“Sometimes you can see whales from the school windows,” my teachers told me. No such fortune has graced me — I had to resort to the more prosaic means of boarding a whale-watching ship.
The other JETs and I agreed: We hadn’t expected it would be so small.
Armed with life jackets and anti-nausea tablets, we clung to the rails. Our cheerful, sun-bronzed captain gave a shout whenever the radar blipped. Then we would speed across the waves, hunting our massive quarry.
The first time a curving gray spine broke the air, the magnitude of our chase overwhelmed me. We were so tiny in their midst, perched on our fragile craft. Over and over again, giants split the water around us, surfacing in twos and threes, monumentally indifferent to our presence. If our accompanying band of divers slipped off-deck to join them, though, the whales evaded them — vanishing effortlessly back into the deep.
Japan, it surprised me to learn, gifts its citizens with more national holidays than any other country. Perhaps these enforced rest days present a remedy to the workaholicism? Unlike USA holidays, they do not confine themselves to long weekends but pop up unashamedly on Tuesdays and Wednesdays with nothing but paid leave to make up the difference.
Facing one such holiday in the middle of the week (in honor of the Emperor’s birthday), I decided to test the island bus system on a day trip to the opposite shore. Living minutes from Tokunoshima’s major port, I drink in first-class views of the surf on my daily commute, but trundling north soaked me in our magnificent mountains.
After months of manic planning, with over eight different connections lined up by bus, train, and plane (all booked one-way), the day arrived for my departure from Tokunoshima for the Christmas holidays.
Though my nerves stretched taut as violin strings, I had to smile when the Lord granted me an auspicious beginning in a reminder of his covenant-keeping: A rainbow brightened the clouds as I waited for my first leg of transport, a bus to the island airport.
For the first time in three years, our southernmost town Isen-cho celebrated a summer festival. (When you live on a semi-tropical island, November is the perfect season for summer festivals.) As Isen is the smallest of Tokunoshima’s three towns, we weren’t expecting much.
Instead, people turned out in force for an extravaganza. Lines for cotton candy and chicken skewers rapidly outstripped the foodstalls’ supplies, leaving ample opportunity to admire the ladies attired in yukata (summer kimonos). After marveling at this scene in countless animes, now I found myself living it.
Silhouetted against the ocean, the stage boasted a parade of traditional and contemporary music from drummer martial artists to a hip hop trio from Osaka. One of my fellow JET teachers performed with a group on the shamisen, a stringed instrument traditionally bound in snakeskin. The night ended with a bang: lasers painted fantastical landscapes across windswept smoke, a mesmerizing prelude to the fireworks concert. Synchronized bursts of color and sound drew shouts of delight from the crowd.
As we regretfully gathered ourselves to go, everyone agreed: Isen wins first place in festivals.
In the chain of islands between the bulk of Japan and Okinawa, the ferry passes twice a day: once on its way north, and once on its way south. Affordably priced and unrestricted by baggage allowances, ferries offer a convenient means of travel – if you’re headed in the right direction. I had hoped to make myself at home with our nearest neighbor to the north, Amami, but the red-eye arrival and departure times have dampened my enthusiasm.
As for Okinoerebu in the south, I had only heard of it in passing — literally — over the loudspeakers en route to teaching on Yoron. It was high time to visit.
Three typhoons swept by our little island in the past two weeks. Despite the raised alarms, it’s come as something of a relief. The fierce winds cool down the heat, and the downpours can’t rival a stretch in June or July when I sloshed into school every morning in a sodden raincoat, only to contemplate the same prospect every afternoon.
JET group chats assemble in advance to instruct us on emergency preparation: stocking up on shelf-stable foods, rolling out the storm shutters, and filling the bathtub with water. One of our veteran JETs on the island endured two days without water and five without electricity during his first year on the island, but we’ve yet to face anything so severe. Besides the hardship of reduced grocery stock (without the ferry’s twice-daily visit, the dairy and aisles dwindle to nearly nothing), life continues apace. My church gathers as usual, in spite of the typhoons timing their maximum impact repeatedly for Sunday mornings.
A giant painting greeted me at the school gates last Saturday: green dragon, blue tiger, and red hawk for the senior (Grade 3), junior (Grade 2), and froshmore (Grade 1) classes. The students impressed, in their color-coded jerseys and seamless choreography, as they fought the sun to compete on the annual Sports Day.
Ignorant of the schedule, I missed the opening ceremony (a combination of patriotic singing and coordinated warm-ups, if the closing ceremony gave anything to go by) but arrived in time for the opening sprints. Every year, it seems, students fall prey to the heat and dehydration, and that day was no exception. Besides a respectful silence, no one seemed unduly concerned when an ambulance arrived to ferry a fainted runner away.
Former JET participants had alerted me to anticipate sports day at my school, but the school culture festival caught me off guard. On Saturday the entire student body took over the town performing arts theater to showcase their musical talents, art projects, comedy routines, body-building, and other shenanigans.
Some elements struck me as quintessentially Japanese, both classically (the calligraphy and martial arts demos) and modernistically (the pop idol routine and horror movie spoof). Besides a chance to relish my students’ inventiveness, the all-day weekend event also granted me an unexpected holiday: Most teachers would take off the Monday of that same weekend, but I was due to ferry to Yoron that morning — so I extended my stay on the little island instead.
“Did you make it back home?” a friend from the Christian retreat asked me.
My secondary school had asked me to teach the week immediately following the holidays — so instead of taking a 15 hour ferry home, I sailed for 20 hours to Yoron Island. Thankfully, my itinerary allowed for one night’s stopover in Kagoshima City, where the international Calvary Church welcomed me warmly as ever.
After ten days of wrestling with ticket vendors — online, over the phone, via app, at the train station, in merchandise stores, even at the convenience stores where Japan typically buys its event tickets — I gambled a last-ditch effort on asking at the park gate.
Though every other employee swore they would deny me same-day entrance (COVID regulations, naturally), when I presented my sob story in person, sanity prevailed. The beneficent attendants conducted me at once to a backstage office, where a smiling lady issued my ticket to the world of Disney.
It dawned on me that Kabukiza Theatre was a big deal when I spotted the metro riders decked out in kimonos.
To bookend my ballet excursion with something more local in flavor, I had secured my seat for a matinee performance without knowing what to expect. It turns out that kabuki drama operates as a full-day experience: you can attend three separate performances in a single day, from courtlier eras when the leisurely had no reason to rush.
I settled for just one performance, in two acts: the escape of Yukihime (“Princess Snow”) from a rebellious overlord, followed by a coquettish spring dance themed around irises.
I was overdue for transportation travails this trip, and today delivered in spades.
My worries over catching the express to Mt. Fuji proved groundless — it was the local bus lines that foiled me. Golden Week traffic had stretched the two hour express to four, then I took the wrong bus, missed the right one, and finally staggered to my intended destination six hours after departing from Tokyo Station.
Happily, mineral baths overlooking the mountain promised the restoration I sorely needed.
Today I crossed west, to the metropolitan mammoth of Shinjuku. By a quirk of public transportation, distance as-the-crow-flies tells you little about what parts of the city are “nearby” in terms of travel time. It cost me less trouble to leapfrog across the city center, then back again north for a visit to Tokyo’s most extravagant shopping mall, than riding directly south to Odaiba yesterday.
I thanked the city planners, because my engagement this morning demanded timeliness: a performance of Cinderella by Japan’s national ballet.
My hotel greeted me bright and early with a typical Japanese breakfast: that is to say, what we would consider a large lunch. Then I ploughed into the business of traveling: opening hours, ticket prices, and endless mapping and remapping metro routes.
Satisfied that my week in Japan was taking tentative shape, I dedicated my first afternoon to visiting the two items at the top of my bucket list: Tokyo’s sushi central and waterfront Odaiba.
Welcome to “Golden Week”: a succession of national holidays that free most of Japan to travel en masse. You must book your tickets months in advance or forget about traveling on a budget. I decided to spend my allotment on Tokyo, aiming to rectify the fourteen days I passed here in mandatory isolation, forbidden from leaving the hotel property let alone poke my nose into a sushi restaurant.
The trip began with an unexpected detour: JET’s Christian society threw open the doors for me to join their weekend retreat in Nagano — with only 24 hours notice. I hastily abbreviated my hotel stay in Tokyo and bought my shinkansen (bullet train) tickets at Tokyo Station for a 2+ hour trek northwest to join them.