About Sophie Walker

Traveller, tea lover and teacher.

15 Things I love about England, 15 Things I miss about Japan

Coming home made me appreciate so many things about England, but also the things I miss about Japan. So in no particular order, here they are.

15 Things I love about England

1. Long summer evenings when you can enjoy being outside until 10 o’clock. Unlike Japan where you’d be in darkness from 7:30 onwards.

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2. Warm days with blue skies and puffy clouds. Compared to a humid Japanese summer, an English summer is pure bliss.IMG_3741

3. A long list of food from roast chicken, pastries, sausage rolls, some many different cheeses, chocolate that melts in your mouth, fat juicy beef burgers, sausages and mash, good pizzas, fish and chips, lasagna and so many different types of bread. And when you want something different, there’s Italian, French, Middle Eastern, Spanish, Polish and so many other types of food to choose from.

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Enjoying a Middle Eastern mezze.

4. Being literate again. It’s SO nice not to be that foreigner who doesn’t understand! I can walk with confidence into a bank, post office or shop with confidence now. Yet I’ve caught myself saying ‘arigatou’, ‘sumimasen’ and ‘gomen nasai’ on the odd occasion!

5. Reading newspapers and watching TV. The simple pleasures in life.

6. Pubs. A public drinking space Japan so desperately lacks. There are no seat charges, no fancy drinks, just locals having a chat and or playing live music.

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On a recent trip to Ireland with my friends, the pubs were a key-part of our itinerary!

7. Browsing bookstores and reading real books. Walking around Waterstones, touching the covers and flicking through the pages is a pleasure I didn’t even know I missed. Much better than online shopping on a Kindle and reading from a cold, hard electronic screen.

8. Seeing people enjoy themselves more. From seeing couples kissing and holding hands in the street, to families playing outdoors together and neighbours having a BBQ together. These are seldom sights in Japan.

9. Reasonably priced fruit. I was in heaven when I walked around a British supermarket’s fruit section because everything was so cheap! In Japan fruit is available and delicious, but it is bank-breakingly expensive. Strawberries being about £5 for 12, apples about £2 each and water melons ranging from £10 to over £1000! You sure couldn’t have 5-a-day in Japan!

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Picking fruit from my Dad’s allotment for free!

10. European cafe culture. People talking and laughing loudly in cafes, sitting outside in the street, reading a paper and enjoying a cup of coffee and watching the world go by. There weren’t many cafes like this in Japan. IMG_3910

11. Cooking. Having cupboards full of ingredients my creativity in the kitchen has been rekindled. So far I’ve cooked a platter of Indian food, multiple salads and never-failing desserts.

12. Friendly, but sometimes unprofessional customer service. Having a chat whilst you buy your shopping is usual in this country, even if it’s just about the weather! Yet this was taken to extremes when a Boots sales assistant started asking about my upcoming holiday, even when there was a queue of waiting customers!

13. Getting back to nature. After two years in Japan where I had almost no contact with animals, I’ve turned into an animal lover. I now find myself petting other people’s pets, even if they’re chickens!

Even chickens will do!

Even chickens will do!

14. Live music. Buskers playing in the street, bands playing in pubs and multiple music festivals. Music is a lot more accessible here than in Japan, where I never heard any free live music.

A girl dancing around a busker playing the 'hang' in Ireland.

A girl dancing around a busker playing the ‘hang’ in Ireland.

15. Of course, there are the obvious things I haven’t mentioned, like seeing friends and family again. Yeah, that’s pretty nice.

A typical Walker holiday - climbing cliffs in Cornwall.

A typical Walker holiday – climbing cliffs in Cornwall.

 

15 Things I miss about Japan 

1. The impeccable service. In Japan, you’re always welcomed into a restaurant with ‘irashaimase’ and the waiter or waitress will really look after you. Service in England depends on where you go, how much you pay and the mood of the waiter or waitress.

2. Cleanliness. In Japan the toilets are always spotless, whereas you’d be lucky to find a public toilet in England, let alone a clean one! In general Japanese people care a lot more about the appearance of their house, shop, street and neighbourhood.

3. The food! Everyone misses sushi, I didn’t know I’d be craving miso soup, white rice and tempura. It’s time I found a Japanese restaurant in England.

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Tempura soba… mmmhh.

4. Combinis. Everything is convenient in Japan. A combini (convenience store) is a shop selling everything from hot food to alcohol at competitive prices and the shops are everywhere! You just have to look down a road and you’ll see a sign for one. The equivalent in England are petrol stations, that just have overpriced chocolate bars, newspapers and a toilet that may or may not be out of order.

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5. Vending machines. These are everywhere in Japan and they sell everything from cold and hot drinks, ice creams, snacks to gadgets! I don’t think I’ve seen one since coming back to England.

Ice cream vending machines!

Ice cream vending machines!

6. Driving an automatic car. Going back to driving a manual car in England is like being a learner all over again. I’ve stopped stalling now but I miss the ease of an automatic car.

7. Fireworks, festivals and beach parties. During Obon Week in the summer there are amazing firework displays that are the highlight of festivals. There isn’t much to compete with them in England.

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8. Cute things. Everything from road signs to toilet paper has some kind of cute character on it. I miss them dearly.

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If only this was for sale.

From the cute to the ridiculous.

From the cute to the ridiculous. Here is a Year of the Rat family portrait.

9. Talking about anything in public and not being overheard. As foreigners in Japan you can get very lax about what you say out loud to your friends on a train, sharing secrets, laughing at bad Engrish or the salaryman snoozing in the corner, as you know the chances are none can understand you. Back in England, you have to be wary who is listening!

10. The best trains in the world. Always on time, always clean, not overly packed, seats facing the right way and they go fast! I was shocked when I took a train in England and it went so slowly I could count the sheep in the fields. It would have been a scenic ride if I’d actually got a seat. And let’s not even talk about the underground in London, I’m still scarred from my experience of riding the central line on a busy Saturday afternoon.

The train from Tokyo to Narita, a double-decker carriage, clean and efficient.

The last train I took in Japan; a double-decker carriage, clean, fast and efficient.

11. Hand towels whenever you sit down to eat in Japan you’re given a hand towel to freshen up. In England you’ll be lucky if there are paper napkins on the table.

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12. The view from my apartment, and mountains and rice fields in general. The Japanese countryside where I lived was so beautiful. I’m sad I won’t get to see the mountains turn red in autumn there.

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13. My favourite hangouts in Echizen. From cute cafes, Thai and Brazilian restaurants, to conveyer-belt sushi joints and the bike ride along the river. I miss the places and the people I used to know. 

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Cafe Colo with the owner and creative chef Chiharu-san.

14. My friends and host family. The friends I made in Japan were the best part of my experience there. I know that the close friends made there will always be just there for me, even if we just keep up on Skype and Facebook.

IMG_401815. My colleagues and students. These were the people who made my job so enjoyable. Tomorrow school starts again in Japan. I wish the new ALTs luck starting!

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Here are the foreign students and foreign helpers at my school. Good luck to them all!

 

 

A month at home

What’s it like returning home after two years in Japan?

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Hello London!

Week 1

For the first week, it’s exhausting. Physically; the jet lag hangs around like a week-long hangover. Mentally; you get a huge shock every time you think you’ve left Japan and are now in your home country for good. Culturally; you see your country through the eyes of the Japanese; beautiful gardens and countryside, cool weather but the streets are filthy and everything seems to be a bit backwards (the Tube, shops close just when you want to go shopping and no vending machines anywhere!)

The term ‘culture shock’ exaggerates the real experience when you return home, but there are certain things that seem so different. For me, I couldn’t believe that people walk in their houses with their shoes on, the lack of recycling facilities and the variable customer service. Very different from Japan where you can guarantee impeccable, but almost robotic service, anywhere you go.

Week 2

What’s amazing, is how quickly you adjust to your old habits. Two years of Japanese etiquette can be reversed by two weeks at home. Before I knew it I was already walking in the house with my shoes on, not feeling so guilty as to not recycling PET bottles and I was washing in the bath tub. Things I vowed to my host mother in Japan I’d never do.

English weather; sunshine, rain or both at the same time.

English weather; sunshine, rain or both at the same time.

Week 3

The third week is when I had a major freakout. I’d been clothes shopping, had a much-needed hair-cut and visited relatives and friends whom I hadn’t seen for the last two years. My to-do list was shortening and I was left looking at my empty calendar, with nothing in it apart from a dentist check-up in July 2015. The feeling of liberation was a mix of endless possibilities and daunting big question marks. What am I going to do with my life?!

Sunday I thought I’d write a book about my time in Japan, it can’t be that hard can it? But that would definitely mean living at home, with my parents, in a tiny village with no social life. Maybe not.

Monday Why not inter-rail around Europe? Well that’s a brilliant way to spend your hard-earned yen from Japan, and you’d be back in a month with the same problem just penniless.

Tuesday I’ll do a yoga instructor course in India and connect with my inner self. Really? The last yoga session I went to was told I had overextending arms and I fell asleep in the relaxation part. That doesn’t bode well for a wanna-be yoga guru.

Wednesday Well I’ll just see if there’s any jobs out there…

To my surprise a job position that I’d seen a few months ago and written the application form for, was still there. The position was a Travel Consultant for a Japan-specialist travel company, perfect for someone whose lived in Japan and has travelled extensively there…like me! I emailed and asked if it really was still open for applications. It was, but I only had two days!

Thursday Completed CV, cover letter and application form.

Friday I had a Skype interview and asked “What have I learnt from two years in Japan?”, “Will you make a good sales person?” and “How’s your mental arithmetic?” I stumbled through the questions and with some stroke of luck was asked for a real interview the following week.

The interview in the company’s office in Bristol, a lively city in the south-west of England famous for hot-air balloons, beer festivals and brightly coloured terraced houses. The hour and a half interview involved a telephone interview with a lady in Japanese. That was terrifying. But somehow I got through it and on the way home on the train I received an email saying I’d got the job! I was so excited I nearly blurted it out to the whole carriage!

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After-interview celebrations!

Week 4

So here I am, a month after returning from Japan about to start a new job and moving to a new city. I know I have been so fortunate in getting a job, and especially one that combines my love of Japan and of travelling. I didn’t have a plan when I left Japan, only a few ideas and an open mind, and somehow I knew everything would turn out ok. Well, tomorrow is my first day at my new job. Wish me luck!

 

Goodbye Japan!

Leaving Japan was the most emotionally draining experience of my life. Rather, leaving my friends, colleagues and students in Japan was the most emotionally draining experience of my life. After all the places I’d visited, all the festivals I’d seen and all the experiences I had, I realised they were meaningless compared to the people I’d become friends with doing them.

I’ll tell my last week in Japan through photos.

Final day at Takefu Daini Junior High School

Two years on and I was stood in front of the sea of students and teachers once again, but this time I knew them and they knew me. The principle introduced me before I gave a speech in Japanese. You can tell I look nervous in this one!

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After getting through my speech, with just a few stumbles, I was a lot more relieved, but wasn’t ready for what was coming next. The teacher acting as MC decided it would be a good idea if I stood at the front of the hall while the students sang the school song! After the first verse, I looked at the students singing and felt so sad that I wouldn’t be seeing them again, I couldn’t help but well up! I avoided any more eye contact with my students and pulled myself together in the third verse, hoping that I could get out of the limelight soon.

I was wrong. The MC made a signal for some music to begin and the first few bars of ‘Amazing Grace’ came on. He asked me, “You know song? Very good song.” Yes, very good song… for a funeral! What happened next was another surprise planned by the MC, the students parted like they do for a graduation ceremony and I walked through them like a celebrity. Maybe, a bit OTT, but it did make for an unforgettable last day at school!

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Sashimi party!

My supervisor organised a relaxed farewell meal with my closest teachers and I. I chose the restaurant I’d had my first enkai (work party) at because I still remember how good the sashimi (raw fish) and the meter long plate of sushi was. Unlike two years ago, when I’d only eat the salmon, this time I was able to eat and enjoy everything on the sashimi platter, even the big prawns that slipped down a treat!

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image3I’ll never forget these teachers and all they taught me about being a teacher. I have so much admiration for them! They were also kind enough to buy me this amazing cake that says “Otsukaresama deshita” (You’ve worked hard). A very Japanese sentiment.

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As well as the cake, I got presents galore from students and teachers, and enough hand towels to last me my whole life! Giving presents at the end of a job contract is pretty common, but still, I was pretty overwhelmed by the number of people who made an effort to write a goodbye note to me. I’m not quite sure why I was given a marching gorilla, but hey! Thanks! IMG_3631

The final few days

Leaving Japan isn’t easy. There are endless forms to fill out, contracts to end, things to sell, bags to pack and people to say goodbye to. The last couple of days were filled with these chores, all done in the 35’C heat, but in an hour of calm, my friends and I went to take some last photos together. I took the the opportunity to wear my new yukata, because I’m not sure where else I’m going to wear it!P1070883

These guys, the people I’ve shared an apartment block with for the last two years, were the hardest to say goodbye to. We’ve shared so much, laughed ourselves silly and danced until dawn together. I’m so lucky to have got to known these guys, as well as so many other friends in Fukui.

P1070902From Takefu Station to Narita

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After an emotional goodbye at the station, Holly and I were speeding away from our valley in Takefu for the last time. We had to drown our sorrows with some beer in Tokyo!
IMG_3672Then, I spent a sleepless night in a very modern looking capsule hotel that was actually inside Narita airport, so there was no chance of a rerun of the nightmare I had last year when I missed my flight!IMG_3683Flying home

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On the plane there was a Japanese boy in front of me who was excitedly, and slightly annoyingly, looking out the window the whole journey back. As we came over East Anglia and did a circuit over London, I enjoyed pointing out the landmarks and assuring him that those buildings were not in fact castles, but just houses. He was excited as I was when I first flew to Japan and everything looked different to me. Now, I was returning to the UK for the next chapter of my life and that too is very exciting. But the people I met and loved in Japan will never be far from my mind. Thanks for a great two years!