Gabe in Osaka, Japan.

Japan is Different and That’s Why I Love It

Gabriel Nolan lives in Hokkaido, Japan.  He majored in History at Penn State, where he graduated in 2013.  He moved to Japan in 2014 where he is currently a whitewater rafting guide in the summer and a ski instructor in the winter. SPOILER: He loves it there.

Street view of Shinjuku, Japan at night.
Friday night in Shinjuku, Tokyo (all photos by Gabriel Nolan).

Why Japan?

I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do when I was at Penn State.  The job market was tough and I wasn’t ready to chain myself to a desk for 2 weeks of vacation and a 5% match in my 401K. I grew up skiing on the East Coast but was lucky enough that my parents brought me out to Utah when I was younger to experience the Rocky Mountains. I had previously worked with kids during my summers as a camp counselor and canoe guide; I knew landing a job teaching kids to ski would be an easy ticket to work out west. I always loved ski school when I was a kid. I love working outdoors, and I love to ski, which led me to instructing.   

I studied Japan in a class at Penn State and since then Japanese culture always interested me, but I had never been to Asia.  So after a winter in Park City, Utah, I decided to go a step further.  I did some research and found that Hokkaido has some of the best snowfall in the world.  Great snow combined with delicious seafood, rich cultural history, and cutting-edge technology made it a pretty sweet deal.

Life in Hokkaido  

Every day in Hokkaido is different.  In the summer, I work 6 days a week with a whitewater rafting company. When we’re not leading trips, we are repairing damaged rafts and getting ready for the next trip.  We are located in a small farming community tucked into the mountains.  So in our spare time, we get to grow and harvest all kinds of vegetables!

Whitewater rafting on the Saru River in Hidaka, Japan.
Rafting on the Saru River in Hidaka, Japan.

Last winter, I worked 5-6 days a week at an Australian-owned Ski Company in Hirafu Village. Hirafu is one of the four main ski areas in the Niseko United resort scheme. Hirafu is full of bars, restaurants (both Western and Japanese), ski shops, and privately run ski schools unaffiliated with the resorts. It sits at the bottom of the mountain and is set up like a Western ski town with several lifts and gondolas accessible in town.

I lived in an amazing staff accommodation only a 10-minute walk from work. I was lucky enough to share this home with wonderful people from all around the world. From Europe we had Brits, Danes, and French mountain men. From North America, we had Americans and Canadians. From Asia and Oceania we had South Koreans, Japanese, Aussies, and Kiwis. Everyone brought something different to the table and it was a mesh of cultures at every “family” gathering.

The Challenges of Living in a Foreign Country

I have been to Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, and China, but Japan was very different from anything I knew. For the majority of Japan’s history, it was closed off. In 1853, the infamous American naval commander Commodore Perry was sent to Japan to “open” up the ports for trade. Everything changed after that, leading Japan to completely modernize over the next 80 years. The culture is so old and refined; it can definitely be a shock to “gaijin” (foreigners).  The syntax and semantics of Nihongo is very difficult to learn and understand.

For the most part however, Japanese people know some English. Kids study English anywhere from 3-6 years over the course of elementary, middle, and high school.  Most Japanese know a few words and polite sayings but are typically very shy about practicing their English with native speakers.

Skiing backcountry at Hanazono Resort in Niseko, Japan.
Skiing backcountry at Hanazono Resort in Niseko, Japan.

Go to any big city in Japan and the technology is interwoven into the infrastructure. Huge plasma screens, vibrant billboards, futuristic toilets, and robot bars (picture medieval times but with fighting robots and lots of beer) are normal for large cities. Ordering a meal via iPad or buying an Onsen (hot spring bath) ticket from a computer vending machine is common. Most restaurants have an “order bell” at the table. It’s a small wireless device with a button that when pushed will notify your waiter/waitress that you need service. Otherwise, they will completely leave you alone to drink sake and enjoy the sushi in peace. Suffice to say that it is extremely convenient compared to the ever-so-common mid-conversation interruptions at American restaurants by waiters who are just doing their jobs. Toilets in Japan are also very different. They come in all shapes and sizes but most importantly they come with an array of sensors, buttons, and functions. Seat warmers, built-in bidets (with range setting), blow-dry settings and even artificial flushing noise control are totally normal.

One thing that I’m not loving is the wifi. In Southeast Asia, every hole-in-the-wall bar or truck stop has free wifi, but in Japan it’s a different story. In Japan, they are very proud of their 3G telecommunication network. If you have a Japanese smart phone, everything is fast and smooth. But getting a phone or a sim card is annoyingly hard. Dealing with 2-year minimum contracts isn’t fun when you don’t know when you’re leaving. They also banned prepaid phones a few years ago so all I can do is use wifi when it’s available to check emails, browse Facebook, and occasionally send a snapchat to my friends. At least the Shinkansen (bullet train) has wifi. Japan has perfected rail transport. The subways, trains, and Shinkansen are easy, efficient, and always on time. Just make sure you get to the track on time: punctuality is huge in Japan.

‘Different’ Isn’t a Bad Thing

Even though our two cultures are shockingly different, we both share an intense love for the game of Baseball. Baseball was brought to Japan around the turn of the 19th century and has proliferated since. Some Japanese people are so engrossed by pro-yakyuu (Japanese professional Baseball) and high school baseball that they are shocked to learn that baseball is America’s national pastime.

The food is Japan is simply amazing. They pride themselves on clean, fresh products. Their methods of relaxing animals, massaging them, and then slaughtering them in the most stress-free way has produced unique tastes. Most seafood is eaten raw. This includes the basics like salmon, tuna, mackerel, and shrimp, but also includes scallops, eel, fish eggs, octopus, and squid. If you are an adventurous eater, you will love it. They also love to eat pork, chicken and beef. Add any of those with a Japanese curry, some gohan (rice), and the meal is simple but AMAZING.

Yakiniki , a dinner of grilled beef, pork, and vegetables over an open fire directly in the middle of the table.
Yaki niku, a dinner of grilled beef, pork, and vegetables over an open fire directly in the middle of the table.

Community Away from Home

The language is very difficult to comprehend but in the end, I made the decision to live in Japan, so everyday I’m learning a new phrase or a new way to use a certain word. I’ve also downloaded a few Japanese language apps on my phone so when I’m lying in bed at night fantasizing about ranch dressing and Frank’s red hot sauce, I go through and practice my pronunciation and study the phonetic spellings of words. Also, it helps that my girlfriend is Japanese, and that I’ve made lots of Japanese friends. Even though our communication isn’t perfect, we still have lots in common. We love working outdoors, Japanese food, baseball, and being on the river or the mountain. Once you find people who love the same things as you, it doesn’t really matter if you can communicate with them perfectly.  Living in Japan has significant challenges.  But the things that make it so different are what make it so beautiful and amazing.

Two Americans, two Brits, and two Aussies. One big happy family.
Two Americans, two Brits, and two Aussies. One big happy family.

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