Apple Country

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

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Preparation tips for incoming JETs

It’s really strange to think that this time last year I was still trying to get my head around the fact I’d be moving to Japan in just a few weeks.  For all those lucky people in the same position this year, I’m so excited for you!  I remember being more excited than nervous about leaving, just because I had no idea what was going to happen to me and I’m a sucker for trying anything new and foreign to me.  (Living on the other side of the world is about as foreign as it gets!)  So for the new JETs who are coming this year, I’ve put together a list of things I found useful when getting ready to move to Japan…


A lot of people panic about what to bring because no one really knows who they’re supposed to give souvenirs to and how many to buy.  Some people have huge schools and loads of JTEs, some people only have a few, so if you haven’t found out already I’d get in contact with your supervisor or predecessor to see what you’ve got.  I had three small schools and a board of education to think about.  My predecessor also told me I’d be meeting the mayor so I had to get something for him as well…

I brought three lots of teabags and shortbread for my JTEs, mustard and some magnets for my principles, a fancy box of shortbread for my supervisor and the mayor.  I brought bags of buttermints to share amongst the teachers in the staff rooms.  Looking back now, I probably wouldn’t have brought tea as it’s better with milk and no one drinks it with milk here (they only have that horrible powder which they put in coffee).  Food is the way to go, especially if you have masses of teachers.  Definitely bring things that are individually wrapped for easy sharing.  Chocolate will melt so avoid that, but biscuits are okay as long as you pack them in the centre of your suitcase so they don’t get crushed.

If you can bring some postcards and random leaflets about your hometown, that will go down well, maybe some comics or magazines to bring to class too.  For my self introduction classes, I brought some old Beanos for the kids to look at (got them off ebay), photos and general memorabilia of my hometown to pass around.

General packing

Everything you need, except deodorant, does actually exist in Japan!  No need to bring loads of stuff over in bulk unless it’s some obscure brand you can’t live without.  I was under the impression that you couldn’t get decent toothpaste here, but Aquafresh is sold in most places so I just buy that.  I will say though that Japanese shampoo made my hair fall out like crazy, so I’d suggest bringing your own until you can get on and order some nice organic stuff without all the evil sulphates.

If you are on the larger side, you can still get clothes here but your options will be limited.  If you are a woman with feet bigger than 25cm then you will probably never find women’s shoes in your size.   I’m 26.5 (a UK 8 which tends to be the biggest size available in the UK) so the only shoes I can buy here are either men’s or unisex.  If you’re okay wearing guys’ shoes, there’s no problem because no one is really gonna care if you do!  Don’t worry about wearing nice shoes to work because most teachers just wear trainers or Crocs.  As long as your shoes are clean and you only wear them inside, you can wear whatever.

When you come to Japan, you’ll probably find that you need the next size up in Japanese clothes.  I’m a medium in the UK, but a large in Japan.  Uniqlo is a good place to get bigger sizes and basic work/everyday wear, until you work out which other stores have gaijin-friendly sizes.  If you can’t find sizes big enough, ASOS does free international shipping and returns, so if you need some new clothes then there is still hope!  When you’re packing, bring a dark suit, some undershirts/vests, and work shirts.  You will need the undershirts because it’ll be hot and gross, especially when you’re teaching your first classes!  It’s better to look smart when you get here and then tone it down once you’ve sussed out how casual the other teachers dress.  Pack some smart clothes and stuff to wear in the evenings for Tokyo Orientation.  Try and explore a bit even if you’re exhausted from jet lag and tedious seminars because you’ll be glad to get out of the hotel for a bit, plus walking around Tokyo at night (especially for the first time) will feel so surreal and be an awesome memory of coming to Japan.

What to expect when you’re settling in

I remember the morning after I moved into my apartment, standing in the bathroom and thinking, “Oh my god I’m here for a year.”  Not because I regretted it, I just realised that it was actually quite a long time.  I’ve now been here eleven months and it’s gone alarmingly quickly, so I’m really glad I signed on for a second year when it seemed like an impossible decision to make just four months after arriving.  Culture shock didn’t really hit me that hard, but I know quite a few other JETs that found it difficult to adjust at first.  My main advice would be not to come to Japan with all these expectations as to what it’s like, because you’ll be in danger of setting yourself up for disappointment.  Yes there are times when I walk through a random forest and feel like I’m in a Ghibli movie, but Japan has a surprising number of setbacks!  Just try to enjoy all the new things and keep an open mind; if something’s not what you expected it to be, then just try to accept it instead of negatively comparing it to what you’re used to.  There will be things you don’t agree with, but you will also find awesome aspects of Japanese life that you wonder why people in your own country haven’t caught on with yet.

You probably won’t be teaching for a few weeks until school starts until September, but there are things like speech contests and self-introduction lesson planning that will keep you busy at work.  This is a good time to study Japanese, blog, email friends and family, read some tips on teaching EFL etc.  You will probably have a lot of down time on JET, so get into the habit of doing productive things that won’t drive you insane from boredom.

Dealing with the language barrier will be hard if you don’t know any Japanese, but at the very least, LEARN HIRAGANA AND KATAKANA.  It will be your saviour, especially when reading restaurant menus and when you go on your first solo supermarket adventure.  It’s pretty overwhelming when you don’t know what anything is or where anything is, so unless taking wild guesses is your thing, it’s definitely worth being able to read.  I’d say Katakana is the most useful once you get used to the way English loan words are translated, because most western foods will be written this way.  For example, chocolate becomes チョコレート (chokoreeto), butter becomes バター (bataa) and cheese becomes チーズ(chiizu).  I couldn’t tell the difference between butter and cheese by looking at the pictures when I got here (most Japanese cheese is like terrible Dairylea), so knowing the Katakana was a big help!

There’s probably more, but that’s all I can think of right now!  Enjoy your last few weeks at home, I really don’t envy all that suitcase packing you have to do though…


Wrapping up my first year in Japan

I looked at my blog history the other day and realised I posted at least once a week when I first starting living in Japan.  Now it’s more like once a fortnight, and just because things have stopped being new and shiny doesn’t mean I don’t have stuff to say!  I’m just lazy.  I’m thinking about making this blog less focused on my personal experiences (I’ll still post them though) and more about general life and my thoughts on living in Japan.  I also want to start making comics about little things that happen here or that make me laugh.

I can’t really believe I’ve nearly been here a year already.  I’ve made so many great friends and it saddens me that some of them are getting ready to go back to their home countries in August.  I’m so glad I decided to recontract after all, as I would probably have gone into a deep depression if I had to leave in 6 weeks!!  I can honestly say this year has been the best of my life.  I have never had so many moments where I’ve just been walking down the street, or had someone smile at me for no reason, or been driving along the coast in the sunshine and getting this overwhelming feeling of happiness.  I know that some people on JET think that a lot of other JETs sugarcoat their experiences and just brush all the crap that happens under the carpet, but that’s not what I’m trying to do here.  Everyone glamorises their lives a little bit (some more than others, thanks to social media and overuse of #blessed) and it’s hard not to compare lifestyles with other people who won’t shut up about how great theirs is.  I could write a whole post about that but I might save it for another time as I can feel a ramble coming on.  I genuinely love my life here, and yes living in Japan and being on JET definitely has its flaws, but I have found ways to either confront them and improve the situation, accepted that that’s just the way it is and move on, or learn to cope with them differently. Some examples would be:

  • Having too much time at the BOE.  Two full days a week was unnecessary and taking its toll on my sanity, so I finally managed to get my supervisor to change it after asking him five or six times.  He said the two ALTs before me didn’t seem to mind (not true, Bridget told me they both hated it) but they didn’t do anything about it.  However if I’m going to be here another year, I’d rather not be wasting my time in a dreary office when I could be chatting to my teachers and students at school.  So now instead of going to the BOE every Monday and Thursday, I get to go to my favourite school on two Thursdays a month, an elementary school one Thursday, and only on the fourth Thursday do I have to go to the BOE again. Persistence pays off!
  • Living far away from society has its disadvantages, but I actually think it’s made me more adventurous.  I’ve got used to driving long distances and no longer mind spending two or three hours travelling to social events.  The roads here are beautifully easy to drive which is a plus, and with all that nature thrown in for me to look at, it’s not too bad really.
  • Dealing with new JTEs is always a bit awkward as you have to learn how they work and what they expect from you, and in my experience all my JTEs work differently.  When I first arrived, one of my JTEs acted cold towards me and didn’t want me to do anything in the lesson.  I was nice to her though even though we didn’t like each other, then one day I found that my desk had been moved opposite hers and she was super friendly from then on.  I spent ages making a Mario Kart game for another school and brought it every week JUST IN CASE she asked me to do something.  One day she said she had no idea what to do for the third years, and bam, I whipped out my awesome little Mario Kart characters and whiteboards and she was sold.  I also had a new JTE this year who was kinda distant with me, but last week I tried out some new ideas in my lessons which got rave reviews from the students and my JTE.  I brought in real British money, some hats, scarves and sunglasses to set up a ‘shop’ for a shopping dialogue lesson.  The students were in hysterics as one of the boys posed in my woolly bobble hat and asked the class how it looked.  Relationship with JTE (and students) magically improved!

I know other JETs have had way worse experiences, like not being used at all in school, having to find an apartment and furnish it from scratch by themselves, having a useless supervisor etc.  I’m certain your future on JET is half due to luck and half what you make of it.  I’m lucky that I live in a beautiful prefecture with an awesome JET community.  I’m lucky that my apartment is in good condition and my shower doesn’t have pipes that are prone to bursting in the winter.  I’m also very lucky that I get a free car and gas.  Being closer to Tokyo would be great just for the convenience of travelling to other places, but I honestly don’t think I’d want to live anywhere else, given the chance.  I’m so excited to begin my second year in Japan.  I don’t feel like I really made any lasting friendships at university, and the experience didn’t live up to the “this will be the best time of your life” expectations that I had when I went.  I came to Japan with fewer expectations as I knew the JET experience was very hit or miss, so I knew I had to make it work for myself.  So far I think I’ve done okay, but could do more while I’m here.  If I left now, I’d feel like I’d only done half the things I wanted to do.  I really want to make more friends in the Japanese community, but it’s hard when 80% of my town’s population is over the age of 50 and spend their days working in the rice fields.  I want to learn the koto, so I’m going to find myself a teacher.  I want to travel around Japan more.  I want to speak more Japanese to my teachers instead of relying on their English.  I want to get my language skills to a point where it would be possible to get a Japanese-speaking job.  I’m taking the JLPT N3 in two weeks so if that goes well, I’ll know I’m on my way!

Oh and… 45 days until I go home for summer 😀


Staying Cool with Zaru Soba

It’s June and the weather is getting hotter in Japan!  When I feel sick from eating too much soft cream and kakigouri, I turn to a wonderfully simple dish called zaru soba. This has become my ultimate Japanese summer food.  Zaru is the word for the bamboo mat on which the noodles are served, and soba is a kind of noodle made from buckwheat.  It’s more nutritious and contains less gluten (usually none at all) than refined noodles, and is absolutely delicious when served cold with a bowl of mentsuyu (a soy-based dipping sauce).

Tempura zaru set I had the other day

Tempura zaru set I had the other day

It’s cheap, light and perfect for when it’s hot and you don’t wanna spend ages cooking something, or you fancy a change from salad.  I’m pretty sure you can make this easily if you don’t live in Japan.  Most supermarkets stock soba noodles and you can probably buy the ingredients for the sauce if you can’t find it pre-bottled.  Wasabi is essential; other than sushi, this is my favourite thing to eat wasabi with.  I can’t believe I used to hate it!

Mentsuyu (noodle sauce) recipe:

1/2 cup soy sauce

1/2 cup mirin

1/4 cup sake (apparently dry sherry makes a good substitute)

Handful of bonito flakes (probably won’t hurt if you miss them out)

Put all ingredients in a pot, let them boil then remove from heat.  Cool completely in the pot.  Strain bonito flakes.

Zaru soba:

  • Boil soba noodles according to instructions.  Make sure you rinse them in cold water to get rid of the sliminess, then chill them for a bit.
  • Put the mentsuyu in a small bowl.  Mix some wasabi and chopped raw spring onions into the sauce.
  • Rinse the noodles again and sprinkle with nori (seaweed) if you can get it, or sesame seeds.
  • Holding the bowl of mentsuyu, dip your noodles into the sauce with your chopsticks and slurp them up loudly.  Oishii!


Japanese apartment tour

I’ve been meaning to upload a tour of my apartment for… nearly ten months now so I finally seized the opportunity when I’d blitzed the place in preparation for friends staying over, and had 15 minutes to spare before going out to meet them!  I might do a video tour of my town as well at some point.  I also took some pictures on my run the other night because the azaleas by the shrine were out, and the rice fields were looking pretty!

(Sorry that you only get to enjoy the bottom half of my face in the first part)

I actually think May has become my favourite month in Japan just because of the rice fields.  Before the rice is planted, the water looks so beautiful and glass-like.  In late May, neat rows of shoots start to appear – some planted with machinery, and some planted the old-fashioned way.  I love watching the farmers in their wellies and headscarves, their backs bent at a permanent right-angle as they tend to each plant.  It’s just something I’ve never seen before and makes me really appreciate how Japanese people care about how their food is made.  It’s a shame that probably one day it will all become mass-produced, although doing everything by hand really can’t be good for the farmers’ backs… I’m not exaggerating when I say permanent right-angle!


Mt. Iwaki: Yama Rock and Nanohana

Every year there is a small, free-entry rock festival near the base of Mt. Iwaki, and I knew I had to go as soon as someone told me about it.  It had been almost a year since I’d gone to a live show, so I was really looking forward to watching some local Japanese bands out in the sun all day.

I was actually quite surprised at how good the bands were; not really being a fan of Japanese music, I was a little skeptical of what the acts would be like but was mainly just going for the experience, and of course, the food stalls that no Japanese festival is complete without.

The first band was a punk trio featuring two girls dressed in nurse uniforms on bass and guitar/vocals, with a guy on drums in a doctor’s coat.  They were awesome and had a really fun style, saying “odaiji ni!” (get well soon) as they walked off stage after their set.  A very enthusiastic drunk guy appeared at the front of the audience a couple of times, punching the air to the music and encouraging everyone else to join him.  He did manage to get two American ALTs to come up and jump around for a bit, but otherwise he was rocking out solo.

On the way back we stopped off to check out the Jersey cow dairy farm for ice cream.  We couldn’t actually see the cows, although we could smell them, and it seemed like the only thing there was the tiny shop where a grumpy lady was selling fresh dairy products from the farm.  I chose caramel banana ice cream after some intense indecision over that and my all time favourite flavour, mocha, and it was well worth the risk.  I’ll be back for the mocha.

We also drove to see the nanohana, a huge field of beautiful yellow rape blossoms in front of Mt. Iwaki.  It was gorgeous in the hazy late afternoon, and the hundreds of bees seemed to be enjoying the flowers too.