Sunday, November 04, 2012

A letter from northern Japan

I asked our friend in Japan to write a guest post and after mulling it over for a bit, she kindly obliged. Having visited where she lives, I can certainly vouch for the beauty of the area, but much of Japan once outside the cities is beautiful. The best that can be said about urban areas is that the parks are very nice. I hope you find our friend's contribution interesting. I certainly did. Thanks V. 

It's almost 9 years to the day since I left my native Melbourne and moved to Japan.  I originally intended to stay 1 year...yes, I like living here.  I don't live in Tokyo or some other large metropolis.   I live in a small, provincial city above the snow line.  It's very beautiful here – lots of mountains and forest, some stunning coastline and farms.  For an outdoor enthusiast like myself, it's perfect!  There are even monkeys, which I love. 

I can't say I enjoy winter here; it's just too snowy.  Before I came here, I had a very romantic view of snow and while it can be picture postcard gorgeous, the daily reality of living with snow is very different.  Most roads are ploughed by the local authorities but footpaths are the responsibility of residents.  It's not uncommon for people to spend several hours clearing snow from in front of their houses before work and then having to clear the path in front of their office/shop/clinic.  Luckily, I don't have to shovel as much snow as others but let me tell you, it's hard work!  Trying to go about your daily life trudging through a blizzard and snow piled high over your head is also hard work.  Every winter there are several deaths; mostly from people falling off roofs.  Many houses don't have insulation.  Despite ploughing, many roads are so narrow during the worst of winter that one car can barely fit through.   It can start snowing any time from now but doesn't usually stay on the ground  until mid-to-late December.  It generally stays until April or May.  However, it's not all bad.  I'm told the skiing here is marvellous and 'swan watching' is a great winter treat as huge flocks of swans arrive from Siberia every year in late Autumn to spend winter. 

Life in Japan is still dictated in many instances by the seasons.  Even in a bustling place like Tokyo, people still take the time to enjoy seasonal food, the Harvest Moon, Autumn colours, the first snowfall, the new Summer green leaves and of course, cherry blossoms.  Festivals are held throughout Japan to celebrate each season.  I have a much better appreciation of the life cycle here, which I think is nice.

Another thing I enjoy about living in Japan is the relative safety.  No matter what the time, I have never feared for my personal safety here.  Very young children can safely walk to and from school without parents being unduly concerned.   And they can play in parks or on the street without being hassled.  Of course, you can never be complacent but the rising violence I see happening in Australia and other places, hasn't happened here and I hope it never does.

The Japanese are deservedly famous for being polite and helpful.  I've had strangers walk with me to a place I needed to go just to make sure I didn't get lost – again.  Shop keepers have slipped in extra goodies as I paid for purchases.  Neighbours I don't usually speak to have left bags of apples at my door.  People will go out of their way to help each other.

Generally life here is comfortable and good but of course, it has its frustrations.  Not speaking the language well and not being able to read, makes communicating difficult, especially when dealing with bureaucracy.  Speaking of which, bureaucracy here is very frustrating.  Rules are not meant to be broken or even bent.  There is generally only one way to do something and if your situation doesn't quite fit the established protocol (as is often the case with foreigners) it can be hell trying to get things done.

It's not uncommon to be stared at.  I don't mind so much when young kids do it but I really dislike adults doing it.  I also don't like being asked to have my photo taken by a complete stranger just so they can show their friends they 'met' a foreigner.  After 9 years, I've also grown weary of having people practise their English on me.  As much as I love my job as an English teacher, I don't want to do it in my free time.  And my pet hate – it's assumed all Caucasian foreigners are American, Christian and native English speakers.

But generally these are minor frustrations.  If I didn't enjoy living here, I certainly wouldn't stay.  As an expat, I think it's important to embrace as much of the local culture as possible but it's also equally important to have a network of other expats who you can talk to to let off steam.  Being able to speak English at native speed and without having to think about what I'm saying is a blessed relief at times. 

Over the past 9 years, I've gained a better understanding of what it's like to move out of your comfort zone and live in a country that is culturally and linguistically different from your own.  It's something I think everyone should do if they have the opportunity.  It might just make us more tolerant.

13 comments:

  1. Colin7:29 am

    Well done and exceedingly interesting.
    On my recent trip south, when in the Hunter Valley, my friends there, daughter,Rebecca, was an exchange student in Japan and speaks the language quite well. Presently, this daughter, husband and young family are hosting an exhange Japanese nurse for a year who is here to improve her English. Unfortunately, the young lady is very shy and reticent to try to communicate, but I introduced her to the bird bath where small finches, willy wagtails and parrots came to drink and wash in. This really intrigued her and as it was only her and I out in the gazebo area, she endeavoured to talk more. So now when she visits Rebecca's parents place, she has been put in charge of the bird bath - cleaning it and refilling. I have been informed that she has taken to this task with great enthusiasm. Who would have thought a bird bath would get her to speak English more often????
    I have only visited Japan once and found the people to be most courteous, a bit too courteous in the bars - Saki is now off my drinking list!!!

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    1. Interesting Colin. It only took a little effort and suddenly she came out of her shell. I've heard too many tales of the effects of saki, and so have avoided it.

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  2. A very interesting post. Thanks to V and to Andrew for inviting the contribution.

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    1. Victor, it wasn't snowing when we were there. It was hot and muggy. We don't experience such climatic extremes. Thanks.

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  3. Thank you for this nice little insight into life in Japan. I read a bit about it in novels now and again, but apart from that don't know anything about Japan. Do your students pick up English quicker than you have picked up Japanese?

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    1. River, we will get an answer about that, I am sure. But I would guess generally they pick up English quicker as they can easily get exposure to it through media.

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  4. Excellent post Andrew, a big thanks to your friend V for the insight into life in a small city in Japan. I think we all have romantic fantasies about snow, but it's a bit like my fantasy of living in Paris, kept intact as long as it stays a fantasy, although I truly would like to test that theory someday!!

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    1. Grace, you can live in Paris from March to October as a trial. Cold weather lovers such as me, does not like snow cold.

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  5. Anonymous10:58 pm

    Thanks for your comments everyone. I'm glad you enjoyed my guest blog!

    Colin, many English learners are reluctant to speak because they're worried about making a mistake. It's great you were able to find something to help the exchange student. Once she gains confidence, I'm sure she'll talk more.

    As for who picks up language more quickly between my students and I, it's hard to say. I think I'm more willing to speak Japanese than they are speaking English, but they can read and write English far better than I can in Japanese! V.

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  6. A very interesting post. It would certainly make you more tolerant of foreigners here.

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    1. I reckon it was interesting Diane. But hey, you have a big history of being a person abroad.

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  7. Ha! Now I know why I head north (in OZ) for winter!!! It's interesting being an expat in a country where you actually look different to the locals - I guess Kath's blog gives an insight into expat life where it's not so immediately obvious!

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    1. Red, your winter is hardly bad. At least V had dark hair and does not stand out too much. R and I being fair did, but I wasn't aware of people staring at us except once when a man found us so fascinating, he failed to notice his traffic light had turned green. Little kids seemed to be a bit afraid of us. This, of course was not in Tokyo or high tourist number areas.

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