A year in Japan – Expectations and Realisations

My first view of Japan

Time flies! Yal if I tell you it feels like it was yesterday when I was dreading setting up a meeting with my boss so I could resign my job at the bank to prepare for Japan, I am lying! Time does fly, but the year that has been 2019/2020 has been the longest year I have ever had the displeasure to live through. In the spirit of trying to find the positive in all this chaos though, today I will look back at my first post about expectations of life in Japan, and contrast it with what I have realised while living here.

1) Trains are fast and we fly on our bicycles

After the first few days of being in Japan, it became very clear that their public transport was on a level I have never experienced before. Efficient, clean and affordable. When we spent a few days in Tokyo for orientation, we had the chance to catch the train for the first time. It was a mess of an experience. We got lost, we couldn’t figure out how to buy tickets, and the train was packed because of Friday night rush hour. It’s one thing getting lost in an English country but man, when everyone around you just propels a “Wakarimasen” at you, it can be even more daunting.

Just a bunch of foreigners lost underground, nothing to see here

Luckily we got some help from the train people on duty and thanks to Google maps we eventually figured out where we were going. Since then, I’ve learnt how to plan when going places. Google maps is great because it gives you a cost estimate about your trip. This comes in handy at the train station because it turns out that you don’t need to ask the train people to get you a ticket to your destination, you can just use the auto sales ticket machine thing yourself without knowing how to read the Kanji on the map (something we in the more “rural” parts of Japan sometimes have to work our way around).

In this time I’ve also learnt that the train isn’t always the best way to get around when you live in the far-flung parts of Japan. In my city, there are probably only 3 spots where the train stops. Basically, this train gets you in and out of our town, but not around it. For that, there are buses (not worth the wait since we can walk to most places within the hour), and my favourite, bicycles. So I suppose it’s true. In Japan, you can fly on your bicycle. Bicycles and pedestrians have the right-of-way here, which is great because it means as long as you are careful you can get around fairly quickly. Unfortunately, because of how tiny the streets are in most suburbs here, getting that right of way can sometimes be a scary affair. I can’t tell you how many times I thought a car would run me over because of how narrow a street was. I’ve had to jump off my bike and out of the way a few times for fear of a collision.

2) Everything and everywhere is mountains

Coming from living on the Highveld, mountains have always been a suggestion seeing as my home was already on the highest part of the land in the country. According to Wikipedia, South Africa has around 84 mountains to its name. In contrast, Japan has over 18 000. Take that in for a second.

Everything in Japan is different for me, but I felt it the most in the landscape. In the early days of culture shock, I’d be walking casually down the street, as one does, look up and see a mountain greyed out in the distance. This would always freak me out. Where the heck was I and what had happened to the skyline that I knew and loved? As strange as it sounds it took a while for me to feel comfortable enough to look up and out into the distance without it filling me with dread. I think I only appreciated the mountains after a few months of having lunch every Wednesday and Friday in the room overlooking the city and the bay. I’d sit in there with some other teachers, usually choosing to sit looking out the window with my fellow JTE as we chatted about current affairs and shared stories from our lives. After a while, the mountains lost their ominous energy. Seeing them now reminded me of these lovely chats that I had to look forward to with one of my favourite people in my town.

3) I’m going to be an other. Again!

Man, I know I expected it, but not like this. I form a part of a tiny community of foreigners in my town. To compound this, I am one of perhaps 10 or more black people living in my town of 100 000 – and the only one from South Africa. Sometimes I don’t notice. Mostly, those times are only when I am in my house chatting to my family via video chat or drowning myself in another Netflix series.

Like most things in life, I have found that there are good days and bad days when it comes to this reality. When I manage to navigate past the language barrier, it’s great to exchange stories about differences and helping to dismantle false beliefs that some people have about the world. Sometimes it’s great to know that I am the first interaction with my race and background to my kids. But being different can be insanely isolating. There’s only so much one wants to talk about frivolous things like culture and travel.

Basically me after 3pm

The language barrier probably perpetuates this feeling more than I’d like to admit. For now, I’m still working on that.

4) Where is my God?

Coming here, I was well aware of the lack of Christianity that I would find here. Having grown up in a predominantly Christian society that follows a Christian value system, I knew this would mean having to deal with another layer of nuanced cultural difference.

Even though I haven’t found a church to settle in here (there are a few but, because reasons relating to language barrier and laziness…), I’ve tried to maintain my relationship with God in my own way. Perhaps the most shocking part is that Covid has been a great time for the church. South Africa being in lockdown, (day 124, hang in there yal) has helped keep me connected with my church family back home. My parents’ church has been running church services on Whatsapp since regulations on gatherings came into effect just before the lockdown. This has meant getting a fresh sermon in my message inbox every Sunday. I love doing church like this because we are getting a chance to hear sermons from people in parts of the country that we see once a year at our church conference in April. Unfortunately, the one thing lacking from the services that I do miss is the play by play translation. If you grew up attending church in a black South African church you know what I’m talking about. Whenever we meet up and the magnitude of our diversity in language threatens to overwhelm us, we throw in a translator and keep it moving.

First lesson you learn when you hear a real translator at work, google translate just doesn’t add that thing

It’s nice to hear my beautiful South African voices like this every Sunday. On other days, I’ll tune in for the YouTube service that the church I used to attend in Pretoria will host. I like this service because they include some praise and worship time, which is what I miss the most from gathering with other believers. As lonely as this all sounds, God has been so faithful about giving me people that I can share fellowship with here.

5) Food is life!

Enough said! It’s been a year and I still manage to find flavours that excite me. Of course, because it’s also been a year of eating the government provided lunch at my schools, I know now that there are foods here I wouldn’t feed to my worst enemy.

The one thing I lament when I am here is the fact that Japan is a very isolated country even when it comes to food. The shops here sometimes try to bring in cuisine from other countries but usually, they just end up producing Japanified versions of the original, which isn’t always great as Japan is anti-spicy foods and super pro sugar in everything. I miss access to a rich diversity of food that I had back home.

And that’s about it. My year condensed into 5 points about life here. I signed up for another year here so as I look ahead I plan to explore new aspects of living here. I hope you’ve enjoyed coming on this journey with me so far. Speak soon.


I'm a writer with some stuff on my mind.

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