the moment they receive their working visa.
But I'm getting off track. I don't know anything about the ALT I'm replacing, just that they needed someone to take over until the end of the school year so that's what I'm here for. Tuesday was my first day of work. Since it was the first day, the school asked me to come in a little early and I decided to leave fairly early as well, to ensure that I'd still make it on time even if I got lost. In the end, I left my apartment around 6:30 and headed out. I was originally planning to walk from my apartment to Aoto station and take the trains from there but since my backpack was jammed full of stuff (including a lot of things that would get left at the school such as my gym clothes and indoor shoes) I decided to take the bus to the station instead. While Aoto station is about 15 minutes from my apartment at a very fast walk (20 - 25 at a more normal pace), there's a bus stop about a minute and a half away and the bus stops right near the station. Unfortunately the bus is a little on the expensive side and, with the time spent walking to the bus stop from my apartment and then from the other stop to the station, it really only saves 5 - 8 minutes so I probably won't be taking it much unless the weather is bad or I have a lot to carry. In the end, what'll probably become my normal commute is a 15 minute walk (or 8 minute bus ride) to Aoto station followed by 20 minutes on a train, a couple more minutes on another train, and an 8 minute walk to the school itself. Not ideal by any means, but I heard that the average commute for someone working in the Tokyo area is over 90 minutes so I really can't complain.
Anyway, Aoto station is a fairly small and ordinary Japanese train station. Fortunately, I'm going opposite the morning rush hour crowd so there weren't too many people waiting for the train. Because of the way the trains work, it's best if I take a limited express (which goes faster because it only stops at major stations) then get out and backtrack one station on a local train. Anyway, my eventual goal is Yatsu station. Even though the school is closest to Tsudanuma station, getting to Tsudanuma station from where I am is considerably more complicated due to the way the routes are set up. Yatsu station is rather tiny. They've got this neat little stage out front (probably left over from New Years) but other than that it's a rather quiet residential area. The school itself is much larger and older than the elementary school where I worked before. It was the first jr. high School in this area (hence the unoriginal name of Narashino #1) and at one point had something like 1600 students. But, now that there's lots of other jr. high schools around and Japan's birthrate has taken a serious dive, it's down to something like 400 students with around 5 classes per grade (there's three grades, BTW, 7th - 9th). Like my previous school (and most schools in Japan for that matter) there's a shoe locker at the entrance where everyone switches between their regular shoes and their indoor shoes (shoes that you only wear inside). The one I just showed you is for the students. Staff and visitors have their own much smaller shoe locker area at the main entry. The building is five floors. When not in class, teachers and staff are stationed in the teachers' room on the first floor where they have their desks and can be easily found by anyone who needs them. The main classrooms are on floors 2 - 4 (oddly, the first year students are on the 4th floor and the third years are on the 2nd). And, unlike schools in the US where students move from room to room depending on their next class, with the exception of classes that need special equipment (computer class, science lab, etc), each class pretty much stays in their own room and the teachers for each subject come to them.
Since it was my first day, I wore a full suit, though come Wednesday I lost the coat and tie and threw on a gym jacket to match what most of the other teachers were wearing. In the end, I didn't teach any classes Tuesday or Wednesday though I observed one or two for each grade and helped out a bit with one of them. My regular teaching schedule starts next week when I'll be averaging around three classes a day. In the meantime, I took the opportunity to go over the English textbooks they're using (which actually aren't much more advanced than the stuff I was teaching at Nogi Elementary School), helped out with the daily cleaning (since there's no English room, I've been assigned to oversee the kids cleaning the computer room), did a little bit of lesson planning (though it looks like there won't be too much need for that since everyone more or less follows the textbook), and took the opportunity to review some of my Japanese grammar. I also took a walk through the school to make sure I know where everything is. Here's a view from one of the higher floors. As you can see, the whole area around the school is being cleared for some sort of construction. No idea what they're going to build, but I'd guess houses and/or apartments.
Compared to Nogi Elementary (which only had around 120 students), there's a lot more staff here (each class has its own homeroom teacher, for example). I've talked a bit with three of the four Japanese English teachers (since we're going to be working together) and the social studies teacher (since he's really friendly) but that's about it. I've also chatted a little with the students in the classes I've observed and the girls assigned to clean the computer room. Though at this point interacting with the students mostly consists of them asking me whatever questions they can figure out how to say in English (I'm really not supposed to use much Japanese around them to encourage them to speak English). I've heard a lot about how shy most Japanese kids become when they get older but most of the kids here seem almost as boisterous as my elementary students. And, like the elementary students, some really get a kick out of saying hello and having me say it back to them. I never quite understood that (I don't find it amazing when Japanese people say konnichiwa to me), but if they enjoy it then that's all that matters. As the trainer at Heart said, "Because you're the foreigner you're automatically the most interesting person there." And he's got a point. Even in downtown Tokyo, it's pretty easy to go an entire day without seeing any non-Japanese people as long as you stay away from the big tourist spots. And even then the number of foreigners will be dwarfed by the number of Japanese.
Now about the classes themselves. At Nogi Elementary, I was the only person on staff who spoke any English other than the secretary (who was probably one of the best Japanese English speakers I've ever met) so I pretty much ran the show with the Japanese teachers backing me up and explaining things to the kids in Japanese when necessary. In Jr. High, however, English is a required part of the curriculum so the school has four Japanese English teachers. They're the ones in charge of the lessons (using the textbooks) and I just follow along and help them in various ways. Depending on the teacher that could range from saying the occasional word in English to taking over the majority of the class (at this point, it's too easy to say where most of my classes here will fall on that range). There aren't nearly so many songs and games as in my Elementary school classes, but the teachers do seem to try to keep their classes fairly enjoyable.
The problem with these types of English classes, however, is that they teach to the tests (there's an English component of both high school and college entry exams) and the Japanese English teachers usually aren't particular fluent themselves. This results in a country of people that, despite having six years or more of English in school, can rarely make any sort of conversation. But that's aside from the point. Of the English teachers here, the one for second grade seems to have the best English of the bunch. The third and first grade teachers can carry on a conversation with me (albeit a bit slowly), but have pretty heave accents and I get the feeling that I could completely lose them if I spoke with my full vocabulary at a regular speed. But they're all nice people and I can't fault them too much since I know that their English teachers were probably the same or worse.
And that's about it for work. I'm sure I'll have more to talk about next week once I actually start doing some classes and spending more time with the students. This week, however, I have the next two days off. I'm not entirely sure why, but it could have something to do with the fact that the second year students are off on a field trip (skiing near Mt. Fuji, I believe) and the third years are too busy studying for high school entrance exams to have many English classes. That only leaves the first years and most of their English classes are scheduled early in the week so there probably wouldn't be much of anything for me to do if I was here. I'll talk more about work next week but for now it's time for a bit more touring...

Random Japan Comment: Exam Hell
Right now it's the middle of Japan's "exam hell" period when third year jr. high students are studying desperately to pass their high school entrance exams and third year high school students are doing the same for college entrance exams. The actual tests take place around now too (give or take a month or so). Unlike in the US, high school is optional, not mandatory, so there's no guarantee that students can get in. In addition to the national tests, a lot of the better high schools have additional tests of their own. Much like with colleges, students shop around for a highschool that has a good reputation in whatever it is they want to study and work hard to get admitted. If you watch a lot of anime, you may have noticed that a lot of high school students seem to live on their own. The reason is that, if they don't live near a high school they like, it's not uncommon for students to leave home to attend a better one. In Japan, going to the right high school increases your chances of going to a good college which in turn significantly increases your changes of getting a good job. Competition is fierce and the exams are brutally difficult. So much so that serious students often attend a cram school in the evenings to help prepare, followed by more studying and homework late into the night. If you're ever in Japan in the winter and see a bunch of half asleep teenagers, they're probably in the midst of exam hell. College exams are much the same, only worse. However, unlike with high school, if you fail your college exams it's perfectly acceptable to spend a year or two as a "ronin" and keep trying. Though the tests are only held once a year so you have to wait quite a while before trying again. On the bright side, once you get into a Japanese college you're pretty much guaranteed to graduate no matter how little work you do so it's a good time to take things easy before starting a career (which will probably involve rather long working hours of its own).

Thursday (the 13th): Ushiku
As previously mentioned I have today and tomorrow off from work. Today, I decided to get out of Tokyo and visit Ushiku. If you were keeping up with my news posts from before this travelogue started, you may remember that I almost got an English teaching job in Ushiku but the school board was dragging its feet on the final decision (in the end, they decided to go without an ALT for the rest of the school year) so I took the Narashino position instead. But I'd done some research on Ushiku back when I thought I was going to get the job and I decided it'd be worth a visit.
Ushiku is a large rural town. It seems like it's mainly a bedroom community for Tokyo and Chiba but it's far enough out that there's lots of open space and plenty of room so the houses, stores, and apartments aren't all crammed together. Overall, it looked like a nice place (if not all that exciting). My main reason for visiting was the see the world's largest Buddha statue, the Ushiku Daibutsu (aka. Ushiku Arcadia). Since it was nowhere near the train station, I had to take a bus from there. While I was reasonably sure about which bus to take and where to get off (unlike trains and subways, most buses in Japan aren't at all English friendly), I was also banking on the fact that you just can't miss something this big. And, while I couldn't see it from the train station, I was right.
Completed in the mid 1990's, the Ushiku Daibutsu isn't anywhere near as old or famous as the Buddhas in Kamakura and Nara (both of which I visited and talked about in various places in my old travelogue), but it's certainly got them beat when it comes to size. It's actually about 2 1/2 times the size of the Statue of Liberty. Doubling as a Buddhist temple, the park around the daibutsu has your typical temple items including prayer boards (which you can buy, writing your prayer on, and hang up), an incense burner, and a large metal bell (which I was able to ring). There was also a nice little Japanese garden with lots of hungry koi (which I stopped to feed) and at least one crawfish thing.
As I got closer to the daibutsu it became pretty hard to get a good picture because of the size. To get this shot I had to take three separate phots and then combine them. After I had my fill of staring up at the daibutsu I headed inside it. The inside was divided into several floors. Upon entering, I had to stand in a dark room for a few minutes until a light slowly appeared, ushering me and a few Japanese tourists (since it was early on a weekday, the place was pretty empty) into a dreamily lit chamber leading to the elevator. It's supposed to represent the light of enlightenment, or something like that.
Next up was the second floor which had some displays about the making of the daibutsu, a meditation room, and an area for sitting and writing sutras (Buddhist scriptures). It was then up the fifth floor which was the observatory. Unfortunately, it's in the top of the daibutsu's chest, not the head, but it still offered good views of the town and nearby cemetery (seems a lot of people want to be buried near the daibutsu). There were also a few gold Buddha statues and some sign boards describing the Buddha's life and journeys. Once I'd finished looking around I headed down to the fourth floor (a gift shop) then the third, which was filled with around 3,300 golden Buddha statues. Finally, I walked out on the top of the daibutsu's base and took a picture looking pretty much straight up.
On my way out, I chatted for a bit with a nice group of older Japanese people and browsed the souvenir shops (pickled vegetables seem to be a local speciality) before catching the bus back towards Ushiku station. But, since there wasn't a whole lot else to see in Ushiku, and I had time to kill, I got off the bus early and walked through the town for a bit. I found an enormous used game, music, DVD, and other stuff (fishing gear, clothes, etc) store and had fun browsing for a while then stopped for a very late lunch (or early supper) at the most high tech kaiten zushi restaurant I've ever seen. If you're not familiar with the term, kaiten zushi is what you call sushi restaurants where the sushi comes around on a conveyor belt and you grab what you want and pay based on how many plates you ate. Definitely the most fun and affordable way to get sushi. Anyway, this one was different than usual in several ways. First off, instead of being in the middle of things, the sushi chefs were in the back somewhere. While you could still grab things off the regular conveyor belt, each place had a touch screen that could be used to order whatever sushi you wanted which would soon be delivered on a electric train that ran on a track above the regular conveyor belt. Then, instead of making a big stack with your places when you're done with them, you slide them down a chute and the computer automatically keeps track of how many you've eaten. Finally, a button push summons the waitress to bring you the check. Though it was a little strange not to have the chefs around, it was a lot of fun and the sushi was great. To top it off, just about everything was only 105 Yen a plate.
After walking around a bit more I headed back to Kameari (where my apartment is). I swung by the shopping mall and, on a whim, decided to put my Japanese to the test by watching whatever movie happened to be playing at the time. Of course, I could have just watched Japanese TV at my apartment, but there I'd be tempted to work on my computer or something while I watched. But at the theater I had to pay full attention to the movie. If I do that again, I'll pay a bit more attention to which movie I pick though. This time, I just got a ticket for the one with the soonest start time even though I had absolutely no idea what it was. Turns out it was a set of kids movies. The first was an anime about some bears and the second a stop motion based on some European kids' book. On the bright side, I was able to follow the plot of both movies without any problems (though I didn't understand every line of dialogue). On the down side, since the movies seemed to be aimed at 5 year olds, that's probably not saying much...

Friday (the 14th): Hanging Out in Tokyo
Since I never got to go the last time I was in Japan due to how far outside of Tokyo I lived, my dad wanted me to give the Tokyo JCC's Friday night service a try sometime. And, since I didn't have work, this seemed like the best day to do it. Of course, the service wasn't till 6:30 so I had plenty of time to do stuff before hand. I decided to start out with a trip to Asakusa, since walking around with Yeshoshua left me wanting to go back and explore a bit. Fortunately, it's a lot less crowded on weekdays. I ended up kind of snacking here and there throughout the day, starting with that taiyaki place I stopped at before. I tried the satsumaimo (Japanese sweet potato) taiyaki this time, which was very good. Over the course of the day I also got ume (Japanese plum) ice cream, a rice cracker, amazaki (a sweet non-alcoholic sake-ish drink), and some sort of cherry thing I'd never seen before. I've already talked a lot about Asakusa in previous entries so I don't want to go into too much detail but it's a fun place to walk around, browse the shops, and look for suvineers (if you don't have time to visit the parts of Japan where the best suvineers are made, Asakusa has decent selection of a most of your popular types of Japanese suvineers. There's a set of very obvious shopping streets leading up to the famous Sensoji Temple and its equally famous gates, but there's a lot of great shops and restaurants a bit off the beaten path as well, so I spent a while just wondering around. I walked through the temple grounds for a bit as well (though I've done it several times before). Here's a few random pictures from the area: The inscence burner (notice how people like to waft the smoke back onto them) and the fountain (where people wash their hands and sometimes drink the water) are both standard fixtures in Buddhist temples. The ceiling paintings are quite nicely done. Though nice to look at, this particular pagooda is a reconstruction, as the original was destroyed in World War II. Asakusa isn't entirely free from strange shops, suvineer boxers anyone? One small street has a lot of life size figures of characters hanging out, climbing walls, and the like. I'm not sure why they're there but if I had to hazard a guess, I'd say they're probably characters from some popular historical drama show on TV which is set in the area.
After I'd finished up in Asakusa I decided to head to my second favorite shopping area in Japan after Akihabara, Nakano. Partly because I still haven't had my fill of anime/manga/game stuff shopping, and partly because it's on the same side of Tokyo as the JCC. Though it can be hard to find if you don't know it's there, the Nakano Broadway mall is the place to go if you want to shop for anime/game figurines. There's also a lot of great used music stores, some nice used game stores, and much more. Really, if you want any sort of collectible thing Nakano Broadway probably has you covered. Aside from the aforementioned items, I saw stores selling old toys (Japanese and American), books, movies, coins, stamps, sports cards, trading cards, watches, models, dolls, and quite a lot more. To get there, you go out the North exit from Nakano station, cross the street, and enter a shopping arcade (covered shopping street). At the end of the arcade is the entrance to Nakano Broadway, a multi-story mall. The basement level is primarily devoted to food and the first floor to clothing (though there's a bit of everything on each floor) with all the floors above focusing mostly on collectables of all kinds (even decorative straps with plastic potato chips on them). Just about everything in the collectable stores is used and quite a lot of space is devoted to glass cases that people rent out and fill with whatever they want to sell. But used stuff in Japan is almost always in excellent condition and much cheaper than new. Even better, with so many used items, your chances of finding rare out of print stuff significantly increases. And, with so many little stores in a relatively small area, it's pretty easy to comparison shop (which is a good idea since prices for some items can vary wildly). As much as I love Akihabara, I tend to find more rare CDs and figurines in Nakano Broadway (and often at better prices).
I had a lot of fun browsing, and managed to score a few good deals, and I didn't even reach the last floor before I had to leave for the JCC. The service there wasn't bad and the people were friendly. I got invited to stay for dinner (the reasons I got back late) and had a nice time overall. Though I don't think I'll go very often due to the distance (it's on the complete opposite end of Tokyo from me so getting there from either my apartment or school would take quite a while).

Saturday (the 15): Swinging by Ginza

Being Saturday, I had a leisurely morning then headed to downtown Tokyo for services. I ended up missing my train and getting there a little late though. Seems that there aren't as many trains from Kameari station on weekends as I thought so I'll have to be more careful next time. Several people were absent though (one for college entrance exams and the other two for some school presentation), so I still didn't get a good group picture.
After services, Hoshino invited me out again. This time we ended up walking around Ginza for a bit. Though it's a popular part of Tokyo, I never really went to Ginza my last time in Japan except when showing people around. Ginza is Tokyo's high-end fashion district. If it's fancy and expensive you'll probably find it in Ginza. Clothes and jewelry are the main draws (and you'll find lots of designer outlets as well as enormous department stores) but there are also high-end book, music, and electronics stores. If you like that kind of stuff, it's a great place to explore but it usually doesn't interest me all that much. Even so, Ginza can be fun to walk around for a little while just to see the stores and all the lights at night time. We did stop in a couple stores but the main reason we went was that Hoshino (who is a huge Beatles fan) wanted to take me to a cafe that John Lennon and Yoko Ono used to frequent. We hung out there for a bit and talked then headed out. We passed an Apple store along the way which had a big Beatles cut-out in the window then got gyudon (beef and rice bowls) before parting ways.

Random Japan Comment: Chain Restaurants
Some of the cheapest meals you can find in Japan are in its various chain restaurants. Some of the more popular types include:
Hamburgers (McDonald's, Moss Burger, Lotteria, etc): If you've had one fast food hamburger you've had them all...unless you're in Japan. Though they can hardly be considered authentic Japanese food, all the major burger chains have menu entries that foreigners will be sure to find unusual like rice and seaweed burgers or katsu burgers.
Curry (Coco Curry, Go Go Curry, etc): The Japanese take on the British take on Indian curry. It's brown, not overly spicy, and served on a big plate with rice, pickled vegetables, and sometime other ingredients (meat, katsu, etc). It's also one of the few foods that you're expected to eat with a spoon.
Rice Bowls (Yoshinoya, etc): Rice bowls such as gyudon consist of rice, meat (usually beef), onion, and optional toppings like egg and green onion. They're good, extremely cheap, and you can usually get them in a set with salad and miso soup for around 100 yen extra.
Misc (Pepper Lunch, KFC, Seizariya, etc): If you don't want one of the above types of food but still want to eat at a chain there's plenty of other options. Just look around and see what you can find.
At any of the listed restaurants you can get a pretty good sized meal in several minutes for the equivalent of $4 - $6 and the food tends to be of much higher quality than what you find in the fast food chain restaurants in the US. Note that in many of these restaurants, instead of paying at the counter you put your money in a vending machine and push a button for what you want. The machine gives you a ticket which you then present to the waiter when you sit down.
You may have noticed that I also left out a pretty major category of cheap Japanese food, noodles (soba, udon, and ramen). While noodle bowls are extremely common in Japan and make great fast and cheap meals, they're primarily the domain of small privately run stands and restaurants instead of chains.

Sunday (the 16th): Browsing in Ueno

I've been running around a lot since arriving in Japan and I got behind on some things as a result (like Pebble Version strips) so I decided to take things easy today and get some work done. But I didn't want to spend the whole day in my apartment so soon after returning to Japan so I spent the morning working then headed out to browse Ameya Yoko-cho, Ueno's collection of busy shopping streets. As with Asakusa (and pretty much every major shopping area in Tokyo), it can get pretty crowded on weekends. While there's a little bit of everything to be found there, it's primarily a mix of clothes (discount and imports mostly), food, and restaurants. Since I've been eating a ton of Japanese food lately, I stopped for lunch at Mantra (a good Indian restaurant) then spent a couple of hours walking around and checking out the shops. It sure would be an interesting place to do your regular grocery shopping, with all the little food stores (most specializing in just one thing like fruit, vegetables, or fish). It's a good place to go for cheap clothes as well, though you'll have to deal with serious crowds at the more popular stores, especially when there's a sale going on. Ameya is also a great place to find pachinko parlors (see my January 5th entry) (though you can find them just about everywhere else in Japan as well), capsule hotels (March 8th), manga cafes (February 22nd), and arcades (with UFO catchers being the main draw). There's also a few love hotels (hotels (often with really fancy rooms, from what I've heard) where couples can spend a few hours together) and some collections of gatchapon machines (gumball type machines that give figurines or other small toys) scattered around but the stores and restaurants are definitely the main draw.
I wasn't quite ready to go back to my apartment after finishing up in Ueno so I headed to Akihabara (one of my favorite ways to kill time in Tokyo) for a little while first. I didn't stay out too late though. Partly because I have work tomorrow and partly because I had more stuff to work on (specifically, planning day trips for my future weekends and holidays).

Random Japan Comment: Things to do with Friends
In the US, if you want to do something with your friends you have plenty of different options but probably the most common activity is visiting each others houses to talk, watch TV, or play games. If you and your friends want to go out, you'll probably go to a mall, movie, restaurant, or maybe a bowling alley. In Japan, however, things are a bit different.
First off, hanging out at another person's house is pretty uncommon. Unless you know someone really well (and sometimes even then), visiting their house tends to be a rather big deal and involves a certain degree of formality. You also need to bring a present of some sort (food mostly likely). So friends in Japan are far more likely than not to go out. When it comes to popular activities, coffee shops, restaurants, and cafes (think drinks and desserts, mostly) are still popular, as is visiting malls (if there's one in the area, as they're far less common in Japan than the US) or shopping streets. Movie theaters are an option, but they're considerably more expensive than in the US. Things like bowling alleys, public swimming pools, and mini-golf are all rather uncommon in Japan, though there's always batting cages and arcades. However, one of the most popular group activities in Japan by far is karaoke, but that deserves a RJC of its own...

Tuesday (the 18th) Teaching the First Year Students

So this is the week I actually got down to business and started teaching classes. Or assisting in the teaching of classes I suppose. I average around three classes a day spread out between the first, second, and third year jr. high students. I had all my first year classes for the week on Monday and Tuesday. There was originally supposed to be two on Monday and three on Tuesday but a last minute schedule change made it one class on Monday and four on Tuesday, so Tuesday was pretty busy. Second and third year classes are spread across Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday so I'll talk about them next time. For now, I'll be focusing mainly on the first year students (I would stay 7th graders, but in Japan they're called first year students since it's their first year of jr. high school).
Anyway, teaching in a jr. high is definitely a bit different than teaching in an elementary school like I did last time (for details about my experience teaching in an elementary school, see the September entries in my old travelogue). First off, there's no dedicated English classroom, I go to the homeroom of whatever class I'm teaching. There are also far fewer materials to work with than there were at my old school. But that's just this school itself and doesn't have anything to do with elementary vs. jr. high. The biggest difference between elementary and jr. high is my role itself. Technically for both my last job and this one I'm listed as an ALT (assistant language teacher). But in elementary school, where English was optional (though I hear a new law is changing that in the near future), there wasn't any Japanese English teachers. In fact, the only person in the school who could speak English (other than myself) was the school secretary. So, although I was supposedly an assistant, I pretty much ran things when it came to English classes. There was a loose curriculum to follow and I always talked things other with each grade's homeroom teacher before class, but when it came time to start the homeroom teacher would stand back and let me take over, only stepping in to help when necessary (such as explaining the rules of a game in Japanese). I also prepped the materials, set up the classroom, and the like.
In jr. highschool, English is a required course so there are certified Japanese English teachers in charge of things (at this school, one for each grade). There's also a stricter curriculum to follow (based around a set of text books). Because of this, my role is greatly reduced. While the Japanese English teachers could pass pretty much all the work onto me if they wanted to (and I've talked to ALTs who have had that happen), in most situations they take charge of the lesson planning and preparation and the ALT just hangs around to assist when asked. That's pretty much the way things are going here. Of all the Japanese English teachers here, the first year teacher seems to be the most willing to deviate from the textbook (which we barely used in any of my first set of first year classes). He also gave me the most to do, allowing me plenty of time for an introduction and Q&A session, putting me in charge of reading a lot (though not all) of the English vocabulary and sentences, and giving me a big role to play in the lesson's game.
While Nogi Elementary School only had one class for each of the six grades, Narashino #1 Jr. High has around five classes for each of its three grades. So instead of teaching six different lessons once each every week, I'm teaching three or four lessons several times each every week. All the first year classes, for example, are on the same English lesson so I pretty much did the exact same class five times over two days. On the one hand, this means there's a lot less planning and preparation (not that I have to do a whole lot in the first place). On the other, repeating the same lesson over and over can get a bit old.
As an interesting note, each classes has something like three English lessons per week but I'm only with them for one. On the one hand, I feel like I could do a better job and get to know the students better if I was there for every class. On the other hand, I realize that really wouldn't work since that would mean teaching something like 9 classes every day (assuming none of them overlapped). They have a different Japanese English teacher for every year for a reason, after all. Note that, unlike in the US, the teachers don't focus on only teaching a single year. Instead, they follow their classes up through from first year to the second and then to third so that the kids have the same teachers all the way through until highschool (elementary and high school teachers in Japan do the same).
But anyway, my first year lessons were about the progressive (-ing) form of verbs. The classes started out with a bingo game of English words for vocabulary practice. Next I gave a seven minute or so introduction (using a Colorado photo book I got for just such an occasion) followed by several minutes of Q&A. Then the English teacher went over the use of -ing (primarily in Japanese), and then we moved on to a gesture game. After the teacher and I did a demo, the students broke into groups and took turns doing a gesture of some sort while the rest of the group members tried to guess what they were doing by saying "Are you ---ing?" Next, one student from each group had to come up and take a card from the teacher than do a gesture based on that card while the rest of the class guessed. Some of his cards (like "speaking Chinese") were pretty difficult, but in the end someone always managed to figure them out (though hints were needed from time to time. And that was about it. Lessons run for 50 minutes each and there are six periods a day along with a lunch break and cleaning time. That's pretty much how it was at my elementary schools, except that they had a couple of designated recess times while jr. high does not. Students have the last half or so of the lunch hour free after they finish eating but that's about it.
People always tell me that Japanese kids get a lot more shy once you get to jr. high and so far I'd say that they're right, for the most part. The first years are still pretty loud and energetic though the girls seem to be a bit more reserved than in elementary school (the older kids are a different story entirely but that's a subject for another day). Because of that, their lessons are still fairly fun and game like (though they are much more serious than those in elementary school), which I enjoyed. But not being in charge of much during class will take some getting used to since I'm not always sure what I can and can't do or how I should act when I'm just standing around and waiting to be called on. So far, I've only really interacted with the kids in class and in the halls but, now that a lot of them know me from class, I'm going to start I'm going to start going outside with them after lunch and see if I get invited to play ball or something.
Other then teaching (or assisting in) classes, and a little lesson prep, I've been spending most of my time studying Japanese and writing stuff for this travelogue and my new Japan blog. I eat lunch in the school, either in the teachers' room or with the students. Unlike in Nogi Elementary, everyone who eats in the teachers' room does so separately at their own desks rather than all together at a table. Once again, the food is surprisingly good (though I need to be careful to make sure I don't eat something I shouldn't). But, also unlike Nogi, you have to bring your own tableware (chopsticks or whatever), which caught me off guard for the first couple of days so I had to resort to borrowing a little sugar fork (or something like that) from the tea room. I also help out with the daily cleaning time (see my September entries) by supervising the three girls assigned to the computer room.
And that pretty much my first couple of days of classes. I'll talk about my impressions of the second and third year students on Friday.

Random Japan Comment: Japanese Names
Japanese people all has given names (first names) and family names (last names). When introducing themselves, they always say their family (last) name first, followed by their given (first) name. Note that some Japanese people will switch this up when talking to foreigners, as they know we do things differently. On that same note, they generally expect foreigners to say their given name first when introducing themselves.
Most of the time, Japanese people call each other by their family names followed by a suffix of some sort. There's quite a lot of different name suffixes, and I might explain a bunch of them in a future RJC, but for now just know that -san (roughly equivalent to Mr. / Ms.) is sorta the genetic one and is suitable for most situations. So the famous Japanese pop singer Hikaru Utada would introduce herself as Utada Hikaru and most people would call her Utada-san. Note that if it becomes necessary to differentiate between multiple people with the same family name, you can use their full name (adding -san or another name suffix to the end of their given name) such as Utada Hikarui-san.
Even if you know someone rather well, it's very rude to address them by their given name or without an appropriate name suffix unless they first ask you to do so. Some do rather quickly, especially when speaking to foreigners (since, as I said, they know we do things differently) but for most Japanese people, calling someone by their given name, especially without a suffix, is a privilege reserved only for their family (who generally call each other by their given names) and closest friends. They will, however, often call foreigners by their first names (yet again, they know that's how we often do it).
I should also note that there's no such thing as middle names in Japan. Some understand the concept, others don't. Because of this, it's generally easiest to ignore your middle name entirely whenever possible.

Wednesday (the 19th): Eating Out

I'll be talking about my classes and stuff in Friday's write up but I did do one thing today besides work. Wednesday has always been my traditional eat out night. Usually I get pizza but when I lived in Japan before I used to go to the kaiten zushi (conveyor belt sushi) place near my apartment. Following tradition, I've designated Wednesday night as the one time I go out to eat during the work week. Since it's right on the way between my apartment and the train station I use to get to work, and the building really sticks out, I decided to try this place. It's a family style Italian restaurant (I'll explain exactly what that means in the following RJC).
Anyway, as expected the menu wasn't exactly authentic Italian or American food. There were a couple of more normal items on the menu but I decided that I might as well try something a bit more unique to Japan so I got a personal pizza. Before you say that a pizza doesn't sound very Japanese, you may want to take a look at the entry about pizza in my previous travelogue (November 30th). So yeah, this was by means an ordinary pizza. It was a curry pizza. Basically pizza crust with a layer of Japanese curry topped with cheese and sprinkled with some chopped tomatoes and oregano. While I'm rather hesitant to call the result a true pizza, as someone who likes Japanese curry I have to say that it tasted pretty good.

Random Japan Comment: Family Restaurants
Family restaurants are places like Denny's (actually, Denny's is a fairly popular family restaurant chain here, as is Gusto). Fairly large, a lot of tables and booths, and a wide selection of food (usually "American" and/or "Italian"). They're designed to appeal to families and large groups (as many restaurants in Japan are really small) and tend to stay open very late (sometimes 24 hours a day). They're fairly inexpensive (around $5-$12 for a meal, depending what you get) and many feature a drink bar which means you can just drink water (which you get yourself from the bar) or you can pay a couple hundred yen and have unlimited access to whatever drinks you want (usually soda, juice, tea, and coffee). As an interesting note, after showing you to your table the waitress usually disappears (menus and silverware are on the table already or brought when you're shown in). There's a button on the table you can use to call her back when you're ready to order. Your receipt generally arrives with your food (so it helps to plan ahead if you're going to want drinks or dessert) and you take it to the counter when you're ready to pay.
You should keep in mind that when I say American and Italian food, I mean Japanese takes on America and Italian food which, while they're often pretty good, tend to be far from authentic. Japanese American food tends to feature a lot of hamburg steaks (a hamburger done up like a steak with some cooked vegetables) and beef with demiglaze sauce while Italian is mainly spaghetti and pizzas, many with really strange collections of toppings. Like I said, some of it can be pretty good, but don't go in expecting to find the same things you'd find on the menu of a real American or Italian restaurant back home (and don't expect your average Japanese person to know the difference).

Friday (the 21st): Teaching the Second and Third Year Students
As I previously mentioned, all my first year classes for the week were on Monday and Tuesday. On Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday I had classes with all of the second year classes, a couple of the third year ones, and the special needs class.
The second years' classes are lot more by the book than the first years', though the teacher makes a lots of activities and work sheets that are based on the material in the book, rather then using the book itself a whole lot in class. The second year English teacher is a really nice and enthusiastic guy, has the best English of all the teachers here, and often asks me for advice regarding lesson plans and activities. I think he's the only Japanese person who has ever told me to speak English faster (the opposite is usually the case). I've given an intro at the beginning of each class (with slightly more complex English than the one I used for the first years), complete with a short karate demonstration (which always seems to impress the kids). The class itself involves some word and sentence repetition (I'm usually the one saying the English words and sentences) along with flash cards and a review of the previous lesson's material. The teacher than explains the key grammar point in Japanese, after which there are some activities based on it. Most of these activities boil down to either filling out a work sheet or pairing up and taking turns translating sentences from Japanese to English and vice versa. Lessons themselves aren't as much fun as the ones for the first year students, but there's a lot of English used and I get to help out quite a bit. In general, the students are much more subdued than the first years, though most of the classes have at least a few highly energetic members (mostly boys). Overall though, there's a tendency towards silence and mumbling responses, especially when students are called on individually or in small groups rather than as an entire class.
The third grade classes are highly by the book. Once again, the teacher explains the grammar point entirely in Japanese. Then there's a lot of reading and practice coming directly from the text, followed by a practice activity based on the grammar point. Today, for example, was mostly on self introductions. While they seem nice, the third year English teachers are far more subdued than their counterparts in the lower grades. They also use relatively little English in class outside of the text in the book or on homework sheets. As with the second year students, a lot of the third years are fairly quiet and subdued, though there are still some notable exceptions here and there. I don't have a whole lot to do during third year classes though, with my only tasks being a little bit of pronunciation (not much, as the Japanese English teachers handle most of it) and helping out with some of the activities when asked. Unsurprisingly, I'm not all that fond of doing the third year classes, but I don't have very many of them anyway as most of the kids are really busy with high school entrance exams.
Finally there's the special needs class (called the hatabaki class at this school). I was with one of the third year English teachers for it but I got to take a much more active role. There were only eight kids, all of whom were very friendly and energetic. I started out with lengthy introduction (using very simple English, with the teacher translating into Japanese as we went), after which we reviewed the alphabet, played snakes and ladders (to practice counting in English), and then played a card game to practice hiragana (one of the three written languages used in Japanese), which I also helped with. It was an enjoyable class and a nice change of pace from the others.
Now that most of the kids know who I am, I've also started to hang out in the field outside during "recess" which is just the last 20 minutes or so of lunch break, which is fun. At Nogi Elementary, dodgeball was the game of choice for most of the kids. Here, the boys are mostly divided between a couple of soccer games though there's also a few who play catch (with baseballs and gloves) and a few who like to kick a volleyball around. As for the girls, quite a lot of them stay indoors, but the ones who do go outside tend to form circles and try to keep a volleyball in the air (which they usually aren't very good at.
I'm also eating lunch with the kids more and quite a lot of them have started saying hi to me in the hallways (which for some seems to be endlessly entertaining).
There isn't a whole lot of interesting stuff to photograph but I did take a couple of pictures. This picture shows why you really don't want to be riding trains with the morning rush. Fortunately, that's not my train. And this one is of the teachers' room at my school. Notice the old fashioned heater in the center of the picture (which is right next to my desk, though you can't see it). I never saw a heater that like before but they're used all throughout the school. They're gas heaters (they have hoses which plug into the wall) so they don't use any electricity. The steam from the teapot on top helps keep the heater from drying out the room too much. You could also use the water to make tea, but here they've got electric water heaters for that.
And that's my job at Narashino #1 JHS. I don't like it as much as Nogi Elementary, but it's not bad overall. My only serious complaint is the commute. Between walking and trains, it takes around an hour each way. And, since it involves two walks and two trains, it's not like I can just sit down and play my DS or PSP for an hour (which wouldn't be quite so bad). So yeah, things here are ok. Now I just need to finish the last of my travel planning and switch my focus to job applications so I'll have some place to work (be it Japan or the US) once I'm finished here.

Saturday (the 22nd): Services in Tokyo

Following my normal Saturday plans, I had an easy morning then headed into Tokyo for services (well, technically I live in Tokyo but way on the outskirts so it's a little hard to think of it as such). Nothing too amazing about that, but I was finally able to get a nice group picture of everyone (well, almost everyone since one person had to leave early and I was taking the photo). Afterwards, when she heard I was planning to go out to eat by myself, Yunsoo (back right in the photo) invited me to go out with her, her two daughters, and younger sister (the three girls in the back). We ended up at a Seizeriya (a family restaurant chain) and had a nice meal while chatting about a variety of things in Japanese. I had to look up some words here and there on my dictionary, but for the most part I think I did pretty well. Definitely good practice.
Afterwards I spotted an oddly named bakery and made a quick stop in Akihabara to check a couple of stores for this one thing I've been looking for. I didn't find it, but I did run across some girls in ninja outfits doing a little concert outside. They were singing something about soccer, but I wasn't able to figure out the name of the group itself. It goes to show that, like I said before, despite the crowds, weekends are the best time to visit Akihabara.

Random Japan Comment: Manners
Proper manners in Japan are a bit different than they are in the US. For example, it's perfectly ok to sniff if your nose is stuffed up, slurp your soup (which you drink right out of the bowl) and noodles, and put your elbows on the table. Also, you don't see many people opening doors or giving up their seats on trains for women and the elderly (it does happen, but you don't see it as much as you do in the US). Though there are some things (such as not spitting on the street), that are the same in both countries it's important to be considerate of those around you. But if you want to display proper manner in Japan, here's some things to get you started.
1. Always take off your shoes at the proper locations. I've written about this before, but when entering houses, apartments, shrines, some museums and restaurants, and random other buildings there will be a place to take off your shoes (usually a raised area), which you often swap for a pair of slippers of some sort. Note that, before stepping on tatami (woven straw) mats, you're supposed to take the slippers off as well. This is very important.
2. Don't leaves your chopsticks sticking out of a bowl of rice. They do that in funeral services, so it's considered back luck to do it at other times. Lay your chopsticks to the side or on the lip of the bowl instead.
3. Don't use the little hand towel you get at restaurants on anything other than your hands or use it as a napkin, it's only for cleaning your hands before eating.
4. Don't point, ever. If you absolutely have to use your hands to indicate something, do it with more of a wave.
5. Don't blow your nose in public. Even if you have a tissue or handkerchief, this is considered very rude.
6. Don't brag and accept praise only reluctantly (usually after denying it two or three times). In fact, to be fully proper you should tend to play down your accomplishments, company, family, and gift you're giving, etc until forced to reluctantly accept that they're not quite as bad as you're making them out to be. Basically, play down anything that makes you look good and play up things that make the other person look good (so you're praising each other, not yourselves). Note that job interview are an exceptions to this
7. If you know some Japanese, always use polite speech until you know enough to understand when it's ok to use informal speech. Even then, error on the side of caution.
8. If you get invited to someone's house, bring a gift (preferably nicely wrapped). Some type of food or flowers is the most appropriate. If you receive such a gift, don't open it right away unless they ask you to (wait till the other person isn't around).
9. At parties, don't fill your own glass, fill the glasses of those sitting next to you and they'll fill yours in turn.
10. Avoid public displays of affection. Things like hugging and kissing in public are frowned upon.
11. Don't say "no". Not that you can't refuse a request or answer a question in the negative, but Japanese go to great pains to do so without ever actually saying no.
Note that, as a foreigner, you can pretty much ignore 6 and 11 unless you're really trying to sound and act Japanese. If you don't know any Japanese you can safely screw up 7 without offending anyone but, as all the Japanese words and phrases you're likely to find in a travel book and beginning Japanese classes are in polite form, it shouldn't come up. As for the rest of these, you'll usually be forgiven (or at least overlooked) if you make mistakes here and there so long as you're doing so accidentally and not just trying to be rude. The one you most have to watch out for is 1 as wearing shoes where you're not supposed to is a really big deal.

Sunday (the 24th): Harajuku

Yesterday, Yunsoo asked me if I could visit them in the evening and help her daughter Hunbee study English for her upcoming high school entrance exams. So, I looked at the list of potential day trips I made last week and decided to do my "walk around Harajuku and Shinjku" day since I could easily finish it up a little early and take a quick train ride to the appropriate station. I was originally planning to visit Shibuya as well, but never ended up getting there. (I talked a bit about those areas in my entries for August 4th and September 9th.)
Anyway, I started out at Omotesando since it's near all three of those areas and I remembered stumbling across a health food store around there the last time I was in Japan, which had some things you can't find in regular Japanese grocery stores (like good peanut butter). Although I was pretty sure I had the right station, that was about all I remembered so I decided to just go out the closest exit and walk around a bit. As luck would have it, I actually come out right across the street from the store. While it certainly couldn't compete with a good Whole Foods back home, for Japan (where things like organic produce and health food are kinda rare) it was pretty nice. Plus, they imported some things (like that peanut butter) from the US so I stocked up on a few things (keeping in mind that I'd have to carry around whatever I bought for the rest of the day). For those of you with no interest in health food or peanut butter, there's a fancy donut shop in the same area.
When I'd finished looking around the store, I started walking towards Harajuku (Tokyo's teen fashion district). Along the way I spotted a couple of interesting looking buildings and got a photo of Meiji Dori, the area's major road, about half an hour before it got lost under crowds of shoppers. I passed the Oriental Bazaar on my way so I decided to take a quick look inside. It really sticks out due to its Japanese shrine style exterior and it's basically a big souvenir shop. The first floor and basement have a pretty good selection of the type of things you can find in Asakusa and some of Japan's more famous tourist spots without the hassle of actually going to those spots, dealing with the crowds, and searching through tiny stores. Though, in my opinion, that stuff is half the fun. Plus Oriental Bazaar is a bit on the expensive side. The top floor is a bit more interesting though as it's filled with a variety of antiques (neat but very expensive). All I got was some postcards to send to my grandparents before heading to my next destination, the nearby ukiyoe museum.
Ukiyoe is a type of Japanese art created using ink and carved blocks of wood to make an image on paper. When it comes to old Japanese art, I really like the way they do plants, animals, and landscapes. Not quite so fond of the way they depict people, but the detail on some of the clothing is pretty impressive. Anyway, the museum wasn't all that large but they have some really nice stuff on display. Unfortunately, photography wasn't allowed so you'll just have to take my word for it.
Next up, I spent a while walking around Harajuku. Specifically the little streets (Harajuku St., Takeshita St., and Cat St.) where all the crazy clothing stores are. Well, there are also some in the Laforet mall, but they were having some sort of enormous sale so it was jam packed and it seemed just about every store had an employee with a plastic megaphone yelling out the day's bargains so I didn't stay in there for very long. Like pretty much every popular spot in Tokyo, Harajuku is at its best, but also its most crowded, on weekends. These little streets are lined with all sorts of clothing and accessory stores, some of which have pretty strange names (well, that last one is only strange when you think about where else stuff would be made). Some are American or British imports and some are standard designer fair, but a lot of stores sport some very interesting outfits. Of course, most of the people on the street aren't dressed in anything near that elaborate, but Harajuku is the place to go the see and be seen in the latest Japanese fashions so you will see some people decked out in all sorts of interesting clothes. Unfortunately, the large crowds combined with the fact that everyone is moving at a pretty decent speed makes it hard to get good photographs. At that point I was pretty hungry so I stopped in a very crowded food court I passed in the middle of Takeshita St., where I quickly noticed that, even counting the restaurant employees, there were probably at least thirty girls up there for every guy.
When I made it out of the packed shopping streets, I headed to Harajuku Station. The station is just North of the entrance to the park surrounding Meiji Jingu Shrine (which I talked about in the afore mentioned September 9th entry). And, if you want to do some people watching without fighting the crowds, the bridge leading to said park is one of the best places to do so. There's a raised walkway you can use to cross the road right nearby and it's relatively uncrowded and gives you a great view of the bridge below. Aside from serving as the entryway to the park, the bridge is also a popular hang out for some to Tokyo's trendiest(?) teens.
Once I was done taking photos, I made my way north to Shinjuku station (which turned out to be a bit further away than I'd thought).
There are a ton of shops and stuff surrounding the station but I didn't have a whole lot of time to look around because I had to catch a train to get to the part of the city where Yunsoo lives (a quiet residential area). Hunbee met me at the station and showed me the way to their apartment (which is good, since I doubt I would have been able to find it on my own). She had a practice book of old test questions so we spent a while going over that together. Gotta say the English seemed a decent bit more advanced than the stuff they teach at Narashino #1. Which makes me wonder if it's a school thing or if there's a bit of a disconnect between the people that write the test and the ones that design public school English curriculums. Interesting note: while we tend to label the answers to problems on multiple choice tests a, b, c, and d, Japanese use the first four letters of their katakana alphabet (the a, i, u, and e sounds). When we'd finished studying, Yunsoo made oden for dinner (a hot pot dish with vegetables, tofu, fish cakes, and the like inside). Like a proper Japanese or Korean meal (Yunsoo is originally from South Korea), there was a lot of rice and little side dishes as well. Afterwards, I helped Eunbee (Hunbee's older sister) with a introduction letter she was writing in English for an US home stay program she's going to apply to and then we all just sat around and talked for a while, which made for great Japanese practice. Once again, there were lots of time when one of us would pull out an electronic dictionary to look up one word or another but I'm still pretty happy with how I did. Just need to work on my kanji and vocabulary...

Random Japan Comment: Thinking About English
When you've been speaking a language your entire life, a lot of the usage rules come naturally and you don't really think about how or why they're the way they are. For example, chances are you weren't formally taught the specific differences between at, on, and in in relation to dates and times and when to use each one. You probably weren't taught which sports you're playing (i.e. play football) and which you're just -ing (i.e. bowling) either. But, if you're teaching English, you're bound to be asked what the rules are for things like that (by teachers if not students). And there usually is a rule of some kind, whether you know it or not. When this happens to me, I quickly run through some sample sentences in my head and try to figure out what makes each one different, which usually leads me to the rule. For example, with a few exceptions: at (in relation to time) is used for hours and minutes (i.e. at 7:30), on is for days or dates (i.e. on Friday), and in is for long periods of time like months, years, or seasons (i.e. in March).
It's interesting how being in another country actually improve your English skills.

1/26/2011 A bit of poetry

The first year students' had their afternoon classes today (mine included) canceled for a special activity so I went with them to watch. They ended up in the gym (interesting note, Narashino #1 has more first years than my old school (Nogi Elementary) had students) to play a traditional Japanese game. I can't think of the name at the moment, but it's an old game that is traditionally played around New Year's.  Basically the kids grouped up and laid a whole bunch of cards with Japanese writing on the floor. Each card has the second part of a Japanese poem or saying written on it. Meanwhile, someone up front (a bunch of teachers took turns) would read (or more like chant) one of the poems or lines, starting from the very beginning. The first kid in each group to grab the matching card would get a point but grabbing the wrong one would incur a penalty.
To give a US style example, let's say you had three cards which said the following. 1" "bring May flowers." 2: "is a penny earned." and 3: "P's and Q's". Then the guy up front says "A penny saved-" so you quickly snatch up card 2.
There were somewhere around 90 cards in a deck so between the setup, game, cleanup, and closing ceremony, the whole thing took around two hours. I tried to look for the right cards as I watched the kids playing and I did manage to spot a couple of them but since I don't really know any Japanese poems, I could only find cards after the reader had already gotten to the second verse (the part written on the card), by which time it would almost certainly be gone. Some of the kids were really good though (or maybe just in really bad groups) so the winning score was somewhere in the low 70's). It'd be interesting to try the game out with some of my friends to studied Japanese. If nothing else, it'd be good practice.

Random Japan Comment: 100 Yen Stores
I talked about 100 Yen stores a bit in my old travelogue but I stopped by one the other day and it's just hard to get over how amazing they are. The king of Japanese 100 Yen stores is Daiso (a large chain). And yes, most of the stuff in the store costs only 100 Yen (well, 105 with tax), though you'll find a few items going for several hundred as well (which is still much cheaper than what they'd cost anywhere else). While US dollar stores aren't anything to write home about, the quality and selection at your average Daiso is really impressive. For example, if I end up staying in Japan for a long time I could easily get all the plates, cups, utensils, and kitchen items I'll ever need from Daiso. And I'm not talking about chintzy little plastic things either. This is all professional looking good quality stuff. Sure you may be getting plastic instead of wood or ceramic instead of china, but it looks almost as good and at 100 or 200 yen a piece, you'll save an enormous amount of money. Daiso also carries a lot of other useful household goods (bags, plastic wrap, light bulbs, tools, cushions, towels, etc, etc, etc), all sorts of stationary and school supplies (note books, pens, etc), clothing and assessors, toys, and even food (including a surprisingly decent selection of spices). And I know I'm forgetting a few categories. Furniture and appliances aside, you could probably furnish an empty house or apartment entirely with stuff from a Daiso. They really should expand to the US, they'd put all the current dollar stores out of business in no time.

Wednesday (the 26th): AKB48

One thing I didn't get a chance to do last time I was in Japan was go to a concert so this time I've been keeping an eye out for something suitable. Unfortunately, my favorite groups aren't touring at the moment but I ended up finding a good one anyway. Although they've been around for a few years, over the last year or two AKB48 has become the hottest pop idol group in Japan. Seems pretty much everyone knows and loves AKB, has AKB merchandise, and knows every single member by name, which is impressive since there's 48 of them. Yes, I said 48. AKB48 is so named because it features 48 girls (with ages ranging from early teens to early twenties), divided into three teams (A, K, and B). To leverage that, most of their albums are released in three different versions (one for each team). So what exactly do 16 girls do on stage all at once? They sing, of course. Quite a lot of the time anywhere from several to all of the girls are singing at once though there's lots of songs that feature some solos or duets (usually with the girls switching off frequently). Their songs also tend to feature some rather elaborate dances. To give you an idea, here's a youtube video of a performance of one of their newest singles. In fact, a lot of their CDs come with a bonus DVD containing the music videos for the songs.
Anyway, AKB took over the top floor of the Akihabara Don Quixote store and usually has at least several concerts there each week. Getting tickets isn't easy though, as you have to sign up on their web site and enter a lottery for your chosen show. If you win the lottery then you can buy a ticket. And, with only around 250 tickets per show (buildings in Akihabara aren't all that big), it takes a good bit of luck to get in. Anyway, I'd been trying for a couple of a weeks and ended up winning a ticket for tonight's show. Fortunately, one of the train stations near my school is on the same line as Akihabara so I was able to leave right after work, grab a train, and make it in time to get my ticket. The ticket cost 2000 Yen (a bit over $20), which wasn't bad. Especially considering that the concert went for around an hour and forty five minutes. And, with such a small theater (the front row of seats was pretty much right up at the stage and the entire place could probably fit in my old apartment in Arizona)), there really wasn't any such thing as a bad seat.
Unfortunately, cameras weren't allowed so if you want to see more you'll just have to take a look at some of the other videos on youtube. I didn't actually see Team A, K, or B, but Team Kenkyuusei (Research Students), who do a lot of the Akihabara concerts. Basically, they're the back-ups who are in line to get promoted into the main teams when a current AKB member retires. But backups or not, they were really good and, like the regular members, they all have a number of very dedicated fans. Despite the cramped confines, the girls had a big enough stage to do their dances (complete with lots of fancy lighting) and they had a costume change for pretty much every song. It started out with all 16 members on stage and they did several songs in a row (stripping down into different outfits as they went). After that there was a pause as as the girls all introduced themselves and said a little bit about something or other (what they liked, interesting things that had happened to them recently, etc). Since, after all, when it comes to Japanese pop idols you're selling the girls as much as you are the music. As they finished, the girls slipped off to change outfits then went into a series of songs featuring several girls each and one solo number. Then there was another talk time (this time they conversed with each other about a given subject) followed by another set of songs with all 16 girls on at the same time. Really wish I could have gotten some videos to show you since the costumes, dances, and music were all excellent. I'll have to get some CDs some time... Anyway, here's a couple youtube video clips from live Team Kenkyuusei shows so you can get some idea of it.

Friday (the 28th): Gaijin Card
As part of the whole visa process (yes, like last time I had to come to Japan and start work before actually getting my working visa), I had to go to my city office today and apply for a gaijin (foreigner) card, which is basically an ID card for foreigners living in Japan. Thing is, just to make life inconvenient, the city office is only open on weekdays during standard business hours, which means it's kinda impossible to go when you've got a day job. So I had to get permission to leave work early, which was easy enough, but I got docked a few hours pay because of it even though I'd already finished all my classes and other teaching related duties for the day (the rest of my work day would have been sitting in the teachers' room working on personal stuff (like this travelogue) on my laptop). But anyway, I found the office easily enough and filled out the form only to find that I needed to go get a couple of photos for them. Unlike the US, you need to bring your own photos, they don't take them for you. Fortunately, Japan has photo booths everywhere. Unfortunately, they aren't free and I didn't have the right change so I had to run out to the nearest convenience store and break one of my 10,000 Yen bills. On the bright side, it's kinda cool (and convenient) being able to pay for a 300 Yen purchase with a 10,000 Yen bill (the clerks don't even give you a nasty look or anything). Anyway, once all the photos and paperwork were done I got a paper I can use in place of the card until it's ready to be picked up (they won't mail it to you) in a couple weeks. I'm hoping I won't have to take more time off to do that, as the office has a limited services counter open Wednesday nights (too limited to do the whole card process but hopefully not so limited that they can't take the completed card out of a drawer and hand it to me).
On my way out, I also happened across the biggest grocery store I've ever seen in Japan (about the same as a medium sized grocery store back home). Too bad it's so far away from my apartment...

Random Japan Comments: Photo Booths
You'll find little photo booths everywhere you go in Japan. Train stations and shopping centers often feature generic ones where you can get a simple sheet of photos in several sizes, perfect for applying for a passport, driver's license or other official card, sticking on a resume (which many companies in Japan only accept when hand written and sent by regular mail) and the like. As a note, the Japanese way to pose for such pictures is in a full suit, against a plain white background, staring straight at the camera without smiling.
Meanwhile, arcades and touristy spots have much fancier photo booths which let you add special effects to your photos, stick them on special backgrounds (one or two of which is probably unique to that particular booth or area) and the like. Often, you'll have a group of friends cramming themselves into the same booth to get their picture taken together. And, since people in Japan are so big on hobbies and collections, you have the people who travel around trying to get photos with all the special backgrounds and the like. Seems a bit extreme to me, but I guess a hobby is a hobby.

Saturday and Sunday (29th and 30th): Shopping and Hanging Out

I'm afraid I didn't do anything too exciting this weekend (got a lot of plans for next week though). Saturday night after services were over, I headed to Shinjuku to pay my rent for next month. Of course, Shinjuku is nowhere near my apartment, but the rental company's office is there and they only accept payment in person. A bit inconvenient, but since I was there I decided to walk around a bit. Shinjuku is a rather major area of Tokyo and is especially known for its night life so the area around the station is really lit up after dark. There's a whole lot of stores and restaurants there (and a rather oddly named capsule hotel; see my March 8th entry for more on capsule hotels) so I stopped to grab some sushi too. If you go a bit further you'll come across an area with a whole lot of bars, night clubs, and the like. There were also a lot of hostess bars, where you can get really overpriced drinks while chatting with a cute girl (and probably buying her some of those same overpriced drinks). And yes, it's just talking. The appeal is that the girls are cute and friendly and act very interested in whatever the customer is talking about. I think they're mainly popular with older business men. Women aren't left out either, as there are also host clubs where they can get overpriced drinks while chatting with handsome young men. I've heard that there's some other streets in the same general area with clubs and businesses which are considerably more risque (and often considerably less legal) but I really don't know anything about that other than what I've read in some tour books (which understandably don't go into a lot of detail).
Anyway, after I'd finished walking around, I still had a little time before the stores started to close (eight o'clock, with a few exceptions) so I made a brief stop at Nakano Broadway since it was only several minutes away. I only had about forty minutes there, but it was worth it since I found a CD I've been looking everywhere for (the single for the Macross Frontier opening theme Lion, if you're curious). I also managed to get a picture of the entrance of one of the Mandrake stores (a chain of used toy, game, manga, etc stores) when no one was looking (for some reason, they don't like you photographing them). Oh, and I found a pretty strange capsule figurine machine. Would you want a bunch of figurines of this guy? Me neither.
Sunday wasn't overly eventful either. The landlord of my apartment building was having a party and I figured that it wouldn't be a bad idea to go and meet some of the other people. Unfortunately, it was at 2 PM which really cut the day in half, so I ended up spending the morning on my computer chatting with people and booking hotels for the week long trip I'm planning at the end of February - beginning of March. I get a week and a half off of work then because...um... Probably just so the school board can say I'm a part time employee and pay me by the day instead of giving me a full salary. But I've got a really cool trip planned so I don't mind.
At the party I met the landlord's family (briefly, as they were sitting at the opposite end of the table) and some of the other tenants. There were a couple other Americans and five Europeans (three from the UK, two from France), mostly in their early twenties. Three of them had spent a a bit of time in Japan before but the rest were all pretty new. Not quite sure what the French guys were doing (they didn't speak much English) but everyone else was either teaching English or looking for a teaching job. The food (roast beef, salad, rice, etc) was good and I enjoyed talking to everyone. But, even if I do end up getting another job in Japan come April, I doubt I'll stay in that apartment building for very long. It's not a bad place (as far as small Japanese apartments go) but, after a month of hour long commutes, in the future I want to live much closer to my work place. And, were I going to stay in Japan for a while, I'd want a bigger apartment. You know, one with more than one room. Anyway, the party was fun but I didn't leave until around 4:30 so that didn't leave a whole lot of time to do stuff (most attractions tend to close around 5 or 6 and shops at 8) so I hung out in Akihabara for a while looking for (and failing to find) a certain rare game that's been eluding me. I also ate at the excellent food court on the 8th floor of Yodobashi Camera, which I've been wanting to do all month.
So yeah, nothing too exciting but I've got some good stuff planned for both next Sunday and the following Friday (which I have off since it's a national holiday) so I'll make up for it then...

Random Japan Comment: CD Singles
Remember the good old days when music was stored on records and most big songs were released as singles (with the hit song on one side of the record and a less popular song on the other (B) side)? No? Well me neither. I'm nowhere near that old, though I've heard all about it from my dad. Anyway, when cassette tapes and then CDs came along, the idea of releasing songs as singles pretty much died along with records. At least in the US... In Japan, however, a quick look in any music store will reveal a vast selection of singles CDs. A singles CD generally costs between 1,000 and 1,500 yen and contains the title song plus one or two others. They usually also include instrumental versions (as in, just the music without the vocals) of anywhere between one and all of the songs (for karaoke practice, probably). In Japan, most popular music groups primarily release singles and then, every so often, put out a full album (which tend to retail for 2,500 - 3,500 yen) that's mostly made up of the best songs from their more recent singles. Seeing as quite a lot of music albums (in any country) only have a couple of good songs, I think the singles approach makes for a nice alternative to MP3 downloads. And used single CDs tend to sell for really cheap (often 100 - 400 yen each) so they can be a good way to stock up on the best music of your favorite Japanese singer.

Pokemon and all related images and trademarks are copyrighted by Nintendo, one of my favorite games companies who would certainly never waste their time by trying to sue me. Especially since I'm protected under the Fair Use Rule of the United States Copyright Act of 1976. Aside from that the actual site content is copyrighted by me, Josiah Lebowitz 2003.