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.)

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!

5 Japanese Habits Your Family Can Start Today! (Featured Guest Blog)

Just because you haven’t visited or moved to Japan yet doesn’t mean you can’t start incorporating some of the healthy habits observed by many in Japan!

Today we bring you a new article;

5 Japanese Habits Your Family Can Start Today!

…prominently featured over at the Grey, Grizzled and Gaijin blog as part of their “Lifting People Up in 2018” Feature.

grey_grizzled

We’d like to thank Craig at GGG for working diligently to helping those of us working to bring you the hidden gems of Japanese culture, adventure and lifestyle. Learn more about the Grey, Grizzled and Gaijin blog here.

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. 

Pass Your Japanese Driver’s Test in One Attempt

Need to drive in Japan more than the 1 year given to you by your International driving permit? Your going to need a Japanese drivers license.

You could face a fine of up to 300,000 Yen or up to 1 year imprisonment for driving on an expired permit.

This could take several months – so you better get head start my friend because the clock is ticking. Does 3, or 5, or 10 attempts sound crazy? Because the Japanese practical test often presents a challenge to foreigners.

As an American – it’s more work than simply swapping out a US license for a Japanese one, unfortunately. On the positive side, neither do you have to go through the process that locals go through which includes months of driving school, and likely thousands of dollars in training and fee’s. Yes – they take driver’s licenses very seriously in Japan!

The steps you will need to take will look something like this:

  • Setting your initial DMV paperwork appointment
  • Gathering the necessary information and documentation
  • Providing this information to the DMV, and likely a short interview in Japanese
  • At least one drivers training session with an instructor
  • Memorizing the route/map for your practical test
  • Taking a simple written test (true or false)
  • Taking a practical driving test on a track at the DMV
  • Filling out forms and paying fee’s

This doesn’t look very appealing. But it’s not as bad as it seems and it can actually be quite simple provided you do a few things the right way.

You will not pass the practical test without at least one driving school session.

I know what your’e going to say. Probably the same thing I said. “That’s crazy! I’ve been driving in the US for 25 years!”, well yes, but there are many little things specific to the test in Japan that a foreigner would never think of. Examples?

  • Examining the car before you enter it
  • How smoothly you are turning the wheel
  • Listening for trains at railroad crossings
  • Having your blinker on almost entirely through the course

There’s many more, and every instructor/prefecture is looking for different things. So what is a person to do? Most likely there is a nearby driving school (in my case, less than a mile away) which has the very SAME course as the actual test! This is a huge benefit to you. Most people recommend at least 2 hours of training, but i did it with a single 30 minute session.

I’m going to tell you how – plus everything else that I learned. But since this blog post got really long – I’ve created an entire page dedicated to the subject!

That way the rest of you don’t have to sit through all the boring details. Just know that if you plan to get a Japanese drivers license – it will take sincere effort, patience and preparation.

To view this post in its entirety, visit the dedicated page – How To Pass The Japanese Drivers Test in One Attempt.
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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