Home-thoughts from Abroad

So here I am, about half-way through my trip to Japan and more-or-less getting the hang of life here. I have to admit that when I was a bit apprehensive ahead of my arrival because various friends back home had warned me that everyday things, particularly food, would be quite difficult to get used to in such a different culture; one even advised me to put plenty of sachets of Cup-a-Soup in my luggage in case I couldn’t find anything edible. As it turns out I’ve taken to the food rather well. First night here we had a traditional meal with various forms of Sashimi, which I liked very much indeed. At the weekend I went to a different kind of traditional eating-place and ate a hearty and very filling lunch of roast pork. The staff and other diners at this second place were quite surprised to see a European person there; they were impeccably polite, but clearly found it hilarious to see a middle-aged man struggling so much with his chopsticks. It occurred to me that they probably thought that only a barbarian could be such a messy eater. The food, however, was delicious.

Being conspicuous is something I’ve had to get used to. Although Nagoya is quite a large city, it’s not really a prime tourist location and there are not many Europeans to be found. There are numerous shops and eating places on the Nagoya University campus in which the clientele is overwhelmingly local; I always feel that I stick out like a sore thumb when I walk in. I can’t read a word of Japanese either, which means I have to point at the menu and hope that there are no options because that would require a question to be asked and answered. Today at lunch in one of the University Dining Halls I didn’t know how to answer a question and ended up with a side order of chips by default. They probably assumed that’s what I wanted, but in fact I’d have been happy trying something a little more exotic.

People don’t seem to eat any kind of dessert here, at either lunch or dinner. There are several pleasant coffee bars that serve good quality coffee near us, and there’s also a Starbucks. Also, people never tip in restaurants: you pay at the door on the way out, rather than at the table.

Supermarkets are interesting too. Most products have only Japanese writing on them so guesswork is often involved in figuring out the ingredients. Only rarely is there any English writing. Sometimes there’s a picture, but it doesn’t always help. I bought a bag of crisps the other day but had no idea what flavour they would be. After eating them I still haven’t a clue. Tasty though.

A small convenience store near the department sells pastries and the like so that’s what I’m having for breakfast these days. There’s a small water boiler in my room so I can make tea or (instant) coffee there; green tea is provided in the room. I bought some allegedly English (“black”) tea in a supermarket the other day, but sadly it turned out to be revolting. Perhaps I’ll bring it home with me and give it to someone I don’t like.

Generally food is pretty cheap: you can get a substantial meal in a reasonable restaurant for less than the equivalent of £10; items in supermarkets where I’ve been able to make a comparison are about 2/3 of the price you would pay in Britain. Come to think of it that’s probably less to do with Japan being cheap and more to do with Britain being expensive.


Selfie, with Yukata

Among the items provided in my room is a Yukata, a simple cotton robe with wide sleeves worn with an obi (belt). I decided to try mine on and the result is shown on the left. Unfortunately I broke the symmetry incorrectly: one is supposed to wrap the left side over the right, whereas I did it right over left. The way I did it is apparently the way a body is dressed for burial. At least it looks right correct in the mirror.

Incidentally, the Japanese also drive on the right side of the road, ie the left.

The Yukata is extremely comfortable, and is often worn outdoors during the summer months or so I’m told. It’s too chilly in Nagoya at this time of year to go out wearing one, but it’s fine for indoors.
And before you ask, that’s not a telephone by the mirror but a hair-dryer…

During the days I’ve been busy getting on with work as well as talking a very great deal with some of the Doctoral and Masters students here at the Kobayashi-Maskawa Institute about their work. I think they relished the chance to practice speaking English as much as to get my input into the science. Anyway, the topics are very wide-ranging: higher-order perturbations to the Boltzmann Equation, analysis of Hα galaxy surveys, weak lensing in modified gravity theories, primordial magnetic fields, luminous red galaxies in clusters, analysis of 21cm surveys, etc.


A strange thought struck me walking to the office this morning. To me Japan is a foreign culture and I can’t speak a word of the language but, despite all that, I find it much easier to imagine living here than, say, America (where I can at least speak a similar language to the locals).  I’m not sure that this makes sense in terms of an explanation, but Japan seems to be a country that probably makes a lot of sense once you come to terms with it. I’m not saying that I want to move here, just that I feel a lot less alien here than I expected, and a lot less alien than I do in places much closer to home.

10 Responses to “Home-thoughts from Abroad”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    Don’t they have exquisite plastic replicas of the dishes on the menu, so that you can point to the one you’d like?

    I remember looking for an obscure location and getting on ever more local trains until I was definitely the only Westerner around. I understand that the Japanese regard themselves as duty-bound to show the best aspects of Japan to gaijin, but a young boy in the train pointed at me and shouted “gaijin” (ie, foreigner). His mother was clearly embarrassed. I smiled back, but had difficulty not giggling.

    I’ve been told that the one thing a gaijin can do that causes Japanese to show anoyance is to soap up in the ofuro. That’s the large bath of hot water in many ryokans (traditional Japanese inns). One is meant to shower oneself clean with soap before lounging for relaxation in the ofuro, which is for repeated use.

    Which Boltzmann equation is that, Peter? The kinetic one with the quadratic collision term?

    • Would one soap up in a jacuzzi/hot tub/whirlpool in England?

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        No, but Westerners understand that those are communal, whereas the ofuro just looks to Westerners like a large single bath.

    • telescoper Says:

      They don’t have plastic models of the food in the places I’ve visited; certainly not in the student halls! They sometimes have photographs, but they don’t always help. In the place I went for Sunday lunch they helpfully produced a picture of a pig to show which cut of pork I had (loin, actually).

      I haven’t had a go in an ofuro; there’s just a shower in the guest house here.

      In cosmology you have to solve a Boltzmann-type equation for the evolution of matter including collisions with radiation. Since the early Universe is fairly accurately uniform one can usually solve for the fluctuations in matter density using linear perturbation theory. Extending this analysis to higher-order (even second-order) is quite difficult to do consistently, as there are many subtleties. That’s what we were discussing.

  2. “Come to think of it that’s probably less to do with Japan being cheap and more to do with Britain being expensive.”

    My thoughts exactly.

    “To me Japan is a foreign culture and I can’t speak a word of the language but, despite all that, I find it much easier to imagine living here than, say, America (where I can at least speak a similar language to the locals).”

    My thoughts exactly.

    “I’m not saying that I want to move here”

    My thoughts exactly.

  3. SandraFromAcr...Flanders Says:

    Yet another interesting read ^^

  4. When I’m in Japan I often get breakfast at one of the little bakeries that you find everywhere but especially around train stations.

    As someone who grew up in England, has spent quite a lot of time in Japan, and now lives in the US, I understand why you think Japan would be easier to fit into than the US. However, many people have told me that while the Japanese go out of their way to help visitors, if it looks like you are going to stay then the wall comes down. There are third-generation Koreans who are still not thought of as Japanese.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Maybe they don’t want to be. The key point, if you are going to judge, is to learn the language first, so that you can really talk to people. And maybe tackle them, in a formal society, when they are a little drunk.

      • Certainly mastering the language is essential. However, while necessary, it is not sufficient. There is quite a range of societies with regard to the ease with which immigrants can become accepted. I’m not talking about xenophobia, but rather other aspects. For example, it is apparently quite difficult to become integrated in Iceland. Some of this might be due to familiarity with immigrants etc, and historically Japan (like Iceland) has had few immigrants. Also, most foreigners are easily recognizable as such based on physiognomy (and, yes, Koreans and Chinese are quite obvious in Japan).

  5. Fascinating…really interesting profile of the city & culture. Perhaps science is the universal language, which is why they made you so welcome.

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