It is the weird and wonderful in Japan which draws countless foreigners to the country of islands, one of the world’s major economic and cultural powers.
From an obsession with Kit Kats, to ‘love hotels’ and buying hot chicken and chips from a vending machine, it is what seems wacky to outsiders that German born and raised blogger Johannes Borchardt loves to share.
Since spending 10 months living in Japan, 30-year-old Johannes has shared his stories, pitfalls and tips on his blog and YouTube channel Japanese Journey.
It was originally a love of aikido which brought him to Japan for the first time in 2009 and it was his love for his now wife which saw him return three times before making the move to Nagano in 2016.
Johannes has gained over a thousand subscribers to his YouTube channel since embarking on his blogging journey last year.
I spoke to Johannes about living as a foreigner in Japan and the insights he has gained into the alluring country.
How did you feel and what was going through your mind when you made the move to Japan?
I wasn’t sure if I was going to enjoy it. I had been to Japan four times before. The first two times were great, the third time was so-so and the fourth time was so-so as well.
My wife had been with me in Germany for a year before and we had decided before she even came to Germany that we would live in Japan for a year as well. So it was only fair.
What was going through my mind was, ‘I hope I will enjoy it’.
How do you feel now you have spent 10 months in Japan?
In the weeks before I left, I felt I was not at the point that my understanding of the language was far enough so that I can enjoy daily life and have conversations.
Gradually, it became better and better.
And now your language skills are totally up to scratch I assume?
No! He laughs.
I understand more than before. I don’t understand all of the things, but I understand enough most of the time. And I can communicate enough that I can describe what I want.
How did the idea for your blog and YouTube channel come about?
I organised an aikido seminar in August last year in Japan. As preparation I made a list of the dos and don’ts in Japan and the basic language and how best to change money and so on. Once I did it, I thought it would be nice to share this knowledge to more people, so I made a blog. The blog didn’t reach so many people so I though maybe I should make videos.
How do you get inspiration for the topics of your blog articles and videos?
Good question. They just come to me. They usually come from things I don’t understand or I have to learn, or things I think are different or fascinating.
What is it like for you going back to Germany now that you have spent time in Japan?
I recognise differences I haven’t recognised before, for example service quality.
It appears I am more used to walking on the left side than the right side or driving on the left side than the right side.
It’s subtleties, but it is fascinating to see the differences.
Do you feel like you belong in Japan, or do you ever have doubts about belonging?
I do feel welcome in Japan, but I don’t know if I will stay there forever. In fact, I am quite certain I won’t. But I like it.
I don’t have a preference between Germany or Japan at the moment so I am happy to be in either country.
What is it like sharing your experiences in Japan to other people and hearing their responses?
It’s nice. I recently made my first Q and A video and this is probably the closest conversation I have had with my audience, and it was really uplifting to me. Usually you put up a video and some anonymous person comments and maybe it is positive, maybe it is negative. But this time I asked for questions to which I could reply and it was more like a conversation. It was really uplifting.
This is a really nice part of the whole thing, and building community.
In terms of building community, do you think it is important foreigners coming to Japan have a support network, and knowledge, and a community they can go to?
I think it is helpful but it is not necessary. I think Japan has become so used to handling foreigners, especially in cities like Tokyo and Osaka and tourist hubs, that it is not a problem anymore to know nothing when you go to Japan. I didn’t know anything about the country or language when I came to Japan in 2009.
I think it is okay if you know nothing and come to Japan and experience everything for yourself – if you are open enough and if you can accept that this is a vastly different culture.
When you say ‘if you are open enough’ do you mean accepting?
It’s okay if you are constantly in a state of thinking, ‘oh, Japan is so different’ and you can see they are different, as long as you don’t think they’re wrong. If you are okay with different cultures and people then it is great, you can enjoy it.
Your blog and YouTube channel is all about handy tips for people coming to the country. What are the tips you personally tell people who are coming to Japan?
You don’t need to speak Japanese. When you arrive at the airport stand on the left side of the escalator. And don’t be noisy.
Japan seems like a quiet, respectful place.
Yeah, it’s true. People who talk loud are easy to identify as foreigners.
In your time here, what insights into the country have you come to realise, and what do you love about the people and the place?
I came to realise, now that I am on vacation in Germany for a week, that Japanese people are really accepting of the fact that I don’t know a lot, and they have patience with me when I am struggling. It’s a really nice thing.
In Germany, when I go to the bakery they are usually understaffed and stressed, and the customers are also in a stressed state because they need to hurry to work or what not. Everybody is in a rush.
That’s not the case in Japan. People seem to be more accepting of the fact they have to work, it’s seen as a good thing, a necessity that is actually helpful. In Germany, it feels more like ‘ah I need to go to work’, I actually don’t want to do it. The people would rather not work, they have to – in Japan they embrace it.
When you’re in Japan you live in Nagano city. It’s somewhere tourists don’t really think of. What’s different about life there?
What I like most about Nagano is that there are mountains everywhere. I grew up on a mountain and that is why I like it. Wherever you look, 360 degrees, are mountains.
The 1998 Winter Olympics were in Nagano, that’s mainly why foreigners know of it.
There is a lot of snow in winter, and I love snow. When I come back to Nagano from Tokyo, I leave the train and immediately I get out and smell the mountain air. That’s really nice.
You can hear more of Johanne’s insights into Japan on his YouTube channel https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCkAKAc0xu7_JgKRxumCLUBA and blog http://japanese-journey.com.