Your Japanese is very good!

Yesterday I was sitting at a cafe, enjoying a coffee and a book while waiting for my next appointment. The tables were placed close together, and the seating was booth style. The cafe was pretty busy, and a couple of older Japanese women sat down at the table next to me. I felt that my coat and purse, which I had placed beside me, were kind of invading their space so I quickly moved them out of the way. The woman sitting down next to me apologized, “Sumimasen! Sumimasen!” (sorry! sorry!) so I smiled and shook my head “iie, iie” (not at all, not at all). I went back to my book, but the woman looked at me with a guilty expression and then exclaimed “Nihongo ga jouzu desu ne!” (Your Japanese is very good!) I hadn’t really spoken!

It made me chuckle, because “Nihongo ga jouzu desu ne” is one of the phrases that foreigners in Japan hear all. the. time. It doesn’t matter if you can barely say hello, Japanese people will gush over your linguistic ability, as you smile dumbly or, in my case, stare at them as if they are insane. This probably doesn’t make me many friends. But in this situation, it became so clear to me how things can get so lost in translation and how the behaviors I find particularly annoying often have a harmless intention. It doesn’t make them any less annoying, but it helps me take it less personally. It was obvious to both of us that this woman wasn’t really complimenting my Japanese. She was just trying to say something to make the interaction more positive. And honestly she made such a big deal out of me moving my coat to another chair that I couldn’t really feel annoyed. It was so ridiculous it became endearing.

All that’s really required in these interactions is to reply with the appropriate response, “mada mada desu” (it isn’t very good yet). This shows a proper sense of humility. And then when we’ve gotten the formalities out of the way, we can move on to actual conversation.

When explaining this to non-Japanese people, I usually liken it to the phrase “how are you” in English. “How are you,” usually doesn’t really mean “how are you?” A more literal translation might be something along the lines of “we are both humans in the same location and therefore it’s polite for me to acknowledge your existence.” Some people feel that “how are you” as a greeting is insincere, and they have a point, but do you honestly really want to hear the intricate details of another person’s emotions every time you greet them? I suppose we could all just say “hello” and leave it at that.

Every time I teach the phrase “how are you” to my students, they always reply with “I’m happy!” or “I’m sleepy,” or “I’m hungry.” It takes them a while to learn (and it takes me a while to teach) that “how are you” is just a set phrase. “How are you?” “I’m fine, and you?” “Fine thanks.” The end. To say, “I’m hungry,” is kind of weird. I did exactly the same thing in Thailand. The staff at my school would always ask, “gin khao reu yan?” (have you eaten yet?). And I would get confused and answer honestly, and then they would look at me with a funny expression. Because “have you eaten yet,” was just a greeting. They weren’t actually asking me about my eating habits. This is how you end up looking silly in a foreign country.

Japanese has a lot of these kinds of filler expressions. If taken at face value, they seem really strange. I remember early on a colleague telling me (in Japanese), “it’s getting cooler, isn’t it?” I was in a t-shirt, and I didn’t know whether they were telling me to put on a jacket? It really wasn’t that cold. But the point wasn’t the actual state of the weather. It was fall, and in fall you start conversations with “it’s getting cooler, isn’t it?” just like in summer you start conversations with “it’s hot, isn’t it?” Now I realize that they were just trying to be friendly, but at the time it was just confusing. And this is where a good deal of the initial barriers between me and colleagues came from. They were trying to be nice, but I didn’t realize it and I didn’t know how to respond.

Which brings me back to nihongo ga jouzu desu ne. I think the reason this expression and its close relative “Can you use chopsticks?” feel a bit offensive is that, under an innocent guise, they ever so slyly point out your foreignness. It is one of the many ways that foreigners in Japan are reminded, day in and day out, that they do not and never will really belong in this country. I think nine times out of ten, Japanese people are simply drawing from the list of questions they feel they can ask foreigners. But when you have lived here for over a year and eat your lunch with chopsticks almost every day and study Japanese for hours every day (yet still feel like you can barely communicate) it starts to feel insulting.

At a recent school function, I was sitting next to a staff member and as we were enjoying our food he looked over at me and said, “Can you use chopsticks?” This man had seen me eating with chopsticks in the staff room. We had dined together before. I’m pretty sure he had already asked me this question at least once. And it’s moments like this that make me feel like people here aren’t really interested in getting to know me at all. And in a way, I can’t blame them. They have their own lives, and I’m just a blip on their radar. Here today, gone tomorrow kind of thing. But it still stings when you’ve invested so much time and energy into a community and yet feel that at the end of the day, you are just another foreign face.

So, even though I try not to get offended by questions like “can you use chopsticks?” because I know there’s no ill intent behind them, I think they reveal a deeper reality: that in Japan there is a deep psychological divide between what is Japanese and what is foreign. Japan is not a land of immigrants, and Japanese culture has a long and rich history. Foreigners in Japan are required to perform a strange balancing act between appreciating their host culture, while realizing that they will never be fully accepted by it. Foreigners who do well here make their peace with this and, in some ways, embrace it. There are certain freedoms attached to being a gaijin, an “outside person.” Not much is expected of us, this fact is often a blessing in disguise. Make a social blunder? You’re a foreigner. Don’t want to participate in that “obligatory” event? You’re a foreigner. Don’t want to work unpaid overtime? You’re a foreigner. You may get asked the same five questions over and over, but there are benefits to being an outside person, as long as you’re comfortable on the outside.

7 Questions I’ve been asked by students

I’ve been meaning to post a new entry for some time now, but a lot of the topics I want to write about concern deeper, complex cultural-related issues. It takes me a while to write those posts. But in the meantime, I thought I would make a short entry about the types of questions I have been asked by students while giving my self-introduction.

A self-introduction, or jikoshoukai, is a pretty standard practice in Japan. Not only in classrooms, but also in clubs and other activities, it is common to give a short speech about yourself so that the other people can get to know something about you. As an Assistant Language Teacher, I’ve had to give mine many times, but luckily I get to do it in English. I just had a new round of self-introductions this month (if you’re wondering why I’m doing them in October, it has to do with my schedule and it’s complicated) so I thought I’d write about some of the funny things my students ask.

At the end of my self-introduction, I generally have question and answer time. The students are usually pretty curious about me and it gives them a chance to interact with me more. However, it does involve some risk! You never know what they might say… Luckily, my students are generally pretty polite but that doesn’t prevent the occasional odd question. Here are some examples.

1. How old are you? This is a pretty common question in Japan. In America, it’s generally rude to ask or talk about someone’s age. In Japan, it’s essential information. Because Japanese culture is so hierarchical, an age difference of even one year can change the dynamics of a relationship. Japanese has special verbs and grammar forms built into the language in order to show respect to those who are older or in higher status positions to you. I remember going out to eat with a few of my colleagues last year and they all found a way to casually mention their ages during the conversation! I’ve gotten pretty used to answering this question by now. It’s never really bothered me, but it is something that took some getting used to.

2. How tall are you? I always get asked this! I don’t know why. And because Japan uses the metric system I always have to remember the answer in centimeters and I never can. This always turns into an explanation about how the US doesn’t use the metric system which is pretty difficult to explain and generally causes a lot of confusion.

3. What is your blood type? Ok, I actually haven’t been asked this during my self-introduction but it is a question I’ve gotten a couple of times. For Japanese people, blood types are like those personality sorting tests we take in the US. (INFP!) Apparently most (all?) Japanese people know their blood type. There’s an article about it on Gaijinpot and another on JapanToday.

4. Are you married/do you have a boyfriend? When I first started teaching English in the US, this was my least favorite question. Generally the intention behind it is innocent, but I’ve always been the type that considers my personal life to be, wait for it, personal. But I’ve gotten pretty used to it by now and just answer honestly and try to refrain from making jokes about how I will die alone with hundreds of cats.

5. What do you like about Japan? This one can be more difficult to answer than you’d think. If you’re a tourist you can say things like “the food” or “Mt. Fuji” or “Kyoto,” but when you live here it becomes more of a fraught question. Imagine row upon row of fresh faced, eager young students beaming at you in expectation of what praise you might impart on their country. I usually talk about things like the language and the history and how interesting it is because it’s so different from America. All of which are true.

6. What is your motto? I never know how to answer this one. They generally want some English phrase or proverb. “Mine is, ‘Time is money,'” one student told me. After responding like a deer in the headlights a couple of times, I’ve tried to come up with some catchy English sayings that might do the trick but I still have a difficult time knowing what to say.

7. (In my case) Were you born with gold hair? The Japanese for “blonde” is kinpatsu, or “golden hair.” My hair is a constant point of interest among the population of Aomori. You have to understand that over 98% of Japan’s population is ethnic Japanese, and much of the remaining 1.5% is east Asian. Being white and having blond hair kind of makes you a unicorn (which is another great video about life in Japan by Rachel and Jun). So yes, people notice and people stare. But to be honest, it hasn’t been as bad as I expected it to be. Part of it is probably that my Japanese is not very good, so I don’t understand what people might be saying about me. Also I may just not be very observant. But I really don’t notice too many people acting out of the ordinary with me. Of course, that doesn’t mean I don’t feel the difference.

So there you go, some of the random questions I have to field about myself. I’ve found that teaching English forces you to become very comfortable with yourself as students will notice and want to know everything about you. Have a physical peculiarity or weird mannerism? I guarantee that you are going to hear about it. Students notice everything: the clothes you wear (down to your socks), your makeup or lack thereof, your laugh, your gestures, everything. It can be awkward to have this mirror of yourself reflected back at you all the time, but as I said, you get used to it and in some ways the self-awareness can be helpful. I’ve become a much better public speaker and much more confident since I started teaching. And I’ve also learned how to not give a damn concerning what people think of me.

Bless You

It started out innocently enough. One of the teachers in the teacher’s room sneezed and without thinking I responded with “Bless you!” And then everyone stared at me.

Saying “Bless you” or its equivalent in another language after someone sneezes is, it would seem, a very Western habit. Japanese people don’t say anything after someone sneezes. So my automatic response generated more than a little curiosity among my colleagues. I realized that I had done something strange and foreign and probably I could have stopped it there, but I didn’t.

You see, in the first few weeks, even months, of my time at work I felt very disconnected from the people around me. As I’ve mentioned, not many of the other teachers speak English and those that do are pretty shy about starting conversations. Plus everyone is just super busy at my school. I’m the only person who doesn’t speak Japanese so I am the only person who is left out of all of the small talk and inside jokes that occasionally get thrown around.

Furthermore, Japanese culture just doesn’t come across as very welcoming, or at least it didn’t to me as a newly arrived American expat. It’s kind of an American thing to smile at people as a greeting. My Japanese colleagues would nod their heads at me if we met in the hall, but that was about it. I know it wasn’t intentional, but in a way it seemed very cold. I started to wonder, do they even want me here?

So I started trying to connect in whatever small ways I could. I smiled a lot. I mimicked the set phrases I heard around me. I bowed excessively. In retrospect, I know I looked and sounded ridiculous, but I was desperate to foster some sort of positive connection with the people at my new workplace. Saying “bless you” whenever somebody sneezed was one of the ways I tried to do that.

The thing is, the teachers have really gotten into it! At first they responded with genuine confusion, but I stuck to my guns. (I didn’t have many weapons in my arsenal.) After a little while, my colleagues started to respond with an embarrassed chuckle and the occasional sheepish “thank you.” After a few months, one teacher asked one of the English teachers to ask me why I kept doing it. Another teacher cornered me in the copy room and in simple Japanese/English asked me about my strange foreign habit. It was working!

One day, after someone had sneezed and I had performed my ritual, another teacher laughed and mimicked the conversation. “Bless you! Thank you!” Everyone laughed then. “I’ll train them yet!” I thought. For my next evil scheme was to see if I could get them to join in. What can I say? Work is slow sometimes.

I am pleased to announce that after half a year my experiment has been a success and I can usually hear at least one other teacher say “bless you” after a sneeze. At the beginning, I didn’t think it would become such a topic of interest but at least it broke the ice AND I fostered some authentic cultural exchange. So I can check that box on my job description. Now my question is, what can I get them to do next?


I’ve been diligently studying Japanese for several months now. Although I’ve made good progress, I still have such a long way to go. It’s really good for me though, as an English teacher, to see what my students are up against. It’s also helping me figure out what does and doesn’t work, at least for me, when learning language.

This weekend I was able to put some of my language learning to the test at what is unofficially called a “nomikaiwa.” It’s derived from “nomikai” or drinking party and “kaiwa” or conversation. Basically, it’s a language exchange where you go out and have a few beers and have the opportunity to talk with native speakers.

A local JET organization hosts nomikaiwas every few months in a nearby city, so it’s not very regular conversation practice, but it is a good opportunity to get out and meet some new people.

The city where these events are held is an hour away. Because the event was held around dinner time, I decided to eat out at a restaurant instead of making dinner at home. I hadn’t tried any new restaurants recently, so I chose an affordable-looking place that featured Japanese food and that was also conveniently empty of people, because I still have restaurant anxiety here.

When I entered, I wasn’t sure if I should order at the counter or if it was a sit-down place. The staff indicated that it was the latter, so I found a table in the corner and grabbed a menu. One of the things I really appreciate about Japanese restaurants is that the waiters don’t come until you signal to them that you are ready to order. It’s not like in American restaurants where your server checks in every five minutes while you try to decide what you want. Many restaurants are equipped with bells at the tables so all you have to do is push a button and your server will come. Convenient, neh?


As luck would have it, all of the menu items at this particular restaurant were written in kanji, so I had to resort to the point-and-grunt method of ordering. Because it’s still fairly cold outside, I chose something that looked like it would be warm and filling. However, I was a bit taken aback when the server brought my food and this is what arrived.


In case you can’t tell, that is an open flame under that bowl. I was  completely flabbergasted. (Flabbergasted is such a great word, I don’t think it gets used nearly often enough.) I knew I absolutely wasn’t going to be able to navigate this one without assistance and was SO thankful there were no other customers around to witness this (see why I still have restaurant anxiety?) Unfortunately, my waiter’s English level was at almost zero and my Japanese knowledge did not cover this sort of situation. So, with the assistance of a lot of miming, I asked how the heck I was supposed to eat this concoction.


The egg on the right particularly confused me. But the waiter “explained” that you are supposed to crack it into the bowl and then dip your meat in it. You eat out of the bowl in the middle, serving yourself from the flame-pot-thing. The rice is eaten separately. So I plunged in and congratulated myself when the first dinner customers arrived just as I was finishing my meal. Success!

After my meal I went to the pub where the nomikaiwa was being held. I recognized a few familiar faces from the last meeting, but also was able to mingle a bit more. The first half of the nomikaiwa was devoted to English practice, and I talked with three members of Japan’s self-defense force as well as a local English teacher. Then it came to be time to switch to Japanese. I found myself next to a first year medical student from around Tokyo who attends a local university here. I’m not sure how I did it, but I managed to flounder through half an hour of Japanese conversation. It helped that he was really patient and good at asking simple questions and correcting my Japanese. When I got it right, it felt kind of like magic, the fact that I was making all these foreign sounds and that he understood my meaning. I could understand why my students react the way they do when I understand their English. It was good motivation to keep on studying, because who knows how much more I’ll be able to communicate next time!

I had to leave early in order to catch the last train back to Aomori. I was slightly tipsy after a couple of beers, at least that’s how I’ll explain the fact that I got off the train one station too early. Since I was essentially stranded, I realized I would have to take a taxi for my first time in Japan. I went to the taxi terminal and in simple Japanese expressed (probably very rudely) where I’d like to go. It was way more expensive than I anticipated and I almost didn’t have enough cash to cover the fare. It was one of those moments where you just have to chalk it up to experience. The taxi driver was very kind and told me to take care when I arrived home, and I could understand him!

So it was an eventful night with a lot of firsts and extremely encouraging as far as my Japanese progress is concerned. I have been devoting a lot of time and energy to my Japanese study, so it’s nice to finally start seeing the fruits of my labor and it’s encouraging to know that what I’m doing is actually working a little bit. Sometimes I feel like my textbook knowledge can’t possibly translate to real life, but it has and I think with more practice my theoretical knowledge will transition to more authentic fluency. Here’s hoping.


Undoukai and Museum Visit

Today was my school’s undoukaior sports festival. Much like American schools have spirit week, Japanese schools have a sports festival or sports day where students take a break from studying and enjoy some friendly competition. For me and the other teachers, it was a nice change from the usual routine of classes and desk work.

After the required speeches from the principal and student body president, the entire school and all the teachers proceeded to participate in a warm-up exercise known as “radio taiso.” According to one of the teachers, this started out as a radio broadcast intended to benefit the nation’s health. Apparently all Japanese children learn these exercises, which was why the entire school was able to do them in perfect unison. It was pretty much exactly what appears in the video below, music included.


So yeah, the entire school did an abbreviated version of that while I stood around watching and feeling awkward. It was one of those moments that I have privately christened “Gaijin Moments.”  Gaijin is the Japanese word for foreigner. The more polite version is gaikokujin, but who has the time to say that? Some foreigners resent the word, but I’ve decided to embrace it. So whenever something happens that reminds me that I am the proverbial fish out of water, I just shrug my shoulders and think, “ah yes, another gaijin moment…” Gaijin moments can be situations like this one, where everyone else seems to have some sort of secret knowledge that I was never given, or they can be simple cultural blunders, which I am very prone to at this early stage of my cultural adjustment. Forget to put the money on the special tray when checking out at the cash register? Gaijin moment. Accidentally turn on the windshield wipers instead of the turn signal? Gaijin moment. Almost fall over while trying to change into your indoor shoes? Gaijin moment. Get lost while driving on these ridiculously tiny streets and execute a 15-point turn in a tiny dead-end alleyway while nearby concerned residents peer at you from their windows? Yep. Gaijin moment. Giving these usually small but often embarrassing mishaps this name has helped me not to worry when I’m feeling out of place. It’s a mental reminder that I am out of place and that it’s okay if I don’t know how to do everything, so I can forgive myself for looking silly or feeling awkward.

So the school performed their radio taiso while I watched and then the games began. The students were divided into six teams randomly. Most of the games they played were standard track-and-field style races and relays, but there were some other games I’d never seen before. One involved a sort of miniature basketball game where students tried to toss as many bean bags into a net as possible within a given amount of time. The one that most sticks out was a sort of competition where three boys supported a fourth on their shoulders. The boy on their shoulders had a long piece of paper strapped to his forehead. Several groups of boys doing this had to compete in a ring to try and take the other boys’ papers. It looked really dangerous, but I think it probably looked more dangerous than it actually was.

At the end of the day, the winners were announced and given prizes and the principal and vice principal gave a short speech. I enjoyed the day because it was nice outside and fun to watch the students. I was able to mingle with them a little bit more and while most of them are still very shy and nervous around me, I think I was able to show them that I’m not really that scary. It was also nice to be able to interact with my colleagues in a more relaxed environment. Japanese schools are much more formal than American schools (no surprises) and today was the first day I didn’t have to dress up and felt like I could be a little more gregarious than usual.

As far as cultural experiences go, the other big one this week was my visit to the Jomon archaeological site near the outskirts of the city. The Jomon were one of the first people groups to come to Japan, and some of the artifacts at the museum were in the 5,000 years old range, if not more!

Menu Illiteracy

Friday was payday (hurray! I am no longer destitute!) so I decided to celebrate by treating myself to a dinner out. I wanted to look for that ramen place I’d passed by on one of my first walks around the city, so I headed down the same street and hoped I would recognize it.

To my surprise, I was actually successful. I also managed to locate the cosmetics shop I had found before, but unfortunately it was closed. So I continued on and found the ramen place. However, it was choc-a-bloc with customers and I didn’t relish the idea of squeezing in that tiny space. So another rain check on the ramen, disappointingly.

However, I’d passed another restaurant on the way that I hadn’t noticed before. It had a sign advertising foods and prices and it looked affordable, so I decided to check it out on the way back. It advertised itself as “global” food which made me kind of nervous because thus far in my experience, Japanese versions of international fare are not super accurate. However a sign by the door said “Guinness served here” and, well, I guess that sold me. The few beers I’ve had here so far have been decent, but dark beer doesn’t seem to be much of a thing, and plus I just thought it would be nice to have something familiar.

I was able to choose a corner table, and the restaurant was quiet, which was another plus. Until I become more confident with ordering and eating at restaurants, I want to be able to be as unnoticeable as possible.

I struggled my way through the menu, which, to understand my difficulty you need to know a little bit about how Japanese works. Basically, Japanese cannot content itself with just one writing system as do the more common languages. No, it has decided that it needs no less than three ways of reading and writing. Most people are probably at least a little bit familiar with kanji, the Chinese characters Japanese has borrowed. Kanji are fascinating because the characters represent words and concepts instead of just sounds. But there are two other writing systems, which I didn’t know until I took a Japanese class. The first is hiragana, and it is a phonetic alphabet like we have in English (although much more systematic.) The second is also a phonetic alphabet and really isn’t that different from hiragana except it is used to represent foreign words. So something like “spaghetti” for example becomes su-pa-ge-ti  (スパゲティ). A pint of Guinness becomes gi-ni-su-bii-ru. My knowledge of katakana is not as strong as my knowledge of hiragana, which is really a shame because it’s really much more useful, so my menu reading went something like this:

Ga- Hm. Ga-ri? Curry? Gari Kuto SuTo…? What the? Garikutosuto… Gariku-Tosuto…? Ah! Garlic toast!

So I had to muscle my way through that for every food item that didn’t use kanji. The ones that did use kanji I didn’t even try to read. There weren’t a lot of pictures to help me out, either. Eventually, I settled on a fish dish which was undecipherable but which had little hearts next to it. I figured it probably meant some sort of people’s choice marker, like they sometimes have on menus. I called the waiter over and pointed at what I wanted. I decided I also wanted a salad. This is the part of ordering that is always difficult for me because I always get asked a lot of questions in Japanese that I can’t understand. Luckily, I had the foresight to bring my “Japanese for Travelers” book (bought at Aunties Bookstore TM) so I replied by reading out their translation of “I’ll have what you recommend.” It seemed to work. I also successfully asked if they had Guinness, which was a triumph.

The Guinness came first and was, I must say, perfectly poured. Apparently Japanese people appreciate a beer with just the right amount of foam. I figured if nothing else, this had gone right. I was a little nervous about the salad because one of the salads advertised was a “cheese salad” which, I love cheese, but I don’t know if I want Japanese-style cheese as a salad. I was relieved when a normal tossed salad arrived, if a bit perplexed as to why it came with an extra plate. Probably it’s meant for two people (insert solo violin music here). I took the hint though, and served myself using the extra plate. So now for the mystery dish. I’d scored on two out of three food items at this point so I figured even if it was rubbery squid tentacles I would just eat it and be happy. What actually arrived was some sort of pudding-looking dish with some thin slices of bread. Hm. I really hoped I hadn’t accidentally ordered some sort of weird creme brulee or something, because that’s what it looked like.

I tried to stall for time because I had no idea what it was or how to eat it. So I ate some more salad and enjoyed my Guinness. Honestly, this is my least favorite thing about eating out over here, because 1. I am highly noticeable and 2. have no idea what I’m doing. I noticed there was a curtain that could be used to partition off my table from the rest of the room, and was highly tempted to use it. Avert your eyes while the barbarian devours her food! Seriously, this is how I feel when eating food in Japan.


So I waited for an opportune moment when everyone else in the restaurant was too occupied with their own affairs to notice me. An initial foray revealed it to be some sort of curry, so that was alright, but how to eat it? There wasn’t enough bread use for all of it and I hadn’t ordered any rice, or been prompted to. I decided just to dive in with my fork and hope nobody judged me too harshly.

It was shrimp. Shrimp curry. And it was good. It even came in a fancy clam-shell shaped plate. But I tried to eat it as quickly as possible, while checking to see if anyone was watching me.As soon as I was finished I decided I’d done enough outside of my comfort zone for one day and asked for the bill, only to realize that in Japan you pay at the counter. Dang it! I hurried to the register and apologized for my mistake. Generally, my approach in 99% of these kinds of cultural faux pas is to apologize a lot and bat my eyelashes a bit. Hey, if it works, it works.

I paid, told the waiter that it was delicious, and left making a mental note that this is probably the nearest place for me to get a pint of Guinness. The food was actually very good, I’m sure there are some more filling dinner items for people who know their way around the menu. Unfortunately, it ended up being a bit more than I should probably be spending on an English teacher’s salary, but I guess it’s worth the experience.

My First Onsen

I wasn’t expecting to write about onsen quite so soon, but the fates would have it otherwise. On the day of my arrival, I was given a walk-through of my apartment and all the utilities. Pretty much everything is gas powered, so it feels a little bit like camping. I’ll try to post more about my apartment when I’m a little more settled in. Everything works fine, but the shower… The shower is… interesting. It’s quite old and definitely not American-style.

To turn it on is a bit of a trick. First, you have to turn on this electric box thingummy, then you open the gas valve, then you turn the shower switch on and wait for 20 seconds. After that, you have to turn it in a certain pattern in order to get the water to turn on. Then you say 3 Our Fathers and 7 Hail Marys and spin in a circle 12 times while doing a traditional folk dance and singing the national anthem. It took me a couple of tries the first time, but I got it.

However, no matter how much I invoked divine assistance, I couldn’t get the water to heat up. I fiddled with the knob and waited, but the water remained as icy as a mountain spring. So I got to experience some cold water immersion therapy. It’s supposed to be good for you, I guess.

The next day, some of the school employees were visiting my apartment to make some repairs. They asked me about my shower and I said it was fine except I couldn’t get the hot water to work. When I tried to demonstrate, not only did the hot water not work, I couldn’t get the shower to turn on at all. We all tried multiple times but there was nothing. This was bad news bears. It is really hot and humid right now and my coworkers will suffer if I cannot shower every day. After some discussion in Japanese, one of my colleagues looked at me and said “onsen?”

This is a cultural experience I had been hoping to postpone for a bit. Onsen are basically Japanese hot springs or hot baths. There are a lot up here in the north, and I knew I’d go to one eventually, but the thing about onsen is that you are expected to be completely naked. It’s only in front of people of your own gender, but even so, being naked in front of complete strangers is not something I feel super comfortable with. But I know it’s just a cultural thing and that it’s really no big deal. Besides, it was pretty much my only option at this point. Luckily, there is an onsen within walking distance of my apartment.

So over the weekend, I packed up my shower things and plunged in to my first big cross-cultural experience, pun intended ;-). It really wasn’t that bad, other than the fact that I felt awkward and unsure of what to do the whole time. I had a little trouble finding it, but happened to notice a man with a towel wrapped around his shoulders exiting a building. In my best Japanese, I asked him if this was the onsen. He confirmed that it was and after a bunch of words I didn’t understand directed me to the entrance where he indicated which side was for men and which for ladies. Thank you sir, it was much appreciated! I paid at the front desk (it’s not expensive) and entered the women’s side (after double and triple checking that it was the right side. If I had accidentally gone in the men’s side, I probably would have passed out from embarrassment).

Onsen are for soaking in, not for bathing, but you are expected to shower beforehand which is why it was my alternative bathing option. For reasons of modesty, I won’t go into too much detail about the whole experience. I was mortified of drawing attention to myself, so in the dressing room I tried my best to decipher the “do and don’t” signs that were posted, but it just looked like a bunch of cartoon people with soap suds doing various bathy things and I couldn’t figure out what the actual message was. Because it was my first time and I was on my own, I was forced to awkwardly watch people out of the corner of my eye to make sure I wasn’t doing anything wrong. To put it delicately, a lot of the onsen users were of advanced age. I have seen things that I cannot unsee.

I was tempted to just shower and leave without using the onsen, but I thought that would be silly, so I followed another person into the bath. After a few minutes I thought, “well, that’s a thing” and decided to go home. I’m sure I didn’t follow the procedure exactly right but no one took much notice of me so I’m counting this one as a success. Also, my skin feels amazing! So maybe I will go back sometime now that I know what to do.

As of today, my shower is working again, but the hot water is still being elusive. I’m hoping I can get that fixed before winter…

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