This is how it starts… Today was going to be my arrival in my new home for the next year, in Mie, Oita Prefecture: I was so not ready!
Once again battling jetlag and lack of sleep after an incredible night in Tokyo, I headed down for breakfast.
Entering the dining room, there was a strange air: a palatable taste of fear and trepidation, as thoughts turned to the enormity of spending a year in a new place, with gargantuan unknowns, be that whether we would enjoy teaching, whether we brought enough money to tide us over, or how far is the nearest McDonalds to our house?
The initial energy and enthusiasm of the previous days had seemed to have melted to, at best, a luke-warm pool of excitement, with the harsh realisation that many of the friendships we had made would end here. The previous compulsion to discuss at great lengths our reasons for moving to Japan with total strangers reduced to little more than an unwilling head nod. From this point forward, we were alone in our adventure.
Of course it could have been everybody was on the come down from a night of drunken debauchery – it’s a moment I’ll never get to revisit and so neither you nor I shall ever truly know, my dear reader.
Joining the other Oita JETs for our onward journey, a jolt of fear surged through my being as I failed to spot an ‘Oita’ sign in the concourse and gambled on ‘Ohita’ being just as fun a way to spell it as any! Thankfully it was and we were on our way, racing along the high-rise motorways through the skyscrapers of Tokyo to Narita airport.
Waking up to the plane bumping down on the tarmac is not a habit I would recommend though, alas, a habit I indulge in regularly. Arriving groggy and confused at Oita airport, I was reminded of Nairobi airport, I think due to the sense of time having stood still in this place, a vague sense of having been built in the 70s and never having the investment to move on.
The oomph of the heat, and wading through the densely humid air of Oita, was not that dissimilar to Tokyo, but the heavy scent of the vegetation, carried on the visibly evaporating water from the surrounding rolling hills, instantly took my mind back to an amalgamation of a wet season’s sunny afternoon in Uganda, combined with wading through densely populated tropical forest.
The kind of heat that never laments, initially it seemed as if the air was so heavily saturated, that it condensated upon surrounding buildings causing water to pour from all the nearby roofs – as it so happened, it had only just finished raining and so this was in fact just normal run-off!
We’re on the road to Mie (aka Nowhere…)
Sitting aboard the coach, the prefectural ALTs, those teaching in Senior High Schools, were whisked away to the Board of Education in Oita city to sign their contracts.
Coming from Tokyo, what struck me the most was the sheer volume of green that raced by the window, and how incredibly high and steeply the surrounding hills/mountains lurched up over us – not too dissimilar to the lochs and hills of Scotland, when I travelled between Glasgow and Oban.
Passing Beppu resembled a scene from Lord of the Rings with mists rising from deep in the valley from multiple sources, as if under massive industrial development like that of the 19th century. In reality, the steaming city of Beppu is famed for its geologically heated baths, Onsen. Numerous in number, they are some of the best in the region, if not Japan, and upon closer inspection of Beppu, it resembled less of an industrial, orc-filled chasm, and more of a large town or city.
Travelling through Oita city, the place felt rather small, reminiscent in my head of Adelaide, or some expanisive town in the sticks in the US. Coming from Tokyo, the non-dominace of skyscrapers, of being able to see mountain and hill, gave the city a highly novel and cutsey feeling. Even more so as we passed through a street of American-style diners and restaurants – what had I let myself in for???
No sooner had we signed our contracts, than had our supervisors turned up (normally JTEs, Japanese Teachers of English, from your high school who help to set everything up with you) and we were selected, like puppies in a store, or evacuees in WWII and taken away from all that we had known.
Sitting in the car with Ogawa-sensei, I felt truly alone. As apartments gave way to houses, houses to farms, and trees came to be the dominant lifeform in the vicinity, I was two parts trepidation to one part excitement! Chatting with Ogawa-sensei was great, she had studied in Durham, so at least I had fallen on my feet with an excellent English speaker.
Running behind schedule, my arrival into Mie was unceremonious. Within minutes of being told this was my town, I stood awkwardly in what can only be described as a newsagents-cum-estate agents’ shop. Sweating profusely, within minutes I was £600 pounds down and the proud owner of some keys!
Racing to the flat, the gas men were there, as was Briedi, my predessessor! Within the hour I was off to dinner with the local JETs, nine of us in total, though shortly it would drop down to eight, chomping though plates of traditional sushi – varieties of fish, all shades of pink, draped over beds of rice – miso soup, rice and all variety of things, each with a strong salty but tempting flavour.
My shoes sitting outside the paper sliding door room, myself sat on a tatami mat, my legs outstretched under the low rise table and a beer in hand surrounded by Japanese artwork, I had truly arrived in Japan!