Thursday, 23 June 2011

Tsugaru-ben Taikai 2011

The Tsugaru-ben Taikai is held every year in Tsuruta, Aomori Prefecture. It's a competition for foreigners to put on some kind of performance using Tsugaru-ben – a famous dialect spoken in this part of the country. The 2011 taikai was held this past Saturday, and a group of us from Aomori City entered with a Tsugaru-ben version of “More Cowbell”, the famous Saturday Night Live sketch. We had a lot of fun practising and we were really pleased with how the performance went on the day. You can see it here:



After the taikai finished we all went drinking at a local izakaya, and then onto Goshogawara City to see the 虫と火まつり (Insect and Fire Festival), one of Aomori Prefecture's numerous yearly festivals. The event's origins go back to when a swarm of locusts attacked the local rice fields, leading the townspeople to begin a festival which prayed for agricultural success. At the site on Saturday there were a few bonfires and two huge sculptures that had the bodies of insects but dragons' heads. These were set alight a few times and lit up like fireworks. Everyone sat on a big bank to watch, and there were a few hundred people there enjoying the evening.

The next day we went to ベンセ湿原 (Bense Shitsugen), a famous local marsh in Tsugaru City. The marsh is covered in yellow flowers at this time of year, and you can walk across the marsh using the path of wooden planks hammered into the bog. It turns out a lot of the foreigners had had the same idea, as we bumped into quite a few there that day.

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Friday, 17 June 2011

Osaka trip and review of Universal Studios Japan

I left Kobe for Osaka on the Wednesday 25th, taking the train from Sannomiya to Nanba. In the evening I met up with the two friends whose apartment I'd be staying at. I'd first met them when the international students at Kobe University held a 'Zombie Walk' in Osaka. They both had cameras with them and ended up taking loads of pictures for us all, as well as dressing up as zombies themselves. After that they showed up at most of the big parties we had with their cameras, and I've stayed in touch with them since. I'd met up with them last November when I was in Osaka, but now they have their own apartment in 大国町, which is close to Nanba, and that's where I stayed for my three nights in Osaka.

The first night we went for dinner at Saizeriya and then biked back to their house, which wasn't very far away. On the way we bumped into Derek from Sum 41 as they were playing a show in Osaka that night. When we got back, the girls had some washing to do, so they collected their dirty clothes, stuffed them into the basket on the front of their bikes and we rode off to the coin laundry. On the way though, the wind picked up and blew some of the clothes out of the basket, resulting in these two girls' underwear being strewn across a busy road in Osaka, and us playing Frogger to collect it all back up. In the end we made it to the laundry, washed the clothes, then rode back home, unpacked the futons and went to bed.

The next day I'd planned to meet up with some different friends I'd made whilst studying in Kobe. These guys had been part of the English Speaking Society at Kobe Uni and a few of the international students had helped out at the society quite a bit. We'd go to their events and parties and help them learn English, and they were a great bunch of people. I met with up with three of them and we went and ate okonomiyaki for lunch. After that we wandered round Osaka, visiting the Apple Store, playing games at the arcade and taking purikura, amongst other things. In the evening we went to an izakaya and met up with one more friend. This guy had been the leader of the ESS Conversation Section, but he had now graduated and was working for a company in Osaka. It was the first time in a while for the Japanese people to see him as well, and they said he'd changed and was too adult-like now that he was working.

The next day was my final full day in Osaka, and the two friends I was staying with took the day off work and we all went to Universal Studios. This was somewhere I'd wanted to go while I'd been in Kobe, but back then I'd been a poor student and couldn't afford a ticket. It was a popular date spot, especially around Christmas time and I'd had friends who went and said it was great. Now I could afford the entrance price, and we went after 3 o'clock, which meant the price was even cheaper than normal.

As you enter, the park does a great job of making you feel like you're in a movie. There's dramatic music playing over the speakers and an impressive-looking canopy that welcomes you in. To be honest though, when we started looking around there weren't as many attractions as I'd expected there to be, and unfortunately, the E.T. ride had recently been replaced by something called Space Fantasy: The Ride, which didn't seem to be based on any Universal franchise at all.

The first attraction we went on was The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man - The Ride. The whole attraction was inside a big building which was designed to look just like the offices of the Daily Bugle, so walking from the front door to where you boarded the ride was great. There were desks with half-typed stories sprawled across them, and TVs playing new reports in the cartoon style of The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man. But one strange thing was that all the audio was in Japanese, and watching a Spider-Man cartoon in Japanese didn't seem right. Everything written down was in English though. For example, all the posters on the walls and the reports on the desks were in English. And it wasn't just this attraction – throughout the park, everything written was in English, while all the audio was in Japanese. Japanese people would surely miss out on much of the fun of being at Universal Studios, as hardly any of them would be able to understand the written English.

The ride itself was really good as well. You sit in a car and wear 3D glasses and the car moves along tracks, being attacked by various Spider-Man villains. In the end, Spidey shows up and deals with the bad guys, but the best part was experiencing the attacks. Smoke, fire, movement and the 3D images and audio all combined to make it a great ride. As we left, one of my friends commented that when she came once before she waited six hours for this ride. No way is it worth queuing that long for, but it was one of the better ones we went on that day. 4 out of 5 stars.

With my friends outside the Spider-Man ride

Next up we headed over to Jaws, and on the way there, the heavens opened and it started to rain. We didn't have umbrellas, and the rain didn't stop for the rest of the day. If anything it meant there were less people around though, and we didn't have to queue long for rides. The longest we waited for anything was probably about 20 minutes.

I'm a big Jaws fan, and like the Spider-Man ride, the surroundings here were a lot of fun. While we waited to board you could watch local tourism videos for Amity Island on the TV, and outside the attraction there was a big shark tied up and hanging down on a piece of rope for you to have your picture with. The ride itself involved going on a boat tour of the island, with an inevitable attack by Jaws which was eventually dealt with by the tour guide. The cool aspect of this ride was that the tour guide was an actual actor and you were on an actual boat, riding round on the water. He did a great job of trying to get on with the tour while Jaws made passes at the boat, and it felt much more real than the other rides. Rather than trying to scare you though, the actor was quite camp, and everyone ended up laughing rather than screaming. 4 out of 5 stars.

Continuing with the water theme, we headed over to Waterworld: A Live Sea War Spectacular. My friends were really looking forward to this one, and it wasn't a ride, but a theatrical performance played out on a big set in front of an audience. It was all in Japanese, lasted for about 20 minutes and some of the stunts and theatrics were great. 3 out of 5 stars.

Next we went on Back to the Future: The Ride, which I feel was a missed opportunity. This is one of the most loved films of all time, and I feel the ride is a bit of a letdown. The original was unveiled at Universal Studios Florida in 1991, so I'm sure it was limited by the technology available back then. But while the Florida version was replaced with another ride in 2007, the same ride came to Universal Studios Japan in 2001 and is still going. You sit in a DeLorean, but unlike the Spider-Man ride, the car isn't on tracks – it just rocks and vibrates while you watch a big screen in front of you, and it's hard to escape the feeling of staticity. It was cool to see the video of Doc Brown and Biff which explained the storyline of the ride while we were queuing, but the story itself ended up pretty weak. Instead of having you travel to more modern eras and periods in history, the ride just tried to wow you with epic-looking scenes. For example, you visit the ice age and cretaceous period which gives you the chance to see vast icey landscapes and some dinosaurs, but none of it really feels like BTTF. Going back to the 50s would have been better. 2 out of 5 stars.

Next up was Space Fantasy: The Ride, which only opened last year. Like I said, it wasn't linked to any film, but tried to push a story where you depart from earth to save the sun, which is dying. And rather than being serious and dramatic, everything is painted as cute and bouncy, and I didn't think it was all that great. You sit in a circular car that runs around on tracks and rotates, and it all goes quite fast, but the interior of the ride looked really cheap in parts and just felt like an up-market ghost train at times. I think the E.T. ride would have been much better, although E.T. does make a small appearance towards the end of this ride. 2 out of 5 stars.

Next we went to T2 3-D: Battle Across Time, which is based on Terminator 2. The idea of this ride is that you're visiting the headquarters of Cyberdyne Systems to view the company's newest creation – T-70 Terminators. You go into the main hall and a member of staff comes out to welcome you all and tell you a bit about the company. You then see a promotional video, but it's interrupted by a transmission from Sarah and John Connor, telling you to leave the building as they are about to blow it up to prevent Cyberdyne from fulfilling their sinister plans. Again, all the audio is in Japanese, and while this is obviously necessary at a Japanese theme park, the original film is in English, so the experience is a bit strange. But on the whole, the surroundings and the whole vibe is great, and it's all pretty close to what you see in the films. With films like Terminator and BTTF which were produced in the 80s and 90s, these rides do a good job of replicating the aesthetic and feel of that time.

Back to the show: after the video ends the staff member comes back on stage and tells everyone to ignore the transmission, then ushers you all into the auditorium to watch the demonstration. There's a big screen at the front, and the T-70 Terminators rise up around the sides of the room. Everyone puts on their 3D glasses and the demonstration begins, but it's interrupted by actors playing Sarah and John Connor who appear on the stage at the front. Arnie appears as well, although the Arnie actor is tiny compared to real-life Arnie. But the action doesn't just play out between the actors on the stage. These actors literally 'step in and out' of the film that's playing on the big screen. For example, a door opens up on the stage and Arnie and John disappear into it, then reappear in the video on the screen. There's a cool video sequence which lasts about five minutes and shows Arnie and John being chased on a motorbike, and the 3D effect works to make the film feel more real. After this is over, the actors 'step back out' of the screen and return to the stage, where there is now also T-1000 trying to kill Arnie, but it all ends with Arnie succeeding and blowing up Skynet. The whole show has a good concept, but at times it seems overcomplicated and the transition between stage and screen was a bit jarring, especially as the actor playing Arnie doesn't look much like the real Arnie. In fact, in a similar way to the BTTF ride but to a lesser extent, the story seemed a bit forced and was over too quickly, but all in all it was a fun experience. You exit through the gift shop, and it's the perfect time to buy souvenirs of the show you just saw. 3 out of 5.

By now it was getting dark, and most of the rides were starting to close down. We were planning to finish off the day on the one rollercoaster at the park, Hollywood Dream: The Ride, but possibly because of the rain they weren't allowing anyone on, so we decided to finish off the day at Jurassic Park: The Ride. This was another water based ride, but this time the car was on tracks. There was little background or story involved, as you just took a tour of Jurassic Park, by water. At first everything is very slow and tame, and I wasn't that impressed by the animatronic dinosaurs to be honest. But as you progress, you realise that something isn't quite right. There are dinosaurs running free and destroying the facilities, and this all climaxes when a huge T-Rex appears and tries to eat the passengers in the car. At this point the car drops from high up down a steep ramp and splashes into the water. And with that the ride is suddenly over. The gift shop for Jurassic Park was really big and sold some great dinosaur themed toys and goods. 3 out of 5 stars.

All in all, Universal Studios was a fun day out, and I'm sure it'd be even better if we hadn't been soaked through for the whole day by the rain. If you're gonna go, you should go after 3 o'clock when the ticket price drops, and that still leaves you with enough time to hit all the big rides, providing it's not that busy. A lot of the fun comes from seeing your favourite films fleshed out into actual physical locations, and the Spider-Man, Jaws, Jurassic Park and Terminator rides were good at this. As for the number of rides, it seems USJ just imports rides from the Universal Studios parks in Orlando and Hollywood, but I think they could increase the number of big rides, and increase the quality of rides like BTTF and Space Fantasy. Also, a couple more rollercoasters would be a good addition – one isn't enough. So USJ was good, but not the best theme park I've ever been to.

The next day my two friends went back to work and I caught the Shinkansen back to Aomori, arriving home around midnight. It was great to be back in Kansai for a short while, seeing some old friends and hearing the Kansai dialect.

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Sunday, 12 June 2011

Kobe trip

As I mentioned in my last post, I recently took a two week holiday from work, spending the second week in Kansai. Having studied at Kobe University a couple of years ago, I wanted to go and visit some old friends and places in Kobe and Osaka.

I arrived in Kobe on the night of Sunday May 22nd and went to find the hotel I had booked over the internet. It was in Sannomiya, the city centre of Kobe, and fairly near to Ikuta-jinja, a famous shrine. Hotel prices in Sannomiya were on the expensive side, but I managed to get this hotel for around 4000 yen (30 pounds) a night.

I had thought of a couple of places I wanted to visit in Kobe, and one of them was Port Island. The international dormitory I used to live in is there, so I spent a lot of time on this man-made island. It's a quiet place, full of apartment buildings and storage businesses for the local shipping industry, but there's also an Ikea, a university, various parks and quite a few hotels. To get to Port Island from Sannomiya you take the Port Liner, which is technically known as an automated guideway transit system – a train which runs without a driver. It looks a lot like a monorail as it runs on a track high above the roads, but the Port Liner was apparently the world's first AGT, opening along with the island in 1981. There is also a normal bridge, which allows you to reach the island by car, bike or on foot, and I decided to rent a bike from a coffee shop in Sannomiya called SPARK and ride over to Port Island.

As I arrived on the island it was time for lunch, so I started to head over to the big Ikea, whose café we used to frequent. On the way though, I rode past my old dormitory and decided to stop by. The back door was open and I went inside and knocked on the office door. The old caretaker from before was still there and we had a bit of a chat. He told me the place was mostly empty now as most of the international students were at other dorms closer to Kobe University, then he suggested we go up and have a look at my old room. There's no-one in it now, or even in the whole corridor. We also bumped into the cleaning lady who used to wake us all up every morning, banging her way around the dorm with her trolley full of brushes. Although Port Island is a nice location, it makes sense that most of the international students now live a lot closer to the university, as we all spent a lot of time and money making the journey there and back every day. I also noticed that the area just across from the dormitory where we used to play frisbee and football was no longer a dusty field, but was now covered in grass.

Area across from the dorms

Then I got back on my bike and headed over to Ikea. I think this was Japan's first ever Ikea, and I always thought it was a strange place to have one, as Port Island is a bit out of the way. In fact, I had a Swedish friend who lived at the dorm and had a part-time job in Ikea's kitchen, and she often said that they were considering closing it down as business wasn't great. Speaking of Swedish people, there were two or three at the dorm while I was there, and they loved Ikea. When they spoke about it, it was always in a reverent tone and I think they really did feel a strong sense of pride that Ikea is a Swedish company; one of the Swedish guys used to regularly buy snacks from the food shop there and hand them out to us all like tracts. Although even the non-Swedish among us used to go there quite a bit. It was great for buying any new items of furniture when you'd just moved to the dorm, and we'd often go just for the café. Many a time we would buy a few hotdogs and cover them with ketchup, mustard and dried onions for a tasty meal after a night of heavy drinking. Add to that a free-refill drink and you had tea for around 500 yen. It wasn't the healthiest, but it tasted great.

The menu had hardly changed from before, so I got three hotdogs, a drink and a cinnamon roll for my lunch. Unfortunately, the same couldn't be said for Izumi-ya, a giant supermarket that used to sit just across the road from Ikea. A lot of us students used to do our big shop there, often after eating at Ikea, and we'd also buy alcohol there, as we usually had outdoor parties in the vicinity. But now there's nothing there. Even the concrete car park was gone, replaced with rubble and grass.

Lunch at Ikea

I stopped off at the site where we'd had a couple of the aforementioned parties next, then rode over to the university campus whose basketball court we often used to play on. It's an idyllic location, just next to the sea, and they never seemed to mind us playing there, although today it was tipping it down and the rainy weather made it look a bit less spectacular than before.

Last, I stopped off at Gourmet City, another supermarket we used to frequent, but often only for one or two items, as it wasn't as big or well-stocked as Izumi-ya. It did have a free drinking water service though, something that's quite common in Japanese supermarkets. You buy a big plastic bottle and a membership card and you're allowed to fill up your bottle with water from the machine as much as you like. We all used that service quite a bit, and would often make the journey in summer in groups, like a caravan of desert travelers to the local oasis.

I'll always remember the way knowledge of Gourmet City spread amongst the international students. The place was hidden away in between trees and apartments, and wasn't obvious to the naked eye. After first arriving at the dorm I'd spent a few days buying junk food from the local Lawson's (convenience store), but one day we got talking to a fellow new arrival who had inherited a lot of appliances and local knowledge from his predecessor. He told us of Gourmet City and where to find it, and we would then in turn pass this knowledge on to the other new students who came throughout our stay. Port Island was a strange place to live, and when we'd first arrived we hadn't been given any information on the local area. We had to fend for ourselves, and I think one of the reasons we all got along so well was because a pack mentality was vital to our survival.

And that concluded my return to the Island. I headed back to the mainland, stopping off at a park called みなとのもり公園. It's located at the intersection between Port Island and Sannomiya and we'd pass this park every day on the Port Liner. It had always been under construction, but now it was finished; a vast expanse of green grass and trees sat in-between a tangle of grey roads and bridges. You often find parks like this in the middle of big Japanese cities.

The Port Liner running past みなとのもり公園

I returned the bike to the coffee shop, and by the time I got back to the hotel I was soaked through due to the rain, but after drying off I headed out to a nearby restaurant called 意屋 (Kokoroya) to meet some friends. 意屋 is somewhere a lot of the international students used to go during our time two years ago. It started when three of our friends got jobs as waitresses there, and by the end of the year, whenever we had a party, we'd have it at こころや. We got to be good friends with the 店長 (tenchō, the name for the head of any kind of shop or restaurant), and I've stayed in touch with him over the last two years. While the food is mostly Japanese-style, the 店長 also spent some time in a kitchen in France, so his dishes have a bit of a foreign twist. It was good to see him again, and one of the Chinese girls who worked there as a waitress two years ago is now back in Japan, studying at Kobe Uni and working at 意屋. Unfortunately, she's one of the unlucky international students who still have to live at the dormitory on Port Island. I also invited one of my old teachers from Kobe University. He's a British guy who took Japanese at Sheffield many years before me and ended up teaching me when I came to Kobe. I also invited another Chinese friend, and she had just finished her degree and was leaving a few days later to go back to China; the very last of the international students from my time in Kobe.

After enjoying dinner at 意屋, which included Kobe beef, me and the teacher guy went to a British-style pub just down the road called the Hub. There I met up with another friend, a Japanese guy who'd been in the rock music society I'd joined. We'd played in a punk cover band together, and it was good to have a catch-up with him and see how things were going in the society these days. And that was Monday night.

The next day I headed up to Kobe University. There are 2 train lines that take you there from Sannomiya: JR and Hankyū, and I decided to take the Hankyū line. Just like the old days, I managed to board the right train without even thinking about it. I also saw some posters for Hankyū Densha, a film that's just been released about the characters on a Hankyū train. After getting off at Rokkōmichi I started the legendary trek up the hill to the university, and just like before, the reward for your climb to the top of the hill is a great view of Kobe, and also Osaka if it's a clear day. I met up with the teacher from the night before and we enjoyed a cup of Yorkshire Tea in his office. We were about to crack open a box of fig rolls when we got a text from the girl we'd met at 意屋 the night before. She was also up at the university to say good bye to her friends, and she invited us to lunch in the cafeteria. It was around lunch time, so the teacher and I went down and enjoyed the very mediocre food on offer there. We sat with some of the current international students, and it was interesting to hear what they were all up to. Alongside his studies, one guy was getting paid by a Spanish publisher to translate a Haruki Murakami book into Spanish.

View from up at Kobe University

After lunch I bumped into an old Japanese friend on campus and we had a bit of a chat and took some pictures. She didn't know I was in Kobe so she'd been surprised to see me. Then I headed back down the hill and got on the train back to Sannomiya, where I headed for a music shop I often used to visit. They have a great selection of instruments for you to play, and that includes a few different electronic drum kits. The kits were still in the same place as before, and I sat down and jammed for 20 minutes or so. Even the staff in the shop were the same.

It was getting close to tea time, and I had plans to meet up with a family whose children I had taught English to before. I knew them quite well and they'd recently sent me a big parcel of dried food as the mum works at an import shop in Sannomiya. They'd invited me to their house once before, and I went with a friend from the UK who was visiting me in Kobe at the time. We went to the local public baths with the family's son, and it was a strange experience for both of us Brits as this 10-year old naked Japanese boy scrubbed our backs for us. After coming back from the baths we'd sat with the family's father and watched VHSs of all the metal bands he'd recorded off TV in the 80s. Being Japanese he enjoyed the music, but often didn't understand the lyrics or song titles, and I translated some of them for him.

So back at the hotel I picked up a few gifts I'd brought for the family from Aomori, and then I caught the train to their small little suburb. It was good to see them all again, and the mother cooked some great okonomiyaki and sobameshi for us all. When the father returned home from work we cracked out the beers and got back to talking about 80s metal. We're into a lot of the same bands, and the father said he was really happy to be able to discuss these bands, as none of his friends like the same music as him. He told me about when he went to see Stryper in concert when he was in high school, and how his band used to cover Ratt songs. I also translated some more song titles and lyrics for him. It was a lot of fun.

And that ends my time in Kobe. It was great to be back seeing all my old friends and visiting all the familiar places. Kobe is a completely different Japan from the one you'll find in Aomori. It feels far more cosmopolitan, even more so than Tokyo in some ways, and if I was ever to come back to live in Japan again, it would have to be Kobe or Osaka.

Next time I'll write a bit about Osaka and my visit to Universal Studios.

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Saturday, 4 June 2011

A family visit

I recently took a two week holiday from work. During the first week my family came to Aomori, and during the second I visited Kobe and Osaka.

My dad, sister and brother arrived in Tokyo on May 15th and took the Shinkansen up to Aomori on the 16th. They stayed until the 21st and we rented a car so I could show them around Aomori Prefecture. In Aomori City we visited Wa Rasse Nebuta Museum, the Sannai Maruyama ruins, the Shōwa Daibutsu and did go-karting at Moya Hills. In Hirosaki we rented some bikes for free from the local tourist information centre and rode around the city, visiting Hirosaki Castle and Tsugaru-han Neputa-mura. One night we met up with all the JETs in the area and had a drink at a local bar, then we visited Towada Art Center and Lake Towada towards the end of the week.

Showing foreign guests around Aomori Prefecture is exactly what I do at work sometimes. I especially enjoyed Tsugaru-han Neputa-mura and Lake Towada though as I haven't been there with work yet.

Showing my dad how to use chopsticks

At the Shōwa Daibutsu with my brother and dad

Playing the taiko drum with my dad at Tsugaru-han Neputa-mura

At Towada Art Center with my brother

At Towada Art Center

My sister at a batting cage

My family then traveled back down to Tokyo by Shinkansen and stayed there for another week before returning to the UK. It was the first time for any of them to come to Japan and they all really enjoyed their time here.

I'll write about my time in Kobe and Osaka next.

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Thursday, 2 June 2011

Being a CIR on the JET Programme, Part II: Advice on the application process

Having lots of mates who have studied Japanese and are interested in working in Japan, I often get asked for advice on applying to the JET Programme. JET operates a policy of not giving feedback on the application process, but knowing a lot of past and present JETs and having worked on the programme myself, assuming the process hasn't changed since 2010, I can offer advice on how to make a successful application to be a CIR from the UK. Most of this information will apply for people from other countries, and even those applying to be an ALT should get something out of it.

The UK JET website offers a recruitment timeline which shows you how the application process works. It all starts with the application form, and there are a lot of things you have to print out and photocopy for that, so if you're still at university a computer room is the ideal place to sort all this. It can seem like a lot of paperwork, but it will all be worth it if you land a job on the programme.

The application form is mostly common sense, but I'd like to emphasise that it really will pay to fill in each section with as much detail as possible. For example, one of the sections when I applied asked about 'International / Intercultural Experience (at home or abroad)', and I think it really would be worth writing down every interaction you've had with other countries and their people. JET are looking for well-rounded applicants who have had lots of different experiences within and outside of their own country and comfort zone. So if you have time, and aren't doing so already, you should definitely get involved in extra-curricular activities of some kind, especially those involving Japan, so you can write about them on your application. I was part of Sheffield University's Japan Society and helped run the football team during my fourth year, as well as helping to plan various society events. I'm sure this helped my application to be a CIR, as it showed experience of international interaction along with leadership qualities.

Another part of the application that is vitally important is the personal statement. I spent a decent amount of time on mine and also got it checked by a past CIR. If you don't have a past CIR to hand, still get it checked by at least one other person you trust to make sure the grammar, spelling and content is spot on. There's a word count, but it won't be strictly enforced as I went over slightly. I opened mine with the cheesy opening line of "I believe my interest and experiences in Japan embody my spirit of adventure and my desire to constantly learn, improve myself and overcome challenges that are outside of my comfort zone." In fact, cheesy lines seemed to work well for me, as I was asked in my interview "What did I learn during my study abroad in Kobe?" and replied that "I learnt wherever you go, humans are humans and you'll always be able to find friends." It still sounds stupid in Japanese, but one of the guys interviewing me, who had been bad cop up until that point, had a quick smirk at this. And whilst there was a grain of truth in there, perhaps more importantly it showed a sense of humour, which is important to doing well on the JET Programme.

Back to the personal statement, in 2010 you had to write it in three sections: (1) General statement: This should set forth your reasons for wishing to participate on the JET Programme. (2) What can you contribute to the Programme? (3) Current affairs: What political or social issues in the UK do you think a Japanese person is most likely to be interested in and why? But in general I think you want to really emphasise how you are an outgoing, confident and flexible person who has had a lot of different experiences, especially international ones. Like I said, if you're not already, get involved in lots of international activities, and especially ones which involve Japan and enable you to take an active/leadership role. A university's Japan Society is an ideal place to find opportunities like this.

Assuming you get past the paper application stage, you'll receive an interview in February in London. Some of this is common sense, but I think you need to present yourself even better than you would in a standard UK job interview. Japan is an extremely conservative society when it comes to appearance, and you should show that you understand this when you turn up for your interview. Get a haircut, and if you're a guy and have a beard, shave it. If you have tattoos and piercings, cover them up. The CIR interview is completely in Japanese, and mine was conducted by two Japanese people (good cop and bad cop) and one British former JET. It worked out well for me, as our teachers at university gave us the opportunity of making our end of year speaking assessment a mock interview for JET. It wasn't exactly like the real thing, but it definitely gave me some practice in answering the kind of questions you get asked and thinking under pressure. If you have either a friend who was a past CIR or a Japanese friend who's just willing to simulate an interview situation, practising for your interview will help.

During the interview there are a stock set of general questions, then you'll be asked about specific things you wrote down on your application. Lastly, there will be a reading comprehension part where you will be asked to read two articles (one easier, one harder) out loud then answer questions and have a bit of discussion on the articles. You should try to do all of this in your most polite Japanese while again expressing that you are an outgoing, confident and flexible person. The way I see it is there is a lot of competition for places, especially in the UK, so JET want someone with a high Japanese ability who will be flexible and able to adapt as much as possible to a new workplace. For example, I was asked whether I would do overtime if requested to. This isn't the time to air your views on the Japanese work/life imbalance or the lifetime employment system; in my interview I remember saying that I'd be choosing to work in a foreign country and learn about their work practices, so I'd be willing to take part and do overtime if asked. I'm pretty sure that's what they wanted to hear.

You should also remember why the JET Programme started. The idea was to provide a foreign presence in Japan, especially of English speakers, as well as give skills to foreigners who would perhaps go back to their country or stay in Japan and work in a Japan-related field. JET don't expect you to be completely fluent in Japanese or have lots of experience in translation and interpreting, but they do expect you to be very competent and willing to learn on the job. They also want you to pursue a Japan-related career once you've finished on the programme.

I remember the interviewers starting right away as soon as I sat down in the chair, so be prepared to jump right into the questions. Here are some of the general questions you might be asked in the first part of the interview: Why did you choose to study Japanese? Did you find studying Japanese hard? What do you see yourself doing after JET? Do you have any ideas for events to plan as a CIR in Japan? Do you have a preference for where to go? What hobbies would you like to pursue in Japan?

In the second part of the interview I was asked about the music society I had joined at Kobe University and my work as part of the Japan Society at Sheffield University. When you're talking don't give one word answers, but also don't ramble on for hours. One interesting piece of information came from the only feedback I have ever heard JET give to an applicant. This was a friend who's a CIR and was rejected one year but accepted the next. JET explained that one of the reasons they had rejected him the first time was because he said "ええと" ("erm") too many times in the interview. It seems bizarre, but you might want to take it into account. One way to combat such a problem is to write out and practise your answers to questions before the interview, or even just write out and practise a few sentences about yourself. This way you'll have some great sound bytes ready to go and you can mix and match them to create good answers on the fly.

I wouldn't worry too much about the third part of the interview, but making sure your kanji reading is in tip-top shape is a good idea. In mine and other CIRs' experience, the first task is doable, and the second is hard. Again, they don't want you to be able to read all the kanji perfectly, but you should have a good go and give them intelligent answers to their questions on the subject. From what I can remember, one of the articles I read was on Japanese people working from home rather than in an office. It wasn't quite as dense as a newspaper article, but was written in that style.

Once the interview is over you face a long wait to find out if you got a place, after which you must submit your health form and police checks. The police check is a standard fee, but the price for a completed health check form varies between doctors. Often the doctor will just make up a price as it's not something they do often. Make sure you don't pay a stupid amount, as I heard of people that did.

After waiting a bit more you'll find out where you'll be placed, then attend an orientation in London, then hear from your predecessor and contracting organisation. After that you'll be ready to go to Japan. Good luck.

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Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Being a CIR on the JET Programme, Part I

So I'm 10 months into my term as a Coordinator of International Relations on the JET Programme in Japan. I've been here long enough now to give an assessment of my role and of the JET Programme in general, but readers should bear in mind that there is a lot of variation between each placement on the programme. Also, bear in mind that every JET comes into the role with a different outlook and set of goals which will affect their time here and how long they choose to stay. I recently decided I'll be leaving JET and Japan in August this year as I'd like to pursue a career in journalism, but I can pass on some of the things I have experienced in applying for and working on the JET Programme.

I'm originally from the UK and currently work as a CIR at Aomori City Hall. Before JET I took Japanese Studies at Sheffield University, UK, studying there for my 1st, 2nd and 4th years and studying as an exchange student at Kobe University, Japan in my 3rd year. I originally chose Japanese as I wanted to learn about somewhere completely different from my home country and I wanted to try living in that place for a year. I was also living in Sheffield at the time of applying and Sheffield University is known for having a well-respected Japanese course. The course is known for having an extremely high dropout rate as well – the number of students in my class had halved by our final year – but around 20 of us made it through with a generally high level of Japanese ability.

Something I'd been aware of throughout my course was the fact that a Japanese degree isn't the easiest or most useful degree for finding employment. Whilst I could speak Japanese perfectly well, job opportunities in the UK would be few and far between, especially considering the job climate when I graduated (2010).

Everyone on our course knew what the JET Programme was, as a lot of former students had gone on to be JETs, and I began seriously considering it after picking up a leaflet on the programme in the university library. A former Sheffield University student who had worked on JET then came to the university and held a talk on her time as a JET. I decided to apply, and here are some of my reasons: (1) I had really enjoyed my time in Kobe during my 3rd year and wanted to go back and experience some more of Japan. (2) I had spent 4 years studying Japanese language and culture and wanted to make sure these skills didn't go to waste. (3) There were few job opportunities back home for someone with a Japanese degree. (4) I would be able to improve my Japanese ability even further and gain experience working in a Japanese office.

A job as a CIR on JET seemed perfect for my situation, and I applied, had an interview and was accepted onto the programme in April 2010 (I'll talk about the application process and give some advice later).  I found out a few weeks later where I would be placed – Aomori City, Aomori Prefecture. This was not somewhere I had requested, but I had requested an urban city and was glad I got one. It was a shame I wouldn't be going back to Kobe, but you shouldn't go into JET expecting to get your requested placement – very few people do. Also, the people who end up in the most requested places often don't request to be there, so placements on the JET Programme for both ALTs and CIRs seem to be pretty much pot luck. Conversely, I think it's a great thing that foreigners get to come to every nook and cranny of Japan and that the Japanese people in those regions get to interact with foreigners. Private English teaching companies will often only send people to the big cities, but JET sends people to places in Japan where the residents may never have seen anyone outside of their small village's population, let alone a foreigner. A lot of people want to be sent to Tokyo, Yokohama, Osaka etc., but you shouldn't go into JET expecting that to happen. However, I believe the JET Programme still far outweighs any other method of coming to Japan as a foreigner.

The JET Programme is supported by the Japanese government, meaning it's a stable job and the salary is insane. This is partly because of the high value of the yen right now, but I'm currently earning more than some of my co-workers who have a family to support. When you couple this with the fact that you often have your rent subsidised by your place of work, you're going to be rolling in it. I've heard of it happening, but no JET should ever complain about not having enough money. And again, because JET is such a big and well-supported programme, all JETs have various support networks and organisations to use during their time here. You'll be enrolled in a government insurance scheme, there's a helpline in English should you ever want to talk to someone, there are regional organisations which plan regular events/booze-ups for all the JETs in the area, there's an organisation which helps you find work back in your home country after you leave etc. You'll generally be extremely well paid and well looked after, to the point where JET can seem like an extension of university or some kind of paid holiday, because you don't even have to work that hard; the amount of work for the majority of ALTs and CIRs isn't that high, and being a foreigner here means that you will never have the full responsibility of a Japanese employee. This has its downsides in that you'll never be truly accepted as a normal worker and made to feel like an outsider, but you have to take the good with the bad, and on the whole there is more good than bad.

Within the last month before leaving for Japan I was contacted by my predecessor and a couple of other JETs from Aomori, attended an orientation in London and received my contract in the post. All of this comes fairly late. You have to be patient and wait, and when it comes it's all very helpful and the questions you have will be answered.

At the start of August I flew out with all the other UK JETs and stayed at a hotel in the middle of Tokyo. I had a good time taking in information at the Tokyo Orientation and everything was pretty relaxed. It felt great to be back in Japan, and it was funny hanging out with the new ALTs, most of whom were experiencing Japan for the first time and commenting on how much it was like Lost In Translation. We were then split off into our prefectures and all the Aomori JETs flew together on a plane to Aomori. Aomori Airport looked like Jurassic Park as we landed, surrounded by forests and a thick mist rather than the motorways and high-rise buildings of Tokyo. As soon as we stepped off the plane our contracting organisations were waiting for us like a mob of screaming fans at a movie premiere. One group was even waving a big sign with a hand-drawn cartoon of their new employee. One by one we were sent out to the mob and I took the short car journey from Aomori Airport to Aomori City Hall with my new supervisor. After being introduced to my office, I went out for lunch with a couple of my co-workers, where my 課長 (section chief) commented on how he was scared about showing me the apartment. Again, it all depends on your placement, but one of the biggest downsides of JET could be your apartment, as it will be generally old, dirty and cramped. Mine was all that and more, which lead to me requesting a new place pretty early on. I've found that inner-city JETs tend have cramped, dirty apartments, whereas those out in the countryside will have much more spacious and comfortable abodes.

Work started the same week as I'd arrived and it didn't take me long to get used to things. Everyone was welcoming and wanted to talk to the new foreigner in town. I took part in the Aomori Nebuta festival, appeared in the local newspaper and met with various people who were interested in international exchange within the city. Work consisted mostly of translations, interpreting and the occasional presentation or school visit. And it's pretty much stayed that way since, apart from the quantity has dropped off, even more so because of the big earthquake we had recently. This led me to create work for myself, such as re-designing the English section of the city's website. I had to push hard to be able to do this, with various phone calls and meetings where I assured them that I wouldn't leave the site looking like a bad Geocities page. A few times meetings would be planned but wouldn't materialise, or I'd submit the site but it wouldn't get looked at. There have been quite a few cock-ups and it's still not done, but I'm confident it will all be uploaded properly soon.

On the whole I'm really glad I came and being in Aomori City means I've had a chance to experience a part of Japan most foreigners will never see, with the advantage of being in a biggish city. Ultimately, there are other things I want to do away from Japan, such as study broadcast journalism, but ideally I'd like to eventually combine journalism with my knowledge of Japan in a role à la Roland Buerk (BBC).

In Part II I'll give some advice on applying for JET as it's something I get asked about quite a bit.

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