Monday, August 12, 2013

Haley Rae Returns to Japan!

(Note from me [Honestly, who else would it be from?] : This post was written in my first week in Tateyama, and is fairly sentimental and somewhat, although not completely, lacking in funny material. However, there will be pictures! Ohoooo, there will be pictures. Anyway, stay tuned for more posts, humor included, to come!)

A year and three months later, and I am back in Japan.

A view of Mount Tate (aka Tateyama)...To be discussed in this post!

The days leading up to my departure were filled with anxiety and grief. There were plans to make, lists to carry out, loved ones to whom I had to say goodbye. My life became a blur of confusion, not knowing where my things were because they were scattered between bags and boxes, and the emotional luggage was far heavier. My final days in Madison consisted of bar hopping, parties and laughter, and tears and farewells framed them. Suddenly, I was in the car with my parents, my life packed in my dad’s Impala, and I was staring out the window with tears running down my face, trying to decipher where the last four years had gone. I cannot begin to count the number of shared memories I hold with so many extraordinary friends. Memories that I will treasure for the rest of my life.

But this is truly where my life begins.

It’s as my brother said, “Madison isn’t real life.” And it’s no longer where I’m meant to be, either. Not now, anyway.

Now, I am in Japan. I am in Japan and, in short, I am happy, healthy, and well taken care of.

The flight over was exhausting. I took three sleeping pills thinking I could deceive my brain into thinking it was bedtime, but it knew better. I managed two and a half hours of sleep on the 13-hour flight. I was too excited to sleep, and the seats were filled with fellow chattering JETs around me. We were going to Japan. We were realizing our dreams.

Most of us probably didn’t imagine the lengthy, tiresome orientations in our dreams, though. When we landed in Tokyo, it was a flurry of paperwork, luggage and people in green shirts leading the way. We took a bus to our hotel two hours away, and for the next three days we would have panel discussions, orientations, workshops, dinners. With hardly a moment for ourselves and a wifi connection too weak to support the hundreds of JETs that flew in, I became a walking, nodding, note-taking suit. Somehow, we managed time for each other; at night we went to karaoke, arcades. I got to see my cousins Matt and Hiroko and managed to navigate the Tokyo train system for the first time alone. I interpreted it as a good sign. Maybe this time, I wouldn't get lost in my new town (like I did last time…Relive me getting lost in Nagoya, ~here~).

Eventually, the moment I had been waiting for arrived. New JETs, myself (obviously) included, flew out to Toyama prefecture to meet our supervisors for the first time. Soon, I was gliding down an escalator, spotting a colorful “HALEY!” sign on the other side of the luggage area, and soon met the woman jumping up and down holding it. Her name is Nachi, and she is above and beyond amazing. But more on her later. There was also Terasaki, my supervisor who is equally amazing (for example, he gave me today, Monday, off because I had yet to unpack), and one of the heads of the Board of Education in Tateyama town. Before I knew it, I was whisked away by these strangers, who would eventually come to be friends.

This is the view from my backyard. Yeah. It makes me feel peaceful. You can probably understand why.

Japanese began spilling out of my mouth as though it were only yesterday that I had left and returned; the others were pleased I knew Japanese, because they had little faith in their own English (as it happens, their English is quite good, and it’s a relief to be able to take a break from Japanese once in a while and speak in my native tongue. It’s surprising how exhausting using your brain can be when constantly speaking and focusing on another language). We made our rounds at the Board of Education, I met some of the workers and had tea with the head honcho.

Later, I went out to lunch with one of the board members, Maeda, and the aforementioned Terasaki and Nachi. We had yakisoba (grilled buckwheat noodles, vegetables, and meat) and had light, but fun, conversation. I was exhausted from too little sleep the past few days and tried my best not to show it (and failed; though I’m convinced Nachi is a mind reader). After the hustle and bustle of the last few days, I had averaged around 5 hours a night, including the emotional exhaustion of traveling to the other side of the world (accompanied by jet lag).

And I had been worried. How worried I had been, wondering what my new life would be like, what the people in it would be like. If I would like Tateyama and if I would be happy. If my apartment had things that I needed and if I remembered to pack everything I needed. If people would like me, if I would have enough to say, if I would remember my Japanese. The documents I needed to prepare, the tasks I had before me, were too daunting to take on alone. Would I like being back in Japan? Would I miss my loved ones, my family? The answer to both seemed to be “of course.” But I wasn’t sure. Would I really be happy starting my new life in another country, in another town where I knew a total of zero people, unless you count the supervisor I exchanged an e-mail with a week before my departure? Is this really what I want? But the biggest question for me was, Will I be okay? Not even good, or happy – I would settle for “okay”; “okay” I can work with, “okay” can become good, happy, great over time. I just wanted to be okay.

It was on that first day when we were walking back from the restaurant to the Board of Education (the temperature outside somewhere in the high eighties or low nineties, accompanied by 90% humidity, *dahdahdahdahhhh! Japan summer) that I had my first, really wonderful, moment. As we walked together back to the Board, I told the others how nice they were and that I wanted to become friends (it’s not uncommon to hear such a phrase in Japan). That was when Nachi looked at me and said, 「もう友達だよ」. “We’re already friends.”

Tears sprung to my eyes. Relief flooded through me, and on that first day, I felt a new friendship forming. And my heart was brought a little relief, my shoulders lifted of a weight I had not even noticed, I had been carrying it for so long.

Fireworks...relevant in a few moments

We went to my apartment and checked it out; its fairly spacious for being a Japanese apartment, and I’d say the perfect size for one person to live in. (Pictures to be uploaded at a later date) My predecessor Randy left me an entire apartment to live in; from scissors to a bed, it had everything I needed. That may seem like a weird range of things, but in fact, you would be surprised how often one requires scissors. There were even two beers in the fridge, which made for an excellent night once I finally had time to myself. It was spotlessly clean, thanks to the workers at the Board of Education who took the time to clean my nest before I settled in it. I was unspeakably grateful; what a relief, how amazing it was to have a place up and ready to claim as my own. Nachi, Maeda, and Terasaki got me a new rice cooker, a new toaster oven, and started making arrangements for me to get internet and a new air conditioner, the appliances there having been “too old” – although I told them if they worked I was fine, they insisted. And I accepted graciously.

That day, exhausted though I was, Nachi and I went to the post office for my change of address, the bank to open an account, and the cell phone store to get a…you guessed it, cell phone (which took an obnoxious two hours, but hey! I’ve got a phone!). Later that night we met up for drinks at an Izakaya (Japanese style bar with a separate room and sliding door divider where the waiter comes in and brings tons of food and drinks. The room usually has a tatami mat and a low table where you sit on cushions on the floor to eat and laugh and drink…especially drink). But by nine I was exhausted. Nachi took me home, and I was asleep before my head touched my pillow.

The next day was more chores and errands needed to be run, and I met some wonderful women who work at the Education center in Oyama Junior High School, where I will be working most of the time (I’ll also be visiting four elementary schools). They were incredibly open, easy to talk to, and warm-hearted. We chatted, I met some teachers I’ll work with and toured the school, and the Education center staff invited me out camping on Mount Tate with 41 kids and volunteer college students from the area, to which I agreed. Eventually met back up with Nachi to receive a map of the area and a train schedule for the nearest train station to my house.

Thanks to Nachi’s help, I managed to guide my way to Toyama city that evening and meet up with other JETs for a 3000-firework festival, apparently the largest annual display in the area. It was beautiful and busy, with women wearing kimono and men wearing yukata (there are no plurals in the Japanese language, but it still looks weird to type that way). Companies gave out fans on the side of the roads and food and drink stalls flanked the river that the fireworks were shot over. I was able to talk leisurely with fellow JETs, but as time wore on and it became 9:30, I was exhausted and had to go home. 

The next day, Nachi picked me up to go to the car shop and change Randy’s car to my name, buy insurance, and then off we went to Mount Tate. Mountains piled up in the distance, as the road became narrower, winding up the cliff side. The camp itself consisted of a few buildings for activities, another structure for outdoor cooking. Evergreen trees encompassed the area, with cicadas singing and humming all around us. When we arrived, everyone was getting ready to roast hot dogs – camp style. After I made a quick introduction of myself, we went into the other room, and I helped the kids prepare lunch; hot dog in bun, toppings on hotdog (lettuce, tomato, ketchup, tuna for those who wanted it), hotdog wrapped in aluminum foil, put into a paper, liter-sized milk carton, and it was done. We went outside to place them in a firepit and lit them aflame, and as we waited, wiping the tears from our eyes from the smoke, the bravest students approached me and made conversation. (For the protection and safety of the students, I can't show any pictures with their faces on a public blog. I will work around this!)

Hot dogs on the way!!

Walking to the next building...

The kids were simply a delight to talk to. Japanese kids have a tendency to be shy, but most of them slipped right into a talkative state. They complimented my hair, my eyes (colored features are a rare, prized thing in Japan), but I told them it was THEY who were the cute ones. Big, dark eyes, shiny and straight hair, accompanied by excited smiles that could warm even the Grinch’s heart, pre-Cindy Lou Who.

Freaking. Gorgeous.

After lunch, the kids went to studying science while I prepared my self-introduction with Nachi. I had to break down my life into simple phrases, explain my home in but a few minutes. It more or less rounded up to cows, cheese, and the things I love most – one of those things also being cheese. It was an overall success; when I was through and asked if anyone had questions, I was met with a surprising number of hands (refer to earlier comment about Japanese kids being shy). “What is your favorite Japanese food?” (Ramen and Misokatsu! The latter is a pork cutlet with miso sauce. Yuuumm – a very Nagoya dish) “What surprised you the most about Japan?” (The squat toilets. They make life more difficult than it needs to be) and more. Then, my self-intro time was over, and already it was time for dinner.

I sat with the teachers and some of the college students who were volunteering their summer time to watch over the kids and guide them through activities at camp this weekend. We chattered for a bit, though I noticed one of the students – a boy my age – hadn’t said a word throughout dinner (again, the Japanese, they are shy). Iwakura sensei said to me, “Haley, your birthday is June 21st, 1991, right?”

“Yes, that’s right.”
“The same year as Masa!” She gestured to the quiet boy next to me.
“Oh, is that right?” I looked to him, prompting an answer.
“Ah, we’re the same,” he said.
“And we have the same…Oh, what is it called. The animal for our year.”
“Eto,” a girl replied helpfully. “Your zodiac animal.”
“Yeah!” I said. “We’re…uh…” I forgot another Japanese word I used to know.
“We’re both sheep,” he said with a small smile.
“That’s right! Sheep!” I said excitedly. “Wait, Iwakura-sensei…Why do you know my birthday? Are you stalking me?”
Thus started our conversation, this time including the shy boy next to me, Masa.

When we rinsed and put away our dishes in the kitchen, we got another chance for some brief conversation, and again later in the hall as we prepared our beds for the evening in a separate building with meeting rooms and a public bath (if you’re just tuning into my Japan adventures this year, I should tell you that communal bathing is a part of Japanese culture that goes back thousands of years. In fact, I visited the oldest onsen [hot spring] in Japan once, on the island of Shikkoku when I visited my friend Ayaka to be in her wedding. It was over a thousand years old. Of course the building was renovated, but the heated waters from underground volcanic activity are the same). 

These Miyazaki Totoro-esque figures were found in one of the camp buildings!

Later that night, we were able to have longer discussions as we prepared for a viewing of stars (the English word escapes me now, but it’s the place where you go into a dark room, lay back, and a man behind a panel board guides lights mimicking the night sky, pointing out constellations and such, like an indoor night viewing of the stars), and again when we went outside for real (it was too bad, but it was cloudy; which is why we went in for the computer-simulation of the stars in the first place). He had been a shy boy before, but when it was just us talking, he spoke, joked, and laughed easily, and I discovered his English was quite good. I couldn’t help but notice how kind his smile was, and it only made me want to befriend him more. Once, one of the kids pointed to us and said something I didn’t understand; Masa told me, “She says we look like a couple.” I laughed and we joked about it – it only became fuel for more conversation.

Tateyama at dusk.

That evening, once the kids were all in bed, we had a staff meeting. Iwakura-sensei told me I would be paired with Masa for the next day’s hike and scavenger hunt. When the meeting was over, I exchanged formalities with the group of college students; “You worked hard today, thank you very much. I’m looking forward to tomorrow.” Masa, in a quiet voice, responded, 「私も」”Me too,” barely heard above the others’ chorus of “Thank you”’s and “good night.”

That was heart-warming moment number two. I knew I had made a friend, and was proud for being able to have good conversation with the quietest guy on the college student volunteer squad. If I could get him to talk, I thought, maybe I would have similar successes with the children, however shy,  I would be teaching in the near future. Maybe I had made another friend in Tateyama town. Slowly, I realized, I was constructing my new life, with new, kind and generous people. I can do this. This is my life, and it’s up to me to do my best with it. No one else can decide my happiness for me.

Tateyama in the Afternoon

The next day, we went for our day hike (and got lost, and consequently took last for finding the least number of scavenger points…but the kids had fun and took on adventure even when the climb was hard and steep, or when there were puddles of mud that even I didn’t want to try to cross), made pizza (REAL pizza with pizza sauce and mozzerella cheese, sausage, green peppers, onions…not Japanese pizza that has mayo or corn or tuna on it). The kids made the dough themselves, prepared everything from scratch. I was blown away by their eagerness and ability to learn quickly, to perform brilliantly, and their energy rubbed off on me despite my exhaustion after the two and a half hour hike. Atop that, the pizza was delicious, and only more delicious because it had been made from scratch by our own hands.

Pictures of our hike

The sky was cloudy again that night, but we went on our night-walk anyway, and at one point we laid down to look up at the stars that we could see. It was pleasant, calm, quiet, as we let the dark consume us and we stared as a collective at the gigantic globes of fire burning millions of miles away from where we lay, so small, so insignificant. (Read Carl Sagan's amazing and very relevant "Pale Blue Dot" quote here, in artful comic form) Fireflies lit up the mountains around us, and it was all I could do to keep it together and revel in my contentedness. Emotions are a funny, fickle thing.

The birds on Mount Tate, in the daytime.

The next day, after breakfast and lunch in the dining halls, with some studying in-between, we eventually had to say goodbye to the fun, fabulous weekend we all shared together. As Iwakura-sensei drove me back down the mountain-side, past glittering rivers and quaint, steep-roofed houses, she said to me, “Haley, if you ever get lonely, give me a call. I will be your ‘Japanese Mama’. Okay?” 

After such an exhausting trip, with not enough sleep on not-real comfortable futon mattresses, to hear such kind words from such a gentle soul, practically a stranger as I had known her only three days, was enough to make the tears come back. I thanked her profusely, told her how happy my “American Mom” would be to hear that (and she is), and promised her I’d call if I needed to.

That was moment three. It was the moment I knew that everything would be okay. I was six thousand miles away from an overwhelming percentage of my favorite people in the world, an entire world away from the friends and family I love with all of my heart. But there I was, seeing for myself as love took new forms all around me. Slowly, surely, I was sculpting my new life, making more friends, another social circle, another family. I was being welcomed into a society I had no rights to claim for my own, with only my love for the country, its culture and its people as my entry ticket. Already, though I had arrived only days before, I was incredibly well taken care of, and pieces of my life were falling into place.

And I knew I was going to be okay. 


  1. Sounds like you are off to a great start! Thanks for sharing, Haley!

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