Friday, January 31, 2020

Instructing in Japan

So in January I found myself working in Japan as a ski instructor.

Because of my strange visa, an expert in international relations, I was restricted to working only for my immediate employer. The rest of my colleagues would usually leave early each morning to drive to Kiroro Ski Resort, where they were subcontracted to work for the ski school there. Kiroro didn't sponsor experienced foreign instructors, instead only employing very young, newly trained instructors on working holiday visas. In some weird arrangement which only the Japanese understand, our more experienced instructors from Winkel often got the premium private lessons despite this costing Kiroro more, as we got paid at a much higher rate than their in house instructors.

I was not allowed to work under this subcontracted arrangement, only being allowed to work directly for Winkel. This actually worked in my favour, as the pay rate was more generous than that working for Kiroro. I was paid as a percentage of the lesson price, whereas the Kiroro wage was an hourly rate. Assuming I got work, which wasn't always guaranteed. Either I had lessons booked directly through Winkel (usually guests in the village) or through Asari Ski Resort, most of which were last minute bookings. I carried a phone that the ski school could ring me on to confirm lesson times, and given the girls in the office spoke minimal English it could be a bit of a laugh at times.

Although there was the option to travel to other ski resorts with clients, all my lessons took place at Asari Ski Resort just up the road. I'd only a 10 minute stroll each morning, and over time I got to know the local Japanese staff who worked at the ski school. They were initially shy and not overly friendly, but by the end of my time we were actually having conversations in stilted English.

Unlike Cardrona, Asari Ski Resort is not known for great beginner terrain, in fact it's actually a very popular mountain for ski racing! There was great beginner terrain in the middle of the mountain, only there was no possible way to get a beginner there and back again safely. A gondola would have been perfect. Instead we had a couple of spots where a slope flattened out so that beginners had a safe runout. Then, a recently installed conveyer carpet had been poorly situated such that the loading point was at the bottom of a steep slope with a camber that headed straight for a building!

Almost all of my clients were first time skiers, and most were from China. Sometimes they were a work group, but mostly they were family groups, and often adults and children together. Which meant hugely mixed abilities within the group.

A teaching day began usually with meeting the clients in the rental office, and helping them get their boots on correctly. Then it was out onto the snow and a walk up a steep hill to the only spot that had some flat ground and slopes that beginners could use. Once through the ski familiarisation, the students would need to walk up the small slope above the flat area to learn to glide, wedge glide, and stop. We could not use the conveyer belt because the slope on it was too steep, so many students could be quite exhausted from all the walking uphill. Unlike Cardrona, where it was easy to progress students due to more gentle terrain and appropriately sited conveyer lifts, it was a much slower process here.

Once students had mastered stopping and were able to make some turns I could progress them onto the slope which had the conveyer lift, and once they could manage getting to the bottom of that slope without crashing into the nearby building I could take them up the red chairlift to the green zone in the middle of the mountain.

The green zone had a mixture of terrain, from a moderately steep blue run to gentle undulating green trails with some annoyingly flat spots. There was even a gnarly off piste mogul terrain just off the back of the green lift, but I never took my students there! It was good for getting students to work on their turns, because getting back down off the mountain required them to use those newly acquired skills to the best of their ability!

The easiest way down the mountain was via the slope serviced by the yellow lift. This was blue terrain but had mellower gradients that I could direct the students to follow me down on. One can only work with what you have, and it was quite a sense of achievement to be able to get a first time skier to that level by the end of their lessons. Though that usually took at least two days.

My time teaching in Japan was so different to teaching at Cardrona, and I realised how lucky people were to learn on a mountain so perfect for beginners. The challenges I had at Asari taught me so much, about how to adapt for the conditions and terrain, and to shift my own expectations of progression given the limitations. I also met some lovely people, both clients and colleagues, but soon after the Chinese New Year my work dried up. 

Which was fine by me as I was keen to go free skiing....

That's next!

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

A job in Japan

After mum's funeral I headed home to Western Australia and my little beach house in Geraldton. It was lovely to see all my friends again and spend some time down the beach, but November and December were not great for wind, and with only small waves to play in it was a somewhat disappointing windsurfing season. Especially as I wasn't going to be home for the entire summer...

At Cardrona last winter, whilst standing in the staff coffee queue waiting to order, one of my colleagues had offered me a job instructing in Japan, and apparently they would sponsor me. I'd thought about it for a few weeks, and then I had accepted.

Once back in Geraldton I began the paperwork to get a work visa for Japan. What some people don't realise is that most countries are pretty xenophobic, and are not interested in foreigners coming to work in their countries. They allow young people, usually up to the age of 30 or 35, to come to their country on a "working holiday visa", based on the concept that most young people will return to their country of origin and are not an immigration risk. It also helps countries to have willing workers doing all the poorly paid shitty seasonal work that their own people won't do.

If a person has a job offer in a foreign country and is not eligible for a working holiday visa, then the prospective employer needs to prove to immigration that the job can not be filled by a domestic worker before the foreigner can get a work visa. Depending on the job, and the restrictions put on work visas by the immigration department of that country, there are a variety of options available.

In Japan, to gain a work visa to be a ski instructor, a foreigner must have a level 3 instructing qualification, and/or 36 months experience teaching. Since a ski season lasts from 3-6 months, but on average 4-5, it can take quite a while to get those 36 months. Needless to say, I fulfil neither of those criteria. But there are other ways....

My job offer was to work at an international ski school, where the lessons are given exclusively in the English language. It just so happens that the vast majority of Japanese people, including ski instructors, do not have adequate English language skills to be able to do this. And since I have a university degree, I can get an "E" category visa as a "Specialist in International Services". This meant that my job was technically an "interpreter" rather than an "instructor". My Japanese boss knew the rules, I just did what I was told.....

My employer was able to guide me through the process of completing the appropriate forms, which he then took to the immigration office in Sapporo City for approval. They then requested to see not only my original university degree, but a detailed CV of my 30 years working as a medical practitioner! Sending off such a precious document was not without a little stress, but delivery was uneventful and my employer kept it in safe keeping until returning it to me in person after my arrival.

The immigration department took their own sweet time to approve my eligibility to have a work visa, which was causing me some anxiety as Christmas was rapidly approaching. With little time to spare my certificate of eligibility arrived in the mail and I was able to quickly fill in the visa application and send it and my passport by express mail down to the Consulate in Perth. Then I had to wait a further 7 days for the visa to be issued, and I needed to pick the passport up in person. Since I had an appointment with an eye specialist in Perth for a day or two beforehand, this worked out well, and after almost 6 weeks, I was in possession of a valid visa and at last able to purchase a flight to Japan.

My employment was to cover the peak period of the Japanese ski season, which is Christmas/New Year through to Chinese New Year. There is huge flexibility in the job in that when it is quiet you have access to cheap car rental and sometimes free skiing at other resorts. The accommodation is heavily subsidised and food is relatively cheap in Japan, so I expected to come out of the trip cost neutral. Whether it paid for my flights as well was not important. Let's just say, that for me, the point of working in Japan was to get a cheap, if not free, holiday.

Because of the palaver getting a visa, and my own personal wish to get some decent windsurfing in (I failed on the latter), I didn't arrive in Japan until after the New Year. The snow in Hokkaido had not been falling quite as abundantly as is usual, and many resorts had not yet opened up all their trails. It appears climate change was having its effect even on the famous Japow!!

I flew to Sapporo City with Air Asia, with an 11 hour stopover in Kuala Lumpur. I had never been to KL before (I'd transited through the airport, but never visited the city itself) so I dumped the hand luggage and took the rapid transit into the city. I didn't really have a plan, so I went wandering near the Masjid Jamek Mosque, renowned for its Moorish architecture. I didn't actually visit the mosque because I got distracted just outside the entrance by an ice cream stall selling one of my favourite treats: Durian ice cream!!

Happily slurping my treat I wandered around the historic buildings nearby, reeking of their British colonial past. The huge flag on the ginormous flagpole in Merdeka Square flew proudly, proclaiming Malaysia's independence from its colonial masters.

Back near the mosque I headed down a side street, past a street market selling the usual junk made in China, and along another street until I found a street hawker centre: a bunch of small restaurants with tables and chairs outside on the pavement catering to the local population. I perused the stalls, then ordered myself a good spicy dish and an iced tea. Malay language is similar, but not identical, to Indonesian, so I got by, being surprised that English was not as wide spoken as I'd assumed.

Joyfully sated with a good chilli fix, I took a train back to the main station then wandered the huge shopping malls for a while before heading back out to the airport to wait out a couple more hours until my flight to Sapporo City. Unfortunately I was seated in the middle seat of the middle row, on an overnight flight, so I got little sleep and a sore neck into the bargain!

From Sapporo Airport I took a train all the way to Otaru, on the west coast of Hokkaido, where I would be based for my time in Japan. I didn't even have to change trains in Sapporo City, which made life much easier when schlepping a heavy ski bag around. At Otaruchikko Station I was met by Julian, one of my colleagues, and his irrepressible 6 year old daughter Hazel.

Julian and Ella are Wanaka locals, both working full-time (Julian as a school teacher, Ella a town planner) but come and work the ski season in Japan over the school holidays with the same intention as me: to have a cheap holiday. Their daughter, Hazel, enrols in the local kindergarten, but she's a mean skier herself, being a Treble Cone grommet and winner of the 2019 TC mini-mountain for her age group. Both Julian and Ella were only working until January 6, so me arriving in early January filled the gap they would be creating.

Julian dropped me off at the staff house. I am working for a company called Winkel, which owns a bunch of guest houses and a campground at Asarigawaonsen, a hot spring resort town just out of Otaru city. They also run a private ski school, and have affiliations with the ski schools at Asari Ski Resort and Kiroro to provide English speaking instructors.

The staff house accommodates both Japanese and international staff, some working as instructors, others working at the Asari resort as lifties, ski patrol, rental shop, and even a French trained chef running a cafe and patisserie! There is a shared kitchen, mens and womens toilets and showers, a common area to hang out, and traditional tatami mat bedrooms, in which we sleep on futons. Most of us are sharing with others, I get to share with a lovely young Kiwi/Japanese girl named Ellie, who has just finished her secondary education and is awaiting her results to see if she can get into a premed course at Otago University.

Part of my job, for which I am paid a retainer of 30,000 Yen, is to shovel snow from around the houses and cars of the staff house, office and guesthouses. This is actually a pretty easy job, as there are many of us, and we only need to clear pathways from the doors to the road and cars, whilst other staff clear the bulk of the snow with tractors and large machinery. It was quite an eye opener to watch the daily snow clearing, starting with road crews at 4:30 in the morning, individuals hand shovelling small pathways, then tractors and snow blowers moving large volumes from carparks and footpaths. Without this daily effort, travel would be impossible.

We are well catered for, with excellent heating, good internet, access to cars to go shopping at the local supermarket or visit a nearby onsen, at which we can use discount vouchers, free laundry facilities, free linen, all for the bargain basement cost of 9,000 Yen per month. That's about $100! Should we use the car to go for a trip into town, or to Sapporo, or even further afield to go skiing at another resort on a day off, we are merely charged a fixed rate per kilometre, shared between the number of people in the car. Which makes group excursions crazily cheap!

Even if I get little work, my costs are already paid for out of my retainer, but not working isn't really an option! After dropping my stuff off at the staff house I head up to the office to meet my bosses, Fujii-san and Yonehana-san, and administrative colleagues. Part of Japanese culture is for visitors to give their hosts presents so I have brought omiyage, or gifts representing my country, for my bosses, their wives, their teenage children, and a box of cookies for the office staff. To source these presents I used an awesome website I Still Call Australia Home, which individually gift wrapped my purchases for me. The Koala and Kangaroo earbuds were an instant hit with Fujii-san's teenage daughters!

Fujii-san is my immediate boss. He runs the international ski school and is responsible for our bookings and training. He organised the paperwork for my visa, and he had my university degree waiting for me. I also met Yonehana-san, who owns the company, and although being the big boss he schleps around in casual clothing and can often be seen driving the bulldozer clearing snow. His wife is similarly low key, as are his two sons, one of whom lives in the staff house with us and works as a ski instructor. The administrative staff are all friendly, but speak little English, so communication is stilted. I resolved to make an effort to learn Japanese!

That evening I met the rest of the team. Alex, one of my Kiwi colleagues at Cardrona, and the one who offered me the job in the first place. Lyndsay, an English snowboard and ski instructor, Ellie, my roommate and another Kiwi. Michael, a French snowboarder and skier, who proves himself over the next few weeks to be a lazy, immature piece of shit who puts his musical aspirations ahead of his responsibilities to his employers and work colleagues. Our Japanese colleagues are Mana, snowboarder and skier, Aki, skier and Marxist with a wicked sense of humour, and Yuuki, skier and youngest son of Yonehana-san. Julian, Ella and Hazel live in a nearly flat.

Also in the house are Jifun, who works in the rental shop at Asari, and Shimada-san the chef. Over the time I am there we get a few more people come to stay, and some people leave. More on that later.

That's all for the first instalment, as this post is getting a bit long. In the next post I'll talk more about the skiing.

That's next...