Archive for category Greater Tokyo Area

September 1, 2004 – Too many cameras

Today was my first day back to work after four days off. Urgh! The good news was that I am finally back at Kawasaki NOVA on Wednesdays and have my good kids class back. They were all really great today!

After work I went to buy a digital camera from Yodobashi Camera, which is conveniently located next to Kawasaki NOVA. When I walked into the camera section I realized that I was in completely over my head. There were at least 100 different models in prices ranging from cheap to crazy expensive. I don’t know anything about digital cameras, and my Japanese ability is too limited to have a meaningful conversation with the sales staff. I gave up for the day and went to the internet cafe to do some research. After spending some time online, I think I will be buying a 4 megapixel Sony camera.

Who knew that a camera store in Japan would have so many choices?

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A day in the life of an English teacher

I am writing this post in August 2014, 10 years after I moved to Japan to teach English. As I am rewriting and reposting my original blog entries, I realized that I didn’t write a lot about a typical day as an English teacher. In July and August 2004, I was working 6 and 7 day weeks at Kawasaki NOVA to pay back the shift swaps required for my visitors. This post is about a typical day at that time.

Kawasaki NOVA, like most NOVA schools, offers English lessons from 10:00am to 9:00pm Monday through Saturday, and 10:00am to 6:00pm on Sunday. Lessons are 40 minutes long, except for some of the daytime slots which run 45 minutes. Since NOVA is a conversational English school, most of the students take lessons in the evenings. This means that most teachers are scheduled for evenings. After switching to full time, my typical shift was 1:00pm to 9:00pm. This shift included 8 lessons and one food break.

Since I am not a morning person, I would typically start my day by sleeping until 9:30 or 10:00. I would get up, walk downstairs, and have some breakfast. I usually had cereal and toast for breakfast, eating in Hello House’s common room while chatting with the other residents or watching TV. After breakfast I would return to my room and get my bathrobe and a towel and head to the shower room.

The shower room in Hello House had about 8 shower stalls, and a big bathtub that nobody used. Each shower stall was big enough to hang your bathrobe and towel so they would stay dry while you were showering. The shower was coin operated and cost 100 yen for 10 minutes. Ending a shower early would give the minutes to the next person. In my 10 minutes, I would shower, wash my hair, and shave. No, it wasn’t exactly a relaxing shower experience.

After the shower, I would return to my room and get dressed for work. Usually this would involve realizing that I had no clean shirts in my room, going to the outdoor clothes drying area to get something, then returning to the common room to use the common iron. Many of my work socks had small holes in them. I was too cheap to replace them, so I just made sure to wear the socks with holes on days with no kids classes. That way I could keep my shoes on and nobody would know.

Before I left Hello House, I made sure that I had my cell phone, my book for the train, and my collection of lesson plans. NOVA switched to a proper textbook with standard lesson plans in late 2004. Before that we used a horrible textbook created for Spanish speakers to learn American English in the 80’s. Teachers were responsible for creating their own lesson plans, using the horrible textbook as a tool. I had a big binder full of my handmade lesson plans that I always carried with me.

Walking from Hello House to Noborito station takes about 5 minutes. On the way I always saw mothers riding bicycles around the neighbourhood with their young children, usually carrying groceries as well. I am still impressed by the balance required to do that successfully. At Noborito station I scanned my Suica commuter train pass and waited at the JR platform for Nanbu line.

In 2004, Nanbu line had no express trains. The train would stop at each of the 13 stations between Noborito and Kawasaki. The total train ride was 27 minutes. If I was lucky, I could get a seat. Otherwise, I would try to stand near the door so I could lean on the wall and read a book. If the door spots were taken, I would hold the book with one hand and the passenger handle with the other hand. This is not easy to do, and impossible with large books.

Kawasaki station is the southern end of Nanbu line. The station is always busy. On any day I was sure to see two things: recruiters from local hostess clubs trying to harass women into becoming hostesses, and a giant billboard playing the same horrible animated chihuahua music video. I don’t know what the purpose of the chihuahua video was, but it was HORRIBLE.

I will cover the actual work part of work in another post, since that is a big topic by itself. Half way through my shift, I would be scheduled for a dinner break. Fortunately there were a lot of good options in and around Kawasaki station. The station itself has a food court with lots of options, a small supermarket, and a Becker’s Burgers. The underground mall near the station had a number of restaurants as well. My favourite choices were Bibimbap from the food court or a burger from Becker’s.

My post work activities varied depending on the day of the week. Thursday was group karaoke night in Yokohama. On other nights, I would either go to the internet cafe nearby and catch up on my email and blogging, have a few beers at the train station with coworkers, or return to Hello House right after work.

The train ride back to Noborito was usually more interesting than the ride to Kawasaki. After 9:00pm there are a lot of drunk people on the train, and I was occasionally one of them. When I got back to Noborito, I would either go home and cook some food, or head to Daiei to catch the end of day discounted deli food. If I got home at a reasonable time, I would usually hang out with Lux on the stoop and chat about the day.

This sounds like a fairly typical workday for a shift worker, but every day I was surrounded by Japanese signs, crowds of people with black hair, and lots of interesting things to look at. Even the most typical work is a bit of an adventure when you are living in a foreign country, especially one with a different culture. I miss a lot of things about living in Japan, but the enjoyment of experiencing something new every day is one of the things I miss the most.

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July 10, 2004 – Pachinko shopping cart

Inside JR Kawasaki station

Inside JR Kawasaki station

Today was my second day back to work after my parents left. Naturally, I needed a few beers after work with some of the other teachers.

We were in drinking beer near the Kiosk in Kawasaki station, when we saw a guy with a shopping cart full of junk trying to get down the stairs to the train platform. Included in the impressive pile of junk in the cart was a full sized classic pachinko machine.

Unsurprisingly, half way down the stairs the cart tipped over and his stuff went everywhere. It’s worth noting that there was a fully operational elevator nearby, but for some reason this man decided to navigate his fully loaded cart down the stairs by himself.

Beer at the station is never boring!

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July 7, 2004 pt2 – Gyukaku!

For my family’s last dinner in Japan before returning to Canada, we decided to try a yakiniku chain called Gyu-Kaku. This post is going to read a lot like an advertisement, but I don’t care. Gyu-Kaku is AWESOME.

The closest Gyu-Kaku to Hello House is just north of Mukogaokayuen station, a convenient 5-10 minute walk from Hello House. When we got inside, we instantly smelled delicious meat. The staff literally screamed “irrashaimase” at us. Gyu-Kaku is a yakiniku restaurant, which literally translates to “grilled meat”. All of the tables have a small grill in the middle. The menu, which is also available in English, showed all of the different types and cuts of meat that were available, along with salads and some other uninteresting non meat items.

We placed our first order and received small plates of sliced meat. We all took turns cooking the meat at the table using the tongs, and then dipping the cooked meat into small bowls of sauce at the table. I had eaten yakiniku once before, but this was the first time for my parents and sister. We all loved it! We ordered different types of beef, chicken, pork, and even scallops, and they were all delicious. The only thing that other people were afraid to try was the beef tongue (which was also delicious).

If you have never eaten yakiniku before – do it! It’s amazing! Gyu-Kaku is fairly easy to find and with the English menus it is foreigner friendly.

Yakiniku was a fun choice for my family’s last night in Japan. We all got to try something new, and we talked about our favourite memories of the past week and a half. Since I was trying to extend my time in Japan, this would likely be my last family meal until Christmas. I am happy it was a good one!

(2014 Update) I still try to go to Gyu-Kaku every time I return to Japan. Yum!

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July 5, 2004 pt2 – Pachinko and passports

In Kyoto, my father and I went out for sushi and beer while my sister and mother went to McDonalds. By request, my mother wanted to spend the evening with me, leaving my sister and father to have their own adventure.

My mom and I went out for dinner near Mukogaokayuen station. I tried to be a good tour guide, showing off the neighbourhood. We talked about my time in Japan so far and my job, and also caught up on things that were happening back at home.

After dinner my mom wanted to try pachinko. I had played came centre “fun” pachinko before, but had never tried the real thing. No matter where you go in Japan, you are never very far from a pachinko parlour. We easily found one and sat down.

Neither one of us knew what do to with the machine, but a friendly man next to us showed us where to put the money and what to do. We fed in some money, turned the lever and watched as a stream of little silver balls bounced through the machine. In case that wasn’t distracting enough, there were also lights and a video screen. It was total sensory overload, but we really didn’t get into it too much. It was a good experiment for 1000 yen each.

We walked back to Hello House, wondering how my father and sister did with their evening out. When we saw them, they were excited to tell the story.

The two of them went to a restaurant near the station and sat down at a table. The restaurant was one of the convenient places near a station with at ticket machine outside. To order, you insert money, press the button for the food you want, and then enter the restaurant and give the ticket to the waitress. The waitress noticed they didn’t have tickets, and took them outside to the machine. My dad and sister pointed at the food models that they wanted, and the waitress pressed the correct buttons on the ticket machine.

They had a good dinner and conversation, and then got up to leave and walk around the Noborito station area. As they started walking down the street, they heard someone yelling from behind. It was the waitress from the restaurant, running after them with my sister’s purse. With all the excitement about dinner, my sister had left her purse with her money and passport at the table. My sister showed the waitress that the passport was inside, and then offered thanks in English and Japanese.

In some other countries, the waitress wouldn’t have made the effort to help the foreigners who couldn’t speak the local language to order food. And in other countries, the purse would have either sat in the lost and found or “disappeared”. Japan is not other countries. In my short time in the country, I have seen countless examples of staff going above and beyond to provide great service. Thank you, station restaurant waitress! You helped make our evening memorable in a good way.

(2014 Update) My mom and I needed this site, which explains in (sort of) English how to play pachinko.

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July 5, 2004 pt1 – We can’t go to Daiei anymore

My mother and sister in the kimono section of Daiei

My mother and sister in the kimono section of Daiei

After a few grueling days of traveling, my family decided that they wanted to take a day off and stay close to Hello House. I got a chance to catch up on some relaxing and video games, but my sister wanted to do some exploring.

The week before, I gave her directions to the Daiei department store near Mukogaokayuen station, which was only a 5 minute walk from Hello House. She returned after buying herself a Hello Kitty watch, feeling quite proud of herself because she didn’t get lost.

Today she went to Daiei again by herself. She came back an hour later looking distressed and said “we can’t go to Daiei anymore”. I asked her to explain.

It seems that she went to look at the kimono and yukata section of the store. The sales people came over to help, and before she knew it, she was trying on different fabrics, belts and accessories. “I looked like a princess” she told me, while trying to get through the story.

After trying on several combinations of clothing, the sales people started packing up everything and taking it to the cash register. My sister, who just went to look, had no ability to explain that she was not actually interested in buying. She somehow managed to communicate to the store staff that she didn’t have any money, but her dad would come back to pay for everything. When the message got through, she left the store and returned to Hello House.

Having been in a few awkward situations without the ability to communicate, I could completely understand her feelings. I tried my best not to laugh, and promised that we wouldn’t go back to Daiei before my family returned to Canada.

To the staff at Daiei, please accept our apologies for the confusion. Also, thanks for making my sister look like a princess, even for a few minutes.


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June 6, 2004 pt1 – Kamakura in the Rain

Rainy Kamakura

A rainy day in Kamakura.

Today was the last full day in Japan for my visitors. Breaking with our trend, we all actually got up early. The plan for the day was to meet The Penpal and her friends in Kamakura and see some of the sights. It was raining steadily as we left Hello House for the station.

We met up with The Penpal and friends, and got a quick lunch before sightseeing. During lunch, Flounder was trying to teach some rude English to the Japanese people in our group. He was trying to convince them that “motherf**ker” was a commonly used word between friends, and provided various examples. I think Flounder believes that we all live in a 70’s blaxploitation film.

After lunch we started our sightseeing at Hachiman-gu shrine. Despite the rain we saw yet another traditional wedding. From Hachiman-gu we walked to Daibutsu. By this point the rain was bucketing down and we were all soaked, even with umbrellas. Almost nobody carries an umbrella in Winnipeg, so Code Red, Hippie, Green and Flounder were all having umbrella fights as we walked.

The giant bronze Buddha of Kamakura

The giant bronze Buddha of Kamakura

At Daibutsu we spent most of our time under cover trying to stay out of the rain. Since the rain didn’t let up, we decided to go back towards the station and find an indoor activity to do. We went to – you guess it – another game center. The game center had a large selection of print club machines. Print club machines are large photo booths that are popular with teenage girls. You can take your pictures with various backgrounds and then draw on the pictures or add cute pictures. At the end the machine prints out copies of your pictures. We loaded all 8 guys in our group into the print club machine and took some ridiculous pictures. After the game center, we found some nearby karaoke where we sang and ate.

We returned to Hello House soaked to the bone after a fun day. Going to Kamakura is always good, but today was was even more exciting because I got to introduce my girlfriend to my friends.

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June 1, 2004 pt2 – I don’t understand medal games

After dinner, we all went to Kawasaki. I needed to get some shift swap paperwork signed, so I left Code Red, Hippie, Flounder and Green at a nearby game center. Since I was in casual clothes, I couldn’t go into the building to meet the other teachers, so I hung around in front of the building waiting for them to come out. Japan is a very safe country, but there are always a bunch of homeless people hanging around in the trees near the entrance to NOVA, so it’s not the most comfortable place to hang around.

Eventually the teachers came out and I got my paperwork signed. I walked to the game center to find everyone watching Flounder playing a large medal game. The game had bouncing balls, flashing lights, video screens, and a coin pusher, basically total sensory overload. Flounder was trying to manipulate the coins in order to push more tokens towards his collector. There were a number of other medal games in the area – horse racing simulators, slot machines, card battle games, and others.

Using gambling machines to win money is illegal in Japan, but you can win prizes. One popular example is pachinko, which is kind of like a high tech vertical pinball game. To play, you buy a bunch of little metal balls and feed them into the pachinko machine. Using a knob, you attempt to fire the balls through the game board into a small hole. Doing this wins you more little metal balls. When you are done playing, you can exchange any balls you have left for a prize. The loophole is that every pachinko parlour in Japan has a nearby prize exchange shop, where you can sell your prize for cash.

I was not familiar with medal games, but I assumed that they would operate on the same principle as pachinko. Flounder won a huge number of tokens playing the game. He took them to the service counter, where the tokens were counted and Flounder received a card that kept track of how many tokens he owned. The next time he returned, he could use his tokens again to play the games and attempt to win more tokens. I tried to ask the employee where the prize exchange was. The employee tried to tell me that there was no such thing for medal games. At the time I wasn’t sure if he was telling the truth, or just not allowed to explain about exchanging prizes for cash. I promised Flounder that I would look into it.

Medal games can be a fun way to spend some time, but there is no way to win money. If you want to try to gamble for cash, play pachinko instead.

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May 30, 2004 – I just told her it was small, didn’t I?

Yet more karaoke

Where’s my microphone??

An uneventful day relaxing at Hello House was followed up with an eventful evening out in Kawasaki.

Code Red, Green, Flounder, Hippie got on Nanbu line headed towards Kawasaki, where we would meet up with some of my coworkers and friends. On the train, Green asked me how to say “you are beautiful” in Japanese so he could talk to some ladies. I got an evil idea, and then spent the rest of the train ride practicing Green’s new Japanese phrase, which was absolutely not “you are beautiful”.

We met with Jem and Rivers and went to a nearby izakaya for some food and drinks. By this point I had informed everyone except Green the meaning of the words that I had been teaching to Green. We were all having trouble containing our excitement. Green practiced a few more times to try to get the pronunciation correct, and then waited for his opportunity.

We pressed the order button in the izakaya – a wonderful invention that summons your waiter or waitress to your table. An attractive female waitress arrived and took the order for our group. At this point Green spoke up with the phrase he had been rehearsing for the past 30 minutes.

“Excuse me” he said in Japanese. The waitress turned and looked at Green. You could cut the anticipation in our group with a knife.

“I have a small penis” said Green proudly in Japanese. The waitress looked confused. Green, assuming his pronunciation was bad decided to repeat the phrase slower and more clearly.

“I  – have – a – small – penis!” he repeated, again with a smile on his face. At this point the waitress started laughing and walked away, which caused our entire group to crack up laughing hysterically. Green realized what happened “I just told her it was small, didn’t I?” he cleverly guessed.

Green asked me how to explain to the waitress that it wasn’t small, but actually very large. I taught him how to say “very small” instead. His BS detector went off and he decided to give up on the whole idea.

After the izakaya, we went out to karaoke again. Karaoke quickly became the fun activity of choice for our group, mainly due to the incredibly cheap drinks. We spent a few hours rocking out and making liberal use of the all you can drink policy before heading back to Hello House on Nanbu line. The trip home was not boring – one very drunk member of our group started walking up and down the train cars with a condom in his hand. This presented the other passengers with an excellent opportunity to pretend that he didn’t exist, which they did very well. Never a dull moment!

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May 25, 2004 – Bad ideas at family restaurants

Flounder, Green, Lux, Me, Zoe, and Code Red after too much booze at Machida station

Flounder, Green, Lux, Me, Zoe, and Code Red after too much booze at Machida station

During the day we hung out in my room playing Playstation games and generally recovering from our adventures so far. In the evening we had plans to go to a family restaurant in Machida. Most family restaurants in Japan feature a “drink bar” for about 200 yen. A drink bar is a self serve soft drink area where you can enjoy free refills of coffee, tea, sodas and water. This particular restaurant also featured a 600 yen drink bar with alcohol. You read that correctly: for the low price of 600 yen a customer can mix their own cocktails. I think the intent is for customers to have one or two drinks with dinner, but there is technically no limit.

Yes, this does sound like a terrible idea in the making.

Lux and Zoe were going to accompany us to the restaurant. Before we left they took me aside and expressed concern that my friends would be in the restaurant all night taking advantage of the unlimited alcohol. They suggested telling the guys that there was a one hour time limit on the drink bar. I disagreed and tried to explain that the idea of a time limit would only lead to problems. I explained that I knew these guys, and a time limit would be a challenge to them. Lux and Zoe continued to disagree with me, so eventually I told them I would play along, but I assumed no responsibility for the outcome.

We all boarded the Odakyu line for Machida, and explained the “rules” of the drink bar. The guys were all very excited and started asking questions about when the one hour time limit started – from the time we sat down? from the time we order? I told them I would get the details at the restaurant.

We got a table for 7 and placed our orders. As soon as the orders were taken, everyone rushed the drink bar and started mixing drinks. We started slowly, with everyone checking their watches. By about the 30 minute mark there was always at least one of us refilling their drink at any time. For the last 10 minutes I am pretty sure that Green did not return to his seat at all. We all left full of delicious food and booze for under 2000 yen per person.

When you drink a large amount of alcohol in a short time, you can go from feeling completely sober to drunk in a matter of minutes. This happened for most of us on the walk from the restaurant to the station. We passed two large gaijins walking in the other direction. Code Red asked if they were Canadian like us, and the said that no, they were American Marines. Code Red responded “Go Yankee Go!”, to which Flounder added “home”. Our military friends did not take kindly to this, and suggested they would meet us later. Code Red, missing the implicit threat in the comment, answered “awesome! We will see you guys later!”. The marines clarified that it would not be a pleasant meeting. I believe Hippie and Code Red tried to apologize as we continued walking away.

By the time we arrived at the station, we were drunk and belligerent. While we waited on the platform, I noticed that a few train security officers watched our group from a distance. They seemed relieved as we boarded the train and ceased to be their problem.

When we returned to Hello House, Green removed his shirt and started walking around the house. Lux and I hung out on the stoop reflecting on the amount of alcohol that we all drank for 600 yen each. Eventually one of the other Hello House residents, a gay British male, came to the stoop to complain about Green walking around shirtless. His comment was “nobody wants to see that”.

Video games, cheap alcohol, pissing off Marines, train security, and unwanted shirtlessness. All in a days work.

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