Expat Living: Stephanie Raley in Nasushiobara, Japan
The latest addition to my Expat Living interview series is former podiatrist turned ESL teacher, Stephanie Raley. Originally from the UK, Stephanie took a leap, gave up her old life, and traded it in for a new one in Northern Japan.
She takes us on a journey to where the blog has never been before and tells us all about life in Japan. Stephanie joins the esteemed ranks of other expats here on cherylhoward.com who’ve lived in exotic places like Samantha in Costa Rica or Polly in Russia.
Expat Living: Stephanie Raley in Nasushiobara, Japan
I’m a twenty something solo traveller, ESL teacher, and former podiatrist with an extreme case of wanderlust. In 2013, I left my life behind to travel around the world for ten months on the sabbatical of a lifetime, visiting amazing countries and grasping life at every opportunity.
I now live in Japan and continue to travel as much as I can despite a busy work life.
Where are you from?
I’m originally from Widnes, a small town near Liverpool in Northern England. When I was in my early twenties I moved to Liverpool, so I also consider Liverpool my home city.
Where are you living now and how long have you been there? Do you plan on staying?
I currently live in Nasushiobara, Tochigi in Northern Japan. I moved here in March 2015, after I quit my job as a podiatrist and decided to teach English in Asia.
Do I plan on staying? This is a hard question to answer. Although I love Japan, it can be quite a claustrophobic place to live. At the moment, I still don’t know exactly where I’ll be living starting April of this year. This is both liberating and extremely scary.
Did you move there alone or with family, friends, a significant other or even a pet?
I moved there alone, as I always travel solo.
What brought you to your new home? Tell us your story.
I was working as a podiatrist and living in Liverpool city centre. On the outside I had it all, including a good job, a nice flat, and a great social life but inside I was empty. It was a weird feeling. I just felt like I wasn’t living out my destiny but at the same time, I also had no idea what my passion was.
Somehow, I discovered my first travel blog. From there I just kept reading travel blog after travel blog, all about young women who managed to travel the world solo. I thought, if they can do it, why can’t I?
I fought hard for a sabbatical and was granted a one year leave. I spent ten months travelling around the world and absolutely loved it. When I got back I tried to adjust back to regular life, but just couldn’t.
Eventually, I realized that my passions had been staring me in the face all this time – travel and children. I decided to combine both and teach English in Asia. It was such a hard decision to hand in my notice at my previous job, but I’m so happy I did.
I chose Japan because I`ve always found Japanese history, especially Geishas, fascinating.
What do you do work wise? Is finding work in your city easy? What are the visa requirements like?
I work for a large company that places English teachers in various towns and cities throughout Japan. There’s a lot of need in Japan for English teachers and there’s been a real push in English leading up to the 2020 Olympic games in Tokyo.
Unless you speak Japanese, the only job you can do is work as an English teacher or ALT. You can work in public schools or private schools called “Ekeiwas”.
You need a degree (in any subject) to work as a teacher in Japan. People from some countries can also apply for a working holiday visa, but it would be hard to find a job unless you can speak Japanese.
How do you “blend in” and be accepted by locals?
In rural Japan it’s nearly impossible to blend in. Japan is such a homogenous society, as 98.5% of the people in Japan are Japanese and it has a relatively small expat community. I’ve lived in my town for nearly a year and I still get stared at regularly, as seeing a foreigner is not a common occurrence.
The best way to blend in in Japan is to act as the locals do. The Japanese are extremely polite and try to keep attention away from themselves. Try not to speak too loudly and speak quietly on crowded trains.
A great tip is to always copy what the locals are doing. If they remove their shoes, remove your shoes. If they bow, bow. Also look at what the locals aren’t doing. If they’re not eating, it’s probably not ok to eat and if they’re not talking, it’s probably best not to talk.
Despite what you may think, most Japanese dress extremely modestly. It’s still kind of taboo to show your shoulders and cleavage (although wearing a miniskirt or short shorts is completely fine). Most people wear muted colours, in classic styles like capris and chinos.
Tattoos are still taboo here and if you show them outside the cities, people might get scared and think you’re a member of the “yakuza” (Japanese gangs), so it’s best to cover them as much as possible while you’re here.
How did you make friends? Are you friends with locals or with other expats?
Luckily, I live in a town with a large amount of teachers. There’s over 34 teachers and other expats in my town and we meet regularly for meals out and drinks.
Personally, I’ve found it hard to make Japanese friends. Most people where I live don’t speak English too well or are too shy to try.
Most Japanese stay friends with their childhood friends and because of their busy lives they don’t have time to make new friends, especially foreign ones. I’ve a few Japanese acquaintances but no Japanese friends unfortunately.
I hear it’s a lot easier to make Japanese friends if you live in a city or have a high level of Japanese.
What has been the most shocking thing you learned about the local culture?
I guess the most shocking things is the collective society. Individualism isn’t encouraged and most people try their best to act the same as other people. As an individual, I found it hard to fit in at first, as I couldn’t be myself. The school children aren’t encouraged to have opinions or think for themselves, which is very different to the British education system.
The squat toilets are also quite shocking! I thought I’d seen the last of squat toilets when I left Thailand, but they’re alive and well in Japan. Most toilets are either “super toilets” with sensors, bidets, and many mod cons or archaic squat toilets. The good thing about Japan is that the toilets are always clean.
Did you have to learn a language? What learning methods do you recommend?
When I first came to Japan, I studied Japanese rather intensely. Without a small amount of Japanese ability, living in a town is near impossible.
I learned it through a Japanese textbook called Genki, watching YouTube, and a Japanese show on Netflix. There’s also an app called Hello Talk that matches you up to Japanese people who want to learn English so you can have a language exchange.
I’d recommend learning to read katakana and hiragana before coming to Japan. Katakana especially, as it makes daily life a lot easier and you can read shampoo bottles etc.
Technically, you don’t need to speak Japanese to teach English in Japan, but in reality Japanese is extremely helpful.
I live in a semi-rural city (that I call a town) and barely anyone speaks English, despite all junior high and high school students learning it at school. The teachers in my school speak a tiny amount of English so speaking at least some Japanese makes the job 100% easier.
What do you love the most about your new home?
I love the fact that Japan is such a clean and safe country. As soon as I stepped off the plane, I just felt the tension drain from my body. It’s great not having to worry about my personal safety or possessions.
Japan is also the land of convenience, as wherever you go you’ll see vending machines, even next to rice paddies. Whatever you want or need, you can be rest assured that you’ll find it closeby.
What do you “hate” the most about your new home?
Japan can be an extremely isolating and claustrophobic place to live. Before I moved here, I literally saw zero blog posts on the negative aspects of living in Japan.
Most blogs painted it as a place with super friendly and polite locals. It can be hard to make friends with Japanese unless you speak Japanese. Even if someone speaks English, they’ll say they don’t so they don’t look like they’re showing off. I’ve made local friends in nearly every country that I’ve travelled to, but not in Japan.
Japan is an extremely safe and clean place to live because of one thing – all of their rules. Rules rule life in Japan, both for foreigners and local people. As a foreigner, it can be hard to know exactly what these rules are and when to apply them. For example, many Japanese don’t say “excuse me” if they want to go past someone, instead they just try to squeeze past. At first, this can appear rude but they’re actually trying to be polite by attempting to avoid talking to you.
Stephanie’s Favourite Things in Nasushiobara
There’s not many good coffee shops where I live, my favourite is Pen Cafe inside a shop called Book Off. It’s such a relaxing environment, so I sometimes go there on a Saturday when I have nothing else to do, and spend the time reading, writing, or colouring.
There’s only one near me called Book Off, with an absolutely tiny English book section with some gems to be found. I recently bought Slumdog Millionaire and a book about how to improve writing skills. My Kindle is my most prized possession and that’s what I use to buy most of my books.
Unfortunately, where I live there’s no markets that I know of. Maybe it’s not a Japanese thing? They do have a store called “Hard Off”, a second hand store that literally sells everything. When I first arrived, I forgot the name and called it “Hard On” a few times. This was hilarious for others but humiliating for me. I’ve found some gems in there like an umbrella shaped like a Samurai sword (and probably never use) and I once was able to get cheap blankets to help me cope with the cold winter.
There’s not many stores where I live so I’d say that my favourite store is the Daiso, which sells everything for about $1. It has everything you could ever need and most items are of a really good quality.
There’s a nice bar near me called the Gorilla Lounge. Like most Japanese bars, the seating areas are separated which means it’s hard to talk to new people. But it has delicious imported beer and the funniest waiters. It also has wifi, a rarity where I live. Gorilla Lounge also does “nomihoudai”, one of my favourite aspects of living in Japan. Basically, it’s all you can drink for about 2 hours. Alcohol in Japan is quite expensive, much more than what it costs back in the UK, so it’s nice to enjoy a drink without worrying about the bill at the end.
One of my other favourite places to go, is a small izakaya (Japanese pub) near the train station. It has the friendliest owner, who always comments on the flowers or bows in my hair. Even though she’s about 70, she makes a real effort to say a few English words, which is so nice and unusual in this town. There`s nothing better than ending a busy week with a few beers and a catch up with another teacher.
One of the best things about living in Japan is that high quality food is everywhere and it’s also really cheap. Japanese food is so varied, with a medley of subtle flavours that complement each other, and a really delicate taste. There’s so many restaurants near me which makes it hard to choose a favourite. Not far from my school is a great Ramen restaurant. It serves the ramen up in big earthenware bowls and does the best gyozas in town. I’ve yet to finish a bowl because the portions are so big.
Things to do?
My favourite thing to do is to take a train to Tokyo at the weekend. Tokyo is one of the best cities in the world and each district is so big it could be considered its own city. I love the bustling youth culture of Shibuya. It has the world biggest crossing and I love looking at the fashionable teenagers with their bleach blonde hair and leather jackets.
Ueno is another place that I love to visit in Tokyo. It’s home to the city’s best museums, it has a large zoo and each spring the whole park turns completely pink when the cherry blossom erupt. Downtown Ueno is also a big grittier than other parts of Tokyo. Confident store owners shout about their bargains in the street and it has a feel of a Cockney market. My top tip is to explore the restaurants and bars located in basements or upstairs, as more often than not these are the greatest value and have the best atmosphere.
In my town, I’m a short drive from Shiobara, an absolutely beautiful little mountain town that has ryokans, onsens, and sunning views. I love exploring this area with friends.
Weird and offbeat attraction?
Japan is rather famed for its weird and wonderful attractions! Although my town is very conservative, I’m sure that weird things happen all the time, behind closed doors!
Tokyo however is a different story. Every corner you turn you’ll come face to face with a weird attraction. Off the top of my head, the weirdest things I can think of are an owl café and a penguin bar. Tokyo also has places where you can pay to get your ears cleaned by a woman dressed in cosplay and places where you can pay for a hug.
Expat Living Information
Did you like this interview with Stephanie Raley in Nasushiobara, Japan? Then check out my Expat Living section. You’ll find posts about questioning the concept of “home” as an expat or the best ways to learn German in Berlin.