Living in the present

Last week I had a “Wow! I’m in Japan” moments. It was on the coach ride home from a school trip in Nagoya and I’d just woken up and looked at the stunning scenery outside. In that millisecond I’d remembered I was in Japan, something I used to do in the first few months of moving here. The journey back from Nagoya was reminiscence of when I first saw the green mountains, sea views and rice fields of Fukui nearly two years ago. Now, I’m seeing the world around me in a different light, with the eyes of someone who is leaving and wants to take it all in before I no longer can.

Heron in rice field, Fukui

Traditional Japanese house, Fukui

Sunset over ricefields, Fukui

I will be leaving Japan next month and feel like I’m chugging closer and closer to the top of an emotional roller coaster. I’m sure it will breach when I get on a train to leave Echizen for the last time. At that time, I’ll allow the tears to flow but in the meantime I have a lot to do; forms to fill out, ceramics to send home, clothes to throw out, a car, bike and snowboard to sell and sayonara speeches to give.

View over Echizen

I’ve left places I’ve loved before, and it’s not easy as a place is the setting for so many memories. After four years in Cambridge, I had to leave my antiquated house, my friends and all that went along with them – playing tennis in the afternoons, formal dinners and bike rides along the river. I remember it was a sad journey home, but that is just a reflection of how good a time I had there. If the same theory goes for Japan, I could be crying the whole 12 hours flight back, but hope I won’t be!

The physical packing up and turning the key in the door of my flat will be a poignant moment. The moment that connects the present tense ‘I live here’ to the past tense ‘I lived there.’ I’ve decided to delay packing up my stuff until the last couple of weeks, so I can enjoy the last month with looking at my flat’s bare walls and empty shelves and feeling like a stranger in my own home.

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Yet, as my friend whose read “The Power of Now” has told me, I have to live in the present. To enjoy every day and not reminisce about the past or worry about the future. It’s not easy to do, but knowing I’ve made the most of my time here; travelling far and wide, making close friends and hopefully inspiring a few students along the way.

With only some vague ideas of what I’m going to do when I get home, I will have time to reflect on my Japanese experience by continuing to write this blog, talking to anyone who’s interested and sorting through the thousands of photos I’ve taken (including way too many of rice fields and flowers).

Iris in Fukui

Wisteria in Murasaki Shikibu Park, Echizen, Fukui

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I don’t like making a big deal out of farewells, but I know it’s important to do them well. Of course I’ll be able to keep up with my friends on-line, but it isn’t the same as drinking together on Friday nights and laughing until our sides hurt. What will keep us together are the good, the bad and the embarrassing memories made in here, like the time I misjudged where I should sit in this photo!

Friends

Before I leave Fukui, I want to spend as much time as I can with my friends here. Yet at the same time I’m mentally adjusting to stepping back into my old life, with a new pair of shoes. I’m excited to make up for missed time with my friends and family again but apprehensive about experiencing what they call ‘reverse culture shock’, but is probably less of a ‘shock’ and more of a gradual readjustment to a different lifestyle. It’s going to be a big change, but one I’m looking forward to embracing the ups-and-downs of.

One friend who went through this process last year said, “It all becomes like a dream.” Well if it does, it will be one of the best dreams I’ve ever had.

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A caterpillar in my tights, and other unfortunate events.

Living as an semi-illiterate foreigner in Japan is an illuminating experience. Sometimes I imagine this is what being a child is like in an adult’s world. You have to order food from a picture menu, play charades with the waitress and make assumptions based on past knowledge and experiences. Most of the time it is possible to survive in this environment and, how we say ‘playing the gaijin (foreigner) card’ will excuse even the worst faux pax.

Having lived in Japan for nearly two years, I wish I was not still in the survival-phase, but my Japanese ability sadly lets me down. What I’ve come to realise is that I can’t rely on two years of immersion in Japan not to make mistakes. So, here are a series of unfortunate events and outright life fails that I’m determined to learn from.

1. NEVER HANG WASHING OUTSIDE

Two weeks ago whilst I was teaching a class of very genki first years, I felt an itch on my thigh. I didn’t do anything about it until I got home and took off my tights to find five blotches of red spots that were causing me an intense searing pain. I totally flipped out and told my friend I had shingles and she would probably need to drive me to the hospital that night. But, I had no other symptoms apart from the red spots and from that information, the Internet told me it couldn’t be shingles, or meningitis. I went to bed, wondering in what state I’d wake up in the next day.

The spots had become even more inflamed and painful during the night, so I rushed to school to show the school nurse, but in my panicked state I forgot to get a translator to explain her diagnosis. She took one look at the blotchy bite-like spots and typed something into Google Translate, that came up as ‘hairy woolly bear caterpillar’. Eugh! She was telling me that a baby caterpillar had somehow got into my tights, either it was born there, or had crawled in when I had left them out to dry. The thing had spent the day rolling around in my tights, getting it’s spikes stuck in my leg. I was, and still am, completely grossed out. But at least it wasn’t shingles.

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On her advice, I went to a pharmacy to get some steroid cream to ease the pain. The cream the pharmacist recommend me had some cute cartoons on the box. I really didn’t recognise the potentially lethal mukade centipede (second from the left) on the packaging! This is a prime example of how Japan’s kawaii (cute) culture is everywhere.

I don’t know for sure what it was that got in my tights, but one thing’s for sure, I won’t hang my washing outside again, in case another caterpillar gets in them. I was also warned not to leave any of my clothes on my tatami matting, in fear of mites will crawl into any other of my undergarments.

2. DO NOT PARK ON BACK ROADS IN JAPAN

Festivals in Japan make everyone just a bit crazy. Every man, woman and their dogs goes to the same place at the same time, causing chaotic parking situations. It’s amazing how Japanese people can forget all manners when they are fighting over a car parking spot, like the woman who stood in the only spot free, talking on her phone and shaking her hand at me as I tried to pull into the spot. Not the politest nation after all then.

On this occasion I was in Fukui City for a hanami party, only to find a ‘full’ sign for the car park. I didn’t know another car park nearby, so I decided to join many other cars parked around a small neighbourhood park. I left my car between two other cars, neither of which had paid for a parking ticket.

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My worst fear hit me when I returned to my car. There was a huge yellow parking ticket on it. The first thing I did was rip it off, wishing it was never there. If only parking tickets worked like that.

I drove home angry at why I got a parking ticket and the cars around me didn’t. Well a parking ticket can’t be that much, can they?

Unfortunately, in Japan they can. When the police officer told me how much I’d have to pay, I couldn’t believe my ears. It was ¥18,000 (£105, $177). And the reason why? Because I was parked within 5 meters of a junction, even though it was a small side road meeting an even smaller road. Why aren’t there lines on roads where you can’t park? Or a clear no-parking sign? This makes no sense to me.

So the next day my supervisor and I went to pay the bill at the intimidating-looking police station. It’s a block concrete building that is so dark inside it takes a while for your eyes to adjust. I was led to a cornered off area, where the walls were covered with wanted convict posters, and a police officer filled in the paperwork for my own crime; ignorance. And because I didn’t have my hanko (signature stamp on me), I had to give my fingerprint. I felt like a criminal who had been wrongly accused of a crime. I just didn’t know the parking rules! I paid a high price for that lesson.

3. ALWAYS CARRY EXTRA CASH

For some reason, cash and credit cards are only accepted in large department stores in Japan, so you have to pay for cash for most things. This is an outright pain, especially as ATMs ‘close’ after 8pm at night! The only semi-plausible theory I’ve heard for this, is that it’s to prevent salary men spending more money than their wife allows them. Anyway, I have been caught out on this many of time, the worst time being when I’d just reached the register with a trolley full of food, only to find I had no money in my purse (probably because I’d just paid the parking ticket). So I had to drive two kilometres to the nearest ATM to get money out. Thankfully, it was open at that time of day.

4. DOUBLE CHECK THE MEANING BEFORE FREAKING OUT

A gynaecologist visit in my books is always a terrifying event, but this fear is tripled if you think that the doctor you will see a non-English speaking man.

II was keeping myself pretty calm that day; I had parked in the proper car park, I had money in my purse and I knew where to go in the hospital. All was swell until I checked in at the reception and the lady said the female English-speaking doctor wasn’t there, ‘inai’. I obviously didn’t listen hard enough to the rest of what she said, but assumed she’d told me that I would see another doctor. I went in the waiting room to find that the only other gynaecologist there was a middle-aged male doctor, and I assumed he didn’t speak English.

At that point I freaked out. My phone was nearly dead so I had no way to translate key words for the doctor. I was literally shaking in my shoes at the thought of the awkward moments that were to come. For someone who has swum with whale sharks, jumped off waterfalls and spoken in front of assemblies full of students, I think I am a reasonably courageous person. Yet for those thirty minutes in the waiting room dissolved me to a jittery mess.

When I was finally called into the  doctor’s room, I walked there slowly, still considering to make a run for it. But who was sitting there but the friendly, English-speaking female doctor I had an appointment with! I let out a deep sigh. The receptionist must have meant, ‘She isn’t here now, but she’ll be coming later’. I wished I had saved myself the panic-attack by double-checking what she said. Another hard lesson to learn.

5. DO NOT TRAVEL IN GOLDEN WEEK

As it’s my last few months in Japan, I wanted to travel to the Japanese Alps to see the famous snow monkeys and the beautiful castle in Matsumoto. I had spent many hours planning a three-day trip, as you can tell by the hand drawn map below. Yet, on the day before we were about to leave, my friends talked to our Japanese friends about the traffic in Golden Week. Everyone we spoke to said we shouldn’t go because we could get stuck in horrendous traffic jams. Golden Week is practically the only time of year that Japanese people have time to travel, and considering that there are 126 million Japanese people, a top tourist destination such as Nagano, is almost certainly going to be crowded. So we called off the trip at the last-minute. It doesn’t look like I’ll see the snow monkeys after all, but at least I don’t have traffic-jam nightmares to retell.

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The plan we didn’t do, in fear of Golden Week traffic.

6. DO NOT ADMIT TO BEING NON-AMERICAN

It was at my first taiko drumming concert that this dreadful moment came to be. We were at an old people’s home and were entertaining them for an hour with our newly-found drumming skills, and on request of our teacher, a couple of songs. After struggling through Country Roads and Hello Goodbye, the five Americans were asked to sing their national anthem, and I stepped back and enjoyed their singing. Then, out-of-the-blue, our taiko sensei asked for the British national anthem! He knew I was the only Brit there, but this didn’t seem to stop him putting me on the spot. I tried to refuse, but knew there was no way out of it. So, I stepped forward and belted out the first verse of ‘God save the Queen’ by myself, unaccompanied. I didn’t know I knew all the words, but what I learnt through the Girl Guides had not been forgotten. I did surprise myself with this, but it is something I don’t want to repeat, ever.

The taiko group I play in.

The Iwada-cho Taiko group including; 4 Americans, 2 Japanese, 1 South African and 1 British player.

7. ALWAYS READ THE PACKET

Sometimes I’m a bit happy-go-lucky in the supermarket and put things in my trolley without reading the label. I have mistaken a yogurt drink for milk, and accidentally tried making icing sugar with corn flour. My latest blunder was mistaking garlic slices for sliced almonds. Naturally, it was only when I had sprinkled them on my ice-cream sundae and taken a bite, that I realised my mistake. There is a reason garlic ice-cream has not been invented!

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Enjoying the Azaleas in Nishiyama Park as part of my B-plan for Golden Week.

It seems that I have grown older in Japan, but not wiser. It doesn’t help that Japan is a minefield for making stupid mistakes out of ignorant or spontaneous decisions, as well as being more or less illiterate. I just hope that when I return to the UK,reverse culture shock doesn’t make me a foreigner in my own country. Will I be slurping noodles in Wagamama’s and bowing to my future boss? Perhaps so.

Why travel at all?

“Why do you want to go to yet another country?”  My Granddad asked me two years ago when I told him I wanted to move to Japan. It was not in an accusatory get a stable job here tone, but he was asking out of sheer bewilderment. He didn’t understand my desire to travel in the same way I didn’t understand his desire for an expensive car. He questioned me more, “When will you be satisfied, when will you have had enough experiences to be fulfilled?”

I have often thought back on my Granddad’s question, and wondered what I gain from travelling. Some people are just out there to get the ‘Been there, Done that’ T-shirt, others may just be at a loose end and have a bit of money to blow. For me, travelling can broaden a person’s mind and change them from the inside. Travelling gives you the freedom to be who you want to be and escape any expectations or social pressures to be someone else.

Changes

‘It is not necessarily at home that we best encounter our true selves… the domestic setting keeps us tethered to the person.’ Alain de Botton

Before I left to go travelling for the first time, I was a Christian and a vegetarian. Ten countries and six months later I was neither a Christian, nor a vegetarian. It’s true to say that I wouldn’t have changed such fundamental beliefs, if I had not left the institutions and people who had inspired and strengthened by previous beliefs. It was the freedom to be away from my own culture that gave me the space to rethink my beliefs, and find a set of beliefs that I truly owned, not just had grown up in.

These changes can shock people who knew you as a different person before you left. They greet you as your old self, they have expectations of you as your pre-travelled self, and although you have had months to come to terms with the new You, for them it can be a shock. When I returned to church, my congregation welcomed me back with open arms, but when I explained to them why I wouldn’t be coming regularly, they replied to me, ‘We’ll pray for you.’ Perhaps those prayers aren’t going to waste, but I couldn’t say for sure.

Learning through travelling

At 17 years old, I was presented with university prospectuses and told to choose a course. I was bewildered. Because I had no clear aim of what career I wanted to have, I wanted to study the broadest humanities subject I could. A year later I was accepted on a course that covered Archaeology, Biological Anthropology and Social Anthropology in the first year. I learnt about our evolution from apes to Homo sapiens, to how we built civilisations and  the grand scopes of world history. For my second and third year, I specialised in Social Anthropology and this is where my real interest lies. Through this course I learnt about the variations in culture and beliefs throughout the world and what a beautiful and colourful patchwork quilt of peoples and cultures there are.

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My degree has given me with a grid as to hang my experience of the world on, and as a curious traveller, I see it as a means of learning about the world. Being able to visit the place where historical events actually took place is a luxury that comes with being able to travel, and so much more memorable than a text book.

A love for living

‘I set out for the desert in order to be made to feel small.’ Alain de Botton

I have never felt smaller than on the Mongolian steppe. Riding on a horse across an untrodden landscape, with nothing but a small bag for my belongings, and no settlements in view; I felt like a grain of sand in a desert, insignificant and fragile to forces bigger than myself.

Those natural forces were closer than I’d imagined, and the weary, ragged horse I was riding reared up, throwing me off backwards. I fell through the air in slow motion, hitting the ground with a tremendous thud. After a couple of seconds I realised that I was still alive, and when I tried to get up, all my limbs were working. Yet my life could’ve been different if I had landed less than a meter to the left, where a sharp-edged boulder lined the mountain pass. I remember thinking that the nearest hospital would’ve taken days to get to. Experiences where there is a ‘what if’ factor attached to it, jolt us back to life and give us a refreshed love for life. They can also give us bruises that last for months.

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Taking Journeys in Real Time

‘Journeys are the midwives of thought. Few places are more conducive to internal conversations than a moving plane, ship or train.’ Alain de Botton

The Japanese bullet train travels at 246km per hour can take you from Tokyo to Osaka in less than two hours, but it saps the pleasure out of travelling. The world goes by in a blur. Compare this to the Trans-Siberian Railway whose trains saunters its way from Moscow to Vladivostok in weekly commutes. In September 2007, I spent seven days on the train from Moscow to Beijing. Those seven days seemed like longer; time seemed to slow down on it.

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During those slow days on the train, I’d fill up my plastic mug with hot, sweet coffee and take a seat by the window. Every so often we’d go past a village, where the houses looked small and poorly-built. Bundled-up women were digging patches of land and pulling up cabbages; both the women and the cabbages seemed oblivious to the cold.

When the train pulled into a station, we’d be met by these women who sold us homemade stews in plastic tubs. They must have known we were tired of eating pot noodles or the measly and overpriced restaurant-cart food. I spent seven days watching the world go by; through the Ural mountains, past majestic Lake Baikal and the green open steppes of Siberia, snaking through the eastern edge of the Gobi desert and finally into the tunnelled and terraced mountains of northern China. I can’t remember having any special waves of insight on this train, but as the train slowly chugged across the landscape, I felt the expanse of the world and somehow felt connected with it.

It’s a seven day journey that only takes six hours to cross by plane, but the difference is; the in-flight entertainment is better on the ground.

The balance between living in the moment and making memories

Memories are one of the long-lasting souvenirs of travel; when photographs have been lost, t-shirts worn out and trinkets gone missing. Memories are still there, waiting to be triggered by a smell, sight or passing thought. Yet, there is also an art to living in the presence.

Some people try to capture everything through photographs; they try to possess a moment. Before my recent travels to the Philippines, I bought a camcorder to film my vacation. Although it was my first time using a camcorder, I expected results worthy of a nature documentary; of sunrises across shimmering oceans, of morning mists caressing mountains and of local people naturally going about their daily life. I soon found it wasn’t that easy. I enjoyed recording because I knew I could share them with my family and we could relive our vacation many times over. But I was also aware that I was seeing things through a 3 inch screen, rather than in real life. I decided to film for only seconds and then take it in with my own eyes. It was 1000 times better.

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Photo courtesy of Martyn Bisset

Of course, I now have video footage of all the beautiful places we saw, but my memories are not limited to what I caught on camera. It is the five-year old girl dancing at a party, the boy sleeping on a Spanish veranda in the middle of the roundabout and the warmth of the water that will stay in my mind.

So is travelling worthwhile?

Travelling costs money, you don’t get a certificate at the end of it and I can see why some people question its worth. But I travel because I have an insatiable curiosity to see what’s out there, and just because I can. Travelling used only to be for explorers, then for the upper classes, but now young people in developed countries have the opportunity to go to a far-flung country at little expense and little difficulty. I’d ask why wouldn’t someone go if they have the time and the money?