Friday, 15 July 2011

tips for incoming inaka JETs

Before I had the pleasure of calling Tokyo home, I spent a year out in the countryside of Mie ken, teaching with the JET program.  I didn't have it so bad as some of my JET friends, as my little town had a foreign food store and even a Starbucks, but it felt pretty rural to me. My commute consisted of riding my bicycle down a path between rice and nashi fields, and other than my one British co-worker, I only ever met one English speaking foreigner living in the town.

It was a really interesting year of my life, and though I decided about a week into living out there that I would not be renewing my contract for an extra year, I'm really glad to have had the experience living in small town Japan.

It's that time of year again when a new batch of JETs are anxiously awaiting their departures.  A decent number of JETs are vegetarian, so much so that the meals they served at the Tokyo orientation the year I arrived were prepared with mock meat instead of the real thing! (Though I've heard from other JETs that this was not the case for them).  As the vast majority of JETs are not placed in big cities, the shift to small town life adds to the challenging adjustment to vegetarian life in the context of a new culture and language.   For all you vegetarian (and vegan) incoming JETs, here is some advice to make your transition to inaka vegetarian life a little smoother.  

Things you can start doing before you come to Japan

1) If your Japanese is lacking or nonexistent, start studying NOW!  If you don't have access to classes or a tutor, try to get a your hands on a good textbook (the Genki series or Minna no Nihongo are pretty good), or make use of some of the resources online.  For a while, I was using Japanese Pod 101 to supplement my studing, and I found it helpful.

Japanese is a challenging language to learn how to read and write fluently (I'm still a LONG way from that) but you can get a great start by learning hiragana, katakana, and a few key food kanji.  Most people start with hiragana (as Japanese kids do) but it may make more sense to start with katakana if you have limited time, as it is more helpful for menu reading.  You can probably get it somewhat memorized with maybe 5 hours of serious studying and suddenly you will be starting to sound out menus!

In addition to the universally necessary greetings, personal introductions, thank you's, and apologies, vegetarians and vegans are HIGHLY ADVISED to learn some food specific Japanese.  Before you get on that plane, I suggest you learn how to say what you can't eat in Japanese.  (Check out some basic phrases here or a video version here.)  Just saying you're vegetarian isn't going to cut it.

2) Improve your knowledge of Japanese food.  The more you know about Japanese dishes, and what they contain, the better you'll be able to feed yourself.  If you are someone who doesn't eat fish, I suggest you become an expert on katsuodashi.

3) Communicate with your supervisor and/ or your school about your dietary restrictions.  There will, without a doubt, be welcome parties for you that will, without a doubt, revolve around food that you won't be able to eat unless you make things extremely clear beforehand.  If you are lucky, someone in your line of predecessors will also have been vegetarian.  Even if this is the case, you will find yourself explaining your dietary choices many times.  Be patient but honest.  Letting people know ahead of time will save a lot of hurt feelings and wasted food.  If you will be working at elementary schools, (and in some cases, at Jr. high schools) there will be a kyushoku (school lunch), that will not be veggie friendly.  I recommend telling your school no thank you and packing your own lunch.

After you arrive in Japan

4) stock up your kitchen, you're going to be spending a lot of time there!  Buying unprocessed food like fresh veggies and fruit, tofu, soba, rice, and cooking them up yourself is the safest way to ensure what you're eating is actually vegetarian.  It's also healthier, cheaper, and can't be bad for your culinary skills, either.  Learn how to cook some vegetarian versions of Japanese dishes!  A lot of your favorite meals to make from back home will be difficult find ingredients for.  While it's worth hitting up the foreign food stores when you venture to a real city, you will find a lot of foreign foods expensive.  Learn to love what is cheap and plentiful in your area.

5)  Find an Indian restaurant in your town!  If you live in the REAL inaka, you may not have one, and I will direct your attention back to my last piece of advice. Luckily for most of you, Indian food is an ethnic food that enjoys a lot of popularity in Japan, so you should be able to find one within cycling distance or with a few stops on the train.  Even in Mie, there were quite a number of Indian places around.  Indian vegetarian curry will virtually always be actually vegetarian, and they may be able to do a vegan version too.  You should always double check that your curry contains no meat, but an added bonus of Indian places is that quite often the staff can speak English.  Italian food is also very popular in Japan, and there will usually be a few safe options.

6) Once you find a place with veggie options or willing to make you a special dish, become a regular!  Always having to check labels and explain yourself can be quite exhausting.  Having a restaurant you regularly go to where they remember you (it won't be too hard if you are the only foreigner in town!) and your food requirements is great because you can just order the usual without having to worry.  Also, it's great to financially support the places that are veggie friendly!

7) Challenge yourself to try new foods and learn to love them.  In Japan you'll find lots of unfamiliar dishes and ingredients. Be curious, look at labels, ask questions, develop a love (or at least a tolerance) for some new foods.  It took me a year in Japan and many many unpleasant taste tests before I started to like natto, but it has become one of my favorite foods.  I encourage you to be adventurous!

8) Be patient and realize you are making a difference. As touched on in #3, you may soon tire of explaining what a you can and can't eat and why you are vegetarian.  Some people will find the idea hilarious, some will be annoyed by your selfishness, some will be curious, and some will just write your vegetarianism off as another foreigner oddity.  If you are veggie for ethical reasons, you will find that a lot of Japanese people just don't really get it.  There seems to be some fundamentally different ways in the way Japanese culture and western cultures think about animals.  A willingness to talk about your diet and the reasons behind it is an important piece of cultural education, which is one of the fundamental goals of the JET program.  Exposing Japan to new cultures and lifestyles is part of your mission.  I can tell you that in the 13 years since my first trip to Japan, there has been a shift in awareness and availability of vegetarian food.  If you are a vegetarian or vegan living in Japan, you are part of this shift.

がんばれ!(Do your best / hang in there!)

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