Things That Surprised Me as an American-Gaijin: Inaka Japan

Things I Learned about “Inaka” (Countryside) Life in Japan

1.     You need Japanese to interact with people in Japan. Doh! When applying for my job position, I was told that I don’t need to know Japanese for the job. In reality, I do need Japanese to communicate with my principal, vice principal, students, and well, everyone else at my schools. Oh, and everyone else in the community (the bus driver, the grocery store cashier, the bank teller, the waiter at the restaurant...). When I go to Tokyo and other big cities, I’m able to talk to some store owners and some people at the train station and airport in broken Japanese and simple English, but daily life in inaka Japan without Japanese is really difficult. 

2.     It’s really, really hot in the summer and really, really, really cold in the winter. This might sound obvious and or even sound exaggerated to you, but I lived most of my life in San Diego, California, where neither ‘really, really hot’ nor ‘really, really cold’ exist.

3.     You gotta learn to adapt to a low-tech lifestyle. My apartment is about 45 years old: it has tatami mat floors, cement walls, and about 0 insulation. If it’s -2°C outside, it’s -2°C inside. For warmth, my options are a kerosene stove, a space heater, and a kotatsu table (a coffee table with a heater built into its underside) with a blanket. When I told my Japanese friends about central heating back home (about the wonders of setting a temperature on a thermostat and warming the entire house… and that, believe it or not, you don’t have to wear jackets and outerwear inside the house!), they were appalled and amazed, as though I had just told them that I use a hover car and jetpack to get around back home.

Since my heater only warms the living room, I nestle away in that corner of the apartment during the winter and try to spend as little time as possible in the kitchen, where the food in the refrigerator is kept warmer than food left out on the counter. In keeping with the low-tech home lifestyle, my apartment doesn’t have hot water on tap. To be fair, most of the other apartments and about 1 in 5 public restrooms that I’ve gone to have hot water on tap, but sinks do not. Needless to say, washing dishes when it’s below freezing in the kitchen with no running hot water feels like going fishing with your bare hands in the arctic.

Luckily, to in the shower room, I have a gas stove next to my tub to heat up my water. Unfortunately, for my particular shower, I have to choose between piping hot or a cold shower. This is actually an easy decision in the extremes of summer and winter, but it gets trickier in the springtime and fall.

4.     Deodorant-as-we-know-it is impossible to come by. Some people will try to tell you that deodorant exists here, but at best, you’ll find deodorant-like products at drug stores. These products are more like baby powder than deodorant. Deodorizer body spray (essentially baby powder in water) is popular here.

5.     When going out to eat, be prepared to choose between the following three options: 1) Japanese food, 2) Spaghetti, 3) Pizza topped with mayo and seafood. It’s sometimes fun trying to make simple Japanese dishes at home (like ramen, soba, takoyaki, and shabu shabu) because all ingredients for these dishes are so readily available, but I eventually came to miss international variety in my cuisine. Now, whenever I go to bigger cities, I stock up on spices, nuts, beans, Thai curry mixes, pre-made tortillas, pre-made Indian naan and basmati rice…

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