The post where I act very sappy and sentimental…

7 10 2012

So I’ve now been in Japan for over two and a half years. It’s surprising to think that it has been this long already. Time really has flown. I think back to when I first came here and it seems like mere months ago rather than years. I remember when I first came to Japan, I had the idea that I would only stay for one year, yet here I am, original plans scrapped still enjoying life and everything I do. There are hard times here, of course it can’t be perfect everyday but it seems like I have really adapted to life here in Gifu. When I think about returning to Australia, there is an immediate sense of fear that passes through me. Even during the short trip back a year and a half ago, I remember vividly the last 30 minutes on the airplane before landing and literally shaking at the thought of returning to that life. When I go back (and it will have to happen, I can’t be a lifer, this I know) culture shock is definitely going to be a bitch.

So why am I still here? What is it about Yamagata, Gifu and Japan that keeps me putting off the inevitable return to ‘normal’ life? Let’s try and list some of the reasons why, because dammit, lists are fun.

Temporary haunted house in the Yanagase area of Gifu.

* Safety and security

Yup – it’s true. Japan is a bloody safe place. I can leave my door unlocked at night and still go to sleep feeling completely secure. People will leave their cars running while they go into a convienience store for a few minutes. I laughed when the police told me to be careful that the old area I lived in was dangerous because they had one robbery in the space of about 9 months. Sure it seems a little silly that there are community ‘patrols’ but if this is the result, keep them going. I kind of feel though that when I go travelling again, the safety of Japan will have ruined me. I’ll be too relaxed about my own personal security 笑.


A lot of this boils down to Gifu and where I live. From my front door, I can go to downtown Nagoya within the hour. In that same hour I could be hiking up any number of mountains. I can buy a beer at 7am, pay a bill while I’m doing it and it’s only a couple of minutes walk. Trains, when I use them, run on time. And I can ride my bicycle around the city and enjoy everything it has to offer. Even the little things I want like Vegemite I can still find, so I rarely lack for much.

* The people

This goes for both the Japanese people I meet and the foreigners that are here. Of course there are going to be people that you don’t get along with, that’s just a standard part of life. But here, everyone gets along with everyone for the most part. Sure it’s down to Japanese culture and the problems of a high density population but unlike Australia, where you can ‘hate’ someone with ease, here I can’t say I really hate anyone. The foreigners who come here are people who want to see the world too so they are immediately in the plus column for me.


After a day of hiking, leeches and injuries, this is a nice way to relax. In Miyama, Yamagata-shi

Still, two and a half years later and Japan is still an interesting place to live. While I don’t get the chance to travel so much anymore, and the places I haven’t seen are that little bit farther away, there is still a sense of discovery to living here. My summer holiday trip to Kagoshima and Yakushima proved that life still can be awesome. Even the little things in Gifu like seeing a new temple or doing something like floating down a river in an inflatable doughnut make life here worth staying for.


What the fuck? You’re putting work on your list?!?! Yup – sounds completely crazy but I still like my job. There are problems and frustrations with it but I still love doing what I do. I’m not sure I still would if I had changed schools or areas, because I would be losing a bond with Yamagata but I enjoy the people I work with, the kids that I have seen grow up and their little nuances and the fact that some of my kids now speak with slight Australian accented English. The English system in Japan is incredibly flawed but, in my corner of the world, it’s great.

Now you’d expect me to write about what the hell I hate about Japan but I figure that I shouldn’t get myself down on that crap. 6 more months and it will make three years here. The time will eventually come when I will leave Japan. When that time comes, I want it to be when it’s at the top. I want to leave still thinking this place and these years have been awesome. The above points should hopefully still be constants… Until next time…


外国人口 So you want to be an alien?

20 03 2012

A long time between drinks but a short post on what it means to be a foreigner in Japan (specifically what it is to be an Australian in Gifu)…

*Out of a national population of 128 056 026, there are 2 186 121 foreigners registered in Japan, as of 2010. That represents 1.7% of the total population.

*In Gifu Prefecture, out of a population of 2 081 147 (only 1.62% of the Japanese population) there are 52 241 foreigners listed. That is 2.5% of the total population of Gifu or 0.04% of the population of Japan.

*In Gifu City, out of a population of 419 470 people, there are 8 747 foreigners (as of February 2012) – or 2.08%. These foreigners , surprisingly, only make up 16.7% of the total of foreigners living in the prefecture. It is kind of interesting that even considering Gifu is the prefectural captial and all, there are less foreigners living in the capital than other areas…

*The four most represented foreign nationalities in Gifu City are Chinese, Korean, Brazilian and Filipino (all in the four digits). These four groups make up approximately 75% of the foreigners in the capital.

*Groups like Americans are in the triple digits of people living in Gifu City. Other nationalities such as British, New Zealanders, Canadians and such are only in double figures.

*There are only 37 Australians living in Gifu City. Out of the total number of foreigners in Gifu City, that’s only 0.42%. Out of the total number of people living in Gifu City, that’s a meagre 0.0088%.

*Of the Australians living in Gifu City, men significantly outnumber women by nearly 3 to 1. This is against the demographic profile of Japan where women outnumber men.

…So, feel special yet? The figures come from the pamphlet on demographics issued earlier this year by Gifu Prefecture from various censuses (or is that censii?) and the foreigner figures for Gifu City come from my visit to City Hall last month. I realise this all is a very boring blog to most people but to me, these kinds of facts are really interesting. Playing around with numbers and percentages is fun! Yes, I am a total nerd…

Older and still far away

18 12 2011

Greetings one and all. I can’t believe it has been four months since my last post. I had the intention of blogging a little more frequently but with the excessive worry and rushing around of the past few months, it has been tough. Around the start of October I wrote a list to try and organise my worries, which were starting to bury me, and that list numbered into the double figures. The general stresses of work and life ended up only being one point so you can see how the blog kind of fell by the wayside. However, with four more working days until the beginning of the winter holidays, hopefully this thing won’t be so neglected. Obviously with all of the stress and worry, relaxation is the main thing I will be doing for the next few weeks. Besides that, I have no plans. It makes a slight change from the last few months and I wouldn’t be surprised if I find myself lost over the break. There will probably be some onsen-ing (is that even a word? can I make it one?) and a possible roadtrip to somewhere new but mostly I will be hibernating.

So what exactly have I been doing that has led to all of this? Well, mostly a lot of paperwork and annoying life crap like my real estate company changing hands and having to organise a lot of things with that (all done in Japanese I might add – rather proud on that account). But there have been some bright sparks like the Return To Kiwi – ie. the 2011 Horado Kiwi Marathon. The worry that came before that however was that I had some ligament/cartilage problems in my knee about six weeks before meaning that I couldn’t train very much. However, small steps and I began to feel I could run well. That is until I attempted to test my knee out with a 10km jog and around the 8.5km mark I had to stop since I felt some serious sharp pains. But since accomplishing last year’s Kiwi had been such a positive thing for me,  I felt I couldn’t give up so easily and saved my knee for one day only – race day. I’m glad that I had not listened to the voice of reason in my head that told me not to do it because I managed to run it out and knock three minutes of my time from last year and improve by 50 places. There naturally was a celebratory beer afterwards. Outside of that, I haven’t done much of note. This year I have really settled down and not galavanted about as I did last year so adventures have been few and far between.

I guess another reason for my lack of adventure is that I have been attending a lot of school related activites like music festivals, sporting club games, festivals and other things. I’ve tried to throw myself about in Yamagata and I think in that regard I have succeeded. It’s not unusual to find me there every weekend doing something school related or studying in the local library. It’s a wonderful area and I’m glad I’ve had the chance to experience it. However, like I said in my last post, I still have feelings of ‘I’m done.’ Not with Japan per se, but with my schools I feel I have done my job. I think that if I leave at the end of this year, I will be leaving on a high. I am happy with the year 6 students I would be sending off to junior high school and feel that since I have had them over the two important years, with regards to English in primary school, ending now is a good way to leave things. I also think that the students need the opportunity to have someone else teach them too. Someone who perhaps offers them a new take on things and can show them something that I perhaps am not. Also for me personally, I feel frustrated with the way English is taught in primary school in Japan. Students sometimes learn completely useless things and while they can repeat back what you have taught them, they don’t learn how to construct a sentence or understand how sentences and grammar work with the current curriculum. And while making English fun is a good thing and I try to make English as fun as possible, it can’t just be focused and getting smiles from kids –  there has to be some substance. All of that is frustrating because at that age, it is a wonderful chance to get them learning a foreign language. I try as hard as I can to fill that gap, but with no proper training, both in general and the ‘training’ from my company, I sometimes feel like I’m teaching with one hand tied behind my back.

Ok rant over, what next? Well, in spite of the above words I am thinking of doing the ALT thing for one more year somewhere else. I’ve got an interview for a job in a few weeks in a different part of the country which offers me more money (a big factor in why I’m looking around too) and a chance to get involved more. But I’m also looking around Gifu too for jobs since I have come to like the region a lot – which entails the somewhat scarily sounding possibility of kindergarten teaching. I am also thinking of going back to Aus for a few months, getting a good TEFL/TESOL or whateverhaveyou and then jetting off for a new challenge with a bit of knowledge under my belt. But honestly, I’m unsure of which path out of these and many more would be best. It’s a little food for thought over winter holidays.

But I leave this post with a little bit of music…

And by the way, I have no hair now. It’s an interesting change. I kind of wonder what my crazy thing will be next year…

Until next time…

Go Go Summer! GO GO サマー!

17 08 2011

And so, two more months down the track and finally another post. It’s Summer Holidays for me in Gifu at the moment and unlike the rush and general craziness of last years holiday which saw me at all ends of Japan, this years has seen me… at all ends of Japan. The big difference with this year being that I have spent a lot more time at home and tried to take things much easier. I can now add five more prefectures to the list of ones I have visited (Shizuoka, Fukushima, Miyagi, Yamagata – the one in the north – and Fukui), using the ‘it doesn’t count until you go outside of aiport customs/past the ticket gate at the train station’ way of counting. I’ve been rather productive I’d say. Instead of just suffering from a case of keyboard diarrhea, as is my usual want, I’ll throw up a couple of photos from my summer…

One of the few things you’ll see in downtown Sendai (well actually this is a couple kms away from the action) that did sucuumb to the earthquake is this statue in the picture on the left. I was very impressed by the level of work that had gone into clearing up most of the coastline. While there are still obvious signs of what has happened, and you can see little demountable villages in south Sendai, I admired the resilience of the Sendai people to keep going out and having fun and moving on with their lives after the earthquake and tsunami.



Yamadera, and Yamagata Prefecture in general seemed to be very laid back and quiet places that moved a little slower than the rest of the country. If ever I needed a long retreat somewhere in Japan to get away from it all, this kind of area could do it for me… (and I got to say I worked in the other Yamagata while I was there – it was funny to hear the Yamagata prefecture people say they didn’t even know my one existed!)

One of the few times you’ll ever see me post pictures of the towns where I work, the picture on the left is from the Ijira Summer Matsuri. Only a recent invention (just 3 years old), it was very small and very rural. But because it was my part of the world, I think it rocked just as much as some of the big festivals. My students were awesome with their dancing, dragon carrying and taiko drumming. A part of me wished I didn’t have to leave early and that I’d wore my yukata.

Beach!!! Finally!! I’d been looking forward to a beach day for a long time and while the standard was never going to be as good as Australia, it was an awesome road trip to the Hokuriku region and the Sea of Japan. As I’ve said in many posts before, I miss that feeling of being near the beach. Having the wide open expanses so close to me is something I miss a lot. Thankfully I went on a weekday and so crowds were not so bad and on this beach there was no blaring j-pop from every corner. What this picture doesn’t show though, is that in the next bay, there is a nuclear power plant. Or Dr No’s secret hideout. I couldn’t actually tell.

This final photo is from the Gujo Odori, one of the most famous dance festivals in Japan held over Obon in mid-August (in Gifu that is). During the main few days over Obon, people dance (the bon odori – traditional Japanese line dancing basically) all night. While I didn’t make it that long, I was in my yukata for the evening which seemed to surprise most people that saw me. Obviously not many other foreigners who come to Gujo rock the yukata like I do! Haha.

I still have about two more weeks of my holiday and I’m hoping that things slow down a little more so I can get energy back for my return to work. I’m hoping that my summer aim of doing more Japanese study is fufilled because while I think I can understand a lot of the conversations I hear, I still feel as though I need to work on my speaking and sentence structures. I’m mulling over the prospect of doing the JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test) in December however, concrete questions over my future are coming quicker than I would like so I must consider my future. It was in Tokyo at the start of summer holiday that the first real feelings of ‘I’m done’ came to me. Perhaps it was because of Tokyo, a place that I’m none too fond of, the loss of purpose and schedule due to having a break from work that has left me feeling aimless or maybe even the feeling that I really am done that drew me to that conclusion. Maybe with the return to work in a few weeks, the fire in the belly for this place will come back to me and the real questions about my situation that must be faced will be. But whatever happens, as I always do, I’ll keep on keeping on. I’ll continue to try to say ‘yes’ to everything, go do many various and exciting things, as the pictures show, and make plans to enjoy my time here. And hopefully next time I’ll avoid keyboard diarrhea. (ギリギリまでネバーギブアップ!) =D Until next time…

教え方 – Method of Teaching

26 06 2011

I’ve been at this teaching things for about 15 months now and over that period of time, and through the course of trial and error and my own experiences as a teacher, as well as when I am able to, watching other teachers that I work with do their thing, I’ve developed a certain perspective on the whole thing. I don’t pretend to think that this is necessarily right or wrong or even fully 100% of what I believe (for those who have read earlier posts, I’m sure you’d realise sometimes that what I type doesn’t exactly hit the mark, like my head and hand aren’t exactly synched) but it’s just a little snapshot into what goes on in my part of the rocking 山県市 (Yamagata-shi) life as an ALT.

My knowledge of teaching before I hit the classrooms of Japan was limited to put it very mildly. Often I had pictured myself completing my University degree and eventually going on to doing a diploma of education so that I could teach. Not necessarily with the conviction that I would teach per se, but with the thought that teaching would be a ‘plan B’ to the unknown ‘plan A.’ In the months leading up to my arrival in Japan, I made little attempt to gain extra qualification, such as a TEFL or TESOL course, or even to understand what I should be doing in a classroom. Coupled with the fact that ‘training’ with my company was sparse to say the very least, my ability to communicate with staff members difficult and the whole new life that I was quickly trying to create, (ie. a 3 day orientation where the first day was mostly concerned with paperwork and 1.5 of the 2 remaining days applicable to my situation) I really did go into this flying blind, without so much as even the knowledge of how to use the freaking controls. All of this combined means that I really have developed my own teaching style.

While classes have been, and still are, watched by upper faculty, parents and city representatives as well as a solitary time by my company (so far) there would always be very little feedback. It is this lack of feedback, in comparison to the multitudes of time that other teachers’ lessons are commented upon, that does become frustrating. Without any knowledge of where your missing gaps are it’s hard to know what you have to do to become a better teacher. And of course, what you think are positive points about your teaching (for me, I think my activities and my ability to impart a good cultural awareness are big plusses) could potentially be weak ones in the eyes of someone who does have more experience in the classroom. Sure the kids could be having a wonderful time, (hopefully) learning and enjoying English and while noticing this enjoyment and seeing them use their English outside of the classroom is one of the most obvious signs that what you do is working and incredibly heart-warming, I kind of am looking for more validation than just happy smiles because it’s crazy Ben-sensei’s English Fun Time.

I’m not a fool when it comes to being an English teacher, and especially a primarily primary (trying saying that five times fast!) school English teacher in Japan. We aren’t exactly the most important thing on the list. Unlike math, literature, writing and social studies, English can hardly be called a core subject in the Japanese education system. And while it is in junior high, I’m sure most people would put in the same sort of basket as music, art or phys ed. It serves more as a way to break up the day and encourages the few who are genuinely talented at it as well as on the other hand, gives plenty of time for those who don’t care for it to muck around or fall asleep. The last point though, I feel is more a systematic problem than one I particularly find myself with.
I realise that this probably sounds like a bit of a downer post but in actual fact, I think the last few months especially have stoked some kind of fire in me that would like to become a ‘real’ teacher or at the very least elevate what I currently do to something better. While an English teacher in Japan is very much support staff, I do find myself with the desire to want to be more to the kids I teach. Maybe it is also because of my age and the fact that I’m still rather green but I’d like to be a guide rather than just a person who does their job and talks down to students with glazed eyes.(In some ways I already feel as if I am a guide as the 外国語 (foreign language) teacher, as some schools term my position, who teaches not just about English, but about the world – something which I am more than happy to do).

What all this boils down to I guess is that I’m at a new juncture in my life. I’m at the point where I’ve tried, seen, and done plenty of things in my life. A few weeks ago I realised that in just over 4 years since April 2007 I’ve spent about 50% of my time in my country of birth. I’ve seen two dozen countries on four continents. I’ve done some serious manual labour as a job. I’ve worked in the highest building in the western 2/3rds of Australia. I’ve been a post-graduate University student. I’ve been a teacher in rural Japan. And I’ve done the majority of it off my own back. I’m not saying it’s the time to settle down just yet, hell I’d need to find someone for that to happen (and yes, I’d much like to find a nice girl =P), but I think it’s the time to start specialising more, finding a vocation, being a bit more serious about what I do. And just perhaps, this could be it. Until next time…

Music GET!

6 06 2011

Sparing feeble ‘it’s been so long’ excuses again, I’ll just jump straight into my post. The last month has been one mostly spent at home without incident (an extremely rare occurance in perhaps the last 2+ years) so for those hoping to live vicariously through me, I must disappoint. But I do offer music instead (arguably a better gift), with a brief explanation of the random title. One of the English loan words that has made it into Japanese with its use skewed is the word ‘get’. While the meaning behind it is somewhat the same (to obtain) in some regards, in others, like scoring a goal it leaves me befuddled. The fact that ‘get’ (ゲット) never changes tense also on occasion causes me to snigger to myself when it is used in nation wide ad campaigns and on others lament the bastardisation of the English language and the uphill challenge of English educators. Anyway, here are a couple random songs that have been getting airplay in my aparto over the past few weeks and months…

Station by Hekireki


逆光 (Backlight?) by Brahman


Free Fall by The Band Apart


And for those who are interested, here is the monthly Japanese chart for May 2011. Number 1 is from the usual suspects… (trust me when I say I’m not giving anything away!)


Until next time! バイバイ!

Active April

3 05 2011

Golden Week 2011 in Japan signals the end of a busy April for me. My last post had me writing from the family home in Australia and in the time since then I have returned from Australia, via Hong Kong and Taiwan, been back to work for over two weeks with a bustling start to the new school year, back to Australia once more over a weekend for my friends’ wedding, at work for three more days before taking the Shinkansen down for a long weekend in Fukuoka. All in all, it’s been about 30 000 km in the space of a month. Four airports, 4 countries (or 3 depending on your views about if transfers count or how Taiwan and Hong Kong should be classified), 2 Japanese islands and one very tired person. But, I must say, it has been all worth it.

The rest of my first, long-er trip back to Perth was a good chance to see many of my friends and spend some time with my family. It still was strange that I was back way out west but getting to see people that I hadn’t seen for over a year was awesome. Sure the city hadn’t changed a lot but with Perth being Perth, I was never expecting much. I hope though that the people who do want to escape do, and those that are embarking on happy lives in the sandgroper state remember to not fall into the trap of navel-gazing that seems to affect the more gullible sections of the Western Australian population. As for myself, I’m not sure that I could live there again for a very long time, if ever. My second, extremely short trip to Perth – fly in late Friday night, fly back to Nagoya Sunday night/Monday morning – was for the sole purpose of getting to see two of my friends (finally! haha) get married. As disorientating as the short trip was, especially come Tuesday once I returned to work, it was for a wonderful reason and I don’t regret doing it for a second.

The weekend just past saw me finally get back on the road, or in this case train tracks, around Japan and get shown around the wonderful Kyushu city of Fukuoka. Much like the relaxed vibes I felt in Hiroshima and Kobe, I really enjoyed Fukuoka. I think this was mostly due to the fact that all of these cities are by the sea, and unlike a city such as Nagoya, Fukuoka orientates itself and incorporates the ocean. In spite of the long nights and short hours of sleep, amazingly and unable to put a finger on the specific reason why, I felt very relaxed being there and came back , admittedly exhausted, but happy to have seen a different part of Japan. It makes me think that I need to see the ocean, or perhaps even live near one again sooner rather than later.

The new school year in Japan has brought small changes to my life in Yamagata and Gifu. Happily, I retained the same schools that I worked at the previous year and that continuity has already, in my opinion, been very useful. I’ve been able to slot straight back in to my old routine and I’ve been able to maintain the same relationships I’ve had with my fellow teachers and with my students. Over the course of the previous year I’d learned that usually most ALTs that have worked in the same schools as I have in the main only stay for one year but more and more as I got accustomed to my job and came to love where I work, I knew I didn’t want to have just one year with these kids. I wanted to be able to keep on with what I had been teaching and hopefully have the students, teachers and I on the same English page. I’d always thought it would be the best thing for everyone. The students already know me, feel comfortable with me and understand my style, the teachers know what I can do and what I am capable of and I already know what is expected of me and what I can do and know what levels the gakusei are at. The best example of this has been with the new Junior High 1st year students. I taught all of them at Primary School the year before so not only do I know who they all are, I know the levels that they are at and what I can do with them to make my time with them fun.

However, and I have been trying to avoid wanting to think about this for a few months, there is the question of what to do next. As much as I love Yamagata, I’m settled there and I like my job, I know things can’t stay as they are forever. This thought in my mind has become much more prominent since there was one little thing I noticed on my last flight to Perth (which I’ll keep to myself =P ), my friends wedding and the few days in western Japan as well as things that I have felt in the back of my mind before. Seeing the year 5 students I started with (and for an English teacher in Japan, year 5 is a milestone year in English education) graduate at the end of this year would be awesome but a third year in Yamagata brings about some reservations. Though of course, like my JH students this year, having another batch of my Shougakkou kids start Chuugakkou with me would be a proud moment.

With no real conrete path upon leaving Japan before I started, I’d always thought that living in Europe would be next. And in many ways I do want to make it back there. It is a place that I want to give much more of my time however saying that, a part of me wants to stay in Japan and ‘master’ the language. After just over a year here, and starting from a relatively low base,  I feel on some occasions that I’m doing ok but on others, I know that my broken Japanese just doesn’t cut it and there is a level of frustration that I can’t do certain things. Staying another year would give me one more years chance to get to a good level and if I moved to another part of the country (playing devil’s advocate, I’d be leaning towards western Japan) I’d get another chance to experience a whole different region as a resident instead of as a traveller. Though, and I was even thinking of taking this path years before Japan, with my experiences of the classroom, some part of me wants to become a fully fledged teacher.

But of course, it’s still early days in my second year in Japan, though astonishingly it’s already May and so there is a long time for me to come to a decision. I’m sure I’ll to and fro about everything before I janken myself in a mirror or something and come up with an answer. Rest assured that there will be more adventures, perhaps not as many around Japan over the next months however, and I will, whenever I can, update and disjointedly write on my blog. Until next time…