Chasing Cherry Blossoms
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Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Circle Closes

I saw a tourism advert for Okinawa on the tube yesterday and it got me thinking: I’ve been back from Japan for over two months now, it’s probably time I wrote a final blog post and closed the circle on my JET experience. The famed “reverse culture shock” hasn’t really been much of a problem these past eight weeks – it’s definitely been something of a process to readjust to life at home, but I don’t think the difficulties have been “cultural”. It’s more been re-adapting to living at home with my parents, re-integrating with friends I haven’t seen in so long, trying to get my first step onto the career ladder… if anything, re-embracing English culture has been one of the easiest and most refreshing things about coming home. Maybe it’s because I’d just gotten sick of How Things Are Done in Japan, but I’m so happy to be back amongst the Perpetually Underwhelmed, the Honest and the Painfully Dry.

When I think about Japan, then, it’s not really the place I miss, but the friends I made there, the community experience of ‘all being in this together’. Coming home it’s apparent how much that doesn’t really exist in the Real World outside of JET: admittedly, where I lived in Japan was so rural that that “community” didn’t really exist on any physical plane, but there was still the feeling that you were part of something bigger. Sure, most of the time, what brought me and my closest friends together was a shared belief that the community itself was stupid, but we were all part of it nonetheless. JET’s something of a plush setup in that sense: you automatically belong. Coming home, that’s not the case, especially because you’ve been away for so long. That means it’s up to you to create that community for yourself, and I guess it’s that – not reverse culture shock – which has been the real difficulty.

Hopefully, though, I’m some way towards doing just that! I’ve managed to bag myself a job (after something of a misfire last month) with a business consultancy firm in Soho, which I start on Monday! The long-term plan is that, if that goes well, it won’t be too long before I get a place of my own somewhere central. Then it’ll really feel like the Next Phase has begun.

So that’s what’s been going on since I’ve got back! But what about Japan? I think my last post would be incomplete if I weren’t to somehow reflect on the experience as a whole. It’d be nice if I were able to reach a neat little conclusion and say all the ways that Japan has changed me but, to be honest, I still don’t know how it has (though it certainly has). I had to pack an extra bag just to bring home all the leaving presents that my Japanese friends and co-workers showered me with in my final days. Looking back through them all (and the photographs), it’s easy to forget just what an experience it was. Two years. And within those two years it feels like there were so many different chapters. So, in lieu of some profound Life Lesson Learnt, I guess I'll just leave you with one of my favourite memories from the two years. It's a photo from Jesse's Christmas Party, and whilst I'm not really even visible in it, I really love it.

All that’s left to say is thank you for reading my blog these past two years! Maybe I’ll start another someday about a new chapter in my life, but for now さよなら and  気をつけてね!!

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Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Only Yesterday

It’s almost time…! In one short month I’ll be back home and my JET experience will be over. Just like that. It’s so strange to think that after two years living and breathing Japan, I’m going to wake up one morning and, like a dream, it’ll suddenly all be gone. It feel like only yesterday that I stepped off the plane in Tokyo.

It’s no surprising revelation that my JET experience has been defined by the people who I’ve spent it with. A lot of these people have been my Japanese friends in Ainan and beyond, but, in all honesty, it’s going to be my fellow JETs whose loss is going to be the biggest casualty. The longer I’ve stayed here in Japan, the longer I’ve found that once minor everyday irritants have become fairly big annoyances. I’ve no doubt it’s because of simple overexposure. I’m sure if I were to return to Japan at some point in the future after some time away, I’d lose my sensitivity to such grievances once more. I think back on how I first viewed Japan when I arrived, and it’s kind of sad how much the gloss of living here has worn off: there’s still a lot I love about Japan, but equally a lot of what was once endearing and intriguing is now just annoying and tiresome.

That being so, I guess you can say that, across my whole two years as a JET, the more my outlook on life in Japan changed, the more I re-gravitated towards my foreign friends. When I first arrived in Tokyo, I was quick to make friends with my fellow JETs, of course, but when my infatuation with Japan was at its strongest, it would be my Japanese friends locally who I’d hang out with more. Over time, as that infatuation waned and the gloss on Japan faded, I came back to where I’d initially found myself and began to re-invest time into hanging out with my foreign friends once more. Over the past six months in particular, I’ve grown really close to some of my fellow JETs here. It’s a bit sad, I guess, that my relationships with my Japanese friends may have suffered somewhat in the process of my disillusionment with Japan (though I don’t think they have greatly, it’s just that we see each other less frequently), but it was never really a conscious phenomenon. The pressures of living in a culture so different from your own are such that you just naturally gravitate to the environment in which you’re most comfortable: for me, that’s been my English-speaking friends.

…and it’s those friends who I’m really going to effing miss when the time comes to pack up and trot along. It’s not like it’ll be my first time saying goodbye to a bunch of people who have been hugely important in my life, but maybe that’s why it’s so sad: I’ve done it before and I know what to expect. The truth is, when JET’s over, it’s over: we’re never going to be able to get back the unique circumstances that keep us all so closely-knit in the present. We’ll go back to our lives, onto new projects in new places, and, however much we try, it’ll be a struggle to ever be as close again as we are now. Obviously that’s not to say I’m giving up on my friends the second I get home: I really do hope that, however much geography may keep us apart, my closest friends here will remain my friends for life.

As for what comes next, the future makes no guarantees: we’ll just have to see when we get there. In the present though, one thing is sure: whatever happens, wherever we go from here, nothing can take away the memories of the time we spent together, living like fools on that crazy Japanese rollercoaster ride.

(The pictures in this post are all from a Ghibli film called "Only Yesterday"; my favourite scene comes at the end when the main character Taeko - who's been wistfully struggling with thoughts of her past, asking herself whether she's been true to her childhood dreams - faces her uncertainty head on. In doing so, she's followed by crowd of her own childhood self and classmates, who are ultimately pacified by her decision to embrace her new adult self, mischievously whooping and cheering her on as she steps into her future).
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Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The Beginning of the End

I'm feeling rough, I'm feeling raw, I'm in the prime of my life.

Hey, strangers. I’ve been meaning to write an entry for quite a while now… admittedly I’ve procrastinated a lot of that time away, but I’ve also been really busy! Where to start? Back in April, I jetted off to the Philippines with Aaron, Aisling and Jesse for Golden Week; the weekend after I got back, I rushed off to Tokyo to wrap up my time with AJET, then it was off to Tokushima for a casual touch rugby tournament, followed by a very un-casual 70km bike ride across the Shimanami Kaido the week after in Imabari. After a bleak, barren winter, the past two months have been a sudden wave of activity, and one which has carried me all the way to my last eight weeks as a JET.  It’s crazy to think that in two short months I’ll be back in England and my time in Japan will be over. It’s hard to even make sweeping generalisations about my experiences here – when I look back at photos from my first year, it feels like a whole world away from my life in Japan now: it’s as if there have been so many different Japans along the way.

Golden Week in the Philippines - my last big trip!

AJET Farewell Dinner in Tokyo - the first round of goodbyes for my time in Japan

Shimanami Kaido: my first last 70km bike ride.

There are certainly things I’m going to miss about living here. For all the struggles that living miles from civilisation entails, living in the countryside in Ainan certainly has a charm that it’ll be sad to say goodbye to. It’s kind of like living in a toy town, a simulation of the real world before I head back to it – everything’s so peaceful and charming, quaint and safe. I’ve never really felt any burdening sense of responsibility, even as an Employed Adult with a Proper Job.

I'll miss the playgrounds and the animals and digging up worms

That being said, being a participator in this simulation can get kind of lonely. Everybody knows that I’m only here for a finite period of time – and even if that weren’t the case, the way that Japan works, I could never be seen as anything but a “visitor” anyway. I hope that’s not an unnecessarily pessimistic outlook; I've loved the independence and the chance to live pretend as an adult. It's just, as much as I feel like I’ve enjoyed my two years living in Ainan, and I feel a definite fondness for the place, I’ve never really felt connected to it. There have been individual locals here who I’ve felt connected with, and I’m going to leave having made some great friends from Ainan, but to the place as a whole, my unshakable status as an “outsider” has stopped me feeling any real sense of belonging, even in the office I've worked for two years.

I'll miss the boredom and the freedom and the time spent alone

Naturally, then, I’ve been finding that sense of community elsewhere by keeping myself busy with my JET friends at weekends, which in itself has been one of the biggest highlights of the past two years.  Even taking Ehime as a whole, the foreign community is so small that you end up developing close friendships fast, drawn together by your unique experiences as outsiders in Japan. Soon enough, it'll be time for us to all go our separate ways once more - it's sad, of course, but I'm also learning that that's life. People come and people go. Realising that isn't a sign of resignation: I really do hope I'll see a lot of my friends again, but even if I don't, I'm grateful for the past two years we've all had sharing this experience together.

There is really nothing, nothing we can do

Love must be forgotten, life can always start up anew.

So now preparations for my return to London are slowly underway. The flights are booked (I'm home on August 1st!) and I've started drawing up a "Guide to Life in Ainan" for my successor (whoever they may be). I've yet to even mentally confront the mammoth task that is going to be packing, but that'll come in time. My teachers keep asking me what I'm going to be doing when I go home and all I can do is reply with a laugh saying I haven't got a clue. I'm slowly starting to deal with that too... I've got my LinkedIn set up and my CV's up-to-date. No big deal, right?

Yeah, it's overwhelming, but what else can we do?

Get jobs in offices, and wake up for the morning commute?

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(^ They're all lyrics from "Time to Pretend", by the way).

Monday, April 1, 2013

Spring Break 2k13

April’s here again and another Spring Break’s travels are over. Last year it was Korea with Rachel, this year Tokyo with Aisling. We set off from Matsuyama on Tuesday morning, touching down in Haneda once more, where we spent a whirlwind five nights. It was my fourth trip to Tokyo, and although I wouldn’t say I “know” the city by now – it’d take a lot more than four fleeting visits to conquer this behemoth – I’ve certainly gotten a lot better at navigating it.

First on our itinerary, Aisling and I paid a nighttime visit to The Lock Up, an apocalyptic prison-themed izakaya in Shibuya. Leaving the kaleidoscopic lights of the city behind and going underground, you’re immediately plunged into an unsettling, dimly-lit dungeon, all loose floorboards and rattling chains. Once you make it to the entry, you’re handcuffed by a PVC-clad policewoman (Aisling promptly pushed me forward and let me take one for the team here) and led by the wrist to your cell. There, a whole selection of shady concoctions await – in test-tubes, syringes and chemistry beakers (if Sharon Needles were to make an izakaya, it’d look a lot like The Lock Up). 

As if that wasn’t enough, it’s then that the Main Event of the night takes place: there you are, innocently sipping your popping-candy and vodka beverage, when suddenly an ear-splitting siren rings out throughout the dungeon and all the lights shut off; all at once, a horde of monsters appear from side-doors and start roaming the corridors, banging on your cell door (some of them venturing inside to spook you further) before being shot and chased off by police officers. It was all very dramatic and, having arrived in a modest party of two with few others to distract attention from us, we felt the full force of the monsters’ wrath. I’d definitely recommend a visit there if you’re ever in town – it’s one of those ridiculous “Only in Japan” type experiences that characterize the wackier side of Tokyo and I had a blast. I’d love to know if there are any more similarly themed izakayas around!

After a spooky start to our holiday, we left Tokyo for two nights and travelled to nearby Kofu City in the neighboring prefecture of Yamanashi (home of legendary Mt. Fuji) to visit my friend (and drag sister) Josiah. Coming from backwater Ehime as we do, I was blown away (and more than a little envious) that Josiah could be blessed with a placement in the heart of such a cute little city, only an hour-and-a-half away from Tokyo by train. It being cherry blossom season at the moment, the city’s Maizuru Castle Park in particular was idyllic, and we were able to enjoy our own impromptu hanami under the spring petals. We even managed to see Fuji itself, still snow-capped despite the summer-like heat.

Being not only my friend but my drag sister, a planned staple of my visit to Josiah was of course going to be getting up in tits-‘n’-tights and hitting the Tokyo city lights once more. So, come Friday night, that was exactly what we did. Ratchet as we were as women, it didn’t stop us from providing enough of a spectacle to keep the Nichome crowd entertained. Once more, strangers were running to have their photographs taken with us, and wherever we went – whether out of admiration or pure shock – we turned heads. Some were, if anything, a little too entertained by it all: sitting on the street curb with our combini wine, it wasn’t long until a few of Shinjuku’s tranny-chasers came out of the woodwork wanting to know more about Miss Janetta and Miss Josie. Considering how busted we looked, I couldn’t help but laugh: all in all, a beautiful hot mess of a night.

Not every Tokyo citizen was gagged by our eleganza...

Having found no difficulty in fulfilling our week’s quota of debauchery, it was time for something a little more wholesome, so on Saturday afternoon, we ventured to Harajuku and to the Meiji Shrine. Luckily, we were timely enough to catch what appeared to be a marriage procession making its way through the shrine. 

And with that Spring Break was over for another year! Forgive the limited selection of photos - I've gotten increasingly lazy when it comes to whipping my camera out these days!

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