What I've Learned So Far (4 Months in Japan)
I’m back and I bow to you in sincerest apology! もうしわけありません！I have no excuse, and I have so much to say and so much to catch you up on I don’t even know where to begin. So here’s just a compilation of the major things that I’ve learned from my 4 months of living in Japan (in the order they decide to randomly pop into my head).
1. A COUNTRY IS A COUNTRY, NO MATTER HOW FAR
Dreaming of Japan and all of the places I wanted to go, they seemed so incredibly exotic and unfamiliar. Like life as I knew it would never be the same again and adventure would be waiting to spring on me around every corner.
But Japan is a country just like yours in that the people here laugh, cry, live, work, cook, clean, and just basically live their lives the best they can, just like all of the people we know at home. Skyping with a few friends back home on a Saturday morning they asked what I had planned for the day: “Eh, cleaning and laundry mostly. I need to go grocery shopping and make some more iced tea too.” They were surprised how ordinary it all sounded, just like I would be doing at home most likely.
And while the process is slightly more Japan-ified (I have no dryer, limited counter space, and I can’t read most of the labels in the store) for the most part you will be living your life just like most people do (of course with the option of taking a day trip to Tokyo or a thousand year old shrine if you feel so inclined!). You have to look for adventure here too, it’s a state of mind and your life will be as boring or as exciting as your mind decides it wants it to be!
2. I SHOULD HAVE STUDIED MORE JAPANESE
I’m not saying I need to be completely fluent, but being able to hold a casual conversation would be nice. There are SO MANY awesome people here who just want to chat or ask a question and it would be great if I could understand enough to answer them. I’m able to live here with my level of Japanese largely due to my totally awesome company helping out with anything they can (even non-work related stuff) and the population being so darn nice and helpful!
I got my cellphone by passing an iPad with a bad translation app back and forth with the saleslady (bless her patience) and I’m getting exceedingly great at charades. Learning katakana and hiragana has saved my life so many times I can’t even count, being able to write it is valuable too (at least my name in katakana). While I joined a Japanese class for foreigners at my city hall and I’m slowly making my way through 1st grade kanji, it’s slow going and I do wish I’d done more in America and gotten a head start. Watching my students learn my language really does motivate me to learn theirs though, they work so hard I can’t do anything less!
3. MY CAR IS MY MOST PRIZED POSSESSION
If I didn’t have a car I wouldn’t have seen half of the places I’ve explored so far! At first I was so bummed I'd received a driving placement--like any foreigner into anime I imagined myself glamorously taking the train to work every morning and home every night. Of course everything in Japan would be magically super-easily accessible by public transportation.
I live in a small town with one bus (I think, I’ve never actually seen it at any of the “stops”) and exploring the whole spread out farming town on foot or bike just isn’t feasible (and have I mentioned the intense searing heat and suffocating humidity of the summers?). I love my car, driving on the left stopped freaking me out a few days in, and I haven’t turned on the wipers instead of the turn signal in at least a month! Progress!
Visiting the ALT’s I met at Tokyo training or seeing the random sights hidden in Ibaraki and surrounding prefectures wouldn’t be easy (or possible) without a car. Thank goodness for my car! And its amazing gas mileage. And its compact size. And its air conditioner. Just...everything!
4. SHORT SLEEVES FOR THE WIN
Did I mention the heat of the summer? It’s H O T. And the humidity makes it even worse! Luckily Japan has this thing called “Cool Biz” and you can wear short sleeves and no jacket from July (or late June) through September. Seeing as the schools lack air conditioning (my Jr High has fans stuck to the ceiling--not ceiling fans mind you--regular fans stuck sideways to the ceiling) even the most chipper of the glass-half-full club will be sorely tried when they are sweating through their clothes instantly and consistently all day with no hopes of drying out. Ever.
Nothing has been dry for about a month and a half now (mold is also a problem here) so bring thin, quick-dry short sleeve shirts (more than the two I brought) so you don’t have to wear a cardigan or something over your top like I do now (in the U.S. I only wore tank tops which are not acceptable in rural Japan even as casual wear--something I realized only after arriving and getting stared at a lot). Even the lightest cardigan will feel torturous on certain days and, as soon as you can, jump in your car with its lovely AC and drive slowly home.
5. SAVE MONEY
It’s so easy to blow your whole paycheck here! Everything is so cute and new and Japanese. But when summer break or a holiday weekend rolls around and you have no money to take a vacation like everyone else is you’ll be sad you didn’t. I now wish I had saved more in May and June so I could take a longer vacation this summer. I have 2 weeks of unpaid vacation where I have no school and I’m not on call and required to stay in the area. So far, I plan on Mt. Fuji, Kyoto, Nara, and Osaka for a grand total of ten days of travel in southern Japan! It could have been longer and I could have gone north too or farther down to Hiroshima like I wanted if I had planned better.
As it is, I’m waiting for a three-day weekend somewhere and an expensive shinkansen (bullet train) ticket to see the other areas on my list (Iwate, Hokkaido, etc.) TIP: Konbini (convenience stores) are dangerous yen black holes. I didn’t go to one for my first 2 months here and once I did it became an addiction, there’s no going back now! So many good and strange and new Japanese snacks….
6. I’M IN JAPAN
Crazy, right?! Sometimes it just hits me that I’m thousands of miles away from home in JAPAN. I made this dream come true and if I can accomplish this, I can do anything! Planning my summer vacation really makes it hit home that I’m 100% in charge of my life here--there’s no one to answer to or compromise with but there’s also no one to stop me from making millions of stupid mistakes. Being responsible for so many students, being financially independent, living alone–these are all new to me and it’s work making sure I get out of bed everyday and act like an adult instead of a college student still, but it’s so rewarding and I’m so glad to be here in this place chock-full of history and tradition!
While everyday life seems so similar to America, it’s also very foreign and everything is just that bit harder. But I’ve made so many memories, created some amazing friendships, and learned so much already. I’m a stronger person now than I was and I’m stoked to see what the rest of the year has in store for me!
I hope this list was interesting/informative and that if you’re on the fence deciding if you want to live abroad in Japan I’ve pushed you over into the “Of course I want to! Duh!” area. Nothing I can say can describe how much I value this experience and I hope to write more about Interac (Love them!) and my travels and observations in the Land of the Rising Sun.
If you have any questions about Interac, living in Japan, the process of the whole thing, or anything else please don’t hesitate to ask. I became a teacher for a reason you know, there’s nothing I love more than answering questions!