Yoyogi Park in Tokyo is People-Watching Heaven

Last week I visited Yoyogi Park for the first time and it was Disneyland, Halloween and the zoo all wrapped up into one giant parade of the weirdest Tokyo has to offer. It was people-watching heaven.

There were girls dressed like Disney princesses (but sluttier, think stripper heels and short skirts) and guys decked out in military uniforms (complete with realistic-looking machine guns and gas masks). There were goths, transvestites in school girl uniforms, Paris Hilton look-a-likes, punk-rockers, girls in Victorian-era hoop dresses (with matching white gloves, pearls and parasols, very Mary Poppins-ish) and a few dozen girls dressed like human dolls, (white-painted skin, rosy cheeks, pigtails and long eyelashes).

The best were probably the group of drunken Elvis break dancers and their poodle skirt back-up dancers. These men wore leather pants, cowboy boots and slicked back hair. Each one kept a black comb in their pants pocket and would periodically take it out and run it through their greasy-do. They all wore matching vests that read: ‘Tokyo Rock and Roll Group’ but the music they were dancing to sounded more like 70’s-inspired elevator music. It could have been the multiple six-packs of Asahi beer they’d drank or the four bottles of Whisky I watched them guzzle, but they were all out of sync and sloppy and their dance moves reminded me of Elaine from Seinfield. But it was all very entertaining.

The stereotype that “all Japanese people look and act the same” is definitely not true and the youth subcultures are out to prove that. Here are a just a few examples.


What I find most fascinating about youth culture in Japan is that this isn’t just about a fashion style: it’s a way of life. These teen girls (and boys, too) who embrace a particular style of dress (whether it be inspired by Hip Hop music or French maids) have their own distinct dance moves and even their own slang.

I also find it interesting that in an effort to assert their individuality, be original, and rebel against a conformist society, they’ve chosen to emulate the styles of Paris Hilton or Hawaiian surfers and join the ranks of the thousands of other Japanese young people that are doing the exact same thing. It’s okay to grow an afro or wear white lipstick, just as long as your friends are all doing it with you.

They’ve succeeded in looking bizarre…just like everyone else.

What Tokyo is like in the Summer: Time to break out the gloves and sun umbrellas!

Me at the Kasai Rinkin Koen Beach in Tokyo
Like my fan? It’s tres Japanese.

Summer has finally hit Japan. Hard. And I live on the first floor of a concrete apartment building that has no air conditioning. And there are only three windows in my entire apartment.

So as you can probably imagine, cold showers and ice cubes are sort of what my life revolves around at the moment. Every day I wake up at seven in the morning in a pool of sweat, shower and then escape to the cool, air-conditioned haven that is McDonalds to drink dollar iced coffee drinks until it’s time to leave for work.

The humidity is so great, by the time I walk the two minutes it takes from McDonalds to the station, my hair is plastered to my head in a frizzy mess and I’ve sweated off all of my make-up.

Curiously, I seem to be one of the few people effected by the heat. Everyone else seems to be leading relatively sweat-free, comfortable lives. And they walk around all day wearing gloves, scarves, cardigans and yes, hooded sweatshirts. People here are more afraid of a sunburn than a vampire is. I’m serious.

It’s not uncommon to see people (mostly women) carrying sun umbrellas, wearing sweaters and even gloves. And even stranger still, they don’t seem all that hot and bothered by it. They certainly aren’t sweating as near as much as they should be. I look at the people dressed like they’re on a ski holiday and sweat out of sympathy for them. It’s remarkable and incredibly impressive how dedicated they are to the health of their skin. I’m jealous. I only wish I cared even half as much as they do about wrinkle-prevention and skin cancer. It’s just too hot to summon the energy to give a damn.

Although, not everyone is immune. Today I saw an old woman collapse on the train platform from heat stroke. I didn’t know that was what had happened at the time, and ran to get help, fearing she had had a heart attack.

When I found a train station employee, I realized I didn’t know the Japanese words for either ’emergency’ or ‘help’ and so repeatedly yelled at the startled and bewildered man “come here!” Remarkably, he followed me up several flights of stairs without having any idea as to what the problem was. Maybe it was because he sensed the urgency in my voice. Or maybe it was because he was simply curious as to why some out-of-breath, wild-haired white woman was yelling at him.

When we reached her, she was conscious and a small crowd had gathered. A few women had whipped out fans and were busy trying to cool her off. Someone had pushed the emergency alarm button which was located a convenient five feet away from where the woman had fallen (of course, I notice this after I’ve run up and down three flights of stairs).

When I boarded my train a few minutes later, they were carrying her off in a stretcher. What a dramatic way to start the day, huh?

Bizarrely, this isn’t the first emergency situation I’ve been in here. A few weeks ago, I saw a very intoxicated man step off the train, stumble and then pass out cold. Flat on his face. I’d never seen anything like it. One second he’s standing perfectly upright and the next, he’s crashed flat onto the concrete. He hit the concrete so hard, he knocked himself out, as well as a few of his teeth. It was pathetic. And sad. Made more so by the fact that this wasn’t some drunken 20-year-old party boy or an alcoholic homeless man, but a business man in a suit. Probably on his way home to the wife and kiddies after one-too-many Sake shots with his co-workers.

You see this a lot. Fully-grown, well-dressed men, who look like they could be your father, puking on the pavement or peeing on a neighbor’s flower bed or passed outside some bar. What makes this weird is how normal and acceptable it is. It’s just another Tuesday night in Tokyo.

How is everyone else in the world staying cool this summer? Right now, I wish more than anything, that I was back working on a cruise ship, enjoying my time off lounging poolside and drinking Margaritas.

Found at a ‘Toys R Us’ in Japan

You don’t need to spend a lot of money on sight-seeing excursions to enjoy a day in a foreign country. You just need to adjust your idea of what “sight-seeing” involves.

One of my favorite things to do when in a new country, is to wander the aisles of the local grocery, department or toy store. I’ve spent entire afternoons happily sampling dried squid at the fish market or watching infomercials on how to make cupcakes using an Easy-Bake Oven in a toy store.

The following photos were taken a Toys R Us at a mall in Chiba, Japan. Probably the best part of the store was the “insect petting zoo”. They had live, over-sized black beetles and cockroaches that looked like they were straight out of a horror movie. Why, any parent would pay good money for their child to have their very own pet cockroach is beyond me.

Forget playing ‘doctor’…Here’s to giving kid’s a more realistic career goal…ha ha.

Barbie in Japan has black lipstick (?)

Anteaters and Kraft Macaroni and Cheese

I had a freakishly awesome day that I just felt that I had to share with the world. “The World” being the handful of friends that are (hopefully?) reading this…and possibly, maybe, my dad.

Anyways, I had the afternoon off from work and went in search of a Japanese language class, (pouring paprika on my french toast instead of cinnamon had been the last straw…I would enroll in a Japanese class even if killed me, or my more likely, my budget).

Well, after looking online for an hour, I gave up and decided to walk to where I had thought I’d seen a Japanese language school. About three weeks ago. While I was on a moving train. Well, of course I couldn’t find the school…but I did discover a whole slew of fantastic finds. Which just goes to further prove “Reannon’s Theory on How to Have an Adventure”. Not familiar with that one?

Well. I believe that the best way to explore a city is without a map, guide book or plan. Just pick a direction and start walking (or if you’re feeling especially daring, hop on a random bus and see where it takes you). I would say that 70 percent of the time you find something interesting that you wouldn’t have found otherwise.

Case in point.

On My Walk Around the Neighborhood I Discovered:

1. A chic, reasonably priced, french restaurant hidden behind the train station.
2. A zoo of some sorts…or maybe an animal hospital? Vet school? Know idea. Anyways, they let me play with their rabbits, ginormous pot-bellied pig and get this, a real, live anteater.
3. An international grocery store.

You have no idea how happy I was to see that grocery store. For the past few weeks, I’d trekked all the way to Shibuya (which is like the Times Square of Tokyo) to some over-priced foreigner-friendly markets, having no idea that there was a much cheaper alternative two blocks from home.

There were Oreos. And Marshmallows. And boxed Macaroni and Cheese. I don’t even eat boxed Macaroni and Cheese, but just seeing the familiar Kraft blue box and knowing that it still existed…I felt like this was Disneyland wrapped in Christmas wrapping paper. It was freakin’ awesome.

And then I spotted the cans of re-fried beans and I don’t know why, but I wanted to cry. Maybe it was because I’d been looking for ingredients to make Mexican food for weeks now without any luck, or maybe it was because I missed my time spent in Mexico. The store was owned by an Indian family and something about seeing the woman in a sari and hearing that familiar Bollywood high-pitched wailing over the sound system brought back memories of India and also added to how, I don’t know, alone I felt.

I guess you could say I’m going through yet another stage of culture shock. The stage where you become overly-nostalgic and cans of beans make you cry.

Well. Despite that momentary lapse into depression, today was a really nice day.

And if anyone reading this, has any suggestions as to a good (i.e, cheap) Japanese language school, please tell me. From what I’ve found online, they all seem sort of pricey ($200 application fee?) and the ones that are volunteer run (and free) seem sort of sketchy.

Any ideas?

English Teacher…Or Aerobics Instructor?

A few weeks ago I was very gung-ho about joining a gym. But then luckily I remembered that I don’t actually go to gyms. I just join them, buy a closet full of cute exercise clothes and then talk incessantly and obsessively about how I should be at the gym instead of at (insert name of random bar, club or mall).

But it worked out well that I’m a gym-crastinator (that’s someone who procrastinates on going to the gym), because now I don’t need a treadmill to get a work out, all I need is a classroom full of energetic, enthusiastic five-year-olds. I swear, teaching ESL is just a cover for what really happens in the classroom, which is a 10 to 50 minute combo karaoke/cardio fat-burning exercise-athon.

Take today, for example. All of my kindergarten lessons were shortened from the previous 10 minute time period to a mere five minutes. Basically, the lessons went a little like this:

Teacher zooms into the classroom, greets the students, sings “Head Shoulders Knees and Toes” (complete with hand motions) and a sped up version of the “Walking, Walking Song” (which involves walking, hopping and running around the classroom) and then shouts goodbye as she runs out of the room towards her next class.

Times that routine by six and at the end of the half hour, I was sweating, out of breath and losing my voice. The last lesson was then held in the gym, where I was given a microphone and led about 60 students in a mass round of the hokey pokey. All I needed to complete the “Fitness Trainer Look” were some of my cute exercise clothes that are now gathering mold in a box on my balcony.

It’s only been a couple of weeks, but I can already tell that my students are learning some important English phrases. They’ve already mastered “I’m hot” and “I’m tired” which are sort of the ongoing theme of every lesson.

Maybe there is a future business hidden somewhere in all of this? “English and Exercise”? An English curriculum centered around a work-out regiment? Hmm…

As a side note, may I just say that that kindergarten is really pimped-out?  Because it’s really. pimped. out.  They’ve got a swimming pool, trampolines and their very own petting zoo.  The students get to take turns holding and feeding the turtles, chickens, ferrets, rabbits, fish and parakeets…and get this, a monkey. They keep him tied to the jungle gym and during recess, the kids feed him live beetles. Pretty wild, huh?

The Hokey Pokey: That’s What It’s All About…My Job Teaching ESL In Tokyo

This is the song currently replaying over and over in my head:
To the tune of “Are you sleeping?”

“Walking, walking,
Walking, walking,
Hop hop hop,
Hop hop hop,
Running running running,
Running running running
Now we stop, now we stop.”

I sing it everywhere. On the train, in the car, on a bus, and in a plane (sorry, Dr. Seuss took over for a second there). It’s mind numbing. Even as I write this, that song is playing in the back of my thoughts, like background music. It won’t go away.

That’s because I spend my mornings teaching pre-school aged children English at day care centers and kindergartens. I sang that song today alone, in it’s entirety, about 12 times (there’s only so much you can do with two year olds).

But I really like my new job. And I actually enjoy teaching the little ones, even if it is sort of exhausting…but what’s awesome is that the lessons are only 10 minutes long! Just long enough to sing a few songs, review the alphabet and learn a new word or two and then tada! You’re finished.

The afternoons are a little more challenging because I teach older kids and occasionally adults and this requires a little more thought as to how to make the lessons engaging and entertaining (a rousing chorus of “head shoulders knees and toes” doesn’t quite fly with middle schoolers).

A little bit about the School….

The company I work for is more like an agency than an actual school. They train English teachers how to teach their particular curriculum and then outsource them to various daycares, kindergartens and (in the afternoon/evenings), cram schools (these are after school tutoring private tutoring programs). So I work split shifts in what amounts to ten different schools.

The Upside:

I’m pretty much on my own and am free to move through the textbooks as slowly or quickly as I want. There are no tests or homework to correct and no deadlines I have to follow. The children only have class for sometimes as little as 10 minutes to a max of 50 minutes per week, so its common that in a year, you only cover half of the book. Supervisors occasionally stop by and observe your lessons, but you could go for a few months without being observed.

The Downside:

Because I teach at so many locations, I spend a lot of time on the train. Even though my transportation costs are reimbursed at the end of the month and a majority of the schools are only a stop or two away, a few of them are 4o minutes or more. My Saturday school, for example, is an hour and a half away…out in the country side, in a one room school house in a field. Although it’s nice to get out of Tokyo once a week, I can think of a million other excursions I’d rather take on my Saturday afternoons, say Disneyland or the beach. But, it’s not all rainbows and butterflies, right?

Who’s Having the Best Week Ever?

Here’s what I’ve been up to the last few days…

Today, I frightened a four year old so bad she sobbed hysterically for fifteen minutes straight. And all I did was walk into the classroom.

I have to admit, I was a little offended. I’d spent an hour getting ready for work and thought that I looked fairly decent, maybe a little frazzled by the sprint from the train station, but reasonably dressed and well-groomed. But judging from the way she looked at me, so accusingly, almost angrily, you would have thought that I had come to class dressesd like Frankenstein with the express purpose of scaring her. That really got to me.

But alright. I know to a four year old Japanese girl, not familiar with foreigners, I probably look a lot like a clown (big nose, curly, poufy hair) and anyone who’s seen the movie, Chucky, can empathize with how scary clowns can be. But it was still sort of an unpleasant shock to find that my nautral rapport with children just doesn’t exist here. I’m more boogeyman than best buddy, and that’s tough to come to terms with.

Yesterday, I mistook drain-o for laundry detergent and subsequently bleached a washload of clothing. How in the world could I confuse detergent with something that you use to unclog drains? Quite easily actually, when both bottles are pink, stored near the washing machine and written in foreign scribble scrabble. It’s so difficult being illiterate. Most days, I feel like a deaf and dumb, slightly mentally-challenged three-year-old. It’s so frustrating!

Two Days ago, I got locked out again. This time for a record breaking three hours and 45 minutes, (my previous week’s record was three hours). That’s seven hours that I’ve spent in total, sitting on my apartment steps like some vagrant homeless person with nothing better to do but people watch and waste time. I’ve practically become a permanent fixture in my neighborhood, a sort of statue homage to all dumb, forgetful foreigners.

And the best thing about this week? It’s only Tuesday!

There’s a Gym at my Grocery Store

When I went into my neighborhood grocery store for the first time, I was surprised to hear “Hungry Like the Wolf” blasting through the speakers. Then I realized that it wasn’t coming from the grocery store, but from the gym located in the back corner of the stor, (I know, dumb of me not make this connection earlier, right? Why wouldn’t there be a gym behind aisle five?)

How totally random! Totemo Japanese. I almost want to join Curves in order to be able to say that I work out my grocery store.
The best part is that throughout the entire store, you can hear the aerobics instructor as she continually shrilly shrieks out commands like: “Changu pose-ee-tions!” Hilarious.

Only in Japan…

Ok. So I thought my roommates were being just a wee bit paranoid when they repeatedly reminded me to keep all of the windows and doors closed and locked…even when we’re all home.

I mean, call me crazy, but I considered the chance of someone burglarizing us, in the middle of the day, in Japan (the fifth safest country in the world) worth the risk for a little fresh air.

But then I read this article. It is possibley one of the most absurd and bizarre stories I’ve ever read.

Now, my roommates have added checking the closet for random crazy homeless little old ladies, to their list of precautionary nightly rituals. Well, you never know…