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WATN: Gina Panozzo (Okinawa, 2012-2015)

Hello fellow JETs, this is Gina reporting to you for duty. I’m a JET Alumnus who was stationed on beautiful Okinawa from 2012-2015. Some of you may believe I sold my soul for my awesome placement, but it was actually third on my list! Being based in Okinawa, I had an experience completely different from mainland JETs. Everything was different down to the native Uchinaguchi (Okinawa’s indigenous language) and dark pink cherry blossoms that bloomed in January. These experiences make my memories really happy, especially ones pertaining to learning sanshin (the Okinawan snake skin banjo) and going to Orion Beer and Eisa Festivals. As I write, I can still smell the 500 yen draft Orion in my cup, hear the Eisa calls, and feel the beating taiko drums. The echo of Shimanchu no Takara by Begin is alive in my memory as I recall laughing, eating yakisoba, and waiting for fireworks with my friends. I can remember wearing my beautiful purple yukata, my hair styled with a traditional handmade glass piece from Kyoto and a flower comb. I loved the festivals and the Japanese were so kind as they whispered, “bijin” (beautiful woman). When they see a beautiful foreigner in their traditional wear, I can’t tell you how many people will compliment, try to talk to you, and go out of their way to be nice to you. Appreciating and showing appreciation for your host country’s culture will get you far.

Bragging rights for Okinawa definitely pertain to the awesome beaches on the outer islands and the main island. From my apartment, during the spring and autumn months I would leave the windows open and smell the salty sea breeze bringing fresh air into my apartment. After living on Okinawa, all oceans of the world will be ruined for you after experiencing clear sapphire and emerald waters. I especially loved watching the sunsets from the beach and witnessing the sun set the ocean on fire with orange and red. Those are images I can never forget.

The most valuable lessons we take away from our time in Japan is discovering who we are. We may pick up a new hobby, learn Japanese, or marry a local. I was fresh out of college when I went to Japan and had never been abroad to Asia. It was my first time in the Land of the Rising Sun and a dream come true. Ever since I was 12 years old, I dreamed about living and experiencing Japan. When I finally caught my dream, I lived it happily and without many worries. In your early twenties, you’re just determining who you are. You start to realize you don’t know much about the world and discover what your host country thinks about the world you left. I learned I can take a lot more than I thought I could– when all my close friends left, I learned to enjoy my alone time, deal with some blatant racism, and push myself to be a better person despite the odds.

While on JET, don’t be a potato, sit at your computer desk and Facebook all day. I had a lot of free time and I know many JETs who do. Use that time to be productive. Study Japanese, start a blog, read an interesting book, or join a club at your school. Being overseas is a chance to start fresh. You’re no longer the person you were and you actually have the ability to craft yourself into the person you want to be. It’s a miraculous thing because you can make Japanese and expat friends to further that goal.

The best thing you can do while living in Japan is explore the country. You’re there and traveling within the country is pretty cheap. There’re low cost airlines like Peach, Vanilla, and Jetstar that have great rates. Believe it or not, but ANA also has some great bargains sometimes. While I lived in Japan, I traveled to many of the outer islands of Okinawa including Aka, Geruma, Miyako, Ishigaki, Tokashiki and Zamami. On mainland, I was able to visit Fukuoka, Kyoto, Nara, Osaka, Sapporo, and Tokyo. My only regret while living in Japan was not making it to Aomori prefecture for the giant paper lantern festival every summer or visiting Himeji Castle, the poster site for Japan.
At the end of my three years, I chose to move on to another country and seek a new adventure there. I now live in Korea, in a small city just outside Seoul. I teach English at a high level middle school to a bunch of rowdy kids and it’s pretty great. I’m still traveling, adventuring and discovering Asia. If you’d like to contact me or learn more about Japan and Korea check out my blog and YouTube channel.

Gina Panozzo

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