Local Japan: Himeji and me
Living in Japan always seemed like a vivid dream that would forever feel just out of reach. I’d lived in Phoenix, Arizona, for eleven years and was bored of the desert and relentless heat. I planned to come to Japan as a language student, yet when I heard that the city of Himeji needed teachers, teachers specifically from Phoenix, I pounced and never looked back. I soon found out that Himeji and Phoenix were sister cities and had a successful teach abroad program which allowed resident “Phoenicians” a contract of up to two years in Himeji! I hadn’t originally cared about where in Japan I would go, but when I did my research in preparation for the interviews, I was amazed. Receiving my acceptance phone call was a dream come true, one that quickly elicited several squeals of excitement once I hung up.
Himeji is more fabulous than I had ever imagined. The glimmering white Himeji Castle had just finished restoration and opened to the public shortly before I moved here in 2015, after several years of being completely covered for repairs. But more on the castle later. First, let’s talk about my living situation. As an employee of the Himeji Board of Education, I live in a building owned by the local government. The entire building is inhabited only by other expat teachers and has a reputation among the locals as the “foreigner house”. Having other native English speakers as my neighbors definitely helped me adjust and overcome a fair amount of culture shock. My apartment only has one tiny room, yet a decent-sized kitchen and laundry area. I was startled to find that my clothes dryer was actually in my shower! It took a little time to get used to, but now I only dry my clothes in the shower. I vowed to myself to never again hang my clothes outside. Never again would I fight off a spider trying to build his dream home on my towels. Let’s take a moment to talk about toilets, shall we? I was blessed to have been given an apartment with a western style toilet, however it does resemble the captain’s chair from the Starship Enterprise due to the plethora of buttons and switches and knobs. I still haven’t used all the buttons yet, but maybe one day I’ll work up the courage to experiment again.
The apartment is much smaller than what I was used to living in Phoenix. Even my studio apartment in Phoenix was more spacious. Yet, over time I’ve come to feel quite cozy and realize that I don’t need as much space to live in as I previously thought. I was also accustomed to living in apartment buildings with neighbors that never spoke to each other. Sure, I might know one or two of their names, but there was never a sense of community or of neighbors being, well, neighborly. It’s all taken some time to get used to, but luckily the adjustment was easier than I anticipated.
Himeji itself is incredible. You could argue that I’m biased since this is the only place I’ve lived in Japan. However, after extensive travel all over the country, I’m still thankful to call Himeji my home. The surroundings are beautiful. As soon as you step out of the JR Himeji Station, the castle greets you with a shine of majesty that never ceases to amaze me. I’ve lived here almost two years now and I still feel in awe of its presence. The incredible beauty of cherry blossom season at the castle adds extra frosting to this already divine cake. Apart from the castle, Himeji also hosts beautiful Mount Shosha and Engyo-ji Temple, famous filming locations used in The Last Samurai. Himeji is also the home of the famous Nada Kenka Matsuri, or Nada Fighting Festival, in which hundreds of people gather to watch massive portable shrines be smashed together in a fantastically dangerous display. It’s exhilarating and a bit nerve-wracking at the same time. I highly recommend attending this festival to anyone who finds themselves in Himeji in October.
There are several beautiful traditional gardens, shrines and temples, giving Himeji a gorgeous blend of the traditional and the cosmopolitan. Himeji isn’t a small town. Its population is approximately 534,881 people, yet due to the plentiful nature throughout the city and surrounding area, it doesn’t feel like a major city. It certainly isn’t the massive concrete jungle that Osaka is. However, it’s perfectly located in a “sweet spot” that allows you to easily reach Kyoto in two hours by train, Osaka in one hour, or Kobe in thirty minutes. Sightseeing in Kyoto or nightlife and takoyaki in Kobe or Osaka is conveniently close. Himeji also has plenty of shopping and restaurants downtown, even including a vegan restaurant in a nearby mall. There are also amusement parks just a short bus ride away and a zoo within the castle grounds!
I’ve been admittedly spoiled in the fact that when I moved here, other teachers who were already here and explored extensively had plenty of recommendations for me. Every day offered a new opportunity for exploration and adventure. A wonderful part of living here is that I have never needed to use a car as my main transportation. I was delighted when I was shown how to use the extensive public train and bus transportation with the tap of a single trusty transit card. You mean I can avoid the bumper-to-bumper traffic that has cursed me in the US and merely hop on a bus or train to anywhere? I’m forever grateful for the bus drivers here as well. Unlike in the United States, the bus drivers here have hearts of gold and will take mercy on the poor soul who is sprinting to the bus at full speed and arrives just moments after the door has closed. The fact that most of them will wait a few seconds for you to get there or even stop and open the door to let you on if you catch them as they’re just starting to pull away is a godsend. It’s insane to think that I haven’t driven a car in almost two years. In Phoenix, a car is essential, and being without one is severely limiting. I also love that I can ride a bike almost anywhere here. When I moved here, I hadn’t ridden a bike in eleven years and was ecstatic to learn just how bike-friendly Himeji is.
One of my favorite ways to explore Himeji is to ride my bike or walk and just allow myself to get lost. With a gigantic castle serving as a landmark, I don’t need to feel too worried about exploring, and have found numerous shops and restaurants that are family-owned and serve delicious cuisine. I’m also very heavily tattooed. Normally that means that most, if not all, hot springs and public bathhouses are off limits, yet I was elated to find a tattoo-friendly public bathhouse in Himeji. I feel generally safer here, much safer than I ever did in Phoenix. That’s not to say that I can be foolhardy and throw caution to the wind, but I never saw so many people walk alone at night with confidence back in the United States. The people here are generally very kind and incredibly helpful.
Although the good definitely outweighs the bad, there were certain disadvantages that I was rather unprepared for. I had been told that it’s very hot and humid in the summer here. Being from Phoenix, the mention of summer heat didn’t make me flinch in the slightest. After going through three months of 120 degrees (50 degrees Celcius) every summer in the Valley of the Sun, I guffawed at warnings about the summers here. Little did I know, it wasn’t the heat I was being warned about, but the humidity. The humidity can definitely be a disadvantage to living in Himeji as mold is a common problem. I also wasn’t prepared for the giant killer insects that descend upon Himeji in the summer like a biblical plague (cue the dramatic music). There are spiders that resemble Halloween decorations, venomous centipedes big enough to rob a liquor store with a bite that will send you to the clinic, and hornets that could kill you in a matter of minutes. All of those things definitely keep me alert. However, for Himeji, I would gladly face them all again for another year in this beautiful city. Moving to Himeji was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I may be from the USA, but Himeji feels like home.
Written by Elise-burgess