Japan Fall '91 ~ Jan '92: First impressions

Howdy Friends and Neighbours!

Well. I finally got myself settled enough to find some time to write. The past six weeks have been hectic, to say the least. Right now it’s 7:15 pm on a November 10th Sunday evening. I just had a nostalgic supper of ham and eggs—(sushi only goes so far) in order to get in the right mood for writing. It’s amazing how good it tasted after all that rice. I also put new strings on my guitar this afternoon (it’s my day for catching up—stringing, letters, laundry, cleaning, etc—boring). I’m playing two nights a week at a place called Jackie’s Bar. It’s all done up in western US décor and is the size of a large living room—5 piece band—50 people crammed in like sardines, and everybody dancing—on the stools, tables, chairs—everywhere! Jackie is Japanese—plays drums—dresses like a redneck—speaks some English—has a friend here on Kyushu Island who owns a western dude ranch—‘El Patio’—and has never been out of Japan. But they’re good people.

The Japanese are a highly disposable society. They don’t recycle, and used goods are thrown away. There ‘s a stigma attached to buying used anything. Buy a new stereo—the old one, perfectly good, gets thrown out. Once every month the neighborhood has a big ‘Gomi’ (garbage) day. Most of the Gaijin (foreigners) furnish their apartments from Gomi. I have seen perfectly good fridges, cupboards, dressers, stoves, bicycles, scooters—you name it—and you’ll probably find it in Gomi because they get rid of all their old stuff this way. Their apartments are too small to save anything. They love to help out foreigners with their extra things. Jackie gave me a telephone and reading lamp. I’ve been given dishes, a toaster oven, curtains, vacuum cleaner, etc, etc. and have had to buy very little to outfit my apartment. The Japanese are very generous people.

I’ve recently moved into a small one room apartment about 8’X10’ plus. Very small kitchen area and bathroom. It’s an old place—gaijin ghetto—but I got it with very little ‘Key Money’. Most apartments in Japan require the first month’s rent, three to four months deposit and one month ‘gift’ money to the rental agency—maybe $2000—just to get into a place. After that the rents are reasonable--$300--$500 depending on size—but it’s the key money that’s prohibitive. Usually your employer helps you out with this when you get a job but as I’m still out of work I couldn’t afford a fancy place. I’ve been looking for work ever since I got here but it seems that there is a surplus of foreigners in Japan. I’m not the only one to have heard about teaching here and with the economic problems in Canada. USA and Australia there are a significant number of foreigners here. Long timers here say that they’ve never seen so many here before—and it seems to have really changed this past year. I talked to a fellow who was here a year ago and then went to Indonesia for a year. He said a year ago he could walk into ten English companies and get nine job offers. This year they’re all full with people waiting to get on. August was the last big hiring—I was too late for it—and I have noticed that the number of people looking are dwindling as they run out of resources. I’m fortunate to have my music gig to help me out and pay the rent. The next time vacancies start to crop up are in the new year and I plan to stay at least till then, I’m quite optimistic that a job will fall into place by then.

The first few weeks I was in Japan I traveled around a bit. I went to Kobe, where I stayed with Ty Andrea, and then to Kyoto—which is the historical seat of old Japan. It has lots of lovely shrines, etc, but I didn’t want to live there. I then went to Nagasaki, where I had some contacts at an English school. Met some great people. We went one Sunday to a small island—by ferry—past lush green hills and enormous shipyards—quite a contrast—and we had a picnic on the beach and went swimming--five crazy gaijin and one Japanese lady. It was the end of September—a beautiful day—and we had the beach all to ourselves. September first marks the end of the beach season in Japan and, regardless of the weather, no one goes to the after that—except for the crazy gaijin, of course It was a great day.

After Nagasaki I went to a nearby city—Fukuoka—where I am now. Population 1.5 million. It’s a nice clean modern city right on the ocean and of all the places I’ve visited so far I like it the best. Good subway, lots of English schools, nice people. They even have an information place set up just for foreigners—which has been very helpful in getting around and learning about Fukuoka. One thing about Japan is that I don’t think I’ve walked this much in my life. All my pants are falling off me and my legs are in great shape. The subways are all underground so it’s up and down stairs three to four times a day at least. And I just got a bicycle to run around but bicycles here are made for short people and I’m riding around with my knees around my ears. As a matter of fact, I’m reminded of my height constantly. Japanese doors are 6’—I am 6’1” tall—the top of my head is becoming permanently scarred. The other day I was on the subway. It was crowded and I had to stand. At the other end of the car was another gaijin—and we grinned at each other as we had an unobstructed view over the black sea of heads between us. There are a lot of tall Japanese, however. Since their diet has changed in the past 40 years, more and more are approaching western standards. But this doesn’t mean that they change anything. I toured a new house two weeks ago—and the doorways were still 6’.

I’m listening to Japanese radio a lot in a vain attempt to learn some more of the language. It’s difficult. At least I’ll have some empathy with my English students.

Time just seems to fly by while I’m here. It’s surprising how used a person gets to a vehicle. With no car every trip takes hours. Walk to the subway—wait for the train--walk to the interview—try to find the building the interview will be in—and everything is written in Japanese—it’s fun. It took me three days to move (4 trips) from where I was staying on one side of town to my apartment on the other side.

The food here is great. I haven’t lost much weight—only due to exercise. I went last night to a Yakitori bar. It’s a long lunch counter that displays various foods—usually meats on a skewer. These are barbecued and then consumed with copious amounts of draft beer. I like it. The staple here, of course, is rice and also noodles. Both can be had quite cheaply. Surprisingly it’s not that expensive to live here. Rent is fairly cheap—once you get past the key money—and if I’m content with cheap Japanese food (rice, noodles, etc) I can get by on about $10 per day for food. Vegetables and fruits are expensive—but not too bad if you eat everything in season. Guess what—mandarin oranges are cheap right now—bananas, too!

Japan is definitely an interesting and exciting place to be. Every day seems to bring something new. There’s also an aliveness in the air that is quite contagious. All this new input and adventure makes on feel really alive. I’m having a great time in the land of the Rising Sun. Hope this letter finds everyone hale and hearty and in good spirits. Bye for now.

Love, Braden

PS—In case you’re wondering, the weather is cold here—not freezing, but a moist cold wind from Siberia—and there’s no central heating. I’m freezing my tush.

December 30, 1991
Kurashiki, Japan

Greetings One and All—

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Yes, I’m still alive and still in Japan! How is everyone on the home front? By mid-November I still hadn’t found a job and finally had time to write a letter to send to everyone—with some personal notes in each. I wrote the letter, sent off about three copies to my family and had good intentions to write all my friends next. Well we all know where good intentions get us. In this case it got me a job. The next week I was negotiating a teaching contract and preparing to move to Kurashiki. They didn’t want me now, they wanted me yesterday! One of their teachers had quit on short notice and they needed someone to fill the gap. Needless to say, things got a tad hectic for the next month. But now I’m getting ahead of myself. I’m writing you the new news and you haven’t even read the old letter yet—probably because I didn’t have time to send it! However, I now have two weeks off for Christmas and New Years and can get caught up on my letter writing.

There I was with 25 copies of Epistle One in one hand and 19 envelopes in the other and the phone rings. Scared me so much everything went flying out of my hands—big mess all over the place—but at least my hands were free to answer the phone. It was a company called Interac calling from Hiroshima. I’d interviewed with their Fukuoka branch the week before and thought ? ? ? ? all the branches in Japan.

“Steve Moore here from Interac, Braden. How’d you like to come work for us in Kurashiki?”

“Well, Steve, first tell me where is Kurashiki and what’s it like there?”

“Well, it’s a bit east of Hiroshima and it’s sort of like the Japanese version of Hell!”

I kid you not, those were his exact words! But he was lying—it’s a lot east of Hiroshima. And never having visited Hell I thought, what the heck, I might as well go and see what it was like. And it turned out to be wonderful. Kurashiki is a small tourist town (420,000 people) about midway between Hiroshima and Kobe/Osaka. It’s a delightful mixture of old and new Japan, with modern buildings alongside the well preserved ancient buildings and old canals. The town is quite famous for it’s history. However, about 20 miles away by train is a smaller town called Mizushima that is home to the Mitsubishi chemical plant. Very, very large. And it is there I work 3 times a week. Steve also used to teach there 2 years ago—it was his idea of Hell. Personally, now I’ve had the operation—the vapors don’t bother me a bit. You see after smoky bars anything seems like a breath of fresh air. Just kidding, there’s hardly any smell and my skin only burns when it rains (just kidding, Mom!) So far I’m enjoying it all to hell.

Starting with the phone call from Steve, things really got into high gear. I had to undo everything I’d just set up; apartment, utilities, telephone, etc. Say goodbye to friends I’d made in the past 6 weeks; tell Jacky I was going (happy for me I got a job but not happy to lose his singer); pack my gear and Monday morning I was on the Shinkansen to Kurashiki. The final negotiations were completed the Thursday before. Monday afternoon I looked for an apartment with Japanese office staff from Okoyama (Okoyama is 20 km from Kurahiki and that’s where the regional office is. Hiroshima takes care of regional offices for this area. Head office is in Tokyo). Tuesday morning 7:30 am observe substitute teacher instructing my new classes. Afternoon, more apartments. Evening, more observations. Wednesday, off to Hiroshima for training and orientation till Friday. Saturday—back to Kurashiki and final viewing of apartment. Sunday, move into apartment. Monday, teach my first class. All week teaching, sleeping on the floor because I haven’t had time to get a bed. Next weekend I finally got some time to go to a second hand store to buy some furniture and go shopping for a new bed. I bought a futon mattress with 2” foam mattress under that. Quite comfortable, actually. On top is a futon-like quilt and my sleeping bag. All rests on the floor—a tatami mat floor—of my bedroom/living room area.

I live in a small 2 story apartment building—6 apartments on each floor. It’s behind the train station, about 5 minutes walk, which is good because the train is my main form of transportation. The apartment is small, also, approximately 12’X26’, but it’s quite adequate for my needs. Oh, I guess I should tell you the other important news. I got a ‘New Mrs’. No, I didn’t get married again—it’s the brand name of my washing machine—I kid you not. Now, no comments from all the ‘libbers’—I just report the facts as I sees ‘em. She washes the clothes real good, too!

December 31

Blue skies and bright sunshine this morning. The sun is trying to peak over the laundry hanging on my balcony and into my living room. All the washing is done in cold water and the machines are not at al like ours. They’re smaller, very light, and use the force and direction of the water to swirl a small load of clothes around. The clothes get all tangled in knots and it’s very hard on them. The water is extracted in a centrifugal extractor and then you hang everything out to dry on poles attached to the balcony. I did some laundry yesterday (Twice in one letter—you’d think I had a fixation about laundry—I do—I hate doing it!) This morning it’s again colder than a witch’s----! Yesterday it even tried to snow for a few hours. I think the humidity here makes it seem even colder. Last month the weather was not too cold, bearable, but this past week there’s been a cold Siberian wind—and it’s been freezing. Japanese houses have no insulation, no thermopane, and no central heating! Some places have combination heating/air conditioning units—mine doesn’t. The Japanese use a ‘Futatsu’—a low table with a heater underneath. You cover it with a blanket and put your legs under the table/blanket. Feet warm., head cold. They also have electric carpets. I have a small electric heater that so far keeps the place bearable. Oh, they also use kerosene heaters that are not bad, but they stink up the place and are not very safe in my opinion. So last night I left my heater on low and put on my sweatsuit and piled on the blankets—and this morning I’m still cold. I think I got spoiled in Montserrat. Now I feel like I’ll never get warm again. Just wait, this summer I’ll be cooking and complaining about being too warm—such is life.

So anyway, I’m two weeks into my job and my tourist visa is running out. And the government doesn’t have all the paperwork completed for my work visa. My boss said,” You need a new tourist visa.” So off I went to Korea that weekend. (You have to go out of the country and come back in again) Friday night by Shinkansen (the Bullet Train) to Fukuoka. Saturday—3 hour hydroplane (foil?) to Korea (like the ferry service Victoria-Seattle Clipper).to Pusan—great bargains on clothes, especially leather goods/jackets, running shoes and luggage bags. The food is very spicy and terrible. The spice gives everyone bad breath like you wouldn’t believe. People are nice, though—quite friendly. I had heard about Korean aggressiveness and was a bit concerned before I went. However, shortly after I arrived I was standing in the street looking at my map and a Korean gentleman came up and asked if he could help me. He pointed out directions and was very helpful. There must be an effort to conserve power in Pusan, though, as all the lights in the buildings are on half power. It gives an eerie twilight effect in the subways—spooky the first time around. Sunday I came back to Japan—bit of a hassle ay immigration. They know you just went over to change your visa—which they don’t like but can’t do much about except make sure you have enough money on you. And they’re suspicious that you’re working illegally—which I was—but they have to prove it. So I’m back now working. I have to go back to Korea in a few weeks and get my work visa. This will probably be all settled by the time you get this letter. It’s fun living on the edge, though. Getting caught means a hefty fine for the company and me being thrown out of the country. Fortunately the need is there for English teachers, so the government doesn’t get too serious about tracking down offenders.

Monday I was back at work. The next weekend was Christmas week—which I was supposed to have off—but they offered me work and I needed the money, so I worked. Today is New Year’s Eve. This week I do have off. Happy New Year, Guys!!! So this week I’m catching up on letters, making lesson plans and trying to get some rest. Tonight (New Year’s) is ‘Oshogatsu’ — which is the important celebration for the Japanese. I’m going tonight to a shrine—which most Japanese go to—where they perform various rituals to see in the new year. I’ll tell you more about that tomorrow. Christmas is not a big celebration here, although you’d never know it from walking through the stores. They’re all decorated with in Xmas trimmings, Santa Clauses all over, and Christmas music blaring out, quite loud, all over. What you don’t see is any scenes of the religious aspects of Christmas. It’s mostly a commercialized version—which ours in the west has recently become also. I have to say I sure miss my word processor. Christmas is also a very romantic time for Japan—almost like our springtime. It’s supposed to be a great time to fall in love ( I didn’t!). For the past two weeks I’ve been teaching my classes Xmas songs and for my last class of the year I took my guitar. I sang Christmas songs, explained some of the Christmas traditions, and we had a little Xmas party. Hard to do in a 7:30 am class.

Let me tell you about my classes. I work at Mitsubishi Kasei (a chemical company) and Kuraray (another chemical company) and a company called NTN—that makes roller bearings and constant velocity joints for cars with front end drive—like Honda. At NTN I teach a private lesson to an engineer who is going to the States in 3 years. He’ll be there for a 5 year stretch. NTN also has a plant in Toronto. My other classes consist mostly of engineers—either manufacturing or developing chemical products. Classes are 6-12 people (very few females) average age 25 or a little older. Most have some interest in English—but they also get some recognition from their company for achieving certain levels of competence. So motivation is mixed, especially at 7:30 am and more so at 5:30 pm when they’ve put in a full day. They’re tired, haven’t eaten and will probably go back to work for a few more hours after class is finished. Most workers put in a 12 hour day, 5 days a week. If you ask what they did on the weekend—most will answer ‘sleep’!!!! So keeping the class interesting and lively is a challenge—especially when you don’t have a clue what you’re doing—but I’m learning. The classes are held in company classrooms and the company pays for the bulk of the lessons’ cost.

Oshogatsu is also a big holiday time for the Japanese. Traditionally it’s a time for them to go visit their hometown, their families, etc. However, for many, it’s become a holiday time to travel. They go skiing (go play ski? – no, that’s skiing!) Many travel abroad. This is also bonus time. One of my students told me he blew his whole bonus plus on a 7 day trip to Europe—London and Vienna—most os which was spent traveling. Not an uncommon story.


Well, New Year’s seems to have come and gone—how time flies. I get paid Monday so I had to wait till then to send this letter anyway. New Year’s Eve was fun. I got a bit yupperai (drunk) and a group of us went to a shrine. I got my fortune done, watched the priests pray and the Japanese pay their respects at the various small shrines scattered around the main one. Very low key, but interesting. Christmas Eve I went to a choral service at a local church—one of my students was in the chorus. Many western Christmas songs sung in Japanese. Started lessons this week—quite a challenge. It’s fun and interesting to me, also frustrating being illiterate, hard to read signs, menus, ask directions, etc. So friends, that about brings us up to date. Sorry for not writing sooner but will try to keep up in the future. Please drop me a line if you have a minute. All news from home gratefully accepted! No phone as yet, hopefully in the next month. Looking forward to hearing from you. Hope everyone is healthy, wealthy and wise. All the best in the new Year 1992.
Bye for now, Love Braden


Copyright©2003 Braden Corby