First Lessons and Impressions on Expat Life in Japan

I’ve lived in Japan for almost 2 months now, and starting a new chapter in a new country doesn’t come without a few lessons. So for those of you who are thinking about coming to visit or live in Japan one day, here are some first lessons and impressions from my time here so far.

Trains

Pensive atmosphere on the train ride to work.

Tough Grannies

With a long lifespan and a declining birthrate, this nation is growing old fast. Not only that, but the older women in particular are tough as nails, frugal, and unwilling to step aside for others on the sidewalk or in the grocery store aisles. Many of them can still drive, ride bikes, and walk around without canes. When I was working at the Japanese supermarket back home in Michigan, a customer told me his grandmother had once gone jet skiing at 103 years old. 103! As a twenty-something always on the go, the grannies can slow me down, but at the same time, I aspire to have a long life and still be sturdy and active at 103.

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Fall colors in Kyoto. Photo from 2012.

Is It Really Technologically Advanced?

Tokyo is a poor representation of Japan as a whole. This country is not a land of robots, neon lights, or liquid nitrogen ice cream shops. Sure, things like fancy toilets with bum cleaners, vending machines, and smartphones are prevalent almost everywhere, but it’s a whole different world in Japan’s rural communities. Take the train 45-60 minutes out of any major city, and you’ll be able to hear crickets and actually see the stars. It’s quiet, secluded, and slow paced. You’ll be among mountains, valleys, rice paddies, and small villages of people with thick dialects where everyone knows and gossips about each other. Older homes are known for having poor insulation which means keeping warm requires blankets and a gas or electric heater. Additionally, many homes (even in Tokyo) don’t have clothes dryers. It’s like stepping back in time 10-20 years, and it’s amazing that two completely different worlds can sit side by side without much integration. So, no, I think much of Japan remains untouched by the 21st century and Western culture.

Great for Exploring

Before moving to Japan, I sold the car I had in America and swore that I’d do my best never to own a car again. Thankfully, Japan makes that easy. Nearly every inch of this country is accessible by plane, train, bus, ferry, bike, or my own two feet which is great for coming and going on a whim. What’s more, you don’t have to live here to know that Japan is compact. Residential housing and commercial buildings living in such close quarters makes Japan an incredible labyrinth  for exploring. Lots of narrow alleyways and a myriad of directions to turn offer something new to discover around every corner. Using my curiosity and appetite as my compass, I’ve stumbled upon many great restaurants to frequent, cafes to work at, serendipitous photo opportunities, and come away with an improved sense of direction.

Just a glimpse inside a Japanese supermarket.

Shopping in Japan

Shopping in Japan, I’ve come to learn, is an overwhelming experience. In the supermarkets alone, I could spend hours going up and down aisles, reading labels, assessing quality, or wasting time deciding which snack to try next. After all, a single product can come in 10-20 different varieties, but grab what you can while you can because Japan’s love for seasonal products means your favorite foods may only be in stock 1/4 of the year. It’s great that so many options are available, but at the same time, Sunday grocery shopping, all of the sudden, feels like an event I have to train for. Don’t even get me started on the department stores. They’re kind of like the Wal-Marts of Japan, one stop shop malls with books, games, movies kitchenware, clothes, restaurants, medicine, anything you could ever need in one place. It’s convenient, of course, but again, it may shape up to be a whole day’s event. Top it all off with the hundreds of clothing boutiques, bookstores, gaming arcades, specialty/novelty stores, and pop up shops, your head will be spinning and your wallet empty.

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Omura City’s mascot, Omuran-chan. HOW ADORABLE IS SHE?

Yuru Characters

Nearly every city, prefecture, ward, and even individual companies in Japan have what they call yuru characters (ゆるキャラ) to represent their area/business. In fact, there are so many different characters, that Japan has an annual grand prix event to determine the best/cutest ones. Many of them are downright adorable, others are borderline scary but entertaining nonetheless. Omuran-chan (pictured above) is Omura’s (the city I live in) character. You can buy these characters in stuffed animal form or anything your hearts desire really (pencil cases, t-shirts, costumes, etc.). For anyone who loves teddy bears, cartoons, or all things fluffy and cute, Japan will be the ultimate test of your will power and restraint. Good luck!

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Fushimi Inari Shrine – Kyoto

Extras

To my surprise, Japan doesn’t use checks. Unless you’re making a transaction with someone incredibly wealthy that is. While the nation is opening up to credit cards one store at a time, cash is still king. So how do people get paid? Direct deposit, of course. While that may be efficient and more environmentally friendly, I will miss the satisfaction of depositing my hard-earned money into my bank account myself.

Foods that are a dime a dozen in America like fruits, veggies, breads, etc. cost an arm and a leg in Japan. $3 for a small cup of pineapple or 3-4 bananas. Ouchies! As a fruit and veggie lover, my bank account will be taking a serious hit every time I go to the supermarket. Fruits may be expensive, but at least fish and meat are not.

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The meatball sushi from Sushiro is crazy delicious.

The concept of kaiten sushi (回転寿司) is genius, and until I moved here, something I didn’t fully appreciate. You can take your friends to a sit-down restaurant where there’s a rotating sushi conveyor belt that you can just grab whatever looks good or you can order from the digital menu at the table. These kinds of restaurants are great because the sushi is fresh, it’s cheap, delicious, there are usually English menus available, and sometimes you can order something quirky like meatball sushi. Even if raw fish isn’t your thing, ramen, soup, and other various noodle dishes are often on the menu as well. In my town, we have a kaiten sushi restaurant called Sushiro, and because it’s close to where I work, I often go for lunch. It is my new equivalent to America’s Chipotle.

Much like in America, nearly every store or restaurant offers a loyalty card for their customers. The difference is that they usually don’t come in credit card form but a piece of plastic paper (does such a material even exist/make sense?) with a barcode on the back that gets scanned at the register every time you shop. The running joke is that one will need a separate wallet dedicated solely for all loyalty cards, but it’s actually true.

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Megane Bridge in Nagasaki City at [almost] sunset

It’s official. I no longer have an American phone number. So long, Verizon. You’ve been of great service these past 10 years, but now I have a new phone with a company called AU. I sprung for another iPhone because, let’s face it, I’m disgustingly dependent on technology, even more so now that there is an entire ocean between my home country, family, and friends. And, maybe I shouldn’t be telling you this, but I also enjoy taking the occasional incognito photo of strangers on trains (bad habits die hard). Except that I recently learned that on the Japanese version of the iPhone, the camera’s shutter sound can’t be disabled. Why? Well, to prevent people from taking incognito photos of others on trains. Ever heard of up-skirt photos? Even if you haven’t, it’s not hard to figure out. Japan had and still has a big problem with sly strangers trying to snap a good picture of a girl’s panties. Incredibly disturbing, I know. So, the sound of a camera’s shutter immediately brings attention to the creep-in-question making it harder to get away with such an act and making us all feel a little bit more relieved that our own bums won’t soon be all over the internet.

Aside from that, only after the fact have I come to realize that the iPhone may not have been the best way to go. In Japan, there are 3 major carriers, Docomo, Soft Bank, and AU. I can’t speak for the other companies, but at AU, I have to pay extra for certain smartphone features that are already included in American contracts or should already be included. One example being the ability to listen to voicemails. I pay an extra $3/month just to be able to listen to my messages. I would say that such a thing is absurd, but then again my time in Japan so far has been comical and bizarre in all the best ways. This is just another thing to add to the pile.

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