Muffled noise, pain, and drowsiness hit me a couple weeks ago which has consequently landed me at the doctor’s office twice in the meantime. If there’s one thing I hate it’s waking up suddenly in the middle of the night one day wondering why you can barely hear yourself talk, but unfortunately, it’s something I’ve had to get used to as of late. And of course this happened at the beginning of the workweek on a Tuesday so the ETA of not being SOL was at least 72 hours. Sometimes, the harsh reality of having your typical 8 to 5 job in Japan hits you in the face when you least expect it, like when you need to go to a clinic only to find out that the nearest available one after working hours is a 20-30 minute walk away with a 2-3 hour wait time. Shops, clinics, and stores close earlier here than where I’m from so that’s something I’ve had to adjust my schedule around.
I don’t really know what it is with me, but I’m prone to ear infections and it’s always in the same ear yet never in the other. The first time this happened to me in Japan was actually a few months ago when the cold was going around at work. This was by far the strangest sickness I’ve ever had in my life. It started out with the sniffles, which honestly isn’t a big deal to me, but then I got the cough, then the ear infection which greatly impaired my hearing in my left ear, and after that ordeal I lost my sense of taste and smell. At this point work had become somewhat tiresome but after a long three days, (luckily this happened closer to the end of the week), I was finally able to go to a clinic on Saturday morning.
Naturally, I was pretty nervous. I had never gone to a doctor in Japan before and my medical Japanese is close to nill. I also didn’t know what to expect. Questions like: “how good are the clinics here?,” “will they be able to effectively treat what I have?,” and “what kind of equipment will they use?” flooded my mind. I was also preparing specific questions to ask in Japanese ahead of time and anticipating what kind of responses I might receive. This kind of infection had happened to me in America so I knew what kinds of equipment could be used to treat what I had such as the vacuum, irrigation, or ear drops, but I had no idea what was going to happen. Before coming to Japan, I had heard that the medicine they prescribe here isn’t very strong and even back home I had had issues with getting ear drops to work properly so I didn’t have much faith in the medicine option.
After I entered the clinic my nervousness immediately dropped… it was rather nice. There was a flat screen T.V. bolted to the wall which at the time was playing old Tom and Jerry episodes in Japanese, in front of that were sofas to sit on while patients waited their turn, and to the left was the reception desk with a computer. Whenever something unexpected happens to me, especially while abroad, I always expect the worst out of a situation. But when the worst doesn’t happen I’m relieved and can relax even if the situation isn’t necessarily what I wanted. I guess you could call it a defense mechanism. I’m not a pessimist by any means but this train of thought helps me prepare for the worst.
Once inside I made my way to the reception desk where they asked for my “hokensho” (保険証) or insurance card. They will also have you fill out a form which is in Japanese. (This is the tricky part, but I am currently making a translation of this form for reference and will post it in another post with explanations). Something you should always look into when going to work abroad in Japan is whether or not companies have benefits like pension. A reason why people who work in Japan are often against eikaiwas (英会話), which are English teaching schools, is because even though they generally pay more they don’t have benefits. So if you get sick you can expect to pay a tooth and a nail in order to get your medication and appointment. But if you do have benefits like pension it’s fantastic. At the end of my appointment I paid less than $30 (about 3,000¥) for the meeting with the doctor AND the medication. In this case they ended up prescribing me about five different kinds of meds which also included ear drops because the vacuum wasn’t a success. At the end of the medication however, I was back to normal and working at 100%.
But here I am once again, a similar issue slowing me down and to top it off it slaps me in the face on a Tuesday so I’m forced to look for an ear, throat, and nose clinic open after hours during the week. I manage to hold it together until Friday, the pain fluctuating quite a bit, but constant. I found out via a search on Google Maps using the term “ear” that there was an ear, nose, and throat clinic about a 30 minute walk from where I worked and then about another 15 minute walk home. To make a short story shorter this clinic ended up being even better than the last clinic that was rushing its patients out the door which, even though I got better in the end, made me rather skeptical about how good they actually were.
This new clinic I had never been to before was much more careful with its procedures. However, this also means much longer wait times, but I prefer quality over quantity so I’m willing to wait a few hours if it means I get better in the end. The clinic also had a small camera so that they could actually show me what was happening inside my ear and they had better tools to solve the problems I was having. Again, I paid less than $30 for the appointment and medication. When you decide to come to Japan make sure you do research on the available clinics in your area and note their locations and hours. I live in a city so there are quite a few clinics around but not all of them are open after hours and on the weekends. If you live in a more rural area there might be less clinics available with different hours.
Whenever something like this happens I feel like an old man even though I’m only 24 years old. That, or I only think that way because one of my students recently said “ojisan mitai” (おじいさん見たい) which means “you look like an old man.” But I just attribute that to an age difference. Well, they did point out specifically that it was because of the beard and my natural curly hair. But that’s for another story I guess. Maybe I’ll title it “how to not look ojisan”…. or not. The choice is mine after all.
It’s over, you should just quit while you’re ahead. I mean, let’s face it, you couldn’t even get into JET, the most popular and prestigious program in the country… is what I’d say if that were reality and if I was a jerk. But the truth of it is JET is not your only option nor was it mine. I did not get into JET. Heck, I didn’t even get the interview. But less than twelve months later here I am, an ALT teaching English in Japan. So how’d I do it?
Well for starters, I did tons of research on other companies before I even sent my application into JET so I knew that if I didn’t get accepted there were still alternatives. Companies like JET are known as dispatch companies. They hire people from overseas, often new college graduates as I was at the time, and have them work in Japan. The benefits of the JET program and higher pay are why it’s so popular but also why only 1 in 6 people actually get accepted. If you get hired by JET they pay for your ticket to Japan which is money that could come in handy later and the monthly paycheck is quite a bit higher than the other dispatch companies.
Speaking of which there are quite a few options besides JET that are available if you plan on teaching English in Japan. The next best alternative is ALTIA. They focus on placing ALTs in central and southern Japan so if you’re looking for something further up north you will have to choose another company. Other dispatch companies include Interac and Borderlink. Aside from dispatch companies there are other companies known as eikaiwas (英会話) which are English schools across Japan. They are basically extra English lessons for students of all levels and ages. A major eikaiwa which you might have heard of in passing is NOVA.
Now that you know some more names it’s time to get down to the actual research. I found online review sites very helpful when doing research on various companies in Japan. Glassdoor reviews is decent but also look into Dave’s ESL Cafe which is a massive online forum for expats teaching across the world, not just in Japan. I managed to get some feedback on my resume after requesting it on Dave’s ESL Cafe which helped out quite a bit. Also be weary that you may find more rants than anything else in regards to companies and experiences on the internet. People come to the internet to rant more than they do to leave positive reviews. If someone is having a positive experience they won’t have anything negative to say so there’s no point in saying anything. Your best bet is to talk with people who are in the field face-to-face if you want to get more details.
Finally, I’d like to recommend my own website right here! On Japanisu I will be posting a variety of helpful articles that directly relate to working and studying abroad in Japan. I will also be posting my own experiences teaching in Japan. So if you’ve found what I’ve said helpful please feel free to become a ninja and stay up-to-date on my posts and articles today! Thanks for reading and have a great day!
Chances are if you’re reading this blog then that means you’re thinking about studying abroad in Japan. Well, you’ve come to the right place! Studying abroad is an incredible way to take advantage of being a student whether you’re at a university or in high school. As a student, expenses can also be much cheaper because scholarships, grants, and subsidized loans are available as a resource if you’re considering applying to FAFSA. Often times, if your university has a partnership with other universities in Japan, you may also be able to get cheaper housing by living in the dormitories that the sister school in Japan provides and credits will transfer over much easier. Always check with your school first to see if they have such programs because it’s likely that they will.
Now, down to business. Before you start packing your bags it’s always important to know exactly, or have an estimation, of how much money you’ll need before flying over to the land of the rising sun. Most schools will probably give you a sheet that contains basic information with regards to costs. My school in particular provided both semester and yearly cost estimations that were somewhat accurate:
|University Tuition Costs||$2,942||$5,884|
|Room and Board||$1,200||$2,400|
|University Health Insurance||$1,060||$2,120|
|Misc. (books, spending, etc.)||$750-$950/month||$750-$930/month|
Perhaps one of the most frustrating things I encountered while preparing for studying abroad was the totally unorganized study abroad office at my university. They literally couldn’t tell me a single useful thing besides what I already knew. The table above represents the extent of their knowledge and if you’re experiencing something similar then you know it’s not enough. About the only accurate prices listed above are the university’s tuition, round-trip airfare, health insurance (not Japan’s), and maybe room and board. This particular program is called the direct-exchange program at my university which means that for every Japanese student that is sent from the sister school in Japan to our school, we send an American student to their school. Another benefit of this program is that we pay our university’s tuition fees and not the fees of the university in Japan.
Room and Board
My university puts room and board as being $1,200 for the semester if we choose to use the dormitories provided by the university. In actuality, rent was ¥35,000/month or $350.00. Multiply that by four and the price comes to $1,400. University housing is a much cheaper alternative to having your own apartment in Japan. Utilities were subsidized by the university I studied abroad at so whether it was hot or cold I didn’t have to worry about using the heater or A/C because it didn’t affect how much I would pay each month, it was always $350.00/month. If you choose not to use cheaper housing provided by the university be aware that rent will skyrocket to anywhere from ¥60,000-¥80,000/month ($600-$800) or more depending on where you live and that may not include utilities. It might be helpful to check in with the university you plan to study abroad at to see if they can direct you to cheaper housing alternatives if you’d prefer not to stay in their housing.
When it comes to paying rent you will be given slips of paper ahead of time, one for each month you’re in Japan, with the amount you’re supposed to pay at the post office. You can choose to pay these ahead of time or pay them monthly. Something important to know is that the last month you’re in Japan you won’t have to pay for the full month if you don’t stay the entire month. When I stayed at the university’s recommended housing in Japan I was given the final month rent’s bill, but because I told the dorm manager when I was leaving, about a week and a half into the final month, they were able to calculate how much I needed to pay for the rest of the time I was there. It’s that easy.
Japan is praised as having the most sophisticated transportation system in the world with trains that are on-time and efficient. If you’ve never been on the subway before and you’re from a small city like me then you’ll love the convenience of these trains. Rush-hour traffic will be a pain for the most part but eventually you’ll get the hang of figuring out which car is the best one during busy times.
Getting a train pass in Japan is important because it saves you a lot of money as you no longer have to buy individual tickets that would add up to be a lot more overall.
In the image above what’s bordered in green represents all the stations I could travel to for free on the 東西線 Tōzai-sen or Tōzai Line. When you apply for your train pass as a student you have to indicate the two points you’ll be traveling between everyday or in this case from home to school. I was living in Kasai (葛西) which is the furthest right station within the green border and everyday I went from Kasai to Iidabashi (飯田橋) station which is the furthest station to the left inside the green border.
If I had chosen not to purchase the pass I would be paying ¥230 going from Kasai to Iidabashi in the morning and another ¥230 going from Iidabashi to Kasai in the evening, so you can see how quickly the prices would add up over time. In the image above I was actually at Shinjuku-sanchōme station (新宿三丁目駅), the station that is furthest to the left inside the black border, so the prices are different. If we take a hypothetical situation where I wanted to get from Shinjuku-sanchōme to Ōtemachi Station (大手町駅 Ōtemachi-eki), then I could take the red line from Shinjuku-sanchōme and pay ¥260 once I get to Ōtemachi, (the station where the red and blue lines intersect on the map), and then going from Ōtemachi to Kasai would be free.
Unsurprisingly, when it came to the specifics of budgeting for transportation my university couldn’t tell me anything with regards to the train pass or ticket prices. I was once again left to anxiously wait and hope that once I got to Japan I would have enough money to buy them. The train pass in Japan is called a Passmo or if we’re talking about the student pass then it’s 学生定期(がくせいていき- “gakuseiteiki”).
The reason why there’s a pass specifically for students is because it’s cheaper. There are a variety of different passes people can apply for and the prices will change depending on whether or not you’re a student, businessman, or visitor, etc. The student’s train pass is the cheapest and you can purchase a one-month pass, three-month pass, or a six-month pass. If you’re staying for a semester then you’ll probably get the three-month pass which when I was there cost ¥13,100 (~$131.00) for students. The actual price is subject to change depending on how many stations you have to travel each day, but this should give you a rough idea about how much it will cost.
You can apply for your first pass at the train station office. After that you can put as much yen as you want on it and use that to buy drinks at certain vending machines and also use it to cover extra ticket costs that aren’t covered by the the train pass. Chances are the three-month pass will expire before you finish the semester so you’ll have to purchase a final one-month pass. If you’re staying for the year then you’ll want to buy the 6-month pass which will be somewhat more expensive but not terribly. They don’t have train passes that exceed six months.
Japan has national health insurance which you are required to apply for upon arrival. Another benefit of being a student is that the university you’re at will probably help you apply and show you the ropes. It’s important to note that you may have to also pay for your university’s health insurance in the United States before going as well if you don’t already have equal or better health insurance.
So now you’re probably thinking great, I have to apply for health insurance multiple times and pay for both. However, while that may be true the national health insurance you’ll be paying for in Japan pales in comparison to the price tags on other necessities. The price may vary a little bit depending on your situation but for the semester I paid between ¥1,200-¥1,300/month ($12-$13). If you go for the year it will probably be between ¥4,000-¥5,000/month ($40-$50). See, that’s not so bad now is it?
When the time comes to pay for health insurance Japan takes the meaning of convenience to the next level because all you have to do is go to the nearest convenience store and give the health insurance slip with the amount you have to pay on it to the cashier. The cashier will then scan the bar code along with any other items you may have purchased and that’s it, you’re done.
Cancelling Health Insurance
At the end of your stay in Japan cancelling health insurance may seem like a daunting task but it’s not that difficult. To cancel health insurance you just go to the ward or city office of the area you’re staying at and wait in line. Here you can also let them know you’re leaving (i.e. changing addresses).
Cancelling health insurance entails that you pay for the months you didn’t initially pay for. This is because when you first apply for health insurance it may take a month or two before you actually start getting bills and what ends up happening is you won’t get the bills of those first two months so you pay them at the city office when you cancel the health insurance. Any months past the time you stay in Japan you do not have to pay for even if they’re marked on the sheet they give you.
Finally, after discussing room and board, transportation, and health insurance costs comes miscellaneous expenses. For some people this may mean souvenirs, for others food, and still others transportation. For me however, this meant a combination of all three things. By the unfortunate end of my amazing stay in Japan I was spending roughly $1,000 extra a month for souvenirs, food and drink, as well as transportation.
The extra transportation costs came from the tickets that weren’t covered by the train pass (as discussed in our hypothetical situation above) as well as bus tickets. Transportation was probably the biggest chunk of that extra $1,000 a month. I was also spending about $100 a week on food and drinks. Of course, you could easily get by spending less than $100/week on food or $1,000/month altogether but these were specifically my spending habits.
If we include everything discussed in this article, studying abroad for one semester in Tokyo, Japan comes to be between about $10,000-$11,000. In order to pay for this I decided to take out unsubsidized loans (meaning interest accumulates while in school and I have to pay it later) and despite the fact I’m now over $5,000 in debt this experience was life-changing and I would do it all over again. So no matter what you do, if you’re serious about studying abroad don’t be discouraged, but be responsible. Of course you want to exploit all possible options before resorting to loans but don’t regret your decision. Because when the rest of the world decides to play it safe, you’ve chosen to experience it.
It’s cold and the two small, stand alone heaters at the ends of the teacher’s room barely hold any weight. Outside the clouds dull the colors of the cityscape. Another day of cancelled classes because the only two teachers I was supposed to be teaching with are absent today. So here I am, from 8 in the morning until about 5:30 in the evening with a pen and pad planning future lessons.
Yeah, the life of an ALT (assistant language teacher) in Japan can get boring and the days long and dry. But overall, at least in my case, it’s a good job. I do consider myself lucky because there are many different kinds of positions you can land as an ALT… ones that many people don’t like. One such position is that of the stereotypical tape recorder where the ALT is utilized as nothing more than a repetition of dialogue forced to endure hours of saying poorly written English over and over again in front of the classroom. That’s it. There’s no lesson planning, no involvement, just recording. Then there are other positions where ALTs have to go to up to as many as 12 different schools over the course of one or two weeks. This essentially means that they do introduction lessons for months at a time because they’re hardly ever at any of their schools.
In my case, I only go to one school which means people actually remember my name when I go in for work the next day. I am also consistently planning and teaching full lessons. I get to come up with new and interesting ways to introduce grammar points in the classroom. This means that the lessons don’t get stale as I’m coming up with new ideas each time. But it’s not always easy. Some lessons are harder to plan than others and I try not to do the same game or activity multiple times because the students might get bored. It’s fun, but I do work a minimum of 50 hours a week with unpaid overtime and I admit, sometimes I find myself thinking that being a human tape recorder wouldn’t be such a bad gig.
So the life of an ALT in the end may not be lucrative but it gets the job done. It pays the bills and I even have some of my own spending money to buy what I wish come payday as long as it’s not something crazy expensive. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that life is a roller coaster, and the life of an ALT is not the only ride in the park.