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Becoming a Local

My current stay in Japan has been very different from my previous study abroad experience was. Sure I was “living” in Japan for four months, but everything was so new and exciting and I was constantly on the go. This time I watch the new students with amusement as they run out to explore Tokyo after their classes finish while I stay in with friends and watch movies in pajamas or walk a few blocks away for dinner.

Every time I look in a guide book or search “things to do in Tokyo” or even “things to do in Japan,” there are only ever a few things I can’t check off. Now that in no way means that I have done everything there is to do in Tokyo, but I have certainly gone to many or even most of the tourist-y places, been to the famous parts of town and made the most famous day trips from the city. And because I have had all of these experiences I am more satisfied with living a more normal life–one that involves laundry and grocery shopping and marathoning tv shows until all hours of the night. And even though there is still a part of me that still feels like a tourist here and craves adventures and trying new things, there is a large part of me that is satisfied by being a local here.

In the last week it has hit me that my life is closer to that of a local’s than that of a tourist’s life. Over the weekend I went to a convenient store and chatted with the store clerk I recognized as she rang up my items. I went to the local Korean restaurant and felt comfortable enough to speak a bizarre mixture of Korean, Japanese and English with the Korean Obachan who works there. And then last night clinched the “local” feeling when I went to the little okonomiyaki restaurant down the street.


One of the other RAs really wanted to experience being a local this time in Japan, and from the time we moved to Yoyogi, he wanted to find a few restaurants to go to regularly. We stumbled across this okonomiyaki place called えん (En) a few weeks ago, and have been going there every Tuesday since.

The first time we went, the staff tried to give us an English menu–as many restaurant staff are prone to do because of how obviously Gaijin we are. We did our best to assure the staff that we didn’t want the English menu, which I think upped the level of intrigue the staff had with us. We stayed for awhile, eating and laughing and taking pictures and videos of the food. By the end of our meal our waiter hesitantly asked us where we were from and told us he had lived in America for several years and spoke English. Now this kind of interaction is not too uncommon, as such minimal interactions with Japanese people generally revolve around why a Gaijin came to Japan and then any involvement the Japanese person speaking has with foreign countries or foreign languages. It was a wonderful night of friendship and food (check out my video here to see it!) but it didn’t make me feel like a local or in any way different than I had felt in Japan last year.

The second time I went, I went with all the other RAs as well as our two superiors (both Japanese people). We stayed for a long time–again talking *cough*gossiping*cough*, eating and laughing. Again I think we amused the staff, but this time they recognized us and we used much more Japanese, so perhaps they were able to more easily overhear our conversations or just recognized our level of dedication to Japanese and Japan. One of my superiors (who everyone loves on sight and is as hilarious as he is talkative) talked to all the staff as they came over to take our orders or cook the okonomiyaki–leading the staff to have a better understanding of why this random group of Gaijin and Japanese people was frequenting the restaurant.

But it was last night that made me feel like a local–or at least like I was on my way to becoming a local. We went in to the restaurant and were clearly recognized by the staff, and throughout the night we engaged various staff members in conversation about not only our lives but their own lives. Sure we talked about Japanese and where we came from, but we also talked about work and food and our plans to come back every Tuesday and attempt to try every flavor of okonomiyaki on the menu.

And then.

As we were leaving the restaurant we happened to be leaving at the same time as one of the staff members who we had been talking with quite a bit. As he walked toward the station and we walked towards YOC we tentatively talked about coming back to the restaurant and whether or not he would be working. He had been talking about how much he wanted to study English and somehow as we were about to part ways we ended up all exchanging LINE IDs so that we could practice Japanese and he could practice English and we would be able to meet him again when he was working to talk in person.

We made a friend.

A real live Japanese friend who we met randomly by doing something a normal, local person would do instead of through the program or through school.

The staff at the restaurant know we are coming back next week. They gave us free toppings on our okonomiyaki because they thought we would like it. They told us about the days they are having discounted items even though it is not widely advertised.

They accepted us as regulars. Not as Gaijin or as one time tourists, but as people to accept into the inner circle–which in Japanese culture is a huge step.



1 Comment

  1. Great experience. Thanks for sharing.
    I really love the idea of becoming a regular. It is amazing how validating it can be to walk into a place and know the people around you. Especially as expats, we don’t often get that kind of acceptance. It can be tiresome to go from restaurant to restaurant and have to get through the awkwardness of servers being afraid to talk with you. Then you have to communicate that you can indeed communicate, only to go through the same checklist of small talk.

    I too live in Japan. I chose a burger restaurant to make my own. It’s also cool that the first time I went was about a month after they opened. They remembered me the second time I came in, and now I barley even have to order. That little bit of consistency in a strange and foreign land goes a long way.

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