Moving to Yamaguchi
In February 1989 I went down to Yamaguchi City to complete two separate home stays of 2 weeks each.
Yamaguchi City is the prefectural capital of Yamaguchi Prefecture (Yamaguchi-Ken); the westernmost prefecture on the main island of Honshu. It is one of the smallest prefecture capitals in Japan and enjoys a lovely setting surrounded by mountains. The city is mainly an administration and education centre and in 1989 it had a population of around 150,000.
Yamaguchi was one of the sites of early Christianity in the 16th century and there is a replica church built in the city to commemorate the fact. Close by is the hot spring (onsen) resort of Yuda which features a number of spa hotels.
The city is about 20 miles north of the coast. It is not on the main Sanyo Shinkansen route, but is linked to it by the Yamaguchi Line.
The Yamaguchi line starts from its junction with the Sanyo line at Ogori (Later Shin-Yamaguchi) and goes through Yamaguchi (20 minutes) and then all the way past the inland resort town of Tsuwano before it emerges on the north coast at Masuda.
As the Yamaguchi line retained water towers and turntables it is one of the last lines in Japan still to feature steam trains. On summer weekends a regular stream train operates between Ogori and Tsuwano.
My first home stay was in a town called Hofu just outside Yamaguchi City. It was with an English teacher. He was a great guy with a wonderful outlook on life. His wife was fantastic too and, although only one of them lived at home, he had two daughters too.
Almost immediately we got on well together and even on the first evening we went out drinking in several of the pubs in town. I loved the two weeks I spent at his house and by the end of them we were firm friends.
It was my first time staying with a Japanese family but it didn’t feel odd at all. I had my own little room and I spent the days wandering around by myself, finding coffee shops and studying Japanese. It felt great to be out of Tokyo and, just as I had hoped, I found it was a lot easier to practice Japanese in the shops and restaurants living in the countryside.
My second stay was with a doctor’s family. It was a little more formal but I enjoyed it nonetheless. The doctor was too busy to be able to spend any time with me, but his wife was great. She spoke little English so I was able to try out my Japanese all the time. They had three sons too who were all training to be doctors. I got on well with all of them.
As my month in Yamaguchi was coming to an end I began to wonder what to do next. I was thinking about moving to Hokkaido to be further away from Tokyo. Then, without any warning, my two home stay families suddenly approached me together and suggested that I stay around.
I jumped at the chance and so they both set the wheels in motion. Through their network of contacts I quickly got a place teaching English at a local technical school, a place to study Japanese at the University, a flat to rent and even a bike to ride around on. It was all fabulous stuff from truly wonderful people.
In the end I stayed in Yamaguchi for two years until February 1991.
After a while I moved to a bigger flat and, in one of the best decisions I ever made, I got myself a little Honda City car. The car made a massive difference and gave me a lot more freedom and independence. Moving from crowded Tokyo to rural Japan and then having a car there was like moving to a different country.
With a car I soon discovered there were so many places around Yamaguchi to go to. Amongst them was the beach at Hagi an hour away, the interesting port of Shimonoseki and Hiroshima, the nearest big city, less than two hours drive away.
People I had known in Tokyo came down to see me and we would drive around Yamaguchi prefecture and even further afield. I made trips by car to the nearby islands of Kyushu and Shikoku and one by rail to Nagasaki.
I also travelled out of Japan to the Philippines, South Korea, Bali and twice back to the UK. (for two short visits on Korean Airlines)
I settled into a routine of working on Monday and Tuesday and then studying at the university or in coffee shops for the rest of the week. After a while I took on some extra English classes to supplement my income and help pay for extra Japanese lessons as well.
I had an absolutely wonderful circle of friends, both Japanese and foreigners, and amongst the foreigners was a guy from Thailand, a girl from Sri Lanka, a fellow Englishman from Plymouth and an American guy from New Jersey.
There was never a dull moment.
Yet, the rural setting of Yamaguchi and its remoteness also had its drawbacks. I missed the bustle of Tokyo in general and I missed little things in particular. It was impossible to get decent cheese, any jam but strawberry was hard to come by and there was no chance at all of finding an English language newspaper.
I made trips back to Tokyo every few months and slept on the floor at friends’ flats. I always used the Sanyo Shinkansen to get to Tokyo and back.
By this time the fastest “Hikari” trains were being operated by the “100 series” second generation shinkansen trains.
These were sleeker and faster and they featured 2 double deck coaches in the centre.
The fastest trains of all had 4 double deck cars and were labelled “Grand Hikari”. One of the upper decks was used as a restaurant. I loved my trips up to Tokyo. I thought that there was nothing better than sitting upstairs in the restaurant having a meal and a beer whilst thinking about the prospect of a weekend in the capital seeing friends.
In September 1990 my parents came to stay with me. I met them at the airport in Fukuoka and we spent a very happy 2 weeks together in Yamaguchi meeting my friends and seeing the area.
We then spent another week with a Japan Rail Pass travelling around the country, going up to Kyoto, Matsumoto, Tokyo and even Sendai. My parents loved Japan and never stopped talking about their visit for years afterwards
Immediately after they had left I took another week off and, with another Japan Rail Pass, went up to Hokkaido (the north island) for a look around.
A few weeks after my parents went back to the UK I met the Japanese lady who was to become my wife. She was a native of Yamaguchi but had been spending time in Canada studying. I happened to meet her as she was a student of my friend from New Jersey (He was eventually best man at our wedding in London too).
I was preparing for the final Japanese language exam at the time and she was learning English with a view to returning to Canada. We began to teach each other.
By late 1990 I had decided that two years in Yamaguchi were enough. I had decided that I would go back to Tokyo at the end of the school year in February 1991. I wanted to give up teaching for good and get a job in a Japanese business environment. I was 27 and I thought I finally needed to start on some kind of permanent career.
We discussed it between us a lot. In the end we decided we would go to Tokyo together.