-Nicholas Whatle, Tokunoshima Island
“Where the hell is that?” that was the question I asked myself when I found out about my placement. Devastated, confused, and hurt. Those were the feelings that were evoked as I dug deep into the abyss of Google, trying to figure out my placement. BOOOOOM!!! There it was, TOKUNOSHIMA, a very small island that sits beautifully in the centre of the Amami-Oshima archipelago. The pictures were so breathtakingly beautiful that it was impossible not to see the hand of nature in her rolling hills; mesmerizing wetlands; green valleys; magnificent gardens; waterfalls that lead to the clouds; and the beaches that glitter with fairy-dust. It was just majestic…WRONG!!!
I felt like CLAIR was playing a trick on me. From an island to an island. What were the odds that a guy from Jamaica would be placed on another island? From thousands of placements, what were the chances of being placed on an island that some Japanese didn’t even know existed? Why me? I was angry, very angry. I wanted to decline my offer. I wanted to ask them, why? Just like many of you, I googled and googled and googled the places I wanted to visit in Japan. I watched all the vlogs and read all the blogs. I exhausted all the materials there were on Japan. I joined various groups; I had spoken to millions of people about their adventures and dreamt of my feet walking the beautiful shorelines of Japan.
I saw myself hiking the famous Mt. Fuji, viewing the historic atomic bombing site of Hiroshima, going to Temple City while feeding the deer in Nara, learning to backstroke while swimming in the seas of Okinawa. BINGO. I have decided where I would like to spend the next few years of my life in Japan. I started off with 9 prefect prefectures and narrowed it down to three, but did CLAIR listen to me? NOPE. CLAIR decided to place me in a town with no KFC, no trains, no major shopping malls, no essence of Western food… just nothing. As I continued my research about my placement, not only was I placed in the middle of a no KFC town, it hosted some of Japan’s deadliest snakes. Just my luck. One would think I would have graciously said no to the acceptance, right? I almost did, until I got a congratulatory email from my predecessor.
“Congratulations and welcome to the island of Tokunoshima.” That was the first statement that was written to me by my predecessor. “He survived,” I said to myself as I read the email. As I continued reading the email something stood out to me. He wrote that “…when you get here, there aren’t many exciting infrastructures, but as I did, you will learn to adapt to a new environment filled with big hearts and warm-friendly faces.” Prior to coming to Japan, I said to myself, I would be pleased with any location that was given to me. I had friends that applied to the program several times, some of whom did not even get a notification about an interview, and here I am taking this opportunity for granted. I had forgotten the level of anxiety I had induced when I had applied and while I was waiting for the results, I had forgotten the prayers I had made to the JET god to be placed anywhere in Japan, I had forgotten the sleepless nights and troublesome mornings I went through as I read the tabloids and seeing other candidates getting their acceptance, and most of all, I had forgotten the mistakes I had made during my interview and hoped that the interviewers overlooked them. If I were to survive on an island within the Kagoshima prefecture, I will have to change my perspective. And as I did that, I accepted the offer and embarked on my journey to Tokunoshima.
August 5th at around 4:30 P.M was the time I took my first step on Tokunoshima. The airport was the smallest I have ever seen. I said, “yep, this is it,” as I walked down the airstrip to enter the terminal, rather the small room to collect my luggage. As I left the room, I saw a small crowd of 3 people waving and smiling with my name written so loudly on a poster you could have seen it from Pluto. As I walked closer, I got a better glimpse of the poster, “Nicholas-san, Tokunoshima e youkoso,” I know it sounds cliché, but the poster was so cool. Not only did it have my name, but it also had my face, some anime characters, and glitters. We all know once you add glitters to a poster, the world bows in awe. “This ain’t bad,” I said to myself. Before I knew it, I saw everyone just bowed in unison. It was like I was watching synchronized swimming at the Olympics. I was lost in admiration. I had never experienced such pleasantries and formality in my life. I was taken to the office where I met the mayor, my supervisor, and my coworkers. I was greeted with the most delicious cookies that had ever graced my taste-buds, by songs that I knew not the words to but found my Jamaican hips swaying from side-to-side, claps that were as loud as Thor’s hammer banging for the gods. For a moment, I had forgotten that outside was a landmine made of snakes and a no KFC zone.
My predecessor had decided to linger for a few extra days. As a result, he was still occupying the place I should have been staying. So, arrangements were made for me to stay at a hotel. Can you imagine leaving a highly recommended hotel in Tokyo just to be pampered in another? That was the life. The next few days I was introduced to my house, my new car, my neighbors, my schools, the principals, and sporting clubs. I was shown some essential places like the hospitals, pharmacies, grocery stores and the emergency centre. While I was being chauffeured around, I heard a voice screeching, “Nikorasu sensei, Nikosaru sensei, onegaishimasu.” Those were the very first set of words that were uttered to me from a child. As I looked down, I noticed the sweetest little girl with the brightest smile offering me a bag of potato chips. She was so happy to see me. I later learnt that she would have been one of my students. As I drove through the town, I was treated like a local celebrity with all the smiles, the looks, the waves, the invitations, and best of all, the gifts 😊. Since I have been here, my experience has been marvelous.
I have been to a lot of houses and hosted so many events. I have gotten invitations to learn about tea ceremonies, to practice calligraphy, meet and greets, cooking lessons and attended birthdays, Halloween, Christmas and New Year’s Eve events. I have met and spoken to ambassadors, mayors, councilors and parents. I have done presentations about my island and its culture to my students, mayor, teachers and even diplomats. I have been to farewell and welcoming parties. The BoE (Board of Education) gave me the opportunity to have my own TV show. It airs every month and the ratings are ridiculously high. I have seen the sunset whilst walking the meadows of Innojofuta. I have climbed the rocky cliffs of Mushiroze. I have touched the roots of an old bunion tree that surpasses the lives of my great grandfather and his forefathers. I have been to the home of Mr. Shigechiyo Izumi (a local of Tokunoshima who was once register in the Guinness Book of Record as the oldest person in the world). I met and travelled with the other alts (Samantha, Trinidad and Tobago, and Daniel, USA). We are like the Three Amigos, my island besties.
By no means am I saying that life here is perfect. There are some negative ‘attributes’ associated with living here. The dating scene is not the best, aside from the few attractions, activities are quite numbered and for the sake of me, I cannot get clothes to fit (seeing that I am 6’4), the locals are very conservative, when I speak about problems I am facing it seems to be an issue, the flights to the mainland are super expensive and there aren’t many options for food. But, I have saved a lot more than the average person living on the mainland. I can say I have seen Mt. Sakurajima. I went hiking with my students, I have been invited to go paddleboarding with my teachers. I came here for a Japanese experience and I got what I wanted, despite the snakes.
Overall, I am happy that I accepted the offer to come to Kagoshima. I almost missed this gateway because I thought I wanted the ‘city’ experience. Tokunoshima has been wonderful. I know eventually I will have to leave but I will always remember this place. Life does not come with instructions on how to live, but you do have choices. You determine how you want to live your life base on the choices you make. I can say that Tokunoshima was a really great choice. By the way, Family Mart orders KFC in December from the mainland. So, I did get my KFC in the end 😊.