Part 1: making a first impression
Jikoshoukai (自己紹介) = a self-introduction speech, typically to a large group of peers/co-workers
Monday morning rolls around, and you find yourself standing in the middle of a busy cluster of cubicles, filled with Japanese professors shuffling around as they prepare for the department-wide meeting. You tug self-consciously at your black dress pants, which you’re not used to wearing, and watch as everyone rises from their desks to face the professor in front as he reads the weekly announcements. You catch your name as someone ushers you to the front; with a small bow, you launch into the spiel you’ve been reciting in your head for the past ten minutes.
“Hajimemashite. Namae wa Mikaashi Reecheru desu…”
You’ve speak for less than a minute, but the room applauds like you’ve just read aloud a piece of award-winning poetry. Though you’ve made many grammatical errors, the professors kindly commend you on your Japanese proficiency. This praise isn’t limited to Technos, either: a simple “arigatou gozimasu” at the grocery store or a “hajimemashite” when meeting a new group of people will win you accolades. Meanwhile, some students who have been working for years to improve their English will feel nervous or embarrassed at the prospect of conversing with a native speaker.
That’s why everyday when I walk into the SkillUp Room at Technos, I am already impressed with the bravery it takes so many students, especially those just beginning their English studies, to approach my desk and ask for help. Getting to know individual students has been such a joy, whether we wind up discussing an upcoming job interview, sharing our favorite anime series, or laughing about English and Japanese slang words. It’s such a blessing that my job, in essence, is to be my awkward American self, make new friends, and share the language that I love so much.
Part 2: A day in the life
Kawaii (かわいい) = cute / lovable
Now that I’ve spent more than a week in Japan, I’ve started to find a routine that works for me. Every morning, I get out of bed, get ready, check my messages from back home, and then walk about 15 minutes to the train station. Unlike the Metra trains back home, which typically run at least 10 minutes behind schedule, the trains here are very fast and very timely, so I never worry about being late.
Here, I will note just how safe, easy, and convenient Japanese public transportation is. In America, I think there’s a certain level of stigma around taking trains and buses; however, driving in Japan is often downright impractical because of the many narrow side streets that force bulky vans to crawl along at a snails pace. To get around Japan quickly, bicycles and motorbikes are more often the way to go; some of the bikes are even decked out with car seats to carry small children.
You can also see tiny schoolchildren, usually wearing bright red or orange caps, taking the train by themselves, which you wouldn’t expect to see in a big metropolis. While you won’t find me personally wandering backalleys alone in the dead of night or anything like that, Tokyo is regarded as a very safe city to live in. People here don’t fret too much if things get left behind in a public area, because they trust that other people will be responsible enough to return them. It’s a big attitude shift for someone from Chicago, but it’s helped me feel more at ease as I squish next to complete strangers on crowded trains during rush hour.
The train systems (yes, that’s plural) in Tokyo are incredibly intricate and overwhelming for newcomers, so I’m very lucky that I live just one stop away from Technos College. I get out at Musashi-Koganei Station, where I typically get a quick pastry from a bakery inside the station. I have yet to find a bakery where the bread wasn’t incredibly soft, sweet, and reasonably priced, so take time to enjoy some Japanese bread if you get the chance!
There’s a bus right outside the station that stops right outside Technos, but if the weather’s nice (which it has been nearly every single day since I arrived), I like to walk to the school so that I can listen to an audiobook, admire the scenery… and burn some calories from all the Japanese food I’ve been eating.
Once I arrive at Technos and receive any assignments for the day, I start chatting with the students in the SkillUp Room. I spent the first few days at Technos introducing myself to the students, and due to my long hair, softer voice, and overall younger demeanor, I was (and still am) typically met with a surprised chorus of “kawaii!” from the girls, and some guys, too. Being half-Asian, I didn’t expect to stand out too much in Japan, but it’s been such a relief to have that kind of positive reaction from the students.
Outside of SkillUp, I’ve also been assigned to help with a few writing classes, which has been such a fascinating experience. Although many Japanese students take some kind of English class throughout elementary and high school, writing isn’t typically emphasized, so for many of them, Technos is the first place where they’ve been challenged to express and organize complex ideas in English. Writing’s something that I’ve loved since I was nine or ten years old, and as I prepare to spend my junior year cranking out essay after essay at Oxford University, I feel a strange kind of nostalgia at breaking down the fundamentals of writing to students who are writing their very first poems and paragraphs in English.
After school, I can take the bus back to the station, but I typically prefer to walk home and take in the sights of the city. Walking around in Tokyo feels like you’re constantly unraveling a mystery, as you traverse busy roads, hilly footpaths, cobblestone-paved bridges, and paved biking paths with a tangled mess of shrubs and grassy weeds along the sides. The city is very compact, and as a result, there are all sorts of nooks and crannies to discover. For instance, one of the professors showed us this little hole-in-the-wall café with an equally small meat shop next to it. But as you go deeper, you discover that it’s also a flower shop and a local vegetable market, and it even sells ceramics and souvenirs, too.
That’s the kind of seemingly mismatched, quirky unexpectedness which pervades this town. On my way home, I can walk down a block of stationary shops and hair salons, turn a corner, and find myself observing a group of boys practicing Japanese archery in a backyard, just down the road from a shrine that’s centuries-old.
I love how no two houses are the same, either; they can come in all sorts of pastel shades and unique structures. Again, Japan has an extensive history compared to America, and you feel that in the parts of houses that are borrowed from different eras. You can have shingled roofs adjacent to modern glass walls, and a house with a gate made of sleek black bars can have a neighbor down the block with a gate made entirely from bamboo. What I suppose I’m trying to say is, you’ll never get bored during a walk through Tokyo.
On my way home, I typically stop at one of the many, many convenience stores throughout the city to pick up dinner. Unlike the oftentimes sketchy, dingy stores next to gas stations, however, convenience stores in Japan actually have quality food at reasonable prices. A pre-packaged meal of pasta, rice and chicken, or onigiri (triangular rice sandwiches) is an easy way to eat in Japan on a budget.
Of course, there are much more exciting places to eat than that… 🙂
Part 3: Kichijoji
Neko (猫) = cat
If you’re unfamiliar with Japan’s animal café phenomenon, let me be the first to introduce you. Whether it’s dogs, cats, birds, or reptiles, Japan’s sure to have a special café where you can eat your food in the company of any animal that tugs at your heartstrings. As a cat devotee, I chose to spend my Saturday morning at the first cat café I could find, Temari no Ouchi. This place had a really soothing, woodland fairy-type atmosphere, and unlike many cafes that have certain time restrictions, this place encourages patrons to relax and spend as much time as they’d like with the cats. You can kneel on your woven mat by your table and wait for cats to pass by, or you can walk around and find them lounging on ledges, under tables, or in little toy tunnels or houses. I could describe this place in more detail, but I think some pictures will do:
After nearly two hours of adequately acquainting myself with all the cats, I decided it was time to explore the rest of Kichijoji City. I spent some time wandering around the stores near the station, including UNIQLO, which is like if Sears were to rise from the ashes into a 7-story department complex containing all the affordable, essential wardrobe pieces you could ever wear in your life. I also spent some time exploring some smaller boutiques, too, and I noticed that while Japan is typically seen as a very ethnically homogenous country, they like to borrow from other countries. Within the span of two blocks, I saw a store selling Middle-Eastern clothes, an Italian café, a French bakery, and even an American-style buffet.
Once I had my fill of window shopping, I headed towards Inokashira Park. Like Koganei Park, this place was much larger than your average American park, and is filled with things to see and do: shrines, a zoo, an aquarium, a dog park, several cafes, and even a Studio Ghibli-themed museum that’s so popular that you can only by tickets on the tenth of each month online or at a special store.
However, one of my favorite things about the park was taking a swan boat ride on the river. It took me a few minutes to get the hang of peddling and avoiding collisions, but once I got my bearings, I was able to take in the beautiful nature all around me, momentarily forgetting that I was still in the largest urban setting on the planet. River boat rides like these are especially famous during cherry blossom season, so please check it out if you’re in Japan during that time!
It started drizzling during the late afternoon, so I decided to head back to Kichijoji Station. However, I was amazed to find that the inside of the station is massive, with a bakery, a legit grocery store, and a mile-long stretch of shops that puts any outlet mall strip to shame. I will bet that there are people who travel to Kichijoji and never leave the station; I think it took me about an hour to actually board my train because I kept getting distracted. So with a light heart and a bag of cinnamon rolls I was too weak to pass up, I boarded the train and ended my first solo excursion in Japan. It was a little intimidating, for sure, and my brain definitely short-circuited a few times when talking to the shopkeepers in Japanese, but I’m proud of myself for managing on my own and letting myself explore!
Sorry for the delay in posting this; I’ve been a bit under the weather for the past few days. I promise that Week 3 will be coming very soon!