How did you end up in Japan?
I’ve loved Japan since I was a little girl. My father is an art and comic fan, so every year we would take a family vacation to San Diego to attend the International Comic Con. My father would buy and trade art there. One day, he heard of a famous Manga artist from Japan named Hayao Miyazaki and he bought My Neighbor Totoro on VCR. He handed it to me, saying “Watch what’s popular in Japan right now,” and I happily did. The animation looked so cute, the nature scenes captured my imagination, and Totoro was such an odd and interesting yet unintimidating creature that I quickly fell in love with it. The characters were funny, and the culture that shone through the movie fascinated me. I loved that they lived in the countryside and not a suburban area like I did. I loved the forest behind their house and wished I could explore it, too. I wanted to live in a house with paper screen doors just like them, I wanted to meet Totoro one day, I wanted to eat those bento boxes, I wanted to ride in that goddamn Cat Bus! I watched this video every day after school when I was in first grade. A few years later, my father handed me another video by Hayao Miyazaki, Kiki’s Delivery Service, which I also began to watch over and over and over again. I fell in love with the animation, watching it again and again in my little tree house in our backyard, as happy as I could be. Over the years, we accumulate all the animations and my interest in Japan, and the culture I saw in the animations, grew tremendously.
In 2004, a unique restaurant opened in our downtown area. I was drawn to it be because it had fake bamboo outside the doors and a zen water fountain thing, something that American restaurants don’t have as decorations. I persuaded my mother to take us there, and she obliged. Lost, we ordered the Shabu Shabu, since it was in the name of the restaurant. When our plate of thinly sliced meat came, we sat there embarrassed and confused. “Do we eat this raw?” we asked. The owner politely explained to us that “Shabu Shabu” means “swish swish” in Japanese. It’s an onomatopoeia. She prepared our ponzu sauce by putting in a small teaspoon of green onion, and our goma (peanut like) sauce with grated radish. We used our chopstick skills and swished the meat for 5 seconds, dipped it in the ponzu sauce, and became life fans. It was my favorite restaurant ever since. Every month we would go, and every celebration as well. I loved my meat in ponzu and my vegetables in goma sauce. My fondness for Japan grew and grew.
One day when I was a junior high school, a documentary on Tokyo appeared on TV. I was glued to the TV, recorded it, and watched it again and again. How can the Japanese ride a subway so packed that the station attendants have to politely shove them in with their white gloved hands? How can they spend thousands of dollars on a big tuna fish at Tsukiji market? Why do they dress up like its Halloween on Sunday afternoons in Harajuku? The strangeness of this island full of such homogenous people that speak a language that looks like old pictures (kanji) and behave so properly during the day, but so wildly in the night, made me set on visiting one day.
I made my mom watch that documentary with me several times because she also likes traveling. I would always talk about what I saw on it with my family and friends. The urge to visit was unstoppable. I begged my mother to take me there. I made a presentation of all the cool things we could do in Japan, and she said, if you find a cheap ticket, we can go. So I found one!
The first time I came to Japan was when I was 14 years old in 2006. I came after years of yearning to visit. So, arriving in Narita Airport for the first time is probably one of my most favorite memories in my life so far. I was so excited to be in this land. I studied and researched so much about the country already. In the airport, I was overwhelmed—everything was clean and orderly, cute, incredibly strange, and unique. It took forever to get anywhere because I always had to stop at the souvenir shops and awe at their adorable hello kitty pencils, doramon notebooks, Maple leaf shaped monjuu (small cake treats with red bean paste inside), tons of strange Kit Kat flavors, and key chains of absolutely everything!
When I got on the train to Tokyo, I was wondering what kind of advance technology I was standing on—were we levitating? How could we possibly be going so fast? What other kinds of efficient technology does Japan have?? Why were there so many vending machines? Furthermore, what were these strange snacks inside them? I could order hot canned coffee?! The advertisements are so big but their food is so small! I bought those rice balls I saw people eating in the Ghibli films! I was so happy my dreams were coming true! It’s funny now because I remember that first bite was so special (I also wasn’t used to eating seaweed, so that flavor also brings back fond memories), but now Onigiri are my everyday snack. It’s the equivalent of a foreigner saying, “I was so happy when I bit into my first sandwich ever in the US!” because we eat sandwiches everyday. Needless to say, my first trip in Japan was fantastic. My mother and I took a tour of Tokyo and Nikko (home to Toshogu, the most decorated temple of Japan and full of nature and hikes). We bought a lot of stuffed plushes of my favorite characters and a lot of sugoi Japanese souvenirs.
My mother and I both loved Japan, so we return the next year. This time we toured Kyoto, Nara, Hiroshima and Miyajima. I remember taking the ferry to Miyajima and having my eyes bulging out of me head and my mouth hanging low. We were approaching an island with the most beautifully placed Tori in the ocean, like some mystical ancient secret world—and there were deer frolicking around the streets! What kind of island was this! That trip overall had more culture to it, so it was equally, if not more, astounding to me.
And, now, my third trip/life here.
After I graduated university, I traveled around the world for over 8 months, visiting 13 different countries. When my trip finally got to South East Asia, I knew Japan was around the corner. My favorite country was coming up! I was having the time of my life and I knew the next leg of the trip would be as great as it had been before, if not better.
I came to Japan as a tourist in July. I planned to stay until my visa ran out (3 months), but I couldn’t leave.
I came during summer, when the weather was merciless. I remember agonizing over the discomfort but being distracted the next second by something strange I just saw. The tiny shop with a red lantern and calling glow, the door with an unreadable kanji sign out front, the strange book covers in the windows…
Anyway, my mother and brother met in me in Tokyo as a one year reunion. We traveled around Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto and Miyajima, reliving my old memories. When they left, I worked as a volunteer in an English/Language café.
I worked 4 or 5 hours a day I think, for 4 days a week, just talking to the customers. In exchange, I got to live in a guesthouse dorm—a three bedroom apartment shared by 9 girls or so in a university area near Takadanobaba (cheap college town with cheap izakayas), Waseda (famous for Waseda Univeristy, a famous private university), Shinokubo (dubbed Korean-town, with Kpop idols and Korean BBQ everywhere) I got to meet a ton of people—my housemates switched every 2 weeks because most volunteers were just traveling through Japan, the other international volunteers were also very friendly and fun to be around, and many customers, new and regulars, came to the shop).
At first, volunteering was so much fun. I got to meet a lot of Japanese people and learn a lot about the culture in a way you can only do so by speaking to real locals. Usually, we sat around a table, a group of 6 of us, with me being the focus of attention. It didn’t take too long to get bored of the same conversations with different people. Everyone kept asking me, “Can you use chopsticks? Can you eat Japanese food? What about Nato? I’ve never been to California, but I’ve been to San Francisco.” And things like that. By the end of my three months working there, I was totally sick of it, mostly because I realized, after my excitement faded, that the majority of customers sat around the table in silence, waiting for me to talk (as is shy, conservative Tokyo style). Sometimes, old Japanese men would sit at my table and stare at me while I can see their inappropriate thoughts floating around in their head. Sometimes all the customers sat and didn’t want to talk. Trying to keep a conversation going was like pulling teeth! I know that this is because their schooling system traditionally forces then to be passive, and Japanese from Tokyo are especially afraid to make mistakes. But still, those days were brutal.
It wasn’t all bad though, as I said, I had great conversations with some people. Sometimes, if the guests were cool, we would go out together after the shop closed. Since it was summer time, there were loads of matsuri, or festivals, going on everywhere. We’d wander around some streets and run into one—friendly local people would shove sake shots into our hands, grab us, put a robe on us and throw us under the mikoshi, or portable shrine, making us shout and pump it into the air with our Japanese brothers and sisters in the hot humid summer rains….we’d finish the festivities with a load of yakisoba, a carby noodle festival food and a sweet candied cherry. Or other days, the volunteers would all get together and organize a night out or dinner with one or two few cool Japanese customers. That’s when I invited my boyfriend for the first time. Those were great days…
From my café experience though, I met three very important people. 2 are very good Japanese friends of mine, Ayumi and Kanna, and the third was my Japanese boyfriend Yuuki, whom I dated for almost a year! My time in Japan wouldn’t have been the same without them!!
3 months were coming to an end. I wasn’t ready to leave.
So, I began job hunting.
I bought a suit for interviews and luckily got hired at my first choice private English school. I went through 1 week of training and got offered the job. I found a new house and moved to the rich area of Ginza (rich, expensive, glamorous and glorious district of Tokyo. Come by expensive coffee and watch the Porsches drive by!), where I live in a room described by my best American friend as “the size of a closet.” Thanks, Dina!
I love my location because it is great to walk around. The architecture is stunning. The top brands always try to outcompete each other in everything. The window displays are immaculate. The streets are lit up. The roads are wide. The people dress to impress.
It’s also close to Roppongi (Foreign-land in Japan. Foreigners live and work here, as well as the wealthy. Crazy night life, good museums, crazy times for the business trippers and curious) and Tokyo Station (central Tokyo and the connecting hub of Japan. You can catch the Shinkansen to all parts of Japan. The place where they have Ramen Street in the basement hehe. Also close to financial districts, such as Otemachi (where the Imperial Palace is located!) and Nihombashi and Yurakucho (where Izakayas are full every night with salary men).
I also felt like a God when I first came. I was impressed with how everyone treated me. I felt like a movie star, everyone wanted to make me happy. Everyone was so happy when I told them I was American. I think I was so cheerful and eager. Now, though, that feeling is gone. Most of the time, I go by unnoticed. Maybe because I’m tired, I’m not as cheerful and eager. Maybe I’ve acclimated more. I bow unconsciously everyday as I try to excuse myself of things.
In short, I always loved Japan and when I had no real constraints forcing me to return home, I stayed. I came on a tourist visa, got a job teaching English, and have been living and exploring since. I made a Japanese boyfriend who helped me navigate living in Japan so much. I would be even more lost than I was if I didn’t have him. Of course, he showed and taught me stuff I never would have done if he wasn’t my guide. We’re broken up now, but those memories are forever appreciated. I love my life here. Even after 14 months of living in the same, although giant city, everyday is still exciting for me. The charm hasn’t faded, and if it did, there is always another station to explore.
Even within Tokyo there is so much variation. If for some reason you feel it’s becoming dull, you can take a day trip to Kamakura a more nature-y and quiet town which has beaches and a huge Buddha, Nikko as mentioned in the beginning of the post, Chiba for more beaches and home to Tokyo Disneyland and Disneysea, and Hakone, where you can take a romantic train, see mountains and use their famous hot springs! I love Tokyo.
What are you doing in Japan, really?
I work a crazy schedule. Sometimes I dread my work, as I mentioned, the students aren’t always eager to chat. 98% of them work in finance, are 35+ year old males, and fail to give me any reason to distinguish them from the other students. Not all, but, most of them. I work most evenings, which limits a lot of social activities. On my days off, I often work anyways. On days that end in –day, I also tend to drink. After work, 9:15pm, I sometimes wander into a bar by myself and have humorous chats with some Japanese people, and foreigners. I was surprised that the drinking culture here is larger than I thought it was. I know a ton of people who drink every single night. Of course, when in Tokyo, follow suit! When our schedules align, I meet my friends, and we do fun stuff.
What am I doing though? I guess just having the time of my life, enjoying living by myself on a strange island on the other side of Pacific Ocean. I’m satisfied. And, the food is really damn good.
“To be bored of Tokyo, is to be bored of life.” – Someone
Have you been to Tokyo? What was the most shocking, interesting, pleasant, unpleasant thing for you? What about other areas of
Japan? Do you have any questions about living in Japan? I’d love to hear from my readers. Please comment and subscribe if you’d like!