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.


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.



It’s been just over a year since I abandoned everything I knew and loved in England, and stumbled off the plane into the overwhelming Tokyo heat with no idea what the next year would hold.

Tokyo orientation was an unsettling mix of listening to lectures inside beige conference rooms throughout the day, and getting lost in a crazy electronic colour bubble as I explored the city with other JETs at night.  I remember standing in my bathroom after I’d unpacked my things in my new apartment and wondering what the hell I’d got myself into.  But somehow a year has already passed and I have just one more before I leave Aomori.  What will happen after that, I haven’t yet decided…

It’s hard to tell how much I’ve changed, but I have found myself somehow adopting certain aspects of Japanese life into my own.  When my friend came to visit from the UK, I definitely remembered how different British eating habits are!  Since coming to Japan, I’ve really enjoyed having my meals separated into little dishes tapas-style.  The food doesn’t get soggy from the other food, especially rice, and I love being able to take a little bit from whichever bowl I feel like taking from.  I made her dinner like this when she came to stay, but she scraped everything into the same bowl and ate it like that.  I thought it was weird, but I didn’t say anything.  When we were at a restaurant in Tokyo, she picked up her bowl of miso soup to pour onto her rice.  I saw this and blurted out, “NO.”  I couldn’t help it.  We found it hilarious for ages though.  I don’t usually just shut people down like that; I get that us Brits like to mix everything up, but it would probably be like pouring tomato soup onto your sandwich?  It’s weird, and it makes the sandwich all soggy and difficult to eat!  I might make this story into a comic…  I bought a graphics tablet from a friend so I can draw my comics digitally, but subsequently left it at another friend’s house.  So I might use it at home if I’m not busy eating and appreciating living 45 minutes from central London!!

Last night I played taiko in Tachineputa in Goshogawara city, which was the first festival I saw when I arrived in Aomori last year.  The music brought back memories of getting lost among the food stalls and staring in awe at the beautifully illuminated floats that towered above the streets.  I couldn’t take any pictures of the festival this time as I was busy drumming, but it was great fun, if exhausting!  I have some impressive blisters on my hands to remind me of it.  I hope I can play again next year before I leave!


Pushing the floats back into their stands after the festival ended.


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 😀