Life in Tajima, Japan

I wrote these articles for a newspaper in Tajima (Fukushima, Japan) when I first arrived in Japan in 1995.

Dear Residents of Tajima,

Hello! My name is Shaney Crawford. I am from Ontario, Canada. I am 24 years old, and I am an Assistant English Teacher at Tajima Junior High School. I would like to tell you my impressions of Japan, so I am going to write a column of “Letters Home”. I hope that you enjoy hearing about the differences that I have noticed between Canada and Japan. If you want to get in contact with me, please send a letter to the Tajima Board of Education (3531-1 Ushirohara, Tajima-machi). I would be happy to read your letters!

Dear Mom,

Hello! How are you? I am really happy to be in Japan. The flight was about 14 hours long, but I managed to stay busy talking to my new friends. I am now living in Tajima-machi and I’m working as an Assistant English Teacher at Tajima Junior High School, and I will be visiting the Elementary schools soon too.

As you know, when I first decided to come to Japan, I was very scared. I thought that living in Japan would be different from anything I’d ever experienced. However, now that I have been here for about a month, I realize that everywhere, people are the same. So, even though I am living all the way across the world, there are many caring and friendly people — just like in Canada.

I watched the Obon Festivals in amazement. I heard taiko drums for the first time and I saw the dancers perform a simple, but fascinating dance. I was surprised to see so many young people participating in the festival. In Canada, sometimes our young people like to move away as soon as they go to university or college. That means that parents and children have very different lives once the children are grown up. I like the family and community spirit in Japan. Did you know that many generations live in the same house in Japan? People sometimes do that in Canada too, but it is not as common as here in Japan.

Japanese houses are so beautiful and open. I really like the tatami mats instead of having carpets. And even though we have a lot of wood in Canada, I think that Japanese houses have more wood in them. Some of the houses have wood carvings that are so incredible. Before I came to Japan, I was told that Japanese houses were very small. However, my apartment and the houses that I’ve seen have been very large. I think Japanese people make better use of their space then we do. Oh, and did you know that the chairs and couches are all on the floor in Japan! I was very surprised to find that out. I’m used to being higher up when I watch tv!
I have had many visitors since I arrived. Many of the students like to come and see what my apartment looks like. I show them pictures of my home and country and sometimes we watch videos or play games. I like it when they visit because they make me laugh!

Well, I hope this letter finds you well! I’m going to visit Nikko with one of my students (Izumi Saito) this weekend. I am very excited and I will tell you all about it when I call you next week.

Love always, Shaney.

Dear Mom,

How are you? I am still very happy to be in Japan. Sometimes I wake up in the morning and I’m not sure where I am. Then, I see the tatami on my floor and realize that I am just where I want to be. Japan is a wonderful country and the residents of Tajima make me very happy. Do you know that everyone says “Good Morning” to me when I ride my bike through the town? Even if they have never met me, they still say it! In the morning, when I follow the river all the way to my school, I always meet up with many kind faces and cheerful greetings. I’m sure that’s one reason why Mairi stayed for three years. It’s definitely making me want to stay for a long time!

I have seen so much in the past month, I don’t know where to begin. Remember my trip to Nikko? Well, something that I thought was funny was that we had to take our shoes off before we went into the main temple. That would never work in Canada, because people would be afraid to leave their shoes outside. But, in Nikko, we just left our shoes with everyone elses’ and they were still there when we got back.

I have also been to visit my friends (other English teachers) in Funehiki and Shirakawa. Even though they have very nice towns and schools, I think I am the luckiest of all of them. My friends have to go to many different schools, but I have only one. I like Tajima Junior High School very much and I am happy that I get to spend all my time there. My friend in Funehiki must go to six different schools. That means she only sees a school once in every six weeks! Can you imagine how difficult it would be to remember everyone’s names? I am having enough trouble and I go to my school every day!

Remember how I asked about getting a Japanese teacher? Well, I am very lucky because three people offered to help me! Mrs. Saito was the first to call. Do you remember her? She and her family brought me to Nikko. Also, Mr. Yumita and Ms. Tsuruya have contacted me. I am happy to have so many teachers.
I have been to Tokyo twice now! Once when I arrived and once last week. I went with the Saito family. I saw many different Japanese art forms like weaving, calligraphy, and pottery. I enjoy looking at Japanese art because it is delicate and highly refined. It reminds me of Inuit art in Canada.

I have been learning some Japanese from my friends, but I am still not very good. One important phrase that they taught me was, “Soo da yo nee?”. In Canada, we would say, “Yeah really, eh?” It is a sign that you agree with what the other person is saying. I think that a lot of friendships can be based on these words! Also, I have joined a volleyball team called “Doushinkai”. My friend, Kumi, introduced me to her team. She and her husband Hiroyuki drive me to our game every week. I learned “Ganbarimashoo” from my volleyball team. In English, we would say “Go for it!” or “Give it your best shot!”. I think “Ganbaru” is a very important word in Japanese. If you know that word, then you have a better chance of understanding Japanese people.

My plans for going to Osaka for the Christmas holidays are going well. I will stay with my friends in Osaka, Kyoto, and Shizuoka. I will miss you very much at Christmas time, but I’m sure my friends will keep me very busy!

Love always, Shaney

P.S. Can you keep a secret? I will actually go to Canada for Christmas, but don’t tell my mom!

(Kim Clayton is my best friend in Canada. We have been friends since we were 6 years old.)

Dear Kim,

Hi there! How is Canada? Have you had a lot of snow yet? Do you remember the time that we were at my cottage and there was about 4 feet of snow? Well, I hope you don’t have quite that much! Tajima and Kingston [where I live in Canada] probably get about the same amount of snow. I think that I will have to do a geography lesson with my students because, when it snowed last week, one of them asked me if it was my first time to see snow!

I had a really weird experience last week. I went to Yamagata for a conference. There were more than 300 foreigners there. The foreigners were ALTs from Fukushima, Yamagata, Iwate, and Miyagi. We all stayed in fantastic hotels in Yamagata-city. I attended several seminars on cross-cultural communication and effective team-teaching. Some of the seminars were interesting and some of them weren’t so interesting. Anyway, the most interesting thing was that I was homesick. But, I wasn’t homesick for Canada. I was homesick for Tajima! I couldn’t wait to get home and spend time with my Japanese friends! Everyone assumes that these conferences are a welcome break from the culture shock that we foreigners experience in Japan. However, I found that I had reverse culture shock! I was surprised at the actions of my foreign friends. Some of them didn’t have good relations with their towns, so they were lonely and culture shocked. I am so lucky to have such a welcoming town with such great people in it.

My greatest adventures in Japan are when I go about my daily business. For example, a trip to the phone company in Canada is never very interesting. But in Japan, where my linguistic abilities are about one percent of what they are in Canada, every day is an adventure! I think the people at the local NTT office get scared every time I walk in the door. It’s the same with the poor people at the post office or at Maroyu or 7-11. They never know what crazy thing I’m going to ask for next! I just hope they have as much fun as I do trying to figure out what is going on!

My favourite “cultural experience” for this month was definitely the taiko festival that I saw on November 18th. It was fantastic. We don’t have anything like it in Canada. The almost contradictory combination of drums and flutes was magical. The drums were rhythmic and ominous, while the Japanese flutes were sweet and smooth. Taiko is one thing that will always remind me of my time in Japan.

I guess this was a month of contradictions. The conference was supposed to relieve culture shock, but it brought on reverse culture shock. My daily chores should be boring and mundane, yet they are always surprisingly fun. And the contradictory combination of drums and flutes came together to make me appreciate Japanese culture even more that I normally do. I’m a very lucky person.

Love always, Shaney

Dear Mom,

You don’t know it yet, but I am going to see you in three days! By the time you get this letter, I will probably be on my way back to Japan. But I haven’t left yet. I have three busy days of packing, planning, and preparing to get through first before I finally hop on the plane to surprise you.

This month has been very busy with conferences, dinner invitations, and enkais. I am so lucky to have so many friends in Tajima. I like to be very busy so that I don’t feel homesick or lonely. That has definitely not been a problem this month!

I have been trying to think of what I can tell you about Japan when I come home. I am trying to remember what I thought Japan was like before I came here, but it’s hard to remember what I expected Japan to be like. I know that I thought Japan was a highly technological country where everything was new and automated. In some respects, that is true. Japan does have some technology that we would appreciate in Canada like rice cookers (which are available in Canada, but difficult to find), remote control electric heating, and of course, toilet seat warmers. But in general, Canada is much more automated. We have 24 hour bank machines even in the smallest towns, central heating in every home, and almost everyone has used a computer at one time or another. The reason we think that Japan is so automated is because all of our machinery seems to come from Japan. But, for some reason, that doesn’t mean that Japanese people have the same machinery.

I didn’t realize that cars are driven on the left side of the road in Japan. This is another well-kept secret in the West. So many of our cars seem to be made in Japan, we just assume they are the same as the cars that are in Japan. Again this is not true at all.

There are a lot of things I didn’t know about the schooling system in Japan. The teachers all have a desk in one teachers’ room in Japan, but in Canada, the teachers’ desks are in the classrooms. Teachers are still allowed to smoke in school in Japan (although not at Tajima Chuugakkou). Also, the students seem to be disciplined less than in Canada. This really surprised me because I always thought that Japanese children were silent and obedient at least during school time. In fact, many students talk during lessons, and students often walk out of the classroom without asking the teacher. I was very surprised the first time I saw that happen! However, Japanese teachers, in Tajima anyway, seem to have good relationships with their students. Teachers and students often talk to each other outside of class, and many students visit the teachers’ room during break time.

There are also lots of funny things that Japanese people think about Canada. People often ask me what the weather is like and whether I have been to the Rockies. It is really hard for me to answer questions about Canada’s weather because Canada is so huge. The West Coast is generally warm and rainy all year long. The Prairies are hot and dry in the summer, but bitterly cold in the winter. Ontario and Quebec are hot and humid in the summer and cold and dry in the winter. And I don’t really know what the Maritimes are like because I’ve never been there! When people ask me about the Rockies, I have to laugh. I always tell them that I live about five hours away from Banff and Whistler. Then, I mention that it’s five hours BY PLANE and we both have a laugh! I think it might be hard for Japanese people to imagine just how big Canada is. I guess it’s kind of strange that we have such a big country because we have such a small population. Do you know that if you multiply the number of people in Tokyo by two, it works out to be almost the same as the entire population of Canada!

I guess that the most important thing for me to remember is that even though Canada and Japan are very different, they both have one important similarity: people. The people are what make a country special. Japanese people and Canadian people are very similar. Even though we don’t have the same machinery, schools, or weather, we are all capable of feeling emotions, having ideas, and sharing our dreams. I think that makes up for all the differences in the world!

See you soon!
Love, Shaney

Nanae Muroi was one of my supervisors in Japan.

Dear Nanae,

I have finally made it to Canada after travelling for more than 30 hours. The plane ride took fourteen hours to Detroit and then another hour to Toronto. Then, my friend drove me home. I think my least favourite thing about travelling is the waiting time. I had to wait in Narita and then again in Detroit. I was so excited by the time I got to Detroit, I could hardly sit still!

A very nice thing happened to me on the way to Tokyo and Narita. I had decided to stay with one of my friends in Shin-Shirakawa the night before I left. Then, on the day of my flight, I would take the shinkansen into Tokyo. I was very tired on the night before my trip, so I decided to speed up my trip from Koriyama to Shin-Shirakawa by taking the shinkansen. Unfortunately, I got on the wrong shinkansen! Not every shinkansen stops in Shin-Shirakawa and I got on one that stopped in Utsunomiya first! You may wonder why I think that this is a nice thing. Well, when I got on the train, I panicked. However, there was a very kind Japanese gentleman who helped me figure out that I was on the wrong train. He also helped me to decide what to do. I ended up going all the way to Tokyo on the night before my trip. This nice man helped me to find a hotel in Ueno (even though he was supposed to go all the way to Tokyo station). I was so happy to be living in Japan when this happened. Japanese people are famous for their kindness and generosity, and this man lived up to that reputation. Thank you, Japan!

Coming back to Canada has made me remember a few things that I had forgotten. For one thing, I had forgotten how cold it gets in Canada. People in Japan always ask me how the weather in my hometown compares to the weather in Tajima. I could never really remember, so I always just said, “Oh, it’s about the same.” It’s definitely not the same, though! I think Tajima gets more snow than I’m used to, but Port Perry (where my parents live) is much, much colder. Some days it is -25ーC! And it is also very windy — so it feels even colder! Now, whenever I feel cold in Tajima, I will just try to remember how cold it is here in Canada!

It’s awfully nice to see my friends and family again. I spent Christmas with my family and I’m going to spend a quiet New Year’s with one of my friends in Kingston. Christmas was a beautiful (but cold!) day. My family and I gathered together to talk and eat and open presents and eat and play with the children and eat. Basically, Christmas day includes a lot of eating! At the end of Christmas dinner (turkey, mashed potatoes, corn, stuffing, cranberry sauce, and more desserts than I have ever seen in my life), everyone always feels kind of tired and full. After dinner, I played with my baby cousin. He was born just before I left for Japan, so this was my first time to see him.

Oh, before I forget, I should tell you about my “surprise”! Before I left Japan, I started to think that my mother might have figured out that I was coming home. Well, judging by the look on my mother’s face when she saw me, she definitely didn’t suspect a thing. When she first saw me, she couldn’t say a word. She just stood in front of me with her mouth open. Then, when she realized that I was really standing in front of her, she started shouting, “What are you doing here? What are you doing home? How did you get here?” She couldn’t believe her eyes. She kept poking me to see if I was real! She was so happy to see me. She said that I made her Christmas very special. I was happy that everything worked out in the end.

I will be coming back to Japan in about a week, so I will see you and all of Tajima again soon. I hope that your New Year’s celebrations were as happy and peaceful as my Christmas was!

Take care, Shaney.

There is a famous expression in English that says, “How can I know what I think, until I see what I write?”. I think that this is a very true statement because often, while I’m writing these articles, I learn more about my own culture than Japanese culture! This month, I would like to change the way that I write this column. Since I have been here for almost seven months, I have stopped writing so many letters to my parents. So, for a change, I thought I would write a normal article for Kouhou Tajima instead. This new kind of column will be called “Canadian Content”. This expression refers to special laws that we have in Canada that are meant to protect our culture. Because Canada is such a young country, and because it is so close to the United States, it is sometimes difficult to know what our culture is, and how to protect it. So, I hope that if I write about Canada and Japan, both of us (reader and writer) can learn about our cultures.

The first topic that I would like to write about is enkais. An enkai is a great classroom. I have learned many things while having a nice meal with my friends and colleagues. Sometimes, I learn new Japanese words or expressions, but often, I learn many things about Japanese culture. You might think that a dinner party is the generally the same in every culture. Before I came to Tajima, I never realized how different dinner parties were in Japan. I thought that eating dinner was a simple matter, but it appears I was wrong!

First of all, there are differences in the reasons for having an enkai. In Japan, I have noticed that there are enkais at the beginning of the new year, the beginning of the school term, whenever someone leaves or joins a company, whenever there is a special event (such as the Fukushima Kokutai), and of course, at the end of the year. In Canada, we don’t have so many parties with our colleagues. The only party we have with our co-workers is a Christmas party (in early December). That party is usually held at someone’s house. Another difference is that all of the husbands and wives of the company’s employees will be invited. I think it’s very strange not to invite husbands and wives to enkais. I have known my fellow teachers for six months, but I don’t know any of their husbands and wives! Other than Christmas, sometimes a few people from the same company will get together for a casual dinner at a restaurant. So, we don’t have as many enkais as there are in Japan.

Once we’ve decided to have a party, we have to decide what time it will begin and where to have it. The starting time is very important in Japan. If someone is late, then they will make everyone else wait. However, in Canada, it is OK to come late to a party. In fact, it is rude to be exactly on time! We have a saying in English, “fashionably late”. It refers to the idea that there is a good time to come to a party: definitely not early, but also not on time, and not too late. If you show up exactly on time to a party in Canada, it seems like you are too anxious for the party to begin. It is like saying to your hosts, “Hurry up!!!” If you show up just a little bit late, then you will not be rushing your hosts. As for the place, parties in Canada are often held at people’s houses. This is sometimes true for the nijikai or sanjikai in Japan, but most of the parties that I have been to in Japan have been in restaurants.

These are the differences that happen even before the party begins! There are a lot of other differences that happen during the party, but since I have run out of room, I will tell you about them next month. To close off for this month, I have a couple of pieces of news that I would like to share with you. First of all, as of February 9th, I made a decision to stay in Tajima for another year. This was a really easy decision to make because I am enjoying my time in Japan so much that I couldn’t imagine leaving so soon. The other bit of news is that I have finally learned how to ski downhill! Even though there are lots of ski-jos in Canada, I never actually tried downhill skiing until I came to Tajima. Now, thanks to kochou-sensei, Michiko-sensei, Hideki-sensei (who is actually one of my students!), and my friends at Daikurayama (Ito-san tachi), I have yet another reason to enjoy living so close to the mountains. See you on the slopes!

Dear Tomoko Koyama (my Tajima penpal),

I’m sorry I haven’t written a letter to you in a while. I hope that you are happy and healthy! I want to tell you about some of the differences between enkais in Japan and Canada. I wonder if you noticed any of these things when you were doing the homestay?

In Japan, every enkai, and every special event, starts with an opening ceremony. Many people give speeches at these ceremonies. However, in Canada, we don’t usually have so many speeches. We arrive at the party and we usually find that there are snacks to be eaten. We can start to eat these snacks as soon as we arrive. These snacks are not the main meal. Also, there are many different kinds of drinks: water, juice, pop, beer, wine, and hard liquor (alcohol). Everyone eats some snacks and pours their own drinks. Everyone drinks different things. I have noticed that people usually have beer, sake, or udoncha at enkais in Japan. Also, since Japanese beer bottles are so huge, everyone shares the bottles. In Canada, we have smaller beer bottles. So, one bottle belongs to one person — and if you try to pour beer for someone from their own bottle, they will be very surprised! They will be even more surprised if you pour the beer from their bottle into someone else’s glass! After everyone has had a little something to eat and drink, someone might “open” the party by proposing a toast. The “toastmaster” thanks the hosts, and proposes a toast to whatever is being celebrated. The toast is not usually longer than about one minute. Then, everyone goes back to eating and drinking and celebrating. Sometime later, a meal will be served.

The meals at enkais are very different. Not only is the food different, but also the behaviour of the guests is different. Usually, a Canadian party meal will include one kind of meat, some potatoes (or rice), and two or three kinds of vegetables. There might also be some bread or dinner rolls, some pickles, and some salad. Everyone has a large plate and they fill it up with whatever they like. In Japan, everyone seems to eat the same meal, and the meal is on many different plates and bowls. One difference that I’m sure you know is that we usually use knives, forks, and spoons rather than chopsticks. However, if we have a party where Asian food is being served, we sometimes use chopsticks. This is why many foreigners can use chopsticks even though they don’t use them all the time in their country.

The differences in behaviour during meals is kind of funny. Sometimes, something that is considered very polite in Japan is considered extremely impolite in Canada. For example, in Japan, it is considered polite to lift your bowl off the table when you are eating rice or soup. In Canada, it is extremely rude to lift bowls or plates off the table when you are eating. In Japan, you can talk with your mouth full of food and you can leave your seat to talk to other people. In Canada, you must finish what you are eating before you talk and you must ask to be excused before you leave your seat. In Canada, it is OK to lick your fingers during a meal and you can also drink your beer straight from the bottle. Both of these are inappropriate in Japan. There are many other differences like this. This is a good time to remember that every culture has different rules, and it is important to be aware of these differences, and be tolerant of them too.

At the end of the enkai in Japan, there is usually a closing ceremony and everyone says “banzai” three times. In Canada, we are less formal. The party ends whenever everyone has left. Japanese people seem to all leave at the same time. In Canada, we don’t usually say when a party is going to end. So, whenever anyone is tired or has something else to do, they just go home. Also, in Canada we don’t know about “enkai, nijikai, sanjikai, etc”. We usually just have a party in one place and when we are finished at that one place, we go home.

As you can see, there are many things to learn at an enkai. I find that I learn a lot more about Japanese people and Japanese culture at an enkai than I could ever read in a book. Did you learn many things like this when you were in the United States?

Bye for now! Shaney.

Dear Mom,

Some days are better than others. This week I have felt like I am fighting a battle of me versus the universe. A bit of bad luck and some leftover culture shock has made me in less than perfect spirits today. But, not every day can be Christmas! As long as I can learn something from my bad days, I will come out ahead. I want to tell you about some of the things that I’ve been thinking about lately.

Sometimes I wonder if my Japanese friends ever think about what it’s like to live in a country where you can’t speak or read the language very well. In my own country, I am considered a well-functioning citizen. I have a university education and I have already had several jobs in my short life. In Japan, I can’t even fill out a simple form at the bank without help. Because my own culture has made me value my independence, I can get really frustrated with having to ask for help all the time. In Canada, being too dependent on other people is considered to be the same as being too lazy to do things for yourself. Japanese culture, however, seems to value dependence. It is good to depend on other people so that you can have good human relations with them. The more you depend on them, the more they feel needed. Sometimes I have trouble with these sorts of cultural differences.

I also wonder if Japanese people know what it feels like to look completely different than everyone around them. I know that there are some Japanese people who dye their hair or wear other cultures’ fashions, but they still look very Japanese. I think that they do these things to try to look different from everyone around them. I wonder if Japanese people know what it is like to be truly different from everyone around them; to have different eyes, a different nose, different hair, and a different way of thinking. Maybe they wouldn’t be so comfortable with that much difference. I think that Japanese culture is pre-occupied with sameness. For example, I recently attended a graduation ceremony for the 3rd graders at my school. The ceremony was very different from the ones that I have experienced in Canada. However, when my friend from Funehiki explained the graduation ceremony that she had attended, it sounded exactly like the one that I had seen. The arrangement of the chairs in the gym, the order of the events in the ceremony — even the red and white banner that surrounded the room — was exactly the same in both towns. Things like this make me realize just how different my culture is from Japanese culture. In Canada, I have never been to two identical graduation ceremonies — even at the same school. But there is a certain amount of comfort in sameness, so I can understand why Japanese people have embraced it as a part of their culture.

Another thing that I wonder about is how Japanese people interpret my behaviour. In Canada, I know how to act in certain situations. For example, when I am teaching in Canada, I like to have a very informal classroom, where students feel comfortable and relaxed. In order to create this kind of atmosphere, I would arrange the desks in different patterns in the classroom, I would dress casually enough so that the students wouldn’t think of me as “stuffy”, and I would probably sit down on my desk while I was teaching. I just recently learned that it is not appropriate to sit on desks in Japan. Whenever I learn of such information, I start to worry about what other things that I do are not considered appropriate in Japan. I have read many books on Japan and Japanese culture, but there is no book that covers every situation, and even if there were, I wouldn’t be able to remember all of the rules. So, I hope that when Japanese people see me breaking the unwritten rules of Japanese society, they realize that it’s not because I’m trying to be rude, but because I am from a different culture with different rules.

Sometimes it’s hard to be the only person of my kind in my town. There are certain challenges that I face every day that no one in Tajima can understand unless they’ve tried to live in another culture. However, these challenges are not something that I want to get rid of. On the contrary, they are the best learning experience that I will ever have.

Love always,

Dear Mom,
The sun is shining, the birds are singing, and I am thinking about summer in Canada. I am used to having the school year end in June, so I am a little bit restless. In elementary school and junior high school, my school year ended in late June. In high school, it ended in early June. And in university, the school year ended in April! So, I am not used to working so diligently in the summer months!

It gets much hotter in Tajima than in Kingston. Actually, the temperature is probably about the same, but Tajima is much more humid. When I arrived in Tokyo at the end of July last year, I thought I was going to melt! Since I’m not planning on going home this summer (and this time, no surprise visits!) I guess I will have to try to get used to the humidity just like I got used to the huge amounts of snow.

Speaking of hot things, I just came back from a trip to Kobe, Kyoto, and Osaka. Wow! I have never been so hot in the middle of May before! When I left Tajima, I was still using my gas stove every night, so it was a big surprise to have to sleep with the windows wide open, no sheets on the bed, and with very light pajamas on. Next time I visit the south of Japan in the spring, I’ll know not to pack so many warm sweaters!

It was very interesting to travel in Japan. I had many fantastic experiences. For example, I was able to see Kiyomizudera, Heian Jingu, and Sanjuusangendo. My favourite of these was Sanjuusangendo. There are thousands of images of the Buddha under one roof. They say that you should be able to find your face among the images at least three times. Well, I couldn’t find my face, but I found one that looked like one of my students. When I told him, he didn’t seem to be as impressed as I had been!

Another fun part of my trip was meeting new people. Many people came up to me on the streets of Osaka and Kyoto to ask if they could help me find my way. I think all of these people were studying “Yasashii Eikaiwa” or something! They all had very nice English and they were very helpful in showing me the way to go — even when I wasn’t lost! I was happy that they were not too shy to speak to me. Sometimes when I ask people questions, they look at me funny and reply (in Japanese) “Eigo wa zenzen dekimasen”. I could understand this answer if I was speaking English, but I always speak Japanese when I approach a stranger for information! I hope my Japanese isn’t so bad that it sounds like English to them! I think they are probably just nervous because they expect me not to understand any Japanese.

During my travels to the Kansai area, I saw many national treasures, met many new and interesting people, and experienced the pleasure of travelling by myself without a strict schedule. I had a very good time overall. However, I think one of my most memorable moments was on the train back from Asakusa to Tajima. As we got closer and closer to Tajima, the buildings, the crowds, and the tension of the big cities were slowly replaced with green mountains, fresh air, and a certain special feeling that one can only experience when one is coming home after a long journey. There is a famous English expression that sums up my feelings, “There’s no place like home.”

Love always,

Dear Mom,

I can’t believe that I have been in Japan for a whole year. Sometimes it seems like I just arrived, and other times it seems like I’ve never lived anywhere else. Since this is my one year anniversary, I feel like I should try to reflect on my experiences and see if I can come to any conclusions.

One year ago, I arrived on Japanese soil with many expectations and ideas. One of my expectations was that I would feel culture shock. I did. For example, when I first arrived in Tajima, I was treated very nicely by everyone, but I felt like there was a barrier between me and the “real” Japan. The barrier was stronger due to my inability to speak very much Japanese. But there was another reason. I found that it took a long time for Japanese people to move from politeness to friendship. Politeness is nice, and it is certainly better than if people were rude to me, but when I first arrived, I was yearning to move past that politeness to real friendships. Luckily, that change did happen and I now have many good friends in Japan. It just took longer than I expected it to. In fact, I’m still waiting for that stage to pass with some people.
One year ago, I went to my first enkai. Recently, I experienced an enkai that helped me put my year into perspective. I attended the welcome party for the American wrestling team that was visiting Tajima. As the dinner progressed, I realized how “Japan-ized” I’ve become as I noticed the un-Japanese behaviour of the Americans. This made me realize how much I have learned about Japanese culture in the last year. It also made me feel like I’m not Canadian or Japanese, but sort of a mix of the two!

One year ago, I had my first of many conversations about what it feels like to be a foreigner in Japan. Sometimes it doesn’t feel very good. When no one will sit beside me on a train, or when I say hello to someone and they won’t even look at me, I am reminded that I am an “outsider”. On the other hand, the good experiences outweigh the bad. I have been treated with more kindness here than I could ever expect in my own country.

One year ago, I met my foreign colleagues in Shimogo, Nango, Tateiwa, and Tadami for the first time. July commemorates the end of my first year in Japan, but it also signals a changeover for the ALTs in Nango and Tateiwa. I have been good friends with both of the teachers who are leaving, so I will be sad to see them go. However, I am looking forward to meeting the new teachers who will come at the end of July. It will be interesting to watch them slowly come to understand parts of Japanese culture, as I have been trying to do since I arrived.

One year ago, I wrote my first letter home. Many more letters have followed, with some of them appearing in Kouhou Tajima, and some of them only being seen by my mother. I have enjoyed sharing my ideas with the people of Tajima. Since this marks the beginning of a new year, however, it is time to make a change. Next month, we’ll try a new style with my article. One of my main purposes in Japan is to teach English. So, from now on, my articles will be shorter, and they will appear in English and Japanese. I hope that the readers of Kouhou Tajima enjoy trying to read the English versions! For many people, this may be their only chance to practise their English.

One year ago, I started my adventure in Japan. This month, two of my friends from Canada will come to visit me for a couple of weeks. I am looking forward to their visit, but I can’t imagine how I will ever teach them all that I have learned in two weeks. In one year, I have seen my first mountain, spoken my first Japanese word outside of a classroom, had my first homestay, witnessed my first o-bon festival, and tried team-teaching, skiing, and mochi for the first time. And that is not even a fraction of the “firsts” that I’ve had this year. I wonder what new adventures await in the next year?

Love always,