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!

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.

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.

Transition Japan: The JET Interview (Part 1)

This is the third article in a series about the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program (JET) and about life in Japan in general.  My goal is to “demystify” Japan and encourage anyone with an interest in teaching abroad to consider JET.  Read my first post, Transition Japan: Your Apartment, here, and my second post, Transition Japan: Your Town & JET Placement, here.

An aspiring JET recently e-mailed me regarding her interview for JET.  She asked for some advice about how to succeed, so I thought I’d share some general tips for anyone interviewing for the program.  Although my memory is fading a little bit from my interview four years ago, my understanding is that all JETs will be assessed by a panel of three (likely consisting of two former JETs and a Japanese representative).  These tips are aimed at those applying for the Assistant Language Teacher (ALT) position.

1. Be professional and on time. Consider the JET interview to be like any other job interview.  Wear your best suit, groom your hair carefully, and arrive early.  I arrived about 30 minutes early after hearing, “In Japan, if you’re five minutes early, you’re considered late.”

2. Practice answers to basic questions.  An obvious question that you’ll likely be asked is, “Why do you want to become a JET?”  Be sure to have an honest and thoughtful response showing that you are knowledgeable about the JET Program and enthusiastic.

3. Show flexibility. I think in general, those interviewing JET candidates want to see someone who is flexible — that is, someone who can handle challenges.  Living in a foreign country and immersing yourself in a foreign culture is incredibly rewarding but also incredibly difficult.  With JET, you’ll likely have no say in where you’ll live and what ages you’ll teach. Show that you’re interested in the program, not just living in Japan.

4. Don’t babble solely about your love of Japan. This is only a personal opinion, and let me preface this by saying that having an interest in Japanese culture is vital for any successful JET. However, solely talking about your love of the country may not be the most successful interview strategy.  Remember, you’re competing against thousands of other applicants who may have also minored or majored in Japanese studies.  Showing that you have interests and hobbies beyond Japan will make you seem like a more dynamic applicant.

5. Emphasize past work experience.  Even if you’re a recent college graduate, demonstrate that you’ve succeeded in past positions and understand how to be professional.  I think part of the reason I was successful was because I had a lot of work experience prior to applying for JET, including a lot of positions that required working with individuals from foreign countries.  I was honest in my interview and said that I understand no job is perfect but I know how to work hard.  Ultimately, I think this helped me become a JET.

In part two, I’ll discuss the specific questions panel members asked me during my interview.

Transition Japan: Your Town & JET Placement

This is the second article in a series about life as a member of the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program (JET) and about life in Japan in general.  My goal is to “demystify” Japan and encourage anyone with an interest in teaching abroad to consider JET.  Read my first post, Transition Japan: Your Apartment, here.

When I applied to the JET Program, I could preference three types of locations on my application: city, suburbs or country.  After nulling over the decision for a few weeks and talking with former JETs, I decided, with relative ease, to select city as my first choice.  As I knew zero Japanese at that time, I thought life in a city would be more familiar and relaxing. I also noted in my application that ideally, I would like to live in an area with a shinkansen line, as I had hoped to research high-speed rail during my time in Japan.

After nearly a half year of waiting, I finally received a long awaited e-mail one day at work with the subject line “JET Program Placement.”  I took a deep breath, opened the e-mail and read that I would be living in Namerikawa-shi, a country /suburb(ish) town of about 30,000 people in Toyama-ken with no high-speed rail line (though one is currently being built).

“Where?” I gulped as I read the e-mail and quickly Googled Toyama, hoping to find a map or some sort of English material about the area.  As I stared at Toyama on a map, I noticed that my town was located a few steps away from the sea and miles away from anywhere I knew in Japan.  “It’s going to be an interesting year,” I thought.

I tell this story because although it is worth stating your preferences in your application, you are definitely not guaranteed any of these requests — in fact, more often than not, JETs are placed in parts of Japan that they have never heard of. I knew nothing about Toyama before I left and still sometimes have to explain to Japanese people where the prefecture is located.  Unless you have an extremely specific (i.e., medical) reason for needing to be close to a major city, it’s very likely you’ll be placed in a less-populous part of Japan.

Life in the countryside has its challenges, but I ended up (generally) loving life in my small town. I felt as if I really contributed to a community and learned much more about Japanese culture than I would have had I been living in a major city.  Now, I feel connected to a part of Japan that few Americans have ever called home.  Below are some pictures of my town to give you a sense of what it looked like, and to show that my life wasn’t really that different from life in a small American town.  There weren’t many places to go shopping or hang out late at night, and everyone in my town seemed to be married or above the age of 80, but I lived close to several supermarkets, the post office, bank and my work.  In general, my town was pretty convenient and easy to get around, minus the days with heavy snowfall.  In part two, I’ll show more pictures focusing on nature.

A main road leading to my town.
A main road leading to my town.
A delicious French bakery about 10 minutes from my apartment.
A delicious French bakery about 10 minutes from my apartment.
My town's newly-built community center.
My town’s newly-built community center.
Family_mart
Newly-opened Family Mart convenience store.
Post office
Post office
Local izakaya (pub)
Local izakaya (pub)
The biggest supermarket, Plant 3, in my town.
The biggest supermarket, Plant 3, in my town.

Transition Japan: Your Apartment

This is the first in a series of posts about life in Japan and life as a member of the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program (JET). Please write any questions you would like me to address in the comments section below.

The outside of my apartment building.
The outside of my apartment building.

If accepted into the JET Program, your Contracting Organization (CO) or Board of Education (BOE) will determine your housing situation.  Rent, size and key money deposits will be different for every JET.  More often than not, you will live in the same apartment as your predecessor. Homes are usually located near your main workplace, close enough so that most JETs I knew could walk or ride their bicycle to work.  Apartments in Japan are often called “1K,” “1DK,” or “1LDK” based on the number of rooms.  A “1DK,” which most single JETs seem to live in, means you will have a kitchen and separate bedroom.  If you are married and/or have a family, your CO will likely organize a larger apartment for you and your loved one(s) to live in.  You are technically obliged to live in your apartment for at least one year, so it is unwise to say you want to find your own housing, especially given how stringent some Japanese renting companies can be when it comes to dealing with non-Japanese people. However, if after one year you really want to move to another place, definitely talk in advance with your CO to make arrangements.  This situation isn’t ideal — and it’s not guaranteed your CO will help you move to another place — but it’s worth expressing your opinion if you feel like a move is necessary for your well-being.

My bedroom.
My bedroom.

My BOE helped cover some of the cost of my apartment and I did not have to pay any key deposit money.  As a result of the subsidy, I paid 20,000 yen per month (about $200/month).  Electricity and water were not included, so total costs were around 30,000 yen per month ($300/month). Given my JET salary, I considered this a good deal. As you can see from the photos, my apartment was fairly narrow, but it suited my needs just fine for two years.  Other JETs in the neighboring town lived in spacious houses and paid no rent, so it really depends case by case.  I lived about 15 minutes by bicycle to my base school (i.e., the school I visited most often among my five).  I also lived in the same apartment building as two other ALTs who worked at my town’s other junior high school and high school, in addition to a Coordinator for International Relations (CIR).  This made my situation feel much more comfortable, especially at first when I was just starting out and noticed that my Japanese neighbors never spoke to me.  Although you are not 100 percent guaranteed to live in the same apartment as other JETs, it is likely you will be fairly close to other JETs, especially if they live in the same town as you.

The entrance (and kitchen) to my apartment.
The entrance (and kitchen) to my apartment.

My BOE supplied me with basic furnishings (refrigerator, rice cooker, washing machine) and I bought all other major necessities from my predecessor, including a bed, bike and couch.  You will likely not have a dryer in your apartment per Japanese tradition, so you will have to hang your clothes outside to dry when the weather allows it and/or visit a coin laundry to dry your clothes. If you need something that isn’t in your new home, check 100 yen stores first before looking at other more expensive stores or online (this is a trick I learned from my neighbor, Jenson, who helped me transition into my new home).

The bicycle parking area outside of my apartment building.
The bicycle parking area outside of my apartment building.
Basil growing on the "balcony" of my apartment.
Basil growing on the “balcony” of my apartment.
Rainy day view from my "balcony."
Rainy day view from my “balcony.”

I hope this answers your basic questions about apartment life.  Again, please post any comments or questions below.

Transition Japan: Coming Soon

A man at a festival in Kanazawa, Japan.
A man dressed as an oni (mythical Japanese demon) at a festival in Kanazawa, Japan.

I recently presented at an information session for aspiring teachers and translators who are interested in working in Japan through the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program (JET).  In addition to gushing about my Japan experience, I received a number of thoughtful questions from prospective applicants.  Sometimes, I forget that Japan can seem so mysterious for people who have never visited or worked there.  Japan now feels like a second home to me, and it’s a place I encourage everyone to visit if they have the means.  But most people who do spend time here go through some form of culture shock.  In this series, Transition Japan, I hope to “demystify” the Land of the Rising Sun and respond to questions about the JET Program and about life as a teacher in Japan in general.  The inaugural post will be about my apartment (size, rent, neighbors). Please post any questions you would like me to answer in the comments section.