Teaching Tokyo

Teaching Tokyo

A sober-suited businessman walks through Yoygoi Park.

I watch him go by – black tie, dark suit and briefcase – hand in hand with his wife. He is conducting a serious and seemingly very important conversation. His face furrowed with concern.

His wife is resplendent in a pink panda costume.

I am in Tokyo.


Having taught in Europe, I was keen to move to Japan. To take my teaching East.

Tokyo has traditionally been the mecca for the itinerant Teaching English as a Foreign Language teacher. And, while the main draw for TEFL teachers may have now moved closer to actual Mecca (the big pay days offered by Middle Eastern countries compensating for months on a campus stuck only with the other teachers, sealed off from the rest of the city, brewing moonshine in a bath), Tokyo still offers much…

Simply, it offers the impossibly alluring chance of being submerged in a new world. A world of incomprehensible language, indecipherable alphabet, inscrutable customs, intoxicating ways of life.

And what’s more, get paid for it.



I was ready for the clichés. And they do exist, just as you’ve heard but don’t really believe to be true.

There is a man in a uniform and peaked hat whose job it is to push you onto the crowded trains with his white gloved hands. There are vending machines everywhere that sell you everything from hot chicken to ‘supposedly’ used ladies’ knickers. Each diner’s slurped ramen meals in the inumerable noodle bars are accompanied by the worst, most ferine sounds. You do see people going about their day-to-day business dressed as characters from Manga cartoons or Alice in Wonderland.

But just because you’re prepared for it, is not to say that all the kookiness and all the cultural differences don’t still have the ability to confund.

One evening, I was travelling home from my teaching classes, late on the less crowded metro…

(One thing I noticed with surprise was how one of the world’s largest, heaving, cities, will suddenly clear by 8 or 9 in the evening. It’s still an incredibly busy place at night, of course, but your mind doesn’t swim at the tormented sea of people in front of you as it does during the day)

On the metro I watched as a drunk businessman – ‘Salaryman’ as they are called in Japan, without hint of condescension –  swayed wildly in the carriage, hanging on to the straps.

Nothing unusual about this, I’d learnt early on that it’s a custom for office workers to drink after work, whether they want to or not.

Coupling the observance that no one should leave the bar until their superior goes, with the low tolerance the Japanese system seems to have for alcohol, and drunk businessmen on the metro was as common as cherry blossom in April or a downpour in June.

However, I was alarmed to see this particular merry Salaryman, after a few practice tottering preambles, crash face-first to the floor with a sickening impact at the feet of the other commuters.

Stunned, I scanned the faces of my fellow commuters for a sign of what we should do.

Calm indifference reigned all along the carriage. A page was turned in a book. Mobiles were intently stared into. The sleeping that a Japanese man or woman can do within seconds of taking their seat on the metro, as if by command – usually open mouthed, often drooling, and always resting, or about to, on their neighbours’ shoulder – continued amongst the passengers.

I took it on myself to check the man’s welfare, shaking his arm, prodding him, hopefully asking “Hai? Hai??

Eventually a low rumble, a snore, came from the prone man and a content smile spread across his face.

He would definitely feel the result of his unfortunate face-plant in the morning, but it seemed he would live. Though probably not make his stop.

Still, I was perplexed by the other passengers’ absolute non-reaction to the Salaryman’s spectacular plunge at their feet.

In my class the next day I asked my students why no one had seemed concerned, nobody had helped.

“Oh,” one of them told me “Well you see the other people have not met him. Not formally. To them, he is a stranger. It is impolite to notice any…difficulties he might be having. Not until they have formally been introduced anyway.”

TokyoThis took me back a bit, but a good lesson – my first – to learn.

In a city of Tokyo’s size, 30 million give or take, it seems things just cannot work as they do back home.

The norms in society one is used to just go out the window.

So, if you don’t take your place in the queue to join the queue to board the train (sometimes there’s even a queue for the queue to join the queue)…

Or if you’re ill and you don’t wear your surgical face mask to help prevent your fellow passengers on the metro catching your cold (not, as I’d initially suspected, for protecting themselves from the hideous diseases they thought I, the foreign ‘Gaijin’ might be carrying)…

Then little by little the absurdity of having this many people in one city will just become all too apparent.

And the seams keeping everything together, everything working, the dignified madness running, would perhaps all just fall away. Like cut ribbon.


I was witness to another booby-trap for the uninitiated in Japanese practices – as we all were – shortly after setting-up home with my fellow teachers in the Ikabukero area of Tokyo, north of the centre (not that you could say Tokyo really has a defined centre. Does infinity have a centre? Does a black hole have suburbs?)

One of the teachers – short of cash as is the perpetual state of the TEFL teacher – thought he’d try asking at the local Japanese bank for an overdraft.

Ambitious, we thought, but when his application form was taken from him amidst a thousand bows from the attentive staff, it looked like he’d pulled it off. He gave a huge, triumphant smile to us through the window as he sat there, like a very pleased frog on top of his toadstool.

I passed the bank again, 5 hours later. He was still there. Sat, crumpled, head in hands.

It seems the Japanese will not say no. It is impolite. The teacher, versed only in the practices of cultural life in his home town in Kent, was unable to pick-up on the nuances and waited for his answer.

And waited. And waited. Until, eventually, he was told with exquisite politeness that the bank was closing now.

Here, he finally twigged, with grim realisation, was his answer.

Not that I escaped my own bank fiasco.

Looking to take out money from my first teaching pay cheque, I was asked for the paperwork for my account. I dug into my bag and handed the smart, spry bank clerk the necessary forms.

He read through these pages intently, with almost minute detail, clasping a hand to his chin and nodding thoughtfully.

This went on for several minutes.

Growing tired of waiting I decided to get on with some school work, opened my bag and noticed with a surprise my account papers still there.

I looked back at the bank clerk. He had remained, stood, reading and attentively nodding at the pages of irregular verbs I had prepared for my Year 1 class.


The cultural chasms were often a positive surprise as well, of course, and it was always touching when, on opening a map, a passing Japanese would more often than not stop to offer help.

Even if they didn’t know the area. Or speak any comprehensive English. Sometimes even two or three of these supposedly shy, reluctant citizens would jostle heatedly to win the right to stand and look blankly at my map.

One time, I was stood, conspicuous on a traffic island, adrift in the raging flood of commuters, looking for the way towards the Park Hyatt hotel, the bar of which was made famous by the equally dislocated Bill Murray in ‘Lost in Translation’.

I was approached by a pencil-thin Japanese man in hat and mackintosh.

“Can I help you?” he enquired with a bow.

I Tokyotold him where I was looking for and he offered to show me. Later I replayed his exact words and can never be sure he said it was on his way, but that was certainly the impression I got.

We walked on together. For a long time my small-talk only answered by smiling uncomprehending nods. His long sunken face then turning back into one of concentration, like a long distance runner, as he led me with his long, rangy legs by twists and turns through the streets.

We went through the narrow passageways of the Golden Gai in Shinjuku – one of the few great examples of original architecture in Tokyo: a claustrophobic, cramped grid of countless tiny one-storey buildings, each one a bar with its own unique character and space for only 6 or 7 drinkers at a time.

Even in the bright middle of the day the alleys are dark and the bars of the Golden Gai offer curious glimpses through the steam and the norens – the curtains of fabric that operate as doors in Japanese hostelries – of the strange and the intoxicated of Tokyo.

We crossed over bridges traversing the huge freeway-like avenues. We walked for miles.

Passing the teaming Shibuya district, with its famous traffic crossing which over 100,000 travellers negotiate each day, like ants fleeing a collapsed anthill.

We eventually reached the hotel. I wondered if he lived here? Or was perhaps coming for a drink? I turned to thank my guide, but he was off already, stalking back the way we came, bowing apologies to me

“I must go” he called back to me “I leave my wife where I met you. Her birthday is today. You must please be forgiving of me!”


The crowds of Tokyo – while expected – hit you hard.

Whether on the clean streets above, or in the clean, well lit, labyrinthine miles and miles of shop and noodle bar lined railway station tunnels below. It comes as really not much of a surprise at all when I’m told the Japanese even have a specific word – karoshi – meaning ‘death by overwork’.

Decorating the city, the happy smiling teen faces – always with big round eyes – on the insanely bright coloured, kanji lettered, advertising posters catch your attention everywhere. But also bring on strange feelings of desperate lonely melancholy.

The loud halls of slot-machine arcades, down dark alleyways, under a hanging one red kanji letter sign, that blast you with light and noise whenever the automatic slide doors opens  – childish fun and frivolity often almost exclusively played by formal middle aged men after work – confuses.

And the neon in Tokyo, while coming as no unforeseen revelation, can still leave you rooted to the street, staring, hypnotised.

Even the smallest local shop will have a display outside using roughly the equivalent daily voltage of a small South American country. The blinking billboards, however, are often there covering grey, drab post-war buildings, built to withstand the earthquakes that regularly hit Honshu Island, not to please the eye.

It is similar with Tokyo’s temples.

I had come across quite by Tokyochance brilliantly authentic Japanese ceremonies – such as the magnificent  Sanja Matsuri, where a sensationally vivid, huge golden ark, weighing well over a ton is carried down side streets heaving with cheering locals on the shoulders of 30 or so men and women, seemingly dressed in their pyjamas, all chanting at the top of their voices and bouncing the shrine dangerously up and down on horizontal poles…

But the temples, while of huge size and beautiful design are, I found, disappointingly inauthentic.

Built to precisely replicate the shrines razed to the ground during the Second World War, the impressive classical-looking monuments are now made of metal and plastic.

To see original carved temples it is necessary to journey outside of Tokyo, and one weekend after classes I did just that, taking the train out to the town of Nikko: past mile after mile of Tokyo city, the grey block suburbs never ending.

I watched from the running window as Tokyo occasionally pretended to peter out: a small rice field here or a wooded cemetery there, only for the metropolitan cement stetches to flash back in return.

I  also tried to ignore, as I did every day on the crushed morning trains to my lesson in central Tokyo, the Salarymen reading their pornographic manga cartoons hidden inside their newspapers.

A few hours out, into the northern Kanto region – finally surrounded by a heavy, latitudinous peace, with the rain-fed dark greens of Japanese nature, the bright red wooden bridges crossing the river, silver-rimmed clouds, watefalls, lurking mountains – I was able to happily survey at last, here, real ancient pagodas and Japanese shrines.

A long curving line of small stone buddah statues ran away from me – each one bafflingly dressed with a little red bib around their necks. I tried to count how many. Was it 70? I couldn’t be sure. The number changed every time.

The ornate Toshogu Shrine sat, indomitably, as it had for 400 years – home to the original See-No-Evil, Hear-No-Evil, Speak-No-Evil Three Wise Monkeys.

I then felt I couldn’t stay in Japan without trying an onsen – the natural hot spring baths.

Arriving at Nikko’s Yumoto onsen waters’ edge with swimming shorts rigorously tied tight and pulled high, I was made to feel like a prudish Victorian old lady by the sight before me of naked Japanese inhibitedly and serenely lapping themselves in heat.

I was informed that no clothes are allowed (no tattoos either – tattoos being a sign of belonging to the Yakuza gangster fraternity. Not that I have any tattoos. Nor did I really believe that many were confusing the knock-kneed Englishman, desperately trying to cling onto his bathing costume, for a member of the most notorious criminal gang in Japan).

Finally freed from my costume and my inhibitions, I enjoyed the warm mineral waters in both inside and outside pools and felt relaxed, revived, proud of myself. Until an impossibly proportioned, hirsute Greek tourist joined the smooth, hairless Japanese and myself in the rocky outdoor pool and I decided my time was up.


Teaching in Tokyo doesn’t strictly necessitate a course of nerve soothing treatments anyway. The students in my classes are all hard working, keen, diligent – perhaps even a little too earnest, a little dull – and teaching Tokyo is relatively stress-free.

Compared to the often frantic teaching with other nationalities I had taught, Japanese students were a serene dream.

Students I hadn’t even noticed hadn’t made it to the 45 minute class – and they really weren’t missing much in my lessons – sought me out as I walked home afterwards to offer me their sincerest apologies and hand me notes with bowed heads

“Dear Mr Alex. Please be assured that I do like your lessons. I curse myself that I was unable to make your class today. Please do not judge either myself, or indeed yourself, too harshly for this very unfortunate event.”

It was impossible not to feel a fondness for these students – although they were often initially unreadable, and remained always with a cloaked, respectful, but clear and plangent ambition about them.

Unusally for me in my TEFL career, I actually enjoyed the classes and the teaching.

Getting conversations in the classes started could be difficult though. Either due to apparent timidity, or the concept that making a mistake was somehow unforgiveable, or the overarching respect that means no one dares be as impolite as to speak before someone else has had a turn.

Kicking off discussions was also often further complicated  by the students wearing the Japanese subway masks in classes – sometimes just to cover up a rogue pimple – but which meant I frequently had rows of students staring back at me from their seats like some nightmarish vision of a crazed dentists convention.

But when conversations finally began, that’s when the English teachers’ eyebrows really raised.

I was teaching at one of the most prestigious universities in Japan. Giving extra English and conversation classes to pre-graduate 18-21 year olds. Soon to be the doctors, lawyers and politicians of high-flying Tokyo society.

“What’s your favourite Disney character?”

This questions was asked by every student to their partner, said with absolute life-or-death seriousness.

The reply mulled over for some time before the captain of the university judo team, in the final year of his psychology degree, extolled his passion for Sleeping Beauty or some other.

Getting students to use adjectives to describe anything other than “cute” proved a near impossible task.

It all seemed such a safe, innocuous world to exist in. And Tokyo such an invitingly insouciant city.Tokyo

I was amused when I passed police stations – looking like small garden potting sheds – in this most modern of cities, to see a sleeping officer on his table containing just one small folder and an envelope – no computer. Or when I passed three policeman in the street, crowded round, tackling the desperately grave problem of a woman with a punctured bicycle.

And later, when I am a victim of crime myself, one slightly more serious than a slowly deflating bicycle tyre, it seems the whole of Tokyo’s municipal police force is sent to my ‘Leopalace’

(Leopalaces are small, inner-city dwellings, that are a masterclass in micro-design. Sleeping, cooking and bathroom facilities all included in the dolls’ house-sized apartments, which the university has set me and my fellow teachers in – toilet with self-warming seat, speakers to play bursts of music to cover up any of your own, unwanted, sounds and buttons that spray warm water at all conceivable  angles and speeds: I would be on it for hours).

What I’m lead to believe must be the only burglar currently working in Japan had slipped through the open window of my Leopalace and helped himself to the 4000 Yen I have left lying about (about 20 English pounds – passport, credit card, laptop all remained resolutely untouched).

On reporting this, more in peevish annoyance than any idea that something might be done, I am stunned when two siren-blaring cop cars, an unmarked police vehicle and a police transit van turn up at my doorstep within minutes.

Uniformed officers march through the house – having stopped first to politely remove their shoes and ask for house slippers (all Japanese houses, even resataurants have these – many Japanese have a second pair of slippers to use just around the toilet area too – and I am ashamed I am unable to offer any of these things to my liberating law enforcers).

White chalk markings are laid on my floor as if a homicide had been committed and Crime Scene Detectives takes a sample of my DNA to use if ever the remarkably undistinguished opportunist thief is brought to justice.

Photos of every surface are taken and later everyone seems desperately sad that they must leave when it’s decided I have no further fingers to be fingerprinted.

I waved them off hoping another bicycle inner tube related incident would turn up for them soon, and dwelt once more on how the expected and the unexpected would surprise me with pretty constant regularity in Tokyo.

Kids' transport, Tokyo

My posting at the university drew to an end and I was heartbroken as the previously shy, inscrutable students at the beginning of term tearfully handed me presents and pages of handwritten goodbye letters beseeching that they should never be forgotten by their teacher.

And what WAS my favourite Disney character anyway?

A farewell drink was needed and in a dark, unpretentious, bar in a quiet street in an unremarkable area with my fellow teachers, I was happy to be baffled by Tokyo one final time.

The bar’s house band was 4 aged, septuagenarian Japanese. Perfectly dressed as mid-60s Beatles.

Moptop wigs, Hofner bass guitar and a female Ringo all in place.

The dedication and seriousness they took in this, in front of a small smattering crowd in the small bar, but also the warmth and openness as they encouraged me join them on stage, after plenty of sake – and sake’s even stronger sister, shochu – to inexpertly play guitar and holler through versions of obscure Beatles tracks, summed up the Tokyo I was leaving and the city I’d grown a real affection for.


Tokyo’s TEFL heyday may now perhaps be 15-20 years behind it, and equally Tokyo’s triumphs and attractions, on closer inspection, may also start to feel slightly dated.

(Riding the famed Shinkansen ‘bullet’ trains that actually feel now not much faster than the inter-city trains running on British tracks – though never running late and the passengers fuelled on onigiri – clean, mass-produced triangular sandwiches of sushi wrapped in seaweed – rather than tins of warm lager and microwaved sausage rolls).

So what must have been incredible in the 80s now feels slightly stagnated as the world catches-up the previously unfathomably sci-fi future world of Tokyo.

You wonder if Japan has lived its moment in the sun, to be forgotten as all eyes turn to fix on its neighbour across the East China Sea…

But then the sights and strangeness that assault you on just a short stroll round the streets brushes asides any of those thoughts.

And when you’re coaxed to enter a dentist by a tiny, beaming middle-aged lady dressed in a rotten tooth costume, singing a teeth-cleaning song and waving sparklers, as I was while bustling though downtown Ginza, it hits you with a smile, there really can’t be any other place to teach in – to be in – as Toyko.