This is my 100th blog post. Since I started posting about my life in Japan last March, I have enjoyed sharing my observations and experiences with friends and family back home and in the wider world. I have been especially grateful for comments from readers, both to hear other people’s perspectives and just to let me know they are reading and enjoying my posts.
For this post, number 100, I decided to do something different and compile a list of things that I especially like about living in Japan.
Food in Japan is never boring or mediocre. Food is held in such high regard, and the Japanese customer has such high expectations, that only the most delicious food makes it to your plate or to the supermarket shelf. There are special foods associated with different times of the year, and each town and region has its own traditional specialties.
So what are my favourites? I love grilled mackerel, pickles, miso soup, sushi, katsu karee (breaded pork cutlet smothered in thick curry sauce), a warming bowl of thick udon noodles, tempura, the clean tang of pickled ginger. French-style bread is delicious fresh from the bakery. And a real treat for me is a Chinese restaurant called Chinmaya near my office, that serves ma bo dofu that is almost—but not quite—too spicy, and fantastic tan tan men noodles.
Staying here for a full year has the advantage that you experience all the traditional events and activities associated with different times of the year. There is a time for viewing cherry-blossoms, a time to go swimming in the sea, a time for looking at the harvest moon, a time for throwing beans to keep demons away, and a time for placing little piles of salt outside your home (also, to keep demons away). There is a day to celebrate your boy children, one for your girl children, and one for the elderly. Just within the past week, for example, we have had:
- 10th Jan: 戎祭り Ebisu festival, when the shrine of the god Ebisu is thronged with business people seeking good fortune for the year (and carrying strange assemblages of Ebisu-related objects);
- 14th Jan: 成人の日 seijin no hi—the day when all the 20-year-olds dress up to celebrate becoming adults;
- 15th Jan: 小正月 koshougatsu—little New Year; the day when you eat the mochi that was inside the New Year’s decorations (and traditionally, you bring the decorations to the shrine to be burned, although we haven’t done that).
I think I have been lucky, to some extent, to be living in a community where old traditions, such as the o-Bon dance and the autumn danjiri festival are still alive. It is impressive to witness (and maybe even participate in) traditions that have been going on since time immemorial.
Japan has weather. In summer, it’s hot (and humid). In winter, it’s cold. In the rainy season, it rains. This is a novelty. In Ireland, the weather is pretty much the same all year round. In summer, it could be cold, warm, dry or rainy. Same in winter.
People warned me, “you’re going to hate the summer. It’s so hot, it’s so humid, it’s intolerable. It goes on for months and you’ll really suffer.” And you know what? It was hot, and it was humid, and while it was difficult at times, I actually came to like it. The convenience of throwing on a pair of shorts, shirt and sandals, going outside in the baking sun and feeling the heat soaking into my bones, relaxing every muscle. But spring and autumn are just glorious. I would strongly recommend anyone to come to Japan in May or October.
4. Customer Service
If you want to be treated like royalty, just walk into any shop or restaurant in Japan. “The customer is king” is not just a slogan. As soon as you walk in, you are greeted enthusiastically, and you will not be kept waiting for a moment. Of course the staff will always politely apologise for keeping you waiting (even though they haven’t). Just in case.
Service industries in Japan are hugely overstaffed, to ensure that the customer will never suffer any inconvenience. Want to refuel your car? There are staff waiting at attention on the forecourt for your illustrious arrival. They will guide you to the correct spot, fill your car with fuel, clean your windows, run to the office with your cash and back with your change.
The most astonishing incident for me was when we took a Japan Airlines flight. As the plane was being pushed back, I saw a group of people walking out onto the apron. It was all the JAL workers who had serviced our flight – the people from the check-in desks, the baggage handlers, cleaners, and so on. I watched in amazement as they lined up alongside the plane, unfurled a banner thanking us for our custom, and bowed deeply as the plane went past.
(One unfortunate downside to this “royal treatment” is that the customer service staff will only speak to you in “polite Japanese”, which is a quite different language from ordinary Japanese, and can be completely incomprehensible to the learner).
For many outsiders, the image of Japan is crowded city streets, crowded subways, and millions of salaried employees in suits working long hours of overtime in high-rise office buildings. Most of Japan is not like that. Japan has tremendous natural beauty. Get away from the city and you find yourself in another Japan; a country of mountains, forests and beautiful coasts and islands. From the centre of Osaka, you don’t have to go too far in almost any direction to reach somewhere wild, rugged, tranquil, and utterly remote from the city you’ve left behind. In those places you may meet bears, wild boar, serow or monkeys.
It’s been especially interesting for me to watch nature change with the seasons – the cherry blossoms in bloom shortly after I arrived; the hillsides blazing with autumn colours.
Clean, fast and reliable. Enough said.
And, last but not least,
7. The people
I love the way Japanese people treat each other with respect and civility. I love the lack of cynicism, the enthusiastic way people go about doing anything, whether it is work, karaoke or calisthenics, always giving it 100% and doing it to the best of their ability. From the point of view of crime and personal security, it’s the safest place you’ll find anywhere, and that liberates people to be very carefree in the way they go about their daily lives.
I love the open and interested way that people relate to one another, a kind of innocence in the way people engage with the world, a refreshing contrast from the sneering, the eye-rolling, and sometimes menacing behaviour you will find in other countries.