Canyoning in Minakami

What is canyoning? To the uninformed layman, the word may conjure up images of going to a canyon and doing something, although exactly what that something is isn`t quite readily apparent. For this reason, I is I am on a one man personal crusade to change the term to “Waterfalling”.

So what is “Waterfalling” then? Well to the uninformed layman, the word may conjure up images of going to a waterfall, and falling off it. In my expert opinion (I am a one-time Waterfalling veteran as of this past weekend) this is a much more appropriate term for said activity.

Wikipedia defines canyoning (cough; waterfalling) – known as canyoneering in the U.S. , as travelling in canyons using a variety of techniques that may include other outdoor activities such as walking, scrambling, climbing, jumping, abseiling, and/or swimming.

Read that last part again. Canyoning, involves travelling down a canyon (waterfall..alright…I`ll stop) by JUMPING off of it. Yes, it is every bit as awesome as it sounds, and I salute the brave men and women who had the gallstones to peer off the perilous edge of a waterfall and decide taking a leap off of it would make for a good team-building weekend activity.

In continuing the apparent tradition of reckless abandon in the quest for fun that JETs are known for, on September 11, about 25 of the Gunma ALTs planned a canyoning trip in Minakami – the outdoor sports haven of Japan. Wide eyed and full of wonder and trepidation, our adventure began when we met in front of the Minakami train station. There, we waited for the comically small busses that would take us to Canyons – the company that would be hosting the events of the day.

While waiting, yours truly took great pleasure in telling wildly exaggerated stories and making fantastical claims about the thrills and horrors that were to be expected.

ME: I was watching videos of canyoning on YouTube all day yesterday, and did you know that all you get for protection is a wetsuit and a helmet? Then you use that to slide down rapids, over waterfalls, trying to avoid rocks, branches and other obstacles.

GIRL: Really? That`s what canyoning is? Is that safe?? I`m sure it`s totally safe right..

ME: Well they make you sign a waiver for a reason. You know, to cover their asses and all. I mean we will probably have to do jumps off 10, 15, maybe even 20m high waterfalls.

GIRL: What?! *converts metres to feet in her head* WAIT, WHAT?!?!

ME: *shrug* Yeah, I mean that`s why I took out another life insurance policy – just in case. After all, we`ll have to travel down those rapids feet first, head first, and even backwards and those helmets are only made out of plastic.

GIRL: Oh my gosh!! Oh my GOSH!!!! You`re joking right?!

ME: I wouldn’t worry about it too much though, I mean it`s best if you just don’t think about it and just jump. Also..be sure to actually jump, because if you don`t, they will actually throw you off the cliff because theres no other way down. I heard last year, they threw some girl because she wouldn`t jump, and on the way down she hit the side of the cliff face.

GIRL: *On the verge of tears and beginning to hyperventilate* Ohmygodohmygodohmygod…

ME: But don`t worry I`m sure you`ll do fine. Just make sure to keep your knees bent to avoid breaking them, keep your arms in tight so you don`t break an elbow against a rock, and tuck your chin in so you don`t break..your neck. That probably doesn`t happen very often though. Probably..

GIRL: *Has turned pale white and begun swaying erratically*

ME: Haha..don`t worry I`m totally kidding, I made all that up.

GIRL: You JERK!!! *flails her fists at my arm repeatedly*

The little Canyoning busses pulled up just as I had finished having my fun. An exuberant Japanese man with long shaggy hair and an unplaceable accent hopped out and asked if we were ready to jump off waterfalls and have a great time. Following a chorus of yelps and cheers, we piled into the bus and putted down the street, up the winding mountain road to the base station.

Once we got there, we were quickly ushered to the changing areas to get our equipment – wetsuits, shoes, gloves, helmets, and life jackets. It took awhile to get everything on because the gear was extremely tight and form fitting.

Finally we were all ready to go. Separated into two groups, we were ushered by the shaggy-haired Japanese guy into an even smaller bus-van thing. Once inside, he introduced himself as Igor and gave us a rundown on procedure and what to expect.

IGOR: Okay you guys all signed the waiver right? Good, just checking. Make sure you guys all have your helmets because that`s very important. You don`t want to bash your head in while you`re sliding headfirst or backwards down rapids and waterfalls, trying to avoid rocks, branches and other obstacles. Keep your hands out in front of you though because those helmets are only made out of plastic. But make sure to keep them slightly bent so you don’t risk breaking them! Now when you jump off the 20m high waterfall, make sure you keep your knees loose, arms tight, and chin tucked so you don`t break your legs, arms, or neck. And you better jump – because if you don`t, we`ll throw you! Haha – just kidding, but actually not really, so seriously, you should jump. Last year, there was a girl who – well, nevermind. Okay we`re here, everybody out!

I shook the girl in front of me who appeared to have fainted, and we all piled out of the bus-van and waddled down the beaten path, towards the stream at the top of the river. After explaining the signals one more time, some last minute checks and final preparations, we were off down the stream.

The way you travel down a river while canyoning is to simply lean back and let the lifejacket keep you afloat and let the current carry you downstream. You avoid rocks and obstacles by steering yourself with your body and using your hands and feet as rudders. Although the suits are lightly padded, It`s not the smartest idea to hit anything head on or with your knees and elbows. Or face.

Once we were past the stream and into the actual river rapids, the pace quickly picked up and we went from one checkpoint to the next, on our backs, headfirst, or bracing against rocks and hiking along the rapids.

Finally we approached the big jump. The 20m high waterfall. As we peered over the crest of the falls and down into the abyss below, there was a feeling of excitement, fear and absolute dread in the air.

After the first person went over, our guide asked the group who wanted to go next. Since I was the guy who was talking smack all morning and I was the only one with a waterproof camera, I was volunteered for the job.

The way it worked was that they attach a rope to your harness and slowly lower you out into the actual waterfall. Then once you`re ready (you can never be truly ready for what happens next), the guide releases the rope and you shoot down the waterfalls, riding the torrents of water, like a waterside without an actual physical slide. It was an absolutely incredible experience.

As one by one, everyone completed the big drop, there was a genuine sense of camaraderie and fellowship that formed among the group. When you complete something as insane as sliding off a 20m high waterfall together, that is a pretty intense shared experience.

Spurred by the confidence the Big One gave us, we approached the remaining jumps with less apprehension and enjoyed the leaps, spills, flips, and flops. Together we conquered huge waterfall jumps, flipped off ledges 15 feet up, and deftly navigated between moss covered rocks and granite walls smoothened by thousands of years of cascading water.

By the end of the tour, we were exhausted but wished we could do it all over again. As we walked down the path towards the waiting bus, shoes squishing with water and wetsuits beginning to chafe, I turned around and looked back at the final waterfall one last time. I stood there and reflected on just how incredible of an experience that was and how lucky we all were to have had the opportunity to try something like this in Japan. I breathed a sigh of relief that I didn`t bash my face into a pile of jagged rocks and turned around to catch up with the group.

After we got back from canyoning, the night was made even more legendary by the inclusion of a BBQ and live music dance party. People came up from Tokyo to this event, and the clubbing event that took place was one of the most intense nights I`ve ever been out at.

We also found an amazing swimming hole right around the corner from the ryokan (traditional Japanese hotel) we stayed at. You can see it in the video posted above.

Thus concluded the epic, no, glorious, 2010 Canyoning excursion of the Gunma ALTs. I would like to thank all the people who were involved, especially GAJET and in particular Jessie Zanutig and Thom Schumacher who took the initiative to organize the event. Much love also goes out to the staff of Canyons, the company that took us on the actual tour. In addition to my slightly inflated (but not really) allegations from before, they were not only a bunch of cool guys, but consummate professionals as well, who took the greatest care to ensure that we all had a fun, safe trip. At no point did I fear for my safety, and I was confident that they knew exactly what they were doing.

For anyone interested in going Canyoning (or Waterfalling, as I still insist on calling it), if you are in Gunma, and in particular – Minakami, definitely give it a try. It is an incredible experience, and definitely should be part of your bucket-list. Minakami itself is a beautiful place; ensconced within the beautiful mountains of Gunma, steeped in history and with lots of things to do and see like hot water springs (onset), hiking trails, kayaking, and winter sports in the winter.

Here`s a video I made of the experience:

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A Typical Day In The Life of a JET

Three weeks into the job, I`m beginning to settle into a bit of a daily routine. I usually get up around 6:30 to 7, and am out the door by 7:45. On a good day, it takes me 8 minutes to bike to school from when i first hop on my bike to when I lock it up.

After all the morning “Ohayo Gozaimasu!!”  to the students and to the staff, I will sit around until first period begins if I have a class. If I don`t have a class, or whenever I have a free period, I will usually spend it either studying Japanese, researching lesson game ideas, writing these blogs, making videos, or looking up random stuff on wikipedia. If I get restless enough due to not having any classes the ENTIRE day (which happened several times last week), I get up and just wander the school, popping in and out of random classes.

At the end of the day, everyone cleans the school together, and since my designated area is the teacher`s lounge, I walk around with a rolled up newspaper and point out pieces of dirt that the students who are vacuuming have missed. If they miss more than several obvious ones, they get a playful little bop with the newspaper from me.

Cleanup time usually ends at about 4 pm. At this point, I usually either meet with my students doing the speech competition or wander around the school, going to the different clubs. Technically, I`m off the clock at 4:15, but I almost never go home at that time.

I love meeting with my speech competition kids. They are really great. Some of them are incredibly shy, and some are outgoing and expressive, but all of them try REALLY hard and it warms my heart. I really enjoy helping them with their pronunciation, intonation and gesturing, and it is probably one of the most fulfilling parts of my job.

After helping out with the speech competition, It is usually around 4:45. At that point, I either go to the piano room to relax and practice piano for about half an hour, or I go check out the various clubs. I enjoy training with the Judo club, watching the Kendo club practice, drawing with the art club, and jamming with the music club.

Actually, several days ago, I was wandering the halls, and I popped into the band club. I picked up one of the guitars and took it outside into the hall to jam by myself for a bit, when all of a sudden I heard a stampede closing in. I turned my head to see about 2 dozen girls running from multiple adjacent hallways, and in about 30 seconds, I suddenly found myself surrounded by eager smiling faces. I played a few songs, and my status as the school heartthrob was further cemented. In Japan, there is a term known as “Charisma-man”, which denotes a regular guy who comes to Japan and suddenly becomes an instant-celebrity and incredibly cool dude, just because they are a foreigner in Japan. I am the definition of a Charisma-man here.

So overall, the first few weeks of working at my school have been fantastic. Interestingly, according to some of the ALTs in my area who have worked here before, my school has had a bit of a reputation in the past as being a bit of a troublemaker school. To be honest, my experiences here have not reflected that. For the most part, the kids have tons of personality and boundless energy. Well, at least in the halls and during afterschool clubs. Time for another really long tangent!

Teaching in a Japanese classroom can be a bewildering experience for someone who has no idea what they are getting into. First time teachers are often caught off guard by an almost complete lack of classroom participation, avoided glances, blank stares, and super quiet tiny voices. This is a really interesting phenomenon and totally at odds with what you might see in a classroom back in Canada or the states.

In Japan – the ideal of what constitutes a good student is almost diametrically opposed to our idea of a good student in the west.

In the west, a good student is one who is outspoken, unafraid to speak their mind, confident, and expressive. These traits are leading indicators of leadership, extraversion, and individuality, which are highly valued in both corporate culture and western society at large.

By contrast, in Japan, a good student is one who is quiet, doesn`t stand out much, does their work, and does well on tests.

There is a very popular saying in Japan that goes, ” The nail that sticks out will be hammered down. ” The concept is so ingrained in Japanese culture and so central to the Japanese way of life that it is apparent at all levels of social interaction. This is because In Japan, social and group harmony is extremely important, and it is almost considered rude of a person to stand out and express themselves freely. Thus, people develop extreme aversions to being singled out.

Which brings me back to my point – It`s often quite difficult in some classes to get the kids to participate and answer questions in class unless there is already an existing culture of outspokenness within the classroom. They just don’t want to stand out, or be judged by their peers if they make a mistake.

To encourage my students to participate in class more, I`m starting a pilot project with some of the first year classes. I`m having them making little `passport` booklets, and if they participate in class or answer a question, I`ll stamp their passport. At the end of the semester, I`ll hold an auction and everyone can use their stamps to bid on prizes.

Hopefully this will solve two problems – 1. students not participating and 2. me giving away all of my prizes early. I brought tons of prizes with me from Canada, but when I started giving one or two away during classes, I quickly realized they would be all gone within a month or two. With the passport-stamp system, rather than giving the prizes away for free, I create a free market and let market forces decide the price of the goods. I didn`t go to business school and graduate with a degree in economics for nothing!

However, outside the class room It`s a completely different story. As I walk down the halls, ALL the kids want to talk to me. Usually they just say hi, or the one phrase they have memorized and then run away ( usually either a)What cup do you like?? b)I like TSUNADE!  c)I do/don`t like Kakashi! or d) she likes you!! [gesturing at her friend] ). It`s funny – for the first time in my life, I`m the most popular person at school.

Sometimes, I will engage a student (or a group of them..they tend to cluster together) in a short conversation, and if I`m lucky, I may get some replies, amidst the giggles. If their english level is really low, it becomes more a challenge of overcoming the communication barrier. It gets better day by day though, as my Japanese improves, I become more proficient with using the English-Japanese dictionary on my Iphone, and I think up more topics of conversation and things to do or show the students.

Finally, after what feels like a really long but fulfilling day, I hop back on my bike at anywhere between 5:45 and 6:30 and head home. I usually stop by the supermarket across the street to pick up dinner for the night, and then I go home, make dinner and usually just relax in front of my computer for the rest of the night. Most of the time I`m blogging, or chatting with friends back home, or hanging out with one of the other ALTs in my building. I usually call it a night around 12:30, even though I always tell myself I`ll go to sleep at 10:30.

And that, ladies and gentlemen is a typical day in the life of a JET. Overall, It`s a pretty good life and I`ve got no complaints so far!

First Real Day At Work

Another day another post. I`m still backed up quite a bit, but I think progress is being made, and since my week is starting to settle into a routine, I can skip more days.

My first *real* day at work was actually on August 30th, but for the most part the days have been pretty similar. There is an endless number of things to write about though, since my school is basically a manga that is dying to write itself.  Anyways…

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*BRING BRING BRING* My alarm clock went off again for the 3rd time. I`m an avid enthusiast of the snooze button, but somehow, each time I press it, the interval between the next alarm becomes shorter and shorter. When the alarm went off for the 3rd time, I told myself that I could lie in bed as long as it was still on. So as it continued to blare obnoxiously, I ignored it up until the marginal point where my desire to turn it off exceeded my desire to stay in bed.

Eventually I got up and had my cold shower (at this point I hadn`t yet figured out how to turn on the water heater), cracked open some eggs for breakfast, crammed my stuff into my bag and began the 7 minute bike ride to school. Fortunately, the weather this morning was slightly more forgiving than usual and I arrived at the school without being completely drenched head to toe in my own sweat. It was kinda nice.

Technically this wasn`t my FIRST day at work; it was really my second. I had come in the previous monday to meet some of the teachers and walk around the school but I had only been there for a few hours. This would be my first real day at work. When I got to school, I walked into the newly renovated teacher`s office and met some of the other teachers I hand`t met before. Japanese names are very different from western ones so I still struggle a lot with remembering them.

As it was my first day, I was to give a speech to the entire school and staff on the stage of the school gymnasium. I decided to give it entirely in Japanese and had spent the past week writing it out and practicing it. Thus my whole morning was spent hunched over my desk in the teachers office, reading my speech out loud softly to myself and practicing my intonation. After a few dozen run-throughs, I was ready. With steely determination, I looked up and – confusedly looked around and – realized there was nobody in the office!! I was really confused at first until it slowly dawned on me – this was the ninja-teacher phenomenon. Japan ofcourse being the land where ninjas originated, it is quite common for JETs to suddenly find themselves in an empty teachers office with no idea where everyone went. Seriously, it was like they just vanished. And it`s not like there is any announcement that everyone is supposed to head off or anything. People just slowly leave one or two at a time until there are only a couple left, then poof! They too are gone.

Undeterred, I got up and walked out onto the hallway where I heard voices coming from around the corner, and outside in the gymnasium. It turned out that the assembly had already started, and Kocho-sensei and Kyoto-sensei (principal and vice-principal) were taking turns giving opening ceremony speeches. Suddenly I heard the words “atarashii” and “ALT”; atarashii meaning new, and I clued in that it was time for me to go onto the stage. I gave my camera to one of the fellow teachers and hopped up onto the stage to give my speech. I talked about myself, Canada, my hobbies, likes and dislikes, and my family. I also interjected something about how I really like the manga (japanese comic) Naruto, and I want to be a good teacher like Kakashi; one of the characters in the manga. After spending all week working on my speech, I thought it was quite good with some jokes and that bit about the manga, which I was sure would be a crowd pleaser.

Sadly, it was not met with any type of response at all. The students just sat there and stared at me, unless I caught a student in the eye and they would blush and turn away, giggling excitedly. After my speech, the ceremony dragged on for a little bit while we all simmered in the shirt drenchingly humid gymnasium. When it finally ended, it was back to the teachers lounge where I sat around and began to prepare my self-introduction class. The self introduction classes would prove to be really interesting, but I will talk about them on the next post.

After the school day ended, I was left to my own devices and free to wander around. I decided to take the time to walk around the school where I discovered something that still blows my mind. When school ends for the day, everyone, from ichi-nensei to san-nensei (1st to 3rd years), as well as the teachers, band together and clean up the entire school! They run around with towels and brooms, putting things away and shuffling desks and chairs back into their proper places. Amazingly, no one complains about this unpaid labour. Everyone goes about it cheerfully, making jokes and having fun while cleaning together. It`s a big part of Japanese culture to band together to get things done as a community. This is something I really admire about Japan.

After everyone finished cleaning up at 4pm, all the students split up to go to their respective clubs. Thats right, they STILL don`t go home. In Japan, virtually all the kids are a part of an afterschool club. Some of the various clubs are basketball, volleyball, kendo, judo, ping pong, brass band, home-making, shop, and art. They meet EVERY SINGLE DAY for 1-3 hours. Often they will meet on Saturdays as well.

Is this blowing your mind yet? As someone who comes from the American and Canadian education systems and cultures, my first response was ” Oh my god, those poor kids! They never get a break, they`re always studying and even after school, they have to stick around for the rest of the afternoon! They never get any time to themselves to hang out and be kids! ” However after thinking about it a little bit, it made a bit more sense. You just have to view it from a Japanese perspective.

In Japan, from the moment you’re old enough, you’re always part of a well defined peer group that takes up the majority of your day. In elementary school its your homeroom class and in Jr. High and Highschool, its your afterschool clubs. These clubs are mandatory; every student is required to be in a club. So you might think, oh that kind of sucks, Japanese people must have no time to make friends. Before I explain it, most people tend to think like that. However consider this, if everyone is in a club anyway, who would you hang out with if you’re not IN a club? That`s right, you would be all by yourself! This means that students become really good friends with their club mates and and do most of their socializing with each other, and during club time. Then they go home around dinner, do homework and go to sleep. It`s a perfectly self-contained bubble of social interaction.

This type of cycle continues on into the workforce (but not the university years..I’m not quite sure about how the dynamic works there yet, but it seems its a lot more like open and free). As salarymen and office ladys, people are encouraged to stay overtime until the boss leaves, and to socialize with each other over drinks after work. Thus, almost all social interaction for a large proportion of Japanese society takes place within well defined peer groups with clear boundaries and rules of etiquette. Personally I don`t think I could live my life this way, but it`s the Japanese way, and over here it works, because each level of social interaction is based on the same group-oriented principle.

While I was walking around the school wracking my brain trying to understand the social dynamics at play, I eventually found myself at the school gym where various sports clubs were taking place.

” KAKASHI – SENSEI! LOOK! LOOK! ” Yelled out a student as she took aim at a basket.

*swish* ”

Look, It`s Kakashi-sensei! ”

” Kakashi-sensei, let`s play! ”

To my great surprise, I had become affectionately nicknamed Kakashi-sensei by my students after not even one day. This was also one of my first experiences with the true celebrity status being an ALT in Japan commands. I`m not even joking, at my school, I`m more popular than Justin Bieber, Miley Cyrus, The Jonas Brothers, and both the dudes from Twilight combined. As I walk around, I project a field of Absolute Coolness, 360 degrees in every direction. I will walk around the school and students in my immediate vicinity (especially the girl) completely lose their minds. If I so much at glance at a group of them and make eye contact, it`s an instant KO. It`s as if I was Cyclops from X-Men and I wasn`t wearing my visor – beams of pure awesomeness at 100% intensity projecting everywhere I look.

Anyways, in addition to basking in my new found fame, I discovered hanging out with the basketball, volleyball, judo and kendo clubs was a lot of fun. I really enjoy visiting all of the clubs, watching and participating a little bit.

Before I knew it, It was already almost 6 and time to wrap up. I packed up my stuff, said goodnight to all the teachers, and made my way to the supermarket to pick up dinner.

So yeah, that was pretty much the end of my first real day at work. It was a great first day and I think that it was a pretty good indicator of what I could expect working at this school.

End of August Re-cap SUPERPOST

So in between classes and in the evenings, I`ve been writing out what happened during the rest of August. In an effort to finally catch up to the present, I`ve compiled the events of the remaining 10 days or so of August into one super post.

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Aug 19PAYDAY!

August 19 was my first payday! Usually JETs get paid on the 21st of the month, but this month we got paid a couple days early since the 21st fell on a weekend. What made this quite memorable, was that up to this point in time, I had gone to work (at the school) a grand total of 0 times. This isn`t really typical at most JET placements, and I was just really lucky my school was amazingly generous and gave me the time to settle into my new place and get used to living in Japan.  So basically, I got paid for being on vacation the entire month, although officially all the orientations were work.

After I pulled some money out of my bank account, the first stop of the day was the big Yamada Denki in Takasaki to buy my Macbookpro. I almost had my heart broken because the model I had set my eye on was sold out. After a couple minutes of deliberation, I decided to spring for the slightly more expensive model and shell out another ¥9000 or so.

I picked up the midrange model with a 2.53ghz core i5 processor, 4gb of ram, 500gb hd and Nvidia 330m graphics card. Not super high end specs, but enough to edit HD video and run Starcraft 2 so I`m happy. The awesome thing about buying electronics at Yamada Denki is that you accumulate points which can be used towards the purchase of something else. From the purchase of my Macbookpro, I received almost $300 worth of points. Unfortunately I would have to wait at least a day to use them.

After picking up the Macbookpro, Ken and I stopped by an amazing multilevel store in Takasaki that sold all manner of random things. The first floor was full of coin-operated catch machines. The second floor was the most amazingly stocked second hand clothing store I`ve ever seen. It was like salvation army for hipsters and rich people. There were really high end clothing, LV and Gucci bags, and super expensive looking leather shoes and such on sale for maybe 20% of their original price. The third floor was all manner of videogames, DVDs, and CDs. The 4th floor was an – ENTIRE – floor dedicated to model kits, action figures, and figurines.

Being the closet nerd that I am, I bought a Gundam model that had already been assembled for about $15. They originally go for around $80 so I was quite pleased with this purchase. Ken also finally found a Gundam model that he had been looking for over the past year.

What are Gundams? Well Gundam is a franchise of “giant robot” media. They appear in anime, manga, toys, and model kits. The franchise has been popular since the 80`s and continues to be to this day in its various iterations and current incarnations. Giant robots as a whole are sort of a cultural icon in Japan and are firmly woven into the cultural fabric. In Japan, and in the rest of the world, building Gundam model kits is a very popular hobby. When I was in highschool, I got involved in this scene a little bit, although I was never quite manually dexterous enough to detail the models to look like how they did on the box. This was a constant source of disappointment during my childhood. Fortunately, the one that I purchased was fully painted and mounted. It would make a good desktop accessory.

Anyways, after we had finished buying Macbookpros and model kits, we went back to my place and had a couple beers while assembling the Gundams and booting up my new mac.Unboxing a Mac is like undressing a hot girl – you`re never sure if you want to rip off all the packaging as quickly as possible or unwrap it carefully. In this case, I opted to do it slowly and take pictures along the way. Hehehe.

And so concluded the nerdiest friday night in Japan I`ve had so far.

Aug 20 – Buying a Monitor

The next day, it was back to Takasaki to purchase my monitor. Using the points I accumulated from buying the MBP, I picked up a 23-inch 1080p monitor which is perfect for connecting to the MBP and my PS3. Unfortunately, what should have been a simply process took a ridiculously long time at Yamada Denki because of the multiple levels of redundancy that people who work in service industries in Japan are required to do.

For example, after I had decided on a monitor, the first Yamada Denki employee I talked to ran to get an actual salesman for me to deal with. Then when the salesman got there, he ran off to a terminal on the other end of the floor to see if the monitor was in stock. Then he ran back, DOUBLECHECKED the model, and ran back again. As expected, the model I was looking at was not in stock so I had to choose a different one. After I finally decided on another one I liked, the salesman ran back to the terminal to do the exact same thing. Twice. This same cycle continued several more times as I asked if there were speakers, if I could use my accumulated points, and one more time to MAKE SURE IT WAS IN STOCK AGAIN. It was pretty ridiculous, but in the hilarious in retrospect sort of way. Then again, everything in Japan seems to happen in this manner. Everything has multiple levels of redundancy.

It’s interesting because the multiple levels of redundancy extends to jobs – I have noticed that at least at Yamada Denki and the other electronic retail stores, some people will have jobs where they do nothing at all but stand there and greet you or refer you to another worker at Yamada Denki. To me this seems like the most inane waste of money and corporate resources ever. I still haven`t completely figured out why they do this, but I suspect it`s the same reason why there are so many traffic police to be found on quiet one way streets – in Japan they seem to give people jobs so that they can maintain the dignity of having work. This would explain why when I`m at a restaurant, sometimes a server will come around and absolutely insist on pouring me water or tea, even after I let them know I can do it myself. I suspect its considered insulting to do someone`s job for them.

Theres not much more to this story except that I eventually DID finally manage to get my monitor which made me quite happy. Too bad I didn`t have the money to buy this one; the biggest and most expensive commercially available plasma TV in the world:

It`s 103 inches and costs about $60,000


Aug 21 – Go-Karting in Isesaki

The following day, to finish off our last day of break before school “officially ” started, Ken, JY, a couple other friends and I went go karting in a small city called Isesaki near Maebashi. I`ve only ever gone Go-Karting once before so this was a lot of fun, albeit quite expensive; about ¥2000 for 8 laps!

En route to Isesaki, I ran into my favourite Texan JET, Ashley. She has an awesome blog, and if you like mine, you should check hers out as well at: http://gunmagogo.blogspot.com/

I always forget how small go-karts are. They are extremely zippy and speedy for their size though, and these particular ones reached speeds of up to and over 60 km/h!

You can call me the Asian Stig.


Aug 23 – First Day of Work

August 23 was my first official day of work. I got up early, had a good breakfast, got dressed in a nice shirt and tie, and took the 5 minute bike ride to my school. I went inside, met the vice principal, some of the teachers, and sat around for a couple hours to wait for the principal. Eventually I got restless, so rather than just sitting in place with nothing to do, I walked around the school greeting students and waiving at them. Since Japan is an alternate reality land, I was a complete and utter celebrity as soon as the kids saw me. It was hilarious, and I`ll talk about it more at a later post.

This is what the classrooms I`ll be teaching look like. It`s an ichi-nensei (first year) classroom, but they all look the same. It really looks straight out of an anime or manga.

After a bit of wandering around, I went back into the teacher`s office and just waited. When the principal finally arrived at the school, I was introduced to him and after a few formalities, told i could go home for the rest of the week. What?!… And so ended my first day at work!

Aug 24 – Recycle Shops and Iphones

The next day, one of my unofficial predecessors Jessica, and her boyfriend Kenji took me out to lunch. We went to Saitama and ate at a delicious indian restaurant.

I had curry that was so spicy I wanted to die to make it stop. As I sat there in misery, munching on my delicious butter chicken, naan bread and “Indian-level spicy” curry, I marveled at the fact that this was my first time actually ever eating at an Indian place. Japan really is the land of firsts.

This is Jess and Kenji. They are pretty cool.

After lunch, we checked out several `recycle shops` in the area (we were in Saitama, the neighbouring prefecture to the south, about 5 minutes from my house). Recycle shops are sort of unique to Japan. They`re kind of like second hand shops or pawn shops, but much more common and the quality of goods is very good for the price. Here are some of the things that we found at some of the recycle shops:

That`s right, you can sometimes find such ridiculous things as unopened, ultra limited edition PS3s and Louis Vuitton bags for outrageously low prices. Aside from selling second hand goods, if another store has excess inventory, it will sometimes get rid of it by selling it to the recycle shops, who then turn around and sell it for really low prices.

When we got back from lunch and recycle shopping, Ken informed me about some great news – our Iphones finally came in. Excitedly, we drove to Softbank and waited 3 whole hours to finally get them. Remember what I said about multiple levels of redundancy? It was present here too. Instead of doing the paperwork and booting the phones at the same time, the lady at Softbank did both completely separately, twice. I`m not sure if its a lack of common sense or an unreasonable adherence to procedure. I`m really not sure. In the meanwhile, I took pictures of the various phones at Softbank, and a weird looking moth while we waited for our Iphones.

Aug 29 – Tokyo Day Trip

Several days passed before anything really too interesting happened again, but the last day of my unofficial vacation would end off on a high note. Ken and I woke up early in the morning and got ready to take the train to Tokyo for a day trip. It was my first time back to Tokyo in almost a month so I was quite excited. From the Takasaki station, Tokyo is only about 1:45 minutes away, so the whole trip takes about 2 hours or so, which is not too bad. I picked up a new lens; a Canon EF 50mm F 1.8 II prime at BIC Camera in Shinjuku. This is an awesome lens for the price – I got if for about 9000 yen. There is just so much cool stuff at Japanese electronics stores. For example, check out this collection of multicoloured DSLR cameras:

After walking around Shinjuku, I visited a famous park in Tokyo called Ueno park which is home to the holiest temple in the Kanto region and the second holiest temple in all of Japan. There were lots of events running throughout the day. Near the entrance to the park, there was a big archery club meet.

As we walked down the gravel pathway, it was like stepping into another world. There were students dressed in traditional archery garb and students dressed in their school uniforms. The juxtaposition against the old forest was striking.

A little further down the path, we came across a great big wall of jugs. They were filled with a very special and very famous sake.

Finally we approached the massive wooden gate of the holy temple.

But before entering, one must cleanse themselves. We washed our hands and mouths with the special water and apparatus.

The atmosphere was very reverent and respectful. The Japanese people who were there took the ritual very seriously.

Inside the temple, there was a place to throw some change into a receptacle and to make a wish. At first I found it difficult to think of anything to ask because I already felt so blessed. Upon further consideration, I decided to wish for the continued well-being and success of my friend and family.

You could also write down a wish on a plaque and hang it onto a small peg, protruding out of a wooden wall. Lots of people did this, and there were some pretty funny and interesting ones.

Some were even in a different language. This one was written in Korean. Aja aja, fighting! Aja aja fighting means the same thing as Gambatte/Gambarimasu in Japanese.

There was some sort of traditional fusion dance competition going on outside of the quiet temple area, so afterwards I took pictures with various groups of dancers and performers.

There were lots of really amazing and intricately designed costumes.

After visiting the temple, it was off to Odaiba to eat a delicious hamburger. Yes, I travelled all the way to Odaiba, one of the trendiest shopping districts in the WORLD just for a hamburger – that`s how much I`ve been craving a real hamburger with real beef in it.

On the train to Odaiba I sat next to a pretty girl in a Kimono. The juxtaposition was interesting so I asked if I could take a picture of her. She said yes, so while taking pictures I asked if she spoke English. To my great surprise, she said yes, and it turned out she went to school in NYC and California. She now works for the production company that handles Pokemon. You meet some really interesting people in Tokyo! I wonder if I will ever run into her again?

The place I went to for dinner was called Kua Aina burger; a hawaiian burger chain. I got a burger with a slice of pineapple inside it. It was oishii (delicious)! How I miss REAL MEAT.

The view outside the restaurant was stunning. The Tokyo skyline, Rainbow Bridge, the harbour, and the Japanese liberty statue were all prominently on display. I stood there for about half an hour playing with the different settings on my camera, trying to get a good shot. This is the best I could come up with, although my meager photography skills don`t really do the incredible view enough justice. It really was a sight to behold.

Once dinner was finished, it was a rush to get back to the train station to make the last train that would get to the Takasaki station in time for the last train back home. I made it onto the train in time, but the train was delayed by 20 minutes due to something called a “human incident”. I`ll leave you to piece together what that means, pun intended.

Sadly that meant I could`t take the Takasaki train back to Fujioka. I had to get off at one stop before, at a stop called Shimachi station and walk an hour back home. It wasn`t that bad though and I eventually managed to find my way home where my futon lay in wait and sleep beckoned. And so ended my super long vacation. Work would finally actually start for real the following morning. What sorts of crazy adventures would I find myself in at school? As I would soon find out, everything I had experienced up until this point was just the beginning.

The JET Experience Vlogs # 5 and 6

A couple of fun videos for you to watch today. Vlog #5 is a short video showing some of the beautiful mountains of Fujioka on top of the picturesque Sakurayama. I wrote about and posted pictures of that place before, and now you can enjoy some of the gorgeous scenic views as well.

Vlog # 6 is a music video montage of some of the clips I’ve collected over the course of August.  I cut lots of stuff out because it didnt fit with the music or it ran over the time limit, but if I get a chance, I’ll add that footage in a future video.

Shots included are of:
– driving in and around Fujioka and Takasaki
– eating at kaiten zushi (conveyor belt sushi)
– go-karting in Isesaki
– playing in random waterfalls in Fujioka
– driving up the tallest mountain in Fujioka
– Shibukawa Festival
– Maebashi Fireworks

To be honest, I just threw the clips together against some music with minimal editing because right now I don’t have the luxury of devoting lots of time to editing, what with work, writing, catching up on backlogged posts and more videos, and you know, those inconvenient time sucks of the day – eating and sleeping. Once I’ve caught up more and have figured out how to use Final Cut Pro properly (It’s tough being an Adobe Premiere lifer and jumping ship to FCP) The calibre of these videos should improve. But nonetheless, please enjoy the fruits of my efforts and live vicariously through me, since I want you to be able to experience the awesomeness that is Japan as well.

Waterfalls and Mountains – Just Another Day in Fujioka

Aug  18

It had been a few days too many since we had a random driving adventure, so Ken and I hopped in the car and just started driving west towards the mountains. This was an unbelievably scenic day filled with random stops at streams, rivers, waterfalls, and on the side of the road due to being lost.

While we were driving, I spotted something out of the corner of my eye, which turned out to be one of the coolest discoveries we`ve ever made in Fujioka – a waterfall off the side of the road. So we pulled over, climbed over the rail, descended the ravine and just stared in awe at what a marvelous spectacle it was.

After 15 minutes or so, I decided I wanted to take a picture in the middle of it. This would prove to be one of my more Darwinian moments as the current was too strong in the centre, and I was swept over the crest of the falls and lost my hat. On the other hand, I didn`t smash my face into a pile of rocks so that`s a pretty good trade off I guess. I also got some pretty sweet pics.

One of the coolest pictures I`ve ever been in. I can`t believe this is in my backyard.

This was moments before I was swept down the falls

After the waterfall incident, we decided to continue up the mountains and try to reach Fujioka`s highest peak. There were some interesting stops on the way up, such as an empty shrine, and a restaurant in the middle of nowhere near the top of the mountain. The restaurant was especially cool because they had fishing ponds outside where you could catch your own fish, bring them inside, and cook them over coals.


We came upon a parking lot 500 meters from the summit. The climb up the remaining 500m was challenging. There were also multiple signs warning you to be cautious of bears and not to fall off the edge of the cliff. Good to know.

Finally we made it to the top! It was extremely rewarding and a lot of fun. This mountain was 1522.3M above sea level; one of the taller mountains in Gunma

Earthquake!

Aug 16

In the afternoon, Ken wanted to eat a sub, so we drove all the way to Aeon mall in Takasaki to eat at Subway. There were lots of cool things to see at the mall such as Giant Arcade Tetris, the most amazing arcade game I`ve ever played.

The most interesting thing that happened on this day is that as we were walking over the bridge from the mall to the parking lot, the entire bridge started to move up and down like it was swaying with the wind. I was like, ” I didn`t know the this was a suspension bridge! ” before it dawned on me that I just experienced a mild earthquake. A bit scary in retrospect but still way COOL, aside from the fact that it could have been a terrible traged.