Destination: Matsue Adventures

My plan for today was simple: go to Matsue Castle and come home later to eat some leftover curry. However, today did not turn out like that. I did make it to the castle, but so many other things happened afterwards that I was floored by how much I’d almost missed out on. Shimane continues to surprise me!

First off, the Matsue Castle grounds do not just consist of Matsue castle. They also include a shrine and a twentieth-century building known as the Kounkaku.

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The Kounkaku is a welcome center built in 1903 and it was originally built to accommodate the Emperor of Japan while he visited the area.

Now, it’s used as a general events space, historical landmark, and tea room! The team room is a tiny restaurant just to the left of the entrance and is known as the Kamedayama Tea Room (spelled in kanji as 亀田山, or “Turtle Field Mountain”). They offer a lot of cafe eats and treats, but they also serve some local herbal blends. One of those blends being Kuromoji tea.

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I don’t know exactly what kinds of herbs are used to make this but it’s delicious! Sort of sweet, sort of floral, and a spicy-soothing sort of aftertaste. Not to mention, the cup it comes in is beautiful.

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So after finishing up here, I went on to the castle. Matsue Castle sits at the top of a hill, so you can get some great views of the city!

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What I didn’t realize, though, was that the castle employs volunteer tour guides for international visitors. One of said guides found me and, since I was the only foreigner around, he ended up giving me a private tour of the castle! Which, by the way, if you don’t know much history about Japanese castles, it’s fascinating and you should absolutely do some research. Here’s some of the things I learned from the tour guide:

At one point, there were about 20,000 castles in Japan, including larger castles (like Matsue’s) and smaller forts. That changed when the Tokugawa Shogunate united the country and the number of castles dropped to about 200. After time and World War II passed by, a lot of major castles suffered severe damage and had to be reconstructed. Today, there are only about 12 castles in Japan that maintain their original structures. Matsue Castle is one of them. The interior is made from some of the same wood it was built with about 400 years ago and so much of the castle’s design is built to last.

If you look closely at some of the pillars in Matsue Castle, you’ll notice that they’re a few different pieces of wood fitted together. This construction method was used because for one, it was easier and cheaper to construct massive pillars that way, and for another, it allowed the pillars to be more flexible in case of an earthquake.

Working your way through the castle’s floors, you’ll find sights like a well (that’s said to lead out to a pond in the back of the castle, but no one has ever checked) and artifacts from the castle’s heyday. Among these artifacts are several suits of samurai armor, some of which were donated by descendants of warriors who defended the castle.

Eventually, when you make it to the top of the castle, you have a view in all directions of Matsue City. One of these views looks out on a particular set of mountains known as “The Sleeping Buddha.”

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These mountains are so named because they look like The Buddha lying down to sleep. There is some debate, though, as to whether he’s lying on his side or his back.

Chatting with the tour guide, I really realized how much of a small area I’m living in! It turns out, my guide had been talking with an ALT from Oda City just a few days before. Not only that, but his mother graduated from one of the junior high schools that I’ll be teaching at! Small, small towns. Small, small world.

After my guide and I reached the top of the castle, he offered to show me an Inari Shrine that was just down the way, and I said I wanted to see it. Basically, if you exit the castle and go down a path just behind it, you’ll pass by the pond that the well inside the castle is said to lead to, and then end up at this shrine.

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If you like foxes, visit every Inari Shrine you can, because fox statues are everywhere! My guide told me that foxes are seen as symbols of a good harvest because they eat mice, who eat rice, and they’re said to be messengers of the goddess, Inari (goddess of rice and fertility). One thing about this shrine, though, you can’t bring dogs. They even had a sign talking about it.

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According to my guide, foxes are afraid of dogs. So it’s thought that if someone brings a dog into the shrine, the deity will run away!

All around the shrine, you see larger stone foxes, and tiny ceramic ones. The ceramic foxes are for sale, and people buy them to offer prayers. Some of the stone fox statues, I’m told, were built in the Edo Period!

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After walking around the shrine, my guide and I parted ways. But before he left, he told me about a museum just down the road dedicated to the writer, Lafcadio Hearn. I wasn’t planning on stopping there today because I was feeling tired and almost ready to go home, but I ended up going to the museum anyway and I’m so glad I did!

Basically, Lafcadio Hearn was a writer born in Greece and raised in Ireland. Over the course of his life, he became fascinated with folklore, ghost stories, and little-known cultures. Eventually, he moved to Japan and became an English teacher in Matsue. While in Matsue, he met Setsu Koizumi, the daughter of a samurai family, and wrote several English books about Japanese culture and mythology.

Setsu would tell Hearn traditional folktales as she knew them, and Hearn translated them into several English collections. He also published books about aspects of Japanese culture that he found enlightening, such as the common hobby of trapping bugs and keeping them in cages. According to the Lafcadio Museum, he once said, in a university lecture, that the Japanese and the Ancient Greeks were the only ones who really appreciated insects.

Later, when Hearn married Setsu, he took her last name and changed his name to Yakumo Koizumi.

I’m really not doing Hearn justice with this crash-course description because Hearn is basically a writing rock star. He lived such a full and interesting life, and the city of Matsue really seems to revere him. In a printed guide of the museum, the museum’s director is quoted saying, “Hearn was not bound by the prejudice of Western centrism. His open mind gave him great insight into the essence of Meiji era Japan, and he made proposals for Japan’s future.” In other words, at a time when Japan was rapidly Westernizing and the West made little to no effort to understand uniquely Japanese cultural aspects, Hearn fully embraced them and (much like other giants like Kakuzo Okakura) wrote books in an attempt to explain to Westerners what they should understand about Japan.

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Right next to the museum is Lafcadio’s former residence. It’s small, but it has gorgeous gardens!

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Oh, and did I mention? Matsue Castle, the Lafcadio Memorial Museum, and the Lafcadio Former Residence all offer discounts on tickets for foreign visitors!

So that was my day. I didn’t plan most of it and I definitely would have done more, but after the museum and the residence, I actually was tired and ready to go home. I’m absolutely coming back to this area of Matsue some other time, though!

It continues to surprise me just how good Shimane is at hiding things. For one, it was a prefecture I’d barely heard of before being sent to live here, and I hadn’t heard of Izumo or Matsue at all. But every time I go out to visit someplace in the area, I find something I wasn’t quite expecting that makes everything so much better. I’m beginning to think that Shimane is one of the best-kept secrets in Japan. And now that I’m mentioning it, if you come here, try new things, put yourself out there, and most importantly, be nice. Don’t be THAT tourist. Be willing to keep an open mind and discover where the road might take you, because it can take you to some great places!

 

 

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Shimane Oreientation

For the past two days, I’ve been at Shimane Orientation, which is like Tokyo Orientation, but better. Tokyo Orientation was interesting, but since there were so many of us in one place and since “Every Situation is Different”, the best we could get in terms of specific answers to questions were anecdotes from ALTs who may or may not have been from a prefecture we were heading to.

Shimane Orientation, on the other hand, was specifically for the ALTs and CIRs in Shimane. It was a much smaller, much more close knit group, and a lot more helpful in terms of figuring out the details of daily life in Shimane than Tokyo Orientation could have been. This said, Tokyo Orientation did have some high points. For example, we got to hear about Japan’s national goals for English Education and the kinds of resources available to JETs through international relations programs such as CLAIR. But Shimane Orientation taught me some things about living in Japan that no one ever told me before. Not to mention, I got to see some familiar faces again.

On the way to Shimane, I became friends with quite a few of the other ALTs and CIRs also placed in the area. The thing is, however, I was the only JET going to Izumo this year and so most of the people I bonded with from Tokyo Orientation live in places that are pretty far away from me. This week, though, we all got back together again. We got to swap horror stories and success stories and in between sessions at the orientation, we got to go out for lunch and/or karaoke. Seeing everyone again was great. On top of the reunion, though, we had some sessions with information I’m really glad we got to hear.

One of the most important sessions that happened at Shimane Orientation was hosted by a local police officer. He talked to us about specific traffic signs and procedures in Japan that we might not be familiar with. For example, he told us that in Japan, it’s possible to see a police car driving behind you with their lights flashing, but unless the sirens are going off, they’re not actually trying to pull you over or get past you because of an emergency. He also talked to us about how, if we get into a car accident, no matter how major or minor, we have to tell the station it happened so that no one can accuse us or anyone else of being in a hit-and-run. Before this session, I had no idea these specific situations and laws existed in Japan, so I’m really happy we got to talk about it.

We also had a talk about how important it is not to post pictures of students online. According to the JETs running the panel, there was an incident somewhere in which an ALT posted a picture of a them and a student online, but that student was part of a witness protection program. Aside from that, since ALTs are acting as teachers, it just helps to err on the side of caution for our own good as well as our students’.

Aside from these talks, we got to ask the JETs running the panel (all of whom are starting at least their second years now) specific questions about working with elementary and junior high schools, senior high schools, what exactly a CIR does, and just general day to day stuff. There’s one answer in particular from one of these Q&A sessions that’s really stuck with me since then.

Earlier, someone had asked a question about what to do if we noticed a grammar point in an English textbook was wrong. I extended the question by asking what if there was a section of reading in the textbook that just made zero sense and was difficult to read. I was thinking about one story, in particular, that I noticed in a third-year junior high English book. The JETs in charge suggested talking with our JTEs, like we should do for most things. But they also warned against going overboard with correcting English because, especially at lower school grades, one of the points of English education is to help students gain confidence in just trying to speak English, even if they make mistakes. Today, I spent the afternoon helping to edit speeches that students had written for an upcoming speech contest. I kept that piece of advice to not over correct in mind while I was working. The speeches that these students wrote were full of heart and charm, and I wanted to make sure they could keep their own voice in their speeches, even if I had to correct some things.

I remember there was one sentence in particular that had an ending I considered changing, but didn’t. I didn’t change the sentence because it was technically correct, even though it wasn’t typical conversational English, and if I had tried to change the ending of this sentence, I probably would have had to rewrite the entire sentence. Also, my predecessor, who taught at my schools before me, had done this same task of correcting speeches the year before, and she warned me specifically against rewriting the students’ speeches too much. The reason for this being that memorizing a speech in another language when you’re in junior high school is hard, especially if you’re handed a speech that’s been rewritten the way a twenty-something native English speaker would deliver it. So I tried to keep the students in their speeches as much as possible and all in all, I think they turned out well.

The Shimane Orientation is one of the last big things I’ve had to do before I actually start teaching and getting involved in my schools. Right now, I couldn’t be more excited! I think working at one of my schools this afternoon went really well and I get to visit my smallest school tomorrow. I never thought I’d say this when I was younger, but I can’t wait for school to start! (Also, I can’t wait for the cold weather because the end-of-summer heat and I are not getting along AT ALL right now.)

 

 

Destination: Hinomisaki Shrine and Lighthouse

Hinomisaki is an area about 30 minutes past Izumo Taisha. It’s most famous for it’s shrine and it’s lighthouse (which is where I stopped!). It was definitely an adventure to get there and I don’t think I even got to see all of it.

If you take the road that goes past Izumo Taisha and just keep going, you’ll be on the road to Hinomisaki. There are busses going that way, too, if you don’t have a car; you can probably catch them around Izumo station. One thing about the road, though, I was not expecting it to be so narrow! The road to Hinomisaki is a highway that just barely counts as two-lane. On top of that, the highway winds and turns all around the coastline and sea cliffs. That said, the drive really isn’t that bad (I tend to be a nervous driver and I got through it all right), but if you’re not expecting it, it can be a little anxiety-inducing.

However, despite the twists and turns, the road offers some amazing views! This was my first time ever seeing the Sea of Japan and the road to Hinomisaki was such a great introduction! The coastline is made up of cliffs and rocks dotted with a few small beaches and a few small towns. All along the road, there were people who had parked their cars to get out and take pictures of the ocean. It would be gorgeous at sunset or sunrise, but the middle of the day, when I went, is just as beautiful!

This road is very foreigner-friendly when it comes to making sure you don’t get lost. Any signs directing you to either Hinomisaki Lighthouse or Hinomisaki Shrine will be written both in Japanese and in English and they’re pretty easy to follow. Which brings us to our first stop, Hinomisaki Shrine!

At some point, you’ll see a sign, which will tell you to either go straight, to the lighthouse, or take a turn to go to Hinomisaki Shrine. This place is definitely worth a recommendation!

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While shrines like Izumo Taisha are more famous, they tend to be pretty crowded for most of the day. Hinomisaki is not as famous, but the upside is that it isn’t very crowded at all! When I was walking around, there were only a few other families and couples besides me and the walk around the grounds was really nice a quiet.

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The whole place feels pleasantly secluded, since it’s at the bottom of a hill and surrounded by trees. The best part, though, is all the different buildings that make up the shrine grounds. The main buildings themselves were beautiful, but there was also a small rock garden and a couple of secret places.

My favorite secret place I found at this shrine was the small Inari shrine. If you walk a little ways past the main buildings, you’ll find a path to a torii gate that leads into the forest. This torii gate takes you to some stone steps that take you up to this little tiny shrine building in a grove up the hill.

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If you’re looking for quiet, this is definitely the corner of the Hinomisaki Shrine grounds to go to. When your at this Inari shrine, you’re completely surrounded by trees and the grove itself isn’t that big, so it’s just you and the shrine. If you just stand there and listen to everything around you, it almost feels like there’s a sort of ancient-feeling energy in the grove; like you could be almost anywhere else in time and this shrine would probably stay the same. Or you might easily forget any kind of plan or worry you might have brought with you. I’m a sucker for hidden places in the woods, so it was really easy to see this place as something special.

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When you’re finished at the shrine, Hinomisaki Lighthouse is just down the road, not even a five-minute drive. You can park in the giant lot, and then the area is yours to explore! On the way to the lighthouse, you’ll pass by several small restaurants and souvenir shops. I definitely recommend stopping by here for lunch. You can try some famous Izumo Soba, or if it’s hot, you can stop anywhere to get shaved ice or soft serve.

When you get to the lighthouse, it’s right next to a path that can take you up or down the coast.

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When I was there, people were sitting on the sea cliffs and watching the waves come in. I didn’t get a chance to walk down the path more, but it looks like something that would be worth doing. Plus, it doesn’t look like that difficult of a walk and according to a map of the area I was looking at, there’s something called “Seagull Island” that might be interesting to look at someday.

Anyway, in front of the lighthouse is a small museum talking about the lighthouse’s history, though it’s all in Japanese. What little I was able to read was that the lighthouse has been around since 1903 and it’s one of the tallest masonry lighthouses in Japan.

When you get to the lighthouse entrance, you pay 200 yen (about two dollars) to go to the top. You need to take off your shoes before you go.

Along the way up, there are windows you can look out of that show you how high you’ve gone so far, and when you get to the top, you end up in a room right underneath the beacon. From there is the door to the outside of the lighthouse.

The view is of the town below you and all the cliffs. I could have stayed up here for a long time watching the ocean!

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As long as you’re not afraid of heights, this lighthouse provides some great views and is definitely worth a visit!

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All in all, Hinomisaki was an amazing day trip from Izumo. I didn’t get to see everything in the area, but it looked like there might have been a place to swim and again, there’s the path that takes you on a walk along the coast. One more thing, on the way to Hinomisaki, right before you start going on the highway that takes you to the lighthouse and shrine, you’ll pass by a beach with Benten Jima, a small rock formation in the ocean with a shrine on top of it. This is a great sunset place and it’s also where some of the festivities for Izumo’s Kamiarizuki celebrations begin. I wanted to stop by on the way back, but the parking was full. Still, if you can stop by Benten Jima and Hinomisaki, it would be a great full day of traveling!

Destination: Izumo Shinwa Festival

On August 11th and 12th, the Izumo Shinwa Festival was held. This is Izumo’s version of the Bon Matsuri and is also a chance to celebrate the mythology unique to the Izumo area.

The first day of the festival was dedicated to the Bon Odori and other activities and performances. For example, the festival featured a performance by dancers and musicians from Brazil!

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Izumo, apparently, has a sizable population of Brazilian immigrants. From what I’ve heard, this is because a company based in Brazil owns a factory in the city and a lot of people come from Brazil to work here. Some families even own businesses of their own in Izumo, like restaurants. The dancers and musicians at the Shinwa Festival were really popular! Throughout their performance, they pulled different people from the audience to come and dance with them. Some people were really excited to dance, and others were forced by their friends to do it.

The Bon Odori happened later that night.

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Basically, different groups of people who had been practicing the dance beforehand lined up along the edges of a street. Live music was broadcast through speakers and the dancers slowly moved in a circle around the street. It was really neat to see because so many different people were invited to dance. There were groups of elementary school kids, older ladies who had clearly done this for years, and everyone in between! A friend of mine from JET even got to join in!

The second day of the festival was dedicated to a fireworks display! This was set up along the Hiikawa River. According to Izumo mythology, this river is where Ookuninushi (the god enshrined at Izumo Taisha) killed Yamata-no-orochi, the eight-headed dragon.

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The fireworks display happened in several increments that built on one another until they reached the finale. It was really cool to see because a lot of the increments were coordinated with music that was played by a live band! And, of course, there were plenty of food stands and games to play throughout the whole thing (and for some reason, fidget spinners were a really popular prize for the games).

This festival is a great one to come early to on either day. On the first day, the Bon Odori is one of the last things to happen, so it’s a good idea to come early if you want to see the other performances and try some of the food out for sale (I recommend the Sanbe Rice Burgers!). If you come early on the second day, you can pick out a spot to sit down and watch the fireworks, and you’ll have plenty of time to walk along the river or get some food (I definitely recommend setting up a spot for the fireworks as soon as possible, though). It also helps if you take the train or some other form of public transit on both of these days, especially the second day. There was a lot of traffic heading towards the Hiikawa River and the roads were pretty narrow, so it looked hard to drive through! Hiikawa River is close to a train station, though, that you can get to from Izumo Station and the first day of the festival takes place almost right in front of the station.

All in all, this is definitely a festival worth seeing!

 

On ESID

If you apply for the JET Program and start asking questions like, “How many schools will I be working at?”, “What should I wear to work?”, and “Where will I live?”, you’ll probably receive the unsatisfying answer of, “Every Situation Is Different”. During my application process and all throughout processes like Tokyo Orientation, this is the answer I received for most of my questions. People had personal examples of what it was like in their situation on JET, but they told me over and over that my experience could be completely similar or completely different. By and large, I found out the most about my city and prefecture by asking questions to my BoE (Board of Education) supervisor and then asking a million more questions to the JTEs (Japanese Teachers of English) that I work with at my schools. That said, though, it’s still helpful to ask around and see what other peoples’ experiences on JET are like so that you know what to prepare for in any kind of scenario. So, in the interest of ESID, here’s some examples of my experience so far and how other people I’ve met are living with something completely different.

 

Rent and Living

 

I live in a tiny apartment  building owned by the Board of Education that’s exclusively for ALTs (Assistant Language Teachers). The building is a little bit older, but the apartment is a pretty decent size. There are two other ALTs who live in the same building and a few others who live in different places around the city. the best part about where I live is that it’s SUPER cheap. Utilities are all my responsibility, but the rent itself is 10,000 yen or about 100.00 dollars a month. The city I live in only has about 170,000 people in it and is considered to be “countryside”.

At Tokyo Orientation, I met ALTs who were being placed in different areas around Tokyo and their main concern was rent. In Tokyo, rent is SUPER expensive and you’ll get a smaller apartment than you might get if you lived further out of the city. However, traveling to other places in Japan from Tokyo is really easy. There are busses, trains, and planes that can take you just about anywhere you want to go in the country and I’ve heard travel fares can be pretty reasonable. In contrast to me and my prefecture, travel can be a little inconvenient depending on where I want to go. For example, if I wanted to go to Hiroshima, which is just south of my prefecture, the city next to me has a highway bus special that will give you the two-hour trip to Hiroshima for about 500 yen or 5.00 dollars. However, if I want to go and visit some friends who live in northeastern prefectures, it can get complicated. There’s an airport in my city, but it isn’t the cheapest or most convenient. There are overnight busses to different places, but those involve spending several hours on a bus and sleeping on the bus. Then there are the trains, and those will take you to stops in a few other major cities before arriving at where you want to go.

On the subject of travel, I’ve met a few ALTs placed on the Oki Islands, which are a group of tiny islands about an hour or two hours by ferry ride from the mainland. Depending on where you live on the islands, there might be a few other ALTs in your area or no other ALTs in your area. To meet up with people, you’d probably have to take ferries between islands. Also, when functions like the prefectural orientation happen, you have to go all the way back to the mainland to attend those.

As far as things like cars go, smaller places like the Oki Islands or other small rural towns basically require you to get access to a car. Then there are places like my city, which are bigger and have public transit, but it’s still more convenient to have a car. In my case, I just got my car from a rental place and every other ALT in the area does the same thing. The great thing about rental cars is that you pay one fee to the dealership per month and that’s it. In contrast, if you own a car, there can be challenges with trying to get rid of it once you leave JET and there are a lot of fees surrounding cars for insurance and inspections and things like that. Renting is nice because it just cuts down on steps you need to take.

The main reason I needed to get a car because I’m an ALT and I work in schools all over the city. There are some CIRs (JET Program members who work in translation and international relations rather than teaching) I know who don’t have cars because they just work at City Hall all day and their places are close enough to ride bikes to. Living in a bigger city with more public transit can also make it optional or unnecessary to have a car. For example, the Tokyo ALTs have access to, in my opinion, one of the most convenient and accessible railway systems in the country. In Tokyo and other large cities, it’s possible to rely completely on transit if you want to.

 

Schools

 

School situations largely depend on where you are and what level you teach. For example, ALTs who teach high school usually spend a majority of their time at one school. This is because high school ALTs have a lot of responsibility within their schools and might be more involved in lesson planning than junior high or elementary school ALTs. However, if you teach in a big city and/or at a lower school grade, you could have anywhere from a few schools to over a dozen schools.

In my case, I only have three junior high schools; a bigger school, a smaller school, and a school for kids with special needs. On different days of the week, I go to different schools. There are a couple of days in the week, though, where I go to one school in the morning and then spend the afternoon either at a different school, or the BoE. During school holidays, like summer vacation, I work at the BoE. Sometimes there are specific tasks to do at the BoE, but most of the time, I’m left to my own devices. Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been using the time to work on things like my self introduction lesson for school and examples of other activity ideas to show my JTEs. If I don’t have any of that to do, though, I try to do stuff like practice kanji or read books that help with Japanese reading comprehension or learning more about Japanese culture and history (right now, I’m reading The Book of Tea by Kakuzo Okakura). I’ve heard that some BoEs can be a bit more strict about what you do with your time, but I’ve also heard that practicing Japanese or learning more about the culture is okay because that’s ultimately something that can help you with your job and living here.

As a junior high school ALT, I’m not as involved with lesson planning as a high school ALTs might be. Most of the time, I just help out with small activities and grading things like speech or recitation contests. Sometimes I get to go out and visit elementary schools for a day when my main schools are having exams. I’m actually pretty happy with that, though, because I’ve never had formal classroom experience and as an ALT, I always have a JTE with me to help run the class. This is probably a really good position for anyone who wants to teach but hasn’t had much experience yet.

One last thing I should mention, it is possible to have several or over a dozen schools. But if that’s the case for you, you’ll probably be going to different schools just for an hour or so each. I met one ALT who had several schools, but some of those schools just wanted him to read a picture book or play a game with preschool kids in the gym.

 

Salary

 

One thing that doesn’t really change is a JET’s salary. It starts off as a fixed amount for the first year, and if you stay longer than that, you get small raises each year. One thing you can’t do, though, is take on a second job alongside the JET Program duties. That’s one thing people are really adamant about.

 

Work Clothes

 

The one thing I can say about clothes for work that won’t change throughout Japan is that you need to dress conservatively. A tip they told everyone at Tokyo Orientation is that when you put on a shirt you’re considering wearing for work, you should lean all the way forward and all the way back. If any of your midriff or a large part of your chest is showing, it’s probably not appropriate for work. That said, whether your school is fine with casual clothes or wants something more business casual depends on the school. I’ve heard some ALTs can get away with wearing track suits to class. I’ve also heard of ALTs getting away with wearing warm turtle slippers as their indoor shoes during the winter months. But as a general rule of thumb, it’s easier to dress down than it is to dress up.

When I first met my schools, I was told I didn’t have to wear a suit, but I had to dress in something that was nice business casual. For me, that was a black skirt that went down to my mid/upper shins, and a nice, oversized shirt with a belt to cinch in the shirt slightly. I can wear skirts or pants if I want to, but shorts are a no-no and skirts have to go down at least to my knees. I’ve been told that during the school’s opening ceremony, I can get away with wearing a suit skirt and button up shirt without the suit jacket since it’s still going to be hot by the time the opening ceremony starts.

At the BoE, I wear business casual stuff. From what I’ve seen at my BoE, the colors of different clothes don’t really matter as long as they’re not overly loud or bright. I’ve seen yellow shirts, red shirts, and patterned shirts, but all of them are a bit muted and again, they’re conservative.

One rule I learned at the BoE that I’m pretty sure applies to my schools, too, is that I can’t show bare shoulders. My first day, I wore a suit to meet my supervisors to make sure I made a good impression. However, I was wearing a fancy tank top underneath my jacket. My supervisor told me at one point it was okay to take my jacket off, but when I mentioned my shirt didn’t have any sleeves, she said I should put on a shrug or a cardigan if I wanted to take off the jacket (I ended up leaving it on because the BoE is air-conditioned and I didn’t have a cardigan).

So in short, don’t show shoulders, knees, or your chest. This applies to both men and women. Women have a few more options in what they can wear, but men should plan on wearing pants and a button-up shirt. Shorter shirt sleeves are generally okay for the summer months, though.

 

School/Prefecture/City Placement

 

This is one subject that I haven’t been able to find much rhyme or reason to. When you fill out an application for the JET Program, you’re allowed to request up to three prefectures you’d like to be placed in. I requested Nagano, Fukushima, and Niigata, all of which are northeastern prefectures. I also requested to be placed in a suburban area rather than urban or rural and I mentioned that I preferred high school or junior high over elementary school. I ended up getting placed in southwestern Japan, though my city matches my suburban request pretty well and I got one of the school levels I wanted.

Every year, prospective JETs are placed in prefectures based on which prefectures and cities have ALTs and CIRs that are leaving. Each city participating in the program only has a certain number of positions to fill and whether any of these positions open or not determines if anyone can be placed there. In addition to this, some schools will request to have an ALT or CIR from a certain country come to work for them if they have a sister city relationship with a certain country. From what I’ve heard, Japanese ability can also be a factor in where you’re placed. For example, a lot of ALTs I’ve met who had little to no Japanese experience were placed in Tokyo, which makes sense because the language barrier isn’t as pronounced in Tokyo as it is in other places.

All of these factors can make assignments complicated, but all in all, it seems like a pretty straightforward process. However, you might run into a moment that makes you seriously question why you ended up where you did.

For example, there was a girl I ran into at Tokyo Orientation. She was assigned to teach junior high school, like me, she was from the U.S., like me, and she had about the same education experience that I did. However, she was placed in Niigata, a prefecture that I had requested, and I was placed in Izumo City, Shimane, the exact city and prefecture that she had wanted to go to! For the life of us, neither of us could figure out why we had each been placed in each others’ desired prefectures. To this day, I’m still not sure what the deciding factor was.

I also have a friend who joined JET a year before I was accepted. She told her interviewing panel that she didn’t want to join JET if she was placed anywhere she had to drive, and she was placed in a very rural town where driving was required. She’d now on her second year of JET.

All this said, though, not everyone gets placed in areas completely unfamiliar to them and at the end of the day, placements work out one way or another. Another friend I have who joined the program this year requested the Tokyo area and she was placed in Chiba prefecture, in a city where she probably won’t have to drive and is only an hour away from Tokyo. And for me, I’d never heard of Izumo before I was placed here, but it’s just the kind of area I like to live in and it has the hidden bonus of a rich folklore tradition (I’m a sucker for folklore and mythology!). Also, my friend who was placed in a rural area when she didn’t want to drive chose to continue the program for more than one year and is still in her town. So though you might not get exactly what you hoped for, you’ll still probably get someplace that you’ll end up calling, “The best prefecture” or “The best city” (This was literally every ALT that spoke at Tokyo Orientation. Everyone thinks their prefecture and city is the best one.).

 

So to close it all up, there are a ton of things in the JET program that will make each person’s experience unique. And while one blog or information packet can’t have all the answers, the right information will get to you eventually and it will all work out. If you have any questions about something that I didn’t mention here, fell free to ask!

Destination: Izumo Taisha

Today I finally got to go to one of the biggest and most famous shrines in Izumo, Izumo Taisha! I’ve been wanting to go here since I figured out where and what Izumo was. It’s only about a 20 minute drive from where I live but since I have no sense of direction and no handy use of Google maps, I got lost on the way there. Luckily, I did make my way to Izumo station and the ladies at the tourist information center there gave me some directions. Turns out getting to the shrine is supposed to be really easy…

Anyway, Izumo Taisha is on one of the further edges of the city, right next to the mountains and a bunch of rice paddies. You drive through a small historic district to get to the parking lot (not sure how it is usually, but there were plenty of spaces today!) and once you drop your car off, the whole area is yours to explore!

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Once you find the Starbucks, you’ll be right across from the Shrine! (I actually stopped at this Starbucks after I was done walking around. I really hated being that guy who stops at Starbucks instead of going to one of the local shops, but it was hot enough to swim in sweat outside and I just wanted to go somewhere I knew would have a cold drink and air conditioning. A comfy spot to see an overhead view of the area was a plus!)

The main area of the shrine begins with a wooden torii gate and a path takes you straight to the rest of the shrine.

On the way there, you pass another torii gate with two paths running on either side of it. Correct me if I’m wrong but from what I’ve read, you’re actually not supposed to walk on the center path between the two paved paths because that’s thought to be the way gods walk. On the tenth month of the lunar calendar, it’s said that all the gods in Japan leave their respective shrines and will gather at Izumo Taisha. There’s a festival every year to welcome the gods and this middle road is supposed to be how they enter the shrine.

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While you’re walking along the paths, there are also smaller shrines and statues to visit. Among these are the rabbit statues that can be found everywhere near Izumo Taisha.

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The god enshrined at Izumo Taisha is Ookuninushi, a god of fortune, matchmaking and the creation of Japan. The rabbits symbolize prosperity for couples. Additionally, one myth details how Ookuninushi helped to heal a skinned rabbit. Other gods had come by before and told the rabbit it would be healed if it swam in the ocean, but of course, the salt water just increased the rabbit’s pain. Ookuninushi told the rabbit to wash itself in water from the river and roll in the cattails and when the rabbit did this, it was completely healed.

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You know you’ve reached the main area of Izumo Taisha when you run into this gate:

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Typically, at most shrines and temples in Japan, you bow twice, clap twice, and then bow again to pray. At Izumo Taisha, however, you clap four times. Twice for you and twice for your current or future partner.

According to the Museum of Ancient Izumo, Izumo Taisha is thought to be the oldest shrine in Japan and at one point, maybe the tallest. Archaeological evidence suggests that the shrine was once built on pillars and could only be reached by a set of hundreds of stairs. One piece of evidence comes from an ancient textbook used to teach noble children. This textbook lists Izumo Taisha as the taller than the Buddha at Todaiji Temple in Nara. The Todaiji Buddha is 45 meters high.

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Other pieces of evidence include excavated remains of wooden pillars on the shrine grounds. All of these things, including a model of what the shrine was once thought to look like, can all be seen at the Museum of Ancient Izumo!

If you ever visit Izumo and want to see the shrine, just ask someone at the Izumo station how to get there. I took my rent-a-car, but it’s also possible to reach it by bus and train.

One last interesting thing I’ve heard about this shrine, some people refer to it as an “en-musubi hotspot”. “En-musubi” is a word in Japanese that can be difficult to translate into English. Some people translate it as “marriage”, but it can have a broader definition than that. “En” refers to all the connections you make with people throughout your lives, such as friends, family, and even coworkers. “Musubi” means “to tie”. If you’ve seen the movie Kimi no Na wa or Your Name, there’s a scene that explains a nice image for thinking about the meaning of “en-musubi”. The movie explains that time can be represented as a woven thread and the connections people make are what holds it all together. What this means for a shrine like Izumo Taisha is that people come here for luck and prosperity in either maintaining or finding relationships. I’ve actually seen quite a few advertisements for traditional Shinto weddings around town, so the shrine is probably a really popular place for weddings.

Anyway, if you’re ever in or near the Izumo area, I definitely recommend this shrine! Especially if you’re interested in ancient history, architecture, Shinto history, and maintaining or finding a relationships with a special someone in the future…

 

 

On Cars and Driving

I got my car today! Her name is Ed.

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She’s a tiny Mitsubishi and I got her from the same little place all the ALTs around Izumo rent their cars. The same place I wrote about briefly last time that’s run by the sweetest lady! With all the little anxieties about driving in Japan, it helps to know that Kasuga-san will be there to help if I need it. So many ALTs have stories of her going out of the way to help them!

When I first applied for the JET program, driving was the one thing I hoped to avoid doing. Back in the States, it took me three or four tries to get my learner’s permit and I almost crashed into a gas pump the day after I got the permit. I got MUCH better at driving from there but driving in America and driving in Japan are pretty different. For one, two-way roads that are only wide enough for one car are pretty common in Japan from what I’ve seen in smallish cities like Izumo. For another, Americans drive on the right side of the road while Japanese drive on the left and there are a lot of other tiny differences too:

The driver’s seat is on the left in America and on the right in Japan.

In Oregon, it’s legal to turn right on a red light, but in Japan, it’s illegal.

In America, people commonly park their cars head in while in Japan, it’s more common to back into parking spaces.

In short, my confidence in driving is shaky back home and I did not want to tempt any Driving Fates while in Japan. But one of my schools is too far to walk to and there’s public transit, but it’s kind of inconsistent. So my predecessor suggested a car and I listened to her suggestion.

After driving back to my apartment from the rent-a-car place, I think I can safely say that driving in Japan is still daunting, but it’s something I’ll get used to eventually. If I can stop turning on the windshield wipers instead of the turn signal, that is. And it’s interesting hearing stories from other ALTs about their transitions from driving in their home countries to driving in Japan. One girl I’ve talked to, who’s also from the States, said she had a pretty easy time adjusting because she didn’t drive all that much to begin with back home. Another girl, who’s classes I’ll be taking over soon, is from Australia and so she had an easy time adjusting because Australians also drive on the left side of the road.

I hope I can adjust quickly. The first thing I noticed when I started driving today was that my spatial awareness was thrown off because I’m now driving from the right-side seat rather than the left-side seat. Every time I pass by a street light or a wall, I feel like I’m too close and I’m afraid I’ll sideswipe myself!

Anyway, I’m now driving in Japan. Hopefully it’ll be a lot easier than my mind makes it out to be.

On Violins

 

Somehow, the fact that I play the violin has made it around to everyone at the Izumo Board of Education. Including the Superintendent! I met with him yesterday and he said, “Oh, you play the violin? You should play it at your schools.” At which point, I had to clarify that I’d only started practicing about a year ago and I’m almost completely self-taught except for the basics. If I can, though, I do want to use my violin for something at school! That said, I’m going to start practicing right now because the only thing worse than someone wanting me to perform in front of people because they heard I have a violin is performing in front of people who might also play the violin and completely sucking at it.

 

 

 

Shimane!

Finally, I’ve arrived!

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I flew into Shimane today! It wasn’t as hot as I thought it would be but it was definitely more humid. My supervisors and the ALTs currently working in Izumo all met me at the airport and the day began from there!

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School is still in the middle of summer break, so I won’t actually be teaching classes until the end of this month. I heard from a few ALTs in Tokyo that this isn’t the case for everyone, but it is for me and I’m so happy to have some settling in time!

Basically, after everyone picked me up from the airport, we had lunch together and then went to the board of education to start filling out paperwork for insurance, residency forms, things like that. I also got to meet a few elementary school teachers while I was there! I won’t be working with them regularly but when my junior high schools are having exams, I’ll get to come and visit their classes. I’m going to meet my JTE’s later this month.

So far, I love my first impressions of Izumo! The area is absolutely gorgeous and I haven’t even seen the beach or the area near the Izumo shrine! Dotted between the buildings are canals and rice paddies and dotted between larger stretches of rice paddies are small mountains covered with trees. As soon as I got to my apartment, I started unpacking and got to put a couple of things on the wall. They’re just little free posters I got from a couple of different places but they really make a difference in helping this place feel like mine. I’ve already started thinking about how I want to rearrange the furniture and little things I still need to buy that didn’t already come with the apartment (like a tea kettle!).

By far, though, the best part about Izumo so far is the people. Here’s a story that I think explains the impressions I’ve gotten so far: while I was out with my predecessor, Kat, and a few others, I spaced out during a conversation Kat was having. She talked about how she accidentally scraped her rental car against a brick wall. She was freaking out that she’d damaged the car, but someone calmed her down, told her it wasn’t a problem, fixed the scrape, and gave her some green tea and a pear so that she really knew that the scrape was nothing to worry about. Having spaced out, I asked Kat, “Who was this?”

She said the person who had done all of this was the head of the car rental place! Apparently, all of the ALTs in Izumo and the cities in surrounding areas go to this same place to rent cars. The couple who runs it have worked with ALTs for a long time and everyone I’ve talked to so far absolutely loves them!

I have yet to meet the folks running the car rental but I love the people I have met so far. Kat showed me around the city all day today and invited me to go see Mary and the Witch Flower (no subtitles, all in Japanese. It’s an awesome movie!). I wish she was staying in Izumo longer so I could get to know her more! In addition to Kat, I already love my supervisor! She walked me through all the different papers I had to fill out today and I’ve heard from basically everyone that she’ll constantly go above and beyond that for the ALTs here. I asked Kat about making appointments with doctors here and she said all I had to do was let my supervisor know what I needed to do and she would make the appointment and act as a translator if I needed one!

I’m pretty nervous to start classes. And the fact that no matter what happens, I’m here for a year really does scare me. But the fact that I’ve met a few amazing people already gives me things to look forward to and that helps more than anything so far.

 

Tokyo Orientation: Day 2

This post is going to be a bit shorter than the last one. Firstly because it looked a lot like yesterday, secondly because it’s currently very late, and thirdly because I need to wake up very early tomorrow.

Once again, 9 am to 8 pm, we did nothing but workshops. But the ones today were so much more fun than yesterday because they actually focused on teaching! I now have a notebook full of everyday lesson plans and we actually got to try them out. I can’t wait to put some of these into my classrooms!

The teaching workshops made up the bulk of today but after those were all said and done, we began preparing to move to our prefectures! I met up in a group with other JETs heading to Shimane and we were told everything we need to know about tomorrow. Including the fact that, when I arrive in Izumo City, I have to wear a suit because my supervisor will be at the airport and I have to make a good first impression.

Honestly, I hope they tell me I can take of my jacket once I get there because I’m not looking forward to wearing a black suit in southern Japan in August!

Once I get to Shimane, it’ll be time to get set up in my apartment and with everything I need to live there for the near future. So far, it’s looking like a nice future! My predecessor and everyone I’ve talked to from the board of education so far sound super helpful.

Posts might get a little spotty for a bit, though, since there’s no Wifi at the place I’m going to live yet and I’ve heard it can take up to a month to install! Either way, see you soon! (I’ll also make a post later about some of the sample lessons I got today since they can lead to some pretty fun times with English, haha.)