Culture Shock in Japan

On Saturday 31st July at around 2pm, for reasons already expressed, I took my first steps towards the biggest change in my life I have ever undertaken. Not content with changing one thing in my life like most normal people, I opted to change my country, house, job, career, language and culture. I left behind every semblance of familiarity I know and 10 hours later I was spat out in Tokyo severely jet-lagged, and faced with the prospect of 3 days of lectures and 2 nights of inevitable heavy drinking and karaoke. It’s a hard life.

It’s been a couple of weeks since then and there have been no updates for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I have no Internet in my house; it’s on order, but it might take a couple more weeks. Secondly, I simply have not stopped since I got here; the past two weeks have been two of the most confusing, exciting, upsetting, fun and surreal weeks of my life. If there was a pictorial representation of my emotional state since I got here, it would probably look something like a seismograph attached to a pneumatic drill during a scale-9 earthquake.

The first four days were easy (apart from the chronic jet-lag). We touched down in the plane, jumped on a bus and drove to the Kao Plaza Hotel in downtown Tokyo; a bubble of relative familiarity in a sea of surreal and bizarre. Just over 1000 people from the UK, USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Singapore and elsewhere had made exactly the same choices as me, and were being ferried from halfway across the world so they could teach English to Japanese school kids. During the day we dressed up in our suits and attended lectures and workshops, then at night we were entertained by Taiko drummers at the British embassy, meeting Japanese MPs, singing at karaoke bars and drinking whiskey-on-the-rocks in a bar on the 45th floor of the hotel while we listened to soft jazz and watched the bright lights of Tokyo twinkle through the darkness. We were all finding it extremely difficult to believe that we were there at all.

Eventually on Wednesday, the wining and dining came to an end and we jumped on the bus to Shizuoka. Three hours later we were at a welcoming ceremony and taking it in turns to introduce ourselves to 30 Japanese supervisors, in a short couple of sentences we had learnt in Japanese, before we were split up and running around Shizuoka with our respective supervisors, getting passport photos taken and setting up alien registration cards. My supervisor, an English teacher from my school, took me to my apartment so I could freshen up and change (the heat/humidity here is insane), before she took me to the school to meet a couple of the teachers. After that she took me back to the apartment and drove off, and for the first time since Saturday, I was alone. I walked around the corner to the local ramen shop and was about to walk in before I realised there were no pictures of the food anywhere. I live on pictures. With pictures you can simply point and say “kore o kudasai” (“that one please”) and Bob’s your uncle, you’ve got a chicken curry. No? Tofu curry? Or is that egg? Who knows?

Too frightened to go in and make a fool of myself, I walked to the local corner shop and bought a packet of instant noodles instead. I walked back home, sat down, alone, and attempted to hold back the tears. I failed. The bubble had burst.

I won’t lie to you; this is tough. It’s probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done. The feeling of extreme loneliness on that first night was compounded by the fact that neither I, nor anyone else on the JET programme had a mobile phone or the Internet, nor did we know our physical addresses. There was simply no way of contacting anyone, and although I was surrounded by hundreds of people none of them could speak English, and the only things I could say in Japanese were “good morning”, “good afternoon” and “thank you very much”. Daily tasks that are as normal and easy to me as breathing back in England became a chore which required careful planning and thought. I was panicking; the two sides of my conscience – having signed a peace treaty for the last 4 or 5 years – were at war, pitting reason and sense against an onslaught of doubt, despair and homesickness.

Fortunately it only lasted a couple of days. On the Friday of that week I walked through the front door of my apartment and smiled, excited and amused at the prospect of trying to find an internet cafe using sign language and gestures. I’d found a phrasebook which Brian, my predecessor, left in the apartment, and which was swiftly added to my checklist of necessary equipment for whenever I set foot outside. I skipped along the street until I got to the local shop where I’d bought a pack of instant noodles on the first night. “Internet o cafe wa doku des ka?” I asked the nice, smiley old lady behind the counter. She thought about it for a minute, confessed she didn’t know but then walked out of the shop and across the road to ask her friend. After much deliberation they both decided that they had no idea, but there was nothing that could stop me now. I was on a mission, driven by determination and the intense, animalistic desire for Gmail and Facebook. A few more regurgitations of my new phrase and I was there; a twenty minute walk from my house, and it only took me two hours.

The next day I went to Kanaya, about 40 minutes south on the Tokkaido JR train, to meet up with my partners in crime, Maria and Sophie, who I met at the orientation in Uxbridge, and a few other JETs from the area. We had a meal at an “Italian” restaurant (seriously, if you come here, stick to the Japanese food) before heading on to a get-together for some fireworks in a nearby town. It was a great night, and a wonderful opportunity to meet a few new JETs who have been here for a year, or who had arrived earlier this year. A couple of vodka jellies and a few beers later it was time to decide whether to get the last train home, or pull an all-nighter. With a head full of alcohol and a bunch of fun and interesting people persuading me to stay out, I decided to get the last train home and have an early night.

Yeah right… Off to Hamamatsu we skipped, ending up in a club dancing to trance music before falling asleep on the floor in the middle of the train station and waiting for the first train to arrive on Sunday morning. After a very painful hour on the train and 20 minutes on a bus, I got into bed, woke up at 17:30, ate some food, and went back to bed. Week 1; done.

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