I couldn’t sleep at all on my 12-hour flight, and the 9-hour time difference meant that by the time I arrived at 8:30am Japan time (11:30pm UK time) I had been awake for almost 20 hours. Unable to check into my hotel in Shinjuku until 2pm, I drudged foggy-headed and bleary-eyed through the arrivals area at Narita to find a bench to rest on.
Wedging myself into an awkward semi-reclined position with my suitcase as a footrest, I tried in vain to nap. As I sat there, the reality of the situation suddenly hit me – I was thousands of miles from everything I’d ever known, and I was completely alone. My heart was thumping and wondered if I should just hop on the next flight back.
My heart was thumping and wondered if I should just hop on the next flight back.
My first few days were spent at a hotel in Shinjuku. I remember, still unable to sleep, drinking instant coffee at 4am and looking at the people walking through the narrow alleys of Golden Gai. When I finally talked myself into going outside and having a look around one afternoon, thinking I might browse the Tokyu Hands department store near the Southern Terrace, I dozily bumped into a display and sent a ¥17,000 bottle of red wine crashing to the floor. I really wasn’t off to a very strong start.
Day three after arrival: still jet lagged, still anxious, still hadn’t eaten a hot meal. And by now the time had come to set off and begin my first job, working in Subway Restaurant at a ski resort up in Hakuba, Nagano prefecture. I met the rest of the group at Ikebukuro station and slept through most of the bonding that happened during the three-hour minibus ride. On arrival, we were taken to register our dorm address at the village office before being shown around and fed (a hot meal, a last!).
I was due to work there for the next three months, but following another sleepless night in the then-empty, freezing dorm room, I realised that this wasn’t where I wanted to be. I’d never experienced communal living arrangements, and the idea of having to sleep and bathe alongside tens of strangers didn’t sit well with me.
Combined with the idea of having to work in a bustling fast food outlet and pushing my rusty language skills to their limit, before I’d even had time to adjust to simply being in this new place far away from home, it seemed overwhelming. So at 7am the following morning, I found myself dragging my heavy suitcases several kilometres through deep snow to the tiny station and boarding a train back to Tokyo.
The following week was spent at a budget hotel in Ikebukuro. That first night after running away from the resort was the first full night of sleep I’d had since my arrival and I feel like it did me a world of good – I woke up feeling considerably less doom-y. I figured I’d give myself that week to decide whether I was staying or going.
I started getting outside more. I explored the shopping areas around Ikebukuro and enjoyed autumnal walks through Yoyogi Park. I went to a favourite restaurant I’d discovered on my first trip to Japan a few years previously and treated myself to a decent meal. I tentatively started looking for places to live, for social groups to join, a job. I was still lonely, still doubtful, but I felt like perhaps I was heading in the right direction.
On checking-out of the hotel, I found myself heading not back to the airport and a flight home, but to Komagome and my first apartment (found online at short notice through foreigners-only letting agency Sakura House) – I’d decided to try and make a go of this working holiday thing after all.
moving to another country, even if only for a year, is a huge change to adjust to
Despite my new-found determination to make this work out, that first month I spent there wasn’t all plain sailing – there were many ups and downs. And I think that’s a natural part of this story – moving to another country, even if only for a year, is a huge change to adjust to.
For the majority of people that adjustment isn’t going to just happen overnight. Even if you’ve visited that place before, even if you don’t experience culture shock in the traditional sense, you’re adapting to a completely different routine in a completely different place, and quite probably having to do so all alone. Allow yourself to feel that doubt and fear and sadness – it doesn’t make you a failure or mean that you won’t go on to have a fulfilling experience.
It’s a phase that will likely pass within a month, and if you can keep pushing through those difficult first weeks then you’ll probably feel pretty good about yourself for doing so – you’ll go on to have some greats times that will far outweigh any negativity your felt at the start.
By the middle of January I had found myself a more long term place to live in Tokyo, a job, and some friends. Things were starting to look pretty good, and I wished that I could go back and tell that jetlagged girl curled-up in Narita airport that everything was going to be okay.