A Japanese friend asked me this today. He’s not the only one – recently I’ve been getting this question from friends and family all over the world.
It’s been two years already, since the plane landed and I stumbled out into the infamous Japanese summer heat, and a new chapter of my life was waiting for me. A lot has happened since then.
Living abroad for a longer period of time is like getting to know a person. In the beginning, you either dislike them immediately and turn away from them, or you’re extremely excited and want to learn everything about them. Even though I’m 100% sure that there is so much I still don’t know or understand about Japan, I have learned quite a bit just through living everyday life and traveling in it.
My relationship with Japan has been intense from the start.
I fell in love head over heels when I first visited and also when I moved out here. I felt home at last. Like everything I’d been missing in Germany had been here all along and I finally found it. Soon after, I got chronically ill, which caused a lot of doubt. Doubt about my life decisions and especially about coming to Japan. After a long inner struggle, I decided not to blame Japan for getting ill and against everyone’s expectations, I stayed. I learned how to handle my new health situation, which for the most part is stable now. I also continued to travel in Japan as much as I could, to seek out the beauty this country has to offer.
I hiked through a snowy forest in Nagano to take a million pictures of the famous snow monkeys taking a bath in a natural hot spring, until my fingers turned blue and numb from the cold. I gazed in awe at Mount Fuji at a lake in Hakone. I climbed a 50 meter high sand dune in the Tottori desert to sit and stare at the dark blue and seemingly endless sea. Later the same day, I sat on a camel for the first time in my life. I strolled along old castle ruins that were home to hundreds of gigantic cherry trees in full bloom. I sat by a wooden temple in a forest, the whole scene being so magical that I expected Totoro himself to stick his head out from the woods. I walked along the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever seen in Okinawa, wondering how places like that could even exist.
What they call ’culture shock’ hit me only 1,5 years later. When I came back to Japan after visiting my family for Christmas, I felt irritated and estranged from everything around me. Like I was dropped into a setting that I didn’t belong in. I was very aware of looking different and felt the urge to hide my face. I also felt myself not being able to stick to all the social protocols of politeness anymore.
When someone annoyed me, I’d sigh loudly and roll my eyes. I got upset when children hid behind their mothers because my appearance scared them. I got impatient when people working in a shop wouldn’t just tell me ’Sorry, no, we don’t have that item you’re looking for’ but would potter about, pretending to be looking for it. I wanted to bang my head against a wall when people were following a strict protocol, whether it made sense or not, and were never ever able to turn a blind eye on something.
After a few weeks of severe irritation, Japan and I were back to normal. Since then, our relationship has calmed down. We’ve left the honeymoon phase and the culture shock phase behind us. Now, we’re just living everyday life together, and this is how I’ve been thinking about Japan as a person: Someone who has flaws and issues (and a crazy neighbor who’s threatening to blow us all up), but who, despite everything, holds a place in my heart. Which is why I like living in Japan.