Celebrating Small Victories

Who knew that after just one week in Japan I’d have already seen many of my coworkers and students naked. 😮

Whoa, let’s back up.

I have been in Japan just over two weeks now. In some ways it feels like I’ve been here for months, and in others it’s like I arrived yesterday. Sometimes it’s hard to even remember what life was like pre-all things Japan. I’ll try to break it down.


While it wasn’t the smoothest start in my first Japanese apartment, two specific incidents, my apartment having not been cleaned when I arrived and the gas being turned off my second day in the apartment, these events actually led to some of my first fun “I’m sorry I don’t speak Japanese” encounters. I couldn’t help but laugh at the experience of having a team of cleaning lades introduce themselves and bow to me, and a Tokyo Gas employee sit on the edge of my bathtub with me explaining with a mix of Japanese, English, and sign language how I can use my high-tech water thermostat to automatically fill my tub at a certain time with a certain amount of water at a certain temperature and set it to “whirlpool” mode (this part was definitely done via sign language).

My hot water thermostat.

A bit on the apartment: My apartment is two floors, a downstairs hallway with three doors: 1. sink, washer, shower, tub, 2. toilet, 3. closet. Upstairs is a semi-open concept kitchen/living space. There is one hot water thermostat in the kitchen and another above the tub downstairs. And YES, my toilet has a seat warmer and the water is recycled via a sink above the toilet which I use to wash my hands!

One of the biggest challenges I’ve had with living in Japan so far is learning how to take out the trash. To sum it up very briefly, each weekday is a different pickup, with main categories being burnable trash, plastics, plastic bottles, aluminum cans, used cloth/paper, and non-burnable trash. Many of these categories also require a certain colored bag which can be picked up at any number of grocery and convenient stores. A particularly fun challenge was figuring out what to do with the giant cardboard boxes my mattress, bed frame, and kitchen island came in. In San Francisco, I’d throw it out on the street and within 10 minutes it would become someone’s bed for the night. In Japan, I spent about an hour breaking down and cutting these boxes into even squares and tying them with string. Just slightly different…

I’ve found that finding opportunities to practice Japanese is easy, especially in my city (Koganei) where no one speaks English. I’ve made friends with the chef at a ramen restaurant next to the train station, a local house/shop owner who sells some sort of chocolate cakes, and a very, very old lady that seems to be doing constant loops around the neighborhood. She always gives me huge smiles and says things like “samui desu ne!?” ~ (it’s cold right!?).

Trail near my house in Koganei.

My first weekend I was invited to go on a snowboard trip with some teachers and students from the school. Snowboarding was amazing, the weather was sunny and the scenery was gorgeous.

We finished riding around 4 pm and I assumed we would then go back to Tokyo (we had taken the Shinkansen from Tokyo to Yuzawa, about 1.5 hours). But no, I found out we were going to an onsen nearby. An onsen is a Japanese hot spring, but very different from a hot spring we would picture in America. Traditional onsens, like the one we went to, are more aptly described as a public bath house. The men and women are separated and, essentially, you take baths together.

On my first trip to Japan last year I came across onsens plenty of times in my travel research, but for some reason the idea of getting naked and washing myself next to a bunch of other naked women didn’t appeal to me. So when I was told we were going to an onsen I got a little nervous. I believe I said to one of the girls, “Is this like a traditional onsen?” and she replied very bluntly, “Yes, we will be naked.” Well okay then!


After initially feeling very awkward (not only am I suddenly naked in front of essentially everyone I know in the entire country plus a bunch of strangers, but I’m also the only foreigner in the room), I actually really enjoyed it. Basically you sit on a bench where there are stations of soap, shampoo, conditioner, and a shower head, and you “take a bath”. Then you sit in a huge hot tub. We started indoors and then moved to an outdoor hot spring, where we were surrounded by snow. It turned out to be an amazing experience and I can’t wait to try another one. Reflecting on it afterwards it is so funny to think about something like this happening in America. Not only would I never do this with my friends, but it would be so inappropriate to do this with your coworkers and clients!

Next we headed to a sake (rice wine) tasting room and then a soba restaurant in a beautiful traditional Japanese-style building where you sit on the floor around a big table. A huge crate of cold soba noodles were placed in the middle and you pick up a bunch with your chopsticks and dip them into a cup of tasty broth along with tempura. Needless to say it was delicious but the best part was that I got complimented on my use of chopsticks!

Finally at 9 pm we headed back to the train, a MAX Shinkansen (double-decker!) which landed me home just before midnight.

As I read through my post I realize it really has been an amazing start to my time in Japan, but that doesn’t mean there haven’t been hard moments. The first couple of days especially were very overwhelming. One moment in particular stands out from my first full day – I went into a store to buy cleaning supplies for my apartment and standing in an aisle full of spray bottles of cleaning detergent all in Japanese I had no idea how to know which one to buy. It seems small, but in that moment it was more of a realization that I have hundreds of things I need to buy and all of them will be hard, and they have been – from sheets to laundry detergent to just trying to find a basic lotion for my hands. Every step has the added language barrier challenge. But the more I do it the more normal it becomes (and finding the dollar store where a LOT of things are written in English below the Japanese has helped!).

Supplies for the cleaning crew!

A few other takeaways from my first two weeks in Japan:

  • Japanese people are almost as impressed with their country as foreigners are. I have become very familiar with the word sugoi! which roughly translates to wow!
  • The level of customer service is shocking. From offering to combine your shopping bags to putting a little piece of tape on the plastic bag to keep it closed, to this expert level of Starbucks to go packing, the friendliness and standard of customer service is unmatched.
Expert level Starbucks packing
  • When moving to a new country it is so important to celebrate the small victories. Successfully understanding that the Starbucks cashier is offering to heat your scone and being able to respond in Japanese, finding an extension cord in the four-story MEGA Don Quijote (sort of like a Target), signing up for a discount card at the local grocery store, and figuring out how to take out the trash are just a few examples of small things that felt really big.
  • Above all else I am learning to have patience for myself. I like to get things done fast and in a foreign country with a full-time job things just don’t happen fast. But, considering it’s only been two weeks, I’m awfully proud of all that I’ve accomplished! Tonight I even cooked a meal in my apartment!
It was pretty good though to be honest I think I bought glutinous rice and I am not 100% positive about what animal my meat came from…

I realize this post has nothing on my job, I promise the next will have more, but overall it’s been going great!


14 thoughts on “Celebrating Small Victories

  1. mjmartin2coxnet

    Thank you for sending. I loved reading about your first two weeks. It amazes me how much waste we have in the USA with so much we do compared to others. What will you do for medical needs? Love, Uncle Mark

    Get Outlook for iOS ________________________________

    1. Thanks Uncle Mark! Eventually I’ll be enrolled in the national health plan… waiting on my visa to process! It’s pretty basic though, I pay 30% Japan pays 70%.

  2. jordyn51200

    Wow! I didn’t think I would be able to admire you any more since your trip around the world last year, BUT you continue to amaze me. Going after a dream to go back to Japan or South Korea and teach, getting your teaching certification and unbelievably landing the job with sports included seems unimaginable. You did it and your first 2 weeks in a foreign country not knowing the language or any friends proves to me you have the confidence and resilience to do whatever you want out of life. I’m so proud of you.

    You’ve accomplished so much in just 2 weeks. I can’t wait for your next blog to let us know how your work is going.

    Love, Aunt Debbie XOXO

  3. rfeldman27

    Great post Em! You sure know how to grab the reader’s attention! Your mother and I truly miss your sense of adventure, persistence, humor, and determination. You’ve accomplished so much in just 2 short weeks. So..we can skip the onsen when we visit but the Sake bar and Soba noodles look promising! Love you!

    1. Haha my mom just notified me that my response to you was confusing. I saw Jill and immediately thought this was from my cousin Jill! Would love to have you visit as well! 🙂

    1. Hi Jill! My school is a private school so it’s not the case… students just come in for one or two sessions (many of them come straight from work). But I have heard it is the case in the public schools! Could you imagine trying to implement that with kids in America??

  4. Hi there!
    I also just moved to Japan back in March and reading through this post made me remember how hard the first week was. Other friends from the states in other areas call that our hell week in which we would never want to experience again haha I also remember how overwhelming it was when I realized how much I needed to make my apartment my home too! I really realized how much I had back home. But thankfully things have gotten easier 🙂 Jealous you’re in Tokyo though! Love the nature but miss the hustle of a big city.

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