Wednesday, February 4, 2015

So the JLPT

Someday I will know my results.
Another JLPT come and gone, and results came out this week. I always resolve to talk a little bit more about it after I take the test, because honestly, something seems to get lost in the shuffle every time...with National Novel Writing Month happening in November, I often end up not thinking about the JLPT at all between October 31 and December 1. Not a great habit, I know, but one of these years...

The JLPT in Toronto administered by York University is one of two locations where the test is given in Canada. (The other is in Edmonton, AB.) Now, as a person who lives in The Big Smoke, I have no right to complain about how "far away" York is. (I may have done a little bit of complaining prior to my move here from the Atlantic provinces, though.) I can't even complain about the distance from my house, seeing how I chose to move away from Downsview the year before last. That doesn't mean that on test day, getting to the JLPT is a picnic!

So here is my advice for next year's JLPT applicants; common sense, to be sure, but maybe they're more of a reminder to myself for next year...?

  • Aim to arrive midway through the registration period. The lineups taper off a bit towards the middle and end of the registration period. Of course, you don't want to cut it too close, and have the TTC or something else make you too late to write the test, but too early isn't great either, and you'll be lined up awhile before sitting around for an hour just waiting. And getting nervous. Not to mention that aiming to arrive for 8 AM on a day when the subways are not running (meaning leaving my house at 6:30, meaning rising at 6) is asking for you to open up that test book and be so glassy-eyed that you don't know where to start. Don't panic if something goes wrong and you're going to get there right at the end of registration time. You have a few minutes' leeway while the orientation is taking place!
  • Expect to hear from York not too long after you sign up for the test. I say "not too long" because I'm not positive when it is actually supposed to come; for the last two years, I didn't receive my email with my voucher at all, and I waited far too long expecting it to come before I reached out to them. You need the voucher to write the test. Perhaps even more importantly, if you don't receive the voucher, you should still show up. Last year (2013, that is) I thought about the fact that I didn't have a voucher yet about 2 weeks before, and I contacted JLPT support. I was able to get it. This year (2014) I remembered the night before the test, as I ran through the checklist of things I needed to bring the following morning. That's why I was awake at 2 AM Googling phrases like "forgot JLPT voucher" and "JLPT York reprint voucher" and the like. I weighed whether or not it was going to be necessary to rise at 6 and go to York only to be turned away at the door. Luckily, buried somewhere on the site, I read that vouchers could be reprinted at registration. And I wasn't the only one not to receive their email - the line to reprint vouchers was much longer than any other line that morning. In short: You should receive a voucher with your test number. If you don't receive it within a few weeks of registering, ask. 
  • Bring something to eat. This test is long and the breaks just barely give you enough time to inhale a small snack. Our group had technical difficulties and started late, which meant that our breaks were cut down. (For the final one, the time of the break's end even was shortened and changed after many of us had left the room.) It took much longer to finish the test than expected, by something like 45 minutes, and I was ravenous enough that after every section I was wolfing down Polish chocolate that I had won the night before as a prize at a Polish wedding reception. Not sure what I would have done without that Jezyki Kokos,  Delicje cookies and especially Katarzynki, chocolate-covered soft gingerbreads. I might not be alive right now, without Katarzynki.
As for the test itself, I don't actually know how I did on it. That's because you need the voucher to log in online to see your results, and of course, there's no voucher in my email for me to refer back to. I emailed York to get my voucher number, but the password I was provided (generated by them, not by myself) doesn't work in the login page. So did I pass? Hard to say. I guess I'll find out when the paper results are dispatched the month after next...?

Maybe next year I will be able to choose between the JLPT and NaNoWriMo as a focus. Fingers crossed for the July version making its way eastward someday!

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

That Old JLPT Feeling

I will never be an N1 Master
I have quite a few unfinished drafts hanging around in my posting queue...whoops! Things have been very very busy for me lately. I've been working a lot of overtime, ended a relationship, taken up long-distance running, gotten a cat, bought Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright. I'm pretty tired most days, so when I come home, I just want to sit at my kotatsu and space out while reading blogs. Except that a lot of the blogs I used to read daily have tapered off in post frequency or, like one of my favourites has, stopped posting entirely. While being frustrated that my daily reading content seems to be vanishing, I failed to consider that perhaps somebody out there actually likes reading my blog and was disappointed to see my posts dwindling. Well!

With that in mind, I decided today was the day for a quick post, though I suppose the topic is rather same old, same old. Last year I took a beating when I walked into the room, sat down, wrote the first section of the test, and then turned around to say to an acquaintance behind me, "Did we come to the N2 room by mistake??" It was a disaster.

This year, I tried to crack the books way back in July, with the intent to study relentlessly until October 31, and then leisurely review during November on days when I didn't have the energy for novel writing. (I don't think it's a coincidence that I have passed the JLPT and won the National Novel Writing Month challenge, but never in the same year.) Suffice to say that it's October 22 now and I'm still on Week 4 of the So-matome grammar book, with two weeks of grammar and six weeks of reading comprehension to go. I did read Chi's Sweet Home, volume 11, on the subway yesterday. That counts as study, right?

What I have been doing is kanji study, thanks to being frequently trapped on buses and trains with nothing to read and no cellphone games installed on my phone. (I was able to safely end my addiction to Hot Springs Story after beating the game for the third time.) Though there are a few apps that I've tried out before to help get daily study in, I think I've finally found "the" app for Android, and it's called KanjiSenpai. I had to turn off the drawing component pretty quickly, but otherwise I'm finding it to be really good. It uses the usual spaced repetition system (SRS) but it seems to be much better at coming back later and making sure I really know the answers to ones I guessed. Plus, it rotates between offering the meanings and the readings of compounds, as well as making you choose between several cards that are very similar, which is great for me. You can also remove cards that you're 100% certain you know - I took out number kanji, for example, and the cardinal directions, days of the week, and other kanji I use in everyday life - but the app is still going to check in with you 500 cards later and make sure you know them. If you've been looking for a good study app that will teach you the kanji rather just quizzing you on what you already learned from a textbook, this is it.

Another good one I had been using before finding KanjiSenpai was TenguGo, which cost me a dollar-something and had an interface I liked well enough. The quizzes came in small, easily-devourable packets (harder to put off studying when you can say "Meh, I'll just do one quiz,") and the tengu threw me a little on-screen party when I finished a certain number. However, it assumed you already knew all the kanji in the quiz. You can opt to "review" items (see the screenshot) but it packs just a bit too much info into its screen, and by the time I got to item #10 I had already forgotten #1. The SRS method is much better for me.

One other app I had been using before I switched to studying grammar via textbook is one called "N3 JLPT PREPARE" (yes, very descriptive) by V-Next software that does kanji, vocab and grammar quizzes. You can choose a quiz with 30 words, 50 words, 70 words, 90 words, 100 words or - not for the faint of heart - 200 words. The search function also seems good at a glance, though I never actually remember to use it. (Google Translate is always too close at hand.) My intent was to come back and use this app to quiz myself once I'd learned enough items to actually pass a quiz. Maybe it's time for a quiz right now!? I'm not getting any younger - and December 7 just gets closer and closer!

Anyone want to share their own recommendations for JLPT study apps?

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Photo of the Day - Shinjuku, 1992

Today I was linked to this fantastic HD video on YouTube of Tokyo in 1992. It's so clear! I really dig urban history, so I snapped a few screenshots of my favourite moments. The video includes this nice shot of Shinjuku's Studio ALTA, a look at the Rainbow Bridge during construction (!), and a Shibuya scramble crossing that's so unrecognizable that I didn't even realize right away that I was looking at the entrance to Center Gai. Wow. Check out the video, and for extra credit, have a look at this blog post about Studio ALTA, featuring a photo of the lower half of the building, in 1989!

Friday, March 21, 2014

Japanese Music in Concert

T.M. Revolution performing at Otakon 2012
For a music fan, I'm not willing to expend a lot of energy or cash to go and see a band - in fact, I'm lucky to go to a concert every 3 years at the most, and usually only shell out for nosebleed seats. However, I've actually seen a few really good Japanese bands while living here in North America. I've seen bands that would be playing sold-out shows in Tokyo, and paid next to nothing for them.

The secret is...anime conventions.

Almost all of the big conventions feature a musical act. Here in Toronto, I hit up Anime North every couple of years when they have a particularly interesting guest. I'm also in Baltimore almost every summer, and been able to see some fantastic acts at Otakon. T.M. Revolution, L'Arc~en~Ciel, JAM Project (including Okui Masami and Kageyama Hironobu, for you anisong fans out there!), Home Made Kazoku...all free with the price of admission to the convention. How good is that? When friends in Japan heard that I'd seen L'Arc, live, they were completely bowled over. 

In Osaka and Tokyo, I saw ZARD and AiM and Wada Kouji - now, those last two are definitely a story for another day - but going to a see a big-name show was pretty unlikely. Unlike my friend Brynn, I just don't have that kind of interest in any one band - plus I've been lucky enough to see T.M.R. in the U.S. not once but twice!

Quite a lot of Japanese artists have come to Toronto to perform as well - Kyary Pamyu Pamyu was here a couple of weeks ago, and though someone offered to sell me their tickets at the last minute for cheap, it wasn't enough notice to actually go. Too bad! I also missed out on B'z the year before last, which was really unfortunate. These are fairly big-name artists, though, that it'd be tough to get good tickets for in Tokyo, and here they are performing at the Sound Academy in T.O.!

New York, L.A. and other bigger North American cities also have plenty of Japanese performers who slip under the radar, both at local venues and at cons. The next time you're looking to find some new J-artists, why not check out a convention? You might be surprised at who you can get to see, practically for free!

Thursday, February 13, 2014


But better late than never.

Hobonichi Techo Life

In 2008 while living in Japan, I was finally able to play MOTHER 3, a recent (at the time) sequel to a cult hit video game that I had loved as a teenager. My brothers and I owned a Super Nintendo and a copy of EarthBound, by far the house's "preferred game." Released in 1994, it was a role-playing game set in rural America, starring four "normal" kids (or as normal as spunky psychics, princes and genius teenagers can get, anyway). Years later, the sequel MOTHER 3 got a Japan-only release.

For me, it was perfect timing. Uncertain how to make Japanese-speaking friends, I had been hanging out mostly with fellow JETs and exchange students from the nearby university. I spent a lot of time in my apartment chatting online with people back home and listening to Internet radio. And as it happened, that was where I had the good fortune to meet my first real Japanese friends - not in Japan, but on the Internet.

it just wasn't Tokyo
without purikura
This could turn into a much longer story (and my social life isn't actually what the post is about!) so to keep it short, I'll just say that I got involved with a certain well-known EarthBound community and encountered a Japanese fan of the game within it, Mana. She was about my age and lived in Gunma-ken, a prefecture north of Tokyo. The two of us arranged a meeting during one of my visits to Tokyo and hit it off, and from then on, whenever I was in the area, I made an effort to see her and her friends that I had gotten to know. All were fans of the MOTHER series, so I went from a fairly small amount of fandom involvement to quite a lot, very quickly.

Japan was a good place to be at the time for fans of this 20-year-old series - aside from MOTHER 3's relatively recent release, there had actually been brand-new merchandise released in arcades (Game Centers), The King of Games was selling official t-shirts out of a shop in Kyoto's Teramachi, thirty minutes from my apartment, and you could still buy the special MOTHER 3 Game Boy Micro in stores - I still regret not owning one of these! I struggled through reading the blog of MOTHER creator and copywriter Itoi Shigesato, and I went to LOFT on not one but two separate Januarys to buy his well-known Hobonichi Techo, a day planner with customizable covers and thoughtful quotes. I did not make the purchase on either occasion - after all, every year CLAIR sent us a compact, designed-for-JETs planner in the mail that I was quite fond of, and I also received a small calendar book from my school. While I wanted a techo because of the Itoi connection, I couldn't validate the expense when CLAIR's version was smaller, printed in English, and had subway maps and unit conversions on the back pages. None of the covers interested me enough to drop ¥3,500 on one, so I settled for simply looking them over whenever I visited Kyoto. There were other ways to show my MOTHER love, like this fancy colour-changing Ultimate Chimera shirt that cost an absolutely astronomical amount of money at the time.

At one point Mana-chan and friends, myself included, attended a MOTHER event in Tokyo where I even ran into into two other English-speaking members of that community, one of whom was an expat JET like me - though a CIR, not an ALT - from a few prefectures away. We hadn't really known each other at the time, certainly not enough for me to recognize them offhand, but I was completely gobsmacked to spot someone in the subway station wearing a Ness t-shirt, and rushed up to them immediately to say hello.

It's been some years since that event, and though MOTHER influences my life to this day, my active involvement has waned pretty considerably since leaving Japan. Not so of the JET I met at the event in Tokyo, Lindsay - she now translates and localizes for the company belonging to the creator of the MOTHER series, Hobo Nikkan Itoi Shinbun!

I can't tell you how awesome it is to see a fan succeed not only at entering the industry professionally, but to have the incredible good fortune (not to mention the moxie to go after it in the first place!) to work with Itoi himself. So when word got out that Hobonichi was releasing an English version of the techo, translated and localized by Lindsay, I decided it was finally my year, despite having converted over pretty thoroughly to Android's convenient Google Calendar access.

Typically, I have never been great with keeping up planners. Not since high school have I used an agenda on a regular basis. But my techo's design and ease of use (can't bring my phone into company meetings!) and stylishness and POCKETS has driven it home.

(No, I don't always save my TTC transfers!)

I use it for writing fiction ideas, dates and times and details for stories, copying the office calendar down so I can see it at home, collecting movie and concert ticket stubs, noting what foods I liked at restaurants and how much I spent, and more recently tracking Bitcoin gains and losses. I also get to use stickers I brought home from Japan and my immense Muji pen collection, and imagine my surprise when I discovered that two of the other staff in my office also have Hobonichi techos!

It's been a bit tough carrying around a book all the time when I cart around plenty of heavy things in my purse, not to mention switching from digital back to analogue again, but I'm already dreaming about putting my techo on the shelf at the end of the year and having this record of 2014 to flip through again's much more personal than reading back through Twitter logs!

I guess I can't possibly be shocked that MOTHER continues to exert that subtle influence over my days. I might even have to pull out the big guns and use some of my carefully hoarded Mr. Saturn stickers.

What are you waiting for!? Start your techo life!

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Writing About Tokyo

Commemorating the 1964 Olympics at Jingu Bashi
I don't think I've ever mentioned on Tadaimatte before that I had written a novel - it's true! Yes, as you might have guessed, story writing is an outlet for me, and in 2008 while living in Osaka, I devoted quite a lot of effort to penning my first book. At the time, I was enamoured with Tokyo, and deeply interested in studying the evolution of popular culture in The Big Mikan. I went to the library in Hikarigaoka and thumbed through photos of the area from the 60s, I penned thoughtful poems about umbrellas and imagined the lives of the people bobbing through Hachiko Square, watched Rockabilly dancers in Yoyogi Park, traced the steps of Shiki and Beat and Neku from The World Ends With You, read vintage Tezuka manga, attended Comiket, visited all the shops Shigesato Itoi recommended in interviews about MOTHER, sat on the bridge at Harajuku, visited Tokyo 1964 Olympic sites, trolled Jimbocho bookstores in hopes of finding the original 1983 English translation of The Rose of Versailles, and generally fell in love with the way the city had been depicted in works of fiction. I used words like hokoten (short for hokousha tengoku) and expected people around me to actually know what they meant.

In reality, Tokyo - particularly the long trip I took alone in 2008 - was a fairly private experience, simply because I didn't know anyone else who got excited over things like Olympic plaques, croquette rolls and showa retro. I spent something like twelve days wandering the city mostly alone, with no plan, eating curry and rice balls and occasionally having only the vaguest idea of where I was going to spend the night (!). I visited Yokohama and Hakone during this memorable vacation, but spent most of it in Shibuya and Odaiba, having real "down time" in Tokyo for the first time.

One post couldn't possibly sum up how I feel about the capital...but I suppose that's why I wrote a book. I sent it around to just a couple of publishers, as it was such a specialized topic that I couldn't imagine a big company like Random House or Scholastic picking it up. I've sat on it long enough now, though, that I've begun to think that self-publishing an eBook is the way to go - as intimidating as that is! 
So, over the next weeks and months, I'll be continuing to work on this project with the help of my good friend Zippo, and maybe soon you'll be able to download the book right here!

Monday, January 27, 2014


Hello, tadaima - it's been a while!
So last year I quit my telephone-jockeying work and moved on to something a little closer to my heart - being involved with the Japanese-Canadian community. While my work days are significantly more fulfilling...they are also far more full. It's hard to catch a breathing break and I certainly can't blog on the job (though I can certainly time-delay my post queues to come out in the mornings, for those of you who do have that luxury!), and the nights are filled up with cooking, commuting and my many hobbies. Plenty of Canadian hobbies (does watching British television count as a Canadian hobby?) but also getting more into the swing of things with my Japanese as well, after a long draught.

I took the JLPT last month - now that was a disaster!

I attended a tea bowl making ceremony. It's actually been almost a year since I did tea properly. Oops!

Yesterday, I carried the mikoshi (shrine) at the JCCC's New Year's Festival! 

I made toshikoshi soba on New Year's with my friends.

I suppose I'd been experiencing a bit of cultural burnout, not unlike the sort of thing many JETs go through at the end of their first year in Japan. Luckily, it's been abating, and more recently I've found myself being drawn inexplicably back to writing and researching about Japan - mostly because I have a book idea swimming around my head and, of course, it's best to strike while the iron is hot! So I've been poring over books about the Japanese royal family, Tokyo in the 1970s, womens' studies in Japan and cultural revolution. Reading research material on the subway gives me a much more fulfilling feeling than playing Candy Crush Saga.

Hopefully, as a result, you guys will see more blog posts from me in future. Fingers crossed!

Wednesday, September 18, 2013


It's almost kotatsu time--!

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Teaching in Japan

I talk about a lot of cultural things on this blog, but many of my posts are not so much connected to my career in Japan as they are my after-school life. However, teaching seems to still be the #1 method people use to get started in Japan, as there are lots of companies and exchange programmes that do this, and take away much of the headache of getting you established in the Land of the Rising Sun.

I taught English in Japan as part of Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) programme. JET is a fantastic programme sponsored by three Japanese Ministries and serves not only as a way to educate schoolchildren in English, but also as a grassroots cultural exchange effort. ALTs (Assistant Language Teachers) are recruited from all over the world via a lengthy application process, followed by an intense orientation session in Tokyo, and are then dispersed all over Japan to their new schools. Junior high and high school are the most common placements, though elementary schools are slowly taking on more JETs.

When I was accepted, I received one of the most coveted placements - Osaka. Osaka no longer hires prefectural ALTs via the programme (only municipal ALTs, now), so I was very fortunate to have gone when I did, as Osaka was my first choice and has since become my second home. My three years living there were some of the best years of my life.

The JET application process is very extensive. The paper application was enormous, and required a number of documents that took time to put together. A medical self-assessment, proof of Canadian citizenship, university transcripts, a copy of my degree and letters of reference (one of which had to be from a teacher or professor) are just some of the items that had to be included for the application, due in November - to go to Japan the following August!

I had a lot of tutoring experience, which I'm sure is what pushed me to the next stage - I had spent a summer in my third year of university doing a work experience program very similar to an ALT's job at a local school. However, I was certain I'd blown the interview when they asked questions I hadn't ever considered a possibility, like Canadian census information. Luckily, my personality seemed to make an impact, and I even managed to answer the question about location so well that I received my first choice of destination. I gave the interviewers an explanation of how my hometown dialect was so different from most Canadians' that I knew I'd feel right at home in Osaka, where the people speak in a relaxed and easy way. 

I was determined to broaden my cultural awareness - I initially hoped to join a few clubs at my school, but I felt like I would make them uncomfortable by being there, or be unable to commit the kind of time needed. My students were often at their club practices until evening - every evening! As an ALT, though, I was a de facto supervisor with the ESS (English Speaking Society), and made that my only school-related extracurricular.

In my spare time, I tried out aikido, ikebana, and yosakoi dancing for a time, and stuck with aikido for about a year, as I'd always been interested in martial arts. I returned to yosakoi after returning to Canada, as well. Through school and JET seminars I had opportunities to try out glass bead making, Noh theatre, and tea ceremony. I saw many Takarazuka theatre shows in nearby Hyogo Prefecture. I participated in holiday rituals, including setsubun, tanabata, and New Year's hatsumoude every year.

The cultural divide was very tough at points. I struggled a lot with the Japanese work ethic - work long hours, socialize with your co-workers, and keep busy even when there isn't anything to do. I was free to go at 4:30 as per my contract, but I was always the first person out the door when I did so - it was tough to stay in the office and look occupied when I was itching to go, but I felt bad saying "see you" and strolling out two hours before my co-workers. Besides the work ethic, I was the youngest person by far in the office for most of my time there. I got along well with the students because I was young and approachable and quite media-savvy - but it did set me apart from many of my co-workers.

Aside from that, I really disliked being such an obvious cultural outsider - one of the things that really did bother me about Japan was that no matter how hard I tried to understand, the sense of being "other" was always there. Fortunately, it got better with time!

The most important thing I learned about communication was that insecurity wasn't going to get me anywhere. For a long time, I didn't have the courage to try starting conversations or even going someplace where I'd encounter words that I didn't know - even the grocery store was frustrating at times.

It wasn't too long before I realized that my Japanese wasn't going to improve unless I used it, though, and that I didn't need to be afraid of talking to strangers - all of my best encounters came as a result of taking a chance with people. City-dwellers often keep to themselves, so many seemed unapproachable at first, but Osakans are some of the friendliest people in Japan!

By far, the thing I missed most about home was familiar foods. Even though I love Japanese food, I found myself craving "comfort food" when I was feeling down - not just my mother's home cooking, but even food from restaurants I almost never visited back in Canada! At one point, I was bringing home McDonalds 2 or 3 times a week - even though I had probably only eaten it a couple of times in the past decade. I craved the familiar, and took what I could get when it came to the selection. 

I also missed the friendliness of Canadian people, and the tendency toward helping strangers - the Japanese showed their friendliness in somewhat of a different way that I found, at times, to be quite a lot more detached. The people of Kansai (including Osaka, and Mie, where I had a wonderful local experience) are somewhat more open, but not in quite the same way as the town I'd been raised in.

Toward the end of my exchange, I visited nearby Mie Prefecture, an area I had been to just once before, despite it being so close to Osaka. It was the first time I truly felt the "small-town values" so many rural JETs had spoken of. While my visit to Mie was supposed to have been a day trip, a local festival prompted me to make very last-minute plans to stay the night, even though I had only the contents of my purse (a book, a pen, a netbook and less than 6,000 yen in cash) to work with. Thanks to the attention and generosity of a local hostel owner, I had a place to rest my head and a way back to the train station at 5 o'clock the following morning in order to make it to work on time. Even though she had other guests to attend to, the hostel owner graciously made up a bed for me, a surprise guest, and offered to take me to the station, so that I wouldn't have to call a taxi so early in the morning. I will never forget that hospitality.

Teaching in Japan made an immeasurable impact on my life. When I returned to Canada, I knew I had to stay connected to this experience in some way - it really shaped my career aspirations, which until then had been very vague. I moved to Toronto and began working with a youth exchange program, at first as a volunteer and later as a part-time coordinator, helping high school students considering spending a year abroad. Japan is one of the most popular programs we offer, so I feel extra-confident sharing my advice with these students, since I've seen "life in a Japanese high school" first-hand!

As for my travel plans, going back to Japan to visit is in the cards for me in the next two years, I hope. I'd also like to visit Scandinavia, Europe and other parts of Asia - being abroad really opened my eyes to how many different people and cultures were out there. I want to see them all!