■ Job Type：ALT ■ Prefecture：Hokkaido ■ Years on JET: 2009-Present
Hello and welcome to a brief narrative about my family and I and our life on the JET Programme. My name is Simon Daly. I hope you enjoy reading about my path to and through the JET Programme. I am currently in my third year as an Assistant Language Teacher living near the Okhotsk Coast in the far northeast of Hokkaido. I live in a small town called Engaru with my wife Sarah and our four children. Oliver and Isabella are twins who are currently in the first grade at elementary school. Our other son and daughter, Elijah and Amelia, attend a local kindergarten. We enjoy a varied and perpetually stimulating lifestyle here and try to make the most of the constant stream of opportunities and experiences we are presented with.
I work primarily for my local board of education and have direct dealings with the officials there, however all of my work hours are spent at local schools. I teach at two relatively large junior high schools, an elementary school and a small boarding school for students from all over the country who have not fitted into standard learning institutions. It will become obvious in reading this article, but I would like to state early on that I really like my work. Admittedly, there is a lot of variation from school to school, but I am at each school on a regular enough bases to form good relationships with co-workers and students alike.
The most rewarding aspect of my job is having contact with an immense cross-section of the community I live and work in. It truly feels as if we have links to every corner of our town, the island more generally and even across Japan: friends we have made and my regular students; students from the free adult language classes I teach; even the local high school where I do not teach is now two-thirds populated by students of mine whom I have taught during their junior high school years. The staff of local businesses we frequent are not just anonymous clerks, waiters or postal workers. They are parents of students, members of local clubs we belong to and people we have shared experiences with such as dancing together in local festivals. Outside of my town, JET Programme and the JET-related associations of Japan have helped me come into contact with an amazing range of people.
I am perhaps not what is seen as the paradigmatic JET participant, and my road to getting here is not as straight forward as finishing high school, going to university and applying for the JET Programme. My best friend at elementary school was half Japanese, and his mother introduced me to Japanese home cooking and an orderliness that was foreign to me as an only child of a working solo parent. It is quite fitting that the first two Japanese phrases I ever learned were itadakimasu (a humble beginning to a meal) and gochisousama deshita (a thankful ending for the feast you have just received). I later went on to graduate top of my class at culinary school, often focusing on Asian ingredients and aesthetics. I then moved to work in award-winning restaurants and hotels in my home country as well as in the United Kingdom.
It was in one of these hotels that I met my future wife. She had just returned from two years on the JET Programme in Takamatsu City in Shikoku, and together we talked about the adventures we could have if we could someday return to Japan. For a reason that eludes me now, we decided to try living in Korea first. Perhaps it was just to try something new. We had a good time, but it was not the cultural experience I had been expecting, and so after our contracts had ended my wife took a private teaching job in Takikawa City, Hokkaido Prefecture. During that year I fell in love with the landscapes and seasons of Hokkaido and with the bounty and variation it offers.
After a subsequent year in Korea, we returned to New Zealand for the birth of the twins, and I decided to return to university as an adult student to better appreciate the rich civilizations I had been living in but had only scratched the surface of understanding. To cover everything I was interested in, I ended up doing a Bachelor of Arts with a triple major in Political Science, Religious Studies and Asian Studies, as well as a postgraduate honours year for good measure. Three years down the track, when it came time to think about what we would do next we now had four children, but my choice was obvious: follow in my wife’s footsteps and apply to become a JET participant. With the family in mind, I requested to come back to Hokkaido.
If you use your imagination, you can probably see why the shape of the Japanese archipelago is sometimes described as a dragon. Hokkaido at the top is this sprawling serpent’s head. As the northernmost and largest of Japan’s prefecture, Hokkaido is famed for its vast and untamed landscapes and most commonly its snow. It is a wonder here in the winter. People will of course know of the world famous Sapporo Snow Festival to the world-class ski resorts with their prized powder, but there is much more to do as well. In the depths of winter the Okhotsk coastline near me is inundated with drift ice, waterfalls freeze solid, there is cross-country skiing, ice skating and curling for those inclined and what has become my passion, snowshoeing over the once lush foothills. After a day of outdoor exertion, my favourite thing to do in winter is to sit in an outdoor hot spring and feel the falling snow melt on my back.
It is not all about the cold though. Summer here is hot, but without the extreme humidity of the rest of Japan. My family and I love to go camping and have just returned from a wekk at Lake Kussharo. Locals describe the lake as the eye of the earlier mentioned dragon, with the island at the centre said to be the pupil. Swimming and Canoeing in the cool clear waters and fishing from the shore, I could have been back in New Zealand, but in fact I was less than a two-hour drive from my house. This is Japan, but not the Japan people expect. It is tranquil and relaxing, far removed from the hustle and bustle of big city living. Summer quickly fades to fall and fiery hues take hold. At this time of year, areas such as the Sounkyo Gorge are worth a trip up to Hokkaido to see them in person.
A unique aspect of Hokkaido is areas such as Lake Akan where Ainu culture and traditions are highly visible. There is a feeling of timelessness in Hokkaido that I did not expect before I came. My reading before I came to Japan had me under the impression that because it had been relatively recently settled by the Japanese that everything would feel newer than in the rest of the country. However, with the opportunity to come into contact with pre-Japanese indigenous culture or to stand in prehistoric sites such as the Shirataki Geopark in my very own area, where cavemen are said to have travelled to collect brittlw obsidian for tools and weapons, it is mindboggling to think about the timescale at play.
As you may have gleaned from the glowing terms in which I described Hokkaido, I could not be happier with my placement. My family and I have settled even better than I could have hoped for. My Japanese can be a little colloquial and informal, but after two years the children are what is considered functionally fluent. The exposure to another culture and language was part of the experience I knew would be worth the trip out here, but I have been surprised by many opportunities that have fallen into my lap through luck and sheer happenstance. Below are just a few examples.
Hoping to share my love of cooking, I began writing for the local AJET magazine and at times I also shared crafting ideas or teaching resources I made. A Kiwi artist living in Japan who was on the New Zealand snow carving team happened to see an article with some artwork and asked if I was free to be a part of the international competition in the Sapporo Snow Festival. This was a huge honour and to my surprise our team came second overall against a field of professional teams. This year, I was made captain of the team and loved the opportunity to design the sculpture myself. Next year I will do it all again. Around the same time, I also becamse the president of Hokkaido AJET and share my love of the island with others.
Design has always been a hobby of mine and for the past two years I have won the Tokyo Orientation t-shirt design competition. I think because I was known to the CLAIR (Council of Local Authorities for International Relations) office, when MEXT (the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology) asked if CLAIR could suggest someone to talk to the 800 new JET participants at the 2010 Group A Tokyo Orientation, among a sea of names mine came up. Presenting on how I felt ALTs could meaningfully contribute inside and outside of the classroom was both the most nerve-racking and fulfilling professional experience of my time here so far.
When the huge earthquake and subsequent tsunami laid waste to the northeast coast of Honshu in March 2011, I wanted to help out in anyway I could. Feeling lucky to have been untouched by the disaster, I wanted to help in some way and fundraising came to the fore. I designed another t-shirt and by selling them my friendly local AJET chapter raised nearly 3,500 US dollars. This money was directly donated to Japanese charities involved in relief efforts.
Going into my third year on the JET Programme and looking toward the future, I could not be more positive. As a family we could not be happier in our current surroundings, so much so in fact that my wife Sarah decided to take advantage of the opportunity to become a JET participant for the second time. She was thankfully placed at my own beloved board of education, and several months into her second go at being an ALT in Japan, things could not be better. Together our plans are to keep a broad focus on when and where our experience can be helpful to others and to be the best ambassadors we can. The one concrete goal I have is to really put our mark on our town and to organize some events the likes of which Japan may not yet have seen. Sometime in the future, if you hear of an Eastern Hokkaido Wild Food Festival, hopefully I will have had something to do with it.
My family and I have travelled widely and lived in many countries. I can honestly say that I do not believe that there is a safer or more interesting place we could be right now. I feel privileged to work within the Japanese public school system, helping to foster grass roots internationalisation. The JET Programme is more than just language exchange. When we are done we will leave part of ourselves imprinted here and our lives also will undoubtedly have been changed for the better.