Looking Back on a Year of JET

It’s been exactly 20 days since the anniversary of my first arriving at my apartment in Akashi to begin the JET Program. In that time– you know, I spent a long time sitting and staring at the screen, wondering what highlights to put to make it sound like I’ve had the experience of a lifetime in Japan. You know, “in that time, I’ve loved and lost, danced the night away in the neon streets of Dotonburi, watched the sun set over the hills of the origin of the world, and made relationships with people whom I’ll remember for the rest of my life.” Even then, I had to try really hard to make it sound like I really made the most of my time here. I didn’t. I also didn’t love and lose either,  just wanted to sound poetic. But I still enjoyed this year more than any other out of my entire life. Instead of another wall of text let’s make a list of more things I’ve learned about myself, and about Japan, in my 365+ days here:

  1. Nobody uses soap. Ever since I first noticed a teacher not wash his hands with soap after using the bathroom (rather just running water over their fingers for a few seconds), I can’t stop noticing it among everybody– in train stations, bars, homes, everywhere. It’s the exception rather than the norm to see someone actually use soap when washing their hands. Some bathrooms, like at temples or older train stations, don’t even have hand soap at all. Why not have a bottle there, it’ll last years anyways.
  2. Japan can still be pretty dirty. For example, our school, over three decades old, has probably never been deep-cleaned aside from the daily dry-broom-pushing from the students. The toilets, including the teachers’, are also cleaned by the students, but that is done probably once a month or less. And since students clean them, well, how thorough and diligent would you be about school toilet cleaning if you were 14 years old? A lot of places are like this, with the idea that they are “ritually” clean (outside shoes have never made it in) rather than literally clean. Some districts, especially the nightlife ones, are absolutely filthy come morning time, with trash strewn all over the street. Nevertheless, outside of these old buildings or happening places, are still just as the stereotype of Japan is. Kirei!
  3. I still can’t speak Japanese. Immersion helps a lot, but I have been too lazy all the time. I was hoping to make JLPT N3 by this last July, but, well, I have no excuse other than that I’m worthless. I can mostly order at restaurants, but I’m hopeless in any kind of conversation.
  4. I have barely traveled at all. All the blog posts in the Travel category is actually all the travel I’ve done, with the exception of Kyoto. I have no good reasons for why I haven’t done it. Various things have kept me lashed to the Hyogo area, and although I know I won’t be here forever, I got settled in and comfortable pretty quickly. That shall change this year.
  5. Students are still incredibly well-behaved. The “worst” in-class behavior I ever witnessed was a group of boys who would purposely be out of sync/louder than everyone else when the class was repeating after me from the textbook. That’s it.

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    Elementary school visit with ESS (English Speaking Society) Club.
  6. I still feel the same about teaching. Before JET I had only the barest minimum of experience– just a few weeks here and there of volunteering. But when I did do it, I always enjoyed it, and I’m lucky enough that being in a teaching position has never made me nervous. A year later, I have a better grasp of what activities to do in class that work with the kids, and of what doesn’t, but my core approach still hasn’t changed: be confident, make the kids like you, and try your best to make English fun.
  7. I still feel the same about Japan. Studying at Osaka University in the summer of 2014, being in Japan for the first time ever, was one of the highlights of my college career and indeed life. As I said in my personal statement for JET, hokey as it is, “I was awed by people’s friendliness, by the culture of mutual respect, and a rich history that spans thousands of years.” I still see evidence of it every single day.
  8. Without language, you’ll never know people’s true feelings. Of course, people hide their true feelings all the time, in all cultures. There are people who put on a public face and hide what they are really thinking and feeling, to the detriment of themselves and of forming potential intimate relationships. In Japan, it is widespread and prescribed as the correct course of action, as the two concepts are very clearly defined, named as honne (what you are really thinking) and tatemae (what you present to society, in order to preserve its harmony).
    Social interactions are all about “getting the hint.” For example, there is a teacher who I know for a fact dislikes me. Though they teach classes with me, they avoid speaking with me as much as possible, so I do my part to also avoid putting them in such a situation– for example, volunteering to go unlock the classroom first and wait for them there, so we don’t have to walk together. Before this, there had been a lot of subtle signs that I wasn’t able to pick up until a few months in, to be able to unequivocally conclude that they are not a fan of me.
  9. Even with language, you probably might never know people’s true feelings. After all, the concept of honne and tatemae reaches beyond merely a language barrier. It is a way of life and a way of keeping society running, in a collectivist nation where 98% of the people are Japanese. Even with Japanese friends who speak very good English, it’s really difficult to ever get them to admit anything negative.
  10. Many friendships are fleeting. I’m not just talking about with Japanese people. Being in a big, unfamiliar place, people tend to stick together with people like them, in order to feel safe, secure, and socially supported. You see this when first moving into the college dorms, or during study abroad programs. People are brought together by the context and excitement of where they are, which is why I feel you’ll often find yourself hanging out with people in Japan, Italy, Peru, or wherever that back home, you usually don’t hang out with or even get along with. I am fully aware that many people I meet here, I will probably never see again upon leaving this country. Nevertheless, I am always searching for genuine, deep emotional connections, but having a fun night out with strangers and acquaintances is always fun too.
  11. Foreigners are still foreigners. Being from America, many of my students, and people at large, may still think of me as a Westerner. Japanese people have occasionally still expressed surprise that I am so deft at using chopsticks, or that I am capable of sitting seiza, on top of your legs tucked under you. They don’t seem to realize that Asian cultures still share a lot of similarities.
  12. I’m glad I came here with more experience. Most JETs come straight out of college, and with that, I feel that among some there is a sense of entitlement and the idea that “the world should conform to ME!” It is a common complaint that we have to work during the summer, even when there is no class. We still get paid, yet people either want to get paid for not working, or pass up on free money by getting summer vacation like the students. Coming from a hustle-and-bustle, fast-paced industry as Hollywood, I’m incredibly thankful for how lenient this job can be. Yet, for many it’s still not enough. Complaints abound of working too much, working too little, or even about being so strictly expected to arrive on time.
  13. Coming here at all, and then recontracting, are two decisions I have zero regrets about. Though I still vaguely worry about what to do after this program, I am happier than I’ve ever been before. I don’t dread waking up in the morning– perhaps for the commute, yes, but for the actual job, not at all. I’m wholly satisfied with the work-life balance, of the workload, and the amount of interaction I get to have with the students. I only wish I could travel more, but that could be fixed at any time. I certainly have the freedom to.

Travels Thus Far: Kinosaki Hot Springs

Would you travel four hours in order to get naked around a bunch of strangers? If you ask me, the answer would be “absolutely!” In a country that holds 10% of the entire world’s volcanoes, this also means that selfsame volcanoes are heating up and mineralizing wonderful spring water for your bathing pleasure. There are thousands of onsen, or hot springs/public baths, throughout Japan, both indoor and outdoor, and this weekend I made a trip up to Kinosaki Onsen, on the north coast of the Hyogo Prefecture, to enjoy a few.

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After a grueling, though still physically comfortable 4-hour train ride, we were first greeted by a quaint (read: frustratingly primitive) train station where you have to pay in cash for transportation instead of the usual tappable, reloadable IC card. That’s okay, though, there’s a very nice anime lady welcoming us to Kinosaki!

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In front of Kinosaki Station.

Kinosaki is an onsen resort town, home to dozens of onsens along their main street, all within walking distance and set amongst scenic stone bridges overlooking a river teeming with koi, and traditional Japanese restaurants where best-of-your-life meals await. Since this is an onsen town, it is de rigeur to walk around in kimono and wooden block sandals (geta), and your hotel will even provide these for you, free of charge!

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Edited slightly for increased aesthetics.

At each onsen, you walk in, take off your shoes at the entrance, and head on over to the locker room. They, and the baths themselves, are separated by sex, and there are a few simple rules to follow: one, you must be naked. Two, you must shower before actually entering the water. Thirdly, you can only take with you a small towel, which you can use to cover yourself if you so wish, but more than that it’s for drying off. And don’t dip it into the water either.

If you felt a little nervous about being naked around other men, well, it’s pretty easy to cast that aside straightaway, because the moment you walk into the tatami-matted locker room, you’ll immediately see guys casually walking around completely in the nude, as well as guys dressing down to get to that state. Walk through another door, and there are rows of sit-down showers, with stools and shampoo/soap provided. Wash well, put your lone towel on your head (the cool way) or over your modesty, and head on over to the many facilities offered, from steam saunas to mineral pools and private one-man tubs.

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Inside Goshono-yu. Not my picture as you can’t take picture-taking devices with you. Credit goes to Shogo Nishiyama

Take some time to ponder the age-old question, “could I possibly be any more relaxed?” as you soak in the hot, silky, and mineral-rich waters of Japan, blessed by the heat and material bounties of Earth itself. It is said that the dozens of onsen around Kinosaki all have different specialties– one has waters good for fertility, another has waters good for successful marriage, another for general fortune, and so on. We did not check which ones were which, so I couldn’t tell you whether you’re reading the words of a luckier man today, or a more fertile man. At this stage in my life, I’d rather the former.

After some time, you’ve realized you shouldn’t get too comfortable and basically die here, it’s time to head to the next one. Put on your hotel yukata (male kimono) and wooden sandals, and clop on over to the next one. Yukata are fashionable as hell, as well as being practical for onsens, since it’s a robe that takes seconds to put on, and it helps dry you as you walk since you don’t wear anything but underwear underneath. Just make sure to tie your obi (belt-sash) behind or to the right, as wearing it in front was originally associated with prostitutes, and wrap the yukata left-side over right. The other way around is for funerals.

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In case you were wondering, geta wooden sandals are slightly more comfortable than they look, and are in fact superior to pathetic Western shoes– just kidding, they’re blocks of freaking wood, so they are not really comfortable either. They were a little awkward to walk in, and I had a feeling that you’re supposed to walk differently than with normal shoes. I also nearly fell over any time I had to bend down to pick something up. I’m sure I just have to learn the technique and/or practice, and in no time I’ll be running full-speed and striking down peasants with my katana.

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The exterior of Goshono-yu.

All in all, we visited three onsens, one we nicknamed “Splash Zone” for the drunk guy trying to pick a fight by deliberately splashing us (another behavior considered very rude), in actuality Goshono-Yu, Mandara-yu, and Ichino-yu. Since I couldn’t take pictures of the interior baths owing to the no-cameras rule, take a look at the tourist website!

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That concludes the onsen portion of my post, and let me make a brief, very honorable mention to the other Kinosaki specialty, snow crab.

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Yes, it was delicious. Quite possibly the best crab I’ve ever had in my life. It was fresh, of excellent flakiness, succulent, and tasted like it had been *just*! perfectly salted.

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Featuring the ” we” component. Clockwise from top right, myself, Siseko, Danien, and Cameron.

Wash it all down with sake, and that’s sayonara to a supremely blissful experience at Kinosaki.

What NOT to Do in Japan, According to Their Signs

There’s more to the signage in Japan than just poorly translated English. There’s also Japanese signs in perfectly-translated JAPANESE, warning you about the strangest things or otherwise just being really cute. All captions are translations/rough translations, not my commentary:

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“Please don’t feed the deer, it makes them get sick.”
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Beware of your valuables when visiting relatives’ graves. There’s thieves about!

 

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Train emergency stop button.
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Train manners: don’t block the doorway like this chameleon.
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Watch out for your baggage bumping into people.
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No right turns, but going straight and left turns are okay.