Time never stands still

There has been a long lapse in my writing, and can only honestly say it is down to laziness. I never wanted my blog to be a chore, and so like all creative hobbies, I only write when I’m motivated to. Yet to those of you who have missed my blog posts, I apologize to you! When I arrived in Japan last year, I enthusiastically wanted to share all my experiences of living in Japan with my family, friends and other blog readers. This year, it is not that these experiences are not as exciting or my life not as eventful, it is more that I have realized that my time in Japan is a short one, and so I am living it more than reflecting on it.

It was at an Obon Dancing festival in Takefu, that I realised my time in Japan is limited. Because I organised it for ALTs to join, I decided I wasn’t going to dress up in a yukata (a traditional summer kimono), but when a friend said, “But Sophie, this will be your last year”. It suddenly hit me. If I keep to my plan, this would be my last chance to take part in this festival. So I quickly got changed into a yukata and danced traditional routines around my local town. Even though we had to dance the same four dance routines for two long hours, I didn’t regret this decision. Since then, I have felt the pressure of time constantly counting down the months until my life in Japan will be over. If I stick to my two-year plan, I only have nine months left!

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Bucket lists

It makes me wonder what it must be like to have a time-limit put on your life. I always find it interesting what terminal-ill patients choose to do. Some people choose to do clichéd ‘once in a lifetime experiences’ like swim with dolphins, see the Aorerea Borealis or go skydiving, a little like cancer-patient Helen Fawkes ‘List for living’. Whilst the majority of people just want to spend time with their loved ones. Anyway, thinking about death can be a bit morbid, but it can also keep things in perspective. I was inspired by Roz Savage a 30-something consultant in London, who one day sat down and wrote the obituary she would most like to have written about her if she died. She realised if she continued on the life path she was on, making a lot of money but on the rat-run of working in London, she would not be the person she wanted to be. So, she quit her job, took up rowing as a serious hobby and rowed single-handedly across not just one ocean, but three. I have no plans to row across any oceans, but I do think about what my priorities are in life, and making money in an office job is not near the top.

If you were told you were going to die soon, what would you do? Walter White’s lasts words to Skyler were, “I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. And I was really . . . I was alive.” Making meth and becoming a super drug-dealer king, probably isn’t on most people’s lists, but Walter’s words, taken out of context, can be thought of as words of wisdom. At least he found something where he felt ‘alive’. Ok, I can’t promote Walter White as a moral person to follow, as Breaking Bad followers know, his morals became distorted to the point of no return. But it was the trigger of being told he only had a few years left that prompted him to do something with his life.

Witnessing others go through life-changing events can really make you think about your own life. Two of my father’s close friends ended up in hospital last year, one from finding out he had a serious form of cancer, the other had a heart problem. It was this realisation that people his age were getting ill which prompted my dad to take early retirement. So for the last three months he has enjoyed going cycling, sailing or walking with his friends, or looking after his elderly parents and his friends who are still sick. And he has every right to enjoy his hard-earned freedom after 33 years as a secondary school teacher. Like the kids write at school, “I’m proud of my father”, because he is living life now, as who knows what might happen in the future.

Being interested in becoming a speech therapist has led me to some interesting books about people recovering from strokes, and regaining their speech, movement and importantly their sense of self. The book “My Year Off” is by British publisher called Robert Crum, and is his account of the year after he had a stroke, he speaks of how it affected him,

 ‘It is, perhaps, not possible to overestimate the significance of a serious stroke in the life of an average person. It is an event that goes to the core of who and what you are, the You-ness of you. First of all, the event happens in your brain which is, without becoming unduly philosophical  the command centre of the self. Your brain is you: your moods, your skills, your character, your intelligence, your emotions, your self-expression, your self. When all that fails, you are left with the question: what was the cause?’

But doctors can’t answer that for sure. Crum came to the conclusion that it had taken place because of ‘a profound internal dissastification with my way of life, my goals and ambition, my achievements such as they were’. This was the only conclusion that Crum accepted as ‘why’ the stroke happened, but he believed it was destined to happen. Blaming catastrophic physical breakdown on our lifestyle choices, is a dangerous opinion to have, and not one I withhold to. Yet I am interested in what happens when a person’s sense of identity is stripped away from them, what do they cling on to?

And bringing this all back to me in Japan, I feel the clock ticking for the time I can spend in this awesome country. This change in me came when the last cohort of Fukui JETs left and their resounding advice to me was to “Enjoy your time here to the full”. It is a truism that “You only appreciate what you have when it is taken away from you.” Friends and memories are probably the best things I’ll go home with from Japan, so I’m investing in making those.

As I accompanied friends to the train station for the last time, and watched them weep with sadness for leaving this beautiful country and their friends here, I made up my mind to spend the next year in Japan experiencing as much as I can and using my time in ways I won’t regret. I could stay a third, fourth or even fifth year on the JET programme, and it is very tempting to do so. This will be the decision I will make in the next couple of months. I’ll keep you posted!

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Six months

Six months is a strange period of time. It can be compared to watching a three-hour film in a cinema: you know you’ve been there a long time, but it also goes really fast. Everything has changed since I arrived here. From the 40′ heat to -3 degrees, from being in a relationship to being single, from knowing hardly any Japanese to being able to get by, just!

Nesting

When I first arrived at my flat, I couldn’t actually get in. The key was stiff and twisted in the lock. But now the steel red door, which I still struggle to get in everyday, has my name written above it and it feels like home. In August, after the week and a half of transiting from Tokyo to my red door, I was so happy to finally have reached a space I could call my own. Strangely enough, it was when I unpacked my crinkled clothes from my suitcases that I started to feel like these four rooms were my home. I would hate to be called materialistic but it seemed that a key part of identity was hung up on those plastic hangers, so maybe I am. My clothes and a few photos of my friends made me feel at home in the first few weeks. Now my flat is filled with hangings, cards and souvenirs from the places I’ve visited in Japan, each with a memory attached to it.

The first couple of months were definitely the hardest. There was no severe ‘culture shock’ or homesickness but it was the personal relationships which were new, or different and seemed so important. It was like being a fresher all over again! Yet once the school term started and I had a routine to my life, I felt much more at ease. Now, I have some wonderful friends that I’m thoroughly going to miss when they leave, especially my travel-buddy Zoya who is only staying one year.

School

I’m happy with the small part I play in the slick machine of the Japanese school system. In some classes, I do nothing more than be a pronunciation coach, but in others I can do anything. Last week I gave a presentation about teaching in a junior high school in Nepal and the students fell into a hazy silence as they saw photos of smiling Nepali kids all squashed in a classroom a quarter the size of their own. It is opportunities like this, to amaze and inspire students about places in the world they’ve never heard about, that makes me love my job. I also like reading their work and finding out what they’re in to. I know a lot of J-pop band names now, the best being ‘Flumpool’ and ‘Funky Monkey Babys’!

There was a new girl at school today and I felt for her. All the new names she’d have to learn, all the strict rules (she’d have to get rid of her hair braids!) and the friends she’d have to make. I remember being introduced in the staff room for the first time and feeling so out-of-place, the newbie, foreign in every way. Yet now I know my colleagues, not all their names, but the subjects they teach and whether they like having a disjointed chat in English and Japanese. Every morning as I walk into the staffroom and shout my ‘Good morning’, a chorus of ‘Ohaiyo Gozaimasu’s are returned and I feel part of the school community.

The students, too, have become accustomed to me, and I to them. Girls wish me ‘Bye, bye’ as I leave the school and give me a cute smile and a wave. At first I remember not being able to tell the difference between most of the students, everyone looked more or less the same! Even two girls in my English Club looked so similar, with long hair tied in bunches and the same height that I couldn’t get their names right. Now I could recognise one from the other from down the corridor as they look so different!

Japanese

Studying Japanese before I came here has paid off. I didn’t get much further than a beginners book, but still I had the basics and could read Hiragana and some Katakana, even if very slowly. When I arrived I was hesitant to try out my Nihongo, so much so I did my introductory speech in the school assembly in English. Looking back that was a mistake and I wished I’d felt confident enough to do the first speech in Japanese. For the first few months I found it very hard to understand what people were saying and rarely tried out the few phrases I knew. Yet now I’m becoming more confident and trying to string sentences together at a just-faster-than-painful rate! When I can understand something said in the morning meeting, I’m happy for the rest of the day.

All in all, I’m really enjoying my life here. I suppose the freedom of living alone, having evenings and weekends free, and not having to worry about friendship, relationships or career plans. So I have signed the papers to re-contract for another year. I have many places I want to explore, festivals to see and things to discover.

Thanks for reading!

Photos from my balcony through the seasons.

August: hot, sticky and noisy

August: hot, sticky and noisy

November: beautiful sunsets, cool weather and golden leaves

November: beautiful sunsets, cool weather and golden leaves

December 6th: The first frost and the snow-line on Mount-Hino getting lower

December 6th: The first frost and the snow-line on Mount-Hino getting lower

December 24th: snow arrived in abundance

December 24th: snow arrived in time for a white Christmas

A January sunrise over blanketed white roof tops

A January sunrise over blanketed white roof tops

Settling in, school life and summer festivals

Once I found out the meaning of the kanji (Chinese characters) on my air con remote, my apartment has been was less like a sauna and a lot more liveable! I’ve had the TV on as much as possible trying to watch the Olympics and now know all the Japanese Olympiads! Whilst writing this I’m staying until 5am to watch the closing ceremony so I’m afraid I have 5 hours to rattle on things I’ve seen and done this week!

My new home: an apartment

Myself and Steven have our own apartments in a large three-storey apartment block. Other new JETs living here which we’ve been hanging out with are Niamh and Alice (both from Ireland) and Zoya (the only JET in Japan from Finland). Lots of other JETs live on their own so we are lucky we can just pop over to see each other. My school, Takefu Junior High School, is only a five minute walk from my apartment so I am really lucky in one sense, but on the other hand this means I have no excuse not to go in to school!

Once the temperature has dropped to a comfortable temperature, even if it’s still sticky, the other JETs and I have been exploring the area. We are surrounded by rice fields which give off a warm, sweet smell and remind me of South-east Asia. The sun goes down incredibly quickly here so there hasn’t been much time to enjoy the scenery. On the way back from our adventures around we often come across huge spiders, frogs and once this red headed centipede which can cause a very nasty bite! At night we can hear the chirping of what seems like hundreds of frogs having a pow-wow in the rice fields! Luckily I’m on the top floor so my apartment is free from unwanted visitors!

Takefu Junior High School

Being part of the school has been the most fascinating aspect of Japan so far, mainly because it is so different from British schools. For example the second time I went in to school I met the kyochosensei  (principle) and kyotosensei (vice-principle). It was here I realised that unlike in the UK when teachers escape for a month’s vacation, school doesn’t stop throughout the hot August vacation. Teachers are expected to continue preparing lessons and most importantly keep school clubs going. Each teacher is either coach or sub-coach for a school club, such as tennis, table tennis, volleyball, baseball, brass band or basketball. This means practising most days and even coming in on Saturdays to run sports practice! Junior high school students all have to participate in one club and it is very important to them. There are inter-prefecture school competitions and teams practice for months leading up to one. Whilst I was making a display board I watched in awe as the girls tennis squad did five laps around the school premises in army-like fashion shouting ‘Takefu! Hai, hai hai!’. And this was before the two hour practice in 30’C heat! Niamh, reported on how a girl had described coming second-place in a brass band contest as ‘motifying’!  These students train to win and anything less is a disappointment.

It is not just the school clubs which surprised me but how the students take responsibility and pride in their school. It is like their school is their second home and their teachers their second parents. On Thursday I got a taste of this when all the students and teachers came back for a half-day of school. The day started with ‘cleaning time’ where six students are assigned to clean a classroom. I introduced myself to the students in the English classroom and unsuccessfully tried to make conversation with them. The JTE (Japanese Teacher of English) told me that the school motto was ‘Cleaning Quietly’! So for the next ten minutes the students took a white cloth and on their hands and knees wiped the floors, corridors and stairs cleaned of every speck of dust! All without a single word of complaint! It was verging on being spooky! Next, in a very ordered fashion the students made their way to have an assembly in the gigantic gymnasium. I had to introduce myself in front of the 500 students which I admit was nerve wracking but I think I did ok until, it came to the bowing. After I finished I bowed as a way to make it clear I wanted to get off the stage. Then, all of the students were told to stand up and they bowed back to me! This was a very humbling experience but I’m pretty sure I bowed at all the wrong times and got a few sniggers from the kids. To finish the assembly the students and teachers all heartily sang the school song whilst looking towards a large Japanese flag. A very different assembly from the ones I use to go to!

Most of my time at school has been spent in the staff room. All the forty-so members of staff have a desk of their own in a large staff room and every morning starts with a ten minute morning meeting. In one of these meetings I introduced myself in Japanese and then spent the morning making a seating plan so I could remember the teacher’s names and subjects. Most of the teachers spoke enough English for me to understand them but in future I will try to practice my Japanese on them. One saying I am yet to master is ‘Osaki ni shitsurei shimasu’ which means ‘Sorry for leaving before you’ and it is said when leaving for the day. In reply other teachers say ‘you must be very tired’, even if the teachers have worked a 12 hour day! I’m sure I’ll write more on the Japanese work ethic.

Mikuni fireworks 

Since arriving in Fukui I’ve been on two beach trips. Never in my life have I seen so many people on a beach! Each person marks their spot with a matt and that is there square meter for the day. Yesterday we went up the coast to Mikuni to watch their annual fireworks festival. We got their early enough to mark the ‘gaijin territory’ but I declined going in the murky looking water as people complained of a biting fish, jelly fish stings and then we saw a squid in the water! The day was full of surprises: I spotted a pod of dolphins, we got invited in to a Japanese woman’s house for watermelon and we got to see the Fukui-famous Tojimbo cliffs as well. The best part of the day was seeing lots of young couples dressed up in traditional Japanese dress buying festival food together. Girls with flowers in their hair, wearing yukata (summer kimonos) and geta (wooden flip flops). There was such a fantastic atmosphere as we watched the fireworks on the beach full of Japanese fireworks. Probably nothing on being at the Olympics but it was a good substitute!