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The Risks and Rewards of Living Abroad on a Working Holiday Visa

I’ve done the teaching abroad thing, spending a year and a half in Seoul, and—make no mistake—I enjoyed every minute. However, when I began thinking about my next adventure, the idea of signing a year-long contract, and spending countless hours in a classroom singing the ABCs or teaching uninterested students about past and future tense, just didn’t appeal to me.

I wanted something new, an experience that would be entirely different from my previous stint living abroad. I also wanted flexibility: Flexibility in the job I chose, and flexibility in where I chose to live. My fondest travel memories are of the times I spent navigating my way through Southeast Asia without much of a plan. I had freedom. I didn’t have obligations or anything tying me down to one place. That’s why I applied for a working holiday visa to Japan. Working holiday visas are extremely easy to get if you’re from one of the qualifying countries. Have a valid passport, be between 18-30, have airfare to and from the country you choose and some money in the bank, and you’re essentially set. For Canadians the processing time takes just about a week, and that’s that: You’re free to head off to your new country. As I said, that’s the easy part.

If a working holiday visa is the route you choose to take, keep in mind that you will have to do everything—apartment hunting, job hunting, and getting set up in general—on your own. I can’t speak from experience, but I’m sure that major cities like Tokyo or Osaka have tons of opportunities for work. However, I’m in the country side, or at least compared to a mega city like Seoul, it’s the countryside.

It was my choice to come to Mihara, the town I currently live in, nestled between mountains and sea, in Hiroshima prefecture. I had a friend here already, a Korean guy that I’d met in Seoul. I was probably a little naive, thinking that the transition would be smooth, and that work and accommodation would come quickly. However, I spent the first three weeks crashing on the couches of stranger who have now become close friends.

When funds allowed it, I stayed in capsule hotels. It should be noted that Mihara doesn’t have a traditional capsule hotel. Instead, it offers a bed with a paper thin curtain. If you can get over the constant snoring, and the sounds of farts and burps in the night, then it’s really no problem.

It took a little longer than I wanted, but my friend and I found an apartment and I found a job teaching English. The apartment was nice and small with limited privacy, but it suited me fine. However, I cannot say many good things about the job. Between the two plus hour train rides to and from work every day, and spending nine hours teaching English in shopping centres to children as young as a couple of months old, I decided that it wasn’t for me. Quitting was probably not the smartest idea, but perpetual travel has taught me how to be frugal. Luckily I can survive on ramen, cigarettes and the ever important morning coffee.

As I’m writing this, I’m on the train ride home back from an interview at a coffee shop. I’m pleased to say that I got the job and I start work this week. I have no false assumptions that this will be easy work. The language barrier will be hard at first and will presumably add a totally new element of difficulty that comes along with learning any new job. However, with diligence and a lot of patience I think I can make it work.

There are undoubtably stresses that come along with moving to another country. Those stresses are magnified when moving on a working holiday visa, but the reward is worth it. You get to have a cultural experience like no other and you have complete flexibility when it comes to what you do for work and where you choose to live. It’s very comforting to know that there isn’t a school principal at a school holding a visa and an apartment over my head. It’s also nice to get outside of the ESL bubble that many people get trapped in. My most enjoyable times in Korea were when I was hanging out with my Korean friends, or hanging out with other foreigners that didn’t just sit around complaining about their “crazy co-teacher” or “student from hell.”

All in all, I recommend working holiday visas. If you have an open mind, and are willing to deal with the roller coaster of ups and downs, you’ll be just fine.

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