Illness · Japan · Osaka · Photography · Science Museum · Teaching · Travelling

Osaka Science Museum.

It’s been a little while.

I haven’t felt much like updating this blog recently, mostly due to events that have been going on in London. It seems as though every week there’s some terrible news out of that city, either a terrorist attack or a horrific fire or several more years of heartless incompetants leading the country to look forward to. I’m considering doing another news detox, because I think that having access to 24 hour news online isn’t helping my anxiety, and I’m finding myself getting preoccupied with the safety and health of my family and the fact that I’m so far away, and what would I do if anything happened etc. Those feelings don’t lend themselves well to cheerful blog updates.

However, last weekend Dillon and I went to visit the Science Museum across the river to the north of Osaka. The streets were almost deserted, which is very rare here, and we almost had the whole place to ourselves. The museum is on a campus alongisde one of the city’s art galleries, which we are planning to visit in the summer.

Inside the Science Museum, you are taken straight up to the top floor, and you work your way around the circular floors until you are finished, and then you take an escalator down to the next floor and do the same thing again. All of the exhibitions and displays in the museum were interactive, and there were lots of fun ways to engage with science. It reminded me a little of the Science Museum in London, although this one was a little smaller, but there were still more interactive aspects to engage with.

I have been quite ill this week, so I had to take a day off work, but I made it through Parents’ Day before having to go home, and I think it went well. Whenever I get ill I always find it difficult to get my energy and mood levels back to a normal level until I have time just to rest, so I’m relieved that there are only three weeks left of this term before the summer holiday begins. Often I would get ill right at the start of the term and then struggle for the next couple of months until a holiday, so that’s something. I still don’t know what my schedule will be like for summer and when my vacation time will be, but it will be nice to have a change in routine from normal teaching anyway.

Cherry Blossom · Day Trip · Japan · Osaka · Osaka Castle · Overseas · Photography · Teaching · Travelling

Weekend Cherry Blossoms.

It’s been another great week here in Osaka!

I have now completed my first full week of teaching. It’s strange to think that it has only been that long, as it feels as though I’ve been working at the school a lot longer than just a couple of weeks! I think it helps that I am only teaching between 8-10 students at any one time, and in one of my classes I even have a maximum of only two students! This means I feel as though I already know the children very well, and we have established a good relationship even only one week into the school year. I teach students from Grade 5 & 6 (UK Year 6 and 7), but I also do study hall duties across the Grade 1-6 Primary group, and I supervise the Grade 1s once a week at lunchtime. Next week I start teaching a yoga class after school, which I am really looking forward to!

Another thing that makes it seem as though I have worked here longer is that I feel I have developed good relationships with my colleagues across the school already. Basically each homeroom teacher is the Head of Year too, as they teach most of the subjects for that Grade. All the Primary classrooms are on one corridor, and most classes are made up of roughly 10 students. I really hope that my contract will be renewed at the end of this year, as I really enjoy working at this school, and if so I think I will ask if I can teach the Grade 1s or perhaps Grade 2s, as there is a kind of joy I get from interacting with students that age that I’ve never experienced before in my working life.

I was very happy that I was pretty much given free reign to decorate my classroom as I wanted to, as well as the content that I teach (providing it follows the appropriate UK National Curriculum levels). Here are some photos of my classroom and some of the work my students submitted that made me smile!

Last weekend was the height of cherry blossom season in Osaka, but Dillon and I were moving all weekend from our apartment in Nagahoribashi to our new home in Nipponbashi, near Namba and Kuromon Ichiba Market. We live literally around the corner from this tourist hotspot, but our street is quiet, peaceful, and full of stray cats wandering around. Despite being in the centre of the city, in an apartment big enough for two people with cooking, cleaning and decent storage facilities, we are paying around £425 a month for our new apartment. There are coin laundries everywhere, and lots of small parks where residents bring their dogs (it is very fashionable to dress up your dog and carry it around in a backpack or bicycle basket here!) We are a few minute’s walk away from a large supermarket, and we have been able to do our weekly food shop for the equivalent of around £30.

This week we have been busy getting some essentials for our new home. We visited IKEA again to get two lamps and an outdoor table and chairs (which was significantly less expensive than an indoor table and chairs), and we have also bought two folding sofa-type chairs for about £7 each. Sleeping on a futon is also going well, and I was very happy today to discover a Body Shop and Lush store in the Shinsaibashisuji shopping arcade, so my skin can now get some serious TLC.  In my next post I will share some photos of our new apartment and furniture, as I have now finally fulfilled a life goal and own a clothes rail! I would still like to get a flower vase and some candles, just to make things a bit more homely and peaceful, but otherwise we are both very happy with how our apartment is looking.

This morning we went back to Osaka Castle and Gardens to see the remaining cherry blossoms. Luckily it was less busy than it would have been last weekend, and there were still lots left to see. People were having picnics under the trees in the traditional hanami style, and Dillon and I tried cherry-blossom flavour icecream by the castle. The weather this week has been changeable to say the least: blue skies, then cloudy; blazing sunshine then pouring rain; from hot to cold as soon as the sunlight fades away – yesterday during park time at school it was close to 30 degrees, and today the temperature was in the mid-20s. I am very grateful for the consistently warm, sunny mornings when I walk to work without needing to be wrapped up and shivering against the cold!

Enjoy our photos from today!

Japan · Teaching

A Quick Update: Orientation.

おはようございます(Good morning) from Osaka!

This week has been so incredibly busy. I had planned to post a new entry on Wednesday, but I was genuinely too exhausted to string a written sentence together! In a way though, having to delay updating has been a good thing because it means I can now post new entries regularly over the weekend. So with that said, I’m going to quickly update you on what Dillon and I have been up to this week:

  • We went to buy some essentials for our new apartment from IKEA and Nitori, a department store in Americamura. We accidentally went into the showroom in IKEA despite having made a list of what we wanted to buy, so that was a fairly miserable experience. Pro-tip: go straight into the Marketplace if you can possibly manage it, and just buy all your things and get out!
  • I went into the international school where I am now working for Orientation Days on Thursday and Friday. I learnt a huge amount about what effective teaching practice looks like in an international school in Japan; the IB curriculum; and information for new staff.
  • I went into work on Saturday and decorated my classroom. Despite feeling quite uncertain at the beginning, I really feel so proud of what I’ve achieved there. Hopefully I can post a few photos soon!
  • We are both practising our Japanese, and Dillon especially is really getting the hang of hiragana and katakana. I’m managing to do a unit or two a day, but over the weekend I need to make time for reviewing.

So there’s a quick update for you! I’m feeling very positive about next week. I have another two days for preparation and planning time on Monday, Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday, there is Orientation for the students on Tuesday morning, and easing-in days for the students on Thursday and Friday, so there is still a week before teaching begins properly. I’m hopeful that I’ll be able to post longer, more detailed posts weekly, but occasionally there may need to be quick updates like this.

Enjoy the rest of your weekend!

Cherry Blossom · Day Trip · Dotonbori · Japan · Osaka · Osaka Castle · Overseas · Photography · Shinsaibashi · Teaching · Travelling

Osaka Castle, Shinsaibashi & Dotonbori.

こんにちは (hello) from Osaka!

As 春分の日 Shunbun no Hi has now passed, it is officially Spring in Japan. We have been blessed with beautiful weather this past week: clear blue skies, sunny days, a cool breeze meaning you can still wear a jumper but also warm enough to not require a coat until it gets dark in the evening. So much has been going on since my last post, so we have plenty to update you on.

Previously, I shared that I had been invited to the Kinder Graduation and Primary Awards Ceremony at the international school where I will be working in Osaka. Coming from Britain, I was expecting that the ceremony would be held at the school, but of course schools in urban Japan are typically a few floors of a high-rise building – not the best venue for an end-of-year show! Instead, the ceremony was held at an auditorium near Osaka Castle. The tiny children in their blue graduation gowns were so cute, and the skills all the children demonstrated were so impressive. I especially liked watching the first graders playing the theme to the Studio Ghibli classic Castle in the Sky without sheet music!

It was also very interesting to note the international climate of the school’s community. Parents would talk to each other in Japanese, then speak another language to their small children, and when the child answered in that language the parent switched to English. For someone who only speaks English it felt daunting but also exciting to be in such a different environment. After the ceremony I was invited by the vice-principal to meet other members of staff, and as I expected it was really good to meet them and introduce myself in such a positive environment.

Over the weekend Dillon and I visited Osaka Castle Park, which is a key tourist location in Osaka, as well as being a popular picnicking spot for local families. It was far bigger than I imagined, so we did not actually explore the castle on our first visit (even spending a couple of hours walking around the park, we did not get closer to the castle than you see in the photo above). The park is filled with plum blossom and peach blossom trees, but it is not yet cherry blossom viewing season (花見 hanami) in Osaka, so I’m excited to visit again in a couple of weeks. The “cherry blossom forecast” predicts when the flowers should first be visible across Japan, as well as when they should be at their best, and in Osaka they should begin on Tuesday, lasting for approximately two weeks at their peak.

With help from a member of staff at the school, I opened a Japanese bank account – I was allowed to choose my own debit card design, and of course I wasn’t going to miss the opportunity to see Hello Kitty whenever I withdrew money from an ATM! In order to open a bank account, I needed to buy a hanko (a small cylindrical stamp that has my name in katakana, the Japanese symbols for words that originate from a country other than Japan [hiragana] or China [kanji]) from a stationary store. My surname isn’t very well-recognised in Japan, understandably, so I have a rough approximation! Dillon joked that his will be even more difficult to work out. After another visit to the Chuo ward office, we received our Certificate of Residence, which means that we can now sign the contract for our new apartment near Kuromon Ichiba Market, which have an appointment for tomorrow.

I think we have done a good job of getting to know our local area around Nagahoribashi at this point (it’s very strange to think that this is only our second week of living in Japan!) but I am keen to explore a bit more of the city before starting work. Tomorrow we will have a chance to visit Osaka Station City, a huge shopping complex in Umeda, and when we move to our new apartment we will be on the doorstep of Nipponbashi and Namba, so today Dillon and I visited Shinsaibashi and Dotonbori, the tourism and shopping hotspots in Osaka. The city is famous in Japan for its food, and walking around Dotonbori is an amazing experience!

Using my DSLR in Dotonbori made me feel every inch the tourist, but sometimes there’s a time and a place for that!

Otherwise, Dillon and I have been working hard on our Japanese language practice, using Memrise as an online tool to become more familiar with hiragana and more confident with basic phrases. I have also completed the elearning modules I was set as preparatory work for the school, which uses the International Baccalaureate programme as well as the UK National Curriculum as its basis. One aspect I like about the elearning modules is that all members of staff are required to read a number of pedagogy documents on the shared Google Drive, before posting in a forum their views and perspective on what they have read, guided by some basic questions, and then to comment on one another’s postings. For me it means that I really have to reflect on what I’m learning, and then engage with other colleagues as well, which helps me to think more clearly about how I want my teaching practice to look.

So I have one more week before I start work. I need to buy a pair of comfortable shoes, as in Japan you are often expected to wear different shoes when you are indoors, and I am also waiting to hear about the details of my first few days of orientation at the school. However, I did drop by earlier in the week and visited “my” classroom and got to grips with the layout of the floors. Hopefully my next update will include some photos of cherry blossom!

Japan · Osaka · Overseas · Teaching · Travelling

We have arrived in Osaka!

This is the first day since we arrived that we haven’t been rushing around all day, so I thought it would be a good time to post an update!

Everything has been going really well so far. We have quickly got used to the subway system (we are about a 2 minute walk from Nagahoribashi, which is the nearest subway station to us). It is incredibly easy to buy train tickets; you can switch the ticket machines to English, and the subway map is very accessible and clear about how much it costs to travel to each station. Usually it costs between 180-240y to travel, and you buy a one-way ticket each time – it costs perhaps £3 maximum to travel anywhere in the city).

The most pleasantly surprising thing so far is that the sky is very blue every day – like a summer’s day in Britain – but it is fairly mild all day, so you can still wear a coat if you want to, without it feeling too hot, while the sea breeze makes everything feel very fresh. The streets and roads are really wide, so even though there are lots of people and it is usually fairly busy, there always seems to be enough room for everyone to have enough space, which I have struggled with in London.

Everything you could need is a walking distance away – there are lots of single/two-storey food and general purchase shops, as well as huge buildings that look like office blocks but are actually shopping malls, with everything in one store. At the moment we are in an apartment in the centre of the city. Apartments in Japan are typically quite small, but they have everything you would need: a bathroom, toilet, sink, cooking area, storage space, and space for a bed/sofa/chair and tables etc. We have been getting by with my key phrases, and we are trying to learn some more Japanese words and phrases every evening together. Dillon’s colleague in Shimane has kindly sent us lots of resources for learning Japanese online, so we have plenty of material to work through.

The flights from Ireland to Osaka were very easy. Although I had been wary of it to begin with, I really enjoyed the long-haul part of the journey, which was 10 hours from Amsterdam to Hong Kong. We arrived later in Hong Kong than expected due to severe winds over Russia, which meant that the flight to Osaka was delayed by about an hour, but this actually worked better for us as it meant we didn’t have to rush through to the next departure gate and had time to wait in the lounge before our final flight. Neither of us have really suffered from much jetlag – we were very tired when we arrived in Japan on Monday afternoon, as we had only had about 5 hours of sleep over 48 hours, but we were lucky that we arrived in our apartment around 6pm, so we could just get something quick to eat and go to bed. I experienced some nausea and motion sickness, but I think that was a mix of jetlag and lack of sleep.

On Tuesday we went to sign our first month’s rental contract and went to view long-term apartments – we found one we really liked in the Kuromon area of the city, which is near a famous market and very close to where I will be working in the city centre (walking distance), for much less than our previous flat was costing us. Despite being very central, the area is fairly quiet as we are away from main roads. We were recommended two companies that work specifically with foreign visitors: Daiwa Homes and GTN Mobile. Everyone at the Daiwa Homes property agency has been really helpful, as were the staff at the GTN cell phone company (you always get hot or cold green tea served while you wait for appointments, and the cell phone store gave us a big parcel of rice as a welcome gift). As it is necessary to have a Japanese cell phone number in order to rent a property, we now have Japanese cell phones, which are quite a bit bigger than the kinds of phones that are typically used in the UK – almost like little games consoles – but as international calls are very expensive we will probably use them for work and contacting people in Japan, staying connected with our family and friends in the UK and worldwide via Skype and email.

We have been very busy since we arrived, trying to sort everything out, but we have got most of the important things organised now. We have registered ourselves at the local ward office, which was an experience in itself! We had help frrom a translator to fill in the form, then we took it straight to one desk in a long row, where it was stamped and we could see in the open-plan office the staff creating our new residency cards, as well as all the different documents everyone else waiting in the office needed processing, then after half an hour ours were given back to us at a different desk. Something that is amazing in Japan is how quickly things are sorted out for you – for example, when Dillon needed to get the equivalent cards in the US and UK, it took weeks to months to receive, through different agencies, whereas we got it after less than an hour from the same place.

Registering at the ward office also means we have begun the process of getting health insurance, so the last important thing to do is to open Japanese bank accounts. We were planning to do that yesterday, but luckily before we left the apartment I received an email from my contact at the school telling me to open an account at a specific branch that was different to the one we had identified. I need some paperwork from the school though, so I don’t think we can do that right away. I have been invited to the Kinder Graduation and Primary End-of-Year show tomorrow (Friday) afternoon, so I’m going to attend that. It’s quite close by, near Osaka Castle, and I think it will be great to introduce myself and get my first impression of the school and staff in that kind of environment.

As a final thought: the toilets in Japan are quite amazing! The seats are gently warmed, and you can play sounds like a rainforest or running water for privacy if you want to. We have been eating fruit for breakfast, and the local food store sells teas and coffees, then a mix of vegetables we fry with soy sauce, katsu (fried) potato, sweet rolls (sesame rice), edamame beans etc. for dinner. For lunch yesterday we picked up fresh buttered raisin rolls from a bakery in the subway station for the equivalent of 70p each! Finding your way around the city and travelling is quite easy because maps and signs are also written in English, and people appreciate when you try to use Japanese to speak to them.

I’m hoping that this weekend we can go out exploring Osaka a bit, maybe visit Osaka Castle or one of the big parks, or the Shinsaibashi/Dotonbori area, which is the centre of the city and where I will be working.

Check back soon and hopefully I will update with some photos!

Japan · Overseas · Teaching · Travelling · Visas

Update: Japan Visas.

Yesterday morning Dillon and I had some brilliant news. The vice principal of the international school I will be working at in Osaka contacted me by email to confirm that he has received our Certificates of Eligibility! These are the certificates required in order to qualify for long-term visas to travel and work in Japan.

After confirming our current address, he has sent them via airmail to us in Ireland, and we should receive them in the post by the end of the week. Once our Certificates of Eligibility have arrived, we will be able to take them to the Japanese Embassy in Dublin, where we will be issued with our one-year work and dependant visas.

I feel incredibly relieved to have received this news, as we have been treading water since the beginning of February, waiting to see if our application would be successful or not. We were asked to send through a separate marriage certificate from South Africa (despite having been married in England), which caused a lot of stress. After explaining the situation, though, not having this document doesn’t seem to have caused any problems, as the school received our Certificates of Eligibility well within the 6 week timeframe.

My contact at the school suggested we only need to arrive a few days before the beginning of the school year on April 1, but we would both prefer to travel as soon as possible, in order to settle down in Osaka and get as much organised before starting work as we can. I will contact the Embassy tomorrow to find out whether we need to book an appointment, or whether this is a walk-in service (as is the case in London), but we are hopeful that everything is on track for us to be leaving Ireland and travelling to Japan in mid-March, which was our plan all the way back in December when this process began!

Japan · New Year's Resolutions · Overseas · Teaching

A Job in Japan.

First, a little context. Just before Christmas, my husband Dillon and I were required to leave the UK because we did not earn enough money to qualify for a spousal visa. (This was despite me being British, Dillon living in the UK for five years, and both of us working full-time. Thank you, The Government!)

So, with two suitcases each (technically one suitcase and one rucksack each, but I think we can all agree that’s not quite as catchy), we packed up 60kgs of our most essential belongings, and flew to Ireland, where a British and a South African person can still travel together with relative ease.

It’s odd how I miss the smaller, day-to-day objects of our lives: the coasters we inherited from my parents’ first holiday in Greece, the first bedsheet sets we bought together, the Moomin notebook that Dillon bought me because he knew I loved us reading Who Will Comfort Toffle? in bed together.

Dillon and I have always said we would see this as an adventure, albeit one we were forced into – an opportunity to live and work abroad and to explore the world, which, if our situation had been easier, we may not otherwise have taken. But I can’t deny that the first Christmas without my family was miserable, largely due to the fact that I wouldn’t have chosen to spend it without them if I had had that choice. Being away from your family at Christmas makes you realise that presents are unnecessary; it’s spending time with the people in your life who mean something to you that is so special.

So it was the necessity of finding something to alleviate my low-level depression and terrible loneliness (or at least drown it out for a while) that led to me spending Christmas Day trawling through job sites and filling out job application forms, desperately hoping that someone, somewhere out there, might see something appealing about me and my prospects, and give me the chance that I so badly needed.

The next day there was an email in my inbox. I had an offer of an interview with an international school in Japan!

One Skype interview, more (and more enthusiastic) research than I have done since before attending university, and a steady stream of back-and-forth, time-difference-limited emailing later, and I have sent off my signed contract, and all the documentation needed for a work visa for myself and dependent visa for Dillon.

My parents are coming to flying over to visit us when we move closer to Dublin later in the month, then we plan to travel to Japan in early March, just in time to see the cherry blossoms blooming, and in April I will be working as a primary school teacher in Osaka.

Today, I’m writing from a traditional farmhouse in the middle of nowhere in the Irish countryside, mired in a thick fog drifting in from the Irish Sea, silence engulfing me other than birdsong and the occasional barking of dogs. The host family we are staying with have a wonderfully friendly collie dog, I have time to plan all the things I want to see and do once we arrive in Japan, and since the walk to the nearest food shop is a 13km round-trip, I’ve been getting into pretty good shape too!

At night my doubts start to creep in, and I regularly wake up in the early morning with panicked thoughts racing through my head, but one of my New Year’s Resolutions is to keep a sense of perspective, and using the affirmation “I am not controlled by fear or anxiety, nothing worth doing is going to be easy, and I am moving forward each day” is definitely helping.

Are you planning to work abroad this year, or to travel to Japan? Do you have experience teaching at an international school and feel you could give me any advice? Share your thoughts by commenting, and I will reply to you.

If you would like to keep up-to-date with what’s happening in the lives of two people with four suitcases, please consider following my blog. The link is to the right.