Here we are in Osaka, Japan. Have been nearly a week now – and it’s great. We all love it! We especially love our 24th floor apartment and the view from our balcony (photos above and below).
The journey here and the first couple of days here were tough though. I mean any parent would agree that a 14 hour flight with a further one to two hour transit at each end is not a picnic but the fact that the woman who sat next to me and our daughter on the flight vomited all over herself and her seat 9 hours into the Helsinki-Osaka leg would make any parent (or in fact anyone) go ‘Crap’. But us as parents of a type 1 diabetic child could only think that we were the unluckiest people on the bloody flight. You see, a poorly child is not much fun and generally means an increased level of care during the day and at least one or two sleepless nights for the parent(s). A poorly diabetic child is a totally different kettle of fish. The fact that any illness usually completely screws up a diabetic person’s blood sugars (making them too high, too low, or zigzag between the two unpredictably) means an increased level of care day and night to ridiculous proportions. I’m talking a finger prick blood test on average perhaps once an hour day and night for the duration of the illness and extra food and extra insulin given immediately as and when needed dependent on the blood sugars. As with a non-diabetic child, a vomiting bug is the worst kind of day-to-day illness – not because of the messiness of it, but because of the low blood sugar levels that it can create due to the child not being able to hold any food in. Low blood sugars (below 3.5mmol/l or so) are not good. By ‘not good’ I mean that very low blood sugars can cause brain damage or even kill a diabetic person. Consequently, when diabetic children have a tummy bug, they often end up in hospital for 3-4 days where their blood sugar levels can be better measured and controlled than at home. We did not want to end up in hospital the first couple of days of our stay in Osaka. In fact, we did not even know where the nearest hospital was, or even the emergency telephone number. When that woman started puking on that plane, I realized that I was not as prepared as I thought I was, and as soon as we landed, we found what the emergency phone number was. Not that knowing the emergency number would be very much help to us in a case of emergency, given that we do not know Japanese and the emergency telephone operator, let alone the paramedic, are unlikely to speak English, but somehow knowing the emergency number made us feel like we had our daughter’s diabetes emergencies a bit more under control.
But let’s get back to the poorly lady on the flight. Immediately after vomiting and wiping her clothes and handbag clean, she took a white mask from her handbag and put it over her mouth and nose. It was the kind of surgeon’s mask that Japanese people wear, which, in Westerners, create an instant panic: ‘Does the wearer of the mask know something I don’t? Is the Bird flu pandemic spreading like wildfire?’ But we didn’t panic, because we knew that the most common reason for a Japanese person to wear a mask is not because they are worried about catching something, but because they do not want to pass on their own germs to other people. In fact, these first 5 days in Japan,we have seen many people wearing those types of masks. I’d say about 10% of pedestrians, shop assistants, taxi drivers etc. to be more precise. I don’t know the actual stats on this so please do not quote me on this, but you get the idea. In any case, in Japan, it is apparently frowned upon if someone sneezes/coughs in a public place without wearing a mask. On the other hand, a journey in public transport in England and Finland in the wintertime entails a mundane affair of dodging the spray of infected bodily fluids, and avoidance in touching anything you don’t absolutely have to touch. Perhaps the use of masks by poorly Japanese and non-use of them by poorly British and Finnish people reflects the more general attitudes in these societies. Japanese seem to view themselves as part of the society and overall have a more collective view about their part in the society, while the Brits seem to have a more ‘every man for themselves’ attitude. Hence, the latter may not be as bothered or sorry about passing on their colds, flus or tummy bugs to diabetic or non-diabetic fellow passengers as a Japanese person is. The Finns are hardly any better than the Brits. Even though the Finns, in my opinion, are more like the Japanese than the Brits in how they situate themselves within the society, many Finnish people tend to stuff their used tissues in their sleeve, therefore, extremely efficiently spreading their germs onto whatever they touch. I’m sure I have managed to convince you that the Japanese way to deal with infection is the way forward, right? That is, rather than 90% of English and Finnish people trying to protect themselves from the 10% of people who carry some sort of contagious infection, the western world should adopt the Japanese convention of the poorly 10% wearing surgeon’s masks, and not matter what your grandmother tells you, under no circumstances should you store your used tissues in your sleeve. Oh and by the way, our daughter did not get a tummy bug. So, we didn’t have to call an ambulance or go to the hospital. So it’s all good!
When we got to the apartment, our estate agents were there waiting for us to sign our contract. We had queried beforehand as to whether there would be anyone in their office who would be able to hire a van and give us a lift to Ikea as soon as we arrived – we of course offered to pay for the van, petrol and the person’s time. This was because the apartment was unfurnished and we found out that (a) one needs an international driving license to drive in Japan (which neither I nor my husband had) and (b) there were no van companies that had English web-pages. The letting agents told us that ‘The boss’ (manager of the estate agents), who did not speak any English, had offered to take my husband to Ikea while the kids and I stayed at the apartment. We were extremely tired after the flight and I felt sorry for my husband who, like a samurai ploughed on to Ikea while me and the kids had a nap at the apartment. Recall that we did not have any furniture, so our nap wasn’t completely satisfying, but I was so tired that I would have slept on a bed of nails had someone given me one. As no-one did, our son and I slept on the wooden floor and it felt like heaven. Our daughter had the best spot in the house: she slept in one of our suitcases. So the first hours we spent in our apartment weren’t exactly glamorous, but we survived.
The boss going and hiring a van and taking some random clients to Ikea is something that is unlikely to happen in England. English people have quite big egos in this sense and most bosses would think that it is beneath them to appear as some sort of a delivery boy. But the boss of our Japanese estate agents did not seem to mind. On the contrary! He ferried our furniture around with my husband for 7 hours, until about 10pm without financial gain – we paid for the van but he did not want to be compensated for his time. And every time my husband or I apologised for the fact that it had taken much longer than anticipated he just smiled and said ‘no problem’. When him and my husband had carried all our Ikea stuff from the van to the lift and from the lift to our apartment my husband and I decided to part with a bottle of Scottish Whisky that we had bought for a guy at my work who had helped us secure our apartment. We felt the boss had deserved it! Furthermore, he came back the following morning to bring a piece of our bed that was accidentally left in the rental van. I can only assume that the rental company had rang him in the morning about the bed part, he had gone to pick it up and then delivered to us all cheerful and happy. An English boss would not have bothered. In fact, an English van rental company would have binned the part left in the van without hesitation, or sold it if it had any value. I’d like to think that a Finnish van rental place would have rang you to let you know that something was left in the van, but if a Finnish boss had to go and pick it up and deliver it to a stranger’s apartment in his own time, instead of appearing behind our door 10am with a big smile on his face he would have looked like a baboon’s backside – pissed off about the extra work. So, our first impression of Japanese people, or at least customer service, is unbelievably friendly and helpful. And we learned that Japanese men really appreciated a bottle of Whisky (thank you Jamie for the tip!) as our key contact at the estate agents mentioned the Whisky at the onset of our conversation the following day. Now I feel that we need to get him (our key contact) a bottle as well. And of course we need to go and get one for the guy at my work for whom the boss’s bottle was originally meant.
On our third day in Japan we made a schoolboy error in terms of food. I had gone to a local supermarket to get some groceries. The problem, as you probably already guessed, was that all the food labelling is written in Japanese (Kanji). Since I don’t recognize a single Kanji character I’m left to figure out what everything is by looking at the big picture, i.e. what products do I recognize and what is located next to them. I assume they use the same logic in supermarkets over here as in Europe and order products by function/use. That is, cleaning products should be displayed together, spices together, beverages together etc. But if only finding the products you want was that simple. For instance, I could not find a shelf with spices on it. I only found a shelf with soy sauce. The reason why I know that the bottles contained soy sauce was because I recognized a Kikkoman soy sauce bottle, the design classic. There was a whole shelf of soy sauce, but no salt, no pepper, no stock cubes, and no herbs – at least not in recognizable containers. So I bought some soy sauce. I also figured that marinated meat would be a good solution to the problem of not finding anything to season food with. So, I also bought the only marinated meat I could find at the meat aisle. When I got home and started frying the meat it did not look like meat, but like octopus or something similar. My husband tried it. He thought it tasted odd and the texture was rather chewy. By coincidence, our estate agent happened to pop over to fix our Internet router just as my husband was sampling the food and he kindly translated the label on the meat packaging for us. I can tell you that my husband wasn’t too happy to learn that he had just eaten marinated cow’s intestine. For the remainder of the day my husband repeatedly reported feeling sick. I am happy I did not try it, not that I am particularly fuzzy about food. I mean, I eat pretty much anything, but for some reason cow’s bowel just does not do it for me. In any case, I have learned my lesson: Do not buy meat that you cannot recognize until you know the Kanji symbols for things you do not want to eat.
Us not knowing Japanese or Kanji has created some additional problems. First, eating out is at least as challenging as eating in, as we have yet to find a restaurant that would have an English menu. So far we have managed to order pretty ‘normal’ food due to (a) the waiter/waitress knowing a couple of words in English, or (b) the restaurant having pictures of the dishes that they do on the wall. However, a couple of nights ago we went to a small local restaurant for dinner. The waiter-chef (the restaurant was a one-man operation) brought us the (Japanese) menus. He turned out to be one of those people who did not know any English (much like our lack of knowledge of Japanese) and there weren’t any pictures of food on the wall. So, I had to use the glossary of our guidebook and try to order some food in Japanese. So I tried: Ramen, Toriniku (noodles, chicken). This resulted in an apprehensive look on the waiter-chef’s face. Right. Ok. Let’s try: Ramen Gyuuniku (noodles, beef). Nothing. The waiter-chef was completely lost. My husband’s analysis of the situation was that it must be a Chinese restaurant and hence the waiter-chef was not familiar with the terms that I was using. After my husband got over the fact that it was not a Chinese restaurant and that my Japanese was so poor that I could not even order noodles and chicken/beef he came up with an effective way to order our dinner. You see, because our daughter is diabetic, wherever we go we carry with us a book that lists carb values for most foods alongside photos of those foods and portion sizes. My husband pulled out the carb-book and started pointing. That worked. We got fed. And it was delicious.
Second, it is not just food items that I have struggled to recognize at the shop. I think we are using some multi purpose cleaner as our washing-up liquid and my make-up remover is probably shoe polish. But until I know what the packaging of these looks like, we need to get by with the products I have managed to buy.
Third, knowing Japanese would have also been handy when figuring out all the appliances in our apartment. You see, everything is automated, and all the control buttons and, crucially also the manuals, are in Japanese only. You can’t even run a bath without having to negotiate with a control board on the wall as to how hot you want the temperature of the bath water to be, and how many litres of water you want administered in the tub (photo below).
When we went to a local electrical shop (all 8 floors of if it) on our first day here, we were lucky enough to be served by an assistant who spoke some English. However, our luck stopped there. None of the appliances that they stocked had English manuals. This isn’t a huge problem with a fridge-freezer – I can work out how to open its door without its manual, but a washing machine and a microwave oven with a normal oven function is more tricky. The writing on buttons like: Start, Stop, Defrost and 40-degree-eco-cycle on most of the appliances is in Japanese. In fact, we only found one microwave and one washing machine whose controls were in English. Without hesitation we went for those. Other than the language, the controls of our appliances did not resemble anything we have got used to back home, probably because the make of the appliances was Japanese. So, we still need to Google the appliances and hopefully we’ll be able to download the manuals in English (but I am not holding my breath). What I don’t get is that when one purchases an appliance in Europe, you usually get the manual in pretty much all major languages, and even slightly more obscure languages, like Japanese. Over here the manuals come in Japanese and nothing else. Wouldn’t it just be easier for the manufacturer to produce one manual covering multiple languages and bang that in its appliance everywhere in the world? Perhaps Japanese kitchen appliance manufacturers are not concerned about world domination and hence cut costs in translation services and A4 sheets.
In addition to the language barrier there is also the obvious issue of size and clothing/footwear. When we got our internet working a couple of days before my first day at my new job, I received an email from my work place informing me that I was going to meet the President of the Institution on my first day at work. They instructed me to wear smart clothes. Not smart-casual. Smart. I gather this means that I need to wear a trouser suit, which is a bit of a problem given that I didn’t bring my trouser suits with me to Japan as I assumed that I could wear smart-casual clothes for work. This wardrobe malfunction would not be a big deal if we were in England/Finland, as I would just go and buy a new suit. However, the fact that Japanese people are shorter and smaller than most Europeans means that my body shape resembles more that of a sumo wrestler than a typical Japanese woman. Consequently, I can’t just walk into a shop and expect to find clothes that I can squeeze into. Luckily my husband was there to assist me on this. His search term on Google, ‘clothes for the larger ladies in Osaka’, was successful and we found a couple of (Western) shops that I was able to try. And I did manage to find a suit after trying on some suit jackets of women’s size 44 whose sleeves were half way up my forearms. Because I, like most women, am quite sensitive about my shape, I should probably add for the information to those of you who do not know me (and my body shape) that I don’t really look like a sumo wrestler, at least not yet – let’s hook up again at the end of our Osaka experience and see whether three years of tempura, fatty (but delicious) Kobe beef and rice/noodle heavy meals have turned me into one.