Budget Japanese for the Cheapskate

If you, like me, are a starving artist, a student, or just suffering from scroogitis, this list of free or relatively cheap resources for learning Japanese should appeal to you.


Free Lang 8 Lang 8

This is a site where you can upload diary entries any language and have native speakers check them, and it seems to be dominated by English and Japanese speakers. You just create a profile, upload your diary and wait for others to come by and check it, although it helps a lot if you go check some of the English diaries people have up. I like this site because people can make correction and comments too if they want. And more than one person can correct the same diary so you can learn different ways to say one thing.

imagesJLPT quiz N5-N1 apps

I’ve got these on iphone and ipad. These are great for practicing before the JLPT (Japanese language proficiency test). Better to use these as a gauge than a study tool though, because they don’t give you much info about the answers,  but based on the JLPT test I took, I’d say they’re in line with the levels.


Tae Kim’s guide to Learning Japanese

This one’s another app, and the only free textbook I’ve seen. I’m not a huge fan of textbooks, at least not on their own. But it does help put the grammar in perspective.


A decent Japanese dictionary app, but honestly, sometimes it doesn’t have words I’m looking for. But eh, it’s free and it works most of the time. It’s that or pay for an electronic dictionary.



Japanesepod 101.com

This site’s very popular, and you’ve probably heard of it. It’s a website full of podcasts, PDFs. and practice tests. I highly recommend it…but a pro membership is about $200usd a year. But this guide is for cheapskates remember? When you first sign up, they give you this “ultimate getting started” offer, where you can get pro access for a month for just a dollar, and all their podcasts are downloadable.

You see where this is going.

If you’re a true scrooge you’ll sign up, spend the month downloading all the podcasts at your level and not renew. However… They’re always adding new stuff. If you sign up for their newsletter they’re always sending out offers, and I was able to get a yearlong subscription for half price. And they have a lot of resources besides the lessons like a grammar bank,  dictionary. great practice tests for the JLPT, and a PDF breakdown of the grammar for each lesson. It’s worth the money.



Looove this one, because I can use it when I’m commuting which is a loooot these days. It’s a website but the also have an app, and it’s primarily for learning vocabulary, though you can pick up some grammar through the example sentences. There’s also a dictation feature you can use to practice your pronunciation. It’s about $70-80 a year.

Volunteer Classes 

This only applies to expats in Japan, but there are a surprising number of free or super cheap (not more than $20USD a month) Japanese classes taught by volunteers. The one I go to has been really great. I only had to buy the textbook. However the focus is heavily on conversation, so If you’re looking to learn Kanji you might need to sign up for “real” classes, at a school or university.

So those are the main resources I use to learn Japanese. How about you?

That Thing You Think You Can’t Do? Here’s Why You Should Do It


As children we’ve all heard some version of “the sky’s the limit!” and “reach for your dreams!” My parents often said these a lot, especially after I brought home a good report card or something. And God bless them for being supportive.

But it’s not until we get older that we realize the sky is a lot closer than we thought and dreams live among the stars. It’s not until we get a bit wiser that we’re able to fill in the second, unsaid half of those common platitudes. “The sky’s the limit…but there’s a glass ceiling in the way that most people aren’t able to break through so you’ll probably end up in middle management like me and that’s fine too.” “Reach for you dreams…within reason you can’t become a music producer you don’t even play an instrument!”

Let me tell you a short, sad story. It’s called. The Worst Feeling in the World.


The Worst Feeling in the World

Long ago, in a kingdom forgotten by time and history, a musician wanted to play a song for a tyrant king. The king was arrogant and mean, but very rich, and his patronage could elevate the musician and his family into a life of luxury. But he feared to play, for there were rumours that any musician who displeased the king was thrown in the dungeon and left there to live out the rest of their days in a dank cave of stone behind iron bars.

One day, the musician’s youngest daughter became very sick. No one in their village could help her, and he didn’t have the money to hire a doctor from town. One night as he watched the child sleeping fitfully with her little mouth open and struggling to breathe, he made up his mind: he must play for the king. So he gathered up his courage, took up his thumb piano made of wood fitted with metal tines and went to the palace.

kalimbaThough he played a lively, tinkling melody, the king’s attendants looked grim. Sweat trickled down the musicians brow as his thumbs flew over the metal tines. But when he finished, a smile parted the king’s coarse, black beard. The musician’s heart soared, and the king let out a joyful laugh.

“What is this pedestrian country music?” he said. “Never have I heard something so unsophisticated! Take him to the dungeon!”

The musician’s eyes were wide with fright as the guards led him away. They told him the king was a terrible miser, and he had no intention of becoming patron to any musician. So all who came to play for him were imprisoned.

“If only I had known!” cried the musician.

They threw him in a  cell so dim he could barely see. His only companion was the drip, drip drip of water leaking from the ceiling into a little pool in the corner. He stayed there for a week, weeping every day, knowing his precious daughter must be dead, until one day he desperately grabbed at the bars, and to his shock, his fingers closed around a sheet. The king was such a miser that he simply painted a sheet to look like bars to fool his prisoners into staying.

The musician escaped the palace, and made his way home, weak with hunger. But when he returned he found his wife and son crying at the bedside of his daughter, who had died only an hour before. His mouth twisted at the thought of the week spent trapped behind a sheet.

“If only I had known!” wailed the musician.

Two days later, he sat on a rock in the middle of a plain, playing his sorrow on his thumb piano when a woman with strange tattoos all over her face came up to him.

“What a sad tune! What troubles you my friend?” she asked.

“My daughter is dead,” said the musician, his eyes bloodshot.

“Is that so? Well lucky I should happen upon you today. I am a witch who can bring back the dead.”

The musician’s eyes went wide, shining with hope. “Is this true?”

“Yes! Come come! We must see her quickly, for I can only revive someone who has been dead for less than one day. Where is your–“

But the witch stopped, staring because the man had thrust his hands into his thick hair, tugging at it.

“If only I had known!” howled the musician.


The moral of this story is DON’T GIVE UP!

Don’t rely on hearsay, assumptions and even statistics to tell you what you can and can’t do. Success is possible, but you have to know what you’re doing. If you have a dream, research it, figure out what you need to do to achieve it, and then give it your all. Even if you think you’ve failed, it’s not over till it’s over. What many of us don’t realize is that often the horrible, sinking feeling like you’ve hit a dead end and you’re just not good enough is the precursor to success. A rite of passage, even. And everybody who’s anybody has been there. The only difference between them and us is:

1) They researched and charted their course expertly and

2) They didn’t give up. They took detours, recalculated, flew if they had to. But they didn’t give up.

Just because I can’t do it today, doesn’t mean I won’t be able to do it someday.

I’ll leave you with this highly inspirational video. I watch it every time I need to remind myself what’s possible. It’s about a man who learned to walk again, even though doctors said he never would. In an interview, he said he wasn’t even trying to walk, he just wanted to lose some weight.

So when you’re thinking

I can’t lose weight. Every time I try to diet I quit after like two weeks, and gain back any weight I lost


I’m too old to have children/go to school/start a business


I’ll never be make it as an actor/singer/writer/podiatrist

Just try. Just try. Explore your options. You could end up going places you never imagined you could.

The Dark Side of Teaching English in Japan


Before you decide to pack up your life and teach in Japan, you should know what you’re in for.

This article over at the Japan Times explores one of the biggest issues expats, especially women, face as English teachers is Japan: Harassment. Some highlights include a student masturbating in class, a student telling a teacher he wanted to drink her breast milk, and a teacher getting negative reviews from a students she refused to date, which affected her raise and chance at contract renewal.

In Japan, generally, Okyakusama wa kamisama, or, the customer is God, and this attitude can leave teachers high and dry when it comes to issues with students. Sorry to say it, but money will usually trump a teacher’s comfort and sometimes even safety. Every English teacher has their horror stories or their stalkers, men and women alike.

At my school Ko Seto is the name that strikes terror into the hearts of teachers whenever it appears on the student’s lists. He’s been coming for like ten years, and goes to every branch booking lessons with all the female teachers. But even the men don’t want to teach him because his constant giggling and shifty eyes freak them out. I don’t know if he has a form of autism or what, but the fact that he only ever wants female teachers rubs people the wrong way.

Then there was the old man who told my somewhat busty coworker that she needed to be screened for breast cancer. Somehow I just can’t believe he was that concerned about her health.

I know another teacher who had a student who would wait for her after every shift so he could walk with her to the train, even after she asked him not to.

One male teacher refused to teach a girl after she gushed about how much she liked him and made him feel really uncomfortable.

As for me, I’ve been lucky so far. Aside from some awkward lessons with Ko Seto, I’ve had nothing more than guys asking if I had a boyfriend, or asking me to dinner or movies.

The most frustrating part is that it’s just an accepted part of life as an English teacher. Unless things get really out of hand, there isn’t much support just because you feel uncomfortable.

One day, I walked into the teacher’s room to see a note on my student’s list saying “stranger”, which another teacher corrected to “strange person”. Apparently, this guy had showed up at the school and harassed one of the staff for three hours, refusing to leave and let her get her work done, so he was banned from signing up for lessons. So he simply went to the school across town and signed up there.

Guess who got to teach him?

And yes he was certainly a “stranger”, making inappropriate comments and not giving the other students a chance to speak.  I’m just glad there were two other students that day, and I told the staff not to sign him up for my lessons anymore. Luckily, he didn’t turn stalker on me.

And I’d like to note that as bad as the teachers get it, the primarily young and female staff have it worse. We can escape to another class, but they have to talk to the students for as long as they stick around.

At one of my old schools, there was this notoriously racist guy who made a Chinese student in the lesson really angry with his anti-Chinese sentiments. But, he was paying a lot of money so shogannai–what can you do? He still takes lessons to this day as far as I know. So when a student still isn’t banned after his harassment affects other students, a.k.a other sources of money, what hope do you, the teacher that is actually leeching money from the company as a salaried employee, have of being supported?

So if you are determined to come over to Japan as an English teacher, by all means come, but know what you’re getting into, and know that if you have issues with a student, there’s a good chance the school will take the student’s side over yours.

Dream: Future street kids steal pretty women’s faces

I have the strangest dreams of anyone I know. On a scale of 1-10 for weirdness, I’d rate them Hayao Miyazaki. But I love these quirky expressions of my subconscious, and most of my story ideas come from dreams or daydreams. Here’s the latest.



In the dystopian future, street kids work with gangsters to steal the faces of attractive women and sell them to old, rich women. They use a vacuum-like machine that causes the face to fade right off. The kids don’t even have to be in the same room, it works through walls, but they do have to be within a certain proximity.

Occasionally they steal whole bodies. They have a slang word for a woman with a body worth trying to sell. I can’t remember what it is but I remember that it has a non-sexual connotation. They’re just kids, and though they can identify a “sexy” body that will sell, to them it means money and nothing more.

They crash an office where only young secretaries work and start stealing faces. Two kids catch sight of a woman with a nice body.

“Think she’s a [slang term I can't remember]?” a boy, maybe about 9 years old, asks of a girl around the same age standing next to him.

“Yeah, let’s get her,” the girl replies.

The woman notices her leg starting to shrivel away, so she runs into another room where she’s trapped: The only way out is a window and a fall to the death. Someone runs in after her–the man in charge of this particular group of ragamuffins. He’s a short, squat man with long and greasy black hair and one red “cyber-eye” (I don’t know why, maybe to make him look more like a villain), and I think of him as a pimp.

Next I’m in the room with a huge backpack on my back. He asks me where the woman went, and I say I didn’t know. There’s no body outside the window but she’s gone. I don’t seem worried that he’ll be interested in harvesting anything from me. He lets me go and I leave slowly and casually, because I suspect the woman is in my backpack. When I get far away I check, but she’s not in there. I’m consumed with curiosity about how she got away, but I wake up before I can find out.

What in the name of Donald Trump’s toupee is this dream about?

I’m ashamed of how sexist this dream is. Only women bought faces. All the women in the office were secretaries, but hey in my defense maybe that’s my idea of dystopia.

I think the children represent ignorance. They don’t know what they’re doing, why a particular body type is so desirable, they just want the money. It reflects the frustration I feel lately with our lack of social responsibility. Ad execs throw all kids of crap in our faces and we let ourselves get distracted, not really thinking about the questionable assumptions and maybe outright lies behind what it is they are showing us. I get a little paranoid when I think about what kind of hurtful messages and beliefs I’ve been consuming, and I’m even more afraid of perpetuating them in my writing.

The guy in charge of the kids was a pimp because he literally sold women’s bodies, (how original, Nandie lol). But I got the sense he was just a middle man. He sold to big businesses that made half-assed attempts to make everything seem legit. They didn’t have to try hard though, those women wanted their faces and they were willing to overlook where they came from.

Which brings me to the women, the consumers. Again I guess it’s my frustration with the oppressed perpetuating their oppression. Watch this sketch from Whose Line is It Anyway.

On the surface, it’s hilarious. And on You Tube there are no shortage of comments about that.

But if you read between the lines, you’ll see the humor is derived from some faulty, outdated and even dangerous assumptions such as:

1) Gay men are not to be taken seriously

2) Gay men are salivating over straight men and will molest them as soon as they’re given the chance and

3) Gay men make straight men  uncomfortable and should be feared

It’s just a comedy sketch, it makes people laugh I get it. But there are actually people out there who don’t have the critical thinking skills to realize all gay men might not be like Richard Simmons’ over-the-top portrayal.

Number 3 is the most worrying. People are beaten and killed for being gay. Is this comedy sketch adding to that? I can’t rightly say, but I know it’s not helping.

In my dream I feel like older women should be on the same team as the younger women, but they’re letting themselves be manipulated by the beauty industry. In the same way I think people, especially minorities who are no strangers to the slings of stereotyping, should be able to read between the lines when we see things like the clip above, but a lot of us would rather just stick to the surface, because if you look deeper it’s not so funny anymore.

And ain’t nobody got time for that. Most people have got over two-hundred emails in their inbox at work, the rent’s overdue and dentist says their kid needs braces or they’ll grow up to look like a horse that won the Stanley Cup. All they want to do is go home and laugh at Richard Simmons, God dammit. The way our society is set up, it seems impossible to get the masses to think more critically. It’s an uphill battle and even when you’re making the conscious effort  to be aware you can still slip up.

But in my dream, that one woman did it, she escaped the body snatchers…but unfortunately I have no idea how.

What do you think?

5 Quotes from Maya Angelou to Live By

Poet and novelist Maya Angelou addresses the audience at the Sickle Cell Disease Association of America - Mobile Chapter 30th Anniversary Celebration program, Tuesday, Sept 12, 2006, in Mobile, Ala. (AP Photo/Press-Register, John David Mercer)

Maya Angelou

Yesterday, one of my literary heroes passed on.

These days, I am fascinated, captivated by people who are extraordinary, who bump against the upper limits of humanity and are able to tap into a wisdom and creative genius approaching the divine.

I believe Maya Angelou was one of those people.  It was a dream of mine, a childish fantasy perhaps, to become a well-known writer and one day gain access to her, meet her in person and pick her brain, and until then I settled for reading her works and listening to her words of wisdom.  I gravitate toward women like Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Oprah Winfrey and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie because, like me, they are part of one of the most underestimated groups of people on the planet: black women. But the souls housed in those beautiful, black, female bodies are (and in Ms. Angelou’s case were) so powerful that they weren’t about to let something as trivial as centuries of social pigeonholing keep them back. Like a child playing dress-up in her mama’s shoes, I hobble after in their footsteps.

I could go on and on about Maya Angelou’s credentials for being a global treasure: her multiple degrees, her dozens of awards, her activism during the civil rights movement, but I’ll let her speak for herself. Here are some of the best pieces of knowledge Maya Angelou has dropped like life preservers on our floundering society. Whether you’re black, white or blue, man, woman, both or neither, I urge you to read on and gain some insight into what it means to live on a higher plane of consciousness, to see what humanity could be capable of if we would only stop getting distracted by the little things that, on our death beds, we realized never really mattered. Because as Ms. Angelou says, “I speak to the black experience, but I am always talking about the human condition.”

When someone shows you who they are, believe them.

Oh, how I have suffered from ignoring this head-slappingly simple advice. I’ve even played this theme out in my current novel. Too often, we let people dangle carrots in front of us or worse, imagine a carrot when one isn’t even there. It took a long time for me to stop ignoring the red flags when I saw them, so afraid of losing foes in friend’s clothing. According to Ms. Angelou, we need to recognize unacceptable behavior when we see it and just deal.

Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size
But when I start to tell them,
They think I’m telling lies.
I say,
It’s in the reach of my arms
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips.
I’m a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

A lot of you will recognize this as the first stanza of Maya Angelou’s “Phenomenal Woman”. It might seem like a feminist manifesto, but when you look closer these are the words of someone who, like I said before, is aware that she is something divine. That race or size or even gender can’t stop her from being phenomenal, and in fact only add to her magnificence.  I think if everyone viewed themselves this way, we’d be able to achieve utopia.

I love to see a young girl go out and grab life by the lapels. Life’s a bitch. You’ve got to go out and kick ass.

I’m trying, Ms. Angelou. I quit my day job, and now I’m an expert on Japanese instant ramen, the cheapest trains to work, and cutting and styling my own hair, all so I can write books that may never see the light of day. I might fail, but if I don’t try I will fail.

Now take young girl and replace it with underdog, because frequently that’s what we are, and Ms. Angelou knows this. Anytime the haters try to tell you who you are and what your place is, just go out there and kick some more ass.

I’ve learned that making a living is not the same as making a life.

Ah yes, I especially see this one played out on the streets and in the classrooms of Tokyo. I cringe when junior high or high school students tell me their dream is to become an “office worker”. I used to think this was due to a language barrier, but I’ve since realized that no, for some of these kids, the dream is actually just working in an office, doing any job.

Who am I to look down on someone’s dream of working twelve hours a day with no overtime pay, you might be thinking. People can want whatever the hell they want. This is true, but Japan does have one of the highest suicide rates in the world. The majority of the suicides are men ages 20-54, coincidentally the bulk of the Japanese workforce.

Maybe it’s just not sustainable for everyone to live their dream, but we’ll never know because we’ve never tried. I, for one, am literally sick of merely making a living. TMI moment, I’ve gotten ulcers, and daily nervous diarrhea from working jobs I hated. And people are out there killing themselves, so according to nature, this can’t be how we’re meant to exist. Which brings me to my final quote:

If you’re always trying to be normal, you’ll never know how amazing you can be.

For years, I was obsessed with fitting in. I’m so glad I’ve finally realized I never will. Mediocrity is overrated anyway.

I could keep going, but you really should check her out for yourself. You won’t regret it.






Kohama Island: A Hidden Paradise

Kohama Island has muscled it’s way into the top five most beautiful places I have ever been. This place is GORGEOUS!

Kohama 1

See? SEE?

It’s a small island near Ishigaki, Okinawa, which probably has more tourists than residents. Two resorts take up a big chunk of the Island, and I stayed at the bigger one, Haimurubushi. The beauty of Kohama island is that it’s not so crowded. I’ll admit, we visited the island off season, right before Golden week so I’m sure that had something to do with it. But it’s also not that well known.

There isn’t so much to do there besides relax, and that was fine with me. In fact one of my best memories of the vacation was lying in a hammock watching the sun turn the clouds orange as it set, the sounds of tropical birds calling, as if I was inside one of those “soothing sounds of nature” CDs. It was unreal. But we did get off our butts long enough to take a day trip to a sandbar to go snorkeling.

Kohama 2

It was such a chore, but somehow we managed

It was also fun to ride around the island to visit the one convenience store,, the site of the TV drama Churasan, and Mt. Ufudaki. The weather was perfect: warm but not humid. And the sky was so clear and blue, it just made everything on the island look so…happy. Riding around on the electric bicycle rented from the resort, I couldn’t keep the smile off my face.

Kohama 3

But the highlight of the trip? Stargazing, though it wasn’t easy to make it happen. Haimurubushi’s beach is about ten minutes walk from the rooms, which normally wouldn’t be a problem. But the path there is unlit, and surrounded by tall grass where all kinds of creatures quacked, and croaked and chirped and rustled, and we had only a tiny, blue lantern that cast moving shadows as its light it hit the bushes.

But my friend and I just laughed about how creepy it was, and how were were such big babies, that is until the bushes on the left side rustled, and then the right, and suddenly I remembered something about an endangered jungle cat that was supposed to live in Okinawa…

Heads down, it was all business as we speed-walked until we finally saw the lights that designated the beach’s seating area, and then heard the sound of the waves. And when we stepped onto the sand and looked up, it was worth it.

The sky was dusted with stars, so many I had to wonder where they all came from. Where they really just always there, impossible to see because of the city lights? We stared up in awe, the only sound the soft rush of the waves against the shore. Had we been living under this fairyland this whole time? And on top of that, the moon was red that night. It shone above the ocean like a ruby, leaving a shimmering, crimson ray of light on the water.


I would go back tomorrow if I could. So if you ever have a chance to visit Japan, and Okinawa, I highly recommend Kohama Island.




Featured Image -- 240

Craft of Writing: Let the Reader’s Imagination Do the Heavy Lifting


Wow, this The Daily Post article is exactly what I’ve been struggling with for the last month as I edit my own novel. When I’m reading, I prefer a more descriptive style but when I’m writing I find it so hard to do it myself.

Originally posted on The Daily Post:

This is the kind of flowery I can get behind. (Flowery Piano by Andreas (CC BY-SA 2.0)

This is the kind of flowery we can get behind. Flowery Piano by Andreas (CC BY-SA 2.0)

In storytelling, description and detail translate what’s in your imagination into scenes and images in the reader’s mind. Can bloated description detract from your work, fill your reader’s brain with too much information, and distract them from the story? The answer is yes. In today’s post we’ll look at how to know when enough is enough.

View original 710 more words