As it approaches the six month mark of our stay in Japan I write this post, reflecting on what's happened so far.
After having our first Japanese Christmas and seeing in the new year away from our loved ones it feels as if there's been a shift. It's a milestone for us as a couple, being so far from what we know and creating a new experience of Christmas as our own family unit. Although James had to work on Christmas day, we filled our time before and after with friends, food, karaoke (of course) and giving presents to all those who have already become important people in our lives. We enjoyed time at our new church and made the most of the Christmas break with a lovely trip to Kagoshima- we stayed with a Japanese friends family which was an experience in itself! (Read about it here)
The new year has not only brought two new jobs for me but also a new sense of what life can be here. We are feeling much more settled and things are starting to resemble normal day-to-day life. Bringing with it bills, budgeting, shopping lists, cleaning and all those other things you get when living anywhere in the world!
As for new jobs, I'm working part time at an English conversation cafe. I essentially get paid to chat and drink coffee so if you know me well you will be aware of how hilariously perfect that is. So far I am thoroughly enjoying not only having something to fill my days but I've met some brilliant Japanese people. To make things even better, the cafe promotes my sessions by offering afternoon tea and cakes. I am the token British facilitator that seems to attract those who watch Downton Abbey and love Harry Potter. My other job will commence soon and I will be teaching elderly people English. Apparently a few of them have been attending the same class for up to ten years, so not only do they have an advanced level of English, but half of the lesson is usually for them to have a good old chinwag. No complaints from me in the job department that's for sure.
As a routine starts to develop, we feel as if we are living a similar life to England in some ways. The elements such as work, friends, church and chores are the same, and yet there are very different surroundings, people and culture. There is an obvious lack of family, long time friends and the odd English food we very much wish we had when the cravings hit. Saying all that, there are many parts of living here that will continue to be fascinating and unique that we shall probably keep taking notice of.
Onsens: One part of life that stands out is visiting a Japanese public bath or onsen. James had informed me that this was one of the things he was most excited to do again in Japan... Now you all may be thinking similarly to how I was at that time- “There is no way I am going fully naked into a bath with strangers, that is on the list of my top worst nightmares”. The thought horrified me. I had pretty much resigned to that aspect of Japan being a closed door to me. However, through a very persuasive and crafty Japanese friend I found myself in a public bath within three months of being here. I have to say I am fully converted to the onsen experience, it is amazing. Once you get over the first hurdle that is feeling like it could be one of the most awkward or embarrassing experiences of your life, you realise it totally makes sense and fully immerse yourself (both figuratively and literally). What is even better is that there are many natural hot spring onsens around Kyushu which means you can enjoy the experience outside, viewing some picturesque scenery. You can be almost certain people will be looking at the amazing view and not at you!
Getting around: Surprisingly, the adjustment to not having a car and using public transport has not been as hard as I thought it would be. The efficiency and availability of trains and buses is great, and not only are they cheap but they provide ample opportunities to ‘people watch’. When you ride the bus in Japan you quickly get used to the fact that bus drivers pretty much narrate the whole journey for you; welcoming you onto the bus; informing you of the next stop; telling you which road they are turning onto; and thanking you when you get off. It starts to fade into the background unless you get a driver with a particularly interesting voice or his own hilarious style of saying “Thank you” in the fastest way possible. Another thing that is vastly different is that I cycle to most places now. I struggled to ever use my bike in England, I was too lazy to cycle up any incline whatsoever and did not like the fact that I needed to ride on the road. Here I can cycle to my hearts content with rarely any hills or upward struggles and everyone cycles on the pavement. The benefit of cities in Japan is that they are usually built upon any part of flat land available.
Taking your shoes off: You never know in Japan when you might need to take off your shoes, it's often customary here whether it's in a restaurant, changing room, museum or school. Not only do you start to see the serious benefit of slip-on shoes, but you always find yourself making sure you don't put on those old, holey socks just in case. When I worked for five weeks at an elementary school I enjoyed the fact that they provided special slippers to put on once you had stored your shoes away in the entrance rack, and then there were special shoes they place just inside of the toilet doorway for when using the bathroom.
Rice cookers: I had never used a rice cooker until I arrived in Japan. I cannot believe how much it has improved my cooking life- I never want to cook rice by myself in a pan ever again. It is a beautiful invention and I am slowly discovering it can do way more than effortlessly making boiled rice. It slightly makes up for the fact that ovens are not a staple in Japanese homes, and although I am sorely missing roast meats and any kind of frozen potato products, I am consoled by no longer having to endure the risky business that is boiling rice.
Always using cash: Gone are the days when I used to pop into Tesco and use my debit-card to pay for something that was as cheap as 20p. It feels like its simply impossible to use your card here. A memorable moment was when went to Nitori (the Japanese equivalent of IKEA) and bought all the items that we needed to kit-out our new apartment, furniture and all. It costed a significant amount and while it was being put through the till it dawned on us that they didn't take cards. I still can't get my head around why a shop like that doesn't take them and I’m not too sure who carries around several thousands of pounds on them but clearly the Japanese do. What made it even more awkward was at this point we still didn't have a Japanese bank card and our English cards only worked at one specific cash point. I stood at the till for over half an hour exchanging awkward looks with the cashiers while James was on a wild cash machine hunt, using every bank card we had including my mum's who was visiting. If it wasn't for her we would have had a very awkward situation of putting two trolleys full of stuff back. But seriously, I've only used my card about twice here and that was in H&M. A pocket full of cash is by far the safest option.
Bowing: When we arrived in Tokyo last August I remember sitting outside the airport in a delirious jet-lagged state, waiting for a bus and wondering why Japanese people with immaculate uniforms were employed to stand at bus stops and bow to buses as they arrived and left. I’m sure they were there to do more than that but I found it very entertaining at the time. Now bowing seems very much a part of life, it didn't take long to catch on and now I don’t think I realise how much I probably do it.
Language: I end on probably the biggest contender that will always make daily life a bit out of the ordinary. It's not a constant thought but at times I will be on a train or in a crowded area and suddenly realise that everyone around me speaks a completely different language. However, it's amazing what you can pick up of the language when you're fully immersed in it. Even our church is in both Japanese and English so it’s a very interesting experience. The feeling I get when I engage with someone in Japanese and am able understand some of the words that they’re saying (and even respond) is so fulfilling. I’ve finally got myself to a Japanese class and I have the privilege of being the only student. Therefore, I have some pretty intense one-on-one lessons right now. I managed a five minute conversation with my teacher today, it was somewhat one sided on her part, but still, I’m chuffed.
There are so many other things to talk about but I shall leave you with that for now. Although daily life here is somewhat like anywhere else, there's plenty of things to keep us writing.