I graduated from university in 2004 with an arts degree in Japanese. It was pretty useless as far as degrees go. I could barely speak the language as it was only a beginner’s course, and it led to zero career prospects. So I did what any self-respecting graduate with no idea what to do with their life would do: I went to Japan!
I originally signed up to be a JET, the government-funded program putting foreigners in Japanese schools to assist with English classes. It was considered a pretty cushy job at the time; good pay and not terribly difficult work. They liked people who could understand some Japanese because chances were high you would end up in the middle of nowhere with no English speakers for miles around. I was fresh out of university and nervous as hell at the interview.
I didn’t get the job.
All of this took half a year to go down. I graduated in November, I applied not long after, and interviews were held in June. When the letter arrived letting me know I wasn’t chosen I was pretty devastated, although not entirely surprised (I was watching Ju-on when the news came in, which may have been oddly fitting). I cried over it for a while, my life losing all meaning in one foul swoop, and then jumped on the internet to figure out another way to get there. There was no other option; one way or another, I was going. I discovered the website for Nova, a company that sent foreigners to Japan to teach English in their conversation schools. Kinda like JET, but corporate and teaching conversation to folks of all ages instead of helping an English class in a school. Basically the same thing, right, so why not? I went in for an interview two weeks later, which in my opinion went quite well, and a week after that I got the news: I was in.
As they say in Japanese, yatta!
I would soon realise that it was pretty difficult not to get hired by Nova. All you needed was a pulse and a degree (in anything), and that was only because the Japanese government required it for working visas. Nova particularly loved Australians because we had a great working holiday visa scheme with Japan which made it easy to send us over for six months (and available for extension twice after that) to work part-time and fill in the teaching gaps. My schedule for the first year was 5-9 p.m. Not bad for a 21-year-old out on my own in a new country for the very first time. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Nova informed me around the end of June that I was accepted. The catch? I had to pay for my own plane ticket to get there (JET, of course, paid for you). I didn’t have a job. My single mother was not in an amazing paying job either, and tickets to Japan from Australia were EXPENSIVE. Like, over $2000 expensive. I was going, there was no doubt about that, but it was a matter of when. How on earth would we be able to save that much money to get me there? We saved and scrimped on every single cent, sold whatever I would no longer need, and two months later, at the end of August, I was finally ready to go. On August 24, 2005, I said goodbye to my mother and sister at Brisbane International Airport and waited to board the plane. It wasn’t until I thought of my cats and the fact I was leaving them that I started to cry.
We made a stopover in Singapore for about four hours, and it was after midnight when we got on the next plane to finish the rest of the journey. By this point, nearly the entire plane was full of Japanese passengers. It was starting to sink in; I was going to Japan. For real. To live. Alone.
The plane touched down at Kansai International Airport on the morning of August 25, 2005. I still remember seeing Japan outside the window for the first time and it was like a dream. It hadn’t really set in yet; it would take a few more days for that. Or a few weeks. But I stepped out into the airport in the Japanese summer heat and waited for the Nova person to find me. We had to pay for our plane ticket there, but at the very least they were going to pay to send us to our designated cities and make sure we got there safely. I was told before leaving that I was being assigned to Matsue. Never heard of it. Looked it up and could find very little on it. It was the capital city of the middle of nowhere; it had a castle, and that was about all that was available on the topic. I didn’t care though because I was in Japan! There were a few of us scheduled to meet the Nova coordinator that morning, who gave us our tickets, took us to the train station, then told us we were on our own. I waited for the bullet train to arrive, already in awe, and then had a four-hour train ride ahead of me to get from Osaka to Matsue, several prefectures over. All by myself. I understood near zero Japanese in the wild and the further we got from a big city, the fewer people spoke English.
I was with another teacher until Okayama, the next big city after Osaka, at which point she got on another train and I was all on my own for a three-hour train ride to Matsue. To reach Matsue from Okayama, you have to take the Yakumo because there’s no bullet train; it’s that countryside (or as they say in Japanese, do-inaka). The Yakumo is infamous for its swaying that lulls even the most alert to sleep. Not even my nerves of being in a new place were a match for it and while I sat there, clutching my ticket and doing my best at each stop to pick out the word “Matsue” from the cacophony of sounds I couldn’t understand… I drifted into various naps. I would wake up near each station, even more disoriented and terrified that I’d missed my stop. There’s very little between Okayama and Matsue. You’re just travelling deeper into the underbelly of the countryside. It’s mountains after forests after streams after more mountains. It’s beautiful. It’s gorgeous. It’s the same thing over and over again. For three hours.
As we passed through Tottori Prefecture, I looked out the window and saw a giant oni statue sitting on the mountainside and was speechless. It was huge and imposing and there was nothing else nearby. Just a giant, angry oni looking down upon the valley below. Welcome to Japan.
This dude right here. Pretty cool, huh?
One thing my students always asked me was what my first impression of Japan was. Ironically, it wasn’t the giant oni statue sitting in the mountains in the middle of nowhere, but something far more mundane; vending machines. I was perhaps not ready for the sheer amount of them, nor where you could find them. As we travelled through the mountains, getting further and further away from civilisation, one thing never changed: vending machines were everywhere. They were, of course, at the stations, but they were also on the side of the road. In rice fields in the middle of nowhere. Outside ramshackle little houses. They were everywhere. I loved that about Japan and still miss it to this day. Regardless of where you were, you were never more than a five or ten-minute walk from a vending machine, even in a tiny village that time forgot.
I safely made it to Matsue, despite the Yakumo’s attempts otherwise, and I was greeted by two teachers from the Matsue branch: my new coworkers. One of them was also Australian. She was also from Brisbane. She asked if I remembered her. I did not. Turned out we were at the same interview in June, but she left one month earlier than me. I was so nervous that day that I didn’t remember anyone else I interviewed with, but Matsue had just lost a bunch of teachers and somehow we ended up as the replacements. A nice coincidence and certainly went a long way to making me feel a little more at home in this strange new land. She was on her way to work, however, so she was just dropping by to say hi. The other guy was the one officially assigned to introduce me to my new apartment and help me get settled in.
Matsue Station is about a ten-minute walk from Lake Shinji, one of two large lakes that Matsue sits between. It’s beautiful. As we walked through the streets, I did my best to take it all in. The architecture, the people, the atmosphere. He asked me what I thought of the place and I responded that it reminded me of Bribie Island in Australia. I wasn’t that far off the mark, really. A lot of water and old people :p Reaching the apartment was easy. Literally a straight line from the station to the lake, then another straight line along the lake. The apartment was a 10-story building sitting right opposite it. At the bottom was a convenience store, and across from that a Sega World. I was in heaven.
The beautiful waters of Lake Shinji.
My roommate wasn’t at home when we got there because she was also at work. I had a quick look around the place; we were on the sixth floor, the hall and kitchen were hardwood, as was my bedroom, but the lounge and other bedroom were tatami. There was a radio installed in the wall that I never really listened to that stuck out for some reason, but the tour of the house took about two minutes. It was a Japanese apartment; not very big. The view from the balcony was amazing. I could see the entire lake, all the way to Izumo Airport on the other side (about a 40 minute drive away). My new colleague asked me if there was anything I wanted to do. I had to go through training back in Okayama before I officially started work, but I had three or four free days before that. I told him I wanted to get a PlayStation 2; there was a Resident Evil game available only in Japanese at the time and dammit, I was in Japan and I wanted to play it!
Nova supplied us with an apartment (at a high price) and also a bicycle. Our apartment was the furthest from work, but considering the view and location I didn’t mind. Furthest meant I had to ride an extra 10 minutes to work compared to the other teachers who shared a three-bedroom apartment a few minutes away from the Nova branch. Their view was not as good; I was happy where I was. I got on my new bike and off we went into the middle of god knows where for my first experience in a Japanese second-hand store. I found the PlayStation I wanted and then he took me to a video store to find the game. I got it and off we went home. That was it. That was my initial introduction to Japan. He went home and I sat in my new apartment, all by myself, trying to figure out how the hell to play this game that was also in Japanese (as you may remember, a language I still did not understand at the time). It was one of the happiest moments of my life.
There were fireworks that night. I stepped out onto the front balcony and saw them going off over the lake just a few hundred metres away. It was quite the welcome, and while I knew they weren’t for me personally (it was a festival that took place on August 25th every year), that didn’t make them any less special. Every year when those fireworks went off I was reminded that it was the anniversary of my arrival in Japan and it was like they were celebrating for me all over again, haha.
My roommate got home later that night and informed me that she was soon leaving the country; she was only going to be around another few weeks, but she’d do her best to help me out with whatever I needed before then. In the end, I stayed in that apartment for close to a year, and only had to share it with someone for about four weeks in total. I got really lucky because when new teachers came they always stuck them in the closer apartment instead. Three of them living in theirs, and just me alone in mine. It was great.
If you were to ask me now what my first impression of Japan was, I’d still say the vending machines. I loved those things and it’s a tragedy that they aren’t as commonplace in other countries. My mother also still jokes that the first time I left the house I didn’t just move down the road or even to a new town, I moved out of the entire damn country and all the way across the other side of the world. I never do things by halves, nor do I give up. I was determined to get to Japan, and I did. I had no idea what was waiting for me there, and my initial plan was to stay for a year, maybe a year and a half to max out my working holiday visa and then return home.
I stayed for ten years.
I never do things by halves.