Journey into the Rising Sun

The Toyko city skyline Kevin Zhang

 My leap from Vancouver to Tokyo as a JET Assistant Language Teacher (ALT).

Sometimes the unlikeliest decisions become the pivot point of our lives.

For me, that decision was leaving the familiarity in my home city of Vancouver to embrace the uncertainty of Tokyo. It was a leap of faith, a jump into the unknown, inspired by my longing for novelty and cultural exploration. Six months of applications, interviews, vetting, and waiting had culminated into two brief emails I received from the Consulate General of Japan: My application to the JET Programme had been accepted, and my contracting placement would be in Tokyo. After some initial hesitation, I accepted, joining the Tokyo Metropolitan Board of Education as an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT), a move that promised a fusion of my passions for cultural enrichment, travel and exploration.

Into the unknown

My journey began, fittingly, with the rising sun. The plane touched down at Narita Airport, Tokyo's international gateway, in the late afternoon. The sun, a fiery sphere in the cloudless sky, draped the city in its warm hues. The JET liaison handed me my residence card as I passed through customs.

“It’s very important. Do not lose it,” he warned sternly. His words echoed in my mind as I boarded the bus to central Tokyo. I was an outsider, yet I had never felt so included.

My first impressions of Tokyo were the wisps of the city's skyline that floated past my bus window as we darted through the streets. The cityscape was a cascade of shimmering lights against the sunset, a spectacle that filled me with a strange sense of peace. I was really here.

After settling into my room at a hotel near Shinjuku station, I received an itinerary—a whirlwind of seminars, talks, and orientations awaited me in the coming four days. I met fellow JETs from Vancouver, compatriots on a similar adventure, and we ventured out together into the vibrant nightlife of Shinjuku. We found a small ramen shop, its steamy windows welcoming us in from the night. The rich, flavourful broth, the comforting bite of the noodles—it was like a warm embrace, a welcome from Tokyo itself.

My first culture shock hit me during a late-night trip to a convenience store. What I had known as the land of late-night Slurpees and lottery tickets back in Canada was an entirely different universe here. The shelves housed an astonishing range of goods, from fresh food and phone chargers to clothing items, all readily available even in the wee hours of the morning. I marvelled at the efficiency that was so casually on display, something that would become a regular feature of my Japanese experience.

I stood alone in my apartment, a part of me yearning for the familiarity of home, yet another part of me eager to carve out my place in this new city.

After the whirlwind orientation, reality began to set in. JETs who were contracted outside of Tokyo were flown to their placements, scattered all across Japan. My new home was in a district called Setagaya, about 20 minutes west of Shinjuku. My Vancouver comrades were gone, replaced by an initial sense of solitude. I stood alone in my apartment, a part of me yearning for the familiarity of home, yet another part of me eager to carve out my place in this new city.

Overcoming challenges and finding a slice of home

Settling in meant navigating the labyrinth of bureaucracy, a task rendered more complex by the language barrier. From registering my information at City Hall to obtaining a health card and handling other paperwork, each day brought a new challenge. I was bewildered when it came to paying bills until my predecessor enlightened me about the convenience stores—those one-stop shops for everything, it seemed, included bill payments.

The transition was difficult, yet invigorating. Each day brought a new adventure, from deciphering the intricacies of Tokyo's train system to decoding the Japanese school curriculum. Life here was a steep learning curve, an amalgamation of challenges and triumphs. Teaching English in a different educational system too, with its unique teaching styles and student expectations, was a constant exercise in adaptation.

But day by day, as I stood in front of my students, I knew that for the time being, I was exactly where I was meant to be. The city, with its breathless pace and dizzying complexity, became my comfort. Tokyo was no longer an intimidating sprawl of skyscrapers but a kaleidoscope of experiences, each one shaping me, transforming me.

The Tokyo skyline, seen from the Tokyo Metropolitan government building, still takes my breath away. Every high-rise, every light, is a testament to countless stories—the stories of countless locals—each equally significant and unique.

As I gaze at the city that has become my home, I know this was my leap into the Rising Sun. My life had taken a new turn, and rather than trying to fight it, I embraced it.

Every day in Tokyo, I learn, I grow, I teach, and I am taught. I live. The city is my classroom now, and I am its eager student. And in this perpetual cycle of learning and teaching, I found a new home—a home in the Rising Sun.

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Published in Work Abroad Blogs
Kevin Zhang

Kevin Zhang is a researcher specializing in visual cognition and intelligent behaviour. Passionate about how visual storytelling can inspire conservation, he has travelled more than 60,000km around the world photographing the intersection of traditional livelihoods and wildlife. He is currently in Tokyo, broadening his cultural horizons as a 2023 JET Programme Participant.


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