Dec 4

News agency Kyodo News has recently been publishing monthly articles written by JET alumni who were appointed in rural areas of Japan, as part of promotion for the JET Programme. Below is the English version of the column from November 2013. Posted by Celine Castex (Chiba-ken, 2006-11), currently programme coordinator at CLAIR Tokyo.



“I discovered through these exchanges that the people with whom I was talking wanted to know as much about me, about Chicago and about America as I wanted to know about them, Iwate and Japan. Through these interactions over the course of two years I began to gain a small understanding of the subtle nuances that were part of the culture in which I was living.”

Originally from Chicago, Elizabeth Gordon (Iwate-ken, Ninohe-shi, 2003-05) holds a Bachelors Degree in Psychology with a minor in Japanese Studies from Northwestern University, IL, and a Master’s degree in East Asian Studies from Columbia University, NY. She spent two years teaching English in rural Iwate  before joining the Japan Foundation in New York as a Program Officer. She currently works as the Director of Private Events of the Adler Planetarium in Chicago.

Soba Diplomacy


Noodle making is an art, not to be taken lightly.  Only a true master can produce the perfect noodle.   After the wooden board is cleaned, the ingredients are kneaded in perfect rhythm until the correct consistency is achieved, and only the master knows for sure when that is.  The rolling pin goes back and forth in a circular motion but forms a perfect rectangle, which is folded in half, then in half again, and in half again.  Ever so delicately, the master cuts, slice after slice, all exactly the same width.  They are cooked for just the right amount of time and then served with a simple dipping sauce sprinkled with scallions.  The movements were ingrained in his muscles. I imagine he could have completed the whole process with his eyes closed.  There is simplicity in the process, but the flavor is layered and complex.

When I arrived in Ninohe City, Iwate Prefecture in the summer of 2003 as a participant on the JET Program, I did not know a soul, nor had I ever heard of Iwate Prefecture.  There was a short orientation in Tokyo, followed by a shorter orientation in Iwate’s capital city of Morioka.  It was on the final day of orientation in Morioka that I met my supervisor, Mr. Sato.  He picked me up and we drove the one and a half hours through the countryside back to Ninohe City.  Mr. Sato did not speak much English and his heavy Iwate dialect was difficult for me to understand.  We did, however, find common ground in a little bit of sports but mostly through food.  I listed all of my favorite Japanese dishes, and he loved the fact that I could eat with chopsticks.  He brought me to the Board of Education office and showed me my desk, which would be my home base for the next two years.

There was no rest for the weary, however.  Before I could sit down I was whisked away on a driving tour of the entire city.  We stopped at my two junior high schools and one of the eight elementary schools at which I would be teaching.  I was asked to give a short self-introduction at each location.  We also stopped at city hall to meet the mayor, and at the bank to open an account.   Back at the board of education it was suggested that I be taken to the grocery store before I was dropped off at home for the evening.

The trip to the supermarket, escorted by three of my colleagues, was memorable.  Touring up and down each aisle, they took care to explain what certain Japanese characters meant to ensure I did not buy anything that would later surprise me.  We passed by the fish counter and they pointed out some beautiful shrimp.  “These are delicious,” one of them commented.  “Oh,” I said, embarrassed, “I cannot eat things with eyes.”  Silence.  I imagined that I had offended individuals who had only been my colleagues for three hours.  When they saw the worried look on my face they burst out in laughter.  They thought it was the funniest thing they had ever heard.  I was relieved.  Food was the perfect ice breaker.

Though I had been to Japan prior to JET, and had some ability in the language, navigating my way through the sometimes delicate maze of Japanese culture and the mysterious Iwate dialect took some getting used to.  As school was not yet in session, I spent my days at the Board of Education preparing ideas for English lessons.  After a week or so of work, I got the feeling that people were just as shy to approach me as I was to approach them.  So I just started asking questions.  “What is your favorite dish?”  “Do you like the school lunch?”  “Where can I find peanut butter?”  These questions led to short answers at first, but then turned into longer conversations.

Soon after my arrival the city of Ninohe began to prepare for the annual summer festival.  My friend Fukiko brought me to a dance class and informed me that I would be dancing alongside the employees of City Hall in the parade.  This was news to me.  As the day of the festival quickly approached, my stage fright grew exponentially.  The morning of my scheduled “performance,” I arrived at my desk in the Board of Education to find a surprise waiting for me.  “A snack,” said one of my colleagues, grinning from ear to ear, “to calm your nerves.”  On my desk was a carton of two dozen grilled shrimp; fully intact, eyes and all.  Everyone, including me, laughed hysterically.  My stage fright disappeared.

Once school began, I talked with students, with teachers, with school staff, even with the couple from whom I rented my car.  I discovered that one of my colleagues was an artist at heart and that a friend of mine had spent a lot of time living outside of Japan.  One woman asked me if America had four seasons, like Japan, and students asked me for what item Chicago was famous and if I knew Michael Jordan.  I discovered through these exchanges that the people with whom I was talking wanted to know as much about me, about Chicago and about America as I wanted to know about them, Iwate and Japan.  Through these interactions over the course of two years I began to gain a small understanding of the subtle nuances that were part of the culture in which I was living.

When my friend Izumi picked me up to join her and Hiroshi (her husband) at soba club that evening, I had no idea what to expect.  I walked up a dangerously narrow staircase into a small restaurant that I had not noticed during my first year in Ninohe City.  The steam from the cooking noodles fogged up the windows that looked out onto the Ninohe City Shinkansen Station (at that time still just a few years old).  This was the first time since my arrival in Japan that I did not feel the need to document an event in photos.

I was invited to try my hand at making a batch of soba noodles (as were the other members of the club).  I tried to mimic the master’s actions, but of course my end result was a far cry from what he produced.  The movements were not ingrained in my muscles.  Simultaneously simple and complex.  It did not matter.  When I joked that my soba were more like udon, everybody burst out in laughter.  Food can be a simple thing, but it does wonders for creating community.

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