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

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Learning to snowboard at Ski Jam Katsuyama

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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.

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

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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.

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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’.

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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!

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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!

 

 

Six months

Six months is a strange period of time. It can be compared to watching a three-hour film in a cinema: you know you’ve been there a long time, but it also goes really fast. Everything has changed since I arrived here. From the 40′ heat to -3 degrees, from being in a relationship to being single, from knowing hardly any Japanese to being able to get by, just!

Nesting

When I first arrived at my flat, I couldn’t actually get in. The key was stiff and twisted in the lock. But now the steel red door, which I still struggle to get in everyday, has my name written above it and it feels like home. In August, after the week and a half of transiting from Tokyo to my red door, I was so happy to finally have reached a space I could call my own. Strangely enough, it was when I unpacked my crinkled clothes from my suitcases that I started to feel like these four rooms were my home. I would hate to be called materialistic but it seemed that a key part of identity was hung up on those plastic hangers, so maybe I am. My clothes and a few photos of my friends made me feel at home in the first few weeks. Now my flat is filled with hangings, cards and souvenirs from the places I’ve visited in Japan, each with a memory attached to it.

The first couple of months were definitely the hardest. There was no severe ‘culture shock’ or homesickness but it was the personal relationships which were new, or different and seemed so important. It was like being a fresher all over again! Yet once the school term started and I had a routine to my life, I felt much more at ease. Now, I have some wonderful friends that I’m thoroughly going to miss when they leave, especially my travel-buddy Zoya who is only staying one year.

School

I’m happy with the small part I play in the slick machine of the Japanese school system. In some classes, I do nothing more than be a pronunciation coach, but in others I can do anything. Last week I gave a presentation about teaching in a junior high school in Nepal and the students fell into a hazy silence as they saw photos of smiling Nepali kids all squashed in a classroom a quarter the size of their own. It is opportunities like this, to amaze and inspire students about places in the world they’ve never heard about, that makes me love my job. I also like reading their work and finding out what they’re in to. I know a lot of J-pop band names now, the best being ‘Flumpool’ and ‘Funky Monkey Babys’!

There was a new girl at school today and I felt for her. All the new names she’d have to learn, all the strict rules (she’d have to get rid of her hair braids!) and the friends she’d have to make. I remember being introduced in the staff room for the first time and feeling so out-of-place, the newbie, foreign in every way. Yet now I know my colleagues, not all their names, but the subjects they teach and whether they like having a disjointed chat in English and Japanese. Every morning as I walk into the staffroom and shout my ‘Good morning’, a chorus of ‘Ohaiyo Gozaimasu’s are returned and I feel part of the school community.

The students, too, have become accustomed to me, and I to them. Girls wish me ‘Bye, bye’ as I leave the school and give me a cute smile and a wave. At first I remember not being able to tell the difference between most of the students, everyone looked more or less the same! Even two girls in my English Club looked so similar, with long hair tied in bunches and the same height that I couldn’t get their names right. Now I could recognise one from the other from down the corridor as they look so different!

Japanese

Studying Japanese before I came here has paid off. I didn’t get much further than a beginners book, but still I had the basics and could read Hiragana and some Katakana, even if very slowly. When I arrived I was hesitant to try out my Nihongo, so much so I did my introductory speech in the school assembly in English. Looking back that was a mistake and I wished I’d felt confident enough to do the first speech in Japanese. For the first few months I found it very hard to understand what people were saying and rarely tried out the few phrases I knew. Yet now I’m becoming more confident and trying to string sentences together at a just-faster-than-painful rate! When I can understand something said in the morning meeting, I’m happy for the rest of the day.

All in all, I’m really enjoying my life here. I suppose the freedom of living alone, having evenings and weekends free, and not having to worry about friendship, relationships or career plans. So I have signed the papers to re-contract for another year. I have many places I want to explore, festivals to see and things to discover.

Thanks for reading!

Photos from my balcony through the seasons.

August: hot, sticky and noisy

August: hot, sticky and noisy

November: beautiful sunsets, cool weather and golden leaves

November: beautiful sunsets, cool weather and golden leaves

December 6th: The first frost and the snow-line on Mount-Hino getting lower

December 6th: The first frost and the snow-line on Mount-Hino getting lower

December 24th: snow arrived in abundance

December 24th: snow arrived in time for a white Christmas

A January sunrise over blanketed white roof tops

A January sunrise over blanketed white roof tops

Settling in, school life and summer festivals

Once I found out the meaning of the kanji (Chinese characters) on my air con remote, my apartment has been was less like a sauna and a lot more liveable! I’ve had the TV on as much as possible trying to watch the Olympics and now know all the Japanese Olympiads! Whilst writing this I’m staying until 5am to watch the closing ceremony so I’m afraid I have 5 hours to rattle on things I’ve seen and done this week!

My new home: an apartment

Myself and Steven have our own apartments in a large three-storey apartment block. Other new JETs living here which we’ve been hanging out with are Niamh and Alice (both from Ireland) and Zoya (the only JET in Japan from Finland). Lots of other JETs live on their own so we are lucky we can just pop over to see each other. My school, Takefu Junior High School, is only a five minute walk from my apartment so I am really lucky in one sense, but on the other hand this means I have no excuse not to go in to school!

Once the temperature has dropped to a comfortable temperature, even if it’s still sticky, the other JETs and I have been exploring the area. We are surrounded by rice fields which give off a warm, sweet smell and remind me of South-east Asia. The sun goes down incredibly quickly here so there hasn’t been much time to enjoy the scenery. On the way back from our adventures around we often come across huge spiders, frogs and once this red headed centipede which can cause a very nasty bite! At night we can hear the chirping of what seems like hundreds of frogs having a pow-wow in the rice fields! Luckily I’m on the top floor so my apartment is free from unwanted visitors!

Takefu Junior High School

Being part of the school has been the most fascinating aspect of Japan so far, mainly because it is so different from British schools. For example the second time I went in to school I met the kyochosensei  (principle) and kyotosensei (vice-principle). It was here I realised that unlike in the UK when teachers escape for a month’s vacation, school doesn’t stop throughout the hot August vacation. Teachers are expected to continue preparing lessons and most importantly keep school clubs going. Each teacher is either coach or sub-coach for a school club, such as tennis, table tennis, volleyball, baseball, brass band or basketball. This means practising most days and even coming in on Saturdays to run sports practice! Junior high school students all have to participate in one club and it is very important to them. There are inter-prefecture school competitions and teams practice for months leading up to one. Whilst I was making a display board I watched in awe as the girls tennis squad did five laps around the school premises in army-like fashion shouting ‘Takefu! Hai, hai hai!’. And this was before the two hour practice in 30’C heat! Niamh, reported on how a girl had described coming second-place in a brass band contest as ‘motifying’!  These students train to win and anything less is a disappointment.

It is not just the school clubs which surprised me but how the students take responsibility and pride in their school. It is like their school is their second home and their teachers their second parents. On Thursday I got a taste of this when all the students and teachers came back for a half-day of school. The day started with ‘cleaning time’ where six students are assigned to clean a classroom. I introduced myself to the students in the English classroom and unsuccessfully tried to make conversation with them. The JTE (Japanese Teacher of English) told me that the school motto was ‘Cleaning Quietly’! So for the next ten minutes the students took a white cloth and on their hands and knees wiped the floors, corridors and stairs cleaned of every speck of dust! All without a single word of complaint! It was verging on being spooky! Next, in a very ordered fashion the students made their way to have an assembly in the gigantic gymnasium. I had to introduce myself in front of the 500 students which I admit was nerve wracking but I think I did ok until, it came to the bowing. After I finished I bowed as a way to make it clear I wanted to get off the stage. Then, all of the students were told to stand up and they bowed back to me! This was a very humbling experience but I’m pretty sure I bowed at all the wrong times and got a few sniggers from the kids. To finish the assembly the students and teachers all heartily sang the school song whilst looking towards a large Japanese flag. A very different assembly from the ones I use to go to!

Most of my time at school has been spent in the staff room. All the forty-so members of staff have a desk of their own in a large staff room and every morning starts with a ten minute morning meeting. In one of these meetings I introduced myself in Japanese and then spent the morning making a seating plan so I could remember the teacher’s names and subjects. Most of the teachers spoke enough English for me to understand them but in future I will try to practice my Japanese on them. One saying I am yet to master is ‘Osaki ni shitsurei shimasu’ which means ‘Sorry for leaving before you’ and it is said when leaving for the day. In reply other teachers say ‘you must be very tired’, even if the teachers have worked a 12 hour day! I’m sure I’ll write more on the Japanese work ethic.

Mikuni fireworks 

Since arriving in Fukui I’ve been on two beach trips. Never in my life have I seen so many people on a beach! Each person marks their spot with a matt and that is there square meter for the day. Yesterday we went up the coast to Mikuni to watch their annual fireworks festival. We got their early enough to mark the ‘gaijin territory’ but I declined going in the murky looking water as people complained of a biting fish, jelly fish stings and then we saw a squid in the water! The day was full of surprises: I spotted a pod of dolphins, we got invited in to a Japanese woman’s house for watermelon and we got to see the Fukui-famous Tojimbo cliffs as well. The best part of the day was seeing lots of young couples dressed up in traditional Japanese dress buying festival food together. Girls with flowers in their hair, wearing yukata (summer kimonos) and geta (wooden flip flops). There was such a fantastic atmosphere as we watched the fireworks on the beach full of Japanese fireworks. Probably nothing on being at the Olympics but it was a good substitute!