by Keith A. Richardson
At 45, I quit my teaching job in the BC interior, sold my modest bungalow, paid off my debts, packed a few bags, bade farewell to friends, aging parents, and my two “just grown up” sons, and set out for work and adventure in northern Japan, specifically, Sapporo, on the country’s northernmost island of Hokkaido.
I expected to “be away” for two years. Some of the factors that had led to this opportunity had been extremely painful while others were undeservedly fortuitous.
This piece, however, is not about why I chose an abrupt change of course at such an unlikely age; it is just an attempt to relate a tale of one piece of good luck after another.
On Wednesday, August 15, 1989, I flew from YVR (Vancouver, BC) to NRT (Narita, Japan).
Having done some homework about my destination, and with a return ticket via Hong Kong tucked away in the luggage, I was hopeful that the experience would at least be memorable. In time I came to appreciate how little I really understood that late summer day equipped with little more than positive resolve and what goods I could carry.
If, on the other hand, as Roman philosopher Seneca observed,
“Good luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity,” then, perhaps I was more prepared than I knew. I know now that I was amazingly lucky. My “Japan experience” helped me many times in later years to stay positive and optimistic when it was not so clear that further “good luck” beckoned just around the corner.
In March ’89, as part of my research, I met with four people who had lived or worked in Japan for an extended time. A former student, whom I had not seen since his graduation 12 years earlier, and his wife had recently returned to Vancouver after four years in Osaka. They graciously spent an afternoon and evening with me, grilling me about my expectations and my preparedness. Steve opened by predicting that my adventure would end in disappointment, that Japan was no place for someone my age simply seizing an opportunity to travel for two years. Yet, as he listened to my ideas, and I mulled over his insights, we finally agreed that there was a slim chance that the experience could be fruitful.
First, Steve acknowledged that by choosing Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost big island, I might ease the acclimatization process. Sapporo had hosted the ’72 Winter Olympics, and, even in 1989, was still enjoying the benefits. Living in a winter city was very important to me.
He also reassured me that not speaking Japanese might not be a significant handicap, and even went so far as to predict that, given my objectives, I could not both teach English and learn written Japanese even moderately well in two years. He was absolutely right, of course. I’m still mildly embarrassed that after 13 years in that fascinating country, I can speak only a few phrases—enough to get by, sometimes. On the other hand, had I chosen to focus on the language, I would have missed so much else. It’s difficult to explain this reality to people who haven’t lived there.
The other two resource folks were Vancouver City College teachers with Japanese connections. They gave me the name of Akimi, a Japanese language school teacher in Sapporo who had impressed them when they met her “over here.” I exchanged mailed notes (this was six years before email became available!) with her three times over the next four months, explaining who I was and asking her advice on finding work in Sapporo. She was reassuring, but non-committal. She explained that her small school was unlikely to need my services.
Another invaluable resource for me was a book, Jobs in Japan. It gave me reason to be cautiously optimistic that it was better just to go there and look for work than it was to sign on with a company recruiting over here. Steve also recommended that approach.
I planned to travel as economically as possible. I looked younger than my age
(I thought) and figured that I could stay at youth hostels. To prepare, I bought a membership card in Canada and spent a weekend at the YH at Vancouver’s Jericho Beach. Seemed simple enough. From Tokyo, I would take the train to Sapporo, 800 km north. There I would look up Akimi, make some connections, find a job and enjoy Sapporo for two years—or until I couldn’t stand being away from home any longer—whichever came first.
Now, I promised to tell you a story about luck. Time and time again, in Japan, good things happened when I had no right to expect them to. Some time in 1991, a friend gave me a book called You’ll See It When You Believe It: The Way to Your Personal Transformation by Dr. Wayne W. Dyer. It helped me to understand how much of my good fortune had been (and continued to be) connected to the belief that things would work out somehow as long as I just kept trying and accepted whatever came my way as some kind of blessing—even if it didn’t seem that way at first.
First example: I arrive in Tokyo—well, not Tokyo, but Narita Airport, about 70 km away from Tokyo’s Ueno Station, on the afternoon of Wednesday, August 16 even though the sun hasn’t moved in the sky for the past 10 hours! And as I learn quickly, it’s day two of that year’s six-day Obon holiday—a kind of homecoming weekend, but, I eventually grasp, much more sacred even than say, North America’s Thanksgiving. While many people leave the big city to visit their families in the hinterland, just as many flood back to the city from new jobs outside it. Airports are crowded, trains jammed, hotels and YHs packed.
At the Narita Information Booth, the young English-speaking clerk who half smiles/half frowns as she sets me straight about the YH non-option, also ventures that she has an aunt who operates a ryokan, a small traditional Japanese inn, six km north of Ueno (Tokyo), and offers to call to see if I can stay there.
Go with the flow.
As if there were another choice!
Arrangements are made and explanations provided on how to catch the local train to get there, how to cross the narrow bridge above the tracks, climb the hill, and meet the aunt who speaks no English.
Somehow, with just my Canadian passport (i.e. an instant tourist visa), I clear Japanese customs without a hitch (in fact, in more than a dozen trips in and out of Japan, I never had my luggage searched once! But I never had anything to hide either…. Of course, punnily enough, there are many Japanese customs I was never able to wrap my brain around).
I still haven’t left the airport, however, and the sun, belatedly, is dashing for the Asian mainland as the Kanto plain drowns under a pall of thickening clouds. I’m carrying all my worldly possessions, a backpack weighing 60 pounds including numerous books an aspiring language school teacher might need (really?), a cloth Samsonite bag containing my work clothes, a burgundy nylon carry-on also bulging at the seams, and a camera bag with gear that in the pre-digital age is heavier than you might expect.
Stifling heat. Searching for a bus to take me to the train station where I’ll have to choose the correct line out of a dozen different ones. Despite the valiant efforts of a non-English-speaking young lady to help me board, can’t manage with all my luggage; watch the transport depart with her concerned face pressed against the glass wondering how this baka gaijin* sweating in the twilight is going to survive. (*stupid foreigner)
On the next attempt, with great difficulty, clamber into a less crowded vehicle, find the right train, snag a seat near the door where all my luggage creates problems for everybody else, and speed off into the darkness, watching the blur of small farms and villages gradually give way to dimly-lit non-stop unmemorable urban sprawl. Announcements on the train are entirely in Japanese. No conductor, no way to know where I am. Nobody in the car is talking to anybody. Most heads, eyes closed, are bobbing along to the rhythm of the wheels grinding the rails.
My guidebook and instructions from the clerk at Narita tell me I have to get to Ueno station on Tokyo’s north side, a major rail junction though you wouldn’t know it from the 2-pt speck on my map in the Atlas of Japan which portrays Tokyo as a close-up of a badly bloodshot eyeball! What demons create these resources? (Still prefer paper atlases to interactive Internet maps? I’ve seen both and much prefer the latter!)
Neon signs and apartment buildings and streetlamps flash by in the charcoal fog.
At Ueno, I have to leave this fast train, find a ふつう (futsuu)—slow local commuter rail and travel 6 klicks north to the town of Nippori where the ryokan is. At dawn tomorrow, I’ll have to backtrack to Ueno to catch the Shinkansen northbound for Tohoku.
I realize that I don’t want to be carrying all this luggage up to Nippori.
Strangely, without desperation, I grimly admit that I cannot manage on my own. Desperate, I puncture the verbal silence in the chattering rail car with my meek gaijin’s voice:
“Does anybody speak English?” Dead (and I mean ‘lifeless’) silence.
I ask again—a little more politely—“Excuse me, does anybody speak English?”
Nobody even looks to see where the noise is coming from.
Still, no panic. Somehow this is going to work out.
And it does. In the next thirty minutes, as they move to the door next to which I sit like a stunned pigeon, four different people ask, sotto voce, “Where you go?”
“Ueno station,” I reply, a little too loudly. Each one reassures me that someone will tell me when we get near, and sure enough, when the time comes, a man comes over and says,
“This Ueno station. You get down here.”
I am ineffably grateful to the folks on that train. I had embarrassed them in ways we Canadians don’t understand, yet they had determined to rescue a foreigner in distress.
It was to happen to me again and again!
I won’t detail my quest to find a storage locker big enough to hold the backpack, but the map the Information hostess had drawn back in Narita guides me quite efficiently up the hill to her aunt’s ryokan where for ¥3000 ($25 in 1989) I enjoy a comfortable night’s sleep on a futon on a tatami mat in a room with no chairs, a small low table, and a Japanese lantern. Perhaps because of the lateness of the hour, the communal shower and bath is all mine. The aunt turns out to be an expert in the sign language all travellers know intuitively. My first night in Japan passes with gratitude and wonder and the realization that this is going to work out. And it did.
AND THE LUCK CONTINUES
Now I know that nothing is less interesting than a blow-by-blow account of a traveller’s experience, unless, of course, you’re a traveller, and, like the folks in Canterbury tales, you get a chance to share your experience, too. So, if you’re still with me, perhaps you are a traveller, in which case, I’d love to hear some of your stories! But I promised to tell you about luck. So I’m going to hop, skip, and jump through the next hours, days, weeks and months and give you just a few more examples.
The Shinkansen leaves Ueno Station at around 7:00 am and speeds north to Morioka in northern Honshu where (back in those days) I will have to change to a different train to take me to Hokkaido. It’s only 10:00 am when we arrive. The announcements in English that had been so reassuring when we departed are no longer available up here on the frontier.
The conductor won’t even attempt to speak English. (How many on Via Rail would try Japanese?) Of course, he has good reason, embarrassed after trying to caution me for snoring abominably a hundred km back. (GNOXXGH. GNOXXGHHHHH. “Genterman, genterman, prease wakeup!” GNOXXGH).
At Morioka I have six minutes to catch a regular express train that will take me north to the tip of Honshu then slide down through the 53.8 km-long Seikan Tunnel under the Tsugaru strait, emerge on the southern tip of Hokkaido, and eventually reach Sapporo—another five hours away. (The Seikan, completed only the year before (1988), is considered a marvel of engineering though likely to end up as a mushroom farm, because fewer people use it in the age of 800 km daily commuter flights, than its designers had predicted back in the sixties! But I digress.)
Six minutes! And no clear sense of which track I have to get to. Again, attempts to seek help elicit no response. But just as our train pulls in, a trim, dapper businessman, slightly older than I, emerges from nowhere to ask, “Where you going? Sapporo! You must come quickry to catch train. I show you.” With that he tries to pick up the burgundy carryon and nearly falls over with its weight. He grabs the camera bag instead, and leads me out of the Shinkansen, up the stairs, across the bridge above the tracks, down the stairs to Track 6, and into the non-reserved coach used by rail-pass travellers. Before I can get his name or thank him properly he says, “I must go Akita. My train reave in two minute. Enjoy trip.” He becomes forever in my mind The Man from Akita*, a ninja in businessman’s armour, and a person to whom I am eternally grateful. He had risked his passage to assure mine—for no reason other than kindness. Had I missed that train, I would have waited 10 hours, overnight, to catch another one bound for Sapporo.
(*I was informed some years later when recounting this story in Sapporo for a group of Japanese, that the man was likely not from Akita. It seems that folks from that region do not enjoy — among those I spoke to at least — a reputation for such Good Samaritanism. I still give him the benefit of any doubt….)
And I would have missed the company of a Hokkaido University sociology student who speaks intelligible English, returning to school after spending Obon with her family in Hakodate. For nearly four hours she is an excellent source of information about Hokkaido and Sapporo as we travel in glorious late afternoon sunshine along blue Uchiura-wan’s verdant coastline punctuated with volcanoes only barely dormant.
It is dark when we arrive at Sapporo Eki. But the air is fresh and cool. It feels like home. I telephone the nearby YH, now closed, but whose young workers, in imperfect English that doesn’t matter any more, answer and promise to wait for my arrival and pray that I can find my way. Somehow, (so many ‘somehows’ in this saga!) I exit the station on the appropriate side and follow my Lonely Planet’s pathetic map in what I hope is the right direction.
At the hostel, over the next few days, I meet other gaijin who are also looking for work and who offer useful advice and friendship to a fellow traveller—an older and competing stranger.
I’m leaving out a lot here, and that’s difficult for me, but as this is a story for you, let’s continue.
(By the way, I’ve decided to stop the illustrations at this point and focus on the story….)
By now, although it’s Friday, August 18th, there’s no way of contacting Akimi whose school is closed until Tuesday. I have a long weekend to learn Sapporo’s bus and subway system, which is more of an adventure than you might expect unless you are also a small town guy from the BC interior.
Tuesday, I locate Yoshida Gakuin, and meet Akimi at last, though not before I have been politely reprimanded for walking into an educational institution with my shoes on, and I have been served green tea by a female receptionist on her knees.
Akimi is very gracious, and offers me what little advice she can.
Then, unexpected help comes from the two gaijin who teach in the school. Jay, a recent university grad from Edmonton, gives me a great tip on whom to see in Sapporo’s largest language school, IAY, which he knows will be hiring because his friend who works there is about to quit and hasn’t given his notice yet.
(Steve had been right. In 1989, Canadians could still get jobs in Japan this way. Get the job, then be taken by your employer to Immigration to arrange a work visa. Americans, on the other hand, had to leave Japan, go to Seoul or Hong Kong, apply for a work visa there, then come back. Later this policy applied to Canadians as well. In ’89, however, I was spared this ordeal by my birthplace and my arrival date. It was a plus for the employer, as well.)
Even luckier, Jay’s co-worker, Rhonda, an asthmatic but athletic and enthusiastic New Zealander in her late 20s who had cycled from Tokyo to Sapporo, remarks in her dry Kiwi way, that since her previous house mate had recently vacated his upstairs room, she guessed I could stay in it for a few weeks until I found a place…. The rent was a mere CDN$180/month. More important, Rhonda is a fount of information about how to survive on a bike in the city—something I would do for the next three years. She also introduces me to cheap bread—pan-no-mimi—the “ears of the loaf”—cut off and sold in a plastic bag at a tiny fraction of the crustless white bread many Japanese have been taught to prefer. (Later, I discovered and joyfully paid the equivalent of $10.00 or more a loaf for other heavy, moist Sapporo breads, maybe the best I have ever enjoyed!)
Two years later, when she was leaving Sapporo, Rhonda asked me to “take on a private student” she’d been working with—a Japanese medical doctor/university professor/ expert on sleep apnea who paid me to visit him and his family about 40 weeks a year over each of the next 11 years. While we became good friends, I learned much more than I taught as I watched his family grow and evolve. (I could write another essay on our relationship alone.) This is not a digression—just another example of undeserved fortuity.
JOBS IN JAPAN: failure turns to success
Not only do I acquire a job at IAY, hired by someone whose English is amazingly good (turns out to be a Japanese-Canadian from Edmonton), I am so pathetic at my first two assignments—to be the English-speaking voice in a kindergarten class and later to “teach” dull, disinterested junior high children most of whom attend only because of parental pressure— that I am soon dispatched to the 8th floor where I will teach adults, either one-on-one or in groups of two to five. Fascinating clients that include architects, doctors, computer programmers, bankers, small business owners, travel agents, bored housewives, and a hotel president who shows me that in Japan it is possible to find successful men as iconoclastic as I!
Rather soon, I also became the chief proofer/editor of the company’s English translation division. IAY did considerable work for the government of Hokkaido and the City of Sapporo, considered, because of its northern identity, more cosmopolitan than many Japanese cities in the south, and therefore a frequent invitee to and joiner of international conferences on the perils and benefits of ice and snow and cool, glorious summers. I learned that there are dozens of towns and cities in Canada with sister city relationships in northern Japan and Hokkaido in particular.
Tsuiki-san, owner of the language school, Suzuki-san, head of the translation department, and I all share the same birth year—but by two months I am the youngest, so there is no problem with age hierarchy! How lucky is this? Turns out that Mrs. Suzuki, who enjoys a reputation as bit of a slave driver, has been singularly unimpressed by most of the foreign staff previously assigned to her service. She and I, however, get along well, and I come to love my time with the team on the upper deck.
Through the translation section, I am contracted to write and to narrate English voiceover for government films for international trade and travel shows. Later, appointed Curriculum Coordinator for the upper floor, I gain insight into corporate meetings and the perils of imbibing sake with the boss. I figure it out—pretend to sip, but don’t; my younger buddy, Guy, however, succumbs to total wastage and makes a few comments he rues when the vapours wear off.
I last at IAY for two thoroughly enjoyable years. The work is relatively easy, immensely interesting because of the opportunities I’m afforded, and I make tons of friends among people of many ages, nationalities, and socio-economic backgrounds. When it is apparently time to “go home,” I realize that while a new job would be welcome, I’m not nearly ready to leave this country.
Somehow an even better job materializes from an obscure connection involving a Swede and an American consular official. I join Hokkaido International School, with its 43 students struggling in a run-down building owned for 30 years, along with the land it sits on, by the ex-pat community, but blessed with good people and a new headmaster who in just four years will find ways to grow the enrolment to nearly 200 and transform the institution into one of the best K-12 international schools in Asia in a brand new state-of-the-art building constructed as the first joint-venture of Japanese and American construction enterprises.
ONE MORE LUCKY MOMENT
Between the time I was hired at IAY in late August 1989 and work began on September 5, I had one week to travel on my rail pass. Because, in Hokkaido, I already felt like I’d died and gone to heaven, I chose to travel around the island (something I did so many times over the next 12 years that I came to know it better than most Sapporoites; in fact they often used to ask me to describe what the rest of their island was like).
When I reach the eastern port of Kushiro, it is late evening. From the station, I drift into the city’s entertainment section, a jumble of bars, izakayas*, and probably love hotels, though I am still too ignorant to recognize them. At any rate, I can’t spot a hotel I think I can afford, and I am pretty sure there’s no youth hostel nearby. (* small pubs that sell beer and a la carte food)
Half an hour’s wandering later, I stumble out onto a major thoroughfare. Across the street, my attention is arrested by a koban—a police station! So, I cross the boulevard, boldly enter, and ask, in Canadian, for help. The three cops are both bemused and amused. This is a first for them apparently—but not beyond their ability to handle. They hold a short conference punctuated by puzzled glances and outbursts of laughter. Then one of them makes a phone call.
Nearby, they explain in limited English, is a small minshuku (a family run bed-and-breakfast if you will, often less traditional than a ryokan), again, only ¥3000/night, but I must pay in advance, sight unseen.
Go with the flow! A junior officer (in full gear including a radio plugged into his ear and a pistol on his belt) is delegated to lead me through a couple of twisting streets to my resting place—which I gather is also frequented by Russian sailors. I pay my money, am led to a room filled with a real bed from which a rather fat gray cat rolls off the quilt, and enjoy a very comfortable night on a thick futon that reminds me of the old feather tick in my grandmother’s basement bedroom in Saskatchewan.
I have only scratched the surface of the volume of stories of my luck in Japan. There’s no time to tell you how my caffeine-addiction-headache leads to a piano playing period in a lovely little coffee shop (good luck) whose kind owner, and my first “older friend” in Japan passes away five months after we meet (sad luck), or of the dozens of wonderful people, both Japanese and foreign I am privileged to meet, or my opportunities on Japanese golf courses, or other humorous (depending on one’s point of view) encounters with other Japanese officers of the law. I wish there were time to acknowledge the elderly Japanese lady, raised in Shanghai before WW II, who in the loveliest Scottish-brogue rescued me in a shop where my bike was being repaired and I couldn’t communicate. Or space to describe eleven memorable, indeed overwhelming years at Hokkaido International School (HIS) which delivered innumerable additional examples of serendipity as well as a few, more painful moments where the price of hubris eventually demanded to be paid.
In 2002, when, at last, “going home” can be put off no longer, I feel more like I am “leaving home.” I will always take pride in having been labelled “almost a Dosanko” (a native of Hokkaido) by an anonymous English-speaking obasan (housewife) with whom I once shared a sunset in a park near her Nishioka (“west hill”) home.
In June of ’89, two months before my departure for Japan, my Canadian ex-mother-in-law, “in her cups” at my younger son’s graduation dinner, had offered her blessing should I find a “nice Japanese lady and decide to remarry.” I know I certainly went to Japan with no intention of seeking love—but luck, brilliant good luck, had other plans, and when I returned to Canada, I brought with me a wonderful life companion who has been welcomed by my friends and family including the ex-in-laws and and my ex-wife and is learning to find her own good fortune in this country.
Seneca, quoted at the outset, is also said to have written,
“It is not because things are difficult that we do not dare,
it is because we do not dare that things are difficult.”
I think he may be right there, too. But that’s a story for another time.
After you tell me yours….