JET Programme

Do I Smell Culture?

10:00 pm

I am starting to become cognizant of my opportunities here. The central park of Morioka was recommended to me by one of the group leaders (whose name I’m not sure I ever properly caught) so I armed myself with my tripod and cameras and ventured in that direction. Good choice.

Japanese gardens stood on various terraces of the ruined walls of Morioka castle while the sun’s light slanted from the sky. The serenity of the place, however, was broken by the intricate patterns of groups of drummers practicing for the upcoming festival. I wandered through the trees, then down to the square where the drummers were accompanied by flutists and singers. Lost in the drumming, I failed to explore the whole of the park. The glimpse I had, however, revealed additional gorgeous possibilities.

Depending on the quality of my sleep, I may wake early and wind through more of the park’s paths though it is getting late already and breakfast tomorrow is early. We shall see.

After my explorations, I rejoined the group at the restaurant where the forced Japanese ‘vegetarian’ weight loss program continued. My meal had its high points of tasty seaweed wrapped rice, but the rest of the food was not especially pleasant – not to mention it was decorated with ham on one portion of the plate. Sour vinegar lined the bottom of the dish making anything it touched unpalatable – noodles and vegetables were soaked and later discarded.

After dinner, the rest of the group continued its evening at an Irish pub. I considered staying in an attempt to find a partner for a game of darts, but quickly abandoned the bar. Drinking and socializing were the order of the night and I couldn’t be bothered to wear an energetic mask for long. Sleep is a more intriguing companion tonight.

The Briefest of Re-orientations

4:00 pm

We got dressed in suits. We walked past the stone-splitting cherry tree and to the prefectural office. We were to meet important people and present ourselves as new JETs. We were divided into two groups: the prefectural and the municipal. We municipal JETs visited the eighth floor where we sat round a table and had a very informal question and answer period with the people who have already been leading us through the prefecture already. Why were we wearing suits again?

The prefectural group, apparently, were interviewed on television and a few of them even got to see the subsequent broadcast. They received certificates, presumably from important people. They had reason for suits.

I always hated wearing suits. I can’t think of an occasion where it hasn’t been a bother to wear the dreaded jacket and tie combination. I always felt a tie was a noose or, at best, a leash. I always loathed the superficiality of making my appearance count for people. I always wanted to be noticed for my character, not for the shine of my shoes. I suppose, when the language barrier is so impenetrable, however, that looks become the default standard for human evaluation. I am a closed book with a pretty cover.


1:00 pm

A small hotel room in Morioka. The Japanese premium on space is becoming ever more apparent. The bed dominates the room and my chair only barely fits comfortably between the bed and desk. It almost feels like a Murakami character could come knocking on my door any second coolly demanding, with no explanation, that I gather my things to be escorted to the black limousine waiting outside. This sense of absurdity is broken only by the music seeping from the laptop’s speakers. I need a little taste of home, don’t I? For right now, Billy Talent reminds me of Canada.

We just arrived at the Hotel Ace in downtown Morioka where we have time to kill before a presentation of our certificates. What the certificates represent has slipped my mind, but that only adds to the surrealism of having arrived in Northern Japan with a group of people I hardly know to teach – a job at which I have no experience. But, given the endless speeches, workshops, lineups, travel, and periods of waiting, I’m surprisingly energetic. Maybe it’s the music.

Last night, Canadians were herded through the hotel as we attempted to check our bags then make our way into a taxi to visit the Canadian embassy. A good 200 of us braved the Tokyo streets to find ourselves at a rather impressive piece of property where the Canadian government has set up both an embassy and an office tower. Apparently, it’s the only self-sufficient Canadian embassy – the land is prime real estate and the office space they rent out easily pays for the embassy’s operations.

The purpose of our invitation there was quickly divulged to us. They wanted to indoctrinate us to incessantly tout the virtues of our fine country to the Japanese people. We were to become 200 unpaid tourism and promotion agents. But at least they gave us some food. As is quickly becoming the norm in Japan, the vegetarian pickings were slim, but I managed to pack enough food into my stomach to keep me from having to buy additional dinner later.

The highlight of the visit to the embassy, however, was the table hockey. A nice slice of home, a few of us had sudden death games of red versus blue or Canadiens versus Leafs or Flames versus Lightning, depending on who was the commentator at the time. I lost my match to Owen’s Canadiens despite some rock-solid, Terry Sawchuk-esque goaltending.

Our trip home was on the subway that proved to be remarkably simple to use. Dave led us to the station and put us through the paces to get our tickets then led us to the right line. The subway trains were enough to make the passengers jealous of sardines. Even at that semi-late hour, the cars were past packed – in Calgary, most people would have simply waited for another train, but fighting your way on board is the norm here.

Once back at the hotel, I gathered my cameras and navigated the Keio plaza’s labyrinthine lift system to get to the 47th floor for more top-floor photos. The staff there was kind enough to dim the lights and open the curtains for me while I shot the landscape that looks like a leftover set from Blade Runner. Yes, I did just make that comparison – I know everyone else who has seen the film and been to Tokyo says that, but perhaps there’s a reason.

An early evening still didn’t provide that much sleep since Darrell’s snores kept my ears on edge for the last half of the night. If only I could have worn my ear plugs, but I didn’t want to miss my alarm for the departure this morning.

After breakfast and another substantial waiting period, we boarded a bus to the station. There, we had time to grab some lunch for the train ride and I finally started feeling like I was in Japan. The stations halls were as busy as an ant hill and had a similar chaotic order to them. Vending machines lined the walls between food kiosks and Hazuki guided me to the most vegetarian noodle option we could find (which turned out to be a little bit fishy, but bearable).

The bullet train ride was as smooth as could be – you hardly noticed you were speeding past the countryside. It certainly didn’t feel nearly as quick as it was. The landscape whizzing past us was never free from the hand of man. Where houses and buildings didn’t cover the landscape, rice paddies stretched over the flat land. Occasionally, a tree-lined hill would rise and hint at the distant mountains, but they soon rejoined the level ground. Iwate, however has more texture to the terrain. The proportion of hills to flat land here is greater than in the rest of the journey.

Disoriented at Orientation

8:00 pm

It’s now 8:00 pm and I’m battling jet lag and losing. I think I will make this a quiet evening despite having the option of going out with a group of people from my prefecture. But I’m not just being a sleep-deprived wimp. The price is rather prohibitive. I would have to pay 4500 Yen for a set meal and all I can drink. The set meal isn’t vegetarian and the drinking portion is as unappealing to me now as it would be back home. So, when you do the conversion, I would be paying about $45 US dollars to watch a bunch of future colleagues get pissed. Sure, I’ll be hanging out with future colleagues, but I think I might want to reserve that for a less financially intrusive opportunity.

Today was actually a bit of a blur. The morning was occupied by a set of speakers standing in front of 1500 incredibly moist teachers. Tokyo’s humidity isn’t especially accommodating to that large number of people in a room at once. We were given stacks of papers, books and brochures to take with us to our new homes, but they ended up serving only as fans to keep cool.

Right now, I honestly can’t remember much of the content I tried to ingest. I only remember thinking that one of the presenters’ English was good enough to make decent jokes – a rarity in my limited experience here.

After a tasty-enough lunch, more speakers awaited then a video about a day in the life of an assistant language teacher. Made in 1993, the age was showing on this Hollywood blockbuster. An ALT and a JLT walk past a classroom where an orchestra is playing. ‘Is that the music class?’ the ALT inquires in a true showing of his mastery of Japanese culture. It was a good watch filled with unintentional humour.

We then had a series of workshops where I attended talks about teaching at the elementary level, traveling as a JET and being a vegetarian in Japan. Then again, looking at what I wrote above, I already told you about this a bit’

I tried having a fifteen-minute nap, but I think a whole two minutes was had before dinner. I’m now digesting and thinking about going outside for a few photos, but I don’t think I will last too long before I pass out. So, it might just be an early-ish night and hopefully I won’t wake up at five in the morning, and unable to resume sleeping.

Post-Breakfast Musings

8:00 am

I’ve since had breakfast up on the 43rd floor directly across from a rather impressive Tokyo administration building. The light was quite interesting and the sprawl of the city was quite evident, but by the time I returned to the room to get the camera, a downpour drenched the whole city and I lost my photo op. Now, I just have pictures of mist covered buildings through rain-covered windows.

I’m currently waiting for events to get underway. I’ll soon have to re-don my suit and head downstairs so that someone can tell us for the 322nd time that we are the ‘best and brightest’ and so on. The workshops toward the end of the day may be promising. The ones I think I will attend are the ones about money saving techniques, travel as a JET and vegetarianism (where they will proceed to tell us, ‘You’re screwed!’).

After a conversation at breakfast this morning with a fellow vegetarian, I keep getting that impression more and more. She talked about how she is going to allow herself to have fish broth since she will hardly be able eat anything otherwise. I might have to go the same route. She also mentioned that she had been trying to eat a bit of seafood before she came and somehow got the brilliant idea that she should eat a whole lobster on the fourth of July. She was sick for five days.

Welcome to Japan (and Jet Lag)

6:40 am

I’m pre-emptively writing these notes in my hotel room since getting a connection downstairs requires sacrificing a first-born child. There’s something like 1500 JETs in this hotel and while I could conceivably fight them all, I wouldn’t want to deal with all the blood stains on my clothes. I’m a ninja, but not when it comes to laundry.

It’s 6:40 am and I’m just waiting for the breakfast hall to open. Since it’s the equivalent of 3:40 back home, starvation is setting in.

Last night, I went for my first Japanese dining experience and I had a couple of good Japanese speakers along for the ride, so they were able to guide me through the process. I have, however, already had my first meat slip up. There seemed to be pork or some other formerly-living product residing in my mizo soup – an unusual phenomenon I’m told. I’m probably going to have to learn to love mizo soup and just start hoping that I get more meat-free versions in the future.

My roommates are a couple other guys from Alberta and so far we’ve all managed to share our bathroom considerately. We’re all adjusting our internal clocks and griping about the ironing situation. No wait, I could care less about ironing.

Tokyo is enormous. I can’t think of any city I’ve visited that is so densely packed while simultaneously being so sprawling. Apartment buildings are crammed together with no space in between and fill endless stretches of city blocks. The only real landmark we passed on the way to the hotel was Tokyo Disney – it just looked like Disneyland, but oddly enough, with more trees.

The weather has been incredibly humid and quite warm. I don’t find it unbearable, but there have been more than a few complaints that have reached my ears. It’s not so bad though. I mean, I could probably grow rice in my underwear it’s so humid, but I haven’t wanted to pass out or anything (though apparently one girl did while waiting in line at Narita airport – she wasn’t a JET, so I think she just got tired of being in an endless line with a bunch of sleep-deprived rookie teachers and wanted a quick way out).

The flight over was uneventful. I tried every means at my disposal to get some sleep, but only managed an hour. Ear plugs, a neck pillow, and a sleeping pill couldn’t do it for me. I’m just fated to never sleep on planes. I did, however, get stuck next to someone who took the Celestine Prophecies seriously and wanted to talk philosophy with me in that context. Somewhere, my B.A. is crying.

Today, we’ll be running the gauntlet of conference speakers. It could prove to be long and dull, or somewhat interesting. I’m hoping for the latter, but not holding my breath. I believe I get to meet other people from my prefecture, so we’ll see if I can find someone who wants to check out some festivals or something.

Tokyo Bound

Air Canada flight to Narita.

The fog of my sleeping pill is keeping me from particularly cohesive thought – pardon my scrambled brain. But, this proves it, I can’t sleep on planes. Maybe if I took the whole pill instead of half, but the fraction has always been enough when I needed to sleep at home. Perhaps desperate times call for the ever-so-desperate measure of a whole sleeping pill.

Obviously, I’ve managed to make it onto the plane and I’m off to Japan. I had a nice little freak out two nights ago when the soft bed at my uncle’s house prompted my back to violently lash out at me. At three in the morning when I could hardly move, I panicked. ‘What if my back just keeps getting worse? My health is deteriorating and I’m only bound to follow my Dad’s course of constant pain or medication. I’ve already shown symptoms of his ailments, but I’ve shown them at half his age.’

And the paranoia continued, ‘If I’m in this much pain now, it can only get worse. If it gets worse while I’m in Japan, not only will I be known as the gimpy gaijin, I’ll be pretty damn miserable.’

But back to the predominantly pain-free present. As I write this, conversations buzz through the plane’s cabin and the pursuit of sleep has been abandoned by all but the most stalwart snoozers. I did manage a one-hour nap, but that half of a little blue sleeping pill seems now to have exited my system. No more rest for me. I just hope I don’t pass out in a salad as has been related by some former JETs. Wait, maybe if I had a drink of wine, it would mix well with the sleeping pill and I could pass out for the rest of the flight.

I should mention the fantastic teamwork of my father, my uncle and I as we exacted revenge for an earlier seven-beats-all defeat at the hands of mother, aunt and cousin. It was such a formidable rout, it deserves and out-of-context journal entry.

Driving North to Fly to the East

I’m in the back seat of the car. We’re driving North to Edmonton. Mom is sleeping in the front seat while Dad chews beef jerky and occasionally coughs from its spices. I am trying not to think of the people I will be leaving behind and the pain I will cause some of them. Obviously, I am having difficulties averting my mind from these topics.

I am trying to be optimistic. Every one of my travel experiences has been an incredible blessing. With each new place I visit, I feel less afraid of death, because I feel I have fulfilled more of my life. There’s a line from The Big Lebowski where one character says he’s comfortable with dying because he’s seen Los Angeles – if he died now, he wouldn’t feel like God ripped him off.

I’m trying to focus on the opportunity at hand. I’ll be making decent money doing what shouldn’t be the most strenuous work imaginable while living in a foreign country. There, I will have the chance to develop my photographic skills while pointing my lenses at some fantastic subjects. With some determination, I will be able to begin building my future as a professional photographer. A few travel articles here, a new website there, a whole bunch of submissions to stock agencies and I can start to make it happen.

But still, I keep my expectations low. Just in case. My hopes can be high, but if my expectations follow suit, disappointment is often not far behind.

But once I arrive in Japan, these ruminations will hopefully cease and I will engage myself more thoroughly with the land, its people, its culture and its images. Then maybe I won’t have to try so hard to not think of things.