Samurai Dave: The Roving Ronin Report

Rambling Narrative of Travels, Thoughts, and Embellishments

Saga of a Ronin English Teacher in Japan

Ronin Dave contemplates his employment options.

Finding a teaching job in Tokyo isn’t always as easy as one would think. Though there is a plethora of English schools available, not all of them are very good to work for. Some offer low wages, long hours, little vacation time, and a host of hidden responsibilities they expect to be taken on. Then there’s the matter of financial stability. English schools come and go, sometimes with very little warning to their employees.

One of the more infamous cases of a school closing virtually overnight was Howdy English. Teachers arrived one morning to discover their school closed and locked. The owner, it appeared, had absconded to France still owing her employees their last month’s wages.

Some schools go out with scarcely a whimper as my first company did.

I had arrived in mid-December, which was not exactly the best time to go looking for teaching work. I had originally planned to come to Japan in September, but this was in 2001 so naturally I had to delay my departure. The money I had saved up dwindled over the next three months until finally I decided it was now or never, and departed to Japan without much of a plan or savings.

From the get-go my finances were tight. It’s often advised that someone coming to live in Tokyo should bring anywhere from $2,500 to $5,000 to live on till their first paycheck. I showed up with less than half of the minimum amount advised to bring. This was not a good thing, for with some companies it can take from six weeks to two months to receive a first paycheck.

Instant oatmeal packets from home kept me alive the first week as I scoured the Internet and papers for employment. Pickings were slim and employers were picky. One attempt ended in shambles because I did not have enough experience and I was an hour late for the interview. I kept getting lost in the labyrinth of Tokyo’s metro, which cost me other potential jobs.

For some bizarre reason I was hesitant to go with the big companies like Nova, Berlitz, or ECC. I think I was going through an anti-big-business phase at the time. I wanted to have more independence and say-so in a company’s direction — which would have been impossible with a large factory-like English-school business.

I was out of my mind. I soon learned that a timely and financially secure monthly paycheck far outweighs any advantage independence has.

I finally got one interview with a small company that was easy to get to, though it was an hour outside of Tokyo. The company was English Square. It was a new company recently split off from another new company. English Square was the brain child of Canadian Adam Cantrememberhislastname. His Japanese partner was someone called Ashida, who provided the financial backing.

They offered 250,000 yen per month, the low-standard monthly wage for English teachers in Tokyo. Many teachers would not accept this wage as Tokyo is an expensive place to live. Since I was in desperate straits I jumped on it like a beggar on a moldy crust of bread. What had attracted me was their promise of profit-sharing. I failed to realize at the time though, you have to have profit in order to share it.

Over the next few months, my hopes for fruitful employment rapidly declined until it plunged into dark despair eased only by cheap beer and bitching sessions with the other employees of the company — which happened to be only one, Ivan Campbell.

Ronin Ivan

Toward the end of this “learning” experience, I was inspired by my suffering, like all writers are, and wrote the following account:

In the time that I have been in Tokyo, I’ve squandered my time in various ways: starving, jumping the gates at train stations, teaching the spawns of Satan, learning the deadly arts of chopsticks, pursuing a black belt in tea, and working for a good company.All right, I’m lying, except for the starving, jumping, teaching, chopsticks, tea part; the rest is lies.I’ve been teaching English to children from ages three to 10, or at least trying to do so. Ah, children! They’re not just our hope and future, they’re also gaseous balls of snot and flatulence filled with demonic energy out to leech the very life from our bones. No, seriously, this experience has taught me to love kids, especially in lemon and butter sauce. Accompanied with a light Chianti, they can’t be beat.

As for my company, well, it started off as a good idea with lots of hope and grandiose dreams but it ended suffering from a terminal dose of reality. Originally, the plan (or what passed for a plan) was that every month they would hire more teachers and open more schools and just keep expanding with the hordes of students they expected to pull in through word-of-mouth advertising.

They figured in seven months they would be in Osaka. At the rate we were going (since I represented 50 percent of the workforce), we’d have been lucky to be across the street by next year.

My company seemed to be lacking in certain crucial business essentials: brains, customers, my pay, and anything resembling an actual working plan. What pay I did get was late and taxed to bits, including the transportation reimbursement. This is what I get for a joining a new start-up company.

At the beginning of this fiasco, before it became apparent that it was a fiasco, back when I naively still had hope and the dignity to pay full fare on the train, I thought, “Hey, this would be a good company to be with from the ground floor.” Unfortunately they pushed the wrong button and it ended up in the basement where it caught on fire and burned down the whole building.

If my company was a racehorse, it would be a sleek, massively impressive horse that people would bet their unborn children on. When the starting gates opened, it would burst from them and tear down the track like a bolt of lighting, then drop stone dead after an impressive 20 feet.

As one who put his future on this horse, namely, the hope to be able to buy food in order to ensure my future, I would have a strong word with the owner and the manager of this ex-horse. But they have been too busy working other jobs trying to come up with the cash in order to bury their dead horse.

Our company finally just folded quickly and quietly in the night, still owing me the last month’s pay. Fortunately, I know where my boss lives so the ever-imminent threat of my burning his house down is motivation enough for him to pay up when he has the money.

So now I’m a Ronin English Teacher in Japan looking to sell my services to the highest bidder, or any bidder for that matter. As I sharpen my skills I look over the necessary tools I will need for specific clients. For the business man, I have my blazer and tie. For the housewife and office lady, I have my wit, charm and my baby-blue eyes. For children, I have my squishy ball and my patience.

Now am I prepared to go forth and walk the ronin path.

I walked the ronin, or “masterless samurai,” path for several months. To get by, I did a number of substitute teaching jobs for different companies and one intensive course where I screamed at Japanese students near Mount Fuji. I even did TV extra work where I was paid $30 a show to be part of a foreign audience whose job was to cheer on a Japanese pop star as he struggled to say a few lines in English.

I never did get my last month’s pay from English Square. Adam mysteriously disappeared a month before the company folded. Ashida kept making excuses for his absence. To this day I wonder if Adam fled back home to Canada or if in a fit of rage Ashida did him in.

Our interview suits

I did get three good things out of English Square: 1) a working visa, which helped me acquire work during my ronin phase ; 2) a good friend — Ivan, the other 50 percent of the work force; and 3) a valuable lesson in avoiding start-up English schools.

Ivan ended up with an apartment way outside of Tokyo in order to be closer to work he thought he would get from English Square. He currently works in the center of Tokyo and has an hour-and-a-half commute each way. Ivan didn’t despair of the long commute, however, and he has just now finished over 400 books, which he read while on the train.

Eventually, I overcame my big-business phobia and got a job with one of the big schools. Sure, I became a slave to the system, but I became a paid slave with a secure paycheck.

Three years later, with an actual bank account with actual money in it, I haven’t regretted that decision. My ronin days are (for now at least) behind me.

Ronin were samurai without a master. During the Warring States Period (1467-1615), ronin could always sell their swords to new masters but in the Edo Period (1615-1867) their existence was rough.Some became wandering swordsmasters like the famous Miyamoto Musashi and teachers of martial arts. Others became little better than bandits. Ronin were both admired and scorned by society for their free way of life.

July 23, 2006 Posted by | Blogroll, english teacher, english teaching, japan, job searching, ronin, samurai, tokyo, travel, Uncategorized, work | 6 Comments

Kamogawa Odori Geisha Dance 2006

The Kamogawa Odori Geisha Dance
The spring dances of Kyoto offer a rare glimpse of Geisha performances

A young Maiko (Geisha Apprentice) performing in the Kamogawa Odori

True geisha dance performances are rare events that one can only witness if they are part of the affluent clientele of Kyoto’s elusive Geisha tea houses or if they are fortunate enough to procure a seat at one of the annual public performances given in Spring and Fall.

Spring dances are traditional events held every year to celebrate the ending of winter. Most of the year, the general public only has the chance to occasionally spy geisha as they scurry along the streets of Gion and Pontocho to their assignments. These spring dances represent a chance for the public to see the geisha in all their glory performing ancient traditional dances.

Before the performance guests may observe a tea ceremony

The Kamogawa Odori is a geisha dance performance presented in the late spring in the Pontocho district of Kyoto. Pontocho is one of Kyoto’s few remaining geisha districts, the most famous being Gion. The Pontocho district has been putting on their Kamogawa Odori since 1872.

The Kamogawa Odori is perhaps the most famous of the spring dances. It has certainly attained international attention attracting the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Jean Cocteau.

Every year a new performance is put on based on a variety of traditional Japanese stories. The first performance was a love story set in Kyoto sometime in the distant past.

The young ladies fight over the “handsome” fan maker

The story revolves around Kasumimura, a young handsome man (played by a geisha) who makes fans. He is quite popular with the ladies, but his heart is set on only one girl, Akane, to whom he proposes marriage. One of his highborn clients is not satisfied to let him go so easily.

The noble lady lures the handsome Kasumimura to her residence with the promise of work. She wants a special fan made with a portrait of herself drawn upon it. As he follows the noble lady’s carriage to her abode, the weather suddenly becomes colder and snow flakes begin to fall ominously.

The noble lady reveals to Kasumimura that she is the dreaded Yuki-Onna, the snow woman spirit. Yuki-Onna offers her love, but Kasumimura bravely declines. Yuki-Onna’s love, however, is not easily cast aside. Her loves freezes the hapless fan maker.

Yuki Onna: the Snow Woman

The deadly but beautiful Yuki-Onna

Yuki-Onna, the snow woman, is winter manifested in a deadly, ghostly form. She is depicted as all white with long black hair wearing a white kimono — beautiful but deadly like winter itself. And like winter, Yuki-Onna was cruel and ruthless in killing unlucky souls caught in her icy realm. She was particularly known for killing mortals by either breathing upon them with her icy breath or simply leading them astray so they would die of exposure.

Yuki-Onna is best remembered from author Lafcadio Hearn’s Kwaiden, a collection of various strange and ghostly tales. She attacks two men in a lone hut in the wilderness but spares one because of his youth and good looks.

His fiance, Akane, comes and rescues him. Through the strength of her love, Akane is able to defeat Yuki-Onna and revive Kasumimura. Yuki-Onna, heartbroken, weeps warm tears and melts away as winter slowly comes to an end.

Akane and Yuki-Onna fight over Kasumimura’s love

The fan maker and his brave fiance return and spring comes to Kyoto. Here again is a vibrant echo from that ancient theme of the coming of spring and the ending of winter. Thousands of years ago, in Ancient Mesopotamia, stories were told about the goddess Ishtar visiting the underworld to free her love and subsequently end winter.

Kasumimura returns as Springs begins

The second half of the performance was a series of dances representing a selection from the 11th century Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon. At the beginning of her book, Sei Shonagon, an imperial court lady, wrote about the four seasons and the times of day of each season that she enjoyed the most.

Sei Shonagon: Observant and Opinionated Court Lady

Curtain representing the seasons

Sei Shonagon was a lady-in-waiting at the Japanese Imperial Court in the beginning of the 11th Century. She kept a personal diary of sorts in which she wrote down her experiences but mainly her feelings. Such diaries were common at the time and were called pillow books because these books were often kept next to people’s pillows in which they would write their experiences and observations. The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon gives an invaluable insight into the world of the Imperial Court of Kyoto a thousand years ago. Sei Shonagon’s observations are witty, wry, poignant, and at times condescending. Sei Shonagon was a contemporary – however, not a friend – of the famed novelist Murasaki Shikibu who wrote The Tale of the Genji.

Young maiko dance in kimonos the color of cherry blossoms

In spring it is the dawn that is most beautiful. As the light creeps over the hills their outlines are dyed a faint red and wisps of purplish cloud trail over them.

A Geisha dancer representing summer nights

In summer the nights. Not only when the moon shines, but on dark nights too, as fireflies flit to and fro…

Autumn evenings

In autumn the evenings … when the sun sets, one’s heart is moved by the sound of the wind and the hum of the insects.

A Geisha plays as a servant working on a winter morning

In winter the early mornings — the attendants hurry from room to room stirring up fires and bringing charcoal; how well this fits the season’s mood!

The Kamogawa Odori is held every May. For those who wish to see authentic geisha performances, the Kamogawa Odori shouldn’t be missed.

The Finale

July 23, 2006 Posted by | dance, Geiko, geisha, Gion, japan, kamogawa odori, Kyoto, maiko, Uncategorized | 6 Comments

Where Have the Ninja Gone?

The Enigmatic Japanese Ninja

Cheap fuel-efficient cars, VCRs, and stereos weren’t the only Japanese exports that flooded into America during the 70s and 80s. The plucky indigenous ninja cleverly smuggled themselves over the sea to dazzle American audiences with their seemingly magical martial arts abilities. They were soon to find fertile ground in American pop-culture and almost immediately a Ninja Boom was born.

There was a time when ninja were as abundant as the stars in the skies. They were everywhere in America. They were in movies, on TV programs, in comic books, in newspaper personals, on street corners.

Masterpiece Ninja Theater: “Who’s Afraid of Hattori Hanzo?”

Just opening the pages of any comic book back then you could find throngs of ninja taking on small bands of heroes. On TV you could watch ninja fight each other, the A-team, greying old ex-pats, G.I. Joe, and so on. Less respectable movie theaters showed Ninja movies every other week. In bookstores, you had your pick of ninja books that detailed every aspect about these secret warriors from their skills, their weapons, to their breakfast cereals.

Master Ninja Lee Van Cleef with Big-Ass Funky Disco Medallion

Everybody wanted to be a ninja or at least own their weapons. Nun-chunks were once as plentiful as handguns in American households. No impressionable 13-year old boy could hold his head up high amongst his peers if he did not own at least half a dozen shurikens (“throwing stars”). That these JC Penny shurikens failed to stick in anything did not deter their popularity one bit.

For those who aspired to be ninja through mail-order training books, there was always the feeling that one day, they might be called upon to use their ninja skills and weaponry to take on bullies, bank robbers, Russian spies, space aliens, or chemistry teachers. And when that day arrived, the suburban ninja disguised as a mild-mannered pimply-faced gawky teenager would save the day and win the heart of the head cheerleader.

Look at me! I’m a Ninja Bird!

As for the real Ninja, they served as the perfect martial arts foil for any aspiring hero whether they were samurai, shaolin monks, police officers, superheroes, or redneck truck drivers. Ninja were readily available for heroes to test their mettle against. It didn’t take much to find a few ninja back then as they were just about everywhere. A hero could hardly go for a leak without bumping into a pack of them along the way.

Then the butt-kicking would begin.

Despite their years of intensive training and strict discipline, ninja never won a single fight they were in even if they outnumbered their opponents 100 to 1. They appeared to be particularly vulnerable to an old-fashion left hook. The only time ninja were successful in actually killing someone with their skills or their myriad of pointy weapons was when they could manage to kill off the hero’s buddy, girlfriend, or dog. This minor victory was often short-lived and generally backfired on them as the hero would become enraged to the point of slaughtering ninja by the bushel. This would go on until the hero finally tracked down the Head Ninja and in an epic fight-to-the-death match, killed him. The few surviving ninja of the hero’s rampage would find themselves suddenly unemployed while many of them would have to apply for handicap parking decals.

Ouch! That’s got to sting a bit.

The fact that ninja were repeatedly beaten, pummeled, crippled, maimed, set on fire, and killed in their relentless encounters never bothered people. It was thought ninja would last forever. But like the mighty buffalo, even ninja had to succumb to the ravages of time and attrition to their ranks. With their secret training camps being infiltrated and blown up all the time, it was becoming harder to recruit and train new ninja.

One of their main problems was that they were victims of their own defeat. Everybody wanted to fight them. You weren’t considered a hero in those days if you couldn’t single-handily beat a dozen ninja.

Gay Ninja always had to strive harder to win acceptance from their peers

One has to admire their pluck in the face of adversity, though. A hero could slaughter 99 ninja and the 100th ninja — instead of doing the sensible thing like running away as most of us would do if we were in his slippers or just shooting the guy from a safe distance — attacks all out with his ninja skills no doubt thinking optimistically the hero must be finally worn out from killing all of the ninja’s colleagues. Sure the ninja gets brutally killed like all the rest but at least he tried and therein lies the difference between him and the rest of us. Of course, this spirit hasn’t helped the declining ninja population in the slightest.

Shameless self-promotion also played a hand in their demise. In the back of comics and magazines, you could find book ads promising to teach you the “Deadly Ninja Touch” and “12 Steps to Killing: the Ninja Way.” With their secrets up for sale by mail order and their weapons on sale at any department store, it got to the point where even housewives or girl scouts could defeat a herd of ninja by themselves. As a general rule of thumb, if you belong to a secret society of martial artists, you should never make your secret death touches available to the general public via mail order catalogs. Ninja never seemed to grasp this simple concept.

Let’s See: One “Secret Ninja Death Touch Scroll” for a Mildred Parkins of Kansas City…

Now Ninja are a vanishing breed — rarely sighted or fought. Even suburban ninja have disappeared and their shurikens put up for sale at flea markets. Grungy street thugs fill the void left by the ninja in the comics and movies but they sorely lack the style and panache their predecessors had. Gone are the nun-chunks that never hit anyone, the novelty smoke bombs, the throwing stars, the nasty foot pricks, the trendy black robes.

Me and the Ninja: ready to kick butt

Is it too late to save the majestic Ninja? Should limits be established on the number of Ninja that can be beaten up in a year’s time? Surely, if the world can come together to stop the hunting of whales, we can stop the noble Ninja from being beaten into oblivion.

Save the Ninja!

July 23, 2006 Posted by | 1970s, 1980s, A-Team, american pop culture, Blogroll, chuck norris, GI Joe, japan, karate, Master Ninja, ninja, Ninja movies, pop culture, TV | 2 Comments

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July 23, 2006 Posted by | Uncategorized | 2 Comments