Sunday, October 20, 2019

5 reasons why Japan is the perfect term break holiday for teachers

I'm addicted - I just can't stop travelling to Japan!  Here's why Japan makes for the perfect term break holiday for teachers - especially if you live in Australia.

1. Your 10 day break feels like a month of holidays

Japan is so different from your normal routine, every hour of your break has the potential to be novel and different, if you want it to be. After a day or two in Japan, you will feel like you've been away for weeks.  One of the challenges of being a teacher is you are so exhausted by the end of term, you really need to be refreshed and re-energised, but those two weeks can go very fast. A trip to Japan is so engaging, you really do feel like you have been away for a very long time. You'll be reliving your Japan holiday for at least a month or two into the next term ... just in time to plan your next holiday to Japan!

The famous Inari Temple in Kyoto. The classic Tokyo-Kyoto-Osaka route is the perfect first visit. It will be very busy depending when you go, but a great introduction. Once you see how things work in Japan, you'll be able to visit regions which surprisingly have almost no foreign tourists.
Another terrific bonus for Australian teachers is the timezone difference to Japan - in effect there is virtually no timezone difference. Which means no loss of time for those precious 10 days because of jet lag! Indeed, once you are experienced, you could leave school on Friday afternoon and head to the airport, and return back home the Sunday morning two weeks later,  just before the next term starts.

And as a final incentive, if you need one, a holiday in Japan means you can start or end each day with a super relaxing hot bath at an onsen - either in your hotel, or at public onsen nearby. It's like you get a spa holiday thrown in as a bonus. Never miss a chance for an onsen on a day trip if there is one featured as part of the visit. A little bit embarrassing the first time, but once you get over it - absolute bliss for the tired teacher.

The onsen in a small local hotel far from the regular tourist path. Have a wash, then soak in bubbling hot water while looking outside at a beautiful Japanese garden. Onsens are the perfect antidote for Term 3, Week 9 & 10.

2. Travel in Japan is really easy - once you get used to it

As a teacher who has just survived through to the end of Week 10, you really really need a relaxing break, not a stressful one. The first time you go to Japan you'll be in culture shock for about two days. Then once you calm down, you will realise just how tourist friendly Japan is. You begin to notice all the announcements on public transport are in four languages (Japanese, English, Mandarin and Korean) not one, you realise that with some help from Google Maps, HyperDia , and even (heaven forbid) Trip Advisor, you can pretty much work out how go anywhere or do anything.  Work out how to buy and use a transport card (so easy!) and the train and bus networks open up to you hassle free. There are official tourist information booths and help everywhere. People are so helpful and friendly (if a little shy sometimes) - you are never alone.  Oh, and did I mention that everything works ? If the train timetable says the train is there at 9:04, it will be. As you get a little more confident, you can move off the classic tourist routes and the country opens up for exploration.  And it's surprisingly easy to hire a car in more remote regions, with good discounts if you book wisely. With a little gentleness and patience, Japan is really easy to get around with only English language skills.

Walking the Kumano Kodo in Wakayama Prefecture. Options from 1 to 6 days following a 2,500 year old pilgrimage trail. Stay overnight in small Japanese homestyle inns, get your bags transported overnight, enjoy a spectacular walk. Incredibly cheap if you arrange it yourself using the Tanabe City Kumano Kodo website.

3. There is something for every season, for every interest

Whatever your interest - cities, culture, food, the outdoors - Japan has it. For starters, there are at least seven completely different regions of Japan, and don't forget the islands way down South in the Pacific. Once you step outside the Toyko-Kyoto-Osaka triangle, you'll discover so many different types of holidays in Japan.  You could easily do two, or even three, trips to each region and have a completely different experience.  And unlike Australia, Japan has seasons. So your April visit to Japan will be completely different to your September/October visit (but watch out for typhoons - go somewhere with less of them at that time.) As a teacher with predetermined times for the term breaks, sadly you won't be able to time your visits perfectly for the sakura (cherry blossoms in spring) or the autumn leaves, but with some careful planning can optimise what you do see (hint: choose several lattitudes and/or elevations for your trip - at least one of them will be the right time and place).

Autumn leaves in Northern Hokkaido (mid October).

4. You (probably) have an in-house Japan guide at school

If you're a high school teacher, and given that Japanese is the mostly widely taught foreign language in Australian schools, you likely have your very own in-house Japan travel advisor at school : the Japanese teacher.  When planning your first trip to Japan, you might be a little anxious - so go talk to your Japanese teacher. My lovely Japanese teacher at school helped me with itinerary planning, and then while I was in Japan, kept on giving me advice and travel tips via Facebook. And it turned out our Music teacher also was a big fan of travelling to Japan. So there was a whole network at school to help plan trips to Japan and share experiences.  

Egg dessert display at a Toyko supermarket.
The food basements of Japanese supermarkets are a tourist attraction in their own right.

5. Added value for teachers : taking the next step

There is a good chance that after your first visit to Japan, you might be tempted to consider learning some Japanese. And again, because you're a teacher, you're in luck. If your school teaches Japanese, there's a colleague who will most likely be super eager to help you out.  When I got back after my first trip, our Japanese teacher gave me permission to sit in with her Year 7 class (with luck the timetable mostly worked out) to learn Hiragana (the first Japanese script to learn). So many added benefits : you get more out of your time in Japan, and your students get to see you learn. I find now I often bring my Japanese learning into the maths classroom - we often talk about "maths kanji" now.

Build up your relationship with Japan and the Japanese teaching and learning at your school and you may be surprised where it leads. I was extremely fortunate to be invited to help supervise a student exchange visit to Japan last year - giving me the chance to spend time in a Japanese school with Japanese teachers.

So ... as I contemplate my sixth trip to Japan, I can only urge you, if you haven't got the bug yet, go talk to the Japanese teacher now!

Some beginner tips

Money: Japan mostly runs on cash, not credit cards. Japan is totally safe so people carry a fair bit of cash in their wallets. The challenge for tourists : many ATMs won't accept foreign credit cards. The good news is the 7-Eleven and Lawsons convenience stores, as well as Post Offices have ATMs which work for foreign cards.  I personally recommend using the Citibank VISA Debit card , which converts at the correct exchange rate and has never generated a transaction fee in Japan for me, ever.

Transport: Get yourself an IC card (SUICA or PASMO) card as soon as you can. The train service bureaus at the airports sell pre-loaded Hello Kitty versions of these cards! Or just get from a kiosk at any train station. Press the "English" button and it's all easy. Top is up with cash as you use it. Totally hassle free transport.

Internet: Hotels, trains and even whole cities have free, super fast wifi everywhere. You can also hire pocket wifi devices at airports which are cost effective for sharing with travel companions. I use my Vodafone $5 a day roaming which makes my overseas internet access work just like at home.

Luggage: With a little discipline, you can easily do a 10 day trip to Japan with a 7 kg carry on bag. Many hotels have coin operated laundromat facilities. You can top up your toiletries bag at the local convenience store once you arrive in Japan. Travelling with carry on luggage will make flying hassle free and travelling on the metro and trains in Japan so much easier.

Osaka: Learn to pronounce it OO-SA-KA (long 'oo' - like 'oar') and then buy a 2-Day Osaka Amazing pass and then see and do everything available on the pass. Outstanding value and terrifically good fun. And do visit the two onsens!