My connection with Japan


Nature vs Nurture. My father has a lot to answer for.

Originally written: January 2015
Updated: June 2018; April 2020

This ruffian here is my father. You can almost see the catapult hanging out of his back pocket. Growing up, we both looked very similar – but over the years our personalities have also merged, with me subconsciously adopting a lot of his traits. As a young man my dad travelled a lot. He was shipped off to live in Switzerland when he was 15, became fluent in German and thought nothing of hitch-hiking 600 miles to get somewhere. One time him and his mate ended up in Tangier in northern Africa, sleeping on the beach, burying booze and food in the sand to keep it cool. When they ran out of money they drew straws to see who would sell a pint of blood to give them enough money to get the ferry back. In the same way that other fathers will bring up their boys up to support a certain football team, I guess it was inevitable that I would listen to these stories and bury them – just like the booze and the food – deep in my psyche. It’s only natural that I would get my wanderlust from somewhere.

My dad and I around the same age. Spookily similar.

My dad and I around the same age. Spookily similar.

When my dad was 20 he travelled to Japan to live and work for six months, helping to install Swiss embroidery machines at a factory in Osaka with his father. Back then, getting to Asia was a mission in itself, with his particular journey involving separate flights to London, New York, San Francisco, Honolulu, Tokyo and finally Osaka. The whole journey took about two days. Dividing his time between Osaka and Nara my father would live in a variety of ryokans – Japanese inns – experiencing a Japan that I am sure was very different than the one I know today. A lot less gaijin for sure. In his own words, he “once married a wee Japanese girl who couldn’t speak a lick of English.” Bravado is the same, no matter what generation you are living in: he probably kissed her once, ha. Of all the stories though, it was his time in Japan that struck a chord with me, and so my relationship with the country began.


My dad in Osaka, 1967


“The younger one really fancied me.” Or so he says.



In my second year of secondary school (sporting a rather bad ‘step’ haircut that has since become fashionable again) I remember a teacher asking our class if any one would like to have a penpal from Japan. No one put their hand up apart from me. Her name was Azusa from Saitama prefecture, and for the next few years we would exchange letters, mainly as an English language exchange on her part. Despite both being the the same age, the life of a twelve-year-old in Japan was very different to my own in Northern Ireland; Japanese students had so many extra-curricula activities, and much more was expected from you at such a young age. I remember looking at some photos she sent me of her kitchen. It looked so small and so different. I could see stickers on the fridge in Japanese and Disney memorabilia everywhere. I still have all the letters.


Azusa. I wonder if she still lives in Saitama?

By the time I was sixteen I pretty much knew the geography and cities of Japan better than that of the UK. This was the land before time, of course – before the internet – so I’d pick up any books I could in the library or buy old atlases from charity shops. I’d stare at the map and look at little town names and wonder what they looked like. I still do that today with a huge world map on my wall, picking a place at random and then reading about it on Wikipedia. Is that nerdy? I don’t know.

After university I applied for the JET Programme – a government-funded programme for graduates that sends you to live and work in Japan as an ALT (Assistant Language Teacher). I remember flying to Scotland for the interview at the Japanese Embassy in Edinburgh. I’d just finished a UK tour with the punk band I was playing with at the time, and I remember feeling quite out of place in the chambers of the embassy with its mahogany sideboards and deep red leather sofas. It was a deathly quiet place, and as soon as the interview was over I thought I had blown it. A few months later though I found out that I was accepted. I still remember coming down to check the mail and there being a large envelope; the first thing I saw when I opened it was a brochure for Fukuoka City. I couldn’t believe it, I was going to Japan!

So, on 02 August 2003, I boarded a flight to Tokyo from London. I had never lived away from home before, or even been abroad apart from with my parents as a child. This is the type of candidate the JET Programme wants – wet behind the ears, someone who will be truly blown away by the experience. (It’s no coincidence that the more Japanese language ability you have or the more times you have visited Japan, the less likely you are to be accepted on to JET.) At Heathrow our entire group was upgraded to Business Class, and after a three-day orientation at the Park Hyatt in Tokyo I flew to Fukuoka to live. At 22 I was living in Japan, earning a load of money and living the dream. I taught at five Junior High Schools across the city – the same style of Junior High Schools that Azusa had attended not many years before.

Teaching in Fukuoka, 2004.

Teaching in Fukuoka, 2004.

I have to say here that the JET Programme – especially back then – was a very cushy deal. I was fresh out of university and earning enough money to travel in my free time. I took the ferry over to Busan in South Korea, travelled to Thailand for the first time and spent my 23rd birthday in Okinawa. I thought nothing of flying from Fukuoka to Tokyo to see Squarepusher and going straight to the airport after the gig to come home. I spent a year in Japan first time around, and it was during that period that my love for travelling really started.

After a year I returned to Northern Ireland, but Japan was never far from my thoughts. I visited the country again for a month a few years later as part of a year-long world trip, and three years ago I decided to come back and live for a while, this time in Tokyo. While on paper I have been in and out of Japan for the last 10 years, the truth is that my connection with the country goes back much further. It is a country that gets under your skin and once you live here for a while it is very difficult to say goodbye to. My friend Jake and I often joke that Japan has ruined our lives, in the sense that we will never be able to let it go. I’ve decided now that there is no point trying to let it go. Japan is a part of me now.

Dad, you have a lot to answer for.


Christmas 2014, Northern Ireland

UPDATE: June 2018

Wow, it is hard to believe that it has been 3.5 years since I wrote this original post. I vividly remember where I was when I wrote it: sitting in Dublin airport on a cold January afternoon waiting on a flight back to Tokyo after a trip home to visit my parents. That was January 2015. It’s now June 2018, and I am still in Tokyo – though the last year in particular has really seen a lot of change. I am now engaged to be married, with my fiancée having travelled home with me last Christmas to meet my mum and dad. I guess the story keeps on continuing…


Christmas 2017, Northern Ireland

UPDATE: April 2020

Another update on this post, and nearly two years since my last edit. Regular visitors to to this blog and the Facebook page will have seen Mrs IKIMASHO on it a lot – and next month will actually mark our first wedding anniversary. We got married in Northern Ireland last May, celebrating with our friends and family who flew in from Japan and USA. I’ve been thinking about that a bit lately – the fact that everyone was able to travel and mingle so easily. I’m sure if the wedding had been next month it would have been postponed due to coronavirus, so we got lucky. We are both so thankful that it was such a great day 🙂

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  1. Carole McDowell

    Justin – your Dad may have a lot to answer for – but you are the answer. Keep the wunderlust alive!!! Carole x

  2. Thank you very much for sharing this story about yourself and your connection to Japan. I touched me, I understand, that there is a deeper link which goes back to your father.
    My own connection to Japan goes back to my early childhood, but it took me about 40 years, to feel interested in it again. I was born in Tokyo and lived there as a child for 8 years (as my father, we are germans, teached japanese employees of the same company there). But I totally lost the connection and never was interested in it too much. The only relation was, that my second forename (Sakura) is written in my passport.
    Now I’m going back to Japan, starting at the end of march, for a 3-weeks-trip. I hope, the timing is perfect for Hanami. I feel that I am finally ready now to “return”. Even if I feel quite helpless. I remember quite a lot, but is more “images, sounds, smell, feelings”. Nothing, which will help as a tourist. But I am looking forward to it (and will blog about it, when the time has come). I’m glad that I found your blog.
    Best regards, Claudia (sorry for my english)

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  6. clarz lopez

    Im wondering where is Azusa now?never had the chance to meet her pdrsonallly?too bad! i just wish you too get together at least meet up personally as friends.Tokyo is near from Saitama,right?
    anyway,,i love to read your story, great journey.
    Once in my life i experienced to lived in Japan too,had my heart to it thats why i decided to name my only daughter…AZUMi(from the japanese movie 2004,a japanese warrior)
    Goodluck Justin San.i hope to see. more blogs from you through the years.🙋💪👍

  7. Hi Clarz, someone else asked me about the penpal too! Actually, when I moved to Fukuoka in 2003 I did look her up. She replied to me telling me that she lived in Tokyo with her husband. Maybe it was the ‘husband’ part that put me off going to actually meet her! But she remembered me 🙂

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