I was asked what your first days living in Japan would feel like. It’s a hard question. It’s different for everyone. How can I say what you will feel like when you first step foot on foreign soil, not to visit, but to live? The two are very different. Visiting a well-developed country like Japan, there’s no fear, no worry except that you may lose you passport. You know that one, two weeks later you’ll be safe in your own home, just like you were before you left. You hope that you’ll be different somehow, that your trip will change you in some meaningful way, but you would be satisfied just to walk away with a few good memories.
But going there to live, that’s a different beast. What does it feel like? What does it feel like to know that you are going there to change, or rather to be changed. You’re not going as a tourist, even a traveler, but a resident. You will change. You have to, or the country will eat you up and vomit you out because you refused to.
You’re gambling with your very identity on the bet that you’ll come out the other end of your adventure better than you were when you left.
What does that feel like? Well, for me it was lonely at first, and very confusing, then it got better.
“Yes, so you have tomorrow off. That’ll allow you to get settled. Let me take your picture.” He took my picture.
A cool guy, who would later become my area manager. He was seeing me off from Shinjuku station for my hour and a half train ride to Yamanashi. I had taken too many suitcases and he had helped me with them. I’d spent four days in Tokyo, and now it was time to go to work. It was my first week in Japan.
“I’m sending this to the current staff now. He’s just temporary, there to train the new staff who will come next week. Apparently she can speak fluent English. She’s married to a New Zealander.”
I wasn’t sure how I felt about that. I was eager to practice my Japanese, but having a coworker fluent in English certainly wasn’t a bad thing.
“The staff is new too?”
“As new as you.” He gave me a strange smile, as if to say I know something you don’t, poor chap. “Welcome to Japan.”
A skinny, flamboyant figure prances up to me at the station. “Nathansan desuka?” Are you Mr. Nathan? His voice matches his Tiedie shirt. He looks like an anorexic hippy.
“Yes, I’m Nathan,” I answer, in Japanese.
“Nice to meet you. I’m staff. Let’s go you apartment.”
I quickly find out that’s the extent of his English. But I’m not expecting him to speak my language. Japanese study English in middle and high school, but I studied Spanish in middle and high school too. Of those hundreds of lessons, the only Spanish I remember is “donde esta el banjo?” Where is the bathroom? Why should Japan be any different?
Whoever said “Wherever you go, someone will speak English” should be kidnapped, stuffed inside a burlap sack, beaten, and then dropped of in the 99.9% of the world where they don’t speak English! Don’t expect a person in another country to speak your language. Why should they? They have their own. If they do, you should feel extremely lucky, not to mention grateful that they’re kind enough to use it.
Anyway, enough ranting. He takes me to a tiny box of an apartment. It’s a box, but a bigger box than I expected.
“Your futon,” he says, switching to Japanese after we realize my Japanese is better than his English. But not by much. He takes it out of the box and lays it out on the ground. Until that moment a “futon” had been a kind of couch you could make into a bed. This was not a couch, nor a bed. It was a blanket and pillow., and the thought that I would be sleeping on it for any length of time seriously concerned me. I’ll more or less be sleeping on the hardwood flooring.
This can’t be right. “This is a futon?”
Are you sure? “How can you sleep on this?”
He shrugs, then before he leaves he shoves a bunch of documents at me, all in kanji.
“Gas…tomorrow. 12:00. If hungry…remember…711?” That’s what I caught with my limited Japanese. It was enough though.
Yes, I did remember the 711.
I’d never seen an air conditioner like that. How did I use it?
“…this.” He shows me and I kind of understand. Like what I catch from his Japanese though, it’s enough to manage. I’m going to have to look up those kanji on the remote tonight or tomorrow.
He leaves and I’m tired. The last few days have been exhausting and I’m spinning around in circles trying to find a center of gravity. I’m excited, disappointed in the apartment, nervous, but riding the adventure.
But more than anything I have no idea what I’m doing, and I’m finding I don’t like relying on people I don’t entirely trust.
I can’t sleep. Too much going on inside my head. I try to watch TV, but it’s all Japanese. Once again I’m reminded my Japanese isn’t as good as I thought. I take a walk, but don’t go far because I’m seriously concerned about getting lost. It’s midnight and even I don’t know where I live yet.
I take his advice and walk up to the 711. I look around and find the Final Fantasy XIII Elixir they’re selling. Something awesome I can’t buy in the states and it makes me remember all the cool things I’m going to get to see and do here. The cans I buy have Sazh and Lightning on them. They’re the only characters I liked. I also buy some potato chips–a taste of home–and some green tea I once tried in a sushi restaurant back in my hometown. I go back to my new apartment, eat the chips, and wish I had the internet, or a phone. I want to talk to my family because there’s no one to talk to.
The next day, the first thing is to find out where I work. I have the day off, but I want to see it. The map the staff gave me said it’s near the station. Looked easy to find. It is, and I count this a stroke of luck because I’m bad with directions and happy I didn’t get lost. I go upstairs and meet the staff again, who looks shockingly different in his business suit. I don’t even recognize him. Is this what all the Japanese culture sites said about Japanese businessmen being completely different people outside work? Must be.
The teacher is temporary. Now that I’ve arrived, he’s going back to his home branch tomorrow. He’s been living here for three months in a hotel.
He’s a nice guy, but busy with lessons, so we don’t get much chance to talk. I realize though, perhaps because of seeing my chameleon coworker’s suit, I need an iron.
“Do you know where I can get an iron?” I ask.
“I’m sorry. I’m…few weeks…don’t…area well.”
I didn’t catch this. “Sorry, I didn’t catch that.”
“I’m also new to…I…three weeks.”
He’s new? Oh, right. The manager said he’s just temporary. “Oh, I see.” I turn to the teacher. “Do you know?”
He shrugs. “I’ve never needed to go shopping here.”
“You need to get an iron?” We all turn. It’s a student, her English good. “Are you the new teacher?”
“Yes. I’m Nathan, nice to meet you.”
We chat and she tells me there’s a department store right in front of the station, which apparently I passed when I came here. “There’s a Muji Rushi on the fourth floor. Do you know Muji Rushi?”
She laughs. “Come on, I’ll show you.”
Muji Rushi is a home furnishing store that wants to be ritzy but never rises above creamy brown pastels and unpainted wooden shelves. It’s overpriced and not as stylish as it thinks, but has everything I need.
She uses some service plan on her cell phone to get me a 10% discount too. I buy a iron and a board, and plan to come back later that day to buy a bean bag chair.
“Thanks a lot. Thanks to you I’ll look presentable tomorrow.”
“No problem. Ask me if you need anything.”
“I will, thanks.”
Immediate needs provided for, I shuttle my iron and ironing board back to my coffin-sized apartment on foot. For lunch I go back to the 711 because I don’t know which restaurant to try. Baby steps. Baby steps.
I score again though, because, Lord, this food is good! At least compared to any 711 I’ve been to. I’ll definitely be buying lunch here again.
Around that time a man comes to turn on the gas. I expected this, remembering what the staff said about gas and 12:00. The gas is turned on with no problem. After that I go and buy a bean bag chair. I have gas, a chair, and some trash from last night.
I spend the rest of the day unpacking. Deciding I don’t need to rush and that’s enough for today, I connect my PS3 to the little TV my apartment came equipped with and play Final Fantasy 13 because I had the cans from last night. I soon stop though, thinking that I wanted to play while drinking the drink, so I go back up to 711 and get some more. I get the characters I didn’t get yesterday, more food, then go back to my apartment and play until I fall asleep. I think I’ve had a productive day.
To be honest, your first few days are quite mundane, but interesting in their own way. You’re still too wound up to consider anything too deeply. Just trying to get settled in and find your center. You do though, eventually, and it’s only after that that the transformation begins, little by little…if you let it. And should you, I think you’ll find the trip here was worth it.