Gorgeous pink flowers are blanketing parts of Japan this time of year. It's cherry blossom season, one of the world’s most celebrated natural events. And in Tokyo, you’ll find Newfoundlander, Jason Clarke, taking in the scene. “You go to a park and every spot of ground is covered. People put down a tarp and then just sit there and drink and eat. It’s just a big party,” said Clarke.
But this isn’t Jason Clarke’s first time surrounded by the sweetly scented perennials. Clarke left St. John’s for Japan in 1999 after he saw an ad in a newspaper to teach English overseas. “I thought it would just be for one year and it’s up to sixteen years now.” Clarke recalls a little culture shock upon arriving. Not surprising, considering the greater Tokyo area is the world’s most populous metropolis with more than 35 million residents. “Just so many people, so crowded. It was a big change from St. John’s.”
The St. John’s townie now lives right downtown Tokyo. He says a subway trip to the University, where he teaches, is always a congested commute. ‘'They actually have the people there who push you on. The staff have gloves on and they just squeeze as many people on as they can,” Clarke explained. It’s crowded but quiet. Clarke said everyone has a cellphone but no one talks while they’re on board. “Even if they’re with their friend a lot of times, you know they don’t really talk to each other on the train.” Clarke said there’s a deep respect among Japanese people when sharing space with others. "They wear the white kind of surgical masks on the train. Some people, it’s so they don’t catch a cold, other people it’s because they have a cold so they’ll wear it so they don’t spread it to other people. The train is so crowded that you can’t cover your mouth if you’re coughing or sneezing so you just wear that mask instead.” It’s one aspect of Japanese culture that Clarke admires. “People are very polite. You know, manners are important. People always say sorry or excuse me constantly.”
Stealing or committing any type of crime is an affront to the deeply rooted civility in Japan. "Tokyo is very safe. If you lose your wallet here with all the money in it, you’ll get it back. There’s no crime really. I don’t know, it’s just bad manners, maybe. A couple of times I’ve left a bag on the train and I always get it back," he said.
Clarke teaches English to 18 and 19-year-olds in their first and second years at Meikai University. Two, fifteen week semesters in a year leaves plenty of time for Clarke to enjoy extra curricular activities and travel. “Japan is mostly mountains and so mountain hiking is a big activity here,” said Clarke. “They have this thing called '100 Famous Japanese Mountains’”. So far, Clarke has been up and down 20 of those, including Japan’s highest peak, Mt. Fuji, at 3776 metres.
It’s fairly cheap to travel to other parts of Asia for Japan so Clarke has taken advantage of that over the years. “I’ve been to Thailand four or five times, Laos, Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore. I’ve been to China a couple of times too.” Clarke did a history degree at Memorial University and a masters degree in Newfoundland History. His appreciation for antiquity has led him on some interesting journeys in parts of Asia. In Vietnam, he visited Dien Bien Phu, the battlefield where the Vietnamese defeated the French and ended colonial rule. He toured Hanoi prison where American pilots, including John McCain were held, after they were shot down in 1972.
On his most recent trip to China, Clarke visited Xinjiang province in the west of the country. There he visited ruins in the ancient city of Jihae, destroyed by Genghis Khan in the 13th century. Clarke followed parts of the old silk road travelled by Marco Polo in places like Yarkand and Kashgar.
But it was in Japan where Clarke said he visited one of the most interesting historical sites to date, the Hiroshima Peace Park Museum. "There’s a river running through Hiroshima. On one side you have the museum, then there’s a bridge. The bridge is what the Americans used as a target. On the other side of the river is this old building, some kind of city office building or something. That building was directly under where the bomb exploded. It exploded in the air above this building and they’ve kept the ruins there as a memorial. It’s a world heritage site, I think. Around it there’s a park. They call it Peace Park,” said Clarke. The atmosphere in the museum is understandably sombre, according to Clarke. “There are lots of displays of photos, photos of people burned alive. I think a lot of the people killed were kids. So, you know, it was upsetting to look at those pictures.”
Jason says the museum also attempts to educate people about the continued threat of nuclear weapons. "Every time there’s an atomic test somewhere in the world, the mayor of Hiroshima writes a protest letter to the country that did the test. They have all the letters on a wall of the museum. I think out of the last 10 letters written, one was to Kim Jong-Un and nine were to the US,” explained Clarke. In spite of the devastation during WWII, Clarke says Hiroshima has been completely rebuilt. He describes it as a nice city with about a million people and a slew of streetcars. “There are streetcars everywhere,” said Clarke.
He recalls eating one of his favourite Japanese meals in Hiroshima. “They have this dish called Okonomiyaki which is kind of like a big pancake full of noodles and pork that’s really good,” said Clarke. Even though he lives in the land of succulent sushi and sashimi, Clarke says he eats very little Japanese food when he’s at home in Tokyo. “It’s a big city so you can get any kind of food, Thai, Indian or whatever you want. No good fish and chips is the only problem,” he said. Clarke says he does miss that famous Newfoundland dish, but it’ll probably take more than a feed of Ches’s to get Jason Clarke to leave Japan. “I don’t know if I’ll be moving back,” he said. Clarke visits with family still living in Newfoundland every couple of years but he isn’t keen on returning for good. "It’s really expensive, even compared to Tokyo,” said Clarke. He says he was also struck by an unfriendly element that seems to be growing in the city. "I remember watching the news, every night there’d be a different robbery or something like that, convenience stores getting robbed or gas stations. I was really surprised.”
Clarke’s 16 years in Japan have made him appreciate his courteous and calm country. "Even though there are millions and millions of people, it’s a pretty relaxed, very easy going kind of place.” And at this time of year, Tokyo couldn’t be more charming. For now, he’s sure this cherry blossom season won’t be his last.
If you'd like to see more photos of Japan and more of Jason's trip to the Hiroshima Peace Park, you can see them in the gallery.
INTERESTING FACTS ABOUT JAPAN:
Japan consists of more than 6,800 islands
Around 24 billion sets of chopsticks are used in Japan each year.
More than 70 percent of Japan consists of mountains, including 200 active volcanoes
Japan has almost 100 percent literacy
Sumo is the national sport
The term karaoke means empty orchestra in Japanese
It is considered inappropriate to blow your nose in public
There is almost no immigration in Japan. The population is 98 percent ethnic Japanese
Know of a Newfoundlander or Labradorian living life in an interesting part of the world? Email me and let me know about their story.
Until next time, rove on!