F.A.Q. Should I teach in/move to Japan?

April 7, 2008 at 4:53 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

In my time teaching in Japan, a lot of friends referred other people to me who were considering pursuing the same opportunity. I’ve posted some of these letters below.

What are your experiences teaching in Japan?

I’m considering teaching in Japan. Would you mind generally speaking about your job: hours, contracts, salary, other expenses in Japan, etc? I really appreciate it!

My hours are 8:30-4:15 Monday through Friday. My contract is a one year, starting in July, renewable up to to 3 times. My salary is roughly $30-32,000, tax free from both Japan and the US which is pretty sweet. My rent is also half-paid by my employer, the Kitakyushu Board of Education. I was hired for them through the Jet Programme.

The Jet Programme is the best way to go if you can. Their application is due each year around the end of November. It’s a lonnnng application, so get started early–no less than a month or two. JET gives the best support, support network, benefits, and wage of any ALT (assistant language teacher) in the country. Private companies usually exist in larger cities. My boyfriend was able to come over here and get a job from a private company that works in the same school district as me after he arrived. Businesses like AEON and NOVA are a last resort–worst pay, worst hours, and it’s more of a business than a teaching position. Plus NOVA is going through a huge bankrupcy scandal.

When people think of crazy-high-tech-expensive Japan (including me before I came) they are usually thinking of Tokyo. The rest of the country is surprisingly behind the times of life in the US. Expenses for me are about the same as they were in the US, and I live in a city of 1 million people (though most people from the JET Programme get placed in countryside). I don’t own a car though, which I think can get a bit pricey. The only things that are really more expensive are groceries and going out. Fresh produce is expensive because so little is grown in Japan, but the grocery cost is eased by eating a lot of Japanese food, and eating with the seasons–what is cheapest. I’d say groceries are about 1.5-2x that in a supermarket in the US. More like eating strictly at Whole Foods or something.

Going out can be expensive too, as in a whole night out. Eating out is a wonderful thing to do here, because there are so many little places with great food. But most meals with drinking run 20-60 dollars, and are often followed by karaoke for 10-30 dollars. I don’t go out that often though, maybe one night a week, and we’ve learned ways to avoid spending too much out (think drinking outside convenience stores before heading to a bar).

I would definitely recommend the experience. It’s been life-changing for me, and I hear from almost no one who regrets it. Most people would encourage it. That said, it’s pretty challenging. I cope with A LOT of staring (cute at first, now it’s annoying/disrespectful/enraging), discrimination, and racial ignorance. There is a strict way of doing EVERYTHING in Japan, and it took me a long time to figure out what things I’d compromise on and agree to, and what things weren’t ok for me even if they brought disdain from others.

I got really sick here this year and there medical system is like that of the US in the 1950s. That was awful.

Also, it’s incredibly frustrating to be a woman here at times. Gender roles are also very antiquated, and I’ve heard that some Japanese women consider American women to be more like men than women.

Not to scare you. Just to be honest! Now, please keep in mind that with all that opinion, I’d STILL suggest you do it if you’re interested. I’m still happy I did it, and I feel like I have a whole new vision of myself, discrimination, gender equality, and the strange differences and similarities between the US and Japan. I’ve also gotten to travel to Thailand, Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea, and Malaysia since being here.

How much can I save?
My primary reasons for interest include my fastination with traveling and paying off some student loans. What do you feel is a likely savings potential? Thanks for all of your information!
Some people say they’ve saved 5-10,000 dollars. I thought I’d save more here than I have–about $6000 in two years. My boyfriend is strictly budgeting himself and will end up saving about $3-4,000 in one year.The thing about saving here, is that on paper it looks great. In reality though, my friends and I have found that we spend a lot of money keeping our spirits up. Traveling, shopping, dinners out, etc. Since I’ve gotten here, saving money has given way to “well I live in Asia, I’ll never be able to go Thailand again for so little money and without jet lag”…so the tradeoff of not saving as much as I’d like is that I have gotten to do a lot of wonderful traveling.

I have another friend, Matt, who everytime he got his paycheck, went to the post office and mailed home half his money. He made loans top priority, and did still get to go to Hong Kong as well. But at the end of the month, when we’d go out he’d usually have to stay home eating something cheap. He made do though.

Do your employers/co-workers they take advantage of you?

I am graduating this semester and thinking about moving to Japan. However, I hear some shifty things. Mainly that they try to take advantage of you and you don’t get to teach English like you would think. Like that youre a dancing foreign monkey for students’ amusement. Aside from that I’m sure it’s cool. I have an interview set up through AEON. What are your thoughts and recommendations on it? Any would be very appreciated.

I work in Japan through the Jet Programme, which is pretty competitive and applications are due in November. We are sponsored by the government and so our benefits are good (health insurance included, 20 days paid vacation, paid sick leave) and we get a lot of support.My boyfriend works through a private language company called OWLS. They place people in schools, and are a competitor of the Jet Programme that offers cheaper ALTs (Assistant Language Teachers). Unfortunately for Chris (my boyfriend), that means he doesn’t get health insurance (he pays $50 bucks a month for it), he gets very limited paid vacation, no sick leave, and a lower salary than me.

Also, whereas I got placed in an apartment and had an advisor to walk me through all the details of setting up life and working in Japanese schools, Chris didn’t have that support.

So this is the breakdown of the 3 main job markets for teaching English in Japan. 1) JET Programme; hired by government, work in public schools. 2) Private Language companies; hired by a business, work in public schools for lower salary (in my are of Japan, in northern Kyushu, KBS and OWLS are the names of two such companies. 3) Private language company schools like AEON, GEOS, and the now-bankrupt NOVA. You work for a private business giving classes and tutoring to people of all ages.

I don’t know anyone here who works for these schools, but I did originally consider NOVA as my backup if I didn’t get into the JET Programme, because my main objective was to live in Japan, more than to have a satisfying teaching job. I talked to a guy who worked for NOVA and he had a good experience. He did caution me though that I would be selling as much as I’d be teaching. So he’d use a textbook from the company, and he was instructed not to stray from their lessons or be creative, and was asked to sell things like flashcards and such to the customers as well. He enjoyed the people he met a lot, and I know he loved the one year he stayed here. He’s now in the Peace Corp.

As for being a performing monkey, occur in any way you are employed (JET, OWLS, AEON). The homogenous Japanese society has such a huge market for foreign teachers because it’s a way to get people to realize there is a world outside their tiny island. EVERY DAY I get stared at. I am always a spectacle. Each situation is different though, and while at one of my schools I am now settled and really love being there, at another school I feel like a spectacle, and Chris feels like every day at both schools, he is the performing monkey.

That said, living in Japan has been an eye-opening adventure. Every aspect of daily life is so similar yet so strikingly different to the U.S. Chris and I are both very glad we came, and melancholy and excited to be leaving in a month. I know I’ve grown a lot from this experience, and I am 98% glad I made the choice to move here.

How do I do a self-introduction in my interview or in class?
My AEON interview is coming up. I need to create a 30 minute class itinerary for teaching English and ive a simple 5 minute lesson. Do you have any suggestions? What would you think they are looking for and what type of basic material would be the best to cover? Basic introduction and greetings? Again, any help would be great. Oh, and do either of you regret choosing to teach English over there?? You can be honest 🙂

We’re both very glad we chose to come. Good luck getting yourself here :)Use the simplest present tense, basic English you can. Speak confidently and pace it slowly. Usually a lesson would have a warm-up and introduction of a grammar point, then practicing the grammar point.

I simple one to use, that doubles as a self-intro is the grammar point “I like —.” I would say a statement and do gestures along with it, 4-5 of them. (I like basketball, miming basketball. I like playing the guitar, miming air guitar. etc) Then I would ask the “students” to repeat after me. Then do some more gestures (swimming) but don’t say anything. Have the students complete the sentence using what you’re doing.

Then if you had time, you could cover “What — do you like?” (color, sport, fruit, food) and teach them “I like —-.” Then ask students individually to practice each. You say “What color do you like?” they say “I like fruit.”

I hope that helps! If you have to do a self-intro, keep it simple. I like —. This is my father, he likes —–. I come from America. I like Japan. I like Japanese food. That sort of thing. Again, emphasize your very, very basic English with pictures, gestures, moving your body, etc.

Kurokawa Onsen 黒川温泉

April 7, 2008 at 3:49 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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Recommendations for Travelers:
If you are looking for a traditional Japanese inn, or ryokan, in the famous hot springs of Kyushu, Japan, I highly recommend Kurokawa Onsen 黒川温泉.

Try http://www.japaneseguesthouses.com/db/kurokawa/index.htm (English) or
http://www.kurokawaonsen.or.jp/ (Japanese) for more information.

My personal recommendation:
If you are interested in privacy while bathing (most public bath houses are divided into Men’s and Women’s baths), I recommend my favorite ryokan. It is called Tairoukan 大朗館 (online info in Japanese here or here). They have friendly service, an exceptional 8 course dinner, and a number of private baths to choose from, including one that features a waterfall and is especially pretty in fall when leaves are changing. You will need to make a reservation in advance. Sometimes they have an English-speaker on staff, but not always. You could try using a Japanese travel agent to make your reservation for you.

Country Code +81; Tairoukan Inn number: 096-744-0908

Getting there:
From the Fukuoka JR Station, follow the signs or ask directions to the Nishitetsu Tenjin Bus Center. Take the bus to Kurokawa Onsen. This bus will take you a 4 minute walk from the heart of Kurokawa. But if you are staying at Tairoukan, you should arrange to have the owners pick you up at the bus stop because they are about a 5 minute drive away.
*English Timetable for bus available at: http://jik.nnr.co.jp/cgi-bin/Tschedule/menu.exe?pwd=gb/menu.pwd&mod=F&menu=F
*Make bus ticket reservations at 0120-489-939 or 092-734-2727 (I have never had a problem getting tickets the same day, but you might want to just to be safe).

Addendum for Gay Travelers
Most baths are public, where men and women are divided into separate baths. Private baths can be used by members of the same or opposite sexes, or families. A friend of mine who is gay traveled to Tairoukan with his partner and found no problem with it. The younger innkeeper understood, and put their two futons together, but the elder innkeeper chastised him for his “mistake” and separated the futons. My friend then just pushed the futons together after the innkeepers left. While there is a lot of homophobia in Japan, traveling to an onsen with a gay partner shouldn’t be a problem. People here consider bathing together to provide “skinship” (Japanese wordplay on kinship), and consider it standard practice for people of the same sex to bathe together.

My Interview Experience with the Jet Programme

April 7, 2008 at 3:26 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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This post might be interesting for you if you are applying to work abroad, want to work for the JET Programme, or want to work in Japan for another language company.
Everyone’s JET interview is different. Some people feel challenged and some coast by. Some people are asked easy questions, some detailed (politics, culture), some personal. You can expect 3 interviewers on your panel, seated at a table before you while you sit in a chair a few feet in front of them. There will be a government representative, a former JET, and an academic rep. I had a founder of the JET Programme, a former ALT, and a professor of Japanese studies from a nearby university.

Questions I think you can count on:
-Why did you request your placement?
-Why do you want to be on the JET Programme?
-What do you have to offer as an ALT?
-Do you have any questions for us?
(They’re going to want something good, thoughtful. When I asked about deadlines and housing, information they didn’t have or knew I could get online, they got bored. But I won them back when I asked “Since the Japanese school year begins in April, how do we begin our jobs as ALTs without disrupting the flow of the school year?” they loved it. I directed this mostly at the former ALT.)

*Know your application inside and out. They are notorious for grilling on small details. Especially any experience with teaching or Japanese knowledge you stated you had. I’ve heard they may even ask to have you write or read at the level of Japanese you claim to know.

*Know the roles of the JET Programme. The government runs it to encourage “grassroots internationalization” and to make English language learning more interesting and authentic. There are JETs all over Japan in different prefectures (prefectures are like the states of Japan) and at junior high school and senior high school levels. A very few are in elementary. Each region has a CIR too, a person whose job it is in part to help ALTs (assistant language teacher) share their culture with their surrounding community and learn/experience more of authentic Japan. ALTs are expected to “team teach” with their JTEs (Japanese Teacher of English). This is the principal method of teaching for the JET Programme–cooperative teaching. You are their assistant. You are an instructor, they are a teacher. Teacher is an honorable role here, one we are not really entitled to.

Common teaching questions:
-What 3 things would you show students to teach about your home country?
-Give us a 5 minute self-introduction.
-How would you explain Halloween?
-How would you respond to a student misbehaving?
-What do you envision team-teaching w/a JTE to be like? What problems can you anticipate?
-What do you have to offer Japanese students/teachers/schools?
-What would you do if a female student showed you inappropriate attention? Followed you home?

-What interests you about Japan?
-Would you drink a bowl of fish in vinegar? (I got asked this question)
-What are the names of the Prime minister and Emperor? What’s the DIETs role in government?
-references to current news in Japan
-issues of suicide, bullying, patriotism in Japan schools right now
-Who are 3-5 Japanese celebrities?
*While I killed myself memorizing stuff, a friend of mine was always prepared with “I might not have that answer now, but I look forward to learning/studying/discovering that answer in Japan.” I think that works well for general questions, but I think for something you claimed as an area of interest you should know it (art, literature, etc.).
-How would you respond if you, as a female ALT, were expected to serve tea to your male coworkers?

Other notes:
They bring in groups of 5 or so at a time.
The room is divided by partitioning walls and get a little loud.
Speak clearly, show off your ability to enunciate and project your voice appropriately.
It’s good to be modest and enthusiastic.
-Remember to respect the Japanese norm of valuing the group over the individual.
-Maybe come up with a key theme to make yourself memorable. (like I tried to engrain myself in their brains as the eager teacher who wants to observe education in Japan and study more about their art.)
–Show up early!! Like an hour early is a good idea. The secretary is rumored to take notes on the promptness and behavior of the candidates. Show up late, or even just on time, and expect to be discarded as a candidate. In Japan, on time is 15 minutes early.
-Try to talk with the other interviewees. It’ll put you at ease and look good.
-Look as tidy and professional as possible. Remember, they love conformity. “The nail that sticks out gets pounded down” is a favorite Japanese saying. That said, you do want to be memorable…but from your answers, not your appearance.

Overall, like any job interview, be yourself. Be confident about your ability to do the job of an ALT. Be modest about your knowledge of Japan, but express your exuberance and excitement over living there and teaching there. Ganbatte kudasai! がんばってください。

Feel free to post any of your own helpful hints, experiences, or questions.

What to Bring When You Move to Japan

April 7, 2008 at 3:26 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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What to pack? So you’re moving to Japan and you have to get everything you need into 2 checked-luggage bags and a carry-on. Don’t despair. It is possible. I hope this information can help guide you on what to include and what to skip.

-TOOTHPASTE. Japanese toothpaste doesn’t have fluoride, nor does their water supply like that of the U.S.’s. (Although I have heard that the Aquafresh in Japan is the only brand that does have fluoride.) But if you care about your teeth, and you will especially after seeing many Japanese gnarled, decayed smiles, pack your toothpaste. You may want to bring fluoride rinse, too.
-DEODORANT. It is not a product used in Japan. The only available substitute is for women, and is a very weak powder spray that lasts about 2 minutes in Japanese summers.
-A LAPTOP. If you’re a teacher, you’re going to want this with you. Many schools have only one shared computer for the whole staff. It’s also convenient for keeping you occupied in your downtime.
-A PROJECT. On that note, if you’re a teacher, you’re likely going to have a lot of downtime. This is advice you’d get from any ALT website. In my second year, I took a creative writing course for my teaching license in the U.S. and it helped me have better job satisfaction when work was slow. Other people build websites, take Japanese proficiency courses, etc.
-SHOES!! If you’re a size 7 or higher for women, or a size 9 or higher for men, you may struggle finding your shoes. Japan has tons of great shoes for men or women, but the sizes are really limited. And in my opinion, uncomfortable. They are very slim-fitting and usually without padding.
-A CLEAN PAIR OF SHOES, OR TWO. If you’re working in a school, you’ll be wearing regular shoes to work and changing into you indoor shoes. These need to look like they’ve never stepped foot outside. Sneakers, ballet flats, or soft-soled shoes are fine. If you’re planning to join a gym, know that you will expect to have a pair of indoor shoes there, too. (They must look like they’ve never been worn outside.)
-UNDERWEAR. While the shoes aren’t padded, the bras certainly are. ALL of them. If you’re over a 34A, you need to bring your own. Also, the L size here for panties is a lot like a small size in the U.S., so plan to bring your own supply of those too. Men, I don’t think you need to worry, as they must sell boxers for larger men, but you should bring at least a supply to get started on.
-A WINTER JACKET. Fitting through the slim shoulders of a Japanese coat is a problem for many westerners. You’ll need to have something warm during Japan’s cold winters, unless you live in Okinawa.
-WARM CLOTHES. Again, unless you live in Okinawa, you’re going to need warm layers to get you through the winter. Minimize packing bulk by bringing silk long underwear or the like.
-AMERICAN APPLIANCES. Anything you want to use from the U.S. that you think you can’t get in Japan. Japan and the U.S. have the same outlets; Japan’s frequency is just a little slower. There is some contention over whether or not this is harmful to a laptop battery, but what I’ve read is that your power adaptor should adjust the change for you. My laptop works fine here and fully charges. Same with my iPod. But the brand new rechargeable batteries I brought for my camera wouldn’t charge here, so I’d skip that. Basic electronic devices are the same price as the U.S.—toasters, hair dryers, etc—and are readily available at the multitude of electronics stores here, their names usually ending in “denki.”
-OVER-THE-COUNTER (OTC) MEDICATIONS. Any of the standby meds you keep at home you should bring here. Think Pepto Bismol tablets, Tylenol, Ibuprofen, Uristat. The U.S. is the land of cheap, readily available OTC meds. You can get these things in Japan, but they are typically much more expensive, and you’ll need to communicate with most pharmacists in Japanese. Also, you’re not supposed to bring Sudafed, Nyquil, etc. because of the pseudoephedrine in them. That said, I was never checked at customs.
-PRESCRIPTION MEDICATIONS. As of 2007 customs regulations, you were allowed to bring in 2 months of a prescription medication. My parents shipped the rest of mine every couple of months. Don’t assume Japan will have your medications. Try to do some research on its availability here. For instance, the basic antibiotic Ciprofloxacin does not exist here. My friend had a severe peanut allergy and had to travel to Tokyo from Kyushu to get treatment and a supply of medication from an allergy specialist. Bring your own birth control, ladies, unless you want to be put on the first-generation pills and endure their many side effects. Update: Though it was approved for sale in Japan over 8 years ago, the low-dose pill Marvelon finally became available for sale in Japan as of 3/2008. I would still exercise caution if you aren’t living in a big city, however. I can’t guarantee it’s availability.
-PROPHYLACTICS. You’ll need your own supply of western-sized condoms if you’re planning to use them during your stay here.
-A BIKE HELMET. Bikes are a popular method of transportation here, but bike helmets can be hard to find. If you plan to use one, you may want to bring your own.
-ENGLISH BOOKS. Some large bookstores have limited collections. If you’re a reader, you’re going to want to have some on hand. Amazon.jp has free shipping and can supply most books and other Amazon products, but the shipping time is very slow—up to 6-8 weeks.
-OMIYAGE! You’ll want to start off on the right foot by giving presents (called omiyage) to your co-workers, bosses, neighbors, and other people who will help you get started on your life in Japan. Look for small, individually wrapped items. Sweets are definitely the way to go. Think fun-sized (Halloween-sized) candy bars. Bring more than you think you’ll need. A lot more, if you have the space. To the highest bosses, you’ll give the best presents, and to your co-workers you’ll give the same thing. Don’t bother lugging Jack Daniels or Jim Beam; it’s available for similar prices here. I gave out small sweets to my co-workers, and to my cooperating teachers and bosses at both schools, I gave hand-made blank cards with pictures I’d taken around the states on them. They went over really well. Hand towels are the traditional gift for neighbors, though I never gave them.
-STAMPS. If you’re a teacher, especially for your self-introductions, you’ll want to give incentives for your students to speak. One and two cent stamps are a great idea. If you can lug them, lots of shiny pennies can do the trick, though I never tried that.

-STICKERS. Japanese stickers are affordable, readily available, and much cooler. Only break this rule if you can find cool holographic stickers, stickers of Disney characters, or the alphabet in interesting fonts.
-DVD PLAYER. If you’re bringing your own supply of DVDs, bring it. But if you’re planning to rent, skip the DVD player. Japanese DVDs and DVD players are region 2, whereas those from the U.S. are from region 1.
-SUNSCREEN. This is the land of sun protection.
-AN UMBRELLA. You’ll learn to carry one with you at all times, and they sell cheap, tiny ones all over the place.
-KIT KATS or SNICKERS. These two U.S. brands are very common here.
-ACCESSORIES. This is the LAND of accessories, for men and women.
-PERFUME/COLOGNE. Most people here don’t wear it, and find it offensive when other people do. Students are known to respond to it with a “You stink.”
-MORE THAN 1 or 2 CREDIT CARDS. This is a cash society. Definitely bring one or two for online shopping or traveling outside of Japan, but within Japan you will be using cash. (Note: Call your credit card company and tell them you are moving to Japan. Also mention if you are planning to travel around Asia in the next year or two.)
-STATIONERY. Pens, pencils, paper, paints, sketchbooks are affordable and readily available.
-HOUSEHOLD ITEMS. Just wait till you go to your first 100 Yen shop. It will blow your mind, all of the things you can get there to furnish and organize your daily life.
-A BATTERY CHARGER. Again, my camera batteries never recharged here.
-SHAMPOO, CONDITIONER, SOAP, RAZORS, CONTACT SOLUTION. You can get equally good stuff here, often in the same brands (Dove, Venus, Shiseido, Opti-free, Pantene.)

Remember, unless you are planning to move to Japan, don’t bring TOO much stuff. You’ll inevitably acquire more during your time there, and that means more to pay to ship back! Good luck with your packing. Feel free to post comments or questions below.

The Best and Worst of Japan

April 7, 2008 at 3:25 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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The Reasons Why…
I spend part of every day with my head in thoughts of the things I will and will not miss about Japan. Listing them, I came up with themes that encompassed my opinions. I tried to keep it short by limiting the number, leaving me with only 10 slots each to say what I love and what I don’t love about Japan.

Ten Reasons Why I Love Japan (in no particular order)
1. The Convenience Factor
Because of their busy work lives, the Japanese have a strong need for convenience. This means convenience stores and vending machines at every corner, and often, in between. I will be disappointed to see soda machines instead of tea and water machines in the U.S., and it will be a shock not to find sushi in the refrigerated section there.
2. Public Transportation
I mourn the loss of the Shinkansen (bullet train) in my life. Sure, it is expensive (note: if you ever travel to Japan you should definitely get the affordable, multi-use JR Pass before going). But it is the cleanest, most comfortable, quickest transportation I’ve ever known. A 90 minute bus ride becomes a 17 min train ride for only $20 by Shinkansen. Beyond that, the busses, monorails, subways, and trains in Japan are plentiful, affordable, and must be the cleanest in the world. Even their sidewalks are roads are uniformly well-paved and clean. (Though the yakuza, the Japanese mob, do their business through the cement industry, and there are a strange number of half-finished bridges to nowhere in this country). But oh how I will miss the carless culture of Japanese commuting.
3. Food Culture

When I get back to the U.S., I don’t know how I will live without mochi (sticky, finely beaten rice flour), umeboshi (pickled plums), and sashimi (fresh raw fish). While I don’t love the cost of fruit, the very limited availability of foods from other cultures, or the incredibly prevalent availability of deep-fried foods served with mayonnaise, I admire a lot of things about Japanese food cultures. For example, their desire to eat with seasons, rotating temperature and types of food to sync with the earth during the year. The emphasis on eating locally; most produce is labeled with the area it came from. The small portions served at restaurants—desserts so minor people in the U.S. would demand a refund. The aim to eat 15 vegetables a day. The less prevalent use of preservatives in food. Japanese specialty foods (okinomiyake, sushi, nabe, yakitori). The set meals offered at many restaurants that feature a whole meal designed by a chef and available at affordable prices.
Studies show we eat like the people around us, and I fear going back to the U.S. and falling into the practice of consuming large quantities of non-nutritional food with high levels of additives and preservatives.
4. Interesting Sights
Such a foreign culture with a rich history, a deep appreciation of aesthetics, and a diverse landscape means that there are many awe-inspiring sights to see in Japan. Ranking high on my list are shrines, traditional tiled roofs, markets, festivals, Hiroshima, Miyajima, Kyoto, the Nagasaki Lantern Festival, and love hotel décor.
5. Bathing Culture

Bathing is not only done for hygiene here but as a means of relaxation and cleansing. It is also used for “skinship,” meaning that when friends, co-workers, or families bathe together they develop a sort of kinship. The natural hot mineral water available to onsens (hot spring baths) was an especially remarkable highlight of living on the island of Kyushu.
Also, my bathtub. It is about 3’x3’, so I can curl up and submerge my hold body in it. Everyday when I come home, I reheat the bath water in it by pressing a button to start the heating element in the bathtub’s walls. Twenty minutes later a little twinkling music plays, and I know it’s ready. After a thorough shower on the tile next to the bathtub, I immerse myself in the bathwater and enjoy a few minutes of 42 degree Celsius bliss. I will miss my bathtub most when I leave.
6. Vistas
The only good thing about getting up at 7 in the morning is watching the sun rise over the tops of the mountains. Nearly everywhere I’ve traveled in Japan, mountain ranges have decorated the periphery. They are a stunning sight I never tire of. The skies here seem exceptionally beautiful too. At night, I can’t see a single star in the sky, usually. But during the day, the sun is almost always shining, and the blue skies are always patterned with the most dazzling arrangements of vibrant white clouds.
7. Aesthetics
Building here come in three types: the most prevalent being ugly and institutional looking, but then there are the traditional Japanese houses and shrines, and some avant-garde striking buildings. Aside from architecture, however, minor details of the cityscape are always paid special attention. Many walkways are tiled or cobblestoned, cracks in walkways are an extremely rare sight, and manholes always display some natural element of the region, like a blowfish or cherry-blossom flower.
8. Social Consciousness
Most people keep their phones eternally on vibrate. I rarely hear one go off at an inappropriate time, and talking on the phone in public, if done, is done quietly and discreetly. Most people pay attention to rules about litter and trash disposal, and for the litter that is left behind, citizens and businesses clean their areas every day. The kindness of strangers is also remarkable, and people are frequently willing to bend over backwards to help a stranger.
9. Spartan Living
For many Japanese, tatami rooms are used for sitting and living in during the day, and then at night the futons are taken out to convert the room for sleeping in. It is a Japanese quality not to be wasteful. I asked a co-worker of mine if they have doggie bags in Japanese restaurants, and she said no, that they aren’t necessary because the Japanese would always order less rather than too much. I also like how my co-workers display their marital status with a modest band rather than a limited resource marketed to mean love and sold through questionable mining and business practices.
Living in a place for only 2 years, and coming to this country with two 50 pound bags and leaving with two 50 pound bags means that I have also pared down the amount of stuff I need to get by on comfortably. Though I am sending things back with parents and by mail, I appreciate the lesson in simplicity that I’ve been privy to.
10. Appreciation of Art
Just like there is an all-school Sports Day at my school, there is an all-school Sketch Day. The Japanese attitude towards art is much more appreciative than that of most Americans, I think. Students are expected to learn about and practice traditional Japanese art forms, and as adults, many women and some men pick one to specialize in. Art is seen as a part of life here, rather than some attitudes in the U.S. where art is treated like a frivolity.

Ten Reasons Why I Am Glad to Leave Japan (in no particular order)

1. Being a Gaijin
It is a common opinion that no matter how long a foreigner lives in Japan, they will always be an outsider. I am eager to leave behind the daily staring I am subjected to in public places.
Advice: If you are a foreigner in Japan dealing with staring, I suggest you stare back. But you have to do it confidently. Voyeurs don’t like to be looked at; they like to do the looking. So if you confrontationally stare back, generally people will look away. It is rude for a Japanese person to stare at another Japanese person, but like a lot of rules, that consideration doesn’t apply to foreigners.
2. Arrogant Ethnocentrism and Racism
In Japan, the secondary definition of racism better applies, “the belief that people of different races have different qualities and abilities, and that some races are inherently superior or inferior.”
Did you know that unlike citizens of other countries, Japanese people have over one mile of long intestine, and that makes them better at digesting rice? Did you know Japan is unique in that it has four seasons? These are both instances of repeated myths I’ve heard during my time here. My friend’s JTE explained to his students that a man was a good singer because he was Mexican.
I’ve never gotten around to telling this story in my blog before, but on Dec. 6th Chris and I tried to stay in one of the love hotels in Fukuoka. It was 3:30 am and we needed a cheap place to sleep. Love hotels are run electronically, so we made all of our requests through an automated machine. As we walked to our room, an employee opened a window and asked us a bunch of questions in Japanese. We apologized and said we didn’t understand she replied “Japanese only” and shut the window. After she left, thinking we’d perhaps misunderstood her and she meant Japanese-speakers only, and could prove to her that we could work out the automated use of a love hotel without causing trouble, we tried to rent a room again. She again opened the window and say “JAPANESE ONLY!” A cold wash of fury ran through me as I realized I was being refused a room because of the color of my skin. Sadly, my Japanese vocabulary doesn’t include ways of chastising people other than “dame” which I said to her a few times, but is about equivalent to telling a dog or small child “No, no. Bad!”
Moreover, I am annoyed by Japan’s ethnocentrism as it applies to their deceit in admitting to the darker parts of their culture. Japan hunts 600 whales and says it’s for a scientific study. They say they won’t hunt humpbacks, but the next day at the gym, I see a humpback while icon next to the ingredients for a soup recipe. No one I know admits to playing pachinko, a gambling game, but the parlors are always packed with people and you can’t go more than 4 miles without seeing one in a city. And there has been much criticism about how they ignore the poor and homeless.
3. Bad Smells. Daikon, tonkatsu, and halitosis.
Daikon is a staple vegetable in the Japanese diet, and it smells like a combination of rotting produce, stinky feet, and farts. If someone brings it on the bus, the smell is so pervasive I have to cover my nose. The areas near Tonkatsu ramen shops often smell like sewage; that is the unique scent of tonkatsu. And a smell all ALTs know: halitosis. Japan has a particular brand of halitosis that includes 3 or more of the following: rotting fish, coffee, unbrushed teeth, feces, alcohol from the night before, stale cigarettes, and daikon.
4. The Insects Including cockroaches, tatami bugs, jumping spiders, and cicadas.
During summer my skin crawled constantly at the thought of the cockroaches overtaking my apartment. Chris and I started a campaign of sticky traps, bleaching the sink, freezing garbage, and a foam spray that immobilized and trapped them if you could shoot it well enough, and yet we all too frequently saw 2 ½ inch cockroaches crawling from behind the pipe work into our kitchen. Tatami bugs live in our tatami mats, which cover our floor like carpet or wood paneling. Regular spraying of the tatami with an expensive chemical (though it did have a cool injecting nozzle) still didn’t always protect me from the line of itchy red marks they’d leave after nibbling along an arm or leg while I slept. And the cicadas! All summer, their buzz causes a true din. As in, walking outside and talking to a friend, you’d need to raise your voice to be heard. They started early in the morning and lasted until the sun set. They also left their 3 inch dead carcasses around the city.
5. Work Culture
Most buildings in Japan are bare and have institutionalized appearances. I find this to be particularly uninspiring for a school. And then there is the facet of Japanese work culture that leads to nervous breakdowns and death from “overwork,” showing commitment to your job by shuffling papers from 8 am to 11 pm at night, or longer. It’s about quantity, not quality.
6. Uncontrolled Climate
No insulation in homes or buildings, limited air conditioning, no central heating, and no climate control in schools except for the ubiquitous kerosene heater in the staff office. And no carbon monoxide detectors to track the use of kerosene. People die every year from carbon monoxide poisoning in Japan, and from their metal space heaters malfunctioning and causing fires.
7. Noise Pollution
Loudspeakers and flashing advertisements abound. Even bridges in Kokura are embedded with speakers to advertise while you walk. The greeters in the store! Some people’s jobs are simply to shout emphatically and repeatedly in loud voices that you are welcome in their shop, or that you should buy their product. For the women employed in that job, they must squeak their voices to the highest, loudest pitch possible to show you that you are truly welcome in their shop. Pachinko parlors and arcades also contribute to the headache-inducing din of noise in Japanese commercial areas. Perhaps as a result of induced citizen deafness, cinemas always play movies so loud they make the ears buzz.
8. Antiquated Practices. In schools, hospitals, lavatories, and gender and age practices.
In a modern society in 2008, technology should be integrated into the classroom. But it is not so in Japan. Their classrooms look exactly the same as they did 40 years ago. Handwritten worksheets are the norm, and many staff rooms have only 1-2 computers for all teachers to share.
As you’ve probably read in detail in my blog, the approach to women’s health is 50 years behind the rest of the modern medical world. Squatters, mini urinals embedded in the floor surface that are always surrounded by crusted pee or worse, are available more than sit-down toilets.
Women are definitely considered the lesser sex, their main source of power being in their domestic domain. They are expected to run the household and take care of the children without partnership from their bread-winning husbands. As a result of the sempai mentality, older people are allowed to behave as they see fit, and abuse younger individuals with rude language and behavior. Younger female workers in an office must make tea and take on other menial tasks for their superiors.
Also, because in past centuries it was acceptable to have sex with barely pubescent females, I believe the Japanese are slow to adapt to the modern idea of child pornography. This country has a national epidemic of men seeking sex, or the idea of sex, with children.
The Japanese aren’t stuck in their ways all the time, though. I recently read that over 50% of Japanese men now sit down when urinating, at the request of their wives, to eliminate mess.
9. Masking Oneself
Simply put, the group is more important than the individual in Japan. This means people rarely express their true feelings and cover up with a stoic, consenting demeanor. Only at home can people express their true feelings, and even then the family is more important than the individual.
10. Strict Rules
In Japan, there is A WAY to do everything. There are rules for every endeavor, and people abide to them as a matter of practice, without attention to whether or not it is the best way. For example, there are over 100 rules to hold chopsticks.
Though to be fair, I recently listened to Bill Bryson’s I’m a Stranger Here Myself , wherein he chronicles his return to the U.S. after 20 years of living in England, and he humorously criticizes the U.S. at length for our unthinking adherence to rules and policies.

Recommendation: Hair Stylist in Fukuoka

April 7, 2008 at 3:23 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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If you live in Kitakyushu city, Hakata/Fukuoka, or Fukuoka prefecture, I have a recommendation for a hair stylist. Yasu’s friendly face is well-known to many foreigners, and Japanese people, in the region. He runs Nakamura Biyoushitu, or Nakamura’s Modern Beauty Salon, and has lived and worked in New York City. He often returns there and does other traveling to style hair for photo shoots.

I’ve had a lot of good hair stylists in my life, but none better than Yasu. He is a natural talent at hair with a diverse background working in his field. He is very good at determining what colors and hair styles suit different people, and I have never met a stylist who pays more attention to detail than him; he makes sure every strand is perfect. Plus, he speaks excellent English, is extremely friendly, kind, personable, and stylish, his prices are reasonable, and his gorgeous shop is decorated with interesting antiques he’s picked up in his travels.

I highly recommend him, and as I prepare to leave the country, I know that I will truly miss going to his shop: the conversation, relaxing atmosphere, and superb styling. If you are looking to get your hair done and can make it to Tenjin in Fukuoka, go see him. His website is http://www.nakamura-biyoushitu.com/ or you can call 092-741-7415 and make an appointment in English.

F.A.Q. – For Foreigners Surviving in Japan

April 7, 2008 at 3:22 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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On the blogstats page of my original blog about Japan, I was privy to the search engine key terms that navigate people to my page, and I noticed a lot of common themes. I have experienced innumerable frustrations in Japan, and when I see people looking on the internet for help with similar problems, I wish there was more concrete assistance for them out there. So here it is. I hope that if you need this information, you are finding it here. Please do note that I am not an authority on anything, and am offering you what I can from my own experience. If you have questions, please feel free to post them and I’ll answer the best that I can.

Yeast Infections in Japan:
*There is no over-the-counter medication for yeast infections in Japan. If you are planning to move here and are prone to them, I suggest you bring along a supply. You may want to bring along some probiotic supplements, too, if you imagine you might be taking antibiotics during your time here.
*If you are already here, find a women’s clinic. They are often called “Ladies” clinics. In a sizable city, you should be able to find one easily with a little help. If you have a yeast infection, they will test you on the spot and give you your first treatment. However, they will likely ask you to come back either every day for a week, or again in another week. If that is an inconvenience for you, ask if you can take the rest of the suppositories home to treat yourself. In my experience, they will give you a suppository for the internal irritation and a cream for the external irritation.
*Last resort: if for some reason the above options aren’t available to you, I’d suggest yogurt. Find a brand with ABSOLUTELY NO SUGAR (this can be found in just about any grocery store, and you’d be able to double check by tasting the difference if you tested it beforehand). Then make your own suppositories. Suggestions: fill a tampon applicator with yogurt and insert it, removing the applicator afterward; coat a (non-applicator) tampon with yogurt and insert it; freeze tiny yogurt popsicles and insert. After freezing it, and removed ALL the wrapping very carefully, round any sharp edges with a warm hand and insert it.
*In Japanese “shinkinsei chitsuen” 真菌性膣炎; Candidiasis is “kanjita” カンジタ

Bladder Infections, Cystitis, Urinary Tract Infections, UTIs in Japan:
*If you are coming to Japan and have had these before, I’d recommend bringing some antibiotics and Uristat bladder pain reliever with you.
I ran into a pretty awful medical situation because of this affliction. Before going to Japan, I got UTIs a few times a year and would need a course of antibiotics to treat them. I’d seen a doctor and typically took a 100mg of macrodantin antibiotic when I felt a UTI coming on. But sometimes I’d still get them anyway, so before I left the U.S., I got a doctor to prescribe me a few courses of ciprofloxacin antibiotics so I could treat myself if I had any trouble in Japan.
*I used up all those antibiotics in my first year, and had to see a doctor. The procedure was similar to the U.S., a urine sample and a prescription of antibiotics, pain reliever, and Chinese herbs. I found the Japanese antibiotics to be far too weak. I think because the Japanese are brought up on different doses of medicine, their dose wasn’t effective for me. Also bear in mind that the average Japanese woman is about 100-120 pounds, so the doctors’ maximum prescribing dose allowed is pretty low in comparison to the U.S.
*If you’re already in Japan, I have a few recommendations. Order ciprofloxacin, or whatever antibiotic you are experienced with, from an online pharmacy. A little sketchy, yes, but try to make smart choices about who you order from. Sometimes you have to have your own medicine here. Ciprofloxacin isn’t even available in Japan!
Also, find a good women’s clinic or hospital. If you can’t find a good English-speaking doctor, ask a Japanese speaker along. (I was humiliated when my boss accompanied me, but happy with my choice afterwards, and appreciative of her help.) Also, not all English-speaking doctors are GOOD doctors. I had one doctor who spoke English fluently tell me that my bladder pain was a psychological condition brought on by stress, that couldn’t be treated. Another doctor, a hospital urologist, told me that all he could do was give me Chinese herbs.
*In Japanese, bladder infection is “boko-en” 膀胱炎

When UTIs, Cystitis, don’t go away in Japan:
*I had a bladder pain syndrome, like interstitial cystitis, that was undoubtedly sparked by too many doctors misdiagnosing me and giving me all sorts of different medications. What distinguished it was a constant feeling of a bladder infection, but there would be no bacteria in my urine when I was tested; a feeling of heaviness in my bladder even after I’d gone to the bathroom; and a frequent desire to urinate. If this sounds like what you have, I’d suggest immediately finding a good doctor, and in the meantime do yoga, take warm baths, and eliminate ALL caffeine, tomatoes, and chocolate from your diet.
* I wish I had gone to a big city to see a doctor more quickly; that I had searched for a specialist and been more assertive of what my body was telling me vs. what the incorrect doctors were telling me. All that said, also know when to throw in the towel. In retrospect, I would have gone back to the U.S. earlier into the four months of pain. When I did see a urogynecologist there, I was correctly diagnosed within 30 minutes and prescribed enough medicine to get me through my next year in Japan.

Bringing Prescription Medicine to Japan:
Most medication is supposed to be limited to a two-month supply, and antihistamine medications are banned. That said, I have never been stopped by customs for this check, and know few people who have. To be safe, bring a copy of your prescription along with you to show customs. Take the gamble and bring more than a two-month supply (in retrospect, I wish I had) but know it could be confiscated. My parents in the U.S. mail over the rest of my medication to me, and I’ve never had any of that confiscated. I’m not condemning or condoning, but some people bag antihistamines to look like candy.

STD Testing in Japan:
There is limited availability for testing STDs or STIs in Japan. For example, HPV is typically not tested for. Herpes can be, but like in any country, sores better diagnose it than blood levels, because if you’ve ever been exposed to any type of mouth or genital herpes, it could make you falsely positive in your blood test. STDs are definitely as common in Japan as in any other modern industrial society, and I feel there is less acknowledgement of their prevalence and the need for sexual safety, which is scary. Be smart, protect yourself, and get tested. When you get tested, make sure you know which infections you are being tested for, and more importantly, which you aren’t.
*In Japanese, venereal disease or STD is “seibyo” 性病

Safe sex and Contraception in Japan:
*According to many Japanese people, “there are no gay people” in Japan, which is of course entirely untrue. I have also heard stated, “there is no AIDS in Japan.” I have heard that in gay bathhouses, there are no condoms available for the patrons because there is supposedly no risk.
*But don’t get too comfortable if you’re heterosexual, either. I have known a few people who left the country with Chlamydia, and a doctor I saw for my bladder pain syndrome told me he treats people for it here all the time. Monogamy doesn’t guarantee you safety. Find a good clinic that checks for all STDs, and get tested.
*Condoms in Japan are reputedly too small for most westerners, so if there’s a chance you might be active, please bring your own before you visit. Or find a pharmacy online that can mail them to you.
*Birth control in Japan is ridiculously behind the times. I know of a few places that sell modern European birth control, but for the most part, doctors will prescribe archaic medicines that have bad side effects. Find a good doctor here or get a prescription in your home country and have you medications regularly mailed to you.

A Note on Gynecology in Japan:
Women’s clinics abound in Japan, with their specialty being prenatal care and birthing. But if you’re a woman in Japan, and you are not having a baby, expect to find the gynecological medical practices and treatments, archaic, out-of-touch, and sadly overwhelmingly ignorant of the advances in gynecological health that exist in other affluent societies. Ask around your area and use the resources available to you. They won’t like it, but you need to advocate for your health and stand up for your needs. Don’t fall into the trap of wanting to be a well-behaved foreigner and just taking anything a doctor tells you as the truth. Search high and low until you find a doctor for yourself that you trust, feel comfortable with, and know has genuine concern for your health and well-being.
*Perfumed soaps are the norm here, but if you are looking for a nice, gentle soap, try Minon. ミノン It is available in most pharmacies and will help avoid irritations.

Clinic recommendation:
*If you are in the Fukuoka area, or can make the trip there, I highly recommend the International Clinic Toijinmachi. Information is available online.

Therapists, Counseling, Crisis Situations, Mental Health Help for English speakers in Japan:
*There are many international therapists available by area of Japan at imhpj.org. I know some counselors specialize in phone counseling, for the foreign community they are unable to meet face-to-face for therapy. http://www.imhpj.org/search/search_list.php

* TELL – Tokyo English Life Line (for any foreigners in Japan)
The Tokyo English Life Line is a nonprofit organization that was created in 1973. They offer free and anonymous phone counseling and information at 03-5774-0992 daily from 9:00am to 11:00pm.

*AJET PSG (for JET Programme only)
A listening and referral service, by JETs for JETs. The AJET PSG is available every night from 8pm until 7am. If you have had a bad day, need a doctor at 2am or just want to chat, give PSG a call on 0120-437-725. The AJET PSG is sponsored by BBApply.
Available every night across the holiday period.

*CLAIR JETLine: (for JET Programme only)
The JET Line is a phone line specifically for JETs, which is answered in English by Programme Coordinators who are available to answer inquiries and provide counseling. Conversations are confidential and callers can remain anonymous. The line operates during regular office hours, Monday to Friday from 09:00 to 18:00, (03)3591-5489.

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