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.