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?

Is that Finnish that I am seeing in Japan?!

In many countries, it is common to use foreign words or phrases in advertising, to create an interesting, quirky or trendy image for your product. Japan is no different. Over here, a Westerner can recognise familiar Western words that are used as shop/restaurant names. This is the case especially in trendy parts of the city, and the language predominantly used is of course English.

However, as a native to Finland, I’ve been over the moon to notice that several shops/restaurants in Osaka also have Finnish names! This, as silly as it might sound to a native English speaker, makes a Finn exclaim with delight. After all, Finnish is by no definition a world language spoken by the masses as a native language or taught as a popular choice as a second language. In fact, it is only spoken by about 5 million people native to Finland and is taught as a second language only in its neighbouring countries (if even there), and thus, we practically never see Finnish words used outside Finland (other than maybe in places like Rhodes or Fuengirola i.e. particularly popular destinations amongst Finnish holiday makers).

Intriguingly, I don’t think there is any obvious Finnish connection when Japanese shops choose their Finnish name. I mean, the reason why they have Finnish names is not because the owner or their spouse is Finnish or because the bulk of their customers are Finnish (given that the Finnish community in Osaka is miniscule and only a handful of Finnish tourists visit Osaka). I think these shops have Finnish names just because it is trendy to use Finnish!

Here are some names that I’ve come across in Osaka:

 

A bakery/clothes shop: Pesä (‘Den/Nest/Burrow’)

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A café that specialises in pancakes: Pöllö (‘Owl’)

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A restaurant: Keitto Ruokala (‘Soup Canteen’), It might be worth pointing out that even though the name might suggest otherwise, this restaurant didn’t serve soup, nor did it look like a canteen.

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Hairdressers: Alkaa Täältä (‘Begins from here’)

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Clothes shop: Olohuone (‘Living room’)

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Before I finish this Finnish post, I might just need to add that even though it is wonderful to see Finnish in Japan, the Japanese do not always get their use of Finnish right. Here’s an example of something on the wall of a stationery and life-style shop in Shinjuku in Tokyo. A cardinal mistake in my opinion!

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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.

Why do statues wear bibs?

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Kiyomizudera temple in Kyoto

A common sight at a temple in Japan is a multitude of statues. This is not that different from religious sanctuaries in Western countries, except that in Japan these statues usually wear bibs!

I’ve been asking my Japanese friends why this is. I mean, the statues look kind of cute but is there a reason for the bibs? And who puts them there?

But my Japanese friends don’t really know, and I don’t really blame them. After all, I’m a Finn but don’t know the ins and outs of all Finnish traditions either. For example, on the night before Easter Sunday, Finnish children leave woolly hats next to their beds. In the morning they will have found that an Easter rooster or Easter chick has visited and laid chocolate eggs in their hats. When Japanese people ask me what the significance of the Finnish rooster/chick is and what is its cultural references in comparison to, say, the English Easter tradition of an Easter Bunny and Easter egg hunt the answer is: I don’t know. To me (similarly to many Finnish/English people) these are just cultural traditions that we learn as children, but whose symbolism, meaning or historical reasons we do not question (or in fact, most kids may not even be interested in the cultural references of Easter roosters, chicks or bunnies, but the main point is that these characters are associated with magically appearing chocolate eggs).

Ok, back to the statues in Japan.

The only things that my Japanese friends have told me is that some statues, usually in the shape of a small person or the ones that have human faces, are called Ojizosama and often represent children who have died before their parents. It’s the parents or sometimes also other local people who put the bibs on the statues to protect the dead children in the afterlife. I don’t quite understand why, but for some reason, it seems, the bibs are considered a protective garment. Red is perceived as a particularly protective colour and hence, it is the most common colour of the bibs. However, other colours are also used (see photo above).

But it is not just statues in the shape of people, but all sorts of statuses that can be seen wearing bibs. Since these are not children, the question is: Why should these statues need the bibs? For instance, the Fushimi Inari Shire in Kyoto has statues of foxes, who are the messengers of the God of Agriculture and these foxes also wear bibs.

 

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Fushimi Inari, Kyoto

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Could this be because the Japanese believe that the statues, like all living and non-living things, have a spirit and the bibs are to keep them warm or are they just decorative items? I don’t know.

If you know anything more about the statues or bibs, I would love to learn more about them. They are beautiful, fascinating and something that seems to be a question mark not only to Westerners but also to many Japanese people.

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Addition to the original post, the 8th May 2016

A Finnish reader, who has lived in Japan for many years, speaks and reads Japanese and has detailed knowledge of Japanese culture and traditions, sent me a message explained the function and cultural significance of the bibs. She said:

‘So basically what this blog post is talking about are those tiny Buddhist statutes called ojizosama in Japanese. You see them dotted around e.g. temple grounds, road junctions and wooden shelters. Many foreigners unfamiliar with the story deem them a bit scary. The word for these is indeed that O-jizo-sama (o- and sama- being part of Japanese honorifics, so the noun for these are actually jizo) You see them most commonly carved out of stones, something you would perhaps disregard when travelling in Japan if it was not the red bibs or red baby hats they are commonly wearing. Jizo is a bosatsu, a Japanese term for deity or a sacred character in Buddhism. Much loved and cared for, if I recall correctly it is the saint for the weak (e.g. children, giving them strength) or travellers. It is not uncommon for deities in Japan to carry significance for many different groups. There are numerous legends associated with Jizo-sama’s, the one I have been told as a child living in Japan is that this particular deity, albeit having reached the highest level of Buddhist wisdom, has chosen not to enter nirvana but instead remain in this world to help those needing his assistance e.g. children who traditionally have been believed to be too weak to cross that Buddhist river required to enter nirvana. This sadly is e.g. unborn children or those dying in early childhood. It is believed that these children remain in limbo. If you look closer at ojizosama’s you will also see piles of pebbles formed into a tower next to them, this is often the parents building the pebble tower with a view to facilitate for their kids afterlife. Similarly, it is a common tradition to put bibs and hats on ojizosamas. Even robes sometimes. I do not think there are particular rules regarding what you can put on ojizosama to show your respect. It is also an act of accruing good karma for the afterlife for yourself, so it is common that local women have groups taking turns doing the dressing up. Oh and worry not, its actually a bold Buddhist monk it is depicting, not a dead child.’

Thanks so much for the information! I’m glad to hear that the statues are not children, and that even though the statues are associated with sad events, such as a parent losing a child, they are kind and helpful entities who society sees as having an important role in the afterlife.

 

Addition to the original post, the 11th May 2016

Another reader left a message on my blog’s Facebook page and said:

‘A friend of mine, who had lived several years in Japan, told me, as I asked a similar question to yours, a different explanation: as contraceptives are not easily available, abortion is used more often than in western countries. She called the groups of those statues with the red caps the “altars of unborn children”. The acceptance of abortion seems to much higher – you find the groups of statues quite often in residential areas. Made me think about the position of females in Japan.’

The reader emphasised that she did not know how accurate her friend’s description of the statues was, but given that her friend had lived in Japan for many years, I feel that it is likely that there is at least some truth in what she said. (I also did a quick Internet search on abortion statistics, and yes, it sadly seems to be the case that abortions are very common in Japan relative to many Western countries.)