Too Big in Japan

Too Big in Japan

I can feel my face turning a warm, visibly peachy colour as those uncomfortable, familiar prickles run up my neck, around my ears, even to the end of my nose. The little old lady is huddled over something on the bench with her back to me. I’ve been standing here for over a minute and no one’s noticed me at all – so why do I feel like there are a hundred pairs of eyes crawling over my body?

The feeling of embarrassment is a cesspool of first-world vulnerability and shame on levels that I avoid at all costs if I can help it. Somehow, I’ve already managed to embarrass myself without even opening my mouth. I am hyper-aware of every form of Western courtesy – practices impressed upon us from a very young age by my mumma – but, as I’ve experienced over the last few days, sometimes that can’t help you here. Some things are forever lost in translation.

My brain pipes up with what I assume it believes to be a helpful suggestion: We could still run away if you want? You wanna split? It is so hard to stop myself from turning around, to hop back outside into the safe, dark street and its comforting cloak of anonymity.

No – stand still, don’t be silly, I admonish myself. This is not a dangerous situation; it’s just an uncomfortable one for you. And also, you’re not leaving this place until you’ve eaten. You have to get over this!

The fluorescent lighting flickers fast, my heart hastens to keep up with the blood that’s rushing to my cheeks. I squint through imagined iridescence, my eyes darting and scrambling for the English language – even just a word, or a picture – a picture!

There are plenty of spare seats –- is it rude if I sit myself down and wait for someone to stumble upon me?

It’s a spacious little ramen shop – at least I know it is that, by the symbol on the crinkled map in my pocket. Behind me, by the door I just entered, a young man and his mother are slurping at a bowl each. My mouth waters. To my right, at one end of the bench, a man diligently puts away a vessel of his own. The little old man behind the counter at the stove does not make eye contact, so he’s no help.

Could I be invisible? I actually wonder, having spent the last 48 hours solitarily, almost wordlessly, walking the streets of Setagaya.

With a deep breath, I slightly lean towards the little old lady and squeak one of the few phrases I do know from serving Japanese visitors back home in our restaurant.


My squeak is instantaneously at war with the television set in the corner and is dismally defeated. I resist the urge to kick myself, appeased by the knowledge that doing so would most certainly make this entire situation even more unbearably peculiar.

Eventually – by which time my brain is reduced to delusional imagery inspired by some ridiculous Rowan Atkinson scene from my deep past – the lady turns around, sees me in my glowing glory and exclaims something – a lot of somethings, actually – in an overflow of Japanese I haven’t a hope of comprehending.

What could she be asking me though, apart from “What would you like to order, girl?”

I spread my palms out and shake my head in a vain attempt to communicate my shameful lack of Japanese. Why didn’t I practice more, back in my safe little apartment across the road? I was too hasty.

“Ahhh… could I please have one of those?” I reply instead, pointing at the bowls in front of the lady and her son, “Please?”

The warm air in the shop suddenly becomes that particular kind of tense at which point, if you’re lucky, a perfect stranger will take pity on you and attempt an offer of assistance.

“Ramen?” says the son.

We’re in the thick of it now – this is happening. We’re getting somewhere, and that’s all I care about. “Yes! Please! Ramen! Arigatou!”

You are an idiot. Sit down and have a think about what you’ve just not done. How hard can it be to order ramen in a ramen shop? My face goes even redder and more prickly.

The lady gestures for me to sit at the bench, a position I gratefully fold myself into. I am by no means a tall person, but my western-length limbs find themselves bumbling, drunk-like, into all manner of doorways and furniture as I navigate around this neat and tidy country. It’s like I’m always two inches too large – another source of embarrassment, but an image which continually amuses me. I grin widely, unable to help it.

I’m finally settled, saved. I stop and appreciate that I am here, and all is well, and the little grandmother figure lovingly places a deep bowl of spicy, miso-ey, noodle soup in front of me (which tastes and is exactly how you’d envision a bowl of the best ramen to be). The TV set murmurs and bubbles; the little old man tidies his workspace at the stove, and the little old lady settles the till and takes up her calendar marking again. The mother and son pack up their plates and depart, the man at the end slurps and pays and is gone, and I am left with my soup and a feeling of complete content.

Savouring the broth and nibbling on the hard-boiled egg, I ponder what I’ve learnt from all of my inevitable discomforts thus far.

Nothing is too difficult or too hard, as long as you come with respect, stay and brave your uncomfortable. Big rewards lie in wait for you here.

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