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Into the Inaka

Seas Apart

Photo by Shirley Holmes

There's this feeling I have even now when I look back on the experience of leaving Tokyo and going north to Fukushima, which was the place where I would teach. It's a feeling of warmth and adventure and mystery. I remember the rolling hills that were lush green in the summer and the perfect square plots of rice fields that ran past like bars of rest on a musical piece. The city disappeared and then it seemed that there was never a city. Everything rewound 60 years. There were old thatched huts, but we were on an interstate in an air-conditioned bus and so this naturally brought me back to the present. I was with around 40 other teachers and we were all starting out the year in Fukushima. It was 2009 and just changing to the Indian start of summer. It was late summer when the green couldn't be more dark and this hinted that the next movement would be the withdrawing of chlorophyll from everything green.

The bus pulled into a random dirt lot with a building that was slowly simmering in the summer humidity. We all stepped off the bus and lined up in our business attire. It was time to meet our supervisors. It was time to see if we could be understood. I remember that day. I remember the cool table of the inside and all of us being sectioned off to go to our own specific table and then the introduction. Akinori was a warm hearted man with a love of flute and quite artsy. I think we got along right away and that the only thing lacking that day was my Japanese level and his English level, which was noticeably and thankfully better. Our companionship thus developed with awkward laughs and body language. I soon left with him and we drove the two hours to Naraha where I would begin my teaching time there. We pulled into the sleepy town just as the night was falling on the ocean that breathed to the right of me and put a calm wind to all the buildings. You don't really need to see an ocean to know that it's there close by. The first night my place of accommodation was not ready yet and so I stayed in a workers' hotel. I remember the small tatami room and the warm dinner that was provided to me. Then there was the nice older woman that served the food and the steamy shower that followed the food and then the realization that I was in Japan far away from anything American and my emotions hadn't caught up to that point yet.

Naraha was defined for me by its wind. It blew in from the sea sometimes and complemented a setting sun perfectly. It slowly dried the water on human bodies after soaking in a seaside hot spring and sometimes it brought in rolling white caps from far away that calmed the external happenings of a town and relaxed a people that usually haven't realized that everything is temporary. It was a while before I found that my town had a great beach, but when I did come to this finding I'd come to venture out to the waves after teaching and spend time on a surfboard letting the water roll softly under me. It was almost introspection into current situations.

The first weeks I was in Japan I found that it very much paralleled the first weeks of college at CU Boulder in Colorado. There were many introductions and many parties and a lot of meeting of people and even more effort of trying to remember names and where everything went and where it was. I'd wake up in a cold sweat in the night certain that I had missed teaching at school entirely. This was very similar to being in college and waking up in a similar way to a thought that I had missed attending a hidden class for weeks. Thankfully in both realities, this was not the case, but still, the parallels of this common brain preoccupation were true. The temperature was hot during the day and the crickets were loud at night. They always were to let everybody in the town know that they were the true residents of the town.

There were the schools that I taught at. Across the field from my house was the middle school. It was the main tamale. It stood short and stout supported by big white pillars that had been placed proudly for over 100 years and then there were the white walls with thin windows. There was the inside with its wide hallways and then classrooms placed on used wooden floors. Each classroom smelled of age and studying. There was the teachers' room where I spent a lot of my time and the desks were lined in a one-two fashion. Enei Sensei was my face mate and my lead teacher and he provided enormous support throughout the entirety of my stay in the town. In the summer we taught and wiped the hot humidity from our faces with white handkerchiefs. There was equal proportions of teaching and doing the task of wiping the humidity of summer from our faces and all the students did it as well. Teaching was done mostly on chalkboards with white chalk that put white soot onto black pants easily. The method of teaching was accompanied by a thin textbook that demanded planned lessons. Enei would usually plan the lessons and it would be my job to think of games that would accompany the lessons. The challenge was to find new games to involve the class in and also to make the games enjoyable. I also frequented two other schools and taught an adult "Ekiwa" or English conversation class weekly.

Life was new at that point. It was rolling with the shots and trying to fit into everything Japanese. The teacher that taught in the town before me did a wonderful job getting me set up in the town. She introduced me to some wonderful contacts and their roots and friendship would deepen as my experience in Naraha and Fukushima would grow and expand. I started out being fascinated by the town and I stuck to its borders and sunk into its journey. I bathed in the water in the evening that soothed its shores and I took in the scent of the smells of harvest and planting season. The first year of 2009 I became a resident of Naraha.

The JET Program was strong in Fukushima. I arrived at a time when strong leaders made sure that the teachers were taken care of. The JET program also was strong in every prefecture, but I do tend to agree that the experience as a teacher varied widely based on where a particular teacher was sent and that every situation could be different. It would also come to pass that the program was constantly changing as teachers would come and go and so the experience was kept in a constant flux. It was for me a growth card.

Although Naraha sucked me into its roots that first year, the well-established influence of the Fukushima JET Program Committee constantly had me booking down the street on rushing legs to board a train to some far off place where an adventure was planned with fellow teachers. The adventures were always lived out with a stark contrast to the life I led in my little town Naraha Japanese saga. All in all, it seemed to play out as a surreal psychological, philosophical experiment. When I was in the small town during the first weeks I often could compare myself to some eclectic canine breed constantly curious with ears perked for the slightest hint or clue of what was happening next. I had picked out little tiny words of understanding of the Japanese language that gave me little hints of my next movements. For instance, there was the word "Mamonaku" which was a Japanese word acquired in the process of taking trains. When a train would come close to its next destination the overhead intercom would state "Mamonaku" followed by the destination. Through the process of eloquent naturalization, I thus was able to deduce that this phrase meant "Coming soon." It thus became a vital Japanese phrase to my introduction to new life in the Inaka or "life in country." I would answer the phone with "Mamonaku desuka?" which was a question that translated to "Are you coming soon?" If there was a "Yes" or a "Hai" (which is yes in Japanese) then this meant that something would be happening in my immediate future and someone would be there to pick me up or adjust something in my house and if there was a no, then this meant that there was something still important, but it was possible that it did not require movement on my part possibly.

Many other teachers were going through similar rituals in their own towns of residence and thus it came to be that when we all did convene, it was then very natural to catch up on three weeks of not speaking English. It was also a time to find commonality in life and share experiences. These experiences proved to be a shock in exactly the opposite direction as they were often get togethers on "speed." It was the time to be back in the comfort zone of living and to be the International tourist rather than the cautious local. It was fascinating to be around many fellow younger teachers that had come from many different places around the world. It was a time that I realized that I was not American, but more so "seiki jin" or "world person." I liked this title. I think we all came to this and thus an unspoken bond developed formed by commonality and by living in something very Japanese.

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