Last month marked my first 6 months of working and living in Japan. Since I arrived in Japan, I’ve been living in Toyota city (Aichi prefecture, near Nagoya), working as an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT) at 2 local junior high schools.
This post has been in the works for a few weeks now, whenever I have a few minutes down time. If you are thinking about coming to Japan to live and/or teach English, you’ll get a lot from reading this article.
Before leaving Australia for Japan
A few months before my planned arrival in Japan (late March 2011), I started interviews for teaching jobs. Although I applied for many, I concentrated my efforts on getting a job as an ALT, as I knew I had the best chances of getting this kind of job with no teaching experience.
I studied a 140 hour combined TEFL course (120 hours online and a 20 hour weekend course). This is absolutely necessary if you want to teaching in Japan (unless of course you are already a qualified teacher of English to foreigners).
I’d studied Japanese in high school and did some private lessons while I was living in Melbourne. I tried doing some self study, but I found that really hard and even harder to remember because I didn’t have a chance to practice the language with anyone.
After many applications, and eventually getting through 3 rounds of interviews with both Interac and Altia Central, I was offered a position (in late December of 2010) with both companies. After doing HEAPS of research on both companies, I took the position with Altia Central because they offered much better pay, and generally I read lots more better things about Altia Central than I did Interac (and many other companies).
Arriving in Japan
In late March of 2011, I left Australia with: a 35kg suitcase; work visa for Japan; a 1 year contract as an ALT; an excited feeling of entering the unknown. I left Sydney and after a 1 hour stop-over in Singapore, arrived in Nagoya.
Altia Central put everyone up in a hotel near Kanayama station for 3 full days of training. Although they were long days, the training was great. Especially having no experience, the training really prepared me for the first days of teaching. We were given a good set of resources to help with (assisting in) teaching the junior high school curriculum. We practiced different teaching situations, especially our jiko shoukai, the self introduction lesson which is traditionally given by new teachers every year.
The Altia Central trainers told us this, and it was very true: that you will notice a significant improvement in the quality of delivery of your jiko shoukai lesson after the 3 days. Having a fun lesson, which I knew well, went a long way to giving me confidence to go into the first few days of teaching.
Settling into an apartment
I live in Toyota city, the headquarters of the Toyota Motor Corporation is here and it seems like every second person works for the company. The city itself isn’t too big, but since I was expecting to be placed in some remote rural mountain town, I was really happy on getting to stay here for a year. Plus it is only 35km from Nagoya and just about halfway between Tokyo and Osaka.
And I was even happier with my apartment (check out a video walkthrough of my 1LDK apartment in Japan). It is quite new and really different from any place I’ve lived in. It’s only a few minutes walking distance from the train station, and an 8 minute train ride to the city. Nagoya is about 50 minutes away by train.
My company helped me get the gas connected. I moved to Japan with my Japanese girlfriend, if I did it solo, I would have got everything else done OK, it just would have taken a lot longer to figure out. Internet took a few weeks to get connected (but is SUPER fast, really happy with that).
My first experiences and impressions of being an ALT
Since I’m working at two schools, which are of roughly equal size (each about 400 students), I spend 2 weeks every month at each school. My first month of teaching comprised almost solely doing my jiko shoukai lesson.
My two schools are very different. One is brand new, the other is old and established.
One school is brand new, as in it was built this year (construction was completed in January, and when I arrived in April they were only just finishing things off). The school was made because the other larger junior high school in the area was getting too big. It is really impressive to work at this place, solar panels along two roofs at least 100m long. An archery range, shiny polished wooden floors and fancy toilets.
The problem is the people. They just seem to care less than my other school. I can give many examples, but basically I never know what is going on (e.g. school presentations, activities etc) even though I express interest in helping out and attending such things. Every time I get to this school, I have no schedule for which classes I must go to (the school is supposed to provide it 10 days in advanced, but the English teacher responsible for this is new, unorganised, and sleeps a lot at school), so I have no idea what I’m doing. Also, as a schedule hasn’t been prepared, the other English teachers don’t even know I’m coming and so have no chance to plan ways to use me in class. In some classes I basically do the formal greeting (aisatsu) “Good morning everyone… how are you.” and that’s it.
My other school is great and I really love coming here, even though it is an old school and former ALTs here have told me that the students are the worst behaved in the city. The other teachers (not only English teachers) are really friendly, they tell me what is going on, and best of all the principal (kocho sensei) is really happy and friendly, we chat every morning about the weather and culture.
At both schools, the students are awesome. We usually talk a combination of broken English and Japanese. It’s always fun to attend their undokai’s (sport festival days), have lunch with them and go to bukatsu (after school club, I go to soccer often).
If you’re a new ALT, the best advice I can give you is to PRACTICE your lessons before you give them. Always have some forms of lesson plan ready and make sure you know what materials you need to bring to class and check you have everything before class. Teaching isn’t hard, but if you don’t know what you’re supposed to be doing, it will lead to down time in class which ends up with the students talking more and becoming unfocused.
If you’re an ALT… bookmark this link… I use it often. The best online resource I have seen for activities, games and lesson plans as an ALT in Japan. http://jhsenglipediaproject.com/. It’s really well done and maintained, categorised by school (e.g. Elementary, Junior High School) and then by book (as schools use different books, but there seems to be about 3 or 4 brands used across the country).
School lunch: 5 days a week I eat kyuushoku, the Japanese school lunch. It is designed to have a good balance of good things, and is usually really tasty. It you’re a fussy eater, you might find it difficult, especially with the way that fish is sometimes presented on your plate. Expect either rice or bread at every meal. Milk will always be served. There is usually also some form of salad and a soup. On sporadic occasions we’ll get a nice dessert or some chocolate syrup to add to our milk. We have to pay for it, but it is really cheap, under 300 yen.
How does Altia Central compare to other companies?
This is the first time I’ve worked in Japan, so I’ve only ever worked for Altia Central. So all I can say here is what other more experienced teachers have told me. Most of these people have been ALTs, but some were also English teachers doing eikaiwa (English conversation class) for at least 4 years.
Most of the people working as ALTs for other companies were working for Interac. Interac are a huge company, I was offered a job with them, however the pay and what I researched about training and support were much better with Altia Central.
For example, Altia Central pays the same salary every month of the year, including the 6 weeks in the middle of the year where you don’t work (summer holidays). Interac decreases your pay during this time, to something like 50% of your normal monthly pay.
Altia has a great orientation training program of 3 days which made everyone really confident and skilled before the first days at school. There are regular meetings and what looks to be quarterly follow up training, and we all have regular contact with Senior ALTs and our area managers who help us out with just about everything. We are provided with good materials for lesson plans, and have access to more good lesson materials at an online repository and forum.
I was told that working with Interac felt like being thrown in the deep-end, with little training or followup training. Also a few people who worked in the JET program said the same thing, although their pay is much better, so I reckon that is a good compromise.
One of my objectives for living here is to become very good at conversational Japanese. Progress has been slow. First of all, I’m not a very motivated self-studier. Second, it’s hard to find good Japanese classes in my area and finally, it seems like most Japanese people I meet want to practice their English conversation skills with me!
After chatting with many long-term ALTs, many mentioned Genki’s Integrated Elementary/Intermediate Course in Japanese. So I started this, and got through the first few pages, haven’t touched it for a few months. I also purchased membership to iKnow.jp. That is much easier to do, but it is only a vocabulary builder, it’s handy but not great for learning conversation.
Last month I paid for my application to sit the JLPT N5 in December. My Japanese teachers said I could do N4, however I would need to learn around 300 kanji, which I don’t think I can do. So recently I bought a good book on learning kanji that has illustrated mnemonics, haven’t yet read it. So as you can see, I’m not great at self-study.
12 MONTH UPDATE: I passed the JLPT N5 and studying for the N4!
I started a weekly Japanese class at the local international centre here in Toyota, Aichi. It was OK at first, but there were 3 things I struggled with. First, that the class was all in Japanese (and I was the only English speaking person), so I was basically reciting words and phrases but had little idea what they meant. I don’t like this method of learning, I need to have the grammar structure explained in English first.
Second, the class was on a Saturday morning. This restricted my opportunity to travel. If I did travel, I fell behind in a class I already found difficult. Also, after a week of working around 40 hours, I wanted this to be my rest time!
Third, the class was 2.5 hours long. After the first 90 minutes, it became really difficult to focus and I constantly made silly mistakes.
That being said, I completed the 6 months course and did pick up a few important phrases. Not as much as I’d like though.
Travelling in Japan
In the first 6 months here in Japan I’ve been to: Nagoya and experienced the big city; Okazaki for cherry blossom viewing and a festival; hiking at Mt Sanage; a sumo tournament; Nagano prefecture, hiking Mt Ontake and the historic Nakasendo; Okayama prefecture including Okayama city and the historic town of Kurashiki; Shikoku for the spectacular Awa Odori dancing festival; Kyoto for a few days of World Heritage sight seeing; Osaka, but just a day trip; Seto to make pottery; and around my city of Toyota.
Read all about it over at my Japan travel blog.
It’s hard to travel a lot on a teacher’s salary. About half of the travel I’ve done was within one 10 day period in the summer holidays, and most of it was done cheap by bus. If the distance is short, about 150 – 300km then bus is a great option, any longer and the bus trips seem to be overnight, which I just can’t do, I can’t get a decent sleep on the bus. It is far cheaper (less than half price) of the bullet train. But it was such great time. Travelling is a great way to practice and use Japanese.
12 MONTH UPDATE: Every month I was paying about 20,000 yen or more to use the company car I was provided with for personal use. I’ve since changed this to a “work only” plan and have plenty of money every month, ALTIA reimburses me for all car related expenses now.
I spend a lot of time discovering the local area and the events that happen around here. There are so many castles and shrines, and there seems to be a festival every few weeks.
Still on the list of must-visit places before I leave Japan (and that could be 2 years away) is: Mt Fuji, just for a look, not to hike; Tokyo, I’ve been before but there are so many places I didn’t get to; Hokkaido; Okinawa; and travel somewhere on the new E5 series shinkansen on the Hayabusa service; Himeji castle.
I write about all the really interesting Japan travels I get up to on my Japan travel guide website. Lots of photos and articles there if you want to check it out.
There are two sides to your social life as an ALT: that with the teachers and that with other ALTs. Eventually you’d like to add Japanese friends to that!
Every school has regular events, usually dinners and drinking parties throughout the year. So far I’ve been invited to about 5 from one school, they seem to have a party after everything (sports days, end of term, just because…). They are lots of fun and even if they are expensive you should really go. ALTIA reimbursed up to 10,000 yen a year for these parties, not quite two parties (average price seemed to be around 6,000 – 8,000 yen). It gives you time to get to know the other teachers and you’ll be surprised at how many speak English to you.
Then there are the other ALTs. I’m lucky to live in a decent sized city where there are about 25 other ALTs and their friends from other English language schools in the area. We regularly meet up for local events, festivals, birthdays, a weekly soccer game or just for something to do. It’s great to meet so many people from all over the world and there is always something happening.
It’s a bit tricky so far to make Japanese friends. So far I’ve met a few Japanese guys through other ALTs who have been in this city for about 3 years. We play soccer regularly or baseball, lots of fun, they are always keen to speak English and it’s a great time to practice Japanese conversation.
12 MONTH UPDATE: It didn’t take long find a good group of Japanese friends. We’ve mostly met them at soccer, but many are also friends of friends. Making Japanese friends just makes living in Japan so much better, they know what’s going on and often invite you to cool events.
One of the most interesting things is getting to learn the subtle differences in culture when socialising. From pouring beers to doing a bonzai cheer, it’s lots of fun to pick this stuff up.
Daily living in a Japanese city
Shopping: shopping is so very different from Australia. Just like in Australia we have a small “asian foods” section, in Japan there is a very limited selection of western foods. Here are some examples:
It’s hard to find a good selection of cereals. The majority of what I find is in the Frosties or Coco-Pops style, all very heavily coated with sugar. They do sell Corn Flakes, but they are really expensive for small boxes. I’ve found a few muesli style cereals which are decent and fairly priced, again they are sweeter than I’m used to.
Fruit is usually very expensive. Bananas are the exception. Apples are HUGE, about the size of a softball, they must be genetically modified. They are usually about 170 yen ($2 AUD) and aren’t very sweet.
Vegetables are good and reasonably priced. Pork, chicken and fish is usually cheap. Beef is more expensive as it is usually either imported or in the premium marbled style.
Bread has also become a bit of a novelty. What we consider to be a toast slice in Australia is about the same size as the smallest slices of bread here in Japan. Standard size here is 6 slices, each about double the size of a normal toast slice back in Australia. Bread isn’t expensive though, but it is hard to find wholegrain or brown bread, and there aren’t a lot of bakeries around.
Cooking/eating: I’ve heard this so many times by both foreigners and Japanese people living in Japan… that it is so cheap to eat out that sometimes they find it hard to justify preparing dinner at home. Indeed I know plenty of people who own no cooking equipment at home, they always eat out.
When I cook for myself, it is usually a stir-fry. Noodles are cheap, so are sauces, vegies and many types of meats. If I want to splash out a bit I’ll make pasta (sauce and the pasta itself is expensive) with a salad.
The biggest adjustment has been breakfast, as I’m used to healthy cereals for breakfast. But I just break it up and have a few different things for breakfast.
The Japanese usually cook many different small dishes for a meal. It’s time consuming, something I won’t be assimilating to very quickly.
Eating out: I don’t eat out a lot, it’s just never been my thing. But when I do head out, it’s usually for good food that is really cheap. Izakaya is my favourite, going for the all you can eat (tabehodai) and all you can drink (nomihodai) options. You usually have a set time of 60/90/120 minutes to eat and drink all you can.
Bento meals, from convenience and grocery stores are quite cheap and often present you with somewhat balanced meal options. I eat these on occasion, usually when I’m out and about looking for a fast meal.
There are a lot of fast food places, you’ll find McDonals and KFC (with their own Japanese variations on certain things). Some of my favourite fast food here, is the Japanese burger places, especially MOS Burger (which actually is starting to open stores in Australia). The thing is, the burgers are 20% smaller, and the meals aren’t any cheaper in comparison.
Driving: My position as an ALT here is on a driving contract. The new school I am teaching at has little public transport options, so I have been provided with a company car. It’s a funny little thing to drive, only 3 cylinders. I used to have it on a plan so I could drive it anywhere, but it was too expensive as I had to pay for insurance and fuel. So now on a work only plan I drive from school and home and work pays for fuel.
Just like anywhere else in the world, there are bad drivers in Japan. The thing is, they are bad in different ways. I’ve never seen the hazard lights used so often. People will just stop on the road wherever they like, throw their hazards lights on and consider it OK to stop. Also, the running of red lights is amazing.
That being said, they’ll also use their hazards lights to thank you, if you let someone in off a side road they’ll likely blink their hazards a few times to say hello. People coming in the other direction will sometimes bow to you if you do some kind act of driving, I stick to the one handed wave…
The roads are very different, most of the roads that aren’t main roads, are about 1.5 lanes wide. So if someone is coming in the opposite direction you need to pull over.
Check out this video I took driving around Toyota city spotting vending machines.
Internet speeds in Japan: A short word on this one… ridiculously fast. Absolutely love it, unlimited bandwidth for about 5000 yen a month. The service is called hikari and is a fiber optic cable plugged straight into my apartment.
What I miss most about Australia
Everyday there are little differences that remind me of home. There are plenty of things I miss about Australia: family; friends; Coopers Sparkling Ale; salt and vinegar chips; tacos; cheap pizza; the beach; dry heat; free highways; pubs; watching and playing cricket; steak; chicken parmigana at the pub with mates; camping; Australian Cabernet Sauvignon; mild winters.