I wrote an article on how to ace the JET interview, so I thought I’d follow up by writing about my first few months in Japan. I think of my first few months in Japan as being divided into 2 halves: the Heaven, and the Hell.
Let’s start with the section that’ll warm cockles of your heart. I’d been wanting to live abroad for years. Literally years. I’d done a voluntourism programme in Uganda when I was 18, but that wasn’t enough. I needed to live somewhere, not just be a tourist.
When I moved to Japan, every day was filled with rich cultural experience that I could never have predicted. I’ll pick out a few of my favourite memories from my story jar to tell you folks.
The First Drinking Party 初めて飲み会
One of my fondest memories was my first drinking party (飲み会). I got an email before I arrived from my soon-to-be supervisor telling me to keep a certain date free because everyone wanted to have a drinking party with me. First, I thought it was hilarious that they called it a drinking party. Being British, we don’t need an excuse to drink and if we do want to we would usually mask it by calling it “a welcome party” or “an icebreaker”. But here we had the motives laid out very clear. I was buzzing for it.
So, the night comes around, I rock up to the restaurant and remember being humbled to almost tears. Dutifully, the English teacher translated damn near everything for me both ways that night. As we stumbled into the second bar, I remember the English teacher laughed as he translated, “What part of a woman do you find erotic?” from the PE teacher. The night ended singing the Beatles with my headteacher and promising each other we would start a cover band, which funnily I did actually end up doing. In the midst of my hangover the next day I remember thinking that was such a special memory.
The First Onsen 初めて温泉
Shortly after I arrived I was taken on a trip to a nearby hot spring (温泉) town, Unzen, by one of my now best friends. I had no idea what to expect. We stayed in a traditional Japanese inn (旅館) and I was highly anticipating my first onsen trip. As a kid I’d always found comfort in the warm embrace of a shower or bath so I thought these public baths would be right up my alley. I wasn’t wrong. As I donned the robes (浴衣) in our room and bounded towards the hot spring, I felt like I was about to embark on a journey that would broaden my world more than I could describe. I wasn’t wrong. I adored every second of it. The freedom of being naked in front of friends, the pure joy of having the biggest bath in the world to explore, the relaxation that accompanied. Now a hot spring veteran, I consider that a life changing moment.
Playing with the Kids 初めて遊んだ
To be honest, the work didn’t make it into my heaven part very often early on. But one thing I did adore everyday was having hoards of the cutest little humans wanting to play with me. At one of my elementary schools some 1st or 2nd graders came to the teachers room one lunch time and stood by the door shouting “let’s play” (遊ぼう) at me. One teacher translated for me and of course I obliged. I didn’t know what games Japanese kids like or how to understand any rules, but I knew a willingness is all kids require. That day I ran my arse off playing tag (鬼ごっこ) and I’ve never looked back since. Nothing like the innocence of children to make you feel welcome.
Everything in life is in a delicate balance and the same can be said for my first few months in Japan. With the Heaven certainly came the Hell. Moving to a country as vastly different in Japan was always bound to have its difficulties. I was told exactly that in one of the JET Programme welcome lectures, where a very lovely woman explained exactly how depressed we’d be in every stage of our lives here; I’m being serious, she used a graph of depression and everything. I picked out a few of the difficulties I faced to give you a balanced view of my first few months.
The Silence 沈黙
The Japanese are a reserved people. Considering I’d just come from living in Italy for a while, it felt like they were minus levels of social. I remember being sat at my desk on one of my first days, with no one approaching me, probably from a fear of me doing the unthinkable and speaking English to them and sitting in dead silence for 7 hours. I can’t tell you how much I thought I’d made the worst decision of my life that day. I didn’t lack the confidence to speak to people, but I certainly lacked the language ability and knowledge of Japan to spark up a conversation. The silence was brutal.
The Kanji 漢字
For those of you learning Japanese you’ll know that Kanji is horrendous. It’s one of the most complex writing systems in the world. I remember being so excited to buy a load of Japanese ingredients and start cooking Japanese dishes. But then I got to the supermarket and realised that unlike everywhere else I’d been, I couldn’t read a thing. Of course, Google Translate existed, but it made every trip to the supermarket take about 4 times as long as it should have. A few times I just gave up and got oven pizzas so that I didn’t have to bear asking the attendant for the 15th time where the soy sauce was.
The Japanese-ness 日本らしさ
Perhaps the most shocking thing for me moving to Nagasaki was the Japanese-ness of it all. I used to work on food markets in London where foods of the world came to me. I didn’t know how spoilt I was. As a foodie, it was tough to have almost every dish I like to make out of reach. Pitta bread, supermarket doesn’t have it. Pesto, eye-wateringly expensive. Sausages, restricted to wieners. It was a totally different thing reading about the mono-ethnicity in Japan and then experiencing it first-hand.
Over the Hump
Living in Japan has been, and I’m sure will continue to be the best experience of my life so far. And it’s important to say that out of the Hellish times also came even better times. Japanese people being reserved is what has made it even more special to create bonds with them. Learning to read Kanji to the point where I can read a novel in Japanese has been one of the most rewarding experiences. The general Japanese-ness of Nagasaki has made this the truly immersive experience I was hoping for. It’s not always a walk in the park but moving to Japan could well be the best decision you’ll ever make.