Oct 25

JQ Magazine: JQ&A with Web Entrepreneur Vanessa Villalobos

"If you create businesses based on your own experience and enthusiasms, you’ll never tire of them. Be sure to network with JETAA to stay in touch with people who are interested in Japan." (Courtesy of Vanessa Villalobos)

“If you create businesses based on your own experience and enthusiasms, you’ll never tire of them. Be sure to network with JETAA to stay in touch with people who are interested in Japan.” (Courtesy of Vanessa Villalobos)


By Rafael Villadiego (Nagasaki-ken, 2010-13) for JQ magazine. A member of JETAA New South Wales, Rafael is a collector of words on a journey still searching for a destination, who has a tendency to forget, we are all sometimes like the rain…

Like many JET alums, Vanessa Villalobos (Tochigi-ken, 2000-03) thoroughly enjoyed her time in Japan and was seeking a practical means to maintain that connection upon returning home. Seeking to recapture her experiences on the JET Program and maintain her Japanese language skills after returning to the United Kingdom, she founded the travel/lifestyle/culture site JapaneseLondon.com and the language exchange hub, IsshoniLondon.co.uk.

As an independent businesswoman and entrepreneur, she offers some advice to JQ readers seeking to pursue their own ventures and shares some insight into the trials and tribulations of language exchange. She also offers insider tips to discovering the hidden Japan in London along with the colorful contrasts between the two island nations, her thoughts on the recent vote for Scottish independence, and her take on the UK version of nattō.

How long did you spend on the JET Program and in which prefecture were you placed?

I was a “one-shot” ALT in Tochigi-shi for three years. Tochigi-ken is north of Tokyo and is famed for Nikko, strawberries and gyoza.

How did your time on JET influence the overall design and purpose of the websites?

Japan was endlessly fascinating to me, and I loved teaching Japanese learners of English. Thus, I chose to focus my business endeavors on connections between Japan and England.

IsshoniLondon.co.uk connects private tutors of English to Japanese learners of English. Most of the tutors are ex-JETs. In my intro video on the site, I explain how the kindness of friends and teachers in Japan allowed us teachers to develop an understanding and fondness for Japanese language and culture, and how we hope Japanese people will develop the same fondness of the UK. I am always looking for top-quality tutors, so please do get in touch if you’d like to work as a freelance tutor.

JapaneseLondon.com does what it says on the can! It’s a labour of love and is all about discovering Japanese things in London. It promotes and profiles the individuals, events and businesses that together make up “JapaneseLondon”! There is an events calendar, and I’ve just added a job board. Please do sign up to the newsletter on the site! JapaneseLondon.com can also connect you to a tutor of Japanese here in London!

Do you have any advice for JETs looking to setup similar initiatives in their hometowns?

Just get stuck in—and don’t give up. If you create businesses based on your own experience and enthusiasms, you’ll never tire of them. Staying power is important as it is sooo hard to build your own business from scratch. But it is deeply satisfying at the same time!  Be sure to network with JETAA to stay in touch with people who are interested in Japan.

How do you go about pairing tutors with learners? Do you find Japanese learners find British English more difficult to understand than American or Australian English? 

I match tutors according to the learners’ interests and needs. Our students range from toddlers at nursery school and their stay-at-home mums, to school pupils of all ages, to businessmen, to university students, to creative professionals of all kinds, i.e., football coaches and artists.

I think that British English can pose some challenges, especially with spelling and vocabulary, as Japanese people learn American English at school.

Japan has regional dialects, or hōgen, that differ quite dramatically between prefectures, and I have heard the same is true of the United Kingdom. Can you take us through some of the main variations, and would you consider London most representative of contemporary British English?

Absolutely, the UK has a very diverse range of accents, some of the most famous being from the East End of London (“Cockney”), Birmingham (“Brummie”), or Liverpool (“Scouse”). The vast majority of Japanese expats in the UK live in London, as and such, desire to learn a standard Southern British accent—essentially RP (“received pronunciation,” also known as BBC English).

What are some of the hidden Japan-related gems you have stumbled across in London? Any particular highlights you would recommend?

The BFI London Film Festival on 8-19 October 2014 features some great Japanese films. For a spot of tranquillity, I adore Holland Park’s Kyoto Garden. Or, if you fancy something a bit less calming, try the slightly terrifying earthquake simulator in the Natural History Museum—it is set in a mock-up Japanese supermarket.

What would be your local, insider’s recommendation for something that is a little off the beaten track and that you are unlikely to find in any guidebook?

North End Road Market in Fulham is brilliant for traditional market banter and cheap fruit and veg. We often combine this with a visit to the Columbian Mambo Cafe for a bandeja paisa (heaped plate with pork crackling, steak, sausage, beans, rice, salad, fried bananas and arepa bread!) on the Fulham Road.

Are there any uniquely British sayings, phrases or idioms that are particularly difficult to grasp or easily lost in translation?

I found myself trying to explain “What are you like?” to a Japanese businessman the other day.

Eating out and sharing meals seems to be a big part of the cultural exchange and international dialogue you promote.

Indeed. There are hundreds of Japanese restaurants in London. Until several years ago, there were no ramen restaurants, oddly. Then suddenly, a veritable ramen explosion happened and now there are too many to choose from. My absolute favourite Japanese restaurant in London is called Chotto Matte and features exquisite Nikkei cuisine— a memorable Japan/Peru fusion. Peru’s national dish is ceviche—raw fish marinated in lemon, which pairs perfectly with Japanese food.

Japan is known the world over for its cuisine. So are continental European nations such as France and Italy. What would be the perfect traditional British fare that best represents the United Kingdom?

Hmm, yes, Britain lags behind and tends to embrace world cuisines, rather than developing their own.  However, the wonderful Jamie Oliver has championed quintessentially British food and you can access many of his recipes—from spotted dick to shepherd’s pie—on his website here.

What would you consider the “nattō of the UK”? The food that everyone must try at least once and will either love or hate…

Well, I suppose that has to be Marmite.

Lastly, on an alternative note. The vote for Scottish independence has sparked quite a debate in the United Kingdom. On which side of the conversation do you sit? Do you have any personal opinions to share regarding this matter?

It’s interesting how the two tiny island nations of Japan and England developed in such different ways. Japan, of course, closed its borders, whilst England has sought relentlessly to expand borders and appropriate land. This is just the latest installment in the ongoing border drama constantly playing out around the world, and I am sat firmly on the fence. Something I learned in Japan is that two opposite things can often both be equally true…

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