Japan: Week One

Oh my, somehow I’ve let two weeks go by without writing – sorry guys!

To pick up where I left off last time, once Tokyo Orientation had finished I gathered my things and left for the airport early Wednesday morning. All of my fellow Miyazaki JETs traveled together, and I got a chance to talk with a lot of really nice people who will all be living nearby-ish this year. There were around 10 of us all together, and even more had arrived the week before. Miyazaki itself has 75 JETs, 28 of whom were new this year.

On the plane I was seated next to another new JET and a man headed to Miyazaki to visit family. He spoke great English, had visited the US often for work, and told us all about what we should see, do, and eat in Miyazaki. He also spent the first part of the flight trying very hard to make sure we got a good view of Mt. Fuji as we flew past, which was very nice of him, and we really did get a nice view.

Mt. Fuji!
Mt. Fuji!

Once we landed in Miyazaki it was time for lunch and another mini-orientation, this time short and sweet and much more useful. It was also nice to be in a room with fewer than 100 people. Once the meeting was over our supervisors came in and accompanied everyone to their respective cities/towns.

A quick note about where I’m living now, because I really had no idea where Miyazaki was before coming here. Miyazaki is the name of a prefecture (sort of like a state) on the southern island of Kyushu. It’s almost as far south as you can go while still being part of the “mainland” of Japan (ie – not in Okinawa). It’s the 14th largest prefecture (out of 47), and from what I can tell it’s main industry is agriculture. In fact, Miyazaki is famous for having some of the best beef in Japan (the Kobe beef cows are raised here before being sent to Kobe to be massaged and whatnot for a year). It’s also known for amazing mangos, which I will probably never eat because they are ridiculously expensive, often upwards of $50 for a single mango.

Miyazaki’s prefectural mascots, the “Miyazaki Ken” They represent the culture, food, and natural areas of Miyazaki. Also, they’re really cute.

Now, within Miyazaki-ken (“ken” means prefecture), I’m living in a city called Miyakonojo. It’s the second largest city in the prefecture, and is equidistant between Miyazaki City and Kagoshima City (in neighboring Kagoshima-ken). The biggest city on Kyshu, Fukuoka, is about 4 hours away by train, and it’s a 1.5 hour flight to Tokyo from Miyazaki City.

My first meal in Miyazaki - "Chiken nanban." It's a regional specialty dish, and it's pretty tasty. Even the airport version was good!
My first meal in Miyazaki – “Chiken nanban.” It’s a regional specialty dish, and it’s pretty tasty. Even the airport version was good!

Anyway, after leaving Miyazaki City with my supervisor, we spent an hour driving through the mountains to reach Miyakonojo. The scenery was beautiful, and I’m excited at the prospect of exploring the area. Miyakonojo is in a valley, surrounded by two different mountain ranges (I think), which makes driving around the city on a clear day pretty nice. I didn’t get many pictures this time because I was talking with my supervisor and taking everything in.

My supervisor took me directly to my school (we had all been instructed to wear formal suits on the plane for this reason) and I met a few of the teachers and staff. In Japan, teachers do not get summer holidays, and are required to go to work every day. Even the students, who are supposedly on break, come in almost every day for club activities, though I didn’t see many of them my first day. After collecting my bags (which had been shipped from Tokyo) my supervisor took me to my apartment, which is just a 10 minute bike ride from school. I’m glad the route was easy (turn left, straight, turn right, you’re there!) because when we got in the car he said, ok, remember how we go, and come to work tomorrow morning! But even with my sense of direction, it worked out just fine.

The view from my new apartment
The view from my new apartment

Once my supervisor helped me set up my gas, electricity, and water I was left on my own to settle in. My apartment is in a very convenient spot, two minutes from a grocery store, second hand shop, a few 100yen stores (like dollar stores but 1000000x better) and several convenience stores, which everyone calls “conbini.” I set out to find food and on my way back I ran into a couple on their way out of my building, and learned that my new neighbors are from South Africa. It was really great to know that I had nice neighbors, and since then I’ve gotten to know them a bit and they are lovely people.

To finish up my first week in Japan I spent my first official day of work running around with my supervisor setting up my bank account, cell phone and Internet. By the time we finished up it was time to go home, and I spent the evening hanging out with the South African couple downstairs. Friday I went into work and Christine, the other ALT at my school, explained how things work. Because it’s summer vacation there wasn’t a whole lot for me to do, so I cleaned up my desk and read through old lesson plans left by my predecessor. Many of the teachers were also absent because it was almost Obon, a big Japanese holiday.

Gifts from the English club. Each piece of origami has a note inside from the students
Gifts from the English club. Each piece of origami has a note inside from the students

Before the week was up it was time for one more event, a local welcome party thrown by a few other ALTs. I walked over with my neighbors and had a lovely time meeting maybe 15 or so of the other foreigners living in the area. While JET is largely American on the whole, Miyakonojo actually has a really diverse group of people, with many coming from Australia and the UK. It was a lot of fun hearing all the different accents, and everyone was really nice. We had a few drinks and ended up playing a funny card game that was sort of like a mix between charades and cards against humanity, and before we knew it, it was 2am and time to go home.

Overall my first week here in Japan was a bit overwhelming, but also extremely positive. The people I’ve met have all be very nice, I’m happy with my living situation and my school, and I’m really looking forward to the year ahead.

My new home
My new home
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How Jessica Became a JET

Konnichiwa, oshashiburi desu! Hello everyone, it’s been a while since I last checked in. By now I’ve been in Japan for over a week, and already I’ve had several requests to bring back the blog, so here we are again!

As I mentioned all the way back in May, I finished up my year in Vietnam, took off for a month of travel in South East Asia and Australia, stopped by St. Louis for a few weeks, visited some friends in the northwest, and then, finally, flew to Japan to join the Japanese Exchange Teaching Programme (JET). It’s been a long journey, especially if you consider that I applied for this thing back in October, but if the first week is any indication, this is going to be another great year.

Goodbye to Vietnam and my amazing Vietnamese friends. I promise I'll be back!
Goodbye to Vietnam and my amazing Vietnamese friends. I promise I’ll be back!

So let’s start at the beginning, and let me explain a few things about JET. After submitting my application back in October I tried very hard to forget about the whole thing while I waited to find out if I would make it to the interview stage. This worked pretty well until about December, and I spent most of my winter vacation wondering when I would hear back. As soon as I left Hawaii I had my answer, and shortly thereafter booked my ticket to Guam, where I would have the interview. Now, if you think Guam seems like a strange place to interview for a teaching job in Japan then you’re not alone. The rules for applying to JET (which employs teachers and coordinators from over 40 countries) state that you must attend an interview in your home country, regardless of where you are living at the time of application. Which is really fun if you’re living closer to Japan than the US, but hey, it meant I got to go to Guam.

36 hours in Guam!
36 hours in Guam!

After 12 hours of travel I had a 20 minute interview, 12 more hours of travel back to Vietnam, and then three more months of waiting for results. Now, JET’s hiring process is notoriously confusing. The only real requirements for the job of assistant language teacher (ALT) are 1) you must be interested in Japan (duh), 2) you must speak fluent English, and 3) you must be a college graduate. Japanese language ability is not required, and in some cases is actually discouraged. Add to this that the applicant pool is HUGE, and you end up with no way to know if you have a real chance at the job or not, even with a solid interview and relevant background. In fact, I had pretty much given up on getting in and was applying to other jobs when I heard back from JET in April that I had been shortlisted for placement.

Being on the shortlist means you will probably, 98% surely be placed at a school in Japan. I’ve actually never heard of someone being shortlisted and then not getting a placement, but it’s this really scary thing that hangs over your head for quite a while. I found out in mid-May that I had been hired by the Miyazaki Board of Education (Miyazaki is a prefecture in Japan), and that was when I finally started sharing the good news. I didn’t know what city I’d be in, the age of my students, or the name of my school until almost June, and I know of several people who waited much longer than me. Moral of the story – getting JET is not impossible, but it is a LONG process, there are many hoops to jump through, and how it all happens remains a great mystery.

Beautiful hike to Wallace Falls with Luisa and Lucia.
Beautiful hike to Wallace Falls with Luisa and Lucia.

So, having found all of this out I returned to the US and prepared as best I could for the coming year. I saw my family and friends, did a bit of shopping, worried about things I had no control over, then decided not to think about it and enjoy the summer. It was nice to be home, and I loved seeing everyone (and eating cheese!) but I was ready to get back to a job and a routine. I made my goodbyes and flew to Seattle, where I saw friends, went hiking, and ate some really great ice cream.

Back in Tacoma with a few of the Pac Rim crew
Back in Tacoma with a few of the Pac Rim crew

After a few days Luisa and I took the train down to Portland, which is where I would have pre-departure orientation and finally leave for Japan. We had a good time hanging out and driving around Portland, and on the day before the orientation I realized I pretty much had not thought about my upcoming trip all week. It was a really weird state of mind, enjoying seeing my friends and being in a familiar place, but also getting ready to jump into something completely different. I think I went into orientation with a bit of a blase attitude, thinking I knew what was coming because I’d lived in Asia before, I’d taught before. The JET facebook page was constantly buzzing in the background with people excitedly looking for friends, freaking out about details like getting a phone or how much cash to bring, and I really wasn’t interested in that. It kind of felt like high school graduates getting excited to go to college, but I was more like a transfer student.

On my way to Japan!
On my way to Japan!

The actual orientation pretty much confirmed this feeling. Roughly 600 people from several different countries all flew into Tokyo for two days of lectures and workshops on living and teaching in Japan. Being somewhat of an introvert, I was a bit overwhelmed by the sheer number of people, and while I met several really cool people at meals and in workshops, I wasn’t super concerned with making lasting bonds. Much like college orientation, it’s pretty much assured I will never see most of these people ever again, which made it hard for me to muster up the energy to make strong connections. This isn’t to say I was antisocial – I wasn’t. I sat with new people for every meal, struck up conversations in the halls and at workshops, and tagged along with people for small evening outings. It was all just a bit much for me, especially when dealing with jet lag.

So. Many. People. Look at all those chairs!
So. Many. People. Look at all those chairs!
Tokyo from up high - holy crap this is a huge city.
Tokyo from up high – holy crap this is a huge city.

But all of us somehow made it through. Many people went all-out and did karaoke and bar hopping every night, but I’ve discovered that alcohol and sleep deprivation are not the best way to recover from jet lag, so I made up my mind to return to Tokyo and explore more once I’d settled in. Japan has tons of public holidays, which are great for long weekend trips. Some of the people I met will be living in Tokyo or nearby areas, so I’ll definitely go back soon. I did go out and eat some tasty food every night, and even made it to a cool observation deck to get an idea of exactly how big Tokyo is. It’s really really big.

Shinjuku at night. Because we had orientation during the day, the only time we had to explore was at night
Shinjuku at night. Because we had orientation during the day, the only time we had to explore was at night

After orientation was all done we all packed our bags and flew 1.5 hours to Miyazaki City. But this post has already gotten too long, so I will write about my new home next time 🙂

Oh, but one quick note first. This post kind of reads as a bit of a downer, but please know that I’m actually super happy to be here. Just like when I went to Vietnam, adjusting to a new place and dealing with jet lag, culture shock, etc takes time. For me the first few days of a major trip are often overwhelming, so it shows in my writing. All of this is to say, don’t worry, family, I’m perfectly fine, and in fact am very happy. I’ll tell you more about that (and with more pictures) soon.