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8 Things I learned from teaching in Tokyo

I spent five years living in Tokyo, starting out as an English teacher in a language school. Teaching in Tokyo left me with thousands of memories and many lessons learned. Here are some of them:

Food is better when shared.

Having previously taught in China, I was used to the “shared” style of eating where several large dishes are ordered for the table, and everyone takes a few bites of each. I missed this once I moved back to North America! It’s so much nicer to be able to try a little of everything, and that style of eating lets you have your fill without stuffing yourself.

Anything can be gift-wrapped.

Because gift-giving is so important in Japan, every store will provide gift wrapping if requested. One of my first days in Japan, I was checking out in the supermarket when I saw a woman ask to have a bunch of bananas gift-wrapped. The employee cheerfully obliged as if it were nothing out of the ordinary.

Karaoke is the ultimate stress reliever.

Most group nights out end with a rousing session of karaoke that can go until the early hours of the morning. (Keep in mind that Japanese-style karaoke, as with other countries in East Asia, is performed in private booths, not onstage in front of a bar full of strangers.) Nothing got my stress out more than belting out my favorite classic hits in a room full of friends.

Honesty rules.

Theft is extraordinarily rare in Japan (the country has one of the lowest reported crime rates in the world). Even accidentally cheating someone out of a few yen is unthinkable for most people. When I first arrived in Japan, a group of fellow teachers left a bit of change on our table at a restaurant (the equivalent of about 30 cents in US dollars). Our waiter chased us down the street to return it to us, and wouldn’t accept it when we tried to tell him he could keep it.

Kindness rules, too.

Tokyo is a confusing place, and I got lost about once a week on average. I had numerous experiences where complete strangers would go 20 minutes out of their way just to take me where I was trying to go. I always felt terribly guilty, but their kindness really was overwhelming.

Heated toilet seats will change your life in winter.

The rest of the world needs more of these.

A little effort goes a long way.

When I first arrived in Japan, I was frequently complimented on my Japanese (which was, frankly, not great). However, the people I met were so appreciative whenever foreigners made an effort to learn the language–especially the writing system!–and were very encouraging as I struggled through sentences.

Tokyo will never stop surprising you.

Sure, some things were tiring: the rush hour trains, the crowds, the maze-like streets. But Tokyo has a magic quality about it that simply needs to be experienced in person. I loved having visitors from home, because seeing their faces as they discovered the city for the first time always brought me back to my arrival in Japan years ago, and made me fall in love with it all over again.

Want to experience Japan for yourself? Read more about possibilities for teaching in Japan.

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