Written by: Andres Salazar
Needing a change of pace and new direction in life, I decided to head to Japan for a couple of years. Not sure what I wanted to do in university, I decided to let myself go on an adventure before coming back and settling in on a game plan. I filled out my visa paperwork and got all my bags ready as I headed for one of the most colourful, stylish, and eventful cities on the planet: Tokyo. Living in Japan was an incredible experience, though it had its challenges. The challenges of being a Latin guy in Tokyo were always there, but the city and country were a constant, always fun adventure.
I arrived in Tokyo in January 2018. Having traveled a lot since I was young, I was ready to avoid any kind of significant culture shock. I had seen all the “guides to Tokyo” that were giving advice to people moving to Tokyo and had extensively gone through tips and tricks with family and friends. Although I was ready for all sorts of shocking phenomena, I was surprised as soon as I got out of the airport. Immediately, what hit me was how warm Japan is. Being used to January snowstorms, -30C weekends, and having to wear strong winter clothes, being able to walk around with a light sweater almost felt like a crime. What was even more interesting to me was how the coldest it had ever gotten in Tokyo was an easily handled 7 degrees. The weather in Japan was always really comfortable. Year-round, it was never too hot or too cold; it was always just right.
Working in Japan was always fun. I began working at a little local preschool in the Suginami ward of Tokyo. It was funny because I had originally been hired as the typical “English guy” to teach English to the little kids. However, once the preschool principal and the rest of the staff realized that I spoke pretty good Japanese, I was lumped in with the others as a regular preschool educator. Teaching kids how to use chopsticks, playing hide and seek in the local temples, and going for walks near Shinto shrines never got old. Participating in Japanese school festivals, like the Undo-Kai (Sports day), was an awesome lens into the local community and local culture. Although I was the “different” one, I had not received an ounce of disrespect from the local Suginami community. If anything, more common than insults were gifts from local parents hoping that I was enjoying my time in Tokyo. Japanese preschools have a real sense of teamwork, with every employee or team member valued. As per the customs, younger employees tend to leave work after their senior peers, though it was nice to see everyone go and tell each other “otsukaresama” to congratulate others for a hard day’s work.
One thing I found in particular about living in Japan was that people’s experience seems directly tied to their linguistic skills. I had learned the bulk of my Japanese before I arrived in the country. As a result, I never had too hard a time making Japanese friends, going shopping, or even going to the immigration office. Aside from a couple of times when I needed help when going to the bank, I had an overall comfortable time. However, this is in contrast with the experience of many of my foreign friends. They found it nearly impossible to survive in Tokyo on their own. I had friends from Germany and Korea who decided to leave Japan partly, because of the strong language barrier. Although Tokyo is full of tourism and English teachers from different countries, being a foreigner who does not speak too much Japanese can be pretty difficult. City halls, government offices, banks, and even many restaurants often do not have much support or options for people from outside countries. As a result, I often found that most foreigners tended to hang out at similar venues and areas where languages like English were more easily found. Although you can survive and enjoy daily life in Japan without mastering the language, it’s hard to enjoy the country to its fullest when there is a vital communication barrier.
Living in downtown Tokyo was an exciting experience. In the end, I came back to Canada to attend University. Although leaving Japan was a painful move, I realized that Tokyo made me appreciate a city like Lethbridge. As fun, it was to be only forty minutes away from Tokyo Disneyland and to eat some of the best food I’ve ever had, a quiet and small city like Lethbridge, offers a real chance to sit back and relax. Tokyo never stops moving. When going home from work, I would see the population of Lethbridge in Ikebukuro’s train station every fifteen minutes. The colours are breathtaking, and the people are amazing, but Tokyo can feel like an expedition in a jungle. It can be very tiring and although I appreciate the slow Canadian pace, thinking back to my life in Japan brings back a sense of nostalgia and gratitude that makes me want to purchase the next plane ticket back.