The Interiors Project: James Midgley in Tokyo, Japan

Welcome to the 17th issue of The Interiors Project.

This is the Tokyo home of my friend James. He is many things. A philosopher-king. Poet. Chemist. Teacher. Advocate for kids. Wild risk-taker. Light and laughter-maker. Devotee of play. Tender-hearted friend. When he leaves our little Yokohama school in a few weeks, the third floor (which houses Science, English and me) will feel a bit less joyful. Best wishes on your voyage, James.

{My apartment is the one with the sarongs hanging from the window!}{The view from my balcony.}

How big is your home?
53 square metres.

What is your favourite thing about your current apartment?
The space – I previously lived in 32 sq meters. Also….this art deco lamp shade bought in Tokyo, originally from England and cost a small fortune. Purportedly 1920s and I believe this !

How do you define “home”?
Is a sanctuary for the mind where the liquid craziness of the day is entwined with some solid stability, and where there are always chores to do!

{Fiancee playing with the mirrors.}
{Bath that sings when ready and my i-duck – music while you soak, oh the wooden sento style stool to shower before the bath – Japanese style!}

{Life as as an international educator}
In what countries have you lived?
Japan is my first international job, and I came here for 2 years, and I am leaving after 4 years.

What do you love about your current city?
The capacity of Tokyo to constantly, and unerringly serve up beautiful surprise, entertain and seduce you. Maybe its the lights at night, or the mind boggling efficiencies, or the absence of crime (for a foreigner here crime is virtually zero), or the smile from the girl at the counter in my local ‘konbini’ (convenience store). It is a potent, heady, and vital mix.

Do you still feel homesick?
Of course, I miss family and friends (get that one in first). On a social level; a large part of my life in the UK was mountain running (fell running ), and mid week races that start and end at a pub with fresh cut grass and a pint of beer at the end – wow – this is a beautiful synthesis. Japan does, however, have high mountains, obviously volcanic, which make for some exciting substitutes!… and the beer is always good quality/plentiful in vending machines and onsen (public bath), so I am sated 🙂

What is the scariest situation you have ever found yourself in?
Two spring to mind :-
1. When March 2011 crisis/disaster happened I was teaching Grade 11, and whilst you do become quite blase about quakes, we knew this was different. It lasted longer and was more intense than any we had before, but we were lucky. We were 200kms from the epicenter, and only minor damage was felt at the school. The scary / odd thing was leaving school at 10pm to a friends house, with no street lights, no shops open and then using his scooter to get from Yokohama to Tokyo the next day passing huge queues for petrol, and the news slowly sinking in about how devastating the quake/tsunami was.

2. I am a chemistry teacher (and risk taker), and I have a patented thermite mixture which sometimes decides to scare me witless. After the mocks this year I added a good scoop of extra propellant and showered the tiled ceiling with beautiful trails of hot iron. It came very close to being out of control, and if it had gone through the bench, it would also have gone through the floor, and molten iron at around 2000C would have been dripping onto some poor soul in the teachers lounge. Oh yes, I am also the school health and safety co-ordinator!

How do you know when to leave?
I am still new this game so can offer little wisdom on this aspect of international teaching. I guess my mind was made up to move on after 4 years with the realisation that there will never be a good time to leave Japan. The old adages of life is very short, and carpe diem, explore while you can, all resonates deeply with me.
What metaphor would you use to describe living internationally?
It is like being in a corridor between two glass doors – one is what you left behind, the other, the next one on the list. The corridor in between can be dark, but the more you build bridges with others the brighter it gets. Friends met overseas, are often everything you need, and have.
How has living overseas changed you?
I had no idea how little (nothing) I knew, or had been taught about this part of the world. My sense of geography has vastly improved, my list of countries explored has expanded exponentially. I have never had such a fabulous support network in terms of friends and colleagues, nor have I taught a more respectful group of kids. It has made me much more grateful, and Japan much more aware of my impact on those around me. Environmental awareness perhaps 🙂
{The random nature of existence in Tokyo – me and a few other gaijin walking the streets of Tokyo with a shrine – we were of course – the tallest – and therefore the weight bearers – a once only experience!}

How did you find your current home?
This is my third home since arriving in Japan 4 years ago. I lasted 9 months in Yokohama, then fell in love with Tokyo. My Japanese language skills being poor meant I found an agent who spoke English, and was advertising. There was none of the discrimination I had encountered before, and this apartment was a little left field, but in a very desirable area of Tokyo. I open the door and Tokyo is there – I like that.
{The river just down from the apartment.}

(A very typical Tokyo view.)

{The neighbours obviously are not teachers.}

What do you always unpack first?
Two turntables, mixer, amp, speakers and lights. I love music, and glass. There is no TV in my home.
{The living area with turn tables.}

What is your approach to packing?
I am a fabric twister and, and ruck sack space creator extraordinaire. As most of my travelling has been in Asia, there is little need to take your best Alexander McQueens, when t-shirts cost a dollar. So light, very light.

How many countries have you travelled to?
Morocco, tons of Europe, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Cambodia, America, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, China, Australia.

What do you like to buy when you are travelling?
Paintings, I have currently got some very nice pieces from Cambodia and Vietnam.

Where will you travel next?
My summer will take me to China firstly, then the trans-Mongolian train through Siberia up to Moscow. I then fly into Amsterdam, meet my fiancee in Paris, we will pop to Berlin to see friends. We then go to the UK where I have rented a cottage in the lake district so my fell running buddies are also coming. We then fly out to Penang, Malaysia to begin the next chapter.

Do you ever get tired of travelling?
My 2011 summer break consisted of me buying a flight one way Tokyo to Jakarta and the return 6 weeks later from Hanoi back to Tokyo. I travelled alone for the first time, and did find it was easy to get stuck in the 3 day rut of…
Day 1: Arrive, eat, sleep,
Day 2: Book onward travel
Day 3: Leave.
I saw a lot and wrote a lot but it did get a bit tiring. Sometimes you just need to rest, and after jungle trekking on Sumatra and a failed attempt to get to Mentawai Islands I hopped a bucket seat down to Bali and holed up in Ubud for a week. Batteries recharged : )

Please describe the most amazing meal that you have eaten overseas.

In Tokyo there are more Michelin 3 star (and above) restaurants than there are in Paris. I have never been to one in Paris but I have in Tokyo. It cost around 500 USD for two (who said Tokyo was expensive), and my girlfriend and I had five courses with matched wine.

Has living overseas changed your eating habits?
Where to start – I come from Yorkshire UK where the weather is cold and the sheep are scared 🙂 We survived on stodgy warming fare like kebabs, pizzas, stews, curries….now I survive on kebabs, nabe (Japanese winter stew ), curries (lots of great Indian near my apartment) mixed in with new items like; shirako (cod semen), basashi (horse sushi), ikura (fish eggs), and an obsession with ramen noodles – great after a long night of drinking and karaoke as the sun pops up its head.

{You as an educator}
What is your philosophy of education?

I love the creative side of the craft of teaching. To surprise kids with new pedagogical ideas ( no I would never use that phrase in public ), and underneath it all the act of performing. We are all sales people regardless of title, and whether we are bought or not, really depends how much effort and love we put into our respective subjects.

What is the same about kids all over the world?
To remind us of the things we too easily forget; school was hard, it still is, and the frequent kind and genuine word, unbeckoned from a student, reminds you why you took up this career in the first place.

You are invited to leave your love notes for James in the comments section below.


  1. Hi James, so you’re moving on, wishing you all the very best in Malaysia. It was so lovely to hear that northern accent on our first parent teacher conference with you at YIS, remember us, the ones from “Barnsley”! You were from Donny as I recall. Small world, very small world! Take care all the best Angela (Ridge, mother of Annabel)

  2. Hi James your story was truly inspiring and moving, thank you for sharing so much about your life, you are truly a teachable teacher! 🙂 I wanted to ask you about ow you landed such a fine international teaching job? Who would I need to contact to get a job such as yours?

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