Daily Life

Adjusting to daily life in Japan the first time wasn't particularly hard as I had a good support network living with other teachers. My biggest problem in the beginning was getting used to budgeting and rethinking living expenses. When I first arrived I had to survive for about 6 weeks without getting paid as the company I worked for paid monthly and the time I arrived was outside a pay period. It is possible to get a loan from some schools to cover this period but weigh this against the time it takes to pay off. As I arrived in winter, a big shock was the price of fruit and vegetables so I didn't buy any for quite a while. After about six weeks I got very sick so I suggest vitamin supplements at least until you get used to prices and different cooking styles.

The second time I cooked properly from the start however still got quite sick twice early on. The poor conditions in Eikaiwa schools of no sick leave and close, frequent physical contact with many people really encourage catching colds, spreading them then taking longer than normal to get over them.

Winter

Spring

Summer

Autumn

Strange things

Getting sick

Safety

Transport

Housing

Learning Japanese

Clubs/sports/activities

Meeting Japanese

Winter


Yokohama Shipping Port-Dec 1999

General winter wear: T-shirt, skivvy, jumper, coat, gloves, scarf. It is necessary to wear layers that can be taken off in overheated rooms- my school always overdid the heating and cooling.

I found Tokyo to be considerably colder than Melbourne. It did actually snow once near my house but generally you will have to go to mountain areas to see any decent snow. I didn't go skiing but others who did found it quite easy to arrange and prices comparable to Australia. 
The pleasing thing in winter is that there is not much wind and it doesn't rain much. The scary thing is the price of fruit and vegetables which increases dramatically and many things are not available. It is also quite easy to get sick as offices are generally overheated and the sheer volume of people you are exposed to at work and on public transport makes the chance of exposure much higher.
Winter is a good time to travel though as it is off peak and popular tourist destinations are much less crowded.

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Spring


Ueno Park March 2003

 

Spring in Japan is most famous for it's cherry blossoms and the viewing of them called 'hanami' (literally flower looking). This is a time to get together with family and friends and have a party and drink lots of alcohol while admiring the blossoms. Braver (or drunker) people perform karaoke under the trees. Ueno and Shinjuku parks are great places in Tokyo to see blossom.
The blossoms usually start in late March-early April and sometimes coincide with the national holiday 'Golden Week'. This is a great time if you are already in Japan, but as a tourist it can be very expensive and crowded. The blossom are taken very seriously and every night on the news there are reports of new blooms and the rate of blooming across the country.

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Summer

The beginning of summer is the start of the rainy season and a big shock for those unprepared for humidity (often up to 100%). It rains almost daily for at least a month but is still so hot that the rain steams up off the roads and makes the air extremely humid. The first day of high humidity I experienced, I felt as though I couldn't breathe properly. Prior to that I had been walking nightly but the onset of summer put an end to that. All outdoor movement is very draining and when outdoors you sweat constantly- bring your own deodorant, the stuff there isn't as strong. The Japanese don't seem to suffer quite as much as we do, maybe they are acclimatised but I have read they have different glands (!?)

Gift giving (o-chugen)  is common practice in summer with families giving each other gifts of fruit and house hold items. These are usually ordered from department stores and delivered to the house so there is not nearly so much personal contact as in the past. The increasing popularity of credit cards has also had an effect on the amount and types of gifts one may give/receive.

A strange thing for me in summer was the fact that there is no daylight savings. It gets dark by 6pm, whereas in Australia it is daylight till about 9.30pm. The sun rises at 4am so I had to put blackout curtains on my bedroom window.

Food at a summer festival. Fiona with fairy floss 
Chieko with an ice drink.
Harumi, Chieko, Fiona, Ari.
After a hard day at the festival, Fiona & Chieko 
head to the bar for a few cocktails.
Portable shrines (dashi) at the festival. They are carried by men and women on their shoulders. People riding on them play drums and they compete to make the most noise.
Cutting plaster shapes. The shapes are bought for 100yen each and you use a small tool to try to cut out the shape. If you manage to do it you win money though the shape nearly always shatters. Fishing for balloons. The balloons are partly filled with water and tied to a rubber band. They are fished out using a hook on paper. You can keep what you can fish out until your paper breaks (usually before or after the first one!)

A highlight of summer is 'hanabi' (literally flower fire), the fireworks shows. These are huge and held very frequently. The women all wear 'Yukatas' (summer kimonos) which makes a very beautiful sight and makes you feel like you have stepped back in time. I bought my own one this year and had great fun wearing it for about the first half hour! It is quite cool but difficult to eat or breathe!

It is also possible to buy fireworks of all kinds in the convenience stores which was a great delight to Australians who haven't had them for years (they've been banned in most states since I was about 10 years old).

Bottle rockets- supposed to be let off inside a bottle not in your bare hand as I found out. Kiddies, don't try this at home or at a park with your drunk friends! The reason fireworks were banned in Australia?

Summer is also beach season and in 1999 heavy suntans and strong makeup were very popular. Japanese olive skin tans very easily and the sun smart message of Australia has no standing over there. The sun is not as strong as Australia, but I still managed to get burnt at the beach. It was hard to find sunscreen in more than tiny bottles and very expensive. Luckily for pale foreigners it is very common for women, at least, to carry parasols. They are quite a fashion item and can range from A$20-150. Carrying a fan and a face washer is also common practice for the constant sweat!

Japanese at the beach aren't very big on swimming, they generally lie around on chairs or float on plastic beach toys. A day at the beach can be expensive though as there are road tolls, parking tolls, umbrella hire, food and drink costs, all of which are inflated in beach areas. The life guards are also quite strict and everyone has to get out of the water at 5pm as they close the beach.


Onjuku beach, Chiba prefecture
 July 1999

The Japanese suntan! Although they are all very tanned and I don't think I ever saw any sunburn, umbrellas are still popular and are usually rented. Lots of people actually lay on silver sheets to make the most of the sun, something not seen in Oz since the 70s!
The buildings behind the umbrellas are food stands.
These are shower sheds inside which have hot and cold hoses for washing. They are separated into gender but inside is one big room. Be sure you know the kanji for men and women!  They were a very welcome change from the cold surfers' taps in Melbourne.

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Autumn

The highlight of autumn is the changing of the leaves. There are many places where trees have been specially planted for their leaf colour. Autumn was quite short when I was there, literally over night I stopped using and air conditioner 24 hours a day and started using a doona.

Autumn is nice for river boat rides. You can have a 20 min ride on a punt boat for about A$20. It is especially nice when the leaves fall down onto the water from the cliffs above. The beautiful colours of Autumn in Nagatoro, about 2 hours from Tokyo.

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Strange things

My first time I found a few strange things, and learning about them was a big part of the experience of living in Japan.

Many places in Japan still have traditional toilets. They are particularly common in department stores, train stations, karaoke bars and rural areas. Toilet paper is often not supplied but there are usually people on the street handing out little packets with advertising on them for that purpose. 
This is the toilet from my workplace. I didn't mind it so much, apart from the fact that it was in the kitchen and only separated by a small piece of plyboard, but many of the women wouldn't use it. They can get quite messy, particularly in cheap karaoke bars.
Foreigners (Tom is Welsh) trying to maintain home traditions. It is possible to buy tiny outdoor BBQs for your very small front door step, but not the meat to go with it. He ended up trying not too successfully to cook fish.
Insects of all types grow to huge sizes as they love the humid summer weather. The cicadas and praying mantis weren't so bad but the humungous flying cockroaches were something I hadn't seen before. Also very large millipedes come into house during summer and some actually bite! Otherwise, compared to Australia there really aren't any hazardous animals but it is quite common to see small snakes in gardens, I even saw one in the palace gardens in Tokyo. There are crows everywhere. They are generally quite big as you can see from the size of my backpack and not at all scared of humans. This one grabbed my coke can out of my hand and took off with it. They are always around rubbish bins and you can be swooped in breeding season.
The 'Asahi beer bubble' or big poo as it's more commonly known to non-Japanese. It is an advertisement for the Asahi beer company.  Strange uses of English- there are endless websites devoted to this subject so I am only including this bookshop which I somehow read as 'Book Island' for some time before realising it was '1 land'.
The obsession with all things American: this shop sold clothes and furniture imported from what appeared to be the dregs of American op-shops. The prices were unbelievably high, the clothes often stained or ripped yet young Japanese who don't believe in recycling or second hand shops were quite happy to pay for and wear things if they were from America. An excellent trade opportunity exists here I think! Ku-ri-su-ma-su! (Christmas) or a very materialistic version of it anyway. I caught up with Santa and his elf smoking and talking on their mobile phones. They kindly took time out of their busy schedule to pose for the camera.

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Getting Sick

Unfortunately more than likely, especially when you first arrive and are adjusting to the change in weather, the crowds and the different food. There aren't any injections needed before going and there aren't any exotic diseases that you need worry about. Vitamin deficiency was the thing I suffered from most as I was unwilling to spend appropriate amounts on food when I first arrived. 
In winter colds are quite common as you will be very exposed on trains and offices in the crowds of people. Japanese usually wear face masks when they have colds to prevent transmission.
Going to see a doctor can be quite scary, but I didn't have trouble finding English speaking ones. If you are working in Japan you will receive assistance in finding clinics from your company and your insurance may even be paid for. Different from Australia, you must have private health insurance or you won't be treated. Medicines are quite different, the cold treatment I received was a mixture of tablets and powders that I had to wrap myself in edible plastic.

This is the kind of card the hospital will give you once you have proven that you have private health insurance. You then bring it subsequent times and the admin is much faster.

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Safety

This is not really a big issue in Japan and I always felt very safe, even walking alone at night. Japan is very civilised and crimes against people are not common. Even with the amount of drinking that goes on, people are generally cheerful and well behaved, not aggressive as in western countries. The trains are also very safe, even late at night. This said however, I did have my ticket stolen when I was at the ticket gate in a train station. It is common to buy the cheapest ticket at one end and adjust it at the other. While standing at the adjusting machine fumbling with money, a woman stole my ticket and left hers. I thought this rather strange but I had only been in Japan about a week so just went to the station master. I discovered the reason though when trying to leave the station. Her ticket had a much bigger fare than mine. It was impossible to explain to the station master what had happened and he finally let me go as I think he couldn't be bothered to work it out. I tried to tell the police but didn't get anywhere there either.

At Yokohama train station I was talking on my mobile phone inside the station with plenty of clear space around me when a man who looked about 60 years old came up and punched me and screamed abuse at me for using the phone. I was in fact in an area that allowed phones as I had checked beforehand. He was yelling about foreigners in Japan so I just let it go and walked away.

The only other personal hazard is bikes on footpaths. Helmets are not required and you will often see women with children on the front and back, groceries as well, weaving around on the footpaths and roads. They will rarely give way!

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Transport

Expensive!!! But very convenient, safe and reliable. Trains go just about anywhere you would want to go as a tourist but make sure you buy a pass in your own country first as it will be much cheaper. The easiest way to get around is to get a map of the train network and use the colours to navigate. Each line is assigned a colour so even if you can't read the names, you can usually find it. This method works quite well but do be careful when making long trips as the speed of the train is in proportion to the price.
The fares work on a system of zones/sections and you can work out how much it will cost to travel, or just buy the cheapest ticket and fare-adjust at the other end. The buses are similar and have money changers inside- pay your fare as you leave.
If you are working there your company will most likely provide you with a paid ticket to travel from home to work. Mine, for only two stations, a trip of about 10 mins, cost AUS$80 per month!
Lots of people use bicycles but generally only old fashioned girls' style ones are available. You also need a permit to park them. Same for scooters which are very popular but sound and often run like lawnmowers. Be prepared to walk a fair bit and especially up and down a lot of stairs!

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Housing

For the first five months in Japan I lived in a one room apartment called a 1K (one room, kitchen). It was about the size of an average bedroom and had a small loft you were supposed to sleep in. I certainly couldn't fit in it so used it for storage. The 'kitchen' was simply a hot plate, a sink and a small cupboard in the hallway. The bathroom resembled that of a train. I had expected it to be small so it wasn't hard to get used to but eventually I decided  to move and shared with a Canadian teacher who had privately rented.

Generally a flat such as this is what you will get if you go with a company.  It was common for couples to be placed into one room apartments and most moved out within six months. In order to rent privately you must have at least several months worth of rent up front to cover the first month, bond and key money (a 'present for them being so kind to rent the place') and agent's fees. Unless you are staying for a long time it is not usually worth the cost of setting up plus furnishings.. The utilities are also quite expensive, gas isn't abundant as it is in Australia and the phone is charged by time as well as distance. A few friends found this out the hard way, receiving huge bills in the first month. You can get internet/cable tv on deals together and phone cards are a much cheaper way to call home.



The front door of my 'cell'


Looking into the hall and kitchen, towards
the end is the washing machine, distance
approx 3 meters. On the inside of the door
is the newspaper box.


Real houses do exist, this one is in the
 country though and has been in the family
for at least 40 years.

Out the front of Junet Palace (certainly not a palace!) I lived here for the first five months. The road next to the building was very busy and had lots of loose stones so cars made a lot of noise early in the morning.

Learning Japanese

I emphasise- at least learn some before you go. In my opinion, this is not a language you will be able to 'pick up' like European languages. All parts are very foreign to English; reading and writing have to be learnt from the start, the grammar often seems to be backwards and words borrowed from English have been so mutilated they are often unrecognisable. But don't let this put you off! A short course should be enough to at least get you familiar with the sounds and a few survival phrases. 


Beginners courses are often taught with this book which focuses on travellers' and business Japanese and is written in 'romaji' (the words have been translated into sounds with English letters). You can buy this book in the kana version if you wish to start learning to read immediately.

This text is more commonly used in Japan. I first encountered it when I started going to classes at my local city hall. I was glad I had done some study in romaji first, as I was able to read and understand much faster. This text has been translated into many different languages and also has separate grammar workbooks.


A page showing the lesson written in kana, romaji and English.


A page showing kanji and kana.

Whilst 'Japanese for busy people' is an excellent first text, I strongly recommend learning to read at least kana. Your pronunciation will greatly improve if you understand how to read the words in Japanese syllables. Being able to read and write in kana is also very helpful for interpreting signs and menus and writing simple notes/addresses. From there, move onto kanji! Although I can read many kanji, I can't write any but the simplest. Computers have helped me avoid this as Microsoft word has a wonderful program that enables you to type in kana and kanji using your normal keyboard.
Once you have learnt some of the basics, you can try the Japanese Proficiency Test. This test is internationally recognised, held once a year in December all round the world and has four levels. You should be able to pass the lowest level after finishing 'Shin Nihongo no Kiso 1'.
After beginner level (which for me was about 1.5-2 years) a private tutor is a good investment. I found I wanted to direct my learning and wasn't willing to wait for a group class. Private tutoring costs about AUS$40/hour but will speed up your learning and was necessary for me as an alternative to university. A good language exchange can also be beneficial, but it is difficult to find someone serious who is actually prepared to study, not just chat. I found my partners through university translation programs.

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Clubs, sports, activities

I didn't find much of a range of these, as unlike Australia, the weather has a big influence on how much you can do outside. As far as sports go baseball is the big obsession. Lots of  business men go to golf driving ranges as to go to a course is generally a luxury, people I knew generally went to the gym or swimming. I joined a gym once summer started and the humidity made walking outside very uncomfortable. The gyms where I lived were all private and you have to join and pay monthly fees plus joining fees. The membership included use of the pool, gym (free and machine weights plus treadmills etc), aerobics, spa, sauna and the option to pay for squash courts. The bathrooms were luxurious by Australian standards but I didn't really get used to walking around naked as a western woman stands out a bit and gets a few stares! There were two kinds of memberships at my gym, full or evening and I went in the evening after work as it was about half price.



The membership card from the Sun Sports
 gym in Kashiwa. I paid about AUS$80/month

The card from Kashiwa library.

The local library was quite good, when I joined I couldn't even ask 'do you have English books' properly, but they managed to understand what I wanted. There were several hundred books on assorted topics, but the bulk were romances or more 'women's' books. Generally I swapped books with other teachers or occasionally paid top price in book shops.

CDs- You can rent CDs, videos, cassettes etc overnight in a lot of shops for no other purpose I can see than to copy them. Just pay the joining fee (about A$10) and rent away. The selection of western videos and CDs was absolutely huge! Japanese also prefer sub titles to dubbing so they are very convenient- as I couldn't watch TV I hired quite a few. Second time around I did watch TV though most programs were devoted to eating, infomercials or game shows. Very little intellectual content, only a few documentaries now and then. Get cable!

Tea Ceremony

I was fortunate to spend the day with Setsuko in October 2001. She teaches tea ceremony and dressed up and showed me all the steps. I felt far too big and clumsy in comparison to her elegance! Setsuko's garden.

Karaoke

Always good for a laugh, karaoke bars are everywhere. Unlike Australia, in Japan there are small private rooms where you can go with groups of friends rather than embarrassing yourself in front of the whole bar. The price per hour varies depending on the time of day and what drink menu you choose. Many places offer all you can drink which can be very cheap compared to a bar, though on quite a few occasions there were knock backs if the group didn't contain Japanese or the drinks were watered down.

Other activities-The local city hall is a great place to start, they often have cooking, yoga, dance, flower arranging classes etc that are quite cheap. If you can find some friends, go along to their classes as well as those run exclusively for foreigners.

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Meeting Japanese

Actually more difficult than it sounds. Although you will be surrounded by people to the point of suffocation, it is quite hard to get them to talk to you. If you are not Japanese, it seems to be instantly assumed you speak English, couldn't possibly speak or understand Japanese and are probably American. After America invaded Iraq I really felt I should be wearing an Ozzie flag!  The general response until you have been to the same shop several times and they recognise you is either: 1- people panic and assume you can't understand Japanese, even if you address them in perfectly fluent sentences, so they run to find someone who can utter a few words of English, or, 2- they start talking in rapid speed Japanese so as a beginner, you often give up or just wave money/mime. After about 6 months of saying hello to the people in the local convenience store, they finally said hello back. 
I did have more success in shops in central Tokyo where they are more used to seeing foreigners and once my Japanese was ok I insisted on using it and often pretended not to understand anything else.

Often the company you work for can restrict your access to meeting Japanese, particularly at English schools. Some schools actually make you sign contracts saying you  won't have any contact with the students outside the school, and will actually fire you if caught. Of course people are then just sneakier, but this kind of ban, although it may help to protect young girls from older western men (!) is more to stop private lessons or kickbacks not going to the companies. While working at AEON we were actually encouraged to go out with students and of course once the restriction wasn't there, the interest level was much decreased.

A good way I found to meet Japanese and know we had a common purpose was through the magazine 'Tokyo Classifieds', now 'Metropolis'. It has a section for meeting friends and doesn't have the stigma that 'personals' often do. I met several friends who were prepared to have regular contact and exchange language, not just me teaching English for free.
Some  people made friends at convenience stores/nightspots/pubs etc. I also got followed home by Japanese men on a couple of occasions and asked for my phone number (pretty scary to have them at your front door!). 

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