Group of skydivers social skydiving

How to Social Skydive in Japan

So you came to Japan ready to start a new life full of experiences and adventure.

At first, everything is cool, fresh and new. Novel. You’re excited about seeing all the places, and meeting all the people. You’re also excited about tackling this new beast of a language: Japanese.

But after that initial love affair with Japan, the novelty wears off. You start to get comfortable. You stay inside the house more. You’ve been working a lot. You’re tired. Visits to new cool Japanese restaurants become replaced with cheap and easy konbini bentos. Worse than comfortable, you start to stagnate as a human being.

Living in Japan comes with its unique set of challenges.

Those challenges include but are not limited to:

  • Risking embarrassment learning and using the language;
  • Breaking unfamiliar social norms;
  • Being judged as a clumsy, ignorant foreigner no matter how well you speak Japanese, and no matter how well you know the culture;
  • Not knowing how to make friends with Japanese people and expand your social circle in a culture where social groups are so tight-knit;
  • Not knowing how to graduate from just “teaching English to get that visa”, to doing the work you truly want to do;
  • And feeling isolated from society and getting bitter about life in Japan in general.

Not even saying these things are the objective reality of living in Japan. I’m just saying its easy to interpret many of the daily occurences as instances of these challenges happening. Basically, even if it’s all in your head, the struggle is real.

And these struggles mixed with the other normal stresses of life can start to weigh down on you, causing you to want to take it easy. It they can cause you to want to stay inside your comfort zone and NOT spend the effort it takes to build an amazing social circle of friends, and tackle your life aspirations.

“Nah man, It’s cool. I think I’ll stay home tonight and “relax”, rather than going out tonight and spending the effort to make new friends and find new opportunities.”

“I think I’ll take it easy tonight and study Japanese tomorrow. I mean, my Japanese is already OK I guess…”

“I really want to audition for that role in that new Japanese TV show, but I don’t know. My Japanese probably isn’t good enough. I’ll just skip the audition this time and try out next time.

Pack your parachutes, it’s time for Social Skydiving

Social skydiving is the art of challenging yourself by putting yourself in unique social situations that you may not have the chance to encounter on a day-to-day basis, in order to develop more confidence and consequently, improve your overall social life.

Just like feeling the fear of jumping out of a plane can be exciting, scary, and fun, so can placing yourself in novel social scenarios.

This can include talking to strangers in public areas, dancing in public, making absurd requests to strangers, or anything that puts social pressure on you such as singing Happy Birthday to yourself in a crowded restaurant (see video below!).

Social skydiving is also popularly known as rejection therapy and was made well-known by a badass dude called Jia Jiang in his 100 rejection therapy challenges.

I like to distinguish between “rejection therapy” and “social skydiving.” Whereas rejection therapy is for people who have social anxiety and want to use “therapy” to get to “normal”, social skydiving is to go above and beyond what is considered normal. On the level of application they are the same, but they have slightly different end goals.

You can read more into detail about what social skydiving in Japan is, and follow me on my social skydiving journey here.

To social skydive is to challenge yourself to an exciting adventure. Social Skydiving will change your life both in Japan, and anywhere you go.

Why is Japan a great place to social skydive?

Actually, any place is a great place to social skydive. However, there are a few great reasons I can think of for why I love social skydiving in Japan.

  • You can expand your social circle and meet cool new people and open yourself to new opportunities.

Sure, you can always make friends through social circles, your local bars, work connections, and etc.. But when you start challenging yourself with new, crazy social interactions you build more confidence. And that confidence will open up new doors of opportunity to meet people in ways that might surprise you.

Having those opportunities in a place where foreigners are often seen as being different can actually have a very cool effect! You might find yourself on TV, modeling for Abercrombie and Fitch, breakdancing and tricking with the best underground circles in Tokyo.

Who really knows! The possibilities are endless and depend upon who you are and what your interests are.

  • It gives you a fresh way of practicing Japanese.

One of the biggest problems that people have when learning Japanese is that they are to afraid to speak it (me included!). They are embarrassed about how they will be percieved by the Japanese people if they make mistakes.

I invite you to challenge that embarrassment by purposefully placing yourself in an absurd situation like asking the Japanese police to drive their car.

Not only does it help you overcome your fear of speaking Japanese but you are simultaneously practicing Japanese as well. This is exactly what Moses McCormick and Benny the Irish Polygot, two established polygots, talk about in this popular article.

  • It gives you insight into how the Japanese would react in a given situation.

One of the reasons you’re in Japan is to learn about the culture. Doing these wacky challenges in Japan has surprised me so much at the way the Japanese people will react. It’s unexpected, and its really a lot of fun.

It has taught me that my expectations of what will happen do not always match up with the reality of what will happen if I try.

The only thing I ask is that you always put the other person’s feelings first, and never do anything that would cause the other person shame and embarrassment.

Otherwise, please go out and embarrass yourself, as that’s a part of social skydiving. Place yourself in new social situations that may be intense or embarrassing, so that you overcome fear of that embarrassment and as a result live a more free, uninhibited social life!

How to start Social Skydiving today

Start small. Start with something you know you could do, but would make you feel a bit uncomfortable, and work from there. Remember that its impossible to do the impossible. I started by saying “hello ” to one hundred people on the street.

Make it too hard, and you won’t do it.

It’s like lifting weights. You don’t walk into a gym your first day never having worked out, and try to squat 500 lbs right?

Same with social skydiving. Just make it a bit outside your comfort zone.

Set a quota and stick to it. Give yourself a quota like “25 challenges” or “100 challenges.” You could even set a time frame like “30 challenges – one challenge per day for the next month.” I am personally committing to 25 challenges for my current project I’m documenting.

I also did a social skydiving challenge before, in which I first said “hello” to 100 strangers on the street. Then I did a second challenge in which I started conversations with 100 strangers.

At first I was very shy about all of this, but I started small and worked my way up.

No matter how hard it may seem in the beginning, I know you can do it too. No matter what level you are at in terms of social shyness/confidence, you always need to start with a challenge that is appropriate to you.

Document it! Please don’t skip this step because it’s super important to integrating your mental insights with the experience of doing the challenges.

You could write in a journal about it. You could blog about it. You could make videos and upload them to YouTube (heck, I do all three!). You must give yourself some opportunity to reflect on your experiences so that you can later go back and review the progression of your attitude and mindset.

This is not only super motivating, as you can literally see yourself growing into a stronger, more confident person but it also ensures that you learn all the lessons that social skydiving has to teach!

Find friends to social skydive with. This isn’t a requirement. But its amazing the difference you will feel in being motivated to do this if you have a buddy to share experiences with, and hold each other accountable.

When I did my first set of social skydiving challenges, I didn’t have anyone to share it with. I just did the challenges and wrote about them in my journal.

This time, I have friends who are also doing this to go out with and share my experiences with. We can also really push each other to expand our comfort zones – much more than if we were doing this alone.

Try to find someone interested to do this with you! I’m sure you will enjoy social skydiving much much more.

Go out, and sail the social skies!

That’s it for now. I hope you are as excited about going on this adventure as I am.

If you are interested in seeing me do and talk about my social skydiving in Japan project, give my YouTube a check.

For more written articles about social skydiving in Japan check out the official list of challenges in this article.

For articles about Japan life, learning Japanese, and living a fun and inspiring life in Japan, check out http://tonymichaelhead.com.

For social skydiving in Japan updates and other Japan related fun, check out my Twitter: https://twitter.com/tonymichaelhead

If you enjoy the expression of lifestyle through photos, give my Instagram a look: https://www.instagram.com/tonyingunma/

I really want to hear about your stories and experiences with Social Skydiving as well!

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Tokai Red Seal Saag


Kabuki Curry

Time

1 hour

Cost

¥ ¥ ¥ ¥ ¥

Serving Size

4 Adults

Notes

  • seafood/meat optional
  • immersion blender recommended 


Act 1: The stage is set 

 

Curry is a cuisine many get passionate about. It is widely acknowledged however, that as a catch-all categorisation, it is imperfect when referring to the multitudinous regional variations of disparate dishes of the Asian subcontinent. Perhaps this is even truer in South-East Asia where the colours associated with curry dishes are more indicative of their make up than the term by which we classify them. Japan is an exception to this rule and, disregarding tiny elements of flair, curry as a dish, in its naturalised form is remarkably standard. It is thick, fragrantly aromatic, lightly sweet and a literally warming “soul food” (in the Japanese sense – comfort food).

 

Over at Serious Eats they take the position that Japanese curry “might well be considered one of the country’s national dishes,” which many might debate, myself included (just for fun). That said, I do not believe it would be too bold to conjecture that curry is, probably by quite some margin, the nation’s favourite “yōshoku”, western food adopted and adapted for the Japanese palate. The reason I feel comfortable calling it “western” is not because Japan is the east of the East whereby literally the rest of the world could be considered the West. But because, like everyone else I have spoken to on the subject, I am quite willing to accept that Japanese curry is a derivative form of British Curry, itself a derivative cuisine, in the form of flour thickened stew heavily flavoured with blended spice. Even in a roux, that some may say sets apart Japanese curry, the thickener is flour. Note that the aforementioned British Curry is used in a more traditional sense and without passing comment on modern dishes like Tikka Masala or Balti.

 

Over at the BBC, they decided to throw a curve-ball from the outset by playfully pointing out that if one was to look for the word curry in British cooking you could point to the late 14th Century where cury was Anglicised to replace the French cuire (to cook). Thankfully, they do go on to see common sense and admit that this red herring is almost universally disregarded for the widely-accepted explanation that the Tamil word kari (meaning sauce) was employed and exported by early imperialists in Southern India. The earliest published Anglo curry recipes are from the mid 18th Century. Back in India, spice blends were being adapted as new imported ingredients became available, such as chillies from Central America and South-East Asian cloves. Jump forward to Meiji era Japan (1868-1912) and the British Royal Navy were taking curry with them wherever they were next seeking to drop anchor.

 

Act 2: The plot thickens 

 

Happily enough, I bought into this version of events until I read the boldface claim that the first Japanese person to eat curry was not until 1871. This seems altogether too recent to my mind. The appeal of the narrative is obvious. Yamakawa Kenjiro, a 16-year-old would-be scholar from a noble samurai family sets forth and eats curry aboard a naval vessel bound for the new world, en route to becoming the first Japanese graduate of Yale. Later going on to be a noted physicist and historian and one of the most important educational forces of his generation, it is, all in all, a very ennobling association. At the same time though, it just seems too perfect, like the-made-for-TV-movie follow-up to the Suntory whiskey story.

 

It is with one foot firmly on both sides of the fence that I state that it is plausible that the honourable Yamakawa-san very well may have been the first notable Japanese national to be recorded as having eaten Victorian-era imported British Navy style curry, but beyond that qualification-laden sentence, I’m afraid I cannot see myself conceding that he was the first to eat curry… EVER. Without doubt, from this point on, the popularity of curry increased, from first appearing on Tokyo menus in 1877, then snowballing to ubiquity in restaurants and pre-made packet mixes alike within a century. My argument isn’t that the form that went on to become popular curry was introduced earlier, it is rather that, even if only a logical inference, with pre-colonial contact between India and Japan, there must be have someone who ate some form of curry, even if only using that term in the very broadest sense.

 

Indirectly, through Korea and China, Japan has had contact with India since the loving arms of Buddhism, that wrapped North and South around Asia, reconnected here. Buddhism has been practised in Japan since at least the 6th Century, though I am not trying to imply that curry came as part of the package. By the 12th Century students from every corner of Asia, including Japan, were enrolled at the great Buddhist university at Nalanda, near the present day India borders with Nepal. Surviving nearly into the 13th century, Nalanda University acted as one of the academic hubs of the Buddhist world for 700 years and declined around the time that Oxford in England was starting out and a full half-millennium before Yale was even established. All that said, there is a likelihood that students of Nalanda would have been expected to observe an austere diet and may not have eaten curry in their time in India. Moreover on their return, they would have likely lived in monasteries and may not have had opportunity to pass on any foreign food experiences.

 

Act 3: The spice of life 

 

At it’s most basic, curry is a melange of spices, whether dried or fresh, with ingredients that can be unique, but more often are common to other curry dishes, where the spice take precedence in the flavour and the proportions of which make all the difference to the final outcome. That attempt at a definition was a mouthful, as is good curry. Andrew Lawler over at Slate, writes that a “proto-curry” of turmeric, ginger and garlic can be traced back 4,000 years to India’s ancient Indus Valley civilisation. What this shows is that, along with the long history of spices such as these used in Vedic culture for religious purposes and in Ayurvedic medicine, they were also being eaten together. This is evidenced by remains in cooking pots and traces on human teeth. Unsurprisingly, turmeric, ginger and garlic are all also common ingredients in Japanese curry.

 

As it turns out, Japan is actually one of the largest consumers of turmeric in the world. I would love for this to be because of the amount of “Indian saffron” being used in curry, but I suspect this has more to do with the modern interest in its efficacy in the guise of pseudo-scientific snake-oil hangover cures. For the record, I am not doubting the medicinal benefits of turmeric, but you can probably save some money and get the same effects by adding a teaspoon next time you brew up some chai.

 

As a spice, outside of curry cookery, turmeric has been in Japan a very long time. In her tracing of “the golden spice” Iris Benzie shows that from its native India, turmeric had made its way to China by the 8th Century. From there, in Japan it first shows up midway through the Heian Period (794 – 1185), but was not cultivated domestically until the ascension of Edo in the Tokugawa Period (1603 – 1868). [A period discussed at length in my last column]

 

Act 4: Our hero emerges 

 

If you’re at all a fan of kabuki theatre, you may have come across the name Tenjiku Tokubei, where he is a recurring magician character. Tenjiku is, in fact, an old-fashioned Japanese term for India. Japan was the “sun country” from whence the hinomaru or “circle of the sun” arose, China, the “central country” and India the “centre of heaven,” so named because of it being the birthplace of the Buddha. Tenjiku “India” Tokubei as it turns out was a historical figure that travelled widely during the first thirty years of the Tokugawa period, before the Shogunate mandated sakoku lock-down deemed that Japan should cloister itself away from the outside forces for fear of colonial and religious ambition from without. Far from being a holy man or magician, the man, who would in fact go on to be a monk in his later life, got his nickname after he published an account of the travels of his youth aboard the “red seal” armed merchant ships that performed the only sanctioned international trade of the period (whose letters patent held the Shogun’s red seal).

 

In this era, the travel narrative became a popular literary subject and Tokubei became known as somewhat of a Japanese Marco Polo after garnering fame from his memoir titled Tenjiku Tokai Monogatari (Sea Travels to India). In his early years, he had also journeyed extensively around South-East Asia, including Thailand and Vietnam, but most famous was his trading trip to India, that saw him there for over a year. What is notable about Tokubei’s travels is that he spent such a long period of time on the ground in India, 13 months or thereabouts, that he could take notes on the multiple rice harvests of the year, along with buying and eating local produce such as coconuts, which he quite succinctly equates to being yashi palms. Unfortunately, Tokubei does not specifically write about eating curry in India. That said, in trading with locals in local goods and consuming local delicacies, I feel strongly that it is almost a certainty that we could point to him as being the new (or old) poster boy for curry in Japan, pre-dating the current version of events by a quarter of a millennium with an allegory more historically poignant than that currently on offer.

 

Epilogue: A tribute 

 

While there are plenty of juicy details to sink your teeth into in Tenjiku’s travels, what it is lacking is a representative dish. So, inspired by my adventures in the Mariana Trench of curry research, I’ve experimented with an emblematic curry dish myself. For it to truly work, it needs to be thick like a Japanese curry, but not have the flour of a British curry, or a roux for that matter. For this purpose a traditional saag (palak) spinach curry would be perfect, where the blended leaf itself thickens the dish. For flavouring the Indic “three sisters” of turmeric, ginger and garlic are a good base. To enhance these, some garam masala adds our spiced background. Where saag would usually use cream, I suggest a little “yashi” coconut and we have ourselves a sauce, along with a nod to other forms of green curry from Southeast Asia. For a touch of both old and new Japanese influences, a little miso in place of stock and the not so secret Japanese curry trick for smooth sweetness, a dash of chocolate.

 

Being that beef is taboo in India, noted by Tokubei, and that meat on the whole likely made its way into curry through Muslim accretion, pork also seems like the wrong choice for this dish, despite it being common in curry in Japan. For a saag classic, you might try a traditional version of a modern trend and incorporate cheese. It is common to offer cheese as a “topping” for Hokkaido style Soup Curry, which is unrelated to, but delicious in the same vein as paneer (Indian fresh cheese). If you do make paneer, I beseech you to not waste the whey that is a by-product. Whey chapattis are some of the best I have eaten, the lactose in which makes them far softer than when made with plain water. Saag, like Japanese curry is genuinely versatile enough that any of these could work. Today though, let’s take it in another direction and sail with the winds of our nautical theme.

 

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Tokai Red Seal Saag

Ingredients

  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 tbsp peeled and chopped fresh garlic
  • 1 tbsp peeled and chopped fresh ginger
  • 1 tbsp turmeric powder (or fresh)
  • 1 tbsp garam masala paste (or powder)
  • 1 tbsp white miso paste
  • 1 tbsp Thai fish sauce
  • ½ cup lukewarm water (plus extra by feel)
  • 1 tbsp powdered coconut milk powder
  • 6 cups washed and chopped spinach (or mixed greens)
  • 10g white chocolate (optional, but worth adding)
  • 16 large prawns (shelled and de-veined)
  • 1 tbsp all-purpose flour
  • 1 tsp cayenne pepper
  • 1 tsp paprika powder
  • 1 tbsp butter (or ghee)
  • A little extra salt to taste
  • 1 bulb garlic, thinly sliced (optional)
  • 4 tbsp sweet red fukujinzuke pickles

Preparation and Method

 

For the sauce: In a small saucepan, heat oil and sauté garlic and ginger over a medium-high heat until fragrant. Add turmeric and garam masala and sauté for a further minute. Mix water with fish sauce, miso paste and coconut powder. Use this wet mixture to deglaze spices and add greens to wilt. Just spinach will do, though I like the idea that any cooking greens can be used to make saag. Pictured is a mixture of spinach, Japanese mustard spinach komatsuna and some leftover mizuna I had from a salad earlier in the week. Stir together and reduce the heat to low and cook for 10 minutes until greens are darkened and soft. If the mixture appears dry add a little more water a teaspoon at a time to keep moist. With an immersion blender, pulse into a thick green sauce paste. Stir through the broken white chocolate. Cover to keep warm.

 

For the prawns: Mix together flour, paprika and chilli in a bowl and coat prawns. Over a medium-high heat in a small frypan, fry prawns in butter and optional sliced garlic, seasoning lightly with salt. Arrange fukujinzuke pickles on a warmed serving plate to form a circle and top with four prawns per person. The paprika and chilli are meant to intensify the red in the prawns though, if you prefer, they could be fried un-floured, or taken one step farther and deep-fried crumbed or in a tempura batter.

 

For plating: Next to the prawns, add a spoon on the curry to the plate and, with a silicon pastry brush, swipe a circle around the plate if you like the effect. Swipes were en vogue, then out, but with our subject matter, I find it quite fitting. Serve with rice cooked with a little butter and turmeric (a teaspoon per cup is plenty, but how much rice you want is up to you). I have not listed the small edible chrysanthemums or kogiku I plucked the petals from for the final garnish as an ingredient above. This is mainly because they are not more than an affectation. In terms of color, they do link the main dish to the turmeric rice. If you do go looking for them, they can be found in the vegetable section of large supermarkets. I had some fun thinking about poetic ways they could be used to tie the throne of Japan into our tale, but in the end, I just liked the way they looked and, with our eyes eating first, that could be seen as important.

 

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Cleaning prawns

The spices: Garlic, ginger, garam masala paste and turmeric

The spices: Garlic, ginger, garam masala paste and turmeric

The wet ingredients: miso, coconut and water

The wet ingredients: miso, coconut and water

The greens: Spinach, Japanese mustard spinach and mizuna

The greens: Spinach, Japanese mustard spinach and mizuna

Chopped and in the pot

Chopped and in the pot

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All simmering nicely

Blended and adding chocolate

Blended and adding chocolate

Prawn coating dry ingredients

Prawn coating dry ingredients

Frying prawns

Frying prawns

Japanese edible chrysanthemum "kogiku": Pretty but not vital

Japanese edible chrysanthemum “kogiku”: Pretty but not vital

 

Sources:

“An Introduction to Karē-Raisu, Japanese Curry Rice” www.seriouseats.com

“Curry Story” www.sbfoods.co.jp

“Curry: Where did it come from?” www.bbc.co.uk

“Indus Civilization food: how scientists are figuring out what curry was like” www.slate.com

“Turmeric: the Golden Spice” Iris Benzie www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov

“Tenjiku Tokai Monogatari” Tenjiku Tokubei http://kindai.ndl.go.jp

Translation of “Tenjiku Tokai Monogatari” in “Literary Subjects Adrift: a cultural history of early modern Japanese castaway narratives” Michael S. Woods

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How to Stay Healthy in Japan

Half of you (especially if you’ve never lived in Japan before) looked at the title for this post thinking, “What on earth is she going to talk about? It’s a cinch!” while I’m sure the other half of you clicked on this thinking, “Finally someone’s talking about this!” Now that you’ve clicked and are reading, let me first give an overview of what I mean.

Before I came to Japan my first time, I believed the stereotype that Japan is extremely healthy and that I will lose several pounds by not even trying during my 9 month exchange student period. With this expectation in mind, before leaving the States, I loaded up on Snickerdoodle cookies (which I still don’t entirely regret because they’re delicious) and otherwise went about my normal week walking to class every day around my 1,933 acre campus, eating healthy food until the weekends, and taking Zumba classes at the gym every night.

Boy was I hit with a slap in the face when, after just a few weeks into my stay in Japan, I realized I had to try to make sure I didn’t gain weight and be almost even more careful of what I was doing than in America. I was being fed extremely processed white bread for breakfast and was served heaping portions of mainly white rice or noodles for lunch/dinner. My afternoon snacks of fruit were forcibly replaced by packaged cakes and candies by my host family since fruit is more expensive here. I walked 20 minutes to the station, 10 minutes to the college campus, and back, and that was all the movement I was able to get in a day.

“Japan is healthy” isn’t necessarily a lie. “I lost so much weight in Japan!” is also very true for many people. But it’s a very subjective reality. What I came to realize is that on the spectrum of healthy and unhealthy, America has two vastly different extremes, with whole wheat/whole grain everything and salad bars on the one end, and deep fried Oreos on the other.

Good luck finishing this giant bowl of ramen on your own if you're not a pubescent boy. I (and my 20-something male friend) tried.

Good luck finishing this giant bowl of ramen on your own if you’re not a pubescent boy. I (and my 20-something male friend) tried.

Japan has a much more limited scope that fits somewhere in the middle. Portions do not tend to be as huge as in the US, but I have been on the receiving end of many massive bowls of ramen and plates of omuraisu that I really wished I could take home half of. Fish is the staple meat, along with other easily accessible protein substitutes like tofu and natto (for some good recipes for all the haters, try something from here), although consumption of red meat is also on the rise. Japan does have quite a variety of fried foods (karaage, tempura, tonkatsu), but at least the portions don’t tend to be quite as large in the States. Japan does a very good job with organic produce (even if it is not labeled so, most tends to be organic), which goes bad almost immediately, so you need to make sure you use them up in your diet quite a lot quickly. Vegetables do tend to be integrated into cooked meals more than they tend to be in the US, but on the other hand, carbohydrates tend to be the focus of most Japanese cuisine (rice, noodles, etc.) and no meal is set without them. Bakeries are also everywhere, and melon-pan gets me every time. The key word here in almost all of these statements is “tend.”

Basically, refer to this diagram if I lost you here.

Japan.US food health

The US-Japan food spectrum. (The same can apply for exercise.)

Therefore, whether Japan is “healthy” completely depends on what your lifestyle and diet were like at home. For example, I’ve heard countless Japanese (and otherwise) exchange students at my home university complain about how much weight they gained after coming to the US. Upon probing, I found that in the majority of the cases, these were the people who ate fast food nearly every day (rather than cook for themselves and therefore control what they ate) or ate in the fast-food-esque lines at the cafeteria instead of the healthier alternatives, and never used the gym membership that they paid for as a part of their tuition. Everyone always marvels at American restaurant portion sizes but never portions a part of it out into a to-go bag, which is in any case a rarity in Japan. While it tends to be easier to make bad eating (etc.) decisions in the US than in Japan (again, because of the spectrum and the “tend”), that they gained weight was, essentially, their own choice.

I’m not saying that I’m the perfect epitome of a healthy American lifestyle. I do enjoy my deep fried Oreo, but the chance to eat them only comes around once or twice a year. My philosophy is cook healthy at home, eat whatever I want at restaurants once or twice a weekend. At such restaurants, most of the time I take some amount home, loving to get both a lunch and dinner for the price of one. I stick spinach and a good variety of vegetables in nearly everything I cook. I hate running and using exercise machines, but also hate sitting in class/at work for the majority of my day, and found walking around to class instead of taking the campus bus and Zumba and other dance-exercise classes to scratch my lazy leg itch.

Lotteria actually sells these types of burgers quite regularly.

If you ask Japanese people how they maintain their weight, you’ll get a lot of various answers. They walk or bike everywhere. They eat white rice, not bread, the thought being that if you eat bread, you need to heap on the butter and jam, but you can eat rice just as it is. (As I don’t eat either necessarily as a staple, and do not see white rice as “healthy,” I especially have qualms with this personally.) They eat more fish and vegetables. Fad diets (like the banana diet) are popular and “work” for some people. Standard portions are smaller. They drink green tea almost every day (as have I since high school).

As you can tell, all of these reasons don’t really explain it to me very well. I tend to be even more healthy than what they sugggest above and am still not as stick-thin as the standard woman here. I acknowledge that thinness or thickness is to an extent a result of lifestyle, but to another extent, after watching tiny girls inhale giant bowls of ramen and then plates of gyoza (pot stickers) and then eat a piece of cake, I have come to the conclusion that part of it is just a very good metabolism as well. Therefore, I consider myself mostly on the healthy side of the food spectrum, right before you hit the Japan line in the diagram above, although I do acknowledge that I may be something of a minority. Minority as I may be, I know there are so many people who struggle to maintain a healthy lifestyle like me in Japan.

Now, how do you accomplish this?

Food

This is a tough one, but at least now with the internet and the increasing internationalization of the country, it’s becoming easier and easier.

Rule #1: Stop eating melon-pan. Like I said above, the Japanese exchange students coming to America gained weight mostly because they didn’t have enough self-discipline. This goes the same way in reverse. This time around, I returned to Japan and bought all (exaggeration, but not by far) the kashi-pan (pastries) at the convenience stores and bakeries because it had been so long since I had any, and they are so good. Before I knew it, what I had originally planned to be a treat after a long while had turned into a habit. Break your bad habits early. Sure matcha kit kats are amazing, but if you buy them, put them in a place (corner of a cabinet, drawer, etc.) that’s not somewhere you look immediately, because the phrase is true to an extent: out of sight, out of mind. Eat your sweet, sweet cryptonite every now and then, but make sure it’s not regular enough to form a dependence or a habit.

Additionally, watch out for the convenience store food. This is essentially one form of Japanese fast food (Western places like McDonald’s are everywhere, but they tend to be higher prices for smaller portions than the American versions) in that it is cheap and pretty delicious, but can be horribly unhealthy. Just like how you can order a McSalad, you can buy a salad at the convenience store. Or you could order nikuman, corn dogs, spaghetti and meatballs, omuraisu in a demi-glaze sauce, katsu don, okonomiyaki, etc. I have grabbed the most delicious-looking item in the fridge section only to look at the health information and see that it is over 1000 calories by itself. Conbini food is cheap and pretty good quality, but just watch out. As with normal fast food, watch out for eating too much at places like Yoshinoya or Coco Ichiban (Japanese fast food restaurants).

Buy this guy at Lawson for 500 yen, intake 900 calories.

Rule #2: Find the healthy substitutes. While I was in Nagoya, I managed to find whole wheat spaghetti in the import stores, and one bag of brown rice in the giant rice section of the regular grocery stores. After arriving in Utsunomiya, I found the spaghetti in only one of several import stores, and zero brown rice in my local supermarket (although the rice section was much smaller than the other supermarkets I had been to in Nagoya). Import stores were trying to make me pay an exuberant price for a tiny bag of multi-grain rice (no brown rice was in stock), which was ridiculous, also considering Japan does produce and sell brown rice; it’s just not as common (for only the extremely health conscious mothers or vegetarians, as I was told). For this (and many other foods from back home you can’t find too often, such as oatmeal or almond butter), Amazon.co.jp is your friend. If you just look it up, you can find giant bags of brown rice for reasonable prices PLUS free shipping (sorry for missing you the first time you tried to deliver my giant, heavy package to my 3rd floor apartment, delivery man). I just bought 5 kg of Akita rice for a bit over 1,600 yen, and that will last me quite a while. If it won’t many Amazon orders actually offer you a discount if you purchase a delivery plan for your rice (and other products). For example, if you schedule to automatically re-order the same bag of rice ever 1-6 months, you can get about 100 yen off each time.

As for whole grain bread, while you will definitely not have the same amount of choices as you probably would back home, if you look hard enough, you can find about one or two choices of whole grain bread in the island that is Japanese white processed bread. The one I find most frequently is this one:

They also offer a rye bread with more or less the same health information. While these still may be on the unhealthy side compared to what you eat back home, they’re definitely the better option in Japan unless you can find other imported varieties of bread.

Also, if you don’t want to pay the price for the comfort of home and health, find some substitutes with Japanese ingredients! I’ve found varieties of “ramen” in supermarkets with noodles made from konyaku, which is full of fiber and fun. Instead of buying overpriced wheat spaghetti, substitute your Western noodles with soba (buckwheat noodles). Get creative with your cooking, and the world opens up to you. Your Japanese coworkers will also be majorly impressed.

Low-calorie, low-carb konyaku noodles

Speaking of noodles, if you need something quick, get one of these many healthier (low calorie) alternatives for cup noodles!

 

When searching online or at the market, here are some words to look out for:

低糖質 (tei toushitsu) or 糖質オフ (toushitsu ofu): “low-sugar/carb” or “reduced sugar/carb”

低カロリー (tei carorii) or カロリーオフ (carorii ofu): “low-calorie” or “reduced calorie”

低脂肪 (tei shibou) or 脂肪オフ (shibou ofu): “low-fat” or “reduced fat”

全粒 (zenryuu): whole grain

玄米 (genmai): brown rice (as opposed to “white rice” or 白米 [hakumai], which is standard and probably won’t be labeled specifically)

 

Exercise

This is surprisingly one of the most difficult things. Walking 30-60 minutes a day total does nothing for me, but apparently works for the rest of the population. I’m used to doing that plus 45 minutes of intense exercise every day. However, this is by far not popular in Japan. Gyms are not a regular thing for most people, and tend to be few and incredibly expensive. Where I live, if I want to join a Zumba class, I have to ride my bike or take a bus for at least 45 minutes just to get to a gym and then pay 500 yen each time–no thank you. Therefore, unless you are incredibly lucky with a nice public gym near your house, you may need to get creative.

Rule #1: Exercise at home. This is easier said than done, as many people live in apartments, and due to the high humidity, carpet is something of a rarity across the country. As for me, I live on the top floor of an apartment complex with wooden floors, and just enough space for me to do an exercise video in my living room if I shuffle some furniture around.

How do I accomplish getting a good workout without making my downstairs neighbors try to attack me? Here are my tips:

  • Buy a good (thick) yoga/pilates mat or floor rugs. While these won’t completely muffle the sound of you jumping around upstairs, they are significantly better for your downstairs neighbors than you jumping around on hardwood floors. You can buy some cheap ones again on Amazon or maybe check some stores in your area, like Don Quixote.
  • Use YouTube. If you’re into Zumba like me, just look up your favorite song + Zumba (or “dance fitness,” or the like), and odds are something will come up. Make your own playlists, and make your own class! I’ve also really gotten into Doonya (Bollywood fitness) and hula fitness lessons. The same goes for yoga, kickboxing, etc. Recently I found this activity called Buti Yoga, which combines yoga with dance exercise, which is relatively quiet for your neighbors but still a good workout. Basically, the internet is your friend.
  • Don’t exercise at odd hours. As I said, odds are a normal yoga mat or floor rug will not muffle everything you do, so make sure you don’t exercise when people are most likely sleeping, etc. Use your own discretion here.

Rule #2: Fit exercise naturally into your life. I, like many other people, am busy, and don’t always have the time or energy to do a 30-45 minute exercise routine after or before work. Therefore, it is important to naturally fit more movement into your day. Buy a under-the-desk pedal like this and do some desk exercises. If you’re nervous about what your coworkers think of you, maybe try something else. Bike to work instead of taking the bus if you’re far. If you’re close, walk to work instead of biking. If you walk to work normally…maybe run around for a while.

Run, fat white people, run up the stairs! While there are some racial issues with this poster in my office, it does have a point.

Run, fat white people, run up the stairs! While there are some racial issues with this poster in my office, it does have a point.

I work on the 7th floor of an office building and have been taking the stairs as often as I can (if you work out a system, it’s not as tough or crazy as it sounds). The main hall has spaced-out “grand” staircases with platforms to walk to the next staircase in between until the 3rd floor, which makes a good warm up (in addition to the 20 minutes I walk to work), then from there, I take the normal stairwell up the next 4 flights. From there, I walk around for about a minute to let my heart rate go down. If you still think I’m crazy, take the elevator up halfway, and go up the stairs from there. Do whatever works!

Basically, take a look at your surroundings, and think of a system to get that heart pounding (because of fitness reasons, and not because that car almost hit you running around)!

"I'm not fat!" "And I'm not skinny!" Body differences!

“I’m not fat!”
“And I’m not skinny!”
Body differences!

To end here, while not everyone can afford to do everything I suggest here, these are just some potential tips to get you started. Hopefully this sheds some light on the realities of both American and Japanese stereotypes, and can help out those like me struggling to stay healthy and sane in the land of the rising sun. If you have anything to add, please leave a comment, as I am always looking for new ways to stay fit in Japan!

 

Featured original image credit here.

alts are not teachers part 2

ALTs Are Not Teachers Part 2: Intentions & Critiques

(Part 1 / Part 2 (Current) / Part 3)

couple weeks ago, I wrote an article entitled “ALTs Are Not Teachers” which generated a bit of discussion. While many threw their support behind the message of the article, it was divisive (to say the least). Some felt strongly that it was absolutely spot-on, “required reading” for new ALTs while others vehemently asserted that it was “negative rubbish” and written by a clown (as a five-year elementary/kindergarten ALT, the latter is not entirely untrue). As the author, I do feel that most of the criticisms were misplaced, and that many would-be objections were, in fact, congruent with my own views.  Here I wish to expand on the intentions behind “ALTs Are Not Teachers”, recapitulate the thesis, and address some of the criticism directly.

A visual representation of the discussion generated. (Image Source: htconnect)

My Story & Intentions

If I can take a moment of your time, I want to give you a candid look into my own story as an ALT with The JET Programme.

I’ll start off by saying that a lot can be gleaned from the GTO narrative I discussed in “ALTs Are Not Teachers”. Before actually starting as an ALT, I envisioned my life in Japan as similar to Onizuka Sensei’s: I would have my own class, bring a unique teaching philosophy to the table, and connect with the students on a level much deeper than “conventional teachers”.

On my first year of JET, I mostly just bumbled around getting used to things, as I’d wager many of us do. I was just getting acquainted with teaching, Japan, and living abroad for the first time in my life. The dream of becoming “Great Teacher Thomas” was mostly just swept up in acclimatization and euphoria (and I was fine with that).

The GTT dream became a reality, however, when I was given control over my own classes in my second year. At junior high school. Yes, I taught my own classes. Because of some sort of oversight from the Board of Education, my school of 200ish students (2 classes per grade x 3) was only allotted two JTEs to carry the load of the (then) newly mandated ‘four English classes per week’. This was an unheard of situation at my school and both teachers physically could not handle all of these classes. So they tapped the music teacher on the shoulder (he spoke a bit of English), said “you will be Thomas’ ALT this year”, and sent us on our way.

I was given full control of this newly-christened ‘fourth English class’.  For an entire year, I taught 8 classes a week (once per week per class plus two special needs classes) at junior high school as ‘the main teacher’, creating the entire curriculum, regular tests, reviews and routines, with zero overhead. Combined with the two other days a week I taught at elementary school (where I was also given free rein over the curriculum) I was fully in charge of every lesson I taught, five days a week, for an entire year.

It was glorious.

Whereas my first year on JET could be chalked up entirely as ‘learning the ropes’, my second year was exactly as I envisioned my life as an ALT to be before I actually started The JET Programme. I knew every single student by name, their English levels, and how well they worked together. From there, I drafted them into 6 teams per class based on their individual abilities. The teams combined students who were good at English and others that weren’t, kids that were more ‘genki’ (energetic) and others who were more reserved.   When one student in the group finished, they would have to help the others in the group as I only accepted assignments when the entire team was done.  The effect was spectacular: so much time was saved by getting the students who finished earlier to help the students that had more trouble.

Another idea I implemented was greater mingling among the students. As many ALTs observe, when you say ‘go’ during an activity, the guys usually run to the guys and girls to the girls. Sometimes they forget they’re in a classroom and just begin chatting immediately. Not on my watch! I gave bonus points (huge ones, initially) for doing warm-ups and conversation-based activities with the opposite sex. Gradually I lessened the bonus points such that they were marginal, but by that time the students were comfortably and happily interacting with each other.

These were just a couple things I implemented in my class. I was also introducing them to viral videos from the web, we were learning English songs, we were filming English news reports—all in an environment where they were rewarded for talking to a diverse number of people and working as a team. It hardly resembled what I had come to identify as an ‘English class in a Japanese school’. I was busier than any other ALT I knew but I was thoroughly fulfilled, and anyone I told about my situation reacted with a resounding ‘damn, I wish I had that set up’.

And then it all came crashing down.

When the new school year started the following April, a third JTE came on board, my classes were stripped away and I was back to repeating words. One day I was GTT, exposing my students to the world outside of Japan, doing the sort of grassroots internationalization that I believed The JET Programme to mandate, and the next I was a human tape recorder, having to look those same students I was giving assignments to a few weeks before in the eye as I repeated a set of textbook flashcards.

I was depressed. I was angry. I was bitter. I felt powerless over my situation and just continued to let it fester, so resentful that I had already signed on for a third year of JET.

But then something happened. Students began telling me how much they missed my class. They were asking me about the latest YouTube videos, telling me they tried some of the songs we learned in class at karaoke, and that they were searching for more info on the web about places around the world I introduced them to. One student who had recently graduated from high school came back to visit the school, and told me that she had signed up to do a homestay abroad because of my class. I started to see that I actually made a difference in my students’ lives.

The pivotal point was when I taught a demonstration class with one of the new JTEs who used me exclusively as a human tape record / ‘classroom silencing patrol officer’ (standing next to students who were talking and pointing at their notebooks like a monkey). I was included in the ‘post-demo-class discussion’ for the first time ever and they asked me what I thought could have been improved in the class. My defeated, self-wallowing temperament being in full swing, I gave a couple meek suggestions that barely scratched the the surface of all that I felt was wrong with that lesson and class in general.

The music teacher, with whom I had taught my own class for an entire year, was also part of the post-demo discussion. He absolutely ripped my JTE a new one. Seriously. He outright yelled at her for not using me more and gave example after example after example of all of the innovative ideas I had come up with the year before and how much the students enjoyed them. He kept saying how much of a waste it was to have me patrol the class and repeat words the entire lesson, summed up in the Japanese phrase “mottainai” (‘such as waste’).

“Mottainai.” “Mottainai.” “Mottainai.”

I was almost in tears. After months of being virtually ignored, of feeling like a ghost within my own school, a place where I had felt valued and useful only a year before, this was the most redeeming moment of what would go on to be my five-year tenure as a JET. All of the resentment and frustration that I was too damned flabbergasted to put into words (due to a lack of language ability and conceptual clarity) was finally being delivered succinctly, in Japanese, to the person who had to hear it the most. The music teacher came to my defense and delivered my case for me to the JTE in the presence of the principal and half the teachers in the school.

From there on, I decided that things had to change. With the support my students were giving me and with the music teacher selflessly pleading my case, I could no longer be a bystander to my gradually worsening situation. I opened a dialogue with my JTEs, I started making myself a part of the routine, and began to introduce those ‘cultural ambassador’ aspects of teaching that were prevalent during the time when I had my own class. Though I never quite got the arrangement I had during my second year as a JET, by the end of that third year I had a great, harmonious, fulfilling role as an ALT in my junior high school, and it would only continue to grow more integral to ‘the English class’ experience at my school for my fourth and fifth year.

You can take this story any way you want to. You could easily quote some part of this story out of context and say “the whole thesis of ALTs not being teachers just comes from a bitter JET experience”. But then you would be missing the point of why I wrote that article entirely. More importantly, you would just be plain wrong. I didn’t have a bad experience as an ALT at all. I loved being an ALT, enough to stay five years. And I was a goddamned great one. In no sense did I ‘check out’ and become complacent; I continued to grow and learn more ways to be an all-round effective ALT .

Now, if you came to me right after my second year in the midst of my bitterness, then I might have been singing a different song. I might have told you that the image of life as an ALT is a scam, and that you should just be prepared for disappointment. But this is not a story of failure; it’s a story of redemption. It’s a story of an ALT starting out with misplaced expectations, getting a brutal awakening, and then recovering to a point where he was harmonious and successful in his surroundings. It is a story that almost exactly mirrors the four stages of culture shock. It is a story that I hope you learn from, so that you don’t experience such violent whiplash, should you find yourself in a similar situation.

thomas' happiness by school year

Culture Shock: It’s the real deal.

The intention behind the “ALTs Are Not Teachers” article is not in the slightest to discourage you from trying to be the best damned teacher possible or to somehow become complacent by seeing yourself as ‘just’ an ALT; instead, it is one of having proper expectations from the very beginning such that you don’t crash and burn later. The point of that article was to give you a less-idealized picture of what being an ALT may be like, as bluntly put as it takes, so as to make for a better experience for you in the long run. Concerning the original article and its intentions, this commenters nail it:

“I’m a little confused as to why this article is upsetting so many people. Sure, the title is jarring, but if you read the entire piece, Thomas is advocating for an adjustment of expectations in order to make one’s life as an ALT happier and more balanced. The piece isn’t attempting to put anyone down or dishearten them, but the opposite.

While I am a new ALT, I’ve spoken to many positive, upbeat, not at all bitter ALTs who have been here for years, and they say the same thing – the key to them being happy and at peace was adjusting their expectations. I think this is sound advice.”

That being said, some felt that is not what the article was saying. Indeed, even using the word ‘teacher’ a couple paragraphs above is problematic for some, given the title of the article. Others point out their own situations, and, indeed, I can imagine some ALTs having similar situations to that of my second year as a JET. To this end, I would like to review and respond to the two main criticisms, offer a critique of my own, and attempt to clarify the precise point I was trying to make.

Critiques

The Title Is Logically Inconsistent

“ALTs Are Not Teachers” is a jarring title. So jarring, in fact, that it irrevocably tainted the rest of the article for some. One professional ALT writes: “Nice headline. I seem to remember doing a lot of teaching in my 8 years as an ALT.” Another ALT, pointing out the references to ALTs as teachers in the article (vs. the seemingly contradictory title) exposes what they believe to be the true intent of the article: “’Ha ha, you bit my clickbait!’”

One new ALT dismisses the entire article from the get-go:

“Assistant Language Teacher is a species of Language Teacher in the order of Teacher. I think ALT is a type of teacher, so the title is wrong. The rest of the article might be correct, but I don’t know because I didn’t read it”.

The general argument here goes that the argument presented in “ALTs Are Not Teachers” is inherently an unsound one by virtue of its title. Whether it be through the presence of the word “teacher” literally in the initialism “ALT” or through a task that any every single ALT can point out as “teaching”, the articulation of the thesis itself is a contradiction. It simply does not stand.

The battle is over before it begins.

The battle is over before it begins.

 

Every Situation Is Different

Though I tried to anticipate the “ESID” rebuttal, this did not satisfy everyone. The argument here goes that one cannot categorically say that ALTs are not teachers since some people have situations where they are functionally ‘a full teacher’. If an ALT has this situation and is basically doing the same work as their Japanese counterparts, what are they if not a teacher? As one commenter writes: “For many ALTs we are unquestionably teachers.”

The ESID object noted in the original article was dismissed too easily, and was insufficient to deal with the actual amount of variance in ALT situations. “Teacher” is too narrowly defined.

Actually The Term “Teacher” Isn’t Defined At All!

I would like to offer my own critique of the article. I think that much of the divisiveness that the article generated can be traced to a single flaw of the article: “teacher” is never defined. The title and premise of “ALTs Are Not Teachers” loads itself up for a number of reactions against it since every commenter is employing their own definition of the word “teacher”.  Thus, for some, it is something literally in the term “ALT”; for others, it means being academically qualified to be a teacher; for others, it is doing the task of “teaching” that makes a teacher.  The author employs his own definition but never shares it with the audience.

Not discussing the term ‘teacher’ is the reason that reactions to the article were so divisive yet equally passionate. We all have our own ideas of what it means to be a ‘teacher’ (and, as a philosophy major, I should have known to define my terms from the start). It also explains why I found myself reading and agreeing some would-be critiques of the article and saying “Yeah! Yeah! This totally nails it”, only to realize that such comments were intended to be objections. The lack of clarity of the premise translated into multiple streams of objections to, essentially, multiple premises.

Being the author of the article in question, I can tell you what happened. I simply tried to do too many things. Some were able to follow my line of reasoning and identified my intentions behind the article immediately; others, still, read a different article completely because we were on a different page from the start. This is my own fault for not being more clear in what I was trying to say.

Now, I did go into writing the article with the knowledge that this would really be a starting point for a number of follow-up pieces I intended to write, so I kind of regarded it as ‘the first brick being laid down.’ But that brick could have been laid down much more cleanly. At the very least, I could start rebuild the argument with a more solid foundation.

So let’s look at ‘being a teacher’ means.

Continue On To Part 3 (Final): What Is A Teacher?

(Comments section to this part is combined with part 3 and appears at the end)

Why Nagoya isInfinitelyBetter than Tokyo

Why Nagoya is Infinitely Better than Tokyo

I just took a nostalgic 3-day weekend trip from Tochigi to Nagoya, and after being separated from the city I have really come to know and love, and spending the evening in Tokyo, I am going to ever so biasly declare as the title of this piece states: Nagoya is one of the best places to live in Japan.

Before, let me explain myself, seeing as I probably just ticked off about 30% of Japan (seeing as roughly that percentage of peope live in the Greater Tokyo area. 10% actually live in Tokyo-Tokyo, which is only 0.6% of the total land available in Japan. Point #1). I need to make a couple things clear:

1. I am clearly biased. Nagoya is the only place I have lived (traveling is a different story) in Japan for over a month, so obviously I know it better than, say, Tokyo, which I will henceforth bash unabashedly.

2. If you are from a place like Seoul or New York and insane urban sprawl is your thing, you can probably just stop here. This piece is most likely not for you, and I understand that. I, however, am from nowhere near insane urban sprawl, and therefore find it unattractive and unnecessary. I will henceforth bash it unabashedly.

3. My statement is that Nagoya is one of the best places to live in Japan. Every place has its merits, and, while I just said that I’m biased, I can actually be pretty fair (for example, while I do agree with the article in the first paragraph up there on the whole, there are a few things I don’t quite agree with). Tokyo does have some great qualities to it, and Nagoya has some points that don’t quite stand up to places like Tokyo (which, also can be a merit; see point #7 below). However, my purpose in writing this article is to be, as aforementioned, somewhat biased.

 

Now let me begin for real. I just incorperated point #1 into the above, so:

Point #2: Trains in Nagoya make sense. As with any move to a big city, you may look at the public transportation map and wonder if you will ever actually learn it comfortably. Come to Nagoya, my friend, and you will. You may not learn or ever need to go to every stop, but after living there for a couple months, someone will say, “Hey, let’s meet up at Higashi Betsuin and eat some awesome yakiniku,” and you’ll be like, “Hello my friend, Higashi Betsuin you say? Where is that? Oh, you know, it sounds familiar, and I’ve probably either passed it before or just randomly seen it starting at the subway map line waiting for the train,” and your buddy will say, “Oh you dare say? It is on the purple whirly loopamadoogle line (i.e. Meijo Line),” and you’ll be like, “Cool bro. I’ll meet you there.”

Nagoya subway map

Now switch this to Tokyo. Your friend will be like, “Hey, let’s go to 本所吾妻橋駅 and eat some yakiniku,” and you’ll be like, “本所吾妻橋? How do you pronounce that?” and your buddy will be like, “Lolz I don’t know, I’ve just lived here for a year,” and you’ll be like, “Sure, let me get out the Google because there’s no way I’ll figure out how to get there from here in a reasonable amount of time lolz.”

Tokyo subway map. Enough said.

My point is, even people who have lived in Tokyo for years (and I’m not just saying this, I’ve asked) still don’t know how to get to places they don’t normally go to in a decent amount of time. Do you transfer at the blue line or the green line or the pink line or the dark pink line, and will it take an hour to get to just to try out a new restaurant? Don’t even get me started on transferring lines in Tokyo.

Tokyo, let me just sit you down and tell you. Leaving the station, walking 2 blocks, and going down into a completely different and non-connected station is not a transfer. I don’t care if you’re a different color line. I’m looking at you, Kuramae. Also, Tokyo, what is up with you needing to leave the ticket gate to transfer? What? Just why?

No, Nagoya doesn’t do that. Often times, even if you’re switching companies, you don’t need to leave the ticket gate, much less the station itself–there are some where you don’t even need to leave the train (ex. Tsurumai Line of the subway to Meitetsu Line of the above-ground trains)! Plus, this depends on where you live and if you just missed the train or not, but often you can cross the city in about 30 minutes. Public transportation is extremely convenient in Nagoya, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a place that doesn’t have a station in a reasonable amount of walking distance, yet, it just makes sense.

 

Point #3: Nagoya basically has everything Tokyo has, just more portable. And by portable, I mean of course it’s smaller than what Tokyo has, but all the important parts are there, PLUS, again branching off the size thing, they’re all basically in one main place. Nagoya has 2 main downtown areas (Nagoya Station area to Sakae) that are pretty well connected (i.e. you can walk the span if you feel like it on a nice day) for shopping, eating, and partying. Nagoya also hosts one of the main sumo tournaments in the country and has a major baseball team.

Just your friendly, neighborhood Storm Trooper walking down downtown Nagoya.

Just your friendly, neighborhood Storm Trooper walking around downtown Nagoya.

Let me highlight:

Osu: A large shopping arcade that is basically Harajuku meets Akihabara and they have a teenager. Smaller size, all the sass. You want to see people walking around with giant pink hair or looking like a sexy vampire from the manga you’ve been reading? Done. You want to see a man on stilts juggle pins on fire in front of a gian maneki-neko statue? Done. You want to buy some awesome flashy jewelry that you’ll never find a chance to wear but is awesome anyways? Done. You want to go to a maid cafe? Done. You want to buy some electronics at a 7+ storey video game store that Akihabara also has? Done. You want to see a local AKB48 (in our case, SKE48) show? (You’ll need to go to a different part of Nagoya but) Done. Not related to Akiba or Harajuku because, you know, they don’t have this, but you want to eat some of the best pizza in the world? Done.

I don't even know why you're here, but I'm glad you are.

I don’t even know why you’re here (Osu), giant silver man, but I’m glad you are.

Sakae: Basically, this is Shibuya. You’ve got your high-end Coach and other places you’ll never be able to afford alongside your giant department stores, 1 of 2 major underground shopping malls, trendy nightclubs, Forever 21, Old Navy, and H&M/etc. popular fashion brands from home, as well as your 4 story Uniqlo.

Did I mention that Nagoya’s science museum has the largest planetarium in the world, and is also shaped like the robot from the Incredibles?

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Villan, or giant planetarium? Hmm…

Giant green Buddha statute? Also check.

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Tougan-ji near Motoyama Station

“But wait,” you say, “Kawasaki, just a stone’s throw away from Tokyo, has the Kanamara Matsuri, i.e. the giant penis festival. Beat that Nagoya.”

Oh let us.

Honen Matsuri in Komaki, just a stone’s throw away from Nagoya.

For those of you reading this in front of little kids or your boss, sorry for not warning you, but what’s done is done. Anyways, basically, there you go….but wait! There’s more! Not only is there a penis shrine in Aichi, but we also have a vagina-stone shrine! So yeah, take that Tokyo.

Oogata Shrine in Inuyama

You say Tokyo Tower, I say Nagoya Tower. Sure, you all got Sky Tree over there, I give you that, but I’m partial to Taipei 101 anyways.

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Nagoya Tower

 

Point #4: Despite being a big city, it’s so green! There are big parks and little parks everywhere, and even many of the streets are lined with plants, and trees are planted in random corners of downtown. Being from the Hoosier state and missing my bountiful cornfields, this is something that’s super appreciated. It has the feel of being a large city but without the claustrophobia.

Why hello random tree around the corner of a building downtown.

Why hello random tree around the corner of a building downtown.

More downtown Nagoya green.

More downtown Nagoya green.

See, from what I’ve observed, Tokyo barely tries. Places like Utsunomiya try. I think during my daily commute, I see a couple small trees surrounded by concrete and buildings. It’s trying in a 中途半端 way, but Nagoya actually succeeds.

Downtown Utsunomiya. If you look hard, you will find a bush.

Plus, if you’re really sick of the city life, you’re just a hop on a train away from getting into some good, refreshing countryside.

Taking a walk around Toyota City, right outside Nagoya.

Taking a walk around Toyota City, right outside Nagoya.

Point #5: It’s not as big as places like Tokyo or Osaka, but that doesn’t mean it’s measly and you’ll bore of it after a few months. Nagoya is home to just under 3 million people, with Greater Nagoya (Chukyo Metropolitan Area) rolling in at about 9 million (the 3rd most populous metro area in the country, and 50th in the world), holding about 7% of Japan’s population (thanks, Wikipedia). There are still so many areas, I’ve never visited, so many restaurants I’ve never eaten at, and so many events that keep things interesting. For example, although I tried, I have never yet been to Oogata Shrine because things just didn’t work out that day. Things stay interesting, but at a manageable size. Furthermore, it’s still a large, cosmopolitan city with a nice amount of diversity. You’ll have other foreigners to make friends with and means of sharing your culture with other populations, and this also means you’ll probably meet Japanese friends as well.

Have you been to restaurant Garuva yet?

Have you been to restaurant Garuva yet?

Point #6: “Why are you going to Nagoya? There’s like, nothing there,” one of my Japanese juku teachers questioned me in distaste while I was living in Taipei right before heading over to Nagoya to study for the first time. At the time, I wasn’t sure how to respond, but after having lived there for a while, I can now puff out my chest and state boldly as a reply: EXACTLY! Because it basically has everything that Tokyo/Osaka has, just slightly scaled down, that means there’s not much tourism in the city–which is actually a good thing! This means that most of the foreign (or non-foreign) people living in Nagoya aren’t stupid, obnoxious or demanding tourists–they’re people actually living there. This means you don’t get the stupid foreigner treatment you’d get in other places, like Tokyo or Kyoto. This doesn’t mean you don’t get foreigner treatment at all–after all, this is still Japan–but you’re not so much treated as a tourist, and you can really experience Japan much better this way. For example, I have rarely ever been handed and English menu in Nagoya, whereas I was balked at for requesting the full Japanese menu at a restaurant in Tokyo because, you know, why would the white girl want to look at the full non-English menu, and not just the English menu with only 30% of the selection in awkwardly-translated English? While this may be daunting at first if you don’t have much Japanese under your belt, it’s so rewarding because for one, you can increase your language abilities much more quickly by it being expected of you to some extent. And I mean extent, because after all, it’s still Japan, and even in Nagoya, I had people flip out in excitement once / give me the “hold the phone, I ain’t got no English ability to communicate with this here customer” look of terror before I said 2 sentences and then frustratedly commenced with ”日本語を9年間勉強してるんですから… (I’ve been studying Japanese for 9 years, so…).” In any case, to say it bluntly, you’re in their country–you should at least try to learn some of their language–and Nagoya is the perfect place to do so–not to mention there’s about a bajillion (and counting!) universities in the immediate area to do so at.

 

Point #7: It’s where the history is at. Do the names Tokugawa Ieyasu, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Oda Nobunaga sound familiar? If so, then congratulations! You at least know the very basics of core Japanese history, and these 3 important dudes were all born and based in the Nagoya area! Therefore, if you have any interest in history, Nagoya is chock-full of it, starting from its famous Nagoya Castle. Even if you’re not interested in history, it still means Nagoya has some super awesome festivals because of its historical importance. Furthermore, it’s right down the road from Inuyama, which has the oldest original wooden castle in the entire country (which, since Japan was facing internal wars for centuries and then thoroughly fire bombed during WWII, let me tell you, that’s no easy feat).

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Inuyama celebrating its 380th annual festival.

Not to mention Nagoya is also home to Atsuta Shrine, which is up there ranking in importance with the famous Ise Shrine.

Atsuta Shrine

Point #8: It doesn’t have everything, and that’s okay! I’ve kept saying that Nagoya takes the best of Tokyo and puts it into a bite-sized, giant hunk of a city. However, of course there are some things Osaka and Tokyo have that Nagoya doesn’t–but that gives you reason to leave the city every now and then and go out traveling! Why bother leaving Tokyo if you can just get the same thing in the city? It’s still exciting to go someplace new, and better yet, Nagoya has the perfect location to do so, being right in between the Kansai and Kanto areas, so you can just hop on a bus, local train, or bullet train, and in a few hours you’ll be in Kyoto, Osaka, Tokyo, or wherever else!

Nagoya=smack dab in the middle of Japan.

Looking to go somewhere a bit farther? Nagoya’s airport is located right outside the city, easily accessible by train, and hosts a variety of local and international air companies, including a large pick of low cost carriers! (They also have a Costco pretty close by, FYI.)

 

Now I can probably go on and on about this, but I’ll leave my main points at this. You don’t need to love Nagoya like I do, nor do you need to love my hyperboles (or are they?), but that’s okay. I love traveling Japan and would love to get more experience living in different parts of the country, but after living in very different parts of the world, to me, Nagoya will always be my beloved home in Japan (in case I didn’t make that clear enough).

 

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Soy Sauce Olive Oil Chocolate Cake


The Baked Ballad

Time

80 minutes (30 prep + 50 baking)

Cost

¥ ¥ ¥ ¥ ¥ 

Serving Size

1 cake (portioning is up to you)

Notes

  • make cake
  • make friends
  • influence people


Soy sauce-olive oil-chocolate cake. No, this is not some new culinary version of rock-scissors-paper.

 

If Dale Breckenridge Carnegie had worked in a Japanese Board of Education, his self-help tour de force “How to Win Friends and Influence People” would have been a cookbook dedicated to cakes and cookies. The delight of receiving cellophane-packeted, locality-specific treats is unquestionably one of the top three perks of being a cog in the machinations of this most bureaucratic of nation states. For me, job stability has to be in there somewhere also and, well, right at this moment the other eludes me. So maybe we should even elevate the sweets another rung.

 

This “omiyage” culture has its upsides and downsides. On the flipside of receiving all manner of far-flung delectables on a semi-regular basis, oft have I heard civil servants complain of the perceived obligation to shower honey-sweet offering among their fellow worker bees. At the risk of speaking in poor taste or making myself a nail to be hammered into line, I personally have never bowed to conventionality on this front. If I see something that is special enough to drop yennies on then, yes, I might pick some up for the office but more often, though actually not that often at all, I don my metaphorical lab coat and bake something myself.

 

The classic cranberry and orange cookies I made in my first week in my current job are, it seems, still the yardstick to which every subsequent store-bought cookie has been held (and not just my own). It is with more smugness than I usually care to admit to that I accept the incessant elevation that continues to this day. The thing is, I just didn’t quite get what the big deal was. It is not that the cookies were bad, far from it, but they weren’t amazing either. I think it was the shock of seeing the “proof in the pudding,” of my curriculum vitae come to life, which has stuck fast in the collective imagination.

 

Funny thing is, I have never thought of myself as much of a baker. Set apart from the broad brushstrokes and subtle touches that mark every other section of a classic kitchen, the chemical compounds, precise measurements and exact timings of baking felt as science is to art and, in all honesty, a bit dull by my way of thinking. That is not to say that people shouldn’t love chemistry, it just wasn’t for me. Baking, as the systematic study of structure and behaviour, just felt static, where what I wanted to do was to interpret ingredients on a case-by-case, day-by-day, mood-by-mood basis in search of an alchemical median between season, situation and sustenance.

 

“How to be a Domestic Goddess” was released to much fanfare while I was living in the UK around the much-hyped, doomsday that never was, “Y2K,” ticking over of the millennia. This tome was, in its time, akin to a culinary Fifty Shades of Gray, where foreplay consisted of covering oneself in icing sugar and that saw the author supplant Dr Quinn Medicine Woman era Jane Seymour as a paradigm of empowered femininity, subjectively and respectfully objectified by a young yours truly. Whence latterly we two, nigh in unison, exited long-term relationships, daydreams of dalliances undeniably reawakened.

 

The tactile way in which Nigella Lawson approached baking was mind-altering to me. Classic dishes from throughout the calendar were refashioned, refined and renewed based around a fetishism of ingredients, a ceremonialism of process and a perilously self-indulgent doctrine of deservedness. For some reason what comes to mind is her classic boiled then steamed pudding, that beyond reason added cocoa and an extra cooking method into the mix, as if just to prove that the sweetest densest desert of the year could be taken that one step farther.

 

Probably the most obvious lesson I could point to that I feel came from the irrepressible Miss Lawson is the rekindling of a passion for dried fruit that I thought was lost since I stopped getting raisin packs in my lunchbox and, almost by extension, for using dark molasses-heavy unrefined sugars. Japan, in this regard as in many things, strikes a funny balance. On the one hand you have raw and fresh ingredients and on the other there is the hyper-sterile over packaged instant “just add water” [sic] food-type-products. On the less-refined end of the spectrum is black or brown Okinawan raw cane sugar (Kurotou / Kokutou / 黒糖). Kokutou (sometimes simply Kokuto in English) is a sibling to the much-loved muscovado sugar, and though how close a synonym it is is debated, your average consumer would never notice the difference.

 

To develop a “depth of flavour,” a good line of thinking in cooking is to use products as close to raw as you can that also contain the characteristics you wish to impart. Reaching for white powders may not always be the best way. Refined sugar is sweet, yes, but, well, that’s it. The very same could be said for salt. If you want something seasoned, then why not use a salty product? In my own kitchen the two examples that spring to mind are “melting” anchovies into a ragout sauce and using fish sauce instead of salt to season green curry. It is not that you particularly “taste” these products, but they give you what you want and leave a little extra layer of themselves there too. This could be seen as a roadmap on how to build “umami” but I don’t want to open that kettle of fish as talk of glutamate receptors is getting back to the science I was trying to avoid. In Japanese cuisine you could point to using dashi in ramen stock despite the fact that the overall soup is pork (or sometimes chicken) based.

 

I have long been a fan of salted sweets. Whether in Nordic salted liquorice or in Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups™ they can be quite polarizing. Salted caramels, salted toffee and, yes, this is where I am heading, salted chocolate are all things I enjoy. In Japan putting salt on watermelon to bring out the flavour is not uncommon. Whilst, soy sauce is a ubiquitous and heavily salty, intrinsically Japanese product, to my surprise it is not used in desserts and, moreover, not as widely used here as I once imagined. Juvenile me used to pour soy sauce onto bowls of rice, never knowing that Japanese would find this a cringe-worthy affront to washoku sensibility.

 

So as a baked ballad to my very favourite celebrity chef, I propose to season up a classic of hers and, in a manner akin to what she is herself famous for, enrich it even more in the process. You’ll gather by now that I have sadly never met Nigella in person, but it is not too much of a stretch of my vivid imagination to think that in the course of conversation the statement “A little extra chocolate never hurt a cake,” would be uttered, if only thematically.

 

Before we move on and in the very same line of thinking as the salt and sugar, it is definitely worth exploring the idea that if we are to use fat in a recipe, then that fat may as well taste like something. Of course the first thing that comes to mind is butter, but with an oft reported shortage in Japan and taking into account expense and avoiding saturated fats, replacing it with oil would make sense. In removing the salt contained in the butter also, we get to use more soy sauce and that makes me very pleased. If we then use tasty olive oil, in combination with the earthiness of the soy and chocolate, what we will end up with is a rich, dense, moist chocolate cake, with a flavour profile that straddles bitter, sweet and salty, the likes of which is hard to come by this side of the pacific.

 

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Ingredients (vanilla extract not pictured, oops)

 

Soy sauce – olive oil – chocolate cake

Adapted from Nigella Lawson’s Chocolate Olive Oil Cake

Ingredients

  • 50ml soy sauce
  • 50g cocoa powder (sifted)
  • 50ml hot black coffee
  • 2tsp vanilla extract
  • 50g chocolate (the darkest you can find)
  • 100g ground almonds or pecans (I tried both, the pecans I ground myself in a food processor, also see endnote)
  • 50g plain flour (or wholemeal if you, as I do, prefer)
  • ½ tsp baking soda
  • 1 small pinch of salt
  • 200g “kurotou” black cane sugar (white works too, though doesn’t taste as good)
  • 3 large eggs
  • 150ml olive oil (I recommend extra-virgin for flavour)
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Testing for doneness

Preparation and Method

Tools:

2 medium bowls

1 large bowl and whisk OR

A stand mixer with whisk attachment

A rubber scraper

A 20cm cake tin or (deep ovenproof pan)

Baking paper

An oven

Steps:

  1. Preheat your oven to 170°C and line your baking tin or pan with baking paper and brush with olive oil.
  2. Heat a small saucepan then add the soy sauce to scald it. Bring it quickly to a “hard boil”. In a small bowl, mix hot soy with the sifted cocoa powder, hot coffee and vanilla extract to make a hot paste.
  3. To the hot cocoa/soy/coffee mixture add the chocolate and stir until melted, combined and smooth. Leave to cool slightly.
  4. Combine the ground nuts, flour, baking soda and salt in a second small bowl.
  5. Put the sugar, eggs and olive oil into a large bowl (or a stand mixer with the whisk attachment) and whisk vigorously for a few minutes until the initially dark brown sugary mixture appears aerated and has noticeably lightened in colour.
  6. Scrape the cocoa and soy mixture into the larger bowl and beat together. When combined, add the nut and flour mixture.
  7. Scrape down, and stir a little with a rubber scraper, then pour the dark, liquid batter into the prepared oiled, paper-lined tin or pan.
  8. Bake for 45 ~ 50 minutes. As pictured, a toothpick should come up mainly clean but with a few sticky chocolate crumbs clinging to it.
  9. Pull out the paper collar and turn out onto a plate. Leave to cool completely or eat while still warm with some ice cream or Greek yogurt. The cake will keep covered in the refrigerator for a few days, but is best served at, or above room temperature.
  10. Eat a second piece when nobody is looking.
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Ready to bake.

Endnote: This recipe obviously requires an oven, which not everyone has in Japan. For fun though, I did not cook it in a cake tin, rather opting for an ovenproof frypan lined with baking paper (as pictured). If you have a stand mixer, by all means use that, but this cake is not too arduous to make with a whisk and some forearm fortitude. I leave this till the very end, because it is besides the point, but if you chose to make the cake without the soy sauce, instead replacing it with an equal measure of coffee or just plain boiling water, it would work, but where is the fun in that? You can also replace the nuts with flour, though the slightly coarser texture of the nuts and the flavour they impart is definitely worth any extra expense. If you make this cake, recipe as is, for your office mates or for your favourite school staffroom and I guarantee it will be talking point.

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Cake version 2.0 Happy Birthday, K!

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Scalding the soy sauce

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Cocoa, coffee, soy sauce, chocolate mix

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Oil, egg and black sugar before beating

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Oil, egg and black sugar after beating, ready to be mixed with chocolate and flour mixes

P1050099

A learning spiral – Initial perceptions upon moving to Japan

As I write today, it has been almost three weeks since I moved into my apartment, a quaint little jutaku in the middle of a city I had never heard of before the JET Programme. This has been the longest period in my entire life that I have lived completely alone, let alone in another country. I prefer to jump into the deep end, where I learn fastest. (Note: I did that once, literally and nearly drowned. I learned from that lesson, and thus how to swim. Now I pick my jumping a little more carefully.)

Now, this has not been in any way a bad thing but it definitely has not been easy – and mostly because everything that has been difficult has been about myself, not the environment. And you can’t escape yourself, so going home has not been the answer at all! Hence rather than a ‘learning curve’, I have begun to see my time here as being a ‘learning spiral’ – continually twirling onward and upwards with no end in sight. I thought I would share some of my musings from my first few weeks living here.

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You never stop learning, now matter how old you are.

This one is an old saying, but it really is true and I never really appreciated it until now. My initial fears upon applying and being accepted onto the JET Programme were that I am not as young as many of those who are coming along for the ride, and that I would be out of the loop. That fear was pretty quickly diminished at both the Pre-departure and Tokyo Orientations, where I met many different ALTs of varying ages. But despite being slightly older and experienced through my previous work, I am in fact no wiser than anyone else on the programme. I am just as bewildered and in a childlike state of awe as those visiting the country for the first time. My Japanese ability matches that of my childlike state, with broken babbling ‘sumimasen’ and ‘gomen nasai’ constantly pouring from my lips, I feel like a child who has lost her parents in a supermarket and is unsure of where to turn for comfort.

But the uncomfortable state has made me the most productive I have ever been in my adult life. As more time passes, I have noticed I pick up more and more words in the conversations around me. I am starting to recognize some kanji here and there. Learning how to operate appliances fully in Japanese and learning what each button does. Observing my co-workers and their behavior – greetings to eating habits, even napping at their desks! By embracing my inner child and forgiving myself for feeling embarrassed, I have begun to take in far more than I ever did back home as an established ‘adult’.

It has also pushed me even harder to take studying the language seriously, and explore other interests too! I’ve started drawing again. I’m writing, taking pictures and generally enjoying every new experience that comes my way. I think I became a little stale living in London, so it’s nice to feel alive again.

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Dependency is as important as independency

I am a fairly stubborn person. If something isn’t working – I want to fix it. If I am lost, I want to work out my own way to get to where I need to be. Growing up in London has meant that anything I desired was always a short trip or click away. I could be independent there, I knew what I was doing, spoke the language, knew the people.

But the moment I stepped away from my family in the airport and said my goodbyes, I was on my own. All my friends were at home, continuing life as normal. How long had it been since I really met so many new people? Since I left university? Started a new job? Confidence when meeting or approaching people is not an issue when you live in a city, but I felt as nervous as my first day at school in the airport, looking for the familiar faces I had chatted to online and introducing myself to many new ones.

When I arrived to Fukuoka, it was then that I truly realized the level of dependency I would need to embrace. I knew I couldn’t start alone, not right away. My supervisor and JTE’s were wonderfully supportive in filling out paper work and taking me to my flat and showing me my route to work. I realized how hopeless I would have been attempting this alone. Even through to setting up a Japanese mobile contract, I broke my stubborn attitude enough to ask a neighbor if she would translate through the process. All things stubborn old me would have refused to relent on back home.

That said – by accepting the need to be somewhat dependent has renewed my desire to become independent again. I forced myself to loan a bike and cycled round my town alone, getting lost and exploring the area to see what was around (this is my proudest feat as I have not touched a bicycle for over 15 years!). I have begun to study in my spare time, in the hopes that soon I am no longer dependent on other JETs or friends to translate menus and travel directions for me.

But, I’ll still ask for help every now and then.. Sometimes you’re at the mercy of the kindness of those around you. And out here, everyone is pretty lovely.

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You will learn things about yourself you didn’t know

You are going to have an awful lot of time to yourself, out of touch from the world you are used to. If you are not comfortable being by yourself, you will have a horrendous time getting used to the silence (or cicadas, really..) around you. But after initial loneliness it is a beautiful time.

I always thought back home that I was content being by myself, until I realized I was never completely by myself. Someone else would be in my house, my dog snuggled up on my bed, my friends on the phone – if I wanted to have company I could. That’s not fully alone. My first night after being dropped off to my apartment, I was ALONE. No phone, no wifi hotspots, and no where within a 10 minute walk to venture to at night to find comfort. Totally alone.

That was rough for a while. Feelings of culture shock, jet lag, isolation and confusion all melted into a horrible mess that was me rocking on my chair wondering if I had made the right decision. And I did, I knew deep down that it was, and still is the right thing to have done. My confidence levels have soared, my brain is working overtime taking in my new surroundings and language. I am driven to better myself, eat healthier and develop new, good habits. There are no distractions around me, nothing to stop me or lure me into a comfort zone that will never push my boundaries or help me learn and do new things. And when I am really lonely, there’s always Skype, or the lovely new friends in my area who are in the same boat as me.

 

This experience is helping me push my limits. I am seeing what ones can be bent and what can be broken. Where I will draw the line and how adventurous I can really be. I feel that if I continue on this learning spiral, continually climbing and seeking to better myself, I will grow more in a short space of time than I have ever in my entire adult life.

 

 

6 Must Read Tips For New JETs & ALTs

Advice For New JETs, 6 Must-Read Tips

So you did the hard part, right? You’re on the programme. Time to let your hair down and enjoy the ride. Right? Wrong.

Now begins the serious work.

If you come here with a half-arsed attitude you won’t last long and won’t have much fun.

I’ve been where you are and seen many, many more people walk the same path. From my leaning ivory sempai tower, here come six absolutely vital tips or advice for new JETs

Advice For New JETs #1 – Learn Japanese

Seems obvious, right? I will reiterate strongly the incontrovertible maxim that higher Japanese ability correlates strongly with more fun in Japan. (If you’re already a gun, skip ahead) You can communicate better at work, develop a good social circle, and it even helps you find romance.

So what should you do about it? Get studying! Anki, Koohii (RTK) and grammar guides are great starting points. Dedicate at least an hour a day to serious study.

Actual kids were happier than the masking emoticons!

Actual kids were happier than the masking emoticons!

Put it the effort. You will be rewarded.

Advice For New JETs #2 – Be Happy At Work

Easier said than done? Not really.

My friend Tony wrote a fantastic article on how you can control your attitudes and mindsets: How The Words We Use Affect Our Reality. Take a positive attitude at work. Even if you come in at 8:15 at leave at 16:15 and do the bare minimum, do what you do with a smile and appreciation for the great experience you have.

Advice For New JETs #3 – Eat Out A Lot

Gyoza in Utsunomiya

Gotta selfie. Gyoza in Utsunomiya with the locals

While I wouldn’t suggest going out every night (bad for your wallet), eating out a lot is a fantastic thing for new JETs to do. It gives you a chance to taste new foods and experience your local delicacies. It also provides a great opportunity to converse with the locals and potentially build great connections. My friend Joshua “Great Sensei” Walters is especially good at this. Wish he’d write an article dissecting how and why (wink, wink).

Strike up a conversation at the local yakitori place; who knows where it might lead!

It will also help keep you in good spirits, eating delicious stuff all the time. It shouldn’t cripple your finances either due to there being a fairly slim margin between the costs of eating out and eating at home. Just be active and watch your health and figure.

Advice For New JETs #4 – Travel

I came to Japan as a guy who didn’t really ‘get’ travel. I’d done a lot of it when I lived in England (over 20 countries) but mostly for work or with family. Arriving here changed that. TJC co-founder Thomas Simmons is a close friend and he was a big influence. He showed me that travel was something that had numerous charm points. Self-development, cultural awareness, horizon-expanding, mentality-strengthening and … good old fashioned fun times.

What can you do about it? First, I urge you to download Thomas’ free guide on travel (form bottom of this post). It teaches you in easy steps how to plan and execute a ballin’ trip. It should be a $10 ebook but it’s free. Just go get it before he listens to my advice and charges for it.

Secondly, please follow me on your social network of choice! I upload snaps to Instagram and Facebook. Also from time-to-time I will make travel blog posts here. Perhaps, some of the destinations I visit will appeal to you, and you can head off for your own adventure.

Advice For New JETs #5 – Dress Well

I have yet to write any articles about dressing specifically for work, but don’t underestimate the effect of presentation. Your clothing reflects your identity and attitude to appearance. If you dress poorly, you are broadcasting low social acuity and carelessness. Dress sharply and practically and you communicate efficiency, professionalism and capability.

 

Daniel Bamford ALT Teacher Japan Classroom

Advice For New JETs #6 – Other Tidbits

Skype your family. But, don’t over-Skype. Find a solid hobby and make it worthwhile (sorry, gaming doesn’t count). Play an instrument or a sport. Read extensively, focusing on books that will make you a better person. Do some nice decor and fit out your apartment. I’m sure there are hundreds of other good tips too.

This advice probably applies to existing old JETs too, but I was compelled to write this for all those freshies out there who are sick of hearing about Stages or ESIDs. This isn’t Kansas college, folks. Flourish and revel in your new life.

Any questions or ideas, I’d love to interface! You can message me on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. I want to contribute and help, just hit me up. If you found the article inspirational or useful, please consider sharing it with your friends so they can benefit too.


The full version of this article appeared on Daniel Bamford’s personal blog. If you’re interested in the recommendations, check it out for more depth.
Advice For New JETs, 6 Must-Read Tips

 

Daniel Bamford in Gunma Life In Japan

Life in Japan: Daniel Bamford in Gunma

Imagine losing half of your year’s JET salary. Would you quit? Would it make you ask “why did I even come to Japan?”…

There is a famous TV program here in Japan called youは何しに日本へ that poses the question all nationals ask of foreigners: why did you come to Japan? I couldn’t tell you how many times I have been asked that question. It would be at least 200 by now but each time I have been unable to give a clear, succinct and honest answer.

Why did I come to Japan? Yoku wakanai~ I don’t really know.

Maybe it was that my family hosted some Japanese students. Maybe that I had watched Dragon Ball and Pokemon before school gave me inspiration. Unlikely. I had no real interest in Japanese things at that time. I liked football, metal music and Grand Theft Auto. Japan didn’t register on my radar.

Why Did I Go To Japan

I wanted to be a pro soccer player, so I went to England for a year. When that didn’t work out, I started studying Law which was so boring that I found my solace in combat sports. When I watched old tapes of Sakuraba knocking the snot out of the Gracies (whom I despised) I had found a new hero.

My new hero was Japanese. And he was a pro wrestler.

Intrigued by Sakuraba, I watched some old NJPW (and Kingdom/UWF) featuring him. It was glorious. It had the drama and intensity of a big football match, and the exotic flare of a Van Damme film. I was hooked. My dream was to become the next gaijin star of puroresu but a horror injury left me unable to walk for a year – ending that dream. I turned to business. Making money was something that I could do from my computer chair. I scraped my way through the Law degree, then got myself back to Australia to focus on business.

I had a great time in my first year of entrepreneurship, but after a year, things got strange. I found myself having no motivation. Something wasn’t right. I still had an itch to scratch.

I needed to take on something totally new. Something totally foreign that would challenge me every single day.

The incredible timing of my mood to the JET Programme Application process was like a divine message.

Getting Onto The JET Programme

My application must have seemed bizarre to the people tasked with reading it. An Aussie bloke with a law degree but no interest in Japanese things (aside from random connections like Sakuraba) wants to stop making lots of money so he can come to Japan and teach english to little kids, something in which he hasn’t got even the slightest experience.

Luckily, I had years of experience selling project ideas to clients, so a few negotiation magic tricks may have hit the mark. I was granted an interview. And it was an amazing experience unlike any prior interview.

I am very lucky to boast a 100% conversion rate of interviews (5) to resulting appointments. I have confidence that given the chance, I can convince someone of anything that I truly believe myself. And I truly believed that I would have a wonderful time in Japan and mould myself into a valuable resource.

(If you want advice on how to nail interviews, hit me up on Facebook and I’ll do my best to help)

My interviewers were extremely friendly. We were joking about football, pro wrestling and Australian culture within minutes and the tone stayed jovial until it came to the Japanese language section, which I failed spectacularly. I was not well prepared for their questions actually, but I spoke clearly and with integrity about my motivations and interests in Japan. I spoke about my personal qualities and how I believed they would be beneficial to the Programme. I demonstrated before their very eyes that I was confident in my strengths, aware of my weaknesses, and could fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants like the best of them.

With hindsight, I think those are the most important base traits for incoming ALTs. Confidence will help you win the students to your character. Honest self-assessment will propel the necessary self-development that one must undergo here. Ability to improvise will save you countless times in the unique role of ALT in Japanese schools (and life).

Confidence, self-awareness, flexibility: vital core requirements for a JET.

My interview went for almost an hour, but must have done the trick. I got onto the JET programme, and found my way to Gunma.

The New Challenges In Japan

From the very first day, I felt the thrill of daily challenges. First day challenges in Tokyo: buy lunch outside the comfy “JET bubble” hotel (success); get a Japanese girl’s Facebook (failure); find my way out of Kabukicho without getting offered a job as a gay host (failure).

Everything was new. And not just new, different to a degree sufficient that my brain was going into joyful overdrive taking it all in and sorting it out. I was serenaded by background babble oversaturated in open vowels.

Akagi Lake in Autumn

Akagi Lake: one of the beautiful landmarks of Gunma

Out in the countryside it was equally staggering. I grew up in cities all my life, then I was cycling past rice fields and pig farms. I found my first supervisor to be not only a great advisor, but a father-like figure prepared to accept my wilder sides with an amused grin and a helpful hand pushing me in the right direction.

Work was fun. From birth I loved being the centre of attention and every day I could play the professional clown to adoring cheers and requests for my autograph. I met some great friends too. All the orientation warnings about “stage 2” faded into myth.

About now dear reader, you must be expecting the “Stage 2 – things went bad” story to begin. In part, you’re right.

(Abridged. Full story here: My Japan Odyssey: Wrestling, JET Programme & Losing Stuff by Daniel Bamford)

Realisation of Purpose

I crashed my dream car in icy weather. Replacement car broke down. Insurance companies found loopholes to screw me. My wallet was stolen. Cancel cards and bank books. Etc. Handle a million pain-in-the-ass things. In Japanese; a language I didn’t even know a year earlier in August 2013. What a wonderful year, 2014. About 1,500,000JPY vanished in return for stress and anguish.

I lost almost half a year’s salary. Gone.

But still, I had amazing fun. I traveled and I ate great food. I made close friends and I hustled hard. It seemed that many JETs had given up in the face of nothing much, so I looked with a bizarre pride at the glorious beating I had taken at the hands of lady luck, yet still I stood there smiling. No Stage 2 for me baby.

It was exactly this extreme challenge that I had wanted. This was my reason for coming to Japan.

As an Australian I’m proud to say that I have hardened up. I have gained improved focus. I have seen the value in being loyal, responsible, capable, resilient and positive. I’ve learned to avoid excuses and to embrace self-responsibility.

Now, From Days of Brighter Weather, Clearer Skies

2015 for me has been wonderful. Truly wonderful. I travel when I can, still paying off the horrors of 2014. I took out my last business cash and borrowed from my family to get another roadster that I can drive to wonderful places like Kamakura, Nikko and Tokyo.

Daniel Bamford Nikko

At Nikko 2015, one of my favourite trips in Japan

At the time of writing, it’s farewell time for me at many schools because my assignments are changing. I get the pleasure of hearing how students don’t want me to leave, and that teachers are genuinely worried about if my replacement is going to be up to the task (he certainly is and more, but it’s nice to know you are valued).

I look forward to more new challenges in Japan, knowing that I am slowly becoming the man I aim to be. I am grateful to Japan and its people, my friends and my colleagues, for helping provide the platform and support for my growth.

Thank you.

To those who are at the beginning of their JET journey, I wish you good luck. But I also perhaps wish you some bad luck, too. I wish you could gain the same benefits from misfortune and difficulties that I have. I hope you will be proud, strong and positive.


The full version of this post appeared on Daniel Bamford’s personal website:
My Japan Odyssey: Wrestling, JET Programme & Losing Stuff

 

Video: living abroad – The First Week in Japan

Japan begins with a few short days in Tokyo with both old friends and new. The adventure though really begins in a small city nestled within the heart of the Nagasaki Prefecture. (Warning: I’ve been told it MAY not work on mobile. It’s YouTube’s Content ID system)

My first video that I actually spent more than a few days on. If anyone is near Nagasaki and needs a place to stay, send me a message! Thanks to everyone in the video for letting me shamelessly film them! You guys are the best!

For camera nerds:

Sony a6000

Sony 50mm F1.8 (most used in this video)

Sony 16-50mm F3.5-5.6

Rokinon 12mm F2.0

Premiere Pro CS6