Saturday, April 20, 2013

As a Guest in Japan: Thoughts on 4/20 From Afar.

There are many qualitative differences between school life here in Japan and school life in North America and Europe.  I've been taking notes all week and I had planned on making that the subject of this post.  However, in honor of it being 4/20, I decided to tackle a significant quantitative difference instead, along with some of my personal revelations on how important it is for societies to make decisions for themselves.

First of all, to all my friends back home, Happy 420!  Have a great day, play safe and keep fighting the good fight.  I've never been shy about my support for legalization, even before I had any personal relationship with the cannabis plant.  I still firmly support that position for my society. 

My decision to come to Japan to live and work came with the full knowledge that I would have to put that part of my life aside for the duration of my stay.  I am a guest here and as such have complete respect for the rules of their society as they choose to have it.  This year, I spent my 4/20 as a responsible adult, molding young minds for a positive future.

Even if I were Japanese, my opinion would be in the vast minority.  The drug laws here are incredibly strict; its like prohibition ultra. They search all the packages coming out of B.C. for example... apparently we have a reputation... and even simple possession of cannabis can garner a 5 year prison sentence and the resulting public shaming destroys the careers and relationships of the Japanese(foreigners are generally shipped home in shame, never to return).  Harsh, especially given the movements towards legalization in Western culture, but it works for them.  For all those idiots who get busted breaking the laws of Japan I have little sympathy, there were poor guests and, unlike the folks back home, deserve the penalty for their transgression.

There's no robust cultural history of entheogens, other than alcohol; the Japanese have historically found other ways to alter consciousness (like standing under a frigid waterfall in the dead of winter).  Furthermore, being an island nation with few natural resources has made the culture insular and extremely resistant to things that their society decides it doesn't want (Christianity is another good historical example).  The story on why drugs, specifically cannabis, is illegal here is an interesting one and is a product of American imperialism, but the history is not really relevant now.  Japan is where they're at on this issue, regardless of what outsiders may think, and changing the minds of Japanese is not exactly what gaikokujin (foreigners) are good at.  For the record the experience of living here is 110% worth the cultural sacrifices. 

How does this even relate to school life here in Japan?  Simply this:  my job is to be a role model for the future of their society.  As advanced a society as Japan can appear from the outside, especially looking at cities like Tokyo, the Japanese are not a particularly worldly people (which is one of the reasons I'm here).  This goes double out in the countryside.  This is not a criticism; I find the relative naivete completely charming- as Bilbo Baggins says "It's no bad thing, to celebrate a simple life."   

Nowhere is this innocence more apparent than at a Japanese middle school.  They're between 12 and 15- the age when the 'cool kids' AND the 'bad kids' back home were drinking 6 packs at the baseball field and skipping class for smoke breaks, both ganja and tobacco.  These kids, on the other hand, are adorably innocent and amazingly well behaved.  They ride their bikes to school every day, help clean the school buildings, and brush their teeth after lunch. They want to know who my favorite athletes are, if I've been to Tokyo Disneyland and the movies I like.  The worst I've seen is a small pack of 'delinquents' at a park near my apartment after dark who just appeared to be hanging out... no smokes, no booze, just... hangin'.  Its an innocence that we have, by and large, lost.

Drugs barely even appear on the radar here in Sakuragawa- and in Japan at large its not part of their media or culture, even for adults.  In the schools drug education consists of a couple innocuous posters saying  ”ダメ!ゼッタイ!” (Dame! Zettai!- Bad! Never!) with a picture of an extremely genki (happy and energetic) female athlete smiling out at you.  Visually, they're indistinguishable from positively themed posters.  I was trying to figure out how to get a photo of one without raising any awkward questions, but as yet have been unsuccessful. 

In North America, our kids grow up really, really quickly.  By 14 they're streetwise and jaded.  Here, they're still just kids.  Even the mature culture here vibrates with the cute and playful.  Its wonderfully refreshing and I don't believe it would have been possible if the Japanese possessed the same laissez faire approach to life and social responsibility that North Americans do.

This is why I believe that massive international agreements on this issue, like the UN's Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, are frustrating and unnecessary.  Its for each society to exercise their democratic right to believe in and choose what is right for their culture at a given time, human rights not withstanding.  In North America, the time is right to move away from prohibition.  In Japan it could be generations and I'm OK with that too.

Though I hope we could end prohibition everywhere, as its a detriment to freedom, health and security, I'm very happy following the rules here. The opportunity to be a guest in this wonderful country and be a role model for the society they want to build for their children is incredible.  Its an honor and a privilege; something that I wouldn't trade for a mountain of marijuana.


Sunday, April 14, 2013

Driving in Japan: Not for the Faint of Heart

I live out in the countryside and the schools I teach at are about 20 minutes by car.  Fortunately, both of them are really easy to get to- they are close to major roads and don't require many turns.  I say fortunately, because finding your way around this country by car can be a major headache.  The locals all rely on GPS navigation because, get this, streets are rarely marked!  That means my usual method of direction finding, reading a map, is notoriously unreliable here.  You just have to know where you're going.

This problem is exacerbated by the fact that, in cities and towns, streets are a twisty, curvy, blind-cornered labyrinth.  Did I mention that most of these streets are the width of 1 and 2/3 Japanese sized vehicles?  Small, narrow, twisted. Scary.  Not scary in the way (so I'm told) India is, where there are no rules to the road and chaos rules the day.

No, driving in Japan is scary because people drive on these narrow roads recklessly fast and act like it ain't no thing.  I'm a pretty relaxed and cautious driver but there have been a few times I've worried about my safety.  Riding along with my Japanese friends, however, is a thrill ride.  This is just in the countryside mind you... I haven't taken the car to Tokyo yet.  I'm sure thats a whole different bundle of madness...


Monday, April 8, 2013

Sakuragawa ようこそ!

Today is two weeks to the day since I moved into my new apartment here in Sakuragawa.  Its also my first day of work as an ALT!  This is quite a relief, as I was going a bit stir crazy around here.  Thats not to say that life is bad, though I've had a couple tough days, but this is not big city Japan.  The only people who can speak half decent English are the Japanese teachers of English, and even then it can be a struggle.  Since my Japanese has a long way to go as well, there are a lot of short sentences and checking of dictionaries.  I'm also the tallest, whitest, gaijin-ist person for miles, so I feel super conspicuous everywhere I go, particularly when I'm running along Sakura-gawa (Sakura river, after which the town is named) or practicing rope dart.  People out here are definitely not used to foreigners, especially weird ones, so they are a little bit standoffish at times.  Most of my interactions have been great though, a smile and some effort goes a long way!

I'm also finding out how frustrating it is to be illiterate.  Man, does it suck not being able to read.  Sometimes you don't realize how great a gift is until its gone; this is certainly one of those times.  Labels and simple instructions can up half an hour easy, and the instructions for my rice cooker?  Forget it!  The thing has more functions than Apollo 11.  I'm working really hard on it though, really digging back in to kanji practice and chugging through my manga with a pencil and my dictionary.  Kanji, as it turns out, is not the hardest part of Japanese.  They make sense, and once you get it, you get it.  Theres just lots of them.  The real difficult part is katakana- the syllabary used for loanwords brought into Japanese.  Not only are the loanwords not always from English, often they aren't, they can be odd portmanteaus, or shortened like slang, sometimes both!  For example a convenience store is called a combini (コンビ二) and a computer is pasocon (パソコン).  Those I have, but katakana will pop up in random places, like the grocery store, on signage or packaging, on TV, and sometimes its really hard to figure out what they're trying to say!

I have to say, the language barrier has made it a little lonesome out here; thankfully Im working now and finally getting traction in this town.  Today was basically a throwaway day at Momoyama JHS (桃山- Peach Mountain).  The day began with the introduction of the new teachers, myself included, to the returning students.  After that assembly, I checked out my desk in the teachers room and flipped through the textbooks we'll be using for the year.  They strongly reminded of the French textbooks we used in school, so I have some sympathy for the kids.  Hopefully I can bring a spark to it and really get them excited about practicing English, using my tall gaijin, urban boy cool factor!  After about an hour, we all filed back into the gym to greet the first year students.  The formal procession and opening ceremony took a little over an hour, and the gym was packed with the parents of the youngsters looking proud that their broodlings had made it halfway through the education system.  The kids themselves were really cute. They wear uniforms at school here, so everyone was dressed alike, but there were more than a few ill-fitting outfits- parents hoping the kids will go through a growth spurt, I guess!  The parents were also dressed in their finest.  Among the women I saw a couple gorgeous kimonos, a few smart skirt and blazer combos and a few nice but simple outfits.  The men were all in suits, of course.  Apparently white shirt with white tie is very fashionable in Japan right now!  After we were released from the entrance ceremony ( SO MUCH BOWING!) I had another couple hours in the teachers room, where I got to chat with a couple of the teachers over lunch and try out some Japanese.  It wasn't awful, and most everything was communicated pretty well, so that is a relief!

After school, I took advantage of a brilliant sunny day to do some running, rope dart and yoga.  I'm finally getting my distance back up on my runs, which I'm very happy with, and is very important because... I've started kickboxing at the local gym.  The owner, Yamazaki-san, doesn't speak any English at all, so my workout was mostly show and tell, with bits of Japanese thrown in.  The best part is, I'm pretty sure he wants me to teach his child English in exchange for training, with is OK by me!  Not that I can't afford it, but would be a super perk nonetheless! Yamazaki-san is also a seriously tough dude... I'm gonna learn a lot! After an hour hitting pads and working on technique I hit the showers and am now icing down my shins.

Anyhow, thats all for now!  Check out Facebook for some photos of the houses around here and stay tuned for my next report... the joys of driving in Japan!


Monday, March 25, 2013

Sakuragawa & Foxx Den v2.0

Back again folks, with another action packed adventure!

I was up early to head to Sakuragawa-shi (桜川市)in western Ibaraki-ken (茨城県).  Sakuragawa borders Tochigi-ken to the west and is part of a small group of cities that include Chikusei and Yuki.  The town is ringed with mountains and is famous for its stone work made from locally quarried stone.  There is also a doll festival in late winter, but I've missed it this year so y'all will just have to wait!   

My mission today was to meet the Board of Education and get settled into my new apartment.  I drove myself on the highway from Mito to Sakuragawa, following my ALT coordinator Mieko.  Highways in Japan are interesting in that they are all toll roads.  When you're getting on the highway, you stop at a booth and take a ticket; when you exit the highway you go through a wicket and pay for your trip, determined by the distance traveled.  Cars can be outfitted with an electronic device that pays automatically but I didn't have that luxury.

 It was a lovely drive through the Japanese countryside, I got a nice dose of nature and really cool classic style Japanese architecture.  Sadly I didn't have a chance to take any photos- two hands on the wheel!- but I'll make up for that later. Sakuragawa is apparently renowned throughout Japan for its large houses and gardens, and for good reason.  Some things remind me of home, some of it is different, but all of it is heart-stirringly beautiful.

There seems to be a real push for sustainability out here as well; I saw a couple of wind turbines on a nearby mountain and several solar arrays.  I'm a happy fox knowing that at least some of my energy use comes from renewable resources!

My meeting with the B.O.E. went really well, they like me quite a bit.  School is on spring break at the moment and starts back up in a couple of weeks, so I will get to meet the teachers and have a formal introduction to the B.O.E. in the intervening period. After that, we drove to Oyama in Tochigi-ken to pick up the key for my apartment then back to the new den!

The apartment itself is very cool, I have a remote control heater/air conditioner, video intercom to the front door, insuite washer/dryer combo... lots of goodies!  I made a a video tour which you can see here.  After getting the internet set up and making sure that everything worked properly, Mieko left me to get settled in.  I unpacked and made myself at home, until I realized that I hadn't eaten anything since breakfast.

I headed towards the local grocery store, which is actually a short walk from my place, but I brought the car to get some driving practice and to help carry home the new pots and pans I was picking up.  The store itself was pretty neat- vegetables are quite inexpensive, mushrooms are downright cheap.  Packages of enoki mushrooms that go for 2-3$ back home are 98円.  Soba noodles are likewise very cheap.  A tub of shiro miso is less than half what you pay in Canada.  The toughest part was reading labels on the spices and sauces... I'm going to have to make a friend or two to help me out with that, I think!  Overall, however, I'm loving the food here!

The store also provides its old cardboard boxes to customers in lieu of plastic bags, which is an awesome implementation of the 'reduce, reuse, recycle' principle!  I juggled my stuff all the way back to the car in the steadily increasing rain and was ready to get home and enjoy a nice sushi dinner- the grocery store sushi here is comparable to the quality sushi back home, at half the price (or less!!!!)- aaand.... nothing.  The car wouldn't start.

I'd left the headlights on the entire time I was in the store and the battery was dead. Ooooh Foxxy...

Turns out, this hiccup was just the multiverse giving me what I needed.  I've been really apprehensive about being a stranger in a strange land, especially approaching people with my limited Japanese ability.  Now I had to, just to get my car home.  At the first auto shop I found I bounced around through broken Japanese and broken English before I managed to explain my problem.  Sadly, they didn't have the equipment to help me, so they wrote a note explaining my problem and sent me to the gas station down the street.  By that time I'd worked out how to explain a dead battery a little better in Japanese (it turns out I'd been using the wrong verb!) and got help quickly.  The attendant drove me back to my car and jumped it, making me the most relieved I'd been in quite a while!

I'm really happy with how welcoming and friendly everyone here has been... its refreshing and has definitely made the transition easier.  I'm still a little apprehensive about making first connections, but if all the people are this friendly I'm sure I won't have any problems!

Sunday, March 24, 2013


As it turns out, the problem with my first flight was caused by a bird flying into the left engine of the plane.  JAL was great, putting us up in a hotel for the night and making sure we were well looked after.  Sadly, this put me 24hrs behind schedule and late for my ALT training.  I arrived on the evening of March 19th, and cleared customs with little trouble.  Finding my way around Narita was a bit tricky; thankfully the airport had wifi and I was able to find the counter to buy a bus ticket to Mito-shi in Ibaraki-ken.  I'd finally made it to Japan! 

I arrived at my hotel in Mito at 10.30PM and couldn't quite figure out why the lights in my room wouldn't work.  It turns out you need to put the tag attached to your key into a slot by the door to close the circuit and turn on the power.  This, however, I did not discover until the next morning.  I was exhausted and crashed out right away.

The next morning I was up really early- in fact, I've woken up early every day I've been in this country.  I got myself cleaned up and headed to breakfast where I had the Japanese set- natto (fermented soybean- interesting stuff), nori, miso soup and some rice with a sunny-side up egg and cabbage.  After that was the beginning of ALT training with Heart School, which was full of information and definitely helped to prepare me for the task ahead.  The other ALTs are an eclectic bunch, but very nice folk and I've made some good friends already.  Fortunately a few of them speak better Japanese than I do, which has really helped!

The ALT coordinators must have really liked me as well, because I was given an extended contract and placed in Sakuragawa-shi, Ibaraki-ken rather than in Saitama.  This is all well and good, as I was hoping for a longer term anyhow! The placement does require me to drive, however, which is a bit scary.  They drive on the left here in Japan and the school had me do some driving practice to acclimatize.  Right at the end, I freaked out the Japanese lady, Megumi, who was riding along but overall I did pretty well. Driving here definitely feels a little weird- the turn signal and windshield wiper switches are reversed and I have to be extra attentive when turning. I don't think I'll have any problems with it though.

One of the things that I've often heard about Japan is that the cost of living is very high.  In my experience, so far, this has not been the case.  Perhaps this holds true in downtown Tokyo, Osaka or Kyoto, but outside of the big cities prices are comparable to North America.  Regular gas is around 145円/liter (approximately 1.50$CDN), and my hotel room is 4,000円 per night which also includes a free breakfast.  If you're looking for western style food- meat, potatoes etc. - the price is rather high;  Japanese fare, however, is reasonably inexpensive and occasionally quite cheap. This is also apparent in portion size.  Though portions are noticeably smaller than what you will find in North America, Japanese dishes are definitely more robust than their western counterparts at the same price point. 

Quite frankly, that statement about portions holds true for pretty much everything here: the cars are smaller, the streets are smaller, the rooms are smaller, the dogs are smaller and the people are smaller.  This is, in my opinion, one of the most appealing things about Japan: life is efficient and having had to share such a small space has made people very polite (at least outwardly). 

My experience with Japanese people has been good so far.  Customer service is *amazing* every where you go- polite, quick and attentive.  I've done my best to use Japanese, though I have a lot of practice ahead of me, and the people really seem to appreciate it.  I've come across a sense of nervousness from Japanese people, especially if they feel that their English ability is not very good.  I empathize entirely and do my best to communicate (smile and nod!, try out my Japanese).  Occasionally you'll run into an older person who would rather take a different elevator than get in with the gaijin, but that's pretty rare.

The weirdest part is being an object of interest everywhere I go, even if people pretend they're not looking. Its similar to being on stage... all the time! I'm watched everywhere I go, like the hot girl in high school.  I can feel it, and I totally sympathize.    Strolling past a crowd of girls starts off a rush of giggling and chattering: すごい! 高い!かっこいい! (Wow! Tall! Cool!)  Sometimes they try to say hello; I wave and smile, which starts more giggling.  Even the guys are checking out what I'm wearing, how my hair is done, how I carry myself.  I'm not sure I'll ever get used to it!

Tomorrow I leave for my job placement, Sakuragawa-shi.  According to Wikipedia Sakuragawa-shi has a population of about 50,000 which is extremely small by Japans (and my own!) standards.  I'm driving there from Mito, following the ALT coordinator for my area.  I'm still a little apprehensive driving in Japan, but I'm sure I'll manage just fine. 

Wow, it seems like I've gone on quite enough- I have many more stories to go over but I'll save them for more specific posts in the future.  Keep an eye out for my pictures on facebook and I'll take a video of my new apartment when I move in.  Ciao for now!