Archive for February, 2017

Memorable Students – Feeling good

As an English teacher, I always felt particularly proud of my efforts to try to help the weaker students in a class. I can understand how hard it is to learn a new language, and how frustrating it can be to see the people around you having an easy time of it. Conversational English teachers are given the bare minimum of training, so they aren’t always equipped to help struggling students. I tried to see weaker students as a challenge, and loved seeing the results when we were able to make a breakthrough.

I was teaching a level 6 student in Kawasaki NOVA who was struggling in many of his lessons. One evening I was lucky enough to have him in a man to man lesson: unlike a group lesson, we were able to work at his pace and I was able to give him all of the focus and feedback. He ended up having a fantastic lesson. By the time the final bell rang, he was smiling and confident. We both felt like we had achieved something.

As I was leaving the classroom, the happy student said to me “Thank you Mr. Andrew! When I speak English, I feel myself good”.

Different people have different ways to celebrate a good English lesson, but I’m pretty sure he wasn’t actually intending to feel himself.

Part of me thought I should correct him on the awkward phrasing, but I didn’t want to bring down his good mood so I let it go and left him smiling all the way out of the branch.

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June 21, 2006 – Paid to sit on my ass

If there is anything better than being paid to sit around at home I haven’t found it yet.

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June 20, 2006 – The hungover guide to Kyoto

I woke up around 9:30 with an evil EVIL hangover after seriously overindulging last night. In Canada this wouldn’t be a problem, but Japanese hotel checkout times are notoriously early; we had to be out of our room at 10:00am. Thanks to traveling light and a bit of luck, both Super Dave and I managed to get ourselves together and checked out on time. We ventured out into the bright, noisy, spinning center of Osaka.

The subway ride to Osaka station was extremely unpleasant, and I asked Super Dave for a few minutes to sit down and rehydrate before we continued on to Kyoto. I was actually starting to worry that I wouldn’t survive our day of sightseeing, but after a lot of water and fresh air, we braved the hour long train ride to Kyoto.

Our first stop in Kyoto was Ryoan-ji, which is home to a large zen rock garden. A quiet place of reflection was a great idea given the state of my brain. My only problem was looking at the rocks, which started moving around in my vision making me feel dizzy. Hungover or not, Ryoan-ji is a very peaceful place and highly recommended.

We also went to Kinkaku-ji, the golden pavilion. This was a first visit for Super Dave and a second visit for me.

You could literally throw darts at a tourist map of Kyoto and come up with a fantastic place to visit – there are no wrong choices. We did discover one problem: there were a severe lack of accessible bank machines. Carrying cash is a must in Japan, so it’s confusing why we had no luck finding bank machines in one of the most popular tourist destinations in Asia.

By late afternoon we were both feeling like humans again. Before we took the shinkansen back towards Shizuoka we stopped by a large import store in Kyoto station. They carried such luxuries as spicy salsa, instant oatmeal, and root beer. By the time we left the store, I was overburdened with import goods and my shopping from Osaka, which included a bilingual English / Japanese version of Monopoly that I couldn’t resist buying.

When traveling in Japan, I don’t recommend getting so hungover that you wish for death. But if you do, make sure that you have minimal travel the next day, and head for a nice quiet outdoor temple or zen garden.

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June 19, 2006 part 2 – A night out in Osaka

Super Dave and I enjoyed a morning of sightseeing and shopping in Osaka before returning to the hotel to recharge and get ready for an evening out.

We set out for Dotonbori, the always exciting nightlife area. The sun was down, all of the city lights were on, and the streets were full of people. We started with a drink (or two) at Hub Pub, a popular English pub chain. From there we found our way to Suntory Old Bar, which unsurprisingly served Suntory Whiskey.

Neither Super Dave or I are whiskey drinkers, but when in a Suntory whiskey bar you can’t just order a beer. We both ordered double whiskey on the rocks. Old Bar had a long, narrow bar with stools and some tables. It wasn’t very busy when we arrived, but I did notice two Japanese women sitting further down the bar. I told Super Dave that he should practice his Japanese skills by talking to the women and asking them to recommend a good place for us to go next.  He was nervous about approaching the women, but I kept trying – telling him that he would likely never see them again, so there would be no problem if his Japanese bombed. We practiced some possible phrases and I just about had him convinced, but he changed his mind at the last minute.

Encouraged by the whiskey, I decided to show David that I wasn’t going to ask a friend to do something I wasn’t prepared to do myself. I told Super Dave to follow me, and I approached the women at the end of the bar. I apologized for interrupting, and then introduced us as English teachers from Shizuoka who were visiting Osaka for the first time. I said that we didn’t know the city well, and asked for a recommendation on a good place to go. One of the women called over the bartender; as someone who doesn’t often approach women in bars, I was half expecting her to complain about us. Instead she asked for a pen and paper, and proceeded to draw us a map to a cool sounding bar called Rock Rock.

I thanked them for the help and offered to buy them a drink. They politely declined, so we finished our drinks and went on our way. Having a conversation like this would have been extremely difficult (or impossible) when I first arrived in Japan, so I felt proud of myself as we followed our hand drawn map to the next venue. Thank you Japanese lessons and alcohol!

Rock Rock was a bit of a dive, but with its own style. It wasn’t very busy when we went in, and one of the other customers appeared to be passed out in a booth. Despite this, they impressed us with their music choices; Alice in Chains was playing when we arrived and it only got better from there. Also, Rock Rock served us beer metal goblets! We had a few goblets (not a phrase I ever expected to type), before deciding to find somewhere different.

When we hit the night air outside of Rock Rock I realized just how drunk I was. Super Dave was feeling no pain, but I was really hammered. We wandered the area until we found ourselves in an area with narrow streets and lots of tiny pubs. I suddenly became very aware of the fact that I needed a bathroom break. Just when I had started to give up hope and consider finding a dark alley, a beacon of light hit us: a sign with Merseybeat Mojo on it and an outdoor speaker playing The Beatles.

We rushed inside, I made good use of the bathroom, and we moved over to the bar at the end of the narrow room. The bartender was friendly and spoke English fluently. We ordered drinks, and I finally noticed that despite playing Beatles on the speaker outside, they were playing the Blues Brothers soundtrack inside. When I was a kid, the two movies I watched the most were Blues Brothers and Ghostbusters, likely over 25 times each. I mentioned this to the bartender, his face lit up, and he searched through his rack of CDs to find the Ghostbusters soundtrack.

We were joined at the bar by two Korean women who were out on a pub crawl as well. They were also well into their evening, and the bunch of us attempted to have drunken conversations in Korean, Japanese, and English.

Details after this point are a bit fuzzy – we did leave the bar at some point and flagged down a taxi. The driver had no idea where our hotel was, but thankfully we had brought a brochure from the hotel that included a map – this is a highly recommended travel tip, especially when alcohol is involved. I don’t remember getting back to our room, but I do have some memories of spending much of the night next to the toilet in our bathroom. Sorry Super Dave!

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June 19, 2006 part 1 – Interesting People in Osaka

During the day, Super Dave and I went to Osaka Castle. The castle itself is interesting, but not nearly as interesting as the random English interaction we got before and after the castle.

As we were buying tickets to get into Osaka castle we were approached by a Japanese woman. She greeted us in English and then asked if we were American. We informed her that we were Canadian and Australian, and she thanked us. She then reached out as if to shake my hand, but at the last second grabbed my forearm with both hands, similar to when I used to receive “Indian burns” as a kid. She pushed her hands together, squeezing the skin on my forearm and then released it, looking very impressed. While I was trying to figure out what just happened, she did the same thing to Super Dave. We both stood there, speechless and confused. She grabbed my arm one more time while thanking us over and over, and then she walked away. To this day I have no idea what she was doing, and I half expect that I was featured on some kind of candid camera type comedy show.

After exploring Osaka Castle (my second time, Super Dave’s first), we walked out into the castle grounds where we were greeted by a middle aged Japanese man. He asked us if we were native English speakers. When we answered yes, he asked us to explain the meaning of the word “pledge”. We did our best impression of English teachers and got him to understand. He thanked us, and then told us that he studies English by memorizing famous speeches. He asked if we would listen to him, and then recited the famous “Ask not what your country can do for you” speech by John F Kennedy. The whole thing. Nearly flawlessly.

If the start of our day in Osaka is any indication of how the rest of the day will go, we are in for a very interesting evening.

 

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June 18, 2006 – Ninja Museum

Today I woke up really early and met Super Dave at the train station to start our west Japan vacation. On the way to Osaka and Kyoto we will be stopping at the famous Ninja Museum in Iga city.

Getting from Numazu to Osaka can be done fairly quickly on the shinkansen. Traveling to Iga requires getting off the shinkansen in Nagoya and then taking some smaller lines to Iga. The final route to Iga-Ueno station is on a narrow train line that feels like it’s cutting through people’s yards! It took us about 5 hours to get to our destination, but the museum was totally worth every minute of that travel.

NINJA TRAIN!

NINJA TRAIN!

Simply put – go see the ninja museum. Do it. They have an extensive collection of everything ninja, and have some impressive demos of techniques and weapons. Also, you can throw shuriken at a target, which is WAY harder than it would seem.

Super Dave and I got to see only about 2/3 of the museum – somewhere after the weapons demonstration we started talking to another English teacher from Canada who was traveling solo. We ended up chatting with him for a while while we were walking around the museum grounds. When we parted ways, Super Dave and I realized that we had walked right out of the museum grounds. Getting back in would have required explaining our error to the front gate staff in Japanese. Neither one of us trusted our language ability enough to try this, and we both felt pretty dumb for accidentally walking out of the museum, so we decided to cut our losses and get lunch instead.

After some delicious cold soba noodles, we visited the nearby Iga Castle, another underrated gem. The original castle dates back to 1585, but the current structure was rebuilt in 1935. The museum inside the castle wasn’t as extensive as Himeji Castle or Osaka Castle, but it was still impressive and is definitely worth going out of the way to visit.

A view from Iga Castle

A view from Iga Castle

Also in Iga, you can visit Basho’s house, if you like haiku.

Super Dave and I returned to the train station and started our 2 hour trek to Osaka. We checked in at the hotel and spent our evening exploring the area around Osaka station. We found a lot of small mahjong places hidden away off the back streets, and ended up shooting pool in a tiny billiards bar. We both suck at pool. Looking forward to an eventful day tomorrow!

 

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Train legs

For those who are new to this blog, I taught English in Japan from 2003 – 2006. One of the best parts about living in Japan was getting around by train; Japan’s train system is known around the world for being reliable, punctual, and inexpensive.

In my first year as an English teacher, my daily commute was 27 minutes each way between Noborito and Kawasaki, in addition to more trips around Tokyo and Yokohama than I can count. My second year commute was a modest 6 minutes between Numazu to Mishima. Despite not needing to commute in my third year, I still logged a lot of distance on the rails.

After being in Japan for a few months, teachers start to develop what we referred to as “train legs” – the ability to balance while standing on a moving train. This is a skill that develops over time, and it’s even more impressive considering the destabilizing effect of the average English teacher’s alcohol consumption.

When I was on the train with other teachers, we would occasionally compete to see who could stand up without any support the longest. Yes, we did get some strange looks from the Japanese people in the same train car, but we were lost in the friendly competition and didn’t care.

I have been back in Canada for 10 years now. Most of my trips to and from work are on the far less reliable and punctual Winnipeg Transit, with the bus riding over Winnipeg’s notorious potholes. Thanks to my train legs, I am usually able to walk from one end of a moving bus to the other with minimal support. It’s not the world’s most useful skill, but I still feel a sense of accomplishment every time.

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