Goodbye Japan!

Leaving Japan was the most emotionally draining experience of my life. Rather, leaving my friends, colleagues and students in Japan was the most emotionally draining experience of my life. After all the places I’d visited, all the festivals I’d seen and all the experiences I had, I realised they were meaningless compared to the people I’d become friends with doing them.

I’ll tell my last week in Japan through photos.

Final day at Takefu Daini Junior High School

Two years on and I was stood in front of the sea of students and teachers once again, but this time I knew them and they knew me. The principle introduced me before I gave a speech in Japanese. You can tell I look nervous in this one!


After getting through my speech, with just a few stumbles, I was a lot more relieved, but wasn’t ready for what was coming next. The teacher acting as MC decided it would be a good idea if I stood at the front of the hall while the students sang the school song! After the first verse, I looked at the students singing and felt so sad that I wouldn’t be seeing them again, I couldn’t help but well up! I avoided any more eye contact with my students and pulled myself together in the third verse, hoping that I could get out of the limelight soon.

I was wrong. The MC made a signal for some music to begin and the first few bars of ‘Amazing Grace’ came on. He asked me, “You know song? Very good song.” Yes, very good song… for a funeral! What happened next was another surprise planned by the MC, the students parted like they do for a graduation ceremony and I walked through them like a celebrity. Maybe, a bit OTT, but it did make for an unforgettable last day at school!


Sashimi party!

My supervisor organised a relaxed farewell meal with my closest teachers and I. I chose the restaurant I’d had my first enkai (work party) at because I still remember how good the sashimi (raw fish) and the meter long plate of sushi was. Unlike two years ago, when I’d only eat the salmon, this time I was able to eat and enjoy everything on the sashimi platter, even the big prawns that slipped down a treat!



image3I’ll never forget these teachers and all they taught me about being a teacher. I have so much admiration for them! They were also kind enough to buy me this amazing cake that says “Otsukaresama deshita” (You’ve worked hard). A very Japanese sentiment.


As well as the cake, I got presents galore from students and teachers, and enough hand towels to last me my whole life! Giving presents at the end of a job contract is pretty common, but still, I was pretty overwhelmed by the number of people who made an effort to write a goodbye note to me. I’m not quite sure why I was given a marching gorilla, but hey! Thanks! IMG_3631

The final few days

Leaving Japan isn’t easy. There are endless forms to fill out, contracts to end, things to sell, bags to pack and people to say goodbye to. The last couple of days were filled with these chores, all done in the 35’C heat, but in an hour of calm, my friends and I went to take some last photos together. I took the the opportunity to wear my new yukata, because I’m not sure where else I’m going to wear it!P1070883

These guys, the people I’ve shared an apartment block with for the last two years, were the hardest to say goodbye to. We’ve shared so much, laughed ourselves silly and danced until dawn together. I’m so lucky to have got to known these guys, as well as so many other friends in Fukui.

P1070902From Takefu Station to Narita


After an emotional goodbye at the station, Holly and I were speeding away from our valley in Takefu for the last time. We had to drown our sorrows with some beer in Tokyo!
IMG_3672Then, I spent a sleepless night in a very modern looking capsule hotel that was actually inside Narita airport, so there was no chance of a rerun of the nightmare I had last year when I missed my flight!IMG_3683Flying home


On the plane there was a Japanese boy in front of me who was excitedly, and slightly annoyingly, looking out the window the whole journey back. As we came over East Anglia and did a circuit over London, I enjoyed pointing out the landmarks and assuring him that those buildings were not in fact castles, but just houses. He was excited as I was when I first flew to Japan and everything looked different to me. Now, I was returning to the UK for the next chapter of my life and that too is very exciting. But the people I met and loved in Japan will never be far from my mind. Thanks for a great two years! 

Enkai etiquette: what NOT to do at a Japanese work party

Never wear jeans to an enkai, nor turn up late, nor cross your legs (if you’re a girl). I did all of these things with typical gaijin etiquette and spent the first thirty minutes with red cheeks from embarrassment! Thankfully by the time the first kanpai was cheered, I’d regained my normal complexion and decided to enjoy the night as much as I could. Time to start pouring the beer!

An enkai is a Japanese work party, generally involving a lot of drinking, eating and for a unknowing foreigner, embarrassment. It’s the time when office crushes are revealed, secrets are shed and the boss gets thrown up in the air (yes, that literally happened!).

I’d been to a couple of enkais before but each has been an informal occasion in an izakaya (Japanese restaurant) where we all sat round tables and shared platters of sashimi, metre long plates of sushi and other delicious Japanese dishes. Therefore I was looking forward to my third enkai as a chance to try out my improved Japanese, as well as to eat my fill of my favourite Japanese food. However this particular enkai was the retirement party of the kocho-sensei (principle), so little did I know, it was a lot more formal than I anticipated. From 6000 yen (around £40), I should’ve guessed it would be a formal affair but my supervisor had failed to mention the work dress code. Unlike other teachers did, I went home after work and changed into my smart-looking, going-out jeans, and started walking to the restaurant. 

That was infact my second error, walking to the restuarant, not getting a lift. It was a little further than I thought and the minutes flew by. I managed to beat the estimated walking time of Google Maps by a third, but when I arrivied at the building I thought it was in, it turned out to be an empty ramen restaurant. The chef and waiter looked at me with surprise when I checked if they knew the whereabouts of my school’s enkai taking place that night, well actually in five minutes time! The helpful waiter quickly called some places and found out it was just around the corner. I thanked him profusely, trying to indicate I’d manage to get there alone, but still he insisted on walking me to the door of a very posh, traditional restaurant where kimono-clad women were waiting at the door. Being escorted to the restaurant by a man wearing a dirty black apron is not the entrance I was going for.

And now for the biggest faux pas of the evening, being late. I’d been told it started at 6.30pm and I tried to get there on time, but the location error had put me behind so I reached the enkai just as it was starting at exactly 6.30pm. I mean I arrived just as my kocho-sensei was being clapped into the room. People kept clapping as I tried to hide my reddened face behind the nearest door in the room. Unfortunately, that wasn’t my allocated seating position and the vice-principle said ”Let’s wait until Sophie-san sits down, before I start”. I nearly died inside. All I could think of were my teachers tutting inside at the foreigner who has got everything wrong.

As I dared to look up and around the room, I realised that everyone else was wearing their smartest work suits. This was a completely different event as what I’d expected. It was in a large tatami room and the fifty or so teachers each had their own table with the first dishes of food laid out on it. Everyone was sitting on their knees, with their heels curled in behind them. I copied them, trying to score some cultural etiquette points, as the koto-sensei (vice-principle) made the first speech. Ten minutes in and I’d lost all sensation in my legs. By this point I’d forgotten about my earlier embarrassment and was just focusing on how to ignore the aching pain in my legs. I could see other teachers struggling too, and when my supervisor slid her legs to one side, I followed her. What made it worst is not understanding anything which is being said, so I had no distractions to take my mind off my dead legs. All I could think of, was if I’d turned my phone to silent. I was imagining what would happen if my ringtone went off as my kocho-sensei was summing up his forty years working in schools and everyone was looking more and more moved by his speech. If that happened, I was thinking I was sure to lose my job, almost certain. But my bag was out of reach so all I could do is wish that my friends wouldn’t call me at this time. A phone did go off, but thankfully it was not mine. Phew, I’m not going to be fired.

After twenty-five minutes of idly nodding and laughing to the speeches when everyone else did, I manoeuvred my numb legs into a crossed position, only to have a teacher laugh at me! What now?, I thought. Apparently only men should cross their legs. It was at this point, I questioned how much fun this evening was going to be.

Yet the teachers near me made me feel relaxed by pouring me beer and not mentioning my jeans, my lateness or my cross-legged position. I knew that the etiquette at enkais is never to let anyone pour their own drink, so I made sure to get that right at least!

My most enjoyable conversation of the night was with janitor and the Portuguese translator. The slightly orange-haired janitor came over to our tables and poured us some beer. We then proceeded in a mishmash of English and Japanese with the Portuguese translator trying her best to translate between the two! The janitor is the kind of man who laughs at everything, so he was rolling around at the bad Japanese I was coming out with! Mmmh, my evening of impressing teachers with my Japanese wasn’t going so well. Nor were my favourite dishes being served. Instead I was slurping up vinegary seaweed soup, munching on whole tiny squid and other dubious dishes.

My table laid out with sashimi, nabe and a shot of sake.

My table laid out with sashimi, nabe and a shot of sake.

The courses were interrupted by more speeches, present giving and a slideshow of present and past students thanking the principle. I couldn’t help but notice how the traditional gender roles were playing out. The young female teachers had been given many of the tasks of giving speeches and presenting the gifts to the principle. One of my JTEs didn’t have time to eat her food as she was so busy pouring beer for other teachers! These feelings of sexism may have been enhanced as my legs were still in a punishing position, whilst the male teachers sat comfortably cross-legged!

The evening ended in everyone standing in a circle to sing a slightly modified version of the school song. I hummed along merrily, watching the drunk teachers swaying to the tune. Then everyone stopped and looked around, it was time for banzai! In unison, everyone shouted ‘banzai’ three times and raised their hands to the sky, as a way to wish good health and fortune to the principle. It was followed by all the men rushing to pick the 60 year old man up and throwing him in the air three times! I really hoped he hadn’t eaten or drank too much at this point! 

This however was just the start of more raucous behaviour to come. The nijikai (after party) was a nomikai (drink all you want) at a local karaoke joint. This is where everyone really lets their hair down! Yet at this point I’d had enough of laughing at jokes I didn’t understand, trying my best to speak Japanese and eating strange food. So I went home to join my friends who I could communicate with.

But all is not lost, I’ll be more prepared for my next enkai and most definitely ask about the dress code!