Teaching, Travelling, Research

Zoe Shipley writes about her experience after finishing the MA

I feel very lucky to have been part of the inaugural cohort of SISJAC’s MA in Interdisciplinary Japanese Studies and I thoroughly enjoyed the entire course. Simultaneously, I tried to teach myself Japanese and I quickly realised that to attain anything like proficiency, I needed to be living in Japan. I was therefore extremely fortunate, particularly during a period of Covid lockdown, to be accepted onto the Japanese government’s JET program which places graduates in assistant English teaching jobs throughout Japan. A small window of opportunity allowed me to fly to Tokyo at the end of November 2021, where quarantine restrictions required me to spend 15 nights alone in a hotel with three cold bento-box meals delivered to my door each day. The upside was that I had a fantastic view through my hotel window of Mt Fuji, which was particularly beautiful at sunset. Once I was free from my quarantine, I travelled down to what for the next 2 years is my home – the port city of Shimonoseki.

I have a small apartment with tatami mats and balcony (used for drying clothes) which is conveniently near to the shinkansen station, local shops and great restaurants. I teach in seven different schools across the city which I reach by travelling on trains and buses, which definitely requires a whole set of organisational skills! Any time that I am not teaching, I return to the Board of Education office where I tend mostly to study Japanese. All my schools have been friendly and welcoming – I frequently find little piles of sweets and chocolates waiting for me on my desk, which I love. They have asked me to do lots of different things from giving formal presentations about
myself to singing “Jingle Bells” in front of the entire school. I have also been included in a calligraphy class, been invited to social events, and been given thoughtful small gifts including a beautiful pottery cup and a hand-made pouch.

Before leaving the UK I was asked if I would like school lunches – a quick Google search told me that school meals in Japan were good. I haven’t been disappointed, they are delicious, nutritious and very varied featuring local seasonal produce, which in this city, renowned for its fresh fish, means lots of seafood (though the pufferfish and whale was a bit of a shock). Shimonoseki is well known throughout Japan as the place to go to eat fuku or poisonous pufferfish which requires skilful preparation. The best place to eat it is Karato Market which is where I headed on my first weekend. It is a hugely popular market which presents a massive array of extremely fresh sushi and sashimi for around £1.50 a portion. Absolutely delicious. I love Japanese food and one weekend I travelled with a few friends to Kawatana Onsen which is famous for a particular dish known as Kawara Soba, green tea soba noodles with beef and egg, cooked and served on hot roof tiles. We were spotted by a film crew from Tokyo who subsequently asked us to appear in a promotional film they were making about Shimonoseki. A few weeks later I found myself climbing a lighthouse to take in the specular view from Tsunoshima, getting into a wet suit and clinging to a jet ski and finally relaxing in an onsen watching the sunset – well, sort of relaxing, as there was a drone overhead filming.

Since being in Japan my province, Yamaguchi, has had a period of “Quasi Emergency” which meant I had to stay within the province. But, luckily for me, it was permitted to travel at New Year, so I spent five days in Kyoto on my own. As Japan had, due to Covid, closed its borders to foreign travellers, Kyoto was somewhat quieter, peaceful and very beautiful. As an early riser I found myself literally alone in the most magnificent places including: Otagi Nenbutsu temple, Fushimi Inari shrine, Nanzen temple with snowflakes fluttering down. I also took the train to Arashiyama and walked through the bamboo forests alone returning to have a meal in an almost deserted restaurant looking out over the river. It was really very surreal and special.

My travels have also taken me to Iwakuni, Hofu, and to the city of Fukuoka on the island of Kyushu. I am also planning to visit Nagasaki soon. My MA thesis was based on research I carried out around an heirloom known in my family as the “Japan Album”. It is a collection of over 260 photographs collected in Japan between 1877 and 1884. During my research I had used the online collection based in Nagasaki and I hope to do more in-person research whilst I am there. My first degree was Biochemistry (LMH Oxford), and I hope to combine some of my science knowledge
with my interdisciplinary Japanese studies to further my own personal interests in Meiji period photography.

I am very grateful for all the opportunities I am having whilst on the JET program and I feel I am gaining a great deal every day. Not only are my language skills improving but I am learning about Japan’s history and culture together with the detail of every-day life. For the first time, I am living in a flat on my own and I have had to buy furniture, cooking utensils and even curtains. I also set up the utility bill payment and learnt about the complicated Japanese recycling system. I have done it all in Japanese – both a challenge and a huge confidence boost. Happily, there are 4 others from the JET Program living in the same building (from America and Australia) who have been a great support and who have become firm friends. To conclude, my time since finishing the MA has been exciting, varied and challenging (in a good way)! To anyone considering the JET program, I would say that it helps if you are resilient and adaptable but, so far for me, it has been an enormously positive experience.

Zoe Shipley

MA Interdisciplinary Japanese Studies alumni, UEA   

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