9 not so obvious things I miss about Japan

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After having lived in Osaka for nearly three years, last January (2017) I moved back to the UK. I’ve been so busy with my new job in England that it hadn’t really hit me that my time in Japan was over – in my mind, I somehow assumed that I was again in England only temporarily (as I had been back to England a number of times during the last three years for short periods of time). But I am finally starting to realize that I will now only go to Japan on holiday and that what I got used to in Japan is no longer my everyday life.

Like most expats, I miss things from place(s) where I have previously lived. The things that I miss from Japan is long, and contains some obvious things, like my friends and my students, Japanese hotprings, amazingly well functioning public transport, and great food, but also some things that may not be so obvious. Here’s the list of those non-obvious things:

 

1. The endearing naivety, quirkiness or downright craziness of many people

Japanese people (or maybe just people in Osaka) are really quirky. It’s worth pointing out that I now live in Brighton, a city on the south coast of England known for its non-orthodox ideas and non-judgemental, tolerant approach to life, but even by Brightonian standards Osaka people’s behaviour is sometimes a little unusual (in an interesting and endearing way). See for example a photo below in which people are taking a photo at Osaka station of a Hankyu train that has a cartoon character on it.

 

This kind of behaviour is completely normal. No-one in Osaka would look twice at an adult having their photo taken with a tourist attraction mascot, a promotional Moomin character or a cute poster of a toy character – activities which I would think are just for children.

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In addition, the man in the video below dancing at an arcade like no-one’s watching is just another arcade in Osaka (note that alcohol might have a part to play in Japanese people letting their hair down in this way, but still, this is nothing unusual).

 

 

 

2. Japanese ‘Poundland’

Seria is a shop where everything costs 100 Yen (£0.70 or €0.70) but it’s not like Poundland in England (where everything costs £1). Seria is much better quality! For example, many of the sushi dishes or onigiri (rice ball) containers are made in Japan! If ever in Japan, go and stock up on all Japanese products on the cheap! You might even be able to palm off some of their Japanese crockery on your friends (or mother-in-laws) as top-class Japanese products.

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3. Fast-food restaurants

Inexpensive good quality ‘fast-food’ restaurants are everywhere in Japan. I’m not talking about McDonalds or even the Japanese version of a fast-food burger place: Mos Burger. Instead, I’m talking about proper Asian fast-food places. These are ideal for busy working mums (and dads) to take their kids for dinner when they don’t have time to cook – or if they just want some absolutely delicious dishes so cheaply that it is just not worth going through the hassle of cooking. A tray of Chinese dishes or a bowl of udon (noodles) and 6 pieces of karaage (fried chicken) will set you back about 1000 JPY (€7.50, £6.80). In many places like these, be prepared to place the order at a vending machine either outside or immediately inside the front doors of the restaurant. You just hand the ticket you get to the chef behind the counter, sit down and wait for your tray to arrive.

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A bowl of noodles, fried chicken and salad, prawns in a chilli sauce, a selection of dumplings and a Chinese jelly+fruit dessert all for approx. 1000 JPY (7.50 EUR)

 

4. Konbini – corner shops

7-Eleven, Family Mart and other small convenience stores are everywhere in Japan and they are amazing! In addition to the obvious snacks and things that you’d get from corner shops, konbinis in Japan are a life saviour in more than one way. For example:

If you splash some udon or ramen on you shirt and tie during lunch, or have a scary business meeting, you can just go to a konbini and get a new shirt and tie or clean underwear if needed.

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If you forgot to check the weather forecast and to take your umbrella with you in the morning to work, you can just pop in the nearest konbini on your way home and you don’t have to get singled out in the crowd as the only disorganised person walking in the rain without an umbrella.

Or if you cannot be bothered to cook and want an even less expensive dinner than what the fast-food restaurants have got to offer (see above), you can get fantastic foods in konbini. They have good quality ready-made dishes of noodles, rice and pasta, salads, sushi, dumplings, sandwiches, onigiri, etc.

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Furthermore, they have microwaves in which the staff or you can heat your dishes up, and kettles where you get hot water for your pot noodles.

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And many of them have confortable and clean areas to eat you food – or even rather spectacular areas like the konbini next to the pharmacy on the 16th floor of the Harukas building in Osaka. The view was pretty impressive when we on a regular basis had our konbini coffee, noodle salad and strawberry and cream sandwiches while waiting for our daughter’s insulin prescription to be ready for collection. So, don’t be put off by the brand 7-Eleven based on what your image of it might be in England or the States. In Japan these types of shops are gold dust!

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Harukas

 

It might also be worth mentioning that a common way to pay your electricity/gas bills is to take the bill to a konbini and pay for it there – not quite as easy as internet banking or direct debit, but given that you are likely to go to a konbini pretty much daily anyway (if not for clean underwear or umbrellas, then for some food/drink), it’s not really that much hassle to pay your bills while you are there.

 

5. Vending machines

On the one hand, you might find it insane that there appears to be a vending machine every 10 metres, but when the weather is really hot, it is great that you can get an ice-cold drink anywhere and when it’s cold, you can defrost your fingers on a nice hot can of coffee every 10 meters. Also, my husband was particularly taken with being able to buy one-cup sake from a vending machine! (Link to my previous post on vending machines here).

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6. Over-enthusiastic izakaya/restaurant staff

When you go to small yakitori places or izakayas (Japanese pubs), the staff will often greet you with synchronised loud shouts of ‘welcome’ (irrasshaimase!) and when you order drinks the cheering can continue (especially if your husband orders a bottle of wine AND two glasses of sake for the two of you!). The staff are also often keen to have a chat with you and hear your view of Japan (if you are a foreigner). When you leave and are walking away from the restaurant the staff usually follow you outside expressing their gratitude, bowing and sometimes even holding a flag saying ‘Thank you. Please come again’. Even though pub staff in England is often friendly and chatty, the extreme enthusiasm of Japanese pub staff in my opinion trumps this in entertainment value.

Erm, in the name of honesty, you do occasionally find slightly less enthusiastic bar staff even in Japan (see picture below).

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7. Wonderful mix of old and new

Japan has a lot of history and people quite like to do things as they have always been done. For example, the below picture shows a restaurant cashier using an abacus to calculate the total of one’s bill.

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But at the same time Japan has some pretty futuristic ideas, for example robots standing in for shop assistants

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or girlfriends for busy or shy Japanese men (link).

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8. High heels

In Japan most women wear high heels at work, university or when out and about. I accommodated, and in the three years that I lived in Japan went from trainer/boot wearing high heel hater to someone who chose to wear high heels out of choice when on a date night with my husband. As a result, the balls of my feet are now made of steel and I’ve come to appreciate the elongating effect high heels do to a middle age lady’s stocky calves. Given that back home in Brighton only (a) Love Island wannabes, and (b) Brighton gentlemen wear high heels, I feel I cannot elongate my stocky calves any longer.

 

9. The adventure

I miss going to a pub or a restaurant and not being to able to understand what is written on the menu, and so having to ask the waiter to read out the menu so that I could understand what it roughly says. And using the term: What would you recommend? -A lot.

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Our favourite sake bar menu

 

I also miss the general feeling of adventure when living in a new country whose culture and language are relatively unfamiliar to you (even after having lived there for 3 years!).

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An example of a Japanese (or maybe Chinese!?) tradition whose function and symbolism are still unknown to me.

 

Are there any expats out there reading this blog post? What non-obvious things do you miss from places you’ve lived?

A few tips to help you make friends in Japan

Japanese people are a little bit like the Finns, i.e. relatively introverted and shy, and even though they might want to have a chat with you they are as eager to open a conversation with a foreigner as a squirrel is to cuddle a boa constrictor. Consequently, you might find it’s hard work to make Japanese friends… well, that is unless you are in Osaka, where on the train or in the park old ladies frequently engage with you in lengthy conversations in Japanese (regardless of whether or not you speak Japanese) and hand out to your children bags of sweets, bookmarks or pieces of fruit (regardless of whether or not you consent to it) and where random strangers tap you on the shoulder and ask (a) if you could be their foreign friend and/or (b) if they could practice their English with you. But elsewhere in Japan it might be more difficult to talk to the locals.

But not to worry, if you are visiting Japan and would like to experience authentic Japanese communication in a friendly situation or even make friends with some random Japanese people this is what we’ve found works marvellously:

1) in the evening, go to a small izakaya (gastro pub) or a standing sake bar, the smaller the better really, a 5-10 seater would be perfect.

2) sit/stand at the bar (in very small izakayas there are no tables anyway)

3) have a couple of glasses of dry sake, sweet plum wine or a pint of beer

4) start talking to the person sitting next to you. It helps if you know a couple of words in Japanese, after all, the chances are the Japanese person will have a very limited knowledge of English. The quickest way to start a conversation is to comment on the sport on the TV in the izakaya, or mention how delicious the sake or food is. Further into the conversation you should mention how much you love Japan (which shouldn’t be difficult as Japanese food, public transport, customer service, culture and nature are all amazing). Even though Japanese people love their country, what they love even more is foreigners telling them that they love Japan.

5) one additional tip for connecting with Japanese people at 11pm when you’ve jointly emptied the sake reserves of a small izakaya is to learn the lyrics to USA for Africa’s We are the World song before your trip to Japan. Seriously! Surprisingly perhaps, pretty much everyone in Japan, or at least in Osaka, knows this song (because the kids’ area at the Universal Studios in Osaka plays this song non-stop all day every day).

To convince you that the above method works like a dream here are a couple of random but wonderful instances of us making friends in Japan:

 

Crazy mama-san

A German friend was visiting me in Osaka and we were looking for a place to eat. We stopped outside a small Korean izakaya to have a look at the menu (which was written in Japanese and we couldn’t understand any of it) and decided not to go in. But as we started walking away from the restaurant a salesperson from a bike shop across the road storms out of his shop and with a few words of English persuades us to go to the Korean restaurant, saying that the food is great and the mama-san (owner/manager) is very friendly. We felt obliged to go in.

We sat at the counter next to two salarymen and a lone guy. We struggled to order anything because mama-san and her sous-chef/waitress didn’t speak English so the lone guy next to us offered to translate. It turned out he owned his own restaurant a couple of blocks away but was having his ‘break’ (involving no food, but hefty glasses of sake). We had a chat with him about his visit to Canada some 20 year ago, and when he had to go back to work (a little tipsy), we turned to the two salarymen sitting next to us and to another group of men who had come downstairs (from the seating area upstairs) to talk to us. It was an interesting mix of people. There was a piano tuner, a university professor, a relatively famous actor, office workers, a car sales person, two crazy ladies behind the bar and me and my German friend, both of us university lecturers.

The night turned a bit crazy with singing, mama-san taking a gulp of wine, gurgling it and spitting it back in the glass and redrinking it, several of the customers ended up serving drinks/food behind the bar and the punters, mama-san and the sous-chef trying to pronounce my German friend’s name even in a remotely similar way to the way it should be pronounced.

It was a hilarious evening and ended in everyone exchanging their business cards to indicate friendship.

 

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Mama-san and a customer behind the bar

Standing Sake bar the size of a match box

My husband and I have a favourite standing sake bar in the Shinsaibashi area of Osaka. It is tiny. It literally consists of one table (which is really just a piece of wood balanced on top of some drinks crates) and a fridge to keep the sake cool.  As to food, the owner is happy for you to bring in whatever you like (including take-outs from the local 7-eleven). And we like the place precisely because of these properties. The sake bar having only one table means that you have to talk to the people next to you, and the cold (or hot) sake helps with no single mutually intelligible language. Regardless of the fact that my husband and I don’t speak Japanese beyond the very basics and the other customers generally not speaking English beyond the very basics every time we’ve been to this place we’ve had a great time, maybe partly because most customers when coming in exclaim with delight kokusai (‘international’) party or because more than once when we haven’t managed to understand each other a Japanese customer leaves the sake bar, goes searching the surrounding bars and eventually comes back with a Japanese person who can speak some English to translate between English and Japanese.

We love this place so much that we often take our European visitors/friends there with us. Here’s a photo taken at my most recent visit with a friend.

 

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And to prove that this is not only the case in Osaka, here are a couple of pictures of a sushi restaurant in Tokyo where I went with a Japanese friend and ended up having a great time with some other diners (who were eager to tell me that they had visited Europe and their son was an associate professor of English at a university in Nagoya) and the owner of the restaurant who wanted to practice his English. Having been able to talk to the owner, who was the sushi chef of the place, allowed me to finally put some words to the foods that I’ve been eating for the past 2 ½ years.

So, not only will you have interesting, hilarious and entertaining evenings interacting with random Japanese people after a couple of glasses of something slightly stronger than just green tea, but you will learn a lot about Japan and Japanese culture as well.

 

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Sushi chef (owner) secretly took a selfie with my phone

 

Even though I am posting this blog post on New Year’s Eve, the above tips are not really meant to be used tonight or any other NYE. After all, in Japan NYE is a little bit like Christmas eve in Finland or Christmas day in England, i.e it’s spent at home relaxing with one’s family eating too much, watching TV and maybe visiting a temple/church during the night. But if you are in Japan pretty much any other evening than NYE,why not try and make some Japanese friends. And if you are a bit shy to open the conversation, remember that the chances are that the Japanese person sitting next to you is as eager to talk to you as you are to them!

To lie or not to lie

Girl with a choice near the forked road

I’ve noticed that my husband, who is British, and I, a native to Finland, have somewhat different ideas about saying how things are, talking about things with their real names, or lying in the name of politeness.

To give you an example:

My husband and I were having a date night and headed to a newly opened restaurant in Brighton in which we hadn’t been before. We walked in, sat down and the waitress brought us a jug of water and the menus. We looked through the menu which (a) listed items that were more expensive that we expected and (b) listed nothing that we wanted to eat (it was all bit too trendy in a bad way for us, for example ‘cod cheeks’ and ‘blood and egg’). My husband and I were discussing our options when the waitress returned to take our order. After a few seconds of silence, I plucked up some courage and while visibly squirming in my seat said in an extremely apologetic tone: Erm…I’m so sorry but we are not impressed with your menu. And we stood up and walked out.

Once outside, my husband turns to me and expressed his embarrassment in relation to the extreme level of rudeness that I had displayed in the restaurant. I was gobsmacked. To me, my approach had been polite, we didn’t want to eat in that place and we had to get out of there. What should we have done?

His view was that it was impolite to say that we didn’t like the choice in their menu. He thought our options were (a) just to order something and spend our evening there (regardless of the fact that that cheeky and/or bloody experience would have set us back by about £100) or if we absolutely could not force down the gory-sounding food (b) under no circumstances should I have said anything about the appeal of the food but lied along the lines of:

Hmm, you know we’ve just remembered that we’re actually meeting some people somewhere else. So, sorry, but we have to leave.

To him, the latter of these would have been the polite way to get out of the situation, but to me this feels extremely impolite because it is an obvious lie. A lie that we know and the waitress knows and we know that the waitress knows and the waitress knows that we know that she knows. Thus, that statement in my opinion would imply that the waitress is stupid enough to think that a (sober) adult couple had forgotten a prior engagement whose existence they recall the minute they’ve read through the menu. When I questioned the politeness of this practice, my husband told me that he thinks that that is how the world works. But I think that is just how England works.

I think it is interesting to think that different cultures might view this in such different ways. What do you think? What would you have done? Would you have (a) given honest feedback in a polite or impolite way, (b) given dishonest feedback (friends waiting in a different restaurant), (c) done something else or (d) you don’t give a shit about cultural differences maybe because you voted for Brexit and/or Trump.

Japanese cat deterrent

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It seems to be pretty universal that people (in particular parents of young children) are not too happy about neighbourhood cats using their garden as the toilet (I’m sure most people wouldn’t be happy about the neighbourhood dogs using their garden as the toilet either). A garden covered with cat faeces which might contain Toxoplasma gondii (a parasite that causes neurological problems) is extremely incompatible with young children, who are drawn to dirt and fail to resist putting random things in their mouths and licking anything from a daffodil to a rake.

The only group of people that might not mind cats using their garden as the toilet are the cats’ owners. But paradoxically, cats tend to prefer their neighbours’ gardens to their own.

In Japan, catless people tackle this problem with PET bottles filled with water (see photo above). I’ve understood that the use of these is based on three assumptions.

1) Cats don’t like water. (I’m giggling just typing this silly argument!)

2) When a cat goes close to the bottle, they see their own reflection on the bottle, thinks it is another cat (probably a size of a tiger due to the bottle distorting their reflection) and consequently runs away. But cats are intelligent animals, they wouldn’t fall for this, would they!?

3) Maybe more convincingly, cats don’t like the prism that sunlight creates in the area surrounding the bottles.

I was going to suggest that instead of taking the drastic measure of buying a dog (or your own cat!) you, my non-Japanese catless reader, could use PET bottles instead, to make your garden less attractive to cats, but then it dawned on me that this would only work in places with lots of sunshine (e.g. the Sahara and Japan). Given that we have only about a week’s worth of sun per year in Finland (and even less in England), in these countries, the use of PET bottles would be as effective a cat deterrent as gluing a photo of a dog on your garden shed.