Five Ways to get or stay Stuck in an Expat Bubble

    Expat Bubble FAIL

    How to Increase your Chances of Getting Stuck in an Expat Bubble.

    Living in a foreign country and tired of constantly being bombarded by foreign sounds, smells, and events? Don’t you just wish you could curl up inside an expat bubble and never come out? Well you’re in luck. This article is going to teach you how.

    I have lived inside and outside of expat bubbles on three continents. I’m a pro. I know the game. So, let’s get on with it. Here are some things that you can do to greatly increase your chances of getting stuck in an expat bubble regardless of what country you are living in.

    (Not sure of what an expat bubble is or why they exist? Check this: Expat Bubbles: The Forces that Suck.)

    1. Never go out alone.

    If you always go out with your other expat friends you can effectively decrease the chances that a random local will have the guts to start up a random conversation with you.

    Just think – if you’re sitting alone at a counter in a Japanese bar it’s possible that a random Japanese person will see you as a lonely defenseless foreigner with some time on his hands and start up a conversation. If you’re trying to maintain the integrity of your expat bubble you want to avoid this at all costs. Never go anywhere alone.

    It’s simple, just imagine, if you’re with 2 or 3 other foreign friends all speaking English together and drinking brews from your homeland what are the chances that a random local is going to take the time to bother you? They’re going to see you having a good time speaking rapid and slangy English — they’re not going to touch that with a ten-foot pole. Strength in numbers.

    Now, sticking with a group is purely a defensive measure that you should use when you have already entered the heart of foreignness. However, sticking with your expat friends has another preemptive benifit as well.

    If you stick with your expat buddies you will be able to feed off of their uncomfortableness with the local language and culture as well, ensuring that you never stray far from the centers of your collective confort zones.

    For example, perhaps one day you are feeling dangerously adventurous and want to try out some random restaurant in a local neighborhood you’ve never been to. You’re with your friends so you ask them along too. Chances are that at least one of your friends will save the day and prevent you from going native by saying something like, “I’m getting tired of the local food, let’s hit up Hard Rock Cafe!” This will ensure that the entire group sticks with what they are used to and never leaves the expat bubble. Mission accomplished.

    2. Never join a local club unless you know another foreigner already in it.

    Whatever city you’re in probably has lots of active informal clubs. Photography clubs, ping pong clubs, kite flying clubs, running clubs, classical guitar clubs… Whatever it is, be sure that you only join a club if you already know for certain that some of your expat friends are in it already, or at least plan to join with you.

    If you join a club that no other expats are involved in you will probably be forced to make new local friends, thus destroying your carefully crafted expat bubble. If you do join a club that has another expat in it, be sure that you quit as soon as the last foreigner other than you leaves. If you’re the last one your bubble will surely burst.

    The photo with this article shows one episode early in my Japan days when I failed to maintain my expat bubble by foolishly volunteering to participate in Ringon Matsuri in Iida. Bubble destroyed. Don’t let this happen to you.

    3. If you work in a mostly foreign environment, be sure that your coworkers are also your best friends.

    If your coworkers in a foreign country are mostly other expats, be sure you spend as much time outside of work with them as you do at work.

    When work is over invite your fellow expats out to dinner and drinks. Be sure to figure out your weekend plans while you are in the office so you can be sure to travel with a group of foreigners while out and about (see point 1).

    4. Never learn the local language.

    This is a no-brainer. If you can’t speak the local language you can limit the number of locals who have access to your mind. Furthermore, even if there are locals who speak your language trying to penetrate your bubble at least you can expect that they probably are familiar with your culture and will probably be happy hanging out in your usual expat locations anyway. This way you don’t have to leave your expat bubble, they can enter it themselves.

    As a further precaution, do not even attempt to learn the language — zero effort is the safest bet. If you get a private language tutor you open yourself up to being invited out to do local things with your teacher, and worse, your teacher’s friends. In fact, if your teacher is worth their salt they will do this on purpose, as every good language instructor knows that embedding a student into the local culture only speeds language learning and cultural understanding. Dangerous.

    5. Stay away from the local communications technology.

    Different countries will have different major modes of communication. Facebook is doing a lot to create a unified platform, but there are still country-specific places where people hangout online. Be sure not to join any of them if you want to maintain the integrity of your expat bubble.

    For example, in China I made the mistake of joining Weibo, China’s Twitter clone… everyone uses it here. Now I can be constantly plugged into what my Chinese friends are thinking about and doing, I can be informed of all the latest Chinese jokes, and my Chinese friends can reach me whenever they want to share something with me. My Bubble has been breached.

    If you are an expat in Japan trying to hold down your expat bubble it would probably be best not to get a mobile phone if you can manage. Japanese people text like crazy, and sharing phone numbers is the first step to building a relationship for most people. If you have to get a phone, which you probably will, try not to give out your number too often — you can make up some excuse like, “I don’t know how to read Japanese so I never look at my text messages anyway.” Or something. Also, stay away from Mixi and Gree, joining such social networks will only further thin the walls of your bubble.

    Bonus: Get an expat significant other

    Encore! If you really want to augment your expat bubble experience you can get yourself an expat significant other who also lives in their own bubble. This will enhance number 1, 2, and 3 by definition, and will also enhance number 4. You’ll always have an expat around to keep the local culture away! You will be able to cancel any annoying local culture related events by claiming it’s “date night.” The list goes on and on. Note, it is vital that your significant other live in their own expat bubble. If they are one of those people who integrates themselves into the local culture and learns the local language, you’re likely to be dragged out of your bubble with said S.O. Choose wisely.

    Seriously though, are Expat Bubbles all Bad? No.

    Not all expat bubbles are created equal, and people shouldn’t necessarily feel bad because they are living in one…

    In my last expat bubble related post I said:

    In Japan, mainly because I spoke the language, was dating (and am now married to) a local, and worked at a company that employed mostly locals, I was able to largely avoid the expat bubble — perhaps I even avoided it so much that it was, in a way, detrimental to my experience in Japan. On the flip side, when I lived in Tanzania I could count the number of local Tanzanian friends I had on one hand… France was somewhere in between, and my situation in Shanghai is a little weird… More on that later.

    But expat bubbles are evil! Why would I say such a thing?!

    I say this because a lot of expats are really cool and doing amazing things. You can gain a lot of energy and inspiration from the people in your expat bubble. It takes a lot of guts to move overseas and do one’s thing, whatever that thing may be, so a lot of expats who are out there making it happen are really high-calibre folks. I would say that the simple fact that someone is an expat makes them quite likely to be a lot more interesting than the average joe back home, or even the average local in many cases…

    Many expats are bilingual, entrepreneurial, international minded, adventurous, willing to share, and fun. Of course this doesn’t apply to everyone — there are some expat idiot jerks as well… but it does apply to a lot of people. I think I met more cool expats on Twitter after I left Japan than I did while I was there. I consider this a missed opportunity, and if I ever move back to Japan long term I will make an effort to embed myself into the gaijin community. Knowing the right expats can really help you navigate the local environment, can help you find jobs, and can help you find fun things to do. Seriously, expats are cool. Don’t completely shut them out for the sake of your overseas experience.

    Any questions!?

    Check out this other recent expat bubble related post: Expat Bubbles, what are they, why are they.

Matsumoto Shaved Ice in Hawaii

I took a vacation to Hawaii and was surprised at all the Japanese people, language, and culture thriving on the island! Many signs are bilingual English-Japanese, and there are even shops that accept Japanese yen in Waikiki. A few nights ago we went to a karaoke shop that had more Japanese songs than English on the menu.

Another point of Japanese influence is the popularity of “shaved ice,” or, かき氷 (kakigoori).

There is one shaved ice shop in particular that is unbelievably famous – Matsumoto Shaved Ice!

Partially Eaten Matsumoto Shaved Ice

Matsumoto Shaved Ice is up on the North Shore and seems to be a must try for tourists and locals alike. The line was out the door when we arrived at about 3pm on a weekday.

The ice itself is tasty. It’s very sweet and surely is loaded with sugar, but my wife loved it, and I enjoyed more than a few bites as well. Can’t beat that rainbow colored sugar-water! Yum yum.

Now there tons of shaved ice shops in Hawaii, but Matsumoto’s claims to be the first. The website shows that the shop was opened in 1951. Check their website for more information about Matsumoto’s amazing history.

If you’re ever in Hawaii, be sure to visit!

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Matsumoto Shaved Ice official Website
Another photo of some shaved ice in Japan from vintage JapanNewbie.

Osaka Motor Show 2012

I went to the Osaka Motor Show! (I was in Japan last week, back in Shanghai already though.)

This was my first motor show, but it was basically what I expected. A geeks paradise. Cars, girls, lots of guys with cameras, and an excuse to point your camera at anything and take 100,000 photos in one afternoon. I even saw this one Japanese guy with one of those dual holster side strap sling things so he could have his two DSLR cameras ready at a moments notice. Hardcore.

I put my photos on the usual social photo sharing locations. Check out my Picasa Album here. You can also get to my Flickr via the thumbnails at the bottom of this blog.

Here are some of my favorite shots.

U-POHS had the most popular booth... and no cars.

There was one hilarious booth in particular that wasn’t even promoting a vehicle, but they had three girls. Two of the girls were wearing bikini tops and cutoff jean shorts and they came out every few hours to sing and dance and pose for all the cameras. This show attracted a bigger crowd than any of the other booths. The company was U-PohS and the girls are called the U-PohS LipGirls. Apparently the company provides a service where they will give you a quote free of charge for the used car you are considering selling to them.

This is the LipGirls dance I never saw because the crowd was so thick. Luckily it seems that one of the lucky guys up front made this video and put it on YouTube! Enjoy LipGirls! When they start to sing the harmony part you might want to turn down the volume… ouch.

How about a bit of language fun to try to keep this a bit intellectual?

The girls who work at these car shows are called “companions” コンパニオン and “campaign girls” キャンギャル (shortened to kyan-girl). I believe that the “companions” are down on the show floor passing out pamphlets and answering questions, while the “campaign girls” are usually the more elaborately dressed models who are up on stage posing with the cars.

There is a Chinese expression: 香車美人 (xiāng chē měi nǚ in Chinese, or I guess きょうしゃびじん : kyoushabijin in Japanese) which basically means beautiful cars and beautiful girls. 香車美人 is a real phrase, though it seems to be more common in China and not so much (if at all) in Japan. (My wife didn’t know it.) It’s real though. See?

If you search Google and YouTube for “大阪モーターショー2012” you can find a lot of other photos and videos from the event.

Car Research article Page 1
Car Research article Page 2

A Japanese blogger on the scene.

Here a YouTube video that is a collection of the Campaign Girls at the event:

Here is a slide show of what must be every single girl at the show… This guy really made the rounds.

That’s all! Remember just Google “大阪モーターショー2012” if you want to see more of the show.

Okonomiyaki in Shanghai at Takenosuke

I’m still living in Shanghai – and I’m still enjoying Japanese food whenever I can! Today I checked out an Okonomiyaki place with my wife and her friend… and her friend’s 5-year old who happened to sleep on the floor throughout the entire meal… the slacker.

Okonomiyaki at Takenosuke in Shanghai

The name of the shop is Takenosuke (武之助). They serve Okonomiyaki in Shanghai and play old school Japanese music on the sound system, like Ishikawa Sayuri, Inoue Yousui, Okamoto Mayo, Yumi, and Uemura Kana (hope I got all those names correct). The place prides itself on being a Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki shop, so you can get the Hiroshima-style Okonomiyaki that is filled with noodles, and the place has Hiroshima Carps baseball team photos everywhere.

No Carps stuff in this photo though...

It took forever for our three okonomiyaki orders to come, but we all agreed that it was solid okonomiyaki when they finally showed up. Note, my wife is from Osaka, so her standards for okonomiyaki are pretty high.

If you sit upstairs you will take off your shoes and sit in one of those low tables where the floor is also also depressed so you don’t have to cross your legs. This type of table is called a horigotatsu…shiki (掘りごたつ) table. Hori is to dig. Kotatsu is one of those indoor heated tables… These are not heated, of course.

Unlike they would in Japan, this restaurant doesn’t give you extra aonori (青のり seaweed flakes) or katsuobushi (鰹節 dried fish flakes) or sauce at your table, but that wasn’t a big deal for us. Also, you don’t cook the okonomiyaki yourself a hotplate, they’ll completely prepare it and bring it to your table.

One fun thing was that they had some examples of Hiroshima dialect and other random things on the table.


It also seems that they have a sort of system set up where Chinese speakers can get an automated explanation of the menu items… it had something to do with a scanner device and special tags embedded into the menu. Looked pretty interesting, but we didn’t try it.

If you’re in Shanghai and need Okonomiyaki be sure to check out Takenosuke!

Japanese post Takenosuke
古羊路 near 宋园路
guyang lu near songyuan lu

Road Trip: Osaka to Hida Takayama and between

Osaka family road trip!

We are living in Shanghai now, which makes a quick trip to Japan every now and then surprisingly quick and affordable. I took a few days off of work a few weeks ago to take a 5 day trip back to Osaka to catch up with the in-laws and meet some peeps. My father-in-law also treated us to a Japan road trip taking us from Osaka, to Shirakawagou, to Takayama, and back. We saw some historical sites, went to a great onsen, and ate and ate and ate. Here’s the scoop!

EN: Osaka → Shirakawagou → Fukuchi Onsen → Hida Takayama → Osaka
JP: 大阪 → 白川郷 → 福地温泉 → 飛騨高山 → 大阪

More Photos on my Flickr:
Magokuro Onsen


Our first stop was Shirakawagou 白川郷 in Gifu prefecture. We left Osaka by car at about 8:00 am and arrived at Shirakawagou at about noon.

Shirakawagou is a UNESCO world heritage site and is famous for it’s old gasshouzukuri 合掌造り style construction. This construction not only looks beautiful, but it is very efficient and was necessary to withstand the heavy snowfall the region gets each year. You can read more about the details around the web (like Wiki), but a picture tells a thousand words right? Check it out.


It was raining a bit when we arrived so I didn’t take as many photos as I would have liked, but I still got a lot! There are many houses that you can enter, and the entire place is very camera friendly and has a good tourist infrastructure. It’s easy to figure out, just show up, park your car, and walk. I would recommend checking this area out in the winter if you have the means, it would be great to see in the snow.

We met an old lady selling… stuff… and she mentioned that it costs about 3千万円 (30,000,000 yen) to replace a roof on one of these buildings. The roof changing project is something that involves what looks like 30-40 people but is only done once every 30 or 40 years. The cost is subsidized by the government because of the world heritage status, but private individuals still have to pay a bit. Some details on the roof changing are discussed in the second video below.

The famous Gasshouzukuri Architecture in Shirakawagou

Shirakawagou was a really nice spot. Highly recommended!

After spending a few hours at Shirakawago we got back in the car and drove to our Japanese-stye Inn (旅館 ryokan) in the Fukuchi Onsen (福地温泉) area.

Magokuro Ryokan

Check out the official Magokuro Ryokan website. Fancy! It took us about 2 hours to drive to Magokuro from Shirakawagou.

Magokuro Onsen

The Ryokan was top notch. I have been to a lot of ryokan, and this one didn’t disappoint. The food was excellent, the onsen is great, and the service is energetic and helpful. They even claim to have English language service available, but I didn’t try it out. They also have two different family hot springs you can use on a first come first served basis. One is indoors, and the other is an open air bath (露天風呂). The indoor family bath is tiny, the open air bath is much larger and very nice.

Checking out the neighbors

The eating area was very nice. All the guests eat together in a huge room with enough space between the tables to ensure privacy. There is also an いろり (囲炉裏, hearth, furnace, kiln, thing…) where you can warm-up while waiting for your meal if you want. As I said, the food was excellent. Usually seeing an entire fish head still attached on a stick makes me pause a bit before digging in, but this いわな (iwana) was so, so, delicious. For breakfast they busted out a great miso paste that was cooked on a large leaf over the fire to be spread on your rice or other dishes — also delicious.

This fish was really, really, really, good. IWANA.

I was surprised to see that Miyazaki Hayao of Ghibli fame frequently visits Magokuro Ryokan! Just think. I have now soaked in the same waters as Miyazaki Hayao (and countless other random Japanese dudes). Awesome. The Ryokan boss said that usually when he is here other guests notice, but not all are forward enough to get all up in his business and say hello. She also mentioned something about Miyazaki’s tough side being shown in the media recently in his dealings with his son, so some guests are a little afraid to approach him these days. I haven’t been following the Miyazaki media gossip, so I’m not sure what all the fuss is about… Anyway… it seems Miyazaki Hayao often goes to this Ryokan in the summer… Gotta meet him!

Miyazaki Hayao frequents this Onsen Ryokan!
Magokuro Onsen

We left the Ryokan in the morning at about 9:00 am, checked out a small antique shop in the area, and then headed on to Hida Takayama.

Hida Takayama

Our last stop on the 2 days 1 night road trip from Osaka was to Hida Takayama. I had been to Hida Takayama before as you can see in the related links below, but the last time I was there was quite a while ago so it was all still fresh.

We did the usual tourist run checking out the old architecture and gift shops, but we also got lucky with our random lunch stop. We went to this mince-Katsu place called Sukeharu that claims to have the best ミンチカツ (mince-katsu) in all of Japan. It was indeed extremely tasty.

This guy has been on TV a few times with traditional snacks
TSUKEHARU: The best Mince-Katsu in Japan!

My mother-in-law, who is from Osaka, said that she thinks Hida Takayama is more enjoyable than Kyoto because there are fewer tourists. I’m sure there are indeed fewer tourists, but we were also in Takayama on a Monday morning… and she’s a bit biased living so close to Kyoto. If your time in Japan is short, by all means, go to Kyoto! Takayama is great though. If you’re looking for a quick trip out of town and to possibly get away from the crowds, check it out. It’s also very close to Nagoya so if you’re based there it’s an easy trip.

Takayama Streets

After Takayama we got back in the car and floored it all the way back to Osaka. We made it back in about 3 hours. I think it normally takes about 4 hours if you drive the speed limit…

That’s all. Be sure to check out the other photos on my Flickr pages, and let me know if you have any questions about this trip!

Other Related Stuff:

Here are some good videos introducing the gasshouzukuri in Shirakawagou

Old School JapanNewbie Takayama Links:
Takayama Sarubobo
Takayama BEEF BUNS

Japanese Food in Shanghai: Kogumaya

In my never ending quest to eat as much Japanese food as possible, my wife and I went to Kogumaya in Shanghai on a Wednesday night for dinner.

There were only two of us so we got seats at the counter.

On the way to the counter we passed by lots of small rooms filled with middle-aged Japanese men sitting on the floor excitedly talking and drinking. The other customers seemed to all be Japanese, which is always a good sign if finding good Japanese food is your goal.

From the counter we could see some of the famed Japanese style baked clay plates that Kogumaya prides itself on, and we could also see the young Chinese staff doing the preliminary preparations for the food. Apparently the main chef is Japanese, but we never saw him as he was always back in the kitchen. Regardless of who was preparing the food though, it was all delicious.

The first dish that came was the kakiage. It’s a little different than tempura because it is fried up with many different things together, while tempura should only have one item fried at a time. This kakiage was unique because it was seafood, shisou, and salted. It was great, crispy and light. This was one of my favorite dishes of the night.


Next we had the tatsutage. Tatsuage is basically like karage (Japanese fried chicken) but the flour-base stuff is different somehow. I don’t cook, so I don’t know… it was also awesome.

If you cannot read or speak Japanese or Chinese I have no idea how you would order at this place other than pointing at other peoples food, which would be tough considering that everyone is in a private room. All the wait staff are native Chinese speakers and speak fluent in Japanese. To maintain the ambience of the place they even make an effort to speak Japanese to each other constantly when communicating orders.

Kogumaya's Menu

They had some reasonable course options, one costing 400 RMB a person. Not bad.

We also got the Kansai-style Oden. It came with yuzukosho, basically yuzu fruit and uh, pepper, I think. It’s the green one in the picture, and it’s awesome. I have had yuzukosho on many occasions in Japan, and this was just the same quality. The yellow stuff is simply tougarashi, the spicy Japanese mustard.


We also ordered the kamataki gohan, which is basically rice prepared in a giant-ish metal pot. Quality rice. Proof again that not all rice is created equal. If there are only two of you and you order this be prepared to take leftovers home though – it’s a lot of rice.

The tofu was what my wife really came for. She had heard from a particularly gourmet Japanese lady friend that it was amazing. It was indeed very good. This tofu was creamy, cool, and sweet. Very tasty. I would recommend this to all of my western friends who don’t really see the point of tofu.

In terms of price, it’s sort of expensive for China standards, but if you’re used to Japanese prices it’s not bad at all. There were only two of us, and I ordered an Asahi beer and an atsukan (180ml) of warm sake, and it cost us about 500 RMB total. We had plenty to eat – too much even. I guess a regular meal there would run about 350RMB per person.

Good stuff. Go check it out if you’re in Shanghai and want Japanese food.


105 Chengdu Nan Lu,
near Changle Lu

View Larger Map

Chinese review site.

World Order: Japanese Street Performance Group

I don’t think I can add much to these videos. Just watch. Also check out World Order official website.


Actually… there is one thing I can add. Did you know that the leader of this group, 須藤元気(GENKI SUDO), was also a freakin’ incredible MMA fighter?!

You can read his official 須藤元気(GENKI SUDO) blog as well.

Also, please note that Genki Sudo has published several books.

Read about Genki Sudo on Wikipedia

Awesome. Awesome. Awesome.

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