The weather forecast was rain. Dark clouds filled the expanse of sky above as we left the house at 7.30am to drive to Ibusuki and embark on the highly anticipated climb up extinct volcano, Kaimondake. I’d planned to climb it on my 25th birthday but due to bad weather, I’d had to cancel. 2 years later, I was determined to live the dream. Friends Stephanie and Danielle embraced the rain adventure, never suggesting at any point that we cancel or turn back. As we climbed higher, the rain got heavier and the surrounding white clouds obscured any chance of us receiving a high altitude reward. But we did it. We got to the top. Extinct volcano climb in Scotland: tick. Extinct volcano climb in Japan: tick.
In April this year, my host father began his new role as a vice principal in an elementary school. As per Kagoshima custom, he didn’t apply for the role. He was given it. And uprooted from his family and home and relocated to the other side of the prefecture. ‘He might not be able to make it back home for your visit’, explained Barbelle, a family friend. Fearing this was true, I asked Danielle and Stephanie if we could make a detour on our way home from the volcano and visit my host father in his new school. With a bit of Google map navigation, we located the school, knocked on the staffroom door, confused a lot of teachers (it’s not every day three white girls appear in rural Japan) and surprised my host father. I was so happy to see him again.
‘We got you two birthday cakes because we didn’t know which kind you liked’, explained Bill and Becky on the evening of my 27th birthday in Japan. Cake with old friends, followed by my second ‘Frozen’ viewing in 5 days. Cue song. Let it go. Let it gooooo…
I love getting my hair cut in Japan because the hairdresser spends so much time cutting and styling your hair, as if they have nowhere else to be. As soon as I booked my flights in September last year, I booked my hair appointment with Yasu. He remembered how much I liked having my hair curled and curled my hair, without prompt, post haircut.
‘Can we get petrol from my favourite petrol station?’ I asked Stephanie, my host for the first three days I was in Kagoshima. In Japan, you have the option of going to serviced petrol stations where attendants fill up your car, clean your windows, take the rubbish from your car and stop the traffic on the road to allow you out. At some point during my two years, I made friends with my local petrol attendant as he practised his English language skills. Stephanie, who usually fills up her car herself (and hence pays less money) kindly pulled into a nearby car park as I raced over to find my old pal. I was not disappointed; he was there.
‘Japanese babies are so cute!!!’ is a phrase that can often be heard in my presence. Seriously though, it’s true. In the time that I was away, much to my delight, three of my (Japanese) friends had (Japanese) babies. I was keen to meet them. And be photographed with them. Interestingly, I think the babies’ mothers were equally keen to have their babies photographed with a novelty foreigner. It was a win for everyone.
Three years ago, James, Jermaine and I started attending Japanese classes every Tuesday evening in the Kirishima mountains. As time went on, we became close friends with our Japanese teachers, eventually feeling more like a big, confusing Japan-Anglo family than teachers and students. Two years later, Hisako and Yoshito still host the ALTs for Japanese lessons. I went along and reunited with Jermaine, who’s in his 4th and final year, and met with the new generation of ALTs. Though I’d never met them before, we had a lot in common – being an ALT in Kirishima is not a claim many people can make.
On my last Sunday, I travelled into Kagoshima City and met up with some of the other ALTs and JET-related superstars who, like Jermaine, had stayed longer. Some have even established themselves in Japan permanently. I also met up with Gayle, a Scottish ALT who I’d never actually met but two years ago, through the magical realm of social media, we had discovered that my uncle is her GP (!). It seemed only right that we met in person.
Every weekend, my Japanese teachers Hisako and Yoshito run a café in their garden. This is no ordinary café. If I was going to list my ultimate ‘happy places’ in the world, this would be one of them. On three occasions during my stay, I was able to visit Hisako and Yoshito and bask in the company of my Japanese grandparents, whilst feasting on the Kirishima-famous cheesecake that accompanies any visit.
Whilst living in Japan, I taught in eleven schools, ranging from kindergarten to junior-high school age. In my second year, I was also given an adult class whom I taught every second week in the local civic centre. This class quickly became the highlight of my job as I got to know my students and felt like I was actually making a difference. In my final weeks in Japan, we had a farewell meal in Pisolino, an Italian restaurant in Kokubu. 2 years later, Yasuko, one of my students, organised a reunion meal in the same restaurant. We sat at the same table. We ate the same food. Inkeeping with the familiar setting, my students were just as I remembered them. Mr Imai with his inappropriate comments. Emon taking photos of my side profile so he can draw me from another angle. Youko, the sweetest lady in the world, bustling around and making sure everyone was ok before presenting me with a box of freshly baked cookies. Individually wrapped of course.
I was also able to meet some of my former junior high school students who are now either high school students or in university. ‘Let’s play the iPhone game’, I told them as we all sat around a table with our respective iPhones. Seriously, since the last time I was in Japan, everyone has acquired an iPhone. ‘Is this really a game?’, they asked as they obliged to my request and put their phones in the middle of the table.
Due to the high turnaround of teachers in Kagoshima, many teachers have moved on to different parts of the prefecture in the time that I’ve been away. However, there were still some favourites at both of my junior high schools whom I was keen to see again. They were surprised to say the least when I appeared at their doors. Holidays in general are a foreign concept in the Japanese teaching world, never mind a 2 week jaunt to the other side of the world. Though it brought back happy memories walking around the schools, seeing all of the classrooms, the staffrooms, my shoe cubby hole… I was happy to leave again. I enjoyed being an ALT, and it was extremely novel to be able to visit that world again, but it’s not a job I’m in any hurry to return to. The memories are good enough for me.
‘We’re coming to visit!’, Masayo had e-mailed the August after I returned to the UK. Masayo was one of my Japanese teachers who attended the Tuesday night classes in Kirishima. In 2012, to mark her and her husband Makoto’s respective 60th birthdays, they had visited me in my home in Nairn where they had met my family, Nairn golf course, and my pal Nessie. It was amazing to have a piece of my Japan world in Scotland. On this return visit to Japan, I spent a day with Masayo and Makoto, together embarking on an epic road trip around Kagoshima, stopping into neighbouring prefecture Miyazaki for dinner. It was a beautiful day. We picnicked on a mountain, visited a space centre and explored Masayo’s home town. Precious moments with dear friends.
Kagoshima is beautiful.
Visiting my host family in Kanoya has always provided me with memorable experiences. I remember the first night I stayed with them, four years ago, we attended a sumo festival down the road for all of the children in the community. One year later, I returned to the same event and ended up making a very dodgy speech in Japanese whilst standing in the sumo ring. I wasn’t surprised when I was told the plan for my return visit to Kanoya. Immediately after arriving, Yuuka and Masaki led me down the path to the local community centre where a party commemorating the beginning of the new academic year at the local elementary school was taking place. Everyone was there. Babies, children, parents, grandparents, teachers, everyone in the community. We feasted on Japanese curry before all of the teachers did a comedy skit as way of introducing themselves. It was very bizarre. One of those ‘only-in-Japan’ experiences.
‘Dad’s coming later!’, exclaimed Masaki and Yuuka as we walked to the event. He is?! I thought I’d already said goodbye after visiting him at his school earlier that week. But sure enough, later that evening, Daddy Ino arrived at the event. He later explained that when he had told his boss that I was coming to visit, his boss had insisted that he return home. Very happy face.
2 years ago, during my final visit to my host family’s home in Kanoya, I taught my youngest sister, Yuuka, the piano arrangement from Savage Garden’s ‘Two Beds and a Coffee Machine’. Minutes after arriving back at the family’s home on this return visit, Yuuka ushered me to the piano and started playing that same arrangement back to me. She had memorized it.
Towards the end of my visit, I gave my host family some presents from Scotland. After receiving her gifts, Yuuka disappeared, before appearing back with a gift bag containing two of her teddies. ‘For you’, she said as she handed over the bag.
One of the reasons I had wanted to visit Japan in April was to attend the Easter service that is held by Kibou, the church I attended whilst living in Japan. It’s tradition for them to relocate their Easter service to the top of a mountain that overlooks volcano Sakurajima and the surrounding water. It’s pretty epic. However, the weather forecast looked dubious. “Hmmm, I don’t think it’s ever been cancelled”, said Tokyo friend Miyuki in an attempt to give me hope (she had grown up attending the church). Unfortunately, on the day itself, the rain was too heavy for outdoor activity to be fun and the service was cancelled. Had I never experienced the outdoor service before, I might have been more disappointed but at that point, I was still getting over the excitement of being back in my beloved Kagoshima. The novelty had yet to wear off.
I was able to attend church two Sundays in a row, making my church friends some of the few people whom I didn’t have to say goodbye to immediately after saying hello. I loved being back. Reading the hiragana and singing in Japanese; sitting in the back corner constantly moving around in an attempt to find the best spot to hear the translation; finding myself distracted by the growing-up-so-fast adorable Japanese children. I have so many good memories from this church.
‘Do you know where I can buy a kendama?’ I asked Yasuko. On my last day in Japan 2 years ago, I had spent the day touring around Kirishima, looking for the traditional Japanese toy I had encountered in the classroom. I wasn’t successful that day and my search with Yasuko was also to no avail. I saw Yasuko again on my last day in Kagoshima. She presented me with a bag which contained not just one kendama. But three.
My last few days were spent in Tokyo. I’d only ever visited the capital city for the purpose of flying, apart from that one conference I attended back in February 2012 where I casually slipped in a cheeky wee trip to Disneyland Sea/the Ghibli museum. This time round I saw a lot more but again came away feeling like I’d barely scratched the surface. My first day was spent with Kagoshima friend Ryoji. We visited the Imperial Palace Gardens which are very nice gardens, but don’t bother visiting if you’re hoping to actually capture a glimpse of the imperial palace – you won’t.
We also stumbled across the district of Jimbocho, renowned for its abundance of second hand bookshops. I was reminded of a bookshop I recently discovered in Eastbourne, East Sussex. Slightly massively different places; very similar concept.
Ryoji and I then wandered around Akihabara, the anime district of Tokyo, before settling down at Shibuya and the crazy crossing for a Starbucks.
The following day, I hung out with Miyuki’s flatmate, Momoko and she showed me the shops and cafés of Tokyo. I was in my element. We even had time for some comedy photos.
On my last day, continuining my recent trait of seeking out historical museums, I visited the Edo-Tokyo Museum, an incredible structure full of buildings, objects and models which illustrate the changes which Edo, now Tokyo, has undergone in its 400-year history,
The highlight of Tokyo had to be the finalé: going up the Skytree. For all you fact swots out there, the Skytree in Tokyo is the tallest tower in the world at 634m. Not structure. Tower. And what a view!! We went up as the sun was going down, allowing us to take in the incredible expanse of the city from sunset right into night. You literally can’t see the end of the city.
‘You’re not staying at any hotels the entire time you’re in Japan’ my mother commented as she read over my 16 day itinerary. I hadn’t realised it but she was right. Thanks to the hospitality of my friends in Japan, I was taken care of during the entire trip, only staying in a hotel in Amsterdam on the return leg.
It made me so happy to see all of my family and friends in Japan and to be reunited with the country and its quirks. It felt like walking straight back into the life I’d left behind two years ago. Although I have no intention of moving back, I felt reassured that the friendships I’d forged were still in place, despite the distance. As Danielle and I discussed, “If I returned once, I’ll return again”. It’s no longer a case of ‘if’; it’s a case of ‘when’.