Settling In

Tokyo was a blur of networking, ‘cool biz,’ drinks with some fellow bloggers, and karaoke with a street-view of Shinjuku. – A long detour through Kofu, then finally to Kosuge-mura!


Finally met my predecessor (wasn’t even sure if I had one before that); we went to the onsen on my request, and spent the evening drinking on the porch of my new home. We talked about Japan and Kosuge and literature and philosophy. Too bad he was leaving in the morning, I think we’d have gotten along. He left me a well furnished apartment, a large box full of books (including Wittgenstein, manga, and some books on Japan), and even his car – though due to its condition I will need another one soon, but it has been very convenient for the interim.

The principle of the jr. high spent a day driving me to the nearest mall in Tokyo (1hr 15min) and the nearest grocery store (30 minutes South). Very helpful to get a feel for where everything is.

On Saturday there was a festival at one of the shrines. It was very hot. It lasted pretty much all day and involved parading to different locations throughout the village so costumed lions could perform a dance. They asked me last minute without explanation to lead the parade by carrying a standard draped with paper flowers like a willow tree. Or a veil. I couldn’t really see from behind the flowers.

I had to lead the procession under some rather small torii gates. And that was a challenge since it was too tall to go upright, but if I titled it, all the flowers dragged on the ground and tried to trip me. After about the third station, I was getting really crank and I think I was starting to get heat exhaustion. I asked for water, but all they had was barley tea. I had to refuse. When you’re dehydrated, that stuff is worse than nothing. I tried to explain this – that I just need straight water – and all I got were puzzled looks.

Eventually I got some water from a vending machine, and someone gave me some ice packs from their house. But I felt pretty terrible, so I had to call it – went home and slept till the next morning. Then I was sick for the next two weeks.

This seems to happen every time I go abroad. So it was a slow start on the wrong foot. But no worries since I have few responsibilities for the first month.

Shock Factor

Culture shock has a long list of symptoms, but for me, it’s usually fatigue. And I don’t usually get fatigued. But when you are in such a new environment everything you’d normally take for granted suddenly comes to the forefront of your attention.

Architecture, landscaping, erosion control, kitchen appliances, door-handles – everything you have no interest in, and in a way has been invisible all your life, is suddenly visible and interesting. It’s kind of mind-blowing to see all these new forms of old objects. So even the mundane task of going to the grocery store is now an exciting cultural adventure. It’s an acute reminder of all the possibilia out there. There are so many other ways our daily lives could be. Life takes on very different forms around the world, even though all the objects are basically the same.

But different forms of life around the world is just an abstract idea I grew up with. All I had to go on is whatever media or objects from (or of) that country happened to find their way into my life. And even then, I experienced these in the context and spatio-temporal location of the United States/North America. But to actually experience these objects in the context of their country, is something else entirely.

Then of course everything in Japan is backwards. (Or everything in America is backwards). You drive on the left side of the road on the right side of the car. The windshield wipers and turn signal are swapped.

The beckoning gesture still gets me. When someone wants you to come, it looks like they’re shooing you away. (As in maneki-neko: the beckoning cat).

And then some things go both ways:

You read both vertically + right-left and horizontally left-right. Some books are left-right and some are right-left.

Names are often backward (family name first, then first name). This gets confusing because usually you’re supposed to call people by their family name. For example, I was talking with some people about a Japanese film director I like (Takashi Miike) and they had no idea who I was talking about, until one of them said, “Oh, you mean Miike Takashi!” But then it gets worse because some people switch it for me specifically because they know I’m a Westerner.

Everything is metric or Celsius, which make more sense, but still takes getting used to. And there’s also the monetary system, which usually works if you move the decimal point over a couple zeros.

These all take some effort to switch around in you head, and then double-check you’re not second-guessing yourself.

The greatest mental strain, however, is the language because it’s a language I’m actually trying to learn. If I was only going to be here for a few weeks, or I’d never studied Japanese, it would be easy to just tune out the Japanese and look for the English. But since I am trying to learn the language, and actively listening to everyone and reading everything, it’s another input overload and I find myself wanting to take mid-afternoon naps so my brain can map out all those new linguistic connections.

(I’ve gotten a lot better at listening, but everything has been so hectic this month, I’ve had little time to actually sit down and study.)

All this amounts to a bombardment of new information and raw sense data I now must deal with. Suddenly I’m asking big existential questions like “what does all this mean?” And from here also comes the disillusionment of all my false preconceptions.

Obviously, it’s not always going to be kawaii genki desu ne. But even though this isn’t my first time to Japan or Asia, I still have this idea of what Japan is supposed to be in my head, and it’s constantly side-swiping heads with reality. Part of that idea is formed by nostalgic memories of my last time in Japan. But obviously I didn’t get the entire picture.

So what is the entire picture? Just what is Japan or Japanese culture?

Whatever it is, I’m trying to unlearn everything I’ve ever heard, read, or though about it.

But the surprising flippy side to all this novelty is how fast everything becomes normalized. What once was completely new and foreign to me, has just become part of daily routine. There is something kind of sad about that, as the honeymoon fades away. I’ll never be able to experience Japan for the first time again. Now I can only experience Japan in new ways. Actually, that’s the fun of being here: I get to rewrite my old impressions. 

Night Drive 

The second most exciting drive in my life was the 3o-minute drive home by myself from the nearest DMV when I got my licence at 16. The most exciting drive was just over a few weeks ago. I drove for the first time in Japan over the mountain to the next village. At night. In the fog. On the steepest, windiest road in Japan. On the left side of the road. In a car that sounds like it’s about to fall off its axle. It felt great.

Inaka, the Real and the Surreal

The ALT from Tabayama (the next village over) and I had a good chuckle at orientation when people complained about getting assigned to a small town. “Only 30,000 people!”

Kosuge has about 700 people. Tabayama has closer to 600.

I’ve lived in big cities, small cities, and small towns. But this is my first genuine village.

After I’d been here for a few days, I met an American teacher who was here on a field trip with his all-English preschool from Tokyo. He made a comment that bothered me. “Man, it’s got to be rough, living all the way out here, a young single guy like yourself. I can’t imagine there’s much of a dating scene.”

I panicked a bit. Not over being single, but maybe he had a point. Am I going to be wasting my ‘prime’ years by myself in the middle of nowhere?

But then I’m reminded why I was okay with a small town/village in the first place. Because it is here, off the beaten path, where you get a more authentic experience. I have to speak Japanese. And I’m finding community. I live in a daytime community center for elderly people. It’s nice because old people love to talk and hand out, and they don’t speak too much slang, so they’re good to practice Japanese with.

The schools are so small, there is almost a 1:1 ratio of students to faculty. At the jr. high afternoon music class, pretty much all the teachers (the math teacher, science teacher, p.e. teacher, etc.) show up and have a jam session with the students on shamisen, koto, and taiko drums. And some of the teachers hang out with the students well into the evening, playing tennis or whatnot. The school environment is very relaxed, but dedicated and communal, and I’m not sure if that’s because I’m in Japan, or just because I’m at a very tiny school. But I like it.

There’s only one police officer here, and he’s the coolest guy. He doesn’t really have anything to do, so he does everything. I see him weed-whacking around the village. He leads aerobics exercises for the elderly. His door is usually open when I walk by the police box, and he gives me tea and shows me the funny English-pointing chart with cartoon pictures and captions (“I’m lost!”; “Where is the bathroom?”; “I was molested.”; etc.), and explains that he’s never had to use it. Figures like this fill the village, even though many of the teachers and people I work with aren’t from here originally, and some have only been here a few months longer than I have. 

I’m also reminded how well this place suits my personality. Kosuge might be small in population, but it is big in area. There’re lots of adventures to be had.

I think it’s the same reason I like slow-paced movies. Movies with a slow build allow things to happen – things that would never happen in a mainstream movie, where everything is plotted out beat for beat, like the urban lifestyle of the 9-5 where everything happens as and when it is supposed to, instead of unfolding as spontaneous improvisation. It’s where the genuine and unexpected are permitted to occur. It’s where the real meets the surrealThere’s a sort of quiet meditative quality to it. But it’s not passive either. In a slow-paced movie, you have to be an active observer. You have to do a lot more of the work. But it’s worth it. And in the inaka, you’ve got to find things to do and make things happen. But it’s worth it.

Yet I’m careful not to overly romanticize the pastoral, just as kids who grow up in a small town overly romanticize the city. The danger of The Village, is ignorance and isolation from the outside world. And I know small communities tend to brew feuds, though I haven’t caught any whiff of that yet.

My new home is bursting with life.


The name of this waterfall is 雄滝, which means ‘big male waterfall’

I could see why, when viewed from another angle:

Protuberance is 10m high

How’s that for inaka vitality?

Late Night Talks

I visited Tabayama one night for a fireworks festival. After hanging out with Dalton (the other ALT) and his neighbors (from the Philippines), and snacking on some fried cheese-balls, his neighbors decided to call it a night. I was about to head back to my car, but Dalton remembered he made a commitment to meet the mother of one of the guys running the food stand. I didn’t have anything else to do, so I figured I’d hang out with Dalton until they closed the food stand down. Instead, the guy ditched the food stand right away, and I found myself tagging along down the back-alleys of Tabayama, uncertain if I was still welcome in this situation. It was after 10pm and a little late for an unannounced house call.

We went in; his mother clearly wasn’t expecting us, but she still seemed happy to see us. We sat on cushions in the tiny living room, and she served us some snacks and tea. Then she did most of the talking (in English), occasionally looking to us to prompt the right word.

She told us about how she lived in North Carolina 10? years ago. There she met an American woman whom she became dear friends with. But this friend’s father had bitter feelings about Japanese people because he was cut in the back by a katana during WWII (and it sounded like this left him semi-paralytic). So this put a strain on their relationship. Then one Sunday she went to church with them and somehow ended up in front of the congregation?, and didn’t know any hymns or much English or what to do, so she sang a Japanese folk song, which she also sang for Dalton and I. The lyrics were pretty simple, so I could understand most of it. I repeated some of them back to her in English, and she though I knew the song, but I didn’t. (I looked it up later, and the song is called Yuuake Koyake). It felt like I was right there in that church with her. She and the congregation were in tears, even though they didn’t know what the words meant. Her relationship with her friend’s father improved after that. She said this was a very precious memory.

My experience so far in Japan has been one unexpected anecdote after another. Every day there is something different. I may just be along for the ride, but the stimulation is refreshing.


“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things can not be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” – Mark Twain, Innocents Abroad

Two days a week I work at the village NPO (Non-Profit Organization) office. It’s hard to say exactly what they do, but I found the cover photo of the Facebook page illustrates it pretty well:

NPO salarymen

Kosuge’s main industries are tourism and agriculture, so NPO facilitates these things similar to the way a chamber of commerce or rotary club would. So basically my job here is as a CIR: I’m writing and translating maps and brochures to encourage foreign tourists to visit.

But the NPO also works a lot with Tokyo-based schools and organizations to guide groups in all kinds of outdoorsy and educational activities. The signature activity is the river walk. We all get suited up in wetsuits, lifejackets, and helmets and we walk, climb, and swim up the river! We’ve guided groups ranging from  pre-schoolers to senior citizens. It’s a great way to cool off. The water is really clear and the rocks, mossy.

There are deeper sections where you can jump off boulders into pools. There are natural waterslides where the water has carved a smooth path through a rockface. And at the end there is another big waterfall you can stand under. It’s a lot of fun, but mostly because it is so fun to go with people for whom it is an entirely new experience.

One such group we guided was Peace Field Japan – a Tokyo-based organization that brings a small group of high schoolers from Israel, Palestine, and Japan to Kosuge for a week to learn about sustainability and teamwork. Really cool. I wish I could have done more with them, but I had to go to Kofu for prefecture orientation. I’m definitely going to get more involved in the next one.

This was a reminder that being in Japan isn’t just about interacting with Japan. Since I’ve been here I’ve met people from Canada, The UK, France, Jamaica, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Indonesia, India, Israel, Palestine, and China.

At the same time, I am the only foreigner living in Kosuge. And I’m very self-aware of my foreign-ness. What is my role here? I will never become a fully integrated nihonjin, so how extreme am I supposed to follow Japanese customs, and at what point do or let my gaijin colors flair?

It’s easy to forget about internationalization in the US, because it’s a melting pot. Japan, perhaps, is the opposite. It’s an icebox, just beginning to thaw.

I think I overestimated the level of English literacy in Japan. The Japanese language definitely isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. And why should it?

As per concerns about cultural imperialism, I think Japan has a disproportionate stranglehold on the West. As far as I can tell, there isn’t a sub-cultural obsession with any Western countries in Japan equivalent to otaku obsession with Japan in the West. My impression is that Japan is somewhat indifferent to US popular culture. Not that it doesn’t engage with it, but it just isn’t emphasized. Japan has a strong sense of cultural identity – something the adolescent US still struggles with.

Finally, I remind myself I’m an employee of the Japanese government (here on their request), not a missionary. I have some misgivings about the push for English as a universal language, but I’m also learning Japanese.

All this talk of melting-pots and cultural exchange implies the question: what does ‘internationalization‘ mean, and what’s the point?

Internationalization was a buzzword at orientation, and in all the printed material. Japan is already gearing up for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.

A former JET I talked to back in Los Angeles thinks the JET program doesn’t have anything to do with English – it’s actually a marketing ploy. JET participants will have such an awesome time in Japan, they’ll go back to their homes around the world and tell everyone how awesome Japan is. And maybe that will tickle into relations, trade and foreign policy.

Is the point of ‘internationalization‘ to turn the world into a melting-pot? Or even make language a melting-pot. Or, dare I say, the human race a melting-pot?

Perhaps for some, it is these things. But for others, maybe it is just the anti-thesis. Maybe the point is merely to resist cultural isolation.

Or maybe internationalization is just a process, a journey with no destination, for and in and of itself.

~ じゃ

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