Note 1: Maybe it’s not actually epic, but it was pretty momentous to me.
Note 2: I have been meaning to write this post for months, so I am aware it is very very very late! Sorry about that!
In February 2013 I made the choice NOT to re-new my contract (which ended in July). I was loved at my job and in my little circle of friends, but I also felt homesick. The long winters and short summers of Aomori had worn on me. I missed family and friends back home in Texas. I also felt the need to get back on some sort of a career path, because teaching English/ESL was never my true career goal. Two years on the JET Program felt right. I signed the paperwork with my intent not to re-contract and that was that. Another chapter of my life had been signed and closed. All I had to do was enjoy the last five months in Japan.
The actual leaving preparations and goodbyes took about a month. Slow at first, and then fast & furious at the end. It’s enough to make your head spin and I don’t think I will be doing another international move for a very long time.
I thought I’d write about some of the things I did before leaving Japan.
I started teaching an English conversation class in the evenings. Three elementary school teachers came up to me and asked if we could have "English Conversation Time" together at a local coffeeshop. Of course I said yes. I liked all of the ladies a lot. We met three or four times and had a lot of fun together, talking about different subjects. One teacher bought me my first soy latte, which tasted pretty disgusting. I couldn’t even finish the whole thing, although I tried to drink as much as possible to be polite. :P They gave me a really nice send-off when I left.
Nishimeya Sports Festival [Sunday, May 26]
I attended my first and last Sports Festival at my favorite junior high school. This is significant because of my position as a one-shot ALT with 12 different schools. When you have so many schools, you don’t have a "home base" and often don’t receive invitations to special school events like culture and sports festivals. I’d never been to one of my schools’ sports festivals in the two years I’d been there. I rode with a Japanese teacher (JTE) and watched my kids run relay races, do tug-o-war, and other events. I loved that day’s weather. I still remember it clearly because the weather was amazing. It was almost warm enough to wear a short-sleeved shirt (for me).
Lecture at the Office [Monday, June 27]
For an entire year and a half my co-workers have been saying that they want me to give them a lecture on something/teach them something. They were just so busy or something that it never got scheduled… It’s true, everyone was so busy and stretched so thin with school visits that it was rare that everyone was in the office at the same time. Well, finally… at the 11th hour… they scheduled me to teach them… something. I decided to make 45 minutes of the 1-hour lecture about conversational English. The last 15 minutes would be a slideshow of my 2 years in Hirosaki, the highlights. I figured they would be pretty interested about how foreigners live in their little city. The turnout for my lecture was pretty awesome. Almost everyone squeezed into the director’s office to hear me speak and I held their interest for an entire hour.
Planting Rice [Sunday, June 2]
I signed up to plant rice in the huge rice field art paddy near one of my junior high schools. I was unfortunately pretty under the weather (fighting off a cold, yet again), but I stayed home all Saturday to rest up for the event. I got together with my JET group, took off my shoes, and got muddy planting rice.
Here’s what the end result was this year:
Kanako’s Visit to Hirosaki [June 14-16]
My awesome friend Kanako had never been as far north as Aomori and she had been saying she wanted to come visit me. So she came to Hirosaki from Friday, June 14th to Sunday, June 16th. We did a lot of fun things: When she first arrived, I showed her downtown and we went to a cool place to eat off of Dotemachi street (the main shopping street). On Saturday it was terribly rainy for most of the morning, but it cleared up a bit so we could borrow my friend Kimberly’s bike and go biking around the castle park. Kanako said that biking was her favorite thing to do, because it was so freeing and we could get around "on our own power."
After that we met my friends from Owani and we all went to lunch at my favorite traditional Japanese food restaurant (where I know the owner). Then we all went in their car to Tsuruta town, where we would see the Annual Tsugaru Dialect Competition (for foreigners). I was just so grateful to Shouko and Hiroshi for taking us there, because it was rainy and the train schedules were totally ill-suited and inconvenient for the event. They were just SO nice and SO generous. I was astounded. First, they treated us to lunch. Then they drove us all the way out to Tsuruta. Then we stopped for ice cream and mochi. After the show/competition, they drove us back and took us out to dinner.
It all felt like a little too much, but Kanako told me that they were probably happy to do it and it was also kind of like a cultural obligation (since they were our elders). We thanked them profusely. On Sunday we took the early train to Aomori city in order to get an Aomori-local-cuisine-style buffet breakfast at the fancy Hotel Aomori. (I stayed at Hotel Aomori three times for the initial Aomori invitation and the two skills development conferences we had.) It was pretty fun. After that we went to A-Factory and bummed around the city for a while.
We killed the last couple hours by doing karaoke near the station because she had to catch a bus to the airport around 4:30pm. I was really happy she could visit because she is normally quite busy when working in Tokyo. We had a lot of fun.
And then I got really busy. I was teaching pretty much every single day, plus packing up all my stuff for the international move. It was pretty hectic and I don’t want to do it again anytime soon.
I started saying goodbye to all the students at my 12 different schools…
My office gave me about $4,000 in cash to buy my plane ticket home. Why they chose to buy such and expensive one-way ticket, I will never know.
I went to the JET Farewell BBQ that they have every year for people who are leaving. I went to my favorite teacher’s house for an awesome dinner.
I had a last karaoke party with my other teacher-friend.
I got my teeth cleaned from my dentist. He told me he would miss me. I’ll miss him too, and the insanely cheap cost of getting your teeth cleaned in Japan. My apartment inspection was on June 25th and I still wasn’t quite ready. My supervisor wondered how I would get it all done. But I DID. I had my exit interview with my manager and supervisor. He gave me a lovely present.
I also had a last dinner with my friend from Owani.
The Last Day of Work [Friday, June 28]
I also taught on that day…At my favorite school.
The kids did speeches for me and made me a DVD. I was in an emotional state that day (I hadn’t really up until then), so I finally cried.
That Friday was also the day of my farewell party for my office. We went to an awesome little restaurant that served a lot of local foods, big emphasis on the veggies. We booked the entire restaurant. And it was delicious.
Everyone went around the room and said something nice about me, a memory of me, or asked me a question that they’ve been wanting to ask me. I was really touched. And I knew all of their names. I cried when I hugged my supervisor. He’d been so good to me those two years. Man, I really hit my crying quota that day.
The Packing [Saturday, June 29th]
I worked like a maniac trying to get it all done, run all my errands, and schedule the postman and luggage delivery services. I ran up to my favorite Japanese confectionery shop and they gave me a box of their mochi. I don’t remember what else happened that day, it was such a blur.
The Final Day [Sunday, June 30]
Remember the postman and luggage delivery services I mentioned in the previous paragraph? That was the biggest fustercluck of the weekend. Stressed me out SO MUCH. For those of you who haven’t lived in Japan, I’ll explain a little bit. Because a lot of people don’t have cars, Japan Post will come to your doorstep to take away any sort of package you might have. Delivery services like Yamato and Sagawa (like Fedex and UPS in the US) will also come to your door to take away your suitcases and deliver them to any airport in Japan (so you don’t have to cart them around public transportation). This service is pretty cheap, by the way. So I asked Japan Post and Sagawa Delivery to come take away my boxes to ship to the US and my suitcases to ship to Narita airport for my July 4th departure.
The Shipping Saga (Actually, it’s more like a debacle…)
1. Japan Post came, weighed my box, and told me it was too heavy to ship. I would have to separate it into two boxes. So I scrambled around the house for any boxes I hadn’t thrown away yet. The guy left, promising to come back later.
2. Japan Post came back a couple hours later, after I had separated the boxes. But… his scale was now broken and wouldn’t register anything. He left to go get a new scale, promising to come back soon.
3. Sagawa Delivery guy came and gave me a question mark expression when I asked him to ship my suitcases to Narita airport. He said I needed an address and I said, "No, isn’t this the airport delivery service?" To which he was totally unhelpful and told me to look up the address of Narita airport or something. You see, I have used this service before… But only with the Yamato company. Frustrated, I told the guy to leave. So it was past noon and I STILL had all my boxes and all my suitcases. Not good.
4. Japan Post came back for the third time, weighed my boxes, and took my things away for a little under $200. That was a little relief there. Plus I was able to borrow his scale for a quick second and check to see if my suitcases were overweight.
5. I called Yamato and asked their English helpline where I could drop off my suitcases (since it was too late to schedule a same-day pickup). She told me any convenience store with the Yamato logo. Great. So I asked Tori if we could use her car to take my luggage to the closest convenience store. She said she didn’t have the car today, but her friend was in town and did. So we all (friend, Tori, Kimberly, and myself) squeezed into her little car with my stuff and drove to the convenience store. When we got there, the convenience store staff were completely incompetent. They acted as if they had never done this before and didn’t even have the right slips. They called Yamato for me, then put me on the phone, and the Yamato guy told me that no, you can’t drop off luggage at convenience stores. You have to take it to the Yamato Delivery Center. I almost screamed.
6. So I stuffed my two heavy suitcases back in the tiny car and we drove to the Yamato Delivery Service Center, which was less than 10 minutes away. Finally, something went right. I said, "Airport delivery" and the guy knew exactly what I needed. He helped me print out the delivery slips with the kiosk and I was good to go. FREE AT LAST.
After that, I gathered up the rest of my things, especially the things I wanted to give to Tori and Kimberly. Since my apartment was so wonderfully clean, we decided to make a video for fun. This was the result:
Yes, I am incredibly awkward on camera. And I am so tall, I make my apartment look tiny.
We hung out for the rest of the night and I enjoyed my last few hours with the people who had kept me sane and taken care of me for the past two years in Japan. I can’t even tell you how fortunate I was to be placed near such amazing people.
And here is a panoramic view from my balcony:
Leaving Aomori [Monday, July 1]
My supervisor came to my apartment around 8am to help me pay my final gas bill and such. I ran outside to meet Tori, Kyle and Kimberly so I could hug them goodbye. Then my supervisor drove me to the office one last time so I could give everyone my parting gifts, which were some souvenirs in the form of sweets from my favorite sweet shop. When we went out to the car to leave the office, all of the office members came downstairs to the parking lot to hold up a goodbye sign. My supervisor was amazed. He said in all his years he had never seen every single office member come down to say goodbye to an ALT before.
My supervisor stayed with me at the airport until the very last moment, not wanting to leave me alone there. I really appreciated that. He is such a wonderful man.
Before I get all sad and missing people, I’ll get on with the story.
Tokyo [July 1-4]
I had decided a long time ago that I was not going to go from Aomori to America in one go. That was just too much and sounded way too hectic. So I decided to stay with my host mom for a couple days before leaving so I could recover from packing/moving.
I flew from Aomori Airport to Haneda in the morning around 10am, getting in just around lunchtime. My host mom didn’t get off work until 4:30pm or 5pm, so I had a few hours to kill. I used that time to go eat vegan ramen for the first time and sit in an internet cafe.
I was exhausted. Traveling is exhausting, people.
I brought my workout gear intending to go for a run the next morning (Tuesday), but… That didn’t happen. At all. In fact, I spent all day in bed recovering from moving. I had plans to get dinner with my awesome friends Maiko and Justin that evening, so I went a little early to walk around Shinjuku. I found the Square Enix store, which was a nerd paradise. I bought a present for myself, a Kingdom Hearts Keyblade keychain.
Dinner was at my favorite Korean restaurant in Shin-Okubo. We’re all in very different positions now, compared to 2005. But I was marveling at the way we can just hang out and talk, sort of like no time had ever passed. People change, but they also stay the same, in a way.
Wednesday, July 3 was my last day in Japan. I went for my last run that morning around Nakano Central Park. It also happened to be my host mom’s day off of work, so that was very convenient. She had a hair appointment in the morning, but after that we went to one of her favorite sushi restaurants for lunch. I met her at the cute little neighborhood (I forget the name of it now). So we got lunch and dessert, then shopped around a bit.
For dinner we went to my favorite soba noodle restaurant in Japan.
Going there became kind of a tradition for us. The owners know us and recognize us and everything. When the meal was over, they wished me farewell and safe travels.
On July 4th, I set out for America. I left my host family’s house early in the morning, saying goodbye to my host mom before she had to go to work. I hoofed it to Tokyo station, where I met Maiko so we could say goodbye one more time. Her office was near Tokyo station, so it was pretty convenient. She gave me a going-away present, which barely fit inside my carry-on backpack.
Getting to the airport was easy enough. I had made the trip dozens of times before, so it was kind of like autopilot. The melancholy began to set in, especially after saying goodbye to my host mom and Maiko.
I got my bags from the luggage delivery area (problem-free), checked in, exchanged every last penny (yenny) of my Japanese yen, and bought some last-minute souvenirs. I discovered that the travel agency that had booked my ticket also booked me entrance to the super classy Japan Airlines Lounge.
The lounge was awesome. I got a beverage and was able to relax in a massage chair for about 20-30 minutes.
And then I got on the plane. I sat next to an adorable Chinese couple. The husband was a complete gentleman; even though he was smaller and shorter than me, he insisted on putting my bags up into the overhead bin for me.
The flight wasn’t that enjoyable. The movie selection was “eh” and the food was also “eh”. The meal was basically just a few vegetables and rice/bread.
But forget about the food. It wasn’t that memorable anyways.
It was just so surreal to be leaving. Without any plans to return. I was no longer a resident of Japan.
Two years in Japan. I have so many memories, experiences…It’ll be something I remember and talk about for the rest of my life. All said and done, the JET Program was an experience of a lifetime and I am glad I did it.
And Japan hasn’t seen the last of me.