This article originally appeared in the January 2023 issue of CONNECT.
James Hunter (Tokushima)
The sun doesn’t set like this back home. It’s technically the same one, but the one back in Gatlinburg, Tennessee never seemed so red, never shined quite so intensely. I couldn’t even see it most days, with all of the mountains in the way. All I knew is that there were some rays popping over the ridges to warm me up just a bit. Even if I couldn’t see it, I knew it was there.
The skies here seem so much more brilliant. Maybe it’s the ocean’s reflection, the cloud’s particles, or a foreigner’s starry eyes, but I constantly find myself in awe of Japan’s heavens. The sky’s warmth draws me in when everything else here can be so cold. While there are plenty of mountains here in Japan, they’re much less overbearing. I’ve got a clear view of the sun, and it’s got a clear view of me. Unlike the sun from back home, it always makes sure to let me know it’s watching.
It’s a spotlight, honing in on me and illuminating my every move. I feel every action I take is magnified several times over, every blunder a public display. And, when the sun sets and everything goes dark, the lack of light can be much more intense. That is, it can be particularly lonely when you’re out of the spotlight.
The gods here aren’t the same ones I knew back home, either. Or maybe they are, just with a different coat of paint. I’ve never really considered myself a religious individual, but I find myself drawn to the natural serenity of Shinto and Buddhism. Both require a simple connection to the world and the people around it. Really, the lack of obligation is what grips me. I don’t mind sending a prayer of thanks to the trees that let me take a rest at their roots, and they won’t mind if I miss a few.
Still, there are a million little intricacies and etiquettes that I don’t know. I’ll impress a few pilgrims with my ability to properly pray after tossing a 5 yen coin into the box at a Shinto shrine, but they’d neglected to tell me that there’s a different prayer for Buddhist temples, or the several dozen different rituals that I simply don’t have the context for.
Japan seems so much more peaceful than things were back home, all things considered. The scenery seems more peaceful, the animals less wild, the people more polite, the noise of society less inundating. And to a degree, they are. To a degree, everything I’ve said is true.
The people here are a mixed bag, as they are everywhere. For every unnecessarily rude ojii-san telling me to go home, there are three more who’ll hit me with the nihongo jouzu. For the most part, people are content to just ignore and be ignored. This, I think, was the hardest thing for me to adjust to, coming from the generally overly-friendly southern USA.
It’s taken a lot for me to grapple with the fact that not everyone here is able to, or wants to, have a conversation—even if it’s in their native language—with a foreigner out of fear or anxiety, but, again, even though the lady who works at one of my Lawsons visibly shudders in relief every time I walk away from the counter, the guy who works the ramen shop kitchen by my high school always gives me a big irashaiamase and a smile when I walk through the door.
I think the main thing that I’ve learned here is that people are people, the world is the world. No matter where I go, I’m going to discover stunning scenery, encounter spiritually invigorating sites, and find folks, both unfriendly and very kind.
A large part of my experience thus far has come down to demystifying the world and seeing it through a more realistic, worldly place, while also trying to maintain a positive outlook on my experiences here. After all, the skies and scenery are still stunning here, the temples are always incredible, and the people can be incredibly warm.
The sun may not set like it does back home, and that’s okay. It’s still the same sky.
James is a second-year ALT in the JET Program from the United States placed in Tokushima Prefecture, teaching senior high school and special needs students. He has an interest in reading manga, hiking, and gaming. You can find him on Instagram at @Highluckstat.