Relearning how to take out the trash

In the States, trash is trash. I’d throw my trash into the closest can I found and wouldn’t think twice about it. Sure, I’d try my best to recycle, but if there were no recycle-specific cans available nearby, then I wouldn’t go out of my way to find one…

…which is a big reason why living in Japan is a lot more challenging than I’d thought it would be.

After arriving in Minoh, MAFGA (the organization that facilitated orientation for JET’s and has since been helping me and my fellow English teachers get accustomed to living in Japan) gave each JET about 100 20 liter trash bags, specifically for 燃えるごみ、or burnable garbage. Each city in Japan has their own trash bags, often with the city’s name marked on the front. These are the only bags accepted for disposal on trash days. Minoh’s looks like this:

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See the long list of rules at the bottom?

So yeah, there are multiple trash days. 3 per week to be exact…

And this is where it gets complicated (as if wasn’t already complicated enough!).

Tuesdays and Fridays are the days for burnable garbage – paper, plastic, cardboard, food waste, etc. At first I thought twice a week seemed excessive, since in the states there’s only one pickup day per week, but the time between Fridays and Tuesdays actually feels like ages to me… The difference is that I don’t have a large trashcan outside where I can throw out my bags full of food waste, like I did in the States, so I’ve been forced to keep my trash inside my apartment until I can dispose of it on trash day – banana peels and all.

Every apartment building has its own designated trash collection spot. My apartment’s spot is on the sidewalk along a main street to make it easier for the garbage truck to make a quick stop.

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The garbage truck comes promptly by 9am, so it’s important to take the trash out before then. The other day, a sign was posted next to the collection area that reminded people, in aggressively large print, to take their trash bags out before 9am on the appropriate days.

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Ah, lovely pictures of garbage.

As for un-burnable garbage, that can get a bit trickier: the first and third Wednesday of the month are the days for recyclable plastic bottles, while the second and fourth Wednesdays are aluminum/glass bottle days. (Yeah, I know, I forget all the time.)

For the first few weeks, I didn’t know how to recycle un-burnable garbage, because MAFGA had only given JET’s bags for burnable garbage. I had no idea what to do with all of my bottles, and I didn’t have the guts to ask for help. So I would throw out my bottles at random cans in front of convenience stores. But then I learned that recycling your bottles at convenience stores is actually illegal! There are even outdoor video cameras pointed at the trash cans to scare people off. (So if I end up getting arrested in Japan, it’s probably because I was caught on one of those cameras.)

I wasn’t all that interested in getting arrested, so instead of continuing to break the law, I decided I’d have to figure out how to recycle properly.

On a Wednesday morning, I walked out to the sidewalk where the garbage gets picked up to see how everyone else was doing it. I didn’t see any bags, but I did see several baskets filled to the brim with crushed cans. I figured out that people just bring out their cans and bottles and dump them out into designated bins. (Which is why MAFGA didn’t give us bags for cans.) The bins kind of look like this:

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So, I wouldn’t say that I’ve mastered the art of trash in Japan just yet, but I at least know how to recycle my leftover bottles without committing a felony.

A stroll through Kyoto

Kyoto is unlike any other city I’ve seen – never have I been anywhere as beautiful, as captivating, and as distinct as Kyoto, Japan.  The heart of tradition, it protects and preserves the aspects of Japanese culture which make the country’s character unique.

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This past weekend, I visited Kyoto for the first time. Since I’d never been to the city before, and knew very little about it, my friends and I joined a free walking tour of Gion.

Gion is a traditional entertainment district in the center of Kyoto. Woven throughout the famous district are streets lined with shops selling traditional Japanese craftwork, like chirimen craft and handmade ceramic bowls, as well as traditional Japanese snacks.

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But what I found most interesting about Gion is the fact that it is also Kyoto’s most famous geisha district.

The tour guide led us to several ochaya (teahouses), where maiko and geiko entertain guests, for up to thousands of dollars. You can tell if a building is a tea house by the metal plate outside the door, and by the wood engravings which list the names of the geishas-in-training who live there. (See the picture below.)

According to the guide, there are only 300 geishas in Japan – all of them live and work in Kyoto.

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The kanji on the metal plate read お茶屋, or tea house.

Though Gion is well regarded as a hub for entertainment, there are temples and shrines located throughout the district as well, which make for an interesting change in both scenery and atmosphere. Sometimes temples – big and small – will spring up at random, near the edge of an alley or even in the middle of a shopping center. While on the tour, our group found ourselves occassionally wandering onto sacred grounds, which I suppose is the norm in a city that’s the center of traditional Japanese culture.

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One of the temples that we stopped by had an area dedicated to Jizo statues, which are stone carvings wrapped in pieces of brightly colored fabric that are often found at temples or shrines.

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The tour guide explained that these traditional Buddhist statues provided solace to Japanese women who suffered from a miscarriage, as the statue was believed to protect and prevent unborn children from going to hell. It’s believed that as the babies did not have the chance to build up good karma on earth, ‘Jizo’ helps smuggle the children into the afterlife in the sleeves of his robe.

Good karma seemed to be a common theme at the temple – because beside the Jizo statues was a large collection of Sarubobos.

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Sarubobo literally translates to “a baby monkey.” Saru is the Japanese word for monkey, and bobo is the word for baby in the Takayama dialect. The sarubobo is associated with a protection from bad things; in Japanese, the word “leave” translates as saru, so possession of a sarubobo means that bad things will, well, saru. The monkey-shaped charms are all burned at the end of the year, though, so visitors will have to return to the temple at the start of the year if they want that bad thing of theirs to stay away.

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After meandering along a few more vendor-lined streets, the tour came to a close, and the other tourists in the group went off to continue exploring the city on their own. Though brief, I’m glad I opted to take the tour – I ended up learning so much about traditional Japan through only a tiny glimpse of Kyoto.

I’m excited to go back soon, so that I can discover even more about the country I’m beginning to call home.

Fajitas in Umeda

If you’d told me a month ago that I’d be eating tacos and watching a Mariachi Band in Japan, I wouldn’t have believed you. Yet, that’s exactly how I started out my weekend – at Fiesta Mexicana in the middle of Umeda, Osaka.

Fiesta Mexicana is an annual festival, usually held mid-September, where everyone is welcome to appreciate and enjoy authentic Mexican food, art, and entertainment. It started several years ago and has since become a permanent event, ‘envisioned as an opportunity for citizen-level exchange to deepen friendship between Japan and Mexico.

I arrived at the base of Umeda Sky Building where the festival was taking place around 7:30pm. The festival area was lively and inviting, full of people and energy and the sound of mariachi music playing cheerily in the background.

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I’ve never seen Mariachi performers before, so I have nothing to compare the show too, but I – and my fellow visiters in the crowd – really enjoyed it. While the Mariachi band and the traditional folk dancers made the trip out to the festival worthwhile, my favorite part of the night by far was the food.

While my friends stood in line for burritos, I wandered from booth to booth to see what other meals and appetizers were being served. Most venders were selling tacos and cheese quesadillas, but there were also booths selling pozole, elotes, tamales, tostadas and other popular Mexican dishes.

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Though I had quite a bit of trouble deciding which booth to choose, I eventually decided to order from a stand selling a dinner set for 1000 Yen, which came with chipotle-seasoned chicken thigh straight off a flaming grill, a side of fajitas, pinto beans, and two flour tortillas. And yes, it was just as delicious as it sounds.

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After ordering, my friends and I gathered at a table by the stage, watched a performer sing a ballad in Japanese, sipped on tequila cocktails, and ate our Mexican food with a pair of wooden chopsticks. Multiple times throughout the night, I couldn’t help thinking to myself how peculiar the whole experience was. Though I would never have imagined myself in a situation as strange as that, it’s definitely been one of my favorites so far. If I happen to be in Osaka next September, Fiesta Mexicana is an event I plan on returning to without a doubt – for the ambience, the exceptional performances, and the perfectly grilled chicken.

Forever Indebted to Cycle Seven

Minoh is a dangerous place for pedestrians. You always have to be on your guard. Because at any moment, a young mother, balancing a toddler in the seat behind her and a newborn baby in the front, could come shooting past you without a word. If not a young mother, then students coming home from school, or an elderly woman with the ingredients for that night’s dinner piled up in her basket. Everyone, and I mean EVERYONE rides a bike here. It’s not hard to see why – the city is small but spread out, the streets are flat, there’s bicycle parking on every corner, and peddling groceries home in a nifty basket is a lot easier than walking them home.

By the first week that I’d arrived in the city, I knew that I wanted a bike. First, because owning a bike is convenient, and Second, because I’m lazy and not a fan of walking long distances in the sun. I ended up buying the cheapest one I could find – about 12600 yen, or $113.

Being the cheapest on the market, my bike is nothing to rave about with its rock hard seat and squeaky brakes. But it’s durable overall, has a basket, AND comes with a lock already attached to the back wheel. Kind of like this:

220px-Bike_O_Lock_JapanAll you have to do to unlock the bike is insert a tiny key and turn the key to the right. To lock the bike, you close the ring around the wheel and the key will snap out. Convenient right?

That’s what I thought too. Well, up until yesterday afternoon, when I realized I lost the key to the lock…

So here I am. It’s 2pm, nice weather out. I’m ready to take a quick trip to the grocery store for cucumbers. (Because you can’t have kabocha salad without cucumbers.)

I walk out to the bicycle parking area beside my apartment. I’m thinking, I’ll be in and out of the store in 20 minutes tops. I open my coin purse, where I keep both my house key and my bicycle key. But there is no bicycle key in my coin purse.

I don’t believe it. I close the purse. Open it. Search through the coins. Close it, open it again, search again – to no avail. The key is not in my coin purse.

I ran back up to my apartment and began rummaging through my belongings, not yet ready to admit that I’d been careless enough to lose one of my most important possessions. I searched through every nook and cranny of every single bag that I owned (even the bags that I haven’t touched since arriving in Minoh) and even scanned the sewers surrounding my apartment building, just in case. Still, nothing. With a heavy heart, I forced myself to come to terms with the fact that I’d lost the only key to my bicycle.

So, there I was – squatting beside a sewer, key-less, and basically bike-less, since there’s no way to get another set of keys. And all I’d wanted was to buy a cucumber! (But life is never that simple, is it?)

As is my immediate response to having no idea what to do in a given situation, I pulled out my phone and typed my problems into Google. ‘I lost my bike key in Japan.’

To my (pleasant) surprise, I discovered that many people have faced that exact same dilemma.

There were plenty of results – even detailed, in-depth articles dedicated to the topic. Though, the first two that I read weren’t all that helpful. In short, they told me that I needed to remove the lock from the bike myself if I ever wanted to be able to ride it again – which would require multiple types of screwdrivers, a wrench, and the cover of nightfall (since a random foreigner trying to break a lock off a bike in the middle of the day looks a tad suspicion), all of which I did not have.

I went back and clicked on a different article. The author of that one explained that someone else has taken off the lock for him – he’d lost his bike key in a public lot and the parking attendant had broken off the bike lock for him with a clamp. Well, I definitely did not have a readily available parking attendant with a clamp to come to my rescue. But after reading the article, I was reminded of someone who might be able to help.

About a 2 minute walk from my apartment is a bicycle shop called Cycle Seven. I pass it on my way home everyday and always see the same repairman sitting at a tiny table in the middle of shop staring intently at his computer. I’d never stopped by before, (since there was never any reason to) but it was always comforting to know that in the case of a flat tire or faulty break situation, help was only a block away.

I doubted that I’d be able to coerce the repairman to follow me to my apartment so he could fix my bike there. So my only option was to transport the bike to him.

I wasn’t particularly ecstatic about the idea of carrying my entire bike up the street alone, but I had no other choice. I went back to my apartment to get my bicycle registration, just in case anyone tried to accuse me of stealing. (Not that I’d blame them – I mean, if I saw a poorly dressed foreigner lugging a locked bicycle down the sidewalks of Minoh, I’d find it questionable too.) And then I returned to the parking lot, grabbed onto my bike’s handles with my left hand and lifted the seat with my right, and began making my way towards Cycle Seven.

The bike was heavy. Really heavy. I had to take a break every seven or eight steps. I also had to appear as nonchalant as possible, so during my breaks I’d casually lean on the seat and hum and nod at passing cyclists.

Thank goodness Cycle Seven is super close to my apartment – I made it to the shop in less than 10 minutes, even with multiple breaks. The second closest shop is about 2 miles away… lugging my bicycle all the way there would’ve taken me an hour at least.

I walked into the shop and got straight to the point – I’d lost my bicycle key. The repairman nodded. He’d probably dealt with the same problem multiple times. He told me he’d have to remove the lock from the bike and asked if I was okay with that and I said go for it (in more formal words of course).

He brought my bike into the shop, whipped out a pair of clamps, and broke the lock in one snap. He asked me if I wanted the same type of lock for 1200 yen and I said sure, so he brought out a new lock and fit it on the back wheel. He also checked my breaks and filled my tires with gas after he finished with the lock. Even with the additional work, the whole process lasted less than 3 minutes. I was prepared to pay him extra for his services, but after all that, he only charged me 1200 yen – the price of the new lock. I wanted to tip him, but there’s no tipping in Japan. So I gave him as sincere of a thank you very much as I could express, wheeled my bike out of the shop, and rode to the grocery store to finally buy my cucumbers.

Hopefully, I won’t need to go back to Cycle Seven anytime soon, but if I do, I definitely plan on bringing Mr. Repairman a thank you present for his quality customer service.

That’s not an ice cream truck…

The first time I heard the song start playing outside, I immediately thought – ice cream! I’d never seen an ice cream truck in Japan before, but when I heard that signature jingle echo along the street adjacent to my apartment building, I knew it had to be ice cream. What else could it be? I took my wallet out of my purse and was ready to run out to wave down the truck, but by the time I was about to leave my apartment, the jingle stopped – and I assumed I’d missed the truck. Disappointed, I put my wallet back and mourned my lack of ice cream.

The next day, though, the jingle started playing again, exactly at 5pm. It made sense – the ice cream man must drive through the neighborhood at 5 everyday since students usually start coming home from school around then. Again, the jingle stopped before I had time to find cash and slip on proper shoes, but I told myself that tomorrow, I’d be waiting outside by 4:55.

I was so excited about the idea of getting ice cream the following day that I even mentioned the truck and the jingle to my Japanese friend. I wanted to know what the truck looked like, where it stopped, and most importantly, what kind of ice cream it carried.

But my friend had no idea what I was talking about.

Because apparently, there are no ice cream trucks in Japan.

The jingle that I’ve been hearing everyday at 5pm is actually the 市町村防災行政無線放送 (local government disaster administration wireless broadcast), or disaster wireless for short, according to a Japan Times article I read after my hopes and dreams for an iced Popsicle were shattered. The song is a daily test of an emergency broadcast system that’s meant to alert citizens in the case of an incoming disaster.

(Here’s the article if you’re interested.)

The closest thing to an ice cream truck in Japan is the (Yaki-Imo) truck, which serves freshly baked sweet potatoes. yakiimo-featThis truck only comes around in the winter time though, so it looks like I won’t be running out to meet any treat-delivering vehicles anytime soon. And though I love potatoes, they’ll never be able to satisfy an ice cream craving… I suppose while I’m in Japan, I’ll need to get used to finding my ice cream elsewhere.

Where to Find a Whole Cheesecake for 685 Yen

You’ve probably heard a little bit about “Japanese cheesecake.” It’s a huge hit right now – or at least it was a few months ago when I saw an INSIDER YouTube video featuring a dessert stand in Japan selling a special kind of fresh cheesecake, known for its signature jiggle. I’d never seen a cheesecake like that before – I knew I had to try it. So I added the featured dessert stand to my ever-increasing While in Osaka bucket list. And I finally got the chance to cross the destination off the list!

The stand is called Rikuro Ojisan no mise Namba (りくろーおじさんの店 なんば本店), which roughly translates to Mr. Rikuro`s shop in Namba. Rikuro Ojisan is actually a chain, but the INSIDER video happened to feature the Namba location, so of course I had to go to that one. Luckily for me, the commute to Namba from Minoh is pretty straightforward – a train to Umeda, a subway ride to Namba station. And the shop itself is only about a five minute walk from the station`s west exit.

After navigating our way through the district’s hectic streets, lined with shops and restaurants, we arrived. The renowned sweets stand wasn’t difficult to spot, what with the classic red flags stamped with the outline of Rikuro-san’s smiling face marking the front entrance.

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Fortunately, the line out front wasn’t as long as I’d thought it would be. Service was fast, cheesecakes were piling up fresh from the ovens – my friends and I only had to wait our turn for a few minutes at most. There were a wide array of dessert and pastry options besides cheesecake to choose from too, as well as an extensive drink menu, but we decided to stick with just the cheesecake that had lured us all the way there in the first place.

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Rikuro’s 人気No.1 (Most Popular)

Between me and my four friends, we decided to split one cheesecake – which turned out to be way more than enough. (We barely even finished half.) In fact, I bet one could easily feed up to ten people. They’re that big, like the size of my head kind of big. And​ the best part is that one cheesecake – one WHOLE cheesecake – is only 685¥! (About $6.26.) Yeah, I’m serious. No, I don’t get it either.

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The five of us gathered around a tiny table at the stand’s limited seating area. We were given a butter knife, tiny plastic spoons, and plates for sharing. We took the cheesecake out from its box and stared at it and poked it and shook it to see if it actually jiggled. (It did.) After posting obligatory Snapchat videos and taking several close-up shots for Instagram, we were finally ready to slice up the cake and see for ourselves whether its taste was as appetizing as its appearance…

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Sadly, it wasn’t.

To my – and my friends’ -​disappointment, the first bite of Rikuro-san’s cheesecake left much to be desired.

First, the flavor itself was overwhelmingly egg-y. It honestly tasted like scrambled eggs with a dash of sugar mixed in. It also left a strange aftertaste on the back of my tongue that I can’t quite put into words. The texture was alright, but it was a little grainy at first – not smooth, like I’d typically expect cheesecake to be. The addition of raisins also didn’t seem to work all that well either – though, I’m not that big a fan of raisins in general, so I’m probably biased.

On the plus side, the cake wasn’t ​overwhelmingly rich or heavy, so I didn’t feel sick after eating a slice, as is usually the case with a much smaller slice of cheesecakes I’ve had in the States.

Overall, I think the cheesecake’s reasonably low price makes the cake a worthwhile try, but I’m not sure I approve of Rikuro’s twist on this classic dessert…

Maybe I`ll try out the pudding next time instead.

First week of classes – my jikoshoukai

Ah, the jikoshoukai… Ask any JET about theirs and they could probably recite it to you by heart, word for word. At least I know I could (though I wouldn’t want to) because I’ve given mine 16 times as of today, so I’ve just about memorized every single slide.

In English, jikoshoukai (自己紹介) means self-introduction. Every new JET is expected to give a jikoshoukai, or introductory presentation, to each class during their first week, as a way for students to get to know more about their new English teacher and his/her cultural background.

Every JET’s intro is different, of course, but intros tend to include the same content: interesting facts about said JET`s home country/home town, pictures of friends and family members, hobbies, interests, future plans, etc. My self-intro included all of those, and I also talked about going to UCLA and what I studied since I just graduated in June.

I included lots of quiz-type questions throughout the PowerPoint to keep the students engaged, like how old am I? and What is my favorite Japanese food? (the students were always surprised to hear that the answer is kabocha) and How old is my little brother? etc. At the end, I gave out the no. 2 pencils I`d bought at Target months ago to students who were first to answer the questions correctly.

My presentation has usually lasted about 25 minutes, which is only about half of the class period, so there’s plenty of time for students to ask me questions afterwards. I’ve gotten the same questions for the most part – favorite color, favorite actor, favorite animal, favorite sport… But I’ve had a few particularly memorable ones too. Like, What would you do if you were President? or What`s your favorite kind of building? or Do you have a favorite train? or How big is an American hamburger in comparison to a Japanese hamburger? And my favorite question by far was: Do you prefer animes that were released in the Heisei Period (the current era in Japan) or the Showa Period? (Sadly, I was unable to provide an answer to that question, to the student’s dismay.)

Today was the last day that I had to present my self-introduction, which I admit I’m pretty happy about. Though I’ve enjoyed telling my new students a little bit more about myself and where I come from, it’ll be nice to not have to explain that my university is called UCLA, and not Mr. Bear University, for the 17th time.

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Why I took a taxi to work

I`m assigned to two elementary schools: the first school, which I wrote about in a previous post, is my main school, or the school where I`m officially based. I work at that school Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays, but on Mondays and Tuesdays I`m an assistant at a different elementary school.

I`d been at my base school for the last few days, including Monday. On Tuesday, I was scheduled to go to the secondary school to introduce myself to the other teachers. So, Tuesday morning, I left my apartment at 7:30am. The school is less than 5km away, but I wanted to get there early with the hopes of making a good first impression at a new workplace.

Walking to the bus stop, I checked Google Maps again to confirm the route. The day before, my supervisor told me to take a bus that starts at Minoh`s main train station​, but that station is about a 15 minute walk from me. On the other hand, Google Maps told me that there was a different bus I could take instead, only a few minutes’ walk from my apartment, that supposedly stopped right next to the school. I`d never heard of the bus before, but being the lazy self that I am, I decided to try taking it. Besides, I thought, Google is always right.

So the bus was scheduled to come at 7:52am.

7:52am arrived. The bus did not. I waited. A minute passed. Then another. By 7:55, I began to accept the fact that the bus was not coming and that relying on an unfamiliar route had probably been a huge mistake.

I stood there, stranded at the bus stop, with no idea how to get to school. And I was supposed to be in the teacher`s room in 20 minutes!

Heartbeat accelerating, a prayer beneath my breath, I checked Google Maps again for alternate routes.  One of the first options said I could take the next bus at that same station. It was either that, or run to a stop 10 minutes away and risk the possibility of missing that bus too. So I waited at the same stop and got on the next bus to show up.

After tapping my pass and finding a tiny corner of space to stand, I checked Google Maps again – and realized that the routes had completely changed. In other words, I had no idea which stop to get off at.

I spent the ride pressed up against the window, in a bus filled past maximum capacity, wondering how I was going to get myself out of this one. At the fourth stop, I decided to get off.

After exiting the bus, I checked Google Maps, yet again, only to discover that I was still more than 3 kilometers from school – and there weren`t other buses coming to save me anytime soon.

By then, it was 8:20 – I had to be at school 5 minutes ago.

Id managed to stay calm up until that point, but I finally started panicking. I paced up and down the sidewalk, wondering how on earth I was going to make it to work in time – or at least without arriving 2+ hours late. I was so desperate that for a few minutes I even stood at the side of the road and tried to work up the courage to wave someone down that`d be willing to drop me off.

And that`s when I remembered the taxi app. Before coming to Japan, I`d researched lists of useful apps to have while traveling in Japan, and the Japan Taxi app was one of them. Uber isn`t widespread in Japan like it is in the States, but taxis are common. I didn`t expect to ever actually use the taxi, because I`d heard that they`re outrageously expensive – especially in Osaka – but I`d downloaded the app in case of emergencies. And I`d say that the situation I`d driven myself into could be considered worthy of an emergency.

I`d never opened the app before, but luckily it was straightforward, simple to use, and in English (for the most part). I added my name and phone number and set my current location – kind of like Uber I guess – and pressed call. I waited an excruciatingly long 45 seconds for a taxi to answer. To my relief, one did. The driver took about 6 minutes to get to me. By then, it was 8:30.

I`d given up trying to get to school on time, but now that I`d found a proper method of transportation, at least I wouldn`t be an hour late.

I hopped in the car, told the driver the name of the school; he typed it into his GPS and drove. During the ride, I couldn`t figure out if I was relieved or frustrated or if I wanted to start laughing or burst into tears. I was still in debate when the driver pulled up at the school`s front entrance.

I pulled out my wallet and checked the fare. The total, for about 3km, ended up at 1880¥, or $17.27. With a heavy heart, I handed my driver the money, including a little extra for tip. (He gave me back exact change though, which surprised me, but hey I`m not complaining).

I admit that I was expecting worse than 1880 after hearing horror stories of absurd fares; expecting worse somehow softened the blow of having to dish out nearly $20 for an 8 minute ride.

But considering that a bus could have taken me to the same destination, I`d much prefer to travel via bus for 220¥ next time, even if I do have to walk 15 minutes to Minoh train station.

New school, new shoes: my first day of work 

I arrived at the bus stop, nervous, excited – donned in business formal, purse in one hand and a Trader Joe`s bag filled with Skittles in the other. I waited for the 7:43am bus. It arrived a minute early. I tapped my pass at the entrance and nudged my way into the corner between a middle-aged man playing Pokemon Go and an elementary school student reviewing vocabulary. It was a weekday morning, so the bus was packed – probably beyond legal capacity.

I sat my Trader Joe`s bag down between my feet, clung to a hand ring to keep from falling over on my fellow passengers, and counted the stops. The ride went by quickly, what with the majority of it spent concentrating to keep myself upright against bumps and sudden brakes.

From the bus stop, I walked about 10 minutes up a steep hill. I`m not a fan of the incline, but at least the route is scenic. The walk takes me through a neighborhood that`s quiet and clean and every once in a while there`ll be a little statue of a tanuki greeting me.

At the top of the hill, I found my school on the right hand side. I went through the teacher’s entrance at the back. Before entering, I took off my shoes and put them inside a locker. I took out my new pair of “indoor shoes” from my purse and slipped them on, excited to finally be wearing them since they’d been sitting in my closet for weeks anticipating this moment.

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In Japan, both students and teachers wear a different pair of shoes that are specifically for use inside the school. There are shoe lockers at the entrances where students and teachers can switch in and out of their indoor and outdoor shoes. This of course keeps the interior of the school a lot cleaner and also teaches the students to treat shared property with respect. Also, in Japan, students are expected to clean their classrooms all by themselves, so they’re very careful to keep their rooms as clean as possible.

After strapping on my new indoor shoes, I found my way to the 職員室 (shokuinshitsu), or the staff room/lounge.

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The shokuinshitsu is where all of the teachers’ desks are located and where everyone gathers for lunch and bi-weekly meetings. It’s also where all of the supplies are kept for class, and has a tiny kitchen at the back as well where the staff can make tea and coffee.

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I arrived about thirty minutes early, before most of the other teachers. The Vice Principal, who happens to be nearly fluent in English, showed me to my desk. (My desk is conveniently located right next to the kitchen!) I sit right across from another JET, who has been working at the school as an Assistant Language Teacher for two years now. The two of us will be working together from now on.

After introducing myself to the other Japanese teachers, my fellow ALT gave me a tour of the school. Most elementary schools in Japan have the same design and are usually equipped with a gym, an outdoor playground, classes for extracurricular activities, and 2-3 rooms for each grade, 1-6. My school also has our very own English classroom! Itt isn`t being used right now since there isn`t air conditioning just yet. The AC should be installed next week though, so it looks like I arrived at just the right time!

After the tour, I took out my Trader Joe`s bag and started passing out my little individually-wrapped packages of Skittles, which I`d brought specifically as omiyage.

Omiyage – roughly translated as souvenirs – and gift-giving culture in general (though omiyage-giving and gift-giving are different), is really important in Japan. Especially in the workplace. Whenever someone travels – whether it be to a different country or a different region in Japan – it`s expected of them bring back omiyage to pass out to each of their fellow staff members, as well as family and friends. Usually, the omiyage will be a small, individually wrapped snack from the area where they traveled to.

After reading article after article written by other JET participants about the importance of picking out the perfect omiyage to bring for my teachers, I freaked out and ended up buying multiple different kinds of omiyage just in case. I even worried that Skittles weren`t good enough to hand out and nearly ordered a more expensive set of candy from the States after I`d already arrived in Japan. But the teachers were surprised that I`d brought anything in the first place and they accepted the Skittle packets with a smile and a bow.

I spent the rest of the afternoon reviewing the students` English curriculum, getting accustomed to the walk to and from classes, and settling into my new workspace. By the end of the day, I already felt right at home!

(I even received my very own locker, where I can keep my new pair of shoes.)

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