2020 was supposed to be my year—although I suppose many people also felt that way.

Late last year in 2019, I quit my job to pursue photography full time. I cast aside a successful, decade-long career in User Experience and Product Design to seek a new path; one of discovery and documentation through a sensor and a lens.

It was going well; the plan was to turn Japan – a country that feels like my second home – into my world-wide base.

From there I would do the things I needed to do to build a successful business; travelling, taking photos, making meaningful products about Tokyo, Japan and beyond, meeting people, making connections, building a career.

And then, of course, the global pandemic hit, and I, along with the rest of the world, had life choices to make; but little did I realise how those choices would empty the cup of my soul.

I had a 1-year visa. In the past, I had always visited Japan as a tourist (10 times in the last 4 years), never staying for any more than a month at a time (although to be fair, because I was still working for a company, I was never free enough to go any longer than that).

The plan for 2020 was to dig deeper; to really live and thrive in Japan like a local; to experience what the real Japan was like as someone who actually lives there.

As I suspected, it’s a tremendously different experience living in Japan vs just visiting.

What it’s like living in Japan

It’s almost like Japan has two sides to it.

On the side where people visit Japan for short periods – the tourism side – Japan is a shiny place.

It sparkles. It has a culture. It has convenience. It has charisma.

There’s a certain something to it that’s just so different to everywhere else in the world. This is the Japan that most people fall in love with, and if I were more of a blind optimist – over being half realist – I guess I’d still be in this camp too.

However, much in the same vein as spending time really getting to know someone, discovering their good sides and their bad sides, the places you live in have good sides and bad sides too.

Once you discover it all, you have to make a decision: do you accept it as what it is? Or are the negatives too much to bear? Can you see yourself living here long term? Or will you go somewhere else? Can this place truly be home? Or could it be home for just a little while?

The side of Japan you don’t know about.

When it comes to living in Japan, it, too, like any other country, has its own fair share of problems.

A big one for me is the paradigm of what looks like racism.

When I say “what looks like racism”, what I’m referring to is actually more like unconscious Xenophobia, and boy, is it alive and well here.

Being a foreigner

The paradigm of “the foreigner” is absolutely top of mind when you’re living in Japan. It’s an inescapable social construct, an unfortunate, unshakable reality. And for clarity, I don’t merely mean “tourist”, I mean someone who has come to live in Japan from another country.

As a foreigner, it’s harder to get anything done here. And sadly, in many cases, you’re prejudiced against when trying to rent an apartment, or sign up for a bank account, or get a mobile plan, or standing in line at the post office, or any of the hundreds of life-based tasks you need to do to live a normal life.

Especially if you can’t speak the language.

You get charged more, you get delayed more, in some cases, you might even get outright denied an apartment purely because you’re a foreigner.

Hell, even at a micro-level, once you’ve assimilated into the more timid-feeling social nature of Japanese society, getting strange looks at people all the time feels like a personal attack on you; rather than just the fact that a native Japanese person is looking at you weirdly because you’re a foreigner.

Being a foreigner in Japan comes with a set of social constructs you need to navigate through, and although it’s bearable (depending on your tolerance level to racism), it’s by no means fair.

And, of course, I could talk about this subject for forever, but hey, let’s keep this story a responsible length.

Procedure after procedure, layer after layer.

The second thing is the ridiculous amount of procedure and social process you have to deal with.

On five separate occasions in the last eight months, I’ve had to go back and forth between the immigration office and the ward office to get things done for my visa.

That doesn’t sound too bad in and of itself, but given the fact that none of the documents are in English (which is crazy for a multi-cultural, government-owned, internationally-focused process), no one speaks English, I have to wait in line for a minimum of two hours just to get into the freaking building every time, and when I’m there, no one wants to bother to speak to me anyway, you can tell it’s a frustrating experience.

I point this frustration out because it’s a shining example of the rule-abiding, non-progressive, analogue society that Japan is built off.

There’s paperwork for absolutely everything. Nothing is online, ever. You can’t break any rules, even if the rules are dumb or if they were made 50 years ago.

If you even ask for anything different in any situation, big or small, standard or non-standard, be prepared for the entire building to come rushing to your counter to figure things out and make a group decision, even if all you want is extra onions on your Big Mac.

I’m not even joking. This actually happens. And at every level of complexity.

This is in stark contrast to what people think Japan is actually like; just because Japan has Sushi trains that deliver delicious food to you in seconds, doesn’t discount the fact that Japan still uses fax machines, Hanko stamps, and business cards as first-class social systems.

I could go on and on about the realities of actually living here: the abundant use of plastics for everything, the blindness to alternative styles of living, homophobia, xenophobia, not making noise in the gym, cigarette smoke everywhere, how expensive it actually is to live here, how actually bat-shit-crazy the dating scene is and how Japanese women are in general, the fact that I feel like a criminal for wearing a singlet in 35-degree heat because of the timid, reserved nature of society and their tendency not to reveal skin, the depressive nature of being one in a sea of millions of people that’s dangerous to your self-worth if you don’t have something that regularly builds you back up.

The side of Japan you do know about

But I’ll stop there because on the whole, the positives do outweigh the negatives, and actually, I can’t wait to come back. Haha.

I say all of this not to discount the positives that Japan offers; some of the best food in the world at prices that are so comparable to cooking yourself at home, the level of cultural depth that I’m so keenly interested in, the positive side of a collectivist society and the harmony it brings, how most things just work, the little novel solutions to the often forgotten micro-problems of daily life, how convenient almost all aspects of living are here (even if you have to work like hell to get some of them to work).

I still love Japan, and maybe I’d live here one day if I manage to find myself needing to build a career here, or if I had a significant other to live with. But for now, it’s a place I think I’d only come back to for just 1-3 months at a time, so that I don’t have to deal with the realities of long-term living here unless I absolutely have to. I’m more than happy to rent an Airbnb for a few months and be done with it.

On the whole, though, I’m glad I went through this experience and discovered what Japan is actually like thoroughly. And I’m happy to say that I still enjoy it, warts and all.

However, I bitch and moan about all these things because they’re part of what feels like a death by a thousand cuts I’ve experienced over the last 9 months.

These and many other different types of cuts have built up over this time, leading to my ultimate decision to come home.

But let’s continue with the story.

Living on the road

When I left Sydney last year, I set off with the mindset that, like most things in my life, this would be an experiment; an experiment to understand more about myself; about whether I was suited to a nomadic life; a life on the road.

Turns out, I might not be.

Over the last 9 months, and especially more so over the previous 3, I’ve missed home—a lot.

I’ve been lonely. A lot.

And with this stupid pandemic hampering my ability to go out and actually meet new people, life has been tough.

As a hard introvert with mild shyness, as someone who loves their alone time, I’m faced with the realisation that I need more social interaction than what I’m providing myself, especially on the road.

I miss people.

But, I’m the kind of guy who has a hard time making friends and letting people into his life.

It takes me a long time to really accept a person as a friend because I hate shallowness and I crave depth. Give me real. Once they do, I’ll make all the time for them, and I have a very very long fuse with all my friends; it takes a lot to happen to even come close to breaking that bond and I’ll do almost anything for them. However, if they’ve broken that bond, they’re out. For good. They’re not coming back.

I mention this because throughout these 9 months, I’ve had people come and go throughout all these stages, and it’s been a fucking rollercoaster of emotions; something I’m already not too great at dealing with.

I’ve discovered that I am the type of person who needs to be around people I love and adore so that I can offset the eventual crap that occurs as a part of the revolving door of most people’s social circles.

I just can’t do that on the road. An online support network just isn’t as good as the real thing.

I’m tired.

Add to all of that plus the fact that living on the road is tiring, man.

The constant decisions, the continual routine breaking, the go-go-go where you can, living out of a suitcase, not having the niceties of life…

I’m constantly thinking about how I can do my best creative work in the service of others; about how I can serve people with my all; firing on all cylinders, making shit I’m proud of.

I can’t deal with this much chaos and still make my best creative work.

At least, not when my cup is empty.

The stress of Covid-19, being on the road, being in a foreign country, not being able to speak the language well, dealing with the bullshit side of Japan, not being able to go out and make friends, some people stressing me the fuck out, the stress of the business slowing down to a crawl, not knowing what the future looks like.

It’s all a big fucking mess, and for once in my life, I actually have anxiety.

That’s a massive deal for me—both in having it and admitting it.

I just don’t get it usually. I’m not that kind of person. I don’t give in to emotions all that often, and I don’t usually worry about anything too much.

But this, all of this: Japan, not seeing my family, not seeing my friends, not having a home, not being financially secure, not creating work I’m proud of, not feeling like I’m growing as a person, all this change, all this friction, all this adaptation, all this restriction. I just… cant.

Reset.

So I’ve decided to go home, back to Sydney.

I need to reset.

I need to seek the calm.

I need to fill up my soul again.

It took a lot of internal struggle and debate to even arrive at this point, and even now, after I made this decision, I’m still conflicted.

I don’t want to leave the people I care about here in Tokyo. I don’t want to leave the goal I set for myself behind. There’s a part of me that feels like I’m squandering an opportunity I may not get again. There’s a part of me that feels like it’s shameful to not continue and push onwards; like I failed to accomplish what I had originally set out to do here. I feel bad about it. I feel like a failure.

And look, I know Japan will always be around; and I’m looking forward to coming back as soon as I can. But for now, for this goal, for this current mission, I can’t help but feel ashamed to go home for some reason.

This virus has fucked up the timing for my 2020 tremendously and had it not been around, I think I would easily have stayed.

And so, it’s time to change. It’s time to move again. It’s time to adapt. This time, home.

What I’ve learned

I wouldn’t be the person I am if I wasn’t always trying to improve myself and learn from my own life lessons.

And as cheesy as it sounds, travel, as always, is a fantastic teacher and has been for these past 9 months.

Over this time, I’ve assessed my current level of ”nomadity” – that’s a made-up word referring to how long I can live the digital nomad life and be on the road for.

Turns out, not that long.

As much as I crave adventure and the next thing that will lead me on my subsequent path in life, I also crave some level of stability and routine. I need a balance.

I need a home base.

I’m glad I discovered this now rather than forcing myself to be on the road for another year or two, but I’ve discovered that while I can do the minimalism thing pretty well, I need a place of my own that feels like home—an anchor; somewhere I can return to, somewhere I can feel safe, somewhere that enables me to be the best version of myself.

The road is not that place.

At least, not for an extended period of time.

I’ve also learned how surrounding myself with people I love fills my cup. While sometimes I feel like a hero that can go on for ages being by himself, I need to make sure I’m aware of how low it can get if I’m alone for too long.

My people are important to me, and I’ll treasure them even more now.

Japan has taught me parts of society that I adore. Social constructs that just gel with me, that just “get” me.

Sydney isn’t perfect either, I don’t think any place is.

However, at least now I can go home with Japan in mind and see how I can construct an environment around me that takes the best parts of both, and hopefully, that works out well.

But the most significant lesson

Is that I now have clear indicators of my own wellbeing.

Metrics that align with the things I most value in life; markers I’m aware of and can keep a mental check on whether I’m back home or I’m on the road.

Because if these things are in line, I won’t find myself lacking – with or without Covid-19 at large.

The next phase

So for what looks like at least the next 6 months, I’ll be working on me again.

I’ll be working towards building a home-studio; a creative space I can be proud of; a safe haven where I can do my best work.

I’ll be working on filling my soul with the help of my friends and family.

And when Covid dies down, I’ll travel again. However, this time, for perhaps one to three months at a time maximum.

It’s June already, and 2020 was supposed to be my year. So far, it’s pretty well fucked up; it is for everyone, I guess.

But, if the glass is half full, there are still 6 months to make it the most transformative year yet.

And if the back half of the year returns with as many life lessons as the front half, well, that might just happen.

2020 could still be my year after all.

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21 comments Leave a comment

  • Noname says:

    ”If you find yourself wanting something month after month, year after year, yet nothing happens and you never come any closer to it, then maybe what you actually want is a fantasy, an idealization, a false promise. Maybe what you want isn’t what you want, you just enjoy wanting.”

    Charles Bukowski

  • Valentin says:

    Hey man, hope you’re doing better now, thank you for sharing your experience. I’ve rarely ever related so much to someone. I’ve been only twice to Japan but I’ve been interested in it (everything, history, culture, …) since I was 7 (Im 22). I went there the first time as a tourist, the second time I went to visit a japanese friend of mine that I see as my second family. His parents hosted me and I had such a memorable experience I felt like living in a dream. It was everything I had been imagining since I started learning about Japan. I know it’s a country with many flaws and it’s far from perfect but just like the way you say it, it still is an incredible place with so much to offer. Maybe Tokyo wasn’t right for you ? I’ve personally had my best experiences in Kyushu.

    Also, I spent 5 months in Korea and god the beginning was hard. Not understanding the language, changing places to stay in every 2 weeks until I found a good housing, not knowing anyone at all, getting that curiosity look like you’re an animal in a zoo because you’re a foreigner (im very tall so that really didn’t help), being super introverted and shy, having high expectations and the fear of going back home after a month feeling like a failure… I totally relate to what you felt. In the end, I met the right people and found what was right for me and got to pull through it. There are many things I would change on how I spent my time there but I’ve definitely grown a lot from it and want to go back.

    Maybe it’s not that you weren’t made for this, it could simply be that the approach just didn’t work for you and that you needed something different.

    I wish you all the best for the future as I’m certain you’ll find what’s right for you. Keep up the great work mate !

    • Pat Kay says:

      Sounds like we’ve had similar experiences! In hindsight, I think for me it was definitely more of a timing issue with Covid than anything else. The other things; not knowing the language, changing places regularly, not feeling at home etc. I think I could deal with for some time, however not being able to interact with and find new friends was the biggest killer for me. I definitely realised just how much I need people in my life and how important social interaction is for me, even though I’m a hard introvert too.

      Thanks for sharing your stories and thanks for relating. All the best for you in the future too!

  • Kleo says:

    As someone from Sydney who also travels to Japan on the more frequent side, I really love your works, and the views I see from your lenses never cease to wow me.

    I’ve always kind of know at the back my head, about this ‘other’ side of Japan, either through people who live there long term, personal experiences, or through education (I’m currently studying Japanese and have been on exchange). And thank you for writing these honest and heart felt words as I really connected with them even though my own experiences were never close enough to compare to yours. And it’s so true that despite all the negatives Japan is still a country so captivating, one could never stop loving.

    I really hope you’ll enjoy the time home whilst finding peace and creativity again surrounding yourself with loved ones. Welcome back to Sydney! So keen to see your new works again in the future.

    • Pat Kay says:

      Thank you for understanding and thank you for your support! I know I’ll definitely find myself recharging and getting back ready to go; I’ll be back in Japan again before I know it, I’m sure.

  • Jeliman says:

    You’re far from being alone mate 🙂 I came to Japan 3 months ago to escape the virus, full of energy and in a great mood. Now I’m broken, depressed and angry the same time. I didn’t even score. I can’t wait to get out of here.
    I’m writing this to remind you that the problem isn’t you. Japanese built themselves a hell.

    • Pat Kay says:

      Oh mate, I hope things work out for you! I still love Japan and I’ll be back as soon as possible, so I’m sorry you had a bad time here. Hopefully after all this global crap dies down you can return and have a better experience 😊

  • Georgie says:

    Despite the rough road you’ve been on and the tiring journey you’ve had so far, 2020 still loves you. We in Sydney love you more! You deserve to be in good mental health and be happy. Life throws many curveballs and we might feel obligated to deal with all of them, even if it causes emotional stress and the shame you said you feel. But thank you for being vulnerable and open. I think there are many people who needed to hear and read this, and hear it straight from you. 🙂

    • Pat Kay says:

      It’s always so nerve-racking being vulnerable on the internet, but it’s always worth it. I hope it helps people.

      Side note: I can’t wait to see ya face, Georgie! See you back in Sydney soon.

  • Ralph Tanagras says:

    Been following your works since I bumped into one of them, always inspired of how you write things and about reality. Will always keep supporting your works bro! See yeah in Japan when you come back.

  • Marione says:

    Always floored by the raw honesty that goes into your posts! Japan has always felt like the ideal place to live, I was thinking of doing a year long sabbatical to teach English just to explore and see the country in my own time.. but your post has shed light on aspects of this move I never considered 😭 It hasn’t changed my mind but I guess I need to reassess how I would go about it. So thanks for the reality check!

    In regards to your own personal journey, I hope you don’t think you’re taking steps backward, you are just pivoting 🙂”A mind stretched by new experiences can never go back to it’s old dimensions”.

    • Pat Kay says:

      Oh I really hope it doesn’t dissuade you to go! You 100% should, especially if you’ll be working (and in a post-Covid world). I could have very easily stayed had Covid not been around. However yeah, there are things about Japan that you do have to deal with when living here, but for the most part they’re worth it. It’s very much an experience worth having living here!

      I think also the fact that I’ve already been here for like a collective year even before spending these recent 9 months here, plus having already seen significantly more of Japan than any local would in their lifetimes means that there’s less of a reason for me to stay too. YMWV!

  • Khadijah says:

    Thanks for sharing this. I’ve been thinking of settling down in Japan maybe in 15 years and never thought of the cons living there. It hits me hard when you said that it’s different coming as tourist and actually living in the country, and am I actually ready to leave the comfort that home could offer (I’m from Malaysia). But that doesn’t mean I will forget my plan. Maybe I should try living there for at least 6 months to get a grasp of it and see if I actually fit.

    By the way, I just followed your IG for 2 weeks and really adore your work. Hope to see you keep doing well.

    • Pat Kay says:

      It’s definitely different but by no means unachievable! I think if your intention is to live there for a few years, it will be a much easier transition mentally. For me, as I only had a 1 year visa, that’s not really enough time to get life-related things done. It’s a good amount of time for a taste test of living there, but tough to make long-term friends and a solid career with. Best of luck to you!

  • Matt says:

    I can definitely relate, having been many times before for leisure, last year it was for work, and doing business there is truly painful, but i still love it. And as a similar introvert i like my space but still need interaction with those core people in my life. (even though i feel i dont fit in anywhere at times)

  • Kay says:

    Thanks for sharing such honest thoughts about life in Japan and loneliness (your other blog post). I know it wouldn’t have been easy to come to such a decision, but Sydney will always welcome you home. (^_^)v

    “2020 was supposed to be my year” = My thoughts exactly… After a terrible 2017 and 2018 I decided to relocate from Canberra to Sydney at the start of 2019 and change careers after being in the aviation industry for eight years. I went back to being a student at uni, but discovered I had no passion for my chosen field of study after just one semester. Trying to get back into the aviation industry at the worst possible timing with the pandemic has caused and is still causing many sleepless nights. Not knowing how long this pandemic will last, when travel restrictions will lift so aviation activity picks up again is my biggest stress. “It’s all a big fucking mess, and for once in my life, I actually have anxiety.” is something I feel all the time these days since everything is outside of my control. It’s been hard, but I’ve learnt to take things one day at a time.

    Wishing you all the best when you arrive home!

    P.S. Remember you’re not a failure, you didn’t fail anything. This wasn’t a test. Just a detour on life’s journey. (That’s what I’m telling myself…)

    • Pat Kay says:

      Although intellectually I know that we’re all in this together, it’s nice to know that I’m not alone on a personal level too. Thank you for sharing your story too and for your support! We’re both not failures 😊

  • Juggs says:

    I’ve followed your IG for a while now and your work is great. And your story sounds like mine a while ago. I’ve been to Japan 19 times now and this year was to be my 20th. But like you said COVID ruined it for all.

    I’d say you should not come home. Because I’ve seen and heard this before. And home will always be there. It’s comfortable, it’s what you know and it’s a calm bed in a storm. The opportunity to grow from struggle is the best thing to go through. But you seem to have made a decision and I admire and respect it.

    You can always come home. Just as you can always go back to japan.

    Japan is like you stated. It’s so fucking annoying and frustrating some times, yet like you said most only see the tourist view. I can see it’s stolen your heart like it did mine many years ago. It’s a second home. Just remember that…it still has your heart.

    I live on the Gold Coast. If you’re ever up, and want to chat over a coffee. Hit me up.

    Love your work and I hope you continue to do well.

    • Pat Kay says:

      Thanks for the support mate. Japan definitely is my second home. I’ve made enough friends here and know enough about it for it to be so, and I’m already looking forward to coming back, and I haven’t even left yet. Ha. But yeah, internally, I went back and forth so much, but ultimately, this was the decision. Perhaps it’ll be different next time, who knows 😌

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