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: 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.

May Musings

May has been a busy month. I completed my first 10K race and also published two articles about my experience with the JET Program and about JETs trying to make a difference in Tohoku, the area of Japan still recovering from the earthquake and tsunami two years ago. I have a new train stories to post soon, but in the meantime, I wanted to share the links to the recent articles I wrote. As always, thank you for reading.

Strengthening the JET Program (Japan Today)

Tohoku Projects: 3,000 Letters to Japan (JETWit.com)

My Second Year in Japan – A Photo Essay

Per my blogging tradition, below is a collection of 12 photos representing my 2012.  In general, it was a good year, but also a challenging and emotional one, where I said many goodbyes, changed jobs and moved to a different part of Japan.  I wish everyone a very prosperous and healthy 2013. あけましておめでとうございます!

JANUARY

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Toyama is a part of Japan’s 雪国(snow country) and the winter brings days and nights of endless snow.  This is a picture of a frozen window at Hayatsuki Junior High School, where I worked as an ALT for two years until July.  I love the imprints from my students’ fingerprints.

FEBRUARY

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One of my favorite places in the Toyama region is Gokayama, a small village tucked away in the mountains full of “gassho” style homes.  These traditional houses are all built with a steep thatched roof said to resemble clasping praying hands (and protecting the homes from the heavy snowfall).  On certain nights in the winter, the village is lit up with candles, creating a mystical winter wonderland for everyone to walk around and appreciate the beauty winter brings.

MARCH

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Now I know what it feels like to get married! (Sort of).  雛祭り, or hinamatsuri/Doll’s Festival, is celebrated every year in Japan on March 3.  On this day, people pray for young girls’ growth and happiness. Several dolls dressed in traditional Heian period clothing, representing the emperor, empress and their court, are often put on display. I was asked to dress up like a doll with my friend Jon, a fellow ALT in Toyama-ken.  We walked around the festival greeting people and taking pictures as if we were the emperor and empress! 楽しかったですよ!

APRIL

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No year in Japan is complete without seeing sakura, or cherry blossom trees.  In late April, my friend Jenson and I biked to a park bordering Uozu and Namerikawa for the first time just as dusk was approaching.  The blossoming sakuras and lit lanterns created a magical, very peaceful, atmosphere – a welcome gift after a long winter.

MAY

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My sister and two friends came to Japan during Golden Week, so I spent my spring vacation showing them around several “must-see” areas of Japan, including Tokyo, Kyoto and of course, my former stomping ground Toyama.  My sister and I both snapped a picture of this young boy running gleefully through Kyoto’s Fushimi-Inari Shrine, one of my favorite places in Kyoto. かわいいですね。

JUNE

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I finally saw a geisha (or a woman dressed as a geisha).  I love the stare this woman is giving to the person next to her.  I saw her at the Kanazawa Hyakumangoku festival.

JULY

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I spent my July saying goodbye to Namerikawa, the seaside town I lived in for two years.  I took this picture while biking home from one of my elementary schools, likely teary-eyed at the thought of leaving the view of the Tateyama Mountain Range and open freedom of seeing rice fields upon rice fields.

AUGUST

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I spent most of my August in Hiroshima, studying at Hiroshima City University as part of the Hiroshima & Peace Program.  On August 6, the 67th anniversary of the atomic bombing, thousands of people gathered along the riverfront and set afloat paper lanterns in memory of ancestors, friends, and other loved ones lost – not only on that fateful day, but in wars and tragedies across many nations.  I lit one in honor of all those who lost their lives in war, as well as my paternal grandmother, whose life story inspired me to apply for the program.

SEPTEMBER

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I moved to Matsuyama on Japan’s Shikoku Island in late August for a new job.  Matsuyama is the largest city in the otherwise rural Ehime Prefecture, and like Toyama, a kind of hidden gem in Japan.  This is a view of the city from the top of a hill in Dogo Park.

OCTOBER

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Mt. Ishizuchi, in Ehime, is the tallest mountain in western Japan.  I climbed it with a group of my adult students on a lovely October day.  The rugged landscape from the top was awe-inspiring, and made me want to climb many more mountains before I leave Japan.

NOVEMBER

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Shimonada Station in Iyo City, Ehime, is the said to be the closest train station to the ocean in Japan.  One of my adult students, who told me this is his favorite place in Japan, took me here on a fall day to photograph the sunset.

DECEMBER

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The holidays are sometimes the times when I feel homesick the most.  I haven’t been home for a family Christmas in three years, and I miss my mother’s home-cooking and all the other comfort that comes with being around family.  Thankfully, this year, I spent a day with my summer host family in Hiroshima.  We walked around Hiroshima Dreamination, a spectacular collection of illuminations that recreates a fairytale world for children and adults.

Top 3 Reasons the JET Program is Worthwhile

This article is the second in a series of reflections about my time spent in Japan with the JET Program.  You can read my first article, about how the JET Program changed me, here.

Top 3 Reasons the JET Program is Worthwhile

ALTs participating in the annual Toyama JET Fest, a large event that allows JETs to share their culture with the people of Toyama prefecture.

The JET Program occasionally comes under scrutiny – both from officials in Japan worried about shrinking budgets in schools nationwide and also foreigners who like to pontificate about the state of English education in Japan.  A constructive debate is always healthy, and the JET Program certainly is not without its flaws, but I generally have only positive things to say about my two years teaching with the program.  Here’s why I hope the JET Program remains strong and active for many, many more years to come.

1) Grassroots Internationalization – Japan’s population continues to decline at alarming levels, and among the hardest hit are rural communities, where most JETs are placed.  There are fewer and fewer job opportunities in areas of Japan far from the major metropolises of Tokyo, Yokohama, Osaka and Nagoya, so many times, being a JET means being the only foreigner, or one of a handful, in your community.  Yes, it gets annoying to be stared at and constantly judged for what I am buying at the supermarket or how I am cutting a kiwi, but living here and exposing Japanese people to foreign cultures is a form of grassroots internationalization, one of the goals of the JET Program.  Every time I visit one of my four elementary schools, despite having lived in my town for two years, there is always a young student whose jaw drops at the sight of me – someone who looks different from anyone they have ever seen around them or on TV.  In my younger classes at elementary school, I’m often asked for my autograph after a lesson.  I’m not in love with all aspects of my job, but I’m proud that I’ve worked to promote the English language and have hopefully inspired some of my students to travel and learn more about other cultures.

2) You Meet People from Around the World – What is the capital of Trinidad & Tobago?  And more importantly, can you find the country on a map?  I live in Japan, but thanks to the JET Program, I have met fellow JETs in my prefecture  from Jamaica, Trinidad & Tobago, South Africa, Brazil, Canada, Korea, Russia, New Zealand, Australia, England, Ireland and Northern Ireland.  One of my closest friends is from Trinidad & Tobago and whereas two years ago I could barely point to his country on map, I now know its capital (Port of Spain) and have heard much more Trini dialect than I would like to admit.

3) There is a Strong Alumni Network – There are about 55,000 JET alumni scattered around the world.  After you successfully complete your tenure with JET, you can register to be part of the JET Program Alumni Association (JETAA), which has chapters around the world.  JET alumni often are active members in their current community and many continue to promote Japan-America (or their home country) relations through various endeavors and volunteer activities.  I am looking forward to joining the Chicago chapter of JETAA upon my return to the States.  One of the most comprehensive Websites about JET alumni is JETWit.com, which posts interesting articles about unique things JET alumni are doing around the world as well as useful job hints for those transitioning to another career.