Living in Japan and Russia, a comparison

When I look at my timehop app on my phone, I see a recurring theme. Although I had a lovely boyfriend in Japan, lived in a 2 bedroom house (Anyone who has lived in Japan knows how rare it is to find and afford one!), lived an hour from Tokyo and spent free weekends travelling around this beautiful country…

I was lonely.

Lonely at work, lonely at home. I had a few friends but I couldn’t see them as often as I could. I longed for connection with people which can be extremely hard to find in disconnected Japan. Couple this with a long distance relationship and many days brought dread rather than joy.

One day I just realised that although I loved many aspects of Japan, it just wasn’t where I was meant to be. It was stifling me and I needed to be free. A friend from home once talked about living in Moscow, a place I found exotic and intriguing. I found out I had been offered a job as a kindergarten teacher and snapped it up. Even though I was leaving an awful lot behind in Japan.

Settling in to work

I arrived in Russia a week before I was due to start work. The weather was hot and sunny and I enjoyed walking around the seemingly empty city, gawping at the magnificent architecture and trying to read Cyrillic.

Work started and it was a baptism of fire. In Japan I taught the same lessons day in, day out. I felt like a performing seal rather than a teacher. Although it was easy to plan, it lacked creativity. In Russia I was given a brief theme for each week but expected to plan a challenging curriculum for the children teaching maths, English, phonics, science, fitness and physical skills. At first I was overwhelmed but I soon grew to love the freedom I was given and excelled in creating creative and interactive lessons that the children loved.

Soon I had many Facebook messages offering me extra tutoring or English classes. Unlike Japan people actually wanted to learn English and it made me feel important and in demand. I turned down the majority of tutoring and teaching jobs to focus on getting higher paid clients. It was one of the best decisions that I made.

Learning Russian

Prior to arriving n Moscow, I tried to learn the Cyrillic alphabet. Although not perfect, my skills enabled me to identify words that were similar to English. I watched many YouTube videos, and used the duo-lingo app whenever I could. After I gained some confidence I started going to lessons, and suddenly found out that my level was low and I didn’t even know the alphabet properly.

This knocked my confidence. I now knew the basics but the language seemed to get more complicated the more I learnt. I started practicing with a Ukranian Skype teacher but as my work hours increased my motivation decreased.

Now I can read the alphabet, know key phrases and words. At the moment it is enough for me. Next year I will hopefully have more free time and be able to practice more.

Making friends

The expat scene in Japan was weird. Many people were just there to get with Japanese women or were ‘Otaku’ and obsessed with the Japanese culture. I made some amazing friends but I couldn’t bond or empathise with the majority of expats. They just weren’t like me. Thee expat scene was really snobby too, many foreigners would snub other foreigners and try to talk only to Japanese people. Everyone bragged about how much Japanese they knew or how many years they had lived in Japan like it was a competition.

Japanese people can be extremely closed off to people. Do you know that I never once went into a Japanese persons home? Although I had a few Japanese ‘friends’ I felt that many tried to keep me at arms length and I never formed real friendships with Japanese people that hadn’t travelled outside of Japan.

Moscow couldn’t be more different. It has a diverse and friendly expat scene and there are so many events happening throughout the city where you can meet new people. When I first arrived I met up with people I met on Facebook groups and at language events. I accepted every invitation and as a consequence I started to know more and more people.

Now I have a fantastic social life and am friends with British people, Australians, Russians and Americans. I have genuine friendships and we are all there for each other. I have been inside many Russian homes and have been made welcome. I go to new and exciting places each week and have a cosmopolitan lifestyle. I am truly happy.

Japanese countryside vs Russian super city

When I moved to Japan I was actually excited about living in the countryside. After a month or so I felt suffocated and trapped. I had no car and my world was extremely small. Trains didn’t run until late so I was pretty limited about what I could do after work and at the weekends.

Now I live in one of the biggest cities in the world in an apartment on the 16th floor. Worlds away from my life in Japan. Moscow has no shortage of exciting and interesting things to do. I’ve done something new every weekend and have still not run out of things to do or places to go. Although city life can get overwhelming, I absolutely love it.

Travel

One of the best things about living in Japan was the diversity and beauty of the country. During my time in Japan I was lucky enough to travel to many places such as Fukuoka, Sapporo, Sendai, Hiroshima, Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe, Tokyo, Yokohama and even climb mount Fuji. Travel is convenient and safe although it can be expensive.

Moscow is such a big city that it can take hours to travel from one side to the other. Trains are generally slow and because Russia is the biggest country in the world, cities and towns are extremely spread out. Since I’ve lived here I’ve travelled to St Petersburg, Sergiev Posad and a small village in the South. It’s a lot easier to go back to England or visit other European countries. Next month I’m renting a country house in Suzdal, a small but beautiful town about 3/4 hours from Moscow. I don’t feel the same urge to visit as many places in Russia as possible because I feel theat I will live here for many years.

Conclusion

Life in Moscow can be hard. I work long hours but for great money. The city is overwhelming but there’s a vast choice of things to do here. Although I miss Japanese food and hospitality I’m extremely happy in Moscow. I have a great job with prospects, I’m inundated with private students and I have a great social life.

I have a feeling that I will live here for quite a few years, watch this space!

 

 

2016, a year of Travel: Part 1

In 2016 I felt like I barely travelled anywhere. I can only add one new country to my ‘list’ and that is Russia, my new home.

However looking back 2017 was probably one of the most important years of my life. I fell in love, decided that Japan wasn’t the country for me and decided to take a huge risk and move to Moscow, leaving my love behind in Japan. Even though I only travelled to one new country, I travelled to many places in Japan, travelled to Abu Dhabi, explored Dubai in different way and visited the Venice of the north, Saint Petersburg.

February 2016

Sapporo snow festival, Hokkaido, Japan.

Ever since I moved to Japan, the Sapporo snow festival or ‘Yuki Matsuri’ as it’s known in Japan was mentioned nearly every couple of weeks. It seemed like a right of passage for many Japanese and something that nearly everyone wanted to visit. I had a few days off in February and managed to book last-minute flights and a great hostel, despite many people saying that I had no chance of booking a ticket or a hostel and that many places book up months in advance.

I didn’t really know what to expect when I disembarked the plane in Sapporo. I arrived in the middle of a massive blizzard and had never seen so much snow in my life. I found my way to my cozy little hostel where I had a self enclosed bed and set off exploring Sapporo. Hokkaido was surprisingly more relaxed than the mainland. I saw tattoo shops and just felt a lot more relaxed when walking around, like there was less societal expectation.

The snow festival itself was absolutely amazing. There were many giant statues made of snow and smaller statues dotted around the main park in Sapporo. I was surprised to see Russian dolls being sold and Russian food stalls at the festival. I bought a pierozhki and ate it as I wandered around, no inkling at all about what the future would hold.

One of the weirdest things I saw at the festival was a girl band performing next to a statue and middle-aged men singing along to the lyrics and acting like obsessive fans, jumping up in tandem.

Tokyo, Japan

When I lived in Japan I travelled to Tokyo at every given opportunity. The worlds biggest city is also one of the worlds best and I never got bored with its energy and innovation. One day I travelled to Tokyo with some fellow English teachers and we had an amazing day exploring Akihabara, buying used panties from vending machines, visiting a maid cafe and we ended the day with one of the greatest experiences in my life, Robot restaurant in Shinjuku.

April 2016

Kanamara matsuri, The penis festival.

Life in rural Japan is extremely boring, sometimes Japan delivers something extremely quirky and crazy, the penis festival is one. The trains to the festival were paclked like sardines and the streets surrounding the small temple where the parade starts from were also heaving. It was worth beating my way through the crowds when I saw the giant, pink phallus sitting serenely in the middle of the crowd. Later it was joined by an even bigger black phallus and they were paraded through the streets. I touched the phallus, it is a festival of fertility and I certainly want children someday.

The best part of the festival was buying realistic penis and vagina lollipops and shocking the innocent citizens of Japan as we paraded with them through the streets.

Hiroshima and Miyajima, Japan.

Hiroshima was probably my favourite place in Japan next to Tokyo. I absolutely loved it laid back vibe, beautiful wide, tree-lined streets and its abundance of canals. I found it such a romantic city and was blessed with perfect weather during my visit. I visited the harrowing historical sites such as the museum, flame and the dome. I attended a German beer festival and enjoyed one of the most expensive half pints of beer I’ve ever had. I ate the best food of my life and became inexplicably addicted to oysters after trying them grilled in Miyajima, after that I ate oysters at least once a day. I also realised that I had never truly ate okonomiyaki before, the food in Hiroshima was amazing.

Miyajima is an island not far from Hiroshima. I knew it was famous for the burnt orange floating tori gate but I was astounded by the islands natural beauty. It was like paradise and made me a little bit homesick for Thailand. (Is it possible to be homesick for a place other than your birthplace?).

Hiroshima dome

Miyajima oysters

May, 2016

Sanja Matsuri, Tokyo

I attended the biggest and best festival in Japan with a group of amateur photographers. I was not disappointed with my decision. I got some amazing photos because the other photographers kept moving to different vantage points to photograph the parade. I only got a few sly shots of Yakuza (Japanese gangsters) but It was great to see such an enigma in real life. After the Matsuri I ate my favourite Japanese food, okonomiyaki with a group of fellow teachers. I found out that one of them lived in Moscow for a few years…

A birds eye view of the action from Senso-Ji
The body suit of a Yakuza member

 

 

June, 2016

Sendai, Japan

Sendai is a city in Northern Japan, like every big city in Japan it felt completely different to the others. What I loved most about it was it’s proximity to nature. You could literally walk from the skyscrapers in the centre to a quiet river or secluded mountainside in 40 minutes. I think it would be a great city to live. My then boyfriend lived there so I travelled up as frequently as I could to visit him. We ate amazing ramen, visited Sendai zoo (sidenote, don’t visit zoos in Japan, they are extremely sad places) enjoyed walking around the city and attended a few festivals.

Ushiku and Tskuba, Ibaraki, Japan

I moved to Ushiku in March but I waited until the summer to see it’s most famous sight, the Ushiku Daibutsu, the tallest standing buddha in the world. I didn’t think I would be too impressed, after all I’ve travelled to Thailand so many times and seen so many giant buddhas. I was awestruck when I saw it though and felt calm and spiritual.

I went to Tskuba alone on a lonely weekend and ended up attending an international festival. It felt so nice to see other cultures being celebrated and to see people of different races together. During my time in Japan I felt acutely aware of the fact I was different to most people, this day in Tskuba was welcome respite.

The famous Ushiku Daibutsu

 

Part 2 of my year will come soon.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Experiencing Sanja Matsuri in Asakusa, Tokyo

I grabbed my camera close to my chest as another surge of people passed me. A purple pram clipped my heels but I somehow managed to stay on my feet. The shoving stopped, I relaxed and looked up. A gold Mikoshi was lifted high in the air by Japanese wearing bright green robes. Despite the obvious weight of the large mikoshi, the team bounce it through the crowds with the ease of bouncing a baby on their knee. All around I can hear chanting, `A, Sa, Ku, Sa!!!` and my hairs stand on end due to the frisson and energy around me.

This is the Sanja Matsuri.

One of the most famous festivals in the whole of Japan, and also one of the wildest; the Sanja matsuri is certainly unique.
It`s a Shinto festival hel in honour of the three men who founded the vast Senso-ji shrine in Asakusa. Over three days there`s mikoshi paraded through the streets, traditional taiko (Japanese drums), traditional music and dancing.


I visited on the Saturday, the day where 100 Mikoshi are paraded through the streets to Senso-ji shrine where a Priest blesses and purifies them for the coming year. Saturday is one of the busiest days and a day when local Yakuza (gangsters) display their tattoos with pride. Tattoos are still extremely taboo in Japan so this display is one of strength and defiance. The Geisha of Asakusa also join the festivities and support their local neighbourhoods.

I arrived about 12pm with a team of local photographers who all wanted to capture the celebration. Initially we meandered along the narrow streets leading up to Senso-ji. Locals were already drinking cans of silver Asahi and the smell of Japanese street food tempted me. Suddenly the swell of the crowd carried us forward and I saw my first glimpse of one of the 100 mikoshi. It was extremely hard to photograph the scene due to the excitable and jostling crowd. After a hike I gave up taking photographs and just enjoyed the energy of the festival.

The group of 20 photographers was split up in the crowd and I was alone with a Chinese photographer who experienced the Matsuri last year, so she knew the best places to go. We tentatively made our way up the steps to Senso-ji shrine, thinking that we would not be allowed up. Surprisingly the shrine area was near empty and we had a great view of the mikoshi meandering through the throngs of people outside. I even saw one old guy carrying an extremely expensive camera  with his own step-ladder so he could see above the crowds. Clever guy!

A birds eye view of the action from Senso-Ji
step-ladder guy

Around this time the locals usually go for a quick drink, my Chinese friend said. So we headed through the crowds to the Izakayas to photograph locals drinking and having fun with their friends. As we walked down one side street, a float of taiko drummers came floating past! it was great to see everything up close.

We then met up with another group of photographers and we all had one goal in mind; find Yakuza. During this festival Yakuza commonly show off their tattoos, it was definitely something I wanted to capture. The thing is, gangsters are not known to be the friendliest of people so are extremely hard to photograph.

Some outfits left little to the imagination

Unfortunately we missed the Yakuza float so had to try to capture a photo of lone Yakuza. One guy walked past and our eyes were drawn to his legs, completely covered with Japanese style tattoos. Quickly he turned and we caught a glimpse of his tattooed torso as his shirt blew open. We were all so mesmerised we forgot to take a photo. He also looked like an extremely mean guy so it was probably for the best.

Eventually we found a float with many Yakuza. They weren`t proudly showing off their tattoos, instead they seemed quite self conscious and tried to cover themselves as soon as the wind blew open their coloured shirts. amazingly I managed to capture a photo of one guys full body suit as he turned around and faced the camera. He didn`t look so happy so we decided to scarper.

Many people were dressed in Yukata or Kimono for the Matsuri. It was especially cute seeing the children wearing traditional dress or Matsuri clothing. i spotted one couple who looked like they were straight out of an anime!

Enjoying a post-Matsuri beer and snacks
The body suit of a Yakuza member
Enjoying a picnic on the street floor
Straight out of an anime

I went back to the festival later in the evening with friends. I saw taiko drummers and extremely tired people parading the mikoshi as the sun set on Asakusa.

Attending a Matsuri is a must do when visiting Japan. The Japanese change from polite to raucous and it`s great to see the energy and passion of the people. Most festivals are also extremely cultural so you will see local dress, music, dance, culture and have the opportunity to try traditional festival foods.

Have you ever been to a festival in Japan or to the Sanja Matsuri? If so what did you think?

Why I had to breakup with Japan

It’s weird to move to a country you’ve never visited isn’t it? Let alone one on the other side of the world with a unique culture and one of the worlds most difficult languages. The differences just made the move seem all the more exotic and exciting. Like any great love story mine starts with high hopes, craving for adventure and a little naiveté.

When I arrived in Japan I instantly fell in love. It was completely different to any other country that I had ever visited and was an enticing mix of old and new. After the blur of Tokyo I was whisked back to Narita to start training for my new job. Training was strenuous and difficult, but after years of doing the same thing day in, day out as a podiatrist my brain relished the increased cerebral activity.

On the shinkansen to my new home of Nasushiobara I gazed out of the window and saw the city scape slowly escape until all I could see was fields, rolling hills and low-rise buildings. Suddenly the landscape changed and I was greeted with towering snow-capped mountains slowly creeping closer. My heart filled with joy at the beauty of this site and skipped a beat when I realised that this was my station.

This was my new home.

The first few weeks had their ups and downs but even the mundane mutinae of daily life was fascinating. Supermarkets were scaled down, combikis sold everything imaginable and were located on nearly every street corner and shops played quirky music and jingles constantly. It sounds cheesy but in parts it felt like I was in another world.

Locals were friendly and smily and seemed so relaxed. I felt so safe and could walk around my town at night in the dark.

I settled into my tiny apartment, made friends with other English teachers and settled into my role at school. I was new to teaching and I absolutely loved lesson planning and teaching. After years in a strictly controlled profession it felt great to have freedom in what I did. I was happy.

I spent many weekends in Tokyo and travelled across Japan in my spare time. As the summer break approached and I sat at my sweltering desk at school, some of the magic began to fade.

I needed to get away to somewhere both exotic and familiar so I headed to Thailand. Whilst  there I got into so many scrapes and had so many near misses that I breathed a sigh of relief once my feet touched Japanese soil. “Maybe Japan isn’t so bad after all, at least it’s safe…’.

Autumn came and went and it was now winter in Japan. After paying for my flight back to England for Christmas I was low on funds. My apartment was freezing and only had heating in one room. I sat there on my floor sofa, shivering because of the cold. I felt lonely and life in a small town had begun to lose its shine. I’d been to every local bar and restaurant, walked in every park. Without a car I felt trapped.

Despite my best efforts I just couldn’t grasp Japanese. I found it confusing and it was impossible to find someone to explain it to me. I tried local classes taught by grannies who meant well, but It just confused me further. The only lessons I could find were over an hour away by train. I found my lack of Japanese embarrassing and was sometimes shocked by locals lack of patience when dealing with me. I felt like I couldn’t connect with co-workers or other Japanese people I met. Even other foreigners with perfect Japanese felt the same.

Conversations with locals seemed empty and superficial. On most encounters I was asked ‘please teach me English’, they never meant it though. I found it hard to make local friends and I found it impossible to work out who liked me or hated me since everyone treated me the same. It was hard to tell what was genuine and what was fake.

As an extroverted person who thrives on personal connections I felt myself slowly atrophying. Kind of losing my personality.

After Christmas I had made my decision. I was going to move to a different country. I applied for jobs and was accepted for one near Chiang Mai in Thailand.

And then….I fell in love. It always happens when you least expect it doesn’t it? I decided to scrap my plans to move to Thailand and give Japan another chance. Maybe if I moved closer to Tokyo I would like it better?

As the weather started to warm up I moved to Ushiku, a small town just an hour away from Tokyo, I rented a whole house with a tiny garden and honestly thought I had found happiness. My work was uninspiring and my colleagues barely acknowledged my presence. I felt like a ghost when I was at school, kind of present but outside looking in. My boyfriend moved to Northern Japan so I was even further away from him. When we were together I loved Japan because I saw it through his eyes. When I was apart I was lonely and irritated by the constant micro-aggressions that many foreigners face.

I tried to buy a fuse in an electrical shop and all of the sales attendants literally ran away from me. In school they would constantly try to give me a fork to eat my school lunch with and comment about every ingredient, discussing amongst themselves whether I could eat it. On a packed train the seat next to me would remain empty. I was constantly stared at wherever I went. I used to love wearing 50s style clothes and dresses with red lipstick. It was my signature style. Whenever I wore something different I would get stared at even more and lots of comments with hidden meanings. Slowly my style changed to be more toned down and casual. I couldn’t handle any more sly comments.

These seem like such minor things but when they happen day in day out they really begin to affect you. They all remind you that you are a foreigner in this country and different to everyone else.

It made me realise that I would never be accepted into Japanese society. Even if I was fluent in Japanese, married to a Japanese guy or if I had a Japanese child. I would always be different.

In Japan they have a saying, ‘The nail that hangs out the highest gets hammered down’. I feel that’s what these micro aggressions did to me. Slowly hammered me down until I couldn’t recognise myself when I looked in the mirror. I was fed up of conforming, fed up of following thousands of written and unwritten rules.

I just wanted to be me.

So that’s how I ended up in Moscow, a place that’s the antithesis to Japan. Life here isn’t easy and It has its own challenges but I’m allowed to feel like myself. Life in Japan wasn’t all bad. I made some amazing friends for life (Both foreigners and Japanese), experienced hundreds of unique experiences and was eased in slowly to my new career as an ESL teacher.

Japan is an amazing country. To be honest I’m still in love with it and even dream about it. But, it was ultimately an unhealthy relationship.

Japan just isn’t the right guy for me.

 

Why I moved to Moscow

Yesterday I went for a walk in Moscow. I walked across a covered bridge and was greeted by a familiar sound. “Irasshaimase”, the voice boomed. I looked to my left and spotted a Japanese vending machine. I peered closer and saw that all of the drinks inside were Japanese too. This simple sight brought back such strong memories. As I continued my walk I felt confused and disoriented. A feeling that you can only understand if you have called more than one place your home.

Japanese vending machine in Russia

Most people are surprised that I moved to Moscow. Russia seems like a scary place to most, a place with a dark past, a dark present and maybe even a dark future. Wheras Japan seems like utopia, it’s clean, safe and culturally rich. Moscow seemed like the kind of place I could be happy, be myself.. In many ways it’s the antithesis of Japan, that’s just what I needed. I’ll talk more about Japan in another post.

Before I went travelling I asked advice from an old friend and colleague. Along with living in Hong Kong and travelling South East Asia she lived in Moscow. Her face lit up when she talked about Moscow. She was so inspired by living there that she started a blog. My mind suddenly went into overdrive about Moscow and Russia. It seemed like such an exotic place, mysterious too. Little did she know that she planted a seed that day and ever since Moscow has always been in the back of my mind.

Its 2013 and I’m in Laos. I’m in a steam room and wearing only a small towel to cover my dignity. The heat and humidity become to much for me so I step outside, gasping for air. I sip tea and watch the people walking into the steamrooms. They are segregated by sex. A ladyboy covered in makeup strolls out of the changing room and enters the female steam room. A smile sneaks onto my lips and my eyes make contact with a guy across the room. He’s also smiling.

He walks across the room and we start talking. He says that he lives and works in Moscow and he has done for years. Even though I’m in Laos I find his tales of snow and Oligarchs fascinating. I feel butterflies in my stomach.

I’m falling for Moscow.

Fast forward two years. I’m alone in my small apartment in Japan. I’m lonely and isolated. The Japanese culture makes me feel uneasy at times. I find it claustrophobic and fake. I decide to look online for jobs in foreign climes. After applying for a few jobs in Hong Kong and Korea I come across a job vacancy for Moscow. I don’t apply for it but it sets off a frenzy of internet searches. I’m hungry for information about this exotic land. Unsurprisingly there’s very few blog posts about people who have actually lived there. People who know the real Russia.

My crazy internet searches lead me to Coursera course about understanding Russians, contexts of intercultural communication. The more I learn about Russian culture the more I want to live there, to experience it for myself.

A statue in Victory park
A statue in Victory park
VDNK park
VDNK park

I start to apply for jobs in Moscow. Many were poorly paid but I  am offered a few well paid ones. I accept one and thats how I end up in Moscow. Alone but not afraid. Starting afresh once again.

I started working here in September and I do a job that’s very different to my last one. I’m not just an English teacher but a home room teacher for a class in a Kindergarten . The job allows me to be creative, something I missed when working in Japan. I also get to enjoy the personal aspects of teaching. Rather than teach a class and retreat to the staff room or scurry to another class like in Japan, I’m with the same children all day so I get to actually know the children.

Although it’s not easy, it’s a lot more rewarding.

In short, I moved to Moscow because of a feeling. Something called me to live here. Now I just need to work out why!

 

Have you ever lived abroad? If so how did you decide what country to live in? Do you belive in fate or that you were called to live in a specific country?

St Basils cathedral in Moscow
St Basils cathedral in Moscow

Life Update

It’s been a while since my last post, a long while.

 

In that time a lot has happened. It seems like I havn’t had a minute to myself. Every moment has been filled with planning and doing. I even managed to fit in time at home and visit the UAE in between.

If you follow me on my Facebook  page you’ll know what’s happened.

I moved to Russia.

Moscow to be exact. Although the move was well needed times have not always been easy. Moscow is an amazing city but in some ways it’s the complete opposite to Japan.

It will take a lot of getting used to, but I absolutely love it so far.

 

I still have a lot to write about my life in Japan and I already have so many stories to tell about my new life in Russia.

As soon as my life settles down I will write more. I really can’t wait to share all of my stories with you.

I know one thing for sure, my life is certainly not boring.

 

Let me know if you have any questions about my new life in Moscow or the move from Japan.

14222335_10157437528170271_4040007561144270393_n

 

 

Top three things to do in Utsunomiya

Utsunomiya is the main city of Tochigi prefecture, a place that`s consistently voted one of the most boring prefectures of Japan.

Many people are underwhelmed with this city and see it as just a gateway to Nikko, one of the most culturally rich places in Japan.

Don`t wipe Utsunomiya from your itinerary though. This city has lots of hidden gems and it`s a pleasant place to spend an afternoon before you head back to the Metropolis of Tokyo.

1) Eat Gyoza
Throughout Japan, people say one thing when they hear someone say Utsunomiya, Gyoza! Utsunomiya consumes the most gyoza in Japan and in my opinion the restaurants in Utsunomiya are the best. You can try regular gyoza, fried gyoza, gyoza wrapped in chicken skin or my favourite; gyoza covered with spring onion and smothered in mayyonaise.

Wherever you choose to eat gyoza, you won`t be disappointed! Be sure to get a photo with the gyoza statue in front of the station too!

Famous Utsunomiya Gyoza
Famous Utsunomiya Gyoza

2) Futaarayama shrine
I was walking along the grey streets in Utsunomiya when I looked up. Prched on top of a small hill overlooking the city was an absolutely beautiful shrine. I decided to investigate and suprised to find a relaxing and ornate shrine with great views of the city.

It`s a great place to relax whilst exploring the city. Be sure to check out the orange tori gates and the dragon statue at the area where you cleanse before praying.

Address: 1-1-1 Babatori, Utsunomiya 320-0026, Tochigi Prefecture

 

shrine utsunomiya

dragon shrine

3) Kayabuki Izakaya (Monkey Izakaya)
In a dark street in Utsunomiya, in an unsuspecting, plain building is Kayabuki Izakaya. Only notticable because of the monkey wood carving at the door.
In the early evening it`s just another izakaya, serving alright beer, gyoza and basashii (horse sashimi); albeit a smelly one. At around 7 or 8 depending on how many customers there are, the monkeys come out to play. Sometimes the whole family comes out, about 4 full grown monkeys and 2 baby monkeys or sometimes there will just be one or two `waitresses`.

when I visited the izakaya was quiet so we got time to play with the monkeys and pose for photos. The monkeys were extremely lively and jumped around on us without a care in the world. Some monkeys were dressed up in creepy outfits and some were forced to wear extremely disturbing masks and wigs, like a simian version of a maid cafe.

After photos, one of the monkeys acted as waitress and scurried across the izakaya, picked up a wet napkin and gave it to me.

All in all it`ts good fun and a unique experience. The monkeys can only work up to 2 hours a night and they seemed well cared for. be aware that you will pay a non optional `tip` for playing with the monkeys, in my opinion it`s worth it.

Izakaya Kayabuki (Miyuki-honcho 4688-13, Utsunomiya-shi, Tochigi Prefecture, tel. 028 662 3751)

monkey izakaya utsunomiya

monkey izakaya

Monkeys

A scary encounter in Tokyo

I’ve always talked about how safe living in Japan is. Since I’ve lived here I’ve not felt scared once. That’s a big contrast to the number of times I’ve felt scared in England and in other countries when travelling.

It’s just safe, isn’t it?

One weekend I was in Tokyo. I spent the day exploring the old quarter of Asakusa. I prayed at Senso Ji temple, got my fortune read (A bad one…) and ate delicious okonomiyaki, one of my favourite Japanese dishes.

I was having a pretty good day.

I was staying in a Japanese style business hotel and was the only woman staying there that night. Despite this I felt perfectly safe whilst I was there, even if I did have to share a bathroom with all the men.

I wandered to the local 7-eleven to get some snacks and drinks for the evening. As I turned back onto the main street and walked towards my hotel, an old man appeared in front of me.

At first I just thought he wanted to practice English with me. Even in Tokyo there’s not that many foreigners so many people strike up conversation. Then it dawned on me. It was 10pm, pitch black and I was alone.

I don’t think he wanted to practice English.

I looked at him and was instantly mesmerised by his insanely long fingernails. He held out his hand making a kind of ‘Okay’ sign and started to shout ‘Money, money, money!’, aggressively in English.

I was still perplexed about what he wanted. Why does he need money? Then it dawned on me that this was not a kind and friendly old Japanese guy but someone who was confident enough to approach a 5’8.5 woman on a main road in Tokyo.

So I ran.

I only ran a short distance but I could hear his wheezing behind me. He was following me. I took a risk and stopped and turned back, He was shirking away back into the shadows.

At first I was perplexed about what happened. Then it dawned on me that he could have been trying to mug me, he may have even had a knife. The most probable explanation is that he’s a crazy old man or a desperate homeless man.

I walked back to the hotel as fast as I could. My heart beating fast and my mind racing. It affected me much more than it would have in a different country. I feel safe in Japan so wasn’t expecting any confrontation.

It reminded me to keep my wits about me a little bit more in Japan. Not to take the feeling of safety for granted.

At Sensoji temple in Asakusa
At Sensoji temple in Asakusa

 

Have you ever had an aggressive or violent incident happen to you in a supposedly ‘safe’ country? What happened and what did you do?

Feeling homesick as an Expat in Japan

No matter how much someone likes travel, there really is no place like home.

Home means comfort, safety and love. It’s a place you know you belong and a place where you fit in. Unfortunately when you live in Japan, home literally is thousands of miles away.

I wrote about the first time I felt homesickness when I was in Sri Lanka during my ten month sabbatical. I was in an extremely different country to any that I had visited before and I was away from home for 19 days, the longest time I had ever spent away from my family and friends.

When you travel, homesickness comes out of nowhere. One minute you are having the time of your life and the next it feels like a bullet has shot through your heart. It’s fast, painful and extremely confusing.

The good thing about home-sickness when travelling is that it usually goes away as fast as it came. When you travel there are new people to meet, new places to visit and it’s very easy to forget about that pain in your heart.

Last night I sat on my floor sofa, in my new house in Ibaraki Japan. Living in a house has been quite confusing. It feels like I live in a traditional English terraced house and sometimes I forget where I am. I sat on my sofa and daydreamed. Usually I daydream about the places that I want to go and the things I want to experience in life, but this time was different.

I dreamt of the rolling hills of Wales stretching out before me, never-ending. I dreamt of the wind rushing through my hair at the Albert Dock in Liverpool as I ran alongside the Mersey. I dreamt of sitting in my parents house, with my niece on my lap, helping her form her first words.

I dreamt of normality. Of the life I used to live.

It’s quite ironic that when I lived in England I would daydream about travelling and living in a foreign country. Now I’ve made my dream a reality I daydream about the life I used to live. Life is cruel.

The hardest thing about homesickness as an expat is that it doesn’t come thick and fast like homesickness when you are travelling. It slowly seeps into your life. You start to compare the country you live in to your home country, remember things through rose-tinted glasses and forget about the hardships. You start to think that life is better back home, when is it really?

Before you know it this slow type of homesickness causes you to lose it. Big style. Last night I was in tears thinking about the life I could be living. Today even with the benefit of a clear mind and hindsight I still feel a lingering sadness. I think this bout of homesickness will be hard to recover from.

But I know it’s all just an illusion. Life isn’t perfect back home, it’s just different. I am now living my life, making my life be what I want it to be. I’m a fighter and I will fight through this homesickness.

After my recovery I’ll fall in love for the second time with the country I now call home, Japan.

And we all adore the feeling of falling in love, don’t we?

 

Enjoying Sakura beer under the cherry blossoms inmy new home of Ushiku
Enjoying Sakura beer under the cherry blossoms inmy new home of Ushiku

Are you an expat? Have you ever felt homesickness when living abroad? Did anything specific trigger it? What helped you recover from homesickness?

 

I’m moving to Ushiku, Ibaraki!

I’ll let you in on a secret.

Last summer I was regretting my decision to move to Japan. I found Japan an extremely frustrating place to live and found the culture quite claustrophobic.

I was done.

Then I spend a week or two in one of my favourite countries in the world, Thailand. So many bad things happened to me during that trip to Thailand that I let out a sigh of relief as soon as the plane landed at Narita airport. Japan may have it’s faults but it’s an amazing country to live in. It’s so safe, has friendly locals and a fascinating culture.

I fell back in love with it.

Fast forward four months to Christmas time. Once again the resentment for Japan built inside of me and part of me didn’t want to board the plane back to Japan. Work is a big part of why I moved to Japan and unfortunately I was placed in a big, unfriendly school where teachers would openly ignore me.

I knew one thing. As soon as my contract finished in March, I would leave Japan.

As soon as I landed back in Japan something changed. I started to understand the culture more, the language more and I started to appreciate it. I loved the fact that I could walk anywhere, alone, in the pitch black and still be safe. I loved Tokyo. My favourite city in the world, A crazy city where anything goes.

I realised I didn’t hate Japan.

Like any great relationship, there’s highs and lows. Japan has dealt me many lows but also many highs too.

I wasn’t ready to give up on Japan.

When it came to renewing my contract I knew one thing. I needed to move areas. Nasushiobara is a great place to live but it’s just too rural for me and too far away from Tokyo. Growing up near Liverpool I’m used to being close to the sea and I miss just walking along the beach, staring off into the distance.

Ushiku

 

Ushiku

Ushiku port

My company has offered me a new job in Ushiku, Ibaraki. I will live in a bigger town with a Starbucks, Walmart and lots of great restaurants. In just two train stops I will be at the coastline and it’s just a 1 hour direct train to Tokyo!

Ushiku is famous for having the largest standing Buddha in the world. As a Buddhist i think this will make it a very spiritual place to live.

I have just one week left in Nasushiobara and I’m making the most of it. Each day I’m trying to visit my favourite coffee shops, parks and restaurants. Today I went on an 8km hike around my local area and noticed so many beautiful things.

The best part about moving to Ibaraki is that I will be living in an actual house! On two floors! After a year in a tiny studio Leopalace I will love having all the extra space and being able to live and sleep in different rooms.

See you in Ibaraki!

Sakura