Squiggles and Stars

As you know, I was a crazy person that came to Japan having never studied the Japanese language. And for the first year, it was fine. I bumbled my way through days, pantomimed, patched together bits and pieces of Japanese that I’d overheard from students (often with hilarious reactions) and got around the language barrier through sheer will. It also helped that my English teachers were amazing and that other teachers at my school were secret English ninjas that could comfortably communicate in my native tongue. So I got by easily.

A bit before the beginning of Year 2, something changed. It became clear to me that sure, I was getting by, but I wasn’t connecting as well as I could. I recognized some kanji, but there were times they were pronounced differently than the one I heard most often. I had Japanese friends, but would need a third party friend’s help translating to have a deep conversation. Hell, even becoming more independent and doing technical stuff at my bank or with my car would cause me to regress to the old “Excuse-me-teachers-can-I-drag-you-out-to-help-read-a-document?”-itis.

The first year here is chaotic. Everyone expects to be blessed with the “full immersion sponge” effect and to have all the time in the world to study, but it seems to breeze by in a flurry of work and travels and random happenstances that left my grammar and kanji books untouched and covered in dust. NO MORE! I resolved, as many of my fellow JETs did, to make my second year the “Year I Actually Learn Some Japanese Like For Real This Time.”

But motivation is hard. So for a while there, I didn’t.

But then in September, a friend and study guru emerged and reminded us all of the upcoming JLPT – Japanese Language Proficiency Test – that would be held on December 1st. This test is held twice a year, and offers 5 different levels (Beginner to Freakin’-Super-Fluent) to try for. I thought about it a bit, and signed up for the lowest level, with the added motivation of a ¥6000 sign-up fee. That did the trick.

There’s a lot that can be said for learning a language while fully immersed in the country and culture. I was able to scornfully flip through the earlier pages and scoff, “Duh, that’s easy.” The basic sounds; practical phrases; everyday greetings, requests, farewells and apologies…I heard these daily and my brain had thankfully allowed them to stick. No problem!

Wait, wait, wait. Why do you look so complicated all of a sudden?

Then my cocky page-flipping stalled. Oh. Grammar, huh? Vocabulary that isn’t always required in daily life. Kanji that can be pronounced…how many different ways?! Balls. Immersion didn’t cover my complete lack of foundation.

There my second problem shone clearly: learning out of a book (well, books) kind of sucks. Without a structure, a strict teacher, or the fear-based motivation of mandatory homework, tests, and grading, it’s really hard to keep yourself on track. I had busier weeks that left my books cold and lonely in my office, only to be guiltily picked up and cracked open to the woeful statement, “Oh crap, where did I leave off again?”

And as an added bonus, Japanese just so happens to be one of the most difficult languages for a native English speaker to pick up. So…that’s swell. The Foreign Service Institute includes Japanese in the few most difficult languages for folks like me, categorized as “Hard” in some places and “Exceptionally Difficult” in others, requiring at least 88 weeks or 2200 hours of (focused) study to learn decently. Japanese even has a little asterisk on the website, which I can only assume was the result of the typist’s laughter that anyone would even try.

Outlook: Highly stressful

So with all of that looming over my inconsistently studying head, I plugged away and scraped through my books as best I could before December 1st. And on that day, it was go-time!

After taking the usual obscene amount of time to get anywhere from the middle of nowhere, I parked in Saijo and hopped on a bus to the university. There were hundreds of people there – ALTs I knew, non-JET ALTs I didn’t know, international students, immigrants, and more – because this was the only place and the only day to take this test for the entire prefecture. It was cool to see.

I trudged into the room for the N5 level test – the lowest level offered, thank you – and was happy to see some familiar faces. I was less happy that the room sounded like a crypt. In America, people are usually free to relax and do whatever they like before standardized tests. In this room, we were forbidden to do pretty much anything but blink. The other ALTs and I made faces at each other in the oppressive silence.

Then came the crackdown. Pencils had to be of a certain type. The little papers around erasers had to be removed. Watches silenced, phones threatened with a brutal demise, hats stowed. We were educated in the card system. One violation of the many rules, one yellow card. A serious violation, a red card. 2 yellows = 1 red. Like soccer!

I thought this was ridiculous until the high-pitched moderator slammed yellow cards in front of two guys on the far side of the room for prematurely touching their test materials. Yikes.

The test began. First section, vocabulary. 25 minutes. Not bad. Easy kanji!

Second section, grammar and reading. 50 minutes. Grammar sucks and there were a lot of random stars on random lines.

Third section, listening. 30 minutes. Again, not terrible. Yay for immersion!

Finally, we were free to flee. I wandered around the campus with kanji squiggles and confusing grammar stars in my eyes and ended up watching some college guys play tennis to thaw out my brain. Overall, the test took about 3 hours. Higher level exams had it worse. But it was over!

The results took just over a month to send out. I passed! Not perfectly or even prettily, by a long shot…but passed!

Vocab, A. Listening, A. Grammar….B.

Stupid grammar.

I don’t think tests like this really reflect how good someone is at Japanese. I have a piece of paper that says I passed a language test, but I am still very far from anything resembling skill at Japanese. I have a lot of room to improve. For example, this test had no speaking portion. No level does. That seems slightly strange to me. There were also no free responses or essays, as everything was multiple choice. Huh.

But what this test is good for is motivation, as well as something to slap on the ol’ resume later on.

Guess I should start studying for N4 in July, huh?

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Long time no see!

Sorry for falling off the ave of the blogosphere like that, dear readers! It was entirely unintentional. I had that crazy-busy summer, came back to normal (or at least, as normal as life gets over here) and began my second year…all the way back in August.

Here’s the thing…the second time around, a lot of the crazy stuff repeats. I met new JETs. I had ridiculous moments at work. I went to festivals like bunkasai (culture festival), the Samurai Pirate island festival, and more – and had similarly awesome experiences at each. But I’ve written about those already, and in decent detail. I didn’t want you poor souls to return to this page and roll your eyes at yet another picture of red maple leaves during autumn leaf-hunts. It’s been done.

That’s not to say nothing new has happened, of course. It hasn’t been Groundhog Day and I am sadly nowhere near as awesome as Bill Murray. There has been plenty of stuff to write about, I just…haven’t gotten around to it.

But that changes right here and right now! I’m currently scrawling out some short posts on the many things that have gone down so far in Japan Year Deux. So please, stay tuned! And prepare for an out-of-sequence rambling memoir that would make Tarantino proud.

Just for a brief overview:

  • Same schools, same countryside town, same old day-to-day, in general
  • I’ve signed my contract to stay for a third year
  • I speak a bit more Japanese and understand a tiny bit more of what is actually going on around me
  • I often still have NO IDEA what is going on around me
  • That is still very much the best part about living here

Ciao, bellas!

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A Return to Tokyo

A week after I returned from my whirlwind journey in the Land of the Free(ish), I had to pack up again in a still-jetlagged daze and figure out how the hell to get to Tokyo.

I can hear your confusion. Why would I want to travel so far so soon after plane-hopping and driving around America? Well, it wasn’t exactly for fun. That is, it ended up being fun, but it was still called “work” on paper. The most vast, impressive, and self-reflective work I have done in this country yet.

I was going back to the beginning, but on the other side. I was working at Group B’s Tokyo Orientation, welcoming over 700 JETs to Japan and representing Hiroshima.

It’s been a while (a year, in fact) since I’ve mentioned this thing, so let me go over the basics: When people first come to Japan on the JET Programme, they go to Tokyo for a 3 day orientation before heading off to their individual placements. There are three groups – Group A, at the end of July (I came with this group last year), Group B, at the beginning of August (I worked this one this year), and Group C, in late August (a much smaller group, for people who were upgraded from the alternate list during the process). In total, I think there were around 1,600 new JETs for the 2013-2014 year. I would be one of the 40 or so Tokyo Orientation Assistants (TOA’s) that would help these newbies get through days of meetings, answer any questions they threw at me, and possibly giving a presentation or two.

This was not a random assignment. I applied for this gig back in early spring or so, because I had been so impressed by the madness of my own orientation, I thought I would try to work on the other side this time around. The application involved paperwork for your school and a couple of drafts of what you would present on if chosen. Somehow, I was picked for Group B from the pool of applicants. Woo!

And I hadn’t received the extra e-mail giving me presentation assignments, so that was even less work to worry about! Or so I thought…

Around June, those who had to do presentations took a (free) trip to Tokyo to meet with their partners and prepare in the same place. I got a rather interesting email after this meeting, as I had actually been selected to give a presentation about Pop Culture, but two separate official organizations in charge had mistyped my e-mail address. Several times. I had been unintentionally scoffing my group in their online exchanges. Whoops! After I got over the sting of missing a free trip to Tokyo, I shot out an apology and got to catching up. Luckily, my group was awesome and let me slide right into the workload.

When it came time to go, I had a long trip ahead of me. Being in America had meant that I waited too long to get a cheap plane ticket, so I had to take the Shinkansen from Hiroshima to Tokyo. But remember! I’m up in the mountains. I had to catch a 5:50 a.m. train to even make it to the Shinkansen station. Thankfully, an amazing coworker overheard me wondering if waking up at 4 and walking to the train station on foot would give me enough time, asked me if I was crazy, and helped me call a taxi in a far more logical option (I blame the jetlag). Thanks to him, I made it on time and relatively unexhausted. I was in for a long week, and this slight respite probably helped me survive.

I touched on culture shock between Japan and America in the last post. I faced another type of shock when I stepped off the bullet train in Tokyo – the shock of a girl from the inaka suddenly thrust into the busiest, craziest, and largest city in the world. I actually had to stop and ask for help at one point, something I haven’t had to do in months. I was a little country fish in a big psychedelic pool, now. It was disorienting.

I somehow managed to get to the always-fancy Keio Plaza Hotel, and had flashbacks of my first time at this place a year ago. It’s…nice. Really nice. Like, too-nice-for-the-likes-of-us nice. They have orientation here every year, somehow, and we really take over most of the joint. This time, as a volunteer, I would even get a fancier breakfast! Sweet deal.

On Saturday, there were meetings, and assignments were given. It was crazy to see so many veteran JETs from all over the country in one place – usually like me, with only one person from each prefecture. As luck would have it, two people I had arrived with from Chicago had also been selected from their prefectures, so we had a pretty awesome Chi-town reunion.

Chicago second-years reppin' it in Toyko!

Chicago second-years reppin’ it in Toyko!

And the day after that, we were in full-swing.

Day 1: Sunday. Arrival day. Flights from everywhere would be landing in Tokyo from 7 a.m to 8 p.m. or so. All donning our bright green shrits, 30 or so TOAs went to the airport to welcome them and get their baggage sorted before packing them on buses to the hotel, and 10 TOAs were left at the hotel itself to guide them to check-in and answer jetlagged brain confusion. I was in the hotel group, which was pretty laid-back. We helped set up bags, graffiti’d the information desk white board to an obscene amount, and more or less hung out until the first flight showed up. I had a shift on the information desk and answered all of 3 questions from an earlier batch of flights.

This was the earliest stage of graffiti madness.

This was the earliest stage of graffiti madness.

We were “on call” from more or less 9 a.m. to 8 or 9 p.m. – when the last bus from the airport arrived. It was surreal to be one of the cheerful shouting people I remembered from my first day in Japan.

Day 2: Monday. The first actual day of orientation. We were up and in suits bright and early, and headed down to help out the fresh-off-the-plane lost souls. I had one shift on the hospitality desk at 6 a.m., where a few people wandered in to iron wrinkled business clothes, hop on a computer to informed family back home that they were indeed alive, or, in once case, just sit down and chat because the jetlag was hitting them too hard.

At lunch, I was able to meet a Japanese woman I had tutored in America 3 years ago. That was amazing.

I also had to worry about my workshop presentation, which I would give 2 times for 45 minutes each. The topic I had been chosen to present was Using Pop Culture in the Classroom (something I am actually interested in! And will ramble about! Yay!) and my partner was a cool JET from Kumamoto. We rocked that presentation twice, bribed people with candy, and patted ourselves on the backs for presenting something that people seemed to enjoy.

At night, we had the welcome reception. It was fine – we had buffet food and beer to kampai and such. A few of the newbies wanted to go out afterwards, so we rallied the Hiroshima group (plus honorary member Celeste-the-best from Shiga!) and grabbed a drink at a izakaya (bar). We stopped at the observation deck that my aforementioned taxi-calling awesome coworker PC had told me to check out, and the view was indeed pretty spectacular.

Lights as far as the eye can see...and probably beyond.

Lights as far as the eye can see…and probably beyond.

Day 3: Tuesday. The last actual day of orientation. I got to sleep in a bit more, wandered down to the TOA breakfast (free, thankfully – this hotel is nice and pricey!), still had to wear a suit, and…yeah. This was my least stressful day. My presentation was over, but others had to give theirs. I only had one or two real shift assignments – my unassigned task was to wander around and check that no one was wigging out and trying to make a break to the airport. Luckily, no one was. So I wandered and hung out with the other TOAs and drank way too much Starbucks (because I live in the countryside and there IS NO STARBUCKS). Everyone was pretty burned out from weird hours (did I mention that hospitality desk was open 24-hours? I got lucky, but some people had shifts from 2 a.m. to 4 a.m. Gross.) There were meetings and stuff, but it was a lot less pressure on the TOAs from this point.

At night, after a prefectural meeting, my newbies wanted to go out on the town again. Luckily, with my poor language skills and limited knowledge of Tokyo, my former PA (prefectural advisor) who does not technically work for JET anymore swung over to help out, booked us a place, and led the way to a fun night of nomihodai and karaoke. But it couldn’t be TOO fun, because the next day would take us to the airport.

Day 4: Wednesday. The final stretch. All I had to do was meet my Hiroshima ducklings (I took to calling them this because I had to keep count of 30 people and was usually walking in front counting like some waterfowl mother-figure) downstairs in a timely matter, shove them all on a bus to Haneda airport (domestic, so way less stressful). Then, I had to get them their tickets and shuffle through security, stick them on a plane and, finally, land in on piece in Hiroshima-ken and send them on their way with their new supervisors or fellow JETs. And as my ducklings set out on their own adventures, I remembered just how crazy it was to have been in their shoes just a year ago.

So yes, it was a whirlwind. Yes, it was strange having to advise jetlagged and confused people while still being a bit jetlagged and confused myself. Yes, it was a lot of work, in a lot of formal attire, at a lot of strange hours.

But man, was it amazing to be back on the other side. The organization was not a fever-dream, but a reality. Being a part of the system was strangely surreal, and when people came up and sincerely thanked me for helping them, it felt like I actually was doing something useful. Seeing the newbies, all excited and confused and full of questions and ideals – coming from all over the world to be in Japan, some for the first time, others for the second or third or fifth – actually rejuvenated me a bit in regards to what I do over here.

And of course, meeting the other crazy TOAs was an extra bonus.

"Crazy" appears to have been a prerequisite.

“Crazy” appears to have been a prerequisite.

I’m glad I volunteered and got selected to work this Orientation. Especially after a trip home, it felt like I came full-circle after my first year in Japan. Back in Tokyo, but waving the signs and herding the ducklings, and somehow being less confused than before.

Not a bad start for round 2, eh?

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There and Back Again

On the eve of my one-year Japanniversary, I packed my bags and skipped off to the Hiroshima airport with a spring in my step and burritos on the mind. For the first time in a year, I would be heading home to America. The occasion was my eldest brother’s wedding and my destiny to don a bridesmaid dress for the special day, but I was taking 2 weeks total to get a good taste of bald-eagle freedom before coming back to Japan.

I did the multiple piles of paperwork necessary to take two kinds of paid leave (normal nenkyu and super-sneaky special summer nenkyu), document leaving the country, and cover missing some classes. I then had the daunting task of explaining to my students that I would be gone for two weeks. This was much more of a gut-punch than I had expected; as it was almost the end of my first year, this was also the time that ALTs finishing contracts depart for good, and my kids took some effort to convince I wasn’t just cutting and running. It was sweet, really. “No! Don’t say goodbye, say ‘see you soon!’”

I always talk about how long it takes to get anywhere, and the prospect of using public transport to get to the airport had me facing over 2 hours of bus-and-train travel time before facing the stresses of actually entering an airport. Gross. Luckily, a coworker told me about a parking lot near the airport (正広パーキング) that allowed long-term parking, offered a free shuttle bus to the airport, and capped off at ¥5000 if you would be gone for less than a month. Sweet!

I took this easy option and got to the airport with time to spare. Airport employees speak English in general, and it was insanely fast to get through the check-in and baggage portions of the day. Also, just to note…as an American, Japanese security in airports is insanely easy. I forgot to take my liquids out of my carry-on and no one cared. I didn’t have to take my shoes off or be digitally stripped naked by a full-body scanner. I left my watch on through the basic metal detector. I even had a bottle of water that I had forgot about, offered to throw it away, but was told that if I took a sip to prove it was water there would be no problem in bringing it in from the outside. Madness.

So I flew about an hour and a half from Hiroshima Airport to Narita International Airport in Tokyo. I only had about an hour to make my connection, which would be nerve-wracking if not for the aforementioned laid-back (or un-paranoid?) approach to security. I then got on a gigantic United Airlines 777 plane to Chicago, my home city, settling in for what would take about 12 hours total.

And right after we took off, I had my first bristling incident of reverse culture shock.

Reverse culture shock is exactly what it sounds like – Going through the surprises of a very different way of life, but in the opposite direction…and against the culture you originally came from. According to people with more authority than, it’s often more jarring than the original culture shock. Many of my friends in Japan have reported this phenomenon after visiting home, so I knew it was possible. But oh, was it jarring.

I had it a few times in my two weeks back in the States, but the incident on the plane was the most annoying. Maybe it was because it was the first one I’d noticed, but I don’t know for sure.

During the first drink service of the flight, the American flight attendants busted out the drink cart and asked each person what they wanted. On my side, the flight attendant was pretty amazing at Japanese (I mean, we were flying out of the capital of Japan, after all) and would switch from English to Japanese when necessary, and was very kind. On the other side was a grumpy American lady that must have woken up on the wrong side of the futon. The person sitting next to me was a Japanese kid around 15 years old or so, and he was traveling alone. When this grumpy-faced lady got to him and asked him what he wanted to drink (in English), he spoke nervously, “Orange juice, please” (also in English). However, his tone was a bit low because he was speaking across another person and was probably scared to speak English to a native. Completely understandable.

This lady went full-on American stereotype, and shouted “WHAT? I can’t understand you! SPEAK UP, kid!” She shouted this loudly enough to make other passengers turn their heads. The kid, now even more nervous, repeated his request a bit louder. The lady apparently failed to grasp his second attempt, looked at her cart-partner (cartner?) and laughed. “Can’t understand him at all. Seriously.” She shouted at him one more time and finally caught on as this kid was trying to shrink into the polyester airline seat, and handed him his orange juice with a roll of her eyes. “Finally.”

Now, I should mention a few things. Service in Japan is undoubtedly the best I have ever experienced in my life. People are always polite, always smiling, and always respectful – even if you don’t speak any Japanese, and even if you act like a complete jerk. This blunt departure from what I’ve gotten used to was jarring. Also, this kid is probably a year or two younger than my students, whom I would defend from this eye-rolling planebeast to my dying breath. Thirdly…come on, that lady just sucked. I talked to the kid a little bit in Japanese and helped him fill out his customs forms, but was already dreading the different world back home.

Luckily, any other culture shock I may have had was nowhere near as Imma-punch-someone-in-the-face. Here’s a list of the little things that gave me mini-shocks:

  • –          The amount of overweight people
  • –          The scenery (Chicago’s flatness is quite different from my inaka mountains)
  • –          Clothing (WAY less conservative, leaving me shocked and awed)
  • –          PDA
  • –          Trash cans (no sorting?! Constantly available?! WHAT!)
  • –          Air conditioning (I was too cold in most buildings, but it was sometimes nice)
  • –          Food (I got sick 2 times from the difference)
  • –          Volume of conversation
  • –          Ambient noise (Probably more from countryside living than culture, though!)
  • –          No bowing (I slipped up…a lot)
  • –          Apologizing for everything (Trading Sumimasen for “sorry!”)
  • –          Poor service (nowhere near as bad as the airplane example, though)
  • –          Tipping? What?
  • –          Music (“You don’t know this? You’re like an alien!!”)
  • –          Countless more…

Please note, that not all of this is BAD. It’s just different, and I had to remind myself that that’s just the way things are.

On the good side of things, I saw my family in person for the first time in a year, ate my promised burrito (and all other probably-not-super-healthy foods from my wishlist), played Frisbee with my crazy dog, saw some amazing friends (including some that traveled to see me!) and had an awesome time at my brother’s wedding. I was a bridesmaid for the first time, got my first sister-in-law, and celebrated with a great group of people. It was well worth the trip.

But it was just a trip. My students and some teachers had teased me, “Once you go home, you’ll never want to come back to Japan!” But that was not the case. I was so happy to see everyone, so excited to see and taste things I simply can’t in Japan, and had an amazing time…but my life in Japan – the friends, JETs, coworkers, crazy students, beautiful places and countless opportunities – it was always there in the back of my mind. And I was excited to come back…despite the longer plane rides and more jet lag in my way. 

I’m not finished with this crazy adventure yet. Going home really struck that chord in me. So stay tuned as ever, because there’s a whole lot more to this legend than I’ve rambled out on this blog so far!

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How a Deer got me my License: A True Story

So, I have a car in this country. It’s pretty sweet. I’ve been driving for about 8 months now, and have completely adapted to the whole driving-on-the-left thing. I’ve had no problems – aside from an unfortunate incident misreading kanji at a gas station that resulted in a chunk of lost cash and a near-heart attack situation for me. But really, being a car owner and operator has been far easier than I thought it would be, and I have no regrets about investing in such a venture.

But a deadline was fast approaching; one that many ALTs dread…The anniversary of my entry into Japan. That should be a celebration, right? Well, if you’re a driver, it’s chill-inducing. On this day, my international driver’s license would expire.

The international driver’s license (called IDP for short, thankfully) is a magical document from AAA. It took 10 minutes to get and cost something like $15, but allowed me to hop behind the wheel in a foreign land without taking a test or filling out forms. If my American license was legal, so was this. And it was nice. Years ago, foreigners could opt to simply renew their IDP after it expired. Sadly…this is no longer the case.

If I wanted to keep living the fun and fancy-free life without bus and train schedules calling the shots, I had some work to do.

First off, I had to get my American license translated by JAF, the Japan Automobile Federation. I mailed in a copy of my license, paid about ¥3000, and got the paperwork back in about 3 days. Not bad. Then, I had to get a jyumin-hyo (住民票), or city registration form. This was only ¥300 or so, but it absolutely had to have “American” on there…which I forgot to ask for and had to go back to get a second one. With these documents, as well as my passport, Japanese ID card, American license, and some cash, I set off for the driving center.


Better known as “Where Dreams Go to Die.”

The driving center – technically “Unten Menkyou Centa” (運転免許’ ‘センター) – is far nicer than any American DMV I’ve been to, but still a nauseating string of red tape and stress. To top it off, they only allowed registration from 8:30 to 9:00 a.m. or 1:00 to 1:30 p.m. on Monday through Friday – which means I had to take time from my precious nenkyu (年休, paid leave) to go do all of this. Still, that’s not so bad…for some people.

Some countries have an agreement with Japan regarding driving. If you’re from Canada, the U.K., Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, or a handful of other blessed lands, congratulations (you jerks)! All you have to do is gather the aforementioned paperwork. show up, smile, and you’ve got a Japanese license! You lucky bastards. Those of us from the U.S., South Africa, or anywhere not on the super-special exceptions list is looking forward to the pain of The Test.

The Test requires 2 parts – a written portion and a practical course test. I was worried about taking a written test in Japanese, but I really didn’t need to. The written portion is offered in (interestingly-translated) English. The questions were so simple that a dexterous tortoise could probably manage to circle the required seven out of ten required answers. Some examples I remember were, “True or false – drivers and passengers must wear seat belts” and “True or false – it’s okay to drink and drive.” Seriously. No problem.

The true challenge of The Test is the “practical” portion. This is easily one of the most impractical, ridiculous, unrealistic and completely subjective things I have ever been a part of – and I’ve volunteered at my share of student-run psychology studies at a Big Ten university.


And remember! All the lines are white even though they go in different directions – just to confuse you even more!

Going in to this portion of the test, I knew I would fail. A lot. I’m a pretty decent driver and have been at it for about 9 years now, but the amount of foreigners that pass on their first try is small enough that I knew round 1 would be best considered “just practice.” In Hiroshima especially, there is a huge reputation for failing (foreign) drivers up to 6 times. Why? There are many theories. Maybe they want to reduce the number of non-Japanese-speaking drivers. Maybe since each attempt costs ¥2200, they know can squeeze a decent amount of cash out of us. Or maybe they just want to make sure foreigners are fully committed to the picky Japanese driving rules. Either way, it’s a long commitment of money, time, and sanity to get this thing done.

After turning in your paperwork, you meet your instructor with a group of people taking the same test (foreigners – English teachers or not) who will tell you the testing order. If it’s your first time, you’ll usually get a chance to hop in the back seat and watch someone go before you. Or not. Luckily, I got to observe the careful robotic procedures of the poor Chinese girl before me that was on her 11th attempt at passing this damn test.

She failed, by the way.

At the end of the day, they’re not testing your ability to drive. They’re testing your memorization of the course and awareness of The Ritual. First, squat low to look under the back of the car. Then, squat low to look under the front of the car. This is to check for cats or babies or road monsters that will not appreciate being run over. Then, look both ways and approach the driver’s door. Get in the car (bonus points if you excuse yourself in Japanese). Check the parking break by physically poking it. Adjust the seat, even if you don’t need to. Adjust the mirrors. Buckle in. Slam on the break and start the car. Put on the turn signal. Ask the instructor if you may begin (in Japanese). He says yes (in Japanese), you release the parking break, look 100 different directions, shift into drive, toss out a “Yoroshiku onegaishimasu!” and roll out as slow as humanly possible.

And that’s just leaving the starting gate.

The rest of the test is full of highlights like the S-curve, an unrealistically narrow snake of a road that you must somehow keep your turn signal on at all times while avoiding going over the too-low curbs out of risk of an instant failure. Even more ridiculous is the Crank, a horrifying monstrosity of two tight 90-degree turns in a row that would also never exist in the real world – and if you hit the curbs or any of the hovering poles, that’s another instant fail. There’s also basic stuff like avoiding an obstacle, safely going around a turn with an obstructed view, lane changes and other basic driving stuff – except for the test, it’s encouraged to do weird things like pump the brakes and leave your turn signal on the entire time. My first try got me through with no bumps, mistakes, or obvious flaws…and I failed. Why?


Before a left-hand turn in Japan, you must shift over in your own lane to exactly a meter from the curb…to box out any surprise bicycles that may zoom by. To me, any kind of “boxing out” in a motorized vehicle seems…unsafe. To the instructor, this is apparently really important – it was my main critique every time I took the test, even when I consciously shimmied over to the side and felt like I was moments from skidding on the curb. Several other people get told off for not doing the six-point head turn at every intersection or lane change (If you’re turning left this means over the right shoulder, in the right mirror, in the rear-view mirror, in the left mirror, and finally over the left shoulder…which adds up to a good 5 seconds where your eyes are off the road in front of you as you’re moving, but whatever) but I had been warned about this and made ridiculously obvious neck-cracking checks every time I could.

Hilariously, even when I failed the driving test I was able to hop right back into my car and drive away. My IDP was still good, after all.

So, on my third attempt, I took a Tuesday morning off from work. I drove the 1.5 hours and payed ¥1950 in tolls to get to the driving center. I handed in my papers and payed another ¥2200 to take the test. I hung around and waited for the instructor raffle, hoping I didn’t get that grumpy guy from my second try again. Mentally, I was already deciding what day to make my next appointment for after I met another inevitable rejection.

It was a busy test day, so I chatted with a Chinese couple (on their 5th and 6th tries) that would be taking the foreigner-test with me. There were motorcycles, pick-up trucks, semi-trucks, buses, fancy cars and two retired taxis that I may be tested in already on the course. I was actually kind of worried at this point, because I had budgeted my nenkyu for an expected 6 attempts at this thing and had only taken a pretty unrealistic 3 hours off for this day, hoping to fail quickly and move on.

When it was finally our turn, the instructor showed up with a smile and said, “good morning!” in English. Good sign #1. He explained the course in simple Japanese and gave the order – I would be going second. Watching the guy before me, I thought he did pretty well – except he forgot that the course was super-flooded and almost pulled into oncoming traffic while attempting the totally-not-safe 6-point mirror check. That woke me up a bit, which was good, because then it was my turn.

I started the Driving Test Dance as ritual demanded, and it was all going smoothly…until I tried to release the parking break. It wouldn’t budge. The guy before me must have jammed that thing into lock with the force of Godzilla himself. My friendly instructor had to help me release it. Insta-fail, right? But he just smiled and said, “Sticky brake!” in English again. Good sign #2.

The test went exactly the same as the previous two times – no bumps, no obvious mistakes, no miscommunication, just a lot of neck-cracking mirror checks and my cheerful “Hai!” responses to directions. Things were going well, but they had been going well every other time, too. As I approached the place where the guy before me had screwed up, however, something completely unexpected occurred.

“Duck.” My instructor said.

“Sorry?” I replied, not even in Japanese, as cars continued to pass by.

He pointed. “Duck!” and I was confused enough to follow his gesture. On another test car, there was a cartoon duck character cheerfully waving at me. My instructor sounded proud of himself. “Look! Deer!” The following car had a cartoon deer.

I couldn’t help it. I burst out laughing in the middle of my driving exam. “Yeah! 鹿!” (“Sika,” the Japanese word for deer).

And with both me and my instructor still chuckling, I pulled into the bay and ended my exam. I parked and prepared to hear the same old critique…but this guy was still on the deer thing.

He talked about the deer on Miyajima and asked if I had been there. I told him I had, and made some lame joke about how the deer there are always hungry and stealing food from tourists. He laughed at that and made a few comments about how cool deer are. I agreed. We chuckled some more and for a second I completely forgot this was a test – until he drew me a picture of a left-hand turn and told me that, yet again, I was not close enough to the curb. “But that’s it!” He assured me.

Same critique as usual and I was already expecting the same result. I thanked the guy and complimented his English (he said my Japanese was good, which proved his standards are far more flexible than most – good sign #3?), excused myself (yes, in Japanese again), and bowed my way out of the car while preparing to make my next appointment.

They never immediately tell you if you passed or failed. They need to check with The Overseer first. He’s been looming above the course every time I’ve gone, tucked away in a overhanging gallery and observing the tests from a different perspective. His call is apparently the final push to pass or fail test-takers. Lucky for those who go to the Hiroshima Driving Center, this guy is really friendly. Every time I’ve taken the test, he’s checked in on me, small-talking in an English-Japanese blend. This time, he tossed me an “okay” sign while I was waiting for the paperwork to come through. (Literal) Good sign #4, but I was still doubtful.

They called up the guy I watched screw up first. Fail. Then, they called up the girl that went after me. Fail. As I was pondering why they went out of order, I got called up. The guy behind the desk was one I’d talked to on two of my three tries.

And it was he who bespoke the words: “Emi-san…ok.”

I blinked, confused for the second time and it wasn’t even noon yet. “Ok?”

My desk-buddy smiled – something I didn’t think could happen at a DMV. “Okay. Passed!”

I blinked again. “ほんと?!” (“Honto,” “Really?!”) and burst out some slightly maniacal laughter. Even if this terrified him, it was too late – I had the official stamp of success and was on my way to the much-coveted plastic.

After that, the procedure went pretty quickly. I had to drop an extra ¥2050 which was obviously worth it. I had to have a basic mobility test, a vision test, a sit-down-and-stop-smiling-for-your-picture test, a wait-twenty-minutes-and-realize-you’re-totally-late-for-work test, and then BOOM! Licensed. I was a legal, licensed Japanese driver.

Just a side-note: I took the test 3 times, with 7 other people.

I never saw another person pass.

Honestly, nothing was different about this day…except for my awesome quirky instructor and the completely random deer conversation that bonded us. I’m 70% sure that some ancient car-loving deer spirit was on my side, nudging my instructor to go easy on me and let the ridiculous rules slide a little.


I always knew they were cool.


And that’s how a deer got me my license.

Cost of attempts:

  • Tolls: ¥11,700
  • Test: ¥6,600
  • License fee: ¥2,050
  • Gas: about ¥7,000

Total: ¥27,350, roughly $275

Getting a license in 3 tries when you expected it to take 6? Priceless.

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The Sporting Life

I often speak of a stir in the air at Japanese high schools. At the drop of a dime, something dramatic occurs that moves the entire school into action. I never experienced such things in America – not even for things like giant sports events or prom. Back home, the students that got involved were the ones that wanted to get involved. If you weren’t interested, you could slink by under the radar while crazy people like me slapped on body paint or a crazy dress for whatever event was afoot.

Not so here. Every student is mobilized. Every. Single. One.

Never has this been more clear than with Sports Day.

Sports day is a massive display of school unity, student skill, and yes, sports. And man, do they take it seriously. Students and teachers are randomly assigned to one of three teams (Red, Blue and Yellow, at my school) and come together to put on a truly remarkable display for family, friends, and the community. The amount of work they put in was mind-boggling, as is the quality of the product…but I’ll get to that in a bit.

Practices began about a month before the official day. And when I say “practice” I mean “Seriously committed blood sweat and tears before, during, and after school.” The cheer teams were choreographing. The badass martial arts boys were timing their routines to taiko beats. Runners were running, leaders were leading, and painters were painting. Every day was a blur…but I usually missed out on most of this stage.

However, two weeks before the official day, there was a noticeable change in the daily schedule. Every day for two weeks, the last two class periods were cancelled in order to have a school-wide practice time. The student body as a whole would practice marching in formation, or the boys would practice their manly dance while the girls practiced their sickeningly cute version. Then the teams would meet and review their routines, editing as they went. During school time. In fact, 4 days before the event, there were no classes – the entire day was spent at the sports park, in timed-out practice. This would never fly back home. I was amazed that teachers – and the principal! – were letting class time go in favor of such practice, but there they were shouting suggestions to group leaders or trying to keep the freed students in line.

I say “suggesting” because, also, the students themselves are in charge of practically every part of their team’s performance. The 3rd year leaders – about 5 per team – organize the masses, drill their teams, quadruple-check everything and, of course, lead the group mentally and physically. Teachers may get involved by making sure lines are straight or commenting on timing, but they really just sit back in the shade and chuckle together at the display as it unfolds.

I was assigned to the Red Team (赤 ブロク), who would be battling against the Yellow and Blue teams. I knew a few of the kids on this team, and immediately grew fond of the ones I didn’t know before – particularly the crazy one I took to calling Fearless Leader, who was a bounding, shrill-voiced boy from the gymnastic team that is the closest representation I have ever found of a cartoon character being brought to life. He was the official captain of the Red Team, and damn was he good at his job. His voice was in a constant state of almost-broken for a month. He was inspiring.

As a teacher “on” the Red Team, I would attend their practices after classes had finished for the day. I went in completely blind and not knowing what exactly a sports day practice would entail, and…I was impressed.

Yes, there are martial arts involved. I’ll get to that in a bit. But take a moment to bask in that precision! The Fearless Leader is shouting “赤 赤 赤! 白 白 白!” (“Red-red-red! White-white-white!”) to the kids flipping the cards, and the kids are actually trying. This blew my mind. One practice was all it took to solidify my backing of Team Aka.

But this kung-fu/card-flipping routine wasn’t the only thing to be practiced. Oh, not by a long shot. The entire student body – all 700-some kids – had to organize marching for the opening ceremony. This was…strangely militaristic to observe. Here’s a clip of the Yellow Team marching by – keep an ear out for The Megaphone trying and succeeding to make me laugh.

They were keeping count with “一二!” (One-two) and he switched to “Eyy-Mii!” when he saw me filming them. After marching, they would practice a dance to the school song – boys being tough and manly, girls being super cute with pom-poms.

There was also time to practice the challenges that would be scored to ultimately determine the winning team of the actual sports festival. There were typical events like relay races and 20-man jump rope competitions, but then there was some trickier stuff…such as one student sprinting across their teammates’ backs, a 30-person tied leg race (er, 60-legged race?) some horrifying thing called “The Big Wave of Friendship” and a brutal match of steal-the-other-guys’-headbands/chicken fight. These were often divided by class, or team, or grade. And most of these events would cause American parents to bust out the lawsuit paperwork.

Nothing like stumbling over your classmates to build that team spirit.

Nothing like stomping over your classmates to build that team spirit.

One of the most obvious would-not-fly-in-America features was the “Team Taiso,” or group gymnastic portion of the day. It’s boys-only intensive strength acrobatic gymnastics…to the beat of a taiko drum…often to slightly dangerous heights. If I had not seen a flock of teens do these things, I would have thought they were impossible. They stood on shoulders – first in pairs, then in groups of 3. They balanced on a partner’s thighs and leaned out at a 45 degree angle – again, in pairs and then threes. There was something called the Human Metronome, where one student was tossed back and forth while his ankles remained in place.

Everyone looks calm. How can everyone look so calm?!

Everyone looks calm. How can everyone look so calm?!

Third years managed to form a ring tower, 4 humans high, standing on shoulders. The most visually impressive one was the 7-or-8-layer human pyramid. Somehow, no one got injured. Except possibly my nerves.

7 layers of human, no injuries - even when they belly-flopped the landing.

7 layers of human, no injuries – even when they belly-flopped the landing.

But overall, the main attractions were the complex performances to be done by each full team. Teams had to put on a show with singing, cheerleading, a visual display, flags and martial arts – and keep it as close to ten minutes in length as possible. My school is very old, and has a few traditions that are relatively unheard of at newer schools. The martial arts portion was one of them. And…it was badass.

They had costumes. They had shouting. They had synchronized ass-kicking.

I think I should mention that these are just random students that were assigned to take these roles for this event. There is no “badass-ceremonial-martial-arts-dance club.” Nor is there a real cheerleading club. These kids learned everything from scratch in a month, and put it together almost flawlessly.

On the day of reckoning, months and hours of preparation went off without a hitch. 2000 or so parents, friends, and members of the local community turned out to watch what these high school students had worked so hard to achieve. And, even as someone who had been watching the pieces come together for a month, it was nice to see it all come together.

As for me? Well, I certainly wasn’t safe from the action. I ran in a club relay race (representing ESS and getting a pretty hilarious reaction from the crowd) as well as a teacher’s relay race. I was tied to 29 other people – student teachers this time- to stumble my way to a finish line without trampling someone. I got dragged into a “cultural dance” situation that remains beyond my comprehension, but was surprisingly memorable (“Nice hands!”). As hard as I may have failed in most of these activities, it was an amazingly fun time and I was happy to be included in these shenanigans. I’m sure the kids got a good laugh out of watching me do my best. They were actually kind of endearing and encouraging, shouting “Emi! Fight-o!!” as I waited for the baton to make its way to my leg of the relay. Simply put, getting into this Sports Day madness was one of the best times I’ve had with these kids. Even when they weren’t performing, just hanging out with them and hiding from the sun was really fun.

Some of my sassiest stole my sunglasses and pulled me into the pile.

Some of my sassiest stole my sunglasses and pulled me into the pile.

At the end of the day, after 8 hours in the hot sun, the results were announced. First up were the winners by category – the races, or class contests, or cheerleading – and then, finally, the overall champion of Sports Day. Those champions were none other than my very own Red Team, who I had watched from the very beginning. There was a lot of jumping around and hugging and many a flip by the Fearless Leader, and they walked away with the special Sports Day Flag of victory. And of course, because this is Japan after all, the day concluded with a musical number.

And so concluded my first sports day in Japan. It was full of fantastic choreography, feats of strength, and a lot of fun in the slightly too-hot sun. I have never been more impressed by my students. The unity between teams was also impressive – even though they were competing, there was no rivalry off the field. Did I fear for their lives and limbs at some point? Of course. Did I get the worst case of farmer’s tan I’ve ever had? You bet. But the fun I had – and not to mention the pictures and videos – makes even a summer of unevenly browned arms worthwhile.

And, in case you want to see the whole thing put together, here’s the winning team’s full performance, horribly recorded on my iPhone. I recommend watching it full-screen, as I was too silly to turn the phone sideways all day. Enjoy!

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A Day in the Life

A while ago, a friend pointed out something fairly obvious. “Emi,” they said, “I like your blog, but it makes it seem like you’re climbing a mountain, or traveling the country, or battling cultural man-buns every week.” To be honest, that’s…a pretty succinct summary. “What do you do on a normal, boring day?”

You asked for it, internet-people, and it you shall receive.

Here’s a play-by-play of my busiest day of the week – Thursday – with all the gritty details you probably don’t even care about. Enjoy!

  • First alarm goes off at 6:17 a.m. I have about three set, and will without fail slam on snooze anywhere from one to five times. When I realize this, I will freak out and fall out of bed. Then it’s shower, coffee, food, double-checking bags (which should contain anything from my wallet and keys to gym clothes or something crafty for class) and be out the door by 7:50 or so. Usually…closer to 8:00.
  • Thursday is plastic recyclables day, so I take the YELLOW trash bag (with my name on it, of course) and go slightly out of my way to drop it off at the communal “trash cage.” If I’m lucky, it will already be unlocked and I can dodge the chatty neighbor ladies to escape relatively on time.
  • I then drive 10-15 minutes to my main school, depending on traffic and…obstacles. This is sort of an inaka rush hour, with people like me heading to work and people like my students biking like madmen on narrow roads they share with cars. When I arrive at school, after some white-knuckled weaving around carefree teenagers, I run up 3 flights of stairs, drop off my bags, and make it to the morning meeting by 8:15.
  • This meeting is attended by every teacher in the school, and it is completely in Japanese. I stand around the first-year (1年生) teachers’ table and just kind of roll with it. There’s usually a lot of “おはようございます!” (“Good morning!”) being tossed around before a mini-meeting with this group.
  • The big meeting begins with an oath being spoken by the vice-principal, then repeated by the teachers. I’ve had it memorized for a while, but only recently did someone actually explain it to me. It’s basically, “Today, we will do our best to satisfy the needs of students and their parents,” but super-formal and fast.
  • After that, the principal, vice-principal, and office manager make daily announcements. Someone will write the names of absent students on a board. Individual teachers will also make announcements, which range from telling other teachers about a sports team’s victories, informing the group of a student problem – be it grades or an injury, or thanking everyone for their help with something like a teacher’s absence or after-school event. I bow and clap with the rest of them, and use this time to “study” in a way.
  • The meetings end after 10 or 15 minutes, and I grab stuff from my mailbox (again – always in Japanese, though someone will usually explain things if I ask or if it’s important for me) before strolling back to my office as homeroom begins.
  • On Thursdays I teach during the first two periods following homeroom. If I have a second to spare, this is the CRUCIAL chug-all-the-caffeine-possible time frame.
  • My first class is with Helpful-sensei, Her classes are my most open-ended ones, where she gives me complete freedom in lesson planning, teaching the material, and running activities. It’s also in the biggest and roomiest room I get, which is great for making the kids do ridiculous things at 8:40 in the morning. Despite the time, this group of students is always pretty goofy and easy to deal with.
  • My second class takes place after a 10-minute passing period. And this time, it’s with a different JTE (Japanese Teacher of English). Though I knew him a little last year, I never team-taught with him. Luckily, he’s super laid-back and has a good sense of humor. He coaches soccer and looks like, well, a soccer-y kinda guy, so I’ll call him Sakka-sensei (サッカー in Japanese reads as “Sa-Kaa” and means…soccer). He’s a funny guy and has an open mind about using me in the classroom, and has recently given me more of a lead in running the show. That’s nice. These kids have a higher English skill, but are a little bit quieter and more serious in class. I’ll have to work on that.
  • After two hours of early-morning teaching, I have a break at 10:30. I usually crawl my way back to my office, waving at hyper kids and shouting hello, or dodging blown kisses from my sassy 2nd years (this has become a huge game, as I make up creative new ways to dodge them)…and then trying to recover enough dignity to give a professional 挨拶 (aisatsu, greeting) to teachers that pass by. Still, they will without fail witness the joking and dodging. Dignity be damned!
  • Safely in my office, I have time to kill. My new office is quiet. There is only one other full-time teacher in here as his main office, and sometimes a part-time teacher will be there too. It’s also on the third floor of the second building, so there’s not nearly as much coming and going in general. I usually use this time to re-caffeinate and, ideally, do some lesson planning for next week.
  • There’s a once-a-week English teacher’s meeting just before lunch. At this time, the other 9 English teachers at this high school come to my office, hand out documents, and discuss…things. Again, all in Japanese – despite this being English-teachers-only and all parties present having amazing English skills. They’re good folk and will switch to English for stuff that is relevant to me, but that happens so rarely that I more or less use this time again for some listening practice.
  • Following this, I have another break which is usually filled with paperwork. I go to my visit school every Friday, which means I must fill out the same form (in Japanese), stamp it with my personal seal, and submit it to the vice-principal on Thursday. Sometimes I still manage to mess this up, which causes a hilarious paperwork jam.
  • Finally, I have my final class of the day! The teacher I work with is fresh out of university, and almost exactly my age. How strange is that? Let’s call him Zaki-sensei, because he recently proved his ability to play themes from Miyazaki movies on a mysterious keyboard in the English office – completely from memory. He’s a fan of using games and activities over recitation and repetition, which means we’re usually doing open-ended interactive stuff and making the kids move around. This is another fun group to work with, and it’s a relaxing finale to the teaching portion of the day.
  • After the bell has rung, it’s time for o-sogi (掃除)! What’s that? It’s cleaning time! I think I’ve mentioned before that there are no janitors in Japan. Well, this is how they make the place look so clean – student and teacher labor! Every student is assigned to a task – pulling weeds, or mopping the hallway, or cleaning chalkboards, whatever. These assignments seem to change every month or so. Teachers have assignments as well, to help out or just make sure the kids are doing what they’re supposed to, but I never have an official one. I’ve taken to helping out in the English room, where I probably break formality by blasting my English music and Japanese songs the kids recommend on my trusty iPhone. It’s pretty fun, actually.
  • On paper, my workday would end at 4:00 p.m. – just after cleaning time and the final short homeroom. However, ever since Spring Break, I join the boys and girls volleyball teams on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I quickly change and get to the court with the boys, who have the court for the first hour. It’s not a lot of time, but they do basic warm-ups and run hit lines, which is hilarious because even though I’m taller than a few of them I still have trouble with the gigantic height of the net. The coaches of this team (PC, who is amazing at volleyball as well as bonus! English and sassiness; and TeeNee-sensei, who is really, well, teeny, and an awesome libero as well as an absolute sweetheart) are super nice – and the boys are loud and crazy (with a few of my favorite students among them). So, even if I suck at hitting over the higher net, I always have a good time. The team is on the smaller size, too, so I feel like less of a burden joining in on such things.
  • The girls take over around 5:10, and the boys move to practice on the outside court. There are way more players on the girls’ team (I think last count had 27 or so), but they let me do warm-up drills, serving, hit lines and random drills as much as they can. The girls are really, really serious, because their main coach is my Boss Bro – who is, as always, super nice to me but can switch to Level 99 Coach-Enforcer in a split second with the girls. Practice usually runs until 6:10 or so, but I have to duck out early when they start to scrimmage. Why? Well…
  • I rush home, shower, and try to eat something before I’m out the door again by 7:15.  At 7:30, my adult Eikaiwa (英会話, English conversation) class begins. This is a once-a-week commitment with 10 or so people in their 40’s to 60’s who really want to learn English (as opposed to some of my high school students). The class runs from 7:30 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. These folks are incredibly nice to me, and we usually have an interesting conversation or…twenty. Sometimes we have parties, too! Those are especially great, because they usually  go all-out to make me try new things, often preparing it themselves. But a typical class involves casual English conversation and light textbook work.
  • I get home around 9:30, flop into bed, and pass out after watching something on my laptop. Tomorrow is Friday, and that’s an earlier start to get to a farther school. Good night.

Well, there you have it. From 6 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. I have one of the most random days known to man. This is the longest one of the week, mind you, and the most exhausting. Other days have different amounts of classes, or less after-school activities, or varying amounts of sprinting through hallways messing with students. And, of course, everything is subject to change – my main school is crazy with random assemblies, school events, and other schedule-busting surprises that keep everyone on their toes. Still, I love the madness, and it makes every day different from the one before.

Wouldn’t trade that for the cushiest desk job in the world.

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