Category Archives: Japan

Transition Japan: Your First Few Months in Japan

Backdated from October

Note: This is the fourth essay in a series about moving to Japan, specifically for those going to Japan with the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program. See part one here, part two here, and part three here.

Gomen! ごめん!

It’s been a long time since I’ve had a chance to blog.

Although my first goal was to write about your first few weeks in Japan on the JET Program, with November here and winter just around the corner, it now makes more sense to write about your first few months in Japan. Below are a few suggestions to keep you focused as winter rolls through and likely forces you to consider why you came to Japan in the first place.

1. Continue to Study Japanese —  I had zero Japanese knowledge before going to Japan on the JET Program, and though I left Japan by no means an expert in the language at all, I learned the most about Japanese culture when I studied the language and began to understand parts of conversations I overheard. I wish I had been more diligent about studying grammar and kanji — unfortunately, this is an all-too common regret among JETs. I think it’s safe to say few have uttered, “Boy, I wish I knew less Japanese and hadn’t studied so much!”

Tips: If you’re not interested in the JET books (I wasn’t after briefly trying), search for the Genki Japanese series. Also, find a Japanese tutor. My first Japanese teacher, who was a volunteer at the local city hall in the town next to mine, became a good friend who I hope to see again when I visit Japan.

2. Get Out of Your Comfort Zone — By now, your so called “honeymoon” period in Japan is over and you may be beginning to peal back the thick, mysterious layer of Japanese society and seeing its imperfections. This can cause culture shock and homesickness, but a great way to see Japan (and yourself) in a new light is to pick up a new hobby and try something new. Your options may be somewhat limited with a language barrier, but among the things I had never tried before that I did in Japan include: photography, helping write a play, climbing a large mountain, running a 5K and 10K race, and modeling!

Tips: Pick a new hobby. Mine became running. I have continued with it since leaving Japan and just completed my first half-marathon.

3. Invest in Becoming a Better Teacher — JET gives us the wonderful opportunity for self-discovery (see number 2) and learning about another culture. However, we were also selected to work hard and hopefully become role models for our students. Teaching is hard work and takes a lot of practice, as well as trial and error. Even if you will not become a teacher when you leave Japan, investing in your ability to at least try and become a better educator will benefit not only your students, but also your professional capabilities and likely gain you more respect among your co-workers.

Tips: Sign up for a TESOL certification course online, or take free courses in education at Coursera.

4. Think About Your Goals — Living in the moment is a wonderful thing that I wish I could do more. However, so is the ability to have a clear idea of what one wants for his/her life. I’m still trying to figure this one out, but holding off on decisions will only catch up to you.

Tips: Start making a list of small goals that you wish to achieve; write them down and create a larger goal as soon as you accomplish a smaller goal.

5. Immerse Yourself — Whether you’re staying in Japan for one year or five, your time in Japan is fleeting (unless you plan to say forever). As much as I sometimes missed America during my time abroad, I now miss many parts of Japan, as if part of my Japanese identity has been somehow intertwined there and remains in me even as I continue to readjust to American culture.

Tips: Get out and open your eyes.

Next in Transition in Japan: Your re-contracting decision!

A Little of Japan in Chicago

I spent Sunday at Chicago’s Osaka Garden, an expansive Japanese garden situated in Hyde Park next to the Museum of Science and Industry with an interesting history. What a beautiful hidden gem!

OsakaGarden

Transition Japan: Packing for Japan (Part Three)

This is the third essay in a series about moving to Japan, specifically for those going to Japan with the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program. See part one here and part two here.

When thinking about my three years in Japan, the most stressful times for me didn’t usually involve acclimating to Japanese culture but rather moving — both within Japan and back to America. It’s not something I wish to do ever again.  However, to make your transition a bit easier, below are some brief tips about what to pack (and what not to pack) before you leave for Japan, as well as other general tips about your last weeks before departure. Next in Transition Japan: Your First Week in Japan.

Packing

I was allowed to bring two large suitcases under a certain weight and a personal item.  Check with your local JET Program Coordinator and they should be able to answer specific questions about weight requirements, restrictions, etc. It was nearly impossible for me to fit everything I wanted to within these restrictions, but with a little planning, it shouldn’t be too much of a problem.

What to Bring

  • A careful selection of clothes. The first part of Japan I lived in — Namerikawa-shi, Toyama-ken —had similar weather to Chicago, though a bit milder.  This meant I was prepared for hot summers and brutally long winters.  Japan’s climate can vary greatly per location, so do your research before packing your parka, or your swimsuit.  Your work clothes will most likely be most important when you first arrive since you’ll want to make a good impression, so decide on a few basic conservative work outfits to get you through your first week.  Focus first on summer items, as it will likely be very hot and humid anywhere in Japan.  My parents kindly sent me a package of my winter clothes as it got colder.  Some JETs went home for winter vacation and could bring back more clothes then, too.  Also, keep in mind that your ability to buy clothes in Japan will depend on your height, body type, shoe size, budget, etc., so just plan ahead and ask a lot of questions to your predecessor about what is available to you if you’re worried.
  • Two to three pairs of shoes, including new ones that will be your “indoor shoes.” Again, prioritize work shoes, and designate a new pair of shoes as your “indoor shoes,” as you will have to change into these before entering your school. I bought a pair of black TOMS shoes as my indoor school shoes, and they worked well for me for three years. I’m a runner, so my running shoes also made the list.
  • Enough underwear/undergarments to last you at least one week. I could only do laundry about once a week, and you’ll very likely live in an apartment without a dryer, so that means hanging your clothes to dry (not fun in the winter and during the rainy season). As a general rule, bring enough undergarments to last you at least a seven-day cycle, and budget on having at least a five-day work outfit routine that you can rely on.
  • Deodorant — I had a hard time finding American brands, so I do recommend bringing about two sticks of your favorite brand.
  • Start-up Money — The amount  of money you need in your first month varies greatly depending on your location and when your first rent money is due. Budget to bring about $2,000 in start-up money if possible, though working with less is possible if you live in a smaller town.

What to Leave Behind

  • Umbrellas (I broke so many in Japan, and you can buy one on almost every corner)
  • Soap, shampoo, toothpaste, contact solution, and other general toiletries. All of this can be found easily, unless you’re attached to a certain brand. There’s some skepticism if Japanese toothpaste has Fluoride in it, but I could find Aquafresh with ease. Bring a travel size of your favorite brand if you’re really concerned.
  • Towels. You’ll be able to buy this all in Japan cheaply and conveniently. However, bringing one towel for your first night in your apartment is a good idea.
  • Packaged food, unless you’re seriously addicted to some specific snack. I could find almost anything I wanted in Japanese supermarkets, and there’s always the Foreign Buyers’ Club if you’re really craving something.
  • Books — I think it’s definitely OK to bring one for the plane ride and your first weeks, but I don’t suggest stacking up on them. Rather, you can use Amazon.co.jp, your new JET friends (often there will be a local library within your JET community), or if you can afford it, invest in a Kindle or iPad. This will be much more economical, especially if you plan to stay in Japan for more than a year.
  • Teaching Materials — There will be books you can buy at orientation if you really think you need them, but in general, your best resources will be your fellow JETs who have experience teaching, websites, and your school.
  • For the ladies, feminine napkins should be easy to find, though I do suggest bringing a few boxes of your favorite brand of tampons.

Specific Requirements

Become friends with your JET Coordinator, who should be very knowledge and will likely be sending you a lot of e-mails about specific requirements you need to take care of before you leave, including your visa application, background check, and health check.

Saying Goodbye

Don’t try to squeeze a goodbye in for everyone you know. This will only give you a giant headache and you’ll likely leave someone unintentionally out.  I spent my last few weeks in Chicago with close family members, who organized a nice barbeque for me about one week before I left. You’ll always have access to e-mail and Skype for those who you can’t see but want keep in touch with.

Websites to Get You Ready

Surviving in Japan (Without Much Japanese)

This Japanese Life

Tofugu

Genki English

Dream English Kids (good if you’re teaching elementary school students)

English-4 Kids

ESL Cafe

Your Local JET Chapter Website (for an example, see Toyama JET’s website here)

Am I forgetting something important? Write in the comments below and I’ll do my best to respond promptly.

Clinging to Cherry Blossoms

In spring apricot blossoms bloom first.

I was looking for the blooming alone in twilight.

-Yamanoue no Okura (山上憶良)

Chicagoans, myself included, wrapped in Arctic coats while wishing for just one day above 20 degrees Fahrenheit, battled one of the coldest Windy City winters this year.

So while life back in my hometown looked like this for most of December through mid-March:

The Adler Planetarium in Chicago, Ill.

The Adler Planetarium in Chicago, Ill.

I spent many hours nostalgically pining for days like this:

A hanami party near Matsuyama Castle.

A hanami party near Matsuyama Castle.

As I wrote last year, Japan’s cherry blossom season is ephemeral but often the season that stays with visitors the most – lingering on in memories long after one’s departure from Japan.

Below are more of my favorite cherry blossom photographs from Toyama and Matsuyama.  Hopefully there comes a day when I can see sakura again.

Sakura at night in Namerikawa, Japan.

Sakura at night in Namerikawa, Japan.

Snow and mountains in Namerikawa, Japan.

Cherry blossoms and mountains in Namerikawa, Japan.

A wedding at Dogo Park in Matsuyama during cherry blossom season.

A wedding at Dogo Park in Matsuyama during cherry blossom season.

On top of Matsuyama Castle, overlooking the city.

On top of Matsuyama Castle, overlooking the city.

A close-up of sakura.

A close-up of sakura.

 

Three Little Things on the Third Anniversary of 311

Yesterday marked the third anniversary of the March 11, 2011 triple disasters that ravaged the northeast coast of Japan.  As always, my thoughts are with the families still grieving the loss of loved ones, and those who struggle to find normalcy in a forever changed landscape overcome by nuclear disaster and uncertainty.  I’m in the process of writing a story about a Chicago photographer and sociologist who recently toured a town near the Daiichi Nuclear Plant in Fukushima and will share that soon.  In the meantime, below are some links of interest regarding the current state of Tohoku and its ongoing recovery.

Tohoku Tomo – a documentary made by three Chicago JET Alumni about the rebuilding efforts in Tohoku. The film premieres tomorrow at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago.

Tohoku Tomo 東北友 – Teaser from Tohoku Tomo on Vimeo.

Unknown Spring – “an anthology projects that bears witness to the ongoing recovery in Tohoku.” A short documentary of the project can be viewed on Vimeo.

Fukushima: Don’t Forget – Stories of five Fukushima residents from Greenpeace International.

Video

High-Speed Rail, Japan & the Midwest

The list of things I miss (and don’t miss) about Japan is long and complicated. But without a doubt, the efficiency and thoroughness of Japan’s high-speed rail system is high on the list of things I wish existed in the Midwest.  I explore this issue in my latest “Letters from Japan” series at Gapers Block

Transition Japan: The JET Interview (Part 2)

This is the second article in a series about the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program (JET) and about life in Japan in general.  Read Transition Japan: The JET Interview (Part 1) here.

I interviewed for JET four years ago, and while my memory of the day becomes less strong every year, I still remember walking down Michigan Avenue to the Chicago Consulate on a sunny February afternoon, hoping that in a few months, I would be on my way to a new adventure (and full-time employment).  Luckily, I succeeded. Below are some questions I recall being asked by my panel.  Good luck to all those interviewing for JET this month!

1). Why are you interested in the program?

How I answered it: I’ve long been interested in teaching abroad.  As a writer, I think it’s important to always explore and experience different cultures and see the world from a new perspective.  I’m also interested in giving back to the community, and I see the JET Program as the most established program to accomplish these goals.

Bottom line: Answer honestly and thoughtfully, but make sure not to say it’s solely for personal reasons (i.e. a Japanese boyfriend/girlfriend).

2). What would you do if you had plans with a friend after school one day but a Japanese English teacher asked you to stay late?

How I answered it: I’d stay after school but hope in the future, the teacher and I would be able to communicate more effectively about our schedules.

Bottom line: Demonstrate professionalism and that you can handle tough situations with grace and with a smile, even if you don’t know the exact solution immediately.

3). What are some of your goals?

How I answered it: Since I’m trained as a journalist, I’d love to start a newspaper with my students.  I think it would be a great way to get to know my students.

Bottom line: Talk about your passions and what you’d like to teach your students, or how you’d like to interact with them outside of class, be it through sports, art or other extracurricular activities.

4). What if you get there and you can’t do that?

How I answered it:  Well, I’d move forward but hope I could find other ways to get to know my students.  I have enough work experience to understand that no job is perfect, but I know how to work hard.   Interesting note: When I got to my school, I asked about creating a newspaper with them or writing a column for my students’ existing newsletter. I was told no (politely) but luckily moved on and still had a great time at my school.

Bottom line: Once again, show that you’re professional and that you won’t be dismayed when something doesn’t go your way.  Chances are, you’ll be told “no” on a lot of occasions, but that shouldn’t stop you from achieving your goals and being a successful JET.

5).  You wrote in your application that you lived and worked in Ireland after graduation.  Did you experience any culture shock there?

How I answered it:  Yes, I still remember asking a bus driver for directions using a street name.   He laughed and told me that streets in Dublin change names every few blocks.  All the streets were so circular that I got lost constantly.  But there wasn’t a language barrier, and lots of people thought I was Irish, so I didn’t have too much culture shock.  I think being in Japan will be more challenging, but in some ways, I think not knowing the language is an advantage because my students will be forced to use English with me. (Note: When I said this last comment, I received some strange looks from the former JET participants. Now I know why.  You MUST study Japanese during JET to have a more meaningful experience, but I still believe in only using English in the classroom and as much as possible with your students).

Bottom line: If you have studied or lived abroad, show that you know how to handle culture shock. If you haven’t studied abroad, that’s OK! Just demonstrate that you have an open mind and can overcome challenges/bouts of homesickness.

6). Tell us about your placement preferences.

How I answered it:  I put anywhere near Kyoto as my first choice because I visited there once before and thought the city was a perfect mix of old and new. Side note: Little did I know that 1,000,000 others also probably placed Kyoto as their first choice.  I now laugh at the fact that I thought I had a chance of being placed anywhere near there.

Bottom line: Be honest about your reasons, but show you’re flexible too.

7). What would do if you didn’t get placed in a city (which was my first choice)?

How I answered it:  I’ll be honest and I say I wouldn’t be the happiest because I think I thrive in cities, but I’d make the best of the situation. (Note: I was placed in a small seaside town/ sleepy suburb of Toyama-shi, far from the fame of any major Japanese city!)

Bottom line:  Show you’re willing to move almost anywhere in Japan (country, suburb, city, north, south, east, west, islands).  Unless there is a specific medical reason you need to be somewhere, your placement choices probably don’t really matter.