It is now the final week of my 3-month excursion in Japan. A strange tension has developed as I swing between the joy of returning to my home and the sadness of leaving this amazing country. As I reflect on my time here, some things that I will miss stand out, while some aspects of home I very much anticipate.
For instance, Japan’s amazing food is so good and so unique that UNESCO lists it as an intangible Cultural Heritage. Ramen and udon, sushi and sashimi, tofu and konyaku – so many expertly crafted and enriching dishes to try. The only thing I just couldn’t enjoy was nattō, which is stringy fermented soybeans.
There is a level of politeness here that is really intense at first, but quickly grows on you. This is especially true of people in the service industry. A grocery store clerk will make you feel like you just did them a gracious favor by checking out in their line. Servers and restaurant staff will thank you multiple times and bow as you head out the door, it really makes you want to come back.
Similarly, there is a social conscientiousness that I admire. When riding trains, people are very quiet because others will often nap after a long day at school or work. Not that everyone just sits there silently; it’s a respectful level of interaction. The same can be said for restaurants – while in the U.S., a dining area echoes with chattering, in Japan, or Kyoto at least, the volume is kept low.
On the other hand, people will wait at crosswalks when the red ‘Do Not Cross’ sign is active. Sometimes the road is literally just wide enough for a single car, it’s 11 p.m., and there are no cars as far as the eye can see… people will be waiting. Sometimes the unwitting foreigner will throw caution to the wind and cross anyway, but for me, respecting the cultural norms is more important than getting to the other side 30 seconds sooner.
I have enjoyed the challenge of learning how to communicate and figure things out with a very slim knowledge of Japanese. Many times I have been impressed with what can be accomplished by pointing or motioning, and how receptive people can be to your terrible language skills. However, it will be nice to be able to read menus and ask for and understand directions from passersby on the street.
I miss peanut butter. It stuck me last month one day after a run by the river. They do have peanut butter, it’s not super rare or anything, but it is expensive. I’m talking like $5 for this dinky little baby jar. Where I live, grocery options are limited, and so my only choice is Skippy. I’m looking forward to getting a nice big jar of Adam’s and eating it with a spoon.
Two public services that I’ve taken for granted in the U.S. are trashcans and drinking fountains. In Japan, people pretty much have to carry their trash with them until they get home, or find one of the Waldo-esque trashcans hidden around the city. They apparently don’t do drinking fountains here either, which isn’t too bad, but still annoying on a hot day when you are in a rush.
The longer I sit here, the more little things keep popping in my head. But alas, my word count – much like my time in Japan – is fleeting. These are some of the main things that I have thought about and so wanted to share with you… if there are even any of you left after 11 of these things.
So, yeah, this is it.
By time you all read this, except whoever edits it, I will be in hustle mode trying to get home. If you have ever thought about coming to Japan, find a way to make that happen. The people are very accepting and accommodating, especially if you try to learn some basic customs and be respectful, the landscape is often unlike anything you will see in North America, and the attention to detail is inspiring.
By Anthony Vitale