By Imogen Malpas / Special to The Japan NewsI’m Imogen Malpas, a first-year Assistant Language Teacher in Nagasaki Prefecture. Originally from England, I’m now working for Nagasaki Prefecture at Naru High School, the only high school in Narushima, Goto Islands.
I often wonder how many other JET participants, before leaving for Japan, sat through a large number of conversations that went like this: No, I’ve never been to Japan before. No, I don’t speak a word of Japanese. Yes, I’ll be living in the middle of nowhere. Yes, I’m sure everything will be fine. I also wonder how many of us started to get indignant after the third or fourth repetition. After all, I was selling myself short; I knew over 10 Japanese words, all to do with food. I figured that would get me by just fine.
My questioners had a point, though: Naru Island might well be the spiritual home of the phrase “the middle of nowhere.” Nestled in the middle of the Goto Islands, it’s home to 2,000 people, a somewhat famous church, and a significant cat population. Even for Japanese people, it’s the opposite of well known. When trying to explain where I lived to the owner of a Kyoto hostel, she had to pull her phone out to find it — on her wall map of Japan, Goto remained unprinted, lying somewhere off the edge of the corkboard. “Off the edge” is another appropriate descriptor — patchy phone signal, convoluted transport links and zero convenience stores mean that, even by the standards of the inaka, it’s remote. When I first arrived, I wandered beneath an orange sunset down the single main street — deserted at 6 p.m. — and wondered exactly what I was going to do here. As it turned out, there could have been no better place for me to discover Japan and its curious, extraordinary beauty.
I started the way I, a Brit, knew best — by befriending the owner of the local liquor store. Soon, he invited me to join his taiko class: Now every Monday night he drives us to a mildly spooky classroom building filled with drums and cigarette smoke, exclaiming at frogs in the road (a serious fear of his) along the journey. I started frequenting a roadside cafe, run out of an elderly lady’s living room, which operates a bizarre but addictive raffle system: you pay ¥100 to pick a ticket out of a bowl that might get you a coffee but also might have you leaving, as I did on my second visit, with two shirts, a ring and a six-pack of juice cartons. (Once you start buying tickets it’s hard to stop.) Now, when I visit, the owner darts into her kitchen and reappears with mysterious but delicious snacks for which she refuses payment: Instead, she patiently repeats Japanese questions to me until I finally understand enough to answer.
My white-haired neighbour, who I often see intently playing solitaire on an ancient PC as I go to school in the mornings, brings me fresh vegetables from his garden when he sees me coming home. Even the cats sometimes let me pet them. Every single sunset, without exception, is glorious. It’s a world away — many worlds away — from London, and I thank my lucky stars to have been allowed in. Speech