Photo: Avigator Fortuner/Shutterstock

A Day in the Life of an Expat in Osaka, Japan

by Eva Sandoval Jan 7, 2010

A beautiful Saturday morning in Osaka. What to do … a day-trip to historic Kyoto? An abandoned railroad hike in Hyogo? If only. Saturday mornings in Japan often mean work so I stretch once more on my futon before beginning my day.


Breakfast is shokopan toast and a carton of aloe yogurt. I throw a couple of wrapped negitoro onigiri – tuna and scallion rice balls – into my purse for lunch.


I ride my bike to the Abikocho JR Hanwa train station and chain it near a restaurant – never near at the station itself, where it’s prey for the Osaka bike police. At Tennoji Station, I switch to the Loop Line. On board, there are obaa-chans in kimono and salary men in their traditional black suits, white shirts, and black ties.

We pass shopping arcades, convenience stores, and gray Japanese homes roofed with tiles that curve like ruffled bird feathers. It’s autumn, so trees aflame with red maple leaves dot the landscape. Blue mountains and the heron-winged Osaka Castle loom in the distance.


At work. Like most expats in Japan, I teach English. I work for one of the big conversation school chains; we wear suits and the customer is always right. Today, I’m early – no need to fill out a Lateness Explanation form.


My morning classes start.

I quiz the kids: “How are you?”

“Five,” they answer.

“How old are you?” I ask.


I try to start a game. Miyabi complains. Chio and Sara gab loudly. Yuki throws a book at me. I lose my temper and scold them in Japanese; a no-no at my company. Did I mention I’m a writer, not a teacher? My subconscious whisks me away to my happy place – Yudanaka onsen overlooking the Nagano Mountains. Rocks. Petals falling on still water. Steam. Bliss!

These Saturday kids are nothing like the ones I teach the rest of the week. Those sweethearts run into school shouting, “Where’s Eba-sensei?” They love learning and I leave class feeling proud.

Teaching in any country is the best of times and the worst of times.


Lunch. We don’t get meal breaks at my school so food must be eaten in the ten-minute gaps between classes, hunched over a shared desk. At lunch, the other teachers and I catch up:

“How’s the karate?”

“Great – how’s the Japanese study coming?”

“It’s coming. I’ve started ikebana lessons, too.”


“… I wish I didn’t have to teach. I only do it for the Visa because I’ve never been as creative as I am here in Japan.”




Afternoon classes. Adults ask me if I can use chopsticks; children hide my flashcards.


Quitting time. I punch out and head to a nearby takoyaki stand. Takoyaki – a quintessential Osaka snack – are delicious ball-shaped octopus fritters. I’m too hungry to wait for them to cool and immediately burn my tongue on the creamy but volcanic batter.


On the train home, I study Japanese passive verbs. As I’m studying, my keitai throbs with texts from my friends. It’s Jeff’s’s birthday and everyone wants to know when we’re meeting. I tell them what Chisato, Jeff’s girlfriend, told me; we’ll meet at 7:30 in Namba. From there, the usual: izakaya and karaoke.


My bike is still parked where I left it – phew.


Home. My boyfriend, Sean, is watching a TV cooking show where women are making nabe, a traditional cold weather stew. They slice daikon and brew dashi while the host watches. He takes a sip and blinks in shock at its deliciousness before shouting: “Umai!!!” Delicious. Commercial break: “comedian” Kojima Yoshio prances out in his Speedo to hawk AU cell phones. We change the channel.


Namba. Everyone’s here – five Japanese girls and eight expats with accents from all over the English Speaking World map.

“Otanjoubi omedetou!” we shout at the birthday boy. As we head to the neon cacophony of Dotombori street, we pass pulsing pachinko parlors and otaku kids dressed like goth Strawberry Shortcakes. As we reach the famous giant Dotombori crab, I see a Dachsund dressed as a cheerleader. Several meters on, a Chihuahua dressed as a sailor.


In the smoke-filled izakaya. I order plum wine, sashimi, and several kinds of barbecued yakitori skewers including roast beef and tasty chicken heart. Had you asked me two years ago if I’d ever voluntarily eat organ meat I’d have said, “As if.” Ask me today? “Pass the tongue.”


Karaoke! We rent a private room for an hour. Inside, we order fruity chuhai cocktails, beer, and sing “Happy Birthday” to Jeff. Tomoko sings something by Bump of Chicken, I go for old-school Iruka, and Martin rocks Men at Work.


Oh, what the heck, make it two hours. More chuhai, beer, and J-pop.


In a standing-room-only shot bar for the countdown to Last Train. A typical Osaka dilemma: leave at midnight or stay out until 6 a.m. Cabs? Not at 3500 yen to get to Abiko. Sean has his Japanese calligraphy class tomorrow and I’d like to get some writing done so we decide to make the last train. But first, shots. We toast: otsukaresamadesu.


Made the last train – yosh! It’s filled with red-faced salary men slumping on the seats.

Sarariman why/

do you slump on the train seats?/

are you tired or drunk?/


Home again. Tipsy internet check. It’s noon back home in New York City and my friends are online.

“Come home,” they type.

“Soon.” I reply. As usual.

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