Saturday, August 04, 2007
Our first mission was to get me a personal seal, known in Japan as either hanko or inkan. Essentially, Japanese people use these things the same way that Americans use our signatures. If you have a common enough name you can easily pick one up cheaply by purchasing a pre-made seal, kind of like those racks of souvenir license plates or Mickey Mouse ears that have names written on them. Naturally, my name wouldn't be readily available like that so we had to put in a special order. They come in a variety of sizes and with optional decorative cases, but my no-frills black version cost about $30. I was worried that we would have to wait while the order was sent out to a factory somewhere, but the lady in the shop apparently crafted it herself in a couple hours time. I would say the end results are quite impressive, as my name is written in katakana but it still has a certain flair to it.
Whilst my seal was being prepared, we went over to city hall for alien registration. I was impressed at how stress-free the process was, compared to my previous registration during my study abroad. Back then, I had to fill out a pretty long form, taking care not to make any mistakes at all. A single fudged or crossed-out character would have invalidated everything and I would be forced to start over. Here, I only had to write down about half as much stuff, as the guy behind the desk filled in the rest using my passport. He also had no problem with Gary writing down the address of the BOE, which has a couple complicated characters that will take me a while to get used to writing. Usually, Japanese bureaucrats insist on only the applicant filling in the form, even when it comes to checking a box or just writing down the date. Also, we didn't have to take a number and wait our turn, we just sat down at the desk and got started. The only thing I did expect was the time it would take to actually receive the registration card: three weeks. In the meantime, I am required by law to carry my passport at all times which is a drag because I get paranoid about it sometimes and it's bulky too.
I was also surprised to learn that in the basement of city hall there's a little cafeteria that is pleasantly satisfying and particularly inexpensive. Gary and I ate lunch down there for about $5 total. I told him that this was the first time I ever saw a government office that included a place to eat. By all means correct me, dear readers, but back in New York I can't imagine eating lunch at the DMV. I mean, even if they offered it, could you imagine what you would receive?
Once my personal seal was ready, it was off to the bank to open an account. Japanese people don't use checks but I will be paid via direct deposit so this was an essential procedure. It took a very long time, with two forms: one short form to open the account, and then one long one to get a cash card. I'm not exactly sure why the second one was so much longer than the first, but I suspect it had to do with the numerous optional services that come with a cash card these days. I believe mine will act as a debit card, a credit card, and a train pass. Of course, some of these function should be included on my new phone as well, which will normally be easier to pull out and use, so I'll only need to use the card at the ATM. Plus, Mako and I will be setting up the phone this weekend, while the card is expected to arrive in the mail later this month.
Once we had wrapped up all this business, Gary called his co-worker to check on the status of my other suitcase. I should explain: immediately upon arrival in Tokyo I had to ship one of my larger suitcases ahead to Hana Town because, with 2-3 people per room, there was no room for all my luggage at the hotel. Then on Tuesday, I was strongly encouraged to ship my other large suitcase ahead because otherwise I would have to lug it around Tokyo and onto the Shinkansen. Plus, no one could confirm whether or not I was being met in Osaka by someone with a car, so I would potentially have to carry it through two cities via public transportation (don't ask why no one could confirm that fact, it makes my head hurt just thinking about it). So when I arrived in Osaka I had both my carry-on bags but no other luggage, which means that all the clothes I had brought with me were either on my body or being shipped across the country. This contributed somewhat to my anxiety, to say the least.
But that's all behind me now. The first suitcase was already at the BOE when I arrived Wednesday, and yesterday the other one arrived exactly as it had been promised. So Gary's co-worker drove it over to my apartment, we met him, and then the two of them headed back to the office. I thanked them profusely and wished them a great weekend. And with that, I was free to start my own weekend because it was Friday evening and I was screaming to get out there and enjoy Japan the best way I knew how: getting my ass back to Osaka.
I got down to the city with no trouble at all and felt awash in joy as I walked through the Hankyu Umeda station, seeing all the familiar sights and crowds. My first order of business was to find an Internet cafe so I could let everyone back home know that I was still alive. I had planned on bringing these blog entries on a flash drive so I could upload them, but I forgot it. Maybe I'll remember to take them with me when I go out later today - wherever that might be. But I digress; I knew I needed to use the Internet but I didn't have a specific place in mind. Against all odds, while leaving the station I ran into a staff member from Captain Kangaroo, my favorite bar! He recognized me just as quickly as I recognized him, and that was a wonderful feeling. I had worried that most people in Osaka would forget about me after I left, but obviously I was wrong. I told him I would be coming by later once I found an Internet cafe, and he quickly recommended one and told me how to get there. What luck!
One hour and 400 Yen later (not bad!) I was back in Captain Kangaroo for the first time in over a year. Not much had changed inside aside from a new flat screen TV on the wall: the menus were a year older and more worn (as were all the photos and various kitschy things on the wall) the prices hadn't gone up, and the staff, as best as I could remember, were exactly the same bunch of friendly people. The bartender immediately remembered me which was cool. I took advantage of happy hour to order their special "Roo burger" plus a drink for only 1000 Yen, quite a good deal for dinner. I felt a little odd hanging out in the bar by myself, since I was used to coming in for the express purpose of meeting Scott, but I had a few drinks and watched the Tigers on TV and became quite relaxed. Here I was, back in Osaka just like I wanted. Plus, there was always the chance that someone would come in who I knew, which is exactly what happened.
Two JETs showed up, one of whom was a brand new arrival I had met in Tokyo. He came with another, established guy who is working in his town and the three of us hung out for about an hour or so. I felt so great I didn't once complain about any of the problems I've had this first week. I hope that wasn't just because of the beer but because things are simply getting better, or maybe I'm just beginning to realize how good things are. Perhaps an evening of nostalgia was the best and easiest way to remind myself that what I am doing, right now, is exactly what I've been waiting for.
Speaking of waiting, tonight I'm meeting Mako and her family for dinner, which is long overdue. We have a lot to talk about!
つづく... (Click here to read more)
Friday, August 03, 2007
The directions Gary gave me on Wednesday were perfect and I actually made it to the BOE a full fifteen minutes early - a good way to start a new working relationship, especially in Japan. I met my other supervisor, whom I will dub Pat. Pat used to be an English teacher in the elementary schools but, in Japan, that doesn't necessitate an ability to speak English. However, Pat is definitely friendly so I was again put at ease at the efforts being made to introduce me to this new environment
Pat gave me an overall picture of the elementary schools in Hana Town. There are six of them, spread out over the area, which I will visit one at a time on varying days of the week (that is to say, I won't have to travel from one school to another in the same day). This is pretty good news because some of the schools are very small, which means those days will be especially light, teaching-wise. Also, since there are six schools but only five working days, that means I'll have plenty of time in-between each lesson to reflect on what happened, good or bad. The hardest task will probably be one school in particular which is quite large, so I'll be visiting it at least once every week, sometimes twice. This school also happens to be next to the BOE so after our discussion Pat and I walked over there to take a peek. It was lunchtime so I had the unenviable task of introducing myself to the entire office staff at once. In Japanese, of course. I kept things very simple and relied on the constant awe-factor surrounding everything I say and do to obscure my mistakes.
After the meetings were finished I went back home where Gary and a co-worker were waiting for me. They had come over to help me with a few things around the place, the first being my hot water problem. The solution was wonderfully, embarrassingly simple: I had neglected to turn on the gas heater, hence the complete lack of heat. I was happy to have the situation fixed but I felt pretty ridiculous. Gary and his buddy also used their telephone-powers to try and arrange for me to get internet and cable TV access. I've got an appointment for the internet "fiber installer" next Friday, but there's a catch. The guy who's coming wants to check some kind of "settings" on my computer and he, naturally, doesn't speak English. I can't imagine what he needs to figure out that a guy who works with computers won't be able to determine regardless of my English-language version of Windows. It's still Windows, after all, so I'm sure all the "settings" he needs are in the same exact place as they would be on a Japanese computer. In either case, Gary offered to come by at the same time to assist us. In the meantime, if anyone knows an easy way to switch XP into Japanese-mode (and back!) that might save me some trouble.
The lack of a phone number or internet access has been pretty exhausting. Since everyone (and that's not hyperbole, honest) has a cell phone in Japan now, public phones are increasingly rare. I don't believe there's a working one within a half mile of my apartment. Of course, then there's the matter of using it, which is so bizarrely expensive it boggles the mind. I'll put it to you simply: it costs approximately 50 Yen a minute to call home and it costs around 100 Yen a minute (!?!) to call Mako. How can this be? Between the costs and the relative unavailability of everyone I want to contact (Mako is working most of the day and everyone back home is asleep due to the time difference) it's extra-ordinarily difficult to get a handle on my new life here in Japan.
Fortunately, all that should change very soon. Gary is coming by again today to help me take care of more essentials, namely alien registration and my bank account, two things on which many other services rely upon. Once he's here I can again communicate with others and attempt to get things in order. Plus, this weekend should be filled with Mako time and she's going to help me get my mobile phone up and running. So by the time anyone reads this I should be well on my way to calling, e-mailing and blogging like normal.
つづく... (Click here to read more)
Thursday, August 02, 2007
Yesterday we all scurried out of the lovely Keio Plaza Hotel in Tokyo and rode a bus to Tokyo Station. Luckily, the JET Programme sprung for Shinkansen tickets (reserved at that) so our trip to Osaka took just under three hours. The weather was extremely hot and humid (made worse by my needing to wear a suit) but the train was relatively cool and the skies were clear enough for an awesome view of Fuji. As was previous suggested, I was met in Shin-Osaka by one of my supervisors, whom I will arbitrarily nickname Gary for the purposes of this blog.* Gary was accompanied by his predecessor, Earl, who has since retired. They drove me from the station out into the countryside to the Board of Education (BOE) office.
The town where I will be working is indeed an extremely rural area. Nestled in-between several mountains, accessible via tunnel, Hana Town (another nickname) is very pretty but very rustic. Still, I was surprised to learn that more people live there than where I grew up, and that the BOE is located next door to a puppet theater. Naturally, Gary was stunned that I even knew Japanese puppet theater existed (Japanese people, by default, assume foreigners know absolutely nothing about Japan, their language, food, customs, or culture) so he quickly arranged an introduction for me with the owner. Apparently I just missed their annual show in June (drat) but considering how they own and operate a dedicated, very modern building, I must assume they manage more than one performance a year. I met with one of the staff who escorted us backstage and showed us the puppets (J: ningyō). She even let me shove my hand inside to feel around! Gary snapped a quick picture with his phone (my camera was packed at this point) so the moment was preserved for posterity. I'll share it as soon as I'm able.
I also met the head of the BOE while I was there, whom I could barely understand at all but he seemed pretty friendly. As usual, my Japanese is good enough to elicit praise (see note above) but my conversational ability is quite poor. I know it will get better over time, so this isn't just me complaining. I'm not sure how my predecessor got by, since I got the impression from him that he didn't know much Japanese at all. He's left Japan by now, so we never got the chance to meet or really discuss much.
However, I had agreed to take over his apartment, and Gary drove me here after we were done with the introductions at the BOE. The good news is that my predecessor left me nearly everything I could need to live here (bed, furniture, cooking supplies, etc) and the apartment is much bigger than I imagined. I have electricity, water, gas, and even a TV which receives the standard broadcast channels. The bad news is that I have no Internet, no phone, and no idea what half of the things in my apartment are for. I also have no HOT water, which I discovered this morning when I took a shower. Granted, it is so incredibly hot and humid right now I wouldn't want much warmth in the shower right now, but even in summer it's tough to take a completely cold shower.
That's really all I can say for now. I'm going to meet my other supervisor today, so I've got to take my first trip on the train and bus to work. I've got the directions so I trust I'll make it. If only I had as much confidence in my ability to do this job as opposed to merely getting there.
*NOTE: In the interest of preventing any potential unpleasantness, I have decided to anonymize the names of people I work with as well as the places where I will be teaching. I just don't want anyone getting embarrassed about something I wrote on a website which is about me.
つづく... (Click here to read more)
Tuesday, July 31, 2007
First off, my apologies for not offering a "goodbye America" post. As my time in New York dwindled, I found myself rushing to get everything in order. I ended up spending most of my last night packing (with major help from Dad, the packing master) before getting a couple hours rest prior to heading out to the airport early Saturday morning. As I expected, there was no practical reason to arrive 3 hours early (I simply spent two hours sitting at the gate) but since I was getting a free ticket to Japan, the least I could do was oblige my employers.
The flight was not an easy one. There were a number of turbulent pockets that were not severe enough to be frightening but they were not easily ignored. I got almost no sleep at all, an unimaginable frustration considering the length of the journey. The food was passable but I guess I thought a Japanese airline would, through their quest for superior service, offer more delightful cuisine than their boorish American competitors. I did get to try their original drink, "Skytime," something I found to be very amusing in concept alone. Taste-wise, it was essentially a less-sugary lemonade.
The orientation process has also been more frustrating than I would have expected. After months of waiting for details about my job, the answers I've been getting here in Tokyo have been less than encouraging. Too often I am told things like "Everyone's experience is different" and "We don't know what [your Board of Education/fellow teachers/supervisors] will do." Even basic questions regarding tomorrow's transportation arrangements are met with uncertainty. They expect someone from my BOE to meet us in Osaka tomorrow, but where we go and how (car/train/etc) is unknown. Likewise, no one can confirm whether or not I'll get to move in to my apartment afterwards.
Yet all this is secondary to my actual job - teaching English to elementary school children - about which I have learned precious little during this "orientation." Today I did get to watch two demonstrations of sample lessons, which I appreciated, but both were prefaced by the above-lamented disclaimer "Everyone's experience is different." Sooner or later, shouldn't I get some kind of definitive, direct instruction regarding this occupation? I have virtually no experience...yet no one besides me seems to care. Is this job truly so easy that it can be effectively performed without prior training? Or is it simply an on-the-job, "sink or swim" situation?
All I can do is continually tell myself that hundreds of people have gone through this orientation before and went on to work in other elementary schools. That, and the fact that Mako is waiting to meet me this Sunday and make me feel at ease all over again. In the meantime, I'm unsure when my phone and internet will be fully prepared. I'll write again, soon (I hope).
Feit...out - of touch, for now!
つづく... (Click here to read more)
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