Update

It’s easier to say six months ago than half a year.

Half a year seems too far away. Half a year ago I had so much time, so many plans, so many choices yet to make. Six months ago was a bit more organized. I had the small goals to reach, the decisions to focus on one by one. For example, in January I had to decide whether I’d continue my contract for another year. I didn’t. In February I would visit Hokkaido for the winter festival. I planned for that, but not for an unexpected visitor to extend that into a week long vacation. By March, I would pay off my first student loan and use my tax return to pay off half of another. I succeeded in the first act, but turns out not paying federal taxes because I live in Japan means I don’t have enough taxes to warrant a return. The spring break was followed by a doubly unexpected visit and vacation plans that actually put me further away from my goals. I’ve gone to two job fairs, slowly polished my LinkedIn account, and have every job finding app alerting me every minute on my iPhone to some new opportunity perfect for my field. I’ve purged my closets and drawers of random socks or flyers to make a more minimalist living. I’ve looked at maps of where to go, and where I’ve been, and where opportunities might lurk waiting to be hunted down.

And I have two months. In reality it’s less than two months. If I pretend it’s two months than it will look organized. Those small goals will be met right on the deadline, but the overarching picture will be lost. If I wait until the end of July to understand what I’m going to do next I’m doomed. Instead I’ve been looking at it in paychecks. After all, those are what actually determine my safety. After the next seventy days will I have enough money to stay in Japan, continue to pay my student loans, have a place to live?

All of this I say lightheartedly, unable to muster the stubborn pessimism of my parents, falling in line more with their siblings. I’m not worried. Even now as I apply to jobs I’m finding things that I would love to do, and maybe more surprisingly that I’m qualified to do. I’m still studying Japanese, among other things, even though I can’t speak worth the time I’ve been here. My apartment is clean, and certainly warmer as the spring rolls in. I’m running more now that the weather agrees with my hobbies, and at least in the vaguest of senses back to making art. I’m not reading or writing nearly as much as I should or want to, my hair is slowly falling out, and I’m in more credit card debt than this time last year, but the wise philosopher Vonnegut once said, “so it goes.”

I think worst of all, I’m having a lot of fun. Over the past six months, half a year, several paychecks, credit card bills, burned CDs, photo uploads, anime seasons, onsen visits, and bullet trains I’ve twisted through every option of my future and where exactly I want to end up. I simultaneously don’t want this lifestyle to end, while fully supporting the drive to move on to something new.

I’m not calling this a revival, but this post isn’t very long, so if you’re still reading this don’t give up hope that I’ll write a couple more before long. After such a hiatus I’ve actually found a number of drafts more than half-way done that I never got around to publishing. Like all things in life, there’s never enough time, but in looking towards the future I think it will be good to catch up on the past. Only time, or seventy days in this case, will tell.

Overtime

If you’ve questioned my existence in the past couple of months, don’t worry, I’m right there with you. Truth is I’ve got a backlog of drafts to posts because I have been doing a decent amount of adventuring. On top of that, however, I’ve also been working. Really, at this point it’s hardly working and more like living. And although for the longest while it was mostly like riding a storm, I think there’s finally a rainbow in the sky.

For the past 19 days I’ve gone into work. It started on June 6, a Monday, but an unusual Monday because I actually technically had the day off. The previous Friday all the students had gone either Kyoto, Tokyo, or a campground for school trips (while me, my co-American, the secretary, and vice principal were stuck all day in the school’s teacher’s office), and since the trip would overlap into Saturday, we got the consecutive school day off. I thought I’d go in to work on the blank bulletin board outside our language room. I did actually pump out a couple of posters (grammar mistakes aside), but I also signed on for a much bigger project.

As part of my job requirement, during the summer I’m put into two English day camps. Last summer my experience with these were mixed, by the end of the day I was comfortably enjoying my time, but completely exhausted and not at all thrilled at spending half the day sweating in a humid gym full of teenagers. Turns out this summer there was even more to dislike. One of the English teachers at my school had been designated as director of this year’s camp, which handles the duty of going organizing materials and meetings. I suspect this is usually an easy process of distributing the materials from last year, tweaking the cover page, and the endless supply of typos. In fact, going over a binder that was passed down to me from the lead ALT from last year I found out that in the past 7 years nothing has changed. From the crappy WordArt text to the even worse and borderline racist/sexist clipart, it seems the only thing that had been shuffled around were some of the games for one of the workshop. So really, the collective of schools coming to this meeting each just had to approve this ancient text of DIY 90s design and be on our merry way.

However, there’s a flaw in this design because although the Japanese teachers a liable for the camp, they rely almost solely on the dozen or so ALTs to take charge of the groups, motivate the activities, and make the day a success. The fact that we ALTs are almost entirely not of Japanese culture and thus don’t accord to Japanese bureaucracy also means we don’t sit idly. As an American I tend to question everything, and as a person I’m typically the worst when it comes to agreeing with anything neutral. So, hardly flipping through the poorly contrasted pages of this mono-colored document I knew this year would be different. Even outside of the fact that I’m a control freak who doesn’t work well with others, this f-ing camp hasn’t been changed in SEVEN years! On top of that, each year there are pages of feedback precisely listed out for each moment of the camp. It’s like they looked at it, nodded a bit, and said whelp we’ve already got the material so no need to change it.

Now, I’ll take a breath and admit to being a bit crass. These camps are always extra work for teachers who are already working enough, and I can see the full reason why they would just want to get it over with. Especially since ALTs are typically not expected to do any work with the planning of the camp. But really to think that over the past decade no one has been capable to come up with some improvements or just try something new seemed like the perfect opportunity for me to step in. Here’s where I’m also really glad that I’m so chill with my English teachers. They don’t have a problem asking for my assistance or advice, or the way I want to be involved with the school just like every other teacher. So on that Monday afternoon when I was at school even though I didn’t need to be (with practically half the other teachers) and I turned to my neighboring English teacher poured over papers on his desk like he was filing taxes to ask “What’re you working on?” his short reply of “Oh, just the summer seminar.” got me wrapped up in this biz that I’ve only temporarily levied.

Usually I make it to at 7:15, not the first person but usually in the first crowd. I need this time to unwind. At the start of spring I actually was the first person to arrive, overestimating my biking time, and just hung out on the grounds watching the sunrise until someone else arrived and unlocked the doors. This behavior wasn’t planned entirely. I’d just slowly gotten in the habit at going to bed at 9 o’clock, and as a result left me waking up at 5 the next morning. Eventually I started naturally moving the time even earlier, and instead of being cooped in a small apartment decided I needed to just start the day. For a while I was running, until one time I went a mile into a run and got soaked in the heaviest torrent of biting rain I’d least expected. When I made it home three miles later I found my kitchen turned into a pool and my mattress was a sponge. I rushed to shut the windows and whipped out my space heater and recently acquired fan while draping bed-sheets and towels across desktops and counter-space.

I’d finally nailed the average of waking up, making scrambled eggs while listening to MPR/All Things Considered, showering and shaving, making a PBJ sandwich, dressing, and eating said sandwich, heading out the door, and arriving to school at just the right time. From there I’ll pull up three tabs on my computer: WaniKani for quick studying, Lifehacker for general well-being, and Bloomberg currency rates to see just exactly how much (until recently) I’ll suffer when I send money home. Then we have a morning chat for about twenty minutes.Each morning one class gets split into ten groups of three students to talk with me or my co-ALT. Usually it’s great, but it’s quite monotonous and if I’m unlucky the three minutes we talk will be a grueling roll of fishing for answers. Hopefully when the first bell rings, I’m not going to class, and if I am I only pray I don’t have class back to back. Any planned class activities or even periods are regularly changed which leaves me with a heap of last moment adjustments and worksheet creations. If my version of Microsoft Office wasn’t entirely in Japanese, I would be a pro by now.

At 3:30 there’s a bit of respite: fifteen minutes for mokudou, a traditional style of of the regular “cleaning time” ripped from zen monasteries where the students wipe down the floors and walls of school silently. It’s a brief relief since after that and a sort of cool down meeting they all zip off to their club activities and I gather with the track team outside the school. That practice usually lasts over two hours, yet we still only manage to run between 5 to 7 miles every day. I forgot how easy I used to have it with running. Our fastest guy can run a 4:30 1500m but most of them are struggling to break 5.

At least when it wasn’t June, now would be the time I go home. Actually, I’d rally a bit of studying in, mope around on Flipboard to figure out what global events I’ve missed out on, stop by the grocery store and then make it home around 7. Lately I’d gotten into watching Japanese anime (as “listening practice” for my upcoming test) while waiting for the next season of Mr. Robot to come out, but I’d also been trying to sit down and make sure I write for at least an hour each day. Well, that was before I signed on for this summer camp.

Every night for a week I stayed past 10 o’clock, and always left earlier than at least one of my co-workers. Then the following Saturday after an awesome start to the day with track practice — something I’ll write about later — I wound up staying at school until 11 o’clock. For the next week that became my new norm, but I didn’t exactly mind. I found out a lot more about some of my co-workers who’d go in and out throughout the night. A majority of nights someone brought in ice cream treats or snacks from the nearest conbini, and over such a span the workload became manageable. Except that was for me, the boy who started packing his dinners, got to exercise halfway through the day, and didn’t really have any responsibilities waiting at home. I figured I’d really be wasting my time watching TV shows anyway, so I might as well stay and be productive. Most of my co-workers, though, have lives. This is especially true of the English teacher leading the seminar (the same free spirit that took me surfing in January). He has two young boys at home and can hardly get the chance to see them before they go to bed at night any given week day. Apart from last Tuesday, the final marathon where we both were the last to leave a few minutes after midnight, I’ve never seen him leave school before me. That is the aforementioned bureaucracy I’m trying to combat. The mindset of overworking is embedded in almost all job I’ve come across in Japan, but that is especially true of Junior High School teachers. They act like surrogate parents, but to the extreme that they are more responsible for a lot of things the students do. So they stay at school and work because working from home is still a milestone many parts in Japan have yet to reach. It’s actually such a problem that the prime minister is rapidly working to change the culture. My guess is he hopes if more people can go home early then maybe more people will start having babies and solve the current population conundrum between the generations.

But, it’s really easy to fall into. Without really meaning to I just fell into the system. I’ve had Rhinna’s “Work” running through my head for the past week, and it’s sort of a sadistic meditation. I was averaging 12 hour days, seven days a week and thinking that finally I would make a permanent change.

And then we had a meeting for the summer seminar.

As I mentioned, it’s rare that ALTs have any part in the planning of the seminar and so showing up to the meeting was probably an uncomfortable surprise for the other teachers. I remember in high school and college hearing the foreign language teachers talk together in non-English while going down the halls and thinking how awesome they were. Here those instances are fewer. Of course, whenever one of the ALTs are around at my school all the teachers are well equipped to discuss in English, but I feel like the majority default to Japanese. So the meeting went, with awkward exchanges as some of the teachers tried to encourage the use of only English, and other stuck strictly to Japanese. I get how intimidating it can be to sit in a room with an official meeting of important things surrounded by your peers who can immediately judge your skill by comparing it to their own, but both me and the other ALT at my school (both far below the level of Japanese used here) were present so the lack of any effort was a bit annoying.

Even more annoying was the inevitable fact that I didn’t want to back down from any of my ideas. I was extremely dismayed and bolstered at the shudder that went through the meeting room at the mention of change. Sure, I was biased toward my ideas, but some of the members were also biased against them. The part of the camp I was most critical towards was a moment were the students “travel the globe” and learn about other cultures. On the surface it’s not the worst idea, except this year 7.5 of the eight ALTs who can help with preparation are white Americans (myself included), while the remaining Jamaican — upon finding out she’d have to talk about her country’s culture — replied, “Oh, please don’t make me do that.” So the deepest concern is accurate representation. Especially from the current climate of American cultural politics ethnic stereotypes are something to avoid at all cost. When you combine that with a group of people who freely left their country for more than a year and add in the already abstruse diversity of American culture it’s really hard to figure out where to start.

In the end, the duel was worth more than the victory. I learned a lot about forming a compromise, how I could’ve approached my ideas more effectively, and accepting that maybe my ideas weren’t all that anyway. We did end up changing all the games to well rounded activities that focus on spontaneous uses of English in a group dynamic, and gave the student more freedom in creatively forming original ideas for a skit at the end. The cultural aspect remains, but I’ve given into an over-representation of part of my heritage can still be done respectably. I still have doubts about if teenagers from a country who’s 98.5% homogenized ethnicity can really grasp the fact that I’m Irish-Swedish-African-Native-American-and-some-big-unknown, but it helps that my area has a decent minority of Brazilian and Asian immigrants and even a few random ex-pats from Her Majesty’s colonies. If I really wanted to get into I’d point out how even that raises a problem because so often assumptions are made towards any given class of students as being entirely Japanese (like, “Let’s find out about another country’s culture.”), which even further alienates the ethnically mixed Filipino and Thai students in the bunch.

That meeting was the straw. Over the next week I amended the changes being made and my co-American ALT (who’d been gone over the weekends to meet her friends visiting from America) finally snapped me back to reality with a poignant, “Go home, man.” It was a bit of fun taking on the role of a true Japanese salariman, but also deeply disturbing that a significant portion of people live that way. Sure, I don’t really have any responsibilities in my life apart from work, but I certainly have better things to do.


So, with that I’m back. At least for now. I do have a couple of posts just waiting to be updated, and in the next couple of days I’m being visited by a friend from America and taking my first vacation days in order to show him around Kyoto and Osaka. If you’ll remember I foolishly let my camera get stolen which is why lately the posts are lacking in photos, but I’ll make a point of snapping some memories from now on. You still have yet to see my new haircut. Also I moved. Come to think of it, a lot has happened before I started this working streak. Look forward to it.

Graduation

My last couple posts have been looking towards the future, so I feel this will be the culmination of those thoughts. At least its my hope for a while. You see all this time flu stricken and looking forward towards what spring and summer will bring has in a way made me complacent toward the present. Hence the void that will be March. The lessons learned from February had me scared to spend any money this month, though, that also put me discouraged about the future. After sorting out all my bills I’ve become a bit of a hermit. In the spirit of Mac I did host a small night for beer tasting (Okinawan based Orion won the vote), and I haven’t refrained from going out once or twice, but the quest for anything thoughtful was quite subdued.

It all came down to reminiscing and saying goodbye.

I suppose it’s a fair point to say that most of this month was dedicated to work. We had stacks of homework to correct, lesson plans to compile, and even went to a superfluous seminar in the city. It seemed like every day I was saying goodbye to someone, trying to capture that last good memory. Way back in the fall I determined that the second years were my favorite crew, but by the end of the semester I definitely wasn’t ready to have the third years leave. Back when they first entered this school, there wasn’t a foreign person in my position, and then my predecessor didn’t come until a third part into their second year. There was a bit of adversity that remained in their character. The ones who tried still struggled with natural sounding sentences, and the ones who struggled really couldn’t be blamed too much. (With that I’m not trying to make my teachers sound bad because they aren’t. There’s a lot of factors that play into the Japanese system of English education, but the presence of a native speaker correlates to better learning.)

The third years could often surprise you with the amount their honesty. When they gave speeches about what they wanted to do for a career one boy on the track team confessed he wanted to be a hacker in order to take down the Pentagon. During morning conversations I learned more than a few would stay up until 3 o’clock in the morning watching dramas, anime, or Youtubers. It seems they are primed at that age of still captivating the impossible while threaded with immortality. The five guys who still showed up to track practice would be especially hard to miss. By this point they were included in the few people I talked to everyday, and also ranked high on the list of those who understood enough English to talk back.

Thus we fall to the ides of March, as fitting a day as any to have a graduation ceremony.

I biked to school with my suit bundled up over one shoulder. Despite the on-off weather of the changing seasons, the few clouds that started the day would soon scatter as the sun rose. It did feel like a normal day in many ways, and I think some of that has to do with the fact that school won’t be over tomorrow. We still have half a month until spring break, the real end of the school year, but even that only lasts for two weeks. Nonetheless, under it all there was a certain attitude permeating throughout it all.

In standard fashion, the homeroom teachers for the graduating class were dressed in kimono. Apart from the sidelines in Kyoto, it was the first time I’ve seen anyone so formal in Japan. Along with the awe it makes you wonder what time they got to school to get dressed. Maybe they had a party where they each did each other’s hair and make-up, and then wrapped the bow into their gown because I can hardly believe a person would have success doing it alone. This, of course, only applies to the women as men in almost all situations nowadays can get by with just wearing a suit (in which can I’m not too sure who’s luckier — overall badassery aside, you just garner more respect while wearing kimono).

We shuffled into the gym as the doors were let open for parental seating. I was kind of surprised to be recognized by more than one, but grateful I could remember who’s parents or grandparents I was saying hello to. I’ve been stopped before by someone greeting me, usually in the grocery store. One time a Brazilian-Japanese student’s father stopped me surprised with English. He’s Brazilian, but he introduced me to my student’s grandmother who is Japanese. Those moments are special because it helps to remind me that my students actually have an outside life. Throughout any given day it’s easy to gloss over them as only students who I have only to teach English — after all, they’re only teenagers, what more important things could they be doing — but when I figure out their hobbies, their family life, their struggles in other classes or with other students it gives me more reason to care about their future. Not to mention it gives me a subject to bring up when I talk to them that forces a more elaborate answer than a mumble.

As mentioned, I’ve been handling a cold quite ineffectively since Valentine’s Day and during the ceremony was no exception. When the parents were seated, the first and second years filed in and sat down behind rows of empty seats for the third years. Then a small collection of students with string instruments started playing, and everyone stood up and started clapping while the third years strode down the aisle  in individual lines.

Because this was only a junior high school festival, it was hard to become to moved by the event, but compared to American school the formality of it was risen a notch. One of the last memories of my junior high school was meeting on the grounds outside with all the other classes in order to pass around and sign yearbooks. Here they had practiced the days before to prepare for the severity of this ceremony. I was intrigued, but also struggling to swallow a cough as the third years found their places.

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There was some bowing some greetings, and finally as one group they sat down together. My coughing subsided, and the next great struggle was staying awake. I’m actually sure a teacher on the other side of me had already dozed off, and I don’t blame him. If I had to do this each year I think the effect would wear off quick. Not understanding anything doesn’t help much either. Each student’s name was called, they would go up to the stage to get their certificate, and then sit down in a direct fashion. After that there was some more stifled coughing (relieved to hear I wasn’t the only one), and then some speeches. All I remember from graduation is Al Franken came to speak (that being my high school graduation). I can’t tell you what he spoke about. Similarly, the president of an eastern European country spoke at my college graduate (though, I can’t recall which country). What I only took from that was Russia’s technological base was far inferior, and that I was screwed because I hadn’t gone into the field of computer science. So I feel these students will probably look back at these speeches with the same indifference.

When it was all finished and they were dismissed the band started playing and they left the way they came in. A few tears were shed, but I’m not sure if it was sadness or the final frenzies of coughing that caused mine. It was pretty strange as their seats started emptying when they filed out. Collectively, there were plenty of them that made up the parts of the school I liked. It kind of reminded me of my own inevitable departure from this school. I’m equally mortal here so the ceremony reeled in some focus on the whole future at my disposal.

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I had written letters in all out English to a handful of the best students, some of the track team or the ones who always talked with me. I figured they won’t understand everything now, but hopefully if they hang onto it, by the time they leave high school they can look back at it and feel accomplished at how much English they’ve learned. Out in the parking lot everyone was distributing their goodbyes and taking photos. I wonder how long I’ll remember their faces. Some of them will stick with me, but even now when I go for a run or am biking by and see some high-schoolers I’m never too sure that if the students I wave to were every actually mine.

The next couple of days were business as usual. The absence wasn’t as strong, maybe only in the lunch room, and I still had plenty of wrapping up to focus on in the other two years. All the third year classrooms are on the top two floors of the school, so there’s not really a reason to pass by their emptiness. With them gone, though, I was blasted with how many first and second year student’s names I still have to learn. Their faces are easy to pick out, but we hardly ever use names throughout 24 classes, and I’m just getting the knack of reading their name tags. It’ll be a bit of a pain when they mix into new classes and I’ve gotta relearn the patterns over again. Really, I think the old ones will stick with me for a while.

Christmas

As you might expect from a country where only 1% of the 127 million people identify as Christians, the concept of Christmas isn’t really hashed out. In fact, if you presented my students with a picture of Jesus, Santa Claus, and Disney’s Olaf from Frozen I can tell you that they’d only be able to recognize two out of the three. With that said, a couple of my students are Christian which is pretty neat (though, they’re mostly Brazilian), and on a whole Christmas is still a pretty well known day. Of course, as many American conservatives would point out, the change in Christmas (is not a war but) stems from the fact that anything that can make a buck will.

The same hold true over here, as Christmas is mostly celebrated between young lovers going out and having a date, while some parents–especially those keen on Western cultlure–will break out a present for their kids. For me this hardly feels like Christmas time. I blame a lot of it on the lack of Christmas songs, though, my local grocery and convenient stores have an instrumental playlist going. I think the entirety of the issue probably stems from this:

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As someone who has literally never spent a Christmas Eve away from his Grandma’s house in snowy Minnesota, how the hell can I consider this appropriate winter weather?

*That picture was actually taken on Christmas day, meaning December 25.

So, weather wise it was such a lovely day, if  I learned anything from the Whos down in Whoville, it’s that the spirit of Christmas is all that matters. And with the last day of school the day before Christmas eve, it was hard for the mood in the teacher’s office not to be a bit festive.

This leads into what is probably the most formal celebrations any school has during the year: the bonenkai, or as I’ve been told in literal translation: the forget-the-year party.

After a pretty tiring day I quick walked back home to change after school and returned to school to make the bus up to the city. Not gonna lie in saying I was totally looking forward to the night. I was ready for the experience, but I was also extremely exhausted. I basically napped on the hour long bus ride up to the hotel where we got dropped off.

It felt kind of like going to a school dance. Some people where dressed up, and we shuffled into an elevator up to the banquet room. Our seating place were random, though I’m not sure I entirely believe that since I’ve been seated next to my adviser the past two times (not that that’s any bit a bad thing). It’s another time when I realized how lucky I usually am to have another ALT at my school. She sadly had to leave early to catch her plane back to America, but I was desperately wishing to have an English speaking friend go through this new experience with me. This time I got placed in the center table just a seat away from our kouchou-sensei, or the principal. While people were filing in, hardly anyone coming to our table, I figured I’d have to do my best to get into a conversation with him.

He’s actually a bomb guy. I’ve hardly had many interactions with him that don’t involve me being polite and letting him pass by me in the hall, or saying good morning, but I’ve heard enough fantastic stories. Even at the nationals race I went to in Yamaguchi, I met his wife who was a former English teacher and I think we mostly talked about him (and the fact that her somewhat British accent was some of the most fluent English I’d heard from a Japanese teacher). I knew that he was formerly an art teacher so I started off with that.

Lucky for me this topic of conversation hardly went beyond level 2 Japanese. It went something like this:

Me: So, I heard that you were an art teacher? My college major was art. What art do you do?

校長先生: Oh, really? I enjoy painting.

Me: Last year, I worked as a printmaker, but I enjoyed painting, who is you favorite?

校長先生: I really enjoy Pablo Picasso.

Me: (thinking about the only period of Picasso that I enjoy) Oh, me too. What is your favorite series?

校長先生: I have to say… his blue period.

Me: Fantastic! Me too (true story).

We then went on to talk about how–in about three months–he’ll be retiring. Completely new news to me, and even if I don’t get to see him all the time, pretty bummed to hear he won’t even be nearby. He’s got a motto around the school called “yaruki smile” (somewhere along the lines of shining smile) and he really lives up to it himself. He just seems like a completely jolly dude. He mentioned how after he retires he wants to get back into painting and visit Spain to see the art there. He’s been studying Spanish for a while now.

Me: Eh! Amazing! When I was in high school I spoke Spanish really well, but now, it’s just a bit. But I will try to practice with you if I can.

校長先生: por favor, un poco hablamos bien.

Off to a great start, and as my supervisor came and sat down next to me like clockwork the night started off with a highlight reel projected in the front of all the fun things that happened this year. A weird feeling to see how recently it was that a completely different person got to take care of all the students like I am doing with a completely different approach.

Then the servers brought in the beer, and like bees in a hive a rush of order beyond comprehension was occurring. We naturally had a moment to pause with filled glasses and say kampai lifting them in the air and clinging them against each other. But as I drank and sat back down, it’s like I entered the twilight zone.

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Eventually I looked over to my adviser and whispered, “Do I need to do anything?” He laughed looking around and said “No, I think it’s Ok, you’re kinda like a guest so you don’t need to worry.”

I was worrying because probably more than half the teachers were jumping around the seats and tables with bottles of beer cradled like a diamond in their arms stopping at anyone seated to fill, almost longingly, their drinks to the brim. Guess it’s a basic custom, not hard to figure out, where the lowlies and newbies serve the higher more respected. I felt kinda bad for kouchou-sensei because every time he took a drink he had to pause to have someone offer to fill his drink again. Usually it’s a good way of making sure everyone has a good time, but often also a very tenuous way to drink as well.

Anyway, once the drinks were thoroughly distributed our appetizers were served, and people got ready for the second year teacher committee who organized the night to perform their main act. It consisted of a somewhat racy and raunchy skit about how one of the teachers was looking for a boyfriend, and turned into a sort of Dating Game style act. I simultaneously wanted to understand everything they said and was thankful that I didn’t get all the jokes they were saying.

This was followed by games that even I was involved in, more drinking, more socializing, and all the while plates of delectable food placed in front of me.

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There were three forks, three knives, chopsticks and a spoon, so I’m thinking that’s what you call a four course meal.

While mingling for a couple more drinks we got organized to move onto the next event, whatever that was to mean. And then kouchou-sensei leaned over to make one last comment.

校長先生: (in English, with yaruki smile) I’ve never seen an ALT do what you’ve done… (he pauses to figure out from my adviser what words to use next) to join running club every day. You care about the students so much. When I saw you at Yamaguchi, I was so proud that you are at this school. You’re a good person, and I think you will do big things in Japan.

Honestly, I blame it on constantly having to have his glass filled, but by the time he finished I was practically rippling in tears of happiness. Like, the last time anyone has ever said such a great thing about me is lost in my recent memory. My adviser was totally loving it watching on the sides, too, because kouchou-sensei was probably on the verge of keeling over in drunken glee.

The rest of the night was similar to the night I spent in Yamaguchi after we’d gotten dinner at the Korean BBQ restaurant. I went into a group with about six other teachers, some of my favorites, and we headed out on the town, winding down an alley to a legitimate bar, literally the first I’ve been to here. We order more drinks, so food, and I felt again like I was the most interesting thing in the room, but more than happy to answer the questions shot at me and practice my Japanese. When it got to be a little after 11 o’clock I was hoping to stay out more–do karaoke, or bowling, or anything–but since I was forced to take the bus home, I had to call it early.

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All together, though, a great way to end the first phase of being here, start the winter vacation, and make up for not going home for the break. It might not look much like winter, but it’s not too far away from feeling like it.

 

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So it’s a Wednesday. Winter has fully arrived with rain in the morning and rain at night. Within two weeks the second semester ends and Winter Break is here. Yet school is in full force with interview tests for the third years and worksheets to correct for the younger ones. So, what is a foreigner to do?

Ever since arrive I’m pretty often finding myself a little late to the party. I’m not quite sure if it’s always been like this, but some time long ago I really kind of just stopped paying attention to Facebook. I’d even considered deleting it, but in today’s age–in the long run–I think that’s just simply madness. So it was when I arrived to Japan, and even still I hardly use it except to occasionally check in and communicate with the less available people in my life. In those cases, it’s pretty easy to miss out on the things people plan. If someone–especially someone who lives outside of the same city–puts up an event online sometimes they just sort of let it go off on its own without any sort of promotion. So after a while I started to become vigilant with emails and Facebook events (including the things I did around Thanksgiving). Thus after being recruited by Carmelo, I wound up looking forward to this Wednesday event quite a ways out.

Really it’s a strange occurrence that we mostly twenty-something adults have the system in place to create such a space. Voluntarily submitted to the somewhat isolating experience of living in a foreign country, I wonder how this community formed at first. Maybe it’s something the program put in place all along, or maybe it’s something that developed organically. Either way it’s something I don’t think most people are lucky enough to have. That’s mostly last year New York me talking, where even with the greatest city in the world at my doorstep I often found it hard to figure out what to do alone with my free time.

So a small group of us looking to escape the toils of monotony convened in the small dance studio at the whim of one of the coolest Brits I’ve met (granted I haven’t met many people from England). It’s hard to describe what happened in the following three hours, but it was all a lot of fun. Basically imagine us getting into teams of six and doing winter themed…well, not really winter themed, but games that involved the silliest of silliness.

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It started pretty simple, some college games using solo cups and ping pong balls, but let’s just say it escalated quickly.

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This was kind of like reverse limbo, and well, I’m just gonna let you figure it out on your own. Just a note, though, I wasn’t wearing those green tights to begin with.

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Photos courtesy of www.whereisamber.com, she’s my neighbor and a new JET too, with a lot more wanderlust than me, so check out her website.

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Really, it’s cool to do these kind of things every once in a while. Like really, I feel like I’m constantly forcing these types of activities on my students so it’s good to be in their shoes and experience how to make things fun and have fun doing things completely random and unattached to anything important in life.

I was thoroughly exhausted by the end of the night, and it only emphasized how ready I was to take a bit of a break soon. I’m planning on sticking around to work on some awesome lessons for the next semester, but that hopefully won’t mean I don’t get down time, then again hopefully that means I won’t be too lazy either.

Thanksgiving

For me there is hardly a day worth celebrating more than any others. When I was a kid I used to pout at my own birthday parties. I’ve had the hardest point remembering anyone’s birthday (a bane because everyone can remember mine falls on a holiday), and really one of the days I’ve enjoyed more than others in the past years is Black Friday. Maybe that particular attention is why I’m only now realizing how different my timeline is in Japan. I mean, after all, Halloween was seen and talked about pretty well among the students and commercialized places, but I haven’t seen a single display for Thanksgiving and thus–almost thankfully–nothing about black Friday.

Obviously Thanksgiving is a truly American holiday–food, family, and football–but for me its always been a little more. Through the past couple of years I’d gotten into looking at Thanksgiving as a time to do something nontraditional in my life. One year I traveled to Charlotte to eat soul food with the family I’d only heard about in stories (or even letters to prison). Another year I traveled to Tacoma to make a truly college but independent dinner with a completely different type of family (#trackhouse). Christmas would later be the time for the family I saw everyday, so it seemed that in times of thanks I needed to reach out and be with the people that I didn’t always show gratitude for.

OK, and that above has convinced me to completely change my direction on the feelings I had for this post. Originally I was planning and pointing out how much I missed Thanksgiving this year, when really I guess I did what I normally would (even if it did technically come a week later). I should mention the weird feeling I got explaining Thanksgiving to a class of kids who literally had no clue what I was  talking about, but really I think those moments do more to remind me everything I miss from America.

Anyway, living in a foreign country full of people in the same situation with a pretty strong network of events or communication it seems pretty obvious that there’d be more than one somewhat traditional Thanksgiving celebration. Even the night before, gathered in an apartment for a “California beach” party wearing shorts and eating Costco sheet cake, a group of us were discussing what types of foods we’d contribute to the weekend potluck. I’d really considered trying to put something together at the last moment: mashed potatoes, fruit salad, steamed vegetables. I think apart from laziness I just lack any sort of equipment to make a decent dish (in my small sized kitchen), and despite being days away from a paycheck I was (as it always magically seems to be around this time of the month) strapped for cash. Thus, I decided to just pay the fee and enjoy the joys everyone else felt like sharing.

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I think we were there for a good four hours, and damn I was glad we got there early. I think the last time I was at a potluck was my senior college year of cross country running, an annual event after our first home race, and that–after from delicious baked goods–had nothing to compete with this. There were Japanese, Irish, Vietnamese, Chinese, American, and so on dishes of all variety. It seemed like every time I finished my plate and felt like I was finally full, someone new would show up and put a different dish on the table. (Really, I should’ve thought ahead before typing this and eaten something because now I’m craving it all again). It really was a Thanksgiving dinner because I kept eating and feeling good and eating some more.

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Apart from the food, it was really just good to see everyone again. I mentioned earlier about how obvious it would be that the powers that be would organize an event to get all us (majority American) foreigners together for the holiday, but I often forget just how many of us foreigners there are (a really bad problem when I have to avoid using someone’s name I’ve forgotten after three months). Not only foreigners, but also local Japanese people showed up to join in the celebration.  As someone who usually spends a Sunday cleaning, vegging, or just generally sticking to his apartment, it was a good occasion to get out and enjoy the community that I can’t always interact with.

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And the food, again, was fantastic. I even had to pull off the remnant of one of the five or so turkey’s they brought in because of how quickly they were devoured. Really between the Irish soup, the home-baked bread, the eggnog, and the no-bake cookies, the turkey was the least of my options. I really need to practice more varieties of cooking now, or at least figure out where everyone gets their ingredients. I think the biggest hub is Costco, and oh, how I long to get to Costco.

Speech

For the past month I’ve been coaching a student everyday after school to give a five minute speech entirely in English about his robot contest. At the beginning it was quite simple, translating his speech, making sure it would all fit in the time, going over difficult words…

In the past two weeks, however, it ramped up to extreme levels. Particularly because my co-ALT also had a contestant who was working almost doubly as hard in his memorization and pronunciation, and through the properties of solidarity it meant that, even if my students standards were being met, we still had to stay as long. We even were asked by one of the other JTEs to come in on Sunday to work on it. It turned into such a glorious day and between my advising JTE and my student I think we were trying to work as quickly as possible. My JTE kept mentioning what a perfect surfing day it would be, so I really hope those days appear for at least the month. As a result, obviously, my blogging suffered, as well as my social time, running habits, sleep schedule, and overall enjoyment of life.

Don’t get me wrong, I now adore my student and all of his robot determinism, and even getting over the fact that he mixes up ‘r’s ‘l’s and ‘th’s should say something. But it came down to working almost ten hour days in what could’ve been done in eight that really got to me. The scary thing is I’m usually one of the first people out of the teacher’s rooms, even if I leave at 7 o’clock. To a lot of extent it just expected of teachers, and many workers in Japan, to stay working even after your salaried hours are filled, but I also think it’s due to the fact that on any given weekday night, myself included, there’s just not too much else to do. Especially when I didn’t have internet (btw, after hours of phone calls and a lot of help from my JTE I now have internet at my home), I was fine to stay later and use it to study Japanese and find out whatever news was going on back home (mostly, Donald Trump and the Presidential Race). Now as the days get dark earlier and I find myself with viable things to do–finish Dune, write my own stories, run, cook my dinner–getting the speech contest over with was the first thing on my mind.

Leading up to the contest, though, were some of the better times of all the work. As my student was saying his speech during practice I’d be mouthing along with him. Despite his “robots” occasionally being turned into “lobots” he had made such a huge transformation over the past month that I felt like I was teaching something a little bit more than English. When it came to intonation I taught him how to create a loud voice without shouting, and with posture I stopped him from slouching. The day before the speech contest was actually his fifteenth birthday, and so instead of having practice I went out and bought him a slice of cake (and cupcakes for the JTE and myself).

Then comes the morning of the contest and Coral and I drove early to the Cultural Center. Not only were our students going to be giving their speeches, but we also got the privilege of being the masters of ceremony along with another JTE. Complaints were minimal, but the whole time I was trying to figure out if I’d rather be in class teaching. Basically, with only two fifteen minute breaks, and lunch, we were sitting in the same spot for a good eight hours, introducing 58 speeches, each giving feedback for 29 of them. I must admit, it was pretty mind numbing, but only once did I zone out so much that by the time she finished and I realized I was the one who had to comment I completely forgot what her topic was about. As I struggled to grasp some blurred words in my memory I ended up saying, “Thank you for telling us about that struggle in your life, and I’m glad you were able to overcome it.”

I felt so bad, and it was a good enforcer of keeping me awake and paying attention to the remaining half, but also was a decent summary of every comment I could’ve given. There were some outstanding speeches and even better performances. We set it up so I could introduce my student and Coral hers, and I played it nonchalantly (while giving him a thumbs up), but I don’t think I could hide the bias in my voice after my speech. Granted, he wasn’t going to win, I think he knew that and at least had no expectations for himself. But his speech that day was far beyond the league of anything he’d done in practice. He said all the words–even those pesky ‘a’s and ‘from’s he was keen to forget. His pronunciation and intonation was on point. Best of all, he smiled through almost all of it, except for the part where he sold his acting skills by frowning and saying, “Actually, a week after this speech contest, I will compete in the robot contest…God help me.*

It garnered one of the few laughs from the audience of the day, and I could not have been more proud. Afterward I got to meet his mother, who explained she had no idea what he was talking about, but was so glad to see him up there. It really made all of the work worth it. Now, I’m realizing he was just about the first student that I met and it’s certainly sad to not get to interact with him as much every day. I guess I’m probably screwed once graduation comes in March and that feeling gets multiplied by two hundred.

Sports

So it’s been a pretty unorthodox first week, but still to the level of excitement and to some extent excitement that I had on the first day. Like I mentioned in the last post, though, this week was not ordinary in that everyone was preparing for this amazing thing called Sports Day. I think it’d be safe to call this a national phenomenon, because I’ve never heard of an American track & field day going to such great lengths. I mean sure, we had the three legged races, the tug of war, but never to the extremes that these kids basically missed two days of actual classwork in order to participate in these activities. On top of that, you have to keep in mind they’ve probably created some of their team ideas (like the posters and group dances) over their summer vacation because they’ve only been in school for a week.

I really wish I could show you some of the pictures of the games they played, but hopefully I’ll do half as good in describing them. Of course, we started out on the field promptly at 8:00 in the morning. Remember this is a Saturday, and as the most important school day of the year, I’d already been awake for a good two hours. (Thankfully, I also had the time to make a great-fried-egg-hash-brown-jam-and-bread-yogurt-V8-breakfast.) Despite some questionable weather in the middle of the week from one of the recent typhoons, the day was clear sunshine and windy enough for that not to be a nagging annoyance. I quickly found the green team tent, on the edge by some shady trees, and watched as the group organized and made it through the opening ceremony.

Somewhere here I think I started to understand the awful reality of someone who takes up this job without speaking a lick of Japanese. I definitely felt it myself by the end with my limited vocabulary used up, but to be stuck out there the whole day trying to communicate purely in gestures in broken English would probably change my perspective on Sports Day. As it is, I thankfully retained enough Japanese to get by and was able to fulfill the boredom between games by learning about the day from another teacher or making jokes with the students.

Back to the point: imagine every fun camp game that you think would be fun to play at school, but would never be able to because it’s just a lawsuit waiting to happen, and that’s Sports Day. Each group had a section of each year represented, for the first and third years (read: seventh and ninth grade) it meant their entire class of thirty people, while second years got mixed with other seconds years from different classes. That way the games could not only be split between the eight teams, but sometimes involve just a certain grade or classes.

For the beginning we started off pretty tame, with a giant jump rope and crew of about 20 students trying to jump over it at the same time. Against my expectations and maybe misconceptions that all Japanese people are great at working with each other and would be super efficient at this game it actually proved to be quite the feat to get down. But once a group did get the right rhythm, boy could they go. One of the groups got over twenty times around before tripping up. Imagine it for a second: ten boys, ten girls, side by side in their purple and white gym uniforms, jumping in perfect sync for half a minute. To some extent downright mesmerizing.

From there the games only got more creative. The next was a sort of race, in fact, I think it could be classified as a relay, because even though there was only one runner about 15 people participated. It starts with four of them, crouching down to form a sort of stairway with their backs, while the runner–typically the smallest–runs up to the top step/back and the rest of the people start forming a pathway with their own backs. When the runner steps off whatever back their on, the person crouching over shuffles to the front of the line to continue the path. The person running, again a tiny and weightless first year, wears a helmet and has someone holding their hand to help, but still, their a good four feet off the ground, and certainly a couple fell more than once. They way they moved, though, really looked like a single person running over a fluorescent blur of centipede like human legs, and they made it fifty yards, around a cone, and back in under a minute.

Next up came a short bout of tug-o-war, a stranger version than what I think I’m used to, in which strategy (or what little there would be in tug-o-war) was completely given over to brute strength (or what little raw power there would be in an average Japanese junior high student). Fun, painful to watch, but all around less exciting.

I think they were just having a break to ramp up to the next activity: マジク・カーペト (the magic carpet). This was perhaps my favorite of the day. They laid out tatami mats and went in rounds of seven people (gender specific, like all the games), where one person would lay out on the tatami, while the other six would gather around and lift the mat. They then would carry them down around a gone and back as quickly as possible, and almost certainly dropping them one or more times. I saw some crazy stunts, The people bringing back the tatami would drop the tatami while the next person would jump in the air and slide onto it. Other riders would be brave enough to stand up and ride it like a surfboard. All the time, I don’t think anyone had reason to not be smiling.

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We had a short intermission for lunch and recovery before it was back on the field for the classic fun game which they were calling “Candy Crush.” Now, I’ve never played the digital game, but I wonder where the name comes for this version, because the candy part, if there was one, was minimal at best. It starts off with your classic person spinning around a baseball bat for however many times or seconds, and continues with the person being tied at the ankles with a partner and completing the well known three legged race. Where it deviates, however, is halfway down the stretch where the pair, along with another couple, has to dunk their head in a tray full of flour and search around with their mouths until they can procure the elusive “candy” piece, and then race to the finish with mouth, hair, and vision caked over to ghostly perfection. Quite inventive, if not a bit disgusting.

The next was perhaps the biggest moment of the day when each team got to perform their own original dance. If you don’t remember, this was a Saturday, and before you might’ve asked yourself why they would make everyone come in on a Saturday instead of just doing all of this over a Thursday/Friday sprint. Well, I briefly thought about it, but by one o’clock on this bright day I quickly understood through looking over at the packed tent set up on the side of the field designated specially for parents. Actually, more impressively was the mention by another teacher that plenty of elementary school teachers and vice-principals would also show up to cheer their former students on. I mean, what more could you want to say F-yeah to?

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Each dance had its own surprises and originality. While some got really serious and martial-like, others made a story and added bits of comedy. For example, pink in Japanese can come from the westernized ピンク or momo, which translates to peach. And if you were lucky enough to be an Asian-studies major at your private liberal arts college, you probably read Journey to the West (Monkey) at some point and would be able to understand why some of the students on the pink team dressed up like characters in the story. Sometimes it’s the little things that reassure me the various dollars in debt I have is well worth it…

After the dances came the pinnacle game in creativity: bakudan, which basically translates to bomb. Think foursquare and volleyball, and then instead of a ball think of the type of ball an Elephant might balance on at the circus. Granted, the balls we were using were filled with air, but still, size-wise I can only imagine four student probably fitting into one of the balls. The teams had to volley the balls into another teams area, over a net, without letting it fall onto their side. If it did, they were out, and the nets would move around to three, and then two courts. My team was pretty successful, making it to the second place for both boys and girls., but then again, one strategy that seemed to work was just try to avoid getting the other team to pass you the ball in the first time.

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They followed up with a class relay, a spin on tug-o-war where they raced to the ropes, and ending in a twenty-legged race of each class which would either end triumphantly or in disaster. All in all, the day seemed like it could go on forever–but in a not so bad way–and by the time four o’clock came round and we were lining up for closing ceremony I was sort of hoping it would. Following the ritual of lining up, accepting awards, and superfluous bowing the groups met back under their tents for closing remarks. The green team ended up getting the second place, not that the point count for anything, but you know, bragging rights and all.

For the third years, this would be their last time doing Sports Day with the junior high, and to some extent with the extreme childlike fun that divides Junior high from the later teenage years. Early on in the day I think I made a joke about how it’d be a time when all the girls would break down and cry and one of the other teachers, without catching my sarcasm, nodded in agreement at the sentimentality of it all. I wasn’t sure if I’d be stuck in begrudging the situation until our team leader, a boy with a knack for cheering and competition, got up and made his speech. Flanked by the other third year leaders, he made it only a bit into his speech before pausing. At first I didn’t catch on to what he was trying to do. It looked like he had to cough, or maybe was at a loss for words. In someways I guess both were true, but as soon as the others started cheering for him, “gambate,” it was pretty clear he was starting to tear up. This is when everyone else started breaking down, and I must say I was pretty moved by the scene. After all, I was part of the group, cheering at times with the loudest voice, and the exhaustion and effort of the whole day probably wore on everyone. At the end, they ended up encircling him and tossing him into the air a few times.

By now it should be no wonder why it is such a big deal among Japanese schools to have a positive Sports Day. I don’t think I ever allowed myself to have a truly loathsome attitude at coming to school on a Saturday (especially since we get Monday off), but at the end of the day it was really no question of how else I’d want to spend my weekend. When I got home I went for a run through the mountains behind my apartment (the so called “backyard”), and felt more energy coming back than I had leaving. Not to mention that we had an enkai later on in the evening, where I finally started to branch out and get to know (or at least talk to some of the other teachers at the school). I’m really starting to wonder if this is what they call the honeymoon period.

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Arrival

This weekend we finally arrived in Echizen, the ultimate destination. It’s hard to believe I’m actually here, and perhaps even more incredible that it’s only been a week. At this point I think the JET lag is finally hitting me, or I’m just so thankful for having some rest. I’ve been passing out around nine o’clock the past couple of nights (which is usually embarassing, being I’m typically with people). The most unfortunate thing is that I still haven’t been able to get into my apartment, so I still don’t really feel like I’ve settled. It’s hard to believe that I’m only living out of these suitcases for the next months.

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Friday, after a little more orientation and a closing ceremony, we finally got to meet our Supervisor. I say we because the school I’m going to help teach at is actually pairing me up with another ALT. The school we’re going to has over 650 students which give me a lot less to worry about knowing we can split up the work. Our supervisor and another English teacher at the school met us at the hotel and drove us to our apartment in Echizen. They both seemed very cool, and I think we got extremely lucky (although, stories from other JETs say on the whole supervisors are usually awesome anyway.) The weather was incredibly hot and we seemed to have a lot on our agenda. First we went to the bank, then the housing agency, then to the cell phone company. Except, by the time we left the bank I had zero yen in my wallet, and couldn’t withdraw enough from the ATM to pay for anything, so I just sat out going to the cell phone place. Good thing, too, because it seems like trying to open up a cell phone contract here is the most difficult thing we could do.

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In the meantime, I hung outside the door to my apartment and soaked in the view. Not a bad start in my opinion. At least compared to Northfield, MN it’s doing alright. That night our supervisor and three other English teachers took us out for yet another izakaya, but this definitely was the best I’d been to. We had toriyakitempura, and an array of sushi. For the night in Grace’s place (I can only assume is a palace compared to my future studio) and she was lucky enough to inherit a futon and a number of pillows and blankets.

Orientation

Now for the longest three days in recent memory. I mean, not much can be said in terms of what I expected and what I definitely did not think about, but basically the JET orientation in Tokyo was a huge daze of information fed and repeated while we tried to figure out what exactly was “cool biz” appropriate.

Welcome Reception

But seriously, walking into the main hall for our welcome reception I think the biggest thing that hit me was just the fact that there were so many of us (not only keeping in mind that there are another two groups after ours). At some point we were told that there are about 2,000 JETs this year, and at least a thousand fit into this room.

We sat patiently through various workshops, lectures, and redundancy, while basically taking three things away from it:

1.) Don’t Drink

2.) Don’t Upset Your Boss

3.) You Represent Your Country

It’s all really just a big blur looking back on it, but I think I retained enough to come in handy when I really need it. That night there was a closing reception where I could finally meet all the people heading to Fukui prefecture with me, and I’ve gotta say: despite there being a bunch of us, I really lucked out in terms of having a cool crew to join me on this journey. I suppose only time will tell, but for now I’m doing alright.

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I think the most amazing part of being in Tokyo was the ability to see my long lost roommate and onii-chan, Yasushi. After a day like the one I had I was ready to pass out before 9 o’clock, but once I trudged down to the lobby to see him I became revitalized. It’s hard to believe that it’d been over two years since we’d seen each other, and it really didn’t feel like any time had passed since I waved him goodbye back at St. Olaf. We spent most of the night out, and it really gave me a sense of assurance that whatever does happen to me in Japan I’ll always find a home to go back to. Today was really the first time that I realized I’d be OK staying here for more than a year, or at least in the sense that I had nothing to fear about not going home after this one had passed. Although again, only time will tell.

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