Category Archives: Japan

A Little of Japan in Chicago

I spent Sunday at Chicago’s Osaka Garden, an expansive Japanese garden situated in Hyde Park next to the Museum of Science and Industry with an interesting history. What a beautiful hidden gem!

OsakaGarden

Transition Japan: Packing for Japan (Part Three)

This is the third essay in a series about moving to Japan, specifically for those going to Japan with the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program. See part one here and part two here.

When thinking about my three years in Japan, the most stressful times for me didn’t usually involve acclimating to Japanese culture but rather moving — both within Japan and back to America. It’s not something I wish to do ever again.  However, to make your transition a bit easier, below are some brief tips about what to pack (and what not to pack) before you leave for Japan, as well as other general tips about your last weeks before departure. Next in Transition Japan: Your First Week in Japan.

Packing

I was allowed to bring two large suitcases under a certain weight and a personal item.  Check with your local JET Program Coordinator and they should be able to answer specific questions about weight requirements, restrictions, etc. It was nearly impossible for me to fit everything I wanted to within these restrictions, but with a little planning, it shouldn’t be too much of a problem.

What to Bring

  • A careful selection of clothes. The first part of Japan I lived in — Namerikawa-shi, Toyama-ken —had similar weather to Chicago, though a bit milder.  This meant I was prepared for hot summers and brutally long winters.  Japan’s climate can vary greatly per location, so do your research before packing your parka, or your swimsuit.  Your work clothes will most likely be most important when you first arrive since you’ll want to make a good impression, so decide on a few basic conservative work outfits to get you through your first week.  Focus first on summer items, as it will likely be very hot and humid anywhere in Japan.  My parents kindly sent me a package of my winter clothes as it got colder.  Some JETs went home for winter vacation and could bring back more clothes then, too.  Also, keep in mind that your ability to buy clothes in Japan will depend on your height, body type, shoe size, budget, etc., so just plan ahead and ask a lot of questions to your predecessor about what is available to you if you’re worried.
  • Two to three pairs of shoes, including new ones that will be your “indoor shoes.” Again, prioritize work shoes, and designate a new pair of shoes as your “indoor shoes,” as you will have to change into these before entering your school. I bought a pair of black TOMS shoes as my indoor school shoes, and they worked well for me for three years. I’m a runner, so my running shoes also made the list.
  • Enough underwear/undergarments to last you at least one week. I could only do laundry about once a week, and you’ll very likely live in an apartment without a dryer, so that means hanging your clothes to dry (not fun in the winter and during the rainy season). As a general rule, bring enough undergarments to last you at least a seven-day cycle, and budget on having at least a five-day work outfit routine that you can rely on.
  • Deodorant — I had a hard time finding American brands, so I do recommend bringing about two sticks of your favorite brand.
  • Start-up Money — The amount  of money you need in your first month varies greatly depending on your location and when your first rent money is due. Budget to bring about $2,000 in start-up money if possible, though working with less is possible if you live in a smaller town.

What to Leave Behind

  • Umbrellas (I broke so many in Japan, and you can buy one on almost every corner)
  • Soap, shampoo, toothpaste, contact solution, and other general toiletries. All of this can be found easily, unless you’re attached to a certain brand. There’s some skepticism if Japanese toothpaste has Fluoride in it, but I could find Aquafresh with ease. Bring a travel size of your favorite brand if you’re really concerned.
  • Towels. You’ll be able to buy this all in Japan cheaply and conveniently. However, bringing one towel for your first night in your apartment is a good idea.
  • Packaged food, unless you’re seriously addicted to some specific snack. I could find almost anything I wanted in Japanese supermarkets, and there’s always the Foreign Buyers’ Club if you’re really craving something.
  • Books — I think it’s definitely OK to bring one for the plane ride and your first weeks, but I don’t suggest stacking up on them. Rather, you can use Amazon.co.jp, your new JET friends (often there will be a local library within your JET community), or if you can afford it, invest in a Kindle or iPad. This will be much more economical, especially if you plan to stay in Japan for more than a year.
  • Teaching Materials — There will be books you can buy at orientation if you really think you need them, but in general, your best resources will be your fellow JETs who have experience teaching, websites, and your school.
  • For the ladies, feminine napkins should be easy to find, though I do suggest bringing a few boxes of your favorite brand of tampons.

Specific Requirements

Become friends with your JET Coordinator, who should be very knowledge and will likely be sending you a lot of e-mails about specific requirements you need to take care of before you leave, including your visa application, background check, and health check.

Saying Goodbye

Don’t try to squeeze a goodbye in for everyone you know. This will only give you a giant headache and you’ll likely leave someone unintentionally out.  I spent my last few weeks in Chicago with close family members, who organized a nice barbeque for me about one week before I left. You’ll always have access to e-mail and Skype for those who you can’t see but want keep in touch with.

Websites to Get You Ready

Surviving in Japan (Without Much Japanese)

This Japanese Life

Tofugu

Genki English

Dream English Kids (good if you’re teaching elementary school students)

English-4 Kids

ESL Cafe

Your Local JET Chapter Website (for an example, see Toyama JET’s website here)

Am I forgetting something important? Write in the comments below and I’ll do my best to respond promptly.

Clinging to Cherry Blossoms

In spring apricot blossoms bloom first.

I was looking for the blooming alone in twilight.

-Yamanoue no Okura (山上憶良)

Chicagoans, myself included, wrapped in Arctic coats while wishing for just one day above 20 degrees Fahrenheit, battled one of the coldest Windy City winters this year.

So while life back in my hometown looked like this for most of December through mid-March:

The Adler Planetarium in Chicago, Ill.

The Adler Planetarium in Chicago, Ill.

I spent many hours nostalgically pining for days like this:

A hanami party near Matsuyama Castle.

A hanami party near Matsuyama Castle.

As I wrote last year, Japan’s cherry blossom season is ephemeral but often the season that stays with visitors the most – lingering on in memories long after one’s departure from Japan.

Below are more of my favorite cherry blossom photographs from Toyama and Matsuyama.  Hopefully there comes a day when I can see sakura again.

Sakura at night in Namerikawa, Japan.

Sakura at night in Namerikawa, Japan.

Snow and mountains in Namerikawa, Japan.

Cherry blossoms and mountains in Namerikawa, Japan.

A wedding at Dogo Park in Matsuyama during cherry blossom season.

A wedding at Dogo Park in Matsuyama during cherry blossom season.

On top of Matsuyama Castle, overlooking the city.

On top of Matsuyama Castle, overlooking the city.

A close-up of sakura.

A close-up of sakura.

 

Three Little Things on the Third Anniversary of 311

Yesterday marked the third anniversary of the March 11, 2011 triple disasters that ravaged the northeast coast of Japan.  As always, my thoughts are with the families still grieving the loss of loved ones, and those who struggle to find normalcy in a forever changed landscape overcome by nuclear disaster and uncertainty.  I’m in the process of writing a story about a Chicago photographer and sociologist who recently toured a town near the Daiichi Nuclear Plant in Fukushima and will share that soon.  In the meantime, below are some links of interest regarding the current state of Tohoku and its ongoing recovery.

Tohoku Tomo – a documentary made by three Chicago JET Alumni about the rebuilding efforts in Tohoku. The film premieres tomorrow at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago.

Tohoku Tomo 東北友 – Teaser from Tohoku Tomo on Vimeo.

Unknown Spring – “an anthology projects that bears witness to the ongoing recovery in Tohoku.” A short documentary of the project can be viewed on Vimeo.

Fukushima: Don’t Forget – Stories of five Fukushima residents from Greenpeace International.

Video

High-Speed Rail, Japan & the Midwest

The list of things I miss (and don’t miss) about Japan is long and complicated. But without a doubt, the efficiency and thoroughness of Japan’s high-speed rail system is high on the list of things I wish existed in the Midwest.  I explore this issue in my latest “Letters from Japan” series at Gapers Block

Transition Japan: The JET Interview (Part 2)

This is the second article in a series about the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program (JET) and about life in Japan in general.  Read Transition Japan: The JET Interview (Part 1) here.

I interviewed for JET four years ago, and while my memory of the day becomes less strong every year, I still remember walking down Michigan Avenue to the Chicago Consulate on a sunny February afternoon, hoping that in a few months, I would be on my way to a new adventure (and full-time employment).  Luckily, I succeeded. Below are some questions I recall being asked by my panel.  Good luck to all those interviewing for JET this month!

1). Why are you interested in the program?

How I answered it: I’ve long been interested in teaching abroad.  As a writer, I think it’s important to always explore and experience different cultures and see the world from a new perspective.  I’m also interested in giving back to the community, and I see the JET Program as the most established program to accomplish these goals.

Bottom line: Answer honestly and thoughtfully, but make sure not to say it’s solely for personal reasons (i.e. a Japanese boyfriend/girlfriend).

2). What would you do if you had plans with a friend after school one day but a Japanese English teacher asked you to stay late?

How I answered it: I’d stay after school but hope in the future, the teacher and I would be able to communicate more effectively about our schedules.

Bottom line: Demonstrate professionalism and that you can handle tough situations with grace and with a smile, even if you don’t know the exact solution immediately.

3). What are some of your goals?

How I answered it: Since I’m trained as a journalist, I’d love to start a newspaper with my students.  I think it would be a great way to get to know my students.

Bottom line: Talk about your passions and what you’d like to teach your students, or how you’d like to interact with them outside of class, be it through sports, art or other extracurricular activities.

4). What if you get there and you can’t do that?

How I answered it:  Well, I’d move forward but hope I could find other ways to get to know my students.  I have enough work experience to understand that no job is perfect, but I know how to work hard.   Interesting note: When I got to my school, I asked about creating a newspaper with them or writing a column for my students’ existing newsletter. I was told no (politely) but luckily moved on and still had a great time at my school.

Bottom line: Once again, show that you’re professional and that you won’t be dismayed when something doesn’t go your way.  Chances are, you’ll be told “no” on a lot of occasions, but that shouldn’t stop you from achieving your goals and being a successful JET.

5).  You wrote in your application that you lived and worked in Ireland after graduation.  Did you experience any culture shock there?

How I answered it:  Yes, I still remember asking a bus driver for directions using a street name.   He laughed and told me that streets in Dublin change names every few blocks.  All the streets were so circular that I got lost constantly.  But there wasn’t a language barrier, and lots of people thought I was Irish, so I didn’t have too much culture shock.  I think being in Japan will be more challenging, but in some ways, I think not knowing the language is an advantage because my students will be forced to use English with me. (Note: When I said this last comment, I received some strange looks from the former JET participants. Now I know why.  You MUST study Japanese during JET to have a more meaningful experience, but I still believe in only using English in the classroom and as much as possible with your students).

Bottom line: If you have studied or lived abroad, show that you know how to handle culture shock. If you haven’t studied abroad, that’s OK! Just demonstrate that you have an open mind and can overcome challenges/bouts of homesickness.

6). Tell us about your placement preferences.

How I answered it:  I put anywhere near Kyoto as my first choice because I visited there once before and thought the city was a perfect mix of old and new. Side note: Little did I know that 1,000,000 others also probably placed Kyoto as their first choice.  I now laugh at the fact that I thought I had a chance of being placed anywhere near there.

Bottom line: Be honest about your reasons, but show you’re flexible too.

7). What would do if you didn’t get placed in a city (which was my first choice)?

How I answered it:  I’ll be honest and I say I wouldn’t be the happiest because I think I thrive in cities, but I’d make the best of the situation. (Note: I was placed in a small seaside town/ sleepy suburb of Toyama-shi, far from the fame of any major Japanese city!)

Bottom line:  Show you’re willing to move almost anywhere in Japan (country, suburb, city, north, south, east, west, islands).  Unless there is a specific medical reason you need to be somewhere, your placement choices probably don’t really matter.

Sayonara, Japan – A Photo Essay

The biggest decision I made in 2013 was moving from Japan back to Chicago.  Although I’m looking forward to establishing a career in America, I miss my Japanese friends and my daily life there.  Thankfully, I have hundreds of photos to remind me of the gentleness, beauty and challenges of life in Japan.  Below are 12 photos representing my year, and many of them were taken in Japan.  As always, thank you for traveling with me.  I’m looking forward to a great 2014, and I wish you all a prosperous New Year.  For the extra curious, see my 2010 in photos here, 2011 here and 2012 here.

JANUARY

I’ve never been a big fan of New Year’s holidays in America (overhyped & overpriced) but New Year’s Day in Japan is more like Christmas in America — the days leading to January 1st are meant for reflection and quality time spent with family.  On New Year’s Day, many Japanese people visit shrines or temples to pray for a healthy year.  I rung in 2013 at Ishite-ji Temple and on January 1st, I visited Matsuyama Castle for kakizome (writing the first kanji of the year).

Jan

FEBRUARY

On a balmy Sunday in early February, I traveled to Gogoshima Island to harvest mikan (oranges) on a steep mountain.  We sent 32 boxes of fresh oranges to the people of Fukushima, where the nuclear disaster still impacts so many.

Feb2

 

MARCH

The innocent faces of these two sisters, who were playing drums at a festival in Matsuyama, brightened the day of so many.

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APRIL

I had too many cherry blossom photos to choose from.  And while I don’t think this is necessarily my best picture, I couldn’t resist the chance to see sakura up close one last time.  The image of thousands of sakura petals falling to the ground every April is something I will always remember about Japan.

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MAY

I also had too many photos to choose from in May thanks to many travels, but May marked the first time I returned to my Japanese hometown of Toyama.  I bicycled to my junior high school on a cool spring day and was awestruck once again by the might of the Tateyama Mountain Range.

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JUNE

I took this photo with my old iPhone, so it’s not the clearest.  But to me, this picture describes the dissonance often apparent in so many aspects of Japanese culture.

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JULY

My friend Tsuneo-san took me to the top of Mt. Ishizuchi to see a spectacular sunrise.  I easily consider this one of the most serene views I have ever seen.  I feel so privileged to have had the opportunity to live in another country other than my own, and to see life from completely different perspectives.  This picture reminds me that even through a sea of clouds, the sun always emerges eventually.

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AUGUST

As my time in Japan came to a close, Tsuneo-san and another friend took me to see an equally amazing sunset overlooking the Shimanami Kaido Bridges, which connect Shikoku Island to the mainland.

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SEPTEMBER

My last month in Japan.  In my three years in Japan, I experienced so much — earthquakes, typhoons, confusion beyond expression.  And yet I survived it all and loved so much about my time abroad, in particular the gentle people who I met and now hold in my heart forever.  I’m not the same person I was before Japan and will never be.  I climbed mountains with amazing friends, and always enjoyed the view, even on cloudy days.  Japan isn’t perfect, but I couldn’t have imagined a more wonderful time. (Pic is from the top of Mt. Tsurugi in Tokushima, the second highest mountain in Shikoku.)

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OCTOBER

And so I began my new journey in Chicago.  I was delighted to be around family again but also experienced frustrating moments where sometimes, I felt like an alien in a strange new country called America.

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NOVEMBER

Even though I visited my family every summer during my three years in Japan, I have realized that I also missed so much in my time away.  So, I’m especially happy to have moments now where I can reconnect with my family and learn more family history.  In November, for the first time, my father and I visited the grave of his maternal grandparents, who dedicated their plot to their son, my father’s biological father, who was killed in WWII.  Sound confusing?  Life almost always is.  Read more about the story here.

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DECEMBER

Footprints in the snow on a sidewalk near my parents’ house.  As I write this, Chicago is battling brutally cold, sub-zero weather that has forced schools and some businesses to close for two days in a row.  I’m also waiting to hear back about a job that I hope to get.  So I’ve been spending more of my days inside close to my computer and phone rather than outside.  But as I continue on my journey and new life, I’ll always consider myself a seeker, hoping to leave some sort of positive imprint in the world.

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