Teaching English in Kyoto – Interview with Lash World Tour

Where did you teach?

I lived in Kyoto, Japan for six years while teaching in Kyoto and nearby Osaka.

temple in Kyoto Japan

What are the perks of teaching here?

Wow, sooo many!

*  Japanese people are extremely polite, professional, respectful and honest. I really enjoyed working with all the staff, managers and even owners of the four schools I worked at during my 6 years there.

Contracts are honored, salaries are paid on time in full. I’ve heard stories of frustration by people who’ve taught in China about contracts and rules being suddenly changed. Nothing like that at all in Japan!

* Pay, perks and work conditions are excellent. In order for a company to hire a foreign employee, they must pay a minimum monthly salary of 250,000 yen (When I was there in 1990s, that amounted to about $2000 US/month) plus health insurance. Tax is only 10% at most.

Because transportation in Japan is so expensive, Japanese companies routinely pay for employees’ transportation fees. That usually amounts to them buying you a monthly train and/or bus pass to cover your transport to/from your home/work. You can then use the monthly pass in your spare time, too.

When I was there, standard work hours were 25 hours/ week. I think it might be up to 30 or 40 hours/week – a normal work week.

* The company sets up your work visa papers for you. The only thing you have to do when the papers are ready is to leave the country, visit any Japanese Embassy abroad, get your work visa processed, and return to Japan. Easy! The closest destination is Seoul, Korea. That trip takes about 3-4 days total.

* Some companies will help you find housing, give you a cash advance if needed, and otherwise help you get settled in.

* Right now, the Japanese yen is so strong against other currencies, that your earnings translate into really good money if/when you want to travel or convert money into your home currency and bank it.

* Japanese people highly revere teachers as well as foreigners. As a western teacher, you’re given very high regard. Students look up to you, are polite, co-operative and well-behaved.

Lash in kimono with sensei, tea ceremony

* For Japanese, learning English is trendy and prestigious. Japanese already highly regard teachers and westerners in general. On top of that, it’s very ‘cool’ for them to learn English and to have western teachers and friends.

* They love to befriend their favorite teachers, go out for drinks or meals or coffee or sight-seeing. They might very well invite you to their homes, to show you famous places, to introduce you to foods you don’t know, to parties, to traditional performances or whatever they’re into themselves.

I was invited to tea ceremonies, met up with students I befriended for coffee or meals, went to a few students’ homes, joined them for celebrations, parties, karaoke, picnics and so on.

typical New Years meal - Japan

* If the students are happy with you, the company is happy with you. While Japanese hold themselves to very strict and conservative standards of behavior, dress and so on, they don’t expect westerners to -be able to – do so.

They expect foreigners to have ‘weird’ habits. Therefore, you’ve got a lot of leeway in your clothing style, hair, habits. I dressed outrageously when I lived and worked there. My hair changed from platinum to orange to pink, purple, blue, red. The students all thought I was ‘kakko ii’ ‘cool, hip, trendy’ so the managers and staff were fine with my style, too. I think they liked it too, truth be told, as they found it quirky and amusing.

* Everything works in Japan.  Trains and buses run extremely punctually. Streets, shops, stores, everything is immaculately clean. People are polite and respectful. It’s absolutely safe. Food is delicious, fresh and sanitary. It was such a wonderful relief to me to live in a place where everything functions properly after growing up in the USA!

*Japanese food is absolutely delicious and so varied!

* In my school I was given a lot of freedom about the content and style of our lessons. We could use the schools’ materials or make up our own. I even was allowed to take students out walking around the city to practice English ‘live.’ Many other schools have extremely well-made and well-organized materials and/or specialized classes that you  have to follow. But that makes teaching easy and fast. So both styles were fine by me.

* You can pick up part time work on the side for 2500 – 5000 – 10,000 yen / hour. ($25 – $50 – $100 US)

Were there any negative aspect to teaching in this country?

For me, no.

I did get incredibly bored with teaching the same things over and over and over again, ad infinim. But that’s just part of teaching English anywhere, not specific to Japan. I could have spent more time creating new lessons and making teaching more fun and fresh, but I chose not to use my free time doing so. Thus, I basically blame myself for getting bored.

Although I personally love cleanliness, punctuality and politeness, I’ve learned that it’s not for everyone. I worked with a couple people who felt the Japanese politeness and lack of public emotions was too plastic. I’ve also heard people lament the fact that they weren’t really accepted into social circles as peers. I didn’t have any issues like that myself. I’m happy to keep most people as acquaintances and just have a few close friends.

Lash with students and teachers at a school party
So those are things to consider before going to Japan. If prefer people who are very emotionally expressive, like the stereotypical Italians, you might not enjoy Japanese ‘cool’ ness. If you don’t really like being on a strict time schedule, Japan might not be for you. If you’re more laid back and liaise fair, you might feel really pressured and stressed out in Japan.

Personally, I loved all of it. I loved that people keep a respectful distance. I loved that people don’t argue and fight or tell each other off. I loved that everything functions properly. I loved that it’s so safe and clean.

If that all sounds wonderful to you, too, then you’ll probably love teaching and living in Japan. If it makes you wince, maybe choose a different country. 🙂

Are there any specific considerations one should take into account about this country?

I mostly answered this question above. But I’d like to warn people about the expense in getting started there. Expensive!

Japan is extremely expensive, basically for everything: housing, clothing, food, transportation, entertainment. It’s very expensive to get set up initially, especially if you go on your own and search for work like I did.  One way around that is to find a job before you go. Some companies will pay for airfare, set up housing, and so on. (See what you’ll have to do otherwise below.)

I’d recommend taking everything with you that you need so you don’t end up spending too much money. Take all your clothes, toiletries, music, electronics. Everything. I even took my bicycle with me because I knew I was going to live there for several years.

Japan has four seasons, just like Europe and N America. Winters are cold with snow in most places. Summers are hot and humid. So take clothes for all seasons.

Lash enjoying onsen and sake

In addition, take enough money to get you through at least one month without income.

Companies pay salaries once/month. If you happen to start working at the beginning of a pay period, you’ll have a month plus one week to wait for any income. 🙂 But they’ll probably front you money if you need it.

Housing is extremely expensive to set up. Basically, you need 3-6 months’ rent up front! First and last month’s rent, one month deposit, and usually 1-3 months of ‘key money’. That’s basically a gift to the landlord for the privilege of letting you stay there. 🙂  When I was there, rents cost 60,000 – 80,000 yen = $600- 800 US at the time. It will be more expensive now with the current exchange rates. So you’ll need a staggering $2000 – 5000 US to get an apartment! Yikes.

Also, most places come unfurnished. In Japan, unfurnished means: no fridge. No stove. No bed. No cabinets or furniture. Completely bare. You’ll need to buy all those things for most apartments. Maybe you can find another foreigner who’s leaving and will include all his furnishings in the apartment?

I lucked out and found old Kyoto houses to rent that cost 30.000 yen/month. Key money was minimal. And I split all the costs with my friend.

Another way around that is to stay in guest houses, where you can pay as you go. Not much privacy, not the nicest or cleanest places, but you’ll have cooking facilities and other travelers/teachers for company. Perhaps you can find someone who already has an apartment and needs a roommate. That way you can avoid the above expenses, too.

Could you briefly describe your hiring and Visa process?

I mostly answered this question above, but to fill in a few details:

I arrived in Kyoto without a job then set about searching for work through English-language magazines, newspapers and notice boards. I asked other teachers / would-be teachers for leads. I called up the schools with ads and went to interviews.

Heian Shrine Torii - gate - Kyoto - Japan

It took me about one month to get a job. My friend found a job after about two weeks. Make sure you take enough money to get you through. I took about $3000 US and I needed all of it.

Once the school hired me, I signed a contract. They processed the paperwork, then I flew off to Seoul, Korea to get my work visa. I don’t remember how long the papers took to process- maybe 1-2 weeks? In the meantime, I started working in the school (shhh) right away.

Roughly how much money is it possible to save teaching for one year?

Of course that really depends entirely on each person’s spending habits, discipline, required lifestyle,  standard of living, and so on! I was able to comfortably save $10,000 US per year. I still had plenty of money to study several traditional Japanese arts on a weekly basis, attend dance classes 4 times/week, join a gym, eat out all the time, visit temples and museums and attractions, and travel around Japan pretty extensively.

I suppose someone could live a lot more frugally than I did. They could skip the studies, explorations, club memberships, dinners and traveling. Maybe they’d be able to save heaps more than me?

In extreme contrast, my friend saved absolutely nothing during the same time period. We had equal salaries, did most explorations, travels and dining together and so on. Meaning, we had basically equivalent expenses. So I have no idea what happened to him and savings! Hidden drinking or drug habit I didn’t know about? Or what?!

Are there any noteworthy places or destinations worth exploring nearby?

Are you kidding? Kyoto has over 3000 temples, shrines and gardens within the city limits alone. Then there are the amazing seasonal celebrations like Cherry Blossom viewing, New year’s Eve, Gion Festival,  Festival  of Ages. Every month Kyoto has at least one major traditional event or ceremony.

Spring Geisha Dances in Kyoto - Japan

Then there’s nearby lake Biwa. The Japan Sea, north coast, is only about 3 hours by train. Kobe and Nara, two famous cities, are each about 1 hour away. Nearby mountains have hiking, temples, hot springs, ryokan (traditional inns).

The number of amazing places, events and activities is staggering. They kept me running at full throttle for 6 years. I was never ever bored or at a loss as to what to do.

Can you tell us a bit about your travel blog and what readers can expect to find?

After living in Kyoto for six years, I set out on my world travels. That was in 1998. I’ve been traveling solo ever since, mostly around SE Asia, but to other random places too.

private garden at Koyasan

On LashWorldTour I bring my 14 years of travel experience to present weekly travel tips and advice, travel stories, cultural insights and photos. I hope to inspire others to travel the world and to entertain with exciting adventure tales and photos.

I  also featured bi-monthly interviews with dozens of top travel bloggers, including Samuel and reviews of boutique hotels, tours, museums and attractions. My most popular posts are my series of ’10 Free Things to do in…’ destinations around the world.

I also offer my free eBook “100 Free Things to do in Asia’ when you sign up to my free monthly newsletter.

Can you briefly tell us about your upcoming travel plans?

In the bigger picture, I intend to travel another 10-15 years in order to see the rest of the world. (Or until I decide I’ve finally satisfied my wanderlust.) I’m betting the 10-15 year plan will be a minimal. :))

My more immediate travels are:

I’m currently in Indonesian until Nov or Dec. Over the years I’ve spent heaps of time in Bali. This year I’ve started exploring the nearby islands. I’ve just visited eastern Java. Next I’m off to Lombok, Komodo, Flores and Sulawesi, hopefully by motorbike. Love to have my own wheels!

Once I leave Indonesia, I will either fly to Australia for a few months to visit friends and do some WWOOFing and House Sitting or else return to Nepal for more Himalayan hiking.  Let’s see where travels take me later in 2013.

Lash, an expat American who’s been traveling the world solo since 1998, immerses herself in nature, culture, and the arts of the countries she visits. She aims to inspire others to follow their dreams by sharing her cultural insights, narrative adventure tales, travel tips and photos at Lash WorldTour.

Lash is the author of two adventuring guidebooks to Bali, which are available in 3 eBook formats on Lash WorldTour and in print on Amazon: Hiking in Bali / Cycling Bali.

Catch up with Lash on Facebook or Twitter.

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