And now we live in Japan

 

About ten months ago Lindsay and I moved to Japan. Specifically a small(ish) town in the Kansai region, in Nara prefecture. The town name is Koryo, and has a population of roughly 35k. The town is roughly 30 minutes by train from Osaka, and around 45 minutes to Nara city. The other major-ish city that is nearby is Kashihara which is around 15 minutes to the East.

This blog has been a bit disjointed the past few years. Work and life in general takes a lot of the energy required to sit down and write out things in detail. When we’re traveling, updating the blog is sort of like a 3 hour a week “job” that we give ourselves and is somewhat rewarding as it feels like we’ve accomplished something after posting. It’s sort of like, “great, this is an experience or memory we’ve captured! It’s on the books!”

Sadly, for better or worse, that’s not the stage of life we’re in (endless time every day in need of filling), so the blogosphere will likely not overfloweth with blog posts from me anytime soon. That said, I didn’t want to let TOO much time pass before posting some sort of update to document this stage of life.

Moving to Japan

Lindsay got a job teaching in Japan, and so we moved. First, we did what we normally do, we sold most of our stuff. “Most of our stuff” at this point in our life means everything but our expensive-to-replace cooking equipment, art, winter clothes, a rug, a bunch of smart light bulbs and home automation stuff, the cutting board table I made, our projector, and a few other random things. It all adds up and in the end we had a solid car load of stuff we DIDN’T sell that went back with various family members to hide in closets and basements until we get back. That said, everything else is gone. 

Selling stuff outside

Other than selling all of our stuff, the move to Japan was actually pretty simple and it went pretty smoothly. The my high anxiety nature tends to pay off with this sort of move (though honestly Lindsay tends to actually DO more, I just worry more) and we timed most things pretty well. Our apartment lease ended a few days after our flight to Japan for example, and we flew out of Chicago, so we were basically able to go directly from our apartment to the airport (thanks to Phill and Jinnie for a ride!).

Everything we brought to Japan This is everything we brought with us to Japan. Note that these bags are actually bigger than the apear in the photo (perspective is a bit off). It’s basically 3 full sized (70-85 liter?) backpacking packs plus an equally large duffel bag.

Lindsay in Chicago airport to Japan Lindsay at O’hare the day we left. IMG_3182 Me in Japan on the day we arrived.

I’ll say again, it’s so hard (actually, impossible) to fit in 10 months of seriously solidly packed adventure and excitement into a blog post. It’s impossible to mention everything. I realize this is obvious, but I feel compelled to mention it because as I think back to this period there are so many little memories that pop up that I think about. 

Anyway, we got to Japan on a Sunday, and Lindsay started orientation the following day in Tokyo. I flew with her as it was semi-required (or highly recommended) to make visa processing easier. Lindsay stayed in a hotel with the rest of her new work people, but I stayed by myself in a hostel in an area of Tokyo I wanted to explore. Lindsay was pretty busy every day with work orientation stuff so I didn’t get a chance to see her much anyway and I had a nice time just walking around on my own schedule. hanging out in my hostel in tokyo This is an unexciting photo, but basically the first thing I did when I got to my hostel. Sat down, took stock of my situation, drank a Heartland beer, and planned out my evening and following day.

At this point, the night I arrived to my hostel, was pretty amazing and surreal. I was literally living a dream of mine, my #1 bucket list item, “live in Japan.” The feeling of being in Japan but knowing you weren’t just visiting, but that I’d be living here for an undefined period of time (at that point we were open to 2 years or even more potentially) was something I’d never experienced before. The things I was seeing would be things I’d see again (or could, if I wanted to). I sat for a while the first night sort of in a daze, a mixture of happiness and excitement. It doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things, but I remember going out to eat at a small izakaya that served sushi and feeling like I could die happy. 

The next 3 or 4 days I spent walking around Tokyo in a semi-daze. If I were to be honest, I wasn’t as efficient with this time as I wish I had been. Tokyo is a big city and we had already spent over a month in Tokyo before (given it was about 4 years ago), and after a while unless you’re intentional with your plans / what you’re seeing the city ends up just sort of turning into this giant shopping area. I used ramendb.com as always to find some of the more popular (and off the beaten path) ramen shops to try.  I was by myself though, without Lindsay, and one thing about Tokyo is that it can be pretty lonely at times to be there by yourself. There are so many people everywhere, most of them Japanese, in small cute magical little restaurants and cafes, but as a single person who doesn’t speak the language I sometimes feel pretty disconnected from some of the real “warmth” that I see (this is a theme throughout my time in Japan I’d say). 

Meanwhile, Lindsay’s reality for the first 3 or 4 days in Japan was basically sitting in a giant conference room in a suit with a ton of other new teachers listening to (as I understanding it) questionably useful Japan / teaching orientation stuff. I suspect her experience was harder than mine, but more unique and interesting. 

Going to Koryo / our town / Lindsay’s placement

After orientation in Tokyo, in short, we took a shinkansen (bullet train) with all of the teachers in our prefecture we would be living (Nara) to Nara city (the capital / main city in Nara… most likely the only city most people who have visited Japan as a tourist might know of in Nara). For anybody reading who isn’t familiar, a prefecture in Japan is sort of like a state in the US. So our town of Koryo was in the prefecture of Nara.

So anyway we got off the train in Nara and were paraded to the main prefectural offices. I can’t really understate how strange this experience is. A bunch of foreigners literally in a single file line, most of them in suits (not me as I’m “just” a dependent spouse), walking through Nara. I felt like I was in elementary school or something like that. One bizarre and random thing on the way: there was a very low speed police chase that we witnessed while walking. This chase would end up making national news (really very random and strange). Some dude was probably driving 15 or 20 MPH (30ish KPH?) in circles around the block, dragging his front bumper, while two police with sirens on are chasing. Despite being the largest city in Nara, it’s still a very quiet town, so it’s just this sort of surreal slow motion police chase.

Anyway, at this point the forced social situations when we (Lindsay and I, and likely everybody else) just wanted to get to our new homes and see what the cities / towns / etc we’d live in would look like was a bit tough. Lindsay was stressed about giving a self introduction (in Japanese!). I was just sweating hot and not exactly looking forward to filling an unspecified amount of time while Lindsay was working. I went and pet the deer in Nara park and walked around a bit. 

Eventually Lindsay left and this is where things started to get very real. 

I have stop for a second to say here that it was HOT this summer. We had heard Japan is pretty hot / humid / miserable in the summer so we were semi-prepared, but nothing can REALLY prepare you for the heat and humidity if you’re coming from a slightly more moderate midwest climate. Keep in mind Lindsay is wearing a full suit during all of this (and in fact for the entire first month or so in Japan, when it was it’s most miserable). Again, we KNEW on paper Japan would be hot, but we had spent 2.5 months previously in Japan during the fall and winter and I think we still sort of in our heads pictured more moderate weather, despite knowing better. Anyway, the oppressive heat sort of colored our entire experience the first few days / weeks in Japan. 

So after the introductions / ceremonies / etc were over at the Nara prefectural building, we finally met up with the people from our towns board of education to take the next (near final) trip to our town. The people from our town hall (and in fact everybody we’ve met there up till now) are incredibly kind people. We feel incredibly lucky to have such great people to help us through this experience. Anyway, we met up with two people from the town hall (technically these would be the people we ultimately answer to. To keep it short, Lindsay works at two junior high schools, both public, but the board of education in the town basically contracts with Lindsay and organizes her schedule and other arrangements with the individual schools she visits).

We got in the car with Yuka and Takuya and drove about 45 minutes to our home for the next few days. At this point Lindsay and my heads were spinning with all of the greetings and meetings and heat. The car ride was nice but there was certainly a language barrier. Yuka and Takuya both speak some english (way better than our Japanese!), but still most of the conversation for those 45 minutes was done through Google translate. For anybody who has done this before, it can be a bit exhausting… not being able to fully express yourself (our appreciation in particular!) can be difficult. Honestly we’re still dealing with this feeling on a daily basis so we’re a bit more used to it, but it isn’t exactly fun. 

Thanks to google translate, we had a rough idea of what we were doing when we got to our town but we still weren’t really prepared. We basically went straight to the town hall and met with the mayor, met with a bunch of people in the BoE, and did a bunch of paperwork. There was a LOT of paperwork. 

I wish I had a photo of the inside of the town hall, but honestly it feels like something out of a Pokemon game to me. That probably doesn’t mean much to anybody, but for anybody that played the first pokemon games on the original nintendo, the sort of feeling you got exploring a town and visiting a town hall in those games as a kid was sort of the feeling I had at the town hall in our town. Large open floor plan, separated by departments, lots of big fax machines and printers everywhere, sort of retro-futuristic. Different departments wearing their uniforms (e.g. the sanitation department might all be wearing their full body sanitation / garbage collection outfit or whatever, that type of thing).

The BoE in our town is on the second  floor, and we went up there to meet people. We sat in an office and met the superintendent. We were incredibly grateful that everybody tried to speak English with us, but for the sake of explaining the situation it’s important to point that every person we met and all conversations we had were very limited in scope because we had to use Google translate for pretty much anything past the very basics. A very nice woman, Mana, from the BoE who is actually in charge of the school lunch program in the town, spoke the best English and so went with us and Lindsay’s “bosses” on most errands to help translate. Her English was great, but still took effort on all parts to communicate. Basically you have to imagine that all communication at this point took effort and was limited in depth. So lots of dead silence where everybody is trying to think of what they might be able to say. Lots of getting our phones to ask questions or look up words. All while dripping sweat and (in Lindsay’s case) wearing a full suit.

We also met the mayor of our town at this point. We went into his office and sat down with him and had more of the above interactions. Super nice guy, very warm personality, felt like he’s probably a pretty down to earth sort of person. That said, an absolutely nightmare for me: I was wearing shorts. This was something we had been warned about during orientation, than I as the spouse / partner / dependent should still at least wear reasonably nice cloths when we met the mayor, and I had brought with me in a backpack a nicer shirt and pair of pants to put on when we went to meet the BoE and the major, but in the end there was no opportunity. We went directly from Nara city to the town hall. I would have had to ask to go to a bathroom or something along the way, or in the town hall, to change, and at that point it would have been awkward / strange. So I met the major in short-ish shorts with my bare white legs shining. At least I had a collared shirt on. 

View from Green Palace This video is difficult to fully appreciate, but after the craziness of orientation in Tokyo, shinkansen to Nara, meetings in Nara, a car ride with contacts from our small town hall, a whirlwind of meetings and introductions in fragmented English at our town hall (seriously meeting a bajillion people), this was the first moment when we were by ourselves in our temporary accommodation at the “Green Palace” in our small town, and this was the moment we looked outside and realized “this is where we live now”. To be honest at this moment we were emotionally, mentally, and physically exhausted and we were both equal parts absolutely excited at the adventure and feeling like we had put ourselves in a situation we had no control over and we were caught up in what might prove to be a really difficult situation, perhaps slightly wishing we were back in Chicago in our apartment with the AC on sitting down to watch a movie or something. This is a bit difficult to explain perhaps, but the sheer amount of effort it took to communicate (not something we’re generally foreign too with travel, but living in a small town is something completely different than traveling to well traveled tourist destinations) and the total loss of control and understanding of our situation was a bit… difficult.

pants press is still an unknown

This is a small thing, but it captures a feeling (for us) that was basically “ok, we are now in this incredibly stuffy hotel room that feels like it hasn’t been renovated since the 60s, and I think we’re about to go meet a bunch of new people, maybe (?), so I should probably try to at least make sure my one last pair of pants isn’t too wrinkled” – sort of a panic / tired / confused feeling. I still don’t REALLY know how you’re supposed to use these pant press machines (but I’m fairly certain I was doing it wrong).

As I mentioned above, there was a lot of paperwork and stuff to take care of the first few days. For the most part I just tagged along while Lindsay took care of most things with our new friends from the BoE.  Lindsay getting bank account For example here Lindsay is at the bank signing up for her bank account. It really was a bit weird for me because normally I’m the high-anxiety-optimization-nerd that takes care of stuff like this in our family, but here in Japan I really am just “the dependent.” Nothing really has my name on it, all of the paperwork is Lindsay’s, etc. Anyway, no complaints though, I got to just sit back and watch.

 

Our apartment

We ended up staying in this hotel, the Green Palace, for about 2 days when we arrived. This was just how the schedule worked. The apartment we would end up living in was actually owned / rented by the town / BoE, and we arrived before Lindsay’s predecessor had left. On the third day in Koryo, the BoE drove us along with our bags (which in the heat seemed significantly heavier and bigger than we remembered!) to our new home. Our real / final home in Japan. We were incredibly excited to finally start to be settled, to have a bit of time and space to ourselves to unpack our stuff and put on clean clothing, do some laundry, and actually explore our town.

Our predecessor and the BoE was incredibly good to us and left the apartment in very good shape. Actually the BoE even went to the apartment and cleaned for us before we arrived, just to make sure everything was clean when we arrived. 

Now I have to say, getting to the apartment and actually walking in the first time was a bit of a shock, mainly because as the BoE is showing us around it was about 100 degrees with 100% humidity and incredibly stifling hot air. I remember thinking, “if this apartment is this hot all the time, we’re going to NEED to find a new apartment, there is no way I can sit on my computer all day in this heat”. Keep in mind we’re in our 30s at this point, we’ve had many apartments in our lives together, and as our jobs / careers have progressed (not to mention Lindsay’s stellar craigslist patience / stalking) we’ve had some fairly nice apartments the past 5+ years (see: our last apartment in Chicago we were moving from)… Most importantly, we’ve always chosen unfurnished apartments because we generally prefer to buy our own furniture and decorate, start with clean / fresh white walls, wood floors, etc. But this apartment has been lived in by at least 3, but possibly more people before us. So while pretty nice, it certainly felt “lived in” – over the years people had hung up and taken town many many posts it seemed, so the walls were covered in pin holes, etc, etc. In general I think we had just sort of expected a bit of a “clean canvas” when we walked in, but instead the reality of the situation (which is we were taking over a well lived in apartment) sort of hit us. 

apartment table when we first arrived apartment kitchen when we first arrived Note the cockroach spray (green can) on the kitchen table. We’ve ended up needing this (a lot!)!

We ended up “purging” a ton of stuff. Note we didn’t need to, our pred had really hooked us up with everything we needed (thoughtfully laid out for us to make our transition easier, etc… if you’re reading this, THANK YOU KELLY!), but we wanted to sort of get back to a “clean slate” (or as much as possible) and buy some of our own stuff. We ended up getting rid of a lot of chairs, blankets, pillows, dishes, etc, etc, etc. I also ended up buying a wall repair kit and spending quite a few hours filling each pin hole in the wall / covering up damaged wall areas and such. If this had been the US we would absolutely have bought paint and just repainted all of the walls, but the walls in this apartment (and many apartments it seem) have strange (terrible, in my opinion) linoleum textured wallpaper type stuff on them. With the language barrier and such we didn’t want to rock the boat too much and ask about painting, so we just sucked it up and did the best we could to get the walls back to “bare” and new looking as we could. 

 lindsay's first day of school in Japan Here you can see the same area after a few days in the apartment. We made a run to Ikea (which we can’t help but love) the first few days we were there and bought a bunch of plants and stuff. You can sort of see the discoloration on the wall from all of the (I’m guessing) years of having posters and such on the walls. I was able to make a fairly significant improvement here with the wall patching kits I ended up buying, to blend the wall and in cases essentially “paint” small sections of the wall with a sponge. Also, this is Lindsay’s first day of school in Japan!

first plants in the apartment The first of many plants (Lindsay tells me we have something like 47 plants in the apartment now, which is hard to believe, but if you actually count them it’s true)

japan apartment low ceiling Note the height of the ceiling here (or the room divider really, the ceiling itself is plenty high). It took me about 6 months (no joke) to stop hitting my head multiple times a day when I went in between rooms. At several points I bled from the top of my head from really bashing my head against the ceiling. Lindsay laughs every time, I do not laugh.

Below is a walkthrough of the apartment in basically the state it’s in today. 

 

The end.  Sort of / not really..

So, we moved into our apartment. After this, our life started to normalize a bit. Lindsay started teaching. In ways, nothing major has changed between then and now 10 months later. If you’ve read this far, you could basically stop now and just know that we’ve basically just been working, sleeping, traveling almost every weekend, and just generally living life like normal. In ways it seems like SO long ago that we moved here at this point, but at the same time it feels like it was only a few weeks ago, possibly because other than being extremely busy and traveling and having tons of guests, nothing really all that crazy has happened. 

But there is still more to say about life here, so continuing..

A bit about our town Koryo

koryo apartment field rice There is a rice field right by our apartment. This view is about a 2 minute walk from our apartment (1 if you walk fast!). It’s probably our favorite part of the area near our apartment, beautiful all year and great to walk through. I walk through this field almost every day on the way to the Family Mart to get an onigiri or iced coffee, etc.

I would describe our town as a suburb of Osaka. I’m not sure if that’s technically accurate or not, but Osaka is about 30 minutes from our train station (Goido), probably an hour commute if you’re going to somewhere other than osaka uehommachi station. Goido station it turns out is a great station because there are various express trains that stop at Goido. Realistically, if we take the bus from our apartment to Goido station (otherwise a 2 KM walk or bike ride) we can be in downtown Osaka in 45 minutes if we time the trains and bus. 

Taking a giant step back (this blog post is turning out more to be a dumping ground of random disjointed memories, sorry!), when we first found out about our placement (we didn’t get a choice, this is just where we were assigned) in Japan we were basically crushed. We had requested Osaka, Kyoto, or Tokyo for placements. I had visions of living in a highrise apartment somewhere, working out of a hip co-working space in Tokyo or something. Tokyo was our #1 choice, followed by Osaka and Kyoto (which by the way, would have NOT been a good choice for us it turns out. I am SO happy we didn’t get placed in Kyoto city). But when we found out “Koryo”, I felt like my dream had been totally smashed. When you search on google or google maps for Koryo, you see something like this:

Google maps of Koryo Note specifically the image in the upper left corner… A parking lot or something like that? I remember sitting at work googling “koryo” for the first time and finding things like the “Green Palace” (where we ended up staying). My vision of working in a major city like Osaka was pretty much out the door unless I wanted to commute for an hour or longer each day (it turns out this would have actually been doable in Osaka, but never really happened).  

Lindsay and I went to Small Bar (a great bar near our apartment in Chicago) on Friday when we found out, and I just remember feeling so depressed and so sad. At the time, we sort of had written off our plans of moving to Japan I think, and had hit a realization that it just wasn’t going to happen. 

Over a period of time, after doing more research and thinking more about what we wanted to do in life, we decided that the placement might not be so bad. It was in Kansai, a pretty popular area of Japan. Our town was small, but had restaurants and grocery stores and such in it. And it seemed like although commuting to Osaka daily might not be in the cards, it would be easy to take trips in on the weekend or even the occasional evening to meetup with friends or whatever. 

As it turns out our placement was a lot better than we had expected. I think if I were 100% honest with myself I’d still have rather been placed in Tokyo and I think we’d have been more likely to stay for multiple years if we ended up there (mainly because we’d have had a MUCH larger pool of potential friends and activities. Our lack of Japanese language would have been less of an issue for meeting friends and having deeper relationships with such a huge number of foreigners). Still, for a one year stay, I can say Koryo was a pretty great place to live. We are surrounded by rice fields and get to have the experience of living in a part of Japan most tourists don’t really have. For better (and often worse), it’s clear when you’re in our town that you’re PROBABLY not a tourist. I mentioned above that I think living in Kyoto city would be terrible (sorry and no offense!) because there is SUCH a saturation of tourists that most people automatically assume you’re a tourist when they look at you (because you probably are). People assume you’re there for the day or the weekend, don’t speak any Japanese, etc. Here in Koryo when people see you they likely wonder what you’re doing in the town, but probably assume you live or work there or nearby because frankly there isn’t much of a reason to be here otherwise!

Groceries and eating have always been a big thing for Lindsay and I. When we travel on an ultra-budget, we fill our days walking and exploring grocery stores. I’m thrilled that we have around 4 grocery stores within an approx. mile radius of our apartment. Specifically, there are two that we go to all the time: Kinsho, and Okuyama. Kinsho is at a “mall”, called Ecoll Mami. It’s the “fancy” grocery store in our town, and I’m often called out for being a fancy person for shopping there. I’ve gone there more than I can count. I’d guess we average 3 times a week.  Okuyama is a cheaper grocery store, about the same distance, but lately we’ve been trying to shop there more often. We tend to cook MOST nights, almost always Japanese food of some sort of another. That said, it’s a bit hard to think back and think about what we’ve eaten over the past 10 months. Lots of pickles, tons of salads, lots of udon, lots of somen (thin noodles), quite a bit of curry. Quite a bit of sushi. Tons of rice and furikake (seasoning on top of rice). 

Here is another one of the grocery stores near our apartment, actually in a different mall (Apita). It’s not particularly exciting or a good video, but this is a pretty good representation of random shopping trips to buy random things to eat. 

My motorcycle

Before we even arrived in Japan I knew I wanted to buy a motorcycle. I wanted to explore as much of Japan as possible, and I had dreams of owning a motorcycle and driving through the mountains to little guest houses and ramen shops. So I started researching and trying to find a bike about two months before we actually got here. 

This ended up working out pretty much like clockwork. Two weeks after we landed in Japan I had a motorcycle. I even optimized a trip to Vietnam for a wedding just before I got the bike and bought a helmet there. 

The bike is a Suzuki ST250. I bought it with around 17 thousand kilometers on it. As of now, I’ve put around 5 thousand additional kilometers on it. For anybody reading this who might be curious, I bought the bike for around 240,000 yen out the door with fees and insurance and everything required to ride the bike. The bike itself was probably around 200,000 but was purchased at auction by some guys I found on Facebook, so there were some extra fees and such. Honestly I’m incredibly grateful to them for making this possible at all, really was another dream for me.

Anyway, this is the bike:

ST250 in Japan ST250 near hiking wall It’s a 250cc bike, so relatively small, but it’s fuel injected so starts super easily and even with Lindsay on back is generally plenty of power for Japan. I could talk for a long time about this, but basically we avoid expressways (because they are crazy expensive in Japan, all of them basically have tolls, and you can spend 40 bucks on a half an hour trip, plus they aren’t as interesting as taking local roads) and so 95% of the time the maximum speed is 50KPH, realistically driving 60KPH. I’m not exaggerating there, that’s literally as fast as I generally drive, and 60KPH is roughly 37MPH!. Not fast.  For me though this is great, because most roads (especially for longer trips) are up and down mountains, through small villages, rice fields, etc. So slower speeds feel fast enough. I also feel incredibly safe riding here.

Overall, having a motorcycle was one of the best things about Japan. I really can’t express how magical it is driving through a small town or along a river or up a mountain with bamboo or cherry blossoms or farmers out in their field, etc, etc, etc. See more thoughts on this below. 

Life in Japan at a higher level

OK, so lots of specific bits of disjointed information so far here (or at least that’s what it feels like to me), but at a higher level I want to describe what it’s actually been like to live in Japan.

I’ll say this upfront: For me, Japan is an absolutely amazing, wonderful, awesome place to live, and I love it. Full stop. I’ve gotten less and less emotional as I’ve grown older (I guess my emotions are just more grounded or something, more even keel), but as silly as I feel saying this, I’ve literally cried a few times because of the amount of joy and gratitude I’ve felt at some specific moments.

Tears of joy are rare, but what isn’t rare are these moments: Lindsay and I on the motorcycle, riding through some tiny village as the sun is setting over the mountains and a silent train glides through the trees in the distant and we say to each other, “how would you describe this that we’re seeing and experiencing in a word?” We’ve literally had this conversation countless times over the past 10 months, trying to figure out if we could choose a single word to describe Japan. At this point, the best we’ve come up with is “idyllic.”

I should say I’m mainly describing things outside of the bigger cities. Plenty of people reading this have been to Tokyo or Osaka or Kyoto, or have seen pictures and videos and such and know what it’s like. Crazy, fun, interesting, etc. But I’m talking about our experiences primarily outside of main cities (often on a motorcycle).

When we first tried to find a word to describe Japan I would say “beautiful.” But Lindsay and I quickly agreed that really beautiful doesn’t capture Japan. If you were plopped down in a random spot in Japan, say somewhere along a road that Lindsay and I might ride on to on our way to Wakayama prefecture, you might be disappointed if you expected “beautiful” because you might end up on a small road with a small shack with a rusty roof and plastic shrouds covering young plants in a small field next to an apartment building. You might get a feeling of nostalgic small town village, but the rusty and old roof on the rundown farmers shack you wouldn’t really think of as beautiful. Eventually Lindsay proposed idyllic, and we haven’t been able to come up with a single word that’s better yet.

In a few more words I would say Japan (again the parts outside of the city I’ve fallen most in love with) is: patchworked, rich/deep, beautiful, a mystery, green, uniform, and mountainous.

Patchwork, because as I mentioned you might have a small rice field with a farmer in it next to a new apartment complex next to a major train station, next to bunch of old abandoned looking houses, next to a dirt road through a bamboo forest, next to a huge temple, next to a grocery store, next to a huge Aeon mall with a UNIQLO, next to a quaint little river with a cool suspension bridge, next to another rice field, etc, etc, etc – rinse and repeat. But for me the idea of “patchwork” really describes the parts of Japan that I love. 

Rich or deep is a bit hard to explain… but basically I’ve felt since being here than any building or town or group of people probably has a lot more to it than meets the eye. For example you might go to a small park in the middle of a small town in a mountain and realize they have a small museum in the park with a person who is very happy to talk to you about the special type of cedar tree that the region is known for. Or, for example, you might go to a small town and realize they have some absolutely beautiful festival happening that night, and you might go and realize just how beautiful the town is and how vibrant and exciting it is.

We have a community center and there is a monthly newsletter with events happening in our town and it’s really amazing just how much is constantly happening. Maybe a dumb example, but there was a hula dancing event / festival / show in a town near us (Kashihara) last summer and I could not believe how many people were there, not to mention how many different groups of hula dancers there were. 

If you are lucky enough to be in the right place at the right moment, or lucky enough to know somebody willing to invite you, there is just an insane amount of activity everywhere you look.

Mysterious actually goes hand-in-hand with the rich and deep thing mentioned above. This is a source of some sadness at times (because I realize how much I will never understand or be connected to in any meaningful way), but as a person who speaks very little Japanese, when you ride through the mountains in a small town and see an old building with lights on and a bunch of people walking in, you can tell SOMETHING is going on, and the something looks fun and interesting and warm and inviting, but you’re so far from being part of it. Or when you’re in a major city like Osaka, but you’re outside of the main tourist areas, and you walk through and old street with an izakaya with an old drunk man singing karaoke by himself, you know you could go into the bar and order a drink, and you’d be served, but you also know you’re not going to really be able to understand on any sort of deep level what is going on because you can’t talk to the people, and you’re (very likely) going to be intruding (or at least feel like it). It’s not really your place to be.

I’m speaking 100% for myself here (and not Lindsay), but I sometimes get really intimidated by this sort of situation, I’m afraid to intrude, and I feel because I can’t speak Japanese (and this sometimes makes people uncomfortable) I shouldn’t go into places. The other day I was in Osaka at an izakaya that was off the beaten path but was clearly very busy, the place had a nice atmosphere so I built up the courage to go in (I was by myself), but a person came to greet me when I walked in an gave me an uncomfortable look and gave me the “sorry we can’t sit you” arm crossing motion. It’s entirely possible or even likely that I was turned away because there were reservations, or who knows, but it felt more like they didn’t feel like dealing with the stress of my poor Japanese in their otherwise relaxed environment. This sounds like a negative perhaps, but it really isn’t. Honestly people in Japan have been so incredibly welcoming and warm, but sometimes you just end up feeling like you don’t exactly belong (because you don’t!). That adds to what I’d say is this sense of mystery. There are just so many places / foods / things that we’ll never understand. Every week I’m learning something new that makes me realize just how little I really know about this country. 

Add to that the fact that despite the fact that Lindsay and I have traveled a ton in Japan relatively speaking we still have barely scratched the surface. So many places we’ll never see, so many festivals we’ll never know about, etc. 

In ways I’m happy I still have this feeling leaving Japan, because the mystering leaves some magic feeling for me when I think about Japan.

Beautiful, green, mountainous sort of go together. Of course when you think of Japan you likely think of huge sprawling cities like Tokyo. But when you get out of the city, you realize just how much of Japan is truly covered by mountain, and just how truly covered in green those mountains are. I’m sitting in front of a window at Starbucks about 10 minutes from our apartment right now, but when I look outside I see mountains everywhere I look, and they are all green. I see a green field. And I see trees and shrubs everywhere. Year round there are flowers of one sort of another, even though it gets pretty cold (even snowed a few days this winter). We can ride the motorcycle 30 minutes and be up in a mountain hiking surrounded by green.

Of course the ocean is very close too. I don’t mention it as much though because despite it’s relative proximity (we could be at the ocean in an hour), it’s just not something we’ve spent all that much time at to be honest. To me the ocean here (at least in our experience) feels more like a thing used for practical things (fishing, transportation between places, etc), not as much for swimming or recreation. People certainly go to the ocean to fish and swim and such (there is a very popular beach about 3 hours from our house down south in Wakayama for example), but it’s perhaps more like being in Northern California than Southern, where we live.

Uniform, because to a foreigners perspective, a lot of Japan can feel like the same basic squares of the same patchwork. You can really feel a difference some places (e.g. we were at Lake Biwa a few days ago in Shiga prefecture and the people and atmosphere felt a lot different, not SO different from being in Holland or Grand Haven in Michigan, along Lake Michigan), but just the same it can at times be difficult to tell (for example) our small town from another small town on the other side of the country. Again, I’m not saying there aren’t significant differences in culture and food, etc, etc, between places, but to a casual observer (or a semi-casual foreigner living in Japan), there are a lot of similarities across similar geographies. By that I mean, a small town in the mountains of Nara might appear a lot like a small town in the mountains of Gunma. I do think if I had more experience living in other parts of Japan, or just more time living here in general, I would be able to notice a lot more differences. I see differences as is, just not as significant as say visiting a small town in New Mexico vs a small town in Michigan. A lot of this probably has to do with the relatively similar topography… maybe (?).

To sum all of this whatever-that-was-up-there up: love Japan. 

A word on Lindsay’s job

I’ll let Lindsay go into detail about her job if she wants, I’ve typed enough! What I will say is that there could be an equally long blog post about her experiences (mostly positive), what she’s learned, what she’d change, etc. 

I will also say some basics: She taught at two middle schools, both contracted through our towns board of education.

Our town sort of has two areas: a “new town” and an “old town”. The new town is, well, newer and more expensive. The old town is older. She has one school in the new town, and one in the old. Unfortunately one school is significantly more difficult for her than the other (very little control over the students).

Lindsay loves the people she works with, but misses having her own class. The language barrier is also difficult, and overall Lindsay is coming away from Japan knowing she’d like to at least have enough mastery of a language to teach more than grammar points. To put it another way, she misses being able to talk with students about issues related to creativity and problem solving, social issues, etc. A lot of what Lindsay likes about teaching and thinks is important is helping students to be empathetic. That’s all pretty tough when you can’t get much past the “hello, what is your name” and “what did you eat for dinner?”

A few specific memories or fun things

So like I said above, in ways, after we moved into our apartment, not all that much really happened. Still, I wanted to at least call out a few highlights from trips and things we’ve done or seen here.

  • Hiking part of the Kumano Kodo
    • We’ve spent quite a few nights at this point in Tanabe at J-Hopper hostel. I’d highly recommend it, a private outdoor onsen (real onsen water), and just generally super chill and beautiful
    • I thought we might not make it, but we did the Tanabe to Nachi falls hike in two days
    • Visited with both of our parents. Swam in a hot spring in the tiny town in the river while hawks and bats and were all around. 
    • Cooked a lot of eggs in the hot spring water.
    • Drank a fair amount of bottled kirin beer and played a lot of cards
    • This was the first long-ish motorcycle ride Lindsay and I took, about 4 hours taking into account a stop for gas and food at a Family Mart

Lindsay at J-Hopper Tanabe View of green from Kumano Kodo River for bathing Tanabe Mid Kumano Kodo

 

  • Walking from our apartment in Koryo to the Glico sign in Osaka
    • Something like 18 or 19 miles walked to get to Osaka, plus another 3 or 4 to get home. 
    • Absolutely beautiful weather and although fairly exhausting a very fun thing to do with the day. 
    • Lots of sakura in bloom on the walk
    • There was a particularly beautiful stretch on the way / near to Yao

IMG_9273 IMG_20190406_203129719  

  • Nine days over New Years in Hokkaido
    • Sapporo brewery museum, all you can eat crab and lamb
    • Hiked in / through snow / sleet / slush to get some excellent ramen
    • Hiked through snow / sleet / slush just because it was so beautiful
    • Went to three different famous hot spring towns and three famous onsen
    • Having a very anticlimactic New Years “ball drop” downtown Sapporo. 
    • Enjoying the fact that with the ice and slush and subsequent rust

Bridge in Hokkaido Lindsay and I on new years in Sapporo

  • A particularly magical day riding to Kyoto
    • The ride itself from our apartment to Kyoto was amazing. Just a magical day and a magical ride through little towns growing flowers and and farmers harvesting rice
    • Went to an amazing and somewhat difficult to get into moss temple (Kokedera) (thanks Charity for arranging!)
    • Saw an “illumination” of a temple with beautiful fall leaves on the Japanese maples
    • stayed in a very old and semi-gritty but absolutely stuff with character guest house / izakaya
    • This might have been one of those nights I had a small tear of joy, feeling so incredibly lucky to have had such an amazing day

kyoto night moss temple kyoto

  • Etc

A quick word on friends

One thing we’ve been very luck with is the number of friends we’ve met here, despite our relative isolation (relative to us in the US, not necessarily relative to other teachers sometimes placed FAR away from anybody in the middle of nowhere). Many of our friends are fellow teachers from our prefecture, but we’ve also met a ton of friends from our neighborhood and nearby (English club, Japanese class, randomly at a tourist information center, etc!). I wish everybody lived closer (and we weren’t all so busy individually!). 

I think one of the hardest things about leaving is knowing that we’re still just getting to know so many people. I feel like friendships take time – it takes a while before you can be yourself with people, before you can relax, etc. And I feel like in some cases we’re just getting there!

I’m absolutely certain that before too long Lindsay and I will be back in Japan to visit and I’m come we’ll be back in Koryo to visit friends. I’m also excited knowing that our network of friends around the world has grown. It’s nice to know when visiting random country X that you have a friend you can visit.

All of this said, honestly, one of the toughest things in Japan has been the inability to talk with 99% of the people I might see on any given day. I have SO many questions about every little thing, but most times it’s serious effort to ask even the simplest of questions. It can be pretty frustrating at times. For example, one of the stupidest things I’m excited about getting back to an English speaking country is being able to ask people questions at the grocery store. Friendly “How is work going?” while checking our, “When will you get more of the pork roast you had yesterday?” (these questions I could probably ask in Japanese… but it’s a 10/90 if I’d be able to understand the response and a pretty good chance the “conversation” would end in me awkwardly apologizing). 

Two months

We’ve got almost exactly two months left in Japan. In ways, that’s a really long time. But the remaining two months are pretty packed with travel / events / etc. 

At this point in time, I flip between feeling deeply sad about leaving, and excited for whatever comes next. At this very second for example, I’m sitting on our couch looking outside. It’s about 7:11AM and it’s a nice temperature outside. It rained in the night and feels like it could rain more today, but you can see the sun trying to burn through the clouds (I hope it doesn’t and it rains edit: it just started raining!). I can hear the birds outside and I can smell wet green plants and grass. Right now, in this particular moment, the idea of not being able to wake up and sit here in the morning, knowing I live in such an awesome country, is incredibly sad for me. Frankly sometimes the feeling is even more strong. 

BUT, there are also days when I feel excited to continue onto the next adventure, or excited to be able to strike up a casual conversation with a person on the street, or see friends and family from the states again, etc. These are moments when I feel like I’m OK with leaving. I still feel sad that despite living here for a year I’ll only have barely scratched the surface in terms of “knowing” the country. But I’m not writing off the possibility of living here again someday (likely not, but it’s possible), and I’m absolutely sure I’ll be back to travel.

I feel like there are SO many more things I’d like to talk about (our experiences learning the little Japanese we know, more details about the cost of living in Japan (short version: it’s not that expensive really), etc), but for now, <3.

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