I arrived at the bus stop, nervous, excited – donned in business formal, purse in one hand and a Trader Joe`s bag filled with Skittles in the other. I waited for the 7:43am bus. It arrived a minute early. I tapped my pass at the entrance and nudged my way into the corner between a middle-aged man playing Pokemon Go and an elementary school student reviewing vocabulary. It was a weekday morning, so the bus was packed – probably beyond legal capacity.
I sat my Trader Joe`s bag down between my feet, clung to a hand ring to keep from falling over on my fellow passengers, and counted the stops. The ride went by quickly, what with the majority of it spent concentrating to keep myself upright against bumps and sudden brakes.
From the bus stop, I walked about 10 minutes up a steep hill. I`m not a fan of the incline, but at least the route is scenic. The walk takes me through a neighborhood that`s quiet and clean and every once in a while there`ll be a little statue of a tanuki greeting me.
At the top of the hill, I found my school on the right hand side. I went through the teacher’s entrance at the back. Before entering, I took off my shoes and put them inside a locker. I took out my new pair of “indoor shoes” from my purse and slipped them on, excited to finally be wearing them since they’d been sitting in my closet for weeks anticipating this moment.
In Japan, both students and teachers wear a different pair of shoes that are specifically for use inside the school. There are shoe lockers at the entrances where students and teachers can switch in and out of their indoor and outdoor shoes. This of course keeps the interior of the school a lot cleaner and also teaches the students to treat shared property with respect. Also, in Japan, students are expected to clean their classrooms all by themselves, so they’re very careful to keep their rooms as clean as possible.
After strapping on my new indoor shoes, I found my way to the 職員室 (shokuinshitsu), or the staff room/lounge.
The shokuinshitsu is where all of the teachers’ desks are located and where everyone gathers for lunch and bi-weekly meetings. It’s also where all of the supplies are kept for class, and has a tiny kitchen at the back as well where the staff can make tea and coffee.
I arrived about thirty minutes early, before most of the other teachers. The Vice Principal, who happens to be nearly fluent in English, showed me to my desk. (My desk is conveniently located right next to the kitchen!) I sit right across from another JET, who has been working at the school as an Assistant Language Teacher for two years now. The two of us will be working together from now on.
After introducing myself to the other Japanese teachers, my fellow ALT gave me a tour of the school. Most elementary schools in Japan have the same design and are usually equipped with a gym, an outdoor playground, classes for extracurricular activities, and 2-3 rooms for each grade, 1-6. My school also has our very own English classroom! Itt isn`t being used right now since there isn`t air conditioning just yet. The AC should be installed next week though, so it looks like I arrived at just the right time!
After the tour, I took out my Trader Joe`s bag and started passing out my little individually-wrapped packages of Skittles, which I`d brought specifically as omiyage.
Omiyage – roughly translated as souvenirs – and gift-giving culture in general (though omiyage-giving and gift-giving are different), is really important in Japan. Especially in the workplace. Whenever someone travels – whether it be to a different country or a different region in Japan – it`s expected of them bring back omiyage to pass out to each of their fellow staff members, as well as family and friends. Usually, the omiyage will be a small, individually wrapped snack from the area where they traveled to.
After reading article after article written by other JET participants about the importance of picking out the perfect omiyage to bring for my teachers, I freaked out and ended up buying multiple different kinds of omiyage just in case. I even worried that Skittles weren`t good enough to hand out and nearly ordered a more expensive set of candy from the States after I`d already arrived in Japan. But the teachers were surprised that I`d brought anything in the first place and they accepted the Skittle packets with a smile and a bow.
I spent the rest of the afternoon reviewing the students` English curriculum, getting accustomed to the walk to and from classes, and settling into my new workspace. By the end of the day, I already felt right at home!
(I even received my very own locker, where I can keep my new pair of shoes.)