Assistant Abroad Part 2: Meet the BOSS and Culture Shock!

After two days of travelling that culminated in horrendous jet lag and then three days in Japan, I’ve already experienced enough to dredge up a blog post about what I’ve seen!

Things I am struggling to come to terms with

  • The heat

Even being in the shade provides barely any respite from the stifling heat in Osaka that just smothers everyone! Some smart people use umbrellas as parasols, some wear shorts. In my infinite wisdom, I brought a few pairs of skinny jeans… Also, indoors it is just as hot as outside unless you have access to air con.

  • Heated toilet seats

This may be the point at which you may disagree with my discomfort, especially if you have experienced cold toilet seats. I was greeted by a sign stuck on its lid about all sorts of things, mostly warnings. One of them  happened to be about the temperature of the seat.  Thinking, “OK…that’s kind of weird”, I ignored it, only  to find that the toilet seats really are heated. It isn’t  even comparable to the vague warmth of a seat used  before- it’s actually uncomfortably warm. When you  add this to the sign which reads (in English) about not  letting “people who cannot control their body  temperature” use the seat, doesn’t this put you on  edge just a little bit? If you have to turn off the heating  for those people, what’s to stop it going rogue and  burning your posterior? Also, there are two different types of spray on the toilet, one of which is a ビデー (bidet) and the other is a general spray. You can control the water temperature and whether it’s heated, and there are a range of other buttons involving these sprays.Being somewhat nervous of the advanced function of this toilet, I have left the buttons untouched except for the fake flush, not even trying safe bets such as the ‘Powerful Deodorizer”. More worrying is the “Stop” button. Stop? Stop what? If we press this button, what exactly is going to stop? Time? The universe?? As the typhoon that’s on its way to Osaka has put a stop to any plans, this intrepid explorer plans to test out the buttons (even the stop button). More news to follow!

  • Trenches

The closest description I can make to this is comparing it to a gutter along the pavement where the rain flows, but make it deep enough that it goes up past your ankle for a bit. These gutters (which are something to do with sewers, I haven’t figured out what exactly) run along the sides of roads, and are usually open. This means that it’s very easy to cycle into them, and slightly harder to step into (but still possible!). Sometimes they are covered securely, and often they are covered insecurely, if at all!

Things that are fascinating

  • Meet Mr. Cicada.

This little guy…is actually not so little. He could sit in the palm of your hand and fill it. He’s a regular cast member in anime, chirping in the background. The distinctive sound of the cicada can be heard often while walking through the campus or to and from the university. It’s been exciting chiefly because I’ve watched a few anime featuring cicadas (especially Higurashi no Naku Koro ni!!) and it’s quite strange to be hearing them for real, just a few feet from me! I had hoped to encounter one during my time here, and luckily there was one on the path yesterday! Another one could be seen hanging upside down from a branch. I didn’t dare try and take a photo in case it dropped down on my head!

  • Buses

Well, technically this wasn’t fascinating at first- I got up yesterday to heavy rain and was told that there was a bus outside that went to the university. After grabbing my water bottle and frantically putting on my shoes, I ran to get on. However, initially there was confusion. The door in the standard position on buses in the UK was closed, but another door in the middle of the bus was open. Upon getting in and attempting to queue to pay, my friend called me over, ‘There are lots of seats at the back!’ Unsure of what to do, I went and sat at the back. The bus started moving and I started to panic. I had just dodged a fare! They’d find out and stop me and I’d get a fine and get in trouble! After a bus ride of terror, I overheard a discussion involving some students who’d already been here for a semester.

‘You need 220 yen. Preferably in change. If you don’t have it, you can get change!’ It turned out that you pay the bus fare when getting off. You simply drop it down a chute, thank the driver and get off using the front door, which is an exit! If not, you put your money in the change machine and pay with the change.

But this isn’t the only wonderful thing about buses. They have buttons on the back of all their seats if you wish to stop, you don’t have to hail them down and similar to some trains, they have both an announcing system (which is a female voice speaking Japanese at light speed) and a screen at the front telling you which stop is coming up. So, you have plenty of time to read the kanji painfully slowly and work out that 枚方市駅- Hirakatashi eki, Hirakata City Train Station is the next stop and you need to get off! If that isn’t enough, there’s a bonus- the university stop is announced both in Japanese and English! So even if you don’t know the kanji for Kansai Gaidai, which is pretty important to know, you are informed when to get off! For students in the Asian Studies Program, who may have little to no prior knowledge of Japanese, I imagine this would be a godsend. Plus the aircon on the bus is probably more powerful than that of my room and any building on campus. All of these features make buses a joy to ride!

Things that are just…different

  • Slippers everywhere!

While it’s OK to go around in bare feet or socks in my accommodation, slippers seem to be the main custom, and over the past few days, more and more students have taken to wearing slippers. And of course, I couldn’t continue without the obligatory toilet slippers photo.

For maximum cleanliness, separate slippers are generally worn in the bathroom, and here is no different- these rubber pairs of toilet slippers are here for the students to use! It means that you have to slip into them and then back up and slip out of them backwards so that they’re left pointing into the room for other students to put on easily.

  • Light switches

These switches have a small orange light embedded in them. Here’s a quick guessing game: if the orange light is on, is the switch on or off?

If you guessed off, that’s correct! Against all logic, if your aircon is turned off, the light in the switch will be bright orange. If you go to turn the aircon on, the light will turn off! This reverse psychology has been slightly perplexing at times.

  • Vending machines

The BOSS comes from one of the three vending machines that we have downstairs outside the kitchen. It’s common knowledge that vending machines are everywhere in Japan, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less striking when you actually get here! The range of drinks also borders on flabbergasting, with the BOSS being just on range. For the thirsty student who isn’t into anything fancy, there is “I, Lohas” (as I like to call it) mineral water, which actually says on the label something more like I LOHAS in English letters, with hiragana いろはす [irohasu] on. While it’s strange that a word that is clearly not Japanese is written in hiragana, there are stranger drinks out there! There are cold coffee products, various juices (including Minute Maid apple juice that is 100% apple and tastes exactly as it says on the carton- like green and red apples), exotic varieties of Fanta (grape and lemon and honey in this particular machine) and an odd concoction named only as “Aqua Bulgaria” (pronounced Bul-gah-ria rather than bulg-air-ia) which looks exactly like one assumes a carton of water would. Inside is some kind of Sprite-esque lemonade-ish liquid. I was fooled into buying this once.

  • Attempting to open a bank account

Good luck with this one, fellow foreigners! I underwent the gruelling process of filling in paperwork to open an account at a bank here. There were about 6 different forms. These required your name written on it, sometimes more than once. BUT: you must write your name as it is read on the passport. Literally. Your name is in capitals? Your surname comes first, above your first name and middle name? Write UTCHIG JOHN ROGER. You put a comma after your surname? Sorry, you’ll have to redo it. You put “UTCHIG John Roger”? No good, capitals only please, as there are capitals on your passport. Your capital U looks like a cursive small letter “u”? Not allowed. Your pen was a bit slow to work and you’ve gone over a letter several times? NO REWRITING.

Do you get the idea? Well, there’s a bit more where that comes from. Your signature is required. What’s that? Your signature varies slightly every time you sign it? Well, that won’t be accepted! There are three dots in your signature, but only two on the version you’ve written on the form? We can’t accept that. Oh, and if you don’t write your name identically on each form, they must be redone, so watch out how you write your capital Y. We need your birth date please. Measured in Emperor years. Born before or during 1989? Then you’re Showa 60-something. But wait a minute. Your birthday is on or after the 8th of January? Well then, you’re Heisei 1 because the new emperor began his reign then. So, in addition to causing headaches figuring out what number to write in the year column, it also looks stupid from a Western perspective if it says you were born in 02/05/23 (yy/mm/dd). You need a photocopy of the photo page of your passport and of the home address page- wait, this seems reasonable…but I have a UK passport. Where am I supposed to find the home address? Well, you must go and make a copy of a blank page of your passport and write your address on it. Then copy that and give the copy of the copy in… What?

I hope you now have a feel for how very concerned with details Japanese paperwork can be. I can’t really complain as I managed to fill mine out correctly first time round. The same can’t be said for my poor friend, who after 6 attempts  and having wrote his address as “U.K”, gave it to the staff to check. Upon seeing the full stop, one of the advisors recommended that he redo it. He gave up at that point, telling them to send it anyway.

  • Banks

This really should be on the “struggling” list. I’m used to banks being open from 9-5 or so back home, and them being open on Saturdays and sometimes on Sundays. Here, I went on a mid-afternoon trip down to a bank. Two of them were closed completely, with only the ATM area open, and upon attempting (with terrible Japanese) to try to exchange my traveller’s cheques, I found out that as it was after 3pm, that particular part of the bank was closed. It made life especially inconvenient for me as:

1) the bank recommended by the university was far enough away from the uni that there was no way I could physically cash them and return before I needed to pay that money to them- this was on a day in which I had about 50 minutes free between all the meetings I had to attend.

2) When I managed to get down to a bank, I failed to cash them as it was after 3.

3) When I was swept up to go to karaoke, the bank closed well before I returned to my accommodation.

Number 3 is more my fault than the bank’s, but I don’t regret the decision as I got to experience authentic Japanese karaoke, continue to bond with new friends and I got to speak a fair bit of Japanese and make friends with some lovely Japanese students, which I deemed were enough positives to justify this detour!

  • Karaoke

I was very lucky to catch up with friends who were spontaneously heading to karaoke. Some of the friendly Japanese students were taking them, and I tagged along! After hurrying through pre-typhoon weather with an umbrella wrecked by the wind, I caught the bus with everyone and we headed up to a karaoke place by the train station. I’ve experienced English karaoke, and there are two minute differences that attracted my attention. Firstly, I’d usually go for two or three hours in the evening with my friends back in England. Here, we spent a whole afternoon there. Secondly, whereas at English karaoke, the singer stands up at the front of the room and in a sense performs to everyone, in the Japanese karaoke rooms people will either stand up on their seat or simply sing while sitting down. The small aspect of “performance” or perhaps even showing off a little is missing from Japanese karaoke. What wasn’t missing, surprisingly for me, were English songs. The whole back catalogue of the Beatles and Queen was there, along with almost all of Lady Gaga’s career and a bit of Blur and Pulp! It was certainly an experience and I tried my hand at some songs from anime that I happened to know.

All in all, it’s been an interesting few days and while I may not have completely adapted to Japanese life, I can keep my head above water now! In a few days, I’ll have moved in with my host family and will have started classes, so there will be an abundance of material for these updates!


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