Nanaimo (aka 7 Potatoes) from a foreign perspective: Particularly Japan.

I am from “The Island.” Born and raised. However, any of you who have talked to me for more than five or ten minutes will know that I spent four years living in Japan and continue to have a strong connection to the country due to friends, family, hobbies, fairly regular trips back and of course my rather strong involvement with Nanaimo’s Japanese Cultural Society: 7 Potatoes.

Let’s start with why I’m talking about potatoes. Did you do a double take there? If not, my guess is that you speak some Japanese. Part of why Nanaimo is such an exotic place to people from a certain corner of the world is that it has a funny name. In Japanese, “nana”  means “seven” and “imo” roughly translates as “potato” or “starchy root vegetable”. So from their perspective, our town is a pretty funny sounding place. So much so that a local once told me a story of him working in a gas station and seeing a car pull over but not opening the windows/doors or otherwise interacting with him. When he approached the car to offer his service, he saw a car load of Japanese people laughing to the point of being in tears and having to pull the car over for reasons of safety. When they caught their breath and  explained why, the experience clearly stuck with him enough to recount it to me many years later.

But here’s the thing, Nanaimo is actually pretty darn amazing from their perspective regardless of the name. I’ve travelled enough and met enough people from various corners of the country/continent/planet to know that what I’m about to describe is one part of a general theme. That theme being that we are so lucky to live here. I didn’t really understand that growing up, and the gradual discovery of this is one of the various factors that led to my career in real estate. It is after all easy to sell what you believe in.

It’s very hard to put the experience of living in another culture into words.  So let’s start with some images:


Ok, so I’m not much of a cameraman nor is my Japanese more than basic. But you can see the beginning of my point. As I allude to in the video, the greater Tokyo area has a population of about 35,000,000 people whereas all of Canada has about 34,000,000. Nanaimo’s greater population, that of the Regional District of Nanaimo is 138,631 but even that is trying to make Nanaimo look big considering the areas that includes as Nanaimo proper is about 87,000. Something I edited out of the video were my comments that it is in fact a totally clear day, it’s hard to see with the low resolution and all, but what you see on the horizon are not clouds that’s smog and it’s always that way over there. In Canada, we flip out about smog in Toronto or Vancouver because we can actually see it. Imagine never seeing the sky without it. Imagine only ever seeing as many stars as you can count on your fingers. Imagine a 90 minute commute on the “sardine express” being normal. Each way, every day… and you did lots of overtime this week, you have to come in Saturday, maybe Sunday and you get no overtime pay because you’re on a salary. All of this (and more I’m not getting into) is normal.

As I often say, Nanaimo is a nice balance point between city and nature. Within the confines of what is generally considered Nanaimo, one can go to anywhere to most anywhere else in 25 minutes or less. In fact, most of the time it’s more like 15-20 minutes. Nanaimo is big enough to have everything one needs to stay entertained and happy in their daily life but close enough to both ends of the nature/city spectrum for one to easily make a trip there. I mean, like within an hour. More on that here.  There really is a lot to say about this so please check out that link if you’re not already living in Nanaimo.

On my way back from Tokyo a couple of weeks ago, I was flying in one of the float planes that Harbour Air runs from the Vancouver airport to downtown Nanaimo and I saw:

…and even though the BC Ferries travelling the route between Nanaimo and Vancouver is something I have been seeing regularly for the majority of my life, as it is the lifeblood of our connection with the rest of Canada, it blew my mind. I was experiencing some reverse culture shock here. For you, see, I had just spent a few weeks at my other home where there are hundreds (thousands?) of train stations where during most of the day there are trains coming and going every couple of minutes or in some cases more than that as some stations have a dozen train platforms plus cars, subway, taxis, an awful lot of bicycls and even more people on foot. My guess is that there are more people on your average Tokyo train than on two of these ferries but Vancouver island is so much bigger than that area.

The very international social scene that one finds themselves in as a foreigner in Japan, and increasingly as a resident in Canada, is full of people from simply EVERYWHERE.  Those internationals who have been to my corner of the world always say the same thing. They tell me how beautiful it is and many of those people will say that we’re lucky to live there. Of course, one must tolerate the rain but life is very easy here compared to where most people live in the world. Most of us here worry about having to work some job we hate for very little pay whereas I have heard so many stories over the years from people who’ve lived elsewhere in the world where simple things like getting clean water and enough food or not getting shot at is the challenge. Those are the extremes, of course, but even those who are from the so called “first world” countries keep telling me how nice the location is and how relaxing and easy life is here.

In Canada, life is good enough for people to really care about the finer details of life and be able to share compassion rather than be in survival mode all the time. A lot of Canadians complain about relatively small things as there isn’t really a lot of big stuff to complain about but if there is one trait that we are proud of as a nation it is our capacity for compassion. Sure, we’re not perfect as a people and neither is our govenment, but really it’s pretty darn good here. And given the choice between a rainy winter and a really cold one I’ll take the rain every time.

I could write a lot about this but I think that going through the section of this blog called “Nanaimo Profile and Events”  in addition to the link above to my website will help the more curious readers get a better idea of where I am coming from.

Ryan Coffey