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Travel Stories






A Day in Japan: Blowfish, Bicycles, & Bizarre Sporting Celebrations

CULTURE SHOCK: A feeling of confusion and anxiety that somebody may feel when they live in or visit another country (Oxford Dictionary)

So how much culture shock can you experience in one day?

I arrived in Japan not knowing how much I would take from my one-day trip and I departed with three things to muse upon - blowfish, bicycles, and bizarre sporting celebrations.

My visa run had dragged on for much longer than I expected and my return flight to Seoul fast approached. So I only had two hours to soak up some authentic Japanese culture in Osaka. After a long and frenetic day on the move, my first stop after business was complete was for some well-overdue food intake. I went into a nearby restaurant and sat at a table.

The bar, which was lined mostly with Japanese men scoffing raw fish, looked far too unfamiliar to be comfortable, and my jaded bones were craving just a little familiarity. I saw some blowfish and had a paranoid televisual flashback to Homer Simpson almost dying from the stuff. So instead, I ordered something that looked safe and inoffensive; a pile of meat and vegetables promptly arrived at the table, uncooked.

What am I supposed to do with that?

A stove arrived at the table and an overpowering waft of gas attacked my nasal passageway before the kimono-attired waitress lit it. I am not unaccustomed to the convention of do-it-yourself restaurant cooking in Eastern Asia, however, this was an unfamiliar dish and I was not exactly sure in what order to cook the various ingredients. I sheepishly asked for assistance and the waitress kindly began cooking the food for me.

I discovered that the dish was a Nabe dish. Nabe dishes are usually prepared in a hot pot at a table and include typical ingredients such as Negi, a type of Japanese leek, and Hakusai, a Chinese cabbage. There are a variety of Nabe dishes depending on the region and your personal reference, and they are especially popular in the winter months. This particular dish was called Shabu-Shabu, which is thinly sliced meat, vegetables, mushrooms and tofu that is cooked in a hot soup. I found this combination particularly agreeable and spent far too much of my limited time sampling the various nuances of the dish. I forgot all about that pesky blowfish and Homer Simpson's near death experience - that food was to die for!

After dinner I began strolling around the Osaka shopping boulevards and I stumbled across the Dotombori River. A local expatriate told me that the river is inextricably connected to the local baseball team, the Hanshin Tigers. To celebrate the major victories of the Tigers, locals throw themselves en masse from the bridges into the ten-foot deep murky waters below. Despite health warnings from medical experts advising against these activities, some 2,000 people dived into the Dotombori River during the 2002 Soccer World Cup when Japan defeated Tunisia 2-0 in Osaka. However as I looked down, the river looked to me very much like a British canal; not a place you would want to dip your toes into - not even fully shoe-clad.

Beer cans and plastic bags cruised down the river to advertise its inhospitable disposition. Perhaps the numerous empty beer cans are what prompted some of the impromptu diving in the first place.


A cyclist wizzed past and I momentarily lost my sense of balance. My heart beat fast and hard while the world continued disinterested.

Walking back to the train station through the streets of Osaka, I suddenly became aware of the sheer number of cyclists in the city. There were literally hundreds both parked and on the move, dodging in and out of the way of pedestrians who seemed, unlike myself, quite unconcerned by the phenomenon. I suddenly felt like I was walking down the middle of a particularly busy road, and so I tried to stick as closely as possible to the nearest wall for cover - all the way to the train station.

Made it. So how much culture shock can you get in one day? Well, there was a near death culinary escape, some kamakaze canal jumpers, and a few lunatic cyclists - all in a couple of hours. More than I expected.

What was that definition of culture shock again? 'A feeling of confusion and anxiety that somebody may feel when they live in or visit another country'. Maybe culture shock is possible in a couple of hours. I had experienced feelings of both confusion and anxiety; but then again, I often exhibit those same feelings when I go out in my home town!

So what had I learned from my two free hours in Japan? Well, I am too yellow to try the infamous Japanese blowfish, I am afraid of fast moving bicycles, and there is also a high probability that I would not join in any sporting celebrations near the Dotombori River. Seriously though, I would like to return one day for a longer period of time when perhaps, I might pluck up the courage to order that life-threatening fish and acquire some automatic avoidance techniques for all those bicycles. It would take a hell of a lot of beer though, for me to jump into any Japanese canals.


Jason J.R. Gaskell, Msc. is an ESL teacher and freelance writer who has been published in numerous newspapers, magazines, and Ezines; and more recently has been working on a new title for Dorling Kindersley publishers.

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