I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about my life in the Japanese inaka because I recently heard that the JET Program is sending 100 new ALTS to Tokyo City next year. The year after that they will be placing 100 more new ALTs in Tokyo again. Thats 200 new ALTs in Tokyo in 2 years! We only ave 90 total ALTs in ALL of of Fukui Prefecture!
If you know anything about the JET program you know that you don’t get a choice of where you go in Japan when you sign up for the program. Therefore, JET is infamous for placing ALTs in the tiniest most unheard of places in Japan and before now the chances of going to Tokyo or Kyoto with JET were next to impossible.
I think there were only a handful of jobs in those cities out of more than 5,000. But, for this incoming group of ALTs, that is all changing. The reason for the change is supposedly because Tokyo wants to dramatically improve their English ability in the next 5 years to get the city ready for the Olympics being held there in 2020.
I think the government is really smart for doing this, but I wonder how the new ALTs are feeling finding out they are placed in a huge city like Tokyo? Most people apply to JET with the expectations of small town life.
A friend of a friend is incoming ALT this year placed in Tokyo City. She requested Fukui on her application. Tokyo life and Fukui life are two completely different worlds. Everything from the variety of food, to the people, to the environment, and even the culture are different. (maybe I’ll write a post about that later!)
I can’t help but feel sad for the ALTs who won’t get to experience life in the inaka. While it can be boring and isolating, it has so many wonderful things too! I really want to share with you 5 positive things that I learned from living in the Japanese Countryside.
1. Rice Fields are Beautiful
I come from a town called Katy Texas just outside of Houston. Katy harvests rice. So I have always been familiar with the way rice fields look in every season.
However, it took moving to the Fukui for me to realize just how amazingly beautiful rice fields are when filled to the brim with water reflecting everything around them.
How beautiful they are when everywhere you look is open all around you for miles. How great they smell when farmers are burning the fields after a harvest.
I love being surrounded by rice fields. (which is good if you live in Japan.)
2. Language Doesn’t Matter
There is very little English here in inaka Japan. In fact its so rare that if a random person walks up to me to speak English or a shop attendant uses an English word or phrase it leaves me shocked and I ask them if they lived in a foreign country or used to be an English teacher.
My Japanese is still totally awful. Even after studying for 2 years and living in the country surrounded by the language, I often fail at finding the right words at the right time. Even if I know the words or phrases I need in a situation, I find it impossible to recall the Japanese and make it useful. So annoying.
I’ve discovered though that it doesn’t really matter! relationships aren’t built upon politeness and small talk. They are built on shared experiences and the thoughts and feelings that go behind the words you use. I find that with my Japanese friends these things are understood even when we have trouble with words.
This last week I was pretty sick. Whenever I’m sick the first person I go to is my school nurse. My school nurse is a young female teacher and she is very sweet and kind. She is loved by staff and by students and is never shy about trying to have a conversation with me even though there is a 75% chance the conversation will eventually hit a language brick wall.
My school nurse was so concerned about my illness this week that she offered to take me to the doctor to get the help I needed. This isn’t a part of her job. This isn’t her responsibility. She was just worried and wanted to make sure I was taken care of.
This appointment wouldn’t be my first solo doctor visit in Japan. I’ve navigated the hospital and doctors office multiple times on my own. She didn’t need to come. We mostly speak in easy Japanese and super simple English. She wouldn’t be able to translate medical terms or tell the doctors my medical history.
But I discovered that I did feel better having her there with me. I felt supported and more relaxed. I felt more comfortable just having her there. This teacher constantly goes out of her ay to see how I am doing and invite me to do things with the other teachers. She has become a true friend.
These relationships don’t need words if you are willing to feel foolish every once in awhile. I love her dearly and she will be one of the people I miss most when I eventually leave. No words needed.
3. You Make Your Own Fun
I have always lived in a city. I grew up just outside of Houston, one of the largest cities in the states. Living in the country has been an adjustment.
There isn’t a lot to do. There aren’t places to go and hang out. My students go to McDonalds with their friends to hang out together on a Friday night. Seriously.
However, I rarely feel bored. My friends and I create fun things to do for ourselves.
We make our own events and theme game nights. We find little mysterious “lost towns” to explore (at least they are lost and mysterious to us.) If you have a good friend, there is always something interesting to do. (especially while living in a foreign country!)
4. Local Events are the Best
If you look at the last few posts on this blog you will see small town community mentioned countless times. Community and Community events are so important here.
If I go to the Awara festival the organizers and volunteers will be many people I know. They are my neighbors, my students, my co workers and my friends.
My town is really small and my High school is the only high school in Awara and Kanazu. My high school’s events are even attended by many community members not related to the school. Grandmas and Grandpas will take a break from keeping their gardens and fields to come watch my students compete in sports day.
When you are a foreigner living in a small town you get a slight amount of local celebrity status. Well, “celebrity” isn’t really the right word, its more like everyone knows who you are. Which makes it really easy to become super involved in events.
5. Japan is OLD.
I never really understood how young a country America is before moving to Japan. America is full of young people, young buildings, and recent history. Japan is the opposite. especially in the inaka.
Japan is ancient. There are ruins of buildings, ancient houses, roads, and monuments. This is very different from the image of Japan that most people have. People know about Harajuku, Tokyo, and whatever crazy japanese robot is popular on buzzfeed at the moment. But that is only one side of Japan! There is a much more ancient and mysterious side of Japan as well.
Maruoka is village just southeast of my town. One of my friends is an ALT who lives there. He recently told me this story. He was out walking around behind Maruoka doing some exploring on some hiking trails when he stumbled upon some ruins.
He had never heard of or seen the ruins before so he tried to do some research and found nothing on them. So he asked some teachers at his school about them to see if he could learn the history.
Apparently back in the back in the warring states period there was a temple in Maruoka famous for its view of Haku-san (one of the three holiest mountains in Japan located just north of Fukui.)
This Temple was very popular and it became the center of a buddhist uprising. It was the base of a huge group of armed monks who were starting to occupy all of Sakai area. Therefore, it was attacked and burned by the military commander Nobunaga Oda. Maruoka Castle was built to stabilize the region after that temple burned to the ground.
This local piece of history will never make it into a textbook. You’ll never find it on wikipedia. It can only be learned by discovering the ruins and asking someone whose family has kept the story alive through generations.
Japan is old and there is history around every corner.
Congratulations to all the new ALTs who recently got their placements. There is something to love and discover anywhere you get placed.
I’d love to hear what you think of small town life. Have you ever lived in a small town? What did you think of it?