Returning to the mini-series covering January to March 2022…
After our Valentine’s Day photo session in Boma, we drove to a bed-and-restaurant overlooking the coast. Dining delights awaited.
A student amused me once by reporting that most people visited Japan for the food. Though I suspect the survey results may have misled by allowing respondents to select multiple answers, I would have to admit that my name would have added to their number. Friends persuaded me to risk another overseas move in part by singing the praises of Japanese food.
This restaurant did not disappoint. “That’s a lot of raw,” one of the other JETs remarked as I gleefully welcomed plates of local sashimi and wild boar carpaccio. Japan’s stringent hygiene standards have indulged my weakness for undercooked things (as my brother calls it): not only sushi, but raw eggs and red meat abound. In Amami I tasted horse sashimi, and at the local grocery store I picked up a prospect that had fascinated me ever since I first heard of it from a friend — chicken sashimi.
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.
On Valentine’s Day, the other JET teachers and I gathered for a local tradition: the lighting of the Boma heart. Boma sits along the coast, just north of the ferry port. In a grove of sakura (cherry blossom) trees, the locals rig up decorations where friends can gather and snap pictures. I broke out my DSLR camera for the occasion.
On the path back down the hillside, lanterns lit our way home.
In December I had admired an art reception hosted by the special needs school. Though it shares a building with Tokunoshima High School (easily done with the declining population vacating a shocking percentage of the classroom space here), the school belongs to an independent organization located on the neighboring Amami island.
Now they welcomed me again, this time for a painstakingly prepared show-and-tell English lesson. With the staff diligently interpreting my more obscure statements, I proffered my self-introduction slides. Then I settled in for the main event: charades, with the students challenging me to guess.
I treasured my time with them, touched by the staff’s devotion to their charges and the students’ enthusiasm for crossing the language barrier. “I like English!” one boy announced, beaming. His friend, who relies on sign language, nonetheless starred with his superb miming — which only goes to show that communication amounts to more than words.
Between Christmas in Kyoto, and Golden Week in Tokyo, I skipped several months of life on my little island. To make up the difference, I’ll be writing a series of mini-posts around a theme or event from my season of settling in: January to March 2022.
Where else to begin but with the epicenter of my activities here, Tokunoshima High School? As the Japanese school year ends in April, the spring quarter featured the sort of scholarly occasions that I would associate with summertime.
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.
In February I visited Amami Island, Tokunoshima’s nearest neighbor to the north. Imagine the country mouse arriving at his city cousin’s estate: compared with my stomping ground, the sprawl of this island verges on metropolis.
An archipelago in microcosm, Amami did not lend itself to pedestrian traffic. I secured a room at a highly rated bed and breakfast near the ferry port, where the beaming owners suffered nothing so trivial as a language barrier to impede their welcome.
“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.