Une Gaijin au Japon dans les années 90

35 years ago, when I was joining my brother in Asia for a vacation, Cupid decided to shoot his arrow in Japan and hit me in the heart. 6 months later, I moved there.

Here is the story of a Gaijin, a foreigner, who in the early 90s finds herself in Japan. Between funny anecdotes and embarrassing misadventures, embark with me in this little-known Japan.

August 22, 1988 that’s it, my master’s degree in psychology in my pocket, I’m finally ready to take off for Japan: this country that I discovered barely 6 months ago and that I can’t wait to find again!

Still a student, I had of course bought the cheapest ticket (I don’t work in tourism yet and I don’t know yet that there are airlines that it is better to avoid!) After 72 hours (yes you read correctly!) I finally arrive in Tokyo Narita. It is hot (35 degrees) and the humidity level reaches record highs of 98%! Even in my native south there are no such temperatures… The 1st time I came in May, it was spring I did not know that Japan had 4 well marked seasons and that the summers are hot, even very hot!

I live in a small apartment (an understatement!!) in the inner suburbs of Tokyo. There are no foreigners. My neighbors, the local environment, are typically Japanese, I find it super, brilliant, fantastic… But, after brushing my teeth with shaving foam, made the most expensive ratatouille on earth (vegetables are sold by the piece and not by the kilo!) and have lost myself countless times, I realise that the lack of communication and knowledge of a country and a language can lead to misunderstandings that are sometimes embarrassing but mostly very funny. The Japanese are extremely kind and polite!

In this month of August, most Japanese are on vacation, it’s Obon, a kind of Japanese “All Saints’ Day” where families return to their region to celebrate their ancestors.

It is a moment of reunion and joy punctuated by the Matsuri, these traditional festivals very popular with families who like to go there dressed in Yukata, a kind of summer kimono.

Despite the heat, I am beginning to discover a country, traditions and above all a gastronomy! But that will be for another article!

September is here, typhoon season too. We are in the car, it is 3 p.m. and suddenly by Toutatis the sky is going to fall on my head!!! It is pitch black, waterspouts are falling on Tokyo and especially on our car! I feel like I’m going to drown in this Mazda! I will learn later not to worry about typhoons, earthquakes, the rainy season and other Japanese weather peculiarities!

For now, the most important thing for me is to start familiarizing myself with the language, which seems like an insurmountable mountain. But the Fuji San is not very far, I see it from my bathroom window, and it seems to tell me that nothing is impossible according to this very French saying!

So I enroll in a language school for foreigners in Shinjuku, one of the 23 wards of Tokyo. On the first day of school, I feel like I’m 12 years old and entering 6th grade!

I am the only French in a class where the majority of students are Europeans, South and North Americans, Australians, Asians, but no Chinese. Indeed, the courses in these schools are most often taken by Chinese students who, let’s face it, leave with a definite advantage in reading and writing!

But the management decided to create a specific class for them so as not to hinder their learning of Kanji, this alphabet that they themselves possess, and not to frustrate those who are discovering them for the first time.

After 3 months, I estimate (wrongly, but I will understand it later) that I no longer need to learn in a school because, on the one hand, I will never be able to read or write Japanese and on the other hand, I can talk and practice at home if I want.

My tourist visa is about to expire, this time I need a work visa (working holidays visas don’t exist yet, we are still in the 20th century!) An Australian friend who studies in the same school as me, offers to meet the director of the language center where she teaches English, he is looking for French for his department. The next day, I present myself and the deal is concluded in less than 5 minutes (I will never find that again during my job interviews in France!)

We are in the fall of 1988, I share an apartment in Tokyo with my sweetheart, I have a very well-paid job with hours that suit me perfectly, I am fulfilled and I already love this country full of contradictions, which I ‘ve decided to adopt for the best as well as for “the worst” ….

Autumn in Japan is synonymous with Momiji, those maple leaves that turn red and are representative of this season. So, we decide to go explore this countryside which takes on flamboyant hues and above all I will finally be able to test a Ryokan, these typical Japanese inns, where you sleep on Futons placed on Tatamis.

I have already slept in rudimentary conditions so I imagine, at that time, that sleeping on mattresses placed on the straw must not be the most comfortable, an experience that I will love later on, but I do not don’t know yet!!

After 3 hours on the road, we arrive in Tochigi prefecture in Nasu, known throughout Japan for its hot springs, the Onsens.

I finally discover the accommodation that will welcome us tonight, and I am speechless.

Indeed, the ryokan, which I thought was basic, turns out to be in fact a traditionnal wooden house, 700 years old!!!! I enter and wonder gives way to delight.

We leave our shoes at the entrance, in the Genkan, the hostess welcomes us in a colorful kimono, a cup of steaming green tea in her hand and, Irrashaimase, welcomes us in Japanese.

I am dazzled by this cozy, refined atmosphere.

The mistress of the place directs us towards our room, with deference opens the sliding door and I discover a very beautiful room, decorated in a traditional way with its Tokonoma, this raised alcove where one exposes calligraphy, prints.

I also discover the Yukatas, the summer kimonos that will allow us to take a hot bath in one of the springs present in the ryokan.

We put them on without further ado and head into the hot bath.

In the evening, after taking advantage of the Rotenburo, this outdoor bath from which you can admire the view of the mountains, dinner is served in your room.

The meal is a Kaiseki, a multi-course cuisine that places great importance on seasonal ingredients and presentation.

We decide after dinner to go back to the onsen, but the outdoor bath is mixed and already occupied mainly by men, we decide to separate and I go to the womens.

I’m going to be alone in a public bath for the first time. We have previously tested the outdoor bath, so I know how to do it. Conscientiously I put my towel on my head, I enter the water, naked, as discreetly as possible.

But I do not know yet the curiosity of the Oba chan, these Japanese grandmothers, who I must say make me think of those I knew in Corsica, and who can transgress the rules of a rigid society.

My attempt at discretion is totally failed! No sooner have I immersed myself in the deliciously warm water than a dozen pairs of eyes are scrutinizing me.

I smile stupidly, and I realise that despite the 3 months of learning Japanese, no word comes out of my mouth except this blissful smile!

I still manage to understand that this nice lady is simply asking me if I see everything in green (I have this color of eyes) because I am her first Gaijin, her first foreigner.

From there begins a conversation totally above ground where I speak to her in French, she answers me in Japanese and for long minutes we exchange, we laugh, without speaking the same language but understanding each other with a look, a touch.

Back in the room, the hostess had taken our futons out of the Oshiire, that traditional Fusuma paper closet where we put them. All we have to do is settle in for the night, and little by little the scent of straw from the tatami mats makes me sink into a restful sleep.

I will never forget those blushing maples, that moment with that obachan, that first stay at a ryokan.

In my next article, I will tell you about my first New Year’s Eve in Tokyo in 1989!

In the meantime, do not hesitate to come to and visit my site

See you soon, Mata Ne!!