Alabama and Aomori have a lot more in common than you would probably think. For starters, they are both largely agricultural, with farmland stretching as far as the eye can see. They are both quirky, with a whole lot of small town charm. Everyone knows everyone, for better or worse, and in general, life is slow. Sure, they lack some conveniences, but that is made up for in breathtaking natural beauty.
For me, I felt like moving to Japan wouldn’t be all that difficult. Despite coming from a small town, I was graciously given many opportunities to travel abroad throughout my late teens and early twenties. By the time I graduated university, I had been to four countries and seen a lot of what the eastern United States had to offer, so I felt that I had gained some good tips on traveling.
But beyond that, I have Japanese family, both in America and in Japan. My mom and her siblings were all born in Japan, and I always felt left out when I would visit my grandmother as a child and couldn’t keep up my aunts’ and uncle’s unique combination of English, standard Japanese, and Okinawa hōgen, the dialectal form of Japanese spoken in Okinawa, my grandmother’s birthplace.
Despite the language barrier, I felt that the transition from America to Japan wouldn’t be all that bad, and I felt supported, ready to start my adventure.
Arriving in Tokyo
Just three months after graduating university, I flew to Tokyo from Atlanta’s International Airport at the end of July 2019. After an extremely long application process (about six months), I was accepted into the JET Programme, an international exchange program promoted and maintained by a multitude of Japanese governmental departments.
Jetlagged, sleep-deprived, confused, sweaty, but excited, I was ushered to what locals in Alabama would call, “a sight to behold.” The hotel that we stayed at was beyond anything I had ever experienced before. The Keio Plaza Hotel is located in Shinjuku, a beautiful glimmering city located north of Shibuya on the western side of Tokyo.
I stayed in this glamorous hotel for about two days going through an intensive orientation program, taking teaching classes, and making friends, not to mention my first Seven Eleven convenience store experience in Japan where I bought, yes, a corn and mayonnaise sandwich.
Flying to Aomori
After a crash course in living in Japan, I boarded a much smaller plane from Haneda Airport to fly to Aomori CIty, in Aomori Prefecture. This was the prefecture that I was stationed to work in by the JET Programme. It is the northernmost prefecture located on Honshu, the mainland of Japan.
By this point, it was my third day in Japan, and in less than five days I had gone from the comfort of my best friend’s Toyota Corolla in Atlanta, Georgia, to the largest city in the world, finally, driving to what felt like the smallest town in the world. My final destination was a tiny town about an hour’s drive outside of Aomori City called Shichinohe. Its only distinctual landmark being a bullet train station located outside of the only supermarket in the town.
The name ‘Shichinohe’ is two-fold. ‘Shichi,’ meaning ‘seven,’ and the ‘nohe,’ roughly translating to ‘a town or territory,’ was part of a wider known band of settlements throughout the prefecture hundreds of years ago.
Aside from the bullet train station, it is home to a delicious gelato store (Namiki), and a few family-run ramen and udon noodle shops. It is the quietest town I have ever been to, and in the winter, the silence is almost deafening as the town is slowly blanketed in snow, layer, by layer, by layer.
The nearest convenience store from my apartment took at least fifteen minutes to walk to by foot, and about five minutes by car.
Finally, after a fourteen-hour flight, two days of orientation, another flight, and about an hour of riding shotgun in my new coworker’s car, I arrived at my new home. My Aomori apartment was obviously dated, with one small box-shaped air conditioner perched halfway through one of my windows in an apartment composed of four rooms, one bathroom, and a balcony for hanging laundry.
It was hot, and my apartment was on the second floor, and there was no elevator, so running up and down the stairs had begun to make me sweat. I was nervous, wondering how on Earth I would stay cool in this apartment with my one small air conditioner and one electric fan.
At the supermarket I was stumped. I had had Japanese food before, but it was obviously limited in Alabama due to lack of ingredients. The Asian foods supermarket was tiny, and my aunt often complained that their products were expired.
That first trip to buy groceries was the moment I realized how much I needed to learn about Japanese cuisine. I went home with a box of kimchi and a few pickled vegetables.
Within my first two weeks of living in Japan, I began to drive. With an international permit, valid for one year, I was able to drive relatively hassle-free in Japan, despite having no experience driving on the left-hand side of the road, or taking any crash courses on the driving rules in Japan (they are a little different than in the States!).
Luckily, I had the luxury of learning how to drive in the countryside, where traffic is nowhere near as congested as it is in Tokyo. I had lots of open road and space to take my time learning the ropes of Japanese road laws step by step.
I even enrolled in a driving course, and eventually acquired my own Japanese driving license.
Making friends in the Japanese countryside can be daunting, and as Japanese society continues to age rapidly, it can be all the more difficult to find people closer to your age to connect with. Luckily, the band of Jet Programme participants in Aomori made it very easy to meet a ton of kind people, and I easily made friends with a few of my neighbors that were also in the JET Programme. Other participants living near me helped me set up a ton of things in my apartment, and introduced me to so many interesting spots around the prefecture.
Shortly after my move to Japan, COVID-19 broke out, and unfortunately, a lot of the friends that I made ended up moving back to their home countries to be with their families. To this day, four years later, I am still in touch with some of the friends that I made during my time in the JET Programme, and I would absolutely recommend it to anyone looking for a way to experience living and working in Japan.
My first few days in Japan were overwhelming, but full of fun and adventure as well. My first impressions of Aomori were unexpected, but also oddly familiar and even reminiscent of a few places around my hometown in Alabama. I had a lot to learn–Japanese, chiefly–and so much to discover about this beautiful and interesting country.
In my next article, I will delve into my first few days working in a public Japanese high school, which was a total culture shock as an American.