It's hard to believe it's been 10 years since I left Japan.
I graduated from UC Davis in the summer of 1996, and found a brochure for the JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching) Program in the career counseling office. While applying for techie jobs, this opportunity called out to me 'Steve, you will never have a better time in your life to do something like this.'
I became interested in Japan because of Kiyonari Otobe, who was a foreign exchange student that lived with my family in high school. The Otobe's (Takaaki & Kyoko) graciously had my brother & I visit them in Nagoya one summer. I was fascinated. I talked about this in my application & JET interview... and I guess it helped, because oddly enough I was selected without speaking a lick of japanese. A couple months later I was taking off in a plane to Japan to become an ALT (Assistant Language Teacher) in Misato Kita High School.
I just happened across my old school's website last night. Their new ALT had posted an english page & I started reminiscing about what a great experience my two years there were. I could write a book about my experiences there... but this is a blog, so I won't.
If I had to sum it all up though - I'd say it just fell short of moving to an alien world. I suddenly couldn't understand anything around me, I looked different than everyone else, and I had to get used to eating strange exotic foods. The people were so hospitable & kind to me there. I met my good friends Masa (Masatoshi) & Kei Konno in Yoshikawa, the town my apartment was in. They dubbed themselves the gaijin (foreigner) welcoming party... and in fact they did introduce me to the other ALTs (Greg & Andy). We had good times with Humpty, & Ogi - who introduced me to my girlfriend Mizuho Toda (she's married now & I hope she is doing well). It was nice to live just an hour north of Tokyo by train (closer by car) - and we had some wild nights bar-hopping in Roppongi for sure! On the off weekends, we'd just hit a local izakaya, rent a karaoke room in the next town Koshigaya, or sit around a table at someone's pad drinking beers (there wasn't a whole lot to do in Yoshikawa).
The ALT life was also fun & the staff & teachers at my school were extremely kind & helpful. The JET Program lets you stay for a three year maximum. I told myself I'd stay for one year, but felt like it took me that long just to adjust... so decided to stay for a second & came back home in 1998. I still remember how hard saying goodbye was. I miss all my friends from Japan & regret losing touch with them... but I hope to one day return & see them again.