Friday, 30 May 2014

notes for my successor

It’s the time of year when new JETs are starting to pop up eagerly on the facebook groups and I’m thinking about buying my flight home. To fill time during the quiet long weekend of prefectural sports matches, I started filling out the forms with information to pass on to my successor. Reading over the forms my predecessor sent me, I can’t believe how quickly time has passed and how I’ve changed. I remember being so nervous, scanning the pages repeatedly to get every last clue on what my life would be like. 

As such, I thought I’d gather together all the bits of advice and things I’ve learned that don’t quite fit in on the forms – things that any other JET or ALT might find helpful (like this site - or this one), and that I wish I’d known. The points about school will probably be most useful for people like me, who previously had no teaching and little public speaking experience. 

Don't be afraid to make a fool/ crazed Scottish loon of yourself for the English club poster (as one kind student put it, "Now we know Sophie sensei is not vain".)


Keep a notebook from day one recording what you do with each class, including games, and what worked or didn’t work. Make notes on students to help you remember their names and abilities, etc. I would have been completely lost without this. Add nice things and surprises that happen to read if Stage 2 hits! 

Don’t underestimate an element of theatricality in the classroom. It ain’t what you say, it's the way that you say it. It’s up to you to enthuse and engage the students in what is normally a repetitive subject for them. The same activity presented in different ways can provoke very different reactions, so think about how you’ll build their interest in the task: capture their attention by asking them to turn around, close their eyes, call out suggestions, vote on a topic, etc. 

That said - remember you’re not there to be an entertainer or a comedian. If you’re feeling the pressure to perform in class, turn it around – it should be the kids who feel challenged (in a good way), not you. Focus more on what you want the students to be able to do than how a teacher is meant to act or speak. 

Accept that you’ll have good days and bad days at school. Don’t give up on the troublesome students – a perk of many ALTs' job is we don't have to worry about discipline. Continue trying to talk to them out of class, and meet them halfway: some of my ‘rowdy’ boys would often write risqué things playing shiritori etc – but I’d not bat an eye and just correct their grammar! For every kid who shouts “I don’t like English!” in your ear, there’s one who’ll bring you souvenirs from holidays and email you after graduation. 

Make it clear what you expect of students at the start of the semester. This year I told all my new first year students that I didn’t mind at all if they made mistakes: in fact it was a good thing in communication classes. But I did expect them to be vocal and active in class and to tell me if they didn’t understand. 

Don’t start a reward system, like passport stamps, unless you intend to follow it through. Perhaps wait until the second semester or new school year to implement it, once you’ve settled into your role and know what’s what. It will only be effective if you really commit to it and make it an integral part of classes. 

Don't be afraid to repeat questions. I didn’t want to check which was my pigeon hole a third time and ended up throwing out all my Vice Principal’s memos for a few weeks, thinking they were mine… 

With lessons, simple is often best. Some of the lessons I thought would be a bit boring turned out to be the most popular. Likewise, always have a back up or a time filler prepared, but too many activities in one lesson will feel rushed and will just stress you out. 

Be sure to make full use of Line's admirable range of stickers


100 yen stores like Daiso are a godsend. From false eyelash glue to bike lights, waterproof trousers to champagne saucers, you can find just about anything there. 

Keep a towel and a fan on your person at all times in summer! 

Don't leave your bike unlocked no matter how trustworthy your town – the police or the mall attendants will lock it and you’ll have to locate them and retrieve the key. 

Make your peace with Japanese toilets early on. I know one ALT who managed to avoid using the school toilet for several months (going home at lunch instead), only to find out later that there was actually a Western toilet right there too. 

When studying Japanese, don’t bother making physical flashcards, unless it particularly helps you – websites like this are free and easy. 

Freeze your food garbage in a large plastic bag until the collection morning for non-burnable rubbish, especially in summer. 

Be careful when toasting – raising your glass higher than the other one clinking indicates you think you’re of higher status. 

Remember that things we take utterly for granted might be different here. I was non-plussed to see my colleagues smiling as they told me about another teacher's family troubles... until I did some digging and found that in Japan, smiling can indicate sadness, embarrassment, anger and more. After the initial honeymoon period, keep your mind wide open to these cultural variations

Be mindful of Japanese subtlety


Make a list of goals and priorities before you come and refer to it often. It will help you on difficult days at school and help you keep a sense of purpose if you feel disconnected. 

Personally, I found moving to Japan was a chance to realise what had been habit and social expectation, and what is what you actually want. Transplanting yourself into a completely different life is a huge opportunity in this way. 

Try your best not to compare yourself to other JETs or ALTs in terms of teaching style, work load, Japanese ability – anything. It’s inevitable that you’ll come across Jets who are more or less experienced in or committed to teaching. JET is a unique situation in that most of your new friends have an extremely similar job and lifestyle to you, but try to focus on what is best for you.   

Say yes a lot and try to do new things that make you a bit nervous. 

I’ve never relied on or supported my friends more than this year. Unless your Japanese is great or you’re super independent, friends will be the ones helping you with hospital appointments, giving you rides to weekend events, and helping you with the little things like bills and train tickets that would be easy back home.  So be prepared to rely on them and to help them out in turn

Consider staying more than a year. For various reasons it was always going to be one year only for me. But it was only when a new school year started in April that I felt really happy and capable in the job, and realised how much of Japan I still have to see. So keep your options open... 

Someone told me to ‘give everything of yourself and expect nothing in return’, and I resolved to try it as best as I could. In the end, what I had to give was more than returned to me in kindness, patience and friendship by the people I met here. And I found that, in times when I was getting a little jaded with teaching, focusing on what I could contribute rather than how I could benefit made the work more effective and more rewarding. 

Thursday, 29 May 2014

fukuoka sights

The last place G and I explored was the biggest city on Kyushu, Fukuoka. There's not that much to do there except shop and eat, so we only planned for one day there. But it turned out to be a lot of fun - Gabby loved the bustling city and I can't take my eyes off the crowds of perfectly-groomed, fashionable people. 

We ate huge breakfasts and Mexican dinners (at a great place in Hakata station), went to art galleries, shopped, wandered and did karaoke. I didn't take many pictures - I think I was trying to just make the most of our time together without looking at it through a screen.

Somewhat creepy boats in the park by Fukuoka art museum

Gabs was pretty happy with his ramen - we headed to Ramen Stadium in Canal City, where you can choose from 8 shops and ramen types from all over Japan. 

And of course we couldn't resist our speciality 

A bit of reading for the train back home... I love Humans of New York
For our last night we went out for drinks and dancing to stave off the leaving blues. Right next to our hotel, by Hakata station, we found a fantastic old place called Bar England. The sign looked tacky and we ducked in prepared to laugh at a weird interpretation of an English pub, only to find a wonderful cocktail bar with mood lighting and wood panelled walls. 

I was pretty damn sad catching the shinkansen home on my own. But, I had a live volcano to distract me and the knowledge that the next time we say hello, I won't have to start dreading saying goodbye again. Almost only 2 months to go! 

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

the san francisco of japan

On our second day in Nagasaki we headed to the 26 Martyrs Memorial, 5 minutes' walk from the station. It commemorates the Christians religiously persecuted killed in 1597. Behind it was a great wee museum about the history of Christianity in Japan. 

We ducked into a coffee shop round the corner to avoid the rain and found piles of gorgeous children's books. I love the "This is..." series illustrated by M. Sasek. 

And it had damn good hot chocolate too. 

Old map of Japan
Sheltering from the rain, we popped into the Nagasaki Museum of History and Culture and were drawn in to a great tour by an eager old man for an hour or so. The museum has a lot of beautiful arts and crafts as well as history and traditional Japanese painting.

We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering in and out of temples under our umbrella. 

Suwa Shrine

Sofukuiji Temple was totally deserted and rather atmospheric in the rain. 

The holy grail of Cokes

Later when we wandered out for dinner we found this absolute coincidence! What are the chances?!

Our last morning was bright and blustery, and I was a little nervous as we rode up to Inasa-yama. It's apparently one of the best views night views in the whole of Japan, but it's pretty spectacular during the day too... 

I loved the size, the history and the cosmopolitanism of Nagasaki, and would have loved to have been placed there. If you visit, plan to spend at least two full days there and prepare to let go of all your preconceptions about Japan. 

Sunday, 25 May 2014

cherry blossom in nagasaki

This post is a couple of months late, but it's so nice seeing the pictures again now! After Beppu, the next place we headed on Gabby's visit was Nagasaki. We took several trains and then hopped on a shinkansen from Fukuoka and arrived on a beautiful spring day. We took a tram to the Atomic Bomb Peace Park and museum, a serious outing for a sunny day.  

A short walk away from the main park and museum is the Nagai Takashi Memorial Museum. It commemorates a man who suffered from leukemia after the bomb, and dedicated his life to writing about it and raising money for its victims. 

The city immediately felt a bit different from other places in Japan. With its hills, trams and international vibe all around the bay, it felt like San Fransisco.

No idea what they were going for here

We had an early night and set out the next morning for Dejima! I'd recently finished a fantastic book called The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell (author of Cloud Atlas) which is set there, and was nerdily excited to see it! 

In the 18th century, Dutch traders were allowed an exception to the Japanese isolationist policy, and traded with Nagasaki from this man-made island just off the coast. The book follows a young Dutch clerk but also the lives of a hidden Christian, a Japanese midwife, a mysterious religious sect and the various translators and officials who came into contact with the Dutch. Now, Dejima is surrounded on all sides by land and has been converted into an excellent museum. 

 Behind us you can see a model of the whole island, in the middle of the island. Que meta. 

There are tons of exhibits about everything connected to daily life there, as well as the socio-political context of  Japan at the time. 

I especially loved these displays of flora and fauna. I want them on my wall! 

A hyper active little old lady stopped us and took our picture, after commenting that Gabby looks like Steven Spielberg

I actually kind of see it
After a big lunch and a few beers in Chinatown we headed to Glover Gardens. All the European business men and their families lived in this area overlooking the bay in the past, and a lot of their old houses still stand as mini museums. 

It's a gorgeous park to wander around on a warm afternoon... and it had the best koi pond I've ever seen. I got so excited Gabby had to buy me some snacks to feed them...

Turns out that old cliched image of old men playing chess in the sun? It's actually true. 

On our way home we popped into Oura Catholic Church. It felt so strange to be in that kind of building again after so many months! 

That evening we had a lovely dinner at a French fusion place right next to Dejima, Garcon Ken's. We were one of two couples in the small space and chatted with Ken about travelling and Japan for a while. 

We finished the night at a little jewel of a cocktail bar, tucked away on the second floor of an unassuming alley. It's called Agio Bar and Cafe and is well worth a visit. The lights are dim so you view the menus with a little torch! Old movies like The Big Sleep are projected silently onto the wall and it all feels very intimate, like a well kept secret. 

The best part was it's literally hidden behind a secret bookcase! Look out for Audrey and you're in the right place.

Nagasaki, we love you.