Friday, November 27, 2009


So, as usual, I let life get in the way and the ol' blog falls by the wayside, but...

I do have a fairly valid reason.

I've started a new newspaper column in the big local paper here in Shimane.

The column is called "Kiddo Sensei no San-in Eigo Juku" or "Mr. Kidd's San-in English School", and it's a pretty cool deal.

Each week, I select a theme, and from Monday to Saturday, I introduce a key word or phrase related to that theme. I include a short explanation, and sometimes sneak in a little bit of information about the differences between Japanese and English.

Then, on Sunday, I write a 150-word English passage (in simple, junior high school level English) that uses those keywords and phrases to describe a facet of the San-in Region. You can find the articles I've written so far here.

Another cool thing? My articles are in the top weekly and monthly rankings on the site.

One more cool thing? This time, they asked me.

I've also been touring around a few temples in the Kansai area. If you're interested, here are some pictures.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Oi! Genki ka!? Article 8: Foreign Language Acquisition (July 2007)

Foreign Language Acquisition

There was a lot of intense studying involved.

Very often in conversations, people will say to me, "Japanese is really difficult, isn't it? After all, there's hiragana, katakana, and kanji." (Note: this refers to the three types of characters used in written Japanese.) In truth, for someone like me who comes from a country that only uses characters based on the Latin alphabet, it wasn't easy to study Japanese. However, when it all comes down to it, Japanese is just another language. And like any other language, it has its easy parts and its hard parts. If you have the desire to learn and just put forth a reasonable effort to study, you can learn how to use it.

Since I started studying, I am now in my eleventh year of studying Japanese. Many people often ask me how I was able to pick up the Japanese language. From the first day of classes, I felt like it was something worthwhile for me to study, so whenever I had a free moment, I would use it to study or review Japanese. After we started learning the different characters used in Japanese writing, I would spend my breakfasts after class writing. I would eat cereal with one hand and write with the other. I had a really rough time figuring out the difference between characters like "nu", "me", "wa", "ne, "shi" and "tsu"...

...but with a lot of repetition in writing, I gradually figured out which character was which.

One thing our sensei told us really helped me with learning kanji, the Chinese characters used in Japan: "Learn the radicals." (Note: radicals are certain parts of each kanji At first, kanji only looked like pictures, but with our sensei's help, I was able to look at each character in parts, which made them so much easier to learn and remember.

When it came to learning the different characters used in Japanese, time and repetition helped me finally be able to write.

The real problem was speaking. My pronunciation had a strong American accent. Plus, all of the "ra" sounds (ra, ri, ru, re, ro, rya, ryu, ryo) and "fu", sounds which we don't have in English, really caused me a lot of trouble. I wanted to speak but I couldn't speak. I thought for a long time about what I could do to overcome this, and I finally came up with an answer.

Just get out there and use it.

It's natural to feel like "I don't understand", "I can't speak it", "I can't use it" when you start out in a foreign language. There is no way you can suddenly speak fluently in a language you've never even studied before. It's natural to feel that way, but you can't let yourself lose out to that kind of negative way of thinking. If you do, you'll never be able to use it, or speak it, or understand it.

I went to a university that had a lot of Japanese exchange students, so I was in a great environment to learn the language. I had a lot of opportunities outside of class to use what I'd learned. I made an effort to speak Japanese with exchange students I'd become friends with. Of course, at first my Japanese sucked and I was hardly able to say anything at all, but with my in-class studies at outside-of-class practice, I got to the point where I was able to communicate in Japanese.

There's one more question I often get asked: "What can I do to improve my English?" My answer is always the same:

Just get out there and use it.

If you have a chance to use it, then do so. If you don't have any chances, make some. You may not be good at first, but with time, you'll get better. I can say that from experience.

Oi! Genki ka!? Article 7: IPA (June 2007)


At Japan Night with some of the 2000 Spring AUAP Group at CWU, probably in June.

The university I attended, Central Washington University, has a sister school relationship with Asia University in Tokyo, and every year many exchange students come from Asia University via an exchange program know as the Asia University America Program (AUAP). At five months, it is a fairly short stay, but the students that come to CWU study English and their respective majors while staying in the on-campus dormitories, sharing rooms with American roommates. I became friends with quite a few AUAP students, and while talking with them, I learned about what seemed to be an interesting part-time job: being an IPA.

What is an IPA? IPA is short for International Peer Advisor, and an IPA is a student attending CWU who helps the AUAP participants get accustomed to American university life and living in the U.S. The exchange students who come to CWU on AUAP don't know much about the university or the town that it's in (Ellensburg), so it is the IPA's responsibility to help them get acclimated to their new lifestyle as quickly as possible.

At the time, I was studying Japanese and had made many close friends through AUAP, and more than anything else, I wanted to know more about Japan. I figured being an IPA would be a good way to do that, so I went to the AUAP Office and applied for a job. After going through a short interview process, I got the job! Over the next year and a half, I worked as an IPA for three AUAP cycles, and did a lot of activities with the program participants during that time. We had Japanese food parties in the dormitories to promote exchange between the AUAP students and the American dorm residents. We went on camping trips and took part in volunteer activities. We made baseball teams and played in intramural leagues against other teams at the university.

And while there was a lot that was fun, being an IPA had an extremely tough side to it too. I had to work out difficulties between AUAP students and their roommates. At times, I wasn't able to get along well with the groups I was working with. Also, while the legal drinking age in Japan is 20, in the U.S. it is 21, and at times I caught underage students drinking and had to report them to my boss. It was extremely difficult to find a balance between being a friend and being an advisor.

I learned a very important lesson while working as an IPA. During my first cycle, a friend of mine, Rich, who had worked as an IPA previously pointed out, rather sternly, something that I was doing wrong. I thought I was being kind to the AUAP students by speaking in slow, simple English to them. Rich saw this and took me aside, saying, "What you're doing there, that's not being kind or nice or anything at all. You're being a jerk. They aren't stupid, so don't treat them like they are. Speaking slowly, or in simple English, isn't going to help them. Speak normally, like you would to anybody else." It was then that I realized that I'd been speaking in strange English to the AUAP students I was supposed to be helping. If our positions had been switched, I'd have hated that, and I really regretted my actions up to that point. I'd been acting like I was better than them; like I was above them somehow. And that was messed up.

Having that pointed out to me taught me a very important lesson. Even if someone isn't able to communicate well, they still need to be treated with the same respect afforded to all people. That's something I hope to keep in mind in my interactions with people from now on.

Saturday, October 17, 2009



It's been a month and a half since I've done anything worthwhile on this here blog.

I can make all sorts of excuses (friends came from Hokkaido for a week, busy with work, practicing to play the flute in a drum parade tomorrow, started teaching a class at the local junior college, went to Tokyo for a friend's wedding, different friend came from Tokyo, ad infinitum, ad nauseum), but what would be the point?

Hopefully I can get another chapter from my book up sometime today before I have to go to practice.

I do have some fairly big news that I should be able to share in the next couple of weeks. A few things need to get finalized before I can make an official announcemt though.

But if things go through like they should, this will be a pretty big freaking deal.

Stay tuned!

Monday, August 31, 2009

Oi! Genki Ka !? Article 6: Nelson Sensei (June 2007)

Nelson Sensei
(Advisory: Some strong language contained within)

At Central Washington University's pre-graduation ceremony with Nelson Sensei. June 2000.

If you're fortunate enough to have a good teacher, it's possible to come to enjoy any subject in school. I've been blessed with great teachers ever since I started on my path of studying Japanese. I'd like to introduce one of them now.

September, 1996. My first day as a sophomore in college. My first class of the day. I got to the classroom before 9 and was waiting for our professor to show up. And show up he did. It was a very overwhelming impression. Built like a linebacker and sporting a full beard, even his outward appearance was intimidating, but it was when he opened his mouth and started speaking in perfectly fluent Japanese that he really floored me. This class was Beginning Japanese 101, so not a single person in the classroom had any idea what the heck he was saying. Twenty-five college students just sat there staring at him, mouths gaping, stunned.

This continued for about five minutes. He just kept talking, saying something in Japanese. Then he put his hands together in the time-out "T" sign and said "Hai, stoppu!", and switched over into English. "My name is Nelson, and I will be your Japanese instructor." Then he proceeded to tell us what he had just said in Japanese. "Japanese is not an easy language to learn. It is a long ways removed from English. But, if you're willing to put forth the effort and study hard, I guarantee that you'll be able to learn a lot."

Our first class ended with Nelson Sensei talking about Japanese and some of the things we would be doing in the class, but I had already decided that this was what I wanted to major in. In those first five minutes of class, all I could think was, "I have no clue what he is saying, but I want to be able to speak Japanese as well as he can!" Then, listening to Nelson Sensei as he talked to us, I could feel his passion for the Japanese language, and that really struck a cord with my own love of foreign languages. I felt that if I studied with this sensei, I'd be able to speak Japanese really well, too.

Soon after, I talked with Nelson Sensei and applied for a Japanese language major, and pushed myself every day to learn as much Japanese as I could. There were a lot of hang-ups along the way, but Nelson Sensei's easy-to-understand explanations helped me improve my skills by leaps and bounds.

Then, one day, as I was walking through the university campus, I ran in to Nelson Sensei. "Oh, Kiddo-kun! You're doing really well lately. You've got a good thing going here, and you've got a lot of skill, so don't fuck it up." Surprised, I quickly replied, "Yes sir!"

"Don't fuck it up."

I'd never been sworn at by a teacher before, so his words carried a lot of impact with them.

From that day on, I have carried Nelson Sensei's words with me, always trying to avoid betraying his faith in me, make full use of my abilities and not waste the opportunities I have been presented with. I hope I have lived up to his expectations.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Oi! Genki ka!? Article 5: On Turning 30 (June 2007)

On Turning 30

I turn 30 this year. I'm a bit nervous about it...

This year, I'll officially become an ojisan.

The word ojisan in Japanese has various meanings. Depending on the Chinese characters used with the word, the meaning changes. There is:
1) the ojisan that refers to an older male sibling of one's parents (i.e. uncle);
2) the ojisan that refers to a younger male sibling of one's parents (again, i.e. uncle); and then there's
3) the ojisan that refers to an adult male that is of no direct blood relation (i.e. "some old dude").

All three can be read as "oji", and yet they're all a little different.

When I say that I'll officially become an ojisan this year, I mean it in two of these ways.

First off, this August my younger sister will have a baby. This will make me a genuine ojisan ("uncle"). Gaining another member of the family is always a happy occasion, so I'm really looking forward to it. But at the same time, it's a strange feeling to realize that my baby sister is going to become a mother. I knew it would happen someday, but having it actually happen makes me feel my age a bit.

Also, from a mental aspect, there's one more reason I feel like I'm becoming an ojisan: I'm turning 30 this year. Even last year, when I turned 29, nothing bothered me about my age, but as the big three-oh approaches I can feel the weight of the reality of that number bearing down on me. I know that there won't be any drastic change in my physical condition when I turn 30, and I also know that turning 30 isn't going to have any affect at all on the way I think about things or my lifestyle. It's just that I'm not quite ready to have that number that started with a "2" change to starting with a "3". Which, of course, doesn't matter, because whether I am ready or not that new number is on its way, but the days where I ask myself, "Is this really where I should be at right now in my life?" are becoming more and more frequent.

This is just an image I have, but I think that the ideal 30-year old man in modern-day society is expected to have a steady job/career, be married, and have some children, too. My parents don't ever directly say "Come back home!", but there is often a "You can come back home any time you want" in our conversations. Plus, the last time I went home, my grandmother asked me, "When are you getting married?", and it seems like most of my high school classmates have already gotten married. I'm not that far away from it, but the reality is that what I picture as "society's ideal" is something that I am not as near to as perhaps I should be.

But then my friends who are in their thirties tell me, "When you get to be around 30 years old, you tend to worry about stuff like that. That's just how it is." It's true that I have a lot of things on my mind lately, but they will eventually pass. I like the way I am now, and I enjoy the life that I'm living. Up to this point, I haven't lived my life according to anybody else's standards except my own. Starting with my parents, I have had a lot of assistance from many other people, but I've lived my life the way I've wanted to. Simply put, even when I become a 30 year-old ojisan, I'm going to keep on living my life the same way. It helped me enjoy a fulfilling twenties, so I hope that my thirties as an ojisan will be spent in a similarly fulfilling way.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Oi! Genki ka!? Article 4: Onsen (June 2007)

Onsen: Hot Springs

I love hot springs.

Japan's hot springs are fantastic. There's a rich variety of types, and there are many different ways to enjoy them. I feel that Japan is truly blessed to have so many hot springs throughout the country. But, having said that, it doesn't mean that there aren't any hot springs in the US. When I was a child, my grandparents lived in town called Lava Hot Springs, which got its name from the fact that there was indeed a hot spring in the town. Still, even though there are hot springs in the US, the common practice of getting into a hot spring naked in Japan...well, it just doesn't work like that in the States. So the hot spring was turned into a city-run pool, and you could only get in if you were wearing a bathing suit. Which is something my family and I did often, and it's a fond memory I have of my childhood.

When I came to Japan, a Japanese friend of mine told me about Japanese hot springs. Let's just say I had an adverse reaction. I'm as big a fan of a nice hot bath as the next person, but I wouldn't be caught dead hopping into a warm bath with a bunch of other naked men. No thank you. However often I was invited, I always refused.

Then I experienced my first Japanese winter. Over here, it's a strangely damp cold, and the daily feeling of freezing straight down to the marrow gradually wore down my reluctance towards Japanese hot springs. I still put up a fight for a while, but finally, one day, a friend told me, "You look really tired lately. I'm taking you to Tamatsukuri Hot Springs (a famous local onsen near Matsue)," and as all my fight had been taken out of me by the cold cold cold of Matsue's winter, I said "Okay" and off we went.

It was with quite a bit of nervousness that I entered the bathing area, washed off, and then got in the bath...(In Japan, it is common practice, as everyone shares the bathwater even at home, to wash off and get clean before getting in the bath.)

"What the heck IS this!? This feels GREAT! What have I been doing this whole time!? Why didn't I decide to go to a hot spring sooner?" I verbally beat myself up for a while. Once you're in the bath itself, all the things that I was worried about turn out to be no big deal. The thing that had me worried the most, other people, ceased to be a problem the second I took off my glasses. I couldn't see anything, so I ceased to care. ("Out of sight, out of mind", anyone?) Even after I going back to my apartment, I was still warm! Which, I can assure you, was a feeling I had been very unfamiliar with all winter. I was so happy. At that moment, my addiction to onsen began.

Of course, even after getting over that first big hurdle, there are still a lot of things that have shocked me about hot springs over here. Dad's taking their daughters (preschool age) in to the changing room and into the bath; the cleaing ladies coming not only into the changing room, but into the bathing area as well; and then there was the time that I got into a mixed bath without knowing that it was one and then having no idea what was the proper "mixed bath" ettiquette...let's just say that the surprises kept on coming. Still, it's something you get used to if you keep going. I now enjoy everything about onsen over here. From the big hot springs hotels to the small local baths, I've seen them all, but I still plan on enjoying a nice hot bath while letting out an "Aahhhh, now that's some nice hot water" as I get in.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Oi! Genki ka!? Article 3: Preconceptions (June 2007)


Everybody has preconceptions. The bigger the group, the stronger your preconceptions get. Naturally, before I came over here, I had a few preconceptions about Japan. I'm pretty sure that the major images most people have of Japan are the huge metropolis of Tokyo and the traditional Japan represented by Kyoto. I know I had those impressions before I first came over. Still, I knew that whatever images I had before I came to Japan, what I expected was going to be absolutely different from the reality of life here, so I did my best to avoid any "Japan will be like THIS" thoughts when I came over. Not having many preconceptions made it easier to adjust to life over here. However, I remembered something my sensei told our Japanese class one day in university. "Commonly in Japan, people will say 'Please come over and visit us sometime.' If you actually go over to visit, though, often they will seem put off. This is the difference between honne ("what people really mean") and tatemae ("what people say to be polite")." That lesson stuck in my mind, and while it isn't wrong information, I never thought that merely believing this would lead me to make a big mistake over here.

One day, a friend of mine invited me out for sushi. At the sushi restaurant, there were only ourselves and a family at the other end of the counter. Before I knew it, we all hit it off and were having a lively conversation. When I mentioned that I was interested in Japanese culture, they told me "We run a butsudan ("Buddhist altar") shop near here, so come on over and visit us sometime. It'll be interesting for you to check out!" At the time I said, "Sure!", but everyone was drinking, and I remembered that lesson from college that I had filed away in the back of my mind, so I never went.

About three months after that, another friend of mine and I went to visit a temple in Matsue. His Japanese friend had offered to take us there, so we went. It was up in a higher area of town, and you could see Matsue Castle clearly from there. While I was talking to my friend's Japanese friend, she said, "I've always loved this temple. When I was a kid, my father used to take me here all the time."

"Really?", I asked. "What does your father do?"

"He runs a butsudan shop down in Tera-machi," she answered.

"No way," I thought to myself, and then I asked her, "About three months ago, did you and your family talk with a foreigner in a sushi shop in that area?"

She looked surprised and said, "Was that you? My dad's been waiting for you to come by ever since then!"

"I, I'm so sorry. I promise I'll head over there soon, so please tell that to your father along with my apologies."

That same week I went to their shop. I was warmly welcomed, and they took time to tell me a lot about things like butsudan and some of the different temples in Matsue. We quickly became good friends, and we still keep in touch to this very day. And to think, my preconception of Japan almost made me miss out on this wonderful friendship.

It's true that having preconceptions can't be helped, but I believe that there are a lot of things you can learn once you take the time to look past them.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Oi! Genki ka!? Article 2: How To Walk In Hokkaido In Winter (June 2007)

How To Walk In Hokkaido In Winter

When someone asks you, "What do you think of when I say 'Hokkaido'?", I'm sure there are a lot of things that come to mind, like the majesty of its nature, the delicious food, the wide roads...but wouldn't you say that the number one impression that people have of Hokkaido is the snow-covered scenery? It doesn't even really need to be said, but winter in Hokkaido is VERY different from that in Shimane.

The winters I experienced in Shimane consisted mainly of mushy, damp snow, and even on the rare occasions that it did snow, it had usually melted by midday. Walking on snow like that was not hard or precarious at all; if I had to mention anything difficult about it, it would just be that my shoes would get wet from walking in all that slush.

The first winter I experienced in Hokkaido was one of heavy snowfall, which was rare for Muroran. With an impeccable sense of timing, my car broke down on me and I had to walk to work every day. It was snowing everyday, and the shovellers just couldn't keep up with it, and as more and more snow fell, people walked on it and packed it down until it was nice and hard. On top of that, just as people call the snow here konayuki ("powdered snow"), the snow is just like a fine powder. This dry, fine snow falls on top of the hard snow pack and creates the worst footing I've ever experienced. There is no friction or traction, and the three layers of shoe, powder snow, and packed snow come together in a perfect marriage to create an impossible pathway! Careful as you may be, if you step even a little bit incorrectly, you're going to slip and hurt yourself. The pain hits its peak once you get to the office. No sitting. Too painful.

Still, as time went on, my style of walking unconsciously changed. Maybe my self-preservation instinct finally started to work? Little things like choosing how to place my weight and where I would step next had to be changed or there was no way I was getting to work safely. Without even knowing it, I changed how I walked and was finally able to get to work without any problems.

During Golden Week last year (ed: late April-early May 2006), a friend of mine came up to visit from Tokyo, and she said told me that she wanted to go see Shiretoko. So we did. By this time, all of the snow in Muroran had naturally melted away, but in Shiretoko, even though it was May, there was still a lot of snow left. I walked on it without any trouble, but watching my friend walk along with severe trepidation, a light snapped on in my head. "Oh! My way of walking's changed! I've adapted to life in Hokkaido!"

Winter doesn't last forever, even in Hokkaido. The days pass by, it gradually gets warmer, the snow melts away, and your way of walking changes back to normal. Then, winter comes again, and at first, I slip and slide as I walk along. But then I remember "the other way to walk", and all my walking problems go away. Having to switch back and forth every year is a bit of a pain, but remembering "how to walk" is one of the things that makes life in Hokkaido interesting. It can be a bit of a thrill to pick up a method of walking that you can't learn from anyone else, so come on up and experience it sometime.

(Photo courtesy of Scott Lothes)

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Oi! Genki ka!? Article 1: It's The Boonies! You Got a Problem With That? (June 2007)

I, like, wrote a book.
It actually started out as a series of newspaper articles in a local paper in Shimane, but once my 100-article column was finished, we decided to collect the articles into a book.

I've made promises to quite a few people that, as the original book is in Japanese, I would translate the articles at some point in time.


No time like the present.

So here we go.

It's the Boonies! You Got a Problem With That?

Starting in October 1998, I studied at Shimane University in a year-long exchange program. A little bit before I was going to go back home, my sensei told me, "There's a university magazine called Shimadai Tsushin, and I've been asked to find an exchange student to write an article for it. Would you be interested?" I was, so I wrote down my impressions of and feelings toward Shimane in an article. At that time, I had been reading a manga called "Doctor Slump", and I was a big fan. One of my favorite parts was whenever the sun would come out, it would say, "It's morning! You got a problem with that?", so I decided to adapt that line to the title of my article. I'd like to introduce a bit of what I wrote in that article. It's from 1999, so there may be some strange phrasings, but please enjoy reading it.

When it was decided that I'd be coming to Japan on a year-long exchange, my friends in Tokyo all laughed at me and said, "Huh? Shimane? Man, that is way out in the boonies!" Hearing that, I pictured Matsue as a place where there was absolutely nothing. My hometown in America is out in the middle of nowhere, and there's nothing there, so I pictured myself having a very tough time in Middle-of-Nowhere, Japan. However, when I arrived in Matsue, I was amazed at how big the city was. Compared to my hometown, it wasn't "The Boonies" at all! The building were tall, there were lots of stores..."Man, I'm in the big city", I thought.

The month of October, in places other than Shimane, is known as "Kannazuki", or "The Month of No Gods", but in Shimane, it's known as "Kamiarizuki", or "The Month of The Gods". That's because all of the myriad deities from all over the country gather at Izumo Taisha in Shimane at that time. So when talking to my friends in Tokyo, I'd laugh right back at them and say, "You know all of your big-city gods? They're all out here now. Ha ha ha ha ha!" And it's not just Kamiarizuki that's great about Shimane, either. Shimane is known as "The Land of Myths", and for me, who has been interested in mythology since I was little, this makes Shimane fascinating. The only original surviving castle in the entire San'in Region is located right here in Matsue. If shrines is your thing, there's Kamosu Shrine, Yaegaki Shrine, of course Izumo Taisha...just to name a few of the interesting shrines you can find in Shimane. Sometimes my friends tell me, "Man, you're a Shrine Freak," but the shrines in Shimane are peaceful and beautiful, and I really love going to them.

A representative characteristic of Shimane is that there is a lot of nature here. And yes, that does make Shimane a rural area, but that's not a bad thing. The ocean is clean, there are lots of mountains and forests, and it's a very relaxed placed, which is something else I like about living here. Plus, people in Shimane are very kind. Sometimes it's said that they are gloomy, but that just isn't the case. They will strike up conversations with you, help you find your way when you're lost, return a friendly greeting...that makes living here feel good.

So, why are the people in Shimane so kind? Why is there so much natural beauty here? Why are there so many historical buildings still standing in the area? There's just one reason. It's the boonies. You got a problem with that?