Hello there! Each month, we will be speaking with a JET alumnus to know more about their JET experience and life post-JET. If you are interested to be interviewed, or if you would like to nominate someone, please let us know by dropping us a comment here, on our Facebook, or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Next up, we have JET alumni Chris McMorran, who was placed in a place of arresting beauty, Kumamoto. Some of you may find Chris a familiar face as he works as a Senior Lecturer at NUS, Dept of Japanese Studies. Thank you Chris for sharing us many precious nuggets of wisdom in this interview. Enjoy!
Where are you from, and what brings you to Singapore?
I was raised in Iowa, in the US Midwest. I moved to Singapore in 2010 to begin working at NUS. I’m currently Senior Lecturer in the Dept of Japanese Studies.
How did you decide on this particular field?
I completed my PhD in Geography in 2008, based on research I conducted in Kurokawa Onsen, Kumamoto Prefecture. I worked in a handful of ryokan (traditional Japanese inns) for about a year – welcoming guests, carrying luggage, cleaning guest rooms, washing dishes, scrubbing baths – to better understand the labor required to produce that feeling of home away from home everyone loves about the ryokan.
How has your experience on the JET Programme helped you reach this place in life?
I knew nothing about Japan before I moved to Kumamoto fresh out of college to begin my life as an ALT. Within a few years I had developed a fascination with the country that drove me to learn more and eventually pursue graduate studies in Geography, focused on tourism in Japan. I also visited and became enthralled with Kurokawa and met my future wife during my JET years. It was a critical time in my life, leading me to where I am today.
What is the JET experience you got that was unique to Kumamoto?
I moved from my hometown in Iowa (population 2000) to Kumamoto City (pop. 600,000), where I lived in an apartment for the first time in my life and commuted to work by bicycle. In other words, the JET Program was my first experience living in a city. In contrast, many of my friends, both in Kumamoto and elsewhere, lived very rural lives in towns and villages like I grew up in. What was unique (to me) about Kumamoto was the combination of this very happening big city and all the super-tiny villages only an hour or so away. At the time, there was not as much suburban sprawl as one finds around Kumamoto these days, so I could hop on my bicycle in the heart of the downtown and be riding past rice fields in about 20 minutes. That was unique for me. I now know that many capitals of Japan’s smaller prefectures resemble Kumamoto, but that was new for me. Kumamoto also offered amazing beaches, seafood and dolphin watching, as well as beautiful mountains, a live volcano (Aso), and hot springs. I was in heaven!
What is the most memorable thing you’ve done on the Programme?
Work-related: I have fond memories of training students for English recitation contests. Some of the students even won!
Personal: I spent a few weeks one summer cycling from Sapporo to Wakkanai. Along the way I stayed with strangers who invited me into their homes. I circumnavigated Rishiri Island and later hiked a few days in Daisetsuzan National Park. At one point along a path in Daisetsuzan I found a shovel and a sign that said “dig for onsen.” After 10 minutes I had created an onsen pool large enough for one person to sit in. I stripped down and bathed on the mountaintop, without any shelter or another soul around. That was a fantastic experience.
What insider secret can you share with someone who is about to visit Kumamoto for travel?
There are too many options to choose from. Here are a few favourites:
- Contrast onsen: Visit both Kurokawa Onsen and Tsuetate Onsen. They are both located in the mountainous center of Kyushu, in the northernmost part of Kumamoto bordering Oita Prefecture. They are both fascinating places and excellent for unwinding, but they differ in key ways. Kurokawa only became popular in the 1980s, when there was a resurgence of nostalgia for rural landscapes. This is obvious in the architecture and overflowing greenery planted around the village. Buy a bath pass (nyucto regatta) and try three outdoor baths (rotemburo) at one of the two dozen participating inns. I really shouldn’t play favourites and say which ones to visit. They all have their own charms. Then go to Tsuetate and stay the night. Of course, you can stay in Kurokawa, but you’ll pay double or even triple for the privilege, and I think the quality of the baths at Tsuetate are superior. The water just does something different to your skin!
- Contrast museums: Visit Sōshisha and the Minamata Disease Municipal Museum in Minamata. These two museums are devoted to the many victims of methyl-mercury poisoning that first came to light in the late 1950s and continued for years due to prejudice, ignorance, and cozy ties between the polluter (Chisso Corporation) and the prefectural and city governments (eventually the national government admitted some responsibility, too). Despite being about the same tragedy, the two museums present slightly different narratives, which always makes for a fascinating experience.
- Love nature: At 1592 meters, Mt. Nakadake is a winner. It’s also easy to remember because the height can be read hi-go-ku-ni, one of Kumamoto’s nicknames (“Higo” was the Tokugawa period name of Kumamoto. It’s still the name of the local bank).. It’s also easy to remember because the height can be read hi-go-ku-ni, one of Kumamoto’s nicknames (“land of fire” – because of the nearby volcano). Set aside 3-4 hours to pace yourself and have time for selfies. Pack water and an onigiri to enjoy at the top. Also worth a visit is Kikuchi Gorge, a magical canyon carved out by some of the clearest water you’ve probably ever seen. Like many of the best spots in Kumamoto and elsewhere in Japan, these places are easily reached by car, and otherwise quite difficult to access. But they are worth it.
- Religious pilgrimage: Christians might enjoy visiting sites around Amakusa devoted to their faith. For instance, Christian missionaries had been quite successful in converting Japanese in the late 1500s, and the religion flourished until the Tokugawa regime cracked down on it and banned the practice. This led many to become “hidden Christians” (kakure kirishitan), who continued to practice in secret for the next few hundred years. There is now a Christian museum in Amakusa, as well as a few small churches built after the restrictions were lifted, which are cute but look curious in their tiny Japanese fishing villages. There has been a recent push to get these churches inscribed in the UNESCO list of World Heritage. People might want to visit before the rest of the tourists arrive! Of course, you could always combine this trip with visits to some shrines and temples, like Fujisaki-gu in Kumamoto City.