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Only the Lonely: 5 Ways Teachers Can Beat the Winter Blues in Japan

Winter in rural areas of Japan can feel cold, isolating and gloomy — especially to new ALTs — but you’re not alone. Here are five ways to slam dunk the funk without going into hibernation

By 9 min read

For the past 20-something years, December and winter to me has meant Christmas — a time for festivities and kindred spirits. My family and friends would plan big get-togethers, decorate their homes and make plans for the coming year. Yet, once again at this reflective time, I found myself alone in a snowy, rural Japanese town where Christmas doesn’t get its own public holiday and the new year is more about shutting down than opening up.

As I video-chatted with folks back home over the holidays, I would feel isolated, longing for faraway connections. It doesn’t seem even that long ago when I would spend days and nights crying as I drove past landscapes that reminded me of my hometowns. I’d moved countries before, but relocating to Japan was my first time living in the countryside and in a place where I couldn’t understand the language spoken. More so, the rice paddies around my house set me miles apart from other human beings.

At times, my house felt bigger than it was and I would feel much smaller than I actually am. For much of the dark, winter months, I was hollow and engulfed by homesickness and loneliness. Thankfully, I’ve learned that there are ways to combat this emotional battle and navigate the winter blues in the inaka (rural Japan)

1. Expand yourself

Moving to a new country may be overwhelming and lonely, but don’t forget to enjoy the sights along the way.

“Find new hobbies, but keep old ones,” a senpai (senior at work or school) assistant language teacher (ALT) once told me when I first arrived. I never realized how powerful that advice was until I picked up swimming and hiking again and saw how these old hobbies managed to take my mind off things at difficult times.

It really does help. Favorite hobbies invite familiarity and concentration, while exercise gets endorphins that lift the mood to kick in. To get more out of it, invite a new friend or two to join you on your interests — you may gain a new bestie from doing so. You never know what people are interested in if you don’t ask. My outdoorsy Japanese friends go swimming and hiking with me quite often now!

Find new hobbies, but keep old ones.

Expand your interests. Let Japan give you new perspectives and viewpoints. Ask around your school and community center to see if there are any local clubs you can join. They may cost a bit of money, but they will give you great cultural exchange and friendship in return. For me, at least, I’ve gotten into taiko drumming, pottery, sake making, bouldering and — of course — studying Japanese (which also helps with the language barrier and confidence). My friends have gotten involved with kyuudou (Japanese archery), ikebana (Japanese flower arrangement), music groups, kickboxing and soccer clubs, to name a few.

Keep an eye out on community or volunteer events, too. I have participated in cooking lessons, home stay weekends, rice planting and harvesting, kitsuke (kimono dressing), tea ceremonies, as well as Japanese washi (paper)- and knife-making events organized by the international center in my town.

Japan’s more rural areas are also blessed with powder snow in winter. If you live near a ski resort and haven’t yet tried snowboarding or skiing — now’s your chance.

2. Make friends within your new community

So you want to make Japanese friends, but feel like there’s a wall between you and them?

That’s completely normal, considering we all carry vastly different cultural values and — obviously — speak different languages. However, the ability to feel is universal; if you try hard enough, your Japanese counterparts will know that you want to become closer friends.

[…] ask them to introduce you to their friends. Keep doing that several times, and you’ll find the number of your Japanese mates will snowball.

That said, you may need to be the proactive one and initiate. Japanese people may not be reaching out because they already have their friend groups or are not seeking to make friends with foreigners or are worried about their English ability. Whatever the reason, nothing should stop you from cultivating new friendships.

Everything begins with a simple: “Hi.” Mix and match all the Japanese words you know and show them that you’re interested in learning more from them. Ask them about Japanese things that you don’t understand (or how to cook Japanese food — always a good one). Let them feel like they can teach you something. Invite them to hangouts and dinners.

As someone who grew up in the concrete city of Hong Kong, being able to get my hands on rice harvesting was a refreshing, precious experience!

No matter how rural your town or village is or how scarce resources may be, you at least have your school(s). Yes, the people you work with are your coworkers, but you can also make them your friends. If you spot a teacher or two who may be interested in learning English or about other cultures, ask them to hang out after school. Get their contact info on Line. Break that barrier and bring yourselves closer.

This doesn’t apply to just your coworkers. Try this strategy on any of the local people you’ve met. Take your relationship with that person to another level. Talk about fun stuff like your hobbies, favorite foods, movies to watch. Initiate a hangout and include them in your personal life.

Once you make your first new friend, ask them to introduce you to their friends. Keep doing that several times, and you’ll find the number of your Japanese mates will snowball.

Keep an eye out on community or volunteer events, too. The community center in your area, usually called the shimin puraza (市民プラザ, or citizen’s plaza), holds many events but most of the time they go unnoticed by foreigners. Register with their newsletter or visit the center to see what events are up next. If there is a kokusai koryu kyokai (国際交流協会, or international community center) in your area, try asking the staff if you can get involved, volunteer or even organize events there.

3. Try new ways to meet people

It may seem more difficult to make friends in Japan than in your home country, so make this an opportunity to try new ways of making friends! The technology we have nowadays makes it ever so convenient.

The Meetup website and app is very useful when it comes to finding different interest groups and events in your area. Ranging from language exchange and sports to food and movies, for example, there is certainly a group for everyone. If Meetup isn’t popular in your area, try HelloTalk. It’s essentially an app for people to chat with native speakers in their targeted language to help with learning, but know people who have successfully made friends through it.

This may not sound like it, but online dating apps like Tinder and Pairs (iOS, Android) have worked for me when it comes to expanding my social circles. I’ve met people within — and outside of — my town. Contrary to what people in Western countries use these apps for, a surprising number of Japanese people use them to make friends.

Recently, my neighbor told me that he’s made a few friends through Pokemon Go! It just goes to show that you never know the connections you might make until you get out of your comfort zone and try.

4. Connect with fellow foreigners

A few ALT friends of mine come support my taiko performances with local Japanese players — cultural exchange right there!

While making new Japanese friends is an integral part of your experience here, it’s always good to have a handful of foreign compadres, too, just in case cultural shocks get out of hand.

If you are in Japan on the JET Programme, you should know that the Association for JET (AJET) is there for you in your respective area. Take advantage of the resources available there and visit the Facebook pages of the many interest groups that are affiliated with AJET. For example, Christian fellowship members, LGBTQ groups, vegetarians and vegans, Asian Pacific Islanders, gamers and JETs coming to Japan with dependents all have designated groups for AJET. Sometimes, simply reading what others have already posted about similar experiences or shared interests will make you feel connected!

Some AJET chapters organize ski trips or other snow events during the winter months — so get ready to sign up!

5. Contact professionals

It’s not uncommon at all to hear about JETs or other ALTs and those new to Japan going through tough emotional times.

The JET Programme knows this well and therefore provides a partial subsidy (50 percent, up to ¥20,000 per year) for counseling costs incurred through consultation with mental health professionals in Japan not covered by health insurance. On top of that, JET participants are welcome to use the free JET Online Counselling Service through email and Skype.

Know that there are probably people out there feeling the same things as you.

If you live in Tokyo or in the Kanto area, put Tokyo Counseling Services on your radar. They’re a group of qualified and licensed clinical psychologists who offer services in Chinese, English, French, German, Japanese, Korean and Portuguese seven days a week, all year round.

Whatever the “winter blues” may mean to you — especially as you adjust to life away from the urban hubs of Japan — know that there are probably people out there feeling the same things that you are. You’re not “alone,” though you might feel “lonely.” The former describes a state of being while the latter describes an emotional response to one’s circumstances — a response that you can change for the better.

So… reach out. Connect. Try new things. And feel that darkness turn into light.

Here are a few of the resources available in Japan for those who need to talk:

  • TELL (Tokyo English Lifeline) has a variety of resources available to help you at a time of crisis. Give them a call on 03-5774-0992. They are open every day until 11 p.m.
  • Tokyo Counseling Services, provides individual counseling, couples counseling, marriage and family counseling, group therapy and psychotherapy services. Counseling and therapy services are available in English, French, German, Korean, Chinese, Japanese and Portuguese for all residents living in the Tokyo Metropolis and Kanto region. Tel: (03) 5431-3096. Email: tokyocounselingservices@gmail.com. Twitter: @tokyocounseling.
  • There’s also general mental health information on Japan Health Care Info‘s website.
  • The Japan Helpline has info and resources for areas across the country for everything from medical help to other emergencies.

Do you have some practical advice or tips for those who may be struggling with loneliness as they adjust to life in Japan — especially around the winter holidays? Let us know in the comments!

This article is provided as general information only. If you are in need, please contact a mental health professional.

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