By Nikkita Kent / Special to The Japan NewsMy name is Nikkita Kent. After visiting Japan in 2016, I resolved to return by any means possible. Less than a year later, I packed up my house in America and exchanged the beaches of Florida for the mountains of Gunma. I have been a senior high school ALT ever since.
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Naturally, the first question any JET participant is asked is, “Where are you going?” Friends and family expect big places like Kyoto or Tokyo, only to hear “Gunma” in reply. Gunma? Who’s ever heard of Gunma, Japan? Even Japanese people were surprised, asking why I chose Gunma. But I didn’t choose Gunma; Gunma chose me.
While other JETs sometimes live near or even next to each other, I live in a small apartment surrounded by Japanese families, only about a five-minute bike ride from my school. Initially, I worried that I would feel ostracized, being the token foreigner of such a close-knit community. But boy, was I wrong.
Since moving here, the local community has gone out of their way to include me. My landlords have invited me to harvest peanuts in summer and attend house parties with homemade shirasu (whitebait) pizza. They have helped me visit the doctor when I was sick, and brought me mochi and oden on New Year’s Day. The retired farmer I see on the way to school brings me fresh daikon, pumpkins, and more vegetables than I can possibly eat by myself, all without knowing a word of English. Still other neighbors have hailed me on my bicycle and invited me to join a late-night ramen run, just for the fun of it.
We get along so well in fact, we even started a bi-weekly Japanese and English exchange. My landlords usually bring tea or coffee and we all sit around, helping one another communicate. They’ve introduced me to festivals like Hina-matsuri and I’ve explained Cajun food to them. We’ve traded jokes, stories, hopes, and dreams. I’ve spoken with grandparents and grandchildren as well as high school students and adults in their prime. The only requirement to join our exchange is a willingness to learn and have fun together.
With the impending move back to America, my heart aches at every reminder I won’t be here for next year’s neighborhood sports festival or more ramen runs. I know I have made friends for life — friends with whom I will keep in touch and come back to visit someday. But I refuse to go quietly. My neighbors and I are planning one last hurrah — climbing Mt. Fuji in July. What could be a greater end to my time in Japan than witnessing the birth of a new day from the summit, surrounded by my neighbors and friends? The impact of their kindness will forever be branded upon my heart, and for that, more than anything, I am grateful.