2. Blog
  3. My Shikoku Journey (9) by Bethany,Canada

My Shikoku Journey (9) by Bethany,Canada

Bethany Johnson, Canada  Sanagochi Village, Tokushima Prefecture

Encounter with Tokushima

I started off like many who end up in the countryside do; as an English teacher. Teaching English in Japan is a journey of whimsy, and more so if you go through the JET Program*, because you can’t choose where you end up living. I originally requested Hokkaido, but when my letter of acceptance arrived, stating I was placed in “Sanagochi Village, Tokushima Prefecture”, my nerves went a little on edge. Tokushima? Where had I heard that name before? It was in the south, wasn’t it? Also… “village”?

I was intimidated, to say the least. As a Canadian, I abhor the heavy, thick heat of the Japanese summer, and I remembered it well from my time studying abroad in Kanagawa. That was the main reason I chose Hokkaido–but as many JETs know, and are taught to expect–there’s not a lot about the program you can control, and every situation is different.

But I have loved Japan–the language, culture and pop-culture–ever since I was a kid, and although the idea of denying the placement because it was in the south did briefly touch my mind, the dream of living in Japan trumped it, and I made a decision that would utterly redirect my future. And really, one of the best decisions I have made in my life.

So began my journey in Tokushima.

I ended up working in Sanagochi village as an English teacher for four years, and utterly fell in love with the countryside along the way. As an ALT, or assistant language teacher, foreigners are uniquely positioned not only as English teachers, but as cultural ambassadors for their community. Many ALTs end up focusing 100% on teaching English because it’s the more clear-cut portion of their job, and that’s fine, but for me, I valued the cultural aspect much more. ALTs are given a rare and precious opportunity to experience places that visitors simply cannot access. We get to touch and breathe in the real Japan–not merely the romanticised neon tech-towns and robots, or the quirky culture of anime cafes and Harajuku fashion, etc.

This existed in Tokyo and larger cities that I visited, but there was also the other half, an undiscovered and almost concealed portion of Japan that I encountered in Shikoku: the ordinary lives and culture of people just living in the countryside. I’m certain each countryside of Japan, from Shikoku to Kyushu, Honshu, through to Tohoku and Hokkaido, and all the hidden places in between, each have their own deep culture and language that to them is so “atarimae” (commonplace, natural) they don’t even give it a second thought. Even if I lived in Shikoku for my entire life, I wouldn’t be able to uncover or master all the charming secrets of tradition that the community has built and preserved for hundreds of years.

“Omotenashi”; Kindness and Welcome

As a lifelong city girl, I was almost taught to fear the countryside: fear its inconvenience, how isolated it is, the “nothingness” of it. I can’t speak for Canada’s countryside because I have never really experienced it, but six years now in Shikoku’s countryside has buried one thing deep in my soul: the culture of “omotenashi” (hospitality).

Omotenashi is the beating heart of most of the folks I’ve met, a concept that exists all around Japan and veins out in many other forms. But for me, it has manifested in encounters on my evening walks: farmers driving past and stopping to hand me a bag of shiitake mushrooms or mandarin oranges. Villagers welcoming me into their homes and teaching me to make Japanese dishes, all the while excitedly explaining the nuances of Japanese food. They’re always thrilled to hear I love the “weird” flavors of sour umeboshi or sweet red bean paste.

Instead of the expectation that a small community might be wary of an outsider, the opposite occurs: an almost riotous welcome of people who are delighted you are here, and possibly have never met a foreigner in their life. Tell me about your country, your culture? What do you think about Japan? Can you speak Japanese, can you eat Japanese foods, use Japanese utensils? These questions can seem silly or almost annoying to people brought up in multicultural lands, but Japan is anything but a melting pot. The countryside especially is 99.9% Japanese people, I imagine.

What chance do they have to learn anything about outside cultures? Especially older folks who don’t use the internet or smartphones. So, seeing the heart of these questions–genuine, innocent curiosity from an upbringing that has taught little about the worlds outside of Japan–I now regard it with patience, and even fondness. (I appreciate, and actually envy, the older generations who exist in the physical still, when us younger folk have been inescapably absorbed into the digital.)

Anyway, I meet a lot of people on my walks, and there are a lot of regular friends too, like the lady at the rice shop who always invites me for tea, or the super cheery older man who is the only one (apart from wild animals) that I meet my walks deep into the mountains, always telling me to be careful and, “I’ll scare off wild boars for you!” as he hands me candy or a bag of raw peanuts. As I’m writing this, just yesterday I met him at dusk as I ventured along my route up into the forests. I heard his truck scuttle up the mountain and stood off the path to wave as he passed, but he parked and exclaimed, “I’ve been looking for you!” before handing over a bag of juicy sumomo plums–my favourite!

“Eat them while you walk to replenish your fluids,” he said with a grin, a cigarette drooping from his mouth. “Then just toss the pits into the forest!” I thanked him and expected him to continue up the mountain on his usual patrol, but he flipped around and with a wave, headed back down the mountain, leaving me dumbfounded. Had he been driving up the mountain everyday just to look for me?

My heart gave a little cinch, and as As I continued deeper into the embrace of the woods, listening as the breeze rustled the trees and periodically snacking on sumomo, I realised again how much I cherish this pastoral existence. So simple, so gentle and unassuming. The people here must live in peace. And the farmers especially, living off the land, working hard not for money but to make their own food and share it with the community. I felt I had done nothing to earn entry into such a community, but I had never received anything but welcome.

The people here go out of their way to give. And they do things with passion. I mentioned earlier prioritising being a cultural ambassador during my time as an English teacher, and for me, that manifested into photo and videography, when I started making videos about my village through a foreign lens, with the support of Sanagochi’s village hall. I started asking the villagers I’d become close with if I could film what they were doing–be it agriculture, local cuisine, or village festivals. No one ever refused me; on the contrary, they encouraged me and were always happy to see the pictures and stories about life in Sanagochi that I would write. I became passionate about it. The surrounding nature and tradition textured the lives of everyone I met, mostly farmers, and I learned more about human nature in a citrus grove or a rice field than perhaps I ever did in Canada.

This passion project eventually connected to the job I’m doing now–working in tourism in Miyoshi city, Tokushima prefecture–and everyday I keep learning new things. I truly love this place, and honestly, I think I would be content to live in Shikoku forever. Let’s see what the future holds!

If you’re interested in seeing the videos we made in Sanagochi, they can be found on Sanagochi’s YouTube channel, and my personal channel below.

*The JET Program is an abbreviation for “The Japan Exchange and Teaching Program,” which is implemented by local governments in cooperation with the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, and the Council of Local Authorities for International Relations.