Getting my Bearings 慣れている

It’s been quite a month! After a 14 hour flight, a shinkansen (bullet train), countless orientations, and 4 weeks later, I’m just beginning to settle into my new life here in Suzuka, Mie, Japan! Here are some of the things I’ve been up to.



Orientation has been about 1/3 of this month. Honestly, I didn’t know it was possible to be oriented in as many ways as I have been. The JET Programme is sure to make sure you hear everything you need to know both before you arrive at your city, and after you arrive at your city, twice. I might be exaggerating a little bit, but they are thorough about it, and if you can muster up the patience for it all, you’ll learn lots of useful stuff. I learned about Japanese culture, teaching English, how to be effective as a JET, what you’re actually supposed to do as a JET, how to have fun as JET, how to not die as a JET, etc. (That last one’s pretty important!) But I’m sure most of my family, friends and readers want to hear about Suzuka.



So, Suzuka! Suzuka is a small city–perhaps the best way I can describe it is a patchwork of city and rural. In some parts there are 15 story buildings. And in some parts, there are acres of rice fields and farmland. There are several railway lines. But nothing like Tokyo, for those of you who are familiar with Tokyo. There are lots of restaurants, Japanese restaurants, of course, but also Italian, Indian, and American restaurants like KFC, McDonald’s, and, of course Denny’s! Don’t expect pancakes there, though. This is the Japanese version of Denny’s, which is well, Japanese. Maybe sometime I’ll expand on that.


In terms of where Suzuka is, it is in the coastal prefecture (state) of Mie in the center of Japan. It is roughly an hour from Nagoya, the 4th largest city in Japan, about 2 hours from Osaka, the 3rd largest city, and about 3 hours from Tokyo, the largest city, so it is fairly centrally located.



There are several others aspects to my experience living here in Suzuka that are fairly new for me. One is that, unless I am going somewhere far away, I bike most everywhere. And I love it! It’s free, there’s no gas to buy, no insurance, and apparently bike shops will do most basic maintenance for free. Also, this is my first time living in an apartment on my own. I’ve lived on my own before, in a dorm. But unlike my dorm experience, where two of my meals, and several other expenses, and other things were semi-handled for me, I am now mostly on my own, to provide my own meals. Which either means going out to eat most days, buying premade meals, or, the hopefully cheaper option, cooking. So far, what cooking I have done has has been an odd adventure, but I hope to get not terrible at it someday : P

鈴鹿市に住んでいる経験の中で、私に新しいほかのことがいくつかある。一つは遠い場所以外に、大体どこでも自転車で行く。そして、好きだよ!無料で、ガスがいらないし、保険もいらないし、自転車やは基本整備が無料だそうだ。それから、はじめてアパートに住むことだ。寮に住んだことがあるけど、その経験と比べたら、毎日二食事、いくつかほかの経費や用事は私のために扱われたみたいだった。今、大体全部を、特に食事を、自分でしなければならない。その解決はレストランに行くことと弁当を買うことと、一番安い(かな?)料理。今まで、それはおかしい冒険になったけど、結局に、いつか、ひどく苦手じゃなくなる希望を持っている :P

I don’t have many yet, but here are some pictures of my new home.



This is the view from my front door, to the right.






Have a little country with your city. Or is it a little city with your country? Probably depends on what you’re comparing it to.





A local shrine.



Japanese English. Also known as Engrish! Heh heh, if you think this is funny, I’ve got more coming…


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Eyes to the Skies 目を空に

10! 9! 8! I feel like I’m in one of those steam-punk sci-fi movies where something catastrophic is about to happen, and I’m flying out via a homemade space contraption. I scramble about the ship, scrounging for parts, pushing buttons, leaping over seats. Time is short.



7! 6! Will I make it? Computers beep at me. Meters are off. I make some last minute repairs. I leap over the seat again. There’s something about leaping over the seat that seems both in a hurry and really cool. Screw in a bolt here, pull a lever there. Seconds blur into days into months.


5! 4! I’ll make it. My best friend helped me with the ship. Lots of friends actually. And I trust them all. I’ll make it. I’m getting there! Tighten another screw, hop over the seat one more time. So much excitement, but no time to stop and revel in it. Gotta be ready when this thing takes off!

5!4! 間に合う。大親友が応援してくれたんだ。たくさんの友達、じっさいは。そして、みんなその友達に信用している。間に合う。着いている!もう一つの螺子を捩 じて、もう一回座席を飛び越す。とっても興奮しているけど、その興奮をとどまる時間がない。この宇宙船の発進の前に準備しなきゃいけない!

3! 2! 1! I strap myself in. I watch the lights, hear the beeps, feel the rumbles, let it all unfold before me for just a moment. Takeoff. Peace in the chaos. Where endings and beginnings meet. Engine churning, thrusters burning, eyes to the skies, hope is in the air! I’m getting there.


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Letting Go 手放して

Only two weeks to go! Time has gone by so quickly these past couple months! This time has been an odd in-between season of preparation different from what my normal rhythm of life has been in the past two years.


Lately, I have been listening to Steffany Gretzinger, and her song “Letting Go” has really resonated with me during this season, as I find that I am having to let go of lots of things. I’ve been selling possessions and downsizing my wardrobe. Giving up my room. My car. I find, though, that it’s the intangible things that are harder to give up. Things like friendships, time with family, American dreams (not to be confused with the American Dream, I never had much of an attachment to that). And then there’s those things that you never cared much about, sometimes even forgot you had, but somehow, you still don’t want to give up. All kinds of letting go.


Both Jesus and Buddha have taught about the importance of letting go. They may have used different words, whether if it is detaching yourself from this life, or laying down your life, or not being engrossed in the things of this world. However you want to phrase it, there seems to be something transcendent about letting go. A butterfly must let go of the cocoon before it can fly. Usually, when we let go of something, we find that we are somehow freer than we were before, as though the something were holding onto us, too. One must let go of one thing before one can grab hold of a new thing. I suppose what we choose to hold on to can be important as well.


Having said all of that, though letting go is transcendent, it is rarely easy.


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I’ve Been Placed! 場所が決まりました!

I woke up one fine spring morning and found a JET email in my inbox. As I get closer and closer to my departure date, August 1st, I’ve started periodically receiving emails from JET about various things. Reminders about paperwork deadlines, pdfs about tips and to do lists before, during and after JET, handbooks, etc. Though this latest one was the one me and all the other JETs were waiting for. I received my placement! The place I am going to is *drum roll* (You must do a drum roll as you read this!)


Are you drum rolling?



Suzuka City, Mie Prefecture! I actually didn’t put much of a preference in my application for where I wanted to be placed, but I am right where I want to be! It’s far away enough from Tokyo that it will be outside of Tokyo’s cultural influence, so I can see another side of Japanese culture (I love you Tokyo!) But at the same time, it’s close enough to Tokyo that I can go to visit my friends there (3 hours by train). So I’m pretty excited about this placement!


suzuka mie

I’ve done a little research on Suzuka, Mie, and found out a few things. It’s a small city (town?) of 200,000 people. Compared to Tokyo, which has nearly 30 million, it will definitely be a big change from my last time in Japan. There are a few rail stations, so between that and a bicycle, getting around should be easy enough.



Regarding attractions, it seems Suzuka’s big claim to fame is the Suzuka Circuit, a race track that hosts the Japanese Grand Prix! There’s also an amusement park attached to it. I’m guessing I’ll get more than one opportunity to visit it during my time there. Another attraction in a nearby town I want to see is the Ise Grand Shrine. It is one of the oldest and most significant Shinto shrines in Japan, and supposedly has a few connections, or at least things in common with Jewish temples! Really looking forward to seeing in person how that works!


And Suzuka has a beach! Mie being a prefecture along Japan’s coast, and Suzuka being one of the cities on that coast, the beach will be pretty close by. My memories of beaches are going to Myrtle Beach with my family every year. It was fun, and it was our vacation spot growing up. From time to time I would wonder what it would be like to live by the beach. And having blonde hair, people have sometimes mistaken me as a California beach boy : P And I’ve never experienced a Japanese beach before–actually, I take that back. Once, I walked to the edge of Chiba with a few friends, though we didn’t stay there long. I’ve also seen surreal snowy coast of Hokkaido in winter. But I’ve never really gone to the beach to actually ‘go to the beach’ in Japan. This will be a first for that.

そして、鈴鹿は岸があります!日本の海岸にある三重県の中でその海岸の市の一つとして、岸はけっこう近いはずです。私の岸の思い出は毎年家族と一緒に休み旅にマートルビーチに行くことです。楽しくて、成育に私達の休み旅の所でした。時々、岸に近く住むことはどんな感じか考えます。それから、金髪な髪の毛があるので、カリフォルニアビーチボイと考え違われたことがあります:P それうえ、日本の岸を経験したことはありません――実際に、たぶんすこしあります。一回、友達と一緒に千葉の端までに歩いたけど、長く残りませんでした。そして、冬に北海道の雪岸を見たことがあります。でも、本当に岸で遊ぶために岸に行ったことはまだです。これは初めてになるでしょう。

I’m sure there’s so much more than this waiting for me in Suzuka, Mie. Teachers, students, friends, food, new experiences, a home–more than I can wrap my head and heart around right now. Right now, the clock is ticking. Between deadlines and paperwork, work, family and friends and goodbyes, and selling stuff! Boy have I got some stuff to sell! A bicycle, a box of books, a Warcraft 3 poster, and an old Gameboy. All this and more, in 2 months. 60 days can be a long time depending on what one is talking about, but in my case, it feels like a single tall candle burning closer and closer to the bottom, each day an hour. It’s weird too, because I’ve been wanting to go to Japan so much that I could leave tomorrow. But at the same time, I really want to be fully ready when it is time to go. I’m not fully ready yet.



The pictures from the post are not my own; they were taken from the following three websites, respectively:

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Precious Time 貴重な時間

The results are in! I’m in!!! And boy, are there lots of forms to fill out!


Honestly, having been through application processes for going to Japan like this before, I didn’t expect to be that exhilarated by the news. And yet, when I stop to think about it, it seems so huge. To be accepted into the program, given an open door to another nation, a ticket to the other side of the world—that’s not an everyday thing. It’s a sign of yet another new chapter, the end of one season and the beginning of another.


I’m also finding that actually getting the official acceptance somehow affects the way people look at me. When I first meet people and tell them that I love Japan, they often don’t understand just how deeply I mean that. They usually hear, “Japan is my hobby,” not “Japan is my obsession,” and so they assume that I’ll be around for a while. They’ll assume that I will stay in the job that I’m in now, or in the community or overall life position that I’m in now, not that there’s anything wrong with any of those things. But I’m serious about my love for Japan. And somehow, being accepted into this program seems to make that more real, more believable. I suppose that sometimes words can only go so far in communication.


But the time I have left in this life position and is indeed precious time. I leave August 1st, which means that from today, the time I have left is 120 days. It seems long on the one hand, but on the other, it seems so short! 120 days to treasure being with family and friends, 120 days to prepare for the journey, 120 days to be fully present in, but not paralyzed by, the here and now. It’s hard to look both forward and backward at the same time, but sometimes that’s what it feels like. I find that’s where I am now. And I want to do now well.


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Level Up! レベル アップ!

Last December I took the Japanese Language Proficiency Test. In 2013 I tried level 2, the second hardest of the 5 levels, and didn’t pass, so this time I tried level 3. And after three months’ waiting, I finally got my results back.


And I passed! I expected to pass, but it felt good to have something official to validate my language skill. The Japanese are really good at that. Making things feel official. I remember when I first applied to study abroad in Japan, when they sent the acceptance packet, it was full of multiple forms and official documents sealed in a fancy envelope. When I received my brown belt in Aikido, it came with a very official document on special paper with special Japanese signatures and seals on it. I would expect no less from the official Japanese Language Proficiency Test!


And yet I feel like I have so much more to learn about the Japanese language. A fellow foreigner once told me that passing Level 1 of the JLPT is really just the beginning. I’ve always thought that learning a language is like eating a whole whale, or some other gigantic beast. It’s just such a huge task, you can’t expect to do it all in one sitting, or one month, or one year. It’s a journey. And if I’m really still at the beginning of it, then it must be a long one!


In the meantime, I’m still waiting to hear back about my application to JET. No doubt countless friends and family have asked on multiple occasions if I have heard back from JET yet. Early April. It doesn’t seem that far away now. Anyway, until then, I wait with hope, and hope doesn’t disappoint.


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Japan or Bust なんとしても

Walking through the streets of DC in a suit, that relatively warm February day felt both special and ordinary. I’m going to the Japanese Embassy! But I’ve worn a suit in Japan before, many times. Don’t get me wrong, though—it was a big day. I’ve never had an interview at the embassy before.


After trekking through the metro system and the DC streets and crowds, I arrived at the embassy. However, unlike previous times, where I went into the cultural center open to the public, this time they let me into the restricted access old residence building next to the cultural center. It was gated off. There were security officials in black suits. There were ornate carpets and old paintings on old walls. It felt like a mini Whitehouse. Or is this just the way buildings are in DC?


Anyway, I was taken to a room with a bunch of other people in their suits and 20s, and talked with a few alumni of the JET Program we were applying for. For those who don’t know, the JET (Japanese Exchange & Teaching) Program is an initiative sponsored by the Japanese government to hire foreigners as English teachers in the Japanese public school system. Those hired are paid a full salary and benefits to teach English and act as a cultural ambassador for Japan and their own country for up to five years.

いずれにしろ、スーツを着ている二十代がいっぱいいる部屋に行かせられて、そこで応募しているJETプログラムの同窓生の数人に話しかけた。知らない人のお知らせですが、JETプログラム(Japanese Exchange & Teaching, 日本交換と英語教育)は日本の政府が外国人を英語の先生として、日本の教育制度のために雇うプログラムです。雇われてもらう人は1年間から5年間まで給料などもらって英語を教えて自分の国と日本の文化大使のようなことをします。

After talking to them for a bit and calming my nerves, I asked my fellow applicants, “When is your interview. “11:15,” said one. “11:15” said another. Then another. Mine is at 11:15. What time is it? I was about to get out my phone to check the time, when I heard “Stephen Falke.” I guess it’s 11:15. I went with a JET staff volunteer and another applicant up a very regal staircase and into a room where I had my interview. We are supposed to keep the contents of the interview confidential, so I won’t go into detail, but I think I did pretty well. I think the only thing that would keep me from getting into the program is if I loved Japan too much, as ironic and silly as that sounds. Yet I do. It’s probably way too old news by now for those of you who’ve followed my blog for a while, but I’ve always loved Japan and always wanted to go back since the day I left.

その応募者と同窓生にちょっと話して落ち着いたあとで、応募者に聞いた、「お面接は何時ですか?」1人は、「11時15分です」。もう1人は、「11時15分です」。それからもう1人。私の面接も11時15分だ。今何時だろう?携帯を出して調べるところで、「フォーク スティーブン」と聞いた。11時15分のはずだ。JETのスタッフボランティーアともう1人応募者と一緒にとても王立の階段を上って面接の部屋に入った。面接の内容は秘密情報としなければいけないので、詳しく話さないが、よく出来た気がします。アイロニックだけど、もしも悪点があれば、日本が好きすぎるようなことだと思う。でも、そうだよ。長い間私のブログを読んでいる人には古いニュウスだろうけれど、いつも日本を愛していて、出た日から、ずっと帰りたい気持ちを持っている。

At the beginning of this year, I made a new year’s resolution: Get to Japan. That’s it. No fitness plans, no diet regimens, no new hobbies or habits. Just get to Japan. I especially felt the resolve in my heart that day as I left the embassy. It’s not a question of whether or not I’m going to Japan this year; it’s a question of whether or not it’s through JET. It’s time. I know. God knows. Japan or bust.


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