Japan is a country of contrasts: one day you can be shopping and clubbing in a big city; the next you can be in a sleepy rural village surrounded by rice fields, feeling as though you’ve stepped back in time. Those stereotypes you may imagine – of kimono-clad geisha, ancient temples and moss-filled gardens – do actually exist, but alongside them you’ll find gaudy pachinko (slot machine) parlours, seedy hostess bars, an excess of cute merchandise (each prefecture has its own personalised Hello Kitty souvenirs to persuade visitors to part with their yen), and a vending machine on every corner. Wherever you go, you won’t be able to escape this juxtaposition of traditional and modern, spiritual and material for long. But it’s precisely these contrasts that make travelling in Japan so interesting and, at times, so surreal.
Japan consists of four main islands and thousands of smaller ones, divided up into 47 prefectures. Eighty per cent of the landmass is mountainous, meaning that the flatter regions tend to be very crowded. As a result, the majority of Japanese people live in urban areas – just head to Tokyo’s famous Shibuya crossing if you want a taste of the hectic bustle of city life. However, it is very easy to get away from it all and experience a different side of life here, be it hiking to the summit of a beautiful mountain, road tripping across the vast wilderness of Hokkaido, or soaking up the sun on a deserted beach. Whatever kind of trip you’re looking for, you will be able to find something that satisfies your needs.
Many people consider Japan to be an expensive country, and as a result it doesn’t tend to feature frequently on the standard round-the-world itinerary taking in South East Asia and Australia. Of course, compared to places like Thailand it is expensive, but there are still bargains to be found, not least the Japan Rail Pass available to those who enter on a tourist visa. There are ways to get around whilst on a budget, so you shouldn’t automatically write it off as being out of your price range.
My own adventures in Japan began in August 2010, when I started working as an Assistant Language Teacher on the JET Programme. I’m the only foreigner living in a small town of around 7,000 people, in the very rural prefecture of Yamagata. Since arriving here, I’ve realised a lot of new things: I’m actually a big fan of karaoke; I now feel perfectly at ease bathing naked with a load of strangers; I often won’t get out of bed if there’s an earthquake in the middle of the night; 22 hours of travelling over the course of a normal weekend seems a perfectly reasonable thing to do; and I can also occasionally understand what Japanese people are saying to me if they speak slowly and use dramatic gestures.
I’m having lots of fun exploring this country and am constantly amazed by just how much there is waiting to be discovered here. At times, my life here can feel a very comfortable and familiar, but then something will happen to remind me I’m no longer at home, and once again I’m freshly excited at the prospect of attempting to get under the skin of what is really an incredibly exotic and fascinating destination.
So, if you’re currently in the planning stages and Japan is somewhere that has captured your interest, throw all your preconceptions aside and just take the plunge – you won’t be disappointed!
Teaching in Japan
If you want to spend a year or so living in Japan whilst getting paid at the same time, teaching English is the easiest and most common route for the majority of foreigners. In general, the only requirements are that you’re a native speaker of English and you hold a degree (the subject doesn’t usually matter). A quick search online reveals numerous companies requiring native English speakers to come and work in schools, so if this is something you fancy, there is a lot of choice out there.
In many cases, your role in Japan will not be that of a full English teacher, but rather an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT). This means that rather than being given responsibility for your own classes, you will instead be working alongside a Japanese Teacher of English (JTE). Responsibilities vary between schools, but often JTEs will be in charge of planning the lessons, and the ALT will be there to help them implement these plans and to encourage students to communicate in English.
One of the most well-known and respected ways to come and teach in Japan is through the JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching) Programme. JET is a government-funded scheme that every year sends several thousand graduates from around the world to work as ALTs in public schools. In total, there are currently around 5,000 JET participants across Japan. I’ve been on the JET Programme since August 2010, and I feel very fortunate to have the opportunity to not only travel extensively and learn more about Japanese culture, but also to experience day-to-day life in a small rural town, which is something that most tourists don’t see. The following information is about applying for JET simply because this is what I am most qualified to give advice on. There are of course other ways to get to Japan, so don’t feel that it must be JET or nothing. In fact, if you’re itching to get away as soon as possible, JET may not be your best route, and you should take the time to research different options.
The application process for JET is very long and involves a lot of paperwork, so it’s important to start planning for this as early as you can in order to get everything together. Every year, applications open in October and you have about one month to send in all that is required: a personal statement explaining your reasons for wanting to participate on JET and what you think you can bring to the programme; two letters of reference (preferably one academic and one from an employer); a doctor’s note to confirm that you are fit to spend a year in Japan; a university transcript or proof that by the following August you’ll have finished your degree; and a print out of a detailed form downloaded from the JET website. Oh, and you need to provide an extra three copies of everything except for your references. Sounds like a lot of work? It is – which is why it’s not a good idea to leave it all to the last minute. Every year, potential applicants are disqualified at this early stage for making simple mistakes such as forgetting to enclose a certain item of paperwork. Don’t be that person!
Once you’ve handed everything in, the waiting game begins. The first bit of waiting is to find out if you’ve actually made it to the interview stage. Interviews are held over several weeks from early February. In the UK, you can choose to be interviewed in either London or Edinburgh. The interview itself is short, lasting only about fifteen minutes, and is in front of a panel of two or three people. Expect them to grill you on your reasons for wanting to go to Japan over any other country, how you think you’ll cope living in a place where you may not easily be able to communicate with people, and why you think you’ll make a good ambassador to teach Japanese students about your own culture. There are a number of online forums dedicated to all things JET, so it’s worth checking them out for interview tips and example questions.
After you’ve had your interview, you then wait until April to find out the outcome. There are three possibilities: you can be rejected outright, get a place on the shortlist straight away, or be selected as an alternate and have even more waiting ahead to see if you eventually get promoted to the final shortlist. Even once you find out that you have a place, you still have to wait until about June to find out whereabouts in Japan you will be sent. At the initial application stage, you do have the option of listing three placement preferences – how far these are taken into consideration is subject to endless debate. A lot of JET placements are in rural areas, so don’t be surprised if, like me, you end up as the only ALT in a small countryside town or village. If this isn’t something you think you’d like, it would be a good plan to look at alternatives to JET, which may give you more of a choice regarding location.
Finally, you know your placement, you’ve filled in even more paperwork to confirm that you want to go, you’ve been to your in-country orientation, and you’re ready to head to Japan. Your flight is paid for by JET, and provided you complete your year-long contract, your flight home is also covered, a perk that many JET alternatives don’t offer. Once in Japan, you’ll first spend a couple of days at the official Tokyo Orientation, being bombarded with information and yet more paperwork when all you want to do is sleep, before making the journey to your new home with the other new JETs who’ll be living in your area. Then the real fun begins!
Applying for JET is a long and time-consuming process, requiring a lot of stamina and jumping through hoops. However, the amazing experiences you’ll get from a year living in Japan make it worth putting yourself through all of this. I’ve met so many new people during my time on JET, not just from Japan but from countries around the world. I’ve made friends I know I’ll keep in touch with for years to come. I’ve climbed mountains, stayed in a monastery, discovered the pleasures of onsen, eaten 100 bowls of noodles in one sitting, sung karaoke, and become good friends with a Japanese couple in their 80s who love to give me lots of food and plum wine. When I think of what I’d probably be doing had I not come to Japan, I’m so glad that I decided to apply for JET rather than just your average graduate scheme. I probably won’t end up becoming a teacher. I’m not going to live in Japan forever. One day, I’m sure I’ll have to come home and get a ‘proper’ job. But for now, my life is in Japan and I’m determined to make the most of it. If you also like the sound of this, just give it a go – you never know what will happen until you try!
Japan is seen as an expensive destination, but if you buy the JR Pass before you arrive, that’s already a massive saving if you are intending to do more than a couple of train journeys. Transport is by far the biggest expense, which is why if you are unable to qualify for the JR Pass it’s probably best to take buses rather than trains to get around.
Accommodation is also quite pricey in comparison to other popular Asian destinations. However, dorm rooms in hostels are usually the cheapest option, at around 2500 yen per night. Taking an overnight bus will save a night on accommodation, although you might not get the best sleep in the world. The trouble with night buses is that they tend to arrive very early in the morning before most places have opened. If you find yourself in this situation, a good idea is to find the nearest internet and manga café – these are usually open twenty four hours, and are perfect if you want a nap. You can pay for a private booth, in which you’ll find a comfy reclining chair and a computer – so you can surf the internet and then lie back and relax. Unlimited soft drinks are provided, and in many cases there are even showers available for an additional fee. If you’re feeling hardcore, you could even choose a manga café over a hostel for the night. CouchSurfing is another option – there are lots of couches available across Japan, and this can be a good way to meet some locals.
Eating in Japan is as cheap or as expensive as you make it. If you’re truly on a tight budget, the numerous combinis (convenience stores) dotted around will be your lifesaver. Here, you can buy very cheap snacks such as onigiri (stuffed rice balls), sandwiches and pot noodles, as well as drinks and sweets. However, I find that after a couple of meals of combini food I end up feeling a bit bloated and ill (it’s not high quality stuff!), so it’s best to intersperse cheap snacks with at least a couple of filling meals. There are lots of cheap chain restaurants around, although in more rural locations you might have a bit more difficulty finding them. As long as you aren’t fussy about eating gourmet food every day, you should be able to get by on a couple of thousand yen a day.
Sightseeing costs can add up, particularly in popular locations such as Kyoto. Many of the major temples and other sights require an entrance fee, which although often only a couple of hundred yen, over the course of a trip this can end up being expensive. Unfortunately there isn’t really any way to get around this: there will occasionally be discounts for students and senior citizens, so if you fall into these categories you can try your luck, but don’t be surprised if you are told that everyone has to pay the same price. If you’re really on a budget then your only option is really to limit the places that you visit, but I think it’s a shame to miss out on the sights and would recommend that you try to make savings elsewhere in order to be able to visit as many places as you can.