What it’s really like to live in Japan

kyoto

In 2004, I traveled “around the world.”

Literally.

At the time, zipping through six countries in three months seemed incredible. I (obnoxiously) emailed everyone I knew to let them know how amazing it was. I could think of nothing better than tramping across oceans and continents to experience alien foods, languages, and cultural practices. After that trip, I was hooked. What followed was an insatiable desire to see more, do more, experience more.

In retrospect, I realize that my perspective on travel abroad was severely myopic. I only saw the glittering surfaces of the countries I visited. I experienced the best tourist attractions each country could offer, something even the locals could not afford to do.

Working in Japan, however, shifted my perspective entirely.  After a few months’ living there, I got over the initial awe I felt when I had seen my first orange torii gate. Eating Japanese food with disposable chopsticks became routine. After all, you could even get it in the konbini! I began to see Japan for what it was really like. A regular country with regular people doing regular things like going to school, going to work, going to the supermarket, getting sick, relaxing on weekends. I started to bow like everyone else and say strange things like “douzo” “onegai shimasu” “hai” and “daijobou.” I covered my mouth when I laughed and chewed my lunch. I never, ever ate while walking (something I do frequently in Trinidad and Tobago). Slipping in and out of inside shoes was no longer a hassle. I didn’t bat an eyelid when I saw folks eating cake with chopsticks. Seeing people on public transport and classrooms with their faces half-shrouded in white gauze masks didn’t send me into a panic attack.

Trinidadian writer, Sam Selvon, writes in his novel, An Island is a World:

 “People are the same all over the world…It does not matter where you are, you encounter sadness, happiness, love, hate. An island is a world, and everywhere that people live, they create their own worlds.”

Ain’t that the truth?

Travel writer Pico Iyer talks about the art of traveling within instead of traveling without. He says:

“…One of the first things you learn when you travel is that nowhere is magical unless you can bring the right eyes to it. You take an angry man to the Himalayas; he just starts complaining about the food. And I found that the best way that I could develop more attentive and more appreciative eyes was oddly, by going nowhere, just by sitting still. And of course sitting still is how many of us get what we crave and need in our accelerated lives, a break. But it was also the only way that I could find to sift through the slideshow of my experience and make sense of the future and the past.”

So I learned to appreciate the pinpricks of incongruity in my days. Those moments when I felt transient, rootless, ephemeral. Like when students, parents, and teachers called me sensei. Sitting still allowed me to really observe and imbibe Japan, the Japan that doesn’t exist on glossy tourist websites and swish Instagram pics. The Japan with real problems: workaholism, alcoholism, kids with severe behavioral problems, frustrated folks, neglected old people. It is only when we settle down in a corner and think about our experiences that we can truly appreciate them. It is only in the stillness that we achieve those rare moments of clarity. It is only when we slow down that we know where we have been and where we are going next.

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live in Japan

 

34 thoughts on “What it’s really like to live in Japan

  1. Love this! First off, your quotes are incredible! Could not agree more with this “One of the first things you learn when you travel is that nowhere is magical unless you can bring the right eyes to it.” Also, I did chuckle when I read about eating cake with chopsticks! Love you things just become your new normal!

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  2. I completely agree with this! When I did my Euro trip, I visited a new country every three days and happily crossed it off my ‘bucket list’. But there is so much more to just the general tourist attractions. Having lived in Turkey and India now, I travel in a completely different manner than that of before. It is much more eye-opening as well!

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  3. You are so right about this life observation. People are same everywhere, people are just people who smiles when they are happy and cries when they are sad. By the way I never knew eating while walking is considered something bad in Japan! And when I laugh I laugh like a monster, had no idea we need to cover our mouths while laughing in Japan!

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  4. I completely agree with your sentiment! During my first couple of trips to Europe, I only spent a limited amount of time in each city before moving on to the next. I just came back from a 6-week trip to London where I was at an internship and saw a completely different side to the city- kind of like what you saw in Japan! The world goes around no matter where we are in the world, and while it’s nice to see it in rose-coloured glasses, it’s also important to see how other people live.

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  5. Beautifully written, Suzanne. I appreciate your thoughts on the “real” side of Japan. I spent a summer there several years ago and most of what really stuck with me after all this time is all of the raw sides of Japan that most people don’t see. Things like addiction, suicide, etc.

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  6. I admire your honest observations of Japan. I have not been to Japan yet but I have watched shows that featured the lifestyle of Japanese. They are really workaholic. They also have a lot of foreign workers because they do not want to work in a dangerous and demanding environment. I have to visit Japan someday and experience the culture.
    I like that you mentioned about this “An island is a world, and everywhere that people live, they create their own worlds.” I feel this way whenever I go overseas. It is not easy to embrace anything new but we have to.

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  7. Whoa! That’s a very meaningful, insightful, indepth side of traveling! We tend to see the good and bad side of traveling, but this is something much more different! My favorite travel statement is a monologue from a Tamil movie – “We learn much more when we are on the road, traveling”. I come from India, and I’ve been on a backpacking trip across Europe and it was a completely different feel in each country. UK was so so so different when compared to say, Italy!

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  8. Great perspective about traveling through countries vs. living in one. Though much of our travels are relatively short (1-2 weeks at a time), we do our best to “live” in those places we visit, instead of just breezing through each main attraction. It’s hard to do that in short timeframes though, so I’d love to one day live in a country for weeks/months at a time to embrace everything those places have to offer.

    Interestingly enough, when we meet other travelers, we’ll say we’re from California, and they’ll respond saying they really want to visit there one day. We’d usually respond with a casual “Yeah, it’s nice.” Then they’ll say they’re from some other country and we’ll say “Oh! We love those places or want to visit those places one day!” and they’ll also respond with something like “Yeah, it’s nice over there.” Just interesting exchanges that relate a bit to your post.

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    1. It’s true that the grass usually seems greener on the other side. We’re always fascinated by the unknown and sometimes fail to appreciate the experiences we have in our home country.

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  9. Amazing post. I recently had a conversation with my boyfriend about Japan. He’s been there twice (I’ve never been), and he wants to go there again and again – hopefully with me next time . He’s obsessed with Japan. However, he has a co-worker who used to live there and told him Japan will kind of lose its magic once you’re not a tourist anymore. It will just feel like any other place. Which I can totally relate to. I moved to Paris because I found it to be beautiful, romantic and magical. Now it’s just like any other city I’ve ever lived in.

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  10. People are the same all over the world – great quote, and so true. I realised that when I travelled all over India and SE Asia – the main difference is culture. I’ve always wanted to go to Japan, great post 🙂

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  11. Lovely reflection! It’s definitely an incredible perspective, to know truly that deep down the only way to be happy is through yourself and your actions. Travelling itself doesn’t quite give you that if you were unhappy with everything. Really nice that you also had the perspective from both working / living in a place compared to your 3 month travels.

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  12. I really love your observations here. As much as I’ve enjoyed my travels and visiting places for short periods of time, one of my favorite experiences was when I actually lived in Mongolia for four months. Slowing down, getting to know the people, my neighbors, the customs, etc was so much more rewarding than just seeing the tourist sites and dashing off for the next destination. Thanks for sharing a lovely story.

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  13. It is so difficult to say that you know everything about a country if you have been there only for three days. By staying in Japan, you were able to learn how similar people are around the world. I wish more people would understand this and the world would be a happier place.

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  14. I love the authenticity of your post. Most of my trips have been very quick ones since work doesn’t afford me very much vacation time, and I’ve always wondered whether the opinions I formed about a place after visiting for 2 days would be the same opinions I’d have if I stayed for 2 weeks or 2 months. Very cool that you got to experience the real Japan and were able to adapt so well to it.

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  15. I spent 3 weeks in Japan and really loved it. But in the end you are getting used to anything. When I arrived in Japan I had already travelled for the previous 4 months so I was not the most typical tourist and did fairly ‘normal’ stuff in Tokyo. But I guess living there is a whole different story! 🙂

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  16. It’s so interesting to hear your perspectives on how living in Japan is like. I think slow travel is the best because it allows us to connect with the people and everything that surrounds us. It is my goal to live in a different country at one point because I feel like it would allow me to see through different eyes, just like you. I love the quote that you used about how people are the same, no matter where you go.

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  17. Totally agree with your thoughts. Living in a different country is so much different than traveling, even slow traveling. Only when you live in a place do you see it without the colourful glasses, albeit the tourist mask that each place wears.

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