I want to break free

February, 2011, Seoul, Korea

February 2011, Seoul, Korea

Mind of a traveller

I was 23 in Japan, living a life free of responsibility, every young 20 something dream. Yet there I was, residing in a cramped one-bedroom flat, wishing that I made different choices.

A mild state of depression slowly crept over me, causing me to reevaluate my current situation.  The tsunami hitting northern Japan,  causing a radiation leak at the Fukushima plant. The situation made me feel entirely helpless,  for a while I pondered about how my life had led me here, in this tiny bedsit, watching the walls alone. Wishing the time away; hoping something –anything that would come along and put me on the right path towards contentment.

The anxiety didn’t let up when my brother visited me that year, if anything I saw his freedom to explore the world and I envied it. During most March 2011, we were trapped in my flat too scared by all the fear-mongering of the British media about radiation poisoning to venture outside. A feeling of being imprisoned slowly took over, as trains were cancelled, flights delayed and food scarce.

Some might say that I was ungrateful, and looking back at it, maybe I was. But even after the threat of radiation had died down, I woke up everyday almost in tears. I went to a job I had no passion for only to increase my bank balance and secure my visa.

Flights out of the country became too expensive, the low job prospects back at home, promises made to friends I had to keep;  the chains were tight and every time I resisted it only toughened its grasp.

As an expatriate, friends come and go, and there is never a ‘forever’, only for those who have set up shop here with families and I had no temptation to follow, if anything there attitudes towards Japan only made me want to leave even more.

Two years later still miserable I knew I had overstayed my welcome.  Rather than book a ticket straight out of Japan, I opted to visit Fukuoka, costing me no more than a few hundred pounds.  After a brief romantic encounter with an Australian; I was in the air –literally (and figuratively).

Travelling is a life-changing event that affects people’s way of thinking, but you also find yourself appreciating home-comforts. Once I landed at Heathrow, I inhaled the multiculturalism of London and my first week passed in a blur of museums, long walks, and “good ol’ English pubs”. This was home.

The long job applications started and I was working within the first three weeks of being back home.  The job I had trained for and tried vainly to find in Tokyo. An ideal situation to most but it happened again; the stability had started to cause an unease. I was in a situation where I had total control, which ironically made me scared.

I was becoming an “everyday robot” and I ceased the opportunity to fly off again, this time to New York.

But it wasn’t enough, I was travelling to modern cities, while I had always thrived on the historical sites, nature reserves and mountains a country had to offer.  There was no stopping me from climbing mountains, visiting temples –seeing the world.

A few weeks ago, at my computer I scrolled through volunteer opportunities online. With the savings I had accumulated I booked my first expedition to Peru to help on an archaeological dig at Vilcabamba.  It did the trick, and settled my self-induced anxiety.  Jealousy still gets the best of me when I see tourists wandering through London, exploring the hidden  alley ways, or discovering that quaint little pub behind the promenade of shops in Holborn. But, I know its only a matter of time before I’m on the road (again.)

 

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Illusions of Crazy Japanese Fashions

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I’m not the biggest fan of Japanese brands, to be honest there is a certain type of person that wears the clothing readily available on the Tokyo high street.  The trends in Japan are suffocated with frills and bows so to find something that feels right for my age is sometimes rather challenging. It’s not only the style that I have taken issue with, but it’s extremely hard to find clothing that compliments my body shape. Hence, I tend to go to places I know best, H&M, Zara and Mango, clothing tailored nicely for different body shapes. I guess, you could also throw in the nostalgia; it’s nice to see styles that I’m familiar with.

Though, I shouldn’t put down all the brands, for every Lowry’s Farm there is a SLY.SLY is one of my favorite Tokyo brands, it’s not afraid to be fun, or to  get a little inspiration from European and other Asian trends.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with liking Japanese brands, they have of course established their own reputation, UNIQLO being one of the best known clothing chains outside of Japan.  I think that a lot of people living outside Japan would conclude that it has somewhat originality, look at all those girls dressed in lolita-style dresses, the yankis of Kyushu or the gyaru-types in Shibuya. An image that many who arrive in Japan are hoping to take a photo of or at least see.

The truth is the subcultures of Japanese fashion are rare and once you leave the hub of Harajuku, these trends become less en vogue and far less acceptable  Most popular fashion is more like a uniform,  not that Japanese ladies and men aren’t fashionable, but they are a little scared of stepping out of the box. I used to be into some of the subcultures of Tokyo’s underbelly, I knew more about “Visual Kei” than I did about “Rock ‘n’ Roll”, but these are just fallacies amplified by certain bands and musicians who are not only selling music, but also a brand (Gackt, Pillers Clothing Line).

You come to realise once you’ve lived in Japan for a while part of being “Japanese” means alienating people who try to be (or are) different.  The idea of “us” not “me” is still heavily engrained into Japanese society.

Deviant  just isn’t Japanese.  Unlike, America and Europe where being unique is something to aspire to be; that sentiment is almost the complete opposite here. Same sentiment could also be said about the fashion, though there are subcultures, it’s hard to decide how they differ from one another.

Just a word of warning for those dead set that “Japanese fashion” equals originality; it doesn’t it means –conforming.

Adventure near the Base of Mount Fuji (Shibazakura Matsuri)

Photography © Franki Webb

It’s been awhile since my last post, but to be honest it’s been awhile since I’ve done anything remotely exciting. I think about my life in Japan and all the happy times I’ve had, and it’s sad to say; most of those times were during my year on exchange. Working has now has zapped almost all the excitement out of my once adventurous life. Now I’ve turned to going abroad to find my thrills, China, Korea and Thailand seem so much more exotic to me now.
I do have one adventure to share with you though, last week I decided to venture out of Tokyo for a bit. I had seen posters all over the trains promoting the flower festival near Mount Fuji as I was taking the train to work. I needed an escape, I had to leave the chaos of Tokyo and breathe some fresh mountain air.
The festival is located near Kawaguchiko so on Tuesday morning at 6am along with my housemate, I boarded a bus straight there. The journey took almost two hours. We got off the bus welcomed with that fresh pine air, grabbed a coffee and lined up for a bus that would take us straight to the festival.  The humidity was overbearing in our retro 60s bus and took almost as long. I started becoming impatient, but I don’t regret the road-trip though, as soon as I stepped off the bus I could smell the fresh flowers which this festival is famous for. We were lucky enough to have clear day with a mild breeze that kept us cool from the harsh rays. The fields were covered with rows and rows of pink shibazakura, the pink was so vibrant it almost hurt my vision if I stared at it too long, but at the same time I couldn’t keep my eyes away. Two years prior, I had visited Chichibu’s Flower Festival which was equally as stunning. However, the one thing that Kawaguchiko had that Chichibu didn’t was Mount Fuji, standing at 3900m,  the combination of the pink fields and mountain seemed almost too surreal as if one were in a fantasy-setting. We lingered at the festival, trying to take detailed images with our memory and sniffing the fragrance. It wasn’t until almost two hours later we decided to venture around the town. The bus back took a more scenic route, we got off at Kawaguchiko station and found the path towards the lake.
(For 2,700yen I would say you get a good deal, especially if you’re blessed with perfect weather. If you live around Tokyo or Yamanashi, take some time out and visit. I promise you, there’ll be no regrets. )

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Kawaguchiko translates as Lake Kawaguchi in English, so there is no surprise that there’s a lake in town. I’m not sure if it due to my city upbringing, but I felt tranquil n this environment, no sirens, no pachinko music, no loud voices; it wasn’t just me –everyone seemed to be at peace. There is so much we take for granted living in the city that we don’t appreciate the little perks of the country.
The lake was surrounded by miles and miles of greenery, even the freeway built over the lake to connect the divide couldn’t distract me from the beauty.  We sat down by the lake and ate our energy bars, by the time we got to there our energy had almost run out.  I peered at the tops of one of the shorter mountains close by and noticed a cable car going up to the summit.
“Why don’t we try it? There might be a temple at the top or something?” I said. I wasn’t ready for the adventure to be over, I wanted more.   The two of us pondered over the boat on the lake and whether it would be a better option, but since the winds had become stronger over the past hour we decided against it and took the cable car up to the mountain.  The mountain was called Mount Kachi Kachi. It was famous for tanuki and rabbits or according to the brochure we were given.  I doubt that people went up to the mountain especially to worship the tanuki, rather they went up to see the spectacular view of Mount Fuji.  We were welcomed by a photographer, who eagerly practiced a little English on us before taking our picture in front of Fujisan (as the Japanese say). We went up a little further and saw some more breath-taking views of the surrounding area. It wasn’t just me, everyone eyes were glued to particular areas, the mountain range on our left, Mount Fuji, Lake Kawaguchi. On top of the summit was a little shrine where we paid our respects (once we caught our breaths). We then climbed down, eager to enjoy the fresh air and get a chance to exercise.  By the time we got down to the bottom, it was time to make our way home, the air became a lot cooler and we started to shiver under our thin clothing. Unfortunately, our quest to find a non-Japanese restaurant failed (we were tired of Japanese food) and we “enjoyed” the cuisine 7-11 had to offer. We took our bus back at around 8.10pm hoping to get home before 10.  I wanted to stay longer, I just didn’t want my little quest to end and to return to the daily grind of city life.

ARTNIA : Square Enix Cafe in Tokyo!

You may have not realised, but I’m pretty geeky. It’s a secret. However if any of my previous posts are anything to go by; a complete geek. Of course not that’s not main reason why I moved to Japan, but there are times when living in Tokyo does have its benefits. Square Enix recently opened a new cafe called Artnia, of course the news of the opening got to me fairly quickly. I decided to visit the cafe once my friend Ali had arrived, so we could enjoy the ambience together, like the couple of nerds that we are.  I’m glad I waited.

The Cafe is located in the east of Shinjuku where a large number of department stores are also located.  For the occasion the two of us chose to faux-cosplay, not upright cosplay, but a little nod towards the characters we like. I wore my black leather pants with a plain white t-shirt and converse; channeling Tifa from Advent Children while Ali chose to wear a pink dress with a bolero jean jacket and a ribbon to  the hair for that added Aeris touch. We took our time meandering through Shinjuku’s tricky pedestrian system. The cafe is hidden amongst the Shinjuku skyscrapers close to the E1 exit of Shinjuku Sanchome subway station.  I was excited, even at the age of 24- I found that 17 year old girl breaking through my false mature demeanour.  As soon as we entered we were faced with some curious looks from some would presume Final Fantasy fans; I guess that being newly opened they didn’t expect the foreigner invasion to start so soon. We were offered menus and we excitedly looked through, speaking into the camera we had bought along to record the event. So with further ado -here is our video, please watch like and comment. Or just ignore this post entitrely.

 

Despite my very unimpressed manner, near the end of the video; I highly recommend it. Especially if you are a Final Fantasy fan, if the cafe part doesn’t interest you, I’m sure the merchandise and materia fountain will. Just make sure to bring plenty of cash with you! Those materia cocktails are very pricey!

 

Is Chivalry Alive in Japan?

I’m from a country that most Japanese women like to associate the term, “gentlemen” with; England. No, I’m not going to go all patriotic again, and discuss how British men surpass the Japanese man. This post is merely to ponder over the question, “Is chivalry alive in Japan?” I’m exclusively referring to the behaviour associated with courting and not the knight’s code of honour, – or samurai seems to be more appropriate here-.  I’ve heard contradictory opinions on the matter.  Unfortunately, I have a rather obscured view on the matter, so most of this post’s sources come from;  friends, students, acquaintances (and sometimes from myself).

The thought occurred to me today actually, when I was discussing the matter with my university students.  It was clear that there was a strong divide  in the room, some agreed it depended on the man, others flat out refused to believe that there were men in Japan who would hold the door for them.  In my own experience, I can’t recall a man ever holding the door for me in Tokyo, but that can be largely blamed on the urbanite’s way of thinking. I’ll be honest, I haven’t had much experience dating in Japan, but I won’t mention so much of my own disasters at dating (maybe sometimes).  I have, however, had a lot of interaction with Japanese men, partly due to my job as a teacher and also my experience attending a Japanese university.

Some of my students told me, they were surprised to hear that in Europe a lot of men paid for the women’s meals. Though, to be honest I thought Japanese men were renowned for their generosity, or at least that’s word on the streets in London.  In Europe, this is true to an extent, in all my time in the U.K, I only paid for a meal a couple of times, when in the presence of male friends. This could be attributed to the fact that the company I kept was always older than me, by at least five years or so. I’m not here to discuss if men should pay for women; frankly that’s a sexist attitude, which is clearly on its way out. Though one could argue, since women haven’t been endowed with full equality, (women still receive 20% less salary than men in England and it’s far worse in Japan), is it not proper that maybe a man with higher earnings -not because of his skill, but because of his gender- pay for the woman?

I have to share one of acquaintance’s  nasty experience on a date in Japan, so much so that she wishes she could extinguish it from her memory. When one is invited on a date, you expect that person to pay -regardless of gender- not only did she pay for her share -she also paid for his (smack face!) Later, when she was invited to karaoke and had run out of money, he told her nonchalantly that he would pay for her this time, but next time she would have to pay him back, (Mind you, this was after she’s paid for his dinner). What an assumption!  As if there would be another date;  I was glad to hear that he was unapologetically let down. (I must express that this is the only time I’ve heard about this sort of thing, whilst in Japan; usually the guy -foreign or Japanese- pays for me.)

It might not be the lack of consideration, holding a door, and paying for a meal are all superficial worries after all.  What I have heard however, numerous times, over and over again is that Japanese men lack – romance.  I’m going down a slippery slope here, since I believe it all depends on the sort of man one dates. However, I can’t pretend that this notion is not vital in understanding the problems with dating or courtship in Japan.  One factor that I think contributes to the reason why Japanese women have all, but given up; Japanese men find it difficult to express their feelings to their partners. These are a few complaints I’ve heard;

“Why doesn’t he say he likes me?”
“He always calls me cute, not beautiful.”
“He doesn’t kiss me goodbye.”

In England, most of the time,  despite people’s stereotype of the English being reserved, a boy will let a girl know when they’re interested,  and of course, vice-versa.   This issue could be attributed because many Japanese nowadays grow up with fewer siblings, so therefore lack the social skills to communicate with others, but that wouldn’t be exclusive to just men.  I’ve known very forward Japanese men, funnily enough from mostly the rural parts, where family sizes are a lot larger. Therefore, maybe this sentiment does has some validity.

According to the Japan Times, many Japanese men are now scared of the idea of commitment, or so the Japanese media would have us believe. However, what I can gather from the evidence is that a lot of Japanese men are fairly emotionally shy, some friends have used the words, “emotionally immature.”  But, one shred of proof that backs up women search for more assertive men,  is the rising number of  Japanese women who are on a mission to look for a foreign boyfriend. So the age old story in Japan is that foreign men are emotionally mature in comparison to the Japanese.  I never understood this myself, I’ve met immature and mature men from different countries.  Can Japanese men really be that different from the foreign counterparts, especially since “foreign” in Japan is a very loose term. What is foreign? European? Korean? Chinese? American? And are we all painted with the same brush?

I’ve heard many things of late about Japan’s declining population, many pointing fingers at women for being too career-focused, others blaming the high cost of living in Japan. While some of the blame has been placed on young Japanese men themselves. One prime minister accusing them of not being “macho” enough. I’ve only once been interested romantically once in a Japanese man of late,  enough to try and pursue something and believe me I did. I’m not saying a boy has to do the chasing, but it got to a point of blatant irresolution that I quickly gave up.  It’s like a misconception I have now,  because of the constant moaning everywhere.

Four years in Japan and I can now understand how the phrase “Herbivore boy” came to existence, despite hating labeling . The current question is; have Japanese men got weaker?”  Herbivores are the type of  men who prefer to go holidaying around Japan than go abroad- or even worse stay at home, shocking, (especially for someone like me, who can’t even sit still for ten minutes.)    Apparently Japanese women aren’t taking this sitting down, and a new term has been coined to describe women who actively pursue the guys; carnivorous women, sounds like a group of yokai (ghouls), right?   Although this might not be such an alien concept to most Japanese women.  Unlike the West,  where it’s mostly the male’s responsibility to buy chocolate or presents for their girlfriends, in Japan it’s the women’s job. Furthermore, White Day, which happens in March is the day where the male returns the favour.  So maybe chivalry hasn’t died after all, maybe it has just found a new home. And perhaps it’s better this way…