preparing for a japanese adventure   21 comments

Thursday, March 23:  In late February, I was offered a job teaching EFL to Japanese university students in Japan beginning on March 28 (the term actually begins April 7 and ends August 1).  I’ve opted to extend my stay for one week, until August 8, so I can travel around Japan for a week.

I’ll be living in Sagamihara City in Kanagawa Prefecture.  This is part of the greater Tokyo metropolitan area.  The capital of Kanagawa is Yokohama.  Yokohama, the second largest city in Japan by population (3.7 million), lies on Tokyo Bay, south of Tokyo, in the Kantō region of the main island of Honshu, and is today one of Japan’s major ports.

I leave on Monday morning, March 27, and will arrive at Narita Airport in Tokyo on Tuesday, March 28 at 3:55 p.m.

I found this long video (24 minutes) about an apartment for Westgate teachers in Sagamihara City.  It’s possible this will be my apartment building!

I’ve been reading a number of practical books to get ready for my time in Japan.  Here’s my PRACTICAL reading list:

Living Abroad in Japan by Ruth Kanagy (Moon Handbooks)

Etiquette Guide to Japan: Know the rules that make the difference! by Boyé Lafayette De Mente

These are books I’m taking along on my trip:

Japanese phrase book & dictionary by Berlitz Publishing Co.

Tokyo: 29 Walks in the World’s Most Exciting City by John H. Martin and Phyllis G. Martin

Lonely Planet: Japan

I always love to read novels and travelogues set in a country to which I’m traveling.  Over the years, and in the month prior to my upcoming trip, I’ve read the following novels and memoirs.  If I wrote a review on Goodreads, I’ve included it here.

Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden

Hiroshima by John Hersey

Crawling at Night.  Though this novel takes place in New York City, it tells the story of a Japanese sushi chef. It was written by a friend of mine, Nani Power.

When the Emperor was Divine by Juli Otsuka

The Lady and the Monk: Four Seasons in Kyoto by Pico Iyer

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki: I enjoyed this book about Ruth, a “stuck” author, who cannot seem to finish the memoir of her mother’s death. Instead, she happens upon a diary that has washed up on the shore of the island where she lives with her husband. The diary is written by 16-year-old Nao, a Japanese girl who grew up in Sunnyvale, CA but had to move back to Tokyo when her father lost his job after the bubble burst. In Tokyo, she is subjected to harassment by her classmates; in addition, she has to deal with her father’s multiple failed suicide attempts. Nao is writing the diary to tell her great-grandmother Jiko’s story, but she ends up not really completing that mission, as the diary is mostly focused on her own life. Jiko, a Buddhist nun, has lived to the ripe age of 104 and has a strong influence on Nao’s life. Ruth, the author who finds the diary, gets caught up in Nao’s story and worries she might have been killed in the 2011 tsunami. There are interesting twists with time and quantum physics and multiple & parallel worlds toward the end, which makes the story even more fascinating. I learned a little something about quantum physics, which seems way out of my league, but the author made the subject accessible. I enjoyed the book immensely.

The Ginger Tree by Oswald Wynd: I enjoyed this book which is written as journal entries and letters. A young Scotswoman, Mary Mackenzie, sails to China in 1903 to marry a military attache in Peking; her marriage is unsatisfying, and when she has a love affair with a Japanese nobleman, her daughter is taken from her and she becomes an outcast from the European expat community. Two years after arriving in China, she ends up in Japan, where she lives for 37 years, only sporadically seeing her married Japanese lover, yet having a son by him. She is open about her struggles and her status as a “fallen woman,” yet she still can never resist her lover, despite his taking her Japanese-looking son from her. If the child had looked white and European, the child would have been able to stay with his mother. Since he looks Japanese, he is sent off to be raised by a Japanese family, as the lover is already married with his own family. This is a story about a woman’s survival, resilience, and enduring love, both for a man and for a country.  I found this line, written in 1942, to be particularly resonant: “There is nothing like living in a country as an enemy alien to really thin down the roster of your friends.”

Moshi Moshi by Banana Yoshimoto: I enjoyed this quiet book about Yocchan, a young woman trying to create a life for herself after her much-loved musician father is found dead in a suicide pact with an unknown woman. She moves into a small apartment across the street from a bistro where she works in Shimokitazawa, in an attempt to establish some independence for herself, when her bereaved mother asks to move in with her. Though living with her mother is not exactly what Yocchan has in mind, she can’t turn her mother down. Yocchan’s daily life is like a meditation: she revels in her repetitive tasks in the bistro, walks in the neighborhood, and engagement with the local shopkeepers. She comes to fully appreciate her mom and her now-deceased father. She derives pleasure from watching people and how they eat; she believes a person’s relationship with food reveals nuances of character. The title of the book, Moshi Moshi, is “hello” in Japanese when talking on the phone; it reflects Yocchan’s obsession with her father’s phone, which he inadvertently left behind on the day he died. She has recurring dreams that her father is trying to reach her by phone, as if he has some unfinished business with Yocchan and her mother, some last message he wants to impart. The book is like a Buddhist meditation on life – quiet yet revealing and, ultimately, satisfying.

Here are books I’ve read about the shameful period in U.S. history when we put the Japanese into internment camps during WWII.

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford: How ironic that I’ve been reading this book as the Donald Trump campaign is raging here in America. Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is first and foremost a story about love and family, but it is set in 1942 Seattle during the unsettling time after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. Japanese-American families were rounded up and put into internment camps because Americans feared there were spies among them. Though told they were being imprisoned “for their own safety,” they were in fact treated just as Trump today would have all minorities treated: walled-off, separated and denied rights. Although the Japanese were not methodically murdered or used in horrific scientific experiments as the Jews were under Hitler, their homes and belongings were taken from them and they were forced to live in camps under armed guard for the duration of the war.

The protagonist, Henry, is a Chinese-American whose father is consumed by the Japanese atrocities in China. His father’s obsession with the Japanese as enemies, and the fear that Henry might be misidentified as Japanese, leads his father to insist on Henry wearing an “I am Chinese” button. Henry attends an all-white school on scholarship and is continually bullied by the white students for being different. When Keiko, a Japanese-American girl, appears at school, Henry and Keiko strike up a friendship that is strained not only by Henry’s family’s fears, but by the unsettling historic events around them. I found the book disturbing but also redeeming. While living through our current unsettling political times, I can only hope that we won’t repeat this dishonorable period in U.S. history.

The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende: This book seemed so promising, but in the end, I felt it just didn’t deliver. I’d say my star rating is more of a 3.5 than a 3. This story of a love affair between a Japanese man, Ichimei, who spent much of WWII in a Japanese internment camp in the USA, and a Jewish woman, Alma, whose parents perished in WWII, just skimmed the surface. For such a love affair, one that Alma supposedly counted as the love of her life, she couldn’t make the leap to give up her wealth and her station in life to marry a Japanese man. The parallel story of Irina, a care worker at Lark House nursing home, and Seth, Alma’s grandson, isn’t all that intriguing either. I agree with another reviewer who said the story seemed to be hurriedly written. There was more telling than showing, and not much dialogue, and it just seemed generally without structure or deep feeling. I expected more from Isabel Allende; overall I found it disappointing.

Finally, I’ve read a number of books about Zen Buddhism.

Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind: Informal Talks on Zen Meditation and Practice by Shunryu Suzuki

Discover Zen: A Practical Guide to Personal Serenity by David Fontana

The Beginner’s Guide to Zen Buddhism by Jean Smith

I’ve put quite a few books on my Kindle and I’m also bringing along the following novels to read while I’m in Japan:

Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto

The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka

An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro

Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding by Jackie Copleton

Snow Country by Yusanari Kawabata

Kokoro by Natsume Sōseki

A Separation by Katie Kitamura

The Lake by Banana Yoshimoto

Beauty and Sadness by Yasunari Kawabata

How to Be an American Housewife by Margaret Dilloway

I traveled to Kyoto, Japan in February, 2011, and found the short trip delightful.  I loved the Buddhist temples, the ubiquitous vending machines, Japanese food, the cleanliness and efficiency of everything. You can read about my trip to Kyoto in earlier posts on this blog.

I’m excited about meeting my Japanese university students.  I’m looking forward to exploring the Tokyo area (using my 29 Walks book), eating a lot of Japanese food, and hopefully finding time to visit Hiroshima at some point.  I’m sure other expats in Japan will be able to advise me on other good places to visit.  As I’ll be working 9-hour days during the weeks, I’m not sure how much time I’ll have to wander, but I look forward to exploring as much as I can over the next four months. 🙂


21 responses to “preparing for a japanese adventure

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  1. Reblogged this on nomad, interrupted and commented:

    I’m leaving for Japan on Monday morning, March 27, and I’ll arrive in Tokyo on Tuesday afternoon, March 28. I’ll be writing about my expat experience on I hope you’ll follow me there!

  2. AND it’s Sakura time! How lucky is that, Cathy? 🙂 Those cases of yours are going to weigh a ton! And think how much stuff you’ll want to bring back! Is Japan ready for this? 🙂 🙂 Envy you the walks and the blossom. Look after yourself, and have a fantastic time as well as working hard. Squeeze a few hugs in the luggage.

    • You’re so right, Jo, about Sakura time! When I was in Japan before, it was February and nothing was in bloom then. I can’t wait to be there during spring! And yes, the suitcases are quite a dilemma already, and I’m not done packing yet. The problem is all the business attire I need to bring, plus workout clothes and casual clothes. Ugh! Too much. At least this is only for 4 months and two seasons, unlike when I’ve been abroad before and have had to pack for 4 seasons (at least in China and Korea!). Haha! I don’t know if Japan is ready for this. Thanks, Jo, for the hugs, which I’m happy to pack. xxx 🙂

  3. I’ve also read and enjoyed Tale for the Time Being and The Ginger Tree. Re the former, I liked the Japanese parts of the story far more than the Campnadian sections.

    Bon voyage and best wishes for Japan.

  4. How exciting, Cathy. You will have a memorable experience. I would recommend this day trip if you have time.

  5. That’s the same video I saw which I was telling you about!!!! It looks smaller than the first time I watched it! Hahaha! How is that possible!! I was very spoiled living in a tea house on stilts in the middle of Tokyo, with a garden and a wall around it, and all tatami floors and shoji doors and a separate bedroom, living room, kitchen and front room. I was very lucky, and did not appreciate it one bit. We paid $750 UDS a month, that’s all. But I was trying to get a marriage going not just work for 4-5 months. You will be just fine in that tiny home for what it is for the length of time you were there!!! I loved living tiny when I had my own apartment there before I was married, because you realize you really don’t need much to live especially when you are on your own. Good luck with the packing!!!!!!

    • I don’t know how it’s possible to look any smaller than it is! Mike compares it to living in a dog kennel. It will be an adventure, that’s for sure! Your tea house sounds fabulous. How on earth did you get that? That house is cheaper than what I’ll be paying for this tiny apartment, and it’s not even in the heart of Tokyo. Yes, I know I don’t need much to live in Japan, as I’ll only be there four months and hopefully will be out and about a lot, besides having to work 9-hour days 5 days/week. I can do anything for four months. 🙂

      • My ex-husband’s boss owned the tea house we lived in. That is how we got it. I took it all for granted. I had a lovely little one room apartment before that above a tiny shop, my Japanese Mom found that for me. Before that I lived outside of town in a “Gaijin House” full of foreign women whose underwear drying on the washing line outside were always getting stolen.

      • HI there, I had to write you in light of the many unexpected random acts of kindness you have been writing about since you arrived in Japan.

        I am so upset right now, because of how opposite things are here. I just got back from Walmart where I was looking to buy some huge storage bins which I had forgotten to get a cart for. I went to the cash section where I saw a young guy around 25 putting a few items in a back pack. I assumed he would not need his cart, so I asked him if I he was done with it could I please have it. He said nothing for about 30 seconds, but I could feel all this rage building up in him while he kept looking at his stuff as he was putting in his pack. He ignored me a while longer and said, no, through gritted teeth, with so much repressed anger it scared me, then said why are you wasting my time. I said, it looks like you might not need the cart, may I please use it? He said give me a dollar, I said these carts do not need money. He said, why are you wasting my time again, and I said, scared by then, I am sorry you are having a bad day. He said, again with anger, YOU ARE MY BAD DAY. I touched the cart, and he grabbed and said, GIVE ME A DOLLAR!! I said, I am sorry and backed away.

        Cathy, I was so upset and still am I was in tears by the time I got to the cash register 15 minutes later, shaking. I could not even get my bank card out of my wallet. I told the Indian cashier what happened, ahd he could see how upset I was and said, I am so sorry, please put it out of your mind. I said why are people so angry and so full of hate? Over nothing? If I am that guy’s bad day, God help him, someone being nice to him and polite sets him off like that. I said I was glad we have gun laws here because I would seriously have feared he was that full of hate and rage that he would have shot me had we been in some Southern US state, no offence but people have been killed over less than that.

        Right after that, in my tear-blurred state I went home and right away someone held the door open for me as I had these huge bins in my arms.

        I know there are nice people, but it scared me how pervasive all this North American hatred and nastiness is so close to the surface of people who cannot accept an innocent polite request like can I please have have your shopping cart as you appear to be done with it, at a Walmart.

        Where is all this leading to? Things in the USA re getting frightening as Trump is not afraid to bomb without Senate approval and without a strategy. I am sure war with Russia and/or North Korea is the next step, a further outlet of hatred and meanness and pure evil for no reason on both sides. What have we come to that we are no longer safe to speak to a stranger and make an innocent request? I was having a nice quiet day, now I am so upset and have nothing in the house but a can of cider which I hate to calm me down. I was afraid to leave the store in case this creep was waiting to follow me home as I live right beside the Walmart. Do we have to fear our neighbours? To be afraid to set outside? When kindness is met with anger and resentment and hatred so out of proportion that is scares people? I hate North America. I hate what we have become here.

        And I hate that stupid social work course which I will quit without finishing because of the completely unreasonable assignment demands of what is expected from a first year survey course. I wasted $800 on that stupid thing but perhaps it was a lesson learned cheaply that I do not belong in social work. Can you imagine how many people like this creep I would encounter if I made a comment or had to attend a child apprehension from some one like that? No thanks. I would rather eat cat food than face what I faced today. I was that scared and that upset, and there was nothing I could do to diffuse the situation. When kindness fails, what do we have left?

        Sorry but I had to share that with you because of the very exact opposite you are experiencing, where people are kind for no reason on a mass scale. You will find this happens to you all the time in Japan and I am so glad that has not changed.

        Take care, and please have a drink on me as I am too scared to go outside again to get a bottle of wine for myself. xxxxx

  6. Neat that you could get a little feel for where you will probably live ahead of time. Just a few days till you leave – happy new adventure!

    • Yes, I was lucky to get a feel for where I was to live, Carol, and in reality, it wasn’t far from what I expected. Thanks for this comment which for some reason I’m just now finding in my pending comments. Better late than never! 🙂

  7. I have always wanted to visit Japan. The Japanese fascinate me. In fact, I’ve been watching NHK for my news lately for some inexplicable reason.
    Have a safe trip and I look forward to reading about your adventures. 🙂

  8. I hope you have arrived safely. I’m looking forward to sharing in your latest adventure. 🙂

  9. Oh, #*^%! I have a lot to catch up on. Don’t know how I can do it, but I do want to say that your reading up on the countries you visit is admirable – you do so much – but then that’s you! Some of these sound interesting (Ozeki, Wynd). Maybe pick up something on wabi sabi too, to add to the mix!

    • I’ll have to look up some books on wabi sabi, Lynn. Now that I’m here, I hardly have time to read, except to read my guidebook and walking book and plot out my next adventure. Too much time and too many demands at work!!

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