Monday, April 27, 2009

Springtime in Iwate

I was not expecting this at all. This is what the weather was like yesterday:

There's something very disturbing about being able to see your breath inside your home. Especially when the heater's on.

Hanami in Hirosaki

In addition to high schools, I also teach(volunteer) at my town's language exchange program for locals wanting to learn English. The age range is from 15 (one of my students) to 70 (an elder who loves language) and the attendees are all nice and friendly.

So friendly, in fact, that one of the guys from the last 2 weeks invited me Hanami in Hirosaki with his family this past weekend to peep the cherry blossoms. I was surprised at the invitation but kindly accepted anyway. I'm glad I did!

The family who kindly invited me. Hirosaki Castle in the background. For some reason the pics look photoshopped

Cherry blossoms along the river

A photoshop job of me in front of Hirosaki Castle

A dope dinner full of food I can't remember but would love to have again

Up close and personal with some cherry blossoms

Friday, April 24, 2009

Teaching English with Freestyle Fellowship

I had a lesson this week over the SVO sentence structure. That class is in the middle of learning different ways to construct sentences so I wanted to make it easy to remember this specific type. At some point, Freestyle Fellowship's "Hot Potato" popped into my head and an idea was born: use the words of Aceyalone, Mikah 9, P.E.A.C.E. and Self Jupiter to teach it!

First, I gave some background on Hot Potato and taught them the hook from the song:
Hot potato, pass the potato (x4)
After they got the words down, I taught them tempo and tune by leading the class in chorus and metronomic claps. I couldn't get them dancing but I did get some enthusiastic claps and a few head bobs!

Next came some rounds of Hot Potato. I paired them up and gave each group a "potato" to pass back and forth while singing their newly learned song. And then I snuck in the grammar.

While demonstrating Hot Potato with the JTE, I visually broke down the sentences "I passed the potato", "I passed JTE-Sensei the potato" and "JTE-Sensei passed me the potato" into their SVO components. And before I could ask them to make their own sentences (relative to their groups), some already had! I checked for their understanding (e.g.,"What did you pass?") and found that many could create and understand SVO sentences. After a few more rounds with newly paired groups, most of the class could. Success!

I wonder if Freestyle Fellowship ever envisioned this?

Monday, April 20, 2009

First Day of School Recap

First Day of School:

6am - Woke up simultaneously by the town's bells and my own alarm. Looked outside and saw a beautiful day.

6:05 am - Remembered it was the first day of class. Got excited. Feeling good, feeling great.

7am - Got ready to go. Clean shaven and decked out.

8am - In the ride and driving to school.

8:25am - Parked at school. Feeling kind of anxious. Where'd that knot in my stomach come from?

8:30am - Sitting in a teacher's meeting not knowing a single thing being said. Feeling pretty dumb but it makes me think about how my students may feel when they don't understand me...

9:00am - An assembly is held in my honor. Wait, what? All the students and teachers congregate in the gym and I am formally introduced to the school. I give a speech in English to introduce myself. And the crowd goes wild like Hollyfield has just won the fight. Hey, maybe I shouldn't feel so nervous after all...

10:00am - First class. Most of my lessons this week will be class introductions so I just put on a smile and talk loud and slow. Confidence always pays. They looked half scared, half excited. I told them about myself, my family, my college and my hobbies. Then I taught them how to do the robot. They loved it! I felt half man, half amazing.

11:00am - rest of the day - I had 3 other classes today and please, believe the hype: I had heard that we'd feel like celebrities here but I didn't realize they'd seriously treat me like a superstar. The kids were so excited to see me. They'd run up to me in the halls and wave frantically from afar. I was apparently able to tame one of the loudest and most rambunctious classes just by being there. One girl asked to take a picture with me (I politely declined).

Afterschool - I walked around, talking to as many students as I could. I wanted to come across as friendly and non threatening as possible. I asked them about themselves and their club activities and joined in wherever I could: handball, volleyball (missed all my serves), band (played the snare), computer club (got served in a computer game) and so on. I sat in on a student council meeting and then told them about my high school back in the 90's.

This, I found, was a great approach. Students became even more receptive and liked that I was taking an interest in their hobbies and activities. I let them teach me Japanese to show that it's okay to not know a foreign language and that it's a learning process.

Just like high school in the states, students here are afraid of making mistakes, especially in front of their peers. So I wanted to start encouraging them early on. If I make them comfortable it'll be easier to teach them.

All in all, I gotta say it was a good day.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

You'd think everyone here smoked weed.. the number of marijuana leafs around. From jackets to air fresheners to car decals, representations of the leaf are ridiculously prominent not only in Tokyo, but also in the smaller, rural towns.

I wouldn't have thought twice about it were it not for the fact that marijuana is highly illegal in Japan. If you get caught with it, you will get in serious trouble. Just ask Paul McCartney.

So with that, I was definitely surprised by how ubiquitous the leaf was. After talking with a few people, I found out why: people associate the image more with Reggae and Dancehall (which is HUGE here) than marijuana itself. That said, I'm sure the more-illicit association isn't completely foreign...

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Why don't we have this in the States yet?

Peeps have been talking about this for ages and I've been on the bandwagon for a minute. But after taking a high speed train last weekend I'm now in bopper mode.

Using the Shinkansen, or high speed bullet train, I was able to travel about 350 miles (~distance from SF to LA, NY to Boston) in under 3 hours, all while being able to eat, sleep, drink, use the bathroom, walk around, listen to music (was finally able to peep Sanguine Sunday's Episode 8, Transportation, which fit the task at hand) take pictures, read and have (slightly overpriced) food sold to me.

While a bit pricey, it's still cheaper than an airplane. Plus you don't have to put up with security check (or grumpy security check workers), checking luggage (or losing luggage), restrictions on phone and electronics or not being able to carry liquids on board. And you can also buy just before boarding without having to worry about an inflated price.

There's benefit to society too. According to the very credible, afore-linked Wikipedia article:
The Shinkansen has had a great effect on Japan's business, economy, society, environment and culture. The time savings alone from switching from a conventional to a high-speed network have been estimated at 400 million hours, an economic impact of ¥ 500 billion per year. Shinkansen connectivity has regenerated rural towns such as Kakegawa that would otherwise be too distant from major cities. Travelling Tokyo-Osaka by Shinkansen produces only around 16% of the carbon dioxide of the equivalent journey by car, a savings of 15,000 tons of CO2 a per year.
No seriously, why don't we have this in the states yet? It's not like it's new. They've been around for over 40 years now.

Thankfully Obama is also on the bandwagon.

Dear Exhibit, Please Pimp my Ride

Dear Exhibit, please pimp my ride:

This is the car I'll be driving. It's a Nissan Something-Or-Another on 12 inch dubs.

I rather dig it, actually. It's brand new, small, fuel efficient and will get me from point A to B.

Driving on the left hand side will still take some time getting used to, though.

Photos from the week ending 4/11

Just some photos from the week ending 4/11:

Cherry Blossoms at Night

6am in Asakusa

What I wanna be when I grow up

False Advertising

Toy tags and graff

Somewhere in Shibuya

No comment. Not touching this one

Huge sandle at Sensoji Temple. Mothra beware

Lantern at the enrance of Sensoji Temple

Breakfast of Champions

Zen Kokoji Temple - The guardians represent "Alpha" and "Omega"

Texas Fight! Even in Tokyo

The only Sushi I've had since I got here. 800 Yen well spent

Protest against the "Thought Police". I'm still trying to figure this one out



I finally got a home internet connection and am now fully clothed in 100 mbps. No more exhibitionism for me.

But you can't be healthy to miss the net this much, can it? I was literally fidgeting and fiending to connect. I went through blog withdrawal and information underload. What's happening in the world? Who's tweeting what? I NEED to know. I'll take anything I can get. Even Myspace.


My modem finally came in the mail on Thursday but I hadn't reached cyber Nirvana yet; I still had to install some modem/provider-specific software to connect, which was a pain because the software was conveniently written in Japanese. Until now, it hadn't occurred that software in Japan doesn't come with an English option.

I was able to successfully navigate through the install process thanks to standard InstallShield button placement but spent 5 hrs last night trying to configure the software. I was literally guessing at what each button, field, etc meant and then saving and crossing my fingers, hoping It'd magically connect.

It was 5 hrs horribly spent because this morning, a fellow teacher--one who speaks and reads Japanese--came over and put me out of my misery in a fraction of the time. I literally jumped up and shouted "Praise Jesus!" (to his amusement) when I saw the connected-icon-of-joy. Victory! My drug of choice had been reupped.

After he left, I filled up my syringe and took a hit. Finally! The world (wide web) was mine once more. And what did I find?

Not a damned thing.

I immediately came down from my high as reality set in. Sure, I had some unread messages and blogs to read, but there was nothing pressing. The world was still spinning and life had kept moving. The apocalypse didn't come just because I was offline.

I need to go to rehab.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009


On Saturday, I moved from Tokyo to a small town in Iwate. This is where I'll be the rest of my contract. I currently have no phone, no car and no internet (writing this blog from my landlord's place).

I feel so naked. I haven't been this disconnected since Jr. High.

I should be getting all of them soon though. More updates to come once I get reconnected.

Friday, April 10, 2009


As the saying goes, "When in Rome, do as the Romans", there's no better way to do as the Japanese than to sing Karaoke. They created it after all. There are Karaoke places everywhere here and it seems to be a national pastime. People regularly howl at the moon in the land of the rising sun. I was walking around at 1am on a Tuesday night and heard people singing their hearts out at many different places.

So a group of us who had been training together set out to do the same and sing our hearts. And sing we did. Here's an excerpt of the symphony we composed:

Yeah, we'll probably keep our day jobs. We had a blast though!

Wait, where am I again?

Skateboards, sneaker stores, massage parlors, clubs, bars, homeless people, smoke shops, dreadlocks, fashionistas, hipsters, graffiti, reggae music, pet stores, pedestrians and an American Apparel.

I wasn't sure if I was in Shibuya or San Francisco

Thursday, April 9, 2009

And isn't it ironic...

American Apparel Store in Shibuya, Tokyo, Japan

...don't you think?

The Wisdom of Elders

Some fellow teachers and I were on our lunch break yesterday when we met an interesting old man. We had been standing under the cherry blossoms along the river when the man approached us.

I had noticed him staring intently from afar but didn't think much of it since older Japanese occasionally stare.

So when he actually came and started talking, I was both surprised and intrigued. I'm glad to say it was a pleasant experience.

He studied Law in the US over 40 years ago at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. That was very impressive. Studying abroad was significantly less frequent back then. Not only that, he also started going at a time there were still ill-feelings from Americans towards the Japanese since Pearl Harbor had occurred just 15 years earlier.

Anyway, he inquired into us, where we were from and where we were going (to be teaching). He was impressed by the fact that we were there, period. He went on to tell us that he was an advocate for studying, teaching and otherwise traveling abroad as a means to better understand the world and all of it's patrons. Not only did he believe it, he lives this. He recently took a Director position at the Fulbright Institute, an organization that promotes peace and understanding through education exchange. He even quoted Fulbright saying:
The Fulbright Commission aims to bring a little more knowledge, a little more reason, and a little more compassion into world affairs and thereby increase the chance that nations will learn at last to live in peace and friendship
He had such a passion for it and you could feel the energy in his voice. We were all captivated by his wisdom and vigor Overall, he talked to us for about 20 minutes making us almost late for work. Even if he had, it would've been worth it.

Some Japanese people stare at me..

...but most of them don't. Culturally speaking, staring is bad, and besides, it's not like I'm the first black person to ever be in Tokyo. It's also typically elderly Japanese men and women who stare.

On the other hand, I get tons of eyes from white people here. Percentage-wise, I definitely get more looks from them. While I obviously don't know their backgrounds nor could I fathom what they're thinking, I often get the feeling they're tourists who are thinking to themselves "There are black people in Japan?". If I'm right, then they obviously have yet to visit Roppongi.

And to add insult to (pseudo) injury, I was reminded today of the historic black-male/white-female relationship while walking around in Shibuya tonight. While walking down the street, I looked up to see one headed my way. But upon seeing the white of my eyes, she immediately clutched her purse and started moving toward the far side of the walk way.

Was that really necessary? In Tokyo? Am I really going to risk prison time (23 days before even seeing a lawyer) and deportation to rip and run her bag? Can't be serious...

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Lost in Translation

Or just lost.

Today, after training, I took what was supposed to be a 5 minute tangent from my ride home to buy an adapter for my laptop but it ended up turning into 2 hours. I had clear directions on how to get home but thought I was smart enough to figure out how to get back after stopping in Akihabara to cop the equipment.

I got back on the right train but then off at the wrong stop. It took 5 minutes for me to realize I was lost, 30 for me to swallow my pride and ask for directions, 30 minutes for me to try and get directions from a quasi-bi-lingual Japanese lady, 1 minute for her to later remember her fluent English speaking daughter was just around the corner (I appreciated the help though), 5 minutes for her daughter to tell me how to get home and 50 minutes for me to walk back to the hotel.

It was a blessing in disguise though as it enabled me to see more of the city.

A better man than me would've stayed in and crashed, since the jet leg is setting in, but for the aforementioned reason, I opted to explore some more.

I saw peeps enjoying the cherry blossoms (drinking, eating and hanging out under the trees along the river), some "massage parlous" (it's like I'm in the TL all over again!)...and b-boys!

There was a dude was popping and hip hop dancing in front of an Asakusa store with an ipod blasting Bel Biv Devoe's "Poison". I hated from afar for a moment--in true b-boy fashion--before going up to him and asking him if he breaked (by motioning). We ended up cyphering for 10 minutes before one of his crew members showed up, giving me a moment to catch my breath (outta breaking shape), before continuing for another hour.

It was great. They spoke little English and I speak substantially less Japanese yet we were able to communicate with our breakdancing and the universal language of music. I'm going to try and meet up with them again on Thursday before taking off.

I definitely feel it was worth sacrificing my sleep. Though I'll probably change my mind in 5 hours when I wake up.

I just got violated by my toilet

I got here yesterday and have been adjusting pretty well so far. I've gotten familiar with my area of Tokyo, met fellow teachers and have gotten used to the stares.

In fact, I was feeling pretty good until I let my curiosity get the best of me in the bathroom. There I was, sitting on my throne when I noticed a "shower" button on it. It didn't occur to my inner George to press it after I completed handling my business.

Word to the wise, "shower" does NOT refer to the cleaning apparatus sitting .005 feet away from from the toilet. It refers to a toilet spray that provides additional cleaning to all parts of your nether regions. In reality, it's not a bad idea...for women (whom I believe they're meant for). But if you're a guy. And you're not expecting it. And the stream is relatively hot...


I was ready to kill someone. NOT the kinda culture shock I was expecting. In my country, toilets don't give enemas.

Update: 2:40am
It was recently brought to my attention that these are called bidets and are apparently all the rage in France

Sunday, April 5, 2009

I'm off!

Bags packed.
Camera charged.
And I haven't slept in 22 hours.

I'm ready to go. Next time I get online, I'll be in Japan.

I just pray that North Korea get it's act together before I get there!

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

3 more days till Japan

In 3 days, after pulling an all-nighter, I'll be hopping on a plane and hopefully passing out for the entire duration of my 13 hour flight to Tokyo.

The only thing left for me to do is re-pack. Everything else has been taken care of. I had to get my Visa processed, obtain an international drivers license, get tested for TB (negative!) and cop a ticket (with frequent flyer miles. Join programs if you haven't already)

They've reserved my hotel in Tokyo, secured an apartment for me in Iwate and will be handing me my car keys once I get there. I just gotta show up.

I'm fortunate to know the peeps that I do. Friends who have traveled to the area have given me valuable advice. Others, who have lived in non-English speaking countries, are also giving me tips on picking up new languages. I'm lucky to be able to learn from their experiences.

I'm also lucky to live in the information age; there are many resources online. I've subscribed to a plethora of blogs, bookmarked tons of forums and am following new Japanese residents on twitter and friendfeed. Information overload at it's finest.

Here are some blogs, etc:
  • - News and discussion of Japan from an Afro perspective.
  • - News of Japan from an American writer living in Japan. He focuses a lot on how those who don't look Japanese are treated.
  • - How to live cheaply as a foreigner in Japan (will probably become my favorite).
  • - Hilarious rants and raves of a brotha whose been teaching in Japan since 2004.
  • - Digg-like-site for Japanese News.
  • - Podcast for learning basic Japanese.
There are a lot more, probably because I found these 2 sites early on:
  • @DannyChoo - tweets about Japan and Technology
  • @nick_ramsey - tweets about Japan and Technology
  • Most of the bloggers listed above also tweet
All quality stuff though a lot of it will become less relevant once I hit the countryside. I'll sort it all out then.

I also enabled East Asian Language Support enabled on Windows XP and found a handy FireFox add-on that translates Japanese to English, though I plan to gradually stop using it as I pick up the language.

I kinda wish I was more nervous.

3 more days...