Screw 2016

Screw 2016.

On 9th November Donald Trump won the American election. A few months before the UK voted to leave the European Union. Like many people my age, these were the first times in my life that a political vote genuinely scared me. And to have them happen so close together… to see things we thought were solid visibly crumbling before us can be terrifying. Along with the death of many beloved celebrities, it seems that ‘Screw 2016’ has become the dominant narrative.

But this year has also been a hell for me personally. In January with boundless optimism I wrote my new years resolutions on this blog. I was filled with so much energy and positivity for this year and I had no idea what 2016 was going to throw at me.

Monumental immigration stress. My younger brother suffering a very scary and unexplained health problem. Then in May 2016 I went to the doctor with what I thought was a simple problem. The medicine didn’t work. Then it didn’t work again. Before I knew it my life became dominated with hospital corridors, learning 5 different Japanese words for pain, doctors who were baffled at best and dismissive and borderline creepy at worst.

I have tried my hardest to believe in and get treated in Japan and I do have respect for many of the healthcare professionals here but I have decided to cut my losses and return to the UK for three weeks next week to receive treatment.

It goes without saying that, as a British citizen not to mention being white, cis, etc., I am steeped in privilege on a global scale. That being said, I think it’s fair to say I have not lived a life of ease. I’ve dealt with things many young people haven’t had to face. But, by god, before this year, I didn’t know what suffering meant. Being in pain every single day, waking up with it every single night and knowing that maybe it will never get any better. Not feeling safe in my own body. Watching helplessly as my future, which I always presumed would be bright despite setbacks I faced, fade into doubt and darkness.

2016 has broken my heart and taught me how to love more fiercely and deeply than ever before. 2016 has ruined my health and saved my life.
In 2016 I am finally, finally stopping caring about what people think of me. I don’t have to worry about how well I fit into some fuckboy’s mould of a ‘cool girl’ because I am too fucking broken and burnt out for that to even be possible anymore. And if suffering teaches you anything, I have learnt compassion.

And do you know what? I actually did do most of my new years resolutions.
2016 has taught me that, even when life throws a tonne of shit at you, there are still beautiful moments and you can achieve good things. In 2016 I wandered through breathtakingly beautiful fields of flowers. I hiked across mountains and saw forests and waterfalls with my friends and family. I made some amazing friends from around the world. I performed  with one of my all time favorite bands Die Milch as well as in my metal band’s first gig and we’ve recorded some music I am really proud of that I can’t wait to show you. I released a solo 4 track EP and I played my harp on Japanese TV. I have a day job I like and I’m good at, and thankfully they are flexible and gracious enough that I can continue working even though I’m sick.

Sometimes, chronic pain wins and I can’t do anything but cry on the floor. That’s ok. But I will keep fighting for the sake of the good days. For the sake of all I can still achieve and experience. For the chance that the doctors in London will be able to help me more than the doctors in Japan.

And because 2017 pretty much has to be better than 2016 at this point.

Tenshoku Part 2 – Changing my Visa Status in Japan

Picking up where I left off in part 1, I had handed in my notice, accepted my shiny new job offer as a music teacher, now all I had to do was work until my notice was up and start my new job and everything would be easy and happy right? Wrong. I had the wrong visa for my new job so first I had to change my visa status. I’ll reiterate that I’m not a legal expert, just a bod writing about my own experience. I hope you find my blog helpful but if you’re struggling, please get help from the pros!

The vast majority of teachers in Japan have one of two types of working visa – the Specialist in Humanities visa or the Instructor visa. The Specialist in Humanities visa is usually the type held by eikaiwa teachers as it allows you to work in private companies. Positions in offices working in Translation, Marketing, HR or what have you usually also require this visa. The Instructor visa on the other hand allows you to teach in public schools. Doing paid work outside your visa remit without permission is against the rules. Unfortunately, I had come to Japan on an Instructor visa so I had to change my visa type before I could start my new job.

Changing my visa status involved 7 happy fun steps:

  1. Get together a tonne of paperwork
  2. Take said paperwork to Shinagawa Immigration Bureau (where all hopes go to die)
  3. An agonising wait
  4. Troubleshooting
  5. Another agonising wait
  6. Returning to Shinagawa Immigration Bureau (where all hopes go to die) to pick up new visa
  7. Relief and copious amounts of sweet foods

 

  1. The Paperwork

One of the things that I like about my new workplace is that it is a new, growing business run by a small number of individuals who are passionate about what they do rather than a massive McJob eikawa. Unfortunately this means that I was the first foreign employee without a Child of a Japanese National or a Permanent Resident visa so they weren’t really sure of the particulars of the visa change and I had to handle a lot of the paperwork myself. This is what I had to bring to the immigration bureau:

Application form: The Application for Change of Status of Residence form can be found here.

There are two parts of this application form, one that you have to fill in and one that your employer has to fill in. The one for you is simple enough, just your basic information and a photo (which must fit their requirements). The part for your employer is a little more complicated – as well as filling in information on the type of work you will be doing, they need to give some information about their company, such as their capital, annual sales from the previous year and number of employees.

Letter of Release (Taishoku-Shomei-sho (たいしょくしょうめいしょ or 退職証明書)) from your old job 
This is a document from your old workplace, confirming that you have left that job, how long you were there and how much money you made working for them.

Your new employment contract

Your degree certificate Unfortunately it’s difficult to get a working visa in Japan without a degree which I think is stupid and snobby as many jobs (including mine) could be done just as well without one. Anyway, I’ve heard people getting away with a photocopy but officially I think you’re supposed to show them the original or a certified copy. And here is where I ran into a problem. I had left my degree certificate at my parents home in England and they had had a house fire. Thankfully everyone was ok and my parents still have a house but a lot of our stuff was destroyed or damaged. Everything that wasn’t had been put in boxes and sent to some warehouse to be cleaned of carcinogenic soot particles. The long and short of it was that my parents didn’t know whether my degree certificate still existed and, if it did, they didn’t know if they could find it. I asked my university to get me a new one but they said it could take a month. I panicked – my new job needed me to start soon. I needed the visa to start working and I would have no way to support myself while I was waiting for the inefficient wheels of University bureaucracy to turn. Thankfully my mother, my sweet, selfless, slightly freaked out mother (hi there!) dedicated a whole day to searching through boxes and managed to find it.

From your new job: Copies of the company registration and a statement of profit and loss of the company and “materials showing the business substance of the organisation.”
The first two are easy enough but ‘materials showing the business substance’ had my employers scratching their heads a tad. In these situations, I find it helpful to think about it from the other party’s perspective – what do immigration want to see for a successful application? Basically they want to know that the company you are going to work for is legit and not some dodgy black company exploit you and have something like you dying from starvation or overwork happening, which would be embarrassing for everyone involved. HR documents, sales and financial records, even marketing materials could do.

Guarantor I don’t know if you actually need need this but you can get a Japanese national or permanent resident to sign a form saying that they are ‘responsible for your behaviour in Japan’ and will pay for your flight home in the event that you can not yourself. So my boyfriend has signed a legal document saying I am his ‘responsibility.’ How delightfully patriarchal.

Your passport, resident card, and health insurance card The last one isn’t essential I don’t think but I’m told it helps your application.

2. Shinagawa Immigration Bureau

Screen shot 2016-06-27 at 14.49.00
Shinagawa Immigration Bureau: Most definitely NOT a theme park

 

Next step is to go to your local immigration bureau, which in my case was the one in Shinagawa. It’s a bit of an eyesore, this bizarre grey oblong far out from the the station so the swanky businessmen don’t have to look at the riff raff. I was expecting long queues (which there were) but I must say I was disappointed in the amount of foreign language provisions there. Some, not all, signs are in English and none of the staff seem to speak it. I like to think that I’m not the type of gaijin who expects everything to be in English for her but, come on, there are many Japanese people who speak excellent English so why aren’t some of them working there?? This is an immigration bureau for crying out loud. When your average Starbucks worker speaks more English than your average immigration official it’s getting ridiculous. I don’t think having a few people around the bureau who speak English, Chinese or Korean and can troubleshoot is too much too ask. The result of my poor Japanese was that I got in the wrong queue and wasted an hour but in the end I managed to hand my documents in at the right desk.

After that you get a receipt that you went to the immigration bureau on that date and fill out a change of status postcard with your address which they will post to you to let you know that your application has been processed.

3. The Wait

After that I went home and entered an awkward period of limbo while I waited for them to get back to me. Immigration’s website says the usual duration for this procedure is a month to three months though I have heard of people getting theirs in as little as 3 weeks.

This time is awkward because the legality of you working is very murky. You needed to have proof you quit your previous job to change your visa but until you get your new visa you are not allowed to do the type of work of your new job. So what on earth are you supposed to do with yourself?? I was fortunate in a way because I had to do some training to get my early-years music teaching certification anyway so I kept busy but boy, did things get tight financially. I am totally confused about this so if anyone would like to share their experiences I’d be very happy to hear it!

4. Troubleshooting

Hopefully you will not have to deal with this step but, on occasion, if there is something wrong with your application immigration will contact you. I actually really appreciated that they did this instead of rejecting my application outright, which they could have done. The letter they sent to me was in very dry, official Japanese though so had I not been able to show it to my boyfriend I would have had no idea what the hell was going on. My boyfriend passed N2 and he still struggled with this letter. It turned out that immigration wanted to see another document from my employer – a 給与所得の源泉徴収票等の法定調書合計表 . Don’t ask me how to pronounce it, but it’s essentially a HR/Accounting document that details payroll information for employees for the previous tax year. I’m not exactly sure why immigration wanted to see this – maybe as my new employers haven’t hired many foreigners before they wanted to make extra sure they were legit when it comes to paying people? Anyway, it involved another jolly trip down to immigration to hand this in.
I’ve heard it said that immigration can ask you for anything, even a hand-drawn map of your commute, so unfortunately it is a case of they say jump and you say how high.

5. Another wait

The HR document issue had scared me a bit so this second wait was worse than the first.

6. Returning to Shinagawa Immigration Bureau

About a month and a half after my initial trip to the immigration bureau I got that change of status postcard I had written for them previously through the post, telling me to come to the bureau. You would have thought I would have been happy but actually I was super nervous – reason being that the post card doesn’t have to stay whether your application has been accepted or declined, just that it has finished being processed. What if I had been declined? Anyway I headed down to immigration post haste with the change of status post card, my Residence Card and passport. Oh and 4000 yen worth of revenue stamps. The status change process costs 4000 yen (my friend has a theory that the reason that usually only grant 1 year visas is that they want to get enough money out of us as possible). You can’t pay in cash, you have to use revenue stamps which can be bought at most convenience stores. There’s actually a Family Mart you can get them inside the Shinagawa Immigration bureau.

So I headed back to Shinagawa Immigration Bureau for a third time. This time my boyfriend came with me so I didn’t go in the wrong queue. After 2 and a half hour’s wait I arrived at the desk. I was terrified. When the lady handed me my new Specialist in Humanities visa I couldn’t believe it, but there it was! Approved to work for one year from that day. My old residence card was punched with a hole punch to show it was voided and I was free to go.

7. Relief and Food

I will never forget how I felt as I got on the bus away from the hated Shinagawa Immigration Bureau. I felt so relieved and like I could do anything. My boyfriend and I went to our local family restaurant where we proceeded to eat ALL the sweet things and chat about our plans for the next year – plans we weren’t sure we could make until the day.

I’m sure many people will think that I made a big fuss about nothing, but as I said in part 1 this process brought me up against my personal demons – a fear of uncertainty, not being in control and a hatred of waiting. Many people might not be so bothered by it but for me this was one of my biggest challenges to date. Since then I have come up against more difficulties in my life in Japan but I have never once regretted this decision. I feel I’m doing meaningful work that makes me happy and is more helpful for my future.

Tenshoku Part 1 – Quitting my Job in Japan

I felt good yesterday. One of those days where you walk down the street humming Nina Simone and the world just seems like a wonderful place. I had no particular reason to be happy –  it was just a normal day.

Admittedly the weather was stunning but I think the main reason I was feeling happy was because of my job. I’d just had a hard but satisfying day at work and I had a moment when I realised how lucky I am to be able to have a job I enjoy in Tokyo.

In December 2015 I started the long process of changing my job and visa status. I trained as an early-years music educator during this time and for the last few months I have been teaching music to young children in a lovely studio in Daikanyama as well as other locations such as Tokyo American Club.

This decision was one of the best I’ve ever made but I can’t deny that the job change process was painful. I have a strong internal locus of control and freak out when I have to put my fate into the hands of bureaucratic processes over which I have no control. I feel like a bit of a drama queen going on about it now, but honestly at times I really did struggle. In case anyone else is going through the same thing I thought I would write about my experiences.

This is part 1 of 2 in which I discuss quitting my job. I want to make clear that I am not an expert in immigration and can only speak about my own experiences and the resources that helped me through.

Why I quit my previous job

As you may know, I came to Japan on a contract with a English teaching dispatch company. In many ways this job was a great introduction to Japan. I taught English in schools in the day and in companies in the evening. I experienced so many aspects of Japanese society, from kindergartens to hospitals, to major Japanese companies and Tokyo Metropolitan Government. I learnt many things – including that I actually liked teaching and was sort of alright at it, both of which surprised me.

I’m not really motivated by money so I believe that, at least in your 20s, a job should be one of two things: either it should be related to your interests and further your career progression or it should have the kind of hours and stress levels that don’t interfere with your lifestyle.

My job wasn’t ticking either of these boxes. I was working long and unpredictable hours, sometimes leaving the house at 7.15am and not getting home until 9.30pm. I could have handled this if this was a job relevant to my interests and ambitions but it wasn’t. I like teaching, yes, but my passion is music and the arts – if I was spending so much time teaching I wanted to be teaching these. In addition, although I liked many of my colleagues as individuals, there were several aspects of the company that made me uncomfortable. I was making good money but I had come to Japan to experience Japan and I didn’t have the time to do this. When the long, unpredictable hours and the company’s harsh policies on sick leave started to aggravate a health condition that should be manageable the job became not worth it. After 5 months, I decided I wanted out.

Handing in my notice

転職 (tenshoku – changing jobs) can be a bit of a taboo in Japan. In a country where lifetime employment is still common, quitting your job can be seen as a betrayal. I’ve known Japanese people who have faced harrassment after handing in their notice, been denied leave they were entitled to or even been told they were ‘not allowed to quit.’ Of course the situation is different for foreign employees who usually have yearly contracts rather than lifetime employment, but still, ending a contract midway as I did can be really frowned upon.

To immediately clear up a widespread misconception: yes you can change your job in Japan. It is not ‘work for us or go home.’ Your former employer may make threats but your working visa is valid until it expires, even if you change your job.  Take care however, because you cannot renew your visa without an employment contract so if you are changing jobs be sure to leave enough time to arrange everything before your visa expires. Additionally, you have to notify immigration within 14 days of quitting your job and from that point I’ve heard that you can only stay in Japan for 3 months without working.

Japanese labour law states that, ordinarily, workers are required to give 2 weeks notice to their employers before leaving their job to avoid paying damages. However, I’ve heard of contracts that demand 30 or even 60 working days notice. Whether these are in fact legally enforceable is a grey area so if you need to quit in a hurry I would encourage you to seek support from a union (the General Union are good) or a legal expert. My contract asked for 30 days notice and and I chose to give this and a bit more. I wanted to make things easier for my company and I also cared a lot about my students and I knew if I didn’t leave enough time they was a chance they would lose out.

Handing in my notice was stressful. I timed it really badly and did it at a point where almost the whole office was listening in to the tense conversation (no private meeting rooms for me). My company tried to make me stay longer and asked searching questions about the precise reason I was leaving. My advice would be to anyone about to do this is to be polite but assertive. You don’t have to give a reason why you’re going and they do not have the right to make you feel guilty about your decision. You are probably not being selfish or hurtful, changing jobs happens and your company should accept it. I got through this stage by being on it with the paperwork (give a signed and dated letter of notice, make multiple copies) and by standing my ground even while I tried my best to make everything as convenient for my company as possible. Ultimately, it’s an uncomfortable conversation but your company can’t actually do anything to you. This too will pass. If in extreme cases you are experiencing violence, psychological abuse or power harassment of course please get help. I recommend the General Union as an excellent first port of call who can help you get the services you need.

I don’t want to tell people what to do but I see so many people working in Japan who seem stuck in a job that’s making them miserable, because they feel they have no options or they are scared that things could get worse. You do have options. Yes things could get worse, yes the transition process can be rough. I certainly do not recommend jumping into the unknown unprepared – do your research and do not take my word for it. But often the risk and short term pain leads to long term gain.

For me it was definitely worth it.

Check back for a post on changing my visa status soon!

Performing with Die Milch

Sometimes you have moments when you look around you and think, “My life is utterly ridiculous.” Standing in the changing room at The Quarter Note, Shinokubo, waiting to perform with Die Milch, dressed in Lolita fashion and surrounded by girls in even more outrageous outfits is near the top of my list.

“What kind of things do you get me into?!” says long-suffering boyfriend holding his viola and also waiting to perform. Unlike me, boyfriend is not into alternative-fashion in the slightest so his ouji stage outfit, complete with subtle frills, was a new look for him. One I was enjoying immensely.

How on the earth did two scruffs from Essex come to perform with a neo-classical Gothic Lolita outfit in Tokyo? A lot of hanging around at gigs mostly. I’d been a fan since last summer when I was told about Die Milch’s London gig. I almost didn’t go as it was a Sunday night and I was feeling lazy about doing the drive up the M11 to Islington. You can bet I’m glad I made the effort now! After that we went to a gig of theirs in Ikebukuro in the autumn where we got chatting to a friendly fan who was organising a car share to a special Die Milch birthday gig in Shizuoka and did a very good job of convincing us to come along. It was a great excuse to go to Shizuoka and at that gig the band were kind enough to invite us to go for seafood with them. Over dinner, we got chatting to Coco, the band’s keyboardist and vocalist and told her that we play the harp and viola respectively and she asked if we wanted to perform as guests in a performance. Whilst this was very exciting, it’s not exactly unusual for musicians to go ooh when I say I play the harp and nothing to come of it so I didn’t get my hopes up. But a couple of months later, she sent us an email with our parts and gave us the date of the concert! As long as our playing was up to scratch, this was happening!

I’m not ashamed to say that it turned out that ‘getting our playing up to scratch’ was no easy feat. Die Milch are real pros and pros in the classical sense – no offense meant to pop musicians, but difficult classical music demands boss technique. Our parts weren’t easy, we didn’t go to music college and we have day jobs so we worked really hard to get up to level. And when performance day came I was still terrified – if I cock up performing by myself it sucks but if I messed up on this stage I would not only let down a professional band but one which I hugely respected as a fan.

13082098_10154845185068327_1125241944_n
Definitely the first time I wore pink frills since about the age of 6…

The theme for the gig was ‘Doll Special’ and so the other artists were suitably beautiful and doll like. The openers were colorpointe, a group who fuse singing and ballet with an alternative twist. They were followed by JULiC, a fabulously dressed gothic rock band. I really enjoyed chatting with these lovely people backstage and both of their live sets were fantastic. We were playing on sad~悲しき王子のため息~, a neo-classical instrumental on Die Milch’s latest album Imperial. Luckily, I did not vomit in terror on stage/break my harp strings/play in the wrong place and the crowd responded well to us and Coco’s typically fantastic MC-ing.

A real highlight for me was the fans of Die Milch. Even though my boyfriend Arthur Rei and I were only temporary members of the band they were so kind to us. A friend of Coco’s hand made me a beautiful ring to wear on stage to match the rest of the ladies in Die Milch. Afterwards members of the audience came up to us to chat and one kind gentleman told us that the song we were in was the best piece of the night!

I would like to thank Coco and the rest of Die Milch for this amazing opportunity. I feel like I learnt so much from you – not only musically but about how gigs work in Japan.

I hope to do more collaborations like this one in the future!

All photos taken by Yuki Yoshida

13081695_10154845185598327_261192935_n

Performing in a Metal Band in Japan

In the autumn I posted about joining a heavy metal band in Japan and a few weeks ago we had our first gig together! Post is super late due to a trip to Kyoto with my family and several other significant occurrences which will no doubt be blogged about in due course.

My band’s name is Gjöll and we play melodic metal. I joined the band as part of a drastic line up change, which has resulted in a dramatic change in sound. They had one release before I joined and we’re currently in the process of recording another, so hopefully soon I’ll be able to blog about what it’s like to go into the studio in Japan!

Our gig was at the Crescendo Live House in Kichijoji and we were honoured to play alongside some amazing acts including the awesome Aresz from Osaka who have been playing together for over 20 years. We had our soundcheck and rehearsal then I went off to enjoy the nearby Studio Ghibli museum in the hours before the gig.

Sound-checking in Japanese is an anxiety button of mine. I don’t like doing it in the UK either because sound engineers rarely know what to do with the harp and there’s only so many times you can say, “I still need more in the monitors,” before you start to annoy people. But in Japanese it’s even worse, what with all of the specific vocabulary and because the distance between me and the sound engineers means that I can’t rely on my usual hand gestures and significant looks to make up for my poor language skills. But I got through it and I was very impressed with the professionalism of the Crescendo’s staff.

It’s less common to see foreigners in smaller music venues than in larger gigs (where sometimes we dominate the audience…) but if I’m the only non-Japanese in the room it doesn’t bother me at all, obviously. What I do find excruciatingly embarrassing is when the bands point it out… from the stage. Believe it or not, this happens almost every time I go to a concert in a small venue. The last visual kei gig I went to one of the bands said こんばんは to the audience and then looked directly at me to say ‘Good evening,’ causing everyone to turn around and stare. I know this is kindly meant but it makes me wish a trap door would open underneath me. So when Rumiko, the gorgeous singer from Aresz comments on the ‘international’ nature of the audience and apologised for not being able to speak English the Britishness in me could not handle it. “Please, please don’t apologise! You are not expected to change anything your amazing band does in any way on my account!”

We were on last and thankfully everyone stuck around so we played to a nice crowd. I was pretty nervous – not only was this my first gig with them it was the first time I had sung without the harp in front of an audience in ages. Even though singing with the harp is very complicated, I guess I feel I can hide behind it. But there was such a friendly atmosphere in the audience and we had been practicing really hard which gave me confidence. I really enjoyed performing and I can’t wait for the next one!

Gjöll Japan live
Maybe I was getting the gig confused with my yoga class with this backbend…. Photo credit: Gjöll

Positives about winter in Japan

I feel the cold. A combination of being pretty skinny and having awful circulation means that a chill wind goes right through me, and no matter now many layers I have on winter has the potential to make me miserable. January and February have been a slog – a friend started a petition on change.org to God asking him to get rid of these months and I thought it was more sensible than many of the petitions on there to be honest.

I was shivering and complaining about the cold, as usual, yesterday when a friend laughed at me and asked how I ever survived in the UK. Yes it’s true that it’s colder in the UK right now, but unlike back home, in Tokyo buildings with central heating and good insulation are a rarity. I’ve been told this is because of earthquakes – houses fall down periodically so it doesn’t make sense to go through the extra effort of insulating them properly or giving them central heating. In my darkly cynical moments I have my doubts about this and am tempted to believe that in actual fact the Japanese believe that the suffering builds moral fibre. Or perhaps it’s something about Japan’s respect for nature and the seasons, an attitude which does have it’s merits…

But there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. One week today it will be March.
Still, as I’m trying this whole optimism thing this year, as an exercise in positive thinking I thought I would try and find some positives about winter in Tokyo. There must be some right?

1) It’s sunny: This is the big one. January is Tokyo’s sunniest month of the year, and boy does that help me out. When it’s winter in the UK it’s freezing AND cloudy to the point you feel like you never get any light and just want to sleep all of the time. Whereas in Tokyo, if I actually manage to wrench myself from my bed, motivate myself to take off the 100 layers I wear to bed, put on the 101 layers I wear during the day and actually get outside the beautiful blue sky has me feeling pretty chirpy.

2) It’s dry: I understand for some people this is very unpleasant. If you have dry skin usually this time of the year can be very tough but I have an oily/combination skin type so this is mostly manageable for me with some lip balm and a good moisturizer. And the dryness of the air has some significant advantages. Firstly, you can dry your washing really well. It might be cold out, but the air is so dry that even if there’s only a sliver of sun (which there usually is, see 1) your clothes will dryin no time. Back home, I tried my best but seeing as my poverty stricken student self didn’t have a tumble dryer, I kind of resigned myself to half my clothes having a vague smell of damp. And not just clothes -almost every student house in Leeds where I went to University perpetually smelt of damp from the walls throughout the winter.

3) Snow onsens: I fulfilled a lifetime dream and went to one. Outdoor hot springs where you can soak in wonderfully warm water while watching the snow fall in the mountains. It was amazing, blog post to follow. The snow sculptures in Hokkaido look spectacular as well, maybe I’ll make it there next year.

3) Seasonal winter snacks and general cuteness: Something I love about Japanese culture is their sensitivity to the seasons. Whether they’re traditions dating back 100s of years or unashamedly commercial (but irresistibly cute), the Japanese do seasonal things well.  Even if the season is winter. In Halloween we had spooky themed drinks and snacks in every convenience store, and winter has seen snow themed treats and cute characters with scarves and hats. I’m particularly enjoying the delicious winter warmers in almost every coffee shop.

…all this aside I can’t deny I’m really looking forward to spring. Hoping to see some cherry blossoms!

明けましておめでとう!Happy New Year

Happy New Year! New Years is the probably the most important holiday of the year in Japan, fulfilling a similar role to Christmas in the UK as a day where people spend time with their family and practice religious traditions, whether or not they themselves are committed believers. At the moment Tokyo is very quiet – many people have fled the city to visit family in their rural home towns, shops and business are closed and many will remain so until the 3rd.

There are two main choices of New Years greeting in Japan. 明けましておめでとう(akemashite omedetuo) is what you say during the first few days of the year. Be careful with this one, it is often simply translated as ‘Happy New Year’ but it is incorrect to say it on New Years Eve, unlike its English equivalent. If you want a season specific greeting on NYE, try the more general よいお年を!(yoi otoshi wo) which means ‘have a good year.’

My friends and I were at Shibuya crossing at the turn of the year, counting down to 2016 with the huge crowds present. Everyone went a little crazy  at midnight, popping champagne cheering and running into the streets periodically a bit like a mosh pit. It was intense but a lot of fun. After that we went to Womb, a nearby club, and had a great time dancing the night away. A good thing about going out in Tokyo at New Years is that the trains run on all night at half hour intervals. One of my biggest complaints about Tokyo is that the last train is ridiculously early and there are absolutely no night buses. This combined with the sky high taxi fares makes a sensible night out virtually impossible – you have to commit to staying out until the first train at 5am which usually leads either to being extremely bored or someone chundering in the streets of Roppongi. I escaped either of these fates, thanks to the trains allowing me to go home at 3am like a normal human being.

The only places that typically aren’t deserted on New Years Day are Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. Quite the opposite in fact – when my boyfriend and I headed to our local Shinto shrine today it was so busy we had to queue for about an hour to get in. It’s traditional to either go to a shrine on new years day or midnight – which is probably why the trains run all night, not to cater to disreputable young gaijin like myself who fancy a dance.

shrine queue instaI’m glad we chose to go to our local shrine instead of heading to one of the massive famous shrines such as Meiji Jingu – whilst I’m sure that would have been an amazing experience, the intimacy of our local shrine felt almost magical. We arrived a little before sunset and queued for about an hour so we watched the sun go down on the shrine and the lamps being lit which was lovely.

fortune instagramAt the shrine we washed our hands with ritual water and queued up to throw ¥5 or ¥50 yen into a box (these coins have holes in them, which is good luck), ring the temple bell, clap and bow. We also bought おもくじ (omokuji) – paper fortunes which make predictions about various aspects of your life such as business, family and romance for the coming year. They’re rated from really lucky to a big curse and I got 小吉 (shou kichi) which means ‘small luck,’ so not too bad. I was told that I will achieve what I wish for – my 願事 (negaigoto) – this year, but it will be tough so I have to work hard. Sounds about right to be honest 😉 Along with many others I tied my fortune on the wires in the shrine grounds in the hope of improving it.

I’m a Christian but I didn’t feel uncomfortable taking part in these practices. This is because, although some Japanese are institutional Shintoists, Shinto is widely regarded as a religion of ritual practices which are an important part of Japanese culture, rather than a dedicated and exclusive belief system which governs ones life. I’m confident that some of the people at my local shrine today were atheists, Buddhists, even Christians or Muslims, taking part in the rituals because it’s tradition, rather than because they have any serious belief. Like how we burn Guy Fawkes in effigy on Bonfire Night in the UK but less… horrible and bizarre.

(I love Bonfire Night, but looking at your country’s traditions from the outside makes you see them in a new light)

I really enjoyed my first New Years in Japan and I wish you all the best for 2016!

me at lamp