+13 (hours, that is)

Unexpectedly, there is free internet access available at the Keio Plaza Hotel in the Shinjuku district of downtown Tokyo, which is why I am able to tell you that my trip halfway around the world was successful, albeit long. All told, from the time I left the Harborside Hyatt in Boston this morning with my parents to the time I dropped my bags here in room 1122, I traveled over 7,000 miles in just over 27 hours by shuttle, plane, plane, and bus. I’m exhausted by very glad to have the first leg of my underwater journey complete.

Everything went quite smoothly with one funny anecdote to boot: we were delayed on the tarmac at Logan for about an hour due to some kind of baggage machine malfunction (note: this is not the funny part), so when we arrived in Chicago, everyone was kind of hustling to get across O’Hare to our connecting flight. This was rather silly, since we had almost two hours to spare, but when you put dozens of anxious people together, two hours ceases to feel like a long time. Immediately after dropping my stuff at the gate, I went into the bathroom, and just as I did I heard an announcement over the PA system. Now, because there are no speakers in the bathroom, I couldn’t entirely make out the announcement, but I could’ve sworn it ended with my name. Travel anxiety being what it is, I hustle back to my bags and take an inventory of literally everything I have with me. Satisfied that everything is in order and believing that I am going crazy, I sit down and start to relax. Twenty minutes later, another PA announcement is made, this time calling me to the front desk in no uncertain terms. When I get there, an attendant tells me to report to gate H8 on the other side of the airport, because he just got a phone call saying that they have my cell phone. Now I’m really puzzled, because (a) I deplaned at gate H17 and haven’t been near H8, and (b) I didn’t bring my cell phone with me because it (c) won’t work in Japan.

I tell him these things, and he is satisfied, but am I not, namely because I want to know why they think I left my cell phone there if my cell phone is back in Boston? After all, they asked for me by name. After some pestering, he puts me on the phone with the other attendant, who tells me that they found a cell phone in my seat after the previous plane was emptied, but it doesn’t match the description of any phone I’ve ever owned, so I am in the clear. Unfortunately, one of my neighbors probably lost a cell phone today.

(Better them than me, though–am I right, folks?)

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Deep end test

I’ve never been a nervous traveler. To an extent, this has even been a point of pride. “Oh, you’re already packing? I’m just going to throw some stuff in a duffel bag tomorrow.” Or: “What suitcase? Everything I need is in my backpack.” After all, I thought, why worry about it? Chances are good that some of that stuff won’t get used anyway and if something minor is forgotten you can get along without it.

I do not feel this way right now. Unlike past trips, I’m really not sure if I have everything I need, or which items I can do without, or what I’ll be able to buy when I get there. Right now I feel like a diver treading water on the surface of a pool. On Saturday, when I board my plane, that’s when I’ll begin my descent, and until I’ve arrived intact and with all my belongings at 859-2601, Nagasaki-ken, Minamishimabara-shi, Kazusa-cho Otsu 110-1, Mezon Fukuken A-203, I won’t feel as if I can breathe again. Right now, in the final days before I am submerged, I am obsessively checking myself, trying to find that last, perfect mouthful of air to fill my lungs, because once I dive there will be no oxygen and no turning back until I feel the bottom of the pool beneath my feet.

That address above is going to be my private residence and mailing address in Kazusa Town, the area of Minamishimabara where I will be living and working at the junior high school. I’m moving into the apartment currently occupied by my predecessor, so I have a few advantages in terms of the furnishings I will be able to purchase or inherit from him. Apparently, there’s a decent internet connection set up, so hopefully I’ll be able to post again once I get established there.

Until then, I’ll be holding my breath. Stay tuned.

Two weeks left

I’m inside of my last two weeks in America and the reality that I’m actually leaving is setting in. My posters have been down for weeks, and now that my furniture has started to sell on Craigslist, my room is becoming increasingly barren.

In the meantime, I’ve been trying to balance getting ready to leave with enjoying my last few weeks in the States. On Saturday, I went to my second JET orientation, and like the first one, this one was optional and organized by JET alumni. It was an all-day affair at the Showa School in Jamaica Plain, a school for college-age Japanese girls who are studying English in the U.S. The event was held there in part because Showa allowed us to use their classrooms free of charge but also because it gave us a unique opportunity to interact with some actual Japanese people before departing.

The day was broken up into morning and afternoon sessions. In the morning, the two alumni organizers led us through some basic ESL teaching exercises, emphasizing how to structure speaking or listening games in such a way that the students are set up to succeed. We also discussed some of the difficulties that plague both Americans and Japanese when trying to speak one another’s language. For example, in English, the base pitch is “uh,” whereas in Japanese, the base pitch is “eh.” You can feel the difference for yourself: put your fingers on your larynx (Adam’s Apple for guys), and say “uhhhhh.” Now say “ehhhhh.” Your vocal chords vibrate in totally different places, with “eh” higher and “uh” lower. If speakers of Japanese often sound high-pitched, it’s not a coincidence–it’s because their language operates in a much higher register than our native English. This will be a challenge for me because my natural speaking voice, moderately deep by American standards, will be downright unintelligible to some Japanese. So even if I’m speaking grammatically and with proper intonation, I will probably have to elevate my pitch in order to be understood.

The morning session was informative and useful, but the afternoon was undoubtedly more fun. The Showa students joined us for lunch and were a lot of fun to have around. Everyone was a bit shy at first–not surprising given that their English, though certainly better than my Japanese, was only somewhat conversational–but we found ways to navigate the language barriers (for me, this meant apologizing a lot for accidentally using impolite imperative verb forms, though I think I was always forgiven). They told us where they were from in Japan (Honshu across the board), what their hobbies were (mostly sports or playing/listening to music), and what sights they had seen around Boston (Fenway Park and Harvard Square were popular destinations). One by one, they stood up before the group and made remarkably articulate introductions, though not without a lot of blushing and giggling.

After we ate, the Showa girls accompanied us into the classrooms, where we split into groups based on skill. In the beginner’s group, we spent the remainder of the afternoon working on two projects: the first was practicing introductions of our own in Japanese with the patient assistance of the Showa students. My sensei, Yukari, helped me learn, practice and memorize the following introductory speech, presented here in romaji to the best of my ability:

Minasama, hajimemashite. Watashi wa Joshua to moshimas. Watashi wa Amerika kara kimashita. Watashi no shumi wa hashirocoto des. Dozo yoroshikou onegai shimasu.

(Everyone, how do you do? I am called Joshua. I come from America. My hobby is running. Pleased to meet you).

Not sure how truly accurate that translation is, but it’s the gist, and some variation of this will probably serve as my rote introduction when meeting new people in Japan. Next, when I had memorized my little speech, we switched sensei and I got paired up with Yoko. She and I worked on a little skit based on an everyday situation: in this case, buying food at the grocery store. I won’t bore you with the entire transcript, but she sold me some apples for 100 (hyaku) yen.

All in all it was a pretty outstanding day and definitely put me in the mindset that this is actually happening. Yukari and Yoko, if you’re out there: arigato.