We’re all thinking a lot about Japan now and the ill-fated summer Olympics, another result of the pandemic. It seems the Olympic Games will go on, but foreign spectators are not allowed and even domestic spectators are limited, which is a huge pity in many ways; for the games, for the athletes, for Japan (and a huge economic loss).
One sad result is that so many people from around the world will not have the chance to experience Japan and its unique culture. It’s a wonderful experience to visit Japan and to get to know its people, its traditions, its cities and countryside, its temples and shrines, and especially its food.
Rod and I have been very lucky over the years to have visited Japan a number of times and on two occasions we even lived there for a couple of months, which gave us even more opportunity to learn about this great country.
I’ve written about lots of those experiences before, but I’d like to re-visit some of them as a way to highlight what people might be missing and hopefully as a way for some people to experience some things vicariously.
First, about our apartment when Rod was teaching and helping with scientific research at Hokkaido University in Sapporo, Hokkaido. I was also going to teach ESL to the lab members twice a week. Two main lessons from the apartment: size of living spaces, and not understanding the language.
Our host, Satoshi, had organized a cute little apartment in Sapporo, on the 3rd floor of a smallish complex about a 10-minute walk from the south entrance gate to the University of Hokkaido (which is closest to where Rod and I needed to be). The total floor space was small, about the same as our sitting area at home, but it is well thought-out and self-contained. There was a small lowered entrance space where we left our shoes, and then one step up to the floor area. To the right a tiny eating area and ahead a sitting area with a sleeping alcove off to the left; to the left a cooking area. We stepped up into a miniscule bathroom from the cooking area—can’t even call it a kitchenette, as all it had was a fridge, a small sink with one hot plate next to it, and no preparation surface at all.
Behind the eating/working table was a rack with a microwave. In the sleeping area was a single bed (Rod’s) and I had the rather short couch that folded down—got used to having my feet a bit elevated! We did have a small balcony, which was nice as we could open the doors for air—no a/c here even though Hokkaido was having an abnormally hot and humid summer that year. We also used the balcony for drying clothes, which was handy.
The cooking space was partially equipped with crockery, cutlery and kitchen utensils. The only problem was that all the instructions for all the appliances were in Japanese (of course, as we were in Japan after all!). Even the microwave looked different to ours at home and we couldn’t decide which button to press. The hot plate and washing machine seemed to be some special model with special features, and we couldn’t even begin to fathom the working of the rice cooker. Satoshi, our host, explained them all to us on our first afternoon and we tried to take it all in, a bit bemused by all the new stuff and by the long trip getting here. Later, we fiddled a bit and got some of them right but had to get Satoshi to tell us again. Rod and I tried to memorize which switch is which so we could do it on our own. We were, and are, reminded again and again about the importance of language.
We learned that for many ordinary Japanese people their living space is quite small, so what we had was not unusual. Generally, the Japanese don’t entertain at home, and we could see why! They tend to take friends and visitors out to a restaurant.
Rod and I managed to cook some simple meals here—for example, pasta with bottled sauce and cooked bacon and cheese; lovely fresh salmon in the frying pan, plus potatoes in the microwave, and a salad. Some nights/lunch times we ate out, either with lab members or alone in the nearby JR Station underground mall (where we could point to plastic food models, which I’ll talk about later), so all-in-all a good arrangement .
We were about 2 blocks from the railway line, so were lulled to sleep by the soothing sound of passing trains (of which there are many), and were woken up by the cawk-cawk-cawk-caaarwk of many huge black crows that roosted in some nearby trees.