Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Doug in Japan - More from the first month

As promised, more details and pictures - PICTURES! - from the first month of life in Japan.


First, a little about my town. It’s located in Nagasaki prefecture and is right on Omura Bay. Nagasaki is in the north-west of the island of Kyushu, which is one of four main islands of the country - Hokkaido is the farthest north, Honshu is the long main island that stretches a ways, and Shikoku is the little island just saddled under Honshu. Honshu is also where the mega-cities of Tokyo and Osaka are located.

Kyushu is an interesting microcosm of Japan. While it’s almost subtropical, there are also really big mountains - like the rest of Japan, it’s very hilly. Roughly 10 percent of the population is here, and roughly 10 percent of the GDP comes from here too. To make comparisons even starker, there’s one big metropolitan area (Fukuoka), a couple smaller ones (Kitakyushu, Kumamoto and Kagoshima), then a lot of countryside...just like much of the rest of Japan.

Obligatory rice paddy picture

Sorry for the geography lesson but it’s important to understand how that’s shaped where I am now. I’m not in the big, bright lights of Tokyo or Osaka; I’m out in the countryside, with rice paddies and tea fields galore. Nagasaki city feels like a really large town when in actuality it’s “only” 400,000+ people, which Portland trumps pretty handily. The city of Portland alone is a little bit larger but the metro area is over 2 million people, which is more than Nagasaki prefecture in total. Moreover, though the name Nagasaki has immediate impact to American ears, it’s not a major city within Japan; however, living a bit on the outskirts is pretty normal to me as an Oregonian. It’s home but hardly New York City or L.A.

This is Nagasaki city (not quite sure why it's so red-tinted, might've been all the firecrackers).


And let me say it again: My town is small. Tiny. Roughly 9,000 or so people live here. I joke with other Nagasaki prefecture JETs that it’s the low ebb of civilization on the train line between Nagasaki and Sasebo, and I’m not far off - the next town either direction is bigger, and they get bigger as one continues into either city. I haven’t lived in Sonogi long enough to really pass judgment, but it’s an interesting trade-off.


While Japanese geography has its charm I’m sure more people are interested in what every day life is like. First: it’s hot. Summertime is really hot (after a brief respite of days in the upper 70s it’s rocketed right back up over 90 degrees) and its pretty humid, too. Walking anywhere you feel okay but as soon as you stop moving you get what one British JET described as the catch-up sweats. You stop and it’s like somebody turned on the tap. Hell, I get them just walking to and from work; no wonder I’ve got the A/C on so much.

My apartment was super furnished when I arrived but it’s still taken time to adapt to living in it and making some improvements. Step 1: putting up the posters, pictures and stuff I brought with me. Step 2: getting my wireless adapter working after receiving my Internet modem last week. Let me know if there are aspects of daily life you’d like to hear about; I’ve adapted to so much so quickly already that things seem pretty normal already.

Importantly, most all of the Japanese people I’ve met have also been incredibly nice and accommodating so far. I still feel like I’m struggling a little with the language sometimes, but people help either to translate or simplify something so I understand. I’m coming out of my shell in terms of feeling afraid to make mistakes in Japanese or speak perfectly every time, which is good, because I botch what I’m saying all the time in English and it’s rarely such a problem. Importantly, people go the extra mile and help out even if I’ve just met them - already I’ve been driven home a few times after events. Maybe it’s just me cashing in all the times I drove people home over the years, who knows, but it’s a reminder of the nature of humanity and generosity.


Same goes for my fellow JETs, too, who have been welcoming straight away - both the other newcomers like me or the returning veterans. Apologies if I’ve said it before but it’s fantastic to already feel like a member of a community. I’ve been able to go out and be active every weekend, and even get together with others on weeknights from time to time too. It really helps that summertime is festival time, allowing ample opportunity to get together and share the whole "holy crap we're in Japan now" experience.


And that’s life in Japan at the moment. Beautiful spot of the world (weather aside), fantastic people, the opportunity to do something wonderful and to have ample time to explore and grow as a person...I’m incredibly fortunate.


Thursday, August 18, 2011

Doug in Japan: Arrival and Beginning

What feels like it began a long time ago - last November when the application was mailed in, three and a half years ago when I applied the first time, almost ten years ago when I first started studying Japanese - has finally come to fruition. I'm now on the JET Programme, living and working full time in Nagasaki prefecture, Japan.

This was originally started as a blog for a journalism class at the University of Oregon a long time ago, and older posts reflect my usual interests (cars, video games, music), but from here on out I'm invisioning this as a "hey guys Doug is living in Japan and here's what he's up to!" site. Which is fine; there are many like this, but this one is mine. My friend Julia from the Portland State MIM program has been running her own site in the same vein on living in Shanghai. It kind of is The Thing To Do in this situation, but screw it, I need some place to write.

Plus many friends said I should do this, so here we go.

On July 30, I took off from Portland and through the magic of the international date line, touched down the following day at Narita Airport outside of Tokyo, Japan. Let the JET Programme begin in earnest! After collecting baggage, we piled onto buses - I say "we" because groups from Toronto, San Francisco, and a couple other cities landed around the same time as the Portland group - and headed into the city. I was a little taken aback at how dark Tokyo looked this year; last March it was lit up like a Christmas tree, but with "sendetsu" (electric savings) being a necessity in the wake of the earthquake and nuclear issues in March, so goes the neon. I roomed in Tokyo with two others from Portland, Jim and Ken, who are now in Tottori and Niigata prefectures respectively. Dinner and early to bed was the result of the first night.

The JET Orientation began in earnest on the first full day, Monday. Keynote speakers! Presentations! Lots of jet-lagged people stuck in suits or formal wear! Rooms without windows! The orientation itself was alright, but god, after flying over the last thing I wanted to do was sit in a suit in rooms without windows. We could have been in Japan; we could have been in Spokane for all I was concerned. On the first night we also had a huge reception where we got the chance to talk with more people from our prefecture. We'd all met earlier in the day but that was so formal and official. Even better, after the reception, word spread around - "8:30, lobby, karaoke." That was all I needed to hear.

The second day, Tuesday, included even more presentations and lectures about teaching and adjusting to life in Japan. In the afternoon, we were instructed how our travel down to Nagasaki prefecture would go on Wednesday; we also had to drop bags off Tuesday evening so the buses could be packed and ready to go. Tuesday night I wandered around Shinjuku (the district of Tokyo we stayed in) with my roommate Jim, finding dinner and wandering through the huge electronics shops. We also went to Uniqlo, a huge Japanese clothing chain; I think their largest size of shirts might just fit me, which is great news.

Wednesday was when things really got going. Up and out to the airport in the morning, a nice quick flight from Tokyo Haneda down to Nagasaki, and...here you are. This is where you live now. I was picked up from the airport by my supervisor, Okaki-san, and my predecessor, Sho. From there it was a whirlwind tour of my new little town - the Board of Education building, the town hall, photos taken for my Alien Registration Card (aka "gaijin card"), even more. It was a touch overwhelming, to be honest; getting to rest in what was now my apartment was a welcome respite. That night I also had my first "enkai," or party, which was hosted by the Board of Education and had other top figures in the town there.

Thursday and Friday featured tours of the schools where I'll be working in a couple weeks. One of the best moments was at Sonogi Middle School, where I'll be spending the most time. Though it's the summer break, school clubs and groups still meet; the baseball club and a brass band were both practicing when we visited. After meeting the teachers (including the English teacher), we (Okaki-san, Sho and I) came back outside and the kids gave Sho an impromptu performance and show of their appreciation. I think he almost cried; I wouldn't have blamed him.

Since then I've been working at the BoE on weekdays and hanging out with other JETs in the area on the weekends. The first weekend included a trip up to Sasebo to see the Seaside Festival and fireworks; last weekend included an all-you-can-eat and drink party in Omura, followed by traveling south to Nagasaki city proper for the Obon festivities on Monday. Tomorrow I'm going up to a beach party north of Sasebo. Gotta keep busy! All the other JETs I've met, whether in my group arriving this year or returning ones, have been great, interesting, wonderful people.

Apologies that this is so long and there aren't any pictures; once I get an Internet connection at home, that will definitely stop being a problem.