I'd be lying if I told you that when I arrived in Narita Airport in July of 2009 that it was a new experience. The summer of 2009 marked the third time I had ventured to Japan. The first time was when I was bridging the gap between middle school and high school and the second time was as a Sophomore in college. The experience is always new though, and that is precisely why it always feels new. Ten hours on a plane renders most vegetables less than fresh and humans in this way are very much like vegetables. There was lots of soon to be teachers at the airport that day and we all were filed into a group where we awaited our introduction to life in the JET Program. It was maybe afternoon when we landed in Tokyo and usually, a flight of that length puts everyone into a philosophical state. It was all quite a surreal experience realizing that I would be living in Japan for at least one year, compounded by the reality that I was certain that teaching in this way was as new as new could be. We all were loaded onto buses and then were transported to a nice Tokyo hotel where orientation would take place.
Tokyo is always fantastic at night and that is especially so in the middle of downtown. The metropolis is beaming with neon colored lights and everything is awake even though everyone is sleepy, especially as the night wears on. It is a city that never sleeps, except the trains which always turn in for the night at midnight on the dot. The veins of transportation thus dry up at this precise hour and render the rest of the town in a frantic, light blinking state. Karaoke rooms at around this time mechanically start to lose their luster, awareness comes that the lights, in fact, are very bright, and trash starts to be noticeable on the street as the restaurants silently give the hint that hopefully, tomorrow will come. The first night in Tokyo I was there with 3000 other newcomers and we were that tired, but it wasn't because we were in party mode. It was that we were in jet-lagged mode. At this day in age, it is now possible to take off in a plane at a particular time and on a particular day and then land in your destination at the same time and on the same day. "What is time?" This is one of the questions that likely run through the traveler's brain in circumstances such as we were all put in. The city metropolis never fails to be fascinating and so like moths to a flame we scattered around the downtown area looking to soak in all things Japanese and at this hour it was food.
Before I was plant-based and on this exact arrival day of which I'm speaking of I was craving the prized dish of Katsu Don, which tastes so delicious that even today I wonder why food was put down for us to feel bad about, which can be a preoccupation for a planted newbie. Why can't Katsu Don be a vegetable? I do feel that even though I am plant-based now, it is only proper that I hold the memory of the taste of what Katsu Don tasted like so as to pay my full respects to the animal that gave its life. I think it would want to know how extremely delicious it was and that it gave me at least momentary elation before rendering me useless to society as the plethora of grease and fried breadcrumbs slowly sank in. That I believe was the first meal I had that day and it was one that I craved in those special moments. That moment would pop up when I would repeatedly find myself on soggy Tokyo street situations, where it would be raining mist, making the surveying human such as myself feel quite dumb and useless holding an umbrella, as mist travels up as well. This situation can also be known as "almost rain." In these moments I'd repeatedly open and then close my umbrella and then get into a deep pensive state. In these moments there are two options for food in Tokyo that bring sense to the scene. The first is ducking your head into a Katsu Don shop and the second is finding a similar looking noodle joint. Both warm the bones to the core and complement an overall soggy feeling kind of day.
Soon all 3000 of us piled into our downtown hotel and went to sleep as orientation was the next morning. Maybe some of us were dreaming in Japanese that night, as some had that level under their belt, but as for me I think my dreams escaped that night and mixed in with reality as the real at that moment seemed not to be so.
The next few days were spent learning about how we could help Japan and it was also geared at giving us techniques on how to teach. There has been great advancement in this area since foreigners started teaching Japan English in my observation. My first supervisor at drinking parties would often blurt out "This is a pen," and all the other gatherers would laugh and it took me. It took a couple years to understand that this was the name of the textbook that they received when they first were to learn English. Teaching English is difficult I do believe. It is possibly three parts math, two parts creativity, and one part luck. Many teachers that I lived around were artists as well or extremely creative or genius's or space scientists and we all were there to step back from life as we knew it and expand in some way. It was a time to be humbled that for some reason English was the chosen language of the world and that we were well versed in it and that it was a skill that we could teach. It seemed unfair at first that students were forced to have English forced down their throats from a young age. I found myself regularly feeling kind of down on my occupation of the time, but then as the years progressed I saw that there was a silver lining. I noticed that the kids that dove head first into the experience ended up with a potent mix of mastery of two languages under their belt. This quality would not only prove to be useful in the international workplace, but would also give them a seemingly advanced edge on subjects such as mathematics. It would also give them a head start on tackling a third language as language seems to be a center in the brain. I found that when I would return to the U.S and run into my Spanish speaking counterparts and blurt out Japanese when it had been my intention to speak Spanish. There was also a constant pleasant ache in my brain when I was in Japan as it tried to teach English, while living in a place that couldn't be more Japanese.
The orientation was also to give us a crash course on how to live in Japan, which was part of the job description as well. It outlined shopping at a grocery store, washing clothes, going to banks, eating etc... Part of the JET's job description I think was also seeking to find what was their purpose in Japan. Fellow teachers of mine would often gather at tiny coffee shops or Indian eateries to discuss what profession we were in. In these conversations what was revealed was that the JET Program was quite an open-ended position. 30 or so years prior it had been started. Japan had recognized that it needed to keep up with the world. It was one of the few locations that was quite geographically isolated from the rest of the world. Furthermore, It was a place that had enormous intellectual capital and a progressive spirit, but also a deep tie to an ancient culture. The JET Program was developed so that the nation could keep up with the latest trends in the world. How were foreigners changing? What were their desires? What were their hardships while living in Japan? The nation recognized that it was very different from the rest of the world and thus it wanted to know how to adapt. The program was thus established to improve international trade relations, which also included the task of learning English. We were there to make mistakes and learn and also be ambassadors for our representative countries. What teachers found I do believe and as I came to found, is that their true contribution came from their intentions they set for outside of the workplace. This was not in the job description, but this even was naturally Japanese as the culture continually has a specialty of teaching without speaking.