Apple Country

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



(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…

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How I almost became a secondary school teacher

For the past few months, I have been playing with the idea of doing a PGCE and training to be a secondary teacher in the UK when I return in August.  Before, I had never wanted to enter a teaching career because I didn’t want to teach my subject, music, and you’re supposed to teach the subject your degree is in.  It’s not that I didn’t want to teach it because I don’t enjoy it; I absolutely love sharing my appreciation for it with others, and teaching piano is the best job I’ve ever had!  However, music is not for everyone, and I remember feeling horrible for my music teachers at school who couldn’t keep control of the class because the kids just weren’t interested.  When my teachers started their training, they probably thought they would inspire new minds and unleash the creativity in those kids that didn’t know they had it etc etc.  But when there are X number of hoops to jump through, school inspections and targets to meet, it’s difficult to allow them that much freedom.  The other reason I didn’t want to teach it, is because I’m not good at explaining theory.  I’m not good at theory full-stop, so I wouldn’t have a chance teaching it at higher levels.  I get music, but I understand it as if it’s a story made up of patterns rather than some kind of mathsy formula.  Some people can look at a chord and tell you it’s an augmented 6th in D minor in root position, but my brain doesn’t work like that!  And unfortunately you’re supposed to know how to do stuff like that in order to pass exams.

What I am good at explaining though, is languages.  I find it easy to understand how language structure works and what components are needed for a particular grammar point.  Teaching English and learning Japanese at the same time means I’ve improved at analysing both languages, becoming able to recognise interesting similarities and stark contrasts that make it stick in my brain.  I thought if I had to teach something at school, it would definitely be a language.  Why not Japanese?  By the time I leave in August, my ability should be around degree level.  Only half of MFL teaching positions are being filled in the UK, so they are desperately trying to employ more teachers.  After doing some research, it turns out there are a few hundred schools teaching Japanese as part of the curriculum, and maybe four or five universities that said they would take me on to do a PGCE when I emailed them.  Maybe they are desperate to let me on even without a Japanese degree!  My shot in the dark was actually looking more and more promising.
Then I started researching secondary teachers’ experiences… it was a huge reality check.  Normally I’m wary of reading personal stories on the internet because I’ve found that people usually only speak up when they have something bad to say, and the good is often left ignored.  I knew that teaching wasn’t an easy profession, but I wasn’t quite prepared for how stressful people claimed it to be.  Every single story I read talked about how long and draining the work is.  Evenings and weekends are sacrificed in the name of lesson-planning and marking, and even those long holidays that are seemingly a perk of the job are spent getting ready for the next term.  This is the deal breaker for me; I love my hobbies and downtime, and if I have to come home after a long day only to continue working into the night and even give up a day of my weekend to do it, then I’m out.  On top of that, there’s the coping with inspections, trying to meet increasingly high targets and dealing with misbehaviour.  Is it any wonder teachers across the UK are dropping out of school like flies?  I read so many blogs where they said they couldn’t take the stress anymore, and had to stop for the sake of their wellbeing.  “Don’t do it unless you feel like you were born to,” one of them said.  They had lost the inspiration and enthusiasm they had when they entered the profession.  They thought they would continue to enjoy their job because they loved teaching children, despite being fully aware of how stressful it would be.  If this is what being a teacher is really like, then I don’t want to do it.
Does it sound selfish?  Of course I want to help children and be one of the people that shapes their futures in some way.  I would love to get them interested in Japanese and get that buzz like I did when I started learning it (it’s still fun now… sort of).  But I’m not prepared to sacrifice my work/life balance for it.  I think it’s completely off that Japanese work culture means staying late just to make it look like you’re working hard, but when a teacher has to do so much extra work that it affects their health because they don’t have a choice, there’s something wrong.
Surely teaching never used to be like this.  I’m pretty certain my parents and grandparents didn’t have to deal with all of this, and they turned out alright!  Why is this generation the one that has to have the bar raised so high?  There is too much unnecessary pressure being put on teachers and students alike.  There is more to life than working and studying, and it becomes ineffective anyway if you can’t find time to do the things you enjoy (unless you REALLY love working).  If everyone took two steps back, we might be able to find a good balance.
I haven’t banished the idea of being a teacher completely.  I can still imagine myself in my classroom decorated with cherry blossoms and kanji and Studio Ghibli posters, getting choked up when my first students learn how to count to ten.  Many people go into teaching later for a change of pace and to find work that’s more fulfilling.  But until the government reduces the pressure on schools and teachers, I won’t be one of them.

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After the bunkasai, I was invited to an enkai to celebrate the end of all the hard work put in to organising the festival.  An enkai is essentially a drinking party with food.  Normally the food is not chosen from a menu, and it’s fun to see what kind of things will be served up next.  Usually the main dish is cooked at the table, so we can all help ourselves.

Earlier the teachers told me the name of the restaurant we were going to, which was in the city, and I assumed I’d be able to find it using the map on my phone.  I followed the directions and ended up in some shady part of town behind the train station.  I was about to give up when a nice-looking restaurant came into view, but when I went in there was no reservation under my school name…

“What is the name of the restaurant you’re looking for?” the owner asked me.

“Rokkaitei..?” I said hopefully.

“Oh… this is Hana *something something*…”

I told her I got the feeling I was in the wrong place when I saw how nice it was inside!  She laughed and called a taxi for me, chatting with me the whole time before it arrived.  I still had ten minutes before I was supposed to be at the actual restaurant, so when I arrived and the teachers asked me if I found it okay, of course I told them I had no problem…

I had such a fun evening, not only because I could actually drink alcohol this time instead of driving home, but because I got to know one of the other teachers whom I hadn’t really spoken to before.   I was a bit worried when he sat next to me, because even though he’s friendly, he’s REALLY quiet, but after a couple of minutes I asked him my favourite question:  What music do you like?

I like a lot of different music so this question always gets the conversation going, unless my partner says they’re not interested in it, in which case I am immediately suspicious of them.  However this teacher, Mr. O, said he liked “older music”.  Off to a good start! I thought, and encouraged him to go into more detail.  He said he liked artists like the Rolling Stones, Neil Young, Radiohead and Deep Purple.  On top of that, he was a die-hard metal fan.  I’m probably not as much of a metal fan as he is, but I like nothing more than finding out I share similar music taste with another person, especially if they haven’t heard of any of my favourite bands, because I get to make them mixtapes!!  Then we can fangirl/fanboy over the same stuff.  He said I was the first girl he’d spoken to that liked that kind of music, which I was really surprised about.  But then again when idol groups and bands like One Direction dominate Japanese girls’ music preferences, maybe it’s not that surprising from his perspective.  In my opinion Japanese music is very… bland.  And even Mr. O said so (but I didn’t mention it until he did!!).

I pretty much only talked to him and my JTE all evening, and even she was surprised that someone as gentle as him was such a metalhead.  I mentioned that they always seemed to be the ones that sat in the corner being quiet at my school.  When I went to work on Tuesday, he lent me some CDs he’d picked up from his parents’ house that weekend for me.  They were 80s/90s power-metal bands he’d listened to at school, including Gamma Ray, Impelliterri and Fair Warning; not the kind of metal I’m really into, but I enjoyed imagining being a 15-year old Japanese high-schooler listening to these foreign artists for the first time.  I gave him a CD I’d made in return, which included all my own high school favourites like Muse, Queens of the Stone Age and the Pixies.  After lunch he told me he was half-way through listening to it, and that he was really liking it so far.

It probably seems like music is the only thing I want to talk about, which is partially true, but I like it as a topic mainly because it helps me get to know people better and use it as a base to move the conversation off into other directions.  But if I come across someone as nerdy about it as I am, we’ll probably never need to.

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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.


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…