Published: March 7th 2011March 2nd 2011
I’m writing this just over two months after leaving Tokyo, which isn’t ideal but you don’t get a great deal of free time while teaching English in Japan.
Admittedly, my day was easier than four of the other six teachers who lived in the same block as I did; the ambitiously named “Leo Palace”. I would hear them leaving at 0745 which was 15 minutes before my alarm went off. I gave myself 45 minutes to get showered, breakfasted and suited up. Unlike anywhere else I’ve ever taught, in Japan, I had to be in a suit every day. Even in my old engineering job it was very occasional that I wore a suit. I did feel very smart but in mid-September when the temperature was over 30C it seemed ridiculous to be sweating in a tie and jacket.
I would meet Brennan outside the flat at 0845, a mate from Costa Rica who I was semi-coincidentally working with again. He’d recommended a company in Japan called Westgate when he worked for them in 2009. I knew he was going back but we didn’t expect to be living in the same place and teaching at the same university.
Watching Tokyo Giants at Tokyo Dome
My first, and surprisingly enjoyable, baseball game.
Westgate employs about 180 teachers a year who are spread around Tokyo so it was a pleasant surprise.
The three month contract became more and more like groundhog day. The walk to Tsuruse station took about ten minutes and we knew if we were running late due to where we passed the two pretty girls going the opposite direction. After a month one of them started to reply to our good mornings but the other generally ignored us no matter what language we attempted to use. We passed the always well manned police car, always with the engine running, usually with lights flashing and the policeman in his body armour keeping up their vigil in front of an innocuous looking apartment block. They were there for months at what must have been a huge expense to the taxpayer (such as myself) and we never figured out why.
Run up the station steps, through the barrier with our company pass, down the escalator, there’s the tiny, ancient, shrivelled up old woman, there’s the nerd in his checked shirt and square glasses. The express flies through the station a few minutes before the 0903 local train to Wakoshi arrives. The
doors open and out steps the slightly smacked up looking girl. The train isn’t too busy by now, an hour earlier would have been a real squash, but we don’t get a seat. The pretty girl in huge sunglasses and tiny hot pants, irrespective of the weather, is there as usual. Brennan and I are the only people in the carriage chatting. Everyone else is either fast asleep or concentrating on their mobile phones. We never did figure out what they do on their phones that can be so engrossing for hours every day.
Stoop to peer out of the window as we cross the bridge before Yanasegawa station hoping to catch a glimpse of Mount Fuji. Despite being 100km away it is easily visible on a clear day, particularly later in the year when it’s blanket of snow gleams in the morning sun.
After only six minutes we arrive in Shiki; here I feel slightly guilty towards some of the other Westgate employees, especially the other four that we lived with, seeing as they were on a packed train for an hour to get to work. It was then a twenty minute walk to Rikkyo University Niiza
Campus. We stuck to the backstreets because Japan’s roads are generally pavementless outside of city centres. The same girl is always running across the road late for work, we nod at the security guard of the bank then we reach the grand campus entrance where the old university guard gives an excessively respectful, deep bow and loud OHAYO GOZAIMASU!
Across the grassed courtyard, with pleasant aromas wafting from the campus bakery, then we divide to each go up our own staircase and to an entrance that leads only to our classrooms. We are spoilt.
Plug in the company lap top, log on and clock on at about 0930. Our contract states that we must be on campus for nine hours a day hence the clocking in and out. The lesson plan was prepared the day before so spend ten minutes or so getting the whiteboard ready.
I will be teaching the exact same lesson six times today. This may sound tedious but in fact it means planning time is minimal as only one plan per day is required. Plans are actually provided but you still need to give them your own twist and prepare materials. Furthermore, you
Scrambling up Mae-Hotaka (3090m), Japanese Alps
I had to get up and down in 5 hours in order to catch the only bus home. Consequently I couldn't get up or down stairs for a week.
can adapt and perfect the lesson throughout the day so it is never identical.
It is actually a good system as lessons are short, fifty minutes, to fit around the students regular studies. The students know that whatever time of day they have a free slot in their timetables they can come to our classroom and have a lesson. A student may come at 0950 on Mondays, 1100 on Tuesdays, 1630 on Wednesdays, etc. This means that a student’s class size varies and so do their classmates, which I think helps to keep it interesting.
The first lesson of the day may be attended by only two, or sometimes one student. In which case the lesson plan goes out of the window and I have to make it up as I go along. I’m getting pretty good at this now though. Around lunchtime there may be twelve in the class which means role plays and games are fun but there isn’t much personal attention from me.
I’d been warned before I started teaching in Japan that the students would be very shy, unwilling to speak up in class and quite naive about the wider world. I’m happy
Yokohama Beer Festival
Ten quid for a pint. Sunny though.
to tell you that this is all false. My students were great and I genuinely looked forward to seeing them each day. Any activity I planned, no matter how bizarre, embarrassing, boring, experimental or complicated, they would always have a go. I feel that most did improve during the semester and thankfully I feel I was able to improve as a teacher and learn a lot about Japanese culture. Not only that, because I was teaching mostly students of tourism who weren’t short of a bob or two, my students were very well travelled, typically to nearby regions of Asia where I hadn’t been. Consequently, there are many new places on my “to go” list that I hadn’t considered before. ~(Three of which I’ve managed to tick off in the two months since leaving Tokyo which will become apparent in ensuing blogs.)
I usually had two three free periods in a day where I could plan for the next day, read a book, visit the bakery and lunch at the canteen. It was all pretty relaxed. The canteen offered up its selection as wax models in a glass display case. See what you fancy and put your money
in the ticket machine alongside then take the ticket to the overly courteous kitchen staff. This wasn’t as easy as it sounds because you had to remember the kanji (one of the Japanese writing systems – actually Chinese symbols) for what you wanted to order and punch it in to the ticket machine. There were many errors but I soon learned that “stick man with a hockey stick in a lift” is the symbol for meat.
We would leave the university at about 1830, walk back to the station, again nobody else on the train would be speaking but at this time far more would be fast asleep, then call at the station supermarket or the delicious little sushi stand to pick something up for dinner.
Maybe go running down by the little river, always fun in the pitch darkness, especially when you met someone coming the other way and had to jump aside at the last minute to avoid a collision. Such an episode was always followed with extended apologies and frantic bowing.
Generally it would be after 8pm before I could relax, hence I didn’t get round to writing this blog while I was still
in Tokyo. Apologies for such a long winded explanation.
As well as weekends I did get quite a few days off. There were a few Japanese national holidays while I was there, such as Sports Day in October and the university had a few additional holidays such as its festival week in November. I did a bit of exploring around Japan but not as much as I expected. This was in part due to the wealth of things to do in and around Tokyo and partly due to the expense of travelling around Japan.
My students all raved about Okinawa and Hokkaido but flights to these outer islands are very expensive. I didn’t really want to fly anyway but was very keen on having a ride on the Shinkansen, better known outside of Japan as the bullet train. If you are in Japan as a tourist you can by rail passes which are great value but because I had a working visa I had to pay full whack every time and it’s not cheap. The bus is cheaper but what you save in money you pay for in time (see shinkansen photo caption). Yet this shouldn’t stop you
because in a lifetime you’d struggle to see half of what Japan has to offer.
I’m torn between telling you my favourite trip was Kyoto and Nara or it was the Japanese Alps at Kamikochi. The temples and shrines of Kyoto and Nara are beautiful, as are the gardens, parks and leafy hills in which they stand. The pace of life is much more relaxed than Tokyo and it’s thrilling to catch a glimpse of a geisha disappearing down one of the narrow alleyways.
However, I love mountains, and the mountains around Kamikochi are stunning. I particularly enjoyed my time up there because of the ridiculous challenge that I set myself. Basically, because of the bus timetable and availability of tickets, I had to get up and down the 3090 metre Mae-Hotaka in five hours. Well I didn’t have to, I could have just stuck to the pretty valley and followed the crystal clear river. But I like a challenge and this one was only just achieved. I couldn’t really rest on the way up, had only ten minutes at the summit to appreciate the cracking views, then I had to run down and arrived at the bus
stop with a few minutes to spare. It was great entertainment for the Japanese hikers, first of all to even see a non-Japanese person up there and then to see me again running down when they were still on their way up. After a summer of climbing mountains in Slovenia I was still pretty fit but despite this I struggled to get down the stairs for a week afterwards.
Within Tokyo it’s difficult what to say was my favourite spot. Shibuya and Shinjuku were perfectly as I’d pictured Tokyo before I arrived with huge department stores, lots of big neon signs and millions of ubertrendy Japanese. Shinokubo was a favourite area for great Korean and Indian food, Harajuku for the fashions, Odaiba for the view, Ginza for shopping, and the Imperial Palace gardens for a bit of green amongst the massive urban sprawl. In three months I didn’t get round it all.
Thinking about it, the most memorable weekends were the sporting events we managed to attend. Previously I’d never watched, or had a desire to watch, baseball. After watching the Tokyo Giants at the Tokyo Dome, I love it. I went just for the atmosphere but I
surprisingly enjoyed the game. We even saw a triple-play. Apparently that’s good.
We had a trip up to Saitama Stadium to watch our local football team Urawa Red Diamonds. Unfortunately they lost one nil and it all took place during a typhoon. It was the only occasion during my time in Japan that I felt truly cold. Make that bloody freezing.
Then there was Fuchu races. I’m quite partial to a flutter on the nags and after figuring out the electronic betting machine, missing three or four races in the process, I bet on every race, won one, total for the day: down only about £15. Result I think.
The contract with Westgate is only ever for three months and many of my teacher pals have already signed up to do another stint. I must admit it’s tempting and I can see myself back there in the future but for now I’m swapping sushi and sake for paella and Rioja (after a little holiday that is)...
There are more photos below