The following day I woke up a little bit late, and had to rush to get everything packed and ready to go. After breakfast, all the JETs were gathering together by prefecture and shipping out via bus, train, or even plane to their respective cities and towns. It was only 7:00 am and the meeting time for the Gunma JETs was at 8:50, but I wanted to see if I could catch any of my friends before they left, as a lot of the prefectures were departing early in the morning.
One last look around the hotel room and off I went down the..wait. I didn’t talk about the toilet yet did I? It’s so neat and wacky that I have to.
So in Japan, toilets apparently come in one of three varieties:
1. resoundingly low tech – squat toilets; the worst things ever made
2. clever – like the one I have in my apartment; it has a sink on top of it; I’ll talk about it at a later post
3. confusingly high tech
Funny story – the first time I encountered the high tech toilet in the hotel room; I figured out every single function through trial and error except how to flush. So I was quite surprised (not in a good way) by a sudden warming of the seat and an..interesting..spray of water. It took me a good 5-10 minutes of searching around the toilet to realize the flush wasn’t attached to the seat but onto the edge of the sink counter. Only in japan..
But anyways back to the story. I went downstairs and had a quick breakfast with T and some of the other Toronto JETs. There were 3 large halls that were serving breakfast so there was a good chance I wouldn’t get to see everyone off. Regardless, I remembered this was my last western style meal for awhile and wolfed down about 6 eggs, 15 strips of bacon, an entire melon and 5 glasses of orange juice.
One by one everyone at the table got up and left while I sat there munching on my bittersweet melons. Eventually I got up and wandered over to the other halls where I saw a few more friends and said goodbye. I also decided to eat another breakfast because I was hellbent on filling my bacon quota for the entire month, lest I don’t have another chance to for awhile.
8:45 rolled around so I dropped my key card off at the front desk and dragged my luggages over to the Gunma JETs meeting point. Actually I’m forgetting to emphasize something; the first and second floors were a total free for all. All 800 JETs and the hundreds of volunteers and personnel were scurrying about, luggages in hand, trying to get to where they needed to be. It seemed really confusing and chaotic, but thanks to the organizers, everything ran on schedule.
With all 26 Gunma JETs from Group B Orientation ready to go, we grabbed all our luggages and started to make our way outside, but not before stopping to take a nice big group photo.
The bunch of us rolled our bags to the bus, which was aptly named the Gunbus. I made my way to the second last row and got to know my surrounding seat mates during the 2 hour long ride from Shinjuku to Maebashi.
When we got to Maebashi, which is the capital city of Gunma, we were immediately brought to the prefectural office which is the tallest building in the city. We dropped off our bags in an empty room and had a quick lunch at the cafeteria.
After lunch, we were all ushered into a room where a(nother) welcoming ceremony took place for the new JETs. After some brief words, we were introduced to our supervisors. My immediate supervisor was actually out of the country, so I met my supervisor’s superior, who was to be my acting supervisor for the first few days.
I also met my sempai and now good friend Ken at the same time. After the welcoming ceremony, everyone began departing to their own designated towns and cities. I was to be the only new JET going to my city; Fujioka-shi, this year. As soon as the ceremony was over, I grabbed my bags and left with Ken and my supervisor (who barely spoke a word of english). All the JETs didn’t even really have a chance to say goodbye to each other as it was rather rushed. It was weird leaving everyone again; at this point I was starting to get numb to meeting and saying farewell, although at least I would be seeing this crowd again soon enough.
The drive from Maebashi to Fujioka was about half an hour and in that time, Ken gave me a rundown of the different things to expect in the weeks to come. Everything was going really fast and I wasn’t sure I would be able to remember it all but I tried to keep up.
First things first was to get a picture taken for my alien registration. We rolled up to a photobooth that was randomly placed outside a supermarket. Why it was out there, I will never know. It was outrageously hot so I started sweating profusely while trying to take a picture and my hair poofed out like a big ball. So now my official pictures all have me with a fat afro looking do.
Next up, we drove to the city office where I had to get my papers done so I could get my alien registration card. Alien registration, aka gaijin registration, aka foreigner registration is basically just getting a piece of ID that lets everyone know that you’re not Japanese. Japan is an extremely homogenous society so they consider it quite a big deal when there’s a foreigner in town. In fact, there are probably only around 10 foreigners in my city right now and more than half of them are JETs or private ALTs.
It was interesting dealing with the people at the city office. As has whats become a running theme, whenever I’m with Ken, people assume I’m the one showing him around (because I am asian and can pass for Japanese and Ken is Mr. stereotypical blonde hair blue eyes foreigner). It’s always something of a shock to whoever we are talking to when Ken starts speaking in perfect Japanese while I stand there and try to dicipher what the other person is saying. Even funnier is the state of confusion this puts the Japanese person in because Ken will be talking to them, and they will be still be talking to ME. This happens everywhere we go anywhere and is pretty hilarious.
Afterwards we went to Gunma Bank (creatively named, I know) to open up a bank account where my salary would be deposited. This was one of my first experiences with dealing with typical Japanese bureaucracy. There was a form that we had to fill out 3 or 4 times because Ken wrote my name for me in Katakana, and after they took 20 minutes to process it, they came back and said that I had to write my own name myself. So alright, we did that, and another 20 minutes pass, and this time they come back and say I have to do it again because on the first line I wrote my name in CAPITAL LETTERS LIKE THIS, and a few lines down I changed it to Capitalizing Only The First Letters Like This. All in all we spent probably a solid hour filling out a form that should have taken about 5 minutes.
The reason for this, as I would find out, is because in Japanese culture there is this concept that there is One Right Way To Do Things, and once that method is discovered, it should not be deviated from. Ofcourse there is also a contrasting concept of Kaizen; the philosophy of continuous improvement, as popularized by Toyota and its supply chain management business practices. But that is a topic best served up on a separate post. Anways, I the point is, in my experience so far, Japan likes to take things to both extremes; for every one really clever thing I discover I find another equally contrived or backwards way of doing something else. It’s really interesting.
After going to the bank (or before; I’m not quite certain on the order these things happened), we went to the BOE, which is the Board of Education, of Fujioka city. They are my official employers (I am a JET Programme participant, but not actually employed by the programme itself). There were some official paperwork matters that needed to be completed such as signing my contract and getting my hanko, which is a stamp with my signature in Kanji on it (In Japan, instead of singing documents with a signature, people use stamps).
However I also had to meet my supervisor’s supervisor’s supervisor; or boss’ boss’ boss, as well as some of the other people in the office at the time. Fortunately, I still remembered the self introduction I had given at my JET interview and recited it verbatim. This probably saved my life, because in Japan, first impressions count and my boss’ boss’ boss seemed to be quite pleased with my recital of perfectly memorized japanese phrases and stated love of martial arts, karaoke and eating.
Before leaving, I took a picture of the BOE office, which is pretty much what every single office looks like in Japan:
After the visit to the BOE, supervisor-san and Ken dropped me off at our apartment. I live in a big green building which could be confused for a motel back home but is actually an apartment complex. The building actually has a pretty cool story involving plane crashes and blood money, but I’ll save that for another post.
I’m rather lucky because Ken and I live in the same building along with two other JETs. Unlike some of my unlucky friends who got sent off to live in the middle of nowhere, I’m actually placed in a pretty central area in my city, conveniently close to the supermarket, post office, train station, and combini after combini after combini. But I’ll talk about that a little bit more in a later post as well.
So I lug all my stuff up three flights of stairs to my apartment and my first impression as I open the door is “Wow. This place is small!” I had seen pictures, but in real life, it was actually a bit more cozy than I expected. It was also right there that something clicked and I made an interesting observation.
INTERESTING OBSERVATION ABOUT JAPAN #1:
In Japan, it seems that to save space, everything is reduced to between 2/3 and 4/5 the size of an equivalent object back home in Canada. So things like microwaves, minifridges, cabinets and shelving are smaller. Hilariously, even the counter space, sink, and even DOOR FRAMES are smaller. I’m about 5’9, and when I walk through the door frame, my hair gets flattened down.
The miniaturization of objects extends to everything – cars are smaller (in some cases, comically smaller), meals at restaurants are about 2/3 the portion size back home, and I would even say that the average Japanese person is 4/5 the mass of the average Canadian. I’m roughly average height and weight in Canada and at 168 lbs (all muscle baby), I would guesstimate that on average, a Japanese man of my height is 130 -140 lbs. It’s apparently fashionable to be skinny in Japan for women AND men, but I must say, some guys take it too far! I find it hard to shop for fashionable clothes because over here, I’m apparently a little fat.
In fact, this corroborates with my earlier observation from Tokyo orientation, when I noted that an elevator meant for 5 Japanese people would only accept 4 Canadian and American JETs.
Anyways, after a couple weeks of living here though, it seems I’ve adjusted to the size discrepancy and everything seems normal now. I can’t wait to go back to Canada and be stunned at how cavernous and mansion like my house seems.
Okay that’s the end of that tangent. It’s actually really interesting to talk about so I’ll probably dedicate a separate post to talk about it at a later date. After I got to my apartment, supervisor-san took off and Ken showed me around since his place is a mirror image of mine so he knew where everything was. Also more importantly, he knew how stuff worked. I had another “I’m so screwed ” culture shock moment when I realized very simple things like using the water heater, the stove, the microwave, and the washing machine where herculeanly difficult tasks due to the fact that i understood none of the labels. Even after Ken showed me how they all worked, I still had to figure things out through trial and error throughout the proceeding week. However I consider myself supremely fortunate to have had this much support and help. Some of the JETs I know have had it a lot harder than I have, and it seems that my lucky streak continues.
After orienting me to household matters, Ken left and I was left alone in my apartment for the first time. As soon as the door slammed shut, it was like time slowed down back to normal speed. The entire past 4 days of orientation were so densely packed and fast moving that I barely had a second to stop and take a breather. I was exhausted but decided to unpack my clothes before going to bed.
I unzipped one of my large luggages and had proceeded to take out my clothes and throw them in the closet when I came upon a peculiar brown envelope. Curiously, I opened it and turned it upside down to empty the contents onto the floor. A bag of candy and three stacks of colourful paper and flowery writing piled out onto the floor.
I realized that my three younger sisters had written me goodbye letters and snuck it into my luggage! They even included gummy bears which are my favourite candy. So I sat there munching on gummies and reading through the funny and touching letters when all of a sudden, without warning, it was like I walked into a solid brick wall at full force.
Oh jeez. I balled. I cried my eyes out. It was probably a mixture of exhaustion, homesickness, culture shock, and apprehension about what the future held, but I cried like a baby right there, munching on gummy bears in between sobs as I struggled to finish the letters and contemplated my current state of affairs. It was just an outpouring of emotion, and it felt like I had popped the cap off a bottle that was just waiting to burst. I was laughing and crying, and it was just really weird and confusing, like my brain wasn’t sure to be happy or sad.
So that’s pretty much how my first night in Fujioka ended; clutching goodbye letters from my dear sisters and overdosing on gummy bears. I’m not sure I even managed to roll out my futon; I think I just passed out right there on the tatami.