Did you know, like me, author Gillian St. Kevern is a New Zealander? But unlike me, she’s a world traveler who turned the traditional Kiwi OE into a way of life: she currently lives in Japan, where she has access to the best, most drool-worthy stationery in the world! Plus she’s visited over twenty different countries.
Japan’s on my wish list! It’s right behind the Silk Road! So I persuaded Gillian to share what it’s like settling in to a foreign culture. (And pssst, her new book Thorns and Fangs is about two “dangerously hot vampires” and a ruthless necromancer.)
Getting Lost: The Best Way to Learn Japan.
Japan is a tricky country to get a handle on. I’ve lived here ten years now, and it still surprises me. Yesterday, two friends and I went on a road trip to a bakery and an onsen (communal bath fed from a volcanic hot spring). A fun day out, but on the way home we drove past a troop of monkeys, just chilling on the side of the highway — not something you see a lot of in New Zealand. We just about lost our minds. I’ve seen wild monkeys in Japan before — one was hanging around the schools I teach at for a while. Yesterday, we saw over twenty of them, some babies amongst them. It was the highlight of our day — and it happened completely unexpectedly. And that is a running theme in Japan.
My first week in Japan, I was a new ALT (Assistant Language Teacher) in Sendai, a city of a million people in the Tohoku region. Fellow kiwi Amy and myself (not her real name), decided to head out and explore. We were walking through the main shopping district downtown. Amy was really enthusiastic. It was her first time overseas, and she couldn’t believe how different everything was. I was less impressed. Between my parent’s jobs, we’d lived in five different countries growing up. Where Amy saw differences, I only saw depressing similarities. The architecture was not NZ architecture, but it wasn’t Japanese either. It could have been any big city anywhere in the world — besides the kanji signs, I didn’t feel there was anything particularly Japanese about it. I voiced this opinion and Amy rolled her eyes. “What are you expecting, that everyone would be wearing kimonos, or that there’d be ninja walking down the street?” She had a point, but I didn’t want to admit it. “I expected something more!” I grumbled. We turned the corner. Amy started laughing. After a second, I did too. Opposite us was a three story high sign of a giant gorilla, fist raised above his head King Kong style. He was surrounded by neon lights and a large sign that proclaimed that this was ‘Jungle Kong.’ “That Japanese enough for you?” Amy said. “Okay,” I said. “I’m happy now.” We later found out that Jungle Kong was a love hotel.
I had plans for my time in Japan. Armed with my copy of the Lonely Planet, and the Japanese I was studying, I looked up train times online and crossed off temples and sightseeing points. Amy decided spur of the moment what she was going to do and rarely looked up directions. She had adventures on a weekly basis. Walking home from school, she’d see an interesting side street and decide to detour. She’d be hailed by an excited retiree, working on his garden, who could not remember ever seeing a foreigner in his part of town, and wanting to know all about her. She’d be given vegetables from his garden, invited inside a temple not usually open to visitors, taken along on a family hiking expedition … Amy just had this amazing knack for meeting people and making connections with them despite the language barriers.
It drove me nuts. I knew more about Japan, I studied more, I didn’t need to ask for directions because I knew where I was going (my younger self was pretty insufferable)! Amy did none of these things, and she was having an amazing Japan experience — an experience I wanted.
Many years later, working for a different company in a different part of Japan, I began to realise that if I wanted adventures, I had to let go of my strict timetables and plans. This was hard, because I am the type of personality that feels anxious without a plan. Instead of checking my watch constantly to make sure I wasn’t going to miss the train, I just enjoyed myself. I allowed myself to take the interesting detour. And pretty much, whenever I did that, I found myself having interesting conversations with the people around me. I don’t have Amy’s knack for meeting people, but I’ve found that saying yes to things leads to the most unlikely discoveries.
As an example, last year the friends that I road tripped with yesterday had heard about a shiitake picking event in the mountains near the town we work in. We spent the morning gathering mushrooms with our guide, a retired farmer, and a family from Hiroshima, and then returned to the farmer’s house where we met his mother, and we had a barbeque with the shiitake, wild boar, other vegetables and ate fresh figs and persimmons from his garden. That would have been an amazing experience all on its own, right? Well, it got better.
There had been less mushrooms than anticipated so we finished early. The farmer asked us if we wanted to ‘cut.’ I thought he said ‘leave’ so I said ‘sure.’ He then started giving us directions to his friend’s house where they were dismembering a wild boar. By now we’d figured out something was not right, but had no idea what it was. It was an experience! We were actually allowed to help carve up the boar. Not how I’d expected to spend my Sunday afternoon, but the hunters were really pleased by how interested we were and ended up giving us some prime cuts of meat to take home. It was an incredible day, and an experience I’ll never forget — and not one that most people would associate with Japan.
Most people come to Japan with a strict itinerary and a limited amount of time, so I imagine that they’re unwilling to step off the beaten track and leave things open to chance. What they experience of Japan tends to confirm whatever expectations they came in with. However, I have found that my best memories come from the times that I’ve taken chances and detoured. Expectations and plans are great, but especially with a country that is as hard to define as Japan, they can prevent you from experiencing it fully.