How to Spend a Summer in Japan

The start of my second year in Japan marks the end of my first full Japanese summer. Summer is a fantastic time to be in Japan (despite the high temperatures and killer humidity) as it’s the height of festival season. Everywhere in Japan, from tiny towns to major cities, has its own festival, and if I had the energy I could spend every weekend watching fireworks and eating festival food. It’s a nice change from winter, which gets pretty quiet as everyone hides inside under their kotatsu.

Since I’ve only done this once, I’m no expert, but in my experience I’ve learned there are a few key aspects to having a great summer in Japan. Below I’ll walk you through my list of things to do for summer. Continue reading

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To the US and Back Again

Hello everyone! I’m sorry I’ve been seriously slacking on my updates. When life falls into its normal routine I run out of steam to write, and of course  I forget that what I see as everyday occurrences might actually be interesting to everyone back home. But now the weather’s warming up and we’re approaching festival season again, so hopefully I’ll have plenty to write about in the coming months.

In the meantime, I’m back from a quick trip home to the US, where I actually saw many of my usual readers, which was great. While I had originally planned on going to Indonesia with my friend Selina, a few things changed back home and I decided that it would be a good idea to use that rare stretch of time off to spend time with family instead.

In truth I was a bit worried about going home. I talk a big game about my love of travel and adventure, and I know I make it sound like I never want to go back, but that’s simply not true. While I spent most of my adolescence dreaming about escaping St. Louis, once that actually happened I started to realize that home wasn’t so bad after all. In fact, every time I come home I find new things to love, and it becomes harder and harder to leave again. That doesn’t mean I’ve decided to move home forever, but I’ve accepted that St. Louis is home, and going home is nice sometimes. And while I’ve generally enjoyed my time here in Japan, the month or so prior to my trip was a bit of a struggle. I was really worried that if I came home, I wouldn’t be able to return to Japan with quite the right amount of “genki” spirit.

I’m relieved to say that wasn’t the case. Sitting here at my desk I’m actually doing a lot better than I was before I took my trip. Reminding myself of what awaits me when I eventually come home was nice, and sort of helped me reframe my thinking about the things I’ve found difficult in Japan. Of course I’ve always known this wasn’t permanent, and that I should appreciate living here while I can, but that’s not the sort of idea that’s top of mind when I can’t find decent cheese in the grocery store, or when walking into a shop causes the clerks to panic and suddenly disappear. These things will still annoy and upset me to varying degrees, as will all of the cultural blunders and miscommunications at work and with friends, but at least for now it’s not so bad.

And honestly, the month I’ve had since returning to Japan has been pretty good. I’ve had enough classes to be busy but not overwhelmed, spent time catching up with friends near and far, checked out some new places (photos to come) and have generally had a very chill time. As summer approaches my days will soon get significantly sweatier and possibly busier, with speech contest season on the horizon, but for now, life’s good.

So thank you to everyone who took the time to see me while I was home. The food was great and the company was even better. I miss you all and promise to be back again before too long. But until then, it’s time to soak up as much Japan as I can.

Walking in a Winter Wonderland, with Palm Trees

Hello everyone! I’m working on a blog update about my trip to Europe over the holidays, but it’s been a busy few weeks since returning. I’ve been planning my next few trips, the Miyazaki ALTs had our mid-year conference, and I’ve otherwise been cold an unmotivated. This past weekend I thought I’d finally get it together and do some writing, but was utterly distracted by SNOW!

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Little flurries outside of my apartment

Yes, that’s right. Snow. In Miyazaki. To give you an idea of how strange that was, here’s a picture of a palm tree with a nice dusting of snow:

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I woke up and saw flurries, which was exciting, but had planned on staying in my moderately warm apartment until a friend invited me to go out and see the snow. My Australian and Arizonan friends were very excited. While the snowfall was not particularly impressive by St. Louis standards, it was downright amazing to them. We spent some time walking around a nearby (completely empty) park and taking photos.

We then met up with my friend Noriko for lunch and she said this was the only the second time in her life that she’s seen snow here in Miyakonojo, and the first was thirty years ago. What luck that I got to see it in my first year here!

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Driving around in the snow. Photo by Meagan

After lunch Noriko suggested that we go to a temple in the mountains to see more snow, and we thought this sounded great. We made a very snowy (but not particularly icy or crowded) drive to Kanoya, about an hour away, where we stopped by the White Snake Temple. As the name implies, the temple houses a sacred white snake (there’s a Buddhist legend involving a snake) but of course the snake itself was hibernating, and we were much more interested in the scenery. I’ll have to come back in the summer to see the snake, and also the surrounding mountains when they’re green again.

The temple was gorgeous, and Japan in the snow is amazing. Of course I’ve seen snow before, and way more than this, but the Japanese landscape is so different from that of St. Louis, or even Colorado, and it was pretty cool to see. I’ve definitely resolved that next year I want to se a bit of the Japanese “snow country” up north, where they get so much snow that they’ve installed heated roads.

Two days later the snow here in Miyakonojo has completely melted, and temperatures are back on the rise. Since Japanese schools and homes don’t have the most efficient heating, that’s fine by me, but I’m really glad to have gotten one lovely day of snow. Now, time to get writing!

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Phil, Eddy, Meagan, Noriko and me. Photo by Meagan

A Magical Halloween in Osaka

So I’ve been in the middle of writing this post for quite a while, and while I said I was waiting for photos from my friend really I was just procrastinating. But now that the students are on winter vacation, and I’m just waiting for my own vacation to start, I thought I’d finally finish my story about Osaka trip #2.

A few months ago I happened to send a message to a friend of mine from Pac Rim. We hadn’t talked in a while but something made me think of her. I suppose the universe was sending me a sign, because as luck would have it my friend was preparing for a trip to Japan, and of course we should meet up! And even better, the end of her trip fell on a holiday and a day I didn’t have classes, so we decided to meet in Osaka for a long Halloween weekend.

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Dotonburi – one of the most famous streets in Osaka

While I’d been through Osaka on my trip to Kyoto, I hadn’t really spent any time in the city itself. I was excited to explore one of Japan’s biggest cities and see a few friends. I flew out of Miyazaki on Friday, Ocotber 30, just in time to meet up with friends for Halloween the next day. My friend Sam and I wandered around on Saturday morning and had a lovely bagel breakfast at a shopping center near our airbnb (which we both tried for the first time and were very pleased with!). And while a bagel breakfast may not be the most exciting thing to all of you back home, but living in a country where decent (read – non-squishy) bread is hard to come by, it was absolutely amazing. I mean, the bagels were mediocre, but a mediocre bagel is far superior to no bagel, and they had a whole selection of uniquely Japanese flavors. We bought a whole bunch to sample later, and found that the soy milk and edamame bagel was surprisingly delicious, whereas purple sweet potato and white chocolate was a bit of a dud.

In any event, after breakfast we met up with Annin and set off in search of Liberty Osaka, a “human rights museum” that a friend had recommended. It wasn’t the easiest thing to find, but it was certainly interesting. There were exhibits detailing the various minority groups in Japan and the discriminatory practices and events that they have faced (and in many cases continue to face). While Japan is often presented as a homogenous and peaceful society, there’s a lot going on beneath the surface that never really gets discussed. For example, the people of Okinawa are not considered to be Japanese, as they belong to their own ethnic group, the Ryukyuan. For a variety of reasons that I won’t get into here they have historically been discriminated against for their heritage, and today you can still find apartments that refuse Okinawan tenants, and many people do not consider them to be Japanese. Similar things are said of the Ainu, an ethnic minority from northern Japan. And of course there are tensions between Japan and Korea, and the museum went into great detail about the hardships Koreans  and people of Korean descent have faced in Japan. I really wish my Japanese reading skills were a bit better so I could have read all of the displays (the English translations were a bit sparse) but ultimately I was glad I visited, and would recommend it to anyone who finds themselves with a bit of extra time in Osaka.

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After the museum it was time to get ready for Halloween! Sam and I were feeling a bit lazy on the costume front, so she wore some cat ears and I dressed as Marty McFly from Back to the Future (it was just after “BttF Day, so it seemed topical enough) because I already had most of the outfit. Annin and her friend got a bit more into the spirit of the holiday, and she had a pretty great “Where’s Waldo” costume. Once we were all dressed and ready we met up with a Japanese friend of Annin’s and went out for okonomiyaki, an Osaka specialty. It’s one of my favorite Japanese foods – essentially a cabbage pancake with whatever savory toppings you want, topped with a variety of sauces. As with most Japanese food it’s hard to explain, but rest assured, it’s delicious.

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Okonomiyaki

Dinner was fun, and it was a great chance to once again practice my Japanese (mostly listening) since Annin’s friend didn’t speak English. Sam and I both studied Japanese at UPS, so we were up for the challenge and understood most of what was said.

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Halloween in Osaka

After dinner we hit the streets to find a few other local JETs, and boy were we in for a treat. Based on my students’ knowledge of the holiday, I didn’t really think Japan did Halloween. But it turns out the big cities are pretty into it. We were in the heart of Osaka and people were out in droves, donned in amazing costumes.

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A group of Totoros

Lots of people did group costumes, which was probably my favorite thing because it was so different from what you’re probably thinking. Rather than going as a group with a theme, like the gang from Scooby Doo or something, with everyone as a different character, Japanese group costumes are all the same. So you’d have a group of six Shaggy’s, or, as was often the case, about 20 Where’s Waldo’s. Waldo’s were wandering the streets in droves. It was quite a sight. In fact, we enjoyed it so much that we decided to grab drinks at a local conbini and just people watch for a few hours.

After a while we made our way to a “zombie bar” to meet a few more people, but Sam and I had a busy day coming up and decided to call it quits a bit early. We walked home through the hoards of costumed people (and cars!) and went to bed.

The next day was the centerpiece of our plans – The Wizarding World of Harry Potter! We took the train to Universal Studios Japan in the morning (after a breakfast of leftover bagels) and stood in a long line to get into the park, followed by another long line to get our timed entrance tickets for the Harry Potter area. Even though it was the day after Halloween, the holiday spirit was still going strong. Lots of visitors were wearing costumes, so Sam and I bought “face stickers” to join in on the fun. We wandered around the park and rode the Back to the Future ride while we waited for our entrance time, and  then we made our way to Hogwarts.

So USJ’s Harry Potter theme park is basically set up as Hogsmeade, with lots of shops and butterbeer galore, with the Hogwarts castle perched on a hill overlooking it all, with the great lake beside. Now, unlike American theme parks, Japanese parks seem to focus on atmosphere and shows over actual rides, which meant there were only two rides in the Harry Potter area, and one was a kid’s roller coaster. The line for the main ride, “Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey” was at least two hours long, so we decided to get some food at the Three Broomsticks before getting in line.

Every detail of the park was amazingly well done. Even the food was pretty authentic-looking. And of course we had to buy ourselves a frozen butterbeer (in the collector’s mug!) while we waited in line. As expected, it was super sweet, but we both managed to finish ours in the two hour line.

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The line for the main ride takes you back behind the castle (the ride is in the castle) and you go through the Herbology gardens as you wait, which is nice. Sam and I had far too much fun waiting in line, catching up on each other’s lives and enjoying the nice weather. Sam was an especially great sport considering that the week before her host family had actually taken her to USJ, and this was her second trip in as many weeks. But her host family weren’t big Harry Potter fans, nor were they serious shoppers, so she said she was happy to go back a second time with me, and we really had a great time.

Finally we got to the ride – once the line takes you into the castle you have to drop your bags in a locker, then you walk through the castle up to the ride itself. You walk through Dumbledor’s office, past a Japanese-speaking Harry, Ron and Hermione, and onto the ride. Now, I’m not a huge fan of roller coasters. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever really ridden a proper roller coaster. But this ride was FUN. It’s so amazingly well done. You take off on broomstick to follow Harry through Hogwarts, the Forbidden Forest, into the Chamber of Secrets and through the Quidditch stadium. You’re on a roller coaster track but of course the whole thing’s inside, and switches between 3D screens (they give you Potter-style 3D glasses at the beginning) and animatronics and awesome sets. I can’t explain it properly, but it was soooo amazing and fun. Honestly, I got off the ride and seriously considered getting back into that 2 hour line to go again. So much fun!

But it was getting dark so we decided to check out the shops instead, since both of us needed gifts to bring home. We slowly made our way through the shops and out of the park, just in time for the “Zombie Nights” event to start, and we wanted no part in that. Literally, as soon as we stepped out of the rides area and into the shops that lined the exit, the lights in the park went out and people started screaming, presumably because a hoard of zombies had just appeared. Fun, but not my thing. We left the park and ate a takoyaki dinner (fried balls of dough and octopus) and went back to our hotel.

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Leaving on the (not quite) Hogwarts Express)

Day three was all about the shopping. Sam and I discovered that we were shopping soulmates while we were on Pac Rim, and when we get together it’s hard to stop us from shopping. We had a pretty fun time looking around some of the major shopping areas in Osaka before we stumbled upon the “Gudetama Cafe.” Gudetama is literally a “lazy egg” character, and he’s super popular right now. It’s hard to explain, but Japan really loves cute mascots, even when they don’t really represent anything except themselves, as is the case with Gudetama or Hello Kitty. But in any case, we ate at the cafe before Sam had to take off to return to the US. It was great seeing her, and we were both super happy that our schedules lined up so well.

I still had another day and a half in Osaka, but I’ll save that for next time, since this post got pretty long, as they tend to do. Next time: A bit of culture at Osaka Castle and Nara Deer Park.

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Next time, Osaka Castle

A Day in the Life of an ALT

Now that I’ve officially been in Japan for almost three months, I feel like I’m finally getting into the swing of things. I thought it might be fun to give you a rundown of what an average day looks like for me, and my students.

6:45am Wake up! 

Yes, waking up this early after a year of sleeping in is a bit tough for me, but ya gotta do what ya gotta do. I could probably sleep in later, but I like a lazy morning. Usually I’ll shower, check the news, sip on some tea and eat a bit of breakfast before riding my bike to school.

A bit of scenery near my school
A bit of scenery near my school

8:15 Ohayou Gozaimasu!

Although my contract says my workday starts at 8:30, Japanese “on time” is more like 10 minutes early. Kyushu on time is closer to 5 minutes early, but I still try and arrive on the early side. After leaving my outdoor shoes in my designated cubby I slip into my teaching shoes and make my way upstairs to the teachers’ room. The proper way to enter the teacher’s room is to say “ohayou gozaimasu!” at a reasonably loud volume and with a super peppy (“genki”) voice. This basically means “good morning,” but if I walked into work at 2pm I would also be expected to say this. It’s just what you say when seeing someone for the first time that day (at least in a work setting). Greetings are pretty important in Japan, and not being able to sneak in quietly definitely encourages me to arrive on time. On Mondays there’s a staff meeting at 8:20, and if I arrive a bit “late” I usually hit the middle of it. I’m not really expected to go to the meetings, since they’re entirely in Japanese, but I usually try and make an effort to attend. If nothing else it’s a chance to practice my listening skills.

8:45 First Class

While classes don’t officially start until 8:45, students are generally at school by 7:30. They have pre-class classes and club activities. I actually don’t really know how they spend their mornings, since I’m never around early enough to see them, and I rarely run into students on my way into school. In any case, there are 7 periods in a school day, I teach anywhere from 0-4 classes a day. Classes are usually 50 minutes long, and instead of having designated rooms for each subject, the classrooms are mostly homerooms. This means teachers are the ones who go from room to room, not students. The only exceptions are specialty classrooms, like science labs or the art/calligraphy rooms, and of course the gyms. This school structure means that each class is a tightly knit group, and they do absolutely everything with their homeroom. Each class has a different atmosphere, and it’s been mostly fun learning how to work with each class.

When I work with the senior high students we usually begin class with a vocabulary quiz. Often I am not a part of this, and teachers will sometimes just tell me to come to class 10 minutes after the bell so they can do the quiz and drill the next day’s vocab words before I arrive. They learn roughly 20 new words a day, but I’d be willing to bet money that most of them couldn’t use the words in a sentence outside of the example provided in the textbook. Japanese testing is all about memorization, reading and writing for tests, with very little time given to producing original content. Learning how to work within this system has been a bit of a challenge, one I’m sure I will never really figure it out, but I suppose that’s just the way it is. Anyway, after the vocab test I will often model a dialogue with the teacher, introduce a topic or activity, or correct the previous night’s homework on the board. Each class is different, and each co-teacher is different as well. Some teachers ask me to prepare entire lessons, while others only want me to prepare a few warm-up activities, or sometimes act as a human tape recorder (ie: reading the new vocab words aloud).

For the junior high classes I get to have a bit more fun, since they don’t take daily vocab tests. Also, university entrance exams aren’t looming over their heads, so they get to do more practical activities, and the teacher is much more open to speaking activities (many of the high school teachers prefer writing/reading activities, as these are more likely to come into play on entrance exams). I think the junior high classes are some of my favorites, which really surprised me, since I would never in a million years describe myself as someone who likes children.

12:30 Lunch Time

Everyone eats lunch at the same time, all classes, all teachers, all staff. We don’t have a cafeteria here, and the students all eat lunch in their homerooms. The junior high teachers eat with their students, but I think the senior high kids are left to their own devices, since the other teachers all eat lunch in the teacher’s room. This would be unthinkable in the US, but here in Japan, it works.

A typical lunch at my desk.
A typical lunch at my desk. It’s always a bit of a mystery as to what I’ll get…

Because there’s no cafeteria, students are all expected to bring their own lunches. Teachers get a bit more freedom. There are two convenience stores (“conbini”) within walking distance where I could grab lunch, but usually I order it in with the other teachers. Every morning there’s a signup sheet where I can order lunch from one of four restaurants that deliver to the school. It costs between $4 – $8, depending on what I order. The delivery person drops off the food sometime mid-morning, and picks up the empty plates/boxes in the afternoon. This is really nice because, although most of the lunches come in disposable boxes, garbage sorting in Japan is… often confusing. Because the school has no janitorial staff (more on that in a bit) I’m expected to take home any food-related trash I create at school. The delivery system lets me skip that step, though some of them do provide real dishes, and for some reason I’ve been told we need to wash those before we return them to the restaurant. There’s a learning curve to everything.

1:20 Cleaning Time

Japanese schools don’t hire a cleaning staff, and this is because all students are expected to take part in cleaning the school themselves. Supposedly it gives them a sense of ownership and responsibility. In practice it means that most parts of the school are only surface-level clean, and dust bunnies are hiding just out of sight everywhere (though the bathrooms are always spotless). You always know when it’s cleaning time because the school blasts classical music over the loudspeakers. I’ve been told some schools play pop songs, but not mine. We have the same exact recording every day. It really surprised me the first time I heard it, but now it’s become a normal part of the day, and I can tell exactly how much time is left for cleaning by which part of the song is playing (cleaning time is generally about 10 minutes). Usually I’ll help students clean the teacher’s room or the hallway outside, and this tends to be a good time to strike up a conversation with normally shy students.

1:40 Back to Class

Classes resume as usual. There are four periods in the morning, and three in the afternoon. I often teach 5th or 6th period, but 7th is technically outside of my working hours. I learned recently that most schools have fewer classes in a day than mine, but because we’re a top academic school, the students are expected to study longer hours both in and outside of class.

4:15 Quittin’ Time!

Riding home after a long day
Riding home after a long day

Well…. Not really. Again, my contract says this is the end of my day, but I think I can count on my hands the number of times this has actually been true. Students still have class until closer to 4:50, and often I’ll be asked to stay late and help students prepare for the English Speech Contest. For speech contests the students must memorize a speech and perform it in front of a crowd and panel of judges. They are judged on their pronunciation, inflection, gestures and general impression. Most teachers are done working with their speech students by now, but because my students won the municipal competition, we’re still working hard in preparation for the prefecture-wide competition at the end of the month. These things are full-day affairs, and I’ve been to two of them already (there are high school and junior high school level competitions, as well as smaller contests from local newspapers or tv stations).

Some days I’m also asked to stay late to supervise the English club, which meets once a week. While clubs in Japan tend to be serious business, with students coming in on weekends and over holidays to participate in club activities, the English club at my school is very informal, and in the past two months I’ve had a max of five students attend the meetings. I enjoy English club, since we usually just play games or practice conversation, and the students are really funny.

On top of speech contest and English club, sometimes I just stay late to chat with students or finish marking compositions, usual teacher stuff. I’d say on average I leave work closer to 5:30 or 6:30 most days, which is still way earlier than the Japanese teachers. Teachers in Japan work some of the longest hours of any country in the world, and it’s not unusual for them to arrive around 7 and leave closer to 8 or 9. In fact, one day I forgot my keys at school, and when I came back to pick them up around 7:30 almost all of the teachers were still working, tutoring students or preparing lessons for the next day. I’ve heard from other ALTs that teachers sometimes stay as late as 11pm, even if they have families back home. It’s a bit difficult for me to understand the system here. I’ll write a bit more about Japan’s work culture in a later post, but suffice it to say, it’s a bit different than the US.

As with when I arrive, leaving school also requires a loud goodbye to the rest of the staff. “Osaki ni shitsurei shimasu!” roughly means, I’m sorry I’m leaving before you! And is usually met with a call of “Otsukare-sama desu” which literally translates to something like “you must be tired” and implies that you have worked hard today. I was really confused when I got here because I hear people calling “ostukare” all the time, and it’s used as a greeting. I’ve been told this is a Kyushu thing…

6:30 Tadaima!

Time to return home! Most days I’ll run by the grocery store and grab a few things for dinner or snacks, return home and try to throw together a meal. I’ve slowly been building up a schedule of weekly commitments, such as Japanese lessons, but for the most part I just sit back and watch tv or read a book when I get home. Sometimes I’ll go down and chat with my neighbor over tea, or meet up with friends for dinner, but most weekday nights are quiet.

So that’s an average weekday for me! Weekends tend to be a bit crazier, and since summer and fall have lots of events I’ve been running around trying to see everything before the weather gets cold. I’ll write more about my weekend trips soon, and I promise those will have more pictures 🙂

How Jessica Became a JET

Konnichiwa, oshashiburi desu! Hello everyone, it’s been a while since I last checked in. By now I’ve been in Japan for over a week, and already I’ve had several requests to bring back the blog, so here we are again!

As I mentioned all the way back in May, I finished up my year in Vietnam, took off for a month of travel in South East Asia and Australia, stopped by St. Louis for a few weeks, visited some friends in the northwest, and then, finally, flew to Japan to join the Japanese Exchange Teaching Programme (JET). It’s been a long journey, especially if you consider that I applied for this thing back in October, but if the first week is any indication, this is going to be another great year.

Goodbye to Vietnam and my amazing Vietnamese friends. I promise I'll be back!
Goodbye to Vietnam and my amazing Vietnamese friends. I promise I’ll be back!

So let’s start at the beginning, and let me explain a few things about JET. After submitting my application back in October I tried very hard to forget about the whole thing while I waited to find out if I would make it to the interview stage. This worked pretty well until about December, and I spent most of my winter vacation wondering when I would hear back. As soon as I left Hawaii I had my answer, and shortly thereafter booked my ticket to Guam, where I would have the interview. Now, if you think Guam seems like a strange place to interview for a teaching job in Japan then you’re not alone. The rules for applying to JET (which employs teachers and coordinators from over 40 countries) state that you must attend an interview in your home country, regardless of where you are living at the time of application. Which is really fun if you’re living closer to Japan than the US, but hey, it meant I got to go to Guam.

36 hours in Guam!
36 hours in Guam!

After 12 hours of travel I had a 20 minute interview, 12 more hours of travel back to Vietnam, and then three more months of waiting for results. Now, JET’s hiring process is notoriously confusing. The only real requirements for the job of assistant language teacher (ALT) are 1) you must be interested in Japan (duh), 2) you must speak fluent English, and 3) you must be a college graduate. Japanese language ability is not required, and in some cases is actually discouraged. Add to this that the applicant pool is HUGE, and you end up with no way to know if you have a real chance at the job or not, even with a solid interview and relevant background. In fact, I had pretty much given up on getting in and was applying to other jobs when I heard back from JET in April that I had been shortlisted for placement.

Being on the shortlist means you will probably, 98% surely be placed at a school in Japan. I’ve actually never heard of someone being shortlisted and then not getting a placement, but it’s this really scary thing that hangs over your head for quite a while. I found out in mid-May that I had been hired by the Miyazaki Board of Education (Miyazaki is a prefecture in Japan), and that was when I finally started sharing the good news. I didn’t know what city I’d be in, the age of my students, or the name of my school until almost June, and I know of several people who waited much longer than me. Moral of the story – getting JET is not impossible, but it is a LONG process, there are many hoops to jump through, and how it all happens remains a great mystery.

Beautiful hike to Wallace Falls with Luisa and Lucia.
Beautiful hike to Wallace Falls with Luisa and Lucia.

So, having found all of this out I returned to the US and prepared as best I could for the coming year. I saw my family and friends, did a bit of shopping, worried about things I had no control over, then decided not to think about it and enjoy the summer. It was nice to be home, and I loved seeing everyone (and eating cheese!) but I was ready to get back to a job and a routine. I made my goodbyes and flew to Seattle, where I saw friends, went hiking, and ate some really great ice cream.

Back in Tacoma with a few of the Pac Rim crew
Back in Tacoma with a few of the Pac Rim crew

After a few days Luisa and I took the train down to Portland, which is where I would have pre-departure orientation and finally leave for Japan. We had a good time hanging out and driving around Portland, and on the day before the orientation I realized I pretty much had not thought about my upcoming trip all week. It was a really weird state of mind, enjoying seeing my friends and being in a familiar place, but also getting ready to jump into something completely different. I think I went into orientation with a bit of a blase attitude, thinking I knew what was coming because I’d lived in Asia before, I’d taught before. The JET facebook page was constantly buzzing in the background with people excitedly looking for friends, freaking out about details like getting a phone or how much cash to bring, and I really wasn’t interested in that. It kind of felt like high school graduates getting excited to go to college, but I was more like a transfer student.

On my way to Japan!
On my way to Japan!

The actual orientation pretty much confirmed this feeling. Roughly 600 people from several different countries all flew into Tokyo for two days of lectures and workshops on living and teaching in Japan. Being somewhat of an introvert, I was a bit overwhelmed by the sheer number of people, and while I met several really cool people at meals and in workshops, I wasn’t super concerned with making lasting bonds. Much like college orientation, it’s pretty much assured I will never see most of these people ever again, which made it hard for me to muster up the energy to make strong connections. This isn’t to say I was antisocial – I wasn’t. I sat with new people for every meal, struck up conversations in the halls and at workshops, and tagged along with people for small evening outings. It was all just a bit much for me, especially when dealing with jet lag.

So. Many. People. Look at all those chairs!
So. Many. People. Look at all those chairs!
Tokyo from up high - holy crap this is a huge city.
Tokyo from up high – holy crap this is a huge city.

But all of us somehow made it through. Many people went all-out and did karaoke and bar hopping every night, but I’ve discovered that alcohol and sleep deprivation are not the best way to recover from jet lag, so I made up my mind to return to Tokyo and explore more once I’d settled in. Japan has tons of public holidays, which are great for long weekend trips. Some of the people I met will be living in Tokyo or nearby areas, so I’ll definitely go back soon. I did go out and eat some tasty food every night, and even made it to a cool observation deck to get an idea of exactly how big Tokyo is. It’s really really big.

Shinjuku at night. Because we had orientation during the day, the only time we had to explore was at night
Shinjuku at night. Because we had orientation during the day, the only time we had to explore was at night

After orientation was all done we all packed our bags and flew 1.5 hours to Miyazaki City. But this post has already gotten too long, so I will write about my new home next time 🙂

Oh, but one quick note first. This post kind of reads as a bit of a downer, but please know that I’m actually super happy to be here. Just like when I went to Vietnam, adjusting to a new place and dealing with jet lag, culture shock, etc takes time. For me the first few days of a major trip are often overwhelming, so it shows in my writing. All of this is to say, don’t worry, family, I’m perfectly fine, and in fact am very happy. I’ll tell you more about that (and with more pictures) soon.

Back to Saigon

After having lots of fun at the Pac Rim Banquet, I hopped back on a bus to Can Tho around 9am Christmas morning. I think I got back to the hotel and fell asleep closer to 3 or 4am, but luckily for me I fell straight asleep on the bus and stayed that way for most of the 3 hours. I found myself back in Can Tho exhausted, wanting nothing more than a nap. But there as a lot I still had to do – lesson planning for my evening class, packing for my trip the next day, and I’m sure there were a million little things I should have done. Naturally, I did none of those and instead decided to go out with friends and play Vietnamese hacky-sack, or đá cầu. According to the Wikipedia page, this is Vietnam’s unoficial national sport, which I totally believe. It’s played everywhere, and it’s the best way to meet new friends if you’re out and about. Just start playing in any park and after a few minutes you will inevitably be joined by a number of strangers. Even if you’re terrible at the game, which I most definitely am. Check out the video below to see how the game is played – these guys are playing a real game, with a net, but usually my friends just play to see how long we can go without dropping the shuttlecock.

Before beginning our game I got a call from work and was informed that the director would be observing my class that night. At that point I was absolutely running on fumes, and took all of my nervousness out on the da cau game before running home and praying that I could pull it together enough to teach a passable class.

Saigon Post Office
Saigon Post Office

As it turns out, I got my second wind just in time, and class went pretty well. The director told me that his comments were mostly positive, and we had a nice conversation about ways I can improve my teaching in the future. I was so relieved and happy that I said to hell with exhaustion, I’m going out with friends to celebrate! Possibly not the best idea ever, but we had a good time. The next day I administered final exams to my university students in the morning, spent the afternoon grading, and returned home for some last-minute packing before I caught the bus to Saigon around 5pm. In my haste I naturally forgot a few things, like my computer charger and my Vietnamese cell phone…. this was a bit inconvenient, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned from my travels, it’s that you don’t actually need a phone to make plans.

Just carrying a bicycle - no big deal.
Just carrying a bicycle – no big deal.

In any case, I arrived in Saigon late that night and met up with Lisa and Linda again for drinks. I got a bit lost going to their hotel, but along the way I found a golden retriever. I probably spent a good seven or eight minutes petting the dog before I remembered that I needed to backtrack and find my friends. Once I found everyone, we sat at a streetside bar called the “art cafe” and did a bit of people watching, which is the best thing you can do in the backpacker district. It’s a strange crowd that flows through Ho Chi Minh City, but my best memories of the night are all about dogs – across the street we watched as a couple and their (very large) dog waited for street food. I’ve never seen a dog so calm in my life, even as motorbikes, people and food kept zipping by him. Wow! I managed to snap a quick photo before they took off with their food.

This dog was amazingly well behaved - the street was very busy, and he stayed calm for the entire 10 minutes they were waiting for their food.
This dog was amazingly well behaved – the street was very busy, and he stayed calm for the entire 10 minutes they were waiting for their food.

At the end of the night I returned, exhausted, to my hotel. Annin arrived a few hours later, and she tells me that we had a conversation where I kept insisting that I was fully awake. I remember almost none of this, but we woke up the next morning and got properly caught up. We had breakfast at a nearby noodle shop, then proceeded to do all of the touristy things in Saigon. We walked around the city and visited the Notre Dame Cathedral, Post Office, Reunification Palace, and of course the War Remnants Museum. I wasn’t quite ready to go back to the museum, so I killed time at a nearby coffee shop while everyone else visited the museum.

Notre Dame, again!
Notre Dame, again!

At the end of the day we went to a pizza place that Pase found, and it was amazing. It was Japanese-style pizza with a Vietnamese twist, so the toppings were a bit different from what you’d get in the US, but it was all delicious. Also, if you thought prosciutto and melon was good, swapping the melon for mango is infinitely better. We left the restaurant stuffed and happy, and walked until we found our way back to the hotel.

Amazing okonomiyaki pizza. Yes, that is squid you see, and it was delicious.
Amazing okonomiyaki pizza. Yes, that is squid you see, and it was delicious.

The next day we said goodbye to Linda and made our way to the airport for the next leg of our journey. But that’s a story for another time.

Best part of the Reunification Palace? The swings out back.
Best part of the Reunification Palace? The swings out back.