From the moment we started this trip we wanted our final destination to be Japan. We watched all the Ghibli movies and absolutely loved them. Ewald gave me a present for the trip, which was supposed to be our guardian angel: a stuffed animal of Totoro. We were not sure if we would be able to go to Japan, because everyone was telling us that it is crazy expensive over there. We were on a tight budget but were still looking for a way to make it happen. Fortunately, we found a job in Japan, in Okayama to be exact. We were invited to work at an international school for two weeks. We booked our flights to Osaka immediately.
Our first experience of Japan: Osaka
We booked a flight from Beijing to Osaka and because budget flights are a relatively new thing in Japan, the time of our arrival was not ideal. We had already booked a hostel for the next night, but not for the night we arrived (around 1 o’clock at night). Hostels and transportation are expensive in Japan, so we decided to spend our first night at KIX airport, Osaka. This is quite easy and convenient. In Terminal 1 there is a designated area where everyone is sleeping. There are chargers, couches, showers and even hairdryers that you can rent. Also, you will receive a free blanket when showing the boarding pass for an onward flight the next day: we were not the first one to spend the night here.
The next day we immediately were shocked about the prices, about 10 euros each for a basic train to the centre of the city. On the other hand, we found a cheap hostel for 7 euros a night, which is a good price in Japan. The hostels are really fancy, and almost always equipped with a kitchen, free tea and boiling water. After our arrival it was time to explore the city. We enjoyed Osaka a lot, just walking around is such an adventure. There is so much going on! You will see many stores filled with old video cameras, videogames and lots of other interesting trumperies. Also, they have many stores filled with machines where you throw in a coin and receive some silly toy.
We were shocked for the price of alcohol though. A beer at a cheap place starts at around five euros and gets even more expensive at fancier venues. Food is fairly cheap though. You can get cheap noodle soup at standing cafes. These places have just one table where you stand and enjoy noodles for around 2 euros.
Hitchhiking to Okayama
A bus ride from Osaka to Okayama can easily be 40 euros a person and the train is even more expensive. We heard some amazing stories about hitchhiking and decided to give it a go. We met a Japanese guy at our hostel who was willing to help us write the sign in proper Japanese and off we went. The first ride was easy, we stood for about 20 minutes before all cars turned on the toll road and were taken by a friendly Japanese guy who was travelling to Kobe. However, he dropped us off on the side of the road and we waited for about 2 hours and nothing happened. It was getting late and dark and the only ride we got after that was by two Pakistani’s to the next bus station. Apparently, Japanese are not allowed to take a foreigner in their car unless you are at a service station on the toll road. If you want to try hitchhiking in Japan, make sure your ride drops you at a service station and not somewhere in town.
About 60 euros later, we arrived in Okayama. Luckily, we were picked up by our workaway host and brought to our new home.
Working life in a rural area of Japan
Okayama is the capital of the Okayama prefecture. The city developed from a castle town in the Edo period to the small and vibrant city it is now. Okayama is a combination between traditional architecture and high-end shopping malls. We did not stay in the centre, but in a quiet and local neighbourhood. We never met the neighbours, but I do not believe they were quite fond of us being there. Maybe they wanted to preserve their peace, maybe we just misunderstood, but I was surprised we never met anyone in the streets of the house we were living in.
Besides this, Okayama was very nice. We explored the city and the surrounding countryside. The people we met there were very welcoming, and we saw a lot of friendly faces. Unfortunately going out for dinner or drinks was too expensive for us, so we cooked in our own home most of the time. The supermarket can be a horrible experience if you are on a budget in Japan. For one apple you will easily pay about 1 euro and fifty cents, ridiculous! Vegetables and fruits are really expensive, but udon noodles, tofu and eggs are really cheap. We always found something to cook and were able to stick to our budget.
One thing we really loved in Okayama were the thrift shops. The first was close to our home and was called Second Street. It is an enormous venue filled with clothes, but also bikes and household equipment. All the clothes were in really good shape and cheap, the average price of a piece was about five euros, which is an amazing price for Japanese clothes. I think we both bought a new wardrobe there.
We went for a bike ride through the Japanese countryside. The bicycle is a really easy way to get around in Japan as everyone does it. Some cities have bike lanes, in Okayama you mostly just cycle on the sidewalk.
The work we did in Okayama was a bit disappointing. We were supposed to hand out flyers for this international school. We really liked the school, but they did not really organize it that well for us. I think promotion for companies done in person is not too popular yet and people might be a little bit shy to ask for someone to help them. During our work we noticed that some things can be accomplished by just asking, but our Japanese was too limited to arrange such a thing.
After two weeks our work was finished and all in all, I think the work was a little frustrating because we were unable to really mix with the Japanese working ethics. Other than that, we really enjoyed staying in Okayama en the overall experience.