Thursday, 8 January 2015

End-of-trip reflections

So, now that I've finished, come home and had some time to digest it all, I wanted to reflect a bit on my whole six months at GenkiJACS, coming back to my feelings in the half-term update. I'm also looking at the evaluation form I completed at the end of my stay, although I won't post specific extracts.

While I will mention various negatives, it's always easier to pinpoint problems than things that were good. The latter tend to be vague and diffiuse, the former are often specific.

The school

The school remained good, both academically and socially. In general I was happier the longer I stayed, as I felt more connected to things and less adrift. I've got to know the teachers better, which is nice; I've had book recommendations, tourist tips and so on through various chats. They are really extremely nice and I'll miss them.


The support from the school was generally very good throughout my experience. I had minor hiccups waiting to hear if my payments had gone through, and with my leaving certificate. They were great at advising on everything to do with the apartment, and giving general tips about where to find to do things in Fukuoka.

As I mentioned before, space and storage are the main disadvantages of the school. Getting six to eight people in some of the rooms is very tight, and sometimes not comfortable; being lanky I really need my leg space. There can also be nuisance issues if some people fidget a lot, or tend to jostle the table. One classmate liked to put her feet up on my chair, which I was not at all pleased about. Only one, though, and I mean, I'm British, so I didn't like to complain.

I did go through one rough period this autumn, where I was exhausted and feeling very uninspired. There was an unfortunate combination of a spike in difficulty, an awkward class dynamic and some specific teaching styles; I was struggling with the new content, but also bored or frustrated in many lessons, which made it hard to improve. As a result, I missed a number of classes through a mixture of oversleeping and (I confess) dearth of motivation to make it to school. After a while, helped by being genuinely off sick for a few days, I gave myself a stern talking-to and pulled out of that particular trough. The next chapter or so returned to normal difficulty, my classmates changed again, I got my sleep schedule under control and things improved. It goes to show, though, that motivation can be an insidious problem even for a very keen linguist like me.

The school offers a lot of social events, very few of which I attended. My mistake, probably. I've never been much of a party person, so wasn't really drawn to opportunities like the weekly parties with various universities. Also, I'm quite a bit older than a) most of the GenkiJACS students, and b) most of the university students; in my experience this gets a bit awkward, but maybe I should have made more effort. I did attend, and got a lot of pleasure from, several expeditions and one party. Outside the official, you could always find someone to get lunch with, go shopping with, or attend various events with.

I also skipped out on most of the Thursday film nights. Again, this was a mix of practical and preference. Often I had classes until halfway through the films. It also tended to be noisy enough in the background that following the dialogue was quite difficult, so it was less useful as a learning tool. As a result, I generally felt I'd rather get the DVD sometime and watch it in peace, somewhere I could pause in the middle to take a break. For people more used to watching TV when other people are around, it seems to be fine.

The conversation exchange (no English page for some reason, but Japanese here) was intially intimidating, but turned out to be fantastic. I'm really glad I took part and encourage anyone staying for more than a short time to do the same. Although we initially didn't seem to have much in common, we found lots to talk about and plenty of shared interests in the end.


The teaching was generally very good, with a range of styles and personalities keeping things fresh. Some were more suited to my taste than others, but classmates would probably disagree on which were best. Even those styles I found a bit tedious were drilling information into me, and different kinds of information need different approaches. There's also the issue that the school can't easily make assumptions about what independent learning people will do. For my part, I'd have preferred to make kanji memorisation a self-study assignment rather than spend valuable class time on it, but then I'm used to spending at least an hour a day on self-study on top of my job.

At times things did feel rather slow and repetitive. I can think of two points here. Firstly, the regular switching of teachers has a downside. No matter how good the handover notes, a teacher coming in partway through a chapter isn't exactly sure what was done or discussed by the previous teacher. Erring on the side of caution ensures a topic is covered thoroughly, but will inevitably lead to some repetition. Secondly, the course doesn't use a single set of books: it has textbooks from at least three series at different levels, plus handouts from other sources.* Inevitably, this means some themes or topics (like 'lost property') crop up more than once, because two different sources have used them differently. Nothing much to be done here.

* This isn't a criticism; I'd far rather they pulled together suitable material from a range of sources, than blindly followed a single textbook series. All have their own strengths and weaknesses.

Moving into the intermediate stream, I felt like things bogged down a lot. I suspect there are two main reasons for this, these being a change of textbook and a more turbulent class. For the first few months I'd had at least a couple of long-term classmates, but in the autumn my whole class changed regularly, making it harder to feel comfortable interacting. At times my small class merged with another for certain lessons, adding to the confusion.

I found the new textbook rather heavy going, and the exercises not particularly interesting. Somehow it didn't suit my particular kind of brain. The topics were quite interesting and very varied (whaling, folklore, etc.), but these tended to involve large amounts of new, highly-specific vocabulary; going through all this, and then stumbling over it in the exercises because it's hard to memorise, felt like a drag. Free discussion on these topics was much more interesting, but there was limited time for this because of all the vocabulary. Again, in hindsight, having an assignment to learn the key vocabulary beforehand would have been a big help; I'd honestly say much of it is too specialised to be worth learning, and could just be checked while reading that one article. On the plus side, I thought the grammatical explanations were very good.

There's also a sort of diminishing returns issue, which is unavoidable. Whereas the earlier books were able to rapidly expand our options with grammar like tenses, the passive, causative or expression of opinion, the grammar points became increasingly specific as we went on. There are fewer broad rules to learn and practice, and instead we have many specific constructions to learn for making specific kinds of phrases: conjunctions, structured arguments, expressing attitude, and all that fiddly stuff. These are essentially arbitrary in any language, basically just a bunch of random syllables, so they're always relatively hard to learn. Language learning is sort of trumpet-shaped: the early stages are narrow, so volume N of learning takes you a long way forward, but the further you go, the wider it becomes, and the more there is to learn at each step. Again, this is just how it goes; no criticism of the school intended.

I found that at this level, when people are relatively confident but far from fluent, it's tricky to balance the dynamic between students. For example, people tend to chip in if someone else appears stuck. Sometimes this is helpful and keeps things moving; however, it's hard to judge when it's necessary. If someone is simply hesitant in speaking, or has a word on the tip of their tongue, then intervention can undermine them. It can also pull the focus of the class to the interruptee, and lead to some people having more time with the teacher than others. With the age, culture and linguistic differences between classmates, as well as personality, this is a difficult one. I'm trying to get better at not doing this myself. In the smaller groups things seem more even.

Private lessons

In October I started my private classes, which aren't available during the summer. These turned out to be with a different teacher each week, which I can't decide whether it's an advantage or a disadvantage. It means you can't be stuck with a suboptimal pairing, but also makes it hard to build the rapport and continuity that really made my private lessons in the UK work.

I asked to concentrate on skills like newspaper reading, which would make it easier for me to continue learning and practicing by myself when I'm back in the UK. It's nice to be able to focus on something again, rather than the juggling act that group classes require. I found these good, but I have lots of experience of one-to-one study; other people may find them more stressful.


Through the agency of a couple of classmates, I managed to make some acquaintances in Fukuoka, which made living there more interesting. I only wish I'd done so earlier! With the weather cooling down, it became far more pleasant to get out - I could walk to school in about the same time it takes on the underground, and did so semi-regularly. More often I'd get breakfast in town, and walk back.

I feel like I explored most of the convenient places, and there was little left to visit that doesn't require a two-hour journey and a fair few quid. Walking the same couple of circular routes around my house got old, but the road arrangements make it hard to get creative. I found some adequate running routes, although I have to say that they just can't match up to an eight-mile jog along a grassy towpath with sporadic herons. There are only a couple of places that I found worth repeated visits, mostly Fukuoka Castle park. Ohori Park is much talked-of, but actually I find it quite dull in a corporate sort of way. There are some nice things to see, but it's basically a big circular running track with some trees around it.

After several months, I also got distinctly fed up of the same few meals. Because I don't really know how to cook Japanese-style, what I mostly ended up with was a subset of the meals I'd normally make in the UK, or variations on them. I can throw the odd unusual vegetable into a stir-fry or curry, but essentially I was eating a much smaller variety of food than normal. It's particularly true of lunches, since there are only a couple of bentos sold nearby that I liked, and for sandwiches it's basically ham, jam or nothing. This is my problem for being a picky eater (not keen on tofu, don't like mayonnaise) but is true nevertheless.

It doesn't help that, while Japanese recipes are of course available, most of them are too complicated for someone starting from scratch in a tiny apartment. I had one hob to cook on, and didn't want to buy large quantities of special ingredients to make a meal for one that I'm not sure I'll actually like.

I feel like I could probably, in time, assemble a group of friends in Fukuoka and get used to the place. I'd also want to sign up for some kind of Japanese remedial cooking lessons and learn to cook interesting basic food for myself (wish I'd thought of that earlier, but then I wouldn't have understood anyway). That being said, I can't imagine ever being other than miserable in the summer. I suppose if I already had friends to hang out with somewhere that would have helped. It's just really unfortunate time to arrive, which I hadn't fully appreciated: vilely hot, with torrential downpours and winds, which combined with the jetlag really impedes you in getting out, settling in and making any kind of friends. If I'd arrived in spring or autumn, I suspect I would have managed that better, and therefore avoided some of the low mood and boredom that I struggled with at times.

Fundamentally, it's important to note that Fukuoka really is just a city. I sort of knew this already, but it seems some people expect simply being in Japan to be a constant exciting whirl, and the reality is rather different. There are new things to experience, and of course tourism or shopping to do, but the day-to-day of life in Japan isn't significantly more interesting than it is in Milton Keynes, say. You still buy groceries, cook, clean, tidy, manage your inbox, recharge gadgets, wait for buses. Moreover, cities in Japan are very much the concrete jungle; there's not much in the way of interestingly historic buildings, and nature is tightly constrained. If you're used to easy access to the countryside, or rolling parklands, or loads of interesting old architecture, this might niggle at you as it did me.

If going for any length of time, it's probably worth spending some time at Rainbow Plaza. I only went there to investigate clubs and societies, and basically struck a blank (I still don't know how this works in Japan. There must be some!) but there are various conversation meetups and so on. This would be a good way to make a few acqaintances who aren't students who leave every few weeks, and avoid getting lonely.


So basically, my apartment was adequate and my landlords perfectly okay.

Between changes in the weather and some stern countermeasures, the early cockroach problem dropped off. It wasn't that there were ever a particularly large number of them, it's just the knowledge that there could, at any time, be one. I can't live like that.

Very little changed otherwise. There never was enough space to put things away or keep them tidy, so I lived in a state of scrabbling. Dishes had to be done in the morning or early evening so they could dry on my bed, there being literallly nowhere else to put them. Hot pans had to be put in the porch with its tiled floor. I just don't really know the tricks to living in this kind of apartment (I'm used to sharing a tiny terraced house). And I'm too tall. But it wasn't awful or anything. Everything worked, it was fairly easy to clean, safe, weatherproof, all that important stuff. Apartments in Japan are very small. That's just how it is.

Eventually I was able to stop using the air-conditioning. I discovered that leaving (barred) windows open all day helped to keep the place cool, but the air-con was necessary overnight until early November, otherwise too much heat built up from the fridge and my own body. It was never possible to leave the windows open overnight, the district was just too noisy for me to sleep that way. Even with closed windows, you can still clearly hear conversations in the street, the loudspeaker shouts of passing electioneers, the cicadas, and building work down the road. I got better at tuning it out, eventually, but still needed white noise to sleep at night.

The final checks were painless and everything sorted out. I cleaned up thoroughly, of course. It was a bit tough trying to dispose of everything before I left, so do bear that in mind.

Final feelings

It's actually already hard to focus on Japan. Being back in your childhood home has a way of making everything else seem increasingly unreal!

In retrospect, the positives are easiest to see, and the negatives seem less important. It was a valuable experience, and I definitely think a worthwhile one. I met a lot of lovely people, had a lot of great experiences, and learned a lot of Japanese. Not enough, but a lot.

I can definitely recommend GenkiJACS for anyone looking for long-term study in Japan. The system seems well-established for that, and the staff are great. I found the teaching entirely adequate; yes, I talk about some issues above, but fundamentally any school and any teaching methods will sometimes not be to your taste, especially when balancing the needs of a class. Learning is hard, motivation fluctuates, they really do as well as can be reasonably expected. Make the most of it. Go on most of the Traditional Culture class activites (but probably skip the lectures, as I did). If you can manage it, go to the cooking more than once! And join the conversation scheme. Do not arrive in summer.

I have no particular attachment to Fukuoka itself. It's a city, and I'm not really a city person; inasmuch as I am, I like the opportunities offered by cities, like interesting clubs or entertainments, which were mostly beyond my reach in Japan. I never did manage to attend any plays, because by the time I felt up to trying, there weren't any around but translated Western musicals at vast expense. Never joined any clubs or hobby classes either. There are various tourist spots worth visiting once, but I don't see myself pining for it. Fukuoka is distinguished for me only by the many nice people I met there, and the experiences I had.

Right now my plans are completely unknown. If I do return to Japan, I'll definitely aim to avoid the summer, or at the very least, come early in the year so I can slowly adjust to it. And buy some noise-cancelling headphones to deal with those pesky cicadas. And make sure I get a proper smartphone, not a G-Call handset.


  1. Hey Shimmin! I found your blog in November and have been following since because I intend to attend GenkiJACS starting in October. Could you perhaps clarify a little on the differences of the G-Call handset? I'm assuming they don't have a smartphone available?
    Also, I was wondering if you had any issues using your own non-Japanese computer?

  2. An actual visitor! Awesome. Hi Ariel!

    The link from the GenkiJACS website is direct, and that G-Call page doesn't offer navigation, but you can drop back a bit to get a look at the actual phone: right here. As you can see, it's a simple handset with basic internet function. It's also really quite faffy to use, in my experience.

    There are a few companies that will rent you either a local SIM or a smartphone; SoftBank is a pretty major one and doesn't seem too extortionate: here. Note the description of their data plan is actually wrong; checking the Japanese, it's 0.32Y per packet, capped at 1550Y/day, as the chart describes.

    While it's definitely not crippling, I'd really recommend getting a smartphone if you can. Having access to maps makes a huge difference in your confidence getting around the city (let alone on trips out of town), and paper tourist maps may not cover the area where you live! Also, maps can't tell you where you are right now. I also found my phone very useful socially once I'd made some friends, even though I don't typically it much at home. There's also dictionary apps and stuff that other people used all the time.

    What sort of issues were you thinking of? I didn't notice any particular problems with my computer, but I'm happy to get more specific.

    One thing worth noting, it's extremely rare that anywhere in Japan will let you plug in a laptop, or even a phone, so running out of battery is a constant problem. Unlike the UK, even chain cafes don't like you using their power. It also seemed like fewer places offered wi-fi. Here's a strange tip: Starbucks tends to have wi-fi, but Doutor (another chain) tends to have sockets. In a few places, I found myself moving from one to another; I'd work and email in Starbucks, move to Doutor to charge while I read or did flashcards, then shift back to Starbucks!

    Also worth noting, I found the laptop power supplies at the school would fit my laptop. So I could avoid hauling my own supply-plus-adaptor over to the school, and just recharge it over lunch using the school's, then use it in a cafe or the park.

  3. That's all really good to know, thanks! I hadn't considered the battery problem, so those tips are really helpful.
    I don't know if GenkiJACS has any computer work in their lessons or homework, but would there be any difference or difficulty in use of an English computer if they did? I know it's possible to download a program to type Japanese, so does that pretty much equal them out?

    1. There wasn't any computer work. Assignments are usually from the textbooks. Most people just write the answers into the book by hand. I write mine out in a notebook instead, as typically we just discuss the answers rather than handing them in for marking. When work is getting marked, the teachers usually give out a worksheet for us to fill in. There might have been one or two cases of more extended writing, but I honestly can't remember! In any case, I don't think I printed out a single piece of work. Computers are in the lounge for checking email, maps, news and so on during your free time. People also use them for printing tickets and important documents.

      If you need to use a Japanese computer, they are a bit different. Keyboard is the main thing. Take a look at the typical layout (just google it) and you'll find some keys aren't where you expect. The menus etc. are also in Japanese.

      I definitely recommend getting a Japanese input for your computer. A bit of practice would be a good idea. What OS are you using? I use the Japanese IME for Windows (amongst others) and it's usually fine. In my case, Alt-Shift switches between languages, or I can click on the language icon on the bottom menu bar. Again, good practice for if you're trying to do that on a Japanese computer.

      There's no massive difference between Japanese and English computers that I know of, so nothing to worry about there.

  4. Glad to hear it! That makes things easier. My current OS is vista, but I'm way overdue for a new one, and the one I've been looking at has Windows 8.1.
    I hadn't thought about practicing using the Japanese input, so I'm glad you mentioned it. It's crazy how much there is to consider when moving to another country!

    1. I use 8.1 myself. I was very reluctant to change, though! What I actually have is 8.1, but with the Classic Shell fix. That lets me use it like normal, instead of the default app-based interface that's really designed for touchscreens.

      Always happy to help! Seriously, if there's anything you want to know about that I haven't mentioned, before or during the trip, just ask. If I don't know myself, one of my friends likely will.

  5. Replies
    1. I don't know if you're still reading, but did you go? I'd love an update.