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This beautiful land is not a place to say 'Sayonara'

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: December 14, 2013

  • A view from the little visited island Naoshima, in the South of Japan – a breath of fresh air after Hokkaido. Right, outside Ruby's university in Hokkaido, the first day it properly snowed. Far right, The Snow Light Path in Otaru, which takes place in February and coincides with the hugely popular Sapporo Snow Festival. Far left, Kiyomizu-dera in Kyoto, a World Heritage Site, dating back to 1633

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"We are ready for take-off". As the bored sounding announcement crackled incoherently over the loudspeaker, it really hit me that I was about to leave the country that had hosted me through thick and thin for 11 months, and I had 14 laugh-free hours ahead of me to contemplate the impending culture shock. Now wasn't the time for tears – operation "Leave Japan Sobbing" had been a riotous success at my farewell party the previous evening – it was time for reflection on what made Japan, a country so far from home, become for me, so close to one.

For my long-awaited year abroad I was stationed in Otaru, 30 minutes away from Sapporo, Hokkaido. You will be forgiven for not knowing where Sapporo, let alone Hokkaido is; my friends living in Tokyo were stunned when I told them I did not in fact get the night bus there, but flew. Japanese Studies will not give you a firm grounding in the geography of the country.

Hokkaido – Japan's northernmost, and therefore coldest island, where it snows from November to April. This makes it a haven for the influx of winter sports enthusiasts, but if like me you live a more sedentary lifestyle, the winter wonderland, or to some Arctic wastes, factor will be a bit lost on you. Whilst the rest of Japan was basking in the warm glow of a spring evening admiring the abundant cherry blossom trees, we in Hokkaido were still shovelling snow off pathways and having near death experiences on hidden patches of ice. The weather is much more forgiving in the summer, however, so you can engage in a welcome bit of schadenfreude when the same people who were boasting about how mild the winter was in their city are lamenting the heat and humidity on the mainland and sweating like Ted Striker in Airplane! As any guidebook worth its salt will tell you, Hokkaido is one of the best places for sushi, as well as snowboarding and a variety of hallmark Hokkaido delicacies to keep you warm (I highly recommend soup curry, but wasn't too enamoured with miso ramen, despite the recommendations). But as far as sightseeing goes, it falls short of the mainland. With its myriad of stunning temples and shrines, from the breath taking Kyomizudera temple in Kyoto to the tiny local shrines tucked in between vending machines, mainland Japan is a cultural tour through the country's 2,000-year-long history, whereas Hokkaido, as the least developed of Japan's four islands, has mostly only been settled in the last 100 years, leaving markedly less vestiges of the traditional Japan you find in woodblock paintings, or adverts imploring you to skip through the cherry blossoms on the way to a teahouse to relax with some Geisha. This, however, means you can appreciate the natural beauty of Hokkaido, unspoilt by the grey sullenness of the cities. You can travel to most places by the wonderful JR rail service, but having a car is more advisable if you want to get the best out of the island, or you just don't want to be a part of the cut throat dash to find a seat on the train – although as a foreigner you will probably be given a wide berth at least a couple of times. I could write pages about Hokkaido, but suffice to say it has its cons, but those were far outshone by its pros, the biggest one for me being that because it was so under populated by Japanese standards that I really felt that the place and the people had a strong identity.

One of the main misconceptions I had about Japan before going there was that I would be entering a world with technology that other countries had only seen in sci-fi films; that I would soon be whirled away by sushi and smartphones. The reality is that in the business world you will be more likely to receive a fax than an e-mail, and only one bank, the Japan Post, makes use of internet banking. Aside from the intimidating metropolises of Tokyo and Osaka, which anyone who has read a David Mitchell novel will be able to picture, the endless sprawling cities and countless twee villages that make up the ever diverse landscape of Japan are generally a far cry from what the media chooses to show.

Another thing that came as a surprise was that the Japanese, no longer the isolationist, suspicious-of-anything-Western nation of 150 years ago, still has a perplexing fascination with foreign residents, particularly if said foreigner is, like me, 5ft 11ins. This was at least true for Hokkaido, where I've received everything from covert glances from people sat opposite on the train, to a girl in a club asking me if she could take a photo with me 'because my legs are so long'. Next time I go out I'll ask someone if I can have a photo because they're so short, and see where that gets me. Lots of people attribute this to racism or xenophobia, but only twice have I received a negative reaction. Most people are simply interested because, especially in Hokkaido, there is such a distinct lack of foreign faces in the daily makeup of the place that I imagine people are quite curious about why a tourist would choose to go to somewhere that snows six months of the year and isn't really known for anything except ramen. On some occasions admittedly it has been quite daunting to have people, mostly decrepit old women, wince when you walk past or move to leave a yawning gap between you, but it is hard to go around bemoaning what to some would seem overt racism, when I encountered so many random acts of kindness in my time there, especially when I was travelling. One of these moments that most stands out is when I naively put my faith in my guidebook and got lost looking for a place to eat, and a policeman not only looked on his map to try and find it, but escorted me around for half an hour asking various people if they had heard of it. I've been bought meals, given tissues when I had fallen over and hurt myself, and had people show me the right way when so obviously lost in a maze of a subway station. It may be because I'm not a tourist here, but I'd like to see how many people can say they have had such experiences in this country, particularly if they are a tourist or just generally foreign. Whilst there are lots of reasons against living in Japan, the unconditional generosity of the people there are what make a strong case for returning. The Japanese do not say "Sayonara".

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