Photos by Yesenia Castro
Yesenia Castro has lived in Tsuruta, Japan, since August 2017, serving as coordinator of international relations (CIR) for Hood River’s sister city. As CIR, she teaches English and serve as a facilitator of the sister city program, and studies Japanese customs, culture and language. Before moving to Japan, Castro had been a community health worker at The Next Door, Inc., for three years. She will be back in the United States in August.
Picture this: Walking to your office, located just three minutes away from your house — something I have always wanted.
I will really miss that and I hope to find something similar back to the states.
In July, I will have completed a whole year of living and working in Japan. I never imagined I would be living in Japan. I did, however, always know that some time in my life, I wanted to live outside of the United States for at least six months.
Life goal number 27, check.
This job opportunity came to me at a perfect time. A friend of mine casually told me about the position over coffee as we were catching up, talking life goals. I applied; I came, I saw and I conquered.
And I am close to leaving this place I now call home with so much more than I came with.
I encourage everyone reading this to live abroad at least once in their life, even if it’s just for a couple months. The human connections are so worth it. I love learning about different cultures than my own, expanding on my understanding of the world. I also love sharing my culture, tradition and food.
Let me share some of the highlights about living in Japan:
Incomparable safety. I will never forget the infinite sea of bicycles, all without chains or huge locks, in Tokyo, one of the biggest cities in the world. Yes, I know that’s an unbelievable sight in the western culture. That was my first culture shock landing in Japan.
The sense of safety here is liberating. I didn’t know how much I actually looked after my stuff before coming here. I’ve really learned to let go, which will be reversible culture shock going back.
So many unexpected similarities to my Mexican background. I actually created a list, and from food items to cultural nuances, Mexico and Japan have a lot in common. (For reference, my Mexican-living experience is from the states of Zacatecas, Jalisco and Durango, and I lived in the northern country side part of Japan.) The Balero can be compared to a Kendama toy.
Dia de los Muertos is similar to Japanese Obon. Vowel phonics sound the same in both languages. Conchas and melonpan. Flan and the Japanese custard. Horchata and amasake.
The school system reminded me a lot of Mexico too, with kids announcing their respects to their teachers as they enter and leave a classroom.
The food. Sushi, sushi, sushi. The first couple of months I was here, I probably had sushi every week. The sushi tastes so different in Japan. Sashimi salmon melts in your mouth. It melts!
The ramen is absolutely delicious and there was a yummy, small ramen shop just around the corner from my apartment. I tried so many new desserts and there is still so much to try. The desserts here are epic, cute, colorful and endless. I tried a lot of new foods and enjoyed trying some of the luxury fruits — it’s a thing here.
I will never forget the delicious apples and peaches in Tsuruta. Additionally, I learned how to make takoyaki, soba and gyoza from my friend Eriko! I love food.
Tsuruta Town, the perfect small town. Tsuruta’s population is about 14,000. There are endless rice fields and views of mountains surround the town, the biggest mountain in sight being Iwaki-san, which reminds me of Mount Hood.
Minutes away from my apartment are two huge, Clackamas Town Center-style malls. Imagine two big malls in Parkdale — epic, right?
There are so many bodies of water, including a wonderful warm water ocean and beach just 16 minutes away.
People in Tsuruta are kind and gentle.
My life in Japan. I lived in a cute one-bedroom apartment, with a small open concept kitchen and living room area, a toilet room and a laundry/shower room. My toilet is a paragon.
(Just google it: Japanese toilets.)
I cooked every day and occasionally ate out on weekdays. Because work was just minutes away, I would walk back to my apartment during my lunch hour.
At work, I was blessed to be working with an exceptional team at the planning and tourism section of the city office. The local city offices employ about 100 people. My team was made up of the most dedicated, quirky, fun, hardworking and gentle people.
I am so lucky to built wonderful friendships here. I had my own car and bike to go on adventures.
Fun fact: In the 27 years that Tsuruta has had CIRs, I was the first Mexican-American. I am happy I was able to bring a new perspective and be able to share about the United States through the lens of a bi-cultural American.
Coolest day: That’s between a day in the Japanese Alps in a hot springs with snow monkeys and a random free B.O.B. concert and hour away from my apartment.
Biggest regret: Discontinuation of my Japanese language classes. I could have been an intermediate speaker instead of being left with survival Japanese speaking skills.
Biggest accomplishment: Surviving Aomori winters.
Until next time Japan. I will be back.