Where were you in Japan as a JET and when?
I stayed in Miyagi Prefecture (Tohoku/Northeast region) in the town of Karakuwa, located on a peninsula on the outskirts of Kesennuma City, from 8/2009 to 8/2011.
What sparked your interest in applying for the JET program?
During my time at the University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign) I started taking classes on East Asian history, culture and the Japanese language. One of my professors recommended a study abroad program which led to my first time staying in Japan. I spent about 8 months living with a host family in Kobe City, Hyogo Prefecture while studying at Konan University, and really enjoyed the experience. The time I spent there felt so short to me though, and after returning to my university in the states I learned about the JET program. I felt it would be a good way to continue learning about Japanese culture and stay connected to friends I met while in Japan before, and thankfully I was accepted as an ALT.
What are some of the things your prefecture is known for? Ex. food, hotspots, etc.?
Until I came to Miyagi Prefecture, I had never experienced the level of nature and quality of food it has to offer. The scenic parks and rock beaches along the sea coast (Matsushima), the super fresh and tasty seafood (probably the best I've had still to this day!), and access to some relaxing onsens and mountains for skiing/snowboarding (Mount Zao).
The city of Sendai, which is also the capital of Miyagi Prefecture and the largest city in the Tohoku area, has a host of events that I enjoyed while I was there. Annually you can see the colorful displays around the city walkways and stations for the Tanabata Festival, dance performances during the Yosakoi Festival, and live music playing throughout the city during the Jozenji Street Jazz Festival, one of my favorites. Miyagi also has a nice selection of locally brewed sake, and in terms of food, gyū-tan (grilled beef tongue) and various desserts with zunda (sweetened mashed green soybeans) are just a couple of items Sendai is known for as well. Having a sweet tooth myself, I would say I'm a fan of the zunda mochi ice and soft cream there.
Closer to where I lived, Kesennuma City is known as one of the biggest fishing ports in Miyagi and Japan, so I also enjoyed a variety of seafood there - various fish sashimi, oysters, and scallops among them. Even our city mascot "Hoya Boya" is named after a sea pineapple, which I would say is an acquired taste. What I really appreciated the most is being able to taste the freshness of locally sourced food. Unfortunately, Kesennuma was also one of coastal cities in Tohoku hit hard by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami disaster, which in turn had a big impact on their fishing industry and local economy. Since then they have made some strides in recovery, and while not at the level they once operated at, their fishing market has been back open for business for some years now.
Did you pick up any of the regional dialects? What are some of your favorite words or phrases?
Before coming to Tohoku, since I had been exposed to Kansai-ben during my time studying abroad in West Japan, I had already grown used to using words like "honma" and the "-hen" and "-yanen" endings from that dialect. While in Tohoku, I did pick up the "-be/-ppe" ending, but honestly it was a challenge to incorporate it into my everyday conversations. On top of that, there was an even more local dialect in Kesennuma where I lived, mostly spoken by older people that sounded like a whole new language compared to the standard Japanese I was learning. At that point, I thought it would be best to keep working on my standard Japanese, but maybe one of these days I will take the time to understand Tohoku dialects better.
If you were to return to live in Japan, would you choose to live in that same prefecture? (Or in your case you can talk about where you are living in Japan now)
If I were to return to live in Japan, Miyagi would definitely be one of the top prefectures on my list. Specifically, I think Sendai City is a great choice in that I can get that city feel which I am used to, yet it's also close to a variety of natural sites, and I like the greenery around the city as well. That said, I am also curious to explore life in southern Japan too, since I didn't take time to visit that region as much.
How has your connection in relation to Japan changed since living in Japan?
I'm grateful to say that since living in Japan, I have maintained a strong connection to the people and culture. I have made some life-long friends there that I stay in contact with and always feel welcome to go back. Participating in the JET program also gave me some unbelievable experiences to reflect on and give perspective to life. I happened to be in Japan during the March 2011 Tohoku Disaster, a witness to the devastating effects on Kesennuma City where I lived and the nearby towns hit hardest. It was a challenging time, to say the least, but throughout it all, I can honestly say I never wanted to leave. Despite what we were going through, I saw many people come together as a community to help support each other in various ways - whether through providing shelter for others without, sharing food sources and supplies, and many volunteers from other parts of Japan coming to help with donations and various needs. I volunteered where I could as well, and felt glad I could develop a deeper connection to the people in my town through what contributions I could give. I will always consider Japan a home of mine.