July 11-13, 2016: The Wheels on the Cat Bus Go Round and Round

To get to work in Shinjuku, I have to take the train from Omori station. But Omori station is a solid fifteen minutes walk from my shared house, including a steep hill and a long set of stairs that is technically a short cut. By the time I get to the station, I am all sweaty, as is everyone else on the train. It’s kind of gross. The ride itself is not too bad, about half an hour. The trains here are super crowded. New York rush hour is nothing compared to Tokyo. You literally see floods of people coming down the stairs to the platform. The stairs are split and labeled up and down to regulate traffic. I thought it was funny that I saw one staircase in particular that was labeled with a one way sign. But it is absolutely necessary during rush hour for everyone to be moving in the same direction. And yet on the platform the throngs of people are extremely orderly. Everyone lines up nicely where the doors will be so it’s not just a mosh pit. And everyone is on their phone, young and old. Then the train itself is really crowded but somehow everyone gets in the car just pushing in and managing to find room. I haven’t been pushed in by the official standing on the platform with the gloves yet but I know it happens. My transfer at Shinagawa is especially crowded because it is a major transfer point that many people get off at. I only recently thought I became acquainted enough with my route to start listening to music on the train. Now that I can read the names of my stops in Japanese, I don’t have to listen for the name. Shinjuku station is the busiest train station in the world. It is enormous and very difficult to navigate.

We work on the sixth floor of a building in Shinjuku. Elevators in Tokyo are vicious. In my experience with elevators, if you hold it with your arm it will usually stay open. Or when you walk into an elevator as it is closing, it will open back up. But the elevators in Japan do not do that. They close fast and hard. They will not wait for you, and they will crush you.

Anyways, our classroom is pretty big. It is a lecture room with a stage in the front and two projectors. Between the stage and the lecture seats are larger tables good for working in groups. And this is where we will be working.

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We started orientation by clarifying what exactly our role will be. It turns out that we are not “teachers” but mentors. It is an important distinction they make. We are supposed to help our students feel comfortable communicating in English. Most importantly, we are supposed to encourage students to think about their own Life Mission. We are supposed to use ourselves as examples of people who have their lives figured out. We are supposed to have a life goal and a direct path to it. In reality, we’re all a mess in terms of decisiveness. But for the kids, we are put together and are supposed to help them get there too. We help them find a passion and feel comfortable pursuing it. As someone who doesn’t really know what he wants to do in life (or perhaps has actively set off on a path that will not be what he wants to do in life) I may not be qualified to be their mentor. In my experience, a life mission is not required to be successful/happy in life but we’re really hammering at it.

The idea is that many Japanese universities require you to enter a certain major from the beginning and you will take classes only in that major and you won’t be allowed to switch so they should know what they want going in. But another aspect of this is that the students are not necessarily encouraged to pursue what they are passionate about. You may not know what your passions are before you enter college. And we are supposed to help them unlock this passion. Hence, we aren’t teachers per se. We are mentors. English is the context in which we help them to do this, but the English is secondary to the life mission development.

For orientation, we practiced giving our presentations. And we gave each other feedback. We also practiced the speaking exercises. The English is obviously easy for us, but we sort of simulate what the real thing is going to be like next week. Some of the things we need to look out for…Japanese students are used to sitting in lecture quietly and taking notes. They are too polite to interrupt the teacher to ask questions, so we are supposed to encourage them to speak up and interrupt (politely) to ask questions. It never occurred to me that this was something that would be teachable (nor something that had to be taught) but this is a cultural difference, albeit a mundane one. Also, though humor is encouraged sarcasm will almost never work. Japanese sarcasm is not like American sarcasm. They won’t get it.

Oh, and the bathrooms don’t have paper towels. Apparently, that’s not a thing cause you’re supposed to carry around your own handkerchief. So you can add that to the list of things Japan doesn’t have along with garbage cans, water fountains and napkins at restaurants (though I did see a water fountain at Roppongi station today). Speaking of which, I find it interesting that all of the train stations have different designs and some of them are actually quite inviting with wooden panels. They don’t have uniform ugliness like the New York subway system.

The program covers transportation to and from work by giving us an unlimited subway card. However, it is super complicated because the subway charges by distance. And because we all live in different places and take different routes to get to work. The way it works is you buy an unlimited card for a certain route. For example, I take the JR from Omori to Shinagawa and then transfer to another JR to Shinjuku. This means that I have unlimited travel along this route. If I were to go from home past Shinjuku station to Ikebukuro, then I would have to pay the fare for the distance from Shinjuku to Ikebukuro. But if I wanted to go to Shibuya from home, then it would be included in my unlimited because Shibuya is on my route. It took us a solid hour to understand this confusing system.

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Kabukicho, Shinjuku, Tokyo

Our office in Shinjuku is located near lots of restaurants, department stores, and a large UNIQLO that I will go to one of these days. One of the places I liked for lunch was one of those where you order at the machine. I had a bowl of rice topped with pork and a raw egg. The pork was like bacon and the raw egg was surprisingly appropriate in this dish. This place has a punchcard system where I get a free meal after ten and I have a feeling I’ll be going back here a lot. I also went to an udon restaurant that is like the Chipotle of udon. You pick a size of udon (the large is absolutely enormous). The man behind the counter grabs a fistful of udon and dips it in water and puts it in a large wooden bowl. Then you take it over to a bar of tempura things, including bacon, shumai, and the typical things like sweet potato. There was so much food. I had started out super hungry not having had breakfast. By the end of the meal my stomach was hurting no longer from hunger but from being full. But I love udon. And bacon–it was literally deep fried bacon.

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After work, we hang out. Yesterday we went to Harajuku to check out Takeshita street and Harajuku street. There are lots of stores selling anime merchandise.This is the center of youth culture and fashion. It seemed to be the hang out spot for students getting out of school. There were lots of people in school uniforms. But of course its also hard to distinguish the people who are dressed up as schoolgirls and those who actually came from school. Cause there is a lot of people dressed up here too in outfits that would turn heads everywhere but Japan. I’m going to have to go back here for shopping, though everything looked pretty expensive. I saw a Beard Papa’s on Takeshita street. But there were a lot of crepe places and they all display fake crepes in the window as the menu. I had one with berries and cereal for texture. There are a lot of American stores in Harajuku as well. I’m assuming this is where everyone is going to buy the American clothes I’ve been seeing on the subway. I didn’t go into H&M but the store looked enormous. We did go into the LINE friends store. LINE is the app most Japanese people use to communicate. And the mascots have their own stickers and this store exclusively sells merchandise featuring these characters. It’s kind of ridiculous, but they are pretty cute.

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Today, I went to the Studio Ghibli exhibit in Roppongi Hills. Let me preface this by saying that I have always wanted to go to the Studio Ghibli museum. But so has everyone else. And tickets sell out extremely fast. They go on sale on the tenth of each month for the next month. And by 9pm on July 10th, the month of August was completely sold out already. I was so angry that I missed it. It’s a weird, stupid system too. Perhaps to prevent scalpers from getting all the tickets, you have to go to a Lawsons convenience store and buy tickets at a machine. This obviously heavily favors Japanese attendees because you can only buy the tickets domestically. But luckily, there is an exhibit separate from the museum that opened in Roppongi Hills for the opening of the new movie, The Red Turtle, which I saw at Cannes. The exhibit features artwork and merchandise from every Ghibli film from the very fist, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. It is a very well made exhibit and there was a lot more to see than I expected. It was located at the top of Mori Tower, so our ticket also included access to City View where we got a foggy view of Tokyo. From there we could see Tokyo Tower and the streets below. There were a lot of tennis courts, probably a result of Kei Nishikori’s recent success, bolstering the sport in Japan. Anyways, the exhibit was a lot of fun and kind of makes up for not getting into the museum. The artwork was stunning and reaffirmed my love of movies. There was a replica of the airship from Castle in the Sky that actually moved up and down. And…a cat bus that was actually furry. These were the only things you could take pictures of, and I got one. From the 52nd floor, we were directed to an escalator which took us to the gift shop. I could hardly resist the temptation to buy everything. It was quite expensive on top of the admission fee, but I did give in. It’s my souvenir from Japan.

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Roppongi Hills is a very well off neighborhood. A lot of multinational corporations are located here so there are a lot of wealthy foreigners and Japanese here. It is a city within a city, housing offices, museums, restaurants, high end designer stores and apartments all within a city block. There is a famous statue of a giant spider. There are allegedly 5 such spiders in the world and this is one of them. Nisha and I ate at the most amazing place for dinner. I have been craving meat because I feel like I’ve been eating mostly fish. And when you get meat with your noodles, it’s usually just one small slice. So we went to this place for yakitori skewers. The great thing about this place is that everything, I mean everything on the menu (alcoholic drinks, skewers, rice dishes, everything) is just 280 yen. It was a very satisfying dinner.

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On Monday, we had our first Japanese class. As a beginner, we learned some useful phrases for greeting people and introducing ourselves and for being understood at restaurants. I think Japanese grammar is probably a little too difficult for us to learn and use in the short time we’re here. It is more useful for us to learn phrases. It was a fun class. I actually enjoy learning languages. Unfortunately, we hadn’t committed these phrases to memory by the time we went to dinner after class. We accidentally stumbled into an empty cheap Chinese/Japanese restaurant. The waiter/owner/chef gave us barley tea, but we wanted water. And with out new skills, we asked him for mizu and he did not understand. We struggled to convey the message through Google translate and eventually gave up on simple water. But the man asked if I was Chinese and then we progressed our conversation in Mandarin, which is funny because I didn’t expect to use Chinese in Japan as our lingua franca. The man was kind of lonely, and he proceeded to tell us his life story. He was very sweet. And I struggled to follow but pretended. I actually caught bits of it, enough to create a story. The man’s family left China during the Communist Revolution to Taiwan, and then some of them went on to the United States, while he went to Japan. And he misses his family. He showed us pictures they took at the National Parks. I think he also said there is a festival in August when he will take off and visit his family and he’s looking forward to it. I didn’t really know how to respond, so my excuse for not responding was that I was translating for my friends while they ate. They had both finished and I still had a full plate because I was trying to listen and decipher the Chinese. I was actually quite impressed with myself. But I probably butchered his life story on the internet…

 

 

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