With the intense honeymoon period of the three-day Tokyo induction at an end, everyone I’d ever met or befriended was abruptly whisked away, never to be seen again.
Some were sent off on bullet trains to exotic cities like Osaka, Himeji and Kobe – presumably to eat the wagyu beef that I’d hoped to be eating. The less lucky ones were bundled on to coaches heading to Tokyo’s less exotic neighbouring prefectures of Chiba and Saitama. As each semi-familiar face faded into the distance, any sense of security I’d felt faded too.
As for me, I was escorted on to a minibus to Haneda airport for a one-hour flight north to Yamagata. I was joined by just one other JET colleague, a shy but friendly guy from Colorado called Mark, and our Japanese minder, who would be hand-delivering us to our Japanese colleagues in what felt like some kind of glamorous prisoner exchange.
As our plane took off, I started to feel increasingly nervous. It wouldn’t be long before I was standing in a school, trying to present myself as a teacher. To reassure myself, I dug into my pocket and pulled out my now tattered and torn employment letter.
There was one line written by my Yamagata-based JET coordinator that I kept returning to.
‘Congratulations, Chris, you’ve won the Japan location lottery.’
I gazed at the words with a growing sense of dread.
A Wikipedia search on the region and its population of 500,000 inhabitants had yielded just one result: ‘Yamagata is famous for its high yield of cherries.’
There was no mention of landmarks, festivals or anything of cultural or historic value. But thank goodness there were cherries. They’d see me through.
I began to overanalyse the excessively positive tone of my letter. Perhaps it was little more than a ruse to sugarcoat the uncomfortable truth that I was off to Japan’s worst region.
My concern growing, I distracted myself by peering out of the window. We were flying over the stunning Ou mountain range which runs like a spine down central Japan. The country’s longest mountain range, at 500 kilometres, it would soon become the physical barrier between me and everyone I knew. The mountains were undeniably beautiful, with sharp, rocky peaks giving way to endless luscious forests. While most images synonymous with Japan are either Tokyo’s urban sprawl or Kyoto’s red-lacquered shrines, in reality, 70 per cent of Japan’s surface area consists of mountains and forests. Its mountainous landscape is the reason so much of the country’s population is crammed into the plains in between, giving rise to the concrete megacities of Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka.
Our Japanese minder, who’d so far been almost silent, suddenly leaned forward and pointed out of the window.
‘In the winter, these mountains, many snow,’ he grinned, rather ominously.
I nodded in acknowledgement, unaware at the time that the paltry inches of snow I’d experienced back in the UK were nothing compared to what I’d be seeing later that year. I had no idea that the Ou mountains experience some of the highest snowfall on the planet from December to March, making escaping Yamagata all but impossible during the winter months.
As we made our final approach I looked out to see a 30-kilometre plain of verdant green rice fields criss-crossed with perfectly straight roads that lead to Mount Choukai, a volcano perched sinisterly on the horizon. Through the humid summer haze I could just about make out the 2,200-metre summit and I wondered if this towering peak would lead to my demise if it were to erupt. After all, in the UK, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions were events just glimpsed on the news or while scrolling through Wikipedia. To my relief, I soon learned that the volcano was more or less dormant, last caught puffing out a mediocre quantity of smoke in 1974. Rather than imparting dread, the sleeping giant of Mount Chokai would quickly become a daily reminder of how lucky I was to live in such a magnificently exotic landscape.
The Shonai plain was sandwiched between the Sea of Japan in the west and the Ou mountains in the east, making it quite the dramatic landscape. It couldn’t have been more different to the chaotically carved-out fields and rolling hills of the British countryside.
Here, there was a sense of order, as if each field had been painstakingly measured out into rectangles, and the plain itself was perfectly flat, before abruptly giving way to towering mountains. The contrast between the turquoise sea, the vivid green rice fields and the hazy blue mountaintops was an incredible sight to witness for the first time. Though I’d never recommend visiting Japan in August unless you want to experience what it feels like to be a rotisserie chicken, there’s no doubt it’s at its most visually striking at the height of summer.
‘Ladies and gentlemen, we will shortly be arriving at Shonai airport. Please fasten your seatbelts and prepare for landing.’
I stuffed the letter into my pocket and quickly did up my top button. I was dressed in smart work clothes, as I’d been warned I’d be taken directly from the airport to meet the school principal: effectively, it would be my first day on the job.
By this point, I was a dishevelled wreck. The nerves churning in my stomach combined with the jet lag to induce a brain fog that rendered me incapable of coherent speech. The idea of conversing with anyone of importance in English, let alone in broken Japanese, filled me with fear. I suspected I was about to become the most quickly fired English teacher in Japan’s history.