There comes a time in every expat’s life when they write and reminisce about what they loved/hated/drunkenly did but can’t speak about for legal reasons in their adopted country.
Well, now it’s my turn.
During my two years in Japan, I found a lot of things to love but to make for easier reading, I shaved them down to ten. Who knows, if you read this and go to Japan yourself, you may love these too.
Japanese transport ruins a person FOR LIFE. You probably already heard why; public transport is clean, quiet and ON TIME. I speak mostly about the trains; I hate buses because they are overcrowded and roads in Kyoto get really congested. Insider tip – if you want to get around on public transport use the subway lines (Tozai, Keihan and Karasuma) as much as possible. JR may be the main railway company but the trains are overcrowded during rush hour and fees are high.
There is also the trusty number 11 service, aka your own two legs. Kyoto is very easy to walk around because the city occupies a small surface area as well as being mostly flat terrain. It certainly makes for easy running.
In Japan, there is a special word for this, おもてなし (omotenashi). This means to be the best host as you can for your guests. It’s a more amped up version of “the customer is always right”. This applies to most places from a tiny cafe, Domino’s and the humble home of a Japanese friend to the mega department stores like Takashimaya and Isetan. Me? I prefer to be left alone when I’m browsing but if you need help, all you have to do is think it and a shopping assistant may magically materialise out of nowhere. They are sneaky that way.
It will wash your rear, the seats are heated in winter which is a lifesaver and the things can even sing songs. When I went to Taiwan I had to take a moment because the flush didn’t go off automatically. I thought;
“You mean I have to press the button MYSELF? What kind of world is this?!”
That’s cute – you think I’m joking.
Need a pack of cigarettes? Pay your bills? A 500ml cocktail in a can that’s 8% alcohol for $3? How about an emergency white business shirt/underwear/socks?
Convenience stores (コンビニ) also ruin people because they are just so damn CONVENIENT. And cheap. I had my Amazon orders posted to my local FamilyMart (Amazon and major conbini’s have a partnership), as well as paid my utilities, bought many a soft boiled egg (7-11 make the best), rice balls and coffee. If you need something and need it in a hurry, FamilyMart, Lawson, 7-11 etc will most likely have it and there are branches everywhere, sometimes even next door to each other.
This is helpful for a caffeine addicted ALT who needed her 150yen coffee every morning before school. Don’t try to talk to me before I have it.
Post and delivery service
Again, on time and convenient and if you aren’t home you will find a missed delivery notice in your slot. You can even schedule same day re-delivery if you call the toll free number before 5-6pm.
As said above, delivery services have a partnership with convenience stores, especially Amazon. There may be a little おもてなし involved as well.
Fashion and shopping
Harajuku, Lolita, Takashimaya. These and more may pop into your mind when you imagine Japanese fashion and shopping. Japan is very much a trend based society and younger generations base their fashion around their favourite model/magazine/pop idol group. It does rub off on a person, as I found myself dressing more like a local the longer I stayed in Kyoto. However, athleisure is not a thing there like it is in Australia. Some of my students were wondering why foreign ladies were wearing Nike tights when they weren’t exercising. Oh children, dear children.
In Kyoto people are very fashionably dressed including the men, which I found to be conflicting. On one hand, yes that hat is very in style, but I can’t date a guy who accessorizes better than I do. Matching clutches? Uuhhhhh…
Japan is a foodie’s nirvana, and Kyoto has a traditional food scene ranging from vegetables to wagyu. 京都料理 (Kyoto ryori) or Kyoto cooking is a class of its own, specialising in local produce that is in season at the time. Presentation and flavours are emphasised and the food is to be treated as an experience rather than a fast fix. Because Kyoto is Japan’s Buddhist captial, vegetarian cuisine is a highlight and tofu is the prefectural special dish. I love myself some yuba salad!
Even chain stores have special menus focusing on seasons. Starbucks, while I hate them with every fibre of my soul, have interesting concoctions. Hot brownie in winter, strawberry sakura and melon cream in spring and Pumpkin Pie for autumn/Halloween for example. Google it. The list goes on…
UNESCO and culture
Kyoto is home to seventeen out of the nineteen UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Japan, as well as 1600 plus temples and shrines (yes there is a difference). Some are free, some charge up the nose and many are well worth the trip. I have Nijo Castle to thank for helping me fall genuinely in love with Japan. There are three national museums located in Tokyo, Kyoto and Nara and English tour guides, usually volunteers, are available for some facts and stories about the place you visit.
Japan to me is not about the anime, comics and geishas, at least not anymore. That’s very much an etic (outside observer) perspective. The country has one of the most layered cultures in the world that permeates every part of society from school, to the home, even to hospitality.
Another facet of Japan that’s famous. I repeat a lot to people that I felt very safe living in Kyoto. I didn’t feel the need to look over my shoulder walking down the road, even when it was the middle of the night. If anything I was wearier about the tourists when the season approached. Personal effects in restaurants/shops are left well enough alone and police boxes are everywhere in case something does get lost or stolen.
True, crime rates are low but it still occurs, and some of the schools that my ALT friends teach at are notoriously delinquent because they’re in a “bad” area. Keeping your wits about you, as well as your common sense, is always advisable.
Any trip to Japan is one. You bathe in an onsen, eat some sushi and photograph a geisha or two. I had an amazing experience in Japan. Sure, I did all that stuff in Kyoto but I also walked in the back streets, worked with amazing people who became my friends, hopefully inspired a few of my students to go overseas and grew up a little more. It will always be my second home as it is for many expats who live there now.