3 day whirlwind

It’s been about two months now since I’ve moved to Aizu Wakamatsu City in Fukushima Prefecture. The prefecture organized a bus to take us from Tokyo to Fukushima this year, which took about 4 hours. We took a couple mandatory 10-15 minute breaks at a couple highway stops where we took bathroom breaks and had some food. In Japan, it’s illegal to have the driver drive for more than 2 hours without breaks.

Before I go further, there’s a couple things to know about Fukushima. When referring to Fukushima, it can mean either the prefecture of the city. Because so many parts of Japan are densely populated, people’s worlds and lives center mostly around their immediate area. If I were to tell you that there is a cat cafe in Fukushima, I would be referring to the city, not the prefecture. But if I were to tell you Fukushima has a few lakes, I am talking about the prefecture.

Hope that lessens any confusion. On we go!

Once we got to Koriyama, one of the two biggest cities in Fukushima (the other being Fukushima…!), we assembled into a room where all the supervisors from various areas of the prefecture were waiting for us. We all had a specific seat that we were told to sit in beforehand, and everyone took turns to introduce themselves. I met with with my supervisor, a tired and old middle-aged looking man. Let’s call him Mr. Super. We introduced ourselves amidst all the other excited introductions, and I instantly felt as if I had just met an uncle from my mother’s extended family. My mother’s family is so well connected that I was and am constantly being introduced to some new person who is a second cousin or relative, so I guess that trained me to have instant connections with people, especially Asians who can be my aunt or uncle.

After a while, Mr. Super took me to his car, a really nice Prius among many other nice cars, and drove us to Aizu-Wakamatsu. On the way, we talked more about ourselves, and he showed me Mt. Bandai. I drooled at the cleared paths, which would soon collect snow and become ski and snowboarding trails come winter. It took us about 45 minutes on the highway, so we had a lot of time to talk. Since there was still time in the workday, and this was officially a workday, Mr. Super took me to the school, where I met my Australian coworker, an ALT teaching the junior high part of the school whom I will call Ms. Ozzie. We then went to my apartment which was sparsely furnished, but I’m incredibly grateful for them because some of the teacher staff had moved big appliances to the 3rd floor, and Ms. Ozzie’s husband had done some DIY touch-ups as well. The electric and gas company also came by to turn on the gas and check out the stovetop (“gas table”), and reported that I had the wrong kind… No cooking for me! We planned our schedule the next day after doing a room walkthrough:

1) Register as a resident at city hall
2) Get a bank account
3) Get a phone
4) Sign my apartment lease

This took pretty much the entire 2nd day. There was lots of waiting, and explaining contracts, and trying to understand contracts, and stamping and signing. In Japan, contracts are signed with a personal stamp. It’s actually a lot of fun to press that thing on a piece of paper. Mr. Super and Ms. Ozzie were with me the whole time, and I’m so glad they were because I would have been so lost. And hungry, because without Ms. Ozzie and her hubs, I would not have been invited over for dinner.

On the 3rd day, Mr. Super and Ms. Ozzie accompanied me again to go to Nitori, a giant home furnishings store similar to IKEA, and Daiyu 8, a home center, similar to Target, to pick up some bedding, curtains, a new gas table, and other necessities. I also got my mama-chari bike! That evening, I checked out the grocery store around the corner to get rice so that I could have some sustenance, as well as bread and butter so I could have buttered toast with awesome fluffy and slightly sweet Japanese bread, something that I’d missed since I last lived in Japan. Because it was another long day, I didn’t have the energy to explore the market, read the labels, and get more interesting things to buy. There’d be plenty of time for that…

And that was my first 3 days of a whirlwind in Aizu-Wakamatsu.


In 1923 (平成13年), the Aizu Women’s High School was established near Tsuruga Castle in Aizu Wakamatsu. Today, the school is a co-ed, academic junior high/high school that is featured as a Super Science High School. This year is the 90th anniversary of the school and today’s ceremony welcomed officials from neighboring towns, prefectural officials, as well as alumni. As a special guest, Shigeaki Saegusa, a renowned composer who wrote the school’s anthem, was invited to speak to students. The theme was “Anyone can do whatever job they like”. However, Mr. Saegusa spoke about the dwindling number of workers, as most things are done by computers these days. As an example, he shared a news video on a holographic Hatsune Miku concert at Anime Expo 2011. This hologram would take user-generated music from a software tool, and perform it right on stage. He also mentioned making music on the iPad using GarageBand and paying extra for instrumental tracks. His talk slowly spiraled downward as he rambled on about how people won’t be getting married and have kids because of the lack of jobs. In the end, a student asked him, “What jobs do you think will continue to exist?” and he had no answer for her. I only hope this makes students more inspired to pursue what they are passionate about, or go on the journey to find that passion.

Oral Communication in English

At my high school, I teach all the 1st years and 2nd years, but I only get to teach one 3rd year class regularly. The 3rd years chose Oral Communication in English as an elective, so some are there because they like English, and others are there because there were no other fun alternatives. I’ve decided that it’s my most challenging class because I regularly see them 3 times a week. I haven’t had the motivation to plan out weekly lesson plans with the class because I’m still trying to gauge what they’re able to do. I’ll admit, I’ve been a little lazy and pre-occupied with having fun on the weekends, too.

Anyway, the lessons plans I’ve done so far that have been successful include a winter preparation lesson, a lesson that gives them a chance to start interest clubs, and halfway through a music lesson.

While I say they are successful, I have to be honest and admit that sometimes the lesson doesn’t go as well as planned. I think most teachers deal with this. However,  I am an unpredictable person sometimes, often straying from the lesson plan, and, more often than not, winging it.

For example, with the winter prep lesson, I didn’t explain well enough that their posters should include a map of the area so they can practice using what they learned with directions. In the end, I was just happy to get nice drawings, and interesting price tags for the same things for each group.

Winter Prep Lesson

With the interest club lesson, I had originally wanted them to write me a list of all the clubs at the school, and basically do the research for me on who the club leaders and teachers are as a warm-up. I had prepped this lesson only the night before and wasn’t thinking clearly until I actually tried to present it in class. After a few moments, I realized I had to cut that part of the lesson and just go straight into part 2, which was having them check out the current list of clubs from my old high school (thank goodness I came from Silicon Valley, where every high school should have their own website.), discuss the clubs they were curious about (Extreme Gamer’s Club!? Guide the Future Club?!), and making up their own interest clubs and ways to recruit members. Some interesting ones included a “Going Home Club” (帰宅部), a “16th Century Club”, and a “Taking Care of Babies Club.” In Japan, kids who don’t have clubs are called 帰宅部, so the student without a club literally created this club where everyone goes to a members’ house every day. I let them go crazy, so suggested they include places where they would go for training camps or research trips. The guys who did sports clubs would always have their clubs go to world tournaments! Have you ever heard of Indiaca? It’s a mix of badminton and volleyball, where you volley a birdie over the net with your hand.

Interest Clubs 1 Interest clubs 2

I started a music lesson today with Gotye’s “Somebody I Used to Know”. I felt it would work because an ESL lesson online highlighted phrasal verbs in the song, which I thought would be fun to learn, and I felt it had enough drama for the students to make a skit from. Why did the Person A feel lonely? What were they fighting about? What did Person A do to the Person B? What did the Person B do to Person A? Today was just the first part, so we only had time to listen to the song and try to fill in the blanks, and talk a bit about what some of the lines mean. What I didn’t realize was how hard it was to hear what was said because he sounded like he was mumbling the whole time. It may have been the sound quality (I had forgotten my iPod, and was playing from a YouTube video), but I remember struggling to hear what the guy said myself.

Some things I want to improve for next time:
1) Pick a peppier song. Sometimes the students looked like they were going to fall asleep
2) Listen to how the song will sound through the speakers before using it.
3) Show them the full lyrics and teach what it means before having them fill in the blanks (this is a general rule with listening comprehension lessons, and I totally forgot about it)
4) Have them read aloud the full lyrics, line by line, together.

I’ve got a lot to improve with my 3rd year class before they lose trust and stop giving me the patience that I’ve already been given.

My gender neutrality in Japan

Since I got to Japan, I’ve been maintaining the look of my gender neutrality. It ain’t no thang in the big cities in America. I was a bit worried about it coming to Japan, but I’m surprised it’s been accepted as much as it has been. It helps to have an approachable personality, something I’ve been building up in the last 10 years. This makes me glad I’m coming to Japan at this point in my life rather than earlier because my shyness and ego back then would not have gotten me anywhere.

The first time I noticed my gender being questioned was at a bus stop on the way from Fukushima from Tokyo. There was a long line for the women’s bathroom, as always, and I was in a suit. My body is pretty square with the clothes I choose to wear, my hair is short like a guy’s, and my face is rather boy-like when I’m not smiling. I stood in line and some older ladies stood behind me. After about 3 minutes of chatting about how long the line was, they subtly got my attention and quietly suggested that this was the women’s line. I smiled, agreed, politely laughed, and joked by gesturing to my chest, and said,  “Yes, I’m a girl, my chest… see?” They politely laughed, apologized, and asked where I was from. As an outsider, I wasn’t offended. I’m glad they were bold enough to express their assumption, and seemingly forgiving of themselves enough to survive making that mistake.

When I had to find a new hair stylist, I was so anxious about how it would turn out and how it would be received. The cut came out a bit shorter than usual, but I don’t really mind because my hair grows like a weed. I got a few comments: “Wow!” from a couple teachers, and “Cool!” from a student. They asked me whether I got a haircut, and I would answer, “Yes, it’s so hot!” which is partly true, but mostly out of self-preserving anxiety.

The advice, “Be true to yourself,” is important in that it fuels us with the will to live and be happy. But I think it also takes a certain responsibility on the individual to understand the other person’s reaction and either accept it, or do something to circumvent it rather than to force the other person to change their point of view.

This is the kind of quiet revolution that has been my way of life.