Saturday, 7 November 2015

Peppy Kids Club ~ The Experience

Today marks approximately two years since I arrived in Japan as somewhat young hopeful looking for her next adventure. I stepped off the plane in Nagoya and gave one year of my life to my ex-employer - Peppy Kids Club (PKC). And I must say it was definitely an experience, but rather than write about my time teaching there immediately after I left them, I decided that I would give it a year and give myself a chance to reflect on everything so that I could give them a fair evaluation as well as answer the typical questions that people generally have when they start applying for teaching work in Japan. But PKC were my window into teaching and I will always be grateful to them for giving me that opportunity.

Unlike most conversational schools, when I was there (and I think it's universally known), PKC working days are shorter. It was not uncommon for me to teach no more than three to four hours. At one point, I taught five hours straight and at another I taught only one hour. Hours will fluctuate and I quite liked that aspect of it. What might be considered a little inconvenient is that dependent on your supervisor, you mightn't receive your schedule until the end of the month. This wasn't really a problem for me as it was never completely last minute but in other places, I'd heard differently so it just depended really.

Pay was pretty good in my opinion. Maybe it was because it was my first year and I didn't have the city tax or inflated health insurance that I'm now paying but I was happy with what I was on. I didn't have to worry about rent because it automatically came out of my salary every month; I kept my bills low and I still had money to travel to different places in Japan, do my shopping and have a good time with friends. I also saved a lot (which came in handy so much towards the end of the year). I have heard it said however that it's not a sufficient salary if you have a family but then I'm not a mother. I reckon single parents would struggle on it but a duel income would quickly sort that out.

The holidays were okay for me. It's no London where everyone's entitled to at least 20 days off but I was given five flexible days and five fixed days off (during the turn of new year). I also got a bit of time off during Golden Week and Obon which meant I could do a bit of travelling. It all depends on the calendar year though but I got six days off during Golden Week and I believe three plus the weekend for Obon. I could not complain.

My co-Japanese teachers were lovely. I never had any problems with them and I even hung out with some on occasion. I met some really nice kids as well; I often loved it when I met those kids who were really keen on English. You could see it in their eyes. But naturally there were also kids that were very bad. Larger classes - especially younger kids - were sometimes difficult for me to control, especially if they were high energy. And some kids were also very rude and because we weren't really allowed to fully discipline them, we had to find creative ways of dealing with difficult behaviour.

I look back and realise that the reason I had so many friends in Hiroshima was because I got friendly with my team members. I'm still friends with some of them to this day and while others have moved on, I'll always remember the times I had with them. Unfortunately, from the get-go, I quickly learned that there was sort of a divide in my team. We were quite a big group so obviously some people are going to prefer some people over others. I guess I went in thinking that as foreigners in Japan, we'd all find some common ground but I also had to remember that as with all people, we are very different.

Training was excellent. It was two weeks long and I learnt so much. I picked up so many games and I even use a couple of them to this day. It was very thorough and I gained some in class experience even before I started teaching on my own. But because it was so intense, I lost a lot of sleep. There will be homework; you will need to prep, and if you're anal and a bit of a perfectionist (like I was), you will lose weight at the same time. But when you conquer it, it'll be worth it believe me. You should feel somewhat prepared (although I was still very nervous) when teaching your first set of lessons.

People often mention that commutes can be a killer. And they can be. You get multiple schools so you're often travelling to different locations but I didn't mind some of the journeys. I got to see different parts of Hiroshima (and I was paid for it). If you have to commute more than two hours, you also got to stay in a hotel but I was unlucky. One of my commutes was just under two hours so this one quickly started to grate on me - especially in the winter when it was biting cold or even snowing. I would get home late and while Japan is relatively safe, who really wants to be commuting home at midnight.

Again, this is all just from my perspective; everything I experienced, but as the JET crowd say - every situation is different. Some people really enjoyed (or might still be enjoying their experiences) while other might have hated it. But I think this is with all jobs everywhere really. Where you're placed might come into play as well. I think I was lucky. I was placed in a city and I absolutely fell in love with Hiroshima. (I would go back in a heartbeat).

Overall, for me however, I think PKC has an even list of pros and cons. They really helped me get started in Japan. I've heard that with some other organisations, you're required to start up on your own and obviously with limited Japanese, this can be difficult; PKC alleviate this burden. I've also heard it said by others however that PKC is a "one-year" thing and I think that somewhat applied to me. I really enjoy teaching and while I don't mind kids, I've also realised in my latest job, that I rather enjoy teaching adults so a role where I teach both is more ideal for me.

I think however that as an entry-level English teaching job however, if you're deciding to teach English in Japan, Peppy Kids Club is a rather decent opportunity. Therefore, if you're thinking of applying, I wish you all the best.

Sunday, 18 October 2015

Pursuing Japanese ~ Language Exchange

My Japanese ability is still crap.

It's better than it was a year ago when I worked for a company that prohibited us from speaking it at work but it is still abysmal. I am a high beginner at best and a novice at my worst. I cannot handle speed and dealing with spontaneous situations can be rather trying at times - especially at work. But I know deep down that the more these situations arise, the more I'll be able to cope with, should the situation come again. And it is a good feeling when I've understood a customer enquiry or when my friend's card got eaten by an ATM and as the stronger Japanese speaker I had to call the bank to get them to retrieve it. It's nice having chats - albeit brief - with the ladies at my local convenience store. But I know deep down I need to step up my game. And ultimately this comes down to me. So lately, I've been doing a couple of language exchanges.

For those out of whack, a language exchange is exactly what it says on the tin. You exchange language with one another. You might spend a little bit of time speaking in your native language and the rest of the time speaking in the language you're studying. They recommend that in order to get the best out of this, it's better for language learners to be at an intermediate level (or somewhat conversational) in order to get the most out of this arrangement but being me, I jumped the gun a little.

My first exchange partner in Japan was purely text-based in that we simply exchanged messages back and forth. At this time, my Japanese was virtually zero, but I still know this person to this day; we have met a couple of times and I must say that on a computer, my reading and typing comprehension (if we're not talking about kanji) is still my strongest attribute.

My second exchange partner was via Skype and once again, it was at a time where my Japanese was still sub zero. As a result, we spoke mostly in English which was good for him but then he disappeared for a while and I was convinced that I would probably never hear from him again.

Skip forward nearly a year later. I was actively studying and I had already booked my JLPT exam. My job had changed and I could use Japanese at work as and when required. My "second exchange partner" suddenly came back into my life and we have been exchanging languages nearly every week since. The balance between our time spent in English and Japanese has significantly improved and providing neither one of us is tired, we can easily talk for two hours straight.

But it wasn't enough. Because even though I'm living here and learning the language, I still spend most of my life in English. So I started seeking out other exchange partners but it wasn't easy. After all, it has to be considered that simply having an interest in somebody else's language is not sufficient and in the same way that we choose our friends, it's important to be selective because the internet is full of all sorts.

I set up a few language exchanges to test the water but quickly discovered some of them were not to my taste. One thing I strongly dislike during an exchange is if someone decides to drop English in at random intervals when we're supposed to be speaking Japanese. I find that very unfair because when I'm exchanging English, I never drop in any Japanese unless I'm asked to confirm something. I think it's really unhelpful as I understand both as a teacher and a student that sometimes, language learners can't always understand certain words or phrases at natural speed. But if they've come across it previously and you slow it down, they'll get it. And even if they don't, they'll gain a bit of language to add to their arsenal

Another thing that winds me up is when people don't have anything to offer but are happy to talk your ear off when it's their turn. I spoke to a guy for one hour and when we would speak Japanese, he would interrupt me constantly if I couldn't generate the sentence fast enough. When we spoke in English however, he very rarely asked me questions but was happy to answer all of my questions and in a lot of detail, I might add. I don't like being talked at or talked over (I get paid to get people to talk more than I do) so I'm sure you will have guessed that I haven't spoken to him since.

Another issue I've run into are time wasters. I started off speaking to a person in Japanese but when we had to switch to English, he could barely string together a sentence. I asked him if he had been studying and he said that he hadn't studied in years. It lead me to wonder why he'd be interested in an exchange if he wasn't actively doing anything else to improve his English. He also kind of annoyed me because we were supposed to be doing a face-to-face Skype exchange but he decided that he'd rather do a voice chat so he could clean his surfboard at the same time. He was also swiftly cut.

I evidently settled on a third person who I now speak to via Skype every week as well. Said person has roughly the same level of English as I do Japanese and on a good day, is rather patient, never drops in English when we speak Japanese and is even more aware of the clock then I am. I've decided that these three plus the lessons I take every week will be enough for now.

But ultimately, while language exchanges can be a bit hit and miss, I think it's important to decide what it is you're looking for and what kind of things you can and cannot tolerate. I think it helps to find people who are of the same ability as yourself as well. Two of my exchange partners' abilities far exceed my own but I've known them a long time and they've actually crossed the border and become friends of mine. The latest one is just right for me. So if you're looking into language exchange, be sure to consider what is right for you.

Saturday, 10 October 2015

British Airways ~ One Is Not impressed

Please bear in mind that I only flew with them in one direction...and thankfully so I might add. Because you see, I was rather looking forward to flying with BA. I'd never flown with them before and I had kind of equated them to other long haul carriers like Virgin and Cathay Pacific (both of whom I have flown before). I don't know why I was expecting phenomenal service but I suppose I had to remember that I was flying economy and I had been living in Japan for two years. In terms of service, I have to say it but the Japanese do it better, but I suppose what I have to take into account as well is that this flight was also operated by another carrier - Japan Airlines, but more on them later.

Checking in was easy. The woman didn't waste much time on me but I suspect it was due to her limited English. It's not uncommon for some Japanese folk to become fiercely uncomfortable when they have to speak another language. Even the customs agents barely spoke to me. I wondered around the airport - Haneda was nice but a little small methinks - and waited until roughly an hour before my flight, went through customs and went straight to the gate. I boarded with ease and parked myself in my aisle seat while everyone around me tried to figure out how to get their suitcases into overhead compartments with little space remaining.

A man and his son found themselves next to me but neither one bothered me throughout the entire flight even though I knew they could speak English (they had to interact with the cabin crew on occasion). This was fine. It meant that whenever one had to get up, they bothered each other and I wasn't in the mood to socialise after only getting two hours sleep prior to my flight.
The plane took off but it took a long time for the plane to stabilise so the seat belt sign stayed on for the longest time and I really wanted to go to the bathroom. Then we ran into some turbulence... Now I have to say that I'm honestly not afraid of flying. And I've experienced turbulence before but not like that. I couldn't even focus on the movie in front of me. I felt so uncomfortable. Obviously a crash is always a possibility and obviously, I have no idea about flying and even trying to stabilise a plane at high winds but I don't ever want to experience that again.

The in-flight entertainment was passable but the touch-screen was absolute rubbish. I had to really press the screen for it to register and the dude behind me was also having a hard time because I could constantly feel him pressing into the screen behind me. (I swear it was like a pogo stick at the back of my head at times). I dunno if he just had no sense or fat fingers but it was a constant and annoyed me through the whole flight. The headphones were also rubbish. I had to press the earphones against my ear to hear certain movies while others were fine. I wondered if the business customers/first class folk were experiencing the same garbage we had to because I was not impressed.

The first meal was bacon and eggs but the eggs were a bit lacking (but what can I expect from plane food really though). The beef casserole was nice however. Like Cathay Pacific, most people paid no attention when the seat belt sign was switched on. And even after they were told to return to their seats instead of waiting for the bathroom, they continued to ignore it. (This was not the fault of the staff however). There was somebody else's hair on my blanket (they "wash" and repackage them, don't they?) but there was plausible leg room so I was able to kick off my shoes and stretch  bit. This was also the first flight I'd been on where there was no emergency demonstration. (Are we British just a little over-confident? I mean, most people don't pay attention but I think it's kind of necessary as you never know). I had an aisle seat and I was about four seats out from the bathroom so getting in and out was child's play and we arrived a little earlier than scheduled which was nice.

Overall though, compared to some of the other airlines I've flown with, I wasn't overly impressed with British Airways. I guess I can't completely blame the airline but the in-flight entertainment is kind of important to me. It kills time and occupies most of my journey when I'm not sleeping - so having it fail to function adequately killed the quality of the flight for me. I could have complained I guess but the flight was actually full to the brim  - or at least Business Class was when I'd walked through - so I couldn't see them moving me to another aisle seat. They might have given me some new headphones now that I think about it but I don't think the problem lied there.

I dunno. BA, sort it out. 2.5 out of 5 stars.

The London Files ~ Return to Oz

So after almost two years of living and teaching English in Japan, I (and my finances) decided that it was time to cross the world and pay my family and friends a visit. Immense preparation went into it (e.g. a quick transferral of funds and a packed suitcase) and I was off on a 12 hour flight for a week full of fun and nostalgia. But as I reflect on the brief time I spent back home, I can't help but remember the frequent comparisons I would make. And I could hear myself doing it...

"In Japan, they do this...", "In Japan, they don't do that..."

I became that annoying. But I couldn't stop myself. I'd spent so long in a bubble that the minute I popped it, I found myself almost re-learning about everything I'd left behind so allow me to begin.

Picture courtesy
I'd always said it. A lot of people seem to be enamoured by London; they all want to visit some day if they already haven't, and even those who have been already are keen to go back. But London is not a place known for its cleanliness. I remember working with a guy who told me that his mother had always taught him to watch the ground when he walked because you have no idea what you might step in. And I was instantly reminded of that when I left the airport and got the tube (or subway for my North American audience). The paintwork was chipped, there was a crumbled up tissue sitting in the corner of a seat. Oh, and let's not forget the chips I saw squashed beneath somebody's buggy on the bus. Not all of Japan is perfect but it wins hands down in this department.

On a more positive note however, London does win in terms of diversity. Things have definitely changed from when I was a child. I remember my primary school beings rather multicultural now that I think about it. But back then, whereas we might have had five to ten different languages walking around, I'm pretty sure it's close to thirty odd now. And we have everybody. Africans, Asians, Eastern Europeans, South Americans...etc I love that we have everybody in one city. Nobody stares or gawks at one another. While not always a utopia, people from different cultures become friends and even more. And more than anything, I'm just another face in the crowd. I'm not special and it's kind of nice not feeling so abnormal or out of place.

I went to visit family one day and I had to interact with people because I was either asking directions or buying something at the shop, and I was immediately reminded of how poor the customer service is in London. I used to work in a coffee shop and had to really amp up my customer service when I would deal with people. I learnt a lot from working in that environment but I've learnt even moreso since coming to Japan and I don't even work in that sector anymore. In those two cases that I mentioned earlier, the man whom I asked directions from didn't even look at me once, and the lady who served me thought it would be funny to make me pick up my £46.45 change off of the counter. I'm not a confrontational person and maybe living in Japan has made me a lot more tolerant but seriously? In England, retail jobs and a few other service sector professions are not highly sort after - it's usually considered a first job type deal and as a result they usually have a high staff turnover - but it leads me to wonder why these people are still in these professions. In Japan, that type of treatment would not fly.

When two buses go by and neither one
is yours...
Catching up with my family and friends however, was awesome. I didn't get to see everyone - one week is not long - but it was nice to see how everyone had either grown or changed because a lot had happened with them over the last couple of years. I got to really catch up, relay my adventures and hear theirs. For a moment, it was almost as if my old life had come back. I snapped a load of pictures and laughed a lot, and I also got to eat some really good food. I was actually convinced I'd come back ten pounds heavier but I think I'm actually okay.

Of course, in order to see everyone however, I had to get around somehow. And unfortunately, I never did get my driver's license so I had to depend on the infamous London transport. In Japan, I frequently use Hyperdia or GoogleMaps for all my transportation needs. In London, I had no phone and didn't see the point in using the Transport for London website. Train delays occurred, one point at which my train was cancelled so I was forced to wait an extra twenty minutes in the cold. I recall sitting at a bus stop and seeing three of the same bus (of which I wasn't after) whiz passed, and one of each bus in the opposite direction, while I was sat there waiting for my bus. I do not miss the incompetence of London transport at all. Japan has it problems, especially when someone decides to fling themselves into the train tracks but once again, it wins in this department.

But let's get back to the food, shall we? Because I promise you, I ate very well during that week. I made it my business to have Fish and Chips the minute I touched down. And believe you me, it was glorious. I couldn't finish the whole thing in one day but it was worth it. Screw beer batter. Nothing even comes close to the taste of proper fat chips - salt, vinegar and ketchup - and a good old-fashioned cod. I also got to eat my family's home cooking again (ackee and saltfish anyone?), went to both GBK and Nandos and even tried a new restaurant called Burger and Lobster - a little expensive but I recommend it. Japan has good food but England had good food too (I don't care what anyone says).

While it may not have been too cold in England when I went - people were happily walking around with jackets while my tolerance seemed to have diminished - my skin told me a different story. Now, I was always convinced that I had dry skin but when I came to Japan, I found that my skin didn't dry out as much. And I'm wondering if it just never got accustomed to the climate in England. Because it is much colder than Japan; it's definitely slightly more north that's for sure. Granted I think the weather in England has shifted somewhat over time. It used to get really hot during the summer but now there are hot days in April and warm days in Autumn (but of course, there's rain; there will always be rain). I realised however that I needed to moisturise a lot more when I was in London but in Japan, one coat is enough.

And speaking of coats. While I didn't require one at all during this holiday, it was lovely to be able to walk into almost any and every clothes shop and realise that nearly everything on the shelf could actually fit me. For two years, I couldn't full enjoy the true extent of shopping. I can buy tops in Japan but anything else requires me to search online. But in London, I went a little bit over the top and ended up spending well over £300 on stuff. It was almost as if for that week, I could afford everything and anything. It was a nice feeling to know that in some cases, things were even too big for me whereas in Japan, I am bigger than almost everything (more often then not, people too). It was a glorious week and my wardrobes thanks me so very much.


So there you have it; the comparisons I noted between my homeland and my adopted country. I have to say though that despite seeing everyone and re-experiencing London life, while I still miss little conveniences (like being able to understand everything), I've still yet to experience homesickness and I'm wondering if there's something seriously wrong with me...

Sunday, 16 August 2015

Mount Fuji ~ The First...and Last

It was never something that I had considered doing. It was never something I had even done before but when my friends expressed an interest in climbing Mount Fuji, I decided to jump on the bandwagon. One thing that I appreciate more then anything really are moments. I like having experiences. I want a life full of fond memories and reflection and obviously, what are moments if there aren't good folk to share them with.

There were six of us in total and we opted to climb during Obon - a national holiday in Japan that usually occurs between August 8th and August 16th. All of us had roughly the same time off work and even though we knew that the mountain would be busy, it was simply convenient. The date set, we started actively preparing two months in advance. I booked a hut as there was no way that six inexperienced hikers were going to climb 3776 metres in one day and another friend booked the bus to the mountain. We exchanged lots of information about what to buy, what to wear and precautions to take against the ever problematic altitude sickness. I also spoke to people who had climbed it already to gain their experiences but ultimately, the day finally arrived and we set off.

My travel utilities (thanks to some input from a good friend of mine) consisted of the following items:

1 pair of hiking boots
2 pairs of socks (1 woolen)
1 pair of thermal leggings
1 pair of water-wicking tracksuit bottoms
1 short-sleeved water-wicking top
2 long-sleeved water-wicking tops
1 fleece
1 rain suit (jacket and trousers)
1 balaclava
1 wool hat
1 waterproof hat
1 pair of hiking gloves
1 head light
2 bottles of 500ml water and 1 flask of water
1 bag of assorted snacks and sweets (calorie mate was my savour)
1 camera
1 pair of sunglasses
1 can of oxygen
1 half roll of toilet paper (just in case)
1 coin wallet (containing 5000 yens worth of 100 yen coins - for toilets/stamps)
3 small towels + 1 bathroom handkerchief 
2 packs of wet wipes
1 pack of paracetamol  
1 bag (to fit it all in)
1 waterproof bag cover
my actual purse with additional cash
my iPhone
my charger

Setting out, it was obviously humid so I wore the leggings and the short-sleeved top, my non-woolen socks and hiking boots. Our bus was scheduled to arrive at Shinjuku Bus Terminal for 7.40am so we decided to meet at 7.00am. Me and a friend arrived early so we went to the Starbucks nearby to fuel. The others started arriving shortly after but unfortunately one of our group, due to unforeseen circumstances, ended up missing the bus so we journeyed to Fuji Subaru Line 5th Station with just us five.

As expected the 5th Station was full of people. Lots of tour groups preparing for the climb and tourists who were not. We ate again and waited for our sixth member to arrive via other means. In that time, we bought hiking sticks to get stamped as we reached every station up the mountain and people watched as tour groups stretched and built morale for the hike. We probably started to ascend around 1pm which was probably a little late but such is life. One of our group had acquired a map and information regarding the hike. Unbeknownst to me until then, our hut was the last one before the summit so we had quite a way to go. 

Picture courtesy of a good friend.
Even kids were at this thing.
Getting to the 6th station was easy but overall we stopped frequently to rest, drink water, snack a little and recharge. As we ascended, the terrain began to change and became much more rocky as oppose to the smooth we had started out with. As an independent group, I think we angered a few of the tour groups a long the way but we often managed to pass them because their pace was obviously much slower - and smarter I might add. We snapped pictures when there was opportunity, admired the view when we could see it and the took in the clouds mixed with blue sky.

I pretty much stayed in the same attire until half way between the 7th and 8th station. I put on one of the long sleeved tops, gloves and wrapped one of the towels around my neck. It was here that we had also been instructed to slow down because altitude sickness was more likely. Our group also got divided. Myself and a friend headed up and the four remaining stuck together at a slower rate. At this point, our rest stopping became shorter, the skies got darker and the temperature dropped. Out came the balaclava, the fleece and the head light.

We reached the hut at around 7.40pm meaning that we had made the ascent in around 6 hours and 40 minutes. Despite snacking, I was starving for something hot but with only two of our group present, it made checking in difficult. It was at this point that I whipped my phone out for the first time in a while and noted a message stating that one of our group had succumbed to altitude sickness. I suggested that he stay at the closest hut and descend in the morning. The hut staff were also kind enough to reduce the cancellation fee from 100% to 50% so I was grateful. 

The rest of our group arrived over an hour later, we rejoiced and sat down to eat together but sadly altitude sickness took hold of another person in our group. Both a combination of concern and discomfort - the huts beds are all very close together and have probably been used over a thousand times - meant that I virtually got no sleep that night. I decided to stop trying around 1pm which was also the time that people started to surface and prepare to move out for the sunrise.

Our group held a mini meeting in regards to the sick and it was decided to those who were able, would hike the summit and then we would come back down and collect the sick as we went. It was at this point that I was starting to question my own condition as every time I stood up, I felt light-headed and I was also feeling breathless (both symptoms of altitude sickness). I decided to hang back a while and sit outside the sleeping quarters for a moment while my three other friends went ahead. I figured that over 100 people sleeping together breathing in the limited oxygen at 3450 metres in a closed space was probably more detrimental to me then good. So I ordered some hot cocoa, drank it, felt a bit better and decided to chance the hike to the summit.

Because I was still concerned about myself, I fell into step behind a man and his wife. I call him my anchor. His pace was perfect for me because he would move a little and then stop a little and so on. As a result, I took no long breaks and managed to catch up to my friends. It was freezing and the wind was blowing at this point but I had adorned my raincoat, my tracksuit bottoms, woolen socks and hat to combat it. There were thousands of little head lights lighting up the mountain which was pretty cool, and tour spokesmen and others motivating people for the ascent. Our group of four became two again as I maintained my step behind the anchor. Evidently, the twin lions that signal the summit fell into view and we reached the top of the mountain at around 4.20am. One can of corn soup later, we found a seat and watched the sunrise come up. People cheered and snapped pictures. I remember trying to take a selfie and my face being so cold that I couldn't even smile properly. 

The Sunrise
We reunited with the other two who made it as well, stamped our sticks, fought some Chinese tourists to take a picture next to the summit stone and began the descent. Silly me however thought that in order to reach our hut again we'd have to climb back the way we'd came because the descending route veered off somewhere else. This was not the case apparently. Nevertheless, we returned to our hut and retrieved our first friend who was feeling much better thankfully. We crossed over to the descending trail which was extremely slippery and retrieved our second sick friend along the way. So six friends finally reunited, we made our descent.

As with the ascent however, our group split again, clothes started coming off to compensate the change in temperature and less pictures were taken as fatique started to set in. There was a fear that we wouldn't make the bus in time (it was scheduled to leave at 12pm) but all six of us arrived at the bottom of the mountain. We ate again and hopped on the bus back to Shinjuku (which warranted a rather lovely 2 hour nap).

My overall opinion of climbing Mount Fuji is neutral. I hadn't trained fully for it and probably could have done a bit more research. I reckon we probably should have booked a hut that was lower down as that might have impacted better on those who contracted altitude sickness. I also think that popping the headache medicine was very helpful even though I didn't actually use my own. Although there are toilets on Mount Fuji, they are for the most part very disgusting as they don't function like normal toilets, they smell something rotten and some don't actually have tissue in them (the foam action toilets at the 5th station however were very interesting). It was lovely to hear all the different languages on the mountain as people from all over the world had come to conquer it. Peering down at the world when the clouds weren't obscuring it was also pretty cool. Being at the summit for the sunrise rise was freezing despite the four layers I was wearing. My gloves also did nothing to stop my fingers from getting frost bites, so I would advise anyone to buy gloves that are both functional and thermal.

I probably bought more stuff then I needed. I came back with lots of snacks and even half a bottle of water. I didn't wear all the clothing and it didn't rain but having the rain gear is still very useful. I borrowed sun screen from friends just in case but I've never really had sunburn before. I never used the camera - I ended up using my iPhone instead. Of all of us, my phone was one of the only ones that stayed on during the entire journey; I thank my lucky stars that I bought that charger. I barely used the oxygen can but I did give it to others use. I also came back with over 2000 yens worth of coins. I suspect however that even though I came back with all that stuff; it's much better to over-prepared then under.

I'm sure others have more positive experiences of Mount Fuji and I'm not saying mine wasn't positive, but there were difficulties and such that I had to acknowledge. So to anyone thinking about Mount Fuji - I would definitely say do it if you have the desire or the will-power. You don't have to be fit but you do have to know yourself and take things at your own pace. Over-research if you can. Know that Mount Fuji is expensive - both the mountain itself and the preparation that goes with it. You must also take your rubbish with you as there is nowhere to throw away anything on the mountain.

I'll say it again. I had no initial intentions nor any interest in climbing Mount Fuji when I came to Japan but I'm glad I did.

I'll have this memory - warts and all - forever.

Sunday, 5 July 2015

JLPT - The First

Today marks another first for me, folks. It's the day I took my very first test since arriving in Japan. And not just any test, but the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) - potentially the most well-known Japanese language test ever. Since moving to Odawara and starting with a new company, the necessity for Japanese has increased but I know myself and I know that when it comes to study, I lack severe discipline. So I decided that in order to force myself into action, I was going put money on it. So back in April, I paid the ¥5,500 and booked myself in for this test. I opted for the lowest level - N5 - as I knew deep down that even attempting the N4 would certainly result in failure.

My test was scheduled for 12.30pm so I woke up around 8.30am. As rainy season is still way in effect, I had the pleasure of riding to my local station in the rain, picking up some goodies from a convenience store and "train"ing my way to my test location. I arrived at around 11.30pm to a mass of foreigners from all over the world. It was unreal hearing so many different language outside of English and Japanese but I suppose I couldn't be too surprised. Kanagawa possesses one of the highest concentrations of foreigners in Japan so clearly I wasn't going to be walking in there alone. I even managed to encounter some familiar faces as I followed the stream of language learning hopefuls onto a university campus.

As soon as 12 o clock struck, we were urged to head to our designated buildings. I recall that in front of mine, there only seemed to be one guy who was directing people to line up dependent on which floor they would be taking their test. I remember thinking that the whole thing was poorly organised. If they had signposted everything accordingly and asked first, second and third floor candidates to line-up in designated areas, I'm sure said man would not have been as overwhelmed as he was. There must have been a least a thousand odd people there that day and this test occurs twice a year. Surely they should have had a better system than that.

With that said, I finally did make it into the building and I managed to locate my room. A small lecture room's worth of people were taking the test with me and I was suddenly reminded of university tests of old. I had two invigilators - a man and a woman. The woman would continuously state the rules and regulations. I know that the Japanese tend to be rather thorough; I know why they need to be thorough but I honestly thought that by the tenth time she had reinstated the rules and regulations, it was a little bit much. That said though, initially, a lot of us didn't understand certain things. For example, it was unclear that we were to put our phones in the envelope provided and the girl sitting next to me didn't even know the meaning of the word "romaji". It made me think that this level was just right for me as we were all making mistakes.

What particularly unnerved me however was that the room had no clock. Now, on my test voucher, it had actually specified to bring a watch of some sort but my brain was thinking that it was optional. So when I walked in and saw blank walls, my heart sank. This would be my first time taking a test without any sense of time. So a warning to those taking the JLPT in Japan - if the test voucher says to bring a watch - bring a watch.

The first test was vocabulary. We had twenty-five minutes. As I had no clock, I had promised myself that I would rip through it. And I dd. I'm pretty sure I finished it in about fifteen minutes. I took some time to go over my answers for potentially another five. And I still had a few minutes towards the end to stare off into space. There were four sections in total and for the first two sections, I didn't feel it necessary to read the full sentences of each problem. It literally was identifying kanji and meaning. The third section required inserting the correct word and the last section required identifying sentences with similar meaning to the original. I felt extremely confident with that one so it was a great start.

Insert a thirty minute break, plus more invigilator jargon and we'd started the grammar test. We had fifty-minutes for this one. This one was not as easy as the last. I distinctly recall skipping two questions in favour of getting to the end before going back to those problems and trying to work them out. The first section of this test was particles - one of my biggest weaknesses where grammar is concerned. The next sentence required knowledge of sentence structure. The third section was another "insert-the-correct-word" while the last one required problem solving. I then proceeded to check my answers and about halfway through this, the invigilator called time and I recall thinking to myself that it had to be the quickest fifty minutes I'd ever experienced. Note to self; bring a watch.

A sandwich and a melon pan later, I was back into that test room for the final time to take the dreaded listening test. Of everything I have ever done with regards to Japanese, listening and speaking are by far my weakest areas. When it comes to listening, I nearly always miss something but on the second try, I tend to pick it up. Unfortunately for me, there would not be a second chance to hear the CD player. I was just going to have to try my best. So I turned my ear to the CD player and gave it a go. I'm very sure I mucked up a couple of questions on the first three sections but I feel fairly okay about the last one. In this particular test, each section usually has a bunch of pictures or a choice of four answers but in the last section, there are no pictures and you simply have to listen to the CD for both question and answers. I'm sure I cocked up somewhere but I've managed to get it all back to front somehow.

That said, as we were leaving the room, I have to say that I felt pretty neutral about the whole thing overall which is how I've always liked to feel after an exam. I never like to feel too over-confident lest my test results show me something dyer, and I never like to feel horrified lest I worry myself stupid. It was an interesting experience however and I'm grateful I did it. My test results will surface in September so I've got that to look forward to, and providing I pass, I will be looking at taking the N4 this time next year. I could take it in December if I wanted to, but I'd rather be better safe, then sorry.

Friday, 29 May 2015

The Japan Files ~ Life Lessons

So, I've just crossed the 18 month marker for my duration in Japan and as with all of my experiences, I often take a moment to evaluate myself and how far or otherwise I have managed to come. It isn't always apparent but some experiences have a way of changing people, whether it amplifies already present qualities, eradicates them or creates different ones all together. It'll be interesting when I visit home later on this year to see how the people closest to me reckon I've changed, but for the time being, all I can do is take a good look at myself and decide what Japan has done for me, or done to me.

"I like knowledge"

History. Culture. Language. Society. While all of these things have always been accessible, with social-networking so prevalent, I can access these at the click of a button. If someone says a word I don't know, rather than asking them to explain, I can quickly Google away and find out something for myself. At night, after a hard day's grind, it isn't uncommon for me to cycle through
Odawara Castle ~ One of the first
places I visited when I arrived.
my news feed and line up a bunch of articles that other people have shared so that I can read them in succession. I find myself following interesting discussions or watching short films and documentaries on Youtube. Sometimes, if the fancy takes me, I'll find myself looking up random Japanese sentence structures to make sense of how its used. I often ask friends and acquaintances their opinions on matters of interest just to strike up interesting conversation. And after all of that, I might even end up forgetting but it won't stop me from looking things up again.

"I am not trusting"

This isn't a particularly new issue. Growing up, I had a hard time trusting people around the real me so I put on a mask and behaved neutrally. I only showed my true self to the small selection of friends that I trusted. Since I've grown, I'm more openly myself but I still don't trust people easily and since coming to Japan, I believe this has exploded exponentially. Japan is a society where people are not particularly open and honest about their thoughts and opinions. As a result, it's often difficult to guess who is genuine. I now prefer to take my time when getting to know new people. After all, it isn't uncommon to meet someone on one occasion and never hear from them again here. I don't like to feel like my time has been wasted so if I can keep them at a distance for a while, that is satisfying to me.

"I am worldly"

Japan is a homogeneous nation. So it's not unusual to be met with both suspicion and wonder. But based on the, at times, misinformed opinions of my hosts, I must say that growing up in London has made me very culturally aware. I've taught lessons and had students tell me that they despised Islam when what they should have said was that they disliked ISIS, the Islamic terrorist group. In some minds, there is no differentiation between the two. I've heard of cases where people have said they dislike the Chinese without having ever been to China or come into contact with Chinese people. I can freely form an opinion on my own personal experiences or even hazard a guess about a situation that I might not know about but in Japan, things are fairly regimented. And while I reckon there probably has been a shift in the last decade or so, it has been said that people are taught what to think here. There is only a right way and a wrong way. There is no grey area.

"I am not forgiving"

Growing up, I believed in second chances. I gave nearly all of my previous relationships a second chance and on each occasion, it just didn't work out. I forgave acquaintances and tried to start anew. I took a lot of crap and let people walk all over me; I'm still not except from the latter. But I think I have become even less forgiving over time. They say one of the greatest virtues is forgiveness but I think that because I've been let down of various occasions, I've now developed a "one strike and you're out" rule. And it could be anything as small as lending money, or wronging me at the post office. I don't like lending (or borrowing) money anyway, and I will file a complaint (yes, I've become one of those people). As a sign of my resilience, if the issue was particularly bad, I will reduce or cut off all contact altogether. No drama. No problem.

"I am self-sufficient"

Even though I have lived alone before, technically it wasn't really alone. I was at university, living in shared facilities with other people. And while I may have had my own space and my own responsibilities, something was always shared. When I arrived in Japan, my previous company set me up with house and home and provided me with a loan (which I repaid in full) to get me started. In my latest accommodation, while I had much help finding it, I pretty much fit the bill myself. I paid for the moving costs out of my own pocket. I've furnished it and I fit all the bills. I manage my money so that I'm able to save a little and play a little each month. I feel positively comfortable in both my living situation and day-to-day life.

"I am not patient"

I'm sure I've mentioned it before, but in Japan, people are punctual here. And they don't arrive on time; they arrive well before. During my first job, it was expected that I arrive at least 30 minutes before the start of my first lesson. In my current job, I arrive at least an hour early to prepare the lessons for the day. This has crossed over into my every day life. Whenever I meet friends or head to an event, I plan out my journey with Hyperdia and specify that time that my train will arrive. So when people are late, it really winds me up. An old friend of mine once said to me "what right do I have to waste someone else's time". I didn't really pay it much mind then, but I understand it completely now. I also understand that sometimes being late can't be helped (even I am late on occasion), but the selfish side of me wonders why those who are chronically late can't get with the picture.

"I am not maternal"

You would think that working with predominantly children for one year and then again sporadically for the time after that, that I'd be pretty well versed in children. And sure, I know
Is it weird that this does nothing for me?
what kids are like. They can be very good and they can be very. But I've realised recently that while the idea of having kids is still very much on the table, I am not particularly maternal. If a child is crying, I find the act of comforting them a little bit uncomfortable (but maybe it's because they are not my own). Younger children are often particularly difficult for me because nine times out of ten, they'd rather be doing what they want to do. I haven't quite figured out how to engage younger children because while they are children, they are still people who think and behave differently to one another. So while one kid may enjoy colouring, another kid might prefer something a little more active. And above all, I think I've grown to dislike pandering to children. I haven't forgotten that six-year-old girl who used to bawl when she lost at something but I'm still of the mentality that kids need to suck it up.

"I still have a lot to learn"

I had a look at the 4 stages of culture shock that foreigners are said to face when they move to another country and while I'm aware that I'm a long way off from the final stage (mastery), I think that I have days where I'm either in the Negotiation phase or in the Adjustment phase. Certainly, there are aspect of Japan that I find positively frustrating but on other days, I can't help but think how easy it feels to live here. And because this culture is not my own, I'm always going to come across something that is completely new to me. That's why I feel that I still have a lot to discover - both about Japan and myself. Because after all, nobody stops learning once they reach adulthood. And while I like to think that I'm very self-aware, I'm sure there are aspect of myself that I've yet to uncover or that might even change over time. And as a result, I'm looking forward to it.

Monday, 11 May 2015

The Japan Files ~ Question Time

It's very common that when you meet someone for the first time, there's always gonna be that general exchange of questions that people ask each other to get some perspective on the people they're talking to. As humans, we are social. We need conversation and common ground to form relationships or get to know each other. But whenever I meet a Japanese person for the first time, it isn't uncommon to come across the same pattern of questions every time, to the point where I can almost literally predict what is going to come out of their mouths. And it doesn't matter the age or gender. Because it seems that the vast majority of Japanese people tend to blend together as is the culture really. Though there are those that stray from the norm, Japan is an extremely conservative society where it's important to fit in. Differences, while apparent, are sometimes hard to come by. So allow me to introduce to you, my pattern of five; the questions that I have received the most since my arrival in Japan.

Where are you from?

Potentially, the most - if not the most common question that any Japanese person will ask upon meeting a foreigner for the first time. Foreigners are hard to come by. We make up less than 2% of the population and the majority of that two percent happens to come from neighbouring countries like South Korea or China. It is physically impossible to know where someone is from based on their appearance alone although it's a very typical thing to make assumptions. As a result, there seems to be a continuous interest in foreigner origins. But sadly, this question is a little bit too common for my taste so I've actually resorted to making people guess where I'm from to entertain myself. And I've had it all. People have assumed I'm American, African, Brazilian or Canadian. (I even had Indian once but I'm wondering if that person was serious). It seems that it's difficult for people to comprehend that a person that looks like me could be from a country like England. So I feel quite proud of myself when I open someone's eyes to the possibility for the first time.

How long have you been in Japan?

Recently, I've been getting this one a lot. I guess it's kind of a given though. I am not Japanese and as a result, the length of time I've been here is bound to be shorter than any Japanese person who was born and raised here. Maybe it's a way of gaging whether I'm a newbie or veteran. After all, newbies are expected to know virtually nothing about Japan. And veterans? Well, they're expected to know virtually nothing about Japan too. I usually get asked this one a lot at work so maybe it's a way of checking out my level of experience. But that says nothing really; for all they know, I could have taught English back in England as well.  If I'm honest, I'm not 100% sure about this. It could be actually be a foreshadowing of the next question...

How long will you stay in Japan?

To a lot of the locals, foreigners have an expiration date. And while various foreigners stay for long periods of time or make a life for themselves in Japan, there are a great many still who put a time stamp on their time here. Some decide to stay for a year and then head home, while others can only stay for a year due to visa restraints. Others stay for extended periods of time and then evidently decide to go home when they feel the time is right, while others just never leave. That said, because the locals are used to seeing foreigners come and go, it is often expected that we aren't in it for the long haul. That said, whenever I get asked this question, the response is always a shrug of the shoulders. I know it won't be forever but I really don't know how long I'm gonna be here. As it happens though, I quite like my life in Japan right now; I've always mentioned that it feels easy to live here; even without a firm grasp on the language. This brings me to the next question...

Can you speak Japanese?

I've always believed that it's important for people to speak the language of the country they are in. And I'm sure English speakers galore would agree that they expect people to speak English if they're going to be living in English speaking nations. But not all nations seem to agree with this notion. In Japan, it isn't uncommon for even the oldest fogey to know a little bit of English. But they still want to know whether you can communicate in the language and personally I don't see anything wrong with this question as it's usually assumed that foreigners cannot speak Japanese at all. But the more I'm asked this question, I'm starting to wonder if the answer to this question from the expectant Japanese perspective is only either "yes" or "no". I usually say "a little" because I do know a little but I'm starting to wonder if "a little" more of less translates into "no".

Why did you come to Japan?

A friend of mine once asked me why I was learning Japanese because Japanese is a language only spoken - for the most part - in Japan and can't really be used anywhere else. Therefore, it has made me consider that the reason people ask this question is a way of downplaying Japan. After all, modesty is extremely prevalent here.. But at the same time, I'm starting to wonder if people think I'm crazy for coming here. There seems to be a divine interest in all things non-Japanese. Or whether it's a way for people to hear others say good things about Japan. After all, the vast majority of foreigners came here or their own free will. They wouldn't have come here if they didn't like it. That said, my answer to this question is simple. I took an interest in Japan and the rest is history. In the same way that the kids are all obsessed with American musicians and K-pop idols, I chose Japan. This reason, and the fact that I wanted to teach.


Now all of these are perfectly acceptable questions. I suspect it wouldn't be uncommon to hear them had I chose to move to another country instead but the sheer frequency at which I have encountered these questions has lead me to do just that...question these questions. And what I've noted is that all of them have at least one thing in common. They continually reaffirm my status as a foreigner in Japan. Where are your from? Somewhere else. How long have you been in Japan? Not long. How long will you stay in Japan? Not forever. Can you speak Japanese? Not well. Why did you come to Japan? State your purpose. I believe it's been spoken about in other blogs - this notion of uchi-soto or "us versus them" but for a country that's keen to break down international barriers, I'm starting to wonder if they're going about it the right way.

Now where I'm from, when meeting someone for the first time, one of the first questions that generally pops up is "what's your name?". Since I've been here, I often ask this and find myself having to introduce myself without having received an enquiry in return. Further down the line, it's not uncommon to ask about someone's interests but (in reference to my earlier entry), this seems to rarely come about unless I've introduced the topic myself. 

Now perhaps its a clash of culture. Maybe it's uncommon here to pry too deeply into a stranger's state of affairs, especially if the subject is particularly controversial. But I don't understand how the question "How long will you stay in Japan?" takes precedence over "What do you do in your free time?". As I sit here evaluating it, the former question seems a little bit "cold". It's a surface question that seems to bare no interest in me as the individual. But again, Japan is not a country where people disclose their opinions freely and openly so it does not surprise me that the questions that I receive as a foreign seem to be more of the same.

I do wish they would change it up a bit however, but I guess I can't expect miracles in a country that is so very uniform. So foreigners with no clue about Japan - and even those with a clue - brace yourself.

It will get old.


Saturday, 25 April 2015

A Visit to the Doctor ~ The First

It was inevitable.

No matter how far across the world I'd decided to move, I was not going to be exempt from certain things. I was most definitely going to have to have good days. I was most definitely going to have bad days. And above all, I was most definitely going to get sick enough that I would need to take my first steps to go and see a doctor.

It was one of the things I'd been dreading since I'd arrived. Thus, before I came, I had stacked up on my British medicines and even asked my mother to send me over some goods when I ran out. But evidently, I ran out again. And the cough that had attached itself to my cold persisted long enough for me to become concerned. So I decided that it was time to put my health insurance to good use.

Once again, I consulted those more knowledgeable than myself and they pointed me in the direction of a website (which I unfortunately don't remember the name of) in which you can use in order to find an English speaking doctor. I called the number in question and the lady very helpfully called me back suggesting two that were relatively close to me. The one I was chose to go to was literally located about a two minute walk from my front door. So with that sorted, one morning before work, I took myself to the clinic in question and took yet another giant leap into the unknown.

Winter - as I reckon with anywhere in the world - is cold season. So when I entered into the establishment, I was met was half a dozen other people who were obviously there for the same reasons I was. I went to the front desk and as I had expected, the reception staff did not speak a lick of English so low and behold, I had to brave it and simply do my best. I told them my issue in broken Japanese and they gave me a form to fill out. All I could handle at the time was my name in Japanese and the rest of my details in English. They then proceeded to ask me a bunch of question which I barely understood if I'm honest but I got the general gist of it when the word "allergy" came up. So I figured they were merely asking me if I had any serious conditions that were worthy of note. I am very fortunate that I don't suffer with anything so this made things pretty easy. The form filled out, I took a seat.

Not two minutes later, one of the receptionists came to ask me another question. I had no idea what she was talking about so that very quickly ended that exchange. I watched as people entered and left the consultation room and eventually I was called in.

The doctor in question spoke fairly good English but he didn't particularly do much. We had a brief chat about my symptoms and then he stuck something in my nose to clear a relatively small blockage. After, he sprayed something into my throat and then he postulated that I probably had an inflammation somewhere. He then prescribed me various things for my symptoms, so much so that I ended up enquiring about the price,to which he suggested that I could choose whether to have him remove one of the items or not...hmm. In the end, I decided that one of the products probably wasn't necessary; after all, not even the doctor seemed to think it was required.

Fluffy toys included apparently...
In the middle of all this, the receptionist from earlier who had asked me something that I did not understand came in and had the doctor confirm what she was talking about. It turned out that someone from an insurance company in Tokyo had called saying that they would be sending someone to the establishment for a check up and they wanted to know if the person was me. Obviously I wasn't.

Afterward, they sent me outside where there was a bunch of machines that resembled the photo on the right. The chord had a face mask attached to the end of it and I was instructed to breath in the vapours for roughly 3 minutes. To this day, I'm not 100% sure what it was for but I'm guessing it might have been to clear my airwaves. Afterwards, I went back to reception, paid my dues and was instructed to head to the chemist next door.

I walked inside, handed over my prescription and after filling out my name, address and details for  second time, I sat down and waiting for my goods. The chemist dealing with me, returned with about five or six different drugs and I immediately saw the unease in his eyes. This unease turned into rapid fire Japanese and even after I asked him to slow down, he still persisted so I simply held on for the rollercoaster. Even though I didn't know what each one was for, I managed to understand how often I was to take each medicine which was helpful in a way I guess. I paid my dues again and went home. Collectively, I spent about 3000 yen.

It turned out that it's quite a common thing in Japan to be prescribed what I feel are ridiculous amounts of drugs. In the UK, one prescription is usually enough. And it usually does the trick. But over the 8 days that I took all these medicines, I have to say that not one of them helped me in the slightest. I still had the cough; I still felt under the weather and while not ridiculously expensive, I felt like I'd wasted my money on both doctor and medicine. As a result I will not be going there again.

I spoke to a friend of mine in Shiga who mentioned that he and his entirely family got quite sick
My prescription
but they were prescribed only antibiotics and within a few days they were right as rain. The doctor who I had seen felt that antibiotics weren't necessary at all but I can't help but wonder if a steady seven day course would have sorted me out in no time.

Nevertheless, I suppose I have to take in consideration that the strength of medicine in Japan is weaker than what I'm accustomed to. Whenever I've had an issue, whether it be a headache or a cold, I've yet to find anything that works. I tend to get migraines more often these days as well but I still have a steady supply of paracetamol from back home so that's something I have in check. I dread to find out what happens though when I run out however...

I've only had this sole experience with a doctor in Japan so it's not a lot to go on but I can't say that I am impressed. Hopefully, if I have to go again, the next doctor I see will be as competent at his job as he is at speaking English. But I think next time I go and see a doctor, I'm going to be quite direct. I would rather be prescribed something that works as oppose to ten or twelve things that don't.