Black Women Thrive: Interview with English Teacher Melissa Da Costa

Da Costa (left) at the summit of Mt. Fuji with friends.
Without a doubt, Fujisan (富士山)or Mount Fuji is the most salient symbol of Japan. It dominates a large area of Honshu, the nation's "Main Island", and at 12,888 ft (3,776 m) it is the highest point in the country. Unsurprisingly, the majestic mountain was designated a UNESCO Worth Heritage Site in 2013.

Many dream of climbing Mt. Fuji and reaching its summit, and the Japanese believe reaching the top of Fujisan will bring the climber good luck. But despite the sacred nature of the climb and its popularity, Melissa Da Costa, an expat English teacher in Japan, wasn't that interested in the climb, "It was never something that I considered doing."

Nevertheless, she went on the trip to Fuji, and despite the difficulties on the way, made it to the top.

The climb to the summit of Mt. Fuji is just one of many adventures Da Costa has experienced since moving from the UK to Japan. She come to Japan in 2013 since she was interested in the culture. Like many, her introduction to Japan came through anime; however, her interests eventually began to revolve around Japanese history rather than pop culture. 

The majestic Fujisan with vibrant flowers.
"I like my [H]istory; I've been to various sites in Japan and do like my castles...Nagoya Castle was pretty nice."

After visiting the blogs of people who have taught English abroad, Da Costa decided relocate to Japan and do the same. She is currently based in the small city of Odawara, yet previously lived in Hiroshima.

"My favorite city will always be Hiroshima. I lived there for one year. I like that [al]though it was a city, it wasn't crazy like Tokyo. It's a kind of charming place and if I could go back I would."

During her Hiroshima days, she used to travel to a different prefecture nearly every month. So far, she's been to several places in Kyushu (i.e., Kagoshima, Oita, Fukuoka) and Chugoku (i.e., Yamaguchi, Okayama).

"I realise that I've travelled to more places in Japan than I have in England," Da Costa says.

Other climbers making their way to the top.
Of course, one of her most salient memories was climbing to the top of Mount Fuji.

"I climbed Mount Fuji [in August]...it wasn't easy and my reasons for doing it weren't really to reach the top but to have the experience with some good friends."

Da Costa went on the climb with six friends during Obon, a national holiday in Japan which typically falls between August 8th and 16th. Naturally, the group thoroughly prepared before embarking on the climb; they spent two months exchanging information and purchasing necessities like oxygen cans, paracetamol (pain medication), and snacks to keep their energy levels high.

Most major mountains like Fuji have stations where climbers can rest. In just under seven hours, the group was able to pass the 8th station and reach their resting hut. However, altitude sickness began to affect some members of the group. Although she felt slightly lightheaded, Da Costa decided it would be best to rest for awhile in the hut, then leave in order to complete the climb as remaining in the shelter meant staying in an environment with reduced oxygen due to the 100 or so people resting there.

Silently matching the pace of a couple ahead of her, Da Costa passed the twin lions at the top of the mountain and reached the peak of Mt. Fuji shortly after 4:20 am. While the view at the summit was magical, on her blog, Da Costa cautions future climbers to do their research:
Da Costa's shot of the sunrise
at the mountaintop.

"I would definitely say do it if you have the desire or the will-power. You don't have to be fit but you do have to know yourself and take things at your own pace. Over-research if you can. Know that Mount Fuji is expensive—both the mountain itself and the preparation that goes with it. You must also take your [trash] with you as there is nowhere to throw away anything on the mountain."

Of course, most of Da Costa's days in Japan have been a little less eventful as she works most of the time.

"Daily life usually includes going to work, studying Japanese and failing miserably at trying to keep fit. I have weekends off which is a rarity for some Conversation-based English teachers so I try to do different things."

Learning Japanese has been an important activity for Da Costa, which she takes quite seriously.

"I go to a one-on-one class once a week and I started some online classes too (also one-on-one) to test the format. As it stands though, I'm not sure I like the format of the online...lessons so I might revert to group lessons online...I also have two language exchange partners who I talk to every week because my conversational ability is quite weak."

Recently, Da Costa was able to to pass the N5 (level one) version of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT). She used the textbook Minna no Nihongo to study in addition to JLPTStudy to memorize kanji, JapaneseTest4You to take mock exams, and the phone app Japanese (by Renzo) to learn character stroke order.

Da Costa (center) wearing yukata or
summer kimono with friends.
Overall, for Da Costa, life in Japan is certainly different from the usual in the UK. Although she feels comfortable in Japan, she misses the sense of convenience back home.

"In the UK, if I need to find out information about something, I can find a number [or] email and contact who I need to...with ease. In Japan, I can't do that. There are times when I get stuff in the mail that I don't completely understand...so I'm always asking people for help." 

She also cites the difficulties of forming meaningful friendships with locals.

"Most of my friends are other foreigners but my selection of Japanese friends is very small. I know ...various Japanese people but they either live too far away...or they tend to stay as online friendships and I want friends to hang out with as I do with my foreign friends. I don't even know anyone in my city and I've been here for nearly a year now."

Da Costa isn't sure if she'll be in Japan for the long-haul, but knows she's not ready to return to London.

"I might re-evaluate my situation when I hit my thirties but for now I'm happy as I am. I'm a teacher and a lot of people teach for the sake of it but I actually do enjoy it and I want to get better."

Melissa Da Costa (27) is a Psychology graduate with a variety of interests including people and relationships, anime/manga & video games, baking and personal development.

Personal blog: Brown Jem

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