As a young man, my dad travelled a lot. He was shipped off to live in Switzerland when he was 15, became fluent in German, and thought nothing of hitch-hiking 600 miles to get somewhere. One time him and his mate ended up in Tangier in northern Africa, sleeping on the beach, burying booze and food in the sand to keep it cool. When they ran out of money they drew straws to see who would sell a pint of blood to give them enough money to get the ferry back.
In the same way that other fathers will bring up their boys up to support a certain football team, I guess it was inevitable that I would listen to these stories and bury them – just like the booze and the food – deep in my psyche. It’s only natural that I would get my wanderlust from somewhere.
When my dad was 20 he travelled to Japan to live and work for six months, helping to install Swiss embroidery machines at a factory in Osaka with his father. Back then, getting to Asia was a mission in itself, with his particular journey involving separate flights to London, New York, San Francisco, Honolulu, Tokyo and finally Osaka. The whole journey took about two days.
Dividing his time between Osaka and Nara, my father would live in a variety of ryokans – Japanese inns – experiencing a Japan that I am sure was very different than the one I know today. A lot less gaijin for sure. In his own words, he “once married a wee Japanese girl who couldn’t speak a lick of English”. Bravado is the same, no matter what generation you are living in: he probably kissed her once. Of all the stories though, it was his time in Japan that struck a chord with me, and so my relationship with the country began.
In my second year of secondary school I remember a teacher asking our class if any one would like to have a penpal from Japan. No one put their hand up apart from me. Her name was Azusa from Saitama prefecture, and for the next few years we would exchange letters, mainly as an English language exchange on her part. Despite both being the the same age, the life of a twelve-year-old in Japan was very different to my own in Northern Ireland: Japanese students had so many extra-curricula activities, and much more was expected from you at such a young age. I remember looking at some photos she sent me of her kitchen. It looked so small and so different. I could see stickers on the fridge in Japanese and Disney memorabilia everywhere. I still have all the letters.
By the time I was sixteen I pretty much knew the geography and cities of Japan better than that of the UK. This was the land before time, of course – before the internet – so I’d pick up any books I could in the library or buy old atlases from charity shops. I'd stare at the map and look at little town names and wonder what they looked like. I still do that today with a huge world map on my wall, picking a place at random and then reading about it on Wikipedia. Is that nerdy? I don’t know.
After university I applied for the JET Programme – a government-funded programme for graduates that sends you to live and work in Japan as an ALT (Assistant Language Teacher). I remember flying to Scotland for the interview at the Japanese Embassy in Edinburgh. I’d just finished a UK tour with the punk band I was playing with at the time, and I remember feeling quite out of place in the chambers of the embassy with its mahogany sideboards and deep red leather sofas. It was a deathly quiet place, and as soon as the interview was over I thought I had blown it. A few months later though I found out that I was accepted. I still remember coming down to check the mail and there being a large envelope; the first thing I saw when I opened it was a brochure for Fukuoka City. I couldn’t believe it. I was going to Japan!
So, on the 2nd of August 2003, I boarded a flight to Tokyo from London. I had never lived away from home before, or even been abroad apart from with my parents as a child. This is the type of candidate the JET Programme wants – wet behind the ears, someone who will be truly blown away by the experience. (It’s no coincidence that the more Japanese language ability you have or the more times you have visited Japan, the less likely you are to be accepted on to JET.)
At Heathrow, our entire group was upgraded to Business Class, and after a three-day orientation at the Park Hyatt in Tokyo I flew to Fukuoka to live. At 22 I was living in Japan, earning a load of money and living the dream. I taught at five Junior High Schools across the city – the same style of Junior High Schools that Azusa had attended not many years before.
I have to say here that the JET Programme – especially back then – was a very cushy deal. I was getting paid a lot for very little work, but who was I to complain? I took the ferry over to Busan in South Korea, travelled to Thailand for the first time, and spent my 23rd birthday in Okinawa. I thought nothing of flying from Fukuoka to Tokyo to see Squarepusher and going straight to the airport after the gig to come home. I spent a year in Japan first time around, and it was during that period that my love for travelling really started.
A girl (surprise, surprise) drew me back to Northern Ireland, but Japan was never far from my thoughts. I visited the country again for a month a few years later as part of a year-long world trip, and three years ago I decided to come back and live for a while, this time in Tokyo.
While, on paper, I have been in and out of Japan for the last 10 years, the truth is that my connection with the country goes back much further. It is a country that gets under your skin and once you live here for a while it is very difficult to say goodbye to. My friend Jake and I often joke that Japan has ruined our lives, in the sense that we will never be able to let it go. I’ve decided now that there is no point trying to let it go. I have pretty much accepted that I will be in and out of Japan sporadically – be it for work, pleasure or both. Japan is a part of me now.
Dad, you have a lot to answer for.
Read more about Justin's Japanese adventures on his blog, Ikimasho.
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