‘Moving’ to Japan was never part of our plan, so you could say that we were a little under-prepared upon arrival. Usually before such a big event, you would expect to do some research and planning – we didn’t. Despite having family from Japan, it has never been a country that attracted me greatly, meaning I also lacked general knowledge and background info. All we had to defend ourselves were simple phrases like ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’, so there was a lot to learn!
Here are some of the things we have learned during our first month in Japan.
• Japanese is hard
Ok, we knew this already so it hasn’t come as a complete shock. However trying to learn a language with a totally different writing system truly is a challenge – we have had to come up with new ways to practice and memorize our lessons. What do you go for; romaji, hiragana, katakana, or kanji? We are quite secluded here in the Iya Valley, so despite being in Japan, we are barely learning through immersion. This will be an ongoing challenge throughout our stay. Our aim is to be able to hold a decent conversation with our neighbours before we leave! (Currently at the one-word-only stage.)
• Sugar or salt? – Shopping in Japan
Not really something we had thought about prior to our arrival! The first time we food shopped we were accompanied by someone who actually knew what was what, which made the experience enjoyable and exciting (also helped that we weren’t paying). We pointed at this and that, and had all these strange items explained to us as we browsed. Fast forward ten days and it is time for us to go it alone. We need some staples – but how the hell do you tell sugar from salt? Vegetable oil from mirin? Add to that the fact that you are still working out the exchange rate and a simple shop quickly becomes a frustrating experience. We now know to google the kanji (Japanese character) before we go, or to ask friends in advance.
It is still fun to buy a few unknown items every time!
• Traditions, customs, and etiquette
There are so many! We have picked lots up quite quickly – partly from research, but also from friends and neighbours. As foreigners, I think we are given quite a bit of leeway, but we want to learn and respect the Japanese culture so we try to pay special attention to the correct way of doing things.
There are rules to respect when visiting a temple or shrine, or when going to an onsen (Japanese shared baths). There are strict ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’ on how to use chopsticks. For example, you shoudn’t pass food chopstick to chopstick as this is something done at funeral ceremonies with the bones of the cremated. It is ok to feed someone else from your chopsticks, or simply place the food item on their plate for them to then pick up themselves. Another taboo is to stick your chopsticks upright in your rice bowl.
See, these are things we would not have known without research or being told – it is an ongoing learning process.
Another well respected custom is the giving of ‘omiyage’ – small gifts or souvenirs you bring back from trips for your neighbours, family, friends, and even coworkers. We spent a long time carefully choosing ‘omiyage’ during our trip to Kochi, but from the look on our neighbours’ faces, they would have been happy with almost anything! (We actually didn’t always even know what we were getting them!)
• PolitenessThe Japanese are a very polite people. I think we learned from day one that you cannot say ‘thank you’ too many times, and that ‘hai’ (yes) is the most useful word in our vocabulary. During a conversation, it is custom to repeat the word ‘hai’ to show that you are still listening! We will be listening, even if we are not understanding! Finally, we have erred on the side of caution and are learning the polite forms for everything (unless we learn a word from our friend Masao, in which case it is probably rude, or slang.)
• City slickers vs country folkOk, so we haven’t really spent much time in the city – we definitely fall into the ‘country folk’ category. I just wanted to point out – like in most countries – there is a distinct difference between the city dwellers and the farming community. We can spot the outsiders; visitors, tourists – predominantly from their clothing and their lack of confidence on the windy, mountain roads, but when we spent a day in Kochi (a large city by our standards!) I really noticed how differently people dress there. And makeup! And high heels!
• Food – a feast for the senses
Long story short, it is great – we love it. From the restaurants, to the snacks from 7/11. I won’t go into detail here and now, this post is long enough as it is!
• Beautiful sceneryI reiterate, I had never really considered Japan a ‘dream destination’, however it didn’t take me long to change my mind (helped by the fact that the Iya Valley is stunningly beautiful). The rolling hills give way to emerald mountains, the turquoise river cutting through the valley like a spectacular serpent. The beaches are tropical, the sunsets devine, the cityscapes awe-inspiring… it is not what I expected. I am certainly taken with the country from what I have seen so far, and really cannot wait to delve further into its depths.