Friday, 22 July 2011

Things I will (and won't) miss about Japan!

OK, take a deep breath, Gwynnie.... it's time to write that list. And, unlike the "Things I'll miss" post about the U.K. that I wrote before coming to Japan, this time it will actually be easy for me to list three things. Well, more than three... many, many more. Writing this list is admitting to myself that I'm leaving in only three days. My stomach is in knots, there's a lump in my throat that comes back every time I acknowledge this fact. On Facebook, newbies are getting excited about their new journey to Japan, stressing out but mostly anticipating their new adventure... and as they come, I leave, with a melancholy sigh, before turning my eyes to the gorgeous city of architecture, culture and cheap beer that awaits me.

Inspired by the rather marvellous blog 1000 Things About Japan, I have decided to weave in things I WON'T miss about Japan... perhaps in an attempt to ease my sadness, perhaps in an attempt to give a balanced view, perhaps just because I feel like it. Then again, sometimes it's the things that annoy us that we end up missing, in our own perverted, masochistic little ways. I do suspect that a part of me will long to hear shrill calls of "irasshaimaseeeeee" when I enter shops or restaurants. So, here goes....

I will miss.... Everyone I've met here. (Well, nearly!)

This one is first and foremost, the most obvious. Wherever we go in the world, we meet people who shape and influence our lives, perhaps in ways that we never consciously realise. The beauty of living in Hamamatsu is its large foreign population - there's a strong community of English speakers, whether English teachers or otherwise, and while not everyone knows each other, you can be pretty certain that everybody is linked through each other somehow... something that creates a nice feeling of interwoven lives, shared experiences and feelings, of a close-knit community that isn't too deep in its own pockets.

Perhaps fresh-faced graduates who love to party, perhaps calmer souls who've lived here for years, built families and careers and only surface occasionally but make wonderful company, perhaps Japanese people from all walks of life who have learned English and are keen to practice it. To all those people; I've greatly enjoyed taking tequila shots and playing Ring of Fire with you. Sitting around and discussing existentialism with you. Travelling to remote islands, cities, rivers and temples with you. It's been great hearing about your culture. I've loved sharing your experiences, your nights out, your drunken thoughts, your problems.

I think that travel attracts a multitude of people for various reasons, but it seems those communities are mostly made up of people that I can relate to. We're often those who never fit in back home, who loved to lose ourselves in books and games, who later turned our eyes towards the world and longed to travel. But more than that; we're the ones who were brave (or crazy) enough to actually do it, and so most people that you meet - be it living abroad, couchsurfing or at hostels - are the kind of people who will be up for joining your spontaneous adventures. There are people with great stories, whose experiences in various cultures have given them some fascinating insights. I've learned about so many cultures, not just Japanese but American, Canadian, Australian, Brazilian, Peruvian, French, Greek, Jamaican, Korean. I've learned about my own culture so much more by comparing it to others and seeing it through non-British eyes.

Some of the people I met here have already left or are leaving, and others may have flown elsewhere by the time I pop back to visit, and that's the sad yet beautiful thing about the traveller - you are a feather floating on the breeze, passing by sights occasionally so beautiful that you want to stop, but you keep on floating. Hmm, or perhaps a spore, waiting for the right time and place to stop and plant your seeds. Sorry, I ruined the nice, ethereal atmosphere that I was trying to conjure. Let's move on...

I won't miss... The occasional other "type" of traveller...

I'm not referring to anyone in particular, and certainly not to anyone who I know well, but as well as the explorers, the nomads, the brave adventurers... there are the kind of travellers that bug me. The ones who travel the world on their parents' pursestrings, watching the world through the viewfinder of their expensive camera, avoiding any actual interaction with the locals. The people who make zero effort to learn Japanese, and then sit around complaining about the culture that they have never actually experienced.

Or the ones who think anime is real... 
Then there's the guy we all know (at least one of)... the one with "My Japan" syndrome. They've read a couple of books about the Edo period, they can speak decent Japanese (well, maybe) and their "exotic" foreignness has landed them a pretty Japanese girl, while it did nothing for them back home. These people are all well and good, and kudos to them for being happy.  However, the ones that wind me up are the ones who think that they are some kind of authority on Japan. They'll correct your Japanese (usually incorrectly), won't let any other foreigner in the group speak it ("I'LL order!"), and will be strangely possessive of Japan, as if it's their paradise - and all other foreigners are a threat. If you make a single criticism about Japan, they will become super defensive, suddenly treating you as a poison heathen. I can kind of understand it... you've come to a new land, you pride yourself on making friends and picking up the language, it's all exotic and exciting, and then a bunch of annoying people from back home (the very kind you moved to escape) follow you, threatening to burst your bubble and steal your new friends. I understand it; I just won't miss it.

I will miss.... Melon Soda

Oh, melon soda. That radioactive-looking substance, that colour your mother would never have let you drink, that taste that is nothing like melon but still somehow amazing, refreshing and addictive. I will miss you... you in my aluminium Fanta bottles at the combini, you in your unlimited form at family restaurant all-you-can-drink bars, you with ice cream when you call yourself "cream soda"... I hope that you can sneak your way into Prague, so that you can continue to feed me your sweet, sweet poison.

I won't miss.... FISH FACES!

Perhaps I'm just a sissy who should go vegetarian, because I just don't like being reminded that I'm eating something that was alive and swimming/walking around a few days earlier. That, and fish are generally just a little creepy and slimy. So, when I'm served an ENTIRE fish, its accusing eyes watching me pop it into my mouth, my stomach turns. Sometimes this happens with a massive fish, in which case skipping the eyes can be done.. but those tiny, tiny fish... well, that's a whole lot of eyeballs to devour in one sitting.

I will miss....


24 hour shops with food, drinks, meals, stationary, emergency fresh socks and underwear, make-up, household products, a copy machine, and well.. pretty much everything! You can pay all your bills there, too. Great for quick snacks or emergency fridge-filling, or if you're out at 2am and need some new shampoo. They're pretty much everywhere, too, so they really are convenient.

I won't miss....

Katakana English

The worst offenders are キャンペーン (kyampe-n, aka "campaign"... WHY is it "kya" and not "ka", for one?), used for any kind of special offer. The main reason that it winds me up is that it's used everywhere. Or romance-related words like プロポズ (puropozu - propose), ロマンス (romansu - romance) or セクス(sekusu - sex)... I don't know, I just find it interesting that there apparently weren't words for these things in Japanese before? Oh, and then there are the awful distorions from the original word, like バルブ (barubu... which means "valve") due to the limited characters available in the alphabet.

I think the reason that it grates on me the most is that it encourages bad pronounciation in my students... all "L" sounds become "R", all "V" sounds are "B", many u-vowels become a-vowels, "TH" becomes "z" or "s" and almost every sound has a vowel sound after it. The Japanese alphabet does not work on letters, but on sounds, so "ra" "re" "ri" "ro" and "ru" all have their own characters. When students learn an English word, they often write it in katakana to help them pronounce it. This leads to words like the aforementioned "barubu", and also to sentences like ザトイズマキャット、ヒーライクスゼリ - which would read as "zato izu mai kyatto, hi raikusu zeri" - can you figure it out? That is my cat, he likes jelly! I can understand my students' "katakana speak" now, but put them in the middle of an English-speaking country like that and I doubt that many people could understand them. I'd say the same for using romaji to learn Japanese, though - it will impede your progress and destroy your pronounciation, as well as slowing down your reading ability. ヅーユーアンダスタンド?

I will miss...

My students!

Some of them - like all children - can be right pains in the arse (well, especially if you fall victim to "kancho"). But look at these letters that they gave me. They're so sweet!

Generally, my students are funny, intelligent and sweet kids, and I will miss them a great deal - especially when once again faced with those smoking, drinking eight-year-olds back in Wales ;) !

I won't miss... Ridiculously overpriced fruit!

Yep, that's around £15 for a melon. Admittedly, not all fruit is this expensive - melons are often given as gifts, and the prices fluctuate throughout the year.

Still... oh, I miss smoothies, fruit salads, and all those things I never actually consumed when fruit was cheap. But this, ladies and gentlemen, was because I hadn't yet discovered my passionate love of mango, strawberries, blueberries, and (is it a fruit? I think so) avocado.

I will miss.... Purikura!

Shove a bunch of people into a photo booth, pop in some money and strike a bunch of frantic, crazy poses in the two-minute timeframe it gives you!

Then, spend ages drawing crazy things on your friends' faces, writing messages and putting cute characters everywhere. I have tons and tons of these little print-out stickers. Now, I do remember similar things in the UK, but you couldn't cover the stickers in quite as many things and it wasn't the same. Regular arcades are loaded with these machines, and they're very popular with young girls and crazy gaijin. Sometimes it automatically "changes" your eyes to make them look massive and made-up, too, which looks especially weird on a non-Japanese face!

I won't miss..... Evil bugs of death!!

Nobody warned me that insects in Japan are HUGE. The wasps can slaughter smaller bees, the cockroaches are longer than some children's hands and the spiders, well.. you can see for yourself. Sorry, arachnophobes.

Imagine the joy of finding one of these little blighters in your home - and, trying to attack it, it runs TOWARDS YOU. The trauma will stick with me for a long time! Ah, I also won't miss being eaten alive by mosquitoes... they don't tend to surface so much in the European climate.

I will miss.... Weird stuff that makes no sense!

Toys with no clear purpose, horrifying characters and weird Engrish. Oh, and "cute" crap everywhere, of course. Case in point:

This is a money box. ARGH!

Yes, please do.

Always good to run into a cat.

Don't forget the smiling piece of poo, telling you to flush properly!

I won't miss.... Robotic verbal diarrhea!

What I mean by this is the amount of words that shop clerks, bus drivers or waitresses waste with pointless comments that essentially mean "I receive 10,000 yen, thank you, now I give you your change, four thousand, three hundred and five yen", long descriptions of which sauces are on your tables and, my personal favourite, the bus driver narrating the entire journey - "I'm about to turn right now.... OK, turning right now". The latter is made better by the fact that bus drivers here are given microphones that play the driver's voice over the entire bus. WHY?

The reason that it's "robotic" is that they say the exact same thing to every customer, every time. This extends to the concept of "aisatsu" - greetings. While it's nice to start and end things with a sense of official ceremony, "greetings" are even listed as part of the agenda on meetings or ceremonies. This extends beyond a little "ohayo gozaimasu" and turns into the set of "stock phrases" that everyone uses without thinking here - things like "tadaima" (I guess it's like saying "Honey, I'm home!"), or "o saki ni shitsureishimasu" - ("Excuse me for leaving before you") and "otsukara sama deshita" (when someone is leaving work - means something like "you must be tired", although doesn't translate well). While I'm not saying that this doesn't happen with English, it certainly happens a lot more here, and there's only so long I can sit on a bus or in a cafe before getting wound up by hearing the exact same things being said over and over again... imagine if a British bus driver said "thank you very much" to every single passenger getting off the bus (around 30 of them in a row). Imagine if a British bus driver said "thank you" at all! And let's not forget the nasal whine of "irasshaimaseeeee" said by shop girls to every customer who enters, or glances at, the shop - and several times once the customer is inside.

Ah, here's another one - "atsui, ne?" - meaning "hot, isn't it?". During summertime, this becomes the same as saying hello. I wasn't sure until I vent to a vending machine that greeted me with "konnichiwa - atsui desu ne?". Then there's the repetitive voiceover that plays when you ride an escalator, repeatedly reminding you to keep your feet inside the yellow lines, but the whole "voice messages babying the public" is another kettle of fish.  On the other side of the coin, I will miss the politeness, although I don't want to devote an entire section to that! No longer will ten waiters line up to thank me as I leave a restaurant.... *sigh*.

I will miss..... Weird flavours!

In Japan, you can find KitKats of just about any flavour. My friend even has a blog about it. How dull it will be to lose cherry, cola, green tea, cherry blossom and mango KitKats and go back to plain old, boring chocolate!

It isn't just KitKats, though... they do enjoy mixing up flavours, here. I'll miss my Starbucks Green Tea latte, mango beer, sweet potato flavoured waffles, mocha crisps, and unagi pie ice cream.

I won't miss.... School lunch!

Some of you might follow my boyfriend Jeff's "kyushoku" diaries on Facebook, where he likes to upload pictures of his school lunch almost every day. While he seems to enjoy a lot of it (apart from the cucumbers), I have never been a fan. OK, sometimes we are treated to tasty, creamy soups or thick, white bread with jam, some nice fruit or a decent salad, but for the most part it just isn't good. Most dishes have nasty seaweed, tiny fish with eyes or some other unpleasant surprise lurking in there, somewhere.

On top of that it's just far too much food - some of my students look like they're in pain after half of it, and yet they have to eat the entire thing. The massive trough of rice we're given with everything else often left me feeling sick. That's another thing - everyone gets the exact same thing, and you have to eat it all. I'll be glad not to have to do that anymore - especially when perched precariously on the end of a student's desk, spilling food down my shirt and trying to get them to talk to me!

Ohh, sometimes it comes with natto, too, which is a definite thing-I-won't-miss! Sorry, school lunch, it's nothing personal - I've never liked school lunches in general!

I will miss... so much good food!

Also, adverts like this.
Sushi and sashimi are wonderful here. Salmon sashimi melts in your mouth. It makes the sushi I had in the U.K. seem awful in comparison, although admittedly I mostly ate cheap packaged stuff instead of going to Japanese restaurants.

Still, there's a lot of Japanese food I've come to love.... katsudon, okonomiyaki, tempura, gyoza, general izakaya food... as well as a lot of resaurants that I love here. Goodbye, CoCo Ichiban, with your beautiful curry!

I'm sure that I will be able to get Japanese food elsehwere, but it's not always the same thing!

I won't miss... "Gaijin da!"

It says "HARO- Gaijin-san!" ... Hello, Mr/Ms Foreigner!
Although in Welsh this sentence would mean "can I have a good gin?", here it means "it's a foreigner!!". It's mostly said by small children who have not yet learnt to quietly stare at foreigners, and not so much in Hamamatsu because of the large expat community. Still, the general feeling of being an outsider here eventually gets annoying.

The attitudes towards foreigners in Japan range from wonder to slight ignorance to pure, outright racism. By that I mean that some Japanese people are very interested in learning a foreign language, visiting other countries and learning about culture, and that's great. Some people just mean to be polite, but they end up annoying us by always saying the same, patronising things - "Oh, you use chopsticks so well!", "Do you have in your country?" and "Oh, your Japanese is good!" after you say one word of it. Then, of course, there's the anti-foreigner national party who drive around in big, scary black vans blaring what sounds like Viking opera and telling the dirty foreigners to go home.

It will be nice to blend in for a while, and not stick out like a sore thumb (my "look" is about as non-Asian as you can get... big, blonde, blue eyes). Again, if I had been placed anywhere with less foreigners than Hamamatsu, I'm sure my experience would have been very different. Oh, and then I found the above picture  and article on Lokatas website...

I will miss.... Oh, everything else!

Just feeling safe on the train, at the station, on the street, walking home at night. I feel as if it's an extension of my house. Usually when I travel, I'm constantly watching my surroundings, clutching my bag, expecting the worst. Of course, Japan can make people too trusting - I still know people who have had things stolen or been stalked/attacked here.

Sometimes I just like being surrounded by Japanese people. It's strangely relaxing. I can't explain why, I just know that when I went home at Christmas, I felt strangely lost and scared, surrounded by people who (shock horror) weren't Japanese! If I saw an Asian person, I wanted to listen to them speak, and if they spoke Japanese I wanted to speak to them. Just hearing Japanese being spoken, being near those calm people who don't like confrontation. I rarely spoke to them, but I felt safe, a single foreigner in a coccoon of strangers. Perhaps this is indeed the "womb-like" feeling that some people speak of, and the reason that a lot of Japanese people are prone to extreme culture shock when they travel.

Look back at my blog. The excitement, the wonder, the intruiging aspects of the national mindset that I want to break down and analyse. The weird adverts, the disturbing characters. The food, the drinks, the karaoke booths! Oh, karaoke!! How I will miss having a small group of friends in one booth, passing the mic. I'll miss the beach, the rivers, the mountains, the cherry blossoms. And hey, as I said, I will possibly find myself missing the things that I think I won't. I might wake up mid-afternoon in Prague, bewildered and upset because there are no vans driving around my neighbourhood playing creepy lullaby music and making announcements. I might long to find bacon and mayonnaise in my salad, to hear shrill cries of "irasshaimase" and to be asked about my ability to use chopsticks. I might wake up in cold sweats due to a lack of people telling me that my Japanese is "jouzu" because I said hello, or reminding me that Japan is the only country in the universe with four seasons. I might even miss those rage-inducing jingles that they play in supermarkets. But one thing is for sure... I will definitely, definitely miss my life here, and I will miss all of you.

Mata ne, my friends. You haven't seen the last of this blog.... I have a lot more to say, and a lot of untold stories to tell.


  1. You summed up exactly how I feel about Japan in this entry. Well done Gwynnie! This was extremely well written. There are so many simple, little things that are annoying or just simply amazing that comprise one day of living here- from the trucks with the announcements to the katakana signs and packaging that as an english native one has to decode almost as a little puzzle. It's these little things that make this country charming and a nightmare at times and I think you really captured what living here is like. Kudos!

  2. I loved this! Such a great post, thank you for sharing! I loved this bit:

    I think that travel attracts a multitude of people for various reasons, but it seems those communities are mostly made up of people that I can relate to. We're often those who never fit in back home, who loved to lose ourselves in books and games, who later turned our eyes towards the world and longed to travel.

    Because it is so true.

  3. I loved this: "I might wake up mid-afternoon in Prague, bewildered and upset because there are no vans driving around my neighbourhood playing creepy lullaby music and making announcements."

    I've been trying to adequately describe this event for some time.

  4. This had me laughing out loud to read, very funny. I went to Japan in August and I loved/hated so many of the things you've listed! I'm trying to get into JET this year, I'd love to live there. (Ruth, UK)

  5. Regarding kyampe-n (campaign), I once said, "candle" and was corrected with "kyandaru".