A storm of my own

Today I cried during cleaning time. The emotional roller coaster I wrote about in my last post has started and there is no stopping it. I’ve been to sayonara parties, dinners and get-togethers and received presents, letters and cards from students and teachers saying goodbye to me. In the last two weeks, I’ve been showered with so many kind sentiments, that I haven’t been able to take them in. They’ve just been words on paper, but during cleaning time I had this conversation with first-year student that really hit home to me.

Me: Today’s class was fun, right?

Him: Of course! But ‘kanashii’ (sad).

For some reason, hearing this from a student and seeing that he was really genuinely sad about me leaving was the final straw that made me well up. I hid my wet eyes by doing some serious sweeping of the room, rather than doing what I usually do, pretending to clean whilst I make conversation with the students!

This is the last LL board I'm going to make with my English Club.

This is the last LL board I’m going to make with my English Club. Looking at that made me sad too!

I assure you the sudden eye-duct filling didn’t come out of nowhere, and I am not the emotional ship-wreck you may think I am. Today I had my last lessons with three first-year classes back-to-back followed by a second year class who were even more genki (energetic) than the first years. We played the old favourite ESL games of charades, pictionary and jeopardy. One of the best moments was when I gave the “Sleeping” card to a girl to act out and she immediately fell on the floor. “Shinderu” (died) the students shouted in hysterics. Then they asked her to do it one more time, which she did!

Students were playing janken (rock-paper-scissors) like life depended on it, and they were out of their seats with eagerness to answer questions. I realise now why teachers usually use a textbook. It might be a bit boring, but at least it does’t sap their energy to oblivion and give them headaches!

After four lessons of screaming students, I had a headache and was utterly exhausted. In the last lesson the students even had to say “Big voice Sophie”, something I always tell them!  So when I’d climbed the third-story stairs for the umpteenth time for cleaning time, I was ready to call it a day. But it was all worth it for these kids.

I know we're not meant to have favourite classes, but it's hard not to when the kids are this genki.

I know we’re not meant to have favourite classes, but it’s hard not to when these kids are this cute.

The incoming storm isn’t helping my emotional stability. Typhoon Neoguri (meaning racoon dog in Korean for no reason I can find!) is hitting mainland Japan as I write this. Although it’s not likely to cause much damage in Fukui Prefecture, the warm front and thick clouds have hovered above us for days. This week’s temperatures are above 30’C but it’s the 97% humidity that really makes you feel icky. Walking out of an air-conditioned room feels like walking into a wall of mugginess, and teaching in these conditions is almost unbearable. In my school the top floor now have air-conditers, or ‘coolers’ as the students call them, but the first and second graders only have two wall fans to spin the hot air around, leaving us melting beneath them. Everyone here has a towel to wipe their brow on, more commonly known as sweat rags, and are a necessity, especially for ALTs who cannot take the heat.

Super-typhoon Neoguri was predicted to be one of the strongest tropical storms in decades to hit Japan.

Super-typhoon Neoguri was predicted to be one of the strongest tropical storms in decades to hit Japan.

Tanuki, are similar to racoon dogs, and bare no resemblance whatsoever to the super typhoon!

Tanuki, are similar to racoon dogs, and bare no resemblance whatsoever to the super typhoon!

I can’t wait for it to rain. I may be a typical British person who complains about the rain back home, but after living through all sorts of other weather systems here in Japan (typhoons, freezing winters, thunder storms and a couple of earthquakes) I won’t be complaining about a little drizzle in England. In this season, the rain is monsoon-like, hot and heavy, but leaves days of clear skies and sunshine after.

Ah, rain. Love it.

Ah, rain. Love it.

Saying goodbye to my students is going to be tough. I know from today’s experience that tears will roll. I just hope they don’t come when I have to make a goodbye speech in assembly. Only two more weeks before I fly home and I really hope this storm passes without too much drama!</p>

The sky this evening.

The sky this evening.

Welcome incoming JETs! Placement decisions.

Congratulations and welcome to applicants of the JET Programme who have been placed in Fukui! You are coming to one of the most beautiful prefectures in Japan, with mountains, a ragged coastline and hidden villages on our doorstep. Best of all, there is a close-knit and active foreigner community that are looking forward to meeting you! 

Don’t be alarmed if all you can find about Fukui is power plants, suicide spots and daffodils. There is a lot more than that. If you’re interested in traditional crafts, century-old festivals and outdoor sports, this is the place for you. If you’re coming to Japan for the Cosplay, anime and J-pop scene, I’m afraid you may be disappointed, but Kyoto, Nagoya and Osaka are only a train ride away!

Fukui JETS at Sado Island Earth Celebration Festival 2013


Learning to snowboard at Ski Jam Katsuyama


Enjoying Obon festivities in Echizen City

Two years ago I remember being in your position and not knowing where I’d like to be placed in Fukui, nor whether I’d like to be placed in a junior or senior high school. So I hope this helps you choose your preferences.

Big decision #1

If you are a ken-cho ALT, employed by Fukui Board of Education, you’ll be asked whether you want to teach in a senior or junior high school. I know JET forums are flooded with information on the differences between them, but here is my take on it.

Junior high schools

At the very formal graduation ceremony in March.

At the very formal graduation ceremony in March.

Junior high school ALTs teach three year groups of students from 12 to 15 year olds. Given that JHSs are smaller than senior high schools, there are more JHS ALTs than SHS ALTs. You will be teaching from the New Horizon textbooks, starting from teaching the alphabet to first graders to teaching reduced relative clauses to third graders. The textbook is pretty dull, so it’s your job to make English exciting for the students. In lessons you can tell them about your home country or give a presentation, quiz or game on something vaguely related to the text book. Yesterday I did a presentation all about kiwi birds and kiwi fruit, using funny pictures I found on the internet, and the students loved it!

Many students don’t know anything about the rest of the world, apart from that Americans eat hamburgers, so I focus a lot on the internationalisation part of our job description. I often give presentations and make display boards on different countries or current events.


Giving a presentation on my village to second graders, using the target language “We call it…..”


Porridge tasting as part of the ‘What do you have for breakfast?’ lesson

The World Cup is a great opportunity to introduce Brazil to students, especially as I have many Brazilian students at my school and Japanese students don’t know anything about their classmates’ country.


New Zealand is part of the second grader’s textbook and is a good excuse to make a display board.

In junior high schools there are opportunities coach students for speech contests, run writing or drawing competitions and English Clubs, but you need your JTEs on-board for these extra-curricular events to work well. JHS ALTS will have two or three elementary school visits a term where you will learn what ‘being kanchoed’ means, how fast kids can down a bottle of milk and find out just how cute Japanese children are!

My weekly elementary class at my visiting school.

My weekly elementary class at my visiting school.

Senior high schools

Senior high schools teach students aged 15 to 18. Working in a high school as an ALT gives you more freedom to teach your own lessons and have the JTE there as a support. The level of high schools can differ a lot. Some run International Courses, where the students have more English lessons and often have a home-stay experience in an English-speaking country as part of the course. You may be asked to run lessons on current affairs, run debate teams and speech contests. 

English is on the curriculum for all high schools and ALTs can really motivate students to keep studying English through running communicative lessons. Unfortunately, many students do not have many opportunities to speak English in Fukui, nor do they have the motivation to go abroad. So ALTs offer a great opportunity to those students who want to speak English, not just pass the tests. 

My decision 

I remember choosing between JHS and SHS was a really hard decision for me. I wanted to be a JHS ALT as I knew the students would be really genki, and I knew I could have fun with the students. I also didn’t want to teach moody teenage boys in SHS or be out of my depth in terms of the English level being taught. Yet when I work with SHS students at English seminars I really appreciate their higher English ability that makes communication so much easier.

Looking back I would’ve been happy teaching at a senior high school, especially at an international course, as teaching higher English is more challenging. I could have transferred to a high school, a luxury we have in Fukui, but I was already settled at my school and decided to stay there and teach for just two years before leaving Japan.

You come to love your school and your students, so transferring schools would be hard.

You come to love your school and your students, so transferring schools would be hard, but it’s possible.

Big decision #2

If the form is still the same as two years ago, it gives you a choice of whether you want to live somewhere urban, semi-urban or rural. What do these categories mean for Fukui? This may be geographically incorrect but it’s basically how many rice fields you are surrounded by! There sure are no shortages of tanbo around here.

P1070151 P1070177P1070176The most important factor for me was how close I wanted to be to other ALTs. If you want a full immersion experience into living Japan; to make Japanese friends and improve your Japanese, choose ‘rural’. If you want to easily hang out with other ALTs in the evenings, go for ‘urban’ or ‘semi-urban’.


Sport practices take place in Fukui City, and there are many opportunities to join cultural groups, such as learning taiko and tea ceremony. There is also the most night-life there, although don’t get your hopes up too much as the going-out district consists of a few bars and a couple of disappointing nightclubs!

Every place has its own character and charm, and if you ask around there will usually be a group for what you want to do whether it’d be kyudo in Tsuruga City, aikido in the Sakae area or learning the koto or shamisen in Fukui City. Also, if you know you want to snowboard or ski every weekend in winter, choose Ono or Katsuyama!

Iwada taiko group

A popular taiko group in Fukui City

Most ALTs become reliant on their cars. Those who don’t have a car usually live in Fukui City, where it’s possible to get around my bike, on foot and using the public transport. ALTs placed in smaller towns who don’t have a car, survive by taking trains and catching rides from nearby ALTs!

Two years back when I was deliberating on these dilemmas, I ticked ‘junior high school’, ‘semi-urban’ and ‘within walking distance of other ALTs’ and was placed in an apartment block with other ALTs in Echizen City. Where ever you are placed, if you have a positive attitude and really want to enjoy teaching and living in Japan, you most definitely will.

If you have any questions, please comment below. Also, if you haven’t already, join the Fukui JET (FJET) Facebook group!



Into the mud: planting rice with students

“Squelch, sludge, squish” were the sounds of my feet being sucked into the muddy rice field. The grey-brown mud squeezed between my toes and held my foot under, before I could prized it away to take another step. The mud was warm; at some points a layer of murky water sat on top of the sludge, and worse of all I could feel unknown things in the mud. They could be explained by the small bubbles that emerged from a watery footprint next to me. As I moved on with haste a small frog jumped away from me! I managed to keep my cool, although I screamed a little inside, and with a line of students waiting behind me there was nothing to do but continue on into the muddy depths.

Every year in early May the second graders at my school plant kuromai (black rice) in a tanbo (rice field) near the school. I’ve seen students’ paintings of this activity and have eaten the black rice at the Cultural Festival, so when my supervisor asked me if I wanted to join the rice planting today, I immediately said yes!

Being a JET is all about being prepared for the unknown, like when you turn up looking a sleep deprived and are told it’s the school photograph day, or just as a class is starting the teacher turns to you and asks you if you have any activities. Gulp. But over the last nine months I’ve learnt to be prepared for everything, a make-up kit ready for a school photo, a list of games for classes and an ‘emergency’ PE kit for times like these. So luckily, I was able to join the students in this annual event.

Before the hundred-so students set off to the rice field, there was a briefing of how to plant the rice. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t really help me until I saw the demonstration in the actual rice field. First, a hexagonal contraption is rolled across the mud to create a grid pattern of where to plant the seedling, or ricelings as I like to call them. Then we were given a palette of closely grown ricelings which we had to lovingly poke into the mud on the joining points of the lines. It was as easy at that!

There were screams and shrieks as the girls got into the mud and I had to stop some of them running back out of the muddy field! Then we had about an hour of planting time. It went by quickly and with so many people planting the seeds, the field was soon covered in lines of green seedlings. Yet now I feel for the real farmers of rural Fukui who have to spend all day, for many weeks just planting rice fields. It must get a bit tiresome if you’re not surrounded by a hundred excited students who are singing songs and falling over in the mud!

I look forward to watching the ricelings sprout up and then being able to eat the rice we planted in September. Just another school experience which beats any school trip I did as a student! I wonder what else the school year has in store for me…

These boys were shrieking at this point!

These boys were shrieking at this point!

Making a grid pattern on the mud

Making a grid pattern on the mud

It looks like this parent-helper was dancing, or maybe he was just stuck in the mud!

It looks like this parent-helper was dancing, or maybe he was just stuck in the mud!


The rice field was filling up with water as we were planting the ricelings

Washing off the mud in the so-called 'gaijin traps'

Washing off the mud in the so-called ‘gaijin traps’