Wednesday, 9 July 2014

16 Things to Love About Japan!

Having spent the last four years living in Osaka Japan, the time has now come for Jules and I to leave and return back to our home in Australia. We will no doubt miss many of the friends we have met while here, but we will certainly take away with us some truly special memories of times spent traveling throughout Japan. So in thinking about what I might write for my final blog from Japan, I thought it best to simply reflect upon the things we loved and will miss, so in no particular order here they are…

1. Honesty and Trust:
From our experience here, we have always found the Japanese to be very honest and trustworthy. Jules and I have a running joke about how long something might last before it was stolen or vandalized if it was placed in similar circumstances in Australia. Over the years we have heard many amazing stories regarding honest acts by the general public when items have been lost and returned. Indeed in a world where you are constantly having to watch over your shoulder in order to avoid becoming a victim of crime, it has been greatly reassuring to know that for the most part, the Japanese are very honest and considerate people.

2. Service:
The Japanese really know how to provide good service in shops and restaurants. They understand that service means putting the customer first and going to extraordinary lengths to ensure that you feel very special, even if you don’t speak the language. In looking back we can recount numerous examples of remarkable service and we often wonder what the Japanese make of the poor service often provided when traveling in other parts of the world.

3. The Hundred Yen Shop and Konan:
Throughout Japan there are thousands of 100 yen shops that sell a huge range of goods for the equivalent of $1 in Australia. We wished we had known about these stores when we first arrived in Japan as you can easily fit out your apartment with all the implements you need, not to mention the thousands of other problem solving devices. Another one of my favorite haunts has been ‘Konan’ who specialize primarily in hardware but also provide an extensive range of other goods, covering everything from clothing to pet supplies. Jules and I have spent many hours in both of these stores and we rarely left without purchasing something.

4. Toilets:
As Jules knows, I have always argued that it is a basic human right to have access to a toilet in any public area. However, this is something that is often ignored by many countries or more often than not, access is only provided at a price. Thankfully this is not the case in Japan, where free public toilets can always be easily found and are in most cases generally clean. Another plus in more recent times is that the old traditional ‘squat’ toilets continue to be upgraded to western style toilets in line with most other countries, which is a relief in more ways than one!

5. The Changing Seasons:
It has been wonderful living in a country that has distinct seasons. Each time of the year brought with it a unique quality, but spring, with its outburst of blossom and autumn, with the glorious colours of the falling leaves remained our favorite. We also loved the way the Japanese of all ages celebrate and appreciate the changes in nature as they occurred around them. This would often mean going to great lengths to visit locations that showed off a particular season at its best and of course photographing it, just as they had done the previous year and the year before that.

6. Karaoke:
Before we came to Japan, the last thing we wanted to do was to spend an evening in a karaoke bar. At this point some of our family members might rightly claim that we were not blessed with great singing voices and they are absolutely right! However, what we learnt in Japan was that heading to a karaoke room was not just about singing, it was more about letting go of your inhibitions in the company of good friends. In an atmosphere where no one is critical of anyone’s singing, it is your effort that is celebrated. With karaoke rooms on just about every downtown street corner, it was not surprising that we would inevitably find ourselves there, but what surprised us was that we grew to love it!

7. Clean Streets:
While some of the modern Japanese streets can at times be a bit ugly due to their age or the haphazard way they have evolved, they are always clean. There is little in the way of litter despite there being very few rubbish bins. It seems that people just take their own rubbish home with them. There is also very little graffiti to be seen and people are generally very respectful of their public spaces in whatever form they take.

8. Onigiri, Okonomiyaki and other Japanese Foods:
Before we arrived in Japan, Jules and I were not really regular consumers of Japanese food, however since being here we have come to enjoy it more and more. We have always enjoyed Sushi and Sashimi, but we have also taken a particular liking to onigiri which is a rice triangle with seafood or other filling that is wrapped in a seaweed square. These are available for around 120 yen from any convenience store and if you can figure out the tricky instructions for getting them out of the wrapper, they are delicious. There are of course other favourites including the local specialty of Okonomiyaki, which is not quite as healthy but just as satisfying.

9. Bars and Restaurants:
Over the years we have seen our fair share of bars and restaurants in the Kansai region, but I would suggest that we probably would have tried less that 1% of what is actually there. The seemingly unlimited amount of establishments is simply overwhelming, but it certainly has been great fun exploring them. We can honestly say that we never had a bad meal in Japan and every bar was always different from the other. They ranged from small stand up bars to sophisticated nightspots that often overlooked the impressive lights of the city.

10. Warm Hand Towels:
It is always nice whenever entering a bar or restaurant to be presented with a warm hand towel or at the very least a wrapped wet tissue. This allows you to freshen yourself up before tucking into your meal or nibbles. It is a sensible hygienic move aimed at preventing the spread of germs, but such a simple action is also a nice welcoming gesture that we have always appreciated.


11. The Railway System:
If there was any country best suited to operate an efficient railway system it is the Japanese. Despite there being millions of commuters each day, the railway always runs efficiently and reliably. While many of the local trains appear to be quite old fashioned, they are always spotlessly clean and can be relied upon to get you to an extensive range of destinations on time. Of course the world recognizes the transportation marvel that is the Shinkansen that can whisk you all around the country at over 200kms an hour, but the local trains are just as impressive and a whole lot cheaper. Often running at around 5-10 minute intervals, for us the train is the only way to get around and not having a car to worry about over the last 4 years has been a blessing.

12. Everything Running on Time:
There is something reassuring about any organization that sticks to its specified time schedule. Again the Japanese are wonderfully punctual about such things. When a bus or train is scheduled to arrive at 8.37am it will indeed arrive at 8.37am not a minute earlier or a minute later. Likewise if a tradesman says he will be coming to your home between 4.00pm-5.00pm on a specific day you can bet your life that he will be there at that time. With everyone simply sticking to the promises they make with regard to time, it makes life so much easier and surprisingly less stressful.

13. The Cost of Living:
A few years ago the most common complaint about visiting Japan was the price of just about everything, although I suspect that this was more due to the crippling conversion rate for most currencies against the highly buoyant Japanese yen. As a result several of the major cities in Japan were listed as the most expensive in the world, however with the economic downturn and following the sobering impact of the 2011 tsunami disaster, this all changed. The yen has dropped dramatically over recent years and these days the cost of living in Japan is very comparable, if not less expensive than other countries, particularly with that of Australia, which we now find far more expensive.

14. The Mix of History and Modernity:
Japan is a complex society (to say the least) and what is fascinating is how it somehow manages to preserve its cultural traditions while forging ahead with an enthusiastic eye to the future. You will see some of the latest technology and some of the most innovative architecture and fashion, yet it all remains somehow connected to its historical past. It is not uncommon to see a modern office building or department store placed alongside a traditional Buddhist temple. Nor is it unusual to see a young lady wearing a kimono while standing on the train next to another wearing the latest in ultra modern street wear. Both the traditional and modern world works hand in hand in Japan, with each adding to the fabric of its society. What we particularly liked was that this notion appeared to be embraced by both young and old, with colourful cultural festivals, conventions and events celebrated on a weekly basis.

15. The Young and the Old:
Having taught a good many Japanese students over the last few years, there are certain qualities I will definitely miss about them and the youth culture here generally. For the most part, they possess an innocence and happy exuberance that comes from living in a society that allows young people to enjoy the full years of their youth. With drinking, driving a car and voting held off until around 21 years, they seem to be less in a rush to join the adult world with all its complications. At the other end of the scale, the aging population appears to enjoy respect and a place within society that should be envied and indeed emulated by other countries. It is not unusual to see a 75 year old serving at a supermarket checkout or working as a security guard. Their active contribution to many aspects of Japanese society appears to be valued, which in turn provides personal dignity, reduces age discrimination and no doubt provides a contributing factor to the well publicised longevity of its population.

16. Love of Jazz:
It is wonderful living in a country that loves its jazz music so much. Not only are there numerous festivals to attend throughout the year, there are countless nightclubs where you can appreciate all forms of jazz. If that is not enough, just about every café and restaurant seems to play jazz, so my favorite form of music is never too far away. There are also so many stores selling jazz music in both CD and classic vinyl form. Many of these recordings are quite unique to Japan with many live recordings by some of the greatest jazz artists who have visited this music loving country over the years. It was within this environment of jazz appreciation that I was encouraged to learn to play the trumpet and I will always be grateful for that.

There is no doubt that in the months and years ahead, Jules and I will continue to reminisce over the many experiences we had in Japan. It will remain a very special place for us. Yet, there is a sense that we only really began to scratch the surface of this unique country during the four years we spent there. We feel blessed that we were able to experience some of it and would certainly recommend a visit. So it is with some sadness that we say sayonara, but with the knowledge that we leave some great friends behind and that a return visit would always be welcomed.

1 comment:

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