4th Anniversary of 311

Today marks the fourth anniversary of the devastating earthquake, tsunami, and subsequent nuclear meltdown that ravaged northeastern Japan. I spent the night listening to speakers — Japanese and American — discuss the situation in Tohoku and the current state of recovery efforts. More to come about that discussion, but for now, here are few things you can consider doing to help the people of Tohoku — many of whom are still living in temporary housing and who remain grieving for all that was lost four years ago.

Donate to the Taylor Anderson Memorial Fund — Anderson was one of two American English teachers who lost their lives in the tsunami. Her family has been very active in keeping her spirit and love of Japan alive through this memorial fund, which promotes education and cultural exchange between America and the Tohoku region.

Read about the Situation — This Al Jazeera America piece that came across my newsfeed today really resonated with me. Fukushima Victims Speak. Will anyone listen?  

Visit Tohoku — Definitely one of my next stops when I have a chance to go back to Japan.

Check out the 113 Project — I was lucky enough tonight to catch a sneak peak of some of the stories that will be shared with this project, which aims to “reclaim Tohoku,” promote tourism in the area, and tell the stories of Tohoku residents. Last summer, I profiled the team involved in the project for Japan Today.

2014: A Photo Essay

Per my annual tradition, here are twelve photos representing my 2014. Although it was wonderful to be closer to family, it feels strange not to include a single photo from Japan. Unlike in previous years, all photos below were taken in the Chicago area.

In 2015, I plan finish my “Transition Japan” series to focus on more narrative non-fiction stories. Happy New Year everyone, and may 2015 bring you much joy! 明けましておめでとうございます。


The Adler Planetarium and a frozen Lake Michigan on a frigid January afternoon. Winter 2014 in Chicago was dubbed “Chiberia” by many.


Ice covering the Chicago river in February 2014.
Ice covering the Chicago river in February 2014.


Runners finishing the Shamrock Shuffle, the world's largest 8K race, in March 2014.
Runners finishing the Shamrock Shuffle, the world’s largest 8K race, in March 2014. The city finally thawed.


I love seeing Chicago's skyline from various views throughout the city. This was taken near the intersection of Chicago & Halsted.
I love seeing Chicago’s skyline from various spots throughout the city. This was taken near the intersection of Chicago & Halsted.


Runners gathering on the steps of Soldier Field before the Solider Field 10 Mile race.
Runners gathering on the steps of Soldier Field before the Solider Field 10 Mile race, where participants finish on the 50-yard line.


Chicago's brutally cold winter of 2014 caused an unusually thick amount of fog in the spring and early summer.
Chicago’s brutally cold winter of 2014 caused an unusually thick amount of fog in the spring and early summer.


Michigan Avenue & Wacker Drive, Chicago, July 4, 2014.
Michigan Avenue & Wacker Drive, Chicago, July 4, 2014.


I walked around Northwestern’s campus for the first time in nearly five years and visited Evanston’s Grosse Pointe Lighthouse, which was built in 1873.


I visited Ernest Hemingway’s childhood home in Oak Park for the first time. Our guide gave an animated and informative tour of the house and Hemingway’s early life. “But man is not made for defeat. A man can be destroyed but not defeated. ” – Ernest Hemingway, “The Old Man and the Sea”


October in Chicago brings the famed Chicago Marathon. Before volunteering at the after party, I cheered on some of the top runners. Here, Kenyan runner Rita Jeptoo brings in her famous kick to finish first in the women’s division. Unfortunately, she later tested positive for a banned sports enhancer substance.


I climbed the Willis Tower (103 flights of stairs, 2,109 steps) in support of the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (SkyRise charity event). Upon finishing, I could see for miles and miles on this crisp fall day.


Two American heroes—Hank Rossetti and Al Mampre—who were combat medics in the 501st and 506th Airborne Infantry Regiments in WWII. I met them courtesy of WWII historian, author, and 101st Airborne expert Mark Bando, at his annual Trigger Time 101st Airborne dinner in Arlington Heights, IL.

Transition Japan: Your First Few Months in Japan

Backdated from October

Note: This is the fourth essay in a series about moving to Japan, specifically for those going to Japan with the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program. See part one here, part two here, and part three here.

Gomen! ごめん!

It’s been a long time since I’ve had a chance to blog.

Although my first goal was to write about your first few weeks in Japan on the JET Program, with November here and winter just around the corner, it now makes more sense to write about your first few months in Japan. Below are a few suggestions to keep you focused as winter rolls through and likely forces you to consider why you came to Japan in the first place.

1. Continue to Study Japanese —  I had zero Japanese knowledge before going to Japan on the JET Program, and though I left Japan by no means an expert in the language at all, I learned the most about Japanese culture when I studied the language and began to understand parts of conversations I overheard. I wish I had been more diligent about studying grammar and kanji — unfortunately, this is an all-too common regret among JETs. I think it’s safe to say few have uttered, “Boy, I wish I knew less Japanese and hadn’t studied so much!”

Tips: If you’re not interested in the JET books (I wasn’t after briefly trying), search for the Genki Japanese series. Also, find a Japanese tutor. My first Japanese teacher, who was a volunteer at the local city hall in the town next to mine, became a good friend who I hope to see again when I visit Japan.

2. Get Out of Your Comfort Zone — By now, your so called “honeymoon” period in Japan is over and you may be beginning to peal back the thick, mysterious layer of Japanese society and seeing its imperfections. This can cause culture shock and homesickness, but a great way to see Japan (and yourself) in a new light is to pick up a new hobby and try something new. Your options may be somewhat limited with a language barrier, but among the things I had never tried before that I did in Japan include: photography, helping write a play, climbing a large mountain, running a 5K and 10K race, and modeling!

Tips: Pick a new hobby. Mine became running. I have continued with it since leaving Japan and just completed my first half-marathon.

3. Invest in Becoming a Better Teacher — JET gives us the wonderful opportunity for self-discovery (see number 2) and learning about another culture. However, we were also selected to work hard and hopefully become role models for our students. Teaching is hard work and takes a lot of practice, as well as trial and error. Even if you will not become a teacher when you leave Japan, investing in your ability to at least try and become a better educator will benefit not only your students, but also your professional capabilities and likely gain you more respect among your co-workers.

Tips: Sign up for a TESOL certification course online, or take free courses in education at Coursera.

4. Think About Your Goals — Living in the moment is a wonderful thing that I wish I could do more. However, so is the ability to have a clear idea of what one wants for his/her life. I’m still trying to figure this one out, but holding off on decisions will only catch up to you.

Tips: Start making a list of small goals that you wish to achieve; write them down and create a larger goal as soon as you accomplish a smaller goal.

5. Immerse Yourself — Whether you’re staying in Japan for one year or five, your time in Japan is fleeting (unless you plan to say forever). As much as I sometimes missed America during my time abroad, I now miss many parts of Japan, as if part of my Japanese identity has been somehow intertwined there and remains in me even as I continue to readjust to American culture.

Tips: Get out and open your eyes.

Next in Transition in Japan: Your re-contracting decision!

Transition Japan: Packing for Japan (Part Three)

This is the third essay in a series about moving to Japan, specifically for those going to Japan with the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program. See part one here and part two here.

When thinking about my three years in Japan, the most stressful times for me didn’t usually involve acclimating to Japanese culture but rather moving — both within Japan and back to America. It’s not something I wish to do ever again.  However, to make your transition a bit easier, below are some brief tips about what to pack (and what not to pack) before you leave for Japan, as well as other general tips about your last weeks before departure. Next in Transition Japan: Your First Week in Japan.


I was allowed to bring two large suitcases under a certain weight and a personal item.  Check with your local JET Program Coordinator and they should be able to answer specific questions about weight requirements, restrictions, etc. It was nearly impossible for me to fit everything I wanted to within these restrictions, but with a little planning, it shouldn’t be too much of a problem.

What to Bring

  • A careful selection of clothes. The first part of Japan I lived in — Namerikawa-shi, Toyama-ken —had similar weather to Chicago, though a bit milder.  This meant I was prepared for hot summers and brutally long winters.  Japan’s climate can vary greatly per location, so do your research before packing your parka, or your swimsuit.  Your work clothes will most likely be most important when you first arrive since you’ll want to make a good impression, so decide on a few basic conservative work outfits to get you through your first week.  Focus first on summer items, as it will likely be very hot and humid anywhere in Japan.  My parents kindly sent me a package of my winter clothes as it got colder.  Some JETs went home for winter vacation and could bring back more clothes then, too.  Also, keep in mind that your ability to buy clothes in Japan will depend on your height, body type, shoe size, budget, etc., so just plan ahead and ask a lot of questions to your predecessor about what is available to you if you’re worried.
  • Two to three pairs of shoes, including new ones that will be your “indoor shoes.” Again, prioritize work shoes, and designate a new pair of shoes as your “indoor shoes,” as you will have to change into these before entering your school. I bought a pair of black TOMS shoes as my indoor school shoes, and they worked well for me for three years. I’m a runner, so my running shoes also made the list.
  • Enough underwear/undergarments to last you at least one week. I could only do laundry about once a week, and you’ll very likely live in an apartment without a dryer, so that means hanging your clothes to dry (not fun in the winter and during the rainy season). As a general rule, bring enough undergarments to last you at least a seven-day cycle, and budget on having at least a five-day work outfit routine that you can rely on.
  • Deodorant — I had a hard time finding American brands, so I do recommend bringing about two sticks of your favorite brand.
  • Start-up Money — The amount  of money you need in your first month varies greatly depending on your location and when your first rent money is due. Budget to bring about $2,000 in start-up money if possible, though working with less is possible if you live in a smaller town.

What to Leave Behind

  • Umbrellas (I broke so many in Japan, and you can buy one on almost every corner)
  • Soap, shampoo, toothpaste, contact solution, and other general toiletries. All of this can be found easily, unless you’re attached to a certain brand. There’s some skepticism if Japanese toothpaste has Fluoride in it, but I could find Aquafresh with ease. Bring a travel size of your favorite brand if you’re really concerned.
  • Towels. You’ll be able to buy this all in Japan cheaply and conveniently. However, bringing one towel for your first night in your apartment is a good idea.
  • Packaged food, unless you’re seriously addicted to some specific snack. I could find almost anything I wanted in Japanese supermarkets, and there’s always the Foreign Buyers’ Club if you’re really craving something.
  • Books — I think it’s definitely OK to bring one for the plane ride and your first weeks, but I don’t suggest stacking up on them. Rather, you can use Amazon.co.jp, your new JET friends (often there will be a local library within your JET community), or if you can afford it, invest in a Kindle or iPad. This will be much more economical, especially if you plan to stay in Japan for more than a year.
  • Teaching Materials — There will be books you can buy at orientation if you really think you need them, but in general, your best resources will be your fellow JETs who have experience teaching, websites, and your school.
  • For the ladies, feminine napkins should be easy to find, though I do suggest bringing a few boxes of your favorite brand of tampons.

Specific Requirements

Become friends with your JET Coordinator, who should be very knowledge and will likely be sending you a lot of e-mails about specific requirements you need to take care of before you leave, including your visa application, background check, and health check.

Saying Goodbye

Don’t try to squeeze a goodbye in for everyone you know. This will only give you a giant headache and you’ll likely leave someone unintentionally out.  I spent my last few weeks in Chicago with close family members, who organized a nice barbeque for me about one week before I left. You’ll always have access to e-mail and Skype for those who you can’t see but want keep in touch with.

Websites to Get You Ready

Surviving in Japan (Without Much Japanese)

This Japanese Life


Genki English

Dream English Kids (good if you’re teaching elementary school students)

English-4 Kids

ESL Cafe

Your Local JET Chapter Website (for an example, see Toyama JET’s website here)

Am I forgetting something important? Write in the comments below and I’ll do my best to respond promptly.