How Far I’ve Come: Reflections on 1+ Year of Living in Japan

It’s been nearly 14 months since I arrived in Japan, and the other day I was reflecting on just how far I have come in a year. It’s easy and it’s tempting to look at certain aspects of my life here and feel like I have miles yet to go…

…but on the other hand, looking back shows me just how far I’ve already come.

Japanese Ability

August/September 2015: Started from absolute zero. At this point, I was slowly memorizing hiragana (and I hadn’t reached katakana yet). My conversational ability only extended to the most basic phrases — good morning, thank you, it’s raining today,  this is delicious,  I’m sorry,  it’s nice to meet you,  大丈夫ですか? and ならほうどう!Visits to the grocery store flustered me, and whenever a cashier asked me a question (such as what I now know to be “Do you want this sandwich heated up?”), I could only stare back with a confused look — and the cashier would just do whatever he or she thought was best. As you can imagine, I wasn’t very fun to talk to in Japanese, and I pretty helpless in daily life.

August/September 2016: When my parents visited in August, we went to Tohoku region. Tohoku region is far enough off the beaten track for a lot of foreigners, though, that most people working in the area’s service industry don’t have a high level of English ability (unlike in Kyoto and Tokyo). So it was up to me to play translator as best I could. I checked us into hotels, translated menus, and asked all the silly questions that my parents forced me to ask, with a decent amount of success! Of course, my Japanese was far from perfect and I had to consult Google Translate more than a few times, but overall, I was pretty impressed with myself. I’d come a long way!

My best moment was at a tonkatsu restaurant in Akita — my parents and I walked in and all the staff freaked (because we look so foreign and they didn’t have an English menu). However, I managed to translate the menu just fine (thanks Google!) and I ordered all our food in Japanese, and from that moment on, the older woman who ran the shop kept stopping by our table to ask me friendly questions. It was also the first time that someone assumed I was actually living in Japan, and not just touring. (My parents, however, were assumed to be visiting, which of course they were). That lunch was a big confidence-boost for me, and I needed it, because when it comes to speaking, I know I’m usually pretty helpless here. Bank transfers are beyond me, and the long list of questions that they rattle off at the post office makes me wary to ever send a letter. And sometimes at work enkais, I just hear long stretches of white noise and I curse my infantile language skills.

I’ll never be fluent, but sometimes it’s good to remember that I’m not always helpless, either.

Teaching

August/September 2015: My first few lessons were crap. I remember that I was literally shaking, and I was very uncomfortable with all eyes on me. I didn’t know how to respond to or how to really interact with students (luckily they forgave me). And I didn’t yet know the personalities or teaching styles of the colleagues whom I shared the classroom with, which makes a big difference during lessons. At my tech school, where I am 100% responsible for making all the lessons I teach, I floundered with a lack of ideas and rather poor execution. The first few months of teaching were stressful for me, with moments of hope and moments of disappointment.

August/September 2016: I’m not going to lie. I still get nervous sometimes (especially when I’m teaching a brand new lesson of my own design), and I still have classes that go rather terribly. Just last week, actually, I left one of my classes feeling pretty disappointed with how that lesson had gone. However, for the most part, I’m so much more at ease in the classroom than I was last year. Experience (and talking with other ALT friends) has given me a long list of activity ideas, and I know for the most part what will work, and what will fail. A really important factor to this is that I know my students and my classes better. I know what to expect. I know what they enjoy doing. And I know my colleagues better. We know what hats to wear in class; we critique lessons afterwards and try to fix any problems that arose for the next class. On top of all that, I’m actively trying to apply what I learn in my TEFL course to the classroom — I’ve been simplifying my instructions so students understand them better, I’ve learned how to speak slower than I used to (still a work-in-progress), and I think I’ve been organizing my lesson structures more effectively. Teaching in itself has such a big learning curve, and I’m finally on the upswing.

There have been so many days where I end the class bursting with happiness, and there are so many lessons that end in laughter. I really love what I’m doing here, and even the moments of failure have been worth it. I’m excited to see what kind of teacher-in-training I am by next year!

Kimono

August/September 2015: On my first day of Kimono class, back in September of 2015, it took me the full two hours to tie my obi once — alongside everyone else, of course — even though the students started kimono class months prior, we were all tackling this new obi style together. In the following classes, I struggled to remember all the steps, and I messed up spectacularly. I was a little terrified to even handle the obi — I knew it was expensive, and I worried about tearing it. Then in October, Kimono-sensei brought out the actual kimonos for us to try on, and class got even more complicated. When Kimono-sensei started floating the idea that I should enter a competition, I thought it was a joke –I couldn’t even tie the obi properly after two months of practice!

August/September 2016: A year later, and I am pretty well-practiced in the art of kimono. I’m proud to say that I can tie my obi in three minutes flat, and I can fully dress and undress myself in kimono three or four times in a row each class.  It’s hard work — harder than I ever thought it would be — but I’m amazed that over the months, I have turned what I thought was impossible — to fully dress myself in kimono and obi in under 10 minutes  — into an accomplished reality — just a few weeks ago, I finally broke the 10:30 record I had been hovering at. I still make mistakes (sometimes one of the ties are visible, or my hem isn’t long enough, or the collar needs adjustment) but I’m much further than I ever expected to be.

And I’m so happy with how far I’ve come.

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Travelling in Tohoku Part 2: Dewa Sanzan, Yamagata

I had an amazing summer holiday with my parents, and although not everything went according to plan, I still have a lot of places to recommend for future explorations!

This three part series will definitely be more of a photoblog than anything else, but I’ll try to add stories or commentary where needed. For Part II’s mood music, I recommend “Walking With Happiness” by The Best Pessimist. So without further ado, on to our second destination:

YAMAGATA — DEWA SANZAN

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For Part II of our Tohoku Adventure, I had planned for us to hike the Three Mountains of Dewa (more commonly known as Dewa Sanzan). In order, they are: Mt. Haguro (the mountain of Birth), Mt. Gassan (the mountain of Death), and Mt. Yudono (the mountain of Rebirth). Haven’t you ever heard of them? Admittedly even my coworkers gave me weird looks when I announced this part of our trip — they all wanted to know how in the world I had learned about Dewa Sanzan at all.

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We took a succession of tiny trains from Ginzan Onsen to Tsuruoka (the closest big town to the Dewa mountains), switching at tiny stations that lacked, to my shock, Suica card machines, and waiting hours for the next train to arrive.  We rumbled past endless green rice paddies and distant mountain silhouettes under bright blue skies. And our foreignness attracted quite a few stares. It was true inaka life in every sense of the word. And it was beautiful.

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After finally dropping off our bags at our hotel, we caught the first bus out of Tsuruoka and on to Mt. Haguro, the first of the three mountains, the mountain of Birth. Mt. Haguro is the lowest (414m) and easiest of the three mountains, and possibly the most famous just because everyone has climbed it.

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This ancient wooden pagoda is the highlight of Mt. Haguro. It was built in 937 without any nails holding it together, and has stood there ever since. It’s actually quite a sight to behold.

Aside from the pagoda, Mt. Haguro is also famous for its 2,446 stone steps that lead up to its summit. We climbed the mountain on a sticky, muggy, sweltering August afternoon, and we all were drenched in sweat by the time we arrived at the summit. Unfortunately, there isn’t much of a view from the top… Mt. Haguro is almost completely forested, although the tall cedars do keep the trail nice and shady while you are hiking!

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Originally, our plan was to spend the whole next day hiking up Mt. Gassan and down Mt. Yudono (the two mountains I was really looking forward to)… but unfortunately, the weather didn’t cooperate. We woke up and it was bucketing rain. We checked the weather and there were thunderstorms predicted to hover over Dewa Sanzan all day. A grim look out our hotel window confirmed that the weather apps had finally gotten it right for a change… dark clouds rolled over the far away mountains.

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So, to my disappointment, our plans changed. No Mt. Gassan or Mt. Yudono for me. Perhaps I wasn’t quite ready for the mountains of Death and Rebirth. Instead, scrambling for a plan, we headed for the slightly less cloudy shoreline, to wander around Atsumi Onsen.

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It wasn’t the active day I had intended it to be, but it was peaceful. We strolled along the Sea of Japan for a little while before walking along the river to the main town. Atsumi Onsen is a strange mixture of run-down and lived-in. It’s a quiet place, snuggled in the mountains, dotted with towering, half-empty ryokan, cheerful ice cream cafes, and small public foot baths.

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We stumbled across some hidden little places during our day in Atsumi Onsen, before heading back for our final night in Tsuruoka (we decided to forgo visiting the self-mummified monks, but they are in the area if you are interested).

All plans hit snags, and the weather was a major one in Part II of our Tohoku Adventure, but hopefully someday in the not-so-distant future, I’ll be back to climb Mt. Gassan and Mt. Yudono.

Traveling in Tohoku Part 1: Ginzan Onsen, Yamagata

I had an amazing summer holiday with my parents, and although not everything went according to plan, I still have a lot of places to recommend for future explorations!

This three part series will definitely be more of a photoblog than anything else, but I’ll try to add stories or commentary where needed. If you need mood music, I recommend “The Name Of Life” (Instrumental) by Joe Hisaishi. So without further ado, on to our first destination:

YAMAGATA — GINZAN ONSEN

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Ginzan Onsen is a small (emphasis on the small) hot spring resort town in Yamagata Prefecture. Despite it’s size, the onsen town is quite famous here in Japan, owing to it being a filming location for the popular 1980s drama Oshin.

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I was hoping to visit in the winter, which is the town’s peak season. (Look up the photos… it’s gorgeous!!) But summer turned out to be a more opportune (and just as lovely) time of year!

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Even in the rain, the town was absolutely stunning. Although Oshin ended years ago, I felt as if we were still on a movie set.

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Sadly, we weren’t able to stay in one of the beautiful old ryokan in the center of town. However, I did manage to book the slightly more modern ryokan that is set on a hill above the town. And our room came with our own private onsen!

One of the highlights of the whole experience for us was the food. Our ryokan stay included breakfasts and dinners, and no guest was left hungry. Crab legs, wagyu beef, sashimi, escargot, fish eggs, fish cooked 100 different ways, three kinds of soups, lotus root salad, sake, plum wine, watermelon, and of course… rice. We were so full by the end of every meal that my parents began refusing the rice — to the horror of the waitstaff!

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Ginzan Onsen itself is really tiny. If you are a normal person, strolling from one end to the other should only take about 15 minutes at a leisurely pace. And that’s being generous. If you’re a speedy walker, it’ll take you 5 minutes.  If you are, however, a photographer (or a wannabe) like me, then it could take over an hour to cover the whole town. The first time we walked the town, my parents actually considered stopping by a cafe for coffee (without me) because I was taking my sweet time snapping away with my camera.

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We could, however, follow the river to the back of the town. Here, we strolled by a beautiful waterfall before willingly entangling ourselves in the maze of hiking trails in the forest beyond.

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Ginzan Onsen originally developed around a silver mine. The mine itself is now defunct, but you can still enter a small part of it and look around. It was a pretty hot day, but the mine (and all the little tunnels that we passed on our hike that led into the mine) were cool — natural air conditioning! This little hike is definitely a perk of coming to Ginzan Onsen during the summer, because in the town’s peak season, all the trails are made impassable due to heavy snowfall.

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Overall, it’s a sleepy little historic town. Visitors take pictures, relax in the onsens, and get stuffed with all the delicious kaiseki (multi-course) meals.

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The rather sleepy town comes alive at night, however. After dining, guests emerge in their respective ryokans’ yukatas for an evening stroll along the river. The ryokan are lit up beautifully, and sometimes the town plays music to set the scene even further.

Imagine walking along this little street and hearing One Summer’s Day — from Miyazaki’s Spirited Away — filling the sweet summer night. Because that’s exactly what happened while I was there. All I can say is, that was perfection. Rumor has it that the ryokan pictured above served as inspiration for the famous bathhouse in the film… however, I’ve also heard that inspiration is shared with at least three other ryokan, one of which is located in Taiwan.

Of course, my parents and I joined in on the after-dinner stroll, decked out in our yukata. My mother and I went one step further, having fun stumbling around in geta — traditional woodblock sandals worn with yukata and kimono — although my dad vetoed the geta, deciding  that his sandals were the safer option.

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We ended up staying at Ginzan Onsen for two nights. It was a perfect amount of time — quiet and relaxing after all the sightseeing and train hopping my parents had done before — although the whole experience could have easily been summed up in one night as well.

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I know I’ll probably never get back to Ginzan Onsen, but I’m immensely glad that I had the opportunity to go even once. It was a little taste of traditional Japan… a little step back in time.

Summer as a Second Year JET

I’ve heard many people complain that summer vacation is a special kind of hell for JETs. The students are gone (well, actually, a lot of them still come to school, but you aren’t teaching them), classes are over (except if your students are high level… then the poor kids have a few weeks of summer classes or testing), and it’s uncomfortably hot (there’s no getting around this one unless you live in Hokkaido).

Basically, we JETs report to our base schools (or B.O.E.s?) for six weeks in a row, despite the fact that most of us have very little work to be done. The break is a good opportunity to lesson plan for autumn classes and study Japanese, but… you just can’t do that for six weeks straight. As you can imagine, boredom often ensues.

Summer vacation just finished, and of course, I had a few dull days myself. However, for the most part, this summer has been satisfyingly busy for me. Summer as a second-year JET was 100x better than last summer: I was more comfortable here, I knew my colleagues better, and I had more work to be done. Here’s what I was up to:

Vacation and Business Trips

Family-in-Japan: My parents flew halfway around the world to meet me, so I figured the least I could do was take a few days off and be their tour guide and translator in the Tohoku region. Our trip through Yamagata, Akita, and Tokyo ate up 5 days of my paid vacation time and a week of desk-warming at my base school!

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Interactive Forum: This year, along with many other ALTs and JTEs, I was asked to be a judge for the Prefectural Interactive Forum competition. Junior High School division, of course (understandably, I’d be a little biased if evaluating my own students). The Jr. High Interactive Forum competition in Ibaraki is ridiculously intense: basically, three students are randomly selected, assigned a topic, and asked to discuss it for five minutes. They go through several rounds of this too, so it’s an all-day event.

Personally, I found pros and cons to this style of competition. The biggest pro, for me, is that a student can’t just memorize everything. We judges were evaluating the conversation, so students had to listen to each other and ask relevant questions or make comments about what the other students say. However, the biggest con is the time limit. These students have prepped for this competition and they want to score as many points as possible, which you can only do by talking as much as you can and showing off your language skills. But, since there are only five minutes per round, students get a bit cutthroat. During some of the rounds, students were interrupting each other, jumping in while another student paused to breathe in the middle of a sentence… that kind of thing. All in all, I loved being a judge, and I was simply amazed by how fluent these middle schoolers were, but it was a long day.

Daigo & Ushiku Business Trips:  These business trips were created by Ibaraki”s Board of Education to increase English usage outside of the classroom. Small groups of students from various public high schools in the prefecture meet for a day and are assigned to an ALT. Together, we are all bused to one of Ibaraki’s tourist attractions, and students must guide the ALT (who’s pretending to be a clueless foreigner) around the famous site, explaining the significance and answering questions in English. Including the bus rides to and from the attraction, it’s about 5 solid hours of English speaking practice for students, in a more relaxed, out-of-the-classroom environment. These trips are really fun, and it’s a rare opportunity to interact with students from other schools. However, they can be a little draining.

Last summer, I was sent to Fukuroda Falls in Daigo for this business trip. This year, I was sent on two such trips: for the first, I was back in Daigo, accompanied by a pair of hilarious students from a lower level school. My favorite moment from this trip occurred when a passing representative from the Ibaraki Board of Education told my two students to enjoy the waterfall. One of the girls took this to heart — she stood in front of the waterfall, raised her hands, and shouted “Enjoy!” soaking in the site.

For the second business trip, I had the opportunity to visit Ushiku Daibutsu, the 120-meter tall Buddha statue in Ibaraki (accompanied by an adorable group of 5 students whose English levels were much higher than I  am used to). With this group, our conversation went further than the usual surface-scraping talk of hobbies and favorite foods, and I really felt like I knew the students by the end. Also, there is a small zoo near the Daibutsu, and I really enjoyed seeing the students get so excited to see squirrels!! There seem to be no wild squirrels here in Ibaraki, but there are hundreds in my backyard back in the U.S.

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Professional Development Conference: One of my fellow ALTs in Ibaraki organized a professional development conference for JETs over the summer. It was a good opportunity to present demo lessons for constructive criticism, and to share lesson ideas. New ALTs fresh to Japan also joined, and I only wish this conference had existed last summer, because I would have felt more confident stepping into the classroom afterwards.

Of course, I didn’t have business trips every day this summer! These are a few things I did on the days I was…

 Base-school bound:

TEFL certification: I came into the JET Program with only six months’ experience of teaching ESL in a French technical college, and absolutely no training. After a year of teaching here, I wanted to be a little more qualified. Luckily, the JET Program offers grants for re-contracting ALTs who want to become TEFL certified. I applied, won the grant, and am currently working on a 120-hour online course! I know that online courses aren’t as well-respected in the education community because they lack a practical application component, but luckily my job is to teach! So I have plenty of time to implement the advice from the TEFL course during my classes.

Speech contests: one of my highest-level students is competing in a speech contest this fall, so I’ve been helping edit all of his drafts, and I’ve met up with him once or twice to go over pronunciation and pacing. He’s switched topics a few times now, but I’m really proud of where his speech is right now!

On that note, I’ve also had my voice recorded to help students practice for a different recitation-based speech contest. I have quite a few students from my Tuesday visit school competing in October, so after-school is going to be busy this fall!

Kimono class: I don’t think I’ve mentioned this before, but for the past year, I’ve been taking lessons at my base school, learning how to dress myself in kimono unaided. Now, I’m set to compete in a kimono-dressing competition in November (along with one of my students!). Practice didn’t stop just because it’s summer, so every Thursday, for two or three hours, we dress ourselves in too many heavy silk layers (our classroom is not air-conditioned) and time ourselves. I’ll write more about my experience of learning the art of kimono at a later date!

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Lunches out with colleagues: Some teachers are busy overseeing club activities and such, but overall, the office atmosphere has relaxed since classes ended. Time can be spared for some long lunches at local restaurants!

Drama Club Performance: My base school’s drama club had a big performance at a local competition, so myself and a few other teachers went to cheer them on. I had only seen them practice a certain dance scene, so I wasn’t sure what to expect, but my students were amazing! These students — normally so shy in class — came alive on stage, making the audience laugh, and performing their hearts out! I was so insanely proud of them, even though I didn’t quite understand what their performance was about. And after the show, they ran up to us (their teachers) so excited that all of us had come out to cheer them on!

Yep! So that’s what I was up to this summer! As much fun as it was, though, I’m glad classes have resumed. Back to teaching, back to learning!