I just finished my first term at GenkiJACS and wanted to reflect on how I feel about things so far.
The school is good, definitely. I've made clear progress in my Japanese, not just in terms of vocabulary or memorising facts, but more broadly. I'm more confident about using Japanese, to the point where I will cheerfully (if confusedly) talk to shop assistants in Japanese, rather than giving up and using English or avoiding conversation. I'm getting a better sense of things like having a conversation - how to throw in a word or two to show approval or interest, how to pull the meat out of a sentence without understanding the whole thing, and coping with a variety of different accents. It's impossible, of course, to separate out what I learned at school from the more general experience of living in Japan.
The staff are universally friendly, helpful and interesting. We have some great discussions in class, as well as covering the actual lesson material. Naturally, some people's style works better for me than others, but I feel like I get on well with all of them. There's good feedback on assignments, and while I try not to delve too far into full-blown linguistics, teachers always try to answer the technical queries that I do raise. The teachers and admin staff alike are always happy to give suggestions or advice for general "living in Japan" issues. I've found dealing with any bureaucratic stuff straightforward, as the staff will always work through things with you, even when it's not really school-related. They have helped out with things like booking my trip to Korea so I can renew my visa, which makes that much less stressful.
Class is fine, though naturally interest varies with the particular material, exercises, classmates and how much sleep I've had. As a long-term student I've gone through a mix of classmates, so I've always got new things to pick up and more to learn about all these interesting people. Some have been great company for lunches or shopping trips, some are full of interesting information; none have yet been annoying. By a process of elimination, I may well be the annoying one.
The facilities are fine, although they're clearly stretched to their limit now during the peak season. We have unlimited hot drinks, and for my undescriminating palate they're good enough - some of the coffee purists I've worked with would be dismayed by our family-size tub of instant. I can usually find somewhere to eat lunch, even if it's occasionally squatting on the floor of the lounge. There's a popular games console, where I've occasionally whiled away a bit of time with classmates but am hopeless at the fighting games on offer. Having to switch shoes to head to the loo is a mild irritation but part of Japanese culture.
I think the only niggles I really have are size and storage. Obviously the school wants to take on as many students as it reasonably can, but it does sometimes end up near-impossible to sit down in the lounge, or to fight through the crowded reception bottleneck between the entrace, classrooms and lounge. I've made very little use of the lounge for private study, because I've just found it awkward to get space during the summer.
Storagewise, I'm sure it's a logistical issue, but lockers are about the only thing I genuinely find missing from the school. It's very hot here, and toting around a hefty textbook, notebooks, reading material for lunchtime and my lunch gets old fast. If I want to do any study in the lounge or a café, I also want to bring my laptop, which is pretty heavy. And I need to shop for food just about daily, and some of that stuff is very heavy (milk, juice, fruit and veg). The end result is that I can easily end up with a ridiculously heavy rucksack by the time I'm heading home, sweating buckets. It also makes it unappealing to do things like go for a walk before or after school. Lockers would be a massive help. I could stow my textbooks at the school instead of carrying them back and forth, especially as most of us try to finish homework in the lounge, and actually if I did this I wouldn't need the rucksack at all. I could bring my laptop in without concern that I'd have to lug it around all day if I went for a walk with someone, as I could leave my stuff in the lockers and collect it before school closed.
Fukuoka is about as interesting as I expected it to be. It's got some stuff to look at, but like most cities it has limited entertainment value unless you have friends to hang out with. It's a pretty comfortable place, and barring my constant cyclist paranoia I've never felt any concern as I wander around at random, even in the dark. There's a lot of things I'm clearly not taking advantage of, like its array of restaurants, because going into restaurants on my own is just not a thing I do.
It is a very 70s-looking city, consisting mostly of large concrete buildings. There are a few small parks, but minimal greenery of any kind, and every route anywhere is clogged with roads. Most of the pavemants are very narrow and shared with daredevil cyclists. This, plus the heat, means I haven't found it particularly interesting to walk round at random, although I walk anyway out of habit and need for exercise. You can't stroll down the river, because all the rivers have been turned into large concrete drains with zero ecological value. Birds are few and far between. It's a perfectly liveable place, but not one full of romance and leisurely places to stroll.
Shopping for basics is pretty easy, once you work out what you can get and how to identify shops. It's definitely pricey, but not ruinous for someone coming from the UK. That being said, I only really buy groceries and the odd book, so I've no idea of the general shopping scene.
As regular readers may have gathered, the weather is not a friend to me.
The apartment is cheap, liveable, but deeply inconvenient in many ways. There's nothing like adequate storage, so it's always a bit of a mess, and I'm obliged to keep bin bags inside awaiting the twice-weekly collection, which is just a bit minging. The kitchen is completely inadequate spacewise, so things like dishes and cooking are a massive pain. Sometimes literally! The crowdedness of the 1'-square area immediately next to the hob leads to regular mid-cooking complications and I've ended up with several burns as I struggle to prevent disaster (say, plastic items tumbling into the flame).
I've also had to deal with more cockroaches than I appreciate in my living quarters. Slugs were bad enough.
The air-conditioning is old, and has no instruction manual, so I can only use very basic features even though it appears to be a bit clever. On the plus side, it does have air-conditioning.
Sticking with positives, it's a quiet set of flats with no problem neighbours and very conveniently located. The underground, corner shops and an inordinate number of dental clinics are all within a stone's throw.
I'm just about to head off on half-term for three weeks, during which I need to attend a really cool conference in Okinawa (excitement!), go to Korea so I can get a re-entry visa to last me until Christmas, and prepare for my exam. I'm definitely a bit tired out and will appreciate the break, although I suspect I'm also going to get pretty lonely.
And my poll question: Would I do this again, knowing what I do now?
Hmm. Umm. Sorry, but not.
I should say that this doesn't reflect at all on the school, but is entirely a climate issue. I knew in advance that it would be hot and muggy, and this isn't my kind of weather, but I hadn't appreciated just how much of an impact that would have over three months. I spend an awful lot of time tired and cross as a result, and just about everything is less fun in the heat. I'm used to walking everywhere and walking a lot, but here it's a very unappealing prospect, and I've ended up exploring the city far less than I normally would - no three-hour walking tours for me. Running, my go-to sport, is only feasible for me late at night in pitch darkness when the temperature drops to 25C or so. I find it near-impossible to sleep without air-conditioning, which is expensive and environmentally-disastrous.
The annoyance of going out also means I end up spending a lot more time indoors than normal. Whereas of an afternoon I'd generally look to head to the park with a book or laptop, I'm reluctant to do that unless I expect to spend a fair bit of time there, because of the effort involved. On sunny days it's often too hot to sit out in most places, while Fukuoka is also prone to sudden rainstorms that would ruin a day out (and indeed a laptop), so I don't want to do it on cloudy days.
While I might consider coming to Japan again, I just don't think I'm a person built to cope with temperatures much above the 20C mark on any kind of regular basis. A return visit to Fukuoka doesn't seem like a great option for me.