Comfort zone experiments

DISCLAIMER: this entry is quite long, so please feel free to pause and finish reading the rest at your convenience. It will be here, waiting for you…

In my last entry I told you of some wonderful things about Japan that I have experienced so far. Let me now tell you about some “interesting” things that I have seen and noticed in the last month that aren’t necessarily bad, just different than what I’m used to in America. Some of these could also be considered good, so I will let you decide for yourself.

Here is my ever-growing list thus far of things that have given me pause to think, put me out of my comfort zone and have made me do things differently:

Not a drinking fountain.

Not a drinking fountain.

Ridiculously expensive beer – A small beer at a restaurant in Japan is probably about the same as in America, $5. Not so bad for a restaurant right? So when you go to the store to buy Japanese beer made in Japan, not imported, you’d expect it to be cheaper than the restaurant. But it’s not! To buy a single can it’s about $1.50 and a six-pack of regular old Sapporo is around $14. Apparently in Japan you get a discount for buying things in smaller quantities as opposed to America’s bulk savings. Don’t even look at the cases, they are near $50! Why Japan? Why is Sapporo cheaper to buy in the states where it’s imported? All I can think is that is has something to do with the cost of barley in Japan, or that it is some awful “luxury tax” or “sin tax” against beer-drinkers, like the US does to smokers. Whatever the reason, I have sadly sworn off beer for the next year and am trying to acquire a taste for sake, which is cheaper. I also champagne in a can, which is delicious and is sometimes labeled “Champarkling” so what’s not to like?

Imports– on the topic of expensive things, if you live in Japan you should expect to eat and drink only Japanese food and beverages. Not a fan of really light, virtually flavorless beers like Sapporo? Too bad, there is no other country’s beer here. If you want a nice Belgian beer, you will have to shell out $10 for a 750 ml bottle, if you can find one. Want a nice juicy steak for dinner instead of fish or ramen? Forget about it! Most of the cattle in Japan appears to be Wagyu from Kobe, which is known for rich marbling because the cows are encouraged to become fat and lazy. Wagyu cattle’s diet actually includes beer, so maybe this is why beer and steak are so expensive! Kobe beef is available in the supermarket, just very finely sliced for ramen and shabu shabu. The only thick cut of meat I have found so far was a nice piece of top round.

Cheese – Also Japan has not figured out the miracle of life that is cheese! When you go to the market you have four choices: the Japanese version of American Kraft singles, mozzarella, cream cheese and camembert. That’s it, except for the parmasean crumbles that come in a plastic bottle, if you consider that cheese. I don’t know how camembert was popular enough to make the grade and cheddar wasn’t. Anyone who I have cooked for can tell you that I practically subsist on goat cheese. I am now in week four of withdrawals, so the shakes and sweats have passed but Japan also doesn’t make traditional “crackers” so what’s the use? There is an expensive import market in Sendai for when I really can’t go without something, but unfortunately I must accept that I live in area that doesn’t have a diversity of cuisine like we do back home

Kitchen + shower + toilet + foyer = kitchowerletoyer

Kitchen + shower + toilet + foyer = kitchowerletoyer

Coffee and donuts – While Japan is actually quite well known for its coffee, they have no concept of real, good cream. So if you’re like me and can only drink your cup of coffee with 50% sugar and cream, you are out of luck. They exclusively use the powdered stuff (what is even inthat?!) or the non-dairy vegetable oil substitute that you can only buy in those little tiny cups the restaurants use. Side note, I accidently bought that kind of “cream” once in the states for a dessert recipe; oil flavored whipped cream is truly awful. Anyway, since I don’t hate coffee enough to put chalk or vegetable oil in it, I am experimenting with condensed milk.

Japanese donuts – On the other hand Japanese donuts are delicious but they cost $1.50 a pop! They have all the same kind of donuts that Krispy Kreme did, just twice as expensive. I also believe this must be due to some kind of “sin tax” against sweets. If it’s bad for you, Japan will make you pay more for it. Like McDonald’s. The Japanese McDonald’s charges about $6-7 for the average value meal. They have a small “dollar” menu but unlike America it does not include double cheeseburgers. Like I said earlier, this might not be a bad thing…

Face masks – for anyone who has visited Japan (or China) you will have noticed the many, many people wearing surgical face masks in public. Before coming, I knew of China’s terrible smog issues, but I did not know that the Japanese wear face masks as well. It is not because of pollution. I didn’t notice smog in Tokyo the way I did in Bangkok or L.A. The typical explanation is sickness or allergies, but either way it is surprising to see one in five people with their faces covered at all times. They do not take them off indoors, probably the most unsettling aspect of the mask culture. So even in the classroom where I am supposed to be able to help students with their pronunciation, they are wearing masks. One of the Japanese teachers wore one during the entire length of his class. I understand that if you are sick it is a considerate thing to do, Japan is very concerned with politeness towards others. It is just one of those different things you must accustom yourself to. I haven’t tried one yet, it just reminds me too much of E.R. I would probably start acting out dramatic medical emergencies. Apparently the facemasks are becoming a “trend” with the younger generation who wear them as fashion statements or as a way to hide their face due to inhibitions and shyness. I get teen acne, but weird…

Our kitchen from inside our bathroom

Our kitchen from inside our bathroom

Really bad teeth – A majority of the Japanese I have met so far have what I would consider major teeth problems. More than a couple of my fellow teachers have at least one front tooth that is “dead,” being either brown or gray in color. The teachers that did have work done opted for completely silver teeth replacements. When I asked a local expat if there was a dentist shortage in Japan, he laughed and confirmed the opposite. Apparently there was a strong push for new dentists who were given tuition incentives, but just like anywhere the Japanese people hated going to the dentist. So they didn’t. Even though they have insurance. And lots of dentists. Now there is a large out-of-work dentist population in Japan. Japan still has a large population of smokers compared to America, but this can’t be the only cause of teeth issues. I suppose that is another reason they have the face masks.

Squatter toilets – I suppose there are other countries who have yet to upgrade all their bathrooms to the Western-style seated toilet, but I have not traveled to them! This is my first experience with ladies toilets that are literally urinals in the floor. Just Google ‘Japanese toilet’ if you need more visuals. Luckily I have yet to be forced to use one, as newer buildings have at least one Western toilet on hand. But I know there will come a day when I am in a tiny, backwoods train station somewhere and I just know that I will face the wrong way and make a huge mess. Fortunately our apartment has a normal toilet, although the tank is built partially exposed so it looks like there is a drinking fountain on the back where the water drains. NOT for drinking. Our toilet is also in it’s own tiny room separate from the shower/bath area, which is different but actually quite nice when somebody in your house takes 30 minute showers… The oddest thing about our bathroom is its placement in our kitchen. When you enter our apartment you immediately walk into the narrowest of hallways, one side of which is open to our tiny kitchen, and the other side are the doors for the bathroom. When you are done showering you must dry off in the kitchen. If you stand at the sink to wash dishes, the person in the bathroom cannot open the door. Mind you, our apartment is considered massive in Japan.

Bathroom noise – Another fun thing about some public Japanese restrooms is that each stall is equipped with its own stereo speaker which kicks out loud static-like noise while you are using the toilet. This serves to mask any noise you might make so that you do not have to be self-conscious about what others might hear. This is considerate toward others and lets you save “face.” I personally find this invention brilliant and would like to voice my support for its application in American bathrooms. No more fake coughs. No more waiting awkwardly until that co-worker is done fixing their make-up. Come on America, are you with me?! And that brings me to…

Powdered cream... ugh

Powdered cream… ugh

Hand towels – Everyone in Japan carries around a small terrycloth towel the size of an average hankerchief, because public restrooms do not supply paper towels. Some have hand-driers, but many do not, hence the need for one’s own personal towel. The hand towels can come in plain solid colors, or you can express you personal flair with designs like Hello Kitty and the popular anime of the day. Either way, you have to have one. In the humid monsoon summers they double as a sweat towel.

Nylons – Women in Japan always wear pantyhose. The younger girls sometimes get away without it, but if you are a typical or professional woman of Japan, you better stock up on some nylons. I assume that in the winter they help with warmth, but I’m definitely not looking forward to 100 degree weather and nylons. But if you are interested in investing in a Japanese company, I would put my money on either face masks or pantyhose.

Chopsticks – Just like how the Western toilet has not been fully adopted by the Japanese, they also cling to their belief that chopsticks are the best eating utensil ever created. This is just not the case, I’m sorry. The fork provides the same if not superior action in the case of all foods. Noodles with chopsticks? Yeah right. Rice granules. F#&%*ng joke. I’m not saying it’s not possible, I eat my noodles and rice with chopsticks every day and I manage okay. I’m simply saying the same activity can be duplicated more easily with a fork. There is nothing in Japanese cuisine I can think of that cannot be eaten more easily with a fork. Yeah yeah, you might think chopsticks are fun and a nice alternative at times. Try reversing your chopstick action to separate food into smaller pieces. Not so easy. I have yet to see anybody turn their chopsticks on their sides and use them as knives, so I’ve assumed this option is off limits. There are actually quite specific chopstick techniques and etiquette. If you have more free time be sure to look up the use of chopsticks and funerals

Its a train... for Pokemon only.

Its a train… for Pokemon only.

Bicycle laws – This is the first time since 8th grade that I have had to ride my bike to school every day. Being back in the saddle in a new country has brought up some interesting challenges, especially since Japan drives on the other side of the road. Some mornings our town has “traffic officials” working the busy intersections to help pedestrians and bikers navigate traffic. First of all, our town has no “busy” intersections by any stretch of the definition. Secondly, these “officials” appear to be local residents with nothing better to do than insist that people on their bicycles hop off at every intersection crosswalk and walk their bike to the other side. Seriously? If I wanted to walk to school I would not have bought a bike! Also, as I biker I am a vehicle that is part of the flow of traffic. Would you ask every automobile driver to stop and walk their car in neutral across the intersection? The “flow of traffic” is apparently a foreign concept to bikers in Japan. There seem to be no discernable rules of the road when it comes to bikes. They ride on the sidewalk, either side of the street, even when there is a bike lane provided. They bike against the flow of traffic in the bike lane, so I am forced to play chicken on a daily basis with some high school student. Today I lost and my bike fell over, with me on it. However, it is very rude to express anger at someone in Japan, since they might feel shame because of it. So instead of telling the idiot to bike on the other side with the flow of traffic, I just got up and kept peddling. He will probably feel shame regardless, hopefully…

Tatami & Futon

Tatami & Futon

Sleeping on the floor – As technologically advanced as Japan is, I am still surprised by the amount of customs that have been maintained simply because they are “customs.” Like the squatter toilet and chopsticks, Japan has also clung to its tradition of sleeping on the floor. Futons come in all shapes and sizes, and they are still used in a traditional tatami room where the floor is inlayed with several tatami (wood and straw) mats. You must take all shoes off when stepping on the tatami. Since our apartment’s “bedroom” is such a tatami room, we opted for the Japanese futon arrangement, not realizing that since you are sleeping with a very thin mattress between you and the floor, you must move the futon off the floor everyday to allow the tatami below to air out. If you refrain from doing this, moisture builds up and you will get mold under your mats. Eww. So every day we must unmake our beds. I am also not quite sure how people in Japan clean their futons, since the tatami naturally collects hair and fiber which it transfers to your futon. It will definitely not fit in my washing machine. And when it comes to drying…

No electric clothing dryers – While I am sure they are sold somewhere in Japan, it is uncommon for the average household to own a dryer. Washing machine, yes, and then everything must be air dried either outside or on racks indoors. In the winter it is very hard to dry anything indoors or out when the air is frigid cold. It is also hard to dry anything in the summer when the humidity keeps it perpetually moist. So you would think the automatic drier would be one of those miracle devices in high demand.  Nope. Doing laundry has become an overnight activity; wash in the morning, hang up and hope they are dry by tomorrow. Air drying every piece of clothing is a new activity for me, and I really miss my dryer! No matter how you hang things they end up with some dimple or impression somewhere, to say nothing of the lint and hair that I cannot seem to remove and which appears to get worse with every washing. Come on Japan, let’s move forward to the 21st century with just this one little machine. You can keep your chopsticks, and I will even agree to use your weirdo toilets if I can only have an automatic dryer! There’s a laundromat around the corner you say? Oh, well yeah, it’s only $3 a load

Thanks for hanging in there! Next, the trials and tribulations of working in Japan!

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