I never do this. Luring you to read posts with a title like that, which will have nothing to do with the body. So I am sorry (or perhaps not) if you expected the tale of an exotic African girl meeting her Samurai prince and having a happily ever after beautiful family of biracial babies. (Although they make very beautiful people, just check out the Google search and don’t ask me any questions like why was I googling that?)
How is Japan?
Well, that was the original title of the post. My friends & acquaintances, my internet friends & acquaintances, my family; all ask, how is Japan? This is such a big question requiring an encyclopedia to answer comprehensively, but I almost always say, Japan is good. And it is good. But oh, so very different.
The food is the first strange thing that you will encounter. No, sushi is not an everyday meal here, so even if I had tasted sushi at the Japanese embassy, I was in no way prepared for the food here. I had arrived at my hotel after midnight, and that night I had a snack I had carried from the plane with a can of Cocacola from the vending machine. (don’t throw away your snacks if you can’t eat them on the plane, you might need them if you’re travelling to an unfamiliar place and don’t know how to ask, “レストラン は どこ ですか”）-
Sorry but have to practice my Japanese. Google guys. ]
I signed up for buffet breakfast and when I entered the dining room the following morning, I had a wide choice of nothing familiar to choose from. The boiled eggs had not been boiled but dunked in warm water so they were still very very runny. The tiny sausages were halfway done (do you say rare) so they tasted raw. I couldn’t try the rice because I don’t usually have rice for breakfast. There were several dishes that looked dark and suspicious. Tofu was faintly tasteless. The omelette was also “rarely” done. About the only thing I could have was coffee and a piece of bread.
Later, after the International Students Opening Ceremony at the campus, our sensei took our group of 5 for lunch at the school cafeteria. She said, pick anything you want, I will pay. So I picked a number of small bowls haha.. only now do I realize that a typical Japanese meal (lunch/supper) consists of:
- a variety of side dishes to choose from (your veges and salad will be here in small bowls)
- one main protein dish (usually chicken/pork/beef/fish coated in some flour and fried or cooked another way). But the underlying taste & smell in all of them is fish, I taste it in everything, even the rice. Maybe not the rice.
- (miso) soup
- and of course, rice!
Below is my lunch tray in recent times (more pictures of food on my Instagram):
So rice is had for breakfast, lunch and supper. And you would think it’s your tasty basmatti rice, or Pakistani rice, or Mwea Pishori, or biryani rice, or those tasty aromatic ones… but no! It’s plain, saltless and tasteless. I guess that is how our ugali must taste to them. Oh ugali, how I miss thee.
Later as we ate, I asked our sensei why they were serving their food in a million small bowls. She said the Japanese don’t want the tastes of the dishes to mix hence they have them in several bowls. While my entire life, I have spent it mixing my tastes. I want my rice, my meat, my soup, my vegetables all in one plate, thank you! The mixed tastes produce a new taste that buoys the culinary exercise to sensational heaven. I want my starter, main dish and dessert all on one giant plate.
Let’s not forget they eat with chopsticks. I am now dextrous in my handling of chopsticks, I am finding it easier to eat noodles with chopsticks than with a fork. Maybe I should have tried a hand at surgery, hmmm.
I should probably start cooking. But I am lazy; I haven’t bought the crockery and cutlery needed to do the cooking, and I have no idea where to source fresh ingredients from, perhaps I can just try buying them from AEON, the Nakumatt of Japan (and East Asia?).
This post is turning out to be all about food, but I don’t know what is more basic to man than food. Even emotional needs come second. However, I have now kind of adjusted to the food but more tales to come as I sample more and more raw food. Octopus, you are next.
There is not much of the culture shock though. When I am in the campus, it’s the same as any other campus in Kenya. Okay maybe not like most public unis but Strathmore is surely world class. Automated doors are the norm everywhere in Japan. They also like sliding doors in apartments, the doors separate rooms from each other or you can open them to create one big room.
Are they racists, you are wondering? No.
Sure, they are reserved and don’t talk much, and especially not in English. But they are very friendly once you get past the shyness. The first night, as I squinted at the map of my hotel showing directions from the station (it was 500 meters from the station), I realized I couldn’t even tell my right from my left. There was a Japanese girl who was also heading to her hotel so I asked her for directions. She checked the address on Google maps on her phone and took me there. In school, there is this girl who has been helping us open bank accounts and such other things that require a detailed knowledge of Japanese to understand the intricacies in the terms and conditions.
Supermarkets attendants will gladly show you the aisle you are looking for, if you know the name of the item in Japanese! People will sit next to you on the bus. Old women at bus stops will chat you up in Japanese as you nod and say, hai.. hai (yes, yes).
Suited men in cars might stare leeringly, happened once, don’t mean to propagate the stereotype of the perverted Japanese businessman. Waiters and waitresses will not ignore you or serve you last. The City Hall gave us international students a Student Pass that gives us free entrance to tourist sites and destinations in Ishikawa Prefecture (province). The Japanese have been very welcoming. As long as you are here legally of course, and have signed a number of forms. bureaucracy is everywhere.
In the end, people are people everywhere. Underneath that rainbow of skin colours, we are individuals who are moody, happy, extroverts, introverts, generous, mean etc. Whether you are Japanese or Kenyan is irrelevant when I start interacting with you as person.
They also don’t say hi with hugs or handshakes. A bow will do. Below are the detailed instructions of how to bow as you say Konnichiwa. The lower the bow the more you respect the person.
However, we are at a university. Moreover, we are foreigners. So no one will get offended if your bow is not exactly 45 degrees from the point of origin (I still remember my maths) or that for a woman, your hands are not clasped at the front. Men keep their hands by their sides.
At the Supermarket
Well, it is a supermarket like any other, we have supermarkets in Kenya you know. The only difference, as is the difference everywhere else except the university, language. Everything is in Japanese. To shop for things, you have to look at pictures because even the little Japanese we have learned can’t help us. We have learned 9 basic Kanji characters; to read a regular Japanese text you need at least 2,000 characters. It’s a long journey that started with a single step back when… digressing.
They do a lot of sampling of food at the supermarket. Lots of food to sample so you can buy the product. If you want plastic bags for your packaging, you pay for it.
Even at tourist centers, you would be lucky to find someone who speaks English. The booklets we were given of the tourist spots: all in Japanese, sigh. But I am enjoying learning a new language and I love Kanji, for some reason.
The buses, like the trains, all run on a schedule. While we are still “experimenting” with NFC payments (tap to pay, rather than swipe) with the cards such as the Equity ones, here most payments at the bus, campus cafeteria & bookshop are NFC. You tap to enter the bus and it deducts the required amount when you exit having calculated your distance. If you don’t have a card, you drop your fare into a coin eating machine. But fare is very expensive, a distance of 20-50 bob in Kenya you will pay about 200. And there is no bargaining.
What else is different .. ah, tissue. You open a bank account and it comes with a pack of pocket tissues. Someone is giving you a poster announcing an event, the give you the poster +tissue. Old people asking you to join an organ donation organization, here have some pocket tissues please. See last Saturday, we went to downtown Kanazawa (which is the capital of Ishikawa Prefecture) to see the sights. That trip is probably the topic of the next post so don’t be lured by whatever title I give it.
Now, as we waited for the bus, there were many old people in yellow t-shirts giving out pocket tissues, sweets and a poster written in Japanese, of course. However, there was a link to the website (yeah websites have Roman alphabet addresses if you are wondering) and it said something about organ donation. Nevertheless, I haven’t checked it out yet, but I am open to the idea of organ donation. Once I die, not while I am still breathing!
Which brings me to the other thing that is different. I know they say that Japan is full of old people, but you have to see it to see what they mean. Old people, very old people, and very very old people are here, but they are not indoors. They walk about, they take buses on their own, sometimes they will have a walker to assist them but they are independent. They shop, they go to the park etc. To be sure, I saw about half as many old people as I saw the middle aged, young and children.
In Kenya, very old people will appear in the news just having made it to that age of say, 90+. It’s an exception in a country where life expectancy is 61. A 61 year old Japanese is a youth with 40 or more years left to enjoy!
I am definitely liking it here, but of course I miss my loved ones. The loneliness creeps upon you in the evening as you watch YouTube clips and surf endlessly so the night is shorter. But I came to the realization that if I keep on sulking it won’t even matter because I am already here and need to make the best of it! I need to enjoy Japan and all it has to offer.
More to come. (Subscribe link is somewhere at the top right on desktop and somewhere below the post on mobile).