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Travel & Culture

"WHAT brought you to Japan?" This was probably one of the most frequently asked questions that my students asked me (and still do) when I first started teaching here. The answer I generally always gave was "I wanted to get more experience teaching one-to-one English - predominantly business and IELTS prep - but also conversational language." All true. I would THEN expand my answer to the second and more common expected response: "I want to explore the culture of Japan. I love Japanese food, the people and trains. Nature, etc." All true as well. I generally didn't include the stereotypical adoration of manga and anime, even though I am a fan of a handful.

Was I giving a stock answer? Not quite. I have always wanted to teach in Japan, ever since I began my educational career. The history of the country always fascinated me. I generally favoured studying the Edo period, of course. The samurai, bushido, shogun after shogun. I watched "The Seven Samurai" many moons ago. It all left an effect on me - an image of Japan. But the first time I really got a more modern view of Japan was in "Lost in Translation". Yes, many have seen the movie and it's considered cliche, but for me the most memorable image I had of Japan - and Tokyo specifically - after watching this film was this incredible isolation. From others and oneself, even in a city with so many millions.

Traveling and teaching can be an incredibly nomadic experience. Embraced by many as we all seek to find the perfect balance between family, friends, work and our personal quests for..something. I find a lot of expats move to Japan in order to get away from things back home. They feel more welcome here, able to be who they want to be. Express themselves the way they want to. Whether it’s through clothing, behaviour, hairstyle, relationships with others or simply culture. Like starting over again in another world. You can be whoever you want to be in Japan. The people here have a collective indifference to many things, speaking strictly as a foreigner, so being different is something that is very attainable here if you come from another country. Conformity reigns supreme in certain areas, to be sure (dress codes at work, rules, procedures), but your interpretation of and preferences when it comes to hair colour, hobbies, habits, etc. are widely open. You can enjoy all the conveniences of a very organised country, while at the same time feeling like you can focus on just yourself. This leads to other interesting wrinkles in life, but that’s a different story altogether.

So did I want to become someone new? Perhaps a part of me did. There are limitless stimulations, new things to see, and just an overall unique atmosphere that one feels when coming to Japan, particularly in Tokyo. You feel at once rejuvenated and ready to try new things once you settle in. The excitement is palpable. I like to think that I learn something new every time I move to a different city or country. A fresh, different perspective that helps me grow, while at the same time sharing my views and experiences in life with others through the medium I know best - the English language.

CULTURE SHOCK IN TOKYO

WHEN I lived in London, once upon a time, I remember the concrete beatings my shoes used to take walking from my flat to the station, the station to the next destination. That combined with the London general pace contributed to a reasonably fast deterioration of the soles of my shoes. And I thought that was pretty bad. Until I encountered Tokyo’s unforgiving concrete.

I love to walk and explore whenever I move to or visit any and all citiesIt’s a vital step in the initial introduction to my new surroundings, overcoming any culture shock that I might have. Prior travel experience most certainly helps with the transition that we all go through when moving to a new location as you have some prior knowledge of adapting to unfamilarities too numerous to count sometimes. Still, there are instances when even that is not enough and one becomes overwhelmed with the enormity and scale of a city, its incredible otherness. Where walking is simply not enough. There are times when you just cannot relate what you are seeing to anything else you know. This is the effect that Tokyo generally has on all those who come, A city at once brilliant, bizarre, crazy, amazing, strange and perplexing.

From Narita airport to Shinjuku station - one of the central hubs - you get a brief glimpse of all that there is in Tokyo. Buildings and infrastructure, electric lights flashing by. In no time at all it dawns on you that there is no actual “downtown” or central area. The modern expanse is on too grand of a scale. When I first arrived I stayed in a share house as it was the most convenient thing to do. Share houses are brilliant as it allows you to have a familiar base camp where you can meet fellow foreigners from all over the world who are also on their own unique journeys. It provides a comfort level that we all need as you navigate the finer details of the city’s transportation system, language and culture. Emerging from the station (it is a maze simply to get out at the right exit), the intense number of people walking left and right is mesmerising. Yes, there is even a particular way I discovered of walking through the wave after wave of pedestrians crossing the street or marching down the sidewalk - always going behind them as you cut through the incoming rush, rather than in front of them. There is never a letdown in the pace and you can often find yourself getting caught up in the crowded flow. Sounds claustrophobic? It can feel that way.

Although very much a mega metropolis - at first glance - Tokyo has a whole array of diverse, unique features and spirit which I hope to peel away and convey over time in my writing.  For now, the question of culture shock still remains. Arriving in Tokyo for the first time, one does not have a sense of panic or concern. Worries or doubts. Confusion, yes. However, the overall feeling that washes over you when you step onto the streets is one of wonder and curiosity. A need to explore and experience, from the numerous restaurants and drinking establishments, to serene temples and shrines. A sort of fantasy land where everything is new and wonderful. It is all there waiting to be seen.

EATING (UN)HEALTHY IN JAPAN

I LOVE food. There is no clearer way to say it. I suppose I was born with this eternal love for all things edible from around the world. But it must also be said that my mom created such a variety of dishes for our family over the years that I couldn’t help but learn to love them all - Japanese food very much included.

Japan offers up such a diverse assortment of culinary delights, able to stimulate and hook any taste palate from anywhere on the globe. The amount and variety of different dishes, prices and essential quality available in Japan - particularly Tokyo - is incredible. I remember first arriving in the city and having to adjust to essentially a new diet. I started to eat more rice - it was unavoidable - and now had access to an unlimited amount of bento boxes! Such flavours, affordable prices, combinations of vegetables and meats galore. I ate one every day. Sushi was now much cheaper, readily available at “Su-pas’, or supermarkets, and the quality was quite, QUITE a notch above what I had eaten in years gone by. There were breakfast places open 24 hours a day, convenience stores (“conbinis”) at almost every street corner, and lunch and dinner venues open even longer. And then there was late night RAMEN. Full-bodied, warm, and a feast for the taste buds. Did someone just yell “unhealthy”?

Indeed, while the belly was happy, wallet appeased, the only thing to address was finding the right, healthy balance of a decent diet and self-satisfaction. It was here that a battle of wills emerged: Health and Planned Effort (HPE) versus Laziness and Practicality (LP). Because of my peculiar hours at work I found it difficult to cook regularly, especially since I was teaching evening classes. 1-0 to LP. The other complication was that some of my go-to ingredients in the past were more expensive in Japan. From fruits (especially fruits) to certain vegetables. It just didn’t add up. 2-0 to LP. Finally, cooking in a share house just wasn’t inspiring for me. It wasn’t my own kitchen, I didn’t have the will nor money to build up a cupboard filled with the right spices, and the cooking counter could be busy at times. 3-0 LP, final score. In the end, I found comfort in the fact that there was a conscious effort by all supermarkets and convenience stores to create sort of balanced bento boxes and other meals to go, with vegetables  and essential nutrients included - made with quality. A 7-11 in North America was certainly not the same as a 7-11 in Japan.

Did I actually succeed in constructing a healthy new eating routine in my new home? I would say no. The reality was that I stopped cooking altogether and relied heavily on prepared meals that satisfied my appetite and produced so much waste each day. The careful process of planning my lunches and dinners, organising leftovers and sticking to a plan was undone the minute I landed at Narita Airport. Nevertheless, this doesn't have to be the end of the story or only solution. I know many people who make that effort to stay healthy every week. The commitment falters now and then, but for the most part they do succeed. It's about being disciplined, diligent and creative. We can all enjoy world famous Japanese cuisine on a daily basis, indulging in our inner desires for superb food. In the end, it's up to each individual to choose the dietary path which they think is right for them.

As for me, I shall continue my love for all things food. I once asked my mom why she taught me how to eat with chopsticks at such a young age, knowing forks and knives were mostly used in the countries we lived in when I was growing up. She replied matter-of factly, "I just thought you might need it in the future at some point." Indeed I did.

THE PROS OF LIVING IN TOKYO'S SHARE HOUSES

I AWAKE to the sound of my neighbour yelling in frustration and disbelief. Hurriedly putting on my slippers, I exit my room and confront him with honest intentions and a desire to help. I ask what's wrong and he tells me:

The remote control for the TV does not work.

So begins another glorious day in Tokyo. Amid the yells of my Slovak/Swedish friend - "Duuu-shan, I'm just an old man who wants to watch the news in the morning. Why doesn't it work? I don't understand why! Duu-shan!" - I can't help but enjoy the surreal moment. This man who always makes me laugh every day. This daily dose of randomness and newness. It all points to one thing - the beauty of Tokyo's share houses.

As far as I was concerned, moving into a share house was the best way to start my life in Tokyo. It offered several key advantages that I think are particularly helpful for a foreigner moving to Japan - either in their first adventure overseas or as a seasoned veteran of this world. First, it is practical and incredibly flexible. Using a share house - for example Sakura House in Tokyo - allows you to instantly reserve a room with a simple downpayment of 20,000 yen (about $200), 15,000 of which you get back at the end of your stay. Then you just pay your first month's rent and off you go. The added bonus is you only need to give one month's notice before moving out. Just like that. If you are someone like me, the idea of being able to seamlessly move between share houses in a grand city is an adventure beyond words. You get to explore so many different neighbourhoods WHILE actually living there because you don't have the restrictive one year commitment that is usually found in most apartment rental agreements.

The apartments themselves - while not overly luxurious or big - do however come in many unique shapes and sizes throughout the city. I've stayed in a pink-coloured concrete block, a 70's style tatami house and a perfect little loft, just to name a few. What I also loved about the particular share house company I dealt with, was their support and timely responses to any and all of our needs. If anyone ever required a new pillow case, a toilet seat fixed or other pressing problem looked after, they would take care of it rather quickly. Add to that the fact that the common areas, kitchens and bathrooms were also cleaned and maintained by the share house company, and you can very quickly see where comfort and convenience reach new heights.

So a share house satisfies the need for practicality and flexibility. But why else should you choose to use them? The second reason is that it provides a healthy social environment for you to be in as you make your transition into Japanese society. Tokyo has over 30 million people living in the city, but it can very much seem like a lonely place, especially if you are just arriving here or don't speak Japanese. Making really good, true friends takes time. Years, for that matter. However, a share house creates a melting pot of cultures and people from so many different countries who are mostly in the same position as you - studying, working or travelling for an extended period of weeks or months. Over my time living in share houses, I've met many citizens from America, France (particularly), Spain, India, China, Rwanda, Israel, Italy, Denmark, Belarus, Mexico. The list is truly endless. Imagine coming home from your daily Japanese escapades and having the opportunity to use various global languages, eat diverse foods, share stories into the early hours of the morning. In a short time, bonds can be created and relationships built.

In a way, your flatmates become your family. They are there for you. Companions to go with when you want to visit that restaurant or go sightseeing in a place that you feel would be much more fun with others. Because we all share this space together, and we all sometimes need other people to talk to about any difficulties we may have getting used to a completely different society and culture. We all need a little bit of home with us at times, whether it's laughing over one of your favourite shows with a flatmate who loves it just as much as you do, or simply wanting someone to speak your mother tongue with. In the end, be it a year, six months or a week, all of us who have spent time in a share house or two, have many amazing stories to tell!

Nevertheless, with all these share housing pros, what hasn't escaped me is the fact that earlier my sleep was very much interrupted by my inconsolable, yet loud friend, who simply wanted to watch the news. Thus, there come the Cons of living in Tokyo's share houses...next time.

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Culture shock in Tokyo

WHEN I lived in London, once upon a time, I remember the concrete beatings my shoes used to take walking from my flat to the station, the station to the next destination. That combined with the London general pace contributed to a reasonably fast deterioration of the soles of my shoes. And I thought that was pretty bad. Until I encountered Tokyo’s unforgiving concrete.
I love to walk and explore whenever I move to or visit any and all cities. It’s a vital step in the initial introduction to my new surroundings, overcoming any culture shock that I might have. Prior travel experience most certainly helps with the transition that we all go through when moving to a new location as you have some prior knowledge of adapting to unfamilarities too numerous to count sometimes. Still, there are instances when even that is not enough and one becomes overwhelmed with the enormity and scale of a city, its incredible otherness. Where walking is simply not enough. There are times when you just canno…

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I LOVE food. There is no clearer way to say it. I suppose I was born with this eternal love for all things edible from around the world. But it must also be said that my mom created such a variety of dishes for our family over the years that I couldn’t help but learn to love them all - Japanese food very much included.
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