Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Will Miss #260 - my dentist(s)

Best dentists (and hygienists), ever.

I can't speak to the quality of dental care everywhere in Japan, and I have mentioned before that it is irritating having to get treatment in multiple stages due to the way in which the national health insurance works. However, I have had nothing but the best dental care in Japan. This is in stark contrast to the horrific experiences I had in America with dentists who incredibly painfully pulled my adult molars when I was a preteen rather than fill cavities (leaving me with gaping holes in my bite on either side of my lower jaw). I've had my teeth drilled, filled, and cleaned by two different dentists in Japan (both Japanese, but they speak English well) and my husband has also had oral surgery as well as routine care from them. Both of us have had no pain at all and have been treated with respect and given good explanations of our situation. The environment we're treated in is modern and comfortable.

I will miss the dentists who have done such an excellent job over the more than two decades I've been here.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Won't Miss #260 - Caucasian elevation

If you're white in Japan, you automatically have value based on skin color alone. Many Caucasian foreigners, particularly men, love being seen as special and relish being the favored pet that is fawned over and spoken to with adoration. They're the best of breed among the kennel of foreigners. If you're black, you're a bit out of luck in the gaijin pet show because many Japanese tend to regard black people as more likely to be criminal, animalistic, and less educated. This is an opinion that is hard to come by because Japanese people tend to hide their true opinions from foreigners (who they know mostly disapprove of racist notions), but it is there. Some of my students have overtly told me their real opinions on this matter (particularly that they believe black people are stupid or dangerous), and others have confirmed that, while they don't feel that way, they believe many other Japanese do.

While many white foreigners feel fine with being treated as special in a positive manner based on skin color, I'm no more comfortable being regarded favorably for my skin color than I am being treated badly for it, and I very much won't miss it.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Will Miss #259 - "live theater"

A family goes about their business in full view of strangers passing by.

This may be something that only happens in my neighborhood. It may be something that happens in all big cities all over the world. I don't know. All I can tell you is that I never experienced such a thing back home in either the rural Pennsylvania town I grew up in or the suburban California town I lived in for awhile. At least three families who live along a major, well-trafficked (both by pedestrians and cars) street near my apartment in Tokyo live their daily lives out in the open. They sit in front of glass doors with the curtains open going about their daily lives. They use the computer, watch T.V., drink beer, clean, etc. People are literally streaming by their windows and they blithely go about their business as if they were enjoying total privacy. Today, I actually saw a fellow sitting in front of the glass door, shirtless, but in sweat pants, drying off his body seemingly post shower.

There's something surreal about the way these people live their lives on display, and I'll miss this type of "live theater".

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Won't Miss #259 - absurdly fussy shopping

I shop at a very cheap green grocer (Yutakararya). In fact, in terms of produce quality and prices, I'd say that they're the bottom of the barrel, but still good for basic daily fresh food needs. No one with two brain cells would expect to find perfectly shaped, premium fruit and vegetables there. It's not the sort of place where you find $80 (7,900 yen) melons gift-wrapped and swaddled in padding. It's the sort of place where you find lightly bruised produce dumped into open bins or wrapped in plastic bags. Despite the fact that this is a cut-rate place, it seems that every Japanese shopper who goes there (most around 120 years old or an upper-middle-aged housewife) thinks that they're going to find that one "perfect" bag of onions by pawing over each and every one in a bin full of 100. What is worse, they huck their rejects back into the bin and bruise them further. They won't get on with it and they won't move so I can grab my damned bag of onions and finish my shopping.

I won't miss these people who constantly block my access while they fuss and fiddle over a hundred or so permutations of the same vegetable or piece of fruit to find that one (non-existent) "perfect" one.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Will Miss #258 - language schools (the good)

A Geos poster, implying that you'll be in one big happy family with foreigners and Japanese alike if you attend their school. Of course, it's too late now since Geos folded.

While there are problems with working at language schools (related mainly to cultural differences and working expectations), the experience carries some unique benefits. The main one is that it is often an ideal environment for newcomers to Japan. You work with a variety of other foreigners with varying levels of experience in Japan. They not only share their knowledge and strategies for getting things done here in a way that fast forwards you through the process of settling in to life in Japan (with all of the complex rules and logistical differences), but they form an instant support network and social group for weathering culture shock. My early days in Japan were spent working at the now defunct Nova conversation school. I made some friends, some very good ones, who helped me cope with the plethora of things I needed to learn. I remember those people well despite the relatively brief time I spent at Nova.

I'll miss the social atmosphere and learning experience of working at language schools.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Won't Miss #258 - language schools (the bad)

An ad for "Geos" language school (eikaiwa) using Disney's "Shrek". Even though the school went out of business, these posters are still up all over Tokyo. Given the cash they must have invested to use these images, it's no wonder the company went down the drain.

One of the things that foreigners learn rather quickly after being engaged at a language school is that the experience is not what they might expect. More often than not, the teaching materials are lacking, training is inadequate to prepare you for the job ahead, and you are lied to about the conditions of your employment. The bulk of the lies relate to working hours. You're often expected to prep on your own time, for example, or teach on your day off without extra pay. If you insist on following the terms of your contract by, oh, say, leaving on time at the end of the day, you are looked at askance by the Japanese employees and seen as a lazy worker. If you continue to insist on keeping the hours as they were outlined to you, you may find yourself treated coldly.

I won't miss the way in which language schools bait and switch the working conditions on employees and therefore can never be trusted.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Will Miss #257 - feeling like an Amazon

Several months ago, I was walking around my neighborhood and a group of 5 or 6 foreign men were waiting to cross the street. I was struck immediately by how physically intimidated they made me feel because they were all much taller and more solid (not fat) compared to the people I'm accustomed to having around me. It occurred to me that I so very rarely encounter people who are substantially taller or bigger than me, that I (almost) never feel concerned for my safety as a woman walking around Tokyo alone. Frankly, there are a lot of Japanese men who I think I could snap like a twig if I needed to deal with an attacker.

I will miss feeling physically powerful relative to the people around me, especially when it comes to men and potential physical assaults.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Won't Miss #257 - public urination

A sign in a paid parking lot asking people not to use it as a toilet

I realize men pee in the streets all around the world, especially when they are drunk and it's night-time, but I personally did not experience it that much growing up in America. I was very shocked to see that perfectly sober men in Tokyo urinate in well-traveled side streets and on other people's private property, even when access to public toilets is mere minutes away. They do it during the day time as well as at night. I was walking home from shopping at 4:30 and saw an older man putting it away and zipping up as I walked by. I'm sure the people whose wall he watered will appreciate the scented lubrication. My husband has also seen a mother "instruct" her son on how to pee in public by doing so into the areas off to the side of streets.

For a country so obsessed with cleanliness, public urination in densely-populated urban areas (including residential ones) is not only gross, but shocking, and I won't miss it.

Will Miss #256 - air conditioned waiting areas

An enclosed waiting space (left) with air conditioning on the Keio line train platform.

Our last sojourn to Costco occurred in the humidity of the rainy season in June. The trip takes about 5.5 hours round-trip and requires a fair amount of train riding and some transfers. My husband and I were gratified to find the enclosed waiting spaces on the platform were air conditioned. They offered very welcome relief from the oppressive heat and densely humid air. They're also good for people who find the winter chill too much for them in the colder months.

I'll miss these comfortable and convenient waiting areas that act as oases of luxurious comfort on (some of) the open train platforms.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Won't Miss #256 - the "cut off and slow down"

As part of the never-ending competition for space on the sidewalks, stations, and shopping areas with other pedestrians in nearly every moderately crowded area of Tokyo, there is an experience that continues to frustrate me. Frequently, people who are walking behind me will walk very fast just to get around me and the minute they get in front of me, they will slow down to a pace which is slower than mine. Cyclists also favor this "hurry up then stop or slow down" behavior, but on rarer occasions. They tend to try and cut me off at crosswalks and then stop dead because they want to be in front of me when the crossing light changes. They figure they don't want to risk being behind pedestrians who walk slower than they ride their bikes. Never mind that I just end up walking around their bike and standing next to them at the red light 99% of the time. This behavior is similar to the way cars used to pass me in America and then slow down once they got around me, except this is more frequent and annoying.

I won't miss this type of pointless and petty pedestrian behavior.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Will Miss #255 - an apology is all it (usually) takes

The Japanese are big into taking responsibility, but they are also very forgiving when you admit that you messed up. I'm sometimes floored by the mistakes or misunderstandings that are dismissed or utterly overlooked with the issuance of a simple apology and an explanation. This works not only on a personal level, but frequently on an official one. When my husband and I forgot on a couple of occasions to renew our alien registration cards or to update our visa status at the local government office, we just had to fill in a piece of paper with an apology and all was forgiven.* I've also been told that people who don't pay their city taxes have been let off the hook with little more than a sincere apology and confession that they didn't know about the need to do some particular bit of paperwork (which is actually true in the case of many foreigners in Japan).

I will miss this human and humane approach to forgiving people who make mistakes.

*I read about a year ago that this sort of easy forgiveness of forgetting to update your visa status at the local government office may be changing (and we may need to pay a fine if we don't do it on time), so don't act on my past experiences!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Won't Miss #255 - MSG

Jars of "Aji Shio" at a local convenience market. It's the only type of salt on offer.

One of the many mistakes that foreign folks make early on in their stay in Japan is buying salt with MSG or MSG instead of salt to put on their food. Unless you know what it is, they look very similar and are not marked in an appreciably different fashion. In fact, in many convenience stores, they don't sell shakers of regular salt and only sell "Aji Shio", which is salt with MSG. While I don't believe MSG is dangerous, I don't like the taste of it and it can have bad side effects like causing headaches.

I won't miss the liberal addition of MSG to processed and restaurant foods in Japan nor the difficulty of getting salt without it at certain shops.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Will Miss #254 - general trustworthiness

A woman left her wallet, schedule book, drink, and slippers on a bench while she made a call from a phone booth about 10 feet away.

Both natives and foreigners alike are told constantly that Japan is a "safety country", and that people do not engage in petty criminal acts. This is largely true and at least a little false. I left a tote bag in a bike basket while running into a store and it was stolen. People have found and not returned my husband's lost wallets twice. That being said, you generally can leave items out in public in Japan with far less fear that they might be stolen than in similarly populated Western countries. People often leave personal effects in vulnerable positions because they trust that they won't be taken by random strangers, and usually they are not. Just seeing that often gives me hope for humanity, and makes me smile at the nature of people who show this sort of trust of strangers. Also, I have experienced situations where personal effects were not taken. I left my purse behind on a cement wall near a bank the first year I was here, and it was there when I went back for it. My wallet once fell out of my pocket on a park bench, and someone pointed it out to me. A woman even chased me down because she thought I'd forgotten to pack a bunch of broccoli that she thought I'd bought at a shop (though it wasn't mine).

While I absolutely do not recommend leaving valuable items in a situation where they might be stolen (as I have had things stolen for becoming too complacent about leaving them and walking away), you can generally make a mistake and leave something behind with more confidence that it'll be there when you get back.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Won't Miss #254 - overheated movie theaters

While it is great to be able to eat and drink what you want in movie theaters in Japan, there is one big problem, and that's the temperature. Most theaters are uncomfortably hot in both summer and winter. In the winter, they overheat them and in summer, they under-cool them. Part of the reason for this is that Japanese people in general prefer hotter temperatures than foreigners, but part of it is also cheapness on the part of the theaters. With a lot of people in the theater, it's easy to get it warm in winter without using much energy, but costly to make it cool in summer. This problem ensures that I would only bother to see the most heavily-anticipated movies in Japan.

I won't miss the theaters that are too hot for comfort almost year-round.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Will Miss #253 - taking my own snacks to movies

In the U.S., most theater owners will not permit people to bring in their own food and drink. This allows them to massively overcharge at the concessions stand and make more money. In Japan, you can nosh on anything you want inside the theater. That's right. People take in bags of fast food to eat during the movie if they want and nobody hassles them.

I'll miss being able to take what I want to eat or drink into movie theaters with me.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Won't Miss #253 - Japanese slapped over English

Before I whine about this particular thing, I would ask my gentle readers to keep in mind that I get to complain about things which are decidedly reasonable and fair ways for things to happen because they just so happen to inconvenience me personally. It is absolutely proper for the Japanese importers to plaster Japanese product information over the English on imported products, but it still bugs me to have to translate to get the information I need when it's right there in English hiding under a sticker. If you spent all your days wading through a foreign language, you might find it annoying as well to find that the easy answers are just out of reach. Oh, yes, and there's also the fact that the Japanese nutrition information is very often greatly less complete than the original English. In the British-made jam jars shown above, in terms of information I want, the Japanese only includes ingredients and the covered-up British information has calories and other nutrition data which I'd really like to have. Peeling off the sticker, by the way, rarely works as it'll take the back label off with the front one.

I won't miss having the original English covered up by Japanese stickers.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Will Miss #252 - Japanese versions of Western icons

 Click to see a larger version.

Growing up in America, I grew accustomed to seeing certain figures look a certain way. Ronald McDonald, for instance, always has a similar physique regardless of the model or actor under the make-up and in the costume. Any iconic character that has been around for awhile tends to assume a particular image and it's always interesting seeing the Japanese versions of them. Ronald McDonald is smaller and slimmer in Japan, and in the picture of the DoCoMo (NTT's mobile phone service) ad above makes it look like Darth Vader has really lost a lot of his  muscular bulk and now is looking decidedly more petite (note the shoulders, neck, and legs and the relative proportions). On first glance, you don't necessarily notice exactly what is wrong, but you do feel that something isn't quite right.

I'll miss seeing these Japanese versions of Western cultural icons.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Won't Miss #252 - Japanese paper towels

I don't know why these seem to be named for cow usage.

Yes, I know paper towels are the spawn of ecological evil and I shouldn't use them. That being said, considering the fact that I can only do laundry in cold water, I'm not exactly in a position to be cleaning greasy rags or getting germy ones clean and sanitary. I really have little choice but to use paper towels for things like cleaning a cast iron skillet or the toilet. Without hot water washing, life without paper towels is a good deal more difficult. For many years, my husband has been in charge of paper towel procurement and he always bought the cheap store-brand Costco ones (Kirkland). Until we ran out between Costco runs, I never realized what utter crap Japanese paper towels are. The sheets are smaller and thinner than the cheapest American paper towels. They're closer to newspaper than "towels". You need to use two for nearly any job so you end up going through a roll in no time flat.

I won't miss the poor quality of Japanese paper towels.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Will Miss #251 - free ambulance service

In odd contrast to the previous post about paying for emergency rescue services, ambulances in Japan are free. If you've fallen and you can't get up, you get a free ride to the hospital. Considering that many people back home in America won't call an ambulance when they need one for fear of the cost, this is a rather refreshing situation. Of course, there is a down side, and that's that some people will call an ambulance in a non-emergency situation rather than take a cab because one is free and the other is not.

I think that free ambulances for those who need it is worth a little abuse on the part of those who don't, and I'll miss the fact that one need not worry about cost in the case of a medical emergency.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Won't Miss #251 - paying for emergency rescue and searches

If you are the adventurous sort and want to go around climbing Mt. Fuji or any of the other famous natural areas that people are prone to hike around in Japan, you'd better hope you don't trip and fall into a ravine for more than one reason. Besides the obvious pain, suffering (and potential death), your family or you will be on the hook for the cost of any search and rescue expenses. Any manpower, helicopters, or vehicles employed in finding you will be put on an extremely hefty tab and presented to you or your kin (in the event of your untimely demise). Many Japanese folks are already aware of this and there is money to be had in selling insurance to hikers. I'm guessing, incidentally, that things like falling into a river or lake or getting lost in the woods while camping would also fall under the same heading as hiking or mountaineering accidents and these situations would also incur millions of yen in costs.

I won't miss this cold and rather mercenary approach to expenses related to such accidents.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Will Miss #250 - Japanese onomatopoeia

A "fuwa fuwa" (fluffy) marshmallow cake.

The Japanese language has a lot of onomatopoeia. For those who are unfamiliar, those are words that sound like or suggest the concept they are meant to convey. I've never counted how many we have in English, but I'm pretty sure the Japanese have many more. I encounter a lot of them while snack blogging. For instance, "saku saku" is crispy and "fuwa fuwa" is fluffy. These appeal to me on two levels. First of all, they always sound rather "cute" to me (for lack of a better word). I think part of the reason for this is that they are usually two sounds repeated. The second appeal is the way in which they reflect perceptions or sounds to the Japanese mind or ear. Dogs in America go "arf" or "bark", but in Japan, they go "wan wan".  Hearing onomatopoeia in another language make me ponder how we actually conceive sounds based on our own language.

This is part of the language which continues to fascinate me and I'm going to miss it.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Won't Miss #250 - green tea shops

There are many people who are great fans of green tea and I can sort of see the appeal. Personally, it's one of those things that I can take or leave. I don't get excited about it, but I enjoy eating foods flavored with it on occasion and I'll drink it if it comes free with a Japanese meal or someone serves it to me. It's pleasant enough, but I'm not crazy for it. Green tea itself is fine, but I'm not a fan of the shops. The main reason for this is that many of them roast tea on the premises, and the smell is often unpleasant. I don't know if that is the natural scent of roasting tea or if perhaps the equipment that is used takes on an odor through repeated use, but it always smells like a variation on burning leaves to me. It probably doesn't help that my office sat above a green tea shop for several years and I smelled that smell 5 days a week for years.

I won't miss green tea shops that roast their own and the odor that permeates the area around them.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Will Miss #249 - Mister Donut

Mister Donut originated in the United States, but the market there is quite small. In Japan, Mister Donut is far more popular and carries a variety of small, not too sweet donuts for about 100 yen each. They often have some interesting seasonal flavors and make some unique donuts for the Japanese markets, such as ones made with kinako (toasted soy flour) or mochi (pounded rice). The results are often donuts with a unique texture or flavor. That being said, my favorite remains their decidedly uncalorific angel cream (only 194 calories of fun). When I'm in the mood for a sweet breakfast, it's my guiltless "go to" item, and the shop is only about 8 minutes on foot from my apartment. Also, Mister Donut is quite unique in Japan in that it is one of the very few places you can get free coffee refills.

I'll miss the small donuts, unique flavors, fukubukuro and fukubako and unique atmosphere of Mister Donut in Japan.