To me, the most challenging part of living in Japan was always the loneliness. I had never lived by myself before coming to Japan, let alone in a foreign land, and it took me ages to get over it- or get used to it.
Today I was listening to music on my way home, and a particular song triggered that horrible feeling I had when I lived in Marugame, sitting all by myself in that tiny apartment in the middle of nowhere. No matter how beautiful Shikoku was and how many amazing friends lived in my town, I was never able to shake off that feeling of loneliness. At times, I would get so bored and lonely that I couldn't sleep at all. I used to think I was losing my mind living in that grey, dreary town, with nothing to do and the sound of frogs in the rice fields for a soundtrack at night. I'd stay up all night, listening to music to drown the nothingness, and dreaming of the big city lights.
Then I moved to Osaka, and after the initial buzz of bright lights and bike rides through the neon signs and gaudy fixtures of Dotonbori, I sank back into emptiness and loneliness, wondering why I had moved to Osaka, not knowing anyone and agreeing to a job I truly despised. Even though I ended up meeting some pretty amazing people in the short time I lived in Osaka, most of my weekends were spent escaping to Kyoto to remind myself why I came to Japan in the first place, and riding my bike late at night all across Osaka to kill time, between Bentencho, Umeda and Tanimachi. Many late nights, many dark parks, many conbini runs.
When a promising job opportunity opened up in Tokyo, I moved in a heartbeat, comforted by the fact that I had a lot of friends already living in Tokyo. Even though most of my first year living here was a string of blurry nights and sunrise walks from Shibuya to Ikenoue after long nights out, that same familiar feeling of loneliness was still there. No matter how many events and dinners and parties were going on, inevitably I would walk back home alone, back to that isolated place that somehow felt normal to me. Maybe that was Japan, just a lonely place. Even a romantic relationship did not fix that, and it made me realize it wasn't so much about friends, or boys, or bright city lights.
Somehow, over time the loneliness just dissipated. I'm not sure what happened. Maybe I got used to it, or maybe I just became so busy that I forgot about it. I have a job I love, which plays a huge part in keeping my happiness level up, and a solid group of friends- people who have known me since my Shikoku days, people I have bonded with in Tokyo, and others that have practically adopted me into their lives.
These days, any little bit of alone time I have I welcome with open arms, as it seems pretty rare that I'm home alone and bored. Well, I'm often home alone but rarely bored. Instead of feeling lonely when I'm alone, I now appreciate it and even long for it after a long day at work or following hours of social commitments. I think my life is more fulfilled now, with lots of meaningful work, quality friendships and relationships and a more balanced lifestyle overall.
I'm not sure all my fellow foreigner friends living in Japan (or Japanese friends living abroad) have experienced loneliness on that level, but I think it's a recurring theme. Living abroad can be extremely lonely, and nothing could prepare me to it, but I'm glad I don't have this horrible feeling anymore. Maybe I'll feel lonely again someday, but at least I'll know how to deal with it next time.