Occupation: University lecturer, blogger, travel advisor
What are you currently doing in Japan?
I'm combining my work as a university lecturer with my travel work. I work as a travel writer and travel advisor for local and prefectural governments. I promote places through writing travel articles and social media posts, and I go to tourist attractions and provide feedback on the experience, which gives them a different perspective. I love to travel, and I can do things that most regular travellers can't do. I can meet master craftsmen and artisans, interview them and find out their stories. I'm interested in Japanese culture, so it gives me a rare opportunity to see that firsthand, and even learn from those masters.
Can you tell us about a place that you like in Japan?
That's a hard question, there are so many places I've been to that I really enjoy. I live in Gifu, so I have a soft spot for a place called Hida Takayama, a well-preserved Edo-period castle town in the northern mountains of Gifu close to Toyama. I like the traditional architecture there because I'm interested in the culture and history. The atmosphere is really cool, and it has amazing food and sake. It's famous for 'Hida-gyu', a type of wagyu beef, and anywhere that has pure mountain waters produces really good sake. You can walk into a sake brewery and pay 100 yen for a little drinking glass and then try as many as you want. It has a bit of everything, that's why I really like it.
What interests you about Japan?
I did a business degree at university, and we had to study a language. I enjoyed studying Japanese, but our teachers would also tell us all these really amazing things about Japanese culture, and I wanted to experience it for myself. So it was the culture that brought me to Japan, but then I found that I enjoyed being here and really enjoyed the history as well, especially the samurai history. Living here in Gifu, we have a strong connection to the samurai warlord Oda Nobunaga. My first apartment in Gifu was right next to Mount Kinka, a famous tourist area, and on top of the mountain is Gifu Castle. Walking up the mountain and seeing that for the first time left me curious and wanting to find out more.
How is life in Japan different to life in Australia?
In Australia, I lived in quite a big city. Now I live in a very small, rural area, so the major difference is the sense of community here. This winter has probably had the most snow I've seen in the last twenty years, and when it snows, I'm outside clearing the road in front of my house with a shovel, and all the neighbours are doing that as well. We work together to make sure our local community is the best that it can be, and that involves participating in community events. We have a local festival that takes place in March every year, and part of that is carrying the mikoshi (portable shrine) around to all the houses in our neighbourhood. I feel that I fit in and that I'm an accepted part of the local community because I contribute to it.
How do you imagine your future in relation to Japan?
I'm planning to stay here for the long haul. I'm settled in Gifu, so I'll continue what I'm doing here. I'm looking to expand my travel work, visit more places and spend a bit more time writing, and the ultimate goal would be to write a book at some stage. I'm trying to get off the beaten track to promote those places that are not on people's radar.
Can you tell us something memorable about your time in Japan?
A couple of summers ago, I went to Miyagi Prefecture in Tohoku. There's a crater there called Zao, and the town there is famous for kokeshi dolls. I went to the museum there and met a master who's been making them for seventy years. He showed me how to paint a face on the doll, and at the end, he gave me one of his beautiful creations from several years ago. I've also been to places like Hamamatsu, where I met a gentleman who makes the mouthpieces for trumpets by hand for famous jazz musicians from around the world. He wouldn't admit this, but he's about the most famous mouthpiece maker in the world. I have the chance to meet all these people in different fields, and sometimes they are not things that you would (normally) associate with Japan.
Also, perhaps it's appropriate timing as this year is the 10th anniversary of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. I've had a chance to visit Onagawa in Miyagi Prefecture, a town that was completely destroyed by the tsunami. I was able to see how the community worked together to restore and revitalise the town. They've done a fantastic job of rebuilding, and preparing for the future in case something like that happens again. In Fukushima Prefecture, I met a gentleman who was the president of a sake brewery. He's now working for a company that's generating solar, wind and hydro energy, and his goal is to move to all renewable energy, to make it available to people in the local area, then expand out to other parts of Japan. I was really amazed to hear his story and his vision for the future.
You can follow John's activities on his blog. japan-australia.blogspot.com