You’ve just moved to a new country, you don’t speak the language, you don’t know what are good places to eat, and you can’t read the instructions on your cooking appliances. You can only last about 40 days without food… But don’t book that ticket home just yet.
Living alone in a vastly different place like Japan has several difficulties, finding sustenance is a common challenge. This includes grocery shopping and ordering in restaurants, but the most common food struggle I hear about is anxiety towards eating alone. Going to restaurants alone can be intimidating – you can’t read the menu, you don’t know what the food is like, you don’t know what the final bill will be – there’s a lot of unknowns. These aren’t obstacles, they’re opportunities. Don’t let the unknowns stop you from trying. You can stay in your apartment with your instant noodles until the next day (which is a great idea from time to time). Or you can venture into your neighbourhood and try something new. I’ve found that going out for dinner alone has been one of the most enjoyable experiences of living abroad. You meet local people, practice your Japanese skills, exchange culture, build confidence and learn about yourself in the process.
Learn some Japanese!
I recommend speaking at least a little Japanese, know your hiragana and katakana, numbers to calculate prices, some basic nouns (egg-tamago, beef-niku, chicken-chiikin, beer-biiru), and of course, pleasantries. Say please (onegaishimasu), thank you (arigatoo), and excuse me (sumimasen) as often as you can. If you’re going to be living in the area for a couple of years, they will get to know you. Let them know you as the polite and eager foreigner in the area, not the shy, ill-mannered one. Japanese is an incredibly difficult language to master – seemingly impossible at times – but the basics really are easy. A little Japanese can go a very long way – in a few weeks you can be gaijin smashing your way through most restaurants.
Experience Real Japan
When I say eating alone, I do mean alone. Going out with other ALTs is good, an opportunity to feel at ease with people who are going through a similar experience you are. But don’t go into every local shop with a posse of gaijin and call it a ‘cultural experience’. When you go out for dinner with friends, the restaurant becomes the background, you are being served and everyone around you is another patron. Go by yourself, try and talk to the server or bartender, trust me, if you go to a tiny little ramen shop on your own – people are going to want to talk to you. A group of foreigners who speak little to no Japanese barging into a small shop is intimidating for the server and patrons alike. Its assumed it will be difficult to communicate, this puts a lot of pressure on the servers. On the other hand, a lone foreigner who speaks some basic nouns and pleasantries walks into a small ramen shop… no big deal.
When you go by yourself, you get to meet people, I usually end up leaving with a business card. This isn’t part of some grand plan I have… I’m not a master networker or anything – I’m just happy to meet people and sometimes they’re happy to meet me! This experience builds your character – it forces you to be more outgoing and improve your conversation abilities
Prepare for Disappointment
This is the big one. Life in Japan is not a constant succession of wonderful moments, its a roller coaster with great highs and tough lows (pun very much intended). Sometimes you’ll order what you think is one thing, but turns out to be something else entirely. These experiences need to be looked at as stepping stones, learn from these errors, know what to order next time instead. This can be the push to help you reach that next level of Japanese.
There will be times when you go out and no one is interested in having a conversation, that’s normal. Not everyone is looking to make new friends and *gasp* some people have better things to do than try and communicate with someone who doesn’t speak their language. Turn this into a positive, enjoy the solitude, reflect on your situation and savour that exquisite Japanese cuisine.
It doesn’t sound like much – ordering food at a restaurant. But really… how many people do you know that can walk into a Japanese restaurant and actually order a meal? That’s a pretty remarkable thing to be able to do. You’re not just ordering food either, you’re practicing Japanese, socializing with locals and learning about Japan. The JET Programme puts you in contact with a lot of foreigners who are all great people, its nice to spend time with them but don’t fall into the trap of only hanging out with them. JETs are here to promote cultural exchange just as much as as they are here teach english. Break away from the foreigner mindset and try taking on Japan by yourself for a night – when you polish off that scrumptious meal and say gochisousamadeshita, you’ll be so glad that you did.
Fernando is an Ottawa ALT who’ll be calling Tokyo home for the next few years. An avid movie goer and superhero enthusiast, when he’s not geeking out with his friends, you can usually find him making guacamole.