Charles Harries

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Week 16

The winter is starting to settle in. I celebrate American Thanksgiving with friends in Monbetsu.

I have remained up to this point weirdly mum re: the whole weather subject, probably due in part to my desire to steer like really clear of that banality of talking about the weather; but Hokkaido is slowly growing whiter and whiter, the snow is falling in little wispy sheets that puncture the general sharply still, more and more wintery air. We are slowly forgetting, as we do year in and year out, the times when we could wear t-shirts outside, and looking back on pictures of hiking in short-sleeves and Vans sneakers seems so foreign to me that I can scarcely like confront the reality of its temporal proximity (only three months ago) up in my noggin. It just doesn't make much sense to me.

This probably has something to do with the full extent of what I've been doing here, remaining totally, stackedly busy on a day-to-day basis, which in some neurological way makes time seem to pass more quickly than it actually is; though on the whole time has proven itself immune to any sort of gridding in a perspective sense — meaning here to say that time stretches and contracts like a marshmallow in a microwave, so that Tokyo Orientation feels like eons ago, the sort of thing that will become a National Historic Monument once I can procure funding.

But & so where summer seems like it was just yesterday, and the things we did during the summer seem to yawn at us across some great temporal gap, now winter is settling in, moving its luggage through the door a lot more slowly than it should, staining the ground brown and white and sticking its chilly fingers up the backs of our shirts and touching our soft lumbaric bundles of nerves and making us tingle and shiver with the encroaching cold. Not to say that we're not all reveling in the snow and the change — it's like discovering all of the things that we thought we knew all over again. What were once the dull neon streets of Monbetsu were, this weekend, the battlefield for our snowball fights, electric with laughter and powder. Where once we climbed to the peaks of the mountains, now we strap pieces of fiberglass to our feet and descend them. As first-years we've spent the past three months humming all over this island and suspending ourselves in its natural beauty, and just when we thought we were getting a grip of what it means to be here, the whole landscape morphs into something else and now we get to learn it all again. So I'm ultra-stoked.

This weekend we celebrated Thanksgiving in Monbetsu, calling some thirty or forty foreigners into the little city, which isn't really even a city anymore but more of a town, because so many people have left it in the past thirty-some-odd years (cf. Konomai, which administratively is/was part of Monbetsu). At the Townspeople's Assembly Building, where we held a great feast, old fishermen and their stocky wives goggled their eyes at us, and outside, cars slowed down as they prowled the white streets, and some hours later karaoke hosts did that gulping thing where their adams apples bulge cartoonishly to indicate some degree of apprehension and/or unreadiness for the situation ('the situation' here meaning thirty drunk foreigners demanding karaoke and more alcohol).

Needless to say that it was all the same kind of foreign-style revelry that I get the feeling the Japanese are beginning to expect from us (qua foreigners) wherever we show up en masse. But in the middle of all of the food, the drink, the good cheer and conversation, in a sort of early winter zeitgeist when we strayed out into the street and spilled our laughter up into the nighttime, when our shoulders and heads grew freckled with feathery snowflakes, when we looked out into the big black Sea of Okhotsk and wondered if those lights we saw out there on the horizon were Russia, or what — throughout this whole sensually powerful evening I felt this actual like hormonally significant sensation of thanks, of sheer gratitude.

Ed. note, 15/9/2021: the lights were just ships off the coast; except for a peninsula in the uttermost southeast corner of the island (and maybe the uttermost north on a clear day), Russia isn't visible from Hokkaido.

It's easy to think that we have been brought here as tools for Japan, that we are here to help out Japan and the Japanese and provide to Japan some service — namely, our expertise in English. But there's a lot more to it than that, because our tenure here, like any good deal, benefits both sides of the equation. Japan gets our our knowledge of English, and what we're to reap is ostensibly what the JET Programme lays down in quaint, trite adverterial imperatives like 'broaden your horizons' and 'take a different step in life,' the latter of which I'm not even sure what it means.

But it's funny, for my part, how taking me out of my context forces me to realign my whole perspective of things. Teaches me about myself, about my country. Teaches me about other people and the lengths to which certain societies will go for certain things. Makes me want to grow. It's like that old goldfish story — that it'll grow to fit whatever container into which it's put. When you move halfway around the world, you get a much better sense of the size of the world and how much you need to grow to actually fit into it.

Which leads me back around to the idea of Thanksgiving. I'm giving thanks for a world bigger than me and the time to grow into it. I'm giving thanks for good health, for good friends, for good food and good drink, for sunshine and snowfall and pens that don't leak and keyboards that can take a beating. I'm giving thanks for basic human kindness; I'm giving thanks for fundamental interpersonal communication; I'm giving thanks for the development of language and the adaptability of the human mind for being able to learn more than one way to do it. I'm giving thanks for the people that show me how to do the things I don't know how to do and for the people that trust me enough to let me handle things for them, even though that's usually a bad idea. I'm giving thanks for the fact that every day in Japan is another new edge on which I'm standing, another big golden portcullis opening onto some weird adventure that won't stop. I'm giving thanks for the world turning, for the omnipresent voice that shouts down to me from Up On High when I want to stop, that shouts, "THIS TRAIN DON'T STAHP BABY, OH YEA BOI YOU NO WE ROLLIN NAO"

And so 'Winter is Coming' becomes 'Winter is Here,' and the green becomes red and yellow and orange and brown become white, and again I'm standing on the edge of this great hoary precipice, and the world is turning and my balance can never center just right and before I know it I'm over the edge and falling and we're all falling down and down and over and under and through and besides and betwixt and to the left and right is just whistling air, whistling time all collapsing and galloping with us and bringing us all in a washing-machine-tumble out into a tomorrow we'll never be able to guess, with all our IQs and university degrees and foresight, a tomorrow that we'll never be able to see coming.

Everything You Have Heard Japan JET Programme