the things you learn

Not speaking the language (still, I know) forces you to learn how to respond in particular situations…

If I’m buying something at the supermarket and they start speaking to me, they are probably asking if I want a bag with that.  I can either shake my head, do a hand wave signifying no, or respond with ふくろいりません (fukuro irimasen), meaning “I don’t need a bag”.  I actually took the time to learn this phrase because they over-bag in Japan.  They put everything in bags!  You buy a stick of gum, they put it in a bag.  You buy a bag of chips, they put it in a bag.  My apartment was filled with plastic bags!  So I learned to say ふくろいりません.

If I’m at a store and I pay with a credit card, they may ask me a question, accompanied with a hand gesture indicating a one or two.  They are asking if I want to swipe my credit card once or twice.  This one took me a while to figure out.  I used to just say yes, but that confused them.  After talking to some of my Japanese friends, I learned to say, one swipe.  I’m not really sure why you would pay with two swipes, maybe there is a transaction limit on Japanese credit cards.  One of the mysteries of Japan…

If you are on the train and all of the sudden everyone gets off.  Get off too!  I’ve actually not noticed everyone getting off before, or thought, “that’s weird, everyone in this car needed to get off at this stop”.  At this point a Japanese man rushed up to me and gestured to get off the train.  Since then, I’ve learned that when everyone gets off the train, it means that they are switching trains and you have to walk across the platform to another train.  Just follow the people, a philosophy I use a lot here.

Creatures of Habit

Do you think about which side of the sidewalk you walk on? Or does it come naturally? The Japanese walk on the left side, so I either have to THINK about moving to the left (I’m getting better) or run into endless amounts of people when I’m walking, and there are a lot of people here.

Quick – which side of the steering wheel is the turn signal on?  Right or left?  In Japan, the turn signal is on the right side of the steering wheel, and the windshield wipers are on the left, opposite of the States. So every time I want to make a turn, I end up washing the windows.

When you cross the street, which direction you look?  Left.  Do you think about it?  No.  Because we’ve done it a bazillion times and that’s where the cars are coming from. In Japan, you drive on the left, so the cars come from the right.  When I cross the street now, I look both ways, five times because I can’t remember.

If your friend’s driving you somewhere and your approaching their car, which side do you go to to get in? The right side. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve walked to the right side, only to be politely told by the driver to go to the other side (steering wheel is on the right side of the car in Japan).

The strangest habit that I’ve encountered is responding in Portuguese or Spanish when someone starts speaking to me in Japanese. I lived in Brazil for 7 months and SoCal for 5 years, so I guess my mind is trained to think “ah! Someone is speaking to me in another language! Respond in Portuguese/Spanish! Do it now!”  I don’t respond in full sentences or anything, but I’ve caught myself saying “si” (yes) or “e” (and), which is just weird.

The last, and most annoying one of all.  In Japan, the toilet is not in the bathroom.  It has its own room:

I’ve walked into the bathroom SO many times wanting to use the toilet, only to turn around to head to the little toilet room.  It’s interesting what the mind does for you without having to consciously think about it, until you move to another country.

My $10,000 Apartment

Well, it’s not really $10,000. It was 862,400 yen, which at today’s exchange rate is $10,646.  I’ll round down.  But the point is, I needed $10,646, cash, just to move into my apartment.

Let’s break it down.  One month’s rent is about $2500, yes a little high, but for Japan, it isn’t that high. A “cheap” place would have been $2000, so I figure I’d spend a little more and live a little better. Plus since the yen is ridiculously strong right now, it increases the price by about 20%. So, first month’s rent is, $2500, what about the other $7500??  Well, part of the Japanese culture is that there is a little job for everyone, they aren’t an, “I can do it myself” culture, which means you have to go through an agent to find an apartment. There is no craiglsist to look at and owners don’t post classified ads for all to read.  For their services, agents get one month’s rent, plus tax.  So that’s the second $2500. The third $2500 is the security deposit, understandable, hopefully I get it back. The last $2500 is the rip-off part.  It’s the “key” or “gift” money that you give to the owner as a “thank you” for letting you rent their apartment. They pocket that, you never see it again. But, that’s the culture.  Everyone does it.  The last little bit is renter’s insurance, about $250 for the entire time I stay at the place. Not too bad.  So, $2500 for first month’s rent + $2500 agent fee + $2500 deposit + $2500 key money + $250 renters insurance is about my $10,646.  Just to move in.

Needless to say, it’s very common for Japanese to live with their parents until they’re 30. That gives them enough time to get a good job, just so they can get their own place.

Casual Dining

I love the casual dining experience in Japan.  And by casual, I mean something between fast food and high-end sit down restaurants.  The closest thing I can think of in the States are places that people sit down for a quick bite during lunch, Thai food, Applebees, diners, but it’s different here, and that’s why I like it.  My favorite restaurants so far are the ones with the vending machines to order from before you sit down:


In the US, eating is an experience. An event.  In Japan, it’s a necessity of life.  You eat and move on.  In Japan, you order your food, sit down at long tables next to strangers, have some green tea (free), the server brings you your food, and when you’re done, you walk away.  If you’re at a place with a menu, you sit down, with or without a friend, they take your order, the check comes before the meal is over, and always separate checks if there are multiple people, and when you’re done, you walk to the cash register, pay, and leave.  All prices include tax, there is no tip, so you know exactly how much things cost.  It’s simple and straightforward.  In the US, casual dining is a big production.  You walk into a restaurant, there is a hostess that greets you and she looks at her magical seating chart.  If you’re lucky, she seats you immediately, and then you look over the menu as you wait for the waiter.  Then the waiter does the little spiel about who he/she is, how they’re going to take care of you, what the specials are that their trying to figure out whether or not to put on the menu permanently, etc.  They take your order, the drinks come, some sort of bus boy actually brings you the food and you eat.  But have to find the waiter again before getting the check.  If you spot him/her, you do the little “writing of the check” hand gesture, they bring you the bill, sometimes with a little mint, tell you what a wonderful time it was to serve you in hopes that you leave a bigger tip.  If your party has multiple people, there’s a bunch of confusion about the bill.  How much is the tax?  In Virginia, it’s only 5%, but in California, it’s 10%.  If people don’t know the tax, the bill is short and the situation get’s worse.  But, that’s generally how American dining is.  I prefer the Japanese way.

In all seriousness, I think the main reason for the difference in dining techniques, is the amount of people in Japan, which is a fundamental reason why a lot of things are the way they are here.  If the restaurants don’t move people through the restaurants as fast as they can, there will be too many hungry people waiting in line, and chaos will ensue.

Learning Japanese: Part 1 of Many

I had a couple of language breakthroughs this week.  First of all, I’ve been learning, very slowly, one of the three Japanese character sets, Hiragana.  Hiragana has about 71 characters, and each character is a sound: し (shi), こ (ko), き (ki), etc.  Pretty much every word in Japanese can be constructed from these basic sounds.  Japanese has 110 sounds in total.  English has… 7890 sounds!  So native English speakers have it easy.  The second character set is Katakana.  It has the same number of characters as Hiragana with the same sounds, but they are written differently and are used exclusively for foreign originating words, such as the word computer, コンピュータ.  The third character set is Kanji, which are Chinese characters, where each character represents something, like 川 (river), or 学校, (school).  There are tens of thousands of those, so I’m putting off learning those for a while.   Anyway, the breakthroughs.

One night this week I went to a sushi place that has a little computer screen at each table to order from and a conveyor belt that brings your order to your table (it’s awesome).  The computer screen is entirely in Japanese.  You select the sushi you want and another screen pops up with two options, one with a green check and one without.  What does this mean??  By recognizing the Hiragana characters, I was able to read the word wasabi.  Green check with the word wasabi under it?  Wasabi please?  I think so!  I selected the green check and my sushi came with wasabi.  Craig 1, Japanese 10000000.  At least I’m on the board.  The second breakthrough came from my learning Japanese mp3s.  I’ve learned “Good Morning”, which I’ve been using for a while, and recently I learned “How are you?” (slowly, but surely).  This morning when I went to breakfast at the hotel, I said the usual “Good morning”, the server guy said “Good morning” back.  Then I followed up with, “How are you?”.  The server was shocked.  And then he smiled.  A tall foreigner with crazy hair, just asked him how he was.  He was literally speechless.  Then he mustered up, “I am good”, in English.  (I’d prefer it if he respond in Japanese, but baby steps, baby steps).  The funny thing is, I only said, “How are you?”, but he thought it was a cultural breakthrough.  I moved on and got my breakfast, read my English newspaper, and went about my day.  But it felt good to communicate, if just a little.