Apple Country

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

Preparation tips for incoming JETs

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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…

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