This article will be about some quirks and observations I made while living in Japan.
How do I even begin to describe what it’s like to live in Japan?
It is an experience. It engulfs you and is zealous. Every moment of every day is filled with new discoveries, cultural differences and utter delights. I can’t describe it beyond that, but everyone who has been there or has lived there knows exactly what I’m talking about. If there were a word to describe Japan as a whole, it would be reverent. This is a nation where every action displays a culture of demanding deference, respect and obedience. It encompasses daily life. You ask about some examples?
The food here is prepared and delivered with such deep respect and meticulous care, even in fast food joints. Anything else would be anti-Japanese. It may be nigh impossible to have a bad meal in Japan.
Japan has a longstanding reputation of politeness. One place where this is most evident is on trains. Whenever a conductor enters a car, he enters and exits it with an energetic yet crisp bow before attending to passengers. The same goes for the ladies who serve refreshments aboard the Shinkansen (Bullet Train). Respect is muted but omnipresent.
Nature receives the utmost respect here, and you’ll often find that everything from architecture to food plays into an overall respect of the natural environment of Japan. Need I say more? Visit any shrine or temple, and you will see the obvious homage to Mother Nature.
Japan is a rules-based culture. There are lots of written and unwritten rules – the Japanese wouldn’t dream of throwing recyclables in the trash, or acting rude to a stranger, or dressing like a slob. The list of taboos here is extensive.
One of my best first impressions was when a Nozomi train pulls into the station. A fleet of women dressed in salmon uniforms, down to matching sneakers (!), entered the car and performed identical movements, taking out the trash bags and turning the seats around to face the other way, preparing them for the next influx of passengers. Service, service, service. In Japan, I would constantly think to myself, Oh. That makes sense. In the West, when presented with a more efficient solution, people would give reasons why not to implement it — that doing so would cost too much time or money that could be spent elsewhere. In Japan, they just do it, no questions asked.
Sure, Italian and Parisian women dress beautifully, and London and New York women have a lot of styles, but it’s nothing like the women in Tokyo. From perfectly tailored short dresses to their understated but highly functional designer flats, 99/100 women walking around in Tokyo were better dressed than any other country I had visited in the world. Now, I do not live in Tokyo now – but let me tell you that many other urban centres in Japan, are highly reflective of this statement.
Now that it is summertime, allow me to tell you about Japanese summers. It gets unbearably hot with very high humidity. People in Fukuoka actually walked around with towels around their necks to mop up their ever-dripping brows. When travelling to Kansai one year, the mercury actually hit 42 C (106 F), breaking records. People told us again and again that we were traveling at the worst time possible. My advice to you? Visit Japan in the spring or fall if you can. If not, keep cool and hydrated!
Before living in Japan, I had the idea that Japanese women only wore kimonos for special occasions or times when traditional wear was best. Well, that’s not the case — I still see plenty of women clad in the traditional garb in my daily life here in Kyushu. Especially when travelling to Kyoto, some temples allow women in for free if they’re wearing a kimono. That will actually save you a fair amount of cash, as most Kyoto temples charge around 400-600 yen ($4-6) entry. But in other cases, they’re simply what is worn for formalwear. When my mother and sister-in-law visited me, they were ecstatic about getting a chance to wear a kimono. There really is something so striking, yet elegant with the composition of colours associated with kimono.
See English lettering somewhere? Chances are it’s not used for the purpose of communicating with non-Japanese speakers. Again and again, I noticed that English was not anything more than decoration. Lately, French and German words have taken the reins and are easily seen on cafe menus or other boutique eateries. A few Japanese friends actually told me that it is good for business to implement desired foreign languages into places like a cafe, bookstore or clothing shop. It provides an air of exoticness for young Japanese people. On the other hand, a store with only traditional Japanese characters would more than likely attract older people. The point is, if you see foreign language written anywhere in Japan – it is more than likely being used for stylistic purposes only.
Do you look lost? You won’t be for too long. Japanese people are exceedingly helpful and even if they don’t speak English, they will drop everything to help you find your way. I first noticed the exceptional level of helpfulness when we entered an electronics store. I asked about an electric fan and the man replied that they didn’t have any, but another store might, and he’d be happy to give them a call and check. This wasn’t another branch of their stores – this was their direct competitor. And he offered to call them for me. In Canada, the most I would get from a salesperson would be, “You could try Best Buy.” From personal experience, I have literally had a woman and her child – escort me to my destination(hotel) by foot in Osaka – because they had looked at my itinerary and saw that the check-in time was within half an hour. Until this day, I still remember the event in vivid details.
The classical Japanese tourist. Older men and women, who have their hands behind their backs – gently nodding at every detail. Fanny-packs, grandpa vests, big hats. It is the image of an organized traveller. But one important tool is associated with them, and it is the camera. Japanese tourists take pictures of absolutely everything.
Well. You know what I took pictures of when I first lived in Japan? Toilets. Trash cans. Vending machines.
Yes, I became a Japanese tourist myself – because everything here is so different and I couldn’t stop marveling at it all. Yes, of course I have curbed this behaviour somewhat having lived here for almost 2 years – but I still discover amazing things from time to time, and cannot help but transform into a temporary tourist once again.