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.

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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

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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!

Friends

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.

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Top 10 Places to Visit in Fukui

“Fukui? Eeehh! Sore wa doko?” This is the reaction I often get from Japanese people who I meet on my travels outside of Fukui.

The prefecture is almost unheard of in Japan, let alone in the world. Yet Fukui has some fantastic historic, cultural and beautiful places to visit. Here’s my top 10!

#10 Ichijodani Asakura Clan Ruins (between Echizen and Ono) 

I’m no Japanese-history buff, but at this reconstructed settlement I can really feel the history of the area and imagine what the bustling town of 10,000 people would’ve been like 500 years ago. It’s also in a gorgeous valley that would be excellent for cycling.

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One of the reconstructed streets from the samurai town that stood here 500 years ago before it was burnt down by Oda Nabunaga.

#9 Maruoka Castle 

Unlike many castles in Japan that have been reconstructed, Maruoka Castle, also known as ‘Kasumiga-jo’ (Mist Castle), has not been changed since it was built in 1576 and is Japan’s oldest castle tower. You can admire it from the outside or climb the steep stairs up to the top to get panoramic views over Maruoka town.

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#8 Ikeda waterfall and rope bridge

Ikeda offers serene vistas of rice-terraced valleys, cascading waterfalls and places to try or make delicious soba noodles. Read my post on it here.

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This 40 meter long bridge is woven with vines and is suspended 12 meters above Asuwa river and makes for a scary crossing!

#7 Echizen Washi Paper Village, Echizen 

You can also watch masters at work as they make papyrus paper and buy beautiful souvenirs made of washi (traditional Japanese paper). The thatched Okamoto Otaki shrine, one of Echizen’s gems, is a short walk away hidden on the outskirts of a forest and shouldn’t be missed.

Making a mini fan at Echizen Paper Village

A mini fan is one of the many things you can make at the Paper Village.

#6 Tojimbo Cliffs

Tojimbo cliffs are an undeniably strange tourist attraction. The fact that people have committed suicide here in the past, and there is still a nightly suicide watch, has only increased the popularity of these rectangular outcropping rocks. Japanese people don’t like to take photos here in case ghosts of the deceased appear. Despite that it is one of Fukui’s most popular tourist destinations, it’s even a popular place to take a date!

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Tanning at Tojimbo. No ghosts in sight.

#5 The mountains, rivers and lakes east of Ono 

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“The Watering Hole”, a favourite ALT camping and swimming spot near Ono.

Lake Kuzuryu is also a beautiful place to visit in autumn when the leaves are turning red.

#4 Yokokan Garden, Fukui City

A peaceful Edo Period garden in the centre of Fukui City. Come here to relax and remember you are in Japan.

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Take a book and read in the tatami-floored rooms overlooking the pond.

#3 Ski Jam, Katsuyama

Snowboarding, or skiing, are popular hobby for ALTs in Japan. It’s a great way to enjoy winter and meet up with friends on the weekend. Even if you haven’t done it before, after a couple of tries you’ll be standing! Even if you’re on your backside and can still enjoy the stunning views!

Ski Jam has great beginner and intermediate courses

Ski Jam has great beginner and intermediate courses for snowboarders and skiers.  

#2 Nishiyama Park, Sabae

Cherry blossoms in spring, sprinklers to jump through in summer, red leaves in autumn and snow-protected trees in winter. All year round this park has something to offer.

Swathes of azaleas in May

Swathes of azaleas in May.

#1  Eiheji Temple 

This is not your usual tourist destination. You have to change your shoes to enter, walk around quietly and the only souvenirs you can buy are meditation cushions and prayer beads! It lives up to its name, “The Temple of Eternal Peace”, even when there are tourists wandering around.

Founded by Zen Master Dogen Zenji in 1244, it is the largest training centre for Zen monks in Japan today. With grey-robbed monks going about their daily lives, you can witness the harsh mental and physical training regime these men go through to gain monkhood. It’s a privilege to be able to see monks continuing century-old traditions, and one you should definitely visit Fukui to see.

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Eiheiji Temple in the snow.

More resources 

More resources

Here is a beautiful video made by Fukui Shimbun about Fukui (only in Japanese). 福井県の魅力を高橋愛さんが紹介する観光プロモーションビデオの一場面

6915889_75x75Former JET Aaron Nathanson made some stunning videos while living in Fukui, check out Yukiguni: Snow Country , Sonotoki: At That Time, Sakura: Cherry Blossom in Fukui.

 

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For Fukui’s Sake is an entertaining read about Sam Baldwin’s time living as a JET in Ono.

 

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!

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!