Living Abroad with Ankylosing Spondylitis in Japan

Life Abroad with AS
Guest Author Charlotte Cathay writes about her experience living and working in Japan with Ankylosing Spondylitis

In November of 2015 I packed my things, moved out of my apartment, sold my car, and went to Japan. It’s a cliche expat story, but it’s mine! Any person would be nervous about a move of that magnitude. New language, new culture, new job, new home, new everything. I had to move my AS there with me too, so in addition to all that I had to worry about a new doctor, a new climate, and a whole new lifestyle.

Allow me to paint you a picture of then and now.

Virginia, USA

I wake up early, 5:30 or 6 AM, to get ready and make the 45-minute drive to my job in the next city over. I park next to the building and it’s a short walk from there- I can’t complain. At lunch I go out and walk, but for the other eight hours I sit at a desk. Closing time rolls around and I make the short jaunt back out to my car, drive home, and in a few hours it’s time for bed. Rinse & repeat.

Osaka, Japan

I wake up and walk twenty minutes to the train station from my apartment. I could go to one a little closer, but walking a few extra minutes saves me money, so I do the legwork. If it’s crowded I stand on the train, but it’s a short commute, so I can’t complain. As a teacher, I spend most of my time standing. Crouching, jumping, running, and lifting little kids are also regular parts of my day. The twenty minute walk home uphill at the end of the day can be grueling. I come home tired but satisfied.

I was terrified that all this new activity would aggravate my AS and I’d have a hard time getting around, but it’s had exactly the opposite effect.

Since my move I haven’t had any bad flairs or pain. Working my body every day has kept me running like a well-oiled machine. I attribute my current great health entirely to the lifestyle I lead here in Japan.

I’ve thought a lot about what changes I’ve made from then to now and I’d like to share them with you.

Transportation: Driving is unavoidable in many places in America- it’s a BIG country. While public transportation is widely unavailable outside of US cities, in Japan it is accessible most anywhere. Trains and buses are clean, safe, and punctual. A train won’t drive right up to your door though, so it’s inevitable that you spend a portion of your day walking. Since things aren’t so far-flung in Japan, it’s also possible to walk or bike to many destinations. I just moved to Kyoto and have been able to bike almost everywhere. I love it!

Tokyo Monorail to Odaiba

Photo credit Carrie Kellenberger

Food: The Japanese diet is far healthier than the typical American diet. Despite eating rice every day for a year and a half, I’ve lost about fifteen pounds. (Losing a little extra weight doesn’t hurt the old hips either!) Japanese food is usually made from simple ingredients and doesn’t contain the same saturated fats that lurk in a lot of stuff at home.

Portion size also plays into things. You can eat at a McDonald’s here too, for example, but a large Japanese soft drink is comparable to an American small. When I go to restaurants at home I often take home a portion of my meal because it’s too much for me to eat in one sitting. Here the plates and the amount of what’s on them are much more modest.

Exercise and eat right! So far this sounds like a weight loss article. Those two things are obvious, but there’s been much more to my experience.

Environment: I never considered America to be dangerous until I left it. In all my time in Japan I have never felt threatened or unsafe. As a young, female, solo traveller, safety is of the utmost importance. I can catch the last train home in the city and walk to my place at 1 AM without worrying about anyone bothering me.

Drop your phone or wallet? Don’t worry, it will be right where you left it! Stealing is not a part of Japanese culture. It’s relaxing not having to be constantly alert, and you can do a lot more when you aren’t restricted by time, locale, etc.

The Golden Pavilion

Photo credit Carrie Kellenberger

Kinkaku-ji, Golden Pavilion in Kyoto, Japan

Job Satisfaction: I made good money at my desk job. The benefits were great. My company was internationally renowned. And I also hated it. Parking myself in front of a computer was detrimental to both my body and soul. By comparison, teaching is far more physically and mentally taxing. I chase, pick up, and play with kids for hours out of the day.

When teaching adults I have to challenge myself to express or explain things that are simple to me in a way that a non-native speaker can understand. It’s difficult but I love it. Stress is terrible for your body, and at my old job it would sometimes manifest itself as pain. My flairs coincided with times when I was the most unhappy.

I won’t stay in Asia forever, but wherever I go to next I want to establish a lifestyle similar to the one I lead now. I won’t be able to change the fundamentals of a place, but I can adapt to the conditions and set myself up for success as much as possible with the factors I described in mind.

It’s hard to imagine a lifestyle radically different than your own unless you experience it firsthand. So how can other people with AS benefit from having a glimpse into mine? Hopefully it will help you identify what in your daily life you enjoy or don’t, what things help you or hurt you, and what you have the ability to change. Small changes can add up to big effects. My goal is to be happy and healthy, and the rest follows.

Guest Author: Charlotte Cathay – Visit Charlotte’s blog for more information about her adventures at Faye Soleil.

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Walk AS One is a non profit organization with 501c3 status in Maine, USA that organizes the Walk Your AS Off campaign each year. We are an all volunteer organization that mobilizes and motivates a global community to raise awareness and address the challenges of those affected by Ankylosing Spondylitis and its family of related diseases. Join us at www.WalkASOne.org

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