Viking Five: Things I Miss About Japan

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Though I spent almost all of high school and college consistently dreaming about moving to Japan, the specifics of my Japanophilia have changed over time. At first, I was enthralled by the general exotica of Japan as well as nerdy-yet-awesome pop cultural imports like J-pop, Super Nintendo RPGs, Pocky, and anime – I never did become a full-fledged otaku, but I love and have always loved FLCL, Cowboy Bebop, and Hayao Miyazaki movies. In college my penchant for things Japanese became more expansive yet also more focused. As I learned more about Japanese culture via classes at Occidental and trips to Little Tokyo, I became less excited by “Japan” in a broad sense, but much more excited by particular things like the aesthetic concepts of wabi, sabi, and mono no aware; art both traditional and modern by Akira Yamaguchi, Yoshitoshi Tsukioka, and Yoshitomo Nara; the literature of Natsume Soseki, Haruki Murakami, and Banana Yoshimoto; and the music of Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra, Plus-Tech Squeeze Box, and Pizzicato Five. And then, of course, there was the food. What started as an infatuation with the theatrical eccentricity of Iron Chef developed into a personal quest to eat and to understand as much Japanese food as I could, from humble ramen to haute kaiseki ryōri.

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When I lived in Japan, it was a joy to indulge my interests on a daily basis, and I left feeling fairly satisfied with my time there. But I also came to love other things that I still pine for almost one year later. I probably won’t ever get to live in Japan again, but I do hope I get to visit at least a few more times, so I can re-experience some of the day-to-day pleasures of life in Japan.

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Karaoke

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Larry David had a great line in Curb Your Enthusiasm about karaoke. He called it the “third thing” that you can do after dinner: you can go to a movie, you can go bowling, or you can go to karaoke. Obviously, karaoke exists outside Japan, but in so many ways, it’s just not the same. The standard setup in America and the UK is a completely bastardized version of the Japanese original; I have no idea why people figured it would be an improvement to change karaoke from a private affair to an all-too-public one. American karaoke bars seem designed to annoy: extroverts don’t get to sing as much as they want to because there are too many people, introverts don’t sing at all for fear of public embarrassment, and just about everybody who isn’t singing gets irritated with the noise. What a bad idea! It is nothing like the sweet release of secluding yourself in a dark room with a handful of friends, drinking heartily and singing your lungs out while admiring the absurd background videos on the karaoke monitor.

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Unfortunately, unless you live somewhere with a pretty large Korean population, Japanese-style karaoke boxes are hard to find outside Japan. There are quite a few in Los Angeles (mostly thanks to Koreatown), and in New York it is a budding trend. But in London it’s slim pickings – slim, expensive pickings. You’ve got to book ahead of time even for small groups (the towering karaoke complexes of Japan can almost always accommodate an impromptu singing session) and be prepared to shell out up to £20 per hour, plus loads more for drinks – an astronomical cost compared to the all-you-can-sing-and-drink deals that many Japanese karaoke joints offer for around ¥2000. Japanese karaoke is cheap, hassle-free fun, and more often than not, it isn’t the third thing at all – it’s the delightful default option for after dinner entertainment.

Convenience Stores

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Like karaoke, convenience stores do exist outside Japan, but by comparison, they suck. I read something about Japanese conbini on the internet a while back that sheds some light on why they’re so awesome. They use a distribution model called “dominant strategy” that entails placing as many stores as possible in a small area, which cuts shipping costs so that they can make more deliveries throughout the day. This allows them to use less store space for storage, so they have more room to sell more stuff, and it also keeps fresh food coming into the store throughout the day. The egg sandwiches up for sale at the end of the day aren’t the same ones that were up for sale in the morning – they’re a fresh batch, or maybe the second or third fresh batch. I remember my favorite donut shop in LA was so great partly because they were in there cooking the donuts all day long – most just make their donuts in the morning and let them sit out, growing ever staler by the hour. But cooking them in smaller batches throughout the day kept them fresh and tasty – we’d even go for tipsy donut runs late at night, and the maple old-fashioneds and apple crullers were still soft and moist with a freshly-fried crispy crust. You get the same result from “dominant strategy.”

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But the joy of conbini goes beyond fresh shrimp-mayo onigiri, yuzu-chicken salads, and ham-and-cucumber sandwiches; they are also treasure troves of Japanese junk food. Ordinary potato chips and candy bars don’t excite me much, but that’s just the thing – Japanese junk food is constantly changing and far from ordinary. Stocks change on a seasonal or even weekly basis – if you want that limited-edition mentaiko-tonkotsu Baby Star, that choco-melon KitKat bar, or those monjayaki rice crackers, you’ve got to act fast. I found it nearly impossible to resist the thrill of old snacks outfitted with exciting new flavors – and I’m not the only one.

Regional Specialties

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Some of the new or limited edition snacks that appear on the shelves of 7-Elevens and Family Marts across Japan are based on regional foods – like Miyazaki chicken onigiri, Uji green tea chocolate, or Hiroshima okonomiyaki crisps. But of course they cannot compete with the real McCoys, and culinary tourism is big in Japan; travel agencies advertise package tours focused on food and drink, while Japan Rail offers special discounts (called “day trip gourmet” tickets) for excursions to restaurants specializing in local foods in nearby prefectures.

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Maybe I was just suckered in by the marketing, but I also got caught up in the food-as-destination mindset of Japanese tourists. Whenever I vacationed in a new city or prefecture, I researched the local food and drink as much as I could before I left, and only vary rarely did this lead to food that was less than excellent (as in my disappointing experience with Kobe beef). Usually the food I found was not only delicious, but special – not necessarily something you can’t get somewhere else, but something that tastes better the context of the region, because it’s fresher, or just because it “fits” the local climate and atmosphere. A meal of Genghis Khan and Sapporo beer would be good anywhere, but sizzling-hot lamb is simply more enticing in the cool Hokkaido air, and when it comes to Japanese lagers, the fresher the better. The same goes for soba in Nagano, takoyaki in Osaka, or pork in Kagoshima. And one of the best things about train travel in Japan are the ubiquitous food souvenirs and ekiben (station bentō) that act as samplers of local dishes or ingredients – so just in case you missed out on the meibutsu while you were away, you can still enjoy them on the journey home, a nice way to consummate your trip and soften the blow of returning to normalcy.

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Hospitality

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On my first visit to Tokyo, the kindness of strangers made an impression on me as indelible as the neon of Shinjuku. For our first meal in Japan, my dad, a friend, and I tried to order set meals at a First Kitchen; without a word of Japanese, we pointed and gestured and struggled our way to burgers and bags of “Flavor Potatoes.” The cashier was clearly distressed by the ordeal, and yet she tried her damnedest to help us, mustering all her fractured high school English and a patience that American cashiers seem to never have even when they do understand you. Later on, an elderly woman beckoned me off a train, smiling sympathetically as she realized I had no idea I had reached the end of the line. When I visited Japan to do research and later moved there to work, Japanese hospitality continued to impress me – in fact, it often made me feel vaguely guilty, like I didn’t deserve such generosity and helpfulness.

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The pleasant (but meticulously performed) politeness of Japanese clerks, bus drivers, bartenders, and waitresses was something I didn’t fully appreciate while I was there. It wasn’t until I returned to America, where rude is simply the default setting for most customer service types, that I realized bowing, keigo, and service with a smile make life just that much more livable, even if it is fake. I became so accustomed to a certain standard of courtesy that occasionally I interpreted mere disinterest as surliness. But of course formal niceties were nothing compared to how giving and accommodating my Japanese friends and close co-workers were. Even before they knew me very well, members of my taiko team and other teachers at my schools opened their homes, cars, and refrigerators to me. Though Japan was by and large an easy place to live, it wasn’t without its stresses. I could always count on the warmth of my Japanese friends to lift my spirits, and often, to make me forget that I was a foreigner.

Novelty

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One of the greatest things about living in Japan is not really Japanese at all. The sheer newness of living in another country was a daily delight. On a daily basis, and without even trying, I learned new words, sampled new foods, and discovered new places. Though the Japanese language is frustrating, it was exciting to deduce the meaning of kanji compounds based on their basic parts or to follow conversations further than I ever thought possible. There was something really fun and rewarding to realize that I could read just about every sign in my neighborhood after two years living there.

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And of course I had a wonderful time exploring the peripheries of Japanese gastronomy, through samples in department store food halls and faraway train stations’ souvenir kiosks. The local pride in Japan is something that has stuck with me – I’ve developed a fetish for the local, not only because regional food is usually really fresh and tasty, but because it’s new and unique. But of course, that neophilia has also led me in the opposite direction and given me a taste for the distant and alien – which is part of why I couldn’t be happier living in London. I do miss the quotidian exotica of a Japanese existence, but I don’t think I’ll go wanting for novelty anytime soon -for if I do, then I fear I will be truly tired of life.

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2 thoughts on “Viking Five: Things I Miss About Japan

  1. mynamejt says:

    As I dread moving back home, I’ve thought about this as well, and we pretty much have the same lists going on. I’m not too big on the traditional meibutsu, but as you already pointed out, if it’s a regional flavor of KitKat, then sign me up!

    I could probably merge conbinis with meibutsu, which would open up a spot for how there is literally something for everyone in Japan. It’s ironic considering the whole group mindset and pressure to go with the crowd, but I feel that Japan is place where you can really be yourself, just as long as it’s on your own time. The sheer amount of niche markets that exist here comes off as simply “wacky old Japan” at first, but after a while, you realize that these people are truly devoted to their interests, and they have all managed to find some way to indulge themselves.

    A friend said it best when she said, “It’s very easy to have fun all by yourself in Japan”, and I have to agree.

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