Monday, December 10, 2007

Teaching/Studying English

I love teaching. I always thought this might be my career. But I thought I'd just stay in Japan for a year and then go back to CA and start working as all my buddies were already doing.
Well, I've now been in Japan for a total of 11 years teaching all across the country. I've taught in a kindergarten in Matsuyama, a jr. high school in Okayama on the JET Programme(,
the North Korean High School and a
senmon gakko (vocational college)
in Tokyo, Keiwa College ( in Niigata, an intensive English camp in Sendai and now here in Odawara.

In between, I did manage to get my TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) and my TESOL (Teaching English as a Second Language) Certificates back in California. I also taught there and in Barcelona, Spain. My only non-teaching job was the half a year I spent in Hawaii as a tour guide (oh, how I miss the beach!).

Why do I love teaching? Teaching is a very satisfying job. It brings me joy to see a student read for the first time, learn a new phrase and start to communicate on his/her own. I also learn a lot from my students. They've taught me many things about their cultures and have opened my eyes and my mind to many new things.

I'm going to end this month's BLOG with a list of tips to keep up your English skills.
1. Study a little (30 minutes) every day. Make English a habit and set a goal!
2. SPEAK! Speak English at home - it's OK if no one understands you. :) It's also good
practice speaking English with your Japanese friends too.
3. LISTEN! Have English BGM on all day long. Listen to English music, watch movies in
English, check out some internet sites - one of my favorites:
4. READ! Reading helps you become a better writer and improves your grammar and
vocabulary. It usually takes seeing a word 10 times before we put it to memory.
5. WRITE! Keep a daily journal. For 10 minutes a day, write what you did, how you felt or
anything interesting that happened that day. It's great writing fluency practice.
6. THINK in English! Whatever you see, say the words in English to yourself. For example, as
you're driving your car or riding in the train, say aloud what you are seeing around you.
7. THINK positively! Say, "I can speak English!" and "My English is improving!"
8. Don't be afraid to make mistakes; this is how we learn.
9. Remember, studying English is a life-long study. Have FUN!
10. If you can, come and study with me. If you can't, start your studying by leaving me a message! :)

Thursday, November 22, 2007


I really enjoy living in Japan; it is my home right now.
But it never fails that around this time,
(the American Thanksgiving holidays) I get a little home-sick.
This is because "Turkey" day is always held at my parents' house. My relatives gather and all bring a delicious home-made dish to share and my mother even roasts a turkey - errr, actually she buys one. She doesn't cook much these days. :)

My dad barbecues steak, chicken and salmon outside. It makes my mouth water just to think about it. Thanksgiving at my house is a time to sit around and EAT and eat some more, watch (American) football, play poker (a family tradition!), and maybe shoot some hoop out in the backyard.

Thanksgiving was first celebrated by the pilgrims and the Indians in 1621; their first celebration lasted for 3 days. Nowadays it is held on the 4th Thursday of November and is the 2nd most popular holiday (after x-mas) in the United States.

I'm writing this on Friday, November 23. It's 9:30am here which makes it 5:30pm, Thursday (Thanksgiving Day) in California. My mother asks me every year if we celebrate Thanksgiving in Japan too. I always say "No, that's an American holiday". But November 23 here is a National Holiday called "Thanksgiving Labor Day". This is the modern name for the rice harvest festival that is believed to have started in November, 678. So whether you're in Japan or America, hope you're enjoying your long weekend. And since this is "Thanksgiving Day", I do wish to thank all (5!) of you who read this. :)

Sunday, October 21, 2007

The hardest thing I've ever done in Japan

No, it isn't mastering kanji! I wish I could say so but after 10 years in Japan my kanji compares to that of a kindergartener. Some may say it's climbing Mt. Fuji. Well, that wasn't so hard but I can't honestly say I have since I didn't make it to the summit. A terrible wind started blowing and our guide decided to turn back. Very disappointing for me since we were three quarters the way up the mountain. And no, it's not eating natto (sticky & stinky fermented soy beans). This was also very tough for me but about a year ago (after my wife's persistence), I began to take a liking to it; it definitely is an acquired taste. So what is the hardest thing I've done in Japan? Without a doubt, it was getting my Japanese driver's license! This undertaking began this past summer in July and was attained just last week. In total I went to the driving license center (DMV) about 10 times. Each trip was a 90-minute train ride each way and an average waiting time of 3-4 hours. So much for Japanese efficiency on this one (wink wink). On one occasion, after arriving early, I couldn't even be seen. The window is only open for 2 hours in morning and 2 hours in afternoon and sometimes they can't see all the people because a lack of staff. Another time my paperwork was inefficient. And OK, I didn't pass the written test the first time (nor the 2nd!). But that wasn't my fault either (LOL). Do you know how many meters away from a driveway you must be parked? And oh yeah, it did take me a couple (3) times to pass the driving test too (at $50 a pop). But I didn't know it would be an automatic FAIL just for hitting a curb, hehe. I think anyone who has driven with me would say that I'm a pretty good and safe driver (all right, just a safe driver). Well, I was told I was driving too fast on their little track. We don't even go on the real road for the test. But I thought that was a bit ironic since friends back home often comment about my "granny" driving habits. :) Anyway, I have finally got my Japanese driver's license and what a relief it is. So why did I go through all this trouble? Aki was getting tired of being the ONLY driver. I actually promised I'd get it last year but better late than never, right?!

So here's a pic. of our new (used) car. It's a 2000 Nissan Liberty. At one million yen (just under $10,000), it's the most expensive car I've ever bought. Yeah, I was never really into cars much. My all-time favorite car would have to be my Mazda Miata (Eunos Roadster) 1995-1999. I had always wanted a convertible (open car) and no better place than CA for that. BTW, our new car has 2 sun roofs and a navi (navigation system). This was more than 10% of the total car price! But this is also something that I promised Aki we'd get since we almost always fought on our long road-trips because I couldn't read the maps properly - they were all in Japanese (was always my excuse)! :)

I'm perfectly fine just riding my bicycle (pic.) which coincidentally I also just bought a couple of months ago. This classic beauty only cost a couple hundred bucks. But according to my wife is very lacking in the aesthetics department. OK, safe driving everyone!

ps. I had to put a picture of my favorite car, my Mazda Miata! San Francisco, CA , 1997

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Being Japanese-American

What are you? Are you Chinese? Are you Japanese? These are questions that I have been asked thousands of times. What do I answer? Well, that depends on where I am. In America, I always answer, "I'm Japanese". In the states, people usually automatically answer according to their ethnicity. But in Japan when I'm asked, "What are you?" My answer is "I'm American". I guess the most accurate answer would be Japanese-American in either case.

Do you know which country has the most people of Japanese descent outside of Japan? Well, it's not America, it's Brazil. America has just over a million people either part or full Japanese. We only make up 0.4% of the country's population. California has the highest number with almost 400,000. I was fortunate to grow up there. As a fourth generation Japanese-American (Yonsei), I was able to experience and learn many things about the Japanese culture. We can thank the issei for bringing these Japanese customs and traditions with them and the nissei/sansei for carrying them on. Buddhism was one thing the issei brought to America with them. I attended the Stockton Buddhist Temple ( ).
Although I went to Sunday school, I can't say I learned that much about Buddhism. It was more of a place to go to see my friends and learn some Japanese culture. For example, every summer my church would hold its Obon festival. This was more like a food and cultural bazaar. There would be delicious Japanese foods such as tempura, teriyaki chicken, grilled corn, yakitori, udon, curry rice, etc. There was also bon odori and taiko drums and other Japanese displays. As a teenager, going to the Obon festivals in my city and other cities in the Bay Area was one of the highlights of each summer. Can you guess why? :) There were also "Cherry Blossom" festivals each spring where they'd usually crown a "Miss Cherry Blossom". We didn't, however, sit under cherry blossom trees and eat and drink like here in Japan. I also tried Judo and Karate as a youngster but the sport which I enjoyed the most was basketball. I started playing in elementary school for my church team and continued playing with them all through high school. I'm still close to most of those guys. BTW, I'm still playing basketball now. In fact, just yesterday I played in my first "Over 40" tournament with a local Odawara team. This was a lot of fun but nothing will compare to the basketball tournaments we had back in high school where the main event was always the Saturday night dance!

About my family's migration to California, I think my great-grandparents went over in the 1890's. This was the first wave of immigrants and they mainly worked on fruit and produce farms. My ancestors were from Hiroshima, Kumamoto and Wakayama. My grandpa Henry is now 98 years old and had a very successful produce business going before the war. He lost this and his house and was put in an internment camp with 120,000 other Japanese-Americans by the US government. After getting out of "Camp", he was able to start and run another successful produce business in Stockton. He was once even known as "The Tomato King".

I often thought about how my life would have been had my brave great-grandparents never ventured out west. It's funny because I surely couldn't be teaching English here in Japan nor
writing this BLOG in English. I did go through a little of an "anti-Japanese" phase and had wished I were white like all my friends in my neighborhood and school but by the time I was in junior high, it became more of a curiosity. This was probably the first time I started to relate to my Japanese heritage and show an interest. While away at college, I knew that this is where I'd come after I graduated and I did. I thought I'd be here for one year teaching English, learning about my roots and become fluent in Japanese, hahaha. I've now lived in Japan a total of 11 years!

Being Japanese-American in Japan is a bit peculiar. We are kind of like a Stealth fighter jet because we can come out of nowhere and surprise an unexpecting Japanese person by just speaking. When I first came and couldn't speak any Japanese, I'd often get that "This guy must be retarded" look whenever I went into a store/restaurant. On the other hand, it's actually quite nice to be able to sit in a train or walk into a store and not be stared at like some of my compatriots say sometimes happens to them. Before coming to Japan, I did have my concerns about how my students would feel about their teacher being Japanese-American. I've learned that in most cases, it hasn't made any difference at all. I think most Japanese don't care what nationality or ethnicity I am but more about what kind of person/teacher I am.

In the end, I will leave you with a list of 10 ways to tell if you're Japanese-American:

1) You have a Japanese middle name (mine is Touru)

2) Your first inclination is to look for other JA professionals when you need professional services

3) You know the story of "Momotaro"

4) Whenever you meet another JA, you're somehow related or there's someone you know in common

5) Growing up, you heard the words: abunai, takai, hakujin, atsui, baka, benjo, bachi

6) Whenever you were sick, you ate "okayu" with "umeboshi"

7) You use the finger method to measure the water level in your rice cooker

8) You pack "bento" when you take a road-trip

9) Some of the best food served is made by players' moms after JA basketball games

10) "Botan-Ame" used to be your favorite candy

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Water sports

I've always loved water sports. Swimming is the only sport I hold "bragging rights" over all my buddies back home. :) I actually learned to swim when I was still a baby. My mother took me and my brothers to a swim school for toddlers and the first day they just threw us all in the pool and it was either "sink or swim". Fortunately we all learned how to swim pretty fast! We were also lucky to live right next door to my Aunt Lila and Uncle Jack and have the use of their swimming pool every day in the summer. In high school, I started out playing football, basketball and soccer but by varsity (junior and senior years), I only did swimming and water polo. Even now I still try to go for a swim once a month or so. We live about one minute from a nice outdoor-pool (Miyukinohama) that uses the sea water and is located right next to the beach. But it's only open from mid-July til the end of August.

I grew up in the San Joaquin Valley which is a couple hours from the nearest surf. When I went down south to Long Beach State University I thought I'd become a "surfer dude". Well, I wore the clothes and even picked up a used board at a garage sale for $20 bucks. Next, me and my buddy Darrell signed up for Surfing as a P.E. (physical education) class. I was all set to start my career as a surfer. Darrell claimed he was already a "surfer dude" but to tell the truth, I never really got to see him surf because the whole 4 months, we probably only went into the water 4 times! You see, the class started at 6:00 in the morning. We probably only made it to class about 10 times. And usually "Hello Kitty" AKA Darrell was too cold to go in the water so we'd just sign our names that we were there and then drive home. Recently Aki had been saying how she wanted to learn to surf. So last week we took a lesson in Shonan near Enoshima. It was her very first time and she was surfing by the end of the lesson. But because the cameraman (me) was so bad, there is no proof. Luckily for me because of the good camerawoman (Aki), there's a shot of me standing, haha!

How many of you have heard of the new adventure sport "Canyoning"? Just last month, Aki and I tried it. Canyoning has been gaining popularity since the 1990s; it's a combination of hiking, jumping and sliding down waterfalls or a wet slot canyon. I have to admit although I was very "gung ho" to begin with, I got goose bumps all over right before taking my first slide. It was quite an exhilarating feeling sliding down at what seems like "sonic" speed and splashing into the cold water below. From there, you dog-paddle, climb over a few rocks and then arrive at your next challenge! All I can say is that I'm glad I did it now because in a few years I doubt my body can handle all the banging. :) Check Canyons homepage:

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Homestay/host family

Have you ever experienced doing a homestay? I've been lucky enough to do a homestay here in Japan (6 months), Spain (6 months), Mexico (2 weeks) and Peru (2 weeks). It definitely is the best way if you want to learn more about a culture, have a chance to practice the local language and oh yes, eat good home-cooked meals. BTW, I am tri-lingual now because of these experiences (hahaha, only in my dreams). :) But I do have many happy memories of the nice families I've stayed with.

So now it's time to give back a little. Just last month, Aki and I were asked if we could host a college student from Indonesia for a few days. I had always wanted to do this; Aki was a little hesitant as she hasn't visited Indonesia yet and also didn't know what to expect. Not to mention that she would be the one who would be doing all the cooking, cleaning, etc. But she agreed and we both really enjoyed our "first" homestay student, Wazin. One thing that surprised Aki was when he told her that he was amazed that he could drink the water straight from the tap. It makes you appreciate this little luxury that we take for granted here in Japan. We were both also impressed that he would wake up at sunrise to pray and do it another 2-3 times every day. An interesting fact about Indonesia is that more Muslim people live there than any other country. Anyway, we're really glad we hosted such a nice and polite young man like Wazin.

I really recommend hosting an international student if you can. Sometimes it's difficult for a family to travel abroad. So why not bring the "world" to you. You can learn so much from this experience. And it's also a good chance for you to use your English. :)

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Rainy season (tsuyu)

Growing up in sunny California I enjoyed long summer days because of Daylight Savings (called summer time here in Japan). I remember I could play outside past 8pm and still be home before dark. Summer was and still is my favorite season back home. But in Japan it's a different story. According to some haiku masters, there are 5 seasons here in Japan, rainy season being one of them. It has just started here in Odawara and will continue until mid-July. I understand that it is needed for the rice crops to grow and ensure we don't have any water shortages, but personally I can't stand it. I remember the first time I stepped off the plane way back in late June of 1990; I had never experienced such humidity in my life. I felt like I was in a sauna and quickly bought a handkerchief to wipe the perspiration from my face - people in California never use handkerchiefs (except for the few people who use it to blow their nose in). Anyway, I didn't do much research on Japan before arriving and did not expect the humidity nor the rain. I naively thought that it didn't rain in the summer time!

Tsuyu literally translates to "plum rain" because it coincides with the ripening of plums. Farmers are busy now preparing umeboshi or dried plums. This happens to be one of my favorite Japanese foods. Ajisai (hydrangea) is also a symbol of the rainy season. Nearby Hakone is a popular spot to view these flowers right now.

As I'm sitting here right now on this Sunday afternoon, the rain is pouring down. I wish I was back in SUNNY HOT DRY Stockton, California. :)

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Golden Week

These holidays start from the end of April and finish around May 5. Dubbed Golden Week in 1951 by the managing director of Daiei Films because that week brought more movie-goers than any other time of the year. This year my GW was spent camping in Niijima. Niijima is a small island about a 9-hour ferry ride from Tokyo and although its far distance (163kms), it's still considered part of Tokyo. Aki and I joined the Tokyo Gaijin (a fun outdoor adventure group). In this group there where 68 participants from 14 different countries. My friends back home in CA all know that I'm no "boy scout", so fortunately Aki was able to set our tent up and despite the fierce winds it blew down just once. We really enjoyed the beautiful white-sand beach and even got in an afternoon of body-boarding. There was also a very nice and free outdoor onsen (hot spring). In addition to all the nature and healthy bike-riding, probably the best part was meeting very nice and interesting people (both Japanese and gaijin).

Monday, April 16, 2007

Spring in Japan

School graduations and farewell parties are over. April is the time to celebrate new beginnings. At CEH, we are happy to start our second year. In Japan, "Hanami" or cherry blossom viewing is one highlight of April. This tradition started sometime in the 7th century. Cherry blossoms are such a part of the Japanese mind/culture now. Although we have cherry blossoms in my native country (USA), people don't get so excited about them. Is it because we can't appreciate the beauty of nature as much as the Japanese do? Maybe we need to adopt the custom of "hanami party" where families, friends, colleagues both young and old sit under the cherry blossoms and drink, eat, sing and drink some more into the night. I have enjoyed this custom here but wonder if it would ever pick up back home. Some Japanese will even follow the cherry blossoms all over Japan in quest of the perfect blossom. My favorite place in Odawara for cherry blossoms is the Odawara Castle. This year the peak was around April 1st. I went one week later after returning from California. It was still nice even then. Next spring, let's have our own "hanami party" at the castle!

Saturday, March 03, 2007

March Madness

Can you guess what the title means? In the states right now, all the universities with good basketball programs are gearing up for the "Big Dance". The "Big Dance" is the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) basketball tournament and you must be invited to attend. Living here in Japan, I miss this. And I miss my Sacramento Kings of the NBA. Baseball and soccer are the KINGS of sports here in Japan. Last summer when FIBA held the World Basketball Championships here in Japan, even high school baseball got more television coverage. But popularity in basketball has been growing. There are now 2 professional leagues and 20% more Japanese are playing basketball than a decade ago. By playing and watching, I have personally seen that basketball in Japan is improving. So watch out J-League (soccer)! Basketball is stepping on the heels of soccer as the world's game and I hope to see the day when people here in Japan will cheer as strongly for their National basketball teams as they do for their other sporting teams.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Japanese ritual

I just finished vacuuming my house. There were roasted soy beans scattered all across the floors in each room. No, our house isn't normally so messy. Today (or yesterday) is called "Setsubun" (seasonal division). It is celebrated one day before the start of spring according to the Japanese lunar calendar. It is not a National Holiday. It's more like Halloween in the United States. From around the 13th century it became a custom to drive away evil spirits with the strong smell of burning sardines. Fortunately for me, nowadays, soy beans are thrown around one's house while shouting "Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!" (Devil's out! Happiness in!"). After this, you pick up and eat the number of beans according to how old you are. I cheated a little. I just picked them and ate them out of the bag, which by the way was given to me by my nice student Kenji. And actually they tasted quite good, all 41 of them! :) 
Have a look at Setsubun festival at Matsubara Shrine in Odawara:

Monday, January 01, 2007

Happy New Year!

Happy new year everyone! It's 2007 and I hope you're all going to have a healthy and happy year. Yesterday was my 40 something birthday. Aki and I went swimming at the Odawara Hilton Spa. Then we ate soba at Kotobukian; eating soba on NYE is supposed to give you a long life. At midnight we went to the Ninomiya Shrine next to the Odawara Castle. We had to wait in the cold (6 C/ 42 F) for about 20 minutes to reach the shrine. We paid our respects and made our wishes for the new year. Today, we woke up early to run in the Odawara Castle Marathon. But for those of you who don't know, Japanese use the word "marathon" for any running race. In our case, it was only 4.2 K (which is less than 3 miles). Nonetheless, my knees are still hurting me! She's fine though. :)

My new year's resolution is to get into shape! What's yours? Let's keep studying English hard this year. Remember, English is a lifelong study so never give up.