Letter to Myself when I Moved to Japan Five Years Ago

Five years sounds like a long time, but it doesn’t feel like it. I’m not sure if I (you?) ever imagined myself (yourself?) staying in Japan for this long. It’s a little hard to remember the exact mix of emotions you’re going through right now, but this is just the beginning of a drastic change so hold on and don’t forget to breathe.

Your first year in Japan will be the most important. Despite eventually moving away from Nagano, you’ll find that it’s incredibly useful to have lived in an area of Japan that’s not part of the huge urban landscape of Tokyo. It kind of creates an additional point of reference in your head to remember that all of Japan is not Tokyo.

But that’s a realization for a few years from now. Currently, you’re probably worried about getting ready to teach English to junior high school students. Teaching is a mixed bag: there are great students and there are troublesome students; there are lessons that kids connect with and lessons that nobody pays attention to; there are days when kids have energy and days when it’s a struggle to stay positive. Just try to remember back to when you were 11-13 years old and how often you actually engaged with your teachers. Don’t sweat it: kids are kids.

Try your best to be more than just a face the students see once a week. Join club activities and seek out community events. Really try to get involved. It’s easy to show up to school, then just go home and be a hermit. Really easy as you’ll find out. 

As your first year begins to wrap up, you’ll feel almost stuck between a rock and a hard place. You’ll want to continue to live in Japan to explore everything (the shrines, the festivals, the food, the language – practically every aspect of living here feels like a rabbit hole of discovery), but you’ll also feel like continuing to teach might not be the best approach to achieve this goal. The end of the school year is a deadline to make a decision. I guess you already know how you decide since I wouldn’t be writing this letter otherwise.

The next chapter of your life is set in motion after taking a risk on moving to Tokyo. At this point, all your belongings still fit into your suitcases – so moving won’t be too much trouble. In fact, it’ll remind you about packing up and moving from Oregon to California. You’ll wish you had a car this time though.

Relying on the goodwill of a close friend, you’ll spend a few nights on his couch while looking into sharehouses and other affordable housing in Tokyo – if only you had known about Real Estate Japan back then! Unfortunately, you will let the excitement of the big city get the best of you. You’ll arrive home after a late night and decide that the hallway is as good a place as any to remodel with the contents of your stomach. Your friend is a patient and understanding guy, but this really pushes the limits of crashing on someone’s couch. Not cool, me.

After this unceremonious parting, you should take time to reflect on your actions. Living alone in a new country means you don’t have a solid social support network of family or friends as you do back home. The only way forward is to pick yourself up and hold yourself to higher standards, nobody else is going to do that.

You’ll check out a few sharehouses around Tokyo. You’ll choose one out in Kodaira, a small residential city in west Tokyo. Again, you won’t realize it at the time, but it’s good that you’re getting to experience living in other parts of Japan before actually moving into the 23 wards of Tokyo. Over time you’ll understand that this helps round out your experiences in Japan. It’s setting the foundation for a deep appreciation for everything the city offers and for everywhere that isn’t the city.

I’ll go over how you get accustomed to life in Tokyo in another letter. Until then, do me a favor and try to set aside a little more time for studying kanji.