First month abroad: October

Our first month in Nagoya has been full of new food, words, sights, sounds and experiences.  Andrew is settling into his lab and adjusting to working in a place where English is not the dominant language and has been thankful for all the help that the English speaking people in his lab have given him.  I’ve started tutoring English, I only have 2 students at the moment, but it’s actually a good thing since getting settled (find grocery stores, getting a work permit, buying us transit passes, getting basic stuff for around the house, paying bills etc) has taken up a lot of my time.  Grocery shopping alone is an ordeal, being unable to read any packaging, or directions and trying to cook with ingredients that are foreign to me means that we initially ate a lot of stir fry!  But already after one month things seem much easier than when we first arrived.  If anything we are nervous about just how much we are falling in love with this place!

tiny bathroom with a square tub

Our apartment is small, but actually not as small as we had imagined.  Our bedroom/living room has a nice sliding door to the outside and the sun shines in making it nice a bright throughout the day.  Unfortunately just outside our door is a nursery, and a large one at that.  Screaming and crying children fill our room if our door is open from 7:30 am-8:00pm.  Luckily since the weather has cooled down it isn’t as crucial that we have the door open.

Our bathroom is about the size of a port-a-pottie, and the ‘stove/oven’ is comprised of 2 gas burners and a small drawer big enough to cook a max of 2 pieces of fish in.  But it is relatively quiet (with the door closed), it is clean and has  a good vibe about it.

the living room/bedroom

We have eaten so many new things since arriving (okonomyaki, miso katsu, tokoyaki and kishimen along with a bunch of other stuff that we have no idea what it was.)  I’ll write more and have pictures of food next time.

Staples that I am used cooking with were initially very difficult to find.  Brown bread, brown flour, brown or wild rice, rolled oats, quinoa etc are not available in most supermarkets.  Eating only white rice, white bread etc. caused a noticeable dip in our fibre intake!  Butter and cheese are uncommon (margarine is used way more), fresh fruit is quite expensive, frozen fruit is uncommon and peanut butter is ‘peanut spread’ that tastes like Reese’s Pieces filling.  Yuck.  Of course we knew food would be different here, but when we first arrived, navigating a supermarket to buy food for the next 2 days took me 3-4 hours just to have some weird collection of somewhat edible goods. Now I’m a bit better at using local/cheaper stuff, but what I’ve had to work with include things  like cabbage (so cheap!!), onions, burdock root, lotus root, bamboo shoots, japanese cucumbers, okra and potatoes, and my pantry includes things like ground sesame, dried fish flakes (really common), 4 different kinds of dried seaweed, fermented soy bean paste, 3 different (and apparently all necessary) kinds of rice vinegar and dashi (dried fish stock) to name a few.  The cooking situation is getting better all the time, but I can honestly say I have had a couple of epic meal failures that we were forced to choke down.

View from the roof of our apartment. Nagoya at dusk

Kazue, an assistant that works in Andrews lab as well as Ryoko (Andrews lab mates’ wife) have both helped us out a ton in getting stuff like bank accounts, cell phones, work permits etc worked out.  But spending time with them brings light to so many cultural differences and although both of them speak decent English, the language barrier can cause funny mix ups.  For example:

Culturally, I find there is a traditional expectation for men/women.  Kazue once asked me if I would have time to meet her since I might be busy “fulfilling my household duties to serve my husband”.  I tried not to openly gawk at her since I realized she was serious, but this isn’t just her own personal view, it has been reinforced to us in many different settlings.  I happened to come across this just this morning actually:

After going to Immigration to get my visa, Ryoko asked me how it went.  When I responded ‘Awful!’ (because it was incredibly hot, unairconditioned, and involved 3 hours waiting in a confined space with a man who threw a chair because he was frustrated), Ryoko immediately responded “Oh no!! Did you meet a dishonest person?!” I had to laugh because I wouldn’t have immediately assumed that this is what constitutes an awful experience, but when I thought about it my day definitely would have been a lot worse had a met a dishonest person.

Japanese does not translate well into English, the sentence structure is completely different and they are so unrelated that translations on signs, in pamphlets or on products can be really funny.  A couple that I’ve remembered for example:

On a can of tuna, the brand name is translated to : “Sea Chicken and Smile”
The tag line of a bag peas:  “Kasugai Peas and You”
We also buy tea called “Bendy stick”
Worst of all in the pamphlet we received on Earthquake safety and what to do in the event of an earthquake if you aren’t at home it reads: “Immediately put a bag over your head”.  I’m not sure what kind of mental image this draws up for you but I couldn’t help but question that this might not be the most productive course of action during an earthquake.

Furthermore, learning Japanese is very difficult.  There are 3 different scripts that they use to write in and knowing one is useless unless you know the other two.  Counting is different depending on what you are counting or using numbers for ( ie how you say the number 2 is different depending on what you are counting or if you are reporting the time), there is a normal way, a polite way and a super polite way to say everything.  For the word ‘please’ alone, we have learned 3 different words but they aren’t meant to be used interchangeably but for different instances.  It often feels like you learn one thing and then immediately learn something that contradicts what you just learnt.  It’s coming though and we are improving a little every day.  Ryoko helps me with my Japanese, although sometimes I’m not sure how productive our lessons are.  I ordered a chicken panini for lunch and asked her how I would ask for it in Japanese next time. She responded:

“Chikin pa-ni-ni onegaishimasu” (onegaishimasu is please).  That’s weird because I know there is another word for chicken.  Then I asked what if I orderd the curry and rice dish instead, how would I order that?

“Ku-ri Rei-su onegaishimasu”  Okay it basically sounds like English with a Japanese accent but ok!  Last I thought how do you specify ‘hot’ becasue they always ask me if i want my tea hot or iced.

“Hott-o”  Ok I give up.  If ever I don’t know a word I’ll just speak with  Japanese accent and hope they understand.

Some weird things we’ve noticed include there often being a ‘Disney’ option.  Like when we were getting our bank cards, they asked us if we wanted Disney or just a plain card.  No other options, just Disney.  Same with our cell phones, we could get the Disney cell phone or just the normal one.  It’s very strange.  Also toilets vary drastically! From the most basic  small porcelain covered hole you have to squat over, to a robot that senses your arrival and flips the lid up, plays music, has a heated seat, thoroughly cleans your butt, automatically flushes and deodorizes the room when you’re done.

We’ve hit most of the main attractions in Nagoya including Nagoya jo (the castle), Nagoya Jo - Nagoya, AichiTokugawa museum (home to many artifacts like samurai swords and armour from the Tokugawa period), we went to a Street Performers festival and saw Oiran (traditional courtesans from the Edo period) as well as Kin-Pun (crazy people basically naked and covered in gold dancing around and playing with fire).

Kin Pun

Kin pun getting ready


Part of the Street Performers Festival

While we were at the street performers festival Andrew was acting really weird and out of it.  When I asked him what was wrong he said: “Oh, I’m just realizing that we actually live here”.  I’ve had this same strange feeling every so often too, it’s finally settling in!

I went to the Noritake museum and learned all about the process of manufacturing bone china and how Noritake was one of the first companies to reach into foreign markets during the Meiji restoration (after 250 years or isolationist foreign policy in Japan), as well as we’ve gone mikan (what we know as Japanese Christmas oranges) and kiwi picking and we’ve also checked out some beautiful Japanese gardens.  I wanted to write a lot more detail about all these things but I realize this blog is getting very long.



Us at the Tokugawaen Japanese Garden

Tons of Koi Fish at the gardens

Shirotori Garden

In November we have a trip to that National Park near Nagoya to see one of the biggest Shinto shrines in Japan, as well as a trip to Kyoto with some of the international students here to see the fall colours which are supposed to epic in Kyoto.  That’s all for now!


3 thoughts on “First month abroad: October

  1. Oh my god Kelsey I love your blog. Its so neat to hear about your experience. You should really share this with Jason too. He told me similar stories about grocery shopping. I really enjoyed what your friend said to you about being busy with your household duties to fufill your husband hahhaha. I would have had the same reaction. “excuse me what? Fufill my husband?”. I also liked the advice to put a paper bag on your head in case of an earthquake. Hahha oh man. Keep bloggin. I love it. Miss you guys!!

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