Shakotan Blue Available Now

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At long last, Shakotan Blue is officially published! Head on over to or Amazon to order your copy of the ultimate Japan travel guide/memoir. Makes a great gift for anyone interested in Japan, especially those considering teaching English in Japanese schools.

And thanks for reading!

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The 5 Biggest Misconceptions about Japan

To celebrate the upcoming publication of my book, Shakotan Blue, I wanted to share an interesting tidbit of what I learned during my time in Japan. Even for a Japan Studies major like myself, there were many misconceptions about Japan that persisted in my thinking until I actually came to live in the country. So let’s recap the five biggest notions about Japan that I have learned just aren’t true.

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1. Japan Is Not So High-Tech

After rising to economic dominance with companies like Sony, Panasonic, and Toshiba, Japan has certainly become synonymous with cutting-edge technology. One of my college history professors even said, “If you want to see the future, go to East Asia.” The idea being that technology was advancing so rapidly in Japan, China, and South Korea that visiting those countries was like traveling forward in time. Well, I’m been to the future, and you know what? Outside of Akihabara in Tokyo, Japan isn’t all that futuristic.

Don’t get me wrong: Japan has the most technologically advanced toilet seats in the world, for sure. The rail systems are top-notch. And modern Japanese home appliances are always compact and energy efficient. But that doesn’t mean Japan feels like technological dreamland. A well-engineered rice cooker is nice, but it’s not exactly on par with the robots I had been promised.

In some areas of life, Japan almost seems resistant to adopting conveniences that we take for granted in the US. Bill paying in Japan for instance, is not particularly advanced. You can pay your electric bill or purchase concert tickets at your local convenience store. You know why? Because Japan is primarily a cash-only society and you can’t always use your debit card make those transactions online. While it appears convenient to pay for these things at the 7-Eleven, it’s really not when you consider that Internet makes the entire system irrelevant. Existing communication technology is largely not utilized.

And even though Japan is largely cash-only, ATMs are only open for specific hours of the day. Why?! Who could have possibly thought that was a good idea? Technologically advanced or not, Japan is transactionally challenged.

But that’s not all. Every household I visited in Japan had a fax machine. All businesses still insist on maintaining paper records for absolutely everything. Flip-phones with outdated features have dominated Japan’s cellular market since the days of antiquity, and Apple’s iPhone has only begun to make a dent in recent years.

The thing is, it’s not technology that defines modern Japan, but tradition.

As Japan’s population ages, the country appears more and more resistant to new consumer technology. Like a cranky grandfather who can’t be bothered to learn how to use his email, there might be a large swath of the population who prefers the old and familiar to the new and innovative.

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2. Japan Is Not So Weird

Not by a long shot

In the west, Japan has the reputation of being outlandish, kooky place; loud, colorful, and frenetic, like a teenybopper’s fever dream. Through wildly creative animation and video games, the island nation has solidified its place in the global zeitgeist as a Nerd Mecca. But beyond the bubblegum pop, the dissemination of crazy prank videos from Japanese TV and truly bizarre urban myths have added a mildly disturbing underside to the country’s kooky image.

This may come as a surprise, but Japan is not nearly as incomprehensible as you’ve been led to believe. In fact, overall Japan is a rather conservative place. Remember that thing I said about tradition in the last section?

Out of context, the aberrant gets misconstrued as the norm. Videos of weird pranks and gross-out humor posted online as examples of bizarre Japanese traditions are almost always gags from comedy programs. It’s like if someone in Japan used Saturday Night Live skits as an example of how bizarre American political values are. It’s not representative of the country; it’s literally a joke. If you see an outrageous video from Japan and it strikes you as truly deviant, you can be fairly certain that the vast majority of Japanese people will have the exact same reaction.

It doesn’t make for good headlines, but the fact of the matter is that life in Japan is fairly ordinary. There certainly are differences between Japan and the US—especially the esoteric cultural nuances you would have never known of, had you not read my book—but if you come to Japan expecting the perplexing and ridiculous highlights you’ve seen online, you might be disappointed by how normal everything is.

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3. Silly Otaku, Anime is for Kids!

Speaking of Japan as a Nerd Mecca, I have some bad news for anyone whose interest in Japanese culture is based entirely on an appreciation of anime. Sorry dudes, but even in Japan, cartoons are primary made for kids. Animated cinema carries about the same level of mainstream respectability in Japan as it does in the US.

Manga reading is far more prevalent in Japan, as comic books are produced in just about every genre you can think of. But that doesn’t mean the entire country is really into comic book superheroes. It means that there is an infinite amount of manga in genres that you would find completely boring. If a popular manga can be made into a live-action movie or TV series, the producers will likely go that route. Generally it’s only when the audience is considered to be teens or younger that the concept gets animated.

Just look at the Pokémon cartoon series. See how childish and silly it is? The audience they’re aiming for is very young, and that’s the audience the majority anime series aim for. And sure, there are some exceptions, but they are few. In general, a “mature” anime audience means teenagers.

Japan is not exactly a nerd utopia. The country does not embrace nerd culture any more than the US does. On the contrary, Japan is almost certainly a less hospitable place for niche subcultures. While some anime enthusiasts in the US call themselves “otaku” as badge of honor, the word remains an insult reserved for outcasts in Japan. You really don’t want to be labeled as an otaku.

Sakamoto Ryoma. Image courtesy of

4. Japan’s Citizens Are More Individualistic Than You Think

More so than most other nations, Japan is viewed from the outside—and often from within—as a very homogeneous country. Japanese society certainly encourages blending in with the crowd, values modesty over audacity, and emphasizes loyalty to the group above one’s personal desires. The image of the Japanese people as a united front is pervasive.

The unfortunate result of this constructed image is that many people outside Japan tend to assume that the outward conformity is representative of an internal conformity shared by all Japanese people. Those who generalize tend to assume that Japanese people are less individualistic than people in the west. And that’s simply not true.

The Japanese friends I’ve made throughout my journey not only hold a great diversity of opinions, political attitudes, and tastes, but they are at least as individualistic as their western counterparts—maybe more so! It’s just not as immediately apparent because they generally aren’t very vocal about it.

Plenty people in Japan won’t be too quick to share their honest opinions with you. Again, modesty is highly valued. But just because someone doesn’t share their opinions easily doesn’t mean they don’t have one.

The people who felt comfortable discussing politics with me revealed an incredible diversity of opinion. While I expected most folks to lean conservative, the views they shared fell all over on the political spectrum, and many surprised me with their nuanced stances across multiple divisive issues. Far from subscribing to one preconceived agenda, all my Japanese friends proved to be more individualistic that I would have assumed.

Classic Chris Farley SNL skit. Image from Imgur.

5. Learning to Speak Japanese Isn’t Really That Hard

(It’s reading and writing that’s impossible)

Japanese is a cool language, the one that I had always wanted to learn. But learning it outside of Japan can be very challenging. It’s so completely different than English and not widely spoken in the US, meaning that my opportunities to practice were few and far between. And that’s what you need to learn a language like Japanese, practice. Tons and tons of practice.

I studied Japanese in college and, despite my great enthusiasm, I came out of school unable to hold a real conversation. I memorized loads of vocabulary, grammatical structures, and at least a couple hundred kanji, but my brain was never able to access this information quickly enough for me to utilize it. All my study proved futile, useless.

But why?

When you switch from speaking English to Japanese, your brain has to “change gears”, so to speak. The part of the brain that handles language is like a muscle; you have to exercise it to keep it fit. You have to use it or lose it. When we study in school, the part of the brain that commits all the vocabulary and grammar to memory doesn’t necessarily connect that information to actionable language part. Study all you want, but without putting things into practice—as in actually speaking the language—you won’t build the language skills you need.

So how does one really learn Japanese?

You have to engage in actual conversations. You have to listen and you have to speak. Talk with as many different people as possible, different ages, different jobs, ideally people from different regions. You have to force your brain to shift into Japanese-mode and build an understanding of the language that can be rapidly accessed without even thinking about it. That’s the only way to practice.

The catch is, to learn as quickly and thoroughly as possible, you need to go to Japan. You need to immerse yourself in the culture, to surround yourself with Japanese words, spoken and written. You need to make English the language that must be sought, and Japanese the default speech of day-to-day life. You need to go to Japan.

Whatever your current skill level, however much you know: start there. Fake it ‘til you make it. Seriously. Practice speaking is the only way to learn to speak. Go to Japan and speak the language everyday.

And please note, while I said that learning to speak Japanese isn’t really that hard, I didn’t say that learning to read and write Japanese is so easy. Thanks to the seemingly infinite number of kanji used in Japanese text, reading and writing competency is a far, far more daunting goal than speaking.

Learning new kanji is just plain difficult. Still, the more conversational experience you acquire, the more vocabulary you will learn. The larger your vocabulary, the easier it will be to learn new kanji, and vice versa. So even if you want to master reading and writing, you still need to go to Japan.

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Badass Japanese Vocabulary T-shirts

Have you enjoyed our Speaking Japanese Like a Badass articles? Well, now you can get the t-shirt! With the upcoming release of the book Shakotan Blue, we’re celebrating by making wearable versions of your favorite Japanese vocabulary words and phrases. Check out the images below and leave a comment to let us know if there’s another dictionary entry you’d like to see on a t-shirt.

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Shakotan Blue available for Pre-Order

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Shakotan Blue is almost here! If you’ve enjoyed this blog, you’re going to love the book. Pre-order your copy early and get a discount of 15% off the regular price.

Order Shakotan Blue Here

The first run will ship November, 2015. Last day of pre-orders: August 31st.

Check out for more details. And thanks for reading!

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Coming Soon…The Book

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If you’ve enjoyed the true stories of life in rural Japan featured on this blog, then I have a treat for you. I’ve written a book!

Titled Shakotan Blue, the book will soon be released through Ahmnition. It catalogs the most popular content from this blog–all the humorous anecdotes and helpful insights on Japanese culture–along with some new tales that never made it online.

Shakotan Blue front_cover

Check out for more details.

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Speaking Japanese like a Badass Vol.2

Are you running out of cool Japanese expressions that make you sound totally badass? Then it’s time to add to your verbal arsenal with another round of ‘Speaking Japanese Like a Badass’. Again, I’ll assume that you’ve already begun your linguistic journey with the barebones basics. At the very least, everybody who comes to Japan needs to know arigatō (もありがとう – thank you) and sumimasen (すみません – excuse me), and I’m going to assume you know basic grammar as well. Plus, you’ve obviously read the first ‘Speaking Japanese Like a Badass’, so I’ll try not to repeat myself.

Shōganai (仕様が無い) – “It can’t be helped”

When I first arrived in Japan, the trainers with my company taught this phrase to all new teachers on day one. (Perhaps I should have recognized that as a bad omen.) Literally meaning “there is no way”, shōganai (仕様が無い) is an infinitely useful phrase to express that something is inevitable, nothing can be done, or the situation can’t be helped. It is the ultimate expression of accepting an unpleasant reality, of reinforcing the status quo, of acknowledging one’s helpless to change anything. In many ways, it is the most Japanese expression of all.

And this expression can be used for all matter of no-win situations, from the very serious, to the very trivial. It’s raining today? Shōganai. We’re all going to die someday? Shōganai. Your job’s being transferred to another city? Shōganai. All your students failed their English exam? Well, nothing we can do about it now. Shōganai. The potential uses of this phrase go on and on and on.

Kankeinai (関係ない) – “That’s not it”

Sometimes in conversation a badass needs to express that the discussion has veered off topic, or simply that someone is focusing on the wrong thing. If you find yourself in that position, the dismissive phrase you’re looking for is kankeinai (関係ない). Literally meaning, “there’s no connection”, kankeinai is a succinct way to say, “that has nothing to do with it” or “that doesn’t matter”. Depending on its usage, this flexible phrase can be interpreted as “I don’t care about that” or “that doesn’t concern me”. Be careful not to overuse this phrase, lest you sound like a jerk.

Shinmai (新米) – “Novice”

When one first arrives in Japan, it goes without saying that there will be many things with which they are unfamiliar. For this reason, it’s good to be able to express when you are new to particular activity. To express your inexperience, use the word shinmai (新米). While the literal translation of shinmai is “new rice”, the term is used to mean “beginner, newcomer, novice”. The closest English equivalent would be calling someone “green” for their lack of experience in a specific field. Once you’re a hardened pro, you can use this term to single out newbies who have yet to reach your level of mastery.

Guchagucha (ぐちゃぐちゃ) – “Messy, Sloppy”

Japan is known for emphasizing cleanliness, organization, and order. So how does one express that something is not so neat and tidy? The answer is a fun little onomatopoeia, pronounced guchagucha (ぐちゃぐちゃ). This term means “messy, sloppy, untidy” and can refer to everything from a cluttered desk or mussed up hair, to muddy boots and paint-splattered overalls. For a non-native person living in Japan, this term becomes a necessity.

Manzoku (満足) – “Satisfaction, Sufficient”

It’s good to know when you’ve done very well, but sometimes it’s even more important to know you’ve merely done well enough. In these situations, it’s good to know the word manzoku (満足), meaning, “satisfactory” or “sufficient”. This term can be used to express deep satisfaction, like someone being contented with their life or satisfied in their work, to more mundane usage, like when you fill out required paperwork sufficiently. Manzoku ga iku (満足が行く) is the full phrase meaning “to be satisfied”, while manzokukan (満足感) refers to the feeling of satisfaction.

More Kotowaza (諺) for Badasses

Here are a few more Japanese proverbs. In case someone uses one of these idioms in conversation, or you find yourself in the opportune moment to use one yourself, these phrases will make you sound like a badass.

Ashita yaro bakayarō. (明日やろばかやろう。) This fun rhyming phrase means “doing it tomorrow makes you an idiot”. But a more fitting translation would be “procrastination is masturbation”.

Ashita ha ashita no kaze ga fuku. (明日は明日の風が吹く。) The opposite notion of the last phrase, this saying means, “tomorrow’s wind blows tomorrow”. This is a laidback way to express that tomorrow will take care of itself.

Asu no koto wo ieba oni ga warau. (明日の事を言えば鬼が笑う。) Keeping to phrases about tomorrow, this maxim literally means, “Talking about the future makes demons laugh”. I’ve seen this translated a bit dramatically as, “Nobody knows the morrow.”

Asu no hyaku yori kyō no gojū. (明日の百より今日の五十。) This phrase translates to “fifty today is better than a hundred tomorrow”. As the English equivalent goes, “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush”, it is better to have a small but certain advantage now than the mere potential of a greater one later.

Hana yori dango (花より団子) – “Dumplings rather than flowers.” This is a saying for people who are more interested in the practical rather than the aesthetic. At least you can eat the dumplings.

Gojuppo hyappo (五十歩百歩) – “50 steps, 100 steps.” Much like the English phrase “six of one and a half dozen of the other”, this saying indicates a scant difference between two compared things.

Kyuukanbi (休肝日)– “Liver’s Day Off”

As I’m sure you are aware, Japan has a healthy love of drinking. Japan loves drinking so much, in fact, that whether it is healthy or not is up for debate. But it is from this drinking culture that we get a fun vocabulary word that everyone should have in their arsenal: kyuukanbi (休肝日). Kyuukanbi is a day where one abstains from alcohol, a term that literally means “liver rest day”. This word can be used anytime you would rather not drink, but you don’t want to give the impression that you never drink. Perhaps you really overdid the previous night and the thought of imbibing alcohol at present is distinctly unappealing, but you might be down for a beer tomorrow. In cases like this, just whip out kyuukanbi and everyone will be on the same page.


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Amazing Hokkaido Snow


Having grown up in the Midwest, I’ve seen my fair share of bitter cold blizzards. And although the drizzly Seattle life might have made me soft, I still hadn’t been too worried by the stories of Hokkaido’s unrelenting winters. After changing a tire on the side of the highway in Iowa, in January, with no gloves, nothing seems quite so bad. And yet, Hokkaido’s winter still amazed me. It would seem that all the tall tales about Hokkaido and its intense snowy climate were quite accurate…

013My first winter in Hokkaido, the snows started in mid-November, and they never stopped. All the way through March, it snowed—with varying intensity—every day. Often times this was just a light dusting. Occasionally it was several inches. Shoveling snow became a regular afternoon activity for me, my new winter workout regimen. The accumulated snow piled up, forming hefty white blankets on rooftops, sometimes over a meter thick. Mountainous piles of snow collected on the sides of roadways, eventually forming walls boardering all pathways; shining white barricades that wouldn’t exist come summertime.

020The first time I chose to walk to school was a crisp winter day. While frosty cold, the air was still, and it felt peaceful. The snow crunching underfoot was especially satisfying. By the time of my afternoon walk back, the sun had come out and the radiant light bouncing off the snow was initially blinding. Once my eyes adjusted, the brilliant colors adorning buildings and signs really popped out; a marked contrast to the vast white cover. Elementary school kids approached me, asking me to participate in a yukigassen (雪合戦), which I quickly learned meant “snowball fight”. They also taught me the words yukidama (雪玉 – snowball) and tsurara (氷柱 – icicle), and I attempted to teach them the English equivalents.

001My second winter in Hokkaido, the snow and the temperature started out much less consistent. And with this inconsistency came turbulent, harsh weather. Whenever the snow hit, Old Man Winter made up for lost time. After a few days of no precipitation—and possibly above-zero, snow melting conditions—the ensuing blizzard would arrive and bury Shakotan. Afternoons might be rather warm and slushy, but by 5:00pm, it was frigid driving wind and heavy snow. Waking up to a foot and a half of fresh snow in the morning was fairly routine.

022So often was I digging out my car in the morning that I stopped bothering to clear off the collected snow from the top of the vehicle. My little Suzuki Wagon R appeared to be wearing its own white beret, a decorative snow hat. This usually made no impact on in-town driving, so I figured it was a harmless habit. On the open road, however, I learned that it wasn’t very safe at all. In the 30 minutes it would take to drive from Shakotan to Yoichi, the car would warm up considerably, and the snow atop the roof would begin to melt just a bit. Then it would only take a slight touch of the brake to bring the whole lot of it cascading over my windshield. The thick blanket was often so dense and heavy that the windshield wipers weren’t powerful enough to move it and they would be pinned down. Becoming suddenly blinded while driving is never fun, but having to pull over to remedy the situation makes it considerably worse.

005Despite my spotty driving record, I managed to make it through my two years in Japan without getting in any vehicular accidents. In fact, even with the long distances I drove during the wintertime, I never got my car stuck in the snow, not once. I kept a snow shovel in my car at all times, just in case, but I never had the trouble. My little K-Car, or kei-jidōsha (軽自動車), handled exceptionally well on snow and ice. Whether this was due to the vehicle’s lightweight, excellent snow tires, or a combination of the two, I’m not sure. Only three times in two years did my car go into a real skid, of the “life flashing before my eyes” variety. And each time I was able to bring the car back under control, right course, and avoid flying off the road. The worst skid Snow pics 008had me sliding at a 90° angle, going 65kph or so, but even then I managed to correct that one just in time to avoid oncoming traffic.

When winter strikes, the Shakotan locals are well-equipped to handle whatever nature threw at them, and the heavy equipment would come out to clear the roads. The snow would be dealt with via bulldozers, excavators, dump trucks, and even loader-mounted snow blowers—which look like terrifying snow threshers, with gigantic rotating blades at the fore for devouring massive corridors of snow.

012Occasionally, the accumulated snow would slide off a rooftop and come crashing down to the ground. This is honestly my favorite part of the Hokkaido winter. There is something mesmerizing about watching a great sheet of snow cascade off a rooftop, an instant sea of heavy white powder rush forward and plummet like a semi-frozen waterfall. If the avalanche is large enough, you can hear it too. Many times I would hear a massive crash from my apartment, a brief roar and then silence; Hokkaido’s winter thunder.

003The rooftop avalanches can be legitimately dangerous if you’re standing underneath them, claiming a few lives every winter. Tall buildings in Sapporo even have signed displayed on the sidewalks saying, “Beware of falling snow” in Japanese, and often also English. As a result of these conditions, people end up needing to shovel their roofs. If the snow piles up too high, it can cause your home’s roof to cave in, so it needs to be cleared away. People will climb up to the rooftops and shovel away, being very careful where they step. This is straightforward task for people with flat rooftops, but an A-frame home looks quite challenging. I’ve seen lots of people do this, even some elderly folks. You really must remain able-bodied to survive in Hokkaido.

The building neighboring my apartment had a slick-looking slanted rooftop. Wooden crossbeams were mounted across the roof to allow for people to climb up and clear the snow off. During the first winter, I came home while this shoveling was in progress and chatted with the workers from just outside my second-story door. During the second winter, the snow piled up like usual, but no one ever came to clear it away. I kind of figured that it would probably just melt down and crumble away on its own, but that was a poor assumption.

006One March afternoon, when temperatures were above freezing and the weather had turned rainy, I returned to my apartment to discover that the snow from the building next door had cleared itself away. Apparently the wooden crossbeams had given way under 001the massive weight of the accumulated snow and the whole the lot of it had come down. The resulting avalanche crashed into my building with enough force to bust through the wall, driving snow inside the unit below mine, and presumably ruining my neighbor’s day. The damage was so bad that my neighbor was forced to relocate and a crew was brought in the next day to clear away snow and board up the destroyed wall. My room was just fine.

The structure on the opposite side of the slick-roofed building was also affected by the avalanche. An old wooden warehouse that didn’t look very sturdy to begin with, this building actually had large braces erected on one side to keep it from falling over. Time had taken its toll on the debilitated shack, but it was still standing. Thanks to the heavy snow crashing into its side however, it was now leaning steeply to one side. Amazingly, while the new angle of the house had turned the rectangular window frames into rhomboids, the glass hadn’t broken.


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