What Japan Has Taught Me

I came to Japan somewhat on a whim. After I finished 5 years at University studying business, I had done plenty of talking about manufacturing in Asia and how many companies were outsourcing. I’d done case studies on companies that did it and I recommended other companies do it. But I had a lot of questions. Why did I do that? Because it was cheaper? Why was it cheaper? Is this a good idea? What is Asia? Why haven’t I been there? Is it different from the US? How?

I asked myself all these questions, I googled it, I did some research. Then I decided I should go there before I specialize my career. Before I zero in on something specific I’d like to start with the widest possible lens.

I guess this is where my friend Brad comes in, who was teaching English in Japan through the JET program at the time. He was posting pictures of his time in Japan and he was having fun! Things were new and strange and I liked that. I asked him some questions and heard about a few options. I looked into the JET program and then I looked into a private education company called AEON.

I flew out to Los Angeles during my last year in University, interviewed, and spent my birthday with my friend Craig. I got an offer in January, had two weeks to clear it with my US employer to go, and 5 months later I was on a plane here. Here’s what I’ve learned:

Japanese People Work Hard

Possibly harder than any country I’ve ever been to. In Japan, everyone works hard, men and women. The only exception is maybe high school kids, but even a lot of them have part-time jobs. Now when I say work hard, I mean they put in time, if not always effort. Most of my students work 12 to 13 hours a day and can have 60 hour weeks for several weeks in a row. This is normal; no one is surprised, no one complains, it’s just the way it is.

I think this is why Japan’s credibility is so high. Just look at the JPY/USD exchange rate over the past 10 years. Japan works hard and gets things done and the world is recognizing it. I’m glad to get paid in yen because it seems like each day my savings is worth more in dollars.

People listen to their bosses; they respect their teachers; and they are genuinely afraid of shame, which motivates them to perform. Young, unmarried people live with their parents without shame and spend their money on whatever they want. Healthcare and pensions are government-managed so most of people’s take-home pay is disposable and able to be saved.

Japan Is Surprisingly Western-friendly

Japan is like a gateway to Asia for any Westerner. Signs are in English, clear and easy to follow, and people will bend over backwards to help you.

When I had been in Japan for only a month, I took a corporate contract in a city about an hour away. One week, I was 300 yen ($3.50) short to take my train home. At that time I didn’t have a bank card or bank book or anything except a credit card. I explained all of this to the station attendant. He barely spoke English, but when he realized that I was actually pretty screwed, he took me to the ticket machine and paid the difference on my ticket! I literally wouldn’t have been able to get home if that didn’t happen. I brought him and the other workers bottles of tea the next week and paid him back, but for all they knew, they’d never see me again.

There’s Something For You Here

I remember thinking in high school that people who were overly obsessed with Japan were just a little weird. Now, to be fair, some of them were super weird, but in retrospect, I’ve done some “weird” stuff since I got here. Nothing too crazy, but just things I never thought I’d have the opportunity or interest to try. I ate dinner at a prison-themed restaurant and posed in an anime poster which now seems all-too-normal to me.

The Work You Do Is A Reflection of Your Character

Every place I’ve ever been in Japan I am always treated well. I’ve been here for a year and I can’t recall an experience where I wasn’t treated professionally by someone who was working. For Japan, this spans ALL jobs. If you work at a convenience store or a law firm you treat people well, you do your job well, and you take pride in what you do. When I walk into a convenience store, I’m greeted and bowed to, my things are packaged up, and they say goodbye and thank you as I walk out the door. They do all of this in Japanese, as if I knew exactly what they were saying. I’ve honestly never seen anyone give anything but the best service while they’re working.

Bow, Don’t Shake Hands

It kind of makes sense when you live in a dense city with 2 million people. People pick their noses on the train, sneeze, cough, rub there noses and eyes, and then they reach out to shake your hand. That’s kind of gross. Bowing stops common colds – and epidemics too.

Mind Your Own Business

People here are very tolerant of others. Moreso than America. I see people dressed in the weirdest clothes and fashions and nobody says anything. Young girl wear clothes that would be innappropriate in America, but most people don’t see it that way. Old women have purple hair, or pink, or blue and that’s all ok.

Overall I think the most important thing I’ve learned is to respect others. Not that I didn’t know this before, but I think Japan is one of the most amazing countries at doing this. It’s unselfish, and it’s really generous. I’m excited to incorporate these into my life and I’m glad I’ve gotten to experience it.

If You Want To Do It, Do It

During my trip, I read The Alchemist. I’ve never read the book before but since I spend a lot of time on trains and planes I’ve been devouring books. There’s a quote in there I especially liked between the main character, the boy, and an old, wise man:

They were both silent for a time, observing the plaza and the townspeople.
It was the old man who spoke first.
“Why do you tend a flock of sheep?”
“Because I like to travel.”
The old man pointed to a baker standing in his shop window at one corner of the plaza. “When he was a child, that man wanted to travel, too. But he decided first to buy his bakery and put some money aside. When he’s an old man, he’s going ot spend a month in Africa. He never realized that people are capable, at any time in their lives, of doing what they dream of.”
“He should have decided to become a shepherd,” the boy said.

I loved this, because the old man will one day realize that instead of opening his bakery to “put some money aside”, he could have been doing that, or something much better, in Africa.

Never be afraid to ask simply because the answer might be ‘no’. And certainly don’t think that you’re the only one who has taken a step or two into the unknown. The fact is, of every country I’ve visited that’s been rumored to be “dangerous” or “unsafe”, there’s a group of people there – including mothers, children, and young women – who have been surviving there for generations. You are simply becoming one of them.

As I wrap up this extremely long and reflective post I’m happy to say that I’m learning the answers to a lot of these questions. I’ll carry them with me for the rest of my life.

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Back To Tokyo

Tokyo is so amazing I went there twice in three weeks. There’s so much to do there it’s crazy. If you want it, you can find it in Tokyo.

I went to the Sanja Matsuri festival on my first day there to see one of the biggest festivals in Tokyo. It’s estimated that anywhere between 1.2-2 million people visit Asakusa Shrine to see it.

From what I did see the festival was good. The only issue: that place was crowded! People were pushing and shoving and trying to take pictures. The main draw of this festival is watching men and women carry these mikoshi around, which are basically portable shrines. People mob the shrines trying to get pictures, while the people carrying it are marching and sweating like crazy and the police are trying to keep everyone out of the way and still make room for traffic to go by. If you know me at all, you know that sweaty tourists en masse is not my thing. I did get lucky though by stopping to sit a few moments before the mikoshi went right past, so I was able to get some shots as people worked their way around me. Unfortunately I sent a lot of those pictures home, and no longer have them to upload:( This is what happens when you write about something that happened two months ago.

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The dragon robes.

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These are the Mikoshi.

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I went into a information center that has big glass windows to try to see the mikoshi better and saw these rake charms. They’re really beautiful and surprisingly intricate for how small they can be.

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The Mikoshi from up high.

Tokoyo also has a Toyota showroom that is equal parts sales floor and display center for their new cars. I stopped in real quick to check it out.

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The GT86 is a remake of an older car by Toyota. It looks amazing.

Of course the best part of Tokyo is just walking through the city. There’s so much to see:

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Random gundam statues.

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What I can only guess is a midget in a mushroom suit, trying to sell computers.

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Yoyogi Park is amazing on the weekends. It’s full of people and families. We spent a good portion of our day here barbecuing and playing sports.

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This happened.

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And this.

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And this.

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As I walked back to my hotel that night I realized how amazing it would be to live in Tokyo. There’s so much to do and see.

The next day though we went to a maid cafe, a kabuki play, and a restaurant called “The Lock Up”. The maid cafe was something I definitely wouldn’t have done by myself. Basically, a maid cafe is a small cafe where food is served by girls in schoolgirl outfits. They are super cute. Almost too cute. Like, the kind of cute where after awhile you’re ready to spank someone in the face.

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You’re not allowed to take pictures of the girls, but you can take pictures of the food. This is ice cream – a bear and a bunny. Yeah…

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There were crazy costume shops everywhere. Good luck getting this image out of your head…

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We stopped at a garden, where kids were on a field trip, presumably planting rice.

The Kabuki was actually really awesome, I had trouble following it and it was supposed to be 5 hours long! We stayed for the first hour because we had our dinner appointment at the lockup.

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Kabuki Theatre.

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Kabuki cast, doing their thing.

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I thought the kids were fake until the girl started moving!

The Lock Up restaurant was so cool. Basically not possible in the US because of lawsuits. They handcuff you, bring you in, sit you down at a table which is in a cage, and feed you. Then when you least expect it, they turn off all the lights and the staff runs through dressed as monsters and zombies, rattling the cages and shooting cap guns. It was sooo funny, but it made the dinner really fun.

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The restaurant is underground, like a dungeon.

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On your way in, a fake man gets electrocuted.

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Then they seat you in a cage.

Easy as pie.

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Before I left the next day. I only had a brief minute to stop at Shibuya crossing. It’s rumored to be the busiest intersection in the world. After going there at night, I believe it.

Tokyo is so big it’s hard not to feel like there’s a lot that I missed, but I know I’ll be back again someday, so that makes me feel a little better.

Tokyo rules.

Chillin With My Homies

Which happen to be two women who are older than my mother. They rock.

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They cooked me lunch.

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And they fed me cake.

Yippee!

That day I snuck (aka took the elevator) to the top of the JR towers to take some picures. My camera came with a 55-250mm lens so I took some pictures of Nagoya Castle from wayyy far away.

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Then I wandered down to the Golden Clock, the go-to meeting spot in the middle of the station. I was headed to meet some people to go to an all-you-can-eat beer garden on the roof of the Meitetsu department store.

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The Golden Clock.

The Meitetsu Department store is right next to the JR towers in Nagoya. It has a great view of the buildings so I took a few shots over the course of the night. We talked, drank, laughed and enjoyed our Sunday night (which is our Saturday night with our work schedule).

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Middle of a story.

I got a good progression of the towers as the sun went down.

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These nights are so fun. They cost a lot, but they’re well worth it when it’s with the right people:)

Golden Week 8 – Tokyo 3

My last day in Tokyo was possibly one of the most amazing days there. We went to Shiba Park, which is very close to Tokyo Tower and holds Zojoji Temple, which is really pretty. You can see the juxtaposition of the old and the (relatively) new with the Tokyo Tower rising up behind the Temple.

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Zojoji Temple is full of some interesting things. In a smaller temple off to the right there’s a place where people can take stillborns for burial services, which I think affected me the most.

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At the entrance there’s a place to wash your hands, as is custom when entering temple grounds in Japan.

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This is the temple. It was really beautiful. It looked brand new.

Behind the temple there were all of these little stone babies lined up on the wall. Each doll had a hat and was decorated by the family who had lost a child. There were hundreds of these dolls. I didn’t realize the purpose until I walked up to one of the stone babies and around it’s neck was draped a clear necklace, with a picture of the would-be parents. Some were dressed in the baby clothes that would never be used. It was incredibly moving and sad, but at the same time there was a beauty to it and each doll seemed to take on the distinct characteristics of the family that had put it there.

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They lined the path – hundreds of these little stone dolls. It was astounding and made my heart sink into my stomach. It almost made me want to cry, thinking of all the people who had come there at some point to decorate a statue of the child they might have raised. It definitely took the luster away from the beautiful temple in front.

I had a short walk to shake off the emotions that were felt in the memorial and arrived at the Tokyo Tower, which – until the Tokyo Skytree opened – was the tallest tower in Tokyo.

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The first viewing platform is about 500 feet high. The second is over 800 feet high!

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The tower was built in 1958 but it still looks and feels new. It’s incredible how long it’s lasted. On the first viewing platform, they have a glass panel built into the floor. You can stand on it and look down to the street 500 feet below.

The Tokyo Tower was the last thing for me to see that day in Tokyo as I had to catch a bullet train back to Nagoya to get ready for work. Golden week is an amazing time. It’s a great opportunity to see some amazing things; things I don’t think you can see anywhere else in the world. Tokyo is one of the places that you should definitely add to your bucket list. I hugged Kathy and Trev and wished them a safe flight home since they would be flying out of Tokyo to return home. I missed them almost immediately as I left. It occurred to me though, that as I left the Tokyo Tower, that I’d been living here by myself for 9 months. I barely speak any Japanese, but I’ve been ok. I’ve been without seeing my friends every day, but I’ve been ok. I’ve slept through earthquakes and been woken up by a few more. I’ve seen people dressed as Elvis and Anime characters. I’ve been asked for photos just because and I’ve been approached by people from all over the world who are doing the same thing I’m doing. It’s an amazing place and one can’t help to think what an amazing life we have to be able to experience it all.

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With the Koi flags of boys’ day blowing in the wind, I took one last picture of Tokyo Tower and headed off to the station.

Sayaka’s Birthday

One of my (now former) students celebrated a birthday this past week, so we took her out for a nice dinner. It was excellent.

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Sayaka is one of the prettiest people I’ve ever met. Mika is one of the cutest. They’re a deadly combo.

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This picture was pretty cool with the aquarium in the background. Japan has some cool restaurants. Oh yeah, and don’t forget to look at Sayaka and her birthday dish:)

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We’ve sort of formed a tight-knit group. It’s a good thing. I like hanging out with these people.

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We rode on a Ferris wheel that takes you up and over the city. It was pretty darn cool.

I’d write more but I have to catch a train, so maybe I’ll edit this later. But probably not.

It’s a Typhoooooon!

Ok, so we had a Typhoon here in Nagoya about 2 weeks ago. A typhoon is the equivalent of a hurricane (we know because we looked it up).

Basically, a typhoon makes for a nice cozy weekend inside. Watching movies, reading books, staring at the ceiling, and cooking too much food are all ok activities in this situation. There’s only one small thing you need to be aware of…. floods.

I live in a little city called Kyosu (kee-oh-soo) just north of Nagoya, where I work. Kyosu is a charming and non-hip place where old people live. It also sits between two rivers, so when it rains really hard for a long time, people get a little shifty (not shitty, which is what you might see if you read too fast).

So, here’s the big river, which is about a 5 minute walk from my front door.

This was the river when I got here in June...

During the typhoon... Note the water level against the pillars of the bridge... Also notice the islands in the river are gone. As are the trees on the side of the river.

And this is the river afterwards. Notice the islands are all GONE.

Here’s another little comparison:

This is a picture standing on the bridge. Taken when I got here in June. Notice the big green island that ran right under the bridge I'm standing on.

The first picture was taken while I was standing on the bridge between the 2nd and 3rd support pillars looking left. This picture is during the typhoon. Notice the island is underwater.

And the same picture after. The island is washed away, you can see a little piece of the sandbar where all those trees used to be growing.

In the end, we didn’t flood. Even if we did, I live on the 3rd floor and water doesn’t get that high, so I would have just had a nice big swimming pool for a few days. Everybody’s fine, but it’s still pretty amazing what nature can do in a few days!

Fun Foodz!

The other night we celebrated Eri’s birthday! She’s a Japanese teacher at my school. We went to an Okinawan restaurant. Okinawa is an island off the southern coast of the main island. It’s tropical. I tell you this because I didn’t know that before I came here. Also because I love you.

We had these fun little appetizers that were little strings of seaweed that looked like super-tiny grapes. They were fun to eat because they pop when you bite them. It’s like eating a big string of those little juicy things you get when you dissect an orange.

Another night we went to an all-you-can-eat-and-drink buffet with a great view of the Nagoya towers. We taught some Japanese people to play king’s cup and we all got drunk. Believe it or not, I took only this terrible shot and it was while I was sober.

 

Just Living Life

I haven’t written anything in awhile. I’ve kind of gotten used to how things work around here so I’m finding less things that are notable to write about. That said, EVERYTHING is notable. This country has tons of interesting things to show, so I’m going to write about that.

About two weeks ago, we had a typhoon come through town. Whenever typhoons come they kind of ruin the weekend because going outside isn’t really an option. You get soaked no matter what and the wind and rain makes it an all-around miserable experience. It was, however, the perfect weather to go see a movie inside, so my coworker Ayano and I went to go see Transformers 3 (It came out forever ago, but I finally got around to seeing it).

This is me and Ayano with a Lexus race car. They always have cars in the lobby of the mall. I'm not sure why... But they also had a driving simulator which I got sidetracked on before I realized I was ignoring Ayano.

In other news, and more recently, I got a bike! I was super-pumped, because I bought the bike for 3000 yen, which is 12,000 yen less than what it would have cost me brand new! It’s also six months old. It is a granny bike for sure. You would not want to downhill bike on this thing, that’s for sure.

It has a huge basket in the front. This also shaves almost 20 minutes off of my trip to the Supermarket. I love it.

Sometimes when I ride it, I hum that song from the Wizard of Oz where the witch is riding the bike. I probably shouldn't have told you that.

Other things that didn’t make front-page news here in Japan: I’m still practicing for next weekend’s open mic. I’m trying to narrow down a few songs to play. Right now I’m playing songs by the Script, the Animals, mayyybe Adele, and then a couple of songs that I wrote. I’ll try to have someone videotape it next week. Also, my tomatoes finally started growing so that’s good.

So, that’s all I have for this week. I’m taking over a self-study campaign at work next week so it should be busy. We have a holiday on Friday though and we’re going hiking next Sunday! The next few posts should be pretty good!

Toyota Technology Museum Tour

About two weeks ago a student of mine brought in 2 tickets to her museum. It’s the Toyota Commemorative Museum of Industry and Technology and it’s located right down the road from where I live. It was pretty impressive because the museum highlights how Toyota was started. Most people don’t know that the man who started Toyota actually began by inventing weaving looms, not cars. The man’s son then started in the automobile business after the loom business was so successful.

This loom makes a fabric cylinder that is about 5 meters wide when cut. It was designed to be used for boat sails, etc.

The company actually began as “Toyoda” after Kichiro Toyoda who stopped going to school after ELEMENTARY school and started the biggest and most successful loom business in the world. What have you done today? Nothing? Yeah, me either.

The museum was super-interactive. Sayaka even scored me an engine part that was stamped by a 150-ton hydraulic press right in front of my eyes. It was awesome.

I will now give you the rest of the tour in photos…

This is a hand loom. Sayaka demonstrated how to use it and it was so cool! I'd never seen it done before.

This is a "bale" of cotton. It weighs almost 500 pounds and can make 800 t-shirts. It's rock solid.

Then it's fluffed and partly twisted so it looks like ice cream. Or a white poop. You choose.

Then it's spun a little further and then put onto this machine, which spins it even further so it's really strong and won't pull apart.

This is a classic,human-operated loom.

These are the automatic looms that Toyoda designed.

Now we're onto the cars! This is one of the first Toyoda model cars made.

This is the inside of the car, designed as a taxi. That's Sayaka giving us our tour.

This is the auto part of the museum. The thing is huge. We even got to see them use a 200-ton hydraulic hammer. It shook the floor.

This is a future "car" concept. It fits only one person and moves from a seated position for low speeds and this reclined position for higher speeds.

This is me. Half man, half robot.

Overall, the tour was pretty cool. On a serious note, one thing I found pretty surprising was that the loom pictured above, the “human-powered loom”, had more advanced technology on it then I saw of the looms in Morocco in 2009. I saw a room full of people who were weaving fabric, with looms that weren’t even as advanced as looms that existed in the early 1900’s. It was actually surprising and sad. I wanted to say, “hey, what about those guys, in that room who were sweating and working their asses off with looms half as good as this.” It really opened my eyes as to how unequal the world can be. Later in the tour, we saw a modern loom that wove fabric insanely fast with air and electricity. It could even make PICTURES in the fabric by just clicking your image into a nearby laptop. I found it absolutely amazing and a little disgusting that a historical relic in a Japanese museum would probably make someone’s job and life much much easier in Morocco.

Sorry for that, but it’s true. It really makes my heart ache.

That night I played at an open mic night in a city called Imaike.

On a totally unrelated note. I played at an open mic night that night. This was the act before me.

Men in makeup, playing a kazoo/keyboard thing... Welcome to Japan.

I played “House of the Rising Sun” by the Animals and “Freefalling” by Tom Petty because those were the only songs I knew the words to. I should have practiced more. But I’m going back with more songs this month so I’ll be sure to write about that when it happens.

Thanks for reading.