A couple weeks ago, I experienced my first enkai, as well as an unexpected trip to the top of Tokyo Skytree. An enkai is a Japanese work party, and is a pretty big deal in Japanese work culture. I had heard so much about enkais at orientation and from other JETs, so I was eager and excited to experience my first! This was actually a jokai – an enkai only for women, so it was just the female teachers at my school. It was a great experience!
The enkai was in Asakusa, so one of the English teachers took my co-JET and me there early to show us around. She grew up in Asakusa, an area in Tokyo famous for its historic, Edo-era vibe. She said the area has not changed at all since she grew up, which is quite amazing considering she’s in her 50s. First she took us to a viewpoint on the 8th floor above the visitor’s center, where we saw a fantastic view of the city, and Tokyo Skytree nearby.
Then we headed to the famous Senso-ji temple. We passed through the Kaminarimon (Kaminiari Gate), at the entrance to the temple. The gate was built more than 1000 years ago, and is the symbol of Asakusa. We walked down the shopping street, and then entered the temple and prayed. It was a perfect day – sunny and clear, and the warmest day in quite a while.
Then it was time for the enkai! It was in a traditional style Japanese restaurant. We had own room with tatami mats, rice paper walls, a low table, and cushions on the ground. Once everyone arrived, we ordered drinks, and had a kanpai (toast). Dinner was sukiyaki, a kind of Japanese hotpot. Each table has their own nabemono pot, which is filled with boiling sauce, and then you add in your own ingredients – thinly sliced beef, veggies, tofu, and noodles – to cook. Then you pull what you want, and dip it in raw, beaten egg. It was SO delicious! I even went for the raw egg, which I have up to this point avoided, because it freaks me out (even though I know, I know, it’s totally safe in Japan).
I was a little worried about enkai etiquette, because I had heard there are many rules to follow, and I was hoping to make a good impression with my coworkers. But, it turned out to be a very laid-back and enjoyable, and I don’t think any one cared about these rules. It was really nice to see the teachers in a social setting. The difference between their demeanor at work and at the enkai was like night and day. They were all happy, laughing, and having a great time, when usually at school they are quite serious and distant. Most of the teachers don’t speak English, so I tried out my limited Japanese, and we communicated through gestures and smiles. My favorite part was when the topic of Pokemon Go came up, one of the older teachers, who is super serious and has never smiled once at school, whipped out her phone and started showing off her Pokemon (and even smiled a little). It was fantastic.
After the enkai, a group of teachers decided to go to Tokyo Skytree, because it was right nearby us, and they invited us to join. At 634 meters (2,080 feet), Tokyo Skytree is the tallest tower, and second tallest structure in the world, second only to the Buri Khalifa in Dubai. Skytree opened just a few years ago, in 2012, so it’s still a quite new and exciting attraction in Tokyo, even for native Tokyoites. None of the teachers had done it yet, so they were all just as excited (or maybe even more!) as I was. The timing was fantastic, because it was a clear night and there was almost no line. We had to wait less than five minutes, which is killer, considering that people usually wait hours.
The elevator takes you up to the top remarkably quickly, in 50 seconds. At the top, there is an observation deck with a 360-degree view, which is simply amazing. You can see everything – huge skyscrapers and Tokyo Tower gleaming in the distance, the Sumida River, all of Tokyo around you. It was absolutely beautiful, and once again I was just taken by the massive scale of Tokyo – it’s just SO BIG! And what a better way to see it than from the tallest tower in the world. After taking in the view, we descended to the (slightly) lower floors, where they have a bar, merchandise, and (gasp!) a glass floor.
We took a picture with all of the teachers and us standing on the glass floor. I splurged for the over-priced souvenir print, because it was such a great memory. Skytree was on my Tokyo bucket-list, but it was so great to do it in this spontaneous way, with all of the female teachers at my school. I was just so happy to have been included, and that I was able to share the excitement with them. It was a bonding experience that I was not expecting at all, and I’m so happy that it happened.
In fact, the whole night made me re-examine my attitude towards my school and the other teachers. I’ll admit, I’d been feeling pretty isolated at my school. I didn’t feel very welcomed by the other teachers, and I found it hard to even start basic communication with any of them. But none of that is intentional or spiteful on their part, and I shouldn’t take it personally. It’s Japanese work culture, and it’s different from American work culture. The teachers are very busy, and when they are at work, they are focused on work. And obviously the language barrier is a huge part of it. But, seeing them in this social setting helped me realize that my coworkers are not scary, emotionless teacher-bots, they are real, fun human beings, who laugh and smile and take Instagram selfies just like everyone else.