Postcards from Japan: Life in Tohoku, Youtube stardom and taking lockdown one day at a time with Chris Broad // Abroad in Japan

Like many people, Chris Broad's reason for coming to Japan from the UK was to teach English and, like many people, he was placed in a very rural area of Japan. Indeed, like many people, what started as a standard placement developed into a deep love for Japan and especially its countryside, which in turn led Chris to start the Abroad in Japan Youtube channel, where he currently shares his experiences with 1.85million subscribers.

We asked Chris about his journey to Youtube stardom and his tips on how to make the most of a Japan trip.


Could you tell us a little about yourself?

My name’s Chris Broad and I’m a humble British filmmaker living in Japan, better known as the creator of Abroad in Japan, one of the largest foreign Youtube channels in Japan. There’s currently around 200 videos on the channel focussed on everything from travel and cuisine, to the language and cultural oddities aimed at making Japan accessible to the world.

 

You initially came to Japan as an English teacher, on the JET program, is that right? What was the reason behind becoming a Youtuber in Japan?

I arrived in rural Yamagata prefecture in 2012 where I worked as a teacher for 3 years, before transitioning to Youtube full time. While working at a high school, I would use my pockets of free time after work to script, shoot and edit videos chronicling my experiences in Japan, partly for friends and family
back home, but mainly as I was trying to put my filmmaking hobby to good use.

Living abroad for the first time was a big deal and everyday I was learning something new. The experiences I met were so often so wonderful and unexpected, that I felt like I had to film them. I had to share them!
Whether it was an arcade game where you flip a table over your family, the free towels I got every time I did banking or the reaction of my Japanese friend tasting British snacks for the first time in his life. Many of the moments were trivial looking back on them, but people around the world enjoyed having a window into Japan which hadn’t been possible until the birth of Youtube.

In many ways, I was also keen to create the Youtube channel I’d wanted to watch before I came to Japan. In the months (and years) I’d planned to move here and teach, there weren’t many channels showcasing Japan - particularly Tohoku and the north where I’d end up. It’s been deeply rewarding to resurrect my love of filmmaking and create the window into Japan I’d looked for all those years ago.

 

(Sendai during the annual Tanabata Festival)

We hear you are based in Sendai city in Miyagi prefecture. What in particular drew you to Sendai and how did you end up settling down there?

After finishing teaching in Yamagata, as much as I wanted to stay on Japan’s stunning west coast, it was too isolated unfortunately and I knew the time had come to try living in a large Japanese city with more possibilities.
For me, Tokyo was simply far too big and inescapable to live in, as someone who is instinctively drawn to the countryside and the mountains. But fortunately, 3 hours from Yamagata is the city of Sendai which has the best of both the city and the countryside.

Sendai has great connections to Tokyo by bullet train, low cost air travel to Osaka and Sapporo, and perfectly positioned in between the mountains and the Pacific coast. You can be sipping ice coffee in a skyscraper in the morning, and enjoy a plate of sushi while overlooking the sea all within an hour.

I’ve loved calling Sendai home for the past few years, though I’ll admit, I still consider Yamagata my spiritual Japanese home where many of my close friends still reside.

 

(Yamadera temple)

Can you give us any travel tips to Sendai for an authentic Japan trip?

Matsushima Bay is a must as one of the three traditional scenic sights of Japan; a bay glistening with hundreds of tiny islands and famous for Oysters. Just behind the waterfront there’s a stunning garden at the Entsuin Temple complete with a bamboo forest. If you’re looking to stay in a Ryokan (traditional inn), there are some fantastic resorts overlooking the bay as well.

Akiu Hot Springs is a wonderful hot spring town 20 minutes outside of Sendai in the mountains, which is a fantastic place to relax and unwind.

Yamadera Temple - arguably one of Tohoku’s most picturesque temples - is a simple hour long train ride from Sendai station and a short climb up a mountain. But the view in Autumn or during the snows of winter are nothing short of magical.

As for downtown Sendai, the real action when it comes to nightlife and dining out is in the Kokubuncho area. It’s Tohoku’s answer to Tokyo’s Kabukicho district. Head there for dinner, drinks and karaoke!

 

(Cycle superhighways across the Seto Inland Sea)

Over the years, you have filmed many areas of Japan as a YouTuber. If you had to choose, where would be your top 3 places to visit (other than Sendai) and why?

The Setouchi inland sea is a region of unparalleled beauty and many folks don’t even know about it! You can cycle across a chain of islands over the course of a day, through sleepy fishing towns and white sandy beaches, against the backdrop of a sprawling sea and a thousand islands. The cycle route is called the Shimanami Kaido and I’ve yet to meet a traveller who’s embarked on it and not referred to it as the highlight of their trip to Japan!

Osaka is perhaps my favourite Japanese megacity; far grittier and more intense than Tokyo, the people are very easy to talk to and willing to chat with strangers. I’ve never been on a trip to Osaka and not met an interesting character along the way, against the backdrop of the neon lit nightlife and the best food the country has to offer. There’s a reason it’s regarded as “Japan’s Kitchen” and the Takoyaki, Okonomiyaki and Kushikatsu certainly lives up to the reputation.

Finally, Aomori on the northern tip of Honshu always seems to reel me back in. If it’s not Japan’s largest morning market in Hachinohe, or the best cider in the country in Hirosaki (Aomori is famous for its apples), then the fresh seafood and beautiful scenery around Lake Towada or the Shimokita Peninsula call me back year after year. Though be advised, in winter the region has some of the highest snowfall on the planet! Great for skiing but undeniably treacherous at times.

 

(Mt Aso surrounds)

Do you have any tips to share for those who are looking to capture beautiful Japanese landscapes on film? 

Get yourself to Kyushu!
Two of the most impressive scenic views I’ve seen in Japan have been around the islands seismically charged landscape. Firstly, overlooking the Aso Caldera - a super-volcano - which gives the impression of a huge meteor crater. I’ve never seen anything like it, but the best view is from the Daikanbo viewing point, 936m above the caldera. I promise you, it’ll take your breath away.

And equally as impressive is Sakurajima - the highly active volcano - in the bay of Kagoshima city. It’s such a surreal sight, to see a smoking volcano from the shores of a bustling city. Both beautiful and undeniably ominous.

 

You have more than 1.8M YouTube subscribers and are very successful for what you do. What would be your next move/goals?

In many ways, though there’s around 200 videos on the Abroad in Japan channel, I feel like I’m just getting started as a filmmaker. Every video I make these days, I look for ways to “level-up” my skillset and grow as a filmmaker while continuing to share Japan with the world. Maybe it’s become a better cinematographer to help tell a powerful story better, such as in a documentary about the Tsunami earlier this year, or learning how to pilot a drone in order to do the countryside justice in a way that you simply can’t do on the ground. There’s always opportunities to keep learning and pushing yourself as a filmmaker.

The next level for me is to start producing short films set in Japan and this year, after simply talking about doing it for 3 or 4 years, I’m finally planning to shoot my first short before the year is out. Fingers crossed!

 

Any unexpected funny incidents or stories you've had while filming in Japan?

A couple of years ago I undertook a cycle across Japan for two months. Three days in, a mysterious woman who was stopped at the side of a remote country road hailed me over and I stopped believing she needed help with her car.
However, in fact she’d spotted me - a random foreigner - cycling down the road and pulled over ahead of me with the intention of inviting me back to her house for some sort of vague lunch involving cakes.

At first I suspected she was just a friendly woman - after all, it’s rare to be pulled over by a stranger in this way in north Japan! But as she withdrew her phone and showed me photos of various bemused and confused foreigners in a room, that she’d previously successfully lured in, I reached the conclusion that she was in fact a member of a religious sect who was trying to convert me in some way.
It sounds farfetched, but I recalled this sort of thing had happened before a few years ago and the fact she was adamant I join her and “her friends” for a gathering sealed the deal.
After about ten minutes of saying I definitely couldn’t go, she finally relented and handed me some custard cream biscuits before I set off once again on my journey.

I’ve always wondered what would have happened had I said yes and joined her group on that fateful afternoon!

 

This month we’re looking at the Japanese word ‘Komorebi 木漏れ日’. As it means sunlight coming through the trees, or an obstruction making it easier to appreciate something ordinary, can you tell us if there has been anything you've been able to re-appreciate since Covid-19 hit?

I certainly appreciate travel all the more now that I’ve not been able to do it for almost 6 months. I try to count every day as though it’s a separate life and appreciate my surroundings in a way I didn’t before; I’ve started to notice shops and shrines down roads I’d walked down a hundred times but never looked up. It’s a reminder not to take your everyday life for granted as you never know what’s around the corner.

I also lost weight by not eating out for a few months. That was a glorious bonus.
 

Thanks for joining us, Chris!

You can check out all of Chris's youtube content here, and have a listen to his Japan Travel podcast here.

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