It`s hard, I think, to write about going through airports and having seemingly endless meetings with excitement and a clear, engaging narrative. I have tried my best, but the fact is that I was bored myself through much of my week of traveling. Somewhat intentionally, I think, the life of a new ALT has a lot of downtime to make the adjustment smoother. I, however, do not handle downtime well at all.
Traveling abroad from the U.S. is always a hectic experience. Most of the places you`re going involve at least one layover and crossing the ocean. There is traffic at the airport, lines at the airport, and expensive food at the airport once you make it inside. You have to sit next to strangers and decide if you`re going to have a conversation. Then after the however many hours you spend locked in a flying chunk of metal, you have to wait in more lines to get through customs and immigration. Moving abroad is all the more stressful because the bags you have with you are, in my case at least, all of the possession you are bringing to your new life, and even if everything goes wrong there is no turning back.
But even before all of that, you have to get moved out of the place you’re living in already.
I stopped working at the movie theatre in Flagstaff the Sunday before I left. Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday were a whirlwind of sweat, sore muscles, and cleaning out my apartment. I had to clean, and then re-clean both mine and my roommate’s parts of the apartment, staying up late and waking up early to make sure everything could get done. Even now, two weeks later, I’m not sure I got back my full deposit back to make up for the money I lost. Thursday morning after a few hours of well-deserved rest I said goodbye to my mountain home as my mom drove.
Our first stop was in Bullhead City where we had lunch with my grandparents, uncle, and two good friends from high school. It was a quick farewell, and we were back on the road.
As we drove, it still wasn’t sinking in that I was actually leaving. We could have just been on vacation, or a road trip to see the family. Even moving out of my apartment didn’t seem to have much of an effect on me, since I’ve been moving every summer since I started college. As the desert scrolled by, giving me its grandest farewell parade of Saguaro and Joshua trees, I wondered when it would hit me that I was saying goodbye.
Phoenix was humid, and I joked it was good preparation for Japan. (I had no idea how real this statement actually was.)
That night we had dinner with two of my sorority friends, and talked for hours about old times and new. It was the perfect way to spend my last evening in the States. I was simply able to exist in that moment, and share that time with them instead of worrying about what was to come.
It was 6:30 Friday morning when we crawled out of the hotel. By 7:00 I was checked into my flight, and saying goodbye to my mom. We both cried a little, but I wouldn’t expect anything else.
Waiting in airports is a true test of character. You have an uncomfortable seat, and hours of time to waste surrounded by strangers. The 13 or so new JETs coming from Arizona naturally ended up finding each other as we were the young and vaguely terrified looking people at the gate with lots of luggage laying at our feet.
Our flight ended up being delayed a grand total of two hours, when all was said and done. The details don’t really matter. It was the usual airport shenanigans that us mere travelers cannot understand. When we finally boarded the plane, there wasn’t enough room for all of our luggage on the small plane. Half of the new JETs from Arizona didn’t get their luggage on that flight to L.A., as they found out upon arrival, and had to get it later that night. (I got all of my luggage, but shout out to their struggle anyway.)
When we arrived in L.A. everything felt like it sped up. Suddenly we were the new class of JETs, waiting to be trained and shipped off to Japan. That being said, the 30 minute wait for the shuttle to the hotel felt like an eternity. I was pumped and ready to go, but even after our arrival at the hotel, we had time to wait.
L.A. Orientation was mostly information on our travel the next day. There were lots of questions about what or how to pack suitcases, which was a moot point for those of us from Arizona (though probably salt in the wound for those who still had bags missing). We had food, a champagne toast, and lots of good laughs. (If the guy who asked if he could bring rocks on the plane is reading this, I’d really like to know if you got them through customs, and how well they were received as gifts.)
The next morning my roommate Megan and I were on the shuttle back to the airport by 7:00.
A side note about traveling as a group internationally. On one hand, you get to go through separate lines to check in to your flight and get through immigration at your destination (at least we did at Narita). On the other hand, when you are waiting in the still lengthy lines you have no one to be mad at but the other members of your group, which is inadvisable before you find out who your roommate is going to be at the next hotel.
In LAX we had one last breakfast burrito, I called my bank, and then we were off across the ocean.
Planes these days are incredible. Not only did it have the little personal screen in front of you, but there were games, episodes of TV shows, and like 45 movies to choose from. The coolest part, other than complimentary wine with the dinner service, was the windows. They could be dimmed and brightened either on some master control for the whole plane, or individually for each window. Using this fancy technology, it was at different times night and day on our 11 hour plane ride even though we were flying with the sun the whole way.
I watched four movies during the flight, and slept for maybe 2 hours. The plane got fairly cold at points, but I think it is an unspoken rule that it is okay to share warmth with the person sitting next to you on the plane as long as neither of you acknowledges that`s what you`re doing. At least I hope this is the case. In case it wasn`t, here is a letter to the guy sitting next to me on the plane.
Dear guy I sat next to on the plane,
I`m sorry if my absorbing your warmth made you uncomfortable. You were very warm and I was very cold. I`m also sorry if I snored.
The first thing I noticed when I got off the plane at Narita was how hot and humid the outside air was. It was a dramatic change from the air inside the plane, and I hoped, stupidly, that when I left the airport it wouldn’t be as bad. Getting through Narita was painless. I even flirted a little with the customs agent through a broken combination of English and Japanese. He was embarrassed about looking in my suitcase. It was great. Around 1000 new JETs arrived in Japan via Narita on Sunday, July 27th. It was crazy. There were people in bright green shirts pointing us through the airport and out to the buses that shuttled us to the Keio Plaza hotel in Tokyo.
The heat in Tokyo can be incredible. By the time I got on the bus, I was drenched in sweat. The heat and humidity, though, supports an intensely green environment. Everywhere I looked on the bus ride from Narita to the hotel was covered in foliage. Here in Shimada, as well, the hills are densely green and everything, including my floors, seems to be growing something.
Keio Plaza is a huge, fancy hotel that absorbed nearly 1000 JETs without any inconvenience other than lines for the elevator. That night I got my first glimpse of Japan as we walked the one block to a convenience store, bought dinner, and walked back to the hotel.
We then began our two days of orientation. The seemingly endless sessions were punctuated by food just regularly enough, and we saw the sun so infrequently that it felt like weeks were squished into each day.
Honestly a lot of the information presented at Tokyo Orientation was repetitive, but I recognize it is impossible to cater an orientation for nearly 1000 people to each individual.
Tokyo, at least Shinjuku where we were staying, is bright, loud, and endlessly full of people. Blinding signs flash, and people on street corners try to call you into their stores. The buildings tower over you, creating a sort of current of never ending life that flows between them. At night the air felt like another layer of clothing clinging to your skin and refusing to let go. I bought a fan at the 100 Yen store, which still hasn`t left my side. Five level arcades sit across the street from electronic stores, both of which were full of a strange mix of locals, tourists, and any number of new JETs. Here I had my first experience with purikura, the Japanese photo booths that give you a pose to copy with your friends, and then whiten your skin, expand your eyes, and smooth your hair. It’s a terrifying reminder of harmful beauty ideals, but a fun way to spend 2 bucks.
On the last night of Tokyo Orientation, Megan (once again my roommate) and I had yakiniku and explored the area, including one quick stop at karaoke. Yakiniku is a fun experience. A grill is set in the table in front of you, and you pay for plates of raw meat and vegetables that you cook yourself. There is an old, strangely Southern voice in the back of my head saying “You pay for food you have to cook yourself! What’s the point?” but I tell that voice to shut up because it was delightful and delicious. It was a great farewell to my brief time in Tokyo. Suddenly, after what felt like easily three weeks, Tokyo orientation was over.
Wednesday morning all of the new ALTs for Shizuoka prefecture were on a bus, and by that night I was in my apartment in Shimada. On the bus we watched “Mr. Baseball”. This 1992 film (the year I was born—it`s a SIGN) is about an American baseball player who gets sent to play for a Japanese team basically because he sucks and can’t play major league ball in the States anymore. He has a difficult time adjusting to life in Japan, but, shockingly, by the end of the film he has adapted and found his place in the team. In the end he finds he shouldn`t fight the cultural differences, but instead learn from them and appreciate them or something. I stopped paying attention part way through. While it has nothing to do with Shizuoka, it is apparently a tradition for new JETs heading to Shizuoka to watch it on the bus. By this point in my adventure, I was tired of constantly being on the move and ready to stop for a while. I can see now that this is the benefit in having the orientation for Shizuoka held a few weeks after we arrive. By next week when I am heading to Kakegawa for my third and, I think, final JET orientation, I will be just about ready to sit through some more workshops.
While I was travelling, getting here seemed like the difficult part. In reality, though, everything has just begun, and I have no idea what`s coming.