Chasing Cherry Blossoms
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Sunday, August 7, 2011

Week One: Highlights

Konnichiwa! Right, let’s get down to business – I’ve been in Japan for a week now, but haven’t got internet set up in my apartment yet, so I’m jotting this down in MS Word and will upload it whenever I manage to get the net sorted. So much has happened in this past week I figure that if I spew some word vomit soon, I’ll forget it all!
So, I flew out from Heathrow on Saturday and arrived in Tokyo for the JET Orientation around 9AM Sunday morning. Found myself unexpectedly choked at Dobby’s death watching Harry Potter on the flight over – pretty odd considering that I didn’t shed a tear when saying goodbye to the folks. Just something about seeing pixellated elves getting butchered that gets me every time. The hotel where the Tokyo Orientation was being held was the luxurious Keio Plaza – slap-bang in the middle of Shinjuku and sky-scraper central. Awesome. After touching down in Tokyo, I tried to power through the impending JET lag (HO HO HO) by exploring the city, but even the deafening chorus of Pachinko  wasn’t enough to keep me awake. By 4PM, I was defeated and had to reach for the white flag. Back to the hotel and back to bed. The Orientation lectures themselves were generally forgettable – there were some pretty good speakers on occasionally, but the best bit by far was getting to do some shameless networking and meet all the other shiny new JETs. Group B was mainly made up of Brits, Yanks, Kiwis and a peppering of other, more obscure, countries. Met a really cool guy from New Zealand called Tom who I’ve agreed to meet up with sometime soon – we’ve been swapping a few emails sharing our settling-in stories which has been good! He’s in Hiroshima at the moment, which is only a few hours north of Ehime so it shouldn’t be too difficult to sort something out! :D

Ainan versus Tokyo... a little different, right?
Come Wednesday morning it was time to say sayonara to Tokyo and hop on another plane, this time to Matsuyama, the capital of Ehime prefecture. Arriving in Matsuyama was certainly an experience. There was a full-on convoy of our future co-workers waiting in the arrivals lounge with a crazy array of banners, all whooping and cheering as the new JETs came in – one of them was even dressed head-to-toe in traditional kimono. Don’t know how she managed it in the 35 degree heat!  I alone had six people waiting for me: three other ALTs (Aaron, Elayna and Joel) and three Japanese teachers I’m going to be working with. A three-hour drive down to Ainan later, it was time to start settling in. I arrived at my apartment, where I was met by more whooping Japanese who swept me off grocery shopping and then out for dinner. After a hectic few days orienting and travelling, I really, really just wanted to go to bed, but they all looked so happy and excited that declining their offers would’ve been like shooting a kid on Christmas. For the next two days I was pretty much just shipped from person-to-person as we went round town trying to sort my new life out. Opening bank accounts, registering as an alien (LOL)... I didn’t understand what the fuck was going on for 90% of the time, but I just smiled, stamped my hanko on any papers that were given to me and played along. Who knows what I even accomplished. I was just grateful when it was all over and I could head back to bed.
Having managed to escape from all that administrative mumbo-jumbo, I was relieved to get down to some serious business and start drinking. Me and the three other Ainan ALTs, all swung by the local offie and picked up some bevs for my unofficial welcome enkai ("party"). Needless to say, details after that are a little hazy. With Aaron at home with the family, me, Elayna and Joel ended up at some Japanese-Italian restaurant where the bartender kept plying me with free rum and cokes after I said I liked rum. I, in my best effort to ingratiate myself with the locals, repaid his generosity by drunkenly-swiping a bottle of some weird Japanese sake off his shelf. I figure if he’s the one fuelling the alcoholic flames, he’s the one that’ll have to deal with the consequences. Why am I such an arsehole? Haha.

Elayna pops the cork on the year-to-come!

Well and truly sozzled, Elayna ended up crashing at mine. Next morning, we got up pretty early the and headed over to hers on the other side of Ainan, about a twenty minute drive away. To say that me and Elayna hit it off well is an understatement. We get on GREAT. Arriving at hers, we wanted to go swimming in the sea, but the typhoon that was brewing just off Okinawa meant that the waves were pretty rough, so we jumped the fence to one of the pools at Elayna’s school instead. Chilling in the pool, I was pretty overwhelmed. The area around us was completely deserted and the scenery was ridiculous. I don’t know how my life’s got to this point but I’m bloody grateful that it has.


After that, we headed to the local
onsen for some chill time. When you’re thrust in the situation where you’ve got to get butt-naked in front of a bunch of leering Japanese men, there’s not really much you can do but oblige. They didn’t show this side to the hot springs in Spirited Away, that’s for sure. Regardless, I didn’t want them thinking I had anything to be ashamed of, so off the trunks came. Post-onsen we swung back to Elayna’s where it was time to get prepping for the barbeque we were having that evening. Again, details from this point on aren’t exactly crystal clear. About twenty of Elayna’s friends from all over town (and some new JETs from Uwajima, just north of Ainan) turned up and toasted the new year in. One of the JETs that taught in Ainan last year – Aodhin from Ireland – also came back to see all her former co-workers. It’s such a shame that she didn’t decide to stay for another year – me, Elayna and her got on like an onsen on fire.  Oh, and as if that wasn’t bad enough, one unfortunate memory I did manage to retain was being repeatedly told by some wasted Japanese lady that she wanted my “good sperm”. God I wish I were lying. What do you even say to that? Hilarious.

Welcome barbeque!

In general, the Japanese people I’ve met seem to flit between three stages when I’m first introduced to them : (i) being shocked at how tall I am and asking my height; (ii) being shocked at how slim I am and offering me shed-loads of food;  and (iii) being shocked at how young I am and asking how old my parents are. If it’s the third, my Japanese isn’t great, so I just pick the first number that pops into my head that’s easiest to say... chances are I’m saying my parents are older than Japan itself, but they seem to be pretty excited whatever the response.
Next morning, after the barbeque, the waves in the sea had died down so we had the chance to go swimming. The whirlwind of the past week seemed to catch up with me and I found myself chundering all over the rocks post-sea. Oops. Retching over, we swung by a small, local place for lunch. Eating our udon off tree stumps whilst the owner hand-fed his wild boar, I again wondered how my life had got to this point. I also somehow managed to come back from lunch with a new cat. That sounds like one of those Facebook pages, right? I don’t really know what my decision-making process consisted of. I don’t think there was really one, to be honest. There was just a stray week-old kitten, I thought it was cute, so I took it home. The owners gave me a box for it to sleep in and a big tub of powdered milk and that was it. I gave him a name (Haru-chan, after the main character in “The Cat Returns”), picked him up some cat-supplies from Fuji, the local supermarket and off we drove into the sunset. [Insert obvious “I-thought-you-hated-pussy” joke here]. Shopping at Fuji was pretty funny, actually: thing is, Ainan’s a small town, and if you’re a gaijin, you stand out. What’s more, if you’re a gaijin boy shopping with a gaijin girl, you’re obviously a couple. With that in mind, you can imagine the looks me and Elayna got when we were perusing the maternity section for a baby bottle to feed Haru with.  If only they knew!
So, that’s a round-up of my first week in Japan! Haru’s chilling in his box next to me and I’m just about ready for bed again. Got to be up early in the morning to do a tour of my schools. God I hope I get internet soon!

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