How Do You Know When it’s Time to Go?

Woman Going Home“So, how long do you plan to stay in Japan?”

I get this question all the time. Honestly? I have no idea, and yes that’s a bit scary. My default answer is that I have a three year visa and I’ll leave once it’s up, but the reality is I’ll leave Japan when I feel like it’s time to go.

But…how do you know when it’s time to go?

I have a co-worker, let’s call him Chris (because half the people I work with are named Chris anyway).

Every day Chris seems depressed about “teaching lame students”, or about the inconvenience of a doctor’s visit in Japan, or about…he’s got some kind of negative comment about pretty much anything we talk about. And yet I can still tell that he’s a decent guy, because he’s willing to help me out if I ask a question, and he’s not particularly unfriendly. The negativity seems to be entirely aimed at everyday life in Japan.

Some people become expats for a specific reason, such as work, so their time abroad has an expiry date and they simply leave once they’re done. But then others, like me, set out into the wide world in search of something: adventure, freedom… and we don’t want to leave until we find whatever it is we’re looking for. And during that search, many of us might create bonds and obligations that keep us here such as a family, or a well-paying job we don’t want to give up. And while many expats make the jump to immigrant, others seem unhappy after too much time in a country that just doesn’t mesh with their ideals.

I don’t want to wait until I reach that point, so if I ever start to feel like Japan is getting on my last nerve, I’ll ask myself, and honestly answer these questions:

  • Can I do the same thing somewhere else?
  • Is the quality of my life worth the perceived security?
  • What can I gain by staying?
  • What will I lose by leaving?
  • Am I happy?

I believe the last question is the most important one, because if I’m not happy where I am, why should I stay? Some of the expats I’ve met in Japan who have been here a long time seem disgruntled, disheartened and depressed. Perhaps they feel moving back to their home country, or somewhere else, will be a source of trouble and unhappiness because they’ll lose their jobs and established life here…but they’re unhappy now! In this case, moving on can only be a step in the right direction…right? Or is it not that easy?

What do you think?



Take these 8 Pills for Homesickness


When I first moved to Japan there were so many new things to do and see I had months and months of distraction, and it was like some kind of  illegal super immune system booster.  Even the biggest earthquake in Japan’s written history could barely put a dent in my enthusiasm. But a few months back, the “stuff” stopped working as well as it used to, and I started to feel a little under the weather. And soon, though I tried to fight through it, I couldn’t deny that I’d definitely caught the bug. I was officially homesick. So I had a consultation with my inner doctor, and she prescribed these 8 proverbial pills.

1: Embrace the loneliness — Enjoy being alone. Do the stuff you like to do that would make you spontaneously combust out of pure shame if your friends ever found out. Go ahead and blast that Wham! CD. Sit back and admire your (mint condition) Star Trek figurine collection. Fire up that belly dancing for beginners DVD. There are some things that are meant to be done alone, and only alone.

2: DON’T call home – This only makes it worse, trust me. In fact, my homesickness really peaked when I made the rookie mistake of calling home during my family’s Canada Day party. After seeing them all together on Skype, and watching them eat home cooked food and play Cranium, I felt a little tear slip delicately from my eye…and then I spent the rest of the night ruining my pillowcase with watery eyeliner stains. Wait until you feel better to call home, or you’ll regret it.

3: Go out — If you must have human companionship (you pansy), call some of your peeps and go out. Also don’t turn down invitations to go out for no reason. If you spend too much time at home you’ll get “homesores” (TM), which are like the mental equivalent to bedsores.  Booze is not mandatory, but it’s encouraged.

4: Watch TV/listen to music from your home country It’s like a piece of home, and it’ll make you feel more in touch. I like to stream TV shows and listen to internet radio.

5: Find something (or someone) to love in your new country — This will create a connection to your new country, because we all know “home is where the heart is”. Take up a culturally specific hobby, or you could just marry a local.

6: Personalize your new space and new life — Make your new digs your home away from home. Recreate your old room if you really want. Just make it feel, well, homey. And get some routine going in your life. Find a cafe you really like and go every Tuesday. Go to the Gym. Do things you would do if you were home.

7: Have a good cry get it all out of your system.

8: Celebrate all you’ve learned in your new home — Learning a new language? You’re becoming bilingual and you can now impress people at parties. OK and I suppose it looks good on a resume too. Or maybe you’re learning to cook new exotic food. Or just learning how to be an independent person. Pat yourself on the back for making it as far as you did.

Yup, every time the sickness starts to come on I pop a few of these pills and I feel right as rain again. What does your doctor prescribe for homesickness?

How Nihongo Showed me I’m a Snob


Nihongo is the word for Japanese Language, and since moving into my own apartment, I find I’ve been much more motivated to study Japanese (see my “Why Living in Tokyo is Hard” post), so I’ve stepped up my learning by — no kidding — like 300%. Where before I would study “when I had time,” or “when I felt like it”, I now study for at least half an hour a day.

TIP: Listening to podcasts on the train is a great way to take advantage of down time and learn something new. For me it’s Nihongo, for you it could be Italian, Spanish, how to start a business, the rules to extreme Pavlackian chicken toss…anything!

As I study I’m learning more about how the language works, especially the levels of politeness. This is all well and good, but the other day I went to the convenience store, and I realized that when the clerk gave me my receipt I needed to say thanks. After listening to a recent lesson about all the different ways to say “thank you” in Japanese I found myself worrying about the best way to do it.

Should I give a polite “arigato gozaimasu” (thank you)? She’s about my age, that should be OK. Ah, but she’s just a convenience store clerk, just a short “domo” (thanks) is all she should get…

Hmmm… Just a clerk? All she should get? I didn’t like where this train of thought was going, so I gave her the usual “arigato gozaimasu” I always did, and took my booze and went on my way.

But it did make me think: how often am I judging how much respect people should get based on trivial things like age and occupation? Probably no more than people are judging me. This episode took me back to a comment from one of my students a week before. I was teaching him the word “connoisseur”, and we somehow got to talking about the fact that I speak a minuscule amount of french, having grown up learning it in Canada. For example, I can count to 1000 and do things like say the year, which I suppose is slightly more than the average English speaking person in the west, but by no means can I have a meaningful conversation.

Still, he was mighty impressed: “Wow, you speak French? I have to be honest, before, I just think of you as an English teacher, but now I feel you are…eeto…someone I must respect.”


I’ve come to learn that hierarchy is a staple of Japanese culture. It’s built into the language, and drives the workforce. My students have told me that it’s very rare for someone to switch jobs, because at a certain age, someone should be at a certain position, so to leave and start over is very difficult. No one wants to hire someone over a certain age for an entry level or even mid level position. It will throw off the whole balance of the corporation. Now coworkers have worry about referring to their new colleague as Tanaka-sama, because he’s older than them or Tanaka-san, because their all junior programmers. No, we can’t have that.

But what I also learned is that this classicism was also there inside me all along, it just took a brush with Japan’s more overt system for me to realize it. And maybe it’s in you too. What goes through your head when you see someone over the age of sixteen working the drive through at McDonald’s?  What do you think when you see a hobo?

But so what? Who cares? We’re all entitled to our own beliefs, and if you want to rank people in the privacy of your own mind there’s nothing wrong with that right?

Wrong, because to live in the hierarchy you need to place yourself somewhere in this hierarchy as well. Do you really want to live under that kind of limitation? I certainly don’t. I believe this strict hierarchy is the driving force behind the suicide problem in Japan. According to the World Health Organization the majority of people committing suicide in Japan is men between the ages of 45-64. Perhaps men who have lost their jobs, and faced with the daunting, almost impossible task of starting over decide to give up. Or maybe men who are forced to work 70 hour weeks to maintain profits and an image of success as the big man on top, and are tired of running, running, running every day like their on a treadmill that can’t be stopped.

While there are many things I enjoy about Japan, I think this is one of the things that need to change. And I know I’ll be doing my damnedest to be aware of my thoughts, because thoughts form reality, and I want to break free of the hierarchy.

Tokyo Where to Go: Tokyo Dome City

The Tokyo area (let alone Japan) has so many must-see attractions, amusements and places to eat I worry that even if I stay here for years I won’t see them all. But last week I went out with a friend and  added another notch to my traveler’s bedpost: Tokyo Dome City.

I love this place. From the moment I stepped out of Korakuen station and saw a giant roller-coaster snaking its way among the Tokyo skyscrapers, I knew this was a fun place to be full of exciting things to do. The main attraction is (of course) the Tokyo Dome Stadium. Maybe it’s the white, egg-shaped dome, that reminds me so much of Toronto’s own stadium affectionately known as the Sky Dome, that makes me like the place so much.

Or maybe it’s the amusement park next to it. There is a little girl inside of me that will never grow up — a follower of the church of Peter Pan. And that girl loves the sight of a roller-coaster or carousel or Ferris wheel. And a roller-coaster that twists among the buildings, literally passing through a hole in the nearby LaQua shopping centre — how fantastical is that? With God as my witness, I will ride that roller-coaster!

Unfortunately the rides at the amusement park weren’t the focus of my trip that day, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t have a blast! It started out doing one of my favourtie things — eating good food — at Bubba Gump Shrimp Co.


It’s not exactly Japanese food: If you haven’t guessed from the name, this is a Forrest Gump themed restaurant. There’s a recreation of the famous bench outside, Forest Gump’s white suit is inside a display case, and they’ve got the movie playing on screens around the restaurant. When you sit down you’ll notice there’s a sign on the table that says “Run Forest Run,” to let waiters know to give you some space, but if you want their attention you just flip the sign up to say “Stop Forest Stop”. Genius right?

It’s a bit expensive, but what do you expect of a theme restaurant within an amusement park? Lunch (baked salmon and rice with shrimp) cost about 1200 yen, but it was a set that came with soup and a drink.

The food was actually pretty good, especially the garlic bread appetizer. If you like shrimp, this is a where to go.

We had to walk off all that food, so we took off for a leisurely stroll around Koishikawa Korakuen Garden. The word that comes to mind when I think of this beautiful garden is “wonderland”. It’s an oasis of calm and green right in the middle of the city. The trees shut out the noise and it’s so easy to lose yourself inside the secret world the garden creates. It made me want to play make believe, pretend I was a princess in a fantasy world.

I was really moved, and inspired by the by the fusion of art and nature, and I got camera happy. Would you like to see?

And I wasn’t the only one. We saw one couple dressed in kimono taking pictures with the pond and cranes as their backdrop.

I had a fantastic time at Tokyo Dome City, and I would go back in a heartbeat, especially to check out the Spa LaQua — a spa/hot spring inside the LaQua centre. The hot spring water is brought up from underneath the building. Sounds like a great way to relax after a fun-filled day exploring the thrills of Tokyo Dome City.

The Easiest Way to Get the Internet in Tokyo


URoad 8000 WiMax Router

URoad 8000 WiMax Router

When I first moved into my new apartment, I had the pleasant bonus of free internet from a mysterious, magical and unsecured “CG guest” wifi network. Yeah it wasn’t all that “safe”, but hell it was free! And anything sensitive like banking I did using the data plan on my iPhone.

So anyway I hooked up and began surfing like a champ, downloading music, videos and movies until one day, just as magically as it appeared, the CG guest network disappeared :(   forcing me to face the frightening task of getting my own internet hookup… in Japanese.

I did a lot of research, and mostly all it did was hurt my head. After hearing about Flex Hikari this and ASDL that, methods that would take two to three weeks to set up (and I wanted my internet back NOW!) there was only one clear choice — WiMax.

WiMax is the next generation in mobile internet; that means it’s wireless. No one had to come to my house to install anything. I went to Bic Camera, found someone who spoke English, showed them three pieces of ID that confirmed my address, filled out some forms and I walked out with the modem in the picture above. I pressed “on” and I was back in business that day.

The speed will depend on how close you live to the server, but say you lived right next door, the max is 40 kb/s, which today is pretty fast for a personal hook up. I gave the Bic Camera dudes my address and they did some kind of test to see how good the signal would be in my area, and they said it would be pretty good. However, according to I’m getting something like 5kb/s, but that’s still enough to stream videos at a reasonable rate. I can also take the modem with me anywhere, it’ll get a signal pretty much anywhere in metropolitan Tokyo. It’s just under 4,000 yen a month for unlimited usage.

I think I made the right choice and I’m happy with it so far, but if you’re looking for other internet options I found this site called BBApply. If you fill out a form they’ll give you a breakdown of the internet options available to you and how much they’ll cost They’ll also work with the providers on your behalf to get you set up, and it doesn’t cost you anything extra. Check it out.


Eden is in Tokyo

As the weather gets cooler and I see more and more people outside in long sleeves and jackets I can no longer live in denial: summer is on it’s way out.

Lately the weather had been perfect. Not too hot with cloudless blue skies, and the kind of quality fresh air that’s like a fillet mignon for your lungs. I decided to visit the small but charming Mejiro Garden. Here are some pictures.

Mejiro Garden 1

Mejiro Garden 2

Mejiro Garden 3

Mejiro Garden 4

Mejiro Garden 5

Mejiro Garden 6

Mejiro Garden 7

Mejiro Garden 8

The Salary Man Who Called Me a N*gg*r

True story: I was out and about with a friend in Shinjuku, and we were starving and looking for a place to eat. Well, Murphy’s law must have a sick sense of humour, because just as we’re contemplating giving in and eating at KFC, a random salary man comes marching through the sea of people on the sidewalk towards us, and as he’s barreling by he leans in and yells:


“..Oh my God,” said my friend. “Did he just…”

I kept walking, in shock.

Did that really just happen? Maybe he was speaking Japanese and I didn’t understand.

But as the seconds passed and I kept replaying it in my head, I had to accept the tragic truth: I was a victim of a drive-by (well in this case speed-walk by) hate crime.

In hindsight I think my reaction, or lack thereof, was the best thing I could have done, because to be honest that guy seemed…crazy. Even if I had been able to catch up with him as he whizzed by, he picked me because I was an easy target — I’m smaller than him and running my mouth would have probably gotten me a nice pop in the teeth. I’m sure he would have had no qualms with hitting me. He seemed like a man who’s got nothing left to lose. For all I know this was the last line on his suicidal bucket list and he was headed for an appointment with the next speeding train. And it’s not as if he sees me as a human being, much less a woman. He made it pretty clear that all I am to him is a nigger.

But still, there’s a part of me that wishes I had done something, anything more than well, nothing.

It’s something else how I’m learning that some of the positive stereotypes about Japan aren’t all that true.

“Japan is such a safe country; you don’t have to worry about anything being stolen.”

Uh, no, two friends on three separate occasions have had money stolen from their wallets since I’ve been here, and NOT in Roppongi in case you’re wondering.

“The Japanese aren’t overtly racist, just lacking in PC skills.”

Uh, go back and read the first paragraph of this post.

But, you know, despite that, I still want to live here, because thankfully I’ve met enough pleasant and kind Japanese people to easily cancel out that asshole. And there’s still so much I want to learn and accomplish here.  So sorry racist salary man, but you haven’t gotten rid of me. Sure it was a disturbing experience, but sadly it’s not the first time someone’s said that to me, so you lose points for lack of originality.

I’ve got too much to do and see to let him get under my skin. And you know what, honestly, he’s not the real problem. At least there’s no mistaking what’s on his mind. It’s the ones in power, the ones who keep their racism under wraps to avoid a bad public image I worry about.

I guess I’ll take some extra time with the kids in my classes now, to try to keep them from turning into him.