In June 2016, I became more unwell than I had ever been in my life.
My story of chronic illness in Japan has been told elsewhere but essentially after 8 months of pain, doubt and sickness I quit Japan and moved back in with my parents in Essex. For 2 months I temped in a call center and blew my savings visiting a swanky Harley Street doctor in the hope that he could fix me.
These two months could have been really shit but during this period I had the chance to reconnected with wonderful UK friends. Thanks to these people, I feel I recovered spiritually as well as physically.
One of them was Oliver Wood, a wonderfully talented musician and producer that I know from my time in the Essex Youth Orchestra. During my exile to the home counties, we recorded my EP In Distance, Everything is Poetry together. It was the kind of recording experience I’ve always craved, relaxed but bursting with creativity. Olly drew my best playing out of me and we had a lot of fun getting the tracks done. His string arrangements and post production are stunning and I feel he’s really brought my songs to life.
In May 2017 I made the decision to return to Japan, this time not with the protection of a steady job, but as a freelancer. Perhaps a crazy choice given I was recently ‘recovered’ (what I have doesn’t usually go away completely but I’m 90%) and broke thanks to the swanky doctor. But illness sometimes brings into perspective what is really important to you. When I was faced with the prospect of possibly never being able to work full time again I realised that I had spent my entire life doing things I was never really that into.
I don’t mean I’ve lived an unhappy life, far from it. Most of the things I’ve done with it – uni, music PR, teaching – have been worthwhile, good things that I’ve enjoyed and learned a lot from them. I mean that, to be honest, I was never super passionate about any of them them, even if I told myself I was. Illness taught me that life can take time and opportunities away when you least expect it. I had spent my first 23 years hitting targets and doing the things I was supposed to do. Now it was time to chase what I actually wanted.
The last 6 months have been the most exciting of my life but also some of the most challenging. For the first time I feel like I’m spending most of my time pursuing things I actually, really care about. It is tough as hell but also hugely fulfilling.
On Friday I released the EP and yesterday I held a release party at the Cheshmeh in Sasazuka, Tokyo. The venue was packed; I felt bad because a lot of people had to stand or sit on the floor, but we opened up half of the stage for extra seating space. Two wonderful female artist friends opened for me. I enjoyed this performance more than I have in ages and I will always remember looking out into the crowd, unable to believe that I had this – a release party in a beautiful venue packed with people of a variety of ages and nationalities but united in their warmth and love of art.
There are so many people in my life I have to be grateful for. The musicians I perform with and the venue owners who book me. My wonderful producer Oliver Wood and Isabel Galwey who made the beautiful album art. Everyone who bought a CD, came to a gig or shared my work. I have found Tokyo to be a wonderful place where so many people are enthusiastic about music and supportive of musicians. It’s the kind of artistic community I’ve been looking for all of my life to be honest.
What I have to be grateful for goes beyond my art. Every friend who listened to me when I was sick, my parents who let their daughter in her mid 20s move back in and eat their food, my long suffering boyfriend who has supported me through thick and thin. Everyone, thank you so much.
I’m collapsed in a bit of a pile right now. Over the last couple of months I have performed my original material more intensively than ever before. Putting on shows is a lot of fun but it is exhausting, physically, emotionally and socially. Actually the social one is a biggie – I think one of the main reasons I didn’t get seriously into performing original material before graduating is because I hadn’t got enough experience points to level up to the required social level back then. You need to make friends with musicians, make friends with venue owners, invite everyone to your events, hustle on social media, and talk to everyone competently after the performance. Yesterday, people asked me to sign CDs. I mean, me. Signing CDs. I can’t get over it.
So yeah, I’m on my sofa in a pile eating takeaway sushi, catching up on Netflix. I usually work out twice or three times a week but I have been so busy I haven’t in almost three weeks. Maybe I’ll catch up on that too.
The world won’t stop for me. I actually have a huge writing deadline tomorrow. My next solo show is on Friday, then another on Sunday then I need to get to work on learning a tonne of material for a corporate event in December.
But for the next couple of hours, rest, relaxation and gratitude. Thank you, everyone. Thank you so much.
I googled it and showed him on my phone, in disbelief that I was educating a medical professional about a widely used form of contraception (which, yes, is available in Japan) in 2016. He immediately freaked out and told me that the hormones were what was causing my symptoms. Logic and advice from a gynecologist told me this was unlikely but I was still trying to trust in the treatment I was receiving back then, so I got it removed. Surprise, surprise nothing improved.
This was my first insight into attitudes towards contraception in Japan which are a teensy bit different from back home. The pill was only legalised in 1999 in Japan (38 years after the UK) and even then was marketed more as medicine for ‘hysterical women’ than as a method of birth control. This is one reason the pill carries some stigma and is not as widely used as in other industrialised countries even today. Another reason for the stigma is that historically abortion has been far more accepted as a method of birth control in Japan than elsewhere. Indeed, it was legalised in 1949, a decade before other industrialised countries, and Japan drew criticism for being so accepting that people would come from abroad to have abortions.
Moreover Japanese national health insurance does usually cover contraception. The pill will cost you ￥3,000 a sheet, the coil up to a whopping ￥50,000. As far as I know the implant and the injection aren’t even available. Even removing my coil cost me ￥18,000. Seeing as childbirth isn’t covered by national insurance either, basically it sucks to be a woman.
So if they’re not into other forms of birth control the Japanese must be using condoms right? Well you would think so. But the stories I hear from my friends paint a different picture; people who refuse to carry condoms because they don’t want to appear slutty or they think it will make their dalliance seem over planned and less romantic. Couples who think the ‘withdraw method’ is safe and, surprise surprise, end up with an unwanted pregnancy. Japanese women who think it’s insulting if a man decides to use condoms with them. A friend once told me that when she asked the Japanese guy she was hooking up with about condoms he actually mimed putting one on hoping that she wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.
Well, it’s 2016 and traditional institutions are collapsing all around us but, at least we can still count on pop culture.
If you are looking for advice on contraception and you are in Tokyo and don’t speak Japanese, or if you want to speak to a doctor with a more international outlook, I would recommend Primary Care Tokyo in Shimokitazawa or Tomoko’s Ladies Clinic in Omotesando.
This blog has mostly been about my life in Japan I’m afraid this one is a personal post. Inspired by Gabrielle Leimon, lifestyle blogger at Welcome to the Birdcage, writer for the Huffington Post and one of my oldest friends, I am going to write a post about my new years resolutions. Come summer 2016 I’ll write another to see how I’m doing with them and get back on track if I’ve strayed, which I inevitably will. To be honest I’m pretty vain so I’m hoping that having my resolutions out in public will be a good motivator. I don’t usually do New Year Resolutions and if I do I fail dramatically but hey, New Years is a far bigger deal in Japan than in the UK and my life is different beyond recognition to how it was 6 months ago, so who knows what could happen? It’s probably groundless but I have a feeling that 2016 is going to be a big one for me.
1) To get healthy Boyfriend watched me write that and promptly stuffed his face with some kind of delicious cream thing as he raised his eyebrows knowingly at me. He then offered me a chocolate finger. I did not refuse.
Moving swiftly on…
I will turn 23 in February 2016 (urgh) and this is a wakeup call that I do not have the body of a teenager anymore. Whilst I have never been terrible at taking care of myself – I’ve always exercised regularly, I eat a lot of fruit and veg, I don’t smoke and I try to get 8 hours of sleep a night – I could definitely be a lot better. I feel that so far that most of the things I do to take care of myself are restorative rather than preventative. I do enough yoga and pilates to control the pain from my scoliosis, muscle tension and time spent in the same position (whether playing the harp or sitting at a desk) enough that I’m not miserable. However, I never exercise towards a goal or attempt to build strength, flexibility or stamina beyond what’s necessary to not be in pain all of the time. I sleep through the weekends to attempt to repay the sleep debt I’ve gained during the week. I spend a day sipping water and eating salad to counteract the alcohol and junk food I’ve consumed the previous night (Japan is particularly bad for this – how am I supposed to resist temptation after a night out when every convenience store has fried chicken??). I spent the first half of 2015 finishing my degree – a lot of late nights, a lot of stress, a lot of caffeine. After a couple of months off I moved to Japan – a lot of stress, a change in diet and a job where I was often working 12 hour days. Although in some ways I have been getting more healthy since arriving, in others it feels like my body has been resisting Japan. Since moving to Tokyo I have had minor surgery and struggled with digestive problems and anxiety.
I will change job at the end of January 2016 (prepare for a tenshoku post some time in February…) and my new position will allow me more opportunities to work on my health. Prioritising exercise and sleep, I want 2016 to be a year my body thanks me for.
2) To get better at Japanese… but to not take JLPT N3 in July 2016
For those who don’t know, the Japanese-Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) is a standardized Japanese test taken by learners worldwide. There are 5 levels – N1 is the highest and indicates near fluency. N2 a level is where you can handle most situations living in Japan can throw at you – above average students will reach this level after a four year Japanese degree in the UK, although some of my friends on BA Japanese took this test and failed despite having a good level of language. I was intending to take the level below this, N3, which is basically a conversational level of Japanese. I was probably at about N4 (Elementary Japanese) when I arrived, strong on listening but weak on kanji as the University elective I took was grammar focused. You can take the JLPT twice a year, in July and December, and I on coming to Japan in August I set myself the reasonable goal of attempting N3 in July 2016. In the new year, I’ve resolved to try harder at Japanese but I’ve also decided to save JLPT N3 until at least December 2016. This may seem counter-intuitive but bear with me.
I like tests. So sue me, I do. Everyone is different and tests suit my learning style far more than coursework, which made my undergraduate degree and my 12,000 word dissertation pretty challenging. I’m generally pretty good at tests too but occasionally this doesn’t work in my favour. Because I’m good at ‘exam technique’ (or ‘faking it,’ whichever you want to call it) sometimes I’ve been put into tests before I’m ready and I’m less good than I seem from my results, which actually hurts my learning in the long run. This is the main reason why I’m not entering N3 in July. It’s not because I think I can’t hack it: I know Icould make a serious attempt. However, I think that if I enter I will get obsessed with learn Japanese for the exam and lose sight of the wider goal of communication. The main thing I want to focus on at the moment is speaking – I want to be able to communicate with my bandmates better. I want my Japanese friends to feel like they don’t have to speak in English all of the. I want to not get the look every time I speak to shop assistants. There is no speaking aspect of the JLPT and things I would have to work pretty hard on to pass N3 are unnecessary for me to better my speaking at my current level. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not one of those foreigners who can’t be bothered with kanji – I actually love them. I learn kanji through compounds which is a great way to build up vocab. The problem is I can’t deny that I actually find it easier to learn kanji than to do ‘real language learning.’ When I have half an hour spare in the staffroom, it’s far easier for me to write pretty kanji than learn a complicated grammar point or slog my way through a reading exercise. I’ll need to know 650 kanji for N3 so I feel that if I enter I will spend a lot of quality time with my kanji app instead of learning Japanese which will help me interact with the people around me.
It will be a challenge to motivate myself without a test but part of what I want to achieve is getting out of the mindset that learning should get you sweeties and CV points. Greater understanding of this wonderful language and better ability to communicate with Japanese people should be its own reward.
3) To create more
Since graduating from University I have rediscovered my creative side. During my time studying and my year out working in music PR I guess I was creative in some ways – I wrote essays and press releases, organised parties and concerts and performed a fair amount – but my mind was always so busy with external pressures that I didn’t really make much I could call my own. Blogging has helped me remember how much I love creating stuff. In 2016 I want to write more blog posts and more songs. I want to get back into my YouTube channel. I want to put effort into my band, not putting too much pressure on anything but just having a great time.
4) To be more present
I’ll admit it, I don’t fully know what this means. All I know is that sometimes I’m pretty bad at it. As an ENTP I’m programmed to live in a world of ideas, possibilities and plans and, quite frankly, this has often been an advantage at University and at work. But it can also be anxiety inducing, especially when you live abroad.
Self-help articles throw around phrases like ‘cultivating mindfulness’ all the time, but I’ll be the first to admit I don’t fully understand what ‘mindfulness’ means. I can’t meditate. Sorry. It’s not helpful to me at all, I just sit there longing for it to end, getting more angry with myself and more anxious.
I’m a big fan of the book on life as a JET, This Japanese Life and the blog of the same name. Reading the post about ‘mindful running’ was the first time that I realised that mindfulness could be activities other than staring at my eyelids hating myself. Finding ways to practice mindfulness whilst running and doing yoga (see resolution 1) is actually possible for my over-excited type A mind and I’ve found it helpful to my mental well being.
I live in Japan and I want to be ‘more present’ in Japan. The age of the internet does not help with this. It’s wonderful that I could Skype my parents on Christmas day, but not so great when you realise that you may physically be in Japan but your mind has been elsewhere all day. You wake up and check facebook. You reply to an email from your parents and check your instagram on your lunch break. You go home and watch Netflix in English then procrastinate washing up by scrolling through your facebook feed again. There are your friends. They’re smiling at nights out in the clubs you used to go to, walking through the countryside, eating a terribly British Christmas dinner with their families. Two of them at a gig in London of one of your favourite bands saying they miss you.
Sometime in December I realised that I was using social media as a coping mechanism. Every time some stressful liguistic or cultural misunderstanding occurred I would check my phone. Breathe. Here are people who get you. If you post a status they will understand your humour. Checking your phone reminds you of social circles where you belonged, where you didn’t have to worry about offending people by accident. Where interacting with people was easier. I don’t think social media is intrinsically a bad thing, but this kind of behavior is unhealthy. It’s wonderful that I can use facebook to keep in touch with my friends on the other side of the world but this kind of checking is making me miss home and giving me FOMO abound. It’s a small thing, but to try and be more present in Japan, I’m going to try and do facebook free January. I’ll still be blogging, and still on twitter and instagram, but for an addict like me I thought it was best to start with a goal I could actually keep – and seeing as facebook probably causes the most problems, it will be the one to go. Yes, you can clap really slowly now.
I guess, when I say I want to be more mindful, what I mean is I want to be more aware of my own thoughts and how I experience things. Maybe if I cut down on the internet usage, keep at the yoga and the running and generally just try to experience things on their own terms, I’ll start to understand more what it means to ‘be in the present.’
Or maybe not.
I’ll let you know mid year if I find out anything interesting.