How 1-Year In Japan Changed Me

It’s been a year and a couple months since our relocation to Japan, and it only makes sense to glance back and review how I’ve changed.  Not just the structural changes of everyday life, but also looking into my brain and analyzing what I’m thinking, and feeling as compared to a year ago. This probably leads right into how my anticipation of life in Japan “lives up” to the reality – but that may require it’s own blog post entirely.

Here’s what I think has changed in me after 1-Year:

Communication
I’m not exactly sure what I expected in terms of Japanese language growth. I’ll say that I feel improvement has been a matter of inches rather than miles – however, but simple conversation comes much easier. I’m no longer afraid to engage others, and even seek it out – while knowing there will be much I don’t understand. I guess I would say I feel like I’m at ground-zero, with everything still ahead of me, but enough of a “foundation” that I actually have something to build upon. I would call that progress.


Friendship
With so much of the last year about getting settled and getting our kids into a routine – I never gave much thought about making friends. But i do see now that in the long term, I could feel isolated without others to confide in. Due to recent events I’m meeting more foreigners and with improved language – more locals as well. While i wouldn’t say I have new close buddies, I don’t think it’s impossible if I stay longer.

Courtesy
It’s pretty clear that once among Japanese language and culture, there is a level of courtesy unique to the country. From bowing, and common phrases of appreciation to being quick to apologize – if only for the sake of politeness. After a year, these tiny rituals have become so normal that they almost come without thinking. Honestly I feel that if suddenly back in the US, it would feel quite odd, because I really do feel the urge to tell someone “Otsukaresama” when I see that they have worked hard, and there’s no English equivalent.

Public Persona
Right in line with courtesy, I am more conscious of how I am act in public. I generally don’t raise my voice or make a big deal about small problems – publicly, where as in the US – sometimes it’s necessary. It’s seen as immature here, while in the US – speaking out and being passionate about something be looked upon favorably. I feel adjusted to my surroundings but it may also highlight a weakness, of being unable to negotiate awkward situations. This can only come with improved communication.

Sense of Family
In the last year we’ve faced a challenges as a family and it has brought us closer. But it’s also made me value and miss my own family more, and wish we had easier access to my US family. So on the whole, I think it’s brought a greater perspective on the importance of family.

Grocery Shopping
Finding good deals and making delicious meals is a favorite pasttime of mine. But the foods which are available at different times of the year, their best prices, and meal outcomes are totally different in Japan! It’s been a lot of fun adjusting to the new situation, planting my own garden and learning some new dishes. I’ve also found ways of replacing “most” of the foods I love from back home.

Passage of Time
Time is passing faster here! I generally explain this by the fact that I’m living in a place with true seasons, and seasons that change quickly and dramatically. This leads to anticipating the next season, and preparation, and the feeling of forward movement. Everyone says they are jealous of my past life in California, but I actually feel more motivated to succeed right now as I feel time passing and I know the number of seasons ahead are not infinite.

Driving
Yes, I bow a lot and let other people go first. They do the same for me. I think being in a small town, and one of the few foreigners has me more cautious than normal, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t feel good to have others be equally courteous – especially coming from Los Angeles. (see my page about passing the Japanese driving test)

Sense of Acceptance
Is it there yet? Will it ever be? Hard to say. Probably not. By and large people are sweet and accepting. The kids of the city love me, but that’s most because I’m such an alien oddity here! There will always be those who simply don’t like foreigners and have to be the thorn in the your side, but we can’t let those people ruin our experience. If I think about how rude Los Angeles must feel to a newly arrived foreigner – there is no comparison. I’m rather happy where I am, and I only see improvement with time.

Thanks for stopping by! Give us your thoughts and questions in the comments below.

Feel free to check out my blog post about 6 Striking Personality Differences.

Costco Items That Every Foreigner in Japan Needs

So you’ve moved to Japan from the USA, or maybe you’re just here for an extended period. Chances are there’s a few things your going to miss from home. While big cities offer about anything you might need (for a price), dwellers of the countryside like me might be out of luck, or forced to compromise during those rare moments we’re feeling nostalgic.

Costco Toyama

Fortunately we have that giant American wholesale warehouse we all know and love, Costco, with stored spread throughout central and southern Japan.

Naturally when I have the chance to visit my nearest location (Toyama) there are a few “must have” items which go into my cart regularly.

Real Cheese
One thing I’ve noticed is a lot of processed cheese in Japan. If you do find the good stuff, it’s not cheap! Bricks of real cheddar and jack cheese can be had from Costco. I always buy a couple bricks and put some in the refrigerator and cut the remainder into pieces or grate and freeze. Freezing it whole does ruin the texture a bit (gets crumbly) but still great for cooking and keeps indefinitely, or at least until the next Costco Trip. Costco puts all the expensive cheese together in the busiest part of the store, while hiding their affordable Kirkland Signature cheese in the refrigeration isle.

Oats & Cereal
Cereal is expensive in Japan, and you certainly won’t find any that you loved as a kid. You can buy a huge amount of steel cut oats at a great price for making oatmeal (or porridge as my UK counterparts would say). This is especially great when you have kids and want to occasionally offer a healthy alternative to rice, pasta, or bread. They also carry a few common cereals for us old-kids like Honey Nut Cheerios.

Wheat PastaOrganic / Wheat Pasta
We like to give our kids healthy options whenever possible. While pasta is readily available throughout Japan it’s kind of rare that i see all wheat or grain versions of pasta, which I feel is a better option than…. just flour/water/egg of regular pasta. Costco has it.

Baked Beans
If you’re looking for beans in Japan – I hope you like desert. Sweet red bean filling is the most common place I find beans in Japan, and while it’s not bad (once you acquire the taste) it can seem very strange to what Americans and British folks think of as beans. I personally prefer a spicey ranch style pinquito beans from my home town, baked beans is still a comfortable reminder of home.

Pork Ribs
I love Japanese style BBQ, I of course have my grill out on the back porch ready for the summer. But there’s no argument that it’s a completely different style than the US. Once in a while, I’ve got to get a taste of that old home town style BBQ and in the absence of a Tri-tip, pork ribs are a great next best option. You can get a full rack at Costco at a relatively affordable price, where as at countryside supermarkets you may see a few small ribs in a pack on occasion – if that.

Taco Seasoning
I know what you home master-chef’s will say, “I use my own seasoning for taco’s”. Yes, I get that. But when you live in Japan, Mexican food seasonings are either non-existant or expensive. For quick meals, Costco has a huge container of taco seasoning that will probably last you a year. You can kick it up a notch with your own seasonings to get your taco’s in the right happy place.

Fresh / Frozen Pizza
Costco’s giant “ready to bake” pizzas are nearly identical to those in the US (with the exception of the seafood pizza). In fact, most Japanese kitchens probably lack the size of oven required to cook it! This means most people probably cook it in sections (I’m guessing). One alternative is their 3-pack of frozen pizzas which are also quite tasty, and at about $5/per pizza quite a good deal. Add your own toppings to make it something special.

Bakery and BreadDinner Rolls / French Bread
I’m an American and this pretty much certifies my love for white bread. What’s great (once again) is that bread keeps rather well in the freezer. Costco’s bakery cranks out favorites that are identical to the US version, and make you feel right at home.

Ritz Crackers
I admit this one is something of a personal favorite that I was craving last time. Japanese crackers are great, but something completely different. If you miss the buttery, salty (can’t be good for you) snack that I was craving, they have them. Top them with some cheese or…

Peanut Butter
I’m listing this one because they have it, and Peanut Butter is rarely ever seen by me at the grocery. If I do see it, it’s a tiny container. Here’s my beef with you Costco, you only carry the sweet full-of-sugar PB’s like JIF. How about a nice natural one, 100% peanuts only? I guess my Trader Joes jar will have to last a little longer.

Tequila / Wine / Beer
Tequila! Oh how I’ve missed you. I never see tequila in supermarkets, and only one option when in most liquor markets. Costco has a couple options, and the Kirkland Signature is quite drinkable and very affordable. I got spoilt on wine in California, as many of the wines imported to, or made in Japan taste watered-down to me. Costco’s cheapest (bottled) red wine is usually imported as well, but you can tell that they’ve taken the time to select a decently drinkable one. Imported beers are always pricey – but at least they have some to pick from.

English Books
If you happen to have kids like me, raising them in Japan – English books might need to be ordered online unless you get lucky at a second hand store, or live in a big city. Costco has a ton of children’s books (and adult ones) in English at your expected new book price.

Avocados
I thought Avocado’s were expensive in the US, then I moved to Japan. Wow! Costco carries avocado’s by the bag, still not cheap, but maybe better than many supermarkets and always large in size.

BONUS ITEMS:

The oven roasted chicken at around $6 is a steal, especially considering most people don’t usually buy whole-chickens (or have big enough oven to roast it for that matter). It’s obvious why it’s strategically placed at the back of the store. And you know I can’t go without mentioning the all-beef hotdog from the food counter. It comes with a drink, AND it’s under $2? Shut up and take my money. Don’t tell me how it’s made, just leave me alone and let me eat my dog. Maybe i’ll get one for the road too.

What’s your craving from back home? Whether Costco or not – leave us a comment below and tell us what you’re missing.

Wintertime Entertainment

Depending on where you live in Japan, the seasons can be a bit extreme. Summer often brings heat and humidity and winter brings the beautiful snowfall. One thing you can count on is that there will be plenty to entertain you. Where I’m located, near Takayama City in Gifu prefecture (often referred to as the Japanese Alps), snow is basically guaranteed.

View From My House of The Snowy Landscape

So what can you do?

It seems like every neighborhood has it’s own community center, open to the public with activities and exercise equipment, as well as indoor sports like rock-climbing which help keep the kids busy and active during the winter. For us parents – we get the additional exercise of shoveling snow from our driveways and cleaning off our cars every morning along side our neighbors.

Sledding, snowmen, snowballs, igloos, and more.

But another thing small Japanese towns can brag about is the sense of community created through everyday interactions, and local events and activities – such as a day for kids to come together and play in the snow at the local park.

This event was hosted by a local group associated with the city, including teachers to games and a good time for the kids like tug-of-war and other team building activities. 

In addition to sledding and games, here was entertainment by local performers, with snacks and goodies provided for the kids to take home.

Of course I can’t go without mentioning the HOT miso soup cooked up in a nearby tent and provided to every chilly visitor. 

Is (BLANK) better in Japan or in the US?

I’ve got a small list of items here. Some I miss terribly from the US, while others are SO much better here in Japan. Am I qualified to say which is “better” after only 1 year in Japan? Absolutely not! But based on my completely biased opinion – I’m going to pass some generalized judgement judgement!

Some of these are obvious, while a few  might surprise you! Disagree with me? Have one to add? Let me know in the comments below.

Hamburgers:

This is a tough one for me, as I live in the city with perhaps the best hamburger in Japan. But this list is a general one – not about exceptions, or specialties. I’ve got to admit it – I miss a fresh, inexpensive In & Out burger from time to time. There are great burgers in Japan – but i’ve got to give the nod to the good ol’ USA on this one. But Japan reigns supreme on what they call a Hambagu ( ハンバーグ ) or hamburger-steak which they’ve made into something special of their own.

Various Sweet Peppers

Fresh Vegetables:

Does it matter? Hell yes! In Japan all the vegetables are sourced from local farms – even better, I’m surrounded by farms with their own stands. Sometime’s it’s a bit more expensive than the US depending on what is in season/time of year, but a wise shopper learns the ropes rather quickly. Still a fraction of what those overpriced healthy supermarkets in the US cost.

Bread:

This is a tough one guys – very close. I’m an American, so you know I’m basically required to love me some bread. And being a sandwich lover, the varieties of wheat, rye, sourdough that you find in the US is something I’d gotten used to. But I said this was going to be a generalized judgement. In which case, the Japanese soft white fluffy bread is delightful. And there are tiny amazing bakeries everywhere. Europe is probably the world leader, but in this contest – the slight edge here goes to Japan! They even cut the crusts off sandwiches. Shut up and take my money!

Ethnic Food:

I might be opening up a can of worms here. I really love the Japanese take on Italian and Chinese food (neither of which bear much resemblance to the US variation). But when I’m talking about the availability and enjoyability of Thai, Indian, Mexican, and other ethnic food options – you just can’t beat the biggest melting-pot-of-a-country, the US of A.

Early Childcare / PreSchool:

I know what your saying, that’s not food. I didn’t say this was all about food did I? In Los Angeles I paid between $600-1000 per month for day care and then preschool. In Japan it’s mostly subsidized coming in at around a couple hundred dollars a month, and honestly – amazing. Very high ratio of teachers to students, very interactive and social environment. I have to give a round of applause to Japan here. A major influence on my move.

Freeways

This one is a bit tricky, as the freeways in Japan are most definitely not free (I guess we all pay somehow, in any country). But the freeways are maintained, clean, and pretty much always have plenty of workers to make repairs where needed. But the cost of driving even just a couple hours away can really add up with tolls! It’s a bit of a toss up here – but if we’re including the word “free” then I believe the edge must go to the USA here (horrible LA freeways exempt from this win).

Playgrounds

You know, like the ones at the park that your kids go crazy on. I was surprised to see so many of them here in Japan, built from wood and steel and concrete like it was done in the US – say 30+ years ago. The US is safety focused, lots of plastic and soft landing pads. So far the US has the advantage here – safety is important. But where Japan takes the cake is by letting kids be kids, and not worrying as much about lawsuits – frees them up to make some rather wild playgrounds by comparison. I often find myself playing alongside my kids, reliving some youth.

Takayama BeerBeer

This is a tough one, i’ve only been here a year, and I’m tasting them as fast as a can folks! Japan has a budding microbrewery industry, and theres a site with some great info here. But just the sheer size of the US, and the advantage of being focused on it longer with more affordable brews – gives the US an edge. I may change my mind with time. So check back!

Beef

I’d like to reserve the right to remain silent… but I won’t. This one is too tough. Growing up with Santa Maria style tri-tip as part of my diet, with beef as my national staple – and then moving to Japan and enjoying Hida Beef : possibly the best beef in the world. US beef is more affordable, and you can get a nice steak any day of the week at a reasonable price. Hida beef IS the standard here, although costly, but something that every human should experience. This one is too tough folks. I love them both. Japanese Wagyu is superior, but is it an exception? or just a very high standard? What’s your opinion? Comment below.

Challenges On Your Visit to Japan (And Navigating Them)

Before moving to japan, I had a handful of visits. And while navigating Japan for me was overwhelmingly magical, there was always a few tiny things which made for minor inconveniences which could have been easily avoided – if I knew in advance. So hopefully this Blog post comes in handy for someone with an upcoming trip to Japan, so that they have zero detractions.

Problem 1: Always taking shoe’s on & off
Yes, you do it whenever you enter someone’s home. But that’s not all. Many businesses, and restaurants with tatami mats will also require it (possibly offering you slippers). It can be a new task to deal with, so think about it in advance.
Solution: Slip on/off shoes. Maybe bring an extra pair of Croc’s for convenience.

Problem 2: No paper towels, only hand dryers
This one bugs me more than many of the others. I hate having wet hands! But for the sake of waste and conservation it makes sense.
Solution: Always bring a handkerchief, or small hand towel with you and keep it somewhere on your person. If you have a baby, those wet-naps will come in handy too. Your’e going to want to leave any setting better than when you found it (clean up your mess).

Problem 3: Having pockets full of change
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Your American dollars are not accepted here! So get used to paying in Yen. Oh by the way, any denomination less than 1000Yen (~$10) is a coin. That’s right men, break out that coin purse.
Solution: Force yourself to pay using as much change as possible in every transaction. And i’m serious, bring a coin purse / wallet with pockets.

Problem 4: No Garbage Cans / Recycling
That’s right, almost everything is either burned or recycled in Japan. I currently separate my garbage into 8, yes EIGHT different categories of trash (burnables, paper, cardboard, plastic, bottles, cans, styrofoam, non-burnables). It’s exhausting! So why is it so rare to see public trash cans, and how does everything stay so damn clean? Because you are responsible for your own trash.
Solution: Keep some plastic bags on hand. Convenience store trashcans are for things you buy there only. So be prepared to bring your trash with you, back to your car/hotel or wherever. Have a baby? Bring ziplock bags for those poopy diapers. Yep, nobody want’s them.

Problem 5: You don’t speak Japanese
In Tokyo many people will speak English, or at least some limited English., but beyond that – all bets are off. You are in another world, so you better come at least slightly prepared. Do yourself a favor and don’t perpetuate a bad stereotype for foreigners. If you try to speak some limited Japanese – odds are people will meet you half-way, or at least understand your intention and respect the effort.
Solution: Congratulations, you live in the age of technology which opens up a lot of possibilities. But you should still memorize all the common phrases you’d need on any foreign visit. Cell phone apps like ImiWa (Dictionary) and GoogleTranslate are FREE and helpful. Want to take the next step? Download some lessons at jpod101.com

Problem 6: Squatty Potties (..er traditional Japanese toilets)
Yes, you will occasionally see the old style Japanese toilets. If you’ve never had to use one… well, imagine yourself camping, and the position you’d assume in the woods. End of lesson. It could be a little confusing the first time you see one. (Which way do I face anyway?)
Solution:  Most establishments have Western style toilets, or at least an option. If you don’t see one initially, check the handicapped/baby changing bathroom, as sometimes that washroom is different. Odds are there is simply an alternate business (again, convenience store) that you can walk to where they will have a Western style toilet.
In the event of emergency: Sometimes waiting or going elsewhere is not an option. It’s not a bad idea to at least be able to use the old style commode! Make sure your wallet and other items are safely secured, face towards the flusher, and assume the position. After you’ve had to do it a couple times, it’s rather easy.

Problem 7: You have food allergies / Don’t like certain foods / Afraid of sushi
Don’t fear trying new things! Some things which are impossible to eat in the US, are quite edible in Japan (due to being prepared/raised differently). Having said that, some people have sensitivities.
Solution: Tokyo is an endless assortment of amazing restaurants of all styles. Even in the countryside you can find McDonalds, Denny’s, CoCo’s. etc. (although menu’s vary). If you have an allergy you should be able to convey that in Japanese perfectly. Especially seafood allergies, as most “stock” sauces/soups are fish based in Japan. Maybe pack some emergency snacks in your suitcase that will satisfy you. And the convenience store is your friend, and almost always has sandwiches and other very simple fresh foods.

Two (special) melons for $50 – serious fruit!

Problem 8: Expensive Food
I’ve seen prices on food that I never thought imaginable. An $30 melon? yep. You name it. But these are specialty cases. And with restaurants, you could pay any price. But you don’t have to pay a lot for a good meal.
Solution: It’s all about familiarity. For $5 i can fill up at a local Udon restaurant. Put down the travel guide, and talk to a local to find where to go. Supermarkets are loaded with freshly made inexpensive food (with sushi half-off after 6:30 – wow!).

Problem 9: You are arriving in the summer – or the winter
Japan is (stereotypically) humid in the summer, and can get quite cold in the winter depending on location. Ideal times to visit are during the spring or the fall.
Solution: Be prepared to sweat in the summer! Japanese are used to it, and have a great number of helpful things such as face / deodorant wipes to keep you feeling fresh and clean. For the winter I’d suggest layering of course, but stop by Uniqulo and get yourself a lightweight down jacket – it’s amazing how warm they keep you.

Learn more about some cultural differences I’ve noticed in my recent blog post – 6 Striking Cultural Personality Diferences

8 Things To Love About the Japanese Countryside 田舎

Truthfully this list could be any size. Why not 20 things? Or 100 things? Well, these things don’t always hit my brain at once folks!
So let’ appreciate them in small bites. Also I could go very broad and just say “nature” or something, but I don’t think that’s very interesting.
Instead I’ll list some tiny observations along the lines of, “things that make me smile on the inside” as they happen in my day.

    1. Baiten Stands 売店
      Within, say, a 6 block radius of my home I have a nice handful of these little sheds, typically stocked with vegetables grown in the field right next to it. Nobody is working at these little stores because they are self-serve on the honor system. Basically everyone grows vegetables, so why not sell your extras? These are all priced lower than the supermarket, usually around $1 US for most vegetables. Super-fresh and locally grown, Japan wins the battle of vegetable superiority.
    2. Changing of the Leaves, or Kouyou 紅葉
      It’s fall here in Japan right now and the colors are nothing less than stunning. Red, orange, yellow, green – and vibrant. It doesn’t ever get old. Coming from California (basically a seasonless land) it’s a beautiful thing to see, and also a powerful marker – a reminder that time is passing.
    3. Kids can run, breathe, and be free
      This gets to the core of why we moved here. Yes the early childhood education here is better and far cheaper. But even more than that…  I love that there are numerous huge parks around the city, and outside the city are fields, mountains, hikes, rivers, and everything a kid could hope for. Want to play in the dirt? Go for it. And the playgrounds here can get rather impressive.
    4. Home-Style Cooking 鍋物
      It always comes back to food for me somehow. I can’t help it. It’s a big part of all our lives. And yes, while i love sushi, and ramen… these are things that can be found in the US. What you see much less often in the US (because the average person is unaware of it) are the many home-style foods that most Japanese enjoy. When it comes to this, it varies a lot depending on region. But for example, where I am… Nabe (hot pots, soups, stews) is very popular. Especially as it’s getting chilly now.
    5. Rice 米
      Is all rice the same? Of course not. And like anything, the more of you eat the more difference you can taste. I’m certainly no expert, but I’ve had my fill of bland, mushy rice in the US. In the countryside everyone has a rice field 田んぼ, and we’re fortunate enough to receive some big bags of rice from family members. It’s delicious and healthy, and helps round out almost every meal. This year was the first year I was able to witness, and semi-document the process of a rice field coming to life, and eventually being harvested.
    6. Biking in Relative Safety
      I love walking and biking, because it gives you the opportunity to witness all the tiny details in your surroundings as compared to being in a car. Now… I would not bike in Los Angeles, because LA drivers certainly do not care about your safety – and even the ones who are good drivers are probably on their cell phone. Scary. Stereotyping? Yes. Here’s another one for you. Drivers in the Japanese countryside typically take great care to watch out for pedestrians and bicyclists.
    7. Local Festivals
      The city has very famous matsuri / festivals in the spring and summer which the tourists flock to. They are quite a spectacle. But the countryside is filled with many local food festivals, and farmers markets, and local events which are generally attended by the locals. I’ve been to more than one where I was the only non-Japanese person in sight. Nothing against tourists, but it’s nice to attend something which feels genuine and unique the neighborhood.
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  1. Onsen
    Ahh my favorite, the hot spring baths. I will try not to mention them in every blog post. But while many cities offer them (water piped in from natural spring) the countryside often offers a wide variety of Onsen which are right on top of the source. Literally, there are entire villages nearby which appear to just be a bunch of different Onsen locations/resorts/hotels. At times it looks like some have closed their doors, and I worry that visiting Onsen is not as popular as it once was. I only know I hope to visit hot springs across this country far and wide! (more about Onsen here!)

 

I could go on-and-on. And I will! Look out for upcoming blog posts about things to love about living in the Japanese countryside. Until then, check out my post about amazing Hida Beef – possibly the best beef in the world.

Do you live in the Japanese countryside, or want to? Comment and let me know something you love.

Hopping Trains

6 Striking Cultural Personality Differences

We’re all human, and share a lot in common. But now that I live in Japan, I can witness in person how culture works to mold our  personalities from childhood. If you transplant a person from one culture, and place them into another – unprepared, it could result in a fish-out-of-water experience. This is especially interesting to me as my kids were born in the US but now developing here.

While I see very subtle differences in Japanese and American culture on a daily basis, here are a few that jumped out at me early on:

1. Projection of Strength

In the US I’ve often felt as if to get things done, you must prepare to go to battle. Need a utility bill corrected? Start out nice – but be ready to ramp up the intensity. Need to convince a boss of something? Things might get a little heated. The appearance of strength is often interpreted as being passionate about something in the US. Not so much in Japan. Superior effort and service is the norm while maintaining order, balance and harmony in society as well as with your own emotions is expected. In short, being determined, persistent yet respectful, and showing great effort are how you will succeed.

2. Eye Contact

How shall I put this – it’s just different. In America eye-contact happens always, and is expected to show respect. In Japan having direct eye contact with a superior could even be seen as disrespectful. While I enjoy quite a bit of leeway here as a foreigner, I do feel a subtle difference. People are happy to engage me and connect – often after I extend a friendly greeting. If someone walks by me they might not make eye contact, possibly thinking I’m a tourist, don’t speak the language or most likely just nervous about an awkward encounter. But once I engage people, I’m often lavished with friendly conversation, attention and yes, eye contact.

3. Driving Habits

I would say that in the US, there is a the bad stereotype of the asian driver. I have found that in Japan that people are generally excellent drivers, who are extremely polite and courteous of other drivers. This probably has something to do with the fact that they must spend $2000-3000 on driving school to become certified experts, and a huge investment of time to receive a license. The upside for them, is that generally traffic cops often tend to just leave people alone, at least in the countryside. Possibly being a great driver depends on everyone following the rules too, rather than the general chaos of the US. Rather than a friendly wave – you’ll see people waiting for each other, and bowing as a respectful thank you.

4. Straightforwardness

This extends into a number of areas, from the language itself to confrontations with others. Approaching something very directly can commonly be seen as rude, and the result is that in the language, you often hear people dancing around a topic, and decisions and issues often taking a surprisingly long time to get worked out. I’ve often thought – can’t we just ask directly? As with most things, there is a Japanese way to approach things, and often every angle must be considered.

5. A Process for Everything

There’s been a few times since moving to Japanese that I’ve thought, “without help, I could not have got this done”. Getting a cell phone, setting up a bank account, applying for a drivers license – things such as this, seem to take a ridiculous amount of time and old fashioned written paperwork. Japan is advanced in many ways, but there is a specific process for everything, usually involving a lot of paperwork. Make a mistake – you will likely be starting over. While I believe the attention to detail results in fewer errors and a clear result, the process itself can often feel far less efficient or overly complex. Cutting through the red-tape seems like a uniquely American ideal.

6. Looking Out for #1

There is a certain level of independence that Americans have, which wasn’t exactly clear to me until I moved to Japan. Not the kind of independence you might imagine (like, Yay – America – Freedom, Independence). I mean acting independently, the actions we take serving ourselves, but sometimes being only self-serving. The great positive side of this is our willingness to take risk and act alone, and make a big or even risky decision! Americans roll the dice once in a while, and I love this about our culture. Japanese tend to look towards the collective success and happiness of the group, whether it’s their company, their family or even group of friends. This cultural difference holds plenty of room for misunderstanding, simply because our approach to things can be so different.
That’s it for now. I know there are an endless supply of differences which make living in a different culture fun, interesting, at times frustrating – but mostly thought provoking and exciting.

Have you experienced an obvious cultural difference? Please comment and share!
Check out my post on Navigating Challenges on Your Trip to Japan

From Crows to Coke Bottles

The first couple trips to Japan, almost everything stood out as different.
Even the things that were nearly the same still bore some tiny, interesting differences. Now 5 trips later, and a month into living in the Gifu countryside – the initial shock has wore off, and the much smaller things which were overshadowed before, stand out a bit more. Not forgetting of course that even a move from a big city to the countryside itself brings many differences, even within the same country. Every once in a while I’d like to note some of the differences experienced in my new daily life. Today I have a small list.

I could write many blogs on how the sounds alone are so different…

Opening a Coke bottle:

A strange looking Coke
A strange looking Coke

It’s more of a sudden pop, a tiny explosion. Rather than the American gradual carbonated burst. Probably due to the different formula. Main ingredient looks like sugar rather than corn syrup.

The sounds at night:

I guess this one should be obvious but even the crows make a different caw than the ones in California. Different animals, temperatures, and spirits. Makes things a bit surreal in the dark.

The cost of goods:

When I would tell everyone I was moving Japan the question I often got was, “Isn’t it expensive there?”. And it’s a bit tough to answer, when comparing the countryside of Japan to the middle of LA. Rent is a fraction of the price here, as you would expect with such a city/countryside comparison.  Gas is more expensive, although I’ll be driving far less now. Groceries are more expensive in general and the quantity is noticeably smaller. But quality is definitely higher, locally grown and sourced.

Sushi grade fish on the other hand (for sushi lovers like me) is definitely less expensive! In short – it really just depends on what you are talking about.

IMG_0269Convenience Stores:

On that same topic. Convenience stores have a dedicated wall of inexpensive food, with lots of healthy options made fresh that morning. And when it’s gone – the shelves are empty. In the US, shelves never go empty and eating from a 7-11 is rather gross considered an absolute last resort.

Relative safety:
Part of it is probably being in the countryside, but I see it in the cities too. Bikes are rarely locked up and more than likely people leave cars and houses often unlocked. It feels odd to see a long row of bikes completely unsecured, and people leaving valuables out in the open. Understandably, it’s because the crime rate is extremely low.

Talking toilets:

Talking everything really. If it’s an appliance made recently chances are it talks to you.

Coffee Vending Machine

Money:

In Japan it seems like in large part, everyday life in Japan mostly deals in cash and every store has their own point card. I’m thinking Americans like seeing the immediate discount while Japanese more prefer to spend points. Also, the American equivalent of a dollar and five dollars, anything less than ~$10 is a coin. Having this many coins is one of many small challenges. I guess I need myself a new wallet with built-in coin purse.

Atmosphere:

I guess this more relates to being in the countryside but the sound of running water is everywhere. And being nearly spring time everyone is turning over the earth preparing their fields for planting and you get the smell of fresh soil. It is very peaceful.

The Egret Has Landed

We’ve landed in Japan and after a few weeks, so much has happened since that 11 hour flight that I hardly know where to start. I could write a blog on 20 different topics;

First and foremost in my thoughts are my kids, and how I’m explaining this whole adventure to them. My sweet 1 year old girl, is mostly just loving all the new attention and excitement as she is still a baby. But I do find a greater importance in speaking to her in English consistently and repeatedly, so that she gets enough exposure to the sounds and syllables of English speech to develop appropriately. The fact that she’s just started walking here is a reminder of everything “new” that she can get her hands on. And there is so much that is new! She’s also sleeping more, which i mostly attribute to all the new stimulation and winter weather.

My toddler is a bigger challenge in my mind;
At age 3 he is basically a mostly-functional person, complete with independent thoughts, emotions and lines of questioning and reasoning. I’ve explained a lot to him in very simple terms for his understanding, which he recites back to me with extraordinary accuracy. But while I think he understands that much has changed, I’m not sure he understands the permanence. To him, it’s still as if his old preschool and friends could reappear at any moment, which sadly they will not. But there is much for him to be excited about.

Our long daily walks outside bring out a vast amount of English communication between us on a variety of subjects, which of course delights me. It’s almost as if he knows he needs to practice with his one source of English as he talks nonstop. Food is something of a challenge, as I have never seen a voracious of an eater, pound for pound, as my 3 year old. At least I can say that it is generally quite healthy food. 

The support of grandparents and other friends and family here have helped smooth the transition. The broad countryside, snow to play with, and new places to go and experience. Yet I am also watchful, for any sense of loss he may experience – yet not have the words to express.

He has started an entirely new preschool based in a different language. I have faith in his intelligence and adaptability, but still – it’s a lot of change at once for a little guy. The number of items required to start a public preschool is rather surprising when compared with the US! From hats, to indoor shoes, a kids futon bed, umbrella, handkerchief, tissue paper holder, bags for school items, etc. I can only assume there will be lessons associated with each and a high degree of organization involved because I’ve never seen anything like it. But the teachers are sweet and wonderful, and he is loving and embracing it completely – which puts me at ease. I’m hoping that with my toddler starting “full time” tomorrow i’ll start having more hours for Japanese studies. I’d hope to remain illiterate for as short as possible.

Our room, currently with family, is mostly settled and organized at this point. The first couple weeks was just about figuring out up from down, getting a bank account, getting a cell phone (neither of which was an especially smooth process) and getting bills settled.

Generally we are enjoying the clean air, a quieter more natural environment, good food and drink, and more time with each other and other family. 

The Daruma Awakens 達磨起きた

It was a little over a year ago, my last visit to Japan. In the fall, with a spectrum of leaves. This was the visit in which to decision to move would manifest itself, starting from a cute notion, to a plausible idea, to an actual full-fledged plan.

img_1847ed

I had been conducting my usual shopping trips for souvenirs. These usually consist of hitting the local Santa themed thrift stores, the Daiso dollar store, and various other small stores for trinkets and small gifts. On one such occasion, a cute little Daruma figure caught my eye. He was nothing of significance really. I had found and purchased much more interesting Daruma figures before.

But this Daruma was a little solar-powered toy, the kind you might place in a  window. There was probably 50 of them in the display, all rocking back-and-forth, side-to-side like cute, red little pendulums, powered by the light.

santaIf I was going to pony up the 150円 (about $1.35) for the little guy, I wanted to make sure he was working well and would work at home. I picked up several, examining each individually. A face with a little frown and furrowed eyebrows staring back at me – setting them down one after the other. They all seemed to function, so I’m not sure what I was really looking for. Maybe the one rocking the hardest? Or most accurately? Quite likely they were all identical, but I tend to be a very slow and meticulous shopper.

I settled upon one, and he was purchased and quickly found his way into my suitcase and pile of other souvenir give-away’s.

And there he sat for weeks.  After some some months, he returned to my memory, and thought I’d bring him to work. I placed him in my window. I being thoughtful to place him in the path of a sunbeam, for maximum exposure. I checked on him through the day, but he would not budge.
He only sat. Staring blankly. Possibly meditating.

drama

Thinking that maybe he just needed some time to charge, i left him alone – and after some days forgot about him. An occasional glance would confirm his stubbornness.
I would move desks at some point, and he would be inherited by another co-worker. He became lined-up with a number of other colorful desk figures, including Star Wars, superhero’s, etc.

Many months would pass without so much as a jiggle – nearly a year.

But somehow, once again the little red orb would find his way back to my desk, as our office became reshuffled. It was somewhere around this time (a few months ago) that we began to sell off our possessions, and truly take action toward our move to Japan.

And it was around this time I noticed something.

I thought it was just my eyes at first. The vibration of  the room or imagination, but i would catch an ever so slight movement. Not easy to verify at first. Not until I clearly noted a full rocking back-and-forth ever so subtly one afternoon.
daruma2
It also happened that on this day I would sell a majority of my music equipment. And the next day he was still,  once again.

A week or so later, I would catch him in the act again, rocking a bit – on the same day in which we would sell our furniture. Again, the next day, perfectly still.

He has kept up this pace, with ever increasing frequency. I’ve begun to check him, almost like a clock now.

Will we sell something today? Will we receive news? Will today be lucky?

As the days tick-off, and our departure grows near – his rocking has become quite frequent! Likewise, our possessions are quickly heading out the door, and our commitments to leaving intensify. Our 30-day notice’s at work, and to our landlord have been submitted. Goodbyes and tears are being exchanged.

At this rate, I expect him to be fully and completely rocking-out by the time we depart for Japan. Is there some significance to his awaking and his apparent excitement about our big move? I cannot tell you.

But I’ve learned that sometimes it’s better not to question the universe, and to just move in the same direction that it takes you.