If you’re like me, the first time you saw the plastic trays of strawberries at the supermarket in Japan, you jumped for joy. Back home, strawberries were not a seasonal treat, but a year-round expectation. You could even get a large carton of them for about five dollars, depending on the season. So, you can imagine my dismay when a whopping nine strawberries cost nearly 700 yen!
I was in shock. The juicy, ruby red fruits I had taken for granted in America were now snubbing their noses at me, as if to say “now you know our real worth.” Begrudgingly, I would wait until payday to buy my nine strawberries and eat them with relish, savoring the taste until I could afford my next fix. Before I knew it, they’d disappear and make way for new seasonal fruits, not to be spotted again until next winter.
But there is a trick to truly enjoying strawberries in Japan – visit a you-pick farm.
LET’S GO TO THE FARM
You-pick farms in Japan aren’t the same as back home. Rather than heading out to a dusty farm and crouching down in the dirt paths to hunt for crimson jewels between their waxy leaves, Japanese farms grow the strawberry beds on tables, their treasures shining in the sunlight pouring in from the greenhouse windows.
While the ease of picking has been vastly improved upon, you’re in for a shock if you think you are just going to pick your berries, weigh them, and take home a box full of fruity treasures. Strawberry farms in Japan have an “all you can eat” mentality – a healthier (and less expensive) version of a nomihoudai. When you arrive at the farm, you will make your way to the cashier and pay for a time slot. Strawberry farms usually offer 30- or 60-minute slots for your gastronomic pleasure and cost between 1,000 and 2,000 yen depending on peak times.
Once you’ve paid, you will be given a trash cup or tray and escorted to a hothouse to begin your adventure.
When you enter the hothouse, a chest-high carpet of green stretches out before you. Picking strawberries is as easy as meandering down a row of plants and casually plucking any one that strikes your fancy.
Depending on the farm, the hothouse may only hold one variety of strawberry or many. The one we went to had three varieties in each house, the rows clearly marked by signs on the endcaps. Choose an empty row and make your way down, stopping at any strawberry that you deem worthy of eating and toss the stems into your trash cup. Once you’ve filled your cup with stems, find the trash cans, empty the dead soldiers into the proper bin, and start all over.
The best advice I can give is to take your time. Even 30 minutes is a long time to consistently shovel strawberries into your piehole. Peruse the plants for the brightest, most succulent berries. If you find a good plant, enjoy all the berries it has to offer. Try different varieties, then choose your favorite one and indulge your inner glutton. Take pictures with your friends and revel in the joy that is Japanese strawberry season.
Most fruit farms are not near a station, so you’ll need to find a friend who drives or brave the local bus routes. If you are determined to pick strawberries but can’t find a ride, I’d recommend Tatara Fresh Farm which is about a 20 minute walk from Tatara Station.
Strawberry picking is a Japanese experience you don’t want to miss. So get out there and stuff yourself silly with fresh fruit from the farm!
Nikkita Kent is a misplaced thalassophile who was transplanted from the beaches of Florida to the mountains of Gunma in 2017. Unable to sit still for too long, she delights in teaching senior high school in Ota City, exploring the local restaurants, and travelling at every available opportunity. Check her out on Instagram @daw2dus.
Pink petals float on the breeze as the sun’s gentle rays shine down. Sounds of children playing echo across a green field.
It’s finally here! Spring has returned at last!
A season associated with rebirth, spring is the time when we end our winter hibernation, crawl out from under the kotatsu, and bask in nature renewed. In April, a new school year will begin, and young scholars will embark on new adventures. Nature follows suit, as cherry blossom boughs burst into bloom in the early season. These precious petals can be seen across Japan. But act quickly! Their season is only about two weeks.
So grab some
snacks and beverages, lay out your picnic blanket and soak it all in! Popular
parks in Tokyo will attract thousands of visitors, eager to participate in the
tradition of hanami (flower viewing
party). Not to be outdone, Gunma cherry blossoms across the prefecture will put
on their best show.
Cherry blossoms are set to bloom soon, as weather forecasts predict an early start to the 2019 hanami season. Knowing where to go is half the battle when it comes maximizing your cherry blossom viewing experience. Here are some of the best places in Gunma for cherry blossoms!
1: Maebashi Park
is a perfect spot for your first hanami! The Tone River runs through the park,
providing a stunning backdrop for the cherry blossoms. At night, enjoy the
blooms by lantern light along the hill. And of course, vendors provide festival
staples like karaage and takoyaki.
My visit: April
2: Tomioka Silk Mill
blossoms adorn the historic grounds of Tomioka’s own World Heritage Site, the
Tomioka Silk Mill. Enjoy them under the warm sun during the day, or come to see
the nighttime illumination of the sakura.
This year’s illumination period will run from approximately 6pm – 8pm each night from March 25 – April 7 (dependent on blooming conditions).
Pro tip: Check
out the nearby shops, such as Kuturogi, which carries a number of delightful
My visit: April 9 (day) and 12 (night), 2017
3: Kanra Total Park
This park in
Kanra boasts plenty of picturesque cherry blossoms, and water to go with.
If you’re lucky the cherry blossoms will be in bloom at the same time as Kanra’s Castle Town Warrior Procession, a festival which sees the townspeople on parade, dressed up as samurai of the past. Be sure to check it out this year, as you may see some friendly Gunma ALTs in the mix!
nearby Rakusan-en if you want to combine cherry blossom viewing with a bit of
exploration. Rakusan-en is Gunma’s own historic daimyo garden! The grounds are
another great setting for photos, with the koi pond and traditional buildings.
My visit: April
4: Akagi Senbonzakura
Return to Maebashi for a comfortable stroll through the woods for the Akagi Senbonzakura, or Thousand Cherry Trees, Festival. As you emerge from the woods you’ll be greeted by a road lined with vendors, festival food, and of course, sakura! The cherry trees share some of their glory with phlox and other greenery, but it’s safe to say the cherry blossoms themselves are the stars of the show.
This year the
Akagi Thousand Cherry Trees Fetsival will be held from April 6 – 21 2019
(tentative depending on flowers).
My visit: April
5: Shiroijuku Double Cherry Blossom Festival
Maebashi, the city of Shibukawa holds the Shiroijuku Double Cherry Blossom
Festival. The double cherry blossoms boast more petals than their single-petal
compatriots. You can find them in full view around Shiroijuku, but don’t miss
out on the parade and festival foods as well!
My visit: April
22, 2018 (the day of the festival!)
6: Mt. Haruna
Gunma’s lovely mountains mean that there are chances you can catch blossoms that show up later than their buddies in the valleys. Hanging out on Mount Haruna, I was surprised to find cherry blossoms still out – in May! Harunafuji may still be quite brown, but you will see signs of color beginning to appear!
My visit: May 4,
Pro Tip: Check Out Your Own Backyard 😊
If crowds aren’t
your jam, if the distance is too far, or sorting the transportation is
daunting, fear not! There are cherry blossoms for everyone! Don’t feel silly
searching for them along the path less trodden. Cherry blossoms don’t need a
park or a crowd to show off! This spring you’ll find cherry blossoms all
around; if this is your first spring in Gunma you might be surprised by what
you find locally, whether you’re in the inaka
or the big city. You can even ask some of your neighbors or coworkers where
those hidden top spots are!
Thanks to a local
tip during my first year in Gunma, we learned about this park in Tomioka. The
climb up this small “mountain” is great exercise, and I’ve never seen it
particularly crowded. The side of the mountain is lined with cherry trees, and
when you get to the top you are rewarded with even more beauty, the Tomioka
view of Myogi and Asama. If the timing is right you can get cherry blossoms and
Pictures from April 2017, around Gunma.
Contribute to the never-ending search!
Follow and contribute to #gunmagems on Facebook and Instagram. Let’s spread the wonders of Gunma!
Post your photos on Instagram using the hashtag #gunmajet for a chance to be featured on GAJET’s Instagram page.
Know other places in Gunma worth sharing? Leave a comment down below.
Valerie Landers is a third-year JET in Tomioka. Dabbler in languages, worker of puzzles, and unofficial hype-woman for Gunma. She loves festivals, flowers, and fireworks. There’s a growing collection of houseplants in her apaato, and if you can’t find her there, she might be driving on one of Gunma’s mountains or hanging out in Chakichi, Tomioka’s wonderful matcha café. Follow her adventures on Instagram @duchessmouse
“Hello, my name is Jansen, and I’ll be your new ALT!”
Teaching at two senior high schools for almost four years, I’ve greeted my share of new students. With April just around the corner, it’ll once again be time for the self-introduction, or jikoshokai, lesson. While some ALTs may bemoan the idea of introducing themselves to hundreds of new students (again), it’s also an opportunity to set the mood and expectations for students who are new to your classroom.
This is how my jikoshokai has changed throughout my time in Japan:
When I first came to Japan in 2015, my self-introduction lesson was all about me. My jikoshokai was a PowerPoint presentation featuring many pictures of my hometown, a map of Canada, the various cuisines, as well as the different cultures that reside in my country. While interesting to the students, it became extremely repetitive. I remember having to repeat the same lesson 24 times in one week. At my visit school alone, I had to introduce myself 12 times in one day. Even I was sick of talking about myself.
After this experience, I reflected upon my “lesson.” Repeating the same presentation was tiresome. I also realized that my lesson had very little student interaction. Having identified these problems, I began thinking of ways not to wear myself out and to encourage more speaking from my students.
Six months later the new school year started. I remembered how my first round of self-introductions went and made an effort to correct my mistakes. Luckily, this time I only had to present jikoshokai for the new first year students. I used the same PowerPoint from before, but made changes to include more interactivity. To save myself from exhaustion, I included more questions to ask the students. I also gave them time to ask me any questions. For this lesson, the student to teacher speaking ratio was around 30:70.
Again, I felt that I did not have the students talking enough. I realized my biggest mistake was focusing too heavily on teacher-student interaction; rather than student-student interaction. I also noticed there was a nervousness in the air. It was a new school year, and many of the students did not know each other very well. These were the newest obstacles to overcome for the next wave of students.
A year later, I scrapped the PowerPoint presentation altogether. I changed the focus from a class about me to an opportunity for the students to introduce themselves to each other. At the beginning of the lesson, my JTE and I would demonstrate our own self-introductions. Following this, I provided them with a worksheet to fill out information about themselves and their classmates. The worksheet contained questions about their hobbies, favourite foods, and where they live. I thought this was simple enough and hoped it would have them engaging in more conversation. This time around, the students were up and talking to each other. At first, I thought this was great; however, as I walked around and listened to their conversations I noticed they all had practically the same answers: “My hobby is listening to music.” “My favourite food is sushi.” “I live in Japan.” Subsequently, once they asked all their questions and recorded them, the conversation would come to a halt.
Once more, I looked back at the lesson. Compared to the previous year, I felt there was an improvement with the student-teacher speaking ratio – it was now about 50:50. However, the new problem was that I spoon-fed them the questions and I did not provide them with enough examples to help bring flavor into their interactions. I assumed that they would be able to carry on a conversation without a teacher’s help. Yet another stumble on my part. While it is important to trust students and their abilities, I had failed to guide them in discovering the knowledge needed to maintain a conversation. Furthermore, although a good resource, providing them with a worksheet hindered their ability to have a spontaneous conversation. The worksheets had the students stopping the conversation and writing their partner’s answers. Equipped with this knowledge, I created new objectives for going into my third year of teaching.
It took over three years of trial-and-error to be where I am today. Each year I learned something new and I used that knowledge to improve on my lessons. Through this journey, I have discovered that students are not the only ones learning. Teachers are learning too. Learning from my failures has been a humbling experience. I used to think that failure is the opposite of success, I was wrong. It is a part of it. Accepting failures, constantly learning, being open to uncertainty, and striving for self-improvement are the marks of a great teacher.
JIKOSHOKAI LESSON PLAN
The goal of this lesson plan is to ease students into a new learning environment with knowledge they already have. I created this lesson plan with simplicity in mind and an emphasis on interacting with everyone in the classroom.
Here are tips and a sample lesson plan when you design your first jikoshokai lesson:
Encourage speaking. This will help set the expectation of speaking in English in class.
Everyone should interact with each other.
Teach the students that mistakes are always going to happen but their message will still get across.
Praise them for their effort and encourage them to praise each other.
Write down the key examples on the chalkboard.
ALT & JTE demonstrate a short, easy jikoshokai. Focus on simple sentences.
My name is…
I am from…
My hobby is…
My favourite food is…
My favourite subject is…
My name is…
I am from…
My hobby is…
My favourite food is…
My favourite subject is… By using very simple sentences, it helps to get them thinking in English.
Ask simple questions about yourself and your JTE.
What is my (his/her) name?
Where am I (is he/she) from?
What is my (his/her) hobby?
What is my (his/her) favourite food?
What is my (his/her) favourite subject?
This is a quick exercise to see if they were listening and to encourage them to speak.
Write different categories on the board. Ask students to provide examples.
Cities in Japan.
By asking for student input, it provides ideas for students when they begin introducing themselves to each other.
Demonstrate with your JTE how to ask follow up questions.
Who is your favourite musician?
What is your favourite movie?
Which school did you come from?
What are you doing this weekend?
Having these follow up questions will help keep the conversation going and opens up the students to share more information about themselves. Encourage students come up with their own questions.
It was nice to meet you!
It was a pleasure to meet you!
I also like (hobby/food)!
I hope we can be friends.
I like your (something they see).
Establishing these habits will help the students show appreciation for each other and build confidence.
(Set a timer for 10 – 15 minutes)
The students will use what was learned and introduce themselves to 5 classmates, the JTE and ALT.
This will be the perfect opportunity for the students to get comfortable with each other. It is also a great time to get to know your students.
Ask volunteers to introduce themselves in front of the class.
You might hear crickets, but sometimes there are students brave enough to speak.
Remember, students will be feeling nervous about being in a new school environment. They will most likely be unfamiliar with their classmates. The first (jikoshokai) lesson should be as relaxing as possible. Walk your students through the different steps and provide solid examples while offering chances to be creative if they want to flex their English muscles.
No lesson is perfect and there is always room for improvement. I hope my experience and knowledge will help you on your journey in front of the classroom.
Jansen is a fourth year senior high school JET. When he’s not teaching you can find him exploring the streets of Tokyo.
Gunma’s windy winter got you feeling down? Feeling in a rut because your winter days consist of going to work and then immediately retreating home to your kotatsu? Its time for you to leave the winter slump!
Here are five tips to get yourself up and moving!
1: Improve yourself
It’s not uncommon for JETs to spend the warmer (read: better) seasons travelling around or beyond Japan. A lot of people tire of travelling during the winter months because its simply too cold. Use this travel-downtime to explore new hobbies and interest. Take an online course you’ve always been interested in. Join that gym down the street from your apartment. There are tons of things you can do in the warm confines of your home as well: learn an instrument, write short stories, cook new dishes. Personally, I like to spend my time playing video games, but some people might not consider that self-improvement…
Use this time to explore new passions… and save some much needed yen for the spring time when most of us will probably find new places to travel to.
2: Hang out
If you’re feeling the winter woes, chances are that your fellow JETs are also experiencing something similar. If possible try to get out once a week or maybe even schedule a get-together. Don’t feel like braving the cold winter? Get together for a warm nabe party. Who wouldn’t want to eat hot pot on a cold, cold night? The point is, its always good to see a friendly face every once in a while.
3: Travel… to warm places
I don’t mean getting on the next flight to Okinawa. But its extremely important to get out of your house every so often (and going to work doesn’t count). If you’re as allergic to the cold as I am, you would be wise to flock to warmer indoor places. Use these months to check out that local cafe you were always interested in (but never had the time to go to), or try going to a museum. If all else fails, a little retail therapy inside the (warm) shopping mall might do the trick.
This wouldn’t be a Gunma website if I didn’t suggest visiting an onsen. You don’t necessarily need to travel up snowy mountains to get to famous hot springs (of course, that’s cool too). Most areas will have local onsens which can get the job done as well. Enjoy the soak, fellas.
4: Think about your post-JET life
This point is especially important for those who have already declared their intention to leave this summer. Just from speaking with friends who are about to leave the JET, it’s clear that a good amount of leaving JETs are uncertain about their future. Use this time to research possible careers, revise your resume, and even talk with others about their career plans. And of course, the After JET Conference will be held on February 28 this year.
It’s best to get the worrying out of the way. With the spring approaching in another month or so, you’ll want to cherish your last months on JET.
5: Come out to GAJET’s Skibo 2019 event
Gunma is incredibly famous for its ski resorts. If you’ve always wanted to ski (or snowboard), feel free to come along with GAJET as we tackle the slopes at Kusatsu! Sign up now, because the event is coming soon (Feb 22)! More information can be found here.
Although Gunma is safe from most largescale natural disasters, it’s good to be prepared for the worst-case scenario. In addition to preparing an emergency kit and knowing emergency contact numbers, it’s helpful to know the closest shelter to both your home and workplace. Your workplace may even be a shelter!
There is a very convenient map of designated shelters on Yahoo!, but the guide is all in Japanese. English instructions have been written below for your convenience.
If you don’t know where you are, leave the box blank and it can search based on your current location.
If you want to search for another area, either type in 群馬県 + your municipality into the municipality box (市区町村) and click the green search button, or search by clicking on a Prefecture listed below. (See 群馬)
The default setting will show you all or you can click on Type of Disaster (災害の種類 saigai no shurui) to see shelters for each type of disaster.
地震 (jishin): earthquake
津波 (tsunami): tsunami
洪水 (kouzui): flood
土砂災害 (dosha saigai): landslide
内水氾濫※ (naisui hanran): inland flood*
高潮 (kouchou): tidal wave
火災 (kasai): fire
火山噴火 (kazan funka): volcanic eruption
*In cases of heavy rain, sewers and other drains overflow and buildings and roads can flood.
Using the map
The default search will give you a list of shelters for all types of disasters, but you can refine your search if you want. If you click on a shelter, it will tell you the location, address, and types of disasters you can go there for. (You can see that there are pretty much no shelters in Gunma for tsunamis or tidal waves because we don’t get them here.)
Here, you can see that you can go to Maebashi Park (前橋公園 maebashi kouen) in case of an earthquake or landslide.
There will also be a list of the 10 nearest shelters from the middle of the map.
And that’s all! I recommend also bookmarking this page on your phone so you can use it wherever you go in Japan. It might save you in case of a natural disaster!
Note: There is also an app available in Japanese, but you will need a Yahoo! account to use it.
While classes may have stopped during the summer vacation, JETs are still required to go to work. Of course, many of us will use vacation days during this time.
On the other hand, there are also many JETs who will find themselves confined to their desks during this time. It doesn’t matter if you’re entering your fifth year on JET or if you just got off the plane, desk warming can be one of the most boring things about the job.
The summer stretch at your desk may feel like an eternity, but let’s talk about some ways you can make the days go by faster.
1: Explore your school:
New JETs. You’ve just be thrown into a new environment, and you probably have a lot of questions about your new school. Important questions like, “where is the toilet?” can be easily answered by wandering through hallways. While your school campus may initially look like a maze, summer vacation will give you a good chance to freely explore the building.
Additionally, you can also organize your desk. This will be your workspace for the year, so roll up your sleeves and get cleaning. Maybe your predecessor left you a lot of useful materials (read: junk). Figure out what you need and what can be thrown out.
2: Prepare lessons:
New JETs will most likely be expected to prepare an introductory lesson about themselves and their home country. Use this time to plan what you will do with this lesson – a fun quiz or a PowerPoint presentation full of pictures are sure to be successful. You haven’t actually met your students yet, so don’t worry too much about lesson planning. Use the first few weeks of classes to gauge their abilities.
For continuing JETS, definitely use this time to plan ahead. The best case scenario is planning for the entire upcoming school term. At the same time, remember that schedules can abruptly change.
For those of you lucky enough to have a designated English classroom, take some time to rearrange desks and decorate the room before your students arrive.
3: Learn something:
Most of us will have Internet access on our workplace computers. However, every good website (i.e. YouTube) is likely to be blocked. Fortunately, there are still other things you can do online. Use this free period of time to study something you have always wanted to learn. Perhaps you’ve always been interested in picking up photography; well here’s your chance! There are many free online resources which can help you learn new skills or explore new hobbies; just be sure not to disturb your co-workers. If you’re lost for ideas, studying Japanese is always a safe bet!
Alternatively, you can always bring a good book or e-reader.
4: Visit clubs:
Although classes are halted during summer vacation, many junior and senior high school students still spend their summer days at school. Club activities, especially sports, are practiced religiously in Japan. Many clubs may try to take advantage of the prolonged break from classes to practice every day. If possible, try to talk with club supervisors to see if you can watch or participate in club activities. Furthermore, interacting with your students outside of class is a great way to build rapport.
5: Plan your next trip:
You may be trapped at your desk now, but at least you still have weekends off! If you’re new to Gunma, definitely check out some local spots. There are tons to explore in our own backyard, so get pumped and get planning.
Start making that bucket list!
6: Write for GAJET:
Every Situation Is Different.
A phrase we’ve heard countless times, and a phrase which continues to hold truth. Each of us are bound to have our own unique stories and experiences. Why not use the summer vacation to write down some of your thoughts. GAJET is always looking for new content so please get in touch with us!
7: Enjoy it while you can:
You may be bored out of your mind now. But remember, summer vacation will come to an end. Relax and have some tea. Maybe eat out for lunch. Enjoy these tranquil times, because your overly-genki students will be bombarding you soon enough!
Have other ideas? Leave a comment below!
Gavin Au-Yeung is entering his second year as a senior high school JET in Isesaki. He will be celebrating his one-year anniversary with the JET Programme by desk warming.
It’s 1.4 km from Shim-Maebashi station, so you might want to take a cab. If not, there’s an underground walkway, but it’s kinda hard to get to from the station. Go straight out the main exit, turn right at the main street there (just past the restaurants and all that) and walk for quite a ways. When you get to where the karaoke place is just across the street from you, you can turn right and head into the underground area. This leads almost straight to the place, but I wouldn’t experiment with the route if you’re in a hurry. Honestly, from the outside, it doesn’t look like it’s going to take you anywhere other than an old warehouse in which to be murdered.
Once you make it there, you can talk to the receptionist. She doesn’t speak English, but she’ll call over a guy who will muddle through it with you. If you both do Japanglish, you can get the job done. He’s a jolly little guy with glasses.
Here’s the thing: the guy who does the fingerprints is very skilled with his machine. He will make some odd, “I don’t know about this” grunts as he does the job, but if you’re only after a Japanese background check, you’re gonna be fine. They have a form that has English on it, as well as a sample, pre-filled one for you to crib off of. It takes about ten minutes all told, you pay them, and then you’re done for the day. You will have to come back a week or so later to pick up your results (they can’t mail it, he says), but that’ll be that.
If you need an FBI background check, however… Well. That’s more interesting. I brought the FBI’s fingerprinting card that I printed out from their site.
No, they don’t have copies of this card on site. Yes, you should bring your own. Yes, printing on regular old combini printer paper is just fine. No, it doesn’t need to be on cardstock. My suggestion: fill out the information at the top BEFORE you make copies of the form. (I checked with the pertinent authorities and the writing on the form doesn’t need to be fresh, just the prints.) The fingerprinting guy made a couple copies of my form for my own personal use after I got there because, well, I think he knew how it was going to go. (Hint: not well.)
If you’re in this predicament and not well-versed in fingerprinting, go on YouTube and learn how to take fingerprints. No, I am not joking. No, I am not exaggerating. Luckily, I’ve been fingerprinted rather often for my previous employers, so I knew what I was doing. The “fingerprint technician” did not. At all. After we collaborated in ruining two of my FBI printouts, I delegated to him the job of holding the paper still. I did the rest—rolling the ink, taking the impressions, and checking my work. Some key notes for you:
1) Get your whole finger print inked—go high enough up (practically to the top of your finger), and roll your finger left or right until you basically hit your nail on both sides. Get full coverage here.
2) If you were a little messy inking yourself, make sure you wipe off your finger below the first knuckle crease. I ruined one page because I was sloppy in the inking process.
3) Have him hold the paper so that the box you intend to fill is at the edge of the table. If it is, your other fingers will be out of the way (i.e., off the table) and it will be easier to roll them.
4) Test the mechanics of your hand before you put your finger down. Then, press your finger down and roll the way that your hand wants to roll. The left hand is generally easier to roll from left to right, the right hand is the opposite for me. Your hands may be different, though.
5) Use your opposite hand to apply pressure to the finger that you’re rolling. Generally, this means using your thumb and forefinger on the helper hand applied, essentially, to the nailbed area.
6) Don’t press too hard or you’ll just make a black smudge instead of a print.
7) Check the FBI guidelines on the printout—they tell you what’s good enough, so make sure you’re not making any obvious mistakes. If you did, start over.
8) Wipe off after each roll. The last thing you want is a stray print muddying up a good impression.
When you’re finished, they’ll want to make a copy for their own records. I’m not sure why, but it’s a thing they do. Lastly, there’s a spot on the paper for them to sign, but “Japanese police don’t sign things,” so they won’t be doing that, either. Honestly, if you’re after the FBI background check, you’re going to this place to make use of their stamp pad and that’s about it. Your experience may be different, but for me, it was a complete farce.
After you’re done with all of that, you’ll need to pay them. That means going to a driving school that’s outside, across the little river there, and giving them 400 yen for a stamp. Bring the stamp back, and they’ll finalize your Japanese background check. From here, you’ll wait a week or so for your Japanese results. Meanwhile, you’ll need to go and mail off your fingerprints to the FBI. I’m not including the address here in case something changes in the near (or far) future. You can easily find it on the internet.
Good luck, and my your fingers be flexible enough to face the twists and turns of a struggling middle-aged Japanese man.
Quick note about the FBI: they take forever. You can go through an FBI channeler, a service that will greatly expedite the process, but you should know that they don’t accept documents that aren’t signed by the place that did your prints, and they’re going to want to send your results to an address within the United States. (This was my experience, anyway—maybe you’ll find someone more lenient who’s willing to deal with the cultural differences. Truthfully, the FBI doesn’t care if that spot is signed or not, according to the research I did online, but the channelers have their own rules.) This is a problem, obviously, but I’m pretty sure nobody’s going to check if someone named Tanaka works at the Maebashi police station, if you catch my drift.
(Disclaimer: What you do with that line on the form is entirely your choice, please don’t consider this to be bulletproof or consequence free advice from a wizened older JET. You do you, and please don’t implicate me, GAJET or the JET Program if you get in trouble for what you do when you do you.)
Final Note: There are places in Tokyo that will do your FBI fingerprints and sign the document. They will charge you 20,000 yen for their services, though, so honestly, I didn’t even entertain the thought.
If you’re new to Japan and have been asking around about how to get a Japanese driver’s license, you’ve probably heard some tales. There are some determined ALTs out there. Shrugging off the expenses and stress, they take the driving skills test over and over again until they finally pass.
If you’re looking for another way, a 50cc scooter license might be right up your alley. Getting one is actually very simple. No need to take a driving skills test. No struggling through a Japanese paper test.Here you’ll find information on obtaining a scooter license the simple and easy way.
Translate your home country’s license to Japanese at JAF (the Japan Automobile Federation)
First, check that you meet the following requirements: (1) you must have lived in Japan for at least three months. (2) your foreign license is not expired.
(3) a. Your original driver’s license + a copy of both the front and back
(3) b. The Japanese translation of your license from JAF外国運転免許証翻訳文4
(3) c. Your passport + copies of most of its pages
(3) d. Your resident card and certificate of residence住民票5 + a copy of each
The Certificate of Residence is different from the document you initially received in City Hall. Take the attached original document with the Japanese to City Hall to make it very clear which document you’re requesting.
(3) e. Written application (the clerk will produce and may fill out on your behalf) + your 3 x 2.4 cm photograph.
Photo booths are often located outside large chain stores or train stations. The Traffic Center also has a photo booth handy. No, these are not the fun purikura kind where you can add a mustache and place a ghost in the background!
(3)f. Bring your international driver’s license (if you have one) just in case.
If you are from a non-Western country, you may need more documentation (when I was waiting, I heard the Japanese clerk tell a Sri Lankan man that he needed additional papers)
To prepare for the 10 question English driving test, get to know Japanese road signs and regulations. Learn the 3-point turn that is specific to driving a 50cc scooter. Also, drive with friends and chat about driving with coworkers or other ALTs who have been driving in Japan for a while.
Getting your Japanese Driver’s License at the Prefectural Traffic Center
Check thelocation and hours of Gunma Prefecture’s Traffic Center 総合交通センター6. It’s a ten minute walk from Shin-Maebashi Station. Bring more than enough cash to cover the fees (these total around 1 man yen 一万円).
Go to the Traffic Center right when they open because it will already be busy. In 2012, the hours were 1:00-4:30pm Monday to Friday. Expect to be at the Traffic Center until after 4:00pm. Expect to wait between the various steps and bring something to fill your time.
Follow the yellow line to thesecond floor. Stand in line for Foreign License Conversion (this was on the far right). Wait until it is your turn and, in Japanese, tell them you want a 50cc scooter license and that you aren’t going to take the driving skill test運転技術試験7 .
Provide your documents. They will check them, ask you clarifying questions, and maybe request more copies. If they need a copy of something, they will send you to the copier down the hall. (Interesting note, they asked me about the age restriction printed on my Wisconsin driver’s license. I told them it was to make it clear to clerks that I couldn’t buy alcohol and that it had nothing to do with driving.)
Take the vision test. When they’re ready, the clerk will direct you to the back of the reception area to complete an eyesight test視力検査8. You will be asked to look at circles and tell the vision specialist which direction the gap in each circle is facing. Make sure you know the Japanese for “up” “down” “right” and “left.” Then, you will need to identify colors. Be ready with your Japanese color words! Then, the vision specialist will sign your papers, and you will take them back to the reception counter at the front of the room. There you will pay for the vision test. Wait as they complete your paperwork and process the other foreigners in line.
Take the 50cc scooter 10 question paper testin English or Portuguese/Spanish. When called, follow the clerk to a nearby room. Each question of the test is accompanied by a descriptive picture, likely because the English is wordy. At the end of the test, the clerk collects your test and grades it. You’ll know right then and there if you passed.
Pay for the test at another counter. You will then be asked to enter two four digit numbers into a machine, which will print a paper you will need for the next step. Again, there may be a long wait at this time. Take out something to do, but pay attention to what’s going on.
Get your driving license photo taken. Finally, go with the other people who have passed the test to have your photo taken. After your license is printed, your name will be called, the clerk will ask you to check the spelling of your name and your address, and then you’re free to go– Japanese 50 cc scooter license in hand!
Buying Your Scooter & Gear
Mandatory vehicle liability insurance自賠責保険9
If you want to buy a used scooter and an ALT near you isn’t selling one, find a used motorbike shop (usually you can find these near a university). I bought my scooter from Tsukagoshi Motors塚越モーター near 高崎市経済大学校Takasaki Keizai Daigakko at 744-1 Kaminamiemachi, Takasaki 370-0801. Used scooters sell for between 50,000 -80,000 yen.
Shiny new scooters sell at any motorbike store. These are usually located on main roads and easy to identify because bikes and scooters are displayed in the windows. These run 170,000-200,000 yen.
For accessories and gear, go to a specialty shop. Takasaki’s Ricolandライコランド高崎店
stocks helmets, gloves, and jackets. I recommend getting a helmet that shields your face. Bugs are real. Rain will also happen.
You’ll need insurance before you start driving. I asked the owner of the shop where I bought my scooter for a recommendation. He suggested an insurance company in downtown Takasaki called Zenrosai共済ショップ高崎店.
Insurance can run near 30,000 yen annually and may involve authorizing an auto-withdrawal from your bank account.
Remember to keep in the left lane and do 3-point turns at intersections which are wider than 2 lanes (one way). Keep track of your mileage and when you’ll need an oil change. Know your route before departing, be aware of traffic, and try to keep at a reasonable speed.
Don’t hold a phone and don’t drive in the rain. Be safe. If you think you’ve missed your turn or it starts raining, just pull over, shut off your bike, check Google maps or wait out the downpour, and return to the road when conditions are right.
This guide was compiled by a former JET who completed this process in 2013. If you notice any errors or feel you have any important information to add, please contact the GAJET Editor, [email protected]
1. 外国運転免許証翻訳文発行申請書（がいこくうんてんめんきょしょうほんやくぶんはっこうしんせいしょ）foreign driver’s license translation application form
Terry Dassow is a former Assistant Language Teacher with the JET Program who lived in Takasaki from 2011-2014. Upon returning to the USA, she taught writing at a Hmong high school before entering the editing field. She is currently an Editor and Communications Specialist for an engineering consulting and design-build firm based in Milwaukee, WI.
GAJET organizes a group trip each year, but if you’re interested in climbing Mt. Fuji alone or you’re busy that particular day, this guide is for you! I’ve written as much as I know about the mountain and provided links for leftover questions. Afterwards, there’s a little photo-journal and story about my own hike to get you inspired!
When to climb:
Mount Fuji is open to climbers in July and August. Technically, you can climb the mountain any time, as there’s no patrol to stop you, but climbing outside of these two summer months is incredibly dangerous. Even in 2016 climbers have died on the mountain out of season. In June and September, weather-wise it’s probably OK, but you should know that services on the mountain are severely limited (including buses and lodging) outside of July and August. And in winter the trails are flat-out closed for obvious reasons. While Mount Fuji is dangerous enough that climbers have died on it, it’s not a technically difficult climb and climbing in July and August means there shouldn’t be ice or snow, the number one cause of accidents. So please don’t be nervous! You can do it!
Mount Fuji is an active volcano:
Yes, Mount Fuji is an active volcano which last erupted in 1707. Recent measurements suggest that pressure inside the mountain is higher today than when it last erupted, implying an eruption is imminent, but these measurements are not as accurate as scientists would like and have been debated in the scientific community. An eruption is still really unlikely but you need to know that it is possible. Over the last few years, climbers have been urged to wear helmets and local authorities have intensified evacuation procedures. There’s more information here:
If you climb the mountain from the bottom, you need to be aware of the (unlikely) scenario of meeting a bear. Japanese climbers are very diligent about wearing bells to ward off bears. Most people I’ve talked to are skeptical about bears being in the area, but there are signs warning about them and it’s better to be prepared than not. Attaching bells to your backpack are the most ideal way to scare them off. More information on how to deal with bears while hiking can be read here:
The most common malaise you’ll face aren’t bears and lava, but the very natural occurrence of altitude sickness. Mount Fuji is 12,388 feet. Think of it this way: at the top, you’ll be a third of the distance an airplane reaches at cruising altitude! Like the other things, this isn’t a major problem if you take care. Symptoms of altitude sickness include headaches/lightheadedness, loss of appetite, seeing “stars,” shortness of breath…The best remedies for altitude sickness are to hydrate and take your time. Drink as much water as you can during your hike. Also, your body needs time to adjust to the altitude. A good rule of thumb is to rest 30-45 minutes at each station you reach (which is five if you start from the fifth station) to let your body adjust. You will see some people sucking on canisters of oxygen. These aren’t really necessary but if you’re really worried about it, you can buy these oxygen canisters at sports stores. I’ve never used it, but if you check out the reviews on Amazon, the opinions are almost perfectly split between great, so-so, and horrible:
Climbing Mt. Fuji is more about endurance than anything. Less of a climb and more like a long, slow hike, it’s not technically challenging. I have only done one of the four routes, so it’s possible some are harder than the one I did, but from what I’ve read online, most people describe the mountain in general as hiking up steep stairs, totally possible for people new to hiking and climbing. If you’re really worried about the physical aspect, obviously exercising a month or two beforehand is recommended. Walk up and down the stairs at school. Start riding a bike if you don’t. Start jogging if you already do. Join your school’s sports clubs! And of course try your hand at some of our beautiful local mountains.
What to take:
First of all, you’re climbing the biggest and most important mountain in Japan; invest in hiking boots to make the experience enjoyable and safe. I also recommend a high quality backpack. Hiking Mt. Fuji requires a lot of stuff. You want to be comfortable and safe. I recommend a backpack that allows you to easily carry several big bottles of water, since you want to hydrate constantly. If you climb from the bottom, one of the bizarre things about the hike is that you have to prepare for both summer and winter weather. It’s warm and humid at the bottom but freezing cold at the top. You’ll sweat through your clothes at the bottom and need to strip those off for dry clothes when it starts to get cold and windy. I recommend an extra undershirt. At the top, it’s simply bitterly cold. Anything less than what you would wear in January or February is dangerous. Take gloves, a face warmer, a hat, a scarf, everything to protect yourself.
Extra batteries (remember the cold can sap batteries quickly)
A back-up hand flashlight
Plastic baggy to stick money/phone in if it rains
A hat to protect face from sun
Face mask to protect from ash
Toilet paper, hand towel, hand sanitizer
100 yen coins for the toilets
Water and/or Pocari Sweat (at least 2 liters is a good idea)
Small snacks like packaged peanuts, banana chips, and energy bars (bring more than you think you’ll eat)
Light but hardy food like conbini sandwiches
I also recommend printing maps and transit information in case your phone dies, which is likely since you’ll be away from a charger for so long.
How to get there:
There are multiple ways to get to Fuji, depending on where you’re coming from and what trail you plan to take. There are many buses from Shinjuku to the 5th station. I bought my ticket the day of at the Shinjuku bus terminal, and had no problems with buses being sold out. If you want to hike from the bottom like I did, scroll down to the story below to find out how I got there. Otherwise, I recommend looking at these websites to help you figure out where you’re going and how to get there:
5th station or from the bottom?
The first decision you need to make is whether to climb from the bottom, as the pilgrims used to do, or start halfway up at the 5th station (taking a bus up a service road to get there), as the vast majority of modern hikers do. I did it from the bottom, my logic being that it would probably be the biggest climb of my life, so I wanted to do it the “right” way. And it was really rewarding. However, it came with extra challenges. Hiking from the bottom obviously increases your total time on the mountain significantly. Maybe five to six hours or more. You need to carry more food and water and schedule yourself accordingly. The bottom part is a forest, unlike the upper half. This is significant because you need to keep bears in mind when starting at the bottom. Also, there are no facilities at the first four stations. They are abandoned. There are no toilets. You will meet very, very few hikers. I only encountered two people over the course of four to five hours. There will be no help if you need it. No food or water to buy from vendors. The trails are still marked, but less so; it’s easier to get lost. So why do it this way? Exactly what I said before; for most people, this is the biggest hike of their lives. Mt. Fuji is a sacred symbol of Japan, and climbing it is one of the most amazing experiences you can have in this country. So why not climb the whole mountain? But that’s just my opinion, and 99.9% of hikers take the bus. The forest part is really beautiful and serene. You’ll probably see wild deer. The abandoned stations are really cool and creepy. They’re ancient wooden buildings, collapsed in on themselves. So if you do it this way, it will be rewarding but plan accordingly!
The second decision is about lodging, which seems to be the biggest question mark for most potential hikers. Staying in a lodge is certainly the healthiest choice. Taking a rest and getting some shut eye is the best way to ward off altitude sickness and not over-do it, especially if you’re not a regular hiker. Also, camping is strictly prohibited on Fuji, so no tents or sleeping bags! I didn’t stay in a lodge. I basically cat-napped behind rocks and rested where I could. I’m physically healthy and felt confident in myself, but I did have some problems with altitude sickness, and the effects were certainly intensified by my decision to not sleep. One last note; I did find the lodges to be really noisy places. It’s a natural point of rest for hikers, with benches and facilities, so keep that in mind.
How to book a lodge:
Here is a list of lodges with telephone numbers, other information:
A reservation is required via telephone. There is a link at the bottom for a company that will book on your behalf. As far as I know, it is not possible to book online, but things are always changing! If you know one, please note in the comments! An overnight stay typically costs around 5000 yen per person without meals and around 7000 yen per person with two meals. Expect the huts to be extremely crowded during the peak.
When to start my climb?
Many hikers climb the mountain to see the sunrise. If this is your goal, timing it up correctly can be tricky; on my hike, I actually arrived at the summit too early, and had to suffer the cold for longer. I guess I was worried about crowds, but that turned out to be silly; while there are a lot of people, the summit is absolutely massive (and the horizon is even bigger J).
From Japan-Guide: “Most people try to time their ascent in order to witness the sunrise from the summit. Also, the chances of the mountain being free of clouds are highest during the early morning hours. The recommended way of doing this, is to climb to a mountain hut around the 7th or 8th station on the first day and spend some hours sleeping there before continuing to the summit early on the second day. Note that the sunrise takes place as early as 4:30am to 5:00am in summer.”
So there you have it. If you’re hiking from the bottom, timing gets even more tricky. I can only tell you what I did. I started at around 4PM at the Fujiyoshida Sengen Shrine (http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e6903.html) and arrived at the summit around 2AM, taking many long breaks. So I arrived too early, and I spent a lot longer on the mountain than most people. But I didn’t want to be in the forest when darkness fell, so I didn’t want to start later (I still was stuck in the forest when night fell though!). If you did the same as what I did, but stayed in a lodge instead of all-nighting it like I did, I think you might have a nice solution to that problem.
Which trail to choose?
There are four trails to choose from. When choosing a trail, also keep in mind how you’ll get back down and what transportation you need to get to. I took the Yoshida Trail. Since trails offer different advantages/disadvantages, I’m not going to say too much about it. Instead, I’ll leave these links here and encourage you to suss it out depending on what works for you.
Fee – there isn’t an official fee, but climbers are asked to donate 1,000 yen to help support the mountain’s facilities, environmental efforts, ect.
The hiking sticks – everyone wants to know about the cool hiking sticks. I didn’t get one, but I saw it for sale in the temple where I started my hike. Hiking sticks cost about 1500-2000 yen and are sold at all the 5th stations except Gotemba. You can get it stamped at each station (starting at the 5th; the first 4 are abandoned), even in the middle of the night. There are dudes huddled around steaming pots even at one in the morning, ready to stamp it for you. I think each stamp costs about 300 yen.
Mistakes I made:
I forgot my bear bell and was still in the forest when night fell. If I stood still and turned off my headlamp, it was the most still, dark, and profound quiet I’ve ever experienced in my life. You don’t want to meet a bear in that.
I forgot chapstick! My lips were miserable coming down the mountain. There’s nothing to protect you from the wind.
My phone died very quickly. When you get to the summit, it will be cold enough to sap your battery a little something extra. When not taking pictures, be sure to turn your phone off to conserve energy. You definitely want to be able to take pictures when the sun rises!
My last mistake was really stupid, but I’m happy to admit it if it helps someone else…For some reason (I think I was delirious from being tired), I just kind of winged the way back down, and took a different trail down than I went up. I didn’t plan so much for the way back and just figured there would be one. And naturally as a result, it was a little bit of a problem. I ended up at a bus stop, but there was no bus for hours. I got lucky and found a few hikers to share a cab to the nearest train station. Do yourself a favor and plan everything out!
I began my hike at Fujiyoshida Sengen Shrine (http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e6903.html) around 4PM. It’s in Yamanashi Prefecture, and in Japanese the shrine is北口本宮冨士浅間神社 随神門. I took the bus in from Shinjuku bus terminal to Fujisan and walked 30 minutes to the shrine. You can see from the snapshot I took on Google Maps that this is quite far from the mountain. So this route includes a lengthy walk in the woods and through the city before the actual hike starts.
This is the Yoshida Trail (吉田). The actual trailhead is a bit hard to find. From what I remember, it’s to the right of the temple in the picture down below, down a sidewalk and a road that really, really doesn’t look like the entrance to Mt. Fuji. I remember thinking it was a bit anti-climatic; I was ready to embark on this epic adventure and I couldn’t even find the trail entrance. I thought there would be a massive torii gate, monumental statues, monks wishing me well…Instead there were cars driving around, an old guy walking his dog, and power transformers. I remember doubting if I was even going the right direction. But eventually…
The main shrine building; you can buy a hiking stick here to have it stamped at each station.
Eventually I found the Yoshida trail marking, with map. Notice it ain’t in English. But it’s not rocket science either. Once I found this sign, I felt confident I was in the right place. Take note of bear warning at the bottom.
For the first few hours, this is pretty much what it looks like! Just a walk in the woods. Doesn’t look like Fuji does it? After an hour to two of quaint trails, you’ll notice the slope increasing more and more. It starts to feel like exercise.
If you hear some crunching in the woods, don’t worry! Maybe it’s just some of these guys.
A long way to go!
Starting to get dark. This is where it helps to not have a colorful imagination…I hadn’t seen a soul in three hours. Soon you’ll experience complete darkness only found in deep nature. Switch off your lights and see how long you can stand in the pitch black and profound silence before freaking out. Don’t walk off a cliff though.
Something weird started to happen…fog rolled in. Massive, thick, heavy fog that added to my blindness. The picture above was only the beginning; it got so thick I could only see two feet in front of me with the headlamp on. It was like walking on the bottom of the ocean. I had to go very, very slowly not to lose the path. But eventually it let up.
You’ll pass the old abandoned stations about once an hour if you’re hiking at a decent pace. It can be kind of freaky. At least the money means humans have been here recently.
Eventually you’ll break free of the woods at the 5th station. The site is breathtaking and these pictures don’t do it justice. For me, the moon was hanging at the summit, giving me natural light to walk by. You can see the lights from the lodgings leading up the trail. There’s also a slight snake of lights from the other climbers. After several hours alone in the pitch black woods, it was a reassuring sight. Suddenly there are plenty of other people and vendors if you need supplies. At this point I recall having to change my shirt because the wind intensifies since there aren’t trees anymore. I had worked up a sweat from before and didn’t want to freeze.
From here, there’s not much to take pictures of. Follow the signs and it’s hard to get lost. There will also be plenty of other climbers (though not nearly as crowded as I expected). The terrain is something akin to walking on the surface of the moon. It’s mostly rock and ash, which is why great hiking boots are highly recommended. There aren’t many technical parts (or any, that I remember; Mount Myogi in Gunma is far more challenging in that regard). From here on, it’s an endurance test. The most important thing for you to remember is to take your time in order to acclimate to the altitude and hydrate often. A recommended tip is to stop and rest for 30-45 minutes at each station. If you start to feel light-headed or see stars, stop climbing immediately and take a lengthy rest. Drink some water and eat some peanuts. I thought I was doing really well acclimating myself, taking appropriate breaks and forcing myself to rest more than I wanted to, but then around the 9th station, it hit me like a knockout punch. I started seeing little bursts of light and felt like I’d just donated half my blood. I felt horrible. Part of it was that I had been climbing a lot longer than everyone else and also that I didn’t stay in a hut. So I took a long break and waited for my legs to get back under me, which they eventually did and I climbed the rest of the mountain just fine.
One of the stations: A trail sign marking arrival at the 9th Station
At the summit. There are facilities at the summit; food, bathrooms, temples, ect. The summit reminded me a bit of a field hospital from World War One. It’s a strange place. There are people everywhere, but most people are either silent or groaning, nursing tired limbs. At 2AM, not many people are in a festive mood but that’ll change by morning. I used my phone to figure out what direction I needed to face for the sunrise and camped out beside a big rock. Waiting for the sun to rise was one of the hardest parts of the climb. I had reached the top too early and it was bitterly cold. Find a large rock to huddle up against and protect yourself from the wind on at least one side. It’s a harsh place but incredibly beautiful. It’s probably the closest thing normal people can experience to being on the moon. The night I climbed, the cloud cover was very thick, but since Fuji is so tall, you climb through the clouds. This thickness suppressed the city lights and intensified the canvas of stars. It was the most vivid night sky I’ve ever seen. I still remember the shooting stars streaking in all directions. I actually fell asleep at one point in a pile of volcanic ash, huddled next to a rock, 13,000 feet in the sky. It’s a harsh and cold, but lovely experience.
Waiting for the sun to come.
No description needed.
The true summit. That building (which I think is an old weather station) marks the true highest place in Japan. There’s a marker to take your picture with if you can fight through the crowds. If you have some gas left, it only takes about 20 minutes to get up there. To navigate the entire crater, about an hour is needed?) of your life.
You’ll see some of the most amazing landscapes (skyscape?).
It’s like sitting on the wing of an airplane.
The shadow of Fuji from the top of Fuji.
The long, strange hike down…
People warn about the hike down. It’s supposedly faster, and that seemed to hold true for me, but the danger of slipping is higher. I fell a few times. Rolled down the mountain a little. I don’t recommend it. It’s tempting to dash down the soft ashy parts, but that’s also dangerous. My knees started to feel the exertion of the past 14 hours. Descending can be pretty rough on you, especially the knees. When I went to the Great Wall of China, they actually had slides where people could slide down the mountain like a Burger King play pen. I don’t envision that for Fuji any time soon.
One last wistful look upwards! You can see a building here. There will be places to grab an (overpriced) snack and drink if you need it. This is the part where you have to be careful not to get sunburned. Cover up. Put on sunscreen. And don’t forget chapstick! I remember being miserable because I forgot mine.
This is what you can look forward to for the next four or five hours.
Things start to get a little surreal. There were some plants I’d never seen before, like something you’d see in a sci-fi movie, though I may have been hallucinating. And crazy packs of clouds start rolling in. The boredom and exhaustion starts to do weird things to your brain. I swear at some point I saw the Great Forest Spirit from Princess Mononoke.
At the end…
Like I mentioned above, I took a different trail down than I did up. I can’t remember why. There’s something buzzing around in my memory that suggests I had heard one of the trails down was faster, and I suspected I could get down to public transportation easier. So I winged it, and I was wrong. I knew I was on a trail, and I knew I was going down, so I wasn’t too worried. But I didn’t really know where I was. I ended up at the “end”, or what I thought was the end because it was a parking lot. There was a bus stop. I checked the times and yea, you guessed it; no bus for hours. I was stuck. There were some facilities. I wandered around and eventually met some other Westerners, a Polish man and a Spaniard. We were all in the same sad, misinformed, Westerner boat. But actually we really lucked out that there were three of us stranded. We quickly figured out that we could share a cab and make it to a nearby train station for a decent price. There was a weird, random tourist stand thing and they were nice enough to call a taxi for us. He took us to some train station (I can’t remember the name). I charged my phone in a noodle place and used Hyperdia to figure out how to get back to Tokyo. So I winged it and didn’t die, but I don’t recommend it!
Back in Gunma, I slept for 14 hours straight.
My last recommendation: take the next day off to do the same.
New Year’s resolution is to get a new hobby? If you’ve set your heart on learning a musical instrument, but don’t know where to get one, this guide is for you! I used to trek all the way to Tokyo, thinking the big city would have the best deals, but I learned that Gunma has hidden gems of its own. There are plenty of music stores in Gunma that didn’t make this list. If you had a great experience somewhere, please share in the comments!
For beginners and bargain-hunters
Hard-Off recycle shops (many locations in Gunma)
Gunma locations and hours (Japanese): http://www.hardoff.co.jp/shop/kanto/gunma/
Hard-Offs have all kinds of gadgets, and the inventories vary from location to location. For example, there are two in Kiryu, but I’ve found the western one is always better than the eastern in terms of musical instruments. If you’re looking for a good, cheap acoustic guitar, Hard-Off is the place to go. Unfortunately the staff may or may not know anything about musical instruments (may explain the cheap prices…). More specifically, I find they don’t bother keeping the instruments in tune, sometimes to the point where the strings are almost falling off and you can’t even try the instrument. BUT you can ask them to tune it and they usually have a little practice amp/space for you to use. Don’t be shy! Hard-Off is also especially good for effects pedals. I bought a Vox Pathfinder 10 practice amp here, an affordable choice if you’re looking for a small amp to practice on without terrifying your neighbors. You can also find appropriate amps if you want to terrify your neighbors.
Transit: Takasaki, Maebashi, and Shin-Isesaki stations, walking distance from each
With locations in Takasaki, Maebashi, and Isesaki (Shin-Isesaki Station), Dust Bowl is one of the better “chains” in Gunma. I put chain in quotations because this shop has a more down to earth, less commercial feel than the type you’ll find in AEON or SMARK. The location in Takasaki has great deals. I’ve seen a 100 dollar Orange Crush 12w for 5,000 yen in here. The Takasaki location especially has a large inventory of guitars, including used and vintage guitars. They also offer lessons (Japanese only). The Takasaki and Isesaki locations even have live venues.
A hidden gem in Midori: Slow Hand (Omama, Midori City)
Transit: walking distance from Akagi Station
Address: 〒376-0101 群馬県みどり市大間々町大間々2418 スナガビルA 1F Phone: 0277-73-2373 Hours*: Mon thru Sat :１５：００～２３：００ Sun and holidays日曜・祝日 １３：００～２３：００
*I would call ahead; I’ve seen his shop closed multiple times during his open hours.
Nestled away in the quiet town of Omama, Koshiba-san at Slow Hand sells some of the best guitars I’ve seen in Japan, including Tokyo. His shop is quite small and the inventory is always rotating, so you never know what he’ll have. He’s always good for at least one drool-inducing Fender; lately a golden, vintage Musicmaster has been hanging in his shop. I bought a custom reissue Japanese Fender Mustang from him and couldn’t be happier. The price was unbelievable. He does my repairs, and even took me out to dinner once. He has a nice balance of insane vintage guitars and affordable used ones. He plays in a local jazz band and offers lessons if that’s what you’re after (probably Japanese only). Practice space is also available (covered in Beatles LP covers and tabs for blues songs named stuff like “Give Me Back my Wig”). His hours are kinda weird, so I recommend calling ahead. My personal opinion; buy a guitar from a cool local guy like this, not a chain. It makes a better memory anyways.
Amazon, something for everyone: amazon.co.jp
Amazon is a great resource for musical instruments. Especially the smaller stuff like pedals and cables. It’s also great if you’ve got questions but can’t get past the language barrier, as it is offered in English. Payment options are also easy; you can either buy a gift card at the conbini or more recently you’re able to simply add your foreign credit card and pay with that (international bank fees vary on your bank, of course) with their currency translation (Bank of America charged me about 1.35 USD for a 40 USD transaction).
I bashed Tokyo a little in the intro, but of course the mega-city is a great source for musical instruments. The point of this guide was simply to show that you don’t have to haul down to Tokyo just for instruments, but of course tossing a little gear-hunting into your weekend trip to Tokyo can be a lot of fun.
So where to go? Most people start in Ochanomizu, walking distance from Akihabara (don’t forget the Hard-Off in Akihabara either; they have a nice pedal selection and usually several sub-50,000 yen reissue Fender Strats, Teles, Mustangs, ect.). Ochanomizu is a big clump of music stores (several stores are owned by the same people). I made the mistake of letting my first impression of these stores turn me off; I didn’t like the chain-feel and was disappointed I wasn’t finding the kind of boutique shops like back in the States. But I found out that while the feel of the shops is rather commercial, the inventory can be quite good. There are some super vintage guitars nestled in those bright lights and uniformed goons. If you want a sneak peek at the inventory of the largest store, Shimokura, take a look here: http://www.shimokura-secondhands.com/used_guitar_list.html
Shimokitazaka –Tokyo’s favorite hipster neighborhood, Shimokitazawa is an important place for Tokyo’s music scene. This includes guitar shops. (Bonus tip: head over to Bear Pond Espresso for some good coffee!). This is one cool shop:
The Guitar Lounge
Transit: 池ノ上駅 Ikeno-ue Station
It’s possible your school will have musical instruments you can use, especially piano and drums. If you teach at a high school, it’s almost guaranteed that your school will have both. My school has four pianos in four different locations and one drum set, and I’m always welcome to use them when the music club isn’t busy. Ask your music teacher for permission first, especially when it’s OK to play a noisy instrument liked drums! In my experiences, music teachers are among the friendliest teachers and will be glad to have you on board. But music clubs are also very busy, so be sure to only go when you know you’re not interrupting something! Sometimes the students use the pianos during lunch, so make sure you’re not stealing the piano when they want to use it. And be sure to check surrounding rooms for classes before you blast the drum solo from “In the Air Tonight.”
Know of anything other great music shops in Gunma? Post them in the comments!