Sometimes I worry that all I’ve done is complain.
Life in Japan is hard, sure. But I’ve stayed for three years. Outside of work, and loneliness, and the constant miniature stresses of everyday life, Japan has clearly captured something in my imagination that has inspired me to stay. These things are small, too, just like the annoyances, but simpler: Pleasure is easy, after all, misery is complicated. So I can sum up 41 things I like about Japan in a single, massive blast of positive vibes, and then I can direct people back here when they mention my constant stream of narcissistic complaints and criticisms. I am sure that there are more than this, many things I’m forgetting, so consider this a survey, not an end-all list.
1. Hanami (Cherry Blossom Season)
It annoyed me to discover that Washington, DC has cherry blossoms that bloom at the same time as Japan’s, because my jaded Washington friend kept acting like they weren’t all that cool. The high school kids in Japan are pretty blasé, as well: “Cherry Leaf. Is… Boring.”
But I can’t walk through the park in the Spring without being swept up in the beauty of the damn things, even going so far as to write haiku:
Cherry blossoms stuck
to the bottom of my shoes,
only four months left.
The Kit-Kat innovation factory slowed down after 2011, but I will miss scratching the itch in the candy aisle of every new convenience store I find myself in. Visiting new towns was always tied to the possibilities of tasting a new Kit-Kat. There are regional Kit-Kats, sorted by prefecture; then there are seasonal Kit-Kats, rotated nationally every season. I’m leaving on a high note: Passionfruit.
But I’ve had Rum Raisin, two kinds of Matcha, Sakura, Sakura-Matcha, Blueberry Cheesecake, Pumpkin, Soy Sauce, Cinnamon, Sweet Potato, Strawberry, Pudding, Spicy Citrus, Pancake, Orange, Powdered Mochi, and more that I can’t even remember. Surprising highlights: Sweet Potato.
3. Silence after Sunset
The siren rings throughout my town at 6 p.m., and the children all go inside. There’s a calmness to the night then. Unless it’s summer cicada season, there’s hardly a sound in the neighborhood, just the occasional distant clanging of the subway crossing.
4. Polite Dogs
I never liked dogs. The only reasons dogs don’t attack and kill you is because the thought hasn’t crossed their mind yet. But in Japan I came around to a couple of breeds. The Shiba-Inu, in particular, is a polite dog, small enough to be cute but big enough to be a dog.
There’s one that wanders around my street sometimes. It usually stops to look at me, mouth closed, straightforward and all business. It doesn’t bark or run up to me, doesn’t threaten me or run away. Just has a look and, I imagine, gives me a little bow before carrying on home.
Trains are great. They’re quiet and convenient. I remember looking at the road in America once and thinking, with awe for Franklin Roosevelt, that this pavement I stood on spanned the entire country. I could go anywhere from here. The trains in Japan feel that way – there’s a train to go home, next to the train to go to Tokyo. All that’s between me and an adventure is where I decide to wait on the platform.
There’s a park near my house with a 4.5 kilometer running path spanning a lake. Inside the lake is an island, and beside the lake is a rose garden with a windmill, a Shinto shrine, a baseball field, a public gymnasium, and a sculpture garden. All free, all just sitting there for me to run around. Urban planning, when Japan decides to apply it, is impeccable, though of course this has a lot to do with having enormous wealth to spend on them.
7. Themed Dining
You can eat dinner in a sixth-grade classroom complete with a blackboard and a pop quiz, you can get locked into a prison cell, you can get a Mongolian yurt (with a costume). There’s one bar here that is inside a cave, down the street from a bar themed like 1980’s Japan, which is down the street from a bar themed like 1940’s Japan. There are all-you-can-eat pizza buffets and places with boiling oil at your table to deep-fry your own food. The absurd eating experiences in Japan get all the attention, but that ignores another key point: The food in Japan, and the atmosphere in most restaurants, makes it ridiculously easy to spend money every weekend. Beautiful, dimly lit, romantic dining is the norm.
This is unheard of where I’m from: Pay $30 and drink as much alcohol as you can for 2-3 hours. I’ve been served pitchers of gin and tonic. A typical night out starts with a 2-hour nomihodai and then moves to karaoke, where you get an additional nomihodai built into the cost of the booth. An exhilarating means to a miserable morning.
Private booths are the only way to go. No enduring the endless stream of drunken strangers, you can book a room with drunken friends and endure each other’s wails. Karaoke is a grand way of connecting on a level that didn’t exist for me in America: Sitting around, singing to each other in all your unabashed, off-key glory seems, somehow, to bring people closer together than anything else we could be doing.
An unheard-of food in the States, Okonomiyaki in my town transcends all other Japanese cuisine. Savory batter with chunks of pork, shrimp and cabbage baked in, topped with barbecue sauce and, with the modan specialty, topped off with noodles. No, this is not how it is done in the traditional okonomiyaki homelands of Hiroshima and Osaka. But, having had the dish in both locales, I can assure you that there is no better option than Bochi-Bochi modan okonomiyaki in the sleepy suburban city of Kasuya, Fukuoka Prefecture.
11. Dazaifu Tenmangu Shrine
The shrine dedicated to the spirit of knowledge is a pilgrimage spot for students just before all major entrance exams. It is also just a beautiful and astounding temple in a rustic old town that is a touch of Kyoto in Kyushu. The plum blossoms here are prettier than the cherry blossoms. In the first autumn after I arrived in Japan, I stumbled into this shrine during a Winter Equinox ceremony. Women in traditional robes raking the sand into circles while live musicians performed for a crowd of only maybe 20 of us. It was breathtaking and serene:
Speaking of shrines, there are plenty of good luck amulets, fortunes, and superstitions to stick to. As an expat with a life that sometimes seems completely out of my control, superstition has been a reassuring, albeit empty, way to pretend that there is some greater force guiding my way through the muck. It’s comforting and fun to get caught up in it all.
If you and I ever get married, Kyoto is my top honeymoon destination. Be warned.
14. Telephone Booth Bars
Open-container laws in Japan are relaxed, which means that enterprising individuals can open their own bar in any public location. I suggest starting your own late-night speakeasy in a telephone booth. Cram in, turn on your iPhone and share a bottle of wine. Just steer clear of residential neighborhoods, lest your bar get raided, 1920’s style.
Many expats get jaded by the sticker-photo-booth-on-steroids phenomenon that is purikura in their first year. I did not. Purikura is fantastic. Everything that comes out of them is a weird masterpiece of snapshot photography, like a gigantic toy camera room. I’ll miss the option of convincingly changing my hair color and unconvincingly being forced to have enormous eyeballs.
16. Village Vanguard
Village Vanguard is basically a novelty gift store, the equivalent of Spenser’s gifts in New England. But it’s all Japanese. Weird books, strange toys and cameras, random video game merchandise, strange inventions – everything people think of when they think of “wacky Japan” is actually limited to the walls of Village Vanguard (and certain floors of Loft).
17. Ignoring Festivals
Look, of course I love festivals, too, but there is something about having a festival go on around you while you are on your way to do something else that really drives home the fact that you live in Japan. It occurred to me when I was going to meet a friend at a bar and passed six women in kimonos playing shamisen while four bare-chested men banged taiko drums and a woman danced with a fan: “Oh, there’s a festival today.” On to my friend! Of course I’ve enjoyed the food stalls and the weird races and centerpieces of many festivals, but something makes you feel really settled once you treat these things the way you would treat a street festival at home. It means Japan has stopped being an exotic places full of once-in-a-lifetime experiences that you feel guilty not participating in. That’s oddly comforting.
Every so often you walk down a street in Japan and there’s a guy in a really convincing plush costume. It’s not like I think a giant fish head is really hanging out waving at me, but the costumes are so detailed that my imagination definitely treats it more like a weird animal than a person sweating in a giant cardboard box. Not to mention that I don’t understand the logos they are representing on any level. I once watched a giant penguin jumping rope at a firefly festival, once had my dinner partner calmly interrupt me to say “The bear is waving at us” and turning around to see she was right.
19. Never tipping
Who can do the math? Meals are more expensive, but more convenient, and Japanese service is better than anywhere else I’ve been. I remember eating at a sushi restaurant in America and saying “Can I have the soup?” and the guy literally said, “I don’t know what you’re asking me, man.” That guy still ended up getting a 20 percent tip, because I am a warrior for House Egalitarian. Meanwhile in Japan the waitstaff makes me feel as if they are genuinely delighted by my appearance at their door. Paying American servers $2.25 an hour feels barbaric by comparison. No wonder they’re always so angry.
On the flip side of the polite service is the absence of service people altogether. The conveyor belt sushi delivery process is something I’ll miss as a regular fix for my snappy dining needs. Sit down and grab any plate that strikes your fancy for as little as 100 yen each.
It’s always quite shocking to discover that I can fly from Fukuoka to Nepal, Thailand, or Sri Lanka for less cost than flying from Boston to Los Angeles. Granted, these cheap voyages include nearly 33 hours of sleeping in Chinese airports, but Nepal for $400 certainly justifies the 14 hour overnight layover in a random Chinese megalopolis.
Even if you take the train you walk. Where I would have once defaulted to a car to get anywhere in life, I now find that, without one, walking is a built-in comfort to living in the city. It is also the best way to feel the culture of a place. Even the subway blocks off the connections between places, decontextualizing the whole shebang. It’s good to know which neighborhood flows into which. It’s good to run into people smoking in tracksuits while spraying their dogs down with a hose.
So many strange things happen and simply open up doors to stranger explanations. But every dimly lit restaurant door opens into a delightful restaurant, every strange festival or musical performance delivers. One of the most difficult things about leaving Japan, I predict, will be the lack of spark to my curiosities. In Japan, even a fast-food chain is full of surprises, in America, it’s just a Burger King. The constant stream of easy novelty, I fear, will make me quite a bore at home.
24. Package Delivery
A friend recently remarked with awe about a package delivered to her home containing books she had ordered but never paid for. She was stunned to see that she could simply take the bill for the books to the convenience store and pay for them whenever she got around to it. I can order things off of the Internet and pay the postman when they arrive, an option that surely exists in America but is never actually used. You can schedule deliveries with the postman by calling him on his cell phone, which is insane. You can tell the postman to leave the package at a convenience store and pick it up later.
Convenience stores as they should be. Yes, since my article in 2010 they have started serving Slurpies, you’d be surprised how much vitriol I’ve gotten from angry Japanophiles on the Internet for suggesting otherwise. Anyway, even better now.
When I first arrived in Tokyo in August I kept hearing a strange sound, like an electric wire being tugged taut. I imagined it was the snap and crackle of disconnected powerlines. Turns out it was just the sound of a hummingbird-sized insect. There’s a field beside my house where these guys live. Now, I know it’s summer when they fill the air with what’s come to be the soundtrack for humidity. This year I haven’t heard them yet, but I’m leaving soon and I wonder if I ever will again.
27. Kotatsu and Nabe (Caveat: The absence of centralized heating)
It is a coward’s way to wax nostalgic for the wet and icy cold while cradled in the sweaty palms of summer. While Japan’s insane lack of central heat left me in bitter shivers, I did find no small comfort in curling up under the warmed blanket of a table-heater, or kotatsu. Basically a table with a heater underneath it and a blanket to keep in the warmth, the technique warms your legs and leaves your upper body to fend for itself in a swathe of blankets. Meanwhile, you eat Nabe, a hot soup that you leave boiling for hours and add vegetables and meats as you crave them. The combination of visiting a friend and relying to fire and hot soup for shared survival felt unendurable at the time, but in hindsight, was a kind of comfort I’d never find anywhere else.
28. Everybody giving me food
Co-workers leave cookies and crackers on my desk, deliver bagels to the office. Guests, even expats, always seem to carry a bottle of wine or snack. My entire life has become a potluck. This is Japanese hospitality, this is Japan’s love of food, but it is also a charming tradition that I hope to resume shortly after my return to the squalor of student life.
29. The globalization of my social life
Of course I have made Japanese friends, but I have also made friends with people from (in alphabetical order) Australia, Barbados, Canada, the Caribbean, China, England, France, Germany, Ireland, Scotland, Singapore, South Africa and New Zealand. Expat life in Japan has exposed me to foreign friendships (and mild culture shocks) from all over the world, and has expanded my understanding of people well beyond my limited “America vs Japan” perspective.
30. My friends
You come to rely on friendships more here than anywhere else. You’re facing the combined stress of culture shock and loneliness, and the joys of having a native-language conversation – or one where you don’t have to re-introduce the fundamentals of your home culture every 15 minutes – fast become a requirement to your survival. We tear down intimacy at a frightening pace, sure, but the good ones always tough it through.
31. Computerized supermarket jazz
The supermarket down the road from me has a CD with about four songs that seem to be demonstration tracks from a 1989 Casiotone synthesizer. Two of them are “Jump,” the Van Halen track, and “1999” by Prince. The other two are incomprehensibly frantic jazz numbers. That the staff of the shop endures the four tracks on rotation every day speaks volumes for Japanese stoicism. Elsewhere, the jingles are catchy and stick with you. Here’s a few of them:
Loft’s are, by far, the best jingles of all time, but consider that this would literally loop all day long inside the shops:
32. Fish for breakfast
Every day, an onigiri with salmon and a can of coffee. This is a country where the more common word for cereal is “corn flakes,” and where corn flakes are kept in the dessert aisle of my local grocery store, below the marshmallows and chocolate sauce. It’s a dessert topping.
Fish for breakfast is a standby in a lot of cultures – the lox bagel was a standard at my kosher deli back home – but it was never such an easy, regular thing. Protein breakfasts without the heart attack are something I will certainly miss.
It takes a while to get used to the idea of bathing in hot springs, and especially if you end up going alone. The key to onsen is that it’s intended to be social. You can go and enjoy the scenery and not talk, but after a while you’re just hanging out in a bath. I think – and this borders on creeper territory – there are simply not many opportunities to enjoy sensual pleasures in the West. Relaxation is inherently intimate, and sensual relaxation is always lumped into the sexy category of fun times with friends. So instead of hanging out naked in a hot tub we focus a lot of our “social intimate sensuality” into drugs. Onsen is what you do with friends when you can’t smoke pot.
Some people make jokes about the Japanese belief that it is the only country with four seasons, but once you go through a couple of rotations you start to see why. I came from New England, which has one season: Sleet. Sometimes the sleet stops, but that’s not really a season. Japan has seasons with miniature seasons introducing the main season. There is cherry blossom season and plum blossom season, rainy season and plum rain season. Each season feels really distinct and marks a very specific span of time, returning every year to carry memories of the last time we were in it.
It’s just one of those things in a lot of major cities; you’ll be looking out of the train and hey, there’s a giant ancient castle. Sure, the castles are basically all replicas these days, 50-year-old reproductions of castles burned to the ground a hundred years ago, but they are always elegant (if only on the exterior).
36. Wet-wipes at every table (Caveat: The absence of paper towels or hand-driers)
One of the touchstones of the dining experience in Japan – where I spent 1000 days going out to dinner – is that every place you go gives you a wet-wipe rather than a hand towel (or both). Some bring out hot wet towels in the winter and cold towels in the summer. Other just leave a soapy wet-wipe, which, fine. When I went to America I was constantly wanting one of these things to get the grim of the outside world off of my hands, so I could eat my meal without worrying about bus exhaust. On the other hand, it can be impossible to find paper towels for your hands in bathrooms, even in the absence of hot-air driers. How often have I shaken my hands dry into a sink and then reluctantly left brown water stains on my khakis out of the chronic habit of forgetting my handkerchief? The answer is every day. That has literally happened for 1000 days.
37. The Taiko Drum Game (Taiko no Tatsujin, “Master of Taiko”)
Arcades in general are full of things I like, but for a while I made a pact that if I saw the taiko drum game, I would play the taiko drum game. I got pretty good at it, too, but then the game started to fade in popularity and arcades turned the music down, making it impossible to keep the tempo by listening.
38. The city streets after last train and the sun rising in a taxi cab home
If you stay out late enough to miss the last train back to the sleepy suburbs full of polite dogs, you might, at first, get a sense of panic that you can’t go home. But really, this is liberating. You’re committed to a taxi, and now you can stay out as late as you want. This is, I’ll acknowledge, a very specific piece of nostalgia to my living situation, but I think anyone who visits a major city in Japan will agree that the best way to experience it is to stay out until the sun rises. Bars are open until 5 a.m., arcades and restaurants and karaoke are at their peak. The city really comes alive once the trains stop.
39. The romance of everything
You can walk through the lantern-lit streets of Kyoto beside water rippling over a canal, but that’s not the end of romance in Japan. Everything, at night, pulsates with a kind of emotional intensity missing from the long, exhausting days of office work. Everyone looks amazing, from the girls in elaborate makeup going to their weddings and work parties, to the skinny guys in their tailored suits. The bars always seem quiet and empty, unless you want a loud one. There is bossa nova everywhere. If you can’t find someone to make out with at the end of the night, it feels like a tragedy. It is.
40. Random shrines
Somewhere in the red light district of my city there is a walkway about 1 meter wide. Go back far enough and there’s a red lantern. It is surrounded by host clubs and bars where foreigners aren’t allowed, but here in the middle of the city is a shrine. There’s a shrine next door to a 100-yen shop in a Kyoto shopping arcade. I have often felt the sense of discovery that marks all video games like the Legend of Zelda: Wander around and you’ll find some kind of healing shrine or ruin, or sacred rock or tree. The woods and cities are full of things accumulated and built around and hidden away and forgotten.
41. 100-yen egg day
Thursdays are 100-yen egg day, the day where you get a dozen eggs for 100 yen. You go into the grocery store and this guy shouts “irrashaimase!” and you say hello and then you go to the egg aisle and by 100 yen eggs backed by a demented Casio keyboard performing “Let’s Go Crazy.” Your life is simultaneously boringly normal and wonderfully strange, with the live fish across from you and the robot shouting Japanese and you, you’re just trying to get a good deal on some eggs.
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