Back Into the Great Unknown

When everything slows down to a grinding halt – when every day feels the same – when everything feels comfortable in such a way that it’s become stale, you know. It’s time for a change.

When I was thinking of where I was at that time, I felt depressed. Doing the same thing day in and day out became so wearisome. Did I really come all the way to Japan just to be dealing with the same tiring shit over and over again? Ah, but that question reveals my answer. I was focusing on the wrong thing. I forgot there was a reason I came here. At moments like these, it’s time to go back to drawing board. To plan what’s next. To recalculate where your aim is. I got caught up in the routine of my day to day life and lost track of that aim. And what’s most important is to have that aim in mind. I came here to experience new things, visit new places, meet new people.

Thus, I once again decided to move somewhere completely different. Somewhere I had never been before. I decided to move to a small town in Tohoku region. Where even less people will know English. Where many people I’ve talked to say the dialect is difficult to understand. I have a feeling this will once again be a similar experience to moving to Japan for the first time. Back when I understood virtually no Japanese. Back when I basically started my life over in Kagawa. But this time, I’m starting over in Iwate.

Is it scary? Of course it is. But that’s precisely why I’m doing it. Sometimes I think back to how easy life would have been if I didn’t break out of my comfort zone and make the trip here to Japan. How easy it is to do nothing. But then, I wouldn’t have visited such incredibly beautiful places, or met such wonderful people. I wouldn’t have been able to challenge myself and grow as a person in nearly the same way. I wouldn’t have had all these amazing experiences. The easy option isn’t worth it. The scary option has the reward.

And so here I go again, into the great unknown. Wish me luck.

State of Emergency

The last line of defense in the face of an epidemic: teaching English. A candle in the darkness. A bastion of hope. Everything else may have closed, but my company refused to. I stepped through a dark, abandoned mall to make it to work. It was eerie, but people were truly counting on me in these difficult times. The only other place with their lights on was the supermarket.

In April, Japan extended it’s state of emergency from the hard-hit prefectures to the entire country. Things out where I live slowly started to change. But there was never really any social distancing. Stores measured out and marked how far you’re supposed to stand from each other in line. That’s about it. People were and are still gathering just like before, though it’s quite rare to see people not wearing masks. More recently, everything around here began to close early. And some places have just been closed period. Of note, many of these places are restaurants, which has thrown a wrench in my regular schedule for grabbing lunch at work. This whole corona virus thing may have killed thousands of people and thrown economies into disarray, but now that it’s inconvenienced me, it has gone too far!

I hope everyone read that as a joke.

The number of cases in my prefecture have been at a standstill for weeks. And just yesterday, the government announced that it will be lifting the country-wide state of emergency, and maintaining it only in heavily affected areas. This means things will hopefully go back to normal around here very soon.

In other news, Golden Week, the week-long Japanese holiday, just went by at the beginning of May. Originally, I wanted to travel to Hokkaido, but with COVID-19 on the radar, I had to cancel. Instead I joined my friends on a surprise hiking expedition that was going to take “two hours” (it was actually closer to six), where we visited three temples in the mountains. The fresh mountain air and the scenery were fantastic. The temples were all unique and interesting. My feet hurt like never before. It was one of those snap decisions that will be memorable for a lifetime. It was a small reminder that no matter what happens, we can always use the time we have to do something worthwhile.

Then, the other day I found myself staring out of the employee break room window, at a magnificent view of lush distant mountains. I longed to be out there in the fresh air, adventuring. And that brought me back to my school days, staring out the window at a beautiful summer day while the teacher talked on, having the same feeling. Every now and again growing up, I would always look back and ask myself if I’d changed, but looking back now I feel like I’m still the same kid I always was: the one who brought a soccer ball out on the playground with the other kids during a snowstorm and slid around the field through the cold white fluff until the school bell called us back in; the mischievous child who, during class, used to take things from his friend’s pencil case, smother glue on them and throw them at the wall until they stuck; who skateboarded as fast as he could to school because he was always late; who was always training for and playing hockey, and ended up breaking his arm twice; who never did his homework, because homework is for chumps. Trying new things, longing for adventure, wanting to push myself, refusing to do things I disagree with. It’s as though all of these things have always been a part of me from the beginning. To me, I’m still the same little kid I always was. But now here I am: an “adult.” Someone who the kids now have to listen to. The more I think about it, the more I realize there were never actually any adults. There are just kids who got older.

Everyone on our hiking trip.

No Men Enter, No Men Leave

What’s that like, I wonder?

April in Japan is beautiful. The weather has been nice, save for a few rainy days. The cherry blossoms are out and so are all of the people. Wait- what? Why are all these people out here? When I scroll through the news and my social media, I constantly see stories about COVID-19. Everyone is talking about the lock down, social distancing and what to do in quarantine or self-isolation. Lock down? That sounds serious. Social distancing? Interesting… Self-isolation? Sounds like something an avid gamer really wouldn’t mind. Plenty of them were already doing that, anyway.

I feel like I’m somehow missing out on something here. Everything in Takamatsu is life as usual. When I went out to see the sakura trees, families and friends were still having picnics under the pink and white blossoms. I was surprised at how many kids were outside in the park. Then when I looked around, I realized it wasn’t only kids. Many people were wandering around. I went to a restaurant a few nights ago and it was packed. Only two tables were open in the whole place. And this is something I’ve been noticing when I pass by restaurants, stores, arcades, and the like: They’re still filled with people.

I have to wear a mask when I’m teaching, and hand sanitizer is readily available in virtually all businesses. Those are just about the only noticeable changes that have occurred in recent weeks. They still aren’t testing people out here. One of my coworkers had a fever and a cough, and when he went to the hospital, they basically told him that since there were only two confirmed cases in our prefecture, that it was probably nothing, and he could return to work. Seems like the criteria is rather high for being too sick to miss work – so again, no change there for Japan. The plan here seems to be to wait until a lot of people get sick, and then reluctantly try to curb the virus. I’m constantly wondering how things will turn out here, and I’m constantly worried about the state of affairs back home. Luckily, for myself, I’m not in a high risk area (as of yet, anyway). But people are still traveling around Japan. Schools are opening again, and apparently, this is the time of year that everyone is moving to go to a new school, or start a new job. Tokyo is on the brink of calling a state of emergency. Major cities and possibly even their entire prefectures will be affected. And this is only the beginning. Does some sort of lock down await all of us? I guess we’ll see how things shake out in the next couple of weeks. Wherever you happen to be in the world, stay safe.

March Madness

Japan: The country where the ATMs are the only ones who don’t have to work overtime. March: Tax season and warmer days are upon us. After winter nearly started in December, but never really seemed to get off the ground, I find myself asking, “is it spring already?”

Currently, fears about the new corona virus are the only thing spreading faster than the virus itself. Everyone is wearing surgical masks, but that behaviour isn’t all that new in Japan. Although these days, masks, hand sanitizer, toilet paper and medicine are suddenly selling out. Why toilet paper?! I’m actually running out of that and now I can’t buy any. Rough times are ahead. The government also suddenly closed down all schools for the month of March. People are confused and upset. Will this really help? I don’t really know, but there sure are a lot of kids hanging out at the mall now. Since I teach for a private company, we’re staying open – and it seems that students are still interested in coming in, which is either a good sign of people’s morale and tenacity, or a gigantic mistake. A big potential problem here is that people aren’t being tested for the virus. The difference between the number of confirmed cases and the number of actual cases may be incredibly different. The truth is we just don’t know. But, so far, there are no confirmed cases in the prefecture I’m living in – they’re only in every surrounding prefecture.

But there’s always a silver lining: due to the corona virus, the deadline for my taxes has been pushed back another month. We can all breathe a sigh of relief. A couple of weeks ago I received a large stack of papers in the mail, written entirely in Japanese. Doing these tax returns is already a difficult affair for native Japanese people, and I can’t even read any of it.

On a more personal note, I’ve been thinking recently about growing up and growing old. I still don’t know where one ends and the other begins. I’ve found some meaning in the old cliche: Be true to who you are. The only problem is that they never told me I had to figure out who I was first. And I expected to have that done by now. I haven’t lived up to young me’s expectations. And that’s one thing that’s made growing up so difficult. But what can I do? How do I relieve the pain? How do I forgive myself?

So I thought, maybe I should start doing things that I’ve always wanted to try. I do need new hobbies out here. So I’ve taken up kickboxing. And it’s really resonated with me. In a strange way, I feel like it’s what I’m supposed to be doing, which has made the experience very fulfilling. What’s something you’ve always wanted to do? Find a way to make it happen. Life is all about learning new things.

Resolution and Acclimation

My New Year’s resolution, and what’s changed.

Long time no see. Happy new year! How many people do you think make new year’s resolutions? Guaranteed, far less actually follow through with them. I’ve never seriously had any. But being in Japan has made me think that I ought to correct course, at least for this year, seeing as how things have been so different out here, and I couldn’t have possibly expected everything that’s happened thus far. So I took a moment to think about what’s missing. Lately, I’ve felt like something is off. There’s been a sort of frustration, and depression looming within me, probably amplified by the language barrier. What I’ve been lacking is a means of expressing myself. So this year my resolution is to find more outlets for creativity. I guess we can start right here. Writing is a therapeutic process, and it’s perhaps the only way I get to express myself anymore. But I haven’t written anything since my cat passed away. And the other problem is that the type of blog I wanted to create was one that’s polished, and not all that personal, so I feel like I can’t just sit down and write nonstop about what’s going on with me, and then actually post it without major overhauls. Maybe this one will be a little bit different. Sometimes detours are fun.

Fushimi Inari, Kyoto

On Christmas eve, I sat on a bus headed for Kyoto, racing through tunnels and over highways. I peered through the window at the passing mountains splashed with lovely autumn colours: Deep greens, vibrant oranges, spots of yellow, reds here and there. It was hard to believe it was nearly Christmas. Not a speck of snow. In fact, it was quite warm. During the day (and even now), it sometimes gets up to around 15°C. This is not at all the winter I’m accustomed to. I was told that Kyoto would be colder, but I still couldn’t tell the difference. In Canada, the past few New Year’s in recent memory have been extremely cold. The one night with the most pressure to go out, party and have fun, and I’d rather just stay inside where it’s warm. Here in Japan, it’s customary to go to a shrine rather than go out drinking (though nowadays, many people do both). In fact, since the Japanese work so much, many of them take this time to continue working instead of doing anything celebratory. Needless to say my New Year this year was much different from any I could have possibly had back home. From Christmas to New Year, I visited more shrines and temples than I could even keep track of. And for New Year itself, I tried the traditional Japanese food for the occasion, Nabe.

Whenever I visit the big cities in Japan, one thing that always unexpectedly stands out to me is when I hear something other than Japanese. Especially when it’s spoken to me. When I went to Tokyo, staff tried to speak to me in English, which really threw me off because I had prepared Japanese in my head. Surprised and unsure how to respond, I stood there staring at them, like a deer in the headlights. I suppose after hearing only Japanese for so long, I’ve just grown used to it. Lately, I’ve started thinking of what I have and haven’t gotten used to here in Japan, and so I made a short list:

Things I’m used to:

  1. Hearing Japanese. Not only from people, but all of the audio that’s played everywhere here. Wherever you go, there are automated voices speaking to you in Japanese, from the subway to the ATM to the supermarket. When you walk around virtually any store here, there are advertisement videos playing loudly on a loop all over the place (which are very, very annoying). At first I was awestruck at how different it was that there were so many sounds playing everywhere. Now, I wear headphones when I shop.
  2. Paying my bills at the convenience store. This is actually very – dare I say – convenient.
  3. Crowded and chaotic subway stations. I realized in Kyoto that this doesn’t faze me anymore. When I first arrived in Osaka, I was floored by how many people there were going every conceivable direction. It was madness. At the time, trying to figure out how to navigate myself through all of that was a daunting task. Now, it all feels pretty normal to make my way through the crowds. (Though, the massive crowds during peak hours in the food court at the mall still scare me.)
  4. Super toilets. Nothing bad can be said about these. Every country should have them. Bidet? You got it, fam. But that’s not all. What angle do you want it at? What water pressure? Hot or cold? Do you want the seat warmer on? Turn that sucker up. How about the music? Louder?

Things I’m still not used to:

  1. Speaking Japanese. I’m still very much a beginner at Japanese. I can get by just fine as a tourist, but having any sort of meaningful conversation is still beyond me.
  2. The temperature outside. In the day it gets real warm (~15°C), and then at night it gets pretty chilly (~4°C). This is not even close to the usual winter weather I’m used to. It feels like I’m trapped in perpetual autumn. I didn’t even have a coat until about December, and when I take it with me during the day I feel like I don’t need it, until I’m leaving work at night and thankful that I brought it. I’m not complaining, though. It’s much better than the cold back home.
  3. The temperature of water in my kitchen. My kitchen sink has two possible temperatures: cold and liquid magma. Attempting to get anything in between is a fruitless endeavour.
  4. Squatters. The opposite of the super toilet. Man’s worst enemy. It still amazes me how, wherever you go in Japan, you either find a super toilet or a hole in the ground. Nothing in between.

And one final honourable mention: I’ve seen a lot of weird shit in Japan, but nothing was weirder than when I was at Kiyomizu Temple in Kyoto, and there was this tourist, nicely dressed, as though he was on a date, but with a stroller. Okay, fair enough; maybe he was there with his wife and kid. Nope. To my surprise, inside the stroller was a little brown dog, that looked like it gets better treatment than the queen. It had just been groomed; it’s fur was perfect, it had a nice little bow, and an expensive looking collar – like it was on a date. And as I watched him struggle to get the stroller around the temple, I just couldn’t get this image out of my head that this man was on a date with his dog at Kiyomizu.

And thus I’ve concluded this last decade by doing something completely different far from home. It’s been a long strange trip, but I’m so glad I made that first step. One day I decided to go to Japan, and then before I knew it, I was here. It doesn’t even feel like it’s been that long; but then, someone will ask me, “how long have you been in Japan?” and then I start counting the months, and I can hardly believe it. My initial plan was to come out here and travel all over Asia. Suddenly, I’ve made a life for myself here in Japan. It’s a shock for me to think about, but isn’t that what I wanted? I think it’s going to be harder to leave than I first expected.

First sunrise of the year in Japan

Why Are You Where You Are?

Why did I come to Japan? What a difficult question. And I get asked it every day. How often do you get asked, “why are you where you are?” Strange to actually think about, isn’t it? In one sense, I made a decision to come here, so here I am. But in another, there was so much that went into this. First, I needed a simple answer to satisfy my students that barely spoke english, but I also wanted to contemplate my honest answer.

The short answer: this place is different. The long answer: that’s what I wanted. I wanted to throw myself alone into a foreign world and see how I fared. Am I someone who sinks or swims? Jump into the deep end and figure it out. There was a part of me back home that was unfulfilled. And so I left to start looking. Not for something out there, but within myself. Looking for my dreams, passions, love, happiness, excitement and wonder. Looking for something to challenge everything that I know. Looking for myself. I know I’m around here somewhere…

I went all the way to the other side of the planet to explore myself. And, undoubtedly, the experience has been nothing short of extraordinary. My job teaching has been great so far. Many days I come home knowing that I helped students learn English, yet feeling like I somehow didn’t do any work. Where I’m living now is also breathtakingly beautiful. Surrounded by mountains and the inland sea, this port town is famous for udon. Not only have I been able to take in amazing views, but the food has been absolutely delicious. I ride my bike around the city, seeing new things, hearing foreign sounds, and smelling mouthwatering food. It’s like nowhere I’ve been before, yet it has some things that are reminiscent of my hometown. Though they call this the country, to me this is the suburbs – with fields of crops here and giant buildings there. I remember when Brampton was full of open fields. Now it’s all housing. It makes me wonder if and when a similar fate will overtake this place.

I’ve been constantly trying many different things, but I’ve found a few restaurants that I really like, especially a certain western-style one. Amongst the excitement of everything new, I found myself in want of something comfortable. I think I now fully understand why China Towns always pop up everywhere in the West. In a world suddenly so unfamiliar, it’s nice to have a place that feels like home.

Not knowing Japanese in the smaller parts of Japan is difficult, but the experience is very rewarding. When I’m actually able to speak to and connect with people, I feel like I’ve somehow made a breakthrough. But there’s still so much to learn. And that keeps driving me forward. It’s a constant challenge that I’m here to overcome. It’s the challenge of discovering more about myself the hard way. Will I sink or will I swim?