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Monday, September 22, 2014

3 Things That Surprised Me About Japan

Whenever I meet a Japanese person for the first time the conversation usually includes the following questions:

"Where are you from?" ("America.")
"Are you a student?" ("No, English teacher.")
"Oh! Where?" ("In junior high school.")
"How long have you been in Japan?" ("Three years.")
"What surprised you about Japan?" ("Uh... umm... well.. o.o.")

Usually that question is followed by me awkwardly standing there trying to think of something insightful and interesting. Which usually ends with me resorting to my fall back of, "Japan is really clean..." While that is true (and even surprising given the lack of garbage cans in public areas) it isn't something that really made me feel shocked or something I needed to adjust to; which is the angle of "surprised" the Japanese people asking are going for in most cases.

Since I have been asked this question on a semi-regular basis I have given it a fair amount of thought. And since I have thought about it a lot, I have come up with a few things that actually threw me when I first moved to Japan.

1. They don't have conversations with cashiers.

I think that this one will mainly apply to Americans, especially those of us who are from the South. Having worked at various establishments where I have had to act as a cashier I got used to making small talk with customers I would ring up.

"Did you find everything okay?"
"How are you doing today?"
"The weather has been strange today, hasn't it?"
"Did you see the (insert random sports team) game last night?"

Therefore, my first few trips out shopping in Japan I spent the majority of the time trying to think of small things to say in Japanese to the cashier so that I didn't appear cold or rude. By the time I had finished gathering what I needed from the shop my head would be full of various Japanese phrases that I could potentially use to sound  polite. However, since I am "Kaley", my nerves would get the better of me and I would stand there in awkward silence after mumbling a meager "konnichiwa".

The more I shopped, though, the more I noticed that no one talked to the cashiers. I also began to notice that no matter where I was, I would likely be asked the same exact string of questions and any sort of deviation from this norm would completely throw the person working and make things exponentially more awkward than if I were to have just stood there silently while they finished ringing up my goods.

2. They don't really do "doggy-bags" or take-away from restaurants.

I have a horrible habit of ordering far too much food at restaurants. Anyone who has ever gone out to eat with me can attest to how annoying I am about this. Thankfully in America the practice of taking a doggy-bag home is very common so my leftovers rarely ever go to waste.

The one time I asked for a takeout box, it was presented like this.
Japan, on the other hand, does not believe in this sort of take-out culture. Leaving any sort of food behind is thought of to be somewhat rude. During lunch at school I have seen children brought to tears over  being made to finish everything that they had been given, even if they don't like it or are full. While it may seem harsh, as someone who was raised in the exact opposite manner and thus had a difficult time as my mind refused any new "weird" foods (i.e. anything that wasn't pizza, macaroni and cheese, hot dogs, or grilled cheese) I can see the value in forcing children to power through foods that they don't enjoy.

This mindset sticks with Japanese into adulthood and I have seen many friends nearly make themselves sick while trying to finish everything at a restaurant. It is such a foreign concept to me as an American, because generally if you are too full to finish everything on your plate you just get the leftover food boxed up and take it back home with you to eat later. More often than not, I would go out to eat with the intent of ordering enough to eat for lunch the next day.

When I started to eat out in Japan and learned that taking leftovers home wasn't common I had to adjust the entire way I view eating at a restaurant. To this day, I can still rarely ever finish all of the food I am given and I am overcome with that shame of "not doing the right thing" that Japan is very good at delivering.

3. All-in-one stores are very hard to find.

Recently, I made some (freaking amazing) Irish Car Bomb cupcakes for a friend's birthday. On the Saturday before the picnic I went out armed with the following items on a shopping list: bittersweet chocolate, powdered sugar, sour cream, butter, Guinness, Irish whiskey, Bailey's, and heavy cream. You would think by looking at that list that I could easily pop into (at most) two stores. A grocery store and, if the grocery store didn't sell booze, the liquor store next door. The trip should take an hour and a half and that's if the lines are long and the grocery store is far away.

This is the cupcake. It is amazing.
To get all of those ingredients, living as central as you can get in Sapporo, it took me hours. Hours. Why? Because I had to walk a ten block radius of a circle and stop by four different stores to get everything. First, I headed to the nearest foreign food shop to get the bittersweet chocolate. Next, I went off to the Don Quijote (DonKi) to get the alcohol. Third stop was the nearby grocery store to get everything else. The grocery store didn't have sour cream, so I replaced that with plain yogurt. It also didn't carry powdered sugar, which is where my fourth stop at the discount grocery came from. Not to mention that I also made a fifth stop at the 100 yen shop to get containers to put the finished cupcakes in.

As you can see, there are no Wal-Marts or Targets in Japan where you can easily pick up everything you could ever need in one fell swoop. While Wal-Mart does have large supermarkets here in Japan, they are a far cry from the store in America that carry home goods, clothes, hardware, electronics and clothes as well as a supermarket. Not to mention that this large supermarkets (Seiyu and AEON namely) are usually far away from city centers and most times require a car to access conveniently.

So much of my time in Japan is spent planning which store to go to on which day as it is inconvenient to just go to whichever store I may need to visit. While much of this inconvenience is brought on by no having a car, even when I did have a car here it was driving from one side of town to another versus walking around a ten block radius.

Thankfully, all of these issues are pretty minor and rather easy to adjust to. As far as life in another country is concerned, Japan (and Japanese people) make it very easy and relatively stress free. Store clerks are always very friendly and helpful, signs have English on them more often than not, and standard protocols are followed to the letter all of the time.

I would love to hear what sort of things surprised people while living or traveling abroad, so feel free to share any thoughts or stories you may have on the subject! Here are what some of my friends said when I asked them what surprised them about Japan:

"How mental the women are. Not all. But 99%."
"Porn in the convenience store."
"How clean it is and how rare trash cans are." "Yeah, no rubbish bins is mental."
"Cost of fruit. 1,200 yen for 1/3 of a watermelon. No thanks."
"If you'er vegetarian you'd pretty much starve."
"I can drink in public and it's not weird to get drunk with my boss."
"Having a small face is beautiful."

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