Saturday, 7 January 2012

The Post-Japan Blues...

It's a funny feeling, returning to the "real world" after Japan. I say that because no longer do my days consist of bumping into large anime characters on the street, of underwear vending machines at the bottom of baseball fields, or of smirking at boys in pink trousers and old women reading porn on the bus. When I look back on my time in Japan, and reflect on the things that I miss, they certainly aren't the same things that I expected to miss.

While expecting to crave okonomiyaki and melon soda, I find myself quite apathetic. At a recent Manchester restaurant, Jeff and I were excited to munch on tempura and sip on green tea while using chopsticks and reading hiragana out loud to our nonplussed friends, but overall I find that the relief at having real bread and cheese and pizza and cups of tea back in my life overshadows any pangs I might occasionally feel for silky fresh tofu and squishy, powdered mochi.

No, what I miss is the haze of magic that filled my world for a while, that sparkly other-worldly quality that my life took on for those sixteen months. Yes, Japan has its faults - plenty of them, when you start to burrow into the government's inner workings and pay attention to how finely brainwashed most people are. But I left the UK for similar reasons, and I've learnt now not to let the actions of a few corrupt industries take away from the fact that - for the most part - every country is made up of beautiful, real, raw people just trying to live happy lives full of love, laughter, good friends, good food, and sweet memories. And, for a fleeting moment, I dipped my toes into a culture so vastly different from my own that I barely knew what was happening.

When you live as a foreigner in Japan, you live a life unlike anybody else's. If you work at a school, your fellow teachers might secretly resent the fact that you leave work at 4pm and take holidays, apparently free of the burden of overtime and guilt. Some show open racism, hatred and disrespect, but sadly I can't claim that my own country is any better (everywhere has its ignorant idiots). Others stare in astonishment, terrified and fascinated by your very foreignness, wanting to know just what you think of Japan and congratulating you on your use of chopsticks. For some, this is delightful, for others a massive annoyance - either way, you won't live your life in the shadows over there.

What made my experience so rich was meeting so many other travellers - lost souls, wanderers, Japan enthusiasts, keen teachers and adventurers. Some were jaded after living in one place for too long and realising that nowhere is perfect, others freshly delighted each day by the little wonders offered to them by this new land - be it an insect they'd never seen before, a hilarious piece of "Engrish" on a T-shirt, a stunning landscape or a funny comment from a student. Always having somebody willing to hop in a car (or bus, train, shinkansen) with you and check out mountains, temples, shops, zoos and caves on weekends, their zest for life infectious; that was the best thing.

I look back at moments of my life in Japan, and it all feels so surreal and far away to me now. I have to look at photos to remind myself that I was there. Swimming in rivers, walking into bars and having everyone greet me by name, dodging geckos that fell off ceilings in the toilet, singing karaoke until 5am in a rent-a-car shack while sipping on a can of chu-hai... that was my life. Now, although I live in a new place, I fail to feel the same magic, the same pull. Life is easier in Prague for a multitude of reasons, but there's no solid group of expats that I can call my own. People come and go, Czech people are a lot more realistic and down-to-earth, but sometimes I miss the wide-eyed awe of a fifty year old woman as I tell her that yes, we also drive on the left in the UK, and yes, we have four seasons too, and no, Japanese people's intestines are not longer than other people's...

What was it about being there that made me feel so... different? Was in Japan, or was it just being so far away from home, from everyone I knew? Here, in Prague, I'm only two hours away from home, and a lot of people have visited me already. I suppose I feel as if I'm back in my old life, now, that Japan was only a momentary break or distraction from it. It is hard to feel a part of the "real world" when tucked so neatly away behind the rest of Asia, in a land dominated by Hello Kitty and a lack of awareness of the rest of the world, where people give you ridiculously large sums of money for talking to them and yet ask equally ridiculous sums for the simplest of household goods.

I miss it. I won't lie. I miss the screeching cicadas singing in the trees as I walk to the bus stop. I miss cycling around Hamamatsu, discovering new coffee shops. I miss meeting See at Starbucks, amassing a ton of friends and turning up at a Chinese restaurant at 10pm. I miss that dirty karaoke shack under the bridge, hiring out two rooms and only using one, while sipping on a disgustingly bitter Strong Zero and covering Spice Girls hits. I miss Disney themed love hotels that cost the moon. Nomi-houdai. Saying things like "I'll shink it to Tokyo" and "izakaya" and "kombini" and being understood. Speaking Japanese. Knowing everyone. And wow, I miss my students... the adult classes, yes, but the kids at junior high with their goofy senses of humour, their shy smiles and their heart-warming goodbye letters. I don't think I'll ever meet teenagers as innocent and pure-hearted as those students.

I could have stayed there forever, but in many ways I felt as if I was on a long holiday at Disneyland. I could ride the rides forever, watch the nighttime parades and eat icecream until I was sick, but the real world was out there, continuing to grow and fight and suffer and live, and of course after the earthquake I knew that it was happening in Japan, too. It was a battle with my conscience, really. To realise the futility of life and to enjoy it, or to feel a sense of duty, somehow... not necessarily a feeling of having to grow up and get a "real job" but a feeling of having to do something to acknowledge all the negativity in the world and then to try changing it. If not that, it was at least a need to have a job where I knew I was actually making a difference in some way. An ALT in Japan, now, earns four times more than me and does half as much work (if they do the same as I did, anyway - I know that some work a lot harder), and while the cost of living matches that they are usually capable of exploring that fascinating, perplexing country a little more every day. Sometimes I wish I could go back into that warm coccoon, that dreamlike world, and I hear my junior high school's song on the wind, inviting me back...

Then again, the world is pretty sweet, and has a lot more to offer. We must not dwell on what has been, but neither must we forget the precious moments that define our experience.  I will always be grateful for my time in Japan, and I will endeavour to fill the rest of my life with moments just as wonderful. 2012 is a big year... many believe the last year... and, well, whether it is or it isn't, you might as well create some amazing memories (why go out on a downer?)... happy new year, everyone, and love to all my friends in Japan and everywhere else, and to all of you lovely readers.


  1. Gwynnie, you should write for a living. Wonderful. Almost makes me feel like I was there with you. If only ;) xx

  2. Thank you :). Writing is and always has been a huge part of my life, and something I'd love to be paid for. Well... if you click on the adverts here I'll get a few pennies! For now, it'll do...

  3. Perfect words to a very relatable feeling and experience!

  4. It's not the last year and those who believe it is watch too many Hollywood movies.

  5. I just stumbled upon this blog post, god you're good!
    It's been a week since I came from Japan(was there on holiday) and your post made me recall everything about my visit: from aromas to tastes and scenery.