Coming to Japan

I moved to Japan a couple of months ago. So many people have asked for email updates and photos that it’s hard to keep on top of, so I decided to start a blog as an easier way to keep in touch. If I haven’t emailed you in a while, I apologise, time just passes so quickly and all of a sudden it’s been two weeks since I got your email…


Anyway, for those that don’t know, I’m living in the inaka (countryside), between Tokyo and Osaka. I live about an hour away from a biggish city, on the outskirts of a smallish town. I am the only gaijin (foreigner) in the town, or at least the only non-Asian.


I work at a small private English school, giving English classes to children from 2 (I know…) to around 18. There’s the potential to give conversation classes to adults too, but so far noone has signed up.


The first question that most people asked when I told them about the Japan plan was whether I speak Japanese. The answer is no. When I came over, I had the absolute basics; hello, how are you, where is the toilet etc. I thought I could just pick it up as I went along. Something I hadn’t really considered though, is that I was completely illiterate. Before I came to Japan I had never travelled to a country that didn’t use the roman alphabet (like in English, Spanish, French, German etc). In a country that uses that alphabet, even if you can’t speak the language, at least you can read. Your pronunciation might be terrible, but at least you can recognise the words for “restaurant”, “hotel”, “train station”, and more importantly “men” and “women”.


Japanese has three different scripts. Hiragana for filler grammar-type words, katakana for writing foreign words and kanji for almost everything else (nouns, verbs, adjectives etc). Hiragana and katakana are simple enough, each symbol represents a syllable. There are 46 symbols each for those two. Kanji on the other hand, is a bagful of headaches. Over 2000 characters, all of which you need to know to be able to read the most basic things. Oh, and all three alphabets can be used in a single sentence.


Anyway, not speaking the language is difficult, but being illiterate has brought it’s own set of gaffes. Just getting to my town from Narita airport was a serious challenge. I had to get four trains. Narita to Tokyo and Tokyo to the big city were ok, because there was plenty of English, but after that the English disappeared, as did the other foreigners, so it was standing on a train platform squinting at an electronic noticeboard with noone around to help that I got my first taste of the gaijin life.


Some lessons –
1) Everything takes at least four times as long as you think it will.
2) If you’ve never been stared at, it’s not that pleasant. Especially after 20 hours of travelling when you look like you’ve been put through a mangle.
3) If you aren’t absolutely 100% sure of your route, then don’t try to listen to music or read a book. You need to be looking out the window at every stop (and between stops) to keep track of where you are, and also to be listening out for any place names you can catch on the announcements.
4) Travel light. Realising you’ve gotten on the wrong train and having to get off, go back to your starting point and then get another train in the right direction is less of a pain when you’re not carrying the full 20kg + 12kg luggage allowance.
5) Japanese people (when not staring) are incredibly helpful. They will try their hardest to understand your hideous Japanese and help you on your way. One lady saw me sitting on my bags looking forlorn on a rural train station platform, and called her friend who has some English to do translation. I almost headbutted her with the force of my bowing.


The point is, I made it. It was stressful, but I did it, all by myself. I got to my town, and then to my apartment.


The apartment? It’s…. very Japanese. The subject of a future post.


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