I kept a journal for the ten months I lived in Japan from October 2001 to July 2002. I was 26 years old. I had just graduated from university and was lured here with stories of making money hand over fist while teaching English. My goal was to help pay off some of my student debt, which I didn’t because I spent it all travelling (this has proven to be an issue in my life). Digital cameras were brand new on the market so all of my photos were still on film. There was no such thing as Google translate and mobile phones were still just phones so I spent a great deal of my time unsure of what was happening around me.
These entries are 15 years old now and have been edited and condensed into something much easier and more coherent to understand than my original hand-written ramblings. I haven’t been back to Japan since so I don’t know how things have changed but I would love to return one day to this beautiful country, to revisit Gifu and to explore places I didn’t have a chance to see the first time.
I’ve been in Japan just over a month now and I’ve learned so much it feels like a year. Every step outside is a learning experience
I left Osaka five days after I landed in Japan. It was a two-hour trip to Nagoya, the third largest city in Japan, where I had to transfer to a local train that would take me to the small city, Gifu, that would be my home for the next year. In Nagoya, I was met by a company representative that helped me through the maze of platforms and escalators. It was only another twenty-minute trip to Gifu after that. I was told that I would be met at the station by my “flatmate”, Claire. Foolishly, I asked what she looked like. He paused, looked at me questioningly and then simply said, “She’s a foreigner.”
I arrived in Gifu around 9 pm. Sure enough, my new flatmate was there to meet me. And sure enough, I knew exactly who she was because she was the only non-Japanese person in the station. I only had one backpack to carry with me (the two large suitcases had been forwarded to the apartment from the airport in Osaka five days earlier) so we walked the four blocks home.
Claire is from Adelaide, Australia. She’s been in Japan for almost a year. She’s really down-to-earth, warm-hearted and I think we may be quite similar in some fundamental ways. We are about the same age. Unfortunately (well, fortunately for her), one of the first things she told me when I arrived was that she was finished her contract and leaving for England to visit her sister in three weeks. So now I am alone in the apartment.
Before I had left Canada, I had been forewarned that the apartments would be small but I hadn’t anticipated just how small. The entire apartment – bathroom, kitchen and two bedrooms – could almost fit into my apartment living room in Ottawa. I’m beginning to truly understand the meaning of the phrase “Japanese size”. The bathtub is short, the eyehole in the door is at my shoulder, I hit my head on the light over the dining table several times a day. My back starts to hurt when I do the dishes from leaning so far forward over the short sink. I can’t even lie on the couch without my feet hitting the mini-fridge.
Even public places are small – the seats in the donut shop are cramped, the bathroom stalls in restaurants are so small that my knees almost touch the door, the escalators are claustrophobic, and the clothes in Japanese shops are practically child-sized. I had never considered myself to be a large girl at 5’6″, 135 lbs. but I’m starting to feel like Gulliver in Lilliput. Claire loves the size of everything. But she’s only 5′.
The two bedrooms are off of the main living/dining room. Thankfully, my bedroom is relatively big even though it’s the smaller of the two – about a quarter of the entire apartment. I think the apartment is meant to be for a couple with this smaller “bedroom” being the dining room. The apartment is a traditional Japanese apartment so the bedrooms have tatami flooring. Tatami mats are made out of woven straw that keep the floors warm in winter and cool in summer. They are fairly fragile so it’s important to take your shoes, even your slippers, off before stepping on them. I don’t have any furniture other than a set of three Rubbermaid drawers, my suitcases and my futon in the bedroom.
Oh, and the futon. That’s also different from home. About six inches different. My futon “mattress” here is more like a thick duvet. Another slightly thinner one acts as the blanket.
There is a balcony that circles around the north and west sides of the building, over which we drape our futons to air them. There is also a small clothesline. We are at the back of the building so we look over a courtyard of sorts along with numerous other balconies. In the distance, beyond the apartment buildings, I can see Mount Kinka on a clear day, if I squint. It’s a small, beautiful mountain that is the pride and joy of this small city. According to the map, it’s surrounded by shrines and temples.
To welcome me to my new home, my very first gokiburi met me in the bathroom. Gokiburi is Japanese for cockroach. Considering my preconceived hatred and fear of cockroaches, after my first experience with one, I think I prefer them to the awful-ugly-gross-centipede-things that love to live in old pipes in bathrooms in Ottawa. At least cockroaches have a dark, shiny carmine outer shell that crunches. I much prefer insects with shells than with squishy bodies, especially when I have to kill them. Also, the name gokiburi is so much cuter than “cockroach”. How can you truly hate something with the name gokiburi? It also helps that cockroaches in Japan are not a sign of unlivable conditions. They are more akin to our ants in that they are just a nuisance.
Gifu gets only a short mention in my Rough Guide to Japan and none at all in The Lonely Planet, 2001 editions. Yet, the city of Gifu is the capital of Gifu prefecture, Japan’s equivalent of a province. Those from the city consider it the country and those from the country consider it the city. It’s mostly a modern city, having had to rebuild itself after suffering blanket bombings in World War II. As with any small city in the shadow of a larger urban centre (Nagoya), Gifu has treasures that are not publicized much beyond the municipal borders. There is a castle, Gifu-jo, atop Mount Kinka (Kinka-zan), which can be reached either by foot going up one of the numerous trails on the mountain or by cable car, accessible from the park, Gifu-koen. The mountain is about a 45-minute walk from my apartment. There is also a temple at the foot of the mountain that houses the largest papier-mâché Buddha in Japan (13.7 metres).
The size of Gifu’s population is comparable to the city of Ottawa, excluding the former municipalities like Barrhaven and Kanata, but its geographic space covers an area much smaller. Everything feels much closer and more crowded. Practically the entire city is accessible by bicycle, and I’m talking bicycles with bells and baskets, not a road or mountain bike. Everything I need is within walking distance – a grocery store, restaurants, the 24-hour post office, a department store, a café that has decent coffee and the building where I work. Every time I walk around the streets exploring, the architecture, the storefronts and the hidden corners of my city are completely enchanting. I find flashes of unexpected beauty in the plant sitting in the corner of my stairwell, the miniature Buddha sitting atop the column of a nearby apartment building, a wall of falling water at the foot of a trail. The engraved pictures of birds or fish on the manhole covers, the smoky light of the traditional hot food kiosk on my corner, selling yakotori and sake or the exaggerated red points on a Japanese maple leaf.
My new favourite place is the mountain. For the last few weekends, I’ve spent some time either on or around Mount Kinka. When I’m hiking up Kinka-san, it feels like I’ve left the city behind. The trails are winding and lead you through enchanting, fairy-tale-like scenes. The forest dampens the sounds from the city and envelopes you in its cool, verdant air.
At the top of Mount Kinka sits Gifu-jo, the city’s castle. It is a reconstruction because it was destroyed in the war but it is open to tourists. I haven’t been in yet. There is also what I believe to be a Shinto shrine. There is a concrete platform over which a giant bell is suspended, a long wooden bench, facing the mountain and a small vermilion pagoda.
Once, I decided to go for a hike and I was originally planning on hiking the usual trail to the castle, through the park, but I found another path that started much closer to my apartment and decided to try it instead. I started my way up and after fifteen minutes of climbing a gentle slope, I realized I was completely alone with no other hikers anywhere. The only sounds were the birds and the other small animals that call the mountain their home. I was alone with the wind, the jizo (holy statues placed beside mountain trails) and the rolling vista of neighbouring mountains.
And then I began to get a few North American jitters of the “all-it-takes-is-one-madman-in-the-bushes-and-it’s-all-over” kind. I stepped up my pace a little. My eyes and ears became wary of unfamiliar noises. I made vague escape plans in my head in case of emergency. I began to wonder how my family would find out what had happened to me if I fell of the edge of the path and tumbled all the way to the foot of Kinka. All of a sudden, unknown paths began to look menacing. I began to wonder where I was and whether I should simply turn around and head back to familiar territory.
Until a group of very old, very small Japanese folk passed me laughing and chatting and every one of them greeted me with “Ohayo gozaimasu!” (Good morning!) to me. And once again, I remembered I was in Japan and crazy things don’t happen here.
I’ve read that a fundamental principle of Japanese art is simple harmony between human and nature. For example, when walking through gardens, you may notice that the winding path slows your pace, forcing you to notice the beauty around you. Or when you climb a mountain, you pass certain points that have been landscaped with winding vines, turning leaves and lush flowers for a full appreciation of the vast view of the other mountains. These viewpoints, if located in North America, would undoubtedly have a sign posted nearby telling tourists that all they need to do is point and click. The Japanese seem to consider everything an opportunity for beauty. Everything is beautiful here because they treat it as beautiful, as something you should want to see. And why shouldn’t it be? Why do we have to sacrifice form for function?
There aren’t too many foreigners here in my city. There are two Canadians upstairs in our building, who are also ESL teachers but work for a different company. In fact, the first time I met them I didn’t know they were my neighbours. I passed them on the street one evening while I was out walking. I saw two foreigners coming and assumed they spoke English. However, not all foreigners will say ‘hello’ to another foreigner. (I asked people at work about this and someone said, “Well, I don’t say hi to complete strangers on the street at home. Why would I here?” I found it to be such a bizarre concept, not saying hello to someone who speaks your language in a foreign country.) They walked toward me, I smiled and they said hello. Of course, I said hello back because I was excited that there were foreigners that would speak to another foreigner as it’s such a rare phenomenon.
A couple of days later, I resigned myself to the fact that I was going to have to introduce myself to my neighbours in my apartment building. I was a little nervous because I knew that the Japanese residents would not be able to understand me or I them. I did the rounds with much bowing and listening to rapid Japanese while saying wakarimasen (“I don’t understand”). I saved the top apartment for last because I knew the occupants were Canadian. When they opened the door, lo’ and behold, it was the couple that I had said hello to on the street. I was so excited because if they were cool enough to speak to other foreigners on the street, then we’d probably get along.
The Adventure That is Grocery Shopping
Grocery shopping has been quite the adventure every time I go. My first experience was overwhelming so I only left the store with a couple of items that were familiar – bread, peanut butter, and apples. Now, I make a list and go after work so I have plenty of time to wander the aisles.
There are numerous actions we do every day that require very subtle knowledge of the world around us – cultural cues we don’t even realize are there. When entering a new grocery store, there is a logic that is familiar to us regardless of which grocery store we are in. The fruit and vegetables are always first. Dairy and meat along the outside, all the snack food together, baking supplies in one place and if we need one particular thing, we read the signs at each aisle to categorize what we are looking for or we ask an employee. But when these cues are changed, one suddenly feels ill at ease with what looks to be a familiar setting. Like trying to read a book with English words in a different order. Like trying to make sense of the “Jabberwocky”.
Japanese grocery stores are very similar to their North American counterparts in structure. But I can’t read anything. I don’t know what the meats are, especially the plethora of seafood available. The fruit and veggies are just inside the front doors but only the apples, eggplant and mushrooms look familiar. And even they look different – the apples are the size of softballs and there are more varieties of mushrooms here than I ever knew existed. I have to wander every single aisle and look at every single item because nothing is recognizable. The foreign food section has familiar items but all Japanese sized – the largest peanut butter available here is the smallest at home. (Which probably explains a lot about the obesity crisis we as North Americans are currently facing.) Grocery shopping, which at home can be a quick jaunt, morphs into a mind-boggling quest not for the weary or weak-hearted.
Fortune was with me today. I ran into my Canadian neighbours. They gave me a tour and pointed out the things I would mostly likely want – rice, cheese, tomato paste, soups, and some of the easier to prepare foods like the Mr. Noodles-type of noodle bowls. I could see the Japanese patrons eyeing us with wariness. They would avert their eyes in a “Please don’t ask me any questions” kind of way.
I was floored when I discovered that a 5 lb. bag of rice costs about $25! But rice is a staple here so I actually took the plunge and bought some. But, you see, I don’t cook anything too exciting in Canada, so I’m not quite sure how to deal with the cooking here. I figured rice with soy sauce would be safe. So I ask my neighbours to show me the aisle where the soy sauce lives. I should’ve known better. It was more like a soy sauce wall. I was faced with a kabillion different bottles, none of which I could read. I picked a small one, figuring I wouldn’t have to waste a lot of money or sauce if it wasn’t what I was expecting. When I got home and opened it, it smelled horrible! I tried a tentative amount on my rice and decided I would learn to like plain, traditional white rice instead of trying to figure out the mystery of soy sauces.
Making Sense of This World
Literacy is something that we take for granted. Literacy is far more than simply decoding letters and their sounds. It is a deep understanding of context, cultural norms and our background knowledge. I can read a Russian novel or newspaper because I know the Cyrillic alphabet but I don’t understand anything more complex than simple conversational quips because I’m not familiar with Russian politics or history. Having studied linguistics in university and read much about other countries out of interest, I am proud to say that I would feel fairly comfortable deciphering basic words and customs in travel situations almost anywhere in the world. I make a lot of connections between certain related languages and cultures and these connections lend me a certain degree of comfort.
All of this was thrown out the window when I came to Japan. The language is so completely different from anything I’ve ever learned before that I have a hard time remembering the characters. I have a grasp of the katakana characters (the ones used to spell foreign words) but it takes me several seconds to decipher even one sound. I quickly learned what the character for exit looked like because my local train station doesn’t have everything in English but I have no idea how say it.
Being illiterate is what I imagine it is like to be blind. If you couldn’t read English but knew the sounds that the letters made, perhaps you could sound out the word and make sense of it – street names, food, hours of operation, etc. But Japanese has characters, not letters. These characters are syllables even entire words- and not individual sounds that can be strung together into some semblance of a word. And three different sets of characters at that – katakana (used for foreign words), hiragana (used for Japanese words) and and kanji (used for words that historically came from Chinese). Not only that, but even simple conversations are close to impossible because Japanese has different levels of formality. I may be able to ask where the bus station is but I don’t understand the answer or know which character on the sign is the one I was just told. I know that the city name of Gifu is comprised of two characters, one being the symbol for mountain. That makes sense since Gifu is known for its mountain. But the word mountain is pronounced “yama” which is, clearly, not part of “Gifu”. See the difficulties? Learning Japanese is so entirely complicated, I am not surprised that many foreigners don’t even bother trying.
I am at a complete loss when I enter into even the most basic situations. Because sometimes there are no pictures on the doors, I had to quickly learn the characters for “men” and “women” or I wouldn’t know which restroom to go into. I used to wait at the door until I saw someone go in or come out to know which one to go in. If food doesn’t have a picture on it, I don’t buy it (unless I’m feeling adventurous).
Consider our own basic forms of writing. Menus, for example. How do you order if you can’t read? Street names. How do you find an address when you can’t read it? For the longest time, I thought that there were no stop signs here because I did not see the red octagon with bold white letters – signs that I know are used in practically every country in the world. (Nor did I ever see anyone stop.) But stop signs in Japan are red inverted triangles with the hiragana characters for stop. (And judging by their driving, they don’t pay them any heed anyway.) How do you withdraw money from an ATM if you can’t read the options? I made the bold leap of faith that since the ATM was a product of our convenience-driven North American society, the format would be similar. The first time I used a bank machine here, I was faced with a blue screen of lines that I simply had no way of deciphering. I certainly couldn’t look it up in a dictionary – how would I? There is no alphabetical order when there is no alphabet. So I took a deep breath and performed the routine sequence of steps used in any North American bank machine, without having any idea if I would be correct. I punched in my PIN first, then when offered several options, I pushed the top button, assuming that withdrawing funds was the most common function here as well. It spit out my money so I guess I did it right. After several more nerve-wracking episodes with the ATM, I noticed that the kanji character for “exit, out” is used in the word for “withdraw” so I feel a little more comfortable now.
When living in a foreign country, everyday is a struggle of some sort. But every day is a victory of some sort as well. Rarely does anything work on the first try and it’s so frustrating when it doesn’t. On the other hand, when I finally accomplish something, I feel like I can conquer the world. One day, I cry at the smallest mistakes or misunderstandings. And other times, I lose all words to describe the beauty of my surroundings and the adventures that happen every day.