Life by the Train Tracks: A Foreigner’s Experience In Japan

Posted by Codi Hauka & filed under Pop Culture.

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After living in Japan for two months, it still hasn’t hit me that I really live here. It doesn’t feel like it’s been that long or that I’m so far away from everything and everyone I know. The biggest shock of moving here has been how seamless the transition has been and how quickly I’ve already grown accustomed to my new life, so much so that I’m already forgetting things I used to see, do, or hear on a daily basis in Vancouver.

I knew everything would be different in Japan, which was a fundamental reason for why I wanted to go. I had lived in Vancouver for my entire 23 years of life, and have never traveled outside of North America. I got a degree in International Relations but I had never been anywhere. I felt bland and monotonous within a city that’s heralded as being vibrant and diverse. Going to Japan, I expected “different” and that’s exactly what I got, which might help explain why I wasn’t shocked. It was exactly what I wanted.

This might sound odd, but if you’ve ever watched an anime based in Japan (especially anything by Studio Ghibli), then you’ve seen Japan before. Even if you’ve never been, that’s (shockingly) exactly what things are like. The sounds, the sites—there are the same trees, the little geometrically shaped cars, and yes, even Totoro everywhere. The first rice field I ever saw after getting off the plane in Tokyo looked so familiar even though I had never seen one before. When I first took a ride on the local train—small, with only three cars and painted in pastel colours—I felt that I had been there before. What was shocking was that I immediately felt so at home.

When you arrive in Tokyo, the JET Program (which facilitated my getting hired as an English teacher) tries to put you on a crash course for working and living in Japan, right after you’ve been awake for almost 48 hours. One of the things they tell you is that there is a mood pattern people tend to follow during their first year, beginning with Phase 1: Initial Euphoria.

Phase 1 is characterized as being overwhelmed and excited by your new life, but the parts of Japan responsible for inducing your euphoria are not the things that are different but what you feel familiar with. Maybe it was the jetlag and the third helping from the buffet breakfast, but I thought that sounded ridiculous, because all I was noticing was how enthralled I was with everything different. Yet now, I guess there is some truth to it since all the “different” things I was reveling in were still familiar to me, though not necessarily through direct experience.

It’s an odd feeling of nostalgia, which you’re not entirely sure of where it came from. I can only explain this as a similar feeling I had in childhood: everything is new, and you’re (consciously) learning more everyday, and everything is just genuinely fun. Especially since I came to Japan with very limited knowledge of the language, it really is like being a child again. I came here illiterate and had to do a lot of learning and asking questions to get my feet off the ground; My entire life has changed.

I’ve learned to bow and constantly say, “thank you,” instead of shaking hands or asking “whatsup?” I’ve learned that layering in the summer is essential to hiding your sweat stains, and that I truly loathe humidity. I’ve learned that you can pay for a pack of ¥100 mints with a ¥10,000 bill, but using your debit or credit card for anything is impossible. I’ve learned that a good pair of indoor shoes is necessary to avoid a sore back or feet.

I’ve learned that you can literally be in the middle of nowhere, and there will always be a fully stocked vending machine with drinks that will talk to you upon making a purchase (I don’t know how I’ll live without this convenience). I’ve learned that onigiri and daifuku are the greatest snacks of all time. I’ve learned that aside from perhaps the largest cities in Japan, a lot of it is either traditionally maintained or modeled after 1950s America.

I’ve learned that you can get a beer anywhere (literally, even from vending machines) but a good latte is hard to come by. I’ve learned that fruit is ridiculously expensive and regarded as a dessert, while cakes, donuts and pies are cheap snacks.

And I’ve learned that learning is on of my favorite things in life.

It’s why I had such a difficult time leaving university, and why I became a teacher in Japan—I love environments that foster learning. I know I could learn plenty of things from living elsewhere, but I’m certain that it wouldn’t have been quite as life-changing. Japan is so completely different—from the way my tap works to waking up to the chirping of cicadas—that it’s provided me with the familiar but forgotten sense of being a precocious child, eager to learn and live. It has given me a fresh start, and that’s perhaps the greatest shock you can get.

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Codi Hauka is an English teacher in Japan, a contributor for Schema Magazine, and a blogger of fake news. For more from Codi, please visit the website she runs with an esteemed colleague in the hopes of upholding journalistic and comedic integrity.

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