I spent almost exactly two years in Japan, and it’s impossible to describe the depth of my experiences there. Good and bad, I know that everything I’ve encountered in that country have made me a stronger, more confident person. I’ve changed so much that I’m not even sure I’m the same person I was when I arrived.
It’s been about a month since I returned to Canada. I originally planned to get this post written while I was still in Japan, but being back has given me some time to reflect on Japan and to adjust to my home country, and I think I’ve got a better perspective on this now.
Of course, I’ll always cherish the good memories of my time there. And in fact I’d like to share them. So here are the ten things I believe have made my journey to Japan worthwhile.
10. Convenience stores! “Convenient” is not a descriptive enough word to characterize the nature of Japanese conbini. You can do anything at the convenience stores here: banking, paying bills, making photocopies, ordering meals for holidays…and that’s just the services. The goods are a whole different story. I’m pretty sure it’s physically impossible for one store to actually contain everything found in a local conbini; somehow 7-11, Lawson, and Family Mart have managed to warp the time-space continuum for the noble aim of getting me whatever my greedy heart desires at 4:00 in the morning. Here is a list—and not even a comprehensive one—of what can be found at most conbini:
*snacks and drinks
*fresh cut flowers
*stationary (pencils, pens, erasers, notebooks, envelopes, you name it)
*porn (I didn’t say I want it, I just said it’s there!)
*toiletries (razors, shaving cream, shampoo, conditioner, makeup sponges, and so much more)
*medical supplies (medical masks, cold packs for fevers, etc.)
These are just what I can think of off the top of my head. And to top it all off, the customer service in Japanese conbini is pretty amazing. One time I overpaid by something like ten yen (about ten cents) and didn’t realize it. When I was leaving the parking lot the woman who was working at the conbini came running after me to return it. It was kind of touching. I don’t think anyone in Canada would have cared.
9. Trains! I’m pretty sure I lived in one of the most inconvenient spots in the country, with a train that only comes once every hour or hour and a half. And yet I still don’t feel that I could have complained. As someone who suffers from pretty bad motion sickness, I really enjoyed the option of fast, smooth travel. What’s more, even if the trains aren’t too convenient 100% of the time, they are always, always, ALWAYS on time. This is pretty mind-blowing for a Canadian. In my hometown you can bank on the buses being anywhere between 10 and 30 minutes late, so reliable public transportation was the best kind of culture shock. In Japan you also have the option of taking the Shinkansen, or Bullet Train, if you want to travel long distances. Depending on where you’re going, it can cut your trip in half for less than it would take to fly.
8. Year-round flowers! One of the most mind-blowing aspects of being in Japan was seeing new flowers blooming in the middle of December. Japan has a fairly warm climate, so unlike the Canadian winters that freeze the life out of every living thing, most plants can survive (at least in the area I was living in; I’m sure Hokkaido is a whole different story!). It was amazing watching the flowers bloom all year round, their colors shifting from season to season.
7. Traveling! North America, being its own continent and all, is geographically pretty isolated from the rest of the world. And Canada is such a large country that even going from Vancouver to Toronto or Montreal can get pretty expensive. Travel in and around Japan isn’t exactly cheap, but there are a lot of options available and there are a lot more countries nearby to visit. While living in Canada, it would have been pretty hard for me to make it to Taiwan or Korea. So for me, traveling to Japan also opened up the opportunity to travel to a lot of other places.
6. Daiso! Canadian/American dollar stores seem to be improving lately, but when I left for Japan the dollar store situation in Canada was abysmal. The products were cheaply made, pretty much always manufactured in China, and hardly seemed worth the price of their packaging. Daiso, the largest dollar (or hyakuen) store in Japan completely changed my outlook on the subject. Daiso not only has everything you could possibly imagine, but all of the products are made in Japan and are much higher quality than anything I’ve seen in North America. If you end up in Japan, make sure you also end up in Daiso!
5. The shortcuts! As you probably know, Japan has a much, much, MUCH lengthier history than Canada does. And as you may not know, one in every five people in Japan works in the construction industry. As a result, the nation is made up of millions of circuitous little pathways that cut through rice fields and residential areas, many of which are so narrow that two people aren’t even able to walk side-by-side. Anywhere I needed to go in my community had about ten different shortcuts to it because of this. I don’t know what I’m going to do without those little pathways…
4. Bike culture! I still can’t believe the volume of bikes in Japan, or the lengths to which businesses will go to accommodate them. Parking lots near large shopping areas usually have separate lots or special sections specifically reserved for bicycles, and there always seem to be at least as many bikes around as there are cars. If you care about things like your carbon footprint or getting a good workout, the bike culture in Japan makes your life that much easier.
3. Tea culture! I’m sure this is no surprise to anyone, but if you’re crazy about tea Japan is definitely the country for you. Every grocery store I’ve seen has an aisle completely dedicated to tea (usually green tea and matcha), and at restaurants you won’t get a class of water for free—you’ll usually get green or barley tea. Vending machines in Japan don’t tend to have snacks in them, and they don’t usually have that much soda in them, either. For the most part they have bottles of tea. In the summer there are all sorts of chilled teas available, and in winter they have a special heated section for warm drinks. Most of these beverages are sugar and milk free, so you don’t have to worry too much about your waistline. And, if you’re not too into standard green, barley, or black tea, there are websites like Lupicia where you can get countless kinds of flavored teas infused with fruit, flowers, chocolate, and anything else you can imagine.
2. The food! I’ve talked before about the irritating “Western food is fattening, Japanese food is healthy” stereotype. It’s a stereotype that’s often repeated here, and, depending on who you’re talking to, can lead to some fairly offensive generalizations about North Americans in particular. Having said that, though, I do love the variety of healthy food here in Japan. The unhealthy stuff definitely exists (you can’t tell me tempura is heart friendly!) but it seems like the opportunity to eat healthy is far more widely available in Japan. And even disregarding the health factor, the food is just plain delicious. Trust me, no one cooks like elderly Japanese women!
And of course, the thing I’ll miss most about Japan…
1. The people! Before coming to Japan, there was no way I could have imagined the friendships I would make or how the people around me would shape my life. I realize this is rather a cliché thing to say after having been abroad, but it’s absolutely true. I still can’t believe the kindness of my coworkers, my fellow foreigners, my neighbors, and everyone else who positively touched my life. Now that I’ve left Japan, I find that my fondest memories aren’t of the festivals I’ve been to, the temples I’ve seen, or the adventures I’ve had. That’s not to say that those aren’t great memories, of course. But the experiences that have touched me the most deeply, the greatest treasures of my time there, are without question the moments of kindness I experienced, often in seemingly small ways. Those are the memories that I know will stay with me until the day I die. And for that, I’ll always be so grateful.
And there you have it, the 10 things I will always miss about Japan. This has been an amazing experience, one that I never thought I would have the opportunity for. I’m so thankful to everyone who made it possible, and I’m so glad I went for it when I did.
Since I’m back in Canada now, this is probably going to be my last post on Nihonglish. Writing this blog has been a lot of fun and I really hope everyone who read it has enjoyed it as much as I have. Thanks to all my readers, especially those who left such nice comments! If I start up a new blog I’ll post a link here so you can find me. Thanks everyone! Sayonara!