23 August 2016

David Billa - Expat in Takamatsu, Japan

David Billa - Expat in Takamatsu, Japan

We’ve had the chance to talk to David Billa, 41, a French expat who has moved to Japan with his family. Mr. Billa who has been living there for three years now works as an English Teacher.

Read more about his experiences in the full interview below.


Q: Where are you originally from?

A: I was born and raised in the French South West.


Q: What made you move out of France?

A: I just wanted to see the world I guess. Growing up, I was fascinated by American pop culture, and I wanted to see what the US was like “for real”. During college, I decided to go there for one year, just to experience it. I ended up staying seven years. Upon returning to France, I knew that deep inside it was a temporary thing, I was going to move out again. It’s a bit of a cliché, but the “world is my playground.” Some people stay in the same city for their whole life. I know some people in my family that never even left their native area, not even for a trip. They can’t even imagine leaving the place, it’s where they belong. Very early on, I remember looking at that big world map on the wall that my parents bought me as a kid, and while some people’s scope and boundaries are their native city, region or country, mine were and still are the boundaries of that map.


Q: Where are you living now?

A: I currently live in the city of Takamatsu, in Japan.


Q: How did you come to choose this new country of residence?

A: I never really cared for Japan until I met this Japanese woman who ended up becoming my wife. We met in France and lived there together for a few years until the itch of  a move abroad again started becoming stronger. Around the same time, I had left my previous job, and had trouble finding another decent one in France and an interesting job opportunity presented itself in my wife’s hometown. So we just made the jump.


Q: How long have you been living in Japan?

A: I have lived in Japan for three years.


Q: What has been the most difficult experience you've had when you were new in Japan?

A: For me, the most difficult thing about living in Japan has always been – since day one – the fact that I’m illiterate here. While I’m slowly learning how to speak the language, I doubt I’ll ever be able to fully read it. And while I’m getting used to that fact, it remains difficult in many situations. I’m used to be quite independent, but in Japan, I depend on my wife for many everyday life activities.


Q: Would you say that formalities like getting visas or work permits and international health insurance were particularly difficult in Japan? What was your experience with these?

A: Well, I have a spouse visa, and it was pretty easy to get. It was a one-year visa the first time, and when I went to renew it, they renewed it for three years, which is apparently rare. In Japan, from what I understand, most “new” foreign residents get their visa renewed on a yearly basis for a few years before getting longer ones. Why was I lucky? I don’t know. I sometimes joke that the immigration officer who dealt with me was a Francophile and that’s why he got me a longer visa. Is it the real reason? No idea.

Health insurance is provided by my employer.


Q: Are you living alone or with your family?

A: I live with my wife and daughter. So life at home is roughly similar than life at home in France, just more Japanese.


Q: Was it easy making friends and meeting people? Do you mainly socialize with other expats in Japan? How did you manage to find a social circle in Japan?

A: Between work and family life, I don’t have that much time to socialize. It also may be an age thing, the older I get, the less I feel the need to make new friends.

However, I have made a few friends here. It’s a mix of French people, English-speakers and a few Japanese.

I find it relatively easy to meet people, and while it is hard for me to make Japanese friends, it mostly comes from the language barrier (very few speak English and almost none French). You may have heard that Japanese people are afraid or uneasy with foreigners, I have rarely experienced it, at least not with the people I interact with.


Q: What are the best things to do in the area? Anything to recommend to future expats?

A: Takamatsu is not well known by foreigners in Japan, and it’s really far from the usual touristy spots. However, it’s located by one of Japan’s best-kept secrets, that is the Seto Inland Sea, one of the most beautiful landscapes of Japan. Also, the city is located on Shikoku which is famous for two things: it’s beautiful mountains and the Shikoku Pilgrimage. So Takamatsu and around is the perfect place for nature lovers (wonderful mountains, sea and small islands) as well as traditional culture lovers (great temples everywhere, lots of traditional arts and crafts). Finally, the area also hosts the Setouchi Triennale, one of the major art festivals of Japan that have the particularity to be held on a series of small islands. So, there you have it: nature, traditional culture and contemporary art.


Q: How does the cost of living in Japan compared to your home?

A: It’s pretty hard to compare. Japan has the reputation of being an expensive country, but that’s because people always confuse Tokyo and Japan. Tokyo is a crazy expensive city, but the rest of the country, not so much. And the same thing goes for France too; life in Paris is much more expensive than anywhere else in France.

Overall, I’m tempted to say that the cost of living in both countries is roughly similar overall (when you compare two similar areas). Some things are more expensive in one country, and some others in the other country. 

  • How much is a cup of coffee?

A: I’d say between 100 and 200 yens (roughly 80 cents to $1.5)

  • How much is a meal in an inexpensive restaurant?

A: Very cheap. You can eat well for 500 yens ($4). To give you an idea, when a meal is above 1,000 yens ($8) it starts getting “expensive”, whereas, in France, it’s hard to find a restaurant for less than €15 ($18)

  • How much is a meal in an expensive restaurant?

A: No idea. The only times I’ve been to expensive restaurants in Japan, I was invited and I had no idea of how much it was. I’d say about 5,000 yens ($40)

  • How much is a bottle of wine? How about a pack of cigarettes?

A: Wine is expensive. A cheap mediocre wine that would never be sold for more than 5€ ($6) in France can be found at more than 2,500 yens ($20) here.

I have no idea how much is a pack of cigarettes.


Q: What do you think about the locals?

A: They’re wonderful people. If you think that Japanese people are shy, aloof, scared of foreigners and whatnot, it’s because you’ve never met Japanese people from Western Japan in general and Shikoku in particular.


Q: What do you think are the positive and negative sides of living in Japan?

A: There is a general peace of mind and a general sense of safety in Japan that makes you just more relaxed and friendlier. Japan is one of the safest countries in the world and you can feel it in permanence. Nothing gets stolen, when a stranger comes to you, they’re not going to try to rob you or swindle you or anything. There’s just a generally safe and friendly atmosphere everywhere. That, and the food. It’s very hard to find bad food in Japan. Food is almost always good… and cheap as previously mentioned.

The main negative point is that if you don’t know the language well, it’s almost impossible to be independent. I mean, this is true for any country, but when I go to any other country in Europe, I can at least read. And most European languages have similar roots; it’s not that hard to guess many things. Not in Japan, no. The only words you can guess are the imported English words.

Another negative thing about the country is a general lack of sense of responsibility. Most Japanese people just won’t take responsibility. When an issue arises, they’ll blame it on bad luck, or it’s going to be someone’s responsibility or they’ll pretend it didn’t happen, or they’ll say the magic word “sorry” and then all responsibility instantly vanishes (and the issue gets magically solved too, I guess… at least in their mind).

There are much more both positive and negative things, but at the moment those are the ones that matter to me the most. If you ask me the same question in six months, maybe I’ll give a different answer.


Q: Do you miss home and family sometimes?

A: Yes, of course, I do miss home and my family at times.


Q: How do you cope with homesickness?

A: How do I cope with it? When I miss certain specific aspects of France, I try to find a local equivalent, and there are more than you think. I love nature in my home area, and nature here is as beautiful albeit quite different. I love all the historical buildings in my home area (mostly medieval castles and villages), and Japanese temples kinda replace them. Food? I do miss French food a lot, but Japanese food is as good, so it makes the thing easier (to compare, when I lived in the US, there was little to no decent food there, and missing French food was painful… it really was the thing I missed the most).

As far as family and friends are concerned, it’s difficult at times. The web really helps (I can’t imagine how people living abroad managed the distance to their loved ones before the age of the internet), but I think that overall, I just got used to it as I’ve lived abroad for 10 years over the past 16 years.


Q: Do you have plans to move to a different country or back home in the future?

A: While I don’t exclude anything (I’ve always dreamed to live on a tropical island country, however, my wife is not really interested), the current plan is to stay in Japan for as long as possible.


Q: What has been the hardest aspect to your expat experience so far?

A: When I was in the US, it probably was the loneliness. It’s a very individualistic country, and even though I had friends, it did feel very lonely from time to time.

Here in Japan; definitely the fact that I’m illiterate.


Q: What tips can you give other expats living in that country?

A: I guess these tips are valid for anyone living in any foreign country:

  • Remember that things are not like home and are not supposed to be like home. That’s what makes the experience interesting and worth living, even if it makes it difficult at times.
  • Keep in mind that you’re a guest in that country, and behave accordingly. There’s nothing worse than seeing a foreigner acting in ways that they wouldn’t act at home under the pretence that they’re abroad, as if foreign countries weren’t the real world, so anything goes. No, it doesn’t.
  • Try new things; don’t stick to what you know. New experiences are the whole reason why you’re abroad in the first place, aren’t they?
  • I don’t think that I have tips that are specific to Japan. Of course, learn Japanese rules of politeness as early as possible and follow them, no exception, but that too is valid for any country.


Q: Do you have favourite websites or blogs about Japan?

A: Actually, I don’t read that many blogs in English about Japan, but my favorites are probably these ones:

More Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan: because, as its name says, it will show you parts of Japan you don’t even suspect exist.

Zooming Japan: The blog tackles a wide range of topics concerning life in Japan.

Hinomaple: where you can find a bunch of interesting stories about Dru’s life in Japan.

Rurousha: Rurousha talks about her life in Tokyo in an always whimsical and amusing way.

If you can read French, I really advise a relatively new blog (from a long time blogger): Jud à Hiroshima Jud, long-time Hiroshima resident shows aspects of her adopted city you don’t even suspect exist.

Finally, please, let me plug in my own blog: Setouchi Explorer which aims at showing you unfamiliar Japan too, namely the Kagawa prefecture and the Eastern part of the Seto Inland Sea and its wonderful islands.