The reality of being an ALT in Japan

So you’re interested in teaching English abroad? First of all, congratulations on clearly being an awesome person. Even the thought of leaving behind everything you know as home is terrifying for many people, so you’ve already won half the battle. Way to go! The next half is deciding where. Each country has its draws and detractions. If you are considering wonderful Japan, then let me share with you a little of my experience as an ALT. I work in a public junior high school, and while most of this will pertain to any grade level, I can’t personally attest to what goes on in elementary school and high school.funny english

There is plenty of information out there about an ALT’s job description, but slightly less about its effect on you personally. There are a lot of stereotypes about Japanese students and not as many honest depictions. There are glowing reviews and there are horror stories, but little about the broad grey area in between them which you will work through every day. Without mincing words, let’s go over the pros and cons of some concerns you might have about teaching in Japan.


IMG_0648After ten years of waiting tables, my job as an ALT is a million times easier and less stressful. It’s not physically demanding, and I get the same paycheck at the end of the day regardless of customer satisfaction. If you are used to sitting down most of the day at a desk, you will probably find it a nice change of pace to stand and walk around an average of four hours a day. If you are used to high intensity, fast-paced work environments like me, you might be surprised at how much time you spend in the office doing nothing, being bored. Being an ALT requires a lot of self-motivation, since no one is standing over you, explaining what to do. Sometimes teachers will ask you for things specifically, but most of the time you are on your own to create activities and set daily goals. If you are self-motivated, you will probably enjoy the hands-off management. If not, you could wind up being another lazy foreigner making us all look bad…

One of the up-sides of the job is being left alone. If you don’t speak Japanese, you can spend most of your time in the office without ever talking to anyone. The down-side, no one talks to you. Besides making you a little lonely for workplace camaraderie, no one tells you what’s going on. You may look up to find yourself completely alone for over an hour with no idea as to why, or if you’re allowed to go home. You will generally be the last person to know anything. It’s not on purpose, the staff simply forgets that you can’t understand everything they’re saying. Sometimes they just forget about you altogether.

englishWith all this spare time on your hands, you get to sit around and think about English, and how to make it fun. If you have a natural interest in linguistics, ESL, literature, communication, or you like sitting around thinking about how to make things fun, this job can be really interesting. If not, you might find your job a bit difficult. This holds true in the classroom. If you enjoy kids and can take an interest in their development: PRO. If you don’t like kids: definite CON. The nice thing about being an ALT is getting to figuratively “try on” being a teacher. You don’t have to get your masters, or a teaching degree to get in the classroom and see if it suits you. You get to have the fun experiences of teaching with almost none of the responsibilities. You don’t make tests, assign homework, correct tests, log grades, take attendance, talk to parents, go to meetings, nada. Pretty sweet gig. The downside to bonding with your students? When things go wrong or students behave badly, it personally upsets you. In the words of C.S. Lewis, “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken.” Such is life, but you already knew that.


karaokeFor the little “work” you do, thinking about fun stuff, hanging out with kids, you’re paid extremely well. The schools in Japan expect almost nothing from you in the skilled labor department, so with that in mind you’ll make more than you feel you might deserve. However, when you start staying at school over forty hours a week, coupled with the high cost of living in Japan, you’ll start to think you’re severely underpaid. You will certainly make enough to get by every month, but depending on your eating, drinking and karaoke-ing habits, you might not save much. Working here is by no means a get-rich-quick scenario, but the salary isn’t terrible. In Japan, you get so much more for your tax dollars: high speed rail, great public transportation, clean everything, helpful international services. Based on your salary you may feel like you are paying a lot in taxes. If you need more specifics here, or on any point, please contact us for details.


You will be completely outnumbered, all the time. At your school, you will be the only non-Japanese person working there. This can make you feel special, unique, like a celebrity, and this can also be very isolating. For more in-depth analysis of this potential identity crisis, read about my experiences here and here. By bringing a foreigner into the classroom, Japan hopes to create enthusiasm for communication, and foster international awareness. Since you usually come to class to do fun activities, the kids can be excited by your presence and more eager to please.funny english

Alternately, you are viewed as a sort of “fake” teacher, devoid of the real authority the Japanese teachers carry. In theory, you should garner the same respect as the rest of the teachers, but this is usually not the case and can be quite frustrating. If students decide they don’t feel like following your instructions, there’s virtually nothing you can do about it. Japanese schools surprisingly lack the discipline we attribute as a given in Asian countries, at least when it comes to English class. What little discipline you are allowed to exercise amounts to the “Be quiet” gesture and making angry eyes or sad faces when students act up. Anything besides that is out of your purview, and without backup from the Japanese teachers it’s sometimes impossible to get things done.


Commit this phrase to memory: The nail that sticks out gets hammered down. This Japanese proverb can explain almost every difficulty you will encounter as a foreigner teaching in Japan. Did you have a really good idea about a new way to teach this grammar point? Yeah, we’re not going to use that…hammered down. Want to do something that’s not in the textbook? Maybe at the end of the year, when we’re finished…bam bam bam. While Japan can seem like the land of creativity and innovation, it’s hard to bring these values into the classroom. Hopefully you will have teachers that see the necessity of growth and change, but inevitably some teachers will not. Even when you get the go-ahead to try a fun activity in class, some teachers will still find ways to suck out all the fun and turn it into a writing assignment.

When you do get the JTEs on board, it’s no guarantee of success. No matter how simple or fun you think your activity is, you will always have students that are capable of completely ruining it. As an ALT, I have learned to be on the defensive, constantly thinking about every worst-case scenario before doing something in class. Often, I have to build  in redundancies for students who try to sabotage things, and back-up plans in case of ultimate failure. You wouldn’t think that an activity involving writing only two words on a piece of paper could go so horribly wrong, but you would be quite mistaken, as I have unfortunately been more than once. A masterful ALT must learn to adapt and evolve.


Does this sound down-right disheartening? You betcha. Anyone that tells you otherwise is either an extremely rare exception or a liar. Even in the ideal situation, where you can speak Japanese, work with teachers who understand and care about English, and have students who aren’t totally burned out yet, you will still have terrible days that make you denounce teaching and disparage a future filled with grown up versions of such little monsters.

Does that mean it’s not worth doing? Absolutely not. The rewards still outweigh the drawbacks, even when it can’t possibly feel true. The real “work” you’re being asked to do is not always tangible. It’s burrowing yourself, the idea of a smart, caring person from another country, into the minds and subconscious of the student. It’s trying to keep that image and the experience you create lodged there for the future, when they stop being little monsters and start becoming people. It’s the goal of trying to permanently impress upon them the reality of life outside Japan that we’re here to work towards. Can it always succeed? Unfortunately, no, but any ambassador knows that this isn’t an excuse. Will it be hard for you? Yes, but are you stronger, wiser, and more mature than your students? Of course. Be the person that you want them to become, and you will understand the meaning of your job as an ALT.

New Horizon 1 Speaking +1- Hot Phone!

Do you have to create a speaking activity for a basic phone conversation? Out of ideas? Tired of memorization and fill-in the blanks? Here’s a fun idea to spruce up your classes’ phone conversations. I used this activity seven times, and it was wonderful each time. Students had fun, and the fifty minutes just flew by. Plus it involves almost no preparation on your part. It is possible to adapt this activity to New Horizon 2 Speaking +2 and New Horizon 3 Speaking +1 and +4 as well.

45 to 50 minutes

Purpose: To get your kids speaking, to learn the grammar point “Hello. This is …” and to get them to have fun so they forget that speaking is scary.

My "phones"

My “phones”

Prep: Two “phones” labeled “A” and “B.” You can use two toy cell phones or do what I did, make your own cut outs from cardboard (preferably red, which also happens to be the color of the boxes the printing paper comes in). Music: choose an upbeat song to play on the CD player or use your phone/tablet/laptop

Execution: Start the lesson as usual with your JTE, covering the new vocabulary with flashcards, and practicing pronunciation. Then demonstrate the dialogue with the JTE (use your prop phones!). I made a couple “ringing” noises before the first “Hello?” It works well later as a cue for the students. Also act out the gestures of picking up and hanging up the phone. Go over the dialogue, checking for understanding. It’s pretty straight forward, but the JTE can translate for them if necessary.

Have the students repeat the dialogue after you. Split the class in half and have half play Sakura, half play Kevin. Switch and repeat. Now have the students practice in pairs. During this time, write on the board:

A:  Hello?

B:  Hello, ___________? This is _________.

A:  Oh! Hi, __________.

Now have the students look at the Step 1 box on page 58. Identify who is in the first picture, and use the sentences on the board to have students fill in the blanks with the correct name. Do this for all three pictures, then have the class take part B while you take part A. They have to use your name and their class number: “This is class 1-1.” Use your fake phone for added comedy. Switch the roles, and make a ringing sound to cue the students.

Ask for a volunteer student, or choose one at random. This is a nice chance to let your good kids shine, or to effectively discipline your trouble students. Have them take part B first, unless you are confident with their name. Give them the other fake phone to use. Go through the dialogue, and then switch parts. If you have some stickers on you, feel free to reward them. The student who just performed can choose anyone to give the phone to. Do this a couple more times with different students.

Now it’s time for the students to do the dialogue on their own. I combined this activity with the game “Hot Potato” to make it a bit more exciting. Using mostly gestures, you can explain to the students the rules of “Hot Potato” which I renamed “Atsui Denwa” (hot phone) for this exercise. It is important to note that each phone should be clearly labeled A or B.

Starting the phones at different ends of the room, students must pass the phone along while you play some music. When the music stops, whoever is holding the phones must stand and recite all the dialogue on pages 58 and 59, using their own names. The person with the phone labeled A starts the dialogue, the same as what’s on the blackboard. It will be a little noisy from the commotion, so use your ringing sound to let the students know to settle down during the dialogue.

Rules for Hot Phone:
-They must pass the phone with both hands on it (no tossing or throwing, be sure to demonstrate what not to do).

-They must say “Atsui denwa!” or “Hot phone!” before handing off the phone. This helps slow things down a bit and makes it clear who is holding the phone when the music stops, but the kids usually get excited and forget to say it. So don’t worry if that happens, as long as the phone is moving.

– They can pass to anyone in front, back or to the side of them (or to the teachers) but they have to stay seated.

– If a student who has already had the phone ends up with it again, they can choose to give it to any student who hasn’t yet done the dialogue.

Using the iPhone or iPad for the music is nice because they can’t predict when it will stop quite as easily as a CD player. I used The Beatles “Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da” for this. All my students know this because they play it constantly in the grocery stores here.

Play for as long as you like, the more students who get to speak the better. If you have extra time at the end of class, have the students try to go through the dialogue with you from memory. For a laugh, you can pretend to be Batman and ask the students to come to your Halloween party. Make up whatever you like. Step 3 on page 59 has different options for the conversation, so you can demonstrate alternate conversations with the JTE using these. “I’m sorry, I’m busy. Maybe next time” etc.

Final thoughts: This was a lot of fun for me and the students. Really try to get them to act it out, with lots of emotion for “Great!” “It’s my birthday party!” etc. so they don’t sound depressed the whole time. They will really enjoy seeing you be a ham, and the more fun it is for them, the better the activity will go. You can adapt this concept for any of the phone conversations in New Horizons, there is one for year 2 and another in year 3. Of course, you can change the “hot phone” into any item you want and use this for any speaking activity. The components I really like are the randomness of calling on students and the upbeat energy level. Let me know if you find this useful!

Linkstravaganza: 1/1/2014 – 1/24/2014

In 2014, Easy Distance will bring you the most interesting things we came across out there in the dangerous wilderness of the internets. This is our inaugural link collection post so it covers the first three weeks of January and is really, really, long. After this it will be on a regular schedule of every other week.

*puts on sunglasses*

Deal with it.

January 1st to January 24th 2014



Earth Camp has an event coming up Feb 8th and 9th.  You can read about my Earth Camp experience on Japan Travel here. Featured in many Earth Camp tours is the out of this world onsen at Hotel Kanyo.

Easy Distance brought you write ups of Hakuba 47 & Goryu and Happo-one this month.
Japan Travel has a write up of Happo-one as well and here is a great top 5 Japanese winter resorts list from Rocket News.Hakuba Panorama

Muza-chan published this delightful story of samurai romance in Kyoto.

Easy Distance also added Yamadera to the Atlas Obscura in January. A true must see if you visit Tohoku.

Not Japan

Andaman seaRead this harrowing tale of environmental ignorance from our Love and Travel series
Sink or Swim…

South America
Benjamin Trotter completed his trip through South America in December, check out his travel writing here.

Nicaragua: Take a dungeon tour with Jennette and Doug from JD Expats

North America
California: Go postal in the middle of the Mojave Desert.

France: Check out the ante chamber to the guillotine and place where Van Gogh painted his most renown work from the Atlas Obscura.

Check out our Pintrest, too: Been There, Done That.


ISPYEasy Distance’s Lessons Learned this month featured the game BLOCK! It’s like Scattergories but with less gore… you don’t play with swords then? Oh, this is awkward.

Cornish Kylie lets us in on a lesson with Onoma… onomatonope… hmmm BANG… WOOF WOOF! What was that!? *mumble mumble*, Thailand.

An interesting read from the opinion column of Japan Times regarding the drawbacks of teaching for a large conversation school in Japan. Can’t say I disagree…


Mapo dofuMapo dofu is Cooking in the shower’s dish of the month.
Check out the recipe for some other mapo dofu links!

Also if you’re looking for a good pasta salad, I’ve been making this one a lot!

Humor & Cool Stuff

Man this looks so sick. Sorry to bro out for a second but this video looks awesome.
Trailer for Lines of Control and Epic TV skiing adventure Kashmir

From Rocket News, a write up on a single’s kotatsu… major frownies. has an interesting and mouth watering look at Japanese culture… via sandwich?

There is always the Easy Distance tumblr for your mostly daily bits of randomness from Japan.

Until two weeks from now…

Lessons Learned – BLOCK!


30 to 50 minutes

This game is a very simplified version of the game Scattergories that I have been able to use effectively in just about every class I have taught from review to introducing grammar. If you have played Scattergories than you can probably skip down to the execution part. If not, here is the basic premise. In teams, students create a list of something using complete sentences, then they read the sentences aloud. If another team has the same sentence or close to it, that is a BLOCK! NO POINTS! If no one else has the same sentence, then that team earns points.

Purpose: Multi-task approach to review or introduce a particular grammar point.

Secondary Purpose: Encourage students who don’t typically participate in class to do so in a team in environment.

This is my go to activity if I a teacher gives me a last minute heads up. This game works great and you can scale it up or down depending on how skilled your students are. I have used it about 20 times now in all three levels of Japanese junior high school, with poor classes and great classes, and have generated good results in all those classes. If this game is executed effectively it can make any class exciting.

Prep: This game can have varying degrees of prep depending on how elaborate of a setup you would like to use. Since I use this as my go to game when a teacher gives me a last minute notice, I execute this with almost no prep at all. Preparation for this game should be centered around what the grammar point is. For Unit 6 of New Horizon 2 I found an ISPY picture to put on the board and pass out to the students but for the 3rd year students all I needed was a chalkboard. Depending on how elaborate you want to be I would gather these materials as a good starting point and then add as you see fit for your classes and your text books.

  • Japanese to English Dictionaries – Enough for 2 per team, usually a student will go get them from the library if you ask nicely.
  • Each student will need: Notebook paper, black pen, and red pen.
  • A deck of playing cards with the jokers removed.

Execution: Start off by reviewing whatever the grammar point is for the day. I will use two examples for this post. The first is introducing the grammar of New Horizon 2 Unit 6, “There is…” and “There are…” The second example is from New Horizon 3 Unit 6 as a review of the entire unit.

kumamonExample 1: To start the class, I drew a big tree on the board and then added a picture of Kumamon. The Japanese teacher and I had several short conversations about the location of Kumamon in reference to the  tree.

Next the JTE explained the grammar in Japanese as well as defined several prepositions that will be important for the exercise: on, near, by, far from, next to, under, in(side), and over

Now the students formed 6 teams of 5 to 6 students and one student from each team can come to the front of the classroom to get a Japanese to English dictionary. I had the students completely clear their desks except for a red pen, a black pen, and their notebook. Then I presented on a large TV monitor the ISPY picture and gave several examples of sentences using a There is or There are construction. For each group I had also printed out an A4 size of the same picture and 1 or 2 examples on the back side of it. The teachers at that school later decided to laminate the pictures.ISPY

To the class I explain that they have to work as a team to write as many original sentences as they can using only the picture and the Japanese to English dictionary. I give them 5 minutes to do this, if they are having a lot of trouble you can tack on two to three extra minutes. Once you set them off on the sentence writing, walk around to ensure that they all working as a team and they all understand what they are supposed to do.


After the 5 minutes is up I have the students put away their black pens. It is important that they do this because they should not be able to add sentences as the game goes on. To demonstrate the game play, the teacher pretends to be one of the students at a group and I sit down with another group. The teacher stands up and reads an original sentence based on the picture. “There are 3 buttons near the…” I then stand up and say I have the same sentence. BLOCK! NO POINTS!!

It usually takes about one round for the students to get the hang of this but after round one they are quite keen to see if they can keep another team from scoring points. I make sure that each student of the group has a chance to read. You can adjust the rules to your liking but since they are working as a team I let them read from anyone’s notebook from their group. Also, make sure they are crossing off sentences that have been blocked by other groups so that there are no repeats.

The point system is entirely arbitrary but to keep things close I make each new round worth more points than the previous round or use a deck of cards to randomize point values so that no group can really get too far in front of the others. To maintain the suspense and fun of the game, the teams should be relatively close the entire game. Once you have the game going you can play till about 2 minutes before the bell rings and then determine the winner ensuring that all teams have said an equal amount of sentences to the class. I usually give out extra stamps on their stamp sheets but stickers, fake money and other prizes are good for the winners.

Example 2: For New Horizon 3 Unit 6 review I started out by reviewing each of the sentence constructions on the board:

  • This is a book I bought in the United States.
  • Becky is the student who comes from Canada.
  • This is a movie that (which) makes people happy.

Similar to the above execution I have them form teams, clear their desks, and come get Japanese to English dictionaries. The major difference here is the subject matter for the sentences. I gave them a general category. For one class I chose J-POP and for the other I chose K-POP. They had use any of the three grammar points and their subjects were limited to artists, songs, lyrics, and albums from either J-POP or K-POP.

kawaii, neh?!

The rest of the process is the same except a small change with respect to how you, as a teacher, judge the game. I was very strict when it came to blocking sentences in the early part of the game but relaxed the rules a little bit towards the end. With more complex sentences you will have to make some judgement calls but try to remain as fair possible. For rounds 1 and 2 the subject and the verb (Arashi is the group I like best) must be exact on the other team’s paper to create a block. For rounds 3 to the end, I only required that the subject (artists, songs, lyrics, and albums) be the same to cause a block.

Also with more complex sentences there will be situations where a team will take forever to pick the sentence they want to read. I give them a few seconds and if they aren’t ready I start a five second count down. Sometimes the class will join in! At the end of the five seconds, if they haven’t chosen a sentence, they forfeit their turn. However, it’s ok to be lenient with this because it might be a pronunciation issue or something along those lines. Take a moment to walk over to the student and help them with the sentence before you move on to the next group.

A final thought: The possibilities for this game are endless. Even with elementary school students you could play using something so simple as name a food in English or animals. As long as you can make a consistent sentence this game will work. The flexibility of this game however does not generate the excitement. The ALT does. When using this game, you have to treat it like a game show. Make noises, bring a buzzer, gasp, use countdowns. Watch some Wheel of Fortune or The Price is Right and replicate some of things they do in your class with your voice and mannerisms. The more into the game you are the harder it will be for the bad kids to make trouble for you since their team mates will want to play.

Lessons Learned – New Horizon 3 Writing +3 – Sketch Comedy

Sketch Comedy

3 class periods

Writing + activities in the New Horizon books usually involve speaking by having the student read their finished writing sample in front of the class. Inevitably you will hear 15 to 35 versions of the same three to four sentences lifted straight from the book with just one or two things changed. However, Writing +3 gives you a chance to really do something fun with your third year students and they wont be able to simply regurgitate mostly prepared sentences. In my limited experience this maybe one of the best activities already in the book. The scope of this lesson is to take what the book has and expand on it in class rather than just using the book.

Purpose: To explore English well beyond the confines of the textbook using humor.

I did this with four different classes and the results were phenomenal. Because of the comedy element the students were way less concerned about being right and more concerned about saying what they wanted to say. In their search for laughs they had me helping them with very difficult sentences and really stretching the limits of the English ability. Some of the sketches were legitimately funny as well. Also, common problems like mumbling or speaking softly, were overcome by many of the students who suffer from those things. I also feel that this exercise would work at any time with more advanced students. If you don’t use New Horizon, you should still be able to execute this with everything in this post.

Prep: Like most things I do with my classes I try to find things that require as little prep as possible so I can focus on getting the highest impact rather than some elaborate card game or flash card system that looks cool but no one can understand. The prep for this activity will come down to you as a person being able to demonstrate your own comedic timing and improvisation skills. If you have never done improv or comedy acting before, practice at home before you try in front of the class. There are thousands of youtube and vimeo videos you can sort through that will give you some ideas about how to engage in comedy.

Handout PPTX: Sketch Comedy

Other prep would be to find a good example of sketch comedy that the students can watch. You should also write out some short comedic premises that you can use for demonstrative purposes in class. You can use the attached file for already finished ideas but that takes all the fun out of it, try and write your own. For the video I would recommend this short sketch from Japanese comedian, Shimura Ken.

Execution: Generally speaking, your twelve to fourteen year old students will likely have a very different idea of comedy from you. Not only is there an age gap but there is also a culture gap. Sometimes my mind is befuddled by what Japanese people find funny. Moreover it is unlikely that any of these students have written comedy in Japanese and probably don’t know where to start.Sketch comedy clip shot

This is where you come in. First off I showed each class the Shimura Ken sketch to give them an example of very well done comedy based a simple idea. The teacher insisted that we go through the sketch in the text book but I would try and skip it if you can. To bridge the unfunny sketch in the text book to actual comedy, I acted out the sketch on my own playing both parts and used a radio as my game console. Practice this at home if you know are going to do it so you can get your timing down. Also I would cover facial expressions and reaction noises like, “Uh…,” if you have time. I had them repeat “uh” about 10 times with different meanings associated with it. Also see my post about Emotional Sakura.

To me the most important part of this exercise wasn’t the vocabulary or the sentence construction but explaining to the kids how to generate a simple sketch. For each of the six ideas I gave them, I acted out an example with willing (and some unwilling) student participants. The results were often hilarious even if the comedy wasn’t intentional.

The introduction and the idea explanation took most of the first class. The students will need at least one whole class period to write their own and rehearse in their groups. During the writing period I would sit down and help brainstorm with groups that were having trouble thinking of an idea. Even if you are quick on your feet with ideas I would keep several canned situations written down for groups that have a lot of trouble. I also corrected grammar and offered suggestions to help improve the timing or the idea if it was a little weak.

The third class period will be performances. I offered a reward for groups that could make me laugh and several of them succeeded.

A final thought: Most of my students are pretty good but I was blown away by how well they did with this activity. If I had to chalk it up to just one element, it would be the fact that they were given true freedom to write and use English. While I had to check some stuff for being inappropriate and it wasn’t always perfect grammar they used English well beyond their normal day to day abilities. Try to make them understand, there are no mistakes for this exercise, and that when you correct something it has nothing to do with their idea. Help them with expressions but don’t rob them of the freedom creation, even if it is a little off.

Earth Camp – A reason to use English

Recently I published an article on English education in Japan. It is obvious that I am deeply connected to this issue as an English teacher here for the time being.

One of the main points of the article was that Japanese people need a place to use English. Japan’s Ministry of Education needs to help create a demand for English so that Japanese people have a chance to consume in English and to exercise speaking and listening skills.

Slide1Earth Camp is looking to do just that, provide a reason to use English.

Enter: Sosha and Shinobu Mitsunaga and their brain child start up, Earth Camp. Earth Camp offers tours in a mix of Japanese and English that focus on nature, sustainable fishing, agriculture and local businesses. I met Sosha through a friend of mine who lived in Japan and got involved with Earth Camp shortly after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Earth Camp has been featured in local and national news coverage for their efforts. Earth Camp has been described as an “innovation of tourism” in the news.

I have attended three separate Earth Camp events as a volunteer and conducted an interview with Earth Camp owner and CEO Sosha Mitsunaga Smith to find out more about Earth Camp and to experience their mission and values first hand.

Sosha was born in California but has spent the majority of his life in Japan. At the age of 2 his family moved from the United States to Tokyo and he has been in Japan ever since. An M.B.A. graduate from Waseda University, Sosha is a self professed lover of start-ups, river climbing (sawanobori) and eating.

From the Earth Camp website:

“Earth Camp’s mission is to create experiences that bridge people together, closer to nature, to inspire and implement social change.”

  • Planning and operating tours and events related to tourism and education

  • Support and consulting services for study abroad programs and planning and operating study tours abroad

  • English web marketing services and consulting for the global market

  • English translations, interpretations services

The rubber really meets the road with Earth Camp out in nature. Most of Earth Camp’s tours are centered around Minamisanriku, a coastal town in Northern Japan that was devastated by the earthquake and tsunami in 2011. Devastated is a strong word but a quick tour of the Shizugawa area left me actually thinking it was an understatement.

I asked Sosha how he came up with the idea of Earth Camp.

The idea of Earth Camp began after we (we were volunteers after the disaster) saw farming and fishing revitalization efforts in disaster affected areas. The farming and fishing industry was hard hit by the disaster, and even with volunteer help, creating revenue from crops was difficult. We saw that by creating value-added tours, it would provide a new channel of income for local industries and a chance to connect rural communities with tourists sustainably. Sustainability is extremely important to us, which is why we chose to make our company for-profit.

So why has this company got me all hot and bothered about English in Japan? One of Earth Camp’s primary tools to add value to their tours and experiences is the use of English. Sosha and Shinobu are both fluent in English (although between each other they still mostly converse in Japanese). To Sosha, English is a chance to step out of the box and get away from the daily routine for a Japanese person and a way to connect with the rest of the world.

JP and Sosha

JP and Sosha

At the first event I attended in Sendai, Sosha spelled out some of things that a person could expect with an Earth Camp tour. Foremost for an Earth Camp tour are nature and community. Everything that the Earth Camp team plans in an event will be centered around these to ideas. The event at Mizunomori park was a day event where the age range was very wide with two elementary school kids, several college students and two businessmen (not counting my wife and I) as well as the Earth Camp team Sosha, Shinobu and J.P. There were several games, leadership activities, a nature hike and finally a barbeque. During the event Sosha lamented to me that while he felt the one day event was going great, the real Earth Camp was on one of their 2 or 3 day camping adventures.

I said, “Sign me up.”

After my wife and I got back from our tour of the Kansai region and South Korea, I was able to participate in two experiences with the Earth Camp team on consecutive weekends in September. My wife joined me for the second one.Screen Shot 2013-11-19 at 11.13.52 AM

In a typical tour you may experience:

  • rural farming and learning about sustainable lifestyles from a local farmer

  • hiking off the beaten path and discovering trails where local monks historically trained, with waterfalls for meditation and hidden buddha carvings.

  • the local fishing industry with local fishermen, going out into sea on a boat and tasting the freshest (literally) seafood! Afterwards, enjoying a barbecue with the fishermen community.

You download an actual itinerary here:Itinerary 9.14-16Minamisanriku

The tours I went on were focused around getting back out into nature via the Kamiwarizaki campground, tsunami education in Shizugawa and a fishing experience with two different groups of local fishermen. Sosha and Shinobu arrive early the day before the tour starts to set up a group area with a grill, food table and go over their plans for the following day. I joined them for the early start the previous evening to give them a hand with the set up and get a good overview of the their event from top to bottom.


Sosha and Shinobu have structured their itinerary to include as many things as possible in the span of 2-3 days. One of the more difficult things about doing anything in Minamisanriku is that it’s a logistical problem to get there if you do not have a car. The Earth Camp team takes this into account is very generous with picking up campers at the closest station that is still accessible by train (Yanaizu).

The event starts out with a study tour. Sosha drives the group around Shizugawa and the surrounding areas and lectures the on different subjects relating to tsunami recovery and answering questions in both English and Japanese. The study tour is easily one of the most fascinating parts of what Earth Camp is offering. It gives the Japanese attendees a chance to practice their English listening skills and hear some stories about Japanese spirit and perseverance.

Another part of the event is doing simple things like pitching a tent (and learning the slang that goes with it) and cooking dinner in the campsite. Everyone works together in teamwork and leadership building activities to get the camp set up for the night. Probably one of the most entertaining parts of any cross cultural experience is the language exchange where a native speaker tries to explain the “why” of a particular saying or idiom, often with hilarious results. Tents are not always the order of business but I think they are the most fun. There are tours that do not involve sleeping outside, especially if the weather is inclement.

The fishery experience was very interesting as well. However, I think pictures say more than I could ever about how the experience works. Just look at everyone’s smiles.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

What a cool experience to learn about where your food comes from, learn how to prepare it, try some fresh out of the water and finally cooked later at a massive feast. This fishing tour was focused on scallops (hotate) but different seasons will focus on what is in season. December is oyster season. Yes. Please.

At the end of each day the Earth Camp team takes time to do a reflection on the day in English and Japanese. This exchange of ideas is a fantastic way to not only gain perspective but synthesize your own experience in a way that makes it easier to communicate. Most of all this is when the attendees get a chance to really exercise their English skills. Everyone wants to share and there is no fear of saying the wrong thing. Everyone is there to help and encourage. Everyone is there as a reason to use English.

After spending a total of 7 days with the Earth Camp team I can say that Sosha and Shinobu and Earth Camp are on the right track. The Japanese are incredibly far behind on English competence and part of this comes down to a homogenous society that doesn’t offer many opportunities to use English in a rewarding and uplifting way. Out in nature, learning about how people have pulled themselves up and come together after a horrible disaster and supporting the community, the English flows out. Everyone was genuinely happy to talk in English and experiment with sentences and new words.

I’ll leave you with this testimony:

Seeing and experiencing something different, including thinking and speaking in another language, to notice and appreciate nature and consider sustainable lifestyles, to feel solidarity with people in devastated areas and continue the recovery project, to make human connections and friendships, get a fresh perspective on life and life paths – was all very good.”


If you’d like to know more about Earth Camp:

Check out their fundraising project for 2014 – Ends 12/19/2013

Anyone interested in joining Earth Camp’s staff is always welcome. (There is a screening process for volunteer positions).
Please contact them at or call 080-8035-8877

Also you can check out their contact page or Facebook

Lessons Learned – Musical chairs with sentences

Musical Sentences

30 to 50 minutes

I think most people have played some form of musical chairs at company events or family get togethers and I struggled for a long time trying to adapt musical chairs to the ESL classroom. Not only does musical chairs not involve any speaking, but it usually requires a big empty space with only chairs. Basically the opposite of a Japanese class room. Well I may have found the solution. It’s a combination of karuta, kaiten-zushi and musical chairs that seems to be very effective and students really enjoy it.

The key to making this activity ESL appropriate is to make sure the target sentence can be broken up into three sections that are totally interchangeable. The first time I did it the target grammar point was using “be+ ~ing” Example: “He is watching.” Later I did it with a second year class and it was equally successful with a “There are + subject + place” lesson.

Purpose: To work on specific sentence constructions.

Secondary Purpose: Force them to see unnatural sentence constructions that are still grammatically correct but cannot be used. (Example: There are clocks studying in this class).

This lesson was very successful at targeting a simple grammar point as both an introduction and a review. The students seem to genuinely enjoy anything that isn’t copying off the board or reading from the text book. Mostly I found that by the end of the activity nearly all the students had made at least two sentences and could generate a third verbally on command. I couldn’t check every student, but most seemed to grasp the concept easily. If I try with much more difficult sentences, I will post an update.

Prep: This activity does require a short amount of prep work, about 30 minutes in total. For whatever grammar point you want to cover you will have to make sentence cards and then cut them out. If you are really dedicated you can laminate the cards as well but this will add to your prep time. I have attached two of my sets for downloading. If you are teaching New Horizon 1 Unit 9 or New Horizon 2 Unit 6 these will work for you. Otherwise you can just download them for the template to save some time.EX: be+ ~ing cards

PPTX: “be + ~ing” New Horizon 1 Unit 9
PPTX: Musical Chairs New Horizon 2 Unit 6

Execution: I will use the NH1U9 class as my example execution, but for each class it will vary depending on the grammar point and what is needed to make sure the students understand how to form the target sentences. For the first year students, the JTE started the class by explaining the “be+ ~ing” grammar on the chalk board with Japanese side by side with English. Then we played a gesture game where the students guess what “~ing” I was doing. Finally, we introduced a mnemonic device to aid with words like “running,” “swimming,” “making,” and “using.”

On the board I place an ING Truck, which brings the extra N-M-P or T for words like, running, swimming and getting. On the opposite side of the board I placed an ING Gun, which shoots the “e” out of a word when using “~ing” like making, using and taking. These come into play later during the game.

It is super important you have the students completely clear their desks or you will have a pen case and notebook disaster on your hands when the game really gets going. While they are clearing their desks, pass out the sentence cards. I try to make sure they alternate, but it doesn’t really matter because the cards are going to move later in the activity. Once each student has a card, I draw three boxes on the board and place a part of 1 sentence in each box to explain that three cards make a set.

Before explaining the musical part, or the kaiten-zushi, I give the students one minute to move around the class to make a sentence using the card on their desk. They must combine cards with other students to make a complete sentence. Once a group of three students have their sentence, they come up to either the JTE or me and read the sentence aloud. If the sentence is correct, they go back to their seats. This warm up version of the activity will also gauge the student’s understanding of the sentence structure and the game.

After all the students are seated back at their desks, explain the music and the kaiten-zushi. Ask the students to place the cards on the center of their desk. Then have them all put their hands over their heads and stand up. While they are standing, explain the music element. When the music stops, they stop and try to grab a card. Karuta is a good game to use as a comparison in a Japanese class room. After explaining the music, explain the walking route. Disqualify any students who insist on running around the route. The desks are too close together to allow that, however if you have a big open space, who cares!? Kaiten-zushi is something that most Japanese kids will be familiar with but here is a diagram if you have never been to a kaiten-zushi restaurant.Kaiten-zushi ESL class diagram

One final element specifically for NH1Unit9 “be+ ~ing”: the ING Gun and the ING Truck are posted on the blackboard. If they have a word that requires an extra letter or dropping the “e,” they have to come to board and stand under the correct sign. The teachers should each stand near one to help facilitate this process.

The hard part is over. Start the music. I have the JTE bring in their favorite CD or play something fun and upbeat. While students are walking around, pull some cards off the desk. When the music stops, there will be less cards than there are students. If a student doesn’t get a card, they are out. Ask the students who didn’t get a card to go back to their seat and sit. As you are pulling cards try to make sure you get complete sentences off the desks. However if you end up leaving incomplete sentences on the desks, let the students who have duplicate cards play rock, paper, scissors to determine who gets to keep playing. For the students who acquired cards, check their sentence; if it’s ok, have them go back and stand at their desk.

For the more complex sentences like (New Horizon 2/3) there will likely be some sentence constructions that don’t make sense (There are clocks studying in this class). Don’t worry about that. You can allow them all to keep playing, but remove the cards from the game or you can allow nonsense sentences because they are kinda funny.

I was able to get through 3 rounds (not including the initial practice round without the music) in about 30 minutes. If you need to stretch the activity out, just take less cards in between rounds off the desks.

A final thought: To really make this exercise a good learning experience, the students have to read the sentences in order when they come up to have them checked. I used the popular “say no” command in Japanese which indicates that they are supposed to speak in unison. There is no need to punish a wrong sentence though, simply tell them to try again and find an appropriate mix of the three cards. One class got it right away, the other class took a little longer to get the hang of it, but I was also using it as an introduction to the grammar. If you are using it as a review, you might want to put a time limit on how long they have to make a sentence after the music stops. If they can’t make one in the allotted time then they are out. Even without the time limit it never took longer than 2 or 3 minutes to get all the students in to their sentences.