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It's taken me a while to get online in Japan - it's been a fairly complicated process. If you're thinking of bringing a laptop to Japan, click here for an overview of the processes you need to go through to get an Internet connection.
Pre-departure orientation: 12th-14th July 1999
On July 12th, the 313 members of New UK JETs Group A congregated at the University of Westminster, Harrow Campus, for our pre-departure orientation. As we registered I started to feel a bit long in the tooth, as I realised that, contrary to what the interviewers had told me in January, what seemed like at least 95% of the new JETs were this year's new graduates. It's six years since I graduated!
There followed 48 hours of welcome addresses, lectures, queues for dinner, and intensive Japanese lessons - seven hours a day of the latter! Most people seemed to agree that this was far too much; it was true that intensive instruction was needed, but the vast majority of people present were complete beginners and the material was covered far too fast for them to take anything in. I'd done a year of evening classes in Japanese so I was in the "basic" class, which wasn't so bad, but wasn't terribly stimulating either. My view was that maybe 4 hours a day would have been better, with the beginners' material being covered more slowly, allowing them to take more in, and with more time for other activities. The panel question and answer session, where we got to question former JETs about living in Japan, was by far the most useful element of the orientation, but it was only a 45-minute session. It would have been nice if we'd had at least twice as long. We also had a talk from a headhunter about JET being the beginning of our international careers. Provided you wanted a career in business, that was. He didn't even touch on the possibility that teaching might be a career option for people who have teaching experience! This talk went on for a hour and was a complete waste of time for anyone who wasn't a new graduate with no work experience, and even those who were didn't seem to get much out of it.
As we were leaving, the new JETs of group B were arriving; these were the people due to depart for Japan on July 24th.
One more observation: the main auditorium was only big enough to hold about two thirds of us; the rest were housed in a separate lecture theatre, with a video link between the two rooms for most of the sessions. There weren't really any problems with this, but surely it would have made sense to choose a college with sufficient seating for 300 people in one auditorium? Harrow is hardly a central location in any case - it's a long journey for people coming from places as far afield as Lancashire and Devon, only to go all the way back for two days before departure.
Flight to Japan and Tokyo orientation: 17th-20th July 1999
It was very nice to be flown business class. I was one of 80 people on flight BA007, departing London Heathrow at 15.45 on July 17th. Most of us were over the 30kg weight limit on our hold baggage (I had a 26kg suitcase and a 16kg rucksack, plus a 12kg rucksack as cabin baggage and a laptop), but I don't think anyone on our flight was charged for their excess. I think I did hear of one or two people on other flights who were charged though.
On the flight to Japan.
It was a pleasant flight, and we arrived at Narita late on Sunday morning to be greeted by dozens of renewing JETs in bright green T-shirts who herded us through the airport. Large bags were checked ahead to our prefectures, and we were each left with one bag, plus hand luggage, to take with us to the hotel. In my case this still meant that I had at least 30kg of luggage to transport! We were then loaded onto buses (air-conditioned - bliss!) and driven the two hours to the Keio Plaza Hotel in Shinjuku. The rainy season was not yet over, so it was pretty overcast for the duration of our stay in Tokyo, although it didn't actually rain much.
Three people were allocated to a room in the Keio Plaza, and most people were with others who were going to the same prefecture (a prefecture is an administrative area, similar to a county in the UK). I was with Liz and Emily, all of us going to Shiga. We had the rest of Sunday to ourselves, so we wandered around the shopping and entertainment district around Shinjuku station and sought out assorted places to eat and drink - some more expensive than others.
View from floor 43F of the Keio Plaza.
On Monday morning the official welcome ceremony took place: around 1300 of us assembled in the Concord ballroom (the lifts were struggling to cope with us all descending at once, and the stairs were all for emergency use only, which was frustrating) and assorted Japanese government ministers made welcome speeches. This was followed by a talk by Robert Juppé, an introduction to AJET (a social and support organisation for JETs) and a briefing on the remainder of the programme.
Shiga JETs assemble for the welcome ceremony.
Formal address by one of the government ministers (I forget which).
The government ministers leave the ceremony.
After lunch was the ALT (Assistant Language Teacher) General Session, presented by members of Monbusho - the Ministry of Education, Science, Sports and Culture. This session covered the Japanese educational system, particularly with regard to foreign languages, and gave us an introduction to what is meant by team teaching and what is expected of us in our new role. This was illustrated using a video which most of us found highly amusing! After this session there was a choice of workshops run by AJET and covering different aspects of life as a JET.
In the evening there was a big welcome reception hosted by various government ministries. Between sessions there were opportunities to visit the AJET Bazaar and join AJET plus any of the affiliated special interest groups.
The problem with the lifts became considerably more significant on day 2, with workshops taking place on the top few floors of the 47-storey hotel as well as near the bottom. At one point I had to wait 25 minutes just to get down from 47F to 43F - and I was near the front of the queue! In the morning we had ALT workshops, giving us ideas and advice on running classes, and in the afternoon there was a selection of workshops run by CLAIR (the Council of Local Authorities for International Relations), with prefectural meetings interspersed among them. The AJET Information Fair also took place, with free international phone calls up for grabs and lots of discount call companies plying their wares.
That evening most of the UK JETs went along to the reception at the UK Embassy, near the Imperial Palace. The Embassy is like an English stately home, very atypical of Tokyo, and we were treated to a performance of Taiko drumming in the garden. Failing to apply insect repellent turned out to have been a bad move though!
Reception at the UK Embassy.
Taiko drummers at the UK Embassy.
Arrival in Shiga: 21st July 1999
On Wednesday morning it was time to check out and depart for our respective prefectures. Those of us going to Shiga were bussed to Tokyo station and from then on had to carry our own luggage - which had increased in weight due to the vast quantities of information we had been bombarded with at the orientation. First there was the trek to the platform (if you have any idea of the scale of stations in Tokyo then you will know that this was quite a way) to get the shinkansen (bullet train) to Kyoto. At Kyoto we had to change to a local train for the 10-minute ride to Otsu, and in Otsu there was a walk of about half a mile, in stifling heat, to the government building where the prefectural welcome ceremony was to take place. When we got there, dripping with sweat, it was time to change into our smart clothes for the ceremony. No opportunity for a shower, unfortunately! We filed into the meeting room and each did our first self-introduction in Japanese - one of many to come, no doubt - and then the people who had come to meet us (two people from each host institution) each made a short speech. I was a little perturbed to hear that my host institution planned to have a party for me that same evening! When the ceremony was over we picked up the luggage that had come direct from Narita and headed off to our new homes.
I was collected by Matsuyama-sensei, the principal of Hikone Nishi High School, and Fuji-sensei, my "tanto" or direct supervisor. (The "-sensei" is an honorific that means "teacher" - more specific than the usual polite "-san" suffix applied to names.) We went straight to the school and I was introduced to two more of the English teachers: Kawaguchi-sensei and Fukunaga-sensei. Together the five of us went round to move me into my new apartment, and were met there by another English teacher, Iwasaki-sensei, and Yoshida-san, who is the school's Chief Officer and played a large part in arranging the accommodation. It's a nice apartment, and the location is fantastic - a fairly quiet position but just off the main street from the station to the castle, which is one of Japan's four remaining wooden mediaeval castles and a designated National Treasure. I actually visited it when I came to Japan on holiday two years ago, and I'm very happy to be back in Hikone. I'm a 5-minute walk from the station and have a video hire place, a convenience store, a bank and a 7-storey department store even closer. My only minor complaint is that, like many Japanese apartments, mine doesn't have running hot water, and the water heater for the bath/shower is a bit complicated to operate. (If you ever come across a water heater like the one shown below, you might like to look at my operating instructions.) Still, I'd got the hang of it within 24 hours - you get plenty of practice in this climate!
Looking across Hikone towards the castle and lake, from the Heiwado department store by the station. My apartment block is on the left; you can just see the roof behind the blue and white column.
Pictures of my apartment.
Water heater for bath/shower.
To my relief, the promised party never really materialised - perhaps because they kept asking me if I was tired and I kept saying "sukoshi"; this literally means "a little", but to the Japanese it's probably a polite way of saying "I'm absolutely exhausted - please let me sleep!". The English teachers took me out for a meal at a "Big Boy" restaurant (burgers or burgers) and then three of them took me to the Circle K convenience store to make sure I had something for breakfast in the morning. After that I was left to my own devices.
The next day Kawaguchi-sensei and Fukunaga-sensei took me shopping, as I needed quite a few things for the apartment: crockery, pans, cooking utensils, cleaning materials, spare bedlinen, etc. One thing I had found mildly amusing was that the school had provided a pair of toilet slippers - which I don't make much use of - but no toilet brush! We got most of the things I needed from the Heiwado department store just up the road, but some things seemed to me to be overpriced, so I decided I could do without until I'd had a chance to shop around a bit. One example was a washing-up basin: ¥680 in Heiwado, but I got one for only ¥100 from a 100 yen shop in Kyoto! These ¥100 shops can be found all over Japan, sometimes in a corner of a department store and sometimes as separate shops. They're well worth a look for all sorts of things - Western-style cutlery, which is expensive to buy elsewhere, is another good example.
Talking of shopping (the Japanese national pastime), I should mention that there's now a 5% sales tax applied to most things, and in most cases it's added on at the till rather than being included in the ticket price.
That evening I discovered that the next day was "sodai gomi" day, when large items of rubbish are collected. In Hikone this only happens four times a year. It's not without reason that the Japanese are renowned for their consumerism, and there are stories galore of people finding treasure such as perfectly good TV sets, complete with remote controls, in the sodai gomi. Because the economic situation isn't so good at the moment, people are less inclined to throw out last year's model to make room for the latest one, but there's still some good stuff to be had. I got a hideous pink and white metal thing with a hanging rail and two drawers (didn't need the drawers, but a hanging rail was something that my apartment lacked); a couple of cushions, a perfectly good double futon, a coolbox, a frying pan, an omelette pan (looks like a rectangular frying pan) and an ironing board in need of a new cover. Not bad for freebies!
On Friday 23rd July we had a "survival orientation" session in Otsu, followed by an excursion into Kyoto for the afternoon/evening. The subject matter for the orientation was covered very quickly, but we were also provided with handbooks covering most of what had been discussed, and more. In Kyoto we ate at an Italian restaurant and were introduced to the shopping and entertainment area around Sanjo.
At times the bureacracy in Japan can be unbelievable. In Shiga we're fortunate enough to not have to deal with a lot of it ourselves; bank accounts and hanko (also known as inkan - a little rubber stamp which is the Japanese equivalent of a signature) are being taken care of by our hosts. But I went to the post office the other day to send off a small parcel and buy some stamps for postcards (¥70 to Europe). I had one perfectly ordinary, normal-sized postcard ready to send, so once I'd put a stamp on it the lady took it and franked it - then she held it against a measuring board and it was decreed that it was of non-standard size and so had to have ¥110 of postage (letter rate) paid on it! It seems that my crime was to buy a postcard measuring 14.9 x 10.6cm; the standard size is 14.8 x 10.5cm. Big difference! I've just put all my previous postcards in a postbox, and I know that at least some of them have reached their destinations, so I think I'll stick to doing that in future.
From Monday 26th July I started going into school in the mornings, despite it being the middle of the summer holidays. Not all ALTs are asked to attend school throughout the holidays, particularly at high schools, but in the Japanese culture attendance is very important and so some schools expect their ALTs to attend even if they have very little work to do. The Japanese teachers have to go into school, and a lot of the students are there too - particularly third years who are studying for their university entrance exams. I met the remaining English teachers - Ohata-sensei, Ito-sensei and Taguchi-sensei - and Michael, the American whom I am replacing as the ALT at Hikone Nishi.
Hikone Nishi High School is an average-level school which has about 800 students and offers two types of course. (It's average-level because in Japan your marks at junior high school determine which high school you will go on to.) There are seven classes in each year, each with about 40 students, and of these classes, five follow a conventional academic course and two are all girls following a "domestic studies" course which has some academic content but primarily prepares them for marriage and motherhood. Japan is a long way behind the West in terms of women's liberation! There are about 45 teachers, seven of whom teach English. I'm going to be teaching the first year academic classes and the second year domestic studies classes, plus one lesson (but not every week) with some of the third years. Each lesson lasts 50 minutes and in the three days a week I spend at Hikone Nishi I will be teaching nine or ten lessons.
I will also be spending two days a week at Hachiman Technical High School, my visit school. This is in Omi-Hachiman (Omi is an old name for Shiga), a short ride away on the train. I will be helping with seven lessons each week there. This school runs vocational courses, again with seven classes of about 40 students in each of the three years. 90% of the students are boys. There are two classes each of information technology and machining, and one each of chemistry, electricity and architecture. There are over 90 teachers, but only three of them teach English. One of the English teachers, Matsuzawa-sensei, previously worked at a nearby school roughly equivalent to Hikone Nishi in terms of academic level, and she says she finds that the students at Hachiman Technical, although not very academic, have a better attitude. It remains to be seen how the two schools will compare in my experience!
On September 7th and 8th Hikone Nishi has a cultural festival, for which I'm going to be helping the ESS group (English Speaking Society, a small club with only about seven members) put something together on the UK. It's a good few years since the school last had a British ALT, so it's probable that the current students know absolutely nothing about my country. I've seen students rehearsing for other parts of the festival too: Japanese harp and tea ceremony.