August 1st may have seemed like an unremarkable day to most of you. In Osaka, the rain was falling heavily and the sky was gray, in a rare respite from the intense summer heat. And yet, my heart felt light, and my mind was at ease, as I came to a beautiful realization. That day was exactly 9 years since I first set foot on Japanese soil.
I was part of a delegation from the Edinburgh University Kendo Club to come to Japan for a two week Kendo Gasshuku (training camp). Our adventure saw us spend one week in Tokyo and several days in Akita, one of Japan’s less renowned, but astonishingly beautiful, prefectures. During those two weeks, I learned about Japan, its people, its culture and most of all its incredible fighting spirit. I knew from that day on, that as soon as I could, I would make this country my home.
And so it transpired, just over a year later, I moved to Chiba, to begin my first foray into the world of English teaching. Since then, I have dabbled in Eikaiwa (conversation schools), corporate head-hunting, sales, translation, private teaching, and now ALT work and writing. My work has taken me from Tokyo, to Okayama, over to Hong Kong and now back to where I feel most at peace, the wonderful city of Osaka.
It’s been an interesting nine years, both for me and for Japan.
Back in 2006, Japan was the place to be. High salaries, low teaching hours, a cost of living comparable to, or in many cases cheaper than, western countries made it the destination of choice for thousands of young graduates like me in pursuit of adventure.
The global financial crisis of 2008, coupled with the collapse of some of the larger Eikaiwa chains like NOVA and GEOS has made living in Japan a bit tougher for the average English teacher these days. Nevertheless, this still remains a great country for anyone in pursuit of new experiences.
Some of us enjoy the city life, others prefer a more sedate, rural existence. I have been fortunate to experience both during my time here. My first job placed me in Ichikawa city, Chiba prefecture, just outside of Tokyo. Chiba really is a great place to live. It isn’t quite as busy or as hectic as Tokyo, yet you are less than hour from the likes of Shinjuku, Shibuya and Roppongi. At the same time, a couple of hours in the other direction by train would take you to the stunning Nokogiriyama, home to the largest stone Buddha (Daibutsu) in Japan.
Whilst I enjoyed my time in the Kanto region, as the months went by I realised my Japanese wasn’t improving. Time for a change of scenery and it wasn’t long before I found myself in Kurashiki City, Okayama Prefecture. Here I worked as teaching assistant at a junior high and elementary school in the small village of Mabi-Cho.
To say that Mabi is a bit out of the way would be an understatement. 2 konbinis, a supermarket, and an ice cream shop was pretty much all this farming town had to offer in terms of entertainment. On the plus side, my Japanese improved very quickly and I soon found myself engaging in conversation with the locals. Though it has to be said, the Okayama dialect does take quite a bit of getting used to.
Being based in Okayama also opened up whole new options for weekend trips. For the first time, I was able to visit places like Kyushu, Tottori and Shimane. It was also at this time I first visited what remains to this day my favourite place in Japan.
Hiroshima, is undoubtedly one of Japanese most vibrant, beautiful and peaceful cities. We all know all too well the tragic history of this city, but it is a testament to the courage and dedication of the people of this city that they managed, in only a few decades to turn a war torn wasteland into one of Japan’s most picturesque city.
The jewel in the crown of Hiroshima is undoubtedly Miyajima. This small island, located in Hatsukaichi City, just outside Hiroshima is one of the most beautiful places in the world. Deer roam the streets freely as you make your way around the various shops, cafes and other attractions the island has to offer. At the centre of all this is the famous “Shrine on the Sea”, a red “Tori” gate which, depending on the timing of your visit is often half-submerged by the tides.
In time however, I did become frustrated with Okayama. There are a great many good people in Kurashiki, but sadly there will always be that small minority whom neither welcome nor accept foreigners into their community. Feeling somewhat jaded, I left Japan in 2010 to take up a new post as a teacher and magazine editor in Hong Kong.
Then came the great tragedy of 2011, I sat helplessly in my Hong Kong apartment watching as Tohoku was torn apart. Thankfully my friends in Akita were all safe, but many of my Japanese friends had been affected by the tragedy in different ways. I too felt a huge psychological impact. I then resolved to return to Japan and try, in some small way, to repay this great country for all it had given me.
It took more than a year before I was finally in a position to return to Japan. In October 2012 I was offered a job in Osaka as an Eikaiwa teacher. The pay and conditions were a bit of a step down from Hong Kong, but I really didn’t care, I would be coming home.
Finally, once all the paperwork was confirmed, I returned to Osaka in February 2013. I’ve been lucky enough to find a wonderful apartment, overlooking the harbour and within walking distance of the Aquarium and various other attractions.
These days I continue to teach English in junior high and elementary schools. I love my job, and for the first time in many years, I am content. Being a public school teacher in Japan will never make you a millionaire, but there are few things in life more rewarding than seeing that sparkle in a young student’s eye when they start to understand English for the first time.
As I look back on the last nine years, and consider the challenges I have faced and also the challenges this country has faced, I am hopeful for the future. Japan is like a totally different world compared to my native Scotland, but ultimately this is where I belong. I am proud to call this place my home.
Here’s to the next nine years, and beyond!