Going back to Japan – what it’s like to return to your ex-pat home

It was so exciting earlier this year to be returning to my ex-pat home, Osaka, to show my son where I used to live. I’ve talked to him about various aspects of my life in Osaka and Nara over the years – I lived and worked there for two years between 2001 and 2003 – but there’s nothing like being there to make these stories more gripping.

On our first full day in Osaka, refreshed after a hectic couple of days in Nagoya, I took my son out along the Kintetsu train line to show him some of the key sites. It was like a little autobiographical tour, the kind that pretty much nobody else in the universe would be interested in, but my son was – bless him!

Returning to Amagatsuji, in Nara prefecture  

We went to the most distant point first, Amagatsuji. To get to Amagatsuji, we took the Kintetsu line from Namba, where we were staying, east towards Nara. We took an express train that only stopped a few times but what sentimental stops they were for me! My poor son cheerfully put up with all my reminiscing. We got off at Saidaji – scene of many a shopping trip for me – and changed to the line headed south, to go one stop to Amagatsuji. I lived in a small apartment here during my second year in Japan, it was a fantastic little spot to live not only because the rent was heaps cheaper, but because there were virtually no foreigners there so it really felt like I was properly living in Japan. (Just after my trip I got a message from a blog reader who had also lived at Amagatsuji around the same time as me! So I wasn’t the only foreigner – but nearly!)

The Isokawa supermarket in Amagatsuji, Nara, Japan

The Isokawa supermarket in Amagatsuji, where I regularly shopped when I lived in Japan

I showed my son the post office – a truly sentimental stop for me, because back then my lovely grandmother was still alive and I posted letters to her at that post office regularly. The Lawson convenience store I’d often bought my dinner home on my way home from a full day of teaching (I usually finished at 9pm) had gone and been replaced by a furniture store. But the Isokawa supermarket I had always shopped at was there, and we went inside and bought some of that typically amazing Japanese supermarket food (in this case some okonomiyaki) then walked on to my old apartment. 

It was outside this apartment I built my first (tiny) snowman ever; I lay on my futon on the floor with chicken pox there, too; it was the place where I ordered pizza on the phone for Christmas, completely in Japanese, and they turned up with the right order.

Returning to my Amagatsuji apartment in Nara, Japan

My son (carrying okonomiyaki!) outside my old Amagatsuji apartment – mine was second in on the ground floor

At the time, the apartment complex was called “Leopalace Grace” – now it’s been renamed “Gadget House”, but it looks the same. That’s quite an enticing new name though and I imagine it has cranking-fast internet, right?! But I was sad to see the rice field opposite had been filled in and a bunch of brand new houses built there. A boy a little younger than my son was playing outside one of the houses and we smiled at him, but I didn’t think my Japanese could stretch to explaining I used to take photos of the rice paddy that once stood where his house now does.

Visiting Hyotanyama, where I taught English for two years

The little stop of Hyotanyama, on the Kintetsu Nara line on the eastern edge of Higashiosaka (eastern Osaka), was the centre point for my Japanese life. It’s here I was lucky to be allocated to a tiny conversational English school (part of the Nova chain) which at most had four teachers on staff and just one Japanese staff member – much smaller than the average Nova school. 

Despite the existence of a zero tolerance staff/student fraternisation policy (we were told in training that if we walked into a hairdresser and one of our students was there, we should turn around and leave), I managed to make a heap of fantastic Japanese friends here, so I got to know the area really well.

My son in Hyotanyama, where I taught English

My son in Hyotanyama, where I taught English

I also ate there often – and as we wandered the shotengai (shopping street) I pointed out to my son all the many places I’d bought my lunches and dinners from. Nearly all of them were still there, along with the bakery under the school and the 100 yen shop next door. 

I showed him the tiny okonomiyaki restaurant close to the school where I’d first tried what’s now one of my favourite dishes. I remember the day so well – it was the birthday of one of my favourite students, Yuko, and I bumped into her outside the school as I went on my break. Although I didn’t usually flout  the rules quite so obviously, Yuko was so lovely and it was her birthday and she had no plans, so I suggested we go and eat together, and she took me into this tiny restaurant and taught me all about okonomiyaki – a dish I still love and cherish today!

Okonomiyaki restaurant in Hyotanyama, Osaka

Okonomiyaki restaurant in Hyotanyama, Osaka

My son and I were just having a look at the door of the restaurant – having already snacked on some okonomiyaki from the supermarket – but then the door slid open and we could smell the fresh okonomiyaki and just had to eat it. It’s the kind of restaurant where there’s a hot plate in the middle of your table – and it’s truly a tiny restaurant so your legs tangle with the gas canister underneath the table – but it was utterly delicious and worthwhile!

Sadly, the school where I taught has gone – the company went into receivership not all that long after I left – and now the space itself is empty, and a bit sad looking. Later in our trip, one of my local friends told me there’d be an izakaya restaurant in there since, but that it too had closed. 

My first ever expat home in Fuse

Last but far from least we stopped at Fuse, a more major stop on the Kintetsu line. Fuse is both where I first lived, and home to a school where I taught at on the days my little school at Hyotanyama was closed. I’d planned to take a look to see if a famous-to-us-teachers okonomiyaki shop was still there – it had the revered “potecon-yaki” which was a very special okonomiyaki including cream cheese and corn – but we were obviously very full by this time. I did show my son the game centre across from the station, and I told him people nearly always handed out small packets of tissues with advertising wrapped around them at the bottom of the Fuse steps – I used to have a cupboard full of them in my apartment, until winter came and I caught colds regularly and used them all up!

My son outside Fuse train station in Higashi-Osaka

My son outside Fuse train station in Higashi-Osaka – near my first apartment

I didn’t try to take my son down the road to my old apartment – it was a long walk, and at the time I owned a bicycle and used that most of the time – and he’d already indulged me spectacularly that day. So one day in a future trip I’ll have to see if my old apartment building still exists. That’s the place I felt my first earthquake, and lived on the unlucky fourth floor though it was named the fifth floor, as though that would wash away the ill fortune.

Feelings from returning to my expat home

I had such a wonderful time living in Japan and I never wanted to leave, so it’s a place full of many happy memories for me. I consider it the place which helped me start to figure out what I wanted to do with my life – its influence has been very lasting! 

Going back to see the old familiar places – and finding them, on the whole, not that changed after fifteen years – brought up so many emotions! It got me thinking about all the things that had happened in my life since I’d left Japan, and how grateful I was to have lived there and learnt all that I did there. 

View over Osaka from train near Ikoma

View over Osaka from train near Ikoma – one of my favourite sentimental views

It also made me want to move back to Japan immediately! I had such a happy and stress-free life there – which of course is partly a function of the fact I was well-paid, in my twenties and without big life responsibilities – but there’s something enticing about the idea of finding a beloved place unchanged enough that I feel I could fit back in. These feelings certainly made returning to Perth and so-called “normal life” much more challenging than usual. Just the same – I’m glad I did it, and very glad I got to show my son all those important-to-me places.

 

Returning to my ex-pat home in Osaka, Japan

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Comments

  1. My husband and I recently returned to to his home town and the city where we met back in early 2002. We looked at the bar (now a sports store) wherewe met and it was kind of incredible to look at our son and think how random our first meeting was and if it hadn’t happened, our son would not exist. He’s only 4, so not old enough to get the nostalgia of the trip. Perhaps one day he will.

    • That’s so beautiful Sandra! Life is so random, isn’t it. And yes, you’ll have to take your son back another time when he’s a bit older (8 was only just old enough for my son to tolerate all my sentimentality so a touch older would probably be safer!!).

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