My First Week in Tamana

My first week in Tamana was an absolute blur of places, people, names and food! (So much food, help me I’m getting so fat!) I was with my host family for two nights and we somehow managed to cram in so much in that time.

The first night, after the little eikaiwa, we had a cheese and wine party which was AMAZING. I’d said my favourite food was cheese and my host family went all out to provide me with what I love. We had a bit to drink and talked about what would be happening in Tamana over the next few weeks. The big thing everyone was excited about was hanabi taikai (fireworks festival) which was on Friday. I mentioned that I’d worn kimono before and loved it, so my host mum dug out a yukata and asked if I wanted to wear it to the festival. Of course I said yes, and so we had a dress up session to make sure it would fit. Shockingly, the length and width of the yukata was fine, the only thing that needed tweaking was the length of the obi to fit around my waist (shame, shaaame on me!) I was surprised the yukata fit in the length and around my waist because the yukata had originally belonged to my host mum when she was in high school, and then both her daughters had worn it at various times, and they are all very petite ladies in the best Japanese style. Luckily they’re quite flexible pieces of clothing! Once we’d worked out that it would fit, we were sent to bed because it was very late and I had to go to work the next day, bright and early!

The next day, my host father dropped me at work which was very kind of him. He walked me to the right area of the BOE just to make sure I didn’t get lost which was probably a good idea. I’m not sure exactly what we did on our BOE days, but most of them are a mist of Japanese study, form filling, trips to get bank accounts and phones, and talking to the other ALTs. I consider myself lucky that in Tamana we have 6 ALTs at our BOE. Each ALT has a Junior High and either one or a selection of elementary schools. It’s really nice that there is always someone to talk to about work or just life in general and the senpai ALTs have been really helpful about translating and talking us through the hundreds of forms we have had to fill in. As it was my first “official” work day I wasn’t sure what we’d have for lunch, so my host mum made me a bento. It was so delicious and she even wrote my name in katakana on the omurice! I ❤ her a lot.

That evening my host family collected me and first we went to do some purikura and then we headed back to my host family’s house. My host mum is an expert at making matcha and has done it at the annual iris festival in Tamana. She gave me a quick lesson which was really interesting (I was pretty bad at it..) and then we all went out for sushi (yay!) The restaurant was called Edo Sushi but I have no idea where it is because I was driven there and it is down an absolute maze of back alleys in central Tamana. Google might help me find it again in the future I suppose. The food was fantastic and there was no much of it. I think it’s definitely one for me to try and visit again. My host father shocked me by eating his entire tempura prawn – head and all! It sounded far too crunchy for me…

After we had sushi, my two host sisters and I went to a local onsen. Tamana is famous for its hot springs and while it might sound odd to go to an onsen while the weather is sweltering, there is nothing more relaxing than a hot bath. I have onsen’d plenty of times before so I am not at all bothered by the concept, but I know it can take some people plenty of getting used to. The onsen was a private onsen and it had three baths, two outside and one inside. We sat and talked for a while before getting out and sorting ourselves out. Earlier, we’d bought some beautiful cakes from a local cake shop so we had those as a midnight snack and then headed to bed. We slept really well that night!

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These are real peaches, glazed, stuffed with cream on sponge cake bases!! THIS IS WHY I AM FAT.

The day after was the day of the fireworks festival and also the day I would go to my new apartment (I’ll do a separate post about that later). After a mad day at the BOE heading back and forwards to my new place to get the gas working and (more importantly) the air con fitted, I was picked up by my host mum, given the yukata and then kindly driven back to my house. Luckily my apartment is within very easy walking distance of the fireworks festival, so I wasn’t bothered about getting home afterwards. My host mum started to dress me for the festival, and then the doorbell rang. This of course filled me with panic but luckily I had my host mum for moral support. It turned out the gas man was back with a new piece of hosing for my gas hob because the other one was old and broken. This meant I should be able to cook over the weekend (hurray!). After he was done we finished getting dressed and my host mum dropped me off at the local cafe where I was meeting some of the other ALTs from Tamana-gun (like a district). It was nice to meet more people and I’ve hung out with them a lot since because they are all wonderful people.

After a meal we went to the fireworks festival which was spectacular. I have no decent pictures really, I was too busy trying to hold my beer and my lightbulb drink and my fan. It was really hot but it wasn’t too bad in the yukata. I had my first experience of someone trying to measure my height by reversing into me. I maintain I won – he had about 2 inches of bleach blonde hair on the top of his head which definitely doesn’t count!

After the fireworks festival I wandered home. I had been a little worried in case I forgot the route, but it’s actually very straightforward so no problems were had. I think my favourite part of the entire night was watching the little children stare at me in yukata. They were so cute in their own outfits and when we said “konnichiwa!” their eyes would get even rounder. The fireworks were magnificent and my favourite part was when they played Beauty and the Beast music while golden fireworks rained down.

The next two days were the weekend and were mostly spent in a sweaty mess as I cleaned the apartment, went food shopping, went cleaning supply shopping, went towel shopping.. You name it and I bought it! I didn’t have a car at this point (and still don’t.. Fingers crossed for Monday..) so everything had to be lugged back by hand. It’s character building I’m sure. I really wanted to do a deep clean to prevent bugs getting in and causing me problems, and so that I only really needed to do a top up clean every week. So far so good on the cleaning front.. My host family kindly came and drove me to a supermarket so I could get some heavier things like rice and pots and pans, and afterwards I went out for dinner with my host sister. We had okonomiyaki which was deeelicious and is one of my favourite foods. My host mum had come by a voucher for free beer (yay!) which I got to use because my host sister isn’t old enough to drink yet.

Altogether a very busy first few days in Tamana but very productive ones!

Coming to Kumamoto

Our time in Tokyo was short lived as on the third day we all split up and headed to our prefectures. Kumamoto left relatively early in the morning which meant I had to get up relatively early, which meant that everyone else in my room also had to get up early (sorry guys!) I actually woke up at 2am and couldn’t get back to sleep – we’d apparently had a small earthquake which may have had something to do with it. Probably because of being exhausted, I felt surprisingly emotional at breakfast as I’d got used to spending my time with my lovely roommates and leaving them to spend all my time with folks unknown was a bit daunting. Luckily the melon plates helped, and after stuffing myself I went to meet up with the other Kumamoto folks in the big hall. The hall had signs all around the edges for the different prefectures and it was odd to see people lining up and leaving in streams behind their signs. Everyone looked like they were somewhere on a scale between excited and petrified as they introduced themselves to the other people who would be flying out with them. I felt lucky to have previously met Yasmin in London and throughout the Tokyo orientation as it gave me a friend to talk to while we waited. Eventually we were ready to go, and we followed our sign out through the hotel and onto our bus to Haneda.

Kumamoto is about 6.5 hours from Tokyo by train, so Kumamoto JETs fly to their placement because the flight is only 1 hour and a half and reasonably priced (often cheaper than the train). We were bussed to Haneda and checked in with ruthless efficiency. It was seriously weird to those of us used to UK or American airports to be waved through with full water bottles and liquids, security for internal flights seems very relaxed. We grabbed some coffee and waited for our flight. On the bus to the airport, Laura and Johnny had told us that we would be heading straight from the airport to our CO (after being fed) and we’d need to have our aisatsu (greetings) ready to go. This meant that any time we were waiting and even on the plane, all you could hear around you were “hajimemashite’s” and “yoroshikuonegaishimasu’s”.

We boarded the plane which actually had a lot of room on it and we were all sat in the tail (yay – super bumpy ride incoming). I was sat next to another JET going to Tamana (Ginger Snap is his alias here) so we were able to get to know each other a bit on the flight which was nice. We came down (very bumpily) into Kumamoto and collected our baggage without incident. We then headed through the gates into the crowd to meet our supervisors and senpai JETs.

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The cutest greeting sign that was waiting for me! Thanks El Presidente for your hard work!

We were met at the airport by two supervisors and two senpai JETs (Rainbow Sunshine and El Presidente – they wanted aliases and chose their own..). I think my brain was starting to stop working because of being awake for a LONG time and the stress of flying so my introductions were basically “Hi..stutter stammer…death..”. We went for lunch at a really nice vegan place in the city (Ginger Snap is vegan) and talked about a lot of things to do with Tamana, Kumamoto and JET. I had some sort of pasta salad which was delicious but very spicy, so that shut me up for a bit.

After lunch we headed back to Tamana to the Board of Education where we would do our formal introductions to our “big boss” then would meet our homestays and do a couple of other jobs. I have to say that my formal introduction to our boss was an absolute shambles. I think I nearly cried with the stress and definitely messed up all my Japanese. Ginger Snap was a lot more composed and managed to carry the situation very well, but I like to think the experience at least gave me a baseline to work up from! Luckily he’s a very nice man and was very kind about my appalling Japanese and nerves and decided not to immediately fire me. I also nearly managed to flash him as one of the buttons on my shirt came undone immediately before meeting him but thankfully my Rainbow Sunshine and El Presidente JETs came to the rescue and made sure I was appropriately dressed!

We then got a chance to meet Ojiichan and White Black Thunder (two more ALTs who wanted to choose their own aliases). After our meetings we went home with our homestays. Mine was an absolute delight and I had the best few days with them. That evening I actually went to a little eikaiwa which my homestay sister attends with her friends. That was a lot of fun and the lady running the eikaiwa actually gave me a gift of a beautiful hand painted Japanese style fan, covered in irises which are the famous flower in Tamana. I was past the tiredness by this point so I didn’t notice the time and we actually went to bed at about 11:30, which is quite a long time to be awake considering I was up at 2am, but I was having a lot of fun! It was really nice and reassuring to be surrounded by friendly people my first night in Tamana and I’m very grateful to my host family for looking after me so well.

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My wonderful host family. There aren’t enough arigatou’s for the help they have given me!

JET: The Interview

14/12/2016. A normal day like any other. I had a day off work for a little pre-Christmas holiday and I was in Leeds to meet some friends for lunch. After getting totally lost, we managed to find each other in a Pret, and had sat down with our sandwiches. After a while I checked my phone and noticed an email notification had come in. I quickly checked it expecting my normal spam from Booking.com or Fat Face, but instead I read:

“Dear Ms Jenifer Vosper
It is our pleasure to invite you to interview for the position of Assistant Language Teacher on the 2017 Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Programme.”

I think I froze, then shrieked a bit. Luckily I had some friends to tell immediately as I felt like I was going to burst with the news. I read the email about ten times, made sure I replied and started thinking about how I was going to get to London for the interview.

 

11/01/2016. The Day of the Interview

I’d got the train down to London the night before because I don’t trust the transport system in the country not to go to shit when I need it most! I stayed in a little hotel near Paddington station because it was the closest and cheapest I could find to the Embassy. My interview wasn’t until the afternoon so I had most of the day to entertain myself in London.

I decided that since I was training for a marathon, the first thing I would do that morning was run 14 miles around Hyde Park. This was kind of a good idea in that it stopped my brain from churning over potential interview questions and it gave me an outlet for my nervous energy. On the flip side, running 14 miles is quite a lot. I got back in good time to shower and check out the hotel, but I was already pretty tired by the time I left the hotel and I still had a few hours to kill. Luckily it wasn’t raining, so I went back to Hyde Park and explored a bit. I had a meal in the Italian Gardens Cafe on the north side of the park which was really nice, and people watched (dog watched!) a bit.

I then walked down to Buckingham Palace (finding the Embassy on the way) and then sat in a little cafe until about half an hour before my interview. I made sure I was still looking presentable in the cafe bathroom, then headed over to the Embassy.

At the Embassy I handed over my print out of the interview email and my passport and had my overnight bag scanned by the security team who were really nice.

I then checked in at reception and was ushered to the left through some glass doors into a large room which looked very odd with only two sofas and a table in it. I imagine they normally use this room for receptions and things which is why it didn’t have any furniture in it other than the sofas and the huge chandeliers!

I was still early so I expected to wait, but it wasn’t long before I was joined by another girl who had an interview and we were then gathered up and escorted upstairs. Our escorts were JET alumni who did their best to make us feel at ease but I definitely felt too on edge to do anything other than make polite conversation. We were led into a side room and given a short test of our English skills. It..wasn’t hard. Easy spelling mistakes and the odd bit of grammar to correct. We then had the opportunity to chat with our escorts before we were led to our interview rooms to wait.

The interviewee before me came out and the escorts asked her how she thought she’d done. She sort of had a look of shell shock so I wasn’t feeling too great about the process by the time I was called in.

My interviewers were two ladies, an English lady and a Japanese lady. They were very friendly and tried really hard to put me at ease which I appreciated. I didn’t get any unexpected questions really, things like “What do you like most about Japan?” and “Why do you want to do JET?” were questions I already had answers too. I got myself in a bit of a knot when asked what my favourite British value was.. I came back with “Integrity” but then I decided that was probably a global value and cue a waffling speech about integrity… if anything I guess it showed I have a large vocabulary!

There was one question which they apologised for before they said it, saying that it was quite personal. I braced myself for something horrific, but really they were just commenting on my hair. At the time I had half brown, half pink dip dye and I knew they were probably going to say something about it. They asked how I would feel if a headteacher at a school told me it was inappropriate to have. I told them I was intending to get it cut off before going anyway and that seemed to satisfy them. I miss my pink hair but it’s not worth the stress of being judged or even just thinking you’re being judged when you start a new job in a different country.

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I miss my pink hair

My favourite question was probably “How will you find getting up in the morning for work everyday? Will you struggle?”. I pointed out I’ve managed it for 6 years in this country and they sort of laughed.

We finished with a short Japanese conversation. I put that I’d been studying it and at this point I do confess that I sort of panicked. I think my day wandering (and running) around London had caught up to me and my brain was exhausted. We got through a few phrases about food before I bailed out with a “Sumimasen, wakarimasen…” At least I apologised in Japanese!

I left the room and tried not to burst into tears in front of the escorts from relief that it was over! I thought I’d done the best I could but I wasn’t confident in the result. At the very least, I told myself it was good interview practice. I made my way back to Kings Cross (I WALKED THE ENTIRE WAY WHAT IS WRONG WITH ME). I had a huge meal at the Italian place in Kings Cross along with a large G&T before getting the train back to the North.

All that was left to do was wait for the results….

 

JET: The Application

I’m going to start this blog in the past. The JET Programme starts with an application, and what a beast of an application it is. It’s quite complicated to get together and I am sure it acts as a preliminary sorting tool for applicants. After all, if you can’t follow the bureaucracy of this mammoth application, how will you survive in a foreign country by yourself!

The UK JET Programme website provides a really handy timeline of the application which I made sure to study religiously before applying. You can find it here. I had decided that I wanted to apply all the way back in April 2016, so I had plenty of time to make myself a timeline and work out when certain things needed to happen by. My advice for applying to JET is to start as early as possible. Not only do you reduce stress by getting things sorted, but if anything unexpected happens, you’ll be really prepared.

Onto the application itself. Within your application you actually have four applications – so be prepared to do an unholy amount of photocopying.

Application Form: Bureaucratic but do-able. You can’t do this before they open the application period but it’s fairly straightforward once they do. Just be prepared to sit down and get it done. Triple check your answers. Then check again.

Self-Assessed Medical Form: Easy enough provided you have no medical issues. I had a recent op which meant I had to get a statement of physician as well. From what I can tell, physical ailments are not normally a barrier to success so I wouldn’t worry about disclosing them. If you get to an interview and it’s an obvious issue they’ll find out then anyway.

Statement of Physician: Only needed if you’ve disclosed something on the self-assessment. Bye bye £120 for a doctor to take one look at me and say my knee still works. Seeing as how I’ve played rugby and run a 17 mile obstacle race since my op, I think I could have told him that. But it’s belt and braces to make sure it doesn’t look like you’re hiding anything.

Authorisation and Release Form: I honestly don’t even remember this. I think it was just a case of signing it?

Personal Statement: Probably the most important thing after getting the application form right. This is where you can show that you’re a person and not just someone who can tick boxes on a form. I started writing this months before the applications opened and had it printed and ready to go before the applications opened. Try to read the Key Points section on their website and answer these as concisely as you can while still coming across as someone with a personality. And for heaven’s sake remember to check the requirements for printing.

Academic Transcript: Easy. I ordered a new copy from my University for the grand total of £10. I then found another one lying around but oh well.. now I have a spare!

Proof of Degree: Easy (once I’d dug out my degree certificate). Might be harder if you’re a current student, but I imagine you could get this before October.

Passport Photo: Why do I always look like a psychopath in these? As per usual I lost any I might have had before, took new ones, then found the old ones…

Proof of Nationality: Easy if you have a passport. If you don’t…why on earth don’t you have a passport already when you want to move abroad? Get a passport now, then all you have to do is photocopy it.

References: You can get these way before. I happen to have a very nice and flexible work place so I actually got my manager and a director to write me my references. Both of them actually asked me to proof read them too which was reassuring as there is a very specific list of requirements they have to meet. Not everywhere will be so accommodating but if you can get them early, get them early. Particularly because they have to be copied in triplicate and signed over which is just mean to the referee if you ask me.

Extras: I had a TEFL cert so I had copies of that in there too.

 

Then once you’ve got it all together, everything gets photocopied a million times (4) then put into different bull dog clips, then into one MASSIVE envelope, then posted. For peace of mind I used recorded delivery and included a self-addressed envelope because I was paranoid about the postman losing it or dropping it in a puddle.

Then you can sit back, heave a sigh of relief and wait until late December/January to hear whether you’ve managed to get an interview!