Since my last post might have given some of you the impression that I’m not enjoying Japan very much, let this post serve to prove that I am indeed having amazing experiences here which I’m sure will culminate in a truly life-changing year! Let me share with you some of the great things I have observed in my time thus far, some of which may come as a surprise for those of you who have not traveled to Japan. If you have been to Japan, then maybe some things will be new, and maybe some will bring back fond memories. Either way, please enjoy my cultural discoveries.
Awesome things about Japan:
FOOD! I have to just get this point out of the way first because I have found that nearly 50% of my experiences and memories about other countries originate with eating. Food and the communion that takes place while sharing meals is a core component of every society, making it a perfect way to be literally “filled up” with culture. Plus I simply adore adventuring with new food. Most of us in the US are relatively familiar with the standards of Japanese cuisine, like sushi, tempura, yakatori and ramen. Japan is all of this and so much more! As a self-proclaimed “foodie” and home cook, it was rare in the states that I came across food totally foreign to me. Every day here I am encountering items that I not only have never had, but have never even heard of. And most of them are pleasant surprises. Every trip to the market is an education, and every restaurant adventure is of value, even if it is only to learn not to eat there again, such as in the case of Big Boy (which for some reason is thriving in Japan, although it is entirely different than our Big Boy). Suffice to say, ramen and sushi are ubiquitous but still delicious every time. I think it is impossible to walk by a ramen stand and not start salivating.
Prices- When you visit Japan you will constantly be reminded of how expensive everything is. If you have been to Europe this will not be a huge shock, but compared to traveling in Southeast Asia it can definitely add up in some areas. Yet some very important things here are wonderfully inexpensive, such as the amazingly fresh fish that abounds on every street corner! Sashimi and sushi are prepared daily in every grocery market, and after lunch a lot of it goes
on sale, so you can score dinner portions of seafood salad and bento box sashimi for $3-$5. An average bowl of ramen is around $5. Grocery stores sell a plethora of prepared food for reasonable prices, which is great when your kitchen only has a single gas burner!
Bread- Apparently the younger generations of Japan are starting to outgrow the traditional “rice with every meal” concept, and as such have begun incorporating bread into their diets. Really good bread. There are French-style bakeries everywhere, even our tiny town has 4 that I know of, and they crank out amazing French loafs, croissants, and fusion pastries filled with sweet red bean paste. Even 7-11 has their own brand of bread products (they also brand their own wine, but I haven’t been adventurous enough to buy some yet)
The kindness of strangers- Since diversity outside of Tokyo is rare, you can’t really hide your “foreign-ness” in Japan. People will stare at you in the market, in the train station, on the street, in school, and pretty much everywhere you go. When you realize that you are a novelty, this
becomes fun. You can pretend that you are a celebrity turning heads. Little children staring are especially adorable. Some are so overwhelmed that they cannot even wave back, while others practice their English. One little boy came right up and told us his name in English, to which you must reply “Nice to meet you!” Many young strangers shout “Hello!” on the street. Being Caucasian never felt so special. Folks in Japan are naturally polite and will always greet you
regardless, but they seem even more patient with the foreigner who is digging through their yen coins at the market trying to make correct change. On a side note, every store in Japan has a self-bagging area where you must pack up your own basket after you have paid, and if you didn’t bring a bag from home you must ask to buy plastic ones from the clerk. Genius
Vending machines- Since there is NO graffiti to speak of in Japan, and virtually no vandalism, vending machines dot every street and offer hot and cold beverages 24-7. Japanese coffee in a can is quite delicious, and having a hot can pop out on a cold walk to school is divine
Did I mention no graffiti?! That fact deserves it’s own bullet point. I showed a picture of a New York subway train interior to my students here and they audibly gasped in horror. The trains and subways here are beautiful, which brings me to…
Public transport- While not unique compared to other large cities with great infrastructure, the cleanliness and timeliness of the Japanese transport system nationwide deserves to be recognized. Not having a car here is not really an inconvenience (the way it would be in tranport-forsaken Orange County)
Shiba Inus- the smiling dog of Japan, these adorable creatures are everywhere and you can’t not smile back at them
Heated toilet seats- To our pleasant surprise, a majority of hotel and public restrooms keep their toilet seats warm in the winter with an electric setting near the seat. While it can be jarring at first (I always associated a warm seat with a previous user, ick) it is a delightful reprise on a cold day
Super fast internet- we have great fiber optic wifi in our apartment; now if we could just convince Netflix to let foreign users subscribe
Squeaky shoes- A common parenting tactic I have seen here is dressing small children in shoes with soles that contain “squeakers” identical to those found in animal chew toys, so that every step they take is articulated with a loud squeak and the parent knows where the child is at any given moment. While this would get really annoying as a parent, and problematic if multiple
children in the same area were wearing them, it is a bit more humane than attaching them to a leash
Signage- Even in a small town like ours, numerous businesses feel the need to word their signs in Japanese and English, yet due to poor translations and innate language differences, these signs are not always helpful but always amusing. I am thankful for any descriptors in English, and I enjoy laughing so this is definitely a good thing about Japan. Often they get the gist of things right, like our space heater for instance. It is labeled “hotful.” Not a real word in English by any stretch, but I get what they mean! We use “beautiful” and “eventful” to describe things, why can’t we just add “ful” for any adjective? Labels and business signs like this are everywhere, usually accompanied by some kind of cartoon character. Because obviously if a blue alien-looking bear creature tells you not to stick your fingers in the subway door jamb, you will obey! There is no sign in Japan that cannot benefit from strange animated characters
Buffets- there is a Japanese bbq restaurant near our apartment that is all-you-can-eat for 70 minutes from the time of order, and you can add on an all-you-can-drink option for $13. Enough said!
School lunch- Each day at school you must eat lunch provided by the school for a small fee. This is not an option, you must eat “for your health” as one teacher put it. In America, school lunch conjures up images of bad meatloaf and tater tots. Japanese school lunch is delicious, and massive! A nutritionist is on staff at the school to plan each day’s meal which is prepared by the staff, not a cafeteria lunch lady. So far I have had amazing bento boxes, nori and rice for roll-it-yourself sushi with various fillings, Japanese-style sandwich fixings, and some huge portions of delicious dessert, including sweet crepes. For someone who hasn’t eaten lunch consistently for the last decade, this is a life-style revelation! Plus the portions are huge, so I can take it easy on my dinner budget. It is considered disrespectful to leave food on one’s plate in Japan, so I unfortunately have to keep eating past the “sigh” point, but Japanese cuisine doesn’t make you feel gross like some countries I know…
Kid’s diets- The school lunch is the same for everyone, students and teachers alike. Children in Japan do not get babied in their culinary experiences, unlike the majority of American children I waited on. There is no grilled cheese and chicken fingers on the menus here, kids grow up
eating the same food as their parents. Don’t like rice and fish for breakfast? Too bad. What a revolutionary concept, I wonder if Japanese waitresses know how lucky they are? Haha
If you have stuck in there and read all this, stay tuned for my next installment where I will share with you the not-so-awesome aspects of Japanese life and culture that may interest and/or surprise you and make you appreciate home!