My first month in this amazing country
Japan was a bit of an unexpected twist in my life journey. That’s not to say that it’s not a place that I’ve always wanted to visit, because it is, but after living in Southern China and being broken down by unrelenting heat, humidity and banana sized cockroaches in my apartment, I thought my English-teaching adventures in Asia were over.
But after returning home to Canada and being discouraged with the still dilapidated job market, my mind began to wander and my wanderlust picked up steam once again.
I had heard that the teaching market in Japan was saturated and that it wasn’t overly easy to get a job. It’s what in fact led me to choose China (I procured the first Chinese teaching job I applied for after a flawless three and a half minute Skype interview). But I decided to test the waters. Indeed it is much, much harder to land a gig in Japan these days. I applied to around 30 jobs and only had two companies reply to me. They can pick and choose here and a lot of the companies choose to hire expats living in Japan that already have visas so they don’t have to go through the hassle of sponsoring someone.
However, after researching one of the interested companies and realizing they weren’t being flamed online like a lot of other companies, I was awarded employment after a rigorous month-long interview process. Back to Asia.
In one of those rare life occurrences, Japan was as awesome as I had pictured it in my mind all of these years. This homogeneous little island cluster really blew me away each and every day.
However, it did start off a little shaky when I first arrived. The driver from my company picked me up from the airport. He spoke some English and our first conversation was an unexpected one.
Me: Yes, I’ll be moving to small-town Nagano living near the mountains. I’m really excited.
Him: Oh yes. They have wild boar there. Very, very dangerous.
Me: Oh really? Do they attack humans?
Me: Do they ever kill people?
End of conversation.
I don’t think we talked for 20 minutes after that. Welcome to Japan!
But the next day I hit the ground running in Tokyo like a wide-eyed child, taking the train around town with unrelenting zeal, trying to soak in as much of the mega city that I could. Having only Konichiwa (Hello) and Arigato Gozaimasu (Thank You) in my lexicon, I bumbled around town somehow able to order beer and ramen. My charades game is strong when it comes to this type of communication. But what struck me as I meandered through the sprawling metropolis was that I never felt anxious, intimidated, lost or unwanted. There was a palpable peace that wafted through the air. Nobody here wanted to hurt me. Nobody here wanted to harass me or yell at me. Nobody even gave me a dirty look. Where the heck am I? It’s a city that has a greater population of 34 million, so where are all the assholes that come part and parcel with that kind of operation. They don’t exist. Welcome to Pleasantville, Ryan.
And not only were people not assholes, they actually go out of their way to help you. In my first day alone I experienced two very noble acts of kindness that would not happen anywhere else.
1. As I fumbled with the ticket machine at Shinjuku station with my bill being constantly being rejected by the stubborn machine, a random stranger no older than 14 walked up, paid for my ticket with his card and told me to have a good day.
2. I was lost in some Tokyo neighbourhood and had no GPS on my phone. I asked a high school kid if he could point me towards the train. He refused. Instead he walked me a solid ten minutes to the foot of the train’s doorstep.
In a country that lives and dies on first impressions, this one had made a lasting one on me. And it never stopped. You feel welcomed everywhere you go, people smile, greet you with enthusiasm, make sure you are satisfied with any of your quests.
I put on miles my first few days in Tokyo before my training started, but was soon settled into routine with a classroom full of a mixed bag of English, Irish, Canadian, Australian and Japanese. We were all being transformed into teachers through two weeks of intensive training.
One of the teachers was a beautiful, gregarious woman from Osaka who made an effort to talk to the foreigners. We bonded over baseball and she was a Hanshin Tigers fan, which naturally made me (team-less at the time) a Tigers fan too. I went to my first game later that week at Jingu stadium to watch the Yakult Swallows host the Hanshin Tigers from Osaka. The experience didn’t disappoint.
Baseball is God in Japan and going to a game is a heavenly spectacle. When you buy tickets at the game you need to pick your side. Ain’t no fence sitters at Japanese baseball games. The stadium is divided directly down the middle with one side for the home fans and one side for the visitors. I of course picked the visiting Tigers, who unbeknownst to me also have the wildest fans in all of Japan I’m told.
I got there early to soak in the atmosphere. It was a perfect spring night with a hospitable temperature of around 24 degrees. I tailgated for a bit, ordering classic baseball snacks like Vietnamese subs, shrimp on a stick and small plastic baseball caps full of grilled octopus.
Shortly after I was shown to my seat by another kind human. The seat was exactly the size of one of my ass cheeks. This made the first few innings a challenge before the beer kicked in. Oh the beer. Ordering a beer at a baseball game in Japan is almost as good as drinking it. Fresh-faced young women with kegs on their backs run up and down the stands all game long making sure no one’s thirst goes unquenched. It’s heart-breaking that custom doesn’t allow you to tip them because these young beauties are working so hard. But I hear it’s a highly coveted position and these ladies are not unhappy.
Back to the crowd. Being the overly polite society that is Japan, the opposing fans sit in complete and utter silence when their team is not up to bat. While the fans of the hitting team go buck wild singing and chanting, waving flags, playing god damn horns and trumpets. Not just a team song that everyone sings in unison, but a song for every player on the team! The other side of the stadium, complete silence. It was laugh-out-loud to experience and what a great time.
It was bitter-sweet to leave Tokyo. After being there for two weeks I knew that I could easily live there and it would be a blast. I would never have trouble meeting friends or finding something to do. But on the other hand I was excited to head to the countryside. It was neat in my mind to think that I’d be living somewhere in Japan that nobody knows about, cares about, or will ever see in their lifetime most likely. Yet there is so much beauty here.
Shimosuwa. My new town. Population 20,000. Home. This town is authentic as it gets and I am constantly reminded of this by the beautiful gardens trimmed to perfection and the traditional homes that I pass on my daily walks. It’s what you think of when you think of Japan — at least traditional countryside Japan. I hear frogs and crickets. I see stars at night. The town is anchored by a gorgeous lake with abundant low-flying hawks and a backsplash of Mount Fuji on a clear day. It is gorgeous.
The food is orgasm-inducing. The beer is average at best but the izakayas (Japanese pubs) are plentiful and the sake is renowned in Japan. I settled in nicely and the people are wonderful as expected. My apartment has air conditioning and is cockroach free. The grocery store sells cheese, and whiskey is as cheap as beer for some reason. I live two minutes from the lake and start my days with a 5 km run which brings me a period of serenity before heading to school to teach a bunch of wild maniacs. I say that endearingly.
It’s hard not to eat out everyday because even Japanese 7–11 can make way better food than I can cook. And I fancy myself a decent cook.
It’s going to be an interesting year as I slowly maneuver through this town and its kind people. However, I am constantly on my best behaviour. I make up 50% of the town’s foreign population so I’m not very hard to find.