Flying half-way around the world can be a daunting thing, even more so when it’s to do a job you’ve no experience of, in an area that was recently devastated by a cataclysmic natural disaster. But for whatever reason, that’s exactly what I did in June 2011. I came to work in Japan.

How does one prepare for a leap like that? And what’s it like to arrive, alone, in a country like Japan with only vague ideas and shaky plans?

Step One: Get there.

My road to Japan began at home. My parents’ home to be exact. I had finished University, returned to my homestead, and found a pitifully paid part-time position at a local department store. The job was fine and I met some good people there but I found myself unable to get any other kind of work that might’ve enabled me to finally move off into the world. A friend of mine from Uni told me about “TEFL” and about how she planned on teaching abroad as a way to both travel and earn money. This idea really appealed to me so I set about researching affordable TEFL certification. I learned that taking an on-line course was the best option for me. I went with i-to-i because it was both well-reviewed and came with a Practical component.

I knew I wanted to teach in Japan eventually due to its fascinating culture and because of some fond childhood memories, but at that time every job I could find in Japan required at least one year’s teaching experience. So, my initial teaching target was actually South Korea. It’s a location that was being heavily advertised in TEFL circles, and contractual promises of free accommodation and paid airfare made it particularly enticing. However, before sealing any deals with a Korean school the Great East Japan Earthquake and resulting tsunami struck and battered the island nation senseless. Many ex-pats living in Japan were encouraged to leave, not just by their families and governments back home, but by their own, understandably shaken, nerves.

This left a big, native-English-speaking, gap in the education infrastructure which needed to be filled. To make this happen as quickly as possible some private companies offered extra perks to new employees. The perks included things like lower employment requirements, loans to help newcomers settle in and most importantly: airfare. Seeing these new offers pop up on job sites I decided to skip straight to the main course and applied for a position in the disaster-stricken Tohoku region. My family were worried, particularly about the problems arising out of Fukushima, but they saw me off with smiles nonetheless. Finding a decent flight to Tokyo was not too hard and after visiting my very good friends in London I blasted off from Heathrow direct to the unknown.

From Air To There

The flight itself is nothing more to me now than a blur of half-watched movies and half-taken naps. The company who hired me had booked a hotel for me somewhere in Tokyo and I had directions there via a bus from Narita International Airport. Making use of my keen intuition and the signs saying “bus” I got to a ticket counter and presently found myself on my way to one of the most famous cities in the world. The bus displayed upcoming stops on a bright LED panel towards the front of the vehicle. I watched intently, occasionally unnerving myself with thoughts like “well, that name looks similar to my stop.” Thankfully I was able to over-ride my own stupidity and sat tight until we reached the actual destination.

Darkness was settling down for the night and my Google Maps printout wasn’t being quite as helpful as I had first planned. Japan doesn’t use street names; it’s surprising to find how much I used to rely on the presence of them when navigating. I paused momentarily on the corner of a street, peering at my printout, appearing darkly yellow under the street lights. Someone came up to me. Not just any someone in fact, but a woman. A young woman.

Do you need help?

She didn’t sound especially happy about the situation, more like she was just doing her duty. I said I was just trying to decide whether it was better to go left here or to continue straight. She took the map from me with assertion, hummed briefly, and told me I could either go left here or I could continue straight. After a pause I thanked her. She handed back the paper. We bowed slightly before she took off. I chose left.

I reached the point marked on my map shortly after this encounter. I couldn’t see a clear sign indicating the hotel building. I wondered if the lack of light was tricking my vision. I walked into the nearest lighted archway I could see. As soon as I stepped in I knew it wasn’t a hotel, but it was too late. A couple of people, sat at what looked like a ticket booth, jumped up in surprise.

Ah.

I said. They looked at me, puzzled, and said something I couldn’t understand. I held up my tattered printout and tried to say the name of the hotel with a questioning inflection. “Oh!” One of the pair practically leaped out of the booth and guided me with great gusto, but no force, back to the entrance and began frantically gesticulating in a direction. “Oh!” I said, and we bowed. I thanked him and his colleague, who was leaning round the corner, and we bowed. I went back out onto the pavement, turned for a final “Goodbye,” and we bowed. I walked a little way down the street, looked back to see the man still stood in the archway. I waved. We bowed.

The hotel was literally the next building. I’m pretty sure the man in the archway could have seen me entering the lobby. I imagined him bowing.

Room-y

The hotel room had an ash-tray in it. I was alone, thousands of miles from home, in a country whose language I had not the slightest grasp of, about to start a job I never could have pictured myself doing, and now they were telling me I could SMOKE in my HOTEL ROOM??? I staggered. Collapsed in a padded chair, my mind recounted the checkpoints of my life. How had I ended up here?

Jet-lag cramped my sleep. I lay awake for hours, listening to the sounds of a foreign city. I got up in the morning, not refreshed, but strangely energised nonetheless. I went for a shower. The bathroom was like some kind of life-pod from a space-craft. It was a fully enclosed metallic wet room containing shower, bath, sink and toilet. It was whilst locked into that steam-filled isolation chamber that I experienced my first ever earthquake. Like the last match in the box I was tossed about, suds a-flyin’. My racing pulse forced images of a potential future showing a dripping wet Brit go fleeing from a hotel, desperately clutching an M-size towel about his parts.

The quake only lasted a minute or so. In that moment I was so glad that the wet-room also housed the toilet.

It’s a Small World, After All

I was the first person to enter the Breakfast area that morning. A lady approached me and showed me a simple menu detailing two meal options, “Japanese” or “Western”, with large colour pictures. I pointed at the meal I wanted, and we bowed. After a short while another guest entered the room. This young Asian man looked like he’d just stepped out of a Hip-Hop video; Loose trousers, colourful T-shirt and equally colourful, flat-peaked baseball cap. “So this is what the Tokyo youth look like,” I thought. The waitress approached the man and spoke to him in Japanese.

Errrr.

He looked puzzled. She looked puzzled. She showed him the pictures. He pointed, said “Hai,” and they bowed. He turned to me, we greeted and he joined me for breakfast. Not only was he not Japanese, he was from almost the same area of the UK as me. The two Brits were soon joined by two Canadians. Then by another Brit. Then an Australian. And so it went on, forming the starting basis of my life in Japan.

A keen reader may have noticed that my Japanese ability at this time was pretty poor. Actually is was nearer to total non-existence. My only preparation for going to another country was to buy a pocket phrase book. It was foolish of me, but as you can see things worked out pretty well. This is mostly down to the kind-hearted nature of the majority of Japanese people. People regularly try to help me even if I don’t really need it. Sure, this can be embarrassing at times but I always appreciate the thought.

So that’s how my time in Japan began. How about you? Were you greeted with similar acts of kindness or was it a far more miserable experience for you? Let us know below.

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