Japan Jidai: Notes on Japan (2001-2006)

A Ghost Saved My Life on Mount Fuji. Maybe.

Don’t let anyone ever tell you that Mount Fuji is a tame mountain. Yes, thousands of people climb to the top every year, including senior citizens. Yes, you can summit without the use of picks, ropes or oxygen. Yes, the whole process is usually very well organized, very efficient, very safe and, in all of those respects, very Japanese. It even resembles a rush-hour commute at times, with the trails fairly packed with hikers and with the constant reassurance of regular rest stations where people can even get their official Mount Fuji hiking sticks stamped for posterity.

However, the climb is fairly strenuous, taking four to ten hours to get to the top. Fuji is one huge piece of rock. And it is very, very wide. It is also the home of the notorious “Jukai”, or “Sea of Trees”, a heavily forested section of the mountain in which, allegedly, compasses do not work. Jukai is famously associated with suicide, with many bodies being found and pulled out every year. It is especially known as a place where old people who do not wish to live any longer simply walk into, letting disorientation, starvation or exposure do the rest.

This is my story:

The Ascent

It is August, and I have only been in Japan a few months. Four of us, three Americans and a Brit, all new to the country, take a bus from Tokyo and arrive at Fuji in the evening, with the intention of hiking all night and seeing the sun rise from the top of the mountain.

The climb begins pleasantly. It is slightly chilly and invigorating, all of us excited by the challenge ahead and full of youthful bravado. The air gets colder as we work our way up, flashlights leading the way. The hiking gets more difficult after a few hours, and the trails more narrow. Our fellow hikers call out encouragement to us in Japanese – “Gambatte! Gambare!” Akiramenai!” “Good luck! You can do it! Don’t give up!” It makes us smile, and the feeling of shared humanity spurs us on.

As always, I notice how prepared the Japanese are, but our ragged little group has pep, and we keep our legs moving, our muscles pumping, stopping every so often to accommodate the couple of smokers, who seem to be struggling just a little bit more than the rest. Moving up through the dark night, the scale and majesty of the mountain remain only hinted at before a soft-pre-dawn glow begins to reveal more of our surroundings.

Realizing that we are still about a half an hour from the top and that the sun is about to poke its head up any moment, two of us break rank and begin to surge up the mountain as fast as we can. It is getting steeper and more crowded. At some points it seems more of a queue than a hike, and in those places we bypass the crowd whenever possible by scampering up the craggy areas on either side of the trail. Are we being rude? As always, in Japan, any slight deviation from the norm brings guilt, but we have to make it up by sunrise. Anyway, karma is just a theory, right? The climb is getting harder and now, practically running up the mountain, I suddenly start to feel woozy. It’s the altitude of course, and as I stop and rest for a brief moment, I realize that we must be at almost 10,000 feet by now. Wow. Almost there.

The Summit

Made it. I turn to the east. My friends also manage to arrive in time and we all wait in breathless anticipation, above the clouds, for the sun to appear.

There it is. Glorious. And in what I consider a perfect tribute to sunrise on top of Japan’s holiest mountain, a group of men press play on the boombox they have lugged all the way up and the golden bars of the song from the opening credits of Star Wars breaks the rarified morning. With big smiles on their faces, they celebrate completion of what is a veritable pilgrimage for Japanese people. Besides a small clump of teenagers too busy texting their friends in faraway places, everybody is enjoying the same exhausted satisfaction, trying their best to capture the moment and rest their tired bodies for a spell before heading down. Our group heads into the warmth of an old, weathered noodle shop for some food. An ancient poster of John Lennon and Yoko Ono smiles down on us as we sit on the wooden benches and slurp down our steaming-hot breakfasts.

The Descent

Leaving the other two to rest a bit more, my friend Duckie and I head down. It is a different path this time, but it seems to be the way everybody is going. This trail is wide and strewn with gravel and, reckless with giddiness, I begin running and then seeing how far I can slide, like a child, over and over again – the first in a series of bad decisions.

I am doing this for some time when I suddenly feel something wrong with my knee. I’ve strained it, and now I am having a little bit of pain walking down the slope. Crap. The switchbacks in the trail prevent me from seeing Duckie, but I am quite sure that she is way behind, so I limp on, cursing myself.

I arrive at a fork in the road, with signs pointing in either direction that are written in Japanese. I wait for a while for the Duck to show up. When she doesn’t, and since I cannot read the signs at all, I follow the path that I see a few other hikers go down. What’s the difference, as long as I get to the bottom of the mountain, right? But even these hikers disappear ahead of me in time as I hobble gingerly down the slope. The sun is rising now and really beginning to beat down as I leave the high elevation behind. In fact, it is getting downright hot. I think of my water bottle and realize that it is in Duckie’s backpack, along with my wallet. I seem to be all alone on the mountain with not a single other person in sight. I check my cell phone. One bar.

Don’t worry, I tell myself, there is bound to be a rest station coming up soon. This is Japan. It probably even has vending machines with beer. But the first trickle of real worry is percolating.

The Ranger

I am walking and walking, with the pain in my knee getting significantly worse, when I finally see a small structure down the path. Have I reached the bottom? It seems I should have, though this place seems a hell of a lot different from where I started. No worries, there’s a park ranger. I’ll ask him.

The stern-looking man in uniform approaches me. Just to be clear about one thing. Japanese people are very nice. In fact, you can pretty much count on their kindness if you happen to get in a jam. Not with this guy.

Let me be clear about something else. My Japanese isn’t that hot. I know some greetings, some nouns, and about four verbs. And after a few minutes of trying to talk to the ranger, I realize that it is not nearly sufficient to explain my situation. Even worse, he is being a total jerk. He is not helpful. He is not nice. He is not kind. He does not seem to like me one bit.

What does emerge through the cloud of my piss-poor Japanese, no English on his part, a flurry of maps, angry finger-pointing and body language is that I have ended up on the wrong side of the mountain. I went down the wrong way!

“Well, how do I get to where I started?” I attempt to convey. “Bus,” he says, “in half an hour”. “Free?” I ask, remembering my wallet, which is now sitting somewhere else, completely unappreciated. “Two thousand yen,” he says, indifferently. I make the universal gesture of pulling out my empty pockets but he just shrugs. I make the gesture for ‘please’, but he isn’t in a very charitable mood.

Then I have one of the worst ideas of my life. I take the map from him and point to where I am supposed to be, where my friends will be waiting. I jab at it and make a walking gesture with my fingers, counter-clockwise around Mount Fuji. Why don’t I just circumnavigate the damn mountain? I am bound to hit the path I was supposed to take and then just follow it down to safety and an ice cold Asahi Super Dry.

He looks at me like I’m some kind of fool and says, sharply, “Da-MAY!” That means “No!”, by the way. But I have that crazy glint in my eyes. I am tired. I am hungry, I am thirsty and I am very, very sick of this ranger’s attitude. I am going to do it. The very last thing he manages to impart to me as I storm off is something about “only experienced guides”.

But who needs a guide, right? I got a glance at the map. All I have to do is go back up a little and then cut right at some point, eventually running smack dab into the original trail! Plus, my knee feels much better walking up and sideways rather then down. I’ll show that haughty ranger! It sure is sizzling, though.

The Woods

I have found what seems to be a trail leading around the mountain. What I haven’t found is people. In fact, I can barely remember the last time I saw anyone since before the ranger. The trail is negligible. It is unmarked and treacherous. My knee isn’t getting any better. I am dying for water. It must be near noon and the sun is high in the sky, mocking me. I don’t smell too fresh. But I keep walking. And walking. And walking. I figure I have been hiking strenuously now since the night before, and I am truly exhausted. The last thing I ate were the noodles at dawn, and that was quite some time ago. I keep walking. I don’t seem to be getting closer to anything except sunstroke or death. I am fading. I know before even looking that my cell phone is out of juice. And then it happens.

I don’t want to be crude, but all of a sudden I have the uncontrollable urge to do that thing that people have to do at least once a day. Squatting atop a sun-baked boulder, the thought occurs to me for the first time that I might actually die in the forests of Mount Fuji. Can you imagine, me laughing like a lunatic as my body empties and severe dehydration takes its place? I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be crude. But this is real life, not Star Wars, where nobody ever has to stop the laser-fight action to take a crap.

Right after this is when real panic sets in. I am ashamed to admit that I pretty much lose my mind for a moment. The sun, the heat, the unbeatable forest. Could I actually have stumbled into Jukai? I begin to panic. It starts with wild thoughts. The thoughts are 1) I smell smoke, 2) Smoke means that there are people around, 3) Those people are hunters and D) Those hunters are hunting me!

I begin running, my reasonable side trying to tell me that this is ridiculous and instantaneously losing its argument. I am tearing through the forest blindly, panting and heart pounding wildly. The bushes and branches are whipping my face and scratching me. I am stumbling and screwing my knee up even more. I am convinced that hunters are chasing me. I am utterly terrified. I run and I run.

The Ghost

Spent, I finally fall to the ground in some shade and await my fate. I close my eyes, telling myself that a helicopter is bound to find me sooner or later. My friends will have alerted the authorities by now. I give up. Whether I am airlifted out alive or dead is not important anymore. I sleep for a while. When I wake up, I have regained just enough strength of body and mind to once again begin picking my way through the forest.

This is when the miracle happens. Practically swooning with heat and thirst, I stumble into a small clearing in the forest. Before me is a ramshackle house, nothing more than a few pieces of flimsy wood nailed together, really. You couldn’t even call it a log cabin, this one-room, dilapidated structure in the exact middle of nowhere. But stunned at my good fortune, I manage to croak out the Japanese word for “Excuse me”.

Sumimasen,” I say, and then again. An old woman appears in the doorway. And when I say old, I mean that she is really, really old. Older than dirt, older even than the dirt located under that old dirt. Older than the first Olympics. Older than Genesis, maybe. She stands about 4 feet nothing and resembles a withered kernal of pure age, with a hunched back and a ragged scarf over her silver head. We stand there gawking at each other, and I am pretty sure she’s thinking I’m no prize, either.

Mizu,” I manage to say. “Mizu. Water, please. Mizu, kudasai.” She disappears into her hut and returns with the precious H20. Next, the miraculous liquid is flowing down my throat, quenching my parched body, restoring my sanity and answering my prayers. It is the most delicious thing I have ever tasted.

Good bless her! This woman, this misshapen old raisin, who inexplicable lives alone in the middle of the forest, has saved my life! The Star Wars song from earlier explodes in my head as I tilt my head back and glug down the wonderfully clear fluid. Oh, precious water! Oh, water! Oh, lady! Blessed is thy name, whatever it is, oh sweet ancient lady sweet Jesus lady sweet Buddha lady, sweet lady of the waters. You are so old and I owe you my life!

Rejuvenated, I excitedly attempt to tell her of my predicament. Having been born before English was even invented, however, she unfortunately understands nothing. When I see her edging back towards her shack, possibly thinking about fetching the rifle she uses for rabid raccoon-dogs, I realize that I may be frightening her and try to tone it down a bit.

We communicate very slowly, but in time the aged little thing gets me to grasp somehow that there is a trail and that it would behoove me to take it. I further understand that this trail, apparently, will take me to safety and people who might be able to help. I thank her with all my heart and, with renewed purpose and will to live, head back into the wild. I soon realize that her “trail” is not much of a trail at all. In fact, it is just an imaginary path marked sporadically with red ribbons tied to trees or branches every twenty yards or so. It reminds me of a constellation in the night sky, only forming any sort of pattern unless you imagine it to. But I begin to follow these ribbons, and they are leading me somewhere, that’s for sure. Sometimes I can’t find the next ribbon and become frustrated, have to backtrack, have to scout around for ages before I finally find it. Sometimes a creek appears and has to be forged, only for the ribbon on the other side to hide, to play with me before revealing itself deep in the undergrowth. And the forest is thicker here. The trail is so narrow it seems only ever used by animals, and small ones at that. But as I push through the dense forest I am pulsating with hope, finding red ribbons faster and faster, feeling like an ancient tracker, smelling success as I get closer and closer to civilization! The forest breaks!

The Fog

Pumice. As far as the eye can see. A sharply angled plain of volcanic rock. It is so steep that I can’t even walk across it. I have to scuttle sideways with both arms and legs, moving awkwardly like some sort of evolutionary dead end. It is painfully slow, as I slide down the dead-smelling slag with every sideways scoot. I feel wretched again. I feel stupid. I feel puny. That’s when the fog rolls in.

It is so thick at one point that I can’t see anything. I think of yelling for help, but don’t dare for fear of attracting a pterodactyl or some other sort of winged, shrieking beast. What is this place? I continue moving blindly along. I’ve really done it now, haven’t I? I keep hoping for something profound to happen ahead of my impending death – a burst of enlightenment, the stereotypical “life flashing before one’s eyes moment” – anything to signify the premature snap of my mortal coil. But all I can think of is what a welcome relief the fog is. The sun is barely penetrating the thick miasma and it has become quite dark. I continue my journey through this otherworldly zone, the sharp rocks scratching and cutting my hands and ankles as I continue on for an hour or more. Maybe I am already dead, I think. Maybe this is actually Hades.

The Rescue

Human voices. The first time I hear them I refuse to believe my ears. But there they are in the distance, somewhere up the mountain, far away in the fog. I tumble toward them like a bear drunk on fermented berries, almost crying with happiness. Yes, I can hear them, real human voices, just on the other side of that rock ridge! There, down on the trail below!

I can imagine how I look to them, a white phantom come hollering out of the mist and a cascade of falling rocks, wild-eyed and beleaguered, dirty and pathetic. I mean, I appear out of nowhere, out of the very clouds themselves, speaking in tongues and slobbering all over myself with joy.

They are frightened at first, these young hikers, but when they see that I am flesh and blood, that I am lost and thirsty and hungry and bloody – when they clearly see the state that I am in – they recover. And I love them for their kindness. I love them for the warm, woolen socks and the banana, for the green tea and the guidance back to my base station. I love them more than my friends, who seem only antsy and bored when I finally reunite with them. But I love the old woman the most, the old woman older than thunder, the old woman who inexplicably lives alone upon the harsh slopes of hoary, holy Mount Fuji, the old woman who gave me water, who saved my life.

I will always be grateful to her, and I am convinced she is a ghost, no mater what anybody else says. How else to explain her very existence there, in that place and time, and her guidance in my greatest hour of need? Yes, I like to believe she was a ghost, a guardian spirit, and only one detail of my story doesn’t quite jibe with that belief.

A famous man once said not to let facts get in the way of a good story. I agree, for the most part, but I must in all honesty admit one thing: the water that the ghost gave me, the magical water that slaked my thirst and quite possibly saved my life was, according to the label, bottled by the Volvic Corporation and imported all the way from France.

Cow Piss (featured by My Life Japan)

“Do you like cow piss?” a student asks me enthusiastically, in my first few weeks of being an English teacher in this country.

“Um, cow piss? In what sense?”

“Cow piss,” he repeats, making the universal gesture for drinking. Is this guy for real?

“No, not really,” I reply evenly, searching his face for any sign that might give his joke away. “Do you like cow piss?”

“Oh, yes! Oishii! It is delicious!” he says with a bright, earnest grin.

Well, whatever turns your crank, dude, but I can think of a lot of things I would much rather drink.

Much is made of Japan’s abundance of terribly mangled English. And it is true that you can fill notebooks with it. I mean, there are whole websites dedicated to this so-called ‘Engrish’. And I used to ask the question a lot myself – why don’t Japanese businesses, some of them huge corporations with a global reach, get somebody to check the English that goes out on their ads, their signage, their brands. How hard is it to hire a translator?

But eventually it hits you. The fact of the matter is that they don’t care. They don’t care how amusing or just plain idiotic something may sound to you, a native speaker. See, English in this country is simply for decoration in many cases. For a host of historical and cultural reasons, having any message written in Roman letters adds a sense of sophistication or modernity to any product. As for mistakes, not many people here, besides the one percent or so of the population that are English-speaking foreigners, will notice it. To everyone else, the English is nothing more than an element of design. That’s why my three-year-old student wears a t-shirt emblazoned with “HELL 69” on it and another’s says, “Stand naturally, Keep your pecker up”. Or why crossing the intersection I see an old lady with a black sweatshirt with “fuckfuckfuckfuckfuck” set in some sort of visual collage.

Within a stone’s throw of my office building is a store selling “Jeans for Aggressive Women”, a shop called “Book-Off” (not to be confused with its sister chain “Hard-Off”), and best of all a hair salon named, rather inappropriately, I think, “Oops!”.

Let’s say its lunchtime and I’m in the mood for a light snack and a beverage. I’d just pop into the convenience store across the street. I could get some tasty, cream-filled sweets called “Collon”, or maybe some chocolate that goes by the name “Asse”. Or maybe it’s hot. How about cooling down with a massive, phallic-shaped popsicle called “Ice Guy”.

Or maybe I’d better just get a bottled drink. Those Ice Guys tend to drip. Well, I’d just walk over to the refrigerated section and reach in for a nice, refreshing concoction named “Pocari Sweat”, bearing an uncanny resemblance in color and opacity to actual bottled sweat. Yum! Or just up and to the left on the rack, a nice bottle of sweet, whitish fluid that bears the name “Calpis”, pronounced by the locals “Cow piss”.

I can tell you one thing for sure. Even though I now know what my student meant by “cow piss”, I can honestly say that I don’t very much care for either variety.

Train Fight

I’m riding the train home from work. It’s fairly packed, definitely no seats available, when something I see compels me to stop reading the book I’m absorbed in.

Moving silently in my direction – an almost imperceptible rustling in the crowd of weary commuters – is a pair of men, both in their mid to late thirties, clutching at each other. Their faces are strained with the look you’d get trying to twist an impossibly stubborn top off a jar.

My first thought is that one of the two is epileptic and possibly having a seizure and the other – his dutiful caregiver – is gently trying to calm and protect him.

Then I realize that they are desperately grappling with each other, fighting, although the manner in which they struggle involves not a sound being made. As they move down the train carriage, the throng around them shifts subtly to allow them passage. The other passengers, noticing but not noticing, burrow ever deeper into their newspapers, manga or text messages.

“What the hell?” I think to myself, as the pair inches closer to the end of the carriage where I am standing. They get so close I could touch them yet, still, no one acknowledges anything. Suddenly, one of the man’s hands breaks free of the other’s hold, flying upward and smacking the glasses off his counterpart’s face. The specs fall at my feet and, not knowing what else to do, I stoop to pick them up. I stand and hand the wire-rim glasses to their owner, and he pauses just long enough to say “Excuse me” in Japanese before resuming his eerie combat with the other guy. I blink stupidly and nod, rendered speechless as the two somehow manage to open consecutive sliding doors and make their way into the next carriage over. Still gripping each other with the intensity of two mutes in a knife fight, they disappear into the thicket of people.

Snapping out of my amazement and looking around, I see that I am the only one who appears to have shown any interest whatsoever in the proceedings.

Like the two seemingly polite, well-dressed combatants, the people around me remain impassive in the face of it all, not so much out of indifference as in a stunningly surreal group effort to be considerate of others, to not disturb the carefully constructed harmony, and most importantly, to give everyone a chance to not lose face, not ever, not even in fisticuffs.


Every day I pass the queue on the way to work. It is always at least 10 people long and on some days, I have counted over 40. It is men, mostly, who are waiting, though the females in line with them give off the same palpable smell of desperation. The people are impatient, rocking from left to right and glancing peevishly at their wristwatches. Obvious loners, miserable-looking and squirrely, they shun eye contact or communication with the people ahead of or behind them in line.

Yes, soon the monstrosity that looms above will open its maw to receive them. Soon the garish beast will come to life, belching smoke and ear-splitting noise from its orifices as the very people now waiting endeavor to satiate it feverishly with shiny, metal balls.

This is pachinko, one of the most spectacular displays of time-killing in the world and quite possibly the loudest way to lose a day’s wages in history. Pachinko, to put it more simply, is a game. It stands like a slot machine, works like a pinball machine and only barely resembles a hobby. Not that the people coming here are looking for much. They are here due to lack of options, imagination, or even jobs, perhaps. They are looking not for attraction but for distraction. And it is a distraction. Pachinko parlors can be found at every station, though I shouldn’t use the word “found”, because that implies you have to actually look for one. They are big, bright, hulking bastions of eyesore, pulsating a color and artificiality in stark contrast, usually, to the immediate surroundings.

Upon entrance the first-timer will most likely be disoriented by the smoke and noise. It’s like war without the danger; like clubbing without the fun, without the sexiness, without the dancing. There is music, though – hideously hyperactive bubblegum house music that can even be heard from outside on the street. It’s just the right kind of music, I guess, to compel countless numbers of people to spend their precious yen on steel balls that they then feed the machines for hours on end, hoping against hope just to break even for the day. And to further spur them on is an MC (for lack of a better word), the guy whose job it is to whip these ball-stuffers into a proper frenzy by prancing about the room with a mic, exhorting the customers on to ever-higher levels of, um, excitement. The whole scene is mind-boggling in its inanity.

Though who am I to judge how these people spend their time? I myself numb my brain on a daily basis in a multitude of ways. Once I watched all seven Planet of the Apes movies in a single day. So who knows? Maybe, in the future, years from now, I will find myself drawn, out of boredom and despair, to these very same pachinko places. However, if I do some day find myself working lever and ball to the soulless beat of techno-cheese, I promise, if only for a moment, to stand up and dance.

The Shouters

I don’t know what job title is printed on their business cards, if they have cards at all, but I call them “the shouters”. At first glance, they appear to do nothing more than annoy potential customers outside the entrance of a store by shouting repetitively at the top of their lungs through a megaphone.

But this is not the case. In fact, I have been told, they are actually there to attract customers to the shops with their unique and incessant brand of ear-splitting street marketing.

Sometimes businesses next door to each other both employ shouters, the effect of which is rival shouters standing just meters apart, letting loose in simultaneous and sustained torrents of verbosity as if their very lives depended on it. So dedicated and loyal are these employees that they will stand practically side by side, engaging in such an all-out battle of vocal supremacy that no one passing by, even if they were trying to listen, could possibly understand what either of them are saying. It all just blends into a cacophonous firefight of sound and near-hysteria.

Some shops, in a kind of arms race of attention-getting, issue their shouters a ladder and a flag, to better be heard and seen over rival shouters and the natural din of the city. So there a lone man stands, balanced precariously on top of a cheap aluminum ladder, frantically waving his flag and screaming into his cone, earnestly trying to impart to the sea-like throng of people frothing beneath his little island just how much they can save on detergent at his pharmacy, or whatnot.

You have to hand it to the guys, though. They do this for hours, without once stopping, turning in the direction of their counterpart and saying (perhaps through the cone), “Please. Let’s stop this madness”.

You have to respect something about that. You do. But you also have to worry about the shouters, with their rickety little ladders, their sweatily urgent devotion to inherently hum-drum promotions and the ever-present risk, of course, of an entire livelihood tragically cut short by a single, niggling throat nodule.

Teaching English

In my five years here, how many students have I taught? Though I can make a rough estimate of five times two semesters times 85 students per semester, I have never been any good at math, so I instead I will simply say “a lot”. Add to that private lessons and trial lessons and “a lot” suddenly becomes “even more”. So where did this all begin?

I guess I should tell you that it was never my intention to become an English teacher. It kind of just happened, and I still remember the first time I walked into a class, in a cheap suit and tie with all eyes upon me thinking, “What have I gotten myself into?”

But I sweated, I survived, I persevered and now I can finally walk into a class without asking myself that question. Most of the time. And I don’t wear a tie anymore. One lesson I’ve learned about language schools in Japan: the ones that dress their teachers up the most are the worst.

Oh, yeah. I’ve learned a lot. I am wiser now, but more jaded. I am a better teacher now, but more bored than I’ve ever been. It’s time for a change and I know it. Like, when I correct the “th” sound for the 5,700th time, I have to stop myself from kicking a hole in the ceiling and remind myself how very lucky I am to be making decent money halfway around the world just because I happened to be born in an English-speaking country at this particular time in history. Never before and never again will this sort of pure luck befall me.

– Do you speak English?

– Yes.

– Then get into the classroom.

– Are you serious? Just like that?

– Yes. Now teach.

– Um…okay? And you are going to pay me?

– Yes.

– Sure, but just one question.

– Yes?

– How do I teach?

Well, like they say, it’s not brain surgery. Or rocket science. No, it mostly involves being a good listener, as well as being relentlessly upbeat. The second part is the hardest – showing up every day and smiling throughout. Let me just say that it builds a new respect for daily talk-show hosts and entertainers. Your grandmother died this morning? So what. Your girlfriend cheated on you? Who cares? Get in that classroom and smile. Act interested. You feel like crap? Your nose won’t stop dripping? You can’t stop coughing and your face is red and burning hot and a roomful of eyes is watching impassively? Get through it. Make a joke. Make a grammar point. The show must go on.

Let’s begin by talking about teaching kids, since I’ve been teaching children almost exclusively in the last two years. Here’s a brief run-down. High schoolers: A mixed, moody bag. Junior High Schoolers: Anyone who doesn’t think teachers earn their money try teaching a co-ed junior high school class in Japan. I dare you. Just you try to get them to communicate with the opposite gender for one hour! Elementary Schoolers: Pretty enjoyable, and one of my students has a head shaped exactly like a garbanzo bean (but I digress). Kindergarteners: Fun but exhausting and often leave you running into the teachers room after class screaming, “Vasectomy!” Babies: Sure, they are cute but it’s mindless work that involves a lot of singing and talking to yourself, much like one would do in a mental hospital.

Oh, you didn’t know that English teachers are hired to teach babies? Well, it’s true, and in the Eikaiwa (English Language Conversation School) industry’s unholy drive for money, the students are only getting younger. How can a one and a half-year-old be expected to speak English when he or she cannot even speak Japanese? What’s next? Pre-natal classes? With the teacher kneeling down and singing the ABC song to the mothers’ bulging bellies? Surprise! One school that I know of already offers those classes!

And then there is teaching adults, of which I have had plenty of experience. Many are shy. Some give you nothing to work with. Example:

Teacher: Hello.


Teacher: How are you?

Student: How are you?

Teacher: What did you do this week?

Student: Nothing special.

Teacher: Well, what do you like to do?

Student: Sleeping.

Some of them talk a lot, but are so boring you’d rather take a hard slap to the face and be sent home than interact with them for another 45 minutes. Example:

Teacher: How was your weekend?

Student: I buy….{searches electronic dictionary for 2 or 3 minutes}…fingernail clippers.

Make a conversation out of that and you are a champion.

Some of them have physical features that scare me. Some of them don’t know why they are there. Some of them have money and time to burn and have been in the beginners’ class for three years without having shown one bit of progress. Some of them have no social skills and expect to learn them along with a new language.

Flip it. Some of them are great. Some of them learn like sponges. Some of them try so hard you just want to hug them. Some of them are so smart and sophisticated that you wonder what in the world they are doing even listening to you. Some of them go abroad, succeed, and make you so proud and they don’t even know how much. Some of them cry in class because their lives are not going well at the moment and they get frustrated or emotional but they come back the very next week and try hard again and you love them for it.

Some of them make you so happy and you want to know them forever and see how their lives unfold but you know you won’t. Some of them make you so happy and you want to know them forever and see how their lives unfold and you will. Because that is the best part about teaching, and of being here for five special years – when the line between teacher and student blurs to nothing because you can’t help but see each other more as people, and as friends.


Don’t clip your fingernails at night or your parents will die. Don’t spill your beverage or a drunk man will show up at your door. Throw beans around your house on the last day of winter to drive out the devils. Jam your chopsticks upright into your food only at your own peril. To counter a bad case of nerves, simply draw the character for “person” on the palm of your hand and pretend to eat him. Avoid the numbers four and nine unless you’re into suffering and death.

These are some things I’ve learned here, some things to keep in mind. Though I don’t much mind a drunkard showing up at my door. It’s usually just a friend.

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