Sunday, December 30, 2012


I haven't had two weeks of business-is-closed vacation time since college, so this two week winter break is extra exciting. I took a "weekend" trip, the 26th-28th, to Hakone with Emma and Marissa, which was incredibly relaxing. I have concluded that Hakone is a magical land of wonder and amazement; there's no other explanation for how happy and relaxed I felt.

When we got off the train, it was a brilliantly sunny day, though cold, and we decided to walk up the hill to our Ryokan instead of waiting for the shuttle.

Once we were ensconced in the hotel, we went to the onsen for our first dip. I obviously have no pictures of the onsen itself, but there were two different hot pool rooms, which switch back and forth between men and women in the morning and the evening. Both of them have a big indoor pool and a slightly smaller outdoor pool, with taps and shower heads around the indoor room for you to wash yourself before getting into the pool. The indoor room is very steamy, and since we went in the winter, the outdoor air is cold, which makes the water feel even hotter as you get in, even though you're only outside for a few seconds before getting back in the water.

Emma behind the paper screen.
The ryokan provided breakfast and dinner, and I hadn't really thought about it, sort of assuming that the dinner would be buffet style like the breakfast was, but it was served to us in our rooms. It was a huge, beautiful, artistic spread, but it was, of course, mostly fish. Not eating meat isn't actually as big a deal in my life as you might think if you're contemplating all the food you'd be cutting out to become vegetarian; mostly it only affects me inasmuch as there's usually only about three items on any given menu that I can order, not in that I wish I could eat all that other stuff but I can't. It also means I read ingredients for packaged food (but honestly, buying food without high fructose corn syrup is way more of a hassle than buying food without beef stock or gelatin or whatever), and since I CAN'T read ingredients for packaged food here, I just haven't bought any prepared foods at the grocery store. In general, I don't really tend to think about it much, to the point where I forget to ask for vegetarian meals on planes and such.

Fortunately I wasn't especially hungry, because we'd had a huge tempura lunch not too long before, so it wasn't especially a disaster. I tried tiny bites of some of the fish and of the beef in the hot pot, and I can confidently report that I'm not going to start eating meat while I'm here. Fish just tastes so ...fishy. And beef tastes really ...meaty. They just don't taste like food. That is my official report on meat to you, as a life-long vegetarian.

Since we all passed out at about 9:30, it was really easy to get up around 7 and go to the onsen before breakfast. It's a great way to start the day, I must say. After breakfast, we headed out to explore the area, and take the bus up the mountain to the lake and shrine up there. The area is beautiful- stone and hillside, winter trees and sky.
I don't know if these stairs actually went anywhere.
We walked up the hill above town to the shrine there, which looked over the valley.
It was cold enough on the hillside that the water was frozen.

Then we took the bus up the mountain, winding through switchbacks that were even steeper and sharper than the ones up the Blue Ridge Mountains, my previous reference for most-mountainous driving conditions. I'm not sure how much higher the elevation is, but it was definitely several degrees colder up there. The stores in the town up there were actually quite a bit cheaper than the stores selling the same regional products downhill, so I bought Februmas presents for folks, which I will mail home... someday. Took me three weeks to send the postcards, so we'll see. Then we decided to fortify ourselves with caffeine and food before walking around the lake to the shrine, so we stopped in the Italian Tratteria for warmth, pizza, coffee, and the most amazing tiramisu.

All prepared, we walked around the bend of the lake to the shrine, which is probably amazingly beautiful at dusk, since it was strung with lights. Through the gates, and up the stairs on the hill, is the shrine, looking over the lake.

Some people had decided that the stairs were too high for them to bother carrying all their bags, so had left their purses in a cluster by the path. They weren't still there when we came back down, but I can only presume that, this being Japan, the original owners are the ones who walked off with them. Once we walked up to the shrine, we walked back down to the gate overlooking the lake.
We headed back after that, to warm up in the onsen, and I successfully asked for a vegetarian dinner across the language barrier. They do a vegetarian dinner as impressively as a traditional dinner, and we had hotpots and soup and pickles and tempura and on and on. Then back into the onsen, and talking until we went to sleep.

Our final morning, we did the onsen again before breakfast, checked out but left our bags at the hotel, and went back up the mountain to the glass museum before catching the train back home.

All in all, it was really amazing to get outside the city, as wonderful and exciting as life in this city-of-cities is, and enjoy nature and warm water.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Christmas in Tokyo!

It's Christmas morning, and I have to say that if I can't be home with my family, I at least feel really lucky to be celebrating with the lovely people I know here! We've only known each other two and a half months, but I already feel like the people I know here are close friends, not just coworkers. I feel luckier than I should be to have ended up here, with "here" being the city, the work, and the friends I've made.

Yesterday morning started with Kevin making amazing Eggs Benedict for the Murder Lodge, while I made coffee with cocoa mix for Andrew, Emma, and myself. We spent some time just chilling in the lounge, enjoying being on vacation, before I came upstairs to be able to have a long Skype conversation with Aric. I sewed a broken tank-top strap back together and cleaned my room while we talked, so I felt productive and peaceful after talking with him, on top of how happy it always makes me to be able to catch up with him.

Last night I went to Roppongi with most of the Murder Crew + Julian to see the Illuminations. The cold air was sharp enough to make my hands hurt if I didn't tuck them up inside my gloves, but the illuminations were magical. We walked along a row of trees decorated like huge champagne glasses, with lights dripping off them.
A little further down, comet trails of lights were hung between the trees, urging us on to the giant light show.
We watched that for several minutes, then wound back to the station through the Galleria, where I bought a very beautiful, very overpriced slice of matcha flavored tiramisu cake. After that, it was home and the tiramisu and tea in the lounge before bedtime, and now it's Christmas morning and I'm going to go downstairs to see what amazing breakfast is being cooked for me today. It's a hard life, what can I say?

Wednesday, November 14, 2012


A week or so ago Teeth showed me a twenty-four hour supermarket fairly close to the Murder Lodge, and I thought, "Great! It's less than a ten minute walk, so if I need potato chips at three in the morning, I can just pop over!"

I was walking home from the metro one afternoon and about seven guys were slouched against the railing of the river, waiting for something, a restaurant or a bus, who knows. I did the quick automatic scan, and they looked like they had too much time on their hands. I kept looking straight forward and walked past them. None of them said anything or even particularly looked at me.

Halloween day, my kids classes were the special Halloween unit, so I wore a costume to work, and figured the easiest way to do so was just to wear the bat wings and horns in. Two little girls on bikes giggled at me as they passed me, so I waved and said "Happy Halloween!" A few people looked at me for two seconds before carefully dropping their Someone Else's Business shields over the optical space I was occupying. I took the wings off on the metro when a seat opened up, so that I could take it without poking the people on either side of me.

I cheerfully mentioned to one of my co-trainees, "Nobody pays any attention to me on the street! It's glorious!!!!!" He gave me a funny look and asked, "Really?" He paused for a moment. "Oh right, you're a white girl." Our reference points are totally different. He went from being a black man in Baltimore to being a black man an hour and a half north of Tokyo (and now, of course, in Tokyo); I went from being a white woman in Baltimore to being a white woman in Tokyo. These are totally opposite attention vectors, even if we both wind up somewhere close to what I'd call zero. I'm not trying to fool myself on this one: I'll never be Japanese, and I know that as a gaijin I stand out and I always will. But that's fine with me for as long as the price for that remains this low.

Another co-trainee dropped his passport at some point on our epic karaoke night. He reported it missing to the police, and the next day they called to say that someone had turned it in to the police station.

I've stopped even noticing how many guys walk around with the top few inches of their long wallets sticking out of the top of their back pockets.

Jaywalking just isn't a thing here.

It's not all sunshine and roses, of course. I do have one creeper-on-the-train story: taking the packed Yamanote line out of Shibuya, I saw this old guy lean forward and lip the back of the coat of the guy in front of him before deliberately drooling on it. I was staring at him with my WTF-est expression on, and I wanted to say something, but what would I have said? I really can't get much past "sumimasisen" at this point.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

One Month

I've already been in Japan for over a month- how time flies! It's been incredibly busy, in a good way, and I'm already starting to feel like living here is my real life. I'm getting a handle on the most important aspect of my new life, which is Tokyo's train system- or at least, I'm getting a handle on the three lines I ride with any regularity, and getting better at not feeling overwhelmed by the size of the stations and how many people are in them at any given time. It still amazes me that it's possible to know, to the minute, when the trains will leave their station: the sheer organizational power!

Given that the train system comprises the city's arteries, it shouldn't surprise me as much as it did that the English students who have mentioned driving have such a different relationship to it than I do. Back home I had a thirty-five minute drive to work and drove about three hundred miles a week, and often found any additional driving to be tiresome. But I've had two students mention that they love to go driving on their days off, and one said that the hours-round-trip drive there was one of the reasons why he loves going to his favorite hot springs. Maybe after a year of not driving I'll miss it, but for now I'm excited by the thought of not getting behind a steering wheel any time soon.

I think a large part of why living in Tokyo is feeling like reality is that I've finally started work rather than training, found a grocery store, and started cooking meals since I moved into the Murder Lodge. (Oh, right, I moved! Given everything else, that actually seems like small potatoes.) Every so often I still think about how strange it is to be living in one of the most exciting cities in the world, halfway around the world from home, but more and more that's just how I roll- I'm cool like that now, even though I am not now, nor will I ever be, in the same fashion league as the tragically hip youth* I see all over. (In related news, Japanese people have amazing skin, and I cry myself to sleep at night** because I have no hope of aging so well.)

Anyway, speaking of Tokyo being so exciting, I have a party to show up fashionably late to. I promise I will post more soon!

*Aged ~15 to ~50. I cannot tell, because, again, amazing skin. Given the ages my students have claimed they are, I can only conclude that everyone looks 25 until they're 80, and then they acquire a few fine wrinkles.
**As you may have guessed, this is not a literal statement.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

One of the many ways my life has changed

The last three weeks have been pretty amazing, that's for sure. They've also been incredibly busy, and I'm only just starting to settle into some sort of new pattern- routine still feels like the wrong word!

I had four days to get acclimated to the time change and start to find my bearings before training started, and I used those days to get unpacked and meet up with most of my training group before the first day of training. We wandered around Shinjuku, went to the Seiseria's, which is an unusual chain in that it doesn't have a table charge, and did a dry run of the walk from the train station to our office so that we'd know how to get there.

Saturday the 13th was our first day of training, and since we had Sunday off, six of the eight of us rolled out to Karaoke, which is justifiably famous as a Thing To Do In Japan. What you need to know to make this story make sense is that the trains stop running some time around midnight, depending on the line, and don't start again until fiveish in the morning. So if you're going out, you are committed to going out. After two hours at a nomihodai, an all-you-can-drink flat charge bar, everybody suggested going out clubbing in Roppongi. I said I would go home while the trains still ran if everyone else went to a club, but the alternate suggestion to karaoke was floated, and I accepted, based on the best advice I received before I came here: accept every invitation for the first two weeks, even though you'll only feel like sleeping, because people will stop inviting you if you've never said yes. I just wasn't willing to do that for a club.

We rented a karaoke room and rocked our hearts out for hours. We came back to the Murder Lodge to crash, but my roommate and I just decided to wait up another half hour or hour or so until we could head home and sleep in pajamas with toothbrushes. We got home a little after twenty four hours since I had woken up, which if you know how much I love my sleep is quite a feat.

I am now a person who has karaoked all night. That is a thing that I have done. And it was wonderful!

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Leap of faith

Many times over the last few months, I've wondered to myself if I'm really doing this, and how did I actually make this happen? And I think about all the things I'm putting my trust in to fly half way around the world and live an entirely different life for a year:

That Company is actually as reputable as I have every reason to believe, and that it will be the awesome work environment that I think it will be. I have always had prompt responses to paperwork and communication, and have heard personal recommendations about the strength and reliability of Company. My in-person interview was great and informative, but it wasn't in Japan, with the people who will be my direct supervisors and coworkers, so there's a certain amount of sight-unseen on this. I actually really don't have doubts about this, and have seen no red flags, but I feel sort of like I should be less unworried, probably just because it's a huge change and I feel like I should be more skeptical.

That I'm going to be able to roll with everything that I have to roll with. The first question my students ask me when they learn I'm moving to Japan is if I speak any Japanese, to which I cheerfully respond, "Nope!" I am, however, hoping that being there will increase my motivation to make it through more than the first half of the first Rosetta Stone lesson. (The second question they ask is whether I'm going to start eating fish or if I'm going to stay vegetarian. I tell them I'll probably go on a don't ask don't tell basis with things like fish sauce or bonito flakes on food, but that I don't intend to full-on start eating meat.) I know that there's going to be a lot to roll with- jet lag, culture shock, language, food, having a dress code stronger than "not jeans," etc, etc, etc- but I'm pretty sure I can handle it.

That a year isn't that long and that my boyfriend and I can make it long distance.

That my cats will still remember and love me when I get home.

That sushi in Japan is going to be even tastier than sushi in the States. (And, I guess, that they even serve veggie sushi there.)

That 30 really is when all that hard work I did in my 20s of figuring out who I want to be and what I want to do is going to really come together. That it's a good year to go adventuring. That this is going to be awesome.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Mind maps

I've known about mind maps as an organizational tool for brainstorming since at least high school, but I've never personally found them particularly useful for writing papers, and I always did more linear paper outlines with heading and subheadings. Even when we talked about them as a brainstorming tool in grad classes, I didn't see the magic, because doing them as a sample is entirely different than doing them for real.

But now I have seen the light of mind maps, because I used them to write my packing lists for the next year. Mind maps are really perfect for something like packing which has so many categories and sub-categories, and it's really easy to add things in any order without the paper getting out of order. That's a big deal for me- I want my lists to make sense, so it bothers me if I don't split the page up right and run out of room in one vertical list, or if the order doesn't make any sense because I thought of something later, but it was related to earlier things.

Adding information to the mind map worked around that problem, though, because I could come back to any category and add to it later, and since ideas are expanding outward from the center, there's still room, and it's still in the right place. Even adding a whole new category a few days after the first brainstorming session didn't mess things up! It was also helpful just in terms of thinking, because it both made me a little more orderly in filling out my categories, and mitigated the effects of writing down ideas out of order.

I'm starting to feel like it's at least possible that I won't wind up in Japan and realize I should have brought ________.

So, mind maps: what's your experience been with them, and why? Love them, hate them, use them never/all the time?


I intend to use this blog to chronicle my adventures in teaching English as a foreign language. Expect a writing mixture of thoughts on language, teaching, culture shock, and travel fun. There should be enough personal stuff in here to keep those of you who know me interested, but I also hope for this to be a resource that’s useful for other teachers or travelers.

I started this blog now because in mid-October, I’ll be teaching English in Japan, which is an adventure that I’m so excited to embark upon! I think this is going to be a truly amazing year for me, and I think that reflecting on my experiences in journal form will help me maintain this sense of wonder and excitement even when living in Japan is my new normal.

Teaching abroad is a pretty good reward for all that work over the last two years in my M.A. TESOL program, I think! I learned and grew so much in all my classes, and now I feel really eager to go forth and apply my skills and knowledge. I think I’m ready for the challenge of moving from theory to practice.