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Visiting Japan Without Speaking Japanese: Part 2 of 3

Thinking about visiting Japan?
Watch Part-1, before watching this Part-2 in our 3-Part series.

Today we continue our discussion with Rob Dyer of TheRealJapan.com on the topic of visiting Japan without speaking Japanese.

It’s advisable to have at minimum, basic Japanese phrases memorized and a sense of the cultural differences. But lack of language fluency should not be a barrier to your adventure. There are a number tasks you can perform in advance to help make your experience as smooth as possible. These preparations are discussed in these videos as well as in Rob’s new book, “How to Travel in Japan Without Speaking Japanese”.

In this Part 2 of a 3 Part Video Series we talk about some of the amusing things that can occur while traveling, as well as topics including:

  • Mental and Logistical Preparation
  • Transportation
  • Getting Lost

Rob’s recently penned an E-Book titled “How to Travel in Japan Without Speaking Japanese” can be found at HowToTravelInJapan.com.

Part 3 coming soon. Click the Follow button at right to be notified when it’s available. View Video Transcript

Visiting Japan Without Speaking Japanese: Part 1 of 3

A discussion on the challenges of travelling to Japan without speaking the language.

Visiting Japan for the first time can be a daunting experience. Add in potential language challenges and cultural differences – it might give you some cause for concern before your big adventure.

Rob Dyer

Fear not! Today we sit down for a chat with someone with a wealth of knowledge about traveling through Japan – Rob Dyer of TheRealJapan.com.

In this Part 1 of a 3 Part Video Series we learn a little about each other and discuss the apprehension that some people feel about visiting Japan, including such topics as:

  • The Language Barrier
  • Japanese Hospitality (Omotenashi)
  • Trip Preparation

Rob’s recently penned an E-Book titled “How to Travel in Japan Without Speaking Japanese” can be found at HowToTravelInJapan.com.

Part 2 coming soon. Click the Follow button at right to be notified when it’s available. View Video Transcript

5 Common Traits of the Uncommon Foreigner in Japan

Are we all a bunch of weirdos? Not those just passing through – but those who choose to live here indefinitely. It’s a question I’ve asked myself before, and I include myself in that mix. Living in a small town in the countryside, it means the number of “Westerner” residents are few and far between. So few in fact, that I’ve had the chance to interact with a good percentage of them. To answer the question; No. I guess were not all weirdos. But there are a few characteristics I’ve noticed that seem to “pop out” across our tiny cross-section of the population.

    1. Non-Conformist
      By this I mean that many of us have not guided our lives along the typical success path laid out for us by our home country. Perhaps we didn’t enter college right out of high school, attempted unusual jobs, or have otherwise met with curves in the directions of our lives. However you’d like to define it, Expats tend to have unique personality traits which set them apart from the average Joe.
    2. Problem-Solver
      Setting up camp indefinitely in a foreign environment brings challenges. You are destined to encounter pleasant surprises, and strange problems that you never could have imagined. You don’t have to be a problem-solver to be an Expat, but you have to be one in order to become a successful Expat.
    3. Able to Read Personalities
      When you are not an expert at a language, you must be able to pick up on subtle social clues in order to make decisions. This is further complicated by cultural differences which may leave people being socially-kind to you even when you are making rather large mistakes. Highly sensitive people hold an advantage here at determining the best course of action.
    4. Comfort with Being Alone
      Let’s face it, being an Expat could be a lonely business for some. But it’s really not too bad for those who are comfortable with spending lengths of time on their own. Social people will no doubt make friends, and relationships over time, but a willingness to battle loneliness is almost a required skill when living thousands of miles from home.
    5. Able to Handle Attention
      Loneliness is often interrupted with bursts of the exact opposite – unsolicited attention. People are naturally curious, and will often lavish attention upon you as if you were a D-List celebrity. Usually it’s all in fun, but it can also be obnoxious. The hardened expat has the class to deal with both wanted and unwanted attention in the most prudent way possible.

    Am I providing a gross stereotype here? Maybe. It’s just one man’s observation. Whether you agree with me, have more to add, or think I’m crazy – let me know in the comments. Also, check out my blog post about 6 Striking Cultural Personality  Differences. Thanks as always, for following my observations.

Reverse Culture Shock – Part 2

Can two years away from your home country make you feel like an outsider when you return? To some degree, yes. It makes me re-question;
“What kind of person volunteers themselves to be dropped into a foreign land indefinitely?”

Waterfall
Beauty of the countryside.

I suppose you have different types; the adventurous who will take on anything, and those who are willing to exile themselves from their current world. Which am I? I’d like to think the former, but more likely the latter. Hopefully at least a combination of the two.

The outgoing, very social nature of Americans reminded me that small-town Japan is generally rather reserved, at least socially. It felt good to experience the “chit chat” once again that doesn’t really take place in Japan.

As for the American chaos… I think some chaos is good. In fact I needed my kids to experience a bit of chaos. A little USA-vaccination so to speak, to let them feel that the world is much bigger than what they currently understand.

On the Topic of Raising (half American/half Japanese) Children

IMG_3214Of course I could never think of my children as half of anything, only able to experience both worlds. But let’s be honest, they will have benefits and disadvantages. As kids there are instance where they will benefit from the novelty of having a foreign (American) father. Of course my fear is that there will also be exclusion – as being different often creates when you are a child. As adults we value our uniqueness, but a kid just wants to be like their friends.

Then again, “exclusion” is not exclusive to where I live. Kids can be mean, anywhere. And often are. And as much as we’d like to protect them from the realities of life, sheltering them is no solution.

As a father, it’s my job to prepare them. Should they choose to live in Japan, they must have the patience, demeanor and sense of order as a Japanese citizen. Should they choose to live in America they must be able to speak-out and let themselves be heard, to be creative and take risks when called for.

These personalities seem almost at odds. At 180 degrees. Yet, some fascination exists within each culture for the other. Maybe we both wish our own cultures had a little bit more of the character we idealize in each other – to balance ourselves out.

Ultimately I come to the conclusion that there is no one better to exhibit of striking a balance between both cultures, than the example of me and my wife. An imperfect example that we must continue to improve upon. They will need to seek the balance within themselves.

(Read Part 1 of this article)

 

Reverse Culture Shock – Part 1

I recently returned from my first trip back to the USA, after 2 Years of life in Japan. I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a mixed bag of emotions. The concept of reverse culture shock, of returning to your home country after spending just a couple years away – is a real thing. I suppose in my case there is also a Big City VS. Small City contrast which plays a part.

LA - The Belly of the Beast
Although it was only two years away I think it was the closest that I had ever come to seeing America, specifically Southern California, from the eyes of an outsider. It had me thinking about my identity a bit.

Some of the Things That Popped Out;

Disorder:
The chaos of American is both good and bad. It feels quite liberating and free, while the lack of process can be frustrating at times. It’s good for my kids to see that this world (and life) is more than any one country or culture. A person needs to have the skill set to thrive in both an environment of chaos, or an an environment of order.

Volume:
LA is a big city, noise pollution and people are loud. But beyond the number of people, they are also unconcerned about others. Whether it’s someone speaking loudly on their cell phone, or bumping music from their car – it’s simply a louder environment.

Korea Town Los AngelesThe Food:
It’s no secret that I like to eat. The city holds a range of ethnic foods that is simply unavailable in small town Japan. It was great to eat all of the things I had been missing for the last couple years, and I definitely gained a few pounds. How many tacos did I eat? I lost count! But the almost universally unhealthy food as you walk through the average grocery store (American snacks) – that’s another story.

Friendliness:
While LA is not especially known as a friendly city, it sure felt welcoming to me. I imagine this was just due to being around English and feeling at-ease. Also, all those tiny conversations you have throughout the course of a day, you usually take for granted. But as a foreigner in small-town Japan, people are far more hesitant to strike up a conversation for multiple reasons.

Cleanliness:
Never underestimate the convenience of being able to walk into a clean bathroom anywhere you go. This is not the case in Los Angeles. One of the big reasons for moving to a smaller town, I got sick of telling my kids not to touch things. The pure unspoiled nature of the Japanese countryside is hard to compare with anything else. The grim of the city, I don’t miss.

Traffic:
Oh boy, the traffic. When I lived in Los Angeles I hated it, but I was used to it and tolerated it because… what choice is there? But visiting it again after getting used to a small town made me scream むり, impossible, and that I could never deal with that again.

Anxiety:
While living in Japan, the local supermarket we used to shop at was in the news recently. The police had chased a suspect into the store and gunfire was exchanged. One of the employees was caught in the crossfire and unfortunately killed – by police. While crime exists everywhere, theres no denying the number of guns and crime levels in big American cities. It’s nice to worry about my kids less in a small, relatively safe town.

Relationships:
To have my children get to know my family and bond was/is priceless, and our time together was too short. This is a huge downside to living abroad. Seeing old friends reminded us of all the things that we have in common with them, and the close relationships we had there. We miss them. Starting over in a new country, with new priorities means that new, deep friendships come very slowly.

There’s more of course, but these are the things that most jumped out at me. But what I realized more than before, is that Japan is now my home, at least for now. I need to do a better job of making my home a place that I cherish by creating deeper bonds, reaching out to people and embracing my experience to its fullest.
Strive for fearlessness.

In my next blog post I speak more about having children caught between two cultures – Japanese and American.

Raising Kids in Japan – Changing Schools

One thing that struck me as my kids entered preschool here in Japan, was that the teacher-to-child ratio was quite generous. Also, the cost is quite manageable compared to the USA. The children by all accounts love where they are and enjoy themselves, looking forward to school just as kids should. In short, I’ve been mostly happy with it.

Side note: Their Japanese Hoikuen 保育園 preschool is really more about socialization and play than it is about studying. If I had wanted them pushed in education more early-on, I would have put them into a Youchien 幼稚園 type of preschool, however I figured the relocation from the US was stressful enough.

Now after 2 years of their adjusting and making friends, we may be imparting another shock upon them which concerns me. As we consider building a home in a nearby area, we must also consider changing their preschool. If we do not – then they will be faced with entering an elementary school later down the road with no friends/acquaintances. If we move them now, they have a solid year to adjust and make new friends.

This in itself is not insurmountable. But I then consider the other issues:

  • They are the youngest in their classes: Children in Japan are placed into classes strictly by birth date, and the maturity difference between oldest to youngest can be striking. The US seems to be much more flexible in this regard. Studies have shown, the older kids in the classes perform better.
  • They are the only “hafu’s” ハーフ: In their current school, and likely in their new school they will likely be the only non-full-Japanese kids. Isn’t fife is hard enough without being regarded as different, especially as a kid?
  • My kids are small: Being the youngest, and having parents who are relatively short means my kids are relatively small in stature. Sure, being bigger and stronger isn’t everything. But, this effects their sports and athletics ability (rather important in the countryside schools), and likewise their confidence.

I should also say – these are my concerns, my own demons. Not my kids’ worries. They simply take one day at a time. They are happy, well-adjusted children. But I know that childhood is far from simple. For now I must consider how I can ease them into this new possibility. I plan to:

  • Visit the new school often, even if to just play
  • Start meeting member of the new school
  • Let the children know, a move will put us closer to grandparents

Do you have children as you live in a foreign country? How have they adjusted? Any tips you can provide for changing schools? I would love to hear the thoughts of others. Comment below.

Small Town Japan

Funny Habits From Living In Japan

After about a year and a half of living in Japan, things have gotten into a regular routine. I guess a small town – is a small town, regardless of what part of the world you live in. I take my kids to school, I work, I pick them up, dinner, bath and bed. Rinse and repeat. Of course I’m not mentioning the magnificent nature that we experience, my hours spent teaching them English, and other things unique to our location. Living in another culture means making personality adjustments if you want to be successful in that society. Has it changed me? Probably not at my core. But there’s many small, social habits i’ve picked up.

BOWING FROM THE CAR

Ok, this one may be a bit silly, but it’s a simple matter of courtesy. Americans wave – Japanese bow. If someone pulls over to let you pass them on a narrow country road or intersection, it only makes sense to give them courtesy bow to say thanks. Should i mention the flashing of the hazard-lights as a thank you when someone lets you cut in front of them? I guess I just did.

APOLOGIZING BY DEFAULT

This relates both to Japanese language and culture. Japanese apologize about everything. But it’s not always a grand gesture. Often it’s more like… “Hey, sorry if I inconvenienced you” or “Excuse me”. Do I have to do it? No. But i think you can come off as rude when people are so used to hearing it, and suddenly they don’t hear it coming from you.

MORE SELF CONSCIOUS IN PUBLIC

Along with the Japanese habit of keeping harmony, and preventing yourself from bothering others, comes a certain self awareness. When my kids are screaming, and how I react to it has a bit more value here in Japan than the US. If I need to blow my nose, or sneeze, or anything else loud and potentially offensive I tend to be a bit excessively discreet about it. Yes, part of this is that as a foreigner my profile my stand out a bit more than the average Joe.

SEEING MYSELF AS AN EXAMPLE

As one of the few (non-tourist) foreigners in town, you tend to stand out. Someone passing through town may be able to momentarily get away with acting like an ass, but I (as a resident) cannot. Sure, part of me wants to single handedly disprove the negative generalization of the scary, uncultured foreigner. But let’s face it, negative people rarely change their views. Setting myself up as a high-standard is far more for me, than it is for anyone else.

REDUCED PDA

I’ve never been one of those people who makes-out with someone else in public, nor is it something that i really care to observe. Though I would say that small-town Japan takes it to another level of reservedness, and typical PDA between couples seems rather rare, usually just young people and tourists. While I am affectionate on rare occasion and dish out the hand holding, hug, or kiss – I’m just far more aware of it. Nobody needs to see that stuff except my wife and kids anyway.

These are just a few tiny habits, and there are no doubt many more. Having said all that, these are all basically social, or cultural considerations in my opinion. I’ll always hold a certain reverence for the cultural traditions in which I was raised. At the end of the day, when you come home, kick off your shoes, pants… take of your makeup, you’ve gotta look yourself in the mirror. That person you’re stuck with when you are alone, that’s who you are, regardless of what you put out there socially. So hopefully you can respect that reflection. (Check out my post on other Cultural Differences.)

A Rice Field is Harvested 田んぼ

It’s no secret that one of the things I love about the countryside is the abundance of rice fields blowing in the breeze, as the dragonflies circle overhead. ( See my post on how A Rice Field is Born ) But the time comes every year when it’s time to harvest the grains. It’s quite beautiful to see the months of growth come to its natural closure, but tempered by the face that soon the fields will be empty, and that winter is not far behind.

When it comes to the harvest, i was surprised to see that many people still do it the way it’s been done for centuries. First water is drained from the rice paddy. Then it is cut by hand, further drained of water, and hung out to dry.


Rice Dies in the Sun

Once the rice has been cut, it’s tied into bundles. These bundles are stretched out over hand-made wooden platforms to dry and absorb the flavors of the sun.

I do my best to pass these structures by without taking a photo, but as you can see I usually fail. There’s something about the simple honesty, the unchanged tradition, that appeals to my senses.

But certainly not everyone still harvests rice this way. People are busy, and where theres a need there is a service! You can conveniently hire someone to come and cut, dry, de-husk and package your rice for you. It quite surprised me how much rice is gained from a single field.

At this point you will likely be left with a very large stack of backs, packed full of rice.

Whether your preference is brown or white rice… the country side is dotted with these stations where you can polish your rice to the required level of perfection.

 

There’s a vending machine for almost everything in Japan! Insert your coins, and the magic starts to happen.

The Rice Polishing In Action

Now that your pantry is stocked, and you look out over your empty field… it’s a reminder that before long we’ll be seeing the first snows of winter. And with it comes an entirely new kind of beauty.

Made In Japan / China / America

One very obvious cultural different after moving from America to Japan – was noticing where products and goods are manufactured.

In America we’ve gotten used to the fact that nearly everything is made in China. We think of China as the worlds shopping mall for all things cheap, and ultimately disposable. In fact it’s quite a challenge to buy “Made In America” products most of the time. We’ve had this justified to us by politicians that countries that “make things” are generally filthy – and also stuck with the pollution of industrialization, and that this low-class type of economy is part of the past. There is an element of truth to this, certainly.

So, you can imagine my shock, after moving to Japan to find so many things “Made In Japan”. This coming from a country that sits right next to China – not across the globe. Don’t get me wrong, there is still plenty of products here made in China. But during a normal shopping experience in America (for example, a hardware store) you can bet, without a doubt that any cheap plastic goods come from China.

On the contrary, in Japan! Yes, these goods are often slightly more expensive (not everything is), and the quality is generally superior, and of course it is “Made in Japan”. It’s quite an interesting trade off if you ask me, and raises some questions about how a country supports it’s own economy.

I must admit, I’m no economist. So I have mostly questions without answers;

  • Does the nature of capitalism fuel this continual hunger to reach the cheapest possible cost for any item?
  • What is the actual trade off for saving $1 on an item, and is it really worth it? How much benefit to one’s own economy can paying $1 more provide?
  • Would Americans, in a neutral, politics-free environment, prefer the more durable product at higher cost? Or is always buying cheapest the new American ideal?

 

This doesn’t mean that I think that the USA should turn back the clock and start making all of it’s own products.
But, there is a price to pay for cheap goods. Whether it’s child labor, air pollution, or import dependencies on other countries – there is always a cost for the consumer to save that buck. The bigger question is will they consider these costs? Quite simply – No. The average consumer is simply choosing from what’s available, and trying to serve their family. I believe thy have simply been brainwashed to believe that this is the only way – that there is no alternative.

I wish for a moment they could walk into a local Japanese store (which would have shut down in the US due to Amazon), to see the local support and superior products for what amounts to mostly pennies more per product. I think If they could experience it, they would feel a bit conned. I don’t believe American’s in their hearts want to be the “throw away” culture. But we’ve let ourselves become compliant, and lazy, when placed in the environment of making everything cheap and easy. It’s easy to buy “Made in Japan” when living in Japan, and I like that.

What do you think about the trade-off between “cheap” versus quality & self-reliance? Let me know in the comments below.

8 Things That Are Cheaper in Japan

Sushi – Fish (and Really Anything From the Ocean)

This one comes as no surprise. While sushi can be a specialty item in the US, often reserved for an expensive night out, it’s availability has exploded over the years in Japan. For those on a limited budget, $1 sushi restaurants are widely available – while those with a discerning palate can find the best there is to offer.

Haircuts

I have friends that have made quite a name for themselves in the US hair salon industry. I think that haircuts here in Japan are generally seen as a bit more utilitarian. Also taking into account that Japan is a non-tipping society, you can expect a reduced cost from this alone. But what about quality you ask? I’ve had great luck with my notoriously difficult hair, and stylists generally tell me that my soft foreigner hair is actually easier for them.

Dental Health

Healthcare

Japan has a national healthcare system with prices that are set by the government and guarantee relatively equal access. I won’t debate the politics of what may, or may not work in the US – but I can tell you my personal experience. I have received excellent and affordably healthcare in Japan, and never have to worry about whether or not I can afford it. Nobody goes bankrupt in Japan due to medical expenses.

Take for example Jameson seen here for 1695¥, or roughly $15.50, not bad at all!

Many UK and American Whiskies

When shopping here in the Japanese countryside I expected American whisky (like most American items) to be more expensive, as well as my favorite Irish and Scotch whiskeys. I was pleasantly surprised to find that it’s actually cheaper than  in the US. I’m not sure of the reason, but if I had to speculate I would say that these brands just aren’t as known here. With the rise of Japanese whisky fame, local brands are a more popular part of the social consciousness. There may be import tax reasons as well, of course – but whatever cause, no complaints here!

Chicken Breast / White Meat

Coming from supposedly health-conscious California, where chicken breast is prized for its lean dietary benefits I was surprised to find how inexpensive it is in Japan. I guess it makes sense as it is a rather bland cut of meat. Last sale price I saw was 38¥ per 100grams, or roughly $1.60 a pound versus the US which can range $3-6/lb.

Child Care

I good but relatively average-cost preschool in Los Angeles cost me ~$900/mo, before that my kid was in an expensive daycare where they played, but no education. Preschool in Japan is government subsidized for working parents. In the US I had to prepare his lunch daily, while in Japan they receive healthy school lunches. The cost to me is minimal ~$200/mo. Not only that, but I would make the argument that early education in Japan is far superior to the US, safe, healthy and the teacher-to-student ratio is excellent.

All You Can DrinkAll-You-Can-Drink

I’m not sure if this one counts, as I rarely ever even see “all you can drink” in the US unless your’e talking about someone who contracted an “open bar”. It’s probably due to fears about liability or disorderly drunks. But in Japan, it’s rather common to see this featured at various restaurants with a set price and time limit (usually a couple hours).

Spa’s, Wellness Centers, and Public Baths

OnsenJapan is home to 10’s of thousands of hot springs, with a rich cultural tradition of cleanliness and wellness as achieved though mind and body purification. Public baths and onsen are found everywhere and often feature western recognized features such as sauna, massage (extra cost), and more. As one of the most popular activities, there are many destinations keeping the price affordable for all.

Did I miss one? Tell me about your experience in the comments below!