Apple Country

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


Cultural challenges

Occasionally I’ll come across misspelled gems when I’m marking students’ work or looking over their shoulders in the classroom during a writing task.  This week has been particularly amusing, starting with Monday when I was marking writing exercises using the passive tense.  Conjugating verbs into the passive is a pain in the arse for anyone learning English thanks to all the irregularities, so I sympathise.   I asked the students to think of a person or object and write three hints about it so others could guess what or who it is.  I’m glad I put my coffee down when I read the last one from my pile of papers, which said, “He was boned by my mother.”  It took a while until my JTE and I realised he was trying to say “borned by”.  The logic was there at least.  やっぱり英語って難しいな~。

Yesterday we were making sentences like “I (do ~ ) when I’m happy/sad/bored etc”.  One student wrote “I crap when I’m happy.”  Of course I never actually laugh at the students, but I can’t help having a quiet giggle to myself.  I feel for them though, R and L are really hard to distinguish from a Japanese perspective.

There’s one 2nd grader (13 years old?) who is hilarious and will always beckon me over for a chat when I’m walking around the classroom making sure people are getting on ok with the task.  He is so determined to speak English even though most of what he says is one word questions or mostly gestures, but despite this we end up having some pretty interesting conversations that usually just result in him asking in Japanese and me replying in English, so at least he can use his listening skills.  Yesterday he asked me what surprised me most about Japan when I first got here, and I said the level of customer service.  Japanese shop assistants treat you like a VIP, from the precise way they handle your money to the honorific language that they use.  In contrast, I told him that shop assistants in the UK might have a little chat with you and ask about your day or even compliment you on something you’re wearing.  Both countries have their negatives though; in Japan I feel like I’m being served by robots because everyone says the same few set phrases, and in the UK sometimes I just get completely ignored throughout the whole transaction.

I love these little exchanges of culture because it makes me appreciate both sides instead of just taking one for granted.  It still makes me sad though how most Japanese people I’ve met, including the students, have never left the country or just have no interest in going abroad.  We actually did a lesson on opinions the other week, and one question was “Do you think English is important?”.  I was a little disappointed to see that over half the class wrote that they didn’t think so.  The majority of the reasons were along the lines of just not wanting to go abroad, but one student simply wrote 日本人だから。 (because I’m Japanese.)  Cue eye roll.   This lack of open-mindedness does make me realise why foreigners get such bizarre treatment a lot of the time in Japan.  Yes, Japan is a special country full of interesting food and culture, but internationalisation is a thing, even if it happens more in other countries than here.  One thing that stands out is the NEVER ENDING COMMENTS about how amazing it is that foreigners can use chopsticks or eat sushi.  One of my principals spent half the evening at a teacher’s gathering asking me if I could eat such and such Japanese food, then practically wetting himself when I said yes.  He couldn’t believe it when I said we could easily buy soy sauce, noodles and tofu in UK supermarkets.  He leaned over to the other teachers and exclaimed how miraculous it was that I could eat rice.  He brought a bowl of a variety of spinach to school once, slapped me on the shoulder instead of using my name and told me to try it.  He stood behind me as I ate, saying “How crazy is it that foreigners can eat this stuff?!  She probably won’t like it.” while the teacher next to me said, “Actually, I’ve never tried it either.”

Of course not everyone is like this, and this is probably a more extreme case of alienifying foreigners, but even in a subtler form it puts me off staying here long-term.  I love my life here, but I’ll be relieved to be back home when I can blend into the crowd again and not feel like a special snowflake.



(Tuesday 19th January)

I’ve gone from already counting down the days until I leave Japan to thinking that if every day were like today, I’d probably have decided to stay a third year.  (Edit: Nope, as soon as I go back to the BOE I am immediately grateful for making the decision to leave!!)

Today was the first day back at my favourite school since breaking up for winter holidays. I had such a laugh in all my lessons, mostly because the kids have brilliant senses of humour.  The highlight was probably showing the 2nd years the video for Learn to Fly by Foo Fighters (probably the funniest they made) and everyone thought it was hilarious.  I think we watched it four times after the students realised that all the different characters were being played by the same band members.

I was really excited to see that they’d left me an invitation to their end of year enkai, because they have only invited me to two before.  I put it aside and tidied up the rest of the school newsletters that had accumulated on top of the laptop, and underneath I found a New Year’s postcard from none other than the ikemen (beautiful male) P.E. teacher who sits behind me.

He wrote: “Are you enjoying school? If it’s ok with you, please come and join a P.E. lesson some time. I think the students will be happy.”


So I found myself, not for the first time, reluctantly agreeing to do sports in order to impress a guy (he’s married though, sigh).  I played basketball with the third graders (15 year olds) and was surprised at how much I enjoyed it, but more so that I didn’t drop the ball or smack anyone in the face.  I felt a surge of pride as I threw the ball across the court to my team mate and sensei shouted naisu pasu! at me from the other side.  I can’t have been that bad because I’ve been asked to join in again next time…


Back in the Ken

After a gruelling 28 hours of travelling on the way back from the UK last Sunday, I was relieved to find that the height of summer in Aomori is over. It’s still slightly hotter than London, but the days of writing on the blackboard whilst surreptitiously trying to hide my sweat patches are feared no more. Despite the relentless snow in winter, living in the north does have its benefits when it comes to Japanese summer: no freaky mutant bugs, food stays fresh longer, sleeping at night is easier, students don’t smell as bad. The air is starting to feel purer and cooler in the mornings now, and in a way it’s actually making me look forward to Autumn, despite its inevitable dreaded successor. Really the only reason I hate winter so much here is because I have to drive to work, which is gruelling at best.  Autumn is lovely however, and I’m excited to see the leaves change and welcome the wonderful smells of smoky rice fields and warm chestnut pies back into my life.

So after two weeks of relaxing with friends and family back home for the first time in a year, I began the new school term in a grumpy, jet-lagged state at my favourite place on earth aka the BOE.

I laid out my carefully chosen selection of Twixes, Wagon Wheels and chocolate Hobnobs on the snack table and encouraged people to help themselves. A few said thank you, but not one person asked me how my trip was. A bit rude I thought. Typically the only person who talks to me (apart from Bridget who’s only there once a week), is the guy next to me, Mr. S, as he’s quite keen on English and we usually have one or two short conversations throughout the day. But since the transfers, all my favourite people including my supervisor, got moved to other sections in the town office and no one talks to me anymore. I’ve tried making small talk before, but it’s like they’re amused by the fact I’m trying to talk to them, and I hoped that bringing food in would be a good conversation-starter. However, when no one even uses that to get to know me, I find myself running out of options. It’s not like I can just say “YEAH I HAD A GREAT TIME, THANKS FOR ASKING” then ask them what they got up to over the holidays. This happened when I brought back sweets from China; some managed to thank me but most just ate them without batting an eyelid.

I’m also aware that my supervisor doesn’t like me for some reason. He only talks to me for official purposes, and when he does, his demeanour is so stern even when I’m smiling and doing my best to get him to warm up a bit.  Sometimes it feels like he treats me as if I’m a naughty child.  I think it’s probably because ALTs do have a reputation of doing whatever they want and pissing off their contracting organisations, but it’d be nice if he actually showed some interest in forming a good rapport with me.  I know he’s got a sense of humour somewhere because he spends half the day at the BOE joking with the other workers and giggling like a piglet being tickled to death.

I forgot all about this when I went to my favourite school the next day.  I brought a fancy big bag of Cadbury Eclairs, which went down a treat.  All the teachers were interested to know how my trip went and they seemed to really enjoy the chocolate, which was nice to see!   The day just got better when the JLPT results came out, and I passed with 82%.  Dead chuffed!  I told myself if I did well on N3, then I’d go for N2 in December.  So I’m staying true to my own promise, and have worked out a studying schedule to make sure I cover all the required points by the end of November.  If I can pass it this time around, I’d be able to apply to so many more non-teaching jobs in Japan, otherwise I’d have to wait until August next year to see if I passed the July exam.

This weekend I took the train up to Mutsu to see some good friends.  It was really nice to spend time just catching up, playing video games, eating and walking up the mountain to the observatory, even though it was too misty to see anything.  Alex showed me the road bike he got given recently, which gave me some serious jealousy issues and we ended up looking for one for myself on the internet.  So I managed to get a folding road bike for about £180 half price… the reviews were mixed so we’ll see how it goes, but it looked decent anyway.  We’re already planning biking weekends, and it’s been my dream for a while to spend a week cycling through Hokkaido, so we might do that during Golden Week in May.

4 hour journey to see friends for the weekend?  They're worth it!

5 hour journey (by train) to see friends for the weekend? They’re worth it!

I hate driving long distances anyway so it was nice to sit on the train and read Japanese Matilda.  I’ve just finished the part where Bruce Bogtrotter eats the chocolate cake.  It was great.  I’m really looking forward to this Saturday too, because I finally get to meet all the new JETs who arrived last month.  Can’t believe that was me a year ago!

The photos below are of Loch Tummel in Scotland, my royal Grandfather and me with my four bezzies at home.  I didn’t realise how much I needed to be back home for a while until I got there.  Sitting with my parents and dog on the sofa, watching proper British telly, drinking wine, going for dog walks, biking and going for days out in the city was just the perfect amount of normal.

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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 😀


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!


American English vs. All other English

This morning, I was called into the principal’s office at one of my schools.  I could just imagine all the teachers in the staffroom turning their heads and ooooh-ing at me as I walked out the door, but we are all adults here.  He’d come to watch my lesson earlier, so I had to assume it was something about that.  I brought my diary with me anyway just for something to hold on to.

We sat facing each other on the fancy brown leather sofas and he explained the situation: my British accent is confusing the students, who are learning from a curriculum based on American English, and therefore it would be better if I spoke with an American accent.  I expected they would be more familiar with American English as I only teach them once a week anyway, but this request took me by suprise.  He said he had spoken with the students about it and they agreed that my accent is indeed quite different when compared to the recordings they listen to during class.  I told him I understand and that I always make an effort to use American spellings and words during the lesson instead of British English (which already pains me to do), but it would be difficult for me to speak with an American accent.

“But don’t you have American friends?” he said.  Yes… but that doesn’t mean I can talk like them!  Your school’s English teachers are fluent (well… almost) in English but still retain their Japanese accents, so go figure.  And do you really think I’m going to be able to keep that accent up for a whole hour?!

I told him again that I wasn’t really comfortable with the idea.  “Just try,” he said.  I suggested that if they didn’t understand a word, then I could try saying it the American way.  He said that two different pronunciations would only confuse them more.  By this point I was completely flummoxed by the whole situation and said I would do my best, as it didn’t seem like I was going to get him to see it from my point of view and I wanted to go back to my coffee.

I posted what happened on Facebook to get some opinions from other ALTs.  As I was writing, I realised that it’s just another example of jumping through the hoops of the Japanese education system.  Asking me to speak with another accent not only completely misses the point of representing my cultural identity, but considerably limits students’ understanding of English as an international language.  American is not the only accent in the world.  In reality, you do occasionally meet English speakers from other countries.  What then?  “Sorry, I don’t understand you.  Please can you speak like an American?”  A friend suggested that I should start speaking in a Southern drawl and see how they like that accent.

I’ve witnessed many examples of the unwillingness to bend the rules in Japanese society, but this one caught me by surprise.  Exam results are important, but languages require a little more freedom.  A huge part of the JET Programme is about international culturalisation.  How can I do that when I can’t even represent m own country properly?  I would’ve explained this to him, but our whole conversation was in Japanese and these thoughts would’ve taken me a little longer to compose!  Going to see what my supervisor thinks about it.  What confuses me more is that my town actually asked for a British ALT…

Have any other ALTs out there had anything like this?


Scone-making class

The school year is nearly over, so my JTE and I thought we could give the kids a break by doing a cooking class.  He wanted me to teach them to make something traditionally British, as long as it wasn’t rice pudding.  Another ALT made rice pudding at school once and it didn’t go down well at all; rice for dessert is a huge no in Japan!  It’s something that I actually find quite confusing because they have loads of sweets made of rice, although it’s usually pounded and not cooked like normal rice.  So I opted for scones as they’re really easy and exceptionally British and I’ve never met anyone who doesn’t like scones.

Baking is not a thing in Japan at all.  I realised this when shopping for ingredients and found that self-raising flour and caster sugar don’t exist.  There is not nearly as much variety in cake decorating things either… no jelly diamonds or silver balls?!  What on earth.  Managed to get my hands on some baking powder though so my scones still had a future.

They faced another hurdle however due to Japan’s minimal baking habits: ovens.  I think the majority of Japanese homes are equipped without them, and instead people buy toaster ovens for heating things like pizza and bread.  I actually bought a small conventional oven when I got here and it’s awful but at least I have the option to cook things without frying or boiling them.

Because there aren’t any ovens in school (only a micro-combi one) my JTE asked me to bring mine, and he’d bring one too.  I got to school and he’d brought a toaster oven.  “How many scones do you think we can cook in it? Ten? Twelve?” he asked hopefully.  The tray was big enough for two slices of bread, so we decided to make the scones a little smaller than normal.  The second and third years gathered in the home economics room, and we got started.  The easiest part was just mixing everything together, and I had fun showing them how to make the flour and butter into breadcrumbs using their hands.  They were very unsure at first but once they got stuck in, they did a good job!  However when we started putting the scones onto the trays, they started rolling doughballs in their hands to make neat little spheres.  I quickly explained that you can just tear a bit off and plop it on the tray and they were amazed that such little effort went into its presentation.

The actual baking was the most stressful part; we ran over time as I expected, so for the next hour I ran back and forth between 3 “ovens” located at different ends of the school (I have no idea why we couldn’t have just moved them to the same place) making sure that the scones didn’t burn while the kids were in class.  Only being able to cook a few at a time was a pain as the baking trays were so small.  But we did it!  The toaster oven was a bit precarious though and I wouldn’t recommend one for baking!  I heated up the top and bottom bulbs but the top one got hot VERY quickly and the baking paper (and scones and possibly the school) would’ve died a terrible death if I hadn’t been watching it.

The students came back just as I was setting up the tea table.  I put cream and jam out but the cream wasn’t quite what I thought it would be when I bought it.  It looked a bit like clotted cream, as it was kind of solid but soft enough to spread, and it had “milk cream” written on the lid.  I tried a bit off the spoon and it was overwhelmingly sweet and more like buttercream than anything else, but the kids didn’t seem to mind!

Some of them tried their tea the English way as everyone drinks it black here, but they weren’t exactly overwhelmed by it and I don’t think they’ll be converting anytime soon.  Probably because I used Japanese “breakfast” teabags and (unintentionally) low-fat milk… Not quite the proper cuppa.

I was just glad they enjoyed them!  I told them to slice the scones lengthways and spread the cream and jam on each slice (I didn’t say in which order as I’ve heard convincing theories that support both).  Some ate them like a sandwich.  I’d occasionally seen scones in bakeries in the bigger cities but they didn’t look the same as English ones.  I don’t know what they tasted like because the buggers didn’t even save me one!  I had a burnt one earlier, which didn’t actually taste too bad, so hopefully the non-burnt ones were okay.  They ate them all too, which can only be a good sign.  As I was clearing up, one boy took the jam dish before I could and tipped the remains into his mouth.  Ugh.

But hurray for baking success!  Next time I’ll probably just make flapjacks though…


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!


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.


“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!!


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


*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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First 24 hours in Tokyo

Finally landed in Tokyo at 8:30 yesterday morning after a smooth but sleepless 11-hour flight from London.  Can’t believe Dad cried when I left, which made me cry too but also secretly pleased that he got emotional about me leaving haha.

Checking in ze suitcases.

Checking in les baggages.

Not sure my body enjoyed being given an overly processed cooked breakfast at 10:30pm (6:30am Japan time), it felt really wrong but when do I ever turn down free food.  Even though I’d heard about the extreme heat and humidity that slaps you in the face as you leave the airport, I don’t think anything could’ve prepared me for that, and I promise never to complain about it being ‘muggy’ when I’m in England ever again!

After arriving at the Keio Plaza at midday I ventured out into Shinjuku in search of food that didn’t taste like death, and after deciding we weren’t quite ready to attempt ordering anything in a restaurant, picked up a salad at a combini (convenience store).  It was beautiful.  We also remembered that in Japan there is a rule that you don’t eat and walk at the same time, so we had to awkwardly eat the ice cream we’d just bought standing in one place and examining the plastic food on display outside one of the restaurants.  Also, there are NO BINS.  Are Japanese people so neat that they don’t actually create litter?  Where are you supposed to get rid of anything??  We walked past a pachinko arcade (kind of like pinball) and wanted to go in, but as soon as the sliding doors parted it sounded absolutely terrifying and there were all these pink flashy lights so we ran away.

We made our way back to the hotel and got our room keys, had the best shower ever and a power-nap for 30 mins before I met Yuki in the lobby.  We went to the observation tower which gives you a spectacular 360 view of the city.  The Tokyo landscape is a lot different to London in that there aren’t many particular buildings that stand out as much, but the colours are pretty and of course it has Mount Fuji in the distance… but it wasn’t clear enough to see it when we were there.

View of the shrine from the observatory

View of the shrine from the observatory

Shinjuku station

Shinjuku station

We took the train to Harajuku, and went down a street which was very crowded and full of stores selling frilly clothes and weird t shirts.  I think it’s a good people-watching place!

Apparently this is where everyone takes a photo so I felt obliged

Apparently this is where everyone takes a photo so I felt obliged

We walked on to a shrine across the road (the mass of green in the Observatory picture) which was in the middle of a kind of park with huge trees either side of the pathway.  On the way in there were these barrels of Sake but I can’t remember why!  I think they were blessings…

Sake barrels

Sake barrels

Before you enter the shrine you can purify yourself with the water using wooden ladles so we did that.  Then made an offering where you bow and clap and make a wish but I forgot to make one at the right time so it probably won’t come true!



Wishes. Quite a lot of them were about girls.

Wishes. Quite a lot of them were about girls.

Next stop was Shibuya! Walked over the famous crossing and it was getting dark by this point so all the lights and adverts were lit up and the atmosphere was really lively.  There was a constant buzz of electronic noises and excited Japanese announcements.

Shibuya Crossing

Shibuya Crossing

We went to get dinner at an izakaya which was tucked away up a flight of stairs inside a building on the street which I would never have known existed, and were greeted by all the waiters yelling IRASSHAIMASEEEE! (“Welcome”) which I loved.  Japanese waiters/shopkeepers are so enthusiastic and friendly and they all yell at you again as you leave which sounds kinda terrifying but it made me laugh a lot.  They should totally do that in the UK…



You could get unlimited cabbage there ♥ The food was really yummy. 

Finished the night by getting mini fireworks and setting them off in the park and climbed a tree and went back to the hotel and had SUCH A GOOD SLEEP.  Sorry if my writing is rubbish, I’m quite tired! 

P.S. Martha I remembered your note, it was lovely 🙂