I’ve lived in Shizuoka Prefecture for six and a half years. I began in Shizuoka City in September 2001, spending six months teaching English conversation with Blight, now defunct.
Then I became an ALT, living two years in a lovely little town at the bottom of the peninsula that comprises the eastern third of Shizuoka Prefecture. Then I spent two years teaching at a junior high school in a small town twenty minutes north of Shizuoka City, though I would only live there for six months before moving to Shizuoka with A. While in My New Town, I started doing training on weekends and during school breaks, a duty that I took on full-time in April of 2006.
Over the next two years, I crisscrossed the country running seminars, observing lessons and responding to concerns from schools across three prefectures ranging from the Pacific coast to the Sea of Japan. I could travel for 4 hours, give an hour’s seminar, then travel right back. Covering for teachers absent or incapacitated, I might spend a week living in a tiny valley on the Izu Peninsula or a single night in the midst of Kyoto’s millennia of history. The distances were vast and the hours irregular at best, but I largely did what I wanted, and it was free.
It’s all over now.
I moved to Saitama a little over a week ago. Saitama is to Tokyo as Mississauga is to Toronto: the entire lower half of the prefecture is a bedroom community for Tokyo businessmen. Down every back street, perfect cookie-cutter houses are stacked so closely together that they nearly touch, sometimes only a doorway revealing the existence of one house crouching behind another.
Upon first debarking at my local station, I was greeted by a mile-long counterflow of dark suits filled with generic Japanese bodies, as if somewhere beyond the horizon a pinstriped being had raised his staff and said, “Let my people go.” Before the station stood a monument to the commuting worker: two massive tawny towers, twenty stories high and fifty yards across, quaint condominiums rearing up into the sky like great battlements on some mighty fortress, with ground levels filled with fast food and hair salons and banks and post offices and convenience stores, while the broad street below was paved with charming red-and-grey brick, like a piece of Disneyland that had floated off to form its own nation-state. Slightly sketchy, but not overtly dodgy izakaya could be found a safe distance around the corner, while an orange light subtly indicated the tastefully dark-windowed building where more indiscrete interests might be indulged, all spotlessly clean and orderly.
It cost me about $1000 and, not including two bicycles and an extraneous laundry bar, required 66 boxes to move me here. My only hobby for the last seven days has been unpacking: unpack, sleep, go to work, repeat. I finally finished on Saturday, excepting of a bit of leftover detritus awaiting next garbage day.
Remarkably, nearly all of my stuff fits in my new 1K (one-room-plus-kitchen) apartment. When I moved from The Village, the principal from Thursday Elementary and I got everything into an open-top truck in about two hours. This time it took three professional movers just as long, filling up the entirety of a closed-top two-tonne truck from top to bottom. By the time they were done, I had come to the conclusion that they were worth the expense.
I’m now working at an elementary school two days a week and going to the office for the other three. The elementary school is the most demanding I’ve ever worked, and people in the office are asking me to do things without giving me half the information I need. In Shizuoka I used to set my own schedule and do whatever I wanted, and any project I worked on was my own. It's a little frustrating.
I guess we’ll just see how long this leg of the sojourn lasts.
A. moved up to Tochigi Prefecture at the end of March to live in her home town, renting a house with her brother. She’s commuting to a fashion design school in Shinjuku, and my new apartment is halfway in between. I’d hoped to follow her up at the end of April, spending my last month casually finishing a few training duties and helping the new branch trainer transition into the position, but an unexpected resignation meant that I had to run out and substitute for three weeks. The branch manager would have had me stay for a fourth as well, but I had to be out of my apartment in Shizuoka on May 15th, and that was that.
After the sub, I had about a day and a half to box up my apartment. One would think that after a month of gradual disassembly I would at least have a leg up, but I only finished an hour before the movers arrived.
While packing, I grew to envy A., who had simply grabbed her stuff and gone, while I had to sift through piles of knickknacks forgotten at the bottom of drawers and decide what to do with them. Sometime during the second day, I developed a “WTF” policy: if I couldn’t readily identify what something was, it went in the bin. The place had to be completely bare when I left it. I’d already spent a month chucking out three big bags of garbage every three days. Naturally, I chucked a few things it turned out I needed after all.
I had two days in the office before I moved, and for my last day of work I had arranged myself one final trip to The Village in the hopes of seeing some of my former grade three students, now in junior high. This would be my last chance to visit them; once I stopped working for my branch, I would no longer have the ability to simply walk into a public school in Shizuoka Prefecture. But while I was out of the office on my three-week sub, the new trainer decided to deep-six the entire trip because it didn’t suit his schedule—I'd invited him along if he was available, and he somehow got the idea that he was the main act. That upset me quite a bit. But there was nothing to be done. So much for my farewell.
Fortunately, a week before I’d gone down to see St. Nick, who was leaving Japan to return to Australia at long last, and also paid a visit to E and Bugsy, who now have a lovely young daughter. Sadly, the delightful pizza lady and her husband seemed to have split up, but he was still carrying on alone, having expanded to include a mobile branch in the form of stone oven that he had somehow stuffed into a functioning bus.
We ran into some of St. Nick’s old students at a new curry shop in P. Rock. One of them perked up when she heard my name. After an excited burst of conversation, we determined that I’d taught her in the 4th and 5th grade at Friday Elementary. She was now in high school. And the first thing she remembered was “Mai-keru-pon.”
During Golden Week in May, A. and I went down to Kyoto. I finally saw Byōdō-in, the oldest extant temple in Japan, Fushimi-Inari Jinja, with thousands of red Torii gates sprawled across the mountainside, and Himeji Castle, which is one of only twelve remaining original-construction castles in Japan—i.e., it wasn’t dismantled during the Meiji Restoration or bombed during the war like all the others.
It was well worth travelling an hour and a half south of Kyoto to see Himeji. This was the first castle I’d seen with ranks of steps going up and down to maze-like chambers with 17th-century dormitory-style living quarters, crowned above with a towering donjon of grand scale.
Most of the other castles here are just a collection of stone walls with perhaps a single reconstructed tower, while HIkoné Castle in Shiga, one of the other old castles, was never nearly as grand.
My favourite feature of Himeji was the guys wandering around with orange aprons that read in English and Japanese, “Can I take your picture?” My second-favourite feature was the pair of massive the 5-story tree trunks around which the entire central donjon was built. In the 1950s they took the whole thing apart, replaced the rotten bits, and put it all back together. It was Lego on a massive scale, and it took eight years to complete. Wish I could have been involved.