Wednesday, March 31, 2010
There's a discount fresh food shop chain called Yutakaraya about 10 minutes from my apartment. It's often crowded with old people or housewives and a pain to navigate because people block the narrow aisles, but there's something very gratifying about going there and finding chicken on sale for 29 yen (31 cents) per 100 grams (3.5 oz.) or a bag of 6 carrots for 50 yen (85 cents). It's much, much cheaper than markets and the way in which the produce is set out in bins in the front of the shop feels like a big urban experience to this rural raised girl.
I'll miss shopping at Yutakaraya.
Tuesday, March 30, 2010
I realize that a lot of people hate Valentine's Day and think it's already a Hallmark holiday designed to sell candy. I'll grant that confectioners have exploited it for all it is worth. That being said, people who choose to use it as a day to celebrate their love can do so because at the heart of the holiday (no pun intended) is romance. There is some meaning if you want to find it there. In Japan, because showing love is often seen as being more inappropriate than showing sex, the holiday has been stripped of its romantic elements and used mainly as a way of getting women to buy men chocolate to show respect for their relative status. Most women give chocolate to male coworkers out of obligation rather than to men they're involved with out of love.
I won't miss the loveless celebration of Valentine's Day.
Monday, March 29, 2010
My favorite place in Tokyo is Shinjuku. It is a district which isn't far from my home and has more of a modern feel to it than other similarly set-up areas. I worked there for about 10 years and always enjoyed walking around and exploring when I was there. To me, it's got everything you might want in one vast place including big electronics shops, department stores, bakeries, import shops, businesses, parks, sky scrapers, and restaurants. I also used to go secondhand record shopping all over the eastern areas with my husband in our first 8 or so years in Japan and it's tied in with some of my earliest and fondest memories. I probably wouldn't have quit my full-time job if my company hadn't moved its office from Shinjuku to a cheaper area.
I'll miss going to Shinjuku.
Sunday, March 28, 2010
There are a lot of food programs and commercials on Japanese T.V. and most of the time the people who sample the food seem to think they have to eat as much in one bite as they can cram into their faces. More often than not when I see food being eaten on T.V., people look like chipmunks with gigantic nuts stored in their cheeks and labor to chew and continue to speak at the same time. I don't know why people feel they have to take enormous bites at once then struggle to masticate, but it appears to be endemic among people who eat for the television camera.
I won't miss watching people bite off more than they can reasonably chew.
Saturday, March 27, 2010
It may not look like much from the outside, but I always enjoy going to Family Mart convenience stores ("conbini") more than the other chains. The ones in my neighborhood are bigger, more frequently remodeled and cleaner, and they carry a lot of the best new products compared to their competitors. If I want to find interesting new sembei, the latest Tirol chocolates, weird KitKats, or strange new beverages, Family Mart is my "go to" place. It's also where I can conveniently pay my bills and they sell some decent deli chicken.
I'll miss Family Mart.
Friday, March 26, 2010
I've heard that China has one of the worst problems with public spitting and that Japan's expectorating populace pales in comparison. That being said, they are leaps ahead of what I was accustomed to in terms of public gobbing and spitting when I grew up in the U.S. Public spitting isn't super, super common in Tokyo, but it is far from rare. Both men and women do it, so it's not one of those gross unhygienic things that Asian men do. In fact, people of all ages do it.
I won't miss public gobbing and spitting, and walking past piles of bodily fluids on the streets, train platforms, and stations.
Thursday, March 25, 2010
One of my fellow food review bloggers once said something about Crunky possibly meaning "crunchy" and "funky". The truth is that I'm not sure how the name came about, but I liked his thinking. I've always thought of Crunky as a weird form of "crunchy" since the Crunky family of candy is based on malt puffs. Some people really go for Crunky and some don't like the flavor of it's crispy puffs. I'm a fan because I love the plethora of little crunchy bits. Sometimes when I have had a hard day, nothing makes me smile like a Crunky both because it has a silly name and it tastes good.
I'll miss seeing Crunky bars.
Wednesday, March 24, 2010
Most Japanese apartments do not have garbage disposals. This in and of itself is not a problem for me as I grew up without the benefit of one. However, the plug/drain trap in sinks back home were stainless steel and small. They were easy to clean and empty after washing dishes by hand and finding food bits collected in them. In Japan, the traps are usually made out of plastic (and there is no stopper for the drain). Some of the drains are narrow and others are small but the traps are either super wide or super deep so there's always a lot of drain to trap contact. Whether they are wide and shallow or small and deep, the same thing always happens. They get disgusting and gunky where the plastic meets the drain pipe. No matter how much care you take, it will get slimy goop on it. The only way to stop it is to dump tons of bleach down the drain or buy special little bleach medallions (which are costly and only about 70% effective).
I won't miss having to deal with these poorly designed drain traps.
Tuesday, March 23, 2010
Japanese people will tell you that they don't like to see women putting their makeup on when they ride the trains and that it is bad manners. The thing is that it not only doesn't bother me, but I get a kick out of it for several reasons. First of all, there is a certain amount of risk undertaken when you put objects near your eyes on a moving train. Second, it requires some pretty spiffy dexterity to draw anything on your face while the train lurches and bounces. Finally, as "manners" issues go, this one isn't a problem for anyone as it doesn't smell bad, take up space, leave behind anything offensive, or trouble others in any way.
Essentially, women who put their makeup on on the train are just using the time to do something other than peck at their cell phones or read and write inane text messages, and I'll miss seeing them do their thing in the face of what I view as an overly sensitive unwritten rule about "manners."
Monday, March 22, 2010
This may be an issue in cities around the world, but it's something I never encountered until I came to Tokyo. People will buy one drink at a coffee shop, fast food place, or restaurant and occupy a space for hours (literally). I can't say for certain, but I'm guessing this is one of the reasons that drinks are so expensive in general. They know people are going to do this so they want to make a profit for the loss of space in their establishment. I think people who do this back home might be eventually asked to buy something else or leave if it's a crowded place, but not so in Japan. Those of us who simply want to sit and consume our meals are displaced by those who nurse their coffee for three hours while they peck at their cells phones or read a book. I wouldn't mind if there were copious numbers free seats, but there rarely are.
I won't miss these squatters who make it hard for a paying customer to find a place to eat.
Sunday, March 21, 2010
Japan has a humid subtropical climate, but some northern areas do have abundant snow and very cold winters. Tokyo, however, does not have much of a true winter season at all. Since coming here about 20 years ago, I've probably seen 4 days of (appreciable) snow at most in any given winter. Most of the time, there are a few days or no days with snow at all and heavy winter clothing is not necessary. In fact, I spend a lot more money dealing with air conditioning due to heat than heating due to cold.
Since I grew up in the northeastern part of the United States, I'm accustomed to severely cold (and snowy) winter weather and have always found the mild winters in Tokyo quite comfortable for the most part. I'll miss the mild winter weather.
Saturday, March 20, 2010
Part of my former office job was doing brief telephone lessons with students from all over Japan. In a very "light" year, I spoke to 500 students, but in a "heavy" year, I would speak to closer to 900. I was at that job for 12 years so it's no exaggeration to say that I have spoken to literally thousands of Japanese people in many populated areas. I can add the experience of hundreds of face-to-face conversations I've had and witnessed to the communication experience pool.
One thing that emerges is that there are very concrete differences in behavioral communication patterns in Japanese as compared to English. One of those differences is that Japanese people require much more frequent confirmation that you are listening and understanding them than English speakers. If you are not saying "yes", grunting in acknowledgment, or nodding your head until you develop a cervical spinal disorder, they feel something is amiss. I've had people say 3 or so words and stop speaking to wait for me to say "hai" (yes) and they stop more and more often if I don't do it. I've also been grunted at and "hai'd" (or "yes'd") so much that I don't think the other person could possibly be paying any attention to what I'm saying because they're so busy stuttering out affirmations over my speaking. I've also had people who I've occasionally nodded at and made regular eye contact with during the duration of their telling of a story ask me at regular intervals, "do you understand?" If I'm not saying I understand all of the time, they don't think that I am doing so. I always tell them that I'll tell them if I don't understand, not tell them I do constantly, but this never sticks for long.
Though I understand that Japanese communication styles are different, I will not miss this comparatively constant need for and offering of affirmation which I find disruptive and tiring.
Friday, March 19, 2010
On New Year's Day, many shops sell fukubukuro uniquely tailored to represent their stores' goods. This is often literally translated as a "lucky bag" or "happy bag", but it's better called a "grab bag". Shopkeepers compile an assortment of goods and set a price that (at least supposedly) is cheaper than the value of the goods.
Though these bags are sometimes hit and miss on being worth the price, it's still fun to buy them for the surprise factor, and I'll miss that.
Thursday, March 18, 2010
Back home, I rarely ate sausage or hot dogs. In Japan, sometimes it's a little hard to avoid incidental use of "sausage" or, as they are often called "wieners". They're often used as part of pizzas, gratin, or other dishes. There is a distinct flavor to Japanese wieners (and no double entendre is intended there, my dirtier-minded readers) which I find very off-putting as do some other foreign folks. For my snack blog, I researched the ingredients in wieners and couldn't find anything which would account for this odd flavor, but did find that white beans were part of the ingredients list. While I can stomach them, the inclusion of any type of wiener or wiener-style sausage will often put me off of selecting a particular dish.
I won't miss these strange tasting sausages and wieners.
Wednesday, March 17, 2010
One thing you notice in summer in Tokyo is that there are far more kids, especially girls, riding unicycles. It's quite impressive to see their balance and speed on them. I've been told that elementary school kids, and girls in particular, join unicycle clubs or teams. I'm not sure why unicycles are relatively common in Japan, but it is always interesting to see as one tends only to see acrobats use them back home.
I'll miss seeing kids on unicycles.
Tuesday, March 16, 2010
During my early years in Japan, when I was still young enough to be of interest to random men, I was riding an escalator down into a basement store to meet my husband. A man walked down the escalator behind me and touched my ass. I assumed at first that he had accidentally bumped into me after walking a step too far so I moved forward, and then he moved forward again and touched my behind again. At the time I was naive about a widespread problem in Japan, groping, so I thought he was just impatient for me to walk ahead and was nudging me. Now, I'm certain that both times he was intentionally groping me (particularly since we were the only ones on the escalator and he could have walked around me). The problem has gotten more attention in recent years, but it continues to be of sufficient concern that there are separate cars on trains for women so that they can avoid being fondled by men who can't keep their hands to themselves.
I won't miss these creepy men who think women are objects for them to play with.
Monday, March 15, 2010
In my neighborhood, there is a long and winding street full of different shops that snakes from a major street near my apartment to the local JR station. I've never counted them all, but I'm sure there are over 100. The variety of places is amazing, but more importantly, there is a good mix of low-priced food shops and interesting specialty shops. You can do all of your daily shopping and pick up the occasional novelty or special food item. You also see the same people there when you frequent the shops so you develop a certain rapport with other neighborhood people (whether you talk to them or not).
I love that shopping street, and I'm really going to miss it when I go.
Sunday, March 14, 2010
This comes under the heading of "shameless self-promotion". The Japan Times interviewed me and has published a profile of me and both of my blogs (both this one and my snack reviews blog). If you're interested, you can read it on the Japan Times web site here.
I'm not crazy over Halloween, but I do like to make a jack-o-lantern for the holiday because the warm glow of a candle inside one of those big, round squashes is a thing of beauty. It's also simply an enjoyable seasonal craft. The last pumpkin that I carved in Japan was about 5 inches (12 cm) in size and was so small that a tea candle put inside of it burnt the cap within a minute of lighting the thing. You can pay $30-$60 for a large imported pumpkin at some specialty shops in a few areas of Tokyo far from your average residence, or you can buy an itty-bitty one and risk slicing your hand off trying to carve it.
I won't miss having to settle for tiny little pumpkins because I'm unwilling to break the bank for a reasonably sized jack-o-lantern.
Saturday, March 13, 2010
Choco Cro is a chain shop which sells baked goods and beverages with the main product being croissants filled with chocolate (hence "choco cro"). I've read that these are the closest one can come in Japan to pain au chocolat from France, and, in fact, that some Europeans consider these Japanese treats to be superior to the ones you can get in their country of origin. The ChocoCro croissants are small, sweet bits of flaky pastry perfection. A fresh one is divine, but they're also fabulous the next day if re-heated in a bit of foil in the toaster oven. One small original bittersweet chocolate croissant is 269 calories, but well worth the caloric expense.
I'll miss partaking of the sublime delight of the occasional "choco cro."
Friday, March 12, 2010
Back when I was working in a Japanese office, we had continuous difficulties with things that were not getting done because the person who should look after that particular duty was not exactly specified. There were plenty of ridiculously obvious problems that could be solved in a short time with almost no effort that would be ignored because no one was willing to just do it without some sort of official authorization. This would include things like throwing out an old, abandoned computer that was in everyone's way, cleaning the microwave oven when it was covered in food spatters, or tracking inventory to make sure we had enough materials for clients (or didn't order more of material that we had too much of). Like the chair in the middle of the mob of people pictured above, people would go around a problem that could easily be solved if someone would just take it upon themselves to just deal with it. Japanese people don't just take things upon themselves for the most part because they are unwilling to risk the illusion that they are usurping someone's prerogative.
I won't miss the tendency of people to go around a problem just so they don't have to take responsibility for taking the initiative without authorization.
Thursday, March 11, 2010
One of my earliest experiences with Japanese cart food was hearing a recording of someone half singing the words "yaki imo" (roasted sweet potato) as a man in a cart roamed my neighborhood. I'd have my husband run out and flag down the yaki imo man and he'd buy me a fresh, perfectly cooked over wood chips sweet potato. The experience of buying one of these potatoes right from the men themselves really can't be duplicated as they prepare them in a particular way and you can't get them nearly as fresh from stores that sell them from under heat lamps.
I'll miss getting a fresh, perfectly roasted sweet potato from the yaki imo men.
Wednesday, March 10, 2010
One of the amazing things you see in Japan are bicycles with the equivalent of a baby seat attached to the front and/or back. What is more surprising is the way you see mothers (and on rare occasions, fathers) lurching or speeding around with their kids plopped into them. They are often helmet-less and not strapped in. If the mother were to lose her balance or have an accident, the kid could easily crack open a head. Since they aren't carrying my kid, I guess this isn't my business, but what does tend to be an issue for me is the parking of these massive bikes with their over-sized front and back baskets. Since most bicycle parking in Tokyo is packed, having one of these monsters parked (that is, crammed in) next to my bike results in my handlebars getting jammed and wedged into first the front and then the back kiddy seat.
I won't miss these unwieldy baby-carrying vehicles.
Tuesday, March 9, 2010
Several years ago, my husband and I started visiting the local shrine on the morning of New Year's day. There are always prayer boards or "ema" on sale so that people can write their wishes for the coming year and hang them in the appropriate places at the shrines. These wooden plaques show the animal for the current year according to the Chinese zodiac. You're supposed to write you wish and leave the board at the shrine, but my husband and I like to just keep one from each year as a memento of our visit and our time in Japan.
I'll miss adding a new ema to our collection each year.
Monday, March 8, 2010
I'm not going to assert that the homeless are treated or regarded well in any culture, but most people in Western countries tend to view them with some level of compassion and there are many programs to help them in most cities. In Japan, the general attitude toward the homeless is quite different and programs to assist them are few and far between. They are viewed as failing to work hard enough or to maintain adequate ties to family. The attitude more often than not is that they could pull themselves up by their own bootstraps if they really wanted to and that they inconvenience and annoy the people who have fulfilled their role as "members of society". It is a rare Japanese person who I speak to who views such people with sympathy, and an even rarer one who chooses to slip them some cash occasionally to lighten their burden. (And, yes, I give homeless people in Japan who are set up like the lady above a thousand yen when I see them. They don't ask for it, but I lay down the note and they thank me.)
I won't miss the attitude that homeless people are little more than deadbeats who have somehow earned or chosen their fate.
Sunday, March 7, 2010
Most foreign folks in Japan focus on the part where you will never fit in or be accepted because you cannot assimilate. This does have a lot of negative effects, but there is also a very positive side to being in Japan, but not of the culture. In fact, I wouldn't want to be in Japan if I had to live any other way. It's a little hard to explain because it covers so much cultural territory, but foreign folks get to enjoy many of the best aspects of Japanese culture while not being obliged to fall in line with some of the most troublesome parts. For instance, we aren't expected to perform all of the obligatory activities that the Japanese are expected to take part in from drinking parties to seasonal gift-giving to attending weddings and funerals (which can be costly). While it does help to occasionally take part in such things, we are excused for saying "no" whereas Japanese people are in a much more difficult position as they are expected to adhere to all Japanese cultural expectations and norms.
I will miss having the option to not participate in some of the more onerous aspects of Japanese society while still being able to be a grateful recipient of some of the best parts.
Saturday, March 6, 2010
On Valentine's Day, women are expected to give men chocolates. They don't give them to the men they love or even like, but rather out of obligation ("giri"). As a foreign woman, I was never expected to observe this dubious custom, but I heard plenty of complaints from women in our office who had to do it until the president finally outlawed the practice (likely out of fear of full-fledged rebellion by his female staff). My husband still gets these chocolates from female students, and while I get to enjoy the booty he receives, I still feel that the whole thing is unfair to women. I find it particularly troubling that the women who are most expected to hand over chocolates to coworkers are office ladies who are the lowest paid. There is a made-up reciprocal holiday called "White Day", but men tend to fall down on the job when it comes to returning the favor.
I won't miss the custom of obliging women to give men chocolates.
Friday, March 5, 2010
There are quite a lot of public holidays in Japan. In fact, it's surprising that the Japanese get more random days off than Americans. Few of those national holidays carry a great deal of meaning, but "seijin no hi", which is sometimes translated as "coming of age day" or "adulthood day" is one of the few which is observed in a very visible manner. On the second Monday in January, you see a lot of young women in kimono and young men in suits who have turned 20 in the past year gathering for ceremonies at city and event halls. It's always impressive seeing so many well-dressed and usually happy young people out and about. There's also a certain atmosphere about them as they are coming to terms with their change in legal and social status.
I'll miss seeing young people who have officially reached adulthood traveling about the city on seijin no hi.
Thursday, March 4, 2010
It seems that nearly everything in Japan has to have a mascot. In many cases, they are crudely drawn or poorly designed. You get the feeling that some of them were just created by someone in the office who could doodle a bit rather than by a professional artist. The ward I live in has some peculiar worm-like creature called "Suginomori". It's all over the place in my neighborhood - on signs, on various bits of junk at festivals, and recently I've even seen cookies sold with its image. After all, who doesn't want to eat a cookie with a picture of a weird worm thing on it? What is more irksome is knowing my city taxes are funding the proliferation of this crude mascot.
I won't miss seeing this ugly city mascot on a nearly daily basis.
Wednesday, March 3, 2010
Buses are used far less in Tokyo than trains because of the traffic. It will usually take longer to get there by bus than subway or train, unless you're lucky about where the bus lines run. That being said, I have taken buses a fair amount in Japan and find them to be impeccably clean, safe, and modern. They're especially good as an alternative to the crowds you have to put up with when using train and subway services since they are used less often than these other forms of public transport.
I'll miss these well-maintained, secure, and often fairly empty forms of public transport.
Tuesday, March 2, 2010
Everyone complains. It's a fact of life that we will be unhappy about some experiences and lament about it to someone. Back home, when your boss screws you over or someone treats you badly, people may empathize, offer constructive solutions, or let you know if your response is too extreme for the situation. In Japan, other foreign people tell you to just leave if you don't like it. I don't know if Japan is too sacred to be criticized or if the part of people's brains which realizes walking away from the problems you encounter is not so simple switches off when they set foot on this island, but many don't want to hear a complaint about life in Japan. To their credit, Japanese people don't say this to me because they would complain about the same issues (and do).
I won't miss this snotty, simplistic response to complaints that some foreigners offer.
Monday, March 1, 2010
Every Christmas since buying an oven, I have made copious amounts of peanut butter cookies for my coworkers, students, and my husband's students. They are a huge hit with everyone because they are so unusual as a cookie offering in Japan (and because they are high fat and not overly sweet, which suits Japanese tastes). Back home, they're seen as pretty mundane, but they're always received with great enthusiasm here and it is gratifying to have such a positive response to something I am proficient at making.
I'll miss the grateful and energetic responses I get to something which is treated as common back home.