February 2022

This month was short, sweet, and unexpectedly cold. My expectations for Yamaguchi were that we would have a mild winter with barely any snow and warmer temperatures, but it’s been colder, snowier, and windier than I thought was possible here. There are some warm days, to be sure, where the temperature reaches the low 50s and we get a nice reprieve but most of February has been in the high-30s and mid-40s.

On the second to last Thursday of the month, I stepped outside and was greeted with half an inch of snow on the ground. My bike was covered in snow and since I was running late already, I made the brave decision to walk to school instead. The snow was thicker than it has been all winter, but it really wasn’t as dangerous as taking a walk in the Chicago winter. There were even patches of ice on the ground, which honestly brought on a wave of nostalgia as I walked carefully around them. Once I reached the elementary school, I could tell that something was off because there were fewer cars than usual in the parking lot. My first thought was that maybe they had canceled school because of the weather, but the unexpected weather caused long traffic jams on the highways, and teachers were running late. Some teachers were an hour to two hours late, but my vice principal was five hours late to school on a commute that usually takes an hour. Hopefully, March will bring warmer weather.

I’ve been trying to study Japanese every day since one of New Year’s resolutions is to pass the JLPT N2 (probably an unachievable goal, but we’ll see) and went to a little study date with my friends in a large, fancy McDonalds that served Orea chocolate cake and coffee inexpensive glass mugs. While I carried all my study materials with me all the way to Yanai I really didn’t get too much studying and spent most of my time distracting my friends instead. Since the school year is ending soon, I’ve had more free time at work and have plenty of opportunities to study there so I don’t feel guilty about this unproductive study endeavor.

I was invited to lunch with two of my coworkers and they treated me to a huge chicken leg at a famous locally famous restaurant in Iwakuni. My coworkers recommended this place because of its comically large chicken legs, and onigiri rice balls. The restaurant is really a large complex with several different buildings all with different seating areas and outdoor seating with a view of a beautiful waterfall. I want to go back when the weather is warmer and to see all the lanterns lit up at nighttime. They also took me to a café near Kintaikyo Bridge that had the most delicious yuzu tea and a beautiful gallery with postcards, prints, jewelry, and various knick-knacks created by local artists. There was a little reading nook with a view of the outdoor garden that was calling my name, so I hope that I become a regular customer.

My friends and I ventured to Kudamatsu because we’d heard a rumor about a well-stocked international grocery store with food and products from around the world. I was able to find dates, gnocchi, Polish chocolates, dried mangoes, sriracha, gochujang, tteokbokki, and more and I was very excited to cook with all my new goodies (and since then I was able to cook many a delicious meal with these new ingredients). Kudamatsu is farther in the south-eastern part of Yamaguchi and this was the first time I’ve driven through this part of the prefecture since my arrival in October. Yamaguchi has a lot of beautiful nature and lots of mountains (an obvious face because its English name translates to “mountain’s mouth/entrance”) and now that the quasi-state of emergency restrictions are ending here I’m looking forward to exploring more.

January 2022

A New Year Brings New Problems

I began the New Year with a two-day marathon of the Harry Potter movies to occupy me while the New Year traditions in Japan kept me indoors. The one grocery store my town boasts was closed from Friday to Monday and I had to make do with what I’d had in my fridge from before vacation. I didn’t risk going to one of the crowded shrines which is a New Years tradition, but I did make it to Mitaki Temple in Hiroshima toward the end of the holiday break. 

Winter break in Japan is two-weeks long, like the U.S. but theirs starts after Christmas and lasts until the second week of January. I spent the second week of winter break desk-warming at my Board of Education’s office.  I didn’t have access to the internet (it’s so weird but the schools and BOE don’t like to give out their Wi-Fi passwords to the public) so I downloaded several textbook PDFs to try and look busy while having no actual work to do. I was able to read an entire 200-page textbook on Japanese history from pre-historic times to the modern era, so I wasn’t completely unproductive. Most Japanese buildings do not have central heating and many public bathrooms also don’t have hot water in their sinks. So, I spent that week stressed about looking busy and freezing cold even in the winter coat I wore.

It was during this week that I’d made my way home and was met with an unexpected and stressful surprise. When I walked in and tried to turn on the lights, the switch near the door wasn’t working. I thought that was funny but ventured further inside. I kept pressing light switches as I walked further into the interior of my house and discovered my AC and stove weren’t working either. It took me a second to realize the full implications of this problem. I was running late that morning and had left the apartment in a messy state, and my ultimate decision was to start cleaning. 

And clean I did. I made my bed, put away and organized trash, and washed the dishes in freezing cold water (the water heater depended on electricity, duh!) before I called my supervisor. Unfortunately, my cleaning detour was a bad decision because by the time I called she was already on her way home. So, I waited until she could contact other people at the BOE that were still at work or lived nearby to gather and figure out what had happened to my electricity. Two of my coworkers dropped by and helped me try to flip my breakers and eventually call the electricity company. From what I was able to understand from the conversation there had been confusion because my BOE had paid for my first two months of electricity. My new bank account was linked to the direct deposit, but the company didn’t change the name listed from the BOE to mine, so the payment hadn’t gone through. So, this wasn’t my fault (imagine the humiliation if it was) and I was able to pay my bill at the convenience store and my power turned on half an hour later. 

On the weekend before classes started again, I ventured over to Yanai, another large city in the prefecture with some friends. We visited a historical part of town that had once been a thriving residential area for the wealthy local merchants and had retained its traditional white buildings. There was a small soy sauce factory there that produced a popular local variety of soy sauce and we learned how soy sauce I made (it’s not at all how I pictured it). Apparently, soy sauce is fermented and washed for several years, who knew? It was also in that white-wall street that we discovered a local café that sold ice cream with drizzled soy sauce. I was a little perturbed by the idea of soy sauce on ice cream, but we decided to step inside and were pleasantly surprised that this soy sauce was sweet and complimented the sweet ice cream well.

My town is one train stop away from Iwakuni, one of the larger cities in Yamaguchi prefecture, that hosts about 10,000 U.S. marines at the local U.S. air base. Before the holiday season a couple hundred of these marines and various staff members tested positive for COVID-19 and the Omicron variant which put the whole prefecture and the neighboring Hiroshima prefecture in a quasi-state of emergency. Unfortunately, several students and staff members at my elementary school tested positive and so our first week back was cancelled entirely. Luckily, the middle school was relatively safe, and I was able to spend my week teaching there instead of the elementary school. 

The first week back to teaching was exciting because I’d missed my energetic and crazy students, but on Saturday morning I tried to heat up leftovers in the microwave and set off my fire alarm. I had closed the door to my bedroom and didn’t realize how much smoke had built up until I smelled it and I ran to turn off the microwave and open the windows, but all my speedy efforts were in vain. The fire alarm light started blinking and a robotic voice said, “kaji desu,” several times. I quickly pressed the reset button (it was the only button of the fire alarm, so I assume that’s what it was) and the voice stopped but the light was still blinking. I prepared myself mentally for the firefighters to come and set about cleaning up my house, because that is clearly the super important instinct I have developed for my panic. The firefighters never came (could you imagine if they did and I had to try to communicate in Japanese and all my neighbors would be witness to the newbie disrupting their peaceful morning), but the Saturday morning panic meant that I had pretty much finished my whole weekend of cleaning in minutes. 

By the third week of January my elementary school was open again, but on my first day back I was scheduled to start a two-day mandatory training program for all Yamaguchi prefecture ALTs. The instructions said that ALTs should do the training at their base school, but my school computer, unfortunately didn’t have Zoom, and the school iPads don’t work in the teacher’s office. So, my head teacher called the BOE in a panic and so I ran over there (luckily it was a 5-minute walk) and my supervisor was able to set me up quickly despite her busy schedule. 

Even though the quasi-emergency state in Yamaguchi prefecture was extended to late February, school life returned to its normal routine by the end of January. My friends and I had been more conscientious about going out and exploring as cases were high in Yamaguchi and Hiroshima prefectures, so we didn’t really have a chance to meet up in January. But I hosted a potluck dinner at my apartment on the last Sunday of the month and we were able to finish the Christmas present exchange we’d been talking about for months. 

Though the month brought several stressful new challenges my way, I am proud to say that I survived and perhaps the next few months will show that I can rise to meet these challenges with a clear mind. 

Happy New Year!

December 2021

I discovered that my AC unit had a built in heating system at the beginning of December. While I was grateful that I would no longer need to thaw under two blankets at night, I had to buy another heater to keep next to the stairwell of my apartment to make that area of my home manageable after the sun set. I had thought that winter in southern Japan would be warm compared to snowy Chicago, but we were hit with an unexpected cold front and temperatures got as low as 40 degrees during the day and 30 degrees at night.

I was able to borrow a bike from my BOE and started to ride it everywhere. I hadn’t particularly enjoyed bike riding before but as a working adult that works from 8:30 to 4:30 I am more appreciative of transportation that is more convenient than walking. The sun usually set around 5 pm so if I really rushed I could get to the grocery store and back home before it got dark and before the cold set in.

This was the month that I began to get a real rapport with my fellow teachers and got used to the different styles of teaching and the different requirements each teacher had of me. There were still mornings, however, that I still began class before the students started gore greeting and had to stumble my way out of that awkward mess as quickly as possible. As the older classes got busier with upcoming exams I spent more time with the first and second graders who knew only a handful of words in English. They are the most confident and cheerful of all my students and many of them will approach me shouting random English words they learned, mostly colors and names of random vegetables, and gave me high fives. We did have a day or two of light snow and I had expected for the students to change into their winter uniform, but was surprised to learn that the uniform does not change ever despite the weather. The students leave school bundled up with mittens and scarves but the elementary school boys still wear knee-length shorts and the girls aren’t allowed to wear pants under their skirts.

Before I knew it, Christmas was here. Christmas is popular with children in Japan, but its more of a couple’s holiday for adults. Unlike America, winter break in Japan starts after Christmas so on Christmas Eve I found myself at work and enjoying the end-of-the-semester ceremony from the television in the teacher’s room. Because of corona this ceremony was broadcast through the school-wide television system instead of in-person in the auditorium, but it was still fun to watch for the first time.

I had planned ahead and asked to leave early on the 24th so I could travel and meet friends for a Christmas eve dinner. We went to an empty restaurant locally famous for its curry ramen in winter and proximity to an onsen and also ordered some fried chicken, which is a unique Japanese Christmas tradition. The next day we got up early and to an hour-long ferry to Shikoku, one of the five main Japanese islands, to visit the city of Matsuyama. A local friend who loved traveling to Matsuyama recommended the city because of its famous Dogoonsen one of the oldest hot spring bathhouses in Japan and allegedly the inspiration for the hot spring building in Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away. We stayed in Matsuyama for one night and returned to Yamaguchi Prefecture the next afternoon.

We arrived home hungry and after a fiasco trying to find a local restaurant open past 5 pm on a Sunday evening we decided on nabe, Japanese hot pot. I was shocked to find out that the way you are supposed to enjoy nabe is by dipping the cooked meat into a bowl with raw egg. I got over my shock, however, and discovered the more fun way that dipping the piping hot meet in raw egg actually cooled it down and made it easier to eat.

I returned to work the next day for two days of desk-warming, the inevitable lull in work while the students were on winter break and teachers still had to come in. Luckily, the national New Year holiday started on Wednesday and lasted until the next Monday, so my friends and I booked a trip to Fukuoka, the seventh most populous city in Japan. Fukuoka is famous for its tonkotsu (pork bone broth) ramen and we ate at the most famous chain of tonkotsu ramen restaurants in the city and were able to customize the richness of our broth, the spice level, and the amount of garlic we wanted. We wandered around the city and stopped by the famous evening food stalls and met a nice family visiting the city from Hokkaido. The next day we explored the older, more historic parts of the city and ventured into some centuries-old Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines.

We made our way into a fairly crowded temple with a picture of a golden Buddha at the gate and explored the grounds before heading inside to view the gold Buddha statue. We weren’t allowed to take pictures of this Buddha statue but there was a fascinating collection of paintings that depicted Buddhist hell in a hidden room underneath the statue. As we continued past the collection we ran into a dark doorway that was clearly the exit but the problem was that we couldn’t see the other side and it curved so that all the light was blocked inside. It took us a few minutes to gather up the courage to step through that long, dark hallway but we followed the curves in the wall and eventually made our way out into the sunlight. That was an unexpected peak of our trip because of the randomness of our interest in that particular temple and the unexpected obstacle we had to face to get out.

We returned from the island of Kyushu (now having visited three of the five main islands in Japan, yay!) on the shinkansen bullet train. It took an hour and a half to arrive back on our side of Yamaguchi Prefecture and we were able to enjoy some beautiful views of the Kyushu countryside on our way home. We arrived home the evening before New Year’s Eve, happy to have ended our first few month in Japan with a fun trip filled with unexpected surprises.

My first three months in Japan have been a stressful, wild, unexpected, but fun-filled ride and I cannot wait for the new adventures 2022 will bring!

October and November 2021

I arrived in my new town on October 18th, but there was still lots to do before I could begin work. First my supervisor and I had to make our way to the kindergarten, elementary school, and junior high school to meet the principal and the schools’ Japanese teachers of English (JTEs). The town itself has a population of 6,000 with about 400 elementary school students and 200 students at the junior high school. Everyone was super excited to meet me and many of the students waved and cheerfully said, “Hello!” as I passed by their classrooms.

After lunch we made our way to the post office where I registered my new address and opened a bank account (because you can open a bank account at the post office here). After three hours of filling out paperwork and waiting for my application and documents to process I was finally an official resident of Yamaguchi Prefecture!

Every assistant language teacher on my program has a different schedule, but my schedule is as follows: Mondays and Wednesdays at the junior high school and Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays at the elementary school. Some ALTs have one school while others have nine or eleven that they alternate in between, but I have found that having two schools within a ten-minute walk from my apartment is a lucky deal for me.

My first day of actual teaching was on Wednesday, and I was so nervous about walking around by myself that I forgot how to get to my school and was late (just my luck). I was officially introduced to my new students and shared my introductory presentation with them for the first few minutes of class. Unfortunately for the students, most of the teachers asked the students to stand up one-by-one and introduce themselves back. Despite the pressure of speaking English in front of all their peers, most of the students were cheerful and excited when introducing themselves and their positive reactions got me excited about teaching here.

After I left work for the day I returned to my barren apartment and ordered some much-needed essentials on Amazon. As it turns out there are far too many things a young person living abroad needs to buy when they move into their first apartment and for the rest of October I received Amazon deliveries on a daily basis (legend says that there is still a massive pile of cardboard boxes from Amazon waiting to be thrown out to this day).

My first weekend started with the junior high school’s annual Culture Festival and I was invited to enjoy the choir concert as well as an interesting English speech. I couldn’t stay for the entirety of the school festival because I had some much-needed shopping to do at Nitori, the Japanese answer to Target. My supervisor drove me to buy basic appliances at Nitori and other important supplies at a local dollar store. We had a wonderful meal at one of my town’s three restaurants and drove up to the local park to look at the view of the inland sea from above.

On my second week my phone’s internet data ran out and I concluded that I would finally need to figure out how to set up the internet that supposedly came with my apartment. I had accidentally broken the internet router the week before and while the company promptly sent over a new one within a few days, I had put it off because I had other priorities. It took a two-hour phone call and a trip to 7-11 to use their free internet to figure out how to create an account on my TV and another day to research YouTube videos on how to buy more points on a random app on my TV to make that internet available to my phone and laptop. The process itself was way too complicated and I threw my remote at the floor once or twice out of sheer frustration, but once I finally figured it out I felt like a real adult.

I made it to Hiroshima on my second weekend in Yamaguchi. My predecessor was still living in the area so we were able in person and explore a local garden, it was nice to freely speak in English with another person for the first time in a while. The next day I returned to Hiroshima, now more confident about using the local train system, to catch up with old friends. Almost every weekend for the next month was spent in Hiroshima (about forty minutes away by train), either showing new friends around or meeting up with old friends.

By the end of October the couch I had ordered online for 10,000 yen ($100) finally arrived. The instruction manual was one page with four easy steps to follow, but somehow the process took an hour and a long, stressful emergency video call to my handy father to force the couch pieces to fit together. After accomplishing this task I once again felt like I’d been able to finish another adult task, it was very exciting.

I started to feel comfortable wandering around town as the only foreigner in town in November (I have since learned that there maybe three other foreigners in town, but have only seen one at the grocery store). It took me a while to build up the confidence to venture into the grocery store by myself but once I did it the first time I was relieved to be cooking again and not relying solely on convenience store food. By mid-November I had been working as an ALT for about a month and was finally getting the hang of daily life in Japan. My bills were getting paid (through direct deposit, thank god!) and I was feeling pretty useful at my school. I even felt comfortable enough to ask my teachers if I could share a quick presentation about Thanksgiving in America, which they loved.

With the time difference, my family’s Thanksgiving dinner was on a Friday morning for me, so I was able to see the usual suspects gathered around out crowded dining room table for the first time since I’d left. Everyone told me that they missed me and the desserts that I was always in charge of for holidays. Apparently their desserts were disappointing compared to mine, which strangely made me feel comforted. At least they would miss my desserts and cooking when I was gone. I told my family and friends that I would need to leave for work soon, so everyone yelled a chorus of “goodbye” and “miss you” and my eyes welled up for the first time since I’d come to Japan.

Back Again

October 2021

Two years and a global pandemic later I`ve left my friends and family behind in America and returned to Japan.

The JET Program has been a personal and professional goal of mine since high school and while I was confident in my eligibility for the program I wasn`t sure if it would be possible for me to come back. In March 2020 I was scheduled to study abroad in Chiba, Japan but a week before my flight the whole world began to fall apart. Since then I`ve become the first person in my family to graduate from college and all summer I anxiously awaited news on my long-awaited departure to Japan.

On the morning of October 2nd I was furiously finishing packing (I`d procrastinated, as per usual) and said some quick goodbyes to my family before speeding off the airport. The program had arranged Zoom meetings with every candidate from the consulate so I knew there was 150 people travelling with me, but I was still unprepared for the long line that stretched across Terminal 3 at O`hare Airport. We filled up the entire airplane, except for first class which remained empty until we landed at Narita Airport. All I remember once we disembarked was stress, stress, and stress as well as lots of paperwork and testing that needed to be completed before we could check into our hotel. I was on the last bus to our quarantine hotel and once I made it to my makeshift home for the next fourteen days I was too tired to process the fact that I was finally back.

I spent two weeks in quarantine eating mediocre food and preparing for my first adult, real-world job. I looked out the window and watch the airplanes land and take-off from Narita Airport but often found myself absent-mindedly forgetting where I was and what I was doing in quarantine.

We were released from quarantine on a Monday morning. I was running late (as per usual) and was the last one from my group to arrive at the designated departure zone. We filed onto the bus and we drove through Chiba and Tokyo (where we got a good view of Tokyo Disneyland) to Haneda Airport. I kept looking around in a bit of shock because it still hadn`t fully hit me that I was in Japan and on my way to my new home. Somehow my suitcase weighed only 11 kilograms (which is weird considering both of my suitcases measured in at 24 kilos in Chicago) and I was waved through security and followed my fellow Yamaguchi Prefecture JETs to our boarding gate.

We landed at Ube Airport just after noon on a sunny day in Yamaguchi. I was welcomed by friendly co-workers from my Board of Education (BOE) and treated to a delicious lunch of cold soba noodles and umeboshi (pickled plum) onigiri. Ube Airport was on the other side of of the prefecture so we drove about two hours to reach my new home for the foreseeable future.

I introduced myself to my new coworkers and filled out some final paperwork before I was walked to the town hall to greet the mayor. As we approached the neighboring building from a shortcut next to the forest we saw the mayor out on a quick smoke break. As soon as he saw us he dropped his cigarette and ran inside ahead of us. The mayor recommended some restaurants to check out and asked about my journey to Japan.

I didn`t make it to my new apartment until dark and after my helpful supervisor gave me a brief tour of my new home she left to call my family and relax for an hour before dinner. I put my suitcases down in the living room (which also functions as my bedroom) and just looked around. It finally hit me that this was the beginning of my new adventure, I had made it.