Sunday, November 28, 2010

Japanese Tourists - August 1-5, 2010

On the last day of July I woke up early and made the trip to the airport. I got a ride with some family acquaintances; I’d actually had a lot of people offer to give me a lift, for which I’m grateful. I checked my luggage without much difficulty. The overweight charge has gone up from $75.00 to $100.00 since the last time I travelled overseas, but at least I’ve got the art of packing polished enough that I didn’t have any weight surprises. I went through security (including one of the new and much-discussed body-scanners), and then joined the other JET participants from Ottawa. The first flight was a short one to Toronto. The JETs all stuck pretty close together as we made our way to the international terminal, grabbed a snack, and took advantage of the airport’s free wi-fi. At 1:00 we boarded the plane and began our thirteen hour flight west. It was my second flight to Asia, so knew how to handle it. As on the trip to Hong Kong, we got well fed. I chatted with my neighbours, whom I’d gotten to know pretty well thanks to all our pre-departure seminars. I made use of my personal entertainment system, figuring it might be my last chance at movie-watching for a long time. I tried to avoid sleeping, but I did doze a bit towards the end. And then, almost before we knew it, it was time to land, and we were touching down in Tokyo.

I arrived at Narita Airport on Sunday, August 1, at 3:00 in the afternoon. Needless to say, I was there for a good long while. We had to walk from the terminal to arrivals, spent an hour or two lined up at customs, claimed our bags, divided our luggage into what we wanted to keep with us in Tokyo and what we wanted sent on to our host prefectures, and were finally put on a bus to our hotel. The bus ride took about an hour, and by the time we got there it was dark. I was given several packages full of information, which I accepted without much thought, found my room, and went to bed as quickly as I could.

You would think that having been awake almost continuously for twenty-four hours, I would have no trouble sleeping, but my first night in Tokyo was actually the first of several restless nights. Somewhere in the early hours of the morning I woke up, and couldn’t get back to sleep. It was as though all the tricks I’d tried to get my body onto Japanese time hadn’t worked, and it was as convinced as ever that one o’clock in the afternoon (Eastern Daylight Time) was a ridiculous time to be asleep.

The result was that I was pretty wasted throughout Tokyo orientation. Far from giving us a day or two to acclimatise and recover from our jet-lag, the Programme threw us into activities right on the first day. Breakfast was bright and early on Monday morning. After that, we had a welcome ceremony and watched the first of several speeches and presentations. This was also our first opportunity to meet some of the other JETs from our designated areas. After lunch, there were more presentations, and then workshops on specific aspects of living and teaching in Japan. The day concluded with a reception and buffet dinner.

As we shuttled ourselves upstairs and downstairs, backwards and forwards, from one room to the next, something occurred to me. You know those tourists you sometimes see? If you live in a big or important city, you probably know what I’m talking about. They travel in packs. They never stay anywhere long. They spend their days going from place to place, obediently following the lead of their guides. They carry their cameras around with them, and frequently stop to take photographs. They comment excitedly whenever they see something interesting, even things you consider perfectly ordinary. And they rarely interact with anyone outside their group. Since they don’t speak the language, they don’t talk to any of the locals; they just stick close together and chatter in their own tongue without any regard for the people around them. You know tourists like that? Well, that was us. All through our three days in Tokyo, we stuck together, conversing in English and having very little interaction with anything truly Japanese. We had so little free time that there were few chances to go exploring, or even to leave the hotel. It hardly felt like we were even in Japan!

At the end of the first day I decided I needed to get our of the hotel for a bit, even if it was only to stroll around the area. I took the map we’d been given, and ventured out on my own.

This might be a good time to make some comparisons between Hong Kong and Japan. Besides certain obvious things, like the fact that most people are oriental and everything is written in Chinese characters, there are lots of little ways the countries remind me of each other. In both countries sit-down toilets are common, and in Japan they often come with extra features like heated seats and water sprays. However, squat toilets are also common, although the ones in Japan are shaped differently from those in Hong Kong. In both places you can usually avoid them, but not always. In Japan, as in Hong Kong, they drive on the left. The sidewalks all have yellow strips with bumps running down them, a very practical device for assisting blind people with canes. Many of the restaurants feature plastic imitations of all the dishes they offer on display in their front windows, for convenient browsing by potential customers. They print everything on A4 paper, which is almost like 8 ½ × 11, but a bit longer and thinner. They also use two-hole punches and binders, for reasons that defy comprehension, as they leave sheets a lot more mobile and vulnerable to tearing. And, of course, the food is similar, though by no means the same.

I also noticed plenty of differences. In Hong Kong, they aren’t big on recycling. Rubbish almost never gets sorted by the people throwing it out, although lots of enterprising old people will go through garbage cans afterwards, collecting anything they can turn in for a profit. Here they’re quite conscientious about it: paper, plastic packaging, and glass, metal, and plastic containers all have to be separated from the other household waste. There are special bags for each type of item, and everything comes clearly labelled so you know where it goes, with symbols that are much easier to understand than those on Canadian packaging, despite the fact of all being in Japanese! The tap water is perfectly drinkable, so there will be no regular trips to the grocery store for jugs of distilled water this time. The electrical outlets are also similar to those in Canada, except that they rarely have a hole for the third prong, so I still need to use my adaptor with my computer. They use American English instead of British English, which surprised me at first, but makes sense considering the close relationship the U.S. and Japan have shared over the last half-century. It still seems like an odd choice, but if I can learn to say “rubbish” instead of “garbage”, I’m sure I can handle spelling “color” without a “U”. Finally, Japan is a lot more expensive. Compared to Canada it’s not so bad; a couple of things are actually cheaper. But there are none of the ridiculously low prices like those you find in Hong Kong. I may be making more money, but I’m going to have to budget hard if I want to meet my savings goals here.

Anyway, I wandered around a bit, and eventually found myself in a Japanese bookstore. Curious to see what kinds of books were available, and which western novels had Japanese translations, I browsed for a while, but I found it difficult to understand most of the signs and the labels. This was not because they were in difficult kanji; they were actually mostly written in katakana, the Japanese phonetic alphabet for writing foreign words. I’d already learned the hiragana alphabet (which is used for Japanese words), but I’d never gotten around to learning the katakana alphabet, and could only recognise some of the characters. Standing in the bookstore, staring at words that were probably English, but written in a foreign script, I felt really silly. Lots of people had told me to learn katakana before I came to Japan, because with it I could read all the Japanese words that were really borrowed from English. It’s exactly the same system as hiragana, just written differently, and only forty-six characters long. How could I not know it yet? Frustrated with myself I returned to the hotel and began studying. As I knew from practising hiragana, there isn’t much to leaning a new alphabet. It can be done in a couple of hours; you just copy it down a bunch of times until you have it cold. Before I went to bed I knew half the characters, and when I again found myself awake in the small hours I sat by the window and practised some more, so that by morning I had most of them.

On Tuesday we had yet more training seminars. In the afternoon we met some of our prefectural supervisors, and were told a bit about what we could expect from our arrival in Sendai. After that we had to sort our luggage and decide what things we wanted shipped from the hotel to Sendai. I’d already sent one suitcase and bag from the airport, so I just packed some of my heavier items in a box and mailed that.

In between all these activities, I took some time to look through the packages I’d received on my arrival. There was stuff from the Canadian embassy for Canadians living in Japan. There were guidebooks about Japan. There were booklets about emergency procedures and coping with natural disasters. Best of all was my JET diary! It’s is a smart little agenda-type book, made specifically for JET participants. That means that it includes all sorts of information that JETs would need, such as information on the programme itself, useful web sites and telephone numbers, conversion charts, instructions on making telephone calls and sending mail, information on natural disasters, maps, and a short dictionary of medical and nutritional terms. It made me realise, not for the first time, just how much trouble the JET Programme is going to for us. Over the past three months we’ve received piles of papers, orientations, classes, a free trip to Japan – and we haven’t done a single day’s work yet. I can’t help wondering what their rationale for doing this is, and whether it’s really worth it to them, but I’m not complaining.

In the evening I met up with a Japanese acquaintance from university. I’d tried unsuccessfully to call him several times, but I eventually figured out the phones and the dialling system, and he agreed to meet me at the hotel. First we went up to the observation platform on top of one of the neighbouring buildings for a panoramic view of Tokyo by night. Then we went out for dinner at a small restaurant. I decided to take the opportunity to try sake, since I would probably have it forced on me sooner or later. I had two different kinds, one of which was sweeter than the other, and that one I actually rather liked. Still, after two small cups I decided it was making me tipsy and that I had better stop. I was really glad to be able to get out and see even a little of Tokyo before I left. It was also nice to have a Japanese person to show me around a little. Unfortunately, he’s going back to university in the United States in the fall, but hopefully I’ll be able to see him again while I’m here.

On Wednesday we departed for our prefectures. We had breakfast, bid farewell to our compatriots who had arrived with us, and packed our things together. I took some time out to go up to the top floor of the hotel for a daytime view of Tokyo. The area we stayed in was called West Shinjuku, which is apparently one of the city’s major districts. Right across from us was a very interesting and creative-looking building. I would later learn from my guide-book that it’s the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Office building, and that it’s really rather well-known, but at the time I just thought we had a pretty cool building outside our window.

After check-out, or prefectural advisors met us in the lobby and guided us to the subway. The subway took us to the station where we would catch the shinkansen (bullet train) to Sendai. While we waited for the train, we were allowed to go and buy a lunch to take with us. I considered several of the Japanese bento boxes, but decided that I was feeling queasy and had better not shock my digestive system with anything too foreign, so I just bought a sandwich. I tried to find some juice to go with it, but the apple juice I eventually tracked down turned out to be carbonated. ‘Cause, you know what a tasty, vitamin-rich, and thirst-quenching beverage needs to make it even better? Fizz!

I’d slept a bit better the previous night, but was still pretty tired. I rested a bit on the train, but it only took a couple of hours to get to our destination. We were introduced briefly to Sendai Station, and then taken on the subway to our hotel. We got put up there for our very first night in Sendai, which I really appreciated. We even got private rooms with our own bathrooms. Our luggage that we’d shipped was there waiting for us, and I used the extra space to unpack and re-arrange things a bit. In the evening we got taken out to a restaurant for a welcome party. I checked out of the party pretty early, partly because I was still dead tired, and partly because people started lighting up, and the smoke was getting to me. Yes, another similarity between Hong Kong and Japan is that they haven’t banned smoking in public houses. I’m definitely going to be avoiding bars while I’m here.

I walked back along a street called the Ichi-ban Chou, a kind of pedestrian mall, similar to Ottawa’s Sparks Street. I successfully used my very limited Japanese to buy an ice-cream at a small shop, and ate it quite contentedly as I walked – at least until I remembered that eating on the go is supposed to be bad form in Japan. And since they’re not big on rubbish bins on the streets, I had to carry the cup all the way back with me. On the way, I took note of some of the more interesting stores. One caught my attention right away: Sendai has a Baskin Robbins! And they serve mint chocolate chip ice-cream! (Okay, they call it “chocolate mint” here, but it tastes the same.) I spent some time in the HMV, which had a comfortingly large foreign music section. I found surprisingly few Byan Adams C.D.s, but quite a lot of Neil Young. There’s also a Miyazaki store, by which I mean a store that sells exclusively items based on characters from Miyazaki films. My favourites were the key rings with the little soot-sprites from My Neighbour Totoro on them. I’ll definitely have to buy something there before I leave.

That night I finally got a relatively decent sleep, which was good, because on Thursday we were introduced to our head teachers. Our advisors had given us all an introductory speech template to practise, so we could look like we were making an effort. After a short ceremony, we received information on our individual schools and apartments, and also our hanko, or Japanese seal. This is an item of vital importance, which basically functions the same as a signature. Mine has my last name written top-to-bottom in katakana. After this I loaded my luggage into my head teacher’s car and let her take me all the places we needed to go. First, we went to the local municipal office to apply for an alien resident card. Then we went to the bank to set up an account. Then we went to get a cell phone; this was an especially gruelling process that required a lot of translation and took about an hour, even though all I wanted was a cheap phone with a relatively simple plan. Finally, we went to the school, where I signed (or, rather, stamped) a bunch of documents.

A different English teacher gave me a ride to my apartment, and I finally got to see the place I’ll be living for the next year. She took me to the local grocery store; my flat came pretty well stocked with cooking and eating utensils, so all I had to do was buy food. Fortunately I’m pretty comfortable with Asian grocery stores from my time in Hong Kong and Vancouver, so I knew what to look for. Onions, vegetables, tofu, rice, soy sauce, rice vinegar, peanut butter: these are the things I need for a basic stir-fry, and they were all available. The one thing I was worried about was peanut butter, and I was very pleased to find it, even if it did come in a tiny jar. The teacher I was with laughed at me for seeking out low-fat milk (yet another similarity to Hong Kong: milk here tends to be of the “whole” variety), but at least I found it. I was also excited to find real apple juice (non-carbonated), brown rice (I was afraid I would have to spend a year eating only the white stuff), and tea. There was no whole-grain bread, but I did find a rye bread that had whole grains of rye in it, and the teacher recommended a soy bean spread to go with it that ended up being quite good. I’ll have to do a lot more exploring before I get comfortable with all the things in Japanese grocery stores, but I have brown rice, and I have peanut butter. I will survive my year in Japan!

The teacher gave me a lift back, and then left me. I cooked my dinner, and then went to my bedroom to sort out the brand-new bed that my employers had thoughtfully provided for me. I had to unwrap it first, and then I spent some time figuring out what all the different pieces were. Instead of a western-style bed, I got a futon, which goes on the floor. It also came with several blankets, including a nice fuzzy fleece and a soft downy comforter that I know I’ll appreciate when winter comes along. For now, though, it’s sweltering hot, so I just went with the piece of terry cloth that I took (correctly) for a summer blanket. Oddly, the only thing that the bed didn’t come with was a pillow, so I wrapped a towel in my spare blanket and settled down for my first night in my new home.

Oh, and by the way, it turns out it’s pronounced “fh-to(n)”, notfoo-ton”.*

Movies I’ve seen this week:

Alice in Wonderland
– A surprisingly bad movie, considering the director and source material. I actually rather liked the contrived plot-line – it was the world onto which it was superimposed that didn’t work for me. It’s tempting to say that I resented it for diverging so sharply from the books, and that someone who hadn’t read the originals would be able to appreciate the movie on its own merits. The problem with that is that the movie makes so many jokes based on content in the books that I suspect anyone who hadn’t read them would feel completely lost. So it ends up being neither a good adaptation nor a good original work. (Two stars)

Iron Man
– Reasonably diverting super-hero action film. Light enough to be amusing in places, but without the gravity needed to be truly engaging. (Three stars)

The Secret in Their Eyes
– A gripping and well-made mystery thriller that I quite enjoyed for its first three-quarters. Unfortunately, I was disappointed in the ending which gets a bit crazy and far-fetched. (Three stars)

* To clarify, the “F” sound in “futon” is really half-way between an “F” and an “H”; the “U” is barely pronounced; and the final “N” is almost silent in much the same way as it is in French.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Story So Far

As I begin a new adventure, it seems like a good time to give you a bit of background on myself. If you’re reading this blog, you probably know a lot about me already, but even if you don’t, this quick summary of my life should get you up to speed.

The first seven years:

I lived with my mother, father, and sister in a small house in London, Ontario. I remember this as a mostly happy time in my life, although, as so often happens, I may just be viewing the past through rose-tinted glasses.

The next seven years:

My parents split up. My mom, sister, and I spent another year in London, then went on an extended vacation to England and Europe. Although my memory of this period is pretty vague, I credit it with instilling in me a love of travel and of exploring new cities. During the six months we were abroad, we visited Cornwall, Stratford, the Lake District, Scotland, Denmark, and Austria, besides spending a great deal of time in London.

When we returned to Canada we moved to Ottawa, and I started going to school again. I had to start learning French, which I didn’t understand and resented. I didn’t have any friends, and everybody teased me. Life was hell.

Around grade six, I started watching Sailor Moon. It was one of my first experiences with Japanese animation, although years later I would discover that many of the cartoons I’d watched as a child had also been anime. In my last year of elementary school, I saw Star Wars and it ruined my life. I developed a consuming obsession with the trilogy that eventually evolved into an passion for in movies in general.

High school:

I still didn’t have any friends, but people stopped teasing me, and some of them even started hanging out with me. Life sucked, but was notably not hell anymore. I developed a reputation as a film buff, and since I’d never been good at anything in my life, I decided to cultivate it. Some of the people I hung out with watched anime and studied Japanese, and in my last two years I began watching anime too, although I didn’t think very much of it. I kept taking French, and by Grade 13 was surprised to discover that I’d grown to really like it. Sadly, high school was also where my French education ended, and my fluency has been declining ever since.


I moved back to London and completed a four year B.A. at the University of Western Ontario. I initially enrolled with a major in Political Science, with an eye to possibly applying to law school. However, in the interest of keeping up my reputation, I took a few film courses, and liked them so much that I decided to add Film Studies as a second major.

I joined the school anime club, although it was the people more than the shows that attracted me to it. Eventually I warmed to one or two of the series we watched, and in my third year I even wrote an essay on the films of Miyazaki Hayao.

Around this time, I also made a couple of friends, thanks to which my life no longer completely sucks, and I even allow myself to entertain the romantic notion that it might actually be worth living.

The last four years:

As the time for me to graduate university approached, I became increasingly aware of the fact that I still had no career path chosen. I had more or less dismissed the idea of going into law, and neither of my majors suggested an obvious course of action. I didn’t think I had what it would take to be a filmmaker, and government jobs are notoriously difficult to land. A trip to my guidance counsellor was not very helpful. The personality test he had me take revealed that the job I would most enjoy was that of university professor. I laughed out loud, and then made a comment about “those who can’t”. In fact, I think a part of me was secretly expecting that answer, but the thing about pursuing a career as a professor is that first you have to decide what you want to be a professor of. And if there’s one thing I’ve always found difficult, it’s choosing one academic discipline over the others.

At this point, something else was becoming painfully clear to me: I had spent the last nineteen years of my life in school, and they had taught me to be really really good at being in school! But occasionally, one hears about a different world, a world that exists beyond the walls of academia, a world referred to, rather intriguingly, as “real life”. And it occurred to me that for a truly well-rounded education, I might want to try experiencing this “real life” thing, at least for a little while. And so I began to zero in on a less ambitious plan. While I was still studying, an acquaintance told me about the “JET Programme”, an initiative that allowed English-speaking university graduates to spend a year teaching in Japan. During my last year of university, I heard similar suggestions from several people, including my counsellor. In fact, there are several countries, particularly in Asia, where you can get a job with a good salary and benefits just for being a native English speaker. Most of the better jobs also prefer that you have a university degree, but that was no longer something I needed to worry about.

Besides the fact that it was one of the few jobs I was qualified for, the idea of teaching English overseas appealed to me on a couple of other levels. First, in the area of real life experience, it would force me out of my comfort zone and into a more self-sufficient lifestyle. Second, it would give me valuable job experience, which would be good to have on my résumé. Third, as mentioned above, I have always had a love of travel, but since moving to Ottawa my international experience had been limited to a week in Austria, a week in Washington, D.C., and two weeks in London and Paris. I had never been to Asia at all, so the opportunity to go there was especially enticing. Moreover, another thing my travels as a child had instilled me with was the notion that it wasn’t enough just to visit a country for a few days. To really experience it, you needed to live there for an extended period, allowing it to become part of your daily routine, and seeing not just the big sights but the small oddities.

So I decided to take a break from school and do a stint as an English teacher. I took a TESL (Teaching English as a Second Language) course, with the idea of applying to the JET Programme right away. Unfortunately, I missed the deadline, and spent a year working at Shoppers Drug Mart and applying for other positions in east Asia. I eventually got hired by an agency in Hong Kong, and spent ten months teaching in a Chinese-language high school there. When I was done, instead of moving back to Ottawa, I decided to try living in Vancouver for a while. There were a few reasons for this: I wasn’t ready to stop travelling, but I still intended to apply to the JET Programme, and needed to be in my home country to do it. The clincher was my experience in Hong Kong: it seemed that everyone I met there had either been to Vancouver, or knew someone in Vancouver, or had family in Vancouver. Having to admit that I’d never so much as been to B.C. made me realise how little I really knew my country, and I resolved to learn a bit more about it. I spent fifteen months in Vancouver, during which time I worked for a total of nine months in three different language schools. I applied to the JET Programme and made it to the interview stage, but was ultimately rejected. I was disappointed by this, but undeterred. Having spent over a year in Vancouver, I decided to move back to Ottawa and apply again.

In retrospect, I’m really grateful things worked out that way. The intervening year gave me a chance to get re-acquainted with Ottawa and spend time with my friends. I re-applied to the JET Programme, and this time I got accepted! Now, four years after graduating university, I am finally leaving Ottawa to begin a year of living and working in Japan. I hope to continue this blog as a chronicle of my experiences there.