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Kate Chevarley Vong - Niigata (2004-2006)

[Kate's school photo in front of Maki High School]

Where were you in Japan as a JET and when? 

I lived in rural Maki (巻), a small town in Niigata prefecture, from 2004 to 2006. I was employed by the prefecture as an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT) and taught English at four high schools in the towns of Maki, Nishikawa and Yoshida.

I initially intended to stay in Japan for one year, but decided to extend my contract so that I could deepen my understanding of the language and culture. I loved living in Maki. My apartment was surrounded by rice fields and I would often find little frogs in the basket of the mamachari (ママチャリ) bike that I rode everywhere. I have many fond memories of living in inaka (the countryside) and still remember the hum of the cicadas all around me in the summer.

[A warm welcome from her students at Yoshida Yougo Hospital School]

What sparked your interest in applying for the JET program?

My parents sparked my interest in Japan. They taught English at the Language Institute of Japan in Odawara, Kanagawa prefecture in the 1970s, before they had kids. While I was growing up in Boston, we hosted Japanese college students from the Showa Boston Institute. I also participated in the Showa Summer Discovery program when I was in 8th grade, spending part of the summer on their Boston campus with high school students visiting from Japan. It was a fun experience and made me eager to travel to Japan someday.

I took some Japanese history classes in college and my professor recommended the JET Program to me. I decided to apply because it seemed like the perfect opportunity to gain teaching experience and a global perspective. Even though I was familiar with Japan, I hadn't formally studied the Japanese language before I moved there – so it forced me to learn quickly once I arrived!

[Kate in front of spring tulip display in Niigata City]

What are some of the things your prefecture is known for? e.g. food, hotspots, etc. 

Niigata is the “Snow Country” setting of Nobel-prize winning author Yasunari Kawabata’s novel of the same name. It’s easy to get to from Tokyo, about two hours by shinkansen. People visit Niigata for its beaches in the summer and skiing and snowboarding in the winter.

Niigata is known for the best rice and sake in Japan. It also has relaxing onsen (hot springs), which are especially nice to experience outdoors on a snowy winter night. As a former history major, I loved all the historic sites in Niigata. For example, the Northern Culture Museum (Hoppo Bunka Hakubutsu-kan) features traditional structures and gardens centered around the Edo-period home of the Ito family, one of the wealthiest landowners in Japan. Another special place to visit is Mt. Yahiko and its eponymous shrine, a sacred spot with panoramic views of the Sea of Japan. Finally, Niigata’s Tsubame-Sanjo area is Japan’s No. 1 metalware production area. If you're looking for the highest quality Japanese knives, cutlery, kitchen tools, pots, pans and bowls, I highly recommend searching for ones made here – they will last you a lifetime.

Maki is off the beaten path but also a great place to visit. You can hike Mt. Kakuda, barbecue on the beaches beyond it and enjoy Hanami and cherry blossoms in its beautiful parks. It’s home to Japan’s first microbrewery, Echigo Beer, which has a delicious on-site restaurant. Echigo Beer started exporting to the U.S. a few years after I moved back, and I always get excited when I see it at a restaurant or grocery store. Maki is also known for the lovely Cave D’Occi Winery and Vinespa, which is surrounded by natural beauty.  

[Kate in front of the lovely Cave D'Occi Winery and Vinespa in Maki]

Did you pick up any of the regional dialects? What are some of your favorite words or phrases? 

I was so focused on learning standard conversational Japanese that I didn’t pick up a lot of Niigata-ben dialect. I remember a few words: “Jonnobi” means “relaxed” or “easygoing” and was also the name of one of my favorite onsen. And sometimes you’ll hear “Najirane” as a greeting that means, “hi, how are you?”

If you were to return to live in Japan, would you choose to live in that same prefecture?

I was incredibly lucky to live in Niigata – it is full of natural beauty, amazing people and delicious food. I couldn’t have asked for a better JET program assignment. If I returned to live in Japan, I’d likely be based in Tokyo, or another large city, since I’ve transitioned to the corporate sector. I’d like to combine city-living with lots of trips back to Niigata to enjoy its wonderful hospitality.

[Kate on a wintry day in Niigata by the Sea of Japan]

How has your connection in relation to Japan changed since living in Japan?

I'm so grateful to have had the opportunity to participate in the JET Program. My time in Japan had a major impact on my life and career. Living in a foreign country where I had to quickly figure out a whole new language and culture made me more resilient, empathetic, and humble. It inspired me to pursue a global business career, and to seek out other opportunities abroad, including living and working in the UK. I gained valuable skills teaching high school English, and learning continues to be a major theme in my career. I've spent the last fifteen years working for large, multinational companies within the HR function, focused on performance and talent management, leadership development and learning.

I have been back to Japan twice since I left. In 2010, I returned as part of a study abroad trip while pursuing my MBA. It was an opportunity for me to experience a different side of Japan, with corporate visits to McKinsey’s Tokyo office, the Toyota Motomachi plant and Kirin Ichiban’s headquarters. In 2016, my husband and I visited for our honeymoon. One of the highlights was returning to Niigata and staying at Takashima-ya inn at Iwamuro Onsen. The main building dates to the 1700s and the Meiji emperor himself stayed here in the 19th century. I highly recommend it if you’re looking for a traditional ryokan experience! I can’t wait to take my daughters to Japan someday, so that they can experience everything Japan has to offer. In the meantime, I am grateful to be able to keep my connection to Japan alive as a member of the Japan Society of Boston. 

[Enjoying karaoke in Niigata]

Thank you, Kate, for sharing your JET story!

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