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Some Engrish Poetry

After a certain amount of 時間, one desensitizes to the stylized rando-engrish t-shatsus, and googuru translated signs (let alone the perplexity of wasei-eigo). But there’s poetry here. Refreshing perspective on our cliche ridden tongue, which occasionally makes a bit of sense. Here’s just a personal collection.

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Nothing else!

 

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DC/Marvel crossover: Night-Spider & Bat-Pumpkin

 

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Airport Security Checkpoint Let-down

 

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This sign cannot be understood. However, this sign can be understood if read closely.

 

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Creative Silence goes Good on a pillow.

 

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Sounds what a so good!

 

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Mind the gap level difference of this point. Get on my level.

 

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I can not sustand it.

 

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During captioning 中

Nothing out of this world.

Expect nothing out of this world.

 

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Translation seems legit actually

 

An excellent combination

An excellent combination.

 

Sounds appetizing till you say it aloud.

Sounds appetizing till you say it aloud.

 

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The Japanese doesn’t say anything about preventing car crashes.

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Such as my favorite.

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How to Become a CIR: Apply Like a Boss

If you’re reading this, I assume you’re frustrated and/or desperate—and maybe a small percent of you simply curious. “I tried to find advice for applying to be a CIR, but almost all the information out there was for ALTs! Help!”

Ah yes, now we must wallow and worry in isolation in our problems of (lack of) representation. Looking at the internet, who would have guessed that at any given time there were hundreds of us from all over the world—including many with very strong or native English skills that could have at least written something of a piece of advice for the later generations, eh? That’s not to say there’s absolutely nothing related to CIRs on the Google, but you may have to do a bit of digging after the first few links. And even so, it’s not quite the pot of gold that ALTs may find, but more of a donation box.

If you’re applying for a CIR, then you should have connected the dots already as to one of the reasons why (I assume) this is the case—because while ALTs have more a uniform job description, CIRs are even more ESID (Every Situation Is Different–if you haven’t heard this yet, you will). As an ALT, you can be certain that you will be teaching English (or are among the minority teaching a different language)—forgive me ALTs for saying this, but the main ESID thing in your job description that you can’t predict will be what level(s) of English you’ll teach, and whether the emphasis of your job will be on the A (assistant) or T (teacher) part of ALT. The CIR position, however, is a mixed bag of uncertainty (as I’ve stated in a previous post)—you may be essentially an ALT with a CIR nametag or a desk translator, never leaving the office until work time is over. Most people, I reckon, fall in between these two extremes. In my case, the Tochigi English-region CIR is also automatically designated “head PA” on top of all other responsibilities. This makes it difficult to make a blanket statement of what aspects of  the job you should promote yourself to. Therefore, rule number one is try to make yourself seem as diverse as possible—don’t spend the entirety of your Statement of Purpose talking about how you have (only) a ton of translation experience, or 98% language teaching experience. There are no hard guarantees with this job, even if you do so and get hired.

In any case, I’ve narrowed it down to 3 broad categories you should sell yourself on, if you really get stuck:

  • Language ability
  • Enthusiasm for cross-culture relations
  • Communication ability
  1. Language ability

This can be a slippery slope, and may be dangerous to over-sell yourself here. What I mean by this is, CIRs are unique to ALTs in that they have a language prerequisite; therefore, if you’re applying for the CIR position, it’s taken for granted that you should have fantastic Japanese skills. However, no matter how special you are on your college campus Japanese classes, you are not special here, as hard as it may be for you to hear—everyone else applying for the position is also expected to have these same level of skills as you do, or even more. Therefore, having great Japanese skills in and of itself does nothing to make you particularly stand out of the CIR crowd, although you also need to make sure the people reading your application believe you enough to give you an interview. My point is, while you need to prove your language abilities enough to persuade the hiring staff, you also need to make sure you put more of a focus on other aspects—language ability, after all, is just scratching the surface of the job. It will not end with being able to speak Japanese—that is just the beginning, and you will be required to use it in order to perform in other aspects as a CIR. Yes, you will need Japanese, but you will need Japanese to do something.

Don’t be this guy.

I want to take the time to highlight this article, if you haven’t read it already. Of course as a CIR, you will need strong language abilities and an interest in Japan—if you have a relevant story, take a small paragraph to highlight that in your Statement of Purpose, but only if it will help you show how you can use that interest to thrive in the JET environment. While it’s important to prove why your Japanese is better than Other Applicant X’s, don’t give a timeline of how you studied Japanese unless it is directly related to the job or if you did something outstanding—remember that, as I’ve said, that’s supposed to be taken for granted for CIR positions. You will also have a separate Japanese language portion of the interview if accepted.

Your language ability can be proved in numerous ways. You can talk about passing the N1 or N2 if you have done so (if you’ve already passed N1, I’d spend more time emphasizing other qualities that make you stand out, since this is an internationally accepted standard you’ve just proven yourself to be at)—however, contrary to some misunderstandings, you don’t need to have taken and passed the N1 or N2 to be considered for or get the job (I myself still have never ever taken the JLPT). This being said, remember that this paper part is only the very beginning of just getting into JET as a CIR, and the next stage would be an interview. If you passed N1 by a stroke of luck and really could barely pass N2 in reality, I’m warning you now to not get cocky and over-confident—the girl who has never even once taken the JLPT may blow you out of the competition at the interview stage.download

Other ways you could prove your language skills are talking about classes you took in university, or better yet, during your study abroad experiences (assuming you have something), or how you used Japanese to achieve something in your personal life, or perhaps better yet a volunteer or job position, etc. Basically for all of this, make sure you show you accomplished something, whether that’s achieving an award, passing the JLPT, or showing that you improved something in a concrete way in a job or volunteer experience, etc.

If you make it to the interview, there will be a Japanese language portion, which will make you prove how much you know—basically, you’re fighting to get into that stage with your paper application, just like with any job. It’s like how the age-old saying about… trampolines… goes—it’s not the size that matters, it’s ultimately how you use it. Jane Pasta might have taken all the Japanese classes offered at her university and passed the highest level of Japanese class during her study abroad term and passed the N1 with a nicely high score, but Johnny Whiteboy actually used his Japanese to save a kid stuck in a well, despite not even knowing how to use が早いか properly. Of course you need N2-N1-equivalent level, but if you are all book-smarts and have no practical skills, you’re facing the law of diminishing returns. JET wants to know if you’re going to give a spectacular one-(wo)man 90 minute presentation on your country to a group of middle schoolers, or if you’re going to buckle under the pressure when interpreting between the mayor and the Lithuanian ambassador.

And even though this explanation is already several paragraphs long, I suggest you keep it to 1-2 paragraphs minimum in your Statement. Focus on the other aspects unique to the job as a CIR (versus any other job in Japan requiring Japanese).

  1. Enthusiasm for cross-culture relations

No matter what you do in practice, the title of your position will always stay the same—you will be, in some way, shape, or form, coordinating international relations (plural). Odds are your prefecture won’t be stuck in one binational vacuum, especially if you have the English skills to be reading this post. I’ve done work not only between my state and country and Tochigi and Japan, but also done interpretations between representatives from Hungary, various African countries, Britain, Belgium, and more. I feel like this should go without saying, but make sure you don’t give the impression that you would loathe working with other countries and only care about Japan. While Japan-related previous experience is obviously the most suitable to bring up in this job, this is the reason why any kind of exposure to different cultures makes you a stronger candidate, whether you were teaching English to a mass of ESL students from all over the world every Saturday as part of your university’s volunteer initiative or made a pact with your friends to try out a different cuisine every month (some of these may come off as better than others, but anything can make you a stronger candidate if you spin it right). Anything related to you sharing your culture (even if it’s East coast meets West coast internal culture sharing experience) or language or customs of any sort has the potential to look good. No one wants a “Japan is #1 and all other countries, especially the neighboring countries suck” attitude in the local government—that’s more of the national government’s territory (yeah, I went there—not targeting you, CLAIR, you’re cool).

Bottom line: What can you do to broaden Japan’s connections with the world? If you can connect this to helping your own country with their connections as well, that’s a bonus (a bit more on this sort of thing later).

  1. Communication ability

This could go under language, but there is still so much more to this than being able to speak, read, write, and listen to Japanese. As stated above, even if it’s in English or Mandarin or whatever language you’re being hired to be international for, you will be required to communicate with people of different backgrounds, beginning with nationalities. Furthermore, I’ve had to do engaging presentations for elementary school students all the way to retired folks continuing their education. If you’re applying to be a CIR because you don’t really like kids and therefore the ALT position isn’t quite for you (*cough*), definitely don’t say anything that would hint at that, or anything like that at all to begin with. As an automatically designated PA, I need to know how to help our JETs cope with communication problems with their schools and what to do when they’re being sucked into the black hole that is culture shock.  I feel like most of what I have to say here is already stated in some way in the two above sections, so let me go now straight to the next huge point:

Spin it.

Warning: This is not your typical job structure.

This is not the position or employer that you learn about in Job Hunting 101, whether you took this in Japan or your home country. While the JET jobs share commonalities with your average Joe job (make sure you are professional, emphasize your strengths, etc.), there are some core differences. Mainly that this is not a career track position. Most career counselors will tell you not to say or even hint that you plan on leaving and changing jobs, even if you only see this job as a temporary thing; however, with JET, it’s set from the get-go that you’re not here (at least as a JET) forever. No one is under the illusion, whether it’s the hiring committee or the participants themselves, that they will have this same job even after their 5 years is up (although, fine print, there are some cases of contracting organizations deciding to directly hire their JETs after their terms, but this isn’t the standard course of events and shouldn’t be expected or assumed).

The whole point of this job is cultural exchange—the expectations that you will be bringing something useful back from Japan when you return home (or wherever you go next) that will help Japan or JET’s mission. The underlying purpose of JET is to be a first step or next step in your career (which is why they have age restrictions), and so when you become the prime minister or a fancy international lawyer, that you will look back fondly on your time in Japan and do cool, powerful things to help Japan. Therefore don’t be afraid to emphasize (although keep slightly shorter) what you want to gain from JET for your future career and why it’s important for you and Japan/the world to get this job—after all JET is by definition the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program, a give-and-take experience. This can also show that you’re eager to learn and develop, which is always a plus. On the flip side, do not go as far as saying “I only plan on being here X years”—keep those details vague, just as you would with any other job; you still don’t want to come off as hard-headed or, you know, a selfish ass.

Take everything I write here with a grain of salt, though—after all, I have never been on the hiring committee and assume I never will be. I’m writing all of this based on my experiences and from my perspective. There are always those wild card people who seem to be the worst fit and somehow make it through, and vice versa. However, especially with such a small number of job vacancies (just a couple hundred at most–if all CIRs band together and quit together for some odd reason). When I came in, I’d guess that about 50 new CIRs were hired total. All decisions have reasons, and it’s harder for the wild cards to slip in through the cracks with the CIR position. So good luck, do awesome things, and go be your own spin team.

 

TL;DR – Be specific, but be vague as well. I wrote this whole thing out for you; go read it, you skimmers.

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Tama Genryu Matsuri: A Water, Fire, and Taste Festival

多摩源流まつり

Welcome to Kosuge Village, Yamanashi Prefecture, my home for the past nine months. The nearest convenience store and train station are 35 minutes away by car via a winding mountain road. Its land area is about that of Manhattan Island. It borders the western tip of the largest metropolitan area in the world. On a normal day, the population is 720. Today, May 4th, it is estimated to be 10,000.

At the height of Golden Week, one of Japan’s biggest vacation periods, the crowds are here for Tama Genryu Matsuri (Tama River Headwaters Festival), the village’s biggest festival. It’s a celebration of this important watershed region that is a major source of Tokyo’s drinking water.

The figurehead: Japan’s largest o-matsuyaki (お松焼き), a 10 plus meter tall wood pyramid draped in pine leaves and topped with bamboo branches. There is a triad actually: two smaller pyramids flank each side of the larger pyramid. As the name omatsuyaki (literally ‘pine-burning’) suggests, these artificial pine trees were constructed for the purpose of burning. A month ago they were just wooden frames resembling something out of The Wicker Man or Silent Hill. A couple weeks ago, those frames were covered in pine leaves and bound by chain mesh, giving it more of a cone shape.IMG_1602

The temporary monuments stand on the bank of Kosuge River – a major tributary of the Tama River. Cars and fishers line the river during the day, and kids dip their toes in to cool off. Nothing blocks the structures, so festival goers are free to touch them and take pictures.IMG_1604

Meanwhile, across the road from the river a ballfield has been converted to a fairground. An outdoor stage has performances scheduled throughout the day. Picnic tarps and people canvas the area in front. Striped canopy stalls lining the perimeters sell the standard Japanese festival food: takoyaki (fried octopus), taiyaki (red-bean-filled fish-shaped waffle cake), and kakigōri (shaved ice). But Kosuge’s specialties and crafts are especially for sale: whole wasabi roots and derivative products, soba noodles made from locally grown buckwheat, grilled river trout on skewers, and nihon-shu (Japanese sake) served in a small wooden box. It’s 11am and some are already well on their way to inebriation.

It’s hot today. And clear. The weather forecast called for rain, leading to worries of a limited turnout and cancelled fireworks. I was assured, however, the omatsuyaki burning would go on regardless.

 

Omatsuyaki is a tradition of gathering New Year’s pine-bamboo decorations (matsukazari and kadomatsu) into a pile around the second week of January (the lunar new year), and retiring them in a bonfire. This would essentially be like ceremonially retiring your Christmas tree by burning it a week after Christmas, except the decorations are thought to temporarily house gods and ancestors during the Holidays. Burning the decorations releases them back to the spirit world. Elsewhere in Japan, omatsuyaki is better known as “dondoyaki” – an onomatopoeia for the crackling of the burning branches.

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Photo courtesy of NPO Kosuge

I missed my community’s New Year’s omatsuyaki back in January. No one told me about it, so I felt left out when I saw pictures of it on Facebook. A month ago at the prefecture’s capital I attended the Shingen-ko Festival, the world’s largest samurai parade. Most divisions of samurai reenactors were representatives of companies or municipalities. You could also participate individually if you paid ¥15,000 ($135USD). So I was surprised to see a division from Kosuge including some of my co-workers march by. At work a few days later I asked if I could participate next year. Apparently the village only participates once every 15 years! Bummer.

I was determined not to let another experience pass me by. As the festival approached, I asked several times whether there was anything I could do in preparation, or to help during the festival, of if I could maybe participate in the lighting ceremony? I didn’t know anything about the ceremony, except that there had to be some such ceremony, because it’s Japan, and I know how they feel about pomp and circumstance.

I heard back a short time later that I could participate, no problem. I was to be a yamabushi (mountain monk). Cool! I asked when we would practice. I was asked my shoe size. The date of the festival approached. I asked when we would practice. Then the Jr. High vice principal, who would also participate, received an information packet (in Japanese of course). He made a copy for me. Among some confusing diagrams and a script, I deciphered a timetable. (I also had a line of dialog in quasi-archaic Japanese.) We would meet for the first time at 4pm the day of, and practice just 2 hours before the ceremony. I felt apprehensive about this. I would be handling fire, and I worried about being able to understand all the instructions about where to go and what to do, last minute. Fortunately, the vice principal can speak English, but miscommunication can still happen.

ILord of all he surveys spent the day of Genryu Matsuri perusing the stalls and hanging out in the shade with my visiting friends. To experience my quiet village suddenly bustling like Tokyo/the rest of Japan, was jarring. It was strange to walk through the familiar streets of my village – the village that has become a home to me – and not recognize the majority of faces. It was like I was back in a foreign country again (a feeling I usually only get when I leave the village). But it was a pleasant atmosphere.

At Japanese festivals, there are typically small stalls with goldfish in buckets for young children to try to catch with a flimsy net before it breaks. If they can catch a fish, they get to take it home in a plastic baggy. But at Genryu Matsuri, next to the ballfield an outdoor swimming pool, which isn’t used the rest of the year, has been supplied with fresh shallow water and stocked with 400 river trout. If the kids can catch one with their bare hands, they can take it out of the pool and have it grilled fresh.

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Somewhat unrelated, are two streamers of 100 giant koi flags strung from two mountains across the valley in celebration of Children’s Day tomorrow (May 5th). You can see these windsock-like flags flying all over Japan this time of year, but to see them swimming in the sky between the mountains – as if the mountains were the banks, and the sky, the river – is a sight.

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IMG_16314pm rolled around, I said bye to my friends, and went to the designated meeting place in a building across the river. I was ushered into a seminar room and found a seat with my name. On the table stacked and folded was my costume, an onsen towel bag, and a bottle of tea.

We sat quietly for a couple minutes as the rest of the to-be yamabushi entered. We were divided into an ‘A’ team and a ‘B’ team. The ‘A’ team were five representatives from Kosuge. The ‘B’ team were five representatives from municipalities or organizations downstream the Tama River with some special connection to Kosuge.

We went back to the river and the unfiltered late afternoon sun where the director led us in a rough walk-through, and I did my best to keep track of mental notes and the positions and order I was supposed to do everything. I was to be in second position behind the commanding officer, the elementary school principal. That didn’t give me a lot of room to watch what the people in front of me would be doing.

A week ago I spent the day helping the village set up the grounds and preparing 20 metal tripod lanterns resembling disc golf baskets along the river, with wood blocks, charcoal, brown paper, and rags. We would be lighting these first of all, and I was to light the three on the farthest end.

A week ago I spent the day helping the village set up the grounds and preparing 20 metal tripod lanterns resembling disc golf baskets along the river, with wood blocks, charcoal, brown paper, and rags. We would light these first of all, and I was to light the three on the farthest end.

We went back to the meeting room, ate a bento box dinner, then changed into our costumes. The yamabushi outfits were intricate: 13 pieces in total: under-robes, over-robes, under sash, over sash (obi), baggy trousers tightened off under the knee, toe-split water boots with back fasteners (jika-tabi), forearm sleeves secured by a ring around the middle finger, prayer beads, a beautiful red silk necklace imprinted with gold designs and four attached pom-poms, a tiny tie-on hat (tokin) resembling a Jewish tefillin (but instead of scripture storage, doubles as a drinking cup), and a boxy backpack (resembling a TARDIS) with tatami siding. As one friend said, wielding a torch in conjunction with said backpack, I looked like a ghostbuster. “If you need to go to the toilet, you should go now, because it’s difficult to take off once you have it on,” warned the vice principal. But I got it on without too much trouble, just some minor fumbling and assistance around the obi sashes. It felt comfortable. And like any good costume, I felt the part.

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When we returned outside, the sun had already dipped behind the mountains, so it felt much cooler. We walked up the street single file, passing food stalls, cosplayers, and divisions of volunteer firefighters. We cut down to the river where we waited on the north side under a bridge with the ‘A’ team. The crowds were buzzing with anticipation on either side. People passed back and forth on the bridge above, some waving to us. It got darker.

The principal lit his torch, and the rest of us lit ours from his. The lights went out. The crowd hushed. An announcer delivered the opening narration, “Humankind has from ancient times lived with Water, sought Food, and used Fire. In this way, we created and developed today’s culture. The civilization of Fire has transformed the hearts and minds of the people to flourishing. We would be pleased if everyone in attendance today feels a sense of harmony around the fire…”

Taiko drumming commenced. The principal lead out, and I followed a few paces behind. The principal went directly to his position, as he was not to light any of the lanterns.

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Photo by Haruhiko Hirose

I was pretty sure I was supposed to go to the very end and light the last three. But a doubt lingered whether I understood correctly. With the principal in position, I continued ahead in front.  Then I heard voices from the crowd. “Jaymuz! Jaymzu, where are you going?” called a giggling voice that sounded like the mayor. Shoot. I really must have misunderstood. Surely, he would know if I was doing the wrong thing? I must have gone too far. I glanced over my shoulder.  The other three were well behind me and already seemed to be lighting their lanterns. So I bailed. I turned in early and started lighting the lanterns in the middle. Mistake. I should have gone down to the end. I stole the lanterns of the yamabushi behind me. The instructor from earlier came and directed me down to the end. Now I looked stupid. The other side of the river already had their lanterns lit, and I was the last to return to the formation. But I got back with all the lanterns lit, and the ceremony went on.

The taiko drums stopped. The principal stepped forward and bellowed his introduction into the microphone. Then it was my turn again. I stepped forward to say my line. I was nervous because I hadn’t practiced shouting it yet. And the residual trauma of messing up the lanterns still echoed in my psyche. The line started out well. I was loud and firm, with no voice cracking, well-paced, and well pronounced. But then I got toward the end. But what I should have done was given my full name in last, first, middle order and ended with the more humble “to-mo—————–su!” (I am called).

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Photo by Haruhiko Hirose

Ah well. I stepped back in line. Everyone else gave their similarly structured introductions. Our torches burned on.

Then came time to light the big one. The ‘B’ team crossed the river to our side and both teams circled around the main omatsuyaki, then we dipped our torches under the chain mesh to light the branches. The director walked around with an oil canteen pouring gas over our torches and branches to help them catch.

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Photo by Haruhiko Hirose

Then the teams split up: the ‘A’ team circled around the smaller omatsuyaki on the north side, while the ‘B’ team covered the one on the south. This time we just left the torches on the ground supplying the fire, then scuttled away from the growing flames.

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Because I was focused on the task at hand, and getting away from the flame, I’m afraid I missed those first moments of the flames enveloping the omatsuyaki. By the time I returned to the safe zone, the fire storms were well under way. The crackling pine leaves were aglow, and the skeletal frame of the pyramids were visible again. The flames plumed up and released great clouds of smoke and sparks. The fire department sprayed a hose constantly back and forth over the sparks in the sky to create a vapor shield for the nearby trees. The flames stretched high, well above the bamboo shoots. The heat was already palpable, even from 40 or 50 meters away. We had to keep backing up.

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Photo by Haruhiko Hirose

The crowd sat packed on the stone steps on either side of the river bank in the roped off area. Those closest to the fire must have been uncomfortable, because I had to keep backing up past them. But remarkably, one little girl on the beach a few meters in front of us, supervised by her mother, danced about, patting her face, feeling the heat. I took another step back, relaxed, and relished the blaze. Peaceful flute music played through the speakers.

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Photo by Haruhiko Hirose

Embers falling from the steel basket lanterns appeared to strike dangerously close to the crowds sitting under them, but no one seemed too bothered. One of the firefighters walked by every so often, dousing the sparks on the ground with a watering pot.

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Photo by Haruhiko Hirose

We hung around for half an hour, taking pictures and watching the beacon burn its course. I paid special attention to the pyramid frames, expecting them to collapse. (One of the smaller pyramids did eventually partially collapse. Immediately after the festival, the fire department bulldozed the bits still standing.)

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Photo by Haruhiko Hirose

The taiko drummers resumed their performance. The flames faded to coals. I was handed another torch. We got back into our formation. Our job wasn’t finished yet. The elementary principal, the commanding officer, screamed even louder than he had before, and led the single file charge across the river. I followed close behind. I don’t know if it was due to the proximity of the lingering heat, adrenaline kicking in, or my intense concentration, but I had a distinct lack of feeling (or remembering) any coldness of the river. I was about half way across when it occurred to me that I was carrying fire over water. This was not just a symbolic convergence of the two elements. I could quite literally drop the torch or lose my footing, and quite literally extinguish the flame. But at the deepest point the water was only a little above my knees. I was told to expect it above my waist. So I carefully waded the rest of the way across, holding the torch high and proud. I almost stumbled stepping up the bank on the other side, but all was fine. Then I heard a splash. The yamabushi directly behind me fell in! There wasn’t much I could do since I was still carrying a torch, so I kept following the commander.  Glancing behind me, I noticed the fallen comrade recovered okay and managed to save his torch. I was consoled that at least it wasn’t the clumsy foreigner.

We marched down the river past the last of the lanterns where we united our torches together under a fuse. Sparks chased the fuse 100 meters farther down the river where it triggered a loaded arsenal of fireworks straight up into the sky. The fire from our torches flowered and wilted directly above us. We dipped our torches in the river, then enjoyed the view, while I tried not to let any ashes in my eyes. I couldn’t really hear, but apparently back by the stage the fireworks were well synced to music and made for a great show.

We all wished each other otsukaresama (‘good work!’) and went back to the meeting place where we changed out of the yamabushi clothes. The director thanked us and copiously handed out beers from a box, which I was happy to take after a long hot day. Finally, some of the yamabushi went to a ryokan to take a bath, but I reluctantly skipped that bit to rejoin my friends.

 

This was the second time I directly participated in one of my village’s festivals. The first time was back in August, three days after moving in. It was a much smaller shrine festival that involved parading around various locations in the village and performing dances in masked costumes in the summer humidity. I didn’t dance, since the dancers had been preparing for several weeks already. But I carried a large paper-flower standard in front as a sort of grand marshal. This was an awesome way to get involved with the village and meet people right away. I felt welcomed and honored that they would entrust to me such a prominent position. But it didn’t turn out well. I was culture shocked, heat exhausted, dehydrated, then sick, and just generally overwhelmed. I went home early and passed out.

But this experience turned out a lot better, fortunately.

 

By the looks of it, Genryu Matsuri is as ancient as any other local festival in Japan – a tradition carried on for who knows how many generations back. Yet it was devised a mere 29 years ago as a convenient set date for the extended families of the village, and those who grew up here, to come home for a visit. So it is not an explicitly religious festival. It’s not connected to any shrine or temple. But you can’t help but notice the religious elements.

For instance, the Yamabushi are mountain monks of Shugendou, an ascetic blend of Buddhism and Shinto.

And there is something very religious and Japanese about the way the Japanese do festivals. Festivals are serious fun. Even sacred fun. Even when they are secular, or devised to stimulate local economies. How did older festivals get started if not for these reasons, to (re)vitalize local areas? This is how traditions get started. The only difference may be recent history.

Coupled with the idea that Japanese religion does not so sharply distinguish between the sacred and the secular, the result is a kind of renewed pop-religious event. In writing this article, I kept asking about the symbolic significance of this or that element of the festival. Although there was some explicit symbolism, mostly the answers I got were just for aesthetic reasons, e.g., because it looks cool or it seemed like it would be exciting. So the connection with the New Year’s tradition may just be a trivial one. Just an excuse to have a big bonfire. But just as burning the New Year’s omatsuyaki returns the gods to their home, after using the fire the yamabushi cross the river and light the fireworks, thereby returning the fire to its home with the gods.

This story ends much better than Prometheus.

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Photo by Haruhiko Hirose

[Genryu Matsuri occurs annually in Kosuge Village during the first week of May]

Alternate Part 4 The Perks

Why I’m Glad I Was an Alternate: A Guide to Thriving in Alternate Purgatory – The Perks

I’ve gone into my own personal alternate story, given tips on how to cope with alternate limbo and gone into what you can and should do after being upgraded – now it’s time to address the title: “Why I’m Glad I Was an Alternate.” In this final installment of “alternate” posts, we can finally get down to the good stuff, the “perks” of alternate-dom. Now these can vary greatly depending on your situation, but hopefully my experiences will help illuminate that light at the end of the tunnel nonetheless!

Openness to Opportunities Other Than JET

Carrot-on-stick

I’ve already touched on this a bit, but being an alternate forced me to consider options other than the JET Program. Before I was alternated I, like many other JET hopefuls, was very much set on going to Japan and believed JET was the only viable option for me. I had heard of the eikaiwa horror stories and I also knew that I couldn’t afford (nor did I have an interest in) being a language student again. What I didn’t know is that there are alternatives to JET if one is set on doing ALT work. The best one is considered to be the company Interac, which I touched on in my first post of this series. In addition, you can often find private companies looking to hire ALTs by browsing through sites tailored to foreigners looking for work in Japan such as GaijinPot or Daijob.

However, maybe you’ll realize you don’t want actually want to work as an ALT. Maybe you’ll come to the conclusion that you don’t even want to teach English at all. If that’s the case, there are certainly a plethora of opportunities available; it may just require a bit more initiative on your part.

I will actually be moving to Tokyo to pursue freelance work when my contract with JET is up in a little over a month. I doubt I would have been willing to make such a big life change had my eyes not been opened to all the amazing job opportunities in Japan during my months in alternate purgatory! I think that being an alternate really allows one to take a few steps back from JET. Without that tunnel vision blurring your perception, you may be surprised to find that there have been other great (or even better) jobs there for the taking the entire time!

No Wasted Time!

This one is specific to my situation because I arrived in Japan in September as opposed to late July or August. It initially had me pretty bummed, as I knew I’d be missing the orientations, but as I’ve come to realize it was very much a blessing in disguise!

Why was it a blessing, exactly? Well, most new JETs must start “work” within a few days of arrival in their new city, while the students don’t actually start classes until September. This means that you have to go show up at your base school for eight hours a day, five days a week and just sit at a desk. Sure, you can use the time productively, but I can imagine that getting more than a little monotonous for a month straight! In addition, it’s August – quite possibly the hottest month of the year in Japan – and it’s not always a guarantee that there’ll be air-conditioning! When I arrived in September, it was the perfect temperature; I was totally comfortable without cooling or heating my apartment (which can result in cringe-worthy electric bills!).

Since I arrived September 8th, a Tuesday and about a week after the kids had started school, I was a little worried I might have to jump right into work without adequate time to get acclimated to my new environment. Luckily for me, this was not the case. In fact, I had about a full week before I started classes and even then I ended up spending the rest of September only having to give my self-introduction presentation. In other words, I had plenty of time to prepare but at the same time, didn’t get bored (well okay, the self-intro did start to get just a tad bit old after the 20th time!).

Like I said before, I was originally sad I’d miss out on the orientations, but everyone I’ve talked to swears they’re a waste of time and a total snooze fest. If they were anything like the orientation I attended in November, I must say I’m inclined to agree! Nothing against JET – I’ve just never really been a fan of sitting on my ass and listening to people talk for hours on end, no matter what the subject matter may be. So as it turns out, “no orientations” was a good thing too! And if you’re like me and worried missing orientation will set you back, don’t. This job was much easier and much more fun than I could have ever imagined; you’ll pick up on it in no time!

One-on-One Attention

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This one could be applicable even if you’re not an alternate, though I’d say being an alternate certainly increases the odds. The first few days after my arrival, my supervisor and a translator from the BOE took me around to be introduced to my schools, start a bank account, get my car, and get a phone contract, among other things. We had a lot of down time in between these activities and they always left the decision up to me as to where to go. This may or may not have resulted in many shopping sprees and trips to Sushi-Ro… I also feel like, since the other new JETs were settled in at this point, my supervisor was much more available to answer any questions I had and ensure I had a smooth transition.

Being a late arrival also resulted in a lot of attention from the other JETs in the area. I know many alternates fear short-listers adopting elitist attitudes toward them, but my experience couldn’t have been further from that. In fact, I got the feeling that the other JETs felt bad about my situation and were therefore extra nice in order to make me feel welcome! They took me to a local restaurant for a little welcome party my first Friday in town and also all pitched in to pay for me at another event that same weekend. So all in all, I’d say being the new ALT on the block is like being the “mysterious transfer student” in an anime – everyone is looking forward to learning more about you!

From Zero to Hero

zerotohero

Another possible perk is that you could be viewed as a sort of savior. Though that may sound a little intense, I’m not exaggerating! I was upgraded because my predecessor decided he wasn’t going to re-contract with JET at the last minute. This left my schools and local BOE in a tizzy as they scrambled to find a suitable replacement. When I met everyone at the BOE and my schools in person, one would think I had just walked on water while balancing the Holy Grail on my head, a basket-full of kittens that I had just saved from a fire in tow. Their relief at having me there was obvious. Though I did nothing more than accept a job and then show up and do said job, everyone was very excited to have me there. It took months for that excitement to wane and eventually become normalcy. And I definitely think that initial excitement was amped up on steroids because they had to wait for me to show up.

If you’re an alternate upgrade – especially a late upgrade – chances are that your schools were either left ALT-less for a while or thought that they might be. You may wonder why it’s such a big deal for them to be without an ALT – I mean we are assistant language teachers, after all – but I think ALTs play a vital role in the schools. I say my job is like being the “cool aunt”; when I show up to class, it’s time to actually have fun learning English. Even when I don’t have any classes, being there seems to lift the kids’ spirits. We ALTs are symbols of the awesomeness of cultural exchange and so our presence alone has power. Just by showing up to work you’ll probably be loved by all, students and teachers alike!

Appreciation

And finally, I’ll wrap this post up by going into the most important reason for why I’m glad I was an alternate. (Warning: Cheese Alert!) Quite simply put, being alternated made me “want it” more! All that time spent with that proverbial carrot hanging on a string in front of my face led to an indescribable rush of joy when I finally got upgraded. I doubt I would have experienced that rush so intensely had I been short-listed from the get-go.

In the long run, I think it has made me much more appreciative of my experiences. There are many JETs who end up dissatisfied after the initial excitement of the first couple months wears off, but I can say with confidence that I have enjoyed the entire ride. The good days, the bad days, the days in which I’m stuck at my desk for eight hours with no classes – it’s all been an adventure. I’m so grateful I had the chance to experience this unique opportunity and I know I’ll take it with for my entire life. It made those three+ months in purgatory more than worth it and because of that time, I’ve been able to appreciate this “jet coaster” that much more!

And that’s why I’m glad I was an alternate!

A version of this post appeared originally on my personal blog where I post about my experiences in Japan. I wanted to post this on both blogs in order to make it easier for my fellow alternates to find, as good resources on being a JET alternate are few and far between.

ALT Fashion Blog

What do I wear? (Women)

A lot of incoming JETs seem to be concerned about what we ALTs wear on the job. I too remember the stress of packing and wondering, “What the heck should I bring and leave behind!?”

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It’s hard to give advice because, as everyone says, “every situation is different”. However, perhaps we can help give you a general idea of what we do (and do not) wear to work. Below are brief “fashion profiles” of three ladies here in Japan: Danie, myself, from chilly Akita, Sara from warm Kumamoto, Denica from metropolitan Tokyo. We hope this can help you get a better idea of what might be appropriate in your ALT position.

 

 

USA Akita

Hello folks! I have been living in rural Akita-ken for almost a year now. I teach in 3 Senior High Schools. Unlike the other two ladies here, I hate shopping. I only go out when I really need something, but most of the clothes I brought have been suitable and I haven’t had any trouble finding what I need. I get the impression that Senior High Schools are less relaxed than lower levels (not just in fashion!) but even here I think my options are pretty flexible.

WHAT I DON’T WEAR

NO I am starting off with what I can’t wear to school because there aren’t really any guidelines for what I “should” wear. But what I “shouldn’t” wear has been made explicitly clear:

(1) No Jeans

(2) No Shoulders

And these last two weren’t made explicitly clear to me but I personally tend to steer away from:

(3) Bottoms as short as the ones in the picture

(4) Clothes with graphics (Sorry Snow White!)

I feel these guidelines are similar for the American professional world. And aside from those 4 rules, it’s pretty much anything goes.

 

WINTER

Winter

Akita gets cold! This is a black sweater-dress, black tights, a shawl and necklace. It’s hard to see in the picture, but the dress is actually as short as the bottoms in my “what not to wear” photo! I figure the length is non-issue since I am wearing thick black tights.

This is my heaviest winter outfit; I typically wear the same outfits year round but in winter I add layers. I arrive dressed like an eskimo: big winter boots, thick snow pants, and a large jacket. When I get to school I strip down to a nice outfit. I have a locker at each of my schools to store my heavy clothes.

As for what I wear during school, I always try to cover my upper arms (up to the elbow). Otherwise many teachers will comment that I must “feel cold”, even when I am clearly sweating! I wonder if it’s an indirect way of saying that I should cover more. Regardless, I cover my upper arms to avoid the comments and it’s not difficult because Akita is freezing! None of the schools have central heating and, though the classrooms are heated, the hallways are pretty chilly!

Protip: Packing winter clothes can take up a lot of space. Some ALTs recommend shipping your winter clothes but I personally don’t think this is necessary. I was able to buy everything I needed at a good price here. However, I am a tiny person, even for Japanese standards! I have heard plenty of taller ALTs complain about small sizes, especially shoes! Even then, you can order clothing online from websites like Rakuten. Most of your favorite stores should have a Japanese website.

SUMMER

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“Cool biz” starts on June 1, and it means you can wear more relaxed clothing to keep from getting heat stroke. For me, this just means I can wear clothes that expose my upper arms and I won’t get any comments about “looking cold”.

These are my two favorite summer outfits! I love dresses and I brought a lot of dresses like the one in the first picture from home. I don’t wear any tights with it.

The second outfit was entirely bought in Japan from Honey’s and Uniqlo. These stores have work-appropriate, fashionable, and affordable clothing! Also, Uniqlo sells “cooltech” and “heattech” clothing which is a godsend in the dead of summer and winter.

DeowaterProtip: Even in Akita the summers get unbearably hot and only one of my schools has A/C (and even there it’s only in the teacher’s room!). Sara and Denica below have given some great advice on surviving summer, so I will only add a tidbit about “Deo-Water”. I have seen it at the pharmacy, grocery store, and even conbinis. It’s essentialy deodorant water and I sometimes pop into the bathroom at work and use it to freshen up. It not only takes away the stick but it has a cooling effect as well!

HAIR & MAKEUP

11150225_10206540368334052_2961667444934716962_nMy hair is supremely curly and, surprisingly, hasn’t drawn much attention. I recommend bringing your curly-hair products from home because, unsurprisingly, I haven’t had much luck finding products here. I have also been a little wary about getting a haircut here, but ALTs with hair like mine have told me this is unwarranted. As for make up, I am not too into it… But in the bathroom before work I might cover up some blemishes and put on some mascara. It looks pretty natural over all.

ANYTHING ELSE?

These are the outfits I wear to school. My wardrobe relaxes a bit on the weekends… However, even then I try to cover my shoulders. I learned that shoulders are a bit of a no-no when some students called me “sexy” for exposing my shoulders. There has been a lot of debate within the female-ALT community as to whether or not we should cover our shoulders. I believe that this decision is entirely up to you.

USA Akita (1)

Hi, my name is Sara. I’m a second year ALT in Kuma Village in Kumamoto-ken at the junior high school, elementary schools, and nursery schools there. I love shopping, so I have far more clothes than I know what to do with. Many teachers and office workers comment on my outfits, and I enjoy experimenting and pushing the boundaries of what is “school appropriate,” because they have mostly given me enthusiastic votes of support. I live in the countryside deep in the heart of Kyushu, which has afforded me a lot of freedom because of the more relaxed atmosphere. Here are some of my favorite outfits for summers and winters in Kumamoto.

WINTER

Kumamoto has relatively mild winters with little to no snow. Rain and just above freezing temperatures are normal and the wind can blow viciously. Thus, I can get away with a wool pea coat with a scarf and gloves instead of a down coat, and leather boots instead of snow boots. The classrooms and staffrooms are sometimes heated, but the real cold is in the hallways between classes. Here are two of my favorite winter outfits:

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Look 1: grey wool skirt from UniQlo; second hand sweater (the label says GAP); thermal black leggings (footed, can also buy foot-less)

My basic instinct when it comes to clothes is to get colors that play well with others (neutral colors). Thus, it makes mixing and matching really easy, and I generally have colors and prints that will never be accused of being “too bright.” The grey skirt goes with almost any other sweater, but I like blue because it’s generally non-offensive and brings out my eyes. A lunch lady once commented that my skirt was short, but the opaque black tights seem to cancel out any possible sex appeal; I also have long legs, so skirts and dresses that are just above knee length on Japanese women are ¾ thigh length on me.

Pro Tip: Thermal tights are a must, even layered 2-3 more times with more HeatTech. I suggest getting thermal layers for top and bottom in every neutral color, in long sleeve and short, for maximum layering and warmth.

13442072_10209706446197461_1660774900_oLook 2: second-hand white jeans (label says GAP); white graphic T-shirt; burgundy sweater-blazer from Forever21; thin gold belt; fun socks

Whoever said you absolutely cannot wear jeans was lying (sorry Danie!). Black and white jeans aren’t so obviously denim, and so are more appropriate than indigo jeans, but have the same versatility, ease, and comfort. The girl who wore them before me had much more junk in the trunk, so there is ample room to add thermal layers; that also necessitates the belt, which is a great way to add a pop of color or shine (kids WILL pull on any jewelry, make no mistake). Also something kind of casual is my T-shirt; I noticed many women in the offices wearing these kinds of shirts over thermal layers, and then usually layer again with a sweater. The sweater-blazer is great because it’s warmer and more comfortable than a normal blazer. I often fit a fleece UniQlo jacket underneath it.

Pro Tip: Socks are a great way to jazz up your outfit without being distracting or unprofessional (as long as they match). I collect cat socks and Hello Kitty prefectural socks that are cute and interesting.

SUMMER

Summers in Kumamoto are brutally hot and humid, and come with rain storms and typhoons. A good rain jacket is essential (I got mine from a second hand store). Generally, women wear sheer hose in summer, but I shave my legs and call it quits, mostly. On office days, I wear long trousers because my bosses use the aircon excessively.

13410588_10209706445397441_737869239_oLook 1: black hi-lo skirt from GU; purple blouse from GU; second-hand brown leather belt

Remember neutral colors? I get everything from this skirt (I paid 150 yen for it 4 years ago and I’m still loving it). The length and color make it perfect for any short sleeved blouse and it’s cool and airy around my legs. Knee- and midi-length skirts are always appropriate.  I generally wear a cooling UniQlo camisole underneath the blouse (every. neutral. color).

Pro Tip: On especially hot days during the height of summer, pack baby wipes, a spare camisole, and a stick of deodorant in your bag. Use your lunch break to strip off in the bathroom or locker room, wipe away sweat and replace your sweaty cami with the new one. You’ll be fresh for the afternoon!

 

 

 

13446044_10209706445517444_355615850_oLook 2: sky-blue gaucho pants from Zara; second hand patterned, sheer blouse

Sheer is your best friend in summer. It gives the illusion of being covered, but still lets your skin breathe. Lace is also a good option. The blue pattern is floral, but not overwhelming (very common patterns like stripes or polka-dots, or simple florals or geometric designs are ideal; no strange color blocking or in-your-face designs; additionally, English or Japanese words on clothing is thought of as very casual). These gaucho pants came into fashion last summer and are great for keeping your legs covered without sacrificing breeziness.

Pro Tip: Go on, wear the crop top. A crop top layered under a sheer or lace top (like mine in the photo) can add a pop of color or texture to the outfit, but would be totally scandalous alone. A high-waisted pant or skirt can also help disguise the length of a crop top, but add a neutral colored camisole underneath (think of wearing it in the same way as a low cut top, except instead of cleavage, it hides your midriff).

 

JEWELRY

If at all, wear small, non-offensive jewelry. Do your best to avoid odd piercings (even ear cartilage is sometimes frowned upon), and anything sparkly or gaudy. Small silver or gold studs or hoops are nice for ear lobes. Avoid bracelets and dangly necklaces around little kids. I wear two silver rings every day and kids touch and pull on them all the time.

HAIR

I have short hair, so I don’t do much with it. If at all possible, avoid the big beach waves and unnatural perms (If you have naturally curly hair do not feel obligated to straighten it). Colors other than black or dark brown are pretty taboo in schools, but they won’t object to red or blonde if it’s your natural color. Avoid unnatural colors like blue or green, or obvious dye jobs with roots showing, or only dying parts of your hair. Hair accessories like bows, clips, and bands are great here!

MAKEUP

Feel free to use makeup sparingly on the skin and eyes as preferred. I cover my eyes in all neutral colors and use brown or thin black eyeliner with mascara. Because my lips are sensitive, I only use Vaseline, but subtle reds, pinks, and neutrals wouldn’t go amiss. Bright eyeshadow, heavy eyeliner, or bold lips tend to draw unwanted attention. Teachers mostly don’t paint their nails, but I’ve seen ALTs get away with short, polished ones with solid colors and minimal designs.

ANYTHING ELSE?

Slippers: I have two pairs of slippers, one for summer, and one for winter. For either season, get ones that:

  • Are easy-on-easy-off, but won’t fly off when you’re chasing kids around.
  • Have durable soles with texture so you won’t slip
  • Cool, flexible, and breathable in summer, and warm and snug in winter
  • Japanese have an aversion to bare feet, so if the slippers don’t have toes or a heel, they will wear socks, which I think looks funny (black shoes, white socks deal). I get summer slippers that cover my toes and heels.

If you have multiple schools, carry your slippers in an eco-friendly tote bag. Add baby powder to summer ones frequently to absorb smells.

 

Danie (2)

Hey all, I’m Denica, a British JET placed in Ueno, Tokyo. I enjoy shopping and should be able to show you loads of flattering outfits but between Tokyo rental prices and paying off student loans I’m not left with much money to dress myself with. So, you won’t be finding any fashion revelations here – just safe, choice pieces that are worth the money and let me work in comfort throughout the nutty seasons. Hopefully the thrifty amongst you will find this useful.

Winter

Tokyo winters are dry and reach a low of -1 or -5 in January, by which time I’ve dug out the down coat and earmuffs.  I find this temperature very easy to dress for as I come from rainy old Britain, especially considering how easy it is to purchase thermals here. Layers are your friend, as they heat small spaces, not buildings. Like the staffroom at school or a kotatsu at an izakaya. I also go for muted colours even more so in winter but like to jazz it up with rich dark colours like mauve, green and deep blues.
Denica 1Outfit 1: Dark Collared shirt, wool cardigan, thermal mauve trousers.

This outfit is a mix of my staples that I couldn’t survive winter without and are worth every penny.

Trousers: Dark or natural coloured jeans are A-okay at work and I even have a lovely black and green chequered pair too. No matter what though stick with the Heatteach from Uniqlo.

Uniqlo Real Wool Cardigan: Definitely not cheap as its real wool but it’s very warm and good quality. I have two, one in black and one in dark green that go with just about everything.

Simple Non-Iron Shirt from Britain’s Primark (pretty much the same as America’s Target): I’m sure you can find an equivalent most places. They cover the shoulder, don’t need ironing and are presentable. I have them in 8 different colours including bright yellow and a cool mint. I wear these with a HEATtech vest and a wool cardi and I am as snug as a bug in a rug.

Protip: When it comes to skinny jeans at work I have a ‘butt covering’ which can either be a very long top or a cardigan. I keep a long black all-purpose cardigan, on the back of my chair at work and throw it on if the top I’m wearing that day isn’t long enough, or if I’m just cold.

Denica 2Outfit 2: Green shirt with black knee length floaty skirt and leggings.

Skit: Simple under-the-knee length black skirt that goes with everything.  I bought it from the supermarket on my road and it is indispensable.

Shirt: Full sleeved green collared shirt, again from Primark. I’m a classy girl, you see. Again, all the Heattech underneath.

ProTip: I mostly wear skirts in winter with the help of thermal leggings which I picked up very cheaply form Donki. You can also pick up patterned wool tights in many colours (I have green, gray and mauve) from GU.

 

 

 

Summer

Summer is a relentless vacuum of greasy faces and clothes damp from sweat, the heat radiating between your clothing and your body whilst you try your best to explain prepositions of place to uninterested students. You need your wits about your to survive it so let’s dispel a myth right here and now: cotton is not good in summer. Cotton can carry 7% of its body weight in water. Although breathable, it will soak up your sweat and make you hold it against your skin all day whilst you wish you weren’t a walking furnace. DRY, AIRISM, and linen products are the way forward. The previous two are Uniqlo only and whilst you can get good quality linen in Uniqlo it is possible to buy it elsewhere. But remember the 3 Ls: Linen, loose, light coloured. You get it tight you may as well not have bothered spending out on it, cuz it ain’t cheap. These fabrics dry out easily and quickly and let your skin breath. All of my summer clothing are one of these three fabrics.

Denica 3Outfit one: White cropped trousers, blue polka dot half sleeve top.

Uniqlo DRY Crop Trousers: professional looking, a norm in the workplace and very comfortable in summer. I have them in white and blue (yes, white is hard to keep clean but they reflect the heat) and these go with all of my tops. I love them.

Breathable baggy shirt: Charity Shop Find. This is one of the many tops I have like this as they’re big, baggy and airy, perfect for summer. As I’m on a budget I will wear my Primark shirts for as long as I can but there reaches a point where you can’t wear a collar anymore and swap to shirts like those above.

Pro Tip: Hold your hand to your upper arm, your fingers at the top of where your arm starts, not the shoulder itself. Where your palm ends is roughly where you should remain covered until you’re crazy sweating buckets. When that time hits you can go a little shorter as long as you shoulders are covered completely. When you do, check out the average length of shoulder coverings in your office.

Denica 4Outfit two: Pin-striped linen trousers, loose white top, and mesh cardigan.

Pin-Stripe Linen Trousers. Linen is breathable, looks timeless and and dries out easily. Ticks all my boxes. I own a variety of colours like these and fold up the bottoms when I need to. This outfit rolls out at peak temperatures.

Uniqlo Anti-Bacterial Mesh Cardigan: Used purely as a token item I wear to keep my shoulders covered. They are see through but count as a covering, breath very easily and dry out fast. I wear one every day and consider them my main weapon in getting away with shoulderless tops.  I have 3 in white, black and green that come to just above my elbow and another two with full sleeves in grey and black.

Pro Tip: AIRISM underwear and the vests that have built in bras (they’re amazing, just trust me, try them) are a must. Buy in skin colour tones only as they actually look better under white and other colours. Buy them now, they aren’t cheap but very, very, very worth the input. Also, why no skirts in summer?!? At my job, you cannot wear a skirt without tights to work. I’m much more comfortable in crops or linen than tights in summer but you may feel differently.

Makeup

I wear minimal makeup all year round but a few female teachers in my school even wear glittery eye shadow. In summer I don’t wear makeup as I wash my face with cold water in between classes.  I keep a blemish control stick with me and cover up any spots if I need to and carry on. I also have an endless supply of grease sheets, in winter and summer.

Hair

I’ve been through all types of hair care products to control the frizz and grease my fine hair produces in humidity and this is what it boils down to: Organix Argan Oil Shampoo and Conditioner and Heat Protector Spray but do not buy Japanese sprays, they’re all very bad. Both can be purchased off amazon.jp and have totally changed my hair in this country, even in summer I enjoy styling my hair and not having it look like a bush. I straighten every day as I still need that to make the hair around my temples behave and dry, damaged hair reacts very badly in humidity so use heat protector spray. Every. Single. Time.

Anything Else?

Purchase as little as possible before arrival. Japan is excellent at producing clothes to suit its seasons so do your wallet a favour and buy on arrival. Don’t freak out and spend loads on finding the right thing before you arrive – it probably won’t suit the season or dress code. Make this a golden rule.

The one exception to the golden rule is orientation. You can guess what I’m gonna say here: black linen suit. It needs to be black to be used at all your school ceremonies and linen will keep you cooler than the thick cotton or wool suits that are so popular back home.

Final Words

These profiles, of course, do not fit every body type and every placement. Ultimately, a lot of the little details will be left up to your specific placement and personal preferences… As you can see just from us three ladies, what is appropriate or not can vary! Do not be shy about asking your pred and/or fellow female co-workers about work appropriate clothes. After all, I was “explicitly” told what not to wear because I asked. Also, don’t be afraid to make mistakes! Our co-workers know we are new to their culture and are forgiving. A good general rule is play it safe at the beginning until you have an idea of what is best for your placement. In general your style probably won’t have to change much for your workplace here in Japan!

If you have any questions, feel free to comment here and/or check out the JET Ladies Facebook page. It is a safe space for us female JETs to ask questions.

As for current ALTs, if you would like to contribute to a second blog in the series, feel free to comment and/or email me at daniemanos@gmail.com.

Happy teaching!

 

 

Alternate Part 3 After the Upgrade

Why I’m Glad I Was an Alternate: A Guide to Thriving in Alternate Purgatory – After the Upgrade

So, you’ve been upgraded? Or maybe you were shortlisted, spared from undergoing the trials of alternate-dom? Regardless of how you conquered the monstrous beast that is the JET application, congrats! *cue celebratory music*

In this post, I will go into to the things you can (and need) to do once you’ve been upgraded to the short-list. This could be helpful even if you’ve bypassed the whole alternate thing altogether – however, it’s tailored specifically to those who were upgraded. Honestly, though, I think the main difference between being on the short-list from the get-go versus being upgraded to it is the time frame you’ll have in which to get things done; former alternates will often times be dealing with a more expedited process (which, personally, I liked a lot).

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You, post-upgrade

More Forms! ALL the Forms!

Now that you’ve won the JET lottery, what are you going to do next? (Aside from going to Disney World, of course) …The answer? Fill out more paperwork! Yay! Who doesn’t love regurgitating the same trivial information on paper over and over again? (If your response is not “Hell yes, paperwork is my favorite!” then you might want to rethink your life choices – mainly pertaining to accepting a job in Japan – because the Japanese apparently can’t get enough of the stuff)

When you accepted the position of “alternate short-list candidate,” you were required to turn in a few forms before it could be official. So it’s only natural that, despite giving your JET coordinator verbal consent that you accept the upgrade offer, you are required to turn in another novel’s worth of dead trees before you can finally be a bona fide short-lister! No worries, though. Compared to your application packet, this’ll be more of a short story. If you’ve made it this far in the JET application process, you’re a pro at this red tape stuff by now – I believe in you!

Status Upgrade Form

This form is where you “officially” accept your upgrade to the short-list. It should just be a single page that you sign and date and also indicate the airport from which you plan to depart (hint: it should be the same as your interviewing location). Easy peasy.

Certificate of Health

For this one you don’t actually have to fill out anything – your physician does. When you were alerted to your alternate status, it’s likely your coordinator advised you to make a doctor’s appointment in advance. However, if you are a late upgrade then you may have already cancelled that appointment.

If you don’t have a doctor’s appointment, the first thing you should do after being upgraded is make one! In my case, I only had two weeks to get all my forms in from the time I was upgraded. If your regular physician books quickly, you may be in trouble. This was the case for me, so what I ended up doing is going to the same office (where they, ya know, have all my medical records and stuff) but seeing a different physician.

The form can be filled out by a Physician’s Assistant but it’ll need to be co-signed by an actual physician. I’d recommend going to one that has known you for a long time, as they must indicate how long they’ve known you on the form. I think it goes without saying that the longer they’ve known you, the more credible JET will find your medical history.

 IRS Residency Certification (Form 8802)

This one’s all kinds of fun. You have to download it from the IRS website and then you have the wonderful privilege of paying them $85 to process your form. Hang in there, though – this one’s hella worth it. If you’re a US citizen (which I’m assuming you are if you were told to turn this form in…), then this form will ultimately exempt you from Japanese taxes. “Amen” to that!

I paid for the form beforehand on the IRS website, giving me the option to fax it. Considering I was short on time, I chose this option (otherwise, you gotta go the snail mail route) and would recommend fellow alternate upgrades do the same. Be warned if you choose this option, though – it required god-like patience. The fax kept refusing to go through because the lines were so busy. I tried their two fax lines over and over again and it still ended up taking about an hour. Let’s hope you’re luckier than I was!

Chances are that if you are an alternate upgrade, you won’t be getting Form 6166 (the U.S. Residency Certificate the IRS gives you in exchange for your troubles – aka the thing that exempts you from taxes) before leaving for Japan – heck, many short-listers don’t even get it on time! So it is important that you give them the address of a person you trust to send it to you in Japan. Once that person receives the form, have them mail it to you ASAP! I will say it again: no taxes!

Criminal Record (if applicable)

I can’t tell you much about this one as it wasn’t applicable to me. If you are a US citizen and have lived in countries other than the US (excluding Japan) for 1 or more years within the past 5 years, then I’m sorry – you’ve got yet another page for your auto-biography in the making!

FBI Background Check

Like the Health Certificate and IRS forms, this one also requires a bit of scrambling around. You’ll need to get your fingerprints taken, which can be done at most police stations (for a fee). Then you’ll have to pay the FBI $18 for each copy of the background check you request. They do not accept cash or personal checks, so you will have to pay either by money order or credit card (by filling out / sending the provided Credit Card Payment Form).

Prior Visa Cancellation Form (if applicable)

I (to my surprise) had to fill out this one. If you have done a study abroad in Japan within the past five years, it’s likely that your student visa is still valid. If that’s the case, then it needs to be cancelled before the embassy can issue you a shiny new Instuctor visa.

Networking

one does not simply network

Once you cross the finish line of the rat race that is handing in the final batch of JET paperwork, you’re free – you can finally relax a bit! In order to make your move to Japan a bit smoother, however, I suggest you dabble in the art of networking. This is especially important if you’re an alternate upgrade – the later your upgrade happened, the more important it becomes.

It’s likely you could end up leaving for Japan with Departure Group C, in which case you will get a smaller and shorter Tokyo orientation. Or – as was the case for me – you may not even get an orientation! Though you’re likely to become close with other local JETs once you arrive in your designated city, it’s nice to know you have some contacts before even setting foot on Japanese soil. In addition, if you’re able to befriend some current JETs or JET alumni, they’ll be able to offer you a wealth of valuable information that can mentally prepare you for what’s to come. If you have a more realistic idea of what to expect, it can help mitigate the symptoms of that nasty beast known as culture shock later on.

Pre-Departure Orientation

This is the orientation that happens right before Groups A and B leave for Japan. For those departing with these groups, it is mandatory. However, for those upgraded to the short-list later on, it will most likely be optional. Though this was the case for me, I attended the meeting anyway and would recommend doing the same if you are able.

As a late upgrade, it’s possible you may feel a bit left out at this orientation as you will not be getting on a plane for Japan the next day like (most likely) everyone else there. I didn’t even have my placement info when I attended. Though that made conversations about where we’d be in Japan a bit awkward, it also made me memorable! By the end of the night, everyone knew me as “the girl without a placement.” For some, maybe that could get a little annoying, but I didn’t mind standing out – it was like I was this “wild card” that could end up anywhere. I was tempted to have people take bets on which prefecture I’d end up in! When I did finally get my placement info, those that I had befriended were eager to hear about it and share in my excitement!

For those who won’t be departing for Japan in a group, I’d say the pre-departure orientation is a must. You will most likely learn important information regarding JET and getting to Japan and, more importantly, make some useful contacts. I was able to meet a lot of fellow incoming JETs – all from the same general vicinity in the states as me – and hearing their stories was inspiring. It was also reassuring to know that I would now know a bunch of people in Japan – even if I wasn’t sure how close or far they’d be from me! I also connected with some JET alumni who proceeded to invite me to the JET Alumni Association (JETAA) Facebook group.

More importantly, though, it was a really good time! Attending the orientation got me even more excited about my new life in Japan. And since I didn’t have to wake up early to catch a flight the following day, the whole process was stress-free!

 The “Interwebs”

Once you have your placement information, it’s time to take your networking ventures to the web! (Let’s face it: at this point the majority of JETs will already be in Japan, so there aren’t many other options available…)

First and foremost, you’ll want to check out Facebook. Now I’m not exactly a Facebook fan – or a fan of social media in general, for that matter – but it will definitely prove useful in connecting with other JETs. Each prefecture has its own Facebook group, you see, so joining yours will put you into contact with JETs within the general vicinity of your placement. (Be sure to take “general vicinity” with a grain of salt, though. I was placed in Kyoto prefecture but I’m so deep in the country that Kyoto city is about three hours from me!) If you know the name of your city, it’s possible you may also encounter people from that very same city! These are the people that will be able to give you the best advice and, if they’re re-contracting / just starting out with JET, are people you’ll be hanging out with in due time

JETs will also post about local events in the Facebook groups. Once you’re in Japan, attending such events is another great way to meet people and, often times, learn more about Japanese culture while doing so. These events can also help you connect with locals. I did a day-long homestay shortly after arriving in Japan and I’m still in regular contact with my host family!

In addition to Facebook, I found myself frequenting message boards on Reddit and IThinkImLost (a website for current and future JETs). Both sites have hangouts for alternates, which can be helpful for your sanity as long as you don’t get too obsessive about upgrades.

So many past, present, and future JETs have posted on these forums that you will most likely find good answers to any questions you may have – as long as you’re persistent in your search. If you have trouble finding answers, you can always join these forums and post a question yourself; your inquiry will likely be met with some swift and informative responses!

Tokyo

So now you’ve arrived at Narita, fresh-faced and down for some new adventures in “The Land of the Rising Sun” (but even more so, “The Land of All Things Kawaii EVER” – they don’t always include that one in the guidebooks). This is where the real networking happens. I think it goes without saying that Tokyo orientation is prime time to make some new friends!

Now if your arrival is scheduled post-August 18th…ish, then you won’t be getting an orientation. However do not despair, newly upgraded, for it is likely others who have undergone similar trials will be waiting there when you arrive!

I departed for Japan on September 8th, a Tuesday, and was the only one from my embassy to do so. Naturally, I expected I’d be alone upon arrival in Narita too, but that did not end up being the case. After meeting up with the JET Program people, they told me we still had to wait a bit before sending me to my hotel because they were expecting another girl to arrive shortly. Once she did, they put us both on the shuttle for the hotel together. We got to know each other and made plans to eat breakfast together the following day before parting ways and heading to our respective hotel rooms.

The next day, to my surprise, we discovered that about twelve other new JETs had also arrived the previous day and stayed in the same hotel. We were able to discuss our respective alternate limbo stories as we waited together for a JET representative to lead us on the next phase of our journey. When the JET representative came, they had us get on a shuttle back to Narita. From there, we were split off into three groups – I was in a group of five headed for Tokyo station. On the trip to Tokyo station, we all got to know each other fairly well and it turns out three of them were even headed to the same prefecture! Before we parted ways, we all exchanged contact information.

Basically, the point I’m trying to make is that even if you’re a late upgrade and are forced to bypass orientation, you should have no problem meeting some new JETs in Tokyo! JET seems to coordinate departure dates – it makes it easier on them and allows us to get that sense of camaraderie at the same time. Many of my fellow September 8th arrivals were upgraded a few weeks earlier or later than me and yet we still all arrived on the same day. So unless you’re upgraded really late (like in the fall), you can expect to meet people. Because it will be a much smaller group, you’ll have the chance to get to know these people better and you’ll now have some people to bond with over the woes of your prior alternate-dom!

Next Time

Next time, in my final installment, I will finally be addressing the title: “Why I’m Glad I Was an Alternate” and going into (what I consider to be) the positives of being a former alternate! (You’re totally dying to find out, right? Right???)

A version of this post appeared originally on my personal blog where I post about my experiences in Japan. I wanted to post this on both blogs in order to make it easier for my fellow alternates to find, as good resources on being a JET alternate are few and far between.

alternate purgatory part 2

Why I’m Glad I Was an Alternate: A Guide to Thriving in Alternate Purgatory – Life in Limbo

Last time I went into my experience as an alternate; this time, it’s time to turn the focus to you, fellow alternates! Either you were alternated but have since received the mysterious “call” and have therefore ascended to the lofty rank of “short-lister” (fingers crossed?) or… you’re still very much stuck in limbo. If the latter is true, then this post’s for you. If you’ve been lucky enough to have received an upgrade, then congrats! Be sure to check out next week’s post which will go into what should be done once you’ve been upgraded.

Why Did This Happen to Me?

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If you currently find yourself trapped in the purgatory that is alternate-dom, you may ask yourself the above. And then you’ll probably ask it again. And again. And again –  going through that nerve-wracking JET interview in your head and wondering what went wrong.

I know I certainly did.

Considering that I had felt I was both very qualified for the job and that my interview had, for the most part, gone fantastically, I just couldn’t figure out why? Why me? Why wasn’t I good enough? What did the short-listers have that I didn’t?

Well, as I touched upon in my last post, no one really knows the answer! So save yourself the headache and stop asking these questions! It’s only natural to wonder what you could have done better (and even helpful if you end up not getting upgraded and subsequently apply to JET again) but there’s a point where it just becomes destructive. Better to let it go and focus on what you can do right now.

Chances of an Upgrade

So here are the facts (as far as I’m aware) – granted, they’re not very concrete because a lot varies from year to year, but having a general idea of how the whole process works can give one a kind of peace of mind. Just remember to take it with a grain of salt. I don’t work for the embassies so I can’t vouch for just how accurate any of the following is. It is quite simply a culmination of what I have gathered through research, personal experience, and talking to various people.

One’s Interview “Score”

Apparently when potential JETs are interviewed, they’re given a score based on how well they did. This score is what ultimately determines their fate in regard to the JET Program. If their score is low, they are flat-out rejected. For those with higher scores, though, things get a little more complicated.

Depending on the ratio of interviewees who scored high to positions that are currently available, there may be more people with a high score than there are positions available. In that case, certain candidates are short-listed while others are placed on the alternate list. How do they determine who is short-listed and who is alternated, you may wonder? The unfortunate answer is that no one really knows for sure; JET seems to keep that information tightly under wraps.

I think a lot of it depends on what each particular contracting organization is looking for in an AET, however. Whether you are willing (and able) to drive in Japan and your Japanese ability (or lack thereof) may play a part in it. In some cases, the ugly truth seems to be based on factors out of our control, such as gender and nationality.

In my area, for example, many of the positions are filled by males and – as far as I know – always have been. Whereas I’m female and every one of my predecessors (except for the one right before me) were also female. Now that might sound extremely discriminatory but I won’t judge too harshly as I believe the contracting organizations all have their own reasons for choosing specifics “types” of people.

Take another example in my area: there apparently used to be a lot more national diversity among the JETs. But last year an American military base was put up and now all but one of the JETs are American. We suspect that our contracting organization was actively scouting out Americans as potential candidates because they hoped that we could help smooth relations between the military and the locals. Whether that is the case or not, I truly do believe they have reasons other than blatant discrimination for choosing the people they do – at least, I really hope that’s the case! Regardless, there’s nothing we can do about it so no use crying over spilt milk, as they say.

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My apartment in the inaka!

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…at least it has a good view!

The Alternate “List”

From what I understand, the alternate “list” is fairly long because JET anticipates a large dropout rate. Each year many potential short-listers will decline the offer or drop out once accepted due to various reasons. Another common occurrence is that current JETs will decide at the last minute that they don’t actually want to re-contract (such as in the case of my predecessor). For that reason JET likes to have a lot of back-up and that’s why each year quite a large portion of the alternate “list” is, in fact, upgraded!

When I was alternated – I had a hard time believing being upgraded could be that common, but as I quickly found out, it is. I’d say almost half of the current JETs and JET alumni I know were initially alternates! Of course, I’m still the weirdo here because most of those people were upgraded within the first two months of discovering their alternate status. In fact, one of my fellow Kyotango JETs was only on the alternate “list” for a single day.

 Now you may be wondering why I keep writing “list” in quotes, right? Well, I use quotes with the word because after a certain point, it seems like it’s more of a pool that is drawn from, based on what the contracting organization is looking for. I suspect this because I was apparently quite low on “the list.” And just how do I know that?

I asked.

Yes, you can ask where your place on “the list” is. Your coordinator may not be allowed to give an answer, however. And regardless of if they can or cannot answer, I can guarantee that your answer won’t be a straight one.

I was lucky in that my embassy was one of the supposed “relaxed” ones when it came to finding out one’s position on the alternate list. I called my coordinator in regard to some paperwork I had to turn in and toward the end of our conversation, went ahead and asked if she could possibly give me any indication of my place on the list. She did – subtly – and it was not what I was hoping to hear. In essence she encouraged me to “pursue other things,” implying that I was probably quite low on the list and therefore wouldn’t be getting into JET. Ouch.

FATALITY

 So yeah, go ahead and ask. It can’t hurt. Just don’t annoy your coordinator by asking for updates constantly. One call is enough. And don’t pay too much attention to whatever you learn (or don’t learn), because despite what my coordinator implied in that call, she ended up calling me back a couple months later to offer me an upgrade!

The “Call”

You may be wondering about the nature of “the call.” Questions like “What time of day should I expect it? “ and “Will I miss out on an upgrade if I miss my call?” are common. When I was an alternate, specifics on “the call” were hard to come by. This led to more than a little OCD on my part. Normally one to pay little attention to my phone, I couldn’t stop checking it for the three-ish months of my alternate-dom. I’d always have the volume turned up loud and I was extremely wary of any unknown number I saw. A couple of times I swore it was the embassy and by missing their call I believed I had missed my chance at an upgrade! (Conveniently, they didn’t leave a message. Or call more than once. Or try to contact me by other means… the things the mind of a desperate person conjures up!) So hopefully by answering such questions, I can save y’all some sanity!

When to Expect It

In my case, the call came in the morning. To be more specific, 10:44am – at least, that’s the time my supervisor left her voice message for me. (Yes, I still have the message on my phone… but I’m not that crazy, I promise!) Most other alternates I asked also got their calls in the morning. It seems like the calls are made within the first few hours the embassy is open. Also worth noting is that (as far as I’m aware) the call will happen while the embassy is open! That means you don’t need to worry about missing your call outside of normal business hours.

What to Watch For

Not everyone receives a call though. Sometimes it’s only an email, so be sure to check the email you used for your JET application at least a few times a day. In my case I received a single call on my cell, a voicemail, and an email. This seems to be fairly standard but I’ve heard of people only getting an email. I suppose it just depends on the embassy? So if you know someone who was upgraded from your embassy, I’d ask them just how they were notified to get a good idea of what to expect.

Also worth noting is that the number they used to contact me was unmistakable; it was the number of my JET coordinator and one I already had in my phone. My JET coordinator’s number was a variation of the embassy phone number, so if, for some reason, you don’t know your JET coordinator’s number, be sure to look up the number of the embassy and get familiar with it.

What If I Miss My Call?

No sweat if you miss your call; I did, along with many of my fellow alternate upgrades. As I went into above, it seems to be fairly common for your coordinator to try to contact you via multiple means. They really want to get a hold of you because it is likely that you hold the invisible qualities they are seeking to fill whatever position has opened up. Now that doesn’t mean they’ll wait forever for you, though, as they do have a schedule to keep. So I think it goes without saying that if you see a missed call or email from your coordinator, you should get back to them ASAP!

In my case, I believe I got back to my coordinator within two hours of her leaving the message. I have a feeling they give you at least until the end of the day to get back to them, so I’d suggest being very mindful of your phone and email during your embassy’s business hours. That way if they try to contact you, you can get back to them before the end of the work day. If the embassy is closed when you realize you received a message or email, then be sure to call up your coordinator as soon as the embassy opens the following day!

What Can I Do Right Now?

Earlier in the post I suggested focusing your effort on what you can do right now rather than what went wrong in the past. So what exactly can you do right now? The short answer is to just put JET as far from your mind as possible. Easier said than done, I realize, but it’s honestly the best thing you can do for your sanity. And I’ll admit, I had a really hard time with this one! I was constantly hanging around message boards for alternates and looking up stuff about Japan and teaching. The more time I spent focusing on JET, the more disappointed I was with each passing day that went by without being upgraded. It wasn’t until I completely “got over JET” that I got upgraded!

Ultimately I was able to distance myself from JET by doing the following. So I encourage you to:

  1. Do something you love! My favorite activities (other than travel) are gaming and working out. Therefore, to get my mind off JET I both bought a new game and increased my allotted workout time – allowing myself to be fully immersed in the activities. When involved in these things I completely forgot about JET!
  2. Study Japanese. I was a Japanese major in college and yet there’s always more to learn! Whether you’re a complete beginner or near-native speaker, studying the language will help you feel more connected to Japan. It’ll also help you to feel more confident in your ability to get around once you’re in Japan (whether it’s with or without JET!).
  3. Look into alternatives to JET. If you are anything like me, then you know that you definitely want to be in Japan. But you also don’t want to have to wait another year and endure another grueling JET application process! If that sums up your thinking then you’re in luck because there are tons of alternatives to JET!

I briefly mentioned one such alternative in my last post. If you’re feeling really adventurous (and have adequate money saved), you don’t even need to get a sponsor beforehand to come here! Look online for a monthly apartment, come over on a tourist VISA, and start networking! There are more than enough jobs for foreigners in Japan – particularly in Tokyo – but many require you to first be in Japan!

Once you realize that JET is not the only way to get here, it allows you to not need an upgrade to happen. It will put your mind at ease, and you may even discover that there are options that are more appealing to you! But just be careful because usually when you finally “let go” of JET you tend to get offered a position!

A version of this post appeared originally on my personal blog where I post about my experiences in Japan. I wanted to post this on both blogs in order to make it easier for my fellow alternates to find, as good resources on being a JET alternate are few and far between.

Alternate Purgatory

Why I’m Glad I Was an Alternate: A Guide to Thriving in Alternate Purgatory – My Story

So it’s that time of year again – the time of year when JET hopefuls are given the “yay” or “nay” regarding their participation in the program; the time of year when many dreams are either shattered or realized. Those who are lucky enough to end up on the legendary “short-list” are most likely jumping for joy and already making plans for their new lives in Japan while those who are rejected are forced to move on with their lives. But what about those who have yet to be given a definite “yay” or “nay”? What about those who have been *gasp* sentenced to alternate limbo?

If you happen to be one such unlucky soul, this post’s for you! For the next few weeks I plan on writing a post per week on life as an alternate. I’m here to help you get through it by imparting wisdom I obtained through being in your exact position last year. In addition, I hope to give some insights into why alternate-dom can actually be a *even deeper gasp* good thing!

**For a definition of words appearing in orange, check the bottom of this post!

My Story

010

So March 30, 2015 I received an email that began like so:

Dear JET Program Applicant:

Thank you so much for your patience throughout the past month. I am writing to inform you that you have been selected as an Alternate ALT Short-list Candidate for this year’s JET Program.

My heart jumped at the words “Short-list” and I was initially elated – only for the “alternate” part to actually sink in on my 2nd (and even 3rd) re-reads. Being the optimist I was, I was still incredibly hopeful about the whole thing. “Hey,” I thought, “At least there’s a chance.” Having done an insane amount of research on the subject prior to receiving the judgment bestowed upon me by the JET gods, I knew that…

  1. It is actually quite common to be “wait-listed.”
  2. The odds of being upgraded to that ever-elusive short-list are fairly high.

Excited to finally have a shred of closure (no matter how small that shred was) on the grueling process that is the JET Program application, I rushed to share the new revelation with family and friends. But instead of taking a positive position on the matter, to my chagrin, the reactions were mostly negative. I was overwhelmed with responses along the lines of “Wow, that sucks!” and “What are you going to do!?” as if I had just somehow contracted some sort of terminal illness. I simply smiled and nodded at their replies – they were just worried about me and weren’t connoisseurs on the topic of alternate limbo as I was. I knew better. I knew that I was likely to get that upgrade call any day! And eventually – emphasis on “eventually” – I did. …Little did I realize that I was in for quite possibly one of the biggest emotional roller-coasters of my young adult life.

Getting “alternated” looks a little bit like this…

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To make a long story short, however, I will say that I received that magical upgrade call on July 14 – a good three and a half months after I had received my alternate status. From what I had researched, this was highly unusual. Everything I had read online told me that most upgrades happen until around the end of June; in other words, though possible to get upgraded after June, it isn’t likely. Therefore, once July came around I had given up hope of being upgraded and, like many of my fellow alternates, needed to move on with my life.

I had made plans to apply to Interac and hoped I would be able to go to Japan in March through them. In the mean time, I was going to move to Florida (again) because the thought of being stuck in frigid Ohio for yet another fall / winter was unbearably depressing to me! But here’s the crazy part: the day I got my upgrade call was also the day I was about to solidify my plans of moving to Florida!

When I got the call I was at work. I recognized the number immediately – it was the number of the JET coordinator who had contacted me before about the interview. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to answer the phone at the time. I did, however, listen to the voicemail as soon as I could. It was extremely vague but I knew it had to be good! So I excused myself for a moment and called back the JET coordinator, who proceeded to offer me a position. Though I had gotten pretty excited about my Florida / Interac plans, seeing as I had yet to solidify anything, accepting the upgrade was a no-brainer!

As anyone that has gone through the JET application process well knows, it is both long and expensive. In addition, the sheer amount of paperwork involved (BEFORE you even know if you’re going to be short-listed) can sometimes feel like putting together a grad school thesis! So let’s just take a moment of silence for all the poor trees that are sacrificed each year as a result of the process. You served us well, trees. You served us well.

A-hem! Anyway, as I said, I was at work when I received the upgrade call. As soon as I had gotten off work, it was my plan to call and reserve an apartment I had been eyeing in Florida, thus solidifying my plans for my new life direction. Once I had accepted the position with JET, though, I no longer had to worry about the Plan B. Instead, I then began a two week-long scramble to get together all the documents and things required of short-listers – but that’s a story for another post!

In Conclusion

 So I guess the moral of my story is this: hold on to the hope of being upgraded as long as it’s comfortable for you. But when you feel like you should move on, do it. If JET was meant to be, you might just get that upgrade call in perfect time like I did. But if not, then it’s probably because something better is on its way – whether that’s getting into JET a subsequent year, going to Japan through a different company, or just doing something else entirely! Regardless of the outcome, I can tell you that being an alternate – for two days, two months, or whatever – is sure to teach you a lot about yourself and what it is you really want. So even if you’re feeling stuck and surrounded by naysayers, just know that being an alternate is actually a great opportunity for growth. And it can – if you let it – be pretty damn rewarding!

 

Next Time

This week I talked about my personal experience as an alternate. Keep an eye out for Part 2 coming out next week (hopefully!) which will go into what being an alternate entails and what you can do while you’re stuck in the confusing and frustrating throes of alternate limbo!

Lingo That Every Alternate Should Know

short-list – the supposed salvation of all of us stuck in alternate purgatory. Getting on the short-list may sometimes seem akin to getting into Harvard, Oxford or other such Ivy League schools. In my personal opinion, it was very much like winning the lottery. But don’t despair – there’s always a chance!

verb – short-listed 

related forms – short-lister, synonymous with “lucky bastard”

alternate limbo – A term which may have been coined by the author of this blog post. It is the fate we alternates are subjected to by the JET gods and the very pinnacle of being stuck between a rock and a hard place. There are few things as frustrating as being stuck here. Also referred to as “alternate purgatory” by yours truly because I believe the JET gods subject us to such tortures to “purify” us and make sure we are ready for all the trials that come with being an ALT.

alternate – the name given to those who scored high enough on the JET interview to be offered a position with JET but for whatever reason didn’t fit the bill for positions that are currently open. (Seriously. What ARE the standards for getting short-listed!? I’ve known short-listers who made horrible ALTs and former alternates who made fantastic ones… I’m convinced they really just put the names of everyone who “passed” the interview in a hat and pick them at random…) May the force be with you, newly alternated – the force of superhuman willpower, patience, and flexibility, that is. You’re gonna need it.

wait-listed – (almost) the opposite of being “short-listed” (see above). The list of all of us forced to cleanse ourselves before we are worthy of the JET Program.

synonymous for “being alternated” or “getting screwed over”

upgraded – what every alternate hopes and prays for. To be “upgraded” is to finally find salvation and be freed from the smothering depths of alternate limbo.

synonymous for “getting short-listed” or “winning the lottery”

upgrade call the call” – the proverbial carrot on a stick. The idea of one day receiving “the call” is what keeps we alternates in check. It motivates us to keep putting our lives on hold because we hope that one day we may just receive its blessing. It is the facilitator for our elevation from alternate limbo to the bliss that is the short-list.

Interac – a company that offers a good alternative to JET. The main downside is that it costs quite a bit to get started and will ultimately pay less than JET. On the positive side, Interac ALTs get a ton of time off (same vacations as the students), have their transportation costs covered, and often times get to live in big cities.

A version of this post appeared originally on my personal blog where I post about my experiences in Japan. I wanted to post this on both blogs in order to make it easier for my fellow alternates to find, as good resources on being a JET alternate are few and far between.

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Comparing Penis Festivals: Nagoya vs. Tokyo

I’m pretty certain with this title I have both lost and gained followers, and such is life. Before I go into this too much, make sure you use your best judgment based on the title as to whether this post is safe for work/school/etc. But you do you.

The “penis festivals” of Greater Nagoya and Greater Tokyo are only separated by a couple of weeks; the former is the Honen Matsuri at Tagata Jinja, which occurs on March 15, and the latter is the Kanamara Matsuri at Wakamiya Hachimangu takes place the 1st Sunday in April each year. Technically they are both similar of origin–fertility festivals (it is no coincidence surely that they both take place at the beginning of spring)–and very phallic and nature, which is what brought them international attention.

The Honen Matsuri (豊年祭り) literally means “bountiful year festival,” and takes place in the town of Komaki due north of Nagoya. In contrast, the Kanamara Matsuri (かなまら祭り) is always written in hiragana, but a slight digging into the possible etymology reveals the equally scandalous (and much more blunt) potential literal meaning: kana possibly comes from a reading of 金, which means “gold,” and mara surely comes from the Buddhist term of the same pronunciation 魔羅, which means an “obstacle to Buddhist practice” or otherwise a very slang-y and vulgar term for penis. (I don’t know this etymology for sure, as especially kana can have many ways of writing, and for example could come from the host prefecture’s name Kanagawa, but I have very little doubt that my interpretation of mara is incorrect.) It takes place in Kawasaki, the capital of Kanagawa, which is just about 30 minutes outside downtown Tokyo.

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As you can see, just by looking at the names, the vibes for the two festivals–as scandalous as we foreigners (and many Japanese as well nowadays) may see them to be–seem to be pretty different. I had the fantastic opportunity to go to the Honen Matsuri in 2014, and just came back from the Kanamara Matsuri this weekend, and while much has been written about the two separately (and especially the latter), I have yet to find any comparison of the two. So, in the words of Mario, here we go.

But wait a moment!

Before I go into the meat of this post, I really do need to give a short briefing about what is considered “scandalous” and “erotic” and “normal” in the Japanese context. It’s easy to label Japan as the porn capital of the world (which, having done relatively extensive research in the modern Japanese porn industry/sexism/exploitation sectors, I can’t bring myself to negate entirely, although I also can’t do any sweet talk about other countries either) and to be like “Oh Japan” with a sigh and a laugh and a flick of the wrist while secretly judging the country for being so shy about many forms of sexuality and rampaging regarding others. BUT(T) we really need to look at pre-Westernized Japan to put this into context. I won’t go on and on about the nitty-gritty details, but here’s the foundation of what you need to know:

Especially before the West “opened up” Japan (oh my God the scare quotes), Japan was pretty sex-positive–at least in comparison to most of the West. Shinto especially was pretty open about sexuality and letting the population grow and be free and one with each other, and I guess in a way Buddhism was a fair balance to this. Sex and sexuality used to be considered just another facet of life–which, let’s be real here, it is, no matter how hard people work to not acknowledge it. This openness to promiscuity was especially prevalent in smaller villages, which is where some of these festivals and shrines originate (if you look into it, you will also find quite a few other penis and even some vagina shrines–the latter don’t receive as much fame and fortune as their phallic counterparts unfortunately, but they are there). The male and female bodies weren’t seen as scandalous in many cases (although there is much of a difference in thought between the elite and the vulgar classes), and, as an example, public baths were often not separated. It wasn’t until Japan was basically ridiculed by the West for being vulgar and barbaric for such open displays of sexuality, that, similar to what happened in many of the European colonies at roughly the same time period, pushed the country to emulate the Victorian Era West (and I assume we all know roughly what that’s like). Basically, Victorian shade made Japan zip up its pants.

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I am the proud owner of a set of relatively tame shunga tea cups/shot glasses.

I highly suggest tracing a bit of the history of shunga, erotica that usually took the form of woodblock printing, and what I see as an appropriate exemplar for the topic, for a deeper look into way of thinking (if you would prefer a more brief rundown, check out this link). Shunga had been prevalent for centuries, depicting everything from masturbation (of both sexes) to orgies to farting competitions to male-male (although not so much female-female) sexual pursuits and acts; it is also the beginning of the infamous tentacle porn and often used as a form of satire and criticism of society. It was once banned by the national government, and is now not technically forbidden, but holds an intense stigma and is seen as taboo by a large portion of the population; indeed, many of the best exhibitions of shunga are found outside of Japan. (For more information regarding a historical look at the Japanese attitude towards sex, I recommend “Pink Samurai” by Nicholas Bornoff, although mostly only for the historical context and not the modern one [despite what it touts].)

Therefore, there is no denying that is a clear paradox in modern Japanese attitudes towards sexuality–the government is flipping out about its rapidly declining population, sex education is more or less on par with what I received in America (which was not too far off from “If you have sex, you will get pregnant/chlamydia and die,” although I presume the Japanese version is “If you have sex, you will fail your exams and have no future”), and a prominent “grass-eating” male (and female) population disillusioned with and disinterested in sex. This is a very confusing time for Japan (if not the world). However, it must be remembered that this is all, in the history of the ancient country, very recent phenomena, and that the origins of these two festivals which I will commence discussing predate all of this.

Now, for the real crux of this post: which penis festival is better?

Location & Vendors

I have to flat-out vote for Honen Matsuri on this one. They got it right by choosing a small town right outside a major hub–this means there was space. The shrine itself was pretty small, and you definitely needed to get there early in order to pat the penis and rub the balls at the main shrine (more on that below), but it had large grounds. Vendors greeted you at the station and dotted along the path to the festival area, at which rows and rows of stalls selling food and knick-knacks were lined up. Get your phallus-carved sticks, your very clothed man and woman sculptures with a *ahem* surprise to be revealed when you turned them over and looked under their robes, and more. Eat your choco-banana with the tip slightly carved and little cookie balls stuck on the bottom, your “grilled precious treasure” (a fancy take on a hot dog), and your penis- (and a few vagina-) shaped hard candies galore. They also had many non-genital-like food vendors there in case you just wanted some grilled squid or takoyaki. I furthermore had the time to pick up a few omamori and get my first daikichi omikuji (best luck fortune).

Furthermore, even though there were a ton of people there, there was ample room for spill-over. The roads were wide and parking lots were ample, and the shrine itself was not gated, so it was a very free, open space. The parade took place in an open area lined with trees and grass, and while you did have to elbow a few people to get a good spot, you could get a good spot.

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On the other hand, the Kanamara Matsuri was an absolute disaster in terms of population control. The shrine is tiny and gated smack dab in the middle of the capital city of an incredibly populous prefecture just a stone’s throw away from Tokyo. This meant that vendors were few–only one was selling phallic-shaped hard candy, and there were only about 5 other tents within the grounds selling anything at all–and NO choco-bananas! (Although they did have a few T-shirt vendors, which was cool.) They simply had no space. Which, being right outside Tokyo, is not good. Sure, Nagoya is the 4th most populated city (about 2.3 million people), but Yokohama and Tokyo, which Kawasaki falls right in between, are the two most populous cities in the country (roughly 17.1 million people combined). This doesn’t even take into account the number of tourists passing through just for the events–I would estimate the number of clearly non-Japanese people to be at about 1/3 to 2/3 of the attendees. Therefore, it simply does not work.

2Q==

We got there early-ish at around 10:15 and were able to enter the shrine grounds no problem. The problems came after–to get a shuin (official shrine stamp in a special book), my friend had to wait in line for over an hour. I saw the lines for the hard candies, and decided just to not even bother. I don’t even know what the omamori looked like for this shrine, it was impossible to get through the crowd to see. While wondering around the tiny shrine grounds waiting for my friend, I noticed that the police were roping off the entrance to the shrine and only periodically letting people in it was already so crowded. This was even worse as we walked by the shrine a few hours later thinking we would go back in and buy a souvenir towel, which turned out to be a preposterous idea once we saw what the line had grown to be–basically snaking around the entire front and side of the shrine and extending almost to the station. I didn’t get a picture of the line, but refer to my Google Map rendition. It would have taken hours just to get back into the shrine grounds, not to mention even longer waiting in line for the souvenirs (if there still were any left), and then even longer to catch a train back to Tokyo (I left the Honen Matsuri right after the final event ended in the evening, so essentially the rush hour, and it took about 3 trains coming and going for me to finally get aboard one; I don’t even want to imagine what it would have been like to try that at the Kanamara Matsuri).

kanayama jinja

Where mobs of people were lining up to enter the shrine for the Kanamara Matsuri

Verdict:

Honen (Nagoya) > Kanamara (Tokyo/Kanagawa)

Decoration

At the main shrine, Tagata Jinja (Honen Matsuri) went all out. The main-event giant penis which would be carried in the parade was shrouded in shadow in the back, a mysterious, grand figure that you can see but not touch (just yet). However, there was another medium-sized penis that greeted you right around  the rope bell that was said to bring you good luck if you rubbed it. Little (or in the case of reality, more realistic/only somewhat larger than real) penises were tastefully erected around the wooden shrine, like they were doing a little dance. Right on the other side of the main shrine was a pair of two big, black, stone balls that you stood in line to rub, which would also bring good things to you. Stocky, stone phalluses were also lined up in a grand gesture to the sacred balls.

The ema were refreshingly blunt and took a “say it like we see it” attitude. I’ll just leave the image here.

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Wakamiya Hachimangu (Kanamara) tried, but wasn’t as bold or tastefully decorated. They were basically just like, “Whelp, here’s our big, pink dick,” and stuck the main event penis on the float in the middle of a random part of the shrine grounds for people to mob around and take pictures of/with. It was solid bubblegum pink and did have testicles attached, but otherwise was pretty lacking on the details. The same went with the smaller shiny, black penis. There weren’t any unmentionables to mention about the main shrine–it was surprisingly genital-free. In a couple other places there were toddler/elementary school age child-sized penises (I counted 2) just randomly sticking out of the ground for people to ride and take pictures of, but that was about it. Their structure to hang the ema had a few penises protruding from under the eaves, but the ema were also disappointingly euphemistic–a censored Momotaro, a mother dog breastfeeding her pups, and a couple others of that sort. They also had the classic “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” monkey trio with two additions: “transmit no evil” and “receive no evil” (referring to STIs), which was a nice call. However, it was still not enough to redeem the whole shrine.

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Verdict:

Honen (Nagoya) > Kanamara (Tokyo/Kanagawa)

Parade

The main event at both festivals is the parade of the giant penis–both of which were mentioned in the above section.

As stated before, the Honen Matsuri parade takes place along a certain natural environment leading to shrine grounds (although the path of the parade changes depending on if it is an odd- or even-numbered year. For reference again, I went in 2014). The path is long with ample open space for people to gather and watch  the procession, which includes some shrine workers displaying very detailed penis flags, shrine maidens carrying wooden penises the size of babies (even more fortune to you if you get to rub those), and the main hauling of the giant, latitudinal, wooden penis shaft, which looks amazingly realistic, and is really a work of art in itself,  poking out of its special mikoshi–it comes right at you! Once the penis is safely at its intended destination, jolly workers (or at least I so presume) hand out free little cups of sake.

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Unfortunately I missed the actual parade for Kanamara because we were still waiting for my friend to get his shuin, and by the time it started, I had also distracted myself with carving a penis into a large radish (more on that below). However, you can see Rocket News 24’s photo article to get an idea of what went down. They took the three longitudinal penises to a park, and then back I presume. There was also an announcer saying that people could join in the parade if they went to a certain area of the shrine to prepare, but I’m not entirely clear what that entailed. In any case, it just seems to be the movement of those 3 floats.

Verdict:

Honen (Nagoya) > Kanamara (Tokyo/Kanagawa)

Extra Events

As you may be able to tell, I was getting pretty frustrated at the Kanamara Matsuri–mostly due to circumstances and my previous experience with the Honen Matsuri. And now I have come to my final category.

Besides eating and watching the parade, the final main event of the Honen Matsuri was the annual mochi throwing. As Wikipedia describes it, “Everyone then gathers in the square outside Tagata Jinja and waits for the mochi nage, at which time the crowd is showered with small rice cakes which are thrown down by the officials from raised platforms.” As I describe it: it is a death-facing hell-scape where if the bricks of hard, dried mochi being pelted from meters above don’t kill you, the raging gaijin (+Japanese people) will as they desperately try to push and trample you to get their hands on the not-special-at-all mochi. It sounds fun, but if you’re not a bulky bear of a human, it’s terrifying. And you can’t even get into the fetal position because you will definitely not be able to get up. You can’t escape once you’re corralled in the mochi throwing ring, and if you’re not aggressive or big enough, good luck getting your hands on the mochi. If this were special mochi, like with a special flavor or 10,000 yen notes in the middle, all the road-rage would be understandable. However, you’re just risking a concussion and cuts and bruises for a block of pounded white rice you could just buy at the supermarket.

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On the other hand, while not necessarily something that would be in a guidebook for Kanamara, there was a little old lady who I’m sure is there every single year that absolutely made my day. I would put her at around 70 years old with the front part of her hair dyed red and the rest orange, and she was sitting on the side of one of the shrines with a giant pile of daikon (large Japanese radishes) and a pile of daikon carved into penises. I had just happened to come across her while waiting for my friend to get ever closer in the shuin line, and I assumed you had to wait in a large line or pay some fee to make a carving, or that maybe she carved them for you. Well was I wrong, because she shouted out to me to carve one for free. She not only asked, but she really pushed that anyone around her little territory carve one, as she shouted out time after time at startled Japanese and foreigners in an enthusiastic mix of broken English and Japanese that “this isn’t just an event to watch–you have to participate!”

I decided to give it a go and waited for a few words of instruction. However, it seems to be against ever fiber of her being to give instructions regarding how to carve a penis in a radish. I was given a daikon and a knife and told to just go for it.

“Where do I cut it?” I asked of the radish top (which essentially decided the length of your carving object).

“Wherever you like,” she said with a wink. (Later she took the green tops and announced that they look like pubes, demonstrating how right she was by sticking the radish tops and putting them over her crotch area.)

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Her only advice? I’ll quote directly what she said to a couple of foreign-looking girls as they took up their radishes after me: “You! Boyfriend! [*Commence a lot of hand whirling and swirling above the head to convey “use your imagination/memory.”*]” Oddly enough based on what I saw, it was only women who were trying their hands at radish penis carving.

Despite the flawless and incredibly realistic pile of carved daikon sitting in front of the little old woman (as she took swigs of her Strong cherry chuuhai), carving them was actually really hard–all puns intended. I was struggling for a good ten minutes–first the tip was too sharp, but then once I tried to smooth it out it got too bumpy, then it got too sharp again, then too lumpy–and decided to put the knife down once I realized my friend in the shuin line was about done and I wasn’t going to do this penis carving any more favors. When I asked her how long it took her to produce one of the high-quality shafts lying before her, she said, “Just about five minutes; I’ve been doing this for 30-some years!” Many more winks and hearty laughs ensued.

While I was partway through my work, I convinced one of my male friends (who outwardly expressed his horror and criticism at my creation) to do a carving as well. He gave up before me, after only a couple minutes. Once we finished, we handed them to the lady who carved our names into them and set them into a pile before her, but only after we requested a picture with them together, to which she readily agreed. “No, no, no! You need to stick your tongue out like this!” she insisted once she saw we were making normal picture faces and showed us a perfect model of what she would like us to do. I complied, but my friend was disappointingly too “shy.”

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“We will take this pile and offer them to the main shrine,” she explained. “Then they will turn into gods!”

“You!” she immediately then shouted in English at a giggling gaijin girl keeping a short distance from the daikon area, while gesturing to the vegetables, “Cut! Like boyfriend!”

Verdict:

Honen (Nagoya) < Kanamara (Tokyo/Kanagawa)

Final Words

Clearly, I enjoyed the Honen Matsuri much more than the Kanamara Matsuri, although that is not to say that the latter isn’t worth going to. I would recommend spending the whole day at the Honen Matsuri with a group of friends–there is plenty to do and see (people watching is, as expected, excellent at both), and there’s enough food to keep you satisfied until the end (maybe watch the mochi throwing from the sidelines, however). The Kanamara Matsuri isn’t without its perks, but I would recommend stopping by as early as possible–maybe around 9 in the morning (don’t even bother getting there after 11)–with a very small group of friends, getting your giggles in, and heading out, especially since the parade doesn’t seem to be anything that you can’t view from the shrine anyways. The area around the shrine is really interesting and bustling in any case, and there is an exquisite temple in the park just a couple blocks away that also has a few food stalls and otherwise cool-ness going on (and even more people watching). I would definitely go back to Honen Matsuri again when I’m in the area; I can’t say I’d say the same for the Kanamara Matsuri, but I am in any case glad I went once to check it out.

HT

Volunteering at an Animal Shelter in Japan: What You Need to Know

Volunteering at an animal shelter is one of the most heartbreaking, rewarding activities I have ever done. I often speak in an exaggerated, flamboyant way, but nothing about this post is or will be as such–I can’t promise this will not be a solemn post, but I do promise a lot of (happy) “aww” moments if you give me the chance.

I am a dog lover–as you can tell by my profile spheal. (My second favorite animal is manatees, by the way, but they won’t make much of an appearance in this entry–if you somehow had predicted and expected that, I’m sorry to let you down.) I first volunteered at an animal shelter when I was in 5th grade–I was technically too young to do so, but I had my connections. When I was in the US in my senior year of college–away from home and my own dog–I volunteered every Tuesday for 2 hours at the local animal shelter. I cannot praise that shelter enough, as it was one of the most successful ones I’ve seen; they have too many volunteers, have such a fantastic turnover rate that they take in animals from other shelters, have over 11,000 likes on Facebook, and saved over 2,250 lives (how they measure adoptions) from January 1, 2015 – December 31, 2015. At the time of this post, they have saved roughly 400 since January 1, 2016. They are strictly no-kill unless it is absolutely necessary (such as, unfortunately, an outbreak of deadly and highly contagious pavovirus in puppies). Their standard of being in the shelter too ridiculously long without finding a forever home is a couple months (which is not to say this is not a fine or fair standard to have, but this will come into comparison later).

Snow White was at the shelter for several months before finding a loving family.

Snow White was at the shelter for several months before finding a loving family.

There are many sectors for people to volunteer–foster parenting, PR, technical matters, and of course, directly caring for the animals. This latter section is broken down into several groups–the classic cats vs. dogs (although they do often also have a store of rabbits and sometimes other more exotic animals), then as I went with dogs, adoptable dogs vs. strays. I again went with the latter.

I spent most of my time, therefore, on the stray side of the shelter not visible to the public. This is the side of all the dogs who are sick, lost and found and waiting for their owners to *maybe* come get them, dumped at the shelter, abandoned on the side of the road, given up by their owners for various reasons, or essentially ready for adoption but still undergoing some exams. This is where the dogs who are undergoing intensive treatment are placed, wrapped in blankets, with blank, unseeing eyes as you try and coddle them without touching them (as this could worsen their brittle state unless you’re approved to do so), and ultimately, either pass away or survive.

The worst case I witnessed during my months as a volunteer there.

The worst case I witnessed during my months as a volunteer there.

This is where the most scared dogs are kept, the ones who either unequivocally fear or hate humans, or otherwise crave their touch and often cannot get it (except of course by certified personnel), for most are under quarantine. There’s an immense sense of joy once you see your dogs graduate from the “stray” side to the “adoptable” side, and then a bitter-sweetness when you see them disappear from the “adoptable” side to an adoptive family. There is also an immense heartbreak when you see some of the sweetest dogs you fostered as a volunteer then return to the “stray” side and undergo the process all over again.

Images from the shelter

I can go on and on about this, but I need to end this section here and move on to the main crux of this post.

Volunteering in Japan

I looked this up almost as soon as I learned where I was specifically placed at on JET–what animal shelters were near enough to me to help out at.

In Japan, this, unfortunately, was not so straightforward as making a simple Google search and submitting an application to volunteer. While toy poodles dressed in ridiculous jean skirts and with bows in their ears are everywhere, information about animal welfare is disappointingly low. Animal shelters do exist, but ask a random Japanese person on the street what an animal shelter (動物保護施設 doubutsu hogo shisetsu or 動物保護センター doubutsu hogo sentaa) is, and most people will tilt their heads like a little puppy at you. Puppy mills (繁殖所 hanshokujo or just パピーミル papii miru) are also a rampant problem, but these are even less-widely known and are almost never reported on by the mass media. What most people will recognize are the 保健所 (hokensho, or animal control offices), which are anything but shelters–these are basically government run pounds that put 1 week as an expiration date on any animal that passes through its doors (usually dogs, as you see feral cats roaming around quite a bit here, which is in general deemed acceptable). I can’t even say that they then euthanize the poor animals, as gas is the weapon of choice to bring their lives to their ends. Tochigi, as an example, recently switched from gas to injections, but even this should be looked at with a cautious eye. While this of course doesn’t apply to everyone, an unfortunately common trend in Japan is to treat pets like fashion–the cute ones stay, until they’re not cute anymore. Animal welfare in Japan is improving, but is still very, very far from ideal.

One of N-san's rescue missions.

One of N-san’s rescue missions.

In any case, I did some searching around and found several grassroots animal shelters in Tochigi. I managed to get in enough contact with one called Happy Tails that I was able to meet the woman running the organization, N-san, before she allowed me and the team of JET volunteers I assembled to actually go and visit the dogs and cats in her care–a background check interview, if you will. Luckily I passed with flying colors (hoorah), and first made a lone visit to her facility before calling on any other Tochigi volunteers.

N-san is running the entire organization out of her own home–an average-sized Japanese house in a residential area. I was there to walk the dogs, which came out one after another as I completed the circuit and returned to her house for the next. The bigger dogs came first, then the smaller ones. Then more smaller ones. And still more smaller ones. I eventually had to give her an end time, as it seemed I wouldn’t finish the never-ending line of dogs waiting to be walked. Every time I returned to switch dogs, I was met with rounds of howling and barking coming from within the walls–N-san had asked me to call her cellphone when I was ready to switch instead of ringing the doorbell, for obvious reasons, and even still…

A handful of the rescue children.

A handful of the rescue children.

Eventually, several hours passed, and I had to get on my way home. Apparently I had passed the next level of the rightly placed trust-exam, and N-san asked if I would like to come upstairs and see the situation for myself.

 

All the experience I had built up from volunteering in the US could not have prepared me for this.

I hadn’t even scratched the surface of the number of dogs walked, as, at any time, there are roughly 50 in her care. Her entire house is dedicated to the rescued animals–her entryway is bursting with sanitation supplies and pet food; each of her rooms is sectioned off into pens holding 10-15 dogs at least. Her kitchen is dominated by tiny, white balls of fluff, while what I expect would be a living room in any other persons’s house is dedicated to the handful of larger dogs and a smaller pen of special care miniature dogs. This goes on for about a few more rooms. She has one room filled with about 20 or so cats and one sweet shiba inu, Hana, who does not prefer the company of her own species.

Feeling the love

 

 

“I only have one other regular volunteer, who comes to help several days a week. Otherwise, it’s mostly me taking care of all of them,” N-san explains. When asked how frequently the pets in her care find their forever homes, she answers in an equally heartbreaking manner: “It really depends. In a good month, we will have 1 or 2. Sometimes we have a dry spell of about 6 months with no one.” It would be easy to assume that N-san would readily give away dogs to anyone who asks, but she is a strong woman who stands her ground–she continues, “It’s not rare that I turn away families looking to adopt because they don’t seem fit for some reason or another.”

Kai, a mixed breed, snuggling up to Hachi

Not all the dogs are necessarily up for adoption either. Hachi is an Akita inu that we English-region volunteers describe as lovable, adorable, fluffy, and, most iconically, derpy. On four legs, he stands up to my waist, yet is a gentle giant and absolutely no hassle to walk. He likes to use his size to inadvertently knock over other dogs trying to get human attention, and also likes to steal slippers. “I can’t give him up for adoption,” N-san says. “He has a brain disorder, so he sometimes has seizures. I’m afraid that if even if he does find a good family, he’ll be relegated to living outside.

“Most of the larger dogs were abandoned,” she continues. “The vast majority [most of the small dogs] are from puppy mills.”

Images from Happy Tails

 

Fast forward five months to now. I set up monthly volunteer days that started just within the Tochigi JET network I manage but has since spread to other Tochigi ALTs and friends of friends, both foreign and Japanese. N-san has made 2 puppy mill rescues since (no matter that her space is always limited–she is motivated by her will to save, not at-home comfort), which she writes about in her blog, and which I help her translate into English. Unfortunately, my experiences with working with the stray side of the shelter in my US facility are nothing compared to the reality she faces every day–internal and external complications are regular occurrences, and she is regrettably no stranger to death of those in her care. She is passionate, active, and brilliant–I don’t believe “giving up” is a word pair in her vocabulary, unless it’s in the context of giving up a dog she’s taken care of for years to a loving forever family. Even with one extra regular volunteer, caring for her charges takes up most of her day, yet she still helps run a clinic attached to her abode, and has the time to study English–which she speaks incredibly.

I remember most of the walk-able dogs names at this point, and feel a sense of relief when I see news of adoptions–not yet 10 even, but even a handful is progress. So far, no one has been re-relinquished, which is uplifting. Bunta, a one-eyed, three-legged, understandably irritable and distrusting medium-sized breed, occasionally comes up to me for pets now–a major breakthrough–although he still has tried to snap at me several times when he hasn’t directly requested the touch.

Thanks to Farah Iqbal for the photo

What we do is only a small dent in aid: walking the dogs who are physically able to walk or be outside (carrying or pushing the ones who can’t or won’t in a stroller), cleaning the cat room, preparing towels and plastic bags and doing other “clerical” tasks, taking photos of the pets to PR them and show the world that although they are strays and have endured much suffering, they are still dogs and cats capable of love and of being loved. After a couple times N-san gave me a donut maker that someone had dropped off to her, and every visit I make sure I prepare some doggie donuts as treats beforehand. I helped her set up a Facebook page in addition to helping her translate her blog where I can. This list seems long written here, yet like a minuscule contribution when you actually see the situation with your own eyes, like you’re trying to chip away at a wall that you know will never fall in your lifetime.

But that isn’t the point of volunteering. While it is nice to imagine having a larger contribution, being part of a grassroots movement is just that–you are at the beginning, at the roots. This is truly a “to the world, you are one person, but to one person, you are the world” situation, and viewing yourself as a hero out to save the world may be counterproductive and somewhat selfish. A helpful selfishness, but selfish all the same, as you put the focus on yourself.

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Thanks to Farah Iqbal for the photo

 

And that is why I walk stray dogs in Tochigi.

 

Some need to be carried on walks because they have never been outside–and walking is foreign, uncomfortable, or even terrifying for them.

Some need to be carried because their bodies are in such horrifying, permanent states that they cannot walk like normal dogs.

Some love walks, but couldn’t care too much about the humans walking them–they are walking on business, not for the human’s pleasure, and this needs to be understood to be selfless.

Some love the walks, love the air, love the humans that rescued and help them.

Most, no matter how timid they are, or how scared of you they are, or how aggressive they are, will grow to love you.

And that is the amazing quality of dogs.

Thanks to Farah Iqbal for the photo

Thanks to Farah Iqbal for the photo

 

For more information about adopting in Tochigi, visit sites such as Tochi Pochi and the Tochigi Animal Shelter (both Japanese only).

For more information about Happy Tails, visit N-san’s blog (Japanese, and work-in-progress English) and our Facebook page (Japanese and English). For more information or any inquiries, please send a message to our Facebook page in either English or Japanese, and we can get back to you as soon as we can.

Please try to find a volunteer effort in your area if you can. To find animal shelters, a good first point of contact is a volunteer center, which coordinates the efforts of various organizations, and can be found in most localities.

 

And finally,

Here’s a manatee.