Tokyo Disney

We had a really great time the next day at Disney.  We rode a lot of rides and ate a lot of really delicious things.  And I was finally able to check Tokyo Disney off of my Japanese bucket list.

That evening, we met up with my former supervisor, Tamiya, for dinner.  She was doing a training program in Tokyo as well, so it was really luck that put us all in Tokyo the same time.  I had a small moment of frustration when, despite the fact that I had been speaking Japanese all day with very minimal English, the waiter of the restaurant brought over an English menu for me.  He hadn’t heard me speak English at all (just Japanese), but assumed I needed it.  I simply said, “I don’t need it,” pushed it to the edge of the table, and ignored it.

The rest of the dinner was spent in Japanese, eating good food, and trying to find the hidden Mickeys on the gift bags we had brought back from Disney.  Apparently there’s a hidden Mickey in each picture and the location changes depending on the size of the bag, even if they’re the same design.  Fun fact.

I originally had plans to visit another prefecture on my last day, but I was out of energy and out of money.  Instead, I had a lazy morning in the hotel, checked out, and hung out at the airport.

I stopped by the Mercedes-Benz cafe/ area in the airport and got what has to be the most expensive-looking donut I’ll probably ever eat.

Then hopped on my flight and headed home.


The Trip Where Everything Went Wrong and It Was Exactly What I Needed

My last full week in Japan I decided the only smart and responsible thing to do when I should be cleaning my apartment was run away for a bit to Tokyo.  Originally my plan was to make it a solo trip and do my normal “one prefecture a day” schedule.  However, one of my co-workers ended up being able to come for the second day, so I had to change plans a bit.

First up, I got to the airport and checked in using my super cool watch.  I do feel pretty awesome when everyone else has to pull out their phones to check in and I can just use my wrist.  I still had a few hours to kill and it was almost dinner time, so I decided to stop by one of the restaurants that I always forget exist on the top floor of the airport.  I got myself some really good chicken nanban (the prefectural dish) and soba.  As I was loudly slurping my noodles and mentally patting my back for getting so skilled at it (I rarely end up splattering my glasses anymore!), I realized that that was one of the skills and habits I am really going to have to unlearn.

I made it through security without any issues.  I was a little worried when I received a notification that my seat had been changed due to a change in aircrafts, but I was happy to see that we had been upgraded to a bigger plane.  That meant that a lot of people (myself included) were able to get our own rows.

I got to Tokyo, grabbed my bag, and found the right train.

Then the trouble started.  First, I couldn’t find my hotel.  I tried to ask someone on the street for help, but he pretended he didn’t hear me and then actually took a few steps away from me.  I was livid, but there was nothing I could do really.  It took a little more wandering but I did eventually find it.  I checked in, excited to just shower and sleep.

But then I got to the room.

It was disgusting.  Apparently the hotel’s policy did not have room cleaning services.  Guests were supposed to be responsible for that and I can tell you no one took that seriously.  Everything in the room was stained (sheets and couch included) or had mold on it.  It was almost midnight by this point and all I wanted was to sleep, but there was no way I was sleeping in there.  I marched myself right back downstairs to the front desk.  I politely asked if there were any other rooms I could switch to because my room was unacceptable.

The front desk worker’s response was that this hotel was old and that all of the rooms were like that. It was ridiculous.  After making sure I would get a refund for at least the next two nights, I returned the disgusting room to book a new hotel (and to call my mom for emotional support).  After I had a new room and my refund in hand, I spread out one of my shirts on the pillow and tried to curl up in the cleanest part of the bed.  The room was making my allergies go crazy so it was still another hour before I could sleep.  I will say this: as awful as the room was, the front desk staff was very polite and helpful.

I woke up after only three and half hours to my alarm.  I had to go check in to my next hotel.  When I arrived, there were two men berating the front desk staff.  After waiting about ten minutes listening to the conversation and catching such highlights as, “Sir, please stop pounding on the bell,” and “Do you want me to call the police?”  one of the men started talking to me while we were waiting for the staff to come back out after escaping to the back room.  Apparently, the worker was a new employee who kept making a lot of mistakes.  The latest mistake involved cancelling the other man’s reservation in the middle of his stay.

Eventually someone else came out and I was able to get my bag put away in their storage, even if check-in didn’t start for another 10 hours.  I headed out to find the train station and made my way to Tokyo Station to meet up with my tour.

I made it on my tour just fine, but I was so groggy that I did not really enjoy it as much as I thought I would.  The first place we visited was crowded and it was rainy which made things so much worse.  Besides, all I could think while I was walking around the temple was think, “I’ve seen a lot of these.”

However, I ended up reflecting on what seemed to separate me from the other tourists on the tour: I had seen a lot of those.  And I had navigated them myself without the aid of a tour guide or a translated audio tour.  The reason there was nothing new or wonderful about visiting this temple was that to me, this was just home.  My home happened to be filled with temples and shrines, but it was home all the same.  And though seeing shrines had become mundane and ordinary, they also felt comfortable.  I knew I would make none of common mistakes when washing my hands before entering or stepping through the gates and that made me happy.  Even though it was raining and crowded, I slipped away to take a few pictures by myself and found myself smiling.

I was having another moment of saying goodbye.  Moving out of the country has been such an enormous event that I could never process it all at once time.  Processing and saying goodbye came in bits and waves.  Because, truthfully, I am dealing with a loss (the loss of my current life) and with it comes the various stages of grief required for processing what is happening.  The trip really helped me come to terms with the fact that this was actually happening.  I was actually moving.

The second half of the tour was self guided.  I took a free shuttle bus from the temple to the historical theme park.  If I was on a date or with kids, I would have had a lot more fun at the theme park.  After wandering around and taking some pictures, I decided to catch an earlier bus to the train station and see if I couldn’t get back to Tokyo early.

A reserved seat on a train was part of my tour, but the train I was supposed to take wasn’t for another three hours.  I walked into the ticket office, explained that I wasn’t feeling well (true) and needed to get back to Tokyo early.  I paid a small ticket change fee and was all set.  I picked up a really good ekiben (station bento/ prepacked lunch box) with some of the local beef for my ride back.

The three hour train ride back to Tokyo was incredibly peaceful.  I passed the time taking pictures out the window and enjoying my lunch.  It was just what I needed.

It also put me in a really good mindset for my next day at Disney with my friend from work / Japanese older sister.


Hososhima Matsuri

In the midst of all the farewell partying, I snuck away to the Hososhima festival in the port area of Hyuga City whenever I could.  My friend, Panda (his actual last name and what most people call him) is friends with a lot of the people in that area.  He takes frequent walks in the area because it is a really pretty neighborhood and he ended up talking to the people he saw on his walks.  He was even invited to help build one of the portable shrines for the neighborhood festival, the Hososhima Matsuri.

I originally went to the festival to support him and I ended up volunteering with him.  We ended up doing a lot of different things, from helping set up chairs to sorting garbage to pouring beers.  He occasionally had official shrine-carrying duties to deal with, so I was sometimes on my own.  The strangest part of the whole event was being in a part of Hyuga where no one knew who I was.  I have worked hard to become a part of the community and as a result, a lot of people know me.  Sometimes they just know me as “that one foreigner who is in the taiko group who is probably a teacher,” but they still know me enough to say hello.

Over in the port area, no one knows me.  But they knew Panda, so I stuck with him whenever possible.

The second most interesting part of three-day festival was probably having sashimi and beer with a definitely yakuza  interesting group of men.  Chris and Anna were with me when we made friends with the men earlier.  The whole interaction was also a good reminder of how Japan treats foreigners who don’t look like stereotypical image of foreigners.  I, who has dark hair and eyes, was basically ignored while Anna, who has blonde hair, was a magnet for attention.  Whether or not she wanted it was not a factor.  I have been mistaken as a Japanese person by a few Japanese people, so I was fine in my role as semi-invisible.  It was actually pretty funny when Anna was struggling to understand what some of the men were saying and turned to me to translate.  Her struggles weren’t the funny part.  The funny part was the fact that the men both looked surprised that I was there.  Like they hadn’t realized I was sitting there for the entirety of the conversation up until that point.

I also ran into a lot of students at the festival, which was nice.  They all wanted to take pictures with me, which of course inflated my ego which had taken a beating from no one knowing who I was previously.  It wasn’t my favorite festival, but I am glad that I was able to go.  I think it’s probably an important part of the whole, “living in Hyuga,” experience.

Goodbye to English Arcade

The other volunteer event I participate in regularly is called (for some unknown reason) English Arcade.  I was definitely disappointed by the lack of video games involved the first time I volunteered.  The two hour long English conversation session can often be pretty difficult for me to get through due to the lack of general genki-ness from participants (read: energy and active participation), but I knew they appreciated it when I was able to attend.  An important condition of my attendance was always that I was not going to be leading the sessions.  I was there as background support, not as a teacher.

Still, I of course ended up in that role more often than not.  The participants have an interesting and diverse set of backgrounds.  A handful are retired engineers from Asahi Kasei, a chemical engineering company.  Others are students or teachers or just people who have traveled in their lives and don’t want to lose the English skills they’ve gained.

For my farewell party with this group we went to the house of one of the members for lunch.  Normally, that would have been (incredibly kind but) not a huge goodbye, but this woman’s home is actually a historical landmark.  Her (I think) father-in-law invented a new type of tuna fishing net in 1895 (according to the website) and made a lot money.  He invested heavily in developing the surrounding town and built a big and beautiful home.  The family still lives on the land, but recently finished building a more modern home next to the historic one.  The old home has been converted into a restaurant and small museum.

The English Arcade’s daughter (maybe daughter-in-law?  Not super clear on that point) gave us a tour of the museum area and then served us lunch in the restaurant.  The food was very traditionally Japanese.  I’m ashamed to say that I couldn’t name half of what I ate.  I do know that it was good.

I was completely stuffed by the end of lunch and rolled back to the car where one of the members gave me a ride home, saving me from trainride.


My Last Class Matches

Taken the morning of class match day during my morning run.

During sport events like class matches or sports day, I have a pretty clearly role: take pictures, participate in the actual sports-ing only if absolutely necessary.  Don’t participate enough to dispel the myth that I am amazing at all sports.  There are typically only three sports played during class matches: volleyball (boys and girls), soccer (boys), and Japanese dodgeball (girls).  I avoid playing volleyball at all costs simply because I’m so awful at it.  The boys get serious about their soccer games and don’t ask me to participate.  That just leaves dodgeball.  I usually end up subbing in for another teacher who is trying to duck out.

I have always been decent at the dodge part of dodgeball.  The same talents that helped me mildly succeed as a lacrosse goalie also helped me getting hit.  I am good at keeping my eyes on the ball(s) and moving quickly.  Where it all falls apart is the throwing part of the game.  I think my 14 month-old niece can throw better than me, despite the fact that my arms are actually decently strong.  It just has never worked for me.  As a result, I often find myself the last person standing with no hope of actually pulling out a victory for my team.

Compounding this is the fact that Japanese dodgeball is different than American dodgeball.  For starters, there is only one ball.  You would think this would make things easier, but don’t worry, they’ve thought of that.  Not only do you have to worry about the people in front of you, you also have to worry about their best throwers that they’ve positioned behind you.  That means that you might be pegged in the back of the head within the first three seconds.  (Which is how I got out the first time I played three-ish years ago.)

This time I actually did fairly well: until I got hit in the face.  The softball girls tend to be the ones who gain control of the ball, so there is some serious power behind each throw.  It was enough to knock not only my hat, but my sunglasses off as well.  Thankfully the damage was no worse than a slap to the face would cause.  I was left stinging and with a slightly sore nose, but otherwise unharmed.

I had bought a bag of salt candy on my way to work that morning.  Throughout the day, I handed out candies to students who looked particularly tired and sweaty.  I also tried to make sure I was eating one every so often and took regular water breaks in the air-conditioned teachers’ room.  Even so, by the afternoon I had some of the classic symptoms of overheating.  I had actually been doing a much better job of avoiding the heat-headaches and the like despite how hot and humid it was, so I knew that was a sign to take a break.

I ended up missing the closing ceremony for the class match, but the vice principal told me about it afterwards.  Apparently, he ended up announcing that I took over 2000 pictures that day (which I did).  The students cheered and applauded.  Despite how many teachers and students see me with my camera during school events, I don’t think a lot of them realize what happens with the pictures I take.  Most of them (the ones that survive the purge) end up uploaded to the school’s servers and used in school promotional materials/ newsletters.  When I made a poster using my favorite pictures from the past four years, the vice principal even seemed surprised by how many he had seen before.  “You took that one?  I’ve been using that one on a bunch of things!”

I did feel a slight pang of annoyance that they were using my work without my permission, but I let it go.  It is good that my pictures are being put to good use.  And, besides, it’s not like I can post a lot of my favorites because they have the students’ faces in them.  At least this way my work is being seen by a lot of people.

Farewell to MBR

Most regular readers will know that I have a few English-related volunteering events I regularly join.  Often, the two which are held in Nobeoka (the next city to the north of Hyuga) fell on the same weekend, resulting in a kind of busy weekend for me.  It was therefore only fitting that my farewell parties for the two events also fall on the same weekend, ensuring that I did not have to worry about lunch (or dinner, since I couldn’t fit any more food in my stomach even several hours later) for a few days at the very least.

First was the Saturday event: Merry Bus Ride (MBR), the monthly event where I read books to kids (read: forced children with way too short of attention spans to sit through what probably seemed like a painfully slow reading of short books) in English.  Typically, a Japanese woman would sit next to me and translate, but sometimes they asked me to translate the English into Japanese myself.

The first part of my farewell party for MBR was a nice lunch at “French” (Japanese French) restaurant.  I was under dressed, but no one had told me that we were going to a nice-ish restaurant and in summer the default is dressing for survival, not dressing to impress.  The lunch was as awkward (we don’t have a lot to talk about) as expected, but sweet all the same.  The head of the MBR group made me a little photobook with all the pictures she’s taken of me over the years of volunteering with them.  The second half of the book was left blank so people could write me notes/ draw pictures for me.  The book is beautiful, for the most part.  One of the pictures included is not a picture of me, but of another ALT who, other than the fact that we both have dark hair, looks nothing like me.  So that was a little disappointing.  I also don’t need a book of pictures of myself, so I might just scan the notes at some point.  But the gesture was sweet.

After lunch we all headed over to the library to read books.  I was the only native English speaker to show up, so I ended up reading all the books (and even attempting to translate one, though I was nervous).  It was a little hard saying goodbye to the group as I have watched some of the regular attendees grow from nearly newborns to waddling, toddling toddlers over the years.

Anna picked me up after a teary farewell and a group picture at the end.

Remembering Firsts

As my time here comes to an end, I have been doing a lot of reflecting, typically in the form of taking pictures and writing.  I still have a bunch of farewell parties I need to write posts about, but in the meantime, I thought it might be nice to share one of the pieces I’ve written:

When encountering a new culture, your “firsts” are what stick with you throughout the years.  For Japan, there are some firsts that are fairly common: your first time wearing a kimono or yukata, your first tea ceremony, your first festival.  Other experiences can be unexpected firsts, moments when you did not expect a cultural difference: your first doctor’s visit, going to the bathroom, trying to figure out which part of the post office is actually a post office when two-thirds of the building is a bank.  My most memorable first was my first taiko performance.

At the start of my second year living in Japan, I set new goals for what I wanted to accomplish during my time spent here.  I revisited the bucket list I had written for my blog when I first arrived and decided to work on accomplishing what I had left on the list.  Originally, my big three goals from the bucket list were to a) learn a new martial art, b) try kyudo, and c) try taiko.  I half accomplished my first goal by joining a dojo in my neighborhood which teaches taekwondo, a martial art I have been practicing since I was a kid.  However, the school being taught was different from what I was used to and I was ready for a new activity.  For the second goal, I stopped by my school’s kyudo club and practiced with the students from time to time.  However, I found I did not have the patience for the slow and precise ceremony of the sport with my background in archery.  My third goal was a little more difficult to accomplish.  My school’s taiko team practiced off campus at a location that my co-workers could only vaguely describe to me.  A basic Google search led me to a website that had not been updated since the inception of the internet.  Still, I decided to send off an e-mail in hopes that someone would find it.

My response came from one of my co-workers.  Her friend was the president of the taiko team and he had contacted her upon receiving my e-mail.  With her help, I figured out the location of the practice and how to get there.  The next few weeks were filled with sweat and arms so sore I could barely reach up to shampoo my hair in the shower.  Eventually the president of the club told me to show up at an event one day and so I did.  I thought I would just be going to help and did not bring my performance outfit or even my bachi.  I helped unload the truck and mostly stood on the side lines, helping as needed and taking pictures.

Suddenly, right before the taiko team was about to start a second set, the president turned to me and told me to get on stage.  I protested, saying I had not practiced enough, I was not matching everyone else, and I did not even have my sticks.  His response was to hand me a pair of extra bachi and all but push me onto the stage.  I was nervous and my arms quickly started to ache, but I managed not to lose the beat completely.  There is a picture of me at the event, my face caught between a grimace and smile, enjoying myself but struggling to keep going.

That performance set the tone for the rest of my taiko career.  I knew I had to push myself if I was going to be able to contribute anything more than the baseline for our songs.  I started showing up early to practice so I could focus on my weak points before everyone else showed up.  I started participating in performances whenever I had free time and soon people in town started to recognize me as, “that foreigner in the taiko group.”  Taiko helped me become more confident in my Japanese, forced me to continually challenge myself, and even helped me integrate more fully into the community.

All of this came from that one day when the taiko president forced me on stage.

River Swimming

As my time in Japan comes to a close, I am trying to do all of my favorite things while I can.  One of my favorite things is swimming in the rivers here.  To that end, I organized a farewell party for myself and the other leaving northerns.  Originally the plan was to do a swim and BBQ, but a few people mentioned that if we did a BBQ one of the leavers would end up being in charge of the grill, which would not be as much for him.  So we changed it to a bring your own food event.  The party was fun and relaxing.

I snapped a few pictures, but the lens kept getting wet (go figure) so I didn’t take too many.  Overall it was a fun time and I only got mildly sunburn, an all around win.


Closing Ceremony

At the end of every term, schools have a closing ceremony.  Though this does not mean that school is officially over for a while (some students still have summer classes), it does mean that the normal schedule is mostly over.  Our summer closing ceremony had three parts this time: First, a ceremony for giving certificates to students who had won various competitions.  Second, the closing ceremony.  And finally, the goodbye ceremony for leaving teachers (i.e., me).

This meant that I had about thirty minutes of waiting and getting steadily more nervous before it was time for me to go on stage and read my speech.  The principal or vice principal typically says a few words about the leaving teachers before the teachers themselves say a word or two.  I had the principal introducing me.  I heard from another teacher that he was nervous about doing so, probably because he did not know me very well.  We have only been working together since April and we have barely interacted since that time.  His hands were shaking slightly as he read from the introduction he wrote, but he did a wonderful job.  I really appreciated how hard he tried and how seriously he took the responsibility.

I did not mess up too badly, but I did everything I told my students not to do during speeches.  I barely looked up from the paper.  I shifted my weight from foot to foot a few times.  However, I managed to look up occasionally and scan the room.  Most importantly, I managed to look up and deliver the last few lines from memory.  According to a few teachers, I even made a few students cry, which is always a sign of a successful goodbye speech.

After the speech, the student body president presented me with a beautiful bouquet.  I’m not a flower person (due to allergies and the fact that they die pretty quickly), but it was beautiful and made me smile.  They also presented me with a photo album of all the students and a 2018 calendar.  I was later told that they meant to make the photos part of the calendar, but there were a few problems, so they decided it was easier to split the two.

The photo album has pictures of each homeroom plus a hidden message. There is one letter or kanji in each picture, which, together, spells “4年間、ありがとう。Jodi, we love you.” Or, “Thank you for these four years. Jodi, we love you.” Unfortunately, they ran out of classes before they got to the “we love you” bit, which led to his delightfully awkward photo.

Feel the love.

And that was that.  That was my last official duty as ALT here.  I still have unofficial duties, like helping with orientation for my successor and potentially helping a few students next week prepare for the English Speech Contest, but I am otherwise free.  It is an interesting feeling, but one I feel I’m ready for.