Living in the present

Last week I had a “Wow! I’m in Japan” moments. It was on the coach ride home from a school trip in Nagoya and I’d just woken up and looked at the stunning scenery outside. In that millisecond I’d remembered I was in Japan, something I used to do in the first few months of moving here. The journey back from Nagoya was reminiscence of when I first saw the green mountains, sea views and rice fields of Fukui nearly two years ago. Now, I’m seeing the world around me in a different light, with the eyes of someone who is leaving and wants to take it all in before I no longer can.

Heron in rice field, Fukui

Traditional Japanese house, Fukui

Sunset over ricefields, Fukui

I will be leaving Japan next month and feel like I’m chugging closer and closer to the top of an emotional roller coaster. I’m sure it will breach when I get on a train to leave Echizen for the last time. At that time, I’ll allow the tears to flow but in the meantime I have a lot to do; forms to fill out, ceramics to send home, clothes to throw out, a car, bike and snowboard to sell and sayonara speeches to give.

View over Echizen

I’ve left places I’ve loved before, and it’s not easy as a place is the setting for so many memories. After four years in Cambridge, I had to leave my antiquated house, my friends and all that went along with them – playing tennis in the afternoons, formal dinners and bike rides along the river. I remember it was a sad journey home, but that is just a reflection of how good a time I had there. If the same theory goes for Japan, I could be crying the whole 12 hours flight back, but hope I won’t be!

The physical packing up and turning the key in the door of my flat will be a poignant moment. The moment that connects the present tense ‘I live here’ to the past tense ‘I lived there.’ I’ve decided to delay packing up my stuff until the last couple of weeks, so I can enjoy the last month with looking at my flat’s bare walls and empty shelves and feeling like a stranger in my own home.


Yet, as my friend whose read “The Power of Now” has told me, I have to live in the present. To enjoy every day and not reminisce about the past or worry about the future. It’s not easy to do, but knowing I’ve made the most of my time here; travelling far and wide, making close friends and hopefully inspiring a few students along the way.

With only some vague ideas of what I’m going to do when I get home, I will have time to reflect on my Japanese experience by continuing to write this blog, talking to anyone who’s interested and sorting through the thousands of photos I’ve taken (including way too many of rice fields and flowers).

Iris in Fukui

Wisteria in Murasaki Shikibu Park, Echizen, Fukui


I don’t like making a big deal out of farewells, but I know it’s important to do them well. Of course I’ll be able to keep up with my friends on-line, but it isn’t the same as drinking together on Friday nights and laughing until our sides hurt. What will keep us together are the good, the bad and the embarrassing memories made in here, like the time I misjudged where I should sit in this photo!


Before I leave Fukui, I want to spend as much time as I can with my friends here. Yet at the same time I’m mentally adjusting to stepping back into my old life, with a new pair of shoes. I’m excited to make up for missed time with my friends and family again but apprehensive about experiencing what they call ‘reverse culture shock’, but is probably less of a ‘shock’ and more of a gradual readjustment to a different lifestyle. It’s going to be a big change, but one I’m looking forward to embracing the ups-and-downs of.

One friend who went through this process last year said, “It all becomes like a dream.” Well if it does, it will be one of the best dreams I’ve ever had.







Time never stands still

There has been a long lapse in my writing, and can only honestly say it is down to laziness. I never wanted my blog to be a chore, and so like all creative hobbies, I only write when I’m motivated to. Yet to those of you who have missed my blog posts, I apologize to you! When I arrived in Japan last year, I enthusiastically wanted to share all my experiences of living in Japan with my family, friends and other blog readers. This year, it is not that these experiences are not as exciting or my life not as eventful, it is more that I have realized that my time in Japan is a short one, and so I am living it more than reflecting on it.

It was at an Obon Dancing festival in Takefu, that I realised my time in Japan is limited. Because I organised it for ALTs to join, I decided I wasn’t going to dress up in a yukata (a traditional summer kimono), but when a friend said, “But Sophie, this will be your last year”. It suddenly hit me. If I keep to my plan, this would be my last chance to take part in this festival. So I quickly got changed into a yukata and danced traditional routines around my local town. Even though we had to dance the same four dance routines for two long hours, I didn’t regret this decision. Since then, I have felt the pressure of time constantly counting down the months until my life in Japan will be over. If I stick to my two-year plan, I only have nine months left!


Bucket lists

It makes me wonder what it must be like to have a time-limit put on your life. I always find it interesting what terminal-ill patients choose to do. Some people choose to do clichéd ‘once in a lifetime experiences’ like swim with dolphins, see the Aorerea Borealis or go skydiving, a little like cancer-patient Helen Fawkes ‘List for living’. Whilst the majority of people just want to spend time with their loved ones. Anyway, thinking about death can be a bit morbid, but it can also keep things in perspective. I was inspired by Roz Savage a 30-something consultant in London, who one day sat down and wrote the obituary she would most like to have written about her if she died. She realised if she continued on the life path she was on, making a lot of money but on the rat-run of working in London, she would not be the person she wanted to be. So, she quit her job, took up rowing as a serious hobby and rowed single-handedly across not just one ocean, but three. I have no plans to row across any oceans, but I do think about what my priorities are in life, and making money in an office job is not near the top.

If you were told you were going to die soon, what would you do? Walter White’s lasts words to Skyler were, “I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. And I was really . . . I was alive.” Making meth and becoming a super drug-dealer king, probably isn’t on most people’s lists, but Walter’s words, taken out of context, can be thought of as words of wisdom. At least he found something where he felt ‘alive’. Ok, I can’t promote Walter White as a moral person to follow, as Breaking Bad followers know, his morals became distorted to the point of no return. But it was the trigger of being told he only had a few years left that prompted him to do something with his life.

Witnessing others go through life-changing events can really make you think about your own life. Two of my father’s close friends ended up in hospital last year, one from finding out he had a serious form of cancer, the other had a heart problem. It was this realisation that people his age were getting ill which prompted my dad to take early retirement. So for the last three months he has enjoyed going cycling, sailing or walking with his friends, or looking after his elderly parents and his friends who are still sick. And he has every right to enjoy his hard-earned freedom after 33 years as a secondary school teacher. Like the kids write at school, “I’m proud of my father”, because he is living life now, as who knows what might happen in the future.

Being interested in becoming a speech therapist has led me to some interesting books about people recovering from strokes, and regaining their speech, movement and importantly their sense of self. The book “My Year Off” is by British publisher called Robert Crum, and is his account of the year after he had a stroke, he speaks of how it affected him,

 ‘It is, perhaps, not possible to overestimate the significance of a serious stroke in the life of an average person. It is an event that goes to the core of who and what you are, the You-ness of you. First of all, the event happens in your brain which is, without becoming unduly philosophical  the command centre of the self. Your brain is you: your moods, your skills, your character, your intelligence, your emotions, your self-expression, your self. When all that fails, you are left with the question: what was the cause?’

But doctors can’t answer that for sure. Crum came to the conclusion that it had taken place because of ‘a profound internal dissastification with my way of life, my goals and ambition, my achievements such as they were’. This was the only conclusion that Crum accepted as ‘why’ the stroke happened, but he believed it was destined to happen. Blaming catastrophic physical breakdown on our lifestyle choices, is a dangerous opinion to have, and not one I withhold to. Yet I am interested in what happens when a person’s sense of identity is stripped away from them, what do they cling on to?

And bringing this all back to me in Japan, I feel the clock ticking for the time I can spend in this awesome country. This change in me came when the last cohort of Fukui JETs left and their resounding advice to me was to “Enjoy your time here to the full”. It is a truism that “You only appreciate what you have when it is taken away from you.” Friends and memories are probably the best things I’ll go home with from Japan, so I’m investing in making those.

As I accompanied friends to the train station for the last time, and watched them weep with sadness for leaving this beautiful country and their friends here, I made up my mind to spend the next year in Japan experiencing as much as I can and using my time in ways I won’t regret. I could stay a third, fourth or even fifth year on the JET programme, and it is very tempting to do so. This will be the decision I will make in the next couple of months. I’ll keep you posted!


Speech contest: In the teacher’s chair

Today I listened to 120 students recite a speech they each had written. It’s part of an English speech contest for all first and second year students, something which James, my predecessor started at my school. It takes a lot of work for the students and for the teachers. I‘m exhausted now, but have smile lines etched into my cheeks. I listened intently to every student, knowing that this communication is so important for building relationships with them. We aren’t able to communicate in Japanese or English well, but body language says the most important thing, “Hey, I’m listening and I want you to do your best”. 

The Journey of a Japanese-to-English Speech

 The process of writing the speech starts over the winter vacation, then goes one of two routes. Sometimes the student’s speech goes for a detour through Google translate and comes out in completely unfathomable English, so the said student is asked to write it again in Japanese. Back on the main route, it is then translated by a JTE and finally passed to me to check the English grammar! The student then receives the speech, which is now incomprehensible to them, so they write the katakana way of pronouncing every English word and come to me with their Japanese-English (e.g. I liku puraingu basuketo baru). Then, I go through each difficult word with them slowly and make sure they can say it. It’s a long process, but today it seemed worthwhile. 

The Speeches

The students, between 12 and 14 years old have the freedom to talk about any topic they like. I give them ideas, such as writing about their dream of what to be when they’re older, an experience or a story. Many first-year students translated the world ‘dream’, to mean their actual dreams, not their ambition, so those speeches are pretty entertaining!  There are of a range of topics:  

Some are trivial: Three reasons why I love omurice, Why I love frogs so much and If Doraemon came to my house.

Some are serious: Why English is important, Japan’s problem with wild animals, Japanese government (The first time I heard any Japanese person talk about politics, and it came from a 12 year old boy!)

Some are random: Kyoto vegetables, The day I got lost, When my swimming trunks came off. 

Some are shocking: When I swallowed a toothbrush in my sleep, Meeting a wild monkey, Falling off my bike when I was three.

Some are damn-right heart-wrenching: My dog heals my heart. One especially tear-jerking one was about a boy losing his pet chameleon “Rolly”, it went a little like this.

I had a pet chameleon. His name was Rolly because his tail was a spiral shape (with spiral gesture). I had him for seven years. I loved him very much. Then, one day he died. I was very sad. My parents were very sad. I will never forget Rolly. I have learned how important pets are. 

Home-room love

Apart from pets and dreams, many are about their friends. Junior high school students have a deep connection with their friends, especially their home-room classmates whom they spend all day with. They study in the same classroom all day, eat lunch together, clean their classroom together and play sport together, so no wonder they are close. Their home-room teacher mimics the job of a parent in the class and knows every detail of the student’s home and school life. The teacher has to visit a student’s home if they have misbehaved  or sometimes if they are ill. And everyday the students write a summary of their day for the home-room teacher to read the next morning. This close bond between the students’ and their home-room teacher makes some home-room classes feel like stepping into a family, especially for the first-grade students. 

An example of how close classmates here are, is when last week a Brazilian student left the school for the last time to return back to Brazil with her family. She had to make a speech to her home-room class and her and her friends were crying by the end of it. The atmosphere of sadness spread throughout the school and many people stood outside to wave her goodbye. Her chair now sits empty and, although she was not a particularly talkative student, it feels like someone is missing in the class.

From Roald Dahl’s wonderful book ‘Matilda’. Miss Honey, the sweetest teacher of all story tales.

What I’ve realised through having more of an active role with the students, is that I love my job. This hit me most when I was listening to two young-looking twelve-year olds practising their speeches, about how they love their pets. I realised that I am the one sitting in the teacher’s chair now and I’m the one helping students.

From childhood games…

My first class!

My first class!

When I was about seven, I taught my first lesson. Admittedly, my horde of cuddly toys made up the class, but each had a name, I’d register them and line them up on a rug in my bedroom or in the garden. With my dad, also of teacher-blood, I even made tiny books on our old Acorn computer for each student! Then, from primary school to university I’ve admired, looked-up to and respected teachers, many of them being very influential on me, shaping me into the person I am now. I’ve been fortunate enough to come into contact with some fantastic teachers, whom I’ll never forget. Like Mrs Hitchins who let us paint the walls of our ugly temporary classroom when I was 8, or Mr Judd who coached myself and my friends to be the best tag rugby team in the area when I was 10, or Mr Bailey who allowed me to join a hiking expedition on Dartmoor, even though he had doubts my legs were too short to manage the grassy terrain!

To having real students

Now I’m in that position and I need to live up to being called ‘sensei’. I’ve had big shoes to fill, as my predecessor James (a tall New Zealander into art, rugby and golf)  stayed five years at my school and was loved by students and teachers alike. I’m nothing like him, so I’ve just tried to be myself. Now, after two terms at the school I feel part of the community. The relationship building in the classroom pays off, when students shout ”Sophie” in a supermarket and come to say hello, or when an adorable first-year girl waves to me at the school gate, even though she is already late for school! Those moments make those smile wrinkles so worthwhile.