A semester in the life of an ALT [Assistant Langauge Teacher]

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January 19th 2013
Published: January 19th 2013
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Merii KurisumasuMerii KurisumasuMerii Kurisumasu

Me and the lucky ALTs who got to do Christmas carolling in our junior high schools.
I have finished my first full semester of teaching in Japan. It has been mostly awesome, with a little dash of frustration thrown in there to keep me on my toes. Teaching English on the JET program is not a normal job, so some days are absolutely great, like caroling, playing silly games and bringing Christmas cheer to a number of local schools, while others can be full of no responsibility around exam time, when there are no classes to teach or prepare. Here’s a general round up of what I’ve been up to.

Christmas Caroling

My nearest city is one of the few places that get the local JETs to join up together to do some Christmas caroling. One of the highlights of my year so far for sure! Myself and 4 other junior high schools JETs put on our most ridiculous costumes, prepared our bags of tricks, and acted as super genki (energetic) as we could for two days.

We visited each of the first year classes in our schools for about 25 minutes to sing songs and play Christmas games. The highlight for me was the reaction of some of my
Paper, Rock ScissorsPaper, Rock ScissorsPaper, Rock Scissors

In one of our school's a game ended as a tie, so it was up to the captains to duke it out in Japan's favourite tradition!
students. I’m pretty much the only foreign person that my students have any interaction with, so when some of my 1st years saw the two girls dressed up in cute Santa outfits they put their hands to their mouths and let out a meccha kawaii (super cute!) and couldn’t take there hands down for about 2 minutes!

Apart from singing we played some silly games with the kids too, like getting them to put a sheet of paper on their heads and having to draw a Christmas picture by listening to our instructions. The funniest song we used was DMX’s Rudolph the red nosed reindeer remix (Google it now hehe). We got the kids to keep the beat by drumming on the table and it went down a treat, as making noise is always fun!

One school had a nice welcome sign for us, and the kids even made us Christmas cards, cakes and tea to thank us! Check out one of the Christmas cards they made for me! Kids here in general are pretty good at drawing and sketching, and I’m not sure why exactly, but maybe it stems from the fact that
Christmas CardChristmas CardChristmas Card

One of the ridiculously awesome Christmas cards we got when carolling!
their written language is very complicated and is a skill in itself to draw/write. Kanji are logographic characters made up of symbols representing a thing or an idea, so they have to get very good a visualizing and sketching from a young age.

I would say the average kid in my classes would be a pretty good sketcher and they absolutely piss all over my shoddy stick man drawing skills! Maybe only my best friend Paul would be the only one from my class when I was younger who could challenge talented kids in my classes here. One kid who has no interest in English is sketching me a giant platemail-wearing, battleaxe-wielding warrior at the moment, after I struck up some conversation with him!

Community Spirit

Like I mentioned before one of the great things about JET is the community of JETs that exist to help you out and organise things. In my prefecture were lucky to have some very active people, like Anna Ho and Holly Vergara, who organise volunteer activities where we get a chance to give back to our local community.

Every month we get the opportunity to visit our local orphanage to play games with the children and give their carers a few hours rest. It’s one of the most rewarding things that I’ve done here, and being chased down the corridors by kids wearing Halloween masks and wielding plastic samurai swords is one of my best memoriesJ Unfortunately we are not allowed to post any photos of the kids, because you lunatics would all come over here and kidnap your very own cute Japanese kid!

Before Christmas we had a fantastic sports day for one of the orphanage. The day was full of tug-of-wars, relay races, chopstick challenges and balloon popping mayhem! It really was a great day organised by our coordinator, Anna, and I hope to attend many more of these events in my time in Fukui!

On normal visits we usually play fun games like dodgeball with the kids, and it is yet another fantastic opportunity for me to act like a big kid every month! You do have to resist the urge to adopt all the children though, as they are ridiculously adorable!

Mihama group

Another bonus of living in the inaka
Mihama Community GroupMihama Community GroupMihama Community Group

Spot the foreigner lol
(countryside) is that I also got invited by a local community group to join their committee as their token foreigner. Quite an honor really, and I have gone to one or two of their events. One day I got to go on a hike with a group of about 50 locals from my town and was delighted to meet two of my 2nd year students, and pester them with English questions for most of the trip!

They also invite me to their meetings, but sadly my Japanese skills are waaaay too shoddy to be able to understand polite meeting language yet. I do go every so often and end up drinking way to much green tea, and hurting my legs from sitting on the floor for too long!

Four Seasons

The climate swing in Japan has been the most severe out of any place I’ve lived, having gone from an energy sapping and uncomfortably hot summer, to a bitter cold, stormy and snowy winter. We had a 3-day thunderstorm that signaled the end of our sadly short autumn, and hailed the arrival of the bittersweet snowy season. It is beautiful to wake up
Snow time!Snow time!Snow time!

Time to get out that shovel!
to snow covered roofs and fields, but when you get icy snow down your boots or can’t see a thing when your driving in a blizzard the novelty slowly wears off (although the novelty of the odd snowball to the back of someone’s head never does!).

The Japanese are quite proud of their four distinct seasons, and rightly so, but the comfortable autumn and spring are only half as long as the hot summer and stormy winter. It does make you feel very in touch with nature however, as you pay more attention to the clues nature leaves all around you…. In Ireland we love to talk about the weather (by talk I mean moan), but your average Yamamoto and Tanaka over here knows the next weeks weather in detail. ‘Nigel you should change your car tyres next Wednesday, snow is coming the day after’. It’s like the national hobby or something!

Oh Japan!

Many peculiar Japanese oddities are finally beginning to make sense too, like completely lame speed limits, and indoor shoes. One of the first things you will find strange about visiting Japan is having to take off your ‘outdoor’ shoes and put on clean slippers or ‘indoor’ shoes when entering a school, gym and some offices. My first day I had to take off my shiny black shoes, and put on dorky blue slippers with my suit to see my principal…gomer!

With the heavy sleet and snow I can now completely appreciate why this is done, as the melting snow and sleet would completely destroy carpets and floors! My own genkan (house entrance) is usually a big pool of water with the snow slowly melting off my boots. What seemed quirky before, now makes only sense!

The speed limits here are painfully slow. I’m talking about a 50kmph limit on a main roadway where you could easily do 80-100kmph. Everyone speeds here however, and I always thought how pointless it is having such gimpish limits if they aren’t going to be enforced. But come the winter and flash-forward to me driving like an ould biddy and struggling to get up to these limits! You win this round Japan.

Another factor slowing speeds on the roads is that they pummel them with jets of water to keep them clear of snow. They mostly come from pipes
My question board in one schoolMy question board in one schoolMy question board in one school

Check out my kids enthusiastic and slightly invasive questions haha
that run parallel to the road and jet water out every metre or so, but sometimes the overenthusiastic jets are aimed at windshield height, so every now and then you get a power hose blasting on your screen! My first time I was caught by surprise, as I had my passenger window slightly open…I franticly searched for the button, but was too late……I was not too impressed with that to say the least! You can imagine the stream of abuse I shouted at the inanimate pipe..

School business

On the JET program I am an ‘Assistant Language Teacher ’, but what does that actually mean? The aim of us being here is to expose Japanese students to native English, and foreign culture. In practical terms, they want one of four English classes a week to be involving an ALT, for every student. In my entire prefecture every junior high school and senior high school has an ALT to achieve this aim. But what do we actually do in these classes?

Well everyday is different really as we work with all the different English teachers in all our schools. I work with 5 English teachers, who all have different styles of teaching, and who all use me in different ways…No not like that! Some teachers plan the lessons weeks in advance ‘Nigel could you prepare a presentation and some games for a class on Christmas next week?’. No bother boy!

Some will get me to join the class after they have taught the target language (the boring part) and spend the last half of the class doing some activity or game to make English more exciting for the students. For example, last week one teacher was doing the continuous tense (running, walking etc.) and I said lets do a game of charades (gesture game), which the kids loved. You always know if an activity is a hit or not depending on what the kids do when the bell rings. My kids wanted to continue playing through their 10-minute recess before the next class. HIT!

Others will come just before class and ask me to join the class and we discuss what were going to do on the walk there! We work using the textbook teaching the target language with non-lame sentences that we make up on the fly, like instead
Osaka CastleOsaka CastleOsaka Castle

Myself and two other JETs from Fukui (Sophie and Teari)
of the textbooks ‘Could you show me that book?’ I’ll write ‘Could you tell that student to be quiet’ while pointing to the boys in the back chatting. Seeing the light that comes on in a student’s head when they figure out I’m actually asking them to do something instead of teaching something abstract is awesome. Then when a student does tell the boys chatting to shut up, they get all embarrassed and the class laughs at them. Two birds with one stone there..!

Very simple, yet effective ways of bringing the language to life. Essentially that is why we are here; to make the language feel tangible and real. So when the students write the answer to ‘Why is English important?’ they don’t just write ‘English is not important. This is Japan.’

Of course some kids are better than others, and some are smarter than others, but when you see a kid who is not interested in English, making an awesome Christmas card for you in English, you know you are making a difference here!

Free Time

Life on the JET program is pretty leisurely to be fair. We
My roomMy roomMy room

quite spacious actually...just a little weird!
have a big social network just like in college, but the difference is we have money to be able to do stuff on our days off. Japan is an awesome country to explore, thanks to the well-developed rail network, so we’ve been checking out local cities lately.


Osaka is Japan’s second city, and a big shopping and partying hub in Japan. It’s also famous for it’s tasty food like okonomiyaki (like an omelet/pancake thingy) and takoyaki (chopped up squid in a tasty ball). We’ve checked out the impressive fortifications of the imposing Osaka Castle, and been to see the whale sharks at the meccha kakoii (very cool!) aquarium.

One of the funny things about living in the inaka (countryside) is that we know all the foreigners in the area. So when we come to the ‘big smoke’ (big city) we’re naturally wondering who any foreigner is…Tommy Tiernan’s ‘But what do you do?’ comes to mind. It takes a few minutes to adjust to not recognizing every western face!

Capsule hotel

Now these are an experience everyone should try at least once. Imagine walking into a hallway with rows of capsule chambers stacked sci-fi’esque the length of the corridor. Then climbing up a short, metal staircase and going headfirst into your ‘room’!? Good craic!

Also, check out the picture of one of the excellent ‘Engerish’ signs that read “The man doesn’t put it in the female zone. The woman doesn’t put it in the man zone. Please use a prescribed man and woman common zone for the interview etc.” ????

The rooms are about 2metres long, 1m wide and about 1.25m tall. They’re quite comfy actually, but a little bit weird that you can’t lock your door (there’s only a little bamboo blind). All your belongings are on a different floor, where you also change into your nightgown and leave all your luggage. The ‘showers’ are on yet another floor, and I was quite surprised to see a man bollock naked drying himself as I entered the changing rooms. The shower was actually a traditional Japanese bathing pool, called an onsen, and it’s a place the normally quite reserved Japanese come to relax, butt naked (males and females separate of course)!

You have to clean yourself thoroughly first by sitting on an upside-down bucket (wtf Japan!?)
Kiyomizu DeraKiyomizu DeraKiyomizu Dera

Great spot in Kyoto!
and using the soaps and shampoos. I didn’t have a clue what was going on at first and I had to creepily watch an old man to see what I had to do (sit on the bucket)…The water is quite hot and it warms you right to the core, which is quite pleasant in the cold winter months!


Kyoto has over 3,000 temples, so it’s easy to get overwhelmed when deciding what to do. There are however a couple of gems that I would recommend to anyone who visits the city.

Kiyomizu Dera (Clear Water Temple)

This is a striking, wooden temple, with fantastic views all around, and you can see many Japanese traditions and superstitions in action like wishing wells, love stones and good luck shrines. First you must walk up the bustling trading street with local sweets and trinkets, then you will see the colourful gate and pagoda, before you set your on eyes on the main wooden structure. The massive wooden temple is constructed without the use of any nails, which is incredible because the structure is so massive!

The view is beautiful from the wooden stage by the
Fushimi InariFushimi InariFushimi Inari

Huge Torii gate at the entrance to Fushimi Inari
main hall of the temple, that juts out 13 metres above the hillside, as you can see the many cherry and maple trees that lie in the hillside below. Time your visit right and you could see the crimson reds of autumn’s leaves, or the pink blossoms of the cherries in spring.

Fushimi Inari

Dedicated to the god of the rice harvest, this intriguing shrine complex winds it’s way some 4km up a mountain in southeast Kyoto City. The entire pathway is almost entirely lined with colorful red torii gates, which are donated by individuals and companies. A number of cool looking fox statues are dotted throughout aswell, as the fox is seen as the messenger for Inari. You can also get a great view of Kyoto from near the top of the mountain, and time it right and you could see a nice sunset!

We spent an entire afternoon here wandering along the various paths and seeing some of the more remote shrines that people companies have built to ensure their continued prosperity. At the very top shrine, you can get your fortune told by shaking a cylinder and getting the number off the
Fukui Fist!Fukui Fist!Fukui Fist!

Myself and some of my buddies from Fukui!
metal stick that comes out. You will need a Japanese person to help you with the reading unless you’re very good at the ould Japanese! Just one of those places that has perfect mix of history, culture, great views and total freedom to wander about.

ALT Soccer Tournament

Every year a soccer tournament is organised for the JET's in Japan to duke it out to see who has the skills to pay the bills. It takes place on a cool little island that lies between the main island of Japan, Honshu, and the smallest of Japan's main four islands, Shikoku.

We won our first game with relative ease 4-nil, but went on to lose our next four games on the trot, which were pretty close actually, but luck was not on our side as our keeper got a nasty injury! We did come back to win a tough last match against a team that had beaten us 4-nil previously though, so we left with high spirits. The Fukui Fist will fight again another day!

So that’s all for now and I’ll leave you with my likes and dislikes of the

My prefecture also has big assed snowboarding resorts! WOOT
last few months.

Thumbs up list:

1.Snow!: It’s pretty, it’s fun to drive in, and you can go do the next thing in the list!

2.Snowboarding: One of the upsides of living in a mountainous region is we have snow resorts on our doorstep woohoo! Now, here’s hoping I don’t break anything…

3.Christmas Caroling: Nothing like a paid workday where you get to dress up like a tool, sing Christmas rap songs and throw snowballs in the name of cultural intergration!

4. Soba making: Making food from scratch and eating it is always good craic!

5. Bon-Enkais: A ‘forget the year’ party, where your normally quite reserved colleagues let their hair down to party and play silly games, while eating and drinking as much as you can!

6. Christmas packages from back home: Thanks Mum!! A dirty pack of taytos never tasted so good!!

7. Japanglish: The English language is used in abundance here, despite the fact that most people are afraid to use it. About 10%!o(MISSING)f the Japanese language is made up of foreign words like: konpyuuta(computer), ribingu ruumu(living room), doa(door), purezento(present). If you don’t know a word for
Christmas package from the MammyChristmas package from the MammyChristmas package from the Mammy

Irish mammies are the best...FACT!
something usually trying this method will get you understood. Do you have a supuunu (spoon)?

8.Sminky Shorts: Thank you to whoever made these clips to let me get a piece of home in my own ribingu ruumu!

9.Engerish: When signs and clothes have English text written on them, about half the time there will be a hilarious google translated version of English. Some of my favourites are: my sports hoodie with ‘frantic for the modern lady’, a jumper with ‘Bad Guy. It’s dangerous. The thing all which it touches is damaged.’, and my pyjamas with ‘Brown Bear. Best men ever in the world. Seeking a dream for tomorrow. New epoch waiting for men.’

10:Omiyage: A nice Japanese custom, where whenever you go on a trip somewhere, you bring back a gift for all your colleagues (normally edible). Not only is it a great chance to talk to all your colleagues, but also I have sweets on my desk every second week!

11.Christmas cards from my friends!

12. Christmas jumpers!

Thumbs down list

1.Kerosene heaters in schools: The fumes take a while to get used to, and it's usually
Around Gion in KyotoAround Gion in KyotoAround Gion in Kyoto

Gion is another great area to explore in Kyoto - try and find a geisha!
either too hot if you are close to one, or too cold if it’s on the other side of the room. I thought Japan would have some super high-tech laser system for warming the room to the optimum temperature, but that leads me to my next point..

2.Japans secret love of not using some technology: Japan is a land steeped in tradition. That is why we love it! But where there is tradition, there is a connection with the past. And by connection with the past I mean: floppy disks, fax machines, Asian style toilets (work those quads baby) and no central heating.

3.Nuclear power: My prefecture has the most nuclear power plants in all of Japan. I don't mind them really, until I read an article saying that the one near me was recently discovered as lying on an active fault line!

4.Lack of insulation: My apartment is small and easy to heat, but a lack of insulation means the heat escapes almost an hour after I turn off my heater!

5.Credit Cards (or lack there of): in most shops, retail stores and supermarkets you must pay with cash. This result in me normally carrying
Having the craic in KyotoHaving the craic in KyotoHaving the craic in Kyoto

Myself, 3 other Irish JETs, and another American JET from Fukui on a big night out in Kyoto.
about €200 worth of cash on me all the time! Luckily Japan is one of the safest countries in the world (some people even leave their cars running when nipping into a convenience store!).

6. White Face Masks: I haven’t seen about a quarter of my student’s faces for the last 2 months. In Japan when you are sick (or trying to avoid getting sick) you should wear one of these face masks. I’m used to it now, but it’s hard trying to remember names when you can’t see them!

Additional photos below
Photos: 26, Displayed: 26


My Jersey My Jersey
My Jersey

My surname in Japanese is オマホニー (omahonii)
Welcome aboardWelcome aboard
Welcome aboard

Here is your stasis chamber for the night
Golden TempleGolden Temple
Golden Temple

My Fukui buddies doing some strange poses in Kyoto

It's dangerous
Fushimi InariFushimi Inari
Fushimi Inari

A few of the thousands of torii gates on the walk

5th March 2013

Brilliant blog Nige...
Hi Nige, absolutely fascinating reading your blog...so interesting, fun and so articulate...fab! I loved Japan and your love for it is obvious! The folks are going to be blown away! Wishing you many more great months in Japan, love Chris
21st April 2013

Hey Christine! Didn't spot you comment until now! Yes, having an absolute belter of a time at the moment :-) I decided to stay for a second year aswell! Really looking forward to the folks coming over for the summer! Going to be such a different holiday for them! Hope Ciaran, Dan, Tyler and yourself are doing great :-)!

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