As it turns out, the problem with my first flight was caused by a bird flying into the left engine of the plane. JAL was great, putting us up in a hotel for the night and making sure we were well looked after. Sadly, this put me 24hrs behind schedule and late for my ALT training. I arrived on the evening of March 19th, and cleared customs with little trouble. Finding my way around Narita was a bit tricky; thankfully the airport had wifi and I was able to find the counter to buy a bus ticket to Mito-shi in Ibaraki-ken. I'd finally made it to Japan!
I arrived at my hotel in Mito at 10.30PM and couldn't quite figure out why the lights in my room wouldn't work. It turns out you need to put the tag attached to your key into a slot by the door to close the circuit and turn on the power. This, however, I did not discover until the next morning. I was exhausted and crashed out right away.
The next morning I was up really early- in fact, I've woken up early every day I've been in this country. I got myself cleaned up and headed to breakfast where I had the Japanese set- natto (fermented soybean- interesting stuff), nori, miso soup and some rice with a sunny-side up egg and cabbage. After that was the beginning of ALT training with Heart School, which was full of information and definitely helped to prepare me for the task ahead. The other ALTs are an eclectic bunch, but very nice folk and I've made some good friends already. Fortunately a few of them speak better Japanese than I do, which has really helped!
The ALT coordinators must have really liked me as well, because I was given an extended contract and placed in Sakuragawa-shi, Ibaraki-ken rather than in Saitama. This is all well and good, as I was hoping for a longer term anyhow! The placement does require me to drive, however, which is a bit scary. They drive on the left here in Japan and the school had me do some driving practice to acclimatize. Right at the end, I freaked out the Japanese lady, Megumi, who was riding along but overall I did pretty well. Driving here definitely feels a little weird- the turn signal and windshield wiper switches are reversed and I have to be extra attentive when turning. I don't think I'll have any problems with it though.
One of the things that I've often heard about Japan is that the cost of living is very high. In my experience, so far, this has not been the case. Perhaps this holds true in downtown Tokyo, Osaka or Kyoto, but outside of the big cities prices are comparable to North America. Regular gas is around 145円/liter (approximately 1.50$CDN), and my hotel room is 4,000円 per night which also includes a free breakfast. If you're looking for western style food- meat, potatoes etc. - the price is rather high; Japanese fare, however, is reasonably inexpensive and occasionally quite cheap. This is also apparent in portion size. Though portions are noticeably smaller than what you will find in North America, Japanese dishes are definitely more robust than their western counterparts at the same price point.
Quite frankly, that statement about portions holds true for pretty much everything here: the cars are smaller, the streets are smaller, the rooms are smaller, the dogs are smaller and the people are smaller. This is, in my opinion, one of the most appealing things about Japan: life is efficient and having had to share such a small space has made people very polite (at least outwardly).
My experience with Japanese people has been good so far. Customer service is *amazing* every where you go- polite, quick and attentive. I've done my best to use Japanese, though I have a lot of practice ahead of me, and the people really seem to appreciate it. I've come across a sense of nervousness from Japanese people, especially if they feel that their English ability is not very good. I empathize entirely and do my best to communicate (smile and nod!, try out my Japanese). Occasionally you'll run into an older person who would rather take a different elevator than get in with the gaijin, but that's pretty rare.
The weirdest part is being an object of interest everywhere I go, even if people pretend they're not looking. Its similar to being on stage... all the time! I'm watched everywhere I go, like the hot girl in high school. I can feel it, and I totally sympathize. Strolling past a crowd of girls starts off a rush of giggling and chattering: すごい! 高い！かっこいい！ (Wow! Tall! Cool!) Sometimes they try to say hello; I wave and smile, which starts more giggling. Even the guys are checking out what I'm wearing, how my hair is done, how I carry myself. I'm not sure I'll ever get used to it!
Tomorrow I leave for my job placement, Sakuragawa-shi. According to Wikipedia Sakuragawa-shi has a population of about 50,000 which is extremely small by Japans (and my own!) standards. I'm driving there from Mito, following the ALT coordinator for my area. I'm still a little apprehensive driving in Japan, but I'm sure I'll manage just fine.
Wow, it seems like I've gone on quite enough- I have many more stories to go over but I'll save them for more specific posts in the future. Keep an eye out for my pictures on facebook and I'll take a video of my new apartment when I move in. Ciao for now!