From neon lights to fields of green
I'd liken arriving in Japan after a 20 hour journey to turning up at a new and exotically-themed party incorrectly attired and ignorant of the rules of the party games going on around you. Stimulating; eye opening; but more than a little bit unnerving.
After touching down and disembarking, the cultural jolts came fast and furious; the first catching me off guard even before I'd passed through border control and officially entered the country.
I'd never before been offered quite so many options of how to not only wash myself in the bathroom but also the environment around me. Needless to say, bleary-eyed, wearing two rucksacks and only one contact lens I was not impressed to discover I could not for the life of me locate the 'flush' button...until I realised it was right there..illuminated in green.
Moving on to bigger and better things I grabbed my kit and headed into central Tokyo to meet Sonia, a fellow British GP currently working in Japan, who had incredibly kindly agreed to accompany me on my journey and act as translator and cultural guide. After a bit of deliberation, she decided that my first experience in the city really should be Tako Yaki, or octopus balls to the non-Japanese speakers amongst us, as well as the Senso-ji temple; a staggeringly beautiful sight.
I was beginning to learn only after a few hours in Japan that life and society here thrives on a strict set of rules and traditions. As I threw my 50 yen into the pool so that God would listen to my prayer and later took a fortune from a nearby drawer, it felt exciting to be a part of something so ancient and long-lasting.
The evening brought with it a wonderful first meeting with Professor Ryuki Kassai, a pivotal figure in the emerging world of Japanese Primary care and my placement organiser, and his wife Masako. It was a night of firsts for me; the first time I had used chopsticks in front of a Japanese audience and the first time I had tasted Sukiyaki: a Japanese 'hot-pot' dish comprising of thinly-cut beef, tofu and vegetables cooked in the centre of the table. It was a huge privilege to sample, so early on, not only great food but the joyful experience of eating together in Japan.
Jet lag was surprisingly kind and I was able to enjoy my brief time in Tokyo before being whisked away by 'bullet train' towards our next destination: Fukushima Prefecture. The iconic mode of transport Shinkansen, as it is correctly known to the Japanese, travels at speeds of up to 200 mph and it really is as fantastic as its reputation would have you believe.
On originally approaching Professor Kassai about the project and the possibility of bringing it to Japan, he had very kindly suggested the rural town of Tadami as an alternative to the more urban centres. He felt the small and ageing community (47% of residents are over the age of 65) would make for an interesting study and the location would also provide a peaceful place to be. In all honesty the images of Japan I most likely would have brought to mind, if asked before this experience, would have been the bright neon lights of downtown Tokyo. Whilst that particular reality didn't in any way disappoint, experiencing rural Japan is proving to be even better than I'd hoped.
Whilst I have missed most of the cherry blossoms, I have also thankfully missed the snow in Tadami. I'm definitely a fan of the white stuff in moderation but after seeing the 'snow poles' that line the streets here and the marks that reflect just how high the depth gets (we're talking metres) I'm not too sad to not be wading through it. In fact arriving to bright sunshine and 27 degree heat, it was difficult to imagine the town being in such a situation only weeks ago. White caps on the distant mountains are the only clue. Therefore, because of the time of year, everything is green as far as the eye can see and green in multiple and unusual shades. Whilst I've obviously seen trees before, the landscape of volcanic hills surrounding the dozen upon dozens of rice fields feels unfamiliar and exotic.
It doesn't take long to walk around the small town but on doing so you very quickly begin to notice not only your surroundings but also the people living there. Tadami is not a tourist destination and therefore being here feels automatically like being a part of real life in Japan. The people have been, thus far, universally friendly and undoubtedly intrigued as to what I am doing; apart from those of course that received the flyer put through every door or read the excerpt in the newsletter (no joke; an example of the unbelievable effort put in by the medical team to make my trip a success).
Next time I'll talk more about learning to live in Japan as well as my first few days at the Asahi Medical Centre, the local practice serving the people of Tadami.