However hopefully in a few years when things have may have improved somewhat, this advice will still be relevant. Thanks in advance for reading!
Ahhh, the one major worry everyone has before moving anywhere new, especially if it’s abroad. And you don’t speak the language. And there are cultural barriers between locals and fellow gaijin alike.
“How the hell will I make friends?”
I’m happy to report after 15-ish months in Japan I’m at a point now where I have a few small, solid circles of friends – and not just acquaintances I spend time with out of convenience. (Believe me, there’s a huge difference!)
While it’s very tempting to hide away in your Leopalace eating konbini bentos, remember – people won’t come to you! The best advice I can give you is to try and overcome shyness and put yourself out there.
But how exactly might one do that? Here are some suggestions:
Go to a bar, restaurant or café and chat with the locals.
Every city has at least one ‘gaijin bar’ where the local foreigners seem to gather. It’s a good place to start to meet your fellow expats. Otherwise hit up your local ramen, soba, gyoza, kushikatsu joint – the smaller the better – and chat away to the staff and your fellow patrons if they look friendly. If your Japanese is not up to scratch, gestures and a smile go a long way, but it’s also a great chance to practice!
Get to know the teachers in your school(s).
While it’s intimidating at first – know that you’re not the first ALT they’ve met and you certainly won’t be the last. If you’re teaching at a junior high school, the Japanese English teachers (JTEs) will have a high level of English. But also try to get to know the other teachers as well – ask your tantou for a copy of the staff roster with names, photos and subjects if possible. Or you can go around and ask everyone yourself. Don’t forget the school administrator, janitor, lunch staff and nurse!
You never know where a connection will lead – my young tantou at elementary school was particularly friendly, and when she said she liked sushi I said “We should go to my favourite sushi restaurant sometime!” We did, and we’ve been friends ever since!
Another time a teacher brought me an local mikan orange – seriously the best orange I’ve ever tried – and delightedly, she told me it’s from her father’s farm and guess what…? She’s since driven me to see the trees and even having a go at harvesting them! An experience I definitely wouldn’t have otherwise had!
One thing to note however is that Japanese teachers are very busy and work long hours – so try and catch them when they look like they’re in-between doing something important. The best time is often at the end of sixth period – usually after 3:15ish.
If you’re invited…say yes!
When the infamous Farrah returned to Hamamatsu for her birthday, my pal suggested I go along to meet her. I felt kinda bad about crashing a birthday party, but it was obvious after ten seconds that she didn’t mind a bit. We now chat at least every few days, and even recently met up for a super fun girly weekend in Tokyo.
I also made friends with some of the other party attendees! After keeping in touch, I met up with Donna at a beautiful cafe in the summer. And also me, Elizabeth and Ama grab dinner at least once a month – and we’re also having a girly weekend in Nagoya for over Christmas break! So unless you have a prior engagement, always ALWAYS say yes – you may not be asked a second time.
And remember – if your friend is friends with someone, there’s often a fairly good reason why!
Attend your school enkai.
I personally believe that every ALT should at least go to one school enkai – aka: the teacher’s booze-up.
While there are several smaller enkais dotted around the year, unless you’re really pally with your teachers you’ll likely just be invited to the main ones at the end of term or after a big school event such as sports day.
I’ve written about my experience at my first enkai here. It sounds pretty nerve-wracking on paper, but it’s actually quite a relaxed affair and interesting to see how different everyone can be after a few rounds of nomihoudi. (At the most recent one we had pre-‘rona, I may or may not have ended up in a drinking competition with the vice-principal. And being from Newcastle, TRUST that I was victorious.)
Don’t be intimidated however if you don’t drink alcohol – many teachers don’t and certainly won’t (or at least shouldn’t) judge you. Being all you can eat and drink, you can have as much pop/soda, tea and coffee as you’d like – and a lot of the places I’ve been to even offer mocktails!
While what happens at the enkai stays at the enkai, you’ll find a lot of teachers do warm to you and feel more comfortable chatting to you at school. And again – you never know where simply a polite chat will lead!
As above, be sure to attend the first one you’re asked to – or have a valid excuse why you can’t go. You may be invited to the next one, but definitely not the one after that.
Find your local gaijin community on Facebook.
A quick search should bring up events if not in your local area, then at least the next city over. Although Hamamatsu has a huge expat community, the more interesting events are in neighboring Shizuoka city or Nagoya.
You’ll have to likely run for the last train home – but who knows, you might make a pal who will let you crash at their place next time!
Network with your fellow ALTs.
Ugh, networking. I know, I know.
At the very least, be friendly at initial training and get everyone’s Facebook, Line or email address you gel with. Even if they end up on the other side of the prefecture – who knows, you may keep in touch and then you’ll have someone to potentially meet up with and show you around if you’re in the area.
Because we’re a bunch of nerds we invited the head teacher and trainers for drinks with us on the last day of training. They’re very different once their ties are loosened and they have a few drinks in them. They’re also likely to be living fairly locally and been in Japan a while so will be able to give you advice and recommendations of things to do.
Join a sports team.
I mean, I can’t relate lol. Sports suck. But if that’s your jam, then have at it. Your local community centre or city hall should have flyers about teams and clubs you can join.
Take up a hobby.
Painting, calligraphy, yoga, taiko drumming, D&D…there’s going to be something for you to sink your teeth into. Even if you only go once or twice, you never know who you might meet!
Join a language exchange.
A language exchange is a regular event – usually in the same bar or cafe – that is a fairly even mix of Japanese and gaijin. There is a timer where you speak in Japanese for a certain about of time, then a bell rings and you switch to English.
If your Japanese isn’t there yet – many of the Japanese attendees will be happy to try and chat to you in English. (Just don’t let yourself be fobbed into a free lesson – that’s fairly common.)
There’s usually a small entry fee – around Y500 and includes a welcome drink.
A smile and a hello!
You’ll also end up making friends completely by chance and where you least expect it: I met of my closest friends here because we got the same bus to our schools! I was too shy for ages to say hello until a few weeks in and I worked up the courage to ask for local recommendations. A smile and hello can go a long way!
I hope this has been somewhat helpful – and if you’re living in Japan and want to share how you made friends, please leave a comment below!
First, meet Awawa – a soap bubble mascot who demonstrates proper hand-washing techniques. He’s often accompanied by an assistant who sings a happy ditty about the importance of hygiene.
Next, there’s Quaran the quarantine fairy mascot created by Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare.
While originally just an airport mascot protecting Japan from illegal items crossing the border, Quaran’s duties have now been expanded. “I will do my best to let everyone know what a quarantine office does,” says the winged fairy on its website, brandishing it’s shield and protective goggles. D’awww.
Next, is Amabie – based on the legendary amabie creature, a mermaid-like bird figure from a Japanese folk tale with long flowing hair.
“Should an epidemic come, draw me and show me to the people,” It apparently said, before disappearing, never to be seen again. Convenient. Pictures of amabies have recently started popping up all over Japan – there’s one on every floor in my schools – which is quite charming.
And finally – and possibly my favourite – is the kawaii pink cat Koronon.
Always wearing her face mask – and often a face shield – Koronon (“no corona”) is here to protect Tokyo from the virus by promoting social distancing and handing out disposable masks in busy areas such as Shinjuku and Ikebukuro.
In a country where there is a mascot for everything from encouraging safe sex to enemas, this sort of thing was kind of inevitable.
I’ve noticed recently my Life of an ALTposts have been receiving more traffic than usual – I’m guessing this is due to restrictions being lifted and new ALTs are starting to arrive in Japan again.
While places like Reddit’s have a plethora of up-to-date information – particularly the teachinginjapan and movingtojapan subreddits which I found super helpful – it can be a little intimating to sift through everything if there’s something in particular you’d like to know.
This blog is a safe space to ask anything you’d like about life in Japan. As I always tell the students: “There are no stupid questions.” And if you’re wondering something, I can guarantee plenty of others are too.
Note I won’t go into anything too personal, nor will I provide any specific information about my employers and my schools. But you’re welcome to leave any questions below, or drop me an email via the contact form.
The mayor of the small Japanese town has become somewhat Internet famous this week.
His name in kanji can be pronounced Baiden-Jo or Jo Baiden – similar to the new US president-elect Joe Biden.
Mayor Baiden is taking this new-found fame in his stride, and said:
“Although there are differences in the positions of a U.S. presidential candidate and the mayor of Yamato here in the center of Kyushu, our passion is the same. We continue working to fulfill our duty to ensure the happiness and spiritual richness of our residents.”
He also hopes the attention will bring more visitors to Yamato, a picturesque town in Kumamoto prefecture which only has around 15,000 residents.
If you’re planning on cheating on your spouse in Japan, it’s worth your while being discreet.
In Japan, being married means you are contractually obliged to remain faithful and cheating can be viewed as a violation of contract, and compensation owed for mental suffering. Meaning that the scorned lover is well within their rights to sue not only their cheating partner, but also the person (or people) they have cheated with.
And it ain’t cheap – the amount of compensation in many cases ranges between 2-3 million yen (£15,000-22,000), and 5 million yen (£37,000) at most.
Furthermore, cheating can actually put your job at stake. The word 風紀紊乱 or ‘fūkibinran‘ roughly translates to “a breakdown in customary discipline”. And in a country where things are the way they are because that’s the way they are, being sued for cheating can also be grounds for dismissal.
Me and Faith discovered Ate Mai’s Place during a food festival in Hamamatsu last year. Which is for the best because it’s is a blink-and-you-miss-it hole in the wall tucked around the corner from Shin-Hamamatsu station and Zaza City.
The place is run by Rogelio and his sister Myra who have lived in Hamamatsu for over twenty years and owning Ate Mai’s Place for nine of them.
Boasting a large selection of Filipino dishes, my favourite is the delicious traditional Filipino pork barbecue kebabs. Very similar to Japanese yakitori, it’s larger and coated in a sauce made of black sugar, ketchup, soy sauce and black pepper with the sugar causing the meat to caramelise on the grill.
At the suggestion of chef Rogelio, he offered us a serving of white vinegar to dip our kebabs into. A new concept to me, but it really compliments the sweet flavour of the meat and offers a different taste experience.
Although the pork barbecue and Special Goto (traditional Filipino rice porridge) is available everyday, the menu changes daily so there’s always something new to try!
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT:
1. Chicken Apritda (Tomato-based chicken stew) 2. Spicy Bopis (Spicy cassorole traditionally made with pig’s lung and/or heart) 3. Gatang Isda (Makerel stew made with coconut milk with garlic, ginger and onion) 4. Special Dinuguan (Pork stew) 5. Gatang Tilapia with okra (Tilapia stew coconut milk with garlic, ginger and onion) 6. Adobong Sitaw (Marinated pork or chicken with vegetables)
Ate Mai’s Place also serves frosty cold Asahi – honestly, they pull one of the best pints in Hamamatsu. Especially after a long day of teaching in the brutal Japanese summer. They have a small selection of drinks including bottled beer.
The brother and sister team are super-friendly, and happy to chat away to you at the bar. They also offer a バイキング (‘all you can eat’) special on Sundays in the upstairs area: five dishes and a drink for only ¥2000. (Available 12:00-1800)
A funny story though: me and Faith went one Saturday night to line our stomachs for an evening of shout-singing karaoke and were sitting at the bar next to the window. Three drunk salarymen peered in at us, opened the door and slurred: “Are they hostesses?” Rogelio quickly sent them packing, and the salarymen apologised profusely with lots of bowing. Still, it’s nice to know I’ve still got it.
Ate Mai’s Placetruly is a hidden gem in Hamamatsu. As much as I want to be わがまま and keep it a secret – please give them a visit!!