Monday, August 10, 2009

From Boston to Ena

Leaving The USA -
So it’s been a week and a day since my father dropped me off at Logan airport. I had been up quite late packing and even when I did crawl into bed I had lain there wide awake for quite a while. JET required us to get to the airport three hours ahead of time which seemed completely excessive to me. I remarked to my father as we packed my luggage into the trunk that I had been upset at the prospect of getting to the airport at 7:00 but had realized I was lucky when I found at that half of the Boston JETs were on an earlier flight and had to arrive at 5 am. Dad and I mostly talked about jet lag on the way to airport. Then he gave me a sweet little speech about being proud of me and mentioned that he was a lot less nervous this time then when I had moved to Thailand three years ago. I told him about how when Johanna had driven me to the airport to go to Thailand I hadn’t been able to speak I was so scared, and here I was chatting along with him so I guess I had relaxed also.
At the airport I spotted some people I knew from pre departure orientation and met a few more JETs about to depart. We waited in a long slow moving line each piled high with luggage and trudged towards check in. When we finally reached the front however it turned out our plane was delayed. At that point they were saying three hours and it was clear we would miss our flight to Tokyo from Chicago. We stood to the side, still piled high with luggage, while our representative from our travel agency who was escorting us to Chicago negotiated with the airline people and a woman next to us sobbed hysterically because she was missing her sister’s wedding. Finally our travel agent got it all figured for us. We would fly to Chicago where we would get free accommodation for the night and meal vouchers and fly to Tokyo the next day. We would miss the first day of the two day orientation. We checked in and made our way to our empty gate. I guess no one else had arrived three hours early. We chatted, read, slept, and studied Japanese. Three hours turned into five. Finally we boarded.
In Chicago we opted not to get our luggage as they assured us it would be stored for the night and loaded on to the plane the next morning and that way we wouldn’t have to worry about checking it again. We used our meal vouchers in the airport and were carted out to a hotel somewhere in rural Illinois. Arriving at the hotel we were excited to see there was an Indian wedding going on. As we checked in people filtered through the lobby in a variety of beautiful saris. While hanging out at the hotel that night I kept forgetting momentarily that I was not yet in Japan and would think for a second about how Americanized the hotel was. Actually in some ways the whole debacle was not that unpleasant because all the people I was stuck with were very cool and interesting.
I fell asleep at 10 expecting to catch up on my zs a little bit; however fate had other things in mind. Apparently my room was located next to the wedding after party which really got going around 3 in the morning and finally died down around 5.
Tokyo Orientation
The flight the next day? What can you say about a twelve hour flight? Maybe I can’t complain. An empty seat on either side of me and a nice person sitting next to each empty seat. Once again – reading, studying Japanese, watching TV and a terrible movie on the back of the chair in front of me. I tried to sleep but just drifted in and out. Sore back, sore but. Nobody enjoys sitting that long.
Finally we arrived in Tokyo. It seemed a little unbelievable that we were really there after everything we had been through. We stood around the luggage carousel and watched the other people on the plane collect their luggage and then watched as the last remaining unclaimed bags rolled around and around again. Finally one of us was smart enough and awake enough to go to the counter and find out what had happened. For some reason or another our luggage had all been left in Chicago. We filled out a bunch of paper work. They told us they would either send our luggage to our Hotel the next day or send it to our final destination. Actually I was the luckiest one. I had packed everything I needed for orientation in Tokyo into my carryons so I was pretty much good to go. Some people had packed their carry ons with books, camera equipment, other stuff, and had only the clothes they had first arrived at Logan Airport in, which they had already, by the time we arrived in Tokyo, gotten rather sick of. Up until this point I had been really impressed with how upbeat everyone had stayed but the whole luggage thing really burst everyone’s bubble. When we finally finished our paperwork and made our way out into the lobby of the airport we were greeted by an AJET (Association of JETs) represented who tried to perk us up with his own enthusiasm.
I kept peeking into people’s cars on the way to the airport. They were all Japanese. Signs were in Japanese. I could work out some of the letters because I had studied the hiragana and katakana alphabets. Yup, I really was finally in Japan after all.
Our hotel, Kaeo plaza was huge and beautiful. There was a fountain by the door. We were arriving just in time for the welcome dinner to which everyone was supposed to wear suits but since half the people had nothing formal to wear we decided that we would all go casual so that it wouldn’t be just a couple sticking out. Needless to say it was a bit awkward wandering around in jeans and T shirts while everybody else was in suits and ties. I felt like a homeless person crashing a wedding. We were supposed to eat with the people going to the same prefecture (like a state but smaller) as us but I had been the only one on my flight who was going to Gifu and didn’t want to leave the sides of my underdressed buddies so I chatted with the snow loving people going to Hokkaido for a bit before wandering around the section where the Gifu people were supposed to be, staring at everyone’s name tags (which also listed our prefecture). I couldn’t find any Gifu JETs but a nice lady who was actually from Gifu found me and chatted with me for a while. She was a student of a language whose name I didn’t recognize and can’t remember that she said is spoken in India and Pakistan, pretty interesting, I wasn’t sure what her connection to JET was but I was happy to chat with someone from Gifu.
After dinner a bunch of the people from my flight were going shopping. I was invited and it was pointed out that we would get reimbursed so even though I had some clothes it might be a good idea to get some more. Other people were going out with the people from their prefectures. I was thinking I would do one or the other of these things but then suddenly I felt too tired to stand so I decided I would just iron my suite so I would have something decent to wear for the next day. AJET (Association of JETs) had set up a room with internet, ironing boards and volunteers contstantly standing by to chat with you. They pointed me to ironing board and I started ironing, hoping I could finish before I passed out from exhaustion. One of the AJET volunteers came over to talk to me, he introduced himself, his name was Manny, and asked me where I was placed. Before I could answer he looked at my name tag and exclaimed “Oh! You’re my lost Nicole!” Apparently he was one of the regional prefectural advisors from Gifu and had heard my whole story. He said something, now I don’t remember quite what, but it was very sweet and sympathetic. Funny thing about sympathy: If I am already emotionally on edge, sympathy, which is always meant to make one feel better, pushes me over the edge. So naturally I started bawling. After explaining to Manny that I was really OK, not really going through any emotional trauma but I just hadn’t slept for a few days and were exhausted I made my way to bed. Ironing would have to wait.
At two in the morning I woke up, and although still exhausted could not get back to sleep. After lying in bed for an hour I decided to take another whack at ironing my suite. This time the AJET room was staffed with a bunch of video game enthusiasts. Two of whom talked nonstop about video games the whole time I was in there, the other two, slightly less avid enthusiasts tore themselves away to come chat with me while I ironed. This time I held it together and we had a pleasant chat about the huge insects native to Japan, Thailand, and Australia.
At breakfast you could once again locate the people who had been on my flight since now we were the only people wearing our, mostly newly purchased, suites.
My roommates were not going to the morning workshops but I decided that since I had ingested a large amount of coffee and wasn’t going to be able to sleep that I would go so that if I had a nap attack in the afternoon I wouldn’t have missed all the workshops. The second two workshops were about teaching and were broken up by prefecture. SO I thought I would finally meet some Gifu JETs. I didn’t see the arrow under the sign that said group A however and ended up attending the first workshop with prefectures m-z. This wasn’t entirely a bad thing however since it seemed that all the JETs going to prefectures m-z were from New Zealand and had really exciting accents. Next workshop I found the correct room but still didn’t locate any Gifu JETs. So I didn’t meet them until our prefectural meeting at the end of the day. By that point I had once again become a bit delirious with JET lag and perhaps I was just projecting but pretty much everyone else seemed to be on the verge of falling asleep. I opted out of my embassy talk for a nap.
I should note that whenever possible, during meals or when in the same workshops, the 20 people from my flight stuck together. It was like our mutual experience had bonded us together into a large sleepy family.
I took a two hour nap and woke up at 9:00 to meet up with folks in my prefecture again to go out for some food and drinks. I had been in Tokyo now for a little more than a day but I hadn’t been out of the hotel since arriving. In fact I kept forgetting that I was in Japan at all. Finally I was out on the buzzing streets of Tokyo with its skyscrapers, bright lights, and insanely fashionable populace. We went to a little submarine themed restaurant on a bustling side street full of bars and restaurants. Our table was just about a foot off the floor so I knelt on top of the seat cushions until I realized that everybody else had their legs under the table because there was a pit below the table in which to put your legs. Everyone including myself was a little more awake and talkative now, or maybe I am just projecting again. Manny, Paul and Watanabesan told us about Gifu and doled out advice. Meanwhile we ate an interesting assortment of food, edamame, French fries, pizza, ham with what looked like barbeque sauce (I opted out of that one), pizza and fried rice. I drank plum whine mmmmmm.
From my one quick glance at Tokyo it seemed like a really exciting place and I definitely plan to return. Arriving back at the hotel my long lost bags were waiting for me. I pulled out some more clean clothes and then shipped them on to Gifu and got a few hours of sleep before meeting up with the Gifu people in the morning, once more, this time to head to Gifu! We took the bullet train, and had a bunch of time to blow in the station / mall before leaving. I ate “sushi sandwiches” or rather sushi shaped into flat triangles rather than roles, which had to be one of the most delicious things I have ever eaten. On repacking I had noticed that the chocolates I had brought for my new co-workers (presents are very important in Japan) had mostly melted, so I bought some sweets from a sweet shop in the station that Manny recommended: Tokyo banana.
Then we headed to our train. It was the nicest train I had ever been on. Perfect temperature, more leg room than I’ve had on any other train, and really fast. Tokyo faded into mountains and rice fields. Eventually we reached Nagoya and then took a bus to Gifu.

Gifu Orientation
In Gifu we stayed in a “sports complex”. There was a stadium behind us and there were some muddy looking teenagers in uniforms, maybe baseball, wandering around. After our workshop we were shown our rooms. This was my first experience with a tatami room, a room covered in tatami (woven straw) mats. I had seen pictures of tatami rooms but it had never occurred to me that they would smell a certain way. So I was deeply struck when I entered the room at the wonderful smell like freshly cut hay that pervaded the place. We also slept on futons, which are nothing like the “futons” that people have in the states but soft quilted mats, a few inches thick about three feet by six feet, if that, that are light weight and fold up easily into a cupboard. But first we ate dinner on the fifth floor with an amazing view of the mountains and Gifu castle.

After dinner we were treated to a demonstration of cormorant fishing. I guess cormorant fishing was practiced in many places in Japan but Gifu has one of the oldest traditions, dating back 1,400 years. A cormorant fisherman set up a shallow pool in front of the hotel and left his birds hanging out there, not tied or anything, while he went to get fish. When he got after crowing in celebration the birds performed several tricks. Then the fisherman / bird trainer snapped metal rings around their necks and threw fish into the pool. The birds commenced to fish but the rings around their necks kept them from swallowing the fish. Their master would then, with the help of a brave volunteer, pull the fish from the bird’s throat. We got to get our pictures taken with master and bird. After that we saw a Taiko demonstration. A kind of traditional drumming involving very large drums, very large drum sticks and, in this case, mostly small girls, beating the drums, yelling, throwing their arms in the air and dancing from drum to drum.
After the entertainment I tried out the traditional Japanese bath. There were two baths - Men’s and Woman’s. Each had a changing room and then a big room with the bath and open showers. The showers each had two buckets in front of them – a big one for sitting on and small one for filling with water. There was also a shower nozzle but I opted for a bucket shower since it had been a year since I had had one and I think they are the most refreshing kind of shower. Then I jumped in the big bath which was basically like a hot tub. The whole room was made out of slabs of dark stone and the tub was a pleasing design. People normally bathe with whoever is there of the same sex but I was alone which was kind of nice since I got to get used to a new style of bathing without the added pressure of public nudity.

Once again I woke up at three or four in the morning and couldn’t go back to sleep. I had basically gotten used to operating without sleep at this point.

The next day was the day we would meet our supervisors so we all wore our suits. Breakfast in the beautiful dining hall, more workshops, and then . . . They announced that our supervisors were ready to meet us. We were to gather up our luggage and convene in the lounge area. I was wishing as I made my way up that I hadn’t picked the bright red polka dot suitcase and hot pink travel pillow as they seemed to testify that my conservative suite was all a lie.

Somehow I made it upstairs before any of the other new JETs. Watanabesan, one of the prefectural advisors, showed me where to put my luggage and where to line up to be introduced to my supervisors. The supervisors were all seated in chairs in front of us. Of course we had to wait until everybody else arrived to be introduced. That seemed to take a good five minutes with just me and Watanabesan standing in front of all the supervisors and all of them looking at me. I tried to smile nicely at each one of them in case they were my supervisor. Finally everyone else arrived, and Watanabesan called each of our names and then our supervisor’s name. Our supervisor would stand up and we would bow to each other. Then we each made our ways to our supervisors and I introduced my elf to Aizawasensai.

Aizawasensai and I had already been in touch over e-mail. I guess that the person really in charge of the JETs in Ena (the town I now live and work in) is Hasegawasensai. But since Hasegawasensei doesn’t speak much English I had been in touch with Aizawasensai who works for him. Aizawasensai informed me regretfully that Hasagawasensai had been unable to make it up to Gifu city. I, however, was not the least bit sad to be in the company of Aizawasensai who is tiny, chatty, very friendly and charming. She had brought another coworker from the board of ed. with her whose name I unfortunately seem to have forgotten as I do with most names. This other lady spoke no English but after a while talking with them in the car I noticed that she must have been understanding most of what I said because quite -often I would say something and she would give a response to Aizawasensai in Japanese who would translate to me.

I had heard a lot about how “country side” Ena is. So I was surprised when we drove through the center of town, which was full of concrete and large shopping centers.
“I thought you said Ena was country side?”
“Oh it is. This is just the center of town.”
And sure enough in a moment we were back in the trees, rice fields, river and mountains, and then we were at the board of ed. I am ashamed to say I had forgotten Hasegawasensai’s name. So I thought everyone Aizawasensai introduced me to might be my supervisor. Until after a few introductions and laughing and bowing I was introduced to the very serious Mr. Hasegawa in a very serious manner. Then I was rushed off to join the other ALT’s (that’s my job, Assistant Language Teacher) for pantomime training. Which turned out to be over and the ALT’s gone home for the day, so back to the board of ed. This time Hasegawasensai called everyone over to me to introduce me.

I’d been being told since before I left for Japan that I would have to prepare a “self introduction” to tell about myself. In the back of my JET pocket calendar there was an example translated into phonetic Japanese but written in the English alphabet so that you could just plug in your own information and wallah! – self introduction in Japanese. There had been a few more things I wanted to say and so on the train on the way to Gifu from Tokyo Watanabesan had told me how to say what I wanted in Japanese and I had written it down the whole introduction in a notebook which I had of course, left in the car. I whispered to Aizawasensai that I had something written I wanted to read and could I just run to the car for a moment. However, she ran to the car herself, retrieved my notebook and came back. Meanwhile people had gotten tired of standing around waiting and went back to work so Hasegawasensai called everyone back over and I laboriously read out myself introduction not sure anyone understood a word, although they were all smiling and nodding. Afterwards Aizawasensai told me it was a very nice speech and claimed to have understood it although I can’t help thinking she was just being polite.

Now it was time for Aizawasensai and Hasegawasensai to show me my apartment. My apartment is in a building of about 12 tiny apartments used for teacher’s housing, sort of on the line between the beautiful countryside part of town and the concrete shopping center part of town. The view from the front is of the parking lot and when you step out the back you see the highway and a truck stop. Granted the mountains are always in the background. I had heard over and over at orientation about how our accommodation would probably be old and moldy and so I was pleasantly shocked to step into my new home. Yes tiny, but in the most appealing way, everything fitting perfectly into its little spot. You walk into a bite sized kitchen with dark hard wood floors and beyond that is the only other room (save the bathroom). People have asked me if I have a tatami room. Really my house is a tatami room, since there’s only one full sized room involved. The tatami is new; the walls painted a complementary green gray and the back wall (or are it the front? Depending on how you look at it) is made up mostly of a sliding door made of a wooden grid covered in rice paper. Don’t worry there is glass and screen beyond that. The rice paper lets in all the light but blocks out the view of the parking lot so that when it’s closed you can imagine there is a view of Mount Fuji on the other side. On the opposite side of the room is a big Japanese style closet. I had assumed, since no ALT on their way out had e-mailed me offering to sell me stuff, that the house would be empty. However there was a futon, a rice cooker, a small table with heater built in for use in winter, pillows, cooking supplies, cleaning supplies, etc. I really love my little place though, now that I’ve been here a few days I’m starting to see how, once I get my pay check, it could use some more furniture and decoration.

We now collected two of the ALTs that I would be working with and went to a Spaghetti restaurant for dinner. On the way to Ena from Gifu Aizawasensai, her companion from the board of ed., and I had stopped at a restaurant. I had picked out some Udon and they had ordered the same thing. I remembered reading that often Japanese people like to all order the same thing. Now sitting at the spaghetti restaurant with my new bosses and two of my new coworkers, with a menu set in front of me and Aizawasensai translating it for me, I was worried that everyone would have to order whatever I ordered and that since I was a vegetarian probably nothing that I ordered would be what they would want to eat. By this time I was at the point in the evening in which I transformed into a Jet lag zombie and felt that the responsibility of choosing a meal for everyone was much more than I could handle. Luckily after struggling with the decision for an embarrassingly long time I was relieved when Nicola, one of the other ALTs ordered something entirely different and Aizawasensai ordered what Nicola did. Hasegawasensai ordered yet another dish for him and Allan which turned out to be two enormous serving platters of spaghetti covered in mushroom sauce. Really each one large enough to feed a family. Hasegawasensai must have chosen this restaurant in order to fight the stereotype that Japanese people don’t eat as much as Americans. Although no one finished their meal Hasegawasensai did manage to out eat Allan who is quite a bit bigger than him and American (we are sort of famous for eating a lot).

I was about to collapse after dinner but Hasegawasensai pointed out that I would need groceries so Aizawasensai and Nicola took me grocery shopping.

Finally home, to my great relief, I slept through the night for the first time and have been sleeping normally since.

The next day began with a meeting with the superintendent of schools. Who wanted to be introduced to each of the ALT’s and discussed our background and hobbies. I was once again wearing a suite, it was brutally hot, and somehow I was seated directly next to the superintendent so it wasn’t exactly the most comfortable experience in the world. At the same time I was really impressed with how congenial he was and how he took an interest in all of us, considering his high position. The rest of the day was divided between practicalities such getting car insurance and a cell phone and a site seeing excursion which is another part of our summer training program. Apparently next week we will have pottery training. Basically it seems like Ena’s Board of Ed. Training program for ALTs is like a very fun cultural summer camp.

Now you might not believe me but through the course of the day I came to the conclusion that Hasegawasenai’s job at the board of ed. is just part of his alter ego to hide his real identity. He’s obviously some kind of super hero. For one thing Aizawasensai keeps telling us about all the different sports and activities he’s involved with. Apparently he sword fights, plays baseball, and is an accomplished artist, just to name a few. For another thing, he never sits down. Some of our errands were long and taxing and involved a lot of waiting but Aizawasensai, the other Alt’s, and I would take seats and Hasegawasensai would just pace around on his feet.

The cell phone thing turned out to be quite difficult as most of the services wanted to wait until I had my Gaigin (alien registration) card. We thought we had everything basically worked out and Hasegawasensai said he would pick up the phone for me later and drop off it off at my house in the evening. He showed up at my door later with Allan (another ALT - remember from the restaurant? He lives downstairs from me also). It turned out that we couldn’t get the cell phone we had signed up for earlier without a Gaigin card and would have to go back and sign up with a different company. Allan kindly came along to translate, and for some reason the whole process took until 9:00 at night, Hasegawasensai on his feet the whole time. The next evening all the ALTs were going to a festival and Allan later told me that Hasegawasensai kept saying something about “lost child”. He was afraid I would get lost at the festival without a cell phone.

Now this is where things get alittle crazy. Hasegawasensai, after having stayed out till all hours securing me a cell phone, showed up at the apartment at 10:00 the next morning so he could borrow my car keys, take my car to his house, touch up the paint job and wax it. Or maybe he took it to a garage and they touched it up and waxed it. I don’t know. Either way it was an insanely generous thing to do. My boss waxed my car. I feel guilty but what can I do? I feel a little like I’ve been adopted as Hasegawasensai and Aizawasensai’s new child and because I am their newly adopted child they are taking ridiculously good care of me. This is a little strange for me because of two facts. 1- They are not married and each have their own families. 2- I’m 31. The truth though is that I am a bit helpless. I can’t read. I can’t speak the language here. I don’t know how anything works. But he waxed my car. I mean that’s going above and beyond.

Besides my supervisors the other ALT’s have taken really good care of me also. They have driven me around, taken me out on errands, given me more information about everything Ena than I can keep in my head. And they’re really cool people. There’s five JET ALTs working for the Ena board of ed. including myself: Allan, Nicola, Nikko, and Chris. Nikko is short for Nicholas and it seems that Japanese people, or at least the ones at the Ena board of ed., don’t really take to nick names so they call Nikko Nicholas. Me, they call Nicolu because that’s what happens to Nicole with a Japanese accent. So as you can see three of us basically have the same name which must be pretty confusing. Ironically Allan is actually Allan’s middle name but his first name is Chris and since there was already a Chris working here when he started they asked him to go by his middle name.

Nicola is from south Africa, is very sweet and soft spoken, practices a Japanese martial art that she sais is kind of like Thai Chi (the superintendent was really impressed by this) and seems to have acquired Japanese people’s tendency to constantly apologize while being incredibly helpful. Nikko is from San Jose, studied illustration at CCA and has a studio in his house, he’ll be my inspiration to get back into painting, I hope. Chris, I just met today because he was on vacation so I don’t him as well. He’s starting his fourth year so he’s been here the longest. He’s from Westchester county New York and has a big beard and long hair. Allan is from Ohio, got interested in Japan while concentrating on Asian art while getting an art history degree and listed a whole lot of cool sounding stuff when I asked him what he’d been doing before he came here. The only part of which I remember being working for a sister city program. But anyway it’s nice that there’s someone else here, beside myself, that’s not straight out of college since it seemed like at the orientation 99% of everyone was either ‘08 or ’09. I was a little nervous actually about being older than most people but the age gap hasn’t really seemed to have mattered. Generally I’m pretty impressed with the JET selection system since there seems to be a strange lack of really annoying people engaged in the program. So I’m the only completely new person working for the Ena board of ed. Nikko and Nicola had been working for the prefecture at high schools last year, but lost their jobs there due to budget cuts.

Saturday night the four of us went to a summer fireworks festival in a nearby town. Nicola helped my pick out an aqua Yukata (summer kimono) with purple flowers and sash at Uni Glo, a big affordable clothing chain, and wooden sandals at a small Yukata shop where strangely I was also able to find a pretty purse made from similar material for $3. Before going to the festival Nicola basically dressed me in my Yukata. I couldn’t have done it myself, it was really complicated. We met up with Allan and Nikko, Allen was also in Yukata, and then a bunch of other ALTs and Japanese friends of ALTs, on the train and once we got to to the fireworks town. Actually all towns have summer fireworks festival. We will be marching in the parade and dressed like Ninja’s for ours which I think happens in a few weeks. I felt a bit self conscious since I expected everyone to be in Yukata and I would say that a majority of people were not, but I got over that eventually. There were a lot of really beautiful Yukata, a lot of street food, groups of people dressed alike and dancing in unison in the street, and fireworks that went on longer than any fireworks show I have ever seen. I kept thinking it was the finale over and over again. When we made it back to the train station the dancing had built up to frenzy. All the separate groups had joined together dancing in unison. Nikko and I tried to join but didn’t last so long as eventually the footwork got too complicated to follow.

The only thing left to tell you about is my job. I will be visiting six schools. One junior high, three elementary schools and three kindergartens (4 and 5 year olds). Sounds exciting right? Today was my first day of teaching. All the Ena municipal ALTs went to an elementary school where we were delivered an assortment of kids who had been hanging out there for the day. We sang songs, drilled some vocabulary and played some games. At break time we ran around in a wild game of tag. It was pretty fun. The kids were really cute. Actually it only lasted an hour and half because it is summer.
And there you go. That’s my adventure so far.
Miss and Luv everyone.


  1. Hi!!! Amy and Andrea here.
    We miss you, so excited for you!
    keep writing and we will keep reading...

  2. Hi Niki! So fun (as always) to read about your adventures. I miss you already but am glad you are so well taken care of. I can't wait to hear what happens next!

  3. In the time elapsing from your Thai blog I'd forgotten what a wonderful writer you are! Thank you for taking the time to paint all the details, it makes me feel so relieved to know that not only are you being warmly supported but you are having all the crazy requisite adventures.
    Miss you very much - write more soon! :)
    love, Juliet