Tuesday, July 6, 2010

10 Things I Miss About Japan (And 10 Things I Don’t)

There's a lot to miss about living in Japan, but there are some things I absolutely do not miss at all. Here are 10 of each.


1. Onigiri
This is always on the top of the list of things I miss in Japan. There's just something so perfect about a ball (or triangle) or rice, some dried seaweed and a little salty fish filling. It's been called "Japanese soul food" and I have to agree. And yes, you can buy it here in the States at Japanese grocery stores but it's somehow not the same. Maybe because the plastic wrapping never comes off as elegantly as it does in Japan.

2. Sushi Meijin
This was a low-cost kaiten zushi (conveyer belt sushi) chain in Oita. A dollar a plate. Stuff yourself sick for less than 10 bucks. Brilliant for a student. It was also a family place, with little kids running around and even a kids' play area. I miss this place but I also miss quality and affordable sushi.

3. Japanese Draft Beer
On a hot day, there's nothing better than a frosty mug of cold Japanese draft beer. It's light, refreshing, and served so cold ice crystals form on the head. And there's definitely a head. There has to be.

4. Japanese Sincerity
Here in the West we value irony. Feelings are rarely expressed to friends directly; they're done through jokes and put-downs. You know you've achieved a level of closeness with someone when they start making fun of you a lot. An actual, sincere statement is looked on with bemusement at best and distrust at worst. Not so in Japan. A statement like, "Please do your best" is commonplace, and beautiful in its heartfelt simplicity. I miss that.

5. The Trains
They run on time. They're everywhere and thus extremely convenient. Unless you're way out in the countryside, you just don't need a car. I love riding on trains in Japan.

6. Regional Specialties
Japanese cuisine is rather restricted. It's opened up to accept foreign influences but still, most dishes will contain similar ingredients. Which is why I love the idea of Japanese "regional specialties." It's all the same stuff, just slightly different. Oita, where I lived for a year, has as a specialty tempura-fried chicken. It's different from kara age, regular Japanese fried chicken, in that it's fried in tempura batter. Another place specialized in baked curry rice. The same, yet different.

7. Shinto Shrines
I would live at a Shinto shrine if I could. They give me such a sense of awe, as well as peace. I like Buddhist temples as well but they don't touch me in the same way that Shinto shrines do. Seeing a big torii (shrine gate) just does it for me.

8. Deep Sense of History
I love history and Japan has it in spades. Plus, Japan loves its own history. Castles are constantly being rebuilt, samurai movies and TV shows being produced, and books written. Just take a stroll around your typical small city and you'll find some interesting historical site or other.

9. Being Surrounded By The Language
I really do enjoy learning Japanese, and hearing it spoken on a daily basis is a joy to me. Seeing kanji "in the wild," as it were, is the best way to learn it. I remember making linguistic connections everyday when I lived there.

10. Matsuri
There's nothing like a Japanese festival, or matsuri. And I mean beyond just the food and drinking, which is great. No, a matsuri exists outside of normal society. There's an element of chaos and danger, a feeling hearkening back to pre-civilized man that's all but disappeared in modern society. It's a wonderful feeling that I've only ever experienced otherwise at Burning Man in the mid-90s.

Don't Miss

1. Being Stared At
If you're not Japanese in Japan you're different, and that means you'll get started at. It's not done with animosity (usually), just curiosity and you do get used to it, but you forget how nice anonymity can be once it's gone.

2. Lack of Good Coffee
There are plenty of places to buy a cup of coffee in Japan but few are what I'd call "good." And forget trying to buy any kind of decent coffee at the grocery store for home brewing. Japan still thinks freeze-dried crystals are state of the art.

3. Summer
Oh God, summer is hot and humid in Japan. I'm from the temperate Bay Area, where it's dry and comfortable all summer long. But Japan is like Miami hot. Jamaica hot. After walking around a bit, I would have a V of salt on my back from where I had sweat. I'm not kidding—the salt was visible on my shirt. That's nuts.

4. Drafty Apartments
Japanese apartments are not built for living in, obviously. They're built to hold up the roof and that's all. Hot in the summer and cold in the winter. Useless.

5. Being Excluded
This is part of the whole being different thing. If you're not Japanese then you can never truly fit in. It's one of the prices you have to pay for living there.

6. Mosquitoes
Japanese mosquitoes are sneaky. They attack low, bypassing your head and going straight for your legs. Before you know it, you've been bitten 10 times. And the bites scab over, leaving gross little marks. At least there's no malaria.

7. Expense
Although I've written to the contrary Japan is still an expensive place to live, mainly because there are no budget-priced items. Everything is made in-country and the price strictly controlled by the government. No cheap Chinese imports here. Good for Japanese business, bad for the consumer who has to pay $150 for a rice cooker.

8. Being Illiterate
As much as I love the challenge of learning kanji, it's frustrating and embarrassing to not be able to read at a functional level. Ordering in restaurants often exposed this, with me reduced to pointing at things in the menu I couldn't read.

9. Salty Food
Japanese food is delicious but it's also salty as hell. Here in the US it's recommended we top out at around 2000 mg of sodium a day. A bowl of ramen has like 3 times that amount. Not surprisingly, my blood pressure goes up significantly when I'm in country.

10. Concrete
Japan is a beautiful country, with lush green forests, ample coastlines and rolling hills, but you'd never know it for all the goddamn concrete that covers every inch of natural ground. Tetrapods piled on the coasts, rivers paved over even in the backwoods, and hills encased in concrete. Does Japan even know how beautiful it could be?

1 comment:

  1. I loved this list. I have missed living in Japan but I must agree with your 10 dislikes, particularly number 10. Its a shame.