Things I have learnt so far
Japan is phenomenally clean – I watched one woman hold newspaper out under her dog to save the pavement from mess and another man whose job was to use a tiny paintbrush tool to clean the pavement guttering until even they were spotless from gravel! There are however, somewhat paradoxically, no bins in Japan – you could walk for miles and not spot one! Instead people have to get rid of their own rubbish so I have taken to making a little bin in my own rucksack and then when I get to a convenience store attempt to properly recycle everything – their recycling system is extensive and pretty intense!
This brings me on to the wonder of the Japanese convenience store. I have spent a rather unhealthy amount of time in these truly convenient corner stores that fill every city! 7/11, Lawson, Family Mart and the occasional 100 yen store (equivalent to Poundland) called Daiso are everywhere and do everything you could possibly need.
They have ATMs that take international cards, photocopying, wifi, toilets and sell ANYTHING! You can pick up MUJI stationary, beauty products, traditional Japanese crafts, electrical stuff, clothes – they have individually wrapped shirts and underwear, umbrellas, books and magazines. Then the food oh my god! So I have mostly been living off the onigiri rice balls that they sell – often filled with salmon or a mysterious sour plum thing for 70p a go an they are wrapped in such a way that the nori seaweed wrappers never go soggy. Their pre-boiled eggs are perfect and they do amazing packaged meals that they heat up for you there and then and will even fill up your cup noodle with hot water! Their ice cream selection is unparalleled and their bakery I making me enormous but its just too good to say no!
So I guess another thing I have learnt is how easy it is to be unhealthy here! The Japanese diet doesn’t really make room for fresh salads that aren’t doused in mayo and unfortunately it’s pretty hard to travel with lettuce leaves! Whilst sashimi is super healthy it tends to be pretty expensive and miso soup is pretty much pure salt – I guess not that I mind massively being a big salty/umami fan! But yeah with white rice, wheat noodles and very sugary white bread as the main diet carbs there just aren’t your classic healthy alternatives that you might get in the UK. Ultimately being healthy here is based on simple eating, exercise and small portions, all three of which I struggle with! So to summarise on what I’m learning here is how to try and find a balance (I’ve just gone for a green tea instead of a piece of chocolate cake as I type this- definitely slowly but surely a success!)
Japanese eating habits are also pretty ritualistic and require plenty of research to master. I’ve learnt mostly by coping people that your chopsticks help shovel in the seaweedy bits of the miso soup, not to put my chopsticks into my rice but to balance them on their stand or over your plate, how to dip noodles into a dipping sauce when they come on a plate but to pour the sauce over the noodles if they come in a bowl, that you can eat nigiri sushi with your fingers but sashimi with your chopsticks and to very loudly slurp ramen to get the full favour and show how much you love it… this is a tradition that I find actually particularly revolting but do my best just to fit in!
More Japanese rules I have had to get to grips with includes the way you must take off your shoes and point them on the floor away from the room you are entering. I have learnt how the little box they put on the floor in restaurants is for your bag, not a bin! I’ve discovered that chopsticks live in a long thin box on the table in restaurants and that at all vending machines whether for tickets or food or coffee you do money first, selection second but when its for your whole dinner selection first, money second!
I have discovered a little language to use in a restaurant but mostly smile nod and say Arigato gosaimasu – which is thank you when I am super confused! I have learnt that the loos have heated seats on purpose – its not like that horrifying shock you get with a warm seat in the UK and that the flush is nearly always hidden around the side of the loo its not one of the deadly bum gun spray buttons on the remote control!
Things I have loved
Well obviously food is at the top of this list, I really don’t ever see myself getting sick of it! Sushi and Sashimi are so succulent and the ratio of fish to rice is perfect – even the rice is flavoursome and soft – never again will a Waitrose sushi platter satisfy! The ramen broth is super meaty and amazing and I have fallen in love with the savoury umami tastes of the pancakey okonomiyake! Japanese bento boxes and set meals are always so elegant and beautifully flavoured, perfectly balanced item to item. Then the sweet stuff is either unusually but deliciously savoury and almost earthy or super suuuuuuper sweet – even their chocolate isn’t bad! I do miss brown bread and peanut butter but I think I can substitute with any number of Japanese ingredients for the foreseeable future!
I love the architecture here where the city is so alive with glowing neon lights and then the 60s vibe of the suburbs where everything is low, flat and minimalistic in muted pastel hues and perfectly manicured.
Everyone is super fashionable and you can tell someone’s lifestyle by their uniform, the salarymen and working officey women in their beautifully neat suits and unbelievably organised office bags complete with pockets for laminated everythings! Then the teens wear 90s trainers with palazzo pant cropped trousers and always some sort of headwear and their mums dress in banana republic style trenches with pastel sweaters and neat hairstyles that look almost like wigs with not one hair out of place!
The beauty of the transport system is another thing I will find hard to say goodbye to with trains always running on the minute with the neatest cleanest carriages and stations equipped with everything a travellers might need – aside from a chair on the platform actually – sometimes with 15 kilos on my back a chair would be good!
The people here are so so friendly and even in full Japanese chatter will try their best to chat with me or to help me out, one adorable old man stopped me on the street to give me a short life story before wishing me well on my travels and It would be no word of a lie to say that I welled up a little after meeting him!
So far travelling solo here has been amazing too, eating on your own is definitely the done thing for so many Japanese and I always feel safe! I was reading a book by Haruki Muakami today where the main Japanese character goes to Finland and explains how traveling alone and feeling like a foreigner doesn’t make you feel doubly alone but instead one sense of isolation cancels out the other and I would say that is true of my experience here, I don’t feel alone but like this is the perfect place for me to be!