Scooter vs Japan

Japan: This Shit’s Weird

December 16, 2015
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This is a follow-up to another post, What I could never get away with in Canada. In thinking of what to write there (oh so long ago), I found myself noting other rather strange things that take place elsewhere in Japan. Some are funny, some are annoying, some just are. I’ve had to actually split this, since the list was getting long and I’m still working on a few items.

So let’s get this ball rolling.

Obligatory Toilet Comment

This one’s pretty high up on the list of weird bullshit I keep having to deal with. Washiki toilets are a traditional style of toilet in Japan. Different from the poop analyzing robot toilets that we all know and love, which have heated seats, are self sanitizing, play music for discrete disposal, and clean you (I’m literally not making any of this this up), washiki toilets require the user to squat over top like some kind of animal.

Because it wouldn’t be the same if I didn’t have a comparison shot.

Ok. I should be fair, since I guess these kinds of toilets are pretty common around the world. But not in Canada! So every time I’m presented with one of these things, I kinda tilt my head in confusion, decide that I don’t need this in my life right now, and then look for a western style toilet.

Anyways, these are pretty common still, for god knows what reason. You’ll see them in malls and office buildings, and in many tourist areas like hiking rest stops and at temples and shrines. But often there will be a western toilet in the next stall over, so it’s not that big a deal.

When I started in the Junior High, where I teach three days out of the week, I was presented with a rather unpleasant shock; the staff bathroom only has washiki toilets and the student bathroom was under construction. I half joked, saying that I simply wouldn’t have to go that badly, noting that I pretty much refuse to cross that line unless I absolutely have to.

It’s not like I don’t understand how to use these kinds of toilets. They are pretty simple after all, and we did talk about them in my Japanese classes in high school. I just refuse to use one when at all possible. I live in the 21st century, where mind blowing advances in science and technology pretty much take place on a weekly basis. In this 21st century, I shouldn’t have to shit into a freaking hole in the ground.

Update (from when I started writing this): About a week ago, I finally broke down while at a bar. As I suspected, it wasn’t that awful. But as I suspected, I am not in love with these monsters and still refuse to use them where there is literally any option not to use one.

Japanese Tests

A stark contrast to the previous weird thing, Japan is known for the mad test-taking skills of their students. But there are a few funny things about the tests.

First off, multiple choice tests seem to be done primarily in katakana, one of the script writing systems in Japanese. Instead of choices being listed as A, B, C, D, and so on, I keep seeing Japanese tests list answers in katakana and according to Japanese writing mechanics. So instead of following the alphabet, answers are listed like this:

ア (a) イ (i) ウ (u) エ (e) オ (o) カ (ka) キ (ki)

And so on. I guess it’s not that surprising that another language has different ways of doing things. It’s just one of those head tilt moments while you process what’s happening. Although I do see alphabetic tests as well.

Something else with tests is the quality of production. In Canada, any time I had a test in school, it was always in black and white, probably photocopied a zillion times, and mostly plain text with minimal decoration. Maybe there was a table with simple black lines, maybe there was a little matching drawing, but everything was pretty ghetto. And if we had a short quiz or a listening test, it was usually done on on our own paper.

Nope. Japan. Clearly not to be outdone by the West, Japanese tests seem to be pretty all out. Full color pages, elaborate graphics, page dressings, the works. And good paper. Like, really high quality, fairly thick stock. Even the simplest worksheet or quiz (which is premade by the teacher and is far more than a simple lined table) is well made and printed on quality stock. Even the most simple, non-dressed up test is well made compared to some of the carp I saw in Canada at every level of education.

Oh Japan. You almost make test taking fun.

School Lunches

Another fun school topic is school lunches. In the West, this conjures up images of cafeteria line ups, a noisy room filled with screaming kids of really any age who are either fighting, smoking, gambling, or all three, and something like poutine or a cafeteria tray with a single fish stick and something resembling fruit.


And as for teachers and school staff, perhaps they bring some lavish meal in and eat it in their office or teachers’ lounge, next to the bottle of desk bourbon they need to get through the day. Nope. Not in Japan. Well, I guess you could bring your own meal, but that’s not the point.

In Japan, there is this thing called kyushoko. This is a pre-prepared lunch that all students and teachers eat, perhaps prior to high school but including kindergartens and daycares. And I don’t mean just lunch. No. It’s far more complicated than that. Kyoshoku is a fixed activity in schools, carefully fashioned by a company in town to meet the dietary requirements of students. Certain mandates dictate the specific caloric intake of each meal and the kinds of foods to be made available, and this seems to be taken pretty seriously. But strap in. It gets weirder.

So kyushoku arrives some time in the mid-morning, freshly prepared at the kyushoku centre, the separate and dedicated building used for the administration, preparation, and distribution of these lunches to the surrounding schools. The food is transported in massive metal containers, which are all individually labeled and portioned for each class (or teachers’ office). The food is then brought to each class and portioned out by the students, where it is eaten in their classroom (more on that in a moment). Kyushoku is also delivered with the appropriate dishes, dense plastic trays and bowls which are quite hilarious and age inappropriate; ours have little pictures of balloons and flowers on them.

This one’s a bit more involved than my lunches (no tea), but you can get the idea. Also, bonus points for the giraffe milk that 50 year old men have to drink.

This is where it gets a little crazy. Don’t like something in your kyushoku? Too bad. Kids are encouraged to eat their entire meal, being taught from an early age not to be picky eaters. Want something more, like a snack or a something to drink besides the individual milk? Try again. As a toss up between food allergies and healthy eating, it is heavily discouraged that you ever bring other food with you. Think you’ll get a larger meal because you’re a full sized adult? Not so much. Teachers and staff eat the same portions as the kids, which can be as small as around 500 calories in elementary, though we sometimes have a little bit left over (emphasis on little).

Not my students, but this gives you a bit of an idea how this plays out.

Moving along, The kids dish up one another in this hive-mind fashion that could only take place in Japan or prison. Their teacher also dishes up, and everyone waits until everyone is seated and ready. One student will then call out each item (more at elementary than junior high) before calling out itadakimasu and everyone starts eating. If you’re not eating with the kids, you’ll be in the teachers’ office with a number of other staff, where things are a little less gonzo… like, no unison itadakimasu chant or calls to make sure everyone has every item.

Once done, regardless of where you ate, everyone fills up the containers with the used dishes, packs everything up, and, get this, washes and then flattens their milk carton. Seriously. This is crazy, even for a culture that is big on recycle. And no, I don’t mean flatten like crushed. I mean, half the time, milk cartons are literally opened up, pulled apart, and laid flat. Shit’s crazy, and surprisingly hard to do. Obviously, all Japanese people know how to actually unfold all the seams in some perfect reverse-origami fashion, not simple tear them open with my barbarian fists like I did for the first month. I kind of have the hang of this now, but I still end up tearing the thing open like a damn animal half the time.

Oh, remember how I said that kyushoku was a fixture in school? So important is it for the kids to eat together and fill their various roles, that when I asked about starting an English lunch group once a week or so, I was shot down. It is more important that these kids take part in the kyushoku performance than it is they receive extra help or recreation.

Anyways, bizarre as it may be, kyushoku is actually pretty cool. It means I don’t have to prepare a lunch everyday, and it gives people a chance to eat a variety of food. Especially for foreign teachers, this is great exposure to a variety of Japanese dishes and sides that you simply don’t get when eating out. Eating with the kids is also a good chance to spend time with them, while eating with the staff shows you a little of what Japanese office life is like.

Kyushoku Milk

Image not found

This one goes a little further, so I thought I would touch on it. Aside from the bizarrity and comedic value of this as a whole, something about this puzzles me. See, I was under them impression that Japanese people aren’t big dairy eaters. Most parts of Japan are quite small and thus there isn’t a lot of room for dairy cattle, so it’s just not a part of their lives. But I was also under the impression that Japanese people are a little lactose intolerant (like, more than normal). Aside from ice cream, there really isn’t any diary around, and it isn’t a part of daily cuisine. Yet every day, every kid and their teachers has a decent sized carton of milk.

Oh yeah. And there’s a special tab you have to open to push the elabprately collapsing straw into. Don’t bother trying to tear it open like we do in Canada and drink from the spout. Only failure lies that way.

The Classroom

Japanese classrooms, and schools, are pretty similar to the West, but also pretty different. The chalkboards can go up, down, and turn (they probably are heated and squirt water at you too). There are these chalk brush cleaners in every room, and all rooms at every level have coat racks and cubby holes for students to use. But those are only aesthetic differences. There is an entirely different culture surrounding the classroom that’s quite different than in the West.

Anyone moderately versed in Japanese culture probably knows that the kids stay in their homeroom and the teachers move around (whereas in my Canadian junior high and high schools, the students are the ones who move from class to class). And you probably heard that students clean the school themselves. But there’s more to this than meets the eye.

Da na na na, dee

See, Japanese students are the masters of their domain. The classroom is theirs, not the teacher’s. It is there home, their community, and their responsibility. This is why the kids eat lunch in the classroom. This is why the teachers are the ones who move. This is why students stand up during class to greet or dismiss the teachers every period. This is why the teacher doesn’t clean the chalkboard. This is why the students clean. When you walk into a Japanese classroom, it’s like walking into a kid’s bedroom, except with no rock posters, less clothing on the floor, and hopefully no porn hidden under the chairs. You are on their turf, and there is a whole culture and community at work.

That’s pretty weird and different from Canada. Sure, we had homeroom when I was a kid, and students made noise and hung out during class breaks. But it was never our space or our time. The classroom belonged to the school and the teachers, and desks and chairs were up for grabs by whoever sat in them or took them. Even if you have a seating plan, you could take any chair or desk and move it around. Oh yeah. Japanese students have their own desk and chair… like, their name is on it, making it theirs.

Teachers’ Office

Last one about school… I think.

So when you think of the teachers’ lounge/office/whatever you want to call it, you probably think of something like this:

You are probably thinking this is where the teachers go to blow off stream, have a stress smoke, or even get a swig of sweet office whiskey. You are probably also thinking that it’s this forbidden zone where no child shall enter.

Nope. You’d be wrong.

What you’ll find is this:

All the teachers and staff sit in a single room (usually) with their desks facing each other. Papers are strewn everywhere, CD players and extension cords thrown around the room like toilet paper rolls, and at least one teacher whose desk looks more like a box fort than a piece of office furniture (so I guess it is kind of what you’d expect). In fact, this is about what every Japanese office looks like.

Oh yeah, and the students come and go pretty regularly. They always wait by the door until invited in, but the fact that a child can come and go as they please is truly bizarre, given how off limits these places are in Canada.

Beyond that, there isn’t a lot of weirdness. It’s an office and people work there Of note though are the mancatchers. Yeah. Mancatcher. In ever school’s office, there is a steel pole with a curved ring on it, literally used to subdue a dangerous person (or play pranks on the other staff). There are also separate entrances for staff and students. The staff door is usually right next to the office, while the student’s entrance is a ways away. For those, there are even specific doors for specific grades. The grade 1 students at my elementary use a specific pair of doors, while the grade 2’s use a specific pair of doors that are right next to the grade 1’s, the grade 3’s… You get the idea. There are 6 sets of doors that are specific to the grades, and never shall a student use the wrong door.


You shall not pass!

That’s about it for this installment. In the next post, I’ll hopefully talk about how lazy Japanese kids don’t get jobs, how everyone in Japan is a raging alcoholic and refuses to admit it, laugh at Japan thinking it’s in the centre of the world, and start foaming at the mouth when I talk about banking.


My life with my predecessor

October 2, 2015
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Another article cross posted for JET Coaster, a user contributed blog for other JET Programme participants. Read the advice, tears, struggles, and joys of a network of ALTs over there.

It’s finally come. I am finally alone.

I should back up a moment to explain. My predecessor, C, is an old university friend of mine. We were in the same Japanese classes together and studied and worked together often. He was offered a job with the town, and is thus staying in town following the completion of his JET contract. He’s been working alongside me for the last two months until Oct 1, when he started his new job.

All you jealous JETs are probably thinking, “Wow! You’re so lucky! I wish I could have bee trained with my predecessor.” But that’s not really the case. I can only describe my feelings about this as a pleasant miasma of oppression. I’m friends with C, and it is really nice having another foreigner in town. And I loved having someone to train me and help me along while I got settled. But working along side him for the last two months has been both a blessing and a curse.

The Good

That young feller is so kind and helpful.

Working alongside your predecessor is really cool. Not only can they help you learn the lay of the land, but they can walk you through your job. I worked alongside C, bouncing ideas off of him, comparing lesson plans, and actually team teaching with him. C left me a wealth of knowledge in his old lesson plans, materials, and such, but was also able to explain what everything was.

The other day, he was going through the ALT’s desk at the elementary school, and he explained how a number of the flashcards were used and even who made them. Instead of just finding them after he was long gone, I know how I can use them, both following the plans of ALTs past as well as well as coming up with my own uses. It’s like sitting on a warm seat, provided that kind of thing doesn’t freak you out.

We also talked about the history of the town and it’s previous JETs. I feel like I’m part of a legacy while also being in touch with it. C succeeded his pred, W, who also stayed over to train him, and has been in loose contact with another previous local JET. Being the town’s JET is suddenly more real that I thought and I can appreciate the history a bit more.

Linguistically, C has been amazing. Since he’s been here for the last 5 years, his Japanese has improved greatly while mine atrophied in menial jobs in Canada. He has been by my side to help me open my bank account, help with the initial call from my internet provider, and translating during the process of buying my car. Since I live in such a small town, few people here know more than a trivial amount of English, so having him by my side has been a tremendous help in meeting people and getting things done.

Lastly, as I mentioned above, having someone else here has been great. I know someone if I’m feeling down who lives feet away from me. If I need help with my garbage sorting or recycling, help is just a text message away. I can talk with him about movies, dating, foreign residence, and other topics that might be too hard or awkward with a co-worker or other resident.

The Bad

8a1efae8db9d80545e56505dfb8eec41_iMe after a few weeks at work.

While a lot of good has come from my pred working with me, not everything was sunshine and rainbows. I left university with a complete breakdown, and spent years struggling to get back my independence, medically, emotionally, and psychologically. Having C around, telling me what to do, has been insanely frustrating. I finally go to a point where I was ready to be dependent again, only to have to surrender that at times.

I needed C there to help open my bank account. I needed him to translate the call from my internet provider. I needed him to translate the car buying process. I needed him to introduce me to people. It was maddening to have to rely on him for everything. But it didn’t just stop there.

At time, I came to rely on him for everything. I need groceries. Can you drive me there after work? I need something for my house. Can you drive me to the city? No? Well, I guess I’m staying home then. Stuff like that. It was so difficult getting settled that I started leaning heard on my pred for almost everything.

I think the worst was when I needed to buy some rubbing alcohol. One of my toes split along the bendy-fold and wasn’t healing over right. After a few days, I knew I needed to find a drug store so I could get some proper medical supplies. Not that there is anything embarrassing or concerning about, but I lied to him about needing to go anywhere after work just so I could go there myself and be alone. It seems so stupid now, but this was driving me mental. I didn’t want to talk to him about this. I didn’t want to tell him that I might have an infected or troublesome cut. And I didn’t want him to look after me. I wanted to buy the damn rubbing alcohol myself, and I wanted to do it on my own terms and at my own leisure.

Life problems aside, I also felt that my job growth was stunted. It was almost a battle to get him to start relinquishing control in my job over to me, and that control really didn’t fully pass until he started his new job. It was more like I was his assistant than his replacement. But it wasn’t just us. While one of the teachers at the main school started coming to me more and more, the other kept going to him first. He was still the ALT, and it was really confusing where I fit into all of this.

The Ugly

Where does this guy buy his pants?

This is where things get weird. I don’t mean to badmouth him, but I need to call this out. C was a shitty teacher.

Maybe this is a consequence of being a 5-year JET. Maybe it’s a consequence of our different backgrounds. Maybe it’s because he doesn’t want to be a teacher. I don’t know. But it meant the result was that he really wasn’t that good at his job. He didn’t innovate. He didn’t push for better lessons in the class. He picked favorites among the teachers and gave the cold shoulder to everyone else. He didn’t take on new teaching responsibilities (he did do other things for the town though).

And what’s worse? Everyone loves him. He’s the superstar of the town and he didn’t really do anything. He openly told me that he just gave up a few years ago and did little to push the job forwards. Yet everyone things he is amazing. And here I am, trying to put the students first and improve their language skills, trying to work with my JTEs and other teachers, and trying to build new bonds, and it’s not going well.

Another annoyance was over a semi-private lesson we were teaching in order to prep some students for a week long trip to our sister town. They were having trouble with a presentation they will be giving and the teacher asked if we could help out one more time to get them ready. When the time came, C tried to blow them. Like, literally blow them off. Something to the effect of saying “let them fend for themselves.” I insisted that I wanted to go and help them, because a few hours could really help these kids and change their experience. He agreed and it went well, but it was frustrating that he was ready to dump this the second his obligation was finished (but a few days before his ALT job ended).

Finally, there was a lot of passive aggression going on. He would baby me at times, doing things like telling me how to behave or how to dress (not that I was actually doing anything wrong). He even had the gull to ask me why I felt the need to use and ask people about Japanese sign language, something that is unique and rather important to me.

Moving forward

First thing was to take a deep breathe. I have to take the good with the bad. For some of the dickery, I know that he was just trying to help. For the poor performance, I get that he isn’t on a teaching track like I am and maybe just got tired of the job. Further what’s important now is that I’m here and I’m free to approach my job how I want. I’m free to make my own relationships with my teachers and free to try and build better lessons.

I started my approaching some of the classes differently. Instead of using flashcards to teach shapes, I also got the students to draw them. They were in kindergarten, so it was pretty brutal, but by varying the activities, I can better present the material and do so in my own way. I can build on this and try and bring new ideas into my other classes.

One thing I want to push for is more time in different classes, part of which is something C can actually help with. I teach more classes in high school than anywhere else, yet am only there once a week. In C’s new job, his first assignment was to brainstorm ideas on making the high school more prestigious and improving the English content. I suggested, in the future, hiring a second ALT, thus allowing one to work in the various high school classes while freeing up the other to work more closely with another seldom visited school. He completely agreed, and we might be able to work together on that and other proposals in the future.

I also want to start approaching my schools in different ways. One thing I’d like to do is sit in on a class for the entire day, aside from my teaching time. I’d like to know how a Japanese classroom ticks and what other teachers in other subjects do. I also want to see what life for a Japanese student is like and how I can use that to build new activities and opportunities for them.

On the heels of a JET survey about free time, I want to start exploring what else I can do between classes. I mentioned to one of the administrative staff about putting together super short English lessons that I can teach in the office between classes or as teacher have a few moments of free time. She liked it and wanted to know that that day’s lesson was.

Lastly, I want to push for a greater role in the classroom. One of the teachers already asks me to help mark for her (which is awesome). I want to find ways to build on that while also presenting new content in the classroom. I also want to meet some of the single-student classes and maybe visit them once every few weeks. They are learning English too, and being in a special needs class shouldn’t rob them of that experience.

In my predecessor’s absence, I am finally free to approach my job the way I want to, and that’s not a bad thing. He put in a lot of time and paid his dues, but now it’s my turn. Maybe I’ll do a good job, maybe I won’t. But now it’s my time to try.

What did you learn?

I’m not really sure why this picture is here.

So while the thought of having your predecessor working with you might sound kind of amazing, it comes with some strings attached. There are good and bad things that went with it, and I’m not sure which way I would have preferred. I definitely appreciate all the work he’s put in and help he’s given, but the experience wasn’t entirely positive. When my time comes, I’d certainly like to stay and help, but I’m not sure if I would do it for as long, or if my successor won’t end up having the same feelings. You’ll never run if someone is always holding your hand, regardless of how much you may want that.

Time’s Up

July 31, 2015
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That’s it. I’m going. I’m packed and on my way to my departure city. I spent all night and all morning packing. God, I hate packing. I thought I’d figured it out this time, but I still had too much. And although I slashes a lot and left a lot of things I wanted to bring with me, I was still left with too much.

So sorry Air Canada. But I’m gonna be that guy. Three checked suitcases. Granted, one of them is really small, but I still have three, plus my small carry on suitcase and backpack. What a crap show. This will actually work out well, because my small checked suitcase has my formal clothes in it, so I can send my larger suitcases forward to my apartment and only be in Tokyo/fly domestically with the two small ones. But I still have an extra bag, and that’s still going to cost quite a bit.


What pushed me over were my computer, my gifts and prizes, and my teaching aids. Even though I purpose build my computer to be as small as possible, it still takes up half of my carry on. And all the gifts, free pins, flags, and pens, as well as the few other classroom aids I bought really added up. But for as bad a failure as this is, I drew the line with a small suitcase. Sure, I could have bought a full suitcase and filled it with the books I wanted to bring. But I didn’t. We’ve been advised not to overload our checked luggage and not to bring additional bags. Hopefully a smaller bag will get some sympathy and appreciation instead of overloading the plane and risking someone’s (or my) luggage ending up on another plane.

Hardship and Tears

It also finally hit me. Sort of. The other day, I pulled my car keys off my key ring (my dad is going to store and look after it while I decide whether to keep or sell). And that was tough. But I broke up when I was about to leave my dad’s, and checked my car to see that it was locked. Then everything started to hit me. See, I’ve been through a lot over the last few years. Buying a car felt like I was finally getting back on track. Giving it up was a heavy blow again, since it felt like I was giving up a piece of the independence I’ve been struggling with.

Spider-man gets it.

But it wasn’t just the car. I started to break up about leaving my dad’s house. I said a while ago that there was a perception shift you need to make when doing something like JET; that you are moving and may not return for a long time. The last time I walked through my dad’s hallway. The last time I’d use his bathroom for a very long time. The last time I’d lock his front door. It’s tough. It still hasn’t hit me that I’m going to Japan yet, if it even will. But it hit me that I was leaving. When I went to Gaidai, I broke up at work before I moved to my dad’s for the summer so I could pack and prep. I said that I was walking out on my life, and that was really upsetting me. That’s how I feel now, but with far more weight and reality. I am walking out on a lot of hardship and problems I’ve had since I finished school. But I’m again walking away from friends and family, only this time for a longer and more uncertain period of time. I’m walking away from all of the things I enjoy and hobbies I’ve tried to start. This time I really am walking out on my life, and I’m really having a hard time dealing with that.

Now What?

So I’m heading to my departure city a day early. I just don’t want to be running around Friday morning, rushing 3-4 hours to get to my hotel to check in, then dealing with the flurry of pre-departure orientation and the reception we’re attending. I want to be in the city tonight so I can take things at my own pace. It’s expensive (the theme of the last few days), but I think it’s better this way.

Once I get there, I’ll fire some texts and Facebook messages out. Maybe I’ll hang out with some friends. Maybe I’ll meet up with a few of the other JETs that are already there. Maybe I’ll spend the night with my dad. I haven’t really decided yet. Maybe I’ll pass out on the bed, having very little sleep over the last week. Maybe I’ll go out and are a movie. Who knows. All I know is I’m busy tomorrow, fly on Saturday, get to Tokyo Sunday (time travel!), spend two days in training and seminars, then fly to my town on Wednesday.

Random Closing Positive Note

Among all the trouble and stress of today, among losing a book I just got and forgetting a piece of medication at home. Among all this+ something funny happened. While looking through my desk drawers as I was packing, I think I found the missing install disc for Windows Server. I bought the wrong sized hard drives when I set up my file server (the computer in my carry on) and was planning to replace those after I got settled. I guess I’m going to be installing the intended operating system after all, which should make my server easier to manage and more stable. Wicked.

Oh. My server’s name is Castle Grayskull. And I will soon command the hard drive open.

Unless I think of anything else to post, see you on the other side.

How to Pack for JET (sorta)

July 27, 2015
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Here’s another cross post from TheJetCoaster, which has lots of other tips from super keeners on life, JET, and how to be a dirty foreign barbarian.


Every JET

When I think about packing for this move, I try and think about what I need and what I want… And then I got get a drink. And then after I’m done drinking and crying, I go back to thinking. How the heck do I pack for a multiple year move in just 3 suitcases?

Once I’ve processed all the liquor I just put into my blood, I try to remember that I’ve done this before I moved to Japan in 2009 to study abroad, so I’ve had to pack like this before. But there are two key differences between this and that trip.

Difference the first: I am going for much longer this time. When I was studying abroad, I didn’t have to worry too much if I left something in Canada. I was only going to be there for about 9 months. I didn’t need my cherished childhood toy, nor my book collection. I could safely leave things in Canada and return to them later. With JET and this move, that’s not really the case. I do not know when I will be returning to Canada. This means I need to be very careful with what I pack and what I leave, since those decisions are basically written in stone.

Difference the second: I am no studying abroad. This is actually a nice save here. When I was studying abroad, I was inclined to bring this and that textbook with me. I needed a large amount of Japanese language materials, but I also had other materials I needed to bring with me for other disciplines. As a JET, much of that is less important. Sure, I’m still going to be learning Japanese (and in a proficiency level I’m less comfortable with), but I’m not doing it formally. I can also find some of these materials locally should I need them. So sorry, Genki textbook, but you gotta stay behind. But I’ll look you up in Japan if I need your help.

So what does this mean? Well, everything and nothing. Because I’m moving to work instead of study, my academic needs are much lighter this time around. I don’t really need to be hauling a suitcase full of books with me. But because I’m moving, I need to bring extra or different items with me this time. In my mind, the two sort of cancel each other out.

There’s sort of a third difference as well (give me a break. I can’t count). This time, I’m a little better prepared and know more about what is available to me and what isn’t. I’m going to touch on this later, but it’s a good point to keep in mind moving forwards.

What to pack? Step One.

I don’t think I will ever forget what my school’s Exchange Coordinator said during my pre-departure to study abroad. Standing in front of a room full of university students, all bound for different countries and different experiences, she said one thing that applied to all of us; one thing that we all needed to remember.

You are all going to countries  that sell shampoo.

Those few words resonate with the frequency of the galaxy, and are so important to remember at every stage of packing. Never in my life have I heard some good advice that keeps coming back to me, whether I am leaving the country or moving down the block.

This phrase and the meaning behind it is going to come up again and again, and it has already impacted how I look a pre-packing.

Step Two: Clothing

So the first thing to consider packing is probably clothes. As a teacher, I’m going to need my suit, ties, formal shirts, and dress pants. Check. I also need my man shoes (check) and other similar formal wear.

I don’t like going commando, so boxers are a must (check), as are socks. This is basically where packing takes it’s first nose dive off the side of a mountain. Without trying, I have amassed a large collection of socks. Most are for casual daily wear, but some are for formal situations, while others have a more silly time and place. But I don’t have a lot of formal socks, because that has never really been a thing. So I’m going to have to pick though my daily wear socks and cut them with my formal and other socks. I guess check?

So I;ve got my formal wear. Now what. Well, I’m going to need some casual wear for the weekends and for when I need to gaijin smash. I’m going to be wearing my favourite plaid shorts, so those don’t need packing. Jeans are right out. Ahh. The first cut. See, I’m going to have several pairs of pants with me, and bringing a few pairs of jeans is pointless. It’s also very hot and humid in Japan (compared to Prairie Canada), so wearing heavy thick jeans isn’t something I’m excited about. Lastly, I can buy jeans in Japan. There’s that phrase again. If I don’t want to dress like a grown up, I can always go somewhere and buy some jeans.

Now for the rest of the casual wear; shirts. I love wearing t-shirts, but I really am not going to need that many. Maybe 5 or 6. I dunno. I have a LOT of shirts, so so that’s going to take some time. But again, I can buy clothes in Japan, so if I only bring a few t-shirts with me, it’s not a big deal.

Shoes are super easy. I’ve already decided on my man shoes. I have a pair of runners (check), and if I can find my sandals, I’ll bring those two. I don’t actually own winter boots, but that’s something that would just take up space anyways, so that’s a Japan buy.

I think that leaves things like winter wear, sweaters, and jackets. Just like shoes, I live a simple life. I have my leather jacket, which is quite warm and I wore all winter (check). I’ll bring some gloves and a toque, and maybe a scarf if I can dig one up (check all around). And that’s it. If I need anything more, I will buy it when I get to Japan. Winter is months away and I have no intention of taking up valuable real estate with tons of winter wear I’m not convinced I need.

Here’s the catch though. I’m overweight and I know it (clap your hands *clap clap*). I also have short legs and wide shoulders. I know from past experience that some clothing just won’t fit. Japanese boxers are the worst (at least the ones I bought. Pants probably won’t fit me well either, since I’m not an androgynous 100 pound Japanese cross dresser. But I’m short like a Japanese man, so that’s a plus. And most Japanese people have smaller feet like me, so shoe shopping was a dream. And socks… don’t get me started on socks. I have a pair of socks from Uniqlo from 2009 that have lasted longer than socks I bought last year.

But at the end of the day here, the recurring theme is that I can pack light and buy anything else I need after I get there.

Step Three: Books

I sort of touched on this already, but I plan to bring far fewer books with me this time. Since digital media has become more common, I can buy novels and the like online, so they don’t have to take up space in my bag. I can go pretty textbook light as well, though I do want to bring some English grammar books and other learning aids (check). And I scanned a lot of my TESOL material, so no 5 inches of textbooks there. So hopefully, I’m gonna be pretty book light.

Step Four: Gaming


Here’s where I drive off a cliff again. I’m a tabletop gamer. Just like last time, I expect to bring a certain number of gaming books and board games with me. But I need to be SO careful here, since I have single board games that can fill a suitcase and take up half my weight limit. So here’s how I’m thinking about this.

First, my living conditions are different. I’m not that close to any large expat communities like I was when I lived outside of Osaka. And there aren’t a lot of them even around me. My town has me and my predecessor (who told me he’s received a position with the town). I think there are some JETs around me, but that is literally around me in a circle. The likelihood that I can find gaming groups is much, MUCH smaller than when I was in Osaka. So bring a lot of games isn’t as necessary or valuable.

Second, specific to roleplaying games, I own many in digital form. Since I will most likely be playing online, having physical books isn’t as important. Sure, I’m going to try and bring a few of the smaller ones in case I do get a local game going, but I can pack pretty light.

Third, I am aware that many board games are available in Japan, either in Japanese or as an English import with a Japanese crib sheet. In the case of the latter, it’s often the same game I can buy in Canada. For the former, I can find English crib sheets or even the full rules online, either from the publisher or on BoardGameGeek.

So I can leave some games here, even if I really enjoy them (like Forumla D) since I can buy the after I land, and I can leave others that I love but are unlikely to play at this time. Also, I can buy most (but not all) gaming books I’m watching online, which I am increasingly doing anyways. So that’s kind of a check.

Step Five: Other Hobbies

I do other stuff too. I swear. *cries* Anyways, I would like to again bring my rock climbing harness, since there are a number of gyms in nearby Asahikawa (check). I’m also going to be bringing some bookbinding supplies (I tried to get into that but lacked the time and room where I live now), mostly since the tools are pretty small. And if I have a printer at home and find any craft stores to get the rest of the supplies, I’m good (so check). I don’t think I’ll bring any origami books or the like with me. Although it was surprisingly hard to find non-kids books, I can just cross that bridge when I get there.

Same goes with a lot of other hobby and interest stuff. No point in packing around my several hundred disc DVD and blu-ray collection since I can stream movies, watch TV, and hit up some rental stores. I will try to bring my Arduino and electronics kit, provided I can get it small enough and through airport security (I still have to make that phone call).

Step Six: Computers

See that “s” on the end. Yep. Nerd. This is a tough and stupid choice, but one that needs to be made. So let’s start with my laptop. That’s a check, or rather my main laptop is a check. I’m not bringing my other two (yes, I have three laptops. Get over it). My desktop is also staying home.

Dramatization. May not have happened.

That leaves my mini-PC and my file server. Yeah. I have a lot of computers. I purpose built a file server (to handle redundant storage and to prevent data loss) to be as small as I can make it, yet be a full PC so I can better maintain and control it. It’s still really big and very heavy, but that’s the hand I was dealt. And my mini-PC is coming with me, which I may convert into a media centre-settop box kind of deal.

Lastly is my tablet, which will be coming as well, though I may be replacing shortly. So that’s lots of big, heavy, stupid checks. Note that this is pretty excessive and due to my specific needs and neurosis. I wouldn’t actually recommend anyone bring a desktop PC or as many computers as I am bringing. Computers can be bought and built in Japan. I’m only doing this because of careful planning over the duration of about two years.

Step Seven: Personal Affects

This one is both easy and hard. Since I can buy shampoo in Japan, a lot of toiletries are going to be left. I’m going to get a cheap toothbrush, a travel bottle of mouthwash, and I have some little bottles for shampoo and body wash for a few days. I’ll have a towel, but that’s mostly for suitcase padding to keep other things in place, and so I can have a shower my first morning.

I’m also going to try and bring a small quilt that belonged to my grandpa, since it made a really good blanket and cuddle buddy last time. But my suitcase is getting full, so I’m not sure about that. I’d also like to bring my zafu, because I am a terrible Buddhist. But I also know that I can buy religious materials after I land, despite how ridiculously hard it was last time, so this might get cut too.

Aside from that, I can’t really think of anything. Photos and valuables are staying here, aside from legal and personal documents. I’ll surely have a bunch of knickknacks and small items, but nothing major. And of course, my gifts, prizes, and teaching aids. Oh. And that silly amount of loose tea I have. Basically no weight but does take up a little space (yes, I can buy tea in Japan, but this stuff is expensive and probably won’t keep).

That might seem like a lot and it probably is, but there is going to be a pretty heavy slash and burn as I pack. Stupid crap or replacables like casual clothes, board games, and my zafu are on my endangered list, as is anything that isn’t totally vital for my job or sanity. Ironically, computers are probably quite high up. I paid good money for my server and it holds all my important documents and off device storage, so if any cuts had to be made, it probably won’t be here.


Pack light. Seriously. I know it doesn’t look like it, but that’s basically an itemized list. We are really attached to physical things, and all this is going to do is weigh you down. So many things can be bought in Japan once we are paid that it makes at least half of what we pack completely pointless.

Perhaps the best way to pack is to take half of what you want to bring, lay it out, and then pick up half of that and put it away. And then maybe do that another time. I actually do feel, file server taking up my carry on suitcase aside, that I am going to be travelling a bit lighter than last time. I’m going to be really light on clothes, bring fewer board games with me, and may actually go bookless (save for a few texts and classroom aids). Everything else is pretty small and manageable.

Ultimately, everyone’s packing is going to be different, but this will hopefully give people and idea of what they may or may not want to bring.

Thank for watching.

Coping with hobbies, or, the Closet post

July 16, 2015
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This picture is just adorable.

I like doing things. Hey, who doesn’t? To say I have a lot of hobbies and interests… I’m not sure if that does the topic justice. Sure, I’m a pretty boring guy and I only do a handful of things normally, but I’m pretty flexible and always open to trying new things.

So when I went to Japan in 2009, I started doing some research to see what kinds of things I could do there and which I couldn’t. There are movies theatres, stores, and even rental shops, so that’s a big check. There were gaming stores near where I lived. In fact, I was living close to Namba/Den Den Town, the hobby and electronics district of Osaka. I even found some board game groups made up of teachers and other expats. I could go to amusement parks, travel, do some very light urban exploration (mostly walking around town, nothing illicit), and do most of the things other I could do in Canada. I even picked up some new interests and rekindled some old, forgotten ones when I was there.

And of course, there were things I couldn’t do. I build replica movie props, but had to leave that hobby back in Canada. Aside from a few sessions, I largely had to give up roleplaying. Even watching TV or going to a theatre was complicated and ended up falling to the wayside.

Sure, there were some adjustments, but I knew that I could get by and keep entertained. So when JET rolled around, I already knew what I was getting myself into, to some extent or another. Thus, I’m pretty calm and prepared this time around. Things are going to be a bit different though (much smaller town, no immediate access to any gaming stores or notable expat communities that I am aware of, etc), but I can generally take things in stride.

There is, however, one thing I’m struggling with; one new interest in my life that I’m a little concerned with, and can’t quite figure out how to reconcile. While I’ve been pretty content to keep this one on the down low due to judgements and misunderstandings, I couldn’t pass up the chance to come out with it now and use it as a learning opportunity. See, of all my hobbies, interests, activities, and thoughts, nothing quite represents that struggle and adjustment of this one activity. And that activity is Second Life.

What the heck?!

That pretty much sums up SL.

Yes. I play Second Life. Shut up and stop judging me (*bites his knuckle and tries not to cry as everyone judges him*). For those not aware, Second Life (shortened to SL usually) is essentially a massively multiplayer online sandbox game, though there are people who like to get their panties in a bunch when you call it a video game. You interact with other users in a similar fashion to other online games and it’s not Microsoft Office (so there :P). Anyways, Second Life is entirely user generated. Everything from buildings and forests to clothes were all made by someone from the community. Even inworld events are community run. There’s no central theme, no scripted quests, no NPCs, and no control. SL is a sandbox, where users can do anything they’d like. Do you want to play in video game-like event? You can do it. Do you want to use it like a 3D chat room? You can do it. Do you want to roll into a Tim Horton’s, grab a cup of coffee, and roleplay with everyone else there about the weather (I’ve done this)? You can do it. Sightseeing? Race car driving? Play on a sports team? You can do all of this. SL allows users to do whatever they want, provided that they or someone else can create whatever props or controls are needed.

Why exactly is this a problem?

Well, I need to talk about what I do in SL before I can explain why I maybe can’t do it as a JET. I play a kid, an 11 year old boy (STOP JUDGING ME!). I wanted to make a kid because I was very new to this kind of experience. As a kid, I can make mistakes, ask questions, and do general stupid things without breaking the immersion of the other players (“He’s just a kid. He doesn’t know any better”). Also, by playing a kid, I can take part in a variety of activities that I might otherwise not do if I were playing an adult. I go to school, where we pretend to be in class and have field trips and short little homework assignments. I play sports, like the school’s soccer team or that baseball group I can never make it out to. I sought out a roleplay family, where we do things like help each other when we’re sad, see movies together (actual movies, not pretend), and getting looked after when I got sick. I go to some kid-themed clubs, where I can just be a kid and hang out. I’m even in Scouts, where we go on hikes and are trying to plan a camping trip.

So what’s the problem? Since this isn’t a single player video game, all of these activities involve other people, many of whom are in dramatically different time zones from where I will be. Worse, many of these activities are timed events, like school being at a certain time of the day, so this raises serious questions on viability and attendance.

Me in SL in a few weeks.

Now, this doesn’t mean that SL is a total write off for me. Most of my roleplay family lives in Europe, so I’m not dealing with a half day’s difference there. When I brought the move up with my Scout troop, the alphas were saying they were actually thinking of changing when we get together, so there is a chance the timing will be better for me. And I can still talk with my friends even if I don’t see them very often.

But just like with my other hobbies, there have to be adjustments and compromises. One of the biggest problems with SL is that, at least from everything I’ve seen, the game is very Amero-centric with its timing. I talked to the school’s principal, and she said there was no chance of a midnight class or something more fitting for me happening, even though there is an audience for it. And attending any concerts or DJ sets? Unlikely. Since so many events are based around North American living, I’m going to miss out on a lot.

How to cope

So once again, I’m going to have to adapt. Maybe I don’t get to keep going to school. Maybe I need find different roleplay groups to play with, or look for Aussie clubs to go to. When doing family time, we’ll just have to do it during their morning instead of in the evening like we’ve been doing. Time permitting, I can still enjoy SL, but I’m going to have to change how I do it and what I can participate in.

Ok nerd, how does this apply to me?

Stop judging me (*cries*). Anyways. Like I said, this is a really good example of how to approach hobbies and other activities as an expat. You aren’t going to be able to do everything you are used to doing, nor can you expect those around you to bend to your needs. While we are working away and having fun in the Mystic East, there is a whole world outside of those borders. We can still interact with it, but we are going to have to be flexible and a little creative. Some of us will be fortunate and find activities that are just as easy to enjoy as they are back home. Many more will have to adjust and adapt to the situation before them, while some will have to wave goodbye to their hobbies or aspects of them. Like I mentioned in my post “Meloncaly and the Infinite Sakura,” enjoy what time you have with your hobbies, since that time will soon be gone. That’s not really a bad thing, but you have to learn that nothing lasts forever or stays the same.

Piercings, Tattoos, and Body Mods, or, Dirty Barbarian post no. 1

May 5, 2015
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Gang signs

If you’re a dirty barbarian like I am, you have some piercings or tattoos. And for those of us who are into Japan, this is a point of concern and uncertainty. Let’s try and change that with some information from this century.

I have pierced and slightly stretched ears and normally wear dark wooden plugs, and I also have a tattoo on one of my legs. The tattoo is a word written in kanji (Chinese characters), so get your lols out now. Nothing is offensive or too abrasive, and if anything, I have a more conservative look now than when I was last in Japan in 2009.

So the burning question on everyone’s mind; “I have piercings/tattoos/whatever, and I heard that I’m going to get chased out of Japan like Frankenstein’s monster. Is this true?” In my experience, no. I was never lit on fire or chased with pitchforks for having pierced ears or a tattoo. But the issue is less straight forward and more complex than that. So I guess I’ll start with what tattoos are in Japan, and then talk about what I’ve seen/heard/been told. I’ll also touch a little on piercings, though I don’t have a lot of anthropological context aside from my own experience.

The first thing to acknowledge is that icky yakuza thing. Yes, tattooing and the like are historically associated with less desirable elements of society, just as I understand they used to be in the West. This is where things get messy. See, it’s important to realize that tattoos and piercings come in all shapes and sizes (literally). The kinds of tattoos that get Japanese blood boiling are yakuza tattoos. You know the ones I’m talking about. Full back, half sleeve, lots of imagery with maybe carps and youkai. That kind of thing. So you can immediately see that this style of tattoo is quite different than the ho stamps and tribal bands we see in the West. That seems to be the linchpin here. If you have a western style tattoo and are a dirty foreigner like me, this is a very different matter than if you have yakuza style tattoos or a lot of tattoos (haunting white skin or not), and you’ll probably be fine. If you have the full sleeves, a back, or the like, that might be something to be concerned over.

Onto anthropological context. In a class on non-verbal communication and a religious studies class I was in, the topic of body mods came up. The responses by the Japanese students in the class and the additional info from the professors said that the Japanese aren’t likely to get tattoos or piercings because of their religio-cultural upbringing. In Japan, the body is viewed as a gift and there are serious concerns with it remaining whole and in tact (versus my view that my body is more like a rental car and not a sacred temple that is to be invested in). It should be noted that this view is, to a tiny, immeasurable degree, changing, as there were a students with piercings and presumable one or two that at least have seriously thought about a tattoo. This ultimately means that the Japanese are less interested on one level or another in body mods due to concerns about, basically, leave a pretty body for cremation (yeah, it makes no sense, but I’ll give it to them).

There are also deeply seeded ideas of group identity, homogeneity, and a sort of inside-ism. Being on the inside is a big deal in Japan, and doing things that can label you and put you on the outside (like body modding, so you visually stand out) is something to be avoided. This concept of the inside and the outside is so deeply rooted in Shinto and Japanese culture that it can almost explain everything the Japanese do. It’s the source of sumo, the cause of much of Japan’s foreign policy, a major social concern in an increasingly international world, and possibly one of the reasons being a Japanese youth is so awful (come on, we all remember junior high).

So all that academia and discussion is great, but what’s the real answer? How are body mods viewed in Japan? Well, that’s a tricky questions, and the answer seems to be highly individual. As I mentioned, I’m tattooed and pierced, and when I was in Japan in 2009, I had these big spiraled earrings. A lot of students asked me about them. And then when I told them I had a tattoo, they’d scream with a mix of excitement and repulsion, with someone then asking what the tattoo looked like. I also went to a number of sentos (bath houses) and never had a problem or was asked to cover up or leave. In fact, during one of my last trips before returning home, I saw a Japanese man with several tattoos in the sento near me, and obviously he was allowed in. I also wore shorts from time to time, though I did acknowledge that I was being something of a social deviant by doing so. On the flip side though, I spoke with a now former JET, and she said that her city was super conservative and she needed to cover her tattoo. And at my JET interview, I was asked if I was ok taking out my piercings since blah blah blah Japan. There was also a rather funny section of the application form that asked applicants to declare their body mods.

What does this all mean? It means that a lot of commentary you hear about body mods is rooted in the late 20th century and really not that accurate anymore. A lot of this info has been perpetuated since as far back as the 1960’s (if not earlier), but that was a long time ago. It’s 2015 now, and it’s entirely possible that attitudes have changed even since my experiences in 2009.

So should you wipe your brow in relief and go get 9 tattoos and some piercings? Probably not. Should you be concerned that you have some body mods and will be openly shamed and refused work? Again, probably not. For as conservative and somewhat fearful Japan is, everyone I met and spoke with was pretty open minded and at least a little tolerant of foreign ideas. One of the great things about JET and probably a lot of other teaching and study opportunities is the idea of foreign ambassadorship. As a JET (and as an exchange student in 2009), I’ll be learning about Japan as well as representing Canada and the West. There’s a two way relationship with any engagement of this kind, and the Japanese are ultimately going to be pretty ok with some of our dirty barbarian ways, if not a little interested themselves. But remember that it goes two ways. You can’t just gaijin smash your way through the country. Pending the specifics of my contract, I’ll probably refrain from wearing shorts at work (if such a thing is even possible) and be considerate of the culture I’m living in when I go flashing my bling and ink. I may be buying even more subtle earrings than I have now and I’ll try not to make a big deal about my tattoo. And if I’m ever called out on either, I will explain the level of commonality in the West but be receptive to local considerations.

I think that’s it for now. As always, I’m interested in touching on this should I see or experience anything new once I’m in Japan again. And if you like what I’m writing, find it helpful, or want to share your own thoughts or suggestions for future bloggery, please drop me a line.

Until I think of more things to ramble on about, happy Revenge of the Fifth everyone.

About author

Scooter is an ESL teacher and Japanese anthropologist. He hopes to document his thoughts of living in Japan, continued cultural studies, and to provide advice for others looking to hop the pond.