Posts Tagged ‘Japan’

Mr I and the classes of doom

Now that I’m a safe distance from my job as an Assitant Language Teacher (ALT) at a Japanese public junior high school, I’m feeling inclined to share some of my stories from that time.

Don’t get the wrong impression from this post, I do also have lots of really good stories from that time, but I’m afraid the first thing that comes to mind is Mr I and the classes I had to take with him.

A lot of ALTs have to travel between 4 or more schools each month, but I was lucky enough to be stationed permanently at one school. And it was a good one. The students were generally well-behaved and friendly, and they had four and a half Japanese English teachers and one ALT (me). Mr A and Mr T (heh) were the best teachers in my opinion, and were really good to work with. They were good at building rapport with their students, and making the classes interesting, but were also quite strict and didn’t accept any misbehaviour in their classes.

But unfortunately Mr I turned out to be a really awful teacher. He was incredibly uncharistmatic, his classes were boring, he never even attempted to discipline his students, and last but not least… he’s really bad at English. He would actually speak to me in Japanese instead of English most of the time, and my Japanese sucked so it’s really telling that communication was smoother that way. His lessons were riddled with mistakes to the extent that I wouldn’t have known where to begin correcting them. And his teaching style was horrendous. Here are some examples.

At the beginning of every class, Mr I would put on an English language song. Of course, his choices were always daggy and ancient. Examples: “Top of the World” (The Carpenters) and “All I want for Christmas is You” (Mariah Carey). (I will not provide links! Count yourself lucky if you’ve never heard them!) He handed out the lyrics and made us all sing along (/shudder), but even though we were doing the same song every lesson for weeks, he never actually taught them what the song meant! There was no discussion at all of the lyrics, no translation, no summary, not even help with reading and pronunciation. Did he actually not notice that he was the only one in the room singing? Who knows!

This is a dialogue from the textbook that we had to teach.

After teaching it, he tested the students’ comprehension with some questions. Here’s one of them: “Does Yuki like her sweater?” Answer: “No.” … D:

But wait, there’s more! Yuki’s story continues over the page…

This time, to check their understanding Mr I made some True/False statements. Here’s one: “Americans always say nice things to each other.” Answer: “True.” I tried not to laugh but it was hard.

The thing is, this really needn’t have happened. Mr T is actually not terrific at English either, but he can recognise his own limits so he used to get me to make up 3-5 True/False statements for every dialogue. It’s harder than you’d think to come up with questions that are actually challenging from such a short dialogue, but I was actually quite good at it, if I do say so myself. Using your ALT for this sort of thing is exactly what team-teaching is about, but Mr I really didn’t get it. Guess what sort of things he did use me for though… Well, one time when he was teaching the word “encouraging” he got me to say it for the students 5 times in a row as fast as I could! … …yeah.

Which brings me to another one of his crazy teaching techniques. I can only guess he felt that speed (however unnaturally fast) is what makes you good at English, because after “teaching” them the dialogue from the textbook (read: getting them to repeat it after me a few times) he would “consolidate” it by getting them to stand up and, all at once, read it out loud as fast as they could and then sit down. The first to sit down “wins”.

OK here’s one last example. Mr I was telling the kids one day about how westerners appear older (for their age) compared to Japanese people. Why he felt compelled to teach them this offensive stereotype, I really don’t know. But he told his (14-year-old) students that if they were to meet an American their age, they would think the kid was 20 years old. And conversely an American would think they were 10. And as if saying all this in front of me wasn’t a big enough insult, he went on to give the example that when he had first met me he’d thought I was 30! (I was 27.) Thank you.

I felt really bad for all the students that got stuck with him. They were much too well-behaved to ever complain, but I could tell they hated his classes as much as I did. And if they learned anything at all that semester, it could only be due to their own merit.

Anwyay, it’s a shame that teachers like him exist, but as I said they weren’t all this bad. Next time I’ll write about some of the good stuff that went on at my school…


We’re back in Japan! Actually, we’ve been back for 4 or 5 months already but I’ve been lazy about starting up the blog again. 申し訳ありません。

There are three main differences for us this time around: We’re living in Tokyo actual, we’re sharehousing with a bunch of (mostly Japanese) people (check out the house), and I’m studying Japanese full-time (check out the school)!

I only recently replaced my broken camera, and I’ve been taking heaps of pictures, so I thought I would share some of the awesome Engrish I’ve encountered with everyone! Walking around Tokyo, you get the distinct impression that while use of English in signs and products seems to be popular, natural and/or accurate English is by no means a priority. Here are some examples.

You said it man.

Dry Hard! My friends didn't think this one was funny, but I like it. In my mind I always add "With a vengeance!"

It's the use of "when" that I love.

I completely understand how this mistake could happen. Still, you'd think you could crack a dictionary.

Sounds... delicious?

Ok this one has an explanation. There are a bunch of Japanese loan words taken from English. Sometimes they're even abbreviated when they're turned into Japanese. "Hea meiku" is an abbreviation of "hair and makeup". When Japanese people don't understand the origin of the loan word you end up with signs like this one.

You'd think that when it comes to deciding on something as important as the name of your business you could exercise a little caution.

The fortune Maddie and I both got last year. My favourite line... "Your wishes will not be realised." That put quite a damper on things.

The Pain of Buying

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Living in a country where the people don’t speak your language is a very isolating experience. Suddenly simple everyday tasks such as ordering food at a counter become nerve wracking ordeals fraught with social peril. This is especially the case in a country such as Japan, where social customs are so important. There are patterns of behavior which are expected in so many situations, and deviating from these paths caused lots of trouble for the many flustered, inflexible Japanese people we met working in shops, restaurants, banks and post offices. Did you know that the Japanese language has an entirely different vocabulary in situations such as dealing with a fast-food register operator, because of the social hierarchy of the customer being “above” the employee? This is called “keigo”. The Japanese language has many honorifics, parts of speech which show respect, and their use is mandatory in many social situations. So not only is it difficult for foreigners such as myself to navigate their way through this seemingly endless minefield of faux pas due to their ignorance of the expected modes of behavior in a situation, even for those visitors who speak some Japanese they can still be screwed because customer service employees often seem to be speaking another language. They worked so hard to efface themselves in my presence and what they actually ended up doing was making it much harder for me not to cause them embarrassment when it was obvious I had no idea what they just said.

Ok, so this is a problem. But it isn’t an insurmountable one. Just pick up the vocab they are using, go away and study it, right? Then find out what the correct response is. Well…

Knowing the correct response doesn’t necessarily solve the problem, and in fact can fool the clerk into thinking that you can actually speak Japanese, eliciting another language puzzle. It’s like an onion: there are layers, and peeling each one back makes you cry.

Hamsters in Japan

Several years ago I was visiting my cool aunt in Japan during one of my holidays. As I was playing with her hamsters she mentioned to me a common problem with these cute little pets that many owners in Japan were facing: accidental death by BURYING THEM ALIVE. A particular breed of hamster, the Djungarian Hamsters, are from desert climates and are very weak against the cold, entering a hibernation-like state if the temperature drops too low… and Japanese winters get very cold. The critters are difficult to rouse once this happens, as it is not normal sleep, and many ignorant humans mistake the hamsters for dead. The owners, often children, would then dispose of the “corpse”, usually by burying them in a garden, unknowingly becoming responsible for their beloved pet’s death (I utilized the toilet flushing method in my comic, though not strictly accurate it was in the interests of comedy! Things are much funnier when they involve toilets, right?).

The Japanese pet situation is slightly different from what’s normal in Australia, and this is due mostly to the practicalities involved. Limited living space is a big issue, dictating the size of animals in all but the largest of houses. It is also relatively difficult to find leased properties that allow the keeping of pets, much more so than in Australia. It’s a distinct selling point for a house or apartment to offer their tenants the option. Given the limitations of space and how damned cute they are, the hamster is an excellent choice for a pet.

Did I mention they are cute? They are SO CUTE! If they were allowed in Australia I would keep one, no doubt. It is pretty great feeding the little guys an entire noodle of raw spaghetti because it’s similar to a Warner Bros. cartoon beaver chewing through a log like a wood chipper: you offer one end of the pasta to the hamster and it grabs it with two tiny pink hands, and in a second or two it is all gone. The hamster is like a black hole that sucks the whole thing in, instantly. And then it walks around with a pair of huge bulging mutant cheeks like nothing is the matter.

Still, they are a pretty stupid animal. I know this whole hibernation thing doesn’t count as stupidity, but it contributes to the image in my mind that these little guys are freakin’ dumb. There they are in an environment designed for their survival – unlimited food and water, an exercise wheel (luxury!), a cozy little burrow, NO PREDATORS – and they go ahead and mess it up. I imagine their survival strategies in the wild would go something like this:

The Meat of Japan

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So for those that do not know, the Japanese have slightly different priorities to the west when it comes to cooking meat. Generally in Australia the best meat has very little fat. Japanese meat is often cut in what would be considered unusual ways for us and contains much more fat, marbling the flesh. Personally I am a fan of Japanese meat: it is tender, juicy, and falls apart in your mouth. Ingrid is definitely not a fan, but we all know she is a racist!

I had a lot of fun explaining to my school kids how we eat kangaroo meat in Australia. They wouldn’t believe me. It actually took quite a lot of convincing, diagrams drawn on the board, and descriptions involving a generous helping of broad, expansive hand gestures (sell it, Alan, sell it!). Several different kids in different classes asked, “what part of the kangaroo do you eat?” and I would delight in telling them anything I felt like at the time. “Oh, the ears are the best” or “tail-steaks”. They were almost all of them so horrified. I mean, it’s not like I said something like “Just the Joey. We only ever eat the Joey”. I’m not sure if the fact that it is one of our national animals that made it so hard for them to accept the idea but the cuteness factor of the kangaroo certainly had a huge role to play. I decided to test this theory not because I am a sadistic bastard but purely in the interests of increasing the pool of general human knowledge. “Has anyone here eaten rabbit?”, I asked.

Bit of background information may be required at this point. Rabbits are very uncommon in modern Japanese cooking, at least in any part of the country I have ever been to. However the rabbit is very common in Japan as a pet, and in particular every elementary school I taught at kept a hatch full of rabbits as school pets. I think my descriptions of rabbit stew earned eternal hatred from some of the students, their little eyes burning holes in my back while I wrote English vocabulary throughout the rest of the semester. To their protests I simply replied, “But they’re SO GOOD!” with what I hoped was an innocent and wide-eyed expression.

Talking to them about kangaroo kebabs I was met with incredulity. Introducing rabbit stew into the conversation earned me their revulsion, but they no longer doubted the veracity of my tales of kangaroo meat. At the point where I earned a certain amount of cred was when I would start talking about koala steaks.

Taking out the Trash

No seriously, it was hard.

Imagine one day suddenly deciding to move to another country. Now imagine that you have to do it as soon as possible because you aren’t completely sure you’ll be safe in the event of an escalation in a nuclear catastrophe. I did it in three days.
It was kind of like going to the toilet super drunk. You have a clear idea of your goals: get out of the country/relieve the pressure in your bladder. But then when you go about the task you discover that thinigs aren’t as simple as you expected – you have to jump through hoops to cancel your lease / you need to excersise your motor skills and get that fly undone. You see the toilet bowl, it’s right there, but now you have to do all this stuff to actually do it? Damn.

Now imagine you are in a country where the toilet system is unfamiliar to you and totally weird (which by the way traditional Japanese toilets are). You can’t ask anyone for help because it’s embarrassing and anyway you don’t speak the language perfectly. In the act of awkwardly pulling off your jeans and squatting over that alien toilet you are acutely aware that you may be doing it wrong, and offending all kinds of customs in the process of trying to achieve your goal. But your goal is important and there is significant time pressure. You have to be the sort of person who will sacrifice social niceties in order to get what you want. You have to be the sort of person who, in the event that you can’t actually figure out how to use this damn toilet, pee outside the bowl.

I did that – I did some things I really didn’t want to do and inconvenience some innocent Japanese people in order to leave the country as soon as possible. I left my employer in the lurch by cutting my contract. It was sad but I dumped our faithful bicycles in a public area, becuase there was no other way.

In Japan they have an idiotic trash seperation/collection system. Certain kinds of garbage must be sorted into categories and only certain kinds of garbage can be collected on specific days. Sounds good, you say? Sounds environmentally conscious or something? Well I say “idiotic” because while the Japanese are seemingly unanimous as to the importance of properly disposing of one’s own trash, when asked what the purpose of this strict system of categorisation and seperation is no one can offer an answer. Is it recycling? Who knows. Why are plastic bags sometimes considered “Burnable” trash? No answer can be given. People are very willing to talk self-righteously about the social responsibility of garbage disposal without actually knowing why. Not only this but since the collection days for garbage are set and you can only throw out your trash little by little over the course of a week, in a tiny Japanese apartment you are left with a significant pile of trash (often containing rotting foodstuffs) that you cannot throw out when you need to. If you do throw it out early then be prepared to face the anger of your neighbours. In our case because we lived in an apartment block filled with foreigners, we had regular problems with tenants not disposing of their garbage on the proper day and thus rotting garbage sat outside our block for days, sometimes strewn across the street. In the last couple of months in our stay we had a recurring problem where our bicycles were vandalised and the air in the tires were let out, the caps for the airtube stolen. This was almost certainly a neighbourhood retaliation for the garbage problem.

I am the sort of person who loathes inconveniencing strangers, especially if they are Japanese. Being half Japanese myself I know just enough about the culture to know how much i don’t know, and that I am in constant danger of committing a terrible disservice to those around me with my gaijin ways. For the most part the Japanese are extremely generous regarding foreigner faux pas but this doesn’t serve to make me feel any better about putting my foot in it.

Social Blunder

So it was with a great deal of nervousness that I discovered, given the time pressure, I could not PROPERLY dispose of certain articles of trash left in my apartment, one of them being an inconveniently long metal laundry pole. I’d been informed by my employer that if any trash was left in the apartment upon my leaving then the real estate company would charge large sums of money, hundreds of dollars, to dispose of it themselves – regardless of the size or the amount of trash. Considering we had already lost thousands in our desperate scramble to leave the country this was not something I could afford to have happen. I regarded the offending object with fear and hatred, and wracked my brain for an answer to the problem at hand. Dumping the bicycles was heartbreaking, but also physically easy: I rode them, one by one and on seperate days, to a bike parking lot and just left them there. Totally inconspicuous.

Totally inconspicuous.

Getting rid of this damn laundry pole on the other hand could land me in some significant trouble. I had no idea what the penalty was for dumping trash in Japan but considering The Law’s scarily draconian attitudes towards gaijin transgressors in the past, I didn’t want to risk being spotted and I kind of had no clue where an appropriate dumping ground would be anyway. I had to be careful about this. I had to be… smooth. That’s when I had this brilliant idea.

Ingrid and I had witnessed our next door neighbour fleeing the country a few days prior. His balcony was possibly within reaching distance from ours. They weren’t exactly real balconies: they were tiny cramped affairs specifically for housing the air conditioner and for hanging laundry, so I was sort of afraid the whole thing would collapse under my weight. When I dropped the pole with a loud CLANG I couldn’t hurry back inside: Since my weight on the balcony was a problem I had to escape veeeery sloooowly, and then I had to climb awkwardly back into the window. So that is what I did, in the freezing cold of a Japanese winter, trying to be as quiet as possible and hoping I wouldn’t be spotted, during a blackout in Omiya.


As I’m sure you’re all aware by now, Alan and I have fled Japan and are now safely back in Australia. So what happened?

On Monday 14th March (3 days after the earthquake), the trains were all down at Omiya station (which is the 3rd largest station in Japan, by the way, so that was a big deal in itself) so Alan and I couldn’t go to work. Instead, we stayed at home all day watching the Japanese news and reading the international news, and consulting with friends and family back in Australia. We were scared enough by the worsening situation at the nuclear reactors in Fukushima that we went to see our bosses to tell them we were leaving. I think the idea in our heads at the time was that we could escape back to Sydney for 2 or 3 weeks, and come back once the reactors were under control and things had calmed down a bit. With the option, of course, of not returning at all if the situation got out of control and dangerous.

I should explain here the way things stood with our jobs. At that time, there were only 2 weeks left of the school year, so classes were winding up anyway. After that, the students and teachers have a 2 week holiday before the new school year starts (on April 8th). So we could give Japan up to 4 weeks to prove to us that it was habitable. Predictably, our bosses did everything they could to try to convince us not to leave. They said we were far enough away not to be at risk no matter what happened, and that the situation at Fukushima was under control. They also said that if we left now we would lose their trust and most likely will not be welcome back. Alan and I took this all on board and, after a discussion over Ventrillo with some of our cannier friends back in Sydney we decided the risk wasn’t high enough yet to throw away everything we’d worked so hard to set up in Japan.

The next day was the graduation ceremony for my 3rd grade students. Ceremonies like this are a big deal in Japan. They had already spent a couple of days practising for it. For this reason, and because I knew it would be my very last chance the see my 3rd years, I made a big effort to get there, in spite of transport problems. But checking the news at work after the ceremony was over, I found out that reactor #2 had exploded. Reactors #1 and #3 had both had explosions over the weekend, but the reactor vessels were still intact so there was no radioactivity leak. But this time, there was a dramatic increase in radioactivity, indicating that the containment vessel had been breached.

Fortunately I had no classes for the rest of the day, so I spent the afternoon reading international news reports. This is when I read that radiation levels in Saitama (where I live and work) were now 40 times the normal level. Alan and I were on the phone to each other a lot while we were at work that day to keep up-to-date, and so I heard that his school had been sent an emergency safety notice from the Board of Education telling them that even though there was nothing to worry about, they should avoid letting the kids outside for the time being (!!!). His school was also receiving calls from panicked parents asking if they should come to pick up their kids. My school hadn’t heard anything along these lines (that I know of), so I told another teacher who then told the principal. He said it was an overreaction and our school wouldn’t do anything like that.

By this time, Alan and I had made our decision. He called our bosses and quit on the spot. I contacted our travel agent in Australia to get flights home ASAP. And then I only had half an hour to say a stealthy farewell (stealthy because I hadn’t told the principal yet) to the English teachers that I worked with.

That was really the worst. For one thing, they were all so incredibly surprised. They didn’t know that I had even been considering leaving, so it was really sudden. And I think they couldn’t really understand why I was leaving. I think the general feeling amongst the teachers at my school was that the problem was serious and terrible, but also far away and very unlikely to affect them. So I think they couldn’t really see the need for me to leave, and certainly not so suddenly. And of course, Japan is their home. So I think they felt that if something bad was going to happen, then it would just happen and there was nothing they could do about it. I guess I can understand that (although I would still consider taking a holiday to southern Japan if I was them), but I’m not Japanese. I had somewhere I could run to.

Alan ended up having to stay in Japan a couple of days longer than me because I had bought a return flight (for visa purposes) and only had to change the date, whereas he had to buy a ticket from scratch and it would have cost over $5000 (!) to get the same flight as me.

So we packed as much as we could into our luggage, posted a few boxes off to Australia, and (with heavy hearts) threw a whole lot of stuff in the dumpster. This was all the stuff that we didn’t love quite enough (like my work shoes that were a bit too big), bulky items (like our fold-out table and the futon) and stuff you can get back in Aus (like the iron). We also had to abandon our bicycles (T_T). Of course, we had known all along that we’d have to abandon all this stuff eventually, but we spent a lot of money setting ourselves up in Japan because we thought we’d be there for a couple of years. The investment is much less sensible when you’re only there for 6 months!

On top of these hassles, Alan had to take care of the mundane stuff like settling things with the utilities companies and cleaning the apartment for inspection. Of course, the real estate company we rented from charged us every fee they could think up (2 months rent plus cleaning – about 200,000 yen (more than $2000) all up).

The final time we went in to our company to tie up the loose ends they were generally pretty helpful (although one of the Americans that we had liked was clearly furious at us). They got me to write a letter to my teachers and another one to the students. I’m sure they will censor them though. I only alluded to my reason for leaving in my letter to the students, but the bosses might think even that is too much. After all, those kids have to stay in Saitama so they might freak out if they knew I was leaving because I didn’t think it was safe! I understand that, but I’m still sad to think that my students will think I left for no reason. Maybe they think I didn’t care enough to say goodbye 😦

My biggest regret about leaving the way we did is leaving my students, especially without a chance to say goodbye. A lot of them were really awesome. I was especially fond of my 2nd year students. Those classes were split in two so I only taught 20 students at a time, and consequently got to know the students pretty well. I hate to think that they might think they weren’t important to me, because they (especially my favourite students: Akashi, Ookahata, Morita, Hakuri, Yoshida, Sakai, Isobe, Sate and Sudo) were a big part of why I loved my time in Japan so much.

Anyway, that was that. I left the country only about 30 hours after we made the snap decision to flee. I don’t regret the decision to leave. We had said we would leave if things got worse, and they got worse. In fact in the week that followed, the situation got progressively worse and worse, and every moment I felt more justified in my decision. But at the time it wasn’t easy, particularly with all the Japanese people around us telling us we were being paranoid and overreacting.

I still feel pretty down when I think about everything we left behind. I can’t shake the feeling that I’ve lost something I can never get back. I had a really good relationship with each of my English teachers, and I still can’t believe I’ll never see most of them again. Saying goodbye to my two favourite teachers was distressing. In one case because he had tears in his eyes, and the other because the last expression I saw on his face was… I don’t know… disapproving? And I didn’t even get to say goodbye to Shimizu-sensei 😦

Anway, that’s the whole story. I’ll write later about what we’re thinking of doing next. But one way or another I’m pretty sure we’ll be going back to Japan in the future.

Crisis Continued


The Zombie Apocalypse would be more fun. At least that’s what computer games tell me!

So, we’re preparing for more earthquake craziness by getting together some canned food, bottled water, and putting it all into a bag with some clothes in case we have to dash out of the house in a hurry. That’s what we were doing over the weekend, but now we’re less worried about another earthquake and more worried about impending nuclear disaster.

It’s been a crazy up-and-down state of near panic for us. Information is difficult to come by and what we find out often seems to conflict other sources. For instance, when we first found of about the nuclear power plant it was through the Japanese media, and it SEEMED as if we didn’t have to worry about a meltdown for the time being, and only the poor people still within the 30 km evac radius had to be scared.

However even the English media sources don’t seem to be discussing the worst case scenario. Now what I mean by that is not “how the reactor will melt down”, but what this will mean for the populace. Looking into the Chernobyl disaster, 30 km is just not enough distance, and even where we are (about 200 km from the site) it seems as if we are still at risk of enough poisoning that it can cause thyroid cancer.

I called the Australian embassy in Tokyo last night, to find out what I could. They told me that according to their current information the radiation was adequately contained and there’s no official policy regarding getting Australians who are currently in Japan back home.

Feeling generally pretty weird about having to go into work today, business as usual, Ingrid and I got to the train station to discover that the trains weren’t running. Like, ALL of them, excepting the shinkansen. Hundreds of Japanese workers and students milling around with no place to go. We were advised to go home by our area managers and that is why I am typing away at home right now. There seems to be no information available as to why the trains aren’t running, which is worrying, but that may just be because we are foreigners and information is much harder for us to get, let alone understand. Or it may be because the power plant is about to melt down. Who can say!

I’m pretty pissed off about the lack of information being provided to citizens regarding an uncontained melt down scenario and the media in general, and I figure it’s because of wanting to reduce panic. There was a lukewarm 2 minute segment on one of the morning shows today about some advice regarding avoiding radiation poisoning. Seriously, is that it? If you’re saying anything about it at all it means it’s a distinct possibility. If it’s a distinct possibility then shouldn’t you be devoting more time to educating the citizens to ensure their health and safety, and not on endless repeated footage of the earthquake and touching human stories regarding survival and loss?

Ingrid and I are at the stage of seriously considering returning home. This is pretty complicated as it would mean breaking our contracts, and organising an intercontinental move on such short notice is going to be a massive pain in the arse. Still, would you prefer cancer? Tough choice!

The day after

Life has pretty much gone back to normal here in Omiya. Disturbingly so, actually. But walking around, Alan and I did notice a few interesting things…

Some guy fixing roof damage from the quake.

A lot of North-bound train lines are, obviously, not running.

Starbucks is closed!! WAT!! Lumine was closed too, and a few other evergreens around Omiya. ショック!

Looks like we're not the only ones who went straight to the supermarket to stock up on supplies. This is the cup ramen section.

This is the bread section. I guess delivery services were interrupted.

All of the empty spots used to have bottled water.

Apart from these things, life is going on pretty normally here. But Alan and I are feeling pretty nervous about the state of the nuclear power plants in Fukushima. We’re probably about 200 km away, but it’s still scary. Nuclear meltdowns aren’t nearly as funny as they seem in The Simpsons.

8.9 Earthquake

Today Japan was hit by the biggest earthquake it’s ever had. And I was there! (Thankfully not too close to the epicentre.) I was in Saitama, which is a prefecture just north of Tokyo. The earthquake we felt was magnitude 5.

I was teaching a class at the time. It started very small (small earthquakes are fairly common), but it got scary pretty quickly and we all dived under our desks. Some of the kids were scared, but actually a lot of them were laughing too, like it was a ride. Several of them shouted “New Zealand!” And several of them seemed to think the best way to ride out the quake was to comfort me! (I guess I must have looked pretty scared.)

After the tremors stopped, we evacuated into the schoolyard. I’ve seen them drill for this before and, as expected, they were very efficient. The principal told everyone that classes would resume for 6th period, but club activities were cancelled. He was starting to send students back inside and I headed in too since I was freezing (I’d had to rush out in only a cardigan and the outside temperature was about 6 degrees C).

And that was when the aftershock hit. It wasn’t as big, but this time I was stuck on my own so I was a bit panicky. But it didn’t last as long, and then it was straight back to the evacuation area for everyone. This time the principal just told everyone to go home.

In the meantime, our area had lost electricity. That was not a huge problem at school, although it meant we couldn’t easily find out what was going on since we couldn’t turn on a TV or a computer. But the worst effect of having no electricity was having no traffic lights. The streets were dangerous, but we had to send the kids home, so several teachers went out and directed traffic at the major intersections until the police turned up (an hour later).

Mobile services were down too (they’re still down at the time of writing), so no-one could call friends or family to check if they were OK.

And of course the trains had stopped. Most teachers and students live withing walking distance so they were fine, but I live further away. It takes me about 45 minutes by train to get home – too far to walk easily. Thankfully another teacher was driving in that direction and offered me a lift. She was pretty worried because her two daughters were stranded in Tokyo, where they go to school, and she had no way to contact them.

On the way home, we saw several fire trucks, ambulances and police cars. We also saw a fire in the distance. And we could still feel significant tremors when the car stopped. Six hours later, we’re still getting decent-sized tremors every 20 minutes or so.

She dropped me off at Omiya station, near my home. The station was packed, with lots of people sitting on the ground, preparing for a long wait. And since landline phone services were working, there were enormous queues for the public phones.

Now we’re just watching the TV to see what kind of damage the tsunami did, and watching the death toll climb. Surreal.

This is what the queue is like for the public phone when no-one can get home and no-one can use their mobile.

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