It’s December! The first snow has fallen in the mountains, the last of the summer mosquitos are dying (thank god) and everyone in Gunma is setting up their kotatsu, refilling their kerosene and buying this season’s most fashionable puffy down jackets. It’s time to brace yourself for the long dark winter ahead.
Winter in Gunma can be a harrowing experience. JETs from the warmer parts of the world (Australia, California, Tatooine, etc) can struggle to adapt to the unique problems that frozen water falling from the sky can bring, while even those JETs from colder places (the UK, Canada, Hoth, etc) can have problems dealing with a cold winter without all the comforts of home, family and friends. Aside from the practicalities of cold weather, winter in Japan has its own challenges. Depending on your mindset and preparation going into winter you could think of Gunma as a winter wonderland, or a frozen desolate place where cabbages freeze in the ground and monkeys mug innocents.
This article is to help you deal with some of the more abstract problems that you can face in winter. Winter in Gunma is dark, cold and dry. It’s hard to go outside, and meeting with friends takes more effort than in summer. It’s easy to succumb to depression, homesickness and thoughts of setting your school’s staffroom alight so that just once it can be a little warmer than zero degrees. For new JETs the first winter in Gunma comes at an unfortunate time where the euphoria of first arriving in Japan is starting to wear off and you’re firmly on your way to Stage 2 (see Peter’s article on stage 2 here: http://www.gunmajet.net/guides/stage-too-horrible/). But with a little preparation and the right mindset you can have an amazing winter that’ll leave you sad when the snow melts away in April.
Here’s what you can do to help you survive to see the cherry blossoms:
When you’re not diligently planning your lessons, professionally developing yourself, reading pedagogical papers or running a community eikaiwa lesson, what do you do to relax? I know we’re all passionate about our work and wouldn’t go home before 8pm every day if our contracts didn’t clearly state our end of work time as [$_YOUR_FINISHING_TIME], but you need something to do other than hit your head against the wall of the Japan
ese education system.
Do you like baking? Knitting? Games? Juggling mikan? Instead of sitting at home staring at a wall, why not spend some time doing literally anything else? For a good balance, try to have:
- A hobby you can do by yourself inside (writing, making music, painting, etc)
- A hobby you practice with others (team sports, video games, cooking, etc)
- A winter hobby you can do outside (skiing, snowboarding, outdoor onsen, competitive snowball fights)
It can be harder to fill up your time than it is in summer, but with a little thought you can ensure that you’re not just sitting in your dark, frozen house, eating the last of your hoard of snacks from home, wondering who exactly this “father winter” is, and how much you’d have to pay to have him ‘taken care of’.
After the hectic, loud summer festivals you can be forgiven for thinking that Japan doesn’t have much going on in winter, but there’s just as many seasonal cultural events, you just need to look in the right places.
- Snow festivals are held in many regions, especially in the mountains, to celebrate their abundant snow. You can see ice sculptures, ride on snow slides, eat hot foods and participate in snowball fights. Ask your school or nearby ALTs about what happens in your area.
- Japanese Christmas is not western Christmas. It’s all about KFC, cake, having a romantic time, and (in a disturbing number of Tokyo department stores) crucifying Santa Claus. Depending on how you feel about this, you can either dive in and have a Japanese Christmas, or you can try and set up some ‘real’ Christmas events to show your Japanese friends and co-workers the true meaning of the holiday. Alternatively blow their minds with Hanukkah (“What do you mean you don’t celebrate Christmas?! You’re from Gaikoku!”)
- Illuminations. Do you think electric lighting is the best thing since sliced bread? Do bright colourful lights grab your attention like a cat with a laser pointer? Illuminations are for you. Different areas in Japan compete to have the fanciest, most romantic illumination displays every year. Great for dates.
- Japanese New Year! Lament to your Japanese friends or coworkers that you’ve never eaten ozoni (traditional Japanese new year soup), kagami-mochi (new year’s rice cake) or done hatsumode (the first shrine visit of the year). Someone may offer to share their family holiday with you. New Years in Japan feels like a very different holiday to many western countries. It’s time to spend with your family thinking about the upcoming year and enjoying traditional games and foods.
Winter in Gunma is dark. The sun rises late and sets early, and many days you’ll be inside for all the daylight hours. Turns out perpetual darkness is not that great for humans. We need sunlight to maintain healthy sleep patterns, produce vitamin d and generally feel like ourselves. It’s important not to lock yourself in a dark room on the weekends or you’ll start to feel like you did when you were 15. A tortured soul that nobody understands. You may even start listening to Dashboard Confessional again. I promise you their songs aren’t as deep as you remember.
Luckily it’s not too hard to get light; even if you’re at school. Sit near a window when it’s sunny and soak up dem rays. If you take up an outdoor hobby like snowboarding you’ll get lots of sun out on the ski fields.
There are a few good chances to travel over the winter months. Obviously the winter break (roughly December 26th – January 6th) is your best chance to do a serious trip. But there’s also National Founding day in February, conveniently the same time as Hokkaido’s famous Snow Festival. If you have the money and inclination you can travel around Japan, or if you’re like me you can flee the country for warmer climes. Head to the equator or southern hemisphere for a quick top-up of summer heat.
Just remember to take all the normal precautions when travelling. Let your supervisor know when and where you’re going, take your JET travel insurance booklet, register with your country’s embassy, and don’t combine alcohol + dangerous activities (especially driving). As my school’s PE teacher says, there are three cars you don’t want to ride in on your holidays: police cars, ambulances and hearses.
Really this whole article could just be replaced by the advice “be proactive in winter”. I probably could have said that before you read the ~1000 words before this. My bad. Actually this advice works for most of your time in Japan. If you shut yourself away, you’re going to have a Bad Time™. This doesn’t mean you need to be a crazy party animal who’s busy every day of the week. In fact, as a lifelong introvert and proponent of “stay-at-home-and-read-a-book-Fridays”, that sounds like hell. But as with so many things in life, you’ll only get out what you put in*.
* (doesn’t apply to financial markets or magician’s hats)
To end this article I’d like to remind you that as much as it may feel like it sometimes, you’re not alone in Japan. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. The Gunma ALT community is one of the best in Japan. There’s a lot of people you can call if you need some help, support or just to hang out.
The gorgeous PA/CIR Ashly Schanback:
Your local GAJET representative:
Misha Pinyo & Brandon Killby
Josh “The Lad” Andrews & Shohei Cereste
Becky Robbins & Ashley Oros
Tone & Agatsuma
Cian O’Carroll & Harris Vu
Any of the GAJET executives:
President: Sam Corpuz, [email protected]
Vice President: Mitch Goddard, [email protected]
Secretary: Kristin Wilson, [email protected]
Editor: Patrick Penny, [email protected]
Treasurer: Kimberley Smith, [email protected]
Webmaster: Jonathon Bray, [email protected]
Talk to your supervisor, JTEs or coworkers. Or basically just any ALTs around you. We really have an incredibly warm and supportive community, take advantage of it!Post in the Gunma ALTs Facebook group.
Two last sure-fire events to enjoy winter and avoid stage 2:
Come to the GAJET Ski Trip on January 31st up in Minakami for a day of awesome snow sports followed by unwinding those tired muscles in the famous Takaragawa Onsen and a dinner and party before bed.
Or if you’re missing home and want a bit more ‘foreign’ culture, come to the GAJET Art Share Night on February 21st in Takasaki. It’s a night where the entertainment is provided by fellow JETs and includes everything from live music, stand-up comedy and poetry readings to showcases of art.
This is all well and good, but I’m physically freezing HELP ME.
Check out some of our other winter guides on how to stay warm, winter-proof your home, or get into snowboarding here:
Winter Proof Your Home – http://www.gunmajet.net/guides/winter-proof/
Surviving a Gunma Winter – http://www.gunmajet.net/guides/surviving-a-gunma-winter/
Gunma Winter Ski Guide – http://www.gunmajet.net/guides/gunmawinterski/