Two weeks in Japan (part the first)

On 31 August 2005, I left Melbourne on a Malaysia airlines flight from Melbourne to Narita airport near Tokyo, to take up a job working in Japan as an English instructor at a NOVA language school. The last two weeks have been fairly hectic, but I’ve finally secured constant internet access and am settling down. Here’s the first part of the long awaited (and just plain long) story of my first two weeks in the land of the rising sun (and giant robots and cool vending machines).

Wednesday 31 August

It takes seven hours to fly from Melbourne to Kuala Lumpur, where I had to change flights. There were six new NOVA instructors on the flight, but we were scattered across the plane, so we didn’t get to talk much. I watched Garden State on my PowerBook on the way to KL, which was okay. The food wasn’t bad, but the cakes that Malaysian Arlines served with every meal were quite bland.

At KL, I started to feel like I’d flown out of the world and into a book or the TV. Malaysia, I was surprised to find out, is actually a real country, and I was there! Flying around the world (or even just across a little bit of it, as the case may be), you finally experience the reality of living not just in a city or country, but on a planet. It’s a great feeling.

Thursday 1 September

By the time my plane flew out of KL, I was too tired to be worried about whether it would crash and I would die. I got a good 5 hours sleep before being woken up for breakfast. As we flew across the countryside surrounding Narita, I got my first glimpse of the blue-glazed, tiled roofs that I had previously thought only a figment of anime designers imaginations. The Japanese countryside is a very different sight to the Australian landscape: a patchwork of deeply green fields, sprinkled with houses and crossed by rivers and canals. There’s a lot of water in Japan, and it makes it a beautiful country to look at.

At Narita, I discovered that squat toilets aren’t at all difficult to use, and met Simon, a British man who is one of NOVA’s human resource managers. Simon was a pleasure to talk to all the way to Kita-senju, where he left me to catch the express train to Ôta-shi by myself, but he was overly focused on what happens in Tôkyô. He failed to explain that since I wouldn’t be doing my orientation at Shinjuku with everyone else on my flight, NOVA wouldn’t help me organize a mobile phone connection. This had follow-on consequences later. He also didn’t help me learn to use the old ticket machines which you tend to see out in Gunma prefecture, where I was headed, assuming that, just as in Tôkyô, I’d have access to ticket machines with English language instructions. Okay, so he lives in Tôkyô, that’s understandable; but when you consider that he manages NOVA’s HR for all of Japan, you’d expect he’d know something about Gunma, which is only 2 prefectures away.

Chris Goulburn, otherwise known as Kit, met me at Ôta station to take me to my apartment in a block called Shido Palace. Since the one guy who lived there before had left that morning to go back to the UK, a professional cleaner was doing his work on my apartment, so Kit gave me a tour of Ôta. First, we picked up some lunch at a nearby 7-11, before heading to the Daikoin temple complex at the base of Kanayama, the mountain at the north end of town.

The main temple at the Daikoin complex in Ôta

I didn’t actually take this photo until I returned to the Daikoin complex several days later, after I’d got a mobile phone with a camera in it. While the photo shows the main temple, there is also a less impressive building at the site, which was erected at the order of Tokugawa Ieyasu as a shrine to the god of music.

When we got back to my apartment, the apartment still wasn’t finished, so we continued our tour of Ôta on bikes, riding down the major roads to see the assortment of mega-stores (such as PC Depot and Toys ‘R’ Us) that Ôta is home to, and to the big mall on the outskirts of town, where I now work.

Kit was a good introduction to the gaijin here: in England he was an illustrator, whose specialty was Victorian-style etchings. He’s an intelligent guy, he speaks a little Japanese, has a Japanese girlfriend, opinions on numerous topics, and has flown small planes. That kind of thing impresses me. He was also kind enough to pass on to me the bike he’d inherited from a previous tenant here at Shido Palace. Bikes are essential around Ôta, which is relatively sprawling for a Japanese city, so kudos to you, Kit.

Friday 2 September

In Australia, I am too small to buy clothes at most stores, so I didn’t bring many work clothes with me. My mission for the day was to buy just one shirt, which proved somewhat difficult. After recieving some help about sizes at a shirt store, in Japanese, I proceeded to present the shop assistant with a ladies’ shiirt, which was the only plain white one I could find. With a little more help, I finally got a white men’s shirt.

The store’s slogan, by the way, is “Well Best Selection Shirts.” Brilliant.

The rest of the day, I think I slept or something.

Saturday 3 September

My first Saturday was spent at NOVA orientation in Kiryû, about an hour away by train. Ôta and the surrounding areas aren’t exactly jumping with activity, so I was the only orientee. I was extremely miffed to discover that though Simon had hyped NOVA’s ability to help you get a mobile phone, the service was not available to instructors doing their orientation outside of Tokyo. Had I known that, I would have tried to get a phone earlier.

Orientation was made more adventurous by my not knowing how to use the trains properly. I first bought the wrong train ticket (express rather than local), then caught a train to Akagi instead of Isesaki. My next “mistake,” getting off the Akagi train early, at Aioi, proved to be a good decision, because it was only one stop away from Kiryu, albeit by a train that only comes once an hour or so. Even though the station attendant was relatively unhelpful, he did show me how to use the Japanese-only ticket machines that you find in this area, which was obviously something I needed to know.

Up until this point, I had been thinking that Ôta was a pretty decent place. Things here are very convenient, you can get great food at the supermarket, and my Japanese was getting better as a result of being asked strange questions I’d never encountered in my textbook, such as “would you like ice in your coffee?”, “would you like chopsticks?”, and “eat-in (kochira de) or take-away (mocchi kaeri, テークアウト)?” My main frustration was that very few of the instructors here have bothered to learn Japanese, and don’t even understand basic phrases like “oyasumi nasai” (good night) and “matta, ne…” (see you later). Otherwise, Ôta seemed like a place good enough that I was worried I might like it too much, and give up my ambition of moving to Tôkyô.

And then I actually went to Tôkyô…

Author: Ben Hourigan

Ben Hourigan is a novelist from Melbourne, Australia. His books Kiss Me, Genius Boy and My Generation’s Lament are Amazon category bestsellers, and are available wherever good books are sold online. Ben also works as an editor, copywriter, and self-publishing consultant at his own firm, Hourigan & Co. For news and book release updates, sign up to his email newsletter.