“How long are you going to stay in Japan?’ Inquiring minds want to know.
‘As long as it makes me happy.’ Is my answer. Truthfully, it’s as long as I get a visa too, but that doesn’t sound as good.
It’s been almost five months since I chucked everything into the wind to come to Japan, and I can honestly say right now I’m loving it. I find joy in something almost every day. I’ve decided it’s like being a child (only with more pocket money). Here’s why.
My current Japanese language ability is about preschool. Probably less. I can understand generally what people are telling/asking me and I can read simple kana. I’ve just started to lean kanji, and I’m excited about being able to read more things (with a full on manga book being my goal!) I rely on simple words and lots of gestures though.
Putting that to the test, I’ve finally joined a karate club, which relies about 90% on body language: I watch my sensei and the other students carefully before I do anything. I remember my former teacher, Master Johnson, saying actions were more important than words in teaching martial arts and I can wholeheartedly agree: I can’t understand everything my sensei says, but because his movements are clear, I can keep up with the class, even when we do partner work or more complex combinations. Overall, the club have made me feel very welcome. There are about 6 or 7 women at the beginner’s level and we all have one tiny room to get changed in. Which makes pre- and post-class very sociable times for me!
For those who are curious, here’s how the lesson goes. It lasts an hour, with a short break to put knee and leg pads on. The first half is mainly warming up, and Godo-sensei drills us on punches, blocks, kicks and squats. After we’re padded up, we do more kicks, push ups and moving back and forth in front stance. Then we pair off for combinations. These usually involve one person grabbing the other, and a technique to get out of it (much like grabbing techniques in my old club). We also do a few exercises using pads. Godo-sensei sets a timer for 1 minute so we only ever kick or punch a pad for that each time. That’s the part when I really like to work up a sweat, because I know it\s only for a minute I can go flat out! At the end of class we sit on our knees, hands in fists at our waist, to meditate for a minute. From that position we bow to Godo-sensei and each other – every member of the class to each other says ‘Osu.’ This is like a Japanese dojo greeting/thanks/acknowledgement. Then we have to clean the dojo floor, with brushes and with cloths, before we can get changed.
At the moment I can only go once a week, which is the only downer, I’d love to go more often, but as my work is mainly in the evening when the classes are, it’s impossible. Still, it’s great to be back in a martial arts club, I get such a buzz after each class and I have a feeling I’ll make some good friends there.
Making friends is another thing that takes me back to being a child. It’s like being the new kid in school, coming to Japan. You have to really get a feel for what’s going on and who’s who before you start to feel a bit more settled. You’re the newbie, so you’re a novelty at first and you can get away with a lot – but not for long. Before I came to Japan I read up on culture shock, and it said ‘beware of living in a foreign bubble.’ That is, coming to Japan and only socialising with westerners. It struck me as a funny warning (why bother coming to Japan if that’s all you do?) but I can see how easy it is to do just that. There’s loads of ‘western friendly’ bars and clubs and a big social scene at ECC. You might say the job hours (finishing at 9pm and later and allowing plenty of time for a sleep in) practically encourage you to slip into the bar next door once you’ve clocked off. And the truth is, basically, you don’t need to speak Japanese to live in Japan. Which is kind of good at first, when you’re a baby with no language skills, but who’d want to stay a baby their whole time here?
If I wanted to hang out in western bars, drinking western drinks and eating western food, I could have stayed in England. I’m not saying that I don’t ever want to do it, in fact I think it might help cure a bit of homesickness. But it’s not what I want to do every weekend. So I’m keeping my adventuring spirit, that got me here, alive.
One of my best friends from the UK, Caroline, came to visit last month and we had a fantastic time. It was great to see my friend, and hear about the things at home, but as I took her to some of my favourite places – Ikuta shrine, Don Kihote, Harbourland – it was also great to see Japan through her eyes. She brought along a guidebook to Japan, something I couldn’t bring in my luggage, and I was just as excited as her to leaf through it, as we planned my days off. For one day, we settled on Hiroshima, a place ‘that for the saddest of reasons, needs no introduction,’ as her book said.
Hiroshima. You know it’s the place they dropped a nuclear bomb. You know lots of people died. You might even know there’s an eerie looking monument called the A-dome, a skeleton of a building left exactly as it was after the bomb struck. But visiting there is still an education. Everyone in the world should have to visit, and then maybe we’d dismantle nuclear weapons once and for all. The peace park museum, just minutes from the A-dome, is jam-packed with information, photos, personal items, stories, facts, scale models, figures… it’s overwhelming. We rented audio guides, and I only stopped listening as we got to a glass case containing a rusty-looking tricycle and helmet. They belonged to a three-year-old boy who was playing in the garden when the bomb exploded. His parents buried the trike with him, because they felt he was too little to be alone in the ground. Heartbreaking.
When you return to the Hiroshima of today, with its nifty trams and shiny buildings, and cheery people who chat to you on the way to the next stop, you really have a new respect for it. The city was destroyed, but the survivors rebuilt their lives. They rebuilt their city. They were told nothing would grow again in Hiroshima, but the peace park defies that with its bushy trees and flowers.
Every day thousands of them pass the A-dome on the tram, on their way to work, school, home. I saw a few of them lift their eyes silently as we passed the A-dome again on our way out of Hiroshima. I couldn’t help but look too. Everyone should.
At the risk of sounding gloomy, visiting somewhere like Hiroshima was important to me, in helping me understand a little more about my host country. The bomb may have been dropped on just one city, but it would have affected the whole country, and not that many generations ago to my own.
English people in general don’t know a lot about Japan, but we’ve all heard of Hiroshima. And now I’ve learned a bit more, I reckon that’s a good thing. The city wants to keep telling every generation across the world its story, in the hope it will never be repeated.
So, I don’t want to remain a child in my knowledge about Japan and Japanese people. But to say ‘I want to know about Japanese culture’ is too vague and wispy a concept. I’m seeing it just like a huge jigsaw puzzle. Sometimes I get a piece of information here, or have an experience there, and they fit perfectly: ‘ahh! That’s what it’s about.’ I don’t expect I’ll ever have a complete picture, but if I enjoy the process, that’s the important thing. That’s what I really came here for.
I enjoy going to the supermarket and not knowing what everything tastes or smells like yet. I enjoy looking for a new kit kat flavour or gashapon toy in every shop. I enjoy my Japanese teacher explaining a new word, and realising I’ve heard it before. I enjoy picking a random subway exit and not knowing what I’ll see at the top of the stairs. I enjoy peeking out of the window when I wake up to see what the weather’s doing. What did you enjoy today?