So, my time in Koriyama, Fukushima, Japan is nearly up. I have one week left in my teeny room-and-a-corridor flat, and then I’m off on a two-week holiday. During that holiday, I’ve decided I’ll leave my computer safe with the rest of my luggage, and just take books and cards to entertain myself in the evenings.
Also, this morning, a big blue envelope popped through my letter box (onto the huge pile of spam that’s get posted through my door about 1 every 6 hours). Inside, I’m presuming, is the contract and instructor handbook for my next contract in Japan – starting on the 22nd of September. So, to sum up the timeline here:
18th July – leave flat for 2 and a half weeks of Japanese adventures
5th August – fly back to England
22nd September – fly back here again,
this time to work in the “Tokyo area”, though I’m given to understand that this doesn’t mean Tokyo, or even the Tokyo suburbs, but probably an hour’s train away in Chiba or Shizuoka.
For now, the envelope stays sealed. I’m reminiscing a bit, looking back, as I always seem to do just before I up-end myself and trek off somewhere else.
I’m reading a book by a British journalist about his time in Japan, called “How To Japan”, and he starts a chapter by lamenting how he didn’t make more notes about what he learnt and realised in his first 3 months here. In that spirit, here’s a long list of tiny occurences and things that have interested me.
The way you get food in restaurants. My first day in Japan, in Tokyo Central Station, we went to a little drinks-machine type thing outside a restaurant. Oh, I think, I’ll just get a drink in the restaurant instead. Nope, this is where you buy your meal – stick your money in, click the picture and/or kanji you like the look of, take ticket, go in, hand ticket to waiter behind the counter, he’ll bring you your food, go sit with it where you like.
The Shinkansen – if your reserved seat in on the lower deck… well, you get no view for the entire journey. There’s a wall that runs alongside the track the entire way. And it doesn’t feel or look that fast from inside.
The bath tub in my flat. The shower detachable from the wall, like it often is, but the place you attach it is outside the bath, so if you want a shower…. well, you’re doing it on the plastic floor in the sealed space of the tiny room. And the bathtub is very tall and very short. I can’t stretch my legs. This isn’t just Japanese smallness, though – only kids and tiny people could stretch out in here. I only found out last week that in Japan, you’re supposed to wash yourself down and clean yourself off completely BEFORE you get into a full bath – to soak. Then, when you finish, you leave the bathwater for the next family member down in the pecking order. Living alone, I don’t have that problem.
That Japanese people can’t work out the tiny mistakes you make in Japanese speech. I’m talking to a friend who knows my Japanese is basic. She asks a question, and I answer ie. She looks thoroughly puzzled. We work out that when I meant to say iie, which means no, what I actually said was a word that stands for the traditional Japanese household. What baffled me was that she couldn’t really work out what I meant to say for about a minute. Japanese people really are not used to foreigners speaking their language. On the same note, if she says Satomi desu (I’m Satomi), that’s fine, but if I say Matt desu or even Matto, Mashu, anything like that, they’ll look confused. Because Matt isn’t a Japanese name, they’ll wonder what language I’m speaking. So I have to say watashi wa Matt desu, so they realise what I’m on about.
All the bikes look exactly the same. Must all be made by the same company. OK, you think. Yeah, but little 8 year olds ride these adult bikes, their bums to one side of the seat to reach the pedals.
Karaoke – tiny little dark chambers, echoey microphones, expensive food. Still fun, because I love singing, but you have to bring your own enthusiasm and energy to these depressing little places.
Japanese food isn’t all delicious. This is the one that shocks my friends at home who all ask “How’s the food?” their mouths watering at the mere thought of it. The Japanese eat all the parts of animals, so grisly chicken leg muscles that crunch in your mouth aren’t unusual. As well as some of the most revolting fish and fish-like seafood. It’s not that they don’t have the good fish too, it’s just that they don’t leave out the horrible ones.
The hole-in-the-floor loos. Surprised me. You hear so much about the super tech loos (which, by the way, are still heated seats even in the blazing sweat of summer – why??), that you don’t expect French campsite-like porcelain pits.
Foods that Japanese people don’t realise weren’t Japanese. “Oh, you have beef in England?” was one, and similarly, “Oh, you have bread/cheese/milk?” Admittedly, Japanese bread is different – not as nice, usually much doughier, thicker, chewier, and as often as not, filled with jam or bean paste. Also, national pride is all very well and good – really, it is, and they have many excellent things to be proud of – but don’t come up to me and try to insist that Japanese potatoes and Japanese pizzas are better than European ones. I know I’m supposed to be polite to you, but I’m not going to lie here.
Women are second class citizens. And by and large seem to like it. A 40-year-old female friend wouldn’t let me pour my own drink and insisted on pouring it herself, saying, “It wouldn’t be right to let you do it.” With about 4 exceptions, my students’ mothers are housewives. Girls I teach say “I don’t mind how my future husband looks, as long as he is rich enough to support me.” And gay people don’t exist (except maybe a few in Tokyo). I quote them that (possibly) urban myth about 1 in 10 people being gay. “Oh,” they say, surprised. “Oh, well, that’s Europeans.” I go along with it: “So, in Japan, it’s one in 20?” “No, no, less,” they say.
I’m sure there’s hundreds more strange little bits, and if I think of them, I’ll put them here. Because I like the idea of setting all these “exotic” things down on the page. If I stay in Japan, it’ll become more and more ordinary to me, and the things that shocked me when I arrived become understandable, accepted.
And now, I suppose I should turn to that contract on the table behind me and give it a good old read. If you don’t hear from me before the 19th, I’m exploring, and I’ll be back in August.