In Asia/ Trailblazers

Trailblazers Q&A: Flory Leow Takes Readers Inside Japanese Culture

Trailblazers checks in with creatives from around the world to share their story. On this edition, we welcome Flory Leow of Adventures of Furochan.

Flory Leow, Adventures of Furochan

Flory Leow is a Malaysian living in Tokyo. She loves books, food, and has a special fondness for wordplay and fried eggs. Her writing and photography have appeared in outlets such as Boutique Japan, Inside Osaka, Roads & Kingdoms, and Kyoto Journal. At present, she writes, leads tours, and occasionally does some travel consulting for a living. Her newsletter is the adventures of furochan.

Without A Path What’s life like there as an immigrant? Do you feel at all Japanese? Do people accept you as one of them at all?

Flory Leow I can only speak for my experience, which is primarily defined by a) looking like I was born here, and b) my level of Japanese language ability (fluent enough to pass for a local, read newspapers if I really want to, and navigate most bureaucratic procedures without a dictionary.)

Life in Japan has improved the longer I am here, along with an increased clarity I’ve found in terms of ways I can meaningfully contribute and create better work. It is in no small part because my current line of work – writing, tour guiding, consulting – keeps me in a fairly autonomous and solitary space. My tolerance for certain flavors of bullshit is unfortunately very low, which more or less propelled me towards this path I’m on.

When I first came here to work, I was already fluent in Japanese, so most of the language-related woes many newcomers have weren’t problems I shared. But I was completely and hilariously unprepared for the realities of working in a Japanese company. When I think of my time there I think of the word ‘rifujin 理不尽’, whose kanji translates to “reason, not, exhaust,” or as I translate it, an inexhaustible lack of reason. My peers and I could write volumes on our experiences there, but suffice to say that every time I described the training period to someone outside of Japan, they had the impression I was describing life in a military barracks.

I don’t have a lived idea of what it means to feel Japanese, though I have some notion of what it entails from Japanese friends around me. I’ve been mistaken as being 帰国子女 kikokushijo (returnee Japanese) or half-Japanese but that is their perception, not mine. Like most monolingual and/or homogenous communities around the world, there seem to be pressures and expectations to behave in certain ways, to conform to more monolithic ideas of ‘Japanese-ness.’ Especially if you are a woman here. My ability to shrug off many of those expectations because I’m a foreigner – even if I do mostly look and sound like everyone else here – already disqualifies me from any sort of ‘feeling Japanese.’

For the most part, people don’t question who I am and therefore whether I’m ‘one of them’ unless they know where I’m from. This is mostly because I look like I could be from here. But I don’t mind if they ask, either. Most people, if they’ve even encountered the idea of Malaysia, don’t know enough about my country beyond its heat, friendly people, cheaper-than-Japan-food, and maybe the nice golf courses, so I don’t really have the baggage of stereotypes following me around.

There’s a certain freedom in being an outsider here. To be clear, this isn’t about institutional or civic belonging. I would certainly like voting rights as a resident. It would be nice not to need to rely on Japanese friends to prove I’m a decent human being when I need to, for example, rent an apartment. I would love not have to jump through a million aggravating extra hoops for certain bureaucratic procedures. But I no longer feel that I need to become Japanese to exist here. Plus, while community matters to me, I don’t need to be neck-deep in specific communities all the time. I’m fairly certain my neighbourhood folks, colleagues, and close friends in Japan like me and know I’m not going anywhere, and that’s more than I could have asked for.

WAP What prompted the move from Malaysia to Japan?

FL In short, ご縁 goen, or in Chinese, 縁分 yuánfèn. It translates as ‘destiny’ or ‘fateful coincidence,’ though it feels more life-changing and all-encompassing than words can really describe.

When I was 15, I had the opportunity to join a month-long exchange program to Japan hosted by the Rotary Club in Singapore. I said yes with a casualness that astounds me today, simply wanting at the time to escape from school – I had no concrete interest in Japan apart from vaguely enjoying Japanese food and the haiku form.

One of my host families lived in the countryside in Fukuoka. They were exceptionally kind, and somehow, we managed to bumble along with a dictionary (a little paper brick, no less!) They had no internet. This was a time before smartphones or Facebook. I remember many late nights after the day’s activities, staring into the inky blackness of the Nogata countryside, listening to a CD belonging to my host brother. I had absolutely no idea what anyone was saying or what any of my experiences meant yet. I could not even feign an interest in anime or most Japanese literature back then, but some inexorable force inside told me that this was where I should return to. From that point onwards, Japan was my North Star, my raison d’etre, the site of any misguided dreams towards a life of my own.

WAP What’s the focus of your writing?

FL My writing work primarily revolves around Japan-related travel and food. Sometimes it’s pure copy, sometimes it’s evergreen pieces that explicate some aspect of exploring and eating here, like eating itineraries in Tokyo, Kyoto, or Osaka, or an overview of Okinawan dishes. But I’ve also had the opportunity to work on varied and sometimes rather esoteric projects. For instance, I was recently commissioned to write an in-depth overview of Japanese swordsmithing, and another on Izumo Shrine. (Who knew its deity had connections with the expansion of the Japanese empire?) It’s fascinating to see what the travel industry can demand in terms of writing; I feel extraordinarily lucky to be able to work on pieces like that.

Where possible, I give as much context to a subject as the piece allows. I don’t believe in over-hype or over-selling places. My preference is for measured assessments and reserving the gush for when a place is good, which is why I refuse to rave about places like Toyosu Market or Nishiki Market.

On the personal front, I write about whatever interests me. I used to write only about food and anything in its orbit but began to find that too limiting some time back. Without sounding too pretentious – I hope – these days I read and think and listen to other people on how to be a human in the world, and then write about some of that.

WAP Tell us about yolkporn and why you’re so fascinated by it.

FL The obvious eroticism of it all, I suppose. It’s such a cliche to enjoy yolkporn but I do – the satisfaction when you break the membrane, and how the liquid gushes and spills out like a pent-up sigh. It’s such a cheap thrill – infinitely repeatable and never dull.

WAP Give us a glimpse into regular life in Tokyo. What’re your days like?

FL Routine and regularity are nonexistent owing to seasonal tours, occasional field research days, and meetings scheduled at odd times of the week. I find myself on trains quite frequently when that happens, which is when I can enjoy watching all the interesting people who exist in Tokyo.

But when I am not on the road, I tend to be a huge homebody and sometimes don’t leave the house for days at a time, until cabin fever strikes with a vengeance. On these days it’s all very administrative: I wake up, make coffee and breakfast. I read, go through my to-do list for the day, which can involve calling restaurants to make bookings, emailing people, vacuuming, groceries, scheduling the months ahead – oh god, I’m really putting myself to sleep here… but between all of that, I spend hours trying to fall into a writing state, and then some days it flows, often late in the afternoon and all the way till past midnight, and I won’t pretend to understand it but give myself over to it for hours when it does come.

WAP You’re often talking about food. What’re some of your favorite Japanese meals? Anything you miss from home in Malaysia?

FL This is difficult. Curry is a standby – as spicy as the shop goes, as saucy as they’ll allow, with a yolk on top if possible. I love a tempura rice bowl at my favorite place, with fresh, sweet vegetables, and his secret sauce drizzled over. Sometimes I will eat fish teishoku for several days – a set meal of rice, miso soup, and either grilled fish or chopped raw fish dressed with miso or other salty condiments and onion. And then izakaya, which is a bit of a cop-out because you can eat so many different things in one. Recently I had a sublime two-ingredient dish: shishito peppers seared until tiger-skinned in a cast-iron pan, with a scattering of salted kelp strands.

Malaysian food: mostly, I miss my mother’s Hakka cooking. I miss chicken rice, specifically with roast chicken. And noodles of all kinds – soup noodles, noodles tossed in sauces, curry noodles. Hakka lei cha (thunder tea). Roti canai drenched in curry. Proper kaya (coconut jam). Nasi kandar. There is just too much.

WAP Could you share some cultural differences you’ve had to adjust to, good, bad, or otherwise?

FL The ritual and structure of conversations here. Small talk is small talk everywhere, but it is heavily codified in Japan. There’s a lot of tension and artificial creation of distance in most social interactions (first meetings, business meetings, retail…) that can make it feel like most parties are performing for each other. It is pretty exhausting before you get used to it, and even then, it can wear down on you if you don’t get enough respite from it.

One aspect is aizuchi, the whole point of which is constant affirmation and acknowledgment, mostly for the benefit of the other person, to show that you are indeed present and listening – hence the constant nodding and ‘hai’ you often hear and see when people talk to each other. This does make you a much better listener across all languages…

WAP Where do you generally point first-time visitors to Japan?

FL It depends on what they want to do and how they like traveling. But they often want to visit the Golden Route cities – Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka – so I will often be sending them to restaurants I like in those places. I try to point people to some local neighborhoods I like, in addition to the usual suspects in each city. More than that I try to gently suggest that they might be better off visiting outside of peak season (cherry blossom) – Japan is a beautiful place all year round, and there is wonderment to be found in every season.

WAP What’s something travelers experience in Japan that they don’t generally expect?

FL Every single client on my tours, without fail, gushes about the warm toilet seats. And all the buttons. Most of them are too intimidated to press the buttons, but the bidet function is honestly a life-changing luxury. Also, that convenience store food is surprisingly good. Less so if you live here, but certainly light years ahead of North American 7-11s.

WAP Is there anything about Japanese life or culture that you’re still fascinated by despite all your years living there?

FL There’s a lot I don’t know, so much of that interests me. Japan alone is worth the rest of one’s life – to speak nothing of other cultures and countries that call!

The nature of romantic and sexual relationships in Japan, for instance – dating rituals, how people meet each other, the existence of 相席 restaurants (where women can eat for free on the condition they are seated with male strangers who want to talk to them), how couples form (not least the idea of “confession”), the unwritten rules of interaction, the seemingly permissive but unspoken attitude towards extramarital affairs, gendered expectations in relationships here, the variations in dating Japanese men vs. women from all genders, etc. Relatedly, the state of sexual health services here – though perhaps that’s less fascination than frustration.

Most of all, I continue to be fascinated by and love deeply the society-wide respect for craft and attention to detail.

WAP What are you working on the moment or what are you most looking forward to sharing?

FL On the work-work front, I recently wrote up two eating itineraries in Kyoto – one omnivorous, and one vegetarian. Probably some of my best food-related work to date, so I’m looking forward to sharing that when it’s live! I lead private eating and walking tours in Tokyo (and sometimes Kyoto), and am always open to Japan-related writing projects.

On the personal work front, I genuinely love writing my monthly newsletter. It’s no book or collection of essays or podcast – one can dream, one day – but until these other projects come to fruition, the newsletter is where many of the thoughts in my head reside.

All photos courtesy of Flory Leow

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