Happy Island: arriving in Japan

Happy Island: arriving in Japan

The time difference between Washington, D.C. and Japan is twice as long as with South Africa – but the flight here took half the time! The advantages of crossing the pole rather than the equator, I surmise.

My employment with JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching Program) commenced at the end of October 2021, when my plane touched down in Tokyo. Too much is happening for me to neglect my adventures here while chronicling my intercontinental tour, so I’ll alternate updates.

After some harrowing airport travails earlier this summer, I entrusted myself with relief to the capable Japanese bureaucracy.

Over one hundred new JETs, many accompanied by family and massive tomes of luggage, mobbed Dulles airport. Determined to limit myself to one backpack as before (aforementioned airport travails having confirmed me in my prejudices against checked luggage), I compensated by layering every piece of clothing that would fit into one outfit. Another JET complimented this ludicrous ensemble, planting the seed for a friendly alliance cemented by playing Tetris together on the plane.

I was actually looking forward to two weeks of mandatory isolation, anticipating hours of catch-up on the administrative tasks neglected all summer, and miffed at the interruptions imposed by our online training. Japan’s education forces won me over, though, with videos of demo classes and detailed discussions of challenges faced by past JETs. I felt better prepared than expected as I bent myself to mastering the Japanese alphabet.

As it had with my isolation in Oxford, the second week wore me down to a nub. I celebrated when our departure date arrived, despite the butterflies.

A collection of half a dozen JETs bused with me from Tokyo to Haneda Airport, but there we parted ways – JET had assigned me to one of the country’s farthest flung islands, deep in the Pacific of the southernmost province: Tokunoshima, an island just shy of Okinawa.

Waiting at the gate in Kagoshima’s airport, I admired the women’s fashion and smiled at ads featuring the Angels’ star Shohei Ohtani, a hero in Japan for playing in the Major Leagues.

The “puddle-jumper” (as my parents call them) that carried me to the island defeated my best efforts to stuff my backpack into the overhead compartments. A friendly flight attendant solved the problem by buckling the bag into the seat next to me, after reseating me, with conscientious adherence to safety guidelines, by the aisle. She also handed out squares of candy, Tokunoshima’s main export – mine surprised me with mint-flavored brown sugar!

When I at last tottered off the plane, my supervisor greeted me with a sign, handmade by the students.

The teachers had outdone themselves in thoroughly cleaning and stocking my new home with supplies. We spent the day shopping for all my other needs, including a futon, or floor mattress. They then treated me to a welcome dinner, complete with sashimi, my all-time favorite food.

The next week, three English teachers took it in turns to interpret for me at the bank, town hall, department stores, etc. – an experience that convinced me it would be impossible to live here without the dedicated support of considerate locals, as I signed forms on utilities, bill payment, residence cards, etc with all the comprehension of a concrete block. The famed Japanese civility impressed me strongly: they are endlessly patient while awaiting their turn in line, for instance, and never complained when a mistake in writing my name necessitated that we submit all my bank account paperwork twice — but spring into action when it’s time to go and silently frown on dawdling. Courtesy rules, not convenience.

Our training warned us to be timely, so I left my house five minutes early for my first full day of work – but discovered my teacher already waiting out front! He had prepared a script for my introduction to the staff, kindly writing out the Japanese in roman characters and even offering a simpler version if my courage failed me.

My early days at school revolved around introductions: to the staff, to the student body, in each classroom. My supervisor livened up my class presentation by transforming it into a guessing game. Some students took the competition so seriously that I regretted ending on a trick question (Q: What did I teach in South Africa? a) Math b) Japanese c) English d) art — answer: C and D!)

Along with courtesy, Japan has lived up to its reputation for embracing the culture of cute. The island mascot is a fighting bull with a pineapple tail, wearing a viper while carrying a black rabbit and holding a sugar cane because the island is famous for… well, you can probably guess.

Tokunoshima was billed to me as a rural assignment, though the fact that basically everywhere features indoor plumbing was enough to rate it luxurious in my estimation. Even better, the island is not so small that I find myself the only JET here: one of my teachers put me in touch with JETs hailing from the Caribbean and even my home state Virginia! On my first weekend, they treated another new JET (from the Philippines) and me to lunch at a shoreside restaurant. Then we toured all the major shopping sites, laying to rest my lingering household anxieties.

I’m further blessed in finding a warm and welcoming house church on the island. They graciously entertained me despite our speaking perhaps a dozen words collectively of each other’s languages, serving me curry and the most mouth-watering custard desserts – which I mistook for some exotic sponge cake version of mochi (rice desserts) only to discover they actually feature sweet potato flour!

As I adjusted to island life, the beauty began to soak in. My commute to school (on foot, until I can secure a bicycle tall enough to suit me) is the most gorgeous imaginable – even compared with Oxford.

The dock, a two minute walk from my house

As a confessed sushi maniac, I was raring to sample the local fare. One of my fellow JETs directed me to a “kurukuru” or conveyor belt restaurant – where I spent twice as much as I planned to.

My typical meal out looks more like one of these rice balls wrapped in seaweed, with meat or fish or vegetable fillings (teriyaki chicken, salmon mayonaise, pickled plums, etc). To brighten my abode, I decorated for autumn with orange daisies and a spray of colored leaves from Daiso, the famous 100 yen store that supplies all needs.

Rolling with the flow of spontaneous island life, I joined the JETs for a surprise after-school trip to Yonama Beach, the scenery most recommended by my students. It was postcard-perfect, followed by a dinner at a Filipino restaurant that filled us to bursting.

That same day I discovered that schools would close for a holiday on Tuesday – so I submitted a last minute leave request and booked my hotels in Kagoshima City! It was a daunting, spur of the moment venture, but I was determined to make the most of my time here. The JETs recommended Kagoshima as a moderate-sized Japanese city, not too overwhelming for my first attempt.

Having done my due diligence the day before, I skipped to the ferry office to secure my tickets – only to meet impending disaster: rough waves had banished the ferry to a port on the other side of the island, an hour’s ride away! Through much scrambling and gracious flexibility on the part of the teaching staff, I left school early and taxied to Hettono Port. Once aboard, I gratefully sank into my allotted cubby space. Attempting to go vertical cost me my dinner: below deck, the seasickness hit hard.

Staggering into the city after a fitful sleep, still frazzled from my narrow miss, I revived over tea and sweets at a charming cafe. With many hours to go before I could check in at my hotel, I ventured north through the city and stumbled on the art museum. Though confined to three small galleries, the collection stunned me: Monet, Mattise, Dali, even Marc Chagall! The sublime ink and watercolor sketches of Hashiguchi Goyo tempted me into the museum shop, inquiring after my first-ever purchase of an art book – but alas, too many other people must have felt the same: his book had sold out.

Travel in England accustomed me to taking advantage of freely available information like brochures, signs, and bus schedules, but my illiteracy in Japan hampered this approach. Case in point: my search for the Terukuni Shrine brought me to a street corner, but the posted arrows helpfully pointing out landmarks made no mention of the shrine. I looked blankly at the building ahead, which seemed a popular destination but neglected to identify itself in any characters legible to me, then shrugged and continued left.

Toiling up a steep slope, I hailed a mother and daughter with the plaintive appeal: “Terukuni?” They cheerfully pointed me back the way I had come.

It was some consolation to find I was instead en route to my lodging for the night. Booking last-minute on a holiday weekend had left me few budget options, so I compromised by splurging my first night on Hotel Shiroyama, a mountaintop resort offering its own sushi restaurant and onsen (natural spa). The extravagant five-course sushi dinner floored me with my first taste of otoro (the premium tuna cut). I rose the next morning at 5am to watch the sun rise while soaking in the mineral baths, marveling as gold flushed pink over the volcano peak.

The city aquarium dazzled me with its exotic performances: slick seals, leaping dolphins, and an electric eel feeding. The seals pirouetted past the glass, emerging onto the rocks to gulp fish from their trainer’s hand. The dolphins performed like gmynasts, rocketing out of the water to twist, turn, and sommersault in tandem. The eel justified its selection as a Disney villain as it cornered the tiny, terrified fish released into the tank with it, exactly like a snake stalking a mouse. Their antics persuaded me that marine mammals are as winsome as their cold-blooded neighbors are weird.

I’ve always loved forays into new culinary experiences, but Japanese cuisine deserves a class of its own. Even a bite of lunch qualifies as an event, as when I dropped into a ramen restaurant near the wharf. The staff greeted me with a cheer: “Big bowl or small?” they sang (demonstrating with props to clear my confusion). After plying me with cool radish slices and the ever-present “o-cha” (green tea), they served up steaming hot noodles with strips of pork that electrified my taste buds. Wanting a refill but too far from the kettle, I looked plaintively at the cooks until my neighbor took pity on me and signaled them – I had forgotten that you have to summon waiters here with an unabashed “Sumimasen!” (excuse me).

The Japanese have also more than earned their reputation for exquisite design. The delight is in the details: at Sengan-en, the stately home of a previous Empress’s grandfather, I passed chrysanthemum competitions judged by the centimeter.

The morning before catching the ferry back to my island, I boarded a smaller ferry to Kagoshima’s patron landmark: the active volcane Sakurajima. I had hemmed and hawed all weekend about when to go, whether the rainy weather would spoil the view…and Monday rewarded my wait with rainbows.

I was drinking it in while soaking my feet in the public footbaths when my knee prickled. A muscle spasm? I looked down and found a cat in my lap! She made her escape when I exclaimed.

Since I had regularly passed the docks during my stay, I set out confidently a few hours before the ferry back to the island – only to discover that it docked three kilometers away. “Hurry,” my sympathetic informants urged me, “hurry!” Mercifully, I made it aboard.

When I crawled off the next morning, I knew I would need the weeked to recover. My coworkers kicked it off in style for me with a block party of sorts: all the single teachers living in the government housing gathered at a local “izakaya,” or Japanese-style restaurant that serves drinks at low tables with floor mats for seating. With one English teacher to interpret for the entire table, we mostly muddled along with their scattered English and my still scantier Japanese.

The English teacher introduced me to my companions’ accomplishments: one teacher excelled at Japanese cuisine, another studied calligraphy, and the third practiced kendo. What Japanese culture do you do? I teased our interpreter.

“I read Japanese comics,” he winked.

Beginning again on this island has shed light on what draws me to living abroad. As a foreigner, you experience the most mundane chores as lessons in creativity (and humility). Every interaction promises some insight into another language, another mindset, another way of being. Your neighbors are your hosts and your teachers. As a traveler, you are a student of life!

Sunset on Yonama Beach

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