Commuting by bicycle

When I lived in London, for two years I commuted to work by bicycle, but the distance was probably no more than about a kilometre and it took less than ten minutes one way. The bicycle that I used at the time was, I believe, a 12-speed cross bike on which only one of the gears actually functioned. This was partly because I was not serious about cycling, so didn’t want to spend money on something more sophisticated, and partly because in London, your bike is likely to be stolen.

When I came to Japan and moved away from Tokyo with the Mariposa – about which I have written at great length in my forthcoming book Charinko – I tried to cycle to the various schools where I worked at least three or four times a week, and this proved to be good training for when I embarked on the tour about which the book is written.

Fast forward to 2011, when Mrs M and myself returned to Japan after a few years in the UK, and I was even more serious about cycling. For the next three or four years I cycled to and from work at distances of up to 11 or 12 kilometres almost every working day of the year. At the time we only had one car and particularly once M Jr was born, Mrs M used it to take her to nursery and go shopping. So I would cycle to work no matter what the weather was like. In the snow I slipped and fell – not seriously and not surprisingly.

On another occasion, a typhoon was approaching Ibaraki and I cycled home from work not quite in the eye of the storm, but in very heavy rain and very strong winds.

In those days I didn’t care that much about how clean I kept my bicycle or how well the gears worked. I merely applied more oil to the chain and sprockets once every few months, and when they stopped working properly, I left the bike with a scrap merchant. In around 2015 I was fortunate enough to acquire another one from Mrs M’s older brother and that was when I began using a trip computer.

I have to admit that I took the whole business of how much time it took me to get to a particular school far too seriously. But it gave me something to concentrate on other than looking at the scenery and thinking about what I may have to do that day, and over the years I improved my fastest times to those schools little by little, so that on a good day with a following wind, I was covering nine or ten kilometres in about 20 minutes.

One of the closest schools to where I live usually took 12 or 13 minutes to reach. One morning I woke up, looked at the weather forecast, looked outside, and realised that today might be the day when I could break the ten-minute barrier. So I got on my bike, cycled away as fast as I could, and about a quarter of the way there, for the first and only time in my entire life, one of the saddlebags got caught in the spokes on the rear wheel. I never did break the ten-minute barrier for that particular school, much to my chagrin.

Over the years I found more obscure routes, mainly to avoid traffic lights, but also to avoid traffic and to find more attractive scenery. So I rarely came across other vehicles, people, or cyclists. I did occasionally get angry if a car passed by a little too close to me when it overtook or came towards me from the opposite direction. On one particular occasion I turned round, chased after the offending motorist, and told him in no uncertain terms that he should give fellow road users more than about a centimetre of space. Perversely, I enjoyed cycling in the pouring rain or in the hot and humid summer months. The only real hardships were when there was a headwind or when I had trouble with the bike. Having said that, even cycling 15 or 20 kilometres, four or five times a week for several years, I had an average of about one puncture per year.

In the final one or two years of working as an ALT, I kept myself company by putting my smartphone in my handlebar bag and listening to podcasts, NHK news, and so on. It’s now been just over six months since I quit that job and apart from human interaction – which is something that I’m sorely lacking now that I work from home – the only other thing that I really miss is the commute. In fact, you could almost say that I became one of those people who enjoys their commute more than the work itself. And while I did drive more often in recent years to avoid getting soaking wet or freezing cold, I still looked forward to my morning and afternoon rides more than I looked forward to my daytime teaching responsibilities.

At some point in the future, I may decide to rent or borrow some kind of office space from which to conduct my translating work and when that happens, no doubt I will cycle there and back. But for the moment, on some days the only exercise that I get is standing up to use my computer rather than sitting down – as a distinctly middle-aged member of society, I have to take more care than I used to about things like my lower back.

My ALT Motto

I recently came up with a motto for ALT-ing that is — if I do say so myself — so good that I have to share it with you:

If you’re getting paid to do nothing, do something.

Anyone reading this who is already working as an ALT will know exactly what I mean, but in case you aren’t or you don’t, allow me to explain.

As it happens, I have just been talking to one of my English teaching colleagues about how there is a shortage of English teachers in Ibaraki — compared to P.E. teachers, for instance — and how he wanted to become the latter but ended up as the former. This reminded me of my career in the media: when I entered film school, my dream was to become the new Woody Allen or the new Martin Scorcese; when I finished film school, through a combined lack of confidence, excess of fear, and sufficiency of pragmatism, I had set this dream aside and settled for becoming a sound recordist instead.

Being an ALT in Japan is similar, in that it is an easy job both to get and to do, and the other, more attractive options — manga artist, sumo wrestler, that kind of thing — seem daunting or over-ambitious. Particularly when you have just arrived in Japan and can hardly speak a word of the language, you are not going to walk straight into a job as a manga artist or a sumo wrestler, and if nothing else, being an ALT is less like being employed to work than being given time to study. But there is a law of diminishing returns, meaning that the longer you stay in the job, the less satisfying it becomes, and the more active you should be in seeking an alternative.

I could and should have quit my own ALT position about five years ago, when I was being bombarded with translating and proofreading work (including a very attractive offer from an American publishing company, not to write but to translate manga). For various reasons, though — my children were still young and I had just begun to suffer from insomnia — I did not. One of the things I learned from that experience was that even if I had to wait few more years to go freelance, I must not waste any of the time that being an ALT gave me.

Famously, Noel Gallagher wrote the first Oasis LP while he was working in a warehouse. For the past few years, I have not been writing songs, but I have been “doing” a Noel. Here is a list of the kind of things that I get up to while being paid to be an ALT by the local board of education:

  • Writing this blog
  • Writing other stuff (specifically, my chapters in the Inaka anthology and my forthcoming travel book, provisionally titled Gaijin on a Charinko: 2,500 Kilometres Across Japan by Bicycle.)
  • Translating and proofreading
  • Creating lesson plans and materials for two evening classes that I teach at the local community centre
  • Creating other materials for one-off assignments (for example, PowerPoint presentations about British culture)
  • Managing my finances (both in English for the U.K. and for the first time this year, my online tax return for Japan)
  • Studying Japanese (this no longer comes in the form of formal classes and homework, but reading news sites, blogs, Wikipedia Japan, etc., and looking up the words, kanji, phrases, and grammar that I do not know or am unsure of)
  • Speaking Japanese (with varying degrees of success: some of my colleagues are keen to chat and easy to understand, while others ignore me completely or speak in such a broad Ibaraki accent that coherent conversation is impossible)
  • Listening to Japanese (a work environment is the perfect place to overhear, make a note of, and then try keigo — polite Japanese — for yourself: how to greet people at various times of the day and in various contexts, what to say when you answer the phone, how to introduce yourself on your first day, etc.)
  • Buying cars (actually this does not happen often, but in the past year both of our cars passed, as it were, their sell-by-date. The experience of finding their second-hand replacements on and was an education in itself)
  • Buying other stuff (food and books from the U.K., for example, but also shopping online in Japan. A couple of weeks ago, I ordered a pine tree sapling for our back garden, having realised that it is practically impossible to find one in real-life hardware stores and garden centres)
  • Bicycle maintenance (I do not have enough time to do this at home, so keep my bike stand, chain oil, foaming degreaser, and so on in the staff locker room)
  • Stretching (I already use a standing desk — which in the staff room consists of putting my laptop on an upturned plastic toy box — but even with this, if I spend a lot of time typing, I need to move my ageing joints and limbs so that I do not get a recurrence of the nearly slipped disc from which I suffered a few years ago)
  • Press-ups (when I pulled a hamstring last year, I had to rest my legs for a few months and concentrate on upper-body exercises. At one point I managed 1000 press-ups in a single day — at home before and after work, but also whenever I had a spare few minutes to pop into the locker room, or into a vacant classroom or meeting room. As I discovered, press-ups are good for your arm muscles but bad for your shoulders, so I am now back down to fewer than fifty a day)
  • Holding my breath (this is a bit of a weird one, but last year, before doing my stretches I began experimenting with how long I could manage. For what it’s worth, my personal best is 2 minutes 15 seconds)
  • Listening to podcasts (I am not keen on wearing headphones at work, so did this for a few months at a particularly quiet school, while I was stretching and in a vacant classroom with no one nearby to overhear. My favourites are a combination of Japanese podcasts that help with my listening ability and English ones that help me feel a little closer to home)
  • Editing photos and videos and posting them online (mostly of our children so that friends and relatives in the U.K. can see how they are growing up)
  • Designing and writing Christmas/New Year cards (not to mention addressing the envelopes — also for friends and relatives in the U.K.)
  • Email/social media

Elementary school ALTs are likely to take sole responsibility for teaching English and to be busy from the moment they enter a classroom to the moment they leave, but in junior high school, I find there is also a lot of downtime during the classes themselves. So, when one of my teaching colleagues asks me to, “Check please!” (i.e. assess the students’ written work), instead of wasting valuable staff room time, I do so when he or she is analysing a grammar point — in Japanese and in great detail — or when the students are doing something that does not require me to interact with them.

In particular, I monopolise the homeroom teacher’s desk during lessons and use my time for:

  • Those rare occasions (in my experience, anyway) when I have been asked to make a worksheet or flashcards, or to come up with an activity to be used in class
  • Planning and making materials for my evening classes (see above)
  • Listening to the students talk to each other, making a note of, and then trying kōgo — colloquial Japanese
  • Looking up Japanese words, either in a paper or electronic dictionary (I have never taken my iPhone to an English class except by accident, although I know of both ALTs and JTEs who do)
  • Drafting emails, speeches, etc.
  • Collating the following week’s schedule
  • Studying English (or at least, making a note of grammar and vocabulary points about which I am liable to be asked for an opinion. For example, I now have a long list of the two flavours of adjective — excited/exciting, surprised/surprising, scared/scary, etc. — that, because the same distinction does not exist in their native language, consistently wrong foot both Japanese students and teachers)
  • Compiling to-do lists
  • Holding my breath (well, why not? My record while standing at the back of the classroom and listening to my JTE is about two minutes)

These kinds of things are rarely taxing, so can be accomplished while keeping half an ear on whether you are needed to read something from the textbook or to answer a question from the JTE (“What’s a famous food in the U.K.?” or similar). Also, it goes without saying that even on busy days, I use the ten minutes between each lesson to do a quick burst of translating/emailing etc., or between third and fourth periods to brew a pot of tea in time for lunch.

There is probably plenty more that I could be getting on with, and if you are working as an ALT and twiddling your thumbs between — or staring out of the window during — lessons, I would urge you to get on with something, too. This is not a boast, either, and a lot of things in the above lists are ones that I am not good at or am doing with no particular ambition to improve. What you need to remember is that ALT-ing gives you opportunities: opportunities to learn the Japanese language and learn about Japanese culture, to teach children the English language and teach them about foreign culture, and to do something constructive with your free time. I do not have a lunch break as such — in pre-COVID times I would eat lunch with the students, whereas now I eat in the staff room or the kitchen/dining room — but I remember James at ALT Insider mentioning that an acquaintance of his did, and left the school at lunchtime to take kickboxing classes. Also, don’t get me wrong, as I spend plenty of time reading cricket reports, watching football videos, surfing Facebook, and frittering away my time in similarly mindless ways. After all, everyone has to relax once in a while and particularly towards the end of the day, my motivation to work and desire to go home decline and increase in direct opposition to each other.

Anyway, let’s just repeat that motto to help it sink in:

If you’re getting paid to do nothing, do something.

A cautionary tale: in a nearby town, one or two of the ALTs started complaining about the fact that they had nothing to do and were still required to hang around until the end of their working day. The result? The BOE shortened their work hours, but reduced their wages at the same time. Like I say, getting paid to do nothing (out of your own and other people’s tax yen, let’s not forget) may be a bore, but like working in a foreign country, it is a privilege, so do not waste it.

This October I am finally going to quit my nice, cushy, direct-hire ALT job and go freelance. No one is going to pay me to twiddle my thumbs any more and it will be up to me to ensure that I am earning money for as much of the time that allows me as possible. This may mean that blog posts here at Muzuhashi become even fewer and further between than they already are. It may even mean that after a couple of years, I fail at my mission and go scurrying back to a dispatch company to beg for a poorly paid ALT position so that my family does not starve. But seriously, think about how you are living your life and using your time in Japan, and try to make the most of it.

So you want to be a direct-hire ALT?

This was originally written as a guest post for my good friend James at ALT Insider and is re-posted here with his permission.

As James has so eloquently described on ALT Insider before, there are basically three types of ALT:


2) Dispatch company ALTs

3) Direct hire ALTs.

1) Getting a place on the JET program requires that you complete eight book-length essays, twelve interviews, and twenty-five workshops over the course of three years, before being made to swim across an alligator-infested swamp in the pitch dark, stark naked and with only a toothpick to defend yourself (at least that’s what I’ve been led to believe, anyway). Once you’re in, however, the pay and conditions are great.

2) The only pre-requisites for getting a job as a hakengaisha (派遣会社 / dispatch company) ALT are:

a) Being able to speak English

b) Having a passport

c) Having a pulse

In actual fact, two of the three will usually suffice and once you’re in, the pay and conditions are, well, so-so.

3) In theory, at least, getting a job as a ALT who’s hired direct by a kyōikui’inkai (教育委員会 / board of education, aka. BOE) gives you all the benefits of JET (i.e. no alligator-infested swamps and / or a really sharp toothpick) with none of the drawbacks of a dispatch company (i.e. enough cash to buy as many anime figurines as you can lay your hands on).

So how exactly does one go about becoming a direct hire ALT? Well, the short answer is: marry a Japanese person. OK, so I’m half joking, but marrying a Japanese person definitely helps. If you can’t fool one of the natives into believing you’d make a great life partner, though, second on the list would be: use Facebook. You think I’m joking again, right? Not at all. I’m currently on my second direct hire job, and I got both of them through Facebook.

By way of explanation, allow me to give you a quick rundown of my (ahem) illustrious career in Japan so far:

My first job was with a certain eikaiwa (英会話 / English conversation) school in Tokyo, who sponsored my visa, found my accommodation, opened my bank account, and so on, but treated me like a cross between a galley slave, a Guantanamo Bay terror suspect, and a piece of gum stuck to the bottom of their shoe. So I quit them, quit Tokyo, and got a job as a dispatch company ALT instead.

The money was laughable (180,000 yen a month, to be precise), but the hours were short (8.30am to 2.30pm, weekdays only) and the holidays were long — so long, in fact, that I disappeared for a full six weeks during the summer to (shameless plug for own website alert!) tour Japan by bicycle. After a year or so I had to go back to the UK, but by the time I did, I had become Facebook friends with a whole bunch of my colleagues and acquaintances, both Japanese and foreign. When the time was right to have another crack at living in Japan, I put the word out and bingo, a Japanese English teacher I hadn’t even met face-to-face for about five years sent me a message:

‘Hi Muzuhashi,’ it went. ‘I heard you’re moving back to Japan. Do you want to come and work with me in ○○○ junior high school? We need an ALT because the last one went back to China.’ (Or words to that effect, anyway. Obviously she didn’t call me Muzuhashi because that’s not my real name. My real name is Baron Von William ‘Bill’ Buzz Lightyear III of the House of Usher.)

Towards the end of that first year as a direct-hire ALT, out of the blue I got a Facebook email from another colleague from my dispatch company days. This time it was an ALT and while I hadn’t seen him for about five years, either, the mail went something like this: ‘Hi Muzuhashi. I heard you’re back in Japan. Do you want my job with ○○○ BOE? They need an ALT because I’m moving back to Australia.’

Because the money was better than what I was already getting, I accepted his offer and eight years later I’m still here. Not only that, but the more time I spend in Japan, the more direct-hire ALT jobs I come across. Recently, for example, I got an email from a Japanese acquaintance (not on Facebook this time, just someone I work with now and again and have exchanged contact details with) about a job vacancy that was soon to open up at a state-run juken (受験 / entry-by-exam) junior high school. My application crashed and burned, but had I succeeded, I would now be working semi-part-time for a cool 4 million yen a year, in a school where – shock, horror! – some of the kids can actually speak English beyond the standard level of, ‘Almost Japanese like to shopping and buy grape. It is very enjoy.’

As well as the aforementioned positions, off the top of my head I can think of three more BOEs within a 30-minute drive of where I live that hire at least some of their ALTs direct, and that’s just for positions at elementary and junior high schools — that number is almost certainly greater if you include high schools.

So if you’re looking for a direct hire job, it’s best to go by the old adage, ‘It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.’ In other words, make friends with as many people as you can, and keep in touch with as many of them as you can. (Obviously it goes without saying that the longer you’re in Japan, the greater the likelihood that one of those contacts will pay dividends.)

But once you’ve been told by one of your network of contacts that a direct hire job is up for grabs, what do you need to do to impress the BOE in question that you’re the right person to hire? If you’ve been personally recommended to the BOE by someone who already works there, then quite possibly nothing at all, but if you think you might be up against some competition, what most BOEs are looking for is someone who is low maintenance. Ideally, this means you:

1) Have a visa

2) Can speak Japanese

3) Have experience of working as an ALT

1) Having a visa — be it a haigūsha (配偶者 / spouse) visa, a work visa from a previous job that’s valid for at least another year, or eijūken (永住権 / permanent residency) — makes you low maintenance because it saves the BOE both time and effort. One key fact I omitted from the story above is that in the years between my two stints in Japan, I married my Japanese girlfriend and got a spouse visa, thereby making me low maintenance. While the accepted wisdom is that BOEs won’t sponsor foreigners for work visas because it’s too much hassle, however, the reality is that sometimes they do.

2) Being able to speak Japanese makes you low maintenance because you can handle the day-to-day stuff that goes on at a typical Japanese school without someone from a dispatch company having to intervene on your behalf — for example, those times when the vice-principal or the school secretary comes over to you and says, ‘Tomorrow is a national holiday so you don’t have to come to work,’ or, ‘Tomorrow is the culture festival so you have to come to work even though it’s Saturday,’ or, ‘Is it true that every man, woman, child, and sheep in New Zealand carries a high-calibre automatic rifle with them at all times?’

Being able to read Japanese, incidentally, is less important, so long as you have a wife / husband / roommate / drinking buddy who can help decipher your tax documents, school lunch payment invoices, and so on.

3) Having experience as an ALT makes you low maintenance because when your new English teaching colleague turns to you ten minutes before the end of your first lesson together and says completely without warning, ‘So, do you have a game we can do now?’ you won’t reply by saying, ‘Game? You what? Er, yes. I mean, no. I mean…Oh, is that the time? I’m sorry. I have to go back to the staff room for my insulin injection or I might lose consciousness.’ Instead, thanks to ALT Insider, you’ll say, ‘Of course. Leave it to me. OK kids, it’s time to play ○○○!’

‘So, Muzuhashi,’ I can hear you ask. ‘Once I’ve landed a direct hire job, what’s in it for me?’ Well, in descending order of importance:

1) More money

2) More money

3) More money

Sorry, joking again, although the main advantage is of course:

1) More money

Because there’s no middleman (i.e. dispatch company) creaming off a third or more of what the BOE pays for its ALTs, that means more real cash in your pocket and more virtual yen in your bank account. Practically speaking, you should get somewhere in the region of 300,000 yen a month, although it might be more (as in the case of the aforementioned juken school job) and it might be less. A case in point was my first direct-hire job, which paid 250,000 yen a month, and hardly any money at all during August (about 60,000 – enough to cover health insurance, pension payments and so on), which made me not a lot better off than my friends who were working for Interac in the next town.

2) Less hassle

Almost as important as money is the fact that as a direct hire ALT, you’ll get a lot less interference from the Powers That Be than if you were with a dispatch company, and possibly even than if you were a JET. Like I said, the BOE is looking for someone low maintenance, which means that so long as they don’t get a call from your vice-principal saying you’ve dyed your hair day-glo pink, got a tongue piercing, and had the words ‘Thug Life’ tattooed in gothic script on your forehead, they’ll basically just let you get on with doing whatever you’re doing. This in turn gives you the chance to develop a better relationship with your colleagues, to the point where they won’t mind — and more importantly, won’t call the BOE — if you turn up late or go home early.

(Having said that, some BOEs and the vice-principals at their schools can be just as nitpicking as a dispatch company, and a friend of mine who’s a direct-hire ALT has to deduct time from his allocation of paid holiday if he leaves even an hour earlier than the scheduled time.)

3) Added extras

Another perk of the job is that you may get some on-the-side work passed on to you by your predecessor. For example, when my friend went back to Australia, he didn’t just recommend me to the BOE for his ALT job, he also allowed me first dibs on his conversation classes at the local community center, one of which pays 10,000 yen — tax-free, cash-in-hand — for just an hour and a half of ‘English teaching’ (i.e. chatting to some local OAPs) every fortnight.

Last but not least, let’s have a look at the downsides of being direct hire:

1) Fewer holidays

Probably the biggest downside to being direct hire ALT is the fact that your paid and/or unpaid holiday entitlement will be shorter than that of a typical dispatch company ALT, and you may even be obliged to ‘work’ at the BOE during spring, summer, and winter vacations, which I can assure you from personal experience is mind-bogglingly tedious.

The first time I did this, I was stuck in a stuffy town hall office with a bunch of desk jockeys from 8.30am to 5.15pm every weekday for about five weeks with absolutely nothing to do whatsoever. I didn’t have internet access — in fact, I didn’t even have a computer — and to top it all off, the chair they had found for me was so low that I had to sit on a ream of printer paper just to stop my chin from hitting the desk. Being direct hire, though, I started working on my relationship with my teaching colleagues and nowadays I ‘work’ at school during vacations instead, meaning I can turn up late, leave early, and wear shorts and a t-shirt while I’m there.

2) Instability

While your responsibilities will probably differ very little from those of a dispatch company ALT, by the same token, your job security will also be no better, in the sense that as a keiyakuin (契約員 / contract employee), you will only ever be on a one-year contract, meaning the BOE could fail to renew that contract come the end of the school year. So if your school merges with another school due to a lack of students (because of the low birth rate in Japan this is a common occurrence these days, particularly in the countryside), or if your BOE is charmed and / or bribed into thinking they should hand over their ALT contract to a dispatch company, you could be joining the queue at your local branch of Hello Work, or at least renewing your subscription to Ohayo Sensei.

So there you have it, everything you ever wanted to know about being a direct hire ALT but were afraid to ask. I say, ‘everything’, but of course this is a highly personal viewpoint based on my own fairly limited experiences in Japan, so if you have any useful information to add and / or think that I’m talking complete and utter rubbish, please leave a comment


Since I wrote this post, new rules have been introduced — or rather, old rules have begun to be enforced — covering contract workers such as ALTs. The effect of this depends on where you are and how you are employed. For example, as a direct-hire ALT, from this academic year (April 2020-March 2021) I will get bonuses, more paid holiday, and other improvements to my working conditions. For others, though, either nothing has changed or in some cases, boards of education are downgrading their ALTs to part-time, moving from direct-hire to dispatch companies, and instigating other money-saving strategies.

A few more things that I neglected to mention in the original post:

If there is not already one in place, try to organise a regular meeting with the other direct-hire ALTs in your area, as this is a good way of letting off steam and allowing you to feel that while you may be isolated at your school, there are others nearby experiencing the same things as you.

Very occasionally, JET ALTs quit part-way through their contract and the JET organisation has no one to replace them. If you keep your ears open and happen to be in the right place (i.e. Japan) at the right time, you may, therefore, be able to bypass the JET application process — not direct hire, but the pay and conditions are pretty much the same.

Finally — and while this is not something I would recommend — if you love working in Japanese schools and your language skills are good enough, it is possible for a foreigner to obtain a licence as a fully fledged high school English teacher. The application process includes writing an essay and sitting an interview in Japanese, although the real crunch is that once you are qualified, your work hours are likely to be as long as those of your Japanese colleagues. Like I say, this is for those who want full cultural immersion and do not mind giving up their weekends (evenings, early mornings, holidays, souls…) for the sake of their students.