Yochien is often translated to English as preschool or kindergarten but unless you live in Japan it is probably different than what you are thinking of as preschool.
For one thing they are usually private - and not cheap. We easily pay about $400 a month by the time you add tuition to the fee for heating, buss, lunch (only some days), field trips, uniform parts and other expenses. Of course the price is possibly a little high because we live in Tokyo but all the places around us charge about the same so we didn't really have a choice.
Here yochien is usually 5 or 6 days a week, from around 9 AM to 2 PM. Children enter often at 3 years old. We waited a year so Zilla is starting at 4 yrs. old. There are 7 new 4 yr olds at his school this year... and 65 3 yr olds.
The other details vary greatly from school to school.
When searching for the best option we were shocked by some of the things we came across. Some places believe in no formal learning - simply play all day, every day. The kids play inside for a while, then go out to play, eat lunch and play some more. Others are very academic and have workbooks the kids work from every day. We went for a middle ground school which encourages play about also has directed learning as well as school pets and some gardening/farming for the kids to do.
The majority of yochiens require a lot of involvement from the child's mother. PTA involvement (they call it volunteering but there is nothing volunteer about it...) is required. We are told to come at certian days and certian times - sometimes without much advanced notice. The week, for example, there is a field trip which we found out about 2 weeks ago. It is on a day that I normally work (but happened to have off) so I could have had to cancel a day of work to go. Also, sometimes younger siblings are not allowed to go along - another issue in a country that has few babysitters
Another thing that came up (more for my friends than for me) was the attitude towards kids learning more than one language at a time. Some places say very clearly that the kids should not be taking English class (or any other language beyond Japanese) as it is bad for their brains, delay their development and possible lead to mental problems. I've also heard of places which forbid families to have birthday parties, dictate bedtimes and household routines. It became obvious very quickly that you need to choose carefully or have a very laid back "I'll do whatever you say" attitude.
Most places have a uniform of some kind. Sometimes it is just a smock to go over regular clothes. Around us most places have full uniforms in winter, summer and exercise versions that you have to buy. Talk about a big chunk of money!!! Since the kids wear the uniform all day, every day, it is rather tricky to own just one set because we hang dry all our clothes after washing them. So far we are managing but Zilla is a rather clean kid. The other trick is trying to figure out sizes. We had to place the order for the uniform months before the school year and the general idea is that the uniform would last the 2-3 years of enrollment. Can you estimate how much my kids will grow in two years? I sure can't! It is hard to buy "big" but not so big that the clothes become a hazard... and Zilla is at the taller end of things so even if he is in the largest size they sell the uniform might not fit at the end of next school year anyway. Oh, and the "winter" uniform is shorts for boys. The little kids freeze!
Another thing we had to prepare was a number of bags and "equipments" (school supplies). At other schools the bags often need to be hand made to specific requirements. Our place says you can buy then and their guidelines are essentially "Big enough to hold ___". That made things a lot easier as my mom was able to help make the required bags. Many of the school supplies needed to be bought from the school, brought home, labeled, and returned. The "extras" like a toothbrush & cup, bento set (lunch box), towel for drying hands etc. etc. could be bought anywhere but the general guidelines and need to label them all was still in place.
Here you see: yellow bag for taking things to/from school, smock, cup w/bag, color hat (each class has an assigned color), bento set w/bag, water bottle, indoor shoes w/bag, towel, toothbrush & tooth paste w/bag, pocket kleenex and hankie and on the chair is the winter uniform and backpack. There are also things such as a seat cushion, change of clothes, pianica, etc. which stay at the school most of the time and will come home once a month or so.
If you are going to be making Japanese-style bags here is a homepage that has some great examples:
cup, fork bags http://www.hoppelfin.com/howto/enbag06.html
bento bag http://www.hoppelfin.com/howto/enbag05.html
Can you see why I have trouble keeping track of it all? I am thinking about making a write on/wipe off checklist to help keep track of things on a day-to-day basis. If I do that I'll post it here for other yochien moms to download and use too.
I'm sure I'll have more to share in the coming weeks/years. I hope that the things we learn along the way will benefit other parents with kids going into yochien!