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Transition Japan: Your First Few Months in Japan

Backdated from October

Note: This is the fourth 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, part two here, and part three here.

Gomen! ごめん!

It’s been a long time since I’ve had a chance to blog.

Although my first goal was to write about your first few weeks in Japan on the JET Program, with November here and winter just around the corner, it now makes more sense to write about your first few months in Japan. Below are a few suggestions to keep you focused as winter rolls through and likely forces you to consider why you came to Japan in the first place.

1. Continue to Study Japanese —  I had zero Japanese knowledge before going to Japan on the JET Program, and though I left Japan by no means an expert in the language at all, I learned the most about Japanese culture when I studied the language and began to understand parts of conversations I overheard. I wish I had been more diligent about studying grammar and kanji — unfortunately, this is an all-too common regret among JETs. I think it’s safe to say few have uttered, “Boy, I wish I knew less Japanese and hadn’t studied so much!”

Tips: If you’re not interested in the JET books (I wasn’t after briefly trying), search for the Genki Japanese series. Also, find a Japanese tutor. My first Japanese teacher, who was a volunteer at the local city hall in the town next to mine, became a good friend who I hope to see again when I visit Japan.

2. Get Out of Your Comfort Zone — By now, your so called “honeymoon” period in Japan is over and you may be beginning to peal back the thick, mysterious layer of Japanese society and seeing its imperfections. This can cause culture shock and homesickness, but a great way to see Japan (and yourself) in a new light is to pick up a new hobby and try something new. Your options may be somewhat limited with a language barrier, but among the things I had never tried before that I did in Japan include: photography, helping write a play, climbing a large mountain, running a 5K and 10K race, and modeling!

Tips: Pick a new hobby. Mine became running. I have continued with it since leaving Japan and just completed my first half-marathon.

3. Invest in Becoming a Better Teacher — JET gives us the wonderful opportunity for self-discovery (see number 2) and learning about another culture. However, we were also selected to work hard and hopefully become role models for our students. Teaching is hard work and takes a lot of practice, as well as trial and error. Even if you will not become a teacher when you leave Japan, investing in your ability to at least try and become a better educator will benefit not only your students, but also your professional capabilities and likely gain you more respect among your co-workers.

Tips: Sign up for a TESOL certification course online, or take free courses in education at Coursera.

4. Think About Your Goals — Living in the moment is a wonderful thing that I wish I could do more. However, so is the ability to have a clear idea of what one wants for his/her life. I’m still trying to figure this one out, but holding off on decisions will only catch up to you.

Tips: Start making a list of small goals that you wish to achieve; write them down and create a larger goal as soon as you accomplish a smaller goal.

5. Immerse Yourself — Whether you’re staying in Japan for one year or five, your time in Japan is fleeting (unless you plan to say forever). As much as I sometimes missed America during my time abroad, I now miss many parts of Japan, as if part of my Japanese identity has been somehow intertwined there and remains in me even as I continue to readjust to American culture.

Tips: Get out and open your eyes.

Next in Transition in Japan: Your re-contracting decision!

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.

Making Sense of the Senseless

I’ve spent much of this week thinking about the Santa Barbara tragedy, and the violence that occurs in Chicago every week.  The same weekend Elliot Rodger killed six and injured thirteen, five were killed and 12 were injured in weekend shootings in Chicago.  I have a lot to say about this topic — and wrote about gun violence last year in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre for my “Letters from Japan” series — but for now I’d like to highlight some of the most compelling articles I’ve read this week regarding this tragedy, and the shootings that occur in Chicago every week.

Elliot Rodger and America’s Ongoing Masculinity Crisis (Salon) — An article that offers insight into why these shootings occur mostly by young males, and what can be done to prevent similar acts of violence.

Michael Moore’s Facebook message — Moore’s blunt, abrasive commentary isn’t for everyone, but I think he nailed it when he said, “The gun, not the eagle, is our true national symbol.” Pessimistic, but brutally honest.

Overcome Your Programming and Be a Better Man (Chris Gethard Show Tumblr) — I hadn’t read anything by Chris Gethard, an American comedian, actor, and writer, until I saw this post.  Without even a hint of sarcasm or humor, Gethard eloquently describes overcoming his own angst and struggles to finally become a content, confident adult who will soon marry the woman he loves.  This certainly won’t be the last essay I read by Mr. Gethard.

Let’s Call the Isla Vista Killings What They Were: Misogynist Extremism (New Statesmen) — I’m still working through my thoughts on this very complex topic, but this passionate essay by feminist columnist Laurie Penny digs into the discrimination women face every day.

Father of Victim in Santa Barbara Shooting to Politicians: ‘I Don’t Care About Your Sympathy’ (Washington Post) ) — Richard Martinez’s 20-year-old son, Christopher, was one of the six killed by Rodger. His emotional response has been widely spread via social media and YouTube, but it’s one of the most tragic and poignant speeches I have ever heard.

Enough Slaughter (Miami Herald) — This editorial, referencing both the Santa Barbara shootings and the Memorial Day weekend shootings in Chicago, was re-published this week by the Chicago Tribune and the Baltimore Sun.

 

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.

 

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

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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