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?

Computers vs. swimming pools

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Many people think Japan is extremely high tech. Maybe this image is induced by Japanese toilets that seem to have a higher IQ than Albert Einstein. But the reality is that Japan is not all that high-tech and Japanese people are not all that technology savvy.

The lack of technology in Japan in comparison to countries like England and Finland can be evidenced, for instance, by the fact that surprisingly few university students have their own private computers or laptops. In fact, most students at the university where I work have never owned their own computer, or even shared a computer with other family members. The reason for not owning a computer is not necessarily because they would not be able to afford one, but maybe Japanese people just think it is not necessary to own a computer, because most of them own a mobile phone.

You are probably now assuming that Japanese university students have some futuristic mobile phones that multitask as mobile phones and computers, as well as have extra teaser, blender and hair straightener functions. But no. No straightener or teaser functions. They are just standard Android phones that you can get anywhere.

The fact that my students don’t own computers means that they hand in handwritten essays when submitting their coursework! I gather this is partly because

(a) word processing essays can be tricky on a mobile phone

(b) the students don’t actually know how to use Office Word

(c) in Japan, hand written documents can be seen as indicating more commitment, concentration and attention to detail than word processed documents. For example, some employers request hand written CVs so that whenever the applicant makes a single (spelling) mistake, they need to start writing their CV from scratch all over again. I’m not sure if Western job seekers could cope with this kind of procedure. We’ve got so used to being able to word process and thus are maybe becoming less able to plan ahead and see the finished product in our minds before we embark on the writing process, let alone being able to produce a 3 page CV wihtout a single typo. Jeez!

Given that university students haven’t got the skills to use software imperative for university study, like Office Word or Power Point, I assume that IT classes are not particularly common (or effective) in many Japanese schools.

In many other countries (e.g., in Finland) IT is a central part of schooling, so much so that in Finland they are dropping joined-up writing from the curriculum in favour of typing and scripting. All children will still learn to write by hand over there, but the Finnish education will nolonger emphasise the aesthetics of joined-up writing – something that more conservative countries, like England, still hold dear. I have to say I kind of agree with the Finns on this one –  all those hours spent on practicing the perfect swirls of Bs or Ss seem silly when in 20 years time no-one (other than maybe the Japanese) will write anything by hand.

So, computers and an emphasis on technology may not be as common in Japanese schools as e.g. in Finnish schools, but then again, most Japanese primary (87%) and secondary (73%) schools have swimming pools and, during the summer months, PE lessons are predominantly swimming lessons.

 

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My daughter’s PE lesson

 

As Japan is an island, maybe the Japanese education ministry see that learning to swim is more important for survival than learning to word process or write scripts.

Technical jacket

 

The round things on the right and left side of the jackets

Japanese builder wearing his personal air-con jacket

 

My sisters own an outdoor shop in Kotka, Finland. Amongst other things, they stock ‘technical’ jackets made of materials like Gore-Tex, Windstopper and Polartec. Some of these materials are so amazing that NASA uses them in space exploration. However, they also have to survive in even more horrific conditions, namely the Finnish winter (which seems to last about 11 months of the year). Us Finns like to walk in the countryside and experience natural wildlife: bears, wolves and Newfoundland dogs (it seems that according to Japanese educational globe-makers, Newfoundland dogs are indigenous to Finland, see photo below), and the clothing needs to provide protection from the downpours of water, wind, mosquitos as well as angry summer cottage owners onto whose property we tramped just as he was running from his sauna into the lake in his birthday suit.

 

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These types of technical jackets are great; they are waterproof and/or windproof and/or breath well to allow your body heat escape without making you feel like you are wearing a sauna suit (by sauna suit, I don’t mean a suit that coy Americans or Brits might wear in a sauna, but a suit that you can wear to make you feel like being in a sauna to lose a pound or two through sweating).

Unlike in Finland, early October is still summer weather in Osaka (or at least by the definition of summer in Finland). Because of the hot temperature, people doing physical work outdoors or tapping their computer keyboards in hot offices wear jackets with ventilation to avoid heat exhaustion. By ‘ventilation’ I don’t mean your outdoorsy ‘technical’ jacket’s zip under your arm ventilation – Nah. Japanese take the term ‘technical’ a notch further than the rest of us. In Japan, ‘ventilation’ means a personal air-conditioning unit in your jacket which is powered by rechargeable lithium batteries (see the photos above and below).

 

photo: The Telegraph

photo: The Telegraph

 

I’m now regretting that I didn’t have one of those personal air-con jackets 10 years ago when I was sweating out several litres of cider through my pores in hard house clubs in Brighton. But, on a positive note, 10 years from now when I might be experiencing hot flushes, I’ll know how I’ll show those hot flushes whose the boss.

 

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This is not a sponsored post – not by Japanese manufacturers of technical jackets, or by my sisters’ shop. Neither am I planning to start exporting the Japanese air-con jackets to my sisters’ shop even though I’m sure they’d be a big hit amongst clubbers and menopausal women of Kotka. I think I can confidently say that in Finland the air-con jackets won’t be needed for hot weather.

The promised land of vending machines

 

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If your image of Japan is a country with vending machines everywhere, you have got it spot on. It is practically impossible to walk more than 50m in a Japanese city and not walk past a vending machine.

 

Can you spot all five vending machines in this photo? And this photo is not even the city centre.

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I don’t know how it is profitable to have more vending machines than pedestrians on a given street, but I don’t complain. It’s great that you don’t need to be organised! You just leave your house –  even during the boiling hot summers of Osaka, even with two young children, or even with a husband who,  as soon as your front door closes, all of a sudden absolutely must have a cup of coffee. You know that you do not need to go for more than one minute until you can quench your thirst (or caffeine addiction). In fact, in our building, all you need to do is to take the lift down, and find the vending machine on the ground floor, or alternatively use the three right outside the building.

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It is not just in busy city centres, train stations, children’s play areas or apartment building foyers but also more tranquil places that an abundance of vending machine can be found. Temple courtyards, important historical sights like the Golden Pavilion in Kyoto and even beautiful sights of nature like the top of Mount Fuji are infested with vending machines. I don’t know about you but I feel that’s just wrong! Some places should just be picturesque places or nature or history without a drinks machine ruining the perfect shot for your Facebook profile picture, Instagram or your blog. If you are thinking: Is she being sarcastic? the answer is: Yes.

The two photos below illustrate what I mean about annoying vending machines at picturesque places.

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The most common vending machines vend cold soft drinks, like water, juice, green tea, iced (i.e. cold) tea and coffee, Coke, etc. Impressively, these machines also offer hot drinks, namely cans of hot tea and coffee. Hot and cold drinks are marked with different colour tags: red for hot, and blue for cold (see photo below) so that even a foreigner can figure out which drinks are hot and which cold.

 

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However, you can also buy cigarettes in a vending machine (and this is not the case only inside bars/clubs, like in England). There are also vending machines that sell beer, sake and other alcoholic beverages. And these vending machines are relatively sophisticated – they ask for the buyer’s ID (at least some of them anyway). Somehow I feel that my 7-year old son would be able to outsmart a tobacco or alcohol vending machine with his dad’s (or with his mum’s!) ID. I feel I need to add that the Japanese are generally law-abiding which means that most 7-year old (or even 19 year old) Japanese children/youths would not try to outsmart a tobacco or alcohol machine. They would patiently wait until they turn 20 and can legally buy alcohol and cigarettes. I dare to argue that most Finns or a British children/young adults would not be as patient.

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In this picture my 7-year old son is eyeballing the beer cans in a vending machine 20 metres from his school. He is following his Finnish-British roots.

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In addition, you can buy many other things in vending machines in Japan, and I am not talking about those vending machines inside service station toilets in which you can buy toothbrushes, condoms, sanitary wear, etc.  In Japan there are plenty of vending machines out in the open in places like train platforms and pavements.

These public vending machines target punters needing ice cream, bananas, pots of noodle, ties and used girls’ knickers to mention just a few. The latter (used knickers) have now been banned in Japan, but apparently in the past, people could buy these items in a vending machine.  My husband assures me that he hasn’t traipsed around Osaka looking for one that still exists.

I can understand why someone would rather buy a pair of used girl’s knickers in a vending machine that walking into the posh Japanese department store ‘Daimaru’ or even just 7-Eleven and buy them there over the counter. But what I don’t understand is why would a man (I assume a man, given that I don’t think many women would drool over used men’s underwear) would want to buy used knickers. Just go to a fish market or buy a mackerel and keep it in your sock drawer for a week – that should do the trick.

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