15 tips to stay on the right side of the etiquette in Japan – food and drink

Are you planning a trip to Japan but worried that you’ll accidentally offend the locals because you don’t know the etiquette? Or are you concerned that your lack of cultural knowledge will make you look like a fool?   I know I felt that way when I moved from England to Japan. And not only did I worry about making mistakes, I actually excelled at faux pas! I can only now think back and say: I didn’t know any better.

But slowly I learned most of the common cultural peculiarities and after having lived in Japan for nearly three years many of the everyday conventions had become so familiar to me that I didn’t even notice them anymore. It’s only now that I have been back in the UK for a couple of weeks that I am aware of the behavioural differences between Japan and the UK again (for my regular readers who didn’t know yet, yes,  I’ve now moved back to the UK, and will write about the move soon).

Since the cultural quirks of Japan are still fresh in my mind, I thought this would be a perfect time for me to write a little list of them, not only to help any Japan novices going to Japan but maybe also to remind myself of these things a year (let alone twenty!) from now.

Below I list some tips for eating/drinking out. These should help you sail through your holiday eatery experiences as effortlessly as Nigella Lawson licks a spoon.

(1) Oshibori

When you go to restaurants, cafes or bars in Japan you will be given a hot towel (in up-market places) or a cold wet-wipe (everywhere else) to wipe your hands as soon as you sit down. When you’ve wiped your hands, fold the towel and place it next to your plate. You can use it for wiping your hands during your meal, but don’t wipe your face with it.

 (2) Restaurant service

In places like England, it’s rude to shout to get the waiter’s attention (in England you need to make an eye contact with a member of staff…even if it takes you half an hour!). In Japan, don’t wait for the waiter to spontaneously come to you. The waiter is waiting for you to shout ‘sumimasen’ (Eng: ‘Excuse me’) to indicate that you are ready to order. This is not considered impolite, and if you don’t do it, you’ll be there for a long while before the waiter finally comes to ask if you’ve decided already (I know this from experience).

 (3) Sharing

When eating out with family members, colleagues or friends, it’s typical that as a group you order several dishes and share them. The waitress will bring the food dishes and place them in the middle of the table and bring everyone a small plate (if there are no small plates on the table already). Everyone can help themselves to the food, or if you want to be polite, you can dish food onto everyone else’s plates first and then onto yours. If you are concerned about hygiene, use the opposite end of your chopsticks to dish out the food rather than the end that has been in your mouth.

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(4) No shoes

In many Japanese restaurants (that have tatami floors) you need to take your shoes off in the foyer. You put your shoes in a locker, take the key with you and walk to your table. If you need to use the toilet while in the restaurant, you should see some slippers in close proximity to the toilet or the foyer. Wear the slippers to the toilet and return them to where you found them on your way back from the toilet.

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shoe locker keys (and green tea)

(5) Chopsticks

When you need to put your chopsticks down during your meal you can lean them against your plate or put them over your plate/bowl (see photos below).

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When you’ve finished eating, if the chopsticks came in a small paper envelope, put them back in there (see photo below).

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If there is a little chopstick rest on the table which is (usually) between you and your plate, place the chopsticks there (see photo below).

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Or you can even just leave them on your plate so that they are horizontally resting on two points of the dish (as in some of the photos above). However, there are two things you should not do:

a) Never leave your chopsticks sticking out of a bowl of rice i.e. standing up in the rice. The reason for this is that this resembles their use at a funeral (in relation to a person’s ashes), and should not be used in this way in any other context.

b) Also deriving from a convention practiced in funerals, you should never pass food from one person’s chopsticks directly to another person’s chopsticks. If you are giving someone food e.g. from a shared plate, you need to put the food on their plate.

(6) Finger foods

Even though in Europe it’s acceptable to use your hands to eat quite a few foods in a restaurant, a good rule of thumb in Japan is that you should eat nothing with fingers (other than maybe sushi and a burger). Even though to a novice in Japan some of these might feel quite comical and downright ‘wrong’ you should eat fries, a slice of pizza, sandwich or many types of desserts (e.g. cake) with your chopsticks (if you haven’t been provided with a fork and a knife or a spoon).

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Pizza with chopsticks

(7) Picking up your plate/bowl

In Europe the etiquette determines that (with most foods) you need to try to get the food off your plate and into your mouth by using cutlery instead of lifting the plate off the table and bringing it closer to your mouth. In Japan, people commonly hold a dish in one hand and chopsticks in the other while eating, and you can do the same.

(8) Rice

In particular in posh restaurants, rice is usually served as the last dish of the meal consisting of several courses, and it is served on its own! It does not come with a sauce like it does in Europe. However tempting it might be, try not to put soy sauce over the rice (but you can add e.g. roasted sesame seeds).

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It’s impolite if you don’t eat all your rice. This is the case in particular if you are visiting someone’s home. And when I say that it is impolite not to finish your rice, I mean you need to eat every grain in your bowl to indicate that the corner stone of the Japanese diet and agriculture, rice, is precious.

It might seem like an impossible task for an inexperienced chopstick user to pick up individual grains of rice, but you can lift your rice bowl of the table close to your mouth (see point 7 above) and with your chopsticks kind of shovel the rice from the bowl into your mouth.

Rice that is part of a dish (e.g. curry or fried rice) is usually eaten with a spoon (not chopsticks).

(9) Slurping

If you are a noisy eater, feel free to let your hair down in an udonya. However, if you can’t tolerate noisy eaters, I recommend not going to these types of noodle places where you will find everyone loudly slurping their noodles from the bowl into their mouths.

(10) Intestines (horumo)

In Japan they use a lot of intestines in cooking, especially in a Yakiniku (i.e. beef BBQ) places. If you are not a big fan of pancreas, diaphragm, womb or the large intestine you can say: Horumo irimasen which means that you will only want to eat the ‘meaty’ parts of the cow.

(11) The one drink rule

Be aware that there seems to be some kind of a one-drink-on-the-table rule in Japan. Only order another drink when you’ve finished your earlier one. When the waiter brings your new drink the chances are they will take your old drink glass away regardless of whether there is still some liquid in it.

(12) You should not pour your own drink.

If out with a Japanese person, and if you have ordered a bottle of wine, sake or beer you should not fill your own glass. The other person should notice when your glass is empty and fill it – and you should of course fill theirs. Given that Japanese society is patriarchal, Japanese men often expect the women to pour the mens’ drinks (this is one cultural feature of Japan that a feminist like myself might choose not to adopt).

(13) Sake and masu

If you order sake you often get it in a glass that is placed in a square vessel (called masu). The waiter will fill your sake glass at the table from a big bottle of sake, but surprisingly to many Westerners, when the glass if full, they will carry on pouring so that the glass overflows into the masu. Don’t panic. He’s just indicating their generosity by the overflowing ‘measure’.

When you drink the sake you’ve just been poured you need to do it without hands. That is, you need to bend over and take the first gulp so that you don’t touch the glass with your hands. After the first gulp you can lift the glass as normal but place it back in the masu in between gulps. When your glass is empty, you pour the excess sake from masu into your glass, and drink it.

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(14) Service charge

There is no tipping in Japan. If you leave a tip the waiter will run after you in order to return your change.

(15) Bakeries

There are bakeries everywhere in Japan and you should try some of the Japanese buns when visiting Japan! It’s usually self-service. Take a tray and tongs and select the buns you want from the counters. Go to the cashier and give her the tray and the tongs (they will clean them before giving them to the next person).

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I got a bit carried away!

This is not to do with etiquette, but here’s a little additional tip:

The wee hours of the morning are often represented slightly differently on the windows of izakayas than in pub windows in Europe, e.g. 26 hours corresponding to 2am.

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ps.  If you are Japanese or an expat in Japan feel free to correct any misunderstandings on my behalf or add any other restaurant/bar related tips that I have missed in the comments below.

The most pedantic nation

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A display of people’s names at a temple in Nara

 

 

I feel I need to write a few words about Japanese people’s obsession with doing things perfectly and constantly aiming to achieve the most functional and aesthetically pleasing end result. This might be partly due to peer pressure where by doing things the ‘wrong’ way will result in you becoming a social outcast. I always thought that the Finns were the most prescriptive nation, that they seemed only too happy to comply with strict rules and regulations to the best of their abilities.  However, after having lived in Japan for 2 ½ years the Finns are starting to look as rule abiding as a litter of 8-week old Boxer puppies.

I could probably name a hundred examples that demonstrate Japanese people’s attention to detail but instead of a hundred, I’ve listed 8 examples below.

 

1. Children’s indoor playgrounds are immaculate in Japan. You see the staff go around the area with lint rollers getting rid of specks of dirt/dust every 20-30 minutes. This contrasts with the indoor play areas in our hometown in England that have not even seen a hoover in decades. I suppose a lint roller would not be an effective tool to get rid of the build up of dust in English indoor play areas. A spade would.

 

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2. Those same lint rollers are frequently used on hairdressers’ floors and doormats to get rid of (particles of) hair that might have fallen on the floor during hair treatment. It seems that managers of Japanese hair salons would not tolerate a single hair anywhere other than on the customers’ (and staffs’) heads.

 

3. Many companies specify that you need to write your job application by hand. This is of course an extremely laborious task as no errors, crossing out or erasing are allowed. That is, every time you make a mistake, you need to start again. I’m guessing the reason for this (in addition to it being a historical convention that the slow changing Japanese society is reluctant in abandoning) is that it shows commitment to the job applied for but also demonstrates that you have an eye for detail and can obey rules regardless of how inefficient they sound, such rules being the cornerstones of the Japanese workplace.

 

4. Every Japanese person carries with them a hand towel (and a face towel during the scorching summer months to wipe off the rivers of sweat that cascade down their faces). They’ve learned this obligatory practice at school and take it as God’s word. My Japanese friends’ towels get ironed after washing and are folded nicely back into their original origami-like state every time they are used. My crumpled towel on the other hand goes straight from the washing machine into the bottom of my handbag and gets chucked back in the bag after use. See photo below of examples of hand towels in a shop, for some reason my friends’ hand towels continue to look like this i.e. brand new, whereas mine looks like road kill.

 

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Road kill

 

5. Similarly to towels, Japanese people fold their umbrellas. Numerous times I’ve sat on the train or arrived at work to observe in a kind of trance the preciseness of how a Japanese person spends two or three minutes carefully folding each individual strip of fabric (and the underlying metal bit) into a neat, immaculate, and crease-free umbrella.

 

6. Everything in Japan has a place and those places are carefully considered for function and aesthetics (this is the case with everything other than public rubbish bins, which do not seem to be part of Japanese councils’ agenda). But for example sweets and food are pretty much always carefully arranged into their boxes (see photos below).

 

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Osechi, New Year’s Eve’s ‘bento boxes’

 

7. We recently let our apartment go in Osaka (as the children moved back to England) and I’ve moved into a flat share. As I was moving from a 3-bed apartment to a single room, we needed to get rid of most of our furniture. In Japan, you can’t do the British classic: dump your unwanted furniture/household items outside your building and wait for a neighbour/passer-by to walk off with it. I suppose (a) unwanted furniture would make the street look messy (something that the Brits are not all that particular about, but the Japanese would view with similar surprise as an English person noticing that some passer by or neighbour, had walked off not only with their unwanted sofa but also the very much wanted front path cast iron gate). Also, (b) having someone else’s old furniture in your home doesn’t seem to be a popular choice in Japan, partly because the Japanese seem to be too infatuated with consumerism to consider buying something second-hand. (see photos below of some dumped items that I noticed on my way to the pub in Brighton, UK the other day).

 

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Second hand mug, tray and bottle of olive oil up for grabs.

 

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This photo was taken in September. I’m guessing this item of Scandinavian Christmas decoration had been standing there since January.

 

As dumping our furniture on the street was not an option, a friend arranged a local recycle shop to come and collect our furniture. When the recycle company arrived the day before we were due to move out to collect the furniture I got a bad feeling as soon as I opened my door to this extremely grumpy guy with only half of his teeth left in his mouth. Toothless walked into the bathroom to have a look at our washing machine, opened the washing machine’s detergent compartment, found some residual washing power in it and started shaking his head. It seems that even though the guy had a somewhat more lax approach to dental hygiene he was extremely particular about washing machine detergent residual. In any case, there I am standing in the bathroom thinking: Wait until you see the fade line of orange marker on the armrest of our grey arm chair, or the fabric of the sofa on the sunny side of the living room where the Japanese sun (comparable to the Star Wars’ Death Star in its incinerating power) had slightly bleached/faded the fabric. As predicted, Toothless tells us that he doesn’t want any of our furniture (even though we were giving it away for free) – apparently he would struggle to find anyone who would buy our damaged stuff.

 

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Our unsellable armchair

 

8. In Japan (and actually also in Finland) people do not wear shoes inside their homes (or other places they hold should be clean, like primary schools). Wearing shoes indoors is seen unhygienic and thus walking indoors with outdoor shoes on is not an option even if removing your shoes was inconvenient. If, having put your shoes on in the porch, you realize that you’ve left your mobile phone in the kitchen you are expected to (a) remove your shoes and get the phone (b) remove one shoe and hop to the kitchen to get the phone (c) leave both shoes on but get on your all fours and crawl to the kitchen on your knees, (d) leave the phone where it is but be miserable about it all day.

 

I kind of like the order and attention to detail in Japan. After all, I am Finnish. Bearing that in mind, you might wonder why I choose to live in England where order and attention to detail is restricted to the queue formation at the bus stop. -Well, the reason probably is that the rebel in me deep down loves England’s overall disorder, occasional chaos and widespread messiness.

National superiority and inferiority complexes

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Having lived in England and Japan for many years has made me, a native to Finland, realize that maybe some nationalities have unrealistically high expectations on foreigners’ knowledge of their nation.

It seems that some nationalities assume that their country is so influential and/or important that even though they themselves don’t necessarily excel in cross-cultural knowledge, or even in global geography, they expect non-natives to know intricate details about their country/people/culture.

For example, I asked my students the other day what they thought a typical French person knows about Japan, and in addition to a long list of specific cultural references like umeboshi (Japanese pickled plums), shabu shabu (a type of Japanese soup), Kyudo (Japanese archery) and an inventory of Japanese comedians and fashion designers my female students confidently stated that the French know that Japanese women are the most beautiful women in the world.

The above are all Japanese references but I would say that they are all rather unfamiliar to a typical European with no specific interest in Japan. And yes, Japanese women are beautiful, but I doubt the French have a similar association with the Japanese women as Japanese (women) do.

It’s not only the Japanese who have somewhat unrealistic expectations of non-natives’ knowledge of their country/people. I’ve noticed the same with many British people. For instance, I remember one New Year’s Eve when my 10 British friends and I crammed into a small cottage in Wales for 24 hours. The ‘entertainment’ for the entire 24 hours was board games and music quizzes relevant to England. I have nothing against board games and quizzes, in fact I’m a big fan, but since I am also quite competitive, I don’t really like playing a game when I have an obvious handicap.

You see, the Trivial Pursuit that we were playing was the UK edition and thus the questions heavily focused on general knowledge that British people have, which of course is different from, say, a Finnish or a Japanese person’s general knowledge or what it can be expected to be. If you want to feel intellectually comparable to Chris Griffin from Family Guy try playing Trivial Pursuit in a country where you didn’t do your compulsory education. After all, the miners’ strike in the 1980s was big news in England, but it had very little effect on a primary school child’s life in Finland. And Fanny Craddock may have been a pioneer in abolishing Britain’s traditional deep-fat-fryer-heavy cuisine, but many Finns would struggle to know what a deep-fat-fryer is let alone be familiar with Fanny. And by the same token, when a Trivial Pursuit question is, ‘What was the name of Captain Cook’s vessel?’. A Finn is like: ‘Huh? Do they mean Captain Hook from Peter Pan?’

In addition to Trivial Pursuit, that New Year’s Eve the host had created his own music quiz, which consisted of old British songs that were popular in the UK before I moved there, and whose popularity was largely restricted to the UK (or at least those songs or artists never made it all the way to Finland). When I handed my empty music quiz answer sheet to the next person for scoring, they looked at me confused and said: ‘You were supposed to write the answers here.’ And when I said: ‘I know’ they looked even more confused.

The point with the above New Year’s Eve story and actually many other similar stories is that my British friends assume that I would have comparable general and popular culture knowledge of England as they themselves do, regardless of the fact that I am not English.

Don’t get me wrong, I agree that some countries have been at the centre of important historical/scientific/political events and innovations which people should know about, but these events being part of general knowledge surely shouldn’t create an expectation that non-natives know everything about that country.

In contrast to natives of some big and important countries, some nationalities have little expectations of foreigners’ knowledge about their countries. For instance, Finland’s remote location, political insignificance and a petty five million inhabitants seem to have created such an inferiority complex that us Finns are over the moon if a foreigner can name anything about Finland – even if it is their son’s miserable rodent called Kimi Räikkönen. But generally speaking us Finns assume that most foreign people don’t know Kimi Räikkönen and aren’t aware that the heart rate monitor, Abloy locks, the Sauna, Ice Skates, Nokia phones, the Linux operating system, Angry Birds and a Molotov cocktail (a bottle bomb) are Finnish inventions.

But recently I’ve noticed that people do know something about Finland. They do!

Maybe it’s thanks to a recent BBC news story and the subsequent huge social media coverage about baby boxes that the Finnish government gives to all newborns in Finland. Consequently, many English people now associate Finland with amazing social welfare and cardboard boxes functioning as Moses baskets (in a positive way).

And us having lived in Japan for two years has made me realize that Finland is not a country that nobody knows anything about. You see, many Japanese people seem to love Finland and they know an awful lot about it. When I tell some random Japanese people whom I meet in sake bars, kids’ playgrounds or doctors’ consulting rooms that I am from Finland many of they exclaim: Moomins, Marimekko, Iittala, northern lights, and/or Santa Claus (typical Finnish references). And some of them who’ve seen/heard my name before I have had a chance to talk to them (e.g. doctors or colleagues at work) say that they immediately knew I was Finnish because of my surname. And pretty much all of them ask me detailed questions about the renowned education system of Finland.

So, maybe Finnish people need to stop having an inferiority complex and follow British and Japanese people’s example. Finland is known for its nature, design, education and social welfare – qualities that, in my opinion, are worth having a superiority complex about.

Our first few days in Osaka

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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).

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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!

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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).

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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.