Sunday, August 05, 2007

A few of the things I will (and won't) miss about Japan

With my year in Japan quickly coming to an end, I thought I’d make a list of some of the things I’ll miss most about living here.

Of course, I don’t want to overly romanticize the experience so I thought I’d make a list of some of the not so great things too.

This isn’t meant to be a definitive overview of Japan. It’s simply my own personal reflections and observations based on a year spent living in a small rural town on Shikoku Island.

Japan is a tough nut to crack and it seems pretentious and arrogant to pretend that I have the entire country all figured out after only a year (especially when I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface). So I’m only going to write about what I know and leave the in-depth analysis to the experts.

Some of the things I won’t miss about Japan . . .

1. The bugs: Giant flying cockroaches, poisonous centipedes and hairy spiders are a fact of life in rural Japan. They slither down from the mountains at night and crawl in through the cracks in the walls. My apartment was infested with cockroaches and there was nothing I could do about it. I spent a good part of the past year living in a near-constant state of paranoia. Not fun.

2. The cold: From the beginning of December until the end of April, there was no escape from the cold. Winter in Japan was a misery unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before. It never snowed and the temperature rarely dipped below zero but there is no insulation and no central heating in Japanese homes and buildings. As a result, it was just as cold inside as it was outside. At school, I wore long underwear under several layers of clothing and I still spent most of the day shivering. My apartment was just as bad. I had a kerosene heater but I couldn’t run it while I was sleeping due to the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning. It was so cold I could actually see my breath inside my apartment. On the upside, at least there were no cockroaches in the winter.

3. Cigarette smoke: Japan is still very much a country of smokers. People can, and do, light up just about anywhere. The teachers at my school smoke in the staff kitchen. There are smoking cars on trains. People smoke in bars and restaurants. Half of my volleyball team lights up during breaks. It’s gross.

4. Concrete: I hate to say this but parts of Japan are ugly. Really ugly. Almost every riverbed, cliff face and coastline is encased in concrete. Almost every mountain has a massive electricity tower erected on top of it. Beautiful views are ruined by a mess of power lines and patches of hills are scarred by clear-cut logging. Japan is a nation that claims to love nature and beauty, but there isn’t a lot of unspoiled natural beauty to be found.

5. Fluorescent lighting: When I first moved into my apartment, I was dismayed to discover every room in the place was lit by harsh fluorescent light. I spent two weeks looking for some rice paper lamps to make my place feel more like a home and less like a hospital operating room. But I came up empty handed. It was almost as if soft lighting didn’t exist. Then I started noticing how ubiquitous fluorescent lighting really was. Every house, every apartment, every bar and every restaurant was lit up inside like the fourth of July. There was not a shadow or a hint of darkness in sight. I’m sure there’s a reason for all of this fluorescent lighting; I just haven’t figured it out yet.

6. The roads: It didn’t take me long to realize that not only do cyclists and pedestrians not have the right of way, they don’t have any rights at all. There are no sidewalks in this town and the roads are barely wide enough to accommodate one car, let alone two cars going in opposite directions. Drivers have to veer off to the side to let an oncoming car pass or, on a really narrow stretch of road, throw the car in reverse and back up until they find enough room to pull over and let the other car squeeze by. Unfortunately, the same courtesy isn’t afforded to cyclists or pedestrians. I’ve had cars brush past me with barely an inch of space between us. One driver got so close that he nicked my right shoulder with his passenger mirror.

7. Earthquakes and typhoons: In the span of one year, I’ve lived through one earthquake and three typhoons. Nothing major but enough to scare the crap out of me.

8. Karaoke: I am so over karaoke. Oh, sure. It was exciting at first but once the novelty wore off I realized I wasn’t having much fun listening to drunk people with zero musical ability sing the same tedious songs over and over again.

9. The language barrier: I feel like I missed out on a lot by not being fluent in Japanese. I would have been able to communicate with the kids, my coworkers and my friends on a deeper level. I wouldn’t have spent my first few months feeling like a helpless child unable to figure out the simplest things on my own, like buying a train ticket or ordering food in a restaurant. Being fluent would have made life a lot easier and my experience a lot richer.

10. Being an outsider: I have already written an entire post about feeling isolated so I don’t want to repeat myself here. But it was tough always having my identity tied up with being a foreigner. I was a gaijin first and a person second. I’ve been here a year and people still ask me if I can use chopsticks or eat raw fish.

11. Lack of anonymity: Sometimes I feel like I’m living in a fishbowl. It seems like everyone in this town knows everything I do and everywhere I go. At the grocery store, one woman followed me around, clicking her tongue and making comments about everything I put in my basket. Kids would show up at school on Monday morning and ask me who was the guy I was out with on Saturday night. Teachers would tell me they saw me jogging past their houses and that my face looked particularly red. They tracked my every move and reported it back to me in breathless detail. Seriously, people. My life is not that exciting.

12. Right-wing lunatics: Canada has its fair share of right-wing crazies but nothing like the ones in Japan. The right-wing loonies in Japan drive around in big black vans with loudspeakers blaring out nationalistic nonsense. These vans usually drove past my apartment a few times a week with the speakers cranked up to ear-splitting levels. One of their main messages? Get the foreigners out of Japan. Thanks for the warm welcome, morons.

13. The lack of male attention: I would like to report that I got absolutely no action in Japan. Zip. Zero. Not even a kiss. Never have I felt so invisible and unattractive in my whole life. I gave up on finding a boyfriend after the whole art teacher debacle. But he ended up getting transferred to another school 200 km away so it wouldn’t have worked anyway.

Some of the things I’ll miss most about Japan . . .

1. My students: If you were to ask me what the most rewarding part of this whole experience was, I’d say it was getting to spend each day surrounded by some of the most loveable kids I’ve ever met. I always knew I liked kids but I had no idea how awesome working with kids could be. They made me laugh on a daily basis. I only wish I could stick around a little bit longer to see some of my favourite students grow up and graduate.

2. My friends: I’ve met so many wonderful people during the past year that it would be impossible to list them all. But there are a few I will miss more than others. Hamasaki-san is technically my supervisor but I think of her more as a friend. We went hiking together. Played volleyball and tennis together. Went swimming together. Ate dinner at each other’s homes. I played video games with her older daughter and shared a bed with her younger daughter whenever I slept over. Her English is about as good as my Japanese so we communicated mostly through gestures and a lot of laughter. We were driving to tennis practice one night and Hamasaki-san was unusually quiet. I could tell that she wanted to say something in English and she was rehearsing it inside her head first. Then she blurted it out, “I’m very happy I met you. You are not afraid to try anything. I want to be like you.” I was so touched I almost cried. I told her she shouldn’t want to be like me. I’m a mess! If anything, I want to be like her. She’s one of the most kind-hearted, generous and honest people I’ve ever met. She has two beautiful daughters and a wonderful husband. She is someone I will probably keep in touch with for the rest of my life. Same goes for my friend Sachi, the Hashimoto family and the vice-principal.

3. Small-town life: I used to think I was a big-city girl but I’m not so sure anymore. I really like living in a small rural town. Life is simple here. It’s quiet and peaceful and safe and I can get everywhere I need to go by bicycle. The pace is unhurried. The people are friendly. Almost all of the food I eat is grown just outside of town. I can’t leave the apartment without running into someone I know. People stop by to drop off vegetables from their gardens or just to say hello. It’s nice. There’s a real sense of community in a small town. It makes me think that maybe I’d like to settle down in a rural area someday (just not a place inhabited by right-wing crazies).

4. The culture: Japanese culture blows me away. The food, the language, the music, the art, the architecture, the religion, the customs, the traditions. There are so many things that are uniquely Japanese. Whether it’s traditional culture (tea ceremony, kabuki and flower arranging) or pop culture (Hello Kitty, love hotels and manga), it’s all fascinating.

5. The language: Even though I am far from fluent, I will miss speaking, reading and writing Japanese. I loved speaking Japanese. It gave me a real sense of accomplishment. It was a small thrill to (occasionally) understand and to be understood in another language.

6. The efficiency: One of my favourite things about Japan is that everything starts on time. Trains come at exactly the minute they’re supposed to. If the train is scheduled to arrive at 12:32 p.m., it will arrive at exactly 12:32 p.m. If a party is supposed to start at 6 p.m., it will start at exactly 6 p.m. Showing up on time means arriving 10 minutes early. Weekend plans are made months in advance. As an extremely punctual, meticulously organized and pathologically reliable person, I was in paradise. Finally! A whole country full of people just as anal as me!

7. The food: I love Japanese food. It’s all about presentation, variety and seasonality. Not to mention the fact that it’s damn delicious. My favourite dish is katsuo tataki, which is lightly seared raw tuna served on top of shaved radish. The fish is drizzled with soy sauce and eaten with chunks of raw garlic. I’m also a big fan of udon, fried tofu, okonomiyaki (a type of pancake), onigiri (rice triangles wrapped in seaweed) and raw octopus. Still, I would kill for a falafel or a burrito right about now . . .

8. Volleyball: I used to hate volleyball before I came to Japan. Now it’s one of the highlights of my week. Who knew?

9. The sounds: I love listening to the frogs in the rice fields outside my bedroom window at night. In the morning, I love hearing the scream of cicadas. I love the sound of the train rushing past my apartment. I love hearing the weird song the town plays over the loudspeakers at 6:00 a.m., 12:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m. every single day. But most of the time, I just enjoy the sound of silence. No car alarms. No sirens. No honking horns. Just bugs and birds and frogs.

10. Tea ceremony: I took tea ceremony classes twice a week. My teacher was a fiery, stubborn and strong-willed 80-year-old woman whose students called her “Tiger” behind her back. I fell in love with her right away. Classes were held at her house, nestled in the mountains outside of town. She lives in a beautiful old house, with a traditional Japanese garden and tearoom. I was her only student under the age of 40. I think she liked having a young foreigner as a student because she refused to let me pay for lessons and our classes usually stretched on for three hours. I like everything about Japanese tea ceremony. I like its rustic simplicity. I like the natural architecture of my teacher’s teahouse with its unpainted wooden surfaces, tatami-covered floors, sliding screen doors, simple flower arrangement and hanging scroll. The tea bowls are rough and imperfect. The ceremony itself is quiet and reflective. It’s both incredibly complex and beautifully simple. Kind of like Japan itself.

11. The little things: Heated toilet seats, vending machines on every corner, polyester track suits, mind-numbing variety shows, cold green tea in summer, hot green tea in winter, service with a smile, bowing, hanging laundry to dry on the balcony, not saying “bless you” when people sneeze, the view of the mountains from my window, Hello Kitty toilet paper, walking past rice fields on the way to work, fall leaves, cute cartoon characters, cute everything, getting drunk on sake underneath a cherry tree, butchered English on t-shirts and billboards, weird TV shows, salarymen, bullet trains, cell phones, pachinko, purikura. There’s too much to mention. I love it all.

Overall, this past year has been one of the best years of my life. Japan is an amazing, complicated and fascinating place. I was hoping to leave Japan with a husband but I guess I’ll have to settle for a lifetime of memories instead.

Nihon ga daisuki desu. Domo arigato gozaimashita.

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