Looking back at the itinerary I wrote before setting out on my working holiday, it is clear that I had certain hopes for the year ahead – I had detailed my plans to move around the country, spending a few months in a few different cities, taking temporary jobs along the way and somehow fitting in various trips and excursions in between. I also envisioned a kind of personal metamorphosis – I would emerge from the plane like a butterfly emerging from a cocoon: brighter, braver and better than before.
As it turned out, almost nothing about my working holiday lined up with my initial expectations – from my job to my living situation and even my personal relationships. When I think more generally about the divergence of expectations and reality during that first year – about the main things I would have liked to have given my pre-Japan self a heads-up about – three points in particular come to mind:
1. Culture shock comes in many different guises.
I hadn’t really expected to experience culture shock – on a very basic level I knew what to expect. But I came to learn that “culture shock” does not necessarily mean being shocked by a culture – it is much more nuanced than that. It is the panic that comes with the sudden awareness of the vast physical distance between you and everything you knew before.
It is getting a sudden urge to go somewhere or do something you have always done and realising that you can’t. It’s the little things, like getting used to buying different brands and adjusting to different business hours when doing your shopping. It is having to re-establish a daily routine. It’s having to get used to taking on a different role in society.
2. Finding a good work-life balance might not be possible.
If you save a lot of money beforehand or generally have a lot of disposable income you may be able to give the “holiday” portion of your working holiday heavier weighting, but for me my work schedule meant that, aside from a few day trips and overnight visits to friends, my adventures ended up being confined to Tokyo and the surrounding area.
Which was not necessarily a bad thing – there is a seemingly unending list of cool stuff to do and see within the city, and simply having the opportunity to live and work in Japan’s capital has brought me a lot of joy. And I do enjoy teaching a lot more than I had realised I would – there are highs and lows of course, as with any job, but overall it brings a lot of satisfaction.
There is bureaucracy for almost everything, and it is tedious but very important.
Despite doing a reasonable amount of research on the bureaucratic side of things, somehow a few points managed to pass me by. Like needing to inform the ward office and obtain a tenshutsu todoke (move-out notice) before you can register a new address, and registering your bicycle (it costs 500 yen and can be done at any bicycle shop – if you buy a new bike, it should be offered at the time of purchase). Beware that middle names can also cause confusion at times when taking care of paperwork and signing contracts – if possible, register everything with your name exactly as it appears on your passport and residence card.
Fortunately for the working holiday maker, you will avoid a lot of the form filling and trips to the city office if you go home after your first year is up – if you stick around for year two, you will have tax business to look forward to (and with that, a steep hike in your monthly outgoings). Also, if you have a UK student loan remember to inform SLC of your new address and work details – I forgot to do so initially and very nearly got myself landed with maximum monthly repayments. Save yourself a headache later on and take care of any official matters as and when they need dealing with.
It’s not perfect by any means, but for the time being it feels like home.
There are plenty of aspects of my life here which have matched-up with – and even exceeded – my expectations: overall, I love living in Tokyo just as much as I’d hoped I would. There are so many adventures to be had in this city – every day I’m still discovering new places and learning new things. This place brings out sense of wonder in me that I thought I’d lost. I love the comfort and convenience of day-to-day life here. It’s not perfect by any means, but for the time being it feels like home.
I have formed a close circle of friends and generally met so many interesting people, for which I am grateful. And while I may not have undergone a full metamorphosis, I do feel like I have grown as a person – I am more balanced, more confident and have a better idea of what I want from life.
Set off on your working holiday with elaborate hopes and dreams, by all means – it is good to have a vision of what you want to get from the experience. Do remember, though, that an open mind is perhaps the most important thing you can bring with you.
Of course, the fact that I am still here in after almost two years is in itself something I had not originally expected – in my final blog of this series, I’ll talk about switching from a working holiday visa to a work visa.