One year ago, I wondered, with a mixture of excitement and trepidation, what adventures and stories lay in wait? For me, it all truly began the moment the plane touched down on the runway at Narita.
I remember the entire cabin cheering and bursting into thunderous applause. After almost an entire year of stress and anxiety, we had done it! We felt like heroes in an epic journey that was about to begin.
Due to a combination of jet lag and absolute wide-eyed wonder, the first few days in Tokyo felt like walking through a dream. How thrilling to meet such a dizzying number of JETs from around the world, explore Tokyo by night, and engage in shenanigans at karaoke bars and on the streets of Shinjuku.
And at orientation, the scope of the JET Programme really hit home. 800 new JETs from 30+ countries! Elaborate ceremonies with Japanese officials! I was filled with a renewed sense of mission that what we are here to do in Japan is really important.
Yet, as quickly as Tokyo Orientation began, it was over, and I soon found myself on a bus to my prefecture. Gunma was not on my list of requests, so when I found out my placement in a small city of 70,000 called Fujioka, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I became even more nervous when people commented that Gunma was very inaka.
As it turns out, my fears were unfounded. Apparently, the Japanese concept of ‘countryside’ can also encompass rice fields sandwiched between houses in the suburbs. I’ve been lucky because my placement is in central Fujioka, yet still maintains the feeling of a town with a strong local community.
It was exactly what I envisioned a typical JET placement might be like and came across as the ‘real’ Japan. Regardless of where you are placed in Gunma, you will have an amazing experience if you immerse yourself in your school, community, and make an effort to step outside of your comfort zone.
I remember when I first stepped into my apartment, I was taken aback by how small it was. This was my first experience with culture shock. Doors, counter tops and appliances seemed to be about 2/3 the size of what I was used to back home. Meals at restaurants were 2/3 the size of what I was used to. Japanese cars and roads were smaller. Even the average Japanese person, was maybe 2/3 the size of the average North American! I realized there would be many things to get used to.
As the months went by, I slowly found my bearings. I learned to find my way around my neighborhood, which side of the street to drive on, and which trains to take. I often learned the hard way, which forced me to learn that much more quickly.
Through it all, I experienced many firsts. My first summer festival, first (and last) time eating natto, first class that was a disaster, first class that was actually successful, first enkai , first onsen visit… there are too many new experiences to remember. Even the most mundane everyday activity, like shopping at a grocery store, was a new challenge. With each new experience I very quickly grew to love Fujioka, and Gunma, and Japan as I discovered my place in it.
This year, I saw Shanghai, explored the neon streets of Hong Kong, and completed a major life goal when I visited the Philippines; the country of my birth, for the first time in 15 years. I spent 2 weeks surfing and sipping pinacoladas on a white sandy beach.
One thing that struck me is that travel has changed from ‘going on vacation’ to ‘seeing the world’. I am extremely grateful that JET has afforded me this opportunity and look forward to the next big trip.
Between the crazy weekends and weeklong excursions, I taught at the largest junior high school in Fujioka for a year. I did my best to find a happy medium between ‘Mr. Human Tape Recorder’ and ‘Mr. Plans Every Single Lesson’. My attempts were met with varying degrees of success – the English mailbox I set up mysteriously vanished one day.
But at the end of the day, I always went home feeling like I was contributing towards ‘grass roots internationalization’. As JETs, we are more than just English teachers, we are the strongest link that the average Japanese person has to the outside world. This is a tremendously humbling responsibility.
As my first year draws to a close, I am struck with the sense that I have barely scratched the surface of all there is to experience in this strange, beautiful, mysterious land. A year might seem like a while, but it flies by like nothing. Although there are undoubtedly many challenges to face, you figure it out as you go along.
One year later, no challenge will seem insurmountable. Approach everyday as an adventure with a fresh set of eyes, make the most of it and seize the day. Ganbaru!