A year in Japan: Mid-term review

“Everybody is midway in their story.” (Ron Carlson)

Normally you would do a mid-term review at work to review the annual objectives, the progress and if any changes are needed, unless… HR systems fail to account for your move between the two companies. So instead, I thought I may do that for my Japanese adventure, which is exactly half-way through.

Seasons

In six months, I have experienced three seasons already. Summer (especially August) was terribly hot and humid, though it is not too bad as long as you stay indoors. On the other hand, you have many roof-top terrace parties (aka beer gardens), firework shows, summer holiday to travel somewhere cooler (if you did not forget to book it well in advance) or climb Mount Fuji, which is open only in July-August.The biggest disappointment is that days are so short and it gets dark by 7pm at the latest. Forget the long Midsummer’s night, it does not exist here.

A hot summer day in Yamashita park, Yokohama.

Autumn is my absolute favourite so far, especially from October when the typhoon season is over and the leaves start changing colours. To go to the most popular spots (e.g. Kyoto in November) you have to book really well in advance, but there are many other beautiful places to explore as well.

Japanese girls taking a selfie with the autumn leaves background.

The part I enjoyed most is that autumn lasts almost until Christmas, which means that you miss all the grey and rainy November as is typical in Europe. Besides, Christmas decorations and illuminations are indeed nice everywhere, so even if Japanese do not celebrate it, you can feel almost as if they do.

Christmas decoration.

Winter is mostly sunny and would not be too bad if Japanese houses had central heating… Buildings are built to last the earthquake, but not to hold heat, and unless you are happy to live with the hot air fan 24/7, the experience can be quite painful, I mean, freezing. OK, you can buy an electric heater or two or more, depending on the size of your home/apartment and the tolerance to cooler temperatures.

Spring is still to come, and I hope soon!

Work

Work takes absolute majority of our time and deserves a separate post on its own, yet, a few things to note. As you can imagine, the cultures are absolutely different. I have recently found the below illustration about different work cultures and as you can see, moving from France to Japan means going from one extreme to another.

Business cultures. Source: Harvard Business Review, https://hbr.org/2015/12/getting-to-si-ja-oui-hai-and-da?referral=00060

Yet, even though it may be difficult and frustrating, the experience is a valuable one and my Japanese colleagues are really superb. In case you have never heard about nemawashi or the art of getting all the concerned parties to a consensus, stay tuned, I will surely tell you about that soon.

Even though as a foreigner you are not necessarily exposed to a “seven – eleven”* office experience, but in case you have to deal with other regions around the globe, it may come somewhere close for a simple reason of time zone differences.

Language

Most likely you will be taking classes and either will continue throughout your stay or quit after a few months. The truth is that while it helps to have some basic skills, speaking Japanese well is not necessarily an advantage (unless you expect to stay here for long).

With some limitations, but you can perfectly live without speaking the language. That is one reason why some foreigners quit the lessons. Besides they note that trying to speak (not perfect) Japanese in business environment does change (read: weaken) your position and you automatically are expected to fit to all other cultural norms as well, which is not exactly what you want.

May advise would be to learn some, but not too much, and if you happen to be good at languages, do not rush to demonstrate it.

Food

Japanese food is good and has an amazing variety. The one thing I have not got used to so far is the quantity of rice that comes with everything. Even though you will not find bread in Japanese places, there is a number of bakeries everywhere. Similarly, the choice of cuisines and a range of places to eat (from street food to high-end restaurants with three Michelin stars) are greater than anywhere. No surprise that Tokyo has more Michelin star restaurants that any other city in the world and is even way ahead of Paris. Some say that even French food is often better in Tokyo than in Paris, though you will have to come, try and judge yourself.

Japanese cuisine. Don’t get scared by the look, the fish tasted amazingly good!

In any case, the range of choices helps as cooking in a tiny Japanese apartment is not the most enjoyable experience.

Exploring

It seems you have all the possibilities to travel around Japan and Asia, but well, not quite so. Traveling in Japan is expensive, especially to popular places at peak times. For instance, to go for a long weekend to Kyoto by Shinkansen in cherry blossom season can cost you the same as one week in a tropical island resort. Hotels are sold out at least half a year in advance and prices can range to insane amounts. Do not forget that all Japanese people travel to the same places and at the same time!

Tourists exploring Nikko.

Traveling outside Japan takes more than just a weekend. Everything is much further away than it looks on the map, thus you have to make a good use of all the holiday days you have, ideally, outside of the typical Japanese holiday periods (for the same reasons as mentioned above).

As a result, I haven’t traveled as much as I thought I would. Yet, I did see and do more things than I managed to tell you about and that is something I will try to improve in the second half.

Dance festival and the poster for Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

Summary

To sum up, the past six months were quite rich with all types of experiences, some quite different from what I would have ever expected. And yet, there are still many places to see, many things to try, many coffees to drink, many topics to write about and even more photos to take. Let’s continue discovering!

*the term should not be understood directly, but is rather used as a joke referring to a convenience store

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