As many of us can testify, being on JET is a transformative experience. Every day, we’re pushing ourselves, growing, learning—struggling and thriving by turns. For some of us, JET is a first foray into the “real world” post-graduation. For some of us, it’s our first time living alone, or living abroad, or both. These are huge changes, and they can be daunting. However, something that we all have in common is that we weather them the best we can, often with a little help from our friends.
When informing friends of my plans to move back stateside this summer, many asked if my time on JET lived up to my expectations.
Me: “You mean the expectations I had when flying halfway across the earth to teach in a country I’d never visited before? And knew no one living there?”
Them: “Well, when you put it that way…”
In certain ways, JET has been better than what I could have ever imagined—namely, the bonds I’ve formed with my students, coworkers, and friends. (I <3 our GUNMAFAM!) In others, I can honestly say that I’ve been pushed well past my breaking point. This year in particular has shown me that not every experience can, or should, be viewed through the rose-colored glasses so many of us expats tend to wear. Even at its darkest points, though, there have been people and things that are causing me to tear up as I write this, due to the bittersweet knowledge that my time here is rapidly coming to an end.
Since I don’t want to be the only one crying, do me a favor, okay? Think back. It’s 201X, and you’ve just found out that you’re going to Gunma. What were your goals before arriving? Have you since achieved them, and marked the occasion by coloring in the other eye of your daruma? Have you discovered new ones? Did you find something (or perhaps someone) that inspires you? Or done something so outside the realm of what you believed possible that your 201X-Gunma-Orientation-self would pause in shock and/or awe, thinking, “Really? That’s me?”
Case-in-point: Did I ever foresee myself becoming GAJET’s president? Absolutely…not. But contributing to a positive and supportive community has always been something I’ve gravitated towards, and this committee was one inroad to achieving that goal. Despite the challenges that accompany being a part of any volunteer organization, I can honestly say that GAJET has had a significant and lasting impact on me. Maybe the same can be said for some of you, as well. (Though perhaps in different ways—we’re not all trying to start NPOs post-JET, are we?)
Gunma, and the people here, have been my home for three indescribable years. Facing down the void of tomorrow’s possibilities can be terrifying, especially when the point you’re heading towards is so vastly different from where you saw yourself ending up when you first started out. That’s growth, though. It can be scary, or even painful at times. But, I know that no matter where that path leads, the experiences I’ve had here, and the people I’ve met along the way have shaped me into someone who can navigate it.
There will always be a crane-shaped mark on my heart from my years as a Gunma JET. When it comes time for you to leave, it is my sincerest hope that you feel the same.
The questions began popping into my head when I saw a poster of my predecessor, dressed in some form of make-shift wedding dress, sprinting for her life with a handful of others through a foot deep of mud. どろんこ祭り (doronko-matsuri). As to why my small town in the middle of nowhere had a mud and eel festival, I will never know, but I ventured into the rice paddies all the same.
Along with some other teachers from my school, I had signed up for the International Volleyball Competition – which, unsurprisingly, is played in a pool of mud. It was to be my first experience of playing volleyball and, having Googled the rules only the night before, was unsure as to what to expect. My school principle had prepared matching T-shirts, those Japanese toe socks that I had never seen anyone actually wear in real life, and a fighting spirit that was generally echoed by the other team members. A few of my co-workers were also kitted out, goggles and all, ready for war, and I was beginning to question whether I had made the right decision this morning when I left the safety of my bed. We arrived, bright and early, on a sunny day on the first of June, and eyed up the competition. I have to say that, despite my absolute lack of confidence in my ability to play volleyball, I was reassured after spotting a group of fully grown, Japanese men with a thick layer of make-up on, Little Mermaid-style boob bras made out of paper plates, and – scrawled across their back’s – had various バースデー messages written in thick, black ink. As I looked around, similarly alarming images of the Flintstones, cat-women, medics that carried around a gigantic syringe, brides-to-be, and the undead were scattered about the field preparing for a morning of sporting fun. “What was happening?” I thought, as I took my first step into the mud, and into the madness.
Fun fact: attempting to do any form of physical activity in mud is abnormally difficult. Even walking proved to be a challenge.
After watching my school principle dive for the ball, fail to even to touch it and take out two of his team members in the process, it was my turn to play. I was nervous, but I did my best, and lost my first match spectacularly (and the two after that as well). In fact, the only game that we did win was against a group of Junior High School students that had graduated from my school this very year. The battles continued around us. People ran, jumped, stumbled, and tumbled, and grew steadily dirtier and dirtier until they resigned to simply lay in mud, like a bath. By the end of the tournament, there wasn’t a single white shirt left on the field, and my hair was no longer a shade of ginger.
The following day, I returned to the festival – mentally prepared this time – and watched as thirty or so mothers, and then thirty or so fathers, attempted to race, as fast as they could, through the field of thick mud. Men and women stumbled and fell, hard, ripping themselves back out of the mud with only their eyes visible through the layers and layers of dirt that covered their face and bodies. Eels were released into the water, and children fought to catch them with their bare hands, diving this way and that as the adults struggled to catch up behind them. And then, the race which had brought me here in the first place. Foreign couples lined up at one side of the course, wearing beautiful, clean, white wedding dresses. The whistle blew and they dove into the water, sprinting to the finish line. Shambles of the prim and proper couples they once were, our two ALT teams were handed a live fish as their prize. After watching the carnage unfold, I started to think that the volleyball competition from the day before wasn’t actually so bad…
What amazes me about Japan is that, even a town as small as mine, can have such a unique and distinctive event that is accessible to all. If you weren’t able to make it out to Yoshii this time, I hope you’ll join me on the muddy battlegrounds next year!
The GAJET community gathered in Maebashi this past Saturday for the eighth annual I Can Japan charity event. ALTs and locals alike gathered for an evening of great food, performances, and prizes. All the money raised at this event is given to the Komochiyama foster home in Shibukawa, Gunma.
We hope to see you all next year. In the meantime, check out the photos from the event. Thanks to Jansen Magarro and Gavin Au-Yeung for taking pictures.
Last weekend, members of GAJET had an opportunity to give back to the community by spending a playful afternoon at the Komochiyama Foster Home in Shibukawa. The brief visit is an early indicator for GAJET’s annual I Can Japan event, being held this year on May 25.
I Can Japan began as an endeavor to support the communities affected by the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. Borrowing the kanji characters for love (愛, ‘ai’) and feelings (感, ‘kan’), I Can Japan 2019 will mark the third year of GAJET supporting Komochiyama’s cause; 100% of the proceeds raised will be donated to the foster home. Your contributions will help provide invaluable resources for the children living there.
Komochiyama is home to more than 50 children ranging from infants to teenagers. The home provides a safe, supportive, and engaging environment for these growing children.
During the visit, GAJET members took part in many fun activities with the children. The afternoon started off with self-introductions from the kids, staff, and GAJET members. After we got to know each other, we began the fun activities outside.
The first game we played was a hybrid of Simon Says and Red Light, Green Light. The goal of the game was to listen carefully and move forward only when ‘Simon says’. The kids caught on quick and it became an intense race to the finish line. The children had a great time taking large leaps towards the goal, while GAJET members struggled to keep their balance.
Afterwards, the group played Capture the Bacon. This game involved arranging the kids in numbered groups based on their size. When a number gets called out, the corresponding group would race towards the ‘bacon’ (in this case, a small bag), the first person to pick it up is the winner. This was initially confusing for some of the younger kids. It was hilarious to see some of them charging at the ‘bacon’ at every chance they got – regardless of which number was called out.
Finally, we played a fierce game of Duck-Duck-Goose. Racing around the circle of people with a 5 year old chasing after you was a challenge. It was actually quite defeating to be tagged by a kid a quarter of your size. Once tagged you would be forced to sit in the middle of the circle, and become the ‘duck soup.’ While in the circle, the slurping sounds and tiny chomping jaws begin. Some of the kids would say you are delicious while others would show disgust. The children had no restraint in telling us what they thought.
To cool down after all the excitement, we ventured back inside to make paper suns for I Can Japan. Be sure to come out on May 25 to see their beautiful creations. Suns, faces, and cartoon characters were only some of the pieces of art that were made.
Four o’clock had come and we had to say our goodbyes. Hugs and head pats were a plenty, and some kids held on to us a little longer than others. I found myself surrounded by the children, ripping off their nametags and slapping them onto my jacket.
This afternoon served as a reminder that we are easily caught up in our lives; losing sight of what is happening around the community. We are truly fortunate to be ALTs in Gunma. The time we spent at the foster home showed us that children are able to enjoy their lives despite their unfortunate experiences. It showed us the strength of these children. Furthermore, the workers at Komochiyama deserve recognition for maintaining a safe, clean and healthy place for these kids to grow. We were able to witness the love, compassion and kindness they have for these children.
It is from this strong sense of community that we can move forward and proudly say “I Can!”
Jansen Magarro is a fourth year JET in Tatebayashi. He is on this year’s GAJET committee as the Tobu representative. Come out and say “hi” to him at I Can Japan.
Hanami, flowering viewing, is a popular event each year during spring time to witness the beautiful, pink return of spring to Gunma’s mountains and valleys. However, the Kanra Castle Town Obata Sakura Festival is not your ordinary hanami experience. An annual event, this festival exists to celebrate the beloved sakura blossoms, while simultaneously paying tribute to the era in which Obata was created. Hanami featuring a Musha Gyoretsu—a warrior parade.
Every year, the Kanra Board of Education invites Gunma ALTs to participate in this remarkable parade. I had jumped at the chance to participate in this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. A few days before the event, I received some paperwork for the event.
Among the package was a letter written entirely in Japanese, addressed to, “Maja Thoenes, foreign warrior.”
On March 31st, all 11 “foreign warriors” rolled into the freezing, drizzling Kanra Junior High School Gym parking lot. Filing inside one by one, the gym seemed to give off a warm, orange glow. Every inch of the floor was covered with weapons and neatly folded piles of clothing: bright red and pink yukata with spears, embroidered green and gold kimono, and full suits of obsidian samurai armor that stood like little mountains amongst the fabric plains. Although only eight in the morning, the gym was already brimming with people, and they collectively turned around to watch the stunned foreign warriors walk inside.
We found our piles of clothing and weaponry, and after a while, the rental gear workers were ready to help us dress. We started in our long underwear and put on two-toed tabi socks and sandals. Over that, a simple white robe, with a plain but mighty obi around our waist restricting blood-flow to our brains. Next, the top—it was heavy and shiny, with wide sleeves that hid our hands. We stepped into the pants made of the same fabric, creating the classic image of the warrior pant-suit of the samurai. These were tied around us at waist again, and we were wrapped a second time with another thick obi. Our weapons were next: a long katana with a leather belt around our hips, and a knife in a sheath that was forced in between the folds of the two obi. For the finishing touches, we tied the tassels on the neck of our robes, and we donned a stiff, black mesh hat. Some of us awkwardly tried to unsheathe our katana, while others snapped quick selfies and practiced their finest blue steel faces. We could hardly move or breathe in all the gear, but no doubt we looked as glorious and badass as we felt in our hearts.
Once everyone was dressed, we walked from the gym to the nearby Rakusan-en, a lovely Japanese-style garden built by the son of Oda Nobunaga. Nearly a hundred other procession participants were already there, taking photos in front of the koi fish pond and hiding from the sprinkling rain under the thatched roofs of the tea houses. After a short word from the mayor and an introduction of two visiting comedians, all the participants lined up into formation for the procession.
Cannon fire from the top of the hill announced the festival’s start. Just as we took our first steps, the sun came out.
Observers stood along the sides of the street with their cameras ready as we paraded through in groups, sporting dozens of different types of historical Japanese clothing. Heavily armored palace guards with towering kanji helmets and tiger fur coats, long red-robed philosophers with skyscraper hats, elementary school-aged peasant guards wearing bamboo sandals, historical royalty wearing colorful veils, and even horses bridled with teal masks, yellow tassels dancing on their noses. In the middle of all of this, the foreign warriors, marching and smiling amongst the waving flags and river of robes. We greeted the students, teachers and strangers that surrounded us on every side. The procession was occasionally paused so that we cheer together: Ei, ei, oh! Ei, ei, oh! Although the sakura overhead had barely begun to bloom, the warmth in the wind was undeniable—spring was here, and it almost felt like we were leading her in.
We marched from Rakusan-en to Kanra Obatahachiman, a humble shrine resting between tall, noble pine trees. We took a break in the sun for some green tea, apple juice, and pictures before getting into formation once more for the trek back to the gardens. The festival had been waiting for our arrival, a taiko drum team welcoming us to our positions in front of a large stage, set up before an ocean of observers. The mayor gave a small speech to announce the official start of the Sakura Festival, and we gave our “Ei, ei, oh” war cry for a final time.
Although the procession’s journey had only been a little over two kilometers, we were exhausted. Back in the gym, we stripped off our samurai gear in only a fraction of the time it had taken to put it on, covering the floor in fabric once more. We inhaled our bento while chatting about the parade—we had heard lots of compliments in English, such as “beautiful” and “handsome,” but we agreed that “Can you teach me English?” in Japanese had been our favorite. We had laughed and said that we could.
Although I doubt the historical accuracy of including a bunch of overseas English teachers in cultural celebration such as this, there was no doubt that the Kanra community was delighted by our involvement, and we were so honored to be a part of it all. The residents of Kanra are so friendly and outgoing—we were asked to take a staggering number of photos, and so many people went out of their way to ask us about ourselves and complement our awesome get-up.
It turned out that the Kanra Board of Education had sponsored our participation costs, including our lunch, so the entire experience was free of cost. The Kanra ALT supervisor even went so far as to follow us around during the procession, carrying our wallets and keys and making sure we all got back safely. We are so thankful for the kindness and generosity shown by the Kanra Board of Education to the participating ALTs each year, and we look forward to many more festivals in the future.
We left the gym and returned to the festival grounds to pay a little visit the food stalls that were serving yakisoba, karaage, yakimajuu and other enticing treats. We sat at the very back of the crowd for a while, our hands full of food, watching a live samurai drama. The actors fought their opponents, doing summer saults and backflips, their katana and robes thrashing in the wind. It was like a window into the past, the illusion spoiled only by the corny but endearing sound effects blasted over the speakers.
By the time the drama ended and applause filled the air, the grass where we once sat was empty. No one noticed, but we foreign warriors had quietly slipped away, the sakura budding above us.
Maja Thoenes is a second year JET from Alabama. She is a published author, and enjoys hiking and binging Netflix. You can find her work on Amazon.
If you’re like me, the first time you saw the plastic trays of strawberries at the supermarket in Japan, you jumped for joy. Back home, strawberries were not a seasonal treat, but a year-round expectation. You could even get a large carton of them for about five dollars, depending on the season. So, you can imagine my dismay when a whopping nine strawberries cost nearly 700 yen!
I was in shock. The juicy, ruby red fruits I had taken for granted in America were now snubbing their noses at me, as if to say “now you know our real worth.” Begrudgingly, I would wait until payday to buy my nine strawberries and eat them with relish, savoring the taste until I could afford my next fix. Before I knew it, they’d disappear and make way for new seasonal fruits, not to be spotted again until next winter.
But there is a trick to truly enjoying strawberries in Japan – visit a you-pick farm.
You-pick farms in Japan aren’t the same as back home. Rather than heading out to a dusty farm and crouching down in the dirt paths to hunt for crimson jewels between their waxy leaves, Japanese farms grow the strawberry beds on tables, their treasures shining in the sunlight pouring in from the greenhouse windows.
While the ease of picking has been vastly improved upon, you’re in for a shock if you think you are just going to pick your berries, weigh them, and take home a box full of fruity treasures. Strawberry farms in Japan have an “all you can eat” mentality – a healthier (and less expensive) version of a nomihoudai. When you arrive at the farm, you will make your way to the cashier and pay for a time slot. Strawberry farms usually offer 30- or 60-minute slots for your gastronomic pleasure and cost between 1,000 and 2,000 yen depending on peak times.
Once you’ve paid, you will be given a trash cup or tray and escorted to a hothouse to begin your adventure.
When you enter the hothouse, a chest-high carpet of green stretches out before you. Picking strawberries is as easy as meandering down a row of plants and casually plucking any one that strikes your fancy.
Depending on the farm, the hothouse may only hold one variety of strawberry or many. The one we went to had three varieties in each house, the rows clearly marked by signs on the endcaps. Choose an empty row and make your way down, stopping at any strawberry that you deem worthy of eating and toss the stems into your trash cup. Once you’ve filled your cup with stems, find the trash cans, empty the dead soldiers into the proper bin, and start all over.
The best advice I can give is to take your time. Even 30 minutes is a long time to consistently shovel strawberries into your piehole. Peruse the plants for the brightest, most succulent berries. If you find a good plant, enjoy all the berries it has to offer. Try different varieties, then choose your favorite one and indulge your inner glutton. Take pictures with your friends and revel in the joy that is Japanese strawberry season.
Strawberries are in season from December to early May; however, Gunma is filled with all manner of fruit picking farms throughout the year. You can find a list of strawberry farms on GTIA’s site or farms by region and fruit type on the Gunma Tourism site.
Most fruit farms are not near a station, so you’ll need to find a friend who drives or brave the local bus routes. If you are determined to pick strawberries but can’t find a ride, I’d recommend Tatara Fresh Farm which is about a 20 minute walk from Tatara Station.
Strawberry picking is a Japanese experience you don’t want to miss. So get out there and stuff yourself silly with fresh fruit from the farm!
Nikkita Kent is a misplaced thalassophile who was transplanted from the beaches of Florida to the mountains of Gunma in 2017. Unable to sit still for too long, she delights in teaching senior high school in Ota City, exploring the local restaurants, and travelling at every available opportunity. Check her out on Instagram @daw2dus.
Pink petals float on the breeze as the sun’s gentle rays shine down. Sounds of children playing echo across a green field.
It’s finally here! Spring has returned at last!
A season associated with rebirth, spring is the time when we end our winter hibernation, crawl out from under the kotatsu, and bask in nature renewed. In April, a new school year will begin, and young scholars will embark on new adventures. Nature follows suit, as cherry blossom boughs burst into bloom in the early season. These precious petals can be seen across Japan. But act quickly! Their season is only about two weeks.
So grab some snacks and beverages, lay out your picnic blanket and soak it all in! Popular parks in Tokyo will attract thousands of visitors, eager to participate in the tradition of hanami (flower viewing party). Not to be outdone, Gunma cherry blossoms across the prefecture will put on their best show.
Cherry blossoms are set to bloom soon, as weather forecasts predict an early start to the 2019 hanami season. Knowing where to go is half the battle when it comes maximizing your cherry blossom viewing experience. Here are some of the best places in Gunma for cherry blossoms!
Gunma’s capital is a perfect spot for your first hanami! The Tone River runs through the park, providing a stunning backdrop for the cherry blossoms. At night, enjoy the blooms by lantern light along the hill. And of course, vendors provide festival staples like karaage and takoyaki.
My visit: April 8, 2017
Springtime cherry blossoms adorn the historic grounds of Tomioka’s own World Heritage Site, the Tomioka Silk Mill. Enjoy them under the warm sun during the day, or come to see the nighttime illumination of the sakura.
This year’s illumination period will run from approximately 6pm – 8pm each night from March 25 – April 7 (dependent on blooming conditions).
Pro tip: Check out the nearby shops, such as Kuturogi, which carries a number of delightful gelato flavors!
My visit: April 9 (day) and 12 (night), 2017
This park in Kanra boasts plenty of picturesque cherry blossoms, and water to go with.
If you’re lucky the cherry blossoms will be in bloom at the same time as Kanra’s Castle Town Warrior Procession, a festival which sees the townspeople on parade, dressed up as samurai of the past. Be sure to check it out this year, as you may see some friendly Gunma ALTs in the mix!
There’s also nearby Rakusan-en if you want to combine cherry blossom viewing with a bit of exploration. Rakusan-en is Gunma’s own historic daimyo garden! The grounds are another great setting for photos, with the koi pond and traditional buildings.
My visit: April 9, 2017
Return to Maebashi for a comfortable stroll through the woods for the Akagi Senbonzakura, or Thousand Cherry Trees, Festival. As you emerge from the woods you’ll be greeted by a road lined with vendors, festival food, and of course, sakura! The cherry trees share some of their glory with phlox and other greenery, but it’s safe to say the cherry blossoms themselves are the stars of the show.
This year the Akagi Thousand Cherry Trees Fetsival will be held from April 6 – 21 2019 (tentative depending on flowers).
My visit: April 15, 2017
North of Maebashi, the city of Shibukawa holds the Shiroijuku Double Cherry Blossom Festival. The double cherry blossoms boast more petals than their single-petal compatriots. You can find them in full view around Shiroijuku, but don’t miss out on the parade and festival foods as well!
My visit: April 22, 2018 (the day of the festival!)
Gunma’s lovely mountains mean that there are chances you can catch blossoms that show up later than their buddies in the valleys. Hanging out on Mount Haruna, I was surprised to find cherry blossoms still out – in May! Harunafuji may still be quite brown, but you will see signs of color beginning to appear!
My visit: May 4, 2018
If crowds aren’t your jam, if the distance is too far, or sorting the transportation is daunting, fear not! There are cherry blossoms for everyone! Don’t feel silly searching for them along the path less trodden. Cherry blossoms don’t need a park or a crowd to show off! This spring you’ll find cherry blossoms all around; if this is your first spring in Gunma you might be surprised by what you find locally, whether you’re in the inaka or the big city. You can even ask some of your neighbors or coworkers where those hidden top spots are!
Thanks to a local tip during my first year in Gunma, we learned about this park in Tomioka. The climb up this small “mountain” is great exercise, and I’ve never seen it particularly crowded. The side of the mountain is lined with cherry trees, and when you get to the top you are rewarded with even more beauty, the Tomioka view of Myogi and Asama. If the timing is right you can get cherry blossoms and daffodils together!
Pictures from April 2017, around Gunma.
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Know other places in Gunma worth sharing? Leave a comment down below.
Valerie Landers is a third-year JET in Tomioka. Dabbler in languages, worker of puzzles, and unofficial hype-woman for Gunma. She loves festivals, flowers, and fireworks. There’s a growing collection of houseplants in her apaato, and if you can’t find her there, she might be driving on one of Gunma’s mountains or hanging out in Chakichi, Tomioka’s wonderful matcha café. Follow her adventures on Instagram @duchessmouse