Reflecting on my time in Japan
Around this time last year, I was nearly confirmed to start my internship teaching English in Japan. Something that I had been thinking of as only a possibility was becoming more and more real as I filled out paperwork and planned interviews with the people I would be working with in the fall. It would be my first of what I hoped to be many trips outside of the US and Canada.
In the time leading up to my departure at the start of September, a lot of people asked me whether I was scared to go. I always answered that I wasn’t, because I couldn’t imagine any reason to be scared. I knew I’d be working with people who could speak English, and as I understood it, Tokyo was safer than most cities in the US. I have two flaws that make life more difficult for me. I struggle interacting with other people and avoid making organized plans like the plague.
Part 1: Human interaction is only as difficult as you make it.
This picture was taken after I had spent three weeks staying at a school helping give English lessons to preschool and elementary school children. For the first few days of classes, the kids had prepared questions to ask me. While none of their questions were actually difficult, I remember struggling to answer most of them.
What’s my favorite sport? I’ve never followed any professional sports, and I haven’t played anything since I broke my arm in 9th grade during track on my first attempt jumping a hurdle.”Track and field.”
What do I want to do in Japan? At that point I thought convenience stores and crosswalks felt so different that almost anything I did felt mind blowing enough.”Uhh…Go hiking.”
Any time the kids asked me a question about myself, I would pause to think of something simple and unoffensive that hopefully had some truth to it.
Conversation intimidates me, because I can’t read other people’s minds to know what kinds of responses they want to hear. Most of my life, I’ve viewed the goal of a conversation to be to figure out the least I can say in order to end the conversation peacefully. Before leaving for Japan, I lived alone and was able to avoid all but the most necessary confrontations at school and work.
Once I got to Japan, it had become my job to have English conversations with students. Not to mention how afterward, my host families and coworkers usually wanted to get to know me better, meaning I would then spend most of my free time talking with them. Over the course of three months it became much clearer to me how my past unwillingness to improve my social skills had held me back.
I have a better idea now why more extraverted people than myself are able to have conversations all day and enjoy them. Other people are generally more understanding than I expect them to be, and if they are motivated enough to start a conversation, they’ll likely have something interesting to contribute themselves. Now that I’ve stopped viewing conversations as an obstacle to get past, I can find more to enjoy in the process of talking to others.
The context behind these two pictures shows how surprisingly little effort you have to put in to get others to like you, especially in the case of children. These were taken after my first time teaching to this group of kids. Over the course of an hour and a half English lesson, I stumbled through introducing myself via PowerPoint presentation at the start of the lesson and then spent the rest of the period following along with the activities that the teacher I was working with had prepared for that class. At the end of the class period, despite only having known me for a little over an hour, the kids decided they liked me enough to attack me on my way out of the room.
Part 2: Planning will make your life easier, but it isn’t a necessary part of enjoying yourself.
Before coming to Japan, I had asked if it would be possible to do any travel on my own while I was there, and in response the woman who put together my internship set aside three consecutive days where I could plan a trip for myself. I knew I wanted to go somewhere in the northern part of Japan, but had no desire to research and make detailed plans for the trip.
Instead, I went to Airbnb, typed in the name of Japan’s northern island, and found the cheapest accommodations I could within reasonable distance of a domestic airport. I found a room in a smaller city named Kushiro for the equivalent of about 40 dollars a night. As an added bonus, there was a picture of really nice looking sunset on the listing. I made the reservations, and found plane tickets for the planned time period and did almost nothing else to plan for the trip before going.
Because I didn’t have any plans motivating me to do more, I spent my first two days without even leaving the downtown area of the city, spending most of my time sleeping in, obsessing about how nice the air smelled here compared to Tokyo, and watching the nice sunset that was advertised on the Airbnb listing.
Due to a mistake of mine, I realized a little too late that I had made my reservation for only two days, and because the thought of asking my host in person to pay for an additional night was more intimidating than the thought of not having a place to stay for the night, I ended up spending the my last day and night without a hotel room
Walking around aimlessly is a major hobby of mine, so I wasn’t too concerned at the thought of spending my remaining 36 hours in Kushiro doing exactly that. I checked out of my room around noon that morning and looked at the guidebook my host had given me the day I checked in. There was a national park about an hour’s bus ride from the city, so I decided I’d go there while I had the daylight. The park was a marshland with a several kilometer long wooden walkway making it possible to walk through. It was one of the coolest hikes I’ve taken, and long enough that I was able to spend most of the day there.
The last bus back to the city left at five, so I returned to Kushiro around 6. At that point there were no attractions in the guidebook nearby that would still be open by the time I got there. What I did find interesting, however, was the location of a lake I saw on my guidebook’s map right next to the ocean. I would be able to take the train to the town next to the lake, and come back on the last train returning to Kushiro a few hours later.
The name of the town I went to was Akkeshi, and it was the most similar place I saw in Japan to my own hometown of Springville. Having spent two months living in the Tokyo area, this place felt like the middle of nowhere in a way that I had really missed. It was dark out by the time I got there, and other than convenience stores, nowhere appeared to be open. I grabbed an English translation of the guide pamphlet for the town, and after amusing myself reading the awkwardly written English, used the map to figure out how to get to the lake.
I walked for about half an hour to get to the road bridge that separated Lake Akkeshi and the Pacific Ocean, and once I got there, I just walked to the middle of the bridge and looked down at the water. People give me a weird look when I talk about it now, but I spent around 30 minutes watching this enormous flock of birds floating a few feet above the water, occasionally seeing one of them shoot down to catch a fish.
I spent the remaining majority of the night back in Kushiro drinking coffee in different convenience stores until the train station opened the next morning and I could get a ride to the airport. The regret I felt by 3 a.m. while falling asleep in my chair at a Seven Eleven will probably motivate me to plan a little better next time.
As for the rest of the trip, I am happy with how I spent the last day in part because of how little I planned. I doubt I would have gone to a place like Akkeshi or found something like the walkway through that marshland if I had decided everything I wanted to do months ahead of time. My favorite thing about travel is discovering things I don’t expect, a sentiment I found stated beautifully in the back of the pamphlet I found in the Akkeshi train station.