By Loren Ke‘alaaumoe Fujitani
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
It has been a year since I arrived here on the island of Suo-Öshima in Yamaguchi Prefecture. Although it doesn’t feel like a year has passed, the changing of the seasons tells me otherwise and I find the feelings and memories from last year returning almost nostalgically.
When new ALTs (assistant language teacher) like me arrived in Öshima last summer, we were inundated with countless orientation sessions. We also had to adjust to summer in Japan, an experience in itself with its merciless heat and humidity. Perspiration stuck to my body like stick candy and I still remember the unpleasant body odors that hung in the still air on the trains. And then there was the awful smell of bug sprays that filled store entrances. To top it all off, the noisy mating calls of the cicadas nearly drove me mad.
But summer is also the season of festivals and fireworks in Japan with scents, sights and sensations that somehow trump the unbearable heat and humidity. Fresh in my memory are images of the glowing matsuri (festival) lanterns, hanabi (fireworks), soft yukata (cotton kimono), and delicious takoyaki (battered octopus) and yakitori (skewered chicken), among other festival foods.
There were some challenges during my first year in JET. Some turned out to be positive experiences; others, not so. But they all contributed to my overall learning about living abroad, and as I reflect on them now, I realize that they were basically trivial adjustments that come with living in a new country.
I know I can expect new challenges in my second year in Öshima, but I also know that I will be able to overcome them.
But before Year Two begins in earnest, join me as I look back on my first 12 months in Japan.
WELCOME TO ÖSHIMA!
One of the first cultural challenges I encountered was the language, mainly the use of expressions that can’t be readily translated into English — expressions such as yoroshiku onegaishimasu, and otsukaresama. I remember thinking, “How do I respond to this?”
I also had to orient myself to driving in Japan, including learning right-hand driving and passing the grueling road test. I’ve always used electric appliances, so having to light a gas flame to even heat water was a pain. Then there were times when my apartment looked like a Laundromat. Many Japanese apartments, including mine, do not have a clothes dryer, so I had to hang my laundry throughout the apartment. I learned that that is quite common. Neither does my apartment have a heater, so I spent my first winter bundled up in layers of clothing, trying to keep warm. I’m proud to say that I learned to navigate Japan’s various train systems, however.
But I also had my “Oh my gosh!” moments . . . like the time I mistakenly used the word mendokusai (meaning “bothersome”) after a school principal invited me to their enkai (a gathering, often a dinner party).
I also learned, the hard way, that I am probably allergic to suppon (soft-shelled turtle) after trying it for the first time. I spent the next three days (including my 27th birthday!) in the hospital. And, I’ll never forget being served kujira (whale meat) for school lunch, thinking it was just another type of battered meat.
I did gain confidence standing in front of a classroom filled with teenagers, many of whom towered over my 5’3” frame. But I still struggle with trying to speak and understand Japanese, especially the Yamaguchi dialect, which is known as Yamaguchi-ben.
It’s funny how I’ve grown accustomed to things that, just a year ago, were major challenges for me. Things like . . . sorting my trash.
Now this may sound silly to you, but I think it’s worth sharing. They take their trash sorting seriously in Japan, as anyone who has had to dispose of waste on a regular basis can tell you — and I’m not talking about just a plastic bottle or an onigiri (riceball) wrapper from a quick stop at the konbini (convenience store). I’m talking metals, glass bottles, PET bottles, plastics, hard plastics and burnables, which are among the categories for waste sorting in Öshima. The process differs from town to town, but coming from the U.S., it involves at least two, three, perhaps even four more steps than recycling in America.
For example, the label and the cap of a disposable plastic water bottle all have to be removed and discarded separately from the bottle. Coming from a country with two to three recyclable categories at most, I was shocked when I learned how much waste sorting I was expected to do in Öshima. After cleaning and settling into my new apartment, I was faced with disposing of the waste I had created. I had no choice but to learn the meticulous process over time. In addition to the waste-sorting nightmare, I was told that I had to clean my waste before disposing of it. Huh?! I must clean my waste before I sort it and dispose of it?!
If you think about this long enough, it begins to make some sense. By asking consumers to do a little bit more, the process of recycling and waste disposal becomes more efficient overall. It also made me more aware of what I consume.
There are 10 different sorting categories. I was given a pick-up schedule and a booklet with diagrams and more detailed explanations. I also had to purchase specific types of bags — net as well as transparent plastic, depending on the type of waste. I also had to write my name on the bag before setting it out for pickup. You mean, besides showing everyone the contents of my trash, I also had to take ownership of it at the communal trash collection location? That’s an invasion of my privacy, I thought. A fellow ALT told me that on one occasion, his trash was brought back to his apartment and left outside his door because he had mistakenly put waste that wasn’t considered burnable into the “Burnable” bag. As if people knowing where you live, where you grocery-shop, when you’re home and when you’re away isn’t already surrendering enough information. Thanks to Japan’s recycling regulations, people know what you consume and more. No secrets here. Ah, the joys of living in a small town.
Of course, it doesn’t help that my name is probably the only one written in English on the burnable, translucent yellow bag. In an attempt to make my trash less conspicuous, I adopted a scribbling style early on, writing “Fujitani” as fast as I can, thinking it will stand out less if no one can read it. It usually ends up looking like the squiggly lines on an EKG graph, which, come to think of it, could possibly draw more attention than the Roman alphabet. But it’s been a year and my trash hasn’t been returned to my doorstep. At least, not yet. I’d call that a year of trash-sorting success. Any American who can master waste sorting in Japan deserves a pat on the back!
Since I spent last summer settling in and getting acclimated to my new life, community and surroundings, I decided to do some traveling this summer. I visited my grandaunt’s (my grandfather’s sister) home in Ashiya, a quaint neighborhood in Hyögo Prefecture. Ashiya is situated between the cities of Köbe and Nishinomiya in Hyögo-ken.
Koshien Stadium, the home field of the Hanshin Tigers baseball team, isn’t too far away, so I was able to attend my first Tigers game. Although it was a losing effort for the Tigers, their fans cheered on the team until the very end.
I also had an opportunity to participate in a day of nagashisoumen, or “flowing noodles.” A bamboo stalk is cut in half down the center, creating a channel for the cooked soumen noodles to flow down in cold, running water. The children stand on either side of the bamboo and try to catch the noodles with their hashi (chopsticks), dipping it into a dashi (soup broth) before eating it. Sometimes, cherry tomatoes or grapes are tossed in, exciting the children as they chase after them as they flow down the bamboo flume.
Last month, my co-worker Motoko and I attended my second bon odori (bon dance) in Öshima, in the neighborhood of Agenosho. This year, I was able to recognize many of the students and people I had gotten to know during my first year of teaching. The night was even more memorable because Motoko and I saw fireworks in the design of tako (octopus) for the first time. I wasn’t sure what the design was at first, but Motoko immediately recognized it. She looked at me and said, “tako?” That was confirmed after a few more colorful tako fireworks appeared in the night sky.
As summer draws to a close, I realize that in spite of its physical discomforts, summer may just be the most memorable season of my time thus far in Japan.
Loren “Ke‘ala” Fujitani is starting her second year as an assistant language teacher with the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program in Suo-Öshima. Fujitani grew up in Mänoa Valley and graduated from Mid-Pacific Institute and San Jose State University. She worked in Northern California prior to applying for the JET Program.