A few tips to help you make friends in Japan

Japanese people are a little bit like the Finns, i.e. relatively introverted and shy, and even though they might want to have a chat with you they are as eager to open a conversation with a foreigner as a squirrel is to cuddle a boa constrictor. Consequently, you might find it’s hard work to make Japanese friends… well, that is unless you are in Osaka, where on the train or in the park old ladies frequently engage with you in lengthy conversations in Japanese (regardless of whether or not you speak Japanese) and hand out to your children bags of sweets, bookmarks or pieces of fruit (regardless of whether or not you consent to it) and where random strangers tap you on the shoulder and ask (a) if you could be their foreign friend and/or (b) if they could practice their English with you. But elsewhere in Japan it might be more difficult to talk to the locals.

But not to worry, if you are visiting Japan and would like to experience authentic Japanese communication in a friendly situation or even make friends with some random Japanese people this is what we’ve found works marvellously:

1) in the evening, go to a small izakaya (gastro pub) or a standing sake bar, the smaller the better really, a 5-10 seater would be perfect.

2) sit/stand at the bar (in very small izakayas there are no tables anyway)

3) have a couple of glasses of dry sake, sweet plum wine or a pint of beer

4) start talking to the person sitting next to you. It helps if you know a couple of words in Japanese, after all, the chances are the Japanese person will have a very limited knowledge of English. The quickest way to start a conversation is to comment on the sport on the TV in the izakaya, or mention how delicious the sake or food is. Further into the conversation you should mention how much you love Japan (which shouldn’t be difficult as Japanese food, public transport, customer service, culture and nature are all amazing). Even though Japanese people love their country, what they love even more is foreigners telling them that they love Japan.

5) one additional tip for connecting with Japanese people at 11pm when you’ve jointly emptied the sake reserves of a small izakaya is to learn the lyrics to USA for Africa’s We are the World song before your trip to Japan. Seriously! Surprisingly perhaps, pretty much everyone in Japan, or at least in Osaka, knows this song (because the kids’ area at the Universal Studios in Osaka plays this song non-stop all day every day).

To convince you that the above method works like a dream here are a couple of random but wonderful instances of us making friends in Japan:


Crazy mama-san

A German friend was visiting me in Osaka and we were looking for a place to eat. We stopped outside a small Korean izakaya to have a look at the menu (which was written in Japanese and we couldn’t understand any of it) and decided not to go in. But as we started walking away from the restaurant a salesperson from a bike shop across the road storms out of his shop and with a few words of English persuades us to go to the Korean restaurant, saying that the food is great and the mama-san (owner/manager) is very friendly. We felt obliged to go in.

We sat at the counter next to two salarymen and a lone guy. We struggled to order anything because mama-san and her sous-chef/waitress didn’t speak English so the lone guy next to us offered to translate. It turned out he owned his own restaurant a couple of blocks away but was having his ‘break’ (involving no food, but hefty glasses of sake). We had a chat with him about his visit to Canada some 20 year ago, and when he had to go back to work (a little tipsy), we turned to the two salarymen sitting next to us and to another group of men who had come downstairs (from the seating area upstairs) to talk to us. It was an interesting mix of people. There was a piano tuner, a university professor, a relatively famous actor, office workers, a car sales person, two crazy ladies behind the bar and me and my German friend, both of us university lecturers.

The night turned a bit crazy with singing, mama-san taking a gulp of wine, gurgling it and spitting it back in the glass and redrinking it, several of the customers ended up serving drinks/food behind the bar and the punters, mama-san and the sous-chef trying to pronounce my German friend’s name even in a remotely similar way to the way it should be pronounced.

It was a hilarious evening and ended in everyone exchanging their business cards to indicate friendship.




Mama-san and a customer behind the bar

Standing Sake bar the size of a match box

My husband and I have a favourite standing sake bar in the Shinsaibashi area of Osaka. It is tiny. It literally consists of one table (which is really just a piece of wood balanced on top of some drinks crates) and a fridge to keep the sake cool.  As to food, the owner is happy for you to bring in whatever you like (including take-outs from the local 7-eleven). And we like the place precisely because of these properties. The sake bar having only one table means that you have to talk to the people next to you, and the cold (or hot) sake helps with no single mutually intelligible language. Regardless of the fact that my husband and I don’t speak Japanese beyond the very basics and the other customers generally not speaking English beyond the very basics every time we’ve been to this place we’ve had a great time, maybe partly because most customers when coming in exclaim with delight kokusai (‘international’) party or because more than once when we haven’t managed to understand each other a Japanese customer leaves the sake bar, goes searching the surrounding bars and eventually comes back with a Japanese person who can speak some English to translate between English and Japanese.

We love this place so much that we often take our European visitors/friends there with us. Here’s a photo taken at my most recent visit with a friend.




And to prove that this is not only the case in Osaka, here are a couple of pictures of a sushi restaurant in Tokyo where I went with a Japanese friend and ended up having a great time with some other diners (who were eager to tell me that they had visited Europe and their son was an associate professor of English at a university in Nagoya) and the owner of the restaurant who wanted to practice his English. Having been able to talk to the owner, who was the sushi chef of the place, allowed me to finally put some words to the foods that I’ve been eating for the past 2 ½ years.

So, not only will you have interesting, hilarious and entertaining evenings interacting with random Japanese people after a couple of glasses of something slightly stronger than just green tea, but you will learn a lot about Japan and Japanese culture as well.






Sushi chef (owner) secretly took a selfie with my phone


Even though I am posting this blog post on New Year’s Eve, the above tips are not really meant to be used tonight or any other NYE. After all, in Japan NYE is a little bit like Christmas eve in Finland or Christmas day in England, i.e it’s spent at home relaxing with one’s family eating too much, watching TV and maybe visiting a temple/church during the night. But if you are in Japan pretty much any other evening than NYE,why not try and make some Japanese friends. And if you are a bit shy to open the conversation, remember that the chances are that the Japanese person sitting next to you is as eager to talk to you as you are to them!

Hanging out with my younger self


If you are lucky you might be able to live to 100. Thus, one could think about life a bit like a 100 metre race (that most of us want to get through in Usain Bolt-style but in slow motion). Worryingly, instead of slow motion, I have started approaching the halfway mark of the track in Benny Hill show-style (in fast forward). Worse still, pretty much at every birthday for the past 10 years I have been able to visualise my young self around the 30 metre mark blow me a kiss goodbye.

But, this last month has been different, even though it saw me move another metre further down that 100m track. For the first time in nearly 9 years (since my son was born), I’ve had a chance to remind myself what it was like to be spontaneous and carefree. The reason being that while I have been in Japan for work for a month, my children and husband have been back home, in England.

So, four weeks ago I walked back to that 30 metre mark, embraced my young-adult self and went wild. Well, maybe wild is not an accurate word here, given that wild in my 20s meant something quite different than it means to me today. I will not go into explaining what wild meant to me in my youth, but for the past four weeks it’s meant:

  • not cooking a single lunch or dinner
  • checking my alarm clock at 6.45 am on Saturdays and Sundays, and going back to sleep for another 3 hours
  • indulging on culture (visiting temples, shrines, cemeteries and bamboo forests)
  • my social calendar having been so full with BBQs and dinners with friends, colleagues, school mums and even with some new acquaintances, takoyaki (octopus dumplings) gatherings and birthday parties that my young self would have been proud of me. (If I wanted to show off my busy social calendar I could mention that I’ve had 18 social events in the past 30 days!)

Even though I’ve loved my freedom, seeing new places and meeting new people, in a moment I will start making my way back to the 42 metre mark on the track of life. And I will do that with unprecedented enthusiasm. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever been as excited as I am today. You see, I am at Kansai Airport on my way back to England where I will be reunited with my children and my husband.

Lantern Festival


Yesterday (22nd Feb 2016) was the 15th day of the Chinese New Year, the day of lighted lamps. The main place in Taiwan to celebrate this day is the Pingxi district in the mountains east of Taipei where they hold an annual Lantern Festival on the day. And it truly is a spectacular Lantern festival, given that thousands of lanterns float over the mountains of Pingxi that evening (I understand that in the days following the festival, teams of council run cleaners hike through the hillsides collecting the used lanterns from the area to dispose of them).

Since we were lucky enough to be in Taiwan during the festival (although my husband would insist it was his expert planning), we, along with thousands of others, went to Pingxi to experience it.

As expected, Pingxi was as busy as the Southern English town of Lewes during their famous Bonfire Night (i.e. it was rammed), but the transportation worked like a dream. There were hundreds of buses carrying people back and forth between the terminal metro stop and Pingxi (about 40min bus ride) for £2 /person for a return journey. Even tough there were thousands of people there, we didn’t really have to queue for the shuttle buses at either end. It still beats me how they did that! When it comes to efficiency, order and planning, maybe somewhat unexpectedly, based on our experience, Taiwan totally plays in the same league as Japan.

The festival consisted of three main parts:

1. Food stalls

Like any festival, at the Lantern festival you could fill you stomach with all sorts of food, like fried chicken, meat/seafood skewers, fruit, sweets and stinky tofu.



2. Your messages to the World/Universe/Higher being

During the afternoon, before the main lantern event started at 6pm, many people sent their own lanterns into the sky, including us.





You can buy a lantern (for £3-4), write a message on the four sides of it and send it up into the sky. The main location for the spectators’ lantern lighting and sending off seemed to be the train track (see photos) – an operating train track I might add!

We quickly learned what happens when there is a train coming: with about 20 seconds of warning, someone starts blowing a whistle, people start shouting and screaming, and in a state of panic people rush to the side of the track (see photos below to see how close the public is to the passing train!).





The colour of the lantern signifies different fortunes. Our children chose two lanterns: red and pink, whose colour represented health/longevity and happiness, respectively.

The messages and wishes that we wrote on them were things like:

-World peace (although, I got distracted and misspelt it, so it ended up saying: Worl peace)

-I wish that everyone had clean water

-Greetings from Finland, England and Japan

-Princesses and Super Heroes 4ever

-I want to be a dinosaur scientist (which came out looking like it just said I want to be a dinosaur).



3. Lantern Festival show

This is the part of the festival of which you might have seen photos. Because we didn’t want to push into the most crowded part of the festival, we were not at the actual area where they sent the lanterns off. Instead, we parked ourselves about 100 meters away on a bridge with a good view of the area. The lanterns were beautiful! (see video footage below)




Japanese Christmas is all about KFC and Christmas lights



There seem to be two main things (in addition to Santa Claus and presents) that the Japanese associate with Christmas. These are KFC (yes, Kentucky Fried Chicken, the fast food chain) and Christmas lights.

Apparently due to a highly successful marketing campaign in the 1970s, a typical Christmas eve/ Christmas day meal in Japan is a chicken bucket from KFC. For a Westerner like me, who practically never goes to KFC, this Japanese tradition is just bizarre. To be honest, I am glad that we will (again) spend Christmas in England so that we do not need to adopt this unappetising peculiarity of Japan in the name of cultural assimilation.

However, similarly to the pro-Christmas-Roast-writer of this blog, the Japanese love their extravagant Christmas light displays/shows, often provided by the council or local businesses (free of charge!). There are currently, I believe, around 20 of these around Osaka and so far we’ve seen three of them.

So that you can also experience a little snippet of Osaka’s Christmas lights, I recorded a clip of a light show that they are currently showing in Nakanoshima park in Osaka city centre. We went there last night and I really enjoyed it with its multiple themes ranging from Japanese theatre to underwater scenes and amusement parks. I hope you’ll enjoy it too. I also hope that you won’t mind the clip ending somewhat unexpectedly. This can be explained by the fact that my visits to the gym to build my biceps and other upper body muscles have recently been minimal. When you combine that with five minutes of holding a mobile phone up video recording a light show with a huge handbag (if you are a mother of a diabetic child you know what I mean) hanging off one’s bicep… After about three minutes I felt like, instead of a handbag, there was a grand piano hanging of my arm.

In any case, I hope the clip below will get you into the Christmas spirit regardless of whether you watch it with a bucket of KFC or not.