My First Month in Japan

Guest post by Akita Ben

As night closed over my first month in Japan, I walked past the Lawson, Daily Yamazaki, and Iwai-san the barber until I got to the river. From the middle of the bridge, I stopped and looked down at the serpentine water and beyond to the three-story Itoku and rectangular old hotel that comprises my town’s skyline. Everything was tinged with purple and orange in the fading light. It was beautiful, but I felt alienated. My mind became clouded with dark doubts: “Why am I on a bridge in Northern Japan? I don’t belong here. This is a waste of time.” Japanese joggers trotted past, like, “Great, another gaijin going over the rail. Better pick up the pace.” But after a few more minutes of sullen reflection, I walked back to my prison cell.

Japanese Prison Life

Sorry, I meant “my apartment.” I’ve been living here for a month and the hardest part of my new existence in this remote prefecture has been the solitary confinement. There’s nothing objectively wrong with my place—it’s spacious enough, not nearly the cramped closet I imagined I’d live in, completely furnished, including a small shelf, microwave, and infestation of spiders festooning the hallway with webs and desiccated table scraps—it just feels simultaneously claustrophobic and yawningly empty. Left alone, I don’t know what to do with myself, so my mind naturally throws this spectacular party where I somehow forgot to send out invites and find myself stuck with deflated balloons and stale carrot cake. I need to get out. Thankfully, I live in the same complex as the other grade-school English teachers in my town.

I’ve become particularly close with my senpai, let’s call him Patrick, who, although a few years younger, I look up to for wisdom and prowess in all things Japanese. So, feeling lonely and trapped in my cell, I sent Patrick a message to see if he wanted to go for a drink. Then after half an anxious hour with no reply, I went for a walk to the bridge.

The Japanese Horse Meat Trick

Once I got back, Patrick got back to me, and off we went out to this little izakaya around the corner. Upon opening the door, we found the small establishment packed and every head turned to stare at us. There followed a few seconds of awkward silence as we stood in the doorway with nowhere to sit. The bartender eventually pointed to a table occupied by two Japanese fishermen who obligingly shared the space. Patrick has an exceptional command of the Japanese language after only living here a year, so he did most of the talking, while I sat and tried to decipher what I could.

The bartender, an impish, mischievous man of about seventy, served us each a bowl of slimy black seaweed along with another bowl of some kind of meat. At first I thought I heard him say it was bear, then horse, until he finally insisted it was horse penis. I turned to the other patrons and asked if it was really horse penis and they assured me it was. It didn’t appear to be penis or horse meat, but having never seen or consumed either, I couldn’t be sure. I got the feeling it was “trick the gaijin” night at the bar.

Whatever meat it was, it was pretty delicious (horse penis tastes just like chicken) so Patrick and I wolfed it down. Strangely enough, Patrick didn’t eat the seaweed, so I polished his off too. People are picky in weird ways. Then the old bartender entertained us with a magic trick involving a pair of chopsticks and a wristwatch, but he wasn’t that great of a magician and kept dropping everything and having to start over. After that, we took the obligatory photo with him sandwiched between two tall white guys like a gnomish set extra from Lord of the Rings. Finally, Patrick and I made our goodbyes and lurched back to our apartments with bellies full of beer, slime, and schwantz.

If I could only eat horse penis and drink tall frosty beers every night, I’d be content. Alas, though I make a decent salary, I have neither the means to fund such a lifestyle nor the spare liver necessary to survive it. Thus it was inevitable that my loneliness and doubts would return.

Lonely in Japan

I’ll soon begin teaching at two junior high schools, so I’ve been preparing my self-intro materials. This requires hours of scrolling through old photos of my life in the States, my parents, and my girlfriend of five years, which is, of course, always a recipe for depression. One picture in particular had an impact.

My girlfriend and I were hiking in the redwoods three years ago. And at the summit of the hike, we found a big mustard-yellow banana slug and I opened up to her about my yearning to travel to Japan. I mean, to my girlfriend, not the banana slug. Actually, the banana slug didn’t have anything to do with the confession, it just happened to be there, so forget I even mentioned it. Anyway, at the time, I thought about how great it would be to live in Japan and imagined what it would be like. And now here I am, staring at a computer screen in an old, spider-studded mid-century modern office building—in Japan.

It’s easy for me to forget where I am. My first month in Japan, real Japan, doesn’t feel like the shining world of my musings. Life here is often as banal as it was back in the States. Sometimes I get the feeling of existing within my own detached bubble separated from everything, merely watching life go by like the repeating background of a Hanna-Barbera cartoon. But moments of clarity hit me from time to time, when I suddenly confront the fact that I’m really and truly occupying this particular space called Japan.

Why am I Here Again?

But why? Tell me again why I left behind a loving girlfriend and large, close-knit family to plunk myself down halfway across the world on an Asian archipelago renowned for its economical autos, melodramatic cartoons, and death by overwork? Sure, I was twiddling my thumbs for years in the States, but will I just be twiddling Japanese thumbs for another year here? Did I come merely for the change of scenery? When I return, what will Japan have provided that I couldn’t have gotten by staying in America?

Advice about Japan

Over beers one night, Patrick shared some advice he’d heard: If you stay less than two years in the JET Program, you need to have a damn good reason to go back; if you stay more than two years, you need to have a damn good reason to stay. See? That’s why I say he’s wise. For me, I don’t plan on staying in Japan forever, and a year does go by fast, which is both a consolation and a challenge. My time here will be brief, so I have to use this interval to ensure this experience doesn’t merely become a series of wistful, hackneyed stories to be re-hashed at dinner parties.

If you stay less than two years, you need to have a damn good reason to go back; if you stay more than two years, you need to have a damn good reason to stay.

I’m happy to be teaching soon, or at least an ostensible approximation of such. When I’m feeling lonely or lost, it’s sobering to think that my first month in Japan isn’t some extended vacation, but rather that I’m here to do a job. Ultimately, my time here isn’t about me. It’s about my students and the community and what I can do as a teacher to help them. Any difficulties are simply an inevitable part of working overseas. And, if ever I need comfort, there’s always beer, slimy black seaweed, and a big bowl of horse penis waiting just down the street.

58 Replies to “My First Month in Japan”

    1. Thank you so much! I’m tickled that you enjoyed it. I guess I can’t let you down, so I’d better start working on my next article…

  1. Hey there Ben, sounds like you’re doing it hard.
    I had a similar experience when I went to England for a year when I was young — “This is supposed to be fun! Why am I miserable?” And my sister had the same experience over the last year in England herself, despite getting her dream-job. She is arriving back in Australia in a few days carrying, like I did, a fantastic gift: a new, deep appreciation of home, friends, and family.

    If you stay in Japan less than someone’s arbitrary number, there’s no need to feel embarrassed; maybe you learned where you need to be. Meanwhile, that time alone in your head can be precious, and obviously all Ken’s bad experiences are just fodder for our insatiable demand for schadenfreude-laden entertainment. So keep us updated!

    I know it’s hard to “enjoy your suffering,” but remember that this will probably be a brief, challenging, valuable period in your life. If all you come away with is the ability to return home and love it, that’s treasure.

    1. Thank you, E. rex. Y’know, since I wrote this article, my little town has started to feel more like home. I actually find myself considering the possibility of being here another year. I think it was starting my teaching job that helped.

      I’ve mentioned this in other comments, but I want my next article to be much more positive. I like schadenfreude as much as the next guy, but I don’t want it to seem as if I’m miserable here. I have some dark moments, which maybe I dwell on more than is healthy, but they are by no means representative of my overall experience. Things only seem to be getting better by the day.

    1. I think the answer may rhyme with pushy. 🙂

      But seriously: If you have a sense of purpose in being there e.g. a “serious” girlfriend, a challenging job, a master’s or PhD course then the whole two year rule becomes obsolete.
      It really only applies to “fresh in Japan” JETs.

    2. Yeah…wish I had one, then I wouldn’t have to wake up at 4 am wondering why I’m in a futon and not a bed.

      If you stay long enough (i.e., too long), you’re going to have the same issue no matter where you are. So now if I moved back to the U.S., I’d be asking myself the same thing.

      Although there’s not one compelling reason that keeps me here, there are a number of small things, and maybe they add up: the food’s really good, I have health insurance and a job, it’s cheap to live, the ocean’s never too far away, the service is good, the transportation is good…stuff like that. None of which means I’ll stay in Japan forever, but for now it’s enough. I’m never more than one resume away from moving to Amsterdam.

      1. I already find myself saddened at the thought that I won’t be able to waltz into a convenience store & pick up a can of malt liquor and a decent hot meal and then chug that can of malt liquor just outside the convenience store doors, once I return to the States. Maybe that alone will keep me here longer than I anticipate…

      1. I just moved to Singapore for a few months after living in Japan for a few years…
        I guess I am going through a “withdrawal syndrome”

  2. Hi Ben,
    very nice to read your insights on your new life in Japan. After a long time here, I forgot how it was at the beginning, what were the feelings and what surprised me most about Japanese life (apart from the things that still surprise me! ), because with time everything slowly becomes normal, even the things we thought we could never accept, they just become part of our life. It is always interesting to know the impressions of someone who just arrived, it always reminds me of how it felt for me too.
    I would say a good reason for staying could be to learn the language… but I am not the right person to give such an advice since after many years my Japanese is…well, I think Seeroi will have better advices.
    Keep writing your experiences and good luck!

    1. I absolutely agree. Learning Japanese is inherently interesting, and a necessary stepping stone to understanding the culture. And because the language is used in only one country, remaining in Japan to improve your Japanese is self-reinforcing.

      (The utility of learning Japanese is another matter, but I’ve probably spent enough time discussing that.)

    2. Thanks for the kind words and support! My new life here is already beginning to feel more normal than when I wrote this article.

      I do like the Japanese language. It’s just the studying part that puts me off…

  3. Welcome to the land of milk and honey!

    Some things to lift your spirits during your initial funk:
    – Visit Tokyo (or at least another regional town)
    – Try: “Karamucho” chips (カラムーチョ)、”Yukimidaifuku” ice cream (雪見大福) and “Rakkyou” pickled onions (ラッキョウ) in your local Kombini
    – Try hiking in the mountains (nature in Japan is great)
    – Bath in an Onsen
    – Learn Japanese and find a way to make it fun for you 🙂

    I would also advise trying to date a cute Japanese girl, but that seems out of the question for you 🙂

    1. Thanks for the tips! Yeah, maybe the cute Japanese girl is out of the question for me, but who needs the warm touch of an attractive woman when you have pickled onions from the konbini, amirite?

      I have gone on some little hikes but I definitely want to do more & there are plenty more available. There are also some onsen right near my apartment, so once I get over my self-consciousness, I’ll be sure to soak with some naked Japanese guys.

      As for learning Japanese, I am enrolled in a weekly course put on by some delightful local older women, but I do need to step up my self-study game. I absolutely do not want to be that guy who doesn’t learn a lick of Japanese.

      Thanks again for the advice & recommendations. I’m aware this piece may have been a little bit on the bleak side, but when I’m staring at the computer screen thinking of what to write, that’s the direction my mind tends to take. I promise my next article will be much peppier – if not still introspective.

      1. Getting a hobby that doesn’t require social interaction, but does/can benefit from it could help. I like cycling since it’s great with or without people.

  4. For a totally mystical experience drink what the farmers drink, and try real nigorizake. Buy it in late Autumn from one of those small farmer co-operative type shops you find in the road stations. You need to drink the stuff that’s still brewing in the bottle. The organic variety that looks like a bottle of milk when you shake it. Chomp on toasted chikuwa between sips and you’ll know what I know. Warning, drink the whole bottle and you’re guaranteed a hangover. Keep in the fridge as it will soon go bad when you open it. Very addictive.

    1. Thanks for this mystical experience with me. And to think, I didn’t even have to first go through a bunch of esoteric initiation rituals to receive this wisdom. I have a feeling this stuff will be essential to my survival during the long winter to come.

  5. Great, exactly what the Internet needs, another JET bitching about how bored he is.

    When I arrived at in a city that doesn’t even exist anymore, we didn’t have the Internet, mobile phones, Sky Perfect, and Amazon, we just had the NHK bi-lingual news once someone showed us how to find the bi-lingual button.

    You knew exactly what you were coming to. If you don’t have a study programme or a serous hobby to pursue then you’re a fucking idiot.

    1. How do you find yourself “arrived at in a city that doesn’t even exist anymore,” When “You knew exactly what you were coming to?”

    2. Brett you seem to be a very angry person. Chill. Everyone is somewhere in the process of finding their way.

      Not all who wander are lost

      1. I agree taking a chill is in order. I didn’t feel there was any bitching, or even boredom, in the original article. I’d like to be able to say the same for the comments.

    3. Hi, Brett. Thanks for your constructive input.

      I’m not sure where you got the idea that I’m bored, but, I assure you, I’m not. In fact, I’m thoroughly entertained.

      And cool story about your own Japan experiences. It’s like you’re a completely different person from me with an entirely different life. Cheers.

  6. I just want to say thank you to all the great commenters here.

    Thank you for your advice, support, and encouragement. I’m astonished by the overwhelming amount of positive feedback I’ve received. Even the one negative comment was beneficial, since it did demonstrate that I should probably focus more on the bright side & less on my lamentations in my next article.

    I’m so happy you all liked my writing & thank you, once again, for your kind words. It really means a lot.

    1. Woops! I forgot to say thank you to Ken.

      Thank you, Ken, for the opportunity to post my writing on your website! You didn’t have to do that, and, in fact, I’m still astounded that you offered. I’m pleased you saw something in my writing worth sharing on your blog, and I look forward to contributing another article here, if you would have it.

      1. The thanks is all mine.

        Reflecting again upon the “two-year rule,” there really seems to be a difference between folks who’ve just arrived in Japan and those who’ve been here a while. Apparently it takes about two years before the jadedness, bitterness, and cynicism thoroughly kick in. In other words, before you figure out what’s been happening around you the whole time.

        So I’m glad to have your fresh viewpoint. I believe I’ve got the other perspective covered well enough.

        1. “Apparently it takes about two years before the jadedness, bitterness, and cynicism thoroughly kick in. In other words, before you figure out what’s been happening around you the whole time.”

          Fear, anger, hatred … that is the path to the dark side, young Padawan. But there is a choice. A very few, elite foreigners have taken this path and embraced Japan in a positive way. It is a hard path to take, but in the long run the only path worth taking.

          (Seriously, I may have left Japan, but not because I hate it. In fact I still quite like Japan and the Japanese, despite the obvious caveats. I simply left because it was the right thing to do for me and my family at this point in time. Once the children leave home it remains an option for me to return to Japan. But definitely not Tokyo – maybe Hokkaido?)

  7. Hi Ben!

    Reading your post just reminded me of my first two weeks in Japan. It felt very strange, and lonely too. Not having family around was particularly though. Starting with the college courses improved that situation a lot, which is why I’m sure things will get better once you really get into your daily work rythm! You’ll get to meet so many people and you’ll be busy in a positive way.

    I wish you all the best! Also, looking forward to the next article of course 🙂

    1. Thank you for the encouragement and support! You’re absolutely right. Since I started teaching, I feel much better. Having that routine and sense of purpose is immensely beneficial.

      Also, I’ve settled into my life here more than when I wrote this article. In fact, sometimes I find that maybe I don’t miss my family as much as I should. I’m just thankful I have all my fellow ALTs here for support and friendship. They’re great people. Plus, I have made some local friends at the Catholic church I attend.

      So, things are far from terrible. I still get moments of loneliness & doubts, but that’s just me being me. I’ll try to get another article written asap. Thanks again for the kind words & I’m glad you enjoyed the article & would like more.

      1. Great, I’m glad to hear that! Crazy how we usually flee routine as much as possible, but when we experience big changes like the one you’re living right now, we unconsciouly look for it.

        Again, best of luck to you for the coming months!

  8. Hi Ben,
    Great and hilarious article. I could relate to your experience . The question of what am I doing here? always pop up into my head . And after reading your article I found out my reason of staying more than two years in Japan. It wasn’t the food, the culture , or work but rather a sense of safety that kids enjoy here that they wouldn’t normally have in many parts of the world these days. You would see a three years old child walking or going to school alone and you wonder what the hell is this place?
    Now as I raise my three kids here, I find it to be a good reason for me to be in Japan.

    Thanks for the article.

    1. Thanks for the great comment. I know exactly what you mean. I saw three little girls waiting at the bus stop by themselves. The bus came, they got on, & that was that. No way that would happen in America.

      Even the schools feel safer. The students are extremely respectful and dedicated. The teachers are, in turn, very respectful and desicated. Everything is so orderly & clean, even if the school facilities are a bit dated & dreary. I know there is variation, of course, but, thus far, I’m blown away by what I’ve experienced.

  9. Shogun,
    I know what you mean about safety in this country. A dreamland for children. And that is true for children 0-12. There would be no better country for them to grow up safely.
    Now, I don’t mean to spoil the dream but need to say that to bring it to reality.
    Junior High School is a hell for kids in Japan, more than other countries (at least western ones). It is when they start to undestand that it was only a dream. It is when the real society requires them to follow the (thousands) rules and act as robots do, etc.
    I am sorry to say that, but I have to. My son still cannot forgive me for having moved to this country and he swore he will never ever raise his children here!
    Of course, he saw how other countries are. For those who are born here and always lived here is different, they may still think there is no alternative and that this is the most beautiful place to live. Safety is a good reason until a certain age. Then there are more important issues such as emotions and human relations, self-expression and freedom, friendship and being accepted as we are, etc.

    1. Education is one major reason why we left Japan last year. We simply didn’t want to put our children into that.
      I agree with you that until end of elementary school it’s nice though.

      About safety: If you live in the US I guess it’s a huge issue, but if you have the choice between Japan and Germany it doesn’t matter very much, because no matter how many lies conservative media tell about Europe: At least in Germany it’s just as safe as in Japan.

      What you said about having a comparison: I highly appreciate the saying “ignorance is bliss”.

      Most Japanese have a theoretical knowledge about the bad parts of their society like robot-education or non-existing labor laws (same as in US btw.) of course, but unless they lived in another country they can never truly understand this.
      Or vice versa: Germans just don’t know how bad the quality and freshness of products sold at their supermarkets are. Japanese notice immediately. My wife keeps complaining about that all the time. I notice too, because I have lived in Japan. Normal Germans think of the current level of quality / freshness as “normal” because they simply don’t know better.

      Give your son a hug from me. I feel for him.

      1. Well, almost everything in German supermarkets comes from Spain and it all looks the same and tastes like cardboard. Someone just told me recently that some things don’t even grow in real soil anymore but on some artificial cotton-like material. Yuck!
        Growing food organically at home or at least buying stuff as local as possible is the way to go.

      2. Hello Hanayagi,

        I did write a reply to you but I think somehow my comment has been eaten by the captcha code.
        However, thank you for your nice words. Germany is ok in terms of safety, you did a good choice. There are pros and cons everywhere, I think it’s up to us to understand which ones best match our personality.
        Good luck

  10. “If you stay less than two years in the JET Program, you need to have a damn good reason to go back; if you stay more than two years, you need to have a damn good reason to stay.”

    A wise sage indeed. This should be written in the JET manual.

    Although I didn’t have a Patrick to guide me, I took a look at the ALTs around me and realized that two was the magic number.

    Hope you enjoy your stay in rural Japan. It is lonely, but it will get better–you’ll find yourself missing it when you leave.

    1. Staying another year & then getting out of here is beginning to sound more appealing to me. I can’t believe how fast this past month has flown by & I’m not sure I’m ready to have to start back from square one all over again in a matter of months, after just getting settled in here.

      Things are already getting better now that I’ve started teaching – even with all the less than stimulating down time the job entails. I’m beginning to feel that I have a role to play & that I belong to a community, even in spite of the language barrier & cultural differences. I’m settling into my new life, &, dare I say it, I’m happy here.

      1. To stay or go…that’s the inevitable question. For me, the longer I stayed, the more I found parts of Japan to like, as well as dislike. Then when I traveled back to the States, same thing. I was more conscious of the pros and cons there, which were different than those of Japan. In the end, it’s really kind of a toss-up.

        Just be wary of deciding what’s good or bad too quickly. It’s the prototypical relationship, similar to how folks spend thousands of dollars to get married, only to later spend many thousands more to get divorced. What happened? Your partner’s the same person they always were. How could you have been so mistaken? Often what’s appealing at first turns out to be the very thing you end up wanting to get away from. Life’s weird like that, and so’s Japan.

  11. I lived in Japan from 2001 to 2006, and again from 2012 to 2015. I am in the Navy and I was stationed in Kanagawa Prefecture. It might seem strange if you’re far from the larger cities, but there are a lot of Americans in Japan, and millions of other foreigners, too. If you start to get homesick, or if you just want to connect, look for Facebook groups and there will be quite a few people who wouldn’t mind hanging out.

    Good luck during your stay there. I loved my time there, and I hope you will, too.

  12. Hey Akita Ben,

    How’s it going? If you’re still in Akita and want to hang out, drop me an email. I’m from the UK, been in Akita on and off for the last 4 years. Cheers,

    [Rather than include your email address here, I passed it on to Akita Ben directly. —Ken]

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