Friday, April 26, 2013

W: Oh, the places you'll go!

This is my contribution to the A to Z Blogging Challenge, in which I'm focusing on overseas destinations I've visited.

W is for Wakayama, Japan (1986-87)

After I graduated from Pacific Lutheran University with a B.A. in English, I didn't really know what I wanted to on a whim I applied to teach in Japan. I knew none of the language and I wasn't convinced it was something I wanted to do, but I told myself I would go if I got the job. I was leaving it up to fate, or God, or the universe. When I got the letter informing me that I had been hired, I knew it was meant to be. In retrospect, I know my life would have turned out completely differently if I hadn't gone to Japan. 

Thank goodness for two things:
  • I was living with my aunt and uncle in Seattle that summer, and my aunt (a Soviet economics prof at the University of Washington) urged me to get a contract from the company offering me the position. Many times during that first year--as we learned that the company we were working for was unethical and shady--I realized how savvy she was!
  • I convinced my friend Debbie, my roommate during my junior year at PLU, to go to Japan with me. She was in a gap year before going to physical therapy school, so it fit into her schedule. She even left her boyfriend behind in the U.S., which must have been very hard. As I wrote in my O post, our first few hours in Japan were VERY challenging, so I was incredibly grateful that we were in it together for the whole first year.
Rice fields near our apartment
We arrived in Wakayama, a city about an hour from Osaka by train, on a humid morning in late August. It felt great to be out of the city and in what felt like the "real" Japan. Wakayama had traditional Japanese homes with beautiful blue tiled roofs, and green rice paddies dotting every block. The late summer evenings were full of frog songs from the rice fields. The roads were incredibly narrow--I can't believe that later that year I whizzed around on a motor scooter, at night even.

I was 21 years old and this was my first time, ever, outside of North America. In those first several days and weeks, my system felt in shock...different language, different writing, completely different culture...people drove on the other side of the road...I was on the other side of the world. It took some getting used to all the stares, and having children following us around, also staring. In Wakayama, which people in Osaka call "the country," we were novelties...especially in 1986, before the big English teacher boom of the early 1990s.

Royal Heights, the first place we lived
The first month we lived in Wakayama, we stayed in a three-bedroom apartment, Royal Heights, with four other teachers, including a Japanese/Chinese-American woman from California named Abby. It was crowded to say the least. The bottom floor had a great little bakery with fantastic little pizzas; at that point I avoided the red bean paste buns, but I came to love red bean paste at the end of my three years in Japan. After the first month, three of us moved into a new apartment. The other teachers--Donna Lee, Marianne, and Lee--had been there for awhile already and were settled in. They were also very tight and we often felt excluded from their inner it was good to have our place.

With neighbor children in Royal Heights
Debbie rocking out to her walkman in the tiny little bedroom we shared that first month
(with no closets or furniture--we lived out of our suitcases!)
Moving into the new place--
we took turns in the nice tatami rooms

Happy to be in our new place!
Seito Joshi Tandai
We taught in a women's junior college called Seito Joshi Tandai, which was part of the larger Kinki University where Mike taught. In Japan, many young women are sent to two-year colleges to make them more marriageable. Sometimes they work as "office ladies" after graduation until they get married, but few go onto a four-year university. So the women we were teaching were not terribly motivated by academics or by learning English. They just wanted to have fun! And most of them, although they'd been studying English for many years, were not very accomplished at English--especially English conversation. That's where we came in.

However, we had absolutely no training in how to teach them, whatsoever. We had to totally wing it! When Mike went to Japan as part of the British English Teachers' program, he and his colleagues actually had training in basic Japanese and how to teach conversational English. That first year, I found myself relying on a lot of role plays and fun games. Eventually, I bought some books to help with my teaching. I felt completely unprepared, and I don't like to feel unprepared.

Our first night in Wakayama we had dinner at a rotating sushi bar (kaiten sushi), which was fun. The longer I was in Japan, the more I became adventurous and selective with sushi! One of my funny memories during that first month was when Abby rode her bike down to the gyoza (dumpling) shop to order some takeout gyoza, and instead of ordering ten gyoza for herself, she ordered ten ORDERS of gyoza. Japanese numbering is complicated, and you use different numbers for different things. She couldn't explain her mistake in Japanese, so she returned home and we all had gyoza that night!

Shopping--on my own!--in downtown Wakayama (first few weeks in Japan)
Wakayama was a great place for my first year in Japan. My favorite memories of Wakayama are (1) all of the new experiences of living in a foreign country--everything was new and exciting that first year, (2) interacting with my students, especially the ones who took learning seriously or who asked me interesting questions about my life and thoughts, and of course, best of all (3) meeting Mike--at our friend Cath's apartment at a Robert Burns night, and again at our apartment a few months later.

Here are a few other photo memories of Wakayama:

Halloween (I was supposed to be Madonna, albeit an overly dressed one!)

Deb was a biology major--so we enjoyed
 getting squid in the supermarket and dissecting them!
Having a student over for ice cream in our little kitchen/dining area
(that table was scrounged from the garbage!)
We were glad we had a contract because my aunt encouraged us to put "furnished apartment" into it. Our employers expected us to furnish it ourselves, even though we didn't have any money. Notice the milk crate in the background of this photo--that's where we put our toaster oven (which we bought). I think our company bought futons for us, a refrigerator, and a gas stove--but that was about it! And that was only after we fought them and insisted.

Adorable Wakayama girl
(Debbie took this photo)
Having dinner with Debbie's friend Yoko, who she met through her church
Having more students over--as you'll note, we often sat
 around the kotatsu in the winter--it had a heating element underneath,
 and you put a blanket under the cover to contain the heat--
I really wanted to bring a kotatsu home with me!
We didn't have central heating in our apartment, so it was critical to stay warm

Origami lessons
Exploring the shore in Wakayama
Wakayama Castle in various seasons

My sister Nadine and her friend visiting from China
(the blonde is the famous Mary Elizabeth, who had a thing for Mike)
Cherry blossom time, with Cath at Wakayama Castle

O-hanami (cherry blossom viewing) crowd at Wakayama Castle
Mike at the fateful party at our flat in April 1987

Summertime! Having drinks at a rooftop garden in early summer 1987

Saying goodbye to some of my students

Fourth of July picnic on the banks of the Kinokawa,
toward the end of my time in Wakayama
Visit here to read my A-V posts. Tomorrow, onto Mexico!


  1. Those pictures take me right back there. I don't know how you remember it all so well. It's fun to see the pictures of the places we went and all those familiar faces.

    1. Wow--what a blast from the past, Pamela! You must have been surprised to happen across my blog and see photos of yourself there!