Kindergarten

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On the second day of teaching I had a nice easy schedule, just 3 morning lessons and then an afternoon off.  The other good thing about my Sunday schedule is that it is at Nishi-Kasai, about 5 minutes walk from my home.  All the lessons were with elementary students, so none of the really young kids that present all sorts of different challenges.  I also met a couple of other older teachers which made me feel less of an odd-one-out having trained with a bunch of twenty-somethings.

The third day was the one I had been dreading.  This day was allocated to Corporate Services Division who find companies and schools that want English teachers to come and visit them and deliver lessons on site.  In the evening I had a 90-minute lesson at a private company, but first I had six (yes six!) lessons in a kindergarten, with no breaks in between!  Fortunately they were only 15 to 25 minutes long each but it was still a daunting routine.

I got up very early because it was a relatively long journey to Ichikawa – all the way to the end of the Tozai Line, and then 3 more stops on the JR train’s Sobu line.  Because it was my first day, they sent a manager to guide and assist.  I met him at the station, to my surprise he was a fellow North Tynesider, from just a few miles from where I grew up.

We made our way to the kindergarten – a big pink building about 10 minutes walk from the station.  We went round the side and waved at a teacher who directed us back to the front door, eventually a middle-aged man came and opened it.  This was the first dwelling I’d been to (other than my sharehouse) where I had to take off my shoes – I hadn’t brought slippers so I had to wear the much-too-small house slippers from a basket by the entrance.

We were shown the two rooms where we would be teaching – one upstairs, one downstairs.  The first four classes would be in the downstairs room and the last two with the older children in the upstairs one.  Thankfully Paul said he would lead the first class and I could lead the second.

When the children arrived, Paul seemed to instantly transform from a manager into a children’s entertainer.  He had mannerisms, gestures, a particular voice, and a way to connect with a big group of children instantly.  He didn’t need to look at any notes, he just had a couple of sets of flashcards to hand on the themes we were supposed to be teaching today, and all the activities and games were in his head.

I tried to take more of a lead in the second lesson but I was struggling and making mistakes in things like sequencing – doing the right prep before an activity, showing the kids what to do and what not to do, making sure they were in the right place for the next activity etc.  Paul was originally going to go after the first couple of lessons but he saw I was struggling and stayed for all six.

Even for Paul everything didn’t go smoothly.  We were being observed by an older lady – the principal of the kindergarten, and every now and then she would give Paul a whispered note in Japanese – we shouldn’t stand up, we should lower ourselves to their level.  At one point when Paul was trying to play the music for a song on the CD, she came over and turned it off!  We did it a capella instead (fortunately I do know the words to Incy Wincy Spider).

The kids were in groups of about 12-15, and each group was accompanied by a young female teacher – I think there were three different ones – who joined in and encouraged the kids when they were uncertain what was happening.

Eventually we reached the end and said (sang) goodbye.  We had a bit of a debrief on the way back to the station and Paul assured me it would get easier with experience!  He gave me a copy of the CD with the songs – I don’t think I will ever be able to perform “Shake your Sillies” with the same exuberance he displayed! – and we headed back our respective ways.

I had time to go back home for a couple of hours rest before I had to set off for my next lesson – I was due to meet Makoto at Inage Station at 4:50, and this was an even longer trek than Ichikawa.  Again, to the end of the Tozai line but this time I took the Sobu line in the opposite direction, heading into Chiba (still part of the Tokyo prefecture but a different district with its own transport network).

I met Makoto and Shugo (who would be replacing him as the client liaison) at the station and we went to wait for a bus.  I was told I could get the 31 or the 32 but absolutely not the 33.  Unlike the Tokyo buses, in Chiba you get on in the back doors, and get off at the front doors, and swipe a Pasmo card on every entrance and exit – in Tokyo you just get on at the front, swipe once, and get off at the back, it’s a flat fee regardless of distance.

Fortunately the bus had display screens and audio recordings in English for each station, the one we needed had far to many syllables for me to remember, but I would recognize it if I read it again.  It was easier for me to remember the station before it, Ville Foret.  French I am used to.

From the bus stop we had a long-ish, but quite straight walk to the company site.  It is actually one of Japan’s biggest conglomerates and operates in world markets, and this site was quite large, but fortunately the building I needed was near the entrance.  The last thing I needed to remember was the teaching room – third floor, room 305.

It was quite a strange set up, we arrived in an empty room and waited for the students to come, it was the students’ responsibility to bring a CD player for the audio activities on the course.  The students were all in their work uniforms – khaki overalls.  There were only three of them, and they came from different divisions of the company, they didn’t really know each other outside of these lessons.

I started the lesson with Makuto and Shugo watching, but they didn’t stay long and headed out about 10 to 15 minutes in.  The lesson was 90 minutes long but I had plenty of material and had had some time to think about how to use it before the students arrived.  Perhaps inspired by the Kachidoki robot, my best idea was to practice giving directions (a topic in today’s module) by getting one of the students to be their company’s prototype new robot, and the other students to direct him around the table.   It went down quite well.  In fact the whole lesson went quite well and I think the students enjoyed it.

The journey home was very long, although I was lucky I didn’t have to wait too long for any of the buses or trains, it was almost 10pm by the time I got home.  Fortunately I had 2 days off to recover before going again on Thursday, back to the normal schools.

Sensei

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Friday was nominally a day off but it was difficult to relax knowing my first day of teaching was the next day.  I would be teaching at Kachidoki – at least I already knew how to get there from the peer observation, and I knew there would be 1 private adult student and an elementary school group, but it was the pre-schoolers I was nervous about.  Of course I had encountered them before – I had taught one five-year-old in Russia at the request of his parents, and I do not remember those lessons with affection.  I had done the Santa Claus shows which was ok, I wasn’t really teaching, just handing out presents mostly.  And I had done a few shared classes with very young children where a Russian teacher led most of the activities.  But I had never run multiple classes of pre-schoolers – some of whom had barely begun to learn Japanese!

It was an early start.  Most days at the school the first lesson is 2.00pm but weekends tend to have early morning starts because there is more demand for lessons while children are not attending school.  We are supposed to arrive at 9.30 for 10.00am starts but that doesn’t leave a lot of preparation time, so I aimed to arrive about 9.15, hoping the office would be open.

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It wasn’t, I had to wait about 6 or 7 minutes until the counsellor Ayumi appeared.  She showed me where the books and materials were and which room I would be using (it was the one with the ankle-level windows), and left me to it.  I had my carefully prepared lesson plans from Thursday, but then Paul – the teacher I had observed – showed up and offered to help by telling me about the first three classes, which he had covered the previous weeks, and giving me some familiar activities that they would recognise and be comfortable with.  We started writing up completely new lesson plans 15 minutes before the lesson started.

Fortunately with very small children, repetition is very helpful and the same activities that work for a 5 year old generally work for a 3 year old, with a bit of tweaking.  I had pretty much the same lesson plan for all my first three lessons (after those there would be a lunch break where I could think about the afternoon lessons).

One of Paul’s ideas was using the Alpha-Mat – basically a jigsaw floor puzzle where children had to match big chunky English letter shapes with the empty spaces.  My first students (in fact most of the children through the day) arrived late, I followed my training – wait outside the classroom, sit down so you are at their level, ask them a question before they can come in.  The first little boy – probably 5 years old – was into the alpha-mat straight away.  His classmate joined us a few minutes later and between them they had put all the letters in the right places after 3 or 4 minutes, and I decided it was time for the Hello song.

I did some more activities with a storybook and some flashcards and before I knew it the lesson was finished.  My next student was a little boy on his own, 3 or 4 years old, who had a habit of just staring.  I followed more or less the same lesson, alpha-mat, song, storybook, flashcards.  The third lesson was more interesting, these were the youngest group, 2 and 3 year olds – all girls, and all with their mums.  One of them was quite bright and very engaged in the lesson, one of them was a little distracted and preferred hiding around the room, the third one just clung to mummy and barely said a word.  The other two girls seemed to enjoy the songs and the actions, at least, and they all seemed engrossed by my story (from a book, about a hippopotamus called Charlie).

And again, the lesson didn’t drag, there were no awkward pauses, we got through what I planned to get through, and the mums all seemed happy enough.  It was technically lunchtime but I wasn’t going to eat, I needed to try and get ready for the next tranche of lessons at 2.00pm.  Fortunately I was told that one of the later students had cancelled, meaning there was a gap before my last lesson – one I hadn’t planned because I didn’t know about it until today!  So for now I could just concentrate on the next three.

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I was not the only teacher, there were two others – a very tall English guy, and a friendly Japanese teacher.  Paul had not stayed, he only came in as a courtesy to help me out.  I should mention one other teacher who stayed in reception all day and kept the kids entertained while they were waiting for lessons, or while their brothers and sisters were being taught.  This was an actual robot.  It didn’t move from its spot, but it had a fantastic range of movement in its arms, hands, head and upper body.  It had the cute voice of a young Japanese woman, but on its chest was an interactive tablet which the children could press to take English quizzes.  When the quizzes were running the voice switched to that of a stern male American.  The younger children loved to just press the buttons and hold the robot’s hands, the older children tried to do some of the quizzes (although in some cases it was the mum giving most of the answers!).

The afternoon lessons were a lot easier for me.  The lesson with older girls (7 or 8) at 2pm was more familiar ground, and then I had my first adult student, whose English was pretty good, I was teaching him at the same time as another teacher was teaching his son.  The 4pm lesson was more difficult – this was a former classmate of the little boy I had in the morning, they had been separated because the 4pm student was too disruptive and was holding the other student back, at least in his father’s view.  He was a little rascal, but I kept him occupied with the alpha-mat game a little longer by distributing the letters around the room for him to find (and use up some of his energy).

He did wander out of the classroom to play with the robot and visit the bathroom – his mother and very young sister were waiting outside the classroom, and in fact his sister came in for most of the second half of the lesson and started joining in some of the activities (we were just playing with coloured blocks, basically, my plan of counting and building didn’t really work out).  The counsellor didn’t seem to object to this free tuition!

I had found out before that last lesson that the adult student at 17:45 would also not be coming, so the disruptive little boy was my last lesson of my first day.  I just had to check all the paperwork was done and all the books and materials tidied away.  In Japan the students usually refer to their teachers as “Sensei” rather than by name – in our school you can decide yourself how you want the children to address you – but even if I didn’t plan on using it, I felt I had done enough to earn the title.

Izakaya

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The second week of training seemed to roll by very quickly.  Sunday was a day off, which I spent mostly recuperating.  On Monday we learned about teaching elementary school students, on Tuesday teaching adults, and on Wednesday teaching teenagers.  We also had more peer observation, Adam and I watching classes in Ginza and Shin Urayasu.

I had been told I needed smarter shoes, but after a cursory look through a couple of Japanese shoe shops, I realised that the population of Japan has considerably smaller feet than me.  It seemed that there were only two shoe shops in Tokyo that catered for my size, and one of them was on the orange Ginza metro line.  So with a little time before my peer observation at Ginza itself, I went the other way up the line (from Monzen-Nakacho where it crosses with my blue Tozai line) aiming for a station called Akihabara, from which I had worked out directions to the shoe shop.

I realised quickly that Akihabara wasn’t on the Ginza line (I think it is a JR station – the “proper” railway), so I improvised and got off at the station before my back-up station, which I had calculated would be quite a long walk back down the tracks.  When I came out of the station, I first had to find the tracks, but I kept track of which way was north (the direction of the train) and figured the JR line would be to the west.  I took the first crossing across the main road I had come out at, then the first right turn towards the railway tracks, then I turned north again to just follow the track until I found the shoe shop – I had not been able to find it on Street View but I found some nearby landmarks and figured I would find it by wandering around.

No need.  As soon as I turned onto the road running by the tracks, the very first shop I saw was a shoe shop, the exact one I had come to find.  It only sold shoes of 27cm or longer (UK size 9 and up).  I found my size 29s, picked out the cheapest pair that I hoped wouldn’t shred my feet, and bought them (just under 10,000 yen).  The salesman didn’t speak any English but I’ve been in this situation often enough to know the drill.

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Hikari Large Size Shoes Shop

Proudly carrying my new shoes I headed back to the Ginza line and made my way to Ginza station, and then the Ginza school where I met Adam.  We watched a couple of interesting adult lessons with a teacher who seemed to have a talky-style much more similar to mine, which reassured me that I would be on familiar ground with at least some of the lessons here.

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The JR train to Shin Urayasu

The next observation was at Shin Urayasu (basically “New Urayasu”) which would be one of the schools where I will be teaching.  Getting there was a bit complicated – it has a station but it is a JR station, so while getting there from Ginza was quite direct, from Nishi-Kasai it will be very much round the houses.  Urayasu is on the Tozai line but Shin Urayasu is further south, hugging Tokyo Bay.

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Shin Urayasu Aeon Shopping Mall and bus station

The school is in a big shopping mall and while we had plenty of time, we made a few wrong turns before we found it.  I also had time to put on my new shoes.  We waited in a windowless teaching room while the teacher was finishing his previous lesson.  This was another children’s lesson, with four kids whose different characters came out during the lesson – there were three boys who were respectively indifferent, competitive and uncertain, and an enthusiastic little girl.  This was the first observation where the teacher involved us in one of the games – just throwing a ball around and saying colours, or animals.  Much more fun than just watching and taking notes!

Getting home might have been problematic – I didn’t want to go on a long, circular rush-hour train journey, and figured there would be a bus from the large bus station outside the mall that went through Kasai or Nishi-Kasai.  Maybe there was, but I couldn’t find the names on any of the listings, though I did spot a bus that was going to Minami-Gyotoku which is on the Tozai line.  I got on and used my Pasmo card after realising I had to tell the bus driver my destination, and must  have managed to pronounce it well enough first time!  It may be that the bus route is quicker and cheaper than the train route when I have to go back to Shin Urayasu.

When I got home I finally took the plunge and cooked a meal in the sharehouse kitchen.  To start with I had it to myself but I was soon joined by Alain, a French engineer working at an apprenticeship with a Japanese company at Narita airport.  He was quite talkative and introduced me to some of the other residents, two Italian girls and a Swiss guy.  I had to improvise a bit with the cooking – there was no oven as such (just a microwave and a tiny oven-grill) so I pan-fried my chicken.  I’d been gradually gathering both kitchen implements (I prefer using my own pan and chopping board that I know are clean) and ingredients (tortillas and salsa were the hardest to find!) but the fajitas I made ended up being perfectly passable.

Thursday was our final day of training, mostly spent with our Directors of Study and their assistants planning our lessons for Saturday, the first day of teaching.  We could take copies of relevant pages from textbooks and teachers’ notes.  I took the opportunity to speak to Oli, the ADOS about the programme called CSD (Corporate Sales Division) where I will be travelling to client locations to teach every Monday.  This will involve a kindergarten and a private company.

Sadly, it would probably be the last time I would see most of the other teachers on the training.  They would all be working in different districts and it is unlikely that our paths will cross again professionally.  The others were all connecting to each other with various smartphone apps, but I was still stuck with the company phone that I barely understood how to operate.

Before we all went out separate ways, we all got to know each other a little better as the trainer, Gavin, treated us to a meal and free drinks (unlimited alcohol, a surprisingly cheap option) in a nearby izakaya.  These are traditional Japanese pubs, basically, though you can usually get food at them too.  Of course I settled for ginger ale and cola but the others were enjoying various beers, spirits, and a plum wine.  Soon the food began arriving too, the first dish put in front of us was apparently seaweed in vinegar which I didn’t go near but most of the others gamely tried.  Some salads appeared and then a noodle dish that I felt comfortable enough to try – I would have eaten more of it but this was my first time in earnest using chopsticks and I just couldn’t get any significant sized mouthful in one go – I was picking up each noodle individually!  Fortunately Gavin had also ordered some fried chicken and French fries so I was able to nibble on those.

Our meal seemed to have a time limit, quite a caveat on the “unlimited alcohol” perk, and we were soon invited to make our last orders.  After we finished up, Gavin said his farewells, but 8 of the 9 teachers decided to keep going.  We found another izakaya a short distance away and once again ordered various drinks and had long, meandering conversations.  The Irish teacher, Jack, talked to Adam and I about Irish history, while the various Scottish teachers compared notes on Glasgow drinking establishments.  One of the Scots, Caitlin wanted to get the full experience and practice her Japanese so she went up to some random people at the bar and started talking to them (apparently she didn’t start well as her greeting “ohio” means “good morning”).

One of the other customers at the bar was smoking a cigarette, another example of cultural differences.  I haven’t seen very many people smoking in Japan, it is considered impolite to smoke (and indeed eat) while walking so the ones I’ve seen have mostly been stationary, outside offices and shops.  It just doesn’t seem as common here as in other cities, which for me is a great advantage of living here!

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The last I saw of them…

Adam left early, leaving money for his drink, the rest of us hung around for another hour or so, some getting progressively more merry.  Samson wanted to head into Tokyo centre to keep drinking, some of the others seemed willing but others were worried about getting their trains home in time.  We all made our way to the station, some headed in the other direction and I left the four remaining teachers at Nishi-Kasai, what became of them after that I do not know!

Earthquake!

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The Training Room – deserted at 9.00 am

So, to recap, I arrived on Monday, found my feet on Tuesday, started training on Wednesday, moved into my accommodation on Thursday and set up a bank account on Friday.  On Saturday we were back in training, and it got off to a bad start as I arrived an hour early – the previous training all started at 9.00am, but today if I had bothered to check my schedule, I would have known it started at 10.00am.  I wasn’t the only one to make this mistake either, Samson also arrived early.  He told me about his efforts to find private accommodation – unlike the rest of us he didn’t fancy a sharehouse, and was living in a hostel until he found a place to himself.

I could have gone back home for half an hour but the heat and sunshine continued to be oppressive, so I decided to stay in the building where at least it was cooler.  Eventually the other teachers began arriving and then the trainer.  We also had an observer – we were assured he was observing the trainer rather than ourselves – from one of the school organisation’s sister companies.

Today was all about Very Young Learners, up to the age of 6, my personal kryptonite.  Bear in mind that on my first day of teaching I have 5 successive lessons with kindergarten students and only half an hour to prepare, so I was paying close attention for as much help as I could take in.  If anything I learned how little I know.

Everything was fine until the earthquake.  It happened at 3.20 in the afternoon.  We had just finished a section of training when the building started shaking, strongly for a good 10-15 seconds, and then less strongly for maybe another minute or two.  All the other teachers just looked surprised, I just instinctively announced “oh it’s an earthquake” as if there was any doubt.

Nothing collapsed, nothing fell over or rolled off the desk, so it wasn’t an especially serious earthquake, but both the trainer and the observer who have lived in Japan for over a decade said that was a big one, probably the strongest they had felt in a couple of years.  To be clear, earthquakes happen every day but most are so light that you don’t really notice them or it’s no more noticeable than when a large vehicle drives past your house.  Our trainer described this one as a “right old rattle.”

As it was happening the school secretary (in Japan they are called “counsellors” just as in Russia they are called “managers”) opened all the doors.  The trainer explained that if things did start collapsing it’s better if the door is open, because then it can’t get blocked.  This is standard earthquake procedure.  The only other thing we were advised is that if it happened while we were at home and cooking then turn off the gas.  Most fatalities in earthquakes are fire and gas related, and earthquakes in the evenings when people are at home cooking tend to have higher death rates than those in the afternoon when people are at work.  The kids are all taught earthquake drill so probably the best thing to do if the earthquake happens in a classroom is to copy what they do.

It turns out it was about magnitude 5 and the epicentre was in Chiba, which is on the east side of the bay in which Tokyo sits at the top.  It was probably about magnitude 3 where we were, on the Richter scale.  Japan has its own earthquake scale slightly different from the Richter so there are different numbers for the same earthquake, it’s also stronger at the epicentre than in places some distance away.

After the excitement died down we got back to the training and finished about 6pm.  I took a different route home to start familiarising myself with the wider neighbourhood and was pleased to find a street with a little stream running down by the pavement and a couple of parks along the route.

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I also had been making a point of checking out all the supermarkets I passed – the main ones I had been in didn’t have tortilla bread but at lunchtime I had found one in Kasai that did sell tortillas, and opportunistically bought a couple of packets.  I have now sourced all the ingredients to make fajitas – I even found an Old El Paso section in one of the supermarkets which had spice mixes for tacos that might be passable for fajitas.  Diet was always one of my biggest concerns about moving to Japan, seeing as I don’t eat fish or rice, but I’m starting to feel more confident about my survival here.

 

The Bank

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Friday was a day off from training, but the administration process rolled on.  In the morning I headed west, towards central Tokyo to open a bank account with the bank recommended by the school because of its English-language service.

The bank is near Tokyo station, and the directions I had were from Tokyo station, but I did my homework and decided it would be cheaper to just stay on one line and get off at Nihonbashi, it was a short 10 minute walk to the bank, and I used Google street view to pick out some memorable landmarks to guide me.

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I also decided rather than buying a ticket for each journey to take the leap and get a PASMO card – this is one of two general travel cards for Tokyo transit, in fact you can use it to pay for bills and groceries in convenience stores too.  It’s kind of like an Oyster card in London, but over the course of the day I discovered it goes down very quickly!

The part of Tokyo I arrived at really is all tall tower blocks and businessmen, though one of the landmarks (a giraffe wearing a crown) did seem a bit incongruous.  I found the bank without any trouble at all.  In fact on the way I stopped in at a bakery because I spotted a tasty looking crusty baton loaf, which, indeed, was tasty.

I introduced myself at reception and produced the necessary documents.  There was a brief moment of concern as I showed my contract of employment as the date stated the contract started on 1st June.  I knew at least one other teacher had been told he couldn’t open the account until he had started working, but the trainers had told us to say we had already started training and were being paid for these 2 weeks before the contract started.  I went with this approach, and the receptionist seemed happy to continue.

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I was given a ticket (number 1) and asked to wait for a clerk.  While I was waiting, Eugene, one of the other teachers from the training came in.  We indicated to the receptionist we were in the same situation, so I imagine with Eugene the process would have gone a little more quickly.;

I was beckoned over by a clerk, a bookish-looking man (by which I guess I mean he was wearing glasses) whose English was passable without being fluent.  We went through the process of checking the details I’d given at reception, giving more information, having my residence card photographed, and filling in forms.  Most of the forms were on a tablet and just involved me reading, checking boxes, and occasionally signing my name with my finger.

One of the questions I was asked was whether I was a gangster, had been a gangster or had any gangster affiliations.  I guess in the UK that would be the money-laundering/organised crime clause, but I love the directness of the translation!  As the clerk went to get my card printed up, he asked me to watch a couple of videos.

He then asked me if I wanted a Gaica Pre-Pay card (it sounded like basically a debit card).  There were certain benefits to this in that if I used it regularly I could achieve gold membership which meant avoiding ATM charges.  I confirmed I did, and that’s where things got interesting.  The application had to go through Gaica’s website, and could only be made in Japanese so we had to do it there and then, with him helping me.  Unfortunately part of the validation process was that Gaica would send me an email with a passcode which I needed to enter to complete the registration.  When we got to that point he asked me to check my emails.  I had my tablet with me but there was no wifi signal.  I asked if the bank had wifi?  He went away – either to check or consult with colleagues how to overcome this problem.

In the end what we did was we walked together, out of the bank, down into the subway, and into an area with a free wifi network!  Then we stood in the passageway while I tried to get my temperamental tablet to open emails without switching itself off.  It was a close run thing, but it managed to restart itself before I gave up, and I got the application validated.

We went back into the bank to complete the process, just as I was about to leave with all my documents, one of the clerk’s colleagues interrupted and asked if I had been told about the automatic 3-month gold membership (I hadn’t).  This means I don’t have to pay any ATM charges for the first 3 months – after that I can stay gold as long as I put 10,000 yen on my Gaica card every month by a certain date (which I probably would anyway).  So ATM fees, which generally are ubiquitous in Japan, might not be a problem for me at all.

I left the bank satisfied with a job well done.  My next planned destination was the school’s head office where I was told I could collect my travel expenses for the training week.  I followed the directions on the map they had given me but these were just confusing.  First they seemed to tell me to get off at the station before Kanda, then they told me to take an exist from the station (East) that didn’t exist (there was only North and West), then they named a street I had to follow but there were no street names as far as I could see, and even if there were I probably wouldn’t be able to read them!

I wandered around for a while to see if I could recognise the building or one of the other mentioned landmarks (a noodle shop) but I was increasingly conscious of time – I had to get back to the sharehouse to meet the house manager and sign my contract by 2pm.  So I had to abandon this mission and make my way back to the Tozai line and Nishikasai.

I was back in good time, and the house manager came and again everything was signed on tablet, with a copy being emailed to me.  She spoke very good English and in fact said she had been a student at my school when she was a small girl!  (it has been around a long time).

Peer Observation

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I was up bright and early, finished off all the food and drink I had at the hotel, and packed everything away into either my backpack (which I would take with me) or my suitcase (which I would leave with the hotel).

Training in the morning was generally more of the same, looking at the textbooks that the school used for different levels of adults and kids.  They were all new to me but the content – the way they were laid out and the elements that they were teaching chapter by chapter – were very similar to the textbooks I had used in Russia.

The plan for the afternoon was travelling to other schools to watch actual lessons taking place.  I was paired with Adam from Glasgow, the one teacher among us who actually had a decent level of Japanese.  However I decided rather than travelling with him, I would try and get my suitcase into my new accommodation before the first observation.  To save time, and to avoid getting more hot and sweaty than I needed to (the sun was even more oppressive than the previous day), I got the train for the one stop back to Nishi-Kasai.

It was quick and simple, retrieving my suitcase from the hotel and wheeling it the 5 minute journey to my new home – although I noted that the damaged wheel on my suitcase was even worse now – before it could roll at least some of the time, now the mounting had been bent back so that the remnants of the wheel wouldn’t even be touching the ground, just the mounting scraping it.  Fortunately the other 3 wheels worked fine so as long as I kept my suitcase upright (rather than trying to drag it on 2 wheels) it moved fine – well, like a dodgy shopping trolley, but fine enough.

I have to admit when I went into my assigned room for the first time I was slightly alarmed.  It was almost like a box.  There were two windows which faced the stairwell – frosted glass, thankfully – and the one window facing outside was also frosted but made up of slats which you could angle by turning a crank.  Of course all you can see when you angle them open is the wall of the neighbouring building, but I didn’t pick this room for the view.

It was furnished but there was no bedding – presumably the house manager would bring this tomorrow so tonight I might have to sleep on a bare bed!  There was a working refrigerator and freezer, thankfully, a desk, a chair, and a shelf unit with a clothes rack.  I wasn’t even sure where I could put my suitcase – it wouldn’t fit under the bed.

Anyway this was a problem for later, for now I just left my suitcase there and headed off for the first school location, a place called Kachidoki, two stops away from Monzen-Nakacho on the Tozai line .  This seemed like a business district.  I arrived with half an hour to spare and looked for somewhere to sit and have a drink but there didn’t seem to be anywhere suitable.  So I headed up to the school.  This one was on the 8th floor of the building which was quite disconcerting as the classroom I waited in had foot-level windows.

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I met the teacher, Paul, I think he was American, he seemed like a nice guy.  Adam joined us shortly afterwards and then his students arrived – a middle aged lady and an older lady.  Paul later told us that they originally didn’t get on at all, but in the lesson we observed they interacted very well together.  Their level wasn’t high – they were being taught words like animals and “it’s a” “there are” – apparently most adult classes in the afternoons are like this, older students who are studying English as a hobby rather than for business reasons – the business students tend to only be free in the evenings.

Paul was very calm, very patient and achieved the new language targets that he told us before the lesson.  It was a good demonstration.  Afterwards Adam and I had some time before the next observation at Toyosu – again just a couple of stops away though requiring a change of line.  We decided to grab some lunch.  After a little wandering around Kachidoki, Adam agreed this area wasn’t greatly served with culinary options, and we decided to try our luck in Toyosu.

Adam spotted a curry house (Curry House Coco) that he had heard good things about and suggested there.  I liked the sound of curry although this wasn’t the kind of curry house I had experienced before.  All the meals consisted of a bowl of generic curry sauce (which could be spicier or milder as required) with rice and a topping of different meats, generally prepared battered.  I don’t eat rice, but I spotted I could get a side order of fries.  So I ordered the chicken cutlet curry, without rice.  I have to say all three elements were individually delicious but it seemed a waste to kill the taste of the chicken by dipping it in the curry.

Eventually, long after we finished our meals, we left and headed for the school.  We met the teacher Michael, from Jamaica, and he was going to be teaching young learners – the first group aged 8-9 and the second 11-12.  These were entertaining lessons to watch, particularly the way Michael kept control of the class, and how he had conditioned the students to know how to respond to certain cues when switching from one activity to another.   He also used materials in several different, interesting ways.

It was good to see how lessons happened in practice, rather than just in theory, and for me to contrast the difference between this school and my school in Russia.  The main difference was entrance drill to establish control – no-one could go into the classroom until the teacher had asked them a question.  Of course there were a lot of similarities too – the use of flashcards and songs, the kind of language being taught and the way the textbooks were used.

I headed back to my new home and was thankful to see a pile of bedding waiting for me outside my door.  I did some unpacking and tried to work out where everything was going to go in this space-limited environment.  Then I started thinking about things I would need to buy.  There were only two electric sockets, and the fridge claimed one of them, so I would need an extension cable.  I needed some water and other day to day food and drink for the fridge.  I would need soap and shower gel and washing up liquid.  Fortunately the Sunny Mall across the street had everything I might need.

City Hall

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When I got home from orientation, I checked my emails, and there was nothing new from the accommodation providers.  So I called them.  They speak English so I was able to explain my situation, they confirmed I would be able to move in to the sharehouse the following day.  They asked if I had seen the email they had sent earlier explaining all this – as we were talking it popped up in my inbox, clearly my email server was having a take-it-easy day today.

I could move in but the house manager could not come and see me until the following day, Friday, so they would just leave the room open for me and the key “in the fridge.”  Then I could sign all the contracts on Friday.  This was a huge relief for me, because it meant I could check out of the hotel as planned without having to pay for another (expensive) night, and with a confirmed address I could get on with the registration process.

The only headache was that I had to go to training again in the morning, so I would have to check out before I went, and move in later in the day.  However I didn’t want to be lugging my heavy suitcase around with me all day, so I would need to leave it at the hotel.  But it was a long day the next day, with training in the morning then travelling to different schools for peer observation.  I would need to put on my logistical thinking cap.

Fortunately the hotel confirmed they could look after my luggage after I checked out.  I then had another logistical problem – I needed to go and register my address at the ward office for my district, Edogawa (informally known as “City Hall”) but looking on the map it was a long way from any metro stations.  Walking would take too long and include a 100% possibility of getting lost, and while there were buses I didn’t know how to use them, nor would I know which stop I should get off at.  It would have to be the expensive option of a taxi.

The hotel directed me to the taxi rank.  In Japan they have taxi stops like bus stops, people wait in a line, and the taxi pulls up, and the back door opens automatically when the driver presses a button.  I got in when it was my turn and gave my destination in English.  The driver didn’t have a clue what I was saying (he was an older gentleman who may not have learned any English at school).  He didn’t have any maps to point at and I couldn’t think of any non-verbal gestures to convey the concept of “administrative office” so by consensus he opened the door and let me out again.

A quick return to the hotel, and getting the receptionist to write down the magic words in Japanese script solved that little problem.  I returned to the taxi rank just as another passenger was getting into the previous cab, so I would have a different driver.  He still didn’t understand me so the written cue was extremely necessary!

1000 yen notes are the most commonly used bills, and they are worth midway between a fiver and a tenner in English money.  Nevertheless it intuitively feels like a lot of money, and as the journey took longer and longer – most of it seemingly waiting for lights to change – the counter went up beyond 1000 and then beyond 2000.  I knew roughly where the city hall was and was keeping an eye on the sat nav to make sure we were going to the right place.  We got there at around Y2300, fortunately I had enough cash on me to cover that, and the driver helpfully pointed to the right building, though it was pretty obvious!

I went in and looked for the “English-speaking volunteers” I was promised.  There were a couple of people wearing “information” arm bands, I spoke to one of them and was directed to a cashier, whose English was passable enough to get the job done.  I explained why I was there and that I needed to register my address, and she went and returned with a bunch of forms that we went through to fill in together.  She told me what else I would need to do while I was here – apply for health insurance and a “my number” which – I’m not sure – is some kind of tax code.  I also asked about language lessons and got given some information about those.  Then she took my residence card – to get my address printed on the back – gave me a ticket and asked me to wait at another desk.

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I had been concerned that I hadn’t left enough time to do everything that needed doing before 5pm – I had about 2 hours – but after that initial wait, everything moved along quite quickly.  I got my card back, went to another counter, filled in a form for Japanese government health insurance, got a health insurance card, got a certificate of residence, and I was done!

Now I had the problem of getting back home again.  I didn’t fancy spending another Y2300 on a taxi, but there were no metros nearby.  Perhaps I could have just walked south until I hit the tracks, but it would have been a long walk.  Then I noticed at the bus stop that one of the buses terminated at Kasai Station – perfect!  I could get on, stay on to the end of the line, then walk back to the hotel.

There was even some information in English about how to use the bus – it was a flat fare (only Y210), you got on at the front, dropped coins into the coin slots, and disembarked through the rear doors.  Easy!

And no, I don’t have a story about how it turned out to be way more complicated – it really was that easy.  Instead I can show you the fun designs for the bus seats, and tell you how the driver got out, moved people to make space available, and set down a ramp when a wheelchair user wanted to use the bus.

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It wasn’t a direct route, we went over the next river (into the next district, I guess) and back again, but we ended up at Kasai Station as promised.  As the bus emptied one young student was clearly asleep, as I was getting off I saw the bus driver getting out to go and wake him up.

I got back to the hotel just about ready to drop, but glad I had got a lot of the difficult administrative stuff to do with moving out here out of the way.  Now I just had to think about tomorrow and handling check out, luggage collection, and when exactly I would move in.  I did go and scope out my new digs before I fell asleep just so I would know how to get there quickly when dragging my luggage the next day, and that the entry code I had been given really did work (it did).

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Orientation

 

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On my 3rd day I arrived at the school office near the station in Kasai.   As it was only one stop from my hotel in Nishi-Kasai, I walked, having timed the journey the previous day, capybara and all.  Unlike the previous day it was bright, sunny and very hot.

The school is on the 4th floor of a building above KFC restaurant.  One rumour I heard was that many of the school’s offices were on 4th floors of buildings because the rent was cheaper, Japanese believing the number 4 to be unlucky (because the word for it sounds like the word for “death”).

I had arrived with time to spare and was hanging around outside when I saw another western-looking fellow going in, so I followed him.  I caught up to him just as he was greeting another guy in the lift, these were my fellow new teachers Samson and Eugene.

We found the office and were welcomed in by Ian, one of the senior directors and our first trainer of the day.  Gradually other teachers joined us until we were 9 in total, mostly from the UK but with an Irishman and a New Zealander.  Strangely three of the UK contingent were from Glasgow, and some of the trainers also turned out to be Scottish.

Ian began the orientation, telling us a little about the school, our working day and week, our annual calendar, holidays, cover arrangements, and drilling facts and numbers into us that we would be tested on at the end of training.  He also explained all the things we needed to sort out so the school can start paying us – address registration, health insurance, bank accounts etc.  Some of the other teachers had already done all this, as for me I still hadn’t had my permanent address confirmed so I was hanging on for that, as were a couple of the other teachers.

He then introduced us to our Directors of Studies (and Assistant DOS’s) – as we would be working in different districts, we were split into smaller groups.  They were able to explain a bit more about where exactly we would be working and the kind of thing we would be doing.

My DOS, Colin, took me aside and explained that because of my experience they had assigned me a kind of outreach teaching role one day a week, called CSD, where I would visit non-school premises and deliver lessons to clients.  In particular, there was a kindergarten… I masked my alarm (my experience teaching very young children has not been an unqualified success) and resigned myself to an opportunity for development.

Later, we were introduced to Gavin, who would be our main trainer through the week.  All the trainers and managers were former teachers so they all knew what we were going through and they stressed that once we got through the first few weeks of getting used to everything we would have a great time.

We were all wrapped up by lunchtime, some of the teachers dashed off to sort out things like registration and accommodation, but five of us went to a nearby café to have lunch and debrief.  One of the other teachers, Adam, had pretty good Japanese skills so we let him do most of the talking when asking for a table and ordering.   I think he, his fellow Scot Caitlin and the Irish guy Jack were the only ones with any knowledge of Japanese, so I wasn’t alone in my ignorance.

After lunch I headed home to see if I had heard anything from my accommodation providers.  Ian had provided me with a company phone until I got my own one sorted out (I got the sim card but it didn’t work in my handset), so I had no excuse not to chase them up.  More on that next time.

First Impressions

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My first encounters with Japanese people was going through immigration, they were very polite and friendly, not like the usual scowling immigration officers from certain other countries.  They had machines to take fingerprints and photographs, and plenty of people standing by the queues and machines directing people so everything moved quickly.

I had the same experience when I changed money, enquired about a train ticket and collected my mobile phone card, all very friendly and polite and everyone understood my English.

That changed a little later – I went into supermarkets and phone shops and while the politeness and friendliness was still there, the English ability wasn’t.  The older lady in the supermarket kept chatting to me in Japanese anyway even though I couldn’t understand her at all, I know she asked me if I wanted a bag, but other than that I’ve no idea what she said.  Luckily the old trick of pointing at the numbers on the cash register meant I could still complete transactions effectively.

You can’t judge too much about cities from their airports – although being confronted with a toilet with lots of buttons, most of which I’m still not sure what they were for, seemed like a typically Japanese experience.  One of them played watery flushing noises without actually flushing, to presumably mask any embarrassing watery sounds you made yourself.

The train system sounded simple at the desk but got more complicated at the platform.  There was only one map of the network and it was not very clear about which direction the train I needed to get was going, and which stations it would stop at.  By studying it closely (and using the free station wifi) I developed a theory, and knew if I got off at certain stations I could find other lines to go to where I needed to go.  On the train there wasn’t a list of every stop but a display of the next two or three, so I was able to fine-tune my theory by watching where the train did and didn’t stop.  There was a red line of stations, one of which changed to the Toizei line which I needed, and basically the train from the airport was jumping from line to line to get to its destination, and I became sure that it would stop at all the red stations.  This turned out to be correct.  I held my nerve and got to where I needed to be.

On the journey we travelled from the airport, through the countryside, into urban Tokyo.  The most noticeable phenomenon, which I had also seen from the aeroplane as we landed, was the rice fields.  Hundreds, maybe thousands of them, all flat and flooded with water, sectioned off into neat, tiny rectangles.  I guess they love their rice here and have to grow a lot of it.

I arrived at my station, Nishi-Kasai (I surmised, and later checked that nishi means West and higashi means East) and emerged onto the concourse I had checked out before I travelled on Google Maps.  The subway line actually goes above this part of the city, so the exits from the stations go down to ground level, there is usually a big square surrounded by shops with a taxi rank (at Kasai proper there is a bus station and a huge underground bicycle park).  Many of the shops have signage only in Japanese, a few have English words or brand-names, but you can more or less tell which ones sell what.

I found my hotel (polite, friendly, English-speaking), and collapsed into sleep, waking again at around 11pm, and spending a few hours catching up on the internet and world news (after watching the Game of Thrones finale).  The following day it rained.  All day.  The hotel lent me an umbrella (I left mine at home because it was broken and just added unnecessary weight) so I went out to check my route for my first day at the school the next day.

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Randomly, I walked past a cage containing a horse and a capybara.  This wasn’t on a main street, this was one of the alley-like streets following the line of the subway.  It appeared to be connected to some kind of performance school.  But this seems to be the kind of random thing that you see on your way to work in Japan.  A capybara.

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They are big on bicycles.  The smaller streets don’t have pavements, just line markings to show where people and bicycles go, and where cars go.  You need to always be aware of what’s behind you.

They are not big on Western brands.  McDonalds and KFC are there, 7-11s from the US, a couple of pizza shops, but that’s all I’ve seen in the Kasai area.  I’m sure there’s more in downtown Tokyo.  In the convenience stores they have few products I recognise.  Coca-Cola is there but not prominent.  Pepsi seems to have rebranded here as Japan Cola and is frequently absent from the shelves altogether.

There are lots of vending machines on the streets (most with Coca-Cola livery).  There is a popular soda here called Calpis, which is white.  I haven’t tried it.  They have large halls full of arcade machines – maybe gambling machines, I’m not sure.  In the UK we used to have lots of amusement arcades but they have mostly disappeared now.  In Japan they are massive.  When you walk past them you can hear all the machine noises, music and clinking and clanking and gunfire and explosions.  Some of them have lots of staff who stand by the machines and bow at everyone walking past.  I may investigate this phenomenon further.

The Hiatus

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Finally, I am back in the saddle.  After a 6-month hiatus in the UK – during which time I continued teaching online – I now have a new assignment and a new adventure in a brand new country to me – Japan.

Getting the job was quite straightforward – with 2 years teaching in provincial Russia, I now have a CV that could walk me into most English schools around the world, and I’m no longer wary of the more competitive big city markets.  Having said that, I was undecided where to go next and applied for jobs in Spain, the Czech Republic, Chile and was offered a position in the Maldives, which I decided wasn’t quite right for me.

What drew me to Japan?  Primarily it was the challenge, the need to face my fears.  I used to have a recurring dream of being lost in Tokyo, unable to speak the language or find anyone who spoke English, and completely confused by the different culture.  On the other hand Japanese culture is fascinating, a blend of ancient traditions and hi-tech craziness.  Even as a child I would watch (dubbed) Japanese shows like Monkey and Battle of the Planets and I’ve since developed a taste for Ghibli-style animation.

My only hesitation was that the positions available were not due to start until May, and I was living without an income for all those months.  After some technical hitches I eventually found a way to do some online paid teaching, which helped (I was also living rent-free with family which helped much more).  Short-term teaching jobs are difficult to find – there was one well-paid one in one of the Gulf states with dates that would have bridged the gap perfectly, but unfortunately someone else beat me to that one.

I had to make some arrangements anyway – I needed a visa, which meant I needed a Certificate of Eligibility, which meant I had to send all my certificates to Japan to be scrutinised.  Then I had to make two trips to Edinburgh (closer than London but still an inconvenient journey!) to submit my visa application at the Japanese Consulate and later collect my passport.

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My ride – Milan to Japan

As for flights, I found a good priced Alitalia deal going from Heathrow to Rome to Milan to Tokyo, with 2 check-in bags of up to 23kg included – much better than KLM’s excess-baggage rip-off (I still haven’t had my money back for that).  In the end, leaning on my experience from my last emigration, I travelled a lot lighter and only actually used one suitcase for check-in, with a few heavier items in my carry-on luggage.

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No excess baggage fees this time!

I set off on Saturday at 3pm, and arrived in Tokyo on Monday at 10:35 (02:35 UK time, right in the middle of the Game of Thrones finale!).  Customs and immigration were far more straightforward than I had been led to believe – I was asked to wait a few minutes while they checked my visa but then I was more or less waved straight through.  I had a hotel booked but the room wouldn’t be ready until 15:00 so I was shattered by the time I got there.  Luckily I had a full day as a buffer before I was required to report for training with the school.

As for my first impressions of Japan – well, that will be my next post.