Thursday, 7 April 2011

Year 2 Begins...

Well, my first year in Japan has been and gone. With all the recent disasters, panic, sadness and general craziness, my one-year-in-Japan anniversary (Japanniversary?) passed me by, unnoticed. While large parts of Japan are ruined or affected in some way by recent events, the greatest repercussions in Hamamatsu are that the Golden Week festival (and other festivals) have been cancelled. Apparently it is wrong to celebrate while your brethren are suffering - a noble notion, for certain, but one that surely poses a threat to Japan's economy and morale in the long term. Still, other things go on as normal.

With the arrival of the cherry blossoms, Japan finishes one fiscal year and begins another. Students graduate from schools and begin their next steps only two weeks later, businesses reshuffle, ceremonies mark the endings and beginnings of chapters of life. Without researching, I would say that this timing was decided in order to coincide with the cherry blossoms - that haiku-inspiring reminder that all things in life are fleeting, however beautiful. Spring definitely marks a time of change - of movement, of rebirth. And so, while devastating, that world-shattering earthquake and tsunami chose a good time to strike in terms of Japan's psyche - for this week, we move on to the next chapters - we pick up, we rebuild, we start afresh.

That's all very romantic, anyway. In reality, the pretty pink flowers have become an excuse to get drunk (hanami - "flower viewing" - involves sitting under the trees and getting blind drunk, traditionally) and to take pretty pictures, while the reshuffle that should signify new beginnings feels slightly like stale tradition. Saying that, I did cry at my third graders' graduation ceremony, but that's because it's designed to be moving. The teachers wear black suits, the students sing and give little speeches to the teachers, before the remaining students create a pathway leading out of the school. The graduating students walk down this path and away into the distance, as if forever. Almost all female teachers, and a good deal of younger students, were bawling their eyes out. It was perhaps the first time that I've seen Japanese people cry (apart from a few drunk girls).

Do you remember when I said I would only stay here for a year? I knew from my second day here that I would stay for longer. Without a thought, I re-signed that contract and applied for a visa extension. I am now living in a massive LeoPalace in Tenryugawa (one stop away from Hamamatsu on the train) with Jeff. Two bedrooms, one kitchen and a living room over two floors... for the same price as I was paying for that tiny LeoPalace box last year. I have kept the school I liked while dropping the other one, and gaining three new elementary schools on top - all of which are about a 5 minute walk from my new place. Between Jeff and I, we are very busy with private lessons, but hopefully will be able to save up a load of money... until now I had been spending all my money every month, but hopefully that will change.

A whole load of new ALTs have arrived Hamamatsu - most of them seem lovely. Sadly, many of my friends have left or transferred, too. Saba has gone, Jenny is travelling around before probably leaving, and a few others have transferred to other places. I have people who are still here, but it's sad that some of my closest friends are going back home. Ah, well, that is the curse of the traveller - you will meet the most amazing, interesting people, but most of those friendships will be as fleeting as the sakura itself. Hopefully I will stay in touch with the people I have met here, and we will be able to travel together again.

My decision to renew my contract was pretty simple. If I return to the UK, I have no job, tuition fees are now ridiculously high, I would live with my parents again, and my boyfriend is American so it would be hard for him to follow me. I love my family and friends, but they have their own lives too, and I know that they can cope without me being there. Yes, I can look into other countries, and I have done. There are a few options on the horizon. But here and now, I have a house, an amazing boyfriend, an easy and pleasant job that pays well, great friends, and I live in a safe, clean place. Yes, there are a lot of things about Japan that bother me; I have a lot of negative things to say that I don't want to publish. But watching peoples' lives destroyed only a few hundred miles north can truly make you appreciate everything you have.

The weird thing is - it isn't Japan itself that keeps me here. The language interests me more than many, and I am constantly perplexed by the seemingly endless contradictions of the Japanese mindset. What I mean is that I am no star-struck fool, obsessed with anime, gadgets, temples, tea ceremonies or samurai. Yeah, Japanese food is good. Yeah, there are some pretty things here - if you like your nature segregated, controlled and fake (i.e. riverbanks that have been filled in with concrete). People are polite and nice here - but what is going on under the surface? Is a society that patiently queues up outside a shop when they're starving and freezing, instead of looting it like any other nation would, something to be proud of - or something deeply disturbing? I don't have the answers to these questions. I just want to point out that I'm not actually a Japanophile, although recent events definitely made me realise that I cared more deeply for this nation and its people than I had realised.

What I love about this life, most of all, are the people that I meet... other travellers, teachers, business people, Japanese people who have lived abroad. Exciting, colourful people with stories to tell, with that sparkle in their eyes that you don't find in the majority of the population. People from all walks of life, with one core thing in common - that urge to seek novelty, to discover new things, to meet new people and to constantly break out of their own comfort zone. I suppose, then, that I love the feeling of silent camaraderie between travellers. The journey, not the destination. From Japan, I must travel to a new destination. I must keep moving, growing, learning, discovering. Can I ever return to the U.K., now?

So, here we go. Another year in Hamamatsu. My first year with Jeff. I no longer feel like a floundering newbie, but there is so much I have yet to learn. It will be a year of saving money (if only to travel to other places), of meeting more people, of doing the things that I missed last year. Perhaps I will manage to improve my Japanese (最近、下手になりましたと思う - recently, I think it's become crap!)... perhaps I will be able to make this blog something better.

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