My name is Ellen and I’m an Irish blogger and Instagrammer. Two years after graduating with a degree in Food and Agri-Business Management, I took the plunge and moved to Kumamoto in Japan as an expat. I was granted a place on the JET (Japanese Exchange Teaching) Programme.
Now that I am back, I am pursuing a master’s course in Digital Marketing and keeping safe amid this pandemic. Growing up in the Southeast of Ireland, I feel like I didn’t see a ton of the world as a child. As one of the younger female cousins on both sides of my family, I heard lots of travel stories from my older cousins which spiked my interest in travel.
It wasn’t until I got to university that I started to explore the globe a bit more. In 2015, I visited Nice in France with some university friends. Then in 2016, my passion for travel ramped up when I took the opportunity to study abroad at Purdue University in the US. America was the furthest place I’d ever been at that point and at the time I tried to travel as much as I could.
I took the same approach with travel when I had been given the opportunity to live and work as an expat in Japan – the land of the rising sun. Now, I share all of my travel adventures on my Instagram and blog.
Inspiration to Move to Japan
I’m not going to lie: Japan was never a place that interested me too much as a child. I didn’t have the love affair with Japan that a lot of people who move to Japan have. One of my best friends moved to Japan a year before I did and it wasn’t until then that an interest sparked in Japan specifically.
I visited Japan for the first time two months before I moved over and it was honestly one of the most magical places I’d been. So it was a completely random move for me but also one of the best moves I made in my life.
53 Weeks of Expat Life in Japan
At the end of July last year, I made the move with my complimentary flight with The JET Programme. I came back just over a year later. I stayed for a total of 53 weeks. On the JET Programme, you don’t necessarily have a choice in where you live. So when I got an email telling me that I was going to live in Kumamoto, I was a bit startled to say the least.
Located in Japan’s southernmost island of Kyushu, Kumamoto was a place I’d never heard of before. However, it was incredibly beautiful. I was an Assistant Language Teacher in Kumamoto placed across two elementary schools and one junior high school for the year. It was a lovely job and I taught some rather enthusiastic kids! I will never forget it!
In my free time, I travelled a lot, hung out with friends, ate food and enjoyed Japan. There is literally something for everyone in this wonderfully weird country. If anyone is thinking about moving to Japan as an expat, I couldn’t recommend it enough. Go with the flow and you will fall in love!
Exploring Japan as an Expat
I am very lucky that I got to see as much as I did in a year – a very strange year at that! I visited most of the main places you think of when Japan comes to mind – Tokyo, Osaka, Hiroshima, Kyoto – as well as some of the country’s hidden gems like Hokkaido, Naoshima, Kyushu and Yamagata.
There is still so much to see in the weird and wonderful Japan. Although I visited Yamagata, I would have loved to explore more of the Tohoku region. Also, I would have loved to visit the 4th main island of Japan (Shikoku) and Nikko in Tochigi. There are probably a million other Japanese places I’d love to go to, to be honest, but I can always visit again in the future.
I really loved the island of Naoshima. It is one of the Kagawa Art Islands off the coast of Tamano in the Okayama prefecture. A perfect mix of the quiet countryside and a beautiful island, it is the perfect place to escape to if you get tired of the Japanese cities. You must try the native yellow tail fish burgers if you visit. They are delicious and totally unique. Yum!
Best Experiences in Japan
Japan blew me away. It’s hard to pick favourite experiences. But I’d recommend that tourists go to an onsen, stay in a ryokan and try a kaiseki meal. Onsens are hot spring baths, and though the thought of being naked in front of others is daunting, it really was one of my favourite things to do.
Later on during my time in Kyushu, I took a trip to Yufuin in Oita with two of my good friends. We stayed in a ryokan (a traditional Japanese hotel) and had a delicious Kaiseki meal there. It consisted of 16 incredible courses!
Immersing in the Japanese Culture
The first words that come to mind when I think of the people and culture of Japan are kind and respectful. In all the time I lived there, there was no shortage of kindness. If I had trouble using a bank machine (due to my low level of Japanese) someone would always offer to help.
Even when I lost my transport card in Tokyo, when I retraced my footsteps my card was exactly where I left it. Japanese people are incredibly respectful and, in many ways, it makes me ashamed to be Irish where I know that people don’t show the same amount of respect.
If you go, you will notice that it is clean and people are incredibly polite, showing courtesy in everything they do. It might take some time to adjust to Japan but there is also so much we can learn from this fascinating place.
One of the best parts about the country was the amazing food. Albeit it was a lot different to what I was used to eating at home. I loved Takoyaki (Octopus Balls), Ramen and of course Japanese Fried Chicken/Karaage!
Tips for Expat Life in Japan
To be honest, I think life as a foreigner in Japan can be difficult for people. Having a big language and culture divide is always going to be a challenge. But if you keep open minded and accept that there are some parts of the culture you must abide by (bowing/greeting) then you will be fine.
Everyone makes mistakes and sometimes Japanese people will give you the benefit of the doubt in situations if you are a foreigner. I don’t think anyone can come fully prepared, especially if they have never been to Japan. But I would say that if you plan to live in Japan as an expat, it would be a good idea to learn Japanese before you make the journey over.
It’s also helpful to know some of the greetings or traditions such as giving souvenirs/omiyage relating to your country on your first day of work, that are used in Japan (especially if you’ll be working in a setting like a school). Finally, I would say embrace the rollercoaster that is living in Japan!