Against the advice of friends, art historian Rowena Daneel accepts a year's contract to teach in Japan. Lacking cultural insight and fluency in Japanese, Rowena is overwhelmed by her new situation. She discovers that she is unable to be creative and struggles to complete the book she travelled there to write.
She finds herself at odds with her kindly neighbours, resulting in numerous misunderstandings and faux pas. There's Mr Soyoung, a Korean expert on Confucianism, who cannot accept that Rowena has willingly decided to travel alone; garrulous Barbara, a Polish woman who seems to have effortlessly assimilated Japanese customs with her own; and Joshi-San, the manager of the Foreign People's Housing, whose generous gestures Rowena interprets at best as pity, at worst, interfering.
Then there is the Norwegian History Professor, and an earthquake.