As part of our series of 'CFTS: Off The Mat', Sensei Matt Waterhouse talks about his time in Japan.
Author Matt Waterhouse, shodan son of Sensei Pam Waterhouse, has been travelling the world since 2012 teaching English as a foreign language in schools, colleges and universities. He has worked in Inner Mongolia, Budapest in Hungary twice, Matera in Italy and now Tokyo in Japan.
As an established author, teacher and karateka, we have persuaded him to share with us his thoughts on his latest assignment, that being Japan, the home of the martial art we aspire to learn.
He is the author of two books, both available on Amazon;
The Four Guardians Trilogy (Book One): Out of the Ashes
He is currently working on 'The Burning Plains', Book Two of the Four Guardians series. The covers to these books and maps within were created by Louise Thomas, artist and shodan from Newton Longville Club.
AN AUTHOR IN JAPAN
Tokyo is an odd place. In some ways orderly, in some ways chaotic, in a lot of ways remarkable.
In an awful lot of ways, odd.
If three weeks in this city has taught me anything, it's that, despite several long-lasting adventures living and working in other countries, I haven't been anywhere like it. It has all the hallmarks of a capital city: hustle and bustle, an incomprehensible and crowded public transport system, a Starbucks or Starbucks knock-off every hundred yards.
But it also has something else. It's bright, colourful, outwardly cheerful. There's a jingle for everything from using an ATM to using a toilet. A happy voice comes out of speakers attached to traffic lights, warning you if you step an inch closer to the road than you should at a crossing. Artwork is painted on the pedestrian path in the suburbs near my apartment in Saitama. Balconies and porches around me have been converted into little gardens full of potted plants. At night the entire city lights up like a firework display of neon kanji. Every server is polite, smiles, tries to help even with the language barrier, and often succeeds through patience and persistence. Japanese people seem to be excellent communicators, whether you speak Japanese or not.
In my case, mostly not. The ability to count to ten and say “One, to strive for the perfection of character” only takes you so far and reciting the names of various blocks and strikes could be misconstrued as showing some impetuous courage. 'Thank you very much' has proved to be a decent starting point, and one that gets a lot of use.
Shrines and temples are dotted in amongst the skyscrapers and office blocks in the city proper, offering a tiny pocket of calm in all the crowds, jingles, and overall madness. Mount Fuji is a distant shimmer on the horizon on a clear day. The main business hubs are host to underground malls, spread out beneath the roads, even with their own street names, mazes of shops and restaurants that are easy to get lost in, always populated by shoppers and workers on their break.
Tokyo is the opposite of anywhere I went in China, save the most built up areas of Shanghai, for better and worse. The place is very clean, rubbish has to be separated into about a dozen different categories. Spitting in the street is frowned upon, pedestrians and cars obey the laws of the road. Scooters and motorbikes don't ride on the pavement. People generally don't stare, don't treat you like you have three noses. In the case of both China and Japan, it feels like I'm on another planet. In China, it was like being on a newly discovered world that had never seen a human before. In Japan, it's like being on a planet that knows humans exist, and either doesn't mind, or doesn't care.
For all the effort that shop owners and public servants put in, there is a separation here between people. The crowded trains are almost silent. Everyone is plugged into earphones or playing games on their phones. There is almost no eye contact anywhere, and when it is given, when some kind of kindness is shown, it is lapped up almost desperately. Japan is a culture built on respect, which has a lot of benefits. As I said before, everyone is very nice, very polite, and information is easy to come by if you ask for it, with gestures and a mixture of rudimentary Japanese and English. Yet, there are times when that respect seems to have gone too far. Everyone is a piece of flotsam bumping along the same river, unable or unwilling to cling on to anyone. During rush hour, which goes from about 4:30pm to about 10pm, it feels a little like being trapped in an enclosed space full of mannequins. If you want a bit of peace and quiet to write, for example, you'll find it easily. If you want to meet new people, however, it isn't as easy as it could be.
I don't feel unwelcome in Tokyo, as at times I did in China, but I do feel like a new cog in a large, sophisticated, very respectful machine. The culture of respect thankfully extends to students as well, be they adults or children. One aspect that I am very happy with is the willingness to share Japanese culture, again unlike China, where every single enquiry about kung-fu was rebuffed. With finding a dojo high up on my list of things to do, it may be that karate will be an excellent activity for getting to know people, as it is in the UK.
As it stands, there is a lot to love about Tokyo, and a lot to explore. It may be odd, but it’s odd in an exciting way.
Keep checking back and my next update will be my attempts to find a dojo and begin my karate journey once again.