The Foreigner Trap

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China Town in Yokohama 

These past few weeks have been overwhelming in terms of making new friends. It’s always funny how a quiet evening drinking at a cafe can quickly turn into an adventurous night on the town and an invite to the family BBQ (true story). While I was trying to pretend like I can keep up in conversation, I was vaguely aware that the conversation switched over to foreigners living in Japan and interacting with foreigners. They expressed how they want to interact with more foreigners (I’m assuming they mean more Americans and Europeans), but find that communicating with the one’s here to be a little daunting.

The most common issue was of course the language barrier, which I can understand. You can’t really communicate with someone if there isn’t a common language. The second problem was just stereotypes trying to avoid the otakus (anime nerds) and all the ones with yellow fever. Which I can understand I wouldn’t want to talk with anyone who thought rap and hip hop was the only aspect of black culture. However there was a third issue they brought up that seemed to be kind of ridiculous; foreigners that aren’t interested in talking to Japanese people or at least not in Japanese.

I was at a lost for words. I mean why would you travel thousands of miles away from home to not speak a word of Japanese to an actual Japanese person? But then it hit me, I think the foreigners they’re talking about are stuck in a trap. Something I call the “Gaijin Trap”.

 

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Enoshima Island Temple

 

 

 

This happens when you live in another country for a while but you don’t really make I think a connection with the host culture. This disconnect could happen for a number of reasons maybe you didn’t really want to live abroad and you’re only here because of work. Maybe you don’t find the culture as interesting as you thought you would. I think everybody has fallen victim to it or at least has the potential to. I know I have when I first studied abroad in Osaka. My main group of friends from that time were other English speakers and I felt comfortable that way. I had fun of course but not experiencing things the way I should’ve been. Which didn’t really make me feel the most confident in my skills when I returned home.

So what can someone do to prevent this from happening? How can you break loose from the perpetual cycle? This isn’t a step by step guide on how to make authentic Japanese friends but simply just a little bit of food for thought. Maybe the problem is just simply being to self-involved. Self-involved meaning always waiting for someone else to make a move or assuming that you inherently don’t fit into whatever image you’re currently looking at. Looking back on my experience from before and my experience now. Some of the best times I’ve had come from me simply making the first moves and letting go of that initial fear of not being good enough.

I have to remind myself just because I look different on the outside, doesn’t entitle me to any sort of special treatment. Especially in a place like Japan where being different isn’t necessarily a good thing (personal experience). I’ll be the first to admit that I fell victim to this way of thinking before. Always thinking of myself as the “other” when in reality that really wasn’t the case. As much as I’m intimidated about starting conversations with Japanese people I’ve come to find out they’re just as intimidated by me. And even if they don’t plan to visit the U.S. anytime soon, most people find the casual culture exchange to be just as interesting.

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BBQ’s during Golden Week

 

What are your thoughts on the situation? Do you think the “Gaijin Trap” exists? I’d love to hear outside opinions.

 

Kairakuen: The Plum Blossom Festival of Ibaraki

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きれいですね~

“Spring begins with plum blossoms in Mito,” all the pamphlets read. Just before the Sakura (cherry) blossoms start to bloom, the plum blossoms are well fully blossomed. Although Sakura blossoms are known as the symbolic flower of Japan, plum blossoms are still a sight worth seeing.

Kairakuen garden was built during the Edo period  and has been a well known spot since then for plum blossom viewing. This festival is held every year from February 20th to March 31st and is completely free. More than 3,000 trees fill the park and, the colors range from snow white to a very vibrant pink.

Some views of the park.

Getting there is about a two hour train rid from Tochigi prrefecture. There are three seperate sections for the park. The main area is where the trees and festival food is located. Here many people eat bentos (Japanese lunch boxes) on the grass and watch some traditional kimono dance performances. You can walk through the house of Nariaki Tokugawa to see an imperial emperor style home, visit the spring water park, and walk through the beautiful Tokiwa shrine.  The park is pretty big but I do recommend walking the full length just to get a good view of the entire area.

Tokiwa shrine

It’s not the most famous festival in the Kanto area but it’s been gaining a lot of notoraiity over the past couple of years. It’s free and on a beautiful day, it’s the perfect setting for a lovely park stroll.

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A lovely couple taking wedding pictures

Nakimushisan and Uncountable Monks: A Hidden trail of Nikko

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I was so tired here…

A well known area of Tochigi prefecture is Nikko (日光). Nikko, a city to the north of Tochigi prefecture, has been the center of Buddhist and Shinto mountain worshipping. Every year thousands of visitors come to this realively rural city to enjoy the reminicents of ancient Japan. Nikko, being home to three big mountains in Japan is also a popular spot for hiking.

Some views of the mountain hike

 

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Trail map starting from the station

Meet Nakimushisan (鳴虫山), a small mountain in Nikko located just a ten minute walk away from the Tobu Nikko Station. I never hiked before so I wasn’t sure what to expect from the excursion. I fooled myself into thinking that it would be a light stroll. Maybe there would be some hills, and a few rough spots, nothing could’ve prepared me for this hike.

It was rough from the beginning, the path started out narrow and never widened at any point. Due to erosion and earthquakes, many of the man-made paths were torn apart. Despite how hard the trail was, this is still considered a 2-4 hour hike. After the treacherous climb the view from the top of the mountain was really nice. Up top, on a clear day you can see just about all of Nikko city and the point of Nantaisan.

Views from the top

The hike down was the hardest. The other end of the path was just rocks, so unstable in fact most of the path you had to use the ropes to get down safely. At the end of the path was the real beauty, the Kanmanga-fuchi Abyss.

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It’s a gorge in central Nikko that is easily accessible by bus or off the mountain trail. In the gorge is a long row of Buddhist monks that watch over travelers and the Nikko Botanical Garden. The monks lined up are called Bake-jizo which loosely means uncountable. It’s said it’s impossible to know how many monks are in the garden, each time you count them you’ll supposedly get a different number.

Very beautiful scenery

 

Even though my legs still hurt from the weekend, overall I would rate this as a positive experience. The hike was treacherous but the view at the end was well worth it.

Makabe Town: Stone Lanterns and Hina Dolls

Two weeks ago I had a cool opportunity to write for Japantravel.com. A company based in Japan, they pay foreigners to travel around Japan and write articles about their experience.  They covered my travel expenses and in return, I wrote a 500 word article about what I did and learned. I was nervous at first because, my work would be published for many people to see. Then, I became even more nervous when I realized that my tour guides couldn’t speak any English.

It was hard because, a lot of historical Japanese words are difficult to understand (somethings just don’t translate to English) and general vocabulary for stone making is a little difficult as well (I never thought I would learn the word for stone lantern or craftsmen). Nonetheless my guides were very nice to be sure I understood most of what they were saying. If you’d like to read my article you can find it here.

Reading this was actually a lot easier than you think.

Makabe Town is a small rural town located in Ibaraki prefecture. Even though it’s tiny it’s a pretty well known spot to visit in Japan. Makabe is most famous for it’s Makabe Stone (makabeishi) which is the stone used to create the lanterns and statues most commonly found at temples and shrines in Japan. I think it’s safe to say that most of the statues and lanterns at least in the kanto region originated from this small town. The beauty and aesthetic of these lanterns comes to life once the color starts fading and moss starts to grow. Makabe town takes a lot of pride in their stone sculptures. They’re incorporated in every aspect of the town.

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A small view of Makabe Town
Some Makabe stone statues. These can be found pretty much anywhere all over Japan.

This area is also well know for it’s buildings that have remained standing since the Edo period, earning Makabe the name of koedo (little edo).

Some photos of the house I visited

While I was visiting, the town had already set up their Hina dolls. Hina dolls are used to celebrate Hina matsuri, also “Girl’s Day”. It’s the day to celebrate good welfare for your daughters. People place them out for display in early February until the festival on March 3rd. It’s said once the festival is over you have to put the dolls away quickly or else your daughter won’t get married.  During this time residents set out their dolls displays and open up their homes to visitors to get a glimpse of little Edo. Many of the homes simply wanted to display their dolls creations but most residents were selling trinkets and goods reminiscent of Edo times.

 

I will admit, that I was a little put off when I received the topic for my assignment. Writing about rocks wasn’t super exciting, but this was a lot more fulfilling than I expected it to be. I know Makabe town would be a little difficult to explore without proper transportation but it’s definitely a place worth visiting. Who knows you might even learn something new.

Me, with my tour guides. They were so nice.

Learning to Love Winter: Ski Trip and Snow Monkeys

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Monkeying around

Winter is my least favorite season of all four. It gets dark early, it’s cold, chilly, and no matter how many layers I’m wearing I can’t seem to feel completely warm. I never really understood how people love the winter season so much but I think this year I found out.

 

 

 

Hakuba truly was a winter wonderland.

This winter I really came out of my shell both mentally and socially. I took my first ski trip up to Hakuba in Nagano, and it was everything and nothing like I expected it to be. Up the mountains I was expecting cold, harsh winds, with sharp chilly air, but surprisingly it wasn’t all that cold. I don’t know if it was the presence of friendly ALTs or the nice mountain hotspring baths but I barely felt a shiver go down my spine.

 

My friends and I up the mountain. Sorry for the blurry pictures.

This was my first time skiing ever and the experience was both satisfying and terrifying. Satisfying because, I tried something new and actually enjoyed it. Terrifying because I nearly broke my legs about three times (skiing is a lot harder than it looks). It probably would’ve been better if I had went on the bunny slopes first instead of doing the intermediate course but someone had pointed us in the wrong direction. I kept falling every two minutes and it took me maybe an hour to get down the hill. As much as I wanted to go again I was worn out and ended my ski adventures after one try. In hind sight I should’ve paid for the lessons but I’m better prepared for the next time I go.

My last day in Nagano was even better, mainly because I could cross something off my bucket list, visiting the Snow Monkey Park at the 地獄野猿公苑(Jigokudani Yaen Koen). It was such a perfect day, the sun was out and the view was breathtaking. It’s a shame you can only reach the area by car because getting into the mountain was 800¥.

It’s amazing to see how use to humans the monkeys are as well. You can walk right up to them and they won’t even flinch. Some people were even able to pet them ( I didn’t).

The famous snow monkeys of Japan

For about $300 I had a very memorable winter vacation. I traveled, tried something new, and made some new friends along the way.

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Truly Breathtaking
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Shout out to the car buddies for letting me join their adventures!

A Little Bit of Culture Shock

I have to laugh at myself a little bit, mainly because this is my second time coming to Japan. I’ve already lived through all of this for a short time before, so what else could I possibly find shocking? The truth is there’s still a lot that gets to me. Sometimes it’s frustrating and other times I just have to roll with the punches. So I’ve complied a short list of things that I’ve found to be the most shocking since living here.

ATMs Close

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My ATM: I’m charged ¥ 108 after 6pm on weekdays and on the weekends.

Japan is still a heavily cash based society so it’s still uncommon to pay using credit card at most places especially in rural places where they might not even have card machines. So it’s very common for people to walk around with $500-$1000 in cash at any given time. The only place I can think to use a credit at around Sano would be at the Aeon Mall and Outlet stores. Even online, there’s often options to pay in cash at convenience stores or give the delivery man cash on arrival.

This all wouldn’t be so bad if dealing with the ATMs wasn’t so annoying. Unlike in America ATMs in Japan actually  close, usually around 6pm, on weekends,and on holidays. ATMs are also notorious for charging fees for withdrawing your OWN money from your OWN account. I was lucky enough to be with a bank that’s not so annoying but I know I do get charged to withdraw money if I do it after 6pm.  So this means I have to do some careful planning when it comes to my weekend adventures. Especially since my bank can’t be found outside of Tochigi so I try to make sure I withdraw enough money to get through the weekend.

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Just slide into the ATM, the machine writes all your transactions.

A good thing about them though is that you can update your bankbook automatically at the ATM so Japan got that part right.

 

 

 

 

 

No Returns

This one is still a little hard for me to understand, most stores will not allow you to do a return. If you are able to make a return, it’s usually an annoyingly long process.  It’s not that you can’t return things I’ve returned a couple things, you just have to have a good reason why you want to return it i.e. broken, wrong fit, etc. Even if you are able to make returns most places will want you to do an exchange instead of giving you back your money. It’s a hard concept to get used to,  especially coming from America I remember returning things that I bought months ago without any problem. Hell I’ll buy clothes to try on at home and then return them within the week if I don’t really like them. I’m not sure why it’s so hard to return things , I guess it’s just to make sure the stores aren’t being cheated out of money somehow. It’s not all that bad though I just have to really think about what I’m getting and weather or not it’ll be worth the purchase.

 

Technology

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Electronic Dictionary: the saving grace of English Education

Japan has a very love hate relationship when it comes to technology. On one hand they have electronic dictionaries, self opening car doors, and high tech Japanese phones, but on the other hand they still rely on kerosine heaters, fax machines, and chalk boards. I guess it’s the idea of if it’s not broken don’t fix it, because they will hold onto outdated technology until it dies. Maybe it’s a part of the energy conservation or just putting money into more viable infrastructure… I’m not really sure what it is. Most of my teachers aren’t really sure how to use certain technology like bluetooth speakers or creating power points it’s strange. I remember being at Kansai Gaidai and having to type my final reports on computers that  were still running windows 98. It’s crazy to even think that that program can still work on anything in 2017, but it still exists.

Delivery

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McDelivery is McGenius

This one I can’t experience too often because most places around me don’t deliver but it’s surprising how many restaurants actually offer delivery services. You can get not only get pizza but also McDonald’s, Moe’s Burgers, ramen, etc all delivered to your door step. The first time I had it in Osaka I was shocked, as lazy as Americans are why don’t we have delivery McDonalds?

 

 

 

I’m sure there’s plenty of other things that throw me off every now and again but these are the few things that I experience everyday that really get to me.

 

Before becoming an ALT

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I think it’s funny that the natural response to “teaching English is hard” is, ” How can it be hard, don’t you know English? Just teach them English.” As if just because you know something means your a natural born teacher. Teaching in general is a pretty tough job, but teaching to people who don’t understand even half the words that come out your mouth is a whole other level of difficulty.

These past few years, Japan has made more efforts in improving its English programs. Many schools require students to learn English as a part of their core classes. Some schools have even hired permanent native English teachers in efforts to improve EFL education.

Before coming to Japan, I’ve done volunteer tutoring with ESL students so I have some experience in how to communicate but, unlike teaching in America, teaching English in another country is completely different. The national language in Japan is Japanese, so outside of music and movies the kids don’t have much exposure to English. Unless they plan on going abroad in the future, many kids just aren’t interested in learning it. Why should they if they’re not going to use it everyday.

I teach at three different high schools with over forty classes and each class has varying levels of English ability. Some students are pretty conversational while some students can barely form a sentence.Outside of JET it’s pretty easy to become an ALT but it’s not a job that’s right for everyone. Here’s a couple things I wish someone would’ve told me about teaching in Japan before I started.

Keep them Interested

This of course is easier said then done. Even Japanese kids find school to be boring most of the time. That being said I like to bring in things to help make the class more interesting i.e. pictures, fun activities, music, etc. to give them a reason to want to learn English. After all learning another language is about cultural exchange as well. Tell them things that they wouldn’t already know about your country. I love showing the kids old prom pictures or digging out the photos from my blonde days. I think one of the best lessons I’ve taught was actually on soul food where the students learned about some of the crazy deep fried treats you can find down South. I try my best to really find the quirky fun parts of the United States to share with them because that’s what will get them talking in English.

No Homework

Stated in a previous entry, Japanese kids don’t really have homework. At least not in the way that Americans think about homework. It’s treated as optional work, and it’s very possible to be at the top of your classes without doing any homework. Some ALTs use homework regularly, but personally I found it was just more work on my part with very little pay off. The kids didn’t take it seriously so I ended up grading work that they didn’t even try to do correctly. Instead I give a lot of handouts just to make sure they have something to refer back to when I’m gone.

Emphasize Talking

I’m not a very talkative person so I don’t like to lecture the students for more than 15 minutes. Outside of school the students don’t really have much exposure to English so I try to get them to talk as much as possible in English. This is also hard because many students will give you the age old excuses of I’m shy or I don’t understand to avoid being called on. I find a good way to relive this problem is getting your Japanese teacher more involved with the lessons. Having them do demonstrations and holding model conversations really helps students feel at ease because, when they see their teachers make mistakes they won’t feel as nervous making them themselves.

 

Limited Technology

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Most people really don’t understand that Japan is a pretty minimalistic country. Japanese students don’t grow up using computers for homework or really any type of classwork. So it’s pretty unrealistic to rely on technology when making your lessons. It was a real adjustment to come from having a SMARTboard in every class to relying solely on a chalk boards. I can’t look things up on the internet if something seems off, so I have to make sure my lessons are planned down to the T from all the things I want to explain to everything I might have to say in Japanese. And if I do plan on using any type of technology I always have to have a back up plan in case the computer/ internet decides not to work that day.

Be Patient

Finally, the last thing is just to be patient. I think teaching in general is very humbling, things that seem easy and obvious to me aren’t to my students. English as a second language is hard in a country where only 1% of the population speaks it fluently. So always be prepared for constant mistakes and questions from both students and teachers alike. Be patient when it comes to teaching, understand that not all students are going to take your lessons seriously. But those that do will be grateful for them and will make the effort to really improve their skills.

Looking back six months ago I never thought that I would enjoy teaching as much as I do now. I focused so much on preparing to live in Japan I never really spoke to anyone about the actual teaching part, so I wish I could’ve spent more time getting comfortable being front and center all the time. I’m not sure if teaching will be a permanent career path for me but I’m glad to know that it is a pretty fulfilling option.

Fiction vs. Reality: What’s it like being black in Japan?

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I was trying to be an egg

I always get a little sad when I look up blogs on wordpress, tumblr, or youtube and find very little information from bloggers of color in Japan. Not that I don’t find information from white bloggers useful but the way life is experienced, is always different for bloggers of color. Many white bloggers have no idea what it’s like to be a minority and usually don’t have to deal with issues of racism in their home countries. So they often don’t think or even consider that their darker colleagues might be facing some tougher times simply because of their skin color.

 

Even in Asia, western forms of beauty are still highly sought after. It’s inescapable, every where you go you see Japanese advertisements using white models. I’ve even heard of business companies that will hire white men just to go to business meetings with them because they think it makes them look good. I can’t say I’ve faced a lot of negativity here but, I’ll never forget how a Japanese man compared approaching black people to approaching dogs, “You want to come up to them because they look fun and friendly, but you’re still scared they might bite you.” It didn’t feel good to hear that but I’m sure he wasn’t the only one to feel that way.

The reason why I started writing this blog was to share a little of what I’m going through with all the numerous black people that really want to come here, but are too scared to do it. When I first studied abroad I had all the same questions everybody else had; what will everyone think about skin color, what will they think about my hair, what will I do with my hair, what if they secretly call me racist names, what if I don’t make any friends… Just a lot of what ifs, and if I could go back in time and slap myself I would. I won’t lie and say that living in Japan is easy for me because it’s definitely not. There’s plenty of challenges that I face everyday from communicating at my job to just simply commuting. However living in Japan is not as scary as it seems. In fact I think most of my initial fears were over come by simply just being open and getting out of my own head.

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Endless nights in Roppongi

Fiction: Japanese people will find me intimidating.

Reality: This one I think, depends on where you live. Tochigi is fairly close to Tokyo where a lot of foreigners live. So I think most people here have come in contact with foreigners of all colors several times in their lives.  In small country towns this might be a little bit more challenging to foreigners of color. It’s hard to fathom but, there are probably plenty of Japanese people who have never talked to a foreigner, let alone a foreigner of color. As I’ve said foreigners only make up one percent of the population in Japan with the biggest number of minorities located closer to the bigger cities. While I have heard some bad stories, most Japanese people I’ve met have been pretty accepting about my skin color, some have even found me more interesting because of it. More than anything I think people find me intimidating because they’re scared to speak to me in English.

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This is actually the only selfie I have with my hair out.

 

Fiction: Japanese people will probably think my skin and hair texture is ugly.

Reality:Again, Japan is no stranger to Eurocentric styles of beauty. Both men and women spend thousands of dollars trying to achieve a more western look such as skin lightening, eye surgery, and extreme dieting to look more like the Taylor Swifts and Justin Beibers of the world. So I have no doubt that there are plenty of Japanese people that find African features conventionally unattractive. I think beauty standards are a little less unforgiving here in Japan because overall Japanese people don’t differ to much in terms of hair, skin and body type. Diversity is still a pretty fresh concept in Japan but it takes time for society to slowly accept what’s different. Coming here made me accept my outward appearance even more because I know no matter how hard I try I’ll never fit into conventional beauty here. I still make sure to look my best when going out but it’s on my own terms. And despite feeling self conscious I’ve had more than enough Japanese people tell me how beautiful I am whether I’m wearing a wig and make-up or just being my natural self.

 

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The famous Room 806

 

Fiction: I can’t buy my hair products/ there’s no where for me to get my hair done.

Reality: Unfortunately this is more fact than fiction because, there isn’t really a market for black hair care products in Japan. Foreigners make up only 1% of the population and I’m willing to bet less than half of that percentage is black. I know there are some salons like Room 806 in Tokyo that can do braids and sew ins but their prices are pretty high. To avoid paying those prices ($60/ hour) before coming here I started learning how to do my hair myself (youtube is my bestfriend now). I order most of my products offline and do a lot of DIY mixes. If you’re adventurous with your Japanese it doesn’t hurt to find good Japanese substitutes with hair products. I’ve found some lines of sulfate free shampoos and some people swear by Japanese deep conditioners. It is annoying that there’s not a beauty supply store that I can walk to find a good leave in or curl cream but that’s the sacrifice you make to live in Asia.

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Yohei Kamiya and Tara Kamiya

 

Fiction: Japanese people won’t want to date me

Reality: Due to the over consumption of media and general different dating practices, dating in Japan can be difficult. Many Japanese people are reluctant to date foreigners due to cultural differences and communication. It’s hard to date someone if you can’t communicate with them so many people just don’t try. Conversely many Japanese people might want to date foreigners because they think we fit some sort of stereotype. Foreigners are often seen as promiscuous and sleeping with one might be kind of as a status symbol. However the same can be said for foreigners that only want to “date” Japanese people because of an Asian fetish. Besides all of those short comings there are plenty of successful interracial relationships both in and outside of Japan. Like any relationship, it takes time and effort and if it’s meant to be, then it will happen.

 

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I really love the pig filter

Being in Japan as a black women is hard but, I find it’s only as hard as I make it out to be. Asia in general is still relatively closed off from the rest of the world so there’s still a lot of people who are just ignorant of what life is like outside of their region. I always have to think about that when I’m out because, most of my misunderstandings just come from simple miscommunication. No amount of complaining will make my time here easier but, I can just take things for what they are and continue to live in Japan as unapologeticaly black as possible.

 

Winter Vacation: Starting 2017 on a Good Note

The year 2016 will not only be known as my first winter vacation in Japan, but also my first paid winter vacation ever. It might sound a bit pretentious of me but, when I think about where I was last year this is a major improvement.This time last year I was so stressed out from working two jobs and applying for more jobs that led me nowhere. It’s sill to think about it now but I thought that part of my life would never end. Now here I am on a program that I never thought I would get into doing something that I like. I never saw myself feeling this good at 23 years old and I’m happy to say that I ended 2016 on a good note.

Unlike most of my peers, I didn’t make any big plans for the winter holidays for several reasons; 1. I wanted to save a little bit of money (bills are not fun) and 2. I really wanted to spend the holidays in Japan. Not that Japan does anything particularly special for Christmas and New Years, but when will I ever spend winter break in Japan ever again?

Finishing up work in school brought so much relief. I spent the last month teaching (fun) Christmas songs to my upper level students. They all thoroughly enjoy Jingle Bell Rock and continued to sing it well until the final day of classes. Two of my classes banded together to make me Christmas origami cards. They were super cute, sweet, and their English was impeccable. My Japanese has been steadily improving, things that didn’t make sense suddenly, are starting to make sense. Conversation in Japanese has become much easier (still pretty bad though).

I had several friends come and visit me during the month of December with long movie nights, frequent onsen visits (hotsprings), rocking the house at Karaoke night in the local bars and playing the new Final Fantasy on my new (used) PS4 and TV.

My Christmas Day Collection, peep me in the fuzzy sandals.

Christmas day I spent with two American friends from Yamanashi Prefecture in Sano. We all stayed in my cramped apartment for four days but it was still great, watching the new Yuri on Ice anime (highly recommended) and the somewhat new MARS ただ君を愛してる drama (not so recommended), and visiting the Ashikaga flower park for the Christmas Illumination (highly recommended). Unfortunately it’s hard to cook a good American Christmas dinner in Japan so I couldn’t enjoy the standard turkey with stuffing on the 25th, instead I indulged in some KFC for Christmas dinner. I think KFC for Christmas is strange to but the reason why Japanese people eat it is because KFC is the closest thing they have to cooked turkey… I don’t think so either.

A much deserved trip to Sendai City

December 30th I took a trip up to Sendai city all by myself just to get out of Sano and try something new. Which turned out to be a pretty amazing trip, I’m the first person to admit that I’m scared to travel alone especially to areas I’m not familiar with, but I’m glad I was able to conquer my fear of the unknown. I was able to navigate around the city on my own strike up good Japanese conversations and keep myself thoroughly entertained for the day. The shinkansen ticket was pretty pricey from Oyama but the journey was well worth it in the end. Highlights of my trip included the Daikannon temple, Nishi park and the Tanabata Museum.

 

Osechi and family time.

Finally I started the year off right eating Osechi with a Japanese friend Mutou-sensei and her family. Osechi is the new year cuisine that most Japanese people eat at the beginning of January. Apparently this meal used to be prepared as a way for Japanese families to survive the first couple of days of winter during the time when most stores in Japan would be closed. The food in Osechi can be set out in a cool area and eaten for many days without spoiling. Many of the items represent prosperity, good fortune, and health. The best part of the day was visiting the huge temple in Ashikaga and praying for good luck within the new year. I think my prayers were answered because my mikoji was the highest luck (daikichi omikuji) for the new year.

I’ve never felt this good about starting a new year before and I’m excited to see what the next 365 days have in store for me. Here’s to a lit 2017!!

What it takes to get into JET

jetIt feels so strange to write about applying for JET because when I first applied, I didn’t really see it as a goal. I knew of JET through my language courses of course but I never really had any intentions of applying to the program until I realized I had nothing to do after graduating college. Most participants have been dreaming about JET since high school, others have applied to this program maybe two or three times before being accepted. While I am happy to be here now, I will admit that I wasn’t the most ideal candidate for being an ALT. To be honest when I left the interview I felt as if I didn’t make the cut and started looking for other jobs to apply to.

Probably not something you want to read if you’re really hopping on getting in but it’s the honest truth. My grades weren’t at the top of the class, my references were turned in at the very last minute, and I had very little work experience compared to some other more qualified applicants. Along with those things I was really worried that my ethnicity would hold me back from being accepted. Not to say that JET is racist in anyway but it’s not the most encouraging thing to notice that you’re the only black person sitting in a room full of white faces. But despite all of that I was picked and I’ll share what I think was most helpful in having the interviewers choose me.

Experience

Of course experience for any job is important, but what if you don’t have any formal teaching experience? Well you have to find some opportunities. For me this was the easiest to sell myself on because I have been tutoring and teaching grade school kids throughout college. You don’t have to have your own classroom, but tutoring, volunteering opportunities, anything like that would qualify as experience. For those wanting to be ALT’s there are plenty of foreigners that are looking to learn English online, at college campuses or even at local YMCAs. I would recommend getting as much experience as you can teaching, especially if you want to be a high school ALT, you’ll be expected to run your own class and make your own lessons.

Statement of Purpose

I will admit here that I’m a pretty good writer. When multiple people tell you they really enjoyed reading your SOP that statement really sticks with you. Even though it seems long at first there two double spaced pages really isn’t that much to write. Most people mess up by rambling about why they want to come to Japan and not necessarily why they should be chosen for JET. Coming onto JET is more than just living in Japan and everyone applying to JET wants to come to Japan, so you have to talk about how your experiences will help the program. Why are you a good fit for the JET program, not why Japan is a good fit for you.

 

Preparation

Of course you should prepare for any interview you have. For the JET interview there are plenty of sites dedicated to helping you pass. There’s even sample questions which are the same used in the interview floating around somewhere online so be sure to read those questions carefully and have a good answer for each one. Make sure to do a little research on Japan as a country, i.e. current issues, political leaders, famous artists, etc. Show that you are actually interested in Japan as a country and not just for the entertainment it produces.

jet-interview

Flexibility

Finally Flexibility is really important, something they stress in JET is that you might not get exactly what you are looking for as far as placement. Many people want to go to Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, etc but the reality is that you might be placed somewhere out in the middle of nowhere, on an island, where you’re the only person who speaks any English. You could get placed at a really rigorous academic school or placed in a special needs school where the kids can’t even speak Japanese. Every situation is different, and an important part of the interview is understanding that you can deal with whatever you get. If there are some things you really can’t deal with such as health or living wise of course let it be known as early as possible. But you have to be okay with the fact that your Japan experience might not be everything you were hoping it to be.

 

So there it is, my four biggest tips on getting accepted into the JET program. There is no such thing as a perfect candidate, there are plenty of people who got accepted who don’t know anything about Japan with no teaching experience. I understand that working in JET is a dream for a lot of people but understand it’s not the end all to everything. Even if you don’t get into JET there are other companies in Japan and around Asia that are offering the same job that are less rigorous. So if you’re end goal is just to live in Japan, know that there are other ways.