When beginning the journey of living in a foreign country it really helps to get some local friends. They can help with cultural barriers and situations requiring a deeper knowledge of the native language. Plus, they’ll know where all the best bars are.
I’m actually quite a shy person, especially when it comes to talking to new people, so when I started working as an English Teacher in Japan I found it tough getting to know my new Japanese co-workers. This task was made even tougher by my total lack of language ability and the relative remoteness of my schools’ locations. Fortunately for me there were a couple of Japanese English Teachers that were so open and welcoming to me that we quickly became friends and remain so to this day. One of them even invited me to go on a trip with him and stay with his family. We ate, we hiked, we played in Sunflower fields, and we sat with an elephant on a see-saw. This was my first trip to the beautiful Akita prefecture in Japan.
His name means “boy.”
One of the first schools I ever worked at was a large Junior High School in the northern Iwate prefecture of Japan. There were five Japanese English teachers in that school; one for each grade, plus one extra for the second grade and another for the disabled class. They were all very friendly and helped me a lot in adjusting to my new working environment. As the school was so big I only had time to teach the disabled class a couple of times during the year but the teacher of that class still went out of his way to talk to me. His name was Yutaka, but his friends and more familiar students called him Yuta-bo (sounds like bore). Supposedly this loving nickname is derived from the word “boy” and is meant to reflect his childish/boyish nature. He’s a pretty funny guy.
One Autumn day he approached me and asked if I had any plans for the long upcoming weekend. I replied that I hadn’t and so he asked if I wanted to join him on a trip. I hesitated slightly as I wondered what kind of excursion he had in mind, but quickly agreed nonetheless.
We set off on a fine sunny morning on a B-line to the mountains. My knowledge of Japanese geography was exceptionally poor at the time and has only recently reached the level of “moderately poor” so although I knew there were mountains near my abode I had no idea what lay on the other side of them. As we winded through tight mountain roads, past glittering lakes and precarious trees, we chatted haltingly in simple English. We stopped at a road station, a common site in rural Japan that allows weary travellers so sample local specialities and buy gifts for absent friends.
It wasn’t long before we left the mountains behind and continued straight on into the heart of Akita prefecture. I don’t recall the name of Yutabo’s home town but I remember there being a lot of greenery all around the place. We rocked up to his familial home and I was greeted by his father, mother, sister and seven or eight year-old niece. They all wore gigantic smiles as they bustled me inside, to the spacious living room. The wooden floor had a large carpet in the centre and on the carpet was a long, low table. An impressive TV stood in one corner and on the wall next to it was a big sliding glass door that fully displayed the luscious greenery of the surrounding area. Another wall had wooden sliding doors that opened to a tatami room. I later discovered this to be a common set-up of Japanese living rooms: big low table in the centre of the room, TV in one corner, tatami room nearby and, ideally, a large window or terrace door.
We gathered, cross-legged, around the table as I was bombarded with questions about the UK and what I thought of Japan while being poured beer and served delicious food. When bed-time came my friend showed me to where I would be sleeping: his old bedroom. He was excited to point out that he’d set up his old Famicom for me to play with. Actually, I think I was way more excited than he was – despite heavy weariness I fired up the yellowed console for a quick bit of button-mashing before sleep.
It was on that night that I learned how insanely difficult Transformers on the Famicom is.
The Good Life
The next morning, after wishing everyone a good morning, I went for a shower. The common bathroom setup I’ve noticed in Japanese homes is to have a “wet-room” containing the shower and bath-tub with its own extractor fan next to a room of equal size with a sink and usually a washing machine. So the idea is that after bathing one steps into the dry room to towel off. I was in the middle of briskly polishing my buttocks when the bathroom door squeaked open and in walked my friend’s seven or eight year-old niece. I started and wrapped the towel up tight. I nervously said
She nodded her head and walked up to the sink. She started brushing her teeth, taking no further notice of me. I hesitantly continued drying myself, taking the earliest opportunity to pull my pants on with Mr Bean-esque panache. After leaving the bathroom the girl’s mother apologised profusely. This was my first insight into the generally relaxed feeling that Japanese families have towards bath-time; it’s not unusual for multiple family members to wash together.
That afternoon’s activity was a hike up a nearby mountain. As you can maybe tell, my friend enjoys taking pictures (CLICK TO ENLARGE):
Apparently my friend’s father climbs it three or four times a year, so he was our guide. It was a beautiful day and a beautiful mountain, however the thing that really stuck in my memory was our rest at the summit. We perched ourselves on various rocks and Yutaka opened his back-pack. He pulled out an Onigiri and a can of beer and chucked them both my way. There was plenty in the pack for all three of us. I associated hiking with healthy things like fruit and natural yoghurt and fresh water. It had never occurred to me that I could be chugging beer whilst enjoying all this nature-stuff. It was great.
When we got back to the house I was introduced to another aspect of the Japanese lifestyle that I would later see repeated. With the TV on we each laid out on the large carpet by the low table, casually snacking on various dishes that had been laid out by the mother of the house and we dozed in and out of consciousness. Sure, I’d spent time like this with my dad at my home in the UK but then it was usually in armchairs or on sofas with our heads lolling from side to side. In Japan “lounging in the lounge” is a full on lie-down affair. On occasion I’ve even woken up with a blanket over me.
Such is the easy-going atmosphere of a day-off in rural Japan, as I experienced in Akita with a friend.
Yutabo took me to some fascinating and wonderful places over the rest of our vacation. We went to a castle, met a monk and fell through a cloudy sky whilst lying on the floor …