Friday was a long day. I woke up at six for my hour long commute (1 bus and two trains) into the heart of Tokyo for my new school. This is my fifth regular (as in not temporary) elementary school. It's basically in the political heart of all of Japan, so there are many kids who speak English. One sixth grader is from San Francisco! My other four schools are in a very educationally progressive area of north Tokyo. I would not be surprised if it is the best place for English in public elementary schools in all of Japan. This new school has a high average English ability, but the mean is still a little lower than my other four schools.

Class was easy. It was my second day at the school and my first time with each of the classes I was teaching. I did my self introduction, questions, and an easy lesson (days of the week). The more I teach the more I realize that I'm the best with 3rd-4th grade. I can handle the other levels, but 3rd and 4th are the perfect balance of high energy and ability.

It was the hottest and most humid day yet this year. I played basketball at lunch and even some 1 on 1 with this sixth grader. He was pretty good and can actually palm the ball (it's not full size). I went a little easy and kept it at a tie (I don't like to let people win), but I was sweating like crazy in the heat. I left work pretty early (2pm) because this school contracted with my company directly instead of through the BOE. That means I can leave whenever the principal says it's OK.

I had some time to kill, so I cruised over to Ikebukulo (north west Tokyo, the gateway to where I used to live). I had been there Thursday night with Andrew Bush and Tim Rogers. We went to a music studio and they practiced while I messed around on keyboard a little. I don't think I could ever be in a rock band. Even if I spent the time to get good at guitar or something, rock just doesn't give me the feeling in my gut that I get when I listen to or play really good jazz.

So I killed time by walking around Bic Camera. It was getting dark, but still really hot, humid, and now rainy too. I went to the Sunshine mall. This place is like an American mall. It has one of four or five Burger Kings in Tokyo, Cold Stone, 3 or 4 McDonalds (no, really), Eddie Bauer, Gap, Toys R Us, and much more. The layout and feel is similar to American malls, but one look at a womens clothing store will clear up any confusion.

At 5 I went up to Fujimino (where I used to live) and killed a couple hours at Mr. Donuts. At seven I played a variation of soccer they call futosaru. This is a word in katakana, but I don't know what foreign word it's supposed to be. What's Foot-sal? Two of my Fujimino schools and another school played for a couple hours. It was awesome, and I was sweating more than anyone else there. I don't think Japanese people sweat very much.. or maybe I just sweat a lot. My friend Marc came too, because he teaches at the third school now.

The teachers told me that the kids have been coming into the teachers room and asking to get me back. The new English teacher doesn't speak Japanese and the level of tension has slowly been escalating as the kids start loathing English. I don't know what the hell that company was thinking putting a teacher who doesn't speak any Japanese in rural elementary schools. It's plain irresponsible. I would have liked to stay in Fujimino, but I can't deny how interesting and educational Tokyo has been. If for some reason I were to go back again now, I think I'd be a much better teacher.

After soccer I went drinking with one of the schools. Many of the people from last years staff came to hang out. It was pretty nostalgic. I had to go early (11pm) for the hour long train ride home. The bus home from the station ends kind of early, so I had to walk a half hour to get home. I could hardly believe I had gone to school that morning. It was a really long day.


I Love the Food

When people ask me what I like about Japan I usually have two fast answers: The trains and the food. So here are some things I've eaten recently. First is Monjayaki. I'll explain what it is some other time, but rest assured it's quite good. Many foreigners think it looks really gross, but until hearing that from someone it had never occurred to me because when you eat it, you see it being made (or you make it yourself) and so you know what the ingredients are.

I love tonkatsu! This is a photo from the place I used to go all the time in Fujimino. The old guy that runs the place loves me. He even took me out to sushi once before I moved. The tonkatsu (breaded pork), rice, soup, pasta and salad all ring in at 680 yen (~$6). Awesome.

Dessert in Ueno! There is a great little dessert shop in Ueno that is always crowded. I've been there twice and both times I had to share a table with strangers. Man this is good stuff though. It's a little pricey, but worth it once in a while. This one has mochi, icecream, red beans, Japanese orange and some other things I don't know the names of.



I'm making a poster about California for my schools and have discovered some interesting things, some of which I knew and some I didn't.

California has the worlds oldest, biggest, and tallest trees:
  • Methuselah, an ancient Bristlecone Pine in the White Mountains, is about 4,838 years old.
  • General Sherman, a Giant Sequoia in the Sequoia National Park, is 1,487 cubic meters.
  • Hyperion, a Redwood in the Redwood National Park, is 115.55 meters tall.
California has the highest and lowest points in the contiguous US, and they are only 76 miles (123 km) apart.
Anything interesting you think I should include in the poster? I'm of course going to talk about Hollywood, Disneyland, and Silicon Valley. Anything else that would impress little kids?


Major Differences - Status Levels

Sempai 先輩 means senior, superior or elder, and Kohai 後輩 is junior. The Sempai-Kohai system is the most profound difference in culture I have encountered in Japan. Built into the Japanese language are different levels of politeness that affect not only word choice, but conjugation and grammar.

In English, we generally speak differently around different groups of people. I can remember in middle school when I first started noticing that I had a 'family mode' and a 'friend mode'. As I grew older I noticed the line blur when talking with my siblings, but I still speak a certain way around the adults in my family that is different than how I speak to my friends. This pales in comparison to the levels of Japanese speech.

First of all, Japanese has multiple levels of polite speech. Many young people can't even speak the higher levels well. Foreigners around the college level becoming proficient in Japanese are often better at keigo (polite speech) than the Japanese of the same age. The rules seem simple enough: When speaking to someone older than you, you speak politely. When the other person is younger (and not a stranger), you speak casually. But this carries over outside of work into everyday situations - including bars or parties. I've seen men speaking politely to other men that look the same age, but are actually one or two years apart. The older man responds in casual Japanese. To a foreigner, this might seem like a somewhat cold or distant, even odd conversation, but it is quite normal in Japanese. It isn't always like this, and people make mistakes, but in general it is easy to tell who is older in a conversation by listening to how people speak.

This can create weird issues with people who don't know each others age. Or as one of my friends brought up, it can be awkward with people in the same year in school but of different ages (something common in college). Does one use keigo or not? It isn't always easy to tell.

In English, we generally speak at the same level as the counterpart in the conversation (except perhaps in extreme boss-employee relationships). If Bob is talking to Jim politely, not using slang or anything like that, Jim responds the same way. If they are friends or are familiar they might both speak casually. But if one of them spoke politely and the other was casual, almost even rude, it would not be right for a variety of reasons. Keigo is hard for me to get used to, and I usually end up speaking casually to my elders because by habit, I speak the same as the other person. Luckily no one thinks anything of it because I am a foreigner.

Perhaps the most impressive benefit of the sempai-kohai system is the affect it has on those in school. I've never seen such apparent respect and admiration for the upperclassmen as I did when I was teaching in middle school. A middle school first grader (7th grader), who was particularly naughty in class and an all around brat, was the uncomplaining servant and follower of his 3rd year baseball club sempai. I saw him get things for him, speak politely, and obey various orders. Equally amazing was the lack of abuse of the system by the 3rd years. They didn't really treat the younger kids poorly, but they did demand their respect and service. I haven't spent a whole lot of time at middle school and none in high school, but if what I observed is common, it may just make the system all worth it.