Apple Country

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


Let’s enjoy travelling!

The stress of leaving is over and I have started my solo travels of Japan!  My last few days in Aomori were spent getting burnt and having fun on the beach, furiously cleaning and gutting my apartment, meeting the new guy taking over my job and helping him sort out his phone and bank account, trying to sort my own bank account out to send money home, chilling at Lauren’s and trying to savour the time I had left with my friends.

I went to Goshogawara on Saturday to see Tachineputa, and couldn’t really believe it had been two years exactly since I arrived in Aomori and got the train by myself to see it.  The highlight was seeing my favourite student, who graduated to senior high school in April, dancing with his classmates in the parade.  We were on the same train from Goshogawara the day before, and he told me he was going to be in it, and I said I’d keep a look out for him!  During the parade we saw each other and waved like mad, and he kept waving whenever he turned around, then danced away with a huge smile on his face.  Another highlight was seeing Lauren and some other ALTs who were taking part, playing the hand cymbals and getting the crowd hyped up.

My last night in Aomori was spent watching the biggest most spectacular fireworks I’ve ever seen, as in to the point where the fireworks turn into multi-coloured hearts.  I got ready with Yuka at her place, and we wore our yukatas which were maybe a bit louder than most designs, but we thought fireworks were an appropriate occasion to look flashy!


Yuka took me to Shin-Aomori station the next morning, and it was only when we were saying goodbye that I started crying.  I thought I’d cry when I said goodbyes to my other friends, but having them so spread out made it feel less final, until I was actually leaving.  I got on the train all teary-eyed, but then a nice-looking Japanese couple sat in front of me and smiled when we made eye contact.  A few minutes later they turned around and struck up a conversation and it turned out they were visiting from Tokyo to see Nebuta.  The man was from Kanazawa and recommended me his favourite take-out sushi place, and we exchanged emails.  I felt a bit better then.

This is the rough route I’m doing over twelve days with my rail pass until I go to Summer Sonic in Tokyo, then fly home on the 22nd. (Kanazawa – Kobe – Takamatsu – Okayama – Hiroshima – Hamamatsu – Kawasaki – Chiba)


I’m in my hostel in Kanazawa now, and the (foreign!) guy sitting opposite me is eating cup ramen, but kind of quietly lapping the noodles up with his tongue rather than slurping them up in one go and it’s driving me nuts.  Have I turned Japanese?



When people have asked me how I feel about leaving Japan soon, this was a phrase I quickly learned – a tto iu ma – “a blink of time” or literally, “the time it takes to say ‘Ah!'”

Two years feels especially short when I think about how other JETs have stayed as long as five years.  But as I wrote in my last post, the longer I stay here, the harder it will be to return home.  I guess I chose to sacrifice the short term for the long term.  I said goodbye to all my schools last week, and I was surprised how appreciated the students made me feel.  I never thought only seeing them each once a week would have that much of an impact, but when some students gave me lovely personal messages, drawings of me and even asked for my UK address so they could write to me, I realised how close we had actually got during that time and how much I’ll miss them.

On Monday night, the shock of leaving hit me really hard and I couldn’t sleep at all, thinking about how difficult it will be to see the friends I made here again.  It will be relatively easy to see my Japanese friends as I know they’ll always be here, but sooner or later, my JET friends will all move on with their lives and end up scattered around the world.  However this does mean I have a good excuse to go travelling and see them!  When I’d finally managed to get to sleep, about two hours later, the man living across from me decided 5am was a good time to start hammering away at something in his shed for an hour.  I stuck my head out the window and yelled at him, because I didn’t care about being a nice neighbour anymore with only a week left, but he didn’t hear me anyway.

Clearing out my apartment is really tedious and I hate it.  Especially when it’s hot and humid and all I want to do is lie on my sofa and eat watermelon.  I’ve also amazed myself at how much crap I managed to acquire in two years, and the CARDBOARD, oh the cardboard.  But it must be done, and I tell myself everything will come together in the end, because it always does!

Last Saturday we had a taiko performance and then a party afterwards which one of the group leaders organised for me.  I nicknamed him Boss a while ago and he was so chuffed that now he makes everyone call him that.  We decided that the guy who sort of oversees us as a group, but doesn’t really play with us, needed a nickname too, so I suggested Chief, which also turned out to be a big hit.  We got very drunk and I was serenaded at karaoke with a powerful rendition of Queen’s I Was Born To Love You featuring some hilarious backing dancers.  They are all such a fun group of people, I’m sad I only got to know them proplerly in the last six months.  I could see us hanging out together more often outside practice, but obviously that won’t be happening 😦 But I’m glad I did have those six months!  I remember how hard it was to feel like I had a place in the Japanese community, as I just didn’t click with anyone in my own town.  I’ve been so lucky to have Lauren in the next town, who’s not only been an amazing friend to have, but without her I wouldn’t have had met the taiko group and made such good memories.

I met up with my friend in Aomori city on Monday, as I had to change my visa so I can use the JR Pass to go travelling.  We went to the fish market where you buy 10 stamps and can choose whatever seafood you like to put in your ricebowl.  I got all my favourites, including ikura, unagi and a huuuuuuge juicy raw scallop.  Then she took me to an old-fashioned looking ice cream sundae place where she used to go as a teenager.  I had a “B.B.” which was apparently a “big black” sundae, with big scoops of chocolate ice cream, an oreo, chocolate covered cornflakes and sliced banana.  I couldn’t finish it though…  We looked at the UK guidebooks she’d rented from the library because she wants to visit during spring next year.  Looking at all the nice photos of English gardens and pretty shop fronts in London actually made me feel a bit better about coming home, and even more so at the prospect of showing it around to a friend.


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.


Japanese Guys

Introducing my first comic drawn on my graphics tablet!  It’s taken a while to get finished, due to having to restart it a couple of times because A) my cartoon style sucked and B) I recently upgraded to the full version of the software I was trialing and learned that there is such a thing as LAYERS which made drawing this kinda thing a billion times easier.

To distinguish English dialogue from Japanese, I wrote what would’ve been said in Japanese in the slightly thicker ink pen style.

making friends in japanese

The older folk make enthusiastic conversation partners, but the intensity of topics tends to escalate rather quickly…



Hakodate Take 2

Every year after the Skills Development Conference in Aomori City, a group of JETs jump on a ferry and head to Hakodate, a city on the southernmost tip of Hokkaido, just a four-hour journey away.  It’s known for its delicious seafood, beautiful scenic views, kitsch burger chain Lucky Pierrot, and more recently as the place where I broke my arm in an unfortunate piggy-back accident.

Despite the many hilarious jokes about broken bones thrown in my direction, I decided to try again and accomplish what I couldn’t last year.  In Japanese this is called リベンジ (ribenji i.e. revenge): a classic case of Japanglish where it’s just… not quite.  Another example of this, which I came across the other week, was when I asked my friend how I could say “repetitive” in Japanese, and he suggested ワンパターン (wanpataan i.e. one pattern).  “This song is catchy but so one pattern!”  Hmmmm maybe not.

I find it interesting how English words make it into the Japanese vocabulary, and I get where they’re coming from but it probably wouldn’t directly be translated like that.  I wonder if we use foreign words like that and don’t realise that’s not how they’re used by native speakers??  Anyway, I digress…

This time in Hakodate I didn’t break anything and I got to see all the sights I wanted and eat everything I came for, including market seafood breakfast, Hokkaido curry, teriyaki burgers, miso curry milk ramen, gyoza, ice cream and crepes.  Parts of Hakodate made me feel like I was walking around Disneyland: the cobbled streets, the tram system, the pink winter sky at sunset, the pretty pastel facades and red brick warehouses, the tinsel hanging from old-fashioned street lamps, the bustle of people by the port… it felt Western but in a weird, nostalgic, not-quite-genuine way.  It’s probably something to do with how 150 years ago, Japan’s 220 years of isolation was ended when Hakodate became the first port to be opened to the public, which brought over many Western influences.  The pale blue and yellow paneling of the old British Consulate in particular felt like a Disneyland attraction.

One night before going on the ropeway to see the night view, we walked around a hilly district called Motomachi, which was full of churches.  We came up to the Russian Orthodox church just as mass was beginning, and we got to hear the bells ring.  They weren’t like any church bells I’ve heard before, and with the clouds lit up by the moon like smoke and the trees with their spindly branches looming over us, it made the atmosphere really eerie!  Alexander and I ruined it though by projecting shadow puppets onto the side of the church.

Highlights of the trip were my 2000 yen (£11) seafood breakfast in the market  which I had twice! (freshly caught sea urchin, cod roe, scallop, squid and crab on a bowl of rice), strolling around the waterfront at night, having Japanified afternoon tea at the British Consulate, doing karaoke in a tiny bar, having an evening of games, drinking and eating in our rented apartment, seeing the night view of Hakodate, and generally being with great friends and getting to know new ones.  I’m glad this time things worked out in my favour!!

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Bunkasai – school culture festival

All my junior high schools had their culture festivals the other week, which is a chance for them to proudly display their recent work around school and put on a variety of performances on stage for their family and friends to see.  Every year a theme is chosen, and the students and teachers transform the school with decorations accordingly.  Each classroom has a different display.  The pictures below are of the display to find out about your personality.  I did my best to translate the description for people who like green i.e. me.  If you know me well, I wonder if you agree with it!  I thought it was pretty accurate…

“Find out your personality and psychology based on your favourite colour”

“People who like green: Fundamentally calm and has a steady way of doing things. Is also very patient. Strong endurance, kind personality, dislikes fighting and seeks ordinary calmness. Behaves properly and doesn’t cross others’ paths. Wants to cooperate with people, so lacks self-assertion. “

Last year one of my schools chose “Frozen” as their theme, and even though I can’t stand that film it was pretty cool to see the classrooms covered in paper snowflakes and icicles.  This year, the schools’ themes included “Grow up” (with Alice in Wonderland decorations) and “Infinity”.  Motivational expressions are a thing in Japan so they usually go with something like that.  My favourite school had the “Infinity” theme, and began their opening ceremony with a white canvas lying flat on the middle of the floor, with only the symbol for infinity painted on it in red.  The music started (One Direction, of course) and a group of students dunked their hands in some paint and started making prints all over it.  Another student wrote the Japanese for infinity 無限 (literally “no limit”) inside the symbol.  She used what looked exactly like a mop, but I’m sure it was much more sophisticated than that…

Then the music changed and the Vice-Principal entered from the back, in this badass blue hakama, carrying a long red sash.  I really liked the song they chose because it sounded like the beginning of Bittersweet Symphony by the Verve, and I looked it up later and it was One Direction, AGAIN.  I don’t like it anymore.  Anyway, the VP knelt down at the edge of the canvas, tied one part of the sash underneath his arms and around his shoulders, then tied the other part around his head.  He then proceeded to elaborately write calligraphy from the top to the bottom of the canvas like a true expert.  It was one of the most kakko-ii things I have ever seen.  I just asked the lovely janitor at my school what the sash is called and why they wear it, cos I wasn’t having any luck with Google… but it doesn’t have a special name, just the Japanese equivalent of “sash”.  She said people wear them to keep the sleeves out of their way when they do stuff like cleaning and calligraphy.  If you’ve seen Spirited Away, it’s like what the bath house cleaners wear with their pink overalls.

He tied it sort of like this...

He tied it sort of like this…

I was asked to help judge the chorus performances in the morning, and got free tickets to get noodles and a chocolate banana from the canteen room.  After I ate with the students, I was challenged to an arm-wrestling match by a sumo-loving first grader.  She looked pretty strong so I didn’t hold back, but she lost to the surprise of her friends.  Then the third grade boys wanted to have a go, and the competitive side in me came out… I beat them all until I taught them a few techniques and the tables drastically turned!!  It’s because my arm was tired, ok?

Being part of the chorus is compulsory, which is a shame because it means the quality of the singing is compromised… but at least it gives them a chance to try it out.  All students sang the same song at the beginning, then each class took it in turns to sing the song again, followed by another song that they’d chosen.  I wanted the first years to win, but it seems like the third years just won by default from being the most senior year.  My opinion was denied (even though we agreed 1A was better than 2A in the beginning) and the music teacher changed her mind, putting 3A in first place, then 2A, then 1A.  She agreed that 1A were very good for first years, but it was the “team effort” that counted.  Fair point, but that doesn’t make 2A better singers…

When I arrived at school on Tuesday,  bags and bags of stripped-down decorations lined the corridor, waiting to be thrown away.  It made me kind of sad that they didn’t keep them up longer, but it seems that’s the way with most celebrations in Japan.  Even at Christmas, come the 26th December, there isn’t a strand of tinsel in sight.  At least it means you don’t get those weirdos who leave their Christmas trees up until March.


Language exchange organising success!

(I meant to post this last week, oops!)

I began volunteering as the vice-president for the charity Everest of Apples (run by myself and two other Aomori ALTs) in June, and last week I finally got to host my first event.  Previously I had only contributed to a large-scale event, which was really an AJET event to welcome this year’s new JETs to Aomori.  We set up a bar and made cocktails in exchange for donations at the party, which was fun but meant I had to spend a lot of time making people drinks instead of getting to know the new JETs.

This time my friend Alyssa, who is the president of E of A, and I decided to have a language exchange fundraiser in two separate locations in Aomori.  People paid 1,000 yen entry (500 yen donation plus 500 drink ticket so the kind guys who own the bar get some money) and spent the first hour talking in English, the second hour in Japanese, and the half-time interval tackling a quiz I made.  We wanted to make it like an East vs. West kinda fundraising competition to see who could raise the most money.  (Hirosaki won with about 31,000 yen in donations!)

I hosted the event in Hirosaki on the west side, and Alyssa hosted one in Hachinohe on the east side.  I was anxious that not many people would show up as we only had 20 people RSVP on Facebook, but we had a grand total of 52 attendees!  I was intrigued to find that a lot of the Japanese people who came found the event by searching for it on the internet, as well as one British guy living in Nagasaki who was travelling solo around Aomori.  Some people saw us standing outside the bar having fun and decided to join right then.  I had an interesting conversation with a Japanese professor who found the event online; he had done fundraising in Uganda and was keen to stay in touch.  I didn’t realise the internet had the power to passively advertise such a small event!

Even though I was a little flustered at the beginning, as I didn’t expect so many people to ACTUALLY arrive at the start time, I ended up really enjoying myself and having zero cock-ups.  Hurray!

Our next event is even bigger – the Halloween party in Aomori City.  It’ll be me, Alyssa and our treasurer Kyle working together so I’m looking forward to partying in my spooky vampire threads.

Taking from the rich…


Listening attentively

Quiz time!

Chatting outside the bar

I have no idea




Busy being happy

For some reason, since I can remember I’ve always associated October with the colour blue.  Maybe it’s a form of synesthesia?  All the other months have colours to me as well.  Just in case anyone can tell me why I perceive these colours in particular, here they are!

January, March, June, July and September are yellow

February and October are blue

April, August and December are green

May is dark pink

November is brown

Anyway it’s October now, so my thoughts are tinted blue.  Adverts for snow ploughs and electric heaters are cropping up on TV, and the students are transitioning from their summer uniforms to winter.  The boys look smart in their gakuran (a black button-up jacket derived from French army uniforms), but I still think the fact that they all have to wear white trainers ruins the look a bit.

I went to Okinawa with three friends for Silver Week (three national holidays in a row!) and it was a great chance to stock up on some Vitamin D before winter sets in.  I’ll post about that later when I’ve stolen some of Harrison’s photos (mine are alright but he took way more than me and also has a really nice camera!!).

Compared to last year I feel like I’m really on the ball and getting shit done, not just with school-related things but what I’m doing outside work too.  There are still some days where I have a floppy lesson (usually from last-minute preparations on my part or miscommunication with my JTE) but I now feel like I get how this teaching thing works.  When I first started, I had no idea what I was doing, had no teaching experience or qualifications, plus I had no idea what the Japanese school system was like, so it wasn’t particularly smooth sailing.  But now I know my students, I know what interests them, and lately I’ve been having a blast in class with them.  I played Fruit Basket with my third years yesterday after they’d been requesting it for a few weeks, and this time I persuaded my JTE to join in as he usually just watches us play.  It was a great way to end the day with everyone still giggling about it when class was over.  It also makes me feel ridiculously happy when a JTE tells me they liked my lesson or want me to repeat it with another class.  Yesterday at the same school, I did a lesson with the first years on “What’s this?” where I made a worksheet with pictures of various British things like a kilt, a badger, a robin, Marmite, porridge and a crumpet.  The students had to match the picture with what they thought was the correct description, then ask their friends what each picture was.  My JTE surprised me by saying he wanted to know more about British culture and could I do a full lesson on it next week.  I was really happy because he usually doesn’t give me any feedback after lessons, and of course I’ll take any opportunity to share my culture, cos that’s what I’m here for!

Aside from classes, I’m actually keeping myself busy enough that I don’t have time to stare into space anymore.  Hurrah!  That’s probably why I don’t blog so much anymore.  I go to English conversation club once or twice a week after work, I have my Tuesday dinner dates with the new ALT in Ajigasawa followed by Japanese practice with Toshiya, and I have an hour of Japanese on Skype once a week too.  I went to calligraphy practice yesterday for the first time since July, because I just got bored and fed up with the teacher not giving me any direction.  But I suddenly had an urge to do it again, and yeah it was okay even though I still find it about as frustrating as it is enjoyable.  And even though I’m disappointed I didn’t get asked to take part in the town hall taiko group again this year, at least I have other stuff to do.  I even sacrifice PS3 time so I can draw on my graphics tablet in the evenings or ride my bike… which reminds me, I do have a cartoon in progress but I’m still getting to grips with the tablet and it’s taking a little longer than I thought!

I’m keeping my weekends busy too, with the beef and garlic festival coming up this Saturday and a really cool craft fair on Sunday, which I also went to last year.  It still amazes me how willing I am to drive three hours to a place just to hang out with people.  Of course the garlic is also a huge incentive for me.  I’ll just make sure not to get too close to people the next day…

I’ve just finished planning a charity language exchange event that’s happening next week.  There will be two events happening simultaneously on either side of the prefecture, and I’m hosting the one in Hirosaki.  I’m excited but a bit nervous to be in charge of my own event!  This kind of work is something I’ve been interested in for a while, so if it goes well, I’ll keep organising them in case I decide to do some sort of events management as a career.

Japanese studies are going okay, I finally got round to paying for the exam so I’m officially taking N2 on 6th December.  With only two months to go, I’m feeling a little uncertain about how I’ll do as the grammar I have to learn is still a bit overwhelming and isn’t completely sticking in my head when I do the review tests in my textbook.  But the only real reason I’m taking it is to boost my CV, so honestly as long as I can just remember it on the day, I don’t care how useful it is in my daily life!!  Ahhh the futility of language exams.  I think I’m progressing though anyway.  It’s weird because if I’m caught off-guard and a teacher starts talking to me in Japanese when I’m not expecting it, my mind goes blank and I fluster and can’t say what I want to say properly.  I went out for dinner with some teachers the other week, and they made me make a speech out of the blue about nothing in particular.  I ended up accidentally thanking the vice-principal specifically for looking after me when I actually meant all the teachers in general… but by the time I realised what I said it was too late!  I told my JTE later what I meant and she laughed and said she’d tell the others.  I felt kinda knocked down though, like it was this realisation that I still wasn’t able to speak Japanese well.  My confidence constantly fluctuates though, and it wasn’t long until it got boosted up again.  Toshiya said that I’m creating complex sentences a lot more naturally and quickly than when we first started meeting.  I feel it too, and I still get those ‘a-ha!’ moments when I no longer have to pause and work out how to conjugate verbs a certain way, then decide on the best place in the sentence to say them.  I will not be beaten by the plateau!!

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Sweet Shop

11700712_10153547561835955_6307677742804394234_oAs non-Japanese people are a rare sight where I live, my presence has so far been met with mixed reactions.  Some stare, some follow, some smile, some shout “hello”, and some just strike up a conversation in Japanese with me, which I like because they don’t just assume that I can’t speak any Japanese.  This was one of those times: the shop keeper looked totally confused until I said “konnichiwa”, then suddenly she started talking to me in Japanese and was really super friendly.

It bothers me a little bit that sometimes when I interact with a Japanese person, they panic or think they have to speak English because I wouldn’t understand Japanese.  I’m pretty sure in other countries, we wouldn’t just assume right away that the other person didn’t speak the native language if they’d already started talking in it.  I get that some Japanese people want to use the English they’ve learned, but it’s kind of annoying when I’m speaking Japanese and they always reply in English.   I don’t really like being a free English lesson.  If I didn’t speak the language, then I would ask them if they spoke English. Then again some of my friends in Japan who have Asian ethnicity but don’t speak Japanese have had trouble where a Japanese person will assume they speak Japanese, because they look Asian.  When they explain that they can’t, some Japanese people have a hard time trying to understand this.

The majority of the time though, I get to have fun conversations in Japanese with random people in my town.  Because it’s so small, no one really speaks English here at all!


Learning Japanese is as rewarding as it is soul-crushing

I took level N3 of the JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test) on Sunday.  Considering it was the first time I’d taken a JLPT exam, I thought it went pretty well, except for the listening section.  My mind tends to drift off very easily, so the fact that we only get one chance to listen to each dialogue meant if I lost concentration even for a second, I’d miss vital information to answer the question.  The JLPT listening questions try and trip you up… the answers include everything that’s been talked about in the dialogues, but obviously only one has a slight detail that corresponds to the question.  So if I missed some information but thought I heard a particular word and saw it as one of the answers, my reaction would be to choose that one, but it’d probably be wrong!  I think that happened a few times so I’m not feeling so confident anymore… Even if I failed, it doesn’t matter too much because I don’t actually need it for anything.  I just find it more motivating to have a goal to work towards.

Anyway, before I get back into studying, I felt like posting about my experiences as a Japanese learner in Japan.  Before I came here, I had about two years’ worth of Japanese knowledge through a fairly relaxed studying regime.  I taught myself Hiragana and Katakana in my first year of university, looked at a few Japanese learning materials, then took a beginners’ course because I couldn’t get my head around the different sentence structure and verb conjugations.  Simple sentences were okay, as the order just becomes SOV rather than SVO, as it is in English.  But when things started to get complex, I struggled.  Longer sentences get a little trickier:

Just taking a random sentence out of my textbook.  Obviously they weren’t this hard to begin with, but just to show you how different the word order is!


Every day Japanese in speak try to do if, gradually skilled can speak like will become.

i.e. If you try to speak in Japanese every day, you’ll gradually be able to speak well.

(Sorry if that’s not a perfect translation, but you get the idea.)

Even though the syntax in Japanese is completely different and sounds like Yoda made it up, for some reason it just clicks after a while.  I don’t think there is a real watershed moment when learning a language where you suddenly just understand how the language works, at least in my experience, but there are definitely points when you realise how much better you are now than you were maybe six months or a year ago.  One of the most rewarding things about learning a language is when you suddenly understand something you couldn’t before.  A few days a week, a guy in a truck (always heard, but never seen) drives past my apartment babbling something through a loudspeaker and I’d have no idea what he was saying.  The other day, suddenly my brain just got it.  He was asking people to come outside and buy some vegetables from the back of his truck.

What made me feel even more warm and fuzzy was when I picked up the Japanese version of Matilda that I bought a while back, after ignoring it for a few months because it was too hard. I’d read The Little Prince before getting Matilda, and was so thrown off by Roald Dahl’s informal writing style after the gentleness of The Little Prince that I couldn’t understand any of the grammar and had to abandon it.  Three months of textbook-studying later, I tried Matilda again, and it was like 500 light bulbs went off in my head at the same time.  The random letters suddenly made sense, and I was able to understand and even enjoy the story.  It definitely helped that I already knew what it was about, but the words didn’t just sound like white noise in my head anymore.  Of course I still have to look up words a lot, but they’re always more interesting.  Like the other day I learned “tufty” – ふさふさ which made me smile.

As for the difficulties of learning Japanese, and any language probably, moving from beginner to intermediate is a struggle.  As a beginner you learn so much new stuff, you feel like you’re constantly leveling up and gaining all this Japanese knowledge.  When you hit the intermediate “plateau”, that’s when things get hard… You want to use what you’ve learned, but everyday conversation is still just beyond your reach and you’re way past self-introductions and talking about things you like.  Reading news articles and stories becomes a chore when you constantly have to look words up in the dictionary.  You find yourself understanding more and more of what you hear, but for some reason your brain won’t cooperate when you want to have a conversation in Japanese.  I still get this A LOT.  It’s the worst part of learning a language.  I can understand so much, but I get SO frustrated when I’m trying to speak Japanese and am hit by a mental block.  It’s hard for me not to constantly think, “Am I saying this right?!” and it’s embarrassing when I try to say something but I say it wrong and I have to pretend that’s what I wanted to talk about. 90% of the time, it’s only after the conversation’s finished when I’ve worked out how to structure the sentence properly, or remembered the word I wanted to say.  But I’m hoping that will get better with practice.

I think my listening has improved a lot since living in Japan, but the assumption that you can just pick up a language by living in the country isn’t always true.  I know JETs who’ve been here for 3 – 5 years and can’t speak the language at all, so studying and frequent speaking practice seems the way forward.  If you don’t practice with native speakers, it’ll take longer to progress.  I also know people who came here with a Japanese degree from university and couldn’t have a basic conversation in Japanese.  Unfortunately, even though I’m the only non-Japanese person at work, I find it actually quite hard to practice speaking.  I speak English all day to the students and when I’m talking to my JTEs, and I try to talk to the other teachers in Japanese but a) I’m shy! and b) my desk is isolated away from everyone else.  I go to my barber/gardener friend every Tuesday for free conversation practice, and I don’t have to think so much before saying anything anymore.  But there are still times when I feel disheartened after studying so much and can’t express myself properly. Basically I just want to immediately be good. Sigh.