Konnichiwa! It seems like a lifetime ago that I said a tearful goodbye to my parents at Heathrow, but it’s only been a week since I left the UK. Boy, what a week! The mix of jet lag, meeting hundreds of new people and travelling across Japan has made it seem like a month’s experiences rolled into one. Here is the concise version!
The 11 hour flight left me dazed and bedazzled by the bright sunshine we were greeted by in Tokyo. The humidity and high 30’s heat added to the utter confusion I felt on that day, not knowing the time, orientation or my room number. The JET Programme generously put up the 1000 or so JETs who were in a likewise state of mind, having taken similar flights from America, Ireland and South Africa, in a 5-star hotel in Shibuya, Central Tokyo. The Tokyo Orientation is meant to be a place to adjust to the time difference as well as the culture, but this proved extremely difficult as we had meetings from 9 till 5 for the first two days! My body decided that staying awake through these meetings was physically impossible, so I gave in and slept during the afternoons and went out during the evenings.
First night, we went to a yaki-tori restaurant (BBQ’d chicken skewers) and then wandered round the neon-lit streets of Shibuyu. Second evening, we met the other ALTs (Assistant Language Teachers) going to Fukui Prefecture and bonded over two hours of karaoke, loosened up by a good deal of beer drinking. Third night, we were welcomed by the British Embassy with English wine, coronation chicken sandwiches and fish-and-chips on sticks! We had a serious, turned not-so serious, talk about Japan’s harsh penalty system (drink driving or drugs= deportation/prison) and the way they like to make examples of foreigners. One Brit when intoxicated punched someone else’s blow up snowman and was made to leave the country for this act violence towards another person’s property! After the multiple warnings to not do anything stupid in this country, we were treated to a taiko drumming performance. The loud cicadas were humming in the trees and I was itching having felt something land on me. Next thing I know the Ambassdor’s wife was spraying me up and down with mosquito repellent! After I was thoroughly drenched in the stuff, we fell into conversation and I heard what it was like to live in an Embassy and have A-list guests dropping in every week. She told me that every night there was a reception like this and I felt a lot less special!
After getting a taste of British food, we met Sayuri, my Japanese student who I’d taught in Cambridge, and she took us to the coolest restaurant I’ve ever been too. It was Ninja themed, so all the waiting staff were dressed in black clothes and to get into the seating area we were led by a ninja waitress through a trap door and over a draw bridge to get to our dining cell underground. We ate many weird and wonderful foods that evening and were entertained by the best magician I’d ever seen. Seeing Sayuri and her husband Shio in her own country was great too, now I was the one sitting there like a lemon whilst she ordered the drinks!
The next day we left the comfort of the hotel and boarded a coach to take us to Fukui. When my geography teacher in Year 7 had told me that Japan was 2/3rds mountainous, I didn’t really believe her. How could such an economically strong country be so successful when there are just mountains? I believe her now. On the highways from Tokyo west to Fukui there were steep-sided, forested mountains and then flat, valleys with lush rice paddies or greenery growing. The humidity is obviously good for the environment! The mountains don‘t get in the way of the highways, tunnels let the roads go through them or the highways hug their lowest contours. The service-stations are also some of the most remarkable in the world. Like everywhere in Japan, they are clean with not a single wrapper on the floor. The toilets come with a remote control for heated seats, flushing sounds and a bidet squirter for ‘your posterior’! But the canteen is the most impressive. Not only are all the drinks in vending machines but you choose your meal from one as well. Once you’ve paid and got your ticket you hand it to the counter server who in minutes puts your meal together and calls out your number when it’s done. Amazing!
Once arrived in Fukui city we were welcomed by an annual lets-see-what-we-can-feed-the-new-ALTs dinner. Raw horsemeat, a bowl of sashimi (raw fish) and a salad with tiny fried fish (with eyes which look at you) was served on our table, all leaving me wanting my fish-and-chips-on sticks back! I knew I had to branch out at some point, so I squeamishly swallowed a raw prawn and felt it slip down my throat, half thinking it might come alive again on it’s way down! The company was far superior to the food and we met some of the 70-so Fukui JETs who have been here from 1 to 5 years. I was one of the 23 new JETs, who are mostly American, starting their time on the JET programme.
After another morning of orientation we were taken on a town-tour where we tried the best shuu cream puffs, set foot in our first 100-yen store (where you can literally but anything for about £1) and had our photographs taken in a purikura machine (where it lightens your skin, enlarges your eyes and generally makes you look more like an anime character than human)! We had a BBQ by the river in the evening and I met my predecessor James, a New Zealander who has stayed five years and is leaving Japan with a Japanese wife. I have moved in to his apartment and am taking over his position at Takefu Dai Ni Junior High School, so I have a lot to learn from him!
The final day of orientation was a welcome ceremony where we met our Japanese supervisors. These are generally someone from the English department at your school who takes care of settling you in so is half way between your boss and your mother! So when I’d registered at the city hall, got a bank account and seen my school, I finally got to see my apartment. It’s on the third floor of an apartment block, has a kitchen, living room, utilities room, bath and shower and toilet. My bedroom has tatami mats and everywhere has sliding doors. James and his wife left it in such a way that I don’t even need to buy a box of tissues! The two air-con units are keeping me cool as it gets pretty hot, but as Steve’s is on the ground floor I can just pop over if mine get’s too hot!
I wish I could describe all the sights and smells of Japan but it’d take all night! More to come soon.