It’s two days before I finally say goodbye to this apartment where I’ve spent the larger part of my two years in Tomakomai (苫小牧), Hokkaido. Looking back, I remembered during the first few months when I first arrived in this industrial city with a population of a little under 200,000, I would take train rides out every weekend, either to Sapporo or to explore the surrounding areas outside the city. That’s because short of chimneys billowing thick columns of smoke, there’s scarcely anything here in Tomakomai. It’s an ugly city.
And I hated it here.As I count down to the last week in this city, I found myself re-visiting some of the places that I had initially explored when I first arrived two years ago. First up is Midorigaoka Park (緑ヶ丘公園), the largest park in the city. Tomakomai is not blessed with wonderful weather. It’s grey and cloudy most of the time. In other words, depressing! So on days when the sky’s perfectly blue and clear, and the sun is shining at its brightest, people head to the parks or to climb Mount Tarumae (樽前山).During my first visit to the park two years ago, I got lost. It was a cool late autumn evening, and I decided to explore the woods that connect to the park. But as I ventured deeper and deeper, I felt something amiss. I was the only one in the midst of the greenery. However, I kept on walking further and further into the foliage, despite the waning sunlight. What really set alarm bells ringing and prompted me to turn back was when I came across a wooden sign with the words that warn of bear sighting in this part of the woods. Terrified, I promptly retraced my steps as quickly as I could, and only breathed a sigh of relief when I heard sounds of passing traffic.This time, however, I opted for a less adventurous approach. Having bought a bento box of stir-fried Chinese noodles and a can of beer from 7-Eleven, I headed to the Kintaro Pond (金太郎池), where I found a shady spot under the trees. I dug into my lunch, while watching gulls and Mandarin ducks paddling leisurely and dogs chasing after frisbees.Sufficiently fuelled up, I ambled towards the observation tower, which offers a 360 degree panorama of the city. On a clear day, you could probably see as far as Mount Tarumae and the peaks around Lake Shikotsu (支笏湖). But today is not the day.Many thoughts clouded my mind as I surveyed the scenery before me, the grid-like city layout, the ugly chimneys and billowing white smoke, the oil tankers dotting the port of Tomakomai. How did I end up here in the first place? I made a decision to take a sabbatical after getting worn out at work as a teacher in Singapore. I had become disillusioned in a job I used to love – teaching. The more years I accumulated in the teaching service, I found myself doing less of the job I was initially called to do.And at that time, JET seemed like the most attractive option. I had always wanted to explore living and working in Japan – and the inspiration behind this, would you believe, was after watching a Japanese TV drama called “Beach Boys” during my teenage years. That drama followed the adventures of two Japanese executives who quit their jobs and left their highly stressful urban lifestyle behind for one summer and stumbled upon a pension by the sea.I figured spending a couple of years in Japan could allow me to get away from the mundaneness of working life, from Singapore for a while. I must admit, a part of me had secretly wished I was posted to some rural city / town by the sea. Maybe then, I could live out the laid-back life as portrayed in that drama I watched more than 20 years ago. But a part of me was also worried about being posted to the countryside. I am such a conflicted individual. However, as it would turn out, I got neither of those. I was posted to Tomakomai.
Sometimes, I wondered if I had, as a friend put it, committed “career suicide” by coming to Japan. Would I still be able to return to Singapore and carry on working as I had used to?
If I have a second chance, would I do this JET thingy all over again?
Maybe if I had a more “exciting” posting (say, Sapporo, Osaka or Hakodate), maybe if I had a larger circle of JET friends, an endless list of maybes. There’s a cliché that you will often hear in JET, and that is ESID – Every Situation Is Different. Perhaps, that is true to a large extent. But ultimately, we make our own choices, given the cards we have been dealt with. There are definitely highlights from this experience, as much as regrets.
But I would not have known, if I have not tried it.
That, was my choice. LS
Winds of Change
Today marks my first full month of living in Japan. And what an introduction I had. The night before, I was bracing for a grade 10 typhoon in my apartment, wondering if the winds would somehow tear my roof away. This was the fourth typhoon to hit Hokkaido in 10 days! According to one of my colleagues, typhoons seldom land on Hokkaido. So much for that!
Life in Tomakomai started with me going around to get the necessary documents completed, for example, opening a new bank account, getting my Japanese residence card and signing up for a new mobile contract. The shock and disgust that had registered when I was “welcomed” into my new apartment (a decaying Japanese civil servant’s block that could have survived World War II) was temporarily cast aside for these urgent matters.
I spent the next couple of days scouring Nitori (the local version of Ikea) for furnishings, Daiso for household items and the various supermarkets around my vicinity for groceries and to get acquainted with the different grocery options nearest to my apartment. My first priority was furnishing my otherwise empty shell of an apartment. Except for a bed, a table, two chairs, a fridge and a washing machine, I had nothing else in that stinkhole. And did I mention it stinks? So badly! From years of non-occupancy and I suspect, the fresh tatami mats. Gosh, I have never hated tatami so badly! The kitchen floor was sticky and feels uncomfortable on the feet. The stove had a lot of wooden fragments and chips. On top of that, rust has almost consumed the ventilator fan above the kitchen stove. This wasn’t really what I had envisioned when I first signed up for this!
I felt like a kid in a candy store in Nitori. The place is massive, and loaded with furniture – beautiful furniture. I would do anything to turn my stinkhole into a more inhabitable (and I hope, cosy) space. I grabbed everything I thought that could aesthetically enhance the apartment. So in came a carpet that costs more than $250 (my most extravagant splurge thus far), two DIY shelves, a DIY wardrobe, 60 pieces of 30 by 30 cm plywood tiles to lay over the disgusting kitchen flooring, a full-length standing mirror, a shoe rack, five floor mats, a fancy standing lamp, fresh bedsheets, bathroom slippers, a frying pan, a pot, cutlery, even a stool (so that I could sit on it while wearing my shoes). I also resorted to buying anything I could from my predecessor – a decently large flat-screen LCD TV, a couch, window curtains, curtain linings, humidifiers, dehumidifiers, a clothes rack, futons, a toolbox, more shelves, all sorts of kitchen utensils, and tons of hangers! Well, my predecessor was going to leave the country and head back home – so I guess it’s a relief to him that he could dispose of all these to any sucker that wants them. And I happen to be that.
I bought tools to saw, file and shape the kitchen tiles, assembled, shifted and rearranged the furniture. After two weeks, the pieces are slowly falling into place. August 15 was a momentous occasion for me because my long-awaited carpet finally arrived – the crowning jewel in my living room. And to top it off, I now have access to the Internet – after an intense and painful two weeks of administration hassle with NTT. There’s definitely more I can do to decorate my apartment, but at least for now, I can say with much pride that this, now feels a little more like home. LS
A New Lease of Life
It’s been three months since my last post was published, so I was reminded when I finally got to log in today. Today also marks my first week as a resident in Japan, or more specifically, in the city of Tomakomai in Hokkaido.
I come here as an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT) of English under the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Programme, and will be based in Tomakomai, a name that probably does not register with many people outside of Japan. With a population of about 170,000, Tomakomai is apparently the fifth largest city in Hokkaido, and one of the four biggest ports in Japan.
Another word that is synonymous with Tomakomai is ice hockey, and you only have to look at the city’s mascot (the Japanese have mascots for everything, from food products to toilet paper) to know. I was presented with a business card of the city’s mayor, Mr. Hirofumi Iwakura, suited in an ice hockey gear.
I touched down in Tokyo’s Narita International Airport on 31 July. However, preparations for this day started two months before departure. From visiting Japanese schools in Singapore for lesson observations (to get an idea of how English lessons are taught in a Japanese school), deciding what to pack to scouring Chinatown, Little India, local markets, and department stores for the most quintessential Singaporean omiyage and then re-packing what I have packed, I found myself unwittingly caught in a roller-coaster ride of emotions as I attempt to repack my life in a suitcase.
It’s my first time living abroad alone, far away from family and friends. It’s also the first time I am well out of my comfort zone, in a place where English is hardly spoken, and a country whose culture and lifestyle cannot be any more different from mine. I find myself struggling with my rudimentary Japanese, though I could get by with asking for directions and shopping for groceries and buying the train tickets. Anything more is a tough ask. This, I hope, will slowly improve as I immerse myself in Tomakomai, and Hokkaido.
There were also other firsts, for example, visiting the Singapore Embassy in Tokyo in Roppongi, and the feeling of being treated like a pseudo-diplomat. For the first time in my life, I felt like I was part of something so much bigger than myself. The JET programme celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, and coincidentally Singapore celebrates its 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations with Japan. I’m excited to be part of this, but at the same time, slightly overwhelmed by my new environment.
I constantly remind myself that everything is going to be alright. 大丈夫 (daijoubu, the Japanese say).
I can do this! 大丈夫. LS