Apple Country

Stories of rural life as an ALT in a northern Japanese fishing town.


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Japanese School Life as an ALT

I’ve spent a lot of time blogging about life in Japan and my experiences with cultural differences, but I realised that I haven’t really written about what I actually do when I’m at school.  I’ve heard many JETs complain about how being an ALT isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.  While I agree that the JET Programme could really do with some improvements regarding how ALTs are utilised at school, on the whole my teaching experience has been a positive one.  In this post I’m going to give you a little insight into what happens at my three junior high schools.

My Tuesday school is the closest to home, a five-minute drive away.  The first years are my favourite class, whom I teach in the morning, and I go to class a little early so that we can chat together.  They’re all really adorable and friendly, and one of the few classes whose students actually come to the front to talk to me before we start the lesson!  One of the boys loves talking about eating meat and tries to use it in an answer wherever possible, which always makes me laugh.  Sometimes I bring in my Mudkip toy (known in Japan as Mizugoro) to throw at the kids to get them to answer questions.  Every morning they run to my desk to see if I’ve brought him!

“Mizugoro”

I get free rein to do whatever activities I like at this school, as long as they correspond with the grammar they’re currently learning in the textbook.  The 2nd and 3rd years finished their books weeks ago, so I’ve been experimenting with different games for general English review.  I’m trying to be more ambitious with my activities, so I made a Mario Kart game which we played last week.  I cut out Mario characters for each team to choose, and made a variety of cards using items from the video game like Red Mushroom, Blue Shell and Banana Peel.  The teams who wrote the right answer on their whiteboards had to janken (rock paper scissors) for a special card.  It was a lot of fun, and refreshing to do something that didn’t involve worksheets for a change.  The last round ended in the most intense Mexican standoff game of janken I’d ever witnessed, with the remaining boys screaming ROCK PAPER SCISSORS at each other and launching their fists into the ring like they were cracking whips.  It ended with the leading team scoring a Red Mushroom (least desirable special card) and getting one extra roll of the dice, which only gave them a 1.  The game finished with them landing on the last space before the finish line which had the whole class in hysterics.  Definitely one of my best lessons!!

My Wednesday school is an hour’s drive away and the smallest with a total of 38 students.  The students here are by far my favourites!  The classes are so tiny and the whole school is like a family.  In fact all my schools are like that; seeing such tightly-knit school communities is really lovely.  There is absolutely no bullying and everyone is friends with everyone.  Coming from a big high school where random kids would insult each other as they crossed in the corridors, it really amazes me how the size of a school can impact student relationships.  Even the low-level kids don’t get picked on like they would’ve been at my school.  But my Wednesday kids are my favourites just because they’re all hilarious and really energetic.  They get to work on my activities with such enthusiasm and always laugh at my stupid jokes and drawings.  One of the 3rd years is seriously amazing at English.  He is one of my regular letter-writers (I have a box at each school) and the other day he wrote something along the lines of “…I wanted to ask you something but I forgot.  Sorry, I’m getting all confused.”  And I was like… where did he learn that?!  Everyone else can just about say which sport they like best.  I also like these kids because even though they live in the middle of nowhere and don’t have a lot of entertainment available to them, they have awesome personalities and ambitions.

I like the teachers at my Friday school the most.  I sit next to a teacher who’s about my age and has similar interests to me, so she’s really fun to talk to.  I feel more like I’m part of the gang at this school, as I’ve been to more social events with the teachers here and I feel like I know them quite well.  One of the teachers invited me to her wedding reception dinner (not the ceremony, which happened a few months earlier) and asked me to play the piano.  Even though I didn’t actually play on the day because they all thought my arm was still bad and didn’t bring a proper keyboard, she asked me to play for her after school the next week.  Some other teachers and students came to watch too, so I was rather nervous… the music teacher made me come out of a little side door like it was a proper performance, which I hadn’t done since my recitals at university!

My Friday JTE used to be my least favourite, as we got off on the wrong foot on my first day when I wore a pencil skirt that was too businessy and not schooly enough, and she was pretty cold to me for a while.  But since then I’ve managed to win her over and I have a better relationship with her than my other JTEs.  Back in November she did a lesson on Skype with my dad, which I couldn’t actually do because I’d broken my arm the day before and was sitting in hospital haha.  I took some pictures of the students’ work though which is really sweet/hilarious/scarily realistic/a bit Walter White.

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“We talked to Ms. Ellen’s father who’s in the UK!”

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I really enjoy teaching at these schools and although it’s not something I want to do as a career, I can see why so many people want to be teachers.  For me there are two things that make this job special: the first is when a student calls my name for help.  The feeling of being wanted, of sharing your knowledge even if it’s just how to spell a word, of hearing someone tell you that they understand now because you helped them is a deeply satisfying thing.  The second is the letters that I receive from students.  When I get 30 letters at once all asking me if I know about some kind of video game, I know the teacher has asked them to write to me.  I enjoy reading them, but replying with almost the same answer 30 times in a row gets a bit boring… The ones from students who send them because they actually want to talk to me are the best ones.  Even though they’re usually all in Japanese, I always reply in English.  I’ve had a few portraits done too!!

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I covered all my letter boxes in old Beano comics.  On this one I made sure the Bash Street Kids were on the front!

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*AOL voice* “You’ve got mail!”

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School lunches (kyuushoku) here aren’t bad either.  Most Japanese schools don’t have a canteen, so all the students eat their lunch in their homeroom classroom.  Lunch typically consists of some kind of soup, a bowl of rice, some vegetables or salad, fish or meat and a carton of milk (which I never drink).  90% of the time it’s really good!  10% of the time I might get something pretty horrible like a gristly slice of pork covered in oil, or soggy takoyaki.

Standard Kyuushoku (not my photo)

I’m never deprived of snacks either.  Once or twice a week, I’ll be presented with some kind of Japanese sweet as a souvenir of another teacher’s travels.  I like this tradition of bringing tasty local delicacies to the office until I go travelling and it’s my turn to haul numerous boxes of them back for the teachers.

So these are the best things about teaching in Japan.  Of course there are plenty of negatives, many of which I agree with.  I used to find having so many free hours boring, but since I’ve really got into studying Japanese again and putting extra effort into making fun lesson plans, the days go by at an alarming rate!  I’ve heard quite a few stories of why JET is a waste of time, and it may not be something I want to do forever, but I’m only going to focus on the positives for the rest of my time here.  Sometimes it’s far easier to complain about things than appreciate what’s good, and complaining about something only makes me hate it more.  Nearly seven months have passed now and I’m well out of the settling-in phase, so for the next year and a half I’m going to make everything I do count!  With this in mind, I went for a walk during my lunch break in the beautiful sunshine, posted some letters, and finally visited the little cake shop I’ve passed so many times.  The lady only stared at me at first as I browsed the selection of madeleines and manju, but then she smiled warmly and we struck up a conversation.  I’ve made a new resolution to visit more of the little shops and restaurants in my town, even if I am terrified of eating alone and getting stared at by a load of fisherman.  I’m used to it now…


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Monkeys + Music = Happiness

Last weekend was absolutely gorgeous, and as I had no plans on Sunday, I went for a walk to the park I’d discovered at the top of a hill a few weeks back. As I was walking up the highway, I noticed a man looking up at the mountain side and whistling like he was trying to beckon something.  I stopped to work out what he was looking at, and he shouted, “saru da!” (monkeys!) and waved me over.  I crossed the road and he pointed to a family of macaques peering down at us from the mountainside.  I’d seen some once on my way home from my little countryside school, when two of them were just chilling in the middle of the road. My friend told me he also saw a mother macaque and her baby in the road near his house once (he lives in a rural area up north on the peninsula).  The mum ran into the bushes when she saw the car coming, but the baby didn’t move, so she ran back and slapped it round the head to get it off the road.  Yep, I think I can relate to that baby…

So back on the highway, naturally this was the only time I’d gone for a walk without my proper camera, and none of my phone pictures came out well enough to show you, so I’ll try again next time.  After chatting to the man for a few minutes, I carried on up the road with a smile on my face, and came to the hill that led to the park.  The variety of snowy footprints along the secluded pathway showed no sign of man, so I knew I’d have it all to myself again.  Last time I rolled a snowball that came up to my waist, but when I got there all that remained was a sad-looking stump.  I could see tiny paw prints leading up to it about a foot away, which appeared to retreat once the inquisitor had decided that my snowball wasn’t really a threat.

This time the glorious sunshine had made me slightly mad with happiness, so I got my phone out and put Beyonce on YouTube, then danced around in the snow for half an hour.  I hadn’t had fun like that in ages… it was quite liberating!  I don’t know what I would’ve done if someone appeared at the park entrance, but all the times I’ve been for a walk up that way I’ve not once seen another person (except the man from earlier, but I think he lived in the house right next to the road).

Pathway to the park

Pathway to the park

My personal park

Aaaall miiiiine!   From the map on the right, it looks like some of these trees are cherry blossoms, so I can’t wait to come here in Spring!

On the way home, I listened to the radio on my phone as I didn’t have my iPod.  I’d realised that I’d had little to no contact with the media (apart from news) since I’d left the UK, and even then I had a tendency to live inside my stone age music bubble, avoiding the charts because I couldn’t deal with the modern age.  Anyway I was listening to the radio in the hope I’d discover some new music and it did not let me down.  The first three records that were played were new to my ears, which have been blistered by Japan’s new national anthem aka Frozen’s Let It Go.  I forgot how good new music can be!  Japanese music is AWFUL.  I can’t think of a Japanese artist or song I’ve heard and genuinely thought it was good.  Okay so I obviously haven’t heard every Japanese artist and there probably are some good ones out there (maybe) which I haven’t heard, but I’ve listened to some of the more popular artists and they’re all naff… so it’s enough to put me off the rest of the churned out crap.

Aside from that little rant, I’ve really been enjoying my quest for new music.  A couple of friends have made me mixtapes, I’ve bought new albums with birthday money and I’ve listened to more classical music in the last two months than I think I did during my whole music degree… During my dissertation research, I was trying to find out what it is about music that makes us enjoy it and make us feel emotional when we listen to certain music.  One theory is that the element of hearing the unexpected is what triggers the release of dopamine by the brain, giving us that good feeling.  When we listen to music, the brain predicts what’s going to happen by keeping a record of the twists and turns that have already occurred.  This is a bit like having a conversation, as you retain the memory of what was said a few sentences back in order to make sense of whatever is said next.  When something unfolds in the music and deviates from the brain’s prediction, it arouses the listener and consequently has an emotional effect.  This can explain why listening to new music makes us feel good, but what about our favourite songs?  I still get that emotional feeling after listening to a song I love for the 100th time.  The emotional trigger could be a key change, a sudden shift in the pitch (particularly with singers), an unexpected transition from quiet to loud.  There are A LOT of theories to do with this which I won’t go into now, but basically what I’m saying is, surprises are good, and new music is good for the brain!  So your task for the week is to go out and buy the new album by that artist you’ve heard recently and think is quite good… then recommend it to me 🙂


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Surviving winter in Aomori

I’d been dreading winter ever since November, when I found out that snowboarding was off the cards for the entire season thanks to my arm, which is how I’d planned to spend every weekend and make the cold weather as fun as I possibly could.  Even though I was gutted about having to wait a whole year until I could actually get on the slopes, I’ve somehow found myself at the point in the year when Spring doesn’t seem so implausible after all.  Having said that, it’s -7 degrees today and I drove to work in a complete whiteout.  But SPRING IS COMING SOON.  SOOOOOOON!!

Anyway, I feel like winter in Aomori gets a bit over-hyped.  Yes it’s very cold and snowy, but when I arrived with the other new JETs in August, the Aomori veterans often liked to remind us of the notoriously harsh winter that would trap the prefecture in an icy cage for half the year.  I heard foreboding tales of frozen toothpaste, ice pools in the shower, and the dangers of living with a kerosene heater; make sure you open a window every hour to let out that pesky carbon monoxide!  Luckily, I haven’t had to deal with any of these things.  Apparently my apartment isn’t that old, so I’ve never had a problem with frozen pipes, and my heater actually has decent ventilation so it’s not so life-threatening.  I keep the heater on pretty much constantly as I’ll happily pay the price for being cosy and warm, so the only time I’m really cold is when I wake up, then I run to the living room and dive under my kotatsu.  If you don’t know what a kotatsu is, it’s one of the more genuinely brilliant Japanese inventions where you put a blanket over a low table with a built-in heater, then sit under it and snuggle.  I spend A LOT of time under mine.

I’ve only had a few incidences where I’ve really got sick of winter, but overall it hasn’t been as bad as I’d expected.  (Although lots of people are saying that this year hasn’t had nearly as much snowfall as usual… eek.)  I do miss sitting by the fire with a glass of Baileys, proper central heating and Sunday roasts, but I’ve learned to love winter and adapt to it in my own way.  It’s easy to be miserable when it’s cold and difficult to get out, but to save my sanity I decided to just embrace the snow as it wouldn’t be going anywhere for a while!  So this is how I’ve beaten the winter blues:

  • Cook new recipes.  This was one of my New Year’s resolutions, and so far I’ve stuck to it.  I’ve learnt a lot of simple recipes that I can cook in a hurry if I’m teaching on Skype after work.  I realised how crap it made me feel to eat the same thing or a variation of the same thing for most of the week.  I never need to make vegetable soup again!
  • Exercise.  As much as I love watching back-to-back episodes of Community under my kotatsu, when I lose feeling in my bum I know it’s time to get up.  I recently acquired an exercise bike and I forgot how much I love cycling, even though it’s nothing compared to riding over Ashtead common.  I hadn’t done any proper cardio since before I broke my arm, and I have no access to a gym (plus the fact I hate running), so it couldn’t have come into my life at a better time really.  On the days where I have no plans, and particularly after work when I haven’t moved around much, 30 minutes of intense cycling or more really saves me.
  • Get out whenever I can.  I learned my lesson from not travelling over the Christmas holidays, so now whenever the opportunity arises, I go to some event or hang out with other people, even if the long drive in the snow makes it a hassle.  It’s even harder where I am to socialise during the months where everyone just wants to stay at home and watch Netflix, but watching Netflix with company beats watching it alone.
  • Keep motivated.  Over the past couple of months, my Japanese studying hit a slump, mostly due to the fact I lost my textbook answer booklet… So I noticed that I really wasn’t making any progress and the booklet didn’t look like it was going to show up, so I got a new fancy textbook.  It’s hard to stay motivated when you’re well past the beginning stages of learning a language, can understand most of what you hear and read, but really struggle to express yourself properly when speaking.  It’s the small achievements that keep me going though; I find that almost always when I learn a new word, I hear or read it at least once that same day, and I get a little burst of happiness when I actually know what it means.  I’m also reading The Little Prince, which is really challenging, but as I go on I spend less time looking up words and more time understanding and enjoying the story.  I’ve also started watercolour painting, for when I’ve got even more downtime at home.
  • Plan trips.  I can’t tell you how excited I am for the end of March: not only will it be Spring, but Lindsey’s coming to Japan to see me!!  It will have been eight months since I’d seen my big sister.  Then a month later, I’ll be off to Beijing!  Having something fun to look forward to is the best way for me to pass time.  I try and have one thing planned after the other, so that when the first one is over I don’t get post-holiday depression!

But until then I have some smaller events planned.  On Friday evening I went to a language exchange in Hirosaki, which was a lot of fun.  Saturday was the first day of the Lantern Festival in Hirosaki, and probably the best day we could’ve gone as the temperature had been slightly warmer than usual, which meant unfortunately some of the snow sculptures looked a bit warped.  It was a shame, but also very amusing seeing sculptures of cartoon characters with their eyes halfway down their faces.  It felt like walking through a creepy winter wonderland setting for a horror film.

Not quite up to Sapporo’s standards, but it was still a lovely evening and the pretty lights did a good job of beautifying the melted sculptures.  Hopefully next year will be a bit colder!!


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Life in another prefecture..?

I just read 24 Things That Will Make You Re-Consider Your Entire Existence, and while I do love killing my brain with impossible questions about the universe and beyond, questioning my own actions from the past is far more tortuous.  I know how simple it would’ve been to say something different or choose the other option, but I’ll never know how that would’ve turned out.  (Prime example: not saying “Let’s try again!” back in November when the first piggyback didn’t work…)

Last week the cold Aomorian weather got me contemplating what life would be like further south of the country.  What if I hadn’t decided to put Aomori as my preference as I had done right at the last minute?  At one point I’d been considering Shimane, which is completely the other side of Japan, right at the southern tip of Honshu.  I made the mistake of looking at their JET website just now – beaches, islands, surfing, snorkeling… Sometimes it’s hard not to feel bitter about living where I do and compare it to other JETs’ lives and experiences around the country.  But then again, most people only shout about the things worth shouting about.  And in a way, I do the same thing – I take photos of beautiful scenery and anything that I think people back home might be interested in looking at, because I doubt anyone wants to see photos of the inside of an office.

How do I know somewhere like Shimane hasn’t got half of what Aomori’s got?  They’re both two of the most rural prefectures in Japan, so the lifestyle probably wouldn’t be that much different.  Living in a big city like Tokyo would be fun and I’d never be short of things to do, but would the cost of living hold me back from doing them?  Maybe I wouldn’t feel like I had a place there. Fukaura’s not exactly the most glamorous place, but it can be remarkably beautiful.

Saw Mt. Iwaki looking especially fine on my Sunday stroll last week

Mt. Iwaki was looking especially fine on my Sunday stroll last week

Living in a small town means I get a lot of attention, and even though I get tired of being stared at and pointed at, sometimes people express their curiosity in a way that reminds me how some people here might never have travelled even as far as Tokyo in their whole lives.  Part of the reason I’m here is to reduce the stigma towards foreigners in Japan, so the locals are bound to be interested when they see me roaming the streets with my ridiculous hair as I take photos of their jumbled up front gardens and the mountains they’ve seen every day of their lives.

Fukaura definitely scores points for incredible scenery and I’ll never live anywhere like it again, but its isolation does make me appreciate more where I grew up; I’ve been spoiled my whole life by living so close to the buzz of London, and just as easily being able to retreat into the countryside, but only now do I realise how lucky I was.  I was close to so many things and didn’t take full advantage of them.  Not just places near my house, but other parts of the UK and Europe.  Driving 15 minutes to a friend’s house used to seem like effort, but now I’ll drive over an hour to see someone without thinking about it.  A train to central London took 40 minutes, and the nearest city to me here takes 2 hours by train, even though it’s actually more like going to Kingston.  A 3-hour drive to university was only considered worth doing twice a year, but now if there’s an event on the other side of the prefecture, I’ll happily drive that far in one day!  Ain’t no mountain high enough…  I imagine in most cases of “you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone”, it’s too late or too difficult to go back to what you had.  But as this is only temporary and I hopefully didn’t break Surrey’s heart too badly by leaving, I can go back and see it through the eyes of an old Japanese fisherwoman with the vitality of a 23 year old, so I can do ALL the things.

However I’m trying not to miss home too much, as the two years I’ll be in Japan is nothing compared to the rest of my life in the UK (unless its course changes dramatically and I go to Australia, marry a surfer with freckles and tousled hair and spend the rest of my days hanging by the beach, which I’d actually be quite happy with).

So anyway, I may have the occasional rant about where I am, but to tell the truth I do actually like it here!!  I’m even starting to enjoy winter… I’ve realised that wishing it away won’t help so I’m embracing the next two months of snow.  I was going to write about my coping methods in this post, but it’s getting quite long now.  I’ve had this one as a draft for about two weeks but keep having more to add, so I’m gonna try more frequent but shorter posts from now on.  またね!