Sunday, 16 July 2017

Five things I'll always remember from my first time in Japan...

1. Genki Japanese and Culture School (Genki JACS)

I had been planning to go to Japan for years. It was my dream. I'd been learning the language for a couple of years and felt like I could just about get by. Even so, I'd been waiting. Waiting for someone to find the time and money to join me on my trip of a lifetime, and then just when I was building up the courage to say, “screw it, I'll go alone”, something amazing happened. I won an essay contest that the wonderful people at Japan Reference were running; and the prize was for two weeks' worth of Japanese lessons at Genki Japanese and Culture School (Genki JACS).

Funny thing is, though, I had looked at a previous contest's prize page and believed I had won a month's worth of lessons. A month. I hadn't even thought about going to Japan for an entire month. Once I'd thought about it, I was sure that anything less than a month just wouldn't do. 

It would have to be sorted with work – which I knew was possible since a colleague, friend, and one half of digital marketing duo 'Two Social Girls' was exploring Australia for a month at that very moment – and so I sowed the bonsai seed within the senior team at work. It took a bit of planning, but before long I was given the go-ahead. I was going to Japan.

I arrived on Saturday night, slept through most of Sunday (with a little exploring, of course), and was enrolled in the Genki Japanese and Culture School on Monday. I was lucky enough to arrive on one of Japan's national holidays and joined a school trip to Akizuki Town, known as “Kyushuu's Little Kyoto”. It was an amazing experience and I met many people who would soon become friends.

The next day was a proper school day, and after a quick interview to assess my language level – in Japanese – I was placed into a class of 5-6 other students. It was so difficult at first since teachers avoided speaking English at all costs, I felt way out of my depth, and my ears were still far from tuned to the language. My first week was spent catching up on lessons that the other students had already covered, completing daily homework, and falling to sleep fully clothed on my bed.

It was intense, to say the least, but put me in a great place for the second week of lessons. After putting in the effort to catch up, I was able to truly appreciate the speed at which I was learning at the school, and how fun the lessons and teachers were. Everyone was incredibly kind, patient, and understanding, and I'd recommend Genki JACS to anyone that wants to learn Japanese in Japan. 

It's perfect for learning Japanese in a fun environment and has multiple culture classes every week for exploring Fukuoka (or Tokyo), including cooking classes, calligraphy classes, film nights, talent shows, and so much more. It's an amazing school and I can't thank Genki JACS enough for my time there, or Japan Reference for the competition that sent me to Japan in the first place.

  1. The convenience stores (konbini: コンビニ)
I wasn't expecting the local shops to be one of the things I remembered so dearly from my time in Japan, but it's for good reason. For one thing, they're everywhere, and for another, they. have. everything. コンビニ are like Tesco Express on steroids, and they have everything you'd normally expect to see in a local shop along with a much wider range of lunch options, hot food served near the tills, a selection of manga, and a surprising amount of foreigners behind the tills. Sometimes this resulted in a friendly nod of the head, and other times it just made me feel like living, and working, in Japan was possible for anyone.

  1. Making a lifelong friend
Not only is Matt Barber one of the nicest guys you'll ever meet, but he's also the reason I ended up in Japan in the first place. He's the person that linked me to the original JREF competition that I was lucky enough to win, and I will always be grateful to him for kickstarting my love affair with Japan into the highest of gears.

We first got chatting on Twitter about games and Japanese, and before long we were practising verb conjugation and kanji together, and despite being only 1.5 hours apart by train, we'd never met. So, because we're cool (sugoi: すごい), we decided to meet for the first time in Japan and share AirBnBs together for the second two weeks of my month away. It was a risky move... but have I mentioned already that Matt is the nicest guy?

Background note before I tell you this tiny story: I'm pescatarian (I eat fish, but no other meat).

Anyway, the very first night, when we were staying in Osaka, we went for dinner in a nearby shopping centre. We sat down to eat and Matt asked me, “Are you okay with me eating meat?”

In my entire seven years of not eating meat, I don't think anyone has ever asked if I minded if they ate meat. I get lots of “why don't you eat meat?”, “how do you survive?”, and even “do you eat duck?” – but I've never been asked if I was okay with someone else eating meat. Obviously, I had no problem with it, since it's my choice and I don't want to force it on someone else. It was more the fact that he was here, in Japan, after travelling for approx. 20 hours, and he was willing to avoid meat in a country where the food is meant to be all kinds of amazing while around me. Nicest. Guy. Ever. 

I have no doubt we'll both meet in Japan again in the future because we had an absolute blast; exploring, getting lost, go-karting through Tokyo, buying everything that wasn't nailed down in Akihabara, being filmed for a local TV show, and becoming addicted to Kill la Kill are just a few highlights. Until then, we'll be sure to catch up for drinks, gaming, and conjugation chatter a little closer to home.

Speaking of food that is all kinds of amazing... My god. Japan, people. Japan.

Their food is known to be one of a kind, and they did not disappoint. When I wasn't filling up at the closest コンビニ – and that was pretty much my entire first two weeks, y'know, since I was a student – I was diving into sterling street-food (takoyaki <3), comforting curries, and unbelievable udon. And that was just the savoury dishes. On the sweet side, there was also matcha ice cream (green tea), Mr Donut's donuts, and something heavenly called メロンパン (melon bread).

The food is one of the easiest things to miss. I'd kill for some メロンパン.

  1. Making that first mistake
Thinking about this moment still makes me cringe... I'd organised for a driver to pick me up from the airport and drop me off at my private apartment in Fukuoka. He was friendly enough and spoke a little English, and switching between basic English and Japanese we managed a conversation on the way. Since it was my very first conversation with an actual Japanese person other than my teacher in England, I was nervous as hell. It wasn't so bad.

Then we arrived at my apartment building and I tried to utter a phrase I'd been racking my brain to remember for the latter half of the journey: ki wo tsukete (気をつけて), which means “take care”. Only, I didn't say 気をつけて at all, I said “te wo tsukete”. Pretty close, right? Well, yeah, but it meant absolutely nothing. Even now I remember the way the driver paused as he was leaving the building... It cuts me deeper than any seppuku ever could.

Even so, making that first mistake was everything. They say that the quickest way to learn a language is to speak it, whether you make mistakes or not. More often than not, you'll be corrected and learn, and probably have fun doing it. I know that I'll never be able to forget 気をつけて again.


There is entire list of other things I'll never forget from my first time in Japan – like the awesome Book and Bed hostel we stayed in for a night, or the arcades we spent more than a few yen inside, and especially the extreme relaxation found inside an onsen (hot spring baths) – but I've only got so many hours in the day...

Until I decide to write more about my time in Japan, this is my list. It doesn't even begin to show how much my time in Japan meant to me. It was a truly life-changing month and it taught me a lot about Japan, and just as much about myself.

If, like I was, you're waiting on someone else to do something that you've always wanted to do - stop waiting. Make it happen. It could be the best thing you ever do.

The essay that sent me to Japan...

What aspects of Japanese culture intrigue you the most?

Wow. Where do I even start? With its mixture of bustling, trendy cities and rural villages with beautiful scenery, all enveloped with a sense of duty, belonging, family and tradition, Japan has more than a few aspects that all combine to create the intrigue and passion I feel for the country. However, if I had to narrow it down to just a couple of aspects, I would choose Japan's devotion to its positivity and paranormal.

Firstly, Japan's positivity. I recently learned about the mindset of shōgenai (しょうがない). As you already probably know, this phrase translates to “it cannot be helped”, and it's so much more than a phrase. It's a way of life. Shōgenai is used to replace the negativity of everyday issues with a positive attitude that won't be shaken. Something was more expensive than expected? Shōgenai. Too busy at work to go for that meal with friends? Shōgenai. Didn't win a competition for two weeks of life-changing Japanese lessons? Shōgenai. Hopefully I won't have to use it on that last one, but if I do, the Japanese mindset would help me.

As a result of this mindset, Japanese people seem to cultivate an extremely friendly, helpful culture in which the group is just as important as the individual, if not more so. If more people thought like this, I can’t help but think the world would be a better place.

Without the negativity of daily life, there's more time to spend enjoying the people and places of somewhere as beautiful and diverse as Japan. After all, Christmas is coming up, so there'll be lots of KFC with friends and family to enjoy... Who could feel negative about that?

Onto the second aspect that intrigues me; Japanese's love for the paranormal, and the essence of spirituality that is intertwined with the country. From its rich tapestry of myths and ghost stories to its shrines and shared connection with those that have passed away, Japan is a country that has embraced the spiritual with open arms.

At one end of the spectrum I can't tear myself away from Japanese horror films or anime (such as Yamishibai, designed in a similar way to the paper-theatre storytelling of kamishibai), and at the other I am humbled by the ongoing respect for loved ones that even transcends to the other side.

I can only imagine the feeling of lighting a lantern during Obon and floating it down the Sasebo river while paying my respects. A personal experience shared by many to create a night that would be hard to forget. An equally unforgettable experience I’d love to have is walking through the towering forest of Aokigahara, known as the Sea of Trees or Suicide Forest, watched over by Mount Fuji. While discovering the spirituality that is present all over Japan, this infamous forest once again piqued my interest as an important, and mysterious, part of Japan’s culture.

I've been learning Japanese for about a year now and still haven't been able to visit Japan to explore its beauties and practise the language I'm trying to understand in its natural setting. If I were to win this competition, it would help me to realise my dream of going to Japan, where I hope to live one day. 

Not only would it help me to practise Japanese, but it would allow me to surround myself with the very people that I'm trying to connect with. In doing so, I'd hope to take on some of the very aspects that intrigue me most about Japan; an innate positivity and spirituality that enriches daily lives in a country that I so want to be a part of.

In short, it would change my life. Won't you help me?